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What the Puck: Will overachieving Canadiens be trade deadline buyers?

What the Puck: Will overachieving Canadiens be trade deadline buyers?
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Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin speaks to the media before a game against the Minnesota Wild in Montreal on Jan. 7, 2019. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

Here’s la question qui tue for Marc Bergevin — What are you going to do at the NHL trade deadline?

Going into the season, most of us would’ve guessed that he’d be a seller, unloading older assets in exchange for future draft picks as part of what the Montreal Canadiens general manager likes to call a reset rather than a full-scale rebuild. That was the plan going in but, all of a sudden, the Habs are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race and, to most fans’ amazement, it’s no longer simply a fight for the last wild-card position.

As of Monday afternoon, Montreal was holding down the first wild-card berth, with 59 points. But that point total has them tied with the Boston Bruins, who are in third place in the Atlantic Division, though the Bs have a game in hand on the Canadiens. Even more astonishingly, Bergevin’s squad is only one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, though the Leafs have played two fewer games than Montreal.

In short, it’s becoming a real possibility that the Habs could end up second or third in their division and if so, they suddenly dodge the bullet of having to play Tampa Bay in the first round. Like Prince once memorably put it, dig if you will the picture: Montreal could face Toronto or Boston in the first round and, if that happens, all bets are off. First thing to mention is that either series would be totally amazing.

Montreal Canadiens left-wing Thomas Vanek celebrates his third goal of the match against the Colorado Avalanche at the Bell Centre in Montreal on March 18, 2014. Dario Ayala / The Gazette

Can you imagine a Leafs-Habs playoff matchup, their first since 1979? That would be so cool and it would be even cooler if the Habs won it — which they could! I would pay money to see the expressions on the faces of the Toronto hockey pundits if that came to pass. And, of course, a Bruins-Habs war would be even better and again, Montreal could prevail.

In any case, there is a possibility that this surprising Montreal team could actually make it out of the first round, something none of us believed a few months back, with the exception of the strange fans who keep saying this team reminds them of the 1992-93 Canadiens.

So back to the original question — what should Bergevin do given they might actually finish that high in the standings? Only a couple of weeks ago, Bergevin appeared to make it clear he wouldn’t be mortgaging the future.

“To give up assets for short term (value), I’m not going to do it,” Bergevin said at his mid-season news conference. “It would have to be very appealing. If there’s a young player available and there’s assets that have to go, I get that. But I don’t think I’ll be in the rental business. If I think it makes sense, I’ll do it, but I’m not going to start mortgaging the future. Because I know what’s coming, with the world juniors, who they’re going to be asking for and I’m not moving these kids, so it’s going to be a short conversation.”

Look at the quote closely. He won’t be in the rental business, but he doesn’t say he won’t act. And in an interview with the Athletic at the beginning of the season, he was less clearcut, saying he’ll wait to see what position he’s in come the trade deadline. Well that Feb. 25 trade deadline is coming fast and furious and I’m betting you that if the team is still in the same spot in the standings on that date, he will try to wheel and deal to get the help he needs to be able to beat the Leafs or the Bruins.

They desperately need some help on the blue line and they need a hot winger with an even hotter one-timer who could help solve the mystery that is the Habs’ pathetic power play.

Of course, Berg is not going to give up any of his A-list prospects to make these trades, but savvy GMs sometimes are able to pick up very good players for a very good price. That’s called being a good GM and though he’s made many a disastrous trade, Bergevin has made some of those canny moves, notably grabbing Jeff Petry from the Oilers for a second-round pick and snaring Thomas Vanek in return for Sebastian Collberg and a second-round pick. Vanek scored a good amount of goals to help the Habs power into the 2014 playoffs, but then he turned into a dud during the team’s dramatic run to the conference final.

The point is you can sometimes get excellent players without mortgaging the future and what happens at the end of February will go a long way toward showing just how good Bergevin is as a GM.

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