It’s really not a secret at this point of the season: the Montreal Canadiens are a flawed team — especially on defence — in need of a serious injection of youthful talent all over the lineup. Montreal needs to rebuild or retool their roster, and that’s actually possible to do quickly if those in charge recognize the value of their assets.
When you factor in the high-end prospects available in the first round of the 2018 draft where Montreal will likely be selecting, you can begin a youth overhaul on the fly. The Habs have a lot of promising defensive depth currently playing in the WHL thanks to a good 2017 draft, as well as 2015 first-round selection Noah Juulsen impressing in the AHL, so within the next two years the team could feasibly resupply their NHL defence and be ready to contend once again for a playoff position.
But, that’s getting very much ahead of ourselves.
The focus right now needs to be solely on turning current players into future assets to start the retooling Montreal desperately needs.
While Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty have been mentioned at several points this season, one of the less talked about players who could be exchanged is Shea Weber. Despite being highly regarded by members of his staff and teammates alike, he is one of the highest-profile players the Canadiens have, and one who holds significant value.
Unlike the two forwards, Weber has been seen as untouchable, due in part to the disastrous shape the Canadiens defence corps would be left in, as well as the hefty contract he holds which runs until 2026, and the fact that he was part of a blockbuster trade to join the team.
Despite the $7.8 million cap hit of the contract and its extreme length, there is still the possibility of exchanging Weber to a team looking at a multi-year Stanley Cup window, getting a substantial haul in return.
The two-time Olympian has a glowing reputation around the league, and even as his age increases and his play declines he can draw plenty of attention from other general managers. If the Canadiens are seriously considering a rebuild, or at least a retooling of their roster, hanging onto an aging asset with a sky-high perceived value is not the most effective way to do it.
In his two years in Montreal, Weber has been exactly as advertised for his team. He plays a ton of tough minutes, uses a booming slapshot to terrify goalies, and is a menace to play against.
Out of all the regular Montreal defencemen, Weber leads them in Corsi-for percentage at even strength despite playing the most minutes per night. This is made all the more impressive when you factor in that he has been playing hurt since the first game of the year, only recently forced to leave the lineup.
There’s no doubt that the team misses his stabilizing presence in the defensive zone, yet without him in the lineup, the results this year seem to be the same as when he was able to play. Where he is missed the most right now is in his shot generation for the Habs. Without him on the ice, the offence hasn’t really been able to get into gear.
That’s the one aspect of Weber’s game that can likely be counted on as his career wears on: he can generate plenty of offensive chances at both even strength and on the power play.
Potential trade partners
Based off the trade that brought him to Montreal, an elite top-pairing defenceman would be the baseline, but in their current state, the Canadiens need to address their future with such a deal, and not many other teams are looking to surrender a young top-two defender for an older asset.
The other hurdle is finding a team with the cap space to take on Weber’s massive deal, which limits the options for a trade partner, but thankfully there are a number of clubs that could use his services.
Chief among these teams are the Edmonton Oilers, who according to CapFriendly have $21 million in cap space currently, with a projected allowance of $8 million next season when Connor McDavid’s mega deal kicks in.
The Oilers, much like the Canadiens, have been desperate for defensive help, despite having talented players like Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom.
They also have a major chip that should be of interest to Montreal in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who would help solve a major issue down the middle. He has been rumoured to be available since the outset of this season, which would make him the third player drafted first overall to be traded away by the Oilers in recent years.
Peter Chiarelli is very much in desperation mode. He signed two of his young stars to major deals going into next season after a decent playoff outing last year. But one year later, the Oilers have faltered big time in the face of high expectations.
Montreal holds the more valuable piece in this potential transaction, meaning Marc Bergevin could ask for much more added to the return. If that is in fact the case, Nurse should be a name he asks about immediately, as the young defender can be part of the quick turnaround the Canadiens are looking to achieve.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock is known to be a huge fan of Weber as well, but given Toronto’s cap situation, having three young stars coming up for a contract within the next two seasons, it’s unlikely that the two would reunite there. If the Leafs are open to the idea of bringing in a veteran defender to help guide an inexperienced team, Bergevin should swing for the fences to try and land one of those young players, namely William Nylander.
The young Swede has been shuffled all over Babcock’s lineup, including fourth-line duty for a stretch. It’s an unlikely situation, but it’s an avenue that could be worth exploring depending on league-wide interest.
Life without Weber
Should a theoretical trade happen with Weber being shipped out, there are a few things Montreal can do to fill the void his departure would create.
The simplest thing they can do is play Victor Mete more often. He was trusted in top-pairing minutes alongside Weber to start the year, so there’s no reason not to play him alongside Jeff Petry on the top pair going forward.
The next option is to give Juulsen some NHL minutes. The rookie defender is proving his chops on a disaster of a Laval team, so getting him some minutes in a throwaway year isn’t the worst idea.
Coming up in 2019 there is a trio of elite defenders due for new contracts that could be targeted, with Drew Doughty, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Erik Karlsson all set to test free agency. Add in the high-end defensive prospects the Habs might add from this year’s draft class, and Montreal could restock and become competitive is short order, without the drawn-out rebuild that fans in Toronto and Edmonton suffered through.
It’s a massive risk to move a major asset like Shea Weber, even more so when losing him would compound a current issue. There are no guarantees that the team gets a ransom in return for him, and that’s always the chance you take on the trade market.
However, if Weber’s value among GMs around the league is as high as it’s made out to be, there’s a golden opportunity to jumpstart a rebuild.
Marc Bergevin (or whomever his replacement may be) will have to weigh the risks and rewards of the transaction. If handle it right, the move can undo a lot of the bad decisions of the past few years.