Those planning to take a triumphant running leap into the UFA pool this Friday should reconsider. For your own safety, please ease yourself into the pool using either the ladder located to your left, or the stairs.
The signings we’ve seen have made this year’s pool dangerously shallow, and the water level is threatening to sink even lower with the negotiation rights trades over the last 24 hours. The crop of available defenceman has particularly taken a beating, starting with the Canucks signing Kevin Bieksa, and then trading the rights to Christian Ehrhoff last night.
Now Habs defenceman James Wisniewski has become the latest to join the rights trading craze.
Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier announced that Montreal has traded Wisniewski’s negotiation rights to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for a seventh-round pick in next year’s draft and future considerations. The pick going to Montreal will become a fifth-rounder if Columbus is able to sign Wisniewski. Translation: Montreal receives the proverbial and highly sought after bag of pucks, and the opportunity to receive more pucks in the future.
Known for his booming slapshot and powerplay presence, Wisniewski was fifth among defencemen in points this year with 51. He scored 29 of those points with the opposition short-handed, and seven of his 11 goals. Wisniewski’s injection of offence quickly filled Montreal’s dire need for an offensive defenceman when he was acquired in a trade with the New York Islanders following injuries to Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges.
Of course, the acquisition of a players’ negotiation rights prior to the free agency signing period doesn’t guarantee a deal with the new team. But at the very least two truths are now self-evident about the teams involved in this particular transaction.
Firstly, the Blue Jackets finally seem to be taking this whole supporting Rick Nash with a functioning powerplay thing seriously. Columbus had an absolutely pathetic powerplay this year, achieving success at just a 14 percent rate, which was better than only the Panthers. The blueline quarterback who can both distribute and shot through traffic effectively is the foundation of many powerplays, and that player simply didn’t exist on Columbus’ roster. Wisniewski easily outscored the entire Blue Jackets’ defensive corps, which had five goals last year. General manager Scott Howson is working with $21.4 million in cap space, and Scottie Upshall–who was valued at $2.3 million–as likely his most expensive UFA on Friday
Secondly, this finalizes an already obvious decision for the Canadiens, a team that took a gamble and committed to a fragile Andrei Markov for the next three years to the tune of $17.3 million, and a cap hit of $5.6. When healthy, Markov is easily one of the league’s elite offensive defencemen, as the Russian has scored at least 45 points in four of his last five seasons. So if he can stay healthy, retaining Wisniewski and his $3.3 million cap hit that’s bound to increase substantially wasn’t ideal.
The problem is that whole staying healthy bit. Markov has had to recover from two reconstructive knee surgeries over a seven-month span, and has played only 52 games over the past two seasons (seven this year).
In addition to Markov, Gauthier is dealing with a lovely cornucopia of free agent defencemen of both the RFA and UFA variety, and $14.8 million in cap space to work with. With Wisniewski gone, the most high-profile player of the pending free agent pool swimmers is Gorges, an RFA who accounted for $1.1 million against the cap last year. Youngsters Yannick Weber and Andre Picard are also RFAs and were valued at a combined $1.5 million.
The Canadiens added depth in the form of fellow youngster Alexei Yemelin, but are also dealing with the potential exit of Paul Mara and Brent Sopel, two other UFAs acquired during the season to fill the gaping injury void. Throw in Roman Hamrlik–who reportedly turned down a one-year contract offer–and it’s pretty clear where Gauthier’s focus lies as the hours tick down to Friday.
UPDATE: Well, we can take one name off the Habs’ list. Weber has been signed to a two-year deal worth $1.7 million.