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.

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