MONTREAL – Defenceman Brent Sopel got his candy, literally and figuratively, when the free-falling Atlanta Thrashers traded him to the Montreal Canadiens.
The 34-year-old said on Twitter when he arrived in Montreal this week that he was off to get some of the Canadian candy (he mentioned Smarties) he can’t find in the United States. Then he dined on poutine.
Even sweeter was being dealt to the team he worshipped while growing up in Saskatoon.
“I spent many years on the pond being the Canadiens—I’ve lived this dream,” Sopel said Saturday in his first mass scrum with the Montreal media, a few hours before he was to play his first game against the Carolina Hurricanes. “When you’re traded you’re a little shocked, but that blew over pretty quick.”
Now he’s looking to sign a new deal with Montreal rather than become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 so he can be more than just a rental player for the playoff drive. His current three-year deal pays him US$2.333 million per season.
“I sure hope so,” he said. “Obviously, this is an amazing organization and the history here is amazing.
“I sure hope we can build a relationship here and move forward and I can be on this team for a long time to come.”
The Canadiens sent forward prospect Ben Maxwell and a fourth round draft pick to Atlanta on Thursday for Sopel and forward Nigel Dawes, who was assigned to their AHL team in Hamilton. It is his sixth NHL team.
After a brief stop in Chicago where his wife and four children are staying, he made his way to Montreal with a Tweet that began “Bonjour Montreal fans.”
Montreal is hoping the six-foot-two veteran known for his shot-blocking can bring stability to its penalty killing, which led the league until Josh Gorges’ season was ended by a knee injury on Dec. 26. It has struggled since then and has been particularly lax of late with Jaroslav Spacek also on the sidelines, allowing seven goals in 17 chances over a three-game stretch.
“Penalty killing is my role now and I look forward to the challenge,” said Sopel. “Special teams wins and loses you hockey games and obviously the p.k. has been struggling a bit here. Hopefully I can come in and give it a little boost.”
Montreal has also been without top defenceman Andrei Markov since Nov. 13 with a torn ACL ligament that will keep him out the rest of the season. General manager Pierre Gauthier responded by acquiring James Wisniewski, Paul Mara and Sopel, while AHL call-up Yannick Weber has also seen action.
Coach Jacques Martin said more will be known this week on Spacek’s status. There have been unconfirmed reports the veteran will be also be gone for the year.
Sopel was a big shooter when he first came into the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks in 1996 but over the years has settled into being a defensive player.
His steady play helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup last spring, but then he was included in the mass migration outward as the ‘Hawks shed salaries to stay under the cap. Sopel was sent to Atlanta along with versatile Dustin Byfuglien, gritty forward Ben Eager and prospect Akim Aliu for three players and two picks.
The Thrashers looked to have emerged as a rising power in the Eastern Conference in the first half of the season, but have slipped to 11th place with a 2-9-3 skid since Jan. 20, although they are still very much in range of a playoff spot.
General manager Rick Dudley made his first move Feb. 18 when he acquired forward Blake Wheeler and defenceman Mark Stuart from Boston for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. Then they shipped out Sopel.
“Obviously they thought they’re getting a prospect back and a pick and they just traded for another defenceman,” Sopel said of the Thrashers. “They’re definitely in the thick of things, but they’ve dropped a lot of games and points recently, so Rick’s got a plan and where its going we’re not sure.”
As for Hockey Night In Canada analyst Glenn Healy’s suggestion last week that players were cool to the idea of going to the Thrashers because they may move to Winnipeg, Sopel said the Atlanta players are in the dark about the team’s future.
“We’re hearing the same things as you (reporters),” he said. “Obviously the fan support isn’t there.
“If you don’t win and you’ve only made the playoffs once in 11 years, it’s pretty tough. I’m not sure where they’re going. I know they’re looking for new ownership right now. Atlanta’s a big enough city that they could support it, but for whatever reasons, they’re not getting it done.”
There’s no such problem in Montreal, where the Canadiens sell out the 21,273-seat Bell Centre every game.
Sopel’s not the crowd-pleaser on the ice like rookie defenceman P.K. Subban, but seems to be a character off it, even if the shaggy hair he sported for most of his career had been trimmed a little. Last summer, he rode in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade with the Stanley Cup to honour the memory of Brendan Burke, the son of his former Vancouver boss Brian Burke.
Martin just looks forward to having a veteran who can shore up his ailing defence.
“He brings an element similar to Hal Gill where he’s good on the defensive side of the puck,” said Martin. ”That’s probably the area we need (to improve) the most.
“We replaced some offensive skill with James Wisniewski but on the p.k. and late in the game defending a lead I think an individual like Sopel will help us.”