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.

1 comment:

Randy Wood Malone, NY said...

Sure. Sounds great. But why do most Montrealers see Carey Price as the second coming of Plante, or Dryden or Roy. He isn't even the second coming of Walmsly, or Hackett or Penny. Give HIM more money? Don't make me laugh. Let him go.