TORONTO, ON – The talk of this year’s NHL unrestricted free agent market being slim pickings has been going on virtually since the trade deadline. There was a temporary blip of excitement this week when word leaked that bought out declining star Vincent Lecavalier might be considering Montreal as a possible destination, but like many local sons before him, it seems any talk was more than likely an effort on his agent’s part to drive the bidding price of other clubs higher.
With Lecavalier set to become a Philadelphia Flyer, we’re back to reviewing a list filled of ‘has been’s and ‘never were’s in a search to improve the Montreal Canadiens for the 2013-14 season. The Stanley Cup is seldom won on July 1st 5th, but that doesn’t mean a General Manager can’t either help his team, or conversely set it back in a major way with handicapping contracts that can no longer simply be buried in the American Hockey League. With this in mind, we look at five players that Marc Bergevin should be wary of approaching, and five others who could turn into potential steals.
FOOL’S GOLD – BIG NAMES WITH WARNING FLAGS
5. Daniel Briere
In giving up a chance to play for his hometown heroes, Lecavalier followed in the foot steps of Briere, who also rejected a Canadiens’ offer to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers. Ironically, that same contract – signed in 2007 with an annual cap hit of $6.5M – is the one from which Briere was bought out just last week, taking him to UFA status this summer.
The case for him: Briere is a veteran with multiple 30-goal seasons under his belt, and is a proven playoff performer, with an impressive 50 goals and 109 points in 108 career playoff games. He’s a rare right-handed center and can also play the wing. If the Canadiens could move David Desharnais‘s contract and sign Briere short term, it would likely be a moderate upgrade until Alex Galchenyuk is ready for full-time center duty.
Why the Habs should stay away: Where to begin? At age 35, Briere’s best days are long gone, and he is coming off a year of just 16 points and a -13 rating in 34 games. He is undersized at 5’10” and 180 lbs, and can be a defensive liability if given tough minutes. He is streaky and is prone to disappear for stretches, which means he’ll likely get eaten alive by Montreal fans and media.
The verdict: Unless there’s a way to move Desharnais’s untradeable contract and ink Briere for a year or two, stay far, far away.
4. Jarome Iginla
The long-time Calgary captain finally left the Flames prior to this year’s trade deadline in an attempt to win a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. There is little hope of the Pens retaining his services given their cap situation, and as such the grizzled one-time power forward may quickly be finding himself a new address for a second time in a matter of months.
The case for him: Wasn’t he your favourite player growing up? Iginla was basically exactly what he Canadiens needed any time between 1998 and 2011. A 6’1″, 205 lbs goal-scoring winger who can lay defenders out and even drop the gloves in a pinch, at a glance he sounds like an ideal addition for a team looking to get bigger at forward. Certainly he’d be an upgrade on the spot vacated by Michael Ryder. And Bergevin has made it clear just how highly he values character lately; character being Iginla’s middle name.
Why the Habs should stay away: Having turned 36 on Canada Day, Iginla knows this is likely his last opportunity for a big pay day, which means he’ll be seeking term and significant dollars, and someone is likely to fork it over. While he can still put the puck in the net, his production is on the decline, having dipped to below the point-per-game mark in three of the past four seasons. Worse, even while he was producing in the playoffs for the Penguins (12 points in 15 games), many Pittsburgh fans were wondering where he had gone, as his overall impact and noticeability on the ice have waned from his younger days.
The verdict: I anticipate Iginla looking for a 4-5 year contract in the $6M cap hit range. I can’t help but feel such a deal would be a mistake. But anything that fits the cap for a year or two is worth considering if he has his heart set on returning to Canada. Problem is the Canadiens may not be ready to contend in that timeframe, so the money is better spent on a younger player who could grow with the core.
3. Ryane Clowe
Frankly, any of the top three on this list of Fool’s Gold could pass for the real thing if polished correctly and in the right light. The San Jose Sharks got creative at the trade deadline, cashing in some pending UFAs for draft picks while maintaining a deep enough roster to piece together a little playoff run. Among their wheelings and dealings was sending Clowe to the New York Rangers after he had failed to pot a goal through 28 games this season. While Clowe fit in well with the Rangers, with the team opting not to buy out maligned star Brad Richards, they likely don’t have the needed cap space to retain his services.
