Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where for art thou cap space?

Barring a salary-dumping trade, the Montreal Canadiens will be entering the season with very little wiggle room under the cap. And buying out Georges Laraque is not an avenue that will remedy that.

First, a disclaimer: I've tried as hard as I can to read and fully understand the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, and I think I've grasped what I was looking for, but I would take anything you read here with a pretty big grain of salt because I'm no lawyer, and it's a pretty convoluted document.

But when I saw last week that the Boston Bruins were buying out Patrick Eaves after acquiring him from Carolina, and that the Hurricanes in turn were buying out Frantisek Kaberle, I figured the Canadiens could instantly give themselves another $1 million in cap room by buying out the last two years of Laraque's contract.

Of course, I figured wrong. Or at least I think I did.

The CBA (available here, if you really want to give yourself a splitting migraine) states that players must receive notice of a buyout no later than June 30, unless a team has salary arbitration hearings scheduled. In that case, a team has five days following the settlement of its last arbitration case to give notice of a buyout.

Both the Bruins and Hurricanes performed their respective buyouts five days after agreeing to terms with their players heading to arbitration. Bruins defenceman Matt Hunwick signed a two-year contract extension on July 20 and Eaves was bought out on July 25, while Tuomo Ruutu signed on for three more years in Carolina on July 23 and Kaberle was bought out on July 28.

In the Canadiens case, their lone arbitration case was resolved when Tomas Plekanec signed his one-year, $2.75 million deal on July 21, which means GM Bob Gainey had until July 26 to buyout Laraque or anyone else on the current roster.

I, for one, am wondering why Gainey didn't decide to take this route.

It is entirely possible that Laraque will not be fit to play in time for training camp because of a recurring disc problem in his back, and that would provide Gainey with some long term injury relief, but that won't help him if he wants to make a trade this summer to further re-shape his team.

I think everyone saw last year that having Laraque in the lineup - when he played - did not provide the Canadiens small, speedy forwards with any extra room or protection, largely because it's hard to be intimidated by someone who only fights under extremely strict conditions.

The game against the Coyotes on October 18 made that painfully obvious, when Kurt Sauer drilled Andrei Kostitsyn with a borderline dirty hit along the boards and only received a Laraque face wash as punishment.

To me, that situation was exactly what Laraque was brought on board to prevent, but after the game he said he wasn't surprised Sauer wouldn't drop the gloves with him because "he's not a heavyweight." Sauer later accepted an invitation from Tom Kostopoulos to settle the score, and proceeded to be beat him to a pulp.

The same scenario repeated itself throughout the season, most famously when Laraque was tabbed by then-head coach Guy Carbonneau to follow Milan Lucic around the ice all night to try and goad him into a fight. Lucic never bit because Claude Julien told him not to, and Laraque never made the decision on his behalf.

Yes, Laraque was somewhat effective in the playoffs in the role Gainey gave him to try and occupy Zdeno Chara, but overall I would have to say his first season in Montreal was a bust.

Though it's entirely possible next season will be different, I have trouble seeing how, and now the Habs look to be stuck with his $1.5 million a year contract for at least one more season unless Gainey can find a trade partner, and even that is complicated by the fact that Laraque somehow coaxed a no-trade clause out of the Habs GM. The no-trade clause is limited in that Laraque can name six Eastern Conference and six Western Conference clubs he would accept a trade to, but it still makes it more difficult to move him, especially considering his health problems.

So if Gainey wants to add a piece like a Patrick Marleau or Patrick Sharp or anyone else, he's going to have to find a club willing to take on salary because his hands are pretty well tied in that department.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Plekanec to play for his payday

Tomas Plekanec came to an agreement with the Montreal Canadiens today on a one-year contract worth a reported $2.75 million.

That's $500,000 more than Chris Higgins signed for with the New York Rangers, but considering the injury-plagued year that Higgins had with Montreal last year, I guess that's reasonable.

I personally thought Plekanec would have topped out at about $2.5 million, but apparently the Canadiens weren't convinced they could win their case in arbitration, which was due for July 30. There's also the idea that the arbitration process can often times sour a relationship, so it's probably best to pay a bit extra just to avoid it.

Now Plekanec will be slated for unrestricted free agency next summer, and I think the fate of some of the Canadiens UFA's this month has proven that a player is best served by playing on a winning team rather than worrying about his own numbers. Just ask Rob Scuderi, or Hal Gill for that matter.

If my calculations are correct, working under the assumption that Ryan O'Byrne and Kyle Chipchura will play in Hamilton while Max Pacioretty plays in Montreal, I figure this leaves the Habs with anywhere between $2.2 million and $3.8 million in cap space (depending on whether or not you factor in the bonus cushion) with only Matt D'Agostini and Gregory Stewart left to re-sign.

That would be an ample amount of contingency funds heading into the season, because as little as $1 million in cap room at the trade deadline can take you a long way, seeing as most of a player's salary is already paid by then.

The possibility also remains that Bob Gainey is not done with his makeover and that a trade is in the works, in which case that cap space could be all dried up by the time the season starts.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It's speculation season

It's mid-July, meaning it's that time of year when what looks to be the most minor hockey news around can be stretched and prodded and spun to mean just about anything.

Take for instance today's announcement that the Canadiens signed veteran backup netminder Curtis Sanford to a two-way, one-year contract.

A reasonable assessment of the deal would be that Sanford was brought in to replace Marc Denis as the starter in Hamilton and occasional emergency backup with the big club.

But really, what fun is reasonable in the dead of summer?

No, what would be far more entertaining would be to say that Sanford was brought in to replace Jaroslav Halak as Carey Price's backup in Montreal because Halak will be packaged in an effort to bring in a big name player, say one of the Patricks, either Sharp or Marleau.

Since I make every effort to entertain while I inform, let's just go with that hypothesis for a while, shall we?

First of all, Sanford is not a spectacular goalie, but he's a capable backup who could spell Price for 15 to 20 games this season if need be.

Seeing as Price is obviously going to be the guy this team will be banking on for the foreseeable future, having Halak around is a major luxury. He's cheap and he's good enough to be the starting goalie on, by my count, about 12 teams in the NHL. But it's clear that will never happen in Montreal, and considering his age (24) and minuscule cap hit ($775,000) Halak is a pretty valuable trade chip.

This is where Chicago becomes interesting because it was clear last year that Joel Quenneville does not have loads of confidence in Cristobal Huet, who was paid $5.625 million to watch Nikolai Khabibulin backstop the 'Hawks to the conference final.

