Monday, May 23, 2011

Habs summer decisions

Unfortunately, due to the fact he was signed at or after the age of 35 years, Yaro Spacek can not be bought out.  That leaves the Habs with two options: play him or trade him.  As much as I’d like to see him go, I’ll admit that Spacek is still a serviceable defenseman.  Is he overpaid: clearly.   Are there better options in our organization to fill his role next year, which would be the 5th or 6th d-man?  Probably.  Alexei Yemelin was recently signed by the Habs, and many believe he’ll be able to fit right in, despite his lack of North American hockey experience.  Yannick Weber is a now a known commodity with the club, and I personally think he is ready for a full NHL season.  With the likely re-signings of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, and probably one of Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski, our D could look something like this next year:


The Habs do have a surplus of money at their disposal 25 to 28 million, depending on if the cap goes up or not) but this money will need to be spread out over an abundance of players.  The Canadiens have 18 free agents this summer, so there will be a lot of hard decisions to make for GM Pierre Gauthier.  The biggest decision will be which area gets more of a facelift, the defense or offense.  Most assume it will be the D, because this is where the greatest percentage of free agents lie, but Gauthier could just as easily bring most of the starters from last season back.  The core of the offense will be back next season (Plekanec, Gomez, Gionta, Cammalieri, Pacioretty) but there are quite a few spots to be filled.  The future of potential stars Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot is still unclear, and many would like to see the bottom 6 get more rugged.  In a nutshell, there are many areas where the Canadiens could improve, and only so much money to improve them.  In the end at least one of these areas will probably have to be sacrificed, and it will be up to management to choose the best way to spend their money.

In descending order, here is the list of priorities as I see them:

1. Solidify the D

The key here is balance.  I think that the signing of Emelin was an excellent start, because he brings much needed size and physicality that the D lacked last year.  Re-sign Markov and Gorges.  Re-up Weber, and put him into the starting line-up. I think he’s ready to take on a bigger role with the team, and should be more prominent on the PP next year.  One of Gill and Hamrlik will be back—they will play the role of veteran presence, which every D corps needs.  If Spacek has to play, have him play a far more diminished role. 

2. Make the bottom 6 harder to play against

A player like Ryan White is a nice start, but the rest (Eller, Desharnis, Halpern, Moen, Pyatt, Darche) were simply not a pain to play against.  What you need are players that combine speed, physicality and aggressiveness, players that can sustain a solid fore-check, and give respite to the top line guys.  The current conference finals have shown that the team who has the harder working bottom lines usually come out on top.  This should be a main focus for the Canadiens going forward.

3. Finding another top 6 forward

It seems every year that fans cry out for that big rugged forward that can give a better balance to our smallish top 6.  This year will be no different, where many will question whether guys like Kostitsyn and Pouliot will ever be able to get the job done, and whether it’s time to throw in the towel with these players.  Hard to know, but personally I’d give Kostitsyn one more chance to prove his worth.  Pouliot has the talent, but it seems he’s his own worst enemy.  The bottom line is that there are many very talented players in the league, but the ones that succeed have the mental toughness to get over the hump.  Pouliot may get over this hump one day, but I don’t think it will be with the Canadiens.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Big decisions ahead for GM Gauthier

The season may be over for the Montreal Canadiens players, but for GM Pierre Gauthier, a new chapter to the season has just begun. With the draft and free agency just around the corner, Gauthier will have many tough decisions to make, the first and most obvious being whether or not to re-sign injury-plagued star defensman Andrei Markov to a new contract.  What Gauthier decides to do here will likely begin a domino effect throughout the rest of the lineup, as a number of other players are up for a new contract. These players include forwards Andrei Kostitsyn, Benoit Pouliot, Jeff Halpern, Max Pacioretty, Tom Pyatt, Mathieu Darche, David Desharnais, Ryan White and defensemen Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill, James Wizniewski, Paul Mara, Brent Sopel, Yannick Weber, Josh Gorges, Alexandre Picard and goalie Alex Auld.

