Top 5 Free Agents Montreal Canadiens Should Pursue During 2014 Offseason
While the holes in Montreal Canadiens fans’ hearts will heal in time following the Eastern Conference Final defeat to the New York Rangers, the holes in the lineup are a different matter. General manager Marc Bergevin will have to take an active approach and try to fill them with free agents this offseason.
The team should specifically target a select few players come July 1 and even before in some cases, with current Habs defensemen Andrei Markov and Mike Weaver set to test free agency next month.
Including Markov and Weaver, here are the top five free agents that the Canadiens should pursue.
5. Brian Gionta (Montreal Canadiens)
Habs captain Brian Gionta may be a surprise entry on this list considering the diminishing offensive returns in his game since arriving in Montreal in 2009.
However, even though the top-six forward put up just 40 points (18 goals) this past season (his career high of 89 points and 48 goals was in 2005-06), he can still contribute in other ways, mainly in defensive and leadership roles—that is, provided he’s willing to take a serious pay cut.
He’s no longer a $5 million-per-year player.
One can even make a good case he wasn’t even that when Bob Gainey got him under contract four years ago and that he was only signed to complement shiny new acquisition Scott Gomez. That projected one-two punch didn’t work out so hot, fizzling out quickly. However, Gionta has, despite it all, proved his worth as a leader.
He just helped lead the team to the Eastern Conference Final. That’s the second time since he came to Montreal that the Habs have reached the third round. Granted, he can’t take all the credit for the first time in 2010, seeing as he wasn’t yet captain (and that was the spring Jaroslav Halak decided to try out for the World’s Strongest Man competition, strap an entire team onto his back and see how far he could take them).
The fact remains that Gionta is a good fit with the Habs, but only on the third or fourth line...and this next part is key: at third- or fourth-line money. If he isn’t willing to stay at that price, he is easily replaceable by someone who will. That’s why he takes the No. 5 spot in this list.
It would be a shame to see him go, but there’s no other way the Habs will be able to afford him, considering free agents Lars Eller, Dale Weise, Ryan White, Mike Weaver, and P.K. Subban are all in line for actual pay raises.
4. Jarome Iginla (Boston Bruins)
At 37 years old, Boston Bruins forward Jarome Iginla is likely thinking only of joining a Stanley Cup contender. And while the Habs did reach the third round of the playoffs, many might not consider them contenders in the strictest sense of the term.
Still, there is hope: Signing with a contender hasn’t exactly worked out for him in the recent past. Forget how no matter which team he ultimately chooses, there are still at least a handful of others with as much as, if not more, of a chance to win it all. No, we’re talking some serious bad juju on top of all of that.
At the 2013 trade deadline, according to Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli via NHL.com, Iginla vetoed a deal that the Calgary Flames had made in good faith with the Bruins, preferring instead to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Since the reported return for the Flames from Boston would have been greater than what they ultimately got (mid-level prospects Ben Hanowski and Kenny Agostino and a first-round pick), Iginla essentially screwed his former team in his pursuit of a Stanley Cup.
Perhaps as a result of the bad karma, he and the Penguins ended up playing the Bruins in last year’s Eastern Conference Final and managed just two goals in a four-game sweep. And that’s not two goals scored by Iginla. That’s two goals scored by the Penguins in total.
He obviously made the wrong choice.
Realizing his mistake (along with everyone else), Iginla than turned around and signed with the initially spurned, quick-to forgive Bruins last offseason. Of course, that strategy ended up backfiring too, with the Bruins actually bowing out a round earlier this spring than the Pens did last year.
If trends are anything to go by, that means Montreal fans should see Iginla in a Habs uniform in no time, what with the Canadiens having eliminated him this time around. Still, the smarter money is on him going somewhere else or staying in Boston, who, by most accounts, will still have the better shot than Montreal at winning the Cup next year.
That doesn’t mean the Habs should give up on a chance at signing Iginla, who would give the Habs a legitimate first-line right winger. While Thomas Vanek served that role admirably—at least since being acquired by the Habs until the end of the regular season—he won’t be back, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie.
On the other hand, while Iginla would certainly help them take their game to the next level, the Habs arguably don’t need to replace Vanek. That’s because they never gave up a roster player to get him in the first place and did relatively all right with Brendan Gallagher taking over first-line duties for him once Vanek's game went in the toilet during the playoffs. As a result, Iginla takes the fourth spot on this list.
3. Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens)
There are worse tragedies out there than defenseman Andrei Markov ending his career with a team other than the Montreal Canadiens. It would still be pretty sad if the two sides aren’t able to work things out.
Selected in 1998, he is one of only three players taken that year to still be active and to have played their entire NHL careers with the team that drafted them. Ottawa Senators forward Chris Neil and Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk are the others. Now, that’s pretty good company to keep—excluding Neil of course (and even he admittedly has his moments).
