Signing Matt Duchene a complicated, unlikely scenario for Canadiens

Hockey insider Nick Kypreos joins Tim and Sid to discuss the events of the NHL Draft and the upcoming free agency.

MONTREAL — Matt Duchene met with the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.

Matt Duchene, the 28-year-old centre who scored 31 goals and 70 points in 73 games split between the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets this past season. Matt Duchene, a first-line player who’s in his prime. He doesn’t fill Montreal’s most pressing need, which is on defence, but he’s almost impossible to turn away from.

The thing is, we’re not convinced it’s a fit for either side.

Granted, the Canadiens aren’t loaded with top-end talent up front, and Duchene can help. They may have a good balance at all three forward positions, and scoring by committee, but not so much that they can just ignore a premiere scorer who might prefer them to any other team in the league as he closes in on the most important contract of his career.

And on Duchene’s end of it, he’s a Haliburton, Ont., native who grew up cheering for the Canadiens. We imagine he recognizes a chance to fulfill a childhood dream and do so with a team that has a young and talented core emerging in Montreal, a team anchored by one of the best goaltenders in the world in Carey Price and one of the most respected defencemen in the game in Shea Weber, and a team he sees an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup with in the near future.

We also know Duchene’s doing his due diligence, making sure he explores every option and guaranteeing he maximizes his earning potential by showing potential suitors there’s competition for his services. He’s doing what anyone in his position would do, and that all makes sense.

It’s the part where Duchene leaves a boatload of money on the table (taxes are considerably higher in Quebec than they are in Tennessee, where the Nashville Predators, a team that appears closer to the Stanley Cup than the Canadiens, are meeting with him on Thursday) that we can’t quite reconcile.

Here’s another thing we’re struggling to figure out: Why would the Canadiens significantly alter their plans to bring in a player who has undeniable talent but doesn’t quite push them over the edge?

Consider that just one week ago Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin said he was doubling down on the long-term reset he embarked on in the summer of 2017.

“We’re going to continue to go with youth and speed,” he said prior to the Vancouver draft. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

Adding Duchene for top dollar on a long-term contract means deviating to a degree. Signing him to a contract that we suspect would carry a $9-to-$10-million annual average value over as many as seven seasons (just based on what he’s done as a player and what other pending free agents like Jeff Skinner and Kevin Hayes recently signed for) will force the Canadiens to make significant changes.

To start with, Montreal would have to free up some money to gain some breathing room under the $81.5 million upper limit of next year’s salary cap. They have 24 players signed and just under $9 million in space.

You’d have to think buying out the remaining three years of Karl Alzner’s $23.1 million contract is close to being a must. And that’s a move that, while bringing relief over the long run, could handcuff the Canadiens next year and the year after if the cap doesn’t rise much in the short term.

We’re not saying Bergevin wouldn’t do it, but exercising that option to sign Duchene doesn’t particularly jive too well with the notion he advanced last Friday — that he’s proceeding with caution.

“As far as adding (through free agency), yes I’m always looking to add, but I need to be responsible,” Bergevin said. “We have some young players coming through — KK (Jesperi Kotkaniemi), Max Domi, even (Ryan) Poehling. If they progress the way we think they are, I hate to three years from now (be forced) to move one of those kids to make room for a guy that just signed a week from now that I can’t move.”

The thing is, signing Duchene all but guarantees Bergevin will find himself in that position. Domi’s contract expires at the end of next season and he’ll be due a massive raise on his $3.15-million salary if he comes close to matching his 2018-19 output of 28 goals and 72 points. And, in light of restricted free agents who are coming out of entry-level contracts and attempting to sign ground-shifting deals, Kotkaniemi and Poehling could cost a pretty penny come summer of 2021.

And those are just some of the cap implications of signing Duchene.

Another big one is not having any other money available to shop for a left-side defenceman that qualifies as a top-four upgrade — forcing the Canadiens to look exclusively at trade options to address that glaring weakness.

That could mean parting with a top-nine winger — Bergevin would have to get rid of one regardless to make room for Duchene or Domi to move to the wing — and potentially losing a valued prospect or a high-end draft pick, too (assets he’s adamant he doesn’t want to part with for short-term gain).

It would be an exorbitant price to pay considering what P.K. Subban moved to the New Jersey Devils for and what Calvin de Haan moved to the Chicago Blackhawks for in cap-clearing trades over the past week, but it’s the type of package sources informed us the Philadelphia Flyers asked for when the Canadiens checked in on the availability of 26-year-old defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere.

Maybe a 28-year-old Nick Leddy would cost less to pry away from the New York Islanders. A 29-year-old T.J. Brodie, who’s played mostly on the right side but can play on the left, almost certainly wouldn’t command as much in a trade with the Calgary Flames.

But Bergevin wouldn’t be dealing from a position of strength with the Canadiens up against the cap and desperate to fill a need.

He’d also be at a deficit to sign a capable, experienced backup goaltender, and that would be problematic given that it’s a need he said he intends on filling through free agency.

The bottom line is that signing Duchene, while enticing, complicates things for the Canadiens. That’s something Duchene has to consider, too, as he weighs his options — especially assuming he wants to be paid to the full potential of his market value and that he wants to have an opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup year after year with his new team.

Anything’s possible, and Bergevin’s always cautioned us to expect the unexpected, but we’re not holding our breath on Duchene donning a Canadiens jersey when the market officially opens on July 1.

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