BROSSARD, Que. - For the first time in his 14-year career with the Montreal Canadiens, captain Saku Koivu is expressing some doubt over his future with the team.
Koivu is one of 10 Canadiens players heading toward unrestricted free agency on July 1, and he said Thursday the clock is ticking for the team to begin contract negotiations with his agent Don Baizley.
"If I'm not signed by July 1, I don't think I'll be back in Montreal," Koivu, 34, said after the Canadiens had their end of season medicals. "Finishing your career with one team would be awesome in a way, but it's too early to say because I don't know what the team's plan is. We lost yesterday, so I need time to sit down with my family and figure out what's best for us."
The Canadiens could have a very different look next season following a disappointing centennial year that began with Stanley Cup aspirations but ended by squeaking into the playoffs for a first round sweep at the hands of the rival Boston Bruins.
In addition to Koivu, forwards Alex Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Tom Kostopoulos and defencemen Mike Komisarek, Mathieu Schneider, Francis Bouillon, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault are also slated to be free agents.
Many people have suggested that the abundance of free agents on the team may have been a distraction, which might explain its disappointing performance this season.
General manager Bob Gainey admitted Thursday there may be some truth to the theory.
"I don't think it was ideal in the end," he said. "A number of those players were veteran players who felt pinched by being in that position. Then we added Mathieu Schneider who was also in that position late in the year. It wasn't ideal, and I really feel like that and a number of other things were secondary distractions, perhaps excuses, that only came into play when we started to have bigger problems in other places."
Koivu's lack of certainty that he wants to be back in Montreal was the most surprising reaction among the key players who will be free agents. The last time Koivu was heading toward unrestricted status, he signed a three-year contract extension just before the break for the 2006 Winter Olympics.
He has never tested the market, but he admits the unstable ownership and management situation in Montreal is also a factor in his decision.
"There's a lot of question marks right now, so I have to get away from the game for a while before making a decision," said Koivu, who is looking for a two or three-year deal. "It would probably be a pretty interesting and exciting morning to wake up on July 1 and see what the offers are and which teams would be there."
Komisarek, 27, was also reluctant to say he definitely wants to be back with the Canadiens next season, citing the lack of stability with the organization as a determining factor.
"There's a few things that need to be addressed before they start signing players," said Komisarek, sporting a black eye from the Canadiens Game 4 loss. "There's a situation with ownership, the coaching role, there's still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the team. So it's difficult to just look at my situation, we'll have a better idea in a couple of weeks."
Komisarek might be the most attractive of Montreal's potential free agents because he is still young and is hitting a market this summer that does not feature a lot of high-end defencemen. But he admits that he is not entering the summer with his best foot forward.
"There's no shying away that it wasn't my best season," he said. "With all the expectations and will to succeed, coming short like this has been devastating."
Kovalev, Lang, Tanguay and Schneider all expressed a desire to return to Montreal.
Kovalev, 36, had a very poor start to the season but finished strong to lead the team in scoring for a second straight year with 65 points in 78 games.
"I've said it many times that I would love to be here," he said. "I love everything about this team and I still believe this team is heading in the right direction. But it's not up to me what's going to happen."
Tanguay, 29, will undergo shoulder surgery this summer but says playing in his home province close to his family is a selling point. He said the number of years on the contract would be more important to him than the money.
Lang, 38, said he is about two weeks away from being back in playing shape after suffering a severed Achilles tendon in February, and that he would "definitely" want to come back.
Schneider, 39, said he will have shoulder surgery that will take him two to three months to recover from, and that he would want to sign with a team that will give him an opportunity to play two more seasons, whether that's in Montreal or elsewhere.