Habs Start Building for 2011-12

Pierre Gauthier sure knows how to stay busy during the summer.

Since the Montreal Canadiens’ elimination in Game 7 of their first round series against the Boston Bruins this spring, the team’s GM didn’t waste a single minute. He signed seven current players while adding defensemen Raphael Diaz and Alexsey Emelin to his roster.

With six defensemen on the verge of becoming unrestricted free agents on July 1st, Gauthier decided to start it off by giving Hal Gill a one-year contract worth $2.25 million per season. Most Habs fans were concerned about the 36-year-old American’s skating abilities, but the truth is he rendered valuable services last year to the Canadiens in the absence of injured Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, while being a mentor and a big brother for rookie P.K. Subban.

Gauthier’s biggest and most significant move was however the signing of veteran blueliner Markov, worth $11.5 million for three years. The 32-year-old blue-liner had made it clear that he wanted to stay in Montreal, and while most people were worried about how his two-time injured knee will do next season, Gauthier and Markov himself seem more than convinced that it’ll do just fine.

Roman Hamrlik had also expressed his interest to stay in Montreal, but is convinced that he could get more than the one-year contract the Habs offered him if he hits the open market. But Gauthier won’t bend, meaning the Czech will most likely become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st.

Brent Sopel and Paul Mara are not expected to re-sign with Montreal and will test the free agent market, while sniper James Wisniewski, who has been quite useful offensively last year for the Canadiens, seems to require a little too much compared to what Gauthier would of given him.

Unlike Emelin, who agreed to a one-year deal with the Canadiens after several days of speculation, Diaz isn’t expected to start the season in Montreal and will likely start off by gaining experience with the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Gaétan Voisard, his agent in Europe, revealed in an interview with Montreal’s La Presse that “everyone in Switzerland is convinced that Raphael is even better than Mark Streit at his age, and that he’ll be the best Swiss player in history.”

And as for Emelin, the Habs had failed to get him to come to North America last season, but the Russian finally accepted a one-year contract with the team that selected him in the 2004 NHL entry draft.

Of the five French-speaking players on the team – that the fans and the media in Montreal put on their wish list each Christmas – only Mathieu Darche, David Desharnais and Yannick Weber (with respectively a one and two two-year contracts) have been inked up till now, leaving Benoît Pouliot and defenceman Alexandre Picard pending. RFAs defenceman Josh Gorges and enforcer Ryan White should also receive contract offers and avoid becoming unrestriced free agents.

And after spending the last few summers speaking only of “who will be the no 1 goalie for the Montreal Canadiens,” there will finally be no need to ask the question at the start of the 2011-12 season. Young Carey Price has silenced the critics with his stellar performance in 2010-11, but there’s plenty of debate as to who will be his backup goalie. Alex Auld will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, and there is evidence that the Habs won’t submit him a new contract offer.

There wasn’t much to do about the offense for Gauthier, with only two of his forwards on the verge of testing the free agent market. Gauthier made sure to settle Darche’s case, and probably will decide to not offer a new contract to Jeff Halpern.

Gauthier also inked young restricted free agent Andreï Kostitsyn for another year worth $3.25 million. But AK46 still hasn’t managed to live up to the expectations and the organization could throw in the towel at the end of next season if he doesn’t seize what could be his last chance to prove his talent.

Meanwhile, forward Max Pacioretty has been rewarded for the great progress he made last year, just before suffering a season-ending injury caused by a violent collision with Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara. Montreal’s #67, who should be able to start the season on the roster, has agreed to a two-year $3.25 million deal.

Lars Eller is another one who impressed last year and who could be even better next season, but the question is whether his dislocated shoulder will heal in time for training camp in September.

As for Scott Gomez, who is coming off the worst season of his career and is considered like untradeable to the dismay of the Habs fans who want him out of Montreal, the rise of the salary cap may have changed his situation. According to several sources, teams like the Florida Panthers or the New York Islanders could be interested in acquiring Gomez in order to reach the new cap floor of $48.3 million.

And with July 1st on the way, we’ll see if Gauthier will either complete his roster by signing some free agents or if he’ll trust the organization’s young players.

Despite the fact that the Habs won’t be able to count on Nigel Dawes and Dustin Boyd, two of the best Hamilton Bulldogs in last season’s AHL playoffs who both decided to pursue their careers in the KHL, Gauthier and coach Jacques Martin still have depth.

They have Aaron Palushaj, who had a great training camp at the beginning of last year but ended up not making the team, and crowd-favorite Louis Leblanc, who just played his first season in the QMJHL with the Montreal Junior. The only thing that could jeopardize his chances of wearing a Habs jersey for a couple of games next year is his injured shoulder, on which he had to undergo surgery.

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