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No place like Montreal

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – It’s hard to predict exactly which pending free agents will be back in Montreal next season, but it’s safe to say they’d all like to be.

There aren’t many markets like Montreal in the NHL, and whether having experienced the city for just three months or three seasons, it can often be difficult to imagine playing anywhere else.

That bodes well for general manager Marc Bergevin heading into a busy offseason.

Although the Canadiens GM confirmed on Friday that veterans Manny Malhotra, Mike Weaver and Sergei Gonchar will not be offered new contracts, the future of five other Habs is still to be determined as the free agent deadline approaches on July 1.

Fortunately, Bergevin will have some common ground to work with over the remaining month-and-a-half of exclusive negotiations.

Arguably the biggest name on the Canadiens’ list is Alex Galchenyuk, who is set to become a restricted free agent following three seasons in Montreal. While the young star hasn’t completely processed Tuesday’s elimination in Tampa, there is at least one thing he remains sure about as he prepares for the summer.

“To be honest, I haven’t really thought about [my contract] yet. I still have to sit down with my agents and talk with them. My play is done, and now it’s up to what they’re going to do and what they want to negotiate,” admitted the Canadiens’ third-overall pick from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. “But, I really love Montreal. I love being here, and I have a lot of fun playing here. We’ll see what happens.”

Since joining the Canadiens in 2012, Bergevin has been keen on building through the draft and will undoubtedly be looking to keep Galchenyuk in the fold following a season in which the 21-year-old set career highs in games played (80), goals (20), assists (26), and points (46), while notching his first career hat trick along the way.

“It’s always easier for an organization to build from within. That’s why the draft is so important. We have good young players in this organization and we’ll always look at ourselves before looking elsewhere [for a missing piece]. First of all, it’s a lot easier for us,” hinted the Habs GM, who will be looking to bolster his team’s scoring prowess ahead of next season. “Guys who score 25-30 goals a season are rare, and when one does become available, he doesn’t come cheap, so you’re often just moving sideways instead of forward [in a trade]. Instead, we’ll continue developing our draft picks, and that’s how we’ll continue to get better.”

Another draft pick who will be trying to make things permanent in Montreal is Nathan Beaulieu, who had a standout season of his own in 2014-15, albeit on the blue line.

Selected 17th overall by the Canadiens in 2011, Beaulieu also put up career highs in games played (64), average ice time per game (15:41) and hits (50), while maturing as a defenseman and even chipping in offensively with nine points and a plus-six differential.

Those numbers are encroaching on full-time territory after the Strathroy, ON native suited up for just 23 games over the previous two seasons combined,

“I think I’ve finally established myself as an NHLer. I feel like I’ve finally figured this league out, and now that I’m done getting my feet wet, it’s time for me to show what I can really do,” confided the 22-year-old rearguard, who also finished fifth on the team with 69 blocked shots. “It was a good year for me to make my breakthrough. I’m happy with the way it went.”

After making his NHL debut three seasons ago, Beaulieu is also set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and having finally had the opportunity to tour all 29 other NHL arenas, there’s no question which one the talented rearguard would like to call home.

“I’m restricted, but even if I wasn’t, this is where I’d want to be. I want to be here for a long time. This city, the fans… it all just feels like home here,” mentioned the former first-round pick. “We have a special thing in this room. We’ve got a lot of young, good hockey players here, so I know Montreal is going to be a good team for a long time. I don’t want to go anywhere.”

Despite being an important part of the team’s youth movement, there’s also another more veteran player Beaulieu would like to see return with him to La Belle Province come October.

“[Jeff] Petry was great for us this year. He’s a great hockey player who we’d love to have back in Montreal,” acknowledged Beaulieu, referencing the veteran defenseman acquired from the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline in early March. “He’s a guy I could definitely model my career after.”

Likewise, Bergevin didn’t mince words about Petry, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Jeff Petry is a priority for us. We’re very happy and pleased with the way he performed and the way he works. He played some big minutes,” praised Bergevin, who watched the 27-year-old log an average of 22:16 of ice time per game in Montreal, while finishing the regular season with three goals and seven points over his last seven outings. “I’ve watched him closely. I know his strengths and I think he fits perfectly with our team. We’d like to bring him back to Montreal. I think he liked his time here.”

And, there was a lot for Petry to like in Montreal, including his first ever taste of postseason play. The Ann Arbor, MI native more than held in his own during the Canadiens’ playoff run, chipping in two goals and three points in 12 games.

“It was my first experience on a winning team. This team has a good core group, which will play into my decision. I’m comfortable in the environment here, and as the younger talent develops, it will only get better,” underlined Petry, who spent close to five seasons with the Oilers before joining the Canadiens. “Everything here was first class. Montreal will definitely have strong considerations.”

While Petry’s play down the stretch obviously caught the eye of his GM, it surely also caught the attention of every other GM league-wide, making the five-year NHL veteran a hot commodity should he test the free agency pool.

Luckily for Habs fans, however, the lobbying campaign may very well end up playing out close to home.

“My wife loves Montreal. There’s so much more going on here than in Edmonton. Everything as a whole has been great here. Ultimately, she’s the boss,” cracked Petry.

Rounding out the pending free agents are Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn, a pair of former Buffalo Sabres forwards who, like Petry, were also acquired by Bergevin at the trade deadline.

Adding depth to the lineup, the Canadiens GM has already confirmed that he would like to see both back in Montreal next season, pending salary cap considerations, of course.

That’s music to the ears of Mitchell, who grew up in nearby Greenfield Park.

“[My time here] was great. My family and friends are here, and it was a dream come true for me to play [in Montreal],” concluded the 30-year-old forward, who finished the playoffs tied for third on the team with five points. “Hopefully, I’ll get that chance again next year.”

Steven Nechay is a writer for canadiens.com

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