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Rebuild or re-tool: The Canadiens should tear it all down

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At this point in the season there are really only seven or eight teams that you can safely say are out of the playoff race.

The Montreal Canadiens, sitting nine points out of a Wild Card spot and in 14th place out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, are almost certainly one of those teams.

The entire season has been a disaster on the ice.

Carey Price, the most important player and perhaps most important person in the organization, has had an uncharacteristically down year. The Canadiens have proven over the past few years that they only go as he goes, and when he is not one of the top-five goalies in the league their chances of success are virtually zero.

Shea Weber, the team’s best defenseman, has been limited to just 26 games this season due to injury, and even when he has played the team is only 10-13-3. That means they actually have a better record, 9-9-3, when he doesn’t play.

Max Pacioretty, the team’s best forward (and still one of the best bargains in the NHL under the salary cap) went through one of the worst goal droughts of his career in the middle of the season. He has since snapped out of it in a big way, but his struggles still hurt.

We still don’t really know how good Alex Galchenyuk is, and neither, it seems, do the Canadiens. He hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t really taken a big step forward, either. He’s a good, but not great player. Maybe this is what he is?

Jonathan Drouin, their biggest acquisition of the offseason, has spent the season playing out of position (something that has hurt him by the Canadiens’ own admission) and currently has fewer goals and points on the season (seven and 22) than the 19-year-old rookie defenseman he was traded for (Mikhail Sergachev has eight goals and 27 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning). That’s not to say the trade can’t ever work in the future, but if this is what you expected from him this season you’re lying.

There is probably more — there is definitely more — but those five developments alone are enough to sabotage an entire season for any team.

Now the Canadiens and general manager Marc Bergevin are left with the difficult task of trying to figure out how to fix it. According to Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts column Bergevin is looking to be active ahead of the trade deadline, and that outside of Price, Weber, Drouin and 19-year-old defenseman Victor Mete they would probably listen on anyone.

There seems to be some debate as to what it should be called — a rebuild, a re-tooling, something else — but the end result should be the same: The Canadiens should probably burn it all to the ground.

Here’s the problem with the way the Canadiens are currently constructed: They not only have some devastating flaws, from not having a No. 1 center, to being overly dependent on their goalie, to having an older and expensive defense, but it’s hard to see a path that will enable them to quickly turn it around fast enough to still be able to win with the core they have committed to.

Starting next season Price’s new $10.5 million per year contract kicks in. That will run alongside the $7.8 million per year price tag that Weber will carry for another nine seasons. After next season Pacioretty — assuming he has not been traded by then — will be playing on a new contract that will probably be paying him close to double what he is making now.

I am generally all for teams spending big bucks on their core.

The concerns over teams committing too much salary cap space to a small handful of players are almost always overblown because the teams that win Stanley Cups all do it. They have to do it.

But the Canadiens’ roster construction is a little different than the teams that have won Stanley Cups with that sort of roster construction. Most teams are paying that money to players (usually forwards — and specifically centers) that are still in their mid-20s or still closer to the prime of their careers.

Starting next season the Canadiens are going to be paying more than $18 million to a 33-year-old defenseman and a 31-year-old goalie through the end of the 2025-26 season.

No other team in the league has built its core around similar players. Certainly no successful team.

[Marc Bergevin a firm believer Canadiens can turn season around]

Bad news, folks: No matter how great Weber and Price have been in their careers, they are going to start slowing down and perhaps even breaking down. Their best hockey is probably in the rear view mirror. And again, the best forward on the team is going to need a new contract within the next year, at which point he, too, will be over the age of 30.

They have six defensemen under contract for next season (at more than $23 million in combined salary) and only one of them will be under the age of 30 (Victor Mete will be 20).

This is a team that this season is giving up more than 32 shots on goal per game. This is a team that is giving up 60 total shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Both place them in the bottom half of the league. In other words, it is already a mediocre at best defensive team and it’s not likely to get much better with the current cast of characters because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is what they are.

