In the end, it all came down to cap space.
Faced with a lower limit next season, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin made his first major move at the helm Sunday morning, sending Scott Gomez back to his native Alaska with the intention of buying him out this summer.
“It was the best decision for the Montreal Canadiens, for the team’s future, to send him home and pay him his salary for the rest of the year,” Bergevin said as his team hit the ice for their first training camp session.
“He’s not here today because if there’s an injury down the road and he’s not healthy when the buyout period comes around, we won’t be able to (buy him out).”
The Canadiens will put Gomez on waivers and once he clears, so too will his spot on the roster. His cap hit will count towards the $70.2 total allowed this season but new rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow the team to save $900,000 on it, leaving the club to absorb $6.457 million. He’ll be paid the salary he’s owed this year and next, but his cap hit will be off the Canadiens’ books completely with a compliance buyout.
Acquired in June 2009 by then-GM Bob Gainey, he started his Canadiens career off strong, finishing the 2009-10 regular season first in assists (47) and second in team scoring with 59 points. It continued into the Canadiens’ Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Final that spring, Gomez leading the way in assists (12) and finishing third in points.
The following season, though, the slide began. He posted career lows across the board with just seven goals and 31 assists in 80 games played.
Last season, the much-maligned centre was bitten hard by injuries, appearing in just 38 games. And, of course, there was his infamous year-long goal drought. When all was said and done, his line read as two goals and nine assists.
“It wasn’t about his game, it was for the best of the Montreal Canadiens moving forward,” explained Bergevin, who informed Gomez of the decision early Sunday morning. “As an organization, we have to plan not just for one year but for the years to come. This scenario was the only choice left.”
Bergevin had stated at the team’s post-lockout press conference on Monday that he intended to have Gomez at camp and wouldn’t lay blame on the Canadiens’ 15th-place finish last season solely on the 33-year-old or any other individual player, a stance he reiterated on Sunday.
Head coach Michel Therrien broke the news to captain Brian Gionta, a long-time friend and teammate, upon the latter’s arrival at the team’s practice facility.
“Unfortunately, the personal side of the game is really hard when the business side takes over," Gionta said. “He’s a great guy, and he’ll bounce back from this. The first few days, I’m sure will be a shock for him.”
Despite underwhelming on-ice performances, Gomez was well-liked and respected in the Canadiens’ room.
“I had so much success with him and it was because of his personality on and off the ice. He really helped me out a lot,” said winger Max Pacioretty, who immediately clicked on a line with Gomez and Gionta when called up in December 2010.
Fresh off a career year, Pacioretty pointed to one incident in particular that really showed him just the type of guy the veteran was.
“One thing that my parents always mentioned to me was that in a situation, you really see how someone is when they react to something, and when I got hit by (Zdeno) Chara, Gomer was the guy who went after him and Gomer’s the guy who stood up for me, so he’ll always have a place in my heart. He’s helped me get to where I am.”
His now former teammates admitted that losing Gomez won’t be easy. But it’s a situation they have to deal with.
“I think any time a move like this happens, no matter what the situation is or when it happens, everybody takes a second look at themselves,” said Josh Gorges. “This is a business. It’s a business based on winning, now and in the future and that’s the hard part of it. He was a teammate of ours and to see him go is tough. But for the rest, we have to understand that’s the way hockey is.
“I think that has to push us even more to make sure that we’re at our best.”
A level they’ll have to find quickly in a very short season.