As the 2017-18 NHL season wound down, the attention turned to John Tavares and the decision he would make as one of the best free agents the NHL’s open market had ever seen. A superstar centre, Tavares was exactly the type of player the Montreal Canadiens needed to plug into the vacant slot at the top-line centre position.
Yet as Tavares entertained the management staffs of teams from around the league, it was revealed that the Canadiens weren’t one of the groups he agreed to listen to, comtemplating returning to his New York Islanders team, or traveling back home to Toronto. Ultimately, he decided on the Maple Leafs.
This year, it was Matt Duchene who filled the role of top offensive centre on the market. Marc Bergevin was able to catch the ear of the player this time, even hosting him in Montreal to present his case, which was a step further than the process went with Tavares.
By all accounts, Duchene was impressed with what the Canadiens could offer both him and his hockey career, but, yet again, it ended being another team that landed his services.
With a major amount of cap space (a familiar situation over the past few years) Bergevin was faced with three options: hold on to that space yet again after being unable to land a star player, overspend on the lesser lights who remained available, or venture into the realm of the taboo to deploy a measure rarely seen in the current NHL.
The last is hardly as nefarious as it sounds, but that is how the offer sheet option in the NHL has been viewed. It’s generally accepted that other team’s top young players are off limits for other teams, even though the ability for other teams to offer them deals is outlined in the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Bergevin was the first manager to go that route since the 2013 off-season, submitting a five-year deal to the Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho, and getting Aho to commit to the terms.
It’s a bold move that directly targets a player who is just becoming a star in the league, as opposed to most free-agency options who are in their late 20s and about to begin their decline. If you’re going to commit significant assets to a player, that’s the type to target.
But was the commitement great enough?
The Canadiens made moves the previous day to free up some more space; to an actual total of around $13 million; more when factoring in a few contracts to be buried in the minors before the season started.
That means a little more than half of the available space was committed to the $8.5 million deal for Aho,, which comes in much lower than top-level restricted free agents have been getting or asking for. Auston Matthews signed for $11.6 million and Jack Eichel for $10 million. It was largely believed that Mitch Marner would command upwards of $10 million to stay in Toronto. Aho’s own ask from the Hurricanes was reported to be in the range of $9.5 million earlier in the off-season.
There was room for a bigger offer to be made, one that would have forced management and owenership in Carolina to look harder at whether they wanted to commit that much to one player. The front-loaded bonus structure of the deal acts as one deterrent, but the AAV could have been the second prong in the attack.
Montreal’s ability to spend more than other teams in the league is one of the advantages they enjoy, and one put to good use with a commitment to pay over $21 million to Aho in the next calendar year in two lump-sum signing bonuses. But the overal value of the deal could have been even greater to really sit the Hurricanes back on their heels and make it more likely that they decide to part with their player.
There are several things to consider, especially the financial situation of the Hurricanes, which could yet lead to this offer being accepted, allowing Aho to join the Canadiens. Should that happen it will have been an extraordinary manoeuvre from Bergevin. If it’s not, and the relatviely low AAV is matched by Carolina, it’s just another case of an offer not being enough to bring a player to Montreal.