Canadiens mailbag: On Shane Wright, Carey Price, and Edmundson for captain

Montreal Canadiens player Joel Edmundson prior to an NHL hockey game abasing the Philadelphia Flyers in Montreal, Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Graham Hughes/CP)

We’re one sleep away from the Draft Lottery and a rebuild-defining moment for the Montreal Canadiens, who are guaranteed a top-3 pick and staring at the best chances to draft first overall since 1980.

This off-season is about to kick into high gear, so let’s set the table for it by answering your mail.

Hi Karine,

Good question. Pertinent question. A question that covers two topics many people asked about in the questions that came in after yours, so let’s tackle it.

The answer here, particularly on Price, is relatively patient. I say “relatively” because close to two months can feel like an eternity in a world that moves as fast as the hockey one does but it’s also not that much time.

Ideally, Kent Hughes knows what’s to be with Price before July 7, when the NHL Draft is scheduled to begin in Montreal and trade action heats up. I would think Price, after visiting with as many doctors as necessary, would also feel it’s imperative to know by then to know what he should be doing this off-season.

Realistically, there’s a good chance both Hughes and Price have the clarity they’re looking for by then. Assuming they do—and it’s an assumption because there’s also a decent chance they won’t—Hughes can then proceed with the off-season as Price’s situation dictates without missing too many opportunities.

If the goaltender is told he’s too injured to play, he’ll end up on long-term injury reserve and give Hughes a bit more margin to build his roster for next season and beyond. Obtaining a No. 1 goaltender (via trade, free agency or the draft) then becomes a long-term priority as opposed to one that immediately must be solved, even if the Canadiens intend on being “competitive” next season.

Where this gets complicated in many respects—and much simpler in another—is if Price is told the issue with his knee is easily solved by another minor procedure that guarantees he can return to his crease without the type of discomfort he’s been experiencing since finally playing in April. That would mean Price’s $10.5-million cap hit would be active on the books at the beginning of the season, leaving Hughes fewer options to explore in order to tweak his roster both short- and long-term.

As for what’s simpler about it, it would mean Hughes wouldn’t have to go looking for another starting goaltender for the foreseeable future.

As for Jeff Petry, Hughes is not waiting for anything on that front. Whether Petry wants to stay or go—and it’s still believed it’s his preference to go—Hughes intends to trade him and replace him via free agency.

Considering only 23 defencemen in the league had more points than Petry from the day Martin St. Louis debuted behind the Canadiens’ bench (Feb. 10) to May 1, Hughes should be able to achieve the first part of that goal—and even net a reasonable return. I’d suggest that return would be better than reasonable if he was willing to retain a million or two of Petry’s contract on Montreal’s cap for the next three years.

But if Hughes is unwilling to do that, the return might be a bit less reasonable. And he might be just fine with that knowing he has the necessary funds in pocket for the replacement he has in mind.

I know I’m not the only one believing a long-standing relationship between Hughes and former client/Pittsburgh Penguins star Kristopher Letang could result in another homegrown player joining the Canadiens. The right-shooting, multi-Cup-winning defenceman, who’s a power-play maven and tight with the GM, feels like the most obvious target any team has on a player in this year’s market.

I also suspect Hughes has a good idea of what Letang will do if the Penguins fall short of winning the Cup this season and decide to break up the band. I think he’d know if Letang would come to Montreal—sources say he’s always wanted to play for the Canadiens at one point or another over his career, but we’ll take that with a grain of salt until we hear/see it from Letang—and what it would cost. 

Let’s just get it out of the way that I know you obviously meant to put Wright’s name where you wrote Hughes’.

Your question is an extremely difficult one to answer, but perhaps less so for reasons others might find. Because I don’t think there’s much doubt Wright is going to be able to eventually step in and be capable of effectively centring one of the top two lines, no matter what people are saying about him just because he isn’t Connor Bedard. I don’t think its even remotely outlandish to suggest he’s got the makings of a top-line, 200-foot centre, based on what I’ve seen of him.

But I do wonder how soon it can happen. Some of that will become more evident as Wright navigates the OHL playoffs—he currently has two goals and 10 points in eight games and appears to be building on a very strong second half of season with the Kingston Frontenacs—and the rest of it will be determined based on how he fares in training camp.

