Top Candidates – Centre Position

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Amongst many other things, a NHL General Manager’s Spring and Summer job is to analyse his team, his assets, and determine and draw a plan of action to improve on the season that just ended. At the end of the 2016-17 season, the Canadiens showed a great need for offense, particularly at the centre position, and there were serious question marks as to who exactly could fill in on the top-4 on defense, particularly when it was clear that Andrei Markov wasn’t coming back, choosing to go to the KHL. Unfortunately, Marc Bergevin was unable to fulfill the needs and in combination with a few key injuries and unforeseen departures, the results speak for themselves.

This summer, the Canadiens’ GM cannot afford another miss and as we recently touched on the Habs’ needs and top candidates on defense, it’s now time to see what kind of options might be available to Bergevin and the Canadiens to fill a much needed need up the middle, in hope to return Jonathan Drouin to his natural position on left wing. While there might be a few others available through trade, let’s have a look at five of the options that could buy time until Ryan Poehling, the team’s best prospect at that position, is ready to step in and be a contributor on the top lines in Montreal.

5- Joe Thornton – San Jose Sharks

AGE: 38Thornton
HEIGHT: 6’4″
WEIGHT: 220 lbs
GP: 47
G: 13
A: 23
PTS: 36
TOI/G: 18:20
+/-: -9
FO %: 52.0
STATUS: UFA

Old… slow… but still very effective. Great in the faceoffs’ dots, he is a leader with tons of experience. Once catalogued as a playoffs’ no-show, he has stepped it up in recent years for his team. In a league now known for speed, Thornton still shows that one can slow the pace down and find ways to be very effective. One of the best passers in the league in the last decade, he is extremely dangerous, particularly on the powerplay. Unfortunately however, two serious knee injuries (to the same knee) might have taken its toll on him. If San Jose doesn’t want him back, he’s a possibility. Definitely an improvement over what the Canadiens already have.

4- Tyler Bozak – Toronto Maple Leafs

AGE: 32Bozak
HEIGHT: 6’1″
WEIGHT: 199 lbs
GP: 81
G: 11
A: 32
PTS: 43
TOI/G: 15:39
+/-: +6
FO %: 53.6
STATUS: UFA

As Tomas Plekanec wore the ‘ugly blue’, Bozak could lend a hand to the Leafs’ arch rivals. Not a true number one centre, he is good on draws and he is responsible at both ends of the ice. Being a right-handed draw is something that the Canadiens could use, particularly in the defensive zone. At this stage in their respective career, Bozak would be an improvement over Plekanec.

3- Paul Stastny – Winnipeg Jets

AGE: 32Stastny
HEIGHT: 6’0″
WEIGHT: 193 lbs
GP: 82
G: 16
A: 37
PTS: 53
TOI/G: 17:02 (WIN), 18:41 (STL)
+/-: +6 (WIN), -5 (STL)
FO %: 53.8 (WIN), 55.2 (STL)
STATUS: UFA

Son of former Nordiques’ Peter Stastny, Paul was born in Quebec and his father was once quoted saying that he would like his son to play in Montreal. Well Paul, here’s your chance. But with the success he’s had with the Jets, the two sides might be tempted to make the experience last longer, depending if Stastny wants to test the market or not. At 32, he still has a few good seasons in him and would be an improvement for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge.

2- Ryan O’Reilly – Buffalo Sabres

AGE: 27NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres
HEIGHT: 6’1″
WEIGHT: 216 lbs
GP: 82
G: 24
A: 37
PTS: 61
TOI/G: 20:49
+/-: -23
FO %: 60.0
STATUS: $7,5M until 2022-23

In my opinion, this is a very viable option for the Canadiens. O’Reilly is a complete hockey player who hustles at both ends of the ice. He can score, he can defend, he can hit, he can grind it out. Vocal against the Sabres’ frame of mind in his post-season press conference, what he was saying wasn’t much different than what Bergevin was saying about his own team. So when you look at attitude and character, this guy oozes just that. Further, the Canadiens can afford his salary.

