Sunday, December 20, 2009

A proposal

So Jaroslav Halak wants out? With Carey Price solidifying his play (save his troublesome glove hand; use a broken-in mitt, Carey!), Halak is somewhat expendable. "Somewhat" because Price hasn't proven that he can't be a Brodeur-like iron man. Martin has tried, at least twice starting Price in both games of a back-to-back. And both times Price looked good in the opener, and somewhat suspect in the closer. To wit:

So a decent backup is needed. But what the Habs need more is cap space, to re-sign Plekanec especially. But it would be nice to re-up Bergeron too, and maybe Metropolit. And of the RFA's, Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn and especially Price are must-signs.

But as we have seen from the last post, cap space will be hard to come by next season. While there is much speculation as to where the cap will actually be, let's assume it's the same as this year. Only $6.175M is coming off the books in UFA contracts. Two thirds of that could easily go to Plekanec. The rest would have to be split in raises to Price, Lapierre and Kostitsyn. Price alone could command the remainder of the UFA savings. He makes $2.2M in cap dollars today, and another $2M might not be completely outlandish to lock him up long term.

So that leaves Metropolit, Bergeron, Lapierre and Kostitsyn out in the cold. And it also assumes that the other RFA's will be content to extend their contracts at the current levels.

So what's a GM to do? The easy target is Gomez. He makes by far the most on the team, but is a second-line player. He was the same for the Rangers too, and Glen Sather really lucked out in finding someone stupid enough to take his fat contract so that he could sign points-leader Marian Gaborik.

So if Gainey is to trade Gomez, he needs to package him with a player with real worth, and minimal cap hit. And that's where we get back to Halak. But who could afford the cap hit that Gomez brings, and also needs goaltending help? For some unknown reason, Gainey apparently shopped Halak to the Flyers. Sure they need the goaltending -- but trade an asset like Halak to an intra-conference rival pushing for the same playoff spot you are? No, a better target is someone in the Western Conference.

Turns out that the Dallas Stars are at a crossroads in their goaltending situation. Marty Turco is a UFA at the end of the year, and has turned it around from last season's poor performance (2.81 GAA/.898 PCT). The Stars are weighing their options, but it certainly would help if they had someone to push Turco and thereby make the decision easier -- someone better than Alex Auld (3.16/.892). Even better if that someone came at a bargain-basement price like Halak.

The Stars could definitely use the help. They are currently 6th in the league in goals scored, but only 21st in goals against. Halak by himself might not be able to cure this, but certainly would be an improvement on those nights that Turco doesn't play.

Gainey ought to be very familiar with the Stars and their personnel, having come from their organization and consummated several deals with them over the years (Begin and Ribeiro for basically nothing). He should also know that they are significantly under the cap, to the tune of almost $10M. Playing in a 90+% full arena, they're not the Coyotes. They can afford to spend more.

So the Stars might be willing to take on Gomez's huge contract, so long as it were sweetened with Halak. The Stars wouldn't have a problem fitting Gomez in as the second line center behind Ribeiro, as Richards easily slides over to the wing.

And who would the Habs get? Draft picks or prospects might be enough in compensation, as the whole point of this exercise is to clear cap space. There are enough pieces in the organization to compensate for the losses of Halak and Gomez. Cedrick Desjardins (1.34/.948) is playing well enough to merit a call up. Sergei Kostitsyn could replace Gomez on the second line, as the pivot is his natural position.

So the lines might look something like this:


Sure, this trade doesn't address the Habs' need for more size up front and bets a lot on Sergei's ability to step it up a notch. Still, the main point is to clear cap space. Plekanec must be re-signed, the sooner the better. And it opens up some intriguing possibilities for next year...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Another look at the ugly

With a quarter of the season played, the last post looked at Bob Gainey's Extreme Habs Makeover. Most of it looked pretty good. A few bad moves, to be sure. And Gainey certainly got lucky by not re-signing a couple of players he had no business chasing in the first place.

But the one thing that stood out was the trade for Scott Gomez. He's a good player, but just not worth what the Habs gave up, specifically...

1) A captain: Gomez has in effect replaced Koivu. They are both about the same size (Koivu: 5-10, 187 lbs; Gomez: 5-11, 200 lbs). Both shoot left. Both were playing as #1 centers, but would be bumped to #2 with the emergence of Tomas Plekanec. Both play the same aggressive forechecking game. And this year, Gomez has 3 goals and 11 assists mainly centering the high scoring Gionta and Cammalleri. Koivu has 3 goals and 8 assists (in two fewer games), centering the high scoring Teemu Selanne.

You can go on and on about the similarities, even their success rate on the shootout (both 42%). Maybe the only statistical difference is in the faceoff circle: Koivu was the Habs' best faceoff man since the lockout ended, while Gomez has never been a go-to faceoff guy. This year continues that trend, with Gomez at 49.4% and Koivu at 53.3%.

But it's the ability to lead a team that truly differentiate the two. I remember the game when Andrei Kostitsyn was blind sided with a nasty hit from Blair Betts in a game against the Rangers. The younger Kostitsyn immediately wanted to mix it up with any and all players from the opposing team. Then we see Koivu on the bench with his arm around Sergei, trying to talk him down. Sergei played the rest of the game with his usual edge, but kept his composure.

There are countless other stories like that, including the seemingly impossible-to-coach Mikhail Grabovski saying that Koivu was his only friend on the Habs. I'm not sure that Koivu would have characterized the relationship that way, but it's obvious that he tries to at least build one with anyone he plays with. He's a consummate professional, and his sort of leadership is sorely missed.

2) Blue line prospects: Both Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valetenko have the potential to be future defensive stars. Granted, potential is cheap, and neither may end up playing in the NHL (esp Valetenko), but having that kind of depth on the blue line is extremely important. Teaching defense is often much more difficult than teaching offense. The latter is innate. The former takes time and practice -- and lots of both. Some will make it through that teaching period, and some won't. And with the salary cap realities, cheap young players are relied upon more and more by all NHL teams.

3) Injury replacements: Chris Higgins was always a player with a lot of potential. Some games he lived up to it; some games, not so much. He was also good in the locker room, and was talked up as a future captain. With the injuries this year, a player of his caliber would have come in handy, even playing first line minutes if need be. But his true skill seems to be on defense, scoring two short handed goals last year in limited playing time and was otherwise effective on the PK. When players came back from injury he could have pushed youngsters like Pacioretty, D'Agostini, Latendresse and either Kostitsyn for playing time, and could have helped transform the fourth line into an effective checking line. Plus his contract expires at the end of this year -- perfect timing for a shrinking cap.

4) Cap space: This is where the Gomez trade hurts the most. Gainey could have kept Higgins and Koivu for much less than Gomez's cap hit this year. With that space, another scoring line forward could have been signed -- maybe Alex Tanguay? And then the Habs would not have been crippled for cap space in the years to come.

