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]

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