1- John Tavares – New York Islanders

AGE: 27Tavares
HEIGHT: 6’1″
WEIGHT: 208 lbs
GP: 82
G: 37
A: 47
PTS: 84
TOI/G: 19:56
+/-: -12
FO %: 52.9
STATUS: UFA

Pipe dream or reality? Either way, there is no doubt that if Tavares hits the free agency market, he will be the Canadiens’ centre of attention. They will throw everything at him, and while Team Canada teammates Carey Price and Shea Weber will be crucial in trying to convince him, Bergevin and team owner Geoff Molson will have to put forth the sales’ pitch of their life if they hope to convince him to play in Montreal. Yes, it is a wonderful place to win but when you don’t, it can be hell in a hurry, just ask Pacioretty and others before him. Will he and his spouse be negatively influenced by the fact that Angela Price had to come out publicly to deny senseless rumours? We shall see. But the Canadiens have the cap space to make it happen.

Honorable Mentions

– Tomas Plekanec

Is there something that hasn’t been said about the Turtleneck? He’s a true pro. He’s only two games away from reaching the 1,000 games plateau in the NHL, with most of them played with the Habs’ number 14 on his back. He’s still fast and very responsible defensively, but his offense has all but disappeared. He was making $6 million but at the right price, I am convinced that Claude Julien would like to have him back. Many fans have mixed feelings about this.

– Vincent Trochek, Alexander Barkov or Nick Bjugstad

Watch Pacioretty. The Florida Panthers were apparently very hot on the Canadiens’ captain but Bergevin was asking for Trochek and more. While this deal was not consumed by the trade deadline, it is very much possible that the talks have kept going and the Panthers would be trading in a position of strength here, being very deep at the centre position.

– Sam Bennett or Mark Jankowski

Call it a gut feeling, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if the Flames were interested in the 3rd overall pick to draft Matthew Tkachuk‘s younger brother Brady. What do they have to offer? There’s no way that they will trade Sean Monahan, they would rather pass on Tkachuk but is there a deal possible, perhaps a bigger one involving Charlie Lindgren to help Mike Smith? What plays against the Flames is that they don’t have a first, second or even third round pick this year. In order to make something happen, a third team picking between 5 and 9 might have to get involved in a three-way and we know how rare those are.

– Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

For the longest time, a Max Pacioretty for RNH deal, with spare parts here and there, was the most logical deal to not be completed. The Oilers were deep at centre and paying Nugent-Hopkins $6 million to play on the third line didn’t make much sense, when they needed a speedy winger who could keep up with Connor McDavid. But guess what? Todd McLellan decided to try RNH with McDavid and they formed immediate chemistry. Now, it’s very unlikely that Peter Chiarelli will trade him as not only does he produce with McDavid, but he gives the team options in the event of injuries. So maybe earlier last year, but as it stands today, this ship has likely sailed.

– Jonathan Toews

In the most unlikely rumours flying out there, the one about the Habs and Blackhawks trying to work something out for the one nicknamed ‘Captain Serious’ is way out there. While definitely a good player and a strong leader, Toews’ contract is too long and for too much for the Canadiens to bite… or is it? Sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Let’s just hope not.

As we can see, there are some options out there but when it comes to UFA’s, the price is often way too steep. Marc Bergevin has always rightfully claimed that you don’t build a winner on July 1st. But at the NHL draft is when most of the trades occur, as every team has cap space and many have holes to fill and changes to make, whether it’s to put them over the top after a disappointing loss in the playoffs, or a rebuild/retool process. Regardless, it promisses to be a very interesting month ahead for Habs’ fans. Go Habs Go!

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The Habs’ Summer Shopping List

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Fair to say that the 2017-2018 season of the Montreal Canadiens has been a huge disappointment. Going from a 103 points Division title to a lottery team at the very bottom of the league is as big of a disappointment as what’s felt in Ottawa and Edmonton, amongst other places in the league. We can look at every reason for this lackluster season but one wouldn’t have to look very far. When you are without your best players for long periods of time, and when they are there but not producing to the level expected of them, your team will be in deep, deep trouble… as were the Habs this year.

