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By Heather Engel
It is aptly dubbed ‘free agent frenzy’. Dollars are flying, players are moving, everything is happening. And this year, somewhat unexpectedly, in the thick of it all was Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.
In came center Manny Malhotra and defenseman Tom Gilbert. Out went right-winger – and captain – Brian Gionta and defenseman Josh Gorges, both to Buffalo. Mike Weaver re-signed. All of this occurred in the span of an hour or so, a frenetic pace for anyone trying to keep up with the Canadiens moves as well as the rest of the NHL action via Twitter.
Word that Gorges, one of the most respected players in the locker room and by management, was potentially on the move broke on Saturday and left many, including the blue-liner himself, shocked. And while there was a mutual interest in Gionta returning, speculation grew that he could move on, especially with greater term than the Canadiens might offer likely available on the market.
“Gio and Josh are great people. They’ve been great for the Montreal Canadiens,” Bergevin said on Tuesday after he was done for the day. “We have to make tough decisions. It’s part of my job. Sometimes you make decisions that aren’t popular, but I’m not here to be popular. I’m here to make decisions.
“We felt by doing that we changed the look of our team a bit but it’s time for the young people to take a bigger role. There’s always a rotation and that’s the crossroads we’re at now. We have two young defensemen who are left shots that at some point need a place to play. That’s just the way the business is.”
The Canadiens’ run to the Eastern Conference Final sent a message to the GM that not only are rearguards Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn pushing but also his team’s young leaders were ready to take the next step. It’s a group that includes the likes of P.K. Subban, Carey Price, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher, among others. He acknowledged the core at his post-mortem following their elimination and again on this first day of free agency.
“I think our young core gained a lot of experience in the playoffs. At some point, you have to give these players a chance to take on a more important role within the organization,” Bergevin noted.
“We’re trying to move forward; we’re trying to get better. That’s my job – to make the Montreal Canadiens better,” he added. “It’s not only adding players. We’re looking two, three years down the road.”
Gilbert, puck-mover, and Weaver are both right-handed shots. With Subban, that gives Montreal three righties and allows Alexei Emelin to return to the left side, balancing out the back end.
The moves also provided the Canadiens with some flexibility under the cap. Weaver and Gilbert will combine for just $650,000 more on the cap next season than Gorges’ $3.9 million, a deal with still four seasons remaining. Malhotra will earn $850,000 on his one-year deal. That leaves Bergevin with more than $15 million in cap space at his disposal for the upcoming campaign. More than half of that will be earmarked for P.K. Subban, with still enough room for Lars Eller and potentially one other lower cost signing, if he feels a need for one.
There is room among Montreal’s top-nine forwards but the Canadiens’ GM isn’t too concerned about who fills the spot.
“I feel comfortable if we don’t get anybody else that one of [our AHL] kids will be able to move in that spot,” he said.
One vacancy that will be discussed at length is the captaincy. Bergevin said it’s too early to think about the decision and stayed mum on whether the players or management will ultimately decide when the time comes.