Habs Re-Sign Pacioretty; Gauthier Hard at Work
When Pierre Gauthier took on the job of his former boss Bob Gainey, one of the changes that was almost certain to take affect was that the new general manager would be pro-active leading up to free agency every year. Bob Gainey was notorious at waiting til the last second to get things done, and leaving Habs fans at the edge of their seats when it came to figuring out what players would be staying and which would be going.
Likely due to his "reactive" style of managing, many players the Canadiens drafted or developed would find themselves in new zip codes in the days after their Montreal contracts would expire, and that was one thing that really irked many fans over the seven years Bob Gainey ran this team, myself included.
Well, all of that seemed to change last year. While Gauthier still seemed unwilling to negotiate with players while the Canadiens played hockey, it didn't stop him from actually doing things between the last whistle for the Habs and July 1st. Most notably in the month of June 2010, Gauthier traded Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues and signed center Tomas Plekanec to a lucrative $30 million deal.
Of course, not everyone was happy with the moves themselves, citing too much money given to the versatile Plekanec and not enough received in exchange for 2009-10's breakout goalie Halak. But regardless of what we thought of the moves, it was nice to see the team come out of it's cave leading up to the draft.
Flash forward another year. Gauthier now has a season and a half under his belt as the team's GM, as well a modestly successful year with the Habs making the playoffs and taking the eventual cup winners to seven games in the opening round, despite a flurry of injuries and plenty of naysayers. Not exactly the best way to follow up the year where they made the East finals, but not exactly a complete failure either. With several years left on some big deals left over from the Gainey era, and the mindset that a healthy Canadiens team would have been a much better Canadiens team, it's an interesting year for the GM.
Many fans and writers want Gauthier to make a splash this summer to solidify this team's status in the Eastern conference. We've seen this team succeed the last two years, and we want to see it more. Injuries have ravaged the team, and they've overcome it, but these people don't want to use injuries as an excuse because, let's face it, injuries are a part of the game and every team has to deal with them, it's a matter of how you manage those injuries and make up for them. One has to wonder what this team could do with a little more depth, especially on the top six where the likes of Travis Moen, Mathieu Darche and even Tom Pyatt regularly take shifts out of their comfort zones.
The other group of fans and pundits don't want to see the Canadiens mess with the cap the way other teams do, and argue that the team is still a while away from contending and shouldn't waste time and money on any more big contracts while key players still develop.
I don't think it's any secret that I fall within the former group of people. Today TSN reported that the NHL's salary cap will be going up by nearly $5 million next season. With money likely to be saved by the Canadiens on the blueline (more on that later), there's pretty much no reason why Gauthier shouldn't at least try to make a splash by adding a name player for the top six. Considering who took a regular shift next to Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta last year, not to mention Gomez's ridiculous, almost comically bad season last year, there's really no excuse not to try and improve the Canadiens 22nd ranked offense. Regardless of coach's Jacques Martin's tendency to stifle offense.
With the defense pretty much set, the goaltending set and plenty of spare parts to choose from in every position, the Canadiens' one glaring need is obvious. Offense. Assessments that the Habs are still a few years away from being contenders are irrelevant. The Canadiens played 19 playoff games in 2010, and they could have played just as many this year if it wasn't for Lady Luck going the way of the Bruins this year. They have a star in goal, a young stud on defense, several clutch performers on offense and several great prospects on their way up. Why throw away a year simply because fans are seemingly afraid of an inexistent cap issue?
It's time to make a splash.
Back to Pierre Gauthier and his recent moves for a little bit, it seems as if he has an early-July vacation planned, because the GM has been hard at work these last few weeks remolding the team's expiring contracts and replenishing some of the ranks.
About a month ago, the Canadiens signed a defenseman that had long-escaped them in Russia, Alexsei Yemelin. Many questions still surround the enigmatic Russian stud, like how his rugged on-the-edge style will translate not only in the NHL in general, but under the tutelage of Jacques Martin's defensive system, and how the Hell we're supposed to spell his name. Yemelin will definitely see time in the NHL next season, but whether he'll start in the Canadiens' top six is anyone's guess. Two weeks following the Yemelin signing, the Canadiens inked Hal Gill, bringing the count of signed defensemen up to four along with P.K. Subban and Jaroslav Spacek. Gauthier also signed hot swiss prospect Raphael Diaz to fill a void in Hamilton.
The moves leave two or three spots left to be filled, and they'll likely come from pending UFAs and RFAs for the Habs. Josh Gorges spent most of the year on the injured reserve, but is a lock to come back for 2011-12. Much mystery has surrounded the status of often-injured defenseman Andrei Markov, but the Russian star is also expected to be close to a deal. Yannick Weber is almost certain to resign as well as a spare part, which leaves Alex Picard, Roman Hamrlik, James Wisniewski, Paul Mara and Brent Sopel as the odd men out, unless Gauthier has a trade left up his sleeve to make room for Hamrlik or Wisniewski.
With the defense almost locked in, Gauthier can turn his focus to offense. Mathieu Darche has been re-signed to a 1-year, $700,000 deal and will be in the line-up. Andrei Kostitsyn also re-signed a deal identical to his prior one, a one-year deal for $3.25 million that will take him to unrestricted free agency and likely the open market.
Today, Gauthier continued his work, signing forward Max Pacioretty to a two-year deal worth $3.25 million, or an average of $1.625 million a season through 2012-13. It's a near two-fold raise for the young forward, who was the unfortunate story of the season for the Canadiens after he left the ice on a stretcher in March, following a hit from the Bruins' Zdeno Chara. Thankfully, the injury wouldn't be as severe as originally though, as Pacioretty suffered only a mild concussion, but would have to miss the remainder of the season with a fractured vertebrae in his neck.
Pacioretty would likely been good to go if the Canadiens went a little further into the playoffs, but of course that was not to be. He will instead be primed and ready with a new contract and a near-guaranteed spot on the roster for 2011-12.
The latest move leaves the Canadiens with four pending RFAs and one UFA in their forward ranks, including Benoit Pouliot, Ryan White, David Desharnais, Tom Pyatt, and Jeff Halpern as the lone UFA. All but Halpern will likely be in the line-up next season, but I'm hoping that Pouliot gets the boot, either via a sign-and-trade or a burial in the AHL.
This would leave the Canadiens with 12 returning forwards, and barring an unforeseen promotion from Hamilton, an open spot for a free agent signing or a trade. My math and accounting skillz also tell me that the remaining signs of two-three defensemen, a goalie and three-four forwards would leave the Habs with just about $10 million in cap space.
Doesn't take a GM of the year candidate to figure out what to do with all that free money.
Your move, Gauthier.