Tuesday, April 24, 2012

10 Habs Players Who May Not Be Back Next Year

This off-season could mean big changes for your Montreal Canadiens.  As the month of April nears its end, the team still finds itself without a General Manager or Head Coach.  The club has a third overall selection at this year's entry draft which will significantly alter the prospect pool, even if the likelihood that whoever the team takes at that spot won't make the team straight out of training camp is high.  Whoever does take over in a Management role is most certain to want to put their own stamp on the team, meaning as of right now, no one is necessarily "untouchable."  Thus the team that ended the year in disappointing fashion may be drastically different than the one that opens training camp in the Fall, even if a shallow UFA pool would under normal circumstances leave few acquisition options for the team.

But before we start looking at who the Habs might bring in, today we look at who might be jettisoned elsewhere.  Since we went over next year's Hamilton Bulldogs on Friday, today we'll include only players who played at least one game for Montreal during the 2011-12 regular season.

10) Petteri Nokelainen

When it became clear that Andreas Engqvist wasn't ready for full-time NHL duty, the Canadiens scrambled to find a new fourth line center.  After a waiver claim gone bad in Blair Betts, the team dealt for Nokelainen, who was serviceable in the role, but far from spectacular.  He has decent size (6'1", 202 lbs), can play on the penalty kill, and is a right-handed shot, but didn't show much of the toughness the team also needs out of a player in that role, and has little in the way of hockey skills.  He'll be a restricted free agent this summer and is only 26, so he could be retained, but the team may very well opt to seek an upgrade on the UFA market since once identified as a need, that type of player isn't hard to acquire in July.

9) Rene Bourque

Bourque was one asset acquired in the Mike Cammalleri trade (I would argue the 2nd round pick was the primary asset) to help balance out the salaries.  Yes, Bourque did have consecutive 27-goal seasons prior to this past year's 18, but I would say he is more suited to be a third line player on a top team due to his inconsistencies, rather than a frustrating second liner.  He could replace - to an extent - an Andrei Kostitsyn in the line-up; he can't fill the void left by an on-his-game Cammalleri.  The problem is that Bourque was borderline terrible after being acquired, with the toughness and physicality in his game evaporating and showing weak hands around the goal.  Thus, a GM coming in and wanting to do a clean-up may try to ship Bourque out, but the 4 years remaining on his deal at $3.33M per season may throw a wrench in the plans.  I'm ok with giving Bourque another chance on Lars Eller's wing, and his cap hit isn't particularly prohibitive to finding a better winger for Tomas Plekanec, but it also wouldn't surprise me if Montreal tries to deal him elsewhere.

8) Tomas Kaberle

Speaking of players not pulling their weight, Tomas Kaberle has 2 years left on his deal at $4.25M per season.  Jaroslav Spacek's expiring $3.8M had already been earmarked for raises to the likes of Carey Price and/or P.K. Subban, so by taking on a contract with remaining term in its place, the Habs will have to make cuts elsewhere.  The problem isn't Kaberle's production - his 22 points in 43 games after joining the Canadiens would mean a 40-point season averaged out, which isn't terrible for the salary he's making.  The problem is more the fit.  The Canadiens have enough puck-moving offensive blueliners with Andrei Markov, P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber, and Raphael Diaz, and given this, spending $4.25M on a soft, one-dimensional scoring d-man doesn't seem like a good deal.  Even if, say, Weber isn't back next year (see lower down the list), the need for Kaberle isn't there on this team, and if he is on the club to safeguard against a Markov injury, the team has a much bigger need for a more two-way guy like a younger Roman Hamrlik instead.  Like with Bourque, finding a taker may be an issue, but he could be a good fit on a team with bigger defensive d-men to compensate for his weak play in his own zone.

7) Mathieu Darche

Darche has been a good story in Montreal as a local boy who took a long route to end up living his childhood dreams.  He has given the Habs all they could have hoped for on bargain basement contracts, and at 6'1", 210 lbs his size his welcome as a 12th or 13th forward.  However, his production and consistency took a step back this season, and he is far from irreplaceable.  There are only so many roster spots to go around, and at age 35, Darche's useful days are nearing their end.  The spot might be better going to a true enforcer, or a younger player trying to establish himself as a roster regular.  Darche will be a UFA this summer and there is likely to be work for him somewhere in the league if he's willing to leave the city, but his three year run with the Canadiens could very well be coming to a close.

