Artemi Panarin, Brayden Point, Free Agents, Matt Duchene, Montreal Canadiens

Canadiens’ Free Agent Targets

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The Montreal Canadiens are coming off a season in which they put up 96 points and still did not qualify for the playoffs. Adding insult to injury, was seeing the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. However, one of the Canadiens’ key flaws was that their goal differential, which was not at the same level as the teams that did qualify for the post-season. To put it in perspective, the Canadiens finished with a +13 goal differential, while the Blue Jackets doubled that with +26.

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

It could be argued that this is a direct result of leaving too many goal opportunities on the table. There was no denying that the Canadiens struggled mightily on the power play. They also did not do themselves any favours by playing in a lot of low-scoring games, which ultimately affected their ROW (a combination of regulation and overtime wins).

Marc Bergevin and his team were able to get Montreal back on the right track with some smart and savvy moves last off-season. This season has to be another step in the right direction. With money to spend, there is no excuse for management not to try and snatch a big fish. Here are three names that should be high up on the Habs’ radar.

Honestly, if somebody would ask me about coming to Montreal, I could only say positive things. I think media were nice to us, fans were great. Nothing comes to mind why unrestricted free agents shouldn’t come here. They would really enjoy the hockey Club and everybody’s interest in hockey here. The players who played against us this year can say we’re a fast team and a really young team too, so there’s a future here for sure.

Tomas Tatar said as the Canadiens cleaned out their lockers. – CBC Sports

1. Artemi Panarin

The player that will be on everyone’s radar is forward Artemi Panarin. Panarin is one of the key pieces that helped the Blue Jackets get to the playoffs and advance to the second round. He finished with 28 goals and 78 points throughout the season, and has looked dynamic in the playoffs with five points in four games.

The 27-year-old Russian is a pure goal scorer, entering the peak of his NHL career. With the likelihood of centre Ryan Poehling joining the fray next season, having a puck-handling wizard in Panarin on the wing would be the perfect fit on a top scoring line for the Canadiens.

Forward Artemi Panarin of the Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin would fit in well with the Montreal Canadiens. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The one problem with trying to lure one of the most sought after free agents this summer is the price tag. His value is only increasing as the Blue Jackets advance in the playoffs, and the 5’11” forward should command an average of $8-$9 million or possibly more. One positive might be that he has consistently mentioned that he wants the big city life with a great hockey atmosphere, which is great because that is Montreal.If someone asked me about coming here as a UFA, I can only say positive things, There’s no reason why an unrestricted free agent shouldn’t come. He would enjoy the hockey club, and the players who played against us this year would say we’re a fast team and we’re a young team so there’s a future here.

2. Matt Duchene

The second name on this list is also a member of the Blue Jackets. Matt Duchene went from a very bad situation in Ottawa to a much better one in Columbus. He only tallied 12 points in 23 regular season games after getting traded from the Senators, but since the calendar flipped to April, the 28-year-old Ontario native has been a beast.

Not only was he chomping at the bit to get back to the playoffs, but he was looking to contribute in a big way. Duchene has done exactly that. In four playoff games, he has seven points and is playing over 15 minutes a game.

Columbus Blue Jackets Matt Duchene
Columbus Blue Jackets center Matt Duchene (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

It will be very expensive and tough for Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen to retain both Duchene and Panarin, meaning one or both could be on their way out. There is no denying that the Canadiens could use some improvement at the centre position. With Max Domi showing he can handle the workload down the middle, complimenting him with Panarin or Duchene would rival any other team’s one-two punch.

Throughout this season, Duchene has made it very clear he wants to play for a team that can win now, and provides a big hockey market. The Canadiens showed this season they are ready to take the next step in their rebuild and adding a player of this caliber would only accelerate the process.

3. Brayden Point

The third player on this list is where things get interesting. Brayden Point is coming off a career season with 41 goals and 92 points. He is a versatile two-way forward that can play down the middle or on the wing. The thing about him is that he is a restricted free agent (RFA), which means that any offer that is extended to him can be matched by the Lightning.

Although he is not a true free agent, he is still able to speak with other teams once free agency opens up. However, the real question here is whether or not Bergevin would pull the trigger and extend an offer sheet.

Brayden Point #21, Tampa Bay Lightning
Brayden Point #21, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Point is coming off the third season of his entry level contract and has continued to elevate his play each year. However, Tampa Bay is in a bit of a pickle. Following an astonishing sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning might have to make some tough decisions. Considering the lack of flexibility they have with the cap, general manager Julien BriseBois will have a tough time matching any big deal offered to Point. This is where a team like the Canadiens can swoop in and make a big play for the young forward.

The issue with RFAs is that in the last ten years only two offer sheets have been extended. In 2012, Shea Weber was offered a 14-year, $110 million dollar offer from the Philadelphia Flyers before the Nashville Predators matched the deal. In 2013, Ryan O’Reilly was offered a deal by the Calgary Flames before the Colorado Avalanche matched it a few days later. There seems to be an unwritten rule that general managers do not like to give out offer sheets. That being said, if the Canadiens are truly looking to acquire the best players this off-season, they should look no further than Point.

No Excuses

As well as the Canadiens were able to do this season, there was still a ton of areas that need to be fixed before heading into 2019-20. Panarin, Duchene and Point are all offensively gifted but even more importantly, they add another scoring element to one of the worst power plays in the league.

The other thing to note is that the Canadiens have had more success through trades than free agency. Bergevin hit a home run when he persuaded Jeff Petry to stick around after trading for him, but his he was left fortunate signing Brandon Prust and Karl Alzner.

Goaltender Carey Price
Goaltender Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

For the Canadiens, failure is not an option next season. After missing the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, and with the team showing a lot of promise this year, there is no excuse not to bulk up offensively. They could use another defenseman but with Noah Juulsen returning from injury and the strong play of both Brett Kulak and Christopher Folin, the more immediate need is on offense.

To think of one of these players joining the fray alongside Poehling or Nick Suzuki, this team could go from the middle of the pack in scoring to being on top of the league.

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