Saturday, December 31, 2011

Your Canadiens for December 31, 2011

A very Happy New Year to all Montreal Canadiens fans who are kind enough to stop by and read this site with any regularity. May the New Year bring all the best in health and happiness to you and those in your life. And to our Montreal Canadiens, of course. On the occasion of the New Year, I have put myself in the shoes of a number of members of the organization to make some resolutions on their behalf. Here they are:

Randy Cunneyworth - To learn Russian in order to communicate with Alexei Emelin... and to piss off the French media.
Scott Gomez - To score more goals than I did in 2011. In other words, more than TWO!
Andrei Markov - To play more games than I did in 2011. In other words, to play a game!
Andrei Kostitsyn - I go net, I score goals.
Alexander Avtsin - To play in 10 games with the Canadiens... or to go back to the KHL.
Josh Gorges - To improve my financial situation. Specifically on July 1st.
Carey Price - To score more goals than I did in 2011. I mean, if no one else is gonna do it...
Raphael Diaz - To get the team to play me at forward so I can have a 50-point season and cash in.
Tomas Kaberle - To catch Mike Sillinger for most NHL clubs played for (12)... By the end of 2012.
Brendan Gallagher - To set what must be some kind of record by taking 4 goaltender interference penalties in a single game.
Mike Cammalleri - To learn to speak French. Maybe then fans will stop trying to trade me.
P.K. Subban - To finally get my darned lightswitch fixed. It's been stuck... #AlwaysOn. I'll be so happy to have it fixed that I'll never turn it on again. #AlwaysOff for 2012. And I'll be sure to Tweet about it all the time. Ohhhh... you guys thought that had something to do with hockey!
Aaron Palushaj - To continue to follow in the Ben Maxwell model, meaning I should get to play for at least 4 different NHL clubs in 2012.
Lars Eller - To be a little less Danish by working on my Finish.

And some final updates as the Canadiens prepare to take on the Florida Panthers this evening:

- No changes again to the Habs' line-up, despite their loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's good to at least see some consistency from the coach. Carey Price will get the start.

- World Junior Championships Updates:

Jarred Tinordi and Team USA were upset for a second consecutive game, falling 5-2 to the Czech Republic. When Finland beat Denmark later in the evening, it officially knocked the Americans out of the medal round and into the relegation tournament, a huge disappointment for a pre-tournament medal favourite. Despite finishing a -2, Tinordi had a solid game, throwing some big hits and not being responsible for the goals he was on the ice for. He has had a very solid tournament and it is unfortunate he won't get a chance to compete for a top 3 position.

Michael Bournival missed practice again yesterday, after sitting out Thursday's game with a flu. In his absence, Nathan Beaulieu has been playing/practicing at forward.

Daniel Pribyl had a nice assist, taking a hit to make a play, in the Czechs win over Team USA. Pribyl, still recovering from his leg laceration, played limited minutes but looked good in finishing the game a +3. His assist means all five Habs prospects in the tournament have collected at least a point.

- Despite being outshot 39-30, the Hamilton Bulldogs overcame 2-1, 3-2, and 4-3 deficits to defeat the Rochester Americans 5-4. On loan to the Bulldogs for the remainder of the season, forward Mitch Wahl scored his first 2 goals for the club, earning first star honours. Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist each had a goal and an assist (all on the powerplay), and Gabriel Dumont's 5th goal rounded out the scoring. Defenseman Frederic St-Denis had 2 assists in the win.

- The Canadiens' CHL prospects didn't fare quite as well last night:

Olivier Archambault was the only Drummondville player to finish a -2 in his club's 4-2 win over Chicoutimi.

After a hot start to the season, defenseman Darren Dietz has cooled off in a big way. He had no points and an even rating in Saskatoon's 9-4 victory last night.

Morgan Ellis (pictured above) had no points and finished a -1 in Cape Breton's 6-4 loss to Halifax. But the bigger news came at game's end, when it was announced that Ellis has been dealt to the Shawinigan Cataractes (where he'll join Michael Bournival once back from the World Juniors) in return for a first round pick in 2013, a second round pick in 2012, and Bronson Beaton. This will be a great experience for Ellis, as Shawinigan will host this year's Memorial Cup. That tournament should be another interesting event for Canadiens fans to follow, with Bournival and Ellis guaranteed to be participating, and a strong likelihood of Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi's clubs winning their leagues to make the Cup as well.

- Moving along to the college ranks:

Greg Pateryn and Mac Bennett's Michigan Wolverines won the Great Lakes Invitational (GLI) mini-tournament, defeating rivals Michigan State 3-2 in overtime in the championship game.

Steve Qualier had an assist to extend his current point streak to 8 games (5 goals, 8 assists) in a 3-3 tie against Princeton. On the season, this gives him 17 points in 15 games.

Danny Kristo generated a number of quality scoring chances but was repeatedly stopped, unable to snap a 4-4 tie between North Dakota and Harvard.

Dustin Walsh recorded an assist, returning to the Dartmouth line-up in a 3-2 win after a 6-game absence due to injury. Walsh now has 8 points in just 6 games played this season. He recorded 20 points in 34 games for Dartmouth last year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Your Canadiens for December 29, 2011

The Canadiens will not make any changes to their line-up for tonight's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, which means the following roster:

Max Pacioretty - Lars Eller - Erik Cole
Travis Moen - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Mike Cammalleri - David Desharnais - Louis Leblanc
Mathieu Darche - Petteri Nokelainen - Michael Blunden

Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Tomas Kaberle - Alexei Emelin
Hal Gill - Raphael Diaz

Carey Price

- Starting in goal for Tampa will be former Canadien Mathieu Garon. Garon last played for the Habs during the 2003-04 season. Only two players who were on the team that year remain in Montreal, being Andrei Markov, and Tomas Plekanec who played his first two NHL games that season.

- Also playing for Tampa Bay, in his third game of the season, will be J.T. Wyman. A defensive forward (who actually started out his hockey career as a defenseman), Wyman spent 4 seasons with the Hamilton Bulldogs, playing 3 games for the Canadiens in 2009-10.

- Today was an optional skate for the Habs, but all players were on the ice except for Michael Cammalleri and Travis Moen. A Tweet from J-F Chaumont prior to practice indicated that Carey Price and Mathieu Darche were catching up with Lightning forward Tom Pyatt, while Max Pacioretty chatted with Martin St. Louis. The connection with Pyatt may be obvious to you, seeing as he played in Montreal last year, but the St. Louis - Pacioretty friendship is a little more obscure. This past July, Pacioretty's first "game" following the infamous hit by Zdeno Chara was a charity match in Connecticut in which Pacioretty skating on a line with St. Louis.

- World Junior Championships updates from yesterday:

Jarred Tinordi played a strong game for the United States, earning his team's player of the game honours, despite the Americans dropping a 4-1 result in an upset to Finland.

Michael Bournival improved on his first performance for Team Canada, playing the third/fourth line center role well in Canada's 5-0 victory over the Czech Republic. And this improvement despite the fact that a bad cold almost meant Bournival had to sit the game out. Bournival's assist in the game means 4 of 5 Canadiens prospects in the tournament now have at least a point.

Brendan Gallagher, on the other hand, didn't have as strong a night as in the opener, missing two great scoring chances (one shot directly into the Czech goalie, and the other a whiffed one-timer) and taking two penalties.

Nathan Beaulieu continues to receive limited ice time in the #7 defenseman role, serving mainly as a powerplay specialist. With the man advantage, Beaulieu's shots frequently missed the net, plus for a second consecutive game, he took a third period penalty. Beaulieu has played well enough to deserve more ice time, but he'll need to step it up further to earn his coach's trust.

Daniel Pribyl was officially named to the Czech Republic's roster yesterday afternoon, recovering from the leg laceration that made him questionable for the tourney. He made his debut in a limited role against Canada last night.

- The Hamilton Bulldogs were also in action last night but were shut down by former Canadiens goaltender David Aebischer. Despite outshooting the St. John's IceCaps in each period (and 40-26 on the night), the 'Dogs fell by a 3-1 score. Andreas Engqvist had Hamilton's lone tally, his 8th in just 16 games. He had only 10 in 71 games last season.

