Wednesday, March 2, 2011

State of the Habs

Article written February 24th:

If you typed in the title “enigmatic NHL hockey team”, you’re first google hit would probably come up as The Montreal Canadiens.  Well probably not but you get where I’m going with this.  Game in, game out, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.  Last night they beat the best team in the league, the Vancouver Canucks, and they did it by playing a playoff brand of hockey: clogging the shooting lanes and blocking shots on D, and crashing the net on offence.  It looked a lot like a Habs/Capitals tilt from last year’s playoffs, and we all know how that turned out.  Question is, if they know the recipe for success, why don’t we see this kind of hockey more often?  Hard to know, but then I guess that’s what you’d expect from the enigma which is the Montreal Canadiens.

As far as potential trades are concerned, it must be an increasingly difficult nut to crack for Pierre Gauthier and Co.  From my standpoint, I flip flop from desperately needing a top 6 forward, to wanting a minute-eating D-man, from one game to the next.  Last week I would have told you that a top 6 forward was obviously what the team needed.  They can’t score goals; clearly you need someone in your top 6 who has more talent than Travis Moen.  Yet after last night’s game, I suddenly feel that another defensman who can play big minutes is the logical ingredient we need to add.  With the amount of injuries the Habs have incurred on D, the older, currently healthy defensman like Hamrlik and Gill, are going to be more prone to injury simply due to overuse.  Gill played over 26 minutes last game; that’s okay for one game, but over a stretch of ten games he’d be just asking for an injury.  Same goes for Hamrlik, who has been overextending himself all season long.  Spacek is a clear example of a guy who got injured due to logging more minutes than he could handle.  Obviously, the Habs would benefit by bringing in a top 6 forward as well, but if you had to choose, a defensman makes more sense.  Despite our scoring difficulties, it’s clear that if the effort is put in, like we saw in last night’s performance, we have the elements to put the puck in the net.  We also saw that in order to win games we need herculean performances from our youngest D (Subban) and one of our slowest and oldest D’s (Gill).  No team can rely this heavily on players like these, and expect to win on a regular basis; it’s just not possible.  In a perfect world, Gill should be playing no more than 18 minutes a game, Hamrlik 20, and Subban 22-23.  A stabilizing force like Chris Phillips would probably go a long way to help straightening out this situation, while at the same time keeping the D fresher for the playoffs.

What I Expect Gauthier Will Do:

If Gauthier continues his recent trend of replacing injured defensmen via trade, he’ll probably acquire another one.  When Markov and Gorges got injured, he traded for Wisniewski.  When Gill then Spacek went down, he acquired Paul Mara.  He clearly can’t just hope that no one will get injured again this season on D, and should therefore pick up another defensman as an insurance policy.  What I can’t predict is whether or not Gauthier will go the cheap root and pick up another depth guy like Mara, or go the more expensive route and get a Wisniewski.  It may come down to how serious Spacek’s injury is.  One also has to wonder who is even available after all the deals that have gone down lately.  Eric Brewer seemed like a good fit, but of course he now suits up for the Lightning.  With the latest reports indicating that Chris Phillips wants to remain a Senator, there may be few viable options left for Gauthier.  In the end, I expect that Gauthier will dredge the barrel and find a d-man that can play 18-20 minutes a game without being a liability.  Who that player will be remains to be seen.  Besides Phillips, Czech Radek Martinek comes to mind along with Jan Hejda of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  If I was Pierre Gauthier’s shoes, I would be looking in this direction.

Why Blockbusters Happen

Many hockey pundits, ranging from the average fan to TV and radio personalities, have wondered aloud why the Montreal Canadiens could not, or have not, been able to pull off a deal for a power forward, like the ones orchestrated last week.  After the rumors started spreading that both James Neal and Chris Stewart could have been had by the Habs, many have been screaming for Pierre Gauthier’s head, that he’s sleeping on the job while others around him make deal after deal.  Quite simply, the Montreal Canadiens never could have been involved in either of those deals for one important reason: lack of organizational depth in top 4 defensmen and big top 6 forwards.  In the last couple of years, the Habs have had depth in two categories: goalies and smallish speedy wingers.  To Gauthier’s credit, he addressed that goalie strength and traded Jaroslav Halak for a young up-and-coming center with a lot of upside.  It remains to be seen whether or not Lars Eller will ever pan out, but at least we didn’t lose Halak for nothing.  Once they made that trade, the Canadiens exhausted their position of strength, because let’s face it, few teams are actively pursuing small talented forwards.  Clear across the league, all teams are looking for the same thing: top 4 defensmen and big top 6 forwards.  The Penguins were able to trade away Goligoski because they already had a glut of good D to begin with.  Dallas could afford trading Neal because they have the likes of Adam Burish, Jamie Benn and Steve Ott under contract, all big boys who can put the puck in the net.  Both teams traded from a position of strength, meaning they had little to lose and a lot to gain.  Same goes for the St. Louis/Colorado deal.  Eric Johnson is never moved if an up-an-coming star like Alex Pietrangelo is not in the mix.  It’s why you can’t trade PK Subban for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk: who else in the organization can replace what Subban brings now and in the future?  In Colorado it’s similar. Chris Stewart is already a young star in the league, but they have a couple of young budding stars in David Jones and Brandon Yip that have the potential to fill that void.  The bottom line is that you have to have a plan in place, a contingency if you will, for making deals this size.  Huge pieces were dealt in these deals, but no team should suffer in the short or long term, because of the fact they traded from a position of strength.   This is why if the Canadiens do make a move, it will be something small, because they simply do not have an abundance of any kind of player other teams would be interested in.  

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