After a solid weekend to digest everything that transpired over this tumultuous Habs centennial season, over everything that was said as the Canadiens packed their bags for a long summer, I have come up with this conclusion: I have no idea how to make sense of any of it.
The 2008-09 version of the Montreal Canadiens were dysfunctional lot almost from the very beginning, even as they were compiling one of the best starts to a season in franchise history. It became very clear relatively early on that this team was not as good as it was supposed to be, but by the end of the year it was also far worse than it should have been.
But the bright side of all this is that changes are coming in a very drastic way, so I thought I would look at who should still be in Montreal next season and who should politely be asked to leave.
George Gillett Jr.
I don't think there is much doubt that Gillett would love to cash out right about now, flipping a relatively minor investment for big money to help him maintain his foothold in Liverpool. The Canadiens are a cash cow for Mon Oncle George, but it's one that has essentially plateaued in terms of value, and with buyers lining up why wouldn't he sell? Gillett has been as good an owner as you can ask for in terms of the on-ice product. Yes, he maximized the profit on his team based on the ridiculous demand for tickets and merchandise, but that can't necessarily be faulted because I feel anyone would have done the same in his shoes. If Gillett goes, however, heads in the Canadiens front office may begin to roll.
I'm not going to be a Gainey apologist here, but I will say that circumstances outside his control have handcuffed his ability to make this team better over the years. No matter how many times Gainey or anyone else on the Canadiens deny it, there is a real sense among NHL players that Montreal simply isn't worth the headache. Mathieu Dandenault came right out and said it in Brossard last Thursday, and he isn't the first one to do so. I'm of two minds on Gainey's future with the club, and they both revolve around the insane cap flexibility the Canadiens have this summer. On one hand, Gainey should be given a chance to truly build his team, and what better opportunity than this one? But on the other hand, Gainey should be held accountable for creating a situation with so many free agents that became a distraction. Gainey himself admitted as much last week. I think Gainey's future is directly tied to the ownership issue, and if by some miracle Gillett hangs on to his 80.1 per cent stake in the team, Gainey will be back as GM. That might be the best possible outcome for the Habs, only because I don't see an available candidate to replace him that would be much of an upgrade.
I find it hard to see Kirk Muller back with the team next year, seeing as that was Guy Carbonneau's hire. A new coach will almost certainly want his own assistants (unless Gainey does the unthinkable and returns behind the bench). But when I read Mathias Brunet's piece at La Presse today on Francois Allaire's contract status with the Ducks, I did a double take. Near the end of the story, Allaire says his contract is up at the end of this season, he hasn't had any negotiations with the Ducks as of yet, and being so far from home is starting to wear on him a little bit. If there is one guy who might be able to get Carey Price turned around, it would be Allaire, and this is someone the Canadiens should definitely target as soon as the Ducks playoff run is over. I'm not sure Rolland Melanson will be back with the team next year, and I also can't help but put some of the blame for Price's play this season on him. Allaire would be a perfect replacement.
I think this decision lies largely in Koivu's hands. His measured responses last Thursday about his future with the team sounded to me like a guy who sees a chance to win, and doesn't necessarily see it happening here. Also, as much as I would never have a single bad thing to say about Koivu on the ice, I feel all those years of illnesses, injuries and media controversies have taken their toll on him both mentally and physically. A change of scenery might be the best thing for him. The Canadiens will not be a better team without him, but they also can't responsibly offer him anywhere near the $4.75 million he made the last three years. Koivu said he won't follow the money, but there are limits to how much of a pay cut he might be willing to take. I think he's played his final game as a Hab.
Unlike Koivu, I think Kovalev might be willing to take a significant cut in pay to stay in Montreal. Don't ask me why, I just do. Maybe it had something to do with his assertion last Thursday that nothing will influence his decision to sign with Montreal, not the ownership issues, not Gainey's status, not Koivu's decision, nothing. As maddening as he can be to watch, Kovalev has always picked up his game when it's mattered most, and that is a valuable commodity. How does 98 points in 116 career playoff games sound (31 points in 33 playoff games with the Habs)? I don't think we'll ever get a repeat of his performance two years ago, but Kovalev at 75 per cent is better than most at 100 per cent.
