It's been 26 years since the last time the Montreal Canadiens lifted the Stanley Cup, a trophy that might have well been engraved into the ice at the Montreal Forum during the NHL's first 75 years. A proud hockey fanbase has been left wondering when the spoils of victory will return, especially when the team's two biggest rivals, Boston and Toronto, have become two of the best teams in the league.
If the team was going to make a splash in the free agent market, this was the year. The Habs made a bold move by offering Carolina center Sebastian Aho a five-year, $42-million deal, knowing that the cash-strapped Hurricanes – even with a wealthy owner – would face financial stress to match it. Fortunately for the Habs, they didn't need to wait a week to find out whether they were getting the star forward – and let's be realistic, GM Marc Bergevin knew he wasn't getting Aho. After losing Matt Duchene and, eventually, Anders Lee, they needed to get creative to address a need, but there was no way the Habs were expecting to get Aho without spending $10 million a year, putting it farther out of reach for the Hurricanes.
So, what's next? That's the tricky part.
It's easy to point to their prospect base and applaud the team for drafting well – it's truly one of the best ones around, especially with Cole Caufield now in the fray. But as Price and Weber have expressed recently, that doesn't matter until the players are in the lineup, and Montreal's two biggest stars aren't getting any younger. The Habs currently have 12 draft picks for 2020, a draft that is shaping up to be one of the best in the salary cap era. So, while they're still in rebuild mode, the team's draft picks can be used as assets to keep a core roster together without destroying the team's future because of the young talent that has emerged.
The Canadiens have $11 million in cap space to make a few moves, and Carey Price, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher and Shea Weber, among others, are signed for a few years each. The core is there, but one or two more key support players are what the team needs. The free agent market was quite barren after the first two days, but Ryan Dzingel seems like the best fit for the Canadiens. He struggled in Columbus down the stretch last year, but he produced well for a bad Senators team and has experience at all three forward positions, making him valuable in the team's top six. It's not crazy to think they can sign him for $4 million, leaving some options to sign a defenseman or just leave the space open for down the line. To address defense, Jake Gardiner and Ben Hutton are two of the best still on the market. Gardiner is the best option available, but if he's asking $6-7 million per year on a long-term deal, is it worth it? Hutton is a slightly cheaper alternative in a second-pairing role for around $3-4 million and his more defensive nature could allow Jeff Petry to move the puck more.
They won't get much better with the UFA options, so that's why the trade route is interesting. RFA Nikita Gusev, one of the game's top right-wing prospects looking for money the Vegas Golden Knights can't afford, or Chris Kreider, a pending UFA left-winger from New York coming off a 54-point season, look attractive. Gusev is the much cheaper option and one with great potential, but he's also unproven with no NHL games under his belt. For Kreider, there's no guarantee you get him long term, but with Cole Caufield in the system and Artturi Lehkonen getting better each season, that's OK. More than anything, the Canadiens need to get aggressive to land a left-handed puck-moving defenseman to skate alongside Weber – T.J. Brodie or Shayne Gostisbehere, anyone? Moving a young prospect – say, Cale Fleury or Charlie Lindgren – and a couple of picks are a good starting point.
The future is bright in Montreal, and the team is close to being a real playoff threat again, but the team has to be wary with the salaries they hand out and the available free agents are marginal at best. The best course of action is moving draft picks to acquire help without hurting the team's main group. It's a fanbase that deserves better from a historic franchise, and the team has the assets to make something happen. The Canadiens aren't that far away from becoming good, but with the free agent market having passed them by, they're going to have get aggressive if they want to move forward.
Your move, Marc.
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