MONTREAL – Pierre Gauthier has a puzzle to solve this summer—what to do with 11 defencemen when an NHL team normally carries seven.
The Canadiens’ Game 7 overtime loss in Boston was not even 24 hours old on Thursday when Gauthier, the Montreal Canadiens general manager, was peppered with questions about what the team will look like next season.
Most of it centred on the defence. Gauthier found himself with a glut of rearguards after season-ending injuries to Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges forced him to go shopping.
He found able replacements in James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara, but all three are now due to become unrestricted free agents along with Markov, Roman Hamrlik and Hal Gill.
Gorges, Yannick Weber and Alexandre Picard are all restricted free agents, so the only D-men he has signed for 2011-12 are impressive rookie P.K. Subban and veteran Jaroslav Spacek.
All of them want to stay, but clearly some will have to go.
”We’re not going to have 11 defencemen again, hopefully, it doesn’t really work against the (salary) cap,” Gauthier said with a grin. ”That was a unique situation.
”Defence is not only a matter of individuals, it’s a matter of chemistry. We’ll take a few weeks to look at it, make a plan and put it into action. With all the emotions now, it’s not a good time for making decisions.”
Gauthier never muses out loud and offers little information to the media at the best of times, but he made it clear he’d prefer to keep Markov, the team’s best defenceman who missed all but seven games this season with two separate injuries to the same knee.
There was speculation they might deem Markov too injury-prone to sign, but Gauthier said ”of course we’d like to keep him, but we’ll keep all our options open.”
They also must decide if 36-year-old Hamrlik, who stepped up to play important minutes when Markov went down, has another productive year in his system or whether his salary would be better spent on younger players.
”The next few months are going to be an exciting time,” said Gorges. ”It’ll be interesting to see what happens because there are so many decisions that have to be made.
”There’s nothing we can do as players. We put our work in and now it’s up to the them to decide who they want and for how long.”
The Canadiens felt good about themselves despite the disappointing loss to the rival Bruins. The Canadiens took the lead by winning the first two games in Boston and then dropped two at home, including a Game 4 letdown that saw them waste a 3-1 lead.
They lost three of the last four games in overtime, the last one on a Nathan Horton shot that went off Jeff Halpern’s leg and just eluded goalie Carey Price’s glove.
”We let them off and that’s a lesson we’ll have to learn,” said captain Brian Gionta. ”We have to find a way to wrap a series up quicker, take more control early.”
A weakness for the Canadiens was scoring at even strength, as all their goals in the sixth and seventh games were either on the power play or shorthanded. Some feel they need more size and grit up front.
The first round defeat came a year after the Canadiens’ surprise run to the conference final after seven-game upsets of Washington and Pittsburgh.
It may have been different had Markov and Gorges been healthy and if winger Max Pacioretty had been able to play. Pacioretty was out with a concussion and fractured vertebra suffered when he slammed into a stanchion after a controversial hit from Boston’s Zedeno Chara late in the regular season.
In a case of tough timing, Pacioretty, who had been Montreal’s hottest scorer on a line with Gionta and Scott Gomez, said he was cleared to resume skating with contact by team doctors on Thursday morning and could have returned to the lineup sometime in the second round had the team beaten the Bruins.
Much of the post-season discussion hinged on Gomez, the team’s highest-paid player signed through 2013-14 at US$7.3 million per year who had a dreadful season of only seven goals and 31 assists. Many fans have called for the Alaska native to be traded or even sent tothe minors to get his salary off the books.
Gomez admitted he had a horrible year, even if his teammates say he contributes in other ways and remains a leader in the dressing room.
”I’d be the first to look my teammates in the eye and say it,” he said. ”It’s a good group here. It’s got the potential. Even this year, if I’m pulling my weight maybe it’s a different story.
”It just can’t happen again, and it won’t happen. I don’t want to get into numbers, but it’s over—2011 is put away. That’s the challenge. You have to find it and I will. It’s not fair to the organization, and especially it’s not fair to my teammates.”
Gauthier was also concerned.
”He’s under contract and we expect him to be a better player just like any player who may not have performed as well as they would like to,” Gauthier said. ”I’m happy to hear he said that.
”It’s going to be our job to help them perform better.”
Mostly, the team was optimistic for next season.
The 2010-11 campaign saw a flood of impressive young talent, including Subban, big winger Pacioretty, two-way centre Lars Eller and small playmaking forward David Desharnais, as well as checker Ryan White, who returned to the American Hockey League Hamilton Bulldogs to help their playoff run.
With a year of experience under their belt, they should come back stronger.
”I’m excited about some of the people we have and the way we’re going as a group,” said winger Michael Cammalleri, who had a sub-par regular season but then exploded in the playoffs with 10 points in seven games.
”l feel confident we’re doing what it takes to get to the next level. It’s evolved into a team that can be really dangerous. We’re coming in with expectations. We have tremendous talent.”
Czech centre Tomas Plekanec and Belarusian winger Andrei Kostitsyn will head to the IIHF world championships in Slovakia, but Subban had to turn Canada down due to a suspected shoulder injury that limited his Game 7 ice time.