MONTREAL, QC. — With the opening bell on free agent season now just about 24 hours away, this year’s crop might produce more of a flurry than a frenzy. Sure, there will be activity come Sunday afternoon, that I can guarantee you. But the names changing teams this year will be far more depth or role-playing types than stars.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen players like David Jones, Brad Stuart, Barret Jackman, and Dennis Wideman sign new deals, foregoing their right to hit the market on Canada Day. This has left a precious few available to any clubs looking to make a bigger splash in revamping their roster for the coming season. Who is left on the market?
The Biggest Names
5) Matt Carle: The Flyers hoped to retain Carle, and many believe he may still end up back there when all is said and done, after testing the market. A thick, 6’0″, offensive blueliner, and still just 27 years old, Carle is certain to command a premium on the open market. His powerplay and puck-moving ability aren’t things the Canadiens should be prioritizing this summer given the presence of Tomas Kaberle, Yannick Weber, and Raphael Diaz still on the roster in addition to P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, so he is unlikely to be one of the team’s targets.
4) Shane Doan: Long-time Phoenix Coyotes captain is now 35-years old, but still a productive, big bodied winger. On-ice, he could be a great fit for the Canadiens, not to mention he’s Carey Price‘s cousin. However, at this stage of his career, he’s likely looking to jump to an immediate contender (not a team that just finished 28th in the league last season), and let’s not forget his past legal issues arising from a certain language scandal. Habs fans would love him on ice, but I can’t see him being interested in coming to this team or province.
3) Alexander Semin: Early in the off-season, many thought Semin could be a good value reclamation project for a team lacking scoring, coming off his least productive season since his rookie year in 2003-04. Then a report slipped that the one-time 40-goal scoring and twice 30-goal scoring 28-year old may be seeking a long-term contract in the neighbourhood of $6M to $7M annually. How much will a team offer to this big bodied sniper about whom there have been some off-ice concerns raised? Are his work ethic and commitment to a group strong enough for the new Marc Bergevin / Michel Therrien regime, who have been preaching both as core values for the club? I have my doubts on the fit, and think anyone giving him a deal of three years or more is taking on significant risk.
2) Zach Parise: After captaining the New Jersey Devils all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, there were conflicting reports about how much Parise really wanted to stay in N.J. He did it make it clear that he had no intention of signing with the Devils’ rival New York Rangers, a team always in the conversation when talking about big ticket UFAs. And now with a report that even Martin Brodeur might be testing free agency, it is doubtful the team’s ownership has the money to sign Parise. Other than 2010-11 – when injury limited him to just 13 games – the 5’11” winger has topped the 30-goal plateau in each of his five other previous seasons, including a career high of 45 and 94 poitns in 2008-09. Turning 29 in a month and thus having many more productive years in him, Parise will have a long list of suitors on July 1, leaving little hope for a team that finished 28th in the standings last season while playing in a city with heavy taxes to win an auction for his services.
1) Ryan Suter: Nashville would very much like to retain Shea Weber‘s defensive partner, and Suter isn’t opposed to returning, but made it clear he will first test the market. Most have had him penciled into the Red Wings’ line-up since the announcement of Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement, but it won’t stop many other teams from placing phone calls immediately at 12 PM Sunday. Of any player on the market, to me he’s the one who could have the biggest impact on turning Montreal’s fortunes around this coming season, so I do hope Bergevin at least places a phone call to his agent. Don’t count on him listening, however, as some sources say he has little interest in playing in Canada, and would likely leave the Predators for a place he feels he has better chances of winning a Stanley Cup.
So if le Tricolore might not be a player for the market’s big names this summer, where might Bergevin and his staff focus their main efforts? To narrow down some options, I previously identified three key needs the team must fill: a top six scoring forward – ideally an LW, a top 4-capable d-man, and some fresh blood in the bottom 6 (yes, even after the re-signing of both Petteri Nokelainen and Travis Moen). Below is a recap of some options the Canadiens might look at for these roles.
Filling a Need – Minute-Eating Defensemen
4) Sheldon Souray: If the Canadiens are looking to add toughness, even at age 36, Souray is a blueliner who will get in the opposition’s face when provoked. Coming off a bounce-back year with Dallas where he registered 21 points and a plus-11 rating in 64 games with Dallas, Souray – on a one-year deal – might be a good d-man to have around the younger players on the blueline, also able to provide a spark to the powerplay with his booming slapshot should the Habs struggle as they did last season.
