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At noon on Sunday, the insanity begins. In what seems like a neverending NHL season the free agent signing period kicks off at high noon. In what is probably the most frantic day of the NHL offseason a glorified auction will take place. To the winners goes the spoils. And as for the losers, well they have to answer to an increasingly demanding and unforgiving media and fan base.

A month ago, Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey had his plan in place. Heading into the free agency period his main priority was signing defenseman Andrei Markov. On May 28th, he did just that, signing Markov to a four year deal that pays him $5.75 million a season. Next up was his other unsigned superstar defenseman, Sheldon Souray. Gainey wasted no time, sending Souray a contract offer of $4.5 million a season.

With a month to go before the beginning of unrestricted free agency period, the Canadiens, with cap money to spare, seemed to poise to make a splash on July 1st.

And then the ground shifted under their feet, not once, but twice, and the Canadiens position became a little more precarious than it had been before.

The first shock took place on June 18th when the Flyers signed free agent defenseman Kimmo Timonen. And while the signing was noteworthy it was the contract that changed things for the Canadiens.

When the Flyers signed Timonen to a 6 year contract averaging $6.3 million dollars a season, Souray’s chances of coming back to the Canadiens went down the drain. I have no doubt that in the days to come Souray will sign a lucrative, long term contract. But it won’t be with the Canadiens.

Needless to say once Timonen signed his contract, Souray’s price went up as did the value of all free agent defensemen. What the Flyers did by signing Timonen was set the market value for all to follow.

When Souray does sign somewhere else, it will be met with grief and possibly, anger in some circles. Not here. Last year the Canadiens were the worst team in the league five on five. And even with Souray’s 19 power play goals they still couldn’t make the playoffs. More harmful to the Canadiens was Souray’s plus/minus figure of -28, the worst by any defenseman in the entire league. Souray has evolved into a one dimensional hockey player, he has become a power play specialist.

Markov is clearly the best defenseman on the team, should he paid less than Souray? Is Souray worth over $6 million dollars a year in a long term contract? Is Souray likely to follow up his career year with similiar numbers this year? How about in the years after that? How likely is that Souray stays healthy over the next few years?

You must ask yourself, do you pay somebody with this many question marks over $6 million dollars a year in a long term contract.

If your the Montreal Canadiens, the answer is no.

And then the other shoe dropped yesterday, when the NHL announced that the salary cap was going up $6.3 million in the next year. This was not good news for the Habs, because it made the pending free agent market wide open. Now, all the teams have money to spend, and with more competition for players, the cost of doing business in the next few days just went up.

So what are Gainey and the Habs to do?

With Souray departing there is now a greater need for immediate help on the blueline. Gainey’s first option should include Brian Rafalski. While not possessing the booming shot of Sheldon Souray, Rafalski is the better defensman. Not only can he quarterback the power play, but he is solid in his own end, and brings a wealth of experience to the Habs.

The other option is for Gainey to replace Souray with not one, but a couple of defenseman. Names like Tom Priessing, Darryl Sydor, and former Hab Mathieu Schneider fit this role. All of these players bring offensive skills to the table and would be more cost efficent than Souray.

The most intriguing option is Priessing, who is coming off of his breakthrough year. At age 28, with emerging offensive skills as well as being solid in his own end, (Priessing was + 40, last year with the Senators) he would be a welcome addition to the Habs backline for years to come. That fact that the Habs would be taking him from a divisional rival also doesn’t hurt.

A lot of the speculation in the media in the past couple of weeks has centred on Daniel Briere. And while Briere would be a welcome addition to the Habs, it seems unlikely.

At last count there was rumoured to be at least ten teams interested in his services, and with the bidding maybe reaching upwards of $7 million a season, he would be a large investment by Gainey.

The problem is that Briere doesn’t fit what the Habs are looking for. He is not big, and his size is a concern, he seemed to run out of gas last season and into the playoffs. And because of that smallish frame, there are questions about whether he can keep up his productivity. With all that being said his offensive skills are tough to ignore. He may still join the Habs but only if the price is right.

Don’t be surprised to see the Canadiens give Danius Zubrus another go around with the team. Not only does Zubrus bring size with him, (6-4) but he seems to have finally matured into a standout NHL’er. And even though it seems like he’s been around forever, he is only 29 years old. Last year he was able to score 60 points with the Capitals and the Sabres and still seems to have untapped offensive potential. Most importantly, his contract will be a little more cost affordable. This may allow Gainey some room to give the team more depth.

With all the pressure on Gainey to sign a free agent, he can only look back at last year to see the mistake he made. The Canadiens must stay away from signing a player, just for the sake of signing a player. If the team can’t sign any players of note they would be much better off signing no one, rather than signing a player out of a position of panic.

After all, the free agent period is not the be all and end all of the season. It only seems that way.