In his 31 Thoughts column Friedman mentioned the Colorado Avalanche and their turnaround as a reason as to why the Canadiens don’t want to use the word “rebuild,” and that it’s possible to turn things around quickly. And that’s fair. But are the really a lot of parallels here between this Canadiens team and the Avalanche? Is Jonathan Drouin capable of becoming a potential scoring champion and MVP next season the way Nathan MacKinnon is? Does Montreal have a Mikko Rantanen ready to break out? Are they going to pluck an Alexander Kerfoot out of free agency and get an immediate impact? Then there is this: Even with a 10-game winning streak and all of the things just mentioned, Colorado is still only a fringe playoff team more than halfway through the season and far from a lock to actually make the playoffs.

There just doesn’t seem to be a lot here to inspire much confidence that a sudden turnaround is right around the corner.

Sure, Carey Price could very easily rebound and return to form next season, but even if he does that only puts the Canadiens right back to where they were in recent years — a flawed team that has to rely on its goalie to carry them.

That recipe won the Canadiens one playoff series the previous three seasons and only got them out of the first round twice in seven years.

If you’re willing to even consider trading a player like Pacioretty at this point, what’s the point of keeping Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron, or really anyone else on the roster?

This team probably needs more than just a few tweaks here and there. It needs core players. It needs young core players.

It is not a great spot to be in, and the Canadiens really shouldn’t take any half measures. They need to go all in in one direction. Given the makeup of the roster the most sensible direction at this point would seem to be to just put up a for sale sign in the front yard.

Then comes the big question: Do you trust the current front office to actually orchestrate that type of rebuild? This roster pretty much belongs entirely to Bergevin. The only players that predate his time as general manager are Pacioretty, Price, Gallagher and Galchenyuk. The rest of it, including the defense, belong to him.

He brought you here, Montreal. Can he get you out of it?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Bolts send Devils packing, Caps jump ahead, Leafs extend series

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Three games on Saturday

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning win series 4-1)

The Devils were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, but their 2017-18 campaign officially came to an end on Saturday. They’ll be disappointed, but this season was a success for the group. As for the Bolts, they’ve punched their ticket to the second round after a terrific regular season. The Lightning received point-per-game production from Nikita Kucherov (1o points), Steven Stamkos (6 points) and Alex Killorn (5 points), but they also had 14 different players pick up a point during the series.

 Washington Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (Capitals lead series 3-2)

Four of the five games in the series have gone to overtime. Game 5 was a typical back and forth affair, as the Jackets scored first before the Capitals went up 2-1. Columbus tied the game, Washington went ahead, again, 3-2, but a dominant third period led to the Blue Jackets forcing overtime. Nicklas Backstrom tipped-home the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Capitals the first home win of the series. This has clearly been the best first-round series of the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (Bruins lead series 3-2)

The Maple Leafs jumped out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads, but the Bruins managed to make things interesting in the third period. Boston had a number of power play opportunities, but they couldn’t cash in. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ll have to go back on the road to try to put the Leafs to bed. The Leafs managed to keep Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand off the scoresheet on Saturday. Replicating that two more times won’t be easy.

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Backstrom scored two goals, including the overtime winner against the Blue Jackets in Game 5. He also added an assist on T.J. Oshie‘s go-ahead goal late in the second frame. The win gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The 30-year-old has two goals and eight points in five games this postseason.

2. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals had a one-goal lead heading into the third frame, but they were badly outplayed in the third period. Holtby is the biggest reason why Washington was able to make it to overtime at all. The Blue Jackets outshot the Capitals 16-1 in the third frame. Holtby had a rough season, but his play in Game 5 was very encouraging.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs had to kill a number of penalties during their Game 5 win over the Bruins, and Andersen was one of the key reasons they were able to do so. The Leafs netminder faced at least 40 shots for the third time in five games (he’s 2-1 in those contests). If Toronto wants to force a seventh game, they’ll need him to turn in another fantastic performance on Monday night.

Factoid of the Night

Sunday’s Schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 3:00 p.m. ET

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 7:00 p.m. ET

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck