MONTREAL – Having a big, tough team suits some NHL clubs, but isn’t the top priority of the Montreal Canadiens.
So don’t look for general manager Bob Gainey to dismantle his smooth-skating club after their playoff defeat to the bruising Philadelphia Flyers.
“Every team has its strengths, and I think ours is based on speed and quickness and intelligence and opportunism,” Gainey said Tuesday at a packed Bell Centre news conference.
“I think that we want to play a fast game. We don’t want to be vulnerable to (tough play). We have big guys. Perhaps we can be bigger and more rugged, but I think our philosophy is: We’re quick, we’re exciting, we’re on the attack, we play to score, we’re going to play to beat you within the rules. We just need to do it a little better.”
Gainey and Carbonneau met with the media to discuss the season that just ended, in which the unfancied Canadiens finished first in the Eastern Conference and in goal-scoring in the 30-team league.
They squeaked past gritty Boston in seven games in the opening round of the playoffs before bowing out in five games to the Flyers, who won despite being outskated and outshot in most of the games.
Much of the media analysis after the series suggested the Canadiens weren’t tough enough, but Gainey and Carbonneau say playoff grit will come with experience for their young players.
“I don’t see our players not playing their best because of the physical play of their opponents, but I’ve often seen teams have a lot of problems with our speed,” said Gainey.
“People said all year we don’t have a physical team,” he said. “I heard it every day, but we finished first in our conference.
“During the season, nearly every game we played against teams that were supposed to be more physical than us, we won. Against Philadelphia, we played well. We just lack a little experience. Maybe that hurt us.”
Gainey said he his top job this summer will be finding help at forward and is ready to go hard for an unrestricted free agent if the right one becomes available.
“We’ll be open to trying to find another forward,” he said. “Our defence, we have some long-term sustainability.
“We have players under long-term contract and players we have rights to. So our forwards are a place where we’ll focus our attention. If there’s a player to come in from the outside, that would be our first priority.”
Gainey said he’s yet to identify which free agents he might pursue in the off-season. At the Feb. 26 trade deadline, the Canadiens made a failed bid to land Marian Hossa but the Pittsburgh Penguins winger might be available again as an unrestricted free agent July 1.
Last summer, the Canadiens made a big offer to centre Daniel Briere, but he opted to sign with the Flyers.
At that time, Montreal was coming off a rebuilding year in which it finished 10th, but attracting top players may be easier now that they are closer to being Stanley Cup contenders.
The Canadiens are also on a short-list of three teams trying to sign Swedish forward Fabian Brunnstrom, who visited Montreal last weekend. Gainey said the 23-year-old prospect is expected to make his decision by the end of this week.
“Our evaluation is that he has the talent to play in the NHL,” said Gainey.
The Canadiens must also decide whether to try to sign their own unrestricted free agents Mark Streit, Bryan Smolinski, Michael Ryder and Patrice Brisebois. Another group of restricted free agents includes defenceman Josh Gorges, winger Andrei Kostitsyn, centre Maxim Lapierre, defenceman Ryan O’Byrne and back-up goalie Jaroslav Halak.
Gainey said there were contract talks with Streit in November that fell through, but talks will resume.
“If we’re both on the same page and if he wants to come back, we’ll find a way to arrange that,” he said.
He will be in touch soon with checking centre Smolinski and defenceman Brisebois, two aging veterans who were strong in the playoffs and who want to come back for another season.
Ryder, whose goal production dropped from 30 last season to 15 in 2007-08, was a healthy scratch on many nights during the season and dressed for only four of 12 playoff games.
His is expected to move on, but Gainey had kind words for the 28-year-old, pointing out that 13 of his 15 goals were at even strength, while 15 of his 30 last season were on the power play.
“Michael’s a little bit maligned,” Gainey said. “Our team got better and sometimes when that happens, roles within a team change.
“Michael didn’t get all the playing time he had before. He worked hard to get back in the line-up, but ultimately the feeling was that we were a stronger team using other players.”
But when asked if Ryder and winger Mathieu Dandenault will be back next year, Gainey said: “I don’t know.”
Dandenault has one year left on his contract, but was used sparingly and there is a suspicion he may be bought out.
No one took the loss to the Flyers harder than rookie goaltender Carey Price, who said this week he let the team down. Brilliant down the stretch drive to the playoffs, Price shut out Boston twice in the opening round, but struggled against Philadelphia.
The 20-year-old was pulled for the third period of Game 3 and sat out Game 4, then had a letdown in the final game as Montreal wasted a 3-1 lead before losing 6-4.