The Montreal Canadiens have two very clear needs going into the 2014 trade deadline, and unfortunately they're the same needs the team had this summer, which they failed to address. The first, and most important, is a top-4 right-handed defenseman. Over the summer, EOTP advocated the signing of Tom Gilbert, who has had a very successful year playing big minutes on the top pairing with Brian Campbell for minimal money. Instead, Bergevin signed Douglas Murray, who plays the left side. Not only has Murray individually weighed the team down by every conceivable measure, but he has also forced guys like Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu, Josh Gorges, and Jarred Tinordi (all lefties) to play their off-side to accommodate him. The fact that Murray has had to be sheltered in the offensive zone has also led to tougher minutes for guys like Emelin - who was tossed to the wolves upon returning from injury and has now lost all confidence.
Unfortunately, the cupboard of available right-defensemen is practically bare. Gilbert is still the cream of the crop, with teammate and defensive stalwart Mike Weaver (UPDATE: Well, look at that), as well as Devils duo Marek Zidlicky and Mark Fayne - although I doubt the Devils sell - in the conversation. It doesn't look like reinforcements are coming on the backend, and the one guy on the roster who could have at least somewhat filled the role for this season - Raphael Diaz - was traded away for a redundant fourth-liner. So let's move onto the second area of need.
The Canadiens managed to claim the now-defunct Northeast Division last year because of their immense depth. The ability to role out three scoring lines - complemented by solid, puck-moving pairings - and play a possession style, allowed them to mask any size or defensive coverage deficiencies. They were able to shut down opposition secondary scoring with a hard-working and responsible fourth-line, and then exploit opposing depth issues with offensively sheltered guys like David Desharnais. But this year, with the signing of Daniel Briere - a guy who doesn't like playing RW - as the replacement for Michael Ryder, and George Parros making the fourth-line situational at best, that depth has crumbled.
The truth of the matter is, as many of the other writers at this site will attest, it's tough advocate for certain decisions or others anymore, because it's very clear the EOTP vision for this team and that of Marc Bergevin differ greatly. But what we can try and do is solve smaller problems. I'd argue the biggest "small" problem the team has at this point is Lars Eller. No, I'm not saying that Eller himself is the problem - I don't think he's too "soft" to be a quality NHL producer - but there's no doubt that since being taken off a line with Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher early in the year - a line that had been one of the highest scoring in the league - his confidence has taken a serious hit. Eller is now last among the Canadiens among forwards with at least 500 mins of 5v5 ice time in GF% at a lowly 38.9%. Although his defensive play is still above average, he is rarely noticeable on offense anymore. Frankly, he looks lost. If this team has any chance of reviving the depth that led to its success last year, it needs to get Eller going. A three-lined attack is going to be necessary to stand up to teams like the Bruins and Penguins, and right now this team doesn't have one.
So what can be done? Well the team's top offensive line of Desharnais, Gallagher, and Max Pacioretty is rolling, and it would seem non-sensical to break them up. Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta are an established tandem with exceptional two-way ability. Good luck shutting down Sidney Crosby without those guys together. That doesn't leave much for poor old (young) Eller. It's not 2011-2012, but it's not all that far behind. Rene Bourque doesn't deserve all the hatred he receives, but he is far from a gift to a centre, since he doesn't bring much creativity or defensive awareness. Briere, as I mentioned, has struggled on the right side. and Brandon Prust is probably better suited to a fourth-line role. Michael Bournival has shown promise, but is better as the complementary piece on a line. Dale Weise, whom Eller was paired with on Saturday, is Dale Weise.
I kept an eye pinned on Eller on Saturday night, and what I saw was a frustrated player who wasn't being put in a situation to succeed, and whose lack of confidence was leading to botched plays. At one point during the first period, he reached for the puck along the boards, only to leave it for Weise, who skated by. The puck was turned over. At another, he made a great cut on a breakout towards the offensive zone in great position to receive a puck with speed. Weise was skating with his head down, didn't see Eller, and the play was offside. This isn't meant as an indictment of the former Canuck, who has looked serviceable in a fourth-line role, but Eller deserves better. He needs creative and fast linemates, with whom he can cycle effectively and orchestrate quick passing plays. There are two solutions.
1) Break up the line of Pacioretty-Desharnais-Gallagher.
There are some who have been pushing for this for a while, but taking Gallagher away from that line would mean finding a replacement, and that hasn't been an easy ask. Unfortunately, the team just doesn't have two Gallaghers.
2) Trade for another top-9 RW.
This is an intriguing - if risky - option. The prospect of adding more depth on offense is enticing, but the options are limited. Marian Gaborik is the player that immediately comes to mind, because he fulfills the speed and creativity requirement to play on the line. He's not a righty, but he has played RW significantly in the past, and playing on his off-side can in fact make him all the more dangerous because of his ability to get off a quick shot. A cycle between Galchenyuk, Eller, and Gaborik would certainly be terrifying for the opposition. A high-profile name like Gaborik, however, would certainly cost a lot. I would imagine it would take at least a solid prospect and a first round pick to get him, maybe more if you hope to unload the contract of Bourque at the same time. There are other names that could be intriguing. Ales Hemsky is one of the more underrated players in the league, and might not cost more than a second-rounder. He might be a good fit. Brad Boyes certainly brings Gallagher's feistiness, but he might not be a skilled enough fit. The underlying issue here is that any buy is going to represent a hope that chemistry can be achieved. And there are no guarantees. This team needs to significantly improve before the end of the regular season to be seen as a cup contender, so trading picks and prospects for a rental might not be the best move.
So what is the best option? As always, that depends on the price. If there's a skilled right-winger out there who can be had without sacrificing too much of the future, then it's a move that should be made. But if not, it might be worth reuniting the kid line for a while, just to see if there's a way to get it going while Pacioretty and Desharnais are still going strong. The Canadiens will need three scoring lines to go deep in the playoffs, so might as well experiment now - even if it might marginally hurt the team's chances of reaching the post-season in the process. Of course, try telling that to a coach who may well be playing for his job. This is a situation that Bergevin and Therrien have put themselves in, and it's not one with an easy escape route. But we're at the point where the development of young players is in the balance, and it's probably time for some rethinking. Fix a bunch of smaller problems, and maybe the massive ones won't seem so daunting.