MONTREAL – With Mats Sundin out of the picture, the Montreal Canadiens reached for another veteran centre Friday – Robert Lang.
The Canadiens dealt a second-round pick in the 2010 draft (previously acquired from Toronto) to the salary cap-strained Blackhawks for 37-year-old Lang, a playmaking centre who had 21 goals and 33 assists last season in Chicago.
They also brought back veteran defenceman Patrice Brisebois, an unrestricted free agent, on a one-year contract worth US$750,000, with a chance to earn another $750,000 in bonuses.
General manager Bob Gainey said this summer he had a backup in mind if he failed to land former Maple Leafs captain Sundin as a free agent. That turned out to be Lang, who had his best years playing with Canadiens winger Alex Kovalev when both were with Pittsburgh in the late 1990s.
“There was no indication to us that we would see Mats Sundin with our team,” said Gainey, who met with the Swedish star on the weekend. “I didn’t have a sense that Sundin wanted to start the season or come to training camp and we wanted a team ready for training camp.”
He added that the club is no longer interested in Sundin, who has yet to decide whether he will play another season.
The Blackhawks were over the salary cap and were looking to move a player. Lang is to earn $4 million this season in the second year of a two-year free agent deal signed last season.
“I knew (Chicago GM) Dale Tallon had to do something,” Lang said from his home in Chicago. “If you play with the numbers in your mind, you figure you could be one of the guys (who gets traded).
“You never want to get traded or have to move your family, but I think it’s going to be a great situation. It’s a great hockey town.”
In the off-season, Gainey has acquired wingers Alex Tanguay from Calgary and Georges Laraque from Pittsburgh as well as Lang. He said they make up for the loss of forwards Michael Ryder and Brian Smolinski and forward/defenceman Mark Streit.
“We’re a little better,” Gainey said. “A little heavier, a little more talented.
“Added to the group that’s there, I feel we responded to our needs for this year.”
The Canadiens hockey brass decided after last season, when the team finished first in the NHL Eastern Conference but lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers, that it needed help at centre – particularly a skater with a right-handed shot, along with some extra size and experience.
The six-foot-three, 216-pound Lang fit that bill.
“He adds to our depth and experience and to the level of our attack,” Gainey said.
How Lang will fit in will be worked out in camp. The Canadiens current top two centres are captain Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec, who played with Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn on a very effective line last season. One of them may be moved to the third line.
Lang, who began his NHL career with Los Angeles in the season when Montreal won its last Stanley Cup in 1992-93, is a former 32-goal scorer who has also played for Boston, Washington and Detroit.
“As for playing with Alex, we had a great time in Pittsburgh playing together,” said Lang, a member of the Czech Republic’s 1998 Olympic gold-medal team. “Hopefully, we can revisit the chemistry we had. It should be great.”
Lang laughed at the coincidence of being traded to mostly French-speaking Montreal on the birthday of his four-year-old son, who attended a French school in Chicago.
He wasn’t surprised to find himself with the Canadiens, one of the teams he spoke to before signing with Chicago.
Brisebois, 37, is Montreal’s last on-ice link to its 1993 Stanley Cup, although coach Guy Carbonneau and assistant coach Kirk Muller were also on that squad.
Gainey asked him to wait before signing his contract until a decision was made on Sundin and the team’s salary cap space was settled. Brisebois said he wasn’t interested in signing with any other team than the Canadiens.
“It’s the team’s 100th year and I really wanted to be part of that,” the Montreal native said. “I told my agent Don Meehan ‘try to sign with Montreal.’
“He never talked to any other teams.”
Brisebois, entering his 18th season and only 53 games short of 1,000 in his career, had three goals and eight assists in only 43 games as a part-time player last season, when he returned to Montreal after two seasons with the Colorado Avalanche.
This season, he will be one of the candidates to replace Streit on the right point of the power play, although he remains the team’s seventh defenceman.
“It’s Carbo’s decision, but the season is long and there are injuries, so you never know what will happen,” said Brisebois.