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.