Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is It Too Late?

Back on January 18th, I titled a post "One Last Chance." With games against the 7th, 8th, and 9th place teams coming up, I reasoned that the evening's matchup with the Washington Capitals was a final shot at saving the season. A win would gain back ground on a playoff position and perhaps start a much-needed hot streak.

Well it was not to be that night, with the Habs dropping a 3-0 decision to the Caps. But the team would rally to post a 2-0-1 record in their next 3 games - the last before this past weekend's All-Star break. But is it too late? Was that loss to Washington a final nail in the coffin, or are the Habs believers clinging to some legitimate hope?

With continued inconsistencies in play and effort level, the Canadiens haven't done much to close the gap between themselves and the 8th and final playoff spot. With just 33 games left on their schedule, making up 8-10 points on 4 or 5 teams will be no easy task. No easy task, and yet still certainly not impossible. In fact, the Canadiens still have many chances to help themselves out in a big way with critical "4 point games." They have 3 left against 3rd place Washington, 2 each against 7th place Florida and 8th place New Jersey, 3 against 9th place Toronto, 1 against 10th place Winnipeg, 2 each against 12th place Tampa Bay and 13th place New York Islanders, and finally, 4 - including tonight's match-up - against 14th place Buffalo.

If the team is to on some magical run to get back in the hunt, a surprising key contributor will have to be Scott Gomez. Gomez has picked up his play since returning from a groin injury that saw him sit out 30 games. Of course, he still isn't worth anywhere close to his salary, but it is unlikely the Canadiens would be able to unload it right now even if they wanted to, so might as well continue hoping for him to be productive. It seemed as though there was no spot for even a healthy Gomez in the Montreal line-up, given that he was passed in the depth chart by all of Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, and Lars Eller at center, but an unfortunate injury to Brian Gionta that is likely to keep him out the rest of the season created a hole for an offensive winger. Since Aaron Palushaj has been thoroughly unimpressive in every one of his call-ups to date, Gomez has slid into Gionta's old spot on Plekanec's wing and has shown some solid puck-moving and playmaking ability. If nothing else, his play should keep Pierre Gauthier from deciding to deal assets for short-term top 9 help.

The other big question will be if and when Andrei Markov can return to the team's blueline. If the Canadiens can stretch the current hot streak out a while, they may find themselves back in the thick of the hunt. Markov skated for 15 minutes for the first time today since his December "clean up" surgery as a supplement to his off-ice conditioning work. There is still no timetable for his return, but if he can be back for the final month of the season at anywhere close to 100%, he may give the team the powerplay productivity it needs to earn a few critical extra points down the stretch.

Don't get me wrong; as I've said for some time, my personal belief is that the playoffs are out of reach for this season. I've seen this team not show up well enough for seemingly big games this season to have little hope of them "putting it all together" and going on a Boston Bruins-like win streak. As a fan, I would love to cheer on an incredible push down to the season finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but I just can't envision it being that close. I see any late charge ending up in a 10th or 11th place in the East finish. And worse of all, a squandered opportunity at a top draft pick to add an impact player who could contribute in the very near future. That's why, as a Habs fan, I'm willing to forego that instant gratification and happiness of a "meaningless" Habs win at the moment (assuming that playoffs are in fact unattainable) in the hopes that it will fast track the raising of a 25th Stanley Cup banner in Montreal.

Whatever the outcome will be, we should find out soon enough. There is less than one month to go before the trade deadline, and the team will need a huge month of February to convince their GM to "go for it," rather than simply selling off its pieces.

Here is your line-up tasked with getting the ball rolling on the final stretch tonight:

Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Rene Bourque - Tomas Plekanec - Scott Gomez
Andrei Kostitsyn - Lars Eller - Mike Blunden
Mathieu Darche - Andreas Engqvist - Yannick Weber

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

Carey Price

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Recap of Carey Price's All-Star Weekend

We'll be back with new content tomorrow, but for now, enjoy a little look at Carey Price's NHL All-Star weekend:

Friday, January 27, 2012

Player Spotlight: How Long of a Stay for Tomas Kaberle?

When Montreal Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier sent Jaroslav Spacek to the Carolina Hurricanes in return for Tomas Kaberle, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he had received the best player in the trade. Though a good teammate, Spacek, at age 37, had little to no trade value, though the Canes may be able to ship him off as a rental for a mid-late pick by the trade deadline. Kaberle, on the other hand, was traded away from Toronto last February and earned the Leafs a top prospect in Joe Colbourne, along with 1st and 2nd round draft picks. Since then he has added a Stanley Cup to his resume, and at age 33, his 13 points in 20 games in Montreal would average out to 53 over an 82-game season.

Sounds great, right? Then how exactly was Gauthier able to pull off this miraculous theft? Let's start with his stops in Boston and Carolina. Yes, he won a Cup with the Bruins, but the team was far from happy with his performance. With just 9 points in 24 regular season games, and 11 in 25 in the post-season, this is hardly the output the B's wanted from an offensive blueliner. The problem with Kaberle is his ineptitude in his own end, unable to be trusted at 5-on-5 without a defensive stalwart beside him. So if he isn't putting up points, his value to a team is hugely diminished. After signing a UFA deal with Carolina, he scored 9 points and had a -12 rating in 29 games, leading to his trade to Montreal. During the press conference about the trade, when discussing signing Kaberle to a 3-year deal, 'Canes General Manager Jim Rutherford went as far as to say, "I should have known better."

Speaking of that contract, it is of course the main reason Kaberle was available so cheaply. Kaberle is due $4.25M per season for another 2 years beyond this one, a huge cap hit for a bottom pairing powerplay specialist who has failed to lift Montreal's powerplay out of the league's basement. Hindsight may be 20/20, but for far less money, the Habs might as well have retained Marc-Andre Bergeron in a similar capacity. This very summer, powerplay d-men who will make less than Kaberle who will be UFAs include: Kurtis Foster, Sheldon Souray, Jason Garrison, and Sami Salo. Are they all 50-point guys at this stage of their career? Maybe not. But the question is, what do the Canadiens need out of this roster slot moving forward? Will Kaberle have only passed through Montreal for a brief stint during his newly-become journeyman career?

I didn't like the trade when it was announced. It severely handicapped the team's payroll, knowing that Carey Price and P.K. Subban need considerable raises this summer, and Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais are due for the same the year after. After having dealt Mike Cammalleri to Calgary, the team has regained a little breathing room, but the question remains as to whether or not the money is being spent in the right place. To me, the ideal situation was that Kaberle would produce (as he has), and that Andrei Markov would return to the line-up in early February - a line the team fed us back in December/early January. Then, once Markov proved he was on his game, Kaberle could be shipped to a desperate club before the deadline for a similar little-to-no return for which he was acquired.

Obviously, that hasn't happened. Kaberle has produced offensively (and even has a positive +/- rating), but is near invisible in most aspects of the game, while the Canadiens continue to show few signs of being able to challenge for a playoff spot (the crushing win over Detroit aside). To limit his minutes, along with those of a slowing Hal Gill, the team has opted to quite regularly dress 7 d-men. The bigger disaster, though, is Markov, who ominously has yet to start skating again following his "minor clean-up" surgery early in December. There are legitimate questions at this point as to whether Markov will ever return, or how hampered his play may be if and/or when he does.

So what is the answer? If Markov doesn't return by the trade deadline, it is perhaps likely that Kaberle remains a Canadien into the summer months. I'm not a fan of his, but with the poor or inconsistent play of P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber, the team needs someone with offensive vision at the point. However, the tradability of his contract at any given point is a question. It's not quite a Scott Gomez contract - it will be possible at times to find takers. But not always, which makes me feel that if there is some interest in Kaberle's services between now and the deadline, the team should jump on the window of opportunity. On a team filled with big, tough, shutdown blueliners, Kaberle is still actually a pretty good fit. On a team with P.K. Subban, Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber, and Andrei Markov (all of whom I would rather have than Kaberle for reasons of cost, potential, or ability), he will eventually find himself as the odd man out.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Player Spotlight: What's in Store for David Desharnais?

For a 25-year old second year NHL'er to improve his points-per-game average from .5 in his rookie season to over .7 as a sophomore, scoring 35 points in 49 games and becoming the team's top offensive pivot, is quite a feat. Such a player would normally be seen as an up-and-coming star; a forward with great potential for a long and productive career.

So where then has the hype machine for Montreal Canadiens center David Desharnais been? With 2 goals and a helper in last night's 7-2 win over the first place Detroit Red Wings (and even if I'm fully on Team Tank, I'll admit that feels good once in a while), Desharnais has passed Tomas Plekanec for top spot in points amongst centers on the team, and is tied for 2nd in points amongst all Habs with linemate Max Pacioretty (behind other linemate Erik Cole).