Chicago has loads of salary cap issues and can't afford to go sign a pricey veteran to compete with Huet, so someone like Halak should be right up their alley. Meanwhile, Sharp accounts for a $3.9 million cap hit, which is a steal for someone who scored just under a goal every two games over the past two seasons, can kill penalties and can play both centre and wing.

But, much like Halak is a luxury in Montreal, Sharp looks like he may be in the same boat in Chicago because of the impending doom facing the team when Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith all hit restricted free agency next summer (Of course, if Price has a breakout season the Habs could be facing the same situation regarding his next contract as well).

There are reports out of Chicago that Sharp is being shopped, with one report specifically stating there have been discussions with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But unless the Blackhawks would be willing to give up Sharp for just Halak and some picks or prospects, there wouldn't be too much cap relief going back. Halak and Tomas Plekanec's combined salaries would likely top $3 million. Guillaume Latendresse could be interesting to Chicago at only $803,000, but he'll be eligible for salary arbitration next year, which is when Chicago needs the cap space.

But the Blackhawks do need a sixth defenceman so perhaps Josh Gorges would be a possibility, because that would clear $2 million off the books for Chicago while also filling a pressing need with a good, young, cheap player.

As far as Marleau is concerned, the only reason I could see interest in Halak there is that the Sharks plan on trading impending free agent Evgeni Nabokov, who appears willing to waive his no trade clause if asked. There's no backup to Nabokov signed as of yet, so I suppose Halak could be brought in to fill that role and serve as insurance should San Jose lose Nabokov as a free agent next summer.

Sharks GM Doug Wilson promised big changes for his playoff-choking team this offseason, yet did nothing in free agency aside from re-signing Ryan Clowe and Rob Blake for $7 million, which put San Jose right up against the salary cap.

At a salary of $6.3 million in the final year of his contract, trading Marleau would give Wilson some financial latitude while also allowing Joe Pavelski to take on a more prominent role on the team. Perhaps a package of Halak and Plekanec could entice Wilson to budge, a deal like that providing more than $3 million in cap space while taking on a centre who had a 69-point season only two years ago and has scored at least 20 goals in each of the least three years.

Marleau has yet to be approached about his own NTC, but I would have to imagine he wouldn't stand in the way if he was sent to a winning team.

Is Montreal that team? Not right now, but it could be next season just as easily as it could be a team scratching and clawing its way into the playoffs. That uncertainty would change in a hurry with the addition of either Sharp or Marleau, which would instantly make the Canadiens a very strong contender in the east.

Friday, July 17, 2009

So it starts...

As a member of the working NHL media, I know all too well how the pile on mentality can work.

Television people, by the very nature of their work, have to make snap reactions and analyses, yet once those opinions are put out there, it's pretty hard to take them back. Newspaper people often have a tendency to be influenced by these opinions, especially on trade deadline day and the opening of free agency because most of those writers are watching the news unfold on TV, just like all the fans.

So here we are in mid-July, and there is already an NHL prognosticator predicting the demise of your Montreal Canadiens.

Terry Frei, a respected reporter for the Denver Post who also writes for, recently published his Eastern Conference predictions for next season. A warning before you decide to click on that link: What you see may disturb you.

Frei predicts the Canadiens will not only finish out of the playoffs in ninth place, but he also thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs will slide into the final playoff spot, which essentially discredits everything he wrote.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, and I would have no problem accepting Frei's that the Habs will miss the playoffs because that remains a very real possibility. But behind the Leafs? Really? Has he seen their depth chart?

I will be the first to say that what Brian Burke accomplished this summer was very impressive, simply because he has a vision for his team and he went out and executed his plan. Or at least a part of it. Burke has mentioned he likes to have six skill guys and six bangers among his 12 forwards. Unless I'm missing something, I fail to see where his six skill guys are.

Jason Blake has some skill, as does (like it or not) Mikhail Grabovski, but those aren't exactly guys you want to build around. Then there's Nik Hagman, who's a nice player but hardly a legitimate top-line forward. Is Matt Stajan going to light the world on fire? Or Jiri Tlusty? Or Alexei Ponikarovsky? Or Lee Stempniak?

The defence looks very much improved and there's some intriguing young players coming in, but otherwise, I don't see the playoffs in the Leafs future.

I do, however, feel the Habs will make the playoffs with Carey Price and an improved defence as the driving force behind it. Yes, it is possible to have an improved defence when you've lost Mike Komisarek to free agency and I'm making an educated leap of faith on Price, but I think a playoff spot is definitely within this team's grasp and I don't think they'll squeak in either.

And from the looks of it, they will likely have to do it without Vincent Lecavalier as Tampa co-owner Len Barrie looks to have met his cash call from Gary Bettman. That doesn't necessarily mean Lecavalier still won't be traded this summer, but I would think it's going to take a lot more assets for Barrie to sign off on a deal than it would if it were only Oren Koules making the final call.

There is a possibility that Bob Gainey could make a pitch for Patrick Marleau, seeing as San Jose has yet to make any changes to a group that has clearly shown it needs a shot in the arm, but I have trouble envisioning a package that could be offered to get Marleau that wouldn't severely cripple the team. This would not be auction in an effort to save money, it would be a hockey trade and the Habs don't have the necessary depth of talent to pull it off. Tomas Plekanec and prospects simply won't cut it because Doug Wilson is no fool.

As much as Gainey may want to ship Plekanec out of town, and I believe he does just to avoid having to give a guy he made a healthy scratch in the playoffs a hefty raise, I'm not sure how much value he has. He had one magical season, but otherwise he's always been a pretty mid-range talent, but one that could potentially thrive with Andrei Kostitsyn and whoever finds himself on right wing.

No, if I were Gainey I would sit on what he's already done and let the predictions of impending doom start rolling in.

We've already seen the motivational power of dire pre-season predictions.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

No Koivu visit this year

The Habs 2009/10 schedule has just been released, and Saku Koivu's Anaheim Ducks will not be visiting Montreal this season. The Canadiens play in Orange County on March 7.

Alex Kovalev and the Senators first visit the Bell Centre on Oct 17, and I'm very curious to see the reception he receives in light of the fact he rejected the exact same contract from the Habs that he eventually accepted from the Sens.

Meanwhile, Habs fans will have their first opportunity to boo Mike Komisarek and the Leafs on Halloween night.

Chris Higgins and the New York Rangers visit Oct. 24, giving Scott Gomez a chance to stick it to his old team. Or not.

