As free agency approached Montreal Canadiens GM, Pierre Gauthier, needed to tweak a roster that pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion to overtime in Game 7. Gauthier has put the Habs in a great position to contend for the playoffs in what should be an extremely competitive Eastern Conference in 2011-12. Gauthier made one big splash and then deftly resigned current Canadiens. At the present time the Habs have a few roster spots to fill, and over $8 million in cap space.
LW Erik Cole, 4 Years $18m
The signing of Erik Cole significantly improves the Canadiens’ top 6 forwards. The Habs have lacked an impact power forward for years, and Cole could fill that role as well as any Canadien since fellow American John LeClaire helped Montreal to the Stanley Cup in 1993. Cole did not come cheap. The 32 year-old winger signed a 4 year deal that carries an annual cap hit of $4.5m. If Cole is able to duplicate his production from last season when he netted 26 goals and totaled 52 points, then he will certainly be worth the money. However, Cole does come with some risk. Cole has played the majority of his career in Carolina. He skated only one season in a Canadian market, playing 63 games for Edmonton during the 2008-09 before being traded back to Carolina. Rumors circled that Cole had a difficult time adjusting to the pressure and media coverage that comes with playing in a Canadian city. Cole said, “There’s a lot more media coverage. They tend to over-analyze things a little bit more than other markets…”. Montreal is a notorious pressure cooker. Cole will need to adapt to being a celebrity in Montreal. Hopefully having familiar faces from USA Hockey like Brian Gionta, Hal Gill, and Scott Gomez on the team will make the move to Montreal an easy transition for Cole.
Erik Cole was the exact type of player the Habs needed. Cole has tremendous speed, can finish, and brings a physical element that the Habs have lacked in their top 6. His Stanley Cup experience, 52 points, and 225 hits will help the Habs push towards the playoffs again in an extremely competitive Eastern Conference.
Goalie Peter Budaj, 2 Years $2.3m
In a less heralded acquistion, the Canadiens inked goaltender Peter Budaj to a 2 year $2.3m contract. Budaj will replace Alex Auld as the backup to star goalie Carey Price. Peter Budaj is a solid goalie who was given a few chances at the brass ring, but was never able to prove worthy of being an NHL starting goaltender over the course of an 82 game season. Backup duty to an all-world goaltender is a more appropriate role for the 28 year-old Budaj. Hopefully Budaj will be able to find his game more consistently in the 20 or so games in which he will be called into action. A $1.15m cap hit for a quality backup is money well spent.
Pierre Gauthier resigned several Habs from the 2010-11 team that will help round out the roster.
Defence Andre Markov 3 years $17.25m–A healthy #79 will be a welcomed sight for Habs fans across the continent. Pierre Gauthier and Markov agreed to a fair deal which will carry a $5.75m cap hit over the next 3 years. Markov will anchor the power-play and eat up big minutes. James Wisniewski kept Markov’s seat warm admirably, but the veteran Russian defender will improve the Habs defence corps in 2011-12.
Defence Hal Gill 1 year $2.25m– The big man will be wearing the bleu, blanc, et rouge for at least one more season. Gill is a solid, shut down, stay-at-home defenseman that plays with a physical edge. Gill is aging and isn’t a great skater, but his leadership and nastiness in his own end make up for his short comings. Only committing 1 yr to the 36 year-old was a great move by Gauthier.
Defence Yannick Weber 2 years $1.7m– The emerging young defenceman Yannick Weber will be back in the fold for the Habs this season. After starting the year in the AHL, Weber was called up to the big club and dressed in 41 games for Montreal. Weber is a good skater, but needs to add physical strength to his game. While his path to the NHL was certainly paved by injuries, the 22 year-old Swiss born skater is a capable and responsible. Weber will no doubt improve on his +/- rating of minus 6 in his first full season as a pro.
Forward Andrei Kostitsyn 1 year $3.25m– The Habs brought back Russian winger Andrei Kostitsyn for at least one more season. Kostitsyn can at times be a frustrating player as he doesn’t always maximize his considerable skill. In 2010-11, Kostitsyn scored 20 goals and added 25 assists in 81 games. He will have to produce at a higher level in 2011-12 to justify his cap hit of $3.25m. Hopefully impending unrestricted free agent status will motivate the Russian to bring a more consistent effort.
Forward Max Pacioretty 2 years $3.25m– Just as Max Pacioretty was hitting his stride as a pro, Zdeno Chara tried to separate Pacioretty’s head from the rest of his body(criminal investigation still on going). The Habs hope that a fully recovered Pacioretty will be able to pick up right where he left off. In just 37 games, Pacioretty scored 14 goals and totaled 24 points. Pacioretty has a bright future and Erik Cole should be a great role model for him.
Forward David Desharnais 2 years $1.7m– Desharnais was called up mid-way through last season and dressed in 43 games. Desharnais is undersized at 5’7″, but has tremendous skill and heart. Desharnais was better than a point per game in the AHL and should see his scoring go up from the 22 points he totaled last season. The 24 year-old Quebec Provence native will undoubtedly be a fan favorite as he adds scoring punch and depth to the bottom 6 group of forwards.
Forward Mathieu Darche 1 year $700k– The big veteran winger will be back on the 4th line again for the Habs in 2011-12. Darche is a nice energy player who managed to chip in 26 points in the 59 games he dressed.
Work Still To Do
Pierre Gauthier has done a wonderful job this off-season filling team needs and strengthening the club, but there is still work to be done before the team comes to camp in September. RFA Josh Gorges remains unsigned and is an important piece to the overall depth of the defence. The Habs must also add another forward or two because no prospects in the system appear ready to take the next step to the NHL. Finally, Gauthier should think about getting a head start on signing both P.K. Subban and Carey Price to long term deals. Both players will be restricted free agents next summer.
Overall, the Habs did a great job of adding to their core players without handicapping the future by acquiring another crippling contract. Gauthier has the Canadiens in the position to acquire more help with an in-season trade as the team still has $8.3m in cap space with which to work. If Gauthier can somehow get someone to take Scott Gomez off of his books, then the GM should be given a key to the city.