MONTREAL — The Canadiens like Raphael Diaz.
Diaz likes the Canadiens.
But Diaz’s days with the Canadiens are numbered.
If the Swiss defenceman isn’t traded before July 1, the Canadiens will allow him to test the free-agent market.
This is one of those decisions that will be governed primarily by the business of hockey, but there is also an on-ice element.
Diaz, who turned 28 this month, earns $1.225 million, which is modest by National Hockey League standards. The Canadiens might be interested in retaining Diaz at his current salary, but he has a skill set that will earn him a raise as an unrestricted free agent on the open market.
He’s a puck-moving defenceman who has shown he can produce points on the power play and played as a top-four defenceman earlier this season when Alexei Emelin was recovering from knee surgery. Diaz is on the small side for an NHL defenceman at 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds and he’s not overly physical, but he positions himself well, is an effective penalty-killer and is one of only three Canadiens with at least 100 blocked shots.
General manager Marc Bergevin’s priority looking ahead to next season is negotiating new contracts for defencemen P.K. Subban (think $8 million a season as a starting point for those talks) and Andrei Markov (the sticking point for him will be the length of the deal). They will join Josh Gorges and Emelin to form the top four on the defence corps.
Diaz won’t be the only Montreal defenceman to move on. Francis Bouillon, who is 38, won’t be back and neither will Douglas Murray. The latter has provided the Canadiens with a much-needed physical element, but Montreal will be relying on youngster Jarred Tinordi to fill that role next season.
The hockey element in this scenario centres around the importance of giving some of the organization’s young prospects a chance to play in the NHL. The Canadiens recalled Nathan Beaulieu from Hamilton this week to assess the state of his development and he has played well, while Diaz has been a semi-healthy scratch for the past two games after missing a game with the flu.
Two other prospects, Tinordi and Greg Pateryn, have also had a taste of the NHL and they’ll be given an opportunity to play full-time roles next season.
That brings us back to the business side of the decision. The three prospects all earn less than Diaz. Beaulieu and Tinordi will still be on entry-level contracts that pay them less than $1 million. Pateryn, who leads the Hamilton defencemen in scoring, will be a restricted free agent on July 1. He currently has an NHL salary of $662,500 and his new deal should also come in under $1 million.
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