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Which Montreal Canadiens restricted free agents should be qualified?

Marc Bergevin has important decisions to make on 11 players.

Vegas Golden Knights v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The deadline to extend a qualifying offer to a restricted free agent is June 25 by 5:00 PM EDT. Marc Bergevin will have to make a decision on 11 players with expiring contracts who fit that category if he wants to retain their rights, otherwise they become unrestricted free agents and likely depart the organization.

During Bergevin’s tenure, he hasn’t been shy to let a restricted prospect walk without qualifying him if he feels that the player does not have a future in the NHL. He won’t re-sign a player simply to have them stagnate in the AHL or fail to contribute to the Canadiens. For the most part, his evaluations in this regard have been correct.

Let’s review the list of restricted free agents who were not qualified by Bergevin during his time:

  • 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), 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), Dalton Thrower (D)
  • 2017-18: Daniel Carr (F), Markus Eisenschmid (F), Zachary Fucale (G), Jeremy Grégoire (F), Tom Parisi (D), Logan Shaw (F).

Last season, the decision to not qualify Daniel Carr was seen as controversial, especially if you consider that he won the AHL MVP award this season. But he struggled to remain on the Vegas Golden Knights roster when called up to the NHL, so perhaps Bergevin was right that Carr simply isn’t an NHL player.

More and more RFAs are not getting qualified league-wide, in part because contract spots are precious, especially around the trade deadline as teams look to acquire assets for a playoff run, but also because a qualifying offer often includes 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, 60 NHL games in the previous season, or didn’t clear waivers 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.

So the two 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 salary and cap hit.

On that basis let’s review the restricted free agents, and their required minimum one-year qualifying offer (* denotes players entitled to arbitration):

  • Joel Armia*: $1,850,000 one-way qualifying offer
  • Daniel Audette: $715,000 two-way qualifying offer
  • Charles Hudon*: $715,000 two-way qualifying offer
  • Brett Kulak*: $945,000 one-way qualifying offer
  • Artturi Lehkonen*: $971,250 one-way qualifying offer
  • Brett Lernout: $715,000 two-way qualifying offer
  • Michael McCarron*: $917,831 two-way qualifying offer
  • Gustav Olofsson: $813,750 two-way qualifying offer
  • Xavier Ouellet*: $735,000 two-way qualifying offer
  • Mikey Reilly*: $813,750 one-way qualifying offer
  • Hunter Shinkaruk*: $715,000 two-way qualifying offer

Of this group, we can safely say that Kulak, Lehkonen, and Armia are NHL-calibre players. All three are arbitration-eligible, but hopefully the players and the team can come to an agreement in each of these cases before the mud-slinging starts. It’s an easy choice to offer a qualifying offer in their cases.

At the other end of the spectrum there are Daniel Audette and Hunter Shinkaruk. I don’t expect that either one will receive a qualifying offer because they fit the profile of players who don’t have an NHL upside. Audette struggled to display any sort of consistency in his three seasons and fell down the depth chart as soon as more reputable prospects started to come in. Shinkaruk was simply invisible all season in Laval, and will not be worth the veteran spot he would take up.

There are three players who have been developing in the Montreal Canadiens’ system for several years, have flirted with the NHL, but failed to establish themselves. What will Bergevin decide to do with Charles Hudon, Brett Lernout, and Michael McCarron?

Hudon failed to earn a permanent spot in the lineup this season despite being in Montreal all year, and even watched most of the final month of the season from the press box. Lernout has seen his stock drop since Noah Juulsen turned pro, and with Cale Fleury and Josh Brook coming up, Lernout feels like the odd man out. McCarron had a rejuvenation this season and really started looking like his old self again for the first time in years. Unfortunately an injury brought an end to his season in January.

Out of those three, I believe that only McCarron will be qualified as he showed enough promise to be worth continued investment, while Hudon and Lernout will see their time in the organization end in order to make room for a new crop of prospects.

Three veterans remain to be discussed, and those are Mikey Reilly, Xavier Ouellet, and Gustav Olofsson. Reilly faded quickly over time this season, and found himself replaced in the lineup by Kulak and then Christian Folin.

With Folin signed for next season already, it could be curtains for Reilly, but at least he stayed in the NHL all season.

Ouellet was a low-cost, low-risk signing in the off-season, but eventually found himself shipped to Laval where he became the team’s second captain. He was easily the team’s best defenceman and appears to demonstrate skills that would place him in the NHL. The question remaining is whether that place will be in Montreal or not. He made it clear that he wants to play in the NHL next season, so if he feels that he won’t have that opportunity with this team, he might ask the Canadiens to let him go to free agency. I believe that this will be route that the team takes with him, not qualifying him.

Olofsson was acquired for Will Bitten at the start of the season, but unfortunately a shoulder injury soon thereafter ended his season prematurely. He will get qualified, only because he represents the same sort of low-risk, high-reward option that Kulak did. The sticking point may come down to having a one-way contract prior and now being eligible for a two-way deal.

So to summarize, out of the 11 restricted free agents, the following should be qualified: Olofsson, McCarron, Lehkonen, Armia, and Kulak. As for Ouellet, Reilly, Lernout, Hudon, Audette, and Shinkaruk, they will probably be faced with free agency resulting from not getting qualified for a contract.

If I were to be uncertain about any one player however, it would be Ouellet. Let’s not forget that Bergevin traded a similar defenceman in Rinat Valiev (and Matt Taormina) to acquire Kulak, so maybe Ouellet can be a trade piece in a move that will benefit both he and the Canadiens. If one were to argue the same point in Hudon’s favour, I would hazard a guess that if he had any trade value, he would have been traded last season already.