It probably didn’t take the Brendan Gallagher contract to tip anyone off, but just in case: the Montreal Canadiens and GM Marc Bergevin are pretty clearly all-in on becoming a contender across the next few seasons.
Forget that they finished with the 24th-best record in the NHL this past season. Their off-season behavior thus far tells us they believe they can climb up the Atlantic Division standings as soon as 2020-21 and maybe even challenge for a top-three spot. Everything about Bergevin’s decisions over the past month or so sends a win-now message.
He acquired a $4.35-million backup goaltender in Jake Allen in September and inked him to a two-year extension at a $2.875-million AAV this week. Allen could end up being expansion-draft fodder, sure, but in the short term the Habs are clearly committing to a competitive No. 2 option to take pressure off starter Carey Price, who has led all NHL goalies in minutes played two years running.
Less than two weeks after the Allen trade, Bergevin acquired and signed rugged defenseman Joel Edmundson to better equip the team for trench warfare. Two weeks after that came a four-year extension for Jeff Petry at a $6.25-million cap hit. Petry has been tremendous the past couple seasons, operating as one of the most underrated defensemen in the game, but he’s already 32. That contract sent the message that Montreal is done rebuilding, that it’s willing to commit to a veteran support group as its young core matures.
Then, last week: the Max-Domi-for-Josh-Anderson trade and subsequent wild overpay on Anderson's contract. Anderson, 26, brings a truly unique power forward tool belt to a team that needs his exact strengths, but a seven-year deal at a $5.5-million AAV was staggering for a player coming off a one-goal season that ended with shoulder surgery.
A couple days after that transaction: A UFA signing of Tyler Toffoli to bring scoring touch on the wings.
And now, with the free-agency dust settling: an extension for first-line right winger Gallagher that kicks in starting in 2021-22. It’s a six-year contract carrying a $6.5-million AAV.
Gallagher, 28, undoubtedly earned the money and term with his play over the past few seasons. He’s a bull terrier around the net, driving opposing goaltenders and defensemen crazy with his agitating antics at just 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds. With a career shooting percentage of 9.9, he’s not a natural finisher, but he leads the Habs in goals since they traded Max Pacioretty two years ago. Why? Because Gallagher is, by a wide margin, the best shot generator in the NHL. An analytics website like naturalstattrick.com reads like ‘Brendan Gallagher porn.’ Across the past three seasons, 498 forwards logged 500 or more minutes in 5-on-5 play. Gallagher’s 13.41 shots per 60 minutes laps the NHL. Second place is 11.95. A snapshot of Gallagher's performance relative to his peers in various shot metrics over the past three seasons:
Shots per 60: 1st
Individual shot attempts per 60: 1st
Individual scoring chances per 60: 1st
High-danger shot attempts per 60: 1st
Rush attempts per 60: 1st
Rebounds created per 60: 1st
So while free agency tends to reward players for what they’ve done rather than what they’re going to do, what Gallagher has done is so impressive that even a declining version of him in a couple seasons will be a helpful piece.
And it’s clear Bergevin believes Montreal will need Gallagher’s scoring and leadership for years to come on a team that wants to ascend. Setting aside the veteran additions and re-signings: the most exciting thing about the Canadiens right now is the youth movement. Nick Suzuki looks poised to become one of the best, smartest two-way centers in the game, Jesperi Kotkaniemi showed promising gains in the post-season, defenseman Alexander Romanov arrives in North America as one of the truly elite blueline prospects on the planet, and goal-scoring dynamo Cole Caufield will likely turn pro after one more season – or sooner if the NCAA season doesn't happen.
So what we’re seeing in Montreal is a GM believing his prospect harvest is ready to sprout up just as he’s mixing in more veteran help. Bergevin is betting the Habs will be a playoff team in 2020-21. Whether his aggressive moves prove him right or wrong? It’s still up in the air. It’ll depend largely on whether the likes of Anderson and Toffoli deliver on their paychecks – and whether the kids keep improving.