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Leak of stalled Gallagher negotiations puts damper on Canadiens’ celebration

MONTREAL — The timing of it wasn’t particularly good. Especially not after Marc Bergevin had signed Tyler Toffoli to a four-year, $17-million contract to fill the last of four off-season needs he had prioritized.

Agent Gerry Johannson telling reporters contract negotiations between the Montreal Canadiens and his client, Brendan Gallagher, had broken off — just a few hours ahead of Toffoli and Bergevin holding conference calls on Tuesday to discuss how pleased they were to come together on Monday’s deal — was akin to a brief, torrential downpour hitting a family barbecue right as cocktails are being served and the food is being unwrapped for the grill.

Still, this was a possibility. Especially after Toffoli’s signing.

It’s a contract that outlines the negative financial impact of COVID-19 on the NHL’s salary cap, and one that directly affects Gallagher’s leverage in negotiations to secure a fair contract prior to his current deal expiring in 2021.

Add all of that to 26-year-old Josh Anderson signing a seven-year, $38.5-million contract with Montreal last week, and Gallagher’s gun lost more than just one bullet. Granted, there’s little debate he remains as the team’s most important right winger, but the idea that he’s irreplaceable lost merit when Toffoli followed Anderson on a long-term commitment with the Canadiens.

Regarding Toffoli’s contract, it caught people by surprise. The annual average being $350,000 lower than the one he was earning on the three-year deal he just came out of definitely raised eyebrows, and a $4.25-million hit for a proven scorer coming off a 24-goal season did too.

But it didn’t shock Bergevin.

“We all kind of thought what was going to happen did happen,” he said. “A lot of players right now don’t have a chair, they might have overshot the market, and this is a reality for all of us. We have to manage properly. We have a cap that’s not going to go up in the near future, for sure, and it might be longer than we expect. So general managers need to be smart, and players and agents also need to be smart. So I think the proof’s in the pudding, as we say.”

Mmmmm, pudding. We digress.

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Toffoli smartened up quickly. It took three-and-a-half days of sitting without a deal, but after some back and forth with the Canadiens he went for what he coveted most.

“Just speaking with [agent] Pat [Brisson], our discussion early was I really wanted the most term I could get,” the 28-year-old explained. “Throughout my career, I’ve always done two-, three-year deals, so being able to get a little more term I think was a little more important for myself and for my family.”

Getting four years proved to be more important than the money, or trade protection (his deal has none of it). And though we consider Toffoli 100-per-cent genuine in saying the opportunity to line up with one of Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Phillip Danault and play for a team that made impressive off-seasons additions in Anderson, Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen, we’re fairly confident term trumped all of that, too.

It’s fair to assume that’s what’s keeping Bergevin and Johannson on different pages regarding Gallagher. Before Anderson and Toffoli joined the team, Johannson was well within reason to be asking for Gallagher to get a seven-year deal, much like the one Chris Kreider signed for $45.5 million with the New York Rangers back in February.

Kreider will be 29 when his new deal kicks in, like Gallagher will be when his does, and both players have averaged nearly identical production over their respective careers. No two players — or situations – are exactly the same, but this was the closest comparable for Johannson to use in negotiations.

But that was then, and things are beyond different now. And that’s not going to change for at least one more off-season.

That’s the reality Toffoli accepted when he signed on Monday.

“If there were no pandemic, I think things would’ve been more positive throughout this time,” he said of free agency, adding that what should’ve been one of the most exciting opportunities of his career turned out to be “stressful” and something he didn’t think he’d want to go through again.

It’s a lot for Gallagher to contemplate — especially as a right-winger who’s produced 173 goals and 334 points in 547 games, which isn’t that different from Toffoli’s 145 goals and 300 points in 525 games.

Here’s something else for Gallagher to chew on: a deal signed right now might be the best one he’s able to secure prior to the 2021-22 season, because his role is likely to diminish for this coming one.