Next year will be especially challenging, with the salary cap actually shrinking. Only Metropolit, Mara and Plekanec will go UFA, while Price is amongst a few youngsters that will go RFA. Price will have to be re-signed, but at what cost? Certainly he won't be lowballed lest another team risk losing some picks by signing an up-and-coming franchise goaltender. Worse, the Habs will certainly not be able to bring back Plekanec, not after the year he has had. It's doubtful Gainey could even afford Metropolit or Mara.

The only alternative is to look to the Bulldogs. That means Ben Maxwell making the jump sooner than he would be ready. Worse, he'd have to replace Plekanec's minutes as first line center. And who would replace Metropolit? Ryan White? Any way you slice it, the Habs will be extremely thin down the middle for a few years.

But Gainey could have re-signed Koivu for maybe three years, buying some time to develop Maxwell or maybe another youngster like Louis Leblanc. He then could afford to re-sign both Metropolit and Plekanec, the latter to a long term deal.

But instead, we're neck-deep in ugly.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Extreme Habs Makeover: the good, the bad and the ugly

So here we are, 23 games into the season. After a poor start, the team is definitely on the upswing, overcoming extensive injuries with disciplined play and outstanding goaltending. So is Gainey's pre-season plan of going small and fast up front, and big and experienced on the blue line paying off? Most of the acquisitions (and deletions) were for the better. Some, just the opposite. And one in particular looks like it will haunt the Habs for years to come. A look at all of the pre-season changes:

The Good
First the acquisitions:

Mike Cammalleri: Leads the team in goals, despite being bounced around between the first and second lines. Bonus? Leads the team in +/-.

Brian Gionta: Second on the team in goals, and provides valuable leadership to boot. He won the Cup with New Jersey, and is the closest thing to a captain the Habs currently have.

Jaroslav Spacek: Leads all defensemen in +/- and second to defense partner Hamrlik in ATOI.

Travis Moen: His size has been effective in playing the kind of puck possession game Martin desires, and wears down opposing defenses with his aggressive forecheck (leads the team in hits). This sort of grinding style will pay off in the playoffs -- assuming the Habs reach the playoffs. Bonus? Cup-winning experience in Anaheim, and his unexpected offense.

Jacques Martin: Sure he's not a player, but he was a good hire. The players seems to be buying into his system, winning even with half the team as callups from Hamilton. Hockey can be won on talent alone, but it's discipline that usually gets you over the top.

Now the additions by subtraction:

Alex Kovalev: His inconsistency and drama are now Ottawa's problems. And yet Gainey was apparently ready to give him the same deal. If it weren't for some miscommunication, we'd have AK-27 instead of Gionta.

Mike Komisarek: Essentially replaced by the much steadier and cheaper (albeit less splashy) Jaroslav Spacek. Komisarek’s shortcomings have been commented upon before; no need to belabor the point. And yet he was another near Gainey re-signing, making me wonder if Gainey prefers highlight reel hockey rather than actual effectiveness.

Mathieu Schneider: He provided offense no doubt. But how often in playing the point on the PP did he let speedy forwards blow by him for a shorthanded chance?

Mathieu Dandenault and Francis Bouillon: These were decent 6th and 7th dmen, and Dandenault's versatility paid dividends. But it's time to give some of the youngsters a shot.

Tom Kostopolous and Robert Lang: Both players were solid in their respective contributions. Tom Nonstopolous was really best suited as a energy-providing 4th liner. Lang was a great contributor on the PP as the only right-handed scoring forward, but there’s simply no space on the roster for him.

The Bad
Again, acquisitions first:

Paul Mara: Leads the D in hits, but is last in blocked shots among d-men who have played every game. He brings experience and size, but takes minutes from youngsters. And it looks like Gainey could have had Bergeron for a cheaper price and better offense – although at a cost of more heart-stopping adventures in his own zone.

Hal Gill: Yes, he just won the Cup. But $4.5M over two years for essentially a 7th dman? Markov, Gorges, Hamrlik, Spacek, O'Byrne and even Bergeron, Mara and Leach have played better D. He is the proverbial pylon, albeit a Paul Bunyan-sized version.

Now, the deletions:
Saku Koivu: There should have been some transition from old to new, as witnessed by the Habs' extremely poor start. And no one has claimed the mantle of Captain, something that Koivu did with extraordinary skill. He would have been an effective 2nd line center behind Plekanec, and his faceoff skills are sorely missed.

Alex Tanguay: Yes, he passes when he should shoot. But the Habs were much more dynamic when he was in the lineup as he made just about any line click. He led the team in +/- and was second on the team in points per game despite only 16:05 ATOI. Plus, he was the closest thing to a hometown hero the Habs have iced since Jose Theodore.

The Ugly
Scott Gomez: He has played decent hockey (and so wasn't a bad acquisition), but he's just not worth what the Habs gave up. He has put up second line center numbers, but for franchise center money.

Worse, his signing handcuffs the Habs for years to come. Some have suggested that Gainey only made the trade so that Gionta would sign. But Gainey only turned to Gionta after he didn't hear anything from Kovalev’s agent – all days after the Gomez trade.

With all that cap space, Gainey could have signed Koivu and Tanguay. He could have kept Higgins (an effective penalty killer who was going UFA anyway) and one of his best blue line prospects in McDonagh. And he might have had Koivu and Tanguay for less money than each settled for in Tampa respectively, simply because a multi-year deal could have been offered.

And what of next offseason, when Plekanec and Metropolit go UFA> and Price and Lapierre are RFA's? Plekanec will almost certainly go elsewhere – especially since next year the cap will most likely shrink. The Habs will simply not be able to afford him. Heck, with a shrinking cap, they won’t be able to afford Metropolit. The Gomez trade in by itself may undo all the other good work done by Gainey this offseason.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gomez vs Koivu

An interesting comparison of the basic career stats of Scott Gomez vs those of Saku Koivu (full years only):

More or less identical. Gomez has a better plus/minus average -- the latter padded by his years playing the trap in New Jersey. Probably the only true advantage that Gomez has is that he gets injured less. But is that really worth a $7.357M/yr cap hit vs Koivu's $3.5M deal with Anaheim?

And for all the Guy Bertrand followers out there, Gomez doesn't speak a lick of French, in private or public.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


What exactly was Bob thinking? Maybe he wasn't. After all, the only UFA's he went after were Komisarek and Kovalev, probably the last ones most Habs fans would have selected, judging by the vitriol thrown their way on the way out. And then when Kovalev supposedly didn't get back to him on his offer he went hog wild on a bunch of second-tier UFA's. No Hossa. No Sedin twins. Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri. How utterly underwhelming.

