Improving the Montreal Canadiens Heading Into the Deadline

With the All-Star Weekend over and done with, Carey Price and PK Subban will return to their teammates, as the Montreal Canadiens travel to Washington for a game against the Capitals tomorrow night. After that, 31 games will remain in the regular season, as the Canadiens make their bid to make this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Habs schedule seems to be well balanced heading into the tail end of the season, between playoff-bound teams such as the Capitals, the Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers, as well as struggling teams such as the New Jersey Devils, and Toronto Maple Leafs. The highlight of the remaining games may be February 20th's outdoor game against the Calgary Flames, but the Canadiens have many important games coming up and they're going to need to be at the top of their game for most of those games in order to make the playoffs and compete.

Things are looking pretty good for the Habs right now, as this year's Eastern Conference playoff race is really only a nine horse race. Barring an unexpected surge from the Sabres or Panthers, the only teams that stand in the Habs way are the Carolina Hurricanes, Atlanta Thrashers and New York Rangers. The Flyers, Lightning, Bruins, Pens and Caps seem to be locks to make the post-season, leaving four teams to battle for three spots. And so long as the Habs don't fall into too bad of a pattern or any deep struggles, they should be one of those three teams.

But of course, making the playoffs is easier said than done, and for the Montreal Canadiens, it will likely be a little more difficult than the standings seem to suggest.

As we all know, the Canadiens have had some trouble dealing with injuries this season. They are missing their top two defensemen and will not get them back for the remainder of the season. Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges are both out with severe knee injuries, and while Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, PK Subban, Hal Gill and the newly acquired James Wisniewski are doing a fine job making up for their losses, the Canadiens could use another defenseman to take on the load, as you'd have to imagine the workload will eventually get to them. Especially for Gill, Hamrlik and Spacek, all well over 35.

Moreover, Mike Cammalleri is on the injured-reserve list with a separated shoulder. He's likely to be back soon, but even with him in the line-up, the Canadiens are still down a true top-six winger. Scott Gomez, Captain Brian Gionta and recent call-up Max Pacioretty have proven their chemistry as a top-two trio. Pacioretty had a scare the week before the All-Star Break when he had to be taken out of HSBC Arena on a stretcher, but he showed a tremendous amount of resiliency returning to the line-up that same weekend, and putting up 3 goals and an assist in the three games since the incident. And while Scott Gomez has been inconsistent this season, he and his $7.5 million salary aren't going anywhere. Finally, Brian Gionta is tied for the lead in goals on the team and is leading by example. On the other line, Tomas Plekanec has consistently been this team's best player, leading the team in goals (tie-16) and points (40). While Cammalleri is injured and hasn't had his most amazing season, he's a perennial top sixer and one who could find his groove at any moment. His 13 goals in 44 games is respectable, and his chemistry with Tomas Plekanec is unquestionable.

But of course, that's only five players, and we all know you can't have a top six without six players, and that's something the Canadiens have struggled with all year. When the season started, Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn were penciled in for the final two spots on the team's top lines. The revelation that has been Max Pacioretty has usurped the spot that originally belonged to Pouliot, who has found good chemistry on the team's 3rd line, which allows his to show flashes of brilliance in a limited role, mostly with players such as Jeff Halpern and Mathieu Darche. He has 10 goals on the season, likely below the expectations of most, but he hasn't really been all that bad and he's good for this team's depth on one of the bottom lines.

That leaves Kostitysn as the player that has been given chance after chance on the team's top six, this season and others. His numbers aren't that bad. His 13 goals are tied for 3rd on the team with Cammalleri, but he's been incredibly inconsistent, as he always is, and frustrates the hell out of Habs fans. TCL's Phil T. has even gone as far as to choose the five players who he would like to trade for in exchange for Andrei Kostitsyn.

When those two haven't been down the job, the winger positions on either line have rotated from player to player, from defensive forwards to cheap plugs and AHL call-ups. It's pretty evident that if this team stands any chance of beating an incredibly deep and tough team like the Philadelphia Flyers, they're going to have to beef up that Plekanec line.

Unfortunately, it's not as easy as trading Kostitsyn for another top six winger with size and talent. There are plenty of considerations, such as salary, future contracts, chemistry, and of course the needs on defense, and of course the fact that good, young, big offensive forwards don't come cheap. I don't claim to be in the head of general manager Pierre Gauthier, or to even begin to comprehend the job he has to do every single day. We may not always like the moves a GM makes, but you have to respect the work that goes into it. That being said, as an outsider who has observed Gauthier's work, it's pretty evident that there will be some sort of trade heading into the trade deadline later this month.

The real question, of course, who will the Canadiens trade for? If you know anything about Pierre Gauthier, it's to expect the unexpected when it comes to acquiring players. Last year's deadline acquisition was forward Dominic Moore, a move that many people (myself included) scoffed at, and a move that many people (myself included) ended up eating crow for come playoff time. And while Moore was useful, he's not exactly a top six winger, and he's not exactly all-too physical, so he wouldn't really fit the needs of the team this year.

There are plenty of players out there that are constantly making the rumor mills, like Stephen Weiss, Brad Richards, Jason Arnott, Alex Kovalev and others, but again, with only $3.5 million left in cap space and team chemistry to consider, taking on a big name like that may not be in Gauthier's plan. One of the five mentioned in Phil's blog would definitely be a nice fit on the team, but again, all seem too obvious a choice for Gauthier. So it may be completely unfair to speculate on names and players. But rest assured, this isn't the final version of the 2010-11 Montreal Canadiens.

We still have a month until the trade deadline, but these questions are relevant now. The Canadiens will play 14 of their remaining 32 games before the deadline, and most of those games will be pivotal. Gauthier might be better off jumping the curve and look to acquire a player now, before the deadline-day rush.

Then again, he could go left field and pick up another defenseman, which would also serve the immediate needs of the club.

If I were running this team, it would likely be one of each. Between Ed Jovanovski, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, and others, there are plenty of short term options for the Canadiens on the back-end, albeit most would likely be at a fairly advanced age and a higher salary. I would do everything in my power to get Kaberle, at only $4 million in salary, but swinging a trade with a rival like the Maple Leafs might be easier said than done, especially with no-trade clauses and 28 other teams vying for the same player.

As for up front, a guy like Brad Boyes or Joffrey Lupul might again be a perfect short term fit, but like I already mentioned, you can't really predict what this team will trade for, especially up front. Big bodies are hard to come by in the NHL these days, so Gauthier may have to take on a larger contract or give up a fair bit in order to get a significant player, and you'd have to wonder how far he's willing to go. The Habs aren't exactly going into the playoffs as a cup contender, so selling the farm for a rental might not be worth it.

Still, a deal has to be imminent at this point, and I would expect a lot more urgency from upper management if this week's games don't exactly go according to plan.

The Habs play the Caps in Washington tomorrow, before heading home to face the Panthers the next night. This weekend will bring the Canadiens' traditional Super Bowl Weekend matinées, with a Saturday game against the Rangers at 2PM and a Sunday affair with the Devils at 3PM. Next week will bring the Bruins, Isles and Leafs before the Habs prepare for their outdoor game in Calgary on the 20th, and of course we'll be with you every step of the way.

Who would you trade for if you were in Pierre Gauthier's shoes? How would you like to see that $3.5 million spent, and do you see a salaried player heading back the other way? Will it be a forward or a defenseman, or both? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!