Not that the Canadiens (should they choose Wright) absolutely need him to be on their team next season. They might be willing to make the pick and send the player back down to junior, where he can have another dominant season just like Nick Suzuki did after he was traded to Montreal.

Given that Wright’s a part of a class that had its development stunted by the pandemic, it would hardly be bad for the player to go that route. It’s a route that might even make it more likely Wright helps solve the problem you’re referring to.

But if he arrives at training camp prepared to immediately help—proving that his talent, his maturity and his physical preparedness shows all that much more between NHL wingers—then great.

To answer your question, I do think Wright would give the Canadiens a dynamic up the middle they haven’t had in decades. For me, it’s just a question of how long it would take him to do it.

Hi Geoff,

I understand why you’re making an assumption that because both Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron finished the season injured it would be difficult bordering on impossible to move them in the off-season. I would even say there could be a benefit to keeping both players until the trade deadline, when either or both would most likely net better returns.

But both are certainly moveable in the off-season. Drouin is expected to recover by early July and get in the necessary training to begin training camp on time and Byron was only a week or two away from returning from his latest injury. And even if both players won’t net as much as they might at the 2023 trade deadline, both would likely prove easier to move in the off-season than the other ones you mentioned.

Regarding Drouin, it seems clear both the player and the team can benefit from a divorce. With the Canadiens playing miserably, Drouin still played pretty well when he was healthy, collecting six goals and 20 points in 34 games. He’s coming into the final season of a contract that pays him $5.5 million, he could likely find a better playing situation to boost his value as a free agent with another team, and the Canadiens would likely be willing to part with him just for a decent return and the cap flexibility.

As for Byron, there’s less urgency to move him quickly. Here’s a player who can be a solid contributor in almost all situations if he’s able to build his body back up over the long off-season, and he can help buy younger players more development time in the AHL. He’s also a player who won’t complain if he’s scratched for some of those young players on occasion.

At $3.4 million, in the final year of his contract, Byron would probably be worth keeping until the deadline approaches as opposed to traded for a marginal return in the off-season. But maybe another team sees the value he offers and immediately gives the Canadiens something fair and to help them achieve their goal of creating cap space.

Assuming one doesn’t, I don’t think it’s about who the Canadiens “manage” to move in addition to Drouin this summer. I think it’s more about how willing they are to do what it’ll take to move either Mike Hoffman or Joel Armia at this point in time.

Hoffman is 32, has two years remaining on a deal that pays him $4.5 million per, and he just put up his worst numbers in both goals (15) and points (35) since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2014. We’re talking about a player who has never offered anything more than marginal value at best outside of goals and points, so I’m struggling to see an organic trade market developing for him.

The Canadiens can create one by including one of the (higher end) 14 draft picks they have this summer in the deal and by either retaining some salary on Hoffman’s contract or taking back a player on a bad contract that’s expiring sooner than Hoffman’s, but that doesn’t seem particularly palatable to Hughes.

We’re assuming the GM feels the same way about dealing Joel Armia, a player who turns 29 later this month, has three years remaining at $3.4 million, and offered negligible value—if any—over his 60 games this season.

It’s not impossible to move anyone, but no team hoping to turn things around quickly becomes all that much better sending futures out the door just to clear out bad contracts.

Hughes doesn’t lose much by waiting here. Neither Hoffman or Armia are going to turn the Canadiens into contenders next season, but both are likely to play better than they did and increase their value so that trading one or both by next off-season becomes something that can help both short- and long-term.

Hughes might just want to take the pain that comes with moving at least one of them out immediately—and we suspect he will if doing so enables him to do something else he wants to get accomplished in free agency—but don’t be surprised if he holds.

Hi Greg,

I don’t see any scenario where Price retires. He’ll either attempt another comeback or be forced to the sidelines by injury, at which point he’ll be placed on LTIR.

With that technicality out of the way, I can’t say with any certainty what they’ll do if Price can’t play.

But I know what I would do, and I think it’s what they might do, too. I would come back with Jake Allen as the starter and Samuel Montembeault as his back up. I might take a flyer on a veteran goaltender who costs close to the minimum on the cap just to have some insurance in case of injury, but that’s about as far as I’d go in terms of dedicating money to the position right now.