Has the lack of promotion been because Desharnais is just a product of his linemates? Certainly having twin towers on either side of him hasn't hurt his statistics this year, but he also looked dangerous when playing with Mike Cammalleri for a stint. Is it because he's a one-dimensional offensive player? He may sometimes be dominated in his own end, but he has managed to maintain a +11 rating on a cellar-dweller team this season while playing an average of 17:50 a night. Maybe it's because he can't win a face-off? He did start the season off slowly in that department, but he has improved back up to the 50% mark. No, the reason for the lack of belief in Desharnais's abilities has nothing to do with any of his hockey skills. Clearly, the only reason some wonder about his future is his 5'7", 177 lbs frame.

Small players never have it easy on route to the National Hockey League. They have to prove themselves over and over again to show that they can compete with the big guys in a rough and tough game. Desharnais has done just that throughout his career, never being drafted but earning a contract with the Canadiens organization thanks to QMJHL seasons of 51, 97, 118, and 108 points. But even under contract, he was deemed unprepared for the American Hockey League, spending his first pro season in the ECHL. Would it be too much for him to handle? His 106 points in 68 regular season games, 33 in 22 playoff games, and league MVP award all said bring on the next challenge. In his rookie season in Hamilton, he scored 24 goals and 58 points in 77 games and in 09-10, in addition to making his NHL debut for 6 games, he improved his Bulldog production to 78 points in 60 games, not to mention 23 in 19 post-season contests. And then the jump to the NHL, where after a solid first season last year, Desharnais seems to be only getting better. He has succeeded everywhere he's gone.

I've seen it asked by fans over and over again whether David Desharnais would even be an NHL player in other organizations. It's getting harder and harder to say "no" to that question as he continues to display an off-the-charts offensive skill set. Does he need big linemates to be successful? It definitely helps, just as playing with Vincent Lecavalier and/or Steven Stamkos helped the development of Martin St. Louis in Tampa Bay (and his incredible skills of course helped their production as well). The problem then is the fit in Montreal. The Canadiens don't have an abundance of large forwards for DD to play with, and also lack size down the middle. So how do you make it work?

The easy armchair GM answer, which I've advocated for previously, would be to trade one of Desharnais or Tomas Plekanec (your two undersized top 6 centers) and bring in a big, physical, offensive powerhouse #1 C. Signed at a very cap-friendly hit of $850,000 for next season, Desharnais's value is likely as high as it will ever be. Such a move would provide needed balance to the lines and improve matchups against bigger opposing players. Unfortunately, such centers don't grow on trees, and if the Canadiens can't lose enough games to draft Mikhail Grigorenko, given a lack of solutions on the UFA market this summer, there may not be a quick fix.

So what's our next option? Get bigger. The Canadiens aren't that far off from this point honestly. With Pacioretty, Cole, and Rene Bourque, if Andrei Kostitsyn can also be re-signed, you would only need to look for one more offensively capable player with size to ensure there will always be enough space for the smaller men to work their magic. If you can replace Scott Gomez with a Tuomo Ruutu, and perhaps add a Paul Gaustad to center the fourth line (giving you 2 smaller centers in the top 6, but two bigger centers with Gaustad and Lars Eller for the bottom 6), then there may not be any problem having all of Desharnais, Brian Gionta, and Brendan Gallagher dressed up front.

But if Desharnais is the one to be moved, then I won't have a problem with it. In fact, I'll applaud Pierre Gauthier for getting maximal value out of an asset some thought worthless not long ago. Assuming that is, that I deem the return acceptable. Otherwise, I reserve the right to organize a protest outside the Bell Centre expressing my discontent. And as a Habs fan, I know I'll have plenty of company.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Your Canadiens for January 25, 2012

Updates for the morning of the Canadiens' final game prior to the All-Star Break, which will be a break for everyone except Carey Price and Raphael Diaz who head to Ottawa to participate in the game and festivities. Price was named to the game itself, while Diaz will participate in the skills competition as one of the selected "YoungStars."

- Rene Bourque (flu), Travis Moen (upper body), and Petteri Nokelainen (ribs) all missed practice yesterday. Of the three, only Bourque is expected to play tonight against the Detroit Red Wings, so the Canadiens called up Andreas Engqvist to fill in if needed. Engqvist dressed for the Bulldogs last night, but was held off the scoresheet for what has been a rare time of late. In his last 14 AHL games, he has scored 9 goals and 8 assists, giving him 23 points in 27 games to rank second on the 'Dogs behind Aaron Palushaj. Something you may not have known about Engqvist is that he is an avid Tweeter (even if some/most of his posts are in Swedish); follow him here: @aengqvist.

- Carey Price (cut) practiced yesterday, relieving any concern that his self-inflicted accidental wound might be more serious than anyone knew. He will start tonight. Ryan White, meanwhile, has been cleared for contact and practiced with his teammates yesterday. He should be available to make his season debut after the All-Star break.

- The Bulldogs were defeated 4-1 by Lake Erie last night as it appears their hot run is officially over. They will need to get hot again to remain in the tight playoff race. Louis Leblanc scored the team's only goal, his 9th of the season, with assists to Brian Willsie and Frederic St. Denis. Leblanc, who had 9 shots on goal in the game, is having a strong rookie campaign with 16 points in 23 games.

- Brendan Gallagher is expected to return to the Vancouver Giants' line-up tonight after missing just over a week with an upper body injury. The injury was sustained after he fell awkwardly into the boards on a relatively clean hit from fellow Habs' prospect Patrick Holland. The Giants had a 2-3-0 record while Gallagher was missing.

- As the All-Star break will soon be upon us, the Canadiens were forced to again answer questions about the health of Andrei Markov. The update remains that he "continues to progress," but there is absolutely no timetable for his return at this point. The Habs still refuse to acknowledge the possibility of him being shutdown for the season.

- The Habs aren't the only team struggling this season and with possibly "tanking" for a top pick on their mind. There is quite the logjam in the basement of the Eastern Conference standings. Spots 11 through 15 are being shuffled on a daily basis! Check it out as of today:

Three Western Conference teams have fewer than 45 points, so as of today (pre-draft lottery), the teams above would pick 4th to 9th (in reverse order) at the 2012 Entry Draft. If the Canadiens can't fall low enough to land the top 2 pick required to add Mikhail Grigorenko to the roster, they will be an a somewhat awkward position with the top 10 prospects dominated by defensemen (and having taken a d-man in the first round each of the last two years, it doesn't seem like the best of plans). With a top 10 pick, the Habs may consider 6'2" center Brendan Gaunce, or quick rising Russian Alexander Galchenyuk, though a lot could still change between now and then.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Habs Trade Talk - Who's Next to Go?

Montreal Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier shocked Habs fans earlier this month when he pulled sniper Mike Cammalleri out of a game against the Boston Bruins as a deal sending him to the Calgary Flames had been completed. In making the trade, Gauthier was clearly thinking about the future, as the Flames got the best overall player in the deal in Cammalleri. But Rene Bourque's cap hit comes in at $2.67M less per year, and Gauthier upgraded a 5th round pick to a 2nd in the process. This is the kind of trade that seldom goes unfollowed (one exception being the trading of Craig Rivet for Josh Gorges and the pick that became Max Pacioretty a few years back), and so it is likely that a number of other veterans will leave the city between now and the February 27th trade deadline. Here we look at the players most likely to follow Cammalleri out the door:

1) Hal Gill

It's hard not to love Hal Gill. The friendly giant has been a welcome presence in the Habs' locker room the last few seasons, serving as a quality mentor for younger players and the star of nearly every funny "Get to Know Your Canadiens" PR video. But it is clear that Gill's best days are increasingly far behind him as the 36-year old has struggled to keep up with the pace of play at 5-on-5 this season. Still, he is no small part as to why the Canadiens are tied for the best penalty killing efficacy in the league with the New Jersey Devils at 89.2%. For this skill alone, plus his Stanley Cup-winning experience, Gill is likely to draw interest from a number of teams hoping to contend prior to his becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer. Demand for his services will heat up as the deadline approaches, but early rumours have linked him to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, and Philadelphia Flyers. The expected return is likely to be a 2nd or 3rd round pick, or prospect of similar value.

2) Chris Campoli

Campoli is the second most likely player to leave the city within the next month as he certainly won't fit into the team's plans beyond this season. A late training camp UFA signing, Campoli went down with an injury in the season opener and hasn't looked particularly good since returning, struggling to stay in the line-up. The only reason he wouldn't be traded is if the Canadiens can't find a taker, but there is typically a market for experienced, mobile d-men on cheap, one-year contracts. When he is moved, not much will be expected back. It is more likely he is dealt for a late round pick (4th-7th) than he is packaged for something better. Possible suitors include the San Jose Sharks and Philadelphia Flyers.

