By Bob Trask – Every general manager in the NHL is faced with the challenge of managing his roster within the constraints of the salary cap. A glance at the season ending salary cap situation has Montreal near the top of the salary cap heap and while that seems to indicate that Kent Hughes is operating with a set of handcuffs, upon closer look it may not be that bad.
The Canadiens have expiring contracts, players who may be traded and players who may have their contracts bought out. We can look at a purely hypothetical starting lineup for next year, one that admittedly makes a lot of assumptions, but it represents a starting point.
Here’s a look at one hypothetical lineup and cap hit by position and and estimate what the team’s cap situation could look like.
The first assumption is that Kent Hughes goes with the same goaltending tandem as last year. The team is not quite prepared for a cup run and Hughes may want to take the temperature of his squad before committing more money to goaltending. Jake Allen is on the books for $3.85 million next year while Sam Montembeault sits at an even $1.0 million. This is well below the league average and allows the team some leeway in other areas.
The total for the two goaltenders is $4.85 million but could go even lower if Allen was traded and Cayden Primeau wins the backup role. But for now, our hypothetical lineup will stick with the $4.85 million.
The second assumption is that the four LD from last year will return for the 2023-24 season. Mike Matheson, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj will carry a combined cap hit of less that $7.5 million. That is an embarrassingly low number but the squad is one of the youngest in the league and their overall should improve. The good news is that none are up for contract renewal in the near future.
Right defense could probably use an upgrade and the name Damon Severson has popped up on Twitter as a potential UFA target. But until or if an acquisition happens, the Canadiens’ RD looks like it could be manned by David Savard, Justin Barron and Jonathan Kovacevic. Their combined cap hit come in at just under over $5.1 million. Chris Wideman can be placed on waivers and if he was not claimed and is sent to Laval, his salary is low enough that it won’t represent any cap hit to the Canadiens.
As with LD, the amount of money spend on RD is embarrassingly low and if there is cap room available, it wouldn’t be surprising if Kent Hughes tried to make a splash here in the free agent market or via the trade route.
Combining the cap hit of the LD listed above with the RD currently under contract, the Canadiens would have about $12.0 million in cap space dedicated to defense. That will change as the contracts come up for renewal but for the immediate future this salary structure is a bonus.
The center ice position presents a lot of possibilities. The Canadiens currently have Nick Suzuki, Kirby Dach, Christian Dvorak and Jake Evans under contract while a decision needs to be made on Sean Monahan before July 1st. But the elephant in the room is Pierre-Luc Dubois and he isn’t even a Canadien at this point. The biggest assumption made regarding this hypothetical lineup is that the Canadiens will trade for Dubois without giving up any players named as part of the future lineup in this article. A secondary assumption regarding Dubois is that he would be willing to sign for $7.5 million per year.
Acquiring Dubois would require one of the Canadiens’ existing centers to be bumped and, in this case, Christian Dvorak draws the short straw. It would also likely mean that if the Canadiens have any intention of re-signing Monahan, it would be as a LW… unless moving Kirby Dach back to RW is in the cards.
But if we stick to the original idea of Dach remaining at center, the total cap hit for Suzuki, Dach, Dubois and Evans would be just over $20.7 million.
For the purpose of this hypothetical lineup and the salary cap estimates, I have made three assumptions. The first is that Cole Caufield will sign for $7.825 million; the second is that Sean Monahan will be deemed healthy and sign a contract for $1.75 million plus bonuses to play left wing (not center); and the third is that Rafael Harvey-Pinard will also sign for $1.75 million. These three along with Juraj Slafkovsky, who carries a $950K cap hit would be the four starting left wingers. Based on the assumptions made, their combined cap hit would be $12.275 million.
It might not be the ideal LW lineup based on personnel currently in the organization but it is passable in a transition year while the Canadiens evaluate the play of prospects like Emil Heineman in Laval.
