Front Office Follies: a Hypothetical Rebuild

ApproCHez, ApproCHez…

Well, it has come to this. The Habs are taking their leave today after a truly horrendous season. From now on, every playoff-less day that passes will bring us closer to solving the hottest mystery of the off-season: who is the providential man who’ll be able to right the rudderless good ship Habs?

There’s only one problem.

It’s the wrong question.

There is no providential man. There is no saviour.

No sole candidate will embody every quality needed (or desired). There will always be something missing (experience, hockey past, winning record, ad nauseam).

Just like with the Habs themselves, curing what ails does not lie in the hands of a chosen one, but in the work of a well-crafted team. Needless to say, teamwork was not one of the strong suits of the departing administration…

The solution will necessarily involve a serious reshaping of the current front office. If public information is to be believed, Pierre Gauthier’s 7th-or-is-it-2nd floor was a bare bones operation. This is not only unexpected, but unworthy of such a well-established (and moneyed franchise).

Gauthier’s guys

Listing only hockey-relevant posts (leaving out marketing people, Evenko managers and the like), the Gauthier-era front office looked like this:

Geoff Molson President and Chief Executive Officer
Kevin Gilmore Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
Fred Steer Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Trevor Timmins Director of procurement and player development
Larry Carrière Assistant general manager, Player personnel
Patrick Boivin Director, Hockey Operations

That’s it.

This small coterie was entrusted with overseeing the fate of the team, the work of the living-dead coaching staff, the scouts (3 pros, 8 amateur – 4 of whom cover the USA!), Dr Mulder’s overworked medical staff, the 3 trainers and the 4 equipment managers (by the way, what’s wrong with this picture?). The quickest comparison with other teams reveal how woefully inadequate this all seems.

One example is the role of Patrick Boivin. The son of the former Habs president wears the title of Director of Hockey operations, which entails, according to the the website, “assisting the GM in several areas of hockey operations including budget management, league affairs, travel and team services as well as internal business cooperation”, but also in “contract negotiations and cap management”. I do not know Mr. Boivin, but the bio provided indicates that the 33-year old erstwhile engineer’s experience comes strictly from his work in marketing. Unless there is secret information to which I am not privy, that qualifies for the first part of the job description (team services), but does not give him a shred of discernible competence for the second (cap management). In other words, it looks like the departure of Julien BriseBois meant this area must have reverted to notoriously control-freak Gauthier’s rule….

Needless to say, the result has not been a resounding success…

Building a more respectable front office

The hockey side of a team’s administration usually brings together two main areas of expertise.

The first is the counter-intuitively named “hockey operations”, where the lawyers, number crunchers and administrators live. It is dedicated to the dollars-and-cents aspect of running a franchise, dealing with the budget, CBA issues , legal affairs (such as contract negotiations and arbitration hearings), strategic planning and “capology”, the crucial management and control of the salary cap. While you can find some ex-players among the fray (like Toronto’s AGM Claude Loiselle), this is mostly the province of youngish executives and business school types (like Tampa’s AGM Julien BriseBois).

The second area is “player personnel”, concerned with productively procuring (and getting rid of) a team’s assets (drafting, recruitment, acquisitions, etc.). This is the realm of the talent-spotters and savvy player evaluators, the people who actually build the team for present success and future performance. Men with pro hockey experience such as ex-players and coaches usually gravitate towards this side of the fence.

To this core can be attached anything else a team sees fit to suit its needs. Considering their recent history and the nature of their market, the Habs should consider adding to their front office a third department, dealing specifically with player development.

While I cannot boast any specialized knowledge or insider info regarding the search for the new GM and the candidates involved (or not), it is interesting to try to envision what the new front office could look like with the names usually tossed around figuring heavily in the mix. Hence, without further ado, here is my take on the matter…

HEAD OFFICE

President Geoff Molson
Senior Advisor/Senior VP (Hockey Ops) Serge Savard
(according to media reports, this actually became a done deal as I was writing!)

General Manager Julien BriseBois

Given what is likely available to Geoff Molson, BriseBois is probably the best available prospect. While people like Pat Brisson or Jim Nill would be highly interesting options, it is very likely that they are either unattainable (money-wise) or unavailable (contractually)… and Dale Tallon already has a job. Julien BriseBois’ CV is very well rounded, and as he is admittedly among the best up-and-coming executives out there, his francophone roots should not yield any “shallow pool” argument. While he did work on both sides of the divide, he is primarily a “hockey ops” type, and a relatively young one at that (though he has more actual experience than a Patrick Roy or a Marc Bergevin). He undoubtedly would need to surround himself with strong hockey people.

Senior advisor/consultant Jacques Lemaire
Speaking of strong hockey people… Coco’s vast knowledge could be tapped if need be!


HOCKEY OPERATIONS DEPARTMENT

Since BriseBois himself comes from this side, one could see a spot granted to an up-and-coming talent (meaning someone no one has ever heard of !). However, an experienced administrator with cap crunching skills would be a great asset to young BriseBois. No need for an ex-GM or player here, as the job suits young guns that grew up with the salary cap.

Assistant GM, Hockey Operations Claude Loiselle

Claude Loiselle, among the many assistant GMs in Toronto, is one of the names bandied about for the main job. I like him more as an assistant, and his candidacy is enhanced by the fact that he skated in the NHL and adds the ex-player factor BriseBois lacks.

This illustrates the main problem in finding competent help here. It is not the lack of excellent candidates – for example, Jason Botterill (PIT), Joe Will (SJ) or Laurence Gilman (VAN) – but the fact that they already hold the same position with other (successful) franchises. Hence, attracting talent without offering the big chair seems like it would be difficult (unless other factors intervene).

This might disqualify my first choice, Detroit’s prized capologist Ryan Martin, who at any rate might be impossible to lure away from the notoriously possessive Red Wings organization (see Jim Nill!). Unfortunately, the same can be said of Loiselle, who would probably rather hold out for a full-fledged GM job.

If push comes to shove, the Habs could look in-house, as Kevin Gilmore, Geoff Molson’s hand-picked COO, has worn this hat before with the LA Kings.

Director, Hockey Operations François Giguère

While his less than stellar track record with Colorado does not justify handing him the reins as GM, François Giguère is a very capable administrator, who might appreciate an official role in a NHL franchise. While it is unlikely, Giguère might accept this lesser title as a springboard for his return (with an eye to a future GM opening somewhere!), and would be a competent replacement for the chosen AGM should another team come calling next year!

If not, a young agent like Rand Simon (from Don Meehan’s firm) might wish to jump to the managerial side.

PLAYER PROCUREMENT DEPARTMENT

Assistant GM, Player Personnel Blair Mackasey

Current Habs employee Larry Carrière already holds this job (and came in under Geoff Molson’s presidency), so he could remain in place: his stint as an ill-suited assistant coach did afford him a close view of the current crew… but being Gauthier’s not-too-subtle spy may have damaged his credibility beyond repair.

Should a change be desired, Minnesota’s highly competent director of player personnel, Blair Mackasey, might be seduced by an “official” AGM title. Mackasey, a Montrealer (and ex-Expo!), is also bilingual, which doesn’t hurt…

Of course, there’s a plethora of interesting candidates out there who already hold this title with another team, such as Paul Fenton (NAS), Jarmo Kekäläinen (Jokerit/StL), Marc Bergevin (CHI) or Jeff Gorton (NYR), but they would, in all likelihood, stay where they are if no promotion or goody (like an executive VP title?) is involved in the deal…

Director, Amateur Scouting & special advisor to the GM Trevor Timmins

This is where Trevor Timmins excels, and unless he insists on a promotion (he could become AGM, Player Personnel himself), he should be retained in this sole capacity, leaving the player development side to someone else (like most other teams do). A “special advisor” tag with direct access to the GM might sweeten the pot (an executive VP tag coud also do fine!).

If Timmins is promoted to AGM (or refuses to relinquish development duties), alternative candidates include Minnesota’s Amateur Scouting boss (and former Hab great) Guy Lapointe, New Jersey’s Claude Carrier and Ottawa’s Pierre Dorion. At any rate, the whole department should be upgraded, from the current 8 (4 in the US!) to at least 16 scouts (e.g., 4 in the Q, 3 in OHL, 3 in WHL, 3 in US Collegiate and 2 in Europe).

Director, Pro Scouting & special advisor to the GM André Savard

The pro side of scouting is in dire need of an upgrade, and former Hab GM André Savard (now a “mere” pro scout with the Pittsburgh Penguins) is a proven commodity in this capacity.

Other worthy names include Vancouver’s Lucien DeBlois (also an ex-Hab) and Eric Crawford (Marc’s younger brother), or Boston’s Tom McVie. Should he not survive as AGM, Larry Carrière is also more than able to fill this spot. In any event, the Habs should hire more official pro scouts, to cover the NHL but also the various minor leagues, and Europe (a job held by Christer Rockstrom, who also handles amateur scouting duties!).

Hockey Analytics Expert ???

It might be a good forward-thinking idea to hire someone who could handle the “moneypuck” aspects of player assessment, including the development and analysis of advanced stats…

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT DEPARTMENT

This is an area that has been neglected in recent years, with a stupendous loss of promising young assets as a result. Paradoxically, there is no dint of ex-Habs who lived the tradition and bleed bleu-blanc-rouge who could be especially useful in handling transition to the Montreal market, ensuring proper encadrement for the incoming generation(s).

Director, Player Development Jacques Martin

Ironically, this might be a good fit for the unjustly sacked former coach, whose tenure in Florida should definitely disqualify him from consideration for the GM job. Unless he is poached by another organization, Jacques Martin remains on Molson’s payroll: his vast experience and well-documented love for teaching could be better harnessed in a development role than as an ill-defined scout, ensuring that future Habs can play well without the puck. He could even take fellow Hab employee Perry Pearn along!

Alternatively, if Vincent Damphousse wishes to gain managerial experience, this may be a way to get some while avoiding the harsh spotlight he shunned when he took himself out of the running for the main prize. Other former Cup winners such as Éric Desjardins, who held a similar job in Philadelphia after his retirement, Patrice Brisebois, who knows how difficult the market can become, or Bobby Smith, who has solid experience as a GM and coach in the Q, are also worthy of consideration. Should-have-been-a-Hab Ian Laperrière is an interesting outside candidate.

… but doesn’t this job profile fit the career path and personality of a Mathieu Darche to a T ? When he retires, he might be the perfect man for the job!

Player Development Coach Larry Robinson

Habs do not have a roving “special assignment” coach to ensure that youngsters will fit into the identity the future Habs will construct, but other teams do. For instance, Larry Robinson did it for the New Jersey Devils, and might be willing to do it for the Habs. This may also be a way to keep poor Randy Cunneyworth active in the organization, should other teams not come calling for his services. In any event, this is certainly a job that should be earmarked for Hal Gill when the big man decides to hang up his skates, as a springboard for an eventual coaching job.

Add to this an especially gifted salesman to attract UFAs (as Director, Player Recruitment), and a well-connected fixer to deal with player issues, notably off-ice (as Director, Player Relations, for example) to this framework, and this is a group that would come in handy!

So… any comments? Fire away!

CHazam!

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Dumpster Diving for Defense?

ApproCHez, approCHez!

Although I know that now is not the time to panic, a little ditty comes to mind as Chris Campoli becomes another shooting star (not like, you know, Yannick Weber!) in the Habs blueline constellation of woe.

