Oh fans and media surrounding the Montreal Canadiens… described as passionate, some will go further as adding knowledgeable. Myself? I say: “self-proclaimed most knowledgeable fans and media in hockey”. For many, they might glance at what’s happening around the NHL once in a while. Most times, they are zeroed in on the Habs and Habs only. Social Media has made everyone a pro. News, ideas and narratives are being spread faster than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition. Unfortunately for readers (and radio listeners), there are tree stumps in BC forests with an IQ higher than some of them. Many of them are tagged on Twitter as #Subbanistas.
We don’t have to look far to find examples. The most recent happened last night when UFA Taylor Hall decided, against all odds, to accept a contract offer from the… Buffalo Sabres! Who? Yes, the Sabres… in the City of Buffalo! Hall passed on Nashville, Boston, and some thought Montreal to play in a place where no one wants to go… ever. Ouch! Talk about a slap in the face to those teams who have been spending countless efforts trying to convince him to come play with them. At least Matt Duchene picked a nice place with a strong team ahead of the Habs. Hall chose… Buffalo! And Habs’ fans and media went wild. Again.
Habs were active
In a recent press conference, when asked if they were interested in Hall, Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin had this to say: “We have enquired.” When pushed for more, he said: “We are active“. Of course, everyone jumped to the conclusion that the Habs had made a contract offer and were trying to convince Hall to play in Montreal, right? Not so fast. He did not say that. We read that in his – short – comments. We assumed, and you know what assuming does of us, right?
We all found out that the Canadiens actually never made an offer to Hall. Oh… My… God!!! Bergevin lied to us! Ummmm… no he did not. YOU jumped to that conclusion. WE jumped to that conclusion. By reading between the lines, more often than not, we read things that are simply aren’t there. And that’s exactly what happened here.
But what went on? Why didn’t Bergevin make him an offer during or after that Zoom meeting? There are a couple of possibilities, of things that were said and/or decided upon:
Hall didn’t want to play in Montreal
Wait what? Travesty! Everyone knows that every player wants to play for the all-mighty Montreal Canadiens, in front of their bibopolar fanbase, while being taken apart by some of the most ruthless and blood thirsty media in pro sports! There are absolutely no reasons for UFAs to not want to play in Montreal! That can’t be!
The Habs simply didn’t have the cap space
This has been commonly thrown around as the reason why the Canadiens didn’t make an offer. I don’t buy it one bit. The Columbus Blue Jackets dumped $12 million in a few hours on October 9th, first day of free agency. The Canadiens could have easily unloaded a few million to fit Hall under their cap, had they really wanted to. Further, teams are allowed to surpass the cap by 10%, which is another $8.1 million added to the $3.9 million they already have. So they technically have almost $12 million to play with. Don’t be fooled folks. For one reason or another, there wasn’t a strong enough desire to get this done. WHAT? Blasphemy!
Hall’s demands didn’t fit in with Montreal’s salary structure
Now we’re getting somewhere folks. The team’s two best paid forwards earn $5.5 million each. The best paid players on the team are two of the best in their profession, with Carey Price earning $10.5 million and Shea Weber with a cap hit of $7.8 million. The Sabres gave Hall $8 million on a one-year contract. Hall has played a total of 98 games in the past three seasons combined. Some people are outraged that the Canadiens would give $5.5 million for seven years to a guy who is returning from one injury. But let’s throw all the money at a player who hasn’t played 42% of his team’s games in three years?
Fans/Media vs Pro GM
Looking at long term for fans and media is looking at one, maybe two years down the line. NHL GMs look as far as 5-8 years ahead when making their plans. That’s true when it comes to the NHL Draft, but also when it comes to contract signatures, including UFAs. In addition to team salary structure mentioned above, there’s a cap ceiling needing to be respected. And GMs must look at not only the players they’ll have to sign next season, but the season after… and subsequent ones as well.
