Opening Day of Habs Free Agency: A Hit, a Miss, a Hand Grenade

Habs hope Armstrong's injury troubles are behind him (Reuters)

by Dan Kramer, Staff Writer,

MONTREAL, QC. — As expected, July 1 saw a flurry of activity around the NHL, but lacked movement of any true impact players.  That didn’t stop Marc Bergevin from dipping his toe into the market, however, adding three players to his NHL roster that he identified as capable of filling some of the team’s needs.  While these moves weren’t what anyone would call the last touches to turning the team around, one seems like a great value add, another seems underwhelming, and the last is the right player but on the wrong deal.

Habs hope Armstrong’s injury troubles are behind him (Reuters)

A Hit: Colby Armstrong – 1-year, $1.0 M

From my perspective, Bergevin’s first move of the day was his best.  Armstrong was bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday after flopping for two seasons in Toronto, largely because of injuries.  A six-foot-two right winger, Armstrong plays a physical two-way game with some offensive upside, scoring 22 and 15 goals in his two seasons with Atlanta prior to joining the Leafs, while also being a great locker room guy.  A leader on and off the ice, the 30-year old played under Michel Therrien for two and a half seasons with Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate, and followed him up to the Penguins for two and a half years there, so the two are familiar with one another and appreciative of each others’ styles.

Armstrong had trouble recovering from a broken ankle last season, hampering his skating, and the issue was compounded when he suffered a concussion, but he claims to now be at 100 per cent with no lingering health concerns.  On a short-term, cheap enough deal (in fact, Toronto and Montreal will each be paying him $1.0M this season, so there’s a little satisfaction for Habs fans), if he can stay healthy, he should fit nicely on a third or fourth unit, as a winger helping Lars Eller in the offensive zone or crashing and banging alongside Ryan White.  And if he is hurt, it’s only one year; no real risk.

A Miss: Francis Bouillon – 1-year, $1.5 M

I was clear about feeling Montreal needed to add a tough defensive blueliner to its back end, and yes Bouillon is physical.  But at age 36, his robust style means his five-foot-eight frame has taken quite a beating over the years, and he has had a few injury issues the past two seasons.  He isn’t the responsible, mistake-covering vet that will make you feel comfortable having a Tomas KaberleRaphael Diaz, or Yannick Weber on the ice, and plays the left side, just like P.K. SubbanAndrei MarkovAlexei Emelin, and Kaberle, with Josh Gorges also capable of it.  At one year and a reasonable price, this isn’t the world’s worst signing, and Bouillon is a hard-worker who could be dealt if things don’t work out, but he just doesn’t seem like the great guy to bring in.  In fairness, Bryan Allen and Sheldon Souray, two guys I wanted more for the role, signed three-year deals which the Canadiens may have wanted to avoid given the prospects in the system, but I’d have preferred Allen’s 3-year, $10.5M deal to this Bouillon contract.

Like Armstrong, Bouillon is another player well known to coach Michel Therrien.  He played under him in the QMJHL, AHL, and during their last stint with the Canadiens.  Perhaps that’s his main utility then, to act as an intermediary between Therrien and players who may not take well to his tactics.  Regardless, it’s hard to dislike the little tank as a person or for his effort, so he is likely to remain a fan favourite and media darling.

Coming soon, Habs fans (Towson/AP)

A Hand Grenade: Brandon Prust – 4-years, $10 M

I was first going to call Prust a horseshoe, as in, “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” but decided his style was much better described as a grenade.  Prust was near the top of many Hab fan want lists, yours truly included.  An average-sized winger who plays well beyond his frame, he’s a hard-hitting aggressive forechecker who had 20 fights last season and 18 the year before.  He is the type of player the Habs really needed to add: able to kill penalties – third among Ranger forwards last season with 1:40 of his nightly average 11:56 coming a man down – and durable, having played all 82 games each of the last two years.  But that’s about all he brings, scoring only five goals and 17 points this past season.

Of course, producing offensively isn’t Prust’s responsibility.  Still, I was already a little leery at the rumoured 3-year, $6.6M deal the 28-year old allegedly sought to remain a New York Ranger.  FOUR years and a $2.5M cap hit have me thinking close but no cigar on this signing, even if Habs fans will love watching him muck it up for at least the first two seasons of his contract.  After that, players of his stature and style tend to decline more rapidly than others, so it’s hard to tell what the future will hold, but $2.5M becomes a lot to pay for an 8-minute-a-night fourth liner.  I’d have hoped one of either term or dollar amount could have been lower.  The impact on the team’s cap situation concerns me, and no, the fact that Scott GomezTomas Kaberle, and Brian Gionta will be coming off the books in two years isn’t an argument to appease the fears.  Losing other inflated contracts doesn’t mean you should take on new ones.  $2.5M might not break the bank, but if the cap goes down a year from now based on a redistribution of revenues, it could hinder the Habs’ ability to add more important pieces to the roster.


Overall, not a terrible day for Marc Bergevin and his group, but he also didn’t achieve much towards turning things around (not to say that the right players to do so were necessarily out there for him).  The Canadiens got a little tougher and harder to play against, and likely more fun to watch, but Armstrong (probably) and Bouillon (most certainly) are one-year plugs holding roster spots until a prospect is ready to take on more responsibility, and Prust – likely the only piece added today that could be part of a future contending squad – is on a contract that may end up being a liability.  The team’s defense is still undersized, with a below average top pairing and lacking a player capable of stepping into top 4 minutes in case of injury.  The team’s offense hasn’t gained any additional scoring, inferior to the team that began last season with Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn on the roster and already had trouble producing.

Thus, while some Hab fans are seeking reasons to be excited with these moves, I’ll remain neutral.  It’s just one day of many to come under the Bergevin regime, and he shouldn’t be judged from just these few signings.  But there is lots of work to be done.  Fortunately, unlike his predecessor, he has the staff in place to get on it.  They can start by signing one of the remaining offensive wingers in the days to come.