Imagine, if you will, a tale of two forwards. One of them is young and promising. At 21 years old, he's just getting started on an NHL career so the coach has him playing with low-scoring wingers, getting fourth-line minutes as he gets his feet wet in NHL waters. It's tough, because he's primarily a playmaker, and he's managed only one assist in 11 games. Even so, he's showing a nice passing ability and conscientious backcheck.
The other player is a veteran with a Calder Trophy and two Stanley Cup rings in his pocket. He's also a playmaker, but he's got one of the team's best snipers on his wing and gets first-line minutes and PP time every night. Still, he's got only one (rather flukey) goal and a pair of assists in 11 games. The main differences between the two men are their relative years of experience and their contracts.
Of course, the two are Lars Eller and Scott Gomez. It's understandable, in terms of experience, why Jacques Martin is giving Gomez every chance to get his game going. The guy consistently puts up 40-plus assists every year, even when his goal totals hover around 15 a season, give or take a couple. When a player depends as much on his linemates' production as Gomez does, it's not fair to blame him for low point totals just because his wingers are snakebitten. That's the reasonable argument for Gomez' continued preferred treatment by the coaching staff. When you know what to expect from a guy with experience, you have to give him a chance to do what you know he can. It's much tougher to give an unproven player that kind of leeway because you don't know what you should really be expecting from him.
The question with Gomez is, how long does Martin wait before the "experience" advantage runs its course? One answer is surely: not much longer. The unfortunate truth about the Canadiens offence all season is if Tomas Plekanec's line doesn't score, the team has a tough time winning. Luckily, Plekanec's line has scored in nearly every game so far. The Halpern line is contributing some secondary scoring, which is what fans can expect of them. The heavy lifting, though, is supposed to be split between Plekanec and Gomez. Pleks is doing his part. Gomez is not.
Part of the reason is Gionta's stunning bad luck in finishing. Part of it is the revolving winger on Gomez' other side. I think a lot of Travis Moen as a hardworking grinder, but he is not a natural goal scorer. Benoit Pouliot has two goals and six points in 11 games on the third line. One might think he'd offer more options for Gomez if given a longer stint on the second line, but Martin seems uninterested in reuniting that combo.
So, here we have a second-line that's severely underperforming and there seems to be no immediate solution because the coach insists on maintaining status quo between Gomez and Gionta. We can understand it to some degree. They've had success before and there's no reason to think they won't have it again. The problem is, they're not having it now. While Gomez' struggles rest partly with his wingers, a big part of the blame has to fall on him. He's been working solo too often, blowing through the neutral zone and ending up in the other team's end alone, and then giving the puck away. He's making bad, low-percentage passes into traffic and he's almost always looking for Gionta while ignoring the revolving winger on his line. He's just not playing very well.
Sometimes, when that happens, it's worth moving a promising kid onto that line for a few games. Perhaps switching Eller and Gomez would work on a number of fronts. It would poke Gomez a bit, maybe make him mad enough to step up his intensity level. It would also force him to work a bit harder on the creativity side to have to adjust to different linemates. And it would give Eller a chance to show what he can do with better wingers. Maybe he's the one who'd be able to get Gionta and Pouliot going.
Maybe none of that would happen, but at this stage of the season, is there anything wrong with trying it to see? Would it be worse than putting Travis Moen out there with Gomez and Gionta? The problem is, Gomez gets preferential treatment not only because of his experience, but because of his contract. It would look bad for Martin to demote the guy making the most money on the team to the third line, so he holds his nose and hopes to hell the guy starts performing.
Paul Coffey appeared on TSN's Off the Record last week. He was part of a panel talking about Ilya Kovalchuk's benching, and he explained the politics of money in the NHL.
"The problem I have in today's game is the coaches treat guys different because they make more money," he said. "And to me, I don't care. There can only be one set of rules."
He went on to say that that's not the case these days. There are two sets of rules; one for the ordinary player and one for the guys making top-of-the-line salaries. Owners, GMs and coaches have to justify the money they spend, so they give those guys every possible chance to succeed. It's like the treatment first-round draft picks get, versus fourth rounders. The organization will always favour the guy in whom it's invested more.
Right now, it's early in the year and Gomez will probably get back on track. It's just disappointing to watch his aimless play continue while the coach does nothing to shake things up in the meantime. Moving him to another line wouldn't destroy him, but it would send the message that everyone on the team is equal and will be played according to effort and performance. Leaving him on the second line while he's doing nothing to deserve it isn't fair. Pouliot got demoted and Dustin Boyd scratched, and neither of them has played worse than Gomez.
If the coach is seeing signs Gomez is about to get it together, or knows his experience will get him going, that's one thing. If he's continuing to give him good linemates and high minutes because he's the team's highest-paid player, that's another thing altogether.
Seeing Martin apparently willing to scratch Jaro Spacek in favour of Alexandre Picard is encouraging. Spacek has his good points, but he's been playing poorly this year. If he sits because his play dictates he should, regardless of his salary, Martin will be making the right choice. Still, Spacek's money is nowhere close to Gomez'. It would be nice to see Martin break up the second line for a little while, despite Gomez' salary. Something's got to give to get those players moving before too much time passes. We'll see if Martin's got the 'nads to move the team's highest-paid player around in the lineup, for the good of the whole group.