Sunday, July 3, 2011

Free Agency Weekend - How the Habs Fared

Many joked over the course of last week that with few big names on the UFA market, July 1 might pass without those in the hockey world batting an eye. How wrong they were.

Canada Day was an extremely busy time for virtually all general managers around the league with many huge contracts awarded to what might normally be considered rather average players. This had some feeling that the day's biggest winners might have been those who sat quietly and watched overpayments occur left, right, and center. Still, regardless of the price, there were a number of moves that should help their teams in the quest to win a Stanley Cup, and this includes actions taken by Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier. And so we bring to you a recap of some of the biggest action from a Habs perspective.



1) The Montreal Canadiens sign forward Erik Cole to a 4 year, $18M deal ($4.5M cap hit)

If you've been a loyal reader of the site, you saw HERE and HERE that I was a big advocate of signing Cole this summer, so when it came to pass, I was thrilled. Yes, the money and term are both a LITTLE high, but if you compare it to other deals handed out the same day (Ville Leino, 6 years, $4.5M cap hit / Tomas Fleischmann, 4 years, $4.5M cap hit), it's right at the market rate. Habs fans aren't wrong to be just a little bit concerned with the fact that Cole's last foray out of Carolina (a stint with the Edmonton Oilers) didn't produce sparkling results, but paired with proper linemates in Montreal, a see no reason to doubt his success. He's exactly the kind of player the Canadiens have lacked: a true powerforward who plays a speed game, can take the body, can drive the net, and has a knack for burying the puck. He'll be a great mentor for Max Pacioretty as he continues his development in that mold, particularly able to guide him in returning to the game and the style of play following a serious injury. For his mentorship of Pacioretty alone, this will be a great signing, not to mention the fact that he gives the team a Top 9 that competes with most around the league. Of course it's too early to tell with any certainty how this will pan out, but it's something that has me very excited for the Fall.

2) The Montreal Canadiens sign goaltender Peter Budaj to a 2 year, $2.3M deal ($1.15M cap hit)

If the Cole move excited me, this one was not something I really wanted to see. I understand fully the desire to have a goaltender that is capable of playing multiple games in a row should Price (knock on wood) be injured or sick for any period of time. And there are reasonable questions in Alex Auld's ability to do so. But, despite his games totals as a semi-starter in Colorado, there should be questions on Budaj's ability to perform as such as well. Admittedly he wasn't playing behind a strong defense in Colorado, so there is potential upside to this signing if he finds his game in Montreal, but Budaj is far from the reliable, dependable vet that the Habs missed out on Friday in the likes of Mathieu Garon or Johan Hedberg. And while I'm not sold on him, one positive is that Budaj's best season statistically came when he played just 15 games, close to what he should expect in Montreal. Ultimately, the price is about right, and though I'd have preferred to just keep Auld for the same contract he was given by the Ottawa Senators, the Habs' fate this season won't be determined by the play of their back-up goaltender, and if it is, they're in trouble anyway.

Cole fills a big need that we've had for many years. Gauthier fills the other main hole on the first day of free agency. Both signings at market rates. Great to finally land our man, so no real complaints, but no extraordinary coups either.

Next we look at...


1) Jaromir Jagr signs with the Philadelphia Flyers for 1 year and $3.3M

Jagr was a player I would have liked to see in Montreal given that it was a low-risk, high potential reward situation. He has shown tremendous chemistry with Tomas Plekanec on the international stage, and would have brought a sure-fire future Hall of Fame'er to the Habs for a first time since Patrick Roy (and perhaps Mark Recchi). When reports came out early Friday morning that the Pittsburgh Penguins had pulled a 1 year, $2M offer from the table, and the Detroit Red Wings did the same with a $2.5M deal not long after, I got my hopes up. In the end, it seems the Canadiens' deal was similar to that from Detroit, and Jagr left for the cash and what he deemed a better shot at winning a Cup. Given that we ended up with Cole, all's well that ends well. But I'd have given him $3.5M if it would have made a difference.

2) Roman Hamrlik signs with the Washington Capitals for 2 years, $7M ($3.5M cap hit)

I've been a huge Roman Hamrlik fan over the past few years and was really hoping Gauthier would find a way to deal Jaroslav Spacek and retain the Hammer for one last season. Whether or not there was a trade in place is unclear, but we do now that Gauthier made Roman a 1 year offer, which he turned down to instead hit the market and find a 2-year deal elsewhere. In the end, I'm happy with not matching this 2-year, $7M deal, but will miss Hamrlik, particularly if we can't find a solid, minute-eating defensive d-man prior to opening night. Good luck in Washington, Roman; I'm sure Caps fans will appreciate you, and you've got plenty of puck-movers to cover for!

3) James Wisniewski's rights were traded to Columbus, where he then signed a 5 year, $33M deal with the Blue Jackets ($5.5M cap hit)

I love Wizz, awarding him the Habs Norris Trophy for this past season, but I wouldn't have wanted him at anywhere near that type of contract. At $5.5M, you want a player who is better in his own end than James Wisniewski, or who has shown to be a consistent performer over a number of years. While he is just entering his true prime and may end up playing up to this dollar amount, it is a huge risk for a franchise with an internal budget to respect to lock him up for this long. It is a little funny that, just a year ago, the Anaheim Ducks shipped Wisniewski out of town because they did feel he was worth the $2.75M they would have had to pay him. Now he gets double the amount annually on a long-term deal! I'm sure he'll perform well in Columbus, and he doesn't really fit Montreal's need on the back-end anyway (reliable defensive vet), but it may end up being the biggest overpayment of the day.