And it wouldn't have been so bad had he not sunk much of his future cap space into these three players. Three players who are notably not the "big centreman" he supposedly was looking for.

Certainly size and strength are overrated in today's NHL. Just ask the Red Wings or Penguins. But paying superstar money to non-superstars is simply insane. While the Habs might get under the cap this season, next year's cap is sure to shrink significantly -- at the same time that Bob needs to sign Lapierre and Price, among other RFA's.

This year? He'll be lucky if he gets $1.5M under the cap after signing all his RFA's, assuming he doesn't try to shore up his defense with another veteran dman (which might be needed). Next year, more cuts will be necessary to both get under the cap and keep Lapierre and Price.

But it wasn't all bad. Letting Komisarek walk was probably ok. The Leafs overpaid for a guy that still has a lot to learn about playing positional defense. But if he does learn that while playing with the Leafs, he'll be well worth it. Spacek is a decent replacement, but it would be nice if they got a right hander instead to round out the top 4 (Markov, Gorges and Hamrlik are all lefties).

Gionta was also a decent pickup, being the cheapest (and smallest) of the smurf-like overhaul. He's a desperately needed right handed shooting scoring forward. Only D'Agostini and Lapierre could be (generously) described as such.

As for the rest, here's what Habs GM would have done:

Gill? Sign Phillippe Boucher instead. He's not as big (who is?), but at least he won't be skirted around like a giant pine tree on a downhill slalom course -- like Gill often is. Boucher's got a wicked right handed shot, and would push for a top four spot. He probably could have been signed for the same amount too. The fact that he's French-Canadian is only a bonus.

Cammalleri? Re-sign Tanguay instead. Why exactly did we give up a first round pick to the Flames anyway? When he was healthy, he pushed the Habs to another level. And sure it was frustrating when he passed instead of shot, but he was one of the few Habs to at least create scoring chances. Whatever line he was on seemed to click. He would certainly have been cheaper, maybe half as much as the $6M/yr doled out to Cammalleri. And again, French-Canadian. Only a bonus.

Gomez? Re-sign Koivu, thereby not trading away our best defensive prospect (McDonagh) in the process. Higgins seemed to be headed to a third or fourth line, defensive-specialist role, so he wasn't a huge loss. But Koivu could have been had at much less than half the cap hit as Gomez, and for about the same production.

With the money saved by getting Koivu and Tanguay instead of Cammalleri and Gomez, Gainey could have easily gone after Hossa. Hossa's cap hit was only $5.23M, albeit over a much longer term (but we've gone over that before). Or save it and go after a big name in 2010 -- Jokinen? Marleau? Kovalchuk? All UFA's.

Instead, we will be treated to about the same on ice product as the last few years, just with more speed and less skill. How is that an improvement?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Roster Moves: forwards

The forwards who played last year were all about speed and skill. Size and strength weren't as evident. While the Habs definitely need to keep the speed and skill (see Detroit, Chicago, Washington and Pittsburgh), size and strength should also be added, where possible.

Those from last year that don't fit this model are Georges Laraque and Glen Metropolit. Laraque has plenty of size, but seemed reluctant to use it. He also has zero skill. And with the upcoming crackdown on fighting, his value is greatly diminished. Metropolit was on the smaller side, esp for a defensive forward, and had limited skill. He was also the only center to lose more than half of his faceoffs. He's a checking line center on a team that already has a more effective checking line center (Lapierre), and another on his way up (Chipchura). Both Laraque and Metropolit should be released or traded.

Gregory Stewart is similar, but should be re-signed and assigned to Hamilton. Like Laraque, he has zero skills, and is much smaller than Laraque. Still, he at least attempted to leverage whatever he had, and generally got under opponents' skin.

The rest is easy: every other UFA and RFA forward who played regular shifts last year should be re-signed. While that ensures another year of speed and skill, it also offers some (limited) opportunity to get bigger.

Maybe the biggest opportunity is for Max Pacioretty. He played responsible hockey last year with the big club, and showed flashes of being the power forward the Habs desperately need. Another player with size is Robert Lang. Hopefully he can return from that foot injury unscathed, although he was already maybe the slowest player last year -- and will turn 39 this year. But right handed, scoring centers are in short supply this offseason.

The Habs also should re-sign every man from their most potent line: Tanguay, Koivu and Kovalev. When on the ice, they were a good match for almost any line in hockey. Having Lang back will provide decent second line scoring, and provide good matchups against most opponents.

Plekanec centering the third line will be a bit like Patrice Bergeron centering the same line for the Bruins. Having that kind of scoring potential on the third line shows how deep the Habs can be. His dogged, hounding-the-puck style of play should also provide some defensive coverage, especially when paired with Chris Higgins.

Lapierre's line would then form maybe the best two-way line in all of hockey. They would provide defense, energy, size, and even a bit of scoring, especially from Latendresse and Lapierre. This line may have been the most consistent throughout the year, at least when healthy.

The lines might go something like this (free agents marked with asterisk):
bench: Sergei Kostitsyn, *Dandenault

This lineup has a right handed shot in every line (except Lapierre's which has two). It also mixes the youngsters like Pacioretty and D'Agostini amongst the veterans. D'Agostini especially needs to play with players who are defensively responsible, and can help teach him that part of the game.

Plekanec's line is almost all speed. D'Agostini is probably the fastest on the team, followed by Higgins. They'll be tough to pin down, and will blow by many an attempted hip check.

Lang's line has quite a bit of size, although a bit slower than Plekanec's. But if Kostitsyn and Pacioretty hit like they can hit, this will be a tough line to play against. This especially applies to Kostitsyn, who can deliver big hits but doesn't seem willing to do so -- except when he's pissed off. If he had the attitude of his brother, he would be lethal.

Speaking of whom, his brother will hopefully have learned to control his emotions a bit better and should make the team again. He'd make a great backup should anyone on the top two lines go out. Dandenault would provide relief for the bottom two lines, esp if D'Agostini has defensive zone issues again. Dandenault also is the 8th defenseman, so he might be seeing plenty of playing time.

So there you have it. Not much different than last year sure, but this is essentially the team that took the Habs to their best first-half record ever -- before all the injuries hit. Why mess with a good thing? Besides, the UFA market isn't brimming with superstars. If any significant changes are to come, they would have to be via trade -- and we already addressed that unlikely scenario.

To come: crunching the numbers on the various signing scenarios.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Roster moves: Post-Komisarek blueline

Let's assume Big K opts for free agency, and signs a monster contract with some struggling team. The Habs still have a lot of options to fill the void, but need to go with someone who can help spark the offense.

Besides the obvious importance defensemen have in protecting the net, this position is where a lot of offense is generated these days. A lot of goals are either deflections or seeing-eye shots through a thicket of legs and sticks. Thus someone who can uncork one from the point has a lot of value. Most of this has to do with the size of goaltenders today -- and the size of their pads (but more on that in a later post).

