Friday, June 1, 2012

A Day as Habs GM: Three Needs to Address

Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin has put together a strong front office staff.  We know that at some point, he will add to his scouting team, and of course hire a Head Coach.  But let's remember what has the biggest impact on Montreal turning around a season that saw them finish 15th in the Eastern Conference: the on-ice roster.

For all the excitement that has come with the breath of fresh air brought to the management team (and rightfully so), if some significant changes aren't made to the roster, the Habs might be doomed to find themselves in or near a draft lottery again a year from now.  What specifically does the team need to return to post-season contention?  Let's first look at what it has in place.  Here's a sample roster/depth chart, with bolded players being under contract already, italicized players being unrestricted free agents currently on the roster, and other names being restricted free agents who are likely to be re-signed.

Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Rene Bourque - Tomas Plekanec Brian Gionta
Travis Moen - Lars Eller - Louis Leblanc
Mike Blunden - Ryan White - Aaron Palushaj

Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Andrei Markov - Alexei Emelin
Tomas Kaberle - Raphael Diaz

Carey Price
Peter Budaj

Yannick Weber, Blake Geoffrion, Petteri Nokelainen

Of the players from last season who are pending UFAs, Travis Moen is the only one I see being brought back, and thus the only one I included in this line-up.  The above IS a complete team; the problem being, it's not a very good one.  You have some pieces there to build around, but you also have a lot of misfits and weaknesses, and this is even excluding Scott Gomez under the assumption that he will somehow be let go.

To me, there are three key areas to be upgraded as soon as this summer - be it a draft-day trade, July 1st, or otherwise - to provide hope to Canadiens fans that a playoff berth next spring could be a reality.  Here they are.

1) Scoring Support

The Canadiens are a team that, when watching them at some points of the season, you wonder how they will ever score another goal.  Part of this may be a coaching system, with new bench boss hopefully preaching less of a defensive shell at times, but part of it is also a lack of talent.  There is no question that both Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole should be and will be top 6 wingers on this squad.  Tomas Plekanec is also at the least a top notch 2nd line center.  That half of the top 6 appears locked in for the better.

On the other hand, will David Desharnais be able to repeat his production and performance of this season now that the secret about him is out?  At 5'7", 177 lbs, will twin towers on his wings be enough to keep him effective against top opposing shutdown d-men all season long?  Then there is a match-up issue with both Plekanec and Desharnais measuring under 6 feet, creating problems against bigger opposing centers.  Indeed, ideally Montreal would upgrade its center line by bringing in a bigger player in place of Desharnais, or perhaps even in place of Plekanec if the organization is sold on little DD's ability.  The problem is, no such player is available on this summer's free agent market, and they aren't available a dime a dozen in a trade.  And the answer is that perhaps this problem can wait to be fixed.  If Desharnais does replicate last season, then there isn't a dire need for a solution here, with a long-term answer perhaps draftable in a player like Alex Galchenyuk.

So if improving the center line may not be feasible this summer, what is?  In my books, Rene Bourque should be a third line player on a top team (if he proves worthy of being on such a team at all).  There are also some legitimate concerns about Brian Gionta's production after playing only 31 games last season, but even when healthy, he scored only 15 points, making for his lowest points-per-game average since 2003-04.  Plus he has rarely showed good chemistry with Plekanec, and for size reasons can't really play on a line with Desharnais.  While many doubt that the Canadiens would be willing to drop their captain to a "third line," his best fit might actually be flanking the bigger Lars Eller.  Thus what would be needed are some upgrades to the the wings on the 2nd line.

We won't talk about who specifically could fit this bill today, but will have two features on it next Tuesday and Wednesday, with one option being the UFA route where there are a few interesting names, and another being trading up at the draft to select Nail Yakupov, who could be ready to make an immediate impact next season.

2) Top 4 Capable D-Man

When Andrei Markov was not ready to start the season - and ultimately out for most of it - there was a huge hole on the Montreal back-end.  Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz did as much as one could expect for rookie blueliners pressed into regular service from the get-go, but P.K. Subban, when on his game, at least at this stage of his career, is at best a #2, and Josh Gorges would ideally be a 2nd pairing player.  With Hal Gill's age making him less-than-adequate regular season Hal Gill, and Tomas Kaberle's shell of his former self not being a solution to any real question, the error in Pierre Gauthier's plan become obvious.  The defense he assembled for last season was outright criminal, deserving of a firing on its own without getting into everything else wrong with his regime.

