As always, there were plenty of signings of July 1st but this time, the Habs were largely on the sidelines. Our writers weigh in about what Montreal did and didn’t do at the beginning of free agency.
Note: The signings of Michael Chaput and Kenny Agostino were primarily for Laval so they won’t be discussed here. We’ll have a piece on the Rocket’s new look later this offseason.
Brian La Rose: With the Habs not meeting with John Tavares and Saturday’s trade, it seemed pretty clear that they wouldn’t be going after impact players when the market opened up. That’s basically what happened.
Tomas Plekanec’s return was all but a given and while I think it’s a bit pricey, it’s structured in a way that most of the bonuses will be hit by the time the trade deadline rolls around which should help his trade value. I’m hopeful he won’t have as big of a role this season but we’ll see what happens there.
I like the addition of Matthew Peca. Yes, it’s a lot of money for someone that’s relatively untested but that’s what the market was for those types of players with perceived upside (see Austin Czarnik’s deal with Calgary). I wouldn’t be shocked if he pushes his way into a top-nine role before too long. The big question is can he stick at centre given his size but Montreal is in a spot where they can give him a real look.
As for Xavier Ouellet, he’s a depth piece at most. If the Habs don’t deal away any of their blueline depth such as Jordie Benn or David Schlemko in the coming months, he’s going to start the season around ninth or tenth on the depth chart which makes him a candidate to be waived. I don’t think there’s a lot of upside with this signing but he’s controllable for a couple more years if he does pan out.
While they were linked to Ryan O’Reilly, I’m glad to see they didn’t pay the asking price – the closest comparisons to the players St. Louis gave up would have been Noah Juulsen, Andrew Shaw, and Phillip Danault. Those two, plus a first and second rounder, would have been too much considering where they stand.
If the Habs aren’t planning on contending this season (and that appears to be the case), staying quiet isn’t a bad thing. They added what amounts to probably another decent draft pick if/when Plekanec is moved again and added a player with a bit of upside in Peca. There’s minimal risk with the potential for a small reward. That’s largely underwhelming but it beats adding another anchor contract to the books when they appear to be a non-playoff team.
Paul MacLeod: Expectations are so low among the fan base right now that the fact that Marc Bergevin didn’t make a disastrous signing or trade counts as a major win. The Joel Armia deal was good. The Plekanec signing – given their lack of centre depth- was a necessity but the salary and term are fine. Peca has some upside, but is he merely a more offensive-minded 4th line centre than Jacob de la Rose? Time will tell. Ouellet is a cheap depth singing with some upside and the depth on defence is suspect, to say the least.
I am not overwhelmed by his work but it is decent, prudent GMing. I am happy they didn’t give up a huge package for O’Reilly. What I would really like to see is Max Pacioretty traded for a centre but since that seems unlikely, I would be happy with a middling AHLer for Jason Spezza and more draft picks if Dallas decides they need to free up some cap room. A few dozen more moves like these and Bergevin will be well on his way to cleaning up the mess he created.
Norm Szcyrek: I can sum up my feelings about the Habs UFA acquisitions in one word, meh. Look, Plekanec can still be serviceable for the Habs this season as a 3rd or 4th line centre. But his presence does not address the need for a 1st or 2nd line centre. He can step up into that role temporarily but it’s no longer his forte.
With regards to Peca, to me, he’s another underwhelming option. Matthew is a very small centre, who has been blocked at getting a genuine chance to play in Tampa the last two seasons. He’s feisty and has produced in the AHL, but at 25 he needs to make the most of this chance to prove he can become a regular NHL player.
Xavier Ouellet is a player I have seen play live in Detroit a number of times. I think he’s a serviceable depth defenceman as a #5/6/7 player. He has some offensive skills, and his defensive game is ok but I’ve seen some improvements. At 24, he really needs to step up to show he belongs in Montreal.
Dave Woodward: The Habs entered the Draft/Free Agency period with glaring holes at centre and a player who can play with Shea Weber on left defence. For the 2018-19 season, those weaknesses remain unaddressed. Unless there are signings prior to camp, it seems the Canadiens have opted, or circumstances have forced them, to address these holes through internal development as opposed to expensive long-term free agent signings or the trading of picks or young assets.
While Bergevin’s work over the last few years has been less than stellar, here, he has chosen the right strategy. There is no shortcut to Stanley Cup contention. The Islanders had Tavares for nine years and made the playoffs three times. Even if the Canadiens could have signed Tavares or Paul Stastny, why bother? They are not one player away.
The signings of Plekanec and Peca are stop-gap measures until their young centre prospects -Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling and Jake Evans – are NHL ready. Similarly, the Habs have not signed anyone to play with Weber as Ouellet projects as a depth defenceman who may start the year in Laval.
With Plekanec, there is no risk or upside for reward. The Habs know exactly what he can and will deliver at the sunset of his fine career. He will be a mentor to the team’s younger players and a solid third line shutdown centre, chipping in with some moderate offensive contributions. Not bad for a placeholder. Peca may have some offensive upside but with only around 20 games in the NHL, who knows? Ouellet was bought out in Detroit. Hopefully, The Canadiens’ new brain trust – who know Ouellet from his junior career – can help him rediscover his game.
As important as who the Habs signed was their refusal to trade substantial present and future assets for O’Reilly. St. Louis’ trade for O’Reilly may have made sense for their organization. However, for the Canadiens, the dilution of their prospects, future picks and an already thin slate of roster players made little sense. This does mean Habs’ fans will most likely need to find another hobby this winter. Better that than the purgatory of the middling middle, where the Canadiens just might make the playoffs, where “anything can happen”. That snake oil will no longer sell in Montreal.