Marc Bergevin has two very simple objectives for this off-season: fix the Montreal Canadiens’ centre position and add another top-four-quality defender.
One of the NHL’s premier stars, John Tavares, appears likely to hit the open market on July 1. Tavares will be pursued by nearly everyone, and it’s possible the Canadiens will become an entrant in that race, but we shouldn’t neglect that there are other options on the free-agent market as well. While trying to sign the New York Islanders captain may be the best move to solve the top-line centre role for the foreseeable future, there are options available should the Canadiens fall short in that endeavour.
Arguably the second-best free-agent centre available, Stastny will command plenty of attention after performing well for the St. Louis Blues and thriving with the Winnipeg Jets during their playoff run. Prior to his departure from The Gateway City, Stastny was clocking in at a 55.1% Corsi-for percentage for the Blues. Despite playing a lesser role in Winnipeg, the Quebec City-born player continued to excel.
With him in the lineup, the Jets were a force in the offensive zone at even strength, thanks in part to having a legitimate scoring threat at centre on each of their top three lines. Statsny played an active role in contributing to this absurd amount of scoring depth, making the most of his diminished time on ice.
Montreal’s biggest issue in 2017-18 was generating high-danger chances, and Stastny’s chart looks like the perfect cure for that ailment. Heavy shot generation in the goal-mouth and slot regions is exactly what the Habs need, as many of their shots this year were kept to low-danger areas. His possession numbers stack up decently well against those of Tavares, although it must be kept in mind that Stastny played on two high-quality teams this season while Tavares lugged around the weight of the Islanders once again.
Overall, Stastny is not Tavares, but in comparison, he is, quite honestly, a solid investment for Bergevin to take a look at. While the former Avalanche, Blue, and Jet is still likely going to command a decent chunk of cash, he will cost quite a few million less than Tavares, giving Bergevin the flexibility to shore up other problem areas for Montreal as well.
If the Canadiens want to look at a more short-term solution while their prospects develop, and they very well may go that route, one of the NHL’s all-time greats happens to be hitting the free-agent market this year. Thornton will go down as one of the best playmaking forwards the league has ever seen, currently ranking in the top 10 all time for assists and still racking up helpers with relative ease at his advanced age (relatively speaking).
He sounds like the perfect sort of guy to pair with a net-front guy like Brendan Gallagher or a lethal finisher like Max Pacioretty, right?
Well, yes and no. Thornton has plenty of positives that should appeal to a team like the Canadiens, but he also has some drawbacks as well. First and foremost, Jumbo Joe is coming off back-to-back years with fairly severe knee injuries that have required surgery and significant time on the shelf. Our friends at Fear The Fin noted that coming into this year, it took a decent period of time for Thornton to get back to top form, and that back-to-back games were extremely taxing on him.
This isn’t to say that Thornton’s offensive skills have vanished with his health issues. In fact, he continued to lead the San Jose Sharks in power-play goals for most of the 2017-18 season despite being sidelined with his injury.
His knees and his age represent a major gamble. Limiting any contract to a one-year term helps alleviate some of that risk, but that one year might still come at a high price, as the centre commanded an $8 million salary on his one-year deal this season.
Thornton is not the worst option out there, especially if Marc Bergevin is looking just for a stop-gap solution, but do the risks outweigh the reward?
The long-time Toronto Maple Leafs player is heading to the UFA market this year, assuming that Toronto doesn’t offer him a new contract. While the Vancouver Canucks are rumoured to be very interested in his services, there’s always the chance the Habs could want the Regina native in their lineup.
Let’s get things out of the way: Bozak is nothing special in the offensive zone. He’s a reliable player who can be counted on for roughly 40 points a year. The issue is that Bozak routinely faced easier opponents compared to his teammates and received highly favourable zone starts. Despite this, and playing alongside regular 30-goal-scorers Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, Bozak topped 50 points just once.
At 32 years of age, Bozak is unlikely to improve defensively, and if he couldn’t break 50 points playing with one of the NHL’s most consistent goal-scorers, there isn’t much evidence to believe he could do it in Montreal. If he were going to be sheltered in Montreal as well, he would be occupying much of the same role Jonathan Drouin already holds, and it’s more worthwhile to give the younger and more talented player that ice time as opposed to the older, declining asset.
Bozak may be feasible as a last resort, but Bergevin shouldn’t be looking at him as a primary option unless everything else falls through.
There’s an easy way to describe Filppula as a player: he is a drag on pretty much every single player he plays with. Signing him would somehow actually make Montreal’s group of centres worse.
Nearly every mamber of the Philadelphia Flyers, save for Dale Weise, put up better metrics when they were away from Filppula, and that’s not the type of player Montreal should be looking at. It gets worse: he is also an offensive black hole. When he’s on the ice, shot generation dies.
It’s almost impressive that he was given the amount of minutes that he was, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that he’s no longer a capable option in any team’s top nine, let alone top six. Filppula even makes the massively declining Tomas Plekanec look incredible.
If for any reason Bergevin was considering Filppula, he’d truly be better off re-signing Plekanec on a cheap deal and giving him easier minutes in a third-line role while Drouin and Phillip Danault handle top-six duties.
In short, Filppula isn’t the answer to any question other than “how can this team possibly surrender more high-danger scoring chances.” He should be avoided at all costs unless the team is committing to a tank from the opening faceoff of the next season.
Bergevin and the Canadiens will be hoping to land Tavares as the answer to their centre woes. If they miss on their golden goose, the market offers a solid pair of short-term, viable options, as well as several examples of caveat emptor.
Bringing back Plekanec isn’t the worst option, but leaves Montreal where they were at the start of last year. It’s going to take some decent cash to land one of the bigger names to truly attempt to fix one of the longest-standing issues in Montreal.