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Who's the right free agent fit for Montreal?

With July 1 just around the corner, Canadiens fans are geared for GM Bob Gainey to play a mid summer Santa Clause and deliver a gift to the 2007-08 Habs season's hopes. Yes, he's made his list, and will checking it and checking it off, more than twice!

A word of precautionary advice - save initial disappointed for the 82nd game, and then judge Gainey's work. If the team makes the playoffs in 2008 - the steps were forward and not backwards moves.

Each individual fan has hopes that the Canadiens braintrust will land that big name that will further the teams chances and solidify the October starting lineup. Many names are being bandied about, while speculation persists about the next 48 hours in the Sheldon Souray negotiation, if there is in fact any talk going on with the man with the booming shot.

Gainey in assessing the teams needs, surely has a plan A, B, and C in place dependant upon Souray's departure.

Attracting free agents to play in Montreal is always a difficult task, but Gainey must approach this fact, in creating his wish list, as if no such apprehensions exist. Character players, who will not wilt under pressure, must top the list over players who simply wish to play in Montreal to fullfill longstanding desires.

If this reads as a vote against a player such as Buffalo's Daniel Briere - it is not. It is simply assessing where the teams greater needs lie in the bigger picture.

Last season, Gainey erred in retrospect, in bringing in Sergei Samsonov, for all the wrong reasons. As available free agent prospects dwindled, I regarded this particular signing as a last ditch effort to appease fans and media after more sought out players turned elsewhere. Gainey won't make the same mistake twice running, and won't hesitate to use Samsonov as an example of what shouldn't be done, should he be shut out of the July sweepstakes again this time.

Much of where he chooses to focus will depend on what route Souray has chosen to follow.

If Souray somehow remains, the focus will shift to needs up front. Should he follow the expected greener pastures, filling out the backline becomes the key priority.

Seeing as how the Canadiens drafted recently, with 6 choices out of 9 being rearguards, it is obvious that Gainey has his pulse set on where the Habs need propping up most. This is not only a future concern, but a very conscious present one also. Defenseman could also consume his focus in regards to free agents, with or without re-upping Souray.

In Gainey's mind, a team can never have enough physical and mobile defenseman, capable of playing tough while getting to the puck ahead of opponants. Should Gainey find a way of strengthening the top 6, he will not pass it up. Neater work behind the blueline, in essence, allows for greater creativily upfront. The Canadiens forwards are a speedy group, and better effiency behind the blueline will help assure that the forwards are pointed in the direction of the opposition goal more often than otherwise.

As speed is the teams strongest asset up front, the key to unleashing it lies in the forwards using their energy more wisely, and saving some for the offensive zone. If the first half of a 45 second shift is spent repairing defensive breakdowns, that energy is wasted by the time forwards cross the opposing blueline. This is where the puck pursuit style favoured by the team, in light of its speed asset, breaks down due to a lack of gas in the tank.

It all comes back to the defensemen.

Adding another whirling dervish in the Samsonov mold up front will hardly help the Canadiens repair this deficiency. Last season, the diminutive but speedy Samsonov, skated miles, often in circles, because he was a responsible two way player. His plus minus stat was quite respectable on a team where good marks in this area were few. But having Samsonov be defensively responsible robbed him of his game and hurt the team in the end. Adding that Samsonov played the season on his off wing, confusion reigned in his defined role.

This disaster shouldn't be repeated by adding the same type of player, without first addressing the blueline. This is why I see Gainey primordially seeking to shore up the D, Souray or not, either by free agency or a trade.

The conundrum is that Gainey is in the mix with many other GM's scanning the free agent market with the same goals in mind. And this season, the pickings are slim to none.

Pourring over the list of available candidates on defense, there are only a small handful of 12 names of interest that would constitute up upgrade on the Canadiens backline, from the depth positions of 1 to 6.

They include Brad Stuart (Cal), Teppo Numminen (Buf), Roman Hamrlik (Cal), Darryl Sydor (Dal), Danny Markov (Det), Martin Skoula (Min), Vitali Vishnevski (Nas), Brian Rafalski (NJ), Scott Hannan (SJ), Tom Preissing (Ott), Bryan Muir (Was), and Cory Sarich (TB). Nick Boyton, who has been placed on waivers by Phoenix and Mathieu Schneider (Det), recovering from wrist surgery are two other options.

It is likley that Rafalski, Hannan, and Stuart will re-up with their respective teams, but should Gainey be able to land either of the three, it would be seen a major upgrading. Getting Rafalski and Stuart, both key to their teams plans, will be near to impossible. If either were to leave, it would mainly be to teams with Stanley Cup aspirations rather than a middle of the pack destination. Both could command over $5 million per annum and it's unlikely the Canadiens would venture that far and pay over top dollar to mend their open sores.

Hannan is a cheaper option. The steady, stay at home type, may make himself too pricey for the Sharks, but in $3 to $4 million range, makes much sense for the Canadiens if they are lucky enough to snap him up at that price.

Next on the list would be Darryl Sydor and Martin Skoula, both efficient puck movers who can contribute in all game situations. Both are familiar with playing on very tight teams and their experience would lend itself well to Montreal's needs and goals.

Numminen, Vishnevski, and Preissing all bring experience and skill, without striking fear into the eyes of opponants. Numminen is a wealth of knowledge, but may be getting too far along to use it in vaste enough amounts to benefit Montreal. Preissing would be staying in Ottawa if the price were right. Vishnevski is solid and unspectacular defender who gets the job done without fuss or fanfare. He's a good fit at the proper cost, bit in this market he'll take the largest bait.

