QSAO’s Insights around the NHL: Offseason Edition – How the Montreal Canadiens & Vancouver Canucks have fared thus far

By Constantine Maragos

If there is one thing we learned this year, it’s that things can change on a dime. The NHL offseason is a testament to that theory. Through the NHL Draft and Free Agency, we have seen rebuilds kickstarted, rosters reimagined, and of course, the ever-lasting goaltender carousel continues. With so many question marks heading into the season, NHL front offices have (mostly) done their best to prepare their teams for the upcoming 2021 NHL season, whenever that may be. 

The Vegas Golden Knights and Buffalo Sabres landed the big tickets of the offseason, signing Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall, respectively. The Calgary Canucks Flames made some tremendous veteran additions to their defense, signing the number one free agent goaltender in Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev. The Nashville Predators made some shrewd business moves to clear salary and open up their roster, while also drafting their Pekka Rinne successor in Yaroslav Askarov. Even the Ottawa Senators found a way to get better in the short-term, trading for goaltender Matt Murray and signing winger Evgeny Dadonov. Even now, there are still free agents on the market who can make a considerable impact on any roster, namely Mike HoffmanSami Vatanen and Anthony Duclair.

With this much movement, we are looking at an all-new NHL. So, after a short break, QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL has returned for an offseason redux. In the first of two offseason editions, we look at how the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks’ busy offseasons have gone so far.

The Montreal Canadiens make multiple splashes – But are the Habs better off?

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If there was one General Manager this offseason who made it his goal to make some big moves, it’s Marc Bergevin. The Canadiens were active on the free agent and trade front as soon as the Flyers bounced them in six games. Technically speaking, the first move the Habs made for this season was signing defenseman Alexander Romanov to an entry-level deal, burning a year off his ELC so that he could practice with the team during the NHL’s Return To Play. Romanov’s arrival in Montreal has been long-awaited ever since the Habs selected him 38th overall in 2018. 

Romanov provides solid value as a rookie, with solid offensive upside and a steady defensive presence. With captain Shea Weber as a mentor and suitable partner on the back-end, Romanov looks to be an ideal fit on the now cap-strapped Habs roster.

Speaking of cap space, Bergevin clearly received the go-ahead to spend to the ceiling, handing out a number of high dollar deals with term. The first two moves came in the span of a few days, trading for and subsequently extending both new backup goaltender Jake Allen and veteran defenseman Joel Edmundson to extensions. Jake Allen was one of the best backups in the league last year, posting a 0.927 Sv% and 11.25 Goals Saved Above-Average through 24 regular-season games, however, Edmundson\’s extension is quite perplexing. 

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The Montreal Canadiens signed Edmundson to a three-year, $14-million deal after acquiring his negotiation rights for a 2020 fifth-round selection on September 12. Based on his isolated output at even-strength, Edmundson does not provide much and actually detracts value from his team in his own end, where you would expect him to do the opposite (obviously). Of course, it is worth noting that trading for his rights was relatively cheap, and Edmundson fit well in a shutdown role two seasons ago with St. Louis.

The signing bears the question though; would this cap space have been better served for another player on the open market and acquire more offense at the back end? 

Given the options on the market, probably not, and the unfortunate reality is that free agent signings come at the cost of cap space premium, rather than assets, which most fans tend to forget. However, given Montreal\’s wealth of draft capital, I am confused as to why they did not enquire on either Devon Toews or Nikita Zadorov on the trade front. In terms of relative value, both performed far better than Edmundson did. Toews would have been the more likely candidate in terms of a potential package given Colorado\’s current win-now position, but the question still stands.

I’m willing to concede that Edmundson has the potential to fit into Montreal’s well-oiled defensive machine that they are assembling. But, based on his production, I cannot ignore the immense risk (not to mention contract bury potential) this contract has past the first year of the deal. But hey, at least it isn’t as bad as the Alzner deal, right?

