Once you whittle down CapFriendly.com’s list of pending unrestricted free agent defencemen to the ones who averaged at least 17 minutes of ice-time per game last season, you’re left with just 14 names.
From there, only two of them fit the proper criteria for a job with the Montreal Canadiens, who are in desperate need of a bona fide top-four, power play-boosting, left-side defenceman to round out their group heading into next season. And whether or not either player would in fact be available is a 50-50 proposition at best.
Then you have to wonder if Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin will be willing to overpay for either player’s services, because that’s what it’s going to require.
Player No. 1 on the list, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jake Gardiner, is as appealing of an option as Bergevin could find to fill this hole. But if the 28-year-old does in fact make it to July 1 without a contract renewal in Toronto, he is likely to garner an average salary north of $6 million over a six or seven-year term. Not even a bad back would mitigate his status as the top left-shooting defenceman available on the market, but it would represent an added element of risk that Bergevin might not want to assume at that price.
And then there’s stalwart Vancouver Canucks defenceman Alexander Edler. In the unlikely event the 33-year-old can’t come to terms on a new deal with the only NHL team he’s ever played for, you have to think the open market would enable him to command an average salary in excess of the $5 million he’s currently making—and over a long-term deal that likely includes a no-trade or no-movement clause.
But for as solid as Edler is, and for how much he addresses the Canadiens’ urgent needs, it would be tough for Bergevin to justify making that kind of investment in a player his age. Especially with the Seattle Expansion Draft of 2021 forcing teams to protect all players with no-movement clauses in their contracts.
The more you assess the situation, the more you realize Bergevin is going to have to solve this issue through trade, and that’s always the trickiest proposition of all.
The thing is, the Canadiens do have assets to part with to make it happen. While Bergevin was adamant (on several occasions over the past number of months) that he was unwilling to part with any of Montreal’s A-level prospects — Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki, Alex Romanov, Jesse Ylonen and Cayden Primeau — for short-term help, he never discounted moving one for a long-term solution.
You’d have to think if the Philadelphia Flyers considered trading 26-year-old Shayne Gostisbehere, they’d be asking Bergevin for at least one of those players. Even on the heels of a down season that saw him produce just over half the amount of points he did a year prior, it would be something Bergevin would have to strongly consider.
Gostisbehere is under contract for another four years, with a reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million, and he has scored 46 goals and produced 187 points (92 of them on the power play) in 298 NHL games. If the Flyers are willing to part with him, Bergevin would be hard-pressed to find a better fit for his team.
As it pertains to Gostisbehere, or a few of his contemporaries around the league who could be available through trade, Bergevin also has the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft and some forward depth on his roster to move. If it means hanging on to his best prospects, you’d have to think he’d be willing to part with those assets.
You can’t help but wonder if the Florida Panthers, who are expected to be major players in free agency (Columbus Blue Jackets Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are rumoured to be targets), would consider trading mobile defenceman Mike Matheson after a down year. If the Panthers are looking to shake things up and create a little cap space, or if they can upgrade on the Montreal native who has a $4.87 million cap hit through 2026, perhaps they’d consider a package from the Canadiens that consists of the 15th pick, a depth forward on an expiring contract like Dale Weise ($2.3 million), and a good prospect like right-handed defenceman Noah Juulsen.
If not, there are a couple of less complete but also less expensive options for Bergevin to explore through trade.
Perhaps the Calgary Flames would move T.J. Brodie. The left-shot 28-year-old who can play both sides is a year away from unrestricted free agency and carries a $4.65 million cap hit. He’s not a stalwart defensively, but he could prove to be good offensive complement to Montreal’s Shea Weber.
The Flames could use a forward who brings some sandpaper and Stanley Cup-winning experience to the table. A player like two-time Cup winner Andrew Shaw, who is coming off a career year that saw him produce close to a point per game over his final 50 contests with the Canadiens. That Shaw is 27 and only under contract for three more seasons at $3.9 million per could prove enticing to Calgary.
Shaw could also be of interest to the Colorado Avalanche. They have a logjam on defence with the emergence of Cale Makar and Samuel Girard, and they are in need of some scoring depth. Perhaps they’d trade 30-year-old Ian Cole and his $4.25-million cap hit over the next two seasons for Shaw.
Granted Cole won’t help Montreal’s power play much—he’s got six power play points in 476 NHL games—but he’s reliable in every other facet of the game and would be a very good complement to Jeff Petry. Considering the length of his contract, he’d also allow the Canadiens to take their time with Romanov, helping them avoid rushing the young Russian into a top-four role in his first North American season (2020-21).
Finally, New York Islanders defenceman Thomas Hickey could be appealing—and could be available—for the same reasons. Like Cole, he doesn’t have much offensive upside, but he’s a steady, minute-munching guy. Another 30-year-old who’s only under contract for three more seasons ($2.5-million cap hit), one who could net the Islanders some much-needed scoring depth and bolster the Canadiens’ blue line at the same time. Perhaps Montreal could offer 25-year-old restricted free agent Joel Armia for his services.
There are likely several other options Bergevin will explore to net the Canadiens a top-four defenceman. He has no choice but to address this need over the summer if he hopes to give the Canadiens their best shot at making the 2020 post-season.