Thursday, July 12, 2012

The new Habs, more like your dad’s Habs

Sorry folks, this post has been long overdue.  Hope you’ve all been well in the interim between the Habs failure to make the playoffs and now.  I’m sure that many of you would agree that the 2011-12 season was somewhat of a write-off.  Not only did we lose a lot of games, we played a fairly boring brand of hockey, which did not make for what you’d call an exciting TV experience.

The good news is that it can only go up from here. With tons of losing usually comes renewal and a fresh start, and that is the case with the Habs of 2012-13.  Will we win the cup? Probably not.  Will we make the playoffs? Possibly, but nothing is guaranteed.  Will we be better than last year? Most assuredly.  Let me explain.

Culture Change

Sure, you’ve heard these words before, but rarely have you seen them actually being put into practice in Montreal.  Well, I’m here to tell you that gosh darnit it’s actually happening: things are changing, and for the first time in years (maybe ever) I’m confident that the team has a real plan in place to win the cup, not just make the playoffs. 

The first step was simple enough: get a GM who gets it.  Gauthier clearly didn’t, Marc Bergevin clearly does.  Gauthier was not a delegator; he kept things private and tried to do it all on his own.  This does not work in today’s NHL.  Bergevin has made it clear from day 1 that he planned on surrounding himself with a team of hockey minds to make the best decisions possible.

Since that time he’s poached ex-GM Rick Dudley to be his assistant, hired ex-Habs Michel Therrien, Patrice Brisebois and JJ Daigneault to be coaches, and brought ex-teammates Scott Mellanby and Martin Lapointe aboard in key management positions. 

The organization has not looked so cohesive in years.  Most importantly, Bergevin has opened the door to a new day in communication skills.  “Monsieur this and monsieur that” have taken a back seat to honesty and saying it like it is. Thank god for that.

The Draft

The next step was the draft, the first opportunity for Bergevin to really put his fingerprints on the club.  What he did with the team’s first selection was obvious to most, but not so obvious when you consider how disappointing our draft record in the first round has been in the last 30 years or so.  Here he drafted what everyone in this city has been begging for, for years: a big, talented centre. Hallelujah.  Alex Galchenyuk was the player everyone with half a brain wanted, and we got him. 

The rest of the draft was also fairly impressive.  The 2nd round selections were made up of two players who many thought would be first rounders. Sebastian Collberg looks like a boom or bust type winger, a razzle-dazzle, Claude Giroux-type who could either grow into being a dynamic top 6 forward, or fall by the wayside due to his lack of size and physicality.  Dalton Thrower looks like a real gamer, a D-man with grit and offensive flair.  Think Kevin Bieksa.  Like Bieksa he’s not the biggest man, but has made a name for himself in the WHL for not backing down from a fight.  Dalton Thrower: yes, the name really does fit the player!

Bergevin filled out the last few rounds with more talented players that seemed to drop in ranking rather inexplicably. Tim Bozon, son of former NHL’er Phillippe Bozon, was drafted 64th overall.  Playing in just his first year in Canada, Bozon led the WHL in rookie scoring with a line of 36-35-71.  His stock may have dropped due to his nationality, French, and his raw defensive skills.  His finishing ability reminds me of Michael Ryder.

Brady Vail went in the 4th round, and was one of the more safe picks.  Vail is labeled as a solid two-way centre in the mold of a Ryan Kesler, but who projects more as a 3rd line shutdown guy.  He fits into the same category of prospect Michael Bournival, a steady, reliable forward with NHL-ready hockey sense. Whether his actual skill-set will translate into an NHL career remains to be seen.

5th rounder Charles Hudon came next, another boom-or-bust-type forward. Relatively small, Hudon has the talent and scoring ability to be a top 6 forward, but his lack of speed and size is what scared most teams away.  Similarly to Collberg, if he can bulk up and retain his overall ability, this could be an interesting pick.

Next up was Eric Nyström from the Swedish Elite League, and from the way head scout Trevor Timmins describes him, he’ll turn out to be the steal of draft.  Apparently Timmins sent scouts to check out 2012 first rounder Henrik Samuelsson, and ended up being more interested by the shifty 5’11, 180 lb Swede. Time will only tell if the Swedish scout hit a home run here, as will be the case with the rest of this year’s picks.  But all indications point towards a successful draft by the first year GM.

The Signings

Marc Bergevin has preached patience from day 1 of his candidacy, and his FA signings thus far have done nothing to dispel that notion.  Sticking with his mandate to make the team “tough to play against”, the GM’s first order of business was bringing gritty forward Travis Moen back into the mix.  Moen was a revelation last season, scoring key goals while filling in on the top 2 lines.  The rugged winger was on pace for his most goals and points ever before an upper body injury ended his season. 

Moen had shown enough to the new management team, however, as they inked him to a 4-year deal worth $7.4m. The most important part about this deal for me is the term, four years.  A two-year deal would have been a waste of money, simply because the team will not be competitive (Stanley Cup competitive) in that timeframe. You want a guy like Moen around when a potential superstar like Galchenyuk really starts rolling in 2-3 years.

The same can be said with the first, big UFA pickup, Brandon Prust.  Also inked to a 4-year deal ($10m), Prust gives the organization another ultra-physical player, an excellent, grinding two-way winger that puts a contending team over the top. Like Moen, he doesn’t come in as a potential team savior, but he’s the kind of player that you feel comfortable slotting into any number of roles: a true team guy.

