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The Canadiens need to stay the course with their off-season plans

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Despite signing just two players thus far, this off-season is already a positive step forward for the Canadiens.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

One of the long-standing narratives surrounding the Montreal Canadiens franchise is that the team is too small, and gets pushed around by other teams. This is the opposite of truth in recent years. The Canadiens have used their lineup to become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. They've used their speed and skill to beat larger opponents in the playoffs, just look at their series against the Boston Bruins in 2014.

And as we've explored in the past, size itself is not a recipe for success, you need the proper anatomy to match. Having said that, the Canadiens, despite being one of the 10 worst teams in the league don't need an overhaul but more fine tuning. Size is not the reason for their struggles.

The New Guys

With the recent signings of Artturi Lehkonen and Martin Reway, the Habs have added two very skilled players, both of whom sit below that mythical six-foot barrier that a true NHLer must breach. And yet both of them had immensely successful seasons in Europe, with Lehkonen winning Champions Hockey League gold and the SHL Championship, where he also led all players in post-season scoring.

Reway, standing at 5'8'', has played at over a point-per-game pace in both the Czech Extraliga and the Swiss NLA in the two years since he departed the QMJHL's Gatineau Olympiques. It's clear both players can handle playing against veterans despite being so young, so the concern over their ability to handle the physicality of North American hockey seems overblown.

Even better is that both players come over to Montreal on cheap entry-level contracts, meaning they have a chance to be massive "bang for your buck" type players. Lehkonen in particular can step right in and fill a gap in the Habs top six that has been a weak spot for the past few seasons.

Reway has shown in the past how dominant an offensive force he can be, he was the catalyst in Slovakia's shocking bronze medal win at the 2015 World Junior Championship. His talent makes him an outstanding choice to play on an exploitation type line with fellow gifted winger Sven Andrighetto or any of the top AHL standouts such as Charles Hudon and Daniel Carr.

Tread Carefully when Chasing Free Agents

The biggest name on the free agent market this summer is Steven Stamkos, and given what his contract demands are likely to be, Marc Bergevin needs to be mindful of his current core. While you are acquiring an elite goal scorer, you have to look at how his salary will impact which players you're able to keep in Montreal in the future, particularly Carey Price and Alex Galchenyuk, who will be due for major raises relatively soon.

Signing Stamkos to a seven-year deal starting at more than $10 million per season can be dangerous when the backbone of your franchise is close to becoming a free agent. Obviously if you can acquire him at a reasonable price, you pull the trigger, but reasonable is unlikely when a top player in his prime hits the open market. Not to mention one with potential health question marks.

It's also been suggested that Bergevin pursue long time St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, who plays a hard hitting, big body style of hockey. However, Backes is rumored to be looking for a contract similar to Ryan Kesler, a cap hit of $6.875 million. And after Elliotte Friedman reported that Backes turned down a five year deal worth 5.5 million a year, it's highly unlikely that Backes will budge on his demands. Much like Stamkos, that's a large amount of money to dish out with important contracts coming up, not to mention that Backes, like Stamkos, will likely be the subject of a bidding war.

The greatest concern for the Canadiens pursuing a player such as Backes and signing them a long term deal is the risk of potential decline once they exit their prime. Data has shown that players over 30 begin to decline, particularly in their shot rate and power play production.

If the Canadiens choose to go the free agent route, instead of chasing the older, and likely more expensive Backes the Canadiens could focus their efforts on a player such as Kyle Okposo. Not only is Okposo likely to be a cheaper option, he's also under 30, still in his prime, and coming off three straight 50-plus point seasons. Even taking a look at their advanced stats, betting on Okposo might be the smart bet for Marc Bergevin.

Player G60 P60 iHSC CF60 iCF
Kyle Okposo 0.59 1.83 60 57.20 272
David Backes 0.43 1.35 54 54.89 211

Overall, Okposo creates more offence for his team than Backes, particularly in shot generation and high-danger scoring chances. With the knowledge that players over 30 will being to see a dip in their shot generation, and the addition of his contract demands, chasing the big fish in David Backes would be incredibly unwise.

In short, it is better to go for the bargain deals. With vital pieces coming up for renewal soon, gambling on big signings is a dangerous game.

Give the Kids a Chance

We've seen the Canadiens attempt to beef up their roster in previous seasons with players such as Douglas Murray or George Parros, neither of which worked out. The prospect pool is as deep as ever with skilled players, and Carey Price will be back between the pipes to start the year. While the injuries derailed the Canadiens this past year, they did have one beneficial effect: many of the AHL kids got an NHL call-up, and several of them showed they're ready for a full-time gig.

Charles Hudon in particular has proven that he's NHL ready this past season, scoring points in his first two NHL games, leading the IceCaps in goal-scoring, and finishing around the top of the AHL scoring race the past two years. If the Canadiens ever need a jumpstart in the offensive department, this is the prospect who should get the call. Throw in the aforementioned Reway and Lehkonen and the ultra-talented Nikita Scherbak, and there are plenty of options for Montreal.

The Canadiens have the benefit of not needing several of these kids to step up in a big way. If even one or two of them step up and surprise, they would be playing with house money. These kids deserve to have a spot to fight for instead of having it fill up with more established but perhaps overpriced talent.

All things are pointing to the Canadiens returning to contention in the Eastern Conference. There's no need to deviate from their plan and make major alterations to satisfy a narrative about size - either in players stature or presence.