Monday, February 25, 2008

Buyers and Sellers

Ah, the annual trade deadline. Time to separate the contenders from rebuilders. Last year, the Habs were caught in between. Trade upcoming UFA Sheldon Souray for some prospects and/or draft picks, and essentially give up hope of making the playoffs that year? Or go for it, and keep Souray for the rest of the season in an attempt to make the playoffs, knowing that he almost certainly would leave with his huge goal-scoring slapshot for bigger money elsewhere in the offseason?

Well, Gainey gambled and lost. He kept Souray, but the Habs still didn't make the playoffs, losing in the last game to the Leafs (who scored the winner with 7 skaters on the ice). Who could blame him? There are a number of teams this year who are also on the bubble, not knowing if they are buyers or sellers.

This year there is no such drama in what the Habs will do. They are undoubtedly contenders. And they undoubtedly need help, up front on one of the scoring lines. Carbo has tried all year to throw out three scoring lines, and one energy line. Of course, it didn't help that he constantly benched his only right-handed scoring threat (Ryder) and juggled every line but Plekanec's.

Still, the Habs can only field 7 1/2 legitimate scoring line forwards: Koivu, Kovalev, Higgins, Plekanec, the Kostitsyn brothers, Ryder and sometimes Streit. (Latendresse could be a scoring line forward, but hasn't shown the consistency.) The rest of their forwards are really fourth liners, in terms of the "energy" that Carbo likes to see coming from his fourth line forwards. These would be Kostopolous, Begin, Lapierre and Dandenault. Of course that leaves out Smolinski, who hasn't been much use anywhere.

So the Habs have more fourth liners than they need, and not enough scoring line forwards. The obvious hole is the center position on the third line. So that would be an obvious place to pick up some help.

But another possibility would be to move one of the other forwards to center that line and replace him in the lineup. The most likely player under this scenario would be Higgins, who broke in with the Habs as a center. And the best possibility to replace him would actually be a right winger, not the left wing he would vacate, as Ryder, Kostopolous, and Kovalev are the only natural right wingers on the team.

And who would Gainey give up to land either such player? Given that the sellers typically are looking for long term help, Gainey would be pressed to give up some of his outstanding prospects. And since the Habs have depth at both defense and between the pipes, expect someone like Halak, Danis, O'Byrne, Valetenko and the like to be involved. So none of the existing scoring line forwards would be moved, including Ryder, Koivu or Higgins (among those that have been involved in recent rumors).

And who are the sellers? Those that have almost no shot at the playoffs this year, and need to restock for the future, with prospects and/or draft picks. These teams are Los Angeles, Edmonton, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Atlanta. The Thrashers are the most interesting, as they could be a contender, but Marian Hossa -- a UFA at the end of the year -- has made it clear he won't resign with Atlanta.

Hossa, a big time scoring right wing, would fit beautifully with the Habs. Gainey has said that he only wants to trade for a gamebreaker, and Hossa certainly fits the bill. Atlanta also needs blue line help, so they'd be taking a hard look at the Hamilton roster. Indeed Atlanta GM Don Waddell was spotted at a recent Bulldogs game.

Others who might draw interest:
  • Atlanta's Bobby Holik, a potential UFA after this season. A big right handed center, he'd be perfect as the Habs third centerman. He brings the right kind of nasty to the playoff mix, and ranks first in the NHL among players with at least 800 faceoffs. He might actually be a better fit than Hossa.
  • From the Kings, the main trade pieces are on D, esp Rob Blake, Oleg Tverdosky and Brad Stuart -- not where the Habs need help. But the Kings desperately need a goalie. Unless they're willing to part with Alexander Frolov or Anze Kopitar (highly unlikely) don't expect a trade with the Kings.
  • The Leafs' main attraction would have been Mats Sundin, but he won't drop his no trade clause. They also have Kaberle and McCabe, but the Habs don't need blueline help.
  • The Bolts have the big three, of whom probably only Brad Richards will be traded. LeCavalier and St. Louis have more affordable contracts, so some money will no doubt be involved in a Richards trade. He'd be a great third center for the Habs, but will Gainey blow his carefully constructed contract structure on a guy who makes almost double what either Koivu or Kovalev make?
  • Chicago has Martin Havlat and Robert Lang, but both were just signed as UFA's this season. They most likely will try to move Nikolai Khabibulin, assuming someone wants to take his fat contract and underachieving ways. Needless to say, the Habs don't need a goalie.
  • The Oilers are a bit like the Kings. Deep on young talent up front, with veterans in back. Only they have a goalie. So they may just stand pat (more or less) come the deadline.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Who needs UFA's anyway?

As mentioned in the last post, the Habs' season high 3 game losing streak coincided more or less with the absence of Roman Hamrlik.

