Canadiens Free Agency Preview: Habs don't figure to make big splash

Montreal Canadiens GM Kent Hughes.

MONTREAL -- If you’re expecting fireworks from the Montreal Canadiens when the free agent market opens on Wednesday, birthday sparklers might disappoint you.

We’re not even sure you’ll get those, unless the Canadiens get extremely creative before the game of musical chairs comes to a halt. Their roster is nearly full, their money has basically all been spent, and their opportunity to create cap flexibility to add anything of significance is beyond limited.

Pull up, and you can immediately see that eight teams -- including the Canadiens -- are capped out and still have contracts to settle with their own players.

Scroll down below those eight to the Dallas Stars, who have just $17 million left to fill out their roster, and you start to understand why they haven’t traded for Jeff Petry yet.

Jason Robertson, a 22-year-old restricted free agent who scored 41 goals and posted 79 points in 74 games this past season, is going to eat up a considerable chunk of that money. Jake Oettinger gained significant leverage with a playoff performance for the ages and is going to get paid to become the team’s starting goaltender. And 25-year-olds Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov each have a year left on deals that will take them to arbitration eligibility, and they’re trending towards banking.

So, taking on the full weight of Petry’s $6.25-million cap hit for the next three seasons isn’t really an option for the Stars right now, even if they consider him a worthy choice to replace unrestricted free agent John Klingberg -- and they do.

They have their own maneuvering to do to even seriously consider it, especially if the Canadiens aren’t willing to retain some salary on Petry’s contract or take back a player or two on expiring deals.

Detroit is another team being linked to Petry and, if you go back a year to when Petry was a pending unrestricted free agent, the Red Wings were definitely a team interested in his services.

But with limitation.

There was no chance the Wings were going to offer Petry a four-year deal like Montreal did, and it’s hard to imagine they think taking on the final three years of his deal totally palatable.

This team wants to evolve and win more games, and Petry can help. But it’s questionable the Wings would give up assets Montreal would be interested in on top of taking on all of Petry’s contract.

The Carolina Hurricanes, who traded Tony DeAngelo to the Philadelphia Flyers last week, reportedly kicked tires on Petry and San Jose Sharks defenceman Brent Burns. The cost of acquiring Petry would naturally be lower, so perhaps something shakes loose there.

Otherwise, the wait for Montreal continues until teams have moved players around and created the necessary space to make this happen.

As for other opportunities the Canadiens have to create space, the situation isn’t all that different. As we reported on Monday, they aren’t buying out their players -- Jonathan Drouin isn’t even eligible to be bought out as he’s currently on long-term injury reserve following late-season wrist surgery, and the team sees value in Paul Byron (one season left at $3.4 million) either with Montreal or on the trade market down the line.

If Joel Armia -- who has three seasons left at a $3.4-million cap hit and just posted arguably the worst season of his career before putting in an impressive performance for Finland at the World Championships -- was easy to move, he’d probably be gone by now. Ditto for Christian Dvorak.

And yes, it’s true teams are calling non-stop on Josh Anderson, who’s under contract for five seasons more at $5.5 million per, but the Canadiens aren’t interested in moving him without obtaining a king’s ransom. They see a player who brings exactly what they need -- size, speed, scoring and physicality -- even if it’s not there every game, and they aren’t dumping that just to clear space.

That the Canadiens are under no pressure to contend next season enables them to be patient with all of this. There’s no urgency to move money out to be big players in free agency.

We’ll leave the door open for them to pull off a shocker. But barring that, they’ll field calls, make some of their own and see what shakes out when teams desperate to free up space to sign and trade for players emerge.

Meanwhile, take a look at Montreal’s roster. They have 13 legitimate NHL forwards inked, and they haven’t even signed Juraj Slafkovsky after drafting him first overall a week ago.

Kirby Dach needs a contract, too. Evgeni Dadonov came over from the Vegas Golden Knights in the trade for Shea Weber and is set to make $5 million this season.

So, if you’re still wondering why Rem Pitlick was allowed to walk to free agency after a strong performance with the team, you shouldn’t be.

Drouin on LTIR gives the Canadiens a bit of flexibility to get deals done with their players. Should the team discover Carey Price won’t be fit to start the next season on time, they could create a bit more by placing him on LTIR.

Of course, those are both short-term solutions if either -- or both -- get activated shortly after the season begins. And the current expectation is that Drouin will be ready to start the season on time anyway.

A reminder, the Canadiens can exceed the cap by 10 per cent throughout the off-season. That’s pertinent, because they’re assuredly going to have to do that if they have any plans to sign players in free agency.

Salary cap space: $1,173,334

Roster size: 20/23

Salary committed to forwards: $44,705,833

Salary committed to defence: $15,780,000

Salary committed to goalies: $13,375,000

Potential UFA targets

Let’s talk needs: Most pressing is some veteran help on the blueline if the Canadiens are successful in trading Petry.

Perhaps they get a defenceman back in the deal that helps them do that. But if they don’t, the search is on.

Right now, the Canadiens have Joel Edmundson, David Savard and Chris Wideman signed to help shelter youngsters Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and Justin Barron.

But they’re an injury away from being remarkably thin and exposing their kids to a negative development situation.

Who on the market can help?

Anton Stralman, 35

If you’re looking for mobility, you’re not getting it with Stralman.

But he’s a solid veteran who averaged over 21 minutes through 74 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season, and he even contributed more than 20 points. It’s doubtful any team is handing him a long-term contract, so he could prove to be a good solution for the Canadiens.

Bonus points for being a right-hander.

Colin Miller, 29

A solid, puck-moving right hander who has more offence in him than he displayed in Buffalo last season.

Justin Braun, 31

A physical, minute-munching righty who averaged close to 20 minutes per game last season. Brings good experience for what should be a reasonable price.

Brett Kulak, 28

Go with what you know, right? Kulak, who spent the last four seasons with the Canadiens before being traded to Edmonton ahead of the trade deadline, is a serviceable player who’s already established in the team’s room. He’s not an offensive catalyst like Petry, but he’s a versatile veteran who likely won’t be up for such a long contract that he’d be blocking players from spots by the time they mature.

The Canadiens can’t lean on Kulak for much more than 18 minutes a game, so he’s naturally not a replacement for Petry. But they aren’t likely getting a replacement for Petry regardless and Kulak fills what their actual need is.

It would be better if he were right-handed, but at least he can play on the right side if need be.


This isn’t much of a need, but depth at centre is always of interest.

Colin White, 25

Fresh out of a buyout with the Ottawa Senators, White’s a reclamation project with decent upside. Interest will be considerable in the player, even if he’s going to have to likely sign a prove-it deal wherever he lands.

Given that Canadiens GM Kent Hughes was the one who negotiated White’s six-year, $28.5-million deal with Ottawa, the possibility the former agent lands this player is real.

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