“The roof is leaking and the wind is howling
Fans are crying ‘cos the (scoring) sheets are so cold
I woke this morning found my hopes were frozen
I’ve tried to fix the fire, but you know the damn thing’s too old”
(Phil Collins… slightly altered!)

So.  Another year, another depleted defensive corps. Another sight of Pierre Gauthier scrambling for answers and squandering money he’ll tell us he doesn’t have anymore when we actually might need it. Bah humbug!

With that in mind, I surmise the Habs should either:

  • decree that all further away games against the Leafs shall be “Heritage Classics” and play them outside, or
  • give serious thought to retiring Benoît Brunet’s or Murray Wilson’s jersey (what’s one more, after all?), making sure that no one sports #17 ever again.

And yet.

A leaky roof once is an accident. A leaky roof twice is a construction defect.

Allowing a roof to leak once is perhaps unfortunate. Allowing a roof, and an uninsured one at that, to leak twice looks suspiciously like incompetence.

Of course, the concept of building your defensive corps around an absentee defenseman, however talented, is perhaps of dubious wisdom. It becomes downright silly if, as the tricolore brass now tells us, they were well aware that Andreï Markov’s recovery wasn’t complete and that he would not be ready when the puck hit the ice. Signing Markov is not in itself a bad move, but making him the cornerstone of the blueline in abstentia is…

… especially if you also wish to take a gamble on a pair of attractive yet unproven commodities. Choosing Emelin and Diaz instead of re-upping old warhorse Roman Hamrlik for 2 years (or hiring another quality blueliner) may be financially sound, keeping the books clear for next summer’s spending boost, but it is downright reckless if all you have to fall back on is a defenseman that you dissed by giving him a mere one-year contract, a bouncing Czech and an immovable object.

Things take a turn for the worse as your insulation comes apart: a promising youngster gets hurt, an acquired asset shows why he couldn’t make it to the bigs, your coach decides that your smallest defenceman is of much better use as a fourth-line forward (!), and Glen Sather throws a spanner in the works by spiriting away your insurance policy off waivers. Faisant contre mauvaise fortune bon coeur, you get yourself $1,75M worth of spare tire, who promptly manages to blow up and leave you in the lurch.

Fun times.

Feverish prayers that Emelin and Diaz can hold the fort while Campoli and Markov watch from the sidelines are the order of the day. Should they falter, however, the Habs are left with an increasingly unattractive set of circumstances.

Dwindling possibilities

The smoking ruins of the UFA market are nothing if not scary, as the only rearguards left standing are offensive (indeed!) D-men Bryan McCabe and Brett Lebda, wannabe goon David Hale, way-past-his-prime strongman Nick Boynton, undesirable former Hab Craig Rivet aaaand… Paul Mara. Beard fans rejoice!

Alternatives aren’t much better. Should the Ghost be so inclined as to dumpster dive for pearls in the refuse of other teams mouldering away in the AHL, here is a list of what he could find:

  •  Also-rans (borderline NHL defensemen ousted from their post on a crowded blueline – hey, that’s my spot! – by the arrival of younger talent, expensive free agents or a combination thereof… a.k.a. what Jeff Woywitka would have been): Matt Corrente, Matt Taormina, Jordan Hendry, Brendan Mikkelson, Oskars Bartulis and the elderly Brad Lukowich. None of these are significant improvements. New Jersey’s 23 year-old Corrente, a physical defenceman, is perhaps the best bet if Emelin can’t hack it (Bartulis and Mikkelson being big guys who don’t hit).
  • Should-have-beens (once promising prospects of the “trade material” type, who never managed to jump to the next level, or couldn’t stick if they did): Bobby Sanguinetti, Ty Wishart, Matt Lashoff and, for some reason, former Flyer hopeful Ryan Parent (I like Parent, but he could have been picked up on waivers last week and wasn’t). LA Kings products Colton Teubert (a physical force, traded to Edmonton for the infamous Dustin Penner), Thomas Hickey and Viatcheslav Voynov (2 smallish puck-movers…) are hovering on the verge of that status… and Yannick Weber has apparently reached it. They are young, inexperienced and somehow flawed, hence no different from an Emelin or a Diaz.
  • Never-weres (veterans of the AHL with some NHL experience, who endlessly come up like bad pennies to plug holes and bide their time riding buses, otherwise known as “depth”): Richard Petiot, Danny Syvret, Mike Vernace (a Guy Boucher favourite!), Tyler Sloan and our (once) very own Jay Leach, Doug Janik aaaand… Brett Festerling. Move along, nothing to see here.
  • Last but not least, the salary-dumped: of the Three Stooges exiled to American League oblivion in the hope of hiding gross managerial incompetence, only 2 remain: with Sheldon Souray up and gunning in Dallas, only the ineffable Wade Redden and the inexplicable Jeff Finger remain. A recent victim of the Pegulapalooza spending spree in Buffalo, Shaone Morrisonn just joined them after clearing waivers… and THAT is someone the Habs should be looking at.

28 year old Morrisonn is no star, but he is a steady stay-at-home defenseman who can play with a mean streak and, at 6’4/217, can not only skate but actually clear the crease when needed (and how many of those do we have?). He is owed $2,075,000 this year, and is a UFA this summer, meaning no unwanted salary burden for 2012-13 . He is competent enough to retain a role even when (if?) Markov and Campoli are allowed to return (especially if Yannick Weber is stuck in his thankless role or dispatched to greener pastures).

An 8-men defense corps composed of Markov, Subban, Gorges, Gill, Campoli, Spacek, Morrisonn and Emelin is nothing to sneer at. This would allow Diaz (and even Emelin, if he agrees) to properly go polish his game in the AHL. If push comes to shove (a singularly inappropriate expression when it comes to the Habs), Morrisonn could be cast back from whence he came, and demoted/left to be picked up on waivers.

Ay, there’s the rub!

The problem with Morrisonn is that he plays for Buffalo (well… Rochester, actually, but hey!). The Sabres are a direct rival with an eye on the divisional title, and Darcy Regier is certainly not eager to do Montreal any favors . The same reasoning also applies to oft-mentioned trade bait Carl Gunnarsson out of Toronto (… minus the divisional title bit!).

The issue is further complicated by Morrisonn’s status, as he would likely have to clear re-entry waivers to be traded, and a team eager to claim him could do so at half his salary (I am actually not sure of this… but I have a strong inkling – does anybody out there know?). That makes him virtually untouchable at this point, since I suspect he would be picked up more readily at $1M.

Moreover, acquiring him would bring the Habs perilously close to the cap, even after the Blair Betts debacle (and doesn’t that one make the Habs look silly, while David Steckel struts his stuff and wins face-offs in Toronto?)… unless a chunk of salary disappeared as well (Weber’s would, of course): fan faves AK46 or Travis Moen come to mind.

So the outlook looks grim.

… and given past experience, I think we can safely kiss our 2012 2nd round-pick goodbye!

CHazam!

P.S.: I still regret the fact that Pierre Gauthier could not manage to get his hands on Eric Brewer before Steve Yzerman did at last year’s trade deadline, even though I understand that Brewer might not have accepted a trade to Montreal and/or re-upped as he did in Tampa.  Brewer is a quality all-around defenseman with decent size, who can eat up considerable minutes (like Hamrlik, but younger), a veteran with leadership skills to boot, able to mentor young players… just what the doctor ordered!

Training Campoli…

ApproCHez, approCHez !

So, in his infinite wisdom, Pierre Ghostier has seen fit to pluck defensively suspect rearguard Chris Campoli from the mouldering UFA scrap heap to « shore up » his defensive « depth » to the tune of $1,75M…

Hmmm…

Of course, it didn’t take long for rumors to start flying, from smirking I-told-you-so Markov injury speculations to ominous rumbles about PK’s condition. Let’s not go there.

The official line is that the Habs got a proven NHL player without sacrificing assets in the process, thus stocking up on roofing material to guard against any upcoming leaks . I am not entirely convinced.

Yes, the Habs did get a player with significant “NHL experience”, but most of that experience has yielded mediocre (and sometimes downright horrendous) results. Moreover, the $1,75M in cap space invested in Campoli is a significant asset, insofar as it represents potential for future acquisitions, a fact Pierre Gauthier himself underlined a few weeks ago. The Habs did not sacrifice draft picks (yet!), and that’s the good news, but to see him as a gift from the hockey Gods is pushing it a bit far.

Along Came (Cam)poli

The newest Hab is a serviceable, if unremarkable third-pairing defenceman. Rather unidimensional, he brings to the table a skillset similarto Yannick Weber’s (albeit more refined). He’s a mobile, speedy puck-moving defenseman and power-play point man (without Weber’s booming shot, though). Unfortunately, his defensive-zone coverage is poor, he has consistency issues, lacks physicality and is virtually incapable of clearing the front of his net. In other words, an NHL version of Alexandre Picard, a taller Marc-André Bergeron: an improvement, perhaps, but of the same ilk nonetheless. Campoli also shares with Picard the dubious distinction of having failed to impress the (current) Kanata brass enough to stick with that talent-laden powerhouse, the Ottawa Senators.

Why anyone figures this sort of defenseman would thrive in a Jacques Martin squad, where defensive awareness and steady, stolid “good-without the-puck” play within the rigid “system” is key, is frankly beyond me… unless you buy into the alternate-reality fantasy where Jacques Martin wants to field a speedy, skilled puck possession team.

Ghost World

It seems that, indeed, Pierre Gauthier has been spirited to this Fringy alt-universe. The choice of Campoli over the likes of, say, Nick Boynton, establishes clearly that gone are the shot-blocking, crease-clearing, roof-patching days of yore: immovable mammoths like Brent Sopel and Paul Mara Redux are now extinct. The Habs defensive corps shall henceforth be composed of quick-skating stickhandlers brimming with hockey sense who will transmogrify the Habs transition game from last year’s sorry mess into a delicate work of art.

Enter old master Andreï Markov, Bell Center Picasso P.K. Subban, jowly  Jaroslav Spacek, spiralling Yannick Weber, import Raphaël Diaz, and young gem Nathan Beaulieu. Add Josh Gorges, dependable there (as in every facet of his game), and even newcomer Alexeï Yemelin who can be surprisingly effective despite his “stay-at-home” reputation. Campoli fits that mindset.

There is nothing inherently wrong in taking this avenue… if your team is built accordingly. And there, as they say, is the rub.

Yes, the Habs have the “flying Smurfs” part of the equation down pat with Cammalleri, Gionta, Gomez, Desharnais on hand and Gallagher, Kristo and even Dumont waiting in the wings. Gauthier has also done a commendable balance job by snagging Erik Cole to relieve and mentor Max Pacioretty (while Andreï Kostitsyn, “The Tantalizer”, keeps flashing hints of the physical force he could be). But is this enough to overcome the serious snags that remain?

First and foremost, the Habs blueline, physically unimpressive, is not particularly adept (or comfortable) handling robust play, and seemed easy to dominate along the boards and, especially, in front of the net. There are no Kronwalls to our wannabe Lidstroms, no Douglas Murrays to our poor-man’s Boyles: the one man tasked with manhandling duties, Alexeï Yemelin, has not been impressive so far in that department. Spare tire Jeff Woywitka has proven woefully inadequate in his limited appearances, and the less said about Mark Mitera, the better. With Alex Henry on his last legs (such as they were!) and Brendan Nash injured, the only physical defenseman we have is junior-bound Jarred Tinordi. Chris Campoli, no Brooks Orpik he, now becomes part of the problem, not the solution.

