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...