More Questions Than Answers Entering Off-Season

By JD Lagrange – The Montreal Canadiens have officially entered the off-season back on April 30th. In years past, the team had a solid core and fans were wondering what would be added to it in order to move forward. There were more answers than there were questions. It’s not so much the case entering this off-season, the first under new management, as there are just a few certainties and a whole lot of moving parts.

If Kent Hughes found trade deadline challenging, he’s up to a very tough and busy summer. Here are 10 questions he is faced with, or that fans are left wondering about:

1- What about Carey Price?

Carey Price has reportedly received a second opinion about his knee and the news isn’t good. It was apparently suggested to get another surgery. So we’re back at square one: no value in a trade due to the uncertainly of his health and future, and no further ahead when it comes to the goaltending situation in goal for the Canadiens. Will the Canadiens go with Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault after the disastrous season they’ve just been through? It’s doubtful. Expect Hughes to get an insurance policy help Allen if Price can’t go.

2- Will Jeff Petry be traded?

Petry averaged 0.16 points per game under Dominique Ducharme and after Cole Caufield, he had the biggest improvement stats-wise, producing 0.70 points per games under Martin St-Louis. Hughes has met with his defenseman after the season ended and it doesn’t seem like Petry had a change of heart. He’ll likely be traded and with his improved play, it should be not only easier to complete a trade, but to get some value for him. It would also shed some key salary off the team’s cap.

3- Do they really want to go with a young defense?

Jordan Harris did quite well, as did Justin Barron before getting hurt. Kayden Guhle faired well at camp last season. But will the Canadiens dare go with such a young defense, considering that Alexander Romanov is only 22? It is doubtful, particularly if they decide to trade Petry. Expect either a UFA signing – I’m a big John Klingberg fan but Kris Letang is also rumoured – or a veteran defenseman coming through trade. The younger ones will be going back and forth between Montreal and Laval.

4- How will they be shedding salary cap?

My colleague Bob Trask looked at the possibilities offered to Hughes when it comes to unloading some much needed salary cap space. Here is a list of the Canadiens’ top paid players, which includes Nick Suzuki’s new contract kicking in next season.

5- What about the future of Jonathan Drouin?

Here’s another guy who hasn’t been able to stay healthy since being acquired by the Canadiens, and it’s been worse the past two seasons. Mental health, physical health which included a wrist surgery on both wrists. Drouin has one year left to his contract. My personal feeling is that the guy could benefit from a fresh start elsewhere, particularly that the Canadiens wouldn’t mind unloading his $5.5 million cap hit. But I could see them hanging onto him to see what he can do under Martin St-Louis. Worse case scenario, they could trade him as a trade deadline rental.

6- The status of the current assistant-coaches?

The coach said being satisfied with his coaching staff. But considering the way special teams have been going, the way the defensive coverage was lacking, it is my opinion that St-Louis needs a more veteran assistant-coach with head coaching experience to help him out with defensive coverage system in their zone and neutral zone.

7- Who will be wearing the captain “C”?

In spite of what some people (from the outside) want you to believe, this dressing room is not lacking in quality leadership. There are a few very good candidates to receive a letter on their jersey next season. At the end of the season, St-Louis had high praise for Brendan Gallagher. Joel Edmundson is a quality veteran with tons of good leadership qualities. Josh Anderson sports the “A” for Team Canada at the World Championships and has shown leadership qualities since with the Habs. Up until recently, I was thinking that Nick Suzuki needed some maturing but I have since changed my mind. He could very well be given the “C”.

8- Who will they target on the UFA market?

Kent Hughes said wanting to be a player on the UFA market. Just recently though, he tempered his comments saying that he would be unlikely to pursue any of the top UFAs. Strategy? Realism? Time will tell. If traded, he did say wanting to replace Jeff Petry for an equivalent veteran defenseman and those don’t come cheap. What about his former clients Patrice Bergeron and Kris Letang?

9- Who could be potential trade targets?