3) Travis Moen

Like Gill, Moen is a locker room leader and has performed above and beyond expectations throughout the majority of his contract in Montreal. Signed to be a third or fourth line big body, Moen has been forced into top 6 roles on a regular basis and has always given a consistent effort. With 9 goals and 16 points already in 46 games this season, the 29-year old is well on pace to set career highs in production, sure to increase his value on the open market as a UFA this summer. Thus, if Gauthier can't ink him to a deal before the deadline, he should be shipped out for the best possible return, sure to be a draw after playing an integral part in Anaheim's Stanley Cup win in 2007. A second or third round pick would not be out of the question for Moen (see the price Gauthier paid for Dominic Moore in 2010) with destinations being any playoff team lacking forward depth (think San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, or Los Angeles Kings).

4) Andrei Kostitsyn

The final member of this group of four significant pending unrestricted free agents, Kostitsyn is perhaps the most likely to be re-signed. A product of Montreal's own system, a lack of consistency has meant that Kostitsyn has never lived up to his pre-draft billing that had the Canadiens select him 10th overall in a stacked 2003 1st round. Still, he is a thick, 6'0", goal-scoring winger who is capable of delivering bone-crunching hits when he feels like being physical and could look like one of the game's most skilled forwards if you assembled a reel of only his highlight-calibre markers. Proper asset management would indicate Gauthier must speak with Kostitsyn's agent as soon as possible, and if the two sides aren't heading for a deal, send Kostitsyn out at the deadline and worry about replacing him later on. He is a good fit as a top 9 forward in Montreal, but could likely land a 2nd round pick and good prospect from a team that wants to add some punch for the playoffs. An obvious fit might be the Nashville Predators where Kostitsyn could join his younger brother Sergei, though low scoring playoff teams like the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Florida Panthers, or Los Angeles Kings could equally put offers forward.

These are the most obvious players to be dealt in the near future, but it isn't unforeseeable that Gauthier looks to move some bodies who are contracted beyond this season as well. Here are some who might see their time in Montreal cut short:

5) Tomas Kaberle

If Andrei Markov returns to the Canadiens line-up some time in early or mid February (a big question mark at this point as it doesn't appear he has even resumed skating as of yet), then Kaberle may have served as just a quick stop-gap with the team. Undoubtedly, he has worked out better in Montreal than he did in Carolina, with his 11 points in 19 games here projecting to 47 over a full season. But in most games, he has played sparingly at even strength on a bottom pairing, while also failing to single-handedly revive the dormant Habs' powerplay. On a team full of big, tough defensive blueliners, Kaberle's salary for his production might not be a problem, but with a healthy Markov, Raphael Diaz, P.K. Subban, and perhaps Yannick Weber in Montreal for the next few seasons, the remaining 2 years on Kaberle's deal at $4.25M per will be a salary cap burden. The question then becomes whether or not the 33-year old blueliner is tradeable after the Canadiens were suckered into taking on his contract out of desperation. His output has increased the odds of finding a taker, with the New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues being examples of playoff teams with some cap flexibility whose powerplays could use a new look.

6) Tomas Plekanec or David Desharnais

It wasn't long ago that including Plekanec's name on this list would have made me certifiably insane, but Desharnais's strong play has made moving one of the two centers a real possibility. The Habs need to upgrade down the middle by adding a true #1 pivot at the top end. Relying on small players like Plekanec and Desharnais to center the two primary offensive units is not a good formula, and it remains unclear whether Lars Eller can contribute enough to move up off the third line on a regular basis. Thus, an ideal formation would be a player like Ryan Getzlaf on the first line, one of Plekanec or Desharnais with big wingers on the second, and Eller centering a competent third trio. Despite his big contract, there are sure to be teams interested in Plekanec's responsible two-way game. His intensity and level of play have dipped this year, but he is a proven NHL vet under contract long-term and could be dealt in a package for the "upgrade" the team is seeking. Recent rumours have linked him to a possible deal (among other assets) with New Jersey for Zach Parise, dependent on Parise signing an extension. Desharnais, on the other hand, has much smaller value, but his worth may be as high as it will ever be as the diminutive center is having a breakout season offensively. He has shown great chemistry with Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole offensively, which is both a reason to keep him, and perhaps a reason to move him since it ties up the club's two top wingers (since Desharnais would have to line-up between big bodies to be most effective). His cheap contract could make him an interesting asset and with another small forward in prospect Brendan Gallagher sure to make his Montreal debut before long, the team may explore their options with DD - something I would entirely endorse. As one of the few native French-speakers on the club, however, if I had to put money on the line, I'd wager he stays, if for language reasons alone.

7) Yannick Weber

The struggles of Montreal's powerplay have been well-documented this season; so much so that many overlook Weber's 4 powerplay markers, ranking 2nd on the club behind Erik Cole's 7. Weber appeared to have a job to lose coming into training camp this season with Andrei Markov's injury, but he was outplayed by countryman Raphael Diaz defensively, meaning Weber has been in-and-out of the lineup in a swingman role occasionally playing the wing 5-on-5. There is some redundancy to having both Weber and Diaz - similar players - in the line-up, and it makes for a small and soft overall group of blueliners when both play on the back end. Though Weber has been the better of the two on the powerplay, the Canadiens appear higher on Diaz, and Weber - having been in North America since the 2006-07 season - has the better name and reputation league-wide, likely making him the more tradeable asset. Alone, he might not fetch more than a mid-round pick, but he may be used as a chip in a bigger package to address a need.

8) P.K. Subban

Now, understand that I highly doubt Pierre Gauthier would trade P.K. Subban, and in general I would be strongly against the move. But there are reasons his name has been floating on the rumour mill this season. He seems to have somewhat worn out his welcome with guys who were his buddies in the locker room earlier on in his career, like Hal Gill, Scott Gomez, and Mike Cammalleri, and his recent exchange with assistant coach Randy Ladouceur on the bench during a game won't help his reputation with the team's management. This, combined with his lackluster play this season would be reasons for a possible exit from Montreal, though it could prove to be a costly error. Subban is a complete package; good size, mobility, physicality, and great offensive instincts. Yes, he is prone to defensive zone lapses, but he is still a young player who is learning the game at the professional level. IF - please bare in mind I said IF - he is to be traded, for Canadiens fans not to storm the Bell Centre with torches and pitchforks, it would have to be as part of a package for a young star player. It is conceivable to deal him given the upcoming depth on D, but a Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry signed to an extension, or an Eric Staal-calibre big, star forward, or *perhaps* a top end prospect like Ryan Johansen or Brayden Schenn would have to be coming back for me to consider moving him. Trading him for any kind of lower-end package would severely hurt the team's future.

These are the main players I see moving. Of course, other deals are possible, like if someone happens to phone Gauthier about a Mathieu Darche or Petteri Nokelainen for a fourth line elsewhere, then sure, they could be moved for minimal returns. But it is clear that Mr. Gauthier will have plenty of dockets to cover over the next month and with so many balls in the air, it may actually be helpful to have Jacques Martin available for special assignments (the team announced yesterday that he - still being under contract - had accepted such a role to work with the General Manager).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Habs Trade Talk - Rumours and Speculation

With the 2011-12 NHL Trade Deadline just over a month away (February 27th), believe it or not, the crazy volume of rumours surrounding your Montreal Canadiens is sure to continue to pick up steam. Barring a ridiculous win streak between now and then, for the first time in years, the Habs are likely to approach the final day of midseason moves as a clear seller.

Pierre Gauthier seems to have finally come to the conclusion that his job must be to make the Canadiens bigger and tougher to play against. This should give us an idea of the type of player he will be looking to acquire, with the Cammalleri for Bourque swap being a prime example of the type of move we might expect. As a seller, it is also likely that any of the team's pending UFA that the club doesn't anticipate re-signing are shipped out for picks and prospects.

Gauthier has provoked rumours of both kinds of trades recently, spending considerable time in California attending Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks games.

The Ducks have essentially committed to building for next season at this point, announcing that virtually their entire roster was available for the right price (except Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu). At first that may seem like a poor fit with the Canadiens who are in a similar position, but Anaheim has a number of players who could interest the Habs as long-term solutions if the Disney descendants opt for a bigger-scale rebuild. The most obvious fit would be Ryan Getzlaf, a big, tough, superstar centre that Habs fans have been dreaming of for years. The problem is that it will likely take a big overpayment to get Getzlaf out of Anaheim (as in he's "available," but not THAT available), and he can become a UFA in the summer of 2013. One year of Getzlaf isn't worth giving up all kinds of young assets, so a deal for him would only make sense if there was some certainty he would sign an extension. Similarly, if last season's Hart Trophy winner, big goal-scoring winger Corey Perry, were on the market (like Getzlaf, he probably isn't readily being offered), Gauthier would have to make an inquiry. But he has the same weakness as Getzlaf, also slated for unrestricted free agency in 2013. The better target might be Bobby Ryan, who is signed till 2015 (when he'll be a UFA) at a cap hit of $5.1M. The 6'2", 218 lbs, 24-year old winger has topped 30 goals each of the past 3 seasons but has seen his production dip this year, leading to his name popping up in rumours with various teams throughout the season. Certainly, if Gauthier could add a player like Ryan, combined with Max Pacioretty, Erik Cole, and Rene Bourque as top 9 wingers, the club would take a huge step in shedding the "small and soft" label.

