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With the Montreal Canadiens’ season officially over, there are plenty of questions being asked with few little answers. One of these questions is simply, “What now?” Where does a team – who before Christmas held down forth place in the Eastern Conference – go after such a horrible slump and ultimate ousting from the playoffs in their final game?

The Habs’ free-fall in the standings isn’t exactly a new occurrence for the team. If you recall the 2005-2006 season, Montreal suffered a dry spell as well, one that ultimately cost Coach Claude Julien his job and lead to the emergence of Cristobal Huet as the team’s number one goaltender. Last year was different, though; Montreal actually made the post season by finishing seventh in the East.

They say bad things come in threes. GM Bob Gainey certainly won’t want to see his club spiral down in the standings for the third straight season next year. He also won’t want to watch his team claw their way back up into the playoff picture with during its final 10 to 15 of the season again. You can be sure that Gainey will do everything he can this off-season to supply the team with the pieces it needs to remain competitive over an 82 game schedule.

I’ll get back to that thought a little later. First, I would like to look at what’s to expect for your Habs on a more short-term basis.

The 2007 World Championships will commence at the end of this month in Russia. A number of Montreal Canadiens will surely receive a call inquiring as to their availability to play for their respective countries. This will, of course, give Habs fans a final look at their favorite players in action until next fall.

Whether or not the players invited will all accept the invitation remains to be seen, but you can be sure that this would be a huge opportunity for the likes of Markov and Kovalev to represent Russia on home ice.

For the younger players on the Habs’ roster, a trip to Hamilton may be on the agenda. The Hamilton Bulldogs locked up a playoff spot Saturday night with a 1-0 shootout victory over the Toronto Marlies (oh the irony). Jaroslav Halak, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Maxim Lapierre are all eligible to play for the ‘Dogs during the remainder of the AHL season and playoffs.

Should all three re-join the team they began their seasons with, the Habs’ farm team will be much stronger heading into the playoffs. The experience would also benefit all of those looking to make an impact with the Habs for seasons to come.

As the dust clears from Montreal’s season ending loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bob Gainey will be hard at work planning his moves for the team this off-season. The first matter of business will be to decide whether or not to re-sign some, if any, of the unrestricted free agents on the roster.

The Canadiens have a total of seven players on their way to becoming UFAs this season: Radek Bonk, Mike Johnson, Janne Niinimaa, Sheldon Souray, Andrei Markov, and David Aebischer.

Most will tell you that signing Markov is Montreal’s priority, and they’re right. It is vital that the Habs sign the Russian defender before July first as a number of teams will be lining up with rich offers to obtain his services. If he chooses to test the market, Markov could net anywhere from $4 million to $6 million. Hopefully Montreal can retain the 28-year-old with a three to four year deal before that happens.

After Markov, things get a bit difficult to predict. As good as Bonk and Johnson have been this season acting as the Habs’ checking line and penalty-kill specialists, there are a number of young forwards in the organization who can fill those roles. Also, it’s uncertain as to how much money both forwards will seek this year.

With a number of very interesting free agents hitting the open market July 1st, Bob Gainey may want as much cap room as possible in order to remain competitive on the bidding war that is sure to ensue.

Thus, re-signing Bonk and Johnson to expensive contracts may create more problems than the Canadiens need. One of Montreal’s biggest needs right now is a big, offensive center to play on the top line. Saku Koivu, as great as he has been, simply needs some complimentary scoring as well as someone to take some of the pressure off of him.

Considering Tomas Plekanec’s emergence as a legitimate NHL forward this season, is wouldn’t be too farfetched to see the Czech native to fill Bonk’s third line role next season should the Habs bring in a different center instead though trade or UFA. This would give the Habs three legitimate lines with offensive potential.

Both defenseman Niinimaa and goaltender Aebischer are unlikely to return next season, which makes Souray is the next matter of business.

