The Montreal Canadiens fell just short of a playoff berth last season, looking much better than they did in 2017-18 when they had among the top odds in the draft lottery, but ultimately still played just the regular 82-game schedule. Now, for the third season in a row, they may be looking at that same fate, which has only happened two times in franchise history.
If comments made a week ago by Elliotte Friedman are accurate, Marc Bergevin is hunkered down poring over every detail of his team’s makeup while it sits idle during the mandated bye week. It’s a chance for most personnel to take a break from the game, but the GM has work to do. Not only will he be looking at the various personnel the team employs, but the NHL Trade Deadline is just over a month away, on February 24, and he needs to decide what his approach is going to be.
As far as the on-ice product is concerned, that verdict isn’t expected to be that the team is going all-in to try to compete in the Eastern Conference. Bergevin is on record saying he’s not going to trade future assets away “just hoping to make the playoffs.” And hope is about all the organization has left given its current situation.
The Canadiens were a seeded team in the Atlantic Division as recently as December 8, but they’re far from that position now. The Tampa Bay Lightning have decided to start winning again, the Florida Panthers have gone on a run, and now secure victories fairly comfortably. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t guaranteed to make it this year, and they have one of the most enviable forward corps in the NHL.
Five teams at the bottom of the league will clearly be sellers. Some of them don’t have many stars left after already committing to rebuilds. The California teams once battled for Western Conference supremacy, and now some of the featured superstars from that state rivalry may be on their way to greener pastures. The New Jersey Devils loaded up in the off-season without getting the results they expected. They’ve fired the GM, replaced the coach, and now all that’s left is to swap out the players on the team.
Then there’s a grouping of about three teams in each section above those lottery clubs where Montreal can be found, with teams counting the points to the playoff positions after each win and then looking at the hopelessness of it all after each loss.
The top of the table has few teams comfortable with their position; perhaps just the top seeds in three of the divisions (the tight Pacific being the exception) are breathing easy with the All-Star break on the horizon. Below those number ones, over half of the other clubs in the league still have realistic shots at making it.
Montreal wrapping up their pre-bye slate with four wins in five games has maybe changed Bergevin’s thinking from what he was planning a week ago, but there’s still a sizable gap between them and a wild-card position. The goal posts are going to begin to moving farther away as teams start trading assets for immediate help over the final portion of the year, and Montreal, in that middle tier of teams, won’t be joining that spree, slipping farther behind.
In normal years, the Canadiens would probably just wait and see what they can do with what they have. Had they made the playoffs sometime in the last two years (especially last year when they essentially did the same thing) the franchise could probably get away with that. Missing the post-season for a third year in a row while standing pat probably isn’t going to cut it with the owner, let alone the fanbase, and Bergevin has to consider moving out current veterans to improve the team for the future.
Given that there are about 20 teams currently believing they can make it, and so many bunched together in the standings, it’s looking like a good time to be one of the sellers. There aren’t many players who can be classified as typical rentals on Montreal’s roster — players in the final year of their contracts who help teams this season with no obligations for the next — but there are a few.
None of them are clear-cut options to be removed from the team, however, all playing important roles right now, and who could still do so in future years. This week, we’ll be looking at the case for keeping, trading, or maybe just waiting until the off-season for the top names on Montreal’s internal trade board.