The Kings, meanwhile, have a talented roster at all positions and, despite early struggles, will be looking to make a long playoff run. In this case, they might be a good fit for rental players like Hal Gill or Andrei Kostitsyn (if the Canadiens decide to move him). Gauthier attending games may indicate he is looking at a roster player rather than just picks or junior prospects, so names that immediately jump out are Vyacheslav Voinov, Kyle Clifford, Andrei Loktionov, and Alec Martinez. Voinov won't come cheap; the 22 year old is in his NHL rookie season after three full years in the American League. The 5'11" Russian rearguard is adept at both ends of the ice, but particularly excels offensively, and given that he's a righty, could make an excellent partner for Alexei Emelin in Montreal. Clifford, 21, was L.A.'s 2nd round pick in 2009. The 6'1" left winger surprisingly made the jump straight from the OHL to the NHL last year and especially impressed in the post-season, scoring 3 goals and 5 points in 6 games. Clifford is seen as a third-fourth line winger, using his size effectively and being an effective combatant (seen in his 141 PIMs last year). Many saw Loktionov as a candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year this season, but he hasn't quite lived up to the hype just yet. At 5'10", 180 lbs, he doesn't address Montreal's need for size, but if he develops well, he has gamebreaker potential. He has consistently been a near point-per-game AHL player, and scored his first 7 NHL points in 19 games last season, but has managed only 4 assists in 28 games with the Kings this year. Lastly, Martinez is a defenseman in the mold of a Raphael Diaz, with his advantage being a 6'1", 208 lbs frame. It is unlikely Gauthier targets him unless Diaz and/or Yannick Weber are moved elsewhere, but it could be a good opportunity to "buy low" since Martinez has scored just 2 points (both goals) in 23 games this season.

Of course, it is just as possible that no trade happens with either Los Angeles or Anaheim. Gauthier being in the area would seem to indicate that talks are underway, but it is certainly conceivable that nothing gets done. Tomorrow, I'll look at the reverse; going over which players are likely to be leaving Montreal between now and February 27th, and their possible destinations.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Around the League: Catching Up With Old Friends, pt 2

Back in November, I compiled a post under the name Catching Up With Old Friends to look at former Habs around the league and how they were faring. Given how attached we as fans become to some of these players, after (in some cases) the sting of their departure passes, I often find myself interested in their performance and hoping for the best for them. As we are now past the halfway point of the season, it seems like a good time to catch up with some players who once sported the blue-blanc-rouge.

Marc-Andre Bergeron - D - Tampa Bay Lightning
Bergeron started the season on fire in Tampa, being at or near the top of the league in terms of defensemen scoring. He has slowed down since, registering just 3 points in his last 16 games on a struggling Tampa squad, but what might be surprising to many Habs fans is that he was a +7 over that span. In fact, on the season, he is a +8 (a team high!) to go along with his 24 points while averaging 19 and a half minutes a night. It seems he has found a good fit with the Lightning.

Sheldon Souray - D - Dallas Stars
Like Bergeron, Souray was also never known for his defensive zone play, but he has impressed in Dallas, with his +9 rating being the best of all Stars defensemen. He has missed a couple of games due to injury, but has still scored 17 points while playing over 20 minutes per game. He also seems to fit in well in the locker room with frequent pictures being posted on the internet of Souray with bombshell girlfriend Kelly Kelly alongside teammates and their significant others.

Jaroslav Halak - G - St. Louis Blues
Halak was slow out of the gate to start the season, but he has turned it on in a big way. He is 12-1-5 in his last 18 decisions, riding a 6 game win streak that includes 3 shutouts in his last 4 starts (even if they were "easy" shutouts of 22, 19, and 15 shots against respectively). His 4 shutouts on the season rank 4th in the league, while his sparkling GAA of 2.00 ranks 6th. The Blues have a very underrated team, and if Halak can play anything like he did during the 2010 playoffs this post-season, the team could be a sleeper to make a run.

Matt D'Agostini - RW - St. Louis Blues
D'Agostini isn't enjoying as much success as his teammate between the pipes, unable to successfully follow up on last season's breakout with 21 goals and 46 points. He has fallen outside the top 6 on the depth chart, putting up just 17 points (though 9 are goals) in 46 contests. It was struggles with consistency that ultimately led to D'Ag's departure from Montreal, so hopefully he can put things together soon.

Roman Hamrlik - D - Washington Capitals
Many - myself included - were saddened by Hamrlik's departure this past summer. Though he is showing clear signs of aging, throughout his time in Montreal, he was a steady rock on the back end, answering the bell whenever Andrei Markov went down with an injury. At 37, his years seem to be catching up to him as he has had a tough go in Washington, scoring just 5 points in 41 games (he had 34 points in 79 games last year in Montreal), with a -2 rating. Unhappy with his play, the Caps had limited his ice time back in November and early December, but over the past month, he has been back to his 20+ minute self. At this point, it seems the Habs made a good move not to offer him the two-year contract he really wanted.

Jaroslav Spacek - D - Carolina Hurricanes
Immediately following the deal that sent him to Carolina, Habs fans watched closely as Spacek put up a goal and 3 assists in his first 5 games with his new team. In 10 games since, he has failed to register a point, while seeing his ice time diminished of late. Spacek is a depth d-man and nothing more, but was a great locker room guy. A number of Canadiens players have spoken out about that, with Max Pacioretty even suggesting he was the best teammate he had ever had. It will be interesting to see if Spacek gets a contract from an NHL club this coming summer or faces a decision between retirement and playing in Europe.

Sergei Kostitsyn - RW - Nashville Predators
The younger Kostitsyn brother has had a hot-and-cold season, which got off to a great start but then went through a spell where he had points in just 2 of 17 consecutive games. Things seem headed in the right direction for him lately, on a streak which started with a hat trick on New Year's Day against the Calgary Flames. Starting with that game, he has 6 goals and 9 points in his last 9 games as a run by the Predators has them in the driver's seat for a playoff spot.

Mikhail Grabovski - C - Toronto Maple Leafs
Grabovski is another who has had ups and downs this season, but through 40 games played would be on pace for a 30 goal year had he not missed a few games due to injury. He is unlikely to reach last season's total of 58 points with just 27 so far, but with 8 goals and 14 points in his last 16 games, it's not out of the question either.

Maxime Lapierre - C - Vancouver Canucks
Yappy Lappy looked rejuvenated last season during the Canucks' run to game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, but the momentum hasn't so much carried over to this year. His one-time 15-goal season in Montreal seems destined to never be repeated, though with 5 goals and 9 points through 47 games, he may finish with his second best offensive season to date. He is a 4th liner in Vancouver, averaging 11:14 per game on the season, but frequently playing fewer than 10 minutes.

Chris Higgins - LW - Vancouver Canucks
Higgins was another forward who found his game during the post-season last year and he hasn't disappointed, scoring 10 goals and 24 points through 42 games this season. Like Lapierre, Higgins may never reach his career high 27-goals season in Montreal again, but he could very well reach the 40-point mark, which would be his second best offensive campaign.

Benoit Pouliot - LW - Boston Bruins
Bruins fans were quite unhappy with Pouliot at the start of the season, with the big winger even finding himself a healthy scratch on a few occasions. But more recently, he has shown flashes of the player he looked to be when the Canadiens first acquired him; a skilled player just waiting for the right fit to light it up. With 4 goals and 11 points in his past 16 games, it is fair to wonder if perhaps Montreal should have given him one more season to prove his worth.

Guillaume Latendresse - RW - Minnesota Wild
The player the Canadiens give up to acquire Pouliot once upon a time, Latendresse has sadly struggled with injuries for a second straight season. After being limited to just 11 games last year, he has played only 16 this season, though he remained quite productive, scoring 5 goals and 9 points when in the line-up. At 24, Latendresse is still young with lots of potential, but if he can't stay healthy, he may lack the longevity needed for a successful NHL career.

Tom Pyatt - C/W - Tampa Bay Lightning
I was always a big Pyatt fan in Montreal, and he forced his way into the Lightning's line-up with his strong and responsible play. He surprisingly already has 5 goals in 40 games this season, more than the total he scored over 101 games with the Habs. He played a season-high 19:11 in his most recent game against Boston and earned a two-year extension with the Lightning earlier this month.

James Wisniewski - D - Columbus Blue Jackets
The Wizz started the year on the sidelines in Columbus with a suspension, but his return failed to turn around a horrendous season for the Blue Jackets, who lead the Fail for Nail race. After being a +4 in Montreal last season, Wisniewski is a -18 in the 29 games he has been limited to due to suspension and injury. He does have 17 points, which would average out to a 48-point campaign over 82 games, but he has seen his role reduced to a more manageable ~20 minutes a night after starting the year playing close to 30 per game.

