One of the defining philosophies of the Gainey era was a reluctance to negotiate new contracts with free agents until the very last, possible moment, by which point it was often too late. The guiding principle applied to just about every impending free agent who played under Gainey.
At the end of last season, after all the players had made their rounds through the media and not long after Andrei Markov told us his priority this summer was to rehab from knee surgery and not necessarily think about a new contract, I asked Gauthier whether or not the injury would affect his plans of negotiating a contract extension with his best player.
"Not at all," Gauthier said. "We know he's a good player."
Of course, nowhere in that answer did Gauthier actually say that he planned on opening negotiations for an extension with Markov, and when pressed further on it, Gauthier clammed up. Would you expect any different? I didn't, but I had to try.
So here we are, three months later, and my buddy Jean-Francois Chaumont of Radio-Canada is reporting that Markov's agent Don Meehan has not received an invitation to the negotiating table from Gauthier.
But one would think the Canadiens will have learned from their past errors and would want to eliminate this potential distraction before it gathers steam. Gainey admitted it became one two years ago when half the team had their contracts up for renewal, and last season it dogged Tomas Plekanec as he found himself among the league's scoring leaders and proved to be the team's most durable and consistent forward.
Meehan told Chaumont that Gauthier wants to wait for the right moment to start negotiations for Markov. I would suggest that moment is right now.
If Markov is around for training camp - and Meehan suggests it's not out of the question that he will be recovered in time for the season opener - then does anyone honestly believe his contract status will not become THE story of the pre-season? Aside from the possibility that certain pockets of the media might start pushing for Louis Leblanc to make the team, this would be the number one talking point of camp.
On the other hand, the argument could be made that players care little about what the media talk about or what fans stress about, but precedent would suggest that if Markov remains unsigned by the start of the season then anything is possible with regards to his future in Montreal.
Markov could be a jewel of the 2011 free agent, one that will potentially include the likes of Joe Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Brad Richards, Patrice Bergeron and Tomas Kaberle, not to mention restricted free agents like Jeff Carter and Shea Weber.
Markov will be 32 on July 1, 2011, which may seem old but compared to other defencemen of his stature actually isn't. If I'm Meehan, or Markov for that matter, I'm pushing for a five-year contract in the $30 to $35 million range.
And that's where things get dicey for Gauthier. Does he want to commit that kind of money to a player who has had two major injuries in the past 10 months? Or one who will represent a $6 to $7 million cap hit at age 37? Or does he want upwards of $30 million in cap space tied up in only five players? Then there's the matter of the collective bargaining agreement expiring next September, a moment that appears to be the start of phase two of the NHL's attempt to mask its business deficiencies by further weakening the players in their "partnership" with the league. (UPDATE Aug 30, 2010 - Sorry, but I screwed up the expiry of the CBA, which is in September of 2012 and not next year. Still, it remains a factor to consider when signing Markov to an extension).
With all these factors to consider, perhaps it's wise on Gauthier's part to at least see how Markov recovers from this latest knee surgery before entering into negotiations. The problem is that with impending free agency comes trade speculation, especially as the deadline begins to approach, and even more especially if the Canadiens are struggling in the standings come February.
The thought of trading Markov away for what always amounts to prospects and/or draft picks at the deadline is probably revolting to most Habs fans, and rightfully so. Markov is without a doubt the best draft pick the Canadiens have made in the last 20 years, a player who developed here and has grown to love the city and his team. Being jettisoned as a rental is no way for that service history to come to an end, particularly when you consider how Saku Koivu departed here.
But besides sentimentality, Markov remains a top-end NHL defenceman who would undoubtedly garner tons of interest should he be allowed to hit the open market while still in the prime of his career.
The last time he was a free agent, Markov agreed to a contract after the season but prior to July 1. It was a deal that many people believed was somewhat outlandish at the time, but which now represents one of the best bargains in the NHL. Will that same scenario play itself out again in spite of all the warning signs Gauthier is facing?
I'm not sure, but it's looking more and more like we're going to find out, for better or for worse.