MONTREAL -- It’s a pretty exhaustive list of assets collected for a team that said it wasn’t looking to trade anyone other than Ben Chiarot, the hulking defenceman who went to the Florida Panthers last week for a 2023 first-round pick, prospect Tyler Smilanic and a 2022 fourth-round pick.
The Montreal Canadiens did well ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline. Really well.
By the time the brass members of the team had stepped away from the table, just after 3 p.m. ET Monday, they were still waiting for the deal that sent Brett Kulak to the Edmonton Oilers for a second-round pick, a seventh-round pick and William Lagesson to be offcialized by the league. The news of it broke early in the day but wasn’t confirmed until close to three hours after general manager Kent Hughes sent Artturi Lehkonen to the Colorado Avalanche for six-foot-two, 20-year-old, right-shooting defenceman Justin Barron -- a player taken 25th overall at the 2020 Draft -- and a 2024 second-round pick.
In between, he shipped goaltender Andrew Hammond to the New Jersey Devils for 23-year-old centre Nate Schnaar, who will mostly likely help the Laval Rocket on what the Canadiens are hoping is a long run through the American Hockey League playoffs, and then he rested.
Six weeks after picking up Rem Pitlick on waivers -- he’s scored six goals and 18 points in 26 games with the team -- Hughes and the rest of the management team had to be satisfied with what they got accomplished.
In the end, first-round picks were added in each of the next two drafts, second-round picks were added in 2023 and 2024, an additional fourth-round pick gives the Canadiens three this year, and they got a fifth in 2023 and a seventh in 2024. Prospect Emil Heineman, whom Hughes and executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton are quite fond of, came in the trade that sent Tyler Toffoli to Calgary weeks ago. And Smilanic and Barron, most recently added, were others they specifically wanted to acquire.
According to Hughes, most of these additions just fell in the team’s lap.
Talk about the value of having a flexible plan and an open mind.
“We knew we were going to trade Ben Chiarot. And Tyler was done quite a while ago, at this point in time,” he started. “We did it because we thought the return was the right return. Ben was the one player we knew we were going to trade. That was done, (and) we were happy with the return on it.
“The other two (Kulak and Lehkonen), really, we didn’t actively call teams (about). Calls came in. When we got to a point where we thought, for one reason or another, was the right time or the right offer to do it, we made those decisions.”
It’s nearly impossible to feel that Hughes and Gorton didn’t advance the Canadiens in doing so.
They loved Lehkonen, sure.
But with the offer tabled from the Avalanche, signing the pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights to a deal that would’ve added an expensive contract to a team too crowded with expensive contracts no longer made sense.
The Canadiens liked Kulak, too. In recent weeks he showed just how well he could fit within the speed and possession game they’re trying to establish under Martin St. Louis, and they’d have been fine with eventually giving him a contract extension to stay for a couple more years at an annual salary worth as much, if not a bit more, as the $1.85 million he was making.
But the Canadiens weren’t going to say no to a second-round pick for an impending unrestricted free agent when every other defenceman in his category went for a third-round pick or less on the market. They took Lagesson’s expiring $725,000 contract just to secure that return and collected a seventh-rounder for retaining 50 per cent of Kulak’s salary.
It was a tidy piece of business borne of a willingness to evaluate opportunities as they present themselves instead of rigidly abiding by a plan.
The same dynamics ruled the moves the Canadiens didn’t make.
Hughes said there were calls on Jeff Petry, the 34-year-old defenceman who will make $6.25 million on the cap for each of the next three seasons after this one, but none that would’ve enabled him to pull the trigger on fulfilling the player’s trade request.
“I spoke with him before today and just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to try. We’ll see,’” said Hughes. “Term (deals) -- contracts starting with a larger number -- are a little bit harder to do at the trade deadline because the teams who are looking to trade don’t typically have that kind of cap space. So, I told him, ‘If it happens, it happens. We value you as an organization. We’re not looking to trade you, but we understand the circumstances. So, if we can do it, we’ll do it. But I don’t want you to have any false expectations going in.’”
It’s a move that can be reconsidered come summer, when more teams can be in the mix due to their own plans changing and the ability to exceed the cap by upwards of 10 per cent.
Same goes for trading Shea Weber and his $7.85-million cap hit through 2026, which will remain on long-term injury reserve from here to the end of it and only pays him $6 million in actual salary between now and then. Hughes tried to move both before Monday’s deadline but wasn’t going to mortgage much of the team’s future to do so.
“I’m relatively optimistic we’ll be able to do something,” he said about trading Weber and his contract in the summer.
He was a bit more enthusiastic with regards to acquiring Barron, whom he referred to as “a prospect we coveted a lot.”
“He’s a big man who has a good skating stride,” Hughes continued. “If you look at our current style of play… I always said skating would be important, but I think it’s even more important with how we play now, and we believe this isn’t just a good prospect but also a good fit with us.”
Especially considering how little the Canadiens have in the pipeline -- and at the NHL level once Petry is traded -- on Barron’s side of the ice.
The move to bring in the Halifax native with five goals and 20 points in his first 43 AHL games opens up possibilities. All the moves the Canadiens made present them with more options.
“We now have a substantial number of picks, and we can make determinations at that point in time whether we use them or whether they’re part of a trade process in the future,” Hughes said. “I think again, we’ve talked about the flexibility and not being locked into just, ‘This is just how we’re going to do things.’ So, we have them, and we’ll evaluate. We might draft and use every pick, we might trade picks—and that might be for another pick in a different draft, or it could be for another player or prospect.
“So, we’ll continue to advance anytime we can advance the timeline here to putting a playoff contending team on the ice.”
A top-five pick in this coming draft will help, and the Canadiens are all but guaranteed to have one -- sitting in last place in the NHL and having to play against several of the best teams in the league over the remaining 18 games following Monday’s contest against the Boston Bruins.
If they handle that decision like they did the ones leading up the trade deadline, they’ll continue to inspire confidence.