Lesser signings Colby Armstrong and ex-Hab Francis Bouillon also fit that bill. Both signed to 1-year deals of around a million each, these vets will have no trouble integrating themselves into the team. Both will know their role, and barring injuries (which both have been plagued of, of late) will fill them nicely.

A term that gets thrown around a lot in hockey is that of the “role player”.  Bergevin didn’t break the bank in free agency thus far, but he identified a real weakness on the team, and addressed it head on.  The bottom six of the club has been in disarray for a number of years, and the concept of having specific roles for each player on the team has gone by the wayside.

That clearly ended this year. With the return of Moen, and the additions of Armstrong and Prust, the team already looks to have solidified the bottom 6 with tough, gritty individuals.  The team may not be the most talented, but they surely won’t be pushed around by the Bruins of the world with this new lineup.

In addition to these signings, the team made maybe it’s most important transaction of the year, locking up star goalie Carey Price for 6 years at $6.5m a year. There was no surprise here, but it’ always good news when you re-sign a player of this caliber. Other notable re-signings were Lars Eller to a two-year deal (1.325m per) as well as Aaron Palushaj to a two-way, one-year deal.

Next up will be a comprehensive, up to date report on the Montreal Impact, who are currently fighting for their playoff lives in the MLS.  Till then!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On Molson and Roy

Sorry for the delay fellow puck fiends, but I haven’t felt the need to sink my teeth into any Habs-related news of late.  Even the latest “news” that Patrick Roy is slated to be the Montreal Canadiens next coach is hardly more than an educated guess than truth in my opinion.

Even if it is in fact true that Geoff Molson has taken over the duties of GM for the remainder of the season, it makes no sense that he would decide now to make Patrick Roy the coach for next year.  I find it hard to believe that Molson suddenly believes he’s a hockey expert, and would go off on a limb, months before the 2012-13 season, and choose a new coach.  Now is not the time for rash decisions, and Molson does not strike me as a guy who makes them. 

Owners usually don’t make huge hockey decisions such as these, especially ones who have just barely arrived on the scene and are feeling things out.  I fully expect this owner to first fire Gauthier at the end of the season, hire a new GM not too long after, and have that GM handpick his coach in time for the 2012 entry draft. 

So no, I don’t believe that Patrick Roy has signed a pre-contract, or whatever they’re calling it.  Nor do I believe he’s the best man for the job, or close to it. Roy is a loose cannon, in every sense of the word.  He also has, and always will be, as cocky and egotistical a hockey personality you will find, which is not exactly a great element you want with a young, rebuilding team.

Yes, I know, he has been the coach of the Quebec Remparts, a Junior team full of young players for the last 7 years.  I’m also aware that he led the team to a memorial cup victory in his rookie season, which is indeed impressive.  It should also be noted though, that he has also been the GM and owner of that team for that time, suggesting that he’s not used to taking orders from anyone.

Which, of course, makes my point perfectly: Roy has, and always has been, a one-man show.  Was he a fierce competitor? Yes.  A hall of fame goalie? Yes.  A winner in every sense of the word? Yes.  But was he a team guy?   Not really. 

On a team full of egos, do you really want your biggest ego to be the coach?  Because if you hire Roy, that’s exactly what you’ll get. 

But who knows, maybe Geoff Molson is dead set on bringing Roy back into the fold, figuring that he needs a lightning rod to re-energize the franchise.  If that’s the case, I could understand Roy being chosen instead as the GM, not the coach.  I still don’t like it much, because he has zero experience in the NHL, but if you you’re as tired as I am of the kind of mopes we’ve had running this team lately, Roy will definitely be anything but.  He may not be great at it at first, but you know he’ll be aggressive, and you know he’ll work harder than the next guy to try and get deals done.

So yeah, if he’s literally the only French-speaking GM applicant with any semblance of balls out there, well heck, maybe he’s the right guy for the job.  What this team needs more than ever is to get out of safe mode and start trying to hit some home runs (and if you’re wondering, no, trading for Scott Gomez was not a home run). 

I’m not saying Roy would be my first choice for the job; far from it.  But if in five years from now we’re still talking about how we need to tweak the team by trading a few guys and adding a few guys (as we seem to do every year), I’d bet it’s because we brought in a Gauthier/Gainey clone.  Nothing could be worse than that, not even Patrick Roy of all people running our team…

Monday, February 27, 2012

Habs at the Deadline: Trade Assessment

As you’ve probably already heard, Andrei Kostitsyn, the Habs highest drafted forward (10th overall 2003) in the past 17 years, was traded today.  Kostitsyn was traded for a 2nd round pick in the 2013 draft, and the conditional 5th rounder we traded away in the Hal Gill deal.  Kostitsyn thus joins the rather long list of Hab draft picks, specifically those of the talented winger variety, that have been traded away in the last 4-5 years or so.

So what do Guillaume Latendresse, Chris Higgins, Michael Ryder, Sergei Kostitsyn, Matt D’agostini, Mikhail Grabovski, and now Andrei Kostitsyn all have in common?  Inconsistency? Sure, you could say that about all of them, but you could also say they’ve all gone on to be much more important cogs on their respective new clubs. So maybe, just maybe, there’s something else going on.

