NOVEMBER 21, 2017 | 9:29PM ET
BY DAVID PAGNOTTA, The Fourth Period



TORONTO, ON -- The clouds are darkening, the winds are gusting, and the cries are getting louder. There's a storm hovering over the Bell Centre and its expanding over La Belle Province.

You know the kind of storm I'm talking about, right? The smelly kind? Start's with an S? Yeah, that's the one. Some say it began a little while ago. Nonetheless, it's here now, and it stinks.

Many people believe NHL stars don't want to play in hockey-crazed markets like Montreal or Toronto because of all of the hype and media attention that comes along with it. Social media is a bitch. But ask any pro hockey player if they'd lace 'em up for one of the League's most storied franchises and you'll get a 'yes' nine times out of ten. But those yes's come with an asterisk. 

"Yes, absolutely," they'd say... and when the microphones drop, they'll follow that answer up with "if they're winning."

You see, nobody wants to play in a media-hyped city when the team is struggling. That goes for any sport. If the New York Yankees are sitting in last place, nobody wants to be there. If the Los Angeles Lakers are battling for the top pick in the draft, nobody wants to deal with the scrutiny. When the Maple Leafs couldn't climb out of the bottom of the NHL standings, nobody wanted to be a part of it.

But ask Aaron Judge and C.C. Sabathia how it's like playing in the Bronx, or Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly how playing for the Leafs is, nowadays.

I've covered Toronto for the past several years and that organization was a tire fire during its bottom-feeding days not so long ago. I'd ask big name players, some local, if they'd ever consider playing in that market and just about everyone gave me the same 'no' answer, which came with a different asterisk. The 'no' was a 'not right now'... the team needed to turn the tide, and it has. It stuck to its plan and the Leafs are now one of the most exciting teams to watch.

Most of those guys I asked in the past have long-term contracts now, but I'm sure they'd give me a different answer now.

And then there's the Montreal Canadiens.

You see, the funny thing about social media and the oodles of reporters that surround a team like the Habs is that when things are going well, nobody focuses on the negative (or makes up negatives). I've been witnessing this in Toronto. But when things are going bad, it's a shit storm across the board. Again, something I witnessed first-hand in Leafs Nation.

The Canadiens are struggling. Struggling big time. So when reports surface over a player's off-season, even if they're untrue, or over another player's personal life, also untrue, it adds fuel to the fire. In a market like Montreal, it pours fuel all over the city.

The players in Montreal aren't having much fun. On paper, they're certainly a better team than their record reflects. Head coach Claude Julien had a full camp to get this group in order, but consistent line juggling early on coupled with poor results cast a giant frustration-cloud over the entire squad. And it's never lifted.

So what the heck happens now?

The Habs face off against the Dallas Stars tonight, sans Shea Weber, who is out with a lower body injury. The outcome isn't going to sway GM Marc Bergevin's decision on pulling the trigger on a trade. But another loss brings this team one step closer to some significant decisions.

If the storm hits the fan, Bergevin and his staff will be getting more inquiries about captain Mac Pacioretty, forwards Andrew Shaw, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, among others. They'll explore the market on a guy like Tomas Plekanec, who is just over seven months away from UFA status. Teams will ask about Jeff Petry, who has a no-movement clause. Basically, it'll get even busier for Bergevin and Co.

This situation does bring up an interesting discussion, though. 

Firstly, I've been given zero indication the Habs have any legit interest in trading Galchenyuk or Gallagher, right now. Yes, they'll listen, but they aren't actively shopping either player. Galchenyuk was unhappy with his ice time at the start of the season, but that's since changed and providing his responsibilities remain unchanged, I can't see any issues arising. I'll note, though, the Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks have all expressed interest in Galchenyuk in the past.

With regards to Pacioretty, it does give Bergevin something to think about. The Habs have as much interest in moving him, right now, as they do Carey Price or Jonathan Drouin. But if they're going to retool on the fly, with Price, Drouin, Galchenyuk and Weber leading the way, moving one of the League's most affordable snipers, who has one-year left on his contract after this season, can be appealing and present a handsome return.

The New York Rangers are in a similar boat with some of their players, as Larry Brooks wrote about on Monday. If the ship begins to sink, do they give serious thought at moving captain Ryan McDonagh or star winger Mats Zuccarello? Like Pacioretty, their deals don't expire until June 30, 2019. It's worth exploring, if they're out of the playoff race.

And it's worth it for Montreal to do the same... if they can't climb out of the mess they're currently in.

The issue the Canadiens face, however, is two-fold and it doesn't come with a quick fix. 

For starters, many believe, as do I, that Drouin is better served on the wing. But who do you play up the middle? The Canadiens do not have a legitimate first- or second-line center. Plekanec's 35 and his role has significantly changed, while Phillip Danault is a very good third-line center on a good team. The team's made it clear that Galchenyuk is a winger. So until you acquire a top-two center, Drouin's stuck there -- to his credit, he hasn't complained, he's trying to adjust and is saying all the right things.

Bergevin can look to the free agent market and toss all kinds of money at a guy like John Tavares, if he doesn't re-up with the New York Islanders and hits the open market next July, but if that's the plan, you'd likely want Pacioretty playing alongside someone with Tavares' talent.

There are no easy answers. The Habs are 27th in the NHL and nobody's going to do them any favors. But the Habs are 27th in the NHL with the team Bergevin assembled. That's the real issue. Forget about moving Pacioretty. 

The first item on the docket revolves around Bergevin's job security. Does owner Geoff Molson trust Bergevin enough to allow him to fix the mess he's effectively created? If the answer is yes, then you have to let him do what he deems necessary -- and if that includes trading Pacioretty, or Shaw, or Gallagher, or whomever, it's his ship. If the answer is no, then you ride out the season and keep the big decisions for the next guy.

For argument's sake, let's believe Molson is going to allow Bergevin to do his job. It's a very tough position to be in, and the Canadiens aren't loaded with young talent where they can simply go out and overspend for a top-line center. Bergevin is half-right, top centers aren't readily available. He wasn't interested in Matt Duchene, not at the asking price, anyway, and he tried to sign Joe Thornton in the off-season, but the Habs weren't really in the running, given the $8 million salary he ended up with in San Jose.

So what's out there? Well, the only obvious suspect is Edmonton center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, whom the Oilers will likely look to trade in the off-season, as they're going to be in cap trouble next season, but an in-season move will be more difficult.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are actively hunting for a top-line center, and the Carolina Hurricanes wouldn't mind adding one, either, but these teams are going to need to be pretty creative in how they go about their search. I don't see the Florida Panthers having any interest in moving Aleksander Barkov, for example, so these clubs, including the Habs, are going to have to fish elsewhere.

It's adding up to be a very long season in Montreal. If the Habs can't click -- there's only so much Julien can do, at this point -- and pull themselves out of the hole they've dug, you can be sure the storm will only get worse.


David Pagnotta is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Period.
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