The Habs weren’t overly active at the start of free agency but they made two moves of note on the opening day. One was the Sebastian Aho offer sheet while the other was signing Keith Kinkaid. Our writers offer up their thoughts on GM Marc Bergevin’s early activity.
Brian La Rose: The Aho offer sheet accomplished a few things, some good and others not so good. I think there is a bit of value in a message sent to his players with the attempt. No, it’s not going to change much of anything but I’m sure the current Habs appreciated the effort. With the rumblings that some GMs blackballed Paul Holmgren and Jay Feaster after their failed attempts, there has to be some concern that it happens here. Losing any potential trade partners is never ideal.
One thing I think it may have accomplished was messing with Carolina’s internal budget for next season. Owner Tom Dundon has a lot of money but he slashed payroll last year (remember, they basically gave Jeff Skinner away) and before this move, had done nothing to really commit more money to the team for next season. In fact, the donation of Calvin de Haan to Chicago basically helped lower their payroll and didn’t make the team any better. It’s safe to infer that there is a very limited budget in play here. The upfront money to Aho will eat into that which could play a role in what else they try to do. Don’t forget that the Hurricanes are a playoff team that the Habs are trying to leapfrog. If this affects Carolina’s plans for next season, that’s a small win for the Habs.
The big winner here is Aho though. He gets the desired term that gets him to free agency, more money than Carolina wanted to pay, and gets lots up front with lockout protection. It’s a home run for him even if it wasn’t for the Habs.
I like the Kinkaid signing. He’s who I figured they’d go after back before free agency started. He was a little younger than some of the veterans out there and while his 2018-19 season was one to forget, he was a big part of New Jersey getting to the playoffs a year ago. He’s someone that can handle a number one workload in a pinch, something that can’t be said for Charlie Lindgren who struggled to lock down that same role with Laval last season. It’s a low-risk upgrade but if he can spell Price a bit more often than Antti Niemi could, it’ll be a useful one.
Kevin Leveille: Keith Kinkaid is exactly what Bergevin was after in the goaltending market. A cheap option that will be happy to play his 25 games and provide relief for Price. Under Stephane Waite, he should be able to come close to if not match numbers from two seasons ago. Where he stands above other back-up options on the market is that should Price gets hurt, he can shoulder a bigger workload without his numbers trailing off. I personally would not have minded entering the season with Lindgren as the back-up and acquiring a vet back-up in-season if the kid wasn’t doing the job. But this is still an okay signing.
Huge, huge fan of the Sebastian Aho move. Reports are indicating that yet another UFA, this time Matt Duchene, left money on the table to sign elsewhere than Montreal. Then, it appeared as though Anders Lee was using Bergevin as leverage to get overpaid by the Islanders. After three years of the same garbage, Bergevin decided he had enough of being a good guy and went with an RFA offer sheet. I really wonder if this is the last offer sheet Bergevin signs with Carolina announcing their intention to match. Bergevin is not accepting to sit on his money for another season and quite frankly, I applaud him for having the balls to take this rare of a method to do it.
Paul MacLeod: Bergevin has taken a lot of criticism over the last few days. Some pundits and fans are critical of the Kinkaid signing. I don’t believe that is justified. Kinkaid, outside of last season, has been very good. If Bergevin and Stephane Waite see him as a viable solution, then I am confident that he will rebound. I predict 10-15 wins for him in what I hope will be at least 25 starts. Given the amount of cap tied up in Carey Price’s salary, I don’t believe that spending more on a backup would have been prudent.
