Top Cheese: January 2020 Edition

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as the team is just coming out of a second 8-game game losing streak and their playoffs’ hopes are rapidly fading. The team’s Bye week is coming soon, from January 19-26 and the All-Star break is on the weekend of January 25th, where Canadiens’ captain Shea Weber will be representing the Bleu, Blanc, Rouge. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Just when fans didn’t think that it could get worse than going through an eight-game winless streak, they went through another one just a few weeks later. While they are not mathematically eliminated yet, this last series of defeats pretty much sealed the Canadiens’ fate when it comes to making the playoffs. At the time of writing this, they are seven points out of the last Wild Card spot and must leapfrog five other teams – and hope they all get cold – by going on a winning streak themselves. To complicate things, they’ll have to survive the next week or so without Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron for sure, and maybe without Joel Armia and Brendan Gallagher too.

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Ilya Kovalchuk

There are many reasons factoring in the Habs’ fall out but injuries, combined with the timing of the organisation’s reset, are two major contributors. The Canadiens’ farm team, the Laval Rocket, has also gone through a rash of injuries, limiting who the Canadiens could call up at any given time, and most of the organisational depth is still playing in junior hockey, American colleges or in European leagues, therefore unavailable to help in the short term. This situation forced team General Manager Marc Bergevin to trade for Marco Scandella and sign UFA Ilya Kovalchuk as the team was looking for warm bodies.

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Speaking of reset, it is painfully clear that fans and media members alike don’t have the same definition of it, or don’t fully understand the difference between reset, rebuild and retool, and the timeline, the implication it entails. The Canadiens’ reset started in the Summer of 2018 when Bergevin met with team President and owner Geoff Molson, changing cap by going younger and hanging on to draft picks and prospects, while still trying to add in order to remain competitive. Mr. Molson could have fired his GM at the time but he bought into the new plan, knowing full well that it would be tumultuous and that fans and media wouldn’t be happy. For that reason, Bergevin’s job is safe… and it should be.

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This brings us to Mr. Molson and the criticism he’s getting from some of the fanbase, who, once again, is showing its limited comprehension and knowledge of the game of hockey at the management level. Pundits claim that Molson should hire a VP of Hockey Operation, claiming that he doesn’t know enough about hockey… but THEY do, right? Fact being told is that Geoff Molson comes from a long line of family members with close ties to the Canadiens. He is a great businessman who does understand hockey and when he’s not sure, he’s not afraid to consult, as he did with Serge Savard when hiring Bergevin. No, the team doesn’t need anyone else. He and Bergevin are in almost daily contact so he’s well aware of what’s happening.

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Bergevin and his pro-scouts will be meeting during the Bye week to discuss the team’s plan at trade deadline. As it stands today, it is safe to say that they will be exploring being sellers at the deadline, which would likely mean adding to their 11 picks at the upcoming Draft and full bank of quality prospects. But who is likely to go? It is my humble opinion that the pending UFAs will be offered on the market and at least three of them should draw some interest: Ilya Kovalchuk, Marco Scandella and Nate Thompson could all add a lot to a contending team, and Dale Weise would come much cheaper but he has playoffs experience as a depth move.

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On Nate Thompson, if you missed it, there was a great feature of him and his road to recovery from his drugs and alcohol addiction during the intermission the other night. Gotta love such success stories…

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Back to Kovalchuk, many people, myself included, had their reserves when the Habs announced the signing. He does come with a reputation of being moody and not always being the hardest worker, and his experience in Los Angeles was not a good one. But since signing in Montreal, he has been nothing short of impressive. He’s playing top minutes, is showing good hustle, great team spirit and we know his skills, even at 36 years old.

Since he was placed in the line-up, he leads the Canadiens with Tomas Tatar with four points in five games. He averages an astounding 20:12 minutes of ice time per game. He also has eight hits, third amongst forwards on the team behind Artturi Lehkonen and Dale Weise. Habs’ fans have a long love history with Russian-born players and they adore him, as shown by the cheers every time he touches the puck. And it seems like he loves them back. Too bad they couldn’t bring him back sooner from Russia, isn’t it?

