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To qualify or not to qualify, that is the question for the Montreal Canadiens

Restricted free agents await their fates.

Philadelphia Flyers v Montreal Canadiens - Game Six Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

The annual National Hockey League calendar may have been altered due to the coronavirus pandemic, but key milestones have obviously not been eliminated entirely, simply delayed. October 6, at 5:00pm EDT, is the deadline to submit qualifying offers to pending restricted free agents.

The time is rapidly approaching for the Montreal Canadiens to decide whether to give qualifying offers to their RFAs or to let them walk free as unrestricted free agents. It’s an annual exercise that is usually pretty evident for the most part, however there are sometimes cases of players on the fence.

Historically, the Canadiens have made little to no error in their judgment in these situations. Here is some historical context since Marc Bergevin took over as general manager, of RFA players who were not qualified.

  • 2013 off-season: Ian Schultz, Joe Stejskal, Yannick Weber
  • 2014 off-season: Robert Czarnik, Peter Delmas, Ryan White
  • 2015 off-season: Eric Tangradi, Drayson Bowman
  • 2016 off-season: Michaël Bournival, Lucas Lessio, Mac Bennett, Morgan Ellis, Darren Dietz
  • 2017 off-season: Connor Crisp, Stefan Matteau, Joel Hanley, Ryan Johnston, Keegan Lowe, Mark MacMillan, Nikita Nesterov, Dalton Thrower
  • 2018 off-season: Daniel Carr, Markus Eisenschmid, Zachary Fucale, Jérémy Grégoire, Tom Parisi, Logan Shaw
  • 2019 off-season: Hunter Shinkaruk, Brett Lernout, Daniel Audette

The qualifying offer formula is as follows from the Collective Bargaining Agreement:

10.2 Restricted Free Agents.

(a) Group 2 Players and Free Agents.

(ii) In order to receive a Right of First Refusal with respect to a Restricted Free Agent, the Prior Club of a Restricted Free Agent must tender to the Player [...] a “Qualifying Offer”, which shall be an offer of an SPC, for one League Year, which is subject to salary arbitration if such Player is otherwise eligible for salary arbitration in accordance with Section 12.1, on at least the following terms and conditions:

(A) if the Player’s prior year’s Paragraph 1 NHL Salary is less than or equal to $660,000 for that League Year, 110% of the prior year’s Paragraph 1 NHL Salary.

(B) if the Player’s prior year’s Paragraph 1 NHL Salary is greater than $660,000, but less than $1,000,000 for that League Year, 105% of his prior year’s Paragraph 1 NHL Salary, but in no event to exceed $1,000,000.

(C) if the Player’s prior year’s Paragraph 1 NHL Salary is equal to or greater than $1,000,000 for that League year, 100% of the prior year’s Paragraph 1 NHL Salary.

(D) if a Player is eligible to receive a Two-Way Qualifying Offer, the Paragraph 1 Minor League Salary component shall not be less than the higher of the Player’s prior year’s Paragraph 1 Minor League Salary, if any, or the minimum Minor League salary.

(iii) A Club’s Qualifying Offer must be a One-Way Qualifying Offer if the applicable Player has: (A) actually played (excluding games missed for injury, illness or disability) 180 or more NHL Games in the previous three (3) NHL Seasons, (B) played at least sixty (60) NHL Games in the previous NHL Season, and (C) not cleared Waivers in the period between the 12th day prior to the commencement of the previous Regular Season and the end of a Club’s previous Playing Season. For purposes hereof only, a goaltender is deemed to have played an NHL Game when he was dressed and on the bench as a backup. In all other cases, a Qualifying Offer may be a Two-Way Qualifying Offer.

The Memorandum of Understanding between the NHL and the NHLPA signed in July, 2020 also introduced a modifier due to the shortened season:



Qualifying Offers:

If a Player was a Roster Freeze Player, the 60 & 180 NHL Games Played thresholds for a One-Way Qualifying Offer shall be pro-rated in the following manner:

- 2019-20: 70/82*60 & [((82+82+70)/246)*180]

- 2020-21: 60 & [((82+82+70)/246)*180]

- 2021-22: 60 & [((82+82+70))/246)*180]

For the purpose of determining whether a Qualifying Offer must be One-Way, a Waiver clearance on or after March 13, 2020 shall not count as a Waiver clearance for the purposes of s. 10.2(a)(iii)

If a Player was not a Roster Freeze Player, there shall be no pro-ration of the 60 & 180 NHL Games Played thresholds.

Bergevin will have to deal with the cases of 12 restricted free agents, split into two groups: players with and without arbitration rights.

Players without arbitration rights simply have a take-it-or-leave-it decision to make, but can obviously negotiate a longer-term deal, without much leverage. These players include (with qualifying-offer value calculation courtesy of Victor Mete ($735,000, one-way), Aaron Luchuk ($735,000, two-way), Noah Juulsen ($874,125, two-way), and Michael McNiven ($735,000, two-way).

