Canadiens 2021 Free Agency Preview: Needs, targets, issues

Elliotte Friedman joined Sportsnet Central to talk about the “unclear” future for Shea Weber, and what this means for the Canadiens’ salary cap situation and expansion draft plans.

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens are diving into free agency from the high board, with gaping holes to fill and upwards of $21 million available to them to fill them.

While it’s true they only have $14 million in cap space, they’re expecting Shea Weber’s $7.87-million hit to be designated to long-term injury reserve. They won’t find out for sure before training camp, when Weber’s injuries —ankle, foot, knee, thumb among others — will be assessed. General manager Marc Bergevin said last week that he’ll have no reservations about exceeding the cap by the 10 per-cent summer cushion permissible under the collective bargaining agreement.

He also said that, while he’ll be careful, he’s not concerned about signing someone to a long-term contract to help fill the void Weber leaves — even if the LTIR designation isn’t granted by the NHL.

“We have money that’s coming off the cap the next few years,” Bergevin said, “So that won’t be an issue.”

The money coming off it right now emphasizes to what extent the GM has his work cut out for him to have the Canadiens competing at a level that won’t make the run they just took to the Stanley Cup Final feel like a distant memory.

Shutdown centre Phillip Danault, who just completed a three-year deal worth $3.08 annually, is going to market. Linemate Tomas Tatar, who led the Canadiens in scoring for his first two seasons in Montreal before an inconsistent third season, is coming off a four-year, $21.2-million deal and looking for another payday elsewhere. And 28-year-old Joel Armia just watched Barclay Goodrow — a player in a similar role who’s the same age but slightly less productive — sign a six-year, $3.6-million contract with the New York Rangers, and a contract like that likely prices him out of Montreal.

If all three of them leave, the Canadiens won’t be able to replace them — on top of signing a good right-handed defenceman or two — exclusively through free agency.

Still, expect Bergevin to be aggressive on that front. Just as he will be in working the phones to make trades.

That might be the more fruitful avenue, given what Bergevin acknowledged when he was asked by Sportsnet about selling the run to the 2021 Cup to offset concerns free agents might have about coming to Canada, where COVID restrictions could prove drastically tighter than they will be in the United States as the pandemic rages on.

“That’s a fact, that’s reality,” Bergevin said. “Still today, we have restrictions. And it’s hard to tell how players feel about coming to Canada to do all this.”

Many have chosen not to throughout the years due to the pressure that comes with playing in a Canadian city, the cold weather in the winter months and the high taxes versus other destinations where those things aren’t issues.

A potential fourth wave of the pandemic only narrows that pool, making the task in front of Bergevin that much more challenging.

We’re just a couple of days away from seeing how he handles it.

Salary cap space: $14M

Roster size: 16/23

Salary committed to forwards: $27.64M

Salary committed to defence: $23.85M

Salary committed to goalies: $13.87M

Dead space: $1.95M (Karl Alzner buyout)

Bonus overage from 2021: $597,561

Potential targets:

David Savard, 30, right defence.
Previous contract: Five years, $21.25M

Here’s a player who reportedly is willing to sign in Canada. The Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., native helped the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Canadiens in the Final after spending the majority of his career as a key piece on a stingy Columbus blue line, and now he could be joining them.

We’re leading with Savard because we believe he’s the most realistic target on Montreal’s list. Though he doesn’t come close to offering the offence top free agent Dougie Hamilton will, he also won’t command nearly as much money as Hamilton.

Not that Savard will come cheap. Right-side defencemen are in heavy demand but short supply, and Jamie Oleksiak just set the market with a five-year, $23-million deal signed with the Seattle Kraken.

Savard is two years older, but still well positioned to earn almost as much. We believe the Canadiens, who signed Joel Edmundson to a four-year, $14 million contract a year ago, would likely be willing to do something similar with Savard. We think the cap hit might come in a bit higher than Edmundson’s $3.5 million, which will inspire plenty of debate amongst Canadiens fans, some of whom will (justifiably) feel Savard’s acquisition is expensive and doesn’t address the lack of pure puck-moving ability on the Montreal blue line.

