With Ducharme signed, new deal for Danault among Canadiens' top priorities

Eric Engels and Sean Reynolds look at the Canadiens' end-of-season media conferences, and what fans learned about the futures of Marc Bergevin, Dominique Ducharme, and key players like Phillip Danault.

MONTREAL — We may be approaching Construction Holiday in Quebec, but this will be the busiest two weeks of the year for the builder of the Montreal Canadiens.

From July 18-Aug. 1 in the province, the cranes outside downtown developments are abandoned, the road projects are paused, and businesses swing into summer hours. Traffic flows in a steady stream, tensions release and everyone relaxes.

But for Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, who came out of the most action-packed off-season of his nine-year tenure to see his team all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, there’s no rest coming. There was none taken, either, after the Canadiens lost Game 5 to the Tampa Bay Lightning last Wednesday.

“I started putting together next year’s team last night,” Bergevin said during his end-of-season Zoom conference last Friday, and we’d imagine he’s worked every day since.

Bergevin ironed out a new contract with head coach Dominique Ducharme that was announced on Tuesday, agreeing to a three-year extension that officially made him the 31st head coach in Canadiens history, but Bergevin's to-do list doesn't stop there. He's got two vacancies to fill on the bench of the Laval Rocket, he’s got the Seattle Expansion Draft to prepare for and a massive debrief to do with assistant GM Trevor Timmins on the upcoming NHL Draft — how many of the eligible prospects do you think he has a good handle on after COVID-19 ravaged junior seasons? — and he must negotiate with the team’s free agents.

Mix in a trade or two and pitches to unrestricted free agents from other teams on top of every other administrative task that needs to be tackled over the coming days and Bergevin will be lucky to have time to celebrate his 56th birthday come Aug. 11.

With Ducharme’s extension done, he’ll have to figure out these four things before he can blow out the candles on his cake.

Phillip Danault’s new contract

Not exactly an easy one to sort, but the clock is ticking and it’s essential Bergevin get this player signed before he even thinks of the free market and lands with any one of a number of teams who watched him shut down some of the best players in the world throughout the playoffs and figured he’d be the piece to complete a Cup contender.

And you may have watched Philip Danault do his thing while scoring only one goal and four points in 22 playoffs games and thought, “Meh, the Canadiens can live without him,” but his teammates watched him do it and (rightly) thought this:

“Obviously, I’ve been competing against Phil for a couple of years now, and every time I have, I didn’t enjoy it,” said Eric Staal last week. “So, I can see now first-hand why I didn’t enjoy it, because he’s an extreme competitor. Phenomenal in the circle, but I love the way he competes every day. As you can tell, and as you could see on our run, you don’t win without players like Phil Danault, and that’s pretty evident. Vastly important to a team and to winning — especially at this time of year. And he’s, I want to say, a lot similar to my younger brother, Jordan.

"You win with players like Phil Danault, and he had a phenomenal playoffs for us. Great person, good teammate. And obviously an uncertain future for him, but if he ends up back here they’re going to be very lucky to have him.”

And let’s get a misnomer out of the way here: It wouldn’t just be defence that the Canadiens would be buying from Danault.

While he did only score a single goal over his first 24 games of the season, he still finished with 24 points in 53 games, which would’ve been 37 points over an 82-game season.

That’s not exactly bad production for a player who starts 70 per cent of his shifts outside the offensive zone and lines up for virtually all of them against the top players in the world—even if it was slightly off the pace Danault had established over his last four seasons in Montreal.

Meanwhile, Danault finished sixth in the voting for this year’s Selke Trophy, and he’d have taken home the playoff version of the award if it existed.

There’s no question Bergevin values him.

“We love Phil,” said the GM. “He’s still in our plans and we hope he remains with our team.”

It was the case last fall, when Bergevin reportedly offered Danault a six-year deal worth $30 million, and it remains the case now.

As for everything that happened in between, Danault explained:

"I was worried about the role that 'Suze' ( Nick Suzuki) and 'KK' (Jesperi Kotkaniemi) would eventually play,” he said. "But I think we see across the league that if you want to win, then you need three quality centre players -- that was the case for the New York Islanders and ourselves this year -- and players who are good at both ends of the ice. That played a part (in his performance through January), but I've found my style of play (as the year progressed), I know who I am, and I know what I can bring to a team. And I know I can win.”

The sense is that Danault wants to do it Montreal—even if, on the day Jonathan Drouin took personal leave from the Canadiens, he made several comments indicating that being among the only French-speaking players in the market had worn on him considerably.

“Montreal is such high highs and such low lows, without much middle ground,” Danault said on Apr. 28. “When everything goes well, you’re super up and very happy. When it’s going less well, it’s harder. Speaking for myself, and probably everyone feels the same, we put so much pressure on ourselves already and it’s amplified in Montreal. We put it on ourselves, but we know how high the expectations are around us also.

“Sometimes it’s hard not to take what’s said about us personally. We all want so badly to perform well and to bring pride to the jersey we wear. It’s an extra pressure we put on ourselves, and sometimes it gets harder on the ice but off the ice, too.”

Danault experienced it on a level he previously hadn’t in Montreal when his contract denial got leaked to the press in late January, right as he was mired in the biggest slump of his Canadiens tenure.

“I think it affected me, even if you say it don’t affect me,” the 28-year-old from Victoriaville, Que., said. “But it affected me because I wasn’t playing that good, I wasn’t playing my best hockey at the start of the year with everything that was going on. It was tough. It was tough mentally.

“But you know what? I got way stronger mentally, and I really believe that’s why I played that type of hockey in the playoffs. It made me stronger mentally and made me realize nothing could push me (from) outside... And for all the guys, too, I think we all got stronger this year with everything and all the schedule. But if I talk personally about that event that happened, it got me stronger definitely, like many events this season. But yeah, it was tough when I heard about that.”

