BROSSARD – For the two newest members of the Canadiens, the reason they signed in Montreal was simple: they want an opportunity to win.
Within minutes of the free agent market opening at noon on Tuesday, the Habs had already locked down their first UFA of the day. Landing 6-foot-2, 220-pound center Manny Malhotra immediately following the NHL’s opening bell, the Canadiens added a veteran presence down the middle in one of the most efficient faceoff men in the league.
“At this stage in my career, the most important thing is winning. You look at the season the Canadiens had last year and the way they’ve been growing as a team and the pieces they have in place, and to be able to be a part of something like that and try to take the next step with a team is something that means a lot to me,” confirmed Malhotra, who was second in the NHL with a 59.4% faceoff percentage in 2013-14. “For myself and my family, coming to Montreal is an opportunity to win and to say it’s a great hockey market is a gross understatement. We’re really looking forward to being a part of it.”
With 933 career NHL games under his belt split between the Hurricanes, Canucks, Sharks, Blue Jackets, Stars and Rangers, Malhotra enters the Canadiens’ dressing room as the team’s elder statesman and will be looked at to fill at least part of the leadership void left by the losses of Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges, who both became members of the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t say leadership comes from supply and demand,” offered the 34-year-old pivot, who wore the ‘A’ for the Hurricanes in 2013-14 and was a finalist for the Masterton Trophy this June. “It’s organic and it just kind of happens. I always feel like if I need to say something, I’m going to say it, regardless of who’s in the room or what my role is on the team. As you become a veteran, you feel that confidence and you feel comfortable saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said.”
Joining a team with a young core that includes three-time All-Star Carey Price, 2013 Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, 2013 Calder Trophy finalist Brendan Gallagher and 2012 Masterton Trophy winner – and 2013-14 39-goal scorer – Max Pacioretty, Malhotra is coming to his new club looking to become another piece to the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup puzzle.
“I liked everything that surrounds the whole organization – the history of it, the electricity around the city, the energy in the building and most importantly, the team that’s there right now with an opportunity to win,” explained the Mississauga, ON native, whose mother hails from Levis, QC. “I’m looking forward to being part of it and hope to contribute as much as I can.”
As for the role he expects to play when he suits up for his seventh NHL team next fall, Malhotra isn’t anticipating adding a new skill set to his game in 2014-15 – but he’s open to whatever Michel Therrien has in mind.
“For me, they didn’t really touch on quarterbacking the power play too much,” he joked. “No, it’s along the same lines of what my career has been the last few years: being strong in the faceoff circle, being strong on the defensive side of things, penalty killing and providing some leadership in the room. That’s where I’ve carved my niche in this league and they want me to continue that.”
Like Malhotra, fellow 2014 UFA signee Tom Gilbert jumped at the chance to join the reigning Eastern Conference finalists when Marc Bergevin came calling on July 1. Having seen action in just five playoff games throughout his eight-year career, the veteran blue-liner signed a two-year deal with the Habs hoping to bolster those postseason numbers.
“I think Manny touched on it with where he is with his career. Last year was eye-opening when I had the opportunity to play in Florida,” admitted Gilbert, who spent the first six years of his career in Edmonton before moving on to Minnesota and Florida. “Now as I look forward, I’m looking for what everyone is looking for: a chance at the Cup. Everyone is looking for teams that are going in that direction and Montreal is a great place to be. It’s the Mecca of hockey.”
Having previously played with Rene Bourque at the University of Wisconsin and Mike Weaver – who re-upped with the Habs 20 minutes before he would have become a free agent on Tuesday – in Florida, Gilbert was able to get some insider info on his new hockey home before signing on the dotted line.
“[Weaver] sent me a text about 30 minutes ago asking why I’m chasing him around and following him wherever he goes,” joked Gilbert, who received high praise from his former teammate when Weaver spoke to the media during his own conference call earlier on Tuesday afternoon. “It was nice talking with him given his experience of being traded here and hearing how the team was and he had nothing but great things to say.”
Finishing second on the Panthers in average ice time per game last season at 21:20, Gilbert was also third among all Florida D-men in power play minutes, second only to Brian Campbell among the team’s blue-liners with six points with the man advantage. While he won’t be a likely candidate to fill Gorges’ role on the penalty kill, he’s shown an equal affinity to the departed assistant captain for throwing himself in harm’s way, finishing second on the Panthers with 95 blocked shots.
“This is a good transition team. You see the players that are on this team and you want to get the forwards the puck as fast as you can,” explained the 6-foot-3 Minneapolis native. “For me, it’s about supplying that, getting the puck up the ice and trying to join offensively as much as possible.
“Playing in Montreal against the Canadiens over the past seven or eight years, you just get that feeling of what hockey is really about and how passionate the fans are,” added Gilbert, who admitted he was close to joining the Habs as a free agent last offseason. “Just seeing the way the team has developed over the past couple of years and the success they’ve had, I saw that this summer was a good opportunity for me to go to a team that’s continued getting better and has a chance at the Cup. Montreal is a great fit and I can’t wait to get going.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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