Here’s two names that might be a bit of a clue: Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec.  See where I’m going with this?  No?  All right I’ll tell you.  These are the top centers all of the aforementioned players had at their disposal for the duration of their careers with the Montreal Canadiens.  

That, in a word, is very sad.  Both are small.  Both are classic overachievers.  Koivu, in his defense, was probably a bit past his prime when Higgins and Ryder first came on the scene, but either way, in no way shape or form was he ever a bona fide first line center.  As for Plekanec, I’ve stated my case on many an occasion.  He’s a second line center best known for his two-way play and penalty killing, rather than his offensive creativity. 

So yeah, it’s no wonder why Andrei Kostitsyn never became the 30-35 goal scorer we all dreamed he would be.  All we need to do is look at all the other ex-hab top 6 wingers, and the answer should be as clear as day.

Latendresse scored 28 goals in his first season with the Wild before running into a series of bad injuries.  Higgins never really found his scoring touch again, but he’s now a very serviceable and trusted player on the Vancouver Canucks, who have a plethora of scoring options.  Michael Ryder won a cup with Boston and is on pace for 30 or more this year.  Sergei Kostitsyn scored 23 in his first year with Nashville, and is on pace for 20 again this year. D’agostini scored 21 last year with the Blues. Grabovski scored 29 last year, and is considered Toronto’s top center at the moment.

You get the picture.  They’ve all improved since leaving the Habs, and for players who were once considered inconsistent and “problem childs” to a certain extent, have all shed those tags.   But were they really any of those things to begin with? Or isn’t it more likely that the lack of talented players surrounding them had more to do with their struggles?

That’s what I think anyways.  I’m also pretty sure that brother Andrei will only add to the list of decent forwards we dumped for nothing that went on to have good to very good careers.  The organization only has themselves to blame for that. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Habs in 2012: Is there a gameplan? Part 3, Defensemen

This section could also be titled, “Does Andrei Markov really exists?” or “With or without you: The Andrei Markov story.”

I mean let’s get real here.  If we knew at the beginning of the year that Markov wouldn’t play at all, would any of us actually have given the Habs a chance? Not likely.  And this isn’t just about the Canadiens.  There’s a reason the goalies look horrible in Philadelphia this year.  No Chris Pronger.  Do you remember the last time Zdeno Chara got injured? I don’t.  But if you did, you probably would also find a string of losses attached to it.

You can blame our current losing season on a number of factors, but at the end of the day, the fact that we don’t have Markov, and didn’t replace him with anything good, pretty much tells the story of the season.  Last season we didn’t have Markov for most of it, but at least we had Roman Hamrlik.  To add to that, we also traded for James Wisniewski, a player that we relied on heavily for minutes and PP goals. 

And this season? No Markov.  No Hamrlik.  No Wisniewski.  And who did we get in their stead? Tomas Kaberle.  Alexei Emelin.  Raphael Diaz.  No matter how you cut, these are all downgrades.  Sure Emelin and Diaz are good young players that will get better, but they are still just rookies.  As for Tomas Kaberle, I don’t even want to go there.  He’s not worth my time (edit: of course he scored tonight, jerk).

Now on to next season.  Here’s who we know will be back:

Andrei Markov (if we can find him), PK Subban, Josh Gorges, Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz

As it did with this season, next year will depend a lot on what happens with Andrei Markov.  His presence (or lack their of) will play the biggest role on the defense (and the team as a whole) going forward.  There isn’t a team that has ever won anything with a player of that caliber missing for the whole year.  Maybe the Flyers will win the cup this year and I’ll eat my words, but I seriously doubt it. 

As I write this piece, Hal Gill has been traded to the Nashville Predators.  So what does that mean for next year?  Well for starters, probably a heck of a lot more ice-time for Alexei Emelin.  Of all the players on this team (and not just d-men), Emelin has probably shown the most improvement since day 1.  He’s also a player that, despite being labeled a defensive, stay-at-home type defenseman, has a lot more offensive potential than one would think.  Is he PK Subban? No, definitely not.  But is he Mike Komisarek?  Far from it.  From what I’ve seen, he’s a smooth skater who’s not afraid of jumping up into the play and making things happen.  With a season under his belt, he’ll show off these offensive skills more next year.

With a number of interesting prospects probably playing in Hamilton next year, notably Nathan Beaulieu, Morgan Ellis, and maybe Jarred Tinordi, we’ll probably sign a veteran D in the mold of Roman Hamrlik next season.  Or at least that’s what they should do.

Frankly, the veteran element is really what the Habs have been missing all year long.  Having rookie D’s Diaz and Emelin playing big minutes, sophmore D Subban playing the most minutes, and having a guy like Gill playing probably 4-5 minutes more than he should a game, it really put the team in a tough spot. Here’s a shortlist of potential candidates for the position:

Bryan Allen, 31
Fedor Tyutin, 27
Brad Stuart, 32
Niklas Kronwall, 31
Willie Mitchell, 34           
Greg Zanon, 31
Ryan Suter, 27
Bryce Salvador, 36
Braydon Coburn, 26
Michal Rozival, 33
Barret Jackman, 30
Dennis Wideman, 28

There’s a few players on this list that are probably out of the Habs’ league financially speaking, such as Suter, Kronwall, Coburn and Wideman.  That might not have been the case if we hadn’t traded for Kaberle, but there’s nothing to do about that now.

