I’m not going to mince words here: The fact that GM Pierre Gauthier acquired Eric Cole, a fast-skating, big-bodied forward, pretty much makes this offseason a success. Anything Gauthier does from this point forward is figurative icing on the cake, because let’s face it: Cole was practically everything the Habs needed.
Cole, a 6’2 205 lbs power forward, is getting up there in age, 32, but after last year’s successful season (26-26-52-pts-82 games), doesn’t seem to be slowing down much. The Habs signed him to a 4-year contract that will take him to age 36, but it’s worth it when you factor in the intangibles he brings to the table. Though he may not be as physical a presence as he once was, Cole is not a player that is easily pushed around, a quality that the Habs clearly had the need for.
The team can defend the notion that they are not a small team all they want (their overall weight and height averages are on par with the rest of the league) but what’s important is the size of their top 6. Players like Gionta, Cammalieri, Plekanec and Gomez require strong, physical linemates to create space for them. Unfortunately, just being big is not quite good enough, as we saw with last year’s Travis Moen project.
When Moen lined up on numerous occasions with either the Plekanec or Gomez line, it quickly became clear that it’s hard to create space for your linemates if the defence doesn’t care that you’re on the ice. Moen’s inability to put the puck in the net (along with fellow Martin pet projects such as Tom Pyatt, Maxime Lapierre, Lars Eller and Benoit Pouliot) made it very hard for our small talented forwards to distinguish themselves offensively.
The addition of Cole, a proven 25-30 goal scorer, thus makes the team exponentially better. For not only did Gauthier acquire a top 6 forward, he acquired a top 6 forward that will make every player in the top 6 more dangerous, something I’d argue would not have been the case if they had signed Ville Leino instead, a potentially more skilled player, but not nearly as big and physical as Cole.
Budaj, Willsie, Blunden, and Trotter
Compared to Cole, these signings were not exactly what you would call exciting. Peter Budaj is a bit of a weird one, simply because I don’t think he’s that great. That said, maybe (hopefully) the Habs did their homework on this one and discovered that he plays better in a back-up role than as a starter. Budaj has played as a clear backup only once in his career, in the 09-10 season behind Craig Anderson, and his numbers in 15 games were decent (5-5-2, 2.64, .917).
It’s hard to really judge his performance last year since the entire Avalanche team mailed it in, in the last few months. I’ll hesitantly say that this is, for now, a decent signing. I think Budaj is an upgrade on Auld from last year, but unlike Auld, who’s been a backup for many years, Budaj will have to prove that he’s capable of withstanding the mental rigors of sometimes going 10-15 games between starts.
I think he’ll be fine, but just would have assumed that Gauthier would acquire a goalie more akin to being a backup, someone like Johan Hedberg, for instance.
Willsie, Blunden, and Trotter are basically depth/AHL moves. Willsie and Trotter were brought in to replace the offence lost with Dustin Boyd and Nigel Dawes leaving for the KHL. Blunden will probably start the year in the AHL as well, but may also have very real chances of playing many games with the big club.
Blunden is a big boy (6’3 207), and could be useful on the 4th line to add some physicality and grit. He also appears to have more potential scoring punch than say Tom Pyatt and Ryan White, who just yesterday signed a one-year, one-way deal with the club.
Though most of the team is pretty much set in stone, there will be some solid competition in training camp for the 6-7 D-man spot, along with bottom-6 duties.
On offense, look for Ryan White, David Desharnais, Mike Blunden, Matthieu Darche, Travis Moen, Lars Eller and most probably another soon-to-be signed forward (big winger or center) to fight it out for potential ice-time.
You could even throw Andrei Kostitsyn and Max Pacioretty into that mix, seeing as though there are no guarantees that either will be in the top 6 (Though you’d assume Pacioretty has the inside track on that spot).
On defense it will be particularly dicey for the bottom spots in the rotation. Yannick Weber seemed to improve leaps and bounds last year, but he’ll be fighting for ice with newly signed draft pick Alexei Yemelin (who goes back to the KHL if he doesn’t stick) and veteran Yaroslav Spacek, who, though clearly on the down-slope of his career, will probably not be riding the pine with a veteran’s coach like Jacques Martin at the helm.
Even with this potential logjam shaking up, don’t be surprised to see Gauthier go out and acquire another d-man just to be on the safe side, something along the lines of an Alexandre Picard (low-cost, low reward type).
I’ll do another Habs post the second we get another key player (yes, we could be waiting a while…).