It’s time to face the facts. Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is likely done this offseason, at least from a free-agency standpoint.
Juulsen Likely to Round Out Defense
With under $4 million in projected cap space left, the two currently open roster spots can easily be filled internally. Assuming Xavier Ouellet, who’s on the Canadiens roster as projected by CapFriendly for right now, returns to the American Hockey League after signing his third straight two-way contract with the Habs, that would open up one more spot on defense. However, it can easily and likely will be filled by the likes of Noah Juulsen and/ or Cale Fleury on the right side.
As Juulsen will no longer be waiver-exempt, he probably has the inside track. Fleury meanwhile is probably next in line, having played 41 games for the Canadiens last season, should someone like Brett Kulak be traded to open up the logjam on the left side and another spot in the process.
True, those hypothetical moves would give the Canadiens a bit more flexibility, cap-wise, resulting in a hair over $5 million in space. Two more spots would need to be filled up front, but it’s easy to imagine them being filled by the likes of Ryan Poehling ($925,000) as a potential fourth-line center and maybe Jake Evans ($750,000) as an extra forward.
Anderson Alone Is Not the Answer
It’s admittedly possible Bergevin uses the cap space instead to sign another forward. Unfortunately, not so much Taylor Hall, because of the money he would request, but also because the Canadiens are fairly deep at left-wing, even after Max Domi was traded for Josh Anderson.
On the plus side, right-wingers Tyler Toffoli and Evgenii Dadonov remain unsigned, but those are top-six options. Looking at the money and term Bergevin gave Anderson ($5.5 million per year on average for seven seasons), the GM clearly envisions him assuming that role on the team, alongside Brendan Gallagher.
Joel Armia, who for all intents and purposes filled a top-six role during the playoffs, would be a logical third-line option based on his size and career-high 30 points in just 58 games last season, potentially opposite countryman Artturi Lehkonen. So, there really is no room on the roster for Bergevin to sign anyone else of consequence, especially considering the reported $1.5 million he’d like to keep as a cushion. To illustrate the point, Dadonov had a cap hit of $4 million over his last deal. Toffoli had one of $4.6 million. They would each be looking for raises.
From a fan’s perspective, it’s certainly disappointing, considering Bergevin has really only signed away one player, minor-league forward Brandon Baddock from the New Jersey Devils. In Bergevin’s defense, technically speaking he did trade for and then sign defenseman Joel Edmundson, who had been a pending unrestricted free agent.
Bergevin’s New Normal
So, for better or worse, this is the new normal for the Canadiens under Bergevin. After all, Edmundson effectively mirrors the Ben Chiarot signing as Bergevin’s only “major” free-agent acquisition last summer, which was arguably the Habs’ only significant signing since Karl Alzner before that in 2017.
That’s admittedly conveniently discounting Ilya Kovalchuk, who signed a bargain $700,000 deal with the Canadiens last January. However, the 37-year-old Kovalchuk’s unlikely to be the Habs’ best fallback option, even as he remains unsigned. It would still take a similarly modeled one-season prove-me contract for Bergevin to sign someone new though, with the likes of Brendan Gallagher, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault set to hit free agency in 2022 and the cap potentially staying flat at $81.5 million for the foreseeable future.
It’s somewhat of a shame, considering the Canadiens’ undeniable needs. Even with the addition of Anderson, the Habs remain largely unchanged from an offensive-output perspective relative to the team that just scored 23 goals only in 10 postseason games. Ideally, Anderson should score around 50 points, similar to what would have been expected from Domi. So, the hope continues to be that Bergevin works a minor miracle to find space to sign another offensive-minded forward, adding to their depth preferably at right-wing.
Meanwhile, Edmundson far from projects as an offensive force from the back-end, himself. Based on the addition of his size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and the acquisition of backup Jake Allen, the goal for Bergevin this past offseason seems to have been to better insulate goalie Carey Price. Even so, the Canadiens still lack a top-pairing left-handed defenseman to play with Shea Weber, barring somewhat of an unprecedented emergence on the part of 20-year-old Alexander Romanov.
Ultimately, any assumption that Price can maintain a similar level of play that he showed this past postseason over an entire campaign is a risky proposition. Regardless, in the absence of any game-breaking free-agent signings, that seems to Bergevin’s strategy for the team to progress, and, one would think, hopefully reach Round 2 at least in 2022.
It’s not exactly the status quo, because minor improvements have admittedly been made. Whether or not they offset how Price and Weber, the two pillars of Bergevin’s now-10-year plan, are now 33 and 35 years of age remains to be seen, though.
In Bergevin’s defense, he can theoretically still sign an extra depth piece with the space he has or even make a trade to clear some more and rock the boat further. After he has opted not to spend to the cap for the last few seasons though, there’s no reason to believe he’ll alter course so drastically now, especially with so many contracts coming due on the horizon.
It’s of course the responsible approach, but not going for it when Price is as old as he is can blow up in Bergevin’s face. The Canadiens themselves as an organization must eventually face what is becoming increasingly clear. The minor moves that may suffice for now won’t forever. Eventually a major shake-up will have to be made.