Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Go Caps Go?

A GM should maintain some semblance of objectivity towards players. They are, after all, employees, contracted to perform a service for some specific length of time, for a set fee.

But it's a little hard to maintain that objectivity when it comes to Cristobal Huet. He was, after all, the man who almost single handedly saved the team when it went into its Jose Theodore-induced freefall through the standings.

He came in as a virtual afterthought in the trade for Mathieu Garon, right after the 2003-04 season. Garon was the Habs backup netminder at the time, but only after Theo had seemingly laid claim to his status a the #1. Garon was thus deemed expendable, and was traded to the LA Kings for Radek Bonk, a largely disappointing centerman. Cristobal Huet was thrown in, as the Habs had no other backup goaltender with NHL experience.

With the lockout the next season, Huet didn't get a chance to play for the Habs until 2005-06, the same year when Theo fell apart. Habs coach Claude Julien took to playing Huet more and more often, until GM Bob Gainey decided that his team had to go with his anointed #1 -- and fired Julien.

It was midway through the 2005-06 season that Gainey realized Julien was right. Gainey had stepped behind the bench, and could see first hand what Julien experienced. Not only was Theo that bad, but Huet was that good. Huet saved the season for the Habs and took them to the playoffs, where they lost to the Hurricanes -- but only after some liberties were taken with Huet by the 'Canes forwards and Saku Koivu was lost to an eye injury that threatened to end his career.

So it wasn't by accident that the Washington Capitals were left off the list of potential first round matchups for the Habs this postseason (see previous post). It would simply be too awkward to be cheering against the man who showed many Habs players, press and fans what it means to be a professional athlete.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The postseason

The Habs are in optimal position for the postseason. Leading the Northeast places them second in the conference, which today would lead to a first round matchup with the Boston Bruins. Of course much could change in the next month. The Habs could get overtaken by the Senators, dropping them (probably) to fifth, behind the three conference leaders and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Bruins also could get overtaken by a number of teams behind them, notably the Flyers, Panthers or Sabres. Or they could drop out of playoff contention altogether.

But here's hoping that the status quo stays. Here's their record versus the Bruins and other possible first round matchups, with average goals for and against

Teams Record GF GA
Bruins 6-0 5.3 2
Penguins 2-2 2.75 3
Flyers 4-0 3.75 1.5
Sabres 3-3 2.5 2.5
Panthers 2-2 2.5 2
Senators 1-5 1.83 3.83
Hurricanes 1-3 3 3.5
Devils 2-2 2.5 2
Rangers 1-3 3.25 4.5

Of course, these are all regular season stats. The playoffs are completely different, where defense and rugged play win games. Just ask the Anaheim Ducks. The Habs have been getting by on their offense, ranking 2nd in the league in scoring but 13th in goals against. The latter has to improve if they want to go far this postseason.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The aftermath

The trade deadline came and went, and the Habs shocked many by appearing to be selling rather than buying. Trading your #1 goaltender might lend itself to such an interpretation.

But of course there's much more to it than that. Cristobal Huet is an unrestricted free agent his upcoming offseason, and unless Carey Price showed he was incapable of taking on the #1 duties next season, Huet would not be re-signed. So why let him get away for nothing?

However, it seems like Gainey got almost just that in return: a second round draft pick ... in 2009.

So it's not really about Huet's impending departure either. It's more about the future, and it's imminent arrival.

Gainey apparently was intent on landing Marian Hossa, at least to close out this season. But he was not willing to give up any of his highly touted prospects in return. Instead, he has chosen to go to battle with this team of mostly unproven youngsters.

And none more so than Carey Price. Gainey has laid the burden of being #1 squarely on his shoulders. Certainly a tall order for a 20 year old, who had yet to put in a full year in the AHL, and spent some time there this year as well. (BTW, Price isn't the first Habs rookie goaltender to be sent down to the minors to work on his form, esp to stand up more. Patrick Roy did the same).

But it's also up to the Kostitsyn brothers, Higgins, Plekanec, Komisarek, O'Byrne and the like -- the young core of this team that Gainey refused to trade. By not trading them, Gainey has signaled his confidence in them. Passing the torch, as it were.

This is a team whose rebuilding is almost over (more on that later). Why would Gainey rent a player like Hossa, when this is a team that can go all the way. Maybe not this year, but conceivably in the near future.

And Hossa almost certainly would have been a rental. The Habs are significantly under the cap this season, and presumably next season's cap would be even higher. But let's say that Gainey was able to get Hossa without trading any of his existing players. He might be able to sign Hossa and his upcoming free agents, given what Hossa supposedly wanted ($7M+ per year).

But why would he do that, and risk the carefully constructed salary balance to date? Kovalev and Koivu are his highest paid forwards, with Koivu earning only $.25M more than Kovy per year. And over the same span too. On D, Markov and Hamrlik are the highest paid, with the same differential as Kovy and Koivu. Gainey isn't going to bring in anyone to earn much more than any of them, the veteran leaders of this club. Not without risking egos and the careful chemistry that shows the resilience to come back to win from a 5-0 deficit.

So don't expect Hossa in the tricolore next year either. Gainey has himself a team. A cohesive unit that can win games now, and for the foreseeable future.