MONTREAL, QC. — In a piece on my old blog, I indicated that in addition to whatever changes he may make to the front office and coaching staff, to turn the Montreal Canadiens around pronto, General Manager Marc Bergevin would need to address three key areas on the club: add a top six scorer, add a top four defender, and add a third or fourth line veteran depth guy. The problem is that the unrestricted free agent market this summer is so barren that few solutions to these needs can be found. The issue is compounded because this shortage means the names that are available are certain to have many bidders and thus be overpaid.
Previously, I looked at 10 names to potentially fill the scoring need (though since that time, David Jones re-signed in Colorado), so moving down the list, today we look at 10 unrestricted free agent d-men that could appeal to Mr. Bergevin assuming they hit the market on July 1. To identify the specific type of player most needed, let’s look at the defense Montreal currently has:
Josh Gorges – P.K. Subban (RFA)
Andrei Markov – Alexei Emelin (RFA)
Tomas Kaberle – Raphael Diaz (RFA)
Frederic St. Denis (RFA), Yannick Weber
Of these players, I’d argue that only P.K. Subban is a legitimate top pairing guy. If a healthy Andrei Markov plays anything like Markov of old, then he of course qualifies as well, but counting on that is a risky choice. Hence, ideally, the team would add a 20+ minute, top pairing capable guy, but of course those don’t grow on trees. Josh Gorges – a great second pairing player – is flexible in his ability to play either side, while ideally Alexei Emelin would be shifted back to his more comfortable left side. Subban, Markov, Tomas Kaberle, Yannick Weber, and Raphael Diaz are all fine powerplay point men, while Emelin can also take shifts on a second unit, meaning offense from the back end is not the main concern. Only Emelin and Subban hit with any regularity, while Gorges is the only member of the group you would consider a shutdown player at this stage of development, so these are areas where some fresh blood could be of use. Emelin is the tallest of the group at 6’2″ and also the only one over 220 lbs, meaning the team could stand to add a bigger guy as well.
Identifying needs is one step, but the other problem is the numbers game. There are eight d-men listed above, none of whom are likely to be sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs (except perhaps Frederic St. Denis, though he’d have to clear waivers). Thus it is most likely that in adding a player, the Canadiens will also have to shed one. The easiest to move would likely be Weber, but at $850,000 this season, he makes a fine #7, particularly given his ability to take shifts at forward as needed. The real problem is Kaberle and his $4.25M contract. He was productive enough after joining the Canadiens, but the issue is that he doesn’t address any of the team’s needs. A healthy Canadiens club shouldn’t be allocating such a big dollar amount to a 2nd powerplay unit guy (after Markov and Subban) who brings no toughness and can’t be trusted for a dependable five-on-five shift. Scott Gomez isn’t the only contract Bergevin needs to address this summer; Kaberle’s must be moved elsewhere as well.
Another interesting factor to consider is age. The Canadiens have a plethora of NHL prospects on D who should be ready for the big league in the next 2-3 years. This means that unless a player is a legitimate top pairing guy, and really only the top one – maybe two – fit that role, then it would be in the team’s interest not to commit big money over long term to tie itself to a veteran player. As a result, while it’s always nice to sign younger UFAs, given that we’re talking about short-term contracts, older experienced veterans are options as well.
I’m excluding Brad Stuart from this list since it has long been said he would be leaving Detroit for California to be closer to his family, and, though he hasn’t inked a deal there yet, his rights were traded to San Jose over the weekend.
10 ) Cory Sarich – Calgary Flames
6’3″, 210 lbs – 2011-12: 62 GP, 1 G, 6 A, 7 PTS, +1, 16:06 TOI/G
Shoots R – Age 33
Heads were turned way back in 2007 when the Flames gave Sarich a rich five year, $18M deal, a lot to commit to an unheralded top 4 at best blueliner. Sarich hasn’t particularly lived up to it, averaging in the 16 minute range twice and 17 minute range twice in time on ice per game over the past four seasons. He played for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2002-03 briefly as a teammate of Marc Bergevin, though the Canadiens’ GM played only one game with the club that season. Sarich is a fit because he has good size, is solid defensively, and can dish out big hits, but his weak skating and poor play with the puck make him more of an ideal bottom pairing guy. He might be a fit to play with a Raphael Diaz or Yannick Weber, but all three are right-handed, hence slotting him at only No. 10 on this list.
