“It’s not really frustrating because we don’t go into it assuming we’re going to come home with anybody,” Gainey said Tuesday of the mad rush to sign NHL free agents when the flood gates open July 1.
“We know we’re in competition and we have to set our table to attract people to sit at it. There’s some things that are very positive in our organization and our city and our team, and there are other things we have to do better.”
That would include making the playoffs and looking like a team with a chance to go far in the post-season, neither of which the Canadiens had last season.
“That’s what we need and that’s an area we’ll try to work on this year so that when July 1, 2008 comes, we’ll have one more tool in our tool kit,” he added.
While he didn’t land a big name, the Canadiens GM filled two holes with Hamrlik and Smolinski. Hamrlik in particular because the Canadiens were left short of experienced defencemen after trading Craig Rivet to San Jose late in the season and seeing power-play point man Sheldon Souray reject their contract offer to test the free-agent market.
Souray was still looking for a taker on Tuesday. It won’t be Montreal.
“He knew we were interested in him,” Gainey said. “We stayed in touch with him.
“We’d have liked to have him back on our team. He had every right to take his time and look at it and walk out into free agency and look around.”
Gainey said he spoke to Souray’s agent Monday and the two agreed no deal could be made.
After signing Hamrlik for four years at US$5.5 million per season and Smolinski for one year at $2 million, Gainey said he has only $2 million to $3 million left to play with. He did not rule out signing another free agent, but will only act if a player he likes emerges at the right price.
“Anything we do now will be tinkering,” he said.
The Canadiens now need to find out how much forwards Michael Ryder and Tomas Plekanec will cost them. Ryder, coming off a second straight 30-goal season, filed for arbitration Tuesday. Plekanec may also seek arbitration.
They also still need to sign defenceman Josh Gorges.
Gainey said signing Smolinski ruled out chasing former New York Islander Alexei Yashin and said he has not pursued winger Brendan Shanahan. A year ago, Shanahan was close to signing with Montreal before opting for the New York Rangers. He’s expected to re-sign with the Rangers.
Gainey had three defencemen in mind to either sign or acquire – Souray, Hamrlik and one he didn’t name who may have been Joni Pitkanen, who was traded by Philadelphia to Edmonton.
He was glad to land Hamrlik, who doesn’t have Souray’s point shot or his leadership presence in the dressing room, but brings experience and strong defensive play.
“He’s a capable, experienced, quality defenceman in the NHL,” Gainey said. “And he’s a national team player for the Czech Republic. He fit our needs and we fit his.”
Hamrlik, who was plus-22 in Calgary last year, shoots left, but can play on either side.
Currently, Gainey sees Mathieu Dandenault, Mike Komisarek and young Ryan O’Byrne on the right side, although O’Byrne may either win a job in training camp or join the team during the season. The big defenceman was a standout in the Hamilton Bulldogs’ run to the Calder Cup this season.
And Montreal very much liked Smolinski, who should step into the checking centre’s job left by Radek Bonk, who signed Monday with Nashville. The 35-year-old Smolinski is a 15-plus goal-scorer who has good size and is strong on faceoffs.
“His subtle qualities – we got to see the best of them when he was in Ottawa – how he worked with and fit into their team,” said Gainey. “Having a right-handed centreman was important to us, also faceoffs, experience. And he’s adaptable, he can play on the wing.”
He also said that centre Corey Locke, a star for the Bulldogs, will likely fight for an NHL job with fellow rookie Mikhail Grabovsky in camp.
Failing to land Briere led to debate in the media over the lack of francophone stars on the Canadiens. Philadelphia winger Simon Gagne said this week it would hard for a French-speaking star on his own to handle the media pressure in Montreal.
That drew a smile from Gainey.
“It’s a factor for Simon Gagne, but he’s not here,” Gainey said. “To have a number of francophone players of that level on our team, we’d have to start with one. We need one to say yes.”