- The last few weeks have seen many trade rumours about Canadiens prospect defenseman Morgan Ellis jumping to another CHL team, but it seems all have reached a stalemate for the time being. This would have nothing to do with his NHL rights (he would remain a Hab), but the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, the team he captains, sit 14th of 17 teams in the QMJHL. Ellis is expected to turn pro next season as he makes the leap to the AHL (or at least the ECHL) but could prove a hot rental for the remainder of this year for a Memorial Cup contending team. He picked up 1 assist in a 5-4 shootout win last night, giving him 25 points in 33 games. A lot of the discussion has involved him joining a team of another Hab prospect, possibly to play with Nathan Beaulieu on the stacked Saint John Sea Dogs, or solidifying the defense of Michael Bournival's Shawinigan Cataractes. The current QMJHL trade window closes January 7th, so a move should be completed between now and then.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Your Canadiens for December 28, 2011

That one felt good, didn't it Habs fans? I posted Monday my skepticism about the Canadiens' chances at making the playoffs this season based on the likely record they'd need from here on out in order to make it. But there is no doubt that if they are going to make it, they need to start winning NOW. Let's hope that last night's offensive output was the breaking of a slump for a number of players and not just a fluky flash-in-the-pan. The third period was encouraging as, despite the team being up by 3 goals, Montreal did not let up and continued looking to generate more chances. There was no "sitting on the lead," which typified the Jacques Martin regime, even if the former coach himself claimed he would never instruct his players to do so.

Mike Cammalleri showed nice chemistry with Louis Leblanc, and Lars Eller seemed to work well with Erik Cole, so there is no reason not to give these lines at least a couple of games together to see what might develop. The game wasn't perfect; there is still lots of work to do. But it's a start. Hopefully.

- World Junior Championships update:

Neither Canada nor the U.S. were in action yesterday, meaning no news on the Habs' prospect front. The Americans play Finland at 3:30 PM EST today on TSN, after which Canada faces the Czech Republic at 8:00 PM EST (also on TSN).

Speaking of the Czechs, there is news about Daniel Pribyl. As mentioned yesterday, he was mysteriously left off the Czech Republic's roster, despite a report that he was to be made an assistant captain. As speculated, it was indeed an injury that kept him out, specifically a laceration above the knee. Apparently it was bad enough that it would bleed just from bending the knee, though the Czech coach indicated that the team purposely named only 12 forwards for now to keep a spot open should he recover quickly. If he can't go in the next couple of days, they'll fill it with another player. The Czechs won their tournament opener 7-0 over Denmark last night.

On the subject of Pribyl, check out this Q&A with him which is undated, but evidently was prior to last June's draft, where the Canadiens selected him in the 6th round:

- Despite the World Juniors getting underway, Canadian junior league play resumes. In the QMJHL last night, Olivier Archambault picked up an assist but finished a -2 in a 9-3 Drumondville loss. Archambault, Montreal's 4th round pick in 2011, now has 29 points in 32 games but is an abysmal -14.

Over in the WHL, defenseman Darren Dietz also finished a -2 in a 7-2 Saskatoon loss. Dietz dropped the gloves in both the first and third periods, resulting in 2 fighting majors.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Your Canadiens for December 27, 2011

Welcome back, Habs fans. Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas or happy holiday weekend, and after a 4-day break, your Montreal Canadiens are back on the ice this evening. Let's hope that the team begins to play up to its potential and rattles off a win streak, or the opposite occurs and we see the kind of re-tooling I discussed yesterday. The only thing we don't want is a middle ground scenario, especially if it encourages Pierre Gauthier and Geoff Molson to trade picks or prospects to try to grab on to the 8th playoff spot.

- We saw Randy Cunneyworth roll out new lines at practice yesterday. They were as follows:

Max Pacioretty - Lars Eller - Erik Cole
Travis Moen - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Mike Cammalleri - David Desharnais - Louis Leblanc
Mathieu Darche - Petteri Nokelainen - Mike Blunden

Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Hal Gill - Raphael Diaz
Alexei Emelin - Tomas Kaberle
Yannick Weber - Chris Campoli

Lots to look at here. Most notable is the slotting of Lars Eller and P.K. Subban on to top lines following their one game sat as healthy scratches. Many have complained that Eller's potential is being wasted by playing him with third line wingers, pointing to this as a cause of his limited production (despite evident displays of top notch skill). He's now being given a chance with the large and talented wingers that David Desharnais has been blessed with this season (though he has played to a level worthy of their talents). It will be an interesting experiment to see if Desharnais can continue to produce without their size and if Eller can unblock offensively by playing with them. As for Subban, he will go right back to where he was before his scratch and I'm sure Randy Cunneyworth will be watching closely to see if any of the lessons he may have sent his way have been understood.

On D, Alexei Emelin seems to finally have a spot made for him on the left side. As much as Tomas Kaberle looks good on the powerplay, he hasn't earned any trust at 5-on-5. Could he really be that much worse playing the right side? At least you strengthen the left by slotting in a guy who has played like a Top 4 blueliner on the team on that side of the ice.

- Other than the lines, the big news out of practice was that the Canadiens now have an ad for Subway (Sandwiches) on their practice jerseys. This was met with outrage by many, including Dave Stubbs of Hockey Inside/Out / The Gazette. There have been many indications this season that the Molson family is about the cash in a big way and this is the latest move to increase their profits. Habs fans will be less angered if it is positioned as extra money going to pay for Jacques Martin's dismissal and/or perhaps sending Scott Gomez to Hamilton! And at least it's just a practice jersey right now.

- The 2011-12 World Junior Hockey Championship kicked off yesterday. If you don't follow the tournament, as a hockey fan, you are missing out. These under-20 kids play with hearts on their sleeves, representing their country and trying to be noticed on a big stage to vault their hockey careers forward. It is some of the best hockey you can watch all year. Here's how the Habs fared on opening day:

Brendan Gallagher had the game-winning goal and added an assist in Team Canada's 8-1 steamrolling of Finland. Gallagher spent most of the game on a top line with team captain Jaden Schwartz and future Winnipeg Jets star Mark Scheifele.

Nathan Beaulieu played only limited minutes 5-on-5, but was a fixture on Canada's top powerplay unit where he looked far smoother than any other blueliner. He finished the game with 1 assist. He isn't a flash player like a Subban, but he makes smart, efficient plays well and has a booming and accurate point shot.

Michael Bournival was the weakest of the three Canadian Canadiens (heh), generating some chances but also fighting the puck at times. He was the only member of Team Canada to finish a negative, of course a -1. He got looks on many different lines throughout the night after starting as the fourth line center.

Jarred Tinordi, an assistant captain with Team USA, scored a lucky goal in the first period with a shot that was going well wide but bounced in off a Danish player's skate. Still, it was a well timed pinch in the offensive zone by the big man. Tinordi played on the team's top pairing with Adam Clendenning. He took a delay of game penalty for clearing the puck over the boards from the defensive zone in the first period which was costly, as the Danes scored on the ensuing powerplay.

Daniel Pribyl is an interesting story that I don't fully understand yet. Despite a report last week that he would be named an assistant captain for the Czech Republic, according to the IIHF website, he is not a part of the final Czech team. I've yet to see any report explaining this, but the Czechs do only have 12 forwards on their final roster (most teams carry 13). I would guess Pribyl may have been injured in a pre-tournament game or practice, but we will perhaps know more when the Czechs open their tournament tomorrow.

- The Hamilton Bulldogs got back into action yesterday follow their Christmas break. They played the first period as though they were still working off their Christmas dinner, falling behind 3-0 to the Toronto Marlies in the first six minutes. But they came storming back with 6 unanswered goals to earn the win. Robert Mayer was perfect after coming in to relieve Nathan Lawson after the third goal, while Olivier Fortier passes the offense with two goals. Also scoring were Aaron Palushaj, Ian Schultz, Phil DeSimone, and Andreas Engqvist with an empty netter. Joonas Nattinen and Gabriel Dumont each collected two assists.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Re-Tooling the Habs

To many hockey fans, when discussing their team, the term "rebuild" is almost a dirty word. It means admitting that your team just isn't good enough to compete, making the best course of action the dismissal of beloved veterans for assets that may only pay dividends in a few year's time. It usually means losing a lot of games in the short term which is tough to take for any sport fan.

Anyone who has watched the Montreal Canadiens play this season could be forgiven for thinking that a full-scale rebuild was in order. The truth is, though, that teams who actually need a good old-fashioned rebuild are generally in much worse shape than the Canadiens' organization today. Think the Ottawa Senators about two years back. Little depth at the NHL level and a prospect system needing a major revamping. But if we assume it will take 92 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference (and the cut-off may in fact be even higher than this), the Habs will need a 29-16-1 record in their remaining games (or a similar 59 point permutation). Possible, certainly, but given their play thus far, it would seem to be highly unrealistic.

