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WHAT THE PUCK: Habs' inability to sign top free agents rooted in losing


My theory is that Jake Gardiner signed with Carolina rather than Montreal because he feels he has a better chance to win with the 'Canes.

MONTRÉAL, Que. —

There has been much discussion this week about why free-agent defenceman Jake Gardiner turned down Marc Bergevin’s offer this summer to sign with the Canadiens. We may never truly know why Gardiner made that decision so all we can do is speculate.

Here’s my theory: These star free agents like Gardiner, Matt Duchene and John Tavares didn’t want to come here because they don’t feel the Canadiens have a winning culture.

Take the case of Tavares, who was far and away the highest-profile free agent in summer 2018. There were many teams lusting after this star centre and he and his agent, Pat Brisson, met with a handful of teams before signing a seven-year US$77 million deal with the Leafs. Leading up to free agency that summer, there was much chatter about how Bergevin and Brisson are longtime friends but, in the end, Tavares refused to even speak with the Habs’ GM.

The most popular take on why he chose Toronto was like something out of a Disney movie — the kid from Mississauga, Ont., wanted to be a hero in his old hometown. I think that’s simply Hollywood script writing at its most hackneyed. He would’ve been offered more or less the same money everywhere. So what does an elite player like him care about other than dough?

Like Carey Price, Tavares wants more than anything else to have a chance to win a Stanley Cup and, as much as Habs fans hate to hear it, the reality is the Maple Leafs have a real shot at being a serious contender in the years to come. They still haven’t won anything in the post-season, but any team that includes Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — who will be a Leaf by opening night — has to be considered a contender.

The storyline repeated itself this summer with Duchene. As with Tavares, the media was full of tall tales, this time about how Duchene’s family had franco-Ontarian roots and that when he was a kid, the entire clan was rooting for the Habs. Though in a deliciously ironic twist, the Duchenes’ love affair with the Canadiens soured somewhat when they traded Patrick Roy in 1995, the moment many of us consider to be the beginning of the team’s long, painful descent into mediocrity.

Duchene did indeed come to Montreal and met with Canadiens management but, despite of all the talk about his family’s Habs-friendly history, he choose to sign a seven-year, US$56-million deal with the Preds. Once again, there was much speculation that part of the reason he went with the Predators is because he loves Nashville and is a big country music fan.

I don’t buy that, either. I think Duchene went to Nashville because the Predators remain very much in the conversation as a potential Cup contender.

The case of Gardiner is more complicated. He recently signed a four-year, US$16.2-million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes and there are numerous reports that Bergevin actually offered him more money. Alexandre Pratt of La Presse had a piece this week that quoted an anonymous National Hockey League source, who said the Habs offered Gardiner US$15.75 million for three years, for a yearly average salary of $5.25 million. His average salary with Carolina is $4.05 million, a little more than a million bucks less than Bergevin’s reported offer.

Pratt suggests that perhaps the reason Gardiner didn’t want to come to Montreal was because of the all-consuming media coverage of the team and the ferocious intensity of the fan interest. The fact is the media coverage and fan culture is just as intense in Toronto and in his last year with the Leafs, Gardiner was the Leaf the fans loved to hate.

Maybe that was the reason. But I think, like Tavares and Duchene, Gardiner went with the team he felt was more likely to go deep in the playoffs. The Hurricanes only finished three points ahead of the Canadiens last season, but they surprised everyone in the post-season, making it to the conference final before being swept by the Bruins.

Montreal was not in the playoffs last season, the second straight year they missed the post-season and the third time they’ve failed to get there in the past four seasons. They’ve only played one playoff series in the past four years and their last playoff win was in 2015, against the Ottawa Senators in the first round.

So Gardiner had to choose between a team that made the final four of the playoffs and a team whose management and fan base happily celebrated the fact that they almost made the playoffs. Kind of a no-brainer when you put it that way.

bkelly@postmedia.com

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