I don't know if there are official statistics on this, but I think there's enough anecdotal evidence out there to support the idea that players (with the notable exception of Michael Ryder) perform at a higher level when they're in the last year of their contracts. It's not unreasonable to assume that, when faced with the options of either creating some buzz and pulling down a new contract worth millions, or sitting around until August as you pray some team will hire you at the league minimum to fill out its roster, the urge to play like your butt's on fire tends to kick in in most cases. This apparent fact is great news for the Habs in their Centennial season.
Looking at the current roster, we see eight players heading for unrestricted free agency, including Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay and Mike Komisarek. Another four; Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Kyle Chipchura and Guillaume Latendresse, will be restricted free agents. In short, aside from the goaltenders, the Andreis and Roman Hamrlik, the entire core of the team is playing for new contracts this season. A lot of observers are concerned about this, wondering what will happen with the cap and whether Gainey will be able to re-sign them all for the 2009-10 season. There's been some criticism that Gainey has left himself open to a cap crunch that will result in losing an important member or two of what's become a pretty good team, just as it's about to enter its prime.
I think Gainey's done it on purpose. In a league in which the buzzword of the day is parity, every little advantage counts. A losing streak can plunge a team from contention to lottery pick in a couple of weeks, and one missed shot or defensive error can make the difference between two points and none. And while it's all well and good to expect the pride and dedication of professional athletes will drive them to give their best every night, it doesn't hurt to hold the promise of next year's salary over their heads. Maybe the guy who would have just dumped the puck in for a change will try harder to make a better pass that might turn into an assist. And maybe the guy who likes the perimeter will go harder to the net in an effort to boost his stats with a few dirty goals. Perhaps a little greater effort by individual players will add up to a few extra points for the team. And these days a few extra points could be the difference between a division title and barely making the playoffs.
This is a team that's serious about making a push for a Stanley Cup to mark its hundredth anniversary. Gainey's gone out and added Tanguay as an upgrade over Ryder and Laraque to instill some fear in the opposition. He's already improved a team that won the conference last year, and he's working on adding the missing link...a big, strong, skilled centre...in Mats Sundin. So, it's not really surprising that a GM as meticulous as Gainey is considers every detail, no matter how small or intangible, that might give his team a better chance of winning in this important season. And while it may make good business sense to him to have many options when it comes to filling the 2010 roster, it also gives him an undeniable psychological advantage to have so many players working for the money this year...when so many of us are hoping for the big playoff payoff.