Canadiens Mailbag: Would Patrik Laine fit in Montreal?

Patrik Laine of the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

MONTREAL — It’s another mailbag filled to the brim with great questions, so let’s dive right in — starting with this doozy on Patrik Laine, who is reportedly looking for a fresh start with another team.

These are two straightforward questions that deserve direct answers, but this situation is so complicated that it’s impossible to provide them before — or even after — breaking it down from every angle.

Let’s start with what we know. 

We know Laine’s goal-scoring ability is proven. We know he topped out at 44 goals in his second season in the league and that he’s averaged 34.85 goals per 82 games over the 480 he’s played. We know that even if his production has gradually shrunk over his four seasons in Columbus, it has still remained high enough for him to maintain his status as a bona fide top-six forward.

Sure, he had only six goals in 18 games this past season before entering the NHL/NHLPA player’s assistance program but that’s still 27 goals over 82 games.

We also know the big Finn is 26 years old and under contract for two more seasons. 

He’ll be paid $9.1 million in each of them — $2 million of which must be paid up front each July — and his cap hit in each of them will be $8.7 million.

You know what else comes with that contract? A no-trade clause that allows Laine to choose 10 teams he refuses to be traded to.

Let’s move away from Laine for a second and get into what we know about Columbus. 

The Blue Jackets have a wealth of young talent rising through the ranks, they just hired Don Waddell as president of hockey operations, general manager and alternate governor, and Waddell just fired head coach Pascal Vincent. 

While outside expectations might be low for this team — and justifiably so, considering their 29th-place finish — these moves signal a deep internal desire to turn things around quickly.

Considering that, and the stuff mentioned before it, I have my own questions.

1. It’s not as if the Blue Jackets should feel they could hit a home run (or even a ground-rule double) with this trade, but would they be willing to just hit a single and accept moving Laine in a deal that essentially renders his loss addition by subtraction? Perhaps. But given how intent they appear on taking a big step forward, I’m not so certain.

2. What are the chances Laine is willing to come out of the player’s assistance program and play in a market like Montreal, where the white-hot spotlight is inescapable? I have no idea.

3. What’s the market for Laine and how will it be affected by his no-trade clause? I wonder, because if there’s only four or five teams seriously contemplating moving for him and he’s unwilling to go to three or four of them, Waddell’s ability to turn this into anything more than a cap dump and/or a trade in which he’s taking on a problem for a problem is significantly reduced.

So, to answer your first question, I have to make a number of assumptions.

The first is that Laine is willing to come to Montreal, and it’s a big one. 

The second is that Columbus is willing to retain money on his contract and/or take back a contract (most likely of an underperforming player who’s making more than what he’s worth to the Canadiens), because I can’t see the Canadiens taking on the considerable risk Laine brings without doing it this way.

They’d likely have to part with an extra piece — a draft pick, a prospect, or a left-handed defenceman lower on their NHL depth chart — to get it done, which they might be willing to do. 

But whether or not that would move the needle enough for Columbus would depend entirely on the market for Laine.

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But even assuming the market for his services becomes limited, and that the Blue Jackets would accept a package like the one the Canadiens can offer, there’s another hurdle here: Three of the four players the Canadiens would dump off their cap in such a trade also have varying degrees of trade protection.

Christian Dvorak ($4.45 million through 2025) has an eight-team no-trade clause and he could have Columbus on it. Josh Anderson, who came to the Canadiens from Columbus, might also have the Blue Jackets as one of the eight teams he’d be unwilling to spend his final three seasons under contract (at $5.5M per) with. And Brendan Gallagher (three more years at $6.5M) has a no-movement clause and a six-team no-trade list.

David Savard has zero trade protection and is entering his final season with a $3.5-million cap hit. He’s not a problem for the Canadiens — he’s quite the opposite — but he does make the type of money they could move to absorb Laine’s contract.

But even if the Blue Jackets would welcome back this steady player and leader as part of a package for Laine, it’s hard to imagine them making a deal that doesn’t bring more scoring potential to their roster. And it’s my opinion the Canadiens would likely need them to retain a small fraction on Laine’s contract if Savard’s was the only contract they were taking back in the trade.

So, when you ask what a deal might look like between the Canadiens and Blue Jackets for Laine, you can see why I’m twisting myself into a pretzel to give you a straight answer. Again, it’s complicated.

I don’t think Laine would be Montreal’s top choice, but I think they’d consider taking on all the risk associated with the player (his contract, his current status in the player’s assistance program, his questionable defensive commitment) if they could work out a deal that alleviates them of a contract they can live without. Even if it costs them an extra asset. 

That they would only be taking on Laine for two years, if it doesn’t work out, makes it a more palatable gamble.

As for whether or not Laine’s style would mesh with Montreal’s current roster and system, ask yourself if any potential suitor for his services would consider it to be a perfect fit from roster, culture and system perspectives.

That doesn’t mean someone won’t take a flyer on him. Someone will, and it very well could be the Canadiens.

Without knowing for sure who else might be in the market for Laine, it’s hard to say whether or not any team needs his goals and power-play presence more than the Canadiens do. They’d be buying that and hoping he can also tap into some unrealized potential to become a more complete player under head coach Martin St. Louis.

If the price to acquire Laine isn’t too prohibitive, it’s definitely something the Canadiens have to consider.