What the Habs need, then, other than a new management team and a better collective work ethic, isn't a rebuild but a bit of a re-tooling. It seems that perhaps the leadership group in place has gotten too comfortable and complacent, so a shake-up is in order. This isn't a rebuild that will require 3-5 years to return the team to respectability, but a decided purging of some players who aren't pulling their weight while ushering in a new generation of younger players as the team's primary core.

The first step in the re-tooling will be to determine who is in charge of making the important decisions. It seems clear at this point that Pierre Gauthier is nearing his final days with the organization. Elliot Friedman suggested recently that Geoff Molson may be in talks with Bob Gainey about returning to the forefront, but given that Gainey remains Gauthier's "special advisor" at present, this strikes me more as a temporary or interim move if it is decided that Gauthier can't even remain in place until season's end. Some names to consider in the general manager search:

- Jim Nill: Currently assistant general manager to Ken Holland in Detroit, having served with the Red Wings since 1994. He was in charge of amateur scouting for part of his tenure, during a time in which the Wings were notable for many late round steals. The downsides are that, first, he doesn't speak French, and second, he has been rumoured for nearly every GM opening since 2006, yet has opted to stay in the Motor City.

- Marc Bergevin: A native Montrealer, Bergevin was promoted to assistant general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks just last summer after serving in a number of capacities since 2004 which included pro scout, assistant coach, and director of player personnel. As a player, Bergevin played 1,191 games in the NHL over 19 seasons, though none were with his hometown Canadiens.

- Pierre McGuire: Needing little introduction, McGuire has been a member of the hockey media since 1996 when he got his first gig as a colour commentator for Montreal Canadiens games on CJAD. Prior to that, however, he won 2 Stanley Cups as a scout and assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and even spent nearly a full season as the team's head coach. McGuire also had a stint as an assistant coach and then assistant GM with the Hartford Whalers. There is no middle ground with McGuire; fans either love or hate his personality. But the man knows his hockey, and speaks enough French to appease those concerned with language.

- Julien Brisebois: Brisebois served as assistant GM to Bob Gainey in Montreal, with is primary responsibility being as a "capologist" in charge of negotiating player salaries. He was criticized at times for overpaying (perhaps needlessly) on many deals, but performed admirably in his simultaneous role as general manager of the Hamilton Bulldogs (while being the AHL's youngest GM). When Steve Yzerman took over in Tampa Bay, in addition to hiring Guy Boucher from Hamilton, he made Brisebois his assistant GM. Brisebois is experienced as a numbers guy, but there is little evidence of his player evaluation skills.

With a new manager in place, the staff will need to evaluate the present roster to determine which players should stay through the re-tooling as a part of the long-term plan and which should be moved to create roster and cap space. The most pressing decision surrounds the team's pending unrestricted free agents, meaning the following players:

- Andrei Kostitsyn: Kostitsyn, 26, was considered a top prospect when he was drafted in the first round in 2003, but has been a picture of inconsistency. His career top highlights reel shows as impressive as any player's in the league, but the moments are sandwiched between Houdini-esque disappearing acts. With the opportunity to become a UFA for the first time in his career on the horizon, he has actually been one of Montreal's more consistent forwards this season. Even if he'll ideally be a third liner providing secondary scoring beyond the team's top players, his combination of size, skill, and chemistry with Lars Eller make him a "KEEP" moving forward. It will depend, of course, on his contract demands, as I wouldn't want to commit to longer than 2-3 years for a player of his caliber, at a price tag of below $4M per season. Should his demands exceed this, I don't think he's irreplaceable.

- Hal Gill: The friendly giant may be one of the game's top penalty killers today, but he'll be 37 at season's end so it is clear his best days are far behind him. He has been a valuable member of the Canadiens both for what he brings on ice and for his veteran leadership in the locker room, but it is time for the team to move on and free up a spot on left defense for a younger player. He just doesn't seem to have much left in the tank for a long and packed regular season, so it is time to pass the reigns to a far more physical Alexei Emelin.

- Travis Moen: Like Gill, Moen has been a valuable roleplayer throughout his time in Montreal. A big body, defensively-responsible, third or fourth line winger, Moen's explosion for 8 goals before Christmas this season was certainly unexpected. Still, even if his physicality has declined over time, a proven Stanley Cup winner, the 29-year old's services are sure to attract a number of bidders come deadline, and his production could see the team picking up as much as a late second rounder for him. At that price, plus at his expected increased salary demands this summer, it seems the best move for the club will be to send him elsewhere. The current structure of the Canadiens (which, admittedly, may change under a new coach) is to play 3 offensive lines and one two-way trio, and $2M+ is likely too much for the team to spend on a fourth line penalty killer.

- Chris Campoli and Mathieu Darche: I lump these two together as they are commodity-type players in the league, neither likely to be back next season. As defensive depth is always highly valued at the trade deadline, Campoli should likely fetch a draft pick or prospect, while Darche's NHL career may be nearing its end.

With the most urgent matters resolved, the most critical decision will be to identify the team's core moving forward. There are few questions between the pipes, where Carey Price is the biggest piece of the team's puzzle. On defense, P.K. Subban is the team's current leader with a number of support players and up-and-comers in the system. Finally, up front, Max Pacioretty is the team's top young star, while Lars Eller and David Desharnais have shown they may enjoy long and successful NHL careers. The Canadiens have significant dollars tied up in a number of long-term contracts to, unfortunately, under-performing players. In order to keep a young core intact, some of these deals will have to be moved. To figure it out, let's look at forwards and defensemen separately.


Biggest contracts:
Scott Gomez, 32, 2 seasons beyond this year, $7.357M cap hit
Mike Cammalleri, 29, 2 seasons beyond this year, $6M cap hit
Brian Gionta, 32, 2 seasons beyond this year, $5M cap hit
Tomas Plekanec, 29, 4 seasons beyond this year, $5M cap hit
Erik Cole, 33, 3 seasons beyond this year, $4.5M cap hit

Needing raises:
Max Pacioretty, 23, 1 season beyond this year, current $1.625M cap hit
Lars Eller, 22, RFA this summer, current $1.271M cap hit
David Desharnais, 25, 1 season beyond this year, current $850K cap hit

Top prospects:
Louis Leblanc, 20, 2 seasons beyond this year, $1.17M cap hit
Aaron Palushaj, 22, RFA this summer, $883K cap hit
Andreas Engqvist, 24, RFA this summer, $900K cap hit
Brendan Gallagher, 19, 3 seasons beyond this year, $715K cap hit
Michael Bournival, 19, 3 seasons beyond this year, $690K cap hit
Danny Kristo, 21, unsigned

Amongst the big contracts, all Habs fans would agree that moving Scott Gomez's deal would be in the team's best interest. Shedding that behemoth salary would allow the team to at least get through this off-season with flexibility under the salary cap.

But I'm going to take it one step further and suggest that the re-tooling of the Canadiens requires a bit more of an identity shift. In fact, I'd like to see only one of Brian Gionta or Mike Cammalleri retained beyond this season. Gionta and Cammalleri are similar players in that they are undersized, streaky goal scorers. Given that needs of the team are to get bigger and more consistent, having two players in this mold is counterintuitive. Gionta's strengths are his intensity and leadership as the team captain, while Cammalleri is the softer of the two but has greater sniper potential and is a clutch playoff performer. Cammalleri has slight edges by being a little taller and a little younger, as well. Many Habs fans have suggested moving Cammalleri, unsatisfied with his play this year, but for the differences outlined plus the team's greater depth on right wing than on left, my call would actually be to trade Gionta. This would force a leadership shift with the naming of a new captain.


Biggest contracts:
Andrei Markov, 33, 2 seasons beyond this year, $5.75M cap hit
Tomas Kaberle, 33, 2 seasons beyond this year, $4.25M cap hit

Needing raises:
Josh Gorges, 27, UFA this summer, current $2.5M cap hit
P.K. Subban, 22, RFA this summer, current $875K cap hit
Alexei Emelin, 25, RFA this summer, current $984K cap hit
Raphael Diaz, 25, RFA this summer, current $900K cap hit

Top prospects:
Nathan Beaulieu, 19, unsigned
Jarred Tinordi, 19, 3 seasons beyond this year, $1.113M cap hit
Brendon Nash, 24, RFA this summer, $900K cap hit
Frederic St. Denis, 25, RFA this summer, $605K cap hit
Greg Pateryn, 21, unsigned
Morgan Ellis, 19, unsigned

Both of the big contracts on D are issues for different reasons. At this point, we will need to assume that once he does return to the line-up, Andrei Markov will be a passable top pairing blueliner. Since our focus is primarily on next season, we will keep him around as a fixture on defense. The Tomas Kaberle trade, on the other hand, may end up being the Habs' worst move since the Scott Gomez deal. I don't have huge issues with Kaberle as a player. He is an offensive puck mover brought in to help the powerplay, but not really trusted with a regular even strength shift. I've heard some reason that if Kaberle can be a 40-45 point defenseman, his contract isn't actually so bad. I'd beg to differ, in that someone being used almost strictly as a PP specialist could be had for much cheaper. Think Marc-Andre Bergeron. Kaberle is NOT $3.4M more effective than Yannick Weber. Better, certainly, but the cap room and roster spot are far better spent elsewhere, particularly once Markov returns. Pierre Gauthier suggested, after acquiring Kaberle, that his salary wouldn't be a handicap since there was always a way to move salary out as well if needed. We'll have to see if his words hold true.

