Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What a Waste!

Another trade deadline passes, and another set of UFAs will walk away from the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the season without any assets in return.  This has become so common in recent years that it's almost a tradition.  Will the Canadiens resign Campoli?  Darche?  Moen?  Nokelainen?  Of these players only Moen seems to have any place in the organization's future, and I've already made a case in prior articles that I think he will likely be too expensive to be on our list next year.  I understand that these players, aside from Moen, wouldn't bring a significant return, but any draft picks are assets that can bring potential roster players.  The modern NHL is all about drafting, and even seventh rounders can bring impact players.  Anyone remember Sergei Kostitsyn?  Mark Streit?

Looking back at the past few years, too many players have walked with no return.  This is a serious issue, and the Habs need to learn some things from other organizations.  In 2008-2009 we placed eighth, in 2009-2010 we placed eighth, in 2010-2011 we placed sixth in the Eastern Conference regular season.  We weren't cup contenders, we were playoff contenders.  Contending to get into the playoffs, not actually go anywhere once we were there.  If my memory serves me in two of those years we only qualified for the playoffs on the last game of the season.  And because we had hopes of making the playoffs, we didn't trade away any assets at the deadline for future picks and prospects.  Okay fine, we had a chance those years, why not try to make the playoffs and get some experience?  But what about this year, why didn't we trade assets this year?

Lets go back and look at a list of the players who walked those past seasons with nothing to show for them except a sour taste in fans' mouths.  This is not a complete list, only some memorable names.

Steve Begin, Francis Bouillon, Patrice Brisebois, Mathieu Dandenault, Tom Kostopoulos, Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, Alex Tanguay
Marc-Andre Bergeron, Paul Mara, Glen Metropolit, Dominic Moore
Dustin Boyd, Nigel Dawes, Benoit Pouliot, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, Paul Mara (a second time), Brend Sopel, James Wisniewski

Some of these players (Lang, Schneider, Moore, Boyd, Dawes and others) we actually traded for and then let walk in the same season!  This includes second rounders for Moore, Wisniewski, Lang, Schneider, and Matt D'agostini for Boyd.  That's four second round picks in three years!  It's outrageous because the Habs have been a consistently mediocre team since 2007-2008.  

The Montreal Canadiens organization needs to get with the program and buy into the new hockey, because what we're doing right not sure as hell isn't working.  We have a solid group of young talent and we need to be adding to it and giving them experience.  Why keep older players around for these final twenty games when we could call up players like Engqvist, St. Denis or Geoffrion, and play younger guys like Weber and Diaz more minutes?  Will playing Campoli add anything these final twenty games? I see it as actually taking away from the team, because it robs young players of getting more minutes on a bust, no-pressure season.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Does Plekanec Have a Future in Montreal?

Something that has been bothering me of late is the question as to what role Plekanec will be playing in Montreal in two years time?  The logic is quite simple, Montreal currently has three offensively gifted, NHL calibre centres (Plekanec, Desharnais, and Eller), with one on the cusp of the big league (Leblanc), one to be ready in about two years (Bournival) and one possible bona-fide draftee this season.  That's a possible six centres on the club in two years, which makes no sense, thereby implying that some will be traded.  I suspect that this will be Plekanec, and here's why.

First it is necessary to elaborate on the role played by each player:
1) Plekanec seems a mixture between a second and third line centre.  He has offensive skill enough that he can put up serious points, but also has the defensive capabilities to play as a third line penalty killer/energy player.  The creates the situation that I suspect will result in his trade.
2) Desharnais is, if he can continue the game we've seen this season into the future, a quality second line centre.  Possessing a hard work ethic and excellent offensive skill set, Desharnais definitely fits the mould for a top six player.  His lack of size (only 5'7''!), however, really prevents him from moving up or down from this position.
3) Eller's role is ambiguous as of now.  We've seen flashes of offensive brilliance, but by and large Eller has yet to prove that he can consistently put up points in the NHL.  Eller has size and physical play, and if this can be combined with consistent offensive production Eller could perhaps even play as a first line centre in a couple years.  I see Eller as a quality third line centre, however, and I will be conservative and assume he sticks to this role.
4) Leblanc also has an ambiguous role at the moment because it is still unclear if he will play as a centre or be moved to the wing.  I will be conservative here and say that Leblanc will find his place on the wing.
5) Bournival will likely find his place on the third line if he sticks with the club at all.  He has offensive capabilities in junior, but his slow growth and long track to the NHL implies that he doesn't have the natural skill set necessary to play on the top two lines for at least three or four years.  We're currently pretty deep with second/third line centres and Bournival could be traded for another prospect or a veteran in a year or two.
6) Many potential top centres are available every year at the draft.  Montreal has for a few years had a policy of picking the best player available no matter what the team needs, but the team can always trade up or down a couple places to get a player they need.  Seeing as how a top 5 pick has become more and more likely, this play could possibly even start on the Habs next season.  Some top centres available this year are: Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gaunce, Filip Forsberg, and Radek Faksa.  These guys could go anywhere from second pick to tenth, so it is likely Montreal will be able to choose from among most of them.  Players drafted this high are those that are most likely to become top line centres.