Offense was ostensibly the reason the Habs signed Brisebois and traded for Schneider. But the Habs should take a pass on both, because both have limited defensive skills. Brisebois is the least effective of the two. Easily pushed off the puck, he also doesn't have much of a shot. While he is a decent PP QB, that's not enough to keep him with the team, especially when there are other options -- without the drawbacks.

Schneider was much better than Brisebois, but had similar shortcomings. He helped revive a dormant PP with his howitzer of a shot. But he is just too slow to play an effective defensive role. Playing the point on the PP often left him alone along the blueline. If a puck were ever to escape the zone, almost any opposing forward could beat him to the puck and create a short-handed breakaway.

Instead, the Habs are going to have to look outside. The most intriguing UFA available is Philippe Boucher. He has a powerful, right handed shot and likes to play the body with his 6'3", 218 pound frame. In his last full season (2006-07), he was second among Stars defensemen with 159 hits, tied for first in plus/minus, first in goals (with 19) and second in points. But the key is "full season." He hasn't played one since then, being felled by one injury or another.

It's difficult to say if he's injury-prone. It could simply be two straight years of bad luck. In any case, should the Habs take a run at him, the contract should have a provision for games played. Still, it would be nice to have a Quebec-born player playing big minutes on the blueline again.

Another player that might fit the bill is Francois Beauchemin. He's somewhat smaller (6'0" and 207 lbs) and is a left handed shot, but has many similarities to Boucher: loves to play the body, has a pretty decent shot, and a Quebec native to boot. He's also coming off an injury, but has played significantly more than Boucher recently.

Of the two, Boucher is the better fit. He's bigger and his right handed shot would complement Markov nicely. Further, with three lefties under contract, Gainey needs to sign righties. Boucher also only made $2.5M last year, and would be hard pressed to get more than that given the last two years.

With Markov, Boucher, Hamrlik and Gorges, that leaves room for three or four more d-men. This is the easy part. Re-sign Bouillon and Dandenault as the #7 and #8. The fact that Dandenault can effectively play both forward and defense is a depth asset that many GM's and coaches would covet. Further, Bouillon is left handed and Dandenault right, giving the future coach flexibility come injury time.

The other two positions can be filled by O'Byrne and Weber. This is somewhat risky, as having two green defensemen can causes problems. But O'Byrne grew a lot last year, especially in the playoffs. And Weber was thrown into the fire as well late in the season. And both have right handed shots, nicely complementing the other regulars. Their shortcomings can be somewhat mitigated by pairing with a solid, defensive oriented veteran. Maybe something like this?:

As the more seasoned player, O'Byrne gets the nod over Weber. But Weber will be an effective PP point man, playing right behind Boucher. And with Bouillon and Dandenault waiting in the wings, the Habs have some effective veteran backup should the youngsters stumble.

If Komisarek somehow loses his mind and re-signs with the Habs, the blueline looks much better. One option is to replace O'Byrne in the lineup. They both play similar roles after all. Another more interesting option is to not sign Boucher and let Big K play the point. Komisarek came in 4th at the NHL all star game "hardest shot" competition, recording a 98.5 mph slapper. Of course, these competitions are different than regular play, but he does have it in him. Perhaps some decent coaching might coax him to uncork one once in a while during a game? He almost never plays the PP, so who knows how well he might do?

This option also affords the Habs a bit more cap room, as signing Komisarek would significantly shrink the space available to sign anyone else, including Boucher's likely smallish contract. We'll address all these cap considerations at a later point, after breaking down the forward lines in the next post.

Monday, May 4, 2009


A small break from the critical work at Habs GM, to bring you an update on the impact of this year's playoffs. The most entertaining series of the year is sure to be the Penguins and Capitals: Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Green and rookie sensation Varlamov vs. Crosby, Malkin, Guerin, Gonchar and Fleury. Game 2 was Crosby's hat trick vs Ovechkin's -- great stuff. Too bad this matchup of the two most talented teams had to come before the conference finals.

But the most important series is between the last two Cup winners: Detroit and Anaheim. This series is a study in opposites. Detroit is smaller, more skilled and loaded with (not-so-soft) Europeans. Anaheim is huge, less skilled (but still fast) and loaded with North Americans who love the physical game. They're like linebackers on skates.

Typically, GM's will look to past Cup winners and try to copy their rosters. The Red Wings-Penguins final last year was great for hockey, as it had two of the most skilled teams in the final. A similarly good final this year would involve either the Red Wings or Blackhawks from the West and Penguins or Capitals from the East.

Not so good for hockey would be an Anaheim-Boston final. Both play with speed and some skill. But they emphasize size over skill -- especially Anaheim.

The good news is that Anaheim has had to rely largely on their game breaker of a goaltender. While their top line of Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan causes all sorts of havoc, and is huge to boot, Hiller is often the difference maker. How far Hiller can take them?

Hopefully not past the Wings.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Roster moves: Mike Komisarek

The last post dealt with the goaltending situation. Continuing on out from the net, the blueline makeover is next. This one is particularly challenging, and perhaps where Gainey has the most work to do.

Only three regulars -- Markov, Gorges and Hamrlik -- are under contract next year. This is a fairly solid core to build around: able to play good defense, gets the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and sets up forwards for scoring opportunities. Markov is clearly the best of the three, and probably the best defenseman to play for the Habs in a number of years.

The Habs rash of injuries last year proved that blueline depth is critical. Hockey is a defensive sport, and depth at goaltending and defense are critical. But the Habs can't rely on four or five of their prospects to fill the void either, as impressive as they are (O'Byrne, Weber, Carle, and Subban, to name a few). While it's nice to get some of the youngsters some much needed NHL ice time, at most only one or two can expect regular play with the big club-- and maybe only as part of the third pairing, lining up against the opposition's third and fourth lines.

Defense is simply much more difficult to play than offense. It is often more a matter of experience and good habits, and less instinct and skill. Most successful defensemen are not born, but rely on training and practice, doing the same thing over and over again until the memory is burned into every muscle. Take Nick Lidstrom. He might be the best in the business -- at 39 years old! Or his teammate, Chris Chelios: 47 years old, and taking regular shifts during these playoffs. 18 year old forwards are common but 18 year old defensemen are not.

One defenseman who did make the jump earlier than most was Mike Komisarek. He has done reasonably well as a young defenseman, but is still learning the game. He will often go for the big check, get tangled up and then ends up out of position. He also often fails to trust or communicate with his defensive partner, turning two-on-twos into two-on-ones and trying to play the pass between the opposing forwards.

