Marc Bergevin has been busy with overseeing a new coaching structure since the season ended by adding Dominique Ducharme and Joël Bouchard to the organization. The AHL team has also seen the addition of Daniel Jacob, and there are more coaches expected to join in the next few weeks.
There is the entry draft from June 22-23, where the Canadiens will have a large cull of picks to fill their prospect coffers. Then of course the free agency feeding frenzy on July 1.
Between those two events, however, there is another time-sensitive decision that awaits Bergevin: the deadline to present a contract — a qualifying offer — to restricted free agents for the upcoming season, which falls on June 25 at 5:00 PM EDT.
The following players will require a qualifying offer if the Canadiens are to retain their rights: Daniel Carr, Phillip Danault, Jacob de la Rose, Markus Eisenschmid, Zachary Fucale, Jeremy Grégoire, Michael McCarron, Tom Parisi, Kerby Rychel, Logan Shaw, and Rinat Valiev.
During Bergevin’s tenure, he has proven not to be shy to let a prospect at the end of their entry-level contract walk without qualifying them if he feels that they do not have a future in the NHL. He won’t re-sign a player simply to have him stagnate in the AHL. For the most part, his evaluations have been correct. Let’s review a list of restricted free agents who were not qualified by Bergevin:
- 2012-13: Ian Schultz (F), Joe Stejskal (D), Yannick Weber (D)
- 2013-14: Robert Czarnik (F), Peter Delmas (G), Ryan White (F)
- 2014-15: Eric Tangradi (F) and Drayson Bowman (F)
- 2015-16: Michaël Bournival (F), Lucas Lessio (F), Mac Bennett (D), Morgan Ellis (D), and Darren Dietz (D).
- 2016-17: Connor Crisp (F), Stefan Matteau (F), Joel Hanley (D), Ryan Johnston (D), Keegan Lowe (D), Mark MacMillan (F), Nikita Nesterov (D), and Dalton Thrower (D)
As you can see, Bergevin has been generally correct in his decision, with very few exceptions. Weber (279 games), White (172), Bournival (24), Matteau (eight), Lowe (two), and Tangradi (one) and are the only ones to play in the NHL after leaving the Canadiens organization. Weber carved out a niche as a cheap bottom-pairing defenceman and remains active in the NHL, the other 20 players have not seen prolonged NHL success.
Basically Marc Bergevin always made the right call, even if it was an unexpected decision. In 2016, he surprised many by not qualifying Ellis, who represented the St. John’s IceCaps in the AHL All-Star Classic that season. His staff identified that Ellis had probably peaked at the AHL level, and therefore was not worth further investment. It seems they were not wrong.
More and more RFAs are not getting qualified league-wide, in part because a qualifying offer must include a salary raise, as spelled out in the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement:
If a player’s salary is $660,000 or less, the qualifying offer must be 110% of that.
If a player’s salary is between $660,000 and $1,000,000, it’s 105% to a maximum of $1,000,000.
If a player’s salary is $1,000,000 or more, that player is entitled to 100% of his salary as part of a qualifying offer.
If the player is entitled to a two-way qualifying offer (i.e. played fewer than 180 NHL games over the last three seasons or 60 NHL games in the previous season) the AHL salary must be the highest of the player’s previous deal or the AHL CBA mandated minimum Minor League salary.
For example, Grégoire is completing a three-year entry-level contract with a final NHL salary of $650,000 and AHL salary of $67,500. Given what we have described above, Grégoire is entitled to a two-way qualifying offer valued at $715,000 in the NHL or $67,500 in the AHL. He is a fringe NHL prospect, despite his strongest AHL year yet in Laval, but would be more expensive in the NHL than Charles Hudon or Byron Froese. It becomes more cost-effective to wait for other teams’ unqualified players to hit the open market to replace your depth.
So the two principal factors that Marc Bergevin and his team will have to consider are: if the player has an NHL upside and; whether he is worth the cap hit.