Everyone knows that Souray has a powerful shot from the point and is a key member of the Habs’ top powerplay unit. However, the 30-year-old’s defensive game has taken a turn for the worst. Souray held Montreal’s worse plus/minus rating this season, finishing with a minus-28 in 81 games this season. Still, the fact that the veteran blueliner is coming of a career season in goals (26), assists (38), and points (64) helps his cause. Souray is also a leader both on and off the ice, something many young teams with a lot of cap room will covet.

On the open market it is estimated that Souray could snag a contract as high as $6 million depending on the demand. It is certain that Gainey will be more than reluctant to hand him a contract to sign even a shed over $5 million. Honestly, the Habs would be better off spreading out the money on two or three players instead of pooling it all into one player’s services.

Apart from seven UFAs, Montreal has six key restricted free agents to deal with: Ryder, Higgins, Plekanec, Mike Komisarek, Alexander Perezhogin, and Josh Gorges.

With all six expecting a pay raise, Montreal’s available cap room will take a hit this off-season. All but Perezhogin have a good opportunity to be re-signed.

The problem with Perezhogin is that the skilled forward has yet to find a consistent offensive game at the NHL level. More recently, the 23-year-old’s dropped down on the Canadiens’ depth chart due to Andrei Kostitsyn’s emergence as a potential regular. These factors may make Perezhogin interesting trade bait at the draft should Gainey look to make a trade or two in order to address one of the team’s needs.

Montreal’s core moving forward consists of forwards Koivu, Higgins, Ryder, Plekanec, Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse, Steve Begin, and Maxim Lapierre; defenseman Komisarek, Markov, Gorges, and Mark Streit; and goaltenders: Huet, Jaroslav Halak, and Carey Price.

Of course, this list fails to mention Alex Kovalev, Sergei Samsonov, Francis Bouillon, Mathieu Dandenault, and Garth Murray whom are all under contract for next season.

It became apparent long ago that Samsonov’s days in Montreal are numbered. The thing with Samsonov is that he’s a hard piece to sell, keeping in mind that the diminutive winger successfully cleared waivers this season. They may, however, be teams willing to take a chance on the 28-year-old this off-season if the price is right. Ditching his contract of $3.5 million would open up a lot of doors for Montreal to sign someone else.

Kovalev, meanwhile, has worn out his welcome in Montreal. Numerous fans and members of the media were quick to place blame on Kovalev’s inability to show up for the Habs’ final few games as one of the reasons why Montreal did not clinch a playoff spot. If Gainey can find someone to take the two-year, $4.5 million dollar contract off of his hands, expect him to do so. Moving the talented but inconsistent winger will be difficult.

Montreal has two dependable defensemen in Bouillon and Dandenault, but it is uncertain as to whether or not either have a future with the Canadiens. Each have two years left on their contract, but aren’t too expensive. This gives Gainey some flexibility with regards to the cap and ability to move either of them.

Dandenault’s versatility and right shot means he’s more likely to stick around if it comes down to making a decision on the two. Bouillon is capable of playing a physical game even though he is small in stature, but should the team fail to increasing their size at the forward position, getting bigger on the blueline could become a priority.

Finally, Murray was a healthy scratch the final 10 games of the regular season and had cleared waivers well before that. It is obvious that Murray doesn’t have much of a future in Montreal and the 24-year-old will probably request a change of scenery if he hasn’t already.

If Gainey truly wishes to alter the core of his team, this year’s off-season will provide him with an opportunity to do so. Being able to move the pricey contracts of both Samsonov and Kovalev would be key as it would provide Montreal with the cap room it needs to address its more immediate needs.

Should things work out, your 2007-2008 Montreal Canadiens will be a very different looking club, and hopefully a winning one.

Just the same, though, don’t expect the team to load up on expensive veterans in hope of buying their way to success next year. The youth movement is still very much alive and one of the main reasons for shedding some of the unproductive veterans would be to make room for some new blood.