A while ago, we touched on the possibility of adding a few younger NHL established players who are rumoured to be available around the NHL. As the Winnipeg Jets are at a crossroad, I would add the name of Pierre-Luc Dubois to a relatively extensive list which includes players like Vitali Kravtsov, Filip Zadina, Travis Koneckny, Maxime Comtois and Ilya Samsonov, amongst others. My new colleague JAG goes further by suggesting a homerun like Leon Draisaitl. The Canadiens have the assets to do something substantial by acquiring someone NHL ready but still young enough to help for years to come.

10- Could they pull a stunt at the Draft?

The NHL Draft will be held in Montreal and the Canadiens hold the number one pick. The scenario is Cinderella-like, where the script seems to be pre-written. The vanilla version being that Kent Hughes would announce the selection of Shane Wright. But the gap between the top-5 players isn’t as big as it’s been in recent years and while Wright is first on most lists, it’s not by a wide margin. This creates some controversy amongst some media and the fan base. Would the Canadiens dare making a splash at the Draft in Montreal? It would take a lot of guts!

Conclusion

As you can see, this off-season won’t be like the ones we’ve seen in the past 10 years or so. Even when Marc Bergevin made some substantial changes, he was trading away a Subban, or a Pacioretty. But never were there that many question marks. If the combo of Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes know where they’re going, the same cannot be said about the fans. Even with more promised transparency, there are too many questions, too many moving parts, for us to try to determine what will happen this off-season. We can, however, expect a busy summer and with the season we’ve all been through, the summer moves should be more exciting than watching them play has been.

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Big Contracts And The Salary Cap

By Bob Trask – A lot of what Montreal Canadiens’ GM Kent Hughes will be able to do with his roster for next season will depend on how much salary cap room he has to work with. It seems he has already accepted the fact that high end free agents are beyond his grasp. Those players are likely to be grabbed up quickly before the Canadiens can open up cap space.

With carryover bonus overages, buyouts (Alzner) and LTIR players counting agains the cap during the summer, the Canadiens projected cap hit already exceeds the $82.5 million upper limit with only 17 players signed. They are allowed to exceed the cap by 10% (to $90.75 million) during the summer but have to be compliant when the season starts. It does give them time to get their house in order but it won’t be easy.

We can start by looking at the contracts in descending order of cap hit. There will be some uncomfortable decisions to be made in the off season.

CAREY PRICE – $10.5M (4 years)

Carey Price will be back with the Canadiens or he will be placed on the LTIR. There simply aren’t any other options. Unfortunately for Hughes, he won’t know the answer to that question for a long time, meaning his hands will be until late summer. That means he has to plan his cap space and his entire goaltending situation around Price returning but if he can’t, there has to be a legitimate backup plan in place.

Best guess: Price determines in training camp whether he can continue or not but the league would still have to determine in he qualifies for LTIR if he decides he can’t.

SHEA WEBER – $7.857M (4 years)

Weber was on LTIR during the season and his contract wasn’t a significant impediment but the contract does count against the expanded cap during the summer. The Canadiens currently have about $8 million in wiggle room this off-season but moving Weber’s contract would almost double that to ~$16 million.

Best guess: Moving Weber’s contract will be a high priority item for Hughes and could be one of his first orders of business.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER – $6.5M (5 years)

The Canadiens did not get good value for their money from Gallagher this year and the amount and length of his contract make his market value negative. Without a doubt this is the worst contract on the Habs books. To his credit, Gallagher has vowed to rest, recuperate and be in top form when the puck drops on the next season.

Brendan Gallagher

Teams can only retain salary on 3 contracts in a season and retaining salary in a Gallagher trade would mean that the Canadiens would only be able to retain salary on 2 additional contracts for the next 5 years. It’s probably not a situation that Hughes wants to get into because it could tie his hands on potential trades at the deadline for the next few years.

The result is we will need to accept Gallagher for what he birngs and adjust our expectations for him going forward. He has averaged about 25 goals per 82 games over his career but time and injuries seem to be taking their toll. A season of 20 to 25 goals could be within reach but that is not worth $6.5 million per year regardless the leadership qualities he brings.

Best guess: For better or worse, Gallagher will be with the Canadiens for next year and beyond. What his role will be remains to be seen.

