Make no mistake, the Montreal Canadiens will look to be sellers leading up to the March 21 NHL Trade Deadline.
Kent Hughes has several expiring contracts and other veterans that teams in a position to buy may covet. That obviously has a trickle down effect on an entire organization. Trading NHL roster players means they will have to be replaced with AHL players, leaving your farm team in a tough spot. When you factor in that, in their fifth year, the Laval Rocket are still looking to clinch their first playoff berth, the pressure is on to see some playoff hockey at Place Bell.
The Rocket have fought their way through COVID outbreaks, postponed games, injuries, and a compressed schedule to be on the inside of the playoff picture. It would be tough to see the team be less competitive because of more departures from the NHL level.
There is a balance to this, obviously. You’re not going to hold on to Ben Chiarot just so that Corey Schueneman can help the Rocket. The future of the organization is more important than an immediate AHL playoff series. There are ways, however, to balance the future and the present.
Whenever offers are discussed, draft picks are the currency of choice. They are often used for two reasons: good teams don’t care about them as much and mystery box syndrome.
When you are a GM who is a seller, draft picks (read: hope) provide the ultimate job security. When you have 10 picks in the upcoming draft, you can sell those as anything. That second-round pick? It could be Patrice Bergeron. Fifth-round? Brendan Gallagher. That seventh-round pick could be Henrik Lundqvist. Why be rational when you can dream, right?
The biggest market inefficiency around this time of year are prospects who are already drafted. It’s similar to buying a new car. On the lot, that new car (or draft pick) is worth everything. As soon as you use that pick, or when you drive the car off the lot, the value goes down. Why would you want, say, Emil Heineman, when you can have a shiny second-round pick? I mean, sure, Emil Heineman is Emil Heineman, but the second-round pick can be anything. It could even be Emil Heineman.
By this point you may be asking yourself ‘But Jared, what does this have to do with the Rocket’s playoff push?’
Good question, dear reader. In this scenario, replace Emil Heineman with someone playing in the American Hockey League.
If the Canadiens trade, say, Chiarot for a prospect in the AHL, they still have to recall someone to fill in on the NHL roster, but they get a player who can help the AHL team as soon as this year. They get someone who, instead of being as young as 17 years old (or younger for 2023 picks and beyond), is a few years ahead in terms of development, and therefore a few years closer to helping the NHL team.
You also have a few more years of data in which to evaluate the player. This could be crucial considering how the last two years derailed development and scouting potential for tons of players drafted. Hughes, for his part, has already vocalized how this strategy may be better for the Canadiens. Don’t forget that, for a few months, they were missing their head of amateur scouting and had to backfill that spot. It might not be in the team’s best interest to add tons more to their 12 picks this season, even if the draft is in Montreal.
This isn’t to say that the Canadiens won’t or shouldn’t trade for draft picks. Almost certainly they will add some picks to their stockpile. There’s also the factor of the contract limit. Teams, especially buyers, will try very hard to have some leeway on that front, so they can acquire players for picks. Montreal recently added a contract slot by trading Michael McNiven, giving them three right now, and will likely have more as the deadline approaches. They could leverage that into getting an additional piece in trades, assuming they leave a slot open for Jordan Harris.
It might not be as interesting when a team acquires a 22-year-old prospect as opposed to a pick in the 50s or 60s, but for the long and short-term success of the franchise it might be the best result.