I’m going to assume that when you say “move up in the first round” it’s not to move from fifth overall into second, third or fourth. 

Going on the assumption that they’d be taking Winnipeg’s first rounder (acquired in the Sean Monahan trade) and packaging it with a young defenceman and perhaps another pick to move into slots nine-14, I think that’s a very intriguing option for the Canadiens. 

Whether or not it’s more intriguing than putting together that type of package to acquire Kent Johnson (or any other young forward in a Kirby Dach-style trade) depends on what’s available to them fifth overall, what they think might be available between nine and 14, and what’s available to them on the trade market for that type of package.

It’s hard to imagine them having a firm preference either way, so long as they’re getting what they deem to be a core piece in whatever deal they make. 

One thing I think you’ve hit on, though, is that the 26th pick, another pick or prospect and a young defenceman is the type of package they have to work with to come away with more than one core piece upon the conclusion of the first round of the draft. 

I wonder how many fans have Owen Beck penciled into a spot with the Canadiens next season, as it’s only logical to assume he’ll start his professional career with the Laval Rocket while Dvorak and Jake Evans remain under contract. 

And I also wonder how many of those fans think Beck will top out as anything more than a third-line centre once he matures into a fully baked NHL player. 

Because I think Beck has the potential to pleasantly surprise in both categories, and I think he believes he does too. 

I’ll have more on that later this week. Stay tuned.

Grouping these good questions from Blain and Louis, I’ll paint the clearest picture I can on the different factors at play in the Canadiens and Juraj Slafkovsky striking a new deal as early as this summer.

Naturally, a hike in the salary cap — not just for this coming season but also for seasons to follow — will have an impact on negotiations. Especially considering that his new deal would only kick in come fall of 2025, when the cap could be upwards of $92 million.

But he’s negotiating off two directly comparable contract situations on his own team — Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield — and he’s produced a little less than both players did headed into their settlements on new eight-year contracts. So some of the bargaining power the expected year-over-year cap increase affords him to negotiate for his annual average to be the same percentage as those two is offset by that.

When Suzuki signed his eight-year, $63-million extension in October of 2021, he had not only produced 28 goals and 82 points in 127 games but also 11 goals and 23 points in 32 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Caufield posted 43 goals and 84 points in 123 regular-season games and four goals and 12 points in 20 playoff games before securing an eight-year deal worth $62.8 million. 

So even if Slafkovsky feels he’s worth the same percentage of the Canadiens’ cap as both of those two, I think he’d have a hard time convincing the Canadiens to give him it to him based on the 24 goals and 60 points he’s produced through his first 121 games.

One thing that strengthens his case a little is that he produced those totals at a younger age in the NHL than Suzuki and Caufield did before they signed their extensions. But that, too, could be offset a bit by him not having a playoff resume.

Regardless, I think the Canadiens and Slafkovsky can both find common ground on an eight-year extension as early as this summer, and I think both have incentive to do so.

Why wouldn’t the Canadiens want to lock the first-overall pick in 2022 in for as long as possible and do it as soon as they can? They believe in him, and I would think they believe in him enough already to make him an offer that pays him as much money as Suzuki and Caufield.

Slafkovsky would be within his right to turn away from that, to bet on himself to increase his own value this coming season and secure a bigger bag in 2025. 

But that’s a hard thing to do when the offer is fair and staring you right in the face. It’s a hard thing to consider the different variables that could work against you — from injury to lag in performance leading to lesser opportunity — and take on those risks no matter how much you believe in yourself.

Caufield had a good case to hold out for more than Suzuki. He could’ve opted for a bridge contract that would pay him less but likely bring him to a much bigger payday down the line. And he wasn’t lacking any self-belief.

But Caufield took the fair offer in front of him and secured himself a deal that benefits both him and the Canadiens, and he’ll have a chance at another big payday when the deal expires and he’s 30 years old. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I think Slafkovsky would be wise to do the same knowing he’ll be making around $8 million per season starting at age 21 and be able to secure another big contract at age 29.

I think the Canadiens could draft a defenceman at fifth overall regardless.

I’m not saying they will. But if the best player available on their list is a defenceman who ranks higher than the available forwards to them at fifth, and no trade to move down guarantees them the ability to secure the next-best forward on their list, then I believe they’ll take that defenceman.

That scenario could render them even more willing to trade a defenceman for a forward they covet thereafter.

It’s also possible they could do exactly what you’re suggesting. But that trade option would have to present itself to them before they step to the stage with the fifth-overall pick.

I think Josh Anderson would be that player.

I know a lot of people are understandably down on the player, but I think a big part of that is his questionable fit with the team’s style of play.

A team with a hard-forechecking, north-south style of play could see Anderson as a perfect reclamation project, though. Especially if that team is a playoff lock and needs what he’s proven he can bring at that time of year.

Whether or not they’d take Anderson on without asking the Canadiens to retain some salary or take some back in the deal is certainly questionable, however.

Two defencemen come to mind: Logan Mailloux and David Reinbacher.

Now, I think there are varying opinions on both players in the public sphere, so I don’t want to paint all the fans with the same brush. But I think many question Mailloux’s ability to round out his game enough to be top-four defenceman, and many more wonder if Reinbacher’s offensive ceiling is high enough for him to develop into a top-pairing guy, and I don’t think the Canadiens have nearly as strong reservations on either front.

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