Luchuk, obtained in the Matthew Peca trade with the Ottawa Senators, is an obvious candidate to not receive a qualifying offer. The former Memorial Cup champion had a successful start to the season with the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers, but was then traded from Toronto to Ottawa, and then a second time to Montreal. He failed to establish himself at the AHL level in any of the three organizations. As a note for the capologists, Luchuk technically is classified as a 10.2(c) player, not an RFA, because of a lack of accrued games, but behaves the same as an RFA, with the exception of not being able to accept an offer sheet.

McNiven had a bit of a frustrating season, being bounced around the ECHL as the Canadiens’ fifth-string goaltender, but maintained a level of stoic professionalism, and even found himself involved in a goaltender fight as part of the Jacksonville Icemen. He was one of the best goaltenders in the ECHL last year regardless of host team, and can hold his own in the AHL with the Rocket, but the addition of Jake Allen and Vasili Demchenko confuses the goaltender pool, with Charlie Lindgren and Cayden Primeau holding primary spots in Laval at the moment. Perhaps a fresh start for McNiven in another organization is the best move for his career right now, and therefore a strong candidate to not get qualified.

Juulsen needs to play, simple as that. He has missed too much time over the past season-and-a-half due to injury, and he needs to do it at the AHL level to prove that he is physically capable of playing at the intensity required without having recurring issues. It should be a simple case of qualifying a first-round pick for the Canadiens, but seeing as he becomes waiver-eligible next season, Juulsen is running out of time to establish himself with the Canadiens. Still, he should get qualified.

Mete is probably the most curious case, as he seemingly is getting pushed out of the Canadiens’ defensive rotation in favour of Joel Edmundson and Alexander Romanov in order to get bigger, at the expense of Mete’s puck-moving talent. It is this skill set that will probably get him qualified, but he is likely looking to serve as the team’s seventh or eighth defenceman at this point. He’s a player with trade value for teams who prioritize puck-moving defencemen.

Players with arbitration rights have slightly more leverage to negotiate a better deal for themselves. During Bergevin’s tenure, seven players chose to file for arbitration: Raphael Diaz (2012), Ryan White (2013), P.K. Subban (2014), Lars Eller (2014), Alex Galchenyuk (2017), Phillip Danault (2018), and Joel Armia (2018). None of these filings led to an actual decision by the arbitrator and were settled early, the closest being Subban’s case which took on the feeling of a game of chicken as both parties went as long as they could before settling outside the door of the arbitrator, just ahead of a final verdict.

Eight players have arbitration rights this season and await a qualifying offer, including Max Domi ($2,900,000, one-way), Jake Evans ($874,125, two-way), Charles Hudon ($840,000, two-way), Xavier Ouellet ($735,000, two-way), Jacob Lucchini ($735,000, two-way), Andrew Sturtz ($735,000, two-way), Antoine Waked ($735,000, two-way), and Joseph Blandisi ($735,000, two-way).

Domi is obviously the most important case for Bergevin to resolve. If there really is no progress in negotiations, the GM has the option to allow an arbitrator to decide the salary with the seldom-used club-elected salary arbitration that can be filed on October 4, replacing a qualifying offer. Domi is eligible for this option since his salary is above the threshold required. More than likely, Domi receives a qualifying offer, and then on October 10 elects to file for arbitration.

Two players who have run out of track are Hudon and Ouellet. Hudon could not make a solid case for himself despite numerous opportunities, and Ouellet has fallen down the defensive hierarchy despite playing in several playoff games and showing improvement as the series progressed. Both would need to accept assignments to the AHL at season start, going through the waivers process to get there. As both are at a crossroads in their careers, they probably need to consider finding opportunity and a better fit elsewhere.

Given how the Laval Rocket have been stocking up on minor-league players, I think it is a pretty safe bet that the Canadiens will not qualify Sturtz, Waked, Lucchini, or Blandisi. The former three don’t have NHL upside, and Blandisi is probably no more than NHL replacement level, which is easily found on the open market for less money. Blandisi does have 100 games of NHL experience, but his AHL veteran status may complicate any decision to keep him in the organization.

TL:DR, here is my forecast for the RFA situation:

  • Victor Mete - QUALIFIED
  • Noah Juulsen - QUALIFIED
  • Jake Evans - QUALIFIED
  • Charles Hudon - NOT QUALIFIED
  • Xavier Ouellet - NOT QUALIFIED
  • Jacob Lucchini - NOT QUALIFIED
  • Andrew Sturtz - NOT QUALIFIED
  • Antoine Waked - NOT QUALIFIED
  • Joseph Blandisi - NOT QUALIFIED
  • Aaron Luchuk - NOT QUALIFIED
  • Michael McNiven - NOT QUALIFIED

As a footnote for the historians, Lukas Vejdemo, Gustav Olofsson, and Laurent Dauphin were pending RFAs, but signed new contracts ahead of the qualifying process.