As we head into draft weekend, it appears Pierre Gauthier's got a definite plan and is taking care of business early this summer. The shape the team is taking is both familiar and intriguing.
The re-signings of Mathieu Darche, Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty were safe, and probably wise, decisions. Darche adds an element of heart and hard work that only a guy with his hard-knocks experience in the game can contribute. He's an example of how working your ass off, even with limited talent, can get a player. For that, he's inspirational. As a bonus, he can also pop in a few goals on the second PP unit and kill penalties. Gill's a leader and one of the guys who can effectively give "The Look" in the room when things aren't going well. He's willing to beat himself up to win, even if he handles the puck like play-doh, and he's excellent on the PK. Kostitsyn is straight-forward. He has the talent to score forty goals, but he will never do it. He can, however, score 25 every season, and that's not something just any second-liner manages to do. It seemed that last year he finally managed to figure out he's a large mammal who can do some damage in the hits department as well. He has significant value. Desharnais and Pacioretty are full of potential. Each of them has leaped his own hurdles to get to this point in his career, and together in Hamilton, they were dynamite. With Pacioretty fully healed from his attempted murder at the hands of Zdeno Chara, there's no reason to expect them to do anything but improve. Two years for each of them gives them the security to take chances and management the time it needs to assess them properly.
On defence, the signings of Alexei Yemelin and Raphael Diaz are very interesting. The Habs have long been craving a tough-as-nails defender with wheels and a mean streak. By all accounts, Yemelin is that guy. It's kind of funny, though. For Habs fans, he's the equivalent of Sesame Street's Snuffaluffagus. Everyone swears he's real, but nobody ever sees him. At the same time, he's been lauded as The Best Defenceman Not In the NHL (thanks, McGuire.) That'll change at camp, and it'll either be a big deflation of our Sesame balloon, or he'll be for real. If the Habs scouts, who've presumably seen more of him than we have, think he's worth signing, perhaps he'll actually be good enough to make a difference. Diaz, on the other hand is a mystery. Like Streit, but not quite like Streit. The best all-around defenceman in the Swiss league, but what does that really mean? Habs fans assume he'll start in Hamilton, but the element of the unknown about him is fascinating. What if he's better than Spacek in camp? What if he's better than Yemelin? Interesting stuff.
Then there are the rumours. Yannick Weber's rumoured to be close to a two-year deal. So's Andrei Markov. And, of course, there's Jaromir Jagr. Weber, really, should be signed. He's the perfect example of the kind of player the Habs tend to develop to the point of NHL usefulness, then quit on while fans gnash their teeth watching him score for somebody else. After watching his playoff performance, it's easy to imagine him stepping onto some other team and putting up a solid 40 points on the blueline. This is a player who needs a real chance in Montreal so management doesn't regret letting him go. Markov is rumoured to be close to signing for two years at the same salary as last season. If he stays healthy, that's a steal with the cap going up to $64-million. There's no reason to think his string of bad luck will continue, so fans can hope he's going to play more than a handful of games next year. That immediately makes the Canadiens better than they were last season.
Jagr's a different kettle of fish altogether. He's of the "almost came to Montreal" breed that includes Briere, Shanahan, Sundin and countless others. Sure, he'd be an asset, if he can keep his head out of his own ass for 82 games plus playoffs. He looked great with Tomas Plekanec at the Olympics and again at the Worlds. Those, though, were short tournaments. Who knows if he remembers what an 82-game grind is really like? The idea of a Cammalleri-Plekanec-Jagr first line makes a lot fans swoon, but on this one we should take a chill pill. Too many free agents have sized up the tax and fan obsession levels in Montreal and decided to go somewhere more peaceful. Gauthier's the only one who knows how serious the man is about the Habs, and he's not talking anytime soon.
Among the outstanding questions are: Will Wisniewski be re-signed, now that the cap has gone up? Who will be the backup goalie? Is there space enough to sign a top-six forward if Jagr doesn't sign, and if so, who's out there? Now we're entering the intriguing part of the next couple of weeks.
James Wisniewski isn't perfect, by a long shot. But, he's got a long, hard shot. That makes him an asset on the PP. His willingness to fight if he's got to is a point in his favour as well. Signing him's a tough choice though, because he's one of the players you'd call a luxury guy. He makes some bad decisions in his own end, which end up costing goals. Then again, his offence and mobility make him more of a compensation-for-error type player than, say, a Sheldon Souray was. The thing with Wiz is he should be on the second or third pairing on a good team. In his last few seasons, he's been stuck playing top-line minutes because one of the guys higher up the food chain has been hurt long-term. Given his proper role, he could excel for a team. The problem is, because he's been given primo minutes, he's put up lots of points. Unfortunately, his numbers will dictate his market value, and in that case, he might be too expensive for Gauthier. If he's reasonable, however, he should be signed because he offers a lot in a second-pairing role. And, given the recent state of the defence's long-term health, he's the kind of guy who can step into a more demanding role if needed.
As for backup goalie, Alex Auld did a decent job behind Carey Price, but he wasn't the kind of guy you'd put in net for twenty games if Price were hurt. Perhaps it's time to look elsewhere, for a guy who's had to fill in for long stretches before. Price was lucky to be healthy all last season, but butterfly goalies are known to suffer joint injuries. Habs need a goalie who'll be able to step in if that should happen.
In terms of rounding out the top-six, everyone agrees Travis Moen cannot continue to be a top-line forward. No team with him playing an important offensive role is going to win. That's the reason why Jagr's a consideration, even at his advanced age. Among the other options, Brooks Laich of the Capitals is a possibility. He's big, he goes to the net and he's got the ability to chip in some backbreaking goals. Depending on what Wisniewski asks for, Laich could be a possibility.
Among the recent rumours is one that the Habs are thinking of offering Roman Hamrlik a contract. Inarguably, he's stepped up in the last two seasons when Markov went down to injury. However, the Canadiens defence must get younger and faster than it was last year. Keeping Gill, Spacek AND Hamrlik does nothing to help. If Hamrlik is to be offered a contract, it must mean Spacek is traded to a team that needs to hit the cap floor. Both of them can't remain on the same team if the defence is to improve.
Disturbingly, there's been no talk at all about Josh Gorges. Gorges must be signed, as he's one of the few defencemen in his prime who's rock solid in his own end. Hopefully, news of his contract will come soon.
It's interesting that the skeleton of last year's team is intact, and Gauthier seems intent on bringing back much of the flesh as well. That would indicate to fans that team management believes these guys are close to contending. That they were one goal away from eliminating the Bruins even without Markov, Gorges and Pacioretty backs up that theory.
Familiarity is a good thing within a team that gets along and knows how to work together. Gauthier is providing lots of that, and proving he believes the team can win as is. On the flip side, the newcomers he's brining, or is rumoured to be bringing, can only help the team improve.
All in all, the off-season so far has been very reassuring for fans. We know management thinks the team is close. We must take heart from that.