But now that both Hamrlik and O'Byrne are back, Carbo has a different problem: where to play all his dmen. If you include Streit and Dandenault, the Habs have 9 blueliners on their active roster. Of course, Dandy has played right wing all season, but not very successfully. He's a team worst -12.

But it's Carbo's healthy scratches from two of the past three games that are most interesting: Smolinski, Kostopolous and Brisebois. Kostopolous and Smolinski were supposed to replace Mike Johnson and Radek Bonk in the lineup, and were paid more together than both Johnson and Bonk ultimately received from St. Louis and Nashville respectively. Brisebois provided veteran blueline insurance, presumably until O'Byrne was ready to come up.

The most interesting part is that all were UFA signings this year. And yet all are sitting in the press box, and for good reason. Smolinski was centering the fourth line, more or less until Begin got back. Smolinski replaced Begin in the last game against the Penguins, coincidentally the same time the Habs 4 game win streak was snapped. Presumably Smolinski played because of Begin's atrocious faceoff percentage this year (28.8%). But Begin's pitbull style of forechecking is sorely needed by the Habs. Maybe only Komisarek and Bouillon hit as frequently and ferociously, and that's only in the defensive end.

Brisebois was out as soon as Hamrlik came back. But his real replacement was O'Byrne, who can really skate well for a big man. And, of course, he hits. Hard. This gives Carbo some real physical presence on each of his blueline combinations.

Kostopolous is the hardest to figure out why he is sitting. One could argue that Ryder has taken his spot on the right wing, but Ryder never deserved to be benched. Kostopolous' real replacement is Dandenault, who has more points (12 to K's 9) but a worse +/- (-12 to K's -8). Carbo has Dandy playing on a line with Latendresse centered by Begin or Smolinski, the most likely line where Kostopolous would play.

In a Theory of Ice post from last season, e recounted a conversation with an old-time Habs fan who more or less said that the Habs don't buy UFA's. They grow their own talent the old-fashioned way. There certainly is an appeal to that, as we can follow their progress from fresh-faced draftee to uncertain rookie to veteran playmaker. And the Habs' surprising showing this year is in no small part due to the play of their youngsters, players who have been drafted and groomed by Habs GM's.

But the UFA's? Apart from the very big exception of Roman Hamrlik (and his very big contract), they haven't contributed much at all.

Now that's not to say that the Habs can continue going to the well for all their roster needs. No doubt they are deep on the blue line (O'Byrne, Valentenko, Emelin) and between the pipes (Price, Halak, Danis). But if they want to move forward, they need some help on the scoring end, especially to help Carbo fully realize his strategy of throwing out three full fledged scoring lines. And with the upcoming trade deadline, look for Gainey to move one or more of the above mentioned assets for a high end scoring threat -- more on this in the next post.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The Habs recent success (season high 4 game win streak) probably has much to do with the team's depth and health. This win streak follows a season high 3 game losing streak, one in which their frequent defensive lapses showed how much they missed Roman Hamrlik. He has settled in nicely as the #3 blueliner, and has showed his versatility in pairing up with veteran playmakers Patrice Brisebois (playing on the right) and Mark Streit (playing on the left), as well as the young rookie Ryan O'Byrne.

Hamrlik was gone not because of injury but because of some strange flu-like illness that also left him with an undiagnosed rash (TMI?). Last season, a flu bug spread through the clubhouse, contributing greatly to the Habs' midseason slide. So despite Hamrlik's value, he was quarantined from the rest of the team until he got better.

And not a moment too soon. Even though he is not the club's best dman (that honor would go to Markov or maybe even Komisarek), his replacement -- Patrice Brisebois -- was not up to the task. Brisebois slide into Hamrlik's spot, and promptly showed why he was run out of town a few years ago.

With O'Byrne still on the mend with his broken hand, Carbo didn't have much choice. So he tried juggling his defensive combinations, much like he often juggles his forwards. As the best defensive dman, Komisarek ended up double shifting a lot. That didn't seem to work well: in the Habs' 6-1 shellacking by Ottawa, Komisarek was -3. When was the last time that has ever happened?

So Hamrlik goes and the Habs lose 3 in row. He returns and they've now won 4 in a row. Does this mean that Hamrlik is the team MVP? Hardly. But he does fill a valuable role on the team, being the shutdown dman on the second pairing. And while playing with O'Byrne, he plays a similar mentoring role as in Calgary with Dion Phaneuf. I would think that Carbo would also have a difficult time replacing Bouillon, Markov or Komisarek should any of them be unavailable.

But it does mean that Hamrlik's signing was well worth the big money paid to him -- second highest on the team, only behind Andrei Markov. His stats bear it out too: among full time dmen, only second to Markov in points and only second to Komisarek in plus/minus.

Most interestingly, the Habs' recent streaks also prove that maybe they don't need UFA's. Beyond Hamrlik anyway. This post has gone on too long already, so let's take that up next time.