BROSSARD, Que. – Change was the single biggest theme going into this season for the Montreal Canadiens, but after a surprising playoff run, the focus is now on stability.
Fresh off an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference final, Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier said Tuesday he hopes to keep as much of his roster intact as possible.
“We like our team, we like the way they came together as a group,” Gauthier said. “Last summer we changed half the team and you can’t do that every year. We have a very good nucleus of players. We want to continue what we started to build this season.”
That may be easier said than done.
Gauthier faces the challenge of negotiating a new contract for regular-season scoring leader Tomas Plakenec before he hits unrestricted free agency July 1.
Then there’s the never-ending Montreal goalie debate he needs to settle, with both Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price set to become restricted free agents.
Gauthier was not definitive on his plan regarding his goalies, but one thing he made clear was that he would not lose either of them to an offer sheet.
“Those two young goaltenders are strong assets that we would protect,” he said.
Both Halak, 24, and Price, 22, expressed a certain degree of unease with the idea of repeating a similar situation next year where both are battling for the same net.
After Halak’s tremendous performance at the Olympics, leading Slovakia to a fourth-place finish, head coach Jacques Martin started him in 32 of the Canadiens final 34 games, including the playoffs.
“Both of us want to play,” Halak said. “Unfortunately (Price) didn’t play as much as I did, but only one goalie can play and I played more.
“I’m happy with how the season turned out for me, so we’ll see what the future brings.”
Price said he learned a lot during his time on the bench—about his work ethic and how he needed to put every ounce of effort into practice and being a good teammate. But he added he does not see himself as a backup goalie for much longer.
“I feel like I can play and I know Jaro definitely feels the same way,” Price said. “It’s a tough situation for both of us.”
Halak has more bargaining power because he is eligible for salary arbitration. Gauthier will need to determine whether he can fit both goalies and Plekanec under the salary cap and whether Martin can keep both goalies happy in terms of playing time.
“Every option is open when it comes to our goaltenders,” Gauthier said.
Plekanec is the team’s biggest unrestricted free agent and has repeatedly stated his desire to stay in Montreal. He reiterated that again Tuesday when speaking to reporters as the Canadiens held their end-of-season physicals and meetings with management at the team’s suburban practice facility.
Gauthier said he spoke with Plekanec’s agent after Monday night’s game in Philadelphia, and the two agreed to resume contract negotiations soon after laying some groundwork prior to the trade deadline.
This will be Plekanec’s first shot at unrestricted free agency and he said the security of a long-term deal may not be enough to keep him in Montreal.
“I’ll be turning 28 years old in October, I’m in the best years of my career and I’m sure I can play even better in the next few years,” said Plekanec, who had 70 points in 82 games this season. “I like it here, but it doesn’t mean I will look just for security.”
Plekanec’s production dipped as the Canadiens moved deeper in the playoffs, culminating with no points in Montreal’s five-game elimination by the Philadelphia Flyers in the conference final.
“I think the production was there in the first half of the playoffs,” Plekanec said. “The second half of the playoffs wasn’t as strong as I’d have liked.”
Plekanec is also a true two-way player whose value cannot be judged on goals and assists alone. He is one of only two NHL players who finished in the league’s top-30 in both points and short-handed ice time among forwards. The other, Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler, recently signed US$30 million, six-year contract extension.
“He’s a guy that in any situation of the game, we can rely on to go out andget the job done,” Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges said of Plekanec. “I think there’s only a select few players around the league that can do all of it, and he’s one of them.”
Plekanec’s value on the open market would be improved by his durability—he missed only four games over the last four seasons—and because of the lack of scoring centres available in free agency.
In addition to Plekanec, the Canadiens have defencemen Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron and forwards Dominic Moore, Glen Metropolit and Mathieu Darche slated for unrestricted free agency. The list of restricted free agents has Halak, Price, Sergei Kostitsyn, Tom Pyatt, Benoit Pouliot and Maxim Lapierre.
That means the core group brought in last summer by former GM Bob Gainey will be back and looking to build on what was accomplished in these playoffs.
Gauthier, Martin and many of the players said the sudden post-season success after a marginal regular season was a result of how the group came together and bonded after searching for chemistry all season.
That’s why the pain of being eliminated so close to the Stanley Cup final was tempered somewhat by what was to come.
“More so than any other team I’ve played for since I’ve been in the NHL, this team played for each other,” Gorges said. “This group has a lot to give. As much as it stings to say right now, we’ll be better for it next year.”