Saku Koivu - C - Anaheim Ducks
The second longest serving captain in Canadiens history, Koivu recently recorded a hat trick in a win over the Dallas Stars on January 10th. He remains a productive player in Anaheim, with 25 points in 37 games thus far, and his +12 rating far and away leads all Ducks. At age 37, Koivu has seen his ice time reduced from 19:08 last season to just under 18 minutes a game, which has helped him maintain a high level of play. I would love for the Habs to find a way to allow Koivu to retire a Canadien, or even more to see him spend one final season on the team's third line, but he seems happy to play alongside countryman and good friend Teemu Selanne in California.

Mike Cammalleri - LW - Calgary Flames
Cammy has appeared in 3 Calgary games since being dealt out west with an output of 1 goal and a -2 rating. His ice time has increased each night, going from 15 minutes to 20 and most recently 23 minutes in a shootout win over Los Angeles where he also had a marker in the tiebreaker. This one is still fresh, so we'll leave it at that, but keep in mind as I said yesterday, how Cammalleri performs in Calgary won't impact whether or not Montreal "won" that trade from the Canadiens perspective. Gauthier managed assets well in that deal, regardless of Cammy's performances for the remainder of his contract.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

So How About the New Guy?

Sure, it's only been two games and sure, Rene Bourque has yet to collect his first point as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, but in the brief time that has passed since his acquisition from the Calgary Flames, he has appeared to fit right in.

No one will ever confuse Bourque's pure skill for that of Mike Cammalleri. Cammalleri's hands give him game breaker potential when he's on. Unfortunately for the Habs, he was off more frequently than on during his tenure in Montreal, and his 5'9" frame wasn't helping his case on a team with many small forwards.

What Bourque brings, however, are elements the team has lacked. He's a big body at 6'2", 211 lbs, and even if he doesn't always do so consistently, he has shown willingness to use it effectively in throwing hits and even dropping the gloves last night to defend himself (in, what I might add, was the most impressive bout delivered by any Canadien this season). He is quick which fits in well with the team's philosophy and has a wicked release that can replace Cammy's one-knee-one-timers. While he is by no means a first line talent, on the wing of a 2nd or 3rd offensive trio, Bourque appears to be part of the solution as the Canadiens remodel. If the top 6 can be stocked with more skilled forwards, a third unit of Bourque, Lars Eller, and Andrei Kostitsyn could be effective and cause big problems for smaller defenders.

While not all trades have clear winners and losers and it is very possible that Cammalleri excels back in Calgary, either way it appears that Pierre Gauthier did well on this one. While he did add some term (with Bourque having two years extra on his deal compared to Cammalleri) and did get half a year older, he saved $2.67M on the cap for the next two seasons, upgraded a 5th this year to a 2nd round pick in 2013, and got a body consistent with the philosophy this team is heading for (to get bigger up front). Now if only he can find takers for Scott Gomez and Tomas Kaberle, we'll be ready for a new era to begin.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One Last Chance?

There will still be 36 games left in the Montreal Canadiens' season after tonight's matchup against the Washington Capitals, but if the team doesn't get hot in a hurry, their outcome won't particularly matter. The Habs enter tonight's contest with a dismal 42 points in 45 games, finding themselves 8 big points behind those same Capitals for the 8th and final playoff spot, with Washington also holding a game in hand. (Meanwhile, Montreal is just 2 points ahead of Tampa Bay for last in the East, though the Canadiens have 3 games in hand in that "race") The team is running out of track to make up the difference with their only shot at the post-season looking like an extended win streak starting soon.

At this point, the team won't be mathematically eliminated for quite a while, so there is no set date or game that officially marks the end of the playoff dream, but coming off a big win against the New York Rangers and playing against the team they're chasing makes tonight a big one for our boys. I've written a couple of times that in my mind, the playoffs are already out of reach for this season, but hope springs eternal so if they can win tonight, I'll believe in the team getting on the comeback trail for just a little longer. After the 8th place Capitals, the Canadiens have a back-to-back against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs, in 7th and 9th place respectively. A perfect week might put the swagger back in the step of Habs fans who have walked through most of the season with their heads hanging low. The Canadiens look about as healthy as they're going to be, with Brian Gionta likely done for the season and Andrei Markov's return date in doubt given that he still has yet to resume skating. Only Ryan White, expected back after the All-Star game, will provide reinforcements, but while he'll be a welcome addition to the fourth line, he won't be the difference maker to the team's season. But if they can get strong play from newcomer Rene Bourque (who will be a marked man tonight after a hit on Caps' Niklas Backstrom landed him a 5-game suspension) and consistent effort from the likes of Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, and Lars Eller (I leave Erik Cole and David Desharnais out of this sentence as they've been the team's top forwards for most of the season and thus should be expected to keep performing), getting hot isn't out of the question. And then maybe, just maybe, if and when Markov does return, the team finds a way to squeak into the playoffs thanks to a dominant second half.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. A loss tonight would put the Habs 10 points out of 8th with the Capitals still holding a game in hand. Should this happen, the only games I'll have circled on my calendar are those against the Leafs, hoping that Montreal can do its part to extend their playoff drought.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hope on the Horizon - A New Frontier

Yesterday, I essentially covered my plan if I were the GM of the Canadiens moving forward with life after Mike Cammalleri. I talked about my biggest want: a true #1 scoring center with size. But let's say the Canadiens can't land a Ryan Getzlaf and don't finish low enough to draft a Mikhail Grigorenko. All hope still won't be lost. In fact, even if the Habs enter next season with a roster that looks very much like the current one, there is some reason for optimism. Let me explain.

It starts with Andrei Markov. If Markov gets and stays healthy, he is the caliber of player that can take a team to another level. For many years, a Markov injury would spell doom for the Canadiens as the team's back end was so reliant on his services. This season, his being out has meant great experience and responsibility for the likes of P.K. Subban and Raphael Diaz. Markov's return, perhaps on a pairing with Josh Gorges, will take difficult minutes and roles off of some other rearguards which should allow them to also be at their best. I'm hopeful and expectant that another veteran defenseman will also be added this summer on a short-term deal to round out the top 4 (and as an insurance policy for Markov, since many will say the IF he stays healthy is a big one), but in any case, the team's D will be better than this year's.

The other perhaps more important reason is depth. Injuries were an issue this season, and when you are playing without quality players, your depth is looked upon to carry the load. Unfortunately, it was not a good season for the Habs to be reliant on talent stowed away in the AHL, with the Bulldogs being quite thin. Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist got repeated looks despite their poor play at the NHL level (though they're both having dominant American League seasons), and Louis Leblanc - though impressive - was pressed into service far sooner than anyone had intended. Outside of those guys, however, with Mike Blunden likely up in Montreal for good, there are no legitimate prospect forwards on the farm to be called up. With Brendon Nash undergoing shoulder surgery during training camp, there were also no blueline prospects to be called up, though Frederic St. Denis served well during his stint with the Canadiens.

Next season, however, will be different. Brendan Gallagher and Michael Bournival have already been signed and will make their pro debuts either in Hamilton, or possibly Montreal for one of the two. Danny Kristo is likely to forego his final year of university to also turn pro, though there is no guarantee at this point. The three represent young two-way players who could slot in virtually anywhere in the Canadiens line-up when needed, and all have high ceilings. Additionally, guys like Leblanc, Alexander Avtsin, and Phil DeSimone will have another year of experience under their belts, hopefully being closer to NHL-ready. All of this means that the team will have forwards that can be counted on when the time comes.

If the forwards are getting a boost, the back end is getting an even greater injection of talent. The team's last two first round picks, Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, should both start the year as Bulldogs, with a minute possibility that Beaulieu plays an overage year in the QMJHL since he'll only turn 20 next December 5th (meaning he'd be among the AHL's youngest skaters). Morgan Ellis, a two-way character guy who has been on fire offensively since being dealt in the Q, and Greg Pateryn, the long-forgotten other piece in the Mikhail Grabovski to the Leafs deal who is in his final year of College, will also earn contracts, meaning the bulk of the 'Dogs' D will be made up of new faces. Most importantly, new faces with NHL potential.

Thus, even if we look at a "worst case" based on what the team has under contract:

Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Rene Bourque - Tomas Plekanec - Brian Gionta
Scott Gomez - Lars Eller - UFA/Aaron Palushaj/Brendan Gallagher
Mike Blunden - Petteri Nokelainen/Andreas Engqvist - Ryan White

Andrei Markov - Josh Gorges
Alexei Emelin - P.K. Subban
Tomas Kaberle - Raphael Diaz

Carey Price
Peter Budaj

Again, this being a "worst case scenario" with all UFAs walking (or being dealt) and none being signed, with health and a little luck, the return of Markov and the added AHL depth means fans can expect a better season than the present one.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Entering the Post-Cammalleri Era

Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier made a big splash last week when he pulled Mike Cammalleri out of a game against the Boston Bruins to deal him to the Calgary Flames. While the timing of the trade and the manner in which it was executed was a little suspect to say the least, the shedding of a large salary and the moving of an unproductive winger was a necessary step in shaping the Habs moving forward.

