Hal Gill has been with the Habs since signing as a free agent in 2009. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Montreal Canadiens will have some serious decisions to make in the off-season regarding their blueline corps.
Only P.K. Subban and Jaroslav Spacek are under contract for next season, with Andrei Markov, James Wisniewski, Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel, Hal Gill and Paul Mara eligible for unrestricted free agency and Josh Gorges, Yannick Weber and Alexandre Picard scheduled to become restricted free agents.
Retaining the RFAs shouldn't be too difficult, as the Canadiens hold their rights and they're unlikely to receive offer sheets from rival clubs this summer. Of the three, Gorges is the priority as he's been a strong shutdown defenseman and team leader. Weber and Picard should prove to be affordable re-signings if the Habs wish to keep them.
The UFAs, on the other hand, will be more difficult to sort out and management won't have much time to negotiate with them prior to July 1, when they’ll be free to take their services elsewhere.
Mara and Sopel likely won't be re-signed as they were acquired as short-term replacements for injured Habs blueliners.
Markov was considered the Canadiens top defenseman for years, but he's twice been sidelined by serious knee injuries in the past year and the Habs have played well in his absence this season.
Taking those factors into consideration and with only one season remaining on the current CBA, it's possible Canadiens management will attempt to extend Markov’s contract by one year (at the same $5.75 million cap hit) and if it appears next season he's made a full recovery from his knee injuries, try to re-sign him to a longer term.
That would then lead to having to make a choice between Hamrlik, Gill and Wisniewski. The three have proven invaluable to the Canadiens this season, but even though the Habs have less than $35 million committed to 10 players for next season, there probably won't be enough cap space to keep all three, especially if the team opts to add more scoring depth at forward.
As Arpon Basu of CTV.ca suggested, this scenario will most likely leave the soon-to-be 37-year-old Hamrlik as the odd man out.
Basu believes the offensive skills of Subban and Weber makes Wisniewski expendable and if it comes down to a choice between Hamrlik and Gill, the latter is probably favored due to his specialized defensive play and vocal leadership.
In a Montreal Gazette interview prior to his 1,300th NHL game on Thursday, Hamrlik expressed his wish to remain with the Canadiens beyond this season, claiming “I still have lots of fuel in my tank.”
Hamrlik's all-round versatility has served him and the Canadiens well this season and while age will be a factor, management may decide to keep both him and Gill - though it could ultimately come down to which one accepts the most affordable short-term contract.
Gill is coming off a deal paying him $2.25 million per season and may be willing to accept a contract similar to his current one. Hamrlik, however, is currently earning $5.5 million this season and would have to accept a significant pay cut to remain in Montreal.
The Canadiens won't be the only Canadian team facing tough decisions over their defense corps this summer, as the Vancouver Province's Jim Jamieson recently reported the Canucks will also find themselves juggling dollars and trying to retain as many of their current defensemen as possible.
Jamieson noted the Canucks currently have four defensemen - Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, Aaron Rome and Alex Edler - under contract for next season at a cap hit of $12.7 million. Assuming the Canucks keep rookie Chris Tanev in the lineup, the figure would be pushed to $13.6 million.
Should they keep the same budget for their defense as last season the Canucks would be left with only $7.93 million, plus any extra from an increase in the salary cap, to re-sign Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff and possibly Sami Salo.
It doesn’t appear to be a problem to retain the first two, but Jamieson suggested if one of them asks for too much more than the $4.5 million currently being earned by Hamhuis “the Canucks may have to wave goodbye.”
Salary demands plus the need to fill out the remainder of the roster - especially with most of their checking forwards eligible for restricted or unrestricted free agency - will factor in to how things shake out for Bieksa and Ehrhoff this summer.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Foxsports.com and Eishockey Magazine.