Rabid Habs

Something’s Got to Give for Habs this Offseason

David Desharnais Photo Credit - Canoe.ca

With the draft behind us and free agency underway, Marc Bergevin has been hard at work rounding out his team and keeping a close eye on the Habs’ annual development camp. As Bergevin works to improve the Habs, the lack of subtractions as the offseason continues has become concerning. Even when Bergevin shocked Habs fans when sending Brandon Prust to Vancouver, he still added another body in Zack Kassian in an even one-for-one swap creating no wiggle room on the ice at Centre Bell. Overcrowding is not an issue unique to the Habs’ forward core, as the backend could afford to drop a body or two after Greg Pateryn and Nathan Beaulieu signed their contracts and restricted free agent Jarred Tinordi patiently awaits his.

To further analyze the issue, the Canadiens’ depth on the blue line and up the middle should be taken into account. I will begin with the Habs defense.

Bread and Butter

It is no secret that the success of the Canadiens defense is attributed to league MVP Carey Price. On a team that was first in the league in goals against (2.24 GA/GM), Price shouldered the load for the Canadiens defensively and made up for lackluster play. The Canadiens’ blue line currently has these players under contract:

Andrei Markov, P.K. Subban, Alexei Emelin, Jeff Petry, Nathan Beaulieu, Tom Gilbert, Greg Pateryn, Mark Barberio

That leaves two defensemen in the press box and Tinordi without a contract as of yet. The writing is on the wall for at least one Habs blue liner, but I would like to think that at least two are on their way out of Montreal, the first being Alexei Emelin.

The logical reason to expect an Emelin trade is that Bergevin has made this move before. After the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Bergevin shocked Habs fans by trading heart-and-soul ironman Josh Gorges to the Buffalo Sabres for a 2nd round pick. At the time of the trade, Gorges was 29 years old and set to make $3.9 million in the upcoming season. Emelin is 29 years old and is set to make $3.9 million, $4.2 million, and $4.4 million over the next three seasons respectively.

Aside from Emelin’s bloated contract, his play has been far from stellar. Amongst Canadiens to play the entire season with the club, Emelin held the team’s second lowest Corsi-for-% behind seldom-used Mike Weaver and qualifies as a bottom pairing defenseman according to his HERO chart. With that being said, number 74 still participated in 68 games this season, playing nearly 17 minutes per game. However, Emelin has not played well enough to secure a roster spot for next season with younger players proving they are ready for larger roles while impressing in limited ice time. In less than 20 games played, both Tinordi and Pateryn finished 4th and 2nd on the team in Corsi-for-percentages. From a both a financial standpoint and a competitive standpoint, Emelin is no longer a smart option for the Habs.

The second trade scenario that could free up space on the blue line would be moving Tom Gilbert. With one year left on a $2.8 million contract, he might be the more attractive option to teams knocking on Marc Bergevin’s door. Despite his early-season struggles, Gilbert improved his game down the stretch and into the playoffs when paired with Beaulieu. In the regular season, Gilbert played his way to a 45.74 Corsi-for % but when paired with Beaulieu in the playoffs, Gilbert improved to a 50.42 Corsi-for % according to war-on-ice.com. Because Gilbert dramatically improved upon being paired with Beaulieu, it is easy to say that Beaulieu was the source of Gilbert’s resurgence and is therefore expendable.

Room for Improvement

While those moves might free up a couple spaces on the back end, there is still a log jam down the middle. At the moment, the Habs’ have the following centers under contract:

Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller, Jacob De La Rose, and Torrey Mitchell, with Alex Galchenyuk yet to be signed and confirmed as a center. With Galchenyuk lining up down the middle, as he should, the Habs would have six centers.

Right now, the easiest move would be to move De La Rose to the wing on the third line. As a defensive specialist, De La Rose could be very valuable in a penalty killing and shut-down role. While this move might be best for both the Habs and De La Rose, it still leaves five potential centers with only four spots.
I will go on record saying that the Canadiens should not and will not trade Tomas Plekanec. He is one of the most underrated players in the league, playing in all situations and remaining a perennial 50-60 point player. As an impending UFA at the end of the 2015-16 season, Plekanec will look to improve his value, but I don’t see a scenario where Plekanec leaves Montreal.

Then there is the enigma that is Lars Eller. I will go on record as saying that I thought Eller was as good as gone at the trade deadline. After his linemate, Jiri Sekac, was traded, Eller had a horrendous regular season and just could not seem to find a niche on the Habs roster. However, much like the 2014-15 season, Eller found his game in the playoffs as he chipped in offensively and was a monster along the wall, winning puck battles. With all that being said, I think it is time Eller is given a larger role.

This complicates the issue even further, as the Habs have three defined number two centers, but lack a true number one. I do not anticipate Bergevin acquiring a top line center this offseason when Galchenyuk is the answer as the Habs number one center. Otherwise, the prices are just too high and Montreal would need to blow up their farm and prospect system.

With all centers being considered, I think it is time that the Canadiens sent hometown hero David Desharnais packing. Overused and misused as the Habs number one center, Desharnais has two more years on his contract that will pay him $3.5 million each season. This amount seems to be a bit much for a guy that plays regularly with Habs sniper Max Pacioretty and net-hungry, Energizer bunny Brendan Gallagher and only puts up 48 points. Desharnais has absolutely no defensive aspect to his game and is one of the most sheltered players on the Canadiens roster. Desharnais started over 17 more offensive zone starts than defensive zone starts per game, according to war-on-ice.com. Even with Desharnais practically living in the offensive zone at even strength, he only managed 48 points. I find it hard to believe that Bergevin feels comfortable with his number one center accumulating only 48 points.

With all that has been said, I do not think Bergevin is done for the summer, but I do not anticipate any ground breaking roster moves. Bergevin likes where his team is, but should understand that there are more players on the roster than roster spots at the moment.

Follow me on Twitter @ihabs1995.