Canadiens’ off-season spending spree brings much-needed depth and balance

Vancouver Canucks' Tyler Toffoli skates during his first practice with the NHL hockey team after being traded from the Los Angeles Kings, in Vancouver, on Tuesday February 18, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

MONTREAL — There it is, shining in all of its glory on the Montreal Canadiens’ balance sheet: a big fat zero.

Zero, as in zero cap space. Not a number closer to 10, which is the amount the Canadiens carried into three consecutive failed seasons, but zero.

That would be a problem for most other teams—especially now, with the global pandemic snuffing out NHL revenues for the foreseeable future—but not for this one. For this one, it’s the result of a monumental transformation since the middle of March.

It’s also a sign that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin is betting on this group with everything he’s got.

With backup Jake Allen and his $4.35-million salary on the books, the Canadiens’ have secured the most expensive goaltending tandem in the league. Damned if it isn’t the best one.

Joel Edmundson and Alexander Romanov have bolstered their defence for close to $5 million. And there’s nearly $10 million going to newly-signed top-six forwards Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli.

Here’s the kicker: there isn’t much maneuvering for Bergevin to do from here to the start of next season, whenever that will be. He’s got a full NHL roster signed, a full AHL roster signed, and both groups are much-improved on paper. And he can make some minor tweaks to free up the $1.5-$2 million he said he’d like to have as a cushion for trade deadline additions, which should be easier to make with 14 picks in the next draft—six in the first three rounds—and with one of the deepest prospect pools in the league to dish from.

So you could say the Canadiens are about as well-positioned today as they had a chance of being before this off-season got underway.

Zero has never looked better in this context.

“They look like a legitimate playoff team to me,” texted one Western Conference executive just moments after the Canadiens announced Toffoli’s four-year, $17-million contract on Monday.

He liked the deal, and we think it has promise too. Especially at $4.25 million per season.

We’re talking about a 28-year-old pure shooter. A reliable right-hander who can help the five-on-five numbers as much as he can the power play.

Toffoli’s a four-time 20 goal-scorer who topped out at 31 in 2016. He’s scored 145 goals at this level, with just over 22 per cent of them coming on the power play. And with a 155 assists, it’s fair to say he’s an underrated playmaker.

“He’s very, very good at finding open space,” texted former Canadien Nate Thompson, who played with Toffoli with the Los Angeles Kings from 2017-19.

“He’s also a lot more gritty than people think,” Thompson added.

We got a glimpse of Toffoli’s edge with the Vancouver Canucks this past summer, when he played a hand in their impressive run to within one win of the Western Conference final. He was a threat nearly every time he hit the ice.

And if you’re wondering what Toffoli brings off of it, Thompson saying, “He’s a great teammate and the guys will love him,” seems reassuring.

Max Domi, who was traded from the Canadiens to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Anderson last week, said something similar about his former teammate with the OHL’s London Knights.

“I’m so excited for Montreal to have a guy like him,” Domi said about the six-foot-three, 222-pound Anderson. “It’s definitely something that they haven’t had for a long time, and Josh is a guy that there’s very few guys that can do what he does. He can go out and be a force in all aspects of the game. He’s obviously a power forward on the wing. He can skate very well for his size, a big body. He’s the kind of player that will come up big for you in games where you need some physical presence, and also a guy that can put the puck in the back of the net.”

Anderson had an injury-plagued 2019-20 season and scored just one goal and four points in 26 games. But one he’s only one year removed from scoring 27 goals, and he says he feels healthy and primed to deliver.

At 26, Anderson still has the upside to score 30, and the Canadiens hope he’s able to at least be close to the number on multiple occasions over the duration of his new seven-year contract with the team.

When you look at what he and Toffoli could bring, it’s easy to recognize how the dynamic up front changes. It’s fair to say neither of them are bona fide top-liners, but their additions help give the Canadiens three second lines and push some players from what was a decent third down to the fourth.

Edmundson and Romanov joining the defence core will have a similar effect.

Edmundson is a no. 5 defenceman who’s capable of playing up the lineup, and Romanov’s a future no. 2 who’s being afforded time to develop on the third pair thanks to the depth the Canadiens now have at the position. The former is a six-foot-four veteran with 337 games of NHL experience under his belt, and the latter is five-foot-11 rookie who plays big.

They round out a group that has Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot at the top end—three oversized players who play with bite.

“That whole defensive group is not going to be fun to play against,” texted the Western Conference executive.

And then you’ve got Carey Price and Allen behind them.

It’s a full squad. A deeper, stronger and better squad, with every penny invested. Bergevin should have zero regrets about that.

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