Cap-clearing moves a sign Canadiens will be players in free agency

Hockey Central's Elliotte Friedman joins Sportsnet 590 The FAN to speculate on what Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin will do as NHL free agency is about to open.

MONTREAL – They were a couple of moves made to open up a plethora of possibilities for the Montreal Canadiens.

On Sunday, just before trading bruising winger Nicolas Deslauriers and his $950,000 cap hit to the Anaheim Ducks for a fourth-round pick in 2020, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin announced the club traded 27-year-old winger Andrew Shaw and a 2021 seventh-round draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for a second-round pick, a seventh-round pick in 2020 and a third-rounder in 2021. That he didn’t retain any salary in either deal – Shaw’s contract runs through 2022 and carries a $3.9-million annual cap hit – is a clear sign he intends to be active when the NHL’s free agent market opens on Monday.

The Canadiens have cast a wide net since the free-agent courting period started one week ago. Star centre Matt Duchene met with Bergevin on Wednesday, goaltender Keith Kinkaid was at their south-shore practice facility for a meeting on Thursday, and the team has reportedly checked in on several other players – defenceman Jake Gardiner, wingers Wayne Simmonds, Corey Perry, Micheal Ferland and Anders Lee and goaltender Curtis McElhinney among them.

With 22 players signed to their NHL roster, and the Shaw and Deslauriers trades opening up space to give them a $13.5-million cushion under the $81.5-million upper limit of next year’s salary cap, significant change is almost certainly on its way to the team that finished with 96 points and out of playoff spot this past season.

Granted, restricted free agents Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia and Charles Hudon are expected to eat up a portion of that cap space if/when they agree to new contracts in the coming weeks/months, but not so much that the Canadiens can’t address at least some of their needs in free agency.

Their most pressing one is on left defence, and not obtaining a player at the position in the Shaw or Deslauriers trades could mean the Canadiens have a strong belief they’ll land Gardiner. Or it could mean they’ll come to terms on contracts with one of the lower-profile left-handed defencemen available and use some of their space on one or two of the aforementioned wingers.

It’s all but guaranteed they’ll spend a small amount on a goaltender, an experienced player who can be counted on to play at least 20 out of 82 games and lighten starter Carey Price’s load.

But the most intriguing possibility is Duchene, the centre who scored 31 goals and 70 points in 73 games split between the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets this past season. Duchene, who had five goals and 10 points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this past spring.

It’s long been suspected the 28-year-old Haliburton, Ont., native intends to sign with the Nashville Predators, with Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reporting Sunday night he is expected to do so. Predators general manager David Poile trading all-star defenceman P.K. Subban and his $9-million annual average salary through 2022 to the New Jersey Devils at last week’s draft, in what was he categorized as a pure cap-clearing move (prospects Jeremy Davies and Steven Santini and a pair of second-round picks were acquired) only further stoked speculation that Duchene would land in Tennessee.

Yet Duchene’s visit to Montreal last week to explore the opportunity to sign with the Canadiens, the team he grew up cheering for, certainly inspired some doubt that Duchene had settled on Nashville. And now that the Canadiens are flush with more cash … well, let’s just say the idea of Matt Duchene in bleu, blanc et rouge just became a lot more real.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

It’s a concept we weren’t entirely sure about when we addressed the subject earlier this week – wondering if it was in the best interest of either party. If the money offered by Nashville and Montreal is the same, Duchene would be leaving a lot of it on the table to sign in Quebec, where the taxes are significantly higher than they are in Tennessee. And on the Canadiens’ side of things, they would be tying up the majority of their cap space at the centre position, where they have newfound depth.

We also argued that in doing so they’d be in tough to fill their need on defence, assuming Duchene signs the type of deal he’s expected to – a seven-year contract that carries a $9 to $10-million annual cap hit.

But we acknowledged that if Duchene wanted to sign with the Canadiens, it was an opportunity that would be nearly impossible for the team to turn away from, especially one year after they were snubbed by high-profile centre John Tavares, who refused to meet with them before signing a seven-year, $77-million contract with the rival Toronto Maple Leafs.

Whether Duchene signs or not, Bergevin pulled off two excellent deals to put himself in a premium position before the market opens. Shaw, who was traded from Chicago to Montreal for two second-round picks in the summer of 2016, scored 19 goals and set career highs in assists (28) and points (47) in 63 games this past season. He offered versatility in being a winger who could help out in the faceoff circle, a physical, energetic forward who could play special teams and score – and Bergevin leveraged that to clear the entirety of his cap hit off the books and obtain a similar return to what he gave up to originally acquire him.

Shaw’s injury-riddled time in Montreal – he suffered multiple concussions and a knee injury that required reconstructive surgery and he only appeared in 182 of 246 regular-season games the Canadiens played since his arrival – could’ve hampered Bergevin in trade negotiations, but the GM was able to maximize his return on what has to be considered a diminishing asset at this point.

Similarly, moving Deslauriers, who was a healthy scratch on several occasions during the 2018-19 season, brought back a pick to add to the 11 they already have for the 2020 Draft, which is taking place in Montreal.

All those opportunities to add more prospects to what’s widely considered to be one of the deepest prospect pools in hockey is something for Canadiens fans to get excited about.

But that pales in comparison to the excitement they could experience over the next 24 hours, with their team clearly poised to add some premium talent.

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