Friday, July 30, 2010

The Alex Effect

Pierre Gauthier signed Alexandre Picard and Alex Henry this week, further bolstering the depth on an already strong blueline. In fact, defense is where the Habs are strongest.

In so doing, Gauthier no doubt learned from the drubbing that Philly handed them in the playoffs. The Flyers were hardly a fashionable pick to win the East, esp when they were down to their third-string goalie, and with a couple of injured top-6 forwards.

But an incredibly strong blueline corps carried them through, and were inexplicably able to take two games from the Blackhawks (who had superior goaltending and more talented forwards).

The Habs already had a deep set of NHL-ready defensemen, but chose to let go of Bergeron and Mara. It was doubtful that either would settle for the two-way deals that Picard and Henry signed, enabling the Habs to leave them in Hamilton until they might be needed. Yannick Weber and/or Mathieu Carle would be the only Bulldogs the Habs had that might be able to make the jump. But Picard especially leapfrogs those two, and enables the Habs to allow the younger set to more fully develop at the AHL level.

Bergeron especially should find a home on an NHL team. His kind of PP prowess would be valuable to some teams, even if he has to play as a 6th or even a 4th line forward. With the revelation that was PK Subban, the Habs simply didn't need him anymore.

As far as when Picard (or Henry, should the Habs need more of an enforcer-type) might be called up, mark February 1 on your calendar. That's when Hamrlik's limited no-trade clause expires. The Habs will then be free to trade him to any team, not just the six he specified before then.

Hamrlik carries a significant cap hit, but his salary will be mostly paid by that time. His contract also expires at the end of the year, so he might make an attractive piece for a team making a playoff push but needing a #3 or #4 dman who can play on the 2nd PP unit and provide stable defensive help. They get the help without the lingering cap hit, and could be free to negotiate a more suitable contract for a defenseman of his age and skill set (somewhere below Spacek's $3.833M/yr).

And with the cap space gained by the Hamrlik trade, Gauthier could get a top 6 forward from another team looking to gain some value from a UFA they know they won't/can't resign. That is, assuming the Habs are still contenders at that point. If not, Hamrlik will probably just be traded for draft picks and/or prospects.

But if the Habs are contending, who might be that soon-to-be UFA top 6 forward? It could be Simon Gagne, if the Yzerman-makeover in Tampa Bay doesn't pay playoff dividends in it's first year. Granted he has a full no-trade clause, but he might just waive it for another chance at the Cup. The numbers work at least: he makes $250k less than Hamrlik.

Still all of this only works if O'Byrne is ready. O'Byrne will start the season as the 7th, but could conceivably take Hamrlik's slot by early next year. Gauthier could then and call up Picard (or Henry) as their 7th.

But if O'Byrne isn't ready, and the Habs are still playoff contenders, expect Hamrlik to stay put.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Getting Creative

What exactly was Peter Chiarelli thinking when he traded for Nathan Horton? The guy has tons of potential, but isn't worth the $4M cap hit he carries. Now of course, he's not exactly the waste of cap space that Michael Ryder turned out to be (also $4M). But for a team desperate to clear space, this wasn't a wise move.

So now Blake Wheeler, one of their up and coming stars, needs to be signed. An RFA, he was eligible for arbitration, and took it. Unfortunately, the Bruins only have $12, 229 in cap space after the Horton deal, according to And with that $12, 229 Chiarelli needs to sign another three forwards. Given that the NHL minimum salary is $500,000, I'd say Chiarelli has a bit of a math problem.

But Chiarelli's problem could be Gauthier's opportunity. Despite some missteps (the Gomez trade in particular), the Habs are in decent cap shape. Could Gauthier swing a sign-and-trade deal for Wheeler?

It all depends on two things: how much the arbitrator gives to Wheeler and how much Price ultimately signs for. The latter could have been settled by now had Gauthier been a bit wiser in playing his cards. We've gone over this in the last few posts, so no need to revisit that subject again.