They balance that information with their prospect pool and find contingency plans. Those plans aren’t molded in concrete but they are rough sketches, evergreens, that can be modified based on injuries, player development, performances and who becomes available through trades.
So while fans and media look at Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, Joel Armia and Tomas Tatar becoming UFAs in 2021, GMs look at Ben Chiarot, Victor Mete, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Cayden Primeau, Alexander Romanov as well… Throwing $8 million at a guy like Hall has more impact than just this season, particularly if he’s looking for a long term deal. Managers manage. Media often stir the pot. Fans react. The last two pretend to know what they’re talking about. But it’s ultimately the GMs making the decision and, mostly, it is THEIR job that’s on the line. They are the ones knowing the ins and outs.
Is there a Plan B?
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say that Hall was indeed the Canadiens’ plan A. Now that he’s picked the Sabres, what’s next? Many are suggesting two other pending UFAs in Mike Hoffman (LW) and Tyler Toffoli (RW). I personally was all in favour of Toffoli… prior to the Canadiens getting their hands on Josh Anderson. With him, Gallagher and Armia, the right wing position is set for the top three lines.
EDIT: Soon after writing this, the Canadiens signed Toffoli to a four-year contract with a cap hit of $4.25 million. The contract doesn’t include any no-trade clause. Excellent deal once again by Bergevin. A move or two are to be predicted in order to shed some salary.
Hoffman? Man this guy scares me. After what transpired in Ottawa and the Karlsson’s, I don’t know. “Oh but we haven’t heard anything since he’s been in Florida“, they say. We don’t hear anything about the Panthers period folks. Good, bad, or anywhere in between. There’s one, maybe two reporters for the NHL coverage down there.
If there is a plan B, if Bergevin isn’t done addressing his needs at forward, it could very well come through trades. There are still several teams struggling to fit everyone under their cap. For one, the Vegas Golden Knights appear to be Alex Pietrangelo‘s prefered destination. He won’t come cheap and the team is already tight against the cap. We’ve heard rumours that Nate Schmidt might be heading to the Panthers but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. Nor has the signing of Pietrangelo (at the time of writing this).
Here’s what Capfriendly.com is showing for teams and their salary cap:
There are no less than 12 teams with under $3 million of cap space. The Tampa Bay Lightning only shows 18 players on their roster and on the weekend, they placed Tyler Johnson on waivers and he cleared. It’s very, very unlikely that they’ll send him down to the AHL so they’ll have to do something to alleviate their cap issues.
But if the Habs do that, won’t they be the ones over the cap? Yes, yes they will.
Dumping salary, a COVID reality
The cap staying flat for the foreseeable future, the season nowhere close to starting, the uncertainty of having fans in the stands or not, the loss of revenue, all make for a very unique situation. Teams have to be creative and it has become clear that those unloading salary do so by sacrificing players at very little return. Who wouldn’t take Ryan Murray for a 5th round pick if they have cap space?
If they were to trade and get a good player for rather cheap by taking on his salary, what would prevent the Canadiens from doing the same with Paul Byron or Tomas Tatar? Under these unusual circumstances, teams and fans need to stop looking at player value in trades. They need to look at finding ways to unload money at just about any reasonable cost. So you may have to give up Byron for nothing. Or you might have to trade Tatar for a fraction of his true value. As long as the player you’re replacing them with are a substantial improvement.
Folks, I don’t know if Bergevin is done, but my feeling is that he’s not. The addition of Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen are telling me that he’s ready to start making a push to, at the very least, ensure getting into the postseason. And as we’ve seen countless times, you never know what can happen when you reach the elusive playoffs. In my humble opinion, Bergevin isn’t done. What I am convinced off though, is that he’s not going to do anything stupid to get there and that, in spite of what some might think. But please, I beg you… temper your expectations. By placing expectations on others, including your favourite sports team, you are bound to be disappointed. Go Habs Go!