The Montreal Canadiens have opened up the season with a 5-14-2 record through 21 games, putting them in the bottom-3 of the NHL standings. At this point, statistically, the Canadiens are all but assured to miss the playoffs, as their division already looks like trench war in the making. Florida, Toronto and Tampa Bay already have double Montreal’s point totals, and Detroit/Boston are heating up.
It would be foolish for GM Marc Bergevin to sacrifice future assets in order to improve his club at this point in the season. For starters, other clubs would see them coming a mile away; likely setting prices sky high due to Montreal’s evident desperation to improve. Furthermore, what Montreal needs, a top-6 center and a mobile, top-4 defenseman, are not exactly available at this stage of the season. Unlike Montreal, many teams are still focused on making the playoffs at this time and won’t sell an important piece for nothing short of an overpay.
So where does Montreal go from here?
Canadiens Must Sell
The Canadiens will likely begin evaluating the roster to see who could be moved to maximize value as the club weighs whether this season is an aberration or a sign that a rebuild/reset is required due to the loss of Weber, the age of Price, and the slump of key veterans like Petry or Gallagher. Whether the club decides to go for a full rebuild is up for debate, but the Canadiens cannot pass up the offer to maximize the return on some assets.
There is a lot of debate around the fanbase and through media circles as to who might be on their way out, but there are some players who find themselves in the “right place, right time” window that the Canadiens cannot pass up trading
Perhaps the most obvious of the tradeable players on the Habs’ roster, Ben Chiarot is already being pegged by the media as a player being able to net the Canadiens a 1st round pick at trade deadline. Chiarot could be a very cheap (Has a Cap hit of $3.5M this season, the last year of his contract) addition to a contending team’s blueline. The Canadiens could also further sweeten the pot by retaining up to 50% of Chiarot’s salary to facilitate a trade (as many teams are right up against the Cap) to make him an even more attractive piece. Chiarot at $1.75M would be an attractive add for teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and more.
Although some fans may want to retain and re-sign a player like Chiarot, due to his style of play and success since signing in Montreal back in 2018, the Canadiens have invested to much draft capital in left defensemen, and many will begin pushing for spots next season. Players like Mattias Norlinder, Kaiden Guhle, Gianni Fairbrother, and more will all be vying for spots with the team. The Canadiens already have Joel Edmundson as a bonafide #4 D and Alexander Romanov is trending in that direction since his rocky start to the season.
This is absolutely the right time to move on from Chiarot. He’s been a warrior for Montreal, but his prime is now. If the Canadiens are not going to compete for the next year or so, best to move him and net a 1st round pick in the 2022 Draft (and possibly more if he continues having a solid season).
This one is bittersweet. Lekhonen is one of the longest tenured Canadiens on the team, after Price and Gallagher, and has always been a warrior for the club. Unfortunately, Lekhonen’s goal-scoring prowess in the Swedish Hockey League didn’t translate to the NHL as many would have hoped. He nonetheless established himself as one of the best two-way, bottom-6 wingers in the league and has been mentioned in the past as being a desirable piece teams were looking at.
With a $2.4M Cap Hit for 1 season (is still an RFA next season), the Canadiens would have to pay him the same salary or more for next year. With players like Harvey-Pinard and Jesse Ylönen knocking on the door, is it wise to pay another 4th liner over 2.5M? (Canadiens already have Joël Armia and Paul Byron making $3.4M each beyond this season). Due to his reputation, recent big goals in the playoffs and RFA status for next year (giving an acquiring team control over him for next season), I think this is the perfect time to move on from Lekhonen.
He’s heating up at exactly the right time too. He’s posted 2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points in his last 8 games. He’s helped Jake Evans really hold down the 3rd line center role quite well since being put together, and that kind of reliability is what GMs look for when shopping for the playoffs. I strongly believe Lekhonen could return, at the very least, a 2nd round pick.
What I will say is, if he continues on this pace, he may be able to extract more from a desperate team. Similarly to the scenario with Chiarot, the Canadiens could retain up to 50% (reducing his Cap Hit to 1.2M) in order to further increase his value. This could allow the Canadiens to possibly pull in an extra asset (like a solid prospect) should a bidding war commence.
One season removed from a career year for Toffoli, this season has proven to be a little more tedious for the Canadiens’ sniper. Despite getting prime time on the powerplay, 1st line minutes and offensive zone usage, he hasn’t followed lived up to expectations this season. Despite that, his $4.25M Cap Hit (until 2023-2024) is still a massive bargain for any team looking to acquire a top-6 forward with scoring ability.
The issue in Montreal seems that they are rather deep at right-wing, boasting Gallagher, Anderson, Toffoli, Armia and Caufield on the roster at the moment. With glaring holes at center and on defense, I believe Toffoli could be moved at some point in the season (or more likely in the off-season) in a hockey deal that could net the Canadiens a top-4 D or a top-6 C. I don’t know if Toffoli himself would net that kind of return by himself, but he would be the main piece in that kind of package.
Fans may be more inclined to trade Armia or Gallagher or Anderson, but the trade protection and salary on those deals make them less enticing for a value trade. There is very little chance Toffoli returns to a 40-45 goal and 70-point pace he had last year, and capitalizing on that season before his value drops would be wise for Montreal if they do intend to retool over the next season or two.
With the acquisition of Mike Hoffman, the Canadiens could afford to sacrifice a right-shooting forward and I think Toffoli is the one most teams would call on to make a hockey deal. His Cup experience, playoff prowess and his ability to adapt to new teams in a pinch (which we saw in both Vancouver and Montreal) makes him a very attractive trade piece.
Allen is a very interesting piece. Marc Bergevin protected him in the Expansion Draft instead of Carey Price because he knew of Price’s upcoming surgery and wanted a capable NHL goalie to hold the fort. With Price seemingly set to return in the next month, the Canadiens losing record, and Samuel Montembeault proving to be just as effective (or ineffective, depends the way you see it) as Allen, it could make sense to explore a trade, given Allen’s cheap contract ($2.87M until 2022-2023).
Elliote Friedman has bounced the name of Jake Allen as a goalie the Buffalo Sabres could have interest in, as their current goalie tandem might not be up for the load of a full season (with due respect to Dustin Tokarski and Craig Anderson). Whether or not a trade with Buffalo occurs is anyone’s guess, but what it does show is that Allen’s name is out there and there is interest in him.
Sooner or later, the Canadiens will have to bring up Cayden Primeau, who has looked rather good in Laval (and also looked good during his call-up to Montreal this season). If you truly want to go with youth and Price looking to share games from here on out in his career, this could be the perfect time to bring up Primeau full time.
The Winds of Change
I think we can all agree the Canadiens will have to make some big decisions as they approach the March 21st NHL Trade Deadline. On top of the players mentioned above, they need to recuperate as many assets as they can from other soon-to-be UFAs like Mathieu Perreault or Chris Wideman is there is a market for them. This will also allow the Canadiens to call up some youth from Laval and reward them for stellar play this year. Names like Ylönen, Harvey-Pinard, Vejdemo and, not exactly a prospect anymore, Dauphin deserve the time in the NHL and could help the close out the season.
The Canadiens ultimately need to chose a direction, and that’s a discussion for another day, but, what is sure, is that they will look to maximize asset value come trade deadline and continue stock piling picks and prospects in the meantime.