Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hot fun in the summertime

It's finally feeling a little bit like summer. The days are longer, the sun hotter and the hockey no longer nightly. As June approaches, most of us are considering our summer plans. We might be spending time at the cabin, or taking a family trip somewhere. Maybe just taking in the culture and happenings in our own cities for a few weeks. But we all know one guy whose plans are already set. Bob Gainey has a lot of work to do before the real dog days of August set in. We all have our own ideas about what we'd like to see happen for the good of the Canadiens this summer, and our ideas may or may not be on the same page as the Sporting News' Executive of the Year.

There are thirty days left until the 2008 entry draft. Forty-one until the annual free agent free-for-all gets underway. In that time, Gainey must decide what he's doing with UFAs Michael Ryder, Brian Smolinski, Patrice Brisebois and Mark Streit. RFAs Josh Gorges, Jaroslav Halak, Andrei Kostitsyn, Ryan O'Byrne, Maxim Lapierre, Mikhail Grabovski and Corey Locke must be dealt with as well. That's a lot of contract work right off the bat, before considerations of what UFA targets might be desirable, what trades or buyouts are necessary and what players might deserve early contract extension even arise.

I would expect the internal UFA questions will be the ones most easily answered. Ryder and his three million dollar cap-hit will be looking for employment elsewhere. Gainey said as much, when he mentioned in his season post mortem that the team had changed around Ryder this year, with the result that the skills he'd used best in the past didn't fit anymore.

I think the team will continue the youth movement and give Kyle Chipchura the shut-down centre duties, provided he has a good camp, which means Smolinski will be let go.

Brisebois has said he'd be interested in putting in another season. I could see that happening, if Gainey thinks O'Byrne isn't ready for the number-four spot on defence full time, and if Pavel Valentenko isn't ready for prime time, AND if Gainey isn't looking at another veteran D to fill that spot. It would give Carbonneau the option to spell O'Byrne with Brisebois once in a while, and have veteran help on D in case of injury. Of course, the risk is that Carbonneau will continue to overuse Brisebois, as he did at times this year. While it's comfortable for the coach to have that perceived safety net, it also means the younger guys get less time to develop...with the result that you have O'Byrne sitting in the playoffs because he's too inexperienced to play. Faced with that scenario, and if he thinks O'Byrne and/or Valentenko are ready to take the next step, I could see Gainey letting Brisebois go as well, for similar reasons to those behind the Cristobal Huet trade. Without the comfortable safety net, the coach has no choice but to play the kid and let him develop.

That leaves Streit. It's a tough one, because he can play forward and defence in an age when multi-taskers have greater value because they're cap-friendly. On the other hand, he's fairly soft on defence and won't play any higher than the third line up front. Then again, he's got some nice hands and his point totals have risen dramatically every season, up to 62 this year. But, he's going to be thirty-two and will be looking for a long-term deal with a set-for-life salary, which might not fit into Gainey's plans. He's a leader and a good team player who's really paid his dues in getting this far, and he's said his goal is to stay in Montreal. But we heard a similar song and dance from Sheldon Souray last year. The see-saw can really go back and forth as you add up the pros and cons of Streit. What it comes down to, I think, is how badly he would be missed if he walked, and what kind of deal would make him happy. Right now, he helps the first powerplay unit (he gets a pass from me on his miserable playoff performance because he was playing hurt) and has the potential to make the third line an offensively dangerous one. So, unless Gainey has an UFA signing in mind for the top two lines that would allow Sergei Kostitsyn to man the point on the PP while working on the third line, Streit's contributions would be missed. So, if he's willing to sign a two or three year deal for no more than 2-2.5 million per, I think Gainey should do it. If he's not, then it may be time to let him walk.

Of the RFAs, most will be straightforward re-signings. Andrei Kostitsyn and Halak have been rumoured to have Russian teams interested in their services. But with a salary cap coming in the new Kontinental Hockey League (at least in theory), the big salaries for relatively unproven young players may be tougher to come by. I think Kostitsyn likes playing with his brother, and his chances of cashing in for a big payday in Montreal are good if he keeps improving. I would expect him to sign a deal similar to those inked by Plekanec, Komisarek and Higgins last season. I'm guessing two years at somewhere around the two-million per mark is probably close to a fair offer. That way, Kostitsyn is still restricted when the deal ends, at which point Gainey will have a better idea of what kind of long-term deal he deserves. Halak will get a million or so, for two or three years. He should sign, as he's said he wants to be in the NHL at this point in his career, believing he can always try Europe when he's older if his current path doesn't work out. He might not be thrilled with being Price's backup for the foreseeable future, but if he's smart, he knows the best way to get an NHL number one job and the accompanying salary is to play his best when he gets a chance. He knows too that Price is far from a proven commodity right now, and he could get more games than originally planned if he plays well. His options are limited, and not necessarily better anywhere else than they are in Montreal.

Gorges will command a healthy raise, as he's proven he can play in the NHL and has gotten better and better with every game he's played. He deserves a million and a quarter for each of the next three years. O'Byrne should get three years for something between 850-grand and one million, as should Max Lapierre. Grabovski's a toss-up. He has skills, but hasn't been able to be consistent in the few chances he's received at the NHL level. Given a long stretch to play, he might show more, but at nearly 25 years old, he'll be thinking of making some money now. He's the one who'll likely take his chances in Russia if he can, as his NHL salary would likely be in the half-million to three-quarter million range based on his performance to date. If I were Gainey, I'd offer him two years at 750-thousand, but he'd be quite likely to reject that. And if Corey Locke is signed, it would be to trade him, I think. He's yet to prove himself worthy of a long shot in the NHL, and with guys like Brock Trotter coming up behind him with similar size and skillsets, Locke's time with the Habs might be up.

I don't know if Gainey has any plans to make a big trade at the draft, but considering the team's lack of picks this season (just five), I would like to see him turn Mathieu Dandenault into a draft pick. Dandenault is a great guy by all accounts, and one who was willing to come home to Montreal when many others weren't. But he spent a good part of this year in the pressbox, and with more young players pushing for a spot, he's not likely to get more ice time next year. Rather than see him languish unhappily, taking up a roster spot and 1.7 million dollars worth of cap space, I'd like him to go somewhere where he can play...even if it's for a sixth or seventh-round pick.

There's no doubt Gainey's got a lot of thinking and planning to do while the rest of us are off sunning ourselves. Once he gets his own house in order, which should start happening in the next two or three weeks, we can start looking toward the draft and July 1...two days in the bliss of summertime that bring hockey, in all its chaotic glory, back into our collective focus.

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