MONTREAL – The Canadiens’ trade for Scott Gomez in 2009 excited Montreal’s fans at the time, but it’s now clear that the New York Rangers were the big winners in the deal.
Gomez has two assists and no goals so far this season as the Rangers visit Montreal on Saturday. Gomez hasn’t scored since Feb. 5—in a game against his old team—a goalless drought extending 39 games.
That goal was one of only seven Gomez scored last season.
Meanwhile, Ryan McDonagh, one of the young defencemen sent to New York, is playing with Dan Girardi on the Rangers’ top pairing on one of the NHL’s hottest teams.
“I’m not going to feel sorry for myself,” said Gomez. “It’s a big boys league and you just keep coming to work and it’s going to go in.
“Keep shooting, going to the net. It’s not something I’m losing sleep over. I just need to get a bounce. I’m going to go see a witch doctor pretty soon. But as long as the team keeps winning it’s not too bad.”
Former general manager Bob Gainey cleaned house when free agency opened in the summer of 2009, starting with a deal that sent forward Chris Higgens and defence prospects McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko to New York for Gomez, forward Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto.
He then signed Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Jaroslav Spacek as free agents and the moves looked brilliant as the Canadiens then went to the NHL Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1993.
It is looking less so now with Gomez labouring to score and the Canadiens off to a mediocre start.
Pyatt spent two seasons as a decent fourth-line winger in Montreal before leaving for Tampa Bay as a free agent. Busto is long gone and now playing for the Las Vegas Wranglers in the ECHL, and Gomez just seems to fade further and further away from the 84-point man he was with the New Jersey Devils in 2005-06.
The Rangers flipped Higgens to Calgary for Olli Jokinen, who left in 2010 as a free agent, and useful fourth liner Brandon Prust, who had 13 goals and 160 penalty minutes last season. Valentenko hasn’t cracked the lineup, but McDonagh is developing into a solid two-way defenceman and perhaps the best player in the deal.
Perhaps more importantly, the trade undid the Rangers’ signing of Gomez to a free agent deal with an annual cap hit of US$7.3 million the summer before. That helped them ink current scoring leader Marian Gaborik, who earns $7.5 million per year. Both are signed through the 2013-14 season.
Now there are fans and pundits in Montreal wondering if the Canadiens should send Gomez to the AHL and use the money to get a more productive forward.
“If they tell you to go, you go, but that’s the farthest thing from my mind,” Gomez said of the prospect of being a Hamilton Bulldog. “The chances are there.
“If I believed everything on the Internet. . . You can’t listen to outside stuff. What goes on in here is all that matters. I’ve been around long enough to know if you start letting that stuff get in your mind that’s when you have to start worrying.”
After calling his 38 points in 80 games last season unacceptable, Gomez vowed to come back stronger this season. He spent less time than usual back home in Alaska and reported to camp in top shape. But the results have yet to be seen on the scoresheet.
It didn’t help that he suffered an upper body injury on Oct. 20 and missed nine games.
Despite his struggles, the 31-year-old seems to have the support of his teammates. Young players like linemate Lars Eller look to him as a leader.
On Saturday, coach Jacques Martin put Gomez back at centre and moved Eller to the wing to try to get them going on attack.
“In a slump offensively, the key is to work well defensively,” said Martin. “Don’t allow goals. When you’re in good position defensively you get some offensive opportunities. That’s what they have to do.”
Added Gomez: “I keep shooting and hope that (slump) goes away, it’s not a lack of working.”
In the Rangers’ dressing room, McDonagh has become a key piece of a team that has lost top rearguard Marc Staal to a concussion.
The 22-year-old had three goals and was a team-best plus-9 through the opening 16 games, while getting 25:11 of ice time per game, second on the team to Girardi’s 27:46.
“We knew with the absence of Staal everyone would have to step up and I was just trying to do whatever I could to help the team win,” said McDonagh. “So far we’re doing pretty good, but we still miss him.
“I’m playing a lot more. It’s helping me get a betterfeel for the game and the league. Playing against the other team’s top players is a challenge every night.”
Montreal picked the six-foot-one 210-pound McDonagh 12th overall overall in the 2007 draft from the University of Wisconsin but he never played a game for the Canadiens. He doesn’t feel like he’s playing his former club when he visits Montreal.
“You always remember being drafted,” he said. “But it’s different for me because I never played or signed here.
“I have nothing against them like that. It’s just always such a great atmosphere playing here that you can get yourself amped up right away.”
Nor was he aware of the hue and cry from Montreal fans who see him as a gem that slipped away. The trade gets less popular each day, especially with the Canadiens ravaged by injuries to veteran defencemen.
“I’m not really reading the news in Montreal,” he said. “I’m not even 100 games into my career.
“I’m just trying to prove myself every day. I don’t look at who got the better deal in the trade.”