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.

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