6) Brad Staubitz

Staubitz seemed like a random waiver acquisition on trade deadline day, a move many thought would simply fill a hole following numerous other trades.  Those deals didn't materialize, so many assumed Staubitz had just been a security policy and wouldn't see much action.  But he did; playing 19 games and becoming the team's go-to enforcer.  He seemed to be a good teammate, with his fellow Canadiens noticeably excited when he scored the club's final goal of the year into an empty net.  Staubitz, 27, is a big and tough customer at 6'1", 210 lbs, but he is short on hockey skills outside of dropping the gloves.  The Habs haven't carried a true enforcer in quite some time, though many have proclaimed a need for such a player.  Staubitz could do the job, though if he is back, I'd rather see him scratched more frequently than he was down the stretch and only used in games where there was felt to be a need for his toughness.  More ideally he would be let go (he's a UFA this summer) and replaced with an enforcer more capable of taking a regular shift (such as fellow UFAs Brandon Prust, Jordin Tootoo, Tom Kostopoulos, or even George Parros).  The current Canadiens staff seem quite enamoured with Mike Blunden, so it is possible it comes down to keeping only one of the two (along with pending UFA Travis Moen), and I would rather see Blunden back over Staubitz, but we don't know what direction the new staff will take.

5) Aaron Palushaj

Palushaj, 22, was acquired from the St. Louis Blues for Matt D'Agostini a little over two years back.  He is a proven AHL superstar scorer, notching 35 points in 35 games for the Bulldogs this season.  But the NHL points weren't coming until quite late on this season, with him finally scoring his first goal and adding 4 assists on a total of 38 games.  Palushaj has very average size at 5'11", 187 lbs, and has little physicality or intensity to his game, while also not being any kind of defensive specialist, meaning he will contribute in an offensive role or simply not make the cut.  He hasn't shown any reason to be given a shot in the top 6, and already has his hands full battling Louis Leblanc for a third line job.  Add to this the imminent arrival of Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival, and likely Danny Kristo at the pro ranks, and Palushaj will be quickly dropping down the depth charts.  He is waiver eligible in the Fall, so while there is no real reason not to at least qualify him and bring him to training camp, if he doesn't make the starting roster in the Fall, another organization may very well take a chance on him as a still-developing player.

4) Andreas Engqvist

Engqvist, 24, falls under a similar category as Palushaj being an AHL star that struggles to produce at the NHL level.  Like Palushaj, he is an RFA this summer meaning the Canadiens need to make a call on him.  But then there are notable differences as well.  First, Engqvist brings size (a skinny 6'4" frame, even if he doesn't use it particularly effectively) and a right-handed shot to the equation, things the Habs are short on at the center position.  Engqvist also excels (at least at the AHL level thus far) in a defensive, shutdown, and penalty-killing role, making him a more versatile player well suited to a third or fourth line job.  But he hasn't shown that he deserves even that kind of ice time in the NHL level as of yet, and wasn't even amongst the late-season call-ups following the trade of Andrei Kostitsyn and numerous injuries at the forward position.  Was he left in Hamilton just to help the Bulldogs (he was named team co-MVP this year)?  Or was it a sign that he is out of the plans for the future?  The fact that he himself may choose to return to Europe this summer regardless of the Canadiens' intentions may indicate the second is more likely, though he is another guy who there seems little reason not to qualify and retain rights to... just in case.

3) Yannick Weber

Weber, 23, a third round pick of the Canadiens in 2007, was a star for the OHL's Kitchener Rangers and seen as an up-and-coming offensive blueliner.  The Swiss native showed all of that potential in the American League as a top player for the Bulldogs, but he has struggled to prove himself in the NHL, largely due to his small stature (5'11", 193 lbs) leaving him manhandled in his own end.  He has at times looked effective on the powerplay with decent passing and a big shot, but he is also prone to giveaways and mental lapses, meaning frustrating inconsistency.  Last summer, the Habs snagged a very similar player in Raphael Diaz, 26, as a European UFA, and he and Weber put up almost identical numbers this season.  It is likely the team should choose between one of the two in their top 6 for the coming year, and if this past season's usage provides any clues, then Diaz seems the favoured son.  However, it is far from a certainty as the team's new management group may have a different evaluation of the players.

2) Scott Gomez

If the jury is still out on whether or not a lot of the above players can help the Canadiens moving forward, this one should be clear.  Gomez was given a chance to make amends for a poor 2010-11 campaign this season, and did little to impress.  He said all the right things off the ice a year ago, and he can't be entirely blamed for a season that was in large part derailed by multiple injuries, but a 32-year old 5'11" center who was on pace for 24 points over an 82-game campaign has no spot on this team.  He is not a fourth liner, isn't big or tough, is far from a defensive specialist, and the team is better off with David Desharnais, Tomas Plekanec, and Lars Eller down the middle.  And notice all of these arguments against him before we even get to the big one: his $7.357M annual burden on the club's salary cap.  The cap hit makes him entirely untradeable, so there are only a couple of options if he is to be gotten rid of prior to the final two seasons on his deal.  The optimist Habs fans hope for a one-time amnesty buyout permitted by the new CBA, where he could be bought out with no cap hit, as a traditional buyout handicaps the club moving forward.  The alternative is to put him on waivers and send him to Hamilton, where Geoff Molson would still be on the hook for his full salary, but the Canadiens could spend that money on other players for their NHL roster as well if ownership was willing to stretch the budget.

