Erik Karlsson or Matt Duchene? It’s All Here.

Twitter is heating up… rumours are starting to fly… NHL Insiders are starting to get some material fed to them, which they pass on to fans… players and teams are jousting for position, looking for a Summer game plan. The NHL Draft will be held in Vancouver on Friday, June 21st and Saturday, June 22nd. The very next day, pending free agents (restricted and unrestricted) will be allowed to speak to teams other than the one they finished the season with, in order to gauge not only interest, but contract details to see if there is a fit or not. How exciting!

When you’re in a hot bed like Montreal or Toronto, this is enough to keep everyone in the sports media industry employed and when big names are being mentioned, it makes front page of local newspapers and occupy sports radio and TV shows for days. Remember the John Tavares watch last summer? Remember the Toronto sports TV stations going on, and on, and on about the possibility of him going to the Maple Leafs? Remember how they were all but laughing at the Montreal Canadiens because JT didn’t even want to give them a chance to talk to him? Well folks, the roles are reversed this year.

Two of the top pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs), defenseman Erik Karlsson and centre Matt Duchene, seem to have strong ties to the Canadiens and that, folks, has the City buzzing as the Stanley Cup finals between the rival Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues are battling it out for the Holy Grail, still two and a half weeks away from the June 23rd date.

Matt Duchene

It’s been well documented that one of Duchene’s favourite teams growing up was the Montreal Canadiens. While this doesn’t guarantee that a player, later in life, will want to play for them, it certainly doesn’t hurt as we witnessed a year ago with Tavares.

Sportsnet and CBC analyst and well respected NHL Insider Elliott Friedman had this to say on a recent 31 thoughts podcasts on pending UFAs:

Yes, Max Domi did well in his first year at centre. Some fans are concerned that moving him back to the wing risks bringing him back to his production in Arizona. It’s not the case. Both Max and his father Tie Domi have said numerous times that the younger Domi needs to play in a hockey market. He thrives under pressure. It’s not the fact that he was moved to centre that brought him success, it’s the breath of fresh air of playing in Montreal that did it. They believe that. I believe that.

Matt Duchene stating that he’s a huge Habs and Avs’ fan growing up

Adding a legitimate offensive centre like Duchene, a perennial 30 goals scorer, a guy whose faceoffs’ percentage has ranged anywhere between 52.18% to 62.57% in the last five years, and the potential of putting Domi to his left, would improve the Canadiens immensely.

Yes, Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be good and he’ll continue to improve but we can’t make the same mistake the Edmonton Oilers have done with their young prospects by putting them in roles they’re not ready for. Playing on a 2A or 2B line (Phillip Danault centering the other) and sheltering him for a couple more seasons would be the sound decision.

Yes, Ryan Poehling had a great game in his NHL debuts last season. But until the World Junior tournament last year, the guy has never been seen as more than a future third line centre. He’s used to playing 30 games a year in the NCAA and will need some maturing. Not physically in his case, but hockey-wise.

Yes, Nick Suzuki had a great camp last year and he had a fantastic year in the OHL, particularly in the playoffs. He is the Canadiens’ only right-handed centre prospect, which is important. But both he and Poehling would greatly benefit from a year or two of maturing under Laval Rockets’ head coach Joel Bouchard. It’s the old adage: better to play big minutes with a key role in the AHL as a young player than fourth line minutes in the NHL. As good as they are, they are not (yet) in Kotkaniemi’s talent pool.

Duchene’s next contract

I’m not in the secrets of the gods here. I have however done some research and from it, I personally figure that Duchene, who earned $6 million per season, should see a substantial raise. I figure that anywhere between $8-9 million would be in the ballpark as this would put him in the category of the likes of Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Getzlaf, Blake Wheeler and yes… Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

If you combine with my Facebook page pool, the total is:
45.5% – Duchene
44.7% – Karlsson
9.8% – None of them
Combined total of 1,096 participants.

Erik Karlsson

According to the Ottawa Sun, citing a well-connected source, the two-times Norris Trophy winner hopes to receive competitive offers from two teams in particular — the Senators and the Montreal Canadiens. Why? Because his wife, Melinda, who was born and raised in Ottawa, is homesick and would very much like to live close to her family again. While Toronto and Buffalo are also relatively close to Canada’s capital, the source says that, as far as he knows, they’re not on the Karlsson’s list.

