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Screen Shots: Canadiens face tough UFA decisions

Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu are both ready to become UFAs next summer. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu are both ready to become UFAs next summer. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

In a few crucial ways, this year’s edition of the Montreal Canadiens remind me of last year’s edition of the New York Rangers.

Not that that’s a good thing.

First and foremost, this year’s Canadiens have 11 players – including forwards Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev and defensemen Francis Bouillon and Mike Komisarek – set to become unrestricted free agents this summer.

Similarly, last year’s Rangers had nine players – Sean Avery, Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Marek Malik, Michal Rozsival and Martin Straka chief among them – in the final season of their contracts.

As well, both teams continually operate under an Original Six franchise’s worth of pressure. And both had/will have a crapload of salary cap room with which to play at the conclusion of their season.

The situational similarities between the Habs and Blueshirts have some observers wondering if any team with so many potential UFAs can meet or exceed expectations when those players (consciously or otherwise) may be looking out for themselves.

“How are guys supposed to band together and leave it all on the ice for their team when they don’t know how the organization’s management and ownership feels about them?” asked one longtime player agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That’s why I wasn’t surprised at all to see Montreal struggle as this season continued on. It was the same way with the Rangers last season.”  

Indeed, the Rangers followed up a torrid start to 2007-08 – they won 11 of 14 games in November – by limping into the playoffs with just nine victories in their final 17 games.

This year’s Canadiens also looked impressive out of the gate, winning 15 of 25 games. Since then, they’ve been in free-fall, causing all kinds of controversy and speculation GM Bob Gainey would drastically remake the roster prior to the March 4 trade deadline.  

Much of the blame for that has to fall at Gainey’s feet, the same way Rangers supremo Glen ‘Teflon’ Sather deserves debasement for his Manhattan Project’s abject failures.

Still, that’s not to say either went off the grid to devise such a game plan.

“It is easy to see why Bob and Slats went that route,” said the agent. “It’s better to have cap room than to be up against the ceiling with no chance to maneuver. But sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way – and what you wind up with is a transient team that (a) isn’t aware of its long-term identity, and (b) has no clue how long many key members are going to be around. It’s tough to find a happy medium between the two extremes, but if you can, I think that’s a clear key to success in today’s NHL.”

Another danger facing Gainey and the Canadiens is the free agent period itself. With upwards of $30 million in anticipated available cap space, the Habs are sure to face all kinds of pressure from fans and media to spend most, if not all of their payroll money on a UFA class that thrills only the agents of the employment-seeking players.

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The same thing happened to the Rangers last summer. And do you know how they dealt with it?

Why, by throwing around money like a government bailout program and signing blueliner Wade Redden to a six-year, $39 million contract that almost instantly became a thousand-pound millstone around the franchise’s collective neck.

The same fate easily could befall Montreal. Even worse, if Komisarek can’t come to terms on a contract extension prior to July 1, the asking price for the league’s premier available shutdown defenseman will assuredly skyrocket to the $6 million per season rate and beyond.

Just something else for Gainey to develop an ulcer over.

“I’d always be concerned about the mindset of (an unsigned) player after the trade deadline,” said former Tampa Bay Lightning GM – and current THN.com blogger – Jay Feaster. “Almost invariably, the player’s mindset becomes, ‘Why wouldn’t I test the (UFA) market?’

“That’s why I couldn’t imagine going into a season with a star player who was entering the last year of his contract and who hadn’t agreed to an extension.

“That’s why to me, the time to trade a star player like Ilya Kovalchuk is this (trade) deadline, not next year’s.”

Feaster, who knows about the downside of tying up big money in a few key players, understands the challenge Gainey is dealing with.

“It comes down to how many players/assets you can let go for nothing, while creating nothing more than cap space,” Feaster said. “You have to see cap space now as an asset in and of itself…and if you can’t find a good balance between cap space and your signed players, (free agency) starts to wreak havoc with your organizational depth.”

So good luck, Habs fans.

Judging by the state of the Rangers, you’re going to need it.

This column also appears in the March 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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