That's pretty much the current situation, aside from the sizable raise the team will have to afford Carey Price this summer from his current $2.75M.


Moving out Gomez, Gionta, and Kaberle are all tall tasks. But here are some trades I would propose to begin the cleaning up process.

To Columbus: Tomas Kaberle, Travis Moen, Alexander Avtsin, 3rd round pick 2012
To Montreal: Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett

Before Kaberle was rumoured to Montreal, there was talk that Carolina had proposed a Kaberle for Brassard swap. According to some, Columbus had asked for a 2nd round pick with Kaberle, which is where it fell apart. Brassard is signed for two years after this one, like Kaberle, but at $1M less, while adding some extra size and NHL-calibre depth at the center position. At age 24, he still has significant offensive upside, and a change of scenery might do him good. To balance out the value, Columbus acquires Moen to pre-empt his becoming a UFA and pair him with his Anaheim centerman Sammy Pahlsson. Avtsin and the pick round out the offering (I would not part with a 1st or 2nd rounder from this year's draft in any of these deals) by adding in some possible upside, while the Habs also add some toughness in fourth liner Dorsett.

To Phoenix: Scott Gomez, Yannick Weber, Aaron Palushaj
To Montreal: Derek Morris

After dealing Kyle Turris to Ottawa, the Coyotes could use some center depth. The Canadiens will have to take on an unwanted contract to move Gomez (similar to the Brian Campbell / Rostislav Olesz deal between Florida and Chicago), and Morris's role is declining. In terms of actual salary, Morris is due $5.75M over the next two seasons compared to Gomez's $10M, hence sweetening the pot with a pair of cheap NHL-calibre players. Morris provides Montreal with a right-handed blueliner, something the team is short of.

To Minnesota: Brian Gionta, Hal Gill
To Montreal: Zack Phillips

The Wild have performed beyond expectations this season and may look to buy prior to the deadline to hopefully treat their fans to a playoff run. The team lacks depth offensively, a situation Gionta could address, while their defense is in need of experience, where playoff stalwart Gill fits in. These players combined may earn the Habs a nice return, and Phillips is the kind of pure offensive prospect the team's system lacks. He still has weaknesses in his game and should be considered a boom-or-bust type, but it's a risk the Canadiens can afford to take.

Are these deals realistic? They may be biased from a Habs fan's perspective, but they are merely examples of possible moves to get the Canadiens out of some big contracts. The toughest of the 3 to swallow would likely be the Gomez deal, as it assumes that, for some reason, there is still some market interest in acquiring the Alaskan's services.

Once these deals are done, the team can prepare for the off-season by selecting a head coach and then building a team that fits the coach's style well. We'll save the coaching debate for another day and instead look at the roster the team will take into the off-season:

Mike Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Erik Cole
Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - UFA
Andrei Kostitsyn - Lars Eller - Louis Leblanc
Derek Dorsett - Derick Brassard - Ryan White

Andrei Markov - P.K. Subban
Josh Gorges - Derek Morris
Alexei Emelin - Raphael Diaz

Carey Price
Peter Budaj

And most importantly, even with projected raises given to Price, Subban, Gorges, and others, this roster would have almost $10M in free cap space (assuming the new CBA doesn't change cap rules and the cap is held constant at this year's figure). This summer's UFA pool isn't plentiful, but there are a number of possible candidates for that UFA slot, including Zach Parise (unlikely), Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau (adds more local content), Tuomo Ruutu (addresses need for size), Dustin Penner (size, but only if he'd take a paycut), Kristian Huselius (but rebounding from injuries).

The roster has some depth and flexibility (e.g. moving one of the centers to wing to move Brassard up the chart), and next season will introduce stronger American League call-up depth to Hamilton with the likes of Michael Bournival, Danny Kristo, and favourite Brendan Gallagher battling for Louis Leblanc's spot on the third line. Frederic St. Denis should make a suitable #7 on defense, while Andreas Engqvist could fill the 13th forward role.

Is the above team ready to win a Stanley Cup? Perhaps not, but with the right coach at the helm, they should at least be competitive. Ideally, I'd like to see David Desharnais upgraded to a true #1 center (dropping Tomas Plekanec to a 1B role), but the good news there is summer 2013 has a boatload of talent presently expected to hit the UFA market (and thus perhaps available by next season's trade deadline). The team will be in a good spot to spend as the UFA market fills up in summers to come and can take advantage of other teams' salary dumps if there are deals to be had.

So fear not, Canadiens fans. It may be a tough season, but some pieces are in place. With a little re-tooling, the team could be back in the 2013 post-season and ready to finally make a SERIOUS Stanley Cup run in 2013-14. Not to mention with a top pick collected from the 2012 draft along the way.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Jarred Tinordi + Daniel Pribyl Named WJC Assistant Captains

In addition to having three prospects as important cogs on Team Canada, the Montreal Canadiens will have two other prospects playing big roles for their countries at the upcoming World Junior Championships. When the tournament opens on Boxing Day, defenseman Jarred Tinordi will be an assistant captain for Team USA, while center Daniel Pribyl will wear an A for the Czech Republic.

Tinordi, 19, was Montreal's first round pick, 22nd overall, in 2010. The 6'7", hard-hitting defensive defenseman is the captain of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights and should have a big role on a shutdown pairing for the Americans. Tinordi's game has very little offensive upside, but is the type of player the Canadiens sorely lack and thus will make a highly anticipated debut with the Hamilton Bulldogs next season. Tinordi had previously captained the U.S. under 18 team, but will serve as an assistant to WJC returnee Jason Zucker. The other assistant is fellow returnee and WHL star Emerson Etem.

Pribyl, who just turned 19 on December 18th, is a 6'4" skilled center who was taken in the 6th round this past June. Criticized for not using his size to his advantage in winning battles often enough, Pribyl has boom-or-bust potential but will first need to fill out his frame and work on his agility and balance. He plays in the senior league in the Czech Republic, but has limited ice time as a young player and has managed just 2 goals in 15 games despite being seen as an offensive player. He is penciled into a third or fourth line role on the Czech Juniors team, but the club will need added offense throughout the line-up as top prospect Martin Frk has had to declare forfeit for the tournament due to injury.

Please Stay - An Open Letter to Carey Price

Dear Carey Price,

As you celebrate Christmas with those near and dear to you over the next few days, I have no doubt you will be faced with a barrage of questions about your hockey team. "What's wrong this season?" they'll ask. "Aren't you tired of being the only one trying?"

"And what's up with all this language crap?" (feel free to refer them HERE)

But before you're faced with an inevitable, "Wouldn't it be easier to just play somewhere else?" let me make a case for you to stay.

I know you're well aware of the history of goaltenders in this city. I mean... I know you've seen this:

You made it painfully clear, in fact, responding to some jeers in your direction with a salute of your own:

We haven't always given you a fare shake. Sure, when Jaroslav Halak was with the team, there were times we wanted him to play ahead of you. But we can all admit Halak was super human that season. Winning is more than a want here; it's a need in this city. The Canadiens faithful are getting restless as we approach 20 years since the last Stanley Cup. We're ready to sacrifice almost anything or anyone for a shot at glory. The potential to be a part of that HAS to motivate you, as when you do eventually bring the 25th cup to the city, it will be a feeling that is unattainable in any other market. Ask Saku Koivu how badly he wanted not only to win, but very specifically to win it all in Montreal.

You told us to "chill out," and we did. We gave you a chance and you never looked back. This is YOUR team now. You are the only thing that keeps many fans from diving into a deep depression in the current season-gone-wrong. Whoever may be the General Manager when it comes time to negotiate a new deal with you this summer will be prepared to give you whatever you want. The keys to the city? Consider them yours.

