Canadiens emerge transformed from wild opening day of free agency

Montreal Canadiens newest defenceman David Savard discusses what he envisions his role to be with his new club, says he isn't going to come in and try to be or replace Shea Weber, will just work hard and help the team win.

There’s nothing like the volcanic activity of free agency opening to significantly shift the ground underneath a franchise, and Wednesday’s eruption — a massive one not yet curtailed at the time of this writing — certainly had seismic implications on the Montreal Canadiens.

Whether or not the offshoot set them on a better path will be determined over the coming months, but they’re on a different one for sure.

This metamorphosis began taking shape before this, of course. A week after the Canadiens lost in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final to the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was reported captain Shea Weber was too injured to continue playing for the five years he remains under contract.

The transformation took on a new dimension Wednesday, when Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin announced deals with free agents David Savard, Chris Wideman, Cedric Paquette and Mike Hoffman and acknowledged there wasn’t much he could do to retain shutdown centre Phillip Danault, who signed a six-year, $33-million contract with the Los Angeles Kings.

"I respect player's decision,” Bergevin said. “It's well known we made an offer. A pretty good offer, I believe, last September. Phil decided to play out his last year of his contract and he hit the market, and that's his right. That's his choice, and I respect that. He made a decision, and we want to thank him for what he's done for the Montreal Canadiens and wish him all the best in Los Angeles.

"It's a business decision that he made, and I'm going to respect his decision and we're going to move on."

For the time being, that means the Canadiens will be relying on Paquette — who signed for one season at $950,000 — to take on some penalty killing and key defensive assignments from the fourth line. It means giving sophomore Jake Evans a real shake as the third line centre, trusting soon-to-be 22-year-old Nick Suzuki to continue proving he can handle the heavy responsibility that comes with pivoting the top line and showing confidence in 21-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi in a way that might actually enable him to better realize the potential he showed in being drafted third overall in 2018.

Barring a trade for someone more established, someone who could “ideally shelter KK,” as Bergevin put it before reminding members of the media Kotkaniemi was still one of the youngest players in the NHL this past season, that would be a proper course of action.

“You have to hope that the young player takes the next step,” Bergevin said, and this could only help to make Kotkaniemi feel like Bergevin believes he can do it.

Perhaps a player like Hoffman can also help the Finn reach more of his offensive upside. The Kitchener, Ont., native, who scored 17 goals with the St. Louis Blues this past season after piling up at least 22 and as many as 36 in each of the six seasons that preceded it, signed late in the day for three years at $4.5 million per, and he could prove to be an excellent fit on the playmaker’s left side.

Hoffman should be able to provide a boost to Kotkaniemi’s numbers, but also to those of the Canadiens’ power play, which has long been missing a player of his ilk — a pure sniper who can one-time the puck with authority from the right side of the ice.

The Canadiens will have to hope Hoffman does all of that and that he mitigates his propensity to (at times) be a bit of a defensive liability at five-on-five, or his deal will be viewed as an overpayment.

The value Savard brings faces the same scrutiny, but for opposite reasons. He’s a defensive defenceman who thrives in the corners and in front of his own goaltender, but don’t expect much offence out of him for the $3.5 million a year the 30-year-old will be making to be in Montreal through 2025.

It’s still a deal that looks good at this moment — especially considering some head-scratchers that were signed by other defencemen in the market — with the six-foot-two, 233-pound defenceman coming off a Cup win with the Lightning and filling a part of the huge shadow Weber’s absence casts over the Canadiens.

“It was important for us to fill the hole Shea leaves as adequately as possible, even though we know that Shea’s a huge piece you can’t replace,” Bergevin said in French. “But David’s a similar player as a penalty killer. He’s big, intense, and he brings toughness in front of the net.

“And we wanted to keep the same dynamic that gave us success in the playoffs with our top-four, and David enables us to do that.”

Savard, born in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., believes it, too.

He said fit was his most important consideration in choosing the Canadiens, and that the opportunity to return to his home province to raise his young family with grandparents close by was a dream come true.

But Savard also said that the elevated role from the one he was filling with the Lightning — and Columbus Blue Jackets before them — was equally appealing.

“Montreal is the right place at the right time,” Savard said.

It was that for Wideman, too. The St. Louis native is making an NHL comeback after an exceptional season saw him lead all KHL defencemen in scoring with nine goals and 41 points for Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo.

That the 31-year-old — who signed for one year at $750,000 — is a right-hander who can move the puck well and produce offence likely gives him a leg up on Brett Kulak for the job as Montreal’s sixth blue-liner and Alex Romanov’s partner. It doesn’t hurt his case that he has 181 games of NHL experience under his belt, either.

But Bergevin said Wideman will have to earn the job, and that will prove challenging if the GM adds another puck-moving defenceman, which he said he’d ideally like to do. Bergevin also said prospect Mattias Norlinder, who is an offensive defenceman and an excellent puck mover, is also expected to compete for the spot.

The GM didn’t do much more talking after that, shortly after also expressing he made an offer to Corey Perry and was waiting on a response from the 36-year-old who came to the Canadiens last season for the league minimum and scored nine goals and 21 points in 49 games before adding four goals and 10 points in 22 playoff games.

With or without Perry, the Canadiens are going to look different. Weber’s shelved, Danault has departed, Tomas Tatar is likely signing elsewhere, Jonathan Drouin (who missed the entire playoff run on personal leave) is returning, Cole Caufield’s playing a full-time role and four new players in the fold are on the main squad, with a couple more defenceman in Jean-Sébastien Dea and Louie Belpedio signed to two-way deals for insurance.

Whether or not the Canadiens are better is a question for September, as it’s likely more change is coming between now and then — especially with them being less than a million away from the cap’s $81.5-million upper limit, which will enable them to take close to full advantage of being able to exceed the cap by Weber’s $7.87-million hit if and when his contract gets designated by the NHL to the long-term injury reserve list. It’s a question we won’t have a real answer to before closer to April, when the playoff spots start getting decided.

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