It's a rare NHL general manager who doesn't make a fairly sizable mistake at some point in his career, often when he's new to the job. However, even savvy, seasoned veterans do things like trade young players and prospects for Scott Gomez and his horrid contract, or draft Patrick Stefan first overall, or let Zdeno Chara walk while keeping Wade Redden instead, or sign Mike Komisarek to a massive deal. Most of the time, the manager in question has to spend years making up for a big mistake, or find a willing sucker to take the problem off his hands.
This year offers a rare opportunity for general managers to, if not wipe their slates entirely clean, get a mulligan on some of their worst errors. Or, in the case of brand new GMs, to get rid of some of the mess they inherited from their predecessors. The two compliance buyouts allowed in the next two seasons under the new CBA will see some big contracts erased from the cap hits of teams across the league.
Marc Bergevin wasted no time in exercising his first option, which was to unceremoniously dump the aforementioned Gomez, after the player's numbers dropped every season since Bob Gainey acquired him from New York for way too much in assets and way too much salary. That move will save the remaining $7.4-million cap hit for the coming season. It also leaves Bergevin with one more buyout to clear space in a tight cap year. The question now is, on whom will he use that option?
At first glance, it seems obvious that Bergevin will choose to pay Tomas Kaberle to go away. Kaberle was acquired by Pierre Gauthier in one of his last, poorly-thought-out, reactionary moves of the 2011-12 season. With a thin defence and aching power play, Gauthier sent now-retired Jaroslav Spacek to Carolina for Kaberle, in hopes the latter would bring some desperately-needed scoring to the Canadiens' blue line. While it turned out Kaberle is still able to put up some points, he's also prone to defensive errors and, on a team that's not that tough on the back end, is unfortunately soft for his size. As a result, even though Kaberle's play in the ten games in which he skated for the Canadiens this year wasn't glaringly horrible, he was shelved with weeks to go in the regular season and all through the playoffs, presumably to protect him from an injury that would scuttle a planned buyout.
Buying out Kaberle would save Bergevin and the Canadiens a tidy $4.25-million this year, which would enable the team to look for bargains among other teams' buyouts, UFAs whose teams can't afford to re-sign them, and gritty bottom-line guys to pump up the team's sandpaper quotient. So, you'd think, given the evidence, that Bergevin would just say, "Yeah, we're going to buy out Kaberle," when that question was posed during his season-ending press conference. He didn't. Instead he said he'd look for a trade option first, then consider a buyout.
So, if, by some chance, Kaberle isn't the player bought out, Bergevin has other options. Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta make more money than Kaberle. Travis Moen and David Desharnais are signed for longer term. There could be benefits in buying out any of them.
Markov has been an All Star defenceman in his career. Nobody can doubt his on-ice smarts or his vision. He's got the shot and the brilliant passing ability he always had. However, age and repeated knee injuries have taken their toll and he's no longer the skater he needs to be to play his game. The bold pinches he makes and the savvy positional play at which he's always excelled need mobility and quickness. As this season wore on, we saw him drop in his point production and make more defensive mistakes than ever before. Perhaps he played too many minutes, but nobody suffered more with the loss of Alexei Emelin to injury than Markov. Emelin did a lot of the puck retrieval and heavy work in front of the net that left Markov exposed in his absence. After the pain the man suffered for two straight years, it's not difficult to understand why he might want to avoid the same again, but it doesn't help the team when Markov gives up on the puck to avoid a hit. All that said, given sensible minutes and a solid partner, Markov can be an asset to any team. The problem is, in Montreal, he played top-two minutes against top competition much too often this year. If he were to be bought out, the Canadiens would save $5.75-million on the cap, which is far from insignificant. Without him, both Raphael Diaz and P.K.Subban can play solid PP minutes. And perhaps, it would give Bergevin the chance to acquire a more physical D-man, which is what the Habs really need. Whether there's anyone who fits the top-four bill better than Markov is up for debate.
