Five years ago the Montreal Canadiens made a big splash in free agency when they signed Brian Gionta form the New Jersey Devils to a 5 year 25 million dollar contract.
Gionta was known as a speedy goal scorer with the Devils, and did not disappoint in his first season with the Habs. The American right winger led the team in goals with 28 that season, even though he missed 21 games with injury. Jaroslav Halak and Mike Cammalleri get most of the credit for the Canadiens reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2010, but they would not have been able to do so without the contributions from Gionta. He finished second on the team in goals (9) and points (15) in 19 playoff games.
In 2010-11, his second season with the Habs, Gionta once again led the team in goals, scoring 29, which still stands as his most with the team. Gionta missed most of the Canadiens miserable 2011-12 season with injury, scoring 15 points in 31 games. He was injured with a bicep injury that required season ending surgery.
Gionta bounced back with a solid lockout shortened campaign in 2013, scoring 14 goals and 26 points in 48 games. Unfortunately he would once again suffer season ending biceps surgery in the postseason.
This season, Gionta struggled more than usual offensively, scoring 18 goals and 40 points in 81 games. For the first time in his Habs career, Gionta was demoted to a third line role and taken off the power play. His offense really tapered off in the postseason. Gionta scored in the Canadiens opening playoff game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but would not score another goal in the postseason, going 16 straight games without finding the back of the net.
It was an uncharacteristic slump for a player who has made a name for himself as a goal scorer in the NHL. Now, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin needs to decide if the 35 year old captain is worthy of another contract.
Gionta is not the sniper he was just a few seasons ago, but he brings more than that to the table. He has been a great captain for the Canadiens, fulfilling the role of leader and his work ethic is second to none. He regularly plays through injuries, makes no excuses and holds himself and teammates accountable.
In the postseason, Gionta was on the top penalty killing unit, a role he filled during the regular season as well. He would be a difficult player to replace, especially when you take a quick glance at the Canadiens depth chart.
The Habs are currently very thin on right wing behind Brendan Gallagher. Thomas Vanek played there after being acquired, but is hitting the free agent market and is unlikely to return. If Gionta does not return, that leaves Daniel Briere on the second line right wing and likely Dale Weise on the third. Briere had just 25 points in 69 games, and will be 37 years old when the season begins.
Further complicating things is that Gionta is 35 years old meaning his contract falls under certain criteria. If Gionta were to sign a two year deal and then retire next summer, his cap hit would remain on the books. This makes signing him to anything more than a one year deal is a bit risky.
Gionta showed this season and in the playoffs that he is quite capable of being a key member of a shorthanded unit. Though his goal scoring dropped to 18 in a full season, he had 40 points, showing even though he struggled in the playoffs, his offensive game has not totally dried up.
I think Brian Gionta is an ideal third line winger to have, and could still play on a shutdown line with either Lars Eller or Tomas Plekanec if Eller can become a second line center. I don’t see the team captain taking a one year deal, but he may accept a two year pact at 3 million per season.
He is not the same Brian Gionta that the Canadiens signed five years ago, but he can still be a very valuable member of next seasons Montreal Canadiens.