It’s not a bold statement to say the Montreal Canadiens have had a terrible year. After a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final last year, the Habs had some expectations entering the 2021-22 season. While most thought they would be competing for a playoff spot, nobody was expecting them to completely bottom out and finish the year in last place while looking so awful in the process. This season definitely feels like the end of an era. The Montreal Canadiens offseason will have several big changes as they look to start a new chapter.
Montreal Canadiens Offseason Will Be A “Turn The Page” Moment
The Downfall Comes Quicker Than Expected
Sometimes winning can set a team back. The Habs were sputtering down the stretch of the 2020-21 season. They only made the playoffs because of the COVID alignment that was imposed. With the team’s struggles, it seemed change was coming to Montreal. Especially when they fell behind 3-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. Then, they decided to go on a magical run where they won their next seven games and go 11-2 to win the Western Conference. The miracle run was ended, rather decisively, by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. The postseason success gave the (at the time) interim coach Dominique Ducharme and general manager Marc Bergevin a new lease on life. Ducharme was rewarded with a three-year contract and a sense of optimism heading into the season.
The Wheels Fall Off
The realities of a hard playoff run were made painfully real to the Habs as their two leaders, Shea Weber and Carey Price, were unavailable for most of the season. The Habs struggled out of the gate, going 6-16-2 through November. These struggles led owner Geoff Molson to fire Bergevin and assistant GM Trevor Timmins on November 28. Jeff Gorton was hired as the Vice President of Hockey Operations and led the search for a new GM.
The team did not fare much better after Bergevin’s dismissal. While losing is never enjoyable, it was the manner in which the team was losing. Consistently getting outplayed and dominated. They looked lost on the ice and behind the bench. There were no bright spots at this point. The team was difficult to watch. To put in some perspective, through the first 45 games, the team had three separate losing streaks of at least five games, while they had not won back-to-back games at all.
Shaking Things Up
During this time, the Habs hired a new GM, the former player agent Kent Hughes in January. Despite suggesting they would not make any decisions on the coach until the off-season, the poor play continued and Ducharme was dismissed in February. The Habs hired Martin St. Louis as an interim coach to see out the season. Then St. Louis, Gorton, and Hughes would then assess the situation about St. Louis’ future in the off-season.
The hires of Hughes and St. Louis were very outside the box for an NHL team. While Gorton has a lot of experience Hughes and St. Louis are new to their positions. It’s a risk for sure, but the Habs could not continue in the same cycle they had been on. Along with the new hires, Gorton has committed to modernizing the organization from the front office to the dressing room. It was a breath of fresh air after the conservative approach from past management teams.
Results Were Kind Of Respectable
The team on the ice responded to the shakeup quite well. While the results were still lacking, the team was infinitely more engaged and competitive. The players seemed to have more motivation and confidence in games. The biggest example is Habs rookie Cole Caufield. There were a lot of expectations for Caufield after his strong playoff performance last year. Unfortunately, under Ducharme Caufield struggled mightily. Through the 30 games Caufield played under Ducharme, he scored one goal and had seven points. After St. Louis took over behind the bench, Caufield found his game. He scored 22 goals and 16 assists in the final 37 games of the season.
Montreal Canadiens Off-Season Will Be Tricky
There is a lot to figure out during the Montreal Canadiens offseason. One thing is for sure, there are going to be some changes. The team is clearly looking to rebuild. That means many veterans are likely to be moved. It started during the season when Tyler Toffoli, Artturi Lehkonen, and Ben Chiarot were traded near or at the deadline. Still, there are some very difficult decisions to be made on some key long-term players.
One of the biggest issues facing Hughes and Gorton is the Habs salary cap situation. Their struggles this year have been compounded by the fact they have several aging veterans on big long-term contracts. It makes the rebuild that much more difficult, especially when a lot of the aging veterans have been the faces of the team for the last few years. It will be interesting to see which players they might be able to move on from to free up some cap space and roster spots for younger players.
The Canadiens captain did not play at all this year. Shea Weber was placed on LTIR before the season began. It seems for all intents and purposes, Weber’s career is likely over and the Habs are using some salary cap gymnastics to take his cap hit off the books, for now. The issue for the Canadiens is that Weber’s contract still has four more years and a cap hit of around $7.8M. Now if he officially retires, it’s actually bad news for the Nashville Predators. With the cap recapture penalty, Nashville would be on the hook for $6.1M in dead cap space for the next four years.
