What should potential Pacioretty trade look like for Canadiens?

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There have been plenty of rumblings about the Canadiens being willing to trade captain Max Pacioretty. That’s all fine and dandy, but GM Marc Bergevin has to make sure he gets the proper return if he decides to trade his scoring winger.

There should be no shortage of suitors for the 29-year-old sniper, who has one more year on his contract after this season. The fact that he has an incredibly reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million will only enhance his value. Pacioretty has scored 39, 37, 30 and 35 goals over the last four seasons, and he’s done so without a true number one center.

Let’s take a look at what a potential return should look like:

Help Down the Middle

It’s no secret that the Canadiens are lacking a true number one center. Fun fact: they are probably lacking a true number two center right now, too. A group made up of Tomas Plekanec, Phillip Danault, Jonathan Drouin and Byron Froese doesn’t exactly scream Stanley Cup.

Acquiring Danault from Chicago a couple of years ago was a brilliant move by Bergevin, but he’s more of a very good third-line center than a top-six guy. Drouin, who was acquired this summer, has had a hard time adjusting to center in his first season with the Canadiens. There’s no doubt that he has an elite skill-level, but even Bergevin admitted that Drouin probably isn’t a center.

Getting an established top two center for Pacioretty isn’t going to be easy (it’s probably impossible), so the team has to land a young center with enormous potential. For example, prospects like Martin Necas (Carolina), Robert Thomas (St. Louis), Gabe Vilardi (Los Angeles) are the types of players that they should be targeting. They can’t help the Habs right away, but they’re talented enough to become difference makers in the near future.

The Canadiens have been looking for that top-line center for ages, and they have to score one on a trade involving Pacioretty. He’s the biggest bargaining chip they have right now.

A Partner for Weber

Right-handed defensemen are probably harder to find than lefties, but the Canadiens have Shea Weber and Jeff Petry as their top two righties right now, so they’re fine in that regard. But they still haven’t found a left-handed blue liner that can play on a top pairing with Weber.

Of course, getting an impact prospect and a top pairing defenseman that can play big minutes probably won’t happen. Pacioretty’s a good player, but expecting two pieces of that caliber isn’t realistic, either. So, if nobody’s willing to give up a center, they need to fill their second-biggest hole, which is on defense.

Bergevin expected veterans like Jordie Benn or David Schlemko to line up next to Weber in 2017-18, and that simply didn’t work out (shocker). That’s why getting an established puck-mover should also be a priority as well.

Timing is Everything

Although the Canadiens shouldn’t be in a rush to trade their captain, timing will be everything when it comes to this move. Shipping him out of town before this year’s trade deadline could make the difference between a good return and a great return.

If a team acquiring Pacioretty had him for the 2018 playoffs and 2019 season plus playoffs, they could be willing to pay a much bigger price for him. So although they don’t have to make this trade before Feb. 26, it’s probably in their best interest to do so.

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.