Friday, February 3, 2012

Why a Tanked Season Will Be Worth It

Habs fans, meet Mikhail Grigorenko. If things continue as they should and have been progressing, you will get to know this young man quite intimately beginning in June.

Grigorenko is a 17-year old Russian-born forward who is rather unanimously expected to go number two overall behind countryman Nail Yakupov at this summer's NHL Entry Draft. We'll start with the stats.

In his first WJC this Christmas, despite his young age, Grigorenko produced 2 goals and 5 points in 6 contests on the strong Russian squad. A year ago, at the U18 event, he had an incredible 18 points in just 7 games.

But tournaments are a small sample size. His play has carried over to this season, where he is a member of the Patrick Roy-coached Quebec Remparts. In his Q rookie season, Grigorenko has scored 28 goals and 64 points in 41 games. This puts him 10th in QMJHL scoring, despite having played fewer games than everyone above him, and tops amongst the league's first year players.

I've talked quite a bit about the need for a premiere, big, first line centre to revamp / restructure the forward group in Montreal. Of course, as I and many others are quick to reply, those don't grow on trees. Even if a Ryan Getzlaf or Eric Staal is to become available some time this summer, the cost of acquiring such a player is likely to be hugely prohibitive. So how else can you fill the need? The draft of course. And finishing 10th in the East to draft 12th overall will not be enough to do it. A tanked season of finishing near the bottom of the league is what is required.

Did I mention Grigorenko is 6'2" and has played mostly centre this season? A centre line of Grigorenko, Desharnais/Plekanec, Eller, and a big and tough 4th liner would go a long way towards changing this team's identity. Understand that if Montreal can secure the 2nd overall pick, we're not talking about a player who could help the team out some 3-5 years down the road. We're talking about a guy who will be ready to step right in for the 2012-13 season and be a big-time contributor. Now it won't be easy. It means being happy when the team drops a game, or when those around win, which takes some getting used to. It still pains me to have mixed feelings when the Habs blow a lead like they did last night to the New Jersey Devils. But think greater good. The playoffs are out of reach. Forego the immediate gratification and short-term satisfaction of a single Habs win in order to add a piece in the near term that could and should drop the wait time for the next Stanley Cup parade in Montreal significantly. Accept some pain right now for the ability to watch a young star - a legitimate offensive gamebreaking superstar like the team hasn't had in many, many years - on a nightly basis beginning in a few months.

Of course, it isn't so easy. The Canadiens have shown the occasional ability to win games against all odds, and it will need to happen even less frequently if they want to be certain not to pass too many other teams.

It seems Yakupov, a smaller right winger, can already start looking for a home in the greater Columbus area. But there is quite a log-jam, or race for the bottom if you will, amongst the other teams whose seasons didn't go according to plan. The young Edmonton Oilers appear destined to get a little scarier this June, though with a number of stud d-men available outside the top 2, they are more likely to go that route given a roster including the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle. The Anaheim Ducks have an older team that is failing to produce, leading to some speculation they may even look to trade a core player like Ryan Getzlaf or Bobby Ryan. Such a move would help them tank if their goal is to rebuild around a guy like Grigorenko. The Carolina Hurricanes are also looking for help throughout their roster, though they don't have tremendous need at center. This is important because even if Montreal doesn't naturally finish with the 2nd overall pick, they may be able to trade up from a top 5 or 6 selection by sweetening the pot with some other assets if the team in question isn't all-in on Grigorenko.

So what must happen now for the team to "tank?" Understand that we're not talking about purposely throwing games. Nor are we talking about playing a line of Aaron Palushaj, Andreas Engqvist, and Mike Blunden for 20 minutes a night. But we are talking about moving some non-essential veteran players for picks and prospects between now and the end of the month. Think Hal Gill, Travis Moen, Yannick Weber, Petteri Nokelainen, Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Kaberle, and maybe one of Tomas Plekanec or David Desharnais. Such moves don't guarantee anything, of course, but the Canadiens lack AHL depth this season, so replacing these guys with some unready bodies should push the team towards the league's basement. The plan comes full circle in the sense that some of the assets acquired for dealing these players could help the team jump from a 5th overall to 2nd.

Hang in there, Habs fans. There are some solid pieces in place in Montreal, and better days are ahead. Is it worth the suffering? Patrick Roy, for one, seems to think that a player of Griogrenko's calibre will make up for all the hard times gone through to pick him up. All that will be left will be to convince Grigorenko to take #13 in Montreal to allow us to simply change the nameplate on all of our Mike Cammalleri jerseys.

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