Monday, May 9, 2011

What's Done Is Done

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.


Anvilcloud said...

I am not one of the BG bashers, but we seem to have lucked out when certain trades fell through. He made or tried to make many questionable moves. To be a little bit fair, however, I don't think even the worst detractors thought Gomez would have been as awful has he has become.

J.T. said...

@anvilcloud: I'm not a BG basher either. He robbed Pacioretty and Gorges from San Jose, and he generally restocked a barren farm team and returned the Habs to respectability. But's scary to think how some of those trades might have worked out.

On Gomez, I thought at the time of the trade that he couldn't possibly justify his cap hit or the assets the Habs gave up to get him, even if he continued to put up 55-60 points a year. The absolute bust of a season he had this year just makes it worse. Then again, if Gainey was determined to get an expensive centreman, I'd rather have Gomez for Higgins, Valentenko and McDonagh than Lecavalier for Subban, Price, Plekanec, Gorges and draft picks.

Anonymous said...

The Lecavalier deal honestly makes me feel faint everytime I see it, but especially now.

Kyle Roussel said...

I've written about each of these deals that have hampered the Habs at one point or another, but it is truly shocking to see them all compiled in one place.

If anything, the veto of the Lecavalier trade should have fans thanking Bettman for the next 10 years.

I appreciate what Gainey did for Montreal, but a funny thing happens to Habs fans when discussing his work. When this current team accomplishes something great, Gainey gets the credit while Gauthier receives none. When things go wrong, Gauthier gets blasted while Gainey gets off scot free. How quickly we forget that Gauthier worked hand-in-hand with Gainey for years, so whatever credit/scorn gets thrown around should apply to both. But because Gainey is loved and Gauthier isn't, it's easy for fans to take sides or be completely biased.

The Gorges/Rivet trade will go down as one of the great steals in Habs trading history. The Kovalev deal worked out if only because Balej flunked out.

The Habs dodged not just a bullet, but an atomic bomb with the Lecavalier trade. It is the understatement of the year when you say that the core of the Habs would have been gutted for years if it had been approved.

Great article, and this should really serve as a reminder that things really could be worse. A lot worse.

Ralph said...

When Gainey was hired, I was lukewarm about the signing. Nothing in Gainey's history as a GM indicated he was anything other than average. Yes, he 'built' a Stanley Cup Champion in Dallas, but there were other teams with unlimited budgets who also won the Cup in those years. He bought that championship with a big cheque book. Gainey did well with the Rivet trade, but I wonder if the team really had high hopes for Gorges. I don't think they expected what they eventually got, a very solid defenseman. They just didn't use him that much at first. Gainey also 'won' the trade with Washington involving Huet. On the red side of the ledger, the Gomez trade was horrible. In a CAP world, you make a GM pay for solving their CAP problem. Not only did Gainey not make Sather pay for taking on that silly contract, he gave up a decent third liner and a good prospect in the process. In the farming community, they call that being fleeced. Throw in the Ribeiro gift for Janne Niniimaa and his record goes south in a hurry.

As much as I respected Bob Gainey as a player and as a human being, I regret the day he was hired as the GM. I believe they needed some stability at that point, but Andre Savard wasn't doing a bad job. It seemed more of a marketing ploy than an operational move. The aftermath of Gainey's moves have left the team with some real headaches, with the Gomez contract at the top of the list.

mjames said...

Do not blame the players for the Cup drought in Montreal. Blame inept management . Gauthier is the french incarnation of Bob Gainey. Bring in the french version of Holland or Steve I and we may have chance in the future.