The rumour that refuses to die

The Habs cap situation appeared to put to rest all talk of Vincent Lecavalier coming home to wear the CH, but the most recent twist in the Tampa Bay Lightning's ownership soap opera could very well put the wheels of this rumour back in motion.

First, a look at the Canadiens tight cap situation.

Guillaume Latendresse signed a one-year contract with the Habs, the team announced today, and according to RDS the deal is worth $803,000.

That's a cut in pay from the $850,000 Latendresse earned this season, which many people will likely feel is warranted, but is still shocking for a 22-year-old player who still has his best years in front of him.

Bob Gainey obviously had the knowledge that Latendresse would likely take just about any offer rather than hold out for a richer deal, so getting that kind of a discount from a homegrown guy is not that great of an accomplishment.

Still, considering the tight finanacial quarters Gainey has put himself into, saving any amount of money on a signing has to be considered a bit of a coup.

According to the Habs cap space sits at just under $6 million when the Latendresse signing is accounted for with Tomas Plekanec, Matt D'Agostini and Gregory Stewart left to sign as restricted free agents. That number includes the $500K due to Kyle Chipchura and the $942,000 cap hit for Ryan O'Byrne, both of whom could possibly start the season in Hamilton, but does not include the $875,000 contract of Max Pacioretty, who will likely make the team.

In any case, getting that kind of a discount on Latendresse was clearly vital if Gainey has any hope of having some wiggle room to account for injuries once the season starts, or even before that.

Gainey mentioned prior to the start of free agency that he didn't want to spend all his money in one shot because he didn't want to find himself in the same situation as the summer of 2006, when he signed Sergei Samsonov and didn't have any money left for Jean-Pierre Dumont when he suddenly became available after arbitration.

A potential situation like that came up when the Blackhawks looked like they may have had Cam Barker and Kris Versteeg become unrestricted free agents because the team botched their qualifying offers, but both ultimately re-signed with the team, likely for more money than the Blackhwaks were willing to give.

Now, it appears that the Lightning may once again come back to bite Gainey in the ass. The St Petersberg Times reported Tuesday that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has imposed a $10 million cash call on Lightning co-owner Len Barrie with a deadline for this Friday.

Why is this important? Well, if Barrie is unable to come up with the cash by the end of the week, it's entirely possible he will be pushed out of the rocky ownership relationship in Tampa and the reins of the team will be handed to Oren Koules. If previous reports are to be believed, Koules wants to keep costs down in an attempt to make the team more profitable (which never works, because no one wants to go watch a team with no stars), and that process would begin by shipping out Lecavalier.

Yes, there's that name again.

Lecavalier's new 11-year, $85 million contract kicked in on July 1, and along with it came a no-movement clause, which essentially means he would need to give his approval of a trade. So, in that sense, his situation hasn't changed a whole lot since that media firestorm around the all-star break when everyone assumed Lecavalier to Montreal was a natural denouement to the Lightning's financial difficulties.

But if Barrie is indeed pushed out Friday, which is far from a sure thing as he attempts to sell a portion of his Bear Mountain Golf Resort and Spa on Vancouver Island, then the possibility exists that Lecavalier would become available on the trade market, and Gainey's biggest commodity in those talks - cap space - would be all dried up.

There is a school of thought out there that the Canadiens would be better off without Lecavalier and more specifically his contract, which could prove to be an albatross as Lecavalier's body looks to be wearing down. Yes, he's only 29, but he's been in the NHL since he was 18, so he's an old 29. Still, Lecavalier's lineage makes him a uniquely attractive commodity to the Canadiens, enough of one that Gainey and the organization would likely roll the dice on his health.

With a $7.73 million cap hit, the Habs would have to send salary the other way in order to make any potential trade for Lecavalier work, but the Lightning are interested in shedding salary so it's doubtful they would be interested.

However, this is where the structure of Scott Gomez's contract becomes interesting. His cap hit is $7.36 million, slightly lower than Lecavalier's, but in terms of actual dollars being paid out Gomez is a far more affordable option. Lecavalier is due to be paid $10 million a year for the first seven years of his contract, while Gomez is due $8 million for the next two years, $7.5 million in three years and then $5.5 million and $4.5 million in the final two years of his contract.

So, over the next five years, the Lightning would save $16.5 million in salary with Gomez as the No. 1 centre instead of Lecavalier even though the cap difference between the two is negligeable. If they were to agree to take Gomez and a package of prospects in exchange for Lecavalier, the Lightning could tell their fans they received a quality player in return who could bridge the gap between Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos as the team's top centre, while also saving a good chunk of change in the process.

I'm not sure if Brian Lawton would agree to a deal like this, especially since suitors will be plentiful for Lecavalier's services, but financially it may still be an interesting option for him. As far as Gainey's concerned, trading Gomez is the only option that remains if he still wants to get Lecavalier, and he'll likely have to gut the organization in order to do it because in the end it will have cost him Chris Higgins, Ryan McDonagh, Pavel Valentenko plus two or three quality prospects he'd have to send Lawton's way.

I feel it's an unlikely situation, and this whole discussion could be moot if Barrie remains a co-owner of the team. But it would appear that despite Gainey's heavy spending and apparent turning of the page on Lecavalier, this is a rumour that could very well survive the summer.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Boxing Day

When asked why he didn't address the team's dire lack of size on the opening day of free agency, Bob Gainey said that July 1 was a day you shopped for skill.

In that sense, perhaps July 10 was like Boxing Day, when you grab some valuable pieces at discount prices.

After announcing the signing of 6-foot-4, 212-pound defenceman Paul Mara earlier in the day, the Canadiens added a prime checking forward in 6-foot-2, 216-pound winger Travis Moen.

And just like that, the Habs don't seem that small anymore.

OK, maybe that's going a little too far, because five of the top six forwards will still be 6-feet or under. But addng Mara on the back end and Moen up front will make the Canadiens far more difficult to play against than they were a day ago.

Both contracts appear to be good value on the dollar. No firm contract details have come out for Mara's one year deal, but he told La Presse Canadienne that he took a slight pay cut from his $1.95 million salary last season. For a 29-year-old who's still in the prime of his career, that's not too bad.

ESPN reported that Moen's deal is for three years and $4.5 million, or the same contract Georges Laraque received last summer. Considering there's already questions about the same disc problem in Laraque's back that plagued him last year, and that Gainey had said he was only looking to add another defenceman in free agency, perhaps Moen's addition is the precursor to a buyout of Laraque's remaining two years on his contract. If so, then this move makes perfect sense. If not, the Canadiens will not be a team that is pushed around next season.

