Canadiens Salary Cap Issues Will Force a Trade

Montreal Canadiens general manager (GM) Kent Hughes was joined by his special advisor, Vincent Lecavalier, for a press conference on July 4 in advance of the NHL Entry Draft being hosted in Montreal and there was no new information provided.

What was apparent was that Lecavalier has only spoken to Shane Wright so far and that Hughes is open to making deals. This makes sense as the Habs will want to make a splash at the draft, not for showmanship, but to accelerate the rebuild plan. Furthermore, they have to make moves to manage the salary cap.

Canadiens’ Salary Cap Situation

As of the press conference on July 4, the Canadiens’ salary cap sits at $80.577 million with 19 of the maximum 23 players under contract on the roster. This seems as though Hughes has solved the problem, however that ignores the fact that there are several restricted free agents (RFA) to be signed and some may not receive a qualifying offer if the cap cannot be managed as soon as possible.

Being in long-term injury reserve (LTIR) last season hurt them in that regard as the bonuses got added to the cap hit on the final day of the regular season, and the Canadiens were well beyond the $81.5 million limit. Also, it affects the off-season cap limit of 10 percent over the set cap as the bonus overages that are to apply for the upcoming season also count towards the offseason cap total, regardless of the day the bonuses are paid out. So while it was good to see the development of Nick Suzuki, Alexander Romanov and Cole Caufield, it did come with an added cost.

Canadiens’ Restricted Free Agents

There is also uncertainty surrounding Carey Price and his health. If he can’t play, he will be placed on LTIR. There will be no knowing how his knee will respond until well into training, and because of this Hughes will need to keep his $10.5 million cap hit on the books.

The cap situation also currently leaves no room to re-sign RFAs such as Rem Pitlick. He proved his value to the club by his versatility in playing up and down the lineup, either on the wing or at the center. Since being claimed off waivers from the Minnesota Wild, he has played with speed and added some offence too, scoring nine goals and 26 points in 46 games. Last season, the 25-year-old forward earned $925,000 and has shown he deserves a raise on a bridge contract.

Rem Pitlick Montreal Canadiens
Rem Pitlick, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Romanov is another important RFA that must be dealt with. The good news is that as a 10.2c RFA no one can place an offer sheet onto the 22-year-old defenseman. The sophomore made great strides in his overall development last season, growing into a trusted top-four option for coach Dominque Ducharme and, later, Martin St. Louis. Despite scoring only three goals and 13 points in 79 games, his mobility and puck-moving skills showed the promise of more growth offensively. He has become confident, consistent and reliable defensively in his positioning and combativity retrieving pucks in his own zone. His best defensive trait so far has been his physicality, which he uses to intimidate opponents, making them take more time to be aware of his location, as he finished sixth among NHL defensemen in hits with 227.

Related: Montreal Canadiens Face a Difficult Choice with 2022 Top Pick

Hughes has an important decision to make, does he sign him to a short bridge contract or take a gamble on a long-term deal in the hopes of keeping the cap hit low in the long run? That choice will factor into how much money he will need to trade out of Montreal.

Montreal Placing Veterans on the Trade Block

The need to retain their youth coupled with the salary cap constraints leads to an obvious answer, Hughes will be making significant moves – likely during the week leading up to the NHL Entry Draft. While the fan base will demand that Mike Hoffman or Jonathan Drouin be sacrificed in a trade, their values aren’t very high. Also, it is unlikely a team would take on their full cap hits without sending a contract in return, negating the point of the deal in their cases, which was to create space.

Instead, it is far more likely that Hughes will leverage interest in Jeff Petry, Christian Dvorak and even Josh Anderson to create the space he needs, but also try and acquire assets that will help the franchise in its rebuild. Beginning with Petry, there are several teams rumored to be interested in the 34-year-old puck-moving defender, specifically the Dallas Stars:

If the Stars lose Klingberg to free agency, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Montreal pick up the phone and gauge the Stars on Jeff Petry, 34, who has three years left on his deal at a $6.25 million cap hit.

Pierre LeBrun (from ‘Pierre Lebrun, Johnny Gaudreau, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Mikheyev and other pending UFA updates’, The Athletic, 6/7/22)

Petry looks to be a good fit for Dallas as a backup plan in case they lose John Klingberg, as he could replace the unrestricted free agent in the role of a second-pairing defender and power-play specialist. With a contract that is only for three more seasons, it could give their prospects time to develop and help them in the playoffs as he has with the Canadiens. But Hughes won’t just trade him for the sake of it either, as he has confirmed the issues around his trade request revolving around pandemic restrictions, and their impact on having family support for his wife and kids. As they get lifted, that may change the need for a move.

If the desire is to maximize a return, and possibly trade up to have another pick in this year’s top ten, the best asset to be dangled in a package deal would be Anderson. The 28-year-old power forward is under contract for five more seasons at a manageable $5.5 million and his style of play would be a good fit with a Philadelphia Flyers club that is looking to be competitive immediately. They are also open to moving their fifth overall pick. With new head coach John Tortorella and his familiarity with Anderson, it would make sense they’d have some interest, but the Canadiens would need to add more assets to get that pick in return.

Josh Anderson Montreal Canadiens
Josh Anderson, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens may need to resort to taking back a contract, such as James Van Riemsdyk, who has been rumored to be available. He isn’t the player he was in his prime years, however, he is coming off of a season in which he scored 24 goals. Also, he is entering the last year of his contract that will pay the 33-year-old winger $7 million in average annual value (AAV), so that would leave the Canadiens in a cap squeeze. That being said, his arrival could open the door to making a cap dump trade in which Hughes adds draft picks to entice a team to take on a large contract.

Whatever happens in the week leading to the draft, Hughes will need to leverage the interest in his veterans and the desire of GMs to make roster moves to lay the groundwork for free agency. He may need to lower his expectations on some veterans, though, as the main goal this summer will be to create cap flexibility not just going into next season, but in the next few seasons as well. It won’t be too long before his young core begins to reach the ages where they will be in search of new deals following their entry-level contracts. This is why Hughes will have to play let’s make a deal with his peers as the draft approaches.

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