It has been a busy off-season for the Montreal Canadiens, with extensions for core players and acquisitions of others to fill roster holes. The resulting feeling has generally been one of excitement for the next NHL campaign, with the team at the upper limit (actually slightly above it right now) for the first time in several years. At the same time, there’s now a bit of concern about how long this group can stay together given the state of the league with its flat cap.
For that reason, we’ll take a look beyond what is promising to be an entertaining season for the Habs once things get under way in January (or whenever it begins), and look ahead to the repercussions of this run of transactions on the roster in 2021-22.
Contract data via CapFriendly
On what would have been a sparsely populated graphic just a few weeks ago, Marc Bergevin has added Jake Allen, who signed a deal for about two-thirds the salary of his previous one when he was paid as a starter. The defence corps was ensured four more seasons of Jeff Petry, who joins Weber as the team’s obvious one-two punch, while Joel Edmundson becomes the number-three option in terms of long-term stability with a value equalling that of Ben Chiarot on his current deal.
There have been major developments at forward. The acquisiton and long-term signing of Josh Anderson was a harbinger of things to come to the forward lines, with Tyler Toffoli soon brought in to back him up, and then Brendan Gallagher getting the most expensive contract of all to hold his place atop the right-wing depth chart. What had been the weakest area in the organization is now one of its most solid.
Any time you look ahead to the 2021-22 campaign, you have to keep in mind the expansion draft that will see the upstart Seattle Kraken pluck one of these players away — or someone completely different who isn’t even on the team yet. Despite what looks like an area that’s locked down, like the goaltending position, the new team in the State of Washington could throw a wrench in that plan. (We’ll surely be talking about the expansion draft a lot over the next calendar year.)
The obvious missing element from the chart is one of the most important to the organization: the centre position. Nick Suzuki will still be on his entry-level contract at this point, but the team’s current top-line centre, Phillip Danault, doesn’t have a contract to extend this far into the future, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi is in the same boat.
It is somewhat ironic that Bergevin spent the length of his tenure in Montreal desperately hunting for options in the middle, finally found three high-quality ones, and now the concern is how difficult it will be to get his three-headed monster chained down. There is currently $15.5 million of cap space to help make that happen, with the majority of it allotted to bringing the forward count up from seven to 14.
Bergevin is aware of the predicament, knowing he can’t just give Danault a raise and see how everything else shakes out when there could be two younger pivots who outperform the incumbent this season. There’s a low chance Danault’s value rockets up from where it currently stands, but there is a high chance it drops relative to Kotkaniemi and Suzuki. For that reason, and given Bergevin’s comments that Danault’s spot isn’t even safe from Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling, it makes sense to wait to finalize Danault’s contract, so that extension probably isn’t nearly as imminent as others have been. If Danault doesn’t like the new role he sees forming in Montreal, that deal may not get signed at all.
In Kotkaniemi’s case, the smartest option may be to lock him up to a maximum-term deal before he blossoms into the top-line centreman the team envisioned when it drafted him third overall. But looking at the small slice of cap space in the graphic above, giving him a contract that ranks around or even above the other highest-paid forwards would hamstring efforts to keep the competitive roster together. For that reason, the play pretty well has to be a short-term bridge deal; one that keeps a group with the potential to contend for a Stanley Cup together for several years, but one that likely leads to a higher overall cap hit for the young centre over the next seven- or eight-year span. The team gains short-term financial flexibility while sacrificing available dollar amounts in future years, while the opposite is true for the Finnish centre who gets more time to realize his potential.
If both discussions play out in Bergevin’s favour, with four players locked up down the middle, the Canadiens still need five more forwards. Bergevin is banking on Anderson, Toffoli, and Jonathan Drouin cementing themselves as top-six options, though Cole Caufield could very well be in the mix at that point. Perhaps Jesse Ylönen or Joël Teasdale give more inexpensive but effective options from the internal pool already under contract for 2021-22. There will surely be some depth players available on the market next summer to help flesh out a 23-man roster.
There is a lot that can happen between now and the end of next year. Alexander Romanov could live up to the hype, give Bergevin the confidence to move out a more senior defenceman, and thereby free up more room under the cap. Kaiden Guhle could have a rapid turnaround and vie for a spot as well. With Montreal only able to protect three defencemen, perhaps Seattle takes that decision out of the GM’s hands. Maybe one of the players being counted on for a top-six role doesn’t pan out, and he’s shipped out to a new city for lesser contracts and draft picks.
It’s a fluid situation that Bergevin is paid handsomely to keep under control. He doesn’t know how things will transpire over the next 10 to 12 months any more than we do, and appears to be settling into a holding pattern to see what unfolds. That won’t prevent him from looking at what any additional contracts or extensions mean for his long-term financial situation, and it certainly won’t keep us from speculating on what the future looks like for the Montreal Canadiens.