Canadiens’ Kent Hughes made the most of what he had to offer at the deadline

BROSSARD, Que. — To judge how Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes navigated the trade deadline, it is important to look at it from the very beginning.

Yes, Hughes managed to trade goaltender Jake Allen to the New Jersey Devils for a conditional third-round pick in 2025, which will turn into a second-round pick if Allen plays 40 games and his club reaches the playoffs, even if that team is no longer New Jersey.

That move, as we’ll get into later, opens up possibilities for the Canadiens, but it really began several months earlier.

More specifically, it began on Dec. 1, when the Canadiens signed goaltender Sam Montembeault to a three-year contract extension worth $3.15 million a year, preventing him from hitting unrestricted free agency at the end of the season. Up until that point, the Canadiens were unsure which goalie they would ultimately have to trade, Montembeault, Allen or Cayden Primeau. That contract made it so Montembeault was now off that list.

Primeau had played the night before that contract was signed and allowed five goals on 29 shots in a 5-1 loss at home to the Florida Panthers. But Primeau’s next two starts were a 46-save performance in Buffalo on Dec. 9, leading the Canadiens to a 3-2 shootout win, and he then allowed two goals on 21 shots in a 5-2 win in Chicago on Dec. 22.

The fact those starts came 13 days apart and Primeau still performed extremely well and that he is 24 years old must have helped the process of deciding who would ultimately go.

But the key moment came on Feb. 2, when Hughes shipped Sean Monahan to the Winnipeg Jets for a first-round pick in 2024, but did so without retaining salary on Monahan. As the Canadiens were engaged in trade talks for Monahan, keeping their final salary retention slot was deemed vital, because they knew that slot was the only way they would be able to trade Allen, or even David Savard if that was the road they wanted to go down instead. Teams are only allowed to retain salary on three contracts in a given league year, and the Canadiens were already retaining money on Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson. So the one slot they had left was precious.

With the benefit of hindsight, that Monahan trade looks even better after the deadline than it did back then. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald traded Tyler Toffoli to the Jets on Friday, a player with 26 goals this season, and got a second- and third-round pick in return.

“That’s the market,” Fitzgerald said. “The market is the market. All these guys in that situation or similar situations were multiple picks, maybe a prospect. You didn’t see any firsts go. So you work with the market, and then you work the market against each other, but at the end of the day this was our best bet.”

You did, in fact, see firsts go, they just didn’t go on deadline day. Hughes getting one when he did for Monahan and doing it the way he did it — to use Fitzgerald’s words, by working with the market and then working the market against each other — seriously adds to Hughes’ grade for this deadline, even if the trade did not happen at the deadline. In that case, Hughes got very aggressive as the trade of Elias Lindholm from the Calgary Flames to the Vancouver Canucks created a shift in the market that he took advantage of. In the case of Allen, however, Hughes remained very patient and waited for the market to come to him.

With that retention slot available, Hughes managed to find a team that — like the Jets with Monahan — were in a situation of serious positional need for someone like Allen. He provides the Devils with short-term help and provides a backup option when Fitzgerald goes, as he said, “big game hunting” for further goaltending help this offseason, a likely reference to Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markström.

“We’re looking at a potential tandem that maybe could be right up there in the league if I was able to land one of these big fishes,” Fitzgerald said, noting Allen had the Devils on his seven-team no-trade list but waived it to go to New Jersey.

A conditional third-round pick that could become a second-round pick, on top of sorting out his own overcrowded goaltending position, makes this deal a win for Hughes. And again, going back to that extension signed by Montembeault in December, the Allen trade essentially makes Montembeault’s raise next season cap neutral.

Yes, the Canadiens will have $1.925 million of Allen’s cap hit on their books next season, but the $1.925 million they are saving comes very close to covering the $2.15 million raise Montembeault is due next season, for one year at least. On top of that, they now have the rest of this season and all of next season to properly evaluate Primeau under a normal backup’s workload.

So, the Canadiens now have five picks in the first three rounds this year and seven picks in the first three rounds next year after trading Monahan and Allen, and as Hughes noted, while the Canadiens have been sellers at the deadline every year he’s had the job, they have also been buyers at the draft. And they will be arriving at the draft with a large bankroll for the next two years.

The Canadiens’ deadline period must also be judged based on what they had to offer teams. There was no Jake Guentzel on the Canadiens. The only rental possibility they had was Tanner Pearson, but really, their most valuable asset was that one retention slot. Using it to trade Pearson — even though he was hoping to get an opportunity to win somewhere else — would not have brought back much of a return, and it sounds like trading him without retention was not much of an option on Friday.

In both Allen and Savard, however, the Canadiens had high-character players with one year left on their contract that they could offer to teams for half price by using that last remaining retention slot.

The acquisition price on Savard was much higher than what it was for Allen, and clearly that price — I believe it was a first-round pick — was not met, which comes as no surprise when looking at some of the other low prices paid around the league. But it was interesting to hear Fitzgerald spend so much time talking about Allen’s value in the dressing room, his character, his attitude, his Stanley Cup-winning experience. That clearly played a role in Fitzgerald targeting Allen, and Savard has all of those same attributes.

Hughes is happy Savard’s attributes will ultimately be helping the Canadiens’ young players, particularly their defencemen, for a bit longer.

“Not everything that we do can be strictly based on maximizing asset value,” he said. “So if we look at every player individually and say, ‘If I trade him at this point in time we get the best return for that player,’ we have to balance that with other things. I think if we’re efficient in terms of how we manage our assets, we put ourselves in a better position to build a hockey team, but ultimately, we’re trying to build a hockey team. And if a player has value to us in terms of what we’re trying to build by being physically present and part of our organization, that’s going to trump trading that player at a later point for something a little bit inferior because there’s value in his time with us that we’re going to carry beyond his time with us.

“And that’s certainly something we were considering in the case of David.”

The clock striking 3 p.m. ET on Friday must have been a massive relief in Savard’s house. He spoke extensively Monday in Nashville on how important it is to his family to stay in Québec and said he was crossing his fingers that’s how it would work out. Now, it has.

The Canadiens did lose something in Allen, however, and that should not be forgotten. He was an exemplary teammate, an excellent influence in a young dressing room and someone who was fully invested in the team’s future success knowing full well he would not be a part of it. In fact, shortly after Montembeault signed his extension, Allen surely knew that meant he would be out the door at some point, perhaps soon. But he couldn’t help but be happy for the person who, ultimately, stole his job.

“I’m happy to see guys get rewarded in this league, it doesn’t matter who it is, but especially a good person like Sam,” Allen said in December. “I couldn’t be happier for him, he’s very deserving, and I think he’s only really touching his ceiling, from my vantage point.”

The Devils got a good one in Allen. But when Hughes signed him to a two-year extension before the start of last season, Montembeault was not really in the picture as a potential No. 1 goalie for the Canadiens, at least not this soon. The point of that contract was to give Montembeault and Primeau time to develop so the organization could figure out what they had in them.

Except that process took a year less than expected, and the Canadiens had to pivot. And ultimately, as was the case with Monahan, Hughes had a price in mind for Allen, and he got it.

Hughes is correct when he says not everything the Canadiens do should be based on maximizing asset value, but at this stage of building their team, it’s certainly important. And with both Monahan and Allen, Hughes did that.

(Photo: Vitor Munhoz / NHLI via Getty Images)

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