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.

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