Expect Canadiens to be silent in free agency, focus on addition by subtraction

Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes speaks during a news conference in Brossard, Que., Wednesday, January 18, 2023. (CP)

MONTREAL— Here’s the most likely scenario come 12:00 p.m. ET, Saturday, when the NHL’s unrestricted free agent frenzy officially gets underway: Kent Hughes puts his phone on silent.

The Montreal Canadiens general manager is arriving home from the draft with a loaded roster, bodies to move out and little-to-no incentive to bid on players who ultimately won’t add much value to the build he and executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton have embarked on and are committed to.

If there’s a player or two on the outside that are evaluated to be of assistance both in the short- and long-term, they’ll be explored. Hughes won’t turn his phone off.

But the Canadiens aren’t looking to block roster spots for some of their younger players, and they believe they have pieces already in place to help them reach their goal.

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At the end of the season, Hughes stated it was to move on to a new phase, with no expectation or plan to bottom out again, and he even mentioned the word “playoffs.”

Sure, Hughes fell short of suggesting his team, which finished fifth from the bottom of the NHL standings in 2022-23, would make them. 

But he added, “We want to push to try to make the playoffs, and if we don’t make the playoffs, that’s fine, as long as along the way we’ve seen a great effort and we’ve seen things progress and we’ve seen our team moving in that direction,” and it’s much more likely they’ll be doing that with what they currently have than with players who will head to market come Saturday.

There will be subtractions to make room for internal additions, though sources close to the Canadiens indicate that—as of this writing—none are currently imminent. 

That could change with one phone call. Maybe Hughes should keep his ringer on after all.

Mike Hoffman, who’s entering the final year of a contract that counts for $4.5 million on the cap, is a player the GM is looking to trade before training camp gets underway in September. 

Seeing multiple NHL players in his category move this week— along with draft picks —for future considerations is a reality of the last year of a relatively flat cap, one the Canadiens will have to deal with in addition to possibly retaining salary as teams begin to fill out their rosters with free agents.

Hughes would hope not to give up an asset and retain salary just to get Joel Edmundson off the books. One would think he’d be able to collect at least something more than future considerations moving the 30-year-old defenceman, who’s coming into his final season at $3.5 million.

If Hughes can’t redeem an asset to move Christian Dvorak, who has one more season after this coming one at $4.45M, it’s likely he’ll hold. 

While Dvorak appears to be a logical trade option to free space up the middle, giving away a useful, 27-year-old centre — who may not be fully living up to his contract but isn’t far away from delivering precise value on it — wouldn’t exactly represent strong asset management.

Neither would qualifying restricted free agent Denis Gurianov at $2.9 million.

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Hughes told reporters at the draft he wouldn’t be doing that with the Russian winger, though he didn’t strike the possibility of signing him to a lesser deal.

Perhaps Gurianov will test the market and find one he prefers elsewhere. Either way, he won’t be a primary focus.

Signing Alex Newhook will be, though again, as this is being written, sources confirm negotiations still haven’t begun with him.

Not that anyone should be concerned with that. The Canadiens weren’t given the opportunity to negotiate before his acquisition — several teams were in the mix to get Newhook — and they were busy at the draft table since acquiring him on Tuesday. 

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It’s still expected his contract will get sorted in short order. 

New deals are also required for Jesse Ylonen and Rafael Harvey-Pinard, with the former likely to sign a qualifying offer and the latter entrenched in a negotiation with Hughes that most people thought would’ve been completed by now. 

Harvey-Pinard took advantage of every opportunity given to him last season, notching 14 goals and 20 points in 34 games. He surely wants to leverage that into a one-way deal, at the very least, and perhaps more money than is currently on offer to him.

The thing is, it was a small sample, and most of the opportunity given to him last season — when the Canadiens had half their roster sidelined by injury — isn’t necessarily available to him this season. 

It’s arguable much of it won’t be, with Cole Caufield returning from shoulder surgery, Kirby Dach from multiple ailments that saw his season cut short by 24 games, Juraj Slafkovsky entering his sophomore season having rehabilitated the knee injury that limited him to 39 games, Josh Anderson returning from the ankle injury he suffered towards the end, Brendan Gallagher coming back healthy and Newhook now in the fold.

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Harvey-Pinard does have arbitration rights, but it’s hard to see him going nuclear and invoking them.

Still, a contract isn’t done yet, so we’ll see where this all goes. 

Two players who are under contract and aiming to prove they’re ready for professional hockey — and perhaps even a job with the Canadiens — are Owen Beck and Joshua Roy. 

The former can return to junior, while the latter is a shoo-in for Laval, barring a spectacular training camp and pre-season coupled with some injuries up front that open up space for him.

On the back end, there would have to be some considerable movement for David Reinbacher, the Canadiens’ fifth-overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, to pierce the lineup. 

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Hughes said the Canadiens will take their time deciding what to do with the six-foot-two, 194-pound defenceman. 

Given that Montreal, Laval and returning to Switzerland are all options, perhaps the Canadiens can find time for Reinbacher in all three places, starting with camp in Montreal, then games in Laval, and finally a return to Kloten HC, where his development will still be very well served.

Assuming Edmundson isn’t with the Canadiens in the fall, which isn’t necessarily a safe assumption, it’ll be a dogfight between the remaining defencemen to seize a regular spot in the lineup. 

David Savard and Mike Matheson are locked in. As is Kaiden Guhle. And everyone else — Arber Xhekaj, Johnathan Kovacevic, Justin Barron, Jordan Harris and even Logan Mailloux — will all be in a battle to keep Chris Wideman on the margin.

The only thing Samuel Montembeault and Jake Allen will be competing for behind them is ice-time, with Cayden Primeau hoping to unseat one of the two goaltenders with what would have to be his best showing at a Canadiens camp since signing out of Northeastern University in 2020.

Primeau is waiver-eligible, so the time is ripe for him to push.

Before he gets to camp, the Canadiens have some work to do.

Just don’t expect much — if any — of it to involve signing unrestricted free agents.

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