Canadiens free agency primer: Bergevin likely to avoid big-ticket signings

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin speaks to the media at the team's end of season availability Tuesday, April 9, 2019 in Brossard. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

MONTREAL — Here you have a general manager who believes the open market is a place to spoil a good plan.

Who’d have thought that some of the most demanding fans in hockey would agree with him?

Marc Bergevin is open for business. He’s stated, in multiple places, he’s willing to do anything to improve the Montreal Canadiens; that he’d move his first-round pick, his other picks, prospects and roster players for an elite scorer if the opportunity presented itself.

He’s working hard to make that happen over the coming days.

But we’re not expecting Bergevin to take any major swings at unrestricted free agents come Oct. 9, and he’s not likely to be disappointing too many people in these parts with that strategy. They know he’s got roughly $10 million to improve the roster, but they’re also aware of the long-term implications of blowing most of it on a single player who’s unlikely to live up to a contract when all is said and done.

Get all the latest signing news and updates on Hockey Central Signing Season on Friday, Oct. 9 starting at 11:30 a.m. ET/8:30 a.m. PT on Sportsnet and SN NOW as 2020 NHL free agency gets underway.

Bergevin still has restricted free agents Max Domi, Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen, Charles Hudon and Xavier Ouellet to deal with, and Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Joel Armia are a year away from unrestricted free agency.

Also, if you liked what Jesperi Kotkaniemi did in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and believe he’s going to continue in that vein as soon as the puck drops next season, know that he’s going to earn a significant raise on his entry-level salary when his deal expires next summer. Nick Suzuki’s deal is up in 2022. You can imagine what another strong season will do for his bank account.

And yeah, the upper limit of the salary cap is locked at $81.5 million for the next two seasons, and it could very well decrease after that.

So if you were hoping to see Taylor Hall in a Canadiens uniform, you can probably forget about that.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Salary cap space: $10.2 million

Roster size: 19

Contracts: 41/50

Salary committed to forward: $28.72 million

Salary committed to defence: $27.72 million

Salary committed to goalies: $14.85 million

Team needs:

The most glaring one is scoring, and we suspect Bergevin will look for an under-the-radar candidate to provide some. If he’s able to swing a trade for a primary scorer and pull off a signing for a secondary one, this team improves considerably.

But the Canadiens also need some depth. More specifically, they need to fill out their roster with some big players who play big.

No offence to Alex Belzile, Jordan Weal and Hudon, but they simply won’t cut it.

Ryan Poehling, a six-foot-two, 205-pound forward who’s been given a mandate to beef up this off-season, will be given a chance to earn a spot next to Jake Evans. But he’s anything but a lock to secure a job, and the Canadiens need more options available to them to handle the rigours of the regular season.

We know the restricted free-agent market might bear more fruit than ever before. Due to the pandemic’s negative effect on hockey-related revenue, some teams are going to let some real quality players walk in order to trim salary, and that market would probably prove more appealing to Bergevin.

But if the GM can’t secure one or two assets that way, here are some options he might consider.

Potential UFA targets

Player A: Craig Smith. Here’s a player who checks all the boxes.

You want secondary scoring? Smith has topped 20 goals in five of his last seven seasons, and he scored 18 over the course of this past one.

Smith is also six-foot-one, 208 pounds, and he plays like it.

That he can play centre and right wing is a bonus. That he can play up and down the lineup is an asset.

And Smith is a leader.

Even still, we don’t expect the Madison, Wisc., native to break the bank. He’s 31, coming out of a five-year, $21.25-million contract, and he’s coming off consecutive 38- and 31-point seasons.

We’re talking about a player who’s right in the value wheelhouse. A player we’d imagine Bergevin would take a swing at.

Player B: Derek Grant. He’s a six-foot-three centre/right winger who plays a heavy game. He can also put the puck in the net, though we don’t expect him to do it quite as often as he did this past season.

Grant had 15 goals in 56 games split between the Anaheim Ducks and Philadelphia Flyers, and if some team intends to pay him for that expecting it to be his new normal, the Canadiens might avoid getting into that conversation.

The 30-year-old topped out at 12 in 2017-18 and had just four goals in 2018-19, and we’re thinking his 16 per-cent shooting average in 2019-20 regresses back to his career average of 9.4 moving forward.

But we’re also talking about a player who’s willing to hit and block shots. A player who’s never been sub-50 per cent in the faceoff circle.

Player C: Pat Maroon. He’s a monster, and now a two-time Stanley Cup winner. Maroon might be far removed from a 27-goal season with the Edmonton Oilers in 2017, but he’s since given the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning everything the Canadiens would like to have at the bottom end of their lineup. We don’t think the 32-year-old is securing major term, and we’re not expecting him to make much more than the $900,000 salary he earned this past season. Perhaps he’d consider joining this group, which now includes former teammates Jake Allen and Joel Edmundson.

At six-foot-two, 236 pounds, the Canadiens should be interested.

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