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Now What? Entering the Post-Tavares Era

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Is it possible to have a post-era for an era that never was?

NHL: New York Islanders at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

John Tavares is a Toronto Maple Leaf.

It was hardly a secret that following the events of the last two seasons, signing Tavares was Marc Bergevin’s saving throw. A coup de grace that would instantly elevate what was supposed to be an above-average-to-very-good Montreal Canadiens team, to one of the league’s elite and extend a window that some had deemed over — or at least significantly shortened — following the departures of P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Alexander Radulov, and Mikhail Sergachev.

But, the sight of Tavares in a Montreal uniform was a long-shot at best and utterly deluded wishful thinking at worst. The six reported finalists were Toronto, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Dallas, Boston, and the New York Islanders. Removing the Isles and their incumbent advantage from the equation, what do the five remaining teams have in common?

Auston Matthews, Steven Stamkos, Joe Pavelski, Tyler Seguin, and Patrice Bergeron.

In short, Tavares wanted to go to a team with an established elite number-one centre. And why not? He has spent his entire career carrying the Islanders on his back as the top dog and reaped very little for his toil. Now that he has the decision-making power, it’s only natural to want to have some capable friends to help share the burden.

So, if you’re a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, the question is: now what?

Well, really, not a lot has changed.

The core is intact. Carey Price is still here, Shea Weber is still here, Brendan Gallagher is still here, and even Max Pacioretty is still here (for now).

The up-and-comers (Artturi Lehkonen, Charles Hudon, Jonathan Drouin, Phillip Danault) are mostly still the same, except for the addition of Max Domi and the subtraction of Alex Galchenyuk.

Even the depth players are the same. Jacob de la Rose, Paul Byron, Andrew Shaw, and yes, Tomas Plekanec.

For some, this lack of roster turnover implies that the 2018-19 Canadiens will share the same fate as the 2017-18 team. To that I say, bring on Jack Hughes!

But it’s also important to remember that a lot of things went wrong for the Canadiens last season. For starters, the forward corps was extraordinarily snake bitten. Nearly every key offensive player scored substantially fewer goals than would normally be expected given the chances and shots they generated.

Second, Shea Weber had a Norris-calibre season cut short by his foot injury. It goes without saying that a full season with Weber (and one where he isn’t encumbered by Alexei Emelin) will push the Habs up the standings a few notches by default.

Third, the penalty kill should no longer be horriawful now that the architect of its scheme is no longer with the club.

Finally, and most importantly, Price should not be a .900 goaltender in 2018-19.

When you put all of these factors together, the Canadiens of this season should achieve results more befitting of a club that was 5th in both 5v5 high-danger scoring chances for per 60 minutes and 5v5 high-danger scoring chance percentage. Results more appropriate for a team that was sixth in the Eastern Conference and twelfth h in the league in 5v5 xGF%.

Is the team elite? Certainly not. But I would wager that the 2018-19 Canadiens will be closer to the playoff bubble than the league cellar.

Yes, the team has deficiencies, with the most publicized one being the lack of an elite centre (although I’ve made the argument previously that the Danault-Pacioretty combo generates results close to that territory).

But, given that the team isn’t elite, was the right option really to pay Tyler Bozak $5 million per season over three years? To trade a first, a third, Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, and Patrik Berglund for Ryan O’Reilly? Was Paul Stastny worth $6.5 million per year?

The off-season has just begun for Bergevin and with the Tavares distraction out of the way, the Canadiens GM now has the opportunity to actually address the Habs’ real problems:

  • Hiring a defence assistant coach to fix the penalty kill.
  • Acquiring an left defenceman to complement Weber, thereby decreasing the reliance on Karl Alzner.
  • Finding pieces for a fourth line that can do more than chase the puck around its own zone.
  • Developing Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling properly.
  • And if the opportunity presents itself, acquiring a top-6 centre so that Drouin can return to the wing.

Entering the 2018-19 season, the Canadiens are not as good as they could be, given the pieces Bergevin started his tenure with, but also not as bad as last season would indicate. Because the team is still viable, Bergevin has the rarest of opportunities in sports management — to work himself out of a problem he created.