While the Montreal Canadiens are a legitimate last-place team, it’s not like every single thing must go at this season’s upcoming trade deadline. If it were, everyone would be talking about trading Cole Caufield, Alexander Romanov and Nick Suzuki. They’re not, because there are pieces currently in place fundamental to a proper rebuild. Tyler Toffoli can theoretically be one of those pieces too. He just needs the chance… kind of like he gave the Habs when he signed with them.
True, Toffoli is older than either of those younger players. However, he’ll only be 30 this year, having signed a deal with the Canadiens as an unrestricted free agent at just 28 years of age. The deal has two more seasons left on it at a beyond-reasonable cap hit of $4.25 million. So, it’s not like he’ll be a graybeard and unable to pull his weight by the end.
It of course makes Toffoli a potential trade chip, probably the biggest of all. However, players like Toffoli, who has emerged as a top-line player with the Habs, don’t grow on trees. Neither does cap space. Keep in mind, the Canadiens are right up at the cap ceiling. Confusing, I know, because of their record, now at a less-than-impressive 8-26-7.
Carey Price Steals the Show and the Cap Space
Even if you were to give the Canadiens the benefit of the doubt and argue the Habs‘ horrible season is solely due to injuries, they were always going to have a hard time making the playoffs in the reformed Atlantic Division. Especially as the team is rife with bad contracts.
Carey Price no doubt stole the show last playoffs, almost singlehandedly propelling the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. He’s the face of the franchise and realistically not going anywhere, even if executive vice president Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes wanted to trade him. Remember, the Seattle Kraken could have taken him for free at the NHL Expansion Draft and decided against it.
Due to Price’s 34 years of age and statistically so-so regular seasons in the recent past, it’s a tough $10.5 million hit to swallow, even taking into account his playoff heroics last summer. Assuming Price returns from injury in time for next season, you’re going to need good contracts to offset not just his deal, but the other bad contracts projected to be on the roster.
Canadiens Must Rebuild the Right Way
You just can’t have a roster made up uniquely of entry-level players and journeymen, as appealing as that notion might be to fans enamored with the idea of a full-scale rebuild and the Canadiens dwelling at the bottom of the standings for years on end. There is a salary-cap floor for a reason.
To do this the right way, the Canadiens may very well miss the playoffs for a few seasons, but they likely won’t stay a last-place team past this season. Progress will realistically be made year over year, even if only to satisfy a fanbase used to a franchise with a winning history… or because it would be just so hard for the Habs to stay as bad as they are in 2021-22.
So, you’ve got two options. First, you could theoretically clean house this season to acquire as many futures as possible. Sounds great so far, but then who would fill those roster spots next season?
Sure, some would be prospects/ farmhands. Some would be new free agents. You’d have a hard(er) time attracting anyone worthwhile because the roster’s in shambles, forcing you to overpay to an even greater degree, resulting in additional expensive contracts, some of which you would expect to be untradeable. All of a sudden, you’re not rebuilding anymore. You’re the Buffalo Sabres.
Kidding. Kind of. The Sabres technically have the lowest payroll in the NHL. However, it should be noted, the Sabres got there by trading away their own $10 million player in Jack Eichel, a franchise player, who was originally a high draft pick, just like the Habs are projected to get. The Sabres are not a model for success, but bottoming out like they did is, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings having combined for 10 of the last 13 Stanley Cups. Not everyone does it properly, though.
Toffoli Behind Door No. 2
Meanwhile, behind Door No. 2: Keep some valuable veterans on the roster, ideally veterans with good contracts… veterans like Toffoli, who actually want to play in Montreal. When you look at it that way, it’s easy to see Toffoli for what he really is. He’s a unicorn. And you’re going to trade away a unicorn? What are you? Crazy? Tim Curry?
Obviously, the Canadiens are going to have to trade players away. Ideally, you’d want to trade players who may be valuable right now (or aren’t at all), but won’t necessarily be to a rebuild. A rebuilding team isn’t devoid of talent, though. True, a lot of that talent is made up of young players, but to get the most out of them, players like Suzuki, you need to surround them with the right teammates. Even if only based on the chemistry between the two, Toffoli is one such teammate. But there’s clearly a lot more to Toffoli.
You may get a mid-first-round draft pick for him. Maybe even a prospect, but if either one of those turns into a player like Toffoli, that’s kind of a best-case scenario, isn’t it? And “like” Toffoli, because he’s clearly one of a kind. No, not a superstar, but a good player still in his prime on a good contract. Trading him away is counter-intuitive at best. He may be one of the most attractive pieces the Habs have, but there’s a reason for that. Weighing the pros and cons, there’s no reason to let him go.
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.