All things considered, the Montreal Canadiens’ big signing on Day 1 of the 2022 free agency period was first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky (to his entry-level contract). Look for the status quo to stay intact past Day 2.
Obviously, the Slafkovsky deal is a big one, at least in terms of its significance to the organization, which just finished in last place. However, when fans think free agency, they typically look to unrestricted free agents (UFAs), not just-drafted players, who were going to sign eventually by all accounts.
As nice as it is to put pen to paper in Slafkovsky’s case, it’s understandable if some Habs fans were left a tad disappointed with general manager Kent Hughes’ work to open free agency. After all, he made minor moves only. He re-signed Laval Rocket forwards Alex Belzile, Nate Schnarr and Joel Teasdale early in the day. He then added UFA forwards Mitchell Stephens and Anthony Richard and defenseman Madison Bowey to the mix.
Breaking it down, each of Hughes’ UFA signings have more experience in the American Hockey League than the NHL. Upside may still remain, especially in the case of someone like Stephens, a 2015 second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but they each realistically max out as depth signings, so not the sexiest moves possible. Nevertheless, they’re arguably the kind of signings fans should expect, almost exclusively, from here on out this offseason. Here are three reasons why:
3. No Cap Space for Canadiens
Ultimately, the most concrete evidence that the Canadiens were never going make a big free-agent move is their lack of cap space. They’re just below the $82.5 million ceiling.
Admittedly, the Canadiens can go over the cap during the offseason, but, despite initial reports to the contrary, the Canadiens simply aren’t in a position to make a big splash in free agency. Those reports came months ago, and little has improved. They did trade Shea Weber’s massive, destined-for-long-term injured reserve (LTIR) contract, but Evgeny Dadonov’s $5 million hit came back, short changing them in terms of short-term flexibility.
So, with teams generally overspending on free agents, the Canadiens would be wise not to partake in the so-called frenzy. There were of course some decent deals over the first few days, but, when the Detroit Red Wings sign Andrew Copp to a five-year, $28.125 million deal and Erik Gudbranson gets $16 million over four years from the Columbus Blue Jackets, it’s best to a) slowly back away, b) let everyone else do damage to one another and c) take stock of your own situation.
The Canadiens’ situation is such that they technically couldn’t even if they wanted to. There is just no space, in more ways than one.
2. No Spots on Canadiens Roster Except on Defense
The lack of space extends to the Canadiens roster. There just isn’t a roster spot, at least if the status quo holds true. That includes in net, where goalie Carey Price is expected back in principle, following some offseason uncertainty surrounding his playing future.
If Price were going on LTIR, it would be one thing. However, he’s reportedly healthy with a $10.5 million hit, which all plays further into the previous point. Speaking to the media on Day 2 of free agency, Hughes failed to confirm what was reported in the above tweet, but did reinforce the notion the Habs’ hands are tied. The Canadiens simply can’t operate under the assumption Price won’t be healthy and spend that cap space. It would be a recipe for disaster, when they’re striving for more financial flexibility. That’s the priority, which Hughes did confirm.
In net, the Canadiens also have Jake Allen signed for next season and Samuel Montembeault (and Cayden Primeau) qualified, so theoretically a full complement. Up front it’s a similar story. With Jonathan Drouin expected to be healthy for the start of 2022-23 , the Habs will have 15 forwards (once Kirby Dach re-signs and if Slafkovsky makes the team out of training camp). The 15 admittedly includes depth guys Michael Pezzetta and Ryan Poehling, as both are effectively on one-way deals and must go through waivers if cut. They’re staying put for all intents and purposes.
If there is one position at which the Canadiens would make a move it’s on defense. Jeff Petry is among the likeliest candidates to be traded for cap space, based on the team’s current predicament, in which case they’d be short a right-handed defenseman. However they did just sign Bowey as a depth option, and prospect Justin Barron could realistically make the team out of training camp after getting in games with the Habs last season.
On the left side, Jordan Harris is similarly in developmental limbo, with Joel Edmundson and Corey Schueneman rounding out the projected defensive corps and prospect Kaiden Guhle knocking on the door especially after the Alexander Romanov trade. Now, both Barron and Harris (and Guhle) are waiver-exempt and could just as easily be cut, prompting the theoretical need for the Canadiens to add via free agency.
It’s hardly an NHL-caliber defense either way, with a potential top pairing of Joel Edmundson and David Savard. Needless to say, no one should expect the Canadiens to be competitive from a defensive standpoint this coming season barring a the addition of a top-end free-agent defenseman, but what’s the rush anyway?
1. Canadiens Are Rebuilding, Not Contending
On one hand, the Canadiens are a few moves away from contending for the 2025 Stanley Cup. On the other, maybe a five-year plan, following in the footsteps of the champion Colorado Avalanche, who finished in last place in 2016-17, is more realistic. There is no third hand that sees the Canadiens compete right now. It’s possible, the same way everything goes exactly right for you like one day every blue moon, just not likely. There are a lot of days in an NHL season.
So, the idea of adding a Kris Letang (at one point) or John Klingberg doesn’t really make sense. For example, Klingberg, while fitting the bill of what the Canadiens would need to replace Petry, is 30 years old. He’ll likely be in significant decline by the time the Canadiens as a whole are ready to compete. And it would be a similar story regarding anyone they sign via unrestricted free agency, because almost everyone tends to be around that same age.
Now, that doesn’t mean the Canadiens are done this offseason. As mentioned earlier, they do need to clear cap space, with relief likely to come in the form of one or more trades, and they have 15 forwards (so at least one will have to go one way or another). Finally, if they’re so inclined to add a young forward, like Pierre-Luc Dubois, to whom the Habs have been linked (for years), that’s something that theoretically could work, assuming the price tag is fair.
Ultimately, as Hughes explained, the Canadiens are looking more to the future, specifically with regard to a Petry trade. So, expect cap relief and prospects coming back the other way more than anything else. That philosophy would run counter to trading away blue-chip prospects to acquire someone like Dubois. It would also run counter to a big signing, with Hughes confirming as much, still saying the option is there to make a move and even sign someone if it makes sense for the situation in which the Habs find themselves, i.e., one season removed from a last-place finish.
“A big part of free agency’s already come and gone,” he said. “We’re trying to put this team in position to win… on a consistent basis, year in, year out. In order to do that, I think at some point we’re going to need to have the financial flexibility to do things, and potentially be active at some point. It’s not going to be this year. It doesn’t have to be, but if the right trade comes across, we will look at it.”
The Canadiens are going to be more competitive in 2022-23, but “more competitive” doesn’t necessarily mean “competitive” in general. With generational talents like Connor Bedard available at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, so be it. Forcing the issue and buying your way out of last place is not necessarily going to solve the problem and potentially only make more problems down the road, when the Habs are truly eyeing to compete.
Slafkovsky is just the start, but slow and steady is the only way to win this race, along with smart spending. For that, you need to look past free agency for the bigger picture.