Moen is not afraid to drop the gloves, and he does it against some pretty tough customers. He had nine fighting majors last year, incidentally the same number as Laraque did, and he took on the likes of Todd Fedoruk, Erik Reitz (that Isles giant who tossed Laraque around like a rag doll), and Jared Boll (here's a video of the Boll fight). Moen didn't win too many of those fights, at least according to his fight card at, but at least he brings more to the table than just fighting.

Moen was 21st in the league last year in hits among forwards with 171, just ahead of the 167 of the departed Tom Kostopoulos, who is basically the guy Moen is being brought in to replace. Moen's also a go-to guy on the penalty kill and, really, I'd rather my top grinder be from Saskatchewan than Mississauga, so I consider Moen a really big upgrade on Tom the Bomb.

Mara also appears to have found his fighting legs in the last year, posting a career high six fights last season. That's the same number as his previous three seasons combined, and maybe it's what convinced Gainey that Mara was a guy he wanted on his blueline because none of Andrei Markov, Jaro Spacek, Roman Hamrlik, Josh Gorges or even Hal Gill are very frequent fighters.

Having already admitted I didn't know a whole about Mara, I thought I'd scour some of the Rangers fan blogs to see what they thought of losing him and for the most part, it appears he was an appreciated player in New York. But I get the impression it was more for his playoff beard than anything else.

Anyhow, here's a sampling of reaction from the Rangers blogosphere:
"I'm sort of disappointed that the Rangers opted to not re-sign Mara, as I thought he had a solid season last year, had completely transformed his game to fit into the Rangers team by becoming much more physical and a stand up teammate."
"Personally, I’m disappointed to see him go, even though I knew it was coming. He’s a guy whose usefulness extended off the ice. He was a leader of this team and a guy who went all out every game. Mara was never the most talented defensive player on the Rangers, but he worked as hard, or harder, than any other player on the team and it showed. Montreal is getting a very nice player. And one hell of a playoff beard."
"Mara was a cheap, but solid player on the Ranger blueline while he played here, and was a great leader on the team. Good luck to Paulie, and the fans of Montreal must learn to respect the beard."

Scotty Hockey
"Mara never lived up to expectations but proved himself a capable, consistent defenseman during his time in New York. While he wasted a ton of power play time - much like every other defenseman on the roster - Mara was good at getting the puck out of the zone, always willing to stand up for teammates and had one legendary beard."

The New York Rangers Blog
"Mara really turned into a solid defenseman for the Rangers the last two years and became one of the few players on the team that would actually stick-up for teammate."

So what are the cap implications here? Gainey spent under $3.5 million of his $8.8 million in availavable cap space today, leaving him just over $5 million to spend in re-signing RFA's Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Matt D'Agostini and Gregory Stewart. That number would be increased by $750,000 if Laraque is indeed bought out.

I'm going to assume that despite his horrid season Plekanec will still get a raise from his $1.8 million salary, so let's say he gets $2.25 million, just like his fellow underachiever from last season Chris Higgins did with the Rangers. Latendresse should make at least $1 million, but I'll give him $1.25 million just to be on the safe side, while D'Agostini and Stewart should combine to make about $1.5 million.

That makes $5 million for those four players, so unless Laraque is bought out or there's some salary that will be shed in a trade, Gainey will enter training cap right up against the cap.

Personally, while it may not be the most prudent course of action, I say it's better to go into training camp with the team you envision having rather than saving money for a deadline day move. Those deadline moves rarely work, unless they're made by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Gainey's usually unwilling to overpay on that day as we saw in the Marian Hossa auction.

The depth in the organization was greatly improved today, so most injuries can be accomodated from within with youngsters who should be on a pretty darn good team in Hamilton.

So now, for the second time in a day, here are my projected lines for this team that has added seven new players in the past 10 days, taking for granted that Laraque will be either bought out or placed on long-term injured reserve. I've never been a proponent of building a team through free agency, but on paper, this lineup looks pretty good:

Pacioretty - Gomez - Gionta (still an All-American line)
A. Kostitsyn - Plekanec - Cammalleri
Moen - Lapierre - Latendresse (suddenly a pretty great crash-and-bang line)
Metropolit centring some combination of Stewart/S. Kostitsyn/D'Agostini

Markov - Spacek
Hamrlik - Mara
Gill - Gorges

Extras (either in Hamilton or the press box): Chipchura, O'Byrne, Weber, Subban, one of Stewart, S. Kostitsyn or D'Agostini.

What exactly does Mara offer?

The Habs defence corps just got a little more crowded, and a little beefier, too.

The Canadiens announced the signing of Paul Mara to a one-year contract Friday, adding a 6-foot-4, 212-pound body to the back end who still has some legs (he'll turn 30 in September). He's also been a pretty durable player over his career, playing at least 73 games in all but one of his last seven seasons with the Coyotes and, most recently, the Rangers.

The signing is not ideal because it adds yet another left-handed shot to a blue line full of them, joining Andrei Markov, Jaroslav Spacek, Roman Hamrlik, Josh Gorges and Hal Gill. That is good news for hopefuls Ryan O'Byrne and Yannick Weber because they are the only two defencemen in the organization right now that shoot from the right side. But with Mara in the fold it also essentially means that neither of them have any chance of cracking the top six next season.

Mara received regular ice time for the Rangers last regular season with an average of nearly 19 minutes, but with the arrival of Derek Morris at the trade deadline his minutes suffered, and he didn't even get 15 minutes a game in the playoffs, lowest among Rangers defencemen.

He can, however, fill a role on the power play and he'll likely play on the second unit with Roman Hamrlik. Mara played 2:40 per game on the power play with the Rangers last regular season. That number remained pretty consistent in the playoffs, suggesting New York was happy with his work on one of the worst power play units in the league (29th overall, 13.4 pewr cent). But Mara's shorthanded ice time in the playoffs was practically cut completely, dropping from 1:57 per game to 15 seconds.

I'll be honest, I'm not sure what to think of this signing because I don't really know Mara is a player, even though I've seen him play many times. I always assumed he was a solid defenceman, having been drafted seventh overall by the Lightning in the 1997 draft, but the Canadiens now become his fourth team in 11 seasons.

It goes well with the trend of journeymen defencemen joining the Habs, as Spacek is on his sixth team in 11 seasons and Gill is on his fourth team in 12 seasons.