Look, we acknowledge that the team hasn't been worthy of your dominance this season. We're sorry you've had to watch it all unfold from your crease. You deserve so much better. All we ask is that, unlike Patrick Roy in the videos above, you be willing to stick out, through thick and thin, riding the ups and downs that come with playing in the most hockey-crazed city in the world. Commit to us long term, let us know you are happy here and want to stay, and we will be able to sleep easier at night (perhaps clutching our Carey Price plush dolls).

We promise to try to go easy on you. To stand by you as best we can. To not care if you ever learn more than a few words in French. To rally behind your buddy P.K. Subban even as he struggles through a sophomore slump. To endorse your buddy Josh Gorges as he (hopefully) looks for a long-term contract this summer. Something you don't like? Tell us and we'll protest it. Heck, we'll call 911 if we have to. But the truth is, this is Montreal. We fans know the game and can be harsh critics. What we can truly promise is to be honest with you. If you continue to work hard and give your best effort, night in and night out, as you have this year, we will love you forever. And who knows... stick around long enough and play your cards right and maybe some day wayyy down the road, your #31 could even find its way up to the rafters along some of the game's all-time greats. But lose your focus, and we'll also let you know, particularly if you've got a young hotshot (read: not Peter Budaj) backing you up at the time. So I guess, what I'm saying is we promise to keep you on your toes and to push you to be at your best. Think of us like a parent who tries to push their kid to do better by seeing a 99% on an exam and asking what happened to the other 1%. But we love you; really, we do.

At this point, Carey, you're going to hear a lot of crazy shit out there. On the internet, in the media, in the streets... fans are hurting and are emotional. The mood and beat of this city, as I'm sure you've seen, tends to thrive and die with the performances of you and the boys. We're all clinging to hope that the team can come out of the holiday break with renewed energy and look at it like the start of a new season. We know the struggles aren't your doing, so please don't take any negativity or wise-cracks personally. We're all just waiting for the day when you will lead a turned-around team back to glory. Just please don't ask to leave before that day comes.

Yours Truly,

Habs Fans

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Is Habs' Season Salvageable?

When the National Hockey League's holiday trade freeze expires after December 27th, Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier - presumably working hand-in-hand with owner and president Geoff Molson at this point - will have to make some tough decisions. The first and most important question is simply: "Is the Canadiens' season salvageable?"

What does salvageable mean in this instance? It means taking stock of everything that has gone on thus far, how players have played, how other teams in the East are looking, the health of the club's important players, and more, and then deciding whether or not management believes the group still has a realistic shot at climbing back into a playoff spot. The answer to this will go a long way to determine what will be best for the club over the next few months.

Yes, We Believe

Let's say after talking it through, Gauthier and Molson believe the team's record isn't reflective of their play, and with a couple of better bounces in the second half, they'll find themselves right in the thick of things. Perhaps the front office sees signs in a guy like Mike Cammalleri or P.K. Subban that their entire season isn't for naught, and that they will open 2012 on a tear. I mean after all, the team is only 3 points out of a playoff spot with 47 games to go (though all of those ahead have games in hand). What would this mean?

Well, if Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez are going to be out a while still (neither is skating yet), the club may be forced to trade for some offensive depth. If a deal is to take place, the team is likely to move some defensive depth and/or picks and prospects (yes, this is a scary possibility) for some immediate assistance. Yannick Weber, Chris Campoli, or - scariest thought of all - Alexei Emelin could be on the move with futures for a forward to fill on the Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri line. In any case, it is clear that the current make-up just isn't cutting it, so if there is belief that the team can turn it around, a shake-up via trade may be required. Such a move will necessitate another trade this coming summer at the latest since the team will need to free up some cap space to retain its young budding stars, but if they are going to try to make a run, there is no urgency to create the space during this season.

You Gotta Know When to Fold 'Em

The doom-and-gloom view, which is gaining in steam with every game the Habs drop, would give Gauthier the mandate to start trying to unload a big contract or two immediately. There was a lot of promise and hope coming into the season, but much has gone wrong since. Andrei Markov, who was initially expected to miss few if any games at the start of the season, looks to not be making his debut until February. Scott Gomez didn't miraculously rebound as many held out hope for and was quickly sidelined with an injury of his own. Snipers Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta struggled when healthy, each also missing a number of games. Despite collecting points, Tomas Plekanec has not looked like his usual fireplug self. P.K. Subban has been mired in a sophomore slump. Simply put, there were many question marks around the team coming into October and most of the answers have been negative.

That's ok. This happens to even teams with much better rosters than Montreal's this year. Look at the Philadelphia Flyers of 2006-07. Or the New Jersey Devils last year. So Tomas Kaberle hasn't been the magical powerplay band-aid that would put the team on the winning end of the 1-goal games they love to lose, and Randy Cunneyworth didn't instantly inspire a lengthy winning streak. What next?

Can the team afford to wait it out for Andrei Markov and hope what he brings to both the defense and powerplay will put the team on a winning track? If the organization decides today that the playoffs will be out of reach, it is important for the team's future that they begin to look at the 2012-13 season almost immediately. Which players have shown enough to be retained as part of a "core?" Which players/contracts is there currently a trade market for out there (and which will garner even more interest as the trade deadline approaches)? For the sake of cap space, at least one of Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, and/or Tomas Kaberle must leave the organization. Preferably, a few of these players are dealt to pave way for a new regime. Easier said than done, as it requires finding a club that has cap space and is willing to take on one of these deals, but if the Habs don't see a future for them in Montreal, there should be interest in a Gionta or Cammalleri come February.

The club will also have to evaluate their pending UFAs. Come trade deadline, all of Andrei Kostitsyn, Travis Moen, Hal Gill, and Chris Campoli should produce reasonable returns if they are to be moved. That's a lot of chips in play for Mr. Gauthier, which is why it's never too soon to start making these decisions and evaluating possible moves. Plus, the sooner these able bodies are moved out for future assets, the likelier the team is to continue its tumble in the standings. A top two pick for Nail Yakupov or Mikhail Grigorenko may already be unrealistic, but drafting in the top 6-10 picks of each round will put the team in good shape to stock up on some top quality prospects in June.

In addition to moving out players, the team can also begin its man hunt for the new coaching and front office staff that will run the ship moving forward. If they've given up on a losing season, it's unlikely either Pierre Gauthier or Randy Cunneyworth will be around next Fall. If the team deems there is a top-flight candidate out there before the off-season, they may bring them in before this year's out to give them first-hand experience with the players that will stick around.

To be honest, Habs fans, while I always want to believe in this team and will support them win or lose, watching them from the opener in Toronto right up to last night's loss in Chicago, I see little hope for the Canadiens to squeak into a tightly contested Eastern Conference playoff spot at this point. It could happen, and I would be very happy if it did, but looking at things as of today, I would much rather see the team collect a few picks and young players for its aging has-beens and free up cap space to build around the likes of Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, and P.K. Subban. We're not talking about a lengthy re-build, just a little re-tooling. Certainly, I DON'T want to see the team trading away any promising younger players at this point. Rather, once the veterans are cleared out, give the likes of Alexei Emelin, Louis Leblanc, and Lars Eller greater responsibility to help them mature as NHL'ers so they can help to usher in the next generation starting next year. Unfortunately, I have significant doubts that the team's management will follow such a path. To admit defeat is to swallow one's pride, and I won't believe that they will move out the veterans until I see it with my own eyes.

I know all of this is a hard reality to face, but think of it this way: perhaps the moves coming from this lost season are just what the club needs to get over the hump in the near future and win that 25th Stanley Cup.

[I'll post my take on what the Habs should do from here on out on Monday, prior to the lifting of the freeze]

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Habs Sign Michael Bournival to 3-year Entry Level Contract

The Montreal Canadiens announced this evening that they have signed center Michael Bournival to a 3-year entry level contract. Bournival, 19, was a 3rd round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2010. The Habs acquired his rights early last season in exchange for defenseman Ryan O'Byrne.

Bournival, 6'0" and 179 lbs, has dealt with a few injuries in his young career, but when healthy has been on near a goal-a-game pace this season, notching 15 goals and 24 points in just 16 games with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL.

Bournival is currently playing with Team Canada in preparation for the upcoming World Junior Championships, where he is skating on a line with fellow Canadiens prospect Brendan Gallagher.

Bournival should be part of a strong incoming class to the Hamilton Bulldogs next year - unless he sticks with the Canadiens, that is, which is not out of the question. Already signed are Gallagher and Jarred Tinordi, with Morgan Ellis, Greg Pateryn, Nathan Beaulieu, and Danny Kristo expected to also make AHL debuts in 2012.

