BROSSARD, Que. – The Montreal Canadiens opened training camp with a bang by sending underperforming centre Scott Gomez home for the rest of the season.
The move by new general manager Marc Bergevin will allow the Canadiens to buy out Gomez’s contract in the summer and clear US$7.3 million in salary cap space for next season.
The cap is to drop from a pro-rated $70.2 million to $64.3 million in 2013-14. Space was needed for a team that already has $58 million committed to only 15 players for next season, with emerging star defenceman P.K. Subban still be signed.
That forced a drastic cut, and it started with the team’s highest-paid player Gomez, who famously went more than a calendar year without scoring goal during the last two campaigns.
“With where the cap is going to be next year, we had to buy out Scott’s contract and the safest way to do that without risking him being injured was to send him home,” said Bergevin. “It’s the rules we have to play by.”
Under the new collective bargaining agreement signed Saturday, teams will be allowed two “amnesty” buyouts next season to help reach the cap. However, if a player is injured when the buyout period begins in July, he cannot be bought out.
“I have nothing against Scott Gomez,” Bergevin said. “It was the best thing for the future of the team.”
Canadiens fans have been urging the team to dump the 12-year NHL veteran from Alaska who is popular with his teammates but whose production has dropped alarmingly from his best seasons with the New Jersey Devils in the early to mid-2000s.
Under the new rules, the Canadiens will still have to pay Gomez his $10 million total salary for the next two seasons, but will save $900,000 in cap space this season (down to $6.457 million) and remove the cap hit entirely in 2013-14.
Bergevin called the 33-year-old into his office to tell him of the decision early Sunday morning and he was gone when camp officially opened with 23 players taking the ice more than three hours later.
“Unfortunately, the personal side of the game is really hard when the business side takes over,” said captain Brian Gionta of his linemate in both New Jersey and later in Montreal. “We’ll do whatever we can to support him.
“He’s a great guy. He’ll bounce back from it. But the first few days I’m sure will be a shock for him.”
Winger Max Pacioretty recalled that when he suffered a fractured vertebrae from a hit by Boston’s Zdeno Chara on March 8, 2011, it was Gomez who confronted the towering Bruins’ captain on the ice.
“He was always helping the younger guys,” said Pacioretty. “He’ll be missed a lot in the room.”
The Canadiens felt he wouldn’t be missed on the ice, however.
Gomez broke into the league as a tenacious, playmaking centre and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie with the Devils in 1999-2000.
He won Stanley Cups in 2000 and 2003 in New Jersey and had a career-best 84 points in 2005-06.
In 2007, he signed a seven-year, $51.5 million contract as an unrestricted free agent with the New York Rangers.
Two years later, the Canadiens then-GM Bob Gainey hailed Gomez as the centrepiece of a rebuilding program after acquiring him in a seven-player deal that sent, among others, top defence prospect Ryan McDonagh to New York.
He had 59 points in his first year in Montreal, 38 the next and, while battling injuries, dropped to two goals and nine assists in 38 games last season.
His goal on Feb. 9, 2012 against the New York Islanders ended a scoring drought that dated to Feb. 5 the previous year. Some fans had set up a mock count-down clock to “celebrate” the anniversary.
Gomez was good at skating the puck up the ice, particularly against teams that play the trap, but had lost his touch inside the opponent’s zone.
In his NHL career, Gomez has 169 goals and 686 points in 902 games.
He was not the only player missing from the ice.
Subban, a restricted free agent, was not in camp, while centres Tomas Plekanec (day-to-day with a rib injury) and Petteri Nokelainen (back) did not skate. Defenceman Mike Commodore was having his pre-camp medical and sat out.
Bergevin was in Toronto on Saturday to meet with Subban and agent Don Meehan. He hopes to have a contract done soon.
“Our goal is to sign P.K. and I believe his goal is to play in Montreal,” he said. “We just haven’t agreed yet.”
A packed house at the Canadiens practice facility took in the team’s first skate under Michel Therrien. The new Habs coach kept last season’s best line of David Desharnais between Pacioretty and Erik Cole together. Lars Eller moved into Plekanec’s spot on the next line between Gionta and third overall draft pick Alex Galchenyuk, who showed some nifty hands and a fine wrist shot.
Newcomer Brandon Prust was at centre with Travis Moen and Rene Bourque, while Ryan White centred Colby Armstrong and prospect Brendan Gallagher, with Gabriel Dumont slotting in.
Russian defencemen Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin played together, while Tomas Kaberle was in Subban’s place with Josh Gorges. Francis Bouillon was paired with Rafael Diaz and Jarred Tinordi with Yannick Weber.
Carey Price and Peter Budaj are the only goalies in camp.
The team announced it has invited fans to an intrasquad game for free on Thursday night at the Bell Centre.
Louis Leblanc, Patrick Holland, Michael Bournival, Frederic St-Denis and Michael Blunden, who were not invited to camp, will be called up from the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs for the game.