January 4, 2023
The Montreal Canadiens are preparing for their fourth window of change under HuGo.
The November 2021 hire of Jeff Gorton as the Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, followed by the hires of Kent Hughes as General Manager in January and Martin St. Louis as Coach in February, signaled that Habs ownership might be ready for some version of a rebuild. At that time, my expectation was that there would be six major windows of change that set the course for the next contention period.
Window 1: Trade Deadline 2022
In our first look at how the new management group would tackle the Habs rebuild, Tyler Toffoli, Ben Chiarot, Artturi Lehkonen and Brett Kulak were moved out for a package of future assets that included two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and fourth, fifth and seventh-round picks, along with prospects Justin Barron, Emil Heineman, and Ty Smilanic, and a couple of salary dumps to make the deals work.
The first window was a tidy bit of business focused entirely on building for a long window of contention.
Window 2: Draft 2022
The Habs selected Juraj Slafkovsky first overall, along with 10 other picks. But they did a lot more than draft some kids in that second window of change.
Leading up to the draft, Hughes offloaded the daunting Shea Weber contract for pending unrestricted free agent Evgenii Dadanov, creating some much needed salary cap flexibility. Then on the opening night of the draft, Hughes swung a couple of deals that resulted in Alexander Romanov and some picks leaving, and a big, young centreman being added in Kirby Dach. The Habs added building blocks for the future in that brief but potent window.
Window 3: Free Agency 2022
The Canadiens were quiet where free agent signings were concerned, but Hughes was anything but quiet in using the free agency window to transform his roster.
In his first move, Hughes took advantage of a team that had not been able to upgrade their defense group via free agency while offloading a player who had asked to be moved. Jeff Petry to the Pittsburgh Penguins, along with Ryan Poehling, for Michael Matheson and a fourth round pick, was solid business. Then later in the free agency window, when the Calgary Flames were desperate for cap space to sign Nazem Kadri, Hughes added Sean Monahan and a first round pick for future considerations.
Window 4: Trade Deadline 2023
The fourth window of change is now opening and it promises to be a very busy time. We can expect that the roster will look significantly different by end of business on March 3rd. There are three areas where we can forecast that the transformation will be focused.
Pending Unrestricted Free Agents
The Habs have four players on expiring contracts that will be available. Sean Monahan leads that group, and if he can return from injury, stay healthy, and continue to produce, it is reasonable to expect Hughes will get an offer he can’t refuse. Teams looking for a strong middle-six centre should expect a minimum ask of a first round pick, or a good prospect that was a first round pick.
Dadanov and Jonathan Drouin have been available all season, and would be moved to the highest bidder if anyone would come to the auction. Paul Byron, the playoff performer we had almost forgotten, is skating again and will be available. These three players comprise a group that is not especially marketable, and if Hughes can deal Monahan and one other pending UFA we would have to consider it success. The ability to retain salary and take back a contract may help.
The ideal partner is a team looking to upgrade someone who is not working in their line-up in a financially lucrative deal.
Examples of who may want one of Dadanov, Drouin or Byron are few. The Ottawa Senators want to move Nikita Zaitsev badly enough that they are willing to give up a high pick. Byron, with 50% retained, to Ottawa for Zaitsev and a first round pick makes sense for both parties.
Some GMs are not willing to pay big for a short term rental, but they’re also not in a position to deal for a long-term contract mid-season. For these GMs, players with an additional year on their contracts beyond the current are appealing. The two guys to watch in this category are Joel Edmundson and Mike Hoffman.
Hoffman has been available all season, without takers. This may change as the season progresses, and with his production having improved of late. Edmundson is a player Hughes is content to keep around for veteran support, but the rumour mill has his name in it, and the wily GM will not hold back if the right offer comes his way.
The ideal partner is a GM who shies away from pure rentals but needs an upgrade.
An example is Ken Holland, and Edmundson has been linked to the Edmonton Oilers. Edmundson for a first round pick and Jesse Puljujarvi as the cap equalizer is a reasonable proposal.
Timely Hockey Trades for Bigger Contracts
Few teams can make a hockey trade for a big contract mid-season. Two players fit that category for the Habs – Josh Anderson and Christian Dvorak. Despite the hand-wringing of fans who insist an immediate trade is essential, Kent Hughes does not need to move either, leaving him in a strong negotiating position.
The ideal partner covets a specific player, and can get creative to land him for a playoff run.
An example might involve the Calgary Flames, who have been rumoured to be interested in Anderson for some time, and whose GM demonstrated how creative he can be this past summer. Anderson for a first round pick, Dustin Wolf or another prospect, and Milan Lucic or another salary dump is a reasonable proposal.
As we get closer to the trade deadline, I will follow up with some predictions, but with business preparing to heat up, that’s your Habs forecast for the trade deadline.