The NHL Trade Deadline is now in the books, and there will be teams declared winners and losers.
TSN and Sportsnet will give lip service to six Canadian teams then spend 50 mins of a one-hour broadcast doing a breakdown of every trade to see how it affects the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Hint, they will say the Leafs are now the big winners, and the odds on favorite to win it all thanks to a 38-year-old defenceman). In reality, the big winners were teams like Florida, Tampa Bay and Boston whose deadline additions will make the Atlantic Division playoffs the toughest two playoff rounds fans will watch this spring.
For the Canadiens, however, the deadline wasn’t about loading up for a Stanley Cup playoff run. Instead, general manager Kent Hughes was loading up on picks and prospects to build for what he calls a “sustainable plan” for being a contender over the long term. Is that a fantasy that he is bringing to the island of Montreal? Will he and Jeff Gorton do a press conference wearing white suits and welcome everyone to fantasy island? Or, is there a method to his madness in how he approached the deadline?
Da Plan Boss, Da Plan
Clearly, Hughes and Gorton have a plan. Many felt it was going to be a total rebuild which would have included a fire sale. So far, Hughes has said he doesn’t plan a fire sale, which makes this more of a rebuild on the fly. When healthy, Carey Price is still one of the best goaltenders in the world who can lift a mediocre team into contender status all on his own.
For now, we can focus on Hughes’s first deadline as an NHL GM.
I know this much – I never want to play poker against him. He told the media, and by extension, the hockey world, that he had no plans to trade anyone other than Ben Chiarot, but was open to calls on his players. He mentioned he had specific values on his assets and would move anyone for “the right price”. There is no doubt he got full value in each of his trades leading up to and including deadline day.
His trades provide insight into the rebuilding/renovation plans for the Canadiens. The priority seems to be to rebuild by adding size, speed, and mobility. There is also a focus on building the defence corps in the mold of the modern NHL blueline.
Adding Justin Barron to the prospect pool was a coup. It adds a nearly NHL-ready, big-bodied, mobile defencemen who can play in transition and provide some offense. Habs fans can look forward to a possible reunion of Team Canada’s 2021 World Junior Championships top shutdown pairing of Barron and Kaiden Guhle punishing NHL forwards for years to come.
Fans can look forward to the offensive jump Barron provides:
With the future of Jeff Petry on the Habs roster in serious doubt, bringing in a young two-way defender who has the potential of becoming a physical defender that does well on transition, on the power play, and could provide 40-point seasons, will go a long way in modernizing the defence corps. Add in prospects that former GM Marc Bergevin brought into the system such as Jordan Harris, Mattias Norlinder, Logan Mailloux, and Arbor Xhekaj among others, all of whom play that more modern style, and the future on defence begins to look very bright.
A Royal Flush
In each of his deals Hughes got the value in return he was looking for. In the Tyler Toffoli deal, he added a 2022 first-round pick and a B-level prospect. Emil Heineman has middle-six winger potential, has a 6-1 frame, and good foot speed, fitting the style Hughes is looking to instill. Calgary adds Toffoli and his scoring skill to their top nine for the next three playoff runs, so both sides get a quality return that fits into their current plans.
In trading Ben Chiarot, he held on until his price was met. And, holding out for a first-round pick is an important deal for the future. This has to be seen as a win for the Canadiens as well as the Panthers. Getting a second first-round selection for the 2023 draft, when it is considered to be deeper, gives the Habs a choice to keep multiple picks or to use as trade bait for a chance to move up for one of the elite prospects expected to be available early in that draft.
On deadline day, Hughes moved Brett Kulak to the Edmonton Oilers for a second-round pick and defenceman William Lagesson. His addition gives the Laval Rocket immediate blueline help as they struggle with injuries and defensive depth during the stretch run to earn a playoff spot in the AHL North Division. When most analysts said the Habs would be lucky to get a third-round pick for Kulak, this has to be seen as Hughes bluffing on a poker hand with Ken Holland and winning the value he sought out.
The biggest deadline day trade was that of Artturi Lehkonen to Colorado. This is a trade that gives both teams exactly what they were looking for – Colorado adds one of the NHL’s best defensive wingers to play a key third line and penalty-killing role as they look to challenge for a Stanley Cup this year while the Canadiens add quality futures that can be entering their prime when the window opens for the Habs to compete. As mentioned above, adding Justin Barron has to be seen as a massive win for the Canadiens, and getting an additional second-round pick in 2024 only makes the trade even more palatable.
The importance of the deadline of the waiver pickup of Rem Pitlick can’t be overlooked. His solid two-way game while scoring six goals and 18 points in 26 games made Lehkonen more expendable. The Canadiens won’t have to pay Pitlick nearly as much at the end of the season when both are seeking new deals.
The Canadiens got dealt a bad hand this season with everything going wrong. However, Hughes and the rest of the management team have to be satisfied with the hand they played at the deadline. Bergevin was skilled at getting high value in trades, but I don’t think he could have done any better than Hughes has in his first few months at the helm. By using depth players they added an A-level prospect, two solid B-level ones, two firsts, two seconds, and more.
There is still much left to do. Hughes will need to address moving out Shea Weber’s contract for cap reasons. He will need to find a new home for Petry, and hopefully get something of value in return, as well as decide the futures of Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price with the Canadiens. But those are decisions for the future. As for right now, the team and its assets are locked in until the trade window reopens.
The Canadiens now have 14 top-90 picks over the next three entry drafts to further add to that future to be built around Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Alexander Romanov.
While the big “deadline winners” will be ultimately decided by who wins the Stanley Cup, or more likely have Canadian “national” broadcasters declare the Leafs as winners, there is no doubt that Hughes used the needs of the teams at the top of the standings to his advantage. The rookie GM came out of that day looking like a seasoned veteran executive and has come out of the deadline a winner by building upon the Canadiens’ future.