Your Canadiens for December 21, 2011

Updates on the morning of the third game of the Randy Cunneyworth era, as the Habs prepare to take on the Chicago Blackhawks at 7:30 PM EST this evening.

- With the Canadiens playing in a back-to-back situation, travelling to Winnipeg for tomorrow night, Peter Budaj will get the start in goal tonight. The Habs have dropped 3 games in a row, so tonight is an important game and playing Budaj is a bit of a risky move on Cunneyworth's part. However, for some time now, Carey Price has been one of the few players who "brings it" on a nightly basis. Starting Budaj is a challenge to the skaters; Carey's not there, now it's your turn to go out there and win it.

- Otherwise, the team will make no line-up changes, meaning Alexei Emelin and Yannick Weber will again be healthy scratches. I'm no fan of sitting Emelin and really think it makes little sense given the make up of this club. He's being held back because he's an LD, but a spot needs to be made for him at some point. With the top pair of P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges struggling, now would seem as good a time as any to split them and shift Gorges back to the right side.

- Team Canada continues its preparation for the World Junior Championships (which begin on boxing day) with their second pre-tournament game tomorrow night. Canada will take on Switzerland at 9:00 PM EST, live on TSN2. In the team's first game Monday night, Michael Bournival and Brendan Gallagher made strong impressions with great games. The pair is on the "fourth line" with no consistent third linemate since there are only 11 healthy forwards with the group at the moment. They still got plenty of ice time as coach Don Hay rolled four units, and Gallagher rewarded him by tapping home a Bournival rebound for a goal late in the third period. Nathan Beaulieu, meanwhile, had an up-and-down game, generating a few chances offensively while on the point of the team's top powerplay unit but not producing.

- Team USA is also holding their pre-tournament camp, dropping their first exhibition match to Team Russia last night. Jarred Tinordi was a healthy scratch for the game as the club opted to evaluate other defenders instead. Most still consider Tinordi a lock for the squad, though the Americans still have to make their final cuts by Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is Pierre Gauthier the One to Blame?

Now I'm no fan of Pierre Gauthier's overall body of work in Montreal. I've called multiple times for Mr. Gauthier to be shown the door along with Jacques Martin and was highly critical of the defense he put together for the 2011-12 season, going as far as to call it inexcusable. When Andrei Markov was signed to a 3-year deal, I was highly skeptical, but chose to give Gauthier the benefit of the doubt, as undoubtedly he had far more information on Markov's health than I did.

But is the performance of the team this season related to a mismanagement of funds this past summer? Would the team be better on ice if he had acted differently the past 6 months? It has been suggested by some, over the past week, that had Gauthier done a better job, Jacques Martin may not have lost his job this week. In fact, I had a rather heated debate with a prominent member of the mainstream Montreal sports media who went as far as to assert that had the contracts given to Andrei Markov and Scott Gomez been spent differently (a total of more than $13M in cap space) by Gauthier and thus been "contributing" on ice, the team would be performing better and Martin would still be coach. "Agree with me or stop talking," the journalist concluded. "There is no other side to it."

Whether you like Gauthier or not, there's a few myths that must be debunked here. One is that spending more money necessarily improves your team or equates to results. Another is that it is an easy task to bring in top talent when you have the cap space to do so. And finally, that ridding the team of Gomez's salary could be accomplished on a whim.

Mo' Money, Less Problems?

There is no doubt that in today's NHL, cap space is a valuable asset. Thus, giving out big, multi-season contracts to risky or unproven players should be seen as a faux-pas. So let's say Gauthier had an extra $14M to spend because he hadn't given such a deal to Markov and he had found a way to rid the team of Gomez. Would spending this money elsewhere make for a better on-ice product?

The easy answer is "Yes." It's $14M that today isn't helping the team win (as it's on the shelf, or ineffective in the case of Gomez when he was healthy), and so mathematics would indicate that $0M + $14M gives a positive change.

But let's consider a few things here. First, as Habs fans, we've seen enough ill-conceived UFA signings to know that not every one is a good one. Even if there's cash to burn, signing a Sergei Samsonov or Georges Laraque did not help the club, serving as a distraction more than anything. Adding a player for the sake of hitting the cap - even if it does provide more depth - isn't guaranteed to improve results. The counter-argument is that this is a defeatist attitude. You can't assume that with money to spend, any signing would flop. But truthfully, it is not much more defeatist than assuming on the day of the signing that Markov would not be healthy or that Gomez wouldn't rebound.

Ask Columbus if the big contracts they gave out this summer have improved their club from last year. How about the Washington Capitals and their very busy off-season? The truth is, there weren't many top calibre options available via UFA last summer, and nor will there be this coming summer. No defenseman near Andrei Markov's ability changed teams on or shortly after July 1st, with the closest probably being Ed Jovanovski and Tomas Kaberle. As sad as it is, there were also few Scott Gomez replacements available, with the biggest names being Brad Richards, Tim Connolly, and Ville Leino. Would the Habs have been a better team this season with Jovanovski dressed instead of Raphael Diaz and Ville Leino in Lars Eller's slot? No one knows for certain, but I think it's obvious that the answer at least isn't a clear cut "Yes" after all.

(keep in mind, the argument here is about the present season and the job of Jacques Martin; I fully agree with those that would rather see the money used to extend Josh Gorges, Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban, and Carey Price)

Who WOULDN'T Want to Play in Montreal?!

As just established, there weren't many names available on the free agent market, and when July 1 of 2012 roles around, the market is not much more plentiful (it starts to pick up the year after, assuming the world doesn't end in December 2012). But even this assumes that any and all available players would be willing to play in Montreal. We all know that this isn't necessarily the case, with taxes, pressure, non-contender status, and language/children schooling issues being prime reasons that keep some away. Montreal-bashing aside, you could pick any team/market in the league and there would be some players who wouldn't want to play there.

If you're not improving your roster through signings, how else can you spend money to do it? Well, you can make a trade. The thing about trading is, of course, you have to give to get. No Hab fans want to see this team sacrificing top draft picks and prospects for big contract veterans at this point, and even those moves are far from guarantees (see: Dustin Penner). The fact is, Gauthier did spend some of his spare cash by signing Chris Campoli during training camp, and then dealing for Tomas Kaberle a week and a half ago. It seems almost as though some are saying Gauthier should have just signed Kaberle instead of Markov last summer, but he has now managed to end up with both instead. If he had done that, and Kaberle had started the year here like he did in Carolina, fans would be in the streets enraged over another deal gone awry. And just imagine if, meanwhile, when Markov eventually does return, he plays like his old self. What if he did so in another market? Gauthier would need to enter the witness relocation program.

It is a myth that Gauthier is asleep at the wheel. He is a busy general manager, constantly looking for ways to improve the team. But the fact is, adding big name, big money talent that will help your team, even when you have the cap space to do so, is easier said than done.

It's Easy to Spend Someone Else's Money

Lastly, we arrive at the Scott Gomez factor. There is no Canadiens fan in the world that is happy to be saddled with his $7.357M cap hit for this season and the next two, including Pierre Gauthier. Like many, I hoped that Gauthier would find a taker for his contract this off-season, like perhaps the Florida Panthers or New York Islanders in their efforts to reach the salary cap floor. They both found more productive ways of doing it, though, so the Habs remained stuck with his deal.

Yes, there were ways to move Gomez that don't involve any other clubs. One would have been buying him out, which would have imposed a roughly $4M annual cap hit on the team for the remainder of Gomez's deal, plus a hit of $1.66M annually for 3 years to follow. This doesn't seem like the best way to spend money, not to mention that it would require an expanded budget from ownership to then be willing to spend that freed cap space. Unless the team had managed to woo Brad Richards to replace Gomez, paying a player millions of dollars intentionally NOT to play for your team is simply not smart management. Especially when no one was certain as to how David Desharnais and Lars Eller would fare down the middle this season.

The other option is to pass Gomez through waivers (he would go unclaimed) and then send him down to the Hamilton Bulldogs. From a fan's perspective, this is easily the best of the options, given that trading him would likely require sweetening the pot with a draft pick and that buying him out imposes the mentioned cap penalty. However, general managers work within budgets established in conjunction with team ownership. Considering that Gauthier was Bob Gainey's head of pro scouting when he went out and traded for Gomez (a deal I hated since day one, but at this point, we're talking about ancient history), meaning it was just as much his error as it was Gainey's, it would be a hard sell to convince your boss to not only pay him $7.5M, $5.5M, and $4.5M over this year and the next two to play in the American League, but then to give you and extra $7M to spend each of those seasons in improving your roster. From a business sense perspective, in Geoff Molson's shoes, it is understandable to ask Mr. Gauthier to find another way to deal with it or to find himself out of a job. Mr. Molson has in fact publicly stated that he is against sending Gomez to the AHL, whether you want to believe him or not. Sure, he also gave a vote of confidence to Jacques Martin and his staff, and yes, things do change, but there is no guarantee that his budget for the team will change with it.

