With the announcement this week that Michael Ryder will not be brought back to play for the Montreal Canadiens next season, General Manager Marc Bergevin will be on the hunt this offseason to replace his spot in the lineup. If you recall, Ryder was brought back to Montreal in a midseason trade that sent Erik Cole to the Dallas Stars.
That trade gave the Habs cap flexibility, given that Cole is signed for two more seasons at a cap hit of 4.5 million dollars, but took more size away from a team desperate to get bigger. Now, it is up to Bergevin to find a bigger body to take over Ryder’s place in the lineup.
The ideal fit for the Canadiens would be a big winger who can fit on any of the top three lines. The Canadiens could use an upgrade on defense, but with eight blueliners returning under contract (seven if you don’t include Tomas Kaberle, who is all but guaranteed to be bought out), the available cap space for next season will surely be used to add size on the wing.
Luckily for the Canadiens, there are plenty of upcoming free agents who fit the profile of their biggest need. Let’s take a look at the top five upcoming unrestricted free agents who could replace Ryder while adding physicality to the Canadiens.
5. Matt Cooke, Pittsburgh Penguins
Simply put, Matt Cooke is one of the most hated players in the NHL. He has toned his act down over the last couple of seasons but his on the edge play often leads to him crossing the line. However, his nastiness could be a welcome addition to a Canadiens lineup that lacks toughness. He remains the most hated opponent to the Boston Bruins, which could make him a great fit in Montreal.
Cooke is capable of adding some offense to the lineup as well. He chipped in 21 points in 48 games with the Penguins this season after scoring 19 goals in 82 games the season prior. He has a Stanley Cup ring with Pittsburgh in 2009, hits every opponent he sees and is one of the best in the business at getting under his opponents skin. Cooke will turn 35 before next season but would make a great two way line with Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher on a short term contract.
4. David Clarkson, New Jersey Devils
Clarkson had his breakout season in the NHL in 2011-12 when he reached the 30 goal plateau. He followed that up 15 more goals in 48 games this season for the struggling Devils. He is only an average sized player at 6’1 and 200 pounds but he plays a very physical style as his 84 hits and 78 penalty minutes attest to.
Clarkson would look great on a line with Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller, as well as being stationed in front of the net on the powerplay. At 29 years old, he has productive years ahead of him. The problem with bringing in Clarkson is his salary demand is rumored to be in excess of five million dollars per year on a five year deal.
3. Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks
Bickell has raised his stock considerably during this year’s playoff run with the Blackhawks. His seven playoff goals trail only teammate Patrick Sharp and David Krejci of the Boston Bruins. His offense is not his most attractive attribute as he stands 6’4 and weighs 233 pounds. Still, he posted 23 points in 48 games this season, and scored 17 goals among 37 points in 2010-11, his best in the NHL. At 27 years old, he is just entering the prime years of his career.
His enormous frame and willingness to get involved physically, as seen by his 108 hits during the shortened season make him a very intriguing option for the Montreal Canadiens. Bickell could be an excellent fit on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, a line that could play tough minutes against opponents best players.
2. Ryane Clowe, New York Rangers
Clowe’s offensive game all but disappeared this season before a trade deadline deal landed him in Manhattan. He was held goalless in 28 games with the San Jose Sharks, and he would finish the year with 19 points in 40 games. His best season came in 2010-11 when he scored 24 goals and 62 points.
At 30 years of age, it is very likely his offensive game can get back on track for the next few seasons. Even if the Newfoundland native’s 20 goal seasons are behind him, his 6’2, 225 pound frame will make him a highly sought after commodity in July. Clowe is not afraid to use his size to his advantage, as proven by his 99 hits and 93 penalty minutes in 40 games this season.
Clowe is the type of player that could play with anyone in the Canadiens lineup. He could be a great fit on a line Plekanec and Gionta or perhaps Rene Bourque, shutting down their opposition while chipping in offensively.
1. Nathan Horton, Boston Bruins
Of all the potential free agents, Horton is the one that will interest Marc Bergevin the most. He can be penciled in for at least 20 goals every season, is a tower of power at 6’2 and 229 pounds and is proving this Spring to be an excellent playoff performer.
Horton played a key role in the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. Habs fans will recall Horton had two overtime winners against the Canadiens in the first round of that run, one of which came in the seventh game. He would finish the postseason with 17 points in 21 games.
Horton was injured in 2012 when the Bruins lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals. This year, he picked up where he left off in 2011 and has 17 points so far in 14 playoff games. He could be the perfect fit alongside Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais, and could reignite Desharnais. Horton would also be a great fit with Plekanec, forming a great duo much like he currently does with David Krejci. Horton would be the best winger Plekanec has had to work with since Kovalev’s 84 point season. It would be fascinating to see what kind of damage they could do with Galchenyuk on the other wing.