What we should be in the market for is a veteran version of Josh Gorges, and there are a few interesting options out there.  Willie Mitchell, for instance, would be a nice option.  He can play big minutes, and he plays a smart stay-at-home style.  Brad Stuart would be even more ideal in that he also adds some offense to the equation, but I’m assuming he’ll either be re-signed or over-priced. In the price range we’re looking for (3m– 4m), Barret Jackman would probably be my first choice.  He brings grit, leadership and an overall intensity that the team desperately needs on some nights.  If he’s available (and if they can afford him) I think he should be a priority for the Habs.

As of today, it’s still hard to know just how much money the Habs will have to play with.  Will we re-sign Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn? Their contracts combined are around 5 million $.  Hal Gill’s 2.25m is now officially off the books, along with a savings of 2.7m from the Michael Cammalleri trade, so Gauthier has created a bit of wiggle room for next year.  What’s unclear at this point is how much money will be put aside for Subban and Price, who are both RFA’s this summer.  Either way, it will once again be a tough nut to crack for whoever’s in charge of the Canadiens come July 1st

Next up I will address the Habs prospect pool, paying close attention to those closest to making the jump to the big leagues…

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Habs in 2012: Is there a gameplan? Part 2, Wingers

If there is one area we’ve improved this year, it’s the wing position.  The emergence of Max Pacioretty, coupled with the acquisitions of Erik Cole and Rene Bourque, make this team bigger and better.  Michael Cammalleri maybe had more talent than any one of them, but it became increasingly clear (to this blogger) that he no longer fit with this team.  Here’s a look at the locks at wing for next year:

Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, Rene Bourque, Brian Gionta

The big question mark going into next season is whether or not Andrei Kostitsyn will return.  At this point, there is no clear indication as to which direction management will take, and for good reason.  Who is the real AK?  Is he the guy that has been consistently inconsistent for the past five years? Or is he the guy that has bounced from line to line, a player that has never really been given an opportunity to be consistent?

I’d say a bit of both, but mostly the latter.  Since arriving on the scene in 2006, Kostitsyn has not had what you’d consider a star center at his disposal, or a star player to play with.  Alex Kovalev was the closest thing to that, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s where he had his best year, scoring 26 goals in the process.  He had some success playing with Plekanec and Cammalleri, but I wouldn’t call that a great line, especially with the version of Cammalleri we’d seen over the last 2 seasons.

This season, he’s been all over the place, playing at times with Eller, Plekanec and Gomez.  It would be an interesting litmus test to see him with Desharnais, who, I’d argue, is the best offensive center on the team.  With the great success of the Desharnais-Cole-Pacioretty line, we’ll likely never see that, which begs the question: Will we ever have a chance to see how good AK can be?

Many are clamoring for a sign-and-trade scenario here, and I get that, they don’t want the Canadiens to walk away empty handed.  But as I’ve done so many times before, I’m preaching patience here.

Yes Kostitsyn will get a slight raise next season (say from 3.25m to maybe as high as 4m), and yes that is a lot to pay for a guy that appears more comfortable on a 3rd line than a top line.  But you have to look at the big picture here.  If you don’t re-sign him, you’ll have to sign somebody to replace him, and that someone will cost you just as much, if not more.  Here’s a list of upcoming UFA’s that are in a similar mold to Kostitsyn’s age, talent and pay grade:

Rich Peverley, Boston
Brad Boyes, Buffalo
Tuomo Ruutu, Carolina
Patrick Sharp, Chicago
Kristian Huselius, Columbus
Jiri Hudler, Detroit
Ales Hemsky, Edmonton
Dustin Penner, Los Angeles
P.A. Parenteau, Islanders
Shane Doan, Phoenix
Lee Stempniak, Phoenix
Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh
Mikhail Grabovski, Toronto
Alex Semin, Washington

After a quick glance, you can cross a bunch of players off that will probably re-sign with their current teams, like Doan, Sharp, Parenteau, Kunitz and Semin. 

Then there are the players that are wildly injury prone or inconsistent, so you can scratch off Boyes, Huselius and Penner.

Grabovski left here unceremoniously. He’s not coming back.

So that leaves you with Peverley, Ruutu, Hudler and Stempniak.  Of these players, I’d say maybe one, Ruutu, has the talent and potential of Kostitsyn.  The others are as big a gamble to work out as Kostitsyn, and might just cost as much as him in free agency. 

If Ruutu ends up being the most desirable free agent winger on the market come July, guess what, he’ll probably cost the most.  Are the Habs ready to overpay for another player?

See where I’m going with this?  If you’re going to trade Kostitsyn or let him walk, there needs to be a good reason to, and I just don’t see one. 

Fortunately there is hope for those like me who’d like to see good ole AK stay.  Gauthier has already made a trade this year (Cammalleri) to shed the team of salary, and from my point of view, nobody would be concerned about re-signing Kostitsyn at 4m a year if we had more money at our disposal.  If the team were able to hide or pay way less of Scott Gomez’s contract, for instance, keeping Kostitsyn wouldn’t be such an issue. 

So if it were up to me I’d keep AK and continue shedding deadweight salaries like Gomez.

