There’s no nice way of saying it: The Montreal Canadiens cut out a hefty chunk of the squad’s beating heart on the opening day of free agency.
The obvious conclusion is that general manager Marc Bergevin doesn’t think heart alone is enough to propel the Habs to the next stage.
So it was that captain Brian Gionta signed with the Buffalo Sabres – a three-year, $12.75-million deal that was far richer than anything Montreal offered – where he joined assistant captain Josh Gorges, who was sent to western New York earlier in the day in a naked salary-dump of a trade.
“We felt the playoff run allowed our nucleus of young veterans to take on a bigger leadership role,” Bergevin said. “At some point, you need to give the young guys a chance at that role.”
He didn’t take long to restock the roster. New signee Manny Malhotra, the first player inked when the league window opened at 12 p.m. ET, will be expected to replace some lost character and leadership in the room.
“I don’t think leadership comes from supply and demand, I think it’s kind of organic,” said the veteran Malhotra, who is the obvious replacement for the eminently quotable Gorges as the media’s go-to guy (these things matter in Montreal, as does the fact he speaks French).
Bergevin will hope his new fourth-line centre – signed for one season at a bargain-basement $850,000 – is right.
Malhotra, formerly of the Vancouver Canucks and more recently of the Carolina Hurricanes, said he chose Montreal, which he called a team on the upswing, rather than “try to chase a few extra dollars where I wouldn’t be as happy hockey-wise.”
Bargain-hunting is a theme with Bergevin’s signings. Take free agent defenceman Tom Gilbert, who signed for two years at $2.8 million per – less than what was shelled out for far inferior players (like Deryk Engelland in Calgary). Gilbert, ex of the Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild – where he was bought out – and Florida Panthers said: “I tried becoming a member (of the Habs) last year but it kind of fell through.”
Playing in Montreal, he continued, “you get that feeling of this is what hockey’s all about.”
The moves made on Tuesday – Montreal re-signed depth defenceman Mike Weaver, acquired 22-year-old Czech free agent forward Jiri Sekac and goaltender Joey MacDonald – all appear aimed at specific needs.
Malhotra, who was the league’s second-best faceoff man last season, will provide a defensive-minded presence up the middle.
The Habs were always going to have to choose between Alexei Emelin and Gorges (both are lefties, both are on long-term deals at around $4 million), and Gilbert allows Emelin, who is two years younger and more rugged, to move back to his natural side.
Weaver provides a steadying bottom-pair presence for one of Jarred Tinordi or Nathan Beaulieu, young D-men who Bergevin said “are pushing.”
Sekac, a sought-after prospect who had 28 points in 47 KHL games last year, is a right-winger – an area of need shored up on Monday with the acquisition of P.A. Parenteau in exchange for another key veteran, Daniel Brière.
Unlike last season’s summer acquisitions, players like Parenteau, Gilbert and Malhotra tend to be well-regarded in the advanced stats community; the team wouldn’t say whether it has beefed up its analytics group, but the shift in emphasis is unmistakable.
After Tuesday’s signings, Bergevin still has cap room to sign restricted free agents P.K. Subban (crazy expensive) and Lars Eller (less so). There’s also flexibility to acquire another forward.
Asked whether he’s prepared to see his team take a step back in the immediate term in order for the youngsters to progress, he said “very comfortable with that.”
“It’s not only adding players,” Bergevin added. “We’re looking two and three years down the road.”
The 2014-15 season could make for interesting viewing in Montreal.