Why Canadiens made complex decisions of scratching Tatar, waiving Byron

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin credited Jesperi Kotkaniemi with taking on the responsibility of playing centre while being among the youngest players in the league.

MONTREAL -- In one respect, the term “salary cap gymnastics” is perfectly apt, as it gets to the heart of how much more active NHL teams have to be this year in complying with an upper limit that didn’t budge this past off-season and in managing and movement between their active rosters, their new taxi squads and their AHL affiliates.

But “gymnastics” does imply something exciting is happening here, and we can all agree that moves related to short- and long-term cap considerations, waiver implications and performance bonus overage cushions don’t bring anyone to the edge of their seat like a Simone Biles floor exercise would.

The thing is, understanding some of this stuff -- as boring as it may be -- is key in trying to understand why the Montreal Canadiens parked their leading scorer from last season in the press box for Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs and waived an alternate captain on Sunday.

Of course, those aren’t the only reasons Tomas Tatar was made a healthy scratch against Toronto and Paul Byron was placed on waivers 17 hours later.

“We expect more from Tomas,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin on Monday before adding this on Byron, who cleared waivers at noon: “I want more from him.”

That’s perfectly understandable given the depth of this year’s team. Tatar has been inconsistent in his attention to detail and Byron is going on 14 games without scoring a goal.

But the long-term cap situation -- the fact that the upper limit didn’t rise prior to this season, won’t rise before next season, and likely won’t rise for a couple more seasons beyond that in Bergevin’s estimation -- is a factor in how Tatar was dealt with. And both long- and short-term cap considerations have as much, if not more, to do with Byron’s situation as his (lack of) production.

Let’s start with the 31-year-old Ottawa native. In the short term, the Canadiens are up against that upper limit and incentivized to bank as much cap space as they can to a) accrue enough to potentially make additions prior to the trade deadline and b) save enough to pay out performance bonuses that could be reached by players on entry-level contracts (Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jake Evans and Alexander Romanov), and waiving Byron helps them do that more than some of the other things they’ve already done to bank space.

If the Canadiens don’t accrue enough space for those bonuses and those bonuses are reached, the money owed carries over to next year’s cap, and that would be problematic for them since they already have limited space to fill out the rest of next year’s roster.

In moving Byron to the taxi squad, the Canadiens will save $9,267 on the cap for every day he’s not on their active roster. That is the prorated amount per day the Canadiens save on any player making over $1.075 million per season moving to the taxi squad or the AHL. Right now, it makes the most sense for them to move Byron to the taxi squad over say, Corey Perry, whose $750,000 contract would amount to close to $3,000 less in daily savings -- especially while they’re idle until Saturday.

In prior years, with the cap consistently rising, the Canadiens probably would have been too concerned to lose Byron on waivers to expose him -- surely a less deep team (or two) would’ve been compelled to add a two-time 20-goal scorer who kills penalties, plays wing and centre and is capable of moonlighting as a top-six forward for only $3.4 million per season. But after seeing several other good players pass through waivers unclaimed over the last few weeks, Bergevin felt the risk of losing Byron, who’s under contract through 2023, was minimal at this point.

“It’s a new reality of the NHL for teams and players,” said Bergevin. “I think we’re going to see more and more players go through waivers because of that reason, with the flat cap and teams being so close to it knowing the cap won’t rise over the coming years.”

Another thing teams will do -- and this relates to Tatar as much as it does Byron -- is make space for younger players. The Canadiens are no exception.

“We have players who will reach their term -- Nick Suzuki, KK, Romanov -- they’re young players who we’ll eventually need contracts,” said Bergevin. “KK’s up next year, Nick and Romy in two years… with a cap we know won’t move for two seasons, but probably for more as well, we have to be careful. There’s a trickle effect that affects other players. So, it’s going to be very important for us to manage our cap, and it’s also going to be important for us to get young players into our roster to replace players we can’t keep.”

The Canadiens didn’t scratch Tatar because of this, but scratching him was indicative of where he lands in that calculation.

The 30-year-old led the Canadiens with 22 goals and 61 points in 68 games last season. He has four goals and eight points in 14 games this season, and even if Bergevin said the details that allow him to score goals have been lacking, that’s something they might have addressed with Tatar through conversation rather than action if his future with the team was secure beyond this season.

Bergevin saying on Monday that 2019 first-rounder Cole Caufield will be a pro by next season all but certainly removed whatever little hope there was of Tatar returning. The kid will be given a chance to earn a scorer’s spot on the Canadiens, and with other players needing to be compensated and the club deep on the wings, it’s almost sure to be the one Tatar is currently occupying.

Meanwhile, Tatar isn’t going anywhere just yet, and while he’s playing for a new contract, the Canadiens felt scratching him was a way to ensure he plays for more than just that; that he remains committed (in every aspect of his play) to the team’s cause.

Not that it was an easy call for Bergevin, who cares as much for Tatar as he does Byron, whom he made an official member of the leadership group in the fall of 2018.

But as he said, “Those are things that I have to think about, and those are business decisions.”

They’re as complex as pulling off a triple-twisting double-back flip, even if they’re not as exciting.

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