The Montreal Canadiens will enter unrestricted free agency on Wednesday with holes to fill. The team has $14 million in cap space with only eight forwards, six defencemen and two goalies under contract, which leaves six mostly depth roster positions to be filled.
However, captain Shea Weber is expected to be placed on long-term injury reserve, which opens up another $7.58 million under the cap. That being said, his absence will leave a massive hole on the blue line that must be filled. He averaged over 22 minutes per game playing in all situations, which likely means general manager Marc Bergevin will need to find two defencemen to replace him: a shutdown defender and offensive defenceman who specializes in the power play (PP).
Say what you will about Weber’s effectiveness last season, but his role needs to be filled if the Canadiens have any chance at competing in the playoffs. This need could impact how much will be spent on forwards this summer, perhaps limiting Bergevin to only one addition to his middle six.
Bergevin will also have to fill the need for a top-six forward capable of scoring. The Habs offence also finished the 2020-21 season ranked 17th in the NHL with 158 goals in 56 games for an average rate of only 2.82 goals per game (GPG). This was also evident in the Stanley Cup Final when the Canadiens’ forwards couldn’t solve the highly effective Tampa Bay Lightning defensive structure.
There are many options available. Bergevin could trade for a big name, however, there are second-line options that would be more affordable on the cap and take no assets to acquire through free agency. However, management will have to keep in mind that their core youth will need contracts as early as the end of next season, and with a flat salary cap of $81.5 million, they must make sure they have the flexibility to retain their youth while making the team Cup contenders. Here are the team’s best options.
Bergevin should be linked to the NHL’s top-scoring unrestricted free agent (UFA) winger in Mike Hoffman. The 31-year-old left-winger is coming off a one-year, $4.1 million deal with the St. Louis Blues, where he scored 17 goals and 36 points in 52 games. He is a proven 20 to 30-goal scorer in a full 82-game schedule, which is exactly what the team needs.
Hoffman is a speedy winger who can score off the rush but also likes to attack the slot. He is also an excellent weapon on the power play, which is another area of concern for the Canadiens, who finished 17th in the NHL with a 19.2 percent success rate. His one-timer from the slot would be an instant weapon for the Habs, who could use another shooter to complement the playmakers in the lineup.
Adding Hoffman would instantly improve the Habs scoring depth and power-play production, however, his defensive play on the wing leaves something to be desired. His lack of defensive consistency is cause for concern as the Canadiens rely on defensive positioning and support from the wingers to regain possession to build their offence on transitional play. That being said, he isn’t a major liability either.
There may also be concern of his fitting into the locker room as he has had issues in the past, such as the incidents in Ottawa that his partner was alleged to have been involved in that led to him ultimately being traded. Perhaps a fresh start in a locker room filled with Cup champions and long-term leaders like Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher can help mitigate any personality clashes that might arise.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound left winger just completed his six-year $6 million per season contract. The 28-year-old split time over his contract between the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche.
Brandon Saad is a proven 20 goal scorer that is also an excellent two-way winger that would fit in well with a team like the Canadiens, who rely on transitional play. He would also provide an ability to generate a cycle game, using his large frame and excellent strength to win board battles in all three zones. He is a strong skater who can keep pace in an up-tempo offensive scheme as well if used to complement the speedy forwards as a puck retrieval and net-front presence. He is also a player that could provide offence on the PP as well as play on the penalty kill (PK), providing a scoring threat while short-handed as well.
The two-time Cup champion is a proven playoff performer with 25 goals in 91 games played, including seven goals in 10 games last season for Colorado. Also, he is still young enough to fit in and compliment the Canadiens core of under two forwards, making him a viable option for a long-term contract similar to one Josh Anderson was signed to. Bergevin’s familiarity with Saad from his days in Chicago could make a five or six-year contract offer possible.
Replacing the eventual loss of a Selke Trophy candidate like Phillip Danault is not possible, however, it is the role of a third-line center that Bergevin must focus on filling. Nick Bonino would be an excellent and likely less expensive candidate for that role.
The two-time Cup champion is a solid two-way center who is able to play a large role on the penalty kill, which was a major factor in the Habs’ playoff success, but needs to continue as the regular season PK was weak, finishing 23rd in the NHL at 78.5%. Offensively, Bonino is able to produce well, in a 30 to 40 point range. Playing in a third-line role would be acceptable offensive numbers, and if paired with some good young wingers, he can help provide some leadership as well.
At 33 years old and coming off of a four-year $4.1 million deal, he is likely going to be looking at a short-term deal near that level of salary. If he were willing to join Montreal on a three-year deal in a $3.5 to $4 million range, he would be a good fit for the Canadiens’ need for experience and shutdown abilities at center.
Free agency isn’t the time to build your team. However, as Bergevin showed last offseason with the additions of Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry, it is a good time to find complementary pieces that can fill important roles on the team. This summer, the Canadiens need some help offensively, and while the rumours of Jack Eichel being a trade option for Montreal are fun, it is more likely that Bergevin focuses on adding some mid-level free agents who can complement his young core of Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield. Adding some goals, size and experience for the mid-term, they will be able to grow and build on their recent playoff successes by continuing to compete for a playoff spot this season in what is promising to be a very strong Atlantic Division.