Slim Picking in Habs’ Higher Needs Through Free Agency

Ah free agents. Particularly unrestricted free agents (UFA). After having much of their fate dictated by the teams owning their rights, players who reach that level finally reach a point where they have more control over where they are going to play, under which coach and sometimes even with which linemates or defensive pairing. In a league where player movements between teams in mid-season is a rarity, the free agents’ period is, along with the days leading to Draft day, the busiest time. And fans certainly won’t complain.

While we’ve covered some possibilities in a few articles in the past couple of weeks, I was asked if I would write about the UFAs that the Canadiens will try to go after. Mmmm… tough one. Although there are two who definitely will be on Marc Bergevin‘s radar.

Team needs

While I feel they could get the better players that way, let’s forget trade possibilities for this exercise. The Canadiens’ needs were, in my humble opinion, heading into the off season:

  • Backup goaltender
  • Scoring winger(s)
  • Size at the forward position
  • Top pairing left-handed defenseman

So… we can check off the backup goaltending as the Habs acquired Jake Allen. Looking at the UFA market this season, it is clear that there is a lot to choose from when it comes to quality defensemen, although very few can play top pairing. There are several depth type defensemen, ala Ben Chiarot a couple of years ago. But do the Canadiens really need that type of defenseman?

For one, the team seems to have gelled quite well last year and in the COVID Cup, they have proven to be able to all pull in the same direction, which speaks of the character and leadership in this group. But aside perhaps of Xavier Ouellet, the others are NHL defensemen. Now in comes Alexander Romanov, who practiced with the team in the bubble. He seems to be a shoe-in for next season. Let’s just say that the need on left defense isn’t has prominent as it’s been the past few years, since Andrei Markov left.

Primary scoring

As primary offense-type players, the pending UFA list is also rather dim. When you talk about true top-end talent, it’s a very thin market. The one saving grace the Canadiens have is the fact that the salary cap is staying fix next season and fewer teams will be able to compete for those guys. Having said that, the market is flooded (or so it seems) with secondary scoring. There are several 15-25 goals scorers amongst them who will be fighting for a job in the locations that they would like to play.

Doesn’t it seem like the Canadiens have a lot of players like that? Guys who can occasionally put the puck in the net on any given night? The true type of player lacking is really for the top-6 line, hopefully someone better than Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, who truly are the most consistent offensive forwards the Canadiens’ have.

More size up front

Jesperi Kotkaniemi

A couple of weeks ago, in his postseason interview, Jeff Petry said out loud what many of us have been saying for a couple of years now. The team needs some size up front to create havoc. I can’t speak for Jeff but what I think he is talking about is a need throughout the line-up, not just for the bottom-six. He’s likely referring to players like Milan Lucic (in his prime), Tom Wilson, Lawson Crouse, who play over 13 minutes a game, as much as bottom-six players who can stir things up and create energy.

The Canadiens are fast. They’re skilled. They need more players like the Jesperi Kotkaniemi that we saw during the COVID Cup, hitting everything that moves. They also need more of the Ryan Reaves, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, Sam Bennett type players, or a couple of them anyway.

PLAN “A”

Looking only at team needs and the fact that the Canadiens do have cap space to rival with anyone, I can see them going hard after two players only: Taylor Hall and Torey Krug. Both would fill huge holes in the Canadiens’ line-up and solve many issues.

POSAGEGPGAPTSTOI/GPHITS/60CAP HIT
Taylor HallLW286516365219:101.96$6M
Torey KrugD29619404920:291.72$5.25M
Taylor Hall

Oh I can hear some who will believe that Krug isn’t necessary since Romanov is coming up but the young Russian will not be a Krug. Further, if you can improve on your top pairing, it ultimately will make your bottom pairing stronger. The Dallas Stars never claimed or even hinted not needing John Klingberg because they already have Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell, do they?

As for Hall, give me a break with the “attitude” rumours. Yes, he had issues in Edmonton but we haven’t heard anything like that since he was traded. Many said that Carey Price has issues when he first joined the Canadiens. Fans wanted him out of town. Does he have an attitude now?

Neither of these guys will add to the grit that Petry was talking about. But both (or either) are at the top of the 2020 free agents list in terms of quality at their respective position. Inject that type of talent, address the size and grit elsewhere.

PLAN “B”

If their plan “A” fails, as it has been the case in recent years, there is a plan “B” that would be suitable. Remember that we’re only talking UFAs here, no trades or offer-sheets.

Defense

Honestly, I don’t think I would do anything to the defense (through the UFA market) if Krug chooses another destination instead of Montreal. There is one defenseman I might be tempted by, only at the right price, and that’s Troy Brodie. Yes, he’s played mostly the right side but with Mark Giordano, so quality minutes. He is left handed.

AGEGPGAPTSTOI/GPCAP HIT
Troy Brodie30644151920:27$4.65M

Top-9 forwards

Secondary scoring could be added, depending on other moves Bergevin has in mind. And the selection is solid. I would, however, personally narrow it down to three players in particular.

POSAGEGPGAPTSTOI/GPHITS/60CAP HIT
Tyler ToffoliRW286824204416:37 – LAK
18:15 – VAN
2.05 – LAK
4.93 – VAN
$4.6M
Mikael GranlundC/RW286317133017:482.24$5.75M
Craig SmithRW/C306918133113:253.88$4.25M

Bottom-6 forwards

I know, I know, I’m overlapping the third line here. It’s done on purpose. I’ve touched on this recently when talking about adding size on the wings, but I had also included trade possibilities. In the UFA market, there are a few that could help the Habs in the size and grit department.

DO NOT TOUCH

Categorically stay away from Mike Hoffman. The Habs finally cleaned up their dressing room. Good hockey player but for the rest…

POSAGEGPGAPTSTOI/GPHITS/60CAP HIT
Mike HoffmanLW306929305916:501.70$5.19M

Ask Erik Karlsson (amongst others) why.

Realistically speaking

So if we recap, I strongly believe that Bergevin and the Canadiens will make serious offers to one of or both Taylor Hall and Torey Krug, if they are still available. If one (or both) of them signs, some fans and media won’t be happy with the dollar figure and/or term, so be prepared to see the Subbanistas come out loud.

My prediction is that if one or either of them chooses to go elsewhere, which is a strong possibility, Bergevin will be turning to the trade front. He has shown last summer not being shy of going the RFA way too, but I strongly believe that trades is the way to go. Check the last few articles for several ideas of players the Habs could consider and there are many good options out there. Remember what Bergevin said: “You don’t build your team on July first”. Due to COVID-19, the usual July first will be October 9th this year. Go Habs Go!

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