There are so many tear-it-down-to-the-studs proponents out there these days that it’s sometimes easy to forget that this shouldn’t be as drastic a rebuild as the one the Buffalo Sabres have been working on these past 10 seasons.
It should only take three or four seasons to remake the Canadiens into a consistent playoff team, partly because a half-decade of focused drafting has given the Habs one of the league’s better prospect pools and partly because the team already has some of the age-appropriate key pieces required for a brighter future. This should help the team reach contender status considerably sooner than if it had been an “all-in” team that had peddled away draft picks and prospects in its bid to reach last season’s Stanley Cup Final.
Moving contracts and players who shouldn’t still be around when the team becomes competitive again is a top priority. Let’s break it down by position.
The elephant in the move-it-along room is actually the easiest to sort out – with a complete no-movement clause, goaltender Carey Price will only be traded if and when he wants to be traded, despite the rumours floating through the ether. And with a $10.5M cap hit for four more years after this one, any trade the 34-year-old netminder agrees to would likely have to include some salary retention by the Habs, perhaps even as high as $5M. If Price does want to move on, I can see something like the Max Pacioretty deal being the return, with high picks and quality prospects coming the Habs’ way in a deal made sometime this summer.
But with Price’s contract requiring some delicate cap massaging to make any deal work, a more likely trade candidate from the goaltending pool might be Jake Allen, 31, who has another season beyond this one on a bargain $2.875M contract. A return of a good draft pick and a good prospect wouldn’t be out of the question. Again, like Price, this move would be more likely to happen over the summer months.
Though his play has been up and down while tending goal in front of a thoroughly incompetent defense, Samuel Montembault, an RFA with arbitration rights at season’s end, has shown enough to be offered a modest contract that would see him back up whichever of Price or Allen the team decides to keep next season. I see it as a win-win either way — a 25-year-old Quebec native with some potential is as good a choice as any to tend goal during the early stages of a rebuild/reset. This would also allow Cayden Primeau to play a full (and, hopefully, normal) season as Laval’s number one goaltender, which should better prepare him for full-time NHL duty the following season.
Taking a closer look at the roster, the up-and-down seasons of just about anyone with a long-term contract suggests the upcoming trade deadline should be more about unloading expiring UFAs like defencemen Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak, and Chris Wideman for picks and prospects than larger deals to immediately kick-start the roster reshaping. The best value that can be hoped for from this group of players is maybe a first-round draft choice for Chiarot, but accumulating as many extra picks and prospects as possible is generally the first step in any serious rebuild/reset. Sami Niku, 25, and Kale Clague, 23, left-handed defencemen who can both play the right side, are RFAs with arbitration rights at the end of the season and probably won’t be re-signed.
Twenty-two-year-old left-shot Alexander Romanov, an RFA at season’s end, is likely the only roster defender whose job is safe, but the D-corps’ three veterans with term left on their contracts — Jeff Petry, Joel Edmundson, and David Savard – should all be given chances to showcase their usual games next season before being put on the trade block.
Petry, 33, has three more seasons with a $6.25M cap hit left on his contract and has been having a truly horrendous season. But memories are short around the league — if this season turns out to be a blip in a stellar career that got Petry serious consideration for a spot on this year’s American Olympic team, NHL GMs looking to go deep in the playoffs will be lining up to bid for Petry’s services at next season’s trade deadline.
Edmundson, 28, with two more years to go on an affordable $3.5M contract, has missed the entire season with a nagging back injury. Any trade made before he has had a chance to show that his troubles are is behind him is likely to be one where Montreal gets significantly less than full value for a defenceman who was at the very top of his game as recently as last season’s Stanley Cup run.
Savard, 31, has three more years at $3.5M left on his contract. Habs fans have been very unhappy that a defenceman who played 13-15 minutes a night on a third pairing for a Stanley Cup winner perhaps doesn’t look nearly so good playing 20-plus minutes a night higher in the lineup on a very bad Canadiens team. Out for eight weeks with a lower-body injury, this lost season has become one to forget for the veteran right-handed defenceman. With the team deep in reset/rebuild mode, Savard should be given every opportunity to get his game back into shape next season before being moved.
Much like the defence corps, untimely injuries and long days on the covid list have made a mockery of what could have been a decent four-line forward group, which means the three impending UFA forwards won’t have much value at the deadline. Winger Mathieu Perreault, 34, has been injured for much of the season and centreman Cedric Paquette, 28, hasn’t done anything to earn a great deal of confidence in a fourth-line role. Laurent Dauphin, 26, who can play all three forward positions, has spent much of the year in Montreal after being called up from Laval and has played well enough, but shouldn’t be high on anyone’s radar at deadline time.
