By Bob Trask – If nothing else, Kent Hughes has demonstrated that he is a patient General Manager. And with no urgency to transform the Canadiens into contenders this season, he can afford to be. The message has been clear; the upcoming season will be one of evaluation and development.
Evaluation and development does not mean, however, dumping all the veterans and throwing the younger players and prospects into the deep end of the pool. Youth can benefit from the stabilizing influence and mentorship provided by veterans. For that reason, it seems unlikely there will be a fire sale of veterans like Christian Dvorak and others.
All of this seems to point to Hughes being patient in the trade market. We can go back to the Lehkonen trade as an example of that patience. Hughes patiently waited until his asking price was met – and both teams benefited. Colorado won the Cup and the Canadiens came away with a couple of assets in return for a player they may not have been able to re-sign. It was classic Hughes.
At the same time, the Canadiens management team seems to have no fear of playing a lot of rookies if they can prove that they belong. That gives Hughes even more leverage. If he feels a prospect is ready to make the jump and is looking to trading a veteran to open up a spot on the team, he isn’t forced into asking for an NHL ready veteran to fill the hole created.
The approach that Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes are taking is made possible because they have set reasonable expectations with regard to the current competitive level of the Habs and the time it will take before they become serious contenders.
The Waiting Game
There is little doubt that Hughes would like to make a couple of moves sooner rather than later but it does not seem to be in his DNA to make a move just for the sake of it. All decisions are measured and re-measured. In the meantime, every GM in the league probably knows by now which players on the Canadiens may be available and what the initial asking price for that player might be.
With training camps now underway and the pre-season set to begin, teams begin to evaluate their talent with greater scrutiny. One or two may be dissatisfied with their depth at a particular position and if they know Montreal has a player available, they may come calling.
As a contact sport, injuries can also be a big factor in the success of a team. Look no farther than last year’s edition of the Canadiens for a stark example. Throughout training camp and early into the season, there is always a possibility that a team could suffer an injury that could lead them to seeking a replacement via trade. Again, if they know who is available on the Canadiens roster, they may circle back to Hughes to re-visit trade discussions.
Changes are Coming
The good news is that if none of this happens before the season begins, the Canadiens have the roster flexibility to send players to Laval without going through waivers. Hughes can wait to see how the season unfolds while the young guns get lots of playing time in Laval. There is no urgency for him to make a stop-gap trade to improve the Canadiens’ playoff chances. For other teams, this may not be the case.
Make no mistake, there will be more than a couple of changes to the Canadiens’ roster before the season ends. As fans, we can get impatient and want to see something happen on the player front sooner rather than later. But Hughes and Gorton have stated multiple times that this a year of evaluation and development with an eye to become consistent contenders over the long term. It has been and will continue to be a patient reconstruction, at least for the foreseeable future.
Salary Cap Issues
One thing Hughes has been adamant about is salary retention. Or to put it more clearly, his absolute refusal (so far) to retain salary in any trade. As a former agent and a GM who always has one eye on finances, Hughes does not want to compromise his ability to sign players in the future because he has too much retained salary on the books.
Other sweeteners may be added to the mix in a trade (Ryan Poehling is an example) but salary retention seems out of bounds. It may eventually come to that, but for now retaining salary is a non-starter.
If it means a couple of highly touted prospects need to start the season in Laval, I can see Hughes waiting patiently until a deal he is comfortable with presents itself. Yes, the management team has said that they will waive a veteran if a rookie has proven to be better. But that may also be a signal to veterans that they will need to put their best foot forward at this camp.
The caveat is that Hughes continues to (pleasantly) surprise us with how he has handled the construction of the roster. He has given us clear signals of his intentions – the Petry trade is an example – but the transaction that finally takes place isn’t always what we, as fans, expect.
This may be exactly what is happening now. Veterans have gently been put on notice and more than one is likely to be traded. But we don’t know where, when or what the return will be. The strong initial showing by several prospects only strengthens that possibility.
In the meantime, we can enjoy the pre-season and play the waiting game.
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