Canadiens well-positioned to deal with salary-cap realities in 2020-21

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Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Imagine the Montreal Canadiens being the envy of National Hockey League teams for being as well as or better positioned than just about anyone to deal with a flat salary cap for next season.

They used to be the envy of the league for winning the Stanley Cup on the regular, but now there’s this.

Consider it the consolation for three consecutive playoff whiffs — barring a crazy format that allows Montreal to participate in the 2020 playoffs — for a Canadiens team that hasn’t spent to the cap since 2017.

Le sigh.

Having space has had its benefits over the last few years (looking at you, Joel Armia, who came to Montreal in 2018 and has since produced consecutive career seasons with the Canadiens in exchange for a D-level prospect and goaltender Steve Mason’s expiring $4.1-million cap hit from the Winnipeg Jets). But it would be a stretch to say general manager Marc Bergevin has been able to weaponize it (looking at you, Sebastian Aho, who still plays for the Carolina Hurricanes after Montreal’s meekly structured 2019 offer sheet was laughed at by the Hurricanes front office— and everyone else — and then promptly matched).

John Tavares wouldn’t even take the Canadiens’ call in the summer of 2018, and Matt Duchene left them as bridesmaids when he married himself to the Nashville Predators with a seven-year, $56-million contract in the summer of 2019.

But that’s all in the past now, and the opportunity to add looms for a team that desperately needs some help.

Before we consider how the Canadiens might do that, there are pieces of internal business that must first be settled once the COVID-19 pandemic (hopefully goes away and never comes back) dissipates, and once upper and lower limits of the cap get set and the off-season and 2020-21 season get scheduled:

· A new contract for Max Domi.

· A new contract for Victor Mete.

· Decisions on whether or not to qualify restricted free agents Charles Hudon and Xavier Ouellet.

· Decisions on whether or not to make offers to unrestricted free agents Dale Weise and Christian Folin (we’re just going to take for granted that Keith Kinkaid won’t be back).

We’re not exactly looking at a conundrum here. The Canadiens already have 16 players locked into their NHL roster for a total of $63.14 million, and there’s little of the business outlined above that will end up having a considerable impact on the heavy lifting that Bergevin and capologist John Sedgwick need to do in the summer of 2021, when Armia’s, Tomas Tatar’s, Brendan Gallagher’s, Phillip Danault’s, Jeff Petry’s, Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s and Ryan Poehling’s contracts are set to expire.

Domi’s new deal represents the only complex bit of business, if we can even call it that. After all, when our Elliotte Friedman asked Bergevin if he foresaw any difficulty getting the 25-year-old restricted free agent signed, he responded with an authoritative “No.”

It’s just that there is potential for negotiations to be contentious, assuming Domi isn’t traded before they happen. The Winnipeg native’s status as an arbitration-eligible free agent who can become unrestricted as of July, 2022, combined with the considerable variance in production between his first season (28 goals and 72 points in 82 games) and his second season (17 goals and 44 points in 71 games) with the Canadiens, could throw a wrench into things.

That said, you could see it being advantageous for both sides to agree to a one-year deal, if the plan is to keep Domi in the fold.

Assuming that is in fact the plan, and that it would cost the Canadiens upwards of $7 million to do it (it’ll likely be less), they’d still have roughly $10 million to play with before hitting the $81.5-million upper limit of the salary cap.

They’d have even more flexibility if they were to move Domi for… say… Minnesota Wild defenceman Jonas Brodin ($4.16-million AAV through 2021), as a move of that nature has been widely speculated since Bergevin told La Presse in February he’d consider trading a forward this summer for some help on defence.

What the Canadiens would do with their space is the big question. We don’t expect they’ll be big players in unrestricted free agency, with Bergevin saying in the above interview that, “More and more, July 1 has become a waste of time.”

That’s not to say the GM won’t turn to the market to make a value addition or two, like he did in signing Ben Chiarot to a three-year, $10.5-million contract last summer. As we reported on Monday, it’s all but assured Ilya Kovalchuk will be back with the Canadiens on a bonus-laden contract next season. And it’s a strong likelihood the team will attempt to add one of the 51 impending unrestricted-free-agent goaltenders not named Kinkaid to serve as a backup to Carey Price.

But if the Canadiens are going to improve considerably, they can’t strike the possibility of going down the offer-sheet road again. Though, it’s a given they’d be wasting their time going after a premiere player like New York Islanders centre Matt Barzal if they weren’t willing to put in a max offer.

As for teams Bergevin can take advantage of through trade — provided compliance buyouts, which offer cap relief, are only permitted if the cap for the 2020-21 season goes down versus just remaining flat — a few come to mind. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, seem dead set on keeping Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander in place, but they’re tight against the cap and still have holes to fill on their roster. That might incite them (or actually force them) to sell cheap on a player or two to clear up some room, which is a subject that was well-covered by Sportsnet’s Luke Fox here.

The Tampa Bay Lightning would be in a particularly precarious position, with just over $76 million tied up in 15 players and restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli, Eric Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev due substantial raises. And the Vegas Golden Knights have close to $73 million invested in 14 players for next season.

Though new contracts for Ryan Reaves and Deryk Engelland (should they choose to re-sign them) aren’t likely to break the bank, Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon won’t be left with much wiggle room to fill out — and improve — the roster.

That could make for a ripe opportunity for Bergevin to pounce on. And surely there are other scenarios for him and his associates to entertain.

The good news is the Canadiens don’t have much to worry about on the home front if the salary cap remains flat next season.

Not that the fact should be celebrated with a parade down Saint Catherine Street.

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