Canadiens Can Speed Up Rebuild by Targeting RFAs

The Montreal Canadiens are coming off the worst season of their 113-year history. Because of this, team owner Geoff Molson didn’t wait to make a clean sweep of his management team. Now under general manager Kent Hughes and executive vice president Jeff Gorton, the fan base seems to have hope and is prepared for a rebuild.

With a deep pool of prospects, 14 picks, and a desire to move out veteran contracts, Hughes could be looking at an opportunity to accelerate the rebuild by targeting restricted free agents (RFA) this offseason, who may no longer be a fit with their club.

Canadiens Preparing to Go to Market

The question marks around goaltender Carey Price’s health and the issues surrounding the Canadiens’ $83.43 million salary cap, a full $1 million above the 2022-23 cap limit, don’t leave any room for Hughes to be active on the unrestricted free agent market.

However, he may be able to be active in the trade market. He holds several assets that could entice teams, including roster players, picks, and even prospects who could be used to bring in players that fit with the core of Nick Suzuki, Alexander Romanov, and Cole Caufield, who are all 23 and younger. The Canadiens will be hosting the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, with the first-overall selection for the first time since 1980 and 13 other picks; expect management to be very busy leading up to and during the two-day event.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Christian Dvorak, Jonathan Drouin, Jeff Petry, Mike Hoffman, and even Josh Anderson could become trade chips in a deal or even packaged with the futures mentioned above. With these assets, targeting an RFA could be a good way forward as they fit the age of the core and would be under contractual control for one or two seasons. According to Elliotte Friedman, there will be several RFAs that could be available this summer due to high qualifying offers (QO). Here’s Friedman in his latest 32 Thoughts:

“There are a lot of eyes on qualifying offers. Cap space is tight, and the arbitration walk-away number this summer is $4,538,958. (Teams can’t “walk away” from any award below that number.) If they’re not convinced a player’s production matches, teams may choose to let them go free in July rather than risk an arbitration award they can’t escape. Toronto followers were confused by an Ondrej Kase Instagram post where he thanked Maple Leafs fans, taking it as an indication that he might be leaving. That’s premature, I think there are talks underway, but it’s not wrong to think the team would be spooked by an arbitration award in a tight cap situation. Others to watch include Ethan Bear (Carolina), Denis Gurianov (Dallas), Kasperi Kapanen (Pittsburgh), Dylan Strome (Chicago), Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha (New Jersey). It’s not to say all of these players are guaranteed to hit the market. It’s more like, teams are watching to see what decisions are made.”

Elliotte Friedman

Related: Should the Canadiens Trade for Second Overall Pick?

That $4.5 million is in the ballpark of the Canadiens’ cap hits mentioned above. After a poor start 2021-22, hiring Martin St. Louis as the head coach helped reinvigorate the roster, and by the end of the season, all of those players had proven that they are still capable of filling an important complementary role on an NHL team.

Who Should Canadiens Target

It is highly unlikely that any RFA will make the 32nd-place team become a playoff competitor next season. That leaves the Habs’ 2023 first-round pick as another likely lottery pick that could add another significant prospect. However, targeting RFAs this offseason could help the Canadiens make large strides in their rebuild, and some RFAs, in particular, could be in Hughes’ crosshairs.

Dylan Strome

One RFA that could interest the Canadiens is 25-year-old center, Dylan Strome. The 2015 third-overall pick has not been able to find the consistency needed to live up to his status as a top-three pick, but he has the skills to become a solid top-six forward. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he has size. He also has good foot speed, a heavy shot, and playmaking abilities. What he lacks is the defensive game needed to be relied upon as a top-six centerman. He also needs to play with offensively capable linemates to be productive; he hasn’t proven capable of carrying a line, which is why the Chicago Blackhawks may not match his QO.

“Strome has no idea which way it’ll go, as there’s been no meaningful dialogue with the team just yet.”

– Mark Lazerus (Mark Lazerus, ‘Dylan Strome still waiting to learn his fate with Blackhawks,’ The Athletic, May 23, 2022)

He could be a fit in Montreal, especially on the wing with Suzuki and Caufield. The team needs a big winger who can retrieve pucks, open space on the ice, and complement their offensive creativity, and Strome could fit that role. With Chicago in search of veteran centers as well as futures, the two teams might make good trade partners.

Pavel Zacha

New Jersey Devils RFA center Pavel Zacha is another big-bodied center that has been rumored to be of interest to the Canadiens. Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Boqvist have all passed Zacha on the team’s depth chart, which has moved him to left-wing. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Zacha, like Strome, has the size and strength to make him tough to move off the boards or away from the front of the net. He also has an excellent shot and hasn’t had his breakout season yet. He is another player that could fit on the Habs’ top line.

Pavel Zacha New Jersey Devils
Pavel Zacha, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Devils are nearing the end of their rebuild and want to compete for the playoffs immediately; they are even willing to trade their top pick in 2022. They have a need for a top-four defenceman and are looking for a fully developed player. A deal built around Jeff Petry would provide the cap space needed to sign Zacha and get the breathing room for the Canadiens under the cap ceiling.

Vitali Kravstov

One RFA that Friedman didn’t mention is Vitali Kravstov. The former 2018 ninth-overall pick of the New York Rangers demanded a trade at the start of the 2021-22 season and was sent on loan to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). There was no movement all season as GM Chris Drury displayed patience and has held firm to his demand. According to Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, the demand is now a top prospect.

At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Kravstov is another big-bodied winger who could help fill a need on the Canadiens in support of their young centers. He has good speed on the wings and plays a gritty game using his size to gain and retain possession in the offensive zone. He also has the ability to get into dangerous scoring areas. Defensively, he will need to improve, but developing on a team that can forgive errors, like a rebuilding Habs roster, may give him the time he needs to reach his potential.

Kravstov’s actions indicate that he wants to be in the NHL. Refusing an American Hockey League (AHL) assignment, wanting an opportunity to be a top-nine player, and most recently, rejecting an offer from the KHL team Traktor Chelyabinsk. With the Rangers’ deep playoff run this spring, the demand could easily become a proven NHL player to complement an emerging Cup contender. With the Calgary Flames’ first-round pick, as well as some depth forwards in their possession, they may be able to build a package to acquire the promising young winger.

Vitali Kravtsov New York Rangers
Vitali Kravtsov, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Hughes can help the Canadiens take a massive stride forward this offseason. By the time he leaves the Canadiens’ 2022 Draft table if he can find a path to add some high-end prospects, which, having the first overall pick helps happen, but also find a gem later on in the draft. Then acquire a quality RFA while also finding a way to trade out some veteran contracts that would make room on the roster and in the Canadiens’ salary cap structure. Doing so would make it possible to add these younger, unproven players. All of that will play out in front of a rabid fanbase as the Canadiens are hosting the draft this year, his actions would provide the hometown crowd the excitement and hope for the future that they crave.

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