But what would Wheeler get? Mason Raymond recently avoided arbitration by agreeing to a deal carrying a cap hit of $2.55M. Raymond is a bit smaller than Wheeler, a year older, one year's more NHL experience, and better stats: 25G/28A to Wheeler's 18G/20A in the same number of games. So based on Raymond's contract alone, Wheeler might get a deal worth $1.5M to $2M.

But the Habs only have $4.7M in cap space, and still need to sign Price and two forwards to fill out their roster. The only way this works is if Price signs for a reasonable $2.2M (his old cap hit), leaving $2.5M for Wheeler and another forward. That other forward would have to be someone like the diminutive but talented David Desharnais ($550K), leaving $1.95M for Wheeler.

And who would the Bruins take in return? Obviously they need some lower paid talent, so draft picks and/or raiding the Bulldogs' roster would be the only recourse. One could see Max Pacioretty ($910K) or Ben Maxwell ($850K), but Chiarelli would be wiser to aim for someone with potential but earning near the minimum. That might mean JT Wyman or Ryan Russell, each on one year deals for $550K.

But this all begs the question: why Wheeler? Everyone knows the Habs' main weakness is their lack of size up front. Wheeler addresses that with his 6-5, 205 lb frame. He's also right handed, and thus could take Kostitsyn's spot on the line with Cammalleri and Plekanec. That would push Kostitsyn into competition with Pouliot for the left wing spot on the second line -- a good thing since both players tend to disappear for stretches at a time, and both will be playing for a new contract.

The loser of that battle could then be pushed down to the third line, with Ellers in the middle and Lapierre on the right. That would give the Habs' much better scoring depth.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What's Price worth?

The Habs have a few remaining pieces to round out their roster for next year, the biggest of which is RFA Carey Price. As reported here earlier, Gauthier probably made a huge blunder by trading Halak and not signing a decent goalie to replace him (Alex Auld certainly doesn't qualify). Gauthier had the right idea by trading Sergei Kostitsyn for essentially the negotiating rights to Dan Ellis (and Dustin Boyd), as Ellis was one of the better goalies available. Maybe not as good as Turco or Nabokov, but certainly on a second tier.

But he still managed to fumble away that opportunity, letting Ellis sign elsewhere for a mere $500k more than what he eventually signed Alex Auld for. Now Price's agent is in the driver's seat, knowing that his client is the undisputed #1 goaltender going forward.

But this mistake aside, what should Price be paid? His cap figure from his original contract stood at $2.2M. But that certainly was inflated by his potential, not by what he had actually accomplished.

And the Habs can't afford much more than that anyway. According to Gauthier has about $4.7M left to sign Price as well as add a couple of forwards. The site makes a few assumptions about who will actually make the roster, including Boyd and Lars Ellers. These are reasonable assumptions, so one only needs to figure out who the two remaining forwards would be to arrive at the remaining cap space for Price.

Those forwards could be any of the following:
  • Max Pacioretty ($910k cap hit), another first rounder who could push Benoit Pouliot, Tom Pyatt and Mathieu Darche for playing time.
  • Ryan White ($850k), a gritty forward who would be the only right handed centerman on the team.
  • Alexander Avtsin ($607k), a big right winger who will only make around $67k playing for the Bulldogs. He could have made much more staying in the KHL, so he must think his chances of sticking with the big club are fairly good.
  • Ben Maxwell ($850k), who managed to grab a postseason roster spot with the Habs even though he could have been gaining valuable experience with the Bulldogs' own deep playoff run.
The safe bet for the remaining two spots would be on Maxwell and White. That would leave about $3M left for Price. One would hope that Gauthier would leave some cap room for future transactions, and sign Price for a more reasonable $2M cap hit. But Price's agent has almost certainly done the same math, and knows he can get more. And hence the prolonged standoff.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

2010-11 Habs

The Habs made quite a bit of headway in securing next year's lineup, by signing all of their RFA's except Price and Lapierre, and their lone must-sign UFA, Tomas Plekanec. Given these signings plus the Halak trade, the lineup for 2010-11 is taking shape.

