It’s getting close to that time of the year again, when fans and General Managers, particularly from teams eliminated from the playoffs, are looking at the list of players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come July first. Habs’ fans and Marc Bergevin are no different and while the list is long and everyone can come up with their own priorities, this doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the situation.
If seasons’ past and particularly this last season has shown, beyond the fact that Carey Price deserved the hardware he won a year ago, it’s that this team is in dire need of offense. Not just secondary scoring, but rather primary scoring for its top two lines. While some young guys are starting to show great signs in their development, few are ready to step in and become major contributors next season.
In spite of the hard time some like to give him, head coach Michel Therrien has done a good job in improving the style of play of his team and even people relying mostly on analytics had to admit to it as well. With the exception of a stretch of 7-8 weeks, the Habs were playing better than their opponents but were losing games because their goalies couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net and/or the forwards couldn’t capitalise on their own scoring opportunities.
The pending UFAs
Just off the forwards who are still without a contract for next season, there are a few interesting candidates who could definitely help the Canadiens put the puck in the net a bit more regularly. I have created a list of the key offensive threats and of players who have been most mentioned by the fan base thus far.
The list is not sorted by points, but rather by goals per game, showing which of the players are best at finishing plays, at putting the brisket in the basket. Not surprisingly, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos comes at the top of the list, the sniper averaging just under a goal every two games last season, and a bit more than that over the course of his career. There is no denying that Stamkos should be pursued very hard by Marc Bergevin but many other teams will do the same. Like any other UFA, it will boil down to where he wants to play ultimately, as the salary should be comparable. Of the Canadian teams however, Montreal is the team best suited to draw the star centreman.
Second on that list is Bruins’ Loui Eriksson, the key player acquired by Boston from Dallas in the Tyler Seguin trade. After a slow start adapting to the Eastern Conference, Eriksson had his best season last year, finishing the season with 30 goals. Further, he is a right-winger who could bring some scoring help to Brendan Gallagher on that side. It is still unclear if the Bruins will be able to re-sign Eriksson but if they don’t, he would be a very interesting target for the Habs.
Much has been said about Jaromir Jagr in the past and it seems clear that the 44 year old is not what Bergevin is after, looking for a younger player who will be there for the long term. For that reason and also for the fact that the Panthers will likely want to keep him, I won’t waste anyone’s time on that option.
One of the most sought after and perhaps overrated players on this list is Andrew Ladd. Overrated not because he’s not a good player, but more is place on his leadership than on his production itself. Pretty much every team will be in on Ladd as it is very unlikely that the Blackhawks will be able to find room under their salary cap to keep him. While he would help the Canadiens, my prediction is that Bergevin will balk and walk away because the price will largely surpass what Ladd brings on the ice. In my opinion, he will be the most (or one of the most) overpaid UFA of this summer and the team signing him will end up regretting it sooner or later.
It will be interesting to see what the New York Islanders will do as they have two key pending UFAs who have yet to sign a new deal with them. Kyle Okposo is a right-winger and much like Eriksson, he would be a nice addition on that side. Frans Nielsen is a centre who the Islanders also really like and he has done well centering the second line behind John Tavares. Of the two however, Okposo is the most attractive to the Canadiens as I doubt Bergevin will look at a centre not named Stamkos… or Backes.
Yes, David Backes might hit free agency and while the 31 year old is somewhat what the doctor ordered for a rather soft Canadiens’ team, I wouldn’t hold my breath on him coming to Montreal, particularly if the rumour of him refusing a trade to the Habs a while back was true.
Even if the Canadiens can sign one of the players mentioned above, there are some very, very interesting candidates on this list who could help add scoring on the second/third line. In order, here are my personal favourites:
Troy Brouwer: I’ve always liked this player and that, from his debuts with the Chicago Blackhawks. He has good size, he’s always a leader in hits, he never takes a game off and he is responsible defensively. At 30, he still has some good hockey left in him and he brings some experience to a rather young line-up.
Jamie McGinn: Like Brouwer, McGinn brings that physical element to the game. He has become a 20 goals’ scorer who will do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net. Put him on the third line and you have some quality scoring depth your top-nine.
David Perron: A fellow player from Sherbrooke, Perron brings another “local element” to the Canadiens. He’s also not afraid to get involved physically and can play on the top lines from time to time. Could playing in front of friends and family help the 27 year-old? I happen to believe so. Ideally, he’d start the season on the third line beside Phillip Danault.
There are other players on that list but I passed either because I don’t feel like they would want to play in Montreal (Lucic), they are getting too old (Chimera), they would be too pricey for what they bring (Staal), they wouldn’t fit in with the system (Boedker) or they simply wouldn’t be enough of an improvement over what the team already has.
A lot can and will happen before then Habs’ fans, as this should be a very exciting and entertaining summer following a very disappointing season.