The Montreal Canadiens came into this off-season with a game plan. They had the combine, the draft, and free-agency. After everything that has been done so far, how is this off-season looking?
Let’s take a look at everything Marc Bergevin has done so far and evaluate it. From there, let’s see if we can predict his future moves.
So far, this off-season was quite the intriguing one. From a draft full of surprises, development camp packed with interesting players, a trade of a ‘core’ player of Bergevin’s regime, an offer-sheet, and a relatively minor dip in free agency, this year’s off-season had a different vibe.
The week of the draft
This year’s draft made quite a few headlines with the player the Habs selected at #15 overall. Cole Caufield was a surprise at number 15 and brings an incredible elite goal-scoring ability to a team that is flush with great playmakers. He becomes one of the top prospects in an already deep prospect pool featuring keys players such as Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki, Jesse Ylönen, Alexander Romanov, Josh Brook, and Cayden Primeau. This speaks volume about how great Caufield’s potential is.
On day two of the draft, Montreal front office loaded up on left-handed defenders. Most of them had the same raw attributes: smooth-skating defenders who can be effective at starting up the play. Jayden Struble is a beast of an athlete. He’s a smooth-skating, hard-working, physical defender that will be a long-term project for the team. Mattias Norlinder had an amazing season for Modo where he shined against men and his skating, vision and IQ stand out enormously. Gianni Fairbrother is another safety-first defender who skates well, has good vision and can chip in the occasional goal here and there. Jacob LeGuerrier is a tall hockey player that can skate, and also happens to have a cool name. Rhett Pitlick is the kind of home run swing you take in the fifth round. Fredederik Nissen Dichow is an interesting goalie pick that came about due to the European combine. Arsen Khimasumtdinov is an over-ager who shows great potential and is one of the better late developers. Raphaël Harvey-Pinard is a strong two-way winger who has a great hockey IQ and excellent work ethic. And lastly, Kieran Ruscheinski, another tall defender who skates smoothly.
Most of these picks were due to the fact that the Canadiens organized their own combines and were able to get extra information about a few players. That information ended up becoming key in knowing who to select during the draft. The combines that the Habs are doing every year seems to result in creative ways to get ahead of their competitors. The data Montreal is collecting through those can help decide which players to take in the lower rounds. What’s more, Montreal has the financial resources that can help them find diamonds in the rough.
Once the draft was over, the next week was spent focusing the other big event of the summer: NHL Free Agency.
Montreal made some serious splashes before free agency was even opened. The first domino to fall was the trade of a core player.
Andrew Shaw was sent to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for three picks. A second-rounder in 2020, a swap of seventh-rounders in 2020, and a third-round pick in 2021.
Just three years ago, the Canadiens acquired Shaw for two second-round picks at the 2016 NHL draft floor. At the time, Shaw was an RFA and was locked in on a six-year contract at $3.9M per year. Shaw had three years remaining on his contract when he was traded, opening up more cap space for potential future moves.
That move allowed the Canadiens to free up to approximately $12 million in cap space. It also added to the haul of picks the Habs have for the 2020 draft. The Canadiens currently hold 12 draft picks for next year’s draft, which will be held in Montreal.
The other trade that came up on June 30, was the trade of Nicolas Deslauriers to the Anaheim Ducks in return for a fourth-round pick in 2020.
Deslauriers was acquired in exchange for AHLer Zach Redmond ahead of the 2017-18 season, providing a surprising amount of offence to the Canadiens during his first year. He earned a two-year extension for his efforts after that campaign, but was never able to reach the same consistency in 2018-19.
The Canadiens then proceeded to add Ben Chariot as a free-agent signing.
Keith Kinkaid was also signed to become the Habs’ backup goaltender on a very affordable one-year contract in the amount of $1.75M.
Two other minor signings also occurred at the same time with Riley Barber signing a one-year deal, most likely bolstering the Laval Rocket.
Nick Cousins was also signed as an option in the bottom-six trio for Montreal this year. He could very well become an interesting piece on the fourth line.
During that same span of time, the Habs decided against buying out the contracts of Karl Alzner and Dale Weise, preferring to keep them as AHL veterans.
But there was one major thing that stood out during free agency.
The offer sheet
Bergevin went against the GM’s code and offer-sheeted someone. The last actual offer sheet was in 2013, when Ryan O’Reilly was given an offer sheet by Calgary. The last offer sheet that was accepted was way back in 2007 when Edmonton signed Dustin Penner to a five-year, $21.5 million contract, giving up to Anaheim their first, second, and third-round picks in 2008.
