They call these the dog days of summer for a reason, with the biggest news of late being Erik Cole choosing #72, and David Desharnais switching from 58 to 51. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to talk about!
Let's speculate for just a moment that Pierre Gauthier is done with his off-season acquisitions. 12 forwards, 7 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders are under contract, with the likes of Andreas Engqvist and Michael Blunden to battle over remaining jobs. The Habs will field a competitive group for the coming season, but is the team really better than last year's?
Offensively, there should be little doubt. It is unlikely Scott Gomez can feasibly have a worse season than last, and youngsters like David Desharnais and Lars Eller will hopefully show nice progression at the NHL level. Then, of course, you add in the major upgrade of Erik Cole for minimal departures of Benoit Pouliot, Tom Pyatt, and Jeff Halpern, plus have a healthy Max Pacioretty, and you certainly wind up with a more threatening group.
On the back end, things are less clear. Habs fans have to hope that Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges stay healthy, as the losses of Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski are significant. There is also a wildcard in Alexei Yemelin who could either solidify the group if his play is up to par, or force Pierre Gauthier to move for extra help sooner rather than later.
In nets, Carey Price will again take on the majority of the workload, and thus the team's success will not be based on whether it's Alex Auld or Peter Budaj backing him up. Price will need to at least replicate last season's performance, and hopefully the added incentive of a big raise next summer will help him along.
With this basic assessment, let's fantasize for a moment. Flashforward 8 months in your mind to the 2012 NHL trade deadline. Let's further assume that there have been no season-ending injuries, and things have more or less gone according to plan. The Habs, who would start the season with roughly $4M in cap space, are battling for a home ice spot in the post-season and within striking distance of the Boston Bruins for the North East Division lead. What does Pierre Gauthier do? Who out there might become available around that time? Who will be the best fits to fill the team's needs? We'll preview Trade Deadline 2012 for the Canadiens from a Summer 2011 perspective.
Based on what we know right now, we'll leave the goaltender duo alone. The biggest needs would be on D, as it is common for teams to stack up on extra depth at that position pre-playoffs in any case. Then there may be a forward or 2 out there who could help to put the group over the top. Given the flexibility under the salary cap, no player in the final season of their deal would be out of the team's realm of possibility. Here's who we see as good candidates to be on PG's wish list:
1) Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators
Undoubtedly Suter would be an almost perfect fit with the Canadiens as a defensive d-man who could be paired with a youngster like Yemelin or Yannick Weber, and/or play top pairing minutes with Andrei Markov or P.K. Subban. Suter is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and while the Predators cleared out some salary this off-season in preparation, they still need to re-sign current RFA Shea Weber long-term or he, too, could soon become a UFA. Whether or not Suter is available at the deadline will depend in large part on the Preds' performance this season. Personally, I don't see them repeating the success that took them to the second round of the post-season last year, and have them falling into potential seller territory. I've certainly said that before about Nashville though, so one could never count them out. Further, even if Suter were to become available, the list of potential suitors (no pun intended) would be enormous and the cost to rent him very high.
2) Colin White, New Jersey Devils
Which New Jersey Devils team will show up this season? The one from the first half of last year, or the one from the latter portion? If the former, Colin White is likely to be available and he would be a reasonable consolation prize (at a much more affordable price) to Suter. Strictly a defensive blueliner, White brings size (6'4", 225 lbs.) and physicality to the back end, and like Suter, will be a UFA next summer. Another point in White's favour is his extensive playoff experience, with 111 NHL games and 2 Stanley Cups to his name.
3) Fedor Tyutin, Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have been aggressive about improving their club this off-season, but there's no guarantee that it will be sufficient to push them into the playoffs. Should they have difficulties, it's possible they won't have the cash to keep pending UFA Tyutin beyond this season given the money committed to Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski. At 27, Tyutin is still in his prime and he can play on a second powerplay unit while also using his 6'2", 210 lbs frame to his advantage in the defensive end.
4) Tuomo Ruutu, Carolina Hurricanes
The Canadiens grabbed one power forward from Carolina, why not take another?! While only average-sized at 6'0", 205 lbs., Ruutu plays the game with an edge (though cleaner than his brother Jarkko). Like the other members of this list, Ruutu will be a UFA next summer, and is coming off a career season in 2010-11 where he finally managed to stay healthy for all 82 games, registering 57 points. While his playoff experience is limited to a single season, Ruutu has had a decorated international career, winning 10 medals as a member of Team Finland at various levels. His game might round out a deep and strong top 9 reminiscent to the Boston Bruins scoring depth of last season.
5) Samuel Pahlsson, Columbus Blue Jackets
Alternatively, the Habs may look to a forward who can play in their own end of the rink. As we mentioned, our assumption here is no other moves than players Montreal currently holds rights to, so the team lacks a true shutdown center (Plekanec, Gomez, Desharnais, and Eller are all at their best in the offensive zone, while White and Engqvist are young and inexperienced). If this is their need, they can't do much better than Pahlsson, who was a major part of Anaheim's Stanley Cup win in 2007 (playing with Travis Moen, might I add) and was nominated for the Selke Trophy that year. Pahlsson also has an Olympic Gold Medal (2006) to his name, and at 33, would be a responsible veteran on a fourth line with, perhaps, Moen and Ryan White.
So what's the point of looking so far into the future? Other than passing time during the slow summer, hopefully this will provide reassurance that just because (and I mean to say IF) we start the year with a roster with a deficiency or two, doesn't mean we won't be Cup Contenders come April. Different players become available at different times and different prices, and it's up to Gauthier and his staff to make the right decisions.