Sunday, June 26, 2011
A Time of Decisions for Habs Gauthier
With the NHL Entry Draft in the books, Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier can now turn fully to the team's present pro roster as the focus of his attention.
This week is a big one for Mr. Gauthier, with free agency to begin next Friday, July 1st, at noon, and a number of players set to walk out of the Habs door. We'll begin by looking at these pending unrestricted free agents yet to sign with the team:
1) James Wisniewski
The big ticket member of the group, as time passes with little news, it seems increasingly likely The Wizz will hit the market on Friday. This doesn't mean a return to Montreal is impossible, only improbably as the Habs can ill afford to get into a bidding war with the likes of the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, and Chicago Blackhawks. Wisniewski is likely looking for between $4.5M and $5.2M per year on a long-term contract, knowing this summer is his big chance to cash in. There is a question, then, as to whether Gauthier will be able to deal Wizz's rights this week to one of the teams wanting to sign him for - likely - a draft pick in 2012. It seemed there were negotiations going on in Minnesota this weekend, but nothing came to pass. As nice as it would be to have him back, with Markov and Subban in the line-up, the Habs need for a Powerplay specialist is minimal. Wisniewski's defensive game is pretty average, meaning someone who can play in all situations like the next guy might be a better fit.
2) Roman Hamrlik
Certainly at age 37, Hamrlik's best days are behind him. However, he loves Montreal and acknowledges he's nearing the end of his career, willing to take a sizeable pay cut. Hammer's agent Petr Svoboda reported last week that the Canadiens informed him he'd receive an offer, but there has been no indication of the dollar amount or how it was seen by the Hamrlik camp. With the focus on getting younger on D, Hamrlik will likely only be retained if Gauthier can find a taker for the final year of Jaroslav Spacek's contract. Still, if there were to be a way, Hammer would, for my money, be a welcome returnee on a 1 year deal (~$2.5M-$3M) in a lesser role, getting time on 2nd powerplay and 2nd penalty kill units, and perhaps being a responsible vet alongside a youngster like Yannick Weber or Alexei Yemelin at 5 on 5.
3) Jeff Halpern
Halpern performed admirably in the fourth line center role, much as Glen Metropolit before him. The 35 year old, who gets married today with Mathieu Darche amongst other past teammates attending the wedding, looks to still have another few years in the tank, but it seems his time in Montreal may be up. With Darche returning, there is plenty of bottom 6 forward depth already in the organization, plus Andreas Engqvist appears about ready to assume Halpern's role up from Hamilton. It doesn't hurt that Engqvist brings a 6'4" frame to the line-up either. All the same, if Halpern doesn't find employment elsewhere by later this summer, retaining him on a one year contract for added depth is not out of the question.
4) Brent Sopel
The former Stanley Cup winner with the Blackhawks did well to help solidify the injury-ravaged Habs back end late in the season, but with the return of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, and the re-signing of Hal Gill, the depth he brings is no longer needed. Still a solid bottom pairing NHL d-man, he is sure to find a contract elsewhere.
5) Paul Mara
I would certainly not be opposed to Mara returning as a 7th defenseman, but it seems the numbers game means there is no room for him. While his toughness would be a welcome addition, it is time to give some younger players (Weber, Yemelin) a chance with the club as opposed to the revolving door of band-aid solutions.
These UFAs aren't the only Habs without contracts, however. Tomorrow (Monday the 27th) is the deadline to make qualifying offers to all pending Restricted Free Agents (RFA), or else they will join their UFA brethren in the ability to sign anywhere around the league. This encompasses the following players:
1) Josh Gorges
Don't worry, ladies and gentlemen, Josh Gorges WILL be qualified. There were some murmurs that went up over the fact that he had not yet signed, while others like Andrei Kostitsyn, David Desharnais, and Max Pacioretty had gotten their deals done. "Will he be traded?" some asked. No, the likely scenario is that Gauthier is looking to get Gorges locked up longer-term, which is far more complicated to negotiate than a player returning at his present salary (Gill, Markov) or looking at a 1-2 year deal (the other RFAs). Gauthier also made a statement prior to this weekend's draft that shed some light on the situation, describing Montreal's defense situation as a "puzzle that needs to be solved." Simply, this means he needs to burn the midnight oil all week to figure out where Gorges - or guys like Wisniewski and Hamrlik - fit in the short and long term plans. The good thing is, once the RFAs are qualified, there is no time pressure to sign them basically any time up until the start of training camp in September.
