Segue Issue 22-08
March 7, 2022
With the NHL trade deadline just over two weeks away, there is much chatter amongst fans and pundits about what the Habs might do. On Thursday night (March 3rd) I recorded a podcast with Jared Book from Habs Eyes on the Prize and we each tried to take a realistic guess at what Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes (HuGo) might do before the end of business on March 21st.
Jared proposed three as a good number of trades to predict for this trade deadline, and perhaps four if some smaller deals for pending UFAs become possible. My guess was five deals, and I’ll explain my reasoning in this article. You can listen to the entire podcast on your usual platforms by searching The Edge of Lori and landing on podcast 2. I’ve also linked it here.
There may be a thing or two we can learn from Gorton’s history.
We’re still getting to know HuGo, but we can learn a few things about how Gorton works from his time with the New York Rangers. On February 8, 2018, Gorton and Glen Sather issued their famous letter to fans – the letter we’ve come to think of as the warning of a pending rebuild. The interesting thing, in retrospect, is that the word “rebuild” does not appear in the letter at all. The crux of it can be captured in a couple of sentences.
“As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.”
Gorton then proceeded to make six trades in the 17 days before the trade deadline. Looking at the content of that letter, it’s difficult to argue that the Habs are taking a markedly different path. “Reshaping” the team and focusing on “adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character” sounds familiar to me.
For this article, I’m going to look at the deals made by Gorton during that deadline and propose a comparable trade for the Habs. Unlike the fantasy series, these will be more realistic deals. Let’s go!
The Rangers trade Adam Chapie and Joe Whitney to the Washington Capitals for John Albert and Hubert Lebrie.
This deal did not exactly live up to the gravitas of the letter issued to fans the day before. It was a swapping of minor leaguers, with a view to addressing something for one of the teams at the AHL level. There is no merit to further analysis. The Habs just completed one such deal. Michael McNiven was dealt to the Calgary Flames for future considerations. The Flames got a little goaltending depth, the Habs got rid of some clog in Laval. Not much to see here.
The Rangers trade Nick Holden to the Boston Bruins for Rob O’Gara and a 3rd Round Pick.
Holden was a third-pair veteran defenceman and a pending UFA with a cap hit of $1.65M. It was a small deal where the Rangers did not retain any salary. O’Gara was a B prospect who could be sent to the AHL without impact to the salary cap, who would go on to play just 22 games for the Rangers. Gorton essentially moved a UFA he had no plans to re-sign for the 3rd round pick and found $1.65M in cap space.
Brett Kulak is a good comparable for Holden. Kulak is an incredibly useful depth defenceman that the Habs may yet choose to re-sign, and that smart teams – the Carolina Hurricanes come to mind – will come looking for. The Habs can move Kulak for a pick and/or a prospect and free up a roster spot as they have several left-shot defenceman under contract and approaching NHL-readiness.
Another option here is Chris Wideman, a pending UFA depth defenceman that could be obtained for a late pick. I am predicting that one of these defencemen are dealt before March 21st.
The Rangers trade Michael Grabner to the New Jersey Devils for Yegor Rykov and a 2nd Round Pick.
Grabner was a pending UFA forward with a cap hit of $1.65M who was having a fantastic season in the year he was dealt, but it was an anomaly across his career. This was another small deal that brought in assets for a UFA they did not intend to bring back.
The Habs pending UFA forwards that should be available include Cedric Paquette, Mathieu Perreault, Laurent Dauphin, and the recently acquired Tyler Pitlick. The return will be modest, and I expect to see two of these UFAs moved before the deadline.
The Rangers trade Rick Nash, with $3.9M salary retained (50%) to the Boston Bruins for Matt Belesky, with $1.9M retained (50%), Ryan Spooner, signing rights to Ryan Lindgren, a 1st Round Pick and a 7th Round Pick.
Nash was a pending UFA, on a giant contract, but was a coveted asset at the trade deadline. The salary retention on this deal increased the return significantly. The Habs do not have a pending UFA of Nash’s quality they can deal, but they do have one that is coveted.
Ben Chiarot will not fetch the return that Nash did, but there is a lesson to be learned here about how value changes if a team is willing to make the salaries work. Several teams are rumoured to be interested in Chiarot – imagine what might be possible with some contract creativity.
The Edmonton Oilers should be interested in Big Ben, but they need a lot of help and have no cap space. They also have a player they’d like to offload because of COVID and vaccination concerns. Suppose the Habs were willing to retain 50% of Chiarot’s $3.5M contract and take back Josh Archibald ($1.5M) in the deal. Suddenly the Oilers have a top-4 D for $250K, a problem off their hands and they have not lost anyone meaningful from the roster. That has to increase the return of future assets.
Ben Chiarot will be dealt by the March 21st trade deadline. As Jared noted in our podcast, any other outcome can only be seen as failure.
The Rangers trade Ryan Graves to the Colorado Avalanche for Chris Bigras.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say this trade was a total miss for Gorton and the Rangers. At the time, it was a swapping of AHL players that made some sense to someone. Graves has obviously outperformed Bigras by a country mile. The Habs may choose to make a similar kind of deal – one that ships a left-handed defenceman out for a right-handed defenceman would make some sense since the Habs are lopsided in this area.
The Rangers trade Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Vladislav Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek, a 1st Round Pick and a 2nd Round Pick.
McDonogh had one year on his contract beyond his trade year and had a cap hit of $4.7M. J.T. Miller was a restricted free agent with a cap hit of $2.75M. The Rangers gained $4.6M in cap space on this deal, but in retrospect one wonders if dealing the players separately would have yielded a better return. The comparable players for the Habs are Jeff Petry and Artturi Lehkonen, and I do not expect a blockbuster deal where both are moved to the same team for a big package. But I do expect at least one of these players to move.
Ironically, the Rangers are one of the teams that have been linked to Artturi Lehkonen. He comes with a manageable contract and is still under team control as an RFA. The similarities with J.T. Miller are significant.
Another lesson learned from the Rangers of 2018 is that a large contract can indeed be moved at the deadline if the player is still performing, and the teams involved can work out the salary. Jeff Petry may be happier in Montreal than he was, but this ship has sailed. His family is living in another country and moving the contract makes too much sense. He is playing well, and I believe there is a reasonable chance a playoff team finds a way to make it happen.
As I said, I expect to see at least one of Lehkonen and Petry to be moved – perhaps both. If they do, we will revisit this trade and compare the combined return for the two against what the Rangers got in their blockbuster.
My trade deadline predictions add up to at least five deals…
I predicted trades for the following: at least one their UFA defencemen not named Ben Chiarot, Chiarot, two of their UFA forwards, and at least one of Lehkonen or Petry.
That’s a prediction of five – maybe six – deals to be made by the Montreal Canadiens in the two weeks leading up to the trade deadline. Based on Jeff Gorton’s history, that count seems realistic.