Many Habs’ fans are going completely crazy about this news. Some because they have yet to swallow the P.K. Subban trade, others because they remember the Karlsson of… three years ago! You know, the fast skating, point per game player who was a big contributor to getting the Senators to the Stanley Cup finals. Those people conveniently forgot the Karlsson two years ago who battled a serious ankle injury, and this past season’s Karlsson battling a sore groin which he just had surgery on.

The narrative that the addition of Karlsson will make the Canadiens Cup contenders is based on him getting back to his old form of three years ago. Further, did the San Jose Sharks, a much better team than Montreal, a team with Brent Burns on the blue line, win the Cup with Karlsson? Why would the addition of Karlsson make the Canadiens a Stanley Cup contender?

No matter where he signs, Karlsson should have 11-12 million reasons to smile.

I’m from the school of thoughts that a defenseman’s number one job is to defend. Points are an added bonus. For those who, like me, were fortunate enough to watch Bobby Orr play, he was an outstanding defender and tough as nail. The bonus is that he was an excellent skater who changed the game by supporting, even driving the offense. But he was a defender first. Karlsson? People look at the points and “forget” about the defense. Oh you want proof?

In 2016-2017, the Sens’ All-Star had, in my opinion, the best all-around season of his career. He managed 71 points in 77 games with a respectable +10 rating. In the playoffs that year, he added 18 points in 19 games with an outstanding +13. Even his 2015-2016 season when he had 82 points in 82 games wasn’t that great considering that he was -2 that year. Oh I know, plus-minus isn’t the end of it all but if you’re on the ice for more goals against than goals’ for, it’s never a good thing. It negates the points you put up.

His play drastically dropped in the past two years, mostly due to injuries affecting his speed, as pointed out above. In 124 regular season games, he managed 107 points (12 of them goals) and was… -19 overall. While some people are raving about his 16 points in 19 games in the playoffs this postseason, he was -3. His teammate Brent Burns had 16 points in 20 games and was +2. Remember folks… in order to help your team, you have to be on the ice for more goals for than goals against and that, even when putting up a lot of points as to win hockey games, you need to outscore your opponents!

Now that’s just hockey-wise folks. Think a bit further, as will Marc Bergevin. Subban makes $9 million a season. Drew Doughty in Los Angeles makes $11 million. Karlsson is on record saying that he won’t accept anything less than fair market value. Based on that, isn’t it fair to say that he will request between $11.5-12 million per season? Is the gamble of him returning to form worth taking that chance, with a bullet-proof No-Movement Clause protecting him against expansion draft or trades? As a fan with crystal balls, who cares, right? As hockey management, in the real world of the NHL with a salary cap, rest assured that it does matter a whole lot.

Karlsson’s next contract

Again, no scoop or particular science here folks, certainly not pretending to be “in the know” but simply looking at logic. Up until recently, Subban was the highest paid defenseman with a cap hit of $9 million. That was before the L.A. Kings signed Drew Doughty to a $11 million cap hit. Karlsson himself stating that he wants fair market value would bring him to, at the very least, in $11.5-12 million range. Now that’s a whole lot of money to tie into a player period, but especially one coming off not one, but two serious lower body injuries impeding his greatest strength: skating.

Conclusion

If I’m Marc Bergevin, I go hard at Duchene and I consider lowballing Karlsson. Preferably, there are a couple of good options for left-handed defensemen rumoured to be on the market: Nick Leddy and TJ Brodie (yes, Brodie is a LD even if he played RD due to the Flames’ overload of LD). Duchene up the middle, Domi moving to left wing, sacrifice one of Tomas Tatar, Paul Byron or Andrew Shaw to get one of Leddy or Brodie and you have a better team without jeopardizing the Canadiens’ entire future cap into a very questionable player in Karlsson. Go Habs Go!

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Pending Free Agents: Class of 2019

It’s early, the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is just starting and talks about free agents is somewhat premature. Having said that, when your team is eliminated, there isn’t much to look forward to except for their next move, the next big date and that date is about two months away, at the NHL Draft. The next day, teams will be able to talk to pending UFAs and on July 1st, players will be able to announce their choice.

Much can change from now until the actual date but let’s explore the possibilities as they stand today and admittedly, those lists will look somewhat different at that time. Regardless, let’s do the exercise, shall we?

