Friday, March 30, 2012

To Whom Shall The Torch Be Thrown?

With yesterday's announcement of the firing of Pierre Gauthier (and letting go of his advisor, Bob Gainey), the Montreal Canadiens are entering a new era in their long and glorious (though not so much recently) history.  The question on everyone's lips (and blogs) is who will be the guy to take over at the top and turn the team around from a dismal season.

Most of the candidates out there have had their names tossed around, and it is certainly possible that a few more hats are tossed in the ring as the regular season comes to a close and other teams may decide to part with their own GMs.  Here is who I have as a top 10 wish list of potential new General Managers for our Habs.

10) Trevor Timmins

If there is one guy from the current regime that I sincerely hope remains in place, it's Trevor Timmins.  The Canadiens may not have made the flashiest picks over the past few years with Timmins as Director of Procurement and Player Development / Head Amateur Scout, but it is hard to do that picking in the middle-to-late end of the pack.  Numerous studies and analysts have lauded the Canadiens as one of the best drafting teams in the past few seasons, pulling quality NHL players out of later rounds (Ryan White, Sergei Kostitsyn, Matt D'Agostini, Alexei Emelin, Mikhail Grabovski, Mark Streit, Jaroslav Halak... etc.), while finding underrated players earlier on (P.K. Subban, Ryan McDonagh, Max Pacioretty...).  Sure he's made some mistakes (David Fischer, Andrei Kostitsyn over a boatload of other talent), but no scouting department is perfect.  Timmins lacks experience with the other General Manager functions, but with an experienced assistant, he might give the team a fresh face who will help to ensure the youth cupboard is always full (a la Detroit).

9) Julien Brisebois

Brisebois is higher than this on most lists because of his work along with Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay.  Certainly, he is well educated, has gained some experience around the league, and is headed in the direction of becoming one of the game's youngest GMs, but I would stay away from him for now.  First, back in his Montreal days, he was handed the title of Capologist, with one of his main duties being salary negotiation.  Unfortunately, he was with the organization during a time where the Habs were most heavily criticized for overpaying players, part of which could he hung over his head.  This is not to say that people can't change and evolve over their careers, but I also feel the work he and Yzerman have done in Tampa gets overrated at times.  A few quality moves no doubt, but they were handed the majority of the team's core (think Brian Burke in Anaheim) and have failed to address the biggest concern they inherited in the goaltending situation.  Still, the team could do worse than his qualifications.

8) Patrick Roy

Roy is the most popular candidate with many Habs fans, but he's another guy I don't feel is ready.  His work with reasonably strong - but not top on paper - teams in Quebec in the QMJHL has been impressive, but he has shown few signs of tempering my biggest concerns with me.  Roy is a hot-head and a guy who likes to have the spotlight on himself, which may not go over well with Geoff Molson and the rest of the Canadiens organization.  Would he get along with his coaches and the rest of the staff?  Would he be too reckless in wheeling and dealing?  You could say that these qualities are also possessed by Brian Burke, and you wouldn't be wrong, so I don't think they'll keep Roy out of the big show for long, but I also don't think the Montreal market is right for him at this time.  At the same time, he's a guy who knows well what the Canadiens are all about, and I have no doubt he'd be highly motivated to do whatever it takes to build a winning club in this city.

7) Claude Loiselle

Loiselle now has experience as an Assistant GM with two organizations (Tampa Bay and Toronto) and may be ready to move into the top job somewhere.  More than just a former NHL'er, Loiselle earned his Law degree from McGill University following his playing career, so he certainly has management credentials.  He is an informatician and CBA expert who is also a former scout, meaning he shows promise and ability to handle every responsibility thrust upon a General Manager, but of course lacks the experience of ever actually being at the helm of a club function.  As a player, Loiselle was a gritty, hard-nosed third or fourth line type, and this kind of identity might be what the Habs nees to add toughness throughout their roster.  But is Toronto ready to let him walk from his current post?

6) Pierre McGuire

Everyone has an opinion on McGuire, whether positive or negative.  The provocative hockey analyst was a part of the Pittsburgh Penguin Stanley Cup teams in the early 1990s as a Scout and Assistant Coach.  He also served as Assistant Coach and Assistant GM with the Hartford Whalers, briefly taking over the Head Coaching role as well.  Finally, he worked with the Ottawa Senators during their first few years of existence, but has been out of an NHL executive role since 1996, which many point to as a main reason not to hire him.  There is no doubt that McGuire lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps all aspects of the game of hockey.  He watches and discusses it non-stop, from the U.S. College level right up to teams across the NHL.  He is well-connected, and a thick contact book can help to take a team a long way.  People criticize his loud, over-the-top, man-crush-like method of calling hockey games, but if he were to be hired as a GM, there is no doubt he would tone it down; his television act is just that.  He has been interviewed and passed over for many jobs over the years, and might be a better candidate as an assistant within a management team (if he were willing to leave television for such a role), but it would be an interesting experiment to see if his passion for both hockey and the city of Montreal could translate to success.  That he is a friend of Geoff Molson's won't hurt his case.

5) Dave Nonis

Is Dave Nonis willing to leave Brian Burke's side in Toronto?  If so, he is a top candidate for any GM opening this summer.  Nonis worked with Burke for 6 years in Vancouver (the management team which orchestrated the move to grab both Sedins) before taking over the GM reigns from him in 2004, after which he architected the trade for Roberto Luongo.  He later joined Burke again in Anaheim a year after their Stanley Cup conquest, and then in Toronto, where he currently serves as Senior VP and Director of Hockey Operations.  Nonis is one of the few quality and truly well-experienced candidates who could be available to Geoff Molson, so it would surprise me if the Canadiens didn't at least request permission to speak with him.

4) Pat Brisson

Brisson, a native Montrealer, is a highly influential player agent who counts Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, and the Sedin brothers amongst his clients.  Certainly, education and negotiation ability are some of his stronger points, while a lack of NHL management experience is his fault, though it hasn't stopped his name from popping up in GM discussions in the past.  The agent-to-General Manager career path isn't unheard of, however, with Mike Gillis in Vancouver being a prime example.  Is Brisson interested in such a career switch for likely even or less money and far more media attention?  If so, as someone without a long management track record, the team will need to carefully assess his assessment and other abilities.

3) Paul Fenton

Fenton, a former NHL forward, serves as Assistant General Manager with the Nashville Predators, a team that - year after year - finds a way to stock its roster with underappreciated and underrated talent, qualifying for the post-season with a typically well below-average payroll.  The role is really the only one he has head in the realm of NHL front offices, but he has gotten noticed as a big factor in the team's success, meaning whether or not its the Canadiens, he is sure to get a look for some top jobs in the near future.  Fenton has a strike against him in that he doesn't speak French, but he should be known well to those who remain in the Canadiens front office from Montreal's frequent dealings with the Predators both this season and in the past.

2) Marc Bergevin

If French will be a major pre-requisite in this summer's GM hunt, then Bergevin would be my top candidate. The native Montrealer never played for the Canadiens during his nearly 20 year professional career as a defenseman, but has worked in the Chicago Blackhawks organization since his retirement, contributing to the organization's revival and Stanley Cup championship in 2010.  He started as a Pro Scout, then moved to Assistant Coach, and Director of Player Development, before becoming Assistant General Manager last summer.  He is admired by his peers, and said to have a strong hockey network.  Another big point in his favour is that he is part of a group that has found creative ways to shed a team of troublesome contracts in Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell without having to make sacrifices.  If he his hired, Scott Gomez and Tomas Kaberle might be wise to start packing their bags.

1) Jim Nill

Nill has been one of Ken Holland's right hand men in the Detroit organization for the team's last four Stanley Cup conquests (1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008).  The former Ottawa Senators scout has served as Director of Amateur Scouting and then as Assistant General Manager with the Red Wings in the city where he finished his NHL playing career.  With such a resume and given his club's successes (especially at the draft table with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and others), the obvious question is why Nill hasn't been picked up by another organization with a vacancy.  The answer is that it has been his personal choice to stay in Detroit, which along with the language issue, is another potential roadblock to him taking over the Canadiens.  Further, if he has chosen to remain out of the spotlight playing second fiddle in Detroit all this time, would he really consider a move to a market like Montreal?  As Habs fans, let's hope so.

