Montreal Canadiens general manager, Marc Bergevin, had many options leading into July 1. The team had ample cap space to make some big moves, with $11,806,191 projected now, and enough leeway to spend up to $15 million until the regular season. Bergevin spent the past couple of years stockpiling high-level prospects and a slew of future draft picks. The team has been infused with a youth movement and a strong prospect pipeline, falling just short of the playoffs last season, but arguably having a bright future in store. With a full roster and cap space to spare, the Habs entered the free agency period from a position of strength.
The Habs’ Bargaining Position
Bergevin could have gone on a shopping spree, paying some big name free agents to add skill and star power to the team. They could have orchestrated a big trade, swapping out surplus players to fill a hole on the roster. They could have stood pat and done nothing, though after leaving so much cap space available the past two seasons, that would have been an unpopular idea. So far, Bergevin has done none of the above.
Instead, management opted for the most unlikely of moves, a taboo among NHL GMs: He extended an offer sheet to Carolina Hurricanes phenom Sebastian Aho. The five-year deal, carrying an average annual value (AAV) of $8.454 million was considered, by some, too low to succeed. As of this writing, the Hurricanes intend to match it.
Why Such A Low Offer Sheet for Aho?
As it stands, if the Canes don’t match it, the Canadiens will owe them compensation in the form of a first, second, and third-round pick. Any higher on the annual cap hit and it would be two firsts, a second, and third to pry Aho away. As Bergevin managed to secure a second and third-round pick in exchange for sending Andrew Shaw back to the Chicago Blackhawks, the ultimate difference is how many first-round picks he is willing to cough up for the young star center.
The Canadiens have enough cap space to have offered upwards of $10 or $11 million in order to discourage the Hurricanes from matching it. At just 21 years old and coming off an 83-point season, Aho would be worth committing big money to over most other UFAs that were on the market.
The team did sign backup goalie Keith Kincaid on day one of free agency, but did nothing to address their biggest problem on the left side of defense. The team also desperately needs a boost to their power play and scoring ability. Aho would fill the latter role to an extent, but there are still unaddressed needs.
Moreover, if you target a young stud like Aho, why not make the deal with the best chance of success or forego the offer sheet altogether and make a viable trade offer for him? So far, it doesn’t look like it was hard for Carolina to decide to match the offer. We can speculate that after years of failing to land a true number one center, and repeating how hard it is to do so, Bergevin made this move so he can say he at least tried. That he used every tool at his disposal to get that elusive center, and despite failing to make it happen, he can point to this attempt in future press conferences as evidence of his active attempts to address the problem. If that is the only benefit gained from this offer sheet, there is a lot more work to do.
The Canadiens’ Roster Focus Now
The Habs still have all of that cap space available as well as a bunch of prospects and loads of draft picks. They also still have glaring needs to be addressed if they want to be true Cup contenders. Moving forward, Bergevin still has all the above options available to him. He can pursue remaining UFAs who haven’t yet signed, like Jake Gardiner who would make sense in addressing the hole on left defense.
There is also potential for a decent trade. This is the time of year when teams are re-tooling their rosters and are in a state of flux. GMs will entertain offers, so the Habs should be pitching a few of them. They can always try another offer sheet, to a player like Patrick Laine or Brayden Point. It is rumoured that they were considering an offer for Point until finally settling on Aho.
Ultimately, the team is still under construction. Canadiens fans are waiting in hungry anticipation to cheer for a team they feel can compete in the playoffs again. The current roster falls a little short of that. If they fail to get Aho, all eyes will stay on Bergevin until he makes a big move.