On July first, 2007 Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey was desperate to improve a hockey team that had missed the playoffs for the fifth time in eight years.   Gainey found little desire on the part of the league’s unrestricted free agents to hitch their star to a perceived Montreal sinking ship.

Roman Hamrlik had just completed a 38 point, plus-22 season in Calgary, much of it spent nurturing rookie defensive partner Dion Phaneuf. As a free agent Hamrlik had instructed his agent to deal only with a Canadian based franchise.  Calgary offered him two year deal.  Desperate to shore up his defense, Gainey doubled the Calgary offer.  Four years at 5.5 million dollars a year.

Did Gainey overpay?   Probably, considering the general lack of enthusiasm for Montreal as a destination.   The Canadiens aren’t the only struggling franchise that has had to overpay to land an impact player.

At training camp in 2007, Hamrlik joined what was basically the same lineup that could manage only 90 points the year before.  With him, the Canadiens led the Eastern Conference with 104 points and they have been in the playoffs every year since.  Hamrlik’s contributions were never more in evidence than this year when  the Montreal hockey media named him winner of the Jacques Beauchamp trophy as the team’s unsung hero. Among the Habs’ defensemen, only Subban had more points; only Spacek had a better plus/minus rating; only Wisniewski averaged more ice time.

Still, during the length of his contract Hamrlik aged four years.  He turned 37 last month.  .

The NHL is a business, with little room for salary cap era sentiment.. Hamrlik is again an unrestricted free agent  who’s chances of re-signing with the Canadiens, or even getting an offer, are slim.  .

There’s mixed opinion about his contribution to the team.  Some, myself included, think he paid a physical price for the heavy load he was forced assume this season.  I think Hamrlik, in the right situation, still has a lot to offer a hockey club.  But not at 5.5 million dollars.   And maybe not in a top-four defensive role.  Hamrlik’s performance level appeared to sag in the final weeks of the season.  What would reducing 22 minutes of nightly ice time by five minutes do for a 37 year old player?  Two million?  Two and half million?  2.75 million?   2.75 million is Hal Gill territory.  Would Hamrlik be more valuable than than the popular Gill at the price?  Gill turned 36 also last month. Ignoring Gill’s considerable list of intangibles, the cold statistics are, a seven point season and minus-9 which is worst on the defense corps.

I’m glad I don’t have to sort this one out.

Subban and Spacek are signed for next season.  It’s clear Sopel and Mara will move on. Gorges will get a restricted free agent deal. Yannick Weber seems destined to be the seventh defenseman.  That leaves the mix and match of  Markov,Wisniewski plus Gill and Hamrlik.  Under current conditions, there’s room for only three of the four.

In the end, money, asked-for and given, is going to settle the whole issue. One of the group will price himself out of the Canadiens budget.  However this eventually shakes down, the Canadiens, on paper at least, are going to be very strong on defense to start the 2011-2012 season.  And with the likes of Brendon Nash, Frederik St. Denis and the emerging Kyle Klubertanz in Hamilton, they have minor league depth at the position as well.