Of course, along with the good, the Canadiens also have the potential to make a big mistake this summer.  Here is a short list of a few names I desperately hope the team avoids.

1) Vincent Damphousse

Damphousse's name has been thrown around a lot lately, and while he is a big Canadiens supporter and has experience working with the NHLPA, he is completely fresh to the "game" of managing a hockey team at any major level.  I wouldn't be opposed to giving him a job somewhere in the organization to get his feet wet, but starting him out at the top seems a little excessive.

2) Craig Button

TSN analyst Craig Button was once Director of Scouting and Player Personnel in the Minnesota North Stars / Dallas Stars organization, working with Bob Gainey among others.  He had his hand in the drafting of many star (no pun intended) players including Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Derian Hatcher, and Jere Lehtinen.  He later served as GM of the Calgary Flames, making the notorious move of allowing Martin St. Louis to walk from the club.  Still, he helped piece together the 2003-04 team that made it to the Cup finals, and later served as a scout for the Maple Leafs.  Button's commentary on TSN since his executive career has ended has been laughable at best.  He shows little talent in assessing prospects or evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of NHL clubs, being called out on numerous occasions.  His days in management seem over.

3) Mike Milbury

I don't think this one needs an explanation.  Milbury has been regarded as one of the worst GMs of all time. He has been out of a GM'ing job since 2006 and let's hope it stays that way (unless the Leafs or Bruins want to give him a call).

4) Larry Carriere

A controversial one perhaps, as Carriere was not sent packing along with Gauthier and Gainey, remaining in place as an interim General Manager.  It seems the Canadiens are set to look outside the organization for their new GM, but I suspect Molson will give his friend Carriere an audition for the post.  Carriere has been with the organization since July 2010, serving as Assistant GM and spending some time behind the bench as an Assistant Coach this year.  Prior to this, he served as a Scout, Director of Player Evaluation, and then Assistant General Manager with the Buffalo Sabres, and a Pro Scout with the Washington Capitals.  He has experience in all vital areas, but I think the philosophy shift the organization needs has to come from elsewhere; Carriere, at this point, is too closely linked to the old coaching and management regime (similarly, we can all pray that Jacques Martin isn't considered for the job).  I'm not opposed to him remaining with the organization, but not as GM.

5) Allan Walsh

Another agent with the potential to become a GM in the future, Walsh is a native Montrealer who has gained attention and respect in the agent community with his innovative tactics.  He was the first agent to join Twitter and to use it to applaud his clients' successes and support their causes.  This made him a controversial figure in Montreal some two years back, since he would hype client Jaroslav Halak's performances while taking veiled shots at Carey Price.  He brings to the table the kind of outside-the-box thinking the organization might seek, but he is quite short on experience and his outspoken nature might not go over well with some.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Prospect Playoff Update

Apologies to all this site's readers (to whom I'm personally very grateful) for a slow week lacking content. As I Tweeted a couple of times, I was off in the remote region of the Canary Islands for the past 7 days, limiting my computer access.

Soo let's get started! After mentioning today's biggest news of the firing of Pierre Gauthier earlier, the other latest bit is the strong performance of some young Canadiens prospects in their respective post-seasons.


Patrick Holland and the top-seeded Tri-City Americans swept their opening round against the Everret Silvertips. Holland ranks fourth on the Americans in scoring with a goal and 3 assists, having an incredible 22-game point streak snapped in the third game after he was ejected in the first period for a clipping incident. The match penalty meant he missed the final matchup of the series as well.

Darren Dietz's Saskatoon Blades - an underdog club - were unfortunately swept in the opening round. In 3 games, the blueliner had one assist and finished a -1, a disappointing end to a phenomenal year.

Brendan Gallagher and the Vancouver Giants are locked in quite a battle, with their series against the Spokane Chiefs knotted at 2 games a piece. Gallagher picked up right where he left off in the regular season, notching 4 goals and 9 points over the first 4 games.


Jarred Tinordi's London Knights are up 3 games to none on the Windsor Spitfires with a chance to close it out tonight. Tinordi is even, with no points and 7 penalty minutes thus far.


Nathan Beaulieu's first place Saint John Sea Dogs swept their opener against Cape Breton, with all four games ending in blowouts. Beaulieu scored 2 goals and added 3 assists while finishing a +9. The Sea Dogs will face surprising Baie-Comeau in the second round.

The Shawinigan Cataractes also swept their first round series. Captain Michael Bournival was somewhat quiet with "just" a goal and 4 helpers to his name, but defenseman Morgan Ellis was on fire with 2 goals and 5 assists (tied for team lead in points).

Olivier Archambault's Drummondville Voltigeurs find themselves down 3 games to none to Quebec. Archambault has 2 assists but is a -4. On the other side, Mikhail Grigorenko is tied for his team's lead with 7 points in games.


A disappointing end to the season for Mac Bennett and Greg Pateryn with the University of Michigan, as their year ended with an upset by Union who has since qualified for the Frozen Four. Pateryn completed his NCAA eligibility and was signed to a 2-year deal by the Canadiens, while Bennett can return to school for another season (a likely scenario given the number of new young bodies already joining the pro organization this summer).

Similarly, after beating Western Michigan, Danny Kristo and Mark MacMillan's University of North Dakota was beaten by Minnesota, failing to reach the Final Four this time around. After an assist in the round of 16, Kristo scored a goal in his final game of the season as well, ending a strong season. Kristo could return to college for one more season, but I am hopeful the Canadiens get him under contract to join the Hamilton Bulldogs in the Fall. After an assist against Western Michigan extended freshman MacMillan's scoring streak to 7 games, he was held off the scoresheet in the season finale. He'll look to better his offensive numbers in a bigger role with the Fighting Sioux next season.

That's where they stand as of now, with seemingly a decent shot of having all of Tinordi, Holland, Beaulieu, Ellis, and Bournival participate in this year's Memorial Cup, which could be a great experience for them (and an exciting time for Habs fans). To keep up to date on everything, now that we're back online, keep your eyes tuned to this very site!

Canadiens Fire Pierre Gauthier

In a move that no one - and by "no one," I actually mean everyone - saw coming, the Montreal Canadiens today announced the firing of General Manager Pierre Gauthier.

The other parts of the news are that Serge Savard has been appointed an advisor for the selection process of finding Gauthier's replacement - a strong move given that for all of Geoff Molson's passion and concern, he isn't truly a hockey guy. The official appointment of Savard, long speculated about by many, indicates that along with Gauthier, Bob Gainey's time of influence on the organization is also be at an end. Gainey occupied the role of special advisor to Gauthier since he stepped down as GM. Finally, the temporary Larry Carriere behind the bench experiment has come to a close, as he returns to his role as Assistant GM, taking on hockey operations (e.g. call-ups) duties until a new GM is in place.

Why was it right to fire Pierre Gauthier? I think anyone who has read this site has seen my enumerate reasons on many an occasion. Mismanagement of assets, a lack of back-up plans that forced the team to give up 2nd round picks year after year, this season's inexcusable inexperienced defense, the Scott Gomez trade likely having been one of the worst trades in the last decade or more, this season's Tomas Kaberle deal saddling the club with another big contract, the lack of class with which Gauthier handled some issues, and so much more. Gauthier's "plan," if there really was one big picture, failed. He tried to adapt on the fly, to bring in more size, to fix holes, to acquire future assets... but it was too little too late, and it was certainly time for him to go.

