Canadiens Shouldn’t Rely on Free Agency to Rebuild

The first trade deadline for Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes is fast approaching. With the way this season has gone, at least the decision to be a seller has been an easy one to make. There will be a few more players moved out, which will gather more future assets in picks and prospects, but there will also be more salary-cap space saved. This seems to be helping part of the plan Hughes and executive vice president Jeff Gorton have in mind, as they are reportedly looking to be active on the unrestricted free agent (UFA) market.

Canadiens Going Shopping

TSN Insider Pierre Lebrun has reported that the Canadiens will be active buyers this summer in free agency when the market opens on 13 July. Hughes has never openly committed to calling the process he has begun as a rebuild, but instead, has consistently said his plans to build a roster that can provide sustained success.

“What we’re hearing is that, yes, the Canadiens are still on the lookout for picks and prospects in their roster makeover, but further proof that this is not necessarily a traditional rebuild and more of a roster transformation is that I’m told the Habs intend to be pretty aggressive in free agency come July 13.”

-Pierre Lebrun

It is difficult to believe the plan has been expedited just because interim head coach Martin St. Louis has been able to get seven competitive games out of this lineup, including four wins in a row. The plan, even if it’s targeting UFAs, will remain to get younger, add future assets, and clear cap space. If by doing so that means they can attract a star player in the summer, then that plan of action shouldn’t be dismissed just because some believe that losing next year could lead to a small chance of drafting Conor Bedard. 

Connor Bedard, Regina Pats
Connor Bedard, Regina Pats (Photo Credit: Keith Hershmiller)

There is no doubt that a player like Bedard would rarely ever be allowed to reach free agency or be traded, so drafting a player of that skill level is the only guaranteed method of acquiring him. With that said, spending several years in the NHL cellar and amassing high draft picks isn’t a sure-fire plan either. It hasn’t worked out well for teams such as the Edmonton Oilers or Buffalo Sabres.

Canadiens Hunting for Free Agents

Past actions are usually a good indicator of future intent. Looking back at the rebuilding process Gorton took as GM of the New York Rangers, a major part of that plan sped up with the signing of Artemi Panarin. 

Adding star power to the Canadiens roster via free agency is no easy task. Montreal isn’t considered a desirable landing spot for top-tier players as it has harsh winters, high taxes, language issues, political issues, and some of the most intense media scrutiny in the NHL.

If Hughes can do so this summer, that would be a coup. It would also speed up the process of being a competitive, even contending team. But who could be available this summer that can help?

Patrice Bergeron

The one name that keeps getting repeated as a possible target is Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. While he may have been a client of Kent Hughes for many years and has a personal relationship, it is highly unlikely he would choose to leave Boston. After 18 seasons with the Bruins, Bergeron will no doubt be a first-ballot Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. But he will be 37 years old this summer, and at that age, how many more quality seasons could he provide? Especially considering the salary and term it would likely take to lure him away from the only organization he has ever played for. Not many players can say they played an entire career with one franchise and won a Stanley Cup, but he can, and he’ll without a doubt have his number retired.

Johnny Gaudreau

Perhaps the biggest name that could potentially hit the open market is Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau. At 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, he would be another diminutive addition to a team that has its fair share of problems with lack of size. But there is no doubt about his skills; he is a skilled shooter as well as a playmaker who can tally 90 to 100 points in a season, a level of offensive output the Canadiens haven’t seen in decades.

At 28 years old, the left-winger will be looking to sign a maximum term contract, which is seven years on the open market, eight years for the Flames. He will also be looking for a hefty raise on his current $6.75 million salary, likely a cap hit closer to $9.5 million. At a cost that high, the long-term impact to roster depth, for a league facing a stagnant salary cap, could be greater than his skills can provide on ice.

Johnny Gaudreau Calgary Flames
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It may be safer to wait for the summer of 2023 when Jonathan Huberdeau’s six-year contract at $5.9 million per season with the Florida Panthers runs out. The Saint-Jerome, Quebec native, would bring in an offensive punch, star power and the added bonus of being from the area. If the Canadiens need to overspend on a star, why not one that grew up knowing the demands of the Montreal market.

Trade Option Safer for Montreal

The Canadiens may be better off choosing to make a trade for a young prospect that has the potential to become a possible star in the NHL. Much like when Gorton was the Rangers’ GM, he traded Derick Brassard to the Ottawa Senators to bring in a young center in Mika Zibanajad, who is now the top-line center for New York. 

Related: Expectations for Canadiens’ First-Ever Rebuild

One player that fits that profile is Los Angeles Kings center prospect Alex Turcotte. Currently playing with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League, he is playing top center duties and learning the professional game. However, in the long term, with Anze Kopitar, Phillip Danault, and Quentin Byfield filling the top-nine roles on the NHL club, Turcotte will be facing a seemingly impossible struggle to win a position at center. It may be possible for Hughes to acquire the young center if he can provide the Kings immediate help to their NHL roster, as they are now re-entering a window of contention.

Alex Turcotte Ontario Reign
Alex Turcotte, Ontario Reign (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The former fifth overall pick of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft would be able to step into a top-six center role with the Canadiens right away. He would have the added bonus of already having chemistry with Cole Caufield, having been his teammate at Wisconsin and in the USA National Team Development Program. 

In the end, the rebuild as it stands has no announced timeframe to completion. Hughes and Gorton could aggressively pursue quality young players and add more with high draft picks. Or, they could commit to a hybrid model of bringing in high picks and quality prospects while clearing salary out to then sign a star to complement the new young core to help hasten the rebuild. By all accounts, it looks as though that is the path they will try to take.


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