3) Michal Rozsival: Rozsival has a large enough frame, but doesn’t bring the toughness or shooting ability of a Souray. Instead he makes up for it by being a little younger (turning 34 in the Fall) and far better in the defensive zone, which is something the team has a bigger need for. Though he might make a fine partner for an Alexei Emelin or Raphael Diaz, Rozsival is likely going to be seeking the last multi-year deal of his career this summer, which I’d hesitate to give him with the young d-men coming up in the system.
2) Scott Hannan: I was a big advocate of signing Hannan last summer to allow the Emelins and Diazs to earn their ice time gradually, but instead he signed a bargain basement 1-year deal with Calgary and ended up averaging 20 minutes a night for the Flames. He has lost a step on his younger years, but at 33, is a tough, 6’2”, 220 lbs defensive crease-clearer who would fill a similar role as Rozsival alongside a younger player but very likely at a cheaper price and attainable on a shorter contract.
1) Bryan Allen: At a glance, Allen seems like he could be a perfect fit for the Habs. A 6’5”, 226 lbs behemoth capable of unleashing punishing body checks, and a player competent enough in his own end. In a year with an average free agent class, I stand by this assessment, and even perhaps be comfortable with a 2-year deal, given Allen will only turn 32 this August. Unfortunately, this summer’s free agents are far below average, and on July 1st we may witness a game of, “Who wants to make Bryan Allen the biggest millionaire?” Otherwise put, while Allen could be a nice addition, there is no rearguard on the market I’d be willing to get into a bidding war over outside of Ryan Suter, so if the price begins to escalate, move on to the next name on your list.
Filling a Need – Scoring Forwards
4) Ryan Smyth: Smyth has only an above-average frame, but uses it effectively to play a power game, even at age 36. He was on fire in Edmonton to start last season, but cooled off in a big way, ending the year with the type of point totals a team could expect from him at this stage, being around 20 goals and 45 points. Still, he’s a good veteran leader, and perhaps most importantly, is a natural left-winger, which is a spot where the Canadiens could use another scorer. If he’s willing to come East – which isn’t a given – he could be a good option given he’d likely accept a short-term deal and won’t break the bank. His game would balance out a smaller body like David Desharnais or Brian Gionta being on his line.
3) Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau: At age 29, the late-blooming Parenteau is coming off a career year with the Islanders, where he scored 18 goals and 67 points in 80 games, while getting significant time on the top line alongside John Tavares. I have little doubt that Parenteau realizes this might be his best or only chance to capitalize on a long-term, big dollar deal, and the team that offers it to him will be taking a risk. Parenteau hasn’t proven that he can produce at the NHL-level without star linemates, nor is he a big-time goal scorer on his own, so while he could work out as a playmaker for a Brian Gionta or Rene Bourque, he’s no sure-thing. Add the fact that he’s been playing right wing the past few seasons – though he has played left in the past as well – and the only thing that fits particularly well with the Habs is his being a French-speaking Quebec native. There is a need for an offensive player, however, so if he doesn’t get the offers he hopes for, and decides he can prove himself on a one-year deal while playing closer to home, then why not give him a shot.
2) Andrei Kostitsyn: No, Kostitsyn never lived up to the hype of being the 10th overall selection in the incredible 2003 Entry Draft, but I think at age 27, we can start to appreciate him for just what he is. A thick, 20+ goal scoring winger, blessed with a blistering wrist shot, and able to turn on finesse moves and/or a physical game when he feels inclined to do so. A versatile player who can line up on either wing, Kostitsyn has shown chemistry with both Tomas Plekanec and Lars Eller in the past, so while I think the price tag will end up a little high for Bergevin’s liking, there is no reason the Canadiens shouldn’t be considering bringing him back to Montreal.
Filling a Need – Bottom 6
4) Adam Burish: Burish, a right-handed right-winger, sometimes used at center, is effective on draws when he takes them. Though he’s only average-sized, he’s a fierce competitor, racking up 77 hits and 70 blocked shots, though he did finish the year without a scrap to his name for the first time in his career. With less time spent in the box, Burish became a valuable penalty killer, being the second most used among Stars’ forwards, behind Steve Ott. There isn’t much to see offensively for this ideally fourth liner, though his 19 points last season were a career high.