The goaltending and defense situations are the most obvious. Price has been handed the reins again as starting goaltender (a big mistake on Gauthier's part, at least from a negotiation standpoint). Alex Auld will be his backup. Price has a lot of potential, and we'll see if he can live up to it, especially with the rule changes governing pad sizes.

On the blueline, both Mara and Bergeron will no doubt not be re-signed. Instead, Gauthier will go with Markov, Subban, Hamrlik, Spacek, Gorges and Gill. O'Byrne will serve as the seventh. This gives Martin a better mix of left and right handed defensemen than last year. It also has a nice mix of youth and veteran experience, as well as stay at home types vs the offensive minded. This is clearly the strength of the Habs lineup.

Up front, the only changes are the UFA's that couldn't be re-signed due to cap issues: Moore and Metropolit. Moore was brought in to improve the Habs' percentages on faceoffs. He did a decent job in the regular season, but fell off precipitously in the playoffs. Lars Ellers will probably take his place, given his projection as a future second line center man.

Metropolit was a gritty fourth liner, and had a much needed right handed shot (used to good effect on the PP). But he doesn't fit with the Habs' desire for speed. Gauthier acquired and signed Dustin Boyd as a potential fourth line center man, but it says here that Boyd is just insurance in case Ryan White doesn't work out. White showed real promise last year, and would be the only right handed center in the lineup.

So that would probably leave the forward lines looking something like the following:
Cammalleri - Plekanec - Kostitsyn
Pouliot - Gomez - Gionta
Moen - Ellers - Lapierre
Pyatt - White - Darche

Kostitsyn is a RFA next year. This is his last chance to prove that he wasn't yet another first round bust for the Habs. There are a few others that could make the lineup and push players like Pouliot, White and Darche for playing time. Pacioretty and Boyd would be the most likely candidates to round out the lineup, but JT Wyman's size and right handed shot would fit nicely. Ben Maxwell is another candidate and got a long look last year, but rarely made an impact.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Overpaid, Pt II

In the last installment we examined the contract given to Tomas Plekanec. It looks like he was overpaid, especially for someone who hadn't hit the UFA market yet and wanted to stay a Hab.

Maybe the biggest impact of the Plekanec contract was on the backup goalie position. Earlier we presumed Gauthier wouldnt simply hand the keys over to Price, given Price's inconsistent play. So Gauthier traded malcontent Sergei Kostitsyn for essentially the negotiating rights to Dustin Boyd and, more importantly, Dan Ellis. Gauthier managed to sign Boyd, but Ellis went elsewhere -- for only $500k more than what the Habs ended up giving Alex Auld.

When one looks at the probable lineup for next year, its not hard to see that the Habs only had about $1M to offer a backup goaltender. But here's where the Plekanec contract comes back into play: if the Habs had $500k more in cap room, Ellis or (better yet) Johan Hedberg could have been in play. Both signed for $1.5M per and both are goalies with a much better track record than Auld. Even when Gauthier traded for the negotiating rights to Ellis, he still couldn't close the deal. Gauthier was probably trying to pitch the $1M cap hit contract, and Ellis knew he was worth more.

It doesnt stop there: now that Price's agent knows that Price is the man, his bargaining position suddenly got much better. And the Alex Auld signing only reinforced that position. If Ellis or Hedberg were signed instead, the message to Price and his agent would be: we still have options.

The Plekanec contract may have also affected how Gauthier could improve his corps of forwards. He wanted to leave it mostly intact, but obviously could not afford to re-sign Moore and Metropolit (at least not at their current salaries).

Still, the Habs desperately need size and some grit, something that was only provided consistently by Moen and Lapierre during the playoffs. And that size and grit was available, for a decent price: Adam Burish was signed by the Stars for only $1.15M in cap hit money. His Stanley Cup experience and right handed shot would have been an added bonus too. But instead the Habs signed Dustin Boyd, for $500K less.

