The NHL Trade Deadline (TDL), which is on March 3rd this year, is approaching fast. Last year, Montreal Canadiens general manager (GM) Kent Hughes was working his first-ever deadline with the club. Despite that, he was fearless in his approach, making deals only when the values he set were met. Also, he was willing to deal early, as seen when he dealt Tyler Toffoli to the Calgary Flames.
Hughes has also shown a willingness to be creative to get what he wants. Look no further than the deal to take on Sean Monahan, where the Flames paid a conditional first-round pick simply to dump the last season at $6.375 million. Hughes could replicate both trading early while also being creative. With an early trade (four to six weeks before TDL), he could create some extra cap space, which could allow him to take on another contract for an asset. Doing so could take advantage of the fact there are so many teams at the salary cap ceiling or well into long-term injury reserve (LTIR). The Habs are also into LTIR, but they have several million to use as a cushion. He could also use the cap space and act as a third team in a trade, where Hughes could retain 50% on a rental player (player with an expiring contract) as an in-between, allowing that player to go from Team A to Team B while being paid with a good prospect or pick in return.
In an interview with TVA Sports, Hughes was clear that he is looking to the future, part of that is his desire to add more 2023 first-round picks. He stated (in French) that even though the Habs have two first-round picks, ideally the team would have at least three in the upcoming draft. There are several teams that hold late first-round picks who may even be willing to part ways with it for the right fit. Hughes does have trade collateral, but what teams are most likely to gamble with a pick in a draft that is expected to be very deep?
First-Round Picks Available for Canadiens
There will be a limited supply of 2023 first-round picks available, which is why dealing early would benefit the Canadiens. So far, there have already been three dealt away. The Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers have all used their first-round picks from this season to make additions. In the case of Florida, they are the only ones to not place any protection on their pick, and of the three teams, they are also the only one vastly underperforming and sitting outside of a playoff spot, which benefits the Canadiens. Beyond them, teams such as the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Boston Bruins (who only lost four games in the first half of the season) are nearly guaranteed to use a pick to bolster their chances at a Stanley Cup. Other teams, such as the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild, or Pittsburgh Penguins may be willing as well, for the right fit.
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All of the teams mentioned have legitimate aspirations for more than just a playoff series win. They can all challenge for an appearance in the Conference Finals, possibly even the Stanley Cup Final. For this exercise, we will only look at the situation and needs of three teams that could be good trade partners for the Canadiens.
The Penguins, who are $2 million into LTIR, still have deficiencies to address to make their 17th consecutive playoff appearance and extend the championship window for Sidney Crosby. They still need more depth scoring and a third-line center to complement their top six forwards. Now, with injuries, their defense is getting worn thin.
The defending Cup champions are in an odd position being four points out of the final Wild Card position in the Western Conference. That stems from having so many injuries with Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Bowen Byram, and Josh Manson out on LTIR, while other core players have rotated in and out as well, due to less severe injuries. The injuries’ impact is apparent from looking at the team’s lackluster scoring numbers.
Another issue is a lack of a true second-line center. With the loss of Nazem Kadri to free agency, there has been a rotation in the role. The hope was that Alex Newhook would be able to step in, however, despite his skill, he is unable to fill that role reliably just yet.
Despite the $12.74 million in dead cap space from the Zack Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts, Minnesota still has $3.75 million in cap space to use at the deadline. Also, the Wild hold the third playoff spot in their division and will be on the hunt as a buyer to improve upon their first-round exit in the 2022 playoffs. The biggest impact that could be made for them is to improve at center. While their current top-line center Sam Steel is on pace for a career-high 42-point season, adding a big-bodied center who can withstand the physicality of the playoffs and also win faceoffs would go a long way in propelling them past the opening round.
Canadiens Most Wanted
As seen, many NHL clubs will be on the lookout for a top-six capable center, some depth scoring, and help on defense. The Canadiens have all of those in varying degrees.
Perhaps the best comeback story this season, Sean Monahan fills the bill as a top-six center. He has been playing reliable five-on-five minutes, filling a net-front role on the power play (PP) and providing 55.1 percent in the faceoff circle for the Habs. With the injuries to other rental centers who were possibly available, such as Ryan O’Reilly, Monahan is one of a very short list of pending free-agent centers who could legitimately net a return of a first-round pick at this TDL.
In the depth scoring category, the Habs have several names that fit. Some have term, such as Josh Anderson, making it unlikely to be a name seen on the move before the offseason. Those who are on expiring contracts, like Jonathan Drouin and Evgeny Dadonov, don’t hold much value. The good news for Hughes on that front is that their play has been improving, with Drouin recently having a three-point game versus the Nashville Predators. While their improved play does nothing to improve their trade value (likely each worth a middle to late-round pick), it does help to improve the chances that a rival GM would be willing to take a chance to trade for one of them.
Hughes has been able to add significant draft capital thanks in large part to the last TDL, where teams were looking to add blue line help. He turned Ben Chiarot and Brett Kulak into two top 60 picks and a mid-tier prospect. This year, he may be able to use Joel Edmundson to add even more, maybe that first-round pick Hughes is in search of. While Edmundson has had some difficulties with consistency this season, he does have a reasonable $3.5 million contract with one more season before free agency. He also has significant playoff experience, going to the final with the Canadiens in 2021 and winning the Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019.
There are teams that make good trading partners for the Canadiens, and there will be 2023 first-round picks available. The Habs are clearly in a rebuild and will be sellers, placing Hughes in an excellent position going into the TDL. This will be a sellers’ market, meaning only a handful of sellers with very few quality players available for the buyers. Hughes will have a handful of assets that can be used to add pieces for the future and prospects that can step in and fill the vacant roster positions. More importantly, he has the cap flexibility to take advantage of a seller’s market that is filled with cash-strapped buyers. This TDL can set the stage for Hughes to go into the NHL Entry Draft loaded with high-quality assets to shorten his rebuild plans.
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Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 29 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist with the goal to be a trusted source of information and entertainment.