As for the other wingers, it’s a not tough call in my opinion.  Travis Moen will probably never be worth more than he is right now, so he needs to be traded at the deadline.  This decision is helped along with the acquisitions of big bodies like Bourque and Cole.  A whole season with the feisty Ryan White won’t hurt either.  The Canadiens are no longer a small team, no matter how much you’d like to believe it.  A player like Moen, though very likable, is easier to replace next season then Kostitsyn.  I’d probably keep Darche because he costs less but is almost just as useful as Moen.  As much we all want to see the team get younger and more talented, every winning team needs good soldiers like Darche.  He bleeds bleu, blanc, et rouge, and is willing to play for next to nothing to get that opportunity.

Louis Leblanc’s improved play since his last call up makes me think he’ll be ready to join the club next year, especially if he bulks up over the summer.

If Michael Blunden is still around on the 4th line next year, I won’t be too disappointed.  Before his injury he seemed to be playing his role well, and even showed some semblance of offensive prowess.

As for the last couple of spots, it will most likely come down to training camp battles between the likes of current AHLers Aaron Palushaj, Gabriel Dumont and Andres Engqvist.  There’s also a distinct possibility that the team will look towards free agency to fill some gaps, but it’s still too early to tell what kind of gaps will need filling.  If they decide to trade both Moen and Kostitsyn for instance, there could be a lot of work to be done come July.  We’ll just have to wait and see…

Next up are the defensemen. This one will be shorter, I promise.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Habs in 2012: Is there a gameplan? Part 1, Centers

I wonder about this almost every day. Do the Habs’ brass actually have a plan for the future?  I sincerely don’t know.  Today I’ll be talking about the Canadiens’ future plan at the Center position.  Here ‘s what we know.

The following players, barring trades (or further injuries) will all be in the starting lineup next year:

Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller

I didn’t include Scott Gomez in that list because I think there is little to no chance he is back on the team next season.  I can understand if the team decides to wait until next year to begin buying him out (in order to save money on the cap), but to go any longer than that would be basically saying to the fans, “we have no intention of winning until his contract ends.”  It’s as simple as that.  If they had any balls at all, they would just put him in the minors till his contract expires in 2014.  Glen Sather has been doing it with Wade Redden for the last two years, freeing up 6.5m a year of cap space in the process.  Geoff Molson would have to pay Scott Gomez 7.3m a year to play in the AHL, but at least his chances of making that money back in the playoffs would be greatly improved, no?

The center situation is an interesting one for me.  It appears clear that Desharnais is a quality top 6 center.  His work ethic is top shelf, he has great vision on the ice, and he’s proven night in, night out, that his small frame is not as big a concern that many would have imagined.  The amount of times that he comes out of a battle along the boards with the puck is shocking, really.  In the end, I see no reason to believe that he will do anything but continue to improve.  

I feel the same way about Lars Eller.  Here I see a player who consistently makes smart decisions with the puck.  He doesn’t have the overall skillset that a Jordan Staal has, but they play a similar style of game.  In a perfect world, Eller would be a lock at the no.3 center spot for years to come.  However, a lot of that hinges on the team having a real no.1 center, which we do not currently have.

I like Tomas Plekanec, really I do.  He’s a player who you can count on to deliver his all, every night.  Unfortunately, his all, which includes his professionalism and dedication to the team, is simply not a good enough fit for this team. I know that sounds harsh but consider this.  When the Canadiens traded Halak for Eller 2 seasons ago, their plan was what exactly?  To mold this 13th overall pick into a winger?  I seriously doubt it. 

No, I think they were thinking that they got a guy who could eventually be a bigger, better version of Plekanec.  Today, all the signs are there: Like Plex he plays a smart two-way game, sees the ice well and has an excellent work ethic.  Just like Plekanec he’s starting off as the 3rd line center, but unlike Plekanec, that’s WHERE HE SHOULD STAY.

What this team needs (and always seems to need) is a top line center.  What we’ve done over the last 15 years or so, is promote guys who have 2nd/3rd line talent, to the top spot, because there’s nobody better.  We’ve been fooling ourselves into believing that players like Plekanec, Gomez, Koivu, Ribeiro, etc., were actually No.1’s, but they were far from it. 

So my answer is simple:  focus all your energy on procuring a first line center.  I’m not saying jump the gun and trade for him this year, or even next.  I’m just saying HAVE A PLAN.  Maybe it starts at the upcoming draft.  Two centers, Mikhail Grigerenko  and Alex Galchenyuk jump out as players that have top line center potential written all over them.  If I was able to grab one of these two players I would do it, without hesitation.  After all, what better way to build a team than through the draft.  Also, it’s not like teams in the NHL are that big on trading away their best centers. It’s usually the kind of player you’d like to hang onto.  

The other great thing about the draft is that there is no bidding war: if he’s available, you just take him. When you trade for a top line center, the cost isn’t just high because he’s good, it’s exorbinately high because EVERYONE WANTS HIM.  We saw this season the Columbus Blue Jackets trade one of their best young star wingers Jaboc Voracek, their top pick which turned into Jordan Staal clone Sean Couturier, and a 3rd round pick for center, Jeff Carter.  Carter is good, no doubt about it, but when you trade young quality players for a guy that is signed to 5.273m/11 year contract, you better hope he’s more than good. Last time, I checked he hasn’t been.

