Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Montreal Canadiens free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
Disclaimer: We have taken the decision to follow the modern-era definition of a free agent signing for this article in an effort to make this more challenging. A 100+ year franchise certainly could make this an easy process. Greats like Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard, Bernie Geoffrion and others, who attended try-outs and were signed to contracts, do not qualify. Therefore, we are selecting a player from the NHL Entry Draft Era.
THE ALL-TIME BEST MONTREAL CANADIENS FREE AGENT SIGNING
2009 – Mike Cammalleri: Five years, $30 million
Mike Cammalleri‘s game was a simple one; Get the puck on his stick and watch him score.
Selected in the 2nd round, 49th overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Los Angeles Kings, Cammalleri set his reputation during his junior career as a prolific offensive player. In two seasons in the OPJHL with the Bramalea Blues, Cammalleri amassed 67 goals and 191 points in 87 games. He earned the 1997-98 rookie of the year and was an OJPHL All-Star the following season. His college run in the CCHA showed just as much promise. He recorded 65 goals and 131 points in 110 games with the University of Michigan.
Making the NHL
Cammalleri split his first two seasons in Los Angeles between the Kings and their AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs. Playing in just 41 games over those two seasons, Cammalleri remained a member of the Monarchs for the duration of the 2004-05 season, due to the NHL lock-out, where he would break out with 46 goals and 109 points in 79 games, earning himself a place on the AHL Second Team and winning the Willie Marshall Award as the league’s top scorer.
Upon making the Kings, Cammalleri would spend the next three seasons on a team that failed to make the playoffs each year. Despite the organization’s shortcomings, Cammalleri enjoyed three fine seasons, including an 80-point year in 2006-07. He recorded his first 30-goal season (34). Cammalleri also won the Kings team award for most valuable player, the Bill Libby Memorial Award.
Moving to Calgary
Becoming a restricted free agent, Cammalleri and the Kings were could not agree on his worth. Cammalleri demanded $6 million and the Kings gave their rebuttal of $2.1 million. Arbitration came in to solve the dispute, awarding him with a two-year contract, $3.1 million the first year and $3.6 million the next. Cammalleri would play out just one more year in Los Angeles. It was an injury-riddled season where he would score 19 goals and 47 points in 63 games. The next summer he was dealt to the Calgary Flames in a three-team swap.
In the 2008-09 season, Cammalleri cemented his role in the NHL as a legitimate scoring forward when he lined up with Jarome Iginla. He scored 39 goals and 82 points in 81 games; leading the team in goals and finishing second in points behind Iginla.
In this time, Cammalleri had added some international hardware to his trophy cabinet. As a member of Team Canada, Cammalleri was part of the 2001 Bronze-medal team and 2002 Silver-mdeal team in the World Junior Championship. He was also part of the 2007 Gold-medal team in the World Championship. Cammalleri was honored as the IIHF World U20 Championship Best Forward in 2002. He recorded seven goals and 11 points in seven games in the tournament.
Cap constraints put a damper on the Calgary Flames retaining their beloved scoring forward. With the inability to keep he and Iginla together, Cammalleri tested the free agent market. He found a new home in Montreal, as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
The 2008-09 seasons had been a rough one for the Canadiens organization. Head coach Guy Carbonneau was relieved of his duties mid-season during their struggles, replaced by General Manager Bob Gainey, who served as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. While the team managed to squeak into the playoffs as the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference; they were no match for the powerhouse Boston Bruins. The Habs were swept away in horrendous fashion.
The team would make a complete overhaul in the off-season, from the product on the ice to the front office and beyond. Owner George Gillett sold 80% of the team to the Molson Family, making them primary owners of the organization for the third time in the team’s existence. Former Senators and Panthers coach Jacques Martin was brought in as the new head coach of the team. Gainey would handle the off-season, and the start of the new campaign before resigning. He was replaced by Pierre Gauthier.
As big as those changes were, nobody was ready for the on-ice winds of change that would occur. The Montreal Canadiens said good-bye to their longest-serving captain since Jean Beliveau in Saku Koivu, a player that exemplified everything it meant to be as a Canadien. Gone were also fan favorites in Alex Kovalev and Mike Komisarek, as well as good team players in Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Tom Kostopoulos.
Replacing almost half the team was no easy task, as the front office would soon learn. They made due by bringing in defensemen Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Paul Mara. Up front the Habs opted for speed and two-way play over size. They signed Brian Gionta, and traded for Scott Gomez in other high profile moves. They also made a minor signing in Mathieu Darche. Adding Travis Moen was a smart move at the time, especially given their need for some size in the bottom-six, there was still a big need for scoring.