1) Chris Campoli

Of the 10, Campoli seems the most certain to be gone in the coming months.  He will be an unrestricted free agent again this summer and is somewhat of a 'tweener on the blueline.  Not an offensive guy, not a defensive guy, and not a particularly dependable player, but a reasonable depth defenseman who picked up his game over the final weeks of this season after an injury-filled and rough start.  Despite joining his fourth team, Campoli is still only 27 and will find a contract somewhere on a team wanting an extra body on D, but depth is not what the team will lack at that position.  They need to use this spot for an upgrade on the back end with a guy who can step up and reliably play top 4 minutes in case of an injury.  A guy who is bigger than the average-sized Campoli and can throw a hit without ending up out of position.

Wildcard: Brian Gionta or Tomas Plekanec

If the new GM really wants to make an impression and change the core of this club, it is likely one of Brian Gionta or Tomas Plekanec who gets shopped (well before a guy like P.K. Subban).  Gionta, 33, may be the team's captain, but there is far from a leadership void with the likes of Erik Cole and Josh Gorges on the club, and at 5'7", 175 lbs, doesn't fit the team's need to get bigger.  Even discounting the injuries that made him miss 51 games, he had a very difficult season scoring just 8 goals and 15 points in 31 contests.  He has provided goal-scoring in his tenure with the Canadiens (his seasons of 29 and 28 were the second and third highest of his career), but his overall productivity has declined from his New Jersey days, and perhaps a bigger problem is that he doesn't seem to fit on a line with either David Desharnais (lack of size) or Tomas Plekanec (lack of chemistry).  Gionta is owed $5M for two more seasons, so the Habs may see if they can shake things up and try out a different player in that spot.

Plekanec, 29, is a different case, remaining a very valuable two-way member of the club even if his 17 goals and 52 points were south of what most had hoped for him this year.  Those numbers are more impressive when you consider he had weak and ever-changing linemates for much of the season.  The troubling number was his -15, something very uncharacteristic of a generally highly dependable defensive center.  In part it reflected the poor season of the team as a whole, but Plekanec's own intensity and tenacity were noticeably missing at times.  The reason to move Plekanec would be to add a bigger top 6 center, and the only way he could be moved is in a package for such a replacement player, but it wouldn't surprise me if that is the kind of bold deal the new GM tries to strike.


mineral said...

Great article, Dan. I think your site doesn't get the attention it deserves, but luckily some folks at habsworld.net are nice enough to link your insightful posts with regularity.

Anonymous said...

The only one I would bring back is Staubitz.

Anonymous said...

I would move Kaberle & Nokelainen with the #3 pick to Colorado for Paul Stastny & their 2nd pick either this year or next. Then go after Ryan Suter as a UFA to play with Subban and have Markov & Gorges as second pairing. Ship Bourque to St' Louis for Chris Stewart to re-unite him with Stastny. Another guy I would not bring back is Diaz as I would have Emelin and go after Matt Carkner (UFA)to play him and protect him so he can throw his big hits. (St. Denis as 7'th d-man. (maybe include Diaz with Bourque) Then I would offer Weber & Palushaj to NYI for M. Grabner. Either buy out or send Gomez to the minors. Next year we look like this: Price, Budaj
D: Suter/Subban-Markov/Gorges-Emelin/Carkner (St. Denis)
Forwards: Grabner/Stastny/Stewart-Pacioretty/Desharnais/Cole- Eller/Plekanec/Gionta- White/Geoffrion/Staubitz (Blunden as extra forward) Move Eller to wing to play with Plekanec & Gionta pretty nice third line. GO HABS GO

Dan K. said...

Thanks for the comment, mineral. Indeed, very appreciative for the links from habsworld.net, bleacher report, sportsnet forums, hockeyinsideout talkbacks, and other sources!

@Annonymous 2: A couple of those deals might be a little far fetched (I doubt either St. Louis or the Islanders are ready to just give away Stewart or Grabner after subpar seasons), but I like the general direction you're heading with that line-up. I think you're going to bump into the salary cap though, even after shedding the players you suggested.