Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Top 10 UFAs Your Montreal Canadiens Should Look At

With unrestricted free agency set to begin on July 1st, this summer's market of available players is not overly impressive. Brad Richards is perhaps the only true "big fish" out there listening to numerous suitors, and there is no room for him in Montreal barring a Scott Gomez transaction. (SIDEBAR: but if it were to ever happen, the French media would have a field day with a new French-speaking star in town)

This doesn't mean, however, that Pierre Gauthier will be entirely quiet. There are still some names out there who could help your Canadiens over another hurdle on the route to winning a 25th Stanley Cup. First, let's examine where we stand with the list of players who finished the year with the Habs that fall into this category of impending UFAs (intentionally excluded from the later Top 10):

Jeff Halpern - There was outcry from some when the Canadiens decided to let sharpshooting veteran Glen Metropolit leave as a free agent last summer and take his services back to Europe. Halpern was a very suitable replacement, though, providing the team with valuable play in all three zones... at least when he was healthy. Nearing the end of his career, Halpern's stay in Montreal was very very likely a "one-and-done", to be replaced with a younger body.

Andrei Markov - The top 10 list below assumes that Montreal will re-sign Andrei Markov. Yes, it is risky committing big dollars to a player who has missed so much time to injury over last few years, but Markov has been our best player the past decade, and he still has plenty of productive years left in him. I imagine he will make something close to what he did on his previous contract ($5.75M) on a short term, 1-2 year deal.

Roman Hamrlik - From his first season with the Habs, I've been a big Roman Hamrlik fan. The way he can step up is one of the biggest reasons the team has had some success even with Markov missing so much time. I would be so thrilled if he could just swap contracts with fellow Czech Jaroslav Spacek and be back for one last season, but so long as Spacek remains a Hab, there is no room in the budget for Roman. If he were to be retained, I'd look at 1 year, $3.75M roughly.

James Wisniewski - When injury woes struck the Canadiens blueline this past season, they turned to the New York Islanders for help, and acquiring Wisniewski paid immediate dividends. His productivity has many wanting him back, but like with Hamrlik, Spacek's 35+ contract may prohibit a signing. If there were a way to make it work, a couple of years at anything under $4.75M is decent value.

Brent Sopel - Loved what Sopel brought to the team in filling Josh Gorges's role come post-season, but with a healthier bunch, there isn't a spot or need for him right now.

Paul Mara - Similarly, was pleasantly surprised with Mara's contribution after being a healthy scratch in Anaheim for parts of the year, but there is no spot available. If the Canadiens make a move that involves sending Yannick Weber elsewhere, I would be happy to sign Mara as a 7th d-man on a cheap contract to bring some extra toughness to the group.

Alex Auld - Performed well enough in the back-up role to earn a second stint in Montreal. Family seems to be happy here. Only question will be if he's satisfied playing just 15 or so games a season.

Because of all of the above, we're going to make the assumption that the defense corps is full (which it is, barring a trade), and the back-up position filled (whether Auld or similar UFA), and thus turn our attention to addressing some needs within the forward group. So here it is, my hopeful targets:

A grizzled veteran at age 31, Rupp would fit in nicely on a fourth line in Montreal. Able to play the wing or center, what Rupp lacks in offensive production, he makes up for in size (6'5", 230 lbs), physicality, and defensive play. Despite playing in only 4 post-season games during the Devils run to the Stanley Cup in 2002-03, he became the only NHL player to have his first career playoff goal be a Cup-winner, and would be a good fit alongside fellow Stanley Cup-winning-goal-scorer Travis Moen on a tough fourth unit.

When Bergenheim was first drafted, he was compared in many regards to my favourite hockey player, Saku Koivu (yes, don't let the name fool you, Bergenheim is Finnish). Not the first highly touted prospect to have his career derailed in the New York Islanders system, the two-way forward set a career high in points with 29 in 2010-11, before really exploding in the playoffs where he had 9 goals in 16 games in Tampa's run to the Eastern Conference Finals. At 27, I believe Bergenheim will have some bigger offensive years ahead, and though he isn't particularly big, he is an effective checker and penalty killer, making him an ideal third liner with homerun potential.

Former Hamilton Bulldog Antti Miettinen had a quiet season in Minnesota, unable to replicate the 20 goals he scored the year prior. A similar player to Scottie Upshall (see below), Miettinen's real value lies in his versatility as a player who would normally slot in on the third line (and can kill penalties), but could move up in case of slumps or injuries. Either way, the top 9 in Montreal could use another offensively-capable player, and Miettinen should at least be an option.