The Habs know this, and won't offer him huge money. With the amount of players they need to re-sign, they can't afford to anyway. A long term contract would be justifiable, maybe as long as 10 years, but average somewhere between $4M/year and $5M/year. Markov should be the highest paid defenseman on the team, and his deal averages $5.75M/year (and only 4 years?!).

But Komisarek would be a fool to try to sign before he becomes goes UFA on July 1. If he waits, he will almost certainly get a huge contract from one of the struggling U.S. teams that needs to fill seats -- and Big K's brand of hockey fills seats. The bet here is that the Islanders will throw a front loaded, 15-year/$90M contract at him. He's a Long Island boy after all, and what better way for the Islanders to resurrect their moribund franchise than by signing one of their own. He would make an excellent partner for the left handed, offensively minded, smallish and not-very-physical Mark Streit.

Most of all the Islanders need to sell tickets. Look at what overpaying for Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell did for the Chicago Blackhawks last season. They ended up first in the league in attendance, averaging 22,247 per home game. The previous year they were 19th, averaging only 16,814. Splashy, big ticket free agent signings are expensive, but effective marketing. There might not be a better, quicker way of proving to the fans that you are committed to winning.

Even if Komisarek should opt for free agency, all is not lost for the Habs. Markov, Hamrlik and Gorges can fill three of the top four slots. Indeed, Gorges did an admirable job filling in while Big K was injured this year. Another four or five blueliners would be needed. One or two of those spots could be filled by one of the Bulldog regulars from last year. That leaves the need to sign three UFA's.

Next post: the rest of the Habs 2009-10 defensive corps.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Roster moves: goaltending

Enough with the theory. On to the nuts and bolts of the 2009-10 edition of the Montreal Canadiens. Every team's most valuable player should be their goaltender. Hockey is in essence a defensive sport. And the goalie is the last line of defense. So it only holds that any team must be built from the pipes on out.

The Habs started out last season with what seemed like a pretty good goalie tandem. Toward the beginning of the year, Price and Halak may have been the best in the league. That soon faltered -- badly -- after the All Star break.

Price has clearly the more upside of the two, with a combination of size, skill, and inflappable demeanor (uh, usually). Some have argued that Price needs a better coach. That could be true, given some of his struggles last year. He often was too deep in his net, failing to challenge shooters. And he went down far too quickly, leading opponents to believe they could successfullly shoot high on him.

But some of this may be due to a lack of confidence, in addition to inadequate coaching. Price could then use a mentor, someone who has seen success between the pipes in the NHL, and is now ready to assume the elder counsel role -- but also still spry enough to spell the youngster on occasion.

That man may be Olaf Kolzig. Kolzig was Price's early mentor, when Price was with the Tri City Americans in the Western Hockey League -- part owned by Kolzig. So they have a history, and Price openly talked about Kolzig's mentorship in those days. Those very successful days.

Kolzig made $1.5M last year. He would have to take a significant cut to join the Habs. Or sign a front loaded, multi-year deal for a smaller cap hit (a loophole that the Habs should exploit before it is closed).

The only problem is that Kolzig is 39. And he didn't play all that well last year. After all, a #2 will have to do more than just teach.

Better options for actual goaltending might be Brian Boucher or Ty Conklin. Both are in their mid-30's and both posted very good years for very little money. For those same reasons, other teams will be after them too, so they won't be that cheap this year. But again, the multi-year deal can avoid the cap problem. The bigger issue is: can they mentor a young, confidence-challenged goaltender?

And then what of Jaroslav Halak? Two options: the Yann Danis route (eternity in the minors as injury insurance) or be traded. Halak would certainly pick up some trade interest, with his generally solid play and bargain rate price. And it would avoid the Yann Danis scenario of losing a quality netminder without compensation.

But if Halak goes, and both Price and his backup go down, who then? Cedrick Desjardins had a decent season for the Bulldogs, but was usually outplayed by NHL castoff Marc Denis. Not exactly the stuff of stellar resume. But still, he's only 20. He might be ready next year for a game or two.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Definition of Insanity

There is an increasingly overused phrase that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. So perhaps some Habs fans and NHL pundits in general would deem it insanity for the Habs to reconstruct more or less the same roster as last year -- despite the flameout over the last half-season. But that's exactly what is proposed here, insane or not.

While many fans want to dump some of the current players, the simple fact is that there isn't a whole lot of UFA talent left out there to replace them. The Wings re-signed one of the most prized would-be UFA's (Franzen) and are apparently close to signing Hossa too. Koivu comes under constant criticism for not being a true #1 center. Take a look at the list of UFA centers next year. Koivu is near the top of that list.

Second, for whatever reason, not many players want to sign in Montreal, unless they already play for Montreal. The three most significant additions to the Habs last year -- Lang, Tanguay and Schneider -- all came via trade. In recent years, Hamrlik is the lone exception to this rule, but he already had narrowed his choices to the 6 Canadian teams. Other big free agent prizes like Hossa, Sundin and Shanahan were more the norm, and said "non, merci" to the, uh, opportunity to play in Montreal.

So the Habs either have to carry out a trade or two, or sign their current crop of free agents. For the first option, I would hope that the Lecavalier saga is over, now that Gainey has publicly berated Lightning GM Brian Lawton for allegedly using the Habs as leverage to get better deals for Lecavalier. Even if it weren't, how would Gainey get Vinny and still fit under the cap? He'd have to trade Andrei Kostitsyn and maybe his brother and a few other prospects like O'Byrne and Weber and not sign Koivu and Lang. Is Vinny really worth that much? Even without the lost players, is any player worth 20% of the cap? Not unless you're Roberto Luongo.

But signing most of the current roster is not just a matter of it being one of the few paths Gainey can take. It also makes good hockey sense.

This roster showed glimpses of brilliance, esp in the first half when the Habs posted their best record ever through 41 games. They were healthy, had confidence, and listened to the coaching staff. Granted, much of that fell away in the second half, saw a brief resurgence when Gainey took over, and waylaid by injuries (again) at the end.

But the core is still there: a top line to rival any other line in the league; secondary scoring; a gritty two way line; blue line depth; speed and skill throughout the roster.

The only thing missing is size, but size is overrated, at least in the new NHL. Playoff games were called more consistently this year, negating the size advantage that some teams may have. Last year it wasn't that way, and so Big Georges Laraque was obtained. Yet despite being the smaller team, the Habs outhit the Bruins. They recorded 115 hits in the 4 games, 40 more than the Bruins. Laraque only had 1o of them, so even if he hadn't played, the Bruins would have been significantly outhit.

Where size does matter, at least in part, is in protecting the puck. Can the player absorb a hit, or is he knocked off the puck easily? Can he take a hit to make a play? Some fans may cry for the return of Mike Ribeiro, but he is the epitome of a skill player easily relieved of the puck.

