Habs Welcome Cole, Budaj; What's Next?
When Pierre Gauthier signed Erik Cole to a four year, $18 million contract on last Friday's free agent frenzy, I'm sure that both parties knew they wouldn't be introducing a stranger to the Montreal crowd.
In his ten-year NHL career, Cole has been known as lots of things, but in Montreal, he is simply known as a "Habs-killer".
The Oswego, New York native has played nine seasons in the NHL, mostly in Carolina, with a brief stint in Edmonton in 2008-09. In all those years, he's totaled 620 career NHL games, with 184 goals and 206 assists for a total of 390 points, with a +3 rating and 557 penalty minutes. His playoff totals include 6 goals and 8 assists in 43 games, which included two trips to the Stanley Cup final, and one win in 2005-06 (albeit he missed most of the playoffs with a broken neck).
But what's important to single out in those 600 plus games are 28 that he's played against the Canadiens. In those games, he's put up 14 goals and 11 assists with a +8 rating. The "Habs Killer" moniker also comes from a stellar performance in the second round of the 2002 playoffs against the Canadiens, where Cole played on Rod Brind'Amour's line and would lead his team past the Habs and on to the cup finals.
Needless to say, even though he may not be as prolific as he once was, fans of the Montreal Canadiens definitely know who Erik Cole is. And for Pierre Gauthier, that meant an instant possibility for a match.
But it's not only Cole's ability to play against this team. It's also his 6'2", 205lbs frame, his physical playing style (225 hits last season), his leadership, his determination. Cole was considered by many to be damaged goods in recent years, ever since breaking his neck in the Canes' cup winning year towards the end of the 2005-06 season. Between then and the 2009-10 season, Cole would miss over 100 games due to various illnesses and injuries.
But all of that would change last season, as for the first time in his 10 year career, and interestingly AFTER such a major injury as a fractured vertebrae, Erik Cole would play all 82 games of the regular season, putting up 26 goals in a losing effort to get the Hurricanes into the post-season.
Still, for the Habs, and apparently, a few other teams that put in bids for the veteran winger, it was more than enough to give the 32-year-old a considerable term and money.
It might be a little too much, and for a little too long, but I don't think many Habs fans are upset with this signing. It brings another big forward to the Canadiens top six, something they had desperately been lacking last year. Cole is also basically an older version of Max Pacioretty, right down to the broken neck, so you would hope he would serve as a mentor for the young power forward. He's also a low risk guy for the locker room, and someone who you seldom see no smiling. If this isn't the perfect guy for Montreal, as a second line winger, then I don't know who is.
I don't know about you, but I can see him fitting in with pretty much any of the Canadiens scoring forwards. A match with Gionta and Gomez could give him the chemistry they need to stay consistent. Cole could also make room for Cammalleri and Plekanec, who seemed to have trouble getting to the net last year. Even if it comes to matching him with younger players Lars Eller, David Desharnais, and even the very similar Max Pacioretty all seem like viable options for an Erik Cole line.
This signing is not necessarily about getting a big name to calm all the pundits, but about a versatile and experienced forward who can help this team in many ways, most importantly, scoring five-on-five, which Cole tends to do a lot of. Good signing by Pierre Gauthier.
THE OTHER SIGNING
Erik Cole wasn't the only move the Canadiens made last week. Pierre Gauthier also signed goaltender Peter Budaj to a two year deal with $2.3 million to back-up Carey Price. The move was clearly intended to bring some stability to the back-up goalie's stool, as it otherwise could have turned into a revolving door of older back-ups for Price, with little depth behind the young superstar in the organize.
Budaj has minded the Colorado Avalanche nets in 242 games (217 starts) since his career started post lockout. Those games include two seasons of 50+ starts for the 28-year-old Czech, as well as one of 45 games and only one season with less than 30. His stats include a career .901 SVP and a 2.83 GAA, but his worst season was by far his last, a bad one for Colorado, where he put up a 3.20 GAA and a .895 SVP in 45 games.
