MONTREAL — You might consider it a precarious situation, but it’s one the Montreal Canadiens can reverse to achieve exactly what they want to achieve when they want to achieve it.
This team’s current salary-cap situation is an utter mess. It won’t be cleaned up in time to ice a roster that can obtain a much better result next season than the pitiful one it notched this past season. And no matter how many pre-draft/pre-free agency moves general manager Kent Hughes adds to the one he made on Thursday, nothing is going to significantly alter that reality.
But Hughes’ commitment to building a team that can sustain success over the long-term alleviates any pressure he’s under to immediately transition the Canadiens away from the bottom of the standings. It enables him to be patient, even as he approaches the steps that will lay the foundation for a healthier cap situation down the line. And so long as he sticks to it, he can live with most of the current mess and still achieve his goal.
Yes, even with Shea Weber and his dead cap hit traded to the Vegas Golden Knights to acquire Evgenii Dadonov — a move that frees up $2.85 million in cap space for next season but eliminates the possibility of using LTIR space Weber affords — the Canadiens are swimming cross-current. According to CapFriendly.com, they’ve got over $80 million committed to just 19 players next season and contracts to sign with promising restricted free agents Alex Romanov and Rem Pitlick. There’s very little they can do over the coming weeks to create the space needed under the $82.5-million upper limit of the cap to be big-game hunters in free agency come mid-July (which is something they would need to be in order to significantly improve come October).
But even if Hughes said on Thursday that he’ll listen to offers on almost all his players because that’s what 32nd-place teams should do, and even if he said that “hopefully there will be more news to come in terms of changes here” to create immediate cap flexibility, he’s already made it clear he won’t deviate from his primary objective to create that flexibility.
“I think I’ve said since the very beginning that, with everything we do or try to do, we’ve got an objective of trying to put a team on the ice that can win on a continual or sustainable basis and that everything that we do will be first and foremost with that objective in mind,” Hughes said moments after the Weber trade was completed.
“So, when we make a trade like this, whether it limits us short-term or not, I think it benefits us certainly from a longer-term perspective — Years, 2, 3 and 4 — and I think that’s what’s most important for us.”
Everything that comes next for the Canadiens is with that in mind.
Are they going to trade Jeff Petry and the last three years of his $25-million contract? Yes.
But Hughes reiterated he’ll be patient and won’t trade futures to do it if a proper market for the 34-year-old defenceman doesn’t emerge over the coming days/weeks.
It’s a safe bet that a Petry trade will eventually be consummated and provide the Canadiens some of the relief they desire down the line — and they’d prefer to have it done ahead of free agency to obtain some relief right now — but they’re under no pressure whatsoever to do something that will benefit them immediately when they can’t make enough other moves in the short-term to significantly alter their standing.
Hughes has Josh Anderson locked in at $5.5 million on the cap for each of the next five seasons and he confirmed his phone is ringing as much as it did for the power winger this past trade deadline, which is to say it’s ringing a lot.
But the GM won’t rush to move Anderson just to get his contract off the books. There’s no urgency to move the unique package Anderson provides at his top end — 28-year-old, six-foot-three, 227-pound scoring wingers who fight and hit and skate like the wind aren’t exactly in wide circulation — after a season that saw him perform mostly below expectation.
So, Hughes will be patient.
With the opportunity that presented itself overnight from Wednesday to Thursday, there was no need to be patient. Hughes was offered a trade that will benefit the Canadiens both in the short- and long-term and pulled the trigger on it.
Sure, he acknowledged the pitfalls of it — that if Carey Price is healthy enough to play next season, he’s traded away the ability to use the long-term injury reserve space Weber’s situation afforded him — but also said that it was a move worth making to clear Weber’s $7.85-million hit off his books (specifically for the three years that follow this next one) because it frees up some of the space that will be needed to, for example, keep Cole Caufield in Montreal beyond next season.
Hughes also explained it was a necessary move given the uncertainty of Price’s situation.
Having the goaltender, who makes $10.5 million on the cap in each of the next four years, join Weber on LTIR because he can’t heal from his knee injury would prevent the Canadiens from spending the money they feel they need to spend over time in order to be a contender.
Not that the Canadiens couldn’t technically exceed the cap by close to the $20 million Weber and Price count for; it’s just that it’s financially unfeasible for them to do it for four years.
“I don’t think the system is really made to have $20 million (tied up that way each year),” Hughes said, and he was right. That wouldn’t be good for any team.
Even the mighty Montreal Canadiens, who have no qualms spending to the cap, have budgetary considerations — especially now, three years into a pandemic that’s severely affected the team’s revenue.
So do the Golden Knights, but this deal was good for them. They’re a current contender that cleared the last year of Dadonov’s contract off the books and saved almost $6.5 million in actual dollars by moving Dadonov’s salary and not having to pay all of Weber’s because it’s mostly covered by insurance. They also gained flexibility by ridding themselves of Dadonov’s $5-million cap hit and obtained the LTIR space Weber’s contract provides.
There’s another part of it that works for Montreal, too.
“We were able to get a player who can help us offensively right now,” said Hughes. “I expect that we’ll continue to have a need to find more flexibility on the cap in future years, so we’ll see what happens, but I think (Dadonov) can help us next year.”
The 33-year-old Russian, who scored 20 goals and 43 points in 78 games with the Golden Knights this past season, isn’t likely to hurt one of the NHL’s least potent offences. And if he helps it, Hughes can potentially flip him for a future asset at the deadline — one that potentially helps the Canadiens compete when they want to be competitive.
Either way, Dadonov’s $5 million is coming off the books after next season, and it’s not the only salary doing so.
Paul Byron and Jonathan Drouin could both be moved this off-season. But if neither of them are, the Canadiens will still gain future flexibility by allowing them to walk to free agency next summer, and that’s another $8.9 million clear.
Jake Allen is also coming into his last season at $2.875 million and, depending on Price’s situation, it could be his last one in Montreal. And that’s just one more example of how the Canadiens will gain the flexibility they require.
With patience will come more opportunity, as this team enters its intended window to win.
It would be problematic, if not completely disastrous, if the Canadiens couldn’t afford to — or weren’t willing to — wait.
But they can ride this out and end up better off. They said that was their plan all along, and they appear to be sticking to it.