Why now? Well it didn't make sense to rush the process and get Gauthier out the door prior to the trade deadline, since it was important to have a hockey person in place to manage that busy time. The Canadiens need to search high and low to find the best possible replacement, and there are far fewer candidates available mid-season than during the summer. We'll go over candidates for the new GM in the coming days, but today Geoff Molson indicated winning and finding the best person for the job are top priorities (though language is also important), while Serge Savard indicated that - without doubt - the new GM will be capable of speaking French. Why not wait till season's end? At this point, it makes little difference. With Greg Pateryn signed, there are no upcoming close deadline for the Canadiens from a player management perspective, so the search is completely free to get underway.

More to come, now that we're back up and live on Dan's Daily Dose - Your Canadiens!

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Over the past few seasons, it seemed the Montreal Canadiens offensive depth had evolved to a point where the team could - with some degree of success - roll three scoring-oriented offensive units. This represented a transition from the traditional model of two scoring lines, a defensive line, and an energy trio. It seemed that after the dark era of the early 2000s, the Habs now had sufficient skill to threaten opposing teams with a diversified attack.

Having players who otherwise perhaps could have been in a top 6, like Sergei Kostitsyn, Andrei Kostitsyn, Robert Lang, Guillaume Latendresse, or Matt D'Agostini, provide additional offensive support from a third line helped to alleviate the problems the team's "stars" over the years have seemed to encounter with scoring slumps.

Of course, injuries have a sizeable part in it, but flash forward to the Canadiens third line last night against the Buffalo Sabres:

Louis Leblanc - Ryan White - Mike Blunden

No offense intended to any of these three players, all of whom could help a National Hockey League team win games, but they are far from the type who "should otherwise be in a top 6" on any given team. Some would argue that both Blunden and White might be scratches on any other team, while Leblanc may someday have top 6 potential but is still at an early point in his career.

Again, yes injuries have something to do with it: add back Brian Gionta and Travis Moen to the line-up, and you might be looking at a line of

Travis Moen - Lars Eller - Louis Leblanc

Better, but still seemingly lacking. I love Moen, but in a normal year, he isn't a goal-scoring threat. And Eller is still developing, but if his finish can't be improved, he's stuck in a no man's land of not quite a defensive player and not quite offensive enough either.

Realistically, it's a problem the team needs to address. The above line means you're playing Rene Bourque in the top 6. Bourque is a guy who has shown few signs of offensive life in Montreal, and should be considered a downgrade (though for less money as well) on Andrei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn is a player who started the year on that third unit with Eller, so it is evident the caliber of the team has slipped in the wrong direction.

This may be normal in a year of tanking/selling, even though the team wasn't successful in finding buyers for too much of its yard sale scrap. The issue is that many hope/expect this to be simply an off-year and for the Canadiens to bounce back next season, which means problems in the roster need to be addressed pronto. So where is the help going to come from?

The Habs don't lack in the third line department. The problem is much the opposite: too many players who are no more than third liners on an ideal team, and not enough who should be playing above that. David Desharnais has had an unbelievable year, but there is no guarantee he will continue to produce at a top 6 level. Bourque and Eller's inconsistencies mean they aren't dependable top 6 contributors. Was Brian Gionta's season an outlier, or has his production declined below that of a first or second line winger? It doesn't seem like any of Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival, Danny Kristo, Louis Leblanc, or Aaron Palushaj would be able to immediately jump into a starring role, though any of the first four may someday be top 6-able. And what of Scott Gomez (if he returns)? Is he even a third liner? Travis Moen, Ryan White, and Mike Blunden are likely ideal fourth liners on a stacked team, even if Moen is an acceptable player to slot higher.

So lots of third liners to battle it out for just three spots, no problem there. And even if there weren't, these third line types are quite often available at the expense of a draft pick or as a free agent signing. This article may be misleading in that sense; the problem isn't improving the third line by bringing in "better" third liners. The goal needs to be to improve the third line by bringing in better first and second line talent to have other first and second line caliber players dropped down to the third line. That is how you improve a hockey team, and something that hasn't been done often in Montreal, apart from the great signing of Erik Cole last summer to allow Andrei Kostitsyn to slide down. This quality depth is critical in case of injury, slump, or simply to allow for chemistry experiments.

The availability of such players is where the problem lies. The Canadiens dealt away two top 6 players this season in Mike Cammalleri and Kostitsyn while not receiving any back. Yes, the team's 5 second round draft picks over the next two Junes will help, but it won't help in 2012-13. The UFA market doesn't hold many answers. Teemu Selanne and Ryan Smyth are unlikely to leave their current homes. Even if only for political reasons, the odds of Shane Doan joining the Canadiens are nil. At their current career development stages, none of Alexander Semin, Dustin Penner, Brad Boyes, Jarret Stoll, Oli Jokinen, or Jiri Hudler cry, "Play me in your top 6!" That leaves buyers with few options, and thus players like Zach Parise and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau are sure to be able to pick from top dollar offers from many possible suitors. For this summer, the supply isn't there.

This shows how critical finishing the year on a "low note" is. The Habs desperately need a player with star potential in June, and even if there is no guarantee a Mikhail Grigorenko or Alex Galchenyuk would have an instant impact (or even immediately make the NHL roster), they would fall in line with a strategy of adding to the top rather than stuffing the bottom of the line-up. The solution is letting talent trickle down through the forward ranks rather than supplementing average forwards with more Radek Bonks, Bryan Smonlinskis, Glen Metropolits, and Dominic Moores. As much as shedding the deals of Tomas Kaberle and Scott Gomez would be nice, it isn't even about cap space at this point. Free dollars don't automatically equate to top notch talent, and there is no abundance of first liners available to be had.

So what's the move, Habs fans? We can only hope that the Canadiens ownership trust understands a new direction is necessary, and thus the Pierre Gauthier regime comes to a close. Pick a new GM - one who will see that the present situation calls for aggressive moves to be resolved; not simply incremental third line upgrades. Let him choose a coach with whom he agrees on a vision for the future, and staff the team accordingly. It's going to take sacrifice; if the team wants to turn it around quickly by bringing in top players, given the barren UFA market, the Canadiens will have to give to get. They may not end up holding on to all 5 of those second round selections, and a Danny Kristo or Michael Bournival might be moved before his prime, but to shake up the culture of the Habs organization quickly, something drastic will need to happen. If we want to avoid another painful season like this one, it will soon be time for serious action.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Your Canadiens for March 21, 2012

As usual following a couple of days where I was unable to post, here's a recap of the latest buzz from the Habs' realm.

- The Race for the Bottom Heats Up

Your Montreal Canadiens have been a little too hot as of late, collecting points in each of their last 6 games (3-0-3). Fortunately, some of the teams around them have won a few games as well, and so the Habs haven't gained much ground on the teams ahead. Montreal remains 28th overall in the league, but let's hope some losses are to follow, as you can see in the graphic below that there is quite a logjam going all the way up to 22nd position. Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota are the teams falling the quickest, so it is important to hope they pick up a few points along the way as well.

As for the prizes for the teams that fail hardest, Nail Yakupov was limited to only 42 games this season between the World Juniors and injuries, but still scored 69 points, improving his points-per-game average from 1.55 last season to 1.64. Mikhail Grigorenko finished 8th in QMJHL scoring as a CHL rookie (and 5th in goals with 40), second on his team with 85 points in 59 games. Alex Galchenyuk played only the final two games of the regular season for Sarnia, held off the scoresheet in each. Certainly there will be the eyes of many scouts on him entering the playoffs.

- Bulldogs Sample Three College Players

The Hamilton Bulldogs shuffled up their lineup for the stretch run, releasing two forwards - Joey Haddad and Eric Lampe - from tryout contracts, and signing three others to similar agreements.

Haddad, 23, had interesting size at 6'2", 200 lbs, but managed only a single goal in his 11 games with Hamilton. Lampe, 25, scored two over 13 games.

The three new bodies are Travis Novak, 23, Ryan Flanigan, 23, and Jesse Todd, 25, about whom you can read more in the Bulldogs' official release HERE. None are considered top prospects, so they shouldn't be looked at as much more than roster plugs filling in for injured players in Montreal and Hamilton, but it is still a chance for them to impress and possibly earn an AHL deal for next season if the Canadiens decide more depth is necessary. Flanigan and Novak made their debuts last night, with neither recording a point but the former leading all Dogs' players with 4 shots on goal.

