Next we need to consider which free agents on the 50-man roster the team will retain. Some of these are easy calls, for others the picture is more muddled, but we'll risk an opinion/recommendation/prediction.
Going off the Canadiens' CapGeek page, the first unrestricted free agent we come to is one of the very easy calls in Michael Ryder. His contract and cap hit of $3.5M comes off the books this summer, and it's hard to imagine a scenario whereby he remains with the team. While he might have made the decision more interesting had he continued his fifteen games or so point streak immediately after the trade from Dallas, he cooled off noticeably at the end of the season, and was basically invisible in the first round exit against the Senators.
Gaston Therrien of RDS was very realistic when analyzing Michael Ryder's play early on, during the streak, when some fans were already debating whether we should offer him $5M/year, and for how long a term. He kept repeating that Michael has a role, which is to score goals, and when he does he's not hurting his team. It's when he stops scoring that he becomes a problem on your roster. Gaston Therrien reminded us repeatedly that he won't go in the corners, he won't play physical, that's never been his strength. What he does is cruise around like a shark, looking for empty space from where he can take a pass and snipe at the net. That's all we can expect from him, he'd state, and as long as he's clicking, he contributes, but you have to weather his droughts.
The fishtail end to his season probably kills any hope anyone had that he might remain with the team, but there would have been a fundamental impediment to this even if he'd had a good finish. Michael Ryder, at 33, will most likely sign the last contract of his career, and he will want to cash in, and want a term of four or five years. His needs and desires completely clash with those of the Canadiens, who want to build with youth, and stay away from expensive free agent deals for now since they hamper a team's flexibility. If the Canadiens were like the 'Hawks or Penguins, with the framework of the team set, and needed one final piece to make their contending team 'complete', then there might be interest for Mr. Ryder. As such, we can expect that another team out there, desperately in need of a scoring forward and with cap space will make an offer that the Canadiens couldn't or wouldn't dream of matching.
One caveat we can explore is that Mr. Ryder may have hurt his contract value with this end to his season. Factor in that next year the salary cap is going down to $64M, and a lot of teams will be struggling to ice a competitive team while staying under this number, so his options may be more limited. I can perhaps see how he might think that a one-year deal to polish his resume with a strong season might be to his advantage, allowing him to re-enter the free agent market in 2014, when the cap should rise again and there might be more demand for his services.
Next up is Colby Armstrong, who was thought last summer to be a 'beau risque' for les Glorieux, in that the team was getting a player who, while hampered by injuries in the last few seasons, had talent and offensive ability, could play in the corners and against the tough teams, kill penalties, had leadership ability, was familiar with Coach Therrien since their days in Pittsburgh... I opined at the time that he was an upgrade over Mathieu Darche, and now understood why the latter was not offered a contract he could accept (Mathieu did receive an offer for a two-way deal, but he turned it down). In hindsight, I'm not sure how much better Colby was than Mathieu. While he didn't play badly per se, the hope that he'd vastly outplay his million dollar cap hit never materialized. It does look like this sponge has been wrung dry, and I would be surprised if he was offered another contract. Let's hope for his sake that he can obtain a sinecure in Phoenix or Florida to finish off his career. Good guy, but we need to move on and improve.
Jeff Halpern was added at no cost to the roster, being plucked off waivers, and he served a valuable role as a fourth-line right-handed centreman who could take draws and kill penalties. Since we were in a race for first in the East and getting ready for the playoffs, it was a sensible move. Going forward, we're not going to set ourselves up as contenders with a 37 year old checking, defensive player. I imagine the team thinks it can find another player who can fill this role who is younger and maybe plays a little more physical. Shake his hand, thank him for his loyal service (again), and move on to the next...
....right-handed defensive centreman with some size who can play physical and kill penalties and take some draws who was signed as cheap roster insurance, namely Petteri Nokelainen. He's only 27, and was injured at the start of the season so he didn't have a chance to prove himself, and it's not his fault, but it will play against him. While he has decent size and is a former first-rounder, he's not been able to establish himself in two abridged seasons here, and it's hard to see how Marc Bergevin might not want to try something different. We were moderately surprised that he was re-signed last summer, and it would be stunning to see him get another offer from the Canadiens, unless it was a two-way deal.
Davis Drewiske was acquired for cheap at the deadline from the Kings, who swapped him for a fifth-round pick, and he was seen as only roster insurance, a depth player who added a little size to the back end. Trouble is, soon after the deadline he was forced into duty when Alexei Emelin was lost for the season, and his performance was uneven. Some fans are willing to cut ties and move on, but I have to believe that Marc Bergevin's pro scouting staff saw something in him, and that he can be re-signed for relatively cheap, given that he didn't set the world on fire when he had a chance. I think it's even money that he stays on an affordable one or two year contract.
