Montreal’s newest centre Kirby Dach is in need of a new contract and remains a restricted free agent. While many feel that the Habs have to make a trade first in order to sign him, that’s not necessarily the case.
For the purposes of this exercise, let’s use the numbers from CapFriendly. They currently show Montreal having just over $248,000 of cap space. When the league minimum salary is $750,000, that’s not enough to bring anyone else in or re-sign Dach.
However, there are ways to add to that cap space number. Let’s start with goaltending. If Carey Price is healthy, the Canadiens can waive Samuel Montembeault. They may prefer to carry three goalies as insurance but it might be a luxury they can’t afford. Montembeault’s $1 million cap hit would come off the books entirely if he’s either claimed or sent to Laval; the second year of his deal serves as a bit of a poison pill for a team like Arizona who is believed to be intending to claim a backup goalie off waivers at some point in training camp.
If Montembeault is off the roster, now we’re up to $1.28 million in cap space. Still not enough for Dach but we’re getting there. On the other hand, if Price isn’t able to play, he’ll be LTIR-bound (even if it’s just for a few weeks) which would free up ample cap space to fit Dach on the roster.
Before we dig into the forwards, let’s cut into that cap room a little more. It’s unlikely that Montreal will carry six defencemen on the opening roster. They’ll want a seventh defender. That might come in the form of a late signing or a waiver claim or it could be Corey Schueneman. For this calculation, let’s move Schueneman up. He makes the league minimum of $750,000 which drops Montreal’s cap space to $530,000.
Up front, once Dach signs, Montreal’s roster would have 15 forwards (again, using CapFriendly’s roster projection). That’s too many. At least one has to go.
That one might very well be Paul Byron one way or the other. If he isn’t quite ready for the start of the season, he becomes a short-term LTIR candidate which would open up cap space for Dach’s contract. If he is ready to play, he could very well find himself on waivers. It’s pretty safe to assume that no team is touching his $3.4 million contract so he’d pass through unclaimed. He has before going back to the 2020-21 campaign and the days of the taxi squad. Sending him down would open up $1.175 million in cap room, bringing Montreal’s cap room to just over $1.7 million.
Part of the hold-up in getting Dach’s contract done is the Canadiens not knowing what type of term they can afford on a bridge deal. Obviously, the more years, the more money it will cost. On a one-year pact without arbitration rights, $1.7 million is pretty close to what he’d get, probably within a few hundred thousand.
At that point, Montreal could opt to start Juraj Slafkovsky in the minors, freeing up another $950,000 in cap space which is enough to give Dach a one-year deal with half a million or so left over. Then, the Habs would try to bank some extra space by shuffling their waiver-exempt defencemen back and forth to Laval, eventually creating enough room to bring Slafkovsky up sometime in November. That’s one option.
Another option is to be cut-throat with another veteran. Joel Armia’s contract isn’t pretty at $3.4 million for three more years. He’s a player that has some value around the league but only if an acquiring team can offset some of that money. On waivers, he’d almost certainly go unclaimed. Yes, as screwy as it sounds, a team wouldn’t take him for free but would only take him if they could give something up for him. In this cap environment, that actually makes sense.
Similar to Byron, demoting Armia would open up another $1.175 million in cap space. Adding that to the post-demotion of Byron scenario, the Habs are now up to roughly $2.88 million in cap room. That’s easily enough for a two-year deal for Dach if not three. That’s with a roster of 13 forwards, seven defencemen, and two goalies, giving the Habs an extra body up front and on the back end.
(You can substitute another player in there for Armia if you’d like but I picked him as he has the longest-term deal of the veteran forwards who likely aren’t in their long-term plans, making him the safest to sneak through. Those on expiring contracts aren’t likely to be waived as Montreal’s plan likely is to trade them with retention midseason; waiving them and sending them down would tank their trade value.)
From there, the waiver-exempt defenders could still be sent back and forth to Laval on off days as could Slafkovsky with perhaps a clever alliterator dubbing it the ‘Slafkovsky Shuffle’. Those moves would create the in-season wiggle room for injury recalls or to hedge against what is likely to be a pretty hefty set of bonuses being hit. (On the conservative side, Montreal should be budgeting for at least $2 million in performance bonuses being achieved with any overage rolling over to 2023-24. Just something extra to keep in mind.)
Not long ago, I thought the Canadiens were going to be in a spot where they’d have to make a cost-cutting move in an environment where dumping money is quite difficult. But now, I’m not so sure. How much risk is there in any of the options presented above? Is losing Montembeault all that costly even if he was to be claimed? It might not be ideal but it’s not as if he’s irreplaceable. Is there any risk of losing Byron or Armia on waivers? Nope. It’s a little ruthless but it would allow the Habs to re-sign Dach while remaining cap-compliant without losing anyone of consequence if they were to lose anyone at all.
GM Kent Hughes will likely spend these next few weeks looking to see if there is a cheap way to free up a bit of cap space and let’s face it, that’s the ideal scenario. But if that doesn’t work, this roadmap could get it done as well. As far as Plan B’s go, it’s not a bad option at all.
In the meantime, the uncertainty could very well delay Dach’s contract talks for a while yet, at least another month so if nothing is signed by then, don’t panic. Their cap situation will be to blame, not greed in negotiations.