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The Montreal Canadiens are in a rebuild, whether they say so or not

The off-season has been full of moves that hinted at a rebuild, but their work in free agency solidified it.

NHL: NHL Draft Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been something fans and pundits have been wondering about since the season ended: are the Montreal Canadiens headed for a rebuild, or not? With the marquee free agents heading to various teams not named the Canadiens, and without a major trade in place to add one of their missing pieces, we appear to have our answer.

The team was not willing to give up the assets necessary to land Ryan O’Reilly, and with John Tavares inking a mega-deal in Toronto, the Habs’ window to land a top centre this off-season seems to have slammed shut.

Not wanting to disrupt what has been built in the prospect pool by acquiring older options down the middle, the team seems to be opting to let their recent first-round picks Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling develop and take those roles in the future.

As free agency opened, they bolstered their AHL roster with veteran players Kenny Agostino, Michael Chaput, and Alexandre Grenier, while the NHL club may also get a boost from the recently signed Xavier Ouellet (who is on a two-way deal) or Matthew Peca, who was a fantastic piece for a deep Syracuse Crunch team and one who Bergevin expects to be on the Canadiens’ roster next season.

The organization had 11 picks in the draft this year and hold nine for the next, providing them the chance to reload their prospect pool in short order. They’ve spent the last two drafts investing heavily in their areas of weakness — defensive prospects in 2017 and centres in 2018 — and if they’re going to be in a rebuilding mode for the upcoming year, they could have a chance to land a franchise-altering player next year in Jack Hughes.

Marc Bergevin has started utilizing his vast amount of cap space for things other than signing players. His acquisition of Joel Armia and two draft picks is a prime example. While he had to take on Steve Mason’s contract (and subsequent buyout cap hit), the Canadiens had the space available to make that move without messing with their long-term plans. It’s a nod to the strategy of the new-look Toronto Maple Leafs: acquiring poor contracts while getting prospects or picks in the same deal.

They’ve made some debatable trades in recent years, and that is part of what is leading to the need for a rebuild. But at the same time, some of their recent additions aren’t old players. Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin are just 23. Armia just turned 25. Several of the forwards on the team are also young, while Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen just completed their rookie season. Factor in the signings of Czech defenders Michal Moravčík and David Sklenička, who are 23 and 21, respectively, and it’s obvious there are plenty of young pieces within the organization.

While it’s not flawless in its construction, the organization has every chance to see these young players become a very good core.

They’ve brought in coaches at the NHL and AHL level who have a proven track record with producing results with young players during their developing years. They’re working to supplement their young AHL prospects with proven veterans, helping to ease them into the professional game while providing the team with good on-ice production.

It’s the hallmark of what have been the successful minor-league teams in recent years. The Crunch rolled plenty of their young stars with good veterans to help them, and the Toronto Marlies have been among the AHL’s elite while developing their young stars alongside role-playing veterans.

These aren’t the moves of a team that is just “one piece away,” these are moves of a team looking to the long-term future as opposed to just next season.

While Bergevin won’t openly say the words, the Canadiens have clearly entered a new phase. They’ve loaded their NHL roster with younger players, their AHL team with savvy signings in both key and depth roles, added in coaches who have a great reputation with prospect development, and drafted a large amount of teenage prospects to their system, and will do so again next year.

The organization is rebuilding, and Bergevin holds the reins on deciding how deep that rebuild goes.