My, how things could unravel so quickly. This has been a roller-coaster season for the Canadiens, who got off to the best start in franchise history at 9-0. Things suffered a bit of a hiccup when Carey Price first went down with a minor injury and wound up missing seven games. It didn't prove to be of major significance, as the Habs set out to prove they were more than a Carey Price team. They went 5-2-2 in his initial absence, so they still found themselves in great shape when Price made his return prior to a home-and-home against the New York Islanders. Price came in and won both games, albeit looking a little sluggish. Price then suffered the same injury as his initial one in a showdown with the New York Rangers and this time, the Habs said his lower body injury would be a minimum of a six week recovery.
It now looks like that recovery will be more like three months minimum, as Bergevin said in a news conference with the media this week that Price isn't expected back for another three to four weeks (new minimum). With the Habs already out of a playoff spot at the moment after they were no.1 in the East when Price went down on November 26, it's starting to look like a lost season for Montreal.
There's no way this team is contending for a Stanley Cup without Price and nobody knows if he'll be able to come back at all this year, much less come back and show his MVP form of last year. Price's injury has exposed many problems with this team that pundits and fans long suspected. It's clear there's much more work to be done before this team can raise a 25th Stanley Cup banner at the Bell Centre.
GM Marc Bergevin has given an emphatic vote of confidence to his coach Michel Therrien, so firing him won't be an entry on this list. Bergevin said the blame should fall on him, so we're going to put the next 12 goals on his shoulders. This is easier said than done, but he has to figure out a way to do these things if the team will be a true Stanley Cup contender.
12 Determine the Untouchables and Build Around Them
This isn't so much an action, but it is something that Bergevin has to determine. Who are the guys that you won't ever consider moving? Who are the guys you absolutely must build this team around for the years to come? The obvious three are Carey Price, P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty. Who are the others? Brendan Gallagher might very well be, as he's the only top-six right winger on the team, although he'd ideally be on a second line. Is Alex Galchenyuk in that category? He's the only guy on the roster with potential to be a top-line centre, but Bergevin has to determine if he's here to stay or if he's the asset that would get the most return in a trade for a top forward.
11 Don't Rush Contract Extensions
What was the rush in extending Tomas Plekanec? Sure, he was in a contract year and he got off to a terrific start to this season, but Plekanec always gets off to amazing starts. Plekanec scored five goals in the month of October this year, but those numbers dipped to two in November, one in December and one so far in January. He had 24 points in the first two months, but only has 10 in the last two. He was given a two-year extension in mid-October worth $12 million. That's already looking taxing on the team.
Michel Therrien was extended for four years after a trip to the Conference Finals in 2014, so he seems to be safe, no matter what happens the rest of the year.
It's one thing to show loyalty, but the Habs can't over-commit. Why did they rush to sign Plekanec, but made Subban go to arbitration two years ago?
10 Instill a Mentality that isn't overly-reliant on Carey Price
This may be something that the coaching staff has to instill in the players, but it's something management has to trickle down from the top. Right now the Habs are built in a way that it's only natural for the team to feel their chances of winning start and end with Carey Price. The team only has four of six legitimate top-six players; Pacioretty, Gallagher, Plekanec and Galchenyuk. As a result, they've been starved for offensive talent the last couple of years, so of course they feel winning games 2-1 on the back of their goalie is their best chance. Without Price, we've seen the results of a team that has grown to rely on their goaltending too much.
9 Stop Looking for the Home Run for Pennies
Reports were the Canadiens swung and missed on Justin Williams in free agency (turns out he made a heck of a choice by signing with Washington), they couldn't get a trade done for Patrick Sharp or for T.J. Oshie. They went to the bottom of the barrel in free agency, signing declining forward Alex Semin to a one-year, $1.1 million contract.
Two offseasons ago, they tried Daniel Briere on a two-year deal, in hopes he could revitalize his career with his hometown team. When that didn't work, they flipped Briere for P.A. Parenteau the next offseason. After a disappointing year in Montreal, where the coaching staff didn't show much faith in Parenteau, he was bought out in the summer.
It's time for the Canadiens be more aggressive in their pursuit of acquiring a player and not just hoping for a home run on a bargain deal.
8 Avoid Temptation to Overpay Impending UFAs
The Canadiens have five impending UFAs this offseason; Tom Gilbert, Dale Weise, Paul Byron, Tomas Fleischmann and Ben Scrivens. While we can already assume several of them won't be back in 2016-17, the ones where the Habs must resist overpaying are for Dale Weise, whose strong start to this season upped his value and Paul Byron, who has put up tremendous numbers for someone picked up off waivers.
