Canadiens Have Big Decisions to Make With Pending Free Agents

This season’s magical run by the Montreal Canadiens has come to an end, losing 4-1 in the Stanley Cup Final to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now that the season is over, the management staff must focus on upcoming critical dates: the expansion draft on July 21, the Entry Draft on July 23-24, and the free-agent (FA) window opening on July 28. The Canadiens now need to decide which of their own FAs they want to re-sign or let go to test the FA waters.

UFAs Who Won’t be Back or Will Sign an AHL Contract

The Canadiens have 13 unrestricted free agents (UFA) going into this offseason, but a few mainly played with the Canadiens’ minor team, the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League (AHL): forwards Jordan Weal and Alex Belzile, goaltenders Vasili Demchenko and Charlie Lindgren, and defenseman Gustav Olofsson. The chance of any of them coming back will depend on whether or not they want to sign a two-way deal and once again play primarily in the AHL. Demchenko, along with restricted free agent (RFA) Otto Leskinen, has already signed in the Kontintental Hockey League (KHL) and will not be returning. If Weal is willing to fill his role as a veteran leader in Laval, he could be back at a lower salary than last year’s $1.4 million, but odds are he will look elsewhere for NHL employment.

Jordan Weal, Montreal Canadiens
Jordan Weal, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Olofsson and Belzile could all come back as depth players for Laval. However, many young prospects are ready to take their spots, and Canadiens general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin could let those two walk to make room for the prospects. Lindgren will be an interesting decision — with Cayden Primeau starting most of the games in the AHL, Bergevin has to decide which goalie he wants to back-up Primeau this season. Michael McNiven is the other goalie the Canadiens have, an arbitration-eligible RFA; with more control over McNiven, it’s likely Lindgren will not be back. If any of these players return, it will be most likely be Belzile.

Bergevin Has Many Tough Decisions to Make

Eight of the 13 UFAs on the Canadiens were part of the team’s 2021 Stanley Cup run, and some played pivotal roles all through the regular season and playoffs. Bergevin will really have to look at which of these UFAs will help improve the team for next season. It could be all of them or none of them, but whomever he lets go, he will need to replace. If he’s going to replace one of his UFAs, then the logical thing would be an upgrade at that position unless he feels he already has one in the system.

Marc Bergevin
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

What follows is a player-by-player breakdown of the Canadiens’ UFAs and whether or not they should be back. None of them have made this an easy decision for Bergevin, but no one ever said being a GM was easy.

Tomas Tatar

Tomas Tatar seemed like a steal for the Canadiens, having acquired him as an add-on when they traded Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Nick Suzuki in 2018. Since the trade, Tatar has been a scoring machine for the Canadiens; in his first season, he was third on the team in goals with 25 and second in points with 58, which was a career high. He doubled-down the following season by scoring 22 goals and 61 points to lead the team in both categories, and doing so in 12 fewer games than his first season with the club. This season, his totals took a bit of a dip, but were on pace to be the same as an average season for Tatar. He had 30 points in 50 games with 10 goals this season.

Tomas Tatar Montreal Canadiens
Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The knock on Tatar is his play in the playoffs — last season, he had only two goals in 10 playoff games playing on the Canadiens’ best shutdown line. This season, he was a healthy scratch for all but five games in the Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final (SCF), registering just one assist. This is nothing new for Tatar: in 40 career playoff games he only has 12 points. He led the Canadiens in scoring two seasons ago and still is an annual 20-plus goal scorer in the NHL. He will probably want a slight raise from his last contract of $5.3 million, but his playoff performance would suggest he won’t be back as a Canadien and should only come back if he takes a discount to stay. He is 30 and will be looking for what is likely to be his last contract, which is something Bergevin needs to stay away from.

Joel Armia

Joel Armia was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets in 2018 and could be a solid two-way forward for the Canadiens for years to come. In his three seasons with the team, he scored 36 goals and 67 points in 156 games, playing mostly third-line minutes. He is a dominant penalty killer and was a main factor in the Canadiens’ penalty-kill unit being so successful during the playoffs. He is a big, rugged winger who has 20-goal potential if he can stay healthy.