I admit I wasn't high on Tanguay early this season, even though he was producing points. But watching him play with Koivu and Kovalev at the end of the year convinced me this guy was worth keeping. I think Gainey - or whoever the Canadiens GM is - should make Tanguay a priority signing. "If the Canadiens were to call next week," Tanguay said, "I'd be willing to talk." That might be a good idea, assuming they can talk him down a touch from his $5.25 million salary this season. He's only 29 and this was the first year he's ever been hampered by injuries. He said he was looking for term over money, so maybe they can sign him for as little as $4 to $4.5 million a year over six years, which would only bring him to age 35.
Here is the biggest conundrum facing the Canadiens braintrust. Prior to his shoulder injury, Komisarek was a slam dunk signing, a future captain the Canadiens could build around. But that injury, and later watching him play without Andrei Markov to his left exposed the flaws in Komisarek's game. But he is still only 27, and could potentially blossom into something special. But at what cost? Komisarek refused to talk about his future last Thursday, saying he paid his agent a lot of money to make those decisions for him. That sounded to me and lot of my colleagues like someone who was ready to hit the open market. If that's the case, I think the starting price on Komisarek will be $5 million over a long-term deal, perhaps as high as seven or eight years. Other than Jay Bouwmeester, Komisarek will be the most attractive defenceman on the free agent market. With Brian Burke sitting on gobs of money and cap space in Toronto, I could see him upping the ante for a big, bruising defenceman. I'm not sure he's worth that kind of money, so Komisarek may very well be gone.
Lang doesn't want to be part of a re-building process, and doesn't feel one is necessary in Montreal, but if he sees Koivu and Komisarek leaving town then he might just feel inclined to do the same. He had a great season before his injury, but who knows if he will ever get back to that level? He'll be 38 next season and coming off the type of surgery that has hampered some people's careers, people far younger than him. Lang made $4 million this season, but offering him any more than half that number would make no sense. The only thing working in Montreal's favour here is that other teams will be just as reluctant to offer Lang a big contract, especially since he is over 35 and that contract will count against the cap no matter what happens (except for long-term injury relief). So maybe the Habs can sign Lang for a year at $2 million, but any more than that would be irresponsible.
Schneider will be 40 on June 12, and he wants to go somewhere he can play two more seasons. Schneider's age makes him as risky as Lang, but he plays the type of game that could allow him to play until he's 42, in theory. Having Schneider around would definitely help a guy like Yannick Weber and maybe even P.K. Subban adapt to the NHL game, but it would have to come at a cost that is far lower than Schneider's $5.625 million salary this season. My hunch is that Schneider will find a team willing to let him play two more years, but it won't be here.
Francis Bouillon and Mathieu Dandenault
I put these two in the same category because they are both Quebec natives who would likely take a significant pay cut to stick around. With the influx of young defencemen coming up through the system it's pretty unlikely that both will be back. They are both 33, they both made too much money this year ($1.875 for Bouillon, $1.725 for Dandenault) and both probably have a few good years left in them. The question is, which one? If the decision were left up to me, I'd go with Dandenault because his style of play produces less wear and tear than Bouillon's, and his versatility makes him more valuable.
I would definitely re-sign him even though playoff performance left something to be desired. He's a great value at $900,000 per year and his hustle and willingness to at least make an attempt at defending his teammates. His return is not vital, but considering how many young guys there will probably be on the team next year, I would think Kostopoulos would be a nice lead-by-example candidate.
He says he has to figure out if he wants to keep playing, but I think that decision will be made for him. Brisebois can sleep well at night knowing he carved out a 1,000-game career despite chronic weaknesses that never really improved.
He won't get a big raise from his $1.6 million cap hit this summer as a restricted free agent, even though he's arbitration eligible, but the Canadiens might be best served by shopping him around while he still has some semblance of trade value, especially if Lang is re-signed. I love his effort and work ethic, but I think Plekanec simply lacks the stones to be a successful NHL centre. I hope he proves me wrong one day.
Whatever it takes, injury issues or no injury issues. Time to kiss and make up, Bob.
So there you have it, my 300th and final post of the season. I'll be checking in every now and then as news develops surrounding the Habs, and it should be a pretty hectic summer for that. I'll also weigh in on the playoffs at the completion of each round, but otherwise things will slow down a fair bit around here until the draft. Thank you all for making this experiment a load of fun for me, and next year I hope we can continue to make it grow into something bigger and better.
Have a great summer!