What recent trade deadlines tell us about Montreal’s intentions in 2023

New Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes, centre, responds to question next to owner Geoff Molson, right, and Jeff Gorton, executive vice-president of hockey operations during a news conference in Montreal on Wednesday, January 19, 2022. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

When it comes to Kent Hughes’ track record at the NHL trade deadline, we don’t have a lot to go on. What we can say quite confidently, however, is the second-year Montreal Canadiens GM is definitely one-for-one.

Hughes was tabbed for the big chair in Montreal about 13 months ago, meaning he basically took the job at the outset of last year’s trade deadline season. Like that version of the club, this year’s Habs are obvious sellers — it’s just less clear who they can or will sell.

After getting his toe wet with a minor-league deal, Hughes’ first big move as GM — a post he’s never held anywhere else after spending decades as a player agent — was shipping Tyler Toffoli to the Calgary Flames for a package headlined by a first-round pick and prospect Emil Heineman. That happened on Valentine’s Day, 2022, about five weeks before the March 21 deadline.

Toffoli is a good segue into the discussion about who Hughes might move this year because the player had significant term left on his deal, which runs through the 2023-24 campaign. Once again, the Canadiens have a forward locked up for a good long while who is generating interest. Josh Anderson has four more years after this one at a $5.5-million cap hit. The big right winger has playoff hockey written all over him, so while Hughes, on one hand, probably likes the idea of keeping the 28-year-old around, it’s a pretty hefty contract to shed for a team that won’t likely see the post-season for a while.

After moving Toffoli, Hughes made a trio of important swaps either in the days leading up to the deadline or on deadline day, 2022 itself. In two cases, he traded defencemen on expiring deals. Lanky Brett Kulak was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers, with the key piece coming back being a 2022 second-round pick Montreal ultimately used to select intriguing defenceman Lane Hutson. There was some notion the Canadiens might want to retain the 28-year-old Kulak, but ultimately the decision was made to go for the long-term play.

The other blue-line sell was Hughes’ masterpiece, sending rugged Ben Chiarot to the Florida Panthers for prospect Ty Smilanic and — very intriguingly, given Florida is in danger of missing the playoffs this year — an unprotected 2023 first-round pick. This was like a home run that was a no-doubt shot when it was struck and only got more impressive as the ball carried into the fifth deck.

The funny thing in Montreal right now is, for all the pieces you could conceivably see the Habs moving, there’s not one dead-obvious pending-UFA sell the way Chiarot was. Centre Sean Monahan could have been that guy, but he’s been shelved for two months basically and it’s just unclear whether any team out there considers him a safe enough bet to surrender anything in return.   

Where things have taken a mildly interesting turn is with regard to pending-UFAs Jonathan Drouin and Evgenii Dadonov, two offence-only players who would have generated zero interest as recently as three weeks ago. Look, no GM is going to bang down Hughes’ door for either winger, but Drouin’s biggest problem the past couple years has been staying healthy and right now, he is. Dadonov, meanwhile, has shown at least some form of an offensive spark of late, so if the Canadiens were willing to eat 50 per cent of the players’ remaining salary, maybe a team that misses out on Option A takes a buy-low approach and calls Hughes.

The final significant move Hughes made last year signaled he wasn’t just after draft picks, but prospects who might not be that far off from making an NHL impact. Hughes sent pending-RFA Artturi Lehkonen to the Colorado Avalanche — retaining half of Lehkonen’s salary, just as he’d done with Chiarot and Kulak — for a second-rounder and right-shot defence prospect Justin Barron, who was 20 years old at the time. After starting the year in the AHL, Barron is taking a regular shift in Montreal right now and looking good doing it.

While there’s no pending-RFA who seems like a viable trade candidate in Montreal (Lehkonen, of course, re-signed in Colorado after being a big-time playoff performer for the Avs) Hughes does have a couple guys with team control for one more year beyond this one. Like Monahan, defenceman Joel Edmundson would be a slam-dunk trade candidate save for the fact he’s had an injury-marred year and hasn’t played since Jan. 26. The playoff-tested Edmundson will count for $3.5 million against the cap next season.

Mike Hoffman — signed through next year at a hit of $4.5 million — has come to life in the past few weeks and if Hughes can get anything for the 33-year-old, he’ll be out the door.

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Of course, one member of the Canadiens front office who does have a pretty extensive trade history is executive vice-president, hockey operations Jeff Gorton. When he was helming the New York Rangers, the team famously penned a letter to fans indicating the organization was going to be taking a step back in the hopes of making two forward in the future.

The same month that note was released — February, 2018 — Gorton traded captain Ryan McDonagh and winger J.T. Miller to Tampa, while also shipping Rick Nash to Boston, bringing a raft of draft picks and prospects (including D-man Ryan Lindgren) back to New York. Twelve months later, in 2019, Gorton again parted ways with a core piece, sending dressing room favourite Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars for draft picks.

Bottom line; when it was time to sell, Gorton had no trouble stripping emotion from the equation and doing what he felt was best for the team long term. You can bet he and Hughes will be taking a similar approach in Montreal as we lurch toward March 3.

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