One departure as early as this season from the forward group could be Tyler Toffoli, 29, with two more years of a very attractive $4.25M cap hit left on his contract. Despite missing considerable time this season to injury, Toffoli, who can play either wing, would be a prized commodity on the market and a number of teams might offer up a top prospect or a first-round pick at the trade deadline this season. I suspect Toffoli’s will be one name that will be brought up regularly when GMs start calling after the all-star break.
Another exception to a UFA-only fire sale this season might be bottom-six winger Arturri Lehkonen, 26, mostly because he has value around the league and will be an RFA with arbitration rights at the end of the season. One of the league’s better penalty killers and a superb defensive forward, Lehkonen has modest but undeniable value to a contender looking to bolster its bottom six. I can see a high draft pick or a good prospect as a fair return. Lehkonen carries a cap hit of $2.3M and would be an intriguing asset for a number of teams.
That would pretty much be the extent of my roster off-loadings this season. In my non-existent role as one of the Montreal Canadiens many (many) amateur assistant GMs, next season is where I’d start with the real heavy lifting. Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding this season’s total team collapse, next season appears to be a more sensible time to start moving forwards with multiple years left on their contracts. Players who spent stretches of time on the DL this season need to be given opportunities to show what they are truly capable of, if the Canadiens hope to get anything close to fair returns in any trades and make the rebuild/reset an effective one.
For me, the keepers are obvious.
Younger players who are expected to lead the way when things eventually move to the next level should be safe enough. For me, this means players like Nick Suzuki, 22, Cole Caufield, 21, Jake Evans, 25, Rem Pitlick, 24, and Ryan Poehling, 23, who should help form the nucleus of a competitive Habs forward group going into the rebuild.
Winger Josh Anderson, 27, should stay as well. He’s signed for five more seasons with a $5.5M cap hit. He showed in last year’s playoffs the importance of having a good power forward who can score big goals at playoff time. His only problem has been staying in the lineup — when healthy, he gives the team a dimension that no one else on the roster can provide. Maybe next season will finally be an injury-free one.
I’d also hang onto twenty-six-year-old centreman Christian Dvorak. He hasn’t had a real opportunity to show what he can do for the Montreal Canadiens yet, being injured at various points of the season and being constantly moved up and down the lineup. But I’ve seen a lot of Dvorak over the past few years. I’m a big Clayton Keller fan and whenever I tuned into Arizona Coyotes games to see him in action, I would invariably notice another hard-working centreman winning faceoffs, playing strong defense and chipping in with timely offence. There’s no reason why he couldn’t contribute in the same productive manner as part of a more stable forward group than the one he’s playing with now.
As harsh it may be, the reality of this rebuild is that a number of good Montreal Canadiens forwards will be finding new homes over the next couple of years. And as much as hurts, I’m putting Brendan Gallagher is in this group.
The 29-year-old right-winger is arguably the heart and soul of the Montreal Canadiens, but with five more seasons to go on a contract that carries a $6.5M cap hit, the money should be used more wisely elsewhere on a rebuilding hockey team. There won’t be a problem finding takers for a fiesty winger who is well-loved by GMs around the league, so the return could be quite good, anywhere from high draft picks to top prospects or a combination of the two.
Jonathan Drouin’s days as a Canadien are probably numbered as well. With another year left on a contract with a $5.5M cap hit, the versatile forward has had a frustrating five seasons in Montreal, failing to fulfill his great potential after coming over from Tampa Bay in a trade for young defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. Injuries and inconsistent play have been the story for Drouin. Just 26, he’s young enough that a decent 2022-23 season could make him an in-demand impending UFA forward at the trade deadline that could return a decent pick or prospect.
Another player who wears his heart on his sleeve, winger Paul Byron, 32, will almost certainly be moved, but a contract with two more years of a $3.4M cap hit probably won’t net the Habs a bonanza. To get a decent prospect or pick back might mean retaining some salary.
Winger Mike Hoffman, 32, is signed for two more seasons after this one at $4.5M. A consistent scoring threat who can play either wing, he’s been in and out of the lineup with injuries much of this season but at times has been able to show his offensive touch. Former GM Marc Bergevin signed him to fill the net, so any indication next season that he’s healthy and back in form should make it fairly easy to move him for a good prospect or a decent draft pick. Or even more, depending on how many pucks he manages to put in the net.
Joel Armia, 28, is one of the bigger disappointments in a season that’s turning out to be the worst in the team’s history. After a strong playoff that was another step forward in the versatile winger’s career, Bergevin rewarded the big Finn with a generous four-year deal last summer that carries a $3.4M cap hit. But with one goal and four assist in 32 games so far this season, it’s safe to say Armia isn’t living up to his new contract. I’ve been an Armia fan from his first Habs shift, mostly for his strong two-way game and deft work on the penalty kill, but it’s hard to see moving this contract easily without a serious return to form.
That about covers it for the NHL roster. Now it’s time for executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes to roll up their sleeves and see what they can do about getting the Montreal Canadiens back in competition for the Stanley Cup again.