Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Embarrassment of Riches

Today we look at the situation between the pipes. The Habs have two very good goalies. No, make that one outstanding goalie and another very good with a lot of promise. Both are young and restricted free agents this off-season.

As RFA's, the Habs could underpay them, offering them just enough to keep other teams at bay. Or the Habs could try to lock them up long term, beyond when they turn 27 and become eligible for UFA status. This would probably apply more to Halak (24 yrs old) than Price (22 yrs old).

But I don't think there will be any long term contracts for either, mostly because of rule changes next year. Goalie pads will now be regulated according to the size of the goalie. No more of those extra large pads that extend up to the goalie's waist.

The effect of those oversized pads was most noticeable with butterfly-style goalies. The pads closed up the five-hole, leaving the goalie free to use the paddle to cover up other areas.

One would think the rule change would affect Halak more than Price. After all, Price is a much bigger goalie than Halak, and covers up a lot of net with or without the large pads. But Halak showed a lot of mental toughness, especially during the playoffs.

Price hasn't shown that kind of toughness, given his propensity to let in a soft goal every so often. Still Price showed a lot of maturity in accepting his backup role, and could be seen encouraging Halak, practicing hard, and calling out teammates who didn't put in the necessary work. Even his two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in that one Washington game could be seen it this light. Sure he went a bit overboard with his team spirit, but knowing where the line is is something that comes with experience.

So while there is a lot of promise in their young netminders, there are a lot of question marks too. Bet on Gauthier offering a one or two year deal to Halak, in the $2M to $2.5M annual cap hit range. Price might get a longer contract, given his younger age, but at a lower annual cap hit. Maybe $1M to $1.5M?

These low amounts will also be necessary for Gauthier to re-sign most of his RFA's, as well as his important UFA's, none more important than Plekanec.

Up next: blue line changes.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

UFA countdown

Now that the season is over, Pierre Gauthier and company can concentrate on what the next year may bring. And with such a long playoff run, they have a lot of data to sift through. But even without crunching the numbers, it's evident that the Habs are strongest on the blueline and between the pipes. These are great building blocks. So Gauthier must focus on how to upgrade his corps of forwards, and search for players with the skill and speed to match the Giontas and Cammalleris, but enough size to create space for them as well.

There is one player with all those qualities, and due to be an unrestricted free agent this July 1: Patrick Marleau. But with his 44 goals this regular season, and a similar performance in the playoffs (despite playing much of the time with No Show Joe), Marleau will be a hot commodity.

How hot? Currently he carries a $6.3M cap hit. To lure him away from the team that drafted him and the only team he has played for in his 12 years in the league, any GM would have to significantly boost that amount. His teammate Dany Heatley carries a $7.5M cap hit. With UFA inflation, that could easily go to $8M. There are some who question his mental toughness and and others who say he won't fare as well without Thornton. Both unfounded, especially given his most recent playoff performance, but they might serve to at keep him at or under $8M.

But the Habs are only $12M or $13M under the cap for next year. Much of that will go to signing or replacing three of their top four centers (Plekanec, Moore and Metropolit). Another chunk will go to re-signing RFA's, especially Halak. Assuming Marleau gets $7.5M to $8M and replaces Plekanec as the #1 center, then Moore and Metropolit would have to be replaced with minimum wage UFA's or minor leaguers (Maxwell and White?). And the RFA's will all have to be low balled, probably on one year deals while the Habs wait out the economy and hope for a higher cap the following year -- and also hope no other team is willing to part with the compensation necessary to pry away a Halak.

Or maybe there's another scenario where Marleau could wear le bleu, blanc et rouge. Maybe by replacing the only center who is under contract, a contract that just happens to carry a very similar cap hit as the one Marleau would command. We're talking about Scott Gomez of course. This topic has been addressed ad nauseum in this space. And nothing has changed, even during the course of the playoffs. Gomez is a good player. He's just not worth the cap hit he currently costs.

But it's that same issue that will make it almost impossible to trade him. So the Habs will either gut their roster to get Marleau, or have to look elsewhere. Next up: looking elsewhere.

Post mortem

Well, that was a helluva ride. Given that they were the 16th seed, rising to the top four is well beyond anyone's expectations. Still, there is room to improve and the deep run into the playoffs exposed this team's strengths and weaknesses.

To rate the individual pieces, we don't need to go into the tangible qualities of speed, skill and size. We know the Habs need size. But the playoffs exposes those intangibles that aren't so readily seen, especially heart, grit and determination. And here the Habs had some players who stepped it up in that department, some who stayed level with their regular season play, and others who looked completely lost:

The Lost: Pouliot, A. Kostitsyn and Plekanec.

With three shutouts against a third-string goalie, the top six forwards should have been more present. But these three especially somehow couldn't get it done. Granted, they were thrown against some of the better forwards and defensive pairings, but that didn't stop Gionta and Cammalleri from lighting it up.

The Level: Subban, Markov, O'Byrne, Bergeron, Spacek, Darche, Moen, Gomez, Moore, Price and Hamrlik.

Hamrlik almost ended up in the Lost category, given how slow he looked esp on every one of the shorthanded goals the Habs gave up. But his +4 night in their lone win against the Flyers makes up for those.

Bergeron could have gone either way. As a PP specialist, he was a flameout. Still, this was due at least in part to the opposition's knowledge that they had to get high in his shooting lane. So he didn't have many opportunities. And with the injury to Markov, and the general lack of scoring, he had to play a lot at even strength -- and a league worst plus/minus to show for it.

Moore and Moen provided some timely goals on occasion. But Moore was brought in for his faceoff prowess, and ended up a team worst 41%. Moen finished second on the team in hitting, but his weren't of intimidating kind that the team leader (Lapierre) seemed to provide.

The Lionhearted: Gill, Gorges, Cammalleri, Gionta, Pyatt, Lapierre and Halak

Gill and Gorges shut down the world's best scorers night in and night out. Gionta and Cammalleri accounted for almost half the Habs' goals. Pyatt and Lapierre provided secondary scoring, speed, defense, hitting, and energy. And if enough of the rest of the team played like these guys, we would be talking about Halak as Conn Smythe trophy winner.

It's unfortunate that more didn't step up their game. But getting that far into the playoffs can be a rich learning experience for a fairly young team. Which bodes well for next year.