Bergevin really ought to consider bringing Armia back — he only made $2.6 million last season, and a raise would not be out of the question due to his solid two-way play. If he can remain healthy, he will give the team a key player on the penalty kill and provide them with a second power forward who can add some scoring punch to the third line. In Armia’s season-ending press conference, he did not sound like he was eager to get down to business with Bergevin, but hinted at taking his time or looking at the open market options. Armia will likely want a raise from his previous salary if he wants to stay with the Canadiens.

Phillip Danault

Phillip Danault was the Canadians’ top center until the emergence of Suzuki in last year’s postseason. Danault has been turned into a top shutdown forward for the team and is constantly in the top-10 votes for the Selke Trophy for top defensive forward; this alone increases his importance to the team. He had some controversy this season when he supposedly turned down a six-year, $30 million deal, lending credibility to the suggestion that he wanted more than $5 million a season — a bit much for a player who has never scored more than 14 goals and is, at best, a No. 2 center.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Danault will not help the Canadiens very much in the scoring department, but he will shut down their opponents’ top players, which he proved through three rounds of the playoffs. If he wants more than $5 million, then Bergevin needs to walk away and walk away fast. If the rumour about the extension is true, then Danault will be asking for too much money for the organization to sign him, and he will walk; if they are not true, then the Canadiens need to keep him for that shutdown role at the price they originally offered.

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There is another caveat to the Danault situation, and that’s the emergence of Jake Evans. Evans received a considerable boost in ice time during the playoffs, playing a similar shutdown role. If the Canadiens feel that Evans is good enough to fill Danault’s role for an entire 82-game schedule, then the team does not need to bring him back. This will be a huge choice for Bergevin to make this offseason — if he lets Danault walk and Evans can’t do the job, they could be in trouble.

Corey Perry

What can you say about Corey Perry? If he’s on your team, you love him, and if he’s not, you hate him. This season with the Canadiens, he showed he’s more than just a pest on the ice, taking up the mantle of leader in the dressing room and tutor for the younger players. At 35, Perry had a bit of a comeback season with the Canadiens, scoring 21 points in 49 games, equaling his total from last season with the Dallas Stars but in nine fewer games. He followed that up with 10 points in 22 playoff games and played like a warrior.

Corey Perry Montreal Canadiens
Corey Perry, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Due to his age, the Canadiens won’t be seeking anything long term from Perry, but he should be a person of interest for Bergevin to bring back. Perry still has some high-level skill in his game. The speed isn’t there, but he is a solid fourth-line player who can slot in well on any line when needed. He signed late in the offseason for the league minimum and provided much more for the team than they could have asked for. In his end-of-season press conference, Perry talked like he wanted to return to the Canadiens, and if they can get him for the right price, it should be a no-brainer for Bergevin to sign him.

Gustafsson, Frolik, Staal, Merrill Probably Won’t Be Back

Erik Gustafsson, Michael Frolik, Eric Staal, and John Merrill make up the rest of the Canadiens UFAs. It will be surprising if any of these players returned to the Canadiens next season, Gustafsson maybe as a seventh defender and only to help the power play. Frolik played only eight games all season and is for sure gone. Staal had a rough regular season after joining the team at the deadline, but had a solid playoffs. He mentioned in his end-of-season presser that he would need to talk to his family to decide what he wants to do with his future, and sounded like he wouldn’t be returning to Montreal. Merrill, like Gustafsson, could return as a seventh defenseman, but only if there isn’t a prospect in Laval that can take that spot, which is unlikely; both defensemen don’t bring enough to support the Canadiens bringing them back.

Of course, all of this could change depending on the expansion draft and if any trades are made between now and July 28. If I were a betting man, I would think only Perry and Danault will be back, but I’m not a betting man, so there’s that.

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