Eggs Bennett 22-01
March 31, 2022
The NHL trade deadline came and went, and with it the first major window of change for the Montreal Canadiens and the management duo of Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton (HuGo). We went into the deadline with some ideas of what they wanted to accomplish – get younger and faster and build a team to compete for a long time – but had little data to help predict what they might do.
With the deadline behind us we have considerably more data – trades were completed, and interviews conducted, and we are in a better position to draw some conclusions. Here are my takeaways from the first HuGo window that will help us anticipate the second.
HuGo understands the value of having draft picks at their disposal.
When he spoke with the TSN panel the Thursday after the deadline, Kent Hughes was proud of the number of picks he was delivering to his draft team. Four significant players moved and, in addition to acquiring players and prospects, six new picks were accrued. By my calculation, conditions reasonably considered, the Habs have 14 picks for the 2022 draft in Montreal.
Of course, HuGo can simply take to the “stage” 14 times and draft 14 kids. This is unlikely since a team can appropriately develop a limited number of prospects from each cohort. The second window is so interesting because of how the Habs might creatively use the picks.
HuGo will likely favour quality over quantity. With two seconds and three thirds, the Habs have the assets to move up if a player they like is available. Could a late first and an early second get you into the top 20? Could those thirds fetch a good second? You get the picture, and I think we could see it unfold in July.
Draft picks will probably sweeten the pot to move bad contracts. Retaining Paul Byron for another year at $3.4M is palatable – Joel Armia for three at that cap hit is not. If HuGo can find a new home for Armia without retaining salary, they won’t mind paying with a pick to do so, because the asset gained is cap space.
Might HuGo trade a mid-round pick for the rights to a pending UFA? Bergevin gave a 5th to acquire Joel Edmundson and then signed him. What if it becomes obvious that Kris Letang is hitting the open market as a free agent? Do the Habs give up a 3rd or 4th, of which they have three each, to get the first stab at Letang?
Perhaps HuGo will use some picks to acquire an established player and accelerate the reno. Fit aside, a good example is Jakob Chychrun. He’s available and established, and he immediately improves most blue lines. Would HuGo sell a package of prospects and picks to buy Chychrun? Would they offer a pick or two to a cap-strapped team that needs to move a player for a song?
HuGo understands selling high and giving to get.
The Bergevin era, where trading is concerned, was characterized by some conservative buying and selling at the trade deadline, depending on the team’s status, and some relatively meaningless regular business trades. Beyond that, Bergevin mostly dealt players when he had decided they “had to go.” Subban, Pacioretty and Domi are examples. The return is not in question here, but Bergevin didn’t really deal players he found tough to move. He signed them to exorbitant extensions. There may have been players he wanted, but the price was always too high.
A pronounced feature of the first HuGo window is the willingness to give to get. Even more special is that the deals were not made dispassionately. Kent Hughes spoke openly about his appreciation for the players he traded, and how tough it was to move some of them. He also traded them to situations that were good for the player.
A core focus of this upcoming second window will be offloading some contracts and finding cap space. But don’t be surprised if a player you love is on the move for the right return, or if a prospect you were looking forward to is traded to move a bad contract. You get what you pay for.
HuGo is committed to honest evaluation.
Kent Hughes told Scott Burnside, “We kept writing on the board that we’re still 32nd in the league and we’re still at the top of the page of Capfriendly.”
With the change in team performance following the installation of Martin St. Louis, it might have been tempting to over-value the product on the ice. The dramatic change still leaves the team at a bubble team pace under Marty, while riding the cap ceiling. HuGo has not lost sight of that. Big changes have happened, and big changes are yet to come.
Fans might be ready to try to turn this around next season so the Habs can be a bubble team. Chalk it up to years of indoctrination in the church of “make it into the playoffs and anything can happen”. Make no mistake, HuGo is building for more than mediocrity.
The next HuGo window will be as busy as the first.
Occasionally I need an insomnia app, and my go-to is called “Nothing Much Happens.” Every episode begins with a welcome to a bedtime story for grown-ups where “nothing much happens.” The goal is to bore the listener into a practical comatose state that vaguely resembles sleep.
That description reminds me of significant portions of the Bergevin era.
In the last two off-seasons before his departure Bergevin made a flurry of moves, but prior to those flurries, fans had come to expect little in each approaching business window. Early on trade deadline day, fans were already predicting that HuGo would stand pat. By end of day, there were a few cases of whiplash.
Buckle up for the next window.
The first HuGo window was a productive trade deadline, but the third window has already been foreshadowed. Pierre LeBrun has reported the Habs expect to be aggressive in free agency and add a couple of big names. Watching the live Q & A fan session with HuGo and Chantal Machabee, I noticed Gorton’s eyebrows when talking about this year’s free agent class. They want to make a mark in free agency.
Activity in free agency depends on productivity in the second window – draft season.
The weeks leading up to the draft, and the actual draft floor, is a business opportunity for every NHL team. Rosters are being shaped, cap compliance is being addressed, and off-season surgeries are underway. Conversations that began during the trade deadline season are revived.
HuGo can only be active in free agency if they clear cap space in the draft window. Shea Weber’s contract will be revisited. Jeff Petry will be dealt. Players will have made an impression, good or bad, and decisions will follow. The roster that comes to camp will not be the one that clears out lockers in April.
The second window of business is opening for HuGo, and it’s an exciting time to be a Habs fan.