MONTREAL— Kent Hughes is going into the off-season with 14 picks in the bank for the 2022 NHL Draft, over $80 million committed to just 17 players, and with one big question he needs to have resolved before doing any major surgery on the Montreal Canadiens’ roster.
He can’t even pick up the scalpel until he knows what the future holds for Carey Price and, right now, he’s anything but clear on that.
“Of course, it complicates things,” Hughes said at his end-of-season media availability. “It would be better for us to have things in black and white, but that’s not our situation right now.”
It won’t be the Canadiens’ situation until Price goes through the process of determining exactly what his knee will--or won’t—permit him to do.
Without improvement to the injury he had surgically repaired but didn’t recover sufficiently from to appear in more than five of 82 games this past season, the soon-to-be 35-year-old goaltender said the prospect of being an NHL starter again next season would be impossible.
Yes, Price has four years remaining on a contract that counts annually for $10.5 million on the salary cap, and he said on Saturday he intends on doing everything possible to fulfill that obligation.
But he prepared for his final game of the season on Friday knowing it could be the last one of his career.
Price said it was an “A-plus day,” which culminated with a 37-save performance in a 10-2 win over the Florida Panthers that would “be a great way” to go out, if it came to that. But he also said he played through discomfort, that his knee swells “a lot” during game action, that “there’s different aspects of goaltending that’s required these days that is very difficult for me to do,” and that he’ll be seeking different opinions and staring down the possibility of more surgery without any assurances he’ll be able to return and play at the level of he expects of himself.
“I’ve always been a fighter,” Price added. “I’ve always been a clawer, and I’m not giving up.”
Whether or not Price’s body enables him to succeed is beyond his control, though, and the uncertainty he faces—none of which was resolved in last Wednesday’s meeting with surgeon Robert Marx in New York, according to him—being resolved will have the ultimate impact on what Hughes can do to bring the Canadiens up from the basement of the NHL.
The general manager isn’t under any illusions about what this team will be capable of in the immediate future. He said he knows they won’t contend for a Stanley Cup next season, he acknowledged he’s got a tricky cap situation to navigate—with multiple aging players on long-term deals and very little maneuverability under the $81.5-million upper limit—and he mentioned has no intention of trading futures in moves for short-term gain that will ultimately negatively impact long-term success.
“We’re going to evaluate all options,” Hughes said multiple times throughout his 33-minute press conference.
But he eliminated one, saying he has no plans to move 29-year-old Brendan Gallagher, who possesses a contract which counts for $6.5 million per season for five more years on the cap.
“Listen, Brendan didn’t have the best season,” Hughes said about the Canadiens’ alternate captain, who was plagued by injuries and limited to just seven goals and 24 points in 56 games.
“He’s not alone in that situation, and we hope Brendan will return and have a good season next year,” Hughes added.
Gallagher’s confident he will. Both he and Paul Byron, who has one year left at $3.4 million, are going into the summer with the same goal of building their bodies back up to a point they weren’t able to get them to in 2021-22.
Byron, who had hip surgery last off-season and returned halfway through this season before finishing up once again on the sidelines, called this coming summer “a huge one” for his future, and it will be one regardless of whether he remains with the team or gets traded.
For Gallagher, the coming months will be determinant in his ability to help the Canadiens the way he needs to in order to justify his contract.
Years of playing on the edge and as fiercely and fearlessly as he has damaged his game and dinged his reputation this past season. The short turnaround between the 2021 Stanley Cup Final and September’s training camp didn’t allow for him to properly heal from lingering groin and hip issues, and he knows his performance didn’t match up with what was expected of him.
“It was just a lot of things,” Gallagher said. “I was just playing catch up. Pretty much everything around the pelvis area that they were working on. One day it would be one thing, the next day would be the next, and you’re just trying to play catch up…It was just a short summer, and I can just say my body just didn’t hold up. I think the last couple of seasons probably caught up to me.”
Now he’s hoping a long off-season will put him back ahead.
“Looking forward to this time to rebuild my body and come back into camp ready and to be the player—I take a lot of pride in being consistent, and to do that you need your body to feel good so you can bring it every single night,” Gallagher said. “That’s something I’m looking forward to getting back to.”
He added it was fair to question his ability to do it, but also said he had zero doubt he’d be persevering.
Hughes made how he feels about Gallagher’s immediate future clear but left his feelings about the futures of certain other players unspoken. He made no comment on Joel Armia, who scored just six goals and 14 points in 60 games after signing a four-year, $13.6-million deal last off-season. And he also didn’t say anything about Jonathan Drouin—the 27-year-old streaky winger who went through wrist surgery in April and won’t be able to begin preparing for next season before mid-July.
