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Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey entered this year's free-agency period with more money to spend under the salary cap than any other club - and spend it he did, going on a record-setting spree.

After signing former Calgary Flames winger Mike Cammalleri earlier in the day, Gainey locked up New Jersey Devils free agent Brian Gionta last night.

Both were signed for five years, and brought to four the number of free-agent acquisitions Gainey made on the first day of the signing period (defencemen Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill were the others).

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The total tab for the 24 hours ending last night? A cool $107.8-million (all currency U.S.) in contract commitments, far and away a record for the century old club.

Gainey said his team is now younger, more skilled and more durable, to say nothing of the completely different chemistry that's likely to take root this year after bidding goodbye to last year's top line, among others.

And while the Habs are undoubtedly a fleeter team up front after the acquisition of speedsters Cammalleri, Gionta and Scott Gomez - who each scored 58 points or more last season - it's debatable that they are better prepared for the playoffs in the bruising Eastern Conference with such a small lineup up front.

The Habs opened the vault for Toronto-area native Cammalleri, who potted 39 goals last year, signing him to the richest contract in franchise history, at $30-million over five years.

"I'm extremely excited - it was a crazy day, but to end up in Montreal, I couldn't be happier. You think of places where a hockey player would want to play and Montreal's it. I just can't wait to get going," said Cammalleri, who was pursued by five other teams.

The 27-year-old said he sought out the possibility of playing in one of the biggest fishbowls in sport, saying "it was something that actually excites me ... playing in front of people who are so passionate about their team, that live and die with everything that happens to the Montreal Canadiens."

Gainey said the acquisition of top-line centre Gomez was a key factor in attracting Cammalleri and Gionta, who signed a five-year, $25-million deal.

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"Without the trade happening yesterday ... we wouldn't have been able to be as aggressive and attractive to the other players out there," said Gainey, who admitted he would have been interested in signing Vancouver's Sedin twins if he hadn't been able to get a centre like Gomez, whose remaining $36.8-million contract is a heavy burden Montreal is willing to bear.

The 30-year-old Gionta is listed at 5-foot-7, 175 pounds, and though he played on a line with Gomez and Patrick Elias during the Devils' Stanley Cup glory years and once scored 48 goals, neither he nor Cammalleri are anyone's idea of a solution to Montreal's noted lack of grit up front.

But as the old cliché goes, you can't hit what you can't catch.

"There's always some place that you're looking. ... We're going to have to play big and we're going to have to play smart, but today is a day when you grab talent where you can grab it, and we were in a dogfight for it," Gainey said.

Cammalleri, a 5-foot-9, 180 pound winger, is a younger, higher scoring version of outgoing captain Saku Koivu - who after 13 years leaves with a whimper like predecessors Vincent Damphousse, Pierre Turgeon, Mike Keane, Kirk Muller and Guy Carbonneau, who were all traded or allowed to leave as free agents.

Koivu's exit will be added to that of wingers Alex Tanguay and Alexei Kovalev, the team's leading scorer last season.

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Though Kovalev was offered a contract, Gainey moved elsewhere when he delayed in accepting it.

Of the 10 unrestricted free agents on the Habs roster, none were retained yesterday, and it looks unlikely that any will be at some later point.

"We've become younger with those players. ... We are a new team, we have a new coach, we have new players who will be our go-to players," Gainey said.

While the Habs lost one top defenceman when Mike Komisarek signed a five-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Spacek signed for $11.5-million over three years and gives the Canadiens a reliable puck-mover who can eat up minutes and contribute a point shot on the power play.

And with the addition of Gill from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the Habs add size - and plenty of it. Gill is 6 foot 7 and 250 pounds, and while his skating is charitably described as ponderous, he will provide a veteran presence and comes at a relatively cheap $2.25-million for each of the next two seasons.

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