It’s probably safe to say that come the trade deadline, the Habs are not going to be where Bergevin expected them to be when he took the job. Oh, of course there were reasons to be optimistic as for the Habs’ chances to at least avoid the lottery and not make the playoffs, but the Habs have combined an excellent puck possession game, a strong power play, and no small amount of favorable puck luck and find themselves leading the Northeast division a few days before the deadline.
Going after the Cup, and buying “rental” players for a run, is about odds. There’s no such thing as a sure Cup win, despite the many commentators already willing to award the Cup to the Penguins twelve games before the playoffs even start. You never know when the best player in the world might accidentally get a puck to the face, and that is but one of the myriad of ways fortune and unexpected events can affect the results. The playoffs are too much of a crapshoot, and even if at the start of the playoffs the best team in the league has the best odds to win the Cup, even it will always be a significant underdog against the rest of the field combined. All one can have at the trade deadline is a chance, and the chance will never be anywhere close to even 50%. What the GM needs to do is evaluate what the odds of his team of winning the Cup are; how much a rental player improve those odds; and whether the cost is worth the increase in odds. Like most GM decisions, buying rentals is a gamble, and it’s a gamble with better odds of failure than success. But the odds are almost always against any team winning the Cup, right up until the Cup finals begin. The job of a hockey general manager is making bets, and what makes a good general manager is the ability to make good bets based on where there teams are and what their odds are.
Which brings us to the Habs. Everything from the overall record to the underlying numbers, suggests a team with a real chance to contend for the Cup. At the time of this writing, behindthenet.ca places the Habs second only to the Kings in “Fenwick tied” — a metric that measures 5-on-5 shot and miss attempts for and against when the score is tied, and correlates closely with scoring chances. Other metrics similarly place the Habs in the same class as the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins; while they’ve benefitted from good fortune, the Habs’ strong play warrants their position near the top of the standings. The Habs are not a Cup favorite per se, but they are nonetheless part of a handful of teams with better odds than the rest.
This is the situation Bergevin finds his team in. He is on record as being unwilling to mortgage the club’s future, and with the team’s roster as young as it is, and prospects such as Tinordi and Beaulieu not looking out of place as they take their first steps in the NHL, his is a wise policy. At the same time, the Habs are one of the very best clubs in the league, and there is no guarantee that the club will do as well in the following years though, thanks to the club’s overall youth and Timmins’ excellent work, such a thing is certainly possible. Nevertheless, the Habs have a shot right now, this year, and unexpected though it may be, these shots don’t come every year; there’s a strong case to be made for the Habs to “go for it”. Just not at any price.
This is the dilemma facing Marc Bergevin as the trade deadline approaches; his club might be good enough for a run now, but he does not want to mortgage runs that will come in the near future. At the same time, he faces another problem: it may not be all that easy to improve the Habs. This isn’t because the team is too good, but rather it’s a function of how the team is built. A top heavy club like Pittsburgh, and to a lesser degree Boston, carried by their stars such as Crosby, Malkin or Chara, can be improved by adding middling to good players who will replace the team’s lesser lights. Meanwhile, the Habs are built in depth. Their strength is not so much in their stars (though they have them, and PK Subban certainly looks like a Norris candidate, which shouldn’t surprise anyone) as it is that they have strength throughout the lineup, with no real holes to speak of.
Were the Habs healthy, their lineup would look something like this:
If Bergevin were to acquire a rental, where would he want to upgrade? For example, if he were to acquire Ryane Clowe, one oft-bandied name, where would he fit? He’s likely no better than anyone in the top-9, possibly excepting Galchenyuk, and the Habs are unlikely to want to scratch the developing 19-year-old. Clowe might be an upgrade on the fourth line, but he does not really fit the fourth line’s defensive role, and the Habs already acquired Jeff Halpern, who fits the role like a glove.
Even Brendan Morrow wouldn’t be much of an upgrade. A player like Iginla obviously would be, but another rental of this caliber may not be available and even if he were, the price is likely to be prohibitive.
Likewise with the defense. Markov-Emelin, the team’s initial first pairing, have been relegated to second-pair duty because of the re-establishment of the Subban-Gorges as one of the elite first pairings in the league. The worst player of the six regular defensemen is Francis Bouillon. An upgrade there probably makes the most sense for the Habs, though it will take a better player than Douglas Murray to do it. And even then, Bouillon was recently extended; it’s doubtful the Habs did so so they could stash him in the pressbox before that extension even comes into force.
The Habs could acquire someone as injury insurance, but if that someone doesn’t improve the healthy lineup, they’d be acquiring a rental to stash them in the pressbox. It doesn’t seem like a wise use of resources. Of course, if Diaz or Bourque are going to be out long-term, replacing them becomes a valid use of rental players. But other than that, finding a rental who can actually upgrade the Habs is harder than it seems.
There is, however, another consideration that should play in the Habs’ trade deadline strategy, one that would keep the future in mind. Assuming an all-but-assured Kaberle amnesty buyout, the Habs will enter the next season with 18 players under contract and about 11 million available in free cap space. The UFA crop would seem to be quite barren this offseason; Mike Ribeiro is currently the highest-scoring UFA-to-be, and current Hab Michael Ryder would be third. Needless to say, as the third-wealthiest club in the league and coming off such an excellent season as this one, the Habs can unhesitatingly spend to the cap. They are going to have a fair amount of free space and, even assuming they re-sign Ryder, would have a fair chunk of cap space to add a signfiicant player.
Such a player, however, may not be available on the UFA market. The Habs could take their chances and hope that a desirable player becomes available via amnesty. But could they consider acquiring a player via trade now, or in the offseason, one who would not be a rental but would be a member of the club for next year, and possibly beyond? The Habs would be wise to take care to avoid excessive long-term entanglements with the contracts of three key defensemen, Subban, Emelin and Diaz, coming up for renewal after next season (Subban in particular is bound to receive a massive raise). But a player whose deal expires after season might be attractive to Montreal in a way that it might not be to cap-strapped contenders. Names such as Ales Hemsky and Marian Gaborik have been bandied about as possibly finding their way on the trade block; though the price for either is likely to be prohibitively high, Montreal certainly ought to at least inquire.
There are a lot of considerations for Bergevin to consider, and there are more options available to him than simply pursuing rentals. Standing pat is certainly not a bad move, and I urge Hab fans not to be disappointed if that is where Bergevin’s strategy takes him. Or he might simply add some depth as insurance for a playoff run. At the same time, Bergevin certainly has the chance to make an impactful move, for this year and for the future. I don’t think, however, that players such as Ryane Clowe are part of the right strategy for the Habs; a rental of this sort would represent only a small improvement (if at all) relative to the assets that such a move is likely to cost.