By Bob Trask – As the NHL season approaches, general managers across the league will be looking at how to fill out their rosters while remaining cap compliant. Each team has its own challenges – some are already over the cap, some have RFAs to sign and some face both of those challenges. In addition, recent developments, such as the injuries to Robin Lehner and Max Pacioretty, have changed the landscape.
As it stands, the Canadiens can easily become cap compliant without making any personnel moves. It may not be with the roster they want, but they can be compliant. That allows Kent Hughes to be more patient than some of his peers who do not have this luxury.
Nor do the the Canadiens face a closing window of opportunity. Glancing at various NHL rosters there are a handful of teams that need to win in the next year or two because their windows are closing. This is a second reason that Hughes can afford to be patient.
The strategy for the Canadiens may be to create maximum cap flexibility for the following season rather than this one. If that is the goal, Hughes may approach the trade of players with expiring contracts differently from those with term left on their contracts after this season is over.
Four players are on expiring contracts. They are Jake Allen, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron. Hughes may be amenable to retaining salary on one or more of those contracts in a trade because the salary retention applies only to this year. There would be no salary retention for the start of the 2023-24 season – leaving the Canadiens with currency to sign players like Cole Caufield and participate in the free agent market.
Since a team can only retain salary on three contracts, Hughes has to weight out his choices here carefully. At this point Drouin and Byron may have little value so it pays to wait. He may want to wait until closer to trade deadline time on these players and see what the market is for them at that time. Dadonov and Allen have more value at the moment, but again Montreal can afford to wait and see if a team sees them as an asset for a playoff run. Waiting to make a decision on Allen until the status of Carey Price is known also makes sense.
Conclusion: If any of these four players are traded, there is a high degree of probability it will happen after the season gets underway. Salary retention by the Canadiens may boost the return.
Contracts With Term
The players on this list includes everyone not on an expiring contract. Some of these make no sense to trade (Nick Suzuki as an example) and some will be virtually impossible to trade (Brendan Gallagher for example). But we can look at a couple of players who are eating up some cap space and who are not irreplaceable in the lineup. Two of these players are Mike Hoffman and Joel Armia.
One thing Kent Hughes has been adamant about is that he has no interest in retaining salary in a trade. But he has shown he is willing to give up prospects to facilitate a trade. The trade of Jeff Petry included center Ryan Poehling as an extra piece to make the transaction happen. The prior acquisition of Kirby Dach allowed Hughes that flexibility.
Hughes might take a similar approach if he is trying to trade Hoffman or Armia. In other words, if he is deep in prospects at a specific position, he may consider using that excess as additional currency in a trade. A look at the Canadiens depth chart shows the organization deep in talent on left defense. It is highly doubtful that Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle or Arber Xhekaj would be available, but a few names to keep an eye on are Mattias Norlinder, Otto Leskinen and Gianni Fairbrother.
Conclusion: A player or two with term will be traded before the season begins and it is likely that a prospect and/or a draft choice will be included in the deal.
The two conditions discussed here are a measured approach to building a team for the future and for the long term. Of course all these ideas go out the window if the Habs become involved in a blockbuster trade for a player like Pierre-Luc Dubois. A completely different list of names come into play, a list that could include Christian Dvorak, Josh Anderson, a high draft pick and one of the aforementioned untouchable defenseman.
Conclusion: A blockbuster trade before the season starts seems unlikely but Hughes seems to have a flair for the dramatic.
Watch, Wait and Speculate
In the meantime, we have to be content with watching and waiting while we speculate on the next moves to be made by Kent Hughes. Other than the potential signing of Kirby Dach, it seems unlikely much will happen over the next couple of weeks – but be prepared to be surprise.