The Montreal Canadiens went into the trade deadline with two clear goals: only trade players for a proper return, and acquire speedy and skilled prospects. Habs general manager (GM) Kent Hughes did precisely that in the three trades he made on deadline day. Hughes, however, was busy long before the deadline, making deals when he moved Tyler Toffoli on Feb. 14 and Ben Chiarot on March 16.
Canadiens Trade Toffoli to the Flames
On Feb. 14 the Canadiens traded Toffoli to the Calgary Flames for a 2022 top-10 protected first-round pick, a 2023 fifth-round pick, unsigned prospect Emil Heineman and roster player Tyler Pitlick. Toffoli was the Canadiens’ leading scorer last season with 28 goals and 44 points. He signed a very team-friendly contract with the Habs in the offseason, to the tune of $4.25 million for four seasons, probably one of the best free agent (FA) signings by former GM Marc Bergevin.
With a historic slow start and Bergevin on the last year of his contract, owner Geoff Molson decided a change was needed and he fired Bergevin, then hired Jeff Gorton as Vice President of Hockey Operations. Two months after Gorton was hired, he named Hughes as his GM, and within a month, Toffoli was traded.
The trade was the first significant move by Hughes, and the return did not disappoint. In his press conference, Hughes had said he wasn’t just interested in picks, but he wanted prospects that were one or two years removed from their draft year. In the Toffoli trade, he not only got two draft picks, but also a young, speedy forward in Heineman who plays a solid two-way game, has a high compete level and never stops moving. Heineman is a good bottom-six forward who will play a similar style to Jake Evans and Arturri Lehkonen. Even though this trade wasn’t on deadline day, it was still a deadline-day type of trade, and a precursor to what sort of deals Hughes would be making at the deadline.
Canadiens Deal Chiarot to Florida
The next domino to fall for the Canadiens was Chiarot — the rugged defender was a highly sought-after commodity going into the deadline. Teams wanted him for his solid playoff performance last season when he helped the Habs reach the Stanley Cup Final and proved to be an asset in the playoffs. With the absence of Shea Weber and Joel Edmundson this season, Chiarot was relied on heavily by the Habs, playing on the penalty kill (PK) and the power play (PP). Chiarot had seven goals and 19 points with the Canadiens and is on pace to have a career-high in both categories, which also helped his value rise going into the deadline.
The Florida Panthers wanted to load up on playoff performers to make a run at the Cup this season, and Chiarot was long rumoured to be headed their way. However, the Panthers had to give Hughes what he was asking for to acquire him, which was a first-rounder and a prospect. Florida obliged with a 2023 first-rounder, as well as a fourth-round pick in 2022 and prospect Ty Smilanic. Smilanic was drafted in the third round, and is a solid center who plays for Quinnipiac University in the North Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). He is a reliable two-way center with speed and size who can play in all situations. He had 13 goals 22 points in 39 games this season and projects to be a third-line player in the NHL.
Canadiens Move Kulak to the Oilers
The Canadiens had a slow start on deadline day, as they didn’t make any moves until 1 PM eastern time, and the deadline was at 3 PM. The first big move was when they moved pending UFA defensemen Brett Kulak to the Edmonton Oilers for a second-round pick in 2022, a seventh-round pick in 2024, and defencemen William Lagesson. Kulak was a versatile defenceman for the Habs who could play up and down the lineup, and he is a good puck mover who plays a straightforward defensive game. The Oilers were looking for left-handed depth on defence, and Kulak fit the mould for a bottom-pairing player who can play at both ends of the ice.
Getting a second-round pick would have been sufficient for Kulak, but Hughes’s icing on the cake was having a fourth-round pick and roster player in the deal. Granted, Lagesson was moved to the Canadiens as a money dump because it allowed Kulak’s contract to fit under the Oilers’ cap — the Canadiens retained 50 percent of Kulak’s $1.85 million cap hit. Lagesson is a Swedish defenseman drafted by the Oilers in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. He is a physical defenceman who plays strong positionally, but is a below-average skater. He will become a restricted free agent (RFA) in the offseason, and is a left-handed defenceman which the Habs have an abundance of, so it will be interesting if he remains with the team after this season.
Canadiens Trade Lehkonen to the Avalanche
The biggest deal of deadline day was the trade of Lehkonen to the Colorado Avalanche. He was in the middle of a career year with the Canadiens, and his value has never been higher. He’s a terrific two-way winger who was head and shoulders the best defensive player on the team. He was also a pending RFA who could ask for a contract in the $4 million range, which would be on par with Blake Coleman or Barclay Goodrow, who play a similar game style. The Canadiens already have $3.4 million each invested in Joel Armia and Paul Byron, another large salary for a bottom-six player would be abysmal cap management from Hughes, and Lehkonen was the most accessible player to move with the best return.
Lehkonen’s trade was the biggest of the day, but it was also the one with the best return. For the Avalanche to acquire him, they had to give up one of their top defensive prospects in Justin Barron. Barron is a big 20-year-old right-handed defenseman, and a skilled two-way defender with a great shot. He was drafted 25th overall in the 2020 draft, and in his first year of pro hockey with the Avalanche’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Colorado Eagles, he has 20 points in 43 games, including five goals. Barron could play a few games this season in Montreal, but will also be a considerable upgrade to the Laval rocket defensive core. The Canadiens also received a 2024 second-round pick.
There was a minor deal at the deadline as well, as the Canadiens traded away goaltender Andrew Hammond to the New Jersey Devils for Nate Schnarr. Schnarr is a solid two-way center with 13 goals and 26 points in 43 games in the AHL. Trading Hammond could be a sign that Habs star Carey Price is getting closer to returning to action, and this will give Hammond a chance to play NHL minutes elsewhere.
Overall, Hughes got exactly what he wanted in every deal, and then some. He showed how his negotiation skills as an agent can come in handy for the Canadiens, and if this is a sign of things to come, the future looks bright in Montreal.
Trege Wilson has been a freelance content writer for the past four years and with the THW for the past year. He is the co-host of the popular Montreal Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered on IHeartRadio.com.Trege is very passionate about all things Canadiens and loves to provide his readers with great quality news, rumours and opinions on the Montreal Canadiens. Trege has also been featured on JblamSports and JDFSports Podcasts; for interviews and guest appearances, you can contact him at any of his social media accounts listed under his photo in such articles as this one.