3) Jay McClement: With the Canadiens having re-signed Petteri Nokelainen, the need for a face-off specialist diminished slightly, but McClement would be an upgrade in almost all respects and could push Nokelainen to being a cheap press box filler. In addition to face-off skills, a solid frame, hard work, and great penalty killing are the keys to McClement’s game, and he could fit nicely on a fourth line, while being a safe player to take shifts on a third unit when needed. He’ll probably cost more than double what the Canadiens were able to pay Nokelainen, however.
2) Joey Crabb: The breakout Toronto Maple Leaf burst on to the scene as a 29-year old, setting career highs in games played (67), goals (11), and points (26). A physical, penalty-killing winger, his play earned him an invitation to the American squad at the 2012 World Championships in a depth role. Crabb shouldn’t be too costly, and would come in as a fourth liner with upside to earn more ice time.
1) Brandon Prust: Unlike Crabb, after establishing himself as one of the game’s premiere energy wingers, Prust is looking for a pay day. A physical player who can drop the gloves and also kill penalties, Prust might be attracted to the Canadiens given his girlfriend is a Montrealer. The Rangers would have liked to have retained him, but there is talk he was seeking a three-year contract at $2.2M per season, which is an overpayment for a player of his skill set who had just 5 goals and 17 points last season. If his price comes down – and it will likely have to when you compare what he brings to a Steve Downie who just signed for an average of $2.65M, or Travis Moen at $1.85M – he’d be a phenomenal linemate for Ryan White.
Now that we’ve surveyed who is left on the rapidly shrinking free agent market, there is some good news. Last Monday, a few names were added to the market by virtue of their former clubs not tendering them qualifying offers. Here’s a quick look at a few players who will now become unrestricted free agents and that could fill holes in the Habs’ line-up.
The Newly Added
4) Wojtek Wolski: An odd man out of the New York Rangers’ line-up, Wolski was rumoured in trades for quite some time before finally having his salary dumped to the Florida Panthers. A first round selection, Wolski is a 6’3”, 215 lbs left-winger who has the potential to put up 40+ points in the right situation and is still only 26. After scoring 12 points in 31 NHL games last season, he shouldn’t cost much, and there is upside there.
3) Marc-Andre Gragnani: I was surprised to learn the Canucks opted not to qualify Gragnani after acquiring him in the Cody Hodgson / Zack Kassian deal, but the 6’2” offensive blueliner didn’t do enough to earn a prolonged stay in Vancouver. A strong puck-mover and still only 25 (early prime for a d-man), the Montreal native could be a larger replacement if the Habs find a taker for Yannick Weber, who many believe is available. If no moves are made to the Montreal back-end, however, Gragnani would represent basically just more of the same.
2) Guillaume Latendresse: A familiar name to all Hab fans, Latendresse’s main issues are conditioning and staying healthy. At 25 years of age and with a 6’2”, 220 lbs frame, Latendresse will draw interest as a free agent, despite having only played a combined 27 games over the past two seasons. He has the skills to be a 20+ goal scoring, 40+ point producing winger who can play on either side, and perhaps working closely with Montreal’s new Player Development and Personnel staff will get his head in the right place. If the Canadiens are interested in his services, the ace in Bergevin’s hole is that Latendresse has a four-year old son in Montreal and he has expressed his desire to live closer to him.
1) Peter Mueller: It surprised many when Colorado opted to remain silent faced with the question of, “Anyone?… Anyone?… Mueller?” but the forward has struggled to stay healthy over the past few seasons. Mueller has a lot in common with Wolski, so it’s no surprise they were once dealt for each other. An 8th overall selection, Mueller is big (6’2″, 209 lbs) and can play either wing, but has had trouble staying healthy, playing only 32 games last year after missing all of 2010-11. When he has played, however, he has never had below a 0.5 points-per-game average, and did score 22 goals and 54 points as a rookie back in 2007-08. Just 24 years old, he’s an interesting reclamation project if he’ll take a 1-year deal to prove he can endure a full season.
There we have it. I don’t expect Marc Bergevin to be a quiet man on Sunday, as he’ll want to be right in the thick of things for his first July 1st as an NHL General Manager. My first calls would be to biggest names Suter and Parise, while taking advantage of the large front office staff he has hired to simultaneously be phoning the agents of Prust, Jagr, Allen, and Mueller. Will he land his targets? Is his vision similar to mine? These questions will be answered live on TSN come Canada Day, so be sure to tune in.