Expansion Draft Preview: Montreal Canadiens

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

Probably the most important piece of the Seattle Kraken puzzle, the guy on whose back the fortunes of this team largely ride, is the starting goalie. Yes, it’s a team sport; yes, everyone bears responsibility for whether a team wins or loses on any given night; but if your starting goalie sucks, your team is at a disadvantage from the get-go. You can’t say that about any other single player on the ice.

Which is why the selection of the starting goaltender is so vital to Kraken GM Ron Francis and his scouting staff. Getting “THE GUY” to lead this team between the pipes is going to be one of the most important things they do during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. It’s not an easy task: it is part research, part scouting, and part fortune telling. They’re trying to find the player who can either maintain the level of good play that he has been exhibiting, or consistently rise to the level of play that he has shown the potential to deliver.

The good news is, every team has to make a goaltender available. The bad news is, very few of those netminders will be starter-quality. Today we’re going to look at one who is, and discuss how his current team is going to try to hang on to him, and what the Kraken might want to accept as an incentive to let them.

Off-Season Acquisition

The Montreal Canadiens’ problem last year was their backup goaltending. They didn’t have anyone who could reliably deliver them a chance to win on any night that starter Carey Price needed a rest. As a result they overplayed Price, reducing the frequency with which he played up to his abilities, and suffered mightily in the standings. They needed a reliable backup, so they went and got one.

Jake Allen was drafted by St. Louis in the 2nd round in 2008, and had worked his way up to the starter’s job. His best season was 2016-17, posting a 33-20-5 record with a 2.42 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. But his play suffered the following season, and by the time the Blues were entering their eventual Stanley Cup-winning playoff run Allen had been de-throned by the Blues’ 3rd round pick in 2011, Jordan Binnington. Technically Allen has his name in the Cup, but he played only 24 minutes in a single game during the playoffs that year.

Backing up Binnington in 2019-20 Allen was back to form: 2.15 GAA and .927 SV%, with a 12-6-3 record. So during the off-season Montreal pounced, trading two 7th round picks to acquire Allen and installing him for this season as Carey Price’s backup. The plan worked: Allen is still hot, posting .922 SV% and 2.23 GAA to this point in the year. Montreal has the second-fewest goals against in the North Division, and Montreal is well situated to make the post-season.

Then Montreal GM Marc Bergevin did something weird.

Expansion Draft Considerations

Before teams even hit the ice for pre-season – hell, before the league even decided that there would be a season — Marc Bergevin signed Allen to a two-year, $2.875 million AAV contract for the 2021-22 and 22-23 seasons. This was not only a $1.5 million pay cut for Allen, but it happened without any apparent consideration for Allen’s disposition for the expansion draft.

Each team can only protect one goalie. Montreal has Carey Price under contract for another 5 years at $10.5 million AAV, with a full no-movement clause. That NMC means the Canadiens have to protect Price, there is no other option unless he waives (which seems highly unlikely). Knowing this, Bergevin still went ahead and renewed Jake Allen’s contract at a budget-friendly rate and short contract term! That makes no sense whatsoever. It’s was as if either 1) he forgot there was going to be an expansion draft at all, or 2) he was serving Allen up on a platter for the Kraken to feast on.

Or, maybe he had something else in mind.

Ducks In A Row

So we’ve already covered the fact that the starting goalie is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle when the Kraken come to drafting their team for the inaugural season. So we’ll tell you now that statistically Allen is in the top three goaltenders in the league among those we project as being available for the expansion draft. And among those three Allen has the most attractive blend of age, experience, and contract cost.

Put another way, any list of potential goaltenders to select during the expansion draft that the Kraken professional scouting staff might have put together likely has Jake Allen’s name at or near the top. He’s cheap relative to the average price for a starting goaltender, he has several good years left in him even after his current contract expires, and he’s likely eager to get out from the shadows of the #1 goaltenders he has been serving the last two seasons.

