By Ken Campbell
Over the past 24 hours, the Montreal Canadiens have added a 36-year-old winger who was too old and slow to play for one of the oldest and slowest teams in the NHL and a depth defenseman who was considered expendable by a middling defensive team. “At this moment, we want to stay in the race,” GM Marc Bergevin told reporters in Montreal in justifying his latest moves. “That’s why I made these moves.”
Please attempt to suppress your laughter. Chances are, the acquisitions of Ilya Kovalchuk and Marco Scandella will do almost nothing to move the needle for a team that is trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the third straight season and the fourth time in the past five. (Old-timey Canadiens fans: Attempt to read the previous paragraph without falling into a massive bout of depression.) If the Canadiens miss the playoffs this season, it will mark only the third time in the past 100 years that they’ve managed to be on the outside looking in three straight seasons. It would also set the table, of course, for them to miss the playoffs four straight seasons for the first time in the franchise’s NHL history.
The best thing that could be said about Bergevin’s moves to bolster his foundering team is that neither has compromised the future. To make room for Scandella, the Canadiens traded Mike Reilly to the Ottawa Senators for a 25-year-old prospect who was playing in the ECHL and a fifth-round pick that will likely amount to nothing. To get local boy Scandella, they dealt a fourth-round pick that will also likely amount to nothing. For Kovalchuk, they’ll endure a cap hit of $700,000 (and will actually pay him only half of that), a contract of which they can rid themselves at any time if Kovalchuk doesn’t work out. It really doesn’t get much lower-risk than that.
Bergevin has made a point of saying that he’s not willing to sacrifice any of the Canadiens’ future in order to make the playoffs this season and so far he has been true to his word. But let’s be realistic here. The Canadiens are six points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for third place in the Atlantic Division, with the Lightning on a five-game win streak and with two games in hand. At this point, getting into the playoffs as the third seed in the Atlantic Division is more likely than taking the last wildcard spot, one in which the Canadiens are seven points in arrears. Last season, it required 98 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, the same total it will likely take this season. The Canadiens have 42 points in 41 games. That means they’ll likely need a minimum of 56 points in their final 41 games (a points percentage of .683, substantially better than the .512 they posted in the first half) in order to even think about making the playoffs.
In actual fact, Bergevin might actually be harming his team’s long-term prospects by making these moves. If you’re going to make a move just to try to make the playoffs, there’s no problem with that. Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen basically did that last year with some of the boldest trade deadline moves in NHL history and it resulted in one playoff round victory, albeit a glorious one over the Presidents’ Trophy champions. If you’re going to do that, go out and get Taylor Hall. Or better yet, actually sign Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet that doesn’t make for the easiest decision in the world to match it.
Canadiens’ fans might not want to hear this, but the Habs are a losing streak away from being in the bottom five of the league. That might not get them the first or second overall pick and the opportunity to draft either Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield, but it at least gives them a shot. At the very least, their current trend downward would give them a top-10 pick in a draft that looks to be deep in top-end talent.
The only person who can orchestrate a tank in Montreal is Marc Bergevin. Claude Julien will not do it, nor will the players. That’s because they could not care less about draft picks. So you take it out of their hands and you continue to ice a lineup where Jordan Weal is on the first power play. (I remember having a conversation with an executive in 2015-16 who said he didn’t think it would be in Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello’s DNA to tank. I reminded him that Byron Froese was on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ second power play. “Well, you’ve got me there,” was his response.)
By getting Scandella and Kovalchuk, perhaps the Canadiens make themselves marginally better and if Carey Price gets his game in order and the roster gets healthy, maybe the Canadiens make a run for a playoff spot. But it’s more likely they miss, perhaps even by the two agonizing points they missed by last season. That puts them in no-man’s land and a little further behind in their rebuild.