Another concern is center depth, made especially glaring by the rash of training camp injuries that plagued the Habs early on. Little relief could be found for veterans Gomez, Eller and Desharnais with White, Leblanc, Bournival, Nattinen and Fortier also hurt. While Gabriel Dumont made the most of the opportunity, Andreas Engqvist did not shine. Nevertheless, the big right-handed Swede remains the odds-on favorite  for the job, and that is not really a good sign.

Linked to that issue is the continuingly woeful performance of the team in the face-off circle. Centers may bear primary responsibility here,  but the last preseason games have shown that this is a team flaw: rivals were often first to snag pucks that had officially been “won” on the dot. A lot of work needs to be put in that aspect of the game, insofar as it is very difficult to establish, let alone maintain puck possession when you have to run around and retrieve it from the paws of your adversary… especially if you’re not built for intimidation. The Habs must get the puck fast, and endeavor to keep it as long as possible, if they hope to be successful. In that regard, the nobody-wants-to-seize-the-day snail race for the 4th line center job is not a source of unbridled optimism.

Now that the experimentation/gross exploitation phase of the training camp is over, we should get a better idea of what the Habs have in store for what will undoubtedly be an eventful start to the season!

CHazam!

What’s Eating Gilbert Gorges? – a look at the standoff between Josh and the Habs

ApproCHez, approCHez!

 So what’s happening with the Habs and #26? 

The short answer is, I don’t know.

And unless you are Josh, his agent, or perhaps a close family member, or you are Pierre Gauthier or a member of his coterie, you don’t know either. This ignorance (and the lazy, hockey-less days of summer) leads one to speculate, sometimes intelligently, and sometimes in a more…em… whimsical fashion. To wit, or lack thereof, the widespread rumor according to which the Gorges clan would be seeking $4M+… a story that still has legs even though Gorges himself debunked it, and even though it seems, to be frank, patently ridiculous…

**of course, if Josh signs tomorrow for $4,25M, I’ll have to do a public mea culpa, but I’m not terribly worried!**

So why is a deal so simple in appareance, a deal that makes so much sense for both parties taking so much time? The situation is not akin to the mysterious relationship between Price and the Canadiens that had everyone guessing (mostly horrendously wrong) last summer. Gorges likes the Habs, the Habs like Gorges, the fans like Gorges… will you sign already? What are y’all waiting FOR?

As I have stated before, it’s coming. Soon. No worries.

While we wait, we can speculate as to what might be stalling the process, though!

Most analyses and educated guesses suggest that the disagreement hinges on the length of the contract, rather than a dollar rift between #26 and the Habs, begging the question: is the gap that hard to bridge?

Well, it might… and the reason for that does not necessarily reside with either party. For what might also be a point of contention is the nature of the comparables they intend to use at the hearing.

According to the CBA, an arbitrator has to take into account the performance of the player, his playing history (including illness/injuries), the length (and quality) of service to the Club and the League, pertinent personal qualities (leadership, public appeal), and two elements of particular import here:

  • the “overall contribution of the Player to the competitive success or failure of his Club in the preceding season” (not the preceding seasons, as “season or seasons” is generally used elsewhere);
  • The “overall performance in the previous season or seasons of any Player(s) who is alleged to be comparable to the party”, and the compensation such players are currently entitled to… but the Arbitrator cannot consider a player comparable unless one of the parties has submitted it as such in his written brief or pleadings.
  • However, the arbitrator shall not examine contracts signed by UFAs, (such as, say, Markov or Gill), or those of players not held as comparables. Evidence of prior offers and the history of the negotiations between the parties is also inadmissible.

Gorges is at a clear disadvantage in relation to the first point, since his injury did not allow him to contribute much to the team’s 2010-2011 season. Given the type of game he plays, his numbers are not spectacular either. However, to my untrained eye, a quick and dirty look at potential comparatives might give him hope if his stand is indeed term-related.

Of course, there is little point in trying to draw parallels between Gorges and as-yet-unsigned Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, or even Zach Bogosian or Luke Schenn. The strategy is thus arguably not a wait-and-see-what-they-get stance.

However, the parties might be stalling to see how the situation of Chicago’s Chris Campoli and Buffalo’s Andrej Sekera will play out: though Sekera and Campoli are more of the puck-moving variety, the three are of similar age and experience level in the NHL, with exit salaries close enough to match. While Campoli was awarded, in an anticipated ruling, a $2,5M contract (for a year, I surmise), from which Chicago promptly walked away as they said they would all along, leaving him UFA. is the one who can play chicken the longest (his arbitration is on August 3)  Sekera’s case will be dealt with by July 25, providing fresh grist to someone’s argumentative mill. Hence, I would not be surprised if Gorges signing occured between the 25th and the 28th. There, I said it!  Buffalo has settled with Sekera (4 years @ $2,75M), a deal which, given what follows, is starting to look suspiciously like what Josh will end up with! My completely sourceless amateur guess: Gorges want 4-5 years, Habs offer 2.

Among the RFA defensemen who have signed new contracts already, one can dismiss Keith Yandle and (hopefully) the likes of Grant Clitsome, Chris Butler and Theo Peckham as candidates, leaving two distinct clusters in play:

  • lowball contracts with a short term, like what Nashville’s Kevin Klein got last year (3 years @ $1,35M): Colorado inked early on both Ryan O’Byrne (2 years @ $1,8M) and Matt Hunwick, who posted numbers similar to Gorges’ in 2009-10 (1 year @ $1,55M), while the promising Karl Alzner just signed a surprisingly cap-friendly deal (2 years @ $1,285M) with Washington’s George McPhee, still up to his Jedi mind tricks.
Arguably, #26 is a much more important cog in the Habs machine than any of these young rearguards are to their team today. A more interesting array regroups shutdown men who are not expected to put up points on the board, but must establish their value in their own zone.
  • An “intermediate” value is that of well-known Francophile Ladislav Smid with the Oilers (2 years @$2,25M), though this is a result that (I think) Gorges would find extremely disappointing.
  • More interesting, and pertinent here are the contracts of Nashville’s Marc Methot (4 years @ $3M) and St-Louis’ Roman Polak (5 years @ $2,75M), two defensemen that, although more physical than Gorges, fulfil similar roles AND enjoy a similar status in their respective team. 
  • Add to those the Sekera deal (4 years @ $2,75M) and the Campoli ruling (1 year at $2,75M), and you get a good idea where this should be heading.

As I said, the issue cannot take root in a hypothetical offer of $1,4-1,8M (barely more than the required qualifying offer Josh received as per the CBA). It is reasonable to expect the money gap to span a range of $2,25M to $3M, perhaps augmented by 0,25M due to the “Montreal effect” of higher taxation and assorted niceties. I believe the rub might be in an unwillingness (in all likelihood on the part of the Habs) to commit to a longer term deal such as those of Methot and Polak and Sekera, especially with the uncertainty surrounding next year’s labor negotiations: the defensive corps still being in a state of flux, it is conceivable that Gauthier might not want to tie his hands for longer than the 3 years he granted Andreï Markov.

I would not go as far as deriving from that any conclusion as to whether Gorges is or is not part of the Habs long-term plans, since I believe the issue to be part of the larger conjecture brought on by the CBA’s looming renewal talks (does anyone have set long-term plans at this juncture?), but the argument can certainly be made, as AllHabs’ Stevo does skillfully here:  http://www.allhabs.net/feature/gorges-not-in-habs-long-term-plans/

Oh well!

Food for tought, as we wait for the inevitable resolution of the dilemma… a little hockey sustenance, to be digested under the sun, by the pool, between an Alouette fireworks display and an Impact-less suck-er game!

Chazam!

“The Next Kirk Muller” Guessing Game

ApproCHez, approCHez!

With the team lineup virtually set for September, the next big thing in the mad mad world of Habs fandom should be one of two things: the signing of Josh Gorges (before July 28), or the nomination of an assistant coach (possibly in the coming week, dixit Jacques Martin). Since I still firmly believe that the former is a foregone conclusion, let us address the latter.

In his regular stint on CKAC’s “Les amateurs de sport weekend”, hockey analyst Alain Sanscartier, who works the Ottawa beat and knows the Canadiens coach very well, brought up an already well-known, yet essential point: Jacques Martin is famous for the loyalty he shows to people he has worked with before (like Perry Pearn and Pierre Groulx, picked over higher profile possibilities upon his arrival).  Sanscartier expects Martin’s next assistant coach to be a member of his “garde rapprochée”.

I am not familiar enough with Jacques Martin and his history to know who these chosen few are, but a quick look through the coach’s pedigree reveals intriguing possibilities outside of the obvious names often heard this summer. With this in mind, a look at former Martin cronies who are currently available seems as good a means as any to whittle away the idle summer days!

Let’s start with the most obvious choices:

