Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Habs Trade Talk - Deadline Dos and Don'ts

There's a big week in store for your Montreal Canadiens. And it has absolutely nothing to do with 3 winnable games against the Dallas Stars, Washington Capitals, and Florida Panthers.

Pierre Gauthier and his staff have until 3 PM EST next Monday (February 27th) to complete their final deals until after a team raises the Stanley Cup this June. For the first time in quite a while, the Canadiens appear to find themselves out of the running at the deadline, which should make them one of the league's few pure sellers. In economic terms, being one of the few is always a benefit, since by laws of supply-and-demand, the relative value of your assets increases, which means Gauthier is in a pretty powerful position. He has NHL-able talent to provide to the highest bidders.

Gauthier opened for business early in dealing Hal Gill to the Nashville Predators last week in a trade where all seem to agree he got as much as he could hope for in return for the 36-year old pending UFA. Given the number of dockets he has to manage this week, getting one off the table early is not a bad idea, particularly when it's unlikely the price for Gill would have gone up any higher a week later. If anything, by then, others teams with a need for a specialty player like him might have found their answers elsewhere.

But Gauthier still has many long nights ahead, not that he looks like he ever sleeps (or eats for that matter) anyway. The fact that the Canadiens are out of the playoff race likely means the team's future assets are safe, but that doesn't mean there are no places that Gauthier could still trip up. Here we look at some Dos and Don'ts for the man running the good ship Hab over the next 6 days.

Things To Do

1) Talk to the agents for pending unrestricted free agents Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen. If Kostitsyn can be extended at $3.5M or less, and Moen at his current salary, get it done. I understand those who get very frustrated with Kostitsyn's inconsistencies, but the fact is the team won't be able to replace him with a big 20+ goal scorer who can play with physicality for any less money than he makes. If next season's third line looks something like Rene Bourque - Lars Eller - Andrei Kostitsyn, the team should be in good shape.

As for Moen, the fact that he is currently injured, whether or not it had to do with him being rushed back into the lineup inexplicably, means the team may not be able to trade him even if they wanted to. It's still possible that he'll be in the line-up Sunday vs. the Florida Panthers which would put his name back on the market, but he isn't yet skating and we've had no real updates on his health. Moen is a great guy to have on a fourth line alongside a Ryan White. Add a young player like Louis Leblanc or Blake Geoffrion, and the team's bottom 6 looks pretty sound.

The most important "do," is that if either of these guys isn't signed this week, they must be dealt elsewhere. Their value in Montreal for another 20 games is very minimal. The return the may bring in, perhaps a 2nd round pick each, will be of much greater help to the club in the big picture.

2) Try to offload some contracts. Two players in particular, to me, don't fit into this team's long-term structure. The obvious one is Scott Gomez, though moving him will be easier said than done. The team is likely going to have to wait till the summer to deal with his problem contract, whether through a possible new CBA-permitted no-cap-hit buyout, or by trading him for another poor contract given his actual dollar amount owed drops for the next two seasons.

The other one is Tomas Kaberle. Kaberle defenders will point to his 17 points in 31 games with the Habs as strong production, and they're not wrong. That pace would mean a 45-point 82-game season, which are good numbers for a blueliner. But calling Kaberle a blueliner might be a bit of a stretch; he is the furthest thing from dependable in his own end and needs to play sheltered minutes with a strong defensive partner. Seeing him on the ice beside Chris Campoli has created enough nightmares for Hab fans already. If the team was within earshot of a playoff spot, I would say Kaberle has his place here until season's end due to Andrei Markov's uncertain status between now and April. But the Russian is working hard to get back into shape, and at this point there is little reason to doubt his presence in the team's opening night line-up next October. Since our focus should be building for next season, with Markov and the likes of P.K. Subban, Raphael Diaz, and Yannick Weber in Montreal, Kaberle is redundant and should be replaced with a more complete player. His production during his time with the Canadiens might actually make up a moveable asset, even though the return will be limited (and likely less than the Habs would have gotten for selling a Jaroslav Spacek rental). That's the reason to trade him now instead of waiting to see how Markov progresses; demand for Kaberle and his contract won't always be there.

3) Trade the other UFAs. If moving Kaberle and/or Gomez may be difficult, moving Chris Campoli should be easier. He won't return much more than a late round draft pick, but depth defensemen rentals are always in demand come deadline. Another pending UFA, Mathieu Darche, may have generated some interest with his resurgent play as well, and though he would like to stay in Montreal, if anyone offers any kind of pick or prospect for his services, Gauthier would be silly to ignore it.

4) Test market interest in still-useful players. Yannick Weber jumps to mind as a player being wasted in his present role in Montreal, but who other teams may see potential in. Weber needs to either be developed properly as an offensive defenseman or sent to an organization that will give him that chance before he is completely depleted as an asset. If Petteri Nokelainen returns to the line-up this week - a possibility given he is skating again - the Canadiens should at the least be able to recoup the 7th round pick spent to acquire him, if not improve upon it from a team that needs face-off help going into the playoffs. Aaron Palushaj doesn't look to have much of a future in Montreal, especially with the addition of Blake Geoffrion and the graduation of Brendan Gallagher and Michael Bournival to Hamilton next season. Perhaps there is a club that would swap a younger prospect or draft pick for him as a more NHL-ready player.

