I don’t know whether Canadiens general manager, under the constraints of the salary cap, has any intention of making a contract offer to unrestricted free agent defencemen James Wisniewski and Andrei Markov. If he does, Gauthier might be advised to put his ducks in a row in a hurry.
Brian Rafalski retired Tuesday with one year remaining on his six million dollar annual contract. In the next week or two, 41 year old Niklas Lidstrom may elect to follow suit after completing his 6.2 million dollar contract. The Lidstrom retirement could hinge on what kind of replacement Red Wings GM Ken Holland finds for Rafalski.
The Wings success over the last fifteen years has started with a mobile puck-moving defense. Between Rafalski and Lidstrom the team has been guaranteed more than 100 points a season. There’s no question, especially since Holland admits he’s satisfied with his current forwards, that he will spend the money to re-establish that dominance. During his Tuesday news conference, he said,
“We need to overhaul our defense, either through trade, but probably really we set our sights on July 1. There are some good names out there, but you expect some of them are going to be signed between now and July 1. We’re going to go through all the names, and when July 1 comes, we’ll be ready to move.”
So, outside of Wisniewski and Markov, what’s out there? Christian Ehrhoff of Vancouver would be a fit. You might try Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen. If you can forget the way his game went in the toilet in Boston, there’s Tomas Kaberle. And that’s pretty well it. Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Ed Jovanoski, while talented in their own way, aren’t in the same category.
Defensively, Wisniewski isn’t the second coming of Lidstrom or even Rafalski. But he does know how to move the puck and like Rafalski has a lot of game on the power play. The Canadiens might be able to fit Wisniewski under the salary cap at four to four-and-a-half million dollars. The Red Wings would have more available cash. Additionally, Wisniewski grew up in Canton Michigan, 20 miles west of Detroit. The idea of playing near his home town may be too much to pass up.
A healthy and sound Markov is a better player than Wisniewski. The risk factor is that knee which may make Holland hesitate. Without any inside knowledge (and around the Canadiens there is no such thing), my guess is Gauthier is going to expend all his energies signing up Markov and let the Wisniewski chips fall where they may. The Markov negotiations reportedly will start sometime next week. If they fail, then it probably be Wisniewski’s turn. And if that fails, Gauthier has always got a “Plan “C” even if we have no idea what it might be.
Take a deep breath fans. The next 34 days are going to be tense. At least Gauthier is in the driver’s seat until July first.