Bob Gainey's time as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens has been marked by many factors, but one overriding theme that seems to have developped is his unwillingness to negotiate with impending free agents until it is absolutely necessary.
This strategy - actually, it's more like a principle - has its strong and weak points. On the strong side, it sometimes allows you to avoid a horrible mistake. Take Sheldon Souray, for instance.
Let's say Gainey had negotiated with him during the 2006-07 season and managed to sign him to a five-year, $22.5 million deal with a cap hit of $4.5 mil per. That would be $900 K per season less than he received as a free agent from the Oilers, but Souray's very first year in Edmonton he only lasted 26 games. On the other hand, taking a $4.5 million cap hit for the Souray who scored 23 goals in 80 games last season would be very reasonable. My point here is that Souray was far too unreliable, both defensively and physically, to receive that kind of money and term.
On the other side of the coin we have Mark Streit, who signed a five-year, $20.5 million contract with the Isles last summer. It is pretty common knowledge that if Streit were presented with a four or five year deal in the $3.5 million range per season during the 2007-08 season, he probably would have snatched it up to stay in a city he had grown to love. That would have been a steal of a contract, and if Streit were still around Gainey wouldn't have needed to go out and sign an aging Jaroslav Spacek for slightly more money this offseason.
But now we have come to a crossroads in Gainey's principles because his "thoroughbred" Carey Price is up for restricted free agency next summer.
Price's name immediately came to mind when I saw that the Columbus Blue Jackets had locked up centre Derrick Brassard and his 48 career games of NHL experience to a four-year extension worth $12.8 million. Brassard is a year younger than Price and - despite what Price went through last season - hasn't accomplished nearly as much in the NHL.
The thinking for Jackets GM Scott Howson must have been that if Brassard puts up a tremendous season riding shotgun with Rick Nash, it will likely cost him much more money to negotiate at the end of the season than it would this summer.
In a word, Howson gambled.
Time will tell if that gamble pays off, but I think it's time for Gainey to do a little gambling as well. If he truly believes Price is his thoroughbred, then get his name on a contract before the end of training camp.
It's hard to say how much Price would fetch as a restricted free agent at the end of the season, even if he somehow wins the Vezina Trophy this year. Comparables simply don't exist for him because very few goalies are able to justify a huge contract as a 22-year-old. Even Rick DiPietro had to wait until he was 25 before getting his ridiculous 15-year, $67.5 million deal handed to him by his former backup Garth Snow.
DiPietro had 58 career wins at the time he signed. Price enters this season with 47 wins. There simply aren't any goaltenders in the salary cap era with those kinds of credentials at that age, which makes finding a number to even begin negotiations with Price a little tricky.
But I would have to believe that if you are going to hitch the franchise on this young man's back, there would be no better time than the present to negotiate a deal.
First of all, I think everyone in Montreal and beyond has some significant doubts as to whether or not Price will indeed become a franchise goalie. As confident as he is in his own abilities, I would have to believe that somewhere in the deeper recesses of Price's mind, he has to have some degree of doubt as well. So if that's the case, would he not welcome the chance to sign a long-term deal now?
What if he has a repeat of the second half of last season? What if this newfangled team plays horribly in front of him? What if this new goalie coach messes him up even more than the last one? What if Jaroslav Halak completely outplays him (again)? What if? What if? What if?
Meanwhile, Gainey must be asking some of those same questions, but I have a feeling his confidence in this young man is unwavering. Why else would he so brazenly come to Price's defence after that utter meltdown last season, using words you never hear coming out of the mouth of someone who's usually so reserved?
If Gainey truly thinks of Price as a "thoroughbred," it's time to get that horse locked up at a discount, because Gainey hasn't left himself much wiggle room for next summer.
Gainey has nearly $44 million committed to 12 players in 2010-11, and if the cap actually winds up dropping by a couple of million as people are speculating, that will leave him with about $10 million to fill his roster.
Tomas Plekanec will be an unrestricted free agent while Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre will both be restricted with arbitration rights. Assuming all three have big years and they are all re-signed, they will likely eat up about $6 million of that cap space, leaving another $4 million to sign Price and SEVEN more players. Not a pretty situation.
It is not outside the realm of possibility that Price alone could command the entirety of that $4 million cushion, assuming he puts together a dominant season. If that happens, Plekanec would probably have to be allowed to walk away for nothing, no matter how he plays this season. But right now, there is no way Price could justify that kind of money based on what he did last year, and even in the playoffs the year before.
If Price is willing to talk shop prior to the season, Gainey has to do everything in his power to get his name on a contract similar to the one Brassard signed last week.
Or else next July 1 could get very ugly.