Things to Keep in View for the Habs in Free Agency

Eggs Bennett 22-16

July 11, 2022

“They don’t hang conference titles in this rink. They raise Stanley Cup banners.” ~ Carey Price / Photo credit Lori Bennett

There’s no time for a cat nap. The 2022 NHL Amateur Draft is still ringing in our ears and it’s time to pay attention to the next window of change for the Montreal Canadiens and the management duo of Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton (HuGo).

Hughes, hired just in time to get ready for the trade deadline, excelled in the first major window of change. He got great value for unrestricted free agents Ben Chiarot and Brett Kulak, and moved out two beloved players in Tyler Toffoli and Artturi Lehkonen for excellent returns for the future. HuGo nailed it.

The second window of change was the draft – as is the nature of the draft, it’s way too early to assess their success. But there are some things we can say for sure. The work put in by HuGo was exciting, ballsy, and a significant step in changing the make-up of the Montreal Canadiens.

The third window of change is opening – Free Agency 2022. Here are the things we should keep in view (KIV) for the Habs in free agency.

KIV – Creating Cap Flexibility

Like a kid in front of the candy shop window with no money in his pocket, HuGo is currently standing in front of the free agency window. They may dabble in free agency, but perhaps their biggest moves may come as a result of other teams losing out in free agency.

Will a team that didn’t land John Klingberg turn attention to Jeff Petry? If the goalie musical chairs song lasts long enough, might the Habs have enough clarity on what’s happening with Carey Price to allow them to listen to offers on Jake Allen from the teams that still need help in net. If a team misses their target on a goal-scorer, might that evolve into an offer for Josh Anderson that Hughes can’t refuse?

At the draft I was hoping the Habs would use a pick or two to sweeten the pot and move a contract or two. That didn’t happen, but free agency offers another opportunity.

My prediction is that two significant contracts will be moved to find cap space.

KIV – Taking Advantage of Castaways

By 5 p.m. on Monday, the list of restricted free agents that had not received qualifying offers was shocking. Heck, the list of Stromes alone was shocking, and perhaps one of them is a fit for the Habs plan. Ilya Samsonov is a name HuGo has been connected to previously.

In addition to the unqualified RFAs, the first buyout window closes on Tuesday at 5 p.m. and may result in some additional names added to the list of unrestricted free agents. One player, centre Colin White, has already been bought out and HuGo was connected to him in at the trade deadline.

Is there a player on the castaway pile that the Habs might target? My prediction is that HuGo will add one such player in the weeks ahead, and Ilya Samsonov is the name I would keep in view as the goaltending picture grows clearer.

KIV – Finding a Veteran Centre

In one of his first meetings with the media following his hire, Kent Hughes was asked about whether they would be active in free agency. He was surprisingly precise in his answer, considering how early it was in his tenure, when he said he would like to find a veteran centre to support Nick Suzuki.

The challenge is that we have no idea what that means.

Is 26-year-old Christian Dvorak, after six years in the league, not a veteran? Did his improved play under Martin St. Louis shift the plan? Where does their rumoured interest in 25-year-old Colin White fit?

Dvorak has been in trade rumours. The Habs might be looking for a replacement who can be a veteran presence, play effectively in the middle six, and come at a reasonable cost. It would be very surprising to see the Hughes sign a long-term contract with one of the big-name pivots.

Some veteran centres I’m keeping in view include Vincent Trocheck, Ryan Strome, and Paul Stastny.

KIV – Finding a Veteran Defenceman

Since it became clear that Jeff Petry would be traded, Hughes has stated his intention to add a veteran replacement. That veteran could be part of the return for Petry – as is true for obtaining a veteran centreman – and what happens in the UFA market depends on what comes back in any trade package.

When Petry is eventually dealt, there will be three veteran defencemen on the roster – Joel Edmundson, David Savard and Chris Wideman. Hughes has expressly stated he did not see going into next season with three rookie defencemen in the line-up.

Some veteran defencemen I’m keeping in view include Brett Kulak, Troy Stecher and Calvin de Haan.

KIV – Clarifying the Timeline

Since the Montreal Canadiens made their leadership change, we have not had great clarity about their vision and its timeline. I’ve been calling it a reno – in a reno, some things can just get a little plaster and paint and they’re great, while other things need a complete tear down to address the faulty and make room for the new and functioning.

After the draft, some interpreted that Hughes wants a quick turnaround because he opted for Kirby Dach over the 13th overall pick. I don’t buy it. I believe Hughes saw a player with considerable untapped potential being made available for a good price, and that player’s age fit the window he was working in, so he went for it.

I don’t believe the draft did very much to clarify the timeline of this reno. However, some of the moves in free agency might. Some examples might help.

If the Habs sign Nazem Kadri, it’s reasonable to assume HuGo wants to be competitive as soon as possible.

If the Habs trade Christian Dvorak to Minnesota for an unprotected first-round pick in 2024 and replace him with Paul Stastny, it’s reasonable to assume HuGo is in no rush to rebuild this roster.

If the Habs trade Josh Anderson and Ryan Poehling to Edmonton for a 2023 first rounder, Jesse Puljujarvi and a salary dump, we might assume HuGo wants to improve for the short-term, but is prioritizing being competitive for the long term. You get the idea.

I think that third assumption is closest to what they want to do. It’s a reno, in my view. That said, the moves made between now and training camp will help clarify the vision HuGo has for the Habs and the timeline it will take to get there.

KIV – Abandoning Mediocrity

Sitting in the Bell Centre on Friday, I was looking at the Stanley Cup banners and recalled that sweet quote from Carey Price. “They don’t hang conference titles in this rink. They raise Stanley Cup banners.”

For the first time in a long time, I feel like the executives in Montreal get that. This is not a management group that will tinker around the edges. They know mediocrity is the same as losing in this market.

Buckle up. The third window of change is open.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

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