After the playoff run that the Habs had, there is a justifiable case to be made to ‘run it back’, bringing as many pieces back that they can afford and trying again next season. But that would come at the expense of progress, meaning GM Marc Bergevin will deftly have to navigate the best of both worlds.
I get the goal of nostalgia and thinking that the core group could do this again. But merely re-signing several veterans with their remaining cap space doesn’t actually make the team better. With who they’d be losing as cap casualties, they’d be worse than they were without addressing any of the team needs that need to be looked at. Let’s face it, this is still a team that has some flaws.
Phillip Danault has shown himself to be a key cog for the Habs and a trio of him, Nick Suzuki, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi is probably manageable for another year or two in terms of keeping everyone happy with ice time. But if $5 million a year wasn’t enough to get an extension done last offseason, how much more is it going to take? Plus, considering this team has trouble scoring, is that money better spent on someone that can the puck in the net more often, even if it takes away from their defensive presence? But on the flip side, are Suzuki and Kotkaniemi ready to be the undisputed top two centres with minimal protection behind them? This is a tough one either way.
The depth in the bottom six was central to Montreal’s success with players like Artturi Lehkonen (RFA) and Joel Armia (UFA) boosting their stock. Corey Perry, another UFA, has become a fan favourite and is a strong fit on the fourth line. He’s probably looking at a small raise as well. Keep all of these three and there goes about half of Montreal’s cap space without a signed Danault or any other additions to the roster. Let them go and important elements of their success over the last two months are walking out the door.
What about the defence? There aren’t any free agents of note (Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson are unrestricted but played limited roles). Montreal can opt for a protection scheme in expansion to keep four of them around but those four largely play a style that’s best suited for the playoffs. Getting back there will be harder in the Atlantic Division and if they keep their top four intact, they’re probably not bringing in an impact puck-mover as that would push their defensive spending too high. At the same time, this crew just showed they can wear a team down in the postseason.
By the time the bonus overage is factored in, Montreal has roughly $14 million to spend this summer with Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen being the restricted free agents of note and Danault, Armia, Perry, and Tomas Tatar being the notable unrestricted free agents. They could spend that money on simply re-signing most of those players and calling it a day aside from the trade market. But that wouldn’t be the right course of action; running it back isn’t going to get the Habs back to the Stanley Cup Final. In a tougher Atlantic Division, it might not even get them back to the playoffs.
That’s what makes this summer a very tough one for Bergevin. He is going to need to show a level of ruthlessness that is going to draw some ire by letting some contributors from this playoff run go in order to try to fill some other areas of need. There’s a line between not doing enough to tweak things and doing too much. That’s the fine line that Bergevin needs to find over the coming months if they’re going to put their best foot forward towards another deep playoff run.