So what do we make of all of this?  Montreal has two bonafide second line centres (Plekanec and Desharnais), two likely third line centres (Eller and Bournival), one player who could make things more complicated (Leblanc) and one possible first line centre (the new draftee).  Who stays and who goes?  I think it's safe to say that Montreal won't be a cup competitor again for at least a couple years.  Plekanec is currently 29 years old, and by that time he'll be 31.  Quality teams are generally competitors for a few years in and around actually winning, like Pittsburgh and Detroit were, like Vancouver and Boston are right now.  So if the Habs start competing when Plekanec is 31, and they compete for three years or so, he'll be 34 by the end of it.  Desharnais, on the other hand is only 25, and will will be 27/30 at those same respective times.  I think Plekanec's age will make him the more attractive trade candidate for both the buyer and the seller, thereby rendering him the more likely to be traded.

With two younger players competing for the spot below him on the third line, and one possible bonafide centre to be drafted this year, I think the club has inadvertently drafted him out of a spot.  I really like Plekanec and would be sad to see him go, but I think the salary cap limitations and the need to focus on the youth movement have rendered him a player of our past.  Plekanec was supposed to be coming into his own right when the club was supposed to be winning the cup (under Carbonneau, Gainey and Koivu).  Unfortunately that didn't happen, and our plans were delayed a few years.  A few years are actually quite important when talking about hockey players and contracts, however, and I think those few years created a situation in which the club's long term plans have changed and Plekanec no longer fits those plans.

As a last comment, I find this logic to be consistent with my understanding of the team's plans as spelled out in the prior two articles.  Plekanec is a veteran who would bring in a good, NHL ready prospect and a high pick or two.  Trading him next year, or in two years, depending how our younger players are developing, would help the team's long-term growth by supporting and expanding the number of quality young players in this organization.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Notes on Moen and Campoli

I mentioned in my previous article that I suspected any trade Montreal makes right now should not be aimed exclusively at draft picks but should also bring prospects that are about ready to break into the NHL.  My reasoning can be summarized briefly: the team has a good young core already (Price, Subban, Eller, Leblanc, Pacioretty, Gorges, Desharnais, Emelin, Diaz, Weber, White are all 25 or under, except Diaz and Gorges who are 26 and 27, respectively) and therefore only needs to supplement this youth movement rather than completely rebuild.  Draft picks, unless in the top 10 or so, likely won't be ready for about 3 years or more, while when we have a good young team already.  We already have players who will be ready in 2 or 3 seasons (Beaulieu, Gallagher, Bournival), and adding to list this seems unnecessary at the moment.  In the Gill trade earlier this week Gauthier seems to be pursuing a plan of action consistent with what I am saying, we will see over the next 8 days or so if I am right.

It is with this plan in mind that I suggested trading away some players who can, for the moment, fetch more than they are worth because it's the trade deadline.  The two players who come to mind are Moen and Campoli.  In regards to Moen, he's a player that I like and fills a needed role on the team.  Moen currently has 16 points over 48 games and is -3 in +/-.  This puts him on pace for about 27 points this season, a 50% increase in production from when we first signed him (16 points in 82 games).  Moen has also been consistently healthy, having missed only 9 games since 2006-2007.  Currently being paid only $1.5 million at the moment, I suspect Moen is in for a hefty raise.  I fear that Moen's contract expectations will render him too expensive to afford next season.  Please refer to the end of the last article for an elaboration on the numbers.  The important point is that the Habs have about $20.5 million in available cap next year, but need to resign Price, Subban, Eller, White, Emelin, Diaz and others.  If Moen is unaffordable, he will walk away at the end of the season for nothing, an occurrence that has become all to common in Habs recent history.  This is unacceptable to me, and should be to Gauthier as well, because trading Moen will bring long term benefits while sacrificing almost nothing.  Another small point to make is that Moen and Geoffrion (our recent acquisition from Nashville) fill similar roles on a team.  The two are both 4th line players with enough offensive ability to be equally as effective on the third line.  Perhaps Moen can be a mentor to Geoffrion if he is affordable next year, but I suspect that Geoffrion might have been acquired as a younger replacement rather than as a pupil.