- Injury Updates

When Tomas Kaberle first missed a game last week, it was blamed on the birth of his child. Thus, people became a little skeptical when he didn't quickly re-join the team in the days that followed, with the Habs eventually citing an upper body injury for his absence. Kaberle is one of 6 players to not join the team on their trip to Buffalo for this evening's game.

Raphael Diaz is not expected to return this season. The 26-year old rookie is on schedule in his rehab, but is likely to run out of games remaining before he reaches 100%. Diaz impressed beyond expectations this season, and it will be interesting to see how the Canadiens decide to shape their defense in preparing for next season and where the Swiss native will fit in. He is a capable bottom-pairing player, able to take a shift on a second powerplay unit. If he isn't to play another game this year, his 16 points in 59 games are nothing to scoff at as a starting point.

Similarly, captain Brian Gionta continues to work to get back, but isn't expected to be at 100% before May, meaning his disappointing and frustrating season is at a close. Gionta's 31 games are the fewest he has ever played in an NHL season, while his 15 points are the fewest since his rookie year (11 points in 33 games in 2001-02). He is another case where the Habs' brass will have to consider how he fits into the plan moving forward.

Mathieu Darche continues to skate, though is also not in Buffalo. Travis Moen is expected to resume skating today. A return for either is possible, perhaps even likely for Darche, and with both pending unrestricted free agents this summer, decisions will need to be taken in their cases relatively soon.

Scott Gomez is unlikely to return this season given he remains off-ice with concussion issues. It has been a terribly turbulent season for Gomez who, in addition to his lack of production, has been in and out of the lineup with various different ailments.

- Prospect Report

Joonas Nattinen paced the Hamilton Bulldogs to a 3-1 win yesterday with a goal and an assist. The 21-year old AHL rookie has had a very streaky season, but has scored 7 of his 9 goals on the season in the past 15 games, which hints at a good learning curve and some remaining potential to develop further next year.

CHL playoffs get underway this weekend, which means a wrap on some impressive regular seasons for Canadiens' prospects. With a goal in his final game, Patrick Holland enters the post-seaosn riding a 20-game point streak. He finished his WHL season with 25 goals, 84 assists, and 109 points in 72 games, ranking 6th in league scoring. His Tri-City Americans finished 1st in the Western Conference, meaning a first round matchup against the Everett Silvertips will begin in the coming days.

Brendan Gallagher's Vancouver Giants earned home ice for the first round (also in the WHL's Western Conference) and will face the Spokane Chiefs in the 4th-5th seed matchup. Gallagher finished the season with 41 goals, unable to match last year's 44, but did play 12 fewer games. He hopes for a longer playoff run this season after injury limited his participation to just 4 games last year (in which he still contributed 2 goals).

Finally in the WHL, Darren Dietz and the Saskatoon Blades finished 5th in the East, meaning they will play the Medicine Hat Tigers. Despite being known perhaps more for his rough style of play, Dietz finished 2nd in points amongst Saskatoon defensemen, with 44 points in 72 games.

Over in the OHL, Jarred Tinordi's London Knights finished as the league's top seed, drawing a first round matchup with the Windsor Spitfires. Held off the scoresheet in 6 games last year, Tinordi is still seeking his first OHL playoff point.

In the QMJHL, the two most important clubs for Habs fans are the first and second seeds, and with second seed Shawinigan already assured a Memorial Cup berth as the host, Canadiens fans can hope neither is upset on route to the finals. Nathan Beaulieu's Saint John Sea Dogs won the regular season championship, with Beaulieu finishing 5th on the team in scoring and 12 points ahead of the second most productive d-man. Saint John draws 16th seed Cape Breton in the opener in what should not be a fair fight.

Shawinigan captain Michael Bournival finished the year fourth on his team in scoring due to missed time during the WJC and with injury, but had the top points-per-game average with 56 in 41. Teammate Morgan Ellis was a point-per-game player after being acquired by the Cataractes, ending the year matching Beaulieu with 52 points, the pair tying for 5th in league scoring amongst defensemen. Shawinigan will play the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the first round.

In the NCAA, after being held pointless in North Dakota's opening round 2-game sweep of Bemidji State, Danny Kristo scored a goal and 2 assists over a three game set that saw the Fighting Sioux crowned WCHA Final Five Champions. As such, they earned the top seed for this weekend's NCAA West Regionals (#4 nationally) where they will open against Western Michigan. Kristo's numbers are impressive, but he was outshone by rookie teammate and fellow Hab prospect Mark MacMillan, who is currently on a 6-game point streak over which he has accumulated 3 goals and 7 assists.

Greg Pateryn and Mac Bennett's Michigan Wolverines are the top seed in the Midwest Regional meaning they will play Cornell. Michigan was kind enough to post a link to this chart to show how the final 16 schedule plays out:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

No Laptop Access Monday

I will be in Valencia, Spain on Monday and Tuesday of this week, without laptop access, meaning no new content. I should have a post up later in the day on Tuesday. I apologize for the recent disruptions caused by school and travel schedules. Normalcy will resume soon enough!


Friday, March 16, 2012

Habs Top 10 Prospects - March 2012

With the regular seasons of most Montreal Canadiens prospects either complete or nearly so, it's time to put together an updated ranking of where those in the system stand.

The Top 10 list below was created including only players who have yet to play a game in the NHL. That disqualifies some young players like Louis Leblanc, Blake Geoffrion, Aaron Palushaj, Andreas Engqvist, and Brendon Nash who may have otherwise made the list.

Something still missing from the list is bonafide starpower (at least at the forward position), which is re-emphasizes the need for a high selection this June to draft a big scorer.

To set the stage, here's the list last time I posted one back in July '11:

Trending downwards:
There was expectation that Alexander Avtsin would take a big step forward in his second season in North America, but unfortunately the opposite occurred, not even able to replicate last year's 20 AHL points. Avtsin remains under contract, but it wouldn't entirely surprise me to see him loaned to a KHL team for next year. Alain Berger was included on July's list as a wildcard, and his footspeed has meant a difficult adaptation to the AHL level despite a strong rookie camp back in September.

And now for the good news...

Top 10 Hab Prospects Yet to Play in the NHL

HM: Mac Bennett, D - Michigan Wolverines - NCAA
Bennett was number 5 on the previous version of this lost, but to be fair, his fall is really no fault of his own. The 5'11" American defender has set career highs in goals (4), assists (16), points (20), and games played (38), so nothing more could really be asked of him, but he falls in the depth chart because of some outstanding seasons by other members of this list. Bennett has completed two seasons in Michigan, so he is likely to return there taking on an even bigger role next season given the number of players already slated to turn pro and join the Hamilton Bulldogs this summer.

10) Steve Quailer, RW - Northeastern University - NCAA
After missing all of 2009-10 due to injury, Quailer had a disappointing 2010-11, unable to match the production of his rookie year. The 6'4", 200 lbs winger has turned it up a notch this season, flirting with the point-per-game mark throughout the year (currently at 25 points in 26 games). He is a good skater for such a big body, but isn't seen as a defensive forward, meaning he should be a boom-or-bust top 6 winger. Because of the missed season, despite the fact that he'll turn 23 this summer, he still has one year of NCAA eligibility, so the Canadiens might opt to leave him at the collegiate ranks to continue developing.

9) Greg Pateryn, D - Michigan Wolverines - NCAA
Pateryn holds steady at #9 on the list with a season that has regularly earned him his coach's praise. As a college senior, he has developed his all-around game, using his 6'3", 214 lbs frame to dish out big hits and shutdown opposing forwards on a pairing with the more offensive-oriented Mac Bennett. The Canadiens need to sign him once his season is up, but it seems like a no-brainer move and he should be an interesting player to watch as a 22-year old at the AHL level next year.

