There's a verse in the Irish balled, "The Town I Loved So Well," that goes "What's done is done and what's won is won, and what's lost is lost and gone forever." It's a song a lot of Habs fans should be singing. Listening to and reading fan comments as the playoffs drag on, there's a lot of regret out there.
Every time Chris Higgins scores a goal for Vancouver, Habs fans grit their teeth behind complaints of another first-rounder gone for nothing. That inevitably brings up Ryan McDonagh, the promising first-round defenceman who went to the Rangers with Higgins in the horrid Scott Gomez trade. Then there's the angst over Sergei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre who are still in the playoffs, while the guys the Habs got for them are rotting in the minors. Anybody connected to RDS is also crying about Guy Boucher coaching Tampa into the conference finals while Jacques Martin is setting up his summer hockey school.
It's only natural to chafe as we watch former players do well when the ones the team has kept have failed to bring home the hardware again. It helps, sometimes, to think instead about the close encounters with bad trades the team has had. Some of the deals that fell through for one reason or another would have made the Gomez trade look like a bargain.
Take, for example, the Alex Kovalev trade. Back in 2004, the Rangers had had it with the enigmatic Kovalev and his game-to-game inconsistency. Bob Gainey saw an opportunity to pick up a talented player for cheap, so he offered Glen Sather a second-rounder and a prospect of Sather's choice. The three prospects on the list were Alexander Perezhogin, Jozef Balej and Tomas Plekanec. At the time, Balej was the leading scorer for the Bulldogs in Hamilton, so Sather picked him up in exchange for Kovalev. In retrospect, it was a great deal. Balej played only 13 games for the Rangers, with a grand total of 5 points, before disappearing into the minors and then to European hockey. Kovalev had that one great 84-point season when the Habs finished on top of the Eastern Conference that was well worth the loss of Balej. It gets a whole lot more questionable, though, if you imagine what would have happened if Sather had picked Plekanec instead. Watching Pleks playing his great two-way game for the Rangers while Kovalev walked to the Senators would have hurt a lot.
Then there's Jaroslav Halak. The Flyers lost in the playoffs with a stacked team largely because their goaltending was awful. Halak will forever be an indelible bright spot in Canadiens lore for his brilliant performance in last year's unexpected playoff run. We forget, though, that before he became a playoff hero, Halak was on the trading block. Gainey was flush in goal with his boy, Carey Price. He was willing to move Halak to solidify Price's hold on the number-one job in Montreal, and Philly was looking, as always, for help in goal. Reports at the time indicated Gainey wanted a second-round pick for Halak, but Paul Holmgren felt that was too much for a relatively unproven goalie. (If you'll recall, Gainey had received a second for veteran Cristobal Huet just the season before.) Holmgren turned Gainey down and Halak went on to do what he did last spring.
Of course, in the end he was traded, but instead of that second-rounder, he brought back Lars Eller, who's already showing signs of being a positive on the Canadiens roster for years to come. Ian Schultz, the throw-in in the trade, also has potential to provide some grit on the Habs third or fourth line in the future. Lots of people were sorry to see Halak go, but in retrospect, if that trade had to happen, far better it be for Eller and Schultz than for a Flyers second-rounder. Can you even imagine how we'd have felt if Halak had had last year's brilliant playoff run in a Philly sweater? They'd have won the Cup and the Price/Halak debate would have gone on forever, no matter how well Price played after the trade.
Finally, the mother of all near-misses. Habs fans have been crying about Vincent Lecavalier using his big, talented Frenchness to help the Tampa Bay Lightning since he was drafted first overall in 1998. He's approached free agency twice since then, and rumours about him possibly signing with Montreal ran rampant. Then, in the summer of 2009, Lecavalier was about to start the first year of an 11-year contract worth 10 million bucks a season, complete with no-trade clause, and the rumours were swirling again. Names like Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges, P.K.Subban, Carey Price and Chris Higgins, as well as multiple first-round draft picks were all mentioned in potential packages for Lecavalier. Later, Brian Lawton...much to Gainey's chagrin...revealed Plekanec, Higgins and Gorges were indeed on the table. Gainey confirmed to the Globe & Mail that the Lightning were asking for Subban as well. Ken Campbell reported in The Hockey News that there actually was a deal in place that included Plekanec, Price and a prospect, believed to be Subban. Campbell said the deal was done, but Gary Bettman refused league approval because of an ongoing battle between the feuding Lightning owners.
The upside of the Lecavalier deal would have been that the Habs wouldn't have acquired Gomez and would have held onto McDonagh. That's about it. Lecavalier is more productive than Gomez, but his contract is many times worse. When the Habs are done with Gomez in three years or less, the Lightning will still have seven years of Lecavalier's nearly 8-million dollar cap hit. That will hamper their ability to pay Steven Stamkos what he's worth while remaining competitive. And cap hit aside, can you imagine the Canadiens without Subban, Price, Plekanec and Gorges? A trade involving any three of those four, plus a package of first-rounders would have gutted the heart and future of the Canadiens. They'd be saddled with a huge, long-term contract which would limit their ability to replace those young players, while the Lightning would be building around Stamkos with help from a great young goalie, star defenceman, solid two-way centre and/or steady, reliable blueline leader.
When you contemplate the horror of that scenario, understand that that deal was actually done. It was ready to receive league sanction, and, if not for Bettman's veto, would have happened nearly two years ago. That's enough to give most Habs fans nightmares, even as they imagine how cool it'd be for Vinny to be in Montreal.
Sometimes, when we're tempted to cry about ex-Habs and where they are now, we have to remember how much worse things could really be. Through a combination of serendipity and the fortuitous intervention of the hockey gods, the Canadiens have retained the core of players who will lead them for many years to come. Understanding that, it's time to say "what's done is done" in regards to some of the smaller, less disasterous trades, and let it go.