Re-signing Tatar, Danault will be challenge worth exploring for Canadiens

Tatar Canadiens
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We continue our look at next offseason’s potential free agent class by trying to project the next contract for some of the top players that could be available. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens and their two biggest pending unrestricted free agents, forwards Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault.

The Montreal Canadiens have been one of the busiest teams in the NHL this offseason, utilizing their massive amount of salary cap space to acquire Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Joel Edmundson, and Jake Allen on long-term contracts.

While there are some definite risks there, the Canadiens definitely look to be a better team on paper than they were a year ago, especially if they get a big step forward from young forwards Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki.

Combined with Brendan Gallagher‘s new contract extension that begins in 2021-22, that is more than $20 million per year added to their future salary cap situation. That is a lot, and it could play a role in whether or not the Canadiens are able to re-sign their two biggest pending unrestricted free agents after this season — forwards Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault.

Tatar is part of an absolutely dominant line

They may not be household names around the league, but Tatar and Danault are two of the Canadiens’ best and most impactful players.

Let’s start with Tatar.

They acquired him (along with Suzuki) from Vegas in the Max Pacioretty trade two years ago and he has done nothing but produce since arriving in Montreal. He’s a 25-goal, 50-point, possession-driving winger and very comparable to Toffoli. His box-score production is good enough to consider him a top-line player, while his underlying possession numbers have been among the best in the league over the past two seasons.

Part of that is no doubt due to the amount of time he has spent alongside Gallagher during those seasons as there has been an obvious connection.

When those two have played alongside each other the Canadiens have controlled more than 60 percent of the total shot attempts that have taken place, dominated the scoring chances and expected goal numbers, and outscored teams by an 83-59 margin.

It is a great line, and one that the Canadiens should try to keep together if at all possible.

When neither player was on the ice the past two years the team’s shot attempt share dropped all the way down to 51 percent (still good, but not great) while they were outscored by 13 goals (191-204). They needed to improve the depth around this group, and there is a strong argument to be made that has happened this offseason.

Danault may have a Selke Trophy in his future

Danault, meanwhile, should be considered one of the league’s most underrated players.

Like Tatar he has posted dominant possession numbers the past couple of seasons, and is already regarded as one of the league’s best defensive forwards. He has finished in the top-seven of the Selke Trophy voting in each of the past two seasons, and the more the spotlight starts to shift in his direction the more votes he is likely to get.

Add in the fact that he’s a 50-point scorer to his defensive presence and you have one heck of a player.

If the Canadiens can get him re-signed, along with the continued development of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, they have the potential for a pretty strong trio of centers to build around. Yeah, that is a lot of “ifs,” but the potential is absolutely there.

Can they afford both?

This is where it gets tricky.

All of those contracts signed this offseason have already resulted in the Canadiens having $65 million committed to 14 players for the 2021-22 season.

Assuming the salary cap stays put at $81.5 million, that would leave them with just $16 million to fill out the remaining nine spots of the roster.

Along with the pending UFA’s (Tatar, Danault, Joel Armia, and Jordan Weal) the Canadiens will also have to re-sign restricted free agents Kotkaniemi, Artturi Lehkonen, and Victor Mete.

Whether they re-sign all of them are not is irrelevant. Somebody is going to have to fill those spots. It’s just a matter of how much the Canadiens are willing to spend on them.

It is a good bet that re-signing both Tatar and Danault would probably cost somewhere around $9-10 million combined (somewhere around $5-$5.5 million for Tatar; maybe around $4 million for Danault), which would leave just $6-7 million for the remaining seven spots for that season. That is not going to be enough.

This is where the riskier contracts this offseason (that seven-year commitment to Anderson; the Edmundson contract) can become a little problematic. On its own one small overpay is not really a big deal to a team’s cap situation. It is when you get multiple overpays that things start to add up.

So how can the Canadiens deal with this now?

For starters, Ben Chiarot‘s $3.5 million salary cap hit comes off the books following the 2021-22 season. That will help.

Then there is the Jonathan Drouin situation.

He still has three years remaining on a contract that pays him $5.5 million per season. He is a very good player, but it is safe to say he has not turned into the player the Canadiens hoped he would be when they acquired him. Drouin also has a modified no-trade clause that kicks in next year. Meaning, if Montreal wanted to move him, this would be the time. That contract off the books would create quite a bit of room and perhaps give Montreal the flexibility it needs to keep two of its best players. They are not likely to find upgrades for better prices on the open market.

Montreal is a fascinating team, because even though it finished poorly in the standings a year ago there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about it this season.

Carey Price and Allen could be an outstanding goalie duo, and when healthy Shea Weber and Jeff Petry are still top-pairing defenders.

Add in the improved depth at forward and the potential of the Suzuki-Kotkaniemi duo and this team might be able to make some noise sooner than expected.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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