No, the smart money is doing what all the current champions have done: Drafted a winner.  My plan at center would be this:

·      Put all my eggs into a drafting a top flight center
·      Trade Plekanec when said center is ready, for a veteran, shutdown D
·      Keep Desharnais and Eller at the two and three spot
·      Stick to the plan

And that’s the most important part about all this.  If there’s a plan (and I’m not convinced there is) than let it play out.  The fans deserve that at the very least.

Tomorrow I'll be discussing the situation at wing.  It will also be a doozy...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Quick notes from last night...

5 on 5:  When you outshoot the opponents 30-16, you can't be playing that bad.  Sure we had a ridiculously long PP in the 3rd, but it's not like a bulk of shots came from that (i'll get to that in a minute).  In general, we played the right way all game long, which is to say we fore-checked well, we created opportunities in around the net, and we limited the Caps' scoring chances.  Unfortunately nothing went in, and the very few scoring chances the visitors had, they scored on.  Washington has a very deep squad with a lot of highly skilled players, and it showed last night.  The goals scored by Perreault and Johannson were ones you'd rarely see a Habs player score.  The goal scored by Ovechkin was a picture perfect slap shot with an equally perfect screen.

The game overall reminded me a bit of our playoff tilt with the Caps 2 years ago, except with the roles reversed.  There, it seemed like the Capitals game plan was shoot as often as possible and hope for the best.  The Habs game plan was hit them hard in transition and win with speed and skill.  Last night Washington scored exactly that way, taking full advantage on the counter attack on the few chances they had.  Did they win? Yes.  Did they play much better? Not really.

The PP:  What can you say anymore?  They literally have no idea what they're doing.  Mix that in with not a lot of great PP threats and you have a real problem on your hands.

Solutions?  Do some research and change it up.  I remember telling a friend in November (or maybe even October) that they should watch tape of other teams and take some notes.  Vancouver was an example of a team to check out, but maybe that was mistake because we have nothing that resembles their players on our team.  Unfortunately, after a quick look around the league for similar quality players on the blueline and upfront, I came up with the Phoenix Coyotes.  Where do the Coyotes sit in PP percentage? 29th, just ahead of us.  So scratch that.  How about the NY Islanders? They currently sit 6th in the NHL at 19.4%. That's pretty darn good.  They have Mark Streit on D who is obviously quite good, but not really anyone that much better than us on D.  Our forwards stack up pretty evenly, so then it must just come down to execution.  I'm pretty sure that if Cunneyworth watched tape of their PP, one thing would become abundantly clear:  They hit the net on a regular basis from the points.  I could probably count on two hands the amount of wrist shots PK Subban has successfully hit the net with on the PP.  To me, him and Weber are the big reason why they struggle so much.  They simply don't have the wherewithal to consistently get the puck on net--it just doesn't come naturally to them.

Before this year, the Canadiens had traded for or signed a PP shooter early on in the season or just before.  In succession, they acquired Mathieu Schneider, M.A. Bergeron, and James Wisniewski.  All three of these players greatly improved the Habs PP.  I remember it being night and day last year with the acquisition of Wisniewski, where we had gone 0 for god knows how many before picking him up.  He instantly changed the fortune of the team.

This year? Tomas Kaberle.  Since his arrival I think our team and PP has gotten worse.  People would have laughed, but I bet this team would have been better off with Brian McCabe right now.  As old and horrible as he is defensively, at least he could do the one thing none of the Habs' D seem able to do. Hit the net.

Hit the net. What a concept.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bourque is a nice pickup

Remember how happy you were when we signed Erik Cole earlier this year? Well, trading for Rene Bourque 6 months later is not a whole lot different.  Let me explain.

Rene Bourque and Erik Cole are essentially the same type of player.  One is faster (Cole), and the other is more physical (Bourque), but in the end they amount to the same type of player and production.  They both like to drive the net with speed, and muck it up in front of the net.

They are exactly what this team needs, and it shows that Pierre Gauthier is finally getting it.

So why do most pundits say Calgary won this trade?

Well, quite simply, it's the year of picking on the Habs organization, so get used to hearing how much of a failure they are.  Every year, Canadian sports journalists (save those in Quebec) pick the Habs to miss the playoffs (or just sneak in), and this year they finally got their wish.  It's a banner year for talking heads covering hockey, in large part due to the Canadiens' horrible season.  Instead of eating their words, they've had chance after chance to gloat about how right they were about the team's failure, from the players right up to the ownership group (see Mike Milbury on CBC).

Last night's game was a good example of what happens when each line shows up to play.  You could look at the stats from the game and say that the Desharnais line did everything, but there's so much more to it than that.  One line cannot be effective if the other three are useless.  Of course that's obvious, but that's the story of the Canadiens season thus far.  Most games that I've watched have consisted of one, maybe two lines each game putting pressure on the opposing defense.  This, in my opinion, is the major reason why they lose more often than not.

You can point your finger at the defense all you want, and I guess that's the easy thing to do.  After all, they're young, small, and easily pushed around.  But the big reason to why they've looked bad this year is because they're overworked due to the offense's ineffectiveness.

Think of an ineffective offense in football as a good analogy.  If your offense is bad in football, it usually means that your defense is on the field way too much.  When your defense is always on the field, the consequences are obvious. You get tired. You get beat up.  You get ineffective.

The same happens in hockey, but in perhaps a less blatant way.  All those shifts where the forwards don't fore-check, don't pressure the defense, and basically spend no time in the other team's zone, basically mean that the defense is working overtime.  This has been the Habs' season in nutshell.