Beyond these acquisitions, the Habs’ offseason agenda did not stop there. For whatever reason, the relationship between forward Max Domi and the organization soured throughout this past season, which could have boiled down to Domi’s inability to provide consistent value at centre, hence why he was considered expendable. So, the Habs shipped Domi and the 78th overall selection in the 2020 Draft for winger Josh Anderson. Shortly after, the Habs inked Anderson to a monster seven-year, $38.5-million contract. 

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At first, I was a little shocked by this deal. Not because I don’t think Anderson is a good player (I do, which I will explain in a moment), but because Bergevin is betting Anderson sustains the production he has shown in flashes throughout the deal. Anderson’s injury-riddled 2019-20 season is essentially a wash, but to hand out such term on a whim is surprising. 

As a goal scorer, Anderson not only produces on the scoresheet but is also an elite penalty-killer, which fits the Habs’ MO. In 2018-19, Anderson had a career year, scoring 26 goals and 47 points, one goal shy of Domi’s 28 goal, 72-point season. While the point totals heavily favour Domi, Anderson actually had a much higher on-ice impact overall, posting a 2.6 Wins Above Replacement on the year, compared to Domi’s 2.0 WAR. Looking deeper, the duo’s even-strength output was similar. With relatively even time-on-ice, Domi scored only two more goals than Anderson with a 4% higher deployment in the offensive zone. 

Trading Domi is certainly a dividing topic amongst the fan base, given his popularity in the city. However, with Domi’s tenure in Montreal seemingly finished, and to not take a step backwards, Bergevin pulled the trigger on Anderson. Based on insider reports, the market for a player like Domi, and the return Montreal was looking for, was thin. Anderson on the other hand was a hot commodity, so the Canadiens felt they had to pull the trigger on the move. At surface level, it’s easy to say that losing Domi (and a third) for Anderson alone can be seen as a lopsided deal but I do think that Anderson is not only a better fit for Montreal, but he will also provide solid offensive production from the jump. 

The Habs’ big free-agent signing of the offseason was poaching Tyler Toffoli from Vancouver, penning him to a four-year, $17-million deal. The addition of Toffoli provides the Canadiens with tremendous winger & goalscoring depth and provides flexibility in terms of winger pairings for rookie graduate Nick Suzuki, who looks poised to take another step forward after an excellent regular season and playoff.

In all honesty, I do think that the Montreal Canadiens got better this offseason. They secured star defenseman Jeff Petry to a well-deserved four-year extension, as well as defensemen Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen to short-term, cost-controlled deals. Brendan Gallagher’s gargantuan six-year, $39-million extension is another point of contention. Although, his offensive production is amongst the best in the league (he places in the top 1% of NHL players in Goals/60 over the past three seasons), and it’s incredibly hard to argue he hasn’t earned this contract. 

The question that remains is, will Montreal’s high spending strategy pay off? History says otherwise, but there could be a method to the madness behind Bergevin’s masterplan.

The Canucks’ past FA blunders have come back to haunt them – But why this offseason was not a complete step backwards

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This was an offseason filled with promise for the Vancouver Canucks. Off the heels of an exciting return to the NHL postseason, Vancouver’s young core of Elias PetterssonQuinn HughesBo HorvatBrock Boeser and company put the league on notice; the Canucks were coming. While their first foray into the postseason was an excellent start, the Canucks’ weaknesses shone through quite visibly against the top-seeded Vegas Golden Knights. Plagued by weak defensive zone play and little-to-no depth scoring in the summer, the Canucks had a variety of avenues to take if they wanted to take another step forward. However, the Canucks also had several important free agents, all without an abundance of cap space.  

With around $14-million in cap space, the Canucks had to find a way to re-sign several key roster players, including Jacob MarkstromTyler ToffoliChris TanevJake Virtanen and Troy Stecher

Spoiler alert. They didn’t.

The first misstep in the Canuck’s offseason is failing to take advantage of two buyout windows to clear salary; one before free agency and one after signing Jake Virtanen (for contracts over $4-million AAV). Given the option, one of Brandon Sutter or Antoine Roussel would have been the ideal candidates, as the rest of the potential options were essentially buyout proof

I think it goes without saying that if the Canucks had any chance of significantly improving their roster, it began with clearing space. The Loui Eriksson trade chatter erupted as soon as the Canucks left the bubble. Given Loui Eriksson’s contract structure, his real salary is significantly lower than his cap hit, which made the idea of dealing him to a team looking to reduce their payroll an enticing option. However, that never materialized. I know it’s frustrating, but Loui Eriksson (and his cap hit) will remain a Canuck, or in the very least a Utica Comet, until his deal expires; that’s the unfortunate reality.

