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Alouettes GM Maciocia: No. 1 priority is to identify the team's core — and keep it

MONTREAL — Danny Maciocia’s off-season outlook compared to last year has flipped on its head.
Montreal Alouettes head coach Jason Maas, left, president Mark Weightman and GM Danny Maciocia, right, hold the Grey Cup at their end-of-season press conference Wednesday, November 29, 2023 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — Danny Maciocia’s off-season outlook compared to last year has flipped on its head.

A year ago, the Montreal Alouettes general manager was on the precipice of having to rebuild his team after several key players left in free agency amid ownership uncertainty.

Now he's working under stable ownership and heads into the off-season with the challenge of keeping a Grey Cup championship team together.

“It’s amazing how much things can change in 12 months,” Maciocia said at his year-end press conference at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday.

Maciocia has a new word to describe his team's approach as it begins working toward defending its title.

"We're not rebuilding anymore,” he said. “I think the word moving forward here in 2024 is we're going to reload. 

“We've got a nucleus and a foundation in place that we can just add a few pieces, and hopefully get on a run and compete for a championship every year."

The Alouettes defied expectations with an 11-7 record this season before their run to the Grey Cup, which included a 38-17 win over defending champs Toronto in the East final and a 28-24 upset over Winnipeg in the title game in Hamilton.

Maciocia is well aware it won’t be possible to bring back the entire championship team due to the league’s salary cap. His No. 1 priority in the coming weeks will be to identify the team's core, keep it intact, and build a perennial contender from there.

Quarterback Cody Fajardo, the entire receivers' group and some defensive standouts such as safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy remain under contract for next season.

But Montreal has 23 other players who could hit the open market if an agreement isn’t reached before CFL free agency opens on Feb. 13 at noon ET, including defensive lineman Shawn Lemon and linebackers Darnell Sankey and Tyrice Beverette.

Lemon and Sankey joined the team midseason and played key roles in shaping the Alouettes' defence, which led the team to success most of the year. 

Beverette blossomed into a CFL East Division all-star with 89 defensive tackles and seven sacks.

Maciocia said contract discussions have already begun with all three players.

"I would say those three are probably part of this nucleus that I've been talking about,” he said. “It's a matter of coming to an agreement, so there's work to do.

“The good news is the organization wants them back and these three players want to be back."

Beyond retaining the nucleus, Maciocia didn’t note any specific areas he felt the Alouettes needed to improve this off-season.

Fajardo battled through more than his fair share of hits after Montreal allowed 61 sacks this season, which points to needed improvements on the offensive line, but the Alouettes only allowed two sacks in the Grey Cup.

Maciocia listed most of the positions on his team Wednesday before saying, “Can we go with the same group next year? Why not.”

"We're just going to take a look at the free agent market and maybe fill a spot or two,” he said. “We're not in that mode where (we're saying) 'please raise your hand if you want to play for the Montreal Alouettes.' We're at a different place."

One position that’s up in the air, however, is at running back. 

Starting halfback William Stanback is another pending free agent, along with fellow running backs Walter Fletcher and Jeshrun Antwi.

Stanback, the league’s rushing yards leader in 2021, had an up-and-down season coming off an ankle injury in 2022 and totalled 800 yards in 14 games.

Maciocia said he's scheduled to sit down with the 29-year-old this week to go over his future.

"I'll be curious to see how he felt about his season,” said Maciocia. “Of course, he'll say it was a great season after winning a championship, but I'd like to see how he views his future. We'll sit down and go over it in detail."

Would the Alouettes consider transitioning to Fletcher as the starter?

"I honestly don't know, but it's definitely a discussion we're going to sit down and talk in detail about in the coming days,” said Maciocia. “We have choices to make and I hope we'll choose well."

Head coach Jason Maas, who Maciocia has repeatedly called his best acquisition, will be back next season. He expects most of his assistants to return to the sidelines with him.

Maciocia also said the entire football operations staff is under contract for next season, and he hasn't received any calls from other teams looking to hire from within the Alouettes organization.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.

Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press