"Paul Mara will bring size and experience to our group of defencemen," GM Bob Gainey said in the release announcing the signing. "He can contribute to all facets of the game."

It's true that Mara brings size and experience, but does he bring anything else? Toughness? Skill? Vision? Skating? I'm not sure. But if Mara plays a second-pairing role, that should push Josh Gorges down to the third pairing and will be of a great benefit to him, because he'll be able to focus more of his energy on his penalty-killing duties, where he really excels when he's not overtaxed.

I guess the final opinion on this signing will be made once Mara's salary is uncovered. He made $1.95 million last season, and if he was given any semblance of a raise by Gainey then this will be a poor signing. For that kind of money there are a lot of capable defencemen still available on the open market.

Further to that, I was curious to see if Gainey would reach out to his old friends Darryl Sydor or Sergei Zubov, who are both still un-signed. Zubov would be a pretty monumental risk with his injuries of late, but the reward would be equally as huge if he could put together a healthy season. Sydor is an older but better version of Mara who would surely be able to play for one year, though perhaps he's looking to maintain the $2.5 million salary he earned last season.

With just over $8.8 million left under the cap before the Mara signing, it would be pretty safe to assume that Gainey has about $7 million left to sign Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Matt D'Agostini and Gregory Stewart. Only Plekanec is arbitration eligible among that group, and I'll be interested to find out what number he puts before the judge because his performance last season will not give his agent too much to work with.

So, assuming Gainey isn't able to swing any major trades this summer, the signing of Mara should complete his summer shopping list as he noted on July 1 that he was only looking for one more defenceman.

I guess all that talk from Gainey of saving some money for the late summer bargain bin so he doesn't miss out on a situation like the one with Jean-Pierre Dumont was just that, talk. With arbitration hearings coming up, some teams are going to be walking away from players who are awarded too much money, just like the Sabres did with Dumont, and Gainey will likely have little wiggle room to work with.

This also means the team is waving goodbye to Francis Bouillon, Mathieu Dandenault and Patrice Brisebois as well as Robert Lang, and that one third of the 18 skaters who will dress every night will be playing their first season in the Montreal fishbowl.

Here is what your Montreal Canadiens may look like in October, after making some alterations to my original line combinations based on Jacques Martin's assertion that he'd like a big winger with Gomez and Gionta:

Pacioretty - Gomez - Gionta (An All-American line)
A. Kostitsyn - Plekanec - Cammalleri
Latendresse - Lapierre - D'Agostini
Laraque - Metropolit - Stewart/S. Kostitsyn

Markov - Spacek
Hamrlik - Mara
Gill - Gorges

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Captain K should thrive in the O.C.

After 13 tough years in Montreal where Saku Koivu had to play the role of No. 1 centre, he will finally find himself in a position to thrive on the Anaheim Ducks.

Not only will he have a top-flight winger to work with in Teemu Selanne, one with which he already has a good measure of chemistry after their international success together, but Koivu will benefit from the attention opposing coaches are forced to give the potent top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan.

Koivu was always the centre of attention in Montreal, a role he was more or less suited for, and he still had his fair share of success. But consistently playing against the opposing No. 2 defence pair in Anaheim will allow Koivu to really shine, especially since he'll be passing to an accomplished finisher in Selanne, something he never really had in Montreal.

Yes, Koivu formed a great pairing with Mark Recchi, but even at his advanced age Selanne remains more of a pure goal scorer than Recchi ever was.

I sincerely hope Koivu lights it up in Anaheim this year, and I believe he will, so he can prove to the league just how talented and gutsy a player he really is. Accepting a one-year, $3.25 million deal had to be a tough pill to swallow for an intensely proud man, but I believe that contract will simply serve as added motivation for him.

I have trouble understanding why Bob Gainey couldn't bring Koivu back at that price, or why he didn't even make a courtesy offer. That's a debate which will rage all summer, I'm sure, and rightfully so because it was an unglorious way to say goodbye to a player that had a major impact on this once glorious franchise.

All the best Saku. For all the crap you had to deal with over your time in Montreal despite all the great things you accomplished on and especially off the ice, I feel you've left an indelible mark on this city and you are owed a great debt of gratitude.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The power to adapt

The man who will be charged with shaping the biggest asset for the Canadiens franchise is saying all the right things, and that has to be encouraging for fans wondering if Carey Price will be able to bounce back from his sophomore slump.

I haven't been able to make it out to the Habs development camp in Brossard with parenting duties taking precedent this week. But luckily, La Presse's Marc-Antoine Godin is among the media corps covering the festivities, and he got most of the answers to the questions I would have liked to ask the Canadiens new goaltending coach Pierre Groulx.

For some reason, the version of his story that's online is not the one that's in today's print version, with quotes from Groulx that suggest Price is in good hands.

Normally, the hiring of a goaltending coach is not huge news, but in this case the job is of paramount importance considering just how much of this franchise's future has been tied to the back of Price.

Awaiting his 22nd birthday next month, Price represents an asset so vital to the success of the team that the hiring of Groulx may very well have been more important than that of Jacques Martin as head coach.

Groulx only has two years experience as an NHL goaltending coach with the Florida Panthers, and in that span the Panthers finished 14th and ninth in the league in goals against per game. Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson finished second and third in the league in save percentage last season, while Vokoun was 12th in the league two seasons ago and Anderson had a gaudy .935 save percentage but didn't play enough games to qualify for the league lead.

Despite those solid results, hiring Groulx to fill this position goes against the philosophy Bob Gainey said led him to reach out to Martin. Gainey wanted experience behind the bench, which is exactly what he's getting in Martin and newly-hired assistant Perry Pearn. But the vital position of goalie coach was given to a virtual rookie.

It could turn out to be a real coup, and the way Groulx is talking it sounds like Price will finally be allowed to develop in his own way.

It was never confirmed by Price or anyone else last season, but anyone who watched him play on a regular basis couldn't help but notice how much time he was suddenly spending on his knees. This appeared, at least to me, to be a directive from Rollie Melanson, who would spend a lot of time in practice working on lateral movement from the knees. The same tendency is what often spelled the demise of Cristobal Huet, but it was more glaring in Price's case simply because he was never a goalie that liked to go down often.

Groulx was very respectful towards Melanson's work, but also emphasized that a new man was now in charge.

"I'm bringing a new philosphy," Godin quoted Groulx as saying. "I won't completely change the style of the goalies I work with. Carey Price, for example, has a hybrid style and we're going to work with both his strengths and his weaknesses. But I'm the one who will adapt to the goalies, they won't have to adapt to me."

