With the NHL playoffs coming to an end soon and free agency looming, it is time to have a closer look at some potential free agent targets for the Montreal Canadiens. One area where the Habs could use help is on the blue line, and especially a right handed defenseman who can move the puck and play on the second pairing. The team has a glut of left-handed defensemen (Gorges, Emelin, Beaulieu, Tinordi, Drewiske and most likely Markov), but lacks depth on the right side.
With veterans Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon not returning next season and the possibility that GM Marc Bergevin is unable to re-sign rearguard Andrei Markov to a multi-year contract, the team will need to find help in the blue line if it wants to repeat this year's feat of reaching the Eastern Conference final.
Potential free agents targets:
Matt Niskanen, 27, Pittsburgh Penguins. After his best offensive season during which he recorded 10 goals and 36 assists for 46 points in 81 games to go along with 51 PIM and a solid +33 rating, Niskanen will be the most coveted defenseman on the market if he can't reach an agreement with the Penguins before July 1st (which is unlikely). Niskanen is expected to command a five-year contract of at least $5.5 to $6M annually on the open market and there will be plenty of suitors for his services. The puck-moving blue liner rebounded nicely this season after a difficult campaign during the lock-out shortened season where he only notched 4 goals and 10 assists for 14 points in 40 games. Should Marc Bergevin be unable to re-sign Markov, Niskanen becomes the number one option on the back end to replace him, but there will be plenty of teams interested in his services, most notably the Detroit Red Wings, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals.
(Salary in 2013-14: $2,500,000)
Dan Boyle, 37, New York Islanders. Recently acquired from the San Jose Sharks for a draft pick by New York Islanders' GM Garth Snow, Boyle is highly unlikely to sign with his new team as he has expressed his wish to finish his career with a contender. This season, the Ottawa native scored 12 goals and 24 assists for 36 points in 75 games to go along with 32 PIM and a disappointing -8 rating. Boyle, who is looking for a two-year deal, will also be sought-after by many teams who are looking for a veteran presence on the blue line. The Toronto Maple Leafs are rumored to be very interested in his services. Boyle could also go back to Florida where he both played for the Panthers and the Lightning. His wife Amber is also a native of Florida so it could play into his decision.
(Salary in 2013-14: $6,666,666)
Tom Gilbert, 31, Florida Panthers. Signed to one-year deal worth peanuts by the Panthers prior to last season, Gilbert quietly enjoyed a solid campaign under the sun. The right-handed defenseman recorded 3 goals and 25 assists for 28 points in 73 games to go with 18 PIM and a +5 plus/minus differential. While the 6'3'', 205-lb defenseman is not overly physical, his size would be welcomed on the Habs blue line, especially if the organization doesn't re-sign veteran UFA Mike Weaver, who is also a righty.
(Salary in 2013-14: $900,000)
Anton Stralman, 27, New York Rangers. Currently playing for the Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings, Stralman has been a revelation this spring. In 81 games with the Blueshirts this season, the Swede notched 1 goal and 12 assists for 13 points with a +9 rating. The smooth skating Stralman is currently playing in the Rangers' top-4 alongside Marc Staal to the tune of almost 20 minutes per game and he would be a great fit beside Andrei Markov on the Canadien' second pairing. A great skater and a solid defensive player, Stralman would make a great depth signing for the Canadiens should the Rags let him go due to salary cap issues.
(Salary in 2013-14: $1,800,000)
Stephane Robidas, 37, Anaheim Ducks. Acquired from the Dallas Stars for a draft pick at the trade deadline, the veteran defenseman was plagued by injuries all season. Robidas, who suffered a broken right leg on November 29th, only dressed for 38 games, scoring 5 goals and adding 5 assists for 10 points and a +10 differential. A steady rearguard throughout his career, the former Habs defenseman broke the same leg again in the first round of the playoffs, but he was able to avoid surgery and should be ready for the beginning of the 2014-15 season. Robidas might be willing to accept a salary cut to finish his career with the team that drafted him way back in 1995. Robidas could be paired with a youngster like Nathan Beaulieu on the team's third pairing while playing on the second power play unit and kill some penalties.
(Salary in 2013-14: $2,850,000)
Derek Morris, 35, Phoenix Coyotes. After spending the last five seasons in the desert where people don't care about hockey, it would be a complete change of scenery for the bruising defenseman. The veteran notched 5 goals and 12 assists for 17 points with a -2 differential and 41 PIM in 2013-14. The Albertan will certainly not be back with the cash-strapped Coyotes even though he resides in the area all-year long. The rugged blue liner would bring sandpaper to the Habs defensive corps as he plays with an edge and brings a lot of character to the table.
(Salary in 2013-14: $2,750,000)
Who would be your choice to fill the glaring hole on the Habs blue line in the offseason?
No Foolin' Fred Poulin