Basically it would have been a whole lot easier to just make a list of who's definitely staying. Half of the players listed above are restricted free agents (RFA's), which means that they are still at the mercy of the Habs organization to a certain extent (unless they decide to hold out).  Either way, their future with the Habs will likely be effected in some way by what happens with Andrei Markov, who will  probably be negotiating the largest contract, money wise. Markov made 5.75M a year over the last 4 years, and if he stays for a similar amount of money, other players will be left out of the picture to make way for this contract.  The question is, after all the major injuries Markov has sustained over the last couple of years, how much exactly is he worth? This, and the rest of the mostly free-agent bound D corps will probably be the first headache for Gauthier.  Hamrlik has reportedly said he wants to come back at a reduced salary (he made 5.5M last year), but do the Habs want him back? Wizniewski was probably the revelation of the year, coming in a 1/3 of the way through the season and doing a bang-up job replacing most of Markov's minutes, but will he now cost too much to bring back? Josh Gorges was considered one of, if not the most reliable defenseman for the Habs before his untimely injury.  His return with the club is likely (he's an RFA) but how much will his pay increase?  Finally there is Hal Gill, who quietly stabilized the D all year long, and helped rein in their superstar in training, PK Subban.  You'd think that with the team's slowness on D being a problem all year long, the organization wouldn't bring both Gill and Hamrlik, who are two of the slowest and oldest D on the team, back into the fold. Decisions, decisions, decisions, and none of them no-brainers.  Add into the mix the possibility of draft pick Alexei Emelin coming over from the KHL, Yannick Weber out-performing Yaro Spacek most of the year, and you have the makings of a severely complicated log-jam on your hands.  And that's just the defense.

On offense, the biggest contract to be negotiated is that of Andrei Kostitsyn, perhaps the most enigmatic player on the Habs roster.  After another year of ups and downs, it's still unclear whether he's going to get better or worse.  All the potential is there, and this year he even showed his ability to be a physical force on the ice. However, he also showed that he could disappear for games on end, or make a multitude of brain cramps in any given game.  He made 3.25M last year, and one would think that his contract won't be going up much.  The question therefore will come down to whether or not there are better options out there for similar amounts of money.   This may not be that obvious a question, because not only may be those options be limited, but those players will also be quite hard to obtain.  It may just be simpler to hold onto Kostitsyn, and hope that he shapes into the power forward he has the potential to become.

After that, there's the case of Benoit Pouliot, who seemed to play himself out of the lineup during the stretch run to the playoffs.  One would assume he's played his last game in a Habs uniform.  David Desharnais is an interesting case.  Everyone marveled at his work ethic and capacity to put up points despite limited ice-time, but the question invariably becomes how he fits into the lineup next year.  With Lars Eller coming into his own as the 3rd line center towards the end of the season, one has to question how realistic it would be to rely on Desharnais, who is barely 5'6, to start as your 4th line center.  If he does make the team next year, I fully expect him to be used as a rover type player, a guy that has no position set in stone.  The same thing could of course be said about checkers Ryan White, Tom Pyatt and Mathieu Darche. White will probably make the team due to his physical capabilities. Darche has the size and hockey IQ to be a solid provider once again.  Pyatt could be on the outside looking in, if only because there are younger, cheaper versions of himself ready to play in Hamilton.  UFA Jeff Halpern looks like he'll be in the position that Dominic Moore was in last year at this time.  The company line will be, "we liked your work, but we've decided to go in a different direction."  This basically means we'll try to replace you with someone younger, and if that doesn't work out, we'll find a veteran kind of like you. 

So that is basically, in a nutshell, what the Canadiens GM will have to deal with, along with the NHL draft, in the coming weeks. If you're exhausted from reading the short novel I just wrote, imagine how exhausting it will be for the guy in charge of making all of these decisions.  So far all of you armchair GM's out there who think you can a better job than Gauthier, maybe it's time to a step back and realize that it's one of the hardest jobs in hockey.  Especially when you consider that one of the most skeptical and critical fan-bases in the world is watching and analyzing your every move, waiting for you to trip up.  So, as Pierre Gauthier gears up for what will be an action-filled couple of months, I wish him the best of luck. He's going to need every ounce of it.