Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Shaping Up

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.


dusty said...

The idea that the Habs are close to contending as they are presently constituted because they lost in the first round to the Cup winning Bruins by but a single overtime goal is ridiculous. The Bruins played poorly in the first two games for some reason but pulled themselves together and wore the Habs down winning the series by playing harder and getting stronger with each passing game. Sure the Habs could have won but they didn't deserve to because Boston was just better. A healthy Markov and Gorges will improve the team but without a serious upgrade at forward the Habs will continue to weaken as the playoffs continue past the first round.

Adding Yemelin could be good but the thought of Hammer, Spacek and Gill is too depressing. I know the Habs are classy and want to at least offer Hammer something, I just hope he goes to free agency. We're stuck with Spatch but if he's a bottom pairing/press box type that's ok. But PG has to at least go after someone like Eric Brewer.

A guy like Taylor Pyatt from Phoenix would be good and with the Coyotes in limbo maybe a deal could get done. Also, with Philly up against the cap maybe PG could get Hartnell. If the Devils are in cap trouble, would love to see Clarkson in Montreal.

At any rate, if significant effort isn't made to change the overall makeup of the team, I for one, will not be a happy camper. Of course I know PG doesn't give a rat's ass what any of us think.

I seem to always agree with your wonderful posts but your last two lines must have been written by your non-hockey spouse. Sorry, I can't take heart from that.

V said...

While I agree you can't draw too much about Montreal's chances next year based on their losing to Boston by a goal in the first round, I agree with JT that the team looks like it's getting 'close' to being a contender.

Injuries played a big role in that series - not just Gorges, Pacioretty and Markov as mentioned -but we essentially lost Eller and did lose Desharnais. All those players in the lineup make a very big difference.

I also think they had a pretty solid regular season, contending for first in their division until that last series of games with Boston. Between the development of young leaders like Price and Subban, the emergence of Pacioretty and Desharnais and the gelling of a solid veteran core, their ceiling just feels higher.

Solid defensively, significantly improved 5 on 5 play, strong PP and PK, solid core with emerging youth... why not feel good about this? Sure, they are not there yet by any means - I don't favour them to win the Cup next year by a long shot. But they are trending steadily up.

Anonymous said...

Gotta let Spacek go. And as much as I like Gill ( is he signed for one or two years) depending on where the Habs sit he may be trade bait.

Weber? Same type of player as the Wiz and Markov and Subban. So maybe he can be packaged!? The Habs need at least 2 true shut mobile down guys. AS much as I like Josh Gorges he is not one of them.

Get a big man up front already!!

dusty said...

I understand your sense of optimism and maybe you're right V. However, as much as I like DD, Eller and Max these players are unproven in the tough going so this is just not good enough for me.

Hope you are right but it just looks like the same old thinking by management so far. There is plenty of time left and lots of cap space so I'm hopeful but not optimistic.

KenHabs said...

I have faith the Gauthier will do the proper things for the Habs organization. We must make or defense corps younger and mobile. The forwards need speed, skill, grit and a bit of size to play the system Jacques Martin wants to implement; Puck Control. I love the signings so far that Gauthier has made. We must have Gorges back next year...MUST! Markov as well, as long as he can stay healthy. Us Habs fans seem to forget how much better the Habs are with Markov healthy cuz of the past 2 years. He's an asset. Wizzy did a good job, but I think he'll be too expensive for the Habs and will prolly go to Detroit. Most importantly, Habs need a top 6 forward after this summer. A top 6 winger/centre with size, skill, grit and speed. If this happens, we will be cup contenders. Think of it...D=Markov, Subban, Gill, Weber, Yemelin, Diaz, Gorges, Spacek, Hamrlik, Wiz. Not bad popular pickings. We must make this D young and mobile with a bit of experience. It's how all great teams win. Look at Detroit! O, can't forget Price. If Price has another career season, we'll be talking bout what happened at the parade next June. Price and Subban are our cornerstone assets and we must build round them. Go Habs Go!

MC said...

I see nothing wrong with using the Boston series as a measuring stick. It is not absolute, but I think you can conclude that Montreal are close to being a contender. I think they will have the goaltending and defense in place to win a Cup, with lots of depth on D as JT pointed out. I think the first and third lines will be fine. Success will depend on how they handle Gomez, and how they build their fourth line. It is clear they can't win with this guy as their second line centre, and hockey players rarely get better as they age so it would be very optimistic to think he can bounce back, especially in JM's system. They either have to trade him or demote him to the third line. If he continues to get 1st line minutes like most of last season, the Habs don't have a chance. In the playoffs your top line can be shut down, so success depends on having two real scoring threats. The Habs also need to build a real fourth line. You cannot win with players who don't contribute like Pyatt. Pyatt was not even a blue-chip prospect, so the Habs' commitment to him was perplexing. The UFA list looks thin on talent at the top this year, but there are a lot of guys at the bottom of the list who could be had for cheap like the Halpern signing last year.

dusty said...

Will you get a chance to interview Ryder when he has his day with the CUP? Liked him as a Hab and am sort of happy for him even if he is a Bruin.

Anonymous said...

The team as currently constructed can be successful in a limited way. It will muddle around the upper middle of the league provided that it stays healthy.

Without major improvements from the prospect pool it wont progress to top flight status. Kristo, Avtsin, Leblanc, Quailer, and Tinordi have to show marked improvement and continue developing. Without at least 2 of these players becoming impact guys the team is going nowhere.

The flyer's just traded 2 players that are much better than any of our current forwards and received 2 very good young players, an elite prospect and 3 top draft picks.

Two top players turned into 3 top players and 3 picks. They just restocked and retooled.