Call of the Wilde: Trade deadline looms large as Montreal Canadiens felled by Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin (71) protects the puck from Montreal Canadiens defenseman Xavier Ouellet (61) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, in Detroit.
Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin (71) protects the puck from Montreal Canadiens defenseman Xavier Ouellet (61) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Montreal Canadiens have had two eight-game losing streaks this season, and were halfway to their third when they visited the Red Wings in Detroit on Tuesday night.

The Wings have already beaten the Canadiens three times this season. In fact, if you want to pick a matchup that has destroyed Montreal more than any other, it’s when the Wings face the Habs.

Detroit is the worst team in hockey, and they have killed Montreal all year long. There was a chance for some redemption in this one for Montreal, who started off by leading 3-0, but somehow they managed to completely foul it up, losing 4-3.

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The best forward for the Canadiens the past two months is Nick Suzuki. It’s hard to believe, but the 20-year-old rookie has been on a point-per-game pace for almost half a season.

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Suzuki has really started to get comfortable. His brain is working beautifully at this higher level, where it’s clear that he’s able to slow the game down to his own pace. Suzuki had another two points in Detroit, moving to 40 points on the season. He is five points back for the points lead among rookies led by Quinn Hughes in Vancouver.

Suzuki’s goal in this one was an absolute beauty for his 13th. He got the pass and calmly ripped it into the top corner, hitting the Gatorade bottle for good measure. It’s been a frustrating season for Habs fans, with some rookies not figuring it out, and some veterans dropping a notch. However, Suzuki has been much more than expected when it was wondered whether he would even crack the roster. He is second on the team in scoring tied with Phillip Danault.

Tomas Tatar, though, is the clear leader. There were people who believed Suzuki could have a good rookie campaign, but no one saw second on the team in scoring. In fact, if Tatar does get traded, Suzuki will likely be the leading scorer on the Habs at the 82-game mark. Remarkable.

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It wasn’t as if Shea Weber had a sparkling night for the Habs on defence. In fact, he backed into Carey Price too much on the Red Wings goal, allowing a clear look.

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However, he’s a hero in this one because of his dedication.

Weber shouldn’t even be playing yet. He was expected to miss four to six weeks with an ankle sprain, but instead, on a team that has little to play for but pride, Weber got back into the lineup one week later. He didn’t just show up, either. He was blocking shots as if it was game seven of the Stanley Cup final. One block right off the injured leg; another block on a clean look from 20 feet that he took right in the chest. The man does not know how to take it easy.

It’s a remarkable, impressive thing to see this type of dedication. You wish that he wouldn’t, really. You wish that he would save himself for more important games down the road. However, he doesn’t know how to have that attitude. He only knows how to care fully.

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Beyond the talent with which they were naturally born, this is why these men find success at the NHL level. They know only how to try this hard and dedicate this much.

It’s good to see Paul Byron back in the lineup after missing more than half a season due to injury, too. His skating certainly didn’t suffer one bit. In his first period back, Byron caught up to a strong Detroit skater, robbed him of the puck, turned around on a dime and set up the Canadiens’ first marker.

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After such a long absence, it was a super moment for Byron to show the skills that everyone probably forgot he has.

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The injury bug made its return just when it seemed as if some semblance of health was coming back.

Victor Mete took a shot off the inside of his foot. He could put no weight on it at all as they carried him to the locker room. Mete did not return for the third period.

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The Wings have only 15 wins this season, and only 11 wins the rest of the entire season against teams not named Montreal.

Detroit completed a four-game sweep with a three-goal comeback. So what’s there to add about the Habs that has not been said so many times already this season?

Nothing. Honestly, nothing.

There’s nothing to add; it’s all redundant. And not just for this season, but for the last five seasons. The prospects are many and they’re coming. But they’d better be good, and they’d better get ready quickly. And Marc Bergevin, you’d better go get some more prospects, because this group just lost to the Wings four times and is the sixth-worst team in hockey.

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It was a terrific start to the trading deadline for General Manager Marc Bergevin.

He acquired Marco Scandella for a fourth-round draft choice two months ago, then sold him for a second-round draft choice. It was a masterful win, and he may get a fourth-rounder for Scandella, too, if the St. Louis Blues either re-sign Scandella or they go two rounds of the playoffs.

Either way, you have to love this move of an unrestricted free agent.

It signals to everyone that Bergevin is a seller of his assets that are maturing this year. The only remaining question is whether he believes he’s a seller of his assets that mature next season.

Bergevin has assets like Tomas Tatar — the top scorer on the team, who can fetch a first-round draft choice and a top prospect in this seller’s market. Jeff Petry can also fetch a first-round draft pick and a top prospect. He can get that high price this season, but if he holds on to these two players this season to use them as Canadiens in 2020-21, they will not fetch the same elevated price.

This is because the acquiring team now does not have these two players for two playoff runs, but only one. The asking price changes from a likely first-rounder and top prospect to likely a second-rounder and a lower prospect. The only reason to keep these players next season is to stay an 86- to 96-point hockey team next season. If he sells these two players for picks and prospects, then the Canadiens hockey team is likely a 76- to 86-point team without them.

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The point that’s important here is that the Canadiens with Tatar and Petry will be the same team as this season. In other words, not a 105-point hockey team with any hope more than fighting for a playoff spot, assuming they stay healthy.

There are no miracles next season. The prospects that are many are not ready to shine yet. So in the argument to trade or not trade Petry and Tatar, the Canadiens are either a fair to middling 86- to 96-point team, or a middling to bad 86- to 76-point team. If you want to sign them long term — which would be a mistake, considering their ages and how much money they will ask for — then wait for when they are UFA and sign them.

Bergevin does not lose the opportunity to sign these players because he trades them. He’s still allowed to load up on talent when the team is more ready than now. Overall, the battle is not to struggle to make the playoffs. The battle is to build a tremendous hockey team, and the opportunity in front of the GM is better than it has ever been.

These are the seven most important days of his managing life. He can concentrate on 2020-21 to be average next season, or he can concentrate on 2021 and beyond to load up perhaps as many as four first-round draft choices and three more top prospects into the fold. He must trade Ilya Kovalchuk, as well, if he is worth a first-rounder to another team willing to pay a high price this trading deadline day.

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It could be an exciting time for the Canadiens as they prepare for the June draft that is in Montreal to add to the drama.