We’d imagine the appeal of the open market grew stronger right then and there.

But the run to the Cup Final certainly helped mitigate that, at least in part.

“I think everyone knows I’m really proud to be a Montreal Canadien, to wear that jersey,” Danault said. “I put my heart on the line for the team. If I wasn’t proud, I wouldn’t have played that way in the playoffs; I would’ve packed up and got ready for free agency. So, I think it shows a lot of my character and my desire to win. I’m obviously very honoured to wear a Montreal Canadiens jersey—especially with the Stanley Cup logo here (points to chest). So, it’s awesome.”

Now Bergevin has to find a way to keep him in one without overpaying him.

Two contracts in the GM’s favour were signed over the last 12 months. The first went to Dallas Stars centre Radek Faksa — the 27-year-old who has produced a bit less than Danault annually but been just as serviceable in the same role — and it came in at five years, $16.25 million after Faksa helped fuel a run to the Cup Final. The second went to 28-year-old Adam Lowry, who has also produced less annually than Danault, but has been an effective and consistent shutdown centre for the Winnipeg Jets over the last seven seasons.

Lowry’s deal is near identical to Faksa’s, with both players earning $3.25-million as an annual average and neither of them obtaining signing bonuses. Lowry got a no-trade clause that enables him to choose six teams he wouldn’t go to, and Faksa got one that enables him to choose five.

Both deals were obviously pandemic-adjusted, and Danault’s will have to be as well. He originally had a case to earn at least the equivalent of what Jean-Gabriel Pageau did with the Islanders (six years, $30 million), but he’d be beyond fortunate to still have it with any team.

Still, there will be bidders for Danault’s services driving the price up on Bergevin, which makes this dossier a tricky one. It’s also a timely one, with every passing day bringing Danault closer to exploring what’s out there.

Gain some certainty on Jonathan Drouin’s future

When Drouin took leave from the Canadiens for personal reasons, he requested privacy, and he’s gotten it.

What we’ve heard since came from assistant coach Luke Richardson on June 28.

"We've respected Dru's need to have a break,” Richardson said. “As far as I've heard he's taking some time and getting the help that he needs."

When Bergevin was asked about Drouin’s future last Friday, he said the 26-year-old winger was doing “much better,” but couldn’t comment on anything else.

Until Drouin returns, there will be speculation he may never.

Speculation will rule in the public domain, but Bergevin needs to know privately where this is going now, if he doesn’t know already. Drouin’s future plans will dictate how Bergevin handles the expansion draft, the draft and free agency over the coming weeks, with the player set to earn $5.5 million on the cap in each of the next two seasons.

Jonathan Drouin Montreal Canadiens winger Jonathan Drouin. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Submit Expansion Draft protection list to Seattle

Bergevin has until this coming Saturday to decide who he’s protecting for the Expansion Draft.

The big question will be whether he opts to go with the standard seven forwards-three defenceman-one goaltender model or decides to just protect eight players and a goaltender.

If Bergevin goes with the former, it could mean exposing a player like captain Shea Weber — a low-risk gamble, considering the 35-year-old (who likely needs off-season surgery on his left thumb) has five years remaining on a contract that pays him $7.85 million annually, but a gamble nonetheless. It could also mean protecting Weber and leaving one of Joel Edmundson or Ben Chiarot unprotected.

And if Bergevin chooses to go with the 8-1 model, it’s likely because he wants to protect all three defencemen on top of Jeff Petry, and that would mean leaving an extra forward or two available to Seattle.

The GM also needs to consider incentivizing Seattle to take a specific player off his roster to enable him to retain backup goaltender Jake Allen, who’s the most likely target for the Kraken no matter which protection model Bergevin opts for.

Take or leave other free agents

Bergevin already said he’s certain Tomas Tatar would like to skate to free agency, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that the GM wouldn’t try to convince him to come back for one season.

It’s a long shot but, depending on what happens with Drouin, the Canadiens’ need for Tatar could increase. After all, there’s no question the Slovak could have a considerable impact on helping the team make the playoffs, which is going to be a tougher task in returning to the Atlantic Division.

That they don’t see Tatar as a player who can help them through — the 30-year-old was scratched from all but five playoff games — probably takes him elsewhere.

It sure seems like unrestricted free agent Joel Armia might find himself elsewhere, too. When he was asked about re-signing, he said he would return to Finland and mull over his options, saying, “I won’t close any doors.”

One player who would like to stay and should be kept is Corey Perry.

“Yes, I intend to play hockey next year, and I think there’s still a lot of good hockey left in me and I would love to come back here and experience Montreal for being Montreal,” the 36-year-old said. “It was a weird year with family not being here and all that, but… to people out there who are looking at Montreal as a spot to land and come play, it’s been everything that you could imagine. It’s a first-class organization and everything that they do here is done with a purpose, and I really enjoyed my time.”

Staal appreciated his experience with the Canadiens but has much to discuss with his family before deciding what he’ll do next season. There’s likely no place for him in Montreal, regardless.

Same goes for free agents Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson, who will probably be permitted to shop their services on July 28.

Artturi Lehkonen is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, so his contract will need to get settled in time. He’s 26 and is coming out of a two-year contract which paid him a $2.4-million AAV.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi is coming out of entry-level and is likely looking at a bridge contract. Ditto for Ryan Poehling, who’s a 10.2(c) restricted free agent (meaning he hasn’t accrued enough professional experience to have Group 2 RFA rights, which means he can’t sign an offer sheet).

Cale Fleury, a promising defence prospect who spent the season in Laval after playing 41 games with the Canadiens in 2019-20, also needs a new deal.

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