The Habs GM (and I'm hoping it continues to be Bob Gainey, so for argument's sake, we'll say it will be) has a LOT of work to do this summer. There are tons of decisions to be made about free agents alone, as well as the draft and the possibility of a trade or two. The way I see it, though, there are certain priorities that must be addressed promptly. First among them is the acquisition of a number-one centre.
This has been the organization's chief need for several years now, and it's obvious the team can't continue without one indefinitely. Koivu, Plekanec, Lapierre and Metropolit were out-sized by most of the other teams they faced this year, and in the playoffs they were out-skilled. With Ben Maxwell being the only offensively-skilled centre with any size in the organization, the number-one centre spot continues to stand empty.
This summer, there are four methods of fixing the problem: signing an unrestricted free agent, sending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent, drafting or trading. My preference of those four options is obviously drafting, as the player in question would be young, cheap and cost nothing to acquire. Unfortunately, that's not an immediate solution for the Canadiens, who'll pick at around number seventeen overall. While this draft is deep, the chances of an eighteen-year-old's potential to make the NHL team immediately, outside the top five or so picks, are slim. Of course, the option to trade up in the draft remains. But the chances of moving into one of the top five or six spots would be really costly...and since the draft is essentially a crap-shoot, the cost would be unquantifiable until three or four years from now. That's a big risk; the kind I don't see Bob Gainey taking. So, the draft isn't the most likely avenue of solving the centre problem in the immediate future.
The second-most desirable route to take then, is signing an unrestricted free agent. That solves the problem without costing the team anything but a salary, albeit an inflated one. Ignoring for a moment the much-discussed reluctance of free agents to sign in Montreal, let's look at the list of top-ranked centres who might be available on July 1. They include Mats Sundin, Mike Cammalleri, Henrik Sedin and Saku Koivu. Outside those four, there really aren't any candidates for a number-one centre position. Cammalleri and Sedin will be the two most coveted of those, even with the built-in limitations accompanying each. Cammalleri is offensively talented but he's streaky and he's small. Sedin is known to be interested in playing on the same team as his brother, and the rumour is they want in the 6-7 million dollar range apiece. Maybe they'll manage that, but it won't be in Montreal. And Henrik on his own is an unknown quantity. Will he be able to produce without his brother? Will he disappear for long stretches as he's been known to do in the past? Sundin is Sundin. After last year, I don't know if Gainey would be interested in chasing the Indecisive One for another summer. Added to the history he now has with Montreal, Sundin is old, expensive, injury-prone and hasn't exactly been lights-out in Vancouver. If Koivu re-signs, we know what we're getting: a small, tough, injury-prone, aging player who's all heart and by all accounts a great leader. But he no longer produces at the level needed by a number-one centre, and even his feistiness can't make up for his lack of size when faced with a guy who's 6'4" on the other team. So, it appears the options are limited when it comes to acquiring a real number-one centre from this year's UFA crop.
The third choice is sending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent. Of course, this option is loaded with more pitfalls than the other two. There's the gamble that the player is worth the draft picks the team would have to give up to get him, and there's the problem of goodwill lost between GMs when one poaches another's players. Following from that, there's a risk involved in poaching if the offended GM wants revenge and finds it by offering for one of Montreal's RFAs in return. There are possibilities out there. Teams that are close to the cap may be forced to give up their RFAs if they can't move the salary they'd have to dump to match an offer. What, for example, could Boston do if someone made an offer for David Krejci? Or Phil Kessel, who can also play centre, although he's a bit small for a number one? What would Edmonton do if Gainey offered for Rob Schremp? Or the Devils if he pitched Travis Zajac? There are possibilities out there, but no one that would be guaranteed to fill the role he'd have to fill in Montreal. And, considering the risks involved in the offer sheet process, I'm not sure it would be the best way to go for the Canadiens.
So, that leaves a trade. The one half the population of Habs followers wants would be five or six assets...roster players, draft picks, prospects...for Vincent Lecavalier. I've detailed the inherent problems in that one before. They include the length and cost of Lecavalier's contract, the uncertainty about his ongoing physical health after shoulder and wrist surgeries, his interest in playing in the fishbowl that is Montreal, his production levels which seem to have peaked a couple of seasons ago and the holes that would inevitably be created in the team's fabric just to acquire him. Getting Lecavalier would be like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole: it would solve one problem, but others would pop up instead. Now there's also the public animosity between Gainey and Brian Lawton, which would make any amicable deal between the two pretty unlikely.
