After their most successful playoff run since 1993, Canadiens fans are asking: What can the Habs do for an encore?
The Canadiens exceeded expectations this spring by upsetting the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference final.
In his post-mortem news conference earlier this week, general manager Pierre Gauthier said there wouldn't be a major overhaul, as there was last summer. But keeping the core of the team together could be tricky.
Gauthier's first problem will be dealing with the salary cap. The good news is that it will be close to the current $56.8 million US. The bad news is that the Canadiens have nearly $46 million committed next season to 14 players, and one of them is Georges Laraque who is no longer playing.
That gives Gauthier about $11 million to sign a minimum of seven players, including Tomas Plekanec and two goaltenders.
The Canadiens will save a little money by buying out Laraque. They can save more if they can find a buyer for Andrei Kostitsyn and his $3.25-million salary, and throw younger brother Sergei into the swap.
The Kostitsyn brothers have great talent, but they don't exhibit it on a regular basis. Sergei's tenure in Montreal effectively ended in Philadelphia when coach Jacques Martin gave him a reprieve from the doghouse and the Belarusian responded with a total lack of effort.
There have also been suggestions the Canadiens could buy out defenceman Roman Hamrlik, who has a year left on a contract that carries a $5.5-million cap hit. But Hamrlik, who did respond when Martin called him out in the playoffs, will be needed at the start of next season when Andrei Markov (knee) is sidelined for at least two months.
Ryan O'Byrne could be trade bait if Martin continues to ignore him. The 6-5, 234-pound defenceman was among the team leaders in hits and blocked shots in the playoffs despite limited ice time. If the Canadiens keep O'Byrne, they must make more use of him, if only because he'll be making $1.4 million.
Gauthier has six unrestricted free agents, and the emphasis will be on signing Plekanec. Gauthier and Plekanec's agent, Rick Curran, have had preliminary discussions, but there is no offer on the table. Plekanec says he would like to stay in Montreal, but don't be surprised if he waits until July 1 to test the market.
In coming up with a salary number for Plekanec, Gauthier must balance career-high regular-season numbers and Plekanec's value on special teams against another ordinary playoff performance from the 27-year-old Czech. It's doubtful the Canadiens will overpay for Plekanec, and if he leaves, Gauthier might be looking for a replacement with more size.
Tom Pyatt and Mathieu Darche could return if the price is right, but Glen Metropolit appears headed to Europe, while Paul Mara, Dominic Moore and Marc-Andre Bergeron are all expendable. Moore won't be back because the Canadiens can't afford him, and Bergeron is gone because he's a one-trick pony and P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber can fill the role.
The restricted free agents are the most interesting because the group includes goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price.
Halak made a mere $800,000 this past season and earned every penny of it. He took the No. 1 job away from Price and finished in the top 10 in goals-against average and save percentage. Halak is also the main reason the Canadiens went to the Eastern Conference final.
The question now is: How much is all that worth?
Restricted free agents normally don't have much bargaining power, but Halak has arbitration rights and his agent, Allan Walsh, is already working on the comparables. Walsh will be reminding the Canadiens, and any potential arbitrator, that goalies with stats similar to Halak are in the $4- $5-million range.
Halak might also attract attention from a team willing to sign him to an offer sheet. The Canadiens would have the right to match any offer but, as the Buffalo Sabres discovered with Thomas Vanek, that could drive up the price and put more pressure on the cap.
Gauthier said this week that the Canadiens could keep both goaltenders. Halak and Price say they could live with that arrangement, but those comments are for public consumption only. Both goaltenders are competitive, young players, and they both want to be No. 1. Price received the benefit of the doubt early in their careers, and Halak would prefer not having Price lurking in the background.
The problem is that Price is a former first-round draft choice (fifth overall in 2005) and the Canadiens are reluctant to give up on him, even though there have been no signs of a breakthrough.
Maxim Lapierre and Benoit Pouliot are both restricted free agents. Lapierre may have salvaged his career in Montreal with strong games in the playoffs, but Pouliot's future is cloudy. He looked good when he first arrived from Minnesota in the Guillaume Latendresse deal, but he had only one goal and two assists in the last 12 regular-season games and only two assists in 18 playoff games.
There won't be any big money for free agents, but there is room for depth players and Subban and Weber have the best chance.