Kale Clague was brought in on a midseason waiver claim to give the Habs some defensive depth. While he got into 25 games after being acquired, has he done enough to earn a qualifying offer this summer?
Somewhat surprisingly, Clague actually cleared waivers at the beginning of the season and was subsequently assigned to the minors. But after just five games with AHL Ontario, Clague was brought up when the Kings lost both Drew Doughty and Sean Walker due to injuries. Clague did quite well in limited action, picking up five assists in 11 games while seeing some time on the power play but when Doughty returned, Clague was put back on waivers.
With Montreal in need of healthy bodies with both Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson injured at the time and Sami Niku in COVID protocol, Jeff Gorton’s first move while in charge of the Habs (this was before the Kent Hughes hiring) was to claim Clague off waivers. The hope was that he’d be able to build off his strong showing with Los Angeles during his recall and really solidify himself as an NHL-calibre blueliner.
That didn’t exactly happen, however. Clague’s defensive weaknesses were exposed early and his offensive game didn’t really shine although, to be fair, he averaged less than a minute per game on the man advantage after logging over three minutes a night with the Kings. As players returned or outperformed him on recall (Corey Schueneman), Clague was relegated back to a depth role and was shuffled in and out of the lineup down the stretch, resulting in him getting just five points in 25 games with Montreal.
36 GP, 2 goals, 8 assists, 10 points, -10 rating, 20 PIMS, 26 shots, 16:44 ATOI, 45.6 CF%
Argument To Qualify
The Habs are squarely in rebuilding mode and it’s not as if Clague is an older veteran on the fringes of the roster. He just turned 24 earlier this month. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to take another small step forward at some point and that could be enough to make him a sixth or seventh defender that can help on the power play. Montreal has a good prospect pool but a lot of their youngsters are NHL-ready yet. Keeping him up in a depth role could allow a prospect to play in Laval while giving the Canadiens more time to see if Clague has any long-term usefulness.
There isn’t much of a worst-case scenario in terms of keeping him around. If he makes the team out of training camp, great. If he doesn’t and gets claimed off waivers, no harm no foul and they recover a good chunk of the cash outlay from claiming him this past season (waiver claim fees actually exist). If he doesn’t make the team and clears waivers, he’d certainly help what promises to be a new-look Laval back end next season. He’d also come off the cap as it shouldn’t cost much more than his $799,312 qualifying offer. About the only way qualifying him could backfire is if he doesn’t do well and gets injured in the preseason, keeping him on the salary cap in the process. That’s not a huge risk in the grand scheme of things.
Argument To Cut
Teams can afford to have one offensive-minded but defensively-iffy rearguard on their roster. Montreal already has theirs in Chris Wideman who happens to play on the right side, also known as the one the Habs have very little depth on compared to the left where they have plenty. That fringe spot belongs to him and it doesn’t make much sense to carry two versions of the same depth player. You want some role flexibility in your end-of-roster spots to better complement the lineup and keeping Clague around makes that a whole lot harder.
While he’d certainly help in Laval, the Rocket will have a similar type of player in Otto Leskinen who had a change of heart and decided to return to the team earlier this month. They’ll also have Mattias Norlinder, another very similar type of player. How many smaller offensive-type blueliners does an AHL team need? Roster spots need to be prioritized for some of the prospects that are going to be down there (a list that will include some of Norlinder, Gianni Fairbrother, Arber Xhekaj, Kaiden Guhle, and Jordan Harris, all left-shot defenders). While not a prospect, Schueneman could be in the mix as well if he clears waivers but would be more of a priority to play as someone that will be a recallable option at times. Depth is nice to have but they might be better off adding someone on an AHL deal for depth and keeping Clague’s contract slot for someone else.
If you take the other elements out of the equation, keeping Clague around does make some sense. But he’s basically a training camp body or someone that’s going to be earmarked for the third pairing in Laval without getting the priority playing time. It’s hard to justify a qualifying offer based on that. Besides, if they decide they want him back later on, Montreal has top waiver priority throughout training camp and the first few weeks of the season (even if they claim someone else; a claim doesn’t push them to the back of the list) and could always claim him back at that time if they need a depth defender for the back of the roster. At this point, the nicer play to non-tender him and give him a chance to catch on somewhere else might also be the right one for the Canadiens.