Trouble Contracts

By JD Lagrange – Marc Bergevin has done a lot of good things during his nine plus years as the Canadiens’ GM. But like any other man in his position, he has messed up in a few occasions. We won’t get into his trades and signing records as it’s been done over and over again. Let’s focus on his contracts negotiations skills instead.

People look at the current cap situation and feel like the former GM was brutal when negotiating contracts. They easily forget the contracts to Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher, both 30-plus goals’ scorers. Pacioretty signed for six years at $4.5 million cap hit. Gallagher was also signed for six years at a cap hit of $3.75 million. Jake Allen made $4.35 million when Bergevin acquired him. He re-signed him for two years at $2.875 million… while in his prime! Allen just signed for another two years at a million more per season, at the tail end of his career.

It’s easy to look at today’s situation out of context and blame Bergevin. I won’t sit here defending him as it’s not going to change anyone’s opinion anyway. I’ll just say that a lot of the issues with the current contracts have to do with the toll the COVID pandemic took on the team. Price, Weber, Edmundson, Gallagher, Byron and even Drouin are only a few who have suffered through the short schedule and a long playoffs’ run, through a rash of injuries.

Now what?

Moving forward… Regardless of what happened in the past, we must live in the present and that’s exactly the way Kent Hughes is looking at the situation. There were – and still are – a few trouble contracts on the Canadiens and it’s somewhat hampering their ability to do what they want to do.

You will notice that I’m not including Joel Edmundson in those contracts because when healthy, he’s worth every penny. But if his back issues don’t get resolved, he will be added somewhere in the following categories.

Pending UFA’s

The Canadiens have over $20 million potentially coming off the books just in pending UFAs by the end of the season at the latest. A lot of it should be gone by trade deadline, if the team is not fighting for a playoffs’ spot by then, as everyone expects they won’t be.

Dadonov – $5M

They have traded Shea Weber’s LTIR contract, he who will never play a game again. To do so, they had to pick up Evgenii Dadonov’s one year, $5 million contract. So in sort, it’s a good deal for the long term, but it is handicapping the team at least until trade deadline, while contributing to the clutter in the forwards group.

Drouin – $5.5M

Jonathan Drouin

There is still a slim glimmer of hope that Martin St-Louis can turn Drouin around this season but most fans have given up all hopes to see the player we all wanted to see. The good news is that he is in the final year of his contract, but his $5.5 million weighs heavy on the payroll. Like Dadonov, he could very find another home by trade deadline.

Monahan – $6.375M

As if the contracts situation wasn’t bad enough, Hughes decided to take on Monahan’s contract in order to get another first round pick. That one is not on Bergevin. Like Dadonov and Drouin, the former Flames is on the final year of that contract and if his hips hold out, his stay in Montreal could be short lived. If he can rebound, perhaps Hughes will be able to manage another pick at trade deadline for him? In the meantime, will it cut on Kirby Dach’s ice time at center?

Byron – $3.4M

Ti-Paul was a blast to have on the Habs… when healthy. Perennial 20-goals’ scorer, fast, exciting and great to see killing penalties. But his hip is giving him serious issues, so his $3.4 million contract has become a problem. This is also his final year and due to his health, he has absolutely no trade value. It’s too bad for such a honest worker and genuine good guy.

Term left

Then, you have some trouble contracts with term left. Admittedly, some would be harder than others to move although at this point, none would be easily dumped elsewhere.

Gallagher – 5 years at $6.5M

Potentially the biggest issue due to both the length of the contract and the cap hit. Gallagher is hoping to rebound this season after a season which saw him score only seven goals in 56 games, after four 30 (or on pace for) goals seasons. This contract is currently impossible to move and the Canadiens can only hope that Gally returns to form.

Hoffman – 2 years at $4.5M

Mike Hoffman has been in the rumour mill ever since Bergevin was fired, or so it seems. Yet, he’s still on the team in spite of the surplus of players, which pretty much tells us that there hasn’t been any offer worth taking if you’re the Canadiens. Hughes might need to add a sweetener like he did for Petry (including Poehling) in order to make a trade happen.

Armia – 3 years at $3.4M

Perhaps one of the most frustrating players to watch, Joel Armia shows flashes of who he could be. But then, he disappears for games at a time. In the playoffs’ Cinderella run, he was dominant on a line with Corey Perry and Eric Staal. At the Worlds’, he was one of the best players in the tournament. But he simply can’t find the consistency needed at the NHL level. Very serviceable however, he is poised for fourth line duties this year and his contract becomes expansive for that.

LTIR

Last but not least, you have the LTIR money and as it stands, only one name… but it’s a big one!

Price – $10.5M
Carey Price

We all know the story. In the recent playoffs’ run, Price proved to everyone in the hockey world that when healthy, he’s still a dominant force out there. But his knee simply won’t heal up and that has become a serious source of concern both for the team and mostly, for the player himself. After missing all season, he only played five games at the end of last season and he could be out all season again. This could very well be another Shea Weber situation, unfortunately.

Conclusion

As you can see, that’s a lot of money being classified as trouble contracts. In total, we’re talking about just over $45 million in cap space, or 55% of the $82.5 cap limit! And the team won’t be competitive in large part because of the production – or lack of thereof – from those players.

To make matters even worse, there are some very good young prospects trying to make a push for a spot on the team, but because of those bad contracts, there is simply no room for them to crack the NHL roster, and very little ways to trade to make room for them.

The positive? By trade deadline, there should be a bit more breathing room. Up until then, managing the cap will be like walking through a mine-field.

More reading…

Kent Hughes – A Study in Patience

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.

Conclusions

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.

More reading…