Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What if Habs Keep Brendan Gallagher?

While there have been a number of intriguing plotlines during training camp, none has captured the attention of Habs fans more than the outstanding play of 19-year old Brendan Gallagher.

The 5'8" Vancouver Giants star, picked by the Canadiens in the 5th round in 2010, is coming off of WHL seasons of 41 and 44 goals, but has shown he is far more than a diminutive one-dimensional goal scorer. In fact, the best comparable for Gallagher would be somewhere between two current NHL'ers he can look "up" (not literally) to in Brian Gionta and Brad Marchand.

Gallagher displays offensive awareness and slick hands much like Montreal captain Gionta. He comes in hard on the forecheck, and has vastly improved his skating, once considered the biggest weakness in his game (aside from his size). While Gionta isn't afraid to go to the net, battle in the corners, or throw the occasional hit, Gallagher is even more comfortable with the rough stuff, hence the Marchand comparison, able to play like a little wrecking ball coming in on opposing defensemen. The most exciting thing for Jacques Martin is likely that Gallagher is rather responsible defensively as well, making him a real complete player.

The knock against him is that he has been unable to finish plays thus far in preseason, leading the Canadiens in hit goal posts. Perhaps he isn't quite ready for starring offensive duties, but, what IF he does make this team? It's not like there is a job for him in the top 6 anyway. Gallagher would likely slot in as a third or fourth line winger, filling in for an injured Travis Moen, Ryan White, or Lars Eller to provide secondary scoring support while highlight the responsible and physical sides of his game. He may not have super talented linemates to produce with offensively initially, but he has shown a skillset strong enough to generate his own chances, and at least on a bottom line, he'd be shielded from opposing top forwards and shutdown d-pairings.

Who would he play with? Considering the Habs have only 12 players on NHL deals and up to 3 may miss opening night, there is definitely a spot to be won. But the who depends on how you rate his camp in comparison to fellow youngster Aaron Palushaj. Palushaj started camp really slowly, underwhelming and even disappointing many, but picked it up recently with 4 points in his last 2 games to tie him for the Habs' preseason scoring lead. Palushaj isn't a fit on a gritty fourth line, so given the full top 6, he would need to play on an offensively oriented third line to work, perhaps with Andrei Kostitsyn and David Desharnais. The question would then be, with Palushaj's better production but Gallagher's more impressive play, which of the two should be in that slot? It would seem that IF both are to make the team due to injuries initially, Palushaj's weaknesses work in his favour in slotting in on that unit while Gallagher might play with Andreas Engqvist and Mathieu Darche.

And what about his contract? Gallagher remains unsigned at the moment and would have to pen a deal with the Canadiens by Saturday in order to stay with the team beyond this weekend. Signing a deal doesn't mean it would kick in right away, given that Gallagher is a junior aged player. The Habs could keep him with the team for up to 9 regular season games on a "tryout" basis without year one of his deal commencing, at which point they'd have to decide whether to return him to the Giants or keep him in Montreal. If he stays, that starts the clock ticking on his UFA age one year earlier than his anticipated pro-turning date next Fall, and of course would officially begin year 1 of his entry level contract.

But unfortunately, these are the only options for Brendan. It's Montreal or Vancouver, as a CHL player under 20 cannot play in the American Hockey League (meaning no Hamilton). This means that unlike a player like Gabriel Dumont, Gallagher couldn't be called back up mid-season. It would mean goodbye till the Fall if he were sent down. Because of this, and because I feel he deserves to make this team ahead of Palushaj or Engqvist or Mike Blunden, I believe the right call is to keep him in Montreal at least until everyone is healthy (< 10 games), and then make a decision on if he can really continue to help the team all year. As such, while Francis Gagnon's estimation this morning that he has an 80% chance of making the club might be a little high, I do think there is a good chance he sees at least a few games.

As such, I would propose an opening night roster like the following (assuming there remain 3 injuries to forwards):

Mike Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Erik Cole
Max Pacioretty - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta
Aaron Palushaj - David Desharnais - Andrei Kostitsyn
Mathieu Darche - Andreas Engqvist - Brendan Gallagher

That leaves an (at least) temporary spot for Mike Blunden as the 13th forward, which basically means the cuts up front are done (aside from Michael Bournival, who, because injuries limited his camp time, has no real aspirations of sticking with the team this year).

If Palushaj can't keep his level of play up, then either Mathieu Darche or Gallagher could swap on to the third line in his place. And keep in mind that just because I slot Gallagher on to a fourth line for now, doesn't mean I see his career potential as a fourth liner. It's simply the opening that best suits him given the players currently under contract, and no matter where he plays, it'll be good for him to get some actual NHL experience. The question will be what moves the Habs decide to make once Eller, Moen, and White area ready for action.

Speaking of keeping players in Montreal, because it has been a common question and is a little complicated, here's the situation with players injured during training camp. The following applies (currently) to Hunter Bishop, Olivier Fortier, Louis Leblanc, Brendon Nash, Joonas Nattinen, and Ian Schultz. An injured player cannot officially be cut from a training camp, meaning these guys can't be sent down to the Bulldogs until they have received a clean bill of health. This also has implications for the salary cap. Of course, it wouldn't make sense for the Canadiens to be charged the full NHL cap hit to keep a guy like Bishop around just because he's hurt (and yes, injured players DO count against the NHL salary cap; a team is simply allowed to replace that player while he's out and exceed the cap by the injured player's salary in replacing him). The CBA has a weird quirk rule to handle this, which is that the player is charged a prorated amount of their current NHL and AHL salaries based on how much time they spent in either league last season. So, take Nash for example, who spent a few days in Montreal last year, playing 2 games. Let's assume he spent 4 days on an NHL roster last year and that works out to about 3% of the season. A formula that looks at how much of his AHL salary and how much of his NHL salary he was paid last year based on this is calculated, and the ratio applied to his salaries this year to figure out his cap hit while injured.

What does this mean? From the Canadiens perspective, it means the injured players will be charged against the cap at their daily AHL salary rate for the most part, which will have an immaterial impact on the club's cap position, given that most annual salaries there are > $100,000.

Whatever does end up happening, with just two preseason games to go, all Canadiens fans are super excited to see what the real team will play like, myself included! Let's forget this 1-5-0 record and get on to the real thing!

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