In every other way, Marc Bergevin has his ducks in a row: 11 of his top 12 forwards are either exempt, protected, or pending UFA; same goes for 4 of his top 6 defensemen. He also has goaltender Michael McNiven available to expose in the expansion draft as a restricted free agent, assuming he gets qualified. So there is no reason to put Jake Allen in a position where he is exposed. Bergevin knows how to do this; yet he made this one huge error.

Unless it wasn’t an error at all. Unless Bergevin knew that he wanted to keep Allen, he wanted him for another 2 seasons, and he was willing to pay the price for doing so. Maybe he knew going into this that he would have to pony up a draft pick or a prospect, maybe even a roster player in his upper echelons, in order to keep Allen. And maybe he was okay with that.

That may have been an even bigger mistake than he realized.

Three Assets

A report from TSN.ca came out this past week addressing some discussions that have apparently taken place between the league’s GM’s and Ron Francis. Inquiries were being made about what the price might be to ignore a juicy unprotected player on a team’s roster. They got some pretty harsh news from the Kraken GM.

I was hoping that when it came to the side deals we expect to see the Kraken negotiate with various teams around the league, Francis would play hard ball. As it turns out, the game he had in mind was more like bare-knuckle boxing. According to this report, the price for not selecting a certain player on a team’s eligible list starts at a first-round pick, and goes up from there — in certain cases, possibly as high as two additional assets on top of the first-rounder.

And since we’re talking about what, right now, looks like the leading candidate to be the Kraken’s starting goaltender in October, I would expect that three assets is going to be the minimum required to get Seattle to leave Jake Allen alone.

So: we know we’re asking for a first-round pick, that’s a given. What else do we want? In other words: let’s go shopping!

Points On The Board

The one thing that will be in short supply during the expansion draft is scoring. The forwards that the Kraken will be choosing from will consist largely of bottom-six assets, or expensive (and older) top-six players who are past their prime. So the acquisition of guys who put the points on the board will mostly come through free agency, or through deals like the one we hope will come to fruition with the Canadiens.

With that in mind, let’s look at who the Canadiens could potentially offer to Seattle from the ranks of their top point producers.

RW Tyler Toffoli, $4.25 million AAV, signed through 2024. Toffoli leads the Habs in both goals and points as of this writing (19 goals, 28 points), and on a per-game basis this could be his best year yet. He spent most of his career with the Kings before being moved to Vancouver; he signed with Montreal this off-season. He’s not somebody Montreal has put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into developing, so they might just be okay with dealing him to Seattle. Toffoli earns his living in the shallow slot; most of his goals are within a stick’s reach of the net. His career totals are 556 games played, 164 goals, 164 assists, and a combined plus-91. If scoring is what the Kraken need, they could do a lot worse.

LW Jonathan Drouin, $5.5 million AAV, signed through 2023. Drouin is a passing sorcerer. If there is a hole big enough for a puck to fit through, he will thread that needle. Tap passes to teammates in the slot, 120-foot stretch passes tape-to-tape, no-look backhand passes to late-breaking defensemen. His stats illustrate this very well: in 383 games he has 69 goals and 161 assists. Not as exciting as Toffoli, but as good a set-up man as you will find.

C Nick Suzuki, $863,000 AAV, RFA (exempt). If the Canadiens are willing to give up Suzuki, then they *really* must want to hold on to Jake Allen. Suzuki is in the #2C role right now, and looks to stay there for many years to come. He is both fast and hard to knock off the puck, and is an intelligent player who sees the ice well. He put up 41 points in 71 games in his rookie season last year, and has improved his defensive game this year on top of that. Suzuki is a rising star in the Canadiens organ-eye-zation, and being able to pick him up would be a huge win.

C Jesperi Kotkaniemi, $925,000 AAV, RFA. Bigger and younger than Suzuki, this play-making forward went straight from his #3 overall selection in the 2018 draft to a regular spot in the Canadiens’ lineup. His rookie year he posted 11 goals and 23 assists in 79 games; he weathered the stereotypical Sophomore Slump, and is now performing well again centering the third line. Kotkaniemi has a lightning-fast release on a deceptive and pinpoint accurate shot, and he gets many of his goals from right in an opposing goalies’ kitchen. And despite his 6’2″ frame, he still has very good speed. Another future star with the Canadiens, or maybe the Kraken, if we can pry him away.