As the new era swept in, the Montreal Canadiens pursuit for landed them notable names during the free agent frenzy. As the contracts rolled in, the Canadiens landed their guy in Mike Cammalleri. They signed him to a five-year, $30 million deal. The contract would earn Cammalleri an annual hit of $6 million, the very contract he was looking for before his departure in Los Angeles. His signing marked the beginning of new era with Gionta and Gomez.
At the age of 27, Cammalleri received a burden on top of his big contract; You’re the guy that scores goals, now go out there and score them. It was an anchor that brought down many good men.
In the end, the Calgary Flames’ loss was the Montreal Canadiens’ gain. What Cammalleri gave up in size, he more than made up for in the skill department. Canadiens fans would soon put to rest concerns of how much he made, as they quickly placed their concentration on how many goals he scored.
From the moment Cammalleri stepped onto the ice to the time the final buzzer was heard, the number 13 was noticeable every shift. While his first season with the team was cut short by six weeks due to a knee injury; Cammalleri scored 26 goals and 50 points in 65 games. He scored the 20,000th goal in Canadiens history. Cammalleri did all of this during a season in which the team had no serving captain, a first in franchise history.
He also had a memorable night on the 100th Anniversary of the Franchise. On December 4, 2009 the Canadiens would celebrate their 100th Anniversary as a franchise with a game against the Boston Bruins. There was a long pre-game celebration; and nearly every living legend who had played for the Habs was in the building. Once the game started, Cammalleri would steal the show. He scored a hat-trick, leading the Canadiens to a 5-1 victory.
The 2010 Playoff Run
Heading into the playoffs, the Canadiens were struck with the unfortunate role of going up against the heavy favorites in the Washington Capitals. However, with some white-hot goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, and the goal-scoring prowess of Cammalleri, the team would upset the Capitals in seven games. They would do the same to the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.
Although the Canadiens would bow out to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals, Cammalleri had left his mark. His seven goals in the Penguins series put him up with the ranks of Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur and Maurice Richard. His overall goal total of 13 would lead all players for the remainder of the post-season, despite the team not appearing in the finals.
The following season, Cammalleri would struggle, scoring 19 goals in 67 games and missing more time to injury, this time due to a separated shoulder. Despite his struggles, he recorded his 200th career assist and the Canadiens once again made the post-season. All heads once again turned to Cammalleri, in hopes of him returning to form for the big moment; a first-round series against the Boston Bruins, the team that sparked the change that led to Mike Cammalleri’s signing in Montreal.
While his 3 goals and 10 points led the entire team, the team and its fanbase were crushed by an overtime game seven loss. While the home team celebrated in Boston, the remaining picture in Montreal was a devastated Carey Price, seated on the ice in his blue paint. There was Mike Cammalleri, with his head down, fighting back the tears.
In the 103rd season of the Montreal Canadiens franchise, the team itself once again fell apart. Amidst the struggles of Cammalleri and the team as a whole, the replacement of Martin with Randy Cunneyworth, a rookie head coach who couldn’t speak the French language, sparked outrage amongst a certain portion of the fanbase. The move was ridiculed by certain members of the media and in a way, it divided the fans.
Following a 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues, a game in which the Canadiens were booed off the ice by their own fans, Cammalleri made some impact-filled comments. He told reporters that the team prepared like a bunch of losers and it resulted in them playing like losers. The words of a disgruntled player provided radio stations and newspapers with material and content for days; or so it would seem.
Two days later, Canadiens fans were given the old “Now you see him, now you don’t” act. Pulled midway through a game against the Boston Bruins, Cammalleri was dealt to the Calgary Flames. He was traded, along with the rights to Karri Ramo and a 5th-round pick in exchange for Rene Bourque, prospect Patrick Holland and a 2nd-round pick. It was a trade that heavily-favored the Flames organization.
Thus concluded his run with the Canadiens. In a way, it was short but it sure had its sweet moments. Cammalleri instantly became a fan favorite. He scored momentum-changing goals, helping lead a team to their first Conference final since 1993. Along the way he made history, and put his name in record books alongside the greats in the franchise’s history. Cammalleri was named the recipient of the Jean Beliveau Trophy for player who best exemplifies leadership qualities in his community. He played a huge role in organizing the Cammy’s Heroes program. He honored veterans, provided them tickets to Canadiens games and would meet up with them before each game.
In just three years, he was here and he slipped through Montreal’s fingers. In a case of “What could have been”, Mike Cammalleri is our choice for best free-agent signing; due to the impact he had in his short time with the club.