Wednesday, February 29, 2012
A Kink in the Plan
Whatever your thoughts of Pierre Gauthier's moves (or lack thereof) on deadline day, the always tight-lipped Habs general manager gave fans a little glimpse of his plan for the team yesterday. Whether he'll be the one ultimately executing the next phases of it or not, it is clear that he has goals to increase the overall size of the team to compensate for its smaller players, and that inconsistent play like that of Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn simply won't cut it.
These two principles sounds great in theory. They sound like parts of a recipe for turning your Montreal Canadiens into contenders once again. But while last night's Habs loss to the Lightning, combined with a Leafs loss, Caps and Canes wins, and a point for the Islanders fit absolutely perfectly into my personal Tanking desires, there appear to be a few holes or kinks in the team's current plan to turn their fortunes around.
A top 3 pick in this June's NHL Entry Draft will be a nice reward for surviving a putrid season of horrendous underachievement. But following moves this season that rid the team of the disappointing Cammalleri and Kostitsyn, even after adding a potential franchise forward through the draft, there remain problems that won't be easy to solve in the short term. While their play wasn't up to par, both Cammalleri and Kostitsyn were supposed to have important roles on the team; one as a premiere goal-scoring top 6 winger, and the other as a skilled and tough secondary scorer capable of potting 20+. While I appreciate what Rene Bourque can bring to the table, he certainly doesn't replace Cammalleri's contribution, and I'm doubting at this point that he can replace Kostitsyn's goals either.
So let's take a look at where the Canadiens stand right now. I'll even go ahead and assume the team manages to retain Travis Moen's services before he hits the open market on July 1st, and take the optimistic liberty of assuming the Habs will be able to perform some type of amnesty buyout to rid themselves of Scott Gomez's contract with the new CBA.
CAPGEEK.COM CAP CALCULATOR
Rene Bourque ($3.333m) / Tomas Plekanec ($5.000m) / Brian Gionta ($5.000m)
Max Pacioretty ($1.625m) / David Desharnais ($0.850m) / Erik Cole ($4.500m)
Travis Moen ($1.850m) / Lars Eller ($1.300m) / Louis Leblanc ($1.170m)
Mike Blunden ($0.615m) / Ryan White ($0.625m) / Blake Geoffrion ($0.800m)
Andreas Engqvist ($0.700m)
Andrei Markov ($5.750m) / Josh Gorges ($3.900m)
Alexei Emelin ($2.500m) / P.K. Subban ($3.000m)
Tomas Kaberle ($4.250m) / Raphael Diaz ($2.000m)
Yannick Weber ($0.850m)
Carey Price ($6.500m) / Peter Budaj ($1.150m)
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled without the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $64,300,000; CAP PAYROLL: $57,268,333; BONUSES: $300,000
CAP SPACE (22-man roster): $7,031,667
As is generally the case with a team currently sitting in last place in their conference, there are many, many problems here we can go over. I've given much attention to the need for a big, star, top 6 center, and that remains a hole on the roster. I'd say that finding such a player remains a priority if only because those types are difficult to add since they rarely become available.
But there's more. The third and fourth lines are very weak, due in part to Lars Eller's stunted offensive development and general inexperience of the group. I would love to see a team that could roll three offensive lines, and then feature Travis Moen and Ryan White flanking a big and tough center on the fourth unit, but the team seems far from achieving anything of the sort with bigger fish to fry first.
One of these big fish is the top 6 forward group. The Canadiens had seemingly gotten to a point where they no longer needed to rely on Andrei Kostitsyn for top 6 offense due to their forward depth. Having to insert a guy like Rene Bourque into the top 6, then, is a step backwards. Will Brian Gionta get back to his near-30 goal production, or will he play like he did prior to his injuries this season? Can pint-sized David Desharnais repeat this year's production over the long haul? Will he always need twin towers on either side of him in the team's top forwards, Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole? If so, that certainly handicaps line juggling flexibility. And what of Tomas Plekanec - is this poor season just an outlier? Pacioretty and Cole are pieces for a winning team, and Plekanec can be a solid 2nd line center on a championship team, but that still leaves three slots needing some kind of possible upgrade or change.
In short, to fix the forward group quickly, you would need to add 1-2 top 6 wingers, and ideally upgrade the center position. That's a tall order to fill in one summer, especially with a huge lack of talent available on the free agent market. Some of the few names to consider include Zach Parise, Jiri Hudler, and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, but there isn't much else, and even those 3 are each 6'0" or shorter. Plus with the shallow market, each of these guys is sure to get an overpayment as a UFA. We can conclude, then, that it is going to take some awfully creative work for Gauthier or whoever is GM to "fix" the team's forward group prior to the 2012-13 season, even if one problem could be solved via the draft (more on that tomorrow).
And then there's the defense, perhaps the team's biggest Achilles heel this season. If we assume that Andrei Markov will be back and will play like a top pairing defender, then that obviously helps the situation, giving the team two competent pairings. But there is still a need to add a top 4 guy on defense, and ideally one who could pick up the slack if Markov were to get hurt again (think Roman Hamrlik of a few seasons ago). A problem is that much of this "new guy"'s future cap hit is presently being made by Tomas Kaberle, a player not trustworthy enough to take on the role. The hope would be that with Markov and P.K. Subban on the top PP unit next season, the need for Kaberle would disappear and the team would find a way to move him. Taking a run at possible UFA Ryan Suter this summer would cure much of what ails the team's back end, but there are lesser money options who could also be signed to help the situation, such as Dennis Wideman, Brad Stuart, or Bryan Allen. A key will be that if Suter isn't the guy (meaning the player signed isn't part of a very long-term plan), then the Habs should be looking to get someone on a short-term deal. There are an incredible amount of defensive prospects who should be ready to make the leap in the next 1-3 years, so the team will eventually need to find room (though there is no need to rush anyone).
So what does this all mean? I'm not suggesting that you start licking your chops at the prospect of taking Nathan MacKinnon first overall in 2013, but there is much work to do for whoever will be managing the team into the summer and next season. Some unpopular decisions will have to be made; for one I could foresee the trading of Lars Eller before he reaches his full potential for a player to fill a top 6 wing slot. But once the team properly identifies a core and its needs around it, we should start to see some real progress.