Markov and Hamrlik have the offensive moves, but are light on the puck carrier. As they are getting on in years also, determining whether they would be upgrade, on the ice moreso than on paper, will be tricky. Muir and Sarich would be depth aquisitions slotted into the 5th or 6th roles, which would be a reduction in ice time for both. They may come cheaper, but the canadiens could be just as well off going with youth at this point.

Boynton and Schneider remain curious options should the Habs completely strike out above.

Being that there are far more options up front, the Canadiens will attempt to bring in a forward of impact that compliments its speed and grit on the top three lines. There is much too choose from, but there are more ill-fitting pieces than there are perfect fits.

Tops on everybody's lists is Briere. The shifty and elusive centerman would add creativity to the Habs attack, but at a high price. His downside is his size, as he is worn down often as the season wears on. The upside is that his offense will bolster a team greatly during the regular season.

The names of available forwards (as of this writing) that are being mentioned that could help the Canadiens are: Ryan Smyth, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Yashin, Jason Blake, Teemu Selanne, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Danuis Zubrus, Brendan Shanahan, Darren McCarty, Todd Bertuzzi, Robert Lang, Petr Sykora, Derek Armstrong, Viktor Kozlov, Mike Comrie, Michel Ouellet, and Bill Guerin.

Of these 21 names, I would rule out those of Yashin, Lang, Bertuzzi, and Selanne immediately. The reason for doing so, in order, are: unmotivatible, age, history and sulky demeanor plus injuries, and highly unlikely to consider relocation.

Size and strength up front would be great compliments to the Habs speed. In this category, the players most likely to make those around them better and braver would include Smyth, Drury, and Tkachuk - all gamers who aren't afraid of getting their noses dirty. The list would also include Forsberg were it not for injury concerns. The Canadiens are bogged down with smaller attributes. Players who would make them play taller are not to be overlooked and Gainey surely paid attention to this facet of the game during the Stanley Cup final.

Scott Gomez, with wingers Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta, posted totals of 13-47-60 last season, a disappointment in my eyes. If he were to replicate such stats, in Montreal at his asking price, would it constitute an upgrade? A disappointment? Gomez, while hardly fleet of foot, is fairly good in traffic. His attributes however, do not outweigh his limitations, and he is not unlike Saku Koivu, a number two center in a number one role. Would dropping him down a line bring his production up and justify a hefty salary? Asking the question, is answering it.

Bill Guerin and Brendan Shanahan are short term solutions with predictable results. They will both hit in the 25 goal range, but are better seen as final pieces to a puzzle rather than building blocks. Neither would settle for a second or third line role and they would be robbing a younger player of progression in the Canadiens lineup.

Danuis Zubrus and Michel Ouellet present interesting options. Zubrus has grown as a center since leaving Montreal. His game is more complete one and he could be the type of player to trigger Kovalev's offensive instincts. Ouelllet, a 24 year old, who has scored 35 goals in two seasons, would be an interesting fit alongside Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse.

Sykora, Kariya, Blake and Comrie are what the Canadiens already have plenty of, which is small forwards. Sykora, who was passed over last season in favor of Samsonov, is the largest of the four. He is a consistant point producer but also takes mental vacations in his own end. Blake is a laser shooter in the mode of Michael Ryder, with a little more edge. Comrie is great in a freewheeling game but disappears in traffic. He's never been accused of being a team player.

Kariya is a more complete player than he was a decade ago. While his 100 point seasons are a distant memory, he remains a hard working forward who gives it all he's got. He's swift and sneaky, and while he'll try to, he won't outmuscle anybody along the boards.

The inclusion of players such as McCarty, the two Kozlov's, and Armstong haven't been brought up much, but deserve a look nontheless.

McCarty is a dirty grinder with good experience and leadership capabilities. If the Canadiens see Kyle Chipchura in the role of checking center, McCarty provides a linemate who plays and honest game and knows his role. He's a player who you know would wear the jersey with pride. In addition, dressing room nutcases make for great tension release valves.

The two Kozlov's are centers and almost polar opposites. Slava is the smaller of the two and plays a peskier game. His smooth passes and speed would fit neatly in the middle of Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn. Ditto for Viktor Kozlov. While he is not nearly as nifty, he brings size and creates room offensively. The trouble with Viktor is he is difficult to motivate and often plays in streaks.

Derek Armstrong is an unknown quanity in the East. The 34 year old center with decent size plays a similar role to Radek Bonk. While posting 11-33-44 totals with Kings last season, he was a surprising +13 on a team loaded down with minus players. His pricetag will make him a wise pickup for the right team.

USA Today has this list of UFA's, dated June 26, 2007. Accuracy may be questioned, as their list includes Red Wings winger Tomas Holmstrom. Upon seeing that name, I began writing this post based on him being my choice target to fix the Habs woes, and these thoughts, all for naught, quickly wrote themselves:

Immovable in the crease, and tough as nails along the boards, he is well schooled in both ends of the rink. He could easily be the Canadiens bargain at close to five million (he signed for half). His assets would make a better player of linemates such as Koivu, Ryder, Higgins, and even Kovalev, by creating chaos and being hard on the puck. He is key to Detroit's game, but the Red Wings may not be able to hold him in the fray at the price he could be worth to others. Their payroll includes many long term deals and rising stars, and Holmstrom is ripe for the plucking. If you doubt Holmstrom's usefullness, witness what Anaheim was able to do with Detroit after he was missed.

Oh well, maybe in three years!