Canadiens Pull Rabbit Out of Hat to Re-Sign Pitlick

Few people expected the Montreal Canadiens to re-sign forward Rem Pitlick after failing to make him a qualifying offer. Of course, to be fair, few people expected Pitlick not to get a qualifying offer in the first place after the rookie season he just had. In some ways, the Habs righted a wrong by finally inking the unrestricted free agent (UFA).

Pitlick Settles for Small Raise

In fairness, it was actually a shrewd decision on the part of general manager Kent Hughes not to extend Pitlick a qualifying offer, making him a UFA. His arbitration rights could have led to a take-it-or-leave-it ruling. And, needless to say, after Pitlick scored 37 points (15 goals) in 66 games between his time with the Canadiens and Minnesota Wild, he was likely in line for a significant raise, conceivably much more than the $1.1 million Pitlick will now officially be earning in each of the next two seasons.

The Canadiens are facing tight salary cap constraints. So, they simply put couldn’t afford to overpay Pitlick, especially when he’d likely be played by and large in the bottom six due to the depth they have on the wing. Almost inevitably, they would have found themselves with another Paul Byron contract on their hands, which would end up handcuffed to an even greater degree.

Related: Where Canadiens Are Strongest and Weakest for 2022 Offseason

The Byron comparison is especially apt, seeing as both he and Pitlick got claimed off waivers only to break out with the Canadiens. Unlike with Byron though, Pitlick’s value from a defensive standpoint is significantly lower, at least according to the advanced stats (from ‘Canadiens by the numbers: Pitlick delivers offence, but D is a concern,’ Montreal Gazette, March 29, 2022). That deficiency in his game would inevitably also have come up in arbitration, a process that can have adverse effects on the relationship between the player and the team.

Paul Byron
Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, rather ironically, the Canadiens risked severing that relationship altogether, by not qualifying him. Perhaps more ironically, Pitlick had been in a position to hit Group VI free agency due to a lack of NHL games played in his career when he first got claimed. The Habs then proceeded to play Pitlick in 46 of their last 47 games upon his acquisition this past season, to avoid such an occurrence.

Pitlick and Canadiens a Good Fit

In fact, the only game Pitlick missed down the stretch was a 7-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils soon after he got claimed. It’s a game that will go down as one of the most significant losses of the Habs’ 2021-22 season, as it was ex-head coach Dominique Ducharme’s last.

Obviously, Pitlick’s absence alone didn’t dictate the outcome of the loss to the Devils. It was still patently obvious he was a good fit with the organization, based on a) his production in a Habs uniform and b) the fact his younger brother Rhett was drafted by the team in 2019.

Rem Pitlick Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Rem Pitlick – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are no guarantees Pitlick keeps up his scoring pace. The $1.1 million cap hit would still be relatively digestible for each of the next two seasons, after which he hits unrestricted free agency again. At that point, the Canadiens and Pitlick can re-assess the situation. It’s very much possible they then part ways, considering Pitlick’s position on the team’s depth chart, but the decision/move to keep him in the fold right now is telling.

Pitlick Extension Tied to Petry Trade

The timing of the signing is such that it’s logical to tie it to the Jeff Petry trade for Mike Matheson, the same day. Thanks to the trade, the Canadiens gained the cap space necessary to re-sign Pitlick ($2.125 million). It arguably shows how valuable Pitlick really is to the Canadiens, when they still have to re-sign Kirby Dach. However, it also puts into question Hughes’ priorities this offseason, in all honesty.

Jeff Petry Montreal Canadiens
Ex-Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For example, the decision to make Dach the team’s (badly needed) big acquisition at center is a huge risk, considering his career 34.6% faceoff success rate. And the Petry trade itself can be spun as a failure for the simple reason Hughes had gone on record leading up to it that his priority was to get back cap flexibility/prospects and not a roster player, talking to the media on Day 2 of free agency.

In a vacuum, to get Matheson, who’s a Montreal native, six years younger than Petry and coming off his best season, in exchange is a huge win, though. Through a similar lens, re-signing Pitlick the way the Canadiens did was just about as impressive. Hughes worked some magic. There’s no doubt about that. Looking at the act as a whole though, there had better be a few tricks still to come.

At the very least, Hughes has proven himself capable over the last few months. His many moves up to this point, including the Pitlick extension, are a good reason to be optimistic he can pull this whole thing off. Unlike with a master illusionist though, we’ll soon see one way or another.

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