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The arrival of Marco Scandella, taking over Mike Reilly‘s spot on the roster, has solidified the Canadiens’ blueline. Scandella appeared in six games so far, accumulating no points while logging in 19:25 minutes of ice time per game, good for fourth amongst defensemen. His 12 hits have him tied with Shea Weber and both are just three shy of Fleury and Petry. He only had one rougher game, when he was paired with Weber while Ben Chiarot was injured.

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Scandella and Kovalchuk are examples of great assets management by the Canadiens and Marc Bergevin. Kovalchuk didn’t cost any assets to acquired and he agreed to a two-way, $700,000 contract (prorated) to play in Montreal. Further, the Habs’ GM had given up a fifth round pick to acquire Reilly from Minnesota and not only did he get a fifth round pick back, but received depth for Laval in Andrew Sturtz. Then he only gave up a fourth round pick for Montreal-born Scandella, an established veteran with some upside. If he so wishes to do, Bergevin could flip those two assets into quality picks and/or prospects at the upcoming trade deadline. What seems sometimes like small moves can become very important for an organisation and those two moves can prove to be brilliant ones.

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Alexander Romanov

It is my believe though that Scandella also serves as an insurance policy for the Canadiens in case defensive prospect Alexander Romanov decides to stay longer in the KHL. We know that Bergevin made the trip to Russia to talk to Romanov and his father a few weeks ago and while the Canadiens’ GM qualified the meeting as positive, stating that the rugged defenseman wants to play in the NHL, he acknowledged that nothing is for sure until he puts his name at the bottom of a contract. We should have a better idea sometime in May. If he doesn’t come, Scandella might receive an offer from the Habs in July.

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I was asked who I thought would be traded and what odds I was putting on it. Understand that this is just a guess on my part, I have no information to that effect. So here it is, the list of who I feel might be traded by trade deadline and the odds of that happening:

  • Kovalchuk: 97%
  • Thompson: 90%
  • Scandella: 70%
  • Weise: 60%
  • Byron: 50%
  • Tatar: 15%
  • Petry: 5%
  • Domi: 3%
  • Weber: 1%
  • Price: 1%
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The reason why I don’t believe that Tatar and mostly Petry won’t be traded is because the Habs are going through a reset and not a rebuild. Let me explain. In a reset, as explained in a previous article linked earlier, the team is still trying to remain competitive and the goal is still to make the playoffs. The Canadiens don’t have anyone NHL ready to take the quality minutes and production of both Tatar and Petry. Further, they fit extremely well with the rest of the team chemistry-wise and are leaders in their own ways to the team’s young guys. Last but not least, Tatar has a cap hit of $4.8 million and Petry $5.5 million. You won’t find that kind of ratio quality/price through free agency for sure, and unlikely through trade. A decision will be made about those two at the trade deadline in a year… unless someone comes with an offer that knocks Bergevin’s socks off, which is unlikely.

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Cale Fleury is starting to open some eyes across the NHL with his physical abilities. Earlier this season, Chiarot was asked about Fleury and he described him as “old school”, bringing not only speed, but physicality, which he said is a mix that is rather rare in today’s prospects. Just ask Milan Lucic what he thinks…

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As we all love laughing at Boston Bruins’ former and current players, he’s something I’ve never seen before that made Brad Marchand trent on Twitter last night. During the shootout, Marchand must score, otherwise the Flyers win the game. We don’t know if his nose got in the way of seeing the puck but he barely had a lick at it in this botched attempt. It couldn’t happen to a better guy!

Before the Bye week, the Canadiens are at home to face the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, then travel to Philadelphia to play the Flyers the next night before coming back home for Saturday’s matchup against Max Pacioretty and the Vegas Golden Knights, to complete a four-games in six nights stretch for Claude Julien’s troop. We then go through withdrawal as the Habs won’t play until Monday, January 27th as they receive the Washington Capitals at the Bell Centre. Go Habs Go!

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