BROSSARD, Que. – The Montreal Canadiens head into the off-season feeling they could have done better and with questions lingering about what changes may be in store for next season.
What direction the club will take after finishing 15th and last in the NHL Eastern Conference is up to the general manager who will replace the fired Pierre Gauthier.
Whoever that may be, whether it’s fiery former goaltender Patrick Roy, agent Pat Brisson, former assistant Julien Brisebois or a number of other candidates, will have plenty of big decisions to make in a short period of time.
”It’ll be interesting to sit back and watch,” goaltender Carey Price said Monday as the team gathered at their practice facility before heading off for the summer. ”At the same time, we know (team president) Geoff (Molson) wants to win and we have a group of guys here that want to win.
”I know they’ll find someone who has that same attitude. It starts at the top and Geoff has that drive, so I have no doubt they’ll find the right people.”
One of the new GM’s first tasks will be to sign Price and defenceman P.K. Subban, two of the team’s budding young stars who are both eligible to become restricted free agents on July 1.
The 25-year-old Price will likely be looking for a long-term deal worth many millions. The same may hold true for 22-year-old Subban, who led the team with 24:18 of ice time per game and emerged as a first-pair rearguard this season.
Both said they want to stay with the club.
”Lots of things have to be worked out, but I enjoy the core group of players here and I want to play here a long time,” said Subban. ”This year is not a reflection of the talent we have.
”Our team is capable of being a lot better.”
Another priority for the new GM will be to name a head coach.
Randy Cunneyworth hopes to stay on, but the new boss will no doubt want to name his own coach.
Molson promised fans when Cunneyworth replaced Jacques Martin on Dec. 17 that the next coach will be bilingual, which shortens the list of candidates but still leaves experienced people like Bob Hartley, Marc Crawford, Michel Therrien and others to chose from.
That could count Cunneyworth out.
There are four players due to become unrestricted free agents: veteran wingers Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche, enforcer Brad Staubitz and defenceman Chris Campoli.
Moen, who earned US$1.5 million this season, was having a strong campaign until he was injured and will attract interest for his solid physical play. Darche is a popular local player who has decent size and versatility.
And Staubitz, the club’s first real tough guy since Georges Laraque three seasons ago, became a favourite with teammates after he was acquired in mid-season even if he produced only one point, a goal, in 62 games.
Campoli, at $1.75 million this season, is less likely to stay now that Andrei Markov has returned from his series of knee operations.
Price and Subban are among 11 potential RFAs. Others are forwards Lars Eller, Ryan White, Aaron Palushaj, Blake Geoffrion, Petteri Nokelainen and Mike Blunden and defencemen Alexei Emelin, Rafael Diaz and Frederic St. Denis.
Third-line centre Eller, grinder White, hard-hitting Emelin and skilled Diaz will no doubt be priority signings.
The new management must also decide what to do with some of the bad contracts they will inherit, starting with Scott Gomez. The veteran centre brings salary cap hit of $7.3 million per season, highest on the team, but produced only 11 points in 38 games.
That followed a disappointing campaign in 2010-11. The Canadiens will likely try to trade Gomez. It may be easier because the money owed next season is less than his cap hit. If not, they may choose to buy him out or send him to the minors to get his salary off their list.
”That’s a question I can’t answer,” Gomez said. ”I’m not on that side of management.
”We’ll all find out. I love Montreal and the Bell Centre. The atmosphere in the playoffs is one of the best experiences I’ve had in hockey.”
All 30 teams are in uncertainty because a new collective bargaining agreement must be reached between the league and the players before next season.
The new GM may also wonder about defenceman Tomas Kaberle, who had 22 points in 43 games after he was acquired in mid-season from Carolina. The veteran whose effectiveness is in decline has two years left at $4.5 million per season.
And there is the free agent market, where Montreal will probably be shopping for a top-6 forward to give them a second consistent scoring line.
The Canadiens looked geared for a strong season last summer when veteran Erik Cole was added as a free agent to bring more size and scoring to their group of forwards. He came through with a career-high 35 goals and emerged as a leader.
But before camp Markov suffered a setback in rehab from two knee surgeries that limited him to seven games last season. That prompted a trade for Campoli, who immediately suffered his own injury and led to a later trade for Kaberle.
The Canadiens power play, among the best in the NHL in recent seasons, plunged to the bottom and only a late rally lifted it to 28th in the league.
But led by defence stalwart Josh Gorges, who led the league with 250 blocked shots, and centre Tomas Plekanec, they had the second-best penalty killing at 88.6 per cent.
The team was also hammered by more than 400 man-games lost to injury, highest in the league.
But it was more than missing players that did them in.
Early in the season, the Canadiens played plenty of poor hockey. Far too often, they didn’t get pucks deep in the zone to make a line change, didn’t get the puck out of their own zone when a player had clean possession, or many other small jobs that winning teams get done most of the time.
”We’re definitely a better team than we showed, even with the injuries and everything that was going on,” said Plekanec. ”We played good games against good teams, but we just weren’t able to play well on a consistent basis.
”When we went to the conference final (two years ago) we were a tough team. We played hard. We played the system. We were quick. We were smart. That’s how we got far. And we had a good goalie.”
It was a bizarre season that included the surprise firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn just before a game in October, and the trading of winger Michael Cammalleri between periods of a game. The player they got in return, Rene Bourque, produced only eight points in 38 games.
The new administration won’t start from zero.
There are young building blocks in place in Price, Subban and left winger Max Pacioretty, who emerged as a first-line force with 33 goals. Eller developed into an interesting two-way centre over the season.
The top line of David Desharnais with Pacioretty and Cole was a consistent threat after it was formed in mid-season. And there are quality veterans like Markov, Gorges, Plekanec, Cole and captain Brian Gionta, who was limited to 31 games due to a biceps injury.
They are also guaranteed a top-4 draft pick, although it’s uncertain there is one available this year that can step into an NHL lineup from junior hockey.
”We have a lot of the pieces,” said Price. ”It’s a matter of putting them together and getting it done.
”As a group, we need to play better. We need to be on the same page. We have to find consistency in our game, which lacked a lot this year. You’d see it in spurts and then we’d be really bad in spurts. We need to give ourselves a chance to win every night.”