This article has been updated with the buyout cap hit for Steve Mason factored in.
The success of the Vegas Golden Knights in their first season of existence has given the league a fair amount revenue, and as a result the teams will all have more money to spend on players for the 2018-19 season. The salary cap increased $4.5 million from what it was for the 2017-18 season, after rising an average of $2 million in each of the previous three years.
The increased funds give the Montreal Canadiens even more unused space than they carried through last season, opening up several possibilities.
The boost to the salary cap’s upper limit means the first year of Carey Price’s eight-year extension accounts for 13.2% of the available funds; just about exactly the percentage of Henrik Lundqvist’s seven-year, $8.5 million AAV contract when it was signed for the 2014-15 season. That contract for the New York Rangers netminder is the closest to Price’s deal, which carries an AAV of $10.5 million.
Having eight defencemen under contract for the new season, adding a blue-liner isn’t critical as far as the team composition is concerned, though they may want to add a left-handed defenceman to provide better support to their quality right-side options.
There is $17.2 million in unclaimed space under the cap, and the majority of this can be spent on adding and re-signing forwards. The team recently extended a qualifying offer to Phillip Danault, and acquired Joel Armia in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets, and they will be the top internal priorities for the team this summer.
The Canadiens have plenty of options for their massive chunk of space. They have their greatest chance of finally acquiring a top-line centre, though they were unable to get a meeting with the top candidate available. With John Tavares evaluating pitches from several NHL teams, he will not be entertaining the Habs’ brass during the process.
Montreal can add a few players instead of the one elite centreman on the market, getting a less expensive centre and perhaps a right-winger as well to address what has become another area of shallow depth.
Or the decision could be to once again go into the season with plenty of space still available to help facilitate moves for contending teams to bolster their lineups for the playoff run. It became apparent last season that waiting until the deadline wasn’t the right plan, so the Habs may need to begin negotiating with the better teams early in the year to take their underperforming players. Assuming they can fill the two open roster spots for an average of $3 million, that unused $11.2 million would be worth the equivalent of about $16.5 million by the beginning of December with prorated contracts, so the process of trading cap space could begin quite a bit earlier than most teams have attempted in the past.
The options are open for the Canadiens, whether they want to attempt to turn their current core into a contender, make temporary moves for a short retool, or abandon the season entirely and trade cap credits for future assets in the long game of a multi-year rebuild. The moves management makes over the next several days will tell us a lot about which path the team is about to head down.
Salary cap data via CapFriendly