8) Patrick Holland, RW - Tri-City Americans - WHL
In a vacuum, Holland's numbers this season are certainly eye-catching. He has bested his production of last season by more than 50%, recording 24-goals and 83 assists for 107 points in 70 games. He became the first WHL player since Todd Robinson in 1996-97 to top the 80-assist mark in a single season. Are things too good to be true in the 6'0", 175 lbs winger's case? Unfortunately, there may be a catch. Though Holland is presently riding a ridiculous 18-game point streak over which he has collected 4 goals and 33 assists, he remains only third on his team in scoring, behind both of his linemates, Adam Hughesman and league leader Brendan Shinnimin. In his last two outings, for example, Holland finished a team worst -4 in a 5-4 loss despite recording 2 assists, and collected only one helper in a 5-3 win despite his linemates scoring 3 and 4 points respectively. Of course Holland's production is nothing to scoff at and he deserves congratulations on a great season, but let's wait to see how he handles himself with the Bulldogs next year before proclaiming him an up-and-coming star.

7) Darren Dietz, D - Saskatoon Blades - WHL
The 6'1", 195 lbs defender is looking like an absolute steal as a 5th round selection last June. Dietz was seen as a solid two-way d-man, able to drop the gloves and dish out some nice hits, while also never afraid to jump into the rush. He took his offensive game to another level this season, setting career highs in goals (15), assists (27), and points (42, compared to 27 last year). There is no rush with Dietz who will return for another season in Saskatoon next year (followed by at least one or more in Hamilton), but a strong rookie camp last Fall followed by a good season this year are encouraging signs.

6) Morgan Ellis, D - Shawinigan Cataractes - QJMHL
Ellis has been a revelation for many this year, stepping up in a big way in his final CHL season. Ellis was the captain of the QMJHL bottom-feeding Cape-Breton Screaming Eagles, but was dealt this season to the Memorial Cup hosting Shawinigan Cataractes. Since the deal, the 6'2", 200 lbs d-man has been a point-per-game player, improving to 15 goals and 36 assists for 51 points in 59 games on the season. Ellis is a strong two-way player, with a big frame that he uses to play a physical shutdown role on a top pairing with top prospect Brandon Gormley. Ellis recently signed with the Canadiens and will be a Hamilton Bulldog in the Fall.

5) Danny Kristo, RW - University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux - NCAA
Is this the summer the Canadiens finally get the long-awaited
Danny Kristo under contract? We can only hope so, as a fourth season in university is not likely the best path for his development. Talk of off-ice distraction and a seriously scary bout with frostbite derailed the 5'11", 180 lbs winger's 2010-11 season, but he has rebounded in a nice way, topping the point-per-game plateau for the first time in his NCAA career, with 17 goals, 23 assists, and 40 points (each a career high) in 37 games. If the Habs manage to get him under contract once North Dakota's season is done, he may hit the AHL as one of the more NHL-ready prospects given he'll be 22, but fans should remain patient since he'll still need time to adjust to a longer, tougher schedule against bigger and more physical competition. Definitely has top 6 upside, though.

4) Michael Bournival, C - Shawinigan Cataractes - QMJHL
Bournival struggled a bit at this year's WJC due to bad timing with recovering from injury. Though March has been his most difficult month of the season, with just 2 goals and 1 assist in 5 games, the Cataractes' captain has put together an impressive year with 29 goals and 54 points in only 40 games (improving his PPG average from 1.14 last year to 1.35). Bournival is quite average-sized at 6'0", 187 lbs and there are questions about his offensive upside, but he is a very safe prospect, sound defensively and playing a strong cycle game, meaning that even if he doesn't pan out as a top 6 guy, he should have a long career on a third or fourth line.

3) Brendan Gallagher, RW - Vancouver Giants - WHL
Habs fans who don't follow prospects too closely were quickly introduced to Gallagher at last Fall's training camp, where he very nearly earned an audition with the big club, and then reacquainted with him at the World Juniors, where he was among Team Canada's best forwards. The knock on Gallagher, as all are aware, is his size, at 5'8" and 170 lbs. Can a team whose top 6
centers are David Desharnais (5'7", 177 lbs) and Tomas Plekanec (5'11", 198 lbs) plus already has Brian Gionta (5'7", 173 lbs) as a top 6 winger support another miniature-sized scorer? It isn't inconceivable that Gionta is dealt at some point to create a better spot for the young Gallagher, who is likely to start the season with the Bulldogs, unless he severely outplays Louis Leblanc for a third line job in camp and depending on what other moves are made this summer. Like Bournival, Gallagher is also having his slumpiest month of the season, with just 2 goals and 3 assists in 7 games, but he has put together a third consecutive 40-goal WHL campaign, while improving his PPG average from 1.38 to 1.43 (76 in 53 GP). Everyone will be watching closely to see if he can adapt his game to the American League level, with questions surrounding the fact that he plays a hard-nosed, physical, crash-the-net style. Normally this would be a big positive, but at a higher level, given his small frame, if he doesn't change, the punishment he will take may take a toll on his small body quickly.

2) Nathan Beaulieu, D - Saint John Sea Dogs - QMJHL
Though he has yet to be signed, the Canadiens' first round pick last June is eligible to make the leap to the AHL next year already as a late birthday (turning 20 in December). And it would seem that he has nothing left to prove at the junior level, one of only three blueliners at or near the point-per-game level (51 points in 52 games) and tied for fourth overall in Q d-man scoring despite having played far fewer games than everyone above him. Beaulieu showed off his high-risk high-reward game at the WJC, looking impressive in the offensive zone but not earning coach Don Hay's trust defensively. With Saint John, he has shown improvement in his all-around two-way game, and if he adds some muscle to his 6'3", 191 lbs frame, should have no problem handling bigger competition at the next level.

1) Jarred Tinordi, D - London Knights - OHL
There is no guarantee as to who between Tinordi and Beaulieu will end up having the better career, but for his physical readiness and 6'7", 212 lbs frame, I'll hand Tinordi the #1 spot for now. Fortunately, the Canadiens don't have to choose, with two promising youngsters who look like they can play in the team's top 4 on D for years to come. Tinordi modestly bested last season's offensive outputs, scoring 2 goals (up from 1) and 14 assists (up from 13) in 17 fewer games, but more importantly asserted himself as a true leader on and off the ice, being named captain of the OHL's prestigious London Knights. Tinordi plays close to 30 minutes on many nights and is a physical force, taking the body and dropping the gloves with some regularity. He may not bring Zdeno Chara's booming slapshot to the table, but he also brings many elements that a softer Hal Gill never has and thus after turning pro this coming Fall, it may not be long before Hab fans get their first peek at him in a CH jersey.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Playing with Fire

The best way I can think of to describe the play of your Montreal Canadiens since Andrei Markov's return to the line-up on Saturday night is most definitely "Playing with Fire."

On one hand, this describes the hot streak they've been on. 2-0-1 in the Markov 2k12 era, and 3-0-1 in the last four if you include the win over Edmonton. The last 3 games have been against 2 playoff teams and one just on the outside scrambling to climb in. Encouraging signs that the team - led by its top offensive players this year in Max Pacioretty, Erik Cole, and David Desharnais - still knows how to win and may be able to do it more consistently next season. After a very strong first game, Markov himself has shown that he still has a bit of rust to shake off, but also that his career is far from done. Playing these remaining games down the stretch will give him a great idea of where he needs to be at next season to shape his summer training regimen. Last night's game even brought us this little gem:

On the other hand, this stretch of collecting points has dangerously jeopardized the tanking race for the bottom the club is engaged in, and if the team doesn't stop "Playing with Fire" soon, they will get burned for the upcoming entry draft. Here's what it looks like as of today:

I don't mean to push the panic button; as of yet, nothing has changed. The Canadiens remain 28th overall, lining them up for the 3rd overall selection pre-draft lottery. But where they once had a 5-point buffer on the next-worst team in the East, there is now a logjam of clubs ready to be caught with another win or two (note the column to the right of the highlighted points column is non-shootout wins, which is the first tiebreaker after points).

