BROSSARD - July 1 marks the opening of the unrestricted free agent market, and Marc Bergevin is making a big play for a big name in free agency.
Only thing is, it's not an unrestricted free agent (UFA) Bergevin is going after. Rather, the Canadiens general manager tendered an offer sheet to Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho, a restricted free agent, on Monday.
If the gambit works, the Habs will end up with a high-caliber player who has already accomplished a lot in his short NHL career.
"He's a young player for us. He's a center, he played center the whole year. He performed in the playoffs. The age, with our group... He's very smart, very skilled, and he makes other people around him better," described Bergevin of Aho, who led the Hurricanes in scoring last season with a 30-goal, 83-point campaign. "And Montreal… for him to want to be a part of this, of what we're trying to accomplish moving forward, I think it says a lot about the player."
The 21-year-old Aho demonstrated his desire to don bleu-blanc-rouge by inking an offer sheet for a five-year contract with an average annual value of $8.454 million, one the Hurricanes will have to match within the week if they want to keep him in Raleigh.
"I looked at the options of what was available and that's what, as an organization, we looked at the closest and we identified that Sebastian Aho was the player. After the window opened we were able to talk, and he wants to be here," said Bergevin of the Rauma, Finland native who put up 12 points (5G, 7A) in 15 games in his first taste of playoff action this spring. "He agreed to this. He believes this is a really good offer for him and he wants to be part of the Montreal Canadiens."
Video: Bergevin on free agency and the Aho offer sheet
Of course, Bergevin's decision to try to pry Aho away from Carolina won't come cheap. In addition to the dollar amount, the Habs will have to part with a first-round pick, a second-round pick and a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, which just so happens to be taking place in Montreal. (There is no penalty to the Canadiens if Carolina matches and Aho stays put.)
On top of those costs, there is also the risk of angering opposing general managers, but Bergevin clearly has his priorities in good order.
"We're all competitive. It's part of the CBA, it's within the rules. I'm responsible to the Montreal Canadiens and not any other team. I owe it to Geoff Molson, our players, and our fans," added Bergevin. "I've always said that it's not about spending foolishly, it's about spending on the right people. We felt that Sebastian was the right person to go after."
Relatedly, this also might make Habs players coming off their entry-level contracts - think of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, for example - more of a target for offer sheets, but Bergevin noted that his plan was always to lock them up sooner rather than later to help protect against hostile offers.
"It didn't matter what happened today, we were always going to do that. I also believe that other teams do that too. Like I've said in the past, sometimes you need two parties to agree to have a contract," explained Bergevin. "I know there are a lot of guys out there, but I'm sure GM's and teams are trying to re-sign them. Every case is different for different reasons."
Not only has Bergevin mitigated the risks of the route he took, but he also pointed out an added benefit of aiming for players who aren't experienced or old enough for unrestricted free agency.
"Usually - if guys don't get offer sheets - they go to free agency older," outlined the GM. "Some [UFA's] are good value, but we felt this player, Sebastian, at 21 years old was the right target for us."
Overall, getting a player of Aho's caliber makes the price to get him one Bergevin is more than willing to pay, both because of the sheer skill the team would inherit and the message it would send about the direction in which he's trying to take the team.
"This shows to our fans that Geoff Molson and ownership want a good hockey team. We want to win and we feel that this is the guy we identified that was going to help," explained Bergevin of Aho, who owns 197 points (83G, 114A) in 242 career games. "We're not only sending a message to our fans, but also to our players.
"Carey Price and Shea Weber are the pillars of the organization," he concluded. "To bring a player of this caliber in with our young group and with Carey and Shea was very interesting to us."
The Hurricanes have seven days to match the Canadiens' offer sheet to Aho.