  • Randy Cunneyworth: Hamilton’s head coach, who led the team to within a goal of a Calder Cup participation last year, is on everyone’s short list. A former NHL player and captain (under Martin), he knows the organization and some of the young players Martin said he expects more of this season. Perhaps most crucially, Cunneyworth is familiar with “the system”. He is a long-standing AHL head coach, and it is not known whether he would like to “revert” to assistant, even if it means ascending to the NHL. Moreover, the Habs might prefer to let sleeping Bulldogs lie and leave the successful Randys combo in place this year, unless the other Randy (it is worth noting that Ladouceur’s name is never even brought up in Montreal!) is deemed ready to take over. Cunneyworth remains everyone’s favorite in the early running.
  • Peter DeBoer: The coach Jacques Martin himself plucked out of the OHL after a stellar junior career to coach the Florida Panthers, back in the day when he was their GM. He couldn’t single-handedly lift a franchise that lost Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton out of the mire, and was fired last Spring after an underwhelming tenure. A potential weakness in his resume is that he is not a former player, but rather a cerebral, X&Os type of coach. In terms of emotional display, he seems more similar to Martin than Muller in demeanor. He has no link to the Habs organization and is not necessarily aware of the peculiar aspects of coaching in Quebec, including the relentless media scrutiny he has certainly not known in Sunrise!  Somewhat unexpectedly, but not illogically, Lou Lamoriello has just picked DeBoer as the Devils’ new coach. DeBoer has been a head coach (at various levels) since 1995: an assistant’s job would have been a serious downgrade for him.
My esteemed colleague Rosalyn Roy (best known as Tigerlily), who recently attempted this amusing exercise, brought up three other names, of whom two are rather unexpected (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/765248-brief-overview-of-montreal-canadiens-assistant-coaching-candidates,
  • Larry Robinson: a bilingual ex-Habs from the Cup-winning era, Robinson is often evoked even though the post he would likely occupy is already filled by Perry Pearn. As a former assistant to Jacques Lemaire, he would not have any difficulty assimilating “the system”. As a formerGlorieux, he would certainly command respect, but his playing days might be too far removed from the current generation: his heir apparent, P.K. Subban, was born in the spring of 1993, as Robinson’s last season with the Canadiens was coming to an end! – Whether newly appointed Peter DeBoer will keep Lemaire’s former assistants (Robinson and Adma Oates) remains to be seen: Robinson could be free sooner than expected! 
  • Guy Carbonneau: with all due respect to the blogging tigress, and notwithstanding a good case made on his behalf, I think that there is not a snowball chance in hell to see the former captain return, especially under the not-so-new administration of Pierre Gauthier. Recent interviews show that Carbonneau is still bitter about the way he was dumped by Bob Gainey, and I don’t think his pride would relish being relegated to second fiddle under the bright spotlights in Montreal. Moreover, I am not sure Jacques Martin would like having his media-friendly predecessor poised to replace him if the team falters!
  • Patrick Roy: a constant wet dream of disgruntled Canadiens fans, #33 would certainly not leave his château-fort in la Vieille Capitale  to make his NHL entrance as a subordinate, especially to Jacques Martin (remember, Roy is the man who publicly derided Guy Boucher’s system as “too defensive” for the Q!). A man of Roy’s stature could find a head coaching job in a heartbeat (he is widely believed to be holding out for a job with the future Nordiques). Moreover, given his opinionated, extraverted and controversial personality (hardly a Hab trait!), it is difficult to envision a more hellish situation for everyone involved, as the fanbase would ask for Martin’s head at the first couple of losses in a row!
Now, a look at former Jacques Martin associates yield an interesting array of outside-the-box possibilities:
  • André Savard: as Journal de Montréal columnist Marc DeFoy pointed out, Savard was once picked by Martin to assist him in Ottawa (both were assistants to Pierre Pagé with the Nordiques in 1992-93), after 5 years as head scout for the organization… before being plucked by the Habs to eventually become their GM. He is a well-regarded scout with a nose for talent (in 2003, having just stepped down, he famously fought the selection of Andrei Kostitsyn over his own favorite… Jeff Carter!). Savard also has a wealth of coaching and managing experience, and is familiar with the surroundings! He might be interested in a comeback, although the administration that forced him out is basically still there. He did spend 3 years as Bob Gainey’s assistant GM, though, before leaving for Pittsburgh to assist Michel Therrien. He is still on the Penguins payroll as a scout, so permission would have to be granted to approach him.
  • Marc Crawford: another former player (although less distinguished than Muller), he is familiar with the sacrosanct culture of hockey in Quebec, although from “the other side’s perspective”! Crawford is a more fiery personality than Martin. The Habs coach served as Crawford’s assistant in the last year of the Nordiques and the first season of the Avalanche. Crawford, a veteran NHL coach, was recently let go by the Dallas Stars.
  • Mike Kitchen: a true dark-horse candidate, the former defenseman (and draft selection of the Kansas City Scouts!) has assisted both Jacques Martin and Peter deBoer in Florida, before joining the staff of the Chicago Blackhawks last year. He is currently under contract.
  • Guy Charron: a known figure in the Habs organization (he played 15 games in Montreal, and was later assistant coach during Claude Julien’s tenure), Charron was Martin’s assistant in Florida for 3 years, along with Pierre Groulx. However, Montreal’s storied franchise might not appreciate his claim to fame, as he played in 734 NHL regular season games without ever appearing in a single playoff game, an NHL record (broken at one point by Olli Jokinen, who went 827 games, but did finally participate in a playoff game with Calgary)!
  • Phil Myre: An extremely unlikely choice. Although a goaltender and primarily a goalie coach afterwards, Myre did sport the title of assistant coach with LA and Detroit between 1985-1990. Close to Martin, he did take part in his charity golf tournament a few days ago… but then again, so did Dany Dubé!

Leaving aside truly outside-the-continent thinking (bringing back Pierre Pagé from Europe, for instance), the one name that strikes me as a reasonably possible “surprise” nomination is the following:

  • Craig Ramsey: known to future historians as the last coach of the Atlanta Thrashers, Ramsey was told he would not be retained as coach before Winnipeg made the nomination of Claude Noël. His dismissal was viewed as somewhat undeserved, and due to the new administration’s desire to start anew more than to his performance. Like Muller, he is a former accomplished hockey player, and has even won the Selke (i.e. a Martin type of player!). In 1996-1997, he became Jacques Martin’s assistant in Ottawa, alongside Perry Pearn, so the trio has a history together. Ramsey is currently unemployed, and there are no openings for a head coach unless Lou Lamoriello chooses him.
So, folks, any other ideas, before the white smoke rises from the Bell Centre ?
CHazam!

One Month Later : State of the Habs!

ApproCHez, approCHez !

Yes, it has been a month to the day since my last post. During that time, I felt I had to refrain from comment so as to allow the Habs reconfiguration, however slight it might turn out to be, to take its course: restocking the pipeline at the draft, selecting what personnel would return, and addressing more pressing needs through free agency. Time’s up: I’m Back!

The Draft: Tales of the Unexpected

Whether Montreal’s 2011 draft class is remembered as one of pleasant surprises of missed opportunities will depend not only on the players picked, but also on the would-have-beens, as best laid plans were seemingly waylaid at every turn.

Experts agreed that the Habs should address one of several concerns in their organizational structure by targeting a forward, with either skill (Nicklas Jensen, Matt Puempel), size (J.T. Miller, Zach Phillips) or grit (Tyler Biggs, Boone Jenner). A few foresaw the arrival of a bulky defenseman (Jamie Oleksiak, Joe Morrow). They were both right… and wrong!

Drafts never go as expected, and this one saw players like Mark Scheifele, Jonas Brodin, Oleksiak and Miller go much higher than expected, leaving erstwhile top 10 candidates in the lurch. And so it came that the Habs, poised to select big center Mark McNeill at #17, saw rearguard Nathan Beaulieu fall in their lap… and just couldn’t pass on the gifted puckmover. Hoping for a double whammy, Pierre Gauthier did scramble to obtain pick #18 from Chicago, but to no avail (one wonders what he offered, since he had no 2nd rounder): Timmins named Beaulieu, McNeill became a Hawk… and the Habs ended up with a defenseman instead of the forward they planned on selecting!

Given the perceived similarity in the quality of prospects in the 3rd and 4th rounds, and figuring that two for the price of one was a sound option, Gauthier traded down his 3rd rounder for a pair of 4th, secure in his belief that the player he coveted would still be available by then. The gambit almost paid off… but came to naught when Ottawa picked skilled (but small) Jean-Gabriel Pageau, just before Montreal could. Timmins then turned to another defenseman, drawing unheralded American Josiah Didier out of his college hat… and the Habs ended up with a defenseman instead of the forward they planned on selecting!

Small (but skilled) winger Olivier Archambeault was then drafted in Pageau’s stead, while 21-year-old defenseman Magnus Nygren became the undeniable out-of-a-left-Scandinavian-field selection of the day.

After bringing a fourth defenseman into the fold by picking Darren Dietz, the Habs finally did manage to get their hands on a big forward, hulking Czech center Daniel Pribyl, before reverting to their fabulously unsuccessful habit of recruiting defensemen out of US high schools (Mac Bennett is promising, but Joe Stejskal, Scott Kishel, Philippe Paquet and the unmitigated disaster that was David Fischer are not, unlike successful 1st rounder Ryan McDonagh… in New York!). However, since the Habs could not even be bothered to sign half of the 7th rounders they picked since 2008, chances are Yale-bound Colin Sullivan will never be heard from again.

At the end of the day, the tally was: defensemen 5, forwards 2.

Although greeted with surprise in most quarters (and irritation in some), the stockpiling of defensemen, particularly scaled as it will turn out to be, is not devoid of sense (an upcoming entry targeting the current depth of the Canadiens organization will hopefully show that!). But all that belongs to the future. A more pressing matter – the status of Habs numerous free agents – had to be resolved forthwith.

Picking up the Pieces

To no one’s surprise, news that Andreï Markov would don the bleu-blanc-rouge in 2011 promptly followed (though many were astounded to hear he would do so for 2 years thereafter). Wagering on the word of their doctors, the Habs signed their once and future #1 defenseman to a 3-year contract at the salary he was already earning, as was expected all along. James Wisniewski’s tenure on Montreal’s blueline was as good as done.

Thus came true the not-very-bold prediction I made a month ago, namely that “the GM will take the conservative road and keep things as they are, letting the Wiz leave for greener pastures. Whether he will manage to recoup his loss and trade Wisniewski’s rights before July 1st is anybody’s guess.” As a matter of fact, he did, gaining Columbus’ 5th round choice (2012) in the process.

More surprising was the offer to 37-year-old warhorse Roman Hamrlik. It came with a sine qua non, risk-averse term of 1-year designed to offset the dreaded effect of the 35+ contract. Wisely, Hamrlik refused to take the bait, and chose to test the far more promising free agent waters, where he eventually got the 2 years he was looking for. Exit James, exit Roman…

Conversely, Josh Gorges’ decision to take his case to arbitration (adding a negotiation tool to the weak arsenal available to him as a RFA) was predictable. While the resulting uncertainty does create delicious drama for the fans, nobody seems to be that bothered on either side of the actual fence: Gorges expects to be back, and Gauthier expects him back this fall. One way or another, the issue will find some kind of resolution before (or on) July 28.

On a far less harmonious note, Benoît Pouliot would not survive another year the ire of the Canadiens’ brass, and his rights were not even qualified. The Habs resorting again to their horrendous practice of jettisoning an (undesired) asset for no return at all shows how much the talented but problematic forward had overstayed his welcome… and what an utter waste his career has been so far. The hard-working but decidedly too unproductive Tom Pyatt was also let go, a mild surprise given his status as a coach favourite.

Those moves resulted in a Habs team that looked almost exactly as the “Pierre Gauthier” model I had envisioned a month ago: penciling Engqvist in left three holes to fill in the lineup. No stupendously thrilling trade dazzled us before July 1st finally came around, and all eyes turned to the UFA market.

The Once and Future Free Agency Frenzy

Honestly, let’s give credit to Pierre Gauthier for his work on Canada day (or, more to the point, moving day!). I had written he would set his sights on what I deemed mid-range options (Tomas Kopecky, Tomas Fleishmann, Scottie Upshall, etc.) for a spot on the 3rd line… but that was before the mad market unravelled, stoked by Philadelphia fever, Buffalo’s Pegulapalooza (Ville Leino 6x$4,5, Christian Ehrhoff 10x$4,0), and the great Dale Tallon dumpster dive that saw my “mid-range” trio garner $11M for the next 4 years! Instead, not only did Gauthier target a viable top-3 option, and a proven power forward to boot, but he pried out of Carolina a player that I fully expected to stay put. Regardless of whether Erik Cole’s tenure as a Hab proves successful or not, one must admit it was hard to find a player more suited to Montreal’s needs on the 2011 UFA list.

Less thrilling perhaps was the 2-year contract granted to all but discredited netminder Petr Budaj, once touted as the Avalanche’s goaltender of the future . The Slovak-goalie-who-is-not-Jaroslav-Halak wilted in Colorado (where the goaltending position is utterly (and ironically) disregarded), losing hope of gaining a starter’s job and settling into a backup position he seems better suited for. Like Alex Auld last year, and with similarly less than enticing numbers, Budaj was hired out of nowhere to toil in the shadow of Carey Price (although he should see a bit more action than his predecessor).

In a mere matter of hours, the 2 key positions had been more than adequately filled . Yet, in the swirling free agent flurry surfaced one of these only-in-Montreal moments as the identity of the next man (likely the 14th forward, or 8th defenseman) became a litmus test of the GM’s competence. The fanbase became increasingly irritated as candidates viewed as desirable (Michael Rupp, Zenon Konopka, Maxime Talbot, …) or merely suitable (Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Pascal Dupuis) were whisked away by the competition. And so it goes, as few interesting catches remain in the dwindling crop (rugged winger Brad Winchester seems to top most wish lists).