Even with all of these teams having 11-12 games remaining, I don't expect for the Canadiens to be able to fall any lower. They had an opportunity with their game against the Oilers last week, but the teams are moving in opposite directions. Still, understanding that even if they were to run the table with an 11-0-0 record in their remaining games, the Canadiens would be exceptionally unlikely to qualify for the post-season, it is of dire importance that they be mired in another slump as quickly as possible.

This year's draft lacks in top-end pure offensive talent in the top 10, filled instead with many promising blueliners, so being in a position to draft either Mikhail Grigorenko or Alex Galchenyuk appears to be of prime importance. Grigorenko is very likely to go top 3, while Galchenyuk could/should be expected to go top 5 or 6. To increase their chances of landing such a big, offensive forward, the Habs need to finish as low as possible. Galchenyuk, for the record, made his season debut, returning from ACL surgery, last night. It was an unceremonious one, however, with Sarnia losing 7-1, and Galchenyuk finishing with no points and a -3 rating. It remains a big positive, though, that the Canadiens will be able to scout him closely here on out.

There are two MUST losses remaining on the calendar: this Saturday, March 17th, against the New York Islanders, and April 5th against the Carolina Hurricanes. Start Peter Budaj, say Erik Cole needs a therapy day, give Petteri Nokelainen and Josh Gorges shootout opportunities, do whatever you must. I'm not suggesting purposely throwing a game or telling players to mail it in, but we're in a critical enough of a situation that if we can take any reasonable excuse to gain some ground, then we must. Let's hope the Leafs make a late-season charge towards 10th in the East so that we don't need to cheer for the Canadiens to drop their final regular season game against them on April 7th.

As Habs fans, we've been put through a lot this season. Let's hope the Canadiens don't find yet another way to torture us by throwing away the chance to add a superstar piece of a future Stanley Cup-contending team.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Memory Monday: Saku Koivu

[Memory Monday Archives]

A throwback to our Memory Monday series of last summer (which will pick back up this off-season), as today we honour former Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu who will play his 1,000th NHL game tonight with the Anaheim Ducks.

I grew up watching Koivu enter the league and establish himself, and from day one he was my favourite Hab. My favourite Canadiens-related moment to date remains being at the Bell Centre for the game that the determined little Finn returned from cancer. Easily the most emotional motivation I've been a part of, earning it a spot on the top 10 Saku Koivu moment videos list below. Congratulations Saku, a well-deserved milestone. In my heart, you're a Hab for life.

10) First NHL Goal
In his 999 games, Saku Koivu has scored 236 goals. Here was number one.

9) Pour Toujours Les Canadiens
Koivu played a staring role in the film created for the Canadiens Centennial, Pour Tourjours Les Canadiens.

8) 2004 World Cup of Hockey
A non-Habs moment, but I had to somehow include how dominant of an international player Koivu has been, partnering with Teemu Selanne on the global scene throughout his career. This goal was the winner in the semi-finals, allowing Finland to eliminate Team USA.

7) Tim Thomas Fail
Admittedly this clip is more popular for Thomas tripping on the puck than Koivu's goal, but I can never watch the Habs defeat the Bruins too many times.

6) Playoff Marker

Koivu was always a clutch playoff performer, and this was one of his bigger tallies, giving Montreal a 4-3 lead (and being the game winner) after they trailed a game 3-1 to the Bruins.

5) The Feisty Finn
Koivu isn't only a skill player. He never backs down from anyone and doesn't shy away from physical play. Two fine examples of his big hits.

4) Beating the Bruins
Koivu always seemed to save some of his best performances for Boston, whether it was taking on Joe Thornton back in the day, or doing things like this.

3) Back in Town
For at least one night, the loudest cheers during the pregame at the Bell Centre weren't reserved for the home team.

2) The Shootout Winner
It was the biggest comeback in Montreal Canadiens history, from down 5-0 to the New York Rangers. It was only appropriate that the captain himself put Montreal ahead in the shootout to win it.

1) The Return

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Habs Activate Andrei Markov Off IR

News big enough to warrant posting on a Saturday evening here in Barcelona: this morning, the Montreal Canadiens have activated defenseman Andrei Markov from injured reserve.

Yes, you read that right. No longer is Markov on the team's injured list. This means he can return at any point, possibly as early as tonight! The announcement has excited Canadiens fans around the world who will, undoubtedly, also be holding their breath any time an opposing player skates near the Russian rearguard. He may or may not play this evening, but the news means he can be considered a game-time decision every game from now until he does play.

If he does play this evening, the team is likely to go with 7 defenseman to ease him back into action. And based on comments by Randy Cunneyworth after practice, and later a radio interview given by Pierre Gauthier during today's Hamilton Bulldogs broadcast, it sounds like he will indeed make his debut.

All of this is great news and one can't help but be very happy for a man who has worked so hard to get to this point. Here's a nice video on Markov's 10+ years with the Canadiens:

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Win That Hurt

The Montreal Canadiens had a huge opportunity yesterday evening to take a big step up in the draft rankings ladder. Your 28th ranked Canadiens were up against the 29th place Edmonton Oilers, a team just two points back of them and holding a game in hand. A loss would have meant - at least for now - Montreal falling into the slot giving them a pre-lottery 2nd overall selection.

On this night, it was not to be. Still, a 5-3 victory brought with it lots of positives, notably Max Pacioretty's 2 markers that now give him 30 on the season and 8 points in his past 4 games - amazing considering where he was one year ago. Lars Eller scored his 3rd goal in 5 games, now at 15 on the year. P.K. Subban's 3-point evening meant that - despite his horribly slow start to the season offensively - he has hit the 30-point plateau for a second consecutive year. All good signs moving forward.

The win hurt in another way than the overall standings as well, as breakout center David Desharnais left the game with an undisclosed lower body injury. As few as the Canadiens' successes have been this season, the little man has undoubtedly been a big part in them. While I wish him all the best in a speedy recovery, if he is to miss some action (even if it's only a few days as expected), it actually may not be the worst news for the team. Some reasons why:

1) It will benefit the Canadiens to have a weakened roster

Yes, this is me again toeing the Tanker line. Losses don't feel good in the short term, but the more points squandered between now and April, the better we'll feel at the Entry Draft in June. No Desharnais means less offense and thus likely/hopefully fewer wins, improving the team's selection.

2) It provides a chance for Lars Eller

The Canadiens will soon have to decide exactly what kind of player Lars Eller is and can be. Is he a two-way third line center? Does he have the needed offense to regularly play in the top 6? Should he be shifted to the wing? Desharnais regularly played over 20 minutes a night this season, meaning there will be lots of extra ice to redistribute, and Eller may benefit from it with some better wingers.

3) It sets a stage for Scott Gomez

Of course, Eller alone can't take on all of Desharnais's minutes plus his own, so the injury should also mean an increased role for the much-maligned Scott Gomez. This season has been about more than just Gomez's salary; it has become debatable if the team may simply be better off without him at any price. But he actually looked quite good last night, recording an assist and finishing a +1 in 16:16 of action, more than he'd played in any of the previous 4 outings. Most Habs fans expect the team to rid themselves of his deal this summer through an amnesty buyout clause in a new CBA; but what if no such clause is included? There is no guarantee teams will have any sort of a window to shed financial burdens, and if not, the Habs' brass will need to find another answer. Could a strong final 14 games encourage another team to take him off the Canadiens' hands in return for another (but lesser) big salary? A long short, perhaps, but we can only hope that someone would believe he turned corner and just needs a change of scenery.

So it was just one win, and nothing is "all for naught." Fans will still get a payoff at the draft for sitting through this season of horrors, provided there is no hot streak over the final 14 encounters (and there is no real reason to expect one). The next 3 games see Montreal do battle with Vancouver (fighting for 1st in the West), Buffalo (fighting for a playoff spot), and Ottawa (fighting for playoff positioning), so their spot in the East's basement appears reasonably safe.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Day To Look Forward To

On the day of one of the most critical games for the Canadiens to lose against the 29th place Edmonton Oilers, I come with a message of hope. Were you getting depressed about the next exciting Habs moment still being 3 and a half months away at the Entry Draft in June? Then I have good news for you - you can cheer for your Habs to win something much sooner than that.

