Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Let the Summer of Rejection Begin

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.


Darren Bifford said...

too depressing...

redbaron said...

I understand your frustration, but I just don't get the argument that we can't land any decent free agents based on the fact that big-name UFAs have tended to pick one of the other 29 teams. Of course they have -- there are 29 of them, and only two or three teams consistently land more than 1 in 10 big-name FAs. The rest get into bidding wars, and each year, we seem to be right there in the mix. Most UFAs just go where the money is, like Sundin did, and this year, we've got tons of cash to throw around. Guessing about this year's UFA-signing performance based on the last few years' performance is like saying Chicago will never win a Cup, seeing as how they haven't landed one in half a century. Yes, we have a tough media, cold-ish weather and high taxes to deal with. But we've also got a big-league coach for a change, premier conditioning facilities, 21,279 roaring fans at every game, and a hell of a lot of banners overhead -- not to mention the cash to be real contenders in the FA sweepstakes this summer.

Anonymous said...

In the past I, like Mark, didn't buy the argument that you made. Reading a couple of hockey books has changed my mind. I grossly underestimated the importance of the playoffs and winning a championship to the players.

The players understand that the difference between accepting a salary of $4 million or $6.5 million won't change their lives significantly. The regular season is a grind, only the playoffs really matter.

The prospect of having to play 80+ games for a losing team, or even a team that limps into the playoffs is dreadful. This is what Koivu must be thinking about. If Gainey can sign a superstar, Koivu might stay. Otherwise, Saku will want to play for a contender (for once).

Shari said...

Mark, you might have 21,279 fans but they are fans who boo their own players when things don't go their way. And I know that not all the fans are like that but the ones not booing weren't cheering loud enough to drown them out. What free agent in their right mind is going to want to sign in that condition? My guess is that they'll go play somewhere else for a bit less where they'll contend.

Its sad that Montreal has gotten into a situation where its history is just that ... history.

mr. gillis said...

I remember a couple of years ago, Koivu mistakingly said to the media "I don't want to be part of a team that is constantly rebuilding", which is what the habs were doing. The media understood it that he wanted to leave Montreal, when he was actually telling the organization that their rebuilding methods weren't working and the should get going on something new and better. Soon after, the habs finished first in the conference. A year later, they are rebuilding again.

Unless Gainey lands a big name and changes things in a big way, we're gonna have to say bye to Koivu.