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WHAT THE PUCK: A week later, offer for Aho looks like a big mistake

Canadiens owner/president Geoff Molson (left) and general manager Marc Bergevin take a break during second day of NHL Draft in Vancouver on June 22, 2019.
Canadiens owner/president Geoff Molson (left) and general manager Marc Bergevin take a break during second day of NHL Draft in Vancouver on June 22, 2019.

On Monday morning, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin officially conceded defeat in l’Affaire Aho.

“In tendering an offer sheet to Sebastian Aho on July 1, our objective was to add a talented young forward entering the prime of his career. With Carolina matching our offer, we wish Sebastian and the Hurricanes all the best,” said Bergevin, in a prepared statement.

As they say in politics, what a difference a week makes. Last Monday, the same Marc Bergevin was full of big talk about how Sebastian Aho really wanted to be part of the Montreal Canadiens and how Bergevin and his ace negotiating team had come up with a front-loaded offer that simply couldn’t be matched by the Carolina Hurricanes.

“The first 12 months is the key,” Bergevin said at the time.

That’s because the five-year contract for Aho included an $11.3-million signing bonus at the start and a total of $21 million to pay in the first year. Bergevin made it sound like he had a cash-strapped team like the Hurricanes snookered because they would have to shell out so much dough in the first 12 months. But the reality is that in 2019, it isn’t that hard for an NHL team, even a poorer one, to find 20 million bucks. There are these things called banks that are quite happy to lend corporations that money. Oh, and did I mention that the ‘Canes owner Tom Dundon has a net worth of $1.1 billion? Yeah, he might be known as a cheapskate, but he can find $21 million pretty quickly.

In short, a week later this whole thing looks like a gigantic miscalculation on the part of owner Geoff Molson and Bergevin. Or was it? I am not Bergevin’s biggest fan — surprised you, eh? — but he has been around the NHL block a few times and is no dunce. So I have to think he knew that in all likelihood the offer would be matched. In other words, there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

In the end, there are only two options. Either they thought Carolina would crumble under the weight of this offer, in which case the Habs managers are out of it. Or they orchestrated the whole ploy as a distraction. Neither scenario is particularly encouraging.

Molson promised, after 2018’s disastrous season, to be more transparent with the media and fans, and that’s a commendable project. So why not bring out Bergevin to give his side of the Aho story instead of tossing out a canned press release? Have him answer the tough questions.

The best line I heard all week was from a guy calling in to French-language sports station 91.9 FM. He quipped: “It’s an offer made by a chihuahua. I would’ve preferred an offer from a pit bull.” Ba-da-boom!

And here’s a thought. What happens when Max Domi becomes a restricted free agent next summer? If I’m Hurricanes GM Don Waddell, I might just be thinking I’d like to make a crazy offer for Domi come July 1, 2020. Why not? If Bergevin matches, it messes up his salary structure. If he doesn’t, the Canes end up with a pretty great young player.

So what do the Habs do now? The other difference that week made is there are now no interesting free agents left on the market. The Habs tried to get two centres, Aho and free agent Matt Duchene, and came up empty-handed in both cases. They still need that A-list centre the team has been trying to get ever since Réjean Houle dealt away Pierre Turgeon in the fall of 1996 in one of the more disastrous trades in the modern history of the Canadiens. (Turgeon notched 38 goals and 96 points in 80 games the season before for Montreal and ended up posting excellent numbers during the following five years for the St. Loauis Blues.)

They need help in their Top Six and they didn’t get it. They also need a partner for Shea Weber on the No. 1 D pairing and they also don’t have that, given that free-agent pickup Ben Chiarot is either a No. 2 or a No. 3 pairing guy.

The only option is a big trade, but I can’t really see who Bergevin is willing to deal. Instead, I’m pretty sure the Canadiens brass will once again talk about all the exciting prospects coming down the pipeline and, in private, they’ll keep praying that Jesperi Kotkaniemi is that No. 1 centre the team has been desperately seeking in the 23 years since Peanut let Turgeon slip through his hands.

bkelly@postmedia.com

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