But the need for a reliable right-hander was there before Weber was forced out by injury and Cale Fleury was taken by Seattle in the expansion draft, and it’s the most pressing one the Canadiens have—even if they drafted Logan Mailloux and two other right-shot defencemen this past weekend.

Brandon Montour, a 27-year-old right-hander with offensive potential but defensive issues, is an available option. As is Tyson Barrie, who could provide a massive boost to a power play that needs one, but likely at a cost that proves prohibitive.

And then there’s Tony DeAngelo, who’s been embroiled in persistent controversy since he entered the NHL in 2016. Spats with coaches and teammates saw him parked on the sidelines for all but six games in 2021, and his contract was just bought out by the New York Rangers.

He’s a talented player who was reportedly of interest to the Canadiens at the trade deadline, but he also reportedly had no desire to play in Montreal at the time, which is why his acquisition wasn’t made.

We can’t strike the possibility of the Canadiens circling back — especially if no one else wants to sign DeAngelo —but our money is on a deal with Savard.

We’ll see how much of their money is in it.

Gabriel Landeskog, 28, Left Wing.
Previous contract: Seven years, $39 million

Landeskog would help fill a need that was already quite pressing but is now significant with Tatar moving on.

That Jonathan Drouin is returning at left wing after taking personal leave 44 games into the 2021 season will help, but the Canadiens hardly have enough insurance there if Drouin can’t find the consistency that’s proven so elusive for him throughout his seven-year NHL career.

Landeskog would not only provide the Canadiens insurance at the position, he’d instantly become their best player there — a top-line scorer who has honed his reputation as a hard-nosed, gritty player and upstanding leader since being drafted second overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2011. That he’s also capable at centre and right wing makes him an even more appealing player to the Canadiens.

Whether or not the Stockholm native actually hits the market will depend on how much the Avalanche still value him. He’s their captain, and he completes one of the most dominant lines in hockey with Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon.

The Avs have a reasonable amount of cap space, but only 14 players signed, and Landeskog is looking for top dollar at max term.

It’s a price not too many teams will be able to pay, and some won’t necessarily want to — with the upper limit of the cap not budging off $81.5 million any time soon — but don’t count the Canadiens among them. We believe they’ll be quite interested.

As always, there is, however, a lot more that needs to fall into place for them to land Landeskog.

A goaltender

We won’t pin down a specific target, as 36 goaltenders are impending unrestricted free agents, but it won’t surprise us if Bergevin looks for a value add at the position.

With Carey Price undergoing knee surgery last Friday, some insurance feels like a need. Even if Price’s recovery is expected to be 10-12 weeks — enabling him to start the season on time — Charlie Lindgren is being allowed to walk to free agency and only Cayden Primeau and restricted free agent Michael McNiven remain behind Price and Jake Allen. Adding someone a bit more seasoned on a short-term deal that could be flipped at any point is something we could see Bergevin doing.

Depth market

We believe Bergevin will dip his toes in here, as he has in all nine years he’s been GM of the Canadiens.

He’s already said he wants to re-sign 36-year-old Corey Perry, who also expressed an interest in returning to Montreal. Whether or not that gets done will depend on what offers come Perry’s way.

If a stronger contender comes calling, he’ll have to consider that.

The Canadiens will be looking for a player of his profile—and perhaps trying to find value in a depth centre to mitigate the loss of Danault, if they in fact lose Danault.

Bergevin said that Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans are internal options that can help. Ryan Poehling is also coming along nicely in Laval.

But the GM might be compelled to take a run at 32-year-old Brandon Sutter, if he's willing to come to Montreal and play on a short-term deal.

Still, trade feels like a better avenue to obtain a centre—a younger but established one with more upside and versatility—just as it likely will be for more help on defence.

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