As the dust settled, July in Habsland became so spectacularly underwhelming that rumours involving Chris Drury (?), Craig Rivet (??) and even Alex Kovalev (???) became the order of the day… while the badly sunstruck entertain vividly delirious dreams of Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty in the bleu-blanc-rouge!

Rolling in the Deep

Unimpressed, Pierre Gauthier took to restoring a Hamilton squad notably depleted by Bulldogs bolting overseas (Dustin Boyd, Nigel Dawes & Kyle Klubertanz… so far!), leaving through free agency (J.T.Wyman) or, of course, graduating (Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, Yannick Weber, Ryan White, and perhaps Andreas Engqvist). Brock Trotter was salvaged from the KHL to lend some scoring punch to the 1st line, while AHL old hand Brian Willsie will bring a much-needed veteran presence. Those yearning for a trade saw their desires fulfilled, however scarcely, when big winger Michael Blunden was acquired in return for small forward Ryan Russell.

Frustrated Fans should consider how these “negligible” moves did bolster the team’s depth at NHL level. To wit, Willsie (381 games) and Blunden (51) have limited NHL experience, a luxury in the projected Hamilton lineup: save for grizzled captain Alex Henry (177), and with Engqvist (3) expected to start in Montreal, Aaron Palushaj (3), Mathieu Carle (3), Brendon Nash (2) and Brock Trotter (2) combine for a whopping 10 7 games in the show!

Is it October yet?

As of today, the Montreal Canadiens have $7,68M in available cap space and 3 free roster spots ($2,56M per spot). One of these spots has Gorges’ name on it, so that should leave approximately $4,68M and 2 second stringers to find… autrement dit, $3M of “comfortable cap cushion for another day” should the GM decide to sit on it until the roof starts leaking again.

So far, what I termed “Gauthier’ big dilemma” seems to have been settled thus: the Habs intend to trust in (and stake their playoff claims on) the quality and health of their existing blueline corps, with the significant addition of Alexeï Yemelin as provider of defensive brawn.

Andreï Markov – P.K. Subban

Hal Gill – Josh Gorges

Jaroslav Spacek / Alexey Yemelin / Yannick Weber


The available money was deemed better spent on finding appropriate help up front, mostly in the form of Erik Cole. With another strategic addition, the Habs could conceivably align three balanced scoring lines in 2011, with a playmaker (Plekanec, Gomez and Desharnais/Eller), a sniper (Cammalleri, Gionta and Kostistyn) and a power forward (Cole, Pacioretty and the mystery newcomer, unless Darche, White or Moen are deemed up to the task).

Mike Cammalleri – Tomas Plekanec – Erik Cole

Max Pacioretty – Scott Gomez – Brian Gionta

Andreï Kostitsyn– Lars Eller/David Desharnais – NEWCOMER

Travis Moen – Andreas Engqvist/Ryan White – Mathieu Darche

Whether these scoring lines actually score, however, remains to be seen, but there are grounds for optimism.

On the other hand, sticking to their (lack of) guns, the Habs organization seems steadfast in treating size and grit on the bottom 6 as a secondary issue. Yes, newly-signed BAMF Ryan White shows plenty of sandpaper and spirit, but he is of average size, and neither he nor Travis Moen can to take on heavyweights if need be. Mathieu Darche is all heart and determination, but he is not rugged, and rookie Andreas Engqvist has the required size, but does not really play a physical game. Hence, while a 4th line of Moen-Engqvist-White would be gritty enough, it is not terribly intimidating. And yet, the yearning for a true “gros bonhomme”  goes on… and on…

As the dog days of summer stretch on, here is what we can expect to see before training camp starts:

  • Gorges and the Habs will settle before (or on) the fateful date, and arbitration will be moot;
  • Pierre Gauthier should hire a 1st line center… for the Bulldogs (Paul Szczechura? Jamie Lundmark? Michael Ryan?), for a recovering Louis Leblanc should not be ready to take on that role (and the collateral pressure) just yet;
  • A borderline NHL veteran or two (Rob Davison? Danny Syvret? Andrew Hutchinson?) could be added to Hamilton’s blueline, especially since Mathieu Carle might still bolt for Europe  has been traded for Mark Mitera, who has never played an NHL game;
  • Kirk Muller’s successor (remember him? he might be the new Hab with the biggest impact on the fate of the team!) will be nominated, and so will a new coach in Hamilton if Randy Cunneyworth gets the job;
  • A new player could be added to the NHL roster, most likely a 3rd line forward rather than a 4th line enforcer/agitator type, but that will probably wait until later in September;
  • Steven Stamkos will sign with Tampa, putting to rest all the silliness surrounding him (and so will Drew Doughty in LA);
  • Scott Gomez will not be traded!

As an extra added bonus, here are things we could see unfold between training camp and the start of the season (Feel free to add any missed coming attractions in the comments section!):

  • The mystery of the right-ended center will be solved: either Ryan White’s face-off skills will have improved enough to allow him to play center, or Andreas Engqvist will be deemed ready for the big league, or a plumber will be acquired (Adam Mair? John Zeiler? Paul Szczechura?) to fill Jeff Halpern’s shoes;
  • The status of Yemelin and Diaz will become clearer – should both fail and perform well below expectations, Gauthier will acquire a defenseman at some point (more likely via trade – kiss that 2nd rounder goodbye!), using the money hoarded during the summer;
  • The identity of the last extra (14th forward or 8th defenseman, or even a swingman like Jason Strudwick) will be sorted out, as dark horses candidates out of Hamilton (such as Mathieu Carle, Brock Trotter or Andrew Conboy) are evaluated.
  • A true assessment of Lars Eller’s health will determine whether he can start the season in Montreal – he probably won’t, and should even spend some rehab time in Hamilton upon his return… while Gauthier decides what to do with David Desharnais!
  • Scott Gomez will not be traded!
Sooo… what can we possibly find to write about until then?
CHazam!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your 2011-12 Habs… and Mine, and Pierre Gauthier’s !

ApproCHez, approCHez !

OK, so all the possibilities have been studied to death. It’s time to bring the pieces of our “Possess the Ghost” game together.

———————-

Goaltending ($2,75M on 1 player so far)

The goaltending position is settled, and while I would prefer to see Mathieu Garon back up Carey Price than Alex Auld, the variation in cost is about $500,000, and that is not significant. Let’s assume a $4M expense

———————-

Defense ($7,94M on 4 players so far)

Hal Gill – P.K. Subban

Alexey Yemelin – Jaroslav Spacek

Gauthier’ big dilemma is whether to bolster his blueline corps by adding two top-notch defensemen to his current foursome (or quintet, if one safely assumes that Josh Gorges will sign a new contract soon) or whether to save money for support up front.

If the Habs manage to bring Andreï Markov back, the first option entails either the return of James Wisniewski, or the signing of a big name UFA (such as Eric Brewer, Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff or Joni Pitkanen). That would inflate the defense budget by $11M, plus close to $3M invested in Gorges. Hence, this luxury package would bring the back end cost to $26M, and it would look like this:

$5M UFA – P.K. Subban

Andreï Markov – Alexey Yemelin

Hal Gill – Josh Gorges

Jaroslav Spacek

Carey Price – Mathieu Garon

With expensive new contracts coming next year for Price and Subban (among others), this solution is unsustainable unless Markov and/or the new UFA signs a one-year deal, a highly unlikely scenario.

A cheaper alternative would involve the acquisition of a $3M, mid-range UFA such as Jan Hejda, Jonathan Ericsson or Anton Babchuk, but the expense might not be worth the effort of substituting an outsider to Yannick Weber in Gauthier’s eyes

Consequently, I expect the GM will take the conservative road and keep things as they are, letting the Wiz leave for greener pastures. Whether he will manage to recoup his loss and trade Wisniewski’s rights before July 1st is anybody’s guess.

So the Habs $22M back-end configuration for next season should be:

Andreï Markov – P.K. Subban

Hal Gill – Josh Gorges

Jaroslav Spacek / Alexey Yemelin / Yannick Weber

Carey Price – Mathieu Garon

———————-

Offense ($30,08M for 8 players)

Substituting unknown quantity Alexey Yemelin for Roman Hamrlik frees up some money for changes up front, but that does not mean that Gauthier can go on a spending spree. The first 3 lines are virtually completed with the return of black sheep Andreï Kostitsyn and the imminent signing of RFA Max Pacioretty, although where AK46 should line up is open to debate.

Assuming Max Pacioretty is brought back for $2M (and that Gauthier forgoes the luxury package on defense in favour of the configuration above), the Habs can inject $8M to fill the remaining 5 spots in their offense. To that effect, two issues (should) dominate the thinking on the subject: the scoring woes of the top 9, and the lack of size/grit of the bottom 6.

To address the first, Gauthier’s problem lies in the paucity of talent available on the market this summer, pricing the few potentially interesting names (Brad Richards, Brooks Laich, Ville Leino,…) higher than their actual value. Of course, the GM can also opt for a quick fix by signing a 35+ player for 1 year (Vaclav Prospal, Cory Stillman,…), take a risk on a health-challenged asset (Simon Gagné, Tomas Fleischmann,…), or look for better 3rd and 4th liners while hoping that Kostitsyn might wake up and smell the free agency.

If need be, the Habs can afford a $5M addition, at least in the short-term. The problem is how to avoid a longer commitment, since youngsters like Pacioretty, Eller and Kostitsyn/his replacement will join Subban and Price (and perhaps Yemelin) in inflating the budget as soon as next year. It is thus very difficult to imagine wooing a Laich or Leino, who will certainly ask for a 4-5 year term.

The second problem is not an issue of scarcity, but one of sacrifice. Even if UFA Jeff Halpern is allowed to walk, the home-grown talent pool to fill the void includes incumbent RFAs David Desharnais, Tom Pyatt and Ryan White, plus farm hands Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist. Only 2 of these fulfill the requirements of the 4th line the Habs need: White has the grit in spades, but is of average size, while the big Swede Engqvist, who has the making of an excellent defensive center, does not really play a physical game. On the other hand, neither Pyatt, Palushaj or Desharnais match that profile.

Of course, current Habs Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche are true grinders, so a 4th line of Travis Moen, Andreas Engqvist and Ryan White is conceivable, although it is not a terribly intimidating one. The dilemma then becomes what to do with centers Lars Eller and David Desharnais, neither of whom are really suitable for a permanent job on the wing. One of them would probably have to be discarded to make way for a (hopefully larger) two-way winger who could provide some secondary scoring to the weak Hab offense (somebody like Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall or Pascal Dupuis). The fall guy here is obvious: Desharnais would have to go, unless he is willing to spend the season as a spare.

Opting for a supporting cast of Andreas Engqvist ($900,000), Ryan White ($900,000), David Desharnais ($650,000) and Tom Pyatt ($550,000), or any substitutable UFA that could bring in more brawn (like Zenon Konopka, Michael Rupp, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, Cody McCormick) would free about $5M… but what should Pierre Gauthier do with it?

  • Invest that sum on a top 3 forward, if he could find one on the UFA market (Brooks Laich, Ville Leino,…), or obtain one in a trade;
  • Add another quality defenseman (like the Wiz), and use Weber (or an equivalent $900,000 player) as a 14th forward);
  • Jettison a supporting character like Weber or Pyatt, and split the remainder to get two $3M forwards (Tomas Fleischmann, Jussi Jokinen, Éric Bélanger, Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, etc.), or one forward and a $3M defenseman (Anton Babchuk, Jan Hejda, Ian White,…).

