NEWARK, N.J. -- As Scott Gomez's career trajectory went from decline into full-on nosedive Sunday with the news that the Montreal Canadiens told him to stay home, some of his former teammates in New Jersey couldn't help but question what exactly has happened to the former Calder Trophy winner since he left the Devils.
Center - MTL
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 11
SOG: 59 | +/-: -9
"He's an unbelievable talent and he has great hockey sense, but he got successful right from the get go -- and rightfully so -- on a good team with good teammates, and the main thing is he was always under great structure," forward Patrik Elias told NHL.com. "That's the biggest thing with him. Maybe when he left here his mind wasn't focused 100 percent on hockey. When you go to the Rangers and Montreal you have to do a lot of stuff off the ice, too, and some guys can't handle that."
Whatever it is, Gomez hasn't come close to recreating the personal and team success he had with the Devils since leaving New Jersey on July 1, 2008, to sign a seven-year, $51.5 million contract with the Rangers.
Reality struck Sunday morning when Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin called Gomez to tell him the Habs would rather pay him the pro-rated $5.5 million (according to CapGeek) he's owed for this season not to play with the intention of buying out the final year of his contract after the season.
To do so, the Habs also have to be willing to keep the pro-rated $6.457 million salary cap hit Gomez ($7.357 million minus the $900,000 allowed to not count for a player assigned to the minors by the new CBA) carries this season on their books. Nobody on the current Canadiens' roster has a higher cap hit than Gomez.
The salary cap will fall from the current pro-rated $70.2 million this season to $64.3 million for 2013-14.
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Bergevin said he didn't want to risk Gomez getting hurt during the season, because the new Collective Bargaining Agreement precludes teams from buying out injured players.
"We didn't want to be handcuffed by this situation," Bergevin said, "or even be forced to trade some productive players just to get under the cap."
It's easy to remember when Gomez was considered one of the most productive players on his team -- it was just a few years ago.
However, Gomez has faded as fast as his career earnings have risen.
He scored a career-low 11 points in 38 games last season after scoring just 38 points in 80 games in 2010-11. Gomez famously went more than a full year without a goal before finally breaking his drought last February.
Even after Gomez scored 128 points over his first two seasons with the Rangers, general manager Glen Sather realized he needed to get Gomez off his cap, so he found a willing trade partner in Montreal. Not only did Sather shed the salary, he also got defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who is rapidly turning into a star in New York.
Three and a half years later, the Canadiens don't want Gomez anywhere near their team and are willing to pay him millions to stay away.
All this after Gomez won the Stanley Cup twice and put up 450 points over seven seasons with the Devils.
"Everybody knows [Gomez], how he is as a person, he's probably one of the best guys you're going to get. He just wants to have fun and enjoy his life more than anybody," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur told NHL.com. "Sometimes structure, when he was young, was good. He might have thought he was ready to go on his own, I guess.
"When you go out and get paid that much money, the pressure starts mounting and people's expectations start changing. But you're the same guy. It's just an unfortunate situation for him."
However, neither Elias nor Brodeur feel the news Sunday will be the last we hear from Gomez. Both guys feel his career can be resurrected if Gomez were to find a team that provided him the proper structure to allow his game to flourish.
Brodeur didn't rule out that team being the Devils.
"Stranger things have happened," he said. "A lot of guys have come back.
"For me, in my mind, I think he's a really effective player. I'm always aware of where he is on the ice. He needs a new good spot for him to be able to do the right things."