Bergevin has also taken a lot of hits over the Aho offer sheet. First of all, all of Montreal’s cap space was not tied up. They could have signed Jake Gardiner, or other players, on July 1 if they wished. Secondly, Montreal’s strategy was all about front-loading the contract and hoping that Carolina blinked. That did not happen. Does anyone think that if Carolina was willing to pay $21 million in the first year that a few more dollars on the AAV or an extra draft pick were going to change their minds? I think there was a slim chance with this offer and that a slightly stronger offer would have yielded the same results. Tom Dundon and the Hurricanes are just re-establishing themselves as a presence in the North Carolina market and losing Aho for draft picks would have destroyed the credibility and popularity that they have been working so hard to build. The lesson here, as I see it, is that an offer sheet has to disrupt a team’s cap to such an extent that they have no choice but to fail to match. Is Brayden Point, Patrik Laine or Kyle Connor worth that kind of offer? We shall see.
In the meantime, I will reserve any criticism for Bergevin and consider his early free agent period a success. Of course, Montreal still has roster holes to fill and I will be highly critical if he fails to sign Jake Gardiner or trade for a suitable left defenceman. I would also like to see a physical and goal-scoring presence signed to replace Andrew Shaw as counting on Nick Suzuki or Ryan Poehling to fill the void is a risky strategy.
Norm Szcyrek: When I first read the details about the risky move of signing Aho, I thought there was only a small hope that Carolina would not match the offer. Within 24 hours, the Hurricanes announced their intent to match it.
The Hurricanes announcement led to some debate among the Habs fans and media. Was Bergevin naive enough to think Aho, a 21-year-old first-line forward, would leave the team he was drafted by and has been with for his first three pro seasons, especially after he helped lead them to a playoff berth, and a trip to the Eastern Conference Final? Some have said that Bergevin was persuaded or even influenced by Aho’s agent, Gerry Johansson. A fact is that Johansson is the agent representing current Habs Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, and Brett Kulak, along with former Habs Joe Morrow and Martin Reway. So Bergevin’s has a professional relationship with him for some time. Was it a “close” GM/agent relationship, like the one he has with agent Pat Brisson, who he has known since they were both teenagers? Brisson also has five clients who are current or former Habs players, and a few others that when they were going to turn UFAs, ended up in the Habs rumour mill as showing “interest” in signing with Montreal. This is a typical agent negotiating ploy to involve Montreal, no doubt to make the interest level in their clients appear higher than it actually is to the real teams in the running to sign that player. I base that on the fact that practically no high-level free agents ever sign with the Canadiens since the salary cap was implemented in the NHL.
To borrow a baseball euphemism, I am going to go out in left field to offer an alternate explanation. It may be possible that Bergevin’s move was more of a long-term play from the side of NHL ownership. Perhaps the Montreal brain trust was directing this offer sheet as more of a chess move, to get certain pieces in place for a future move, namely in the next CBA negotiation. Consider this. Dundon will now no doubt be ticked off that the Aho contract signing went against his team’s internal salary structure, and this move may impact upcoming contracts for his younger players. What if Dundon, who is a relatively outspoken owner for being in charge less than two years, becomes a vocal voice to the NHL ownership bargaining group? He may push hard for another contract signing limit for players who are coming out of their entry-level contracts. There is currently no range what they can negotiate for other than the 20% of the league’s upper limit, which is a figure even the elite in the NHL rarely meet. Even the highest revenue earning teams would like to see some limits to this level of spending for their team’s young stars.
Of course, the NHLPA would fight hard against such a move. But if the NHL owners were to offer other sweeteners such as a big increase (maybe 20%) on the league’s minimum salary, an increase to the roster size, a decrease from seven to six years until unrestricted free agency is met, a decrease in escrow, a solid commitment to participating in the Winter Olympics, or even an increase from the 23-man roster size, then the union leaders and their union dues-paying players may consider this. Maybe I am a conspiracy theorist for offering this explanation, but I don’t believe this is inconceivable.
With respect to the Kinkaid signing, at first, I was not pleased to hear of the news. Keith had a terrible season in 2018-19 in all statistical categories. However, in 2017-18, Kinkaid was very good, especially after the Devils starting goalie was injured and out of the lineup for several weeks. There is hope that Habs goaltending guru Stephane Waite can work his magic on Keith to get him back to the level he showed two seasons ago.