The case for him: When on his game, Clowe might be a perfect fit for the Canadiens. At 30 years of age, he should still have some game left, and he brings a hardnosed, physical game, backed with a 6’2″, 225 lbs frame. In addition to his scrappy demeanour, he can be counted on for roughly 20 goals, meaning he could easily line up interchangeably on either a second or third line.
Why the Habs should stay away: Injuries are the big concern with Clowe, as his lack of production over the first half of last season was blamed in part on a nagging shoulder problem that saw him miss four games. To make matters worse, his playoff run with the Rangers was cut short after he suffered a concussion. Can Clowe return to the form that saw him score 62 points in 2010-11? Unlikely. And he’ll probably be looking to get paid as if he could.
The verdict: If Clowe’s demands are reasonable, a 3-4 year contract at $4M or less might be a sound addition to the Canadiens. Unfortunately, given the bare market, his demands won’t be reasonable, and a team will offer him the moon to be able to claim “victory” of landing a prized target.
2. David Clarkson
There was a bit of a Clarkson Watch this season when the tough goal scorer opened the season with 10 goals in his first 14 games, but his production went south, and as such his alleged demands of $42M over 7 years are too rich for the Devils to keep him from hitting the open market.
The case for him: Not unlike Clowe, Clarkson backs up his offensive game with a thick 6’1″, 200 lbs frame that he isn’t afraid to use in intimidating and engaging the opposition. He has a nose for the net, willingly setting up game in the ice’s danger zones with authority. He just turned 29 in March, so the team can offer him some term and expect only moderate declines in his productivity over the long haul.
Why the Habs should stay away: The corollary of Clarkson’s hot start is that he had only 5 goals over the season’s 34 games. He only has one statistically strong season, having netted 30 goals in 2011-12, and totals only 14 points in 44 career playoff contests. These kind of numbers shouldn’t be attached to a player earning anywhere near a $6M annual paycheque.
The verdict: Someone is crazy enough to give him close to what he’s asking for. And it won’t be Marc Bergevin, who if anything, has shown to be a stingy and stubborn spender – for better or for worse.
1. Nathan Horton
Horton was a big pick-up for the Boston Bruins back in 2010 and was instrumental to their Stanley Cup run in 2011 prior to suffering a concussion during the late stages of the post-season. With the B’s tight on cash and having to re-sign starter Tuukka Rask, Horton has opted to test the open market.
The case for him: While he doesn’t play as gritty a game as Clarkson or Clowe, Horton has an equally desireable 6’2″, 229 lbs frame, providing the size needed to – for example – replace on Erik Cole on diminutive David Desharnais‘s wing. He’s a proven scorer with six twenty-goal campaigns over his nine season NHL career and turned 28 in May which means he’s still in the twilight of his prime. He further showed his playoff prowess again this season with a bounce back performance whereby he contributed 19 points in 22 games to Boston’s treck to the Stanley Cup Final.
Why the Habs should stay away: Horton hasn’t been the same player since that playoff concussion, missing considerable time the following season as well, and seeing his production dip. It declined further this season, with the winger netting only 22 points in 43 games, and thus there is concern that is “damaged goods,” a single big hit away from possibly having his career ended early. While he did regain his form to an extent in this year’s post-season, that is attributable in part to playing with talented linemates on the deep Boston forward core, an opportunity he may not get elsewhere.
The verdict: Term will be the key here, as simple mathematics make an injury-prone player an increasingly risky signing the longer you commit to him. Horton’s going to want to cash in, and he’ll likely get what he’s asking for as the market’s top available player under the age of 30. Four or so years at roughly $5.5M is the best value one could reasonably hope to get him at, and with the raises Bergevin will have to give out over the next few years, I’m not sure that deal fits his plans for a player like Horton.
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH – THE SECOND TIER
5. Peter Mueller
Not every player on the open market will break the bank this off-season. Mueller was let go by the Florida Panthers after just one season – the third team in the 25-year old’s five season NHL career. Injuries have derailed the development of the player taken with the 8th overall selection in 2006, and he has never been able to recreate the magic that saw him score 22 goals and 54 points as a rookie in 2007-08. A 6’2″, 204 lbs center who can also play the wing, a healthy Mueller would give the Canadiens a number of options up front, though he’s coming off a season of just 17 points and a -11 rating in 43 games for the lowly Panthers. Despite his size, he doesn’t bring a significant physical game to the table, and thus is more of a long-shot low-risk reclamation project than a sure-fire impact signing. Worst case scenario, he’d cost only a couple hundred thousand on the cap to be the kind of center the Hamilton Bulldogs desperately need to add if he doesn’t pan out with the Habs.
