Habs' GM feels optimistic

CanWest News Service
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Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier was feeling good about his team heading into the NHL entry draft and the upcoming free-agent feeding frenzy.

The Canadiens are unlikely to reap any immediate benefits from the draft or free agency, but Gauthier said the goal has been to keep the core of the team which reached the Eastern Conference final.

LOS ANGELES -

Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier was feeling good about his team heading into the NHL entry draft and the upcoming free-agent feeding frenzy.

The Canadiens are unlikely to reap any immediate benefits from the draft or free agency, but Gauthier said the goal has been to keep the core of the team which reached the Eastern Conference final.

"Where we wanted to be coming out of the playoffs was a team contrary to last year where we made a lot of changes and there was a lot of uncertainty,' he said. "This year, we have most of the team. The defence is set, we have a goalie, we have the core of the forwards and we feel pretty good going forward."

That's not to say there aren't some question marks. The Habs have a goalie but it's not the one who led them to the conference final. Gauthier said he could understand why fans are upset with the decision to trade crowd favourite Jaroslav Halak but he repeated that the organization has confidence in 22-year-old Carey Price.

Trading Halak allowed the Canadiens to save some money which they used to sign Tomas Plekanec to a long-term contract. That gives Gauthier 15 players under contract and, with the cap officially set at $59.4 million US on Thursday, he has a little more than $9 million to sign Price and fill in the other spots on the roster.

The team made qualifying offers to most of its restricted free agents this week, but there were a couple of surprises. Benoit Pouliot, who was acquired from Minnesota in return for Guillaume Latendresse, wasn't extended a qualifying offer.

"The process of evaluation is not complete for certain players and I would expect he'll get a qualifying offer by Monday," said Gauthier, who has had more than half a season to evaluate Pouliot.

The decision not to qualify him led to speculation that he may be involved in a trade and the qualifying offer will come from another team.

Price received a qualifying offer but it's expected he will receive a long-term deal in the near future. Forwards Maxim Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn and Tom Pyatt were among the other players who received qualifying offers but the team has given up on left-winger Gregory Stewart, who played five games earlier in the season. He wasn't qualified and becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Gauthier said the team is still evaluating its potential restricted free agents but centre Dominic Moore is the only player who may be on the team's radar at this point.

The Canadiens entered the draft with five picks, including the 27th pick in Friday's first round.

But Gauthier, who said the Canadiens were open to offers to move up or down in the draft, emphasized the importance of the draft because "it's the only you obtain a player without giving up something."

He pointed to the success of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who were led by youngsters Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. He noted young players like those two don't put a burden on the cap. It should also be noted both players were high draft picks, the result of some painful years in the Windy City.

Gauthier said the Canadiens' drafting philosophy remains the same - pick the most talented player.

"You can't draft for needs or because a player necessarily has size," said Gauthier.

Organizations: Montreal Canadiens, NHL

Geographic location: LOS ANGELES, US, Minnesota Windy

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