The sun is shining here today on a beautiful winter morning. The bright, sparkling day is in direct contrast with the Canadiens' current situation. Things are bad, folks. The Habs sit eighth today, but with three more games played than most of the teams around them. They're only ten up on the leafs, the worst team in the East. Andrei Kostitsyn is still weeks away from returning and now it looks like there's a good chance Mike Cammalleri's year is done. There goes the second line. We've got a coach who's putting Hal Gill out in four-on-four situations with a rookie callup and Marc-Andre Bergeron. And the schedule before the Olympics features games against Vancouver, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philly twice and Boston twice. While it may be possible the Canadiens can be over .500 in those seven games, it will be extremely difficult to do it with the injuries they have.
Of course, the old cliche says the games are played on the ice, not on paper, so anything's possible. But common sense says the Habs situation can't get much worse right now. With that in mind, the team's management must be thinking ahead to Wednesday, March 3; trade deadline day. It's just over a month away in real time, but only eight games away on the schedule because of the two-week Olympic break. For all intents and purposes, Bob Gainey has to decide before the Olympics whether he's going to buy, sell or stand pat by March 3. Brian Burke has already decided to sell the shop, moving six players out of town in two big trades today. If Gainey's going to follow suit, he's going to have to get on it while buyers are still looking for players.
The decision to buy would be a very impractical one for this team. It needs its draft picks to improve and it's aready stretched to the limit under the cap. Even if it somehow pulls through the latest devastating injury to Cammalleri and is still in a playoff spot by the break, it's hard to imagine a deadline acquisition that would be enough to make the Habs a contender this year. And it's contenders who buy at the deadline. That leaves the stay or sell options.
It's possible Gainey may decide to stay put. The team he built last summer didn't get much of a chance to prove anything this year, with the constant influx of injuries to key players. The top-six forwards, when they're healthy, are all talented and able to put points on the board. The size concerns are addressed with Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn. There's the hope an overhaul of the bottom-six forwards next season with cheaper, tougher players, might be reasonably done, and young defencemen like Subban and Weber might be able to take the places of likely departees Mara and Bergeron. Money can be found to extend Plekanec and the goalies. There's a reasonable argument to be made for giving the current squad a do-over next season. There's talent and heart there. It just needs some gritty support with a little offensive ability and a more active defence to be better.
The sell option is an intriguing one, though. Gainey has never been able to execute such a plan in the past because the team has always been right there on the bubble by the deadline, with as much chance of gaining a playoff spot as not. Gainey's a competitive guy and he's GM in a competitive city. If there's a chance for the playoffs, he's going to believe there's a chance for a Cup and he won't trade any of the team's key components away. This year is different. The injuries to top scorers like Kostitsyn and Cammalleri really hurt a team that already has difficulty racking up the goals. In the next seven games, the Canadiens have a very real possibility of falling completely off the bubble and down into the basement with the other sellers. In light of this possibility, Gainey has to have a yard-sale contingency plan.
Right now, he's got to be assessing the value of each player, both as a Canadien and as a commodity that can bring value to the Canadiens. Part of that process means identifying a core of players to which he will add draft picks and prospects. As I see it, the defensive core consists of Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Ryan O'Byrne. The "keeper" forwards include Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn, Brian Gionta, Benoit Pouliot and Travis Moen. Both goalies are keepers because they're young, talented and relatively cheap.
That leaves a lot of bargaining chips for Gainey to put in play during the Olympic break. On defence, a team like the Penguins which needs only a minor tweak or two, might be interested in a cannon like Bergeron's to give their moribund power play a boost. A young contender like the Caps could possibly use a veteran stay-at-home D like Roman Hamrlik to support their young guns on the blue line. There might not be a market for Paul Mara, but Jaroslav Spacek could be of value to some team with post-season hopes. Ditto for Hal Gill, who has his Cup-winning role with last year's Pens on his resume and might bring a pick or two in return for his ability on the PK. In all, there's a possibility Gainey could pick up a couple of prospects and three or four draft picks by jettisoning his defensive veterans.
Up front, if there's any way for Gainey to unload Scott Gomez' contract, he should do it. If not, then dumping a lot of blue-line salary will allow him to keep that contract as well as re-sign the free agents the team wants to keep. Glen Metropolit is for sale if he'll bring a decent prospect or a second-rounder. If anyone would take Georges Laraque for a seventh-round pick, it should be done. Max Lapierre, Matt D'Agostini and Sergei Kostitsyn are expendable, although I'd keep Kostitsyn unless there's a really attractive offer for him because there's a chance this year is an anomoly for him.
Tomas Plekanec is a special case. He must be either re-signed or traded in the next month, whether the Habs mean to stay put or be sellers. He's the Candiens' most valuable asset right now, and losing him for nothing will make the team consdierably poorer next year. Gainey has an idea about where the cap will be next season. He knows his ceiling on money and term for a deal with Plekanec. It's time to offer him the best deal the team can reasonably afford to make and let Plekanec take it or leave it. If he wants to stay in Montreal, he'll accept a fair contract. If he doesn't, he'll protest about wanting to feel out the market and we all know what that means. Plekanec could push a good team into the contending ranks, and teams will pay for that. He could bring a first-rounder and a player or good prospect to help ease the blow of losing him. If negotiations go badly after the season, it's still possible to trade him at the draft. But teams tend to overpay at deadline time when they're building for the playoffs much more than they do in the relatively clear-thinking summertime. It would kill me to see Plekanec go. He's my favourite player for any number of reasons, but if he's going anyway, the Habs need to get something for him.
The goalies, as I said, should both remain. They're too young to decide which one will be the better NHL player right now. As restricted free agents, the team has all the bargaining power with them. They should both get three-year deals for a total of no more than six million per season between them. If some team approaches Gainey with an irresistable offer for one or the other, though, it should be considered.
All of this is tough to swallow after the turmoil of the last couple of seasons, but it may be that the only way the team will get better is to take best advantage of a bad situation. If the team continues to fall in the standings it will be looking at a top-ten draft pick of its own and potentially a lottery pick. That's an opportunity for the team to acquire a star player for once. Add assets acquired in trades for current players and the turn around could be a quick one. Whatever it's going to be though, has to be determined in the next two weeks.
Bob Gainey has some very tough decisions to make. I hope he's already on the phone making a plan, just in case the Habs hit the Olympics heading downhill faster than Manuel Osborne-Paradis. Right now, it seems it'll be miraculous if they're not.