Canadiens Need to Start Gorton Tenure with Fire Sale of Veteran Players

It can’t be sugar-coated, with only seven wins in the first 31 games and on a pace to a 45 point season, the Montreal Canadiens are suffering through one of the worst seasons in their 112-year history. Even now, with a holiday pause, there won’t be much reprieve for executive vice-president of hockey operations (VP) Jeff Gorton, the players or the fans.

Last season, former general manager Marc Bergevin took his shot, added contracts and led the Habs to their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final since 1993. He followed up by trying to plug the roster holes left vacant by those departing or out of the lineup long-term with injuries. But team owner Geoff Molson decided that 10 years and a historically bad start was enough, and chose to let Bergevin go.

Jeff Gorton
New Canadiens executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Now, with new management under Jeff Gorton, a new direction for the team will begin. Historically, Gorton places his focus on mobility, especially on the blue line, and skill up front, the expectation for the Canadiens future now will be no different as the new management team takes shape.  But before new players can arrive, room on the roster and under the salary cap must be made to accommodate them. 

Canadiens Fire Sale

By December of 2022, it is very possible that all of the players mentioned below have moved on. In some cases, the return in a deal won’t be the value of the player due to the contract’s term or cap hit. With that said, who should go, and what could be a reasonable return.

Related: A Rebuild Starts with a Carey Price Trade

Carey Price

Carey Price will be 35 years old at the end of this season, and with four more seasons at $10.5 million on the cap, he would be an expensive option to remain. But more than his salary, he can carry a weak team to the playoffs, as well as win an entire playoff series’ on his own, and is also the winningest goaltender in franchise history. Meaning, that if the goal is to rebuild, he could artificially inflate the team’s record and hurt any future draft positions, making it harder to select those top prospects.

Carey Price Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

More importantly, Price deserves a chance to win a Stanley Cup and the Canadiens can offer that opportunity to him in a trade like the Boston Bruins did for Ray Bourque when they traded him to Colorado. Yes, Price would need to waive his no-movement clause, and yes, the return won’t meet his value to the franchise. However, Gorton could find a way to add a good prospect or high pick if he is willing to take on some of the cap and accept a bad contract in return.

Ben Chiarot

Ben Chiarot arrived as a free agent after leaving the Winnipeg Jets. He added some grit, physicality, even some mobility for a player his size. Defensively, he provided high-quality play by defending Price’s crease. He also played a key role in the last two playoffs for Montreal. All that, and his expiring contract with a $3.5 million cap hit makes him a desirable commodity. Gorton should be able to parlay another strong season by Chiarot into a first-round pick from a contending team, much like David Savard netted the Columbus Blue Jackets at last year’s trade deadline.

Brett Kulak 

As a depth defenceman, Brett Kulak won’t fetch a large return. But with his expiring contract of $1.85 million, teams likely won’t need any retention to take him on at the trade deadline. His mobility and play in transition fit the mold of today’s NHL defender. He would be a quality insurance player, to be used in the case of injuries during a long playoff run with a contending club. At best, the Habs could hope to get a third or fourth-round pick. But more importantly, his departure opens up a roster spot that could be used to entice Jordan Harris to sign and play NHL games in a Habs uniform once his final college season comes to an end. 

Artturi Lehkonen

Choosing to move Artturi Lehkonen is a difficult choice, obviously most would rather move Joel Armia, but unless he picks up his play, no one will want to pick up his contract. Lehkonen has been, as usual, a steady performer. His defensive play, strength on the forecheck and ability to generate offensive opportunities would be a highly valuable commodity on the trade market. 

Artturi Lehkonen Montreal Canadiens
Artturi Lehkonen, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If he were to be shopped, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a first-round pick, maybe even a first and a prospect if a bidding war were to take place, similar to the Barclay Goodrow trade to Tampa Bay. If the decision is to move on from Lehkonen, it would be clear that Gorton’s goal would be to stockpile picks and prospects to build around his core of players under the age of 25.

Brendan Gallagher

If Brendan Gallagher were ever to be traded, it would be because he told Gorton that he wouldn’t want to stay for a Canadiens rebuild. That isn’t saying he would ask for a trade, just that he would tell Gorton his preference is to play to win a Cup. If that happens, Gallagher could net a good return. But at 29 years old, playing a very physical brand of hockey with five years remaining on his $6.5 million per season deal, teams would be wary about overpaying.

Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher
PHILADELPHIA, PA – FEBRUARY 20 2020: Montreal Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher (11) gains control of the puck as Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning (23) chases him.
(Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Canadiens would likely need to retain salary to get a quality return according to one NHL scout,

“If Montreal were to retain 50 percent, I think they’d be able to look at probably a first round pick and maybe even a prospect for Gallagher”

-unnamed scout (Scouts Confidential: What value might Canadiens players with term left have on the trade market, Marc-Antoine Godin, The Athletic, 17 Dec 2021)

If that is the case, it is more likely that Gorton and his new general manager would try to convince Gallagher to remain and possibly take on the role of captain, helping provide an example of consistency and determination for the younger players to follow. Because having $3.75 million in unusable cap space could become an issue in two years if Gorton’s plan has the Canadiens returning to respectability.

Tyler Toffoli

With his hand injury, Tyler Toffoli will be out for two months, hurting the chances that he would be moved by the trade deadline. With only two more seasons on his very reasonable $4.25 million cap hit, the 29-year-old winger could be an excellent candidate for a summer trade. His ability to play on a second or third line, as well as adding a shooting option on the power play, and his ability to score 20 or more goals every season while playing responsible two-way hockey make him a highly valuable trade option. Add in his playoff pedigree (a Cup in 2014 with LA Kings, a Final appearance with Montreal in 2021) make him an ideal candidate for scoring depth for a contending team in need of a veteran leader.

Tyler Toffoli Montreal Canadiens
Tyler Toffoli, Montreal Canadiens in game action vs Edmonton Oilers during the 2021 Pandemic shortened season.
(Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In today’s flat cap structure, the Canadiens would need to take salary in return, being careful not to add someone that has more term than Toffoli. Any trade involving Toffoli should also provide the Habs with another first-round pick and even a quality prospect to add to the system.

Other players such as Chris Wideman, Mathieu Perreault, Cederic Paquette and even Kale Clague could all be traded by the time the trade deadline arrives. The task ahead for Gorton and the management team is not an easy one. They will need to strip this team of players to make room for the new generation. Some of those being moved out have been key pieces in any success the team has had, and, have been fan favorites, making their departure that much more difficult. 

Just as a forest fire burns away the old to open space and returns nutrients to the soil for new trees to take root and grow, allowing a new forest to grow in healthier and stronger than the last, Gorton will need to find a way to trade away some players to open up roster spaces and return roster spots and salary cap space to allow the young core group to be added and grow together in the hopes the new roster becomes healthier and stronger than the last.