It was supposed to be a fairly quiet offseason for the Montreal Canadiens, but that changed at the 2022 Entry Draft, primarily with the trade for Kirby Dach. In some ways, Dach was general manager Kent Hughes’ big acquisition. So, Dach remaining unsigned is a source of concern for some, but it shouldn’t be. It will get done.
Dach a Top Canadiens Priority
Hughes didn’t necessarily have to ink unrestricted free agents this summer to fill out his NHL roster. Despite a few depth Canadiens signings, that technically still holds true, seeing as Dach is restricted. However, as Dach is such a huge projected part of the Canadiens’ future roster, getting him signed has jumped to the top of Hughes’ priority list, at least in principle. In practice though, that may prove difficult.
The Canadiens are right up against the $82.5 million salary cap. Dach is most likely going to command over $2 million with his second professional contract. They have to shed salary as a result (even if they can go over during the offseason).
So, the fact that Dach remains unsigned is not necessarily an indication of either side playing hardball. God knows, no one side has any significant leverage over the other. For example, the Canadiens traded for Dach when he was unsigned. They need to sign him eventually or they end up looking foolish (to put it mildly) for having traded away defenseman Alexander Romanov to get him.
Canadiens and Dach Need Each Other
Dach is also Hughes’ plan to fill the opening down the middle on the second line. He’s a big part of why they opted to draft winger Juraj Slafkovsky first overall instead of a center like Shane Wright or Logan Cooley at the Draft. So, they kind of need this relationship to work.
From Dach’s perspective, his lack of success at taking faceoffs (34.6%) has brought his ability to play center into question. In fact, his former team, the Chicago Blackhawks, even moved Dach to the wing down the stretch of a losing season to add insult to injury (as if that was going to fix things). Add on his stalled development, with a relatively modest 26 points in his third season, and Dach is hardly in a position to dictate terms himself.
So, both sides are likely eager to get this thing done as soon as possible. It’s just that, ideally, the Canadiens first make the room under the cap and then sign Dach, because once they put pen to the paper the Canadiens are negotiating from a position of weakness, this time with other teams trying to unload salary.
For example, look at how the Columbus Blue Jackets traded Oliver Bjorkstrand to the Seattle Kraken. It was the same day they extended Patrik Laine, and they got just two mid-round draft picks in exchange. It’s no coincidence.
Kirby Dach vs. Pierre-Luc Dubois
Following the first round of the Draft, after the Dach acquisition, Hughes went on record saying that he believes the Canadiens can help Dach develop into a special center. There’s no reason to think that stance has changed a month later, before Dach has so much as had a chance to play hockey for the Habs. Even in the face of suggestions Dach could be the key to a deal with the Winnipeg Jets for Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Canadiens are logically going to keep a level head and see through their initial plan. Anything different, and the Canadiens risk deviating from their rebuild.
Admittedly, Dubois would be an upgrade over Dach. He’s an established top-six forward, who’s actually enjoyed success as a center (albeit with a still-below-average 44.6% success rate at faceoffs). However, there are several caveats to that assertion. For example, that’s only for now. While there are doubts Dach will be able to reach the same level of play as Dubois eventually, no one knows for sure. While Dubois has found success, he’s hardly a superstar. Betting against Dach could backfire.
More importantly, the Canadiens don’t necessarily need to find out if Dubois is the answer right now. Dach, 21, is three draft years younger. The three years is coincidentally how many years fellow-center Christian Dvorak remains under contract. The Habs just finished last in the NHL. It’s realistically going to take three seasons at least before they’re ready to contend. Between then and now, when their season-over-season records won’t really matter, they have the depth they need with Dvorak as an insurance policy at center.
So, it makes no sense to pay a premium to acquire Dubois. All it would do is make the Canadiens more competitive in the short term, but not to the point of actually contending, due to the question marks on defense and surrounding goalie Carey Price in net. All it would due is cost them chances at high draft picks.
Furthermore, there have been well-documented reports Dubois actually wants to play for the Canadiens. If true, they simply mean the Canadiens can wait until he becomes an unrestricted free agent and get him without having to give up significant assets.
Those reports could admittedly be simply a negotiating ploy. At this point, it’s hard to know for sure, but the Canadiens should be in no rush to find out one way or another. Give it a few seasons. Maybe Dach takes that next step in his development and the Habs no longer have a need for Dubois. Maybe they find a way to get both in Canadiens jerseys, but, not now, not with the cap crunch they’re facing.
As mentioned earlier, the top priority is technically to shed salary. So, taking on even more, i.e., Dubois ($6 million hit), is not really in the cards, or at least it shouldn’t be. At least not yet. Give it time, though. If Dubois does indeed want to play for the Canadiens, you’d thing it work itself out eventually. Keep in mind though, the Habs actually own Dach’s rights. The focus should be on him. Chances are beyond good he suits for the Habs long before that point. A contract? Even sooner.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.