O’Reilly trade makes sense for Habs, even if it costs too much

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It’s easy to understand why trading for Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly could be too rich for many tastes.

Even just directly, the 27-year-old costs a lot by way of his $7.5 million cap hit, which doesn’t expire until after the 2022-23 season. That actually is a pretty fair rate for a quality player at a coveted position, but smart NHL teams try to find bargains whenever they can. O’Reilly is, instead, earning his market value, and the term means that a prospective buyer really needs to commit to him.

Of course, O’Reilly isn’t on the free agent market. Instead, he’s the subject of trade rumors, and it sounds like the Sabres are asking for quite a bit. Here’s a guess from The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun (sub required for the full article):

My sense of the Buffalo ask right now for O’Reilly is this: a first-round pick, a good prospect and a second-round pick.

Not cheap. LeBrun adds an interesting caveat that also spotlights how ROR is far-from-cheap: one of the stumbling blocks is that O’Reilly has a $7.5M bonus coming. Remarkably, the Sabres at least claim that they’d want more after July 2. One understands why they’d say so, but how much more could they realistically expect to get for ROR? Or is it true that the Sabres realize they’re better off not trading away a proven talent and merely want to force “an offer they can’t refuse?”

(As you can see from his contract terms via Cap Friendly, his deal is heavy on signing bonuses and low on base salary. The nice thing, then, is that his actual salary sinks to a more affordable $6M from 2019-20 to 2022-23; the 2018-19 campaign comes with a $8.5M total price tag.)

LeBrun and others tab the Montreal Canadiens as a leading candidate for ROR, and it makes a lot of sense.

Here’s a quick rundown of why this could work from Montreal’s perspective.

Money burning a hole in Bergevin’s nicely tailored pockets

The Canadiens’ failed 2017-18 season was frustrating for many reasons, including the fact that, despite having high hopes, the Habs weren’t exactly spending to the cap ceiling. (A similar feeling rubbed extra salt in the wounds of Oilers fans.)

With GM Marc Bergevin’s seat only getting hotter, it would be surprising to see Montreal make that same call twice.

(Unless they decided to do a soft rebuild, which is a – valid – debate for another time.)

By Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Canadiens only have $60.88M devoted to 21 players, giving them about $18.61M in space. They have other needs they’d hope to address, but not many raises to worry about beyond the modest bump coming Phillip Danault‘s way.

If any team can afford to take on ROR for futures, it’s the Canadiens. They might even decide it’s worth it to eat that $7.5M bonus. Either way, they’re in a position to stomach that cap hit, and they don’t need to move salary the other way to do it.

Plugging the talent leak

Simply put, the Canadiens have been bleeding talent in recent years, thanks in large part to Bergevin losing trades in often dramatic ways. It sure seems like they’ll lose an additional key piece in Max Pacioretty, too.

[More: Canadiens slowly but surely decline under Bergevin]

Again, you can make the argument that the Canadiens might be better off following the Rangers’ lead and doing a soft-rebuild, yet it doesn’t seem like that’s the case.

With that and all the lost talent in mind, adding O’Reilly for futures could really help stem the tide.

ROR wouldn’t be the top center in every situation, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea for Montreal to trot him out as a tough matchup guy. He certainly has the two-way acumen to provide an upgrade at center, where the Canadiens have been weak for … a decade? More?

It would be especially enticing if ROR could take on the tough assignments while opening up cushy offensive zone starts for Jonathan Drouin, who generally struggled mightily as the go-to guy. It’s plausible that the duo would serve as a 1a/1b situation, but the point is that there could be a domino effect that helps Drouin out, in particular.

(You could make a similar comparison in Buffalo, as Rasmus Dahlin may eventually make life a whole lot easier for Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s arguably been exposed when asked to do too much.)

Clock’s ticking

The clock is ticking, and not just on Bergevin’s run as GM.

If the Canadiens want to enjoy a big rebound, ROR could be essential. Don’t forget that Shea Weber is 32, and probably a beaten-up 32 considering his rugged style and many years of heavy use. Carey Price is 30 and his injuries have really been stacking up.

O’Reilly won’t make those contracts suddenly look wise, mind you, but in the reasonably likely instance that both rebound for at least a little while, ROR could help Montreal make the most of those windows.

A (darkly) amusing possibility

Imagine if the Canadiens land ROR, trade Pacioretty away, and end up looking smart by drafting center Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Go really wild and imagine that Drouin finds his footing as a center once he’s placed in extremely favorable situations.

After years of saying “If only we could improve at center,” the Canadiens could very well be deep and dangerous down the middle … while being shaky-to-putrid just about everywhere else.

Such a scenario would be very hockey and very Canadiens.

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O’Reilly isn’t a perfect player, and he doesn’t own a perfect contract. The Canadiens could very well end up “losing” another trade if they acquired ROR.

Sometimes it’s OK to overpay for that $5 shake, though, and that might just be the case with O’Reilly and the Habs.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.