As other teams rush into free agency, Canadiens stay committed to long-term vision

Montreal Canadiens’ general manager Kent Hughes responds to a question during a news conference on NHL trade deadline day, in Brossard, Que. on Monday, March 21, 2022. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

MONTREAL — The conversation was short and fruitless, though not necessarily bad for the Montreal Canadiens.

On Wednesday, sources informed us that when general manager Kent Hughes phoned Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill to re-ignite a chat held a week prior about defenceman Jeff Petry, he asked if Nill was still interested in acquiring the player.

Nill apparently retorted by asking Hughes if he was still unwilling to retain some of Petry’s $6.25-million salary over the remaining three years of his contract, and Hughes said he was still unwilling.

That was that.

It was just about that with any other team Hughes engaged with to discuss a possible Petry trade, and so he continues to work on it.

As it should be.

If Petry hadn’t made a request to leave the Canadiens back in January, Hughes wouldn’t have been working the phones trying to trade him over the past number of weeks. He wouldn’t still be trying.

But even if the Montreal GM says it’s a top priority to accommodate Petry’s request, he has no incentive to make the trade if he can’t get what he wants out of it.

This is about long-term cap flexibility for the Canadiens. It’s about having the coffers clear when the team is better positioned to fill them in order to compete and then quickly become contenders. It’s about being able to do what the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings did on Wednesday, when the free agent market opened and they jumped into it to acquire players who can take them to a much better position in the standings than the ones they finished in.

There’s no way Hughes should settle for any other outcome, especially when he’s perfectly comfortable with having Petry on the Canadiens’ blue line next season.

“As far as our team is concerned, at some point, one way or the other, we will gain cap flexibility as contracts conclude,” Hughes said on Thursday. “Where we can accelerate that process, we’ll try to do so.

“But I think yesterday showed, and I think all season has showed, where you have that type of flexibility — heck, Carolina picked up two pretty good hockey players (Max Pacioretty and Dylan Coghlan) for very little (just future considerations) yesterday. So, we’re mindful of that, and we’re mindful of that when we try to transact, too…”

Sure, the Canadiens would take the immediate flexibility a Petry trade would offer them, but only to use it to sign or trade for an experienced defenceman who can help mitigate Petry’s loss.

But the only real incentive for Montreal to trade Petry now is to gain flexibility over the final two years of his deal.

To lose a defenceman of Petry’s quality and have to pay anything to have him playing for another team completely defeats the purpose of moving him at all. It would take away dollars the Canadiens want to have available to them for when they’re prepared to compete.

Also, keeping Petry, and not making a single other move, doesn’t change anything about where the Canadiens are positioned at present and where they’re going to be positioned next season. They’re not expecting to be a good team, and they’re perfectly fine with that—even if they hope to be more competitive than they were on their way to 32nd place this past season.

They’re under no illusions about their situation, and there’s little to nothing they can do to change it right now.

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The Canadiens are headed to training camp without a clear answer on whether or not Carey Price will be able to play, so parking his contract on long-term injury reserve and gaining flexibility to exceed the salary cap by his $10.5-million salary isn’t currently an available option to them.

Hughes also has long-term deals signed with several forwards, and he would gladly consider trading any one of them (or more than one of them) to gain that long-term flexibility they’re after.

But most of them — Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Gallagher and Joel Armia—can’t be traded right now without the team retaining salary, and that’s an undesirable option for the same reason it is in Petry’s case.

Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, Evgeni Dadonov and Jake Allen are coming into the final year of their respective contracts. They represent assets that can move ahead of the deadline, and they’re players who will likely net the Canadiens some futures that help them build up the foundation of a winning team.

But at worst, those players will stay with the Canadiens through the end of next season and then move on, freeing up close to $17 million to either be banked or spent on players who help secure the future Hughes and the team’s brass have envisioned.

All to say, there’s no desperate push to get any of them off the books right now to sign other players.

Nor should there be.

“A big part of free agency’s already come and gone, as it does usually every season that first day or two,” Hughes said. “We’re trying to put this team in a position to win, as I’ve said many times, on a consistent basis, year-in and year-out. In order to do that, I think at some point we’re going to need to have the financial flexibility to do things and potentially be active at some point.

“But it’s not going to be this year, so it doesn’t have to be…”

Hence, Hughes won’t budge on his position right now.

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If the Canadiens don’t move Petry prior to training camp, they no longer have a priority to sign an experienced defenceman.

And Hughes didn’t mention a single other priority for the team to focus on between now and next fall.

Meanwhile, as the hockey world ponders Montreal’s interest in restricted free agent (and established top-six centre) Pierre-Luc Dubois, who doesn’t appear compelled to remain with the Winnipeg Jets and is reportedly interested in playing for the Canadiens, you really have to wonder what Hughes would be willing to do to make that happen at this point in time.

It’s hard to imagine him paying the hefty price it will surely cost right now to acquire a player who seems willing to sign as an unrestricted free agent in two years. And if Hughes were to do it, he’d have to be willing to commit to giving Dubois a contract he hasn’t earned yet after topping out at 61 points in a season and only producing 112 goals and 239 points in 361 games since entering the NHL as the former third-overall pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2016.

Don’t get us wrong, Dubois’ profile — at six-foot-two, 205 pounds — and his eight goals and 22 points in 33 career Stanley Cup Playoff games makes him an extremely attractive player, especially to a Canadiens team that’s had what seems like an eternal need for that kind of player.

Hughes, bound by NHL rules to not discuss a player under contract with another team, even generalized that the Canadiens would only naturally have interest in a big, established NHL centreman.

But giving up a ton to get Dubois and then paying him a ton for his upside instead of allowing him to prove what he’s worth and hoping he’ll choose the Canadiens in free agency two years down the line could damage Hughes’ long-term plan as much as it could help it, and the GM’s approach to Petry’s situation says much about how he feels about potentially damaging his long-term plan.

It’s most likely Hughes doesn’t act on this (if the Jets are even willing to talk trade) — even if it means risking all the things that could happen to take Dubois out of the Canadiens’ orbit down the line.

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Hughes is committing to the vision he has for the Canadiens, and everything he did over the last 48 hours makes that clear.

He signed Juraj Slafkovsky to his three-year, entry-level contract on Wednesday. And not only did he lock up the first-overall pick in this year’s draft, he followed that signing up by inking 26th-overall pick Filip Mesar on Thursday.

He also made moves for free agents Madison Bowey, Mitchell Stevens and Anthony Richard to bolster the depth of what was already a strong team in Laval, ensuring that his prospects continue to develop in a winning environment in the AHL.

Before speaking with the media on Thursday, Hughes expanded the Canadiens’ analytics staff with the hires of Phillippe Desaulniers and Miranda McMillan. He later said he intended on hiring more scouts on both the amateur and professional sides.

There will be other business for him to conduct — Kirby Dach, whom Hughes traded for moments after drafting Slafkovsky, needs a new contract, and it’s likely Hughes will look for a value add (or two) when the market settles and certain players are left without chairs.

Perhaps a player becomes available that really helps Montreal’s future and forces Hughes to dump salary immediately — even if it means retaining some in future years.

But if Petry remains in the fold in the end, you won’t have to wonder why. And if Hughes does nothing outside of the internal business he must conduct — signing Dach and his other restricted free agents — that should come as no surprise.

Hughes will continue to talk with his colleagues from around the league, and the conversations may continue to bear no fruit.

But that won’t necessarily be a bad thing for the Canadiens.

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