That should be music to Price's ears.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Compare as we dare

Today's signings of Francois Beauchemin in Toronto and Alex Kovalev in Ottawa was more than a simple case of two Montreal rivals getting stronger.

Both Beauchemin and Kovalev signed contracts that are eerily similar to the ones Bob Gainey gave to Jaroslav Spacek and Brain Gionta. In the case of Beauchemin and Spacek, the difference is minuscule, as each of them got three-year deals, while Spacek will make $100K more than Beauchemin over those three years. With Kovalev and Gionta, they are each $5 million deals, but Kovalev signed on for two years while Gionta is locked up for five.

This turn of events is essentially a Gainey nightmare, because it makes comparisons too easy to drum up. Forgetting, for a moment, that Gainey allowed his number one priority to leave town over a paltry $500k per season, the Beauchemin and Kovalev signings will give his ever-growing legion of doubters even more fodder with which to work.

So let's try to find out who would have been a better signing in each case:

Jaroslav Spacek v. Francois Beauchemin

This isn't really a fair comparison because even though these two play the same position, they play very different roles. Spacek is a power play trigger man and is coming in to replace Mathieu Schneider, whereas Beauchemin would be more of a replacement for Mike Komisarek even though he's not nearly as physical.

But ever since Beauchemin arrived in Anaheim in the Sergei Fedorov trade, he's played at least 24 minutes a game, and that's while getting what little time on the power play was left when Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer would get tired. The bulk of Beauchemin's time on the ice was spent at even strength or on the penalty kill. In fact, he led the league in penalty kill ice time per 60 minutes played.

That's not to say Beauchemin couldn't play on the power play, he simply wouldn't be as good in that role than Spacek, who got 22 of his 45 points last year with the man advantage. The most Beauchemin has ever gotten is 13 power play points in a season.

Still, handing a three-year contract worth just over $3.8 million per season to a 35-year-old like Spacek may not have been the greatest idea, considering the 29-year-old Beauchemin was available at the exact same price. Then, instead of signing Hal Gill to a two-year, $4.5 million deal, Gainey could have spent that money and perhaps a little more on a power play guy like Dennis Seidenberg. Or you could even promote Yannick Weber to fill that role as a specialist and still sign Gill.

Now Spacek's salary will be on the Habs cap for three years no matter what, even if Spacek retires or is sent to the minors, because he was 35 when he signed it. I also wonder why Spacek has moved around so much, with Montreal becoming his sixth team in 11 NHL seasons. He was a key component for the Oilers run to the final as a rental player in 2006, playing nearly 26 minutes a night in the playoffs. But Beauchemin averaged more than 30 minutes a game for the Cup-champion Ducks in 2007.

All in all, for the same amount of money, I think I'd rather have Beauchemin than Spacek. And then I would criticize Gainey for failing to get a power play quarterback in free agency.

Brian Gionta v. Alex Kovalev
All sentimentality has to be put aside for this argument to make any sense, because there are more than a few Habs fans who hold their "Kovy" dear to their heart because he was the first forward with elite talent to come to Montreal in quite some time. Heck, some 200 of them even demonstrated outside the Bell Centre on Sunday to try and sway Gainey into re-igniting talks with Kovalev.

But his money seemingly went to Gionta, who coaxed far more than the two-year term that RDS is reporting was offered to Kovalev at or near the same $5 million per year salary.

Gionta has only had one great year out of his seven in the NHL, potting 48 goals and adding 41 assists in 2005-06 on a line with new Canadiens centre Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias in New Jersey. Kovalev, in 16 seasons, has had two great years, the most recent coming two years ago with the Habs and the other in 2000-01 with the Pens.

But despite his offensive struggles last year, you might be surprised to learn that Gionta was on the ice for 53 even strength goals, while Kovalev was only on for 38. For some context, know that Henrik Zetterberg was on the ice for 55 even strength goals. This drives home the point that while Kovalev is a tremendous power play weapon, he's not really much of a factor at 5-on-5.

But the one thing I have always respected about Kovalev is that when the stakes were at their highest, in the playoffs, he always showed up. For his career, Kovalev's point per game totals increase from 0.82 in the regular season to 0.84 in the playoffs.

Gionta, meanwhile, goes from 0.66 regular season points to 0.60 in the playoffs, though that's not entirely fair because more than a third of his career playoff games came in the Cup-winning year of 2002-03, when Gionta didn't play a huge role in New Jersey. Since then, Gionta has 0.73 points per game in the playoffs, which is slightly higher than his 0.72 regular season average over the same period.

The X factor in this debate is Gainey's acquisition of Scott Gomez a day before signing Gionta. Whether or not you agree with the trade that brought Gomez to Montreal, the Gionta signing when seen in that context made a whole lot of sense. And frankly, as spectacular as Kovalev was in the playoffs, he wasn't someone who was necessarily going to help you make the playoffs by producing in November and December.

So in the context of finding a winger for Gomez to play with and considering consistency to be a greater attribute than flashiness, I think I would rather have Gionta than Kovalev on this team.

What do you think?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Short-term memories

I've got to admit that I fall victim to it as well.

That tendency for sports fans to only think in one year increments, forgetting what happened in the past and not allowing for proper interpretation of what will happen in the future. When it comes to the Montreal Canadiens, I feel a lot of people's memories are far too short these days.

With the year the team just went through, that would be an easy trap to fall into, so I felt like maybe I would try to add a little dose of perspective to the proceedings as Habs fans continue to chew on the notion that the entire leadership core of the team will not be back next year.

But what is left is a blue chip goalie who will only turn 22 next month, yet already has 93 NHL games under his belt, a top-flight defenceman who is among the best puck-movers in the league, and a very talented 24-year-old winger who is taking a little longer than others to break out of his shell.

Carey Price, Andrei Markov and, admittedly to a lesser extent, Andrei Kostitsyn are still the group that will decide whether or not the Canadiens have any degree of success this year. And there is nothing saying that all three of them will not have career years.

Of course, there's nothing saying they will either, but at least in the case of Price and Kostitsyn we can speculate with some degree of assurance that the chances of them bouncing back from last season are still pretty good.

Let's start with Price. I went over this back in early March when Price was having trouble seeing straight and also felt the game was best seen from his knees, but I felt it warranted being re-hashed at this point because I think a lot of people are forgetting just what kind of a talent Price can be.

