Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wishin' and hopin'

I don't know what I was really expecting, but yesterday I listened to the complete audio of Bob Gainey's season post-mortem, with Guy Carbonneau on hand to play Robin to Gainey's Batman, should the need arise. (Thanks to Dave Stubbs at Habs Inside/Out for thoughtfully providing the audio for all the out-of-towners and/or people who work during working hours.)

Anyway, out of fifty minutes of audio, I gleaned three vital points of interest. One, Gainey doesn't think Michael Ryder is a piece of crap, but believes instead that the team just outgrew Ryder's style and abilities. Fair enough. At least we can deduce from that the concrete fact that Ryder will not be back in Montreal next year. Two, Gainey thinks the team is set in goal and is developing enough defencemen in-house to meet the team's immediate and future needs. He will be looking to tinker with the forward lines, looking first at Hamilton, then the rest of the league for candidates. And three, Guy Carbonneau's dedication to his lucky ugly tie for some inexplicable reason induced hundreds of other men to send him their ties in the mail. Okay then.

Gainey, of course, gave no indication whether he's This close or T h i s close to landing UFA-candy Fabian Brunnstrom. We don't know if he's planning to bring back Smolinski or the Breezer. We've no idea if he's already negotiating a new contract with Andrei Kostitsyn or planning to work on long-term extensions for Plekanec and Komisarek. There's no clue about what he wants from this summer's draft or who with Hamilton might be ready to make the jump to the NHL in his view. Basically, any questions we would have liked to have him answer will remain mysteries until the plan is revealed in the fullness of time. He says he hasn't had time to assess the season and think about these things just yet. Yeah, okay, I...a humble blogger...have had time to think about them, but Bob Gainey...GM extrordinaire...has not. Right.

It was mildly disappointing that Gainey let slip so few glimpses of what that plan might entail. But realistically, he has nothing to gain by outlining the details for us now. If he were to say that he's signing Streit, Brunnstrom is coming, Komisarek will ink a six-year deal and he's trading Dandenault for scrap on draft day, we'd all have fantastic expectations of those events actually taking place. But a lot can happen. Streit might decide he wants a longer-term deal than Gainey wants to give him, Brunnstrom could opt for Sweden West at the last moment, Komisarek could decide he'd like to check out the market next season and there might be no takers for Dandenault. So, Gainey, as frustrating as it is for us, is smart to keep the plan to himself until he's got a signature on paper to announce.

That leaves us with three months of speculation and theorizing to do. We all have our pet visions of what lines we'd like to see, who we'd trade for whom and what UFA we'd like to target. I certainly have mine. I think one of the weaknesses the team faced in the playoffs, and all season, was the vulnerability of the defence to a strong forecheck. I think Ryan O'Byrne did a fine job in his rookie year. Josh Gorges improved by leaps and bounds. But on a serious contender, both young men would be bottom-pair defencemen right now. They're neither as experienced nor as quick-thinking as they need to be to play top-four minutes just yet. Francis Bouillon is tough, and a great skater, but he's small and often finds himself out of position in his own zone. Streit is inconsistent and Brisebois is incapable of playing big minutes. So, if Gainey were thinking of making a serious run at the Cup in the club's centennial year, I would hope he'd add a fourth legitimate top-four D. Brian Campbell would be a dream, but with Mike Komisarek still to be extended and Pavel Valentenko, Mathieu Carle, O'Byrne and Gorges needing NHL time to learn and develop, it's more of a pipe dream. There's no way Campbell will settle for less than five million a year, and he'll want a long-term deal. Both factors would hamper Gainey's ability to grow the defence corps from within. This, I suspect, is why he's expressed his contentment with the D. Basically, he can't improve it significantly without creating a logjam amongst the developing prospects. And of course, once you do that, you risk stunting the young guys' progression and reducing their trade value should you decide to move them.

So, by default then, Gainey is looking at improving the forwards. The first name that jumps out at me from the list of unrestricted free agents, and the one that would make the most immediate impact on the team without requiring a super long-term contract, is Mats Sundin. I know, I know...he's got blue and white stamped all over him. But he's everything the Canadiens need. He's a big, strong, aggressive player who's hard to move off the puck, hard to push away from the net (where he likes to go,) and is like a runaway freight train when there's a minute to go and the team needs a big goal. Thinking of Sundin, Plekanec, Koivu and Chipchura down centre is enough to make me drool. Imagine Sundin with Sergei Kostitsyn setting him up and Latendresse working the puck off the boards for him. Imagine the reunion of the Higgins/Plekanec/Andrei Kostitsyn line that lit up the scoreboard at the end of last season. Picture Koivu with Kovalev and a hungry D'Agostini or (gasp) a second free agent acquisition like Andrew Burnette or Ryan Malone. Dream of a shutdown line of Chipchura, Kostpolous and Begin. Of course, I'm not trying to predict line combinations point is the addition of a guy like Sundin could shake up the forward lines dramatically, giving the team three potent scoring lines and a decent checking line.

I think Jaromir Jagr would have the same kind of impact. Brian Rolston would help, to a lesser degree. I wouldn't mind seeing any of those older guys signed to a two-year deal with the Habs, if Gainey could reverse all the hard luck of his past free-agent acquisition attempts and convince one of them to move to the Mecca of hockey. What I don't want to see is Gainey breaking the bank on a long-term deal for a guy like Marian Hossa. Sure, he's great. But the price would be problematic when all the young Habs need to be re-signed. The years would be great while he's producing, but problematic if he slows down. I cringed at the rumoured deals on the table for Briere and, to a lesser degree, Ryan Smyth last year, not so much because of the cost, but because of the term. I wouldn't want to hang my team's future on a blind bet that these guys will be both healthy and productive six or seven years from now. That said, I still don't think Daniel Briere is worth ten million bucks this year.

I'm taking heart from Gainey's comment in yesterday's briefing that he's found a pattern of management that works for him; one that doesn't involve any fifteen-year contracts. I hope the success the team experienced this season with its low-cost, home-grown players helped prove blowing the budget on one big star isn't the way to go for the Canadiens. I like that the players are growing up in the organization together and developing a rare kind of chemistry. Hopefully, the wise addition of a couple of parts will make the team better in a year when expectations from within and without will be very, very high.

Whatever happens, though, we'll have to wait and see. We can dream all we want to, but Bob Gainey, the Sphinx of Montreal, isn't about to tell us if our dreams are coming true.

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