The more controversial one, which I've mentioned before, is the idea of floating either Tomas Plekanec or David Desharnais. Trading either before having a replacement plan in place would be a HUGE risk, but it never hurts to see if there might be a can't-refuse offer out there. In case you missed my previous discussion about moving one of them, the idea is that the Canadiens should add a BIG top 6 center to improve their match-ups against bigger forward lines and bigger shutdown D pairings. As I'd like Lars Eller to remain the third line center, bringing in a large pivot would mean moving either Pleks or DD. The harder part will be finding the right player to replace one of them; say a Mikhail Grigorenko or Ryan Getzlaf.

5) Don't ignore any sweepstakes for contracted established players. Just because the Canadiens are a "seller," doesn't mean they should be out of the running if any signed veterans who could help the team become available. Marquee players don't become available every day. If a player is on the market, Gauthier shouldn't close any doors. Especially if he's already sold some players off by then, he may have considerable future assets to work with. The biggest name known to be at least "somewhat" available right now is Columbus's Rick Nash. His contract may not be the most attractive, but the package he brings to the table is one that would help the Canadiens in a big way. The more pressing need might be for a marquee center with size, but adding Nash to a team with Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole would help to make the Habs a tough team to defend against. Of course, Nash may be a moot point, as there are no confirmed reports that he would even consider waiving his no-movement clause to come to Montreal even if a deal were worked out.

Things To Avoid

1) Trading significant future assets. That means no 2012 draft picks (this year's first has to be COMPLETELY off limits), Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival, Jarred Tinordi (who celebrated his 20th birthday yesterday), Nathan Beaulieu, or Danny Kristo. Heck, I'd even add Morgan Ellis, Darren Dietz, and Greg Pateryn to this group. The exception is in the case of #5 of the things to do, of course, since to bring in a premiere player, a prospect or two may have to be sacrificed. But in general, these names should be considered off-limits during a poor season.

2) Dealing recklessly with Columbus. Yes, Rick Nash *could* be a nice addition. But he also comes with a cap hit of $7.8M per season until 2018 which is a big chunk of change, even for a 60-point player. I would still take Nash, but wouldn't be willing to sacrifice anything and everything to acquire him. If that means the Habs are outbid for his services, so be it.

It's not just Nash who is allegedly available from the Blue Jackets though. They may also seek to part with Jeff Carter after acquiring him last June. Carter has appeared unhappy to play in Columbus since the day he was traded, the issue has gotten worse as a nagging foot injury has limited him to just 38 games. If you had asked me prior to this season if I'd have interest in Carter, I'd have said absolutely. A 6'3" goal-scoring center seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. But now consider his injuries, combined with his scoring just 22 points in those 38 games in his first season outside of Philadelphia, and - most importantly - the fact that his $5.3M cap hit extends until 2022 (when he'll be 37). Yes, Carter is a much better player than Scott Gomez, but his contract is also much longer and could handicap the team in a similar way. Thus, I would stay far away from any trade talks involving him.

Another Jacket with an unfavourable contract and likely on the market is Derick Brassard. Again, a 6'1" offensive center would appear to fit the bill nicely, but after setting career highs with 17 goals and 47 points as a 23-year old last season, his play has gone way south this year, undoubtedly making the Jackets regret his $3.2M annually deal that ends in 2014. Brassard has just 24 points in 51 games and was even a healthy scratch at times. The obvious connection to Montreal is a language one, with Brassard hailing from Hull, QC. But unless the Jackets are going to return the favour and take a contract like Gomez or Kaberle's from the Canadiens in the deal, I would be very hesitant to bring in Brassard.

3) Trading core pieces to address needs. If Gauthier does find an available player that fits into the team's plan, he must avoid the trap of addressing a need while creating another. The following roster players are my untouchable list which should not be included in any transaction: Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller, Josh Gorges, Max Pacioretty, and Erik Cole. This is my core, while there is flexibility for the remainder.

4) This last one is not for Gauthier, but for Habs fans. Avoid following made-up internet rumour mongers. That means Eklund, Incarcerated Bob, Hockeyy Insiderr, The Creasy, El Cloun (and his Vestiaire gang)... and Bruce Garrioch... If you follow them for strictly entertainment purposes to read whatever nonsense proposals they put out there, then fine. I follow some of them for that purpose as well. But please PLEASE don't take any of their alleged "rumours" too seriously. Most of it is either made up for some, or simply re-posting whatever any random anonymous source "leaks" to them for others.

If Gauthier can abide by all of this, it should be a relatively successful week. One "do" for Hab fans: Hang in there, and stay tuned to http://www.yourcanadiens.info/ and/or our Twitter account @DailyCanadiens for all the latest insights and analysis as the transactions unfold. I'll be in Madrid over the weekend, so posts are more likely to be after-the-fact analysis depending on timing, but I will be stationed in my European workspace Monday ready to bring you all the news as-it-happens.

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