When the inevitable became official yesterday, and Sheldon Souray signed to play somewhere else rather than Montreal, I must admit to feeling a twinge of sadness.
And while some will lament the loss of his skills, particularly in the offensive zone, I for one will miss the intangibles that he brought to the table. Above all else, Sheldon Souray was a team player.
I can’t help but think back to a game last February in Pittsburgh. The Canadiens went in to the Igloo that night a struggling team and faced off with the young and surging Penguins. It produced a stirring and spirited game.
On the opening face off Canadiens rookie Maxim Lapierre butted Penguins wonder kid Sydney Crosby right in the mouth. This set the tone for what was to follow. The Penguins chose to retaliate. Unfortunately Canadiens captain Saku Koivu was the victim of a charging, onrushing Colby Armstrong hit.
Without hesitation, Sheldon Souray dropped his gloves, skated over and fought Armstrong. In many ways, Souray’s action recalled a different era, when teammates stuck up for each other, and when the other teams players were held accountable for their actions, a time when players were supposed to respect one another, and they didn’t they’d have respect shown to them first hand.
That was the type of player Sheldon Souray was for the Canadiens. And though I’ll miss his booming point shot, the one thing I’ll miss the most about Sheldon Souray was his presence, a presence that has now taken his leave to Edmonton.
At the conclusion of last season, there was no doubt that the Canadiens wanted to resign Sheldon Souray to a new contract. After resigning Andrei Markov to a long term deal, Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey turned his attention to Souray. Almost immediately he offered Souray a four year contract at $4.5 million a season, above average money for a NHL defenseman, but below the elite status of players like Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer.
It’s hard to argue with Gainey’s logic.
In taking a closer look at Sheldon Souray, there are many impressive attributes. In addition to his aforementioned character and presence, is his size and aggressiveness. Possessing a nasty streak, and armed with arguably the leagues hardest shot, Souray is a very imposing force. Add in his 26 goals last season, and one wonders why it took almost two weeks for a team to sign him to a contract.
The answer to that question lies in Souray’s play defensively. Not only did Souray lead all defensemen in power play goals last year, but he also led all defenseman, with the worst plus/minus in the league (-28). In addition to his porous plus/minus, he is not a skilled one on one defender, he does rush with the puck well, and he doesn’t possess the ability to make crisp breakout passes out of his own zone. All skills that are required to be considered an elite NHL defenseman.
There is a general feeling throughout the league that Souray has just enjoyed his career year. After all his 64 points represented a 25 point improvement over his previous career high, and his 26 goals represented an 11 goal improvement. At age 31 and with a checkered injury history, there are also questions about his durability heading forward. Even last year during his career year, he played with a fragile shoulder that caused him to miss the third period of the Canadiens last game against Toronto, Montreal’s most important period of the season.
When Souray decided to turn down the Canadiens initial offer to test the market, it was hardly surprising. After all the Philadelphia Flyers had just signed defenseman Kimmo Timonen to a six year deal averaging $6.3 million a season, and with Timonen not possessing Souray’s physical attributes or his point totals, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Souray and his people to believe that similar contract offers would be coming his way.
The offers never came.
As the dominoes began to fall during the first two days of free agency it became apparent that teams were looking at other options besides Souray. As the teams with defensive needs began filling up their rosters, Souray was left on the outside looking in.
On the second day of free agency, Gainey made his second offer of $5.5 million a season spread over four years. With his options becoming smaller by the moment, it was somewhat surprising that Souray turned the contract down. Gainey, wisely, quickly turned his attention to Roman Hamrlik who essentially signed the contract that Souray had just turned down.
While Souray sat unsigned for the next week and a half, he and his agent must have been questioning whether they had overvalued his worth on the open market.
And then riding in a white horse, with a strong hint of desperation, came in the Edmonton Oilers.
The past year hasn’t been kind to the Edmonton Oilers, who have suddenly become one of the NHL’s least desirable cities to play in. With nobody wanting to play there, with an important fan base screaming for the team to do something, anything, they stumbled into drifting adrift, Sheldon Souray.
The Oilers, desperate to make any kind of signing, and Souray with an increasingly unstable future facing him, found each other. Call it a marriage of convenience.
Interestingly enough, Edmonton’s offer was only one year longer than Montreal’s, with a three year no trade clause. It begs the question, did Souray realize his mistake in not signing the last Canadiens offer so he settled for the Oilers offer, because the differences in the offers seem trivial at best. Did the Canadiens take the offer off the table once Hamrlik signed? It seems obvious that no other teams were willing to pay this price for Souray. Clearly, it took a desperate team to meet Souray’s price.
After a year of maintaining how he would love to stay in Montreal, how all things being equal he would prefer to stay in Montreal, it now seems so hollow. The decision to go to Edmonton seems motivated by a desire to go to where the money was. Edmonton is not in California and is not close to contending for the Stanley Cup, but they have money to spend and are now willing to overpay to acquire talent.
Only time will tell who emerges the winner in this saga, will Souray shine in Edmonton and prove the doubters wrong, will Hamrlik prove to be a steady force on the Montreal blue line, will Edmonton regret this signing, and will Montreal regret not signing Souray?
One thing’s for sure, Sheldon Souray may still be a team player, but now it’s for the Edmonton Oilers.