Montreal? Why Not? Habs Struggling to Attract UFAs

Benjamin Franklin once said that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. But if you ask anyone who has been the General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens, they will tell you that there’s a third one: many NHL players want nothing to do with playing in Montreal.

Since taking over the job in the summer of 2012, Marc Bergevin has had the unfortunate reality thrown in his face in a few occasions. Every summer, reputable hockey insiders report that Bergevin is in on pending Unrestricted Free Agent yet, it seems like they all sign elsewhere. Just last summer, the Canadiens’ GM had tons of money to throw at pending UFA John Tavares but the former Islanders’ captain didn’t even want to grant Montreal a meeting. If that’s not enough to discourage a GM, I don’t know what is. But in spite of the setbacks, Bergevin keeps plugging away at it. Eventually, one will say yes, right? Right?

Again this past summer, insiders said that Bergevin and the Canadiens were one of the final four teams being considered by the highly coveted centre Matt Duchene and we know what happened: he signed with the Nashville Predators. Bergevin had to resort to signing Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet, a topic which he discussed recently with Marc Denis on RDS.

But why would that be? We’re talking about the NHL’s oldest and most decorated franchise in history. No less than 24 times have captains of the Canadiens lifted the Stanley Cup over their head at the end of the playoffs. And yet in the annual players’ poll done by the NHLPA, the Bell Centre is always amongst the top as a place where players love to play and on quality of ice. Well folks, there are several factors it seems.

TAXES

Here’s what is probably one of the biggest factors: Taxes. In order to compensate for the taxe aspect of the contract, the team often is having to overpay to get players to listen and even then, it’s no guarantee. Yet, they have the same salary cap, creating an uneven playing field.

Alexander Radulov chose the money.

For example, Alexander Radulov was offered the exact same contract by Bergevin and the Canadiens, hoping that the controversial Russian player would acknowledge that the previous year, they gave him a chance to get back to the NHL… to no avail. Based on the calculator on Capfriendly.com, the Habs would have had to pay Radulov around $8 million instead of the $6.25 million Dallas is paying him, in order for him to take home the same amount. That’s almost $2 million that the team couldn’t spend on other players and for what? Just to compensate for taxes! Yes, there are ways for players to write off some expenses but the same can be said in any other NHL City.

Until the NHL decides to have some sort of equalizer, it will stay the same. According to hockey experts and analysts, this is one of the major contributing factors as to why no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Habs did it in 1993.

WEATHER

How often have we heard players in Florida or in California saying that they love being able to get to the rink in shorts and t-shirts, or go to the beach after practice? You’re not going to do that in Montreal during hockey season! As a matter of fact, getting around in Montreal is a challenge in any season, but winters are particularly troublesome. Of the Canadian Cities, even Vancouver is better in that aspect than Montreal.

FISHBOWL EFFECT

While there are many media outlets in all Canadian Cities, Montreal is known as having the most. There are often more media members at a Habs’ practice than there are in many other Cities’ games. While the sheer number can represent a problem for some UFAs, it’s the dramatization and constant negativity that draws the most attention with the players. The Réjean Tremblay, Michel Villeneuve and Brendan Kelly‘s of this world are the TMZ of Montreal and players do take notes.

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Who doesn’t remember when Carey Price‘s wife, Angela, having to deny rampant rumours about her relationship with her husband, and taking onto Instagram to stop the stupid speculations? We touched on this very blog on other examples, which prompted yours truly to depict some of them as Les MisérHABS… Don’t think for a second that when a wife’s player comes out publicly like Angela had to do, it has no effect on players. It certainly does. If they don’t have to deal with those issues elsewhere, they’ll go there instead or at least, it will be an important factor.

