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Decisions Looming On Six Canadiens Restricted Free Agents

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Montreal Canadiens Arber Xhekaj

The Montreal Canadiens already have 40 of 50 contracts accounted for the 2024-2025 season, which means they’ll have some big decisions to make on some RFAs.

The start of a rebuild is always fun. You draft and acquire a large number of prospects and young players to build up your bank of future assets with the hope that some pop off and become impact players.

However, as the rebuild goes along and these youngsters progress, the business side of the NHL gets in the way and tough decisions need to be taken. Those are the types of decisions that could sway the hockey community’s perception of an NHL club, as well as that of NHL betting odds.

Some of those big decisions are coming up in the next month for the Montreal Canadiens, as they have six restricted free agents to qualify in order to retain their rights beyond this season.

Things are made a little tricky with the fact that the club only has 11 available contract slots remaining; before they’ve even looked at adding players via trade or possibly free agency.

Teams generally have until the Monday following the NHL Draft to make their decisions, but, given that the Monday following the 2024 NHL Draft is July 1 (Free Agency), the date will likely be moved to June 30th.

It’s also important to note that qualifying an RFA isn’t the same as outright signing a player, but simply a compulsory base offer required by the NHL’s CBA to maintain the exclusive negotiating rights of a given player.

So who stays and who goes? We take a look below:

Arber Xhekaj

Before we even get started on this, qualifying Arber Xhekaj is an absolute no-brainer for the Montreal Canadiens. The 23-year-old defenceman has quickly engrained himself as one of the most popular players in the franchise, due to his hard-hitting style and penchant for the rough stuff.

Although he’s had surgery on both his shoulders and had some inconsistent play over the last year, the organization views Xhekaj as an important piece in the future.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes not only qualify Xhekaj, but offer him a short-term, bridge deal to get a better sense of how high he can elevate his game.

Jesse Ylönen

The case of Jesse Ylönen is a little more complicated.

The former 35th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft looked primed to make the jump to the NHL full-time this season, but was unable to seize the opportunities given to him in Montreal.

One could argue that he was buried on the fourth line throughout the season, but he was also afforded stints in the Canadiens’ top six, as well as a recurring place on the second wave of their power play.

But, do you just let an asset like that walk? One shouldn’t be too quick to assume the Canadiens would just let a former 2nd-round pick go for nothing.

It’s entirely possible that Hughes qualifies Ylönen with the intent to include him in a trade for a draft pick or a comparable prospect in desperate need of a change of scenery.

Justin Barron

Justin Barron was another RFA that had himself an up-and-down season; playing some exceptional stretches of hockey, while also sometimes playing too nonchalantly in his own end.

Offensively, Barron looks like an everyday NHL defenceman who could hold a spot on the Montreal Canadiens’ roster. However, the defensive miscues became too striking to ignore and he was sent down to the Laval Rocket for further development in shoring up his gap control and board play.

After a successful stint with the Rocket, he was called back up toward the tail-end of the 2023-2024 season, where he looked much better and impressed the Canadiens’ top brass.

Unless dangled in a trade for a top-six forward, one should expect Barron to receive a qualifying offer and be part of the organization moving forward.

 

Mattias Norlinder

When it comes to Mattias Norlinder, the numbers game could end up costing him.

Once seen as one of the Montreal Canadiens’ top prospects, Mattias Norlinder has slid from stardom to anonymity in short order. Much of that has been due to the significant influx of talented left-shot defencemen within the organization.

The arrival of Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Jordan Harris, Jayden Struble, Lane Hutson and the recent signing of Adam Engstrom put the former 64th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft in a tough spot.

His numbers have not improved over the last three years, despite a strong showing at the Canadiens’ most recent training camp last year; and he’s been leapfrogged on the Laval Rocket roster by virtually every player that has come through the door.

Having just turned 24 years old, Hughes will need to determine if there is any additional potential left to uncover, as he simply has too many defencemen and too few contract slots to make an untimely decision.

One would assume that Norlinder is cut loose to either pursue his career elsewhere in the NHL or return to Sweden.

 

Lias Andersson

Lias Andersson was a significant piece for the Laval Rocket this season, both from an offensive and leadership perspective.

