While the Montreal Canadiens have a handful of contracts that have to be sorted out this off-season, the most intriguing one might belong to pending unrestricted free agent Jordie Benn.
Other UFAs — Christian Folin, Jordan Weal and Nate Thompson — were re-signed rather quickly, yet Benn’s situation is a little bit more complicated than those of that trio. The top left defensive spot clearly belongs to Victor Mete right now, and the spot alongside Jeff Petry will likely be occupied by Brett Kulak once he signs his own new contract with Montreal.
Now for Benn, as the bottom-pairing option he was quite serviceable, posting a career high in goals (five) and points (22) while missing only one game this year. Before Kulak was able to step into his role, Benn found his home firmly next to Petry on the Canadiens’ second pair, and also alongside Kulak for chunks of the season. With the defence healthy, Benn ended his year on a third pair with Folin, and while not flashy, the duo formed a coherent unit that Claude Julien could rely on. For a paltry $1.1 million, Jordie Benn was a great value player, and one of Marc Bergevin’s better acquisitions based on how well Benn has played in Montreal.
However, with his strong play in a Canadiens sweater, Benn is in line for a raise and the question posed to Marc Bergevin and fans alike, is how much will it cost to bring him back?
First, we have to breakdown how much cap space is available to the team heading into the off-season. With Folin, Weal, and Thompson already re-signed the Canadiens have a hair over $8 million in cap space, with the current $79.5 million ceiling. This ceiling is expected to rise as usual, topping out at about $83 million heading into next season. That’s close to $12 million in cap room, and with multiple big name restricted free agents on the team to still sign, there will need to be some finesse applied to get things done.
While there is no perfect tool for breaking down potential contracts, the fine folks at Evolving Hockey have released their projections heading into the off-season. Notable in there is that they are projecting Benn’s next contract to be four years, and just over $3.5 million dollars. That is a massive pay raise from what Benn made last year, and with four years on the table this contract would last until he was 35 years old. Now these projections are far from a guaranteed thing, and if Marc Bergevin wants to lock down all of his big free agents this year, including Kulak, Joel Armia, and Artturi Lehkonen, there needs to be some work on trimming term or money off the deals to fit them under the cap ceiling.
For Benn, that might mean a shorter deal, two years as opposed to four, as the projection for a two year deal has his cap hit closer to 2.8 million dollars instead of 3.5 million. Given the nature of the NHL, and how Bergevin has already re-upped two players to cheaper deals than before, it stands to reason that the same could likely apply to Jordie Benn as well.
There is also the option to walk away, and let Benn sign that long-term deal with another NHL club. That would leave the team to either try to put Karl Alzner back onto the NHL roster or find another third pairing option in free agency. The market for left defencemen in the Canadiens price range isn’t exactly encouraging. Given how much money Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner will command, it’s a players market.
Personally, I find it hard to believe that Benn will not be back in Montreal next year. He has become a steady presence for Claude Julien, and in his current role has performed admirably. The onus falls on Bergevin now to keep Benn in the fold on a deal that rewards Benn’s strong play, without putting a hurt on the cap space Montreal could use to bolster their roster overall.
A tricky situation for all sides involved, but that is the nature of free agency in 2019: it is a tightrope walk every single time, and the situation with Benn is no different.