Filling Roles Should be Canadiens Focus At the Deadline

The Montreal Canadiens have enjoyed an excellent season so far, a strong revival after missing the playoffs last season. They are merely 3 points from first overall in the Eastern Conference and with that have come thoughts of the team possibly challenging for the Stanley Cup.
Many have felt that the Habs are a top forward away from truly being cup contenders and are really hoping GM Bob Gainey makes a big splash at the trade deadline.

However, its really the smaller parts that the Habs need to fill in order to have the kind of team that can play against all styles and opponents during a long playoff run.

They have the goaltending. Cristobal Huet has been terrific and as long as he can stay healthy, he is who the Habs will pretty much ride to the end. I think they will need Jaroslav Halak and/or Carey Price to step in and be able to give Huet a breather. Huet has been known to break down and get hurt and thus it is imparative the Habs keep their top goalie fresh. But, they have depth here and no additions will be needed prior to February 26th.

Their D is very good as they have a solid big 3 with Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek and Roman Hamrlik. They are lacking depth behind them however. It looks like the team has loads of depth with 2 of their blueliners, Mathieu Dandenault and Mark Streit playing up front regularly and Josh Gorges and Francis Bouillon providing decent play as the 3rd pair. The team needs a steady reliable defenceman to supplant their big 3 and help eat up minutes. Their PK has not been that great, so someone on the backend to help along those lines would be preferable. Also, if this player could add another physical presence to help Komisarek that would be an added bonus.

There are a very limited amount of sellers out there looking to trade away defencemen. So the choices are rather limited but there are a few bodies out there that could be had that could really help Montreal. But here are 3 players who could fill a need for the Canadiens:
  • Steve Staois – (cap hit of 2.9 million for next 3 seasons) He carries a pretty rich deal at almost 3 million over the next 3 seasons which is plenty for a player his age. But he is a player who can play a ton of minutes and help a team in all types of situations. He has invaluable experience which would be another asset for a young team.
  • Karlis Skrastins – (cap hit of 2.4 million through next season) He is a hard working gritty performer who would add some sandpaper to the backend. He can play big minutes if necessary but would just be a guy to add depth and help the PK. The former NHL ironman has struggled with injuries of late which is a concern.
  • Brad Stuart – (UFA at end of season) Stuart would be a pure rental which would be attractive in terms of cap space for upcoming seasons. He has the size and willingness to play physical, yet has offence to fit into how the Habs play. He also can play 30 minutes if necessary.
Up front, the concern expressed from the media and the fans is that the Habs do not have enough scoring at even strength. That is true as they have been outscored 5 on 5 so far this year but offence is not a big issue.

Skill is in large supply in Montreal. Alex Kovalev has been nothing short of terrific. He leads the team in all offensive categories and has been a huge key to keeping the Habs among the best in terms of the powerplay. But his best asset has been making whomever he has played with better.

Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn have reaped the benefits playing on his line and with the likes of Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins, Sergei Kostitsyn, Bryan Smolinski, Michael Ryder and Guilluame Latendresse, there is plenty of skill in this lineup. Yes, finding someone to bury some even strength chances would be a boost to the lineup, but there are far more greater needs here for the team.

Simply put the Habs are soft. They are willing, but simply not gritty or tough enough to withstand a physical pounding. Some big phyical players who can play regular shifts are exactly what the Habs need (preferably a centre who can win faceoffs). In a 7 game series, the Habs would be prone to getting worn down physically. And no the answer does not lie within. Steve Begin, Tom Kostopolous, Kyle Chipchura, Latendresse, Max Lapierre, these guys for sure can play a gritty game, but these are not players coach Guy Carbonneau can lean on a regular basis.