Gallagher scored just one goal on the power play last season and whatever time he averaged there is all but certain to be split between Toffoli and Anderson. And though he’ll still be counted on in a primary role at even strength, the depth of the roster will enable Claude Julien to spread the minutes around, which is already something he likes to do more than any other coach in the league.

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Julien recently said he wants his team to play like the New York Islanders — as a four-line, three-pairing team that grinds its opponents into the ground — and Bergevin has now given him the assets to effectively run that strategy.

None of this is to suggest Gallagher should sell himself short and cop to whatever deal’s on the table now just to stay in Montreal. He brings certain intangibles to the equation that make him comparable to virtually no one, and though that doesn’t rule his negotiation, it is still a factor.

It’s been something to hear nearly every forward prospect coming through the Montreal system since 2013 talk about how they want to emulate Gallagher’s tenacious style and his indefatigable effort. That’s a reputation that can help Gallagher mitigate some of the market dynamics that have squeezed certain free agents over the last week.

It’s also part of the reason Bergevin told RDS, a little over two weeks ago, that he intended to make Gallagher his highest-paid forward. It’s part of the reason he told TVA Sports it was a top priority to get an extension with Gallagher done and that, in an ideal world, he would one day retire in a Canadiens uniform.

But Bergevin also said this on Tuesday, just moments prior to reminding media members he refuses to publicly comment on the status or details of negotiations with his players:

“If a player wants to play with the Montreal Canadiens, then he has to adapt to our cap situation, too. We want to pay everyone, but at the end of the day we also want to have a good team on the ice.”

“To bring in the players we did, it cost some money, and that will eventually affect other players at other positions,” Bergevin added.

It’s going to affect Tomas Tatar, who led the Canadiens in scoring last season and is up for a contract in 2021. Ditto for Joel Armia, who suddenly dropped even lower on the priority list as a right-winger who, as of next off-season, will be competing with Gallagher, Anderson, Toffoli and prospect Cole Caufield for ice-time and dollars.

The Canadiens have just under $25 million under the cap for next off-season and they won’t be able to keep everyone out of Tatar, Gallagher, Armia, Allen and Phillip Danault, and ice a winning team — especially with core players Kotkaniemi and Artturi Lehkonen also up for deals as restricted free agents.

Gallagher seemed to have a firm grasp of that reality in September, when he said, through a surgically-repaired jaw, that winning was his top priority.

“The money’s important,” Gallagher said. “I’m not going to sit here and lie and say it’s not going to be important to me. But it’ll be enough money regardless of what it is. I’ll be able to live a happy life post-hockey and that’s not going to be a worry. I want to enjoy my time and I want to enjoy my experience and I want to have an opportunity to be a winner. And that’s really what you want to be remembered for. So, going into this next contract, however many years I’m able to sign for, you just want to be in a position where you have that opportunity each and every season.”

That opportunity got a lot riper when 32-year-old Jeff Petry signed a four-year, $25-million extension to remain as a key piece on the Canadiens blue line through 2025. And that was after Edmundson and Allen were added, and obviously before Anderson was locked up until after his 33rd birthday and Toffoli until his 32nd.

Bergevin will remind Gallagher of that, and it’s not farfetched to think he’ll refuse to commit to giving him a deal that extends beyond his 33rd birthday. Perhaps he already has, hence the break in negotiations at this point in time.

Who knows? We’re speculating, as is everyone now that Johannson went public.

We doubt Bergevin was enthralled about all of that becoming a talking point on Tuesday — a day that was supposed to be about him putting a bow on a successful off-season.

But the Canadiens’ GM has plenty of time to get this situation sorted, with Gallagher still having to play out the final season of his six-year, $22.5-million contract, and a bit of rain didn’t ruin the barbecue.

“We made adjustments, we made changes, we brought in players who are going to help us,” Bergevin said.

And he’s right, it’s been a successful off-season so far.

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