When it comes to NHL trades, anything can happen because your favourite team only needs to find one bad general manager to change their fortunes. This week, Habs fans should be horrified to discover that their general manager, the sartorial Marc Bergevin, is just one of those sucker-GMs. When it comes to style, Bergevin can’t go wrong with this wardrobe, but now it appears that he can’t get anything right with his hockey team. The Lars Eller and PK Subban trades show an alarming swerve in direction for a team that’s in a short window for contending for a Stanley Cup. That window just got shorter and Canadiens fans likely won’t see another contender until there’s new management. In a week, the Canadiens went from dreaming of a Stanley Cup parade to making eyes at Toronto’s brilliant front office, that, even if their team is bad now, has a coherent plan for making it good. Who knows what the Canadiens are even trying to do anymore?
Forerunner of the Apocalypse
Eller for Shaw via Washington was a curious trade, neither good nor particularly bad, as this Scott Cullen breakdown shows. While the on-ice effects add up to a modest loss in talent for the Canadiens, the trade shows how Bergevin’s decided to go old-school thinking on his roster, valuing all-important attributes such as grit and toughness over trivial characteristics such as puck possession. Left out of his article is that Shaw is a good bottom-six winger, which the Canadiens need when they’re rolling out guys like Brian Flynn. Dumping Eller for the two second round picks was a good haul for a player that Michel Therrien has often used as if he’s a misplaced part, but using those two picks on Shaw is an over-payment when one looks at trades like the one that got Buffalo Dmitry Kulikov.
The Canadiens are contending now, and they need to use their assets to get players that do one of two things: 1) Make the team better right now or 2) start getting talented players into the organization now to take over when the core gets torn down in a few years. Shaw does not improve the team if subtracting Eller was the price. And rolling those two second round picks back to drafts in 2017 and 2018 delays the Canadiens beginning to develop that all important cheap young flesh that smart teams traffic in. The trade, then, while not awful, achieves neither of the priorities that a contending team should be pursuing. Worse, Bergevin rather aggressively extended Shaw for six years until he’ll be 31. I can’t say why such long term deals for third liners are so important, but I can’t imagine Shaw is going to suddenly turn into Claude Lemieux’s second coming.
When Disaster Strikes
Shaw’s arrival was, as it turned out, was just an appetizer in the feast of fools Bergevin was cooking up. If dumping Eller for Shaw showed Bergevin’s aggressive new inclination towards grit over skill, Subban for Weber was the main course. I can’t really add anything to the obvious criticisms that Subban is better, younger, and signed for far fewer years than Weber. You can look into good analyses here, here, and here. There is simply no good reason for making this trade for the Canadiens. The Predators just became Stanley Cup contenders while the Canadiens will be suffering from Weber’s contract starting at some point when his already measureable decline becomes obvious until 2026. If you are 10 years old and in grade school, you will be in university by the time Weber’s contract ends. If you are 20 and in university, you will probably be in a relationship and working some kind of job 9 to 5. If you are 30 and working that job, you will be 40 and have kids who will grow up cheering for other teams.
Why would the Canadiens have done this? You can mumble something about July 1st being the last chance to trade him. That’s not exactly the best reason to trade the best skater the Canadiens have had since Chris Chelios in the 1980’s. You can speculate as much as you want to about Subban’s personality and his relationships with his teammates, but good vibrations isn’t a measure of on-ice talent. Had the Canadiens gotten back a different collection of players and picks or prospects, maybe you could justify this as a hockey deal, but even then it’d be hard to have gotten comparable value for Subban.
Instead, you see Bergevin making choices that show that he and his front office co-workers have no coherent plan for improving the Canadiens. Grit, or being willing to block shots and hit people because you don’t have the puck, reveals more about a player being a masochist than a game-changer. Being a good teammate never put the puck in the net. Intangibles are great for throwing an office party but won’t fix a Canadiens team that’s falling behind some of the savvier general managers in the league.
While Bergevin was sacrificing talent for grit, creative general managers like Ken Holland were somehow turning Pavel Datsyuk’s cap crunching contract into space to sign players. Ray Shero in New Jersey turned a possible top-4 defender into Taylor Hall, a top-10 forward in the league. Steve Yzerman somehow mind-controlled Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin into becoming hosts for his viral plan to storm the league for a half-decade. Bergevin’s phone must be ringing off the hook to see what else he might try and trade, which shouldn’t be a comforting thought if you’re a Canadiens fan.
Welcome to the Bottom
Dumping Subban might only be defensible if you think the Canadiens (former) core of Subban, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Carey Price wasn’t good enough to win it all. Swapping in Weber, who might be Mike Komisarek with a slapshot, makes that core worse. Does anyone think that Price will want to re-sign if the Canadiens are still a middling team when his contract runs out? What will the Canadiens do then? Shaw and Weber will be larding the Canadiens’ cap space for 6 and 10 years, respectively. If the Canadiens couldn’t win with Subban, they won’t win with those two. The only way they get back to contending status from here is if they tear down the core and keep their young players like Alex Galchenyuk and Nathan Beaulieu. If they started that tomorrow, it could still be 5 years before they make the playoffs again.
But Bergevin thinks his team can win it all, and these moves indicate that he might just keep trying to double down on his aging core. If that’s the case, then a re-build will only start when he and the rest of the front office is fired. This is unfortunate. Till this week, Bergevin had shown himself to be a patient and wise GM. The Subban deal changes that. Most of his current core was drafted by Trevor Timmins under Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier. Aside from a brilliant strike for Jeff Petry, Bergevin hasn’t done enough to add to the core pieces he was left with. Even if he had, trading Subban for Weber could be a fireable offence. At times like these, Geoff Molson’s best characteristic as an owner- that he stays out of his hockey operations employees’ ways- is also his worst. The sooner Molson goes looking for a new general manager, the better.