The young veteran immediately found chemistry with virtually every Canadiens prospect he was paired with in Laval, helping prospects like Joshua Roy or Emil Heineman play a more comfortable game in the offensive zone.

He finished up the season by registering 21 goals and 45 points in just 53 games; a strong showing considering how goal-starved the Rocket were last season.

If the Canadiens want to continue to properly insulate their youngsters, retaining Andersson seems like a no-brainer to most, but what does the player want?

Andersson has not been shy about expressing his goal of returning to the NHL one day, and his path may be very limited if he were to remain in Montreal, due to the number of veterans currently occupying the Canadiens’ bottom six, and the number of prospects coming up.

It could go either way, but, if the Canadiens choose not to qualify Andersson, it will likely be to afford him an opportunity elsewhere to advance his career.

 

Filip Cederqvist

Filip Cederqvist was a mid-season acquisition by the Montreal Canadiens to add some size and skill to a very injured and under-sized lineup.

Unfortunately, it never seemed to click for Cederqvist, as he could not find the scoring touch he showed in Sweden before making the jump to North America.

Having seemingly signed a long-term deal to return to Europe, it wouldn’t be all that surprising that the Montreal Canadiens ultimately cut him loose to make way for more promising prospects.

*For more NHL betting lines and futures, head over to FanDuel

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Dana

If I was Hughes, I’d try and sign Xhekaj to term like 5-7 years at 2-2.5 AAV , and here’s why I think it’s fair:
1. He was sent to the minors this past season for an extended period
2. He has less than 100 career games of experience.
3. Plus he’s had injury issues regarding multiple surgeries.
4. He was undrafted
5. Comp contracts for “ fighters” or guys with less than 100 games that show promise.

This type of deal is good for both parties. Xhekaj is guaranteed 10-17.5m over the next 5-7 years. Not many undrafted guys make that in a career. Plus it shares the risk and rewards – who knows if hes already peaked? If he plays through it and performs well, he signs a bigger contract next time but he could be out of the game by then? For Hughes you could be getting a young solid third pairing guy with a unique set of skills at a discount to market especially as the contract ages. Hughes needs value deals to make the cap work long term. Plus the Sheriff has high trade value which is enhanced with team control for years to come at a great price.

Thoughts?

Jimmy

Amber Xhekaj will sign shorter deal like Newhook and dach did a 4 years at 2.5 -3 million deal .

Dana

Guhle is at 865k, I could him signing that deal when he’s up next year. Newhook and Dach were first round picks. Arber coming off a 3 year deal at 835k. Don’t see Hughes giving him 2.5-3million- I’m not saying he’s not worthy just that he has no leverage and getting a 250% + raise that I suggest for term is nothing to sneeze at considering the 5 points. And Hughes will be careful setting baselines as the next contract seldom goes down. Not saying it can’t happen, as you suggest, it will be interesting to monitor.

Peter

Xhekaj was tied for 7th in scoring among Montreal’s defence. He certainly does not deserve any contract more than $2.5 million.

Bill Dickson

100%

Greg

5-7 years? You are dreaming. He might accept that for 2 years, no way in Hell he would take that for any longer.

William O'Neill

The goal starved Laval team?? Rocket were fifth out of thirty-two teams in goals scored. Twenty fifth in goals allowed. I don’t believe the problem is offence

David

As a team they scored a lot of goals, but the leading goal scorer
had 21 goals. All the forwards and defensemen contributed to
the excellent offensive output. It was a great group effect to achieve this excellent offensive output with different players scoring every game.

Peter

“the defensive miscues became too striking to ignore” describes Matheson to me.

Greg

If the silver medal tosser wants a better chance at an NHL job, he likely will have to go elsewhere. Ylönen, I’m not sure he ever got a real shot. Reminds me of Lehkonen that way, though I’m not saying he’s as good as Arturri. Only that neither seems to have gotten a good chance as a Hab.
As for Norlinder, I’m not sure why he’s even in the conversation. His development plateau’d years back, and he has almost no shot of making the team.
I think all 3 can go, we have better and younger options now and in the future.