While the Habs could leave Weber on LTIR and, assuming he does not return, the team will need to assign a new captain. Although, the league investigated the circumstances surrounding the Habs putting Weber on LTIR so who knows if naming a new captain would prompt a new investigation into cap circumvention. To avoid any questions about naming a captain while the current one is still, technically, on the team, the Habs could look to move his contract and turn the page completely.
Price had a difficult year. He, like Weber, started the year away from the team. Price had knee surgery in July and was expected to be back with the team in October. Prior to his return, however, Price announced he was taking a leave of absence from the team and entering the league’s player assistance program, he later announced he was entering a residential recovery center for substance abuse.
Despite several setbacks Price made his season debut on April 15th against the New York Islanders. All said Price played in five games down the stretch for the Canadiens. In the Habs end of the year press conference, Price elaborated on his knee issues and what his next steps are. This is where the uncertainty about Price comes in. Nobody will question his commitment to the team but there are some harsh realities the team has to look at.
Price has five more years at a $10.5M cap hit. Price will be 35 when the next season begins so the question has to be asked whether an older goalie, with an injury history and a bloated cap hit, has a place on a rebuilding team. He has been the Habs best player for over a decade and has carried the team to exceed expectations in most years. He has given everything to the team. Still, at Price’s age, he would certainly relish the opportunity to compete for another Stanley Cup, something the Habs don’t seem poised to do any time soon.
Brendan Gallagher has been a fan favourite since he made the team in 2012. As a smaller forward, Gallagher worked hard for all the success he achieved in the NHL. Gallagher was never shy to mix it up or go to the high traffic areas, he was a player you loved to have but opponents hated. He played hard, never took a shift off, and never shied away from the dirty work. He did it all with a big smile on his face. His high-effort style would have been enough to make him a fan favourite, but he also became a pretty good goal scorer, netting 30 goals twice.
Still, the concern many had about Gallagher was how long could his body hold up playing the way he did. Well, the wear and tear of his style and injuries seem to have caught up with Gallagher. In his last two seasons, he has put up the worst production of his career. While he continued to make a nuisance of himself to the opposition, he seemed to be labouring more on the ice than he had before. The effort is there but it seems the body can’t keep up with his will.
Compounding his decline in production, Gallagher signed a six-year extension that carries a $6.5M cap hit. The contract raised eyebrows right away. Gallagher seemed to be slowing down when the contract was signed and has been struggling ever since. It’s a big cap number for a player that seems to be in the twilight of his career at the age of 29 (he will turn 30 in May). With his declining play and a big salary, Gallagher might be the most difficult player to move. Still, if they can find a taker Hughes and Gorton would probably jump at the opportunity.
Nobody struggles caught the attention of more fans and media this year than Jeff Petry. Petry, like the entire team, struggled mightily this year. And unfortunately for Petry, it seemed most of his mistakes ended up in the back of the Habs net. The constant criticism led to Petry requesting a trade from the team.
Like most of the team, Petry seemed to find his game and confidence under Martin St. Louis. This led to Petry walking back his trade request somewhat at the Habs’ end-of-year press conference. Still, he is signed through the 2024-25 season at a $6.25M cap hit. Petry has played well for the Habs until this year. It was odd to see his play decline so sharply from last year. It could just have been an off-year for an older player (34) after a gruelling playoff run and short off-season. Still, with the Habs looking to get younger, Petry might be one of the prime candidates to be moved.
Other Names to Watch
Beyond these players, the Habs have several other players they could look to move. Newcomers like Mike Hoffman and David Savard would be high on the list of players to be moved if possible. Other Hab veterans that could be moved are Joel Armia, Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron.
Change is Comming
With the season over, now all the attention for the Habs is on the draft. The Habs have secured a top-three pick by virtue of finishing in last place. Along with that pick, the Habs hold another first-round pick and hold a total of 10 picks in the first four rounds. They also hold two first-round picks in next year’s draft. Needless to say, the next two drafts will play a key part in the long-term success of the rebuild.
The Habs can’t trade all these players in one offseason, but they can move on from a few of them. They need to. They need to create much-needed salary-cap space and acquire future assets to help in the re-build process. With all the sweeping changes to the management and coaching staff, the roster is the next. It will be difficult to say goodbye to some of these players it is necessary for the future success of the team. While it will be hard to close the book on some old heroes, the Montreal Canadiens offseason will hopefully be the start of a new chapter of success.