Markov has been a mainstay on Montreal’s blue line for some time and has been a game-breaking talent since at least the 2004-05 lockout. While he’s on his last legs—almost literally considering the surgeries to both of his knees—he proved he could have a few good years left, as he notched seven goals and 36 assists and had a plus-12 rating this past season.
He is reportedly close to re-signing with Montreal, according to La Presse writer Richard Labbe (h/t Joe Yerdon of Pro Hockey Talk), which is good. However, on the off chance the two sides are not able to work things out, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Markov is reportedly seeking a three-year deal at least, and with him being 35 years old, the Habs would be absorbing a lot of risk.
Considering the Habs have defensive prospects Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi pushing to make the big club—both of whom are left-handed shooters like Markov (and Josh Gorges...and Alexei Emelin)—it just may be time to cut ties with the team’s longest-serving player (excluding Francis Bouillon, who debuted one year earlier in 1999 but also played for the Nashville Predators).
2. Mike Weaver (Montreal Canadiens)
Bergevin’s acquisition of defenseman Mike Weaver might not have received the fanfare of the trade for Vanek, but it arguably ended up paying larger dividends. Weaver solidified Montreal’s bottom defensive pairing as a more mobile option than Douglas Murray and cost the Habs just a fifth-round pick.
If this team is committed to sticking with head coach Michel Therrien—and there’s little chance of him losing his job anytime soon after this postseason—Weaver should be re-signed. No other player better fits the coach's dependent-on-blocked-shots system.
The Habs blocked a total of 318 shots in 17 games this spring. That’s an average of 18.7 per game, which was second only to the St. Louis Blues' 19.2, and they had the distinct advantage of only having to sustain that average over six games (before getting eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks...maybe not so much of an advantage).
Of those 318 blocked shots, Weaver led Montreal with 50, according to ESPN. He’s essentially a head coach’s dream. Add to that his right-handed shot (one of just two on the team), and he becomes Therrien’s dream specifically. Now, add on top of that his low salary, and Bergevin is no doubt mumbling Weaver's name in his sleep too.
Put simply, the Habs need to re-sign Weaver. There’s just no one else who can do what he does (or, more accurately, is willing to) at such an affordable price on this year’s free-agent market.
1. Matt Niskanen (Pittsburgh Penguins)
While few are willing to put their body on the line like Weaver, fewer still are able to bring what defenseman Matt Niskanen brings to the table.
Back on the subject on right-handed shots (which Niskanen has), the lack of one forced Therrien to try and get creative with the second power-play unit. He failed miserably.
With the right-handed P.K. Subban manning the point on the first unit (and science having yet to perfect the cloning process), Therrien ended up giving defensemen like Francis Bouillon and Alexei Emelin time on the second.
In 59 games, Emelin got one power-play goal and two assists while averaging 35 seconds with the man advantage each game. In 52 games Bouillon got a single assist. Admittedly, that’s pretty much on par with his skill set. What isn’t, however, is the one minute, 15 seconds on the power play that Therrien gave him each game. That was third-most on the team.
Regardless of what Therrien was thinking, Bouillon is an unrestricted free agent, and Bergevin is unlikely to re-sign the soon-to-be 39-year-old defenseman, meaning the Habs should in theory be looking for someone to replace him in the lineup. Hopefully, they'll take this opportunity to sign someone who can comfortably play on the right. Surprisingly, there are few options available.
There’s Dan Boyle, who's 38 and has grown ineffective defensively and less effective offensively with age. There’s Sami Salo, who’s two years older (enough said). There’s Stephane Robidas, who’s nursing his second broken leg this year. And there’s Derek Morris, who’s a shell of the defenseman he once was.
At the younger end of the spectrum, you’ve got Matt Greene (31) and Mark Fayne (27), who really wouldn’t fit Montreal’s need for an offensive threat on the back end. Anton Stralman is just 28 but will likely re-sign with the New York Rangers.
Almost by process of elimination, the Habs should land on Niskanen, who is 27 and scored 46 points (10 goals) for the Pittsburgh Penguins this past season. He’s also a plus-39 in his career and can play in all game situations (yes, most notably the power play).
The one downside with Niskanen would be him being in high demand. The Habs would need to pay a premium for his services, and there just might not be enough money to go around with Subban needing a new contract.
A cheaper alternative would be Tom Gilbert, who’s 31 and didn’t embarrass himself playing defense for the Florida Panthers this past season. Granted, that’s pretty hard to do with the Panthers having given up the second-most amount of goals this past season (262), but Gilbert nonetheless played competently at both ends of the ice and cost Florida just $900,000.
Niskanen would no doubt be the sexier signing, but Gilbert might be the more practical choice. Hopefully, the Habs sign one of them, as each would fill the team's most glaring need.