The Montreal Canadiens are one of just three teams that have already hit the 20-game benchmark this season. Their campaign is already a quarter complete – and they have 12 points to show for it. The reigning Stanley Cup finalists are tied for 31st in the NHL with a .300 record in what can only be described as a nightmare start to the year. The team is spending beyond the salary cap on a roster chock full of long-term contracts for players in the primes of their careers. They certainly did not expect to be in this spot, especially after last season’s playoff success. So where do the Canadiens go from here?
There are essentially three schools of thought when a team reaches a crossroads during the season, and that point in time does not need to be the trade deadline. They can buy, they can sell, or they can stand pat. All three strategies have merit, but the Habs would be wise to pick one and stick to it this season.
The team could certainly try to fight their way out of this funk. It would not be the first time in Montreal history that an underperforming team found a way to turn it around and make the playoffs only to hit their stride in the postseason. The Canadiens just made a surprise run last season and, at least on paper, have the pieces to do it again. As bad as the team has been so far this season, there has to be regression to the mean coming for their numerous talented scorer and stout defenders, right? There is also the potential for a Carey Price return and improved health across the roster to bring a boost to the team. However, if the plan is to compete then Montreal cannot just wait around for a spark. They need to shake up the roster and make a notable addition or two in the near future. It’s certainly a risk, but the reward for the team and its fans alike is the end to their current misery.
On the other hand, the team could look upward at the steep hill they have to climb and go in the opposite direction. The Atlantic Division is arguably the strongest in the NHL and it isn’t getting any easier any time soon. If the Habs’ current roster can perform this poorly, then they likely won’t be competitive in the Atlantic moving forward, never mind this season. A name like Brendan Gallagher or Tyler Toffoli or even Jeff Petry (though his appeal has taken a major hit) could draw a significant trade return to help the Canadiens re-tool and look toward the future. It would be a disappointing turn following last season’s success, but could be the right call given their struggles. The bright silver lining to tanking of course is remaining in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick and consensus top prospect Shane Wright. Wright could be a top line center and perhaps even a franchise player for the Canadiens and removing as much talent from their roster as is reasonably possible will help them stay at the bottom of the league standings and boost their odds in the draft lottery.
The final option is to do nothing. It actually has the potential benefits of either loading up or blowing it up, but requires no action at all. It could be the perfect plan for the Canadiens, given GM Marc Bergevin is expected by many to depart after this season, if not sooner. Rather than let Bergevin make moves in a futile attempt to save his job or impress future employers, Montreal could choose to just ride the season out. There is enough talent on the roster that they could turn the season around without making any moves. They also might never break out of their slump and remain in contention for the top draft spot. The latter could be helped along by making some easy deals like trading the expiring contracts of Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak, Artturi Lehkonen, Cedric Paquette, or Mathieu Perreault without doing anything earth-shattering. Of course, doing nothing runs the risk of achieving neither goal. The Canadiens are better than their current .300 record, but they likely aren’t good enough to crack the Eastern Conference playoff picture either, especially with this deficit. They could end up outside the postseason and with poor lottery odds. Standing pat also leaves fans with little guidance as to the teams direction in the short-term or the long-term. However, sometimes the right move in a disappointing season is just to call it and try again next year rather than do more damage by overreacting.
What do you think? Are the Habs good enough to get back to relevance this year if they can shake up the roster? Are they as bad as they have looked and need to start the rebuild now? Or is this just a fluke of a season that deserves to be forgotten with an eye on a fresh start next year?