I wondered who'd be the first to say "no thanks" to the Canadiens' overtures this summer. Maybe unsurprisingly, it's turned out to be Alexei Yemelin, the hard-nosed Russian defenceman the Habs drafted in the third round in 2004. Yemelin has, on at least three occasions since his draft, wavered back and forth between signing in Montreal and signing in Russia...picking Russia every time. Now it seems he's picked his home country again, although the Habs were wooing him hard.
There's nothing wrong with that choice, of course. The man is a free agent with the right to choose his own destiny. If one of his choices is a two-way deal in North America, far from his home and family, with a good part of the season likely spent riding buses and making peanuts, and the other choice is a million-dollar deal to stay home and live pretty well near his family...well, which would you choose?
The thing is, when Canadiens fans hear even their own draft picks say they'd rather play elsewhere, the outlook for the team's future gets pretty discouraging. It feels like just the first step in a long summer of watching all the big free agents sign with other teams while they say they were "down to two teams...Montreal and..." the team with which they actually play. Then will come the emotional blows of having Pierre McGuire on TSN's Free Agent Frenzy announce Mike Komisarek and Saku Koivu have signed with teams other than Montreal.
Alexei Yemelin choosing Russia is, in itself, not really a big deal. Draft picks are a crap shoot after all. Who's to say a third-rounder from 2004 would be in the NHL now if he'd been drafted out of North America? Who's to say Yemelin would be an NHL regular even if he did come over? No, it's not Yemelin. It's what his decision represents, which is a pending summer of rejection.
I don't blame Bob Gainey for this. He's offered money and term and personal attention to the UFAs he's courted. But, the taxes in Montreal are outrageous. The weather's not as nice as it is in Florida or Anaheim or Vancouver (hey, there, Mats!). The interest in the team of fans and media has crossed the border into obsessive. Those are the reasons typically given for why free agents pick other teams...after first using Montreal's interest to maximize their offers from those others. But beyond all those reasons is the main one: Montreal isn't a contender. And the corollary to that: Montreal doesn't have a superstar to build around. If a top winger has the chance to play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a team that will contend, why wouldn't he take a little less to do that instead of signing in Montreal where he'll make more...but be scrutinized by the media, booed by his own fans, taxed to death, criticized for not speaking French and played on a line with number-one centre Tomas Plekanec? The situation in Montreal isn't Gainey's fault though. He's dealing with the above-mentioned limitations in signing free agents. He's also drafting mid-to-late order every year. He's doing what he can in an environment in which every mis-step is tantamount to disaster.
In the end, it doesn't matter. If the Canadiens are willing to sit back and let the league happen around them, there will be no change in their circumstances. Yemelin's decision to stay in Russia is just the opening of the first vein. I expect the bleeding to continue throughout the summer.