The first issue is to figure out which of the players on the Grand Club should be retained, be they restricted or unrestricted free agents. In a perfect world we'd retain mostly everyone, they can all chip in and contribute, and we grow attached to these guys, they're mostly decent guys you'd like to have a beer with, if you can judge these things from afar, but the NHL system has all these brakes and checks and balances on it, to ensure parity, keep the Rangers from buying up all the players and the league from being a de facto two-tier system. So we'll try to make the tough decisions, if only to keep things straight in our own minds, but also to offer guidance to Marc Bergevin and his management team, because we suspect they'll read these marching orders avidly.
The team has on the books P.K. Subban, Lars Eller, Dale Weise and Ryan White who are restricted free agents, and Andrei Markov, Brian Gionta, Thomas Vanek, Francis Bouillon, Mike Weaver, Douglas Murray, and George Parros who are unrestricted.
Let's start with the easy stuff. Lars Eller and P.K. Subban are both restricted free agents, and both will be signed. By easy, I don't mean the negotiations, which could be protracted. In Lars' case, he signed a relative lowball contract the last time around, and may want to make up lost ground with this one, but he won't have impressive regular season statistics to make his case. He may point to his strong playoff, he'll have arbitration rights that he can use as leverage, but it's a foregone conclusion that he'll be at camp in September with a new deal.
The same considerations apply to P.K., if even more acutely. He is part of the young core of the team, but is even more crucial to its future. Both sides would benefit from a long-term deal. P.K.'s agents may not be in a hometown discount mood after the hardball negotiations they went through last time, they may also feel like making up for lost time, and can use their arbitration rights. There's always the threat of an offer sheet to muddy the waters. On the other side of the coin, the Canadiens will try to sew up P.K., but not give away the farm to maintain some cap flexibility. Insofar as negotiations involving these huge amounts of money are never easy, it should take some time, but we have to trust that both sides are sincere when they say the want to get a deal done.
Dale Weise has been a revelation since his acquisition by the Canadiens, and could be in for a healthy raise from the $750 000 one-year, one-way deal he signed with the Canucks last year. The Canadiens have some room to move without breaking the bank on him, even if they envision him as a fourth-liner. Mr. Weise may be interested in term, in security rather than a high dollar amount, after a succession of one-year deals. He also has arbitration rights. Ultimately, there's a good match here and the deal should get done.
Ryan White may be caught in the numbers game, his role on the team being usurped by Brandon Prust, Dale Weise and Michaël Bournival, and being pushed from behind by AHL'ers like Gabriel Dumont. In an ideal world it'd be a no-brainer, teams love heart and soul guys like that, but realities like the 23-man roster and the 50-contract limit conspire against him, after a season in which he couldn't crack the roster consistently and contribute much. I suspect he'll be qualified and retained, but he's in a less secure position than his RFA teammates.
Dealing with the Unrestricted Free Agents next, let's deal with team captain Brian Gionta. Á tout seigneur tout honneur. The Captain has served the team honourably throughout his five-year contract, being a model of effort, dedication and discipline. Any fan should have felt proud to have him as team captain, he commanded respect from his opponents and on-ice officials, and helped right the ship after the turbulent decade following Bob Gainey's retirement. Since then, Saku Koivu and Brian have set a standard for model behaviour and performance from Canadiens captains.
Having said that, and while acknowledging that he is still a very useful player, I think we should shake his hand and allow him to seek a job elsewhere. His intangibles don't overcome the fact that his offence is waning, his speed no longer quite the advantage it used to be, his shot less effective. Sure he kills penalties, he leads by example, he works hard, he's a right winger who shoots right, but these considerations don't mean he's irreplaceable.
His departure might even mean our team is potentially weaker than it could be next season, but in the overall picture, it's a small step back to allow us to take a few steps forward. We're pruning the branch so the tree may thrive. By letting Brian go, we're opening up opportunities for leadership from the young core, and giving them more icetime. Guys like Max Pacioretty can benefit by playing more, killing penalties, being a threat to score short-handed.
We have to open up jobs for our youngsters. We have to get younger, bigger, and we'll do that by replacing Brian, as good a leader, teammate, and player as he is. I don't want to use the phrase 'addition by subtraction', it's overused and connotes a player who's been a problem on or off the ice, which isn't the case. It's more that we will improve our mix, and take the team a nudge more in the direction we want to go.
