Welcome back to Northern Exposure, your weekly NHL Canadian tour. Join me as I make a stop in each of the six (soon to be seven?) Canadian NHL cities, discussing stories of interest in each.
In this time of off-season preparation for most teams, management is busy going over their rosters, what went right, what went wrong and what changes need to be made for the upcoming season to try to make sure they are still playing hockey at this time next year. The next two months is where the plans for the next five years are set, or prior years’ plans tweaked. For the next few weeks I will be concentrating on the Canadian teams and what they need to do in the next three months to make the ultimate impact. This week, I will focus on the MONTREAL CANADIENS.
KEY FREE AGENTS TO BE: UFA – Jeff Halpern, Mathieu Darche, Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill, James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel, Paul Mara, Alex Auld RFA -Andrei Kostitsyn, Benoit Pouliot, Max Pacioretty, Tom Pyatt, David Desharnais, Ryan White, Josh Gorges, Yannick Weber, Alexandre Picard
WHERE THEY ARE SET: Carey Price answered all questions surrounding him entering the season. The Habs are confident that he is the goalie of now and the future. The top forward group of Gionta, Gomez, Cammalleri, Plekanec are all signed to long-term contracts. However, if they could find someone to take Gomez & his $7.3 M cap hit off their hands, they would do it in a second.
NEEDS: The Montreal Canadiens currently have only 9 NHL players signed to contracts in 2011-12. The above list of Free Agents speaks largely to the difficulty that faces GM Pierre Gauthier this summer. There are some high profile defensemen who will all be looking for raises and with well over $34 million already committed to next season, things are going to be tight in Montreal. The Habs would like to add a forward or two that have the combination of size and skill, but won’t have a lot of money to spend on Free Agents.
TOP 5 OFF-SEASON PRIORITIES:
1) Andrei Markov – The UFA needs a deal and is considered a top10 defenseman in the league when healthy. However, what value does he carry having missed 112 games in the past two seasons due to injury. Made $5.75 M last season and his ceiling might have been hit.
2) Josh Georges – The RFA has emerged as a leader on and off the ice, but also missed significant time due to injury in 2010-11. Missed 46 games and even as an RFA will command a significant raise on his $1.1 M Salary.
3) James Wisniewski – Acquired as a fill-in after Markov and Georges went down, he was a reason why the Canadiens made the playoffs. However he might be a cheaper alternative to Markov if the Russian prices himself out of the Canadiens future. I don’t think there is room for all of Markov, Georges, Subban and Wisniewski.
4) Scoring Size – Montreal’s big scorers are small. Montreal’s big players can’t score on a regular basis. They need to find an affordable, big scorer in the Mike Knuble or Jason Arnott mold. Someone who can make space for himself and his teammates while being productive. Not an easy target, given the financial constraints they find themselves in
5) Big D – With all of the offensive-minded options on Montreal’s defense, they need to establish a stay at home presence. Whether re-signing aging veterans Hal Gill or Roman Hamrlik for the short term fix, or letting them walk and bringing in someone else will be a tough decision for the management to make.
CONCLUSION: The Canadiens will have their work cut out for them to field a team that is better than the one that was there in 2010-11. With the massive list of impending Free Agents and not a lot of cap room to sign them, Gauthier will have to work some magic to get the pieces to fit.
Now a quick tour to the other cities:
The Vancouver Canucks have opened the third round with a win over the San Jose Sharks. This is the third time in franchise history they have made it to the conference finals. Both other occurrences, they advanced to the Finals (1994, 1982). They are now one step away from returning to the finals and this time they hope they can get the job done once they get there. Ryan Kesler is considered the leading contender for the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, having put the team on his back in round 2 and almost single-handedly carrying the team to victory over Nashville.
The Leafs top goalie at the end of the season, James Reimer went 4-0 in the World Championships for Team Canada, but was on the bench for the Quarterfinal game in favour of Jonathan Bernier of the LA Kings. Canada lost the game 2-1 for its second straight quarterfinal defeat.
The Ottawa Senators had keen eyes on a couple of prospects for Team Sweden during the World Championships. David Runblad had an assist in 4 games, while Jakob Silfverberg had an assist in 9 games for the silver medalists. Both players are expected to come to Ottawa next year with a chance to make the club. Meanwhile, Jason Spezza‘s gold medal drought continued as he finished yet another International event without winning the top prize. He was Canada’s second-leading scorer behind John Tavares, and expressed his frustration after the quarterfinal loss to Russia.
The Binghamton Senators, the AHL affiliate of Ottawa, are currently up 2 games to none on the Charlotte Checkers in their AHL Eastern Conference final. They return home for the next three games to attempt to make it to the AHL finals for the first time an Ottawa affiliate.
The Flames were not deeply represented at the IIHF worlds, as Michael Backlund was the only medalist. He played an integral role for the silver medal Swedish team, and the Flames hope he can transfer that experience into a break-out season in Calgary next year. His potential is one of the assets they look forward to, but he has largely been an effective 3rd liner thus far.
Also on the Swedish silver medal winning team was Magnus Paajarvi, who joined the national team for the tournament after an up and down rookie season in Edmonton. Jordan Eberle felt the bitter disappointment of the quarter-final loss to Russia in his second consecutive Worlds, so his Swedish rookie cohort will have some training camp fodder and some hardware to show off next season, in the tradition of friendly trash talk that always comes up in locker rooms.
That is all for this slow week’s edition of Northern Exposure. Next week I will continue to look at the plans of the Canadian clubs as they start to tinker with, or in some cases overhaul, their rosters for the new season.