Marc Bergevin has had plenty of money in his pocket in the past few off-seasons, but despite his best efforts, the top free agents kept signing elsewhere. The result was a Montreal Canadiens team with enough room under the cap to fill some glaring roster holes, but no one willing to fill them.
Last summer, after Matt Duchene became the latest player to choose another franchise over Montreal despite an in-person meeting with the Habs’ general manager (likely a good outcome in hindsight), Bergevin tried a different tactic to land a big player. Seeing his chance to get a star centre and address the biggest shortcoming during his tenure, he sent an offer sheet to Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes, and got a signature from one of the top young players in the league.
In the end, the dollar figure wasn’t enough to scare off Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, nor was the compensation package of draft picks enough to convince the organization to part with its top player. Carolina matched the offer sheet, Aho stayed with the Hurricanes, and Bergevin once again had to send a budget team onto the ice when the season began.
One year later, the makeup of the team looks a lot different. Where the centre position was regarded as a weakness about 14 months ago, 10 games of post-season hockey have revealed a different reality. We knew Phillip Danault had the talent to go toe-to-toe with some of the best players in the NHL and come out at least even, but less was known about the young centres. Then we saw Jesperi Kotkaniemi blossom into perhaps the top forward on the team in the month of August, and a solid performance from Nick Suzuki throughout the post-season, capped off with incredible performances in the final two games while the Habs were facing elimination.
This summer, the Canadiens aren’t a team desperate for a centre, but one with an enviable complement of three of them who can play a top-six role. It’s clear that what the club needs most are wingers to complement those skill sets and finish plays off, converting the plays from the men in the middle into goals.
Had Bergevin known how quickly Kotkaniemi would begin to live up to his potential, and how rapidly Suzuki would progress in his first year in the professional ranks (even an NHL spot wasn’t assured after his CHL season concluded) when he was outlining his plan of attack last year, he may not have gone after the Hurricanes’ top centre, but a scoring winger instead.
Patrik Laine was in the same situation as Aho at the time. His entry-level contract had expired and he was waiting for his team to present a realistic offer. Perhaps not wanting to damage his relationship with Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff (we saw from the Aho fallout the kind of impact an offer sheet can have), Bergevin didn’t seem to entertain the idea of going after Laine, and his name wasn’t mentioned in rumours of the likes of Aho and Brayden Point being targets for the Habs’ hostile offers.
The two general managers had been dealing in a more amicable fashion, most recently with Montreal adding Joel Armia by helping the Jets out of a salary-cap issue. Now, with reports of Laine being on the market, there’s a chance for the two GMs to put their heads together and help each other out once more.
Laine’s situation wasn’t resolved by an outside party last year, and he went nearly the full off-season without a contract. Days before the 2019-20 season began, he finally signed his first standard player contract: just a two-year bridge deal coming in at $6.75 million. The late start didn’t affect him too much, as he began the year with a six-game point streak, but forced to miss 14 games during the campaign, he finished the year with fewer than 30 goals for the first time in his career, and was only able to play one game for the Jets in the qualification round.
The dip in production may be concerning for those in Winnipeg, but his 28 goals were six more than any Habs player managed. Montreal just needs a player who can capitalize on the plays of the young centres, converting more of their elite possession into offence, and capitalize on some of the power-play opportunities. Laine has proven to be effective at both of those things in his four years in the league.
While the Canadiens’ most pressing need is finishers like Laine in the forward group, the Jets are desperate for two things: defencemen and draft picks. Connor Hellebuyck was one of the stars of the NHL season, earning a nod for the Vezina Trophy and being in the conversation for the Hart Trophy mostly because his team offered little help in front of him.
The GM is happy with Josh Morrissey — or at least he better be after signing him to an eight-year deal. Outside of their top left-handed blue-liner, the pickings are slim, however. Fortunately for Jets fans, the team doesn’t have long-term commitments to any of them.
If the Jets are going to move a goal-scorer like Laine, a top-four defenceman would be their biggest ask in return. Cheveldayoff was surely filled with regret while listening to the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasters constantly praising Ben Chiarot’s work in Montreal’s top four during the post-season, knowing he let the defenceman explore free agency a year ago. The Jets’ GM would ideally like a partner for Morrissey, so either Jeff Petry or Shea Weber would be his ideal return from the Montreal roster.
Bergevin is unlikely to part with either of those right-side players, so perhaps he can turn to quantity instead. With Petry and Weber filling the top two spots, there’s one left to fill on the right side, and there are currently three drafted prospects hoping to claim it. Cale Fleury played 41 games as a rookie in 2019-20, while Noah Juulsen had been seeing a good number of games in the previous two seasons before injuries held him out of the top league this year. With Josh Brook, perhaps the most dynamic of the three options (and the youngest) still in the mix, the Habs can afford to risk parting with both Juulsen and Fleury, giving the Jets two right-handed defencemen who could play in the NHL in 2020-21.
Of course, with Laine’s addition there are then too many top-nine wingers on the Habs roster. Adding a forward, like Paul Byron who has slipped to the bottom six in Montreal but would certainly add some speed and defence in Winnipeg, to the deal could reduce the quality of draft picks needed to finalize it.
Bergevin can flaunt his full haul of draft picks for this year, currently holding 14 selections while the Jets have just four — in the first, second, fifth, and sixth rounds. You’re not going to find a forward with a shot anywhere close to Laine’s at Montreal’s slot at 16th, so giving up the first will probably be an automatic in such a trade. Then it’s a matter of how few additional picks can get the deal done. Given how many prospects are already in the Canadiens’ system, and the fact that Montreal still holds 11 picks for 2021, the GM can afford to be generous with handing out his lottery tickets.
The questions are whether another team will put together a better package with a top-pairing right-handed defenceman, or add higher-profile defence prospects, or have a higher first-round pick to offer, or if Cheveldayoff really wants to trade such an impact player at all. Opportunities to add elite scorers don’t come Bergevin’s way very often, so if he can gain some traction in any conversations with an old trading partner, he will need to be prepared to make a competitive offer.