Why was it necessary, and where does it leave the team now? Let's take a look at the current situation, and then how the Canadiens might position themselves to bounce back and contend as soon as next season.

Finishing Out 2011-12

The Canadiens did not and do not have issues with the salary cap for the current season. That seems to have been a misconception with Scott Gomez's return to the line-up, but even with his albatross contract, thanks to LTIR savings from numerous injuries, the roster is well within the upper limit. However, raises will be necessary for a number of core roster components in the near future, and thus flexibility moving forward should be at a premium.

Even after last night's impressive win over the powerful New York Rangers, Montreal sits 8 points out a playoff spot, with 3 teams sitting between them and the 8th place Pittsburgh Penguins, each of which has a game in hand. Not the most enviable of spots to be in. The Habs are 17-20-8, with 37 games left to make up the ground. If we assume a 93-point playoff cut-off, which may or may not be a safe assumption, they will have to earn 51 points over those 37 games, meaning a record of 25-11-1 or something equivalent. Not impossible (see: The Boston Bruins since November), but it would require an absolutely incredible run, something the Canadiens have given no indication of being capable of through their play thus far this season. Winning roughly 2 or more out of every 3 games for the rest of the calendar is not a bet I'd want to place, so from my perspective, playoffs are out of reach in 2012.

This is hurtful and hard to accept, but we need to be honest about it. I will always be a Habs fan and thus I want my team to win on a nightly basis. I get mad/upset when they lose games in most seasons. But folks, "tanking" isn't a dirty word. If you're a fan who wants to stand by and hope for the miracle of a huge win streak, then fine, I applaud your optimism. However, also understand that if this is the path you choose, you should not be complaining about the Canadiens continued lack of a true #1 center or of a star-caliber impact player. There are no #1 centers on the UFA market this summer, and offensive centers with size are not easy to come by on the trade market. The best way to add the kind of player the Habs need is through the draft and specifically through a top pick. If Montreal finishes in the cellar and nabs, say, the 2nd overall pick this year, a Mikhail Grigorenko (a 6'2" offensive dynamo who plays primarily center in the QMJHL) is a phenomenal fit to take the team to another level. That's the path I would prefer. I'm not a fan of tanking when there is still playoff hope, but at this point, when it stops looking realistic to me, I'm thinking longer term.

Unfortunately if not understandably, "tanking" doesn't appear to be in the Canadiens' vocabulary. The team is committed to winning hockey games, regardless of the situation they're in, which is frustrating (why couldn't they have replicated the Rangers effort a few more times this year?!). This is ok. I'm not saying they should be throwing games. What we have to hope, however, is that the team isn't so committed to winning that they will make moves during a near hopeless season that further handicap them for the future. The trading of prospects and draft picks, unless it is for similar young assets, should be completely off limits. Similarly, if Travis Moen or Andrei Kostitsyn don't agree to extensions before the deadline, as pending UFAs, good asset management is to ship them to the highest bidder by late February in order to avoid losing them for nothing. They shouldn't be retained just to help the team this season, just as Hal Gill and Chris Campoli, who should not factor into any plans beyond this year, must also find new homes by deadline day. So long as this is all part of the plan, I have no problem with the team continuing to try to win. Don't give up, but manage your squad with future interests in mind at all times.

2012-13 and the Salary Cap Situation

The Canadiens have the following NHL players under contract for next season:

Scott Gomez - $7,357,143
Tomas Plekanec - $5,000,000
Brian Gionta - $5,000,000
Erik Cole - $4,500,000
Rene Bourque - $3,333,333
Max Pacioretty - $1,625,000
David Desharnais - $850,000

Andrei Markov - $5,750,000
Tomas Kaberle - $4,250,000
Josh Gorges - $3,900,000
Yannick Weber - $850,000

Peter Budaj - $1,150,000

That's $43,565,476 committed, with a bare minimum need of 5 forward, 2 defensemen, and a starting goaltender to be signed (or spots filled with prospects / traded for players). The biggest wild cards at present are the new collective bargaining agreement and any changes it may bring to league rules, and how they salary cap may fluctuate at season's end. For the time being, we'll go with good ol' ceteris paribus, assuming the cap remains constant at $64,300,000.

The two big dockets for Pierre Gauthier or his successor are Carey Price and P.K. Subban, both restricted free agents this coming summer. There was rumour this week of a discussed $7M / season deal for Price, which even if untrue, couldn't be horribly far off. We'll be conservative and use that $7M number, even if a $6M or $6.5M final figure is possible. Subban hasn't done himself any favours with his play and lack of production this season, but he is still logging significant minutes and is an important cog on defense. The Habs will likely push for term with him while he could be had relatively cheap, though he may opt to sign a 1-year deal in the neighbourhood of $2.5M. Let's say the parties meet in the middle somewhere and his cap hit comes in at about $3.25M for a couple of seasons.

Add these two deals to the mix, and suddenly we're looking at just $10,484,524 to fill the remaining spots. Can the team afford the $4M - $4.5M Andrei Kostitsyn is likely to receive as a UFA? What kind of raises have young RFAs Lars Eller, Alexei Emelin, and Raphael Diaz earned? Those four alone will eat a good chunk of the remaining space, and that's before looking outside the organization to actually improve the roster. Not to mention that the summer of 2013 will require significant pay increases for Max Pacioretty and - if he's still in Montreal by then - David Desharnais, with few deals coming off the books between the two seasons. More dead weight salary needs to go, particularly the contract of Scott Gomez (possibly through a clause in a new CBA that would allow some form of cap hit-free buyout) and Tomas Kaberle (productive, fine, but can't be paying $4.25M for an 8-minute-a-game defenseman, especially if we assume Andrei Markov will be a healthy part of the team).

If we're to believe recent comments, then Pierre Gauthier is getting serious about something fans have been clamouring for: increasing the team's size and toughness. With that goal in mind, and with the idea of shedding the aforementioned salaries, I'd present the following as the current shell of a contending team in Montreal:

Max Pacioretty - 1 - Erik Cole
Andrei Kostitsyn - Tomas Plekanec - Brian Gionta
Rene Bourque - Lars Eller - Brendan Gallagher
2 - 3 - Ryan White

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

Carey Price
Peter Budaj

The first thing you might notice is that this team isn't hugely different from the group of players currently under contract. As I've said before, I don't think a full-scale rebuild is necessary; just a re-tooling. The next thing you might notice is the lack of David Desharnais. I like the kid. He has performed well beyond anyone's expectations this season. But if this team wants to get bigger and tougher, it needs to start at the center position. One of Desharnais or Tomas Plekanec needs to be replaced with a bigger, tougher body who can match up better against the opposing team's power players. Desharnais seems to be the more logical choice, especially given that his value currently and into the off-season is likely at the highest it will ever be. Third is the insertion of Brendan Gallagher into the line-up. If he plays like he did in training camp this past Fall again next season, I don't think the Canadiens will be able to send him to Hamilton. He plays the kind of hard-nosed game the team needs and will provide secondary scoring on a third line with two bigger linemates. If he isn't ready, Aaron Palushaj may get one last chance to show something at the NHL level after dominating the AHL.

Then we get to the numbers: 4 spots that for next season, to me, would need to be filled from outside the organization. Let's look at each of the spots.

1 - Big, Legitimate First-Line Center: Clearly this is the tough one. Luckily, I'm not asking for miracles all over the place; this is really the only particularly tough spot to fill out of the four. The problem is that it's going to be really really tough to fill, at least for 2012-13. There are absolutely no candidates available on the UFA market, though Tuomo Ruutu comes close. Ruutu would make a good addition, but doesn't address the need for star power or "legit first liners," so he would be a nice complementary piece, if, say Andrei Kostitsyn were upgraded to Zach Parise on the market. Olli Jokinen has had a bit of a rebirth of late in Calgary, but at 33, he's a short term option at best. Another option is the trade market, but of course, you have to give to get, and even when you do, teams aren't lining up to give you a star center. There has been a lot of talk about Ryan Getzlaf being available in Anaheim, and Gauthier would at least have to place a phone call on that one, but any trade will be risky given that Getzlaf could become a UFA in 2013. A signed Getzlaf would be the type of addition that could earn the team contender status, but I have doubts that he could be woo'ed away without a P.K. Subban or Max Pacioretty heading the other way, thus creating gaps elsewhere in the line-up. Thus, the team may have to look elsewhere, perhaps to the San Jose Sharks who have cap issues of their own and could consider moving a Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau. At 32, Thornton's best days are behind him, but he would sure look good setting up Pacioretty and Erik Cole, and $7M of cap space would be much better spent on him than Gomez. Habs fans have all heard enough of Vincent Lecavalier rumours, but with the Lightning having a disappointing season, they may look at moving him to get out from under the cap. I'd say away, personally, only because of his contract which doesn't expire until 2020. All of this is basically why I said the draft is the only real way to address this primary need. So here's hoping for a little luck and then the slotting of Grigorenko into that spot next year!