I'm not saying Gomez's deal will forever be impossible to move, but if the Canadiens aren't going to be stuck with the Alaskan native until the summer of 2014, they're going to have to take some salary back. Here's hoping Gauthier can find a taker on a similar deal to the one Jim Rutherford got from him in order to rid the 'Canes of Kaberle's troublesome deal.

The Verdict

Is it Pierre Gauthier's fault that Jacques Martin was fired? I don't think Gauthier did the best job in putting together a top-flight team this season, but the fact is he spent all the money he could to ice a team of quality players. Are the injuries to Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Chris Campoli, and others Gauthier's fault? No. Certainly, those weren't predicable this summer.

The Markov contract has been and might continue to be a nightmare for the organization, but the fact is that there was no easy way to spend his $5.75M elsewhere that would have guaranteed a better club this year. We can only hope that he does eventually return in fine form.

The Gomez deal - particularly now with Kaberle in the fold - will prove problematic as the team is forced to give their young players raises this summer and the next. Undoubtedly, Gauthier will be forced to find a taker for one of Gomez, Gionta, Kaberle, or Mike Cammalleri, but for the present season, not only may Gauthier have had his hands tied in terms of options to get rid of the deal, but there were few veteran UFA centers on the market to replace him.

I strongly feel that Gauthier should and will be replaced prior to this June's Entry Draft, but I do think it unfair to lay all blame for this season's poor performance on him. Martin failed to get the most out of the veterans he had under contract - proven players and rookies alike - while employing an outdated defensive system. I'd push back with a question of would Martin have even lasted this long had Gauthier not signed Erik Cole, the Habs' top forward over the last 25 games. The GM's job is not an easy one, but just as Martin was deserving of the fate that befell him, so will be the Gainey-Gauthier regime when its time comes to an end.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Language Debate: Should Habs Coach Speak French?

It certainly didn't take long following the appointment of Randy Cunneyworth as an interim replacement to fired Montreal Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin for the Quebec language debate to rear its ugly head.

For those that don't speak French, long-time RDS reporter Luc Gelinas tweeted that he is very disappointed in Geoff Molson who let Pierre Gauthier name the first uni-lingual English head coach of the Canadiens since Bob Berry in 1984.

Does the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens have to speak fluent French? Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion on this matter. As a bilingual anglophone born and raised in Montreal, I can see both sides of the coin. However, there seems to be a great misconception among many as to the reason why some fans feel it important that the coach be able to communicate in la langue de Moliere. I'll reserve my personal opinion for the time being to try to explain for the mostly-anglophone readers of this site this take on the issue.

The Montreal Canadiens as a Quebec Institution

If you've never seen the movie The Rocket, as a Habs fan, you are missing something. Like it or not, the Habs have always been about more than just hockey and Stanley Cups. To understand this, we need to begin with a look at Quebec prior to the 1960s.

Maurice Duplessis' reign as premier of Quebec is referred to by many as la Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness). Duplessis, a staunch conservative, was marred in a number of corruption scandals, including complaints about too strong a relationship with the church, anti-union stances, and unfair treatment of certain minority groups. Duplessis focused on rural areas rather than cities, leaving French Quebec society under Duplessis rather disorganized and opening businesses to outside control. This resulted in very common outsider "English" ownership and/or management in the province (or at the very least, a popular perception of it being the case) with limited rights for the French-speaking "working class." Thus, there was great unrest amongst the French population, who felt they had few rights (particularly with Duplessis's union-beating activities) and were being kept down by English-speakers in many aspects of their lives.

Enter the Montreal Canadiens, a team composed largely of French-Canadian players, competing in a league run by anglophones and against anglophone teams. Enter Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the French-Canadian superstar of the team who, from his working class background, 'stuck it to the man', making English defenders and goaltenders look silly. No, it wasn't just hockey. The local 'habitants' could rally around this squad as a source of pride; French-speakers who had made it to the top of their profession as the greatest hockey team in the world.

Does this sound silly to you looking back through today's lenses? Perhaps. But try to put yourself in the time's shoes. You work all day for a poor salary, being told what to do by foreigners who don't speak your language. And in many cases, because of your language, you know you can't aspire to much better - the opportunities for advancement just aren't there for you. But then you turn on your television at the end of the day and see this young man with fiery eyes to whom you can relate showing up the opposition. This is where it began. It's not hard to see how the Montreal Canadiens inspired the French people of Quebec or why the relationship between the two is so intricate.

A controversial but fascinating book about the times was published in 1968, called Negres blanc d'Amerique (translation: "White Niggers of America"), by Pierre Vallieres, a leader of the highly radical FLQ movement. Extremist of course, but if you ever wanted a better insight as to how many saw the situation back then, try to find a copy (English translated editions exist as well). But from the title alone, you can see how to some, having a French-speaker coach the Canadiens is no less important than the election of a black President in the United State of America to African Americans.

The tie between Richard, the Habs, and the political and economic situation of the French speaking Quebecois grew to another level in 1955. As any Hab historian is well aware, The Rocket was suspended for the remainder of the 1954-55 season after striking a linesman during a violent on-ice affair. The suspension was handed down by NHL president Clarence Campbell, and was taken by the Quebec people as a clear instance of an English-speaker in a position of power batting down a French-speaker who had risen up to a high level. The length of the suspension was deemed unjust by Canadiens' faithful, leading to a riot that took place on March 17, 1955. To this day, the Richard Riot is looked at as one of the 'elements declencheur' (triggers) of the Quiet Revolution that would transform Quebec society over the coming decades into much of what it is today. Even though the Richard-less Canadiens would go on to lose the Stanley Cup Finals in a 7-game series against the Detroit Red Wings, the riot, clearly, was about much more than just hockey.

This is where much of it comes from, Habs fans. The Montreal Canadiens are an important symbol for French-speaking Quebecers, particularly those who were around in the 50s and 60s, or perhaps whose parents were and grew up with these values. As an outsider, one can't really criticize this view much more than one who hasn't been abused can criticize an abuse victim (here's looking at you, Pat Hickey). Is it an antiquated way of looking at things? Perhaps, but let's draw some parallels to today.

Would Michel Therrien, Alain Vigneault, or Claude Julien ever have gotten NHL head coaching jobs had they not gotten a start with the Canadiens? Perhaps, but it likely would have taken far longer, requiring them to prove themselves over and over again at lower levels to earn the trust of another organization. Quebec is a highly unique specimen in the greater context of North America and the National Hockey League. There are still many, particularly in a group run like an old boys' club as the collection of owners of NHL franchises are seen to be - not unlike the anglophone managers of the 50s and 60s - who wouldn't trust an unknown or unproven French Quebecer to come in and manage their team.

It is also true that the team is no longer composed primarily of francophone players, but the desire of the fan base to root for a local kid has far from disappeared. Look at the treatment of Guillaume Latendresse, or the thunderous applause that followed Louis Leblanc's first NHL goal. Even as the differences between French and English speakers in Quebec society have largely leveled off (Bill 101 aside), the deep-rooted feelings that lie dormant in the hearts of a significant number of Canadiens fans remain. If their team was to suddenly be managed by a non-French speaker, these emotions could very well return to the surface. This doesn't make them racist or necessarily separatist. In fact, for some, it is the complete opposite. It is a desire to see one of their own succeeding and being accepted into a culture full of people who are "different."

And this is why, in part, it is deemed important for the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens to speak French. And the general manager, for that matter. It should be a person to whom the locals can relate, and can look at as someone who made it in an English-dominated society. At the very least, it should be someone who can prove they've made the effort of learning enough French to show them the respect of addressing them in their local tongue. Fans who care about the coach's language skills want to win just as badly as those who don't, but because of this deep-rooted attachment, they want to be able to feel a part of it. I'm not AT ALL suggesting that ALL French-speaking fans feel this way, but it is evident that some do. Should the organization just apologize to these fans and explain that the team doesn't work that way anymore? Some would say yes, but for many reasons - political, marketing, and otherwise - these fans can't simply be ignored.