In Hamilton, Frédéric St-Denis and Jason DeSantis are both UFA. With the crowded depth chart on the blue line in Hamilton, and more youngsters coming in like Darren Dietz and Magnus Nygren, it's hard to see how they will be retained. Frédéric is a headsy player and a homeboy, so maybe he'll be offered a two-way contract, if Mr. Bergevin thinks they have enough room under the 50 contract limit, but if I was his agent I'd recommend going to another organization not overloaded with defence prospects. Like the Canucks maybe.
Shifting gears and looking at the restricted free agents, we see quite a few borderline players that won't exactly challenge for an All-Star Team nod, but they are assets that are worth retaining and developing, for the most part.
Ryan White is first in the list, and while he had an up and down season, it makes sense to retain a tough forward who plays with heart and can play centre, can fight and will always stand up for his teammates. He can still develop his game, although his upside is relatively low we can now safely assert, and his window is closing. He gets a cheap qualifying offer.
Mike Blunden is also RFA, and looks like a tweener, a guy who'll be effective in the AHL but may not have what it takes to make the next jump. Again, he's an asset, he could turn out to be a late bloomer, we re-up the guy and hope he doesn't get snapped up on waivers by another team and then goes all Charlie Simmer on us.
Gabriel Dumont is a coach favourite, for all the right reasons, they love his heart and effort and hockey sense and how he doesn't back down despite his size. He makes up for a lack of stature by being reputedly very strong. He was the best player in Hamilton for a long stretch this season and earned an injury callup. This one's a no-brainer, we qualify this guy, despite the fact that he's another smallish player on an undersized team/organization.
Yannick Weber may have run out of road with the Canadiens, he didn't show enough to continue playing here. He had opportunities to earn a roster spot, we all waited for him to contribute reliably on the powerplay, but it hasn't happened yet. While he's still young and he's not a Benoit Pouliot-style lost cause, he's being pushed from behind by the prospects in Hamilton, so it's time for a change of scenery for him. Having said that, the Canadiens will still qualify him and dump him on another team for a low draft pick, or another longish shot prospect whose skillset fits in better with what we need. I can see a big winger languishing in the minors in another organization being targeted if his team needs offensive defenceman help.
In Hamilton we have four players who are RFA's this summer.
Dustin Tokarski was acquired this season, and he's a tender who still needs a lot of work, but I don't doubt that he will be re-signed, especially with the lack of quality goaltending prospects in the organization.
Robert Mayer's situation is cloudy at best, his signing a contract with a Swiss team and then instantly reneging on it is a puzzler. I guess the Canadiens re-up him, I just don't know if they can, legally. Expect the team to draft a goaltender this June.
Ian Schultz had a great chance this year, if he'd shown up in good condition, to earn a spot on the roster as a thirteenth or fourteenth forward at some point. That's been his Achilles heel his entire career, being overweight and out of gas during games. In 2011-12, he showed up to camp in decent shape, and earned praise from coach Clément Jodoin as the most improved Bulldog along with Joonas Nattinen. He backslid however this season and for his troubles was sent down to the ECHL, and not even the Canadiens' Wheeling Nailers. That's a huge red flag, that they didn't even want him in the organization.
It's baffling that a player can fumble an opportunity like this. The team had a crying need for a physical player, a tough forward, he could easily have earned a callup based on injuries or situation (read: Bruins). I have a hard time believing he's too dense to figure this out, and wonder what else is going on there. He's not coming back, evidently.
Finally, we have Joe Stejskal, a big D-man who had two seasons in Hamilton and the ECHL but hasn't impressed/improved enough to merit a contract. There are plenty of youngsters in Hamilton who need icetime, he won't get a sniff of it next season. It's probably best to use his roster spot on a veteran AHL defenceman, who'll steady the troops and can shepherd them through the tough games. Mr. Stejskal will not receive a contract.
So there we have it. The Canadiens have 31 players currently under contract, if we add Darren Dietz, Magnus Nygren and Mike Condon, that's 34. We assume Sebastian Collberg stays at Frolunda one more season, and Charles Hudon goes back to Chicoutimi-WJC, so their contract 'slide' and don't count against the limit. We add Davis Drewiske, that's 35, then Whitey, Yannick, Mike Blunden and Gabriel Dumont, makes 39. The two Hamilton goalies make it 41. Daniel Prybil, who I've already said should be offered a contract, bumps that up to 42.
Eight contract slots is plenty to add a few free agents come July 5 to round out the roster until 2014, when Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov come off the books and by which time Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu should be ready, and we're in business.