2 - Fourth Line Winger: Part of the change in philosophy, I hope, involves making the team tougher to play against. Mathieu Darche may give it his all, but this spot needs to go to a more physical player. At this stage, it doesn't appear that either Andrew Conboy or Ian Schultz - both of whom have had their development stunted by injuries this season - will be ready (if they are even ever to make the bigs), so we'll need to look outside the org for solutions. Fortunately, the UFA market does have some answers here, and this brand of player is likely to come at a cheap price. Some names to consider: Tom Kostopoulos, Brandon Prust, Shawn Thornton, Arron Asham, Daniel Carcillo, Jim Slater, Greg Campbell, Tanner Glass, Adam Burish, or - if his salary demands are acceptable for a fourth line winger - retaining Travis Moen.

3 - Fourth Line Center: It's not that I don't like Petteri Nokelainen, nor do I lack faith in Andreas Engqvist, but like with spot 2, I'm looking for a tough, physical player with size. If that fails, I want a reliable defensive center who is good on draws. Amongst UFAs, Paul Gaustad would seem to be an ideal target, though I could also see the organization easing in Louis Leblanc by starting him in this role.

4 - Top 4 Defensive (or Two-Way) Defenseman: This one is the second toughest after the first line center role, but at least there are plenty of candidates out there. The pairing of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges should get the most minutes next season, but P.K. Subban needs a veteran to play beside while the stacked prospect stable (Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, and more) take their time developing. If I'm permitted to dream a little, UFA Ryan Suter would look phenomenal in this line-up hole and vastly improve the allure of the team's back end. Francois Beauchemin is average-sized but brings a physical element, while Brad Stuart may be unlikely to leave Detroit but should be a top target if he becomes available. Pavel Kubina is aging, but given his services would only be needed for a year or two while the youngins gain experience, he might look good on Gorges's right (meaning Subban would play with Markov). On the cheaper side, Bryan Allen or Jonny Boychuck would make suitable options that shouldn't add another big contract to the team's cap.

So what would this all look like? Playing a little with the CapGeek.com calculator shows something like the following. We'll assume, for the sake of the exercise, that Desharnais, Palushaj, Weber, and some top picks and prospects are used directly or indirectly (through multiple deals, e.g. trading those 3 players for picks and assets, and using those assets towards a big fish) to land Getzlaf. Is this team a contender? Is it realistic? Is it better than this year's squad? What's your take?


Max Pacioretty ($1.625m) / Ryan Getzlaf ($5.325m) / Erik Cole ($4.500m)
Rene Bourque ($3.333m) / Tomas Plekanec ($5.000m) / Brian Gionta ($5.000m)
Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau ($3.800m) / Lars Eller ($1.500m) / Brendan Gallagher ($0.715m)
Brandon Prust ($0.920m) / Louis Leblanc ($1.170m) / Ryan White ($0.625m)
Andreas Engqvist ($0.900m)

Andrei Markov ($5.750m) / Josh Gorges ($3.900m)
Francois Beauchemin ($3.800m) / P.K. Subban ($3.250m)
Alexei Emelin ($1.800m) / Raphael Diaz ($1.800m)
Frederic St. Denis ($0.605m)

Carey Price ($7.000m) / Peter Budaj ($1.150m)

(these totals are compiled without the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $64,300,000;
CAP PAYROLL: $63,468,333;
BONUSES: $300,000
CAP SPACE (22-man roster): $831,667

Friday, January 13, 2012

Canadiens Send Cammalleri to Flames

The Montreal Canadiens perhaps began planning for next year as they sent forward Michael Cammalleri back to the Calgary Flames tonight. Cammalleri, along with the rights to young goaltender Karri Ramo (playing in Russia, and has stated he's happy to stay there) and a 5th round pick this year, were sent to Calgary in return for forward Rene Bourque, prospect Patrick Holland, and a 2nd round selection in 2013.

I mentioned earlier tonight that, from what I could see, with Brian Gionta's injury, Cammalleri's days in Montreal were numbered. Pierre Gauthier didn't take long to prove me right on that count. In his two and a half years with the Canadiens, Cammalleri will best be remembered for his playoff heroics, but in truth, his regular season statistics were exceptionally underwhelming. He had career numbers with the Flames the season before signing with Montreal, so from his perspective, he is likely hoping a return to Calgary will re-ignite (sorry for the pun!) his career. Gauthier claims this deal has been in the works for over a month, and Cammalleri's recent media comments had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The central piece of the package coming back Montreal's way is winger Rene Bourque. Bourque is a 6'2", 205 lbs LW who, like Cammalleri, is struggling this season, posting just 16 points in 38 games (though he has managed 13 goals). Prior to this season, he had scored 27 in each of the last two years (and is on pace for a similar total), and he plays a far more physical brand of hockey than Cammalleri. Some might say he crosses the line, as he has been suspended on two occasions in the last month, sitting 2 games on December 19th, and with still 1 game left to serve on a recent 5-game sentence for an elbow to the head. Bourque turned 30 last month and is under contract for four more seasons after the current one but at a reasonable cap hit of $3.33M. His size, scoring touch, and oh I suppose his a French name (it works for Nathan Beaulieu)... have the potential of being a good fit with the Canadiens.

Patrick Holland was taken in the 7th round by Calgary in 2010, making him an unusual target for Pierre Gauthier (perhaps that's what he calls "thinking outside the box"). A 6'0", 175 lbs right winger, Holland just turned 20 and is in his final season with the WHL's Tri-City Americans, alma mater of goaltender Carey Price. This year, he has 17 goals and 57 points in 40 games ranking him 9th amongst the league's scoring leaders.

The final piece being a 2nd round selection in 2013, I am at first glance a little underwhelmed with the deal. I expected Cammalleri to be moved, but for greater future assets than what did actually come back. Why couldn't the 2nd rounder have been this year, for example? Though Cammy has underperformed, his playoff resume led me to believe that he could have fetched a higher return from a contender with cap space closer to the trade deadline. Looking at what other struggling players like Dustin Penner and Tomas Kaberle went for in previous years, it has hard to believe that there couldn't have been a better offer to come, though the term remaining on Cammy's deal may have tempered interest.

Still, there is some upside here, starting with the $2.667M in space the Canadiens will save for each of the next two years by shedding Cammalleri's $6M deal and of course getting bigger up front with the addition of Bourque. So long as Bourque remains productive, his contract is very cap-friendly, and it will be necessary given the upcoming raises necessary for the team's younger NHL'ers. Ditching a small player like Cammalleri also creates a spot for 5'8" prospect Brendan Gallagher possibly as soon as next year. There was no way the Canadiens could sustain a forward group including Gallagher (5'8"), Brian Gionta (5'7"), David Desharnais (5'7"), and Cammalleri (5'9") all in the top 9 forwards. Bourque will help to create space for some of these smaller bodies on a scoring line.

I'll reserve final judgment for the time being, but say that I don't hate the move. A little disappointed, and I'll miss you Mike, but at least Gauthier managed to shed a salary without taking any horrendous contracts back. I'll like the move more if it precedes the dealing of Scott Gomez and Tomas Kaberle as well, but only Mr. Gauthier knows what could be in the cards between now and the trade deadline, just over a month away.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Your Canadiens for January 12, 2012

Greetings all from beautiful Barcelona, Spain - the land I'll call home until early April. Tell anyone you like hockey here, and field hockey is assumed. ICE hockey is a required specification. Little kknown fact, though, that FC Barcelona has a roller hockey team. But don't start picturing Messi on skates any time soon; different athletes playing in a far less popular league.

Welcome back. Regular updates and articles shall now resume. Since it's been just over a week without any Habs news on this site, I'll recap major stories that, as a Habs fan, are your NEED TO KNOW of the moment:

Brian Gionta Undergoes Bicep Surgery

It wasn't long after the Montreal Canadiens dropped a 3-0 decision to the St. Louis Blues that the club announced its captain Brian Gionta had undergone successful bicep surgery and would be out indefinitely. Gionta has played in only 31 of Montreal's 42 games this season and the game against the Blues was just his second after missing a month of action with a lower body injury. But even ignoring the time he missed, his 15 points averaged over a full season had him on pace for his lowest season total since 2003-04. This injury is the latest bit of bad news for Habs fans in a season where nothing has seemed to go right and, combined with the loss, might be the final nail in the coffin that cements the club as sellers in the mind of management.

