This off-season in Montreal has been turbulent to say the least, with a major overhaul to the lineup after a disappointing playoff exit. They shipped out Mikhail Sergachev, but in return acquired Jonathan Drouin in one of the summer’s biggest transactions. Alexander Radulov turned down a deal from Marc Bergevin in favour of the Dallas Stars, and Ales Hemsky joined in the fold as a right-wing option.
Then came the negotiations with Andrei Markov, whose reported initial demand of two years at $6 million per were deemed too expensive. A few weeks passed by with little news before the team announced in recent days that Markov would not be back. For for the first time in over a decade, #79 will not grace the ice for the Canadiens this season.
The team is down its second-most-productive defender, arguably their most dynamic forward from last season, and their top prospect. In return they did bring in the young and extremely promising Drouin, and as a depth add Hemsky can bring a lot to a Montreal team if given the chance.
On defence Karl Alzner was the crown jewel of Bergevin’s free agent signing period. The former Capital inked a five-year deal, and as it stands will likely be stepping into the top four role left vacant by Markov’s departure. Also joining the fold are David Schlemko and Mark Streit, who in their own right are fine signings, but it’s unlikely they get Montreal over the hump for a Stanley Cup.
So what are the Montreal Canadiens this year?
On paper the team has plenty of talent on the wings, and if Alex Galchenyuk is given his chance at centre, then the offence should be in great shape. Yet the management seems content to handicap their squad, insisting that Galchenyuk will play on the wing for the foreseeable future, massively weakening the attack down the middle the Habs can put together with their current personnel.
If Bergevin doesn’t believe Galchenyuk is his top centre, and is still looking for one on the market, what sort of shape is this team in going forward? Despite a breakout sophomore year, Phillip Danault is not a bona fide first-line centre, and neither is Tomas Plekanec at this point in his career. Montreal has nothing to lose by playing Galchenyuk, a natural centre, at his natural position.
Montreal’s major flaw heading into this off-season was the lack of a standout top defender to pair with Weber, and thereby allowing Markov and Jeff Petry to reunite on what was a dominant second pairing last year. As it stands the Canadiens don’t really have an established puck-moving blue-liner on the left side, leaning toward a more traditional, defence-oriented group. They aren’t overly mobile, and no one can distribute the puck like the now-departed Markov. The addition of Alzner didn’t address any of those issues for the team.
On top of that, they shipped out their top defence prospect who possesses all the abilities that left side currently lacks, in order to strengthen an area that wasn’t nearly as critical.
The modern NHL game is about speed and finesse over grit and toughness. It’s not the dead puck era anymore, and speed is king in this league. Weber, for all his goal-scoring prowess and on-ice leadership abilities, is a declining asset. He’s still very useful but not the type that you build a core around.
Not only did they let long-time star Markov leave, they did it while possessing nearly $8.5 million in cap space; more than enough to re-sign him and have some breathing room for in-season acquisitions. Adding depth pieces like Streit and Schlemko are great if they’re insulated by talent and assigned to roles suiting their abilities. As of now, they’ll need to be asked to shoulder a load that might be too much for them, or that might limit their usefulness in other areas.
The change from Michel Therrien to Claude Julien brought a system that eased the workload on Carey Price, and the netminder returned to top form. Bergevin then inked Price to one of the richest contracts in the league, signaling he’s serious about keeping the backbone of his team in place.
Despite bringing in a top-level coach and locking up the league’s best goaltender, the team on paper does not look like a Stanley Cup contender. The defence isn’t one that can move the puck like the modern NHL demands, and appears less dynamic than the version the team had last year. They may limit the shots against, and keep the workload light on behalf of Price, but if they can’t begin a breakout to transition the puck to the opposite end of the ice, is that really an improvement? The wings are loaded with talent, but if they have to take on all the puck-carrying duties and do the scoring as well, they will be limited in how effective thay can be.
There aren’t any free agents that can immediately improve this team, and unless Bergevin wants to weaken his one area of strength he doesn’t have a lot of movable assets to make a deal. He’s handcuffed himself to either sticking to his guns and trying to make his current squad work, weaken his winger corps to strengthen the defence and/or centre position, or cripple what’s left of a shallow prospect pool for the hope of creating a team that has a short Cup window before being forced into a rebuild.
The general manager hasn’t had a clear approach to how he wants to set his team up. He made major splashes in 2014 and 2015, going for top talents Thomas Vanek and Jeff Petry, respectively, at the trade deadline. The following year, in desperate need of a game-breaking player and a goaltender, Bergevin instead acquired fourth-line depth assets. A similar story unfolded this year with the Habs in need of a star to get their offence over the hump in the playoffs, instead heading to the bargain bin to add Steve Ott, Andreas Martinsen, and Dwight King.
There’s no indication of the direction this team is headed. It’s good enough for the playoffs, but that’s no longer going to cut it with the talent they’ve had on the roster. It makes no sense to start over with Carey Price signed to a massive contract for his prime years. But on the flip side, this team doesn’t seem to be ready for a Stanley Cup run either, missing a few major pieces with few expendable assets that can be used to fill them.
With Claude Julien at the helm it’s very possible the team will repeat as division champions. However there’s little to indicate that the playoff success will be any different than last year. Bergevin’s team is the culmination of his various visions over the years, but it’s up to him to see the flaws in it and make the changes that could push the Habs over the finish line.
As past history has shown, no one quite knows what those changes are going to be.