Offer: 2 years, $1.2 M cap hit. Short-term, but with upside if he plays well.
4. Benoit Pouliot
Yes, I am suggesting it may be worthwhile considering bringing back this former Canadien, like Francis Bouillon, Michael Ryder, and Jeff Halpern before him. After a decent season with Boston, Pouliot was handed to the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he seemed to find a home on a third or fourth line, topping the .5 PPG mark with 8 goals and 20 points in 34 contests. Pouliot still hasn’t managed to fill out his 6’3″ frame, which has kept him from reaching his full top prospect potential, but he’s also still only 26 years old, meaning he still has time to prove to a team that he can be a part of their longer-term plans than his recent journeyman status would indicate. Pouliot’s defensive game has come a long way, improving by spending most of his time in teams’ bottom sixes, and his effort level has been increasingly consistent, meaning whoever gives him his next chance might be pleasantly surprised with the return on their investment. If the Canadiens can finally acknowledge that David Desharnais is the third best center on the team (at best…), Pouliot’s size as a depth winger might be a nice compliment in a mini-French connection.
Offer: 2 years, $1.2M cap hit. See anyone… anyone… Mueller?
3. Mason Raymond
Despite the trading of Corey Schneider, the Canucks don’t seem interested in finding the dollars to retain Raymond, whose production has stagnated over the past three seasons and would be expensive at the $2.275M he made this past year. After scoring 53 points in 2009-10 and 39 in 2010-11, Raymond has failed to hit the 0.5 PPG mark in either of the last two seasons, but perhaps a change of scenery would do the average-sized speedy winger some good. Raymond plays a hard-working two-way game, and at age 27, it’s certainly possible he refinds form offensively. He has produced only 18 points in 55 playoff games and is still on the skinny side, so he doesn’t bring the jam and intensity the Canadiens would ideally be looking for, but then neither did a Michael Ryder that the team is seeking to replace.
Offer: 1 year, $1.75M cap hit. Would he take a paycut for a chance to prove himself a la Colby Armstrong?
2. Viktor Stalberg
If we ignore the fact that he was a Toronto Maple Leaf draft pick, Stalberg might be the most natural fit of any available player for the Canadiens.
A swift 6’3″, 206 lbs winger who can at times play with some edge, Stalberg showed some untapped offensive potential after being dealt to the more talented Chicago Blackhawks. The Cup champions had to do some salary shuffling in order to retain playoff hero Bryan Bickell, so Stalberg is likely to find a new home once again at age 27. His production dipped from 22 goals and 43 points in 79 games in 2011-12 to just 9 goals and 23 points in 47 games during this past lockout-shortened season, which should keep his salary demands modest. Stalberg was relegated mainly to fourth line and press box duty in the playoffs, where he has scored just one goal and six points in 32 career games, but he had averaged 14:07 a night during the regular season and ranked fourth on the ‘Hawks with 113 shots, indicating poor luck may have been a factor in his decline in scoring.
Offer: 3 years, $2M cap hit. These are three prime years, and thus a contract like this would likely pay high dividends.
1. Stephen Weiss
Is there a more underrated “star” player in the National Hockey League than Stephen Weiss? Perhaps largely because the 30-year old has played his entire career with the Florida Panthers, few may realize that he has twice hit 60 points, and had a three year 20-goal season streak interrupted by an injury-plagued lockout season. Despite being of a smaller stature at 5’11” and 193 lbs, Weiss plays an intense and hard-working brand of hockey rather than relying on his skills to produce. A quick and shifty skater, Weiss has averaged roughly twenty minutes a night in South Florida the past few seasons, being employed in all situations as an effective three zone player. A natural center, Weiss is equally comfortable on the wing. and he may prove a better compliment to a line of Tomas Plekanec and Rene Bourque than Brian Gionta at this stage of the Montreal captain’s career.
Offer: 4 years, $4.2M cap hit. If the Canadiens can get a discount based on Weiss’s poor 2012-13 season, this could end up being a steal.