Brian Gionta will make $5-million this coming season. He's always been a solid point producer, despite his diminutive height, but in the last couple of seasons, injuries have begun to catch up to the 34-year-old captain. Two torn biceps in consecutive years, a broken foot, and an unnamed arm injury have interfered with his ability to be there when his team really needs him. Even if he remains perfectly healthy in the coming year, he's likely good for about 50 points, which, for his salary, would probably be seen as under-producing. However, Gionta brings intangibles money can't buy. He's tough, determined and passionate on the ice. He's also the captain, and Bergevin, as an ex-player himself, is likely to have a certain respect for that position that would colour his treatment of the guy holding it. So, while considerable money can be saved by buying out Gionta, the likelihood of the GM sending the captain home is very slim. For the sake of one year, pride and class will keep Gionta in the lineup until next summer.
Both Gionta and Markov are players whose contracts Bergevin inherited. David Desharnais is another matter. The tiny centreman has a new deal for four years, at $3.5-million per, courtesy of the new GM himself. Desharnais has always been an overachiever. He was a walk-on in junior, made the team and shocked people with his output. He signed with the Habs and got sent to the ECHL, where he led his team to the championship and was playoff MVP. He started racking up points with Max Pacioretty in Hamilton and the pair translated that to first-line minutes in Montreal. It seemed as though nothing would stop the guy. Then, he signed his big deal with the Habs. It seemed as though other teams caught onto him at the exact same time. He suddenly faced tougher opposition and the points began to dwindle. Too often, he got held up at the blueline, as the linemates who used to make room for him weren't doing that anymore. Now, coming off a disappointing season, he's looking like less of a bet to earn the contract Bergevin has handed him.
Bergevin faces a tough decision here. He obviously had faith Desharnais would be worth the contract he signed. Now that flaws in his game are more than obvious, there's probably a level of regret at the impetuousness of his decision to offer that deal midway through the season. Still, it's awfully tough to admit you made a big mistake in a contract that will cost you for the foreseeable future. For that reason alone, as well as the fact that he's a talented homeboy, it's unlikely Desharnais will be a buyout, but that's not to say it's an impossibility.
That leaves Travis Moen. Moen will make nearly two million dollars for each of the next three years. He was hired to provide grit and muscle on the third or fourth line, and to make sure nobody picked on his smaller, skilled linemates. Unfortunately, he's too often been the go-to winger when a top-six guy is injured; a job at which he's not been notably successful. And, in the bottom six, this past season...the first of his new, Bergevin-sanctioned deal...has been beyond unremarkable. He had only 6 points in 48 games, but, of course, that's not what the Habs are looking for from him. They want hits and grit and fight. He did have 82 hits in his 48 games, but none of them were the kind that make people stand up and say, 'whoa, that guy can HIT.' He had more giveaways, 11, than takeaways, 2. And, for a defensive guy, 22 blocked shots weren't that many. In short, Moen was pretty much invisible this year, despite his new contract. In the playoffs, he had a clear scoresheet, with the exception of his minus-two and his one misguided major penalty in the ill-fated Game Four against the Senators. He fought four times during the regular season and dominated all four, but none of them were game-changing fights. So, in effect, Moen was fairly invisible this season. That raises the question: do we want Moen to be one of the tough guys this team needs to advance in the league? The answer is no. However, the relatively small salary he collects, could make the GM lean toward letting him work it out. The question stemming from that is: do the Habs want a different guy to fill that position as tough guy in the bottom six? Since there are other guys probably available as UFAs this summer, the answer may be in the affirmative.
So, looking at the lineup, Bergevin has choices, but they may practically come down to Kaberle or Moen. Kaberle will save six million over three years. Kaberle saves four over one year. The temptation is to say Kaberle's millions will be better spent on real help this year, when money's tight and bigger parts needed than Moen's money can cover. Then again, maybe the boss has had enough of watching Moen not earning the money he paid him only last year. In any case, we shouldn't be totally shocked if Bergevin decides to buy out someone other than the guy we all expect.