Canadiens strike out in free agency but hit a home run with Juraj Slafkovský extension

BROSSARD, Que. — There was a symbolism in the two big things the Montreal Canadiens tried to accomplish on the opening day of NHL free agency Monday, only one of which was successful.

The successful task was signing Juraj Slafkovský to an eight-year contract extension worth $7.6 million a year, buying four years of unrestricted free agency and locking in the 2022 No. 1 overall pick through age 29.

The unsuccessful task was trying to sign free-agent forward Jonathan Marchessault, the 2023 Conn Smythe Trophy winner coming off a career-high 42-goal season at age 33. Marchessault said the Canadiens were in the running right until the end, but ultimately, he felt the fit was better with the Nashville Predators, becoming a piece of their big splash to try to compete in the extremely top-heavy Central Division.

The Canadiens succeeded in one and failed in the other for the same reason, that their vision for the future is not only two or three years long. In fact, their vision for the future might only begin in two or three (or maybe even four) years. Slafkovský is a big part of that future, Marchessault was not.

So, the Canadiens pushed hard on getting the Slafkovský extension done, and pushed way less hard on Marchessault knowing full well that this bridge role they were offering him was unlikely to get it done, even if they were in all likelihood willing to pay him much more annually than Nashville ultimately did.

So Marchessault took his five-year, $5.5 million AAV offer and went to Music City, and Slafkovský took his $7.6 million a year offer to stay in Montreal until 2033. The Canadiens were unwilling to go longer than three years for Marchessault, meaning they could not compete with the $27.5 million in total money he is getting in Nashville while paying no state income tax, to boot.

“We didn’t go into today thinking we had to accomplish things; we wanted to,” Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said Monday. “I think what happens in free agency, if you go in overly committed to coming out with something, sometimes what happens is you come out with something that you look back on and wish you didn’t.

“So we wanted to enter the day with discipline and say if we can do this under these parameters, otherwise we’re fine to continue to wait and see if something materializes, either via free agency or via trade.”

Ultimately, even if the Canadiens had been successful on both their tasks Monday, signing Slafkovský to that contract would still be — by far — the most significant thing they would have pulled off. Marchessault would have been nice, Slafkovský was a necessity.

Rebuilds get in trouble when they get off track, when a player shows up on the free-agent market and is suddenly inserted into the long-term plan despite him not fitting the window your rebuild is trying to create. Signing Marchessault for five years would have had this effect. He will be 36 when the fourth year of his contract begins, and by then, so many more of the Canadiens’ draft picks will be playing on their second contracts. They won’t all be as rich as Slafkovský’s, but some of them will be. That would also, presumably, be the same year Ivan Demidov, the No. 5 pick in the draft Friday, will be eligible to sign his second contract as well.

There is a lot of delicate cap managing down the road the Canadiens will have to do, something they have to begin managing right now, and the final two years of a hypothetical five-year Marchessault contract — probably for a higher AAV than he signed for in Nashville because of the tax discrepancy — would have made that process far more delicate.

The Slafkovský contract is the opposite. At that same point in time, at the end of the 2026-27 season, he will have five years left on his contract, and could very well be playing under one of the most team-friendly contracts in the NHL. The Canadiens will have four years left on Cole Caufield’s contract and three years left on Nick Suzuki’s at a combined cost of $23.325 million a year, which by then might be taking up less than 25 percent of the salary cap. And the fact that Slafkovský’s AAV came in more than $200,000 less than both Suzuki and Caufield in the context of a fast-rising cap is another win for the Canadiens.

In other words, they have set themselves up for future success.

But the Marchessault pursuit had value as well. The current group, the one less concerned about the future, the one that has to go out and play 82 games and fight and grind to try to win as many of those games as they can, those guys would have benefited from having Marchessault around, from having all those goals and a more robust top-six forward group. Management was cognizant of that, so they gave it a shot, knowing full well it was unlikely to work.

But just because it didn’t work this time, and just because it looks like favourable tax circumstances in Nashville played a big role in Marchessault’s decision, doesn’t mean it won’t work out next time. At least, Hughes doesn’t think so.

