By Bob Trask – The NHL season has now passed the half-way point and the All Star break is the next big event on the calendar. That break will provide NHL general managers an opportunity to get together to discuss a variety of topics including potential trades. This is important because it will lay the groundwork for any player movement prior to the trade deadline and trades will affect the fortunes of teams as the season moves forward. Therefore, looking at past performance to project final standings needs to be taken with a grain of salt as the rosters of some teams will strengthen and others will weaken. But it is all we have.
It has been another year where injuries have taken key players out of the Habs lineup. At various times Joel Edmundson, Mike Matheson, Kaiden Guhle, Sean Monahan, Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman and Jake Allen have been unavailable for duty. We can now add Jake Evans and Juraj Slafkovsky to that list. With three of their top four defenseman and second line center out for extended periods, it is no wonder that an already thin lineup is down in the standings. The silver lining is the draft position the team now finds themselves in.
Adding to that was the unfortunate schedule which saw a young and probably somewhat fragile team embark on a road trip that lasted from mid-December to early January. I hate to say it, but that smells like the Habs have become 2nd class tenants of Centre Bell. Maybe it has to be that way but the scheduling needs to be tweaked to avoid that kind of catastrophe again. As with the injury situation, the silver lining to the road trip and the losing streak that came with it is an improved draft position. The danger is that a “we can’t win” mentality begins to set it. Marty St Louis is to be applauded for continuing to focus on the positives in an effort to avoid that mindset.
The road ahead for the Canadiens will not be easy. Tankathon rates the Canadiens as having the toughest schedule over the balance of the season with 3 games remaining against Boston and 3 games remaining against Toronto.
The roster is also going to change. As players come off the injury list and trade opportunities present themselves, it is a foregone conclusion that there will be some player movement – we just don’t know who it will be at this point. We can speculate that a defenseman, a center and one other player on an expiring contract will be dealt, but that’s all it is – speculation.
What is almost a certainty is that any trade by the Habs would weaken the team in the short term with a goal of strengthening it in the long term. If that assumption is accurate, the performance of the team over the remainder of the season could be somewhat poorer than the first half performance. That is one of the reasons that first half performance is not a great indicator of second half performance. General Manager Kent Hughes will not overtly pursue a “tanking approach” but he is likely not averse to slightly weakening the team in the short term in order to achieve longer term goals.
In the West, both the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are in wildcard playoff spots with Colorado breathing down their necks. They are two teams to keep an eye on as trade rumours continue to circulate.
Taken together, these factors point to the Canadiens remaining about where they are in draft order or maybe even moving up a notch or two. However, other teams will have similar long term goals in mind and will be focusing on the future and trying to acquire top draft picks.
At the moment my draft model has the Canadiens at #6 overall with their own pick and #11 overall with Florida’s pick. The Panthers have slowly been improving their position in the standings but face the Leafs tonight. It will be a good test of how much the Panthers have rebounded and it will be one of the rare occasions where I will be cheering for the Leafs which means they will undoubtedly let me down. The Canadiens face the Jets who have 8 wins and 2 losses in their last 10 games. To say it will be a challenge for the depleted Habs is an understatement.
With half of the teams in action tonight, there will likely be more movement in the standings and in the projected draft order.
My conclusion is that the Habs don’t need to take any special steps to weaken the team in an effort to land a top pick. Circumstances have already taken care of most of that and a trade or two could also help them with both their short term goals and their long term goals. If you look at Seattle and New Jersey, turnarounds can be quicker than expected and I don’t anticipate a 3-4 year wait before the Canadiens are in the thick of a playoff race.