These days you would be hard pressed to find a Canadiens fan who is not happy with the recent moves by Mark Bergevin. The GM took the long road to get his team to where they are, never cutting any corners nor the quick fix, and he is certainly taking the path less travelled. After years of question on Centers, size, backup goaltending and spending to the Cap, Bergevin addressed all the above in a week. Just in time to take his long awaited vacation.
Reset, retool, rebuild, call it by whatever name you please, but this was a completely foreign concept to Habs fans. As a fan base we have been blessed with a successful franchise stretching over decades, not years. This latest flurry of moves by Bergevin has given the fan base something they have not had in a while, hope. Hope that this team can win, hope that this team has a future, and hope that all the patience Bergevin pleaded for, for the last couple of seasons, is finally paying off.
With the Cap predicted to be stagnant for the foreseeable future, most Habs fans are left wondering, what’s next?
The Canadiens are currently up against the cap with all of their signings for this season in place. Much of this season will hang on the performance of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi. While the optimism is there based on their performances in the Return to Play in August, we cannot get caught in the same loop. Who remembers the 2018-19 season? This is simply meant to be a reminder to temper expectations. Suzuki will most certainly face some sort of Sophmore slump this year and Kotkaniemi will need to prove that he can maintain that pace for a full 82 games. Both are going to face their fair share of adversity this season, they have to, this team cannot be built around them without knowing if they can handle that pressure.
Bergevin has set this roster up in a way where it is now on each individual player to prove they want to be a part of this team. I touched on it a bit before, but Toffoli signing in Montreal is hopefully the first step in Free Agents actively seeking out Montreal as a landing spot. With $16.3M in Cap Space next season and about half of the Forward group becoming UFA/RFAs next season, the Canadiens Management is (in)directly telling their players, you want a spot next season, earn it.
Habs fans could and probably should expect a few trades this season. With very little Cap Space in case of any emergency, I would be surprised if Bergevin made it through the entire season without making some sort of move to address this. Especially when you consider what the 2021 Free Agent class will look like, the opportunity to improve this team will have to come through Wheeling and Dealing. Any trade that the Habs make will likely be to alleviate some of the Cap Pressure from being against the upper limit.
The most common name still being thrown around is Patrik Laine. There are no exclusive rumours between Montreal and Winnipeg in place, but fans love to discuss this hypothetical. As much as I would love this type of talent on Montreal, the trade just does not make sense. If Winnipeg is not willing to accept anything along the lines of Drouin + Not Romanov + Not Caufield + 1st (we will have to meet them in the middle somewhere) then does this trade really make sense? There is obviously something to be said about acquiring the best player in the trade, but what sort of extension is he looking to sign?
2021 FREE AGENCY vs INTERNAL RESIGNINGS
Navigating the financial landscape of the NHL will be king over the next couple of seasons. This will become the biggest point of contention between players and GMs as the Cap will not be moving, therefore players will have to fight harder for their share. As I eluded to earlier, Bergevin has made it clear that he is putting the onus square on the players to earn their contracts and their spot on the team.
Entering the 2021 off-season, the Habs will have 7 forwards under contract, not including Cole Caufield. I assume he is expected to make the jump by then, but who knows what happens next year given the uncertainty in the NCAA. With that being said, Danault, Tatar, Armia, Weal are all UFAs along with Lehkonen and Kotkaniemi who will be RFAs. I do not believe that anyone is worried about KK resigning with the team. Given the start to his career, a short Bridge deal for him to prove himself seems more likely and fitting for both sides.
With Gallagher signed, Phillip Danault becomes the priority. The history between these two is well documented, going as far back as Bergevin’s time in Chicago when he would go and scout Danault in Victoriaville. After taking the GM job with the Canadiens, he acquired Danault in what is probably the most loop sided trade is his GM tenure. Danault’s skill set is often over looked and undervalued because he does so many little things right that go unnoticed. The real question becomes what is Market Value for a player like Danault?
Well let’s examine a couple comparables, the upper most limit being Sean Couturier. The reigning Selke winner has enjoyed a lot of recent success. Coming off a 59 point campaign in a shortened season, Couturier is the future of two-way defensive forwards. He is nearing the end of his 6 year/$26M contract that was signed in 2015. Back then that was roughly 6% of the Cap which would equate to $4.95M in today’s NHL which is a solid starting point. Keep in mind that Couturier signed this contract at a 15 goal and 39 point season, not what would’ve been back to back 50 point years.
There is a world where the Flyers extend Couturier ahead of schedule, affecting Danault’s situation, but a more prevalent signing to monitor is Anthony Cirelli. The 23 year old still has a few RFAs years left compared to Danault, who at 28 will be UFA at season’s end and will want to get the bag. However, if Cirelli were to sign a long term deal (relatively speaking this could be 4-5 years) this could act as a benchmark for Danault.
I will say one last thing for Danault, if he is expecting anything more than Gallgher, he will need to look elsewhere. For this reason I think that Tatar will end up walking. Similar to Danault, he is going to want to get his final Pay Day at his ripe age of 30. He had consecutive career season in Montreal, including this past shortened season, and if he can put up anything even remotely close to that again, he will be too expensive for the Canadiens to retain.
The final contract I think that will be handed out to a returning player will come down to Armia or Lehkonen. Either of them will be asked to play a similar, bottom six, defensive role. They can both kill penalties but they each bring a unique skill set. Armia is a big body with soft hands and a good shot. Lehkonen is a two-way forward that has an ability to put the puck in the net without being a defensive liability. Both will likely have to take a discount if they hope to remain in Montreal. Looking around the league, unless both drastically improve their offensive side of the puck, they are looking in the $1.5M-$2M range at best when you compare them to guys like Hinostroza ($1M), Nieto ($700K) or Jesper Fast ($2M).
You might be wondering why I spent so much time discussing our internal Free Agent options. This is because the 2021 Free Agent class is not exactly deep. The early top names at Forward are Ovechkin, Landeskog, Hall, Laine, Nugent-Hopkins, Schwartz and Tatar. If you wanted to add Gusev and Saad to that list, I wouldn’t stop you, but there is not as much top end talent as you would hope for given the Canadiens roster situation.
I am inclined to believe that Ovie will remain in Washington, but if he doesn’t, he would be amazing in Montreal. Same goes for Landeskog but there is a negative percent chance he does not resign in Colorado. Hall is a wild card, and Laine, I would assume would be signed long term if traded, otherwise he will walk for nothing because this could potentially be a very ugly RFA situation. The Nuge would be nice but I wouldn’t break the bank for him and Schwartz would be a welcome fit, but again, he may want to stay in St Louis.
The Canadiens have all the pieces in place to make a number of serious moves, and to consider any number of options. Bergevin has left himself in a very envious position with the amount of assets and Cap Space he has reserved for 2021-22. It took time, but all that patience that Bergevin preached is finally being rewarded.