Gardiner, McElhinney should top Canadiens’ list of UFAs to pursue

Watch as the Montreal Canadiens take Cole Caufield with the 15th pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

MONTREAL — You can picture it, right? Smooth-skating Jake Gardiner in a Montreal Canadiens uniform, completing a pairing with Shea Weber and pushing Victor Mete to one with Jeff Petry while Brett Kulak moves alongside Noah Juulsen or Christian Folin.

Getting Gardiner, a 28-year-old pending unrestricted free agent, signed would be a huge coup for Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, who emerged from the Vancouver draft this past weekend with 10 new players added to what has to be considered one of the deepest and strongest prospect pools in the National Hockey League. He has all but secured the long-term health of the team and can drastically improve its fortunes in the short term with a bold move on the open market.

That’s the opportunity this week presents. The free agent discussion window opened on Sunday, and you have to think Gardiner was top of mind for the Canadiens, a team with 23 players under contract for next season and just over $10 million to burn before reaching the $81.5-million upper limit of the 2019-20 salary cap. We suspect — the team won’t confirm — they requested a meeting with Gardiner, a left-shooting defenceman who’s racked up 245 points in 551 games over the course of the last eight seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

We also reached out to Gardiner’s agent, J.P. Barry of Creative Arts Agency, to know if a rendezvous between both parties was scheduled for this week, but nothing came back to us on that front.

Here’s what we do know: If the Canadiens can’t address this need with Gardiner, they’ll have get very creative. Though there are a couple of pending free agents who can help them on the left side — 2019 Stanley Cup winner Carl Gunnarsson and Winnipeg Jets’ Ben Chariot come to mind — neither can really be considered a significant upgrade on players they currently have in place. That makes trade the best route to pursue in the absence of a deal with Gardiner.

The problem is, discussions with other teams over the course of the last week were categorized as “unfruitful” by Bergevin when he was interviewed after Friday’s first round of the draft.

“I think (next year’s) salary cap (not being set) played a role in that,” he said.

And despite a couple of cap-clearing moves made by other teams over the weekend — most notably P.K. Subban’s $9-million hit being taken off Nashville’s books and transferred to the New Jersey Devils for two second-round picks and two prospects — the prices were set too high for Bergevin to acquire what he was after.

He called the Philadelphia Flyers about Shayne Gostisbehere and sources informed us he was asked for a top-six forward (among other things) in return. We were also told he inquired about Calgary Flames defenceman T.J. Brodie, but no deal materialized.

You’d have to think Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Calvin de Haan was on Bergevin’s radar before he, along with forward Aleksi Saarela, was moved to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenceman Gustav Forsling and goaltender Anton Forsberg on Sunday. And if New York Islanders defenceman Nick Leddy, who’s had his name churning through the rumour mill for the better part of 2019, wasn’t a target before, he’s got to be one by now.

But in an ideal world, Bergevin’s filling this need without having to sacrifice valued assets. If that means giving Gardiner a multi-year contract at upwards of $7 million per season, it’s something he has to strongly consider.

The open market will also provide Bergevin with his best opportunity to find a suitable backup goaltender for Carey Price. Curtis McElhinney, the 37-year-old who helped the Carolina Hurricanes reach the Eastern Conference Final this past season, is the primary candidate.

In 33 appearances with the Hurricanes in the regular season, McElhinney collected 20 wins and posted a .912 save percentage. He then went 3-2 and put up a .930 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Then there’s Flyers goaltender Brian Elliot, a 34-year-old who went 11-11-1 and had a .907 save percentage last season. He would also qualify as a clear-cut backup to Price, a veteran who can handle a 25-game load and the pressures of playing in a market like Montreal.

Keith Kinkaid (Columbus Blue Jackets), Calvin Pickard (Arizona Coyotes) and Michael Hutchinson (Toronto Maple Leafs) also all fit the bill, albeit to a lesser degree.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to imagine the Canadiens being big players in the UFA forward market. They have considerable depth on the wing, an improving centre line and emerging prospects like Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki and 2019 first-round sniper Cole Caufield at both positions. Tying up money that could otherwise be used to address their most pressing needs doesn’t appear to be part of the plan.

Bergevin also stressed the importance of managing the cap moving forward.

“I’m always looking to add, but I need to be responsible,” he said last week. “We have some young players coming through — KK (Jesperi Kotkaniemi), Max Domi, even Poehling. If they progress the way we think they are, I hate to three years from now having to move one of those kids to make room for a guy that just signed a week from now that I can’t move. So I have to be very smart, but I will look at all the options.”

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