Monday, January 2, 2012

Stick a Fork in Habs for a Brighter Future

As I had suggested last week, the time seems upon us accept the 2011-12 NHL season as lost for the Montreal Canadiens. Let's call it "growing pains" en route to building a Stanley Cup competitive team in Montreal. I had been willing to give the team a couple of weeks post-Christmas to see if there was hope of turning things around, but back-to-back blown lead losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers should put the nail in the coffin.

Again, this isn't a full-scale all-out rebuild. It's a quick re-tool that involves reshaping portions of the team with solutions made up of more than just rental band-aids. Let me repeat that: no rental band-aids. Consider this a plea to Habs management/ownership: may there be no further trades this season that adds to the team's salary cap moving forward with a player of uncertain caliber. And perhaps more importantly, may there be no deal sending away a draft pick or prospect for a rental or immediate help only type player.

Don't worry, Geoff Molson. If you make it clear that this is your strategy, and bring in a new, established General Manager to see it through consistently, then we'll stick with you. We are Habs fans, through and through, and after all these years, can accept one unsuccessful season to bring a Stanley Cup to Montreal before the year 2020. (but if, on the side, you could make sure the Toronto Maple Leafs also miss the playoffs this season, we'd appreciate it)

I'm sure, Mr. Molson, that you don't like paying Scott Gomez so many millions of dollars for him to underperform any more than we like to watch him play at such a cap hit. But now is the time that something must be done to change the make-up of a group that is undersized, not tough enough, and struggles so mightily to score goals. This team, even with these problems, is looking at just $17M in cap space with about 9 roster spots to fill, including new contracts needed for Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Lars Eller, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin, Ryan White, and possibly UFAs Andrei Kostitsyn and/or Travis Moen. That of course is without even glancing at the UFA list of other clubs for possible additions. It seems obvious that salaries like that of Gomez or defenseman Tomas Kaberle MUST be shipped out.

On the bright side, the Canadiens do have a number of pieces in place to work towards a contending team, and a number of prospects on the way who will bolster the group. Three key areas stand out to me as needing improvement to turn this team around, being: (1) Legitimate Star Goal-Scoring Forward(s); (2) Size Up Front; (3) Toughness and/or Size on Defense. Fixing these, in this case, isn't a matter of going out and trading for a rent-a-UFA or just signing a warm body next summer, but rather a restructuring of the personnel in place to accommodate this new philosophy.

(1) Legitimate Star Goal-Scoring Forward(s)

When the Canadiens last blew up their team in 2009, it was evident they needed to find some new players to put pucks in the net. They turned to veteran scorers Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, 5'7" and 5'9" respectively, to complement traded-for playmaking center Scott Gomez (5'11"). Gionta was named captain of the team a year in, and while he could have put up some more points, his goal production is as high as anyone could have hoped for. His two seasons of 29 and 28 prior to this year are the second and third best of his career, trailing only his standout 48-goal 2005-06 performance. Gionta further added 12 goals and 20 points in 26 playoff games.

Cammalleri, on the other hand, has been a regular season disappointment. He came to Montreal having topped the 30-goal mark in two of his previous three seasons, fresh off a 39 goal campaign with the Calgary Flames. Though he had played at least 80 games in three of his four NHL seasons before joining the Canadiens, injuries limited him to 65 and 67 games played here, in which he scored just 26 and 19 goals. Cammalleri has missed 5 games already this year, and if we project his current pace assuming he played 77, he'll continue his decline in production to reach only 18 goals. At $6M per season, Cammalleri is paid to be a star offensive goal-scorer, and while his playoff heroics can't be overlooked (16 goals and 29 points in 26 games), he has not produced at an acceptable level.

A team can afford one streaky undersized scorer at its core, but depending on two as the Canadiens do is a recipe for disaster. To improve the team, at least one of Cammalleri or Gionta should be moved, likely for future assets, and the freed up cap space spent to take another chance on the star goal scorer lottery. Easier said than done with this summer's shallow UFA class, but if they are to make it to July 1 unsigned, the team could and should make runs at Zack Parise, Tuomo Ruutu, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, and/or Brad Boyes (likely to come at a discount, high potential reward). Parise is the only true "star calibre" player in the lot, but any in the bunch could conceivably replace the 50 or so points one of Gionta or Cammalleri would score.

The other option is of course the trade market. Despite their struggles this season, I am confident that a playoff team with sufficient cap room would have interest in either Gionta or Cammalleri and that there will be a market for their services. The asset(s) obtained for these players, plus perhaps a top draft pick earned by a poor finish this season could be packaged for a young star forward. Prospect fans may salivate at the thought of adding a top 10 bluechipper this June, but that pick could also be used as a chip to acquire an Eric Staal, Joe Pavelski, Magnus Paajarvi, Shea Weber (ok, not a forward, but still scores goals), or someone else.

Alternatively, of course, if the team becomes a seller early and tanks in the standings, they may be able to acquire a top end offensive player through this summer's draft who could step in within the next couple of seasons. This is a by-product of "sticking a fork in" the Habs' season, or as some might put it, "tanking."

Fortunately, there are a couple of scorers in the pipeline in forwards Brendan Gallagher and Michael Bournival. The two 19-year olds seem quite mature for their age and stage of development, and could be ready for action as soon as some point next year. Still, their prime remains a few years away (and of course there's no guarantee that their scoring will translate at the pro level), so they should be considered supporting cast up-and-comers with the bulk of the duties given to veterans in the meanwhile.

(2) Size Up Front

As mentioned above, the Canadiens pinned much of their hope on three forwards who measure 5'7", 5'9", and 5'11" respectively. Even as they aimed to get bigger this season with the addition of Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty to the top 6 (steps in the right direction), one of their "biggest" offensive catalysts has been yet another 5'7" forward in David Desharnais.