Team needs

Ever since Marc Bergevin traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, there has been a huge hole on Weber’s left. You see, Weber plays big minutes against the opposition’s top lines game in, game out and it’s not everyone who can do that. At the top of his game, Andrei Markov was the perfect partner for the one they call Man Mountain but he was getting too old to play top minutes. Victor Mete did okay but he’s not the ideal candidate. Bergevin MUST finally address this gaping hole on his team and if he fails to do so once again, many people, myself included, will be very disappointed in him.

Also, the powerplay was atrocious and it needs some sort of injection. Whether it be a top-end right-handed goals’ scorer or a left-handed pointman (they have Weber and Petry on the right side), Bergevin needs to help his coaching staff by providing them with the necessary tools to fix a powerplay that finished 30th in the NHL with a 13.2% success rate and was too often a momentum killer for the Canadiens last season.

While I personally fully expect that Bergevin’s biggest splash will be through a trade or two as he’s always done, let’s still have a look at the pending unrestricted free agents’ pool this upcoming July first. Granted, it’s early and some of these guys will re-sign with their respective team but as it stands right now, it promises to be an interesting off-season, a buyers’ market if we can say.

Defensemen

The Canadiens’ depth chart on the right side is deep, very deep with quality assets both older and younger. Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Christian Folin, Noah Juulsen, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury and Brett Lernout form a solid depth group on right defense. But on the left, there are numbers but the quality is lacking, particularly at the top end. Victor Mete, Brett Kulak and Mike Reilly are in the NHL and Jordie Benn is, at the time of writing this, a pending UFA. Alexander Romanov is the team’s best hope but he has one year left to his contract in the KHL and he is likely a few years away from having an impact at the NHL level. Gustav Olofsson is interesting and he will be coming back from injury. Scott Walford and Jarret Tyszka are good projects but they too are a few years away.

Having said all of that, here are some of the top pending UFA’s on defense:

Alex Edler has made it clear that he wants to stay in Vancouver and the Canucks would like to have him back. Marc Methot has slowed down the last two years and so has Niklas Kronwall. The most interesting might be Jake Gardiner but according to TSN Insiders, he should fetch between 6-8 million per season for seven years. That’s way too rich for him and I would personally stay away from him. He’s simply not that good. Ben Chiarot might be an interesting gamble but is he really an improvement over what the Habs already have? I think that the best way to get what he wants would be for Bergevin to sacrifice a forward or two to get the right fit and two names come to mind: Anaheim’s Cam Fowler and Philadelphia’s Shayne Gostisbehere, both of which can also man the point on the powerplay.

Forwards

At forward, it’s a different story. The Canadiens are deep at that position and so is their depth chart. Max Domi was a very pleasant surprise at centre and unless a Matt Duchene type of players lands in Montreal, he’s likely to stay at that position. But there are currently plenty of very interesting names on that list and Bergevin should have a chance at picking at least one of them… if the price is right.

Of course the two biggest fish are Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. Panarin apparently wants to play in a big US market but many link Duchene to the Habs because “he grew up a Habs’ fan”. We all know how that works out most times so don’t hold your breath folks. If I’m Bergevin, it doesn’t matter if it’s a centre or a winger, I go after the best player available as Domi could go back to the wing if need be. It’s easier to make a winger out of a centre than the other way around.

Pending RFA’s

I have to touch on that because some feel like offer sheets are a tool that NHL GMs don’t use often enough. As we’ve touched on before, Paul Holmgren explained that offer sheets can be devastating to a GM’s career and that is predominantly why we don’t see them. That and usually, the price is steep, very steep for the more lucrative contract offers.

OFFER SHEET (AVG)COMPENSATION
$1,339,575 or belowNone
Over $1,339,575 to $2,029,593rd
Over $2,029,59 to $4,059,3222nd
Over $4,059,322 to $6,088,9801st, 3rd
Over $6,088,980 to $8,118,6411st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $8,118,641 to $10,148,302(2) 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $10,148,302(4) 1st

Still, here’s this year’s list of pending RFA’s:

Some folks see the signing of Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal as a sign that Bergevin will be satisfied with minor signing. That’s either ill intent or ignorant on their part as the Canadiens’ GM has always been one of the most active on the trade front since taking over in Montreal… and it’s only April 27th! You can expect much of the same this upcoming summer. They have a plan and will follow through with it. The future is bring in Montreal. Go Habs Go!