Montreal Canadiens left winger Chris Higgins wipes his face, Nov. 23, 2007. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Don Heupel)
MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens jumped into the NHL transactions melee with a big splash on Tuesday, acquiring centre Scott Gomez from the Rangers in a seven-player trade that sent Christopher Higgins to New York.
The move unburdened Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather of the seven-year US$51.5-million contract (salary cap hit: US$7.35 per season) he gave Gomez in 2007, leaving him space to pursue another trade or sign a player when the NHL free agency period begins on Wednesday.
It gives Montreal a fast, skilled, but smallish centre who scored only 16 goals in each of his two seasons with the Rangers.
"That's the business," Gomez said on a conference call from his native Alaska, where he was on a fishing trip. "It's a little sad but at the same time I'm a little excited.
"It's the mecca of hockey."
The Rangers got a speedy winger who missed 25 games with groin and shoulder injuries this season. Higgins earned US$1.9 million in 2008-09, when he had just 12 goals and 23 points - the lowest output of his NHL career.
He is to become a restricted free agent on Wednesday.
The Canadiens also gave up two of their better defence prospects - Ryan McDonagh, a 2007 first round draft pick now playing at Wisconsin, and Pavel Valentenko, who bolted AHL Hamilton after four games this season to play for Dynamo Moscow in Russia.
They also gave up rights to negotiate with potential unrestricted free agent Doug Janik, who ended the season in Hamilton.
Montreal also got two prospects - 22-year-old forward Tom Pyatt and 23-year-old defenceman Michael Busto, who both played this season for AHL Hartford.
Acquiring Gomez is a likely sign that small but gritty centre Saku Koivu, their captain for the last 10 years, will leave as an unrestricted free agent. The Canadiens made him no offer ahead of the free agency deadline.
General manager Bob Gainey was looking for help at centre, but it remains to be seen if he stops there or continues to chase a big centre, like Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier.
"We are very pleased to have acquired a player of the calibre of Scott Gomez," Gainey said in a statement. "He is an outstanding playmaker and an excellent skater.
"Having won the Stanley Cup twice with the New Jersey Devils, he brings to our team a lot of playoff experience. Scott is an elite player who will certainly contribute to the success of our team for years to come."
Koivu is one of 10 roster players on the Canadiens eligible for unrestricted free agency and only two - winger Alex Kovalev and defenceman Mike Komisarek - had talks on staying in Montreal.
However, Komisarek agent Matt Keator issued a statement saying the big blueliner will test the market, even if he hasn't written off signing a new deal with Montreal.
Their other UFAs are Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, Tom Kostopoulos, Mathieu Dandenault, Patrice Brisebois and Francis Bouillon.
The up-side of that is, even after acquiring Gomez, the Canadiens still have about US$27 million with which to sign players, although some of that will go to signing restricted free agents Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Greg Stewart, Matt D'Agostini and Kyle Chipchura, who were all given qualifying offers this week.
The seed for the Gomez deal was planted June 22, when Sather and Gainey both attended a dinner hosted by the Canadian Club of New York honouring the Canadiens for their 100th anniversary season.
"We talked about our needs and our strengths and what we could do to help each other," said Sather. "This gives us options when free agency comes along.
"I think there will be quite a few options available."
It may also give New York fuel for their reported interest in high-scoring but expensive Senators winger Dany Heatley, who has asked out of Ottawa.
Sather was clearly pleased with the trade, particularly in getting McDonagh and Valentenko along with Higgins, but he didn't disparage Gomez, who was widely described as a bust after joining the Rangers from New Jersey.
"I think Scott's a very good player and a very good guy," said Sather. "I have no complaints about him. He'll do well in Montreal."
The five-foot-11 200-pound Gomez had his best season with 84 points in 2005-06, but dropped to 58 points in 77 games this season. A plus is that he has missed only 32 games with injuries in his 10-year career.
He didn't have a no-trade clause with the Rangers, but he had a list of teams he would agree to be traded to and Montreal wasn't on it, but he agreed to the deal just the same.
One thing 26-year-old Higgins isn't worried about is the pressure of playing in New York - not after surviving the intense public scrutiny players receive in Montreal.
"I was pretty surprised - I didn't expect to be traded," the New York native said. "But I'm thrilled.
"If there's one place I'd like to play besides Montreal, it's the Rangers."
There was a note of relief in Higgins' voice, though.
It was not only a difficult, injury-marred season for him, but the team that went into the season with high expectations endured controversy and collapsed in the second half, barely made the playoffs and then was swept in four games by Boston.
"A lot of things went on - it seemed like a very long year," he said. "But now I'm looking forward to a new challenge."