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Offseason lookahead: How Habs can keep rebuild on right track

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Over the next few weeks, theScore will look ahead to the offseason for select teams that won't be participating in the playoffs. We begin with the Montreal Canadiens.

The Canadiens are set to miss the postseason for the third straight year after coming within three wins of capturing the 2021 Stanley Cup. The Habs aren't exactly on the verge of contending, either. Below, we outline a plan that can help keep the rebuild on track to become a sustainable winner sooner rather than later.

Here are five priorities for executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes entering the 2024 offseason:

Weaponize cap space

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The Canadiens project to have about $19 million in cap space this offseason and should use it to continue to stockpile draft picks and prospects.

Contending teams are always looking to clear cap space ahead of free agency, and they're typically willing to add sweeteners to deals to ditch bad contracts. As long as it's a short-term pact, the Habs should absolutely be willing to take on an unwanted player if it helps get them a premium draft pick or prospect.

Think of how well the Sean Monahan move turned out. Montreal netted a first-round pick for taking on his unwanted contract, allowed him to rehabilitate his game, and flipped him for a first-rounder at the 2024 deadline. That was a masterclass by the Habs' front office.

The Canadiens should also be willing to retain salary as a third-party broker if it scores them a draft pick.

Sign Guhle, Slafkovsky to long-term extensions

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The Canadiens should attempt to lock up Juraj Slafkovsky and Kaiden Guhle - two pillars of their young core - to long-term deals, even if it means overpaying in the short term. The hope would be the contracts will age well over time and eventually become bargains as the cap continues to rise. It's already trending that way for Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki. As 2025 restricted free agents, Slafkovsky and Guhle are eligible to sign extensions on July 1.

Many were ready to write off Slafkovsky as a bust after his rough rookie season. But the 2022 No. 1 pick has taken notable strides in his development, recording 15 goals and 23 assists in 69 games in his sophomore campaign. The Habs should try to lock up Slafkovsky this summer because the price of an extension will only rise if he progresses even further next season.

Guhle looks like he'll be a legitimate shutdown, top-four defenseman for the next decade or so. At 22, he's already posting strong defensive underlying numbers in a top-pairing role. He brings size and physicality and plays a tenacious game. The price for a long-term extension shouldn't be overly high since Guhle hasn't produced much offense. By locking him up this summer, the contract could turn into a major bargain for Montreal if the offense follows suit. Even if it never does, Guhle's already a valuable player.

Make modest UFA splash

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Just because the Canadiens should still have an eye for the future, it doesn't mean they shouldn't poke around the unrestricted free-agent market. While spending big for veterans entering the back nine of their careers would be unwise, Montreal could still target UFAs on the younger side who may still have their best hockey ahead of them.

We identified three such players: Jake DeBrusk, Warren Foegele, and Daniel Sprong. All three are 27 years old and could fill a role as a middle-six winger for the Habs.

DeBrusk has been streaky in his seven-year career but brings 30-goal potential and is at his best when playing with an edge. Foegele possesses less offensive upside, but he's a tireless worker and a responsible two-way player. While Sprong has defensive deficiencies, he continues to produce eye-popping offensive numbers despite a limited bottom-six role.

There are also a handful of RFAs every offseason who don't get tendered and become UFAs at a young age, which could create another pool of players for the Canadiens to target.

Shop veteran defensemen

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We identified three UFA forwards partly because the Canadiens have a bit of a logjam on defense. In addition to Guhle, Michael Matheson, David Savard, Jordan Harris, Jayden Struble, and Johnathan Kovacevic are all under contract for next season. And Arber Xhekaj and Justin Barron will be RFAs whom the Habs should re-sign easily for cheap. That's already eight players vying for six spots before factoring in the emergence of top prospects Lane Hutson and David Reinbacher, who could be ready for the NHL next year.

Montreal reportedly shopped Savard at the deadline, but no deal came to fruition. The 33-year-old isn't signed beyond next season, so the club would ideally trade him in the offseason. The Habs could also get a haul if they shopped Matheson, a 30-year-old amid a career year and signed through 2025-26 at a $4.87-million cap hit. Still, the Canadiens should keep one of them around as a veteran mentor to start the next campaign.

The Habs should also consider trading Kovacevic, a 2025 UFA. A 6-foot-5, right-handed defenseman who's only 26 with a sub-league minimum cap hit of $766,667 could have a surprising amount of trade value, even if he's not overly experienced.

But one way or another, the Canadiens should move out a defenseman this offseason, and potentially another one at the 2025 deadline, to help further stack their draft pick and/or prospect cupboard.

Don't get temped into buyouts

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In an ideal world, the Canadiens could move on from Brendan Gallagher and Josh Anderson without any long-term ramifications. Both players are on the books for three more years and aren't living up to their lofty cap hits. Gallagher ($6.5M AAV) has just 11 goals and nine assists in 64 games this season. Anderson ($5.5M) has managed eight goals and 10 assists in 65 contests.

Buying out Gallagher and Anderson is tempting. But while it would create some immediate cap space and clear two roster spots, it would zap the Habs' financial flexibility when they project to be competitive again - a time when every dollar will count.

Here's what Gallagher's buyout would look like:

Season Initial cap hit Buyout cap hit
2024-25 $6.5M -$333K
2025-26 $6.5M $2.17M
2026-27 $6.5M $4.67M
2027-28 $0 $2.17M
2028-29 $0 $2.17M
2029-30 $0 $2.17M

And here's what Anderson's would look like:

Season Initial cap hit Buyout cap hit
2024-25 $5.5M $222K
2025-26 $5.5M $2.2M
2026-27 $5.5M $3.72M
2027-28 $0 $1.72M
2028-29 $0 $1.72M
2029-30 $0 $1.72M

If all goes well, the Canadiens should be a no-doubt playoff team and perhaps a Stanley Cup contender by 2027-28. They'll need every penny of their cap space by then, so being patient and waiting for Gallagher's and Anderson's contracts to expire is the most logical move - even if it's painful in the short term.

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