The injury is further bad news for Mike Cammalleri fans, as I strongly believe the club planned to shop one of the two snipers. As I've mentioned previously, depending on two similar, undersized, streaky goal scorers to lead the way offensively doesn't seem like the best conceived plan given the team's lack of a big power center. If Gionta misses the remainder of the season (which is a possibility at this point), he would be off the market and unlikely to be dealt during the off-season, which might seal Cammalleri's fate with the Canadiens.

It seems, as reported by awesome French-language Habs blog Dans Les Coulisses, that Gionta's bicep injury wasn't actually a new peril, but rather the aggravating of a previous "minor" injury that occurred against the Vancouver Canucks on December 8th (Gionta's final game played before missing a month due to what the team dubbed a lower body injury). Did the Canadiens lie about it being a lower body / groin, and did Gionta return too soon from this arm injury? We don't know for certain, but it seems reasonable to guess that to be the case.

Mike Cammalleri Calls the Habs "Losers"... or Does He?

Speaking of Mike Cammalleri, a big fuss was made of his comments after the Canadiens most recent loss. Depending on the media source you choose to follow, he mentioned that the team currently has a "losing mentality," or "prepared" and "played" like losers. Perhaps more enraging to some was an absolution of his own responsibility in the team's current troubles, claiming that he feels he is always getting better and continues to play good hockey. He even tossed some very public heat towards head coach Randy Cunneyworth in partly blaming his costly errors against St. Louis on the fact that he had only gotten limited ice time prior to those shifts, not allowing him to properly get into the game's flow and magnifying those instances. He also indicated that not playing as much during games means he needs to work harder in practices just to stay in shape; not something you want to hear from a guy who has been taking "optional" days off virtually all season.

Of course, as all athletes do, the next day Cammalleri claimed to have been misquoted, indicating his comments were meant as nothing but to indicate the team was frustrating with losing, and that it was the media who had blown them out of proportion. Whether that's true or it's just Cammalleri regretting his little rant is of course up to you to decide.

Scott Gomez Nears a Return; Ryan White Not So Much

Scott Gomez is back at practice with the Canadiens, and while he won't play tonight, there is a very good chance he could be in the line-up on Saturday. Ryan White, however, appears to still be a ways off. White was visibly frustrated when talking with the media, given that his recovery is taking far longer then anticipated. All he could say was that his skating is virtually 100%, but he had absolutely no timetable for a return to full action other than not being close.

Carey Price Named to NHL All-Star Game

Carey Price will unsurprisingly be the only member of the Montreal Canadiens at this year's All-Star game in Ottawa. Raphael Diaz and/or (though less likely) Alexei Emelin might have had a chance to make the game's rookie additions, but only two defensemen were chosen being Justin Faulk and Adam Larsson. Faulk is the only member of the Carolina Hurricanes at the Game at all, securing his spot.

Hamilton Bulldogs on a Tear

The Hamilton Bulldogs struggled out of the gate this season, losing key players like Aaron Palushaj, Andreas Engqvist, and Louis Leblanc to injury-replacement call-ups in Montreal, and dealing with injuries of their own. But with these 3 back in the AHL, the team is on quite a roll of late, winners of three straight and 10-2-3 in their last 15 games. Palushaj and Engqvist have been amongst the most dominant in the recent surge. Palushaj is riding a 5-game point streak, totaling 4 goals and 6 assists over that span, while Engqvist has 8 goals and 5 assists on a current 8-game point streak. The team has four more contests before the big one: The Steeltown Showdown, an outdoor game in Hamilton against the Toronto Marlies on January 21st.

Brendan Gallagher and Morgan Ellis Dominant in the CHL

Brendan Gallagher was one Canada's standout performers at the recent World Junior Championships and certainly earned every bit of that bronze medal the team won. No one would have thought badly of Gallagher if he had a modest slump immediately upon his return to the WHL's Vancouver Giants, but much the opposite has transpired. After a season-high 7 (!!) points (3 G, 4 A) in his first game back, he followed it up with a goal and an assist in his other game since to give him 28 goals and 55 points in just 30 games. He is on a much better pace than last season, when he scored 44 goals and 91 points in 66 matches.

But Gallagher isn't the only Hab prospect to be enjoying strong performances. Morgan Ellis, a 6'2", 200 lbs offensive defenseman, was recently dealt from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles - the team he captained - to fellow Canadiens prospect Michael Bournival's Shawinigan Cataractes. This in and of itself is good news as Shawinigan hosts this year's Memorial Cup, guaranteeing the participation (barring injury) of both players before they make their Hamilton Bulldog debuts next season. But Ellis, who had 25 points in 34 games with Shawinigan this season, has exploded offensively since the trade in scoring 3 goals and 4 assists over three games played (with at least 2 points in each game). Ellis is often overlooked when discussing Montreal's bright future on the back end, but he does have potential to be a future Raphael Diaz with size.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Lack of Updates for Next Week

Dear awesome loyal Habs fan readership,

I regret to announce that for the next few days to a week, beginning tomorrow (January 5th), I can't promise much - if any - new content. No, this has nothing to do with the Canadiens performances this season.

Rather, it is for personal reasons that I'll be away, as I am moving from Montreal to Barcelona, Spain for the next 3 months to finish of my MBA. Once I'm all settled in there, I'll catch back up on following your Montreal Canadiens... time difference and all!

I apologize for the outage, and sincerely hope you return to my site once new articles are flowing! Your readership is greatly appreciated and what motivates me to keep this site running!


Dan Kramer

Go Easy on Nathan Beaulieu

"Great moments are born from great opportunity." Herb Brooks famously gave this quote to the world during his pre-game speech to the American Miracle on Ice squad prior to their game against the Soviet Union (or so the movie tells us). The corollary, of course, is that horrible, embarrassing, scaring moments can also be born of great opportunities.

One such moment unfortunately occurred in last night's World Junior Championship semi-finals between Canada and Russia. Even more unfortunately, it involved a future Montreal Canadiens blueline stud. During the third period of what turned out to be an epic 20 minutes, with Canada down 5-1, Nathan Beaulieu loses the puck to a pressuring forward at the tail end of a Canadian powerplay, and then in trying to chop at the puck, chops the Russian's feet from under him instead, resulting in a delayed penalty call. Here's the video evidence (video begins at 3:31 mark):

The Canadians had played frustrated hockey for much of the night, shown in a late 2nd period undisciplined spear by Boone Jenner that cost him a 5 minute major and game misconduct, and a slamming of a stick on the boards by Jonathan Huberdeau after taking a penalty which forced him out of the game for 10 minutes. Beaulieu's giving up on the play and stopping to skate after taking the penalty is inexcusable. What happened there exactly? Of course he was upset. Perhaps he thought the whistle went. Perhaps he didn't realize there was a man coming out of the box which turned the play into a 2-on-1 (although it ended up being his man, the third skater, who tapped the puck in). Regardless, it was an error in a game that felt out of reach for most Canadians.

What happened after that was very nearly the most epic of comebacks, with Canada scoring 4 quick goals, leaving just that dreaded 6th marker to stand as the game-winner. Beaulieu, I'm sure, feels terrible about the play, not unlike Mikael Granlund of Team Finland who earlier in the day completely lost the puck on a shootout attempt on which he needed to score to keep his team alive.

The truth is, Habs fans, these things happen. Beaulieu at age 19 was considered one of the top 7 under 20 defensemen in the country to be selected to this team and performed reasonably well. The WJC is a huge stage, and though in the 7th d-man role Beaulieu didn't see that much ice, he looked smooth on the powerplay and confident with the puck. He took a few penalties that he will need to work out of his game, but overall showed lots of promise for the future, also demonstrating his toughness when returning to a game after taking a hard shot to the face.

This play will not define his career in any way, shape or form. Beaulieu, Montreal's first round pick last June, should sign a deal with the Habs some time between now and September and join the Hamilton Bulldogs in the Fall (given that he has a December birthday), moving up the ranks to become a pro. He won a Memorial Cup last year with the Saint John Sea Dogs, impressed at Canadiens training camp this Fall, could win a Bronze Medal at the WJC tomorrow, and then should have a good run at a second Memorial Cup on a stacked team before the season is done. Not a bad couple of seasons.

We just need to hope that the young man himself doesn't take this too hard and puts it out of his mind. Or, if anything, that he uses it as motivation not to give up on a play ever again. I'd imagine Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury doesn't go to sleep at night thinking about this moment any more:

So Nate, hang in there. Many great players go through tough adversity on their way to the top, so why should you be any different. If I'm Pierre Gauthier, I'd give Mr. Beaulieu's agent a call as soon as this tournament is over on Friday to talk about the inevitable contract. Might as well throw a positive the kid's way to help him get back on track. If you want to send Beaulieu some "Habs fans are all behind you!" thoughts of your own, you can Tweet at him at @n8theggr8.