And general manager Bob Gainey said in a one-hour meeting with the media Tuesday his club, which missed the playoffs, “will be active” on the free-agent market this summer.
“First, we’ll work with the players we have rights to and as we approach (free agency day) July 1, we’re hoping to take a couple of players off the list of players from other teams that might be available,” he said. “I believe we’ve managed our finances so that we’ll have the ability to approach players and sell them on our program.”
Last summer, Gainey fell short in a bid for veteran Brendan Shanahan, but landed Samsonov for two years and US$7.05 million. But early in the season, Samsonov was struggling and asked for a trade.
Gainey tried but couldn’t move him. He said he would meet with Samsonov this week and either try to trade him again or buy him out of the second year of his deal.
“Whether I forced this decision at the time, or should have been more patient, that’s hindsight,” said Gainey. “I was surprised.
“It was before November that Sergei asked me if he could be moved to another team and I thought that was not fair.”
He said Samsonov had a “knee-jerk reaction” to not fitting in right away with a new team, although he granted that the former 29-goal scorer, who had only nine goals this season, otherwise acted professionally, even while being scratched the final 13 games of the season.
Souray and Markov can both become unrestricted free agents July 1. Both said Monday they hoped to stay in Montreal and the feeling is mutual.
“We’d like to retain both of them,” said Gainey. “I do feel that we will be able to sign some of the free agents on our team.”
He did not rule out trying to sign two other potential unrestricted free agents, checking forwards Radek Bonk, who earned $2.4 million this year, and Mike Johnson, who made $1.9 million, but said he will look first to see if young players in the organization can fill their roles.
“We don’t want to block out an opportunity for one of those young players to come in and compete for a spot,” he said.
Gainey also voiced support for captain Saku Koivu, who Monday said he did not want to stay in Montreal if it meant enduring more rebuilding years.
“We are not a rebuilding team,” said Gainey. “For me, Koivu is a champion who hasn’t got a championship yet.
“He thinks and works and eats like a champion and one day, he’ll be on a championship team. It’s up to us to support him. Right now, I believe it’s up to me and my department to do what we need to do to prove to these players that yes, your goals can be realized here.”
Gainey also believes that under-performing winger Alex Kovalev can rebound from a weak season of only 18 goals. Kovalev has two years remaining on his contract at $4.5 million annually and would likely would be hard to move.
Gainey said “Alex is not a bad person” and that the 34-year-old winger recognizes he needs to work harder in some areas of his game next season.
“It’s up to us to explain to him what areas he needs to work hard in to help us and produce more and it’s up to him to understand that and to act on the advice he’s given,” Gainey said.
Gainey is also in “strong” negotiations with Russian defenceman Pavel Valentenko, a promising 2006 draft pick, and in “less strong” talks with Alexei Yemelin, another Russian blue-liner drafted in 2004.
The GM said the Canadiens were an unbalanced team for much of the 2006-’07 campaign, strong in goal but giving up too many shots and strong on penalty killing but committing too many fouls. Both inevitably broke down, he said.
But Gainey didn’t move at the Feb. 27 trade deadline because bringing an outsider into an unbalanced club would not have helped at that time.
Instead, he dealt veteran defenceman Craig Rivet to San Jose for young blue-liner Josh Gorges, who was used sparingly down the stretch, and a first-round draft pick.
Gainey said he may use those picks, plus some other prospects, to either move up in the draft or find a player who can help the NHL club.
The Canadiens sorted themselves out at the end of the season and went on a 9-4-0 tear before dropping the final two games of the season to miss the playoffs.
It was a tough season for Gainey, whose 25-year-old daughter, Laura, was swept off the tall ship on which she worked by a wave at sea Dec. 8, forcing him to take a three-week leave to be with his family.
It was only his second meeting with the media since then and he would not discuss it, saying it was “hard to focus on two things (his team and his personal loss) at the same time.”
But Gainey said he had no intention of leaving his job, He signed an extension last July through the 2009-2010 season.
“I can’t say that during the last few months that it didn’t come to me that: ‘Do I have enough to keep all these balls in the air?’ ” he said. “But my wishes and my desire and my energy is focused toward continuing with the task I took on and that’s my intention, today.”