The Montreal Canadiens are serving notice that they won’t be pushed around next season.
General manager Marc Bergevin made that clear with a trio of gritty and physical additions to his roster on the opening day of free agency, locking up the likes of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong up front while repatriating defenceman Francis Bouillon. It follows up the re-signings of Travis Moen and Ryan White earlier in the week.
“[Head coach Michel Therrien and I] talked today. We had a good discussion and we were both on the same page in that regard, wanting to add a bit more of a physical presence,” Prust said on a conference call from his home in London, Ont. “I know he likes players like that and believes that a team needs players like that to be successful.”
He was the biggest fish the Habs reeled in as the NHL’s market opened for business, signed to a four-year, $10 million deal ($2.5 million annual cap hit). He’s known for his strong fists but more importantly, he can also play the game. Prust was among the Rangers’ top forwards in shorthanded ice time last season, averaging nearly two minutes per game in both the regular season and the playoffs.
“I always knew that Montreal might be interested in me. You kind of hear on the rumour mill that they’re going to be interested and coming after you,” he said. “And just scouting teams coming up to July 1, what team is in need of your services the most and Montreal was at the top of that list. They really showed it today that they wanted me and wanted me to be a big part of this team.”
The 28-year-old had other offers, including one from the Rangers were he spent the last two-plus seasons. When the Canadiens came calling, he spoke to Bergevin, Therrien and director of player personnel Scott Mellanby. Prust was impressed by their positivity, the direction they saw for the team and their very strong interest. And while factoring in his girlfriend who lives and works in the city, the feeling that he filled a hole on the Habs’ roster ultimately tied it all together for him.
“I think they’re lacking someone like me in this lineup,” Prust noted. “They’ve got Travis Moen back that’s a big guy for them, a similar type of player. He and (Ryan) White have been here kind of alone in that regard to fighting and that physical aspect. Adding me is going to make our jobs a lot easier moving forward.”
Prust’s physical edge was developed in his junior days with the OHL’s London Knights, under the tutelage of Dale Hunter. In his draft-eligible season, he scored a personal-best 52 points (19 goals, 33 assists) while racking up 269 penalty minutes.
While the Canadiens haven’t been ones to back down when things get physical and edgy, they haven’t always had the muscle to back it up. And when they did (Laraque), the on-ice benefits and contributions were minimal.
Prust acknowledged that in the past the Canadiens were perhaps considered a team of whom opponents could take advantage. But, he says, that perception has become less so within the last year or so and with the team’s first dip into free agency, the knock against them won’t last much longer.
“I think we definitely took a step in the right direction today and made some good signings that are going to change that.”