Contract offer: 2 years, $2.75M cap hit
9 ) Carlo Colaiacovo – St. Louis Blues
6’1″, 200 lbs – 2011-12: 64 GP, 2 G, 17 A, 19 PTS, +7, 19:00 TOI/G
Shoots L – Age 29
The former Toronto Maple Leaf prospect has established himself as a sound two-way d-man with the Blues. Injuries have always limited him from playing a full season, and he doesn’t have much of a physical element to his game, but he has a bigger frame than a Diaz or Weber while being a quality puck-mover like them. He could fill in on a second powerplay unit if needed, though he doesn’t bring the booming pointshot some might prefer. A mobile, strong skater who won’t break the bank and is still in his prime. If Emelin stays on the right side, Colaiacovo could be a potential partner for him.
Contract offer: 2 years, $2.8M cap hit
8 ) Dennis Wideman – Washington Capitals
6’0″, 200 lbs – 2011-12: 82 GP, 11 G, 35 A, 46 PTS, -8, 23:54 TOI/G
Shoots R – Age 29
Wideman led all Capitals in average time on ice per game this season, yet only slots it at number eight for a similar reason to my suggestion of finding a way to part with Tomas Kaberle. He’s a good fit on a team that wants to add more offense from the blueline, but isn’t particularly physical or reliable defensively. He is a better skater than Kaberle at their respective career stages, but the biggest reason he might be considered an upgrade is his right-handed shot, which could make him a good partner for Josh Gorges or Alexei Emelin. He can log minutes, but he’s likely looking for a big pay day, which the Habs should not be offering to a player of his ilk.
Contract offer: 3 years, $4M cap hit (which he likely will not accept)
7 ) Scott Hannan – Calgary Flames
6’2″, 220 lbs – 2011-12: 78 GP, 2 G, 10 A, 12 PTS, -10, 20:21 TOI/G
Shoots L – Age 33
I was really hoping the Canadiens would sign Hannan last summer, as he remained available cheaply well into the off-season. $1M for a 20 minute a night d-man was a huge bargain for the Flames, even if Hannan has lost a step compared to his younger years. A big body who can lay people out, Hannan’s defensive game with little offensive upside would work well alongside a Weber or Diaz who have the opposite skillsets and fortunately shoot with the opposite hand.
Contract offer: 1 year, $2M cap hit
6 ) Sheldon Souray – Dallas Stars
6’4″, 237 lbs – 2011-12: 64 GP, 6 G, 15 A, 21 PTS, +11, 20:27 TOI/G
Shoots L – Age 35
Souray had a big comeback season in Dallas after spending all of 2010-11 in the American League. Well-liked during his tenure in Montreal, he was allowed to walk as a free agent when it became clear his huge offensive numbers would price him unreasonably on the open market. And indeed they did, leading to his being cut from the Edmonton Oilers’s NHL roster. Souray is huge and as tough as they come, also providing veteran leadership in the locker room for younger players. We’ve seen his heavy pointshot up close, which would give the Habs another option for a powerplay that struggled all of last year. He isn’t the quickest player, and is at times prone to defensive turnovers, but if the team re-shuffles its pairings, might look great playing with Josh Gorges. Is he willing to come back to Montreal on a short-term deal (particularly necessary given it will be a 35+ contract), taking him far away from his daughters in California?
Contract offer: 1 year, $3M cap hit
5 ) Michal Rozsival – Phoenix Coyotes
6’1″, 212 lbs – 2011-12: 54 GP, 1 G, 12 A, 13 PTS, +8, 19:19 TOI/G
Shoots R – Age 33
Rozsival was a teammate of Marc Bergevin‘s with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2002-03, and like Souray, was a victim of a too-large contract which saw him dealt from the New York Rangers to the Phoenix Coyotes. He is a good skater and puck-handler to go along with a strong frame, though he isn’t a particularly physical player. Another possible candidate to play on Alexei Emelin‘s right, allowing the Russian to shift back to his more comfortable left side, and perhaps also encouraging him to jump in offensively more frequently, since Rozsival is more likely to be covering for a partner than joining the rush himself.
