Montreal: Free Agency So Far – Habs Leadership Takes a (Cap) Hit
Despite not adding or losing any top line forwards or a top pair defensemen, this was one of the busiest starts to free agency the Habs have experienced since the great (read: expensive and diminutive) splurge of 2009. In the five offseasons since then, Montreal GMs have been relatively quiet once July 1st rolls around, a statement easily proven when you realize that George Parros is one of the top-3 biggest forward summer acquisitions by the Canadiens in the last half-decade (no offense to these guys).
After a busy Day 1 things have started to slow down and Bergevin appears to have, at least temporarily, put down his phone. Now that the dust has begun to settle on the reload button on your TSN mobile app, we can begin to process and analyze Montreal’s personnel moves, what they say about the organization as a whole and what we can expect next season. (A refresher on Montreal’s transactions this summer is available here.)
Habs Leadership Takes a (Cap) Hit
One day into free agency and the Habs were down one captain, one likely future captain and a significant amount of veteran locker room presence. The departure of Brian Gionta was easy to see coming, and despite my best protests, likely inevitable for months. The same day trade of defensemen Josh Gorges was more of a shock and considerably harder to fathom, especially when you look at what is, by all accounts, a meager return. Add to those moves the hours earlier trade of Daniel Briere to Colorado for P.A. Parenteau and I get the distinct feeling Bergevin would trade his own mother if it meant another trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Looking at these moves in an emotional vacuum and there is resounding agreement that Bergevin made the Canadiens a much stronger team. Montreal cleanses itself of its two oldest forwards and brings in Parenteau who is both younger and bigger than Briere with significantly more offensive ability. (Parenteau has averaged 0.75 points/game over the past four seasons, compared to only 0.60 for Briere.) Cap-wise these deals are a slam-dunk; Montreal saves just under $9 million with Gionta and Gorges leaving town, money that is already earmarked for P.K. Subban’s wallet. Parenteau has an identical cap-hit to the departed Briere though he has an extra year of term remaining on his current deal.
But Montreal doesn’t exist within a vacuum and these moves have taken an emotional toll on both Habs fans and the players involved. Gionta’s exit was preordained from the moment the ’30-goal scorer’ suffix stopped being used when describing him. If Gio hadn’t been Montreal’s captain, his departure would be a non-issue. The Gorges trade is more upsetting and while it raised some eyebrows initially, it makes more sense the more you think about it. Gorges is signed through 2018 and carries a $3.9 million cap-hit. Only Pacioretty is signed for longer than Gorges. Despite making just under ‘four sheets,’ Gorges has only notched 20+ points once in his career and has seen his offensive totals sink season after season. While still a phenomenal shot blocker, the Kelowna, BC native has looked slower and has been more prone to defensive lapses since the start of last year’s lockout-shortened season. More context for Gorges’ departure becomes more visible when you realize that he would have been Montreal’s fourth rearguard making more than $3.5 million, yet the lone top-4 defensemen not signed by Bergevin himself.
I’m sad to see Gorges leave and perhaps the writing on the wall might have been easier to foresee if he wasn’t Josh freaking Gorges, but it still stings. He was a vital leader to this team and for myself, Gorges was the first phase in what felt like an organizational shift towards more gritty, hardworking players raised in the WHL; players like Dale Weise, Brendan Gallagher and future Habs like Dalton Thrower and this year’s opening round selection, Nikita Scherbak. This trade is also more difficult to swallow knowing that if Bergevin hadn’t been so eager to resign an injured Emelin to a four-year deal at $4.1 million, there might have been a scenario where Montreal could have retained Gorges.
The departures of Briere, Gionta and Gorges show that the Canadiens still prize youth, speed and cap flexibility over almost everything else. Habs management also feel that a shift towards youth leadership is the right direction to continue in. Despite uncertainty in who will wear the ‘C’ this upcoming season, there seems to be sufficient confidence in the likes of Pacioretty, Gallagher, Subban and Price to fill the leadership void created by the aforementioned departed players.
Following the 2008-09 season, the Canadiens faced a similar leadership void when Saku Koivu left for Anaheim via free agency. Between 1989 and 1999 the organization traded their captain six times! Shifts in leadership are nothing new and the current core of Montreal’s roster seems more prepared than any roster in recent memory to step up and lead this team.
Montreal received no players in return for Gorges, only the 2016 2nd rounder, but they did make some moves to solidify their depth along the blue line. Mike Weaver was resigned for one year and his partner-in-crime from Sunrise, Tom Gilbert was signed for two years. They’re both right-handed shots, an in-need commodity within this organization, and their combined salaries equal only $650,000 more than Gorges would have received until 2018. Weaver can continue to perform stay-at-home defensive duties as well as shot blocking, at a fraction of the Gorges price tag. Gilbert has more offensive upside than Gorges, but is unlikely to be a top pair d-man as some have projected. (Speaking of projected, my more faithful readers should recall that I foresaw Gilbert-to-Montreal at the trade deadline.)
Gionta’s departure also opens up a forward spot in the Canadiens top-6 as Habs fans now debate who will join Plekanec and Galchenyuk on Montreal’s 2nd line. It’s unlikely Habs 1st round pick Scherbak makes the big club out of rookie camp and no doubt would benefit from more experience playing North American hockey at the junior level. That leaves newly signed, KHL-import Jiri Sekac with the best chance to crack the top-6 unless Bergevin opens his wallet again on another UFA forward. Montreal has just over $15 million remaining in cap space but there will be little of that left once restricted free agents Subban and Eller are resigned. So, there is a good chance Sekac joins fellow countrymen (and roller hockey pal!) Plekanec on Montreal’s 2nd line next season.
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