I'm not going to lie, I'm not the biggest fan of this signing. While I understand why Gauthier went with someone younger, with starting experience and for two years, I can't help but wonder that there were much better options for the Canadiens among the older goaltenders on the market, who might be used to the fact that they're guaranteed to play less than 20 games. While our Avs blogger, Russ Dornisch, has nothing but good things to say about Budaj as a "team guy", I'm not sure I'm convinced that a guy who's been at least a number 1-b goalie his entire career will suddenly be okay with being guaranteed to almost never play. Not to mention the fact that he's terrible and likely to draw the ire of many fans quickly if he doesn't perform.
But in the end, he's the back-up, and barring an injury, he won't be playing more than 20 games next season, so I won't dwell on it too much.
Priority number one is to finish signing the restricted free agents. The Canadiens won't be heading to arbitration this year, but a key member of the line-up in Josh Gorges remains unsigned and should have a contract shortly. The Canadiens also have Ryan White to sign, as well as a handful of RFAs in Hamilton, so this shouldn't be too complicated.
The Canadiens should also be in the market for another forward, for the bottom six. Lars Eller is expected to miss the start of a season thanks to shoulder surgery, Jeff Halpern is in Washington, and Tom Pyatt has been let go, so there's a blatant hole in the bottom six, particularly for a forward who can play a little defense. Among the remaining UFAs on the market that may look palpable are Jarkko Ruutu, John Madden, Rob Niedermayer, and Zenon Konopka, but knowing Pierre Gauthier, he could very well go completely off the map. The Canadiens still have a considerable amount of cap space, however, so while unlikely, I wouldn't be surprised to see them sign a bigger name older free agent such as Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott or even Cory Stillman. If I had my choice, Konopka would be the top one, he can fight, he's great in the faceoff circle and pretty much everyone likes him. If they go older / higher profile, it would be fun to see Langenbrunner or Stillman reunited with former teammates.
Finally, the Canadiens have a set top six defenseman once Josh Gorges signs, and Yannick Weber as an able 7th, but the Canadiens didn't offer Roman Hamrlik a contract for nothing. I wouldn't be surprised to see them round out their summer signings with a depth defenseman. Paul Mara and Brent Sopel are more than likely out, so the FA market currently includes the likes of Scott Hannan, Niclas Wallin, Radek Martinek, or even former Hab Craig Rivet, but again, this is Pierre Gauthier we're talking about, so expect him to go off the map with this one as well. Truth be told, there really isn't all that much left on the market chart for defensemen. It's pretty bad when Craig Rivet is the most interesting option for the Habs. But I don't want to trade any more assets for rental defenseman, like they did three times last year, and they would only be a 7th man, so cover your eyes and take your pick.
Once these priorities have been met, Gauthier's job should be done, and we can move on to enjoying our summer. That said, who do you want to see in a Canadiens uniform, among the names remaining on the UFA list? The Canadiens are definitely not done signing players, so take your pick, and let us know in the comments below!
Update: Zenon Konopka has signed a one year, $700,000 deal with the Ottawa Senators. Absolutely no excuses for this. He was cheap, he was tough, he was great on faceoffs and he apparently actually wanted to play in Montreal -- and even if that can't be confirmed, he's playing two hours down the highway on a team that shouldn't have as good a shot to make the playoffs and compete as the Habs. So go figure.
Update 2: Remember how I said signing the RFAs (basically, Josh Gorges) would be easy? Well, it turns out I was wrong. the Gorges camp has filed for arbitration, according to RDS. His hearing will take place between July 20th and August 5th. If I had to venture a guess, the Canadiens probably don't want to give him the money or term he wants because of his knee surgery, and Gorges thinks he can get more money. Arbitration means it will be a one-and-done deal for a year. Well, guess what? Gorges is a UFA if he hits the market July 1st, 2012.