Campoli is also a player likely to garner attention over the next week.  Campoli was signed as a free agent this year when it became obvious that Markov would be unable to return on time.  Campoli is a left handed shot capable for taking (with drastically less effectiveness) Markov's place on the PP.  Cunneyworth recently remarked that Markov has been progressing quickly of late and that he anticipates he will be back before the end of the season.  I know, we've been hearing this all year, and the promises made about Markov are words in the wind, but no matter whether Markov returns or not, Campoli has been rendered redundant on this team.  We are currently rolling with 8 defencemen on the club, with at least one (Freddy St. Denis) able to temporarily fill in in case of injury.  Subtract one from that number (Markov), and we're at 7 with one able to be called up if necessary.  Campoli is that 7th man only necessary in case of injury, but actually unnecessary because St. Denis can fill this role.  While Campoli likely has only limited value, a 3rd round pick at most, more likely a 4th rounder, but if coupled with a young player that has been unable to break the team, such as Engqvist, could bring a better prospect.  My point is that Campoli is unnecessary whether or not Markov comes back this season, and that it's better to let the young players play through their errors and trade Campoli than it is to keep him and let him walk for nothing.  

Just to recap, I predicted earlier this week that our trade deadline moves would be focused on prospects that could break the NHL next year in addition to draft picks.  The Gill trade is consistent with what I expected, and I suspect Moen and possibly Campoli will also be traded in accordance with this plan.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Trade Deadline Thoughts