To use an extreme example, the 49'ers once allowed MVP and future Hall of Famer Joe Montana to leave the team to allow Steve Young to take the starting quarterback job, a very controversial move. Mr. Montana had a couple more good seasons in Kansas City, but the 49'ers were proven right, in that their fortunes improved with Steve Young at the helm, and they went on to win another Super Bowl, and come close a few more times.
Brian Gionta is not Joe Montana in the strict sense, but he's likewise a player who still has value, who can still play, yet who still should be moved to allow others to step forward. We'll thank him for his services, wish him well, and hope he thrives on his next stop.
Andrei Markov is the biggest fish to fry in the UFA ranks. I have been a big supporter of his over his career, he's wowed Canadiens' fans with his heart, his smarts and his talent, his ability to deliver in the clutch, but practical realities have to intrude into our decision. Andrei is slowing down, and we can't go overboard to re-sign him.
We have paid Andrei as a #1 defenceman for three seasons now, one of which was scrubbed by injury. Since then, he's shown flashes of his old self, but has generally slowed down, in terms of mobility and production. His effectiveness has been impressive early in the season but flagged near the end for two years now.
In reality, Andrei is a #3-4 defenceman now, ideally. He'd be on the first wave of the powerplay, take a regular shift, kill some penalties. What he's no longer suited to do is be a first-pairing guy, who takes on lots of minutes. He wears down, he no longer quite has the physical tools to do so. Which is fine, we can certainly do well with Andrei on our second pairing for a couple years at least.
Which is where the stumbling block is. For the Canadiens to retain him, yet not take on a contract that could be a problem, they need to limit the term. They also need him to probably take a lesser dollar amount for the team's salary cap to not take a beating. We'll have to factor in his loyal services, we're not out to squeeze him for the hell of it, but we can't choose to ignore the current situation. His contract has to match the production and role we expect from him.
Another catch is that we haven't had the horses on the blue line for a few seasons now. Yannick Weber and Raphaël Diaz didn't pan out. Alexei Emelin got hurt. Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu didn't progress faster than expected and relieve some of the pressure on him. So Andrei has been relied on by Michel Therrien to an unhealthy degree, and he may feel like he should be rewarded for this. He may suspect that while the Canadiens tell him his role will be reduced, he'll find himself back in the salt mines next season, logging heavy minutes. So why accept a pay cut? Didn't Mark Streit get four years at $5.25M from the Flyers last summer? Shouldn't Andrei get at least that much?
And this is where we get into what I like to call 'Leafs disease'. A team is bereft of talent on its roster, so a journeyman is elevated to the #3 role on defence, or Top 6 forward. He does okay through hard work and perseverance. The end of the season rolls around and now the team 'has' to pay him as if he's a Top 6 or #3, since that's his role, but really on any other team he'd be a fourth-liner, a third-pairing guy. We have to avoid 'Leafs disease'. We can't pay Andrei like a #1, even though we've been using him like a #1. We can't do the same mistake with him that we did with Josh Gorges.
So I suspect the negotiations won't be easy. I want Andrei back, but only on a two, three-year contract at the very most. And for a manageable number. And if it means we lose him for nothing, it'll sting, but we'll be better off in the long run. It's not as if we're short of left-handed defencemen right now. Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu might be at the point where more AHL time won't benefit them. I don't want to overload them on their progression, but at least they're an option, and make Andrei much less than irreplaceable.
The last delicate situation is Thomas Vanek's. He's a great talent, and showed the effect he could have on our roster after he was placed on right wing on David Desharnais' line. Many Canadiens had glowing endorsements of the impact he had on the team and their individual game during the press scrums today. He's a bigger scoring winger, a rare commodity on our roster, and in the league in general.
On the other hand, he was ineffective, if not downright uninterested for long stretches in the playoffs. Fans and the media pointed in his direction during the Rangers series, but I was even more concerned about his performance against the Bruins. Whereas every Canadien stepped it up a notch, P.K. survived much abuse, and mini-warriors like David Desharnais, Mike Weaver and Brendan Gallagher sacrificed greatly to fight for the puck and for the wins, Mr. Vanek seemed to coast along.
So it's a difficult decision. He may make it easy by setting his demands at where the Islanders left off, with their seven year $50M offer. If so, we're not in that market, not for a 30-year old with commitment issues.