So if Plekanec signs for a much more reasonable $4M per, the Habs would have had a chance at Burish, Ellis and Hedberg. Much better than Boyd and Auld.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


There was much to like about the contract signed by Tomas Plekanec, not the least of which is that it came before both the draft and the July 1 free agent frenzy. It gave the Habs more certainty going into those critical periods.

The no-trade clause, while a potential negative, could also be viewed as a positive as it shows Plekanec's commitment to the Habs. He meant it when he said he wants to play in Montreal. The length in contract too is another sign of that commitment, and it also helps solidify the Habs pivot position for years to come.

When taken in conjunction with the Halak trade, it's obvious that their playoff MVP was moved to create the necessary cap space to sign Plekanec. And because Ellers was identified as the main player in return, one has to wonder about the future of Dominic Moore and/or Glen Metropolit in the short term, and Scott Gomez the long term. If Ellers works out as Gauthier thinks he will, he and Plekanec will form a solid one-two punch down the middle for the Habs.

But for all those positives, one has to wonder about the money. $5M seems a bit much for a player who seems to go invisible during the playoffs. By comparison, Ryan Kesler was in the same position as Plekanec (first time UFA at age 25) and also got $5M/yr. But Kesler also got fewer years, is a bigger body, had more points in both the regular season and playoffs, is better in the faceoff circle, and has a right handed shot to boot.

All of that says that the Habs overpaid Plekanec by maybe $1M/year. That kind of money would no doubt come in handy for a team that now has only $9M in cap space to sign their remaining free agents and fill out the roster.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Not as bad as it would seem

Trading your playoff MVP for a pair of prospects may not seem like the most shrewd opening move for Pierre Gauthier’s first offseason as Habs GM. But as we noted in our analysis of the Habs’ goaltending needs, small goalies like Halak were bound to be a bit of a risk.

So while Halak may be worth more than two (highly rated) prospects, he also might be worth less. At least Gauthier covered his bets by trading him to a Western Conference team, where Halak would be less likely to haunt his former team, either in the regular season or the playoffs.

And Gauthier did address some needs. The Habs are desperate for size up front, some scoring punch, and right handed shots. It’s too bad that all couldn’t be combined in the same player: if Ellers had Schultz’s size, grit and right handed shot, this would have been a much better deal. But Ellers may be the insurance Gauthier needs if he can’t sign Plekanec. Or if Gauthier can’t afford Plekanec by going after a big fish like Patrick Marleau instead. But the most likely reason for the trade is not the players received, but the cap space gained to both sign Plekanec and keep Hamrlik.

As we suggested in our blueline analysis, Hamrlik would be likely traded to gain the necessary space to sign Plekanec, Halak, and the rest. Little did we guess that it would be Halak traded to keep Hamrlik and Plekanec. Now Martin gets to keep his outstanding blueline intact, with O’Byrne as the seventh – meaning Bergeron’s days with the Habs are most likely over.

And from this perspective, the trade does make more sense. This offseason is chock full of established goalies that could be signed for a relative pittance. And signing one sooner than later would increase the pressure on Price's agent, instead of giving him free rein to assume Price is the automatic #1. And after his demotion to second string, Price can't assume anything.

Some have speculated that trading for the rumored-to-be-available Jeff Carter would be the better move. Certainly Carter would give the Habs a first line right winger with size and scoring punch. And he no doubt would have been the better pick than Andrei Kostitsyn in 2003. But his contract carries a $5M cap hit, basically placing the Habs in the same position as they were before the Halak trade: trade either Hamrlik or Gomez to free up some space to sign Plekanec and other FA's.

And perhaps that is the real end-game. Ellers has been talked up as a potential second line center. But the Habs already have Gomez and Plekanec. If Ellers turns out as Gauthier expects he will, then either Gomez or Plekanec will be expendable. And that will give the Habs much needed cap space in the 2011-12 season, when all the Habs dmen save O'Byrne and Subban will need to be re-signed.