The New York Rangers’ front office recently published an open letter to their fans to explain that they were staging a fire sale to jump-start their rebuild. It was a gutsy move by Blueshirts’ GM Jeff Gorton and Team President Glen Sather, and it didn’t take long for the story to reach L’Antichambre’s taupe studios in Montreal, where the panel, led by François Gagnon, picked it up and ran with it. The common refrain? If the Rangers, who sit ahead of the Canadiens in the standings, can be up front with their fans about their future plans, then why not the Canadiens?
Amid the ongoing chatter, not a peep from Geoff Molson or the Canadiens’ brass. But that hasn’t stopped the media from speculating wildly ahead of the February 26 trade deadline. Shea Weber to Toronto for William Nylander, a first-rounder and a warm body; Max Pacioretty to St. Louis for prized prospect Robert Thomas (in your dreams); the entire Canadiens’ defence minus Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Victor Mete for a second-round pick and a bag of pucks.
There will be no such missive issued to fans in Montreal anytime soon—that’s not how the Canadiens roll. The future, if you’re a Habs fan, is shrouded in mystery, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. The veil of secrecy will only be lifted after the changes come (presuming they’re on the way) and the team holds a carefully stage-managed press conference to lay out its vision for the future. In the unfortunate event that Molson decides to stand by his man beyond this season rather than hand him his walking papers, a beleaguered but ever dapper Marc Bergevin will do anything but take the fall for the team’s player evaluation and development woes, citing injuries and a failure on the part of uniformed hockey personnel to perform up to expectation.
I could be wrong: the Habs’ brass could surprise us by following suit—and they wouldn’t be the first: not to be outdone, Vancouver Canucks’ President Trevor Linden issued a letter of his own to fans this week, and others could follow.
My guess is that the Canadiens’ rebuild will be more like a retrofit: Carey Price and Weber (at least for now) aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, courtesy of their all but untradeable contracts—which leaves Pacioretty, Andrew Shaw and Tomas Plekanec as the only core pieces likely to be on the move, if not now then during the offseason. Hardly the stuff that rapid rebuilds are made of.
Six months on, the decision to sign Price to a maximum-term deal is looking like it may have been premature. While I understand the desire to get a deal done during the offseason, a more prudent approach might have been to wait just a little longer, till late October, a mere ten games into the year, as the wheels had already fallen off by then—in part because of Price’s less than stellar play. Had they waited, the Habs, by now, might be presiding over a fire sale for the ages.
Not so. The rebuild may well be slower and more painful for the Habs than it will be for the Rangers or Canucks, because like it or not, the team is stuck with a pair of aging core players on bad contracts who might have formed the cornerstones of a bona fide rebuild before and after this season’s trade deadline.
On the ice, meanwhile, the Habs, with just over 20 games to play, look like a team content to play out the string—much to the growing dismay of Claude Julien. The loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, in particular, marked a new low in the Habs’ compete level, with the players taking their cue from Captain Pacioretty.
And it will get uglier. So buckle in, folks, the race to the bottom, it seems, has begun in earnest.