And even then, not every player who is strong on the puck is also big physically. Tiny Eric Perrin of Atlanta only had 21 giveaways in 78 games. And some of the big boys might be strong on the puck, can't do much with it anyway (see BGL). Still, if the choice were between a player with speed, skill and size vs the player with just speed and skill, the answer is easy. But those kinds of players aren't exactly a dime a dozen either.

The big test of this theory will be how the teams with speed and skill do in these playoffs. Those would be the Red Wings, Blackhawks, Penguins, Capitals and Sharks. Only the Sharks didn't advance, and that was mostly due to unbelievable goaltending on the part of Jonas Hiller. (The Caps almost faced the same fate until Lundquist couldn't carry the Rangers any more.)

To come: a breakdown of next year's roster.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Offseason Overview

Bob Gainey really has his work cut out for him. A season just imploded before him, up close and personal. And now he has maybe half a team under contract for next year, with a salary cap that may shrink anywhere from 1 to 6 million dollars from the previous season. Who exactly will be the Montreal Canadiens next year? And how can they be competitive with such an impending drastic makeover?

Or so goes the prevailing pessimistic view. Chances are that it won't be nearly that bad. Sure the Habs have 15 free agents, 10 of the unrestricted variety. So the GM could go wild and try to sign a whole new lineup.

But as Elliot Friedman points out, it's just not necessary. And good thing too, because the way Habs fans and the media treat their players, who'd want to come here? Certainly not Brendan Shanahan, Mats Sundin or Marian Hossa. At least some of the current UFA's are at least making noises that they want to stay, as crazy as that seems. Which begs the question: if it's so bad in Montreal, why would they want to stay? But let's just take them at their word, and address the larger question of what the Habs can do to prevent the late season collapse and early playoff exit.

The easy answer is less injuries. They were simply snakebit this year, and played much of the 4 playoff games without their top guns, including Markov, Lang, Tanguay and Schneider.

But that doesn't explain the post-All Star break swoon. While injuries played some part, most of the poor showing was due to shoddy defense and goaltending. The players themselves -- at least the healthy ones -- had enough talent to do better than they did. Somehow that talent just wasn't showcased on ice.

Some part of that has to be coaching. After Carbo was fired and Gainey took over, some players perked up noticeably, esp Higgins and Kovalev. Gainey has to find someone who can continue that, and get the rest of the team playing as well. The Habs simply seemed to have stopped listening to Carbo, for whatever reason.

Friedman's article points out Price's recent deficiencies. He was spot on describing how Price is at his best when he seemingly doesn't move. He just plays positional goaltending and uses his big body to make the save. No theatrics necessary. Gainey has to hire someone who can better mentor and bring Price along, and maybe restore some of his confidence. Rollie Melanson may not be that guy.

But maybe the bigger portion of the offseason work is to sign a new team. As unpopular as this may seem, every current Habs RFA and almost every UFA should be brought back. With a lower cap a near certainty, this will take some fancy accounting to make it all pencil out. But as the Red Wings showed, the cap can be gotten around, if teams with the money are willing to bet long term on some of their star players. Who wouldn't want to lock up Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen for as long as possible? The same goes for Mike Komisarek and Alex Tanguay, and even older veterans like Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev.

So it might be possible to squeeze all those free agents under an even lower cap. But that begs the question: why sign the same roster that was more or less responsible for the implosion this season?

That's a big question, best taken up by another post.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Round 1, Game 4: Bruins 4, Canadiens 1

Pretty much the same as before. Habs outgunned and outmanned. They tried to slug their way through it, but couldn't dislodge Boston. Simply too much skill on their side, and half our skill guys are in the infirmary.

But somehow that fact seems to escape the so called fans at the Bell Centre. First they boo the American anthem (in game 3 and tonight as well). Now they jeer Carey Price? He didn't have a good game 2, but on every night, on almost every goal, his defense abandoned him. Let's break it down, goal by pathetic goal:

1) Hamrlik forgets that Michael Ryder no longer plays for the Habs and lays out a perfect feed for him, leaving Price no time to react to such a bone headed play. Byron Bitz could have tossed that one in.

2) Higgins can't finish off his check on Krejci, who bursts past him, feeds it to Ryder on the right, who passes it right back. O'Byrne does a whirling dervish trying to keep track of the puck, and Price is left with no one guarding the back door.

3) Dandenault leisurely skates by the penalty box, failing to notice Kessel standing up and ready to bust out of the box just a few feet away. Kessel takes the feed from Bergeron, and goes in on what was maybe the 4th breakaway in the second period alone, and Kessel's second. Price got the others but doesn't get this one -- it was just a matter of time.

4) Ryder scores on a beautiful 3-on-2 passing play. Somehow the two Habs defenders fail to get a stick on the puck, and the back door is open yet again.

Price had a chance on only the third goal. And that's off the stick of Phil Kessel, for pete's sake. He of 36 regular season goals, leading the high octane Bruins. How is it that the supposedly knowledgeable hockey fans of Montreal fail to grasp that?

But perhaps I'm too harsh. There were some fans who tried to drown out the anthem booers tonight. And there were some fans who tried to drown out the booers at the end of the game, and show some appreciation for the way these Habs tried to battle through the injuries that decimated their squad.

But boy did there seem to be a lot of people jeering Price. I really hope those were two middle fingers he was holding up under his blocker and glove. Too bad he only had two.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Round 1, Game 3: Bruins 4, Canadiens 2

Even when the Habs get a set of refs that seem tailor made to their makeshift lineup, they still can't pull it out. A sizable chunk of their skilled players -- Lang, Tanguay, Markov, Schneider -- can't play, due to one injury or another. That opens up space for the Habs' version of the Hansen brothers -- O'Byrne, Laraque, Stewart. And the refs misplace their whistles.

It all seems to come together for most of the first period. The Habs outhit, outmuscle and outplay the Bruins. But still they somehow manage to lose. Even without Lucic, the Bruins can play this game. They seemingly can play any game: Don Cherry style guts and glory, or Flying Frenchmen speed and skill.

The only thing that might come of this series is the opportunity for some of the youngsters to get a good dose of what playoff hockey is all about. That and maybe Bell Centre fans finding some class.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Round 1, Game 2: Bruins 5, Canadiens 1

Ouch. So much for the theory that if the games are called tight (or at least as tight as regular season games), then the Bruins size advantage would be outweighed by the Habs' skill advantage. Turns out the Bruins have more skill than the Habs -- or at least the Habs that showed up Saturday night.

Maybe part of it was that Gainey was juggling like crazy, more than the insane idea of lining up Laraque with Koivu and Kovalev. At least he finally came to his senses and put the big line back out at the end. Making things worse was Bouillon coming in -- then promptly going out. Thank God for Mathieu Dandenault. He's switched from RW to D more than once this year, mid game, and done well enough each time. That better be good enough to resign him.