For me, right wing is one of the biggest question marks on the team and one of the challenges Kent Hughes faces is finding someone he will have chemistry with Suzuki and Caufield. Nearly everyone has been tried there with varying degrees of success (or lack of success). Josh Anderson and Brendan Gallagher are both important players but don’t seem to mesh well with the Suzuki/Caufield duo. Jesse Ylonen lacks experience and doesn’t add any physical presence to an already small line. Denis Gurianov and Joel Armia have failed to seize the opportunity.
It would not be surprising if Kent Hughes went out in search of a first line RW with a relatively high cap hit. For my hypothetical lineup, I am giving him a budget of $6.0 million. My projection is that Anderson and Gallagher return while Ylonen would re-sign for about $975K with Armia and Gurianov out of the running. The sum total of these cap hits would be just under $19.0 million.
The big assumption here is that a first line RW can be found and acquired at reasonable price in terms of assets going the other way. Another option, as mentioned earlier, would be switching Dach back to RW on Suzuki’s line, keeping Monahan at LW and Dvorak as the 3rd line winger. From a cap standpoint this could be a more attractive option than spending big on an RW from outside the organization
If neither of those can happen, do the Canadiens give Emil Heineman a shot or take another look at Gurianov? My guess is that Heineman starts the year in Laval and Gurianov moves on to other pastures.
So far twenty-one players and their projected cap hits have been listed and with a roster limit of 23 there is room for two more names to be added. Candidates include Joel Armia, Alex Belzile, Michael Pezzetta and Rem Pitlick. For the sake of argument let’s say that Hughes is unable to trade Armia and is unwilling to buy him out, so by default he becomes one of the extra forwards, one who could potentially have some value at the trade deadline. That leaves one spot for Pezzetta, Pitlick and Belzile (if he is re-signed). Let the best man win and trust Hughes to find a way to avoid losing the other two for nothing.
With this combination the Canadiens would have about $4.5 million allocated to extra forwards. It is an unreasonably high number but it is one that won’t be there forever. They may just have to live with it for another season (or portion thereof if a trade deadline deal is made).
The numbers won’t include the salary for Carey Price who undoubtedly will return to LTIR but two other factors impact the Canadiens’ cap space. The team’s cap space will be reduced by $1.1875 million because of bonus overages and by another $833,333 for the last year of the Karl Alzner buyout.
Hypothetical Cap Hits by Position
- Goaltenders $4.85 million
- Left defense $7.5 million
- Right defense $5.1 million
- Center $20.7 million
- Left wing $12.3 million
- Right Wing $19.0 million
- Extra Forwards $4.5 million
When you add it all up, this hypothetical roster comes in just under $74.0 million. With the expected salary cap to be around $83.5 million next year, the Canadiens would have about $7.0 million in unused cap space after their salary cap reductions are factored in. But Hughes will need to be prudent as some of his bargain basement contracts in goal and on defense will be in line for raises in the near future.
On the Outside – Looking In
The hypothetical lineup created here is unlikely to come to fruition but if Kent Hughes takes a similar approach there will be some familiar names absent from next season’s roster. They include Joel Edmundson, Chris Wideman, Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Drouin, Christian Dvorak, Denis Gurianov and maybe one or two of Joel Armia, Rem Pitlick, Michael Pezzetta and Alex Belzile.
That is a handful of names who could walk as free agents, be included in trades or be put on waivers. The reality is that the team might not be any weaker and, in fact, could be stronger if none of this group returned. And that raises the question of what kind of assets would Hughes accept in a trade for anyone in this group in order to give others an opportunity – and to eliminate the possibility of losing young promising players on waivers.
With some wiggle room in the cap, Hughes could perhaps afford to retain salary on one or two of the veterans in a trade but retained salary is also an asset that can be very useful at the trade deadline. It is currency he will want to use wisely.
None of these ideas are predictions but simply a sample of various courses of action that the Canadiens could take.
Because of the way in which last season unfolded, the team may be in a unique position among NHL teams. We can watch and wait to see how Hughes manages the draft, the trade market and the free agent market as he continues to put his stamp on the team.