BROSSARD, Que. – Balancing the defence and making room for younger leaders marked the opening day of NHL free agency for the Montreal Canadiens.
General manager Marc Bergevin acquired defenceman Tom Gilbert and re-signed rearguard Mike Weaver on Tuesday to fix the right-hand-left-hand balance at the blue-line, along with inking centre Manny Malhotra to add a veteran faceoff ace and penalty killer for the fourth line.
He also shocked many fans by trading defenceman Josh Gorges, an alternate captain, to Buffalo and then letting captain Brian Gionta go to the Sabres as a free agent.
Bergevin had said after the Canadiens were eliminated in the Eastern Conference final that the team’s leadership had shifted to younger players like P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Carey Price and Brandan Gallagher.
Seeing off Gorges and Gionta made it official.
“We felt that with our performance during the playoffs, our young core was ready to take a bigger role when it comes to leadership,” said Bergevin, who refused to speculate on who the next captain may be. “Eventually you need to give your young players a chance to take over that role.”
Bergevin may have other moves planned, but his next task will be signing Subban, the 2013 Norris Trophy winner as the league’s top defenceman who is now a restricted free agent. Subban is expected to ink a long-term deal for top dollars.
But the club’s main goal was to rearrange the defence.
The addition of Gilbert will allow left-shooting Alexei Emelin to move to the left side where he will likely be more effective, while Weaver will probably play right defence in a pairing with one of the team’s young prospects like Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi or Greg Pateryn.
That would allow coach Michel Therrien to pair his two top rearguards, Subban and Andrei Markov.
“We’re more balanced now,” said Bergevin.
The parting with Gorges was awkward. News leaked out last week that the veteran was not only on the block, but had refused to waive his no-trade clause to complete a deal with the rival Toronto Maple Leafs.
Gorges added a couple of teams to the list of acceptable destinations, and was sent just before free agency opened to Buffalo for a 2016 second round draft pick.
Bergevin was not pleased with how it unfolded.
“It was difficult, he’s a very good person,” he said. “The fact the information got out was disappointing for us and for him.
“No player should have to go through that. It was stressful for him and his family. That’s why I don’t talk about trades in public. You see what happened. I have no idea where it came out from, but I can guarantee it did not come from the Montreal Canadiens organization.”
Gorges said he was shocked by the deal. A Canadien since 2006, he was seen as a heart and soul defenceman and a leader who was always willing to sacrifice his body to help the team.
The Kelowna, B.C. native said he couldn’t bring himself to play against Montreal in a Toronto (or Boston) jersey, and was relieved to go to a young, rebuilding squad in Buffalo.
“It’s been a tough couple of days and now things are looking bright again,” Gorges said on a conference call. “You know where you’re going and that’s a good feeling.”
Bergevin was looking to move Gorges’ contract, which had been signed with the previous management and has another four seasons at US$3.9 million per year.
He reportedly made a bid to keep Gionta, but at a much reduced salary from the $5 million the right winger earned in each of the least seasons. The Rochester, N.Y. native ended up signing with Buffalo for three years at $4.2 million per season.
“You’re losing great people,” said Bergevin. “Sometimes you make decisions that are not popular. But I’m not here to be popular, I’m here to make decisions.”
On Monday, he also traded veteran centre Daniel Briere to Colorado for right winger P.A. Parenteau.
It still left Montreal short a right winger, but Bergevin said the spot on the second or third line will likely be taken a by a young player, possibly a newcomer like Jakob de la Rose, Sven Andrighetto or Jiri Sekac.
The much-sought after Sekac, a six-foot 175 pound Czech, inked a two-year, two-way deal with Montreal after reportedly talking to more than 15 NHL teams.
“He’s a kid that has top-three line skill that can help at some point in the future,” said Bergevin. “I won’t be able to tell you until he’s here at camp and he shows us what he can do. We felt it was a calculated risk to bring him to Montreal.”
Gilbert, an unrestricted free agent, signed a two-year deal worth $2.8 million. The 31-year-old, who was bought out of the final two years of a contract with Minnesota in 2012, played for Florida on a one-year deal last season. He had three goals and 25 assists in 73 games.
“For me, a lot of it has to do with skating and getting the puck and making that first pass,” said Gilbert, who had hoped to sign with Montreal last year but couldn’t get a deal.
Instead, he saw his Panthers teammate Weaver get traded to the Canadiens on March 4 and earn a new one-year $1.75 million contract by helping them to reach the conference final. Now the two are together again.
“He sent me a text asking me why I’m chasing him around,” Gilbert joked.
“He’s going to fit in great with the team,” Weaver said of Gilbert. “Hopefully he cuts his hair a bit shorter, but the way he plays, I notice, is almost similar to what we do. Short little passes into the zone to break out.
“He’s going to bring a wealth of knowledge and experience.”
Malhotra signed a one-year deal worth $850,000.
The 34-year-old centre, who has come back from a career-threatening eye injury suffered in 2011, had seven goals and six assists in 69 games with the Carolina Hurricanes last season. While he still has reduced vision in his left eye, Malhotra was praised for his leadership and his ability to win faceoffs.
He probably could have got more money on the open market, but wanted to play for a contender.
“At this stage of my career, the most important thing for me is winning,” he said. “You look at the season the Canadiens had last year and the way they’ve been growing as a team and the pieces they have in place, to be able to be part of something like that means a lot to me, rather than trying to chase a few extra dollars in a place where I probably wouldn’t be as happy hockey-wise.
“To say it’s a great hockey market is a gross understatement. I’m really looking forward to being a part of it.”