I believe Pierre Gauthier should go for the 2nd option, or if not feasible, the 1st … but he will probably go for a fourth, namely sign a mid-range forward and keep a comfortable cap cushion for another day…

———————-

And now, it’s time to take the plunge.

For your consideration, here is my 2011-12 Canadiens lineup:

Mike Cammalleri – Tomas Plekanec  – Andreï Kostitsyn

Max Pacioretty  – Scott Gomez – Brian Gionta

Mathieu Darche – Lars Eller – Aaron Palushaj

Travis Moen – Zenon Konopka – Ryan White

David Desharnais & Cody McCormick

 

Andreï Markov – P.K. Subban

Alexey Yemelin – James Wisniewski

Hal Gill – Josh Gorges

Jaroslav Spacek

Carey Price – Mathieu Garon

  • if I could pry Jakub Voracek from the Columbus Blue Jackets without giving up Subban or Pacioretty, I could live with letting the Wiz go and keeping Weber in his stead…
  • if by some kind of miracle, I could get rid of Jaroslav Spacek, I would sign Tomas Kopecky instead of promoting Palushaj, and keep Yannick Weber as my 7th D

———————-

With what we know of the man, here are Pierre Gauthier’s anticipated 2011-12 Canadiens:

Mike Cammalleri – Tomas Plekanec  – Andreï Kostitsyn

Max Pacioretty  – Scott Gomez – Brian Gionta

Travis Moen – Lars Eller – $3M UFA (or Palushaj) 

Mathieu Darche – David Desharnais – Ryan White

Tom Pyatt & $600,000 UFA (or Engqvist)

 

Andreï Markov – P.K. Subban

Hal Gill – Josh Gorges

Jaroslav Spacek/Alexey Yemelin/Yannick Weber

Carey Price – $1M UFA goalie

———————-

And, of course, YOUR 2011-12 Canadiens:

 Mike Cammalleri – Tomas Plekanec  – (…)

Max Pacioretty  – Scott Gomez – Brian Gionta

(…) – Lars Eller – (…) 

 (…) – (…) – (…) 

 (…) 

(where do you fit Travis MoenAndreï Kostitsyn and Mathieu Darche in that grid?)

(…) – P.K. Subban

Hal Gill – (…)

Jaroslav Spacek – Alexey Yemelin

(…)

Carey Price – (…)

———————-

Have fun!

CHazam!

The Bottom 8: Size Does Matter (PG, part 6)

ApproCHez, approCHez!

Pierre Gauthier has been busy this week, ensuring the return of quality supporting character Mathieu Darche and,  arguably, locking up another of his top 6 players by re-upping Andreï Kostitsyn. Or did he?

Apparently, yes: the faith in AK46’s as yet unrealized potential seems to live on, although the terms of the contract show that it is not blind. But what if the Habs had the opportunity to seize a top-6 player on the free agent or, more likely, on the trade market?  I would jump at the chance, but I am not certain Gauthier will.

The addition AK46 means that $26,61M have been spent already on the top 6, with Max Pacioretty the only one piece missing. A hypothetical $2M contract for “Patches” would raise the total to $28,61M, so a sum of $9,39M can be used to round out the forward corps.

——————-

The Bottom 8

The Canadiens have 8 forwards under contract, and 3 of them – Travis Moen, Lars Eller and Mathieu Darche – belong in this category.

It would be very surprising to see all the incumbents return: Ryan White, the only real 4th liner of the bunch, should win a regular job at last, and the much reviled Tom Pyatt might also return as a spare part, but in all likelihood, UFA Jeff Halpern will be free to seek a job elsewhere. The two forwards left out are Benoît Pouliot, whose goose seems cooked with the Canadiens, and David Desharnais, neither of whom are 4th liners.

Of course, that depends on what one expects of a 4th line. The most exasperating aspect of the recent configurations of La Flanelle is the persistent refusal to address the true vocation of their bottom 3…

In 2009-10, this could hardly be called a line at all, since it served as a dumping ground for inefficient specialists (Gregory Stewart, Sergey Kostitsyn, Georges Laraque), dubious Hamilton call-ups (Ben Maxwell, Brock Trotter, J.T. Wyman) or internally displaced defensemen (Marc-André Bergeron, Ryan O’Byrne!). Only Trotter is still nominally a member of the organization.

Last season, the trio of Pyatt – Halpern – Lapierre (with 4th musketeer Dustin Boyd) was to assume this role. This time, it was actually a line, but it wasn’t a particularly sound one. It was a defensive unit (with no redeeming scoring value), but it was neither especially  energetic nor particularly intimidating. This makeup rapidly became moot anyway, as Boyd was demoted, Lapierre traded, and Halpern transmogrified into a 1st line winger (to everyone’s stupefaction). The vagaries of injuries, player movement and coach punishment then brought in another motley crew including top 6 exiles Andreï Kostitsyn and Benoît Pouliot, upstarts Lars Eller and David Desharnais, call-ups Andreas Engqvist and Nigel Dawes, actual 4th liners Travis Moen and Ryan White, and even, en désespoir de cause, defenseman Yannick Weber.

This has to stop.

——————-

Ideally, a contender should count on a third line that can provide secondary scoring, yet be defensively savvy enough to play against top lines, and on a 4th line tough enough to provide energy and physical play when needed, while not giving up scoring chances. The Canadiens have not been able to stabilize their bottom 6 in this way so far, but they have or can easily acquire the tools to do so in 2011-12.

Provided his shoulder recovers fully, Lars Eller has the two-way ability and hockey sense to pivot an effective 3rd line, while he grows into a more prominent role (which will require another season at least, since he needs to bulk up somewhat). His chemistry with Andreï Kostitsyn would make the Byelorussian Bear an ideal partner, especially since AK46 seemed more willing to mix it up physically and improve his “play without the puck” at the end of last year.

Would a bit less pressure to carry the team’s offense allow the consistency-challenged sniper to thrive with Eller? It might, especially if the Habs add another two-way player big enough to drive the net and more gifted than Travis Moen. This would allow the 3rd line not only to manufacture more scoring chances, but to actually convert them into points.

Unfortunately, I fear that the lessons of last year went unheeded: AK46 will stay in the top 6 until Jacques Martin loses patience, at which point the coach, for lack of a better choice, will turn to veterans like Darche or Moen. This should be  evidence enough why the acquisition of another forward with at least some offensive drive is imperative.

Of course, the Habs would already have this covered if Benoît Pouliot (an even bigger waste of talent than Kostitsyn) could reach even half of his potential, but this looks increasingly improbable as the big winger seems intent on shooting hinself in the foot at every opportunity. Will the Habs patience extend so far as to grant Pouliot a last reprieve? Jacques Martin’s attitude in the playoffs suggests not.

Fortunately, the free agent market, not teeming with top-tier talent, does offer interesting options in that regard, such as UFAs Ruslan Fedotenko, Scottie Upshall and Pascal Dupuis, or RFAs Tyler Kennedy, Wayne Simmonds and Jannik Hansen. There are plenty more on the trade front, even up to Eller compatriots Mikkel Boedker or Peter Regin, who could certainly do the job. My personal favorite for this particular spot would be Chicago’s free agent Tomas Kopecky, a big versatile winger  with upside.

The in-house candidate to complete the line would appear to be Mathieu Darche, or perhaps right-hander Ryan White if the Habs brass think his offensive weapons are sufficiently honed. In that case, Darche would revert to the role he held in the last two years, namely that of the veteran Swiss-Army-Knife spare, which would not be a bad thing either… except for Darche himself.

If we postulate a $2M UFA signing (say, Kopecky or Dupuis) joins Eller and Darche, the Habs 3rd line would cost $3,97M, and $5,42 would have to cover the last 5 spots in the roster.

——————-

For about $2,5M, the Habs already have 2/3 of a very acceptable 4th line in the combination of Travis Moen and Ryan White (pending the latter’s signing, a formality). Even though White is a natural center, he seems more suited for a winger position in the NHL, so what we lack here is a pivot. And that’s where the difficulty lies.

The only center left from last year’s squad is home-grown success story David Desharnais. Alas, it seems obvious that DD does not have the required makeup for a rough-and-tumble 4th line, where his size would be a hindrance and his offensive gifts would be wasted (the same can be said of Eller, even though he is bigger). It would make no sense for either party to see Desharnais forced by the Habs into such a thankless role… but would he fit anywhere else?

Unless one of the three centers is removed, the answer is no. Although he can manage very well in short term stints, Desharnais lacks the speed (to distance opposing defensemen) and sheer physical force (to battle for pucks along the boards) he would need to play 82+ games as a (checking) winger. That would preclude moving him permanently to wing, especially since the Habs already lack size at this position.

Since Plekanec is here to stay and Gomez cannot be gotten rid of (at least until next year), a center spot would only be open if Eller was the one to shift to wing. Last year’s experiment, though, demonstrated that the Dane is better suited for the center position (plus he won’t have acquired the strength he would need over the summer, because of his shoulder injury). If the Habs decide to go with that palliative again (Eller-Desharnais-Darche/UFA), the acquisition of a natural center in the Halak deal becomes even more befuddling than it already was; if they do not, Desharnais finds himself on the outside looking in…

To fill the hole in the middle of their 4th line, the Habs could turn to the farm and promote hulking Swede Andreas Engqvist. In his first year in Hamilton, the 6’4/197 right-handed center impressed his coach Randy Cunneyworth, who entrusted him first with defensive missions, and then with his second line after losing Desharnais, White and Fortier. Engqvist is a big man, but he is more cerebral than physical and does not use his size nearly enough to dominate the opposition. Nevertheless, Cunneyworth might put in a strong word in his favour, should he inherit Kirk Muller’s post as Jacques Marin’s assistant.

On the other hand, many UFAs fit the profile of a 4th line checking center on the market (such as Marty Reasoner, Vernon Fiddler, etc.). As luck would have it, the most interesting may also turn out to be a fearsome enforcer.

30-year-old Zenon Konopka is a 6’/211 energy center/winger who is not mere muscle, but is capable of decent defensive play. He offers a heady mix of brawn (he likes to throw punishing hits and is one of the most eager fighters in the League) with an uncanny dominance in the face-off circle: last year, he won 57,67% of the 1075 face-offs he took, faring better than Jeff Halpern (56.9% of 594) and Tomas Plekanec (50% of 1577). All reports indicate that he is a hard worker and a good teammate. He has also publicly stated that he would relish the opportunity to play in Montreal, and rumor has it that his agent offered his services to Pierre Gauthier last year, but to no avail. Konopka is not a luxury signing, since he earned $600,000 with the New York Islanders in 2010-11.

One of the reasons why Konopka was spurned might be the fact that he is left-handed, as are Plekanec, Gomez, Eller and Desharnais. The need for a right-handed face-off man to replace Jeff Halpern could lead us to Washington’s Boyd Gordon. The 27-year-old 6’1/200 center is a quality defensive forward, versatile enough to play wing, who won 58% of 719 face-offs last season. He also displayed the kind of work ethic Jacques Martin lusts for, and some innate leadership abilities, but he is not a brawler and doesn’t drop the gloves.

If a bruiser is necessary, Gordon’s linemate Matt Bradley, a 6’3/201 right handed winger, is also available. The Penguins’ Michael Rupp, a 6’5/230 winger who can also line up at center, could be an interesting alternative, if Pittsburgh fails in its attempt to re-sign him. To fill a spare role, a similar, cheaper option is Buffalo’s Cody McCormick, a 6’3/230 right-handed depth forward, who might be willing to sit out more often than the others.

