The Canadiens entered the offseason with optimism. After a surprising 96-point campaign where they barely missed the playoffs, many pundits were expecting the Habs to make some moves that improved the team now. And GM Marc Bergevin tried to do just that.
Erik Karlsson was rumoured to be interested in returning to the Ottawa-Montreal region for domestic reasons but, after comparing tax rates, the Karlssons decided they were not that homesick. Bergevin was unable to sign Matt Duchene who opted for the warmer climes, low taxes, and anonymity of Tennessee. Restricted Free Agent Sebastian Aho signed a front-loaded lockout-proof contract with the Habs that, while irritating to the Carolina Hurricanes, was a contract that was clearly going to be matched.
It is unfair to criticize Bergevin for not landing Duchene, Karlsson, Aho, or any other upper-tier free agents. Restricted free agents almost never move. And no unrestricted free agents want to play in Montreal. UFAs are signing the contract that will set themselves and their families up for life. Their careers are at least half over when they sign their UFA contract. By the end of the contract, most UFAs will no longer be in their prime and their careers may well be over. Apart from John Tavares, who among us would be prepared to give half the money from their UFA contract to Canada’s upper tier governments? And that does not even take into consideration the weather and the media scrutiny UFAs will have to endure in the world’s most hockey-mad market, all for a team that is still not a serious contender. All things considered, the Canadiens will not be a preferred destination for UFAs for the foreseeable future.
Bergevin has been busy but he has accomplished very little in terms of improving his lineup for the 2019-20 season. I won’t summarize each and every transaction but very little has been done that will impact the top of the lineup. In effect, the Canadiens GM has:
a. Acquired Nick Cousins via free agency and, in a separate deal, moved out Andrew Shaw for a second and third-round pick.
b. Substituted Ben Chiarot for Jordie Benn.
c. Acquired Keith Kinkaid who will lessen Carey Price’s workload.
Chiarot is likely a modest upgrade on Benn since Chiarot is physical (something that the Canadiens left side defencemen are not) and he has played up the lineup in his career, something which Benn consistently struggled to do. However, Chiarot is certainly no analytics darling and it remains to be seen if he is just a cheaper version of Karl Alzner. Despite an off-year this past season, Kinkaid will likely be a modest upgrade on the 2018-19 version of Antti Niemi. Cousins, on the other hand, will not fill the shoes of Andrew Shaw. Unlike Shaw, Cousins will not move up and down the lineup and will certainly not produce at the same level Shaw did last year. Given the health concerns with Shaw, the trade for the picks may well be a good deal in the long run but it does little for the Canadiens this upcoming season.
On balance, the 2019-20 lineup, as things stand today, is pretty similar and maybe even a little weaker than last year’s team that narrowly missed the playoffs.
So what should Bergevin do? Nothing.
Some of the remaining free agents would improve the Canadiens in the short run but they are not difference makers and they will not make the Habs contenders now. Additional long-term contracts will also hamstring the Habs with respect to the salary cap going forward. For example, Jake Gardiner may in the short term be a good fit for the Canadiens left side provided his back injuries are not chronic. But do you really want a six to seven-year contract at $6-7 million dollars for a player with a potentially bad back? Since you are not contending anyway, why not make do with what you have on the left side and await the arrival of Alexander Romanov and the other defencemen that have been drafted (and are being developed) to reinforce the left side? Additional free agent contracts will also impact the Habs’ ability to sign Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher. Phillip Danault, Victor Mete or, when the time comes, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki. All to what end? So they can be in the middling middle for a year and have a better chance of making the playoffs this season (“where anything can happen”)?
For a team that cannot seem to attract front-line free agents, the drafting and development of players is the only path to sustainable (as opposed to intermittent) success. In 2019-20, unless the lineup changes, the Canadiens’ playoff prospects depend on the emergence of their young players. That is as it should be at this phase of the rebuild (or is it reset, whatever). The Canadiens young prospects may not emerge this season and, if they do not, they will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years. While this may be a tough sell for Carey Price and Shea Weber, the emphasis on the drafting and development of young players is in the best interests of the organization long-term and is the only path to the franchise’s next championship.