The Montreal Canadiens significantly improved the outlook of their first day of free agency by signing Mike Hoffman. Needless to say, he’s a welcome addition following the lukewarm acquisitions of defensemen David Savard and Chris Wideman and forward Cedric Paquette.
However, while Hoffman improves the Habs relative to how they started the day, how about relative to the roster they iced against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final? That’s much more up for debate.
Canadiens Replace Weber with Savard
In effectively replacing Shea Weber with Savard, the Canadiens took an undeniable step back. Of course, options were limited and general manager Marc Bergevin nevertheless acquired a shutdown Stanley Cup-winning defenseman who’s four and half years younger than Weber on a fairly reasonable deal, with a $3.5 million cap hit.
As such, one can argue Bergevin did as well as he could under the circumstances. If he was going to improve his team through free agency, those signings were going to come elsewhere in the lineup, namely at forward with goalies Carey Price and Jake Allen staying put.
Right from the get-go, Bergevin was under the gun in that respect, with Phillip Danault opting to go to market and the Canadiens themselves effectively moving on from Tomas Tatar. So, with that, two thirds of the Canadiens’ top line over the last few seasons were gone like that, Brendan Gallagher being the only survivor.
Unless you count rumors of the Canadiens trying to acquire Jack Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres, it’s inherently possible and understandable the Canadiens would simply replace Danault by committee. In such an instance, Nick Suzuki, who’s arguably the team’s No. 1 center already, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi move up the lineup and that’s that. Add incumbent Jake Evans, prospect Ryan Poehling and the just-acquired Paquette to the mix and the Canadiens can theoretically pick up where they left off in terms of strength down the middle, at least from an offensive standpoint if Suzuki and Kotkaniemi continue to progress as expected.
Hoffman vs. Tatar
Hoffman, at left wing, is a different animal, though. In him, the Canadiens get a six-time 20-goal scorer for three years and $13.5 million, which is good. However, Tatar, the same player the Canadiens healthy scratched throughout the playoffs, is also a six-time 20-goal scorer. On top of that, Hoffman is known for defensive deficiencies in his game, and, like Tatar, was healthy scratched by the St. Louis Blues last season. Why should Hoffman realistically end up anywhere else but head coach Dominique Ducharme’s dog house?
Obviously, he and the relatively undersized Tatar are not the same player. In Hoffman the Canadiens are getting a slightly bigger forward with significantly greater power-play production. Since 2015-16, Hoffman has 65 goals and 133 points on the man advantage. Tatar has 35 goals and 66 points in that same time span despite averaging over two minutes on the power play per game. While Hoffman has regularly averaged over three, he still more than doubled the amount of points Tatar scored last season despite getting just 1:57 (2:01 for Tatar).
“That is something that I contribute and take pride in, being able to shoot the puck and being a threat on the power play,” Hoffman said during a media-availability session after his acquisition. “I don’t think a team’s bringing me in to play on the fourth line or do things like that.”
So, considering the Canadiens’ middle-of-the-pack special teams last season, Hoffman is someone who can likely help out to a greater degree as a power-play specialist. With Weber likely gone, potentially for good, they could use a big shot thereon. Hoffman is perhaps just that, but not so predictable of a weapon that opposing teams catch on to where the puck is going next. It just remains to be seen how he fits in on the ice instead of just on paper.
Hoffman No Longer a Distraction
Obviously, with Hoffman the notorious circumstances surrounding his departure from the Ottawa Senators need to at least be mentioned. However, it’s fair to say this is not a case of Bergevin getting desperate to fill a hole to the point of conveniently disregarding a player’s so-called character. Whereas Bergevin drafted Logan Mailloux in the first round last week without him having earned a second chance, Hoffman has proven not be a distraction, with him having left the Senators three seasons ago now.
True, Hoffman did not get re-signed by the Florida Panthers last offseason and had to sign a professional tryout agreement with the Blues. However, that can be attributed to the cap staying flat at $81.5 million. Meanwhile, even though Hoffman is moving on to his third team in four years, it was reported the Blues had tried to retain his services.
So, Bergevin effectively upgraded his offense in principle with Hoffman. As long as Ducharme and company understand and can properly deploy him based on his strengths, Hoffman should work out to a similarly surprising extent that Tyler Toffoli did last season.
Bergevin Has More Work to Do
However, much like with Hoffman, defense remains a serious concern. Without Danault’s defensive awareness, Gallagher may not be as effective at driving play the other way. Furthermore, with Savard boxing out opponents in front of goalie Carey Price instead of Weber, the Canadiens are arguably a worse team than the one who reached the Final. Hoffman’s offense alone won’t be enough to negate the defensive deficiencies. After all, in the past, it’s been argued what he brings to the table is not enough to negate the ones in his game alone.
So, Bergevin should not be done. With the Canadiens’ cap hit approaching the $81.5 million ceiling as we speak, Bergevin is likely done in free agency (the fairly insignificant Mathieu Perreault signing notwithstanding) though, which is fine considering the pickings are slim after the first few days. However, once Weber presumably goes on long-term injured reserve, they’ll have more cap space to spend via trade… as they should considering their surplus of wingers, because the Canadiens run a real risk of missing the playoffs playing in an Atlantic Division that has been doing its best impression of an arms race recently.
Hoffman should no doubt help the Canadiens score more goals. However, for a team that just barely made the playoffs, giving up more than they notched themselves in the process, the Canadiens have to face the very real fact that being built for the playoffs is no longer enough, especially with Weber, the horse driving that cart, potentially having run his last race. However, as Bergevin proved last fall, the offseason is a marathon, not a sprint. A couple days does not an offseason make… thankfully, in the Canadiens’ case.
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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.