Assuming then that Vinny is off the radar for Montreal, Gainey must look elsewhere for a trade. In deciding whom to target, the Habs must pinpoint exactly what they need in a centre. First would be size, as the other centres, aside from Lapierre, are small. Then there's skating ability, because the Habs want to be identified as a speed-based team. Defensive awareness is important to Canadiens management, so two-way ability is necessary. Finally, like any good number-one centre, the guy must be able to put up points. Secondary considerations would include age, because the team needs someone who can fill that position for several years, and salary, because the looming cap-crunch means sensible contracts are even more important than they've been in recent years. The target also has to be someone who's tradeable by his team. In other words, it can't be a player on a team that has only one strong guy at that position because his team won't part with him and leave itself with the same needs the Habs currently have. That means it has to be a player from a team that already has a good, strong centre or two (aside from the target) on its roster and can spare the kind of guy the Habs need.
There aren't that many teams with that kind of luxury up the middle. They include Philadelphia, with Carter, Richards and Briere at centre, the Rangers with Gomez, Drury and Dubinsky and Pittsburgh with Crosby, Malkin and Staal. Philly will be capped out next year, and would clear up a lot of its problems by moving Briere. The deal could be a good value for the team that takes him, as the Flyers can't take much salary in return, and Briere's deal is a tough pill to swallow in both term and dollar value so Philly might accept less for him than they would otherwise. He's also not got the size of a Carter that would make him more ideal as a number-one centre for Montreal. Add to that the fact that Briere spurned the Habs two years ago to sign with Philly in the first place, and it might be a tough sell to bring him to Montreal now. The Rangers will also be facing cap problems, but will find it hard to move either of the big Gomez or Drury contracts, especially since neither of them has proven to be worth the money they're making in New York.
So, it comes down to Pittsburgh. Obviously, Crosby and Malkin are untouchable. But Staal could certainly be moveable because the Penguins will be facing a cap crunch of their own, and four million bucks a year is a lot for a third-line centre. Also they need good wingers. Staal's got the size Montreal needs. He's young. He's signed for four years. His salary would be more easily justified by a team using him in a more offensive role. He can kill penalties and has great defensive awareness. He wins faceoffs. And his 29-goal rookie season as an eighteen-year-old shows he can put the puck in the net. His numbers for the last couple of seasons haven't been impressive, but one should consider he's getting only about sixteen minutes of ice time per game and not much of that on the powerplay. He's also playing with third-line wingers and gets a lot of time on the PK. I think he might be a good candidate to break out for a team that makes him a number-one centre and gives him the icetime, powerplay opportunities and linemates that position would deserve.
So, if Gainey were to target Staal as a trade candidate, we must consider what they'd have to give up for him. The Pens would like to fill some of their other needs without taking on too much salary. Losing Staal would save them four million. They'd have to replace Staal as the third-line centre, but they'd also like to add a defensive defenceman and a winger or two to complement Malkin and Crosby. Looking at those needs, it's reasonable to expect the Penguins to demand a proven NHL-calibre player as the main return. That means a package of prospects probably isn't going to cut it. The Habs don't have a proven NHL in the stay-at-home D mold that doesn't cost more than Staal, so that's not going to work either. I think it must come down to a winger to play with the Big Two in Pittsburgh. It would have to be someone who can convert, someone who costs less than Staal and someone who gives back some of the threat the Pens would lose in their lineup with Staal gone. Of the Canadiens' wingers with NHL experience, only Guillaume Latendresse, Andrei Kostitsyn, Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Greg Stewart, Georges Laraque, Chris Higgins and Sergei Kostitsyn are pretty much sure to be Habs after July 1. Of those, only Higgins or Andrei Kostitsyn would be considered to be the kind of quality player the Pens would expect for Staal. And between them, we know Kostitsyn is the better offensive player.
Depending on what the Pens are looking for in a winger, it would be reasonable to trade either Higgins or Kostitsyn for Staal, straight-up. Both Higgins and Kostitsyn are former first-round draft picks, just as Staal has been. They both have scored similar numbers of goals as Staal in their best years. And, considering Staal's numbers haven't been consistent, his value isn't as high as it might otherwise be.
And that's how I'd see the centre problem fixed.