Carey Price suffered from Chronique Fatigue Syndrome and his goals against average of over 3.00, and a saves percentage of just over the .900 mark, all well below respectability, will go a long way in explaining the team’s lack of success. Further, if you add to that the fact that Price’s best protection, stud defenseman Shea Weber, broke his foot in game one and had to call it a season a quarter of the season in, plus the team’s top goals’ scorer Max Pacioretty finished the season with a total of 17 goals in 64 games, and the team barely breaking the 200 goals for mark on the season, well… you have what you got.

PriceWave
Carey Price waives at the Bell Centre crowd after an emotional ovation.

Needless to say that for the team to hope getting back to the success they have accustomed their fans to in the past 6 years under Marc Bergevin, those players will have to return to form. In a league where parity is as high as it’s ever been, in a cap era where substantial trades are extremely difficult to complete in-season, the Canadiens’ GM has his work cut-out for him in order to address some serious issues.

Team captain Pacioretty has been rumoured to be traded by trade deadline, and the return for him would be substantial, particularly considering what the Colorado Avalanche received for a less productive Matt Duchene. But how would trading your best offensive player, or best goals’ scorer, the guy who, since 2012, has scored the most goals in the NHL after only Alexander Ovechkin, would sit with a disgruntled fan base?

Let’s take a look at what is likely to be the to-do list of Bergevin and his associates this summer, at least in my opinion…

1- Find an assistant-coach to replace Jean-Jacques Daigneault

Under Daigneault, the Canadiens’ defense has never looked great. He couldn’t figure out P.K. Subban and certainly didn’t have his respect. The penalty-kill is second worst in the NHL and no one seems to know what they’re doing out there, leaving Price and any other goaltender out to dry in way too many occasions. My personal choice would be to get Larry Robinson behind the bench, but I doubt that he would want to get a role requiring such commitment at this point in his life. Still, I would ask him first, before considering anyone else. Otherwise, leave the choice up to Claude Julien as it’s his team to coach anyway. Either way, Daigneault needs to go and be replaced by someone better and with fresh ideas.

2- Bring in one, possibly two offensive centres

Isn’t that simple? Yeah, right! There is no doubt that Bergevin knew his team’s need last summer but he was unable to get his hands on that elusive centre. He was rumoured to be very interested in Duchene, but backed out when the price became too rich for his blood, and rightfully so! However, he cannot afford to go another season without improving at that key position and rest assured that he will do everything to get a top-end centre this summer. His job will depend on it. If he makes it to free agency, John Tavares will be his prime target, but he could find what he’s looking for in Winnipeg too.

3- Possibly a defence partner for Weber

This is something that was lacking from day one, even when Weber was skating on one leg. Weber is one of the most feared defensemen in the NHL, THE or one of the most efficient shut-down defensemen in the game, but in order to maximize on his qualities, he needs a good skating, puck-moving defenseman to complement him. Just like Subban needs a good stay-at-home defenseman to cover for his high-risk plays, it’s something that Bergevin needs to address. Unless he feels like he has what he needs in either Victor Mete or newly acquired Mike Reilly, that is. Something tells me that he would rather have his young guys deeper in the depth chart and acquire a veteran for the first pairing, especially if he wants his team to contend.

4- New coaching staff in Laval

DucharmeHabs
Dominique Ducharme would be a welcomed addition in the Canadiens’ organization.

Enough of the Sylvain Lefebvre experiment. Since he’s been there, the farm has missed the playoffs every year and the number of players moving up and making an impact are minimal, if any. The best candidate for the position would be Team Canada Junior head coach and current coach and GM of the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Dominique Ducharme. Having him in the organization would groom him to potentially become a good replacement for Julien down the line, and would bring some fresh blood and new ideas to a development teams needing some sort of boost.

There could be more than that happening in what promises to be not only a very busy off-season for the Canadiens, but a career defining one of Marc Bergevin. He has Geoff Molson‘s support and confidence to address the team’s needs, but he cannot afford another summer like he had a year ago. Expect a lot of movement, or at least some very important movement at this year’s draft, while the Canadiens are in an excellent position to make some noise. Go Habs Go!

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Montreal Canadiens picks at the 2018 Draft (Source: CapFriendly.com)