PENTICTON, BC. — Whether we approve of his moves or not, everyone has to agree that Habs’ General Manager Pierre Gauthier isn’t afraid to make tough decisions. We only have to think back to the summer of 2010 when he traded fan favourite Jaroslav Halak and kept a struggling Carey Price as the corner stone to build his team around.
A revamped defense
This past summer was no different. In the last two years, Andrei Markov suffered three serious injuries which kept him out of the line-up for extended periods of time. While he was away, veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik was arguably the team’s best defenseman, the one who stepped up and played key quality minutes, helping cushion the loss of Markov. Hamrlik made it clear to everyone that he wanted to stay in Montreal, that he would take a pay cut to stay in the city which he called his home away from home. While the GM did talk to the veteran defenseman, Gauthier was not willing to give him the two years requested and the two parted ways.
Speaking of Markov, Gauthier once again stuck his neck out, this time for the former all-star defenseman this summer, and signed him to a 3 year, $17.25M contract. It remains to be seen if Gauthier played his cards right as there are people on both sides of the fence waiting to see the outcome of Markov’s second surgery before either praising or hanging the Habs’ GM for this decision.
Gauthier did succeed where Gainey failed in finally convincing Alexei Emelin to sign his first NHL contract and give the Canadiens a shot. For years now, the Habs’ brass has been selling Emelin as a mobile, physical defenseman and we finally get to see what he can do. While it is obvious that the step is high between the KHL and the NHL, Emelin has had his ups and downs and has shown some good things so far. The team must be hoping that the return of Markov will help the young Russian better adapt to his new surroundings.
Many saw the signing of Rafael Diaz as an insignificant one and that, in spite of the fact that Swiss hockey people are selling him as a better version of Mark Streit. I was one (and still am) who thought that with his professional experience, he could cause some surprises. While it is obvious that he has some learning to do at this level, Diaz has been a great surprise so far this season and in my opinion, will only continue to improve.
Many of us blamed previous management for not surrounding the young players well, and it looks like this management understands that it might have been a problem. Seeing the positive effect he had on the team, most particularly on P.K. Subban and Carey Price, Gauthier decided to re-sign Hal Gill, a veteran with tons of leadership and who gets better as the season goes on.
It came as a huge surprise and as big of a disappointment to see that the Canadiens didn’t want to sign Josh Gorges to a longer term deal, risking losing him to free agency next summer. Suffering a knee injury seven years ago while playing for the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, Gorges would have never had his surgery on his own accord, but he was talked into it by management. He’s looking really good so far this season and it should come as no surprise, as we’re talking about a guy who didn’t miss a game after taking a slap-shot behind the head!
Seeing that Markov was going to miss the start of the season, Gauthier didn’t hesitate to sign unrestricted free agent Chris Campoli to a one-year contract. There must be something in the water in Montreal however as he too fell to injuries in his very first game of the season!
Tough decisions ahead
With veteran Jaroslav Spacek, back from injury himself, and young defensemen P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber, you have a grand total of nine players at that position on the NHL roster. This brings the question on everyone’s mind though: what happens when everyone is healthy, including Markov and Campoli?
Emelin has a clause in his contract stating that if he is cut, he can return to the KHL. So will the team that worked so hard to bring him over seriously consider risking losing him, perhaps for good, to the Russian league? Diaz can be sent down to Hamilton and he has stated in the off-season that he would not be opposed to a stint in the AHL but how does he feel now that he’s shown that he can play at the NHL level? Or would the Habs risk another François Beauchemin fiasco by losing Weber to waivers, trying to send him down? Will Gauthier bury a veteran contract in the minor? Will he trade one or two of them in order to get something in return?
The next few days or few weeks will be very interesting for Pierre Gauthier and the Habs and it will also be fun to watch what decision he will make in regards to his defense.
En français: Embouteillage en défensive