The Habs have been unwatchable since The-Trade-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name, so instead I’ve been content to follow from afar. The team has too many issues to count, but it’s pretty clear they need a number one centre to get back into playoff contention. Truth be told, after shedding Eller and Plekanec in recent years without bringing in adequate replacements, they’ve now forced themselves to locate as many as three new centres, whether internally or externally.
They’ve got a third line centre with offensive pop in Phil Danault, and maybe, just maybe, a 3/4 type in Jacob de la Rose should his current audition go swimmingly, but there are still two big holes at the top. Drouin and Galchenyuk could theoretically work as offence-first second-line centres, but they’d still need someone to shoulder the heavy minutes.
So who’s going to play centre for the Habs next season, assuming Danault is penciled in as a 2/3 and de la Rose as a 3/4?
Jonathan Drouin: Let’s (generously) say he’s a number two… for now.
Alex Galchenyuk: THIS.
Andrew Shaw: Versatile guy can play 3/4C in a pinch. A whole season? Nah.
Paul Byron: Same as Shaw — a pinch hitter.
Charles Hudon: Played in junior, like Drouin. Mostly wing now, unlike Drouin.
Jake Evans: Habs have to sign the college standout first lest he Will Butcher ’em. Tearing up Notre Dame and should get more Frozen Four experience this spring. He’ll be 22, so maybe he can bypass Laval and go straight to the big club in 18-19. Even so, the best-case scenario is he occupies a bottom-six role in his rookie campaign. It would be unfair to expect more so soon.
Nikita Scherbak: A natural RW, had a cup of coffee at C in St. John’s as an IR regular. Another potential Galchenyuk/Drouin situation.
Ryan Poehling: Their 1st round pick in 2017 isn’t ready yet, is he? St. Cloud State’s finest is barely 19 and is already PPG in college as a sophomore. Dylan Larkin left college early and jumped right into the pros at that age and was only a mid-first rounder, so there is precedence.
Michael McCarron: *Pierre McGuire voice* “He should’ve gone to Western Michigan.” The big galoot has been re-programmed every which way. We’ll always have that time he ran Kevan Miller into the goalie.
Lukas Vejdemo: Having a promising numbers bump in Djurgardens. Could improve his stock with a strong playoff like Lehkonen. The big difference: Artturi was 20 back then and Lukas is 22. Would need Laval time.
Joni Ikonen: Promising, but a ways away.
William Bitten: Signed to an entry-level deal. More of a winger these days.
Pending Unrestricted Free Agents:
John Tavares: The Habs aren’t the only team hoarding cap space to make a max offer to JT, which stands at about 16M AAV over 8 years should the cap creep up to 80M. Might as well try, because he’s the only real first-line centre to be found.
Paul Stastny: I thought he’d have to settle for a lower AAV, but if he works out in Winnipeg and heavily factors into a playoff run, all bets are off. He’s 32, but the losers of the JT sweepstakes might have no choice but to offer Stastny an ill-advised long-term deal. Can fake first-line duty for stretches, more a no. 2.
Tyler Bozak: Sorta like current teammate Plekanec in that he’s a nice depth guy, but if he’s playing a big role on your team you’re in big trouble.
Tomas Plekanec: Speaking of which… We always speculate on these rental guys going back to their original teams in the offseason, but how often does it happen? Vermette, maybe?
Riley Nash, Derek Ryan, Brian Gibbons, Tim Schaller, Valtteri Filppula, Jay Beagle, Mark Letestu: Anybody grabbing ya? Didn’t think so.
Ryan O’Reilly: A Bergevin-type player if there ever was one. You wouldn’t think he’s available, but as Botterill and Eichel continue to reshape the Sabres, the impossible can become possible. A 1B type centre.
Artem Anisimov: The Hawks are rebuilding around Kane, Toews, Keith and Crawford. Wouldn’t put it past them to move the other remaining vets for futures. A former number two centre who better profiles as a number three going forward.
Adam Henrique: Kesler’s back. Ducks need a LW. Habs have a few. Second-line, maybe?
Kyle Turris: Healthy scratch in Nashville, you say? I doubt they’d flip him after extending his contract, but he hasn’t exactly taken Smashville by storm. 1B guy making 1B money.
Matt Duchene: How far will the cuts go in Ottawa? Second-line centre.
The Sams (Bennett and Reinhart): A couple of lottery picks still finding their way on the teams that drafted them. Buffalo Sam is finishing his ELC, while Calgary Sam is on a bridge deal and doing little to warrant an extension.
Martin Hanzal: Mostly injured since dropping in Big D. An overrated third-line centre at his best. Then again, the Habs could use their extra cap space to take on Hanzal’s onerous contract (who has a partial NMC) while getting an extra treat.
Boone Jenner: A bridge deal casualty having a down season in C-Bus. Is he anything more than a third-liner, though?
Ryan Strome: Why not compound a bad trade by making another one? Less upside than he had early in his LI days.
Tomas Hertl: If the Sharks re-sign Kane, make a push for Tavares, and extend Couture and Pavelski at a later date, something’s gotta give. The pending RFA with the Koivu’d knee could be the odd man out.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau: More bloodletting in Ottawa. Another third-liner a team without depth might try to turn into something more. Heck, he looks like a first-liner when he plays the Habs. Zack Smith could also be available.
Brock Nelson: A trade chip if the Isles bring back JT and need cap room to add a defenceman or goalie.
Andreas Athanasiou: An RFA with upside the Wings historically haven’t been too keen on.
Nic Petan: Has yet to establish himself in Winnipeg. Has a prospect pedigree.
Pius Suter: Top player in the Swiss league at 21. Undrafted, but played in the OHL and had a tryout in Ottawa, so he’s familiar with the North American game. Undersized, but a prime candidate to try his luck here.
Dominik Kahun: Draisaitl’s shotgun buddy and silver medalist for the Cinderella German Team. Like Suter, he played junior and is a little undersized, but a near-lock to get a chance stateside.
Stephane da Costa: Wanted a shot last offseason but hurt himself while training. Put up numbers in the KHL and Swiss League. Underwhelming in Ottawa, but has enough offensive skills to warrant a make-it-in-camp-or-go-home deal somewhere.
Alexander Khokhlachev: Former second-rounder in Boston who spent three seasons in Providence. Solid numbers in the KHL this season.
So to answer my own question, I don’t know, but I think the trade market is the way to go. Logic dictates they’ll Hail Mary for Tavares, have a infinitesimal chance of succeeding, and if not will either overpay Stastny or trade for someone, possibly using one of Pacioretty, Galchenyuk or Drouin as a chip.