BROSSARD, Que. -- Scott Gomez arrived in Montreal in the summer of 2009 as the first step in a rebuilding process for the Canadiens. He left town Sunday in much the same fashion.
Gomez was acquired by then-Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey from the New York Rangers on June 30, 2009, one day before the opening of free agency. Gainey has said he used the acquisition of Gomez to prove to a flock of incoming free agents like Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri that the Canadiens were ready to be contenders.
Less than four years later, new GM Marc Bergevin sent Gomez and his $7.36 million salary cap hit home Sunday to make sure he remains healthy and eligible for a compliance buyout in the summer. It was a move, Bergevin said, that would give his team some relief so it can compete – and perhaps even contend – under the reduced salary cap of $64.3 million coming next season.
In a sense, it was the first major step in Bergevin's own rebuilding process for a team that finished last in the Eastern Conference last season and has had its top-paid player severely underperform for the past two seasons.
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"We all know the rules, and we all know that next year the cap's going down," Bergevin said a few minutes after the Canadiens stepped on the ice for the first day of training camp Sunday. "We had to judge what was best for us to give us the space to be able to comply by those rules."
Bergevin said Gomez's cap hit will remain on the Canadiens payroll minus $900,000, per the rules spelled out in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, making for a cap hit of $6,457,143 for this season. Gomez will be placed on waivers; should he clear, he will not take up a roster spot on the Canadiens.
With a pro-rated salary cap of $70.2 million in place this season, the Canadiens can afford the dead space Gomez's departure creates. However, the cap will drop to $64.3 million next season, and Bergevin feared that if Gomez were to hurt himself by playing this season – and therefore making himself ineligible for a compliance buyout in the summer – he might be forced to make other changes to his roster in order to comply with that lowered number.
"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 is an unceremonious end to what was the most contentious trade in recent memory for the Canadiens, who included former first-round draft pick Ryan MacDonagh in the deal to acquire Gomez, a player who has blossomed into a top-three defender for the Rangers.
In 196 regular-season games with the Canadiens, Gomez scored 21 goals with 87 assists for 108 points and had a minus-23 rating. His first season with the Canadiens in 2009-10 was strong with 59 points in 78 games, and that postseason Gomez was a leader on a team that made the Eastern Conference Finals with 14 points in 19 games.
But it has been a steep downhill slide since then, one that halted with a thud Sunday.
"His cap hit is $7.3 million," Bergevin said. "If he's your No. 1 center, you're OK with that. The decision we made was based on his production the last two seasons."
Yet for all his troubles on the ice, Gomez was a popular figure in the dressing room and his now-former teammates took the news of his departure hard.
"The personal side of this game is extremely hard when the business side takes over," said Gionta, who was Gomez's teammate and linemate with the New Jersey Devils before rekindling that relationship here in 2009. "He's a great guy, and he'll bounce back from this. The first few days, I'm sure will be tough."
Gomez was known to help many of the younger players on the Canadiens make the transition to the NHL by making himself available to handle questions and integrating them into the group off the ice – players like Lars Eller, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty have all spoken at length of how much Gomez's advice helped them when they first entered the League.
"I'm such a big believer in Gomer," Pacioretty said. "He helped me be the player I am right now. When I got called up and was trying to make a name for myself in this League, I was on his line with Gio for the rest of the year. He helped me on and off the ice. He's a great guy and a great player, it's an unfortunate situation. Being here in Montreal, it's tough on you when you're not producing, and it definitely ate at him."
Pacioretty said the pressures of last season – when the media and fans made a story of how Gomez had gone a full calendar year between goals – were particularly difficult on Gomez, equating it to him "being in a black hole."
"It's no secret that if Scott were playing in Long Island he would have had a better season," Pacioretty said. "That's why we like playing here, and that's the downfall of it, too."
New coach Michel Therrien ran his first practice Sunday in his second stint with the team, but he closely watched the Canadiens last season as an analyst for the French all-sports network RDS and saw the troubles Gomez had.
Therrien stood behind Bergevin's decision to cut ties with Gomez.
"The Gomez situation is only a business decision," Therrien said. "I support the decision Marc made. It's not an easy decision to make."
Yet it was a decision that fell in line with an over-riding philosophy that Bergevin communicated to his players as training camp opened under a brand new regime.
"Management said it best when they spoke to us today," Pacioretty said. "They said, 'There's going to be a lot of changes around here and we're focusing our energy on what those changes are and looking towards the future.'"
That future apparently began with the departure of Gomez.