“I’m not worried about attracting people here,” Hughes said. “Quite frankly, I think if we were prepared to meet the terms of the deal, I’m fairly confident we would have a player here. My experience representing players for a long time, at the end of the day, hockey players are happy when the hockey’s going well.”

And the fact is, the Slafkovský contract will make it so the hockey has a better chance of going well once it is time for that.

Other notes from Monday’s opening of free agency:

• Hughes confirmed assistant coach Alex Burrows will be stepping away from his role behind the bench to spend more time with his young family. It is worth remembering that Burrows jumped directly from a long playing career right into coaching with the Laval Rocket. He lives an hour away from Montreal and, on some nights, couldn’t make it home after games if there was an early morning the next day. Burrows will stay on as a consultant with loosely defined parameters, Hughes said. He will help with player development in Laval and Montreal and will also spend time with management and the coaching staff to help out.

• The search to replace Jean-François Houle as head coach of the Laval Rocket is well underway. Hughes said assistant GM John Sedgwick, director of pro scouting Eric Crawford and special adviser to hockey operations Vincent Lecavalier interviewed “a number of” candidates during the draft in Las Vegas. That list will be trimmed down and a second round of interviews will be held including Hughes and Jeff Gorton. “I think we’re looking for the same qualities in a coach that we were looking for when we hired Martin (St-Louis). Firstly, he has to have a good hockey mind, he has to be a good communicator, have a certain intelligence, a certain confidence, but also enough confidence to take feedback from others and also be able to go against advice sometimes, when you really think your point of view is better. At the end of the day, we want our coach in Laval to focus on development. Winning at all costs does not serve our interests,” Hughes said.

• The Canadiens did sign one unrestricted free agent Monday, bringing in forward Alex Barré-Boulet from the Tampa Bay Lightning with a one-way contract worth $775,000. Barré-Boulet said this was the first one-way offer he got, and the appeal of a Québécois player coming home was strong. But also, for the father of a young family, the proximity of Montreal to Laval was also a big draw. Last season, with Tampa and Syracuse being about as far as any other NHL-AHL affiliation, Barré-Boulet would go long stretches without seeing his two infant children. The draw of the one-way contract for him is obvious, he gets his NHL salary regardless of where he is playing. But for the Canadiens, that one-way contract makes it far more likely Barré-Boulet will get through waivers and to Laval. Win-win. The Rocket also signed five players to one-way AHL contracts, including bringing back Laurent Dauphin.

• Hughes addressed the Kaiden Guhle negotiations as he, too, is eligible to sign a contract extension as he enters the final year of his entry-level deal. He seemed to characterize those talks as moving a bit more slowly and suggested that if they can’t find common ground this summer, they could always wait until next year. That negotiation, as we explored a few weeks ago, might be a bit more complicated. But Hughes did express confidence in getting something done, whenever that may be.

• Hughes was asked about Demidov and reiterated his belief that Demidov will be in Montreal next season. In the interim, however, the options are widely variant. “He’s under contract to Saint Petersburg, which is a world-class organization,” Hughes said. “If he’s playing in Saint Petersburg in the KHL, I think it’s a great environment for him to be playing in for a year. The coach Roman Rotenberg has done a nice job with Carolina’s prospect (Alexander) Nikishin there, who’s had a real nice progression developmentally. We think if Ivan’s there, he’s in a great place. If he’s not in the KHL, then we have to see what those options are. They’re probably not as optimal as being in Saint Petersburg.” It is my belief that should one of those sub-optimal situations comes to pass for Demidov next season, such as spending a third season in the junior MHL, the Canadiens are hoping there would be a way to convince Saint Petersburg to let him out of the final year of his contract, much like they just let Matvei Michkov of the final two years of his. But if Demidov is playing in Saint Petersburg, that wouldn’t even be necessary. They would be happy to have him develop there for a year.

(Photo of Juraj Slafkovský:Vincent Ethier / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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