The Montreal Canadiens currently sit outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Going 7-3-0 in their last 10 games has seen the Canadiens climb the standings a bit, where they now sit only four points out of a playoff spot. While their playoff chances have improved considerably in the past 10 games, the reality is that the chances of making the playoffs this season are still slim for the Canadiens. The common perception is that they will be sellers heading into the NHL trade deadline, as they continue the retooling of their roster and prospect pipeline.

I wrote an earlier article on the need for the Canadiens to embrace a rebuild, and what that process would look like. However, in this post, I discuss the scenario where the Canadiens decide not to sell off some of their established veteran players. Instead, choosing to retain most of their current roster for this year’s playoff push and the 2020-21 season.

Retaining Key Veteran Contributors

Around the hockey world, there are swirling rumors about a number of Canadiens players being on shopped around on the NHL trade market, mainly Tomas Tatar, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jeff Petry. Tatar is leading the Canadiens in almost every offensive statistical category, while Petry is an established top-four right-handed defenseman. Kovalchuk’s demise at the NHL level has shown to be greatly exaggerated since joining the Canadiens.

These are three large trade chips that the Canadiens could use to acquire quality draft picks and/or prospects. These types of futures would help the Canadiens down the road and add to an already impressive prospect pool of quality young players.

Tomas Tatar, James Reimer
Montreal Canadiens left wing Tomas Tatar celebrates a goal (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

The question is about the direction and what general manager Marc Bergevin believes is best for the Canadiens organization. From all accounts, Bergevin feels that injuries are the main culprit for derailing the Canadiens’ season. However, Carey Price and Shea Weber aren’t getting any younger and Bergevin himself has said that the organization is not rebuilding, but instead “resetting”. What does this mean? Is this an indication that Bergevin may likely hang onto key players like Tatar and Petry?

Going one step further than retaining Tatar and Petry, could Bergevin turn around and re-sign Kovalchuk to a one-year contract? It’s no secret that the Canadiens lack “star-power” upfront in their forward ranks, and the fact that they’ve won so few games since Jonathan Drouin’s wrist injury demonstrates a serious lack of offensive talent on the roster. Kovalchuk has led the Canadiens in scoring since his signing. Would jettisoning guys like Tatar, Kovalchuk and Petry help the Canadiens now? Definitely not. Would it help the Canadiens make the playoffs next season? No. Would it help the Canadiens long-term? Maybe – but there is no guarantee.

Projected Lineup Upfront

Kovalchuk has been a great addition to the Canadiens this season and it’s worth exploring keeping him beyond the trade deadline. Imagine a scenario where Bergevin chooses to re-sign Kovalchuk and doesn’t move out Tatar and Petry. Instead, Bergevin moves out the likes of Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins and Jordan Weal for salary cap space. In addition, Cole Caufield signs with the Canadiens this spring. Below is a preview of what that lineup upfront could look like next season.

Tomas Tatar – Phillip Danault – Brendan Gallagher
Max Domi – Nick Suzuki – Ilya Kovalchuk
Jonathan Drouin – Jesperi Kotkaniemi – Cole Caufield
Artturi Lehkonen – Ryan Poehling – Joel Armia
Extra: Paul Byron, Jake Evans

Ilya Kovalchuk Montreal Canadiens
Ilya Kovalchuk, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That’s a pretty impressive lineup with considerably more skill than any lineup the Canadiens have iced in the past several seasons. The group is four lines deep, strong up the middle and has scoring and playmaking on every line. This is a group of forwards that could see a team making the playoffs. There is no room in this lineup for head coach Claude Julien to sneak in a Weal or Cousins on the power play.

Projected Blue Line

Let’s move onto the blue line. Petry is an established top-four right-handed defenseman. As I hinted earlier, this is like gold in trade deadline currency. The Habs could land both top end prospects and draft picks in exchange for the defender.

However, moving out Petry is probably unwise. He’s got another year on his contract at a decent cap hit, and while Cale Fleury and Josh Brook are developing well, they won’t be ready to replace the veteran next season. Furthermore, moving Petry would force the Canadiens to overpay for a free agent to replace his spot on the blue line. With this in mind, I don’t see the defenseman being traded (outside a massive overpayment being offered by a desperate team).

Alexander Romanov had another dominant world junior tournament and looks to be ready for full-time NHL duty next season. There are questions about the contract situation with CSKA and whether he’ll sign an extension in the KHL. If not, I fully expect Romanov to occupy a top-four position on the Canadiens’ blue line by mid-season 2020-21. With the addition of the young defender, the Canadiens blue line would look something like this:

Ben Chiarot – Shea Weber
Alexander Romanov – Jeff Petry
Victor Mete – Cale Fleury
Extra: Brett Kulak

That’s a pretty solid core of defenders. The group has a nice mix of size, strength, youth and speed which should gel nicely in front of Price and his back-up next season. Depth on the blue line, especially in the second half of the season is a big concern for most NHL teams. Looking at the Canadiens’ potential blue line for next season, it has quality depth with players that could move up and down the lineup.

Projected Goaltenders

In goal, the Canadiens have witnessed a resurgence from Price of late. He’s been one of the top goalies in the NHL since mid-December. Looking ahead to next season, the Canadiens have to address the backup goalie position. Cayden Primeau is excelling with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket and has been sharp in the few starts he’s had for the Canadiens this season. There is no question that he is one of the top goalie prospects in the game, but it’s unclear if the Canadiens will prefer Primeau to spend another year developing in the AHL. Regardless, the goaltending position is an area of strength for the Canadiens and it looks strong heading down the stretch this season and next season.

Carey Price
Carey Price is one of the favourites for 2014(Photo: Andy Martin Jr)

Overall, the path that sees the Canadiens choosing to keep their veterans is the scenario where the Canadiens have the best chance at making the playoffs this season, and next. On top of the contributions from veteran players like Kovalchuk, Petry and Tatar, youngsters like Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, Poehling and others will be more ready to assume more responsibility and bigger roles with the club. This will give the Canadiens more opportunities to maintain their play through injuries, as their depth is much improved in this scenario. If the Canadiens retain their top contributing veteran players, they should have a good chance to be back in the playoffs either this season or next.