Maybe the other part was that perhaps their most talented player -- Andrei Markov -- still couldn't play. The Habs have some skill up front, one line's worth anyway. But the blue line doesn't have that kind of skill without Markov.

In today's NHL, scoring from the blueline is critical. The Bruins, Sharks and Red Wings all have it. Sure, the Habs have Schneider and Brisebois, but both are defensive liabilities. Markov is the only player that can play both ends.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Round 1, Game 1: Bruins 4, Canadiens 2

Despite the outcome, Habs fans should be at least somewhat encouraged by the play of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Despite all the warning signs of a rough-and-tumble series, both teams kept their emotions in check for the most part, and played decent hockey. The refs actually acted like they were being paid to enforce the rules, and called a good game by not letting the clutch-and-grab go unnoticed and keeping a free flow.

Their defense played pretty well, despite having a converted forward, an old fart who skates as fast as I do and another old fart who gets pushed off the puck easier than my 6 year old. Sure there were a few lapses, like Gorges' brain freeze of a cross check. He knows better, but it was probably just a matter of a little too much force applied to what was supposed to be an "I'm still here" reminder of a cross check.

One wonders what might be if Bouillon and especially Markov can return to the blue line. If the refs keep calling it tight, the series could very well tilt in the Habs' favor, where their skill and speed would be allowed room to operate.

For all these reasons, one hopes that Big Georges Laraque won't be skating on the first line again. And if Bouillon and/or Markov returns, Dandenault should move up front and nudge BGL out of the lineup altogether.

BGL was inserted to provide some toughness during these playoffs, and to protect the star players. Gainey signed him last off season for this very moment, after Philly and Boston both physically dominated the Habs last year. It's a decent strategy, esp with the Bruins adding more size themselves.

The problem is that BGL simply can't play hockey. He skates around in slow circles, mostly looking for someone to engage in some verbal jousting. And when he tries to play the body, he's usually not very successful -- he's so slow, there's plenty of time to get out of the way.

His stick handling skills are also atrocious. He was set up multiple times for some decent scoring chances, but couldn't even get a decent shot most of the time.

On the other hand, the man he swapped places with was the Habs' main offensive weapon. Tanguay had an assist, a game high +2, and would have had a PP goal had it not been for a pact-with-the-devil display of goaltending by Tim Thomas.

When Tanguay was on the ice -- no matter what line -- the ice started tilting toward the Bruins' end. This was obvious by mid-2nd period. And when Gainey had his big line out to start the 3rd, I had hope that he had seen it too. But Laraque soon resumed his position on Koivu's wing. Presumably he was there to give Kovalev and Koivu more room. It's hard to say if that worked, but it's almost a lock that Tanguay on that line would have resulted in better scoring chances.

Still, there is much reason for hope that this series might extend long enough for the Habs to get healthy and pull out a series win.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Paging Steve Begin

The Habs return to postseason play in dramatic fashion. Who woulda thunk they'd do it with the 7th or 8th seed?

Regardless, the Habs showed some fight in the penalty filled penultimate regular season game with Boston. And all this without Big Georges Laraque and Gregory Stewart. Still, they managed to hold their own. Kind of.

Which really should make a Habs fan wistful for Steve Begin. Here was a good old Quebec boy who hit everything in sight. And with the playoffs looming, this is exactly what the Habs need.

As much as any fan of pure skilled hockey must hate it, the playoffs are all about gritty play, hard hitting and garbage goals. Habs fans must still remember all the goalie interference penalties that went uncalled when Carolina beat the Habs in seven a few years back. Rod Brind'Amour was viewed as a playoff hero, but most of those "goals" would have actually resulted in penalties in the regular season.

For this reason, Lapierre's line will do especially well in the playoffs. Latendresse has the most skill on this line, although Lapierre can do his share of scoring. And Kostopolous is the lone holdover from the "Lunchbucket Line" last year.

It didn't have to be this way. Sure, the Habs got an experienced dman in return. And experience along the blueline is very valuable, as the Habs found out when three of their top 6 dmen were all out at the same time (Markov, Schneider and Bouillon). But the Habs also had Dandenault playing forward. One could argue whether Dandenault or Janik would be better suiting protecting the defensive zone. But having Begin in the same lineup and especially available for the playoffs, I think the argument tilts toward the fact that this was not a good trade.

Sure the Habs got Glen Metropolit without giving up players or picks (or pucks for that matter). He's almost identical in size to Begin: both are 6'0" and around 195 lbs. And both have posted eerily similar stats this year. Metropolit has 6 goals and 11 assists in 71 games, about .23 pts/game. Begin has 8 goals and 5 assists in 61 games, good for .21 pts/game.

Metropolit is a right handed shot, and Gainey has shown a preference for trying to rebalance the Habs lineup. But come playoffs, balanced shots are nice but grit and energy rule the day. This year, Begin is among the league leaders in hits per minutes played.

Metropolit? In some games he seems to shy away from hits.

And while Metropolit makes $300k less than Begin, his contract extends into next year. Begin could have been invited back for the same amount as Metropolit, should Gainey want to keep him.

Had Begin stuck around, he might be centering the line with Higgins and Dandenault. That would give the Habs two lines that play strong on the puck, dish out hits, and take hits to make a play. If those two lines are thrown out against some of the other, harder hitting lines of any almost any playoff opponent, the two skilled lines (esp Koivu's), might find a little more space on the ice to do what they do best.

Monday, March 9, 2009


And about time, really. Carbo accomplished much, not the least being finishing first in the East last year after many pundits predicted the Habs might find it difficult to even make the playoffs. But he's made several puzzling decisions over the years. One area is how he treats the two players who have led them in goals scored since the lockout: Alexei Kovalev and Michael Ryder.

The differences in treatment couldn't have been more stark. Kovalev was (and has been) given all sorts of room to work through any sorts of slumps. If he was struggling offensively, Carbo simply gave him more time, as if to allow him as much time as possible to work through it on his own. But the only thing that seemed to work this season was when Gainey told him to not only sit out two games, but to just go home. Now that's a healthy scratch!

But Ryder's treatment was the polar opposite. Ryder was clearly struggling, and the past two seasons proved that he was a streaky scorer. But instead of riding it out and waiting for him to get it back in gear, Carbo benched him time and time again.

And all this while shuffling through various forwards in the effort to get a right handed shot on the power play. He even tried Bryan Smolinski several times -- while Ryder and his sniper shot sat in the press box. And with the way the PP was clicking last year, Ryder would almost certainly have gotten back in a groove sooner than later.

But perhaps the biggest proof for his failure is Ryder's runaway success with the Bruins under his old coach, Claude Julien. He has 23 goals in only 59 games. Even with the games missed due to injury, he seems well on his way to breaking his career record for goals.