Circling back to Sutter, I am surprised there wasn’t as much public traction on the trade front as I expected. After a lacklustre regular season, Sutter’s adequate performance in the bubble was a showcase to what he could contribute (at a retained salary) to another roster. But, veteran leadership is hard to come by these days right? Sven Baertschi was another buyout/trade candidate to free up space, but to give Jim Benning credit, this option has already been explored extensively and didn’t garner much attention. I’m not shocked that nothing changed a second time around.

You have to wonder why the Canucks were unable to manufacture extra cap space given how crucial this offseason was, especially considering Olli JuoleviKole Lind and Jake Virtanen were names floating around Oliver Ekman-Larsson trade rumours leading up to free agency. You have to wonder whether or not front office felt comfortable attaching either name (or draft capital) with dead salary to not only maintain their key free agents but add more depth on the market. 

As you already know, Friday, October 9th marked the beginning of the Canucks’ free-agent exodus, as Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, Chris Tanev, and Troy Stecher all found new homes. As a Canucks fan, the lack of action before free agency was extremely frustrating. But, to give Jim Benning credit, he was smart to walk away from the paydays that Markstrom & Tanev got. The Flames nabbed the pair, signing Markstrom to a six-year, $36-million deal while inking Tanev to a four-year, $18-million contract. 

While losing both players to the Flames puts a bit of salt in the wound, whether or not Vancouver had the capacity to complete these deals is irrelevant to the fact that they are just too expensive given the team’s cap structure. Both Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes need new contracts next year, and Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and JT Miller’s deals expire in the next two to three years. For the sake of the Canuck’s long-term salary health, these moves are addition by subtraction. 

What really hurt was seeing Tyler Toffoli and Troy Stecher walk for more-than-fair deals. As I mentioned previously, Toffoli signed in Montreal at a $4.25-million cap hit, while Troy Stecher signed a two-year, $3.4-million contract with the Detroit Red Wings. In third-pairing minutes, Stecher provided a steady contribution to the defense, and certainly more than a $1.7-million cap hit would indicate. While letting Stecher go is heartwrenching, to say the least, the Toffoli move is what really stings from a long term perspective. 

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In his short stay in Vancouver, Tyler Toffoli looked to be the missing piece in the Canucks’ top-six. His mix of speed and scoring talent provided the perfect complement to Elias Pettersson and JT Miller on the top line during the regular season, and his responsible defensive play added stability to Bo Horvat’s shutdown line. Add the price of a 2020 second-round pick and prospect Tyler Madden to the loss, and it makes for a pretty rough trade loss.

While this section seems to be a bit of a drag, there are some significantly redeeming aspects of Canucks’ offseason. 

For the second year in a row, the Canucks hit another home-run on the trade front, acquiring defenseman Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights for a 2022 third-round draft pick. Yes, you read that right. Vancouver took advantage of a team in a cap situation worse than their own, and got a bonafide top-four defenseman for pennies on the dollar. 

Recently, the Canucks defense’s biggest ailment is their lacking defensive play at even-strength (which sounds way worse when you actually type it out). Nate Schmidt is an even-strength monster. Over the past two seasons, Nate Schmidt has led the Knights’ defense in ice-time at 5v5, and primarily used as in a shutdown role. Despite most of his minutes coming up against top competition, Schmidt had excellent possession numbers, posting a 51.86 CF%, as well as a team-leading 1.24 High Danger Goals Against/60. Personally speaking, if it weren’t for Schmidt’s play, the Knights’ defense would not look as good as it does now.

