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.

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