Following the conclusion of the NHL's regular season in April, a draft lottery is held to determine the final picking order of all non-playoff teams. For those that don't follow this too closely, it isn't the same kind of lottery as was held in Sidney Crosby's post-lockout draft year back in 2005 with all clubs having a shot at the prized top pick. Rather, it is a weighted lottery with any of the 14 eliminated clubs having a chance to have their name drawn. Having your name drawn, however, does not give you the first overall pick. Here's how it works:

14 balls are loaded into the lottery machine, and four are pulled out at random to form some number sequence. This sequence is matched against a random probability table of 1,0001 numbers with each combination corresponding to one of the teams. The team finishing 30th in the overall standings has the most slots on this 1,0001 number list, with 25% of the outcomes. The 29th place team has about an 18.8% chance of being selected, and the probabilities decline roughly as follows:
28th -14.2%
27th - 10.7%
26th - 8.1%
25th - 6.2%
24th - 4.7%
23rd - 3.6%
22nd - 2.7%
21st - 2.1%
20th - 1.5%
19th - 1.1%
18th - 0.8%
17th - 0.5%

Only one team is "selected" through this process. That club's pick moves up 4 spots (or simply to number 1 if it's one of the bottom 4 teams). So the 10th pick team would get the 6th pick, or the 7th place team the third pick, and so on. The rest of the order remains unchanged, meaning a club can't drop more than one slot down from where they finished, and the team that finishes last (Hi Columbus) has a 48.2% chance of retaining the first overall selection (including even if they don't win the lottery) based on this system.

That first overall selection will be highly coveted this year, as Nail Yakupov projects as by far the closest thing in the class to a can't-miss star. While there are a number of impressive eligible defensemen, that won't excite Canadiens fans after taking d-men in the first round for the past two seasons. After Yakupov, top forwards include Mikhail Griogrenko - about whose consistency and commitment there are questions - and Alex Galchenyuk - who has missed the whole season with a knee injury. While either Grigorenko or Galchenyuk would make a phenomenal building block for the Habs, especially given that they are both rangy centers - something the team has lacked for quite some time - if the team has the chance to get their hands on Yakupov, I don't think it would be worth passing up.

Yes, there is a need for a big center; I've reminded one and all of that fact on numerous occasions. But the far bigger need is for some legitimate star power, and this is much too great of an opportunity to land such a player to make any kind of gamble or mistake. While Yakupov is a little undersized at 5'10", 189 lbs, he plays the game with enough grit, skill, and tenacity to make you overlook the weakness. He will make fans still whining over the departure of Mike Cammalleri forget him very quickly.

Be sure to keep your calendars flexible Habs fans, as the lottery day is just about a month away. No matter what, Montreal will walk out of June's draft with a top prospect added to its stable, but upgrading the team's selection to #1 would be a tremendous consolation prize to a horrendously disappointing season.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Around the League: Playoff Predictions

It's around this time of year every season with the trade deadline distancing itself in the rear-view mirror that I make my first post-season predictions. The playoff picture may not be fully clear yet, so I'll wait before dissecting possible matchups, but with rosters more or less set for the stretch run, here are some of my favourites.


Expected playoff participants:
New York Rangers
Boston Bruins
Florida Panthers
Pittsburgh Penguins
Philadelphia Flyers
New Jersey Devils
Ottawa Senators
Washington Capitals

The Winnipeg Jets currently hold the 8th and final playoff spot but - while it would be a nice story - I expect the Caps who are 2 points back and hold a game in hand to catch them by early April. Washington has underachieved throughout the season but they are deep and talented enough that I expect them to put together enough of a hot streak in the remaining games to salvage a post-season birth - think the Habs of 2009 (and then quickly forget that painful memory). With the immense parity in the league, I expect the buffer established by the top 7 to be sufficient to hold on to their spots.

First Round Weak Links:
Florida Panthers
Ottawa Senators

Barring a head-to-head matchup, I expect the East's Cinderella clubs in Florida and Ottawa to be the first round's easiest outs. 2011-12 was a huge step forward in the building process for both teams, but at least on paper, neither stacks up the conference's elite. The Sens have been led by phenom Erik Karlsson, but it should be noted that he and top center Jason Spezza rank 2nd and 8th in the league in powerplay points (Ottawa's PP ranks 6th overall). With powerplays tougher to come by in the post-season, the team may struggle to score - a significant problem when considering that they've allowed more goals than any other team in a playoff position.

Florida's patchwork club rising to the top of its division may be more linked to the struggles of Washington and Tampa Bay than the team's own strong play (a statement supported by their -21 goal differential on the season, worse even than Montreal's), but certainly they've surpassed expectations. The Panthers are one of the league's lowest-scoring teams and have only 3 40+ point forwards, one of whom (Stephen Weiss) has zero playoff experience. This will be a good year to bring some of the team's new core along and help them gel, but it is too early to be thinking about any kind of long run without a spectacular streak from either Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen, which I would doubt in either case.

Projected Eastern Conference Playoff Champion:
Pittsburgh Penguins

Evgeni Malkin has a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume and his outstanding play this season is my main reason for picking Pittsburgh to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. With big wingers like James Neal and Chris Kunitz, the team has the resources to get passed the Zdeno Chara wall in Boston and to overwhelm the New York Rangers's young back-end. The team's top 4 is rock-solid, with strong production from Kris Letang compensating for the hole in the depth chart left by the absence of superstar Sidney Crosby. The Pens were my pick even before yesterday's news that Crosby has been cleared for contact and may play in the near future, but if he can return healthily, it will take the team to another level. Above all, the team's core, from Marc-Andre Fleury out, has been there before. They've been to the finals and lost, as well as won a Cup, and this experience will carry them a long way once again.


Expected playoff participants:
Vancouver Canucks
St. Louis Blues
San Jose Sharks
Detroit Red Wings
Nashville Predators
Chicago Blackhawks
Dallas Stars
Los Angeles Kings

On the strength of a 7-1-2 record in their last 10 games (including their win over the Canadiens), the Dallas Stars currently lead their division. However, I expect either them or the Phoenix Coyotes to slip up down the stretch, allowing the Los Angeles Kings to sneak into the post-season. Hey, my preseason picks to win the regular season conferences look pretty bad right now in Los Angeles and Washington so I have to stick to my guns at least a little bit, no?!

The Kings bolstered their league's worst-offense with the addition of Jeff Carter prior to the deadline and should start to see some dividends in the coming weeks. They are tied with San Jose in points (though the Sharks hold a game in hand) and sit 1 point behind the Coyotes (with a game in hand on them) to make the second season and with the sound goaltending they've been getting, should be able to jump over a club or two if those teams stumble.

The Sharks have seen a solid season collapse over the past little bit, but could still take their division if they can turn fortunes around.

First Round Weak Links:
Dallas Stars

The West looks rather evenly matched, with only the Stars (or Coyotes if they make it in Dallas's place) appearing like an easy out. Dallas's defense is suspect and they are the only team in the Western playoff picture with a negative goal differential. The team has gotten strong production from their underrated forward group, but it seems unlikely to hold up over a 7 game series against a tough opponent.

Projected Western Conference Playoff Champion:
Vancouver Canucks

Like the Penguins before them, the Canucks will avenge a loss in the Stanley Cup finals by returning to the dance and this time winning it all. Their offense is led by the usual cast of characters in the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows, but they've bolstered their bottom 6 with proven playoff shutdown guru Sammy Pahlsson. The addition of toughness in Zack Kassian allows them to match up better against bigger squads, as does the size of Marc-Andre Gragnani bringing depth on the back end. This team has seen what it takes to get oh so close, and as a now famous Sidney Crosby NHL commercial once said, "never wants to be in that spot again." This is their year.