Last night was an example of the opposite.  Why don't we see it more often?  Who knows.  I will say this though:  What Randy Cunneyworth did in last night's game, where he benched Lars Eller for a whole period, showed to me that the coach means business.  He's setting the precedent for the consequences of not working every shift.  Eventually this should sink in with all the players, and there will probably be a greater chance of seeing games like we saw last night.

One can only hope.  The good news is that they we ridded ourselves of a player who clearly had no intention of getting the message.

Will Bourque be as hard-headed? Maybe.  But at least he costs 2,700,000$ less.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Michael “Untradeable?” Cammalleri… Traded

Okay, so I know I said yesterday that I thought a bunch of players on the Montreal Canadiens were immovable, and that near the top of that list was Michael Cammalleri.  I looked at his contract, his play over the last year or so, and really couldn’t see another GM trading for him.  It would take a miracle.  It would take a GM maybe more desperate than ours to make it happen. 

Well it happened.  Jay Feaster, GM of the Calgary Flames needed to shake things up nearly as badly as we did, enough so that he traded for a 6m$ player that has scored 9 goals in 38 games year.  The only good news about Cammalleri is that he’s scored near 40 goals playing for the Flames and his partner in crime, Jarome Iginla.  To me, though, the good news ends there.  It seems strange that most pundits believe it’s more a shoe-in for Cammalleri to succeed post-trade than it is for Rene Bourque. What exactly are they basing this on? Scoring totals from three years ago? Playoff performances two years ago?  Is anyone looking at the current versions of these players?

All I’m hearing is the bad things about Bourque, how he doesn’t care, he’s a headcase, etc,. Well just because Kelly Hrudey had nothing bad to say about Cammalleri, doesn’t mean his “care meter” wasn’t also severly broken.  Will he do better in Calgary? Probably.  But the more important question for Habs fans should be: was he ever going to get better here? I seriously doubt it.

You can say all you want about how badly Gauthier handled the optics of this trade, as well as the dual firings earlier in the year, but as far as this trade is concerned, I like it.

If you read my last blog, I made it pretty clear that Cammalleri was not part of the solution in Montreal.  What’s worse, his gigantic contract was going to inhibit management from potentially bringing back, or bringing in certain players.  Cammalleri is, and always has been, a player that’s needed the perfect storm to be at his best. 

Sure, you can say the same about a lot of players, but maybe no more so than this player.  His game is a lot like Brett Hull’s, a player that made a name for himself with his rocket of a shot, and being in the right place at the right time to unleash it.  The problem is that Hull scored the bulk of his goals in an era where goalies weren’t as good, nor were their defenses (or more specifically, defensive systems).  Like Cammalleri, he scored the bulk of his goals from outside the hashmarks with one-timers.

 I don’t have statistical analysis on this, but it seems to me that goalies aren’t giving up nearly as many goals from those spots.  And if Cammalleri isn’t scoring from those spots, he’s simply not scoring at all.  That is unless he decides to suddenly work harder to get to the dirtier areas (a.k.a. near the net) to score goals.  If he does, it will simply be another example of a player who gave up trying in Montreal (see Ryder, Kostitsyn, Ribeiro), and turned it around with another team.  Can’t really blame the GM for that, can you?

So out goes Cammalleri and his 6M/a year contract through the 2013/2014 season, a 2012 5th round pick, and the rights to KHL goalie Karri Ramo.  In comes Bourque, paid 3.33M a year through 2014-15, a 2nd rounder in 2013 and center Patrick Holland, a 7th rounder in 2010, and currently 9th in WHL scoring with 57 points in 40 games.  If someone told me that we traded Cammalleri for Patrick Holland and a 2nd round pick, I probably wouldn’t be thrilled, but at least I would take solace in the fact that we shed salary, and that would be a victory in itself.  The fact that we got Bourque as well was just icing on the cake.  You can say what you want about the guy, but the facts are these: He can score goals, and score them in places where a lot of our players are scared to go. 

Is he inconsistent: yes. 

Does he do stupid things once in a while: yes. 

But is he better player for the current Montreal Canadiens than Michael Cammalleri? 

I believe so.  The Canadiens are a team that needs to get bigger, but more importantly, without clear superstar-type players, they need to shed guys that are one-dimensional.  Rene Bourque might not be the hardest worker, but he adds more than one dimension to the team, something that is already a step up from Cammalleri.  He has size, strength and goal-scoring ability.  Both players have been accused of disappearing at times, but at least Bourque can lean on the defence a bit, can be asked to just forecheck if nothing else is working, and he’ll be more effective than Cammalleri.  The worst kind of player to have on your team is a one-trick pony, and that’s exactly what Cammalleri is.