And then, there’s the fans… self-proclaimed the most knowledgeable fans in the NHL, Habs’ fans can be relentless to say the least. As an example, just look at the constant bashing Bergevin receives from those who are still hot that he had the audacity to trade away P.K. Subban. Many won’t even acknowledge that Shea Weber is a better player, and certainly better in the dressing room as well. Players notice that as well folks. That’s not knowledge, it’s stubbornness, borderline harassment. For some, it’s more important to try saving face than admit that they were wrong, a terrible quality for people claiming to be fans of THE TEAM.

LACK OF PRIVACY

In Montreal, it’s a fact that players can’t go anywhere without being recognized. As fans, we tend to think that it comes with the territory but players in that situation may find it cool to start, it doesn’t take long before they think otherwise. They can’t take their kids anywhere, they can’t go to the restaurant, movies or any other “normal” activity without having a crowd around them asking for autographs.

Who here doesn’t remember when back in May 2013, Bergevin gave struggling Carey Price his full support after the team’s elimination at the hands of the Ottawa Senators in the first round? The Canadiens’ goaltender was quoted saying that the pressure was getting to him. He said he would no longer even go to a grocery store to avoid grilling from fans over his performances and that he sometimes felt like a “hobbit in a hole.” To which the Habs’ GM jokingly responded: “Maybe I can do his groceries for him.”

LANGUAGE

And here we go… sensitive topic as always, the language issue in Montreal resurfaces from time to time and this is one of them. A constant but delicate topic, whether it’s for the choice of a coach or GM, the so-called lack of QMJHL players selected by the Habs at the Draft, the language the team captain speaks… Who amongst you have already forgotten the outrage over Randy Cunneyworth‘s appointment as interim coach, replacing Jacques Martin, back in 2011?

Whether we agree with it or not, protests like the one shown above make their turn around the league and NHL players watch that, shake their head and they become contributors in their decision to come play in Montreal or pick a different destination once they reach free agency.

Many players have a wife and kids and when a player becomes a UFA, he is consulting with his spouse and wants to do what’s right for the family. The kids’ education is very important and giving them the option to the best school (in English) is a factor. Granted, some of their beliefs are misconceptions but to them, it’s legitimate. The issue is that often, players won’t take the time to listen to Bergevin and the team, giving them a chance to answer their concerns. That’s a fact, a reality that exists, regardless of if WE think it’s important or not, if it’s legitimate or not. It is to them and ultimately, THEY are the ones making the decision.

SOLUTION

Some of the above-mentioned factors are more prominent than others and as we know, some are simply misconceptions. But there is no denying that it takes a special type of character to play in Montreal. If one tends to succumb to pressure, they will rapidly sink in a Habs’ uniform while others thrive under that same pressure.

It seems like the only way to convince players that Montreal isn’t as bad of a place to play hockey as some seem to think, the Canadiens have to trade for them to give them a taste. Jeff Petry, after being acquired at the trade deadline in 2015, has signed a six-year contract extension with the team and he seems to truly enjoy playing in Montreal. Perhaps paying a bigger price at trade deadline to give those key players a taste, would be the way to go? I mean look at what Max Domi has to say about the Habs, their fans and the atmosphere of playing in the biggest pressure-cooker in the NHL:

Which leads me to the final point: the narrative of “it’s the GM’s job to convince free agents to come to Montreal”. There are very few narratives being more far fetched than that. It’s an attempt at simplifying a very complex situation, one that most fans can read right through. It’s mostly being used by people who have an agenda, an axe to grind against the GM, and who will use any means in their arsenal to put him down, to prove their point. They likely don’t even know how ridiculous such statements can be. But we know who they are, right Habs’ fans?

Enjoy the rookie camp, the golf tournament, the main camp and the pre-season games folks as for the first time in a very long time, the Canadiens and their fans have a lot to be excited about. Go Habs Go!

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NHL’s Top-20 Current Worst Contracts

Market. Competition. Desperation. Self-preservation. All factors dictating, justifying and/or describing NHL General Managers’ actions during the summer months, but mostly in the early days of July when free agents hit the market. All of which contributing, in one way or another, in bidding wars bumping up the so-called market value of a player, or players within the same category, numbers used at a later date by other players’ agents in justifying the new bar for their clients in future negotiations. The best General Managers are those who can resist succumbing to the temptation of getting into betting wars, by simply sticking to their plans going in… but “simply” just isn’t that simple as it’s often easier said than done.