If however, as he stated in his comments to the press corps today, he's genuine in his desire to find a place where he can win, and he feels the Canadiens with Carey Price in net is just such a place, there may be common ground. If he'll accept a shorter term, and/or a more reasonable wage, maybe one that starts off a seven million a year, but tails off near the end as he reaches his mid-thirties, then I wouldn't be averse to him signing a deal here.
Realistically, with the poor free agent class coming into the market in July, he'll be able to write his ticket, so my reasonable contract is a pipe dream, but I can't be categorical that he shouldn't be re-signed. We should at least explore the terrain.
Francis Bouillon has been a loyal soldier who gave everything he had, in two separate stints with the team. At 38, he feels he can still contribute, can still play in the NHL. Practically, we've wrung that sponge dry, there will be other options available to play his role, that of a reserve defenceman who can pitch in when injuries strike. Frankie is a leftie, which doesn't help his cause. As we said before, we have to find icetime for Jarred and Nathan. Alexei Emelin would be much more effective on the left. So Cube gets a pat on the back, but no deal from us. We've got to keep getting bigger, younger.
Mike Weaver was another bargain trade deadline deal, who came in for relatively little cost in a deal with the Florida Panthers, who got a fifth-round pick in return. He took to the role we had for him like a duck to water, and very much solidified our third-pairing with his steady play. His great advantage is that he's younger than Francis Bouillon, having just turned 36, and that he shoots right. If he'll accept a reasonable one-year deal, I can easily see him getting re-signed. He'd ease the transition as the younger guys are worked in. Righties Greg Pateryn and Magnus Nygren are relatively mature age-wise, they can maybe assert themselves next season, but we shouldn't count on it. So Mike gets to stay on a one-year deal.
Douglas Murray had an up and down season. He was injured at the start and missed training camp and a bunch of games, but eventually found his way onto the roster, and he had a big impact. His size and toughness, his physical play was a refreshing change and very welcome on the team. We saw his value when playing teams that normally try to intimidate our team. They'd be much better behaved when Douglas was around.
In the playoffs, his lack of quickness played against him. While he played a role in the Bruins series, he platooned on the third paring with Francis and Nathan, and seemed the odd-man out for good against the Rangers.
His 'numbers' weren't that great. He's obviously not fleet of foot or very adept with the puck. The advanced stats mavens shrieked that he was the worst player on the team. I still insist that the numbers didn't account for his contribution, the way he insulated his teammates from attempts at goonery, the way he could respond to those, the way he could clear the crease to protect Carey Price.
I think Douglas could play a role on an NHL team, if used properly, in the right situations, with the right partner. I don't know if that team is the Canadiens though, he's probably going to be another victim of the 23-man roster. We could use him, if we had room for him, against the bigger teams who use intimidation as a tactic. Like Frankie though, he's a leftie, so that plays against him on the Canadiens. Also, his physical role can probably be filled by Jarred Tinordi, in time if not immediately. So I'm sorry to say it, but I don't think we'll re-sign Douglas, although I hope he catches on with another team, and wish him well.
Finally, we say a fond farewell to George Parros. He was brought in by trade, again with the Florida Panthers, for a seventh-rounder, and he was to neutralize the Matt Kassians of the Ottawa Senators, the Colton Orrs of the Leafs, the Sean Thorntons of the Bruins, the John Scotts of the Sabres. He was a response to many incidents over the years of intimidation tactics by our division rivals.
Unfortunately, he was grievously injured in the first game of the season on a questionable takedown by Colton Orr, and he never seemed healthy or able to do his job during the rest of the season. Fans cringed when he tangled with another team's enforcer. You wondered if you'd see him get seriously, permanently injured. Or even whether that had already happened, and that he should be retired already.
So we have to send off our enforcer who we don't want fighting any more. He was a great guy, seemed like a good teammate, popular, obviously very intelligent, a great character, but he really should retire and concentrate on his next career. He seems to have many opportunities ahead of him, so many talents. he should avail himself of these while he's still healthy.
So that's our recommendation. We sign P.K., Lars, Dale Weise, Whitey, and Mike Weaver, make an offer to Andrei Markov and Thomas Vanek, and allow Brian Gionta, Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray, and George Parros to leave as free agents.
That wasn't so hard after all.