Drouin said on Saturday he wants to be back, and that he wants a chance to prove himself to Hughes and interim coach Martin St. Louis—who will be signed over the coming days or weeks (ideally for at least three years, said the GM on Saturday). Armia was unavailable to speak, having gone home to Finland to attend to a private matter weeks ago and not returned.
Both players, and Byron, could be moved out by Hughes to create the cap flexibility the Canadiens need in order to take care of their own free agents and potentially ones from other teams.
Would Hughes be willing to retain salary on any of their deals to move them?
“It would depend on what we were acquiring,” he said. “If we gained short-term flexibility, what does it allow us to do? We’re kind of discussing it abstract instead of in a concrete example; at the end of the day, we have to see where we’re going with this group, what players are willing to take on in terms of responsibility. So, if we trade someone and retain (money) and we’ve got to get another player and we were able to save X dollars, what does it do for us?”
That’s a question that not only applies to what Hughes intends to do with Drouin, Armia, and Byron but also most definitely applies to what he’ll do with Jeff Petry.
The 34-year-old defenceman had a brutal start to this season. His play hit bottom just after the holidays—after he caught COVID and was separated from his family, which decided to remain in the United States through the end of the regular season—and it only began to rebound to its expected level a few weeks in St. Louis’ tenure.
Petry made a trade request prior to that and, unless he changes his mind, would still prefer Hughes explore that possibility—even if he affirmed on Saturday that he and his family love Montreal and that they’d be open to staying.
Moving Petry is something the GM expects to do in order to potentially free up as much as $6.25 million in cap space over each of the next three seasons, but not at any cost. He’s not looking to trade what he termed “a good player” for a return that hurts the team’s long-term plan.
But Hughes surely knows it’s most likely he’ll need to retain a bit of Petry’s money on the Canadiens’ cap to obtain something he’s interested in.
As for what he does with the savings, Hughes said twice that he’d look to replace Petry with a veteran defenceman who can help young blueliners Justin Barron, Jordan Harris and Kaiden Guhle develop in the best possible environment.
He added he’s had preliminary discussions with the agents of some his players on expiring deals—Hughes didn’t mention unrestricted free agents Tyler Pitlick and Chris Wideman and restricted free agents Rem Pitlick and Alexander Romanov, but it’s imaginable he’s already done some investigation on what it will cost to retain all of them—and said the team is positioned to be younger to start next season.
The flexibility to make it deeper will depend on what Hughes does with Drouin, Armia, Byron, Petry, and soon-to-be-former captain Shea Weber, who was on long-term injury reserve for all of this past season and will likely continue to be on it until his $7.85-million cap hit expires in 2026.
When Hughes was asked if he still intends to move Weber’s contract after he was close to dealing it away prior to the Mar. 21 trade deadline, he said, “Yep.”
If he’s successful, that will only provide some cap relief. It won’t open up any options if Price gets through his meetings with doctors and injury rehabilitation feeling like he can continue his career in Montreal, where the goaltender reiterated he wants to remain.
“I’ve been a Hab my whole life, and I feel like it’s a part of my identity, and the future is so bright for this team,” Price said. “The kids that are on this team right now are spectacular people, and they bring a lot of energy. I hope to be a part of that.”
If he can’t, it’s likely his salary ends up on LTIR and gives Hughes a chance to bolster the Canadiens at different positions.
He wouldn’t be able to replace Carey Price—even if Jake Allen played reasonably well for most of this past season and believes he can once again be a reliable starter in the NHL—but one would think he’d have to sink a line into the goaltending pool and fish someone out who can help.
If Hughes wants to do that, and if he needs to sign a replacement for Petry and add some depth up front (specifically up the middle), he’ll need an answer on Price’s future relatively soon.
“At the end of the day, what we’re hoping to get is clarity in terms of: Is this an injury that Carey’s going to be able to recover from and return to true form or not,” Hughes said. “Is it something that he’s going to be able to play with? We don’t have those answers right now, and he came back and played a very small sample size. I think it continues to be bothersome to him, so he’s clearly not at 100 per cent.
“Whether this is an injury that keeps him from ever being able to play again? I don’t think we have that answer. And to tell you that that answer comes from a medical procedure or an imaging or any of that, we’re not at that point right now.”
Until Hughes and the Canadiens reach it, the focus is on the draft, which will be held in Montreal on July 7 and 8.
“That’s why we were away from the team in Germany (recently at the World Under-18 championship) and we’re going to go back to Helsinki (for the upcoming IIHF world championship),” Hughes said. “We spent a lot of time with our scouts, had meetings, so that’s really our priority at the moment.”
The others are hinging on Price’s damaged knee.