Montreal Canadiens Offseason Target — The Blue Line

The Montreal Canadiens provided a magical run to the Stanley Cup Final for their fans this past season. While there may be questions about general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin’s future with the team as he enters the last year of his contract, he remains at the helm and has a very busy and short offseason ahead. 

Bergevin will need to be methodical and decisive, as there will be very little time to decide on a direction, and this article will look at each step. Yet, an overall direction should be chosen based on the team’s biggest need to compete in an Atlantic Division that will feature the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs. Bergevin has famously said there are players that get you to the playoffs and players that get you through the playoffs, so he will need to find a stronger balance on his roster to ensure he makes the playoffs.

Montreal will need to keep key unrestricted free agents (UFA) and restricted free agents (RFA) to maintain their identity as a team that uses its speed in attack on transitional play. But if Bergevin wants to compete in what looks to be the strongest division in the NHL next season, he will need to find room to add to that identity with a steady puck-moving defenseman truly compete for that coveted playoff spot.

Expansion Draft

The expansion draft could have a major impact on the direction of the offseason. If the Canadiens lose Jake Allen, then the main focus will undoubtedly become finding Carey Price another quality backup. As we saw this past season, Allen played a key role in helping the Canadiens make the playoffs as he stepped up while Price recovered from injury.

Drouin Situation

What Bergevin will do with the Jonathan Drouin situation will become impactful as well. He went onto the long-term injury list on 28 April, and since then, there has been no news on his ailment or his return. The player and the team are the only ones that know the situation, but the important issue is for him to return to health.

Who Stays, Who Goes?

Keep his role players.

Clearly, the Canadiens will retain their main RFAs, such as Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Artturi Lehkonen, who will both get raises. Also, Ryan Poehling and Cale Fleury look to be NHL ready and should sign affordable deals.

The UFAs are where it gets difficult. His main role players this past season were Corey Perry and Phillip Danault. Perry shouldn’t be an expensive addition. He played for the league minimum of $750,000 last season, and despite his excellent year, he won’t likely ask for much more as the Anaheim Ducks are still paying him $2 million. Also, he wants to remain in Montreal, saying:

“I intend to play hockey next year. I think there’s a lot of good hockey left in me and I’d like to come back and experience Montréal for being Montréal.”

Corey Perry

Danault is a more difficult piece to fit into the salary cap puzzle. It seems he is willing to accept the role he played in the playoffs as a shutdown third-line center.

The issue is value. With the Edmonton Oilers extending Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to an eight-year $5.14 million per season deal, it is safe to say Danault’s contract should fall under that cap hit, but by how much? If he is to be a third-line center, then he shouldn’t be given more than $4 to $4.5 million on a short-term contract, especially with young centers such as Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling being groomed to fill that role.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Defensively, none of the UFAs such as Jonathan Merrill and Erik Gustafsson were deadline depth additions that can be replaced internally by graduating players from Laval or playing roster players like Brett Kulak.

The remaining UFAs such as Joel Armia, Tomas Tatar and Eric Staal aren’t as important to retain. Staal, because the need for a fourth-line center isn’t there for the Canadiens. Tatar, because he is a player that took up $4.8 million but played very little in the playoffs. Armia, because as a bottom-six forward, paying him more than the $2.8 million he earned this season, would take up far too much cap space that Bergevin could use on a solid puck-moving defenceman.

The Big Addition

All of the Stanley Cup contending teams in the NHL today boast at least two quality top-four, puck-moving defensemen. The Canadiens have Jeff Petry, but that’s it. The hope is for Alexander Romanov to become that in the near future, but to rely on him to step into that role as soon as next season may be too much for him to shoulder this early in his NHL career. 

Bergevin could use any of his 11 draft picks in the 2021 Draft. Some of his prospects, namely Jordan Harris or Jayden Struble, can be part of any package to entice a rival GM to trade a puck-mover to Montreal. Players like Jacob Chychrun, Cam Fowler and Devon Toews would all be excellent additions and could fit into the Canadiens’ longer-term cap structure. However, they would be difficult to acquire and may cost too many assets.

Free Agency provides Bergevin a short to mid-term solution to this problem, and there are some names that could fit into his preferred type of player that can provide experience as well as be a character fit in the dressing room. But for this exercise, we’ll focus on only one name, Alec Martinez.

Alec Martinez Vegas Golden Knights
Alec Martinez, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Martinez just completed one of his best individual seasons, playing on the top pairing for the Vegas Golden Knights, scoring 32 points in 53 games played. The 33-year-old left-handed puck-mover just completed a six-year deal worth $4 million per season and may not be able to be retained by Vegas, who will be tight against the salary cap.

If he is available, Bergevin would likely target him. He is a two-time Cup champion who has won at every level he has played. Martinez also provides the two-way ability with a focus on playing a simple yet effective defensive game that has been a staple of the Canadiens’ blue line. He could also provide an ability to quarterback a power play from the left side that the Habs do not have. Also, Martinez is familiar with the Canadiens and specifically his former LA Kings teammate Tyler Toffoli, so he might be interested in the direction Montreal is taking.

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Martinez will likely want to seek a raise on his $4 million salary, and that Montreal can accommodate that. However, the term would be the issue. At 33 years old, it is likely that four years would be as far as Bergevin would go. The basis for this assumption is the Jeff Petry contract, a four-year deal worth $6.25 million per season. If Martinez is willing to accept a deal similar to Petry’s, he would be an excellent fit to the Canadiens’ top four.

Marc Bergevin Montreal Canadiens
Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To ensure the Canadiens take a step forward and not just compete in a difficult division but also earn a playoff position, Bergevin will need to play a balancing act this summer. He will need to keep an eye on the salary cap needs over the next few seasons. He must find a way to retain the right role players to graft onto his young core. Also, he needs to ensure he provides room to promote young, inexpensive players to add skilled depth. Doing all that and finding a way to graft on key UFAs is a daunting task, but one that becomes easier as players see Montreal as a desirable destination for a chance to win.

This offseason, the Canadiens are no longer in a retooling mode. The main focus is no longer on acquiring youth, just making the playoffs is no longer seen as a success. The focus must now become about adding the right pieces to the roster to open their contention window. Because Canadiens’ management and their fans will demand more playoff success.

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