As recently as Saturday, despite an eight-game winless streak, the Canadiens were in a playoff position aided partly by the early season ineptitude of the Leafs and Lightning and a schedule that has had them play four more games than last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winner. Now that the losing streak is over and the Habs have won two of their last three, Marc Bergevin and his team will most likely stick their heads back in the sand and cross their fingers that this year’s edition – with its patchwork defence corps on the left side and dearth of elite offensive talent – will make the playoffs “where anything can happen”. Hopefully, that is not the plan.
Bergevin and company must choose a path, sooner rather than later. The Habs are not good enough to contend now. They have no elite offensive talent and the left side of their defence corps is a patchwork mess, as the recent injury to Victor Mete has made clear.
Most importantly, their talent cycle is badly out of sync. All teams have different levels of experience in their lineup. However, the best players on the roster are Carey Price (32), Shea Weber (34), and Jeff Petry (31). Due to a handful of good trades and a couple of good drafts, the team’s prospect pool is among the league’s best (Josh Brook, Alexander Romanov, Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki, Jesse Ylonen, Noah Juulsen, Lukas Vejdemo, Cale Fleury, Cayden Primeau, etc.). But these are still prospects or rookies whose prime is at least five years away. By that time, Price, Weber and Petry are finished.
In between, the Canadiens have some reasonable talent around the age of 25 or younger but very little between the ages of 25-30 (with the exception of Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher). This is the inevitable consequence of the failure of Bergevin and his pals (Trevor Timmins, Sylvain Lefebvre and J.J. Daigneault to name three) failing to draft and develop prospects of any significance for about five years.
The Canadiens are at a crossroads and everyone who follows the team knows it. It is also clear that Bergevin’s interest and the club’s long term interests are not aligned. If the Canadiens miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, there will be tremendous pressure on Geoff Molson to fire his GM. That said, any move that Bergevin makes to improve the Canadiens’ playoff chances this year will most likely compromise the prospect pool that has been built over the last few years.
After over twenty-five years of mediocrity, the Canadiens need a contender. They are not going to achieve that as a middling team in a thirty-one (soon to be thirty-two) team league in a salary cap environment. The path to contention is clear and it likely means Marc Bergevin will have to fall on his sword to get the job done. Sooner rather than later, the Canadiens should be fielding offers for their top players (including the great Carey Price and the estimable Shea Weber) so they can build a contender sometime in the next five to ten years. It means there will be no playoffs in the very short term. However, without these moves, their near term future will look much the same as the past twenty-five years.