BROSSARD, Que. — Commend Marc Bergevin for diving head-first into waters that haven’t been tested in six years.
In submitting a five-year, $42.27-million offer to 21-year-old restricted free agent Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes, the Montreal Canadiens general manager broke with convention. It’s the first offer sheet tendered since the Calgary Flames attempted to snag Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche with a two-year, $10-million contract in 2013.
Bergevin made a bold, calculated move with the unique intention of making the Canadiens better, and he doesn’t care how Hurricanes GM Don Waddell — or anyone else — feels about it.
“We all get along, but we all have a competitive edge,” Bergevin said just hours after the NHL’s free agent signing period opened. “I’m responsible for the Montreal Canadiens and not other teams. I owe it to the Canadiens and (team owner) Geoff Molson.”
“It is what it is. Business,” he added.
That he’d conduct it so ruthlessly — taking advantage of the collective bargaining agreement’s rules to force the Hurricanes into a difficult decision on the future of their best player — is something you have to admire. It’s also something Bergevin felt inclined to do after several failed attempts to acquire a No. 1 centre by more conventional means.
It was just a year ago he reached out to unrestricted free agent John Tavares only to have his call rejected. Days ago, Bergevin had pending unrestricted free agent Matt Duchene visit the Canadiens’ offices, but the Haliburton, Ont., native, who grew up a Montreal fan, decided on Sunday that he was opting for a contract with the Nashville Predators — a seven-year, $56-million deal he signed on Monday.
After seven years of unsuccessfully trying to fill the need through free agency, trades and the draft — 2018 first-rounder Jesperi Kotkaniemi appears on track to become a first-line centre but is still at least a year away — Bergevin exercised this nuclear option. In doing so, he took a gamble that the structure of the contract for the Finnish star would complicate things for the Hurricanes to the point that they’d sooner take the compensation of a first-, a second- and a third-round pick rather than match the offer. And then he assured that he and his people thought this through very carefully before proceeding.
“We looked at all this. It’s not like we just woke up this morning (and decided on a whim),” Bergevin said. “The first 12 months is the key.”
It’s over that period of time that Aho, who’s accumulated 83 goals and 197 points in 242 NHL games, will be due $21.17 million in signing bonuses alone. Putting it mildly, that’s a lot of cash to shell out for anyone over a 365-day term, let alone for the owner of a small-market team like the Hurricanes.
Though it’s generally presumed Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon will absorb that hit and match Bergevin’s offer at some point over the next seven days, Waddell wasn’t exactly forthcoming with a guarantee.
“I don’t know, we’ll talk about it,” Waddell said Monday. “There’s two ways you can look at it, there’s no reason to (respond) immediately. It probably helps the other team if I go and sign it immediately, and maybe I don’t want to help them right now. So there’s a couple ways you can view it and again, I knew probably noon today that this was a possibility but I figured once we get it, if we got one, then we’ll sit down as a group and talk about the plans for it.”
Without knowing what Dundon, Waddell and the Hurricanes intend to do, Montreal doesn’t have much flexibility to do other shopping on the market for the time being. Restricted free agents Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia and Charles Hudon still need contracts and Bergevin said he’ll need to be prudent until he knows where the team stands with Aho even if they can surpass the $81.5-million upper limit of next year’s salary cap before having to comply with it when the 2019-20 regular season begins.
It’s a reality Bergevin is accepting because he sees Aho as a player who makes the Canadiens, who finished with 96 points and out of a playoff spot this past season, considerably better. He said he didn’t see a better option on the open market.
“We identified that Sebastian Aho was the player and then after the (free agent talking) window opened we were able to talk and he wanted to be here in Montreal. He agreed to this, he believed it’s a really good offer for him and he wants to be part of the Montreal Canadiens.”
Keith Kinkaid, the goaltender who played 41 games in each of the last two seasons with the New Jersey Devils before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets this past spring, wanted to be a member of the Canadiens, too. When the market opened on Monday, he signed a one-year, $1.75-million contract with the team.
Bergevin then announced a one-year, two-way contract worth $700,000 with 25-year-old Riley Barber, who posted 31 goals and 60 points in 64 games with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears this past season.
But whether or not the GM will be able to fill Montreal’s most pressing need (at left defence) between now and the start of next season is up in the air.
“In a perfect world I’d like to,” Bergevin said. “We looked at it and I still look at it. But as of right now we don’t have (an upgrade at the position). We have tried to do some upgrades and maybe add some depth at some point, but right now we’re still looking.”
It’s the type of uncertain situation Bergevin and the Canadiens might have also found themselves in up front had they not decided to tender this offer to Aho. Or perhaps they’d have overpaid a player or two just to say they didn’t come up empty-handed in free agency after operating close to $9 million under the cap in each of the last two seasons, over which they missed the playoffs.
The Canadiens were rumoured to be after 28-year-old winger Anders Lee, who signed a seven-year, $49-million extension to remain with the New York Islanders. Wayne Simmonds, another player Bergevin had expressed interest in, took five million of the $685 million awarded in contracts on Monday from the New Jersey Devils.
There was risk in those deals, just as there was in the one the Canadiens opted for. They know there are no guarantees they’ll end up with the player they covet most.
“You know what? This shows to our fans that (owner) Geoff Molson, that we want to be a good hockey team,” Bergevin said. “We want to win and we feel that this is the guy that we identified was going to help. He’s a young player. You take a risk when you do that…
“We felt even if it doesn’t happen, we still have a very good hockey team.”