MONTREAL – With or without Mats Sundin, the Montreal Canadiens will go into their 100th anniversary season feeling good about themselves.
The Canadiens got together on Tuesday for their annual charity golf tournament bolstered by the addition of wingers Alex Tanguay and Georges Laraque, but with hopes nearly extinguished of landing former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Sundin as a free agent.
The prospect of adding the rangy, play-making centre to the roster had fans on the alert all summer, but his agent J.P. Barry said this week he may not sign with any club before the start of the regular season. It appears he is just as likely to retire.
“Any time a guy like that becomes free to join any team, you want him,” said coach Guy Carbonneau. “It was a boost at the start, but it’s not like every morning when I got up I was waiting to see my emails.
“We knew our team was 99 per cent built. There was room for him to come here, but if he does, he does, and if he doesn’t, we’re ready to start.”
Now the question is whether general manager Bob Gainey will try to make another move. He has roughly US$6 million in cap space to play with, and doesn’t rule out a deal, although he said he has no interest in any of the remaining unrestricted free agents on the market.
“There are possibilities out there for some players to change teams,” he said. “Some teams are over the cap, others have too many players on their roster.
“So there’s going to be some workings among those teams. We’re there with a team we feel pretty good about, but we’re always looking to improve it.”
Another concern is that the Canadiens have eight players eligible to become unrestricted free agents at the end of this season – forwards Tanguay, Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Steve Begin and Tom Kostopoulos, and defencemen Mike Komisarek, Francis Bouillon and Mathieu Dandenault.
Gainey said it is not his habit to negotiate contracts during the season, although he has made exceptions. Last season, he tried to work out a deal with power play point man Mark Streit, but talks stalled and the Swiss defenceman signed this summer with the New York Islanders.
“My first job is to complete the roster this year and get the season started,” said Gainey. “It’s a year away and there’s lot of twists and turns along the way.
“We’ll make decisions and adjust our roster according to what happens.”
Komisarek said he’s not going to fret about it. He’ll earn $1.9 million this season and is sure to more than double that when his turn comes.
“It’s out of my hands,” the big defenceman said. “I don’t think it will an issue or a distraction.”
One UFA in limbo is veteran defenceman Patrice Brisebois, who had a decent 2007-08 season playing part time after returning to the Canadiens from Colorado. He may be able to pick up some of the slack from Streit’s departure.
Gainey is waiting to see what happens with Sundin, or with any alternative deals, before seeing what he can offer Brisebois. But he said he would like to have the Montreal native back.
The Canadiens surprised many by finishing first in the NHL Eastern Conference last season, but then barely squeezed through a tough opening round of playoffs against Boston before they were ousted in the second round by the Philadelphia Flyers.
Over the course of that season, six youngsters earned regular jobs on the team – forwards Sergei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre, defencemen Josh Gorges and Ryan O’Byrne and goaltender Carey Price.
That’s not to mention backup goalie Jarolsav Halak, who joined after veteran Cristobal Huet was traded late in the season.
This year, few openings will be available for young players when rookie camp opens Sept. 15 and the main camp on Sept. 20. Forward prospects Kyle Chipchura and Matt d’Agostini likely have the best chances.
“It’s going to be difficult this year,” said Gainey. “It’s not out of the question that a player could bulldoze his way in and make a place for himself.
“We had a case last year where the young Kostitsyn boy did that. It’s about competition.”
Newcomers Tanguay and Laraque took the spots left open when Michael Ryder and Brian Smolinski became free agents. Ryder has since signed with Boston.
Tanguay, who was traded from the Calgary Flames after struggling under coach Mike Keenan, will likely move onto captain Saku Koivu’s line, while Laraque, one of the NHL’s top tough guys, fills a role the club lacked last season.
Laraque’s presence should take some pressure off Komisarek to grapple with the league’s enforcers.
“I never saw my role as a guy who looks for fights or is an enforcer, but fighting’s part of the game,” said Komisarek. “I wouldn’t be shocked if my gloves came off a couple of times this year.
“But with Georges, I’ll leave most of it to him. Everyone’s going to be excited to see him toss a few guys around.”
Laraque, who lives in Edmonton and had a prior commitment, was among seven players who didn’t make it to the golf tournament. The others were Europeans Sergei and Andrei Kostisyn, Koivu, Halak, Tomas Plekanec and Roman Hamrlik.
The tournament was on its usual date a day after Labour day, but camp opens a week later than usual this year.
Looking particularly refreshed was goalie Price, who struggled in the playoffs after a strong rookie campaign.
“After the summer I feel recharged,” he said. “By the end of last year I felt really worn down from playing almost two years straight.”