With the off season re-signing of top defenseman Andrei Markov and the addition of right winger Erik Cole to add size and grit up front, Montreal was anticipating a better year than last. Young players Max Pacioretty, Lars Eller, P.K. Subban, and, of course, The Franchise Carey Price were all expected to continue to grow into consistent and effective performers. Things were looking good in Montreal because the team remained almost entirely intact, the only major loss being veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik, but this was believed to have been offset by the return of two defensemen who were injured for much of last year (Markov and Josh Gorges), as well as the addition of young defenders Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin to add some offense and size, respectively.
Unfortunately, come February all team expectations have been missed and Montreal could realistically come away with a lottery pick. Markov has yet to return from last season’s injury, veteran players aren’t performing, and the team can’t consistently win. GM Pierre Gauthier has yet to throw in the towel, however, as his job likely depends on whether or not the team can get something going. This begs the question, however, as to what Montreal will do between now and the trade deadline. A number of needs have been missing for a few years in Montreal, the top of which is consistent scoring and a big, first line centre. One can pine away for this addition every year around this time, but they don’t come often and cost a lot to trade for. Drafting this type of player is a better plan.
What’s Working?
The team as a whole is not working, but within this mess of a team there are many things to give one hope. The team’s best and most consistent line all season has been the trio Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole. (23-20-43, 11-30-41, and 21-21-42 respectively) and their stats prove it. Aside from centre Tomas Plekanec (12-28-40) the next highest scorer is Andrei Kostitsyn with only 24 points. Plekanec has had rough patches this season but has proved himself as a top two-way centre and there is not reason to suspect he will be moved. Young centre Lars Eller has also been a solid performer, although he still has not found his ability to consistently score at this level. Fan favourite (if you cheer for Montreal) or hated gnat (if you cheer for anyone else) P.K. Subban struggled to find his role early in the season but seems to have settled down into a more stable and less obnoxious defensive style. Other young defenders Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin have also showed signs of growth over the season, making them unlikely to be traded.
What Isn’t?
Veteran forwards Brian Gionta (the captain), Scott Gomez (the 8 million dollar player who has only 8 points this season) and Andrei Kostitsyn (the enigma) have not performed well at all this year, but only the latter would be moved by the trade deadline. Gomez could be moved in the off season to a team on a tight budget that needs to make the salary floor because his salary will drop to significantly less than his cap hit. Former-Canadien Michael Cammalleri could also have been added to this list but he was already traded to the Flames in exchange for Rene Bourque, who has performed adequately over the past month.
Who’s Available?
This question is difficult to answer because it depends on GM Pierre Gauthier, who has thus far not decided on whether to push for the playoffs. The team currently sits in 12thplace in the east, two points of out 15th and seven points out of 8th. Montreal has played one more game than most of the teams also hoping to make the playoffs, but with over twenty games left making the playoffs is unlikely but is by no means an unrealistic goal. Gauthier seems to be in limbo in part because if Montreal continues to tank this year he will likely be out of a job. I strongly believe that trading players to make a push for this year will come at the detriment to the team in the future. Montreal has struggled to consistently score for a few years and this needs to be fixed on a long-term basis through good drafting, not through trades. That being said, it’s entirely up in the air as to what Gauthier will do. No harm in speculating though, right?
Among the forwards the most appealing trade bait seem to be Andrei Kostitsyn, Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche. Kostitsyn carries a $3.25 million hit, and is an UFA at the end of this year. When he’s motivated he is a prolific and brilliant scorer, with emphasis on the inconsistency of this. A playoff contender team that needs some scoring and his willing to take a risk on their coach’s ability to get his head in the game could benefit from Andrei. His young brother Sergei also suffered from these same problems and seems to have improved after being traded to Nashville.
Travis Moen is an excellent role player and is the type of player a team would target in their playoff run. He is great on the PK, adds third/fourth line energy and grit, and some scoring. Factor in his $1.5 million cap hit and the fact that his contract ends this year and Moen is perhaps Montreal’s top trade deadline asset.
Mathieu Darche is another good role player for a third or fourth line with better offense than Moen but less size and grit. Darche makes less than a million bucks and is also an UFA at season’s end. Darche is one of the only French speakers on the team, however, and could be kept for this quality alone.
Another potentially available player is Petteri Nokelainen, a fourth line centre who has been solid on the penalty kill and seems to have only been a patchwork solution to fill in while Ryan White was injured for the first half of the season.
Montreal has a few defensemen that teams will be looking for. Top of the list is Hal Gill, an UFA come summer and an excellent playoff performer and team leader. Montreal’s epic defeats of the Penguins and Capitols two years ago are due in large part to Gill’s excellent work in front of the net. Everyone seems to be looking for a defender this time of year and I bet Gill could fetch a high price.
Chris Campoli was a fill in for the spot left vacant by Markov's inability to come back in time, but he has not been great this year and would likely only be targeted as a 7th defenseman to fill in for the inevitable injuries of the playoffs. His contract is up at the end of the year making him a reasonable rental.
Two other players to note are Tomas Kaberle and Yannick Weber. Kaberle has been much better for Montreal than he was for Carolina, although that’s by no means saying he’s worth his $4.25 million salary over the next three years. Kaberle could be moved but it would likely be in the off-season, and he would be a very hard sell. I don't see how Kaberle really fits into Montreal's future. The team had a defense-first, hard work mentality under Martin, and while this is changing with Cunneyworth Kaberle is still not a solid defender willing to block shots and sacrifice himself for the team. Could his evident lack of physical fitness be anymore a clue that he doesn't put in 100% all year? Weber seems to have lost his place in Montreal’s depth chart because of the great play of Raphael Diaz. Weber might be traded before next season if the Habs are willing to give up on yet another prospect because of one bad season. I sincerely hope we give Weber another year because I suspect that he will still provide to be a solid 4th/5th defender who does well on the powerplay.
The Numbers Game
Montreal has, according to Capgeek, the site we all love and cherish, $19.5 million in salary cap free next season. Montreal also has many top players coming up for contract renewal next year. Carey Price, P.K. Subban, and Lars Eller top this list, but you can also add Ryan White, Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz, and the aforementioned UFAs to this list. Money will be tight for Montreal next year and perhaps trading away some players and focusing on the youth is the best option. In the system are a number of good prospects such as Nathan Beaulieu, Brendan Gallagher, and Michael Bournival and others, but these guys are at least two years away. Montreal could use some NHL ready prospects or solid prospects that are in the process of completing their first AHL season and hope to make the move next year rather than draft picks.