4) Jeff Halpern signs with the Washington Capitals for 1 year and $850K.

Much like his predecessors Glen Metropolit and Bryan Smolinski, Halpern performed well in the third/fourth line veteran role with the Canadiens. He was a valued vet in the dressing room, strong in the face-off circle, killed penalties, and chipped in the odd offensive support. This variety of player isn't too hard to replace, and it is also possible the Habs have youngster Andreas Engqvist penciled into the role for the coming season. Alternatively, they may be looking outside the organization to bring in some added toughness in this roster spot. Either way, happy for Jeff to be able to sign in Washington, where he recently got married and has a home.

5) Alex Auld signs with the Ottawa Senators for 1 year, and $1M.

I discussed this move a little under the Budaj section, and am still uncertain as to why the Canadiens chose not to retain Auld. Perhaps he wanted to play a little more, which he should be able to do in Ottawa.

6) J.T. Wyman signs with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Curtis Sanford signs with the Columbus Blue Jackets (each 1 year, 2-way).

The Hamilton Bulldogs will again see major turnover going into next season, as after Dustin Boyd and Nigel Dawes left the organization to sign in the KHL, both J.T. Wyman and Curtis Sanford took advantage of their UFA status to try their luck elsewhere. No huge losses. Wyman seemed like a potential future 13th/14th forward, able to kill penalties and play reliable two-way hockey. Sanford still hopes for his NHL future, and Columbus may give him a better chance than sticking around with the Canadiens. Montreal WILL need to sign a goalie for the Bulldogs, and given who remains, it may be down to Drew MacIntyre and Cedrick Desjardins.

7) Simon Gagne signs in Los Angeles (2 years, $7M)
Brad Richards signs with the New York Rangers (9 years, $60M)

If we are to believe internet rumours, the Canadiens were in on both of these guys, who each chose other avenues. The Gagne contract is of very favourable terms for the Kings, and may end up being one of the best deals of the weekend if he can stay healthy (along with Tomas Vokoun to the Capitals and Steve Sullivan to the Penguins). He would have been welcome here at that price, but it certainly would have cost Montreal at least an extra million per season. As for Richards, it is all but certain that his signing here would have hinged on Pierre Gauthier finding a taker for Scott Gomez, which despite rumours to the contrary, is quite a tall task. Still, it is very nice to see Pierre Gauthier being aggressive and chasing the best possible names available as targets for the Habs.

In addition to the signings, a number of players were traded over the course of the weekend. Given the relatively minimal prices paid, a Robyn Regehr or Cody Franson in Montreal would have been a nice steal for Gauthier, but alas, we can't get them all. As much as I love Lars Eller, the price Colorado paid for Semyon Varlamov was astronomically higher than what the Canadiens got for Jaroslav Halak a year prior, so it would have been nice to have an asset like that around to deal.

Gauthier was good to stay away from a number of bidding wars, or at least to back down when needed (e.g. not giving Hamrlik a 2nd year). To get a pick for Wizz's rights was another deft move. Habs fans should be very pleased with the man they call PG.

And finally we'll review...


1) Third String Goaltender

As we mentioned, the Hamilton Bulldogs need a starter (and possibly a back-up if there is no confidence in Robert Mayer and Peter Delmas is not signed). The Canadiens invited a couple of highly touted college netminders to their June development camp in Aaron Dell and Chris Rawlings, so there is hope one may be signed to deal. Even if one is, though, it is likely the Habs will want to pair him with a pro veteran in Hamilton, the best of which still on the market include Cedrick Desjardins and Drew MacIntyre (who finished last year as Hamilton's starter).

2) Changes on Defense

Habs fans, have no fear, Josh Gorges WILL be signed prior to training camp. There is no real urgency to progress on that front as Gorges is an RFA whose rights are well protected. Gauthier knows, as a player entering his prime, Josh is an important piece of his defensive puzzle, and the delay is likely in trying to agree to a long-term contract. However, at the moment, Jaroslav Spacek remains a Canadien, and his play the last couple of seasons has been subpar at best. If Gauthier can find a taker for him, that would free up sufficient cap room to make a run at one of the remaining UFAs, which include Tomas Kaberle, Scott Hannan, Anton Babchuk, and Sami Lepisto. If the current group of d-men remains intact through October, look for this to be the area the team bolsters come trade deadline, as with the added forward depth in Cole and a star starter in Carey Price, it may be a final piece needed to take a run at a 25th Stanley Cup.

3) Toughness Up Front / Depth at Center

A final place the team may want to add is some third/fourth line depth. A lot of fans have expressed interest in Zenon Konopka, a fourth line center without much hockey skill/sense, but who can win face-offs, throw hits, and drop the gloves when needed. As mentioned, this area is not a necessity because Andreas Engqvist played well for Hamilton last year and didn't look out of place in his short stint with the Habs, meaning he could make a fine fourth line pivot. The fact that he's 6'4" doesn't hurt, and he's still only 23. The concern then becomes that Hamilton's center line is very inexperienced, with (aside from Engqvist) two first year pros leading the way in Louis Leblanc and Joonas Nattinen. Since the market is drying up quickly, any new depth player may be acquired via trade.

And there we have it. It's only July 3rd, but we're getting closer to understanding how the Habs may shape up for the start of the 2011-12 season. And from this fan's perspective, things look awfully promising.

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