Raw Materials

The other thing that Montreal has in abundance is young defensemen with genuine potential. Based on what we believe to be the protected lists across the league, the Kraken should be able to put a competitive defensive corps on the ice from Day 1. But in order to sustain that success in their own zone, they need to start building a group of young, talented blueliners in the farm system. Montreal could potentially contribute some raw materials to that building effort.

LD Kaiden Guhle, $925,000 AAV, signed through 2023. Without question this is a lump of coal, but with the right application of time and nurturing he’s a potential diamond. Scouting reports on him are glowing across the board: goals, playmaking, and defense. Last year with Prince Albert is a good example: 11 goals, 29 assists, and a plus-23. Guhle is only 19, so it’s likely that he has not fully filled out his 6’3″, 209 lb. frame. If he reaches his full potential, he’s the next Shea Weber. The unfortunate detail here is that this current season has been hampered by injury, and scouts may not get a good look at him before the expansion draft.

LD/RD Alexander Romanov, $894,000 AAV, signed through 2022. Here we have a more fully developed player, but the upside is somewhat limited. Romanov is a 21-year-old stay-at-home style defenseman who put in two full seasons with CSKA Moskva in the KHL before coming to North America. He made the Habs’ opening night roster straight out of camp, and has played 33 games on the bottom pairing for Montreal this year — notching a goal and 4 assists, and currently sits at plus-8 on the year. Young, inexpensive, reliable, and NHL-ready right now.

RD Victor Mete, $735,000 AAV, RFA. Small. That’s what you’re going to hear about this right-shot defenseman: he’s too small. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in speed and smarts. Despite his youth this is his fourth year with the big club, spending most of his time on the bottom pairing and filling in higher up the depth chart when injuries occur. His time with the OHL’s London Knights illustrate his potential: 176 games, 30 goals, 75 assists, and a combined plus-108. And whether it’s the OHL, AHL, or NHL, Mete is never in the minus column. Never. He’s the perfect illustration of the new NHL: size does not necessarily matter.

Can’t Lose

Montreal fans are going to kill themselves laughing when they read this list, never believing that the Canadiens will part with any of these assets under any circumstances. (They may be in for quite a rude shock on draft day, but that’s immaterial.) If they’re right, and Marc Bergevin thinks the price Ron Francis is asking to steer clear of Jake Allen is highway robbery, then that will be just fine with Seattle. They’ll select Jake Allen, and get their starting goaltender.

And that’s the best part of the situation with Montreal vis-a-vis the expansion draft: the Kraken literally can’t lose. Bergevin is going to have to part with one, and potentially more than one, key piece of the puzzle for his club. That’s the circumstance he’s put himself in; he is building a team with the ability to go deep in the playoffs in the year leading up to the expansion draft. He had to know that he would be unable to have his proverbial cake and eat it too.

If there is a deal to be made, I would love to have us pick up Toffoli and Romanov, and I think that’s a realistic ask in addition to the first-round pick. It was always going to be a tough task to entice Seattle to ignore valuable assets that teams were forced to leave exposed. Challenging financial circumstances have made it an even tougher hill to climb. That shouldn’t surprise anyone.

But, truth be told, I don’t want a deal to happen with the Canadiens. I want Allen with #34 on the back of his Kraken jersey and between the pipes at Climate Pledge Arena on opening night. More than any player, prospect, or draft pick Montreal can offer, I believe Allen has more potential to positively impact the fortunes of this team. My guess is that Allen is itching to get the starter designation again, and prove that he can backstop a team to playoff success. And I hope he gets to do that in Seattle.

You’ll be able to check out a good number of the players we discussed here tomorrow night, when the Canadiens take on the Maple Leafs. And, as luck would have it, Carey Price is out with an injury and will not be in the lineup for this tilt, so it is highly likely that we will see Jake Allen in goal. Game time is 4:30pm Pacific on Wednesday, April 7th on NBCSN.

Author: Tim Currell

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