Habs Add Toughness on July 1st, Still Looking For Skill
George Prax on Mon, 2012-07-02 15:55
The name of the game for the Montreal Canadiens this July 1st was 'toughness'. After years of being called too small, too weak and too soft, new General Manager Marc Bergevin decided to add some grit to his line-up via the unrestricted free agency pool, and the result was unexpected to say the least.
The biggest signing of the day, at the very least in terms of dollars and years, was through former New York Rangers tough guy Brandon Prust. The 28-year-old London, Ontario native winger signed a four-year deal with the Habs worth $10 million (an average salary of $2.5M a year). Prust had 5 goals and 17 points in 82 games with the Rangers last year, including 2 points in 19 playoff games, but the selling point isn't what he's capable of on the scoresheet, but his mean streak and defensive and special teams play. Prust had 156 penalty minutes in 2011-12, including a league-leading 20 fighting majors (fights which he often won). The pugilist was originally drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 3rd round of the 2004 draft, before being traded to Phoenix in the Olli Jokinen trade in 2009, then back to Calgary three months later, and if you can believe it, traded once again, this time with Olli Jokinen to the New York Rangers the following year (after which Jokinen ended up right back in Calgary). Prust has a total of 63 points and 612 penalty minutes in 279 career games in the NHL. He's a relative middleweight at 6'0" 195lbs, but he's the fighter the Habs have desperately been missing in the rough and tumble Northeast division these last couple of years.
Earlier on UFA day, the Canadiens added another tough, gritty winger in Colby Armstrong, who, just a day earlier, had the final year of his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs bought out. The Saskatchewan broke the 1-year, $1 million deal himself on his twitter account, citing his love for the Habs as a child and proclaiming on TSN that he had to have been the only kid in Saskatoon who was a member of the Canadiens' fan club. According to Armstrong, Toronto felt that he didn't have what it took to play in the NHL this upcoming season, after two years laced with injuries which led to his buyout. Armstrong only played 29 games in 2011-12, and 50 the prior year with half a dozen different injuries. That said, when he's healthy, Armstrong can be a useful player on any team, and $1 million for a single season is a steal, as it's simply the balance of what he lost from the Toronto buyout. Over 439 games and seven seasons, Armstrong has 87 goals and 204 points with a +23 rating 364 penalty minutes, playing with Pittsburgh, who drafted him 21st overall in 2001, then Atlanta, where he wound up in the Hossa deal of 2008, and finally Toronto.
Finally, the Canadiens welcomed a familiar face back to their blueline with their third move of the day, signing 36-year-old Francis Bouillon to another 1-year, $1M deal. Undrafted, Bouillon originally signed with the Canadiens in 1998, where he'd play for 11 years. The defensive defenseman moved to Nashville in unrestricted free agency three years ago, where he had three relatively successful but injury filled seasons with the Predators. Injuries have always been a cause for concern for the New York City-born Francophone, as his 5'8" status has always been considered small for the league. Still, at 200lbs, and thanks to his physical play, the veteran defenseman has earned his old nickname of "The Cube", and will be a welcome addition to the team, and a familiar face not only to the fans, but also to new coach Michel Therrien, who has coached Bouillon (not to mention Armstrong in Pittsburgh) in the past. In 12 NHL seasons, Bouillon has played 676 games, putting up 134 points and 481 PIM.
The main concern for both Bouillon and Armstrong will be if they can remain healthy for the Habs this upcoming season. Both contracts are low risk, but both players are injury prone and Bouillon in particular had concussion issues last season. If healthy, Bouillon will slot in nicely as a 6B defensemen, likely splitting games with the likes of Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber or a rookie, depending on who makes the team. Armstrong will likely spend time jumping between the 3rd and 4th lines. The concern for Prust will be whether he's worth the four-year commitment, as the Habs have had issues with tough guy signings in the past. But Prust is more than just a fighter, he'll help the penalty kill and take much needed pressure off the likes of Tomas Plekanec and even Travis Moen (who also signed a four-year deal with the Habs over the weekend), and he'll be a perfect fit on the 4th line with Ryan White and a center, possibly Louis Leblanc.
The moves add a lot of depth to the team's bottom two forward lines, which often struggled last season. It also adds to the team's toughness, and finally gives the Canadiens a proper enforcer who can stand up for his teammates and actually win a fight. As mentioned, the signing will allow Tomas Plekanec to focus on offense, something that was a major concern for his game during the Jacques Martin defensive era, and it will allow Travis Moen to keep his gloves on most nights. Bringing back Bouillon isn't anything special, but it will let the likes of Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi develop properly in Hamilton, as opposed to being rushed to the NHL because of depth issues.
While all three signings are good for Montreal's toughness and forward depth, the team still has concerns on its first two lines. The general consensus is that the line of Desharnais, Cole and Pacioretty will not have an easy time replicating their outrageous season from lasty ear, and the second line is questionable at best. Tomas Plekanec will be there to center the line, and captain Brian Gionta will be back from a broken foot, but that second wing spot will have to go to either Lars Eller (who works better as a checking line forward, preferably a center) or Rene Bourque (who came to Montreal in the Cammalleri deal and showed nothing of value).
There are two ways the Canadiens can fill this void before training camp. Either they go to what's left of the UFA market, or they fill from within with a rookie. According to TCL's own Matt Brigidi, via several sources, that UFA might be former Flyer and Pen Jaromir Jagr, who would come to Montreal to play with Kladno native Plekanec. Jagr is in his 40s, so a move to Montreal might seem odd giving the mini-rebuild they're going through, but the Canadiens were on his short list last season and the fit is definitely there, so it would make sense. Otherwise, the market is relatively dry of players who would be reasonable fits with the team. The more likely solution would be from within, and the Canadiens have two rookies itching to play with the team in Brendan Gallagher, who almost made the squad at last year's training camp before returning to the WHL and dominating, or the Canadiens 3rd overall draft pick from last month, Alex Galchenyuk, who would likely have to start by centering the third line if deemed NHL ready.
Elsewhere, the Habs still have to resign two giant pieces to the puzzle in Carey Price and P.K. Subban. The Canadiens filed for arbitration with Price a week ago, but the move was purely strategic in that it took Price off a goalie market where demand was much higher than supply, eliminating the possibility for an offer sheet. With the contracts given to the likes of Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne, Price's contract should be relatively straightforward but rather rich. Expect that to be done in the coming weeks. Subban's deal, on the other hand, might be a little more complicated. Subban shares an agent with Drew Doughty, and we all know how that went last summer. Moreover, the market for defensemen has been odd the last couple of years, which could lead to Subban asking for more money than the Canadiens have. Hopefully we're just being paranoid, and that deal should be done soon as well. After Price and Subban, the Habs will have to sign Lars Eller, Blake Geoffrion, Aaron Palushaj and Raphael Diaz.
Save another depth signing, that's the team you should expect come training camp in September, but don't rule out a potential trade, as the Canadiens now have a lot of depth at both the forward and defense positions, both in terms of prospects and roster players, but a glaring need for another scoring forward.