Weise carried a cap hit of $1.025 million this year, but at one point in November was on par with Max Pacioretty for most goals. Since then, Weise's production has dipped as expected, but he's still often used in situations where the team is looking for scoring, which could up his asking price.
Byron is a tremendous asset on the bottom six for his speed, but he can't be paid like a top-six forward. He's at his best when he's able to exploit slower defencemen on third pairings. The Habs have to restrain themselves from overpaying for third-liners who have been thrust into top six roles.
7 Save Cap Space Where Possible
The Canadiens have a lot of money tied up to their blueline, while Carey Price, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher are on cap friendly deals, considering what they bring to the team. Some guys though, are paid a little more than they're worth and with Bergevin needing to acquire top end talent for his team, he needs some flexibility on the cap. The Habs are low on cap space, with just $1.15 million to spare, according to Spotrac. Someone like Lars Eller is paid nearly as much as Gallagher, with two years left at a $3.5 million cap hit. Ditto for David Desharnais, albeit with one full season left. We don't know what the market is for players like these, but the Habs have to explore it to make room for top-end players.
6 Find Andrei Markov's Replacement
It's clear Andrei Markov simply can't handle the workload anymore of a top-pairing defenceman, much less when the Habs need a partner for P.K. Subban. Markov can fill spot duty occasionally, but the Habs have to find someone to fill the role Markov no longer can. The Habs either have to explore a trade for Markov in the offseason (his deal expires in 2017) or manage his minutes better from this point forward. In the meantime, they have to make a commitment to either Jeff Petry or Nathan Beaulieu for a spot on the top pairing.
5 Add Players With a Winning Background
The Habs' goal is to win a Stanley Cup, but here's a slight hindrance; no player on the roster has ever won a Stanley Cup. It'd be great for the team to find someone who knows what it takes to get there and that can help the team get in the right mindset. Some impending UFAs the Habs could target with Stanley Cup pedigree include Andrew Ladd, Eric Staal or Troy Brouwer. Whoever they decide to sign, having someone with the experience of going all the way could help a team that hasn't made it out of the East.
4 Identify Declining Assets
Bergevin has said he's not interested in mortgaging the future for rental players to salvage this season. He wants to make trades that will help the Habs in the short and long term. I agree with that reasoning, but that also means Bergevin has to make a tough call on who his declining assets are and who could fetch him the most return in a trade. If you're not trading core players or young, developing players, you have to trade someone, right? There are plenty of teams who would like veteran help, so it's something the Habs must explore.
3 Make a Roster-Shaking Trade
The last Canadiens player that was traded who had played a significant role on the team was Brandon Prust. The Habs essentially traded him for Ben Scrivens, as the return of Zack Kassian is what eventually brought Scrivens to Montreal. Whoever the Habs have traded in recent years has tended not to be anyone major off their roster, meaning they're not going to get significant return on trades.
Last year, the Habs got Devante Smith-Pelly while giving up on Jiri Sekac midway through his first season. Jeff Petry, Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn were all acquired without the Habs giving up a roster player. Jarred Tinordi was recently traded but was never playing anyway.
The Habs will have to make a trade that lands them a significant piece and that will only happen if somebody off the current roster is sent somewhere else.
2 Determine the no.1 Centre
Let's face it, if Carey Price isn't back in another month, this is a lost season. At that point, the Canadiens have to spend the rest of the season giving Alex Galchenyuk minutes from the top centre spot. No more shifting him to the wing, no more playing second fiddle to Tomas Plekanec. We don't know how much say Bergevin gives in playing time, but this should be an order to come down on Therrien and the coaching staff.
If their jobs are indeed safe. take this time to see Galchenyuk play a top role and determine if he is in fact your no.1 centre of the future. At least then, you can either determine whether you have to look elsewhere or if you build a top six around Galchenyuk.
1 Find a Top-Six Winger
Bergevin has repeatedly said how difficult it is to make trades, but at a certain point, you have to get the job done. The Stars acquired Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp in successive offseasons, so it's not impossible. It's understandable if Bergevin doesn't want to rush a trade midseason, but this coming summer is a defining moment for Bergevin. If the Habs remain status quo, they'll just continue to be over-reliant on Price and keep spinning their wheels to early playoff exits.
You can't win a Stanley Cup without a legitimate no.1 centre and you sure can't win a Cup if only four forwards on the team are legitimate top-six forwards.
Something has to give here.