An Offseason of Filling Holes?

The free agent signing period is essentially over, and for now the Canadiens offseason amounted to not much more than filling holes left by departing players. Some of the players who departed (David Aebischer, Janne Ninimaa & Sergei Samsonov) had provided little to the team last season, but some such as Sheldon Souray, Mike Johnson and Radek Bonk were key players on a team that struggled to make the playoffs. This is a look at what’s been done and what might happen in the next couple of months.

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It’s clear that Bob Gainey swung for the fences chasing Ryan Smyth and Daniel Briere and struck out. In both cases Gainey offered more per year than either player ended up signing for (although Briere did get a no movement clause from Philly). Kudos to Bob for trying, but it seems it’s going to take more than that to lure free agents to a city that has become notorious for the media pressure and high taxes.

The best way for the team to be able to attract free agents is to improve the on ice play this season and actually show signs of moving forward. Right now free agents view the team as a mediocre one which has not significantly progressed from a playoff bubble team in years. To some extent this is true, but right now the best hope for us fans is to hope that development from within leads to a good year this season. The hope is that young players such as Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn pick up the slack offensively; while Mike Komisarek and possibly Ryan O’Byrne or Pavel Valatenko shore up the defensive side of the game.
The team’s most obvious needs heading into this offseason were to improve 5 on 5 play by acquiring a centre with size to take the pressure off Koivu, and another top four defenseman. As it stands, the roster will welcome three new faces – physical winger Tom Kostopoulous, third line centre Bryan Smolinski, and defender Roman Hamrlik.

All three are essentially replacing the spots of players who left to a varying degree (Smolinski upgrades Bonk, Hamrlik for Souray is questionable, Kostopoulous for Johnson is a downgrade). And in all three cases, Gainey had to sweeten the pot considerably to get them to sign here. Roman Hamrlik scored a sweetheart contract of 22M for 4 yrs, one which led to Red Fisher joke that he must have dislocated his shoulder in his rush to sign it. Smolinski signed a reasonable 1yr $2M deal, but got himself a no-trade clause. Even Kostopoulous, who’s the kind of player Montreal fans will love, got himself a nice deal of $950,000/yr for 2yrs. This is for a guy who’s pencilled in as a fourth line winger.

So what does that mean for Montreal? Well, fans gotta hope that Gainey makes some further moves. UFAs Danny Markov and Michael Peca have been linked to Montreal in online rumours (Markov especially would be a nice pickup). As well, Sharks centre Patrick Marleau has been linked to Montreal since last year’s trade deadline.

The wildcard in all of this is winger Michael Ryder, who’s been mentioned in rumours since he has gained a reputation as being difficult to negotiate with, and could hit the UFA market after this season.

Ryder is the best goal scorer on the team and is the kind of player Montreal desperately needs to hold onto thanks to his ability to score, but he could be looking for a contract which the Habs brass feel he isn’t worth. Personally, I don’t buy it. Ryder’s kind of player is just so valuable to Montreal right now that Gainey will have to suck it up and compromise with Ryder’s agent. On the trade market there would be definitely be interest – from places like Edmonton and the Island which really could use scoring wingers, but considering the Habs would need a similar player in return it would be hard to make a trade.