Contract offer: 2 years, $3M cap hit
4 ) Justin Schultz – University of Wisconsin
6’1″, 185 lbs – 2011-12: 37 GP, 16 G, 28 A, 44 PTS
Shoots R – Age 21
Schultz, Anaheim’s 2nd round pick, 43rd overall, in 2008, has opted to discontinue his university studies and not sign with the Ducks, which will make him an unrestricted free agent at the end of the month. For a prospect with a 6’1″ frame who put up 47 points in 41 games last season and 44 in 37 this year, there will be no shortage of suitors. He isn’t a physical player and, as a young prospect, could stand to get stronger, but has improved his defensive game year over year while displaying a full arsenal of offensive skills. The question is, why did he opt to leave the Ducks’ organization? It looks like there could have been a spot for him there; does he have another destination in mind? Might the B.C. native want to return to Canada? I have little doubt that Bergevin will at least place a phone call to his agent, but given how many other clubs will be doing likewise, it is probably going to take an overpayment and a guaranteed one-way contract. Why does he only rank No. 4 on my list? Just because he doesn’t fill an immediate need in the organization, instead adding to a stockpile of young and talented blueliners. For this reason, he is also likely to not consider Montreal a strong fit for him personally at this time.
Contract offer: 2 years, $2.2M cap hit
3 ) Bryan Allen – Carolina Hurricanes
6’5″, 226 lbs – 2011-12: 82 GP, 1 G, 13 A, 14 PTS, -1, 19:09 TOI/G
Shoots L – Age 31
There has been talk off-and-on about how the Hurricanes were happy with Allen’s play and would perhaps like to keep him, though it now seems like he’ll hit the market on July 1. If he does, there may not be a better fit available, given his tremendous size and penchant for throwing his weight around. He can play a shutdown-type role, meaning that he basically addresses all of the things I mentioned the team is looking for at the top of the article, particularly when considering he won’t break the bank (offer below is same as his previous cap hit) and can likely be had for just a few seasons. There is not much offense to his game, but he could make a perfect partner for Yannick Weber or Raphael Diaz while also being able to climb the depth chart and play tougher minutes as needed. He could also fill some of the void left by the departure of Hal Gill on the team’s penalty kill, where he ranked 2nd to only Tim Gleason on the ‘Canes roster in terms of shorthanded time-on-ice per game.
Contract offer: 2 years, $2.9M cap hit
2 ) Barret Jackman – St. Louis Blues
6’0″, 201 lbs – 2011-12: 81 GP, 1 G, 12 A, 13 PTS, +20, 20:40 TOI/G
Shoots L – Age 31
Jackman’s style isn’t that different from Allen’s, but he trades some size for better skating and a tighter defensive game. He led all St. Louis Blues – including Alex Pietrangelo – in shorthanded time-on-ice per game, ranking ninth in the entire league in the category, just behind Hal Gill.
A physical, stay-at-home, shutdown type, he doesn’t break much offensively, but can help cover for the mistakes of a younger player, which could make him a good fit to remain with the organization for a few seasons in helping to break others into the line-up. He won’t come cheaply and is likely to be overpaid by some team more desperate for blueline help (hello Detroit Red Wings), but he should be near the top of Bergevin’s want list if there is an opportunity to sign him.
Contract offer: 4 years, $3.9M cap hit
1 ) Ryan Suter – Nashville Predators
6’1″, 195 lbs – 2011-12: 79 GP, 7 G, 39 A, 46 PTS, +15, 26:30 TOI/G
Shoots L – Age 27
The most coveted player who could become a free agent this summer, though he gets less press than team captain Shea Weber, Suter led all Predators (and ranked third in the NHL) in ice time per game last season. Many have him as a virtual lock to join the Detroit Red Wings, a team with a ton of cap space and a big hole to fill following the departure of Nicklas Lidstrom. It certainly is possible, perhaps helped by his uncle Gary’s strong friendship with Chris Chelios, currently a member of Detroit’s front office. But it won’t stop 28 other clubs from knocking on his door, and that being if the Predators fail to sign him themselves, something they dearly want to accomplish before July 1st. Suter was a steal in Nashville the past few seasons, playing for just $3.5M, and now at age 27 he’ll be looking to cash in, and that for many years. He is an all-around world-class defenseman, strong in his own end, physical, and dangerous enough in the offensive zone, though he won’t be mistaken for his defensive partner in that regard. If the Canadiens could pair Suter with P.K. Subban and then play Andrei Markov with Josh Gorges, you could make a case for the team suddenly having one of the league’s top back ends. A third pairing of Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz would be one that worked this season and is only likely to get better as well. This is the dream, Habs fans. One major move Bergevin could make that would significantly alter the short-term outlook of the club. Find a way to get this done, and all the concerns that followed the hiring of Michel Therrien will be forgotten.
Contract offer: 6 years, $7.5M cap hit