You have to be impressed with Pierre Gauthier's ability to sniff out a deal. He's like a mom of six who can always find the cheapest place to buy Pampers and milk. Of this year's Gauthier acquisitions, there's Mathieu Darche at the league minimum $500-thousand. Jeff Halpern rakes in a whopping $600-thousand and so does Alexandre Picard. That's a total of $1.7-million for a reliable young defenceman, a hardworking, effective forechecker and an experienced shut-down centre who rocks on the faceoff. That, good reader, is some seriously astute bargain shopping. Add to that the long-term signing of Tomas Plekanec for $5-million per, and we can conclude Gauthier doles out his cap dollars with the generosity of the Conservative government and the forsight of Nostradamus. In other words, he's the anti-Glen Sather.
Sather, notorious for the ridiculously expensive, long-term deals he throws at seemingly every available free agent, saw an opportunity to secure a number-one centre when he bought Scott Gomez from the Devils in the summer of 2007. Gomez had played for seven seasons in New Jersey, and had averaged 14 goals a year in six of them. Sather, however, didn't look at those six seasons. He looked at the one outstanding year in which Gomez scored 33 goals and put up 84 points. In no other year had he accumulated more than 70 points, but that didn't deter Sather. As soon as Gomez hit the market, the Rangers threw a 7-year contract with a $7.357-million cap hit at him. Gomez, naturally, jumped at the offer. Sather realized after just two seasons that it was probably a mistake to have spent superstar money on a guy who's really more of an energy-efficient lightbulb. Enter Bob Gainey.
With Tomas Plekanec coming off a dreadful 39-point campaign in 2008-09, Gainey was desperate for some talent to kickstart his off-season rebuild. Perhaps more importantly, he wanted a player who was respected around the leauge, who had never had off-ice issues, who knew how to win and who conducted himself with dignity and class. He made the deal for Gomez based more on image than pure numbers. Gomez offered a fresh look for the Canadiens. After a couple of seasons of off-ice controversy, team slumps and questionable attitudes, the team needed an overhaul. Gomez offered the level of professionalism Gainey wanted. The contract that came with him was the price the Habs had to pay to change a team culture the GM found unpleasant.
Since Gomez' arrival, the Canadiens have evolved into a completely different entity than the one that got pitifully swept by the Bruins in a wretched playoff defeat two years ago. Now they're a hardworking team with skill and determination. They're able to maintain consistency in the face of injury because they buy into the coach's system. Ironically, the weakest link on the ice right now is Scott Gomez.
The question is, what can Jacques Martin do about it? Gomez is usually a slow starter, but 27 games into the season he's on pace for just 27 points; by far the worst total of his NHL career. While one might overlook a $7-million cap hit for a guy who puts up 50 assists to go with his 14 goals on a winning team, it's a lot tougher to ignore it when the guy is making $259-thousand dollars a point. In terms of value by production, Plekanec is four times as good. Darche, making an actual salary of $7.5-million LESS than Gomez this year, is on pace for six more points. More worrisome is that on a team with a combined team plus/minus of 12, sixth in the league, and a goal differential of 18, which is tied with the conference-leading Capitals, Gomez is a -2. He's one of only three forwards on the team who's in the minus category. The other two are fourth-liners.
The problem is, the combination of Gomez' lousy start and giant salary makes him completely untradeable. So, barring a demotion to Hamilton, the Canadiens are stuck with him. That means they have to find a way to get him going. Martin has already tried giving Gomez Andrei Kostitsyn and Michael Cammalleri as linemates. Those guys had great chemistry with Plekanec, and went stone cold with Gomez. Ditto for Brian Gionta. So, it's not the quality of linemate Gomez has been given.
It's not ice time either. Despite his low production, he's averaging 18 minutes a game, including two-and-a-half minutes per night on the PP. The numbers don't justify the lack of points.
In the last few games, Martin has been gradually reducing Gomez' even-strength time while he increases that of Lars Eller. Eller has been more and more visible and effective as the season has progressed. At the end of the San Jose game, Gomez had also been sent to the fourth line with Pyatt and Lapierre. It seemed to have the desired effect, as Gomez seemed more involved in the third period.
Ideally, however, the Canadiens don't really want to carry the world's most expensive fourth liner. To that end, Kirk Muller has tried to show Gomez what he's doing wrong. Gomez has admitted he's probably not doing some things as well as he can, and says it helped to get Muller's point of view on his game. He doesn't really seem to be putting that point of view into practice, though. Muller told him he's cheating for position and getting away from the puck. Gomez knows this. Yet, HNIC was able to show him on the lone Sharks goal on Saturday, leaving the zone early while San Jose pressured the Habs D.
Right now, Gomez is the only forward who's cherry-picking and, as PJ Stock put it, on the offensive side of the puck more than the defensive. Martin's patience is running out. In Gomez' case, it's not a question of ability. We know he's able to go harder to the net and make better, faster passes than he's been doing. Whatever's going on with him is in his head. It's hard to believe it's a lack of confidence because he does a good job of portraying himself as the cockiest SOB in the room. So, one has to start thinking it's his will to compete that's not up to snuff.
A coach has a few options here. He can cut the player's ice time. He can demote him in the lineup. Martin's already done those things. Next is a trip to the press box, which I think Martin is reluctant to do. He's got a lot of respect for his veterans and is willing to give them time to work out their own problems. Gomez, however, must surely be running out of goodwill from his coach. Getting scratched will prick his pride and he'll either come back on fire, or he'll shrug and let it roll off him. It could go either way, and if it doesn't work, Martin's out of tricks. That's why pushing Gomez right now is a bit risky. And that's why the answer isn't with the coach. It's within Gomez himself.
The likelihood of Gomez getting demoted to Hamilton is slim to none. Gauthier isn't Sather or Lamoriello and probably won't bow to cap pressure at the expense of a respected player. Still, the thought of what the bargain-shopping champ of general managers could buy with that money is tantalizing. We'll never find out because Gomez will probably get himself out of this funk. The key to this situation is his own pride. If one believes his show of insoucience is a bit of an act, he will eventually get angry to see his ice time and linemates going to a rookie like Eller, and he'll start actually doing the things Muller is telling he needs to do.
He's got to do it soon, though. With Markov gone for the year, the team needs all the offence it can generate, and it needs it's highest-paid player to earn at least some of his salary. Right now, he's not, and when you look at the guys performing over their pay grade by a mile, you have to wonder how long that imbalance can continue.