Upshall never lived up to his billing as the 6th overall pick in the 2002 Entry Draft, but he is a solid third line roleplayer who, at still just 27 years of age, could chip in offensively while killing penalties and shutting down opposing forwards. While not overly big at 6'0", he is capable of taking the body and would be a reasonable consolation prize should the names below sign elsewhere. Contract would have to be around $2M for it to be a fit.

Torres fell off the map a little bit after moving from Edmonton to Columbus in 2008-09, but he has been back in the spotlight for both good reasons and bad in this year's playoffs with the Vancouver Canucks. A former 5th overall pick in 2000, Torres is playing like the player the Canadiens hoped they were getting in Travis Moen, as an offensive contributor good for 10-15 goals, but also a guy not afraid of anyone and willing to hit everything in site. A fourth line of Moen - White - Torres would go a long way towards erasing the "soft" label that opposition has been placing on the Habs.

A product of the world-class Detroit Red Wings player development system, Kopecky was an important roleplayer for the Chicago Blackhawks during their march to the Stanley Cup. Though he is coming off a career year offensively with the Hawks (42 points), the 6'3" winger would likely fit best on a two-way third line centered by David Desharnais or Lars Eller as either supplemental offense, or to go head-to-head against opposing offensive threats in more of a shutdown role. If there's a spot for him in Montreal, it would have to come at $3M or less.

Another product of the Detroit system and once described as the best player Ken Holland was ever forced to trade, Leino just completed his first true full season, registering 19 goals and 53 points in Philadelphia. A quick winger of average size, the 27 year old's best years are still ahead of him, and thus he is an attractive target if his salary demands are reasonable. At $3.5M or above, however, he does represent a risk if he's looking for a long-term contract, and this is why other top 6 forward options should be exhausted before settling on him.

A scary-sounding condition of blood clots in both lungs ended what could have been a career-season for Fleischmann, and to date, it's still unclear if he'll be medically cleared to play to start 2011-2012. If he's able to get past the medical concerns and be ready to go, however, as a 6'1", 20+ goal-scoring winger, he could be just the type of player the Canadiens need to round out the Top 9. Expect teams to play "wait and see" with him as he progresses over the summer. Any possible signing would come long after July 1st, so don't be too disappointed if we don't get any of our men right away! Likely to be a short term contract for now to see how his health holds up, and probably in the area of $3.5M.

Coming off a season of just 48 points in 82 games with the traditionally explosive offensively Washington Capitals, it is no guarantee that Laich will be the 20-goal scorer he once was were he to join the defensive-oriented Canadiens. That said, his size (6'2", 210 lbs), versatility, and youth (he'll turn 28 next week) make him an attractive target to round out a top 9 as a complimentary player. A good shot-blocker, he could relieve Tomas Plekanec of some difficult penalty-kill minutes, and can play any forward position. With the market so empty this summer, however, he will come at a premium price, and would likely cost the Canadiens upwards of $4.5M per season.

If the Habs 2 biggest needs up front are size and scoring, then Cole is a potential answer to both areas. While injuries and personal issues derailed his development into the superstar he was set to become, Cole knows how to use his 6'2" frame to play with jam. A resurgent 82-game, 26-goal season in 2010-11 may convince Carolina to lock him up, but should he hit the market, he would fit in nicely to create space and crash the net on a first or second line in support of the small Montreal forward core. At age 32, Cole is likely to get a 2-3 year deal at around $4M per season.

Jagr's name is missing from most of this summer's free agent lists because he's been out of the NHL since the end of the 2007-08 season, preferring to sign with the KHL's Avangard Omsk. There is no doubt that even at age 39, the 6'2", 230 lbs generational talent still has game, averaging close to a point-per-game over 3 seasons in Russia. Having recently rekindled his terrific chemistry with Tomas Plekanec on the Czech National Team during the World Championships, Jagr mentioned that he would look at the NHL as an option for 2011-12, and specifically indicated Montreal, New York, and Pittsburgh as choice destinations. Observers also mention that Jagr has taken advantage of his time overseas to improve his conditioning, dropping 15 pounds and lowering his body fat % since his last NHL season. Adding a player of Jagr's caliber would be the biggest coup the Habs could pull this summer, and would provide them a true gamebreaker that has been lacking since Alex Kovalev's 07-08 performance.

Other Names to Consider:
- Zenon Konopka (similar role to Rupp)
- Ben Eager (similar role to Rupp)
- Alexei Ponikarovsky (reclamation project)
- Andrew Brunette (aging but still capable "last resort")
- Jussi Jokinen (not what Habs need, but additional scoring)
- Chris Higgins (is his career revived?)
- Joel Ward (shutdown forward who can kick a few in)

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