As this historically horrible season rolls on, quite a few Montreal Canadiens players are working on what could be their worst individual seasons in the league to date.
That got me thinking about the former Habs who signed with other teams over the summer, just weeks after playing in the Stanley Cup Final. How are they doing with their new teams? Are any of them suffering through the post-playoff hangovers that seem to have gripped so many of their ex-teammates?
With the season just past the quarter pole, it’s too early to make any sound judgements on the value of contracts that cover several seasons, but the early results are interesting.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 21, centre/left wing, Carolina Hurricanes, one year, $6.1M cap hit:
When someone waves more than $6 million under your nose, you’d be a fool not to take it. Canadiens fans may be annoyed with Kotkaniemi for signing that offer sheet, but it’s his hockey career, not theirs.
Like many Habs fans, I’ve been following the Kotkaniemi saga in Raleigh closely. It hasn’t gone as smoothly as it might have so far, with Kotkaniemi bouncing around a bit in the lineup, starting the season at left wing on a scoring line but more recently filling in at left wing and centre on the fourth line. In 28 games, he’s scored six goals and added five assists as part of one of the strongest offensive lineups in the league.
Here’s where things get interesting. Kotkaniemi will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but if he can’t come to an agreement with the Hurricanes on a multi-year deal and isn’t tendered a qualifying offer at that $6.1 million price tag, he becomes a free agent. With Bergevin having moved on, Montreal might even be one of the teams he talks to if this is how it all plays out.
Before the eye-rolling starts, recall that Kotkaniemi left the team not just for money, but also for opportunity. A closer look at the Hurricanes’ lineup and it’s difficult to see serious opportunities anytime soon at Kotkaniemi’s preferred centre position because the Hurricanes are absolutely loaded at centre.
Sebastian Aho, one of the very best centres in the league, is the incumbent on the first line and he’s just 24. Twenty-eight-year-old Vincent Trocheck, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, is a player GM Don Waddell really likes and is interested in re-signing. Defensive centre Jordan Staal, 33, has a Stanley Cup ring from his days with the Penguins and is one of the league’s better penalty killers. And then there’s Martin Necas, 22, a natural centre forced to play right wing on a scoring line because of the logjam at centre. Next add Seth Jarvis, 19, taken 13th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft; he’s forced his way onto the NHL roster earlier than expected and doesn’t look like he’s going away anytime soon. Derek Stepan, 31, is a UFA at the end of the season and offers a veteran presence on the fourth line, but he’s probably not a part of the team’s future.
Kotkaniemi will have much to ponder before this season comes to a close.
Phillip Danault, 28, centre, Los Angeles Kings, six years, $5.5M cap hit:
Danault has fit in smoothly behind Anze Kopitar as the Kings’ second-line centre, taking most of the key faceoffs and going up against the opposition’s top line every night. He’s also on the first unit of the penalty kill. After 28 games, Danault has picked up four goals and ten assists, hovering around the 40-point seasonal benchmark he established in his early years in Montreal, but he’s in the lineup mostly for stellar defence with the points as a bonus.
Money wasn’t the issue in this particular loss to free agency. Danault wanted a better opportunity, thinking he would be slotting in behind rising young centremen Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi and thus lose his spot in Montreal’s top six. But this was before Kotkaniemi was successfully offer-sheeted by the Hurricanes.
In hindsight, the Habs would have very much liked to have kept Danault, but he seems happy playing for a rebuilding Kings squad that, while unlikely to make the playoffs this season, has arguably the deepest prospect pool in the league and will be on the rise long before Danault’s contract is up.
Corey Perry, right wing, 36, Tampa Bay Lightning, two years, $1M cap hit:
Habs fans were unhappy when fourth line stalwart Perry turned down a one-year offer last summer for a chance at two more tries at the Cup with the defending champions. But it’s tough to lay any blame on the hockey player. He’s getting on in years and wants to win another one before he’s put out to pasture.
So far, Perry has given the Lightning just what they asked for, collecting six goals and five assists in 29 games and averaging around 12-14 minutes of ice time as the anchor on the team’s fourth line. He might have been the best Lightning forward on the ice when the Habs and Lightning met recently, the first time they’ve played each other since Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final; he scored the tying goal in a 4-3 win in a game where the Lightning was clearly outplayed for the first 55 minutes.
Perry showed last summer that he had plenty left in the tank. His grinding style and well-rounded game will be important factors going forward as the Lightning try to become the first team since the 1983 New York Islanders to win three Stanley Cups in a row.
Losing Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow from last year’s Stanley Cup team, Tampa Bay needed to get some grit back into its lineup. Perry provides that in spades.
Tomas Tatar, 31, left wing/right wing, New Jersey Devils, two years, $4.5M cap hit:
When Tatar signed with the Devils, I thought we might see him take the opportunity by the horns and win a top-six role on a team with an underwhelming group of wingers, sort of like Zach Hyman has done in Edmonton.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Playing in the Devils’ top-nine, on a good night Tatar might play 15-16 minutes and get some power play time, but he could just as likely end up playing 10-12 minutes with no power play work. The results are a modest six goals and eight assists in 28 games from a player who can usually be relied on for 20 goals annually. I can’t help but think that the Devils aren’t making the best use of the Slovak winger’s skillset.
It’s unfortunate how far Tatar’s star has fallen and it’s obvious his lack of success in the playoffs is the main factor. His last game in Montreal’s Stanley Cup run was Game 5 in Toronto. He never left the press box the rest of the way, which is pretty much how his previous Stanley Cup run with Vegas in 2017-18 played out.
Jon Merrill, 29, left defence/right defence, Minnesota Wild, one year, $850,000 cap hit:
Easily the most low-key of Montreal’s low-key trade deadline acquisitions last season, Merrill is having a quietly decent year on one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
Merrill is playing about 18 minutes a night on the Wild’s third pairing with Alex Goligoski and is relied on to kill penalties.
A left-hander who plays mostly on the right side, the rangy American is known mostly for a strong defensive game, but has picked up three goals and eight assists in 29 games with his new team which gives him more points than any other Montreal defender.
Hindsight is 20/20, but with all the headaches Montreal has had on the right side of its defence this season, the Canadiens could have done a lot worse than re-signing Merrill for the same money he’s getting from the Wild.
Erik Gustafsson, 29, left defense/right defense, Chicago Blackhawks, one year, $800,000 cap hit:
Another one of Montreal’s modest trade deadline acquisitions, Gustafsson is also having a pretty fair season with his new team, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The exact opposite of Merrill, Gustafsson does his best work in the opposition’s end. He can run an NHL power play from the point with competence which makes up for some of the adventures he occasionally finds himself on in his own end. He has improved a little bit on that front this season but it has come at the expense of his offence as he has just a goal and five assists in 27 games so far.
Unlike Merrill, the Habs have enough defenders with Gustafsson’s blend of skills. They are also quite a bit younger, so re-signing this particular UFA was never a priority.
All in all, the players that left the Montreal Canadiens of their own volition last summer were missed to varying degrees, but it’s the two departed centremen who would have had the greatest positive impact on the roster this season.
Danault gave the Habs an elite defensive presence at the position and Kotkaniemi was poised to join Suzuki to give the team two quality scoring line centres for the next decade or more. They couldn’t be adequately replaced overnight and the Canadiens continue to feel the effects of this loss.