2) Benoit Pouliot
Perhaps the most interesting decision facing Pierre Gauthier is the case of Mr. Pouliot. His qualifying offer would come in at $1,350,000, a number he would almost certainly accept for a season, given last year's disappointing results. It is likely, then, that Gauthier tries to shop Pouliot today and into tomorrow morning to a club that would take him at that amount, or else face losing him for no return by not tendering him an offer. Unless P.G. strongly believes he will spend right up to the cap this year, it seems like bad practice not to retain a 24-year old 6'3" winger who 28 goals in 118 regular season games with the Habs. This kind of bad asset management is what, to many, has kept the Canadiens from being a top contender the past few years. In my mind, he MUST be qualified, and if he isn't cutting it, can be waived during the year.
3) Yannick Weber
There was a rumour a couple of weeks back that Weber had signed a 2-year deal, but it was denied by both sides. He has made it known through his Twitter account that he will be in Montreal over the summer to help out with the Canadiens development kids summer camp, so there is no reason to doubt he will return. The question is just on the commitment of dollars and years to the Swiss rearguard.
4) Tom Pyatt
With a QO of just $550,000, no reason for the Habs not to retain Pyatt's rights. Certainly not the flashiest of players, Tommy fits in nicely on a fourth line, playing an error-free brand of defensive forward hockey and being a capable penalty killer. He's an easy 12th/13th/14th forward, able to jump in and out of the line-up as called for.
5) Alexandre Picard
If Pyatt is an easy guy to qualify, Picard is the easiest to let go. He filled in when needed last year, but hopefully there will be fewer injuries in Montreal this season. And even if injuries are to occur, hopefully there will be better replacements prepared than Picard.
6) Ryan White
Like Pyatt, White will definitely be qualified, but will likely take a paycut to earn himself a one-way contract for the first time in his career. White has shown he brings something to the table that the Canadiens have a need for with his feisty play and willingness to drop the gloves. He'll be back.
With the Habs RFAs and UFAs out of the way, it's time to take a look at who around the rest of the league might interest the team. Let's begin with...
OTHER UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
We looked previously at a Top 10 of Unrestricted Free Agents that may interest the Habs, but what has changed between then and now?
Well, first, rumour has Gauthier indeed shopping for additional top 9 scoring help, and the names of Brooks Laich and Chris Higgins have surfaced. It also seems that the team may be active in adding a blueliner with attempts to move Jaroslav Spacek, so there may be interest in a player adept in his own end like Scott Hannan or Jonathan Ericsson. In any case, after re-signing the RFAs, Montreal should have about $8M left to spend, which means plenty of room to bring in 1-2 new bodies.
One position that MUST be filled via UFA is that of Carey Price's back-up. There has been little news of talk with Alex Auld's agent, so perhaps Gauthier will look to another available netminder such as Mathieu Garon, Josh Harding, Ty Conklin, or Johan Hedberg. All should be relatively inexpensive, and able to carry the load for the 12-18 games they will be asked to play.
THE TRADE MARKET
Gauthier was actively in discussion with a number of general managers throughout draft weekend, and continues to be at present. Certainly, as mentioned, much of this discussion surrounded Benoit Pouliot and/or the rights to James Wisniewski. But as Gauthier tries to solve his puzzled blueline, moving Spacek also must be a top priority. It is the GM's responsibility to ice the best possible group of players, and there is no doubt a better way to spend $3.8M than on another year of the 37-year old Czech. It should be noted, for those unaware, that none of sending Spacek to Hamilton, asking him to retire, or getting him to play in Europe will alleviate the Habs of his cap hit. Because he signed the deal at 35 or above, his cap hit remains unless his contract is traded to another team.
Another rumour that made a splash had the Habs in talks with the Phoenix Coyotes about Scott Gomez. After seeing Brian Campbell's albatross of a contract dealt to a team trying to meet the Salary Cap floor, it is possible - although still unlikely - that a club in a similar position is willing to take Gomez. It seems unlikely, though, for Montreal to trade Gomez this summer with no one ready to step into a top 6 center role just yet, and few names available from other clubs (no, we won't be able to sign Brad Richards). Perhaps next year if Lars Eller and/or David Desharnais exceed expectations, and Louis Leblanc looks almost ready to make the jump following his first AHL season.
So that's where we stand. As Gauthier repeated emphatically this weekend, the core of the Canadiens hasn't been together very long - just 2 seasons for most players and even less for others. This means don't expect any RADICAL changes, just some minor tweaks as the GM tries to put together a real contender. While player personnel has to be the main focus, he'll also need to replace Kirk Muller on the bench - no easy task - as Captain Kirk leaves for the Nashville Predators organization to be a head coach of their AHL affiliate.
It is certain to be an exciting week around the league no matter what.