The best part about this trade though is the monetary implications.  We just lost a player that was out-scored 67-54 by his trade counterpart.  The only thing he beats Bourque on is his pay rate, which is 2.7m$ more a year.  Before this trade was completed, I had serious doubts about whether or not Andrei Kostitsyn could be re-signed for next year.  With the money saved on the Cammalleri deal, they're now well on their way to bringing him back.  Like him or not, Kostitsyn is one of the few Hab players that has improved this year.  He has obvious chemistry with Eller, and it would be a shame to ship out a player who’s finally starting to really come in to his own.  As Eller improves so too will Kostitsyn, and both their point totals will go up subsequently.  Kostitsyn will not cost a king’s ransom to keep (between 3.5-4m a year), simply because he’s not having a great year point-wise.  To add to that, I seriously doubt we’ll find a player on the free agent market who’s as good as Kostitsyn at that price.  So if it means we traded Cammalleri to keep Kostitsyn, it’s a win for us.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mid-Season Habs Report:  Injuries and bad luck mask the truth

As I write this report, just minutes before what would usually be a much-anticipated battle with the Canadiens’ archrival the Bruins, I find myself queerly detached from tonight’s tilt.  In truth, the most interesting Montreal news of the day had to do with another sport entirely, soccer, where the Montreal Impact made their first ever draft selection, Andrew Wenger (1st pick overall). 
To be honest, the best thing about the usually Habs-crazed months of March and April will be the Impact this year.  Will they be any good? Odds are not in their favor.  But at least there will be an abundance of hope and buzz, words that can’t be associated with Nos Glorieux at the moment.

If this sounds like I’m giving up on the team this year, it’s probably because I am.  It hasn’t been a good year, and my crystal ball predicts it won’t get much better.  For the first time in a few years the team hasn’t overachieved, hasn’t pulled wins out of their butt, hasn’t held the fort against other, equally average teams.  It’s been a year of realization for the team (or so we hope): they’re not nearly as good as they thought they were.

On the flip side, it’s been a great year for almost all our prospects.  Greg Pateryn (2008 2nd) and Mac Bennett (2009 3rd) are the top D pairing for the always dominant, Michigan Wolverines.  Morgan Ellis (2010 4th) is one of the best two–way d-men in the Q, and after a trade to the Shawinigan Cataractes, will get his shot to show his class on the national stage at the Memorial Cup.  As will teammate Michael Bournival (2010 3rd), who is fresh off his solid performance at the WJC.  Speaking of the WJC, Nathan Beaulieu (2011 1st) and Brendan Gallagher (2010 5th) also made the team, with the latter notably having a monster game in the semifinal tilt against the Russians.  Other notables having solid seasons are Danny Kristo (2008 2nd), Steve Qualier (2008 3rd), and Darren Dietz (2011 5th).

If it sounds like my gushing over prospects is a way of deflecting from the actual misery of the big club, it’s probably because I am.   Can you blame me?  I mean, who wants to talk about a team that relies on Travis Moen to score goals?  Who’s best overall d-man is Josh Gorges?  Who’s best forward is Erik Cole?  In what world does that sound like a recipe for success?

The truth is, we are in the midst of one of our worst seasons in years.  And I’m not just talking about the team on the ice: I’m talking about the organization as a whole.  It all began with the ill-advised re-signing of Andrei Markov who has yet to play a game this season.  To make matters worse, The Canadiens went ahead and traded for another bad contract, Tomas Kaberle, a so-so d-man that they are now stuck with for 2 ½ years. We re-signed Josh Gorges, which is good. However, the contracts signed to Kaberle, Markov and eventually Price and Subban, will probably mean the departures of two our better players this year, Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen. 

Michael Cammalleri is having a horrible season.  He somehow has nine goals; I have no idea how he scored them because he seems so disinterested in playing hockey this year, he must have scored them through osmosis.  Brian Gionta, who now looks to be lost for the year, is having a similarly disappointing year, production wise.  The effort is there, but nothing else it seems.  The same can be said for Tomas Plekanec.  Lots of effort, little results.  And that’s just the thing with this team: there’s just only so much you can do when you’re short on talent.  From the looks of it, our two most talented forwards (Eller and Kostitsyn) play together on the 3rd line.  With Markov out, we probably have the league least talented D corps in the league.  P.K. Subban?  He’s pretty good but would probably be the 4th best D on almost any other team.  Here, he’s treated and utilized like our no.1.

Getting the picture? We simply don’t have that good a team.  Certain players are underachieving  (Cammalleri, Gionta, Plekanec), but then again, there are those who are overachieving as well (Desharnais, Cole, Eller).  What it all amounts to is a team that is still miles away from contending for a cup. 

But it’s not necessarily as simple a problem as we need more talent to succeed.  If that were the case, we could probably be a contender as early as next year.  Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.   There’s the small issue of our untradeable players.  Let me introduce you to the following players signed for the next 2 ½ years: Michael Cammalleri (6M a year), Scott Gomez (7.3M a year), Tomas Kaberle (4.25M a year) Andrei Markov (5.75M a year) and Brian Gionta (5M a year). That’s 28.3M$.  That’s a lot of dough being tied up into players that are pretty useless at the moment. 

No other team in the league is suffering from such a problem at the moment.  Even Anaheim, who are having a rough season, are getting way more bang for their buck from their stars then we are.  What it all means is two things:  Not only are we handcuffed financially from improving our club, but we’re also stuck having to play these players for the foreseeable future.  Want to see Brendan Gallagher play right wing next year? I know I do.  But where?  Unless Gionta and Cammalieri get injured or sent to the minors, there’s simply no room for Gallagher on the team.   The same goes for almost any other burgeoning prospect in our system.  They’re all stuck waiting in queue behind a bunch of overpaid, underachieving players that are currently immovable objects.

Sadly, I have more bad news.  Unless the organization pulls a rabbit out of the hat and magically makes a couple of these horrid contracts disappear, I’ll probably be writing an identical mid-season report next year…