Fresh off of winning the Atlantic Division for the second time in three seasons, few in Montreal would have expected that the Canadiens’ first full season back under coach Claude Julien would be going this sour. Yet, here we are, beginning the 2018 portion of the 2017-18 campaign with the Habs on a four-game skid, winners of just three of their past 10 and sitting closer to the second-best odds in the draft lottery than they are the second spot in the Eastern Conference wild card.
And while there hasn’t been any major movement from the organization quite yet, speculation continues to mount that further struggles will result in a roster shakeup of some sort. There are already a few prime candidates for such a move, too. Alex Galchenyuk has long been a fixture of the rumor mill, with the lack of faith the coaching staff and management have shown in him as a full-time center one of the big sticking points despite his production. Carey Price’s name has even been mentioned at times this season, with such talk coming on the heels of the star goaltender inking an eight-year, $84-million extension with the Canadiens over the summer. But the name popping up most frequently now, the player whose departure seems the most likely with Montreal slipping further into the East’s basement, is captain Max Pacioretty.
Up until now, though, talk of Pacioretty potentially moving on seemed to be just chatter, nothing more. That was until this past weekend, however, when Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin is “actively shopping” Pacioretty.
That Pacioretty’s name has cropped up shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the midst of Canadiens’ struggles, a lot of weight was bound to fall on the shoulders of the team’s captain, but that’s especially true when he’s supposed to be one of the team’s offensive leaders and barely producing. A five-time 30-goal scorer — and the NHL’s sixth-highest scorer across the past three seasons — Pacioretty’s season has been a microcosm of the entire campaign for Montreal. Through 39 games, Pacioretty has only eight goals and 20 points, putting him on pace to end the year with 17 goals and 42 points. To put that into perspective, Pacioretty has failed to score at least 60 points only once in five 70-plus game seasons and he managed 15 goals and 39 points in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season.
Pacioretty’s lack of production is a real sore spot for the Canadiens, too, because it’s not as if the rest of the offense has picked up the slack. Montreal has not a single 20-goal scorer, their top point-getters are Galchenyuk, Philip Danault and Brendan Gallagher, each of whom has little more than half a point per game, and the Canadiens’ overall offense is one of the league’s most feeble. Through nearly half their schedule, Montreal has only 99 goals, and the only teams who’ve had less effective attacks on a per-game basis are the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. Those two aforementioned teams, it should be noted, are 30th and 31st in the league, respectively.
Now, some may take this to mean a Pacioretty trade is imminent and that Bergevin, seeing his team slide further and further out of playoff contention, is willing to make a move in the coming weeks to try to spark his club. However, according to Kypreos, that isn’t the case. Rather, Pacioretty’s situation in Montreal is apparently more akin to that of Matt Duchene before he was moved from the Colorado Avalanche to the Ottawa Senators. Duchene took up residence on the trade block in Denver for more than a full year — what seemed like an interminable amount of time — before there was finally a package put together by the Senators and Nashville Predators in November that put an end to the saga. That’s exactly the kind of patience Bergevin should be willing to exercise, too.
First and foremost, it’s not as if time is of the essence when it comes to trading Pacioretty. Truthfully, the Canadiens’ chances of reaching the post-season right now are about as slim as they could be. Making up eight points and leapfrogging six teams in the standings is a tall task for any club, let alone one as offensively deficient as Montreal. Thus, making a snap decision and taking the best deal presently available for Pacioretty in the coming days or weeks in an attempt to light a fire under the Canadiens wouldn’t really make that much sense. On top of that, Pacioretty’s value is quite possibly at its lowest point. He’s in a rut, playing arguably the worst hockey of his NHL career, and Montreal isn’t trading him from a position of power.
The good news for the Canadiens is that their timeline for trading Pacioretty doesn’t culminate with the coming trade deadline. Locked up until the end of 2018-19 at a pretty friendly $4.5-million cap hit, Montreal has upwards of a year to consider options for their captain, which is good news given Pacioretty is realistically even better trade bait in the summer or entering next season. At that point, he’ll be in the final season of his deal and teams will have a better outlook on their future cap situation. Not only that, but with the salary cap potentially set to increase by as much as several million dollars, a $4.5-million addition will be more palatable for a larger number of teams come July and August.
And then there’s the matter of the Canadiens getting back what they’re after. The fact of the matter is it won’t be easy for Montreal to trade a five-time 30-goal scorer, one in the back half of his prime, for a younger version who can immediately slot into the lineup and bring what Pacioretty has brought over the past several seasons. It’s not impossible, sure, but it’s not very likely. More likely, however, would be landing — or at least searching for — a package similar to what the Avalanche got in return for Duchene. Granted, Pacioretty probably won’t be part of a three-team, nine-piece deal, but getting picks, a prospect and a player who can slot into the lineup isn’t out of the question if Montreal is willing to wait.
The key for the Canadiens, though, is patience. That’s the only way such a trade works, it’s the only way Bergevin finds a deal that brings back full value. And whether or not you agree with Montreal moving Pacioretty, the one thing that’s for certain is that if the Habs decide to pull the trigger, it’s not a deal the franchise can afford to lose.
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