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 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

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