On that basis let’s review the restricted free agents, and the required minimum qualifying offer (* denotes players entitled to arbitration):
- Phillip Danault - $997,500 one-way offer*
- Jacob de la Rose - $874,125 / $70,000 two-way offer*
- Michael McCarron - $874,125 / $70,000 two-way offer
- Kerby Rychel - $874,125 / $70,000 two-way offer
- Rinat Valiev - $787,500 / $70,000 two-way offer
- Daniel Carr - $761,250 one-way offer*
- Zachary Fucale - $735,000 / $70,000 two-way offer
- Markus Eisenschmid - $715,000 / $70,000 two-way offer*
- Jeremy Grégoire - $715,000 / $67,500 two-way offer
- Tom Parisi- $708,750 / $70,000 two-way offer*
- Logan Shaw- $660,000 one-way offer*
Danault is a no-brainer to recieve a qualifying offer, and probably the only one of this group who will cash in on a long-term deal.
I do not see Shaw, Parisi, Eisenschmid, or Habs draftee Grégoire getting qualifying offers. These are depth players who should be replaced by younger prospects in the organization (the latter three by Adam Plant, Hayden Verbeek, and Michael Pezzetta respectively).
It’s less clear in the case of Fucale. He had a difficult season, but every goalie playing professionally for the Habs did last season, save for Antti Niemi. Will the Canadiens decide to keep the same five goaltender group from last season? If not, then the most likely goaltender to leave is Fucale. He has little to no trade value after three very rough pro years, so he risks not being qualified and leaving the organization.
Should Valiev head to the KHL, expect the Canadiens to also not qualify him, similar to the case of Nesterov who left for Russia last year. If they do qualify Valiev, they will hold his NHL rights until the end of the 2021-22 season, when he would turn 27 and become an unrestricted free agent.
This leaves us with the group of forwards that includes McCarron, de la Rose, Rychel, and Carr, which is where the hard choices lie. All four have failed to carve out a permanent role on the Habs and are fringe players for the Canadiens. In fairness, Rychel only had a short tryout last season with the Canadiens, but taking his history with the Leafs into account, the same conclusion can be drawn for him.
The Canadiens already have 11 forwards on their roster for next season, without taking into account any free agents they sign during the off-season. This means that more than likely at least two of this group of four would have to clear waivers before they get assigned to the AHL and take a young prospect’s roster spot. It’s a difficult decision for Bergevin to make.
These players benefit from there being few experienced call-up options from Laval. Forwards under NHL contract likely to start the season in the AHL include Jeremiah Addison, Alexandre Alain, Daniel Audette, William Bitten, Jake Evans, Antoine Waked, Pezzetta, and Verbeek. None of them are ready for an NHL call-up, so some of these depth options should return for next season.
I think that de la Rose’s stock has risen over the last year, especially with the World Championship run with Team Sweden, so he is the most likely of the four to receive a qualifying offer.
Rychel still has some of that ‘new car’ smell, and has been able to produce at the AHL level historically, so he may be a good depth addition to the Canadiens, with the expectation that he will start the season with the Rocket.
Carr has been quite popular with analysts and fans for his Gallagher-lite behaviour and ability to produce on offence despite limited minutes on the ice, but the coaching staff has up until now not shared in that sentiment. He would be hard-pressed to find a spot on the roster to start the season, but it’s uncertain whether he would clear waivers or not. He still has some upside, so the team should qualify him and roll the dice on him clearing waivers. But similar to Mark Barberio, he may not.
And finally, there is McCarron. What to do with this former first-round pick? Based on his last season, the best thing for him might be a fresh start elsewhere. Uninspired play in the AHL and unconvincing play in the NHL have resulted in stagnant development from the tall centreman. I doubt that the team will just let him walk away, however and I envision a ‘sign-and-trade’ type scenario to save face before the season starts, even if the return is a veteran presence to bolster the Laval Rocket and give the Canadiens the dependable call-up option that they are currently short on.