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Canadiens face contract decisions on Subban, others

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens' leadership group could have an entirely different look next season.

Captain Brian Gionta and alternate captain Andrei Markov are eligible to become unrestricted free agents July 1, and the possibility exists neither will be back with the Canadiens.

Gionta, 35, and Markov, 36, are nearing the ends of their respective careers, and their next contract would remain on a team's salary cap even if they retire because they are 35 or older.

Gionta recognized he probably will need to take a pay cut from his salary of $5 million per season, but he expressed a desire to return to Montreal. He said there haven't been any talks with general manager Marc Bergevin but hopes that happens soon.

"We love it here," Gionta said Saturday when the Canadiens cleaned out their lockers after being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the New York Rangers two days earlier. "My family's been here for a while. We love the city. We love the team and believe in the team and the direction of the team, so we'll leave it up to [Bergevin] and my agent to take care of it.

"Nothing's been discussed. We have a mutual respect for each other and I'm sure we'll get together soon."

Bergevin will address the media Monday, but he has spoken glowingly in the past of Gionta's leadership qualities and character. He has shown an ability to adapt during his time in Montreal.

Gionta arrived as an unrestricted free agent from the New Jersey Devils as a player with a reputation for scoring goals, a big reason he was signed to a five-year, $25 million contract.

In his first season with the Canadiens in 2009-10, Gionta scored 28 goals in 61 games and had nine in 19 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He followed that with a 29-goal season in 2010-11 but has not approached those totals since.

He scored 18 goals this season, and after scoring in the first game of the playoffs did not score again in the next 16 games. His value now lies elsewhere; he's an important penalty-killer and reliable forward who can be deployed against the opposing team's top players.

"Your role is always changing, depending on the makeup of the team," Gionta said. "Things change. I think my role has always been the same though."

Markov's role also remained the same, and it's an important one on the Canadiens. He makes up one of the best power-play defenseman tandems in the NHL alongside P.K. Subban; they combined for 44 power-play points in the regular season. The only tandem that had more was Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes with 53 points.

Markov did not speak to reporters Saturday, but Subban expressed his desire to see his power-play partner return.

"Obviously [Markov's] a big part of this team and he's been a big part of this organization for a long time," Subban said. "I consider him a good friend and a very good teammate so obviously I want to see him here. But hockey is a business and you just don't know what could happen. In my heart, I want to see him here and to have another chance to win championships with him, for sure."

Subban represents a more complicated problem for Bergevin.

A restricted free agent July 1, Subban completed the second year of the so-called bridge contract he signed after the 2012-13 season began, missing the first six games of the season coming out of the lockout. Subban went on to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman in 2013 and led the Canadiens in playoff scoring this spring with 14 points in 17 games.

If he had no leverage two years ago when negotiating with Bergevin, Subban certainly does now. But he made no effort to hide that he wants to play for the Canadiens for a long time.

"Since 2007 when I was drafted by Montreal, I think I've made it pretty clear that I want to remain here and play here for a long time, hopefully for the rest of my career," Subban said. "It's a great place to play. I love playing here. I enjoy the fans. They've been completely supportive of myself and the hockey club since I've been here. We've had a lot of good years since I've been here and there's no doubt in my mind that there's a lot more to be accomplished. Hopefully I'm here a long time to do that."

Subban, 25, is one of two important restricted free agents on Bergevin's docket, the other being center Lars Eller, Montreal's top-scoring forward in the playoffs with 13 points in 17 games.

Eller, 25, had a difficult regular season with 26 points in 77 games; half of that point total came in his first 20 games. But he showed in the playoffs what kind of player he can be and hopes to show it on a more-consistent basis next season in an offensive role.

"I want to be a top-six forward, and hopefully a center," Eller said. "That's still my goal, to round up into that player that can be depended on at both ends of the ice, playing in important situations, if you're down a goal or up a goal. That's the player I want to be."

After falling two wins short of the Stanley Cup Final and with young veterans Subban, Eller, Max Pacioretty and goaltender Carey Price leading the way, the general sentiment in the dressing room Saturday was that this playoff run was just a taste of things to come.

"I look at the Montreal Canadiens winning the Cup in '93 and only being to the conference finals two times since then, and I've been to them both times," Subban said. "A lot of guys go their whole career and never make it to a conference final and get to within two wins of a Stanley Cup Final, so I understand the importance of taking advantage of those moments. It's unfortunate we didn't get that done this year, but I know that the future is bright and there's going to be plenty of opportunities for us to redeem ourselves and take that next step."

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