By RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

The curious timing of the announcement that restricted free agent Josh Gorges had signed a one-year contract with the Canadiens may be something of an ominous sign for the young defenceman’s future with the club. To announce the signing of a popular player, both in the dressing room and among a core segment of the team’s fanbase, so late on a Friday night is hardly the pomp and circumstance one would expect. There’s likely to be no media availability with general manager Pierre Gauthier, and with Gorges himself in Kelowna, BC, at the Kelowna Rockets Alumni Weekend most of his comments will likely be with local media. All of this amounts to a real head-scratcher for Canadiens fans.

Several well-known members of the Montreal media are Gorges fans. It did not take long for Mike Boone of the Gazette to start referring to him as “my man” during his live-game blogs, and the fact that Gorges is a very good locker room interview helps that relationship considerably. He’s articulate and thoughtful, and goes beyond the usual clichés one hears from many hockey players. It is to be considered legitimate, then, when Dave Stubbs said that Gorges really wanted to sign a long-term deal with the Canadiens this summer. In an era when many players are looking to cash in at the age of 27 when they hit unrestricted free agent status, Gorges was more than willing to sacrifice that opportunity for the long-term job security of playing in a city that he loves and that has given him the chance to blossom into an effective shutdown defenceman and penalty-killer.

It does bear mentioning that it is a good thing that the contract was signed in advance of the scheduled July 28th arbitration hearing. These hearings tend to be nasty and often harmful to the relationship between the player and his club. The player and his agent talk about the value the player brings to the organization and how he deserves to be compensated a certain amount for his work. The club brings forward a list of negatives about the player and how he should be compensated much less than the player believes he is worth. Often times, players that go to arbitration leave the club at the first possible opportunity after having their sense of value torn to shreds. While Gorges does bring a lot of leadership and intangible qualities to the Canadiens, the club can simply point to his lack of offensive output, injury history, and other tangibles to reduce his perceived value.

Perhaps Gorges felt that his case was bolstered by several other shutdown defencemen signing long-term deals. These are players that are comparable to Gorges in that they do not put up big numbers but they also prevent the other teams’ top guns from scoring. Marc Methot of Columbus recently signed a 4-year, $12M deal. Roman Polak inked a 5-year contract with St. Louis that pays him $13.75M. These are both guys that signed RFA contracts that will take off a couple years of unrestricted free agency. They, like Gorges, are guys that outside of their home markets are probably not recognizable names to many fans, yet their respective organizations are very aware of what they contribute to the club’s success and sought to reward them for it. If Gorges and his agent approached the Canadiens looking for similar deals, they are no doubt both very disappointed at the offer of just a one-year contract that is reportedly worth $2.5M.

There is some justified apprehension on the part of the Canadiens to give Gorges a long-term deal at this time. Gorges missed the last 46 games of the regular season plus the playoffs due to an ACL injury that required reconstructive surgery. It was revealed that Gorges had been playing on a damaged knee since his days in Kelowna. Some may raise their eyebrows as to why he would do that. It must be recalled that Gorges was never drafted, and made the San Jose Sharks on a tryout basis before being traded to Montreal and becoming a regular. Had he opted for the surgery as a 20-year old, it may have meant the end of his hockey career before ever playing in the NHL. So he toughed it out, and the knee held out for many years until it just popped on Boxing Day in a game against the Islanders. A major knee injury and the ensuing reconstructive surgery leave major question marks as to how Gorges’ play will be affected, and it is justifiable that the Canadiens want to see for one season if Gorges can still be the same effective positional defenceman that he was prior to the injury.

It is a calculated risk that they are taking, and it may come back to haunt them. If Gorges has a very strong season he may look to test the free agent waters in July 2012 and find work with a new team. While the Canadiens do have a number of young blueliners that will be ready to step up and challenge for that roster spot, the leadership void would be felt. When the Canadiens were contemplating a new captain last summer Gorges’ name came up often in the discussion. He is very well-liked by his teammates, and his best friend on the team is the face of the franchise, goalie Carey Price. Even if Gorges does express a desire to remain with the Canadiens, it could cost them more in a year to re-sign him to a long-term contract than it would this year. Whereas they may have been able to sign him to a contract with a salary maxing out around $3M in the UFA years, to negotiate a deal next year $3M could be the starting point. They will already have to sign Price and P.K. Subban to new deals in 2012, and it is possible that a stellar year for Gorges means that his increased value could price him out of Montreal.

It is possible that the situation has been interpreted too negatively, and that this is simply a “show me” contract issued with assurances that a good season will be a harbinger for a new long-term deal to secure Gorges as a member of the Canadiens for years to come. But the fact that it nearly took a divisive arbitration hearing after taking several weeks of negotiations, and that the outcome was a mere one-year deal may indicate that the Canadiens are looking at their reserves on the blueline with the thought that a Jarred Tinordi or Nathan Beaulieu will be able to step in to the line-up and replace Gorges. Whether it is a decision taken by the player or by the club, 2011-12 may be the last season we see Josh Gorges in a Montreal Canadiens uniform. I hope that this is not the case.