Patrick Roy's exploits in leading the Habs to the Stanley Cup in his rookie season are legendary, but not nearly as many people mention the fact that in his second year, it was Brian Hayward that got the bulk of the playoff duty to lead Montreal to the conference final. Roy had a very successful sophomore regular season, finishing second in the league in goals against average and fifth in save percentage.

But in the playoffs it was a different story, as Roy allowed an average of four goals per game in the six he played, compared to 13 games played for Hayward that year. Didn't anyone have their doubts as to whether Roy was a one-year wonder after a playoff performance like that, plus the one the following season when he went 3-4 with a 3.35 GAA and .890 save percentage?

In Roy's fourth season, he led the Habs back to the Cup final.

When it comes to Martin Brodeur, the most interesting comparison is the one I made back in March, that his worst statistical season was his second in the NHL, when he posted the second-highest GAA and lowest save percentage of his career. A season after that Brodeur led the NHL with 30 losses. Another season later Brodeur was a second team all-star, finishing first in the league in both shutouts and GAA and second in wins.

Again, as I pointed out in March, I'm not comparing Price to either of these legends. I just want it to be clear that Hall of Famers like Roy and Brodeur had some bumpy roads on their way to greatness, and maybe Price is going through the same process now. No longer having Rollie Melanson around - who appeared to be confusing his young protegé more than anything else - can only help matters.

As for Andrei Kostitsyn, it's a bit more complicated simply because it's not quite as clear if he has a very high ceiling. Is he the player who scored 20 goals over his final 46 games two years ago, or the one who looked lost and disinterested most of last year?

I feel he's closer to the former than the latter.

People love comparing Kostitsyn to the forwards the Habs passed on who were still available with the 10th pick in that fabled 2003 draft class. Yes, Jeff Carter (chosen 11th), Dustin Brown (13th), Zach Parise (17th), Ryan Getzlaf (19th), Mike Richards (24th) and Corey Perry (28th) have all turned into elite NHL talents. But every single one of them has also played at least 100 more games than Kostitsyn has, so they are obviously further along in their development even though they're the same age.

Kostitsyn was seen as an exceptional talent back then, one that would have likely gone in the top five were it not for his history with epilepsy. As a 16-year-old at the 2002 World Under-18 championships he finished 15th in tournament scoring with 10 points, and he scored three goals in six games at the World Juniors that year as well playing against competition four years his senior.

But Kostitsyn spent another year playing in Russia after he was drafted then the better part of the next three seasons in Hamilton, so last year was only his second full year in the NHL.

In Carter's second full year in the NHL, he got 37 points. In his third he had 53, including 29 goals. Brown had 46 points his second year and 60 in his third. Getzlaf had 58 points his second year and 82 in his third, Richards jumped from 32 points to 75 and Perry from 44 to 54, including 29 goals. The lone exception in the group was Parise, who jumped from 32 points as a rookie to 62 as a sophomore, then flatlined for a year and exploded in year four to 94 points this past season.

So while all those players have made the Habs look pretty negligent, particularly Carter and Getzlaf considering the team's still unfilled need for a big centreman, Kostitsyn is very early in his NHL career and could very well be due for an explosion of sorts.

The departure of Alex Kovalev should also help Kostitsyn, in my view, because it always appeared to me that the kid in Kostitsyn had a tendency to defer to the Russian hero in Kovalev. Now, perhaps, Kostitsyn will be able to take his rightful place on the Habs pecking order, at least in his own mind.

Even though Bob Gainey went out and bought himself an entire first line and a third of his defence in a 24-hour span this week, I still believe it will be the play of Price, Markov and Kostitsyn that will make or break this team.

And I would venture to predict that all three of them will be up to that challenge.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Komisarek's no traitor

I guess I understand why Habs fans are all over Mike Komisaerk for signing with the hated Toronto Maple Leafs, especially when the disparity between the two offers was so slim.

It's very easy to call him a traitor, with the way the team cultivated him, the way Bob Gainey fired a pretty darn good head coach in Claude Julien essentially to get him more ice time, the way team owner George Gillett and the entire organization was behind him when his mother passed away, the way this city embraced him as one of their own.

Yes, you could think of Komisarek as a traitor, that's your right. I prefer to think of him as a loser.

Not a loser in the normal sense of the word, as in a guy who always loses. No, Komisarek is not that, and he's not a loser in the high school sense of the word either because I've always found him to be a very likable guy, and that opinion of him won't change any time soon.

But, to me, for Komisarek to go to Toronto for the next five years he has to be a guy who has zero interest in actually having a chance to win, perhaps for the entire length of his contract.

Stranger things have happened, but the Leafs don't look like a team that is anywhere near ready to make the jump to mediocrity, which is where the Habs are right now.

Luke Schenn is a very nice building block, I've always been a fan of Tomas Kaberle's game, and this Nazem Kadri kid they drafted looks like he could be pretty good. But otherwise, what do the Leafs have going for them? Nik Hagman? Mikhail Grabovski (who signed today for three years at $2.9 million per. I don't even need to make a joke for that to be funny)?

They don't have a whole lot, and everyone looking to Brian Burke to work some sort of miracle in Toronto better not hold their breath, because nothing in his recent professional history has shown he's capable of that. In Vancouver, he was pretty crafty in drafting the Sedins together, but he was never able to build a winner off that. In Anaheim, he inherited a pretty good team from Bryan Murray and then had Chris Pronger fall in his lap, practically giving him a Cup.

Burke's a good GM, don't get me wrong, but there are limits to what a GM can do in a certain window of time. I would have to believe that if Burke hits home runs with every single move he makes (and I would suggest he's already missed that boat with the Grabovski signing), it will take at least another three seasons for the Leafs to be a true contender. But it will most likely be four or five, because even the greatest GMs make mistakes every now and then.

The one thing that disappointed me abut Komisarek was Gainey's claim that there was never a counter-offer made to the Canadiens reported proposal of a five-year, $20 million deal, which works out to only $500K less than what the Leafs offered. That's a bridge that could have been gapped, you would think, if there was a real interest from both parties to get it done.

Today, speaking on TSN's Off the Record, Komisarek said he did go back to the Habs with a counter-offer, but later he said "not all marriages work out." (He also closed the interview by saying, "Mr. Landsberg, any time for you buddy." Doesn't it make you want to puke?) That sounds to me like a guy whose mind was made up as soon as the Habs were eliminated from the playoffs and he began referring to his time here in the past tense, totally ducking every question about where he would play next year.

