SUN Hockey Pool

NHL free-agency warning signs

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:12 AM ET

Steve Montador is one of the NHL's good guys.

The former Calgary Flames defenceman is one of those people who is respectful and engaging to chat with, plays an honourable game and gives his all at every turn on the ice.

In short, he's the kind of character defenceman every teams would want and could use.

However, the contract Montador signed Thursday with the Chicago Blackhawks -- four years, US$11 million -- should be sending up red flags like fireworks around the Flames when free agency opens Friday at 10 a.m.

If Montador's contract doesn't, all the others we've seen lately involving pending unrestricted free agent blueliners should do the job.

That would especially include the likes of Christian Ehrhoff's 10-year, $40-million pact with the Buffalo Sabres and Joni Pitkanen's three-year, $13.5-million contract.

The deals signed by Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa ($4.6 million average over five seasons) and Edmonton's Ladislav Smid ($2.25 million per season) have more sanity, but Bieksa took a hometown discount and Smid was a restricted free agent.

The Flames aren't completely out of their salary cap straightjacket, even with the deal which saw them rid themselves of Ales Kotalik -- which cost a second-round draft choice -- so this is a critical time to be smart with the ownership's cash.

Yes, they're in a much-better position than they were prior to the draft-day deal, but aren't in a spot to dole out the kind of deals which are happening lately.

Especially with the hole the Flames need to fill.

Unless the Flames believe one or both of Cory Sarich and T.J. Brodie are capable of playing in the top four, they are on the hunt for a defenceman in the free-agent pool.

If players like Montador -- who played less than 16 minutes a game in the playoffs and was a healthy scratch for Game 7 of the series loss to Philadelphia -- is receiving that kind of scratch, it could be a frustrating few days for Flames GM Jay Feaster.

Either the Flames will need to over-pay for the defenceman they need or find someone in the discount bin and hope like mad they find that rare over-achiever from a player expected to be on the third pairing.

Anton Babchuk, who spent the bulk of last season in Calgary after the trade with Carolina which sent Ian White the other way, is looking for a raise from the $1.4 million deal he had last season.

It's a stretch to believe Babchuk could regularly handle second-pairing minutes, and he and agent Jay Grossman have to be looking at the deals out there and salivating at the thought somebody will come in with an offer in the $3 million range. Or more.

If somebody is willing to fork over that much coin, you can't blame them for taking it.

This isn't to say the Flames can't pull a $4-million player into the mix -- especially with those ridiculous deals like Ehrhoff's which are so front loaded you roll your eyes when somebody talks about whether they'll play every season -- but that's not what this team needs right now unless we're talking about a legitimate long-term player still with upside.

A player worth that kind of contract, especially for a team which can't seriously be called a Stanley Cup contender right now, doesn't appear in the mix on the free-agent market.

Prudence should be the word of the day and coming days around the Saddledome.

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/SUNRandySportak


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