MONTREAL— If this was an easy deal to make, it wouldn’t have taken this long to make it.
And if it had taken much longer, the likelihood of getting it done at all before the season would diminish by the second.
Those must be the main considerations in evaluating the trade Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes made on Saturday, because it’s far from a perfect one for his team.
Moving Jeff Petry and former first-round pick Ryan Poehling to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Montreal native Mike Matheson and a 2023 fourth-round pick didn’t achieve Hughes’ main objective, which he said on multiple occasions was to gain long-term cap flexibility for the Canadiens in honouring the trade request Petry made earlier this year.
Matheson, who had a career season after two that fell way below expectation, has a $4.875-million cap hit for each of the next four seasons while Petry is set to make $6.25 million for each of the next three. And if it’s reasonable to assume Poehling, who will make $750,000 this coming season, will probably top out at a little over $2 million per if he continues to progress, it’s fair to say this trade was a failure on the most important front for the Canadiens—especially without considering the nuance of it being a very hard trade to make.
But that nuance can’t be ignored.
And this isn’t a lemon of a deal for Montreal by any stretch of the imagination.
The short-term cap flexibility obtained by Hughes in the trade was at least used to get Rem Pitlick signed to what most likely will be a steal of a deal, and that’s a plus. The player, who posted nine goals and 26 points in 46 games with the Canadiens this past season after putting up six goals and 13 points in 31 previous NHL games, was eligible for arbitration and might have been able to fish out an award of over $3 million per season based on a concerningly small sample size and Hughes managed to get him signed for a tidy $1.1-million average salary on a two-year deal.
That doesn’t mitigate that trading Petry represented as good of an opportunity as Hughes will have in the short-term to clear a considerable chunk of change off Montreal’s cap for down the line and now that opportunity is lost. It doesn’t change Hughes having to dedicate a great deal of his time and energy over the coming weeks, months and years to create the space he’ll need to fill out the roster he wants to have three seasons from now.
But, again, this was a difficult trade to make.
It was also an impossible one to win.
Petry, who was in the process of authoring the worst of his eight seasons as a Montreal Canadien and doing so in the first year of a new four-year, $25-million deal that would only expire after his 37th birthday, asked to be moved due to family reasons in January. Given his unrecognizable play from that which got him the deal in the first place, there was no way of trading him ahead of the NHL trade deadline in March without essentially giving him away for nothing or taking back something unwanted and, through the start of the off-season, it was appearing as though Petry’s resurgence from mid-February had done nothing to change that dynamic.
Hughes said moments after completing the trade with Pittsburgh that he could’ve held Petry, hoped for him to show his best self and hoped a better deal would emerge, but added that he didn’t want to risk losing the deal on the table for the flip side of that scenario after having already seen what the worst of Petry could be over the first few months of this past season. Knowing Petry would be returning to Montreal without his wife and four children certainly made Hughes think the risk was higher than he was comfortable with, so he took the deal with Pittsburgh.
While it misses on what was considered the key objective for the Canadiens to achieve in honouring Petry’s request, Hughes did get more than just the money to sign Pitlick out of it.
“In any trade that we were going to contemplate with Pittsburgh or any other team that involved Jeff Petry, one of the elements that either had to come in the trade or we either had to be able to thereafter acquire was a defenceman. We weren’t prepared to go into next season with (only) two defencemen who had played full-time or (had) extensive NHL experience, so we wanted to do that.”
Matheson, 28, has played 417 games in this league and another 20 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was represented by Hughes for years before Hughes moved from being a player-agent to being GM of the Canadiens, and he fills a need.
“Matheson is a defenceman who was playing top-four minutes in Pittsburgh, that brings a lot of the qualities that we lose in a Jeff Petry in terms of his ability to transport the puck,” Hughes said. “I think if you look, we were checking yesterday, I think Mike was in the 90th percentile for goals in the National Hockey League 5-on-5 per 60 minutes, I think he was in the 85th percentile in points. I don’t know where he sat, but he was five game-winning goals, and almost all of his offensive production came at even strength.
“I also know him as an individual. I feel really comfortable that Mike is the kind of person in our locker room, at this point of his career, who can assist our younger players—be it the draft picks like (first-overall pick in 2022) Juraj Slafkovsky or our young defencemen that are trying to make their way as regular NHL players. I think Mike is a five-star human being who can be of great assistance to our club and help our young players.”
The Canadiens weren’t getting that in other deals Hughes discussed with Petry suitors.
He was looking at having to retain salary on Petry’s deal to watch him play for another team—something Hughes was adamant he wouldn’t do as it would negate the only benefit to trading Petry without obtaining a player who could play a similar role—and not seeing anything that would give the Canadiens what they needed in order to live with accommodating Petry’s request at this time.
This trade was an acceptable solution, with Poehling at the bottom end of a Canadiens depth chart that improved at his position (centre) and pushed him back to the margins and with the money freeing up to get Pitlick back on a good deal.
Whether or not the deal with Pittsburgh is a good one for Montreal will be determined by Petry’s performance in Pittsburgh and by Matheson’s ability to build on his 11-goal, 31-point season with Pittsburgh to prove he can be the player he was believed to be when Dale Tallon gave him an eight-year, $39-million contract with the Florida Panthers in October of 2017.
Hughes is optimistic the environment that’s developed under Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis is conducive to that happening.
“I think it’s always a factor,” Hughes said. “I guess if we’re just trading straight up and hoping that the player we send performs to the level he’s performed at with us before we send him to a new team and vice versa I think we would be crazy to think that we just know a hockey player better than any other team. In Mike’s case in particular it’s not just the player, it’s the individual and it’s going to be an environment that works for Mike and will allow him to play to his potential.
“The potential—there’s nobody arguing that. There’s a reason why he was first-round pick, there’s a reason why he was signed to an eight-year deal when he was in Florida after one full season in the NHL. And Marty, in our opinion…You know, Brendan Gallagher made a comment to me that one of the things that he felt was very unique about Marty was he felt he was being coached as an individual; not individually within the framework of the system, but just as a hockey player.
"And yes, we believe that Marty and our group will help these guys. And it’s not just on the ice, it’s the environment they perform in and how we include them, protect them and make them feel comfortable to play to their best.”
St. Louis and the new regime of the Canadiens helped Petry do it when it appeared as though he may never again. They helped Pitlick nearly price himself out of Montreal and helped several others play much more to their potential than they were playing as they cratered the Canadiens to the bottom of the standings.
So, it’s not unreasonable for Hughes, who knows Matheson as well as (if not better than) any GM acquiring him possibly could, to feel encouraged this will work out well.
If there was something better available over the last number of months, it would’ve already been done. It was improbable a better deal would come along as the remaining money in the system got spent filling out rosters ahead of training camps opening.