Montreal Canadiens: Salary Cap Woes Mean Mats Sundin or Nothing

A BCorrespondent IJuly 8, 2008

No matter what, 2008-09 will be a historic year for the Montreal Canadiens.  

The NHL’s most celebrated franchise marks its one-hundredth year, and has lined up the Draft and All-Star Game.

There are bigger records on the minds of general manager Bob Gainey and owner George Gillett though.  This is the team’s last and best chance to win a Cup this decade.  Failure to produce would be the first time in those 100 years the franchise made it through a full decade without a title.

What’s worse, the window may be closing on these Montreal Canadiens. It sounds absurd, as this was the youngest team in last year’s playoffs and they got there with the top seed in the East. How has the door closed?

In the modern NHL, it’s important to win while your core is still under cheap contracts. Check out Henrik Zetterberg’s cap hit if you don’t believe me ($2.65 million). The Habs have celebrated their successful rebuilding from within, but in just under a year, that core cashes in—and all at the same time.

For this reason, the Canadiens have pursued the Mats Sundin strategy. For all his indecision and the hefty price-tag, Sundin is a one- to two-year proposition—and thus the only option for the soon-to-be cash strapped Habs.

The Canadiens have a grand total of four forwards, two defensemen and both goalies from their current roster under contract for '09-10. In the minors, only seven more players have contracts ,and only two or three of those seem likely to be anywhere near the NHL next year.

One person who was likely thrilled to see the likes of Wade Redden and Mark Streit haul in millions this offseason is Mike Komisarek. The hulking defenseman became a star last year at a paltry $1.7 million, with a contract that releases him to unrestricted free agency next summer.

\It could take $6 million to keep Komisarek. A big toll for a team that already has $11.25 million invested in Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik through 2010-11.

What’s more, Mathieu Dandenault and Francis Bouillon are both headed to free agency next summer as well, and the team’s last two NHL defenseman—Josh Gorges and Ryan O’Byrne—are currently restricted free agents.

Up front, things are even more bleak. The Kostitsyn brothers, Georges Laraque, and Maxim Lapierre are the only NHLers under contract beyond this year. Prospect Ben Maxwell may, by that time, join them.

Next summer, the Habs have four restricted and five unrestricted free agents from their NHL core, as well as four more restricted free agent prospects.

The unrestricted crop is headlined by Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev, and Alex Tanguay. Steve Begin and Tom Kostopolous will also be without contracts in a year.

Headed to restricted free agency are Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Kyle Chipchura, and Guillaume Latendresse. Prospects Matt D’Agostini and Greg Stewart are also likely to be in the mix by the end of this season.

All told, the Canadiens have roughly $7 million in cap space (once O’Byrne and Gorges sign) this season—and that number would be a perfect fit for Mats Sundin.

The Canadiens desperately need—not want—to win this season. Sundin gives them that chance, since next year they’re going to be in trouble just keeping the core together. With the big Swede, the Canadiens would be the class of the East—if they’re not already—and ready to give any beaten Western finalist a run.

Sure, the Wings remain the favorites, but with a little good luck and another year under their belts, this team could be a force—especially if Carey Price continues to progress as expected.

They better win it all, because in '09-10 they have eight NHLers under contract for $20.5 million in cap commitment, and almost their entire core in search of new deals.

Let’s play with some what-ifs. On defense, it’s safe to assume that Komisarek will command at least equal pay to Markov, so pencil him in at $5.75 million. Bouillon and Dandenault, stay or go, likely sit at the $2 and $1 million range respectively for them or their replacements, then add another roughly million each for Gorges and O’Byrne. That brings the Habs' cap total to $31.25 million.

Up front, Latendresse and Chipchura likely average out to a million per year each, once re-signed. Kostopolous and Begin will likely be gone, but their replacements will cost the Habs at least $1.5 million for both. You have to assume Plekanec and Higgins will both be in the neighborhood of $4 million a year. That leaves the big three UFAs.

Even if the Habs lose one or more, they will need a top-line replacement. They currently bring in just shy of $15 million between them, a number that is likely to go to the $18 range.

The grand total for the '09-10 Canadiens? $60.75 million.

That would put them $4 million over today’s cap—and that doesn’t factor in a big, long-term contract.

This is why the Canadiens did not go after Markus Naslund, Pavol Demitra, and other secondary free agents. It’s Mats Sundin on a one-year deal or bust for the Montreal Canadiens, as they seek to keep a streak alive in their most historic of seasons.