Pierre Gauthier isn’t expected to make a big splash come July 1st, and the
odds of him signing a "big name" defenceman are even less likely. At this
point, the Canadiens’ defence seems mostly set, with current members of the
Canadiens occupying the roster spots. Aside from the additions of Alexei
Yemelin and Raphael Diaz, Montreal’s blue-line will look quite similar to what
fans saw last season, minus a few parts. As it stands, it appears that the
Canadiens will be parting ways with James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel and Alexandre
Picard, while the restricted free-agent Josh Gorges is likely to be retained.
With Montreal’s tendency to lose defenders to injury as the season unfolds,
Gauthier will likely focus on depth signings, as to avoid surrendering draft
picks to patch up his blue-line. Nevertheless, Gauthier doesn’t divulge
more than he has to, and there always remains the possibility that he will do
something unexpected. The following are some of the bigger names available
in the free agent pool.
James Wisniewski: When Andrei Markov went down to injury last
season, Gauthier wisely whisked the Wiz out of Long Island to replace Markov’s
powerplay minutes with his heavy shot. Once in Montreal, Wisniewski’s
numbers continued to grow and he finished 6th overall in defenseman scoring.
Despite all of this, Wisniewski struggled down the stretch, as he was forced to
play more minutes than he was used to, and his scoring trailed off
significantly. Although Montreal would truly benefit from the Wiz’s
offense from the back-end, his numbers all but assure him a price tag that will
see him away from Montreal, and the Habs have traded his rights to Columbus accordingly. Projected cap hit: $4M-$5M.
Christian Erhoff: At the time of this writing, Erhoff is still
being courted by the New York Islanders, after they dealt a 4th rounder to
Vancouver for his bargaining rights. Perhaps the most highly-regarded UFA
defenceman, Erhoff led a very strong Vancouver blue-line in scoring (14 goals,
36 assists) and reportedly turned down an offer of $4.6M from the Canucks.
At that price, Montreal is highly unlikely to be able to afford the skilled
D-man, but it is likely that some suitor will pony up for his services.
Buyers should be wary; although Erhoff has always posted solid NHL numbers, he
has only played on excellent teams, and has never been relied on as the number
one defenceman. His new salary may come with expectations that he can’t
attain. Projected cap hit: $4.5M-$5.5M.
Tomas Kaberle: If you were to ask Boston Bruins management, you
would likely hear that they are making every effort to keep Kaberle in the black
and gold. Nevertheless, Kaberle’s learning curve with his new team was
well-documented, and it is safe to say that he didn’t have the positive impact
that the Bruins were hoping for when they traded for him from Toronto.
Only Kaberle truly knows what is going on in his mind, but the possibility that
Boston isn’t a good fit exists, and Kaberle may take his new Cup ring and sign
the biggest contract available elsewhere. Similar to the aforementioned
defencemen, Montreal is unlikely to be able to afford Kaberle’s services, but
his playmaking abilities would ensure that Montreal would have 2 effective
powerplay waves on the back-end. Projected cap hit: $5M-$6M.
Anton Babchuk: Acquired from Carolina mid-season, Babchuk was a
part of the Flames push to make the 2011 playoffs. Although their effort
ultimately ended short of the goal, Babchuk acquired some decent point totals
(11 goals, 24 assists) just in time for his UFA status. Babchuk is
relatively young at 27, is a big body, and many teams will be willing to take a
chance on that his best years are ahead of him. Nevertheless, Babchuk has
best been suited as a 2nd pairing defenceman, and his price (like so many
others) might put him out of Montreal’s reach. Projected cap hit:
Roman Hamrlik: Provided that he is willing to take a substantial
pay cut from his previous salary ($5.5M), Hamrlik would be a worthwhile holdover
on Montreal’s blue line. His 34 points were certainly nothing to scoff at
last season, and the Hammer has proven time and time again that he can step up
in the event of injuries to other defencemen. Although Hamrlik has
publically stated that he would accept a lesser role to remain in Montreal, only
time will tell if the veteran would be alright watching games from the press
box, permitting younger players to grow in his absence. Additionally, at
his age, Hamrlik might be looking to sign a multi-year contract, and Montreal
would be foolish to put themselves in a 35+ Spacek-like situation again.
Projected cap hit: $2.5M-$3.5M.
Andy Greene: Despite coming off a poor year in which the entire
team struggled, Greene is only one year removed from a 37 point season where he
played in every possible situation. Adept at both ends of the ice, Greene
focuses more on proper positioning than physical play, as his relatively small
stature (5’11", 190lbs) leaves him outmuscled in physical situations.
While his size might scare off Montreal management, his skills would be welcome
on any pairing, and he has shown that he can play major minutes.
Projected cap hit: $2M-$3M.
Bryan McCabe: Most Canadiens’ fans would consider it a travesty
to have McCabe don the bleu, blanc et rouge, but would find it hard to
deny his efficiency even at 36. In 67 games last season, McCabe managed 28
points, and remained his usual threat on the powerplay. Unfortunately, age
has not helped his speed, and he remains his usual threat in his own end,
although limiting his minutes has improved his plus-minus in recent years.
If the Habs were willing to take on another slow, aging, injury-prone
defenceman, they could do worse than McCabe, who still has some offensive and
leadership skills to offer. Projected cap hit: $1.5M-$2.5M.
Ian White: It is unlikely that White would have any problem
signing with a new club come July; he had the distinction of playing for 3 teams
last year. In that time, he proved himself an offensive catalyst from the
back end, and was valuable component of the powerplay, regardless of what team
he happened to be on. Despite his short stature (5’10"), White possesses
an above average shot, and could fill a hole on the 2nd powerplay unit in
Montreal. Projected cap hit: $2M-$3M.
Jonathan Ericsson: Although Ericsson may not possess the most
impressive point totals on this list, it is his other numbers that will make him
attractive once his UFA status kicks in. At 6’4", 240 lbs, Ericsson is a
force to be reckoned with, and he has shown no hesitation to drop the gloves
when necessary. Montreal is a team that would certainly benefit from his
restrained physicality, as liberties are taken with their smaller players on a
regular basis. Nevertheless, Ericsson is no goon; his play in his own end
is solid and he can play major minutes. Projected cap hit: $2.5M-$3.5M.
Ed Jovanovski: At age 35, the former first overall pick is
likely looking to sign his last contract of his career. Despite missing 32
games to injury, Jovanovski still showed glimpses of offensive skills, and
actually tallied a hat-trick in December. At this point in his careers,
there won’t be many suitors for Jovo-Cop’s skill set, but some younger teams
looking for a veteran presence with strong leadership may make an offer.
With the team identity and leadership firmly entrenched, Montreal is unlikely to
be one of those suitors. Projected cap hit: $3.5M-$4.5M.
The aforementioned defencemen just make up a small component of the
blue-liners available. Steve Montador, Brent Sopel, Randy Jones, Scott
Hannan, Jan Hejda, Ruslan Salei, Shane O’Brien, Steve Staios, Sami Salo, and Steve Eminger are all in play come July 1st, and it’s hard to say
who Gauthier will deem a good fit for Montreal. It is impossible to know
what pieces need to fall into place to turn Montreal into a true Cup contender,
but here’s hoping that Gauthier has planned out his shopping list accordingly.