That's my take on how things will shake up for now. I'll certainly provided round-by-round predictions as the post-season gets underway in April, as depressing as it is to not count the Canadiens among the qualified teams.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What to do with Lars Eller

Ever since he became a Montreal Canadien, there has been tremendous pressure on Danish center Lars Eller. Jaroslav Halak had been idolized as a hero in the city of Montreal following his incredible run during the 2010 playoffs to lead the team to the Conference Semi-Finals. And yet, just a month later, he was sent to the St. Louis Blues in return for a 6'2" center who had just celebrated his 21st birthday.

Those were big shoes to fill for a young man having just completed his first season on a new continent, quickly establishing himself as an AHL star and scoring his first 2 NHL goals in 7 games with the Blues. Fans were quick to dream that the player who went 13th overall in the 2007 Entry Draft might be the true first line offensive center this team has lacked for over a decade.

But here we are, almost two years later. If you read the sidebar of this site, you'll see I list Eller amongst my favourite current Canadiens to watch. He is a good skater and his soft hands make him perhaps the best stickhandler on the club. He is capable of pulling off electrifying dekes in a role left vacant by the departure of Alex Kovalev. He can use his size to dish out the occasional well-timed hit. So he should clearly be a fixture for years to come, right? Well, there's a bit of a problem.

Just shy of 23 years of age, it is unfair to say that Eller has reached the pinnacle of all he'll ever be as a hockey player. It might take him another 1-2 years just to enter his prime productivity period. But his output thus far in Montreal - 7 goals and 17 points in 77 games last year, and 13 goals and 23 points in 63 games this season - is not that of a top 6 forward. He has shown flashes on many a night - none brighter than his four goal performance against the Winnipeg Jets - but also fades to obscurity on others. I wouldn't doubt his commitment or level of effort; rather, it seems the elements he brings aren't effective on a regular basis. To take that next step, his game will need to evolve by somehow working on his scoring touch around the net, or improving his strength and physicality.

I would still be hesitant to call any of this a problem, as I'm by no means ready to give up on Eller's game. As a young player developing on a third line, I strongly believe he can be quite effective. Placing him there also allows the Canadiens to roll three lines capable of being dangerous in the offensive end. The problem? That he isn't alone in that role.

None of the team's current top 3 pivots, Eller, Tomas Plekanec, or David Desharnais, fits the role of a fourth line center. The problem is that to improve the club, there remains a need for a more offensively dominant first line center. If the Habs succeed in acquiring such a player - whether through a trade or with their first round selection this summer - one of Eller, Plekanec, or Desharnais will be bumped, meaning the time for slow development and easing into a role is over.

Let's say the Canadiens draft Mikhail Grigorenko or Alex Galchenyuk, and come training camp in the Fall, the selected forward impresses so much that the Habs opt to keep him with the club. As the only real veteran of the bunch, Tomas Plekanec is quite certain to remain as the other top 6 center to ease the top pick's transition to the bigs (though I had previously suggested he is moveable if a big center is brought in through trade or eventually in future years as a UFA). Thus you're left with Eller and Desharnais fighting for a single job.

At 5'7", opting for Desharnais over Eller goes against the team's mission to get bigger. At the same time, however, choosing Eller's proven 23-point capability over Desharnais's 51-point (and counting) breakout season seems illogical on a team that frequently struggles to score. So what are our options?

1) Trade Desharnais

It is conceivable that Desharnais's physical limitations will catch up to him and that this season will be the most productive one of his career. If that is the case, it would make sense to trade him now while his value is maximized (especially given his basement bargain contract for next season which would be very attractive to many clubs). It is also possible that this is just one step in Desharnais's development and that - still only 25 - he will continue to be a productive player for many seasons. Can the Canadiens afford "giving up" on another local son to see him succeed elsewhere?

2) Trade Eller

Will Eller ever be a 50-point producer in the NHL? Certainly there would be teams willing to take a chance on the fact that he remains capable of such numbers. His value is quite certainly higher than Desharnais's even despite his lesser output to date, and he could be a solid chip towards acquiring another young player to fill a hole on the wing. The problem is the opposite of Desharnais's in that dealing him now would be moving him at far less than his peak value if he is to become such a player. But at the same time, by holding on to him, you risk ending up with a depreciating asset if Eller is to have another sub-30 point season next year. The lure of his being a first round choice from five years ago will quickly wear off.

3) Move Desharnais to the Wing

Of course, the Canadiens can keep both Eller and Desharnais by shifting one to another position. By playing DD on the wing, the Canadiens would minimize his defensive responsibilities - a weaker area in his overall game. However, he'd also be responsible for winning more battles along the boards, which may be a struggle given his diminutive frame (but not for a lack of heart). The bigger issue, though, would be who to play him with. As much as Desharnais deserves plenty of credit in his own right, a significant portion of his production this season has been aided by being flanked by the team's twin offensive towers in Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty. It is unlikely that the Habs would put him on the wing of a rookie, and playing Tomas Plekanec would make for an awfully small unit. That leaves Eller's wing which, if used as a third trio completed by a bigger body like Rene Bourque (though that would mean 3 left shots) or a defensively-responsible guy like Travis Moen (again three lefties) or Louis Leblanc (could be a fit!), might actually be effective. Write that down, Habs brass, who undoubtedly reads this very site carefully on a daily basis. One issue is the loss of Desharnais's 50% in the face-off dot on a club that struggles in that area, in favour of Eller's meager 45.7%. So let's keep looking...

4) Move Eller to the Wing

Eller was tested as a top 6 winger right from his early days in Montreal without major success. Could it be time to give him another shot? He is weak on the draw, but strong enough to handle his own along the boards and tends to position himself more off to the side than directly in front of the net. Playing the wing might give him fewer opportunities to work his stickhandling magic through the neutral zone, but it may give him more of a chance to get off his quick release and/or improve his finish-ability around the net. To this end, perhaps playing him on Desharnais's side would allow the freeing of Pacioretty and/or Cole to play with other forwards in the top 6. If Eller proves his worthiness, he could be tried on a top unit alongside a Tomas Plekanec to give the team more flexibility down its depth chart as well. This seems like inevitably the "safest" best solution for the team if they manage to land a true #1 center.

So there you have it. Which option sounds best to you if a spot is named for Mikhail Grigorenko next October? Or perhaps you have another idea in mind? Discuss away!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Andrei Markov Cleared for Contact

There was surprising good news out of Montreal Canadiens practice this morning. Confused journalists witnessed defenseman Andrei Markov lead the team out on to the ice, wearing a standard white jersey just like the other healthy defensemen. Gone was his burgundy sweater that signifed "no contact."

Some journalists were quick to quip, "They must have accidentally forgotten the burgundy jersey when doing laundry," or "Maybe he's been wearing it for so long that the colour has faded completely away."

But Markov proved them wrong, practicing alongside fellow Russian rearguard Alexei Emelin on a regular pairing. No, Markov didn't participate in every one of today's drills, but it's still a huge step forward for the man who has yet to play a game in 2011-12. Following practice, Markov confirmed the suspicions, indicating that he'd been given a green light to test contact in practice. We still don't have a specific timetable for his return, but he stated confidently that he will be back this season. It seems, for once, the rhetoric "he's progressing well," which has been fed to us ever since July is finally true.

This is an interesting issue as many Hab fans have expressed their concern over him returning to play "meaningless" games down the stretch, with the Canadiens sure to miss the playoffs. "Why not just hold him out till next year?" many have wondered. If - and only if - Markov is 100% healthy, then I would be strongly in favour of getting him into as much game action as possible over the final weeks of the season. If the knee is going to give out again, it won't make a difference whether it's this March or next September. What is more important is that The General of the team's powerplay gets into some game action now to begin to rebuild his confidence on the ice. Playing a few games will help to show him anything he may have lost in his time off so that he can work on it over the summer, while keeping him motivated in his rehab.

Plus, we can all admit, in what has been a horribly painful season, watching Markov back on the ice will be a small pleasant treat for Canadiens fans.