It won’t take long for this to become an urgent need to address, but that time isn’t right now—regardless of what the future holds for Price. It’s not right now because I think the Canadiens are perfectly willing to accept that they might be closer to the bottom of the standings than they intend to be.

If you go a bit further up in this mailbag, I put the word competitive in quotations because the team’s management isn’t under any illusions about how long it might take to become a contender again. Them saying they want to be “competitive” next season is them saying they want to build on what they did in the second half of this season and that they’re not aiming to bottom out.

But I don’t think there’s a goaltender out there who could come in on a cost-effective salary and make the Canadiens that much better than they are. And if going with what they have at the position inevitably sinks them lower than they hoped to be, that’s not exactly impeding the propulsion of their rebuild.

How comfortable was I? I don’t have a stake in any of it and don’t care one way or another.

But I can see how it makes Canadiens fans uneasy, considering the team finished in the bottom five of both special teams categories.

While I have to assume that if Martin St. Louis—who’s going to get a minimum three-year offer to continue coaching the Canadiens, if he hasn’t already received one—wanted to make a change, he’d be able to, it’s still worth nothing Trevor Letowski, Alex Burrows and Luke Richardson are all under contract until 2024.

In fairness to both Burrows and Richardson, their jobs are not exclusive to running the power play and penalty kill and the head coach still plays a very active role in both categories. So, this shouldn’t be the only thing to take into consideration when judging their value as coaches.

Also, the forwards love the energy Burrows brings every day, and every defenceman who’s played for Richardson has raved about his calm demeanor and his approach to the game.

Does it make sense for St. Louis to immediately bring in at least one of his own people? Of course, it does.

Does he absolutely need to? No.

Will St. Louis have an opportunity to? I think it’s possible because Richardson will be a target for a head coaching job elsewhere and I don’t see the Canadiens standing in his way if he’s presented an offer.

But if Richardson stays, and Burrows and Letowski stay, you have to consider that they also had something to do with the team’s better showing under St. Louis. The coach says they did, and he’s been quite transparent about everything.

Should you be concerned if they’re all back? That really depends on what you’re expecting from the Canadiens next season.

I’m going to answer this a bit differently than you may have been hoping I would, but I do have a dark-horse move in mind.

I don’t have a name to throw at you that will surprise you, but I do have a trade to suggest that I think will: Shea Weber’s contract moves for a decent draft pick.

I think most people assume it’ll be a negligible return, or that it’ll actually cost the Canadiens something to get Weber off their books, but it’s really the opposite. Any team trading for his contract is doing so to reach the salary-cap floor, and any team trading to reach the floor is a budget team.

I’ve heard and seen people say, “There’s only a total $6 million left in actual dollars to pay Weber over his remaining four years under contract, so a budget team can live with that,” but that’s actually wrong. No team acquiring Weber will be paying that $6 million, because his contract is insured.

Budget teams prefer paying zero. This is free cap space for any team that needs it, and the Canadiens might actually get a reasonable asset for it.

If they can, I think Weber’s contract will move regardless of what happens with Price. While there would be far less urgency to move it if Price ends up in the same situation—once you’re into LTIR spending, you’re into LTIR spending no matter how many deals are in LTIR—gaining futures for dead money has enough upside in it to pull the trigger.

I think Nick Suzuki is ready for the job, but I don’t see a rush to give it to him next season.

Why put all that extra pressure on Suzuki while he’s still developing and the Canadiens are likely to be on the playoff bubble at best next season? Why do it when Joel Edmundson has emerged as a perfect candidate to fill the role for his remaining two seasons under contract?

On one hand, you could say that perhaps placing that pressure immediately on Suzuki makes him an even better player sooner. He does seem like the type of player who would thrive under it, which is one of the many reasons he’s already an ideal candidate for the captaincy.

But I can’t think of a way it would hurt Suzuki if Edmundson kept the ‘C’ warm for him for the next two seasons and he assumed it right as he’s coming into his prime and the Canadiens are entering their competitive window.

I like this question to end on. I think we can all take a lot from the way Guy Lafleur built his legacy and lived his life, and here’s what I would take: Be humble but strive to be great; be welcoming, approachable, kind and generous; be yourself no matter what, be unapologetically you; be a good teammate, be a good friend.

And one last thing I’d take from the book of Lafleur: Have fun and live each day to the fullest.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.