The Best Man for the Job

But, that's only one side of it. The other, more publicized perspective (particularly in English media of course) is that the Montreal Canadiens owe it to their fans to look beyond the language issue and hire simply the best man for the job. Above all else, the Montreal Canadiens are a sports organization and a business. Neither of these definitions of the team leave any room for language-based hiring or player selection policies (though, some might say that as a business, French-speaking staff and/or players would be more marketable to the Quebec population).

Winning should be the number one priority of any club in the National Hockey League. If the Canadiens implement a policy that restricts their ability to make decisions that increase their chances of winning, it would contradict this. Can a team win with a French-speaking head coach? Of course. Former Habs coach Claude Julien won the 2011 Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, a team that has Quebecois Patrice Bergeron as an assistant captain. But ultimately, in such a competitive and balanced league as today, any handicap severely disadvantages a team and so the Montreal front office can't ignore any possibilities when searching to put the best team (on and off the ice) in place. The game and league have changed radically since the 50s and 60s, with the parity of post-lockout hockey making building a championship club as difficult as ever.

That's why the language of any one member of the organization should not truly matter. The French language will always be an important part of the team's history and traditions and must be respected in its daily operations. But an English-only head coach or general manager could be assisted through press conference by sitting side-by-side with a French-speaking associate, or even just having a translator to help with the media, not unlike a Russian player new to the league. Beyond this, the French media could and would continue to translate everything, just as they do now when interviewing the Carey Prices, Mike Cammalleris, and Brian Giontas who have yet to pick up much beyond "bonjour" and "merci."

As a fan of the sporting club and what it represents today, this is how I see it. I would be highly disappointed if the club is pressured into a language-based hire, as journalists like Mr. Gelinas want to encourage. I want the team to win, no matter who it is made up of. I thought that Habs fans in 2011 were near unanimous in this attitude, but it quickly became apparent on Twitter Saturday that my views may have been a little too anglo-centrist. It seems there are some who would be willing to sacrifice a better candidate for one that can speak French. I would be very curious to somehow take a census survey of all Habs fans to gauge their opinions on a wide variety of topics, including the language issue for the team's management. I wonder how far it goes; would these same individuals be willing to accept, say, a worse goaltender than Carey Price if he were a local boy? But until we have definitive answers as to the prevalence of these views, we have to understand and respect that there are different ways of looking at the Montreal Canadiens.

So what does that mean for this summer's coaching search? The ideal would be to find an experienced, top coaching candidate who is also fully bilingual. But at the end of the day, the club owes it to the majority of its stakeholders (which, fans aside, most importantly includes the players on the team who deserve the best coach) has to go with the top available coach without considering the languages on his resume. I'm not trying to convince those that argue otherwise that they're wrong, either, though. In hiring the best man, the team must be very careful to not isolate the French speakers of Quebec, particularly those outside of Montreal whose English may be minimal at best, and a plan should be orchestrated before the announcement of the hiring as to how to address it delicately with the media. It shouldn't be left to the new coach to answer a question about French lessons by saying he hadn't really thought that far yet, as Randy Cunneyworth did in his press conference alongside Pierre Gauthier. If the transition to an English-only coach is to happen, all initial communications must come with those wanting a French-speaker in charge at top of mind. One solution might be bringing in a head coach and associate coach for at least a season, not unlike the Edmonton Oilers did with Pat Quinn and Tom Renney. Hire, say, Randy Carlyle as head coach, while promoting Clement Jodoin from Hamilton to Montreal to work with him, splitting responsibilities between the two (but with Carlyle as the primary guy).

We don't yet know who will be available as of this summer, but of course some names are already floating out there should Randy Cunneyworth not earn an extended stay. I for one would be very against giving the job to Patrick Roy, who despite good results, has shown to be hot headed, self-centered, and in the middle of several off-ice controversies that would become big distractions in a market like this. He is not one to take direction or to take the time to learn from others. Some might say Roy could be a fiery coach like John Tortorella in New York, but with just 5 seasons behind the bench of a junior team as the sum of his total coaching experience, I really don't think he's ready to take over an NHL club.

Whoever does take over has a tall task ahead of him. Head coach of the Montreal Canadiens is one of the most prestigious sport jobs in the world but is accompanied by immense pressure. As Peter Parker told us all, "With great power comes great responsibility." Choose wisely, Mr. Molson.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Canadiens Fire Jacques Martin

The Montreal Canadiens have fired head coach Jacques Martin, as first reported by Dave Stubbs on Twitter.

Randy Cunneyworth, an assistant coach brought up to Montreal after head coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs last season, will take over as interim head coach until the end of the season. This is a wise move as there aren't many candidates currently available, and thus it will allow the team to perform an extensive search to find the best possible candidate to lead the team beyond this season. It is interesting, though, since Cunneyworth doesn't speak French and it has long been thought that language was a pre-requisite for the bench boss job.

Cunneyworth, 50, is a veteran of 866 NHL games as a player, split between the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers, Chicago Blackhawks, and Ottawa Senators. He was the head coach of the AHL's Rochester Americans between 2000-01 and 2007-08 before spending two seasons as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers.

Anyone who has been following this site will know I'm not exactly disappointed or surprised by this news. It was a matter of time and a necessary change in philosophy for the players.

In a strange move of shuffling personnel, assistant GM Larry Carriere will step behind the bench as an assistant coach to fill the vacancy. Carriere was named Gauthier's assistant last summer, but has no experience in pro coaching. He does speak French, however, so he will be able to address the media on Cunneyworth's behalf. Let's hope that's not an indication that Martin will take over as assistant GM, as he did not have a great record managing personnel with the Florida Panthers. Though there have been signs this season of disagreement between Pierre Gauthier and Martin, meaning having them work together seems like an unlikely scenario.

Here is a summary of some of the major things said at today's press conference from Gauthier and Cunneyworth:

Pierre Gauthier - It was a very difficult decision. I have a good and long-standing relationship with Mr. Martin, but it's something we've been looking at for a few weeks.
- Even when we were picking up points, we'd look at the performance at the end of the game and see we didn't play well. The results seemed predictable, especially with our third periods. Mr. Martin was doing a great job, but sometimes it's best for the organization to bring in new approaches and ideas in order to improve.
- For the moment, Mr. Cunneyworth can't speak French, but that can change. Languages can be learned. We did an external coaching search. There is a need to win now. But we felt we had a good team internally to get it done.
- Larry Carriere is an experienced hockey person who has a relationship with Mr. Cunneyworth going back to the Buffalo Sabres organization. He brings a fresh perspective to the bench.
- Mr. Cunneyworth is interim right now because during the season, we evaluate mainly short-term needs. The rest will be re-evaluated in the off-season.
- I appreciate Mr. Molson's support in this decision. There is never a right or wrong time. As hard and dramatic as today is, it's a game day, and we get right back to business.
- Like I told the players, we ALL (including me) have responsibility for where we are right now. It's a team game. Individual poor performances can be linked to the overall group.

Randy Cunneyworth - I'm proud to be offered this job. I know I'll have plenty of help from a great staff. It's an honour to be the coach of this team.
- My message will be that players have to get back to doing the things they're capable of. We need to get more out of individual players. It has a lot to do about execution. All players have to be on board as a team instead of trying to do things on their own. In terms of communication, my role is to make players understand more of what's expected from them. We need to get players to reach their potential and these expectations.
- I hope my coaching style is similar to the way I played. It's important our team competes in all areas and that everyone is involved.
- One of our biggest assets is our speed. We're not the biggest team, but we move the puck well. I ask players to play to that.
- Players jobs are to go out and take care of their own responsibilities. But they're also part of a team, and as such, they must be accountable.
- I haven't thought through taking lessons or anything yet, but I will do my best to keep improving my French. I'm Canadian, so I took some in school. Being exposed to conversations in all of our meetings, you can't help but learn some.


So, why was Jacques Martin fired? He's not entirely incompetent at the job, but he was not a good fit for this team. Martin is a veteran's coach, and one with an old school defensive style. It's not the right fit for a young, skilled, puck-moving team like the Canadiens.

I've documented many of his faults this season in a number of articles:

- "But... I Can Change" (December 16)

But perhaps his biggest foul this season has been the way he has handled the press at times. No coach in the league has been quicker to jump to blame his players for losses, calling them out by name on a regular basis. And yet it was always the team's rookies and youngest players who were singled out, as opposed to the struggling veterans being paid to lead this team but failing to do so.

Habs fans can only hope that some players were waiting on a move like this. That a change in coach will spark the team more than, say, Kirk Muller has in Carolina. Time will tell. But either way, if you ask me, this is a good day for the future of the club.

Player reactions, courtesy of Hockey Inside/Out: