If, as Solomon contends, it is the prudent man who foresees danger and conceals himself from it, than Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin must be counted as a prudent man. Even as the rest of the league prepares for a difficult summer and a lower than expected salary cap, the Habs are in remarkably good shape to weather the storm.
In no small part, that strong footing is thanks to a pair of trades in November that saw Bergevin make minor sacrifices in the present in exchange for financial freedom in the future. On November 11, the Canadiens took on struggling defender Sergei Gonchar and his $4.6-million cap hit in trade for Travis Moen’s $1.85-million deal. A little over a week later, the team followed that up by acquiring Bryan Allen ($3.5-million cap hit) from Anaheim in exchange for Rene Bourque ($3.33-million cap hit).
Gonchar’s been a nice find for the Canadiens, playing nearly 20:00 per game and adding another offensive dimension to the team’s blueline. Allen’s value has been entirely negative, as Montreal pays him a reasonably hefty NHL wage to compete for the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. But in each case the player’s performance was subordinate to another consideration: The need to shed money next season. In both trades, the Canadiens managed to move an overpaid player on a multi-year deal in exchange for one on an expiring contract.
Not that Bergevin admitted that was his plan. He talked up Allen to the Montreal Gazette’s Pat Hickey, praising the defenceman’s size, character and experience. Two weeks later, Allen would dress for nine minutes of action in what now appears to have been his final game in a Canadiens’ uniform.
The net benefit for Montreal has been to clear more than $5 million from the books for next season. With the NHL salary cap now expected to come in somewhere around the $72-million mark (assuming that the NHLPA exercises its option to activate a five percent escalator), that’s a significant chunk of the Canadiens’ available dollars. With pending restricted free agent Alex Galchenyuk his team’s only really significant expiring contract, Bergevin now has something like $14 million at his disposal to get the young star signed and bolster his roster. If he’d kept Bourque and Moen he’d have two additional depth forwards but only $9 million or so to play with.
That flexibility isn’t just important because it allows the Canadiens to get guys like Galchenyuk under contract or make a splash in free agency; it also allows the team to take a predatory approach with its NHL rivals. Much has been made about the New York Islanders’ resurgence this season, and a massive part of that turnaround was the team’s ability to take on the salaries of Chicago’s Nick Leddy and Boston’s Johnny Boychuk when those teams found themselves tight to the salary-cap ceiling as the season started. Assuming they don’t go too crazy in free agency, Montreal will have that same advantage next season.
There is certainly no shortage of targets. The Bruins and Blackhawks are looking at making tough decisions once again, with Chicago particularly in trouble as new contracts kick in for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. L.A.’s reluctance to use a compliance buyout on Mike Richards last summer puts them in similarly hot water this summer as they struggle to get key free agents signed with limited dollars. Philadelphia is always in trouble, St. Louis is tight to the cap and needs to get Vladimir Tarasenko re-signed and of course there are also teams with internal budgets forced to make hard choices every summer.
The difference between the Canadiens and the Islanders is that Montreal is starting from a much better foundation. New York GM Garth Snow had to go out and add a top defence pairing; Montreal’s duo of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov is one of the best in the league. Snow had to completely rework his goaltending over the summer; Bergevin has franchise goalie Carey Price and a dirt-cheap Dustin Tokarski playing backup.
It would be a mistake to underrate how difficult putting that cap space to maximum effect will be; it’s a lot easier to clear dollars than it is to identify the player(s) who will take a team from ‘good’ to ‘great.’ But Bergevin’s shrewd handling of the salary cap has given an already solid team a fantastic opportunity to make itself even better for 2015-16.