Lapierre had one point per game – three goals and an assist – and was plus-5 in the four games since he was called up from the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs on Dec. 11. The Montreal native had also given the team’s fourth line a scoring punch it had lacked all season, and seemed to click with fellow rookie Guillaume Latendresse.
And he was there for four straight wins, the team’s longest streak this season.
But in the new NHL, the salary cap can trump the heart or the mind of a general manager, and so Lapierre found himself back with the Bulldogs just before the holiday roster freeze set in Tuesday at midnight.
The Canadiens, who announced the move Wednesday morning, were creeping closer to the US$44-million cap each day that Lapierre was on the roster and management wanted to keep space open in case additions are needed later in the season.
“It’s the new reality of the cap system,” said assistant general manager Pierre Gauthier, who is filling in as GM Bob Gainey takes time off after his daughter Laura was swept off a boat last week.
“It might not be the most popular decision, but it’s the best decision for the long-term. We’ve got 22 (healthy) guys here. We can play them and do fine.”
Second-year forward Garth Murray, who has one assist in 21 games, will likely be in Lapierre’s spot on a line with Latendresse and Mark Streit when Montreal plays host to the slumping Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night.
The Flyers, who have lost seven in a row, beat the Canadiens 4-2 in Montreal in their last meeting on Nov. 25.
“As you can imagine, he was a bit rattled, but still he said he’s happy he played well and he did what he could,” Streit said of Lapierre. “He said he would go back to Hamilton and stay positive and don’t even think about why he was sent down. It’s out of his hands.”
Gauthier said the Canadiens have about $43 million counting toward the cap, but it was closer to $43.3 million with Lapierre’s $562,500 NHL salary included. And each day he stayed in the NHL ate a little away from their account.
He said teams have to leave cap space in case a goaltender is injured, because while a team can manage if a skater gets hurt, a goalie must be replaced.
And if there is a run of injuries later on, it will cost even more when players are called up from the minors.
“We have 49 games to go and you don’t want to flirt with the cap too soon,” Gauthier said.
Some fans and media speculated that the team may be better to send down Murray, who did not dress for three of the last five games, or enforcer Aaron Downey, who has played in only three of the last 17 games.
But those veterans would have to clear waivers while Lapierre does not, and Gauthier said role players are harder to replace then they were in pre-cap days.
And if they kept Lapierre, the Canadiens would have been over the 23-man roster limit when centre Steve Begin returns from a sore back in the coming days.
“Max played good,” said Gauthier. “It’s positive news for the organization. He’s another player who showed us he’s ready.”
Lapierre, a second-round draft pick in 2003 who played one game for Montreal last season, got the news after scoring a goal in a stirring a 5-2 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Sabres in Buffalo on Tuesday night.
“I had a good talk with him on the plane after the game,” said coach Guy Carbonneau. “It wasn’t easy for him or me.
“But he proved he can play in the NHL.”
Carbonneau said he will continue to use all four lines regularly and expects the fourth line to continue to score.
The Canadiens are hot, having earned points in seven straight games (5-0-2). They are 7-2-2 since their loss to the Flyers and are only five points behind Buffalo in the Northeast Division.
More importantly for defenceman Craig Rivet, is they have built a gap on their closest pursuers in the conference.
“These past weeks, we played some very key games in the standings against teams like Pittsburgh (a 6-3 win on Saturday), Tampa Bay (a 4-2 win Dec. 14) and the Islanders ( a 4-2 win on Dec. 7),” said Rivet.
“They were all within a couple of points of us. This is a time to make a really solid push towards that Christmas break and set ourselves up in a good position.”
David Aebischer, who backed up Cristobal Huet the last three games, is to start in goal. Defenceman Mathieu Dandenault, who missed the game in Buffalo with a sore hand, is expected to return.
NHL rosters are frozen through midnight, Dec. 27, although players can still be recalled from the minors.