Friday, November 11, 2011

Habs MVP: Josh Gorges

At season's end, whether or not the Montreal Canadiens make the playoffs is likely to depend most on Carey Price. To get there, certainly, they'll need offensive contributions from the likes of Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, and strong two-way play from Tomas Plekanec. They'll also probably need a healthy Andrei Markov (sooner rather than later) to bolster the D and fix the powerplay. And definitely the size of Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty has brought the club an offensive element it has lacked for years.

But for my money, thus far this season, the Habs' MVP is none other than Josh Gorges.

Of course I don't say this only as a reactionary statement to his powerplay goal last night, ensuring a win in a game where a loss meant falling into another prolonged slump. Sure, that helped, but on a team whose biggest weakness is inexperience and softness on the back end, and with sophomore P.K. Subban having more downs than ups thus far, Gorges has been the team's top blueliner.

Gorges, a simple defensive d-man whose career high is just 23 points, has a goal and 6 assists through 15 games, good enough to rank 8th on the Canadiens and tops amongst his fellow rearguards. Since he doesn't get a powerplay shift, all of his points have come at even strength, ranking him 5th on the Habs for points at 5-on-5 and, perhaps more impressive, tying him for 6th league-wide amongst defenseman in this category.

But it's more than just the offense. In returning from a significant injury, Gorges has played with tenacity, provided leadership to his young teammates, and been the same determined, hard-working d-man that got him to the big league in the first place. His +7 rating is the best on the team, and he ranks third in ice time at 21:06 per game, behind only Subban and Plekanec. He is able to eat up difficult minutes to protect younger players like Yannick Weber, Raphael Diaz, and Alexei Emelin, each of which has struggled at times in their own end.

It will be interesting to see how the Canadiens shuffle the pairings when Andrei Markov returns to the line-up. Gorges has spent much of the past few seasons playing on the right side, paired with Markov or Hal Gill. But his successes this year have come on a more natural left side, paired with Subban. Assuming that after a couple of games, Markov will be looked upon to play over 20 minutes a night, he will need a partner who can do likewise, indicating he is likely to play with either Subban or Gorges. Presumably the other of the two would then be paired with Gill (seeing as both have had success with him in the past), meaning that either way, Gorges would find himself back on the right. Hopefully this won't impact his strong start, and given that it is still a familiar situation for him, it really shouldn't.

The "trouble" then will come at year's end, given that Gorges's current one-year deal, paying him just $2.5M, would make him an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2012. At this point, re-signing him appears to be a non-negotiable (no pun intended) must, and a big pay day for the 27-year old should be upcoming. Many fans urged not to worry, claiming that the lack of offense in his game meant his raise couldn't be all that significant. But his camp is sure to be looking favourably at the contract Braydon Coburn just signed with the Philadelphia Flyers; a 4-year extension worth $4.5M a season. Braydon's numbers aren't all that much better than Josh's, with consecutive seasons under 20 points (though his career high is 36). They are roughly the same age, though at 6'5" and 220 lbs, Coburn's size is clearly an edge. Coburn averages a little more ice time than Gorges at 21:27 a game this year, but that ranks him third amongst Philly Ds whereas Gorges is #2 in Montreal (though that may change with Markov's return and depending on Subban's play). Should Coburn make more than Gorges? Yes, I would say so, but not by all that much. If Coburn gets $4.5M, it becomes easy to justify a $4M deal for Captain Kelowna.

With an influx of young prospect d-men in the coming seasons, Pierre Gauthier (and/or his eventual replacement) will have to make many decisions, but this summer, letting go of such an important cog as Gorges couldn't be the right one. He'll have to get creative, given that Carey Price also needs a big raise, Subban needs at least a medium-sized one, and the summer after will be Max Pacioretty's turn to cash in. But Gorges looks every bit like a future contender for the captaincy, so hopefully we'll be able to rest easy that he'll stay in Montreal for the long haul.

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