The irony of this whole phenomena is that the NHL imposed a hard salary cap in an attempt to stop that process, in a way to protect GMs from… themselves. But as we’ve witnessed over and over again, it hasn’t worked. All it has done is kill GM’s abilities to “fix their mistakes” by trading their bad contracts, making it less exciting for fans as in-season trades are few and far between.

“If you look at history in the NHL, the biggest mistakes are made in early July. Worst contracts, guys who underperform. The biggest mistakes are July first. You have to be careful.” ~ Marc Bergevin

As the July 1st Free Agents’ Frenzy is once again upon us, let’s take a look at the NHL’s current worst contracts. Taken into consideration are factors such as cap hit, production, games played, no trades protection, protection against buyouts (signing bonus), age and number of years remaining to the contract. In order to understand the buyout protection, signing bonuses don’t count in the case of a buyout, only the player’s salary. For example, for every year of his contract, Andrew Ladd’s base salary is $1M. The rest is all signing bonus. So the Islanders would still be left with $4.833M of his $5.5M counting against their cap.

20. Antti Raanta (G) 30 – 12 GP – 2.88 GAA – 0.906 SV%

19. Scott Darling (G) 30 – 8 GP – 3.33 GAA – 0.884 SV%

18. Ryan Johansen (F) 26 – 80 GP – 14G – 64 PTS

17. Brandon Dubinsky (F) 33 – 61 GP – 6 G – 14 PTS

16. Cory Schneider (G) 33 – 26 GP – 3.06 GAA – 0.903 SV%

15. James Neal (F) 31 – 63 GP – 7 G – 19 PTS

14. Justin Abdelkader (F) 32 – 71 GP – 6 G – 19 PTS

13. Erik Johnson (D) 31 – 80 GP – 7 G – 25 PTS

12. Ilya Kovalchuk (F) 36 – 64 GP – 16 G – 34 PTS

11. Bobby Ryan (F) 32 – 78 GP – 15 G – 42 PTS

Keep in mind that with the upcoming expansion draft, only those with No-Trade Clauses (NTC) can be left unprotected for Seattle. A player with a No-Movement Clause (NMC) MUST be protected by their team. This has a huge impact on how bad the contract is considered.

10. David Backes (F) 35 – 70 GP – 7 G – 20 PTS

9. Niklas Hjalmarsson (D) 82 GP – 0 G – 10 PTS

8. Karl Alzner (D) 30 – 9 GP – 0G – 1 PT

7. Corey Perry (F) 34 – 31 GP – 6 G – 19 PTS

6. Ryan Kesler (F) 34 – 60 GP – 5G – 8 PTS

And now down to the nitty-gritty, the five worst contracts in the NHL.

5. Nikita Zaitsev (D) 27 – 81 GP – 3 G – 14 PTS

4. Andrew Ladd (F) 33 – 26 GP – 3 G – 11 PTS

3. Kyle Okposo (F) 31 – 78 GP – 14 G – 29 PTS

2. Loui Eriksson (F) 33 – 81 GP – 11 G – 29 PTS

1. Milan Lucic (F) 31 – 79 GP – 6 G – 20 PTS

With the news that Erik Karlsson just signed a contract extension with the San Jose Sharks giving him a $11.5 million cap hit, we might have to wait a few years but that contract might eventually find its place amongst the NHL’s worst contracts… particularly if he can’t stay healthy. Either way, desperate GMs are likely to fall, as they do every year, to the peer pressure of getting a much desired free agent but as you can see, the notion that teams “get them for free” is as far as it gets from accurate. Here’s hoping that Marc Bergevin doesn’t pull another Alzner. Could Matt Duchene be a good fit? We’ll find out soon enough. Go Habs Go!