He felt that his team was ready to take the next step. His very best players, or the highest paid, are getting long in the tooth. Some of his good young players have taken huge strides and there are more quality prospects to come. But the moment to take the next step, in Marc Bergevin‘s mind, was now. Enough with the talks about the goal being to make the playoffs. The Canadiens’ GM speech at the start of the season was clear and the playoffs were expected from him. With the additions and trades he’s completed, most observers around the NHL agreed.
Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Corey Perry, Michael Frolik, Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen and top prospect Alexander Romanov are all new additions to the Habs. Most are somewhat impact players in their own way. Toffoli is fourth in the NHL in goals with 15 and Anderson is tied with Brendan Gallagher with 10. Edmundson has helped turn Jeff Petry into a Norris Trophy candidate and leads the NHL with a plus -25 rating. Perry’s five goals in 20 games is tied with Claude Giroux, Tomas Tatar and Nick Suzuki, and more than Kyle Palmieri, Matt Duchene, Jack Eichel and Tayler Hall, amongst others. And Allen is amongst the NHL’s leaders in goals against average and saves percentage.
An ailing team
After a great start to this season when the team was amongst the league’s top offensive teams, the Canadiens have struggled for a while now. The GM is feeling the pressure and he has already fired Claude Julien and Kirk Muller behind the bench, then goaltending coach Stéphane Waite a week or so later. Interim coach Dominique Ducharme is doing the best that he can to instate a new system “on the fly” with the team’s tight schedule. While we have seen flashes of improvement, the overall performance is still underwhelming.
Including the two-game sweep at the hands of the Calgary Flames, the Habs only have five wins in their last 17 games. They did manage another five “loser points”, as I like to call them. They went from battling for first in the North Division (sorry, I refuse to commercialize and name them by sponsors), to battling for fourth place. At this rate, with Calgary surging after their own coaching change, Bergevin’s good work could all go for nothing with the team missing the playoffs. And that could have the potential to spell the end of the Canadiens’ GM in Montreal.
Two obvious needs
There are two glaring needs jumping at me for this team to return to being the competitive team that we saw at the start of the season. The Canadiens don’t have a top pairing left-handed defenseman, a puck-mover as the description of the day happens to be. None of Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmundson, Brett Kulak, Alexander Romanov or Victor Mete can fill those shoes against the opposition’s top lines. Some might disagree, but the coaching staff is right in thinking that Chiarot is the best suited of this group to be placed in that position. Romanov needs maturing and be sheltered for his confidence and development. As we’ve seen since Chiarot went down to injury, he’s being highly exposed when paired with Weber.
The second need is one that the team wasn’t expecting to need. But with the underwhelming production from Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the unexpected struggles of Phillip Danault, the center line of the team, which pivots the offense, is labouring. Further, the Habs are 26th in the NHL with a 47.2% efficiency in faceoffs. As we know, you waste more energy trying to get the puck back than you do having control. The Canadiens need a veteran center who can pinch in on key faceoffs and add depth in offensive production.
For a few weeks now, Suzuki is playing like a guy who is out of juice or injured. He’s not his assertive self and at times, the second effort doesn’t seem to be there. I don’t think it’s voluntary, as in being lazy, but something’s slowing him down. With a young player, it could very well be a matter of confidence too. Kotkaniemi has been playing much better since Ducharme took over but he fails in comparisons to the Scheifele, Crosby, Draisaitl, Matthews or Tavares of this division.
The team’s biggest need is, in my opinion, on defense. Since acquiring him, Weber has been paired with Schlemko, Alzner, Mete, Emelin, an aging and slower Markov, Emelin, Beaulieu, Benn, Morrow, Davidson, Kulak, Chiarot. Aside from Markov (at his best), none are top-pairing quality players. I’ve been vocal about Bergevin going hard for Mattias Ekholm, even overpaying a bit for his services. He still has one year left to his contract, which would allow to better develop Romanov. You protect him and expose both Chiarot and Edmundson. If the team loses one, you still have the other for your second pairing. Ultimately, Cam Fowler would be my target but… cap hit.
At center, Eric Staal is said to be available, although his faceoffs percentage has dropped this season. I would also like a guy like Ryan Getzlaf, who had some amazing years with Perry in Anaheim, but the salary cap will definitely prevent that from happening. Travis Zajac might not be as sexy of a name, but could be a good pick too. You could start them on the fourth line and move them up and down the line-up as needed.
It is my believe that with the changes and additions that they’ve made, the Canadiens cannot miss the playoffs this year and while the coaching change is still recent and the system isn’t fully switched over, the team needs a shot in the arm on the ice. Finally addressing the top pair on defense would go a long way. When that’s done, if Bergevin sees an opportunity, he could add a veteran present at center to help the kids out. But he cannot make all of those changes, coaching staff included, and not give his team a fair chance by addressing those needs. Go Habs Go!