MONTREAL—Let’s get something straight right off the hop here: The Montreal Canadiens wouldn’t have signed Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet if they didn’t think there was a real possibility the Carolina Hurricanes would walk away from the deal.
Yes, Montreal’s five-year, $42.27-million contract offer tendered to Aho on Monday was a digestible one for the Hurricanes to swallow in order to lock up their best player. Granted, they’d not be thrilled about the 21-year-old becoming an unrestricted free agent upon the deal’s expiration, but the terms weren’t so egregious that they’d wash their hands of Aho and accept a (under-value) compensation of a first-, second- and third-round pick.
But the Canadiens were sincere in their belief that Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon might not want to betray his principles of not giving out bonus-laden, lockout-protected contracts to his players. They thought there was a chance Dundon would balk at shelling out the $21.17 million due to Aho in signing bonuses over the first 12 months of the deal. And this was not just some publicity stunt to assure their fans they were willing to do anything, including breaking with convention, to make their team better.
Now that Dundon has responded Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin still has the opportunity to make his team better, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll act.
If he deems it necessary to do so at the centre-ice position his options are limited. Which begs the question, could Bergevin follow through with tendering an offer sheet to Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brayden Point?
We don’t believe Bergevin will go down that road, even though Point, a 23-year-old Calgary native, had 41 goals and 92 points with the Lightning this past season.
He’s a dynamic, two-way player who’s poised to break the bank on a multi-year extension after making only $650,000 over the course of 2018-19. That’s a potential problem for a Lightning team that has only 19 players signed to its roster and just under $8 million in salary cap space. But, even though it was reported by The Athletic on Monday that Bergevin and the Canadiens had considered an offer sheet for Point before tendering one for Aho, the type of contract they’d have to offer to get him would force Bergevin to give up as many as four first-round picks as compensation and that is something we don’t believe he’d be willing to do (based on his previous statements).
Also, Lightning GM Julien Brisebois seemed unperturbed by the possibility of the Canadiens, or any other team, following through on that threat.
"We have an ongoing dialogue with Brayden’s agent," Brisebois said on Monday. "(We) talked to him today and, while I don’t have a timeline, I’m just as confident as ever we’re going to get some sort of contract worked out."
With that in mind, and the Canadiens unlikely to offer sheet anyone else, will Bergevin turn his attention to Kyle Turris of the Nashville Predators? Colleague Elliotte Friedman speculated on Sunday that he might be inclined to given Nashville’s desire to clear some cap space after inking centre Matt Duchene to a seven-year, $56-million contract on Monday.
It’s a reasonable thought given Bergevin’s thwarted attempts to add at that position (outside of the offer sheet for Aho being matched for Carolina, he met with Duchene last week). Granted, Turris drastically underperformed this past season — putting up just seven goals and 16 assists in 55 games — but he’s still a higher calibre player than most (if not all) the remaining free agent centres on the market.
Turris is a 29-year-old righty who scored at least 50 points in each of the two seasons prior to this past one. He’s also a player who carries a $6-million cap hit through 2024. Perhaps the Canadiens can use their abundance of cap space — they have close to $12 million available with 23 players signed to their NHL roster — to entice Nashville to throw in another asset for taking on the full weight of Turris’s contract. Or maybe they can get the Predators to retain some of his salary in a deal.
It’s entirely possible the Canadiens aren’t going to be barking down this tree, anyway, which brings us to the most enticing possibility in front of them. It’s the possibility we felt they should be most interested in pursuing before free agency opened and the nuclear option was exercised with Aho.
The Canadiens have a desperate need at left defence, a need Bergevin qualified on Monday as one they’d be filling in an ideal world regardless of whether or not their attempt to snag Aho would be successful. And it just so happens that the best left-handed defenceman on the market, Jake Gardiner, is still without contract.
Sources we checked in with on Tuesday confirmed what we had heard in the lead up to Monday’s action — that the 28-year-old Gardiner was willing to be patient, and that he wanted to see if the Toronto Maple Leafs would make room for him via trade after he spent the first eight seasons of his career with their team.
But the fact is, even if Toronto moves to make room for him, they don’t have the budget — or the incentive — to offer him the type of contract the Canadiens can. Few teams do after close to $700 million was spent in the market on Monday.
Gardiner’s intentions are unknown at this point. And Bergevin’s not going to comment on players he’s trying to chase.
As a result, we can’t say with any degree of certainty what the Canadiens have planned next. But after trading an important player in Andrew Shaw for futures to create more cap space on Saturday, it’s hard to imagine they’ll just sit on their hands between now and the beginning of next season.
The Aho move was a bold one. Let’s see if Bergevin has any others up his sleeve.