MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens leapt into the free agent market with both feet on Wednesday.
At the end of a day of handing out more than US$70 million to free agents, general manager Bob Gainey signed wingers Mike Cammalleri from Calgary and Brian Gionta from New Jersey and defencemen Jaroslav Spacek from Buffalo and Hal Gill from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Gainey inked the four players a day after making a trade with the New York Rangers to land stocky centre Scott Gomez, which he said was key in landing the free agents.
“We have a player who is a No. 1 centre and without the trade, I think we wouldn’t have been able to be as aggressive or as attractive to those other players,” said Gainey.
Under new head coach Jacques Martin, known for playing a tight defensive system, the Canadiens opted to take a blender to the chemistry of their club after a disappointing eighth place finish in the NHL eastern Conference during their 100th anniversary season in 2008-09.
The Canadiens let 10 free agents of their own go onto the market and don’t expect to ask any of them back.
So, gone are Saku Koivu, the team’s captain the last 10 years, as well as Alex Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, Mathieu Dandenault and other veterans from last year’s squad.
Winger Chris Higgins went to the Rangers in the Gomez deal, which also included an exchange of prospects.
“We’ve become younger with these players,” Gainey added. “We’ve brought players in from outside, so we’ll have to assimilate them and get to know them, but we are a new team.
“We have new players, a new coach and we’ll continue to work on developing the other guys that we’ve drafted. We need them to jump in and compliment the guys we got today.”
They didn’t get the big No. 1 centre – Vincent Lacavalier perhaps – they have lacked for years. Instead, they got small up front.
The five-foot-11 200-pound Gomez and the five-foot-nine 180-pound Cammalleri, a left-winger who can also play centre, are likely to play together on Montreal’s top scoring line next season – possibly with Gionta, a five-foot-seven 175-pound right winger.
“We’re going to have to play big and smart, but this was a day where you had to grab talent where you can,” Gainey said. “There are other teams that don’t have anyone to announce.”
And although they are not big, Gainey noted none of them have been injury-prone.
Cammalleri signed a US$30 million six-year contract.
“I saw the transaction with Scott and that move made Montreal more attractive,” said Cammalleri, who led the Calgary Flames with 39 goals last season. “He’s a highly skilled player.
“I hope we can build some chemistry togther.”
Gionta, a career Devil, signed for $25 million over five years.
Since a career high 48 goals and 89 points in 2005-06, Gionta’s goals have dropped to 25, 22 and 20 over the last three seasons.
“Gionta has a background with Gomez (with New Jersey) and he has a good reputation among the players,” said Gainey. “They know he’s a good strong player.
“He’s a top player in his position and depending on who he plays with, good things can happen. We hope that he can get back to 75-to-80 point seasons.”
Gomez has scored only 16 goals in each of the las two seasons, but is more of a playmaker, while Cammalleri and Gionta are goal-scorers.
Spacek, a smaller, puck-moving rearguard, and the lumbering six-foot-seven Gill moved in just as big defenceman Mike Komisarek was signed away by the rival Toronto Maple Leafs in a $22.5 million, five-year deal.
Gainey said he made Komisarek an offer but never got a counter-offer back. He said he had a deal on the table with Kovalev on Wednesday afternoon, but took it back when the 36-year-old balked, fearful he would lose a chance to sign one of his free agents.
Spacek signed a US$11.5-million, three-year deal while Gill signed for US$4.5 million over two years.
The free agent signings, plus the five years remaining on Gomez’s contract at a US$7.35-million salary cap hit per year, are collectively worth $107.8 million.
The Canadiens started the week with about $34.5 million in cap space and had room to make changes and did so in a big way.
Cammaleri became a popular figure in Calgary after joining the Flames from the Los Angeles Kings last season. He had 82 points in 81 games, second on the team behind linemate Jarome Iginla.
The 27-year-old, who got a substantial raise from the US$3.6 million he earned last season, has 132 goals and 155 assists in 364 career NHL games.
“I really enjoyed playing in Calgary,” said Cammalleri, a Toronto native. “With certain restraints and their decision to go with the (Jay) Bouwmeester thing, that made it difficult for me to sign there.
“Now it’s time to move on. It excites me to play in Montreal. There’s a passion for the sport there that you only find in select places.”
The 35-year-old Spacek had eight goals and 45 points for the Buffalo Sabres last season, matching a career high for points set while with Columbus in 2002-03.
The five-foot-11 198-pound rearguard spent the past three seasons in Buffalo, where he signed as a free agent in 2006. He earned US$3.3 million last season.
Spacek has 69 goals and 208 assists in 576 career NHL games.
The six-foot-seven Gill, who began his career with Boston in 1997, joined the Penguins this season after two years in Toronto and became part of the club’s shutdown defence duo with Rob Scuderi.
Gainey said he still hopes to land a seventh defenceman which would give him 22 players under contract, although his money is running out.
The team has five restricted free agents to sign – Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Kyle Chipchura, Matt D’Agostini and Greg Stewart. All were given qualifying offers.
Gainey said he was sad to see Koivu go, but that both parties agreed it was time to change the face of the team.