MONTREAL — Know this: The Montreal Canadiens don’t want to lose anyone to waivers.
Not Jordan Weal, not Xavier Ouellet, not anyone else who you might think of as being low enough on the depth chart that it just wouldn’t matter to them.
It does matter to them.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin didn’t secure all of this depth over the off-season just to lose pieces for nothing.
The Canadiens definitely didn’t want to lose Noah Juulsen for nothing like they did to the Florida Panthers on Monday. They knew it was a possibility well before they opened up training camp in Brossard, Que., eight days ago, but they had hoped it was just that and not a probability.
With no jobs available on their blue line, and with salary cap constraints only making it possible for the Canadiens to carry six or seven defencemen on their active roster, they had no choice but to open themselves up to losing Juulsen. He played just 16 AHL games since November of 2018. He suffered an eye injury that led to lingering migraines and vision problems and, even if he had recently cleared those hurdles, there was no way to secure his spot on the Montreal roster.
So, Juulsen was waived.
In a prior season, it’s entirely possible the Canadiens would’ve stuck Juulsen right on their third pair and let him work his way back into NHL rhythm at his own pace.
But this isn’t the Canadiens’ blue line of years past.
Alexander Romanov was brought over from the KHL to play, and the expectation is that he’ll make a considerable impact even as a 21-year-old. Six-foot-four Joel Edmundson was traded for and immediately signed to a long-term contract to play, and he’s joining Jeff Petry on the second pair to give the Canadiens a massive look in their top-four (with “Big” Ben Chiarot and Shea “Mountain Man” Weber on the first pair). And the depth of this group has pushed Brett Kulak to the third after he played the best hockey of his life in the August playoffs, and it’s pushed Victor Mete from a regular spot in the lineup right to the margins.
The Canadiens weren’t going to carry Juulsen on the roster to have him watch the games. They wanted him playing a big role with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, regaining the step two years of inactivity stole from him.
The Panthers had other plans.
With former Canadiens brass members Rick Dudley and Shane Churla assisting Florida general manager Bill Zito, and with the Panthers not having as much depth as the Canadiens do on the blue line, the appeal of a 23-year-old, six-foot-two, right-handed defenceman with obvious NHL upside was too strong to pass up. Especially with Juulsen on a two-way contract that will pay him just $700,000 in the NHL and $125,000 in the minors.
“Shane’s the guy who drafted Noah Juulsen, and guys that draft certain guys always have a little bit of an attachment to them,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien a little over an hour after Juulsen was claimed by Churla, Dudley and the Panthers. “Maybe they feel Noah can help their team. On our end of it, we didn’t have a choice. We could only protect 21 players and we thought Noah had practically not played over two years and maybe some teams would hesitate to claim him.”
Which brings us to the other thing that happened at noon on Monday.
The Canadiens placed Corey Perry and Michael Frolik on waivers. It was a risk they knew they’d probably have to take when they signed them to one-year deals worth the league minimum just prior to training camp, but knowing that didn’t make the decision to do it any easier.
It had to have been particularly hard for the Canadiens in Perry’s case.
“Corey’s a winner,” Bergevin told Sportsnet in an exclusive interview held just minutes prior to the waiver announcements Monday. “He’s won at every level he’s played. Even up to last year in the bubble, he was very good in Dallas. He’s got character. Again, you saw [in Sunday’s scrimmage], in front of the net [where Perry scored] — there’s not many guys as good as him. So we got him here for a lot intangibility that he has and we count on him to be part of our team.”
If you’re wondering why a GM would say that about a player and still go ahead with waiving him, it’s because he was faced with an extremely difficult decision in order to make the Canadiens cap compliant prior to submitting the team’s official roster to the NHL Tuesday afternoon.
The Canadiens were roughly $50,000 over the cap with 22 players remaining at camp (with the decision already made to waive Frolik), and now they had to decide between risking losing Mete or Perry on waivers.
They chose the lesser risk in the end.
With Perry signed for cheap and just days ahead of training camp, any and every team had ample time to take a crack at him and had already opted not to. The Canadiens know another team might bite now — especially with Perry’s pedigree offering much-desired depth for next to nothing — but they also know there’s a chance one won’t.
But that wasn’t the case with Mete.
The Canadiens had to feel a team would certainly snatch up a 22-year-old, turbocharged defenceman who’s already played 181 NHL games (playoffs included). And with Juulsen already at risk of being claimed, they opted to keep Mete as their seventh defenceman and carry only 12 forwards.
Why didn’t the Canadiens place Jake Evans, who wasn’t waiver-eligible, on the taxi squad? Why weren’t they willing to do that and buy themselves time until they had accrued enough cap space to carry 22 players instead of 21?
The answer is because the Canadiens want Evans in their lineup on Wednesday, when the season begins in his hometown of Toronto against the Maple Leafs. He’s spent all of training camp as the fourth-line centre, he’s been plugged into the team’s penalty kill, he’s been impressing Bergevin and Julien since things got underway a week ago and they want him playing.
Some fans wondered if the Canadiens could solve their cap problems by waiving Paul Byron and placing him on the taxi squad — a thought that took for granted his importance to their lineup but also underestimated his potential appeal to another team.
The 31-year-old Byron may be under contract for three more seasons at $3.4 million, which is a lot to be paying a player on your fourth line, but it’s also very little to be paying a 20-goal scorer to be a top-six forward. The idea that he’d slip through waivers, when a team like his hometown Ottawa Senators could plug him into their top-six and immediately make themselves better for the next three years, was convoluted.
All to say, there was no kicking the can down the road on this decision. The Canadiens want to ice the best lineup available to them for every single one of the 56 games they’re playing in what they expect will be the most competitive division in the NHL this season, and that means risking losing players they’d prefer to keep.
“There’s a price to pay when you go to the cap, and that price you pay is you might have to make moves and you might have to trade or lose players,” Bergevin said to us on Monday. “That’s just the reality. You can’t be close to the cap without any management or running into some issues sometimes. Right now, knock on wood, we don’t have any injuries. But if that happens, you have to manage it.
"It’s always easier when you have more cap space, and that’s why teams usually don’t go to the cap. But sometimes, like I said, we have an opportunity (like) this (past off-season) to be able to get some players. And I knew we were going to be tight, but that’s a price we were willing to pay and hopefully we’ll make it work.”
As Julien put it later, “You control what you can and keep your fingers crossed on the things that you can’t.”
The Canadiens are crossing their fingers on Frolik and Perry.