Montreal Canadiens: Could Flat Cap Lead Habs To Deal With Vancouver Canucks?

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 07: Montreal Canadiens and Jake Virtanen. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 07: Montreal Canadiens and Jake Virtanen. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens will have cap space to spare this summer. Could we see them help the Vancouver Canucks out of a jam?

The Montreal Canadiens are in a good place when it comes to the NHL’s salary cap. They have had plenty of space under the cap for the past three seasons, and won’t be running into cap trouble this summer.

The only free agents they need to re-sign are Max Domi and Victor Mete. While they will both receive raises on their next contract, neither player is going to approach the biggest contract on the team. With Dale Weise, Christian Folin and Keith Kinkaid’s contracts expiring, there is an additional $4.9 million coming off the books to make up for raises on Domi and Mete’s deals.

Even if Domi and Mete combine to make $8 million next season, and the Habs sign Noah Juulsen and Jake Evans to contracts at about a million dollars each, the team will have about $7 million in cap space this summer.

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That is with the cap not moving from $81.5 million. This is going to cause several teams to need to shed some payroll, while the Canadiens can comfortably add if they wish. There are, of course, several different ways they could do that, but one idea is to weaponize their cap space and take advantage of a team in a financial funk.

The most exciting way for the Habs to use their cap space would be to add a top end free agent like Taylor Hall or Alex Pietrangelo. However, Montreal hasn’t been the preferred destination of many free agents over the years, so we can’t count on this route working for the Habs this offseason.

Approaching a team that is in financial trouble and trying to lure away a top restricted free agent would be another possibility. Marc Bergevin tried the offer sheet last summer with Sebastian Aho, perhaps he would go that avenue again. Matt Barzal of the New York Islanders and Mikhail Sergachev of the Tampa Bay Lightning need big raises but their teams don’t have the space to keep everyone. They could be vulnerable, but it didn’t work for the Canadiens last summer, so maybe they avoid that in the future.

Another way the Habs could use their cap space to improve the team is through a clever trade. If a team has no choice but to move salary out, perhaps the Canadiens can entice them to give up a good young player, with an overpaid veteran. The Habs take on some bad money but also add an interesting younger piece at the same time. The Habs wouldn’t have to give up anything off their own roster, but could add a decent young player, if they accept a bad contract.

This is exactly what the Canadiens did two years ago to acquire Joel Armia. The Winnipeg Jets needed to clear some cap space and wanted to move out Steve Mason to do that. The goaltender didn’t have a great season for the Jets in 2017-18, but had a $4.1 million cap hit for the following year.

To get rid of his cap hit, the Jets traded him to the Montreal Canadiens for Simon Bourque, who was well down the depth chart in the Habs organization. Why would the Habs add a $4.1 million contract that they didn’t need? Because the Jets also sent Joel Armia in the trade and added 4th and 7th round picks as well.

The Canadiens immediately bought out Mason’s contract and dealt with the $1.36 million cap hit for the past two years. For their trouble, they added a two-way winger who fits into their top nine and a couple of late picks.

Could we see the Canadiens travel down this road again? Absolutely, we could.

While it would be great to take a player like Alex Killorn from Tampa to save them space, or Nick Leddy from the Islanders, teams would prefer to make this type of trade with someone outside their division for sure, and possibly even their conference altogether.

That is why the team I think the Habs should approach with this type of offer is the Vancouver Canucks. For one, they have a number of awful contracts they would love to get rid of, and they have someone similar to Armia who is a very intriguing player.

Jake Virtanen was the Canucks first round pick in 2014. While his career has not quite taken off the way Canucks fans hoped when he was the sixth overall pick in that draft, he has all the tools but is yet to put everything together.

Virtanen’s NHL career had a few false starts, but he put together a solid 2019-20 season. He scored 18 goals and 36 points in 69 games. The 23 year old set career highs across the board, and brings a nasty, physical edge to his game as well. He is a good skater and has decent size at 6’1″ and close to 230 pounds.

Sometimes players just take a little longer to develop than their fans want. Sometimes, they are good players that just never reach the heights that were initially expected. It can be tough for a top ten pick to “just” be a solid third line player in the market that drafted him. When the fans think they are getting a first line power forward, it’s difficult to embrace that player when he becomes a solid third line contributor.

Often times a change of scenery can help. Either the players feels less pressure in a new market, or his new team simply appreciates what he does bring to the table and don’t care what they thought he would become five years ago.

Virtanen still has the potential to be a top six power forward in the future, but as a restricted free agent this offseason, his time might be up in Vancouver. Why is that? Well, the Canucks are enamoured, by all accounts, with trade deadline pickup Tyler Toffoli. They also have Brock Boeser on the right side, making it nearly impossible for Virtanen to crack the top six.

Perhaps, they can be enticed to package Virtanen with one of their bad contracts to clear cap space. The Canucks want to re-sign goaltender Jacob Markstrom, defenceman Chris Tanev and Toffoli. They need to clear out a few bucks to make it all happen, especially with new contracts for Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson the following season.

Ideally, the Canucks would find someone to take on the last two years of Loui Eriksson’s $6 million cap hit, but that’s not likely to happen. No offence to Virtanen, but it would take a much bigger sweetener that him to get anyone to take Eriksson’s contract.

Aside from Eriksson, the Canucks have Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle set to earn $3 million each of the next two years. They have Brandon Sutter at a $4.375 million cap hit next season and Sven Baertschi earns $3.36 million against the cap for one more year. They would love to get rid of any of these contracts to make room next season.

From a Canucks perspective, they would like to move out whoever has the most term, but that doesn’t make sense for another team to acquire. But, if the Habs were willing to take Sutter’s contract? That might be enough to get the Canucks to move Virtanen.

With Nate Thompson traded at the deadline, the Habs could even use a veteran centre to challenge Jake Evans for the fourth line role. Evans has looked good in small doses but we can’t be sure he is ready for NHL duty. Having a veteran guy, even a severely overpaid one, for next season would be ideal.

The Habs can easily handle the cap hit, so they wouldn’t even need to buy out Sutter. One wrinkle that might be hard to iron out though is Sutter’s 15 team no trade list. If Montreal is on the list, the deal is done before it has a chance to gain any steam. In this case, the Canadiens could turn their attention to Baertschi. His $3.36 million cap hit isn’t as onerous, but he was in the minors for most of the season so the Canucks would surely like to move his contract.

You can fill in the particulars around this deal with Michael Pezzetta or Hayden Verbeek going to Vancouver just to move out a contract. However, the basis of a trade around Sutter and Virtanen coming to Montreal for basically nothing in return makes sense for both sides.

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It makes a lot more sense than the ridiculous Boeser trade rumours swirling around at the moment. Trading Virtanen wouldn’t be an easy decision for the Canucks, but if it meant clearing close to $4.5 million in cap space to get Markstrom, Tanev and Toffoli signed, they would have to strongly consider the possibility.