As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Montreal Canadiens offseason.
Montreal Canadiens Offseason Primer
Entering the postseason as the 16th seeded team, the Canadiens have been on a Cinderella run making it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993. They managed to upset their bitter rival Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, overcoming a 3-1 deficit to eliminate their longtime foe in Game 7. They then went on to sweep the Winnipeg Jets in the second round, before eliminating the heavily favourite Vegas Golden Knights in the semi-finals. However, the Canadiens ran out of gas and lost in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
All in all, it was a very successful season for the Canadiens and something they can build on entering next year. With top prospect Cole Caufield making an impressive debut but only officially entering his rookie season next year and the development of Suzuki, Kotkaniemi and Alexander Romanov, the Habs are on the right track to become a Stanley Cup contender again next season.
Pending Free Agents
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has a lot of work to do this offseason. In terms of players who are with the Canadiens on their Stanley Cup run this season, the Habs have 15 pending free agents. Corey Perry, Joel Armia, Michael Frolik, Eric Staal, Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, Alex Belzile, Jon Merrill, Erik Gustafsson and Charlie Lindgren are all unrestricted free agents. It’s expected more than half of them won’t return to the club. Artturi Lehkonen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Cale Fleury, Otto Leskinen, and Michael McNiven are all restricted free agents. They also have to look after one of their top prospects in Ryan Poehling, who is also a restricted free agent this season. As well as a few other depth options for the Laval Rocket.
Salary Cap Outlook
As it stands, the Canadiens have around $14.7 million in cap space according to capfriendly.com. That number will get larger after the expansion draft as Seattle will be taking a salary off their hands. The Canadiens will certainly be looking to bring back players like Phillip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia, Arturri Lehkonen as well as non-roster players like Ryan Poehling and Cale Fleury who will push for a spot next season. This won’t leave them with much cap space. There is a strong chance they will have to find another backup goaltender as well, as it’s very likely the Kraken select Jake Allen in the expansion draft.
Major Likely Departures
Tomas Tatar will most likely be departing the team after three seasons with the club. He fell out of favour of coach Dominique Ducharme in the postseason, only appearing in five games during the Habs run. Despite finishing fourth in scoring during the regular season, as well as leading the team in combined points over the last three seasons, Tatar seems to have lost his place with the team. With young players like Cole Caufield and potentially Ryan Poehling and Jesse Ylonen ready to make a push for an everyday roster position, the Canadiens will elect to let Tater walk and focus that cap elsewhere.
This one will hurt the Canadiens. Jake Allen was outstanding for the Habs this past season and helped them secure a playoff spot while Carey Price was dealing with an injury. Allen actually appeared in more games than Price during the regular season. He posted an 11-12-5 record, with a 2.68 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage. Having a strong backup goaltender is key in today’s game and becomes even more crucial as Price ages. We’ve seen how good a rested Price can be during the last two postseason runs. Allen allows the Habs to give Price extra nights off, making him much more effective down the stretch and in the postseason. The Habs will certainly want to try to make a side deal with Seattle to keep him in the fold.
Major Likely Re-Signings
Phillip Danault is one of the Canadiens most important players. While his production offensively is nothing to brag about, scoring just five goals and 24 points in 53 games in the regular season, to go along with one goal and three assists in the playoffs, it’s what he does in the defensive end that makes him so special. Danault has become one of the premier shutdown centres in the league. He proved this during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, playing a major role in holding Maurice Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews to just one goal in seven games, as well as keeping Mark Stone off the score sheet in six games against Vegas.
Danault along with Gallagher and Tatar were one of the most dominant possession lines in the NHL over the last three seasons. Although Tatar will most likely be walking in the offseason, a player like Tyler Toffoli, who led the Canadiens in points during the season, would fit right in on this line.
Evolving-hockey.com projects Danault to sign a seven-year deal worth $6.326 million. However, we’d expect that number to be closer to the $5.5 million mark. Especially after the recent signing of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who just locked in an eight-year deal worth $5.125 million per season.
Corey Perry signed a one-year deal worth $750,000 with the Canadiens in the offseason and his play was much more valuable than his contract. Despite starting the season on the taxi squad, Perry was focused on working hard and earning his way into the lineup. Once he did, he never looked back, as he remained with the club for the rest of the season. At 36 years old, Perry was still able to provide some depth scoring for the Habs, scoring nine goals and 12 assists for 21 points in 49 games. He stepped up even more during the postseason, scoring four goals and six assists. He’s a player who can move up and down the lineup as needed, providing depth scoring and as be a valuable part of the part play. He also brings a leadership aspect that is extremely valuable to the young Habs roster.
Evolving hockey project Perry to sign a one-year deal worth $1.057 million this offseason, which would be a perfect contract for the Montreal Canadiens.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi has had an up and down career thus far. After a promising rookie season, scoring 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points in 79 games as an 18-year-old, Kotkaniemi failed to find that same production in his sophomore year scoring just six goals and eight points in 36 games. This lead to his demotion to the AHL to try to find his game. He was able to do just that scoring 13 points in 13 games for the Laval Rocket, before suffering a spleen injury that kept him out for the remainder of the season.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kotkaniemi was able to return for the Canadiens in the postseason, scoring four goals in 10 games while playing a solid two-way style of play. It gave the Canadiens and their fans hope for the upcoming season.
Kotkaniemi managed to up his production, scoring five goals and 20 points in 56 games but found himself on the outside looking in when the postseason started. However, once he enter the lineup, he wasted little time getting on the scoreboard, scoring the only goal in a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Since then, Kotkaniemi sits tied for second on the team in goals with five. But again, Kotkaniemi play has been up and down and has found himself being a healthy scratch as the Canadiens look to make a triumphant comeback against a powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning team.
Despite his up and down career thus far, we need to remember that Kotkaniemi is just 21 years old. Having a combined 200 games of NHL experience at just 21 is a huge accomplishment and he has so much room to develop into the player he was drafted third overall in 2018 to be. He is an extremely important piece of the Canadiens future.
Evolving hockey projects Kotkaniemi to sign a two-year bridge deal, worth $2.122 million per season.
Potential Free Agent Additions
The Montreal Canadiens have a couple of needs they would like to fill heading into the offseason. One being a puck-moving defenceman for the left side. The other will most likely be a backup goaltender if Seattle selects Jake Allen in the expansion draft. When it comes to the open market for defenceman, there isn’t a whole lot that jumps out as a potential suitor for the Canadiens. Alec Martinez fits the bill, however, could be more costly than the Habs are willing to pay. Expect them to address this through a trade or to stay the course with the defenceman they have, while they await players like Mattias Norlinder or Jordan Harris to make the jump.
One name to watch for the Montreal Canadiens this offseason, however, is Jaroslav Halak. Halak is a pending UFA who has fallen out of favour with the Boston Bruins as future number one netminder Jeremy Swayman will become the likely backup to Tuukka Rask in the upcoming season. Halak still has some quality years left in him at 36 years old. He posted a 9-6-4 record this past season with a goals-against-average of 2.53 and a save percentage of .905. Signing Halak would give Cayden Primeau more time to develop with the Laval Rocket, before becoming Price’s successor in the future. Halak would give the Canadiens a dependable backup, much like Allen provided this season, giving Price more nights off.
The Canadiens should be able to sign Halak somewhere in the $2-3 million range. Much like they did with Jake Allen’s extension.