JEFF PETRY – $6.25M (3 years)

This one seems like a slam dunk. Petry expressed a desire to be traded and Hughes seemed more than willing to accommodate him. Rumours swirled that a deal was virtually completed at the deadline, only to fall through at the last minute.

But Petry’s play picked up in the last part of the season, his demeanour improved and he kept the door open regarding a return to Montreal. Whether Hughes is considering that or not remains to be seen – the team could use his experience on RD and if is play continued at a high level it would be a huge bonus for the team.

Best guess: With Petry’s resurgence his market value had to have climbed steeply. Hughes will honour Petry’s initial request and trade him for a prospect, a decent draft pick and maybe more if he takes a poor contract back in return. It also opens up a lot of space for the Habs.

JONATHAN DROUIN – $5.5M (1 year)

The one thing that makes Drouin’s contract more palatable than the others is the fact that there is only one year left. Because he is recovering from surgery, his trade value is likely nil. The Canadiens could buy him out and take a cap hit of $1.8 million per year over the next two years or they could keep him.

Best guess: Montreal will give Drouin one more kick at the can. If it works out, the can re-sign him or use him as trade bait at the deadline next spring when players on expiring contracts can bring good value in return – as was the case with Chiarot and Lehkonen. If it doesn’t work out, the Habs weren’t really expected to challenge next year anyway and his contract would be completely off the books for the 2023-24 season.

MIKE HOFFMAN – $4.5M (2 years)

Hoffman was brought in to boost the power play and that strategy failed miserably but by season’s end his play had picked up and he even upped the defensive side of his game. He still has wheels but at 32 years old he probably not a good fit for a Montreal team that hopes to hit their stride two or three years down the road.

Best guess: Hoffman will be moved to another team and it will cost them very little in the way of assets. He has two years left on his contract and Hughes could probably be tempted to take back a similar contract with only one year left on its term.

JOEL ARMIA – $3.4M (3 years)

Armia had a horrible year but and like Petry, he was separated from his family for the entire season. It’s impossible to measure the impact it had on his game but it certainly wouldn’t have helped. He is a player with a lot of size and a lot of tools but has never put it all together. Unfortunately for the Habs, his horrible season combined with the size and length of his contract create a lot of problems if they are trying to to trade him.

Best guess: As with Drouin, there is no urgency to trade Armia and buying him out makes little sense. His cap hit is middle of the pack so you save a bit by replacing him with a lower cost player but not a lot. Armia starts the season with the Canadiens and Hughes monitors opportunities to trade him before the deadline. If nothing develops and he doesn’t perform, he becomes a buyout candidate NEXT year.

PAUL BYRON – $3.4M (1 year)

Byron has been plagued by injuries over the last couple of years but he has always been a good, loyal soldier. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to keep him on the team. His cap hit on a buyout would be a relatively modest $1.53 million this year a $953K next year but it seems an unlikely option.

In addition to a buyout, there are a couple of other options available with Byron. The Habs could keep him on the roster in a veteran leadership role for the upcoming season and be free of his contract the following season. At trade deadline time, they could try to move him or keep him until season end. They could attempt to trade him before the season but with his unknown injury status and his contract, Hughes could be forced to sweeten the pot. That also seems unlikely. They could put him on waivers and assign him to Laval which would mean a cap hit of something around $2.2 million would still apply.

Best guess: Byron starts the season with Montreal and his performance will determine if he remains with the team or is assigned to Laval. I don’t think a deadline deal will be in the cards and if it is, the return would be negligible.

JOSH ANDERSON ($5.5M) & CHRISTIAN DVORAK ($4.45M)

I don’t see Hughes moving either one of these players over the summer with the caveat being an overwhelming offer must be considered.

The Shakeout

The analysis seems to indicate that Hughes has his hands tied to some extent. The contract situation is a mess that can only be sorted out one step at a time. If Price went on LTIR and Petry was traded the entire contract situation would look better but it would be to the detriment of the team.

As the summer unfolds we will get more clarity on what the contract situation and the roster looks like. In the meantime there will be a lot frustration among Habs fans and patience will be required.

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