Now how do we fix it?  We have to assume that Markov will start the season healthy, but it is reasonable to want to have a contingency in place.  And that's without mentioning the fact that even a healthy Markov may not be the old Markov we knew.  Certainly the one that joined the team late this season wasn't, though that was to be expected.  He has a much better shot starting in September with the rest of the league.  Still, he himself admitted at year's end that his knee still wasn't the same when turning, so there is a chance he never skates quite like he once did.  If the new Markov should be, say, a #2 or 3 on most teams as opposed to a clear and away #1 defender, then it is evident Bergevin must move to upgrade his blueline.

The Canadiens have depth on the blueline, especially with Hamilton's back end being refilled with top notch prospects in the Fall.  What the team needs is to add to their top end, allowing the existing players to slide down the depth chart, rather than add padding to the bottom.  Just like big offensive centers, top pairing defenders don't come without a cost, but the free agent market does offer a little help.  While it may not be overflowing with #1s or 2s, there are enough who could at least fill a top 4 role to keep Canadiens fans interested on July 1st.  The player should be big to add size to the top 6, and able to handle his own in the defensive zone.  I'll go over my personal preferences for targets in a future Top 10 list, but you can get a head start by checking out the list of pending UFAs via CapGeek here:

The issues with adding a top-notch defender are two-fold: one being the lack of a roster spot, and the other being salary cap room.  The obvious answer is to get rid of an entirely superfluous player in Tomas Kaberle, who while his production last season wasn't awful, doesn't fill any real need on this team any longer.  He can't be trusted reliably with a 5-on-5 shift, and over $4M per season for a guy to play on a second powerplay unit doesn't make dollars or sense.  It remains to be seen if the team will be able to find a taker for him.

3) Bottom 6 Forward

The last addition should be the simplest of the three, though we could have said the same a year ago.  The Habs not so wisely were ready to hand the job to Andreas Engqvist before he had proven he could handle it, opting not to sign anyone for a fourth line role.  In fairness, they weren't expecting Ryan White to go down and miss as much time as he did, but this shows the importance of being prepared with depth.  After a failed waiver claim of the injured Blair Betts, the team had to give up its 7th round selection in this June's draft to acquire Petteri Nokelainen.  Not that a 7th round pick is a huge price to pay, but as we illustrated Tuesday, every draft selection has the potential to be valuable.

The Canadiens have a number of players who could play on the third or fourth lines, with guys like Nokelainen, Brad Staubitz, Mike Blunden, Blake Geoffrion, and Mathieu Darche who all may or may not be back next season.  None of these guys are overly impressive at their respective career stages, and while they could end up with the jobs, I'd like to see some fresh blood brought in to give the bottom six a new look.  I want size.  I want toughness.  I want an in-your-face aggressive forechecker who can erase players along the boards on every shift.  Alternatively, I want a shutdown centerman who can win face-offs.  Something different that the present group doesn't deliver.  I think Ryan White is a good fit to remain part of this group, and Lars Eller is penciled in as third line center unless he's tried in a more offensive role on the wing.  Louis Leblanc is likely to make the team out of training camp, and most probably will be a third line winger.  Travis Moen would be a good player to bring back for his physicality and off-ice leadership.  If we achieve the first objective on this list, one of Bourque or Gionta will also be a third line winger, so we're down to one open spot.

There is no shortage of potential UFAs to fill this job, but unlike a year ago, I do hope the Canadiens make a move and bring someone in.  Who they may pick up will will also be the subject of a later piece, but regardless of the player, the point remains the same: sign somebody in July when they're available for no assets.  Why reserve jobs for Blunden, Staubitz (who I'd see more as a 13th forward) or Aaron Palushaj (who is out of place in a non-scoring role)?  Bring in a guy or two and let them battle it out in training camp.  The losers can be dealt or - worst case scenario - waived to reinforce a very young Hamilton Bulldogs roster to be.

If the Habs manage to add at least one quality name for each of these three gaps, I think there will be even more to look forward to in 2012-13.  It won't be an easy summer for Bergevin, and I don't think a failure to address all three areas should disappoint fans, but they are places he should be looking to add even into the season.  As it progresses, we'll also have a better picture of when and to what extent future assets like Jarred Tinordi and Brendan Gallagher might be ready to plug some holes on the roster.

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