BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens' run to the Eastern Conference Final in the Stanley Cup Playoffs opened a lot of eyes around the NHL. It appears to have opened the eyes of Canadiens management as well.
General manager Marc Bergevin had a busy day Tuesday on the opening of the NHL free agent market, but the most important thing he feels he accomplished was to turn over the leadership of his club to his young veterans.
Bergevin allowed captain Brian Gionta to leave as an unrestricted free agent and traded defenseman Josh Gorges and his $3.9 million salary-cap charge for the next four seasons to the Buffalo Sabres, where Gionta eventually signed a three-year, $12.75 million contract.
The Canadiens signed Florida Panthers defenseman Tom Gilbert to a two-year, $5.6 million contract to replace Gorges, saving $1.1 million in salary-cap space per season in the process. They also brought in center Manny Malhotra on a one-year, $850,000 contract and re-signed defenseman Mike Weaver for one year at $1.75 million.
That is a big chunk of the Canadiens' leadership corps now playing in Buffalo, and Bergevin said he and his management team felt during the playoffs that some of the team's young veterans were ready to take on bigger leadership roles.
"You're losing [Gionta] and Josh, great people. They've been great for the Montreal Canadiens," Bergevin said. "We have to make tough decisions; it's part of my job. Sometimes you make decisions that are not popular. But I'm not here to be popular; I'm here to make decisions.
"Sometimes it's hard, I understand, but that's what we needed to do and we felt that 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 we're at that crossroads now."
Two big shifts happened to the Canadiens' roster on Monday and Tuesday. The first and most significant was that Gorges, a left-shooting defenseman, was traded and replaced by Gilbert, who shoots from the right. Along with Weaver and restricted free agent P.K. Subban, this gives the Canadiens three right-handed defensemen. Bergevin said this will allow hard-hitting, left-shooting defenseman Alexei Emelin to move from the right side, where he has played his entire NHL career, to his natural left side.
"Moving around our defensive corps, one of the reasons was to put [Emelin] on the left side and bring in a right-hand shot. We're more balanced now," Bergevin said. "Josh has different assets than Tom has. But we have guys like Jarred Tinordi, [Greg] Pateryn, Beaulieu that are pushing in.
"Sometimes you have to make decisions and bring those kids."
Replacing Gorges with Gilbert also adds more of a puck-moving presence to the Canadiens' defense, one that can play on the power play. Montreal has long struggled to find a defense pair for the second unit of the man advantage, with Andrei Markov and Subban receiving the bulk of the minutes on the first unit and often times spending the entire two minutes of a power play on the ice.
With Gilbert and perhaps the skilled Beaulieu potentially on the second unit, the Canadiens' power play will not be nearly as dependent on Markov and Subban as it was last season.
At even strength, Gilbert has an established history of being able to drive possession in his team's favor and get the puck moving toward the offensive zone quickly, something that was not necessarily a strength of Gorges' game.
"This is a good transition team," Gilbert said. "You see the players they have on this team and you want to get the forwards the puck, get the puck up the ice as fast as you can. I played against them the last couple of years and the transition game has been fast. And for me, it's about supplying that; getting the puck up the ice and making that good first pass and trying to join offensively as much as possible."
The second major shift for the Canadiens is replacing Briere, an offensive-minded center not known for his strength in the defensive zone, with Malhotra as the team's fourth-line center. Malhotra won 59.4 percent of his faceoffs last season with the Carolina Hurricanes and is a strong penalty-killer, making him someone that fits the role of a fourth-line center far better than Briere did.
"It went along the lines of being strong in the faceoff circle, being strong on the defensive side of things, penalty killing, and then also to provide a bit of leadership in the room," Malhotra said of what he was told his role would be. "I think that's where I've carved my niche in this League and they want me to continue that."
Gilbert and Malhotra signed shortly after the market opened at noon Tuesday, and both mentioned they did so because they felt they had a chance to win in Montreal and because the idea of playing in a rabid hockey market appealed to them.
"You look at the season the Canadiens had last year and the way they've been growing as a team and the pieces they have in place, to be able to be part of something like that and to try to take another step with the team is something that means a lot to me, rather than trying to chase a few extra dollars in a place where I probably wouldn't be as happy hockey-wise," Malhotra said. "So for myself and my family, coming to Montreal is an opportunity to win. To say it's a great hockey market is a gross understatement. I'm really looking forward to being a part of it."
The acquisition of Parenteau the day before free agency opened filled a need at right wing the Canadiens knew they would have because Bergevin had already said Thomas Vanek would not return to the team (he signed with the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday). Bergevin was still talking to Gionta as late as Tuesday morning, but his departure leaves a hole on right wing that went unfilled. But the Canadiens did beat out a number of other teams to sign Czech forward Jiri Sekac and Bergevin said he could potentially compete for a spot on the team in the fall.
As it stands, the Canadiens could allow a prospect like Sven Andrighetto or Jacob De La Rose fill the hole vacated by Gionta's departure, or Bergevin could sign another free agent. According to CapGeek.com the Canadiens have approximately $16 million left under the salary cap, but Bergevin needs to re-sign restricted free agents Subban and Lars Eller this summer.
"My phone's always open, but there's a possibility that one of those kids that we signed that are coming through might have a chance," Bergevin said. "We're not there quite there yet, but I feel comfortable if we don't get anybody else that one of those kids will be able to move in that spot."
But the most important spot that needs to be filled will be done by players that were already on the Canadiens' roster; players like Subban, Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, all in their mid-20s, who will be asked to step forward and become leaders on the team in the absence of Gionta and Gorges.
"We felt that with our performance during the playoffs our young core was ready to take a bigger role when it comes to leadership," Bergevin said. "Eventually you need to give your young players a chance to take over that role."