Being the coach of the Habs is never easy. So one has to feel for Carbo for putting up with so much over the years, and now being so ignominously dumped. But it all boiled down to the fact that he didn't seem to have what it takes to motivate these players.

A word or two on Gainey's coach-selection strategy: he brought Carbo in as a rookie coach, having him stand with him behind the bench before he assumed the reins completely. Apparently the same is planned with Don Lever. Perhaps Gainey was impressed by the success of John Stevens in Philly and Bruce Boudreau in DC -- both promoted from the head coach position of each franchise's respective farm team.

Only time will tell if Gainey's strategy will work better the second time around.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Trade deadline 2009

At the beginning of this season, the Habs were well positioned for a playoff push, perhaps even improving on their surprising showing from the previous season and maintaining the number one seed in the East. The trades for Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang, two top six forwards, did much to create Cup anticipation amongst longtime Habs fans.

Unfortunately, injuries to key players and spotty goaltending have cast doubt on some of those lofty goals. Both Tanguay and Lang have been on IR for extended periods of time, as well as Koivu, Latendresse and Komisarek. Carey Price also was injured, only to come back as a shell of his former self. The Kostitsyn brothers and Kovalev sideshows, and constant trade rumors didn't do much for team psychology either.

But Gainey hasn't given up. Kovalev was given a two game sabbatical, and then came back with 7 pts in 3 games. Sergei Kostitsyn was shipped off to Hamilton. Mathieu Schneider rejoined the Habs for a couple of draft picks. Glen Metropolit was picked up off waivers. The Habs seem to have responded with aggressive defense, a vastly improved PP and most of all, Jaroslaa Halak's otherworldly goaltending.

Gainey's most recent move was somewhat surprising (or at least telling), as Metropolit still has another year on his contract. His pickup also solidifies Lapierre's role as the #3 center. One then wonders what will happen to Lang, a UFA in the off season, and a vital cog in the Habs offense this year. Like Lang, Metropolit also gives the Habs another right handed centerman, and is decent in the faceoff circle: he was the top faceoff man for the Flyers this year.

His pickup had repercussions: Steve Begin became expendable, and allowed Kyle Chipchura to be sent back to Hamilton -- no doubt for more seasoning. Chipchura's defensive play still needs work (-6 in 13 games), as well as taking draws (a woeful 43.9%). Metropolit buys Chipchura another year, and makes $300k less than Begin. Not much especially this late in the season, but still more breathing room under the cap.

The next Hab rumored to leave is Mathieu Dandenault. Also a UFA at the end of the year, he would seem to have more trade value as a two way player. Perhaps only Bob Gainey could get away with decreasing the "French content" of the beloved Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.

Still, if Dandenault were to leave, it would be either straight up for draft picks or packaged with picks and/or prospects for an impact player. Such an impact player would almost certainly be a top six forward, someone basically to replace the lost offense when Lang went down.

If Gainey were to do that, he would be essentially signaling a return to the three scoring line, one checking/energy line format. Since Lang's injury, Habs have been using old school lines: two scoring lines, one two-way/checking line, and an agitator/energy line, (more or less) something like this:


If Gainey were to pick up a top six forward, Carbo could dramatically reshape his forward lines for the playoffs. Assuming both Tanguay and Latendresse come back before the playoffs, the new lines might look something like this:

Tanguay-Koivu-new RW?

D'Agostini will almost certainly be sent down once Tanguay and Latendresse are back. While he goes to the net, has lightning speed and has that rare right handed shot ... he is completely lost defensively. This is where outside help is needed.

LW on the 4th line is a toss up: Kostitsyn has the most experience; Pacioretty has been solid and deserves a shot; Stewart provides toughness. Laraque will almost certainly not play -- he is far too plodding for the playoffs.

Kostopolous (favorite nickname: Nonstopolous) has been a fixture on Lapierre's right side for virtually the entire season, even on the PK (which is odd, given that both are right handed). But if Gainey wanted three scoring lines, Kostopolous has to go down one line.

So who might the new RW be? Given that Lapierre is the only right handed shot on the top three lines, one would think another right hander would be ideal. Bill Guerin fits the bill, has size and experience, and is being shopped by the Islanders. But the last time he was a playoff rental, it didn't go so well: -3 and a measly 2 assists in 9 games for the Sharks.

The more interesting rumor is Milan Hejduk. He's a proven scorer with a right handed shot. He's far removed from his 50 goal year, but his 50 pts would tie for the team lead right now, and his 23 goals would be tops. However, he's not exactly the type to drive to the net and get the typical playoff-type garbage goal. And he's still under contract for next year, at $4M/yr. With all the other UFA's Gainey has to sign, this trade would saddle the club even further.

Gainey might decide to stand pat, and not sacrifice future cap room or prospects for a single shot at the Cup. But how fun could that be?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lecavalier rumours

TSN is trying to stir up some mid-season interest by circulating a rumour that Tampa Bay may be shopping Vincent Lecavalier and that the Habs are interested. Now the first part of that rumour may indeed be true. The Bolts committed way too much of the future cap space to just one player. Such was the reasoning for trading Brad Richards ($7.8M/yr through 2011) and Dan Boyle ($6.667M/yr through 2013) .

But Lecavalier is the one player that eats up most of the Bolts' cap space for the next few years. As the Tampa Bay brass is finding out, hockey is a team sport. You need more than just one superstar to carry the team. And if you're going to pay that kind of money, it better be for a true superstar who can change the outcome of any game almost single handedly.

There aren't many players like that, esp those that don't mind the pipes. But even then, even Luongo and Brodeur don't make that kind of money. And for those non-goalkeepers, there are only a few true game-changers like Ovechkin and Crosby.

And that's an interesting comparison. Ovechkin makes $9M/yr. So does Crosby -- and Malkin too. But Ovechkin is surrounded by cheap, young talent. Pittsburgh traded away all of that when they bet the farm on last year's Cup run. And as of this post, they are mired in the 10th spot in the East.

Instead, look at what Gainey has done in Montreal. No real superstars. But lots of balance across all the lines. And when top scorers like Koivu and Tanguay get hurt (or even a top 3 dman like Komisarek), they still don't miss a beat. Gainey has built a team with depth, and that can't be done in the cap era when you OD on a superstar.

And what would happen next year, when the likes of Koivu, Tanguay, Lang, Kovalev and Komisarek are all UFA's? How exactly are the Habs supposed to keep even some of that talent, AND pay Lecavalier AND keep winning? Sure the cap adjusts from year to year, but with this economy, it just might adjust downward.

So thanks, Tampa, but no thanks. Vinny and his enormous salary are simply not sustainable. While it would be nice to get one of the biggest Quebec-born stars in the bleu, blanc et rouge, such a move would be franchise suicide.