Of course, an interesting way out of the dilemma could be to hire two of these men, but that would likely mean that Tom Pyatt would have to be sacrificed!

A satisfying overhaul would bring the total number of casualties from last year’s team to 3: UFA Jeff Halpern, and RFAs Benoît Pouliot and Tom Pyatt OR David Desharnais (or both). I don’t see how any of the RFAs could be retained as Bulldogs, so Pierre Gauthier would have to attempt to find takers on the trade market. None of these can be expected to fetch a significant return on their own, but their inclusion in a package might allow the Habs to increase their gain in a larger deal.

If the Habs were to hire three outsiders, say Tomas Kopecky for $2MZenon Konopka for $1M, and Cody McCormick for $550,000 to keep him on the same footing as Tom Pyatt, a total of $4,1M would be needed out of the$5,42M alloted, and the Habs offense would look like this:

Mike Cammalleri – Tomas Plekanec  – Andreï Kostitsyn

Max Pacioretty  – Scott Gomez – Brian Gionta

Tomas Kopecky  – Lars Eller – Mathieu Darche

Travis Moen – Zenon Konopka –  White, Ryan 

Tom Pyatt   Cody McCormick

$1,32M would be left out of our self-imposed limit of $38M.

Add this to the $650,000  wrung from the 7-men defense, and you have a surplus of $1,97M off our total $60M budget. That does not include

  • the $2,2M conservatively left out from the potential cap ceiling of $62,2M 
  • the extra $1,3M added if the actual cap reaches $63,5M.

——————-

With close to $2M left in our pockets, the ensemble above is clearly not an ideal, nor even an optimal lineup. We should be able to do better than that!

Next up: Bringing the Pieces Together

CHazam!

The Top 6: The Song Remains the Same (PG, part 5)

ApproCHez, approCHez!

To recapitulate where we stand in our game of “Possess the Ghost” (PG), we started with a budget of $60M that assumed a cap jump to $62,2M and a 38-18-4 distribution (if the cap rises to $63,5M, you could add as much as $2M to that, probably on defense). Hence, here is a look at Montreal’s back end so far:

The $26,5M+ “dream team” (that leaves a meager $33,5M for offence):

Brewer – Subban (or Markov – Bieksa, for LSD-type dreamers…)

Markov –Yemelin (or Yemelin – Subban, for same)

Gill – Gorges

Spacek / Weber

Price-Garon

 … and the homegrown version:

Markov – Subban

Yemelin – Wisniewski

Gill – Gorges

Spacek / Weber

Price-Garon

 Now, the $21,35 version that we’ll probably see:

Markov – Subban

Gill – Gorges

Yemelin / Spacek / Weber 

Price-Auld (or whoever)

Now let us move to the no less problematic issue of what can be done to get the puck into the opponent’s zone, namely: the forwards!

—————————

The offense as it stands today already costs $29,38M and is structured as follows:

Mike Cammalleri – Tomas Plekanec  – Andreï Kostitsyn = $14,25M/year

(…) – Scott Gomez – Brian Gionta = a whopping $12,36M/year

(…) – Lars Eller – Travis Moen = $2,77M/year

(…) – (…) – (…)

(…)

Restricted free agents, Max Pacioretty, Benoît Pouliot, David Desharnais, Ryan White and Tom Pyatt rounded out last year’s group with UFAs Jeff Halpern and Mathieu Darche. Bulldogs Andreas Engqvist and Aaron Palushaj (along with recent expats Dustin Boyd and Nigel Dawes) were also called up.

If every one of the RFAs returned with a qualifying offer (i.e. at minimum cost), and Darche and Halpern signed the same contract as last year, the cost of the lineup would rise to $33,39M.

Mike Cammalleri – Tomas Plekanec  – Andreï Kostitsyn = $14,25M/year

Max Pacioretty ($826,875) – Scott Gomez – Brian Gionta = $13,06M/year

Benoit Pouliot ($1,35) – Lars Eller – Travis Moen  = $3,22M/year

Pyatt, Tom ($550,000) – Desharnais, David ($605,000) – White, Ryan ($605,000) = $01,76M/year

Mathieu Darche ($500,000) – Jeff Halpern $600,000) = $01,10M/year

Add the 7-men defense under the same conditions, i.e. with minimal qualifying offers to Josh Gorges ($1,3M) and Yannick Weber ($605,000), plus Markov & Auld signing at the same price, and the current roster “at cost” is worth $52,75 (leaving a cap space of$9,45).

With a more “realistic” assessment (including Pacioretty at $1,75M,   Pouliot at $1,35M$3,75M for Desharnais, White, Pyatt, Darche and HalpernJosh Gorges at $2,75M and $900,000 for Yannick Weber),  the price rises to $56,55, leaving $5,65M cap space.

Given these figures, the Habs could either splurge on their back end (bringing Wisniewski back, for example), or look for improvement from the likes of Halpern, Pouliot and Pyatt up front.

————————————

The Top 6

If Andreï Kostitsyn could muster a level of performance worthy of his talent with any consistency, and if stanchions did not exist, there would be no need to dwell at length on the first 2 lines: Cammalleri – Plekanec – Kostitsyn and Pacioretty – Gomez – Gionta, however flawed, would be it. While it is almost certain that this is what the 2nd line will indeed look like (provided Pacioretty comes back unaffected from his ordeal), Kostitsyn’s maddeningly irregular play – and the chemistry he developed with center Lars Eller – may well force Jacques Martin to put him on the third line… where he would probably thrive.

The Canadiens’ woeful even-strength production since the Summer of Bob redesign is well documented. The appearance of offensive luminaries such as Travis Moen, Jeff Halpern or Mathieu Darche alongside its core duo speaks volumes as to the sustained lack of a true top-6 player (and, perhaps, as to the quirky humor of the coach as well).

Mike Cammalleri is arguably the only true top-3 player in the Habs lineup. The past shows he is able to rack up 1,0 points per game (ppg)… when he plays a full season, a feat he has not achieved in Montreal so far: his small stature (and, some would argue, the absence of a tough guy to protect him) makes him more injury-prone. When he is limited to 60 games or so, his production tends to dip in the 0,75 ppg range. Last season was one of those, and Cammalleri often looked frustrated and on edge. Nevertheless, based on these figures, the Canadiens can expect 60 points at least (and as much as 80 at best) from the diminutive sniper. Given the prevalence of “The System”, we could reasonably expect 65.

Perennially underrated Tomas Plekanec is a remarkably gifted 2-way center. His defensive prowess tends to eclipse his offensive output, especially come playoffs time, as he is tasked with countering the opponent’s best forwards. That, however, is not the job of a #1 center: ideally, Plekanec should pivot the second line (think of Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Kessler’s place in their respective teams), and he would rank among the league elite if he did. As it stands, he is expected to simultaneously fulfill these duties and be the main source of scoring opportunities for himself and his linemates, at even strength and on special teams: no wonder he tends to run down as the season progresses! Since his production tends to fluctuate between peaks of 0,85 ppg (70 points) and valleys of 0,50 ppg (45 points), we can fix 55 points (0,67ppg) as an acceptable benchmark. Of course, a better result could be attained by flanking him with two quality wingers on as regular a basis as possible…

It is difficult to imagine that beleaguered and bewildered center Scott Gomez can offer a worse performance than what he came up with in 2010-11, tumbling from two 0,80+ ppg seasons (in New Jersey and New York), through two 0,75 ppg years (in New York and Montreal), all the way down to a horrendous 0,48 ppg, -15 tally. If his career is not in an irreversible tailspin (which could land him in Hamilton this winter), a marginal improvement could bring him back to a 0,60-65 ppg rate, if not to his previous 0,75 ppg clip. That would translate to a 50-point season.

Gomez’s execrable results also had a negative impact on frequent linemate Brian Gionta, whose production was only a little less disappointing, also dropping from 2 years at 0,75 ppg to a 0,56 ppg result. The Habs must get at least 50 points (and probably more) from their captain if they wish to make the playoffs, let alone contend for the big prize.

One cannot really know what to anticipate from power-forward-in-waiting Max Pacioretty, partly because of his spotty record and relative inexperience in the NHL, and partly because no one knows for sure what the lasting effects, if any, of the savage blow that broke his neck this spring (and of the ensuing commotion) will be. A fully recovered Pacioretty should be able to come back with the same level of commitment and drive that had him on par for 0,65 ppg last year, making a horizon of 55 points reasonable in the circumstances.

Thus constructed, the 2nd line could yield approximately 155 points, but on the first line, removing Kostitsyn’s insufficient 0,55 ppg (45 points, occurring in streaks) leaves a gaping hole on the wing. No one in the organization seems able to step in at this time: size concerns seem to preclude the sustained use of Brian Gionta or promotion of Aaron Palushaj alongside Plekanec and Cammalleri. Martin said repeatedly he looked for someone to “drive the net” and create some space (small and speedy can go only so far). Hence, everyone’s dearest wish is that Pierre Gauthier can somehow lure a satisfactory candidate from free agency, or pick one up in a trade.

——————–

Pickings are slim, and shoppers are many on the UFA market (see Stephan Cooper’s review at Habs Eyes on the Prize).

Only 15 players show a better ppg average than AK46: 5 of those are 35+ (Teemu Selanne, Vaclav Prospal, Brendan Morrison, Cory Stillman, Andrew Brunette), 3 will almost certainly be retained by their team (Alex Tanguay, Erik Cole, Radim Vrbata), 3 have significant health concerns (Tim Connolly, Simon Gagné, Tomas Fleischmann), and one is simply out of reasonable range (Brad Richards). Jussi Jokinen and Ville Leino have the moves and the scoring acumen, but certainly not the size or toughness required, and will undoubtedly look for a significant raise (in the $3,5-4M range, at least) and/or a lengthy deal.

Remaining is everyone’s favourite non-Brad Richards target, Brooks Laich. He is sought not for his dominance as an offensive threat, but for his two-way versatility and physical presence in front of the net. Laich is a player that can fulfill whatever mission the coach requires. He would look good with Plekanec and Cammalleri, but the scarcity of forward talent and the resulting high demand will undoubtedly drive his price much higher than it would normally be… if Washington doesn’t re-sign him first.

The alternative is to take a risk on a player deemed “fragile”, either because of age (Vaclav Prospal), injury (Simon Gagné) or illness (Tomas Fleischmann). The latter is the more interesting in terms of age and upside.

Of course, a cheaper option is to stick with AK46 and acquire a borderline candidate, who can play on the third line but fill the void if necessary, in lieu of a Moen or Darche. I am intrigued by the potential of 6’3/203 Czech wingerTomas Kopecky, who has size, skill and defensive awareness, but has not put it together yet on a consistent basis. While I would definitely explore this possibility in any case, for he would make a good addition in terms of scoring depth, this is not really a solution to the problem at hand.

——————–

Although I do not believe in pitching offer sheets, RFAs can nevertheless attract interest as potential trade bait for teams in financial difficulties or seeking a change (for more on potential RFAs of interest to the Habs, see my last post).