The team could use a boost in terms of size, experience, grit, leadership and defensive play up front and there are players there for the taking.
  • Chris Gratton (UFA at seasons end) – Gratton is exactly the type of player Montreal could use. He is an excellent faceoff man which could fill a huge void, but his best asset is his size and willingness to play rough. He also has the skillset to mesh well with the Habs speedy, talented forwards. If necessary he could play the wing as well. His versatility would be a real boost for Carbonneau in terms of matching up against teams with physical top end forwards.
  • Bobby Holik (UFA at seasons end) – Holik is a leader who knows how to win. He could mesh well with a very Euro heavy dressing room. He is that big checking centre who has proven in the past that he can be a shutdown guy. And he is exactly the dirty, in your face player who could add a different element to the team.
  • Martin Lapointe (UFA at seasons end) – Long rumoured to come to Montreal, Lapointe is another gritty hard nosed forward with championship experience. He is past his prime, but he could fill in that role that Brad May filled for the champion Ducks. It was the only move Anaheim made at the deadline but it gave them a spare part very capaable of filling in on the top 3 lines. Lapointe would be that kind of player for Montreal and someone who has scored big playoff goals in the past.
These are just 3 players who could help Montreal in a big way. One of the reasons they have struggled at home is because teams are able to run over the Habs at the Bell Centre due to the team’s softness. Getting a couple of forwards like those above would increase team toughness. They dont need a brawler or a policeman, they need someone who can fill in many roles but the key one being a guy willing to mix it up and keep teams honest. We saw how physically wearing down a team was key in the Ducks winning the cup last year. Its an element Gainey needs to bring into his team for the long playoff grind.

While it is sexier to acquire a Olli Jokinen or a Marian Hossa or a Dan Boyle or a Peter Forsberg and make a big deadline move, its sometimes the smaller moves, the ones that add key depth and fill in key roles that sometimes makes the difference.

I dont think it is a good idea for the Habs, not even one year removed from missing the playoffs to tinker all that much or dip too heavily into their large number of good young players. The team should be allowed to grow together and the only way to do so is to give it time.

The team has some tradeable parts.
  • Michael Ryder needs to go. He has struggled and is a UFA at seasons end. He has been benched
    by Carbonneau and is basically a one dimensional scorer who cannot score. He needs a fresh start. The Habs are likely to get very little in return but who knows. There could be a team out there desperate for scoring enough to give up a high pick or a prospect.
  • Jaroslav Halak is Montreal’s most popular goalie ever. Popular in the sense the media and fans want to get rid of him. He is a good goalie prospect, but as we have seen this year, the goalie market is practically non-existent. If a top end guy like Ilya Bryzgalov had no takers and was forced to be waived, no team will pay up a top 6 forward or top 3 blueliner for Halak or a package that centres around Halak.
  • There has been some feeling that the team could move one of their many blueline bodies for help up front. In the playoffs, you really cannot have enough defencemen and if they keep them around, even if it means Streit and Dandenault playing up front, so be it.
  • Of the teams young players, the hot names teams want are the likes of Price, Chipchura, the Kostitsyns, Higgins, Ryan McDonaugh or Max Pacioretty. If I were Bob Gainey, I would listen and maybe get interested if the talks centred around acquiring a top line forward or a top pair blueiner that is not a rental. If the Habs wanted such a player they will have no choice but to dip into their youth and trade off one of their better young assets. For example, if they were interested in Vincent Lecavalier, the Habs would at least have to give up one of Higgins or Price. Anything less would be a non-starter.
  • They have some attractive youth they could part with. The Habs could move players like PK Subban, Mathieu Carle, Mikael Grabovski, Alexander Perezhogin, Alexei Emelin and/or some high draft picks, but that would only be for rentals or solid role players like the ones mentioned above. It is sometimes laughable at some of the rumours spread around by the media and fans in Montreal but I guess thats a by-product of teams overvaluing the players they have.
So here we have a team with some needs, some players available to them to acquire and some players they have to make available for trade. Therefore there is good potential for Bob Gainey to do something by the deadline. However he will be fighting with like 25 other teams who are currently still in the thick of the playoff race with needs themselves to fill. It will be interesting to see what the Canadiens do over the next 3 weeks.