In today's NHL, there is nothing wrong with having a couple of small players. The game has changed to the point where the quickest or most skilled of these undersized skaters can succeed. But just as depending on multiple streaky players can hurt a club, so can depending on many small players, which can turn match-ups against certain lines and teams with bigger and thicker players into disasters. To be most effective, guys like Gionta, Desharnais, and Cammalleri all need to be surrounded by bigger bodies to create space for them rather than playing just with each other. As such, beyond moving a Gionta or Cammalleri, if the team could find a bigger center to replace Desharnais (despite his success this year and cheap contract), the option of selling high on him for the greater good of the team should be looked at.

This is also an area where the prospect pool is quite thin. Realistically, Brendan Gallagher and Danny Kristo may be the only two in the system with top 6 upside, and both are under 6'0". Likely third liners Louis Leblanc and Michael Bournival are roughly 6'0" on the nose, and most of the other forwards are long-shots or projects at best. There is definitely a need to restock the pool in this summer's entry draft, but also a need to free up some roster spots to acquire some bigger bodies through trades and signings.

The most important area to beef up is very likely down the middle, where three of the team's top centers in Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, and Scott Gomez are all under 6'0". Only Lars Eller brings size to the equation, and while I'm a big fan of his, his lack of finish thus far leaves his offensive upside a question mark. Having a bigger guy at center opens up a spot to play him with a smaller winger, which could make Tuomo Ruutu a great fit as a summer signing. Ruutu never lived up to his pre-draft billing that made him the 9th overall selection in 2001, but he can still chip in 20 goals and 40+ points with a 6'2" frame that isn't afraid to hit. At 28, he should still have some productive seasons left in him.

On the wing, after a great rookie season in Anaheim, Dustin Penner's career took a big turn for the worse, with this year's production nearing disastrous levels in Los Angeles. If he'll take a paycut, though, he could be an attractive target with his 6'4", 240 lbs frame to provide secondary scoring from a third line. Beyond Penner, the need for size permeates to the fourth line as well where the Canadiens could use a couple of bruisers to make them a tougher team to play against. A legitimate fourth line composed of large NHL'ers who aren't goons (meaning they can play hockey) but can throw a hit would ware down opposing teams and thus help the other lines with their matchups. Some third or fourth line types who could help the team in this aspect include Tom Kostopoulos, Chris Kelly, Jay McClement, Adam Burish, Jim Slater, Dominic Moore, Arron Asham, Taylor Pyatt, and/or Tanner Glass, each of whom is 6'0" or larger.

(3) Toughness and/or Size on Defense

Looking past the forwards, Montreal's back end also needs quite a bit of work. Unlike up front, the team can fortunately look forward to a stacked prospect pipeline that will ensure strong organizational depth as soon as next year, but needs more immediate help to carry the torch until the next generation is ready. Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Morgan Ellis, and Greg Pateryn should all join the Hamilton Bulldogs next season (and Beaulieu or Tinordi should be ready for emergency call-up duty if necessary as soon as a year from now), with Darren Dietz, Mac Bennett, and perhaps Magnus Nygren likely a year after them. Tinordi is a known commodity to most, being the type of big, tough player the team is short on, but Pateryn fills the mold as well and, turning 22 in June, is more physically mature. Pateryn, if you forget, is the other asset the Canadiens acquired along with a 2nd round pick (later traded for Robert Lang) from the Toronto Maple Leafs in return for Mikhail Grabovski. He is completing his fourth season at the University of Michigan where he plays with Bennett.

But enough about the future. With Andrei Markov, Tomas Kaberle, Yannick Weber, and Raphael Diaz under contract, the Canadiens have far too many smallish, softish, puck-moving offensive-oriented blueliners. Plus there's P.K. Subban who would be most optimally paired with a big, responsible, defensive partner. Hal Gill's age is catching up to him and should be dealt for maximal return by the trade deadline, and likewise for Chris Campoli (though his return will be much less). Josh Gorges (6'1", 200 lbs) and Alexei Emelin (6'2", 223 lbs) are definitely parts of the solution defensively, but the addition of another minute-eating hitter would really round the group out well. Without the ability to bring a Tinordi from the future to the present day, the UFA market offers some interesting possibilities such as Ryan Suter, Brad Stuart, Francois Beauchemin, or Dennis Wideman at the top end, with Bryan Allen, Willie Mitchell, Pavel Kubina, Nicklas Grossman, Shane O'Brien, and Johnny Boychuk as depth-type options. The problem is that signing one of these players is dependent on the Habs finding a way to unload Tomas Kaberle's two remaining seasons at $4.25M a year - easier said than done. Still, I'd have to imagine the Canadiens couldn't be the only team to be curious about him, and so perhaps they can find someone to take him of their hands for no "real" return. I would propose a defense something like the following for next season:

Andrei Markov - Josh Gorges
Top End UFA - P.K. Subban
Alexei Emelin - Raphael Diaz
Frederic St. Denis or depth UFA

With the up-and-comers in the organization, the key might be to find a top end UFA willing to sign for just 2-3 years instead of a long-term contract. Gorges is versatile, able to play either side with ease, and the Emelin - Diaz pairing has shown some nice chemistry this season.

So that's pretty much what it looks like to me. In summary, steps to the Habs' success:

1. Find takers for Gomez + Kaberle
2. Find reasonable offer for either Gionta or Cammalleri
3. Sell UFAs Gill and Campoli; consider re-signing Kostitsyn and Moen, but sell if not signed by deadline
4. Replace talent with new goal scorers, bigger forwards, and tougher defensemen
5. Obtain a top draft pick in 2012
6. ...
7. Profit.

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