From our perspective, the most interesting candidates out there, once you exclude marquee players such as Steven Stamkos or Zach Parisé (who should stay where they are!) are small but feisty Blues forward T.J. Oshie, speedy San Jose sniper Devin Setoguchi, quick Coyote rookie Mikkel Boedker and, at the top of the list, Columbus’ budding star Jakub Voracek, whose name keeps popping up in rumors. Combining size (6’2/213), deadly offensive skills and sound hockey sense, the 21-year-old RW born in Kladno (hometown of his would-be center Tomas Plekanec) has, on the other hand, performance issues reminiscent of a similar package of size and a great skill set… Andreï Kostitsyn. Moreover, given his status as an emerging force, the price would be steep, and the Habs may not have the requisite assets (a 1st line center, a top-4 defenseman) to tempt Columbus.

——————–

All this being said, the return of Andreï Kostitsyn likely means that no significant change in the first two lines will occur this year.  So the Habs can expect to buy 300 points with an investment of approximately $28,5M, leaving $9,5 for the bottom 6 players and 2 spares.

The assessment of the Habs’ top 6 remains the same as last year (and the year before): effective forechecking is hampered by the lack of physicality, and so is the Habs’ ability to sustain offensive drives; big young wingers cannot be relied upon to produce with consistency, because of MaxPac’s injury and Ak46’s character (and let’s not even speak of Benoît Pouliot!); the overuse of the best forwards, given their size and age, wears them down over the course of the season and makes the threat of multiple injuries very real.

If such is the case, hopes for future success depend on:

  • somehow wringing a better production out of Scott Gomez, and, as a result, of Brian Gionta;
  • avoiding the loss of one of the Small Three for more than a couple of games, and keeping at least 5 of the 6 forwards healthy at any time;
  • the full recovery and return to form of Max Pacioretty;
  • Andreï Kostitsyn figuring out that this would be the time to amp up his play, it being his contract year and all!

Haven’t we heard this before?

Next up: the bottom 8.

CHazam!

 

Tantalizing Tricolore Trade Targets? (a bit of temporary insanity)

ApproCHez, approCHez!

In the last post, we saw what the Canadiens could offer in a deal to get the forward they seek. The flip side of that equation is: who, or what could they get?

Three categories of assets can be acquired via trade:

  • Players already in the NHL
  • Prospects
  • Draft picks
Let’s focus on what we need , i.e. players, although I do believe that Pierre Gauthier might try to climb up in the draft in the coming weeks (by flipping the Habs’ 17th rank and one or two assets the other way)…

Players

These are also split into two types: restricted free agents, or players already under contract.

Of course, one can attempt to acquire an RFA by way of an offer sheet, but the drawbacks of that method are many (ill reputation, risk of retaliation, etc.), especially when some of your best players are slated to become RFAs themselves next year (for instance, P.K. Subban and Carey Price). The main problem is well expressed by Detroit’s GM Ken Holland:

“I think it’s a bit of an effort in futility because if you sign an offer sheet to a restricted (free agent) at the going rate, the team’s going to match. The only way you get these players is if you pay them way beyond what they’re worth. That’s really not what the cap world is all about. The cap world is about finding players that play beyond what you pay them.’‘

However, RFAs can become interesting trade bait, especially when financial woes or other issues seem to preclude their re-signing.

RFAs are young, generally unproven players (save for a Steven Stamkos or a Zach Parisé), and they can come with character or consistency issues (remember Sergeï Kostitsyn?), i.e. on the cheap. Sometime things work out (SK74, Clarke MacArthur), sometimes not (Dustin Boyd), but the potential reward can be worth the risk.

For example, here are – in decreasing order of age – a dozen of RFAs who could perhaps alleviate, now or down the road, the Habs’ offensive woes. Some, if not all of them, are believed available.

  1. David Jones: the 26-year-old Avalanche winger is extremely versatile (can play left or right, plays a sound 2-way game) and could sneak into a top 6 position. He is big (6’2/210) and strong, but is apparently not aggressive enough to maximize the use of his bulk. A red flag: he also suffered several injuries.
  2. Blake Wheeler: the 25-year-old former Bruin certainly has the size (6’5/208) and offensive acumen, but he has not played up to his potential so far. He needs to throw his body around more, and his “play without the puck” is a work in progress, so whether Jacques Martin would welcome him is anybody’s guess…
  3. Viktor Stalberg: the same can be said of the Hawks’ winger, also 25, who had shown promise with the Maple Leafs before being sent off in the Kris Versteeg trade. He is a fast skater, has size (6’3 / 210) and a nose for the net, but his defensive coverage needs work.
  4. Teddy Purcell: the LA Kings had given up on the promise of the prolific college scorer when they traded the 25-year-old winger to Tampa Bay, where he went relatively unnoticed until the Lightning’s playoff run. His size (6’2/198) and all-around offensive ability are attractive, but his inconsistency, and a somewhat lacklustre defensive game would be turn-offs for the Habs coach…
  5. T.J. Oshie: conversely, the 24-year-old Blues forward is not big (5’11/194), but he is much more of a physical player. The energetic 2-way forward can play center or wing, and displays a scoring prowess worthy of a top 6 position. His love for dishing out big hits makes him somewhat vulnerable to injury. He might be available because of some attitude problems (he notably skipped a training session without explanation), so may not fit the team-first mentality the Habs seem to want to foster.
  6. Devin Setoguchi: another maddeningly inconsistent winger whose best weapon is speed rather than size (6’0/200), the 24-year-old sniper lacks optimal strength to push through to the net or win battles on a regular basis, abilities that would increase his scoring chances… and that the Habs seek. He has shown a capacity to play a sound two-way game, but not as consistently as one would wish.
  7. Artem Anisimov: even if he is only 23 and was very successful with the Rangers last season, the big Russian center (6’4/197) could nevertheless be a victim of the salary purge expected from the Blueshirts in their bid to lure Brad Richards to New York. A playmaker rather than a scorer, the solid two-way forward has the wherewithal to pivot one of the top 2 lines of an NHL team.
  8. Shawn Matthias: another 23-year-old center with size (6’2/213) who showed a lot of promise upon his arrival, but has seen his development stall somewhat in the morass that is the Panthers organization. He plays a sound two-way game, is efficient in the face-off circle, and is loved by coaches for “doing the little things well”. He was expected to make more of a splash offensively than he has so far.

…the next four are “youngsters”, a draft generation removed from their predecessors:

  1. Josh Bailey: the Islanders are apparently not satisfied with their 21-year-old center’s progress. He is a skillful playmaker and passer who can also play wing, but is currently used on the 3rd line, where he is well served by his versatility and able defensive play, but unable to express his offensive prowess. He is still somewhat physically underdeveloped (6’1/188) to be fully effective as a 2-way forward.
  2. Kyle Turris: once Wayne Gretzky’s favorite rookie, the Coyote’s lanky youngster (6’1/188) has the requisite tools to become a 1st line center (talent, leadership, scoring acumen, playmaking skills, defensive awareness), but, at 21, has not yet matured into a full fledged top 6 NHL player, although he finally seems on his way there. For that reasion, Phoenix will probably not let him go.
  3. Mikkel Boedker: the Coyotes, however, might be persuaded to part wth this 21-year-old. The rookie winger lacks the ideal size (5’11/202), but compensates with impressive speed. He displays sound offensive instincts, along with the inevitable defensive awareness needed to integrate into “The System”. While he might not (yet?) rank as a top-6 player, he might be very well suited to the style of his fellow Dane, Lars Eller.
  4.  Jakub Voracek: rumors that the budding star was available swirled around the Blue Jackets at the trade deadline. If so, the 21-year-old RW would seem like a dream come true for the Habs: he has a great combination of size (6’2 / 213), deadly offensive skills and sound hockey sense, and he can be defensively responsible… plus he was born in Kladno, the hometown of his would-be center Tomas Plekanec. However, he tends to go through long scoring droughts and can take shifts, if not days off. Hence, this inconsistency and off-and-on performance are reminiscent of another player with size and a great skill set… Andreï Kostitsyn.

Voracek (who gets my vote!) and Oshie are probably the most suited to the Habs’ needs, but their status as emerging forces may make their price very steep. Gauthier may not have the requisite assets to tempt Columbus or St-Louis. The cheaper Boedker makes for an intriguing dark horse.

Moreover, some third and fourth liners of note could also be available, such as the Rangers’ humongous center Brian Boyle, LA’s energetic checker Wayne Simmonds, Vancouver’s feisty Dane Jannik Hansen and Pittsburgh’s tenacious sparkplug Tyler Kennedy. The UFA market, however, is much richer in players of that type.

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It is virtually impossible to know what established players are indeed available, unless teams make it public knowledge (as with Detroit’s Jiri Hudler). Yet some names are either obviously on the market:

  • players who have become burdens, either because of their salary or their behavior (or both):
  1. Montreal’s own Scott Gomez
  2. Rangers Marian Gaborik, Sean AveryChris Drury and Wojtek Wolski (the latter two could also be bought out)
  3. Devils Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston and Dainius Zubrus
  4. Panther Rostislav Olesz (and the contract ex-GM Jacques Martin signed him to)
  5. Calgary’s Daymond Langkow, Matt Stajan (NTC), Ales Kotalik (NTC) or Niklas Hagman (unless the latter two are bought out or buried in the AHL)
  6. Edmonton’s Shawn Horcoff (NTC)
  7. New King on the block Dustin Penner
  8. Playoff non-entity Alexander Semin
  9. Barry Trotz’s mal-aimé JP Dumont (NTC)
  10. Pittsburgh’s headhunter Matt Cooke
  • potential cap casualties for teams with financial issues or other pressing yet costly needs.
  1. Ranger Erik Christensen (if NY chases Brad Richards)
  2. Kris VersteegScott Hartnell or even Jeff Carter (of goalie-deprived Flyers)
  3. Canuck Mikael Samuelsson (following the price hike of Vancouver defensemen)
  4. Still tight Chicago’s Dave Bolland
  5. Detroit’s Valtteri Filppula or Justin Abdelkader (if the Red Wings have to replenish their defense)
  • underachievers or promising players who have disappointed, and are or may be available for the right price:
  1. Blue Jackets Nikita Filatov and Derick Brassard
  2. Ottawa’s Dane Peter Regin
  3. Toronto fans’ whipping boy Nazem Kadri (who grew up a Hab fan!)
  4. Edmonton’s U2 sensation Gilbert Brûlé, or even Sam Gagner
  5. Nashville’s KHL ghost Alexander Radulov
  • players who keep reappearing in the rumor mill:
  1. Forward-rich Oiler’s Ales Hemsky
  2. Colorado’s Paul Stastny
  3. Florida’s Stephen Weiss
  4. Columbus sniper Kristian Huselius
  5. Los Angeles face-off man Jarret Stoll

… and, according to Chuck Fletcher, apparently every Wild player not named Mikko Koivu (Brent Burns, anyone?)

Unfortunately, most of the aforementioned players are either of no use to the Habs, more problematic than what we already have (Filatov), or not accessible due to cap contraints (Semin or Gaborik, say!) or lack of appropriate assets  (ex. Hartnell or Carter would obviously be prized, but we have no goaltender to trade this year!). A name that stands out here would be Vancouver’s winger Mikael Samuelsson, if he is made available. Freed of his onerous contract, a bought-out, cheaper Niklas Hagman could also be intriguing.

Many other possibilities undoubtedly exist. Left to my own devices, I would probably enquire about the availability of big new Whitewash (?) center/winger Nik Antropov, versatile Blue Jacket (and Price nemesis) R.J. Umberger,  Calgary Flames winger David Moss or promising center Mikael Backlund, or young Predator Colin Wilson.

Far-fetched, I know, but, as the songs says:

“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”

What do you think?

CHazam!