Probably nobody was expecting the Canadiens to be in first place in the Eastern Conference with only 20 games to go in the regular season. I know I wasn't. I thought if the team made the playoffs, that would be fine. If it didn't, another high pick like Alex Galchenyuk would be just fine as well. Those kinds of prospects, after all, don't grow on trees and are generally only available as compensation for regular-season failure. And most Habs fans were getting pretty tired of twenty years of either no playoffs at all or quick exits if they did get in.
So now, a carefully tweaked team under the command of Marc Bergevin has a new attitude and new players like Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Brandon Prust and Michael Ryder. Old players with new life like Rene Bourque and Andrei Markov are helping too. And young guys with a year under their belts like Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller and Raphael Diaz are stepping up to give the team a depth it hasn't had for years. Together with coach Michel Therrien's new approach to offence and an aggressive forecheck, the Canadiens find themselves far exceeding anybody's expectations.
Now, former Selke winner, Habs captain and coach Guy Carbonneau is suggesting the team can be even better. He said on television the other night that a team doesn't get many opportunities to put it all together and go for the Cup. That's very true. How many players missed out in the finals and thought their team was good enough to be back next year, only to never reach those heights again? Carbonneau said he thinks it's time for Bergevin to make a trade to upgrade the Canadiens for the playoffs, because he thinks we're seeing one of those special seasons in a team's life.
It's so tantalizing to dream about that. Imagine if this is really a Cinderella team, with a Cup in its destiny. This year has been so much fun to watch and the team so heroic in its way. It's easy to think this is for real and the ride will continue deep into the spring. The question is, does Bergevin think the same way? He said at the beginning of the season that he'd only trade for parts at the deadline if he was 100% sure the team was ready to win.
With that in mind, think about it. What would happen to the Habs if P.K.Subban got hurt long-term? Or Carey Price? Tomas Plekanec? Right now, this isn't a team that has solid answers to those questions. You might argue every team has the same kinds of questions with which to cope, but the top contenders have serious depth to help fill in those holes.
Similarly, the top contenders have pieces with which they can afford to part when they're trying to upgrade for the playoffs. Extra draft picks or a winger who'd be top-six almost anywhere else, but is only top-nine for the big teams, can go a long way as trade bait. The Habs don't have a whole lot of value to trade. They've got Tomas Kaberle and an injured Yannick Weber. Possibly a prospect like Louis Leblanc or Morgan Ellis, or the rights to potentially lost-for-nothing Danny Kristo, if Bergevin really thinks there's something deep about this team. The Habs draft picks...six within the top 90 spots...are valuable in a deep draft for a team that wants to build the kind of depth contenders have. Trading them now is a gamble.
If the Canadiens are really ready to make a serious run at the Cup, it's worth it. If not, those picks will become the players who will provide the depth and the bargaining chips in a couple of years. Wasting them for a premature playoff bid will only slow down the rebuild Bergevin has so brilliantly begun. Considering the risk for a less-than-sure reward, it seems fairly certain the GM won't make any blockbuster moves in the next couple of weeks. That's even more apparent when you consider that Bergevin also said he's not interested in trading for a rental player. He wants guys who will be worth the price of a trade by providing more than just temporary service. The cost of adding such players at the deadline is so inflated it's not worth doing it.
That's not to deny the obvious truth that even a Habs team that's managed to keep winning, even with significant injuries, could use a bit of tweaking. Brandon Prust has been such a brilliant addition to the team, but he could use some help carrying the toughness load. Another guy with heart who can skate and hit would be welcome. (That should be Travis Moen, but he's been largely invisible.) And Bergevin obviously recognizes the need for a big, solid presence on the blueline, which likely accounts for the recent auditions of Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn. After all, if you can fill the need at home, it eliminates the need to go shopping.
Because of the cost of adding pieces at the deadline, which I think the Canadiens can't really afford at this point in their evolution, as well as the risk of messing with team chemistry...that most elusive of intangibles... I think Bergevin should be very conservative at the deadline. Unless he can land a player who can contribute beyond this season, on a good contract for sensible return, I'm content to see what this fun, determined team can do in the playoffs just as it is.
We'll know very soon what Bergevin himself really thinks of this unlikely first-place team. He said he wouldn't jump until it looked like the Cup was really within reach. So, if he moves to add to the roster before April 3, we may be looking forward to a very unexpected, but very welcome playoff ride.