This offseason is shaping up to be a busy one for the Habs with over 25 players needing new contracts. This is the second article of our series that will look at some of the more prominent free agents and assess whether they should be brought back and if they’re likely to return for the 2011-12 season.
With season ending injuries to Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges before the start of 2011, the Habs needed to bring in an impact replacement. In late December, they did just that, acquiring James Wisniewski from the Islanders for 2nd and 5th round draft picks. He had an immediate and lasting impact for the rest of the season and will be one of the most sought after free agents on this year’s market.
Inside the Numbers
Prior to this year, Wisniewski was an average offensive blueliner, averaging 27 points in the three seasons prior to this one. His trade to the Islanders, precipitated by salary demands in arbitration, seemed to unlock his offensive potential. He had 21 points in 32 games on the Island while picking up another 30 in 43 games with Montreal. This tied him for 5th in the NHL in scoring by defencemen and the highest of any pending UFA’s. (Yes, Nicklas Lidstrom had more and is technically unrestricted but he’ll either stay in Detroit or retire so he doesn’t count here.) He struggled in the postseason though picking up just two assists and didn’t score a goal in his final 16 games. Salary wise, Wisniewski made $3.25 million in 2010-11.
Argument to keep him
In the past, the Habs have let go of offensive blueliners in free agency, particularly Sheldon Souray, Mark Streit, and Mathieu Schneider in recent years. By midseason, it seems as if the Habs are always needing to trade for another one so why not keep one and save the traded assets? Also, the aforementioned players were getting up there in age (even Streit was in his 30’s) while Wisniewski is just 27 which means he’ll be in the prime of his career and a core piece for years to come. That also means that a 4 or 5 year deal wouldn’t come back to bite them as it did with the extra year tacked onto Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek. He also brings some grit and spunk to the blueline while having his shot with P.K. Subban’s on the powerplay creates lots of scoring opportunities (or at least it should).
Argument to let him go
It’s quite funny considering the case during the season but the fact that Wisniewski is a right handed shot may actually work against him. Subban and Yannick Weber are both likely to be on the team next year (and quite possibly for years to come) while Josh Gorges and Spacek play on that side regularly. Raphael Diaz also figures to be in the mix for a spot, he too is a right hand shot. There are also injury concerns in that he has had knee surgery twice in his career. Down the stretch when the games became more important is where Wisniewski’s offensive play fell off, the Habs need more players who elevate their game come playoff time, not more who get worse. He is one of two Habs who, if suspended, would qualify as repeat offenders (suspended within the past two years) which could work against him. (The other Hab is Mike Cammalleri if anyone’s wondering.) He will likely go to the highest bidder given his numbers and propensity for overpricing himself in the past, two things that won’t exactly endear the Habs to him.
Because of his offensive prowess, it stands to reason that a comparable contract for a starting point is the deal Mark Streit signed after leaving the Habs, a 5 year deal worth $4.1 million per year. Streit had the better season heading into that UFA year but Wisniewski has a longer track record in the league and is several years younger than Streit was heading into free agency. The fact the cap has gone up every year and will once again next season also stands to inflate the contract somewhat. Unlike the case with Andrei Markov that was discussed last week, there is no one year with bonuses scenario available and a front loaded deal wouldn’t stand to drop the cap hit because of Wisniewski’s age…unless we’re talking a 12 year deal which isn’t likely.
I think it ultimately will be between him and Markov for one spot and it’s hard to pick against Markov in that scenario. The Habs can’t afford both long-term unless they plan to spend upwards of 35-40% of the cap on their blueline once Subban gets his extension after next year. As a result, I predict he will sign elsewhere on a long term contract (4-6 years) for around $5 million per year. Heck, forget the money, the fact he wore #20 for Montreal should more or less seal his fate. That number has been cursed in recent years in terms of players leaving soon after getting the number. He was a nice fit but I suspect the trend of letting offensive defencemen leave via free agency will continue for another year.