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Montreal Canadiens Off-Season Report: Can they find a No. 1 centre?


This is not a rebuild.

The Montreal Canadiens aren’t stripping it down after a 28th-place finish in the NHL standings this past season. They aren’t firing head coach Claude Julien, they aren’t trading franchise goaltender Carey Price, and they aren’t moving top defenceman Shea Weber.

Knowing all of that is knowing general manager Marc Bergevin is under the gun to make the necessary changes to allow those three men to guide the Canadiens back to the Stanley Cup playoffs—and possibly through them—as early as next season. It’s knowing that if there isn’t a drastic improvement, Bergevin’s contract, which is set to expire in 2022, will likely be cut short.

There’s no time to spare on a reset.

There are gaping holes at centre and on defence, and Bergevin won’t have a better opportunity to fill them than this summer. The Canadiens have a fair amount of cap space, five picks in the first two rounds and 10 total in the upcoming NHL Draft, and they have some roster players who would be attractive to other teams.

The clock is ticking.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

Salary cap space: $12.4 million (Source: CapFriendly.com)

UFAs

Ales Hemsky, $1 million

RFAs

Logan Shaw, $650,000
Daniel Carr, $725,000
Jacob De La Rose, $725,000
Phillip Danault, $912,500

2018 draft picks: 1st, 2nd, 2nd (CHI), 2nd (TOR), 2nd (WSH), 3rd, 4th, 4th (EDM), 4th (WPG), 5th

Biggest off-season need

Same as last year, and the year before that, and the decade before that… The Canadiens desperately need help at centre.

Jonathan Drouin had a hard time in his first NHL season at the position, but he also showed real promise towards the end of it.

As of right now, the plan is to keep the 23-year-old at centre in 2018-19. If they’re going to get the best out of him, they’re going to need to insulate him by acquiring a centre who can play higher up the lineup.

Expect the Canadiens to also seek out depth at the position.

Another need is a left-shot defenceman who can serve as an adequate partner for Weber.

The team also needs to target a couple of puck-movers who can skate and create offence from the back end.

Possible off-season targets

John Tavares: It’s no secret the Canadiens are at the top of the list of teams interested in acquiring the 27-year-old superstar.

Tavares is a perennial point-per-game player in the prime of his career who can do it all and is at his best when the game is on the line — Tavares is capable of altering the complexion of a team in an instant.

That’s what would happen to the Canadiens if they land him via free agency, which is why it’s anticipated they’ll be willing to put a blank cheque in front of him when July rolls around.

There’s no indication yet what Tavares will do. We expect he’ll field offers, but all bets are off as to where he’ll choose to play for the next seven or eight years.

Consensus is that it will take a lot more than (a boatload of) money to entice him. Molson, Bergevin, Price, Weber and anyone else on the Canadiens will have to persuade him, and they’ll have to convince him he can win with Montreal in short order.

If Tavares doesn’t come to Montreal, here’s a list of centres the Canadiens might target:

Ryan O’Reilly: He’s got another five years at $7.5 million on the cap, but he’ll be paid $8.5 million in actual salary next year, then $6 million in each of the remaining four. A lot of money, no doubt.

But the 27-year-old has consistently produced between 55 and 65 points in each of the past five seasons and is a versatile centre who can play in all situations. He might just be worth it.

O’Reilly’s also looking like a strong candidate to move, with Jack Eichel as the established No. 1 and Casey Mittelstadt emerging as a star in the making.

And after O’Reilly shared his opinion on the state of the Sabres by suggesting they accepted a culture of losing, he might already have one foot out the door.

“It’s crept into all of our games. Yeah, it’s disappointing. It’s sad,” O’Reilly said on April 29, just two days after Buffalo finished one of its worst seasons in franchise history. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.”

Montreal could very well be the place O’Reilly rediscovers his passion, though it’s hard to anticipate what the cost of acquisition would be. One would think the Sabres would be interested in a young, talented forward who is already under contract.

We’ll see if the Canadiens would pony up to acquire O’Reilly’s services.

Other potential targets at centre: Paul Stastny, Winnipeg Jets (UFA), Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks (UFA), Tyler Bozak, Toronto Maple Leafs (UFA), and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (trade).

Noah Hanifin: Under normal circumstances a 21-year-old defenceman with all kinds of upside, and who was drafted fifth overall in 2015, would be completely off-limits. But under new owner Tom Dundon and new general manager Don Waddell, the Hurricanes have an all-bets-are-off feel to them right now. That could lead to Hanifin moving off a deep, young blue line in exchange for some help up front.

If you’re wondering what he’d do for the Canadiens, it’s fairly obvious he’d be a perfect fit with Weber. Hanifin is a smooth-skating lefty who’s sturdy in his own end and is just scratching the surface of what he can do offensively.

Other potential targets on defence: John Carlson, Washington Capitals (UFA), Tobias Enstrom, Winnipeg Jets (UFA), Oscar Klefbom, Edmonton Oilers (trade), Mike Green, Detroit Red Wings (UFA), Dan Hamhuis, Dallas Stars (UFA), Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets (UFA), Luca Sbisa, Vegas Golden Knights (UFA), Kevin Connauton, Arizona Coyotes (UFA).

Trade candidates

Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty is a year away from unrestricted free agency and is due a considerable raise on his $4.5 million cap hit after scoring at least 30 goals in each of the five seasons leading up to his disappointing 2017-18 campaign.

There are reports the Canadiens are discussing a contract extension with Pacioretty, but perhaps that’s purely for the purpose of creating cost certainty and increasing his value on the trade market.

The sense is that trading Pacioretty could be a conduit to improve at centre or on defence. Even if he inks a new deal on July 1—the first day he’s eligible to do so—don’t expect the rumours to die down.

Alex Galchenyuk is another player who could be changing addresses. The 24-year-old has had his name circulating in the rumour mill for the better part of two years, and he could prove very attractive considering his upside and manageable $4.9 million cap hit.

Galchenyuk took considerable strides in the second half of this season and appears to be on the verge of a real breakout. But so long as the Canadiens view him as a winger, the possibility will exist that they ship him out for help up the middle.

Other potential trade candidates: Jordie Benn (D), Mike Reilly (D), Andrew Shaw (F).



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June 12, 2018

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