In this, the most dramatic of Habs summers in recent memory, one thing is for certain: the team will be starting the 2021-22 NHL season without Shea Weber, its longtime captain and a rock, err, man mountain, on the first pair of its defence corps. Beyond that, much is up in the air.
The Big Hurt
Weber was suspected to be playing hurt throughout the playoffs and especially so in the later rounds. And, indeed, after the Habs got knocked out of the Stanley Cup Final, it was confirmed that he was suffering from thumb, knee and ankle injuries, which certainly would have impacted his postseason play.
The most concerning injury, though, was that to his ankle, which he has suffered from before. It was confirmed that he would definitely miss a significant part of the upcoming season and might well miss the season in its entirety. Worse, there is a risk that these injuries are simply too much for Weber to recover from and to regain his form. Could this possibly be the end of his illustrious NHL career?
The silver lining in this dark cloud was that it enabled the team to expose Weber in the Seattle expansion draft, allowing seven forwards to be protected, rather than four. And, given the severity of the injuries and the lack of a definitive medical assessment in advance of the draft, the Kraken stayed away.
However, that still leaves the Canadiens with four basic scenarios to deal with:
1-Weber misses part of the 2021-22 season but returns prior to the end of the regular season
2-Weber misses all of the 2021-22 regular season
3-Weber does not return and spends the remainder of his contract on LTIR
4-Weber decides that his body cannot take further punishment, and retires from the NHL
A season to miss
The first two scenarios are very close in many ways. Whether Weber would return in six months or 12, the team would need to find short-term help to address the Weber gap. However, with Weber’s expected return, cap space management is critical: GM Marc Bergevin would need to clear up cap space by the time the captain returns.
If he were to return during the upcoming season which doesn’t seem likely at the moment, Bergevin would need to maintain substantial cap space throughout the season in order to make space for his $7.9M cap hit on his return — there would be little opportunity to dump salary to other teams. Of course, if he were to “do a Kucherov” and return for the first game of the playoffs, the cap space would be available (under the LTIR rules) just as if he were to miss the entire season.
And, in that case, the Habs could aim for something big. A free agent like Douglas Hamilton ($5.75M current AAV) could step into the minutes-eating role that Weber has held and provide greater mobility and puck-moving capability to boot. However, he would be very unlikely to accept a one-year contract, so signing him — assuming he is interested in playing for the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge in the first place — would mean that Bergevin would need to shed a lot of salary a year from now. Weber’s contract would be even tougher to move than it is now, so likely several roster players would need to get swapped for picks or prospects.
Tyson Barrie or David Savard could be alternatives at maybe two-thirds of Hamilton’s salary. Barrie also has the ability to move the puck and generate offence. However, he is also somewhat lacking in defensive acumen, leaving a big gap as compared to Man Mountain. And while an offensive defenseman would surely strengthen the power play, would Barrie be that much better than the much-maligned Erik Gustafsson, whom Bergevin picked up at the trade deadline, and who could likely be renewed inexpensively?
Savard would be a more defensively-minded option, but with Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson already on board, the team would be best served with someone who can also generate offence. Either Savard or Barrie would make that cap crunch significantly easier to deal with than Hamilton would, though.
On the trade front, Seth Jones and Rasmus Ristolainen were two notable players that could have been targeted but both wound up being traded before the draft. As a result, this is a hole that is probably going to need to be filled in free agency and while veterans like Alex Goligoski and Brandon Montour could be under consideration as well, they will need an impactful player to take Weber’s role.
Is the end nigh?
And if this is really the end of Weber’s career as Bergevin believes to be the case? In that case, the timing becomes a non-issue, as there would be no cap crunch resulting from Weber’s return. In this case, the Habs should surely be all in on a top defenceman with offensive skills, and preferably one in his prime.
Hamilton, at age 28 much younger than other top UFA D, would seem to fit the bill the best. He would be ready to support another playoff run next spring and still be in top condition when the Habs’ youth movement hits its prime 3-4 years from now.
Should Weber choose actual retirement this summer, Montreal would need to absorb a very moderate cap recapture penalty of about $500K/year for the remainder of his contract. However, it would be roughly 9x that for the Predators, his original team. Any indication of impending retirement might be enough to force Nashville to negotiate a trade with the Habs, giving up assets in exchange for Weber, and to avoid a cumulative total of about $25M in recapture penalties.
What will it be, then? Much depends on the medical examinations Weber will undergo in the near future. Only after that situation is known, will Bergevin be in a position to make decisions on how to fill the huge gap that Weber will be leaving. Some finality on that front before free agency begins would certainly be beneficial for the Habs to see if Bergevin’s understanding of the situation is indeed correct and Weber is unlikely to ever return or if there’s a possibility of him returning beyond 2021-22.