The way I see it, Komisarek simply wanted out of Montreal, though I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe he saw the direction Gainey was going with another small, speedy team and didn't want the burden of having to handle the Milan Lucic's of the world alone. Maybe he was sick of living in a French city. Maybe he needed a city with new women to hit on. Who knows?

But to paint Komisarek as a traitor would be wrong because while he was here, he gave everything he had and more. He's a player of limited talent, but who's oozing will. He sincerely wore that Canadiens jersey with pride, and even though he didn't want to come back, I don't think that should overshadow what he did while he was here.

But that's just me. I would understand perfectly if no one out there agrees.

I think none of you would disagree, though, that this is a sad end to Saku Koivu's time in Montreal. In terms of years (not seasons), he's the longest-serving captain in Canadiens history, and even though those 10 years were the darkest period of that history, he will be missed.

Koivu was not a fantastic quote, he was not the warmest athlete when it came to dealing with reporters, but he was always there to answer for his team. He took that side of his role as captain quite seriously.

Everyone knows all the tremendous things he's done for the Montreal community, and all the baseless, vindictive attacks he had to endure despite all his charity.

But really, I will miss Saku Koivu because he was a competitor, he played his best in the biggest games, he inspired his teammates by taking on bigger, stronger men and coming out with the puck, he knew when to push the right buttons with the right players to try and coax a little more out of them. Basically, even though he never won anything while he was here, I've always considered Koivu a winner.

For him to leave the franchise without so much as an offer to come back, even if it were for a pay cut, I feel is sad.

But I'm also happy for him, because he will finally get to see what it's like to play for a team where you're not expected to contribute beyond your means, you're not expected to represent a population that views you as a foreigner, you're not expected to be the public face of the team.

And though I agree that Koivu has seen his best days, I feel he will have an enormous year wherever he signs. In any case, I'll be wishing he does.

A man with a plan

Say what you will about that plan, no one can argue that Bob Gainey was not focused on the opening day of free agency.

Gainey obviously had a vision of the type of team he wanted, and he went out and got it.

Yes, the Canadiens needed to add size, and Gainey failed in that regard. Yes, the Canadiens needed to re-sign Mike Komisarek, and Gainey failed in that area as well. And yes, the Canadiens have been a speedy, small, skilled team for years now, and all Gainey did Wednesday was perpetuate that theme.

But really, if this was a day on which Gainey would be judged for his time as Habs GM, I would say he passed with flying colours.

Not necessarily because this Extreme Makeover version of the Habs is guaranteed to succeed, because that certainly is not the case. But Gainey is a winner Wednesday because he identified a need for change, he identified players that were not necessarily the most sought-after free agents, and he executed his plan.

Over a 24-hour period, Gainey spent $104.5 million of the Molson brothers' money, and while grabbing Scott Gomez's fat contract from the Rangers was perhaps not the greatest of initial moves, now that it is being seen in context I think it becomes a good one simply because of what Gainey accomplished Wednesday.

Gainey decided to surround his prime acquisition with like-minded and like-skilled players. Gomez and Brian Gionta already have that chemistry from their days with the Devils, and Mike Cammalleri's speed and hands make him an extremely underrated player.

Yes, that makes for a tiny front line, and that has been a running theme for the Habs for quite some time now. But when you have the skill that those three forwards represent, maybe size isn't that important. Maybe talent, which is what Gainey said he was after, can win out over brawn.

On the back end, Gainey grabbed two defencemen who are essentially a poor man's version of the players they replaced. Actually, that's not entirely fair, because getting Jaroslav Spacek to grab Mathieu Schneider's spot is essentially a wash, which makes Spacek the more favourable of the two since he's five years younger than Schneider. Of course Hall Gill is no Komisarek, but as far as replacements go, you could do much worse.

So, overall I would be tempted to give Gainey a solid grade today, because if you looked at his moves individually they could be laughed at, but looked at as a whole they demonstrate a vision for the team. And if Gainey is going to put his neck on the line, better he do so with a team he believes in.

Here's how I see the Habs lineup playing out:

A. Kostitsyn - Gomez - Gionta
Cammalleri - Plekanec - D'Agostini
Latendresse - Lapierre - Pacioretty
Stewart/Laraque - Metropolit - S. Kostitsyn

Markov - Spacek
Hamrlik - Weber
Gill - O'Byrne

That is a fast team, with tons of potential for two lethal power play units. Going small may not be the way to go in the Eastern Conference right now, and this may all blow up in Gainey's face. But I have a feeling it won't, and that Gainey will be looked upon as some kind of genius for becoming perhaps the first GM to successfully re-shape a team almost completely out of free agency.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Judgment Day

For Bob Gainey, this is probably the biggest day of his professional life.

I know he had a lot of big games as a player, he coached in a Cup final with the North Stars and he won a Stanley Cup as GM with the (South) Stars, and on and on and on. But I would venture that his reputation as a hockey mind was never more on the line as it is today.

Should Gainey fail to attract another top line forward and/or a top pair defenceman when free agency starts less than an hour from now, a lot of people around the hockey world may start to wonder whether or not he's lost it.

Gainey does not have much selection when it comes to defencemen, unless he gets Mike Komisarek to re-sign once he sees what's out there, but I wouldn't hold my breath on that one. Francois Beauchemin will be a highly sought after asset, with Brian Burke in Toronto supposedly getting ready to go after both him and Komisarek.

The nature of free agency makes it so teams generally have to overpay to sign a player, and that is doubly true for Gainey considering the tax situation in Quebec and the perception among players that this is a tough city for them to have any peace.

With the Sedins re-signing in Vancouver today, Gainey is left with little option other than to overpay for injury risks like Martin Havlat or Marian Gaborik. It is far from ideal, but it's something Gainey is going to need to do if he wants to justify yesterday's Scott Gomez deal because by itself that trade does not significantly improve the team, let alone re-define it.

I'm curious to see if any of the Habs free agents will get a nibble today from other teams. Does Saku Koivu jump ship to Minnesota or Anaheim? Will Alex Tanguay wait on the Canadiens so he can stay close to home? What kind of interest will Mathieu Schneider get considering he's 40 and looking for a two-year deal? Same goes for Robert Lang, coming off a devastating injury? How about the role players like Tom Kostopoulos, or Francis Bouillon, or Mathieu Dandenault?

It should make for an interesting day, one that could potentially cement Gainey in the GMs role in Montreal or spell the end of his era with the Canadiens.