Alouettes GM Danny Maciocia has some tough decisions ahead of him

Keeping Montreal’s Grey Cup-winning core together won’t be easy with so many key free agents to sign and the CFL’s salary cap to consider.

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It’s one thing to reach the summit in professional sports. But it’s another matter entirely to remain there.

Despite playing in a nine-team league, the Alouettes went 13 years between Grey Cup championships. That drought has renewed the organization’s hunger and passion to remain there after their improbable run to the CFL championship, culminating in their come-from-behind victory against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Nov. 19.

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“We’re not rebuilding, we’re going to reload,” general manager Danny Maciocia said Wednesday morning, during the organization’s season-ending news conference in the team’s dressing room at Olympic Stadium. “We have a good nucleus. We have a good foundation, but there are choices that need to be made. We can just add a few pieces, get on a run and compete for a championship every single year.”

As much as Maciocia and head coach Jason Maas would like to keep the band together, next season’s team will be different; that’s the reality of sports.

While several key cogs — starting quarterback Cody Fajardo, receiver Tyson Philpot, who scored the winning touchdown against the Bombers, and safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, the East Division nominee as outstanding Canadian — are under contract, Maciocia has 23 players that could hit the free-agent market on Feb. 13.

That list includes all three tailbacks — William Stanback, Walter Fletcher and Jeshrun Antwi — along with defensive stalwarts Tyrice Beverette, Shawn Lemon and Darnell Sankey.

Maciocia said he and Stanback, 29, have a meeting scheduled for this week, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Als elect to go younger and turn their attention toward Fletcher, 26. Stanback gained 800 yards rushing (5.4-yard average) in 14 games, but also earned a reported $160,000 last season. Should Stanback return, and with Maciocia operating under a 2024 salary cap of $5.585 million, he might be forced to take a reduced salary.

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Maciocia identified the tailback position, along with the big three on defence, as priorities, but understands he has some tough choices to make in the coming weeks and months.

“Internally, we’ll have to figure out how to make it work,” he admitted. “We have to identify that nucleus, that foundation and keep the core in place while making sure we fill out the other spots. Identifying that core and foundation is our top priority right now. We have to make sure we’re making the right decisions, because it’s going to be impossible to keep everybody and adhere to the salary cap.”

Despite Fajardo passing for 290 yards and three touchdowns against Winnipeg and being named MVP, it’s no secret this team was carried by its defence, which scored 11 touchdowns. Montreal will need to become more dynamic and improve on its league-low 31 offensive touchdowns this season. And while it wasn’t all the line’s fault, Als quarterbacks were sacked 61 times. Only Ottawa allowed more.

“Offensively, we’ll look at everything in the off-season,” Maas said. “We’ll detail areas in which we need to improve. Right now there’s quite a few things we can improve on statistically when you look at our offensive numbers. But there’s always various reasons why those numbers appear that way.”

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One thing that will remain unchanged is the symbiosis between Maciocia and Maas, dating to their days as coach and quarterback, respectively, with Edmonton. The mutual respect they hold for each other has never wavered. Maciocia reiterated on Wednesday the hiring of Maas last December was his best acquisition, especially for a team that had no owner at that time and was on the verge of losing numerous free agents due to that perceived instability.

“The job that was available wasn’t a head-coaching job,” Maciocia said. “It was a head-coaching job with some challenges, and Jason didn’t shy away from it. It had to be the right guy at the right time with the right team.”

Maas had his own demons to exorcise after being fired as Saskatchewan’s offensive co-ordinator. He also had some maturing to do following an earlier stint as Edmonton’s head coach — a tenure marked by several verbal explosions and acts of irrationalism.

“The power of discipline every single day, focusing on your job and focusing on getting better, far outweighs motivation,” said Maas, who became emotional while thanking Maciocia for the opportunity. “I can’t thank him enough for bringing me here.”

Meanwhile, while Maas and Maciocia expect the majority of assistant coaches to return, none are under contract for next season.

Finally, while the Als’ season-ticket base hasn’t been strong for years, president Mark Weightman said 700 new memberships have been sold since the team’s title victory.

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