To visualize, the Golden Knights went without Schmidt for the first 20 games of the season due to suspension. In that span, the Knights posted a record of 8-11-1, with the Knights top-six averaging no lower than 2.5 expected Goals Against/60 and allowing the majority of High Danger Goals Against. In the twenty games after Schmidt’s return, not only did the Knights’ record improve to 21-15-4, but the defense improved significantly. Each Golden Knight defenseman’s goals-against rates improved, as did their High-Danger Chance suppression. In this twenty-game span, Schmidt began around 57% of his shifts in the defensive zone against the NHL’s top competition, which ranks 11th amongst all defensemen (min. 300 minutes played).

If Schmidt’s responsible defensive play transitions well into a pairing with Alex Edler, this may open up even more space for Quinn Hughes to display his offensive prowess. Schmidt’s acquisition provides flexibility in the Canucks’ defensive pairings in general, as Schmidt could also walk on to Vancouver’s top pairing, but I see that as a less likely outcome.

For their contract signings, the Canucks’ signing of goaltender Braden Holtby to a two-year, $8.6-million deal is a tidy bit of business. Holtby will slot into the 1A/1B role with playoff hero Thatcher Demko perfectly, as goaltending coach Ian Clark prepares him to transition into the team’s future number one. While Holtby’s performance over the past two seasons has been poor (.906 Sv%, -14.91 GSAA, since 2018-19), a fresh start and step away from the responsibilities of playing nearly 50-60 games a season will bode well for his play with the Canucks.

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Despite the internal losses illustrated above, the Canucks did bring back Tyle MotteAdam Gaudette, and Virtanen on relatively team-friendly deals. Motte’s two-year, $2.45-million contract is a reward for being Vancouver’s most consistent bottom-six forward. Motte is the definition of heart. He gives every shift 110% and can chip in offensively at times, as shown through his 4-goal postseason. Given that he often lines up alongside possession anchors in Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle, Motte does a decent job of limiting opponent shot opportunities, not to mention his elite penalty-killing abilities.

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It will be interesting to see how Jake Virtanen (two-years, $5.1-million) & Adam Gaudette (one-year, $950k) take advantage of the seemingly increased opportunity for them next season. Both possess impressive offensive abilities but are horrid defensively. Both place in the bottom 25% of NHL players in terms of defensive production over the past three seasons, not to mention that Virtanen is one of the most undisciplined players in the league, as you can see to the right.

At the end of the day, the Canucks believe that Virtanen is a top-six winger and that Gaudette is capable of anchoring the top-nine. Hopefully, they can match the front office’s trust with them with improvement on both ends of the ice next season.

As it stands, the Canucks are roughly $1.5-million over the cap limit. What this means is that they have to clear salary. Whether that be through burying Baertschi & Eriksson’s salary, which barely clears $1-million in cap space, or through a trade, a move needs to be made. What makes things interesting is Michael Ferland’s health situation. Ferland struggled to stay healthy due to lingering concussion issues, and we should expect a decision on his future relatively soon, which impacts how the Canucks maneuver through the rest of the offseason.

Should the Canucks come into extra cap room, whether that be through trade or LTIR. They should look to the bargain-bin to fill out their roster. For forwards, if Mike Hoffman drops his asking price, bringing him in on a one-year deal would fill the role left by Toffoli to a tee. Hoffman has been one of the best snipers ever since breaking into the league, scoring no less than 22 goals per season. This type of consistency would give the Canucks one of the most dangerous top-six units (and powerplays) in the league. On the backend, bringing one of Travis Hamonic or Slater Koekkok in on a league-minimum would give the Canucks defense ample depth. Another interesting target on defense is Sami Vatanen, but he is likely priced out of the Canucks budget (should signing Hoffman even be in the realm of possibility).

Overall, Vancouver made the sad, but smart move to part with veterans like Jacob Markstrom & Chris Tanev, and did well to fill their shoes in the meantime. If they can add a couple more pieces before the puck drops in 2021, this offseason should not be viewed as devastating by fans as it is now.

Statistics retrieved from CapFriendly, DailyFaceoff, DobberProspects, Habs Eyes On The Prize, HockeyViz, JFresh Hockey, Natural StatTrick, NHL.com, Elite Prospects

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