The contract that was initially signed by Sebastian Aho was meant to put pressure on the Hurricanes. The structure of the contract meant that you had to pay out a $21 million bonus in the first year. The goal of the Canadiens was to see if the ‘Canes would back-off from matching the five-year, $42.27 million contract. The gamble here was to see if a team like the Hurricanes, who never gave away signing bonuses, would match.
At the end of the day, Carolina ended up matching the offer sheet, and took the full seven days allowed to do so.
What this move meant goes beyond the fact that the Hurricanes matched the offer. It showed that Bergevin was willing to take some more drastic measures in order to make his team better. Aho is a budding superstar for Carolina, and an offer sheet shows a willingness that wasn’t there for a long time for Bergevin.
Projecting the 2019-20 season
Now the question we’re all pondering is, how will the Habs do in the upcoming season? After all, with some roster movement ahead of the season they still have quite a bit of cap space with almost $7 million. What’s more, the roster will change with the trades of Deslauriers and Shaw.
Looking at what Sean Tierney projects to be the Habs roster entering the new season, we basically have the same team. And that’s assuming Charles Hudon and Ryan Poehling make the team. Interestingly, that exact lineup projects the Canadiens for 92 points next season. That would be four points less than what they achieved last year and would certainly be seen as a failure on their part. Tweaking it to slot in Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins, if Poehling and Hudon don’t make it, we get a team averaging 93 points.
Which means, on paper, this Montreal team is weaker. Yet, there are too many variables to consider what the final roster will look like. Chariot is a marginal upgrade on Jordie Benn, Poehling is still mostly an unknown, and Kinkaid’s numbers were barely better than Antti Niemi’s last year.
This doesn’t necessary means that the Habs will plateau at their level. We could see still a few players keeping up their growth and growing into better players. At the same time, we know quite a few players had career years and they might be due for a regression. On the bright side, Montreal’s forward group is still fairly young, with an average a shade over 26 years old.
Something that wasn’t mentioned much last year was how healthy the Habs were. Besides Shea Weber, who joined the team after almost a year off, and Shaw, who they lost for several weeks, Montreal was pretty healthy. A repeat of such a feat would be more than welcomed, but it can hardly be relied on. We never know how things will shake out.
Montreal still has to figure out their powerplay and backup goaltending to really have a shot at the playoffs. Kinkaid was added to address the latter, but it still remains to be seen if he can thrive under Claude Julien’s system. Powerplay wise, it is still yet to be seen if the coaching staff will have figured out a winning formula to get those extra goals from the man advantage.
Bergevin did seem to try hard and upgrade his roster this off-season, with his core veterans growing older and more impatient. He knows his team cup window is getting smaller every year, as Carey Price and Weber get older. In that regard, offer-sheeting Aho was something Bergevin did that showed a desire to improve his team by adding a young, dynamic player who was barely entering his prime. He targeted someone who could have really helped the Habs and for that, it should be seen as a great positive.
If the Habs are serious about contending right now, in a division that is getting better every year and where the top three spots are almost locked in, what are their chances?
The Panthers have finally gotten a strong starting goaltender to help support an impressive young core; Buffalo has to take the next step at some point; the Flyers are hell bent on contending now and made moves to push the team that way; the Rangers could be surprising with an infuse of raw talent through the draft and trades; the Bunch of Jerks seem to have finally figured something out and can pair their advanced statistics with on-ice success; the hollow husk of Columbus may want to prove the whole world wrong by getting into the playoffs again; the Islanders may be a thing again; and finally, the Devils have P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall, and Jack Hughes so they may be in position to finally put together a decent season.
If Tampa, Boston, and Toronto hold the reins in the Atlantic, and Washington and Pittsburgh hold the top two spots in the metro, that equals a lot of teams vying for a few wild card spots.
Either signing another strong free agent (glances at Jake Gardiner) or going down the trade route to fill the glaring holes on the roster might be a good idea. The Canadiens have a cupboard full of prospects and picks. They’re sitting on a trove of treasures and they might have to part with some of those to finally get a chance at winning the cup.
Bergevin has tried hard so far, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Something else needs to happen if the Habs want a real chance this upcoming season. If they are serious about contending, they owe it to their star players to make it a reality.