Canadiens’ Free Agency Approach Shows Long-Term Commitment

Montreal Canadiens general manager (GM) Kent Hughes addressed the media on July 14, the day after the opening of unrestricted free agency (UFA). Other than a few minor signings to support the Laval Rocket, he had little new information to address.

However, sometimes what is not said or done is just as important as what is. By avoiding the temptation to sign UFAs or make a trade for the sake of making a trade, Hughes demonstrated that he is sticking to his plan and has the patience needed to implement it.

Canadiens Add Vital Infrastructure

The age-old adage of “building through the draft” has almost become a cliche. However, in Montreal, it hasn’t really been the case until the former GM began stockpiling draft picks, and the 2022 Draft, when they held the first-overall pick, selecting Juraj Slafkovsky, may turn into one of the most important in building a foundation. With a new management team in place for such a short time, the Canadiens needed to ensure they had every angle covered.

Juraj Slafkovsky, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To help their draft decision-making process, Hughes hired an independent scouting group named Team 33. Adding an outside opinion is one step in the right direction, another is their continued work in adding to the analytics staff. This new department will have far-reaching effects, especially as it is going to be an essential tool for the coaching, developmental and scouting staffs to share their insights on players with each other. Using the data to support the “eye test” can help fill in some of the missing pieces of a player’s play and development.

Canadiens Need Patience

Patience is a virtue and knowing his limitations going into this offseason is paramount. Sticking to his plan of opening cap space, adding prospects, and only making trades that help the club as opposed to simple salary cap dumps will be important.

Related: Canadiens Cap Issues Will Force a Trade 

Case in point, Paul Byron, Jonathan Drouin, Evgenii Dadonov, and Jake Allen’s contracts expiring at the end of this season will open up $16.775 million in salary cap space, something Hughes is very aware of.

“As far as our team is concerned, at some point, one way or the other, we will gain cap flexibility as contracts conclude, where we can accelerate that process, we’ll try to do so. But I think yesterday showed, and I think all season has shown, where you have that type of flexibility — heck, Carolina picked up two pretty good hockey players (Max Pacioretty and Dylan Coghlan) for very little (just future considerations) yesterday. So, we’re mindful of that.” 

Kent Hughes

That brings us to the obvious move: trading Jeff Petry. The expectation was a trade would happen the moment free agency opened, and after Hughes delayed his press conference, the thought was that a deal was imminent. However, it never materialized. He admitted there were trade offers but none that met his desired return. “As I’ve stated all along, we’re not going to do that trade until it works for us as well,” Hughes said.

By being patient and not forcing a trade, he is more likely to reach his goal. At the same time, he is being transparent, which will buy him time with Petry and the fanbase.

Building a Culture of Respect

As Hughes mentioned in his press conference, the Carolina Hurricanes acquired Max Pacioretty from the Vegas Golden Knights, which shows the league that Vegas views their players as pure assets. In their short tenure, the Golden Knights have cut important players loose. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pacioretty, and Nate Schmidt are only a few examples. As exciting as it can be to play hockey in Vegas, eventually, the shine wears off, and the players might think that they are not seen as people but as an asset. Like the city they represent, the team chases the glitz and glamour of a new object at every turn.

Hughes takes the opposite approach than the Vegas management team. He takes the time to acknowledge and validate the issue behind a trade demand and is clear that he is working to accommodate Petry. There is a saying that military veterans over the age of 35 might recognize: “You weren’t issued a family.” It was used as a way of telling members that they will do whatever is asked of them, and it is done without any thought of how it impacts their family life. This approach left room for dealing with someone on a human level and left no work-life balance.

Jeff Petry Montreal Canadiens
Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Hughes’ open approach to communication will likely reassure Petry that his request will be accommodated. At the same time, he is signaling to the rest of the league that trade will only happen when the return is acceptable to him and the Canadiens. This approach, while business-like, demonstrates that he’s building a culture of respect and trust between the new management and the players. That trust should buy Hughes time as Petry knows he is working to make it happen, which also makes it more likely that Petry will willingly return next season and play knowing he’ll get what he wants eventually. It’s good personnel management.

Fans should brace themselves for short-term pain. Even with the arrival of Slafkovsky in Montreal, and the tidal wave of prospects following behind him, his development will not be linear, he will have nights of poor play. The upcoming season will not be one filled with actual victories, so fans will need to settle for moral ones. Such as keeping games competitive, showing resilience with the occasional comeback, and perhaps, a big win against a rival.

The Canadiens will have a difficult time winning games. A quick look at the Habs’ roster compared to the newly re-vamped lineups of all of their Atlantic Division rivals is all it will take to temper expectations. It is clear the Canadiens are, on paper, expected to be in the cellar of the division, and near the bottom of the NHL standings. Yet that is exactly what the plan needs, high picks leading to more high-quality prospects. Adding cap flexibility and a culture of respect that players appreciate, Montreal could become a top destination for UFAs. At that point, the Canadiens could position themselves to add that one missing piece to become contenders.

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