Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Take a Seat

For a team that's spent most of this young season dealing with a depleted roster, the Canadiens now have an interesting dilemma. By all accounts, Andrei Markov had some successful tests on his knee in the last couple of weeks and is now skating in Montreal. If all is well, one might imagine he'll be cleared to play sooner rather than later, which is wonderful news for the Canadiens as a whole. It may not, however, be good tidings for whichever defenceman has to sit out to make room for him. Similarly, a forward will have to take a seat with the imminent return of Scott Gomez from a minor injury.

Neither of these decisions will be easy to make. Up front, it's tough to argue that either of David Desharnais, who's got 7 points in eleven games, or Lars Eller, who's been using his size to great advantage and just scored his first goal, should be bounced to the wing to make room for Gomez. The veteran had just one assist and was minus-one in the six games he played before his injury. The Canadiens have won their last three games without Gomez and, it could be argued, haven't missed him at all. Considering the performance of the team's young centremen in his absence, a case could be made that the Habs, as a team, function better without him. However, unless Pierre Gauthier is willing to trade or demote Gomez, he will be back in the lineup, and getting significant minutes as well.

So, one forward will have to sit, and the easy choice from Jacques Martin's position is Mike Blunden. The big winger got called up from Hamilton to bring some size and sandpaper to the fourth line in place of Aaron Palushaj. His arrival, together with the trade for fourth-line centre Petteri Nokelainen, helped solidfy the bottom trio. Those guys won't be a huge risk to score, but they can withstand a pounding from the other team's fourth line, and they, especially Nokelainen, can kill penalties and take faceoffs. If Blunden sits, Mathieu Darche and presumably Travis Moen would flank Nokelainen.

That would leave some combination of Erik Cole, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Cammalleri, Max Pacioretty and Brian Gionta as legitimate top-nine wingers. With Tomas Plekanec entrenched as the number-one centreman, that means one of Eller, Desharnais or Gomez would have to move to the wing. Considering the strong play of Eller and Desharnais during the winning streak, it should probably be Gomez who takes a winger's spot. The two younger guys aren't as good as Gomez on faceoffs, but there's nothing stopping Gomez from taking draws, even if he's playing on the wing. It makes sense to move him because once Gomez crosses the opposing blueline, which he does very well, he peels off to the wing anyway. Eller and Desharnais go to the net more directly, as a centre is supposed to do. It may work, or it may not, but it's worth a try. Gomez surely wasn't doing much at centre, so maybe a change of assignment might spark him a bit. At the least, it would disturb the lines that are scoring now as little as possible.

The bigger dilemma for Jacques Martin will be on defence. Young, relatively inexperienced guys like Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz have steadied their play in the last several games. They're learning on the job, which can give a cautious coach like Martin another reason to dye his hair. All in all, though, they're doing relatively well. Jaroslav Spacek has brought stability since his return from injury. The veteran is playing moderate minutes on his natural left side and is looking pretty solid. Josh Gorges, despite a couple of glaring gaffes, is a workhorse and is putting up more points than he ever has before at the NHL level. P.K.Subban eats minutes as well, and even when making mistakes is a threat to the opposition. Hal Gill is, perhaps, the sketchiest of the D-men so far this year, but Martin loves him on the PK and would never sit him.

While those six guys are in the lineup every night, an (one would imagine) unimpressed Alexei Emelin is downing steamies in the Bell Centre pressbox. This is a guy with size, mobility and a mean streak...exactly the kind of defenceman the Habs need...who the Habs have been courting since they drafted him seven years ago. He finally arrived in North America and now finds himself the odd man out in a defensive logjam in Montreal. This is a touchy situation. Presumably Emelin left Russia because he believed he'd be playing in the NHL. We know he's got an out clause in his contract that allows him to return to the KHL if he's not on the Habs roster. So, how long will it be before he decides this healthy scratch stuff is crap? The problem is, the Canadiens need a guy like him. The bigger problem is, they need him to be NHL-ready right now. He's not as ready as the other young guys, even though he's not making any terrible errors, and Martin has chosen to trust Weber and Diaz instead.

The difficulty Martin faces is that the Canadiens are in a competitive division and need to give themselves the best chance to win every night. To do that, they have to ice the best defence they can. At the same time, they have to give their young and inexperienced players a chance to develop so when injuries hit, they've got the depth to handle it. They're risking losing Emelin if they don't play him.

Exacerbating the situation is the return of Markov. If he stays healthy for more than a week, another of the current six defencemen will have to bow out to give him a spot. Knowing Martin, that means one of Weber or Diaz. Again, it means one of the young, promising defencemen will be stunted in his development for lack of ice time.

Given the situation in Montreal now, with Gorges being the only defenceman in his prime, it's important for the younger Ds to get some playing time. That means, even if they make mistakes, Emelin has to play instead of Gill some nights. Diaz will have to draw in instead of Spacek. However, knowing Martin, he'll play the veterans every night, regardless of how many mistakes they make. If he does, and Emelin or Diaz walk, it will hurt the Canadiens. It's a dilemma, without question. Whether Jacques Martin can sort it without costing the team in the long run is a test of good faith. If only our faith wasn't already stretched thin.


V said...

I don't think a stint in Hamilton would hurt Diaz one bit. He can learn to dominate there and bring him for the playoffs/next year.

Anonymous said...

The rate at which the Habs go through defencemen during the season being a factor I don't see this as a huge concern. Cutting pay and sending you to Hamiliton would be if you're a mid-20's aged player who could make more in Europe. Because all things being equal it is nicer to be paid big bucks to learn for a year or two while practicing against the best than it is to ride the bus, get discouraged, and get paid 10% of what you signed for. I would want to see the major cities where I might play rather than the minor cities I could play.

Gomez can either be moved or played, not sat. There will likely be enough minor injuries to sit someone else until the situation can be resolved. But if they send someone down only to lose them on waivers (other than Gomez:)I think heads should roll. Diaz, Emelin, Nash, and even Subban could go down and back but I'm pretty sure the team is in trouble among the forwards with potential waiver losses.

Course Gomez could go down to rehab a few games, tear up the AHL, come up, tear up the NHL for 10 games, be traded for a bag of pucks, and everyone would scream for heads. He could stay up, do nothing, and everyone would scream for heads. If I was a betting man I would say that Noks or Blunden sits, Gomez plays, the team flounders back into it's Pearn Pattern of losing but everyone thinks it is no big deal.

Then one day a fool chanting Ole, Ole, Ole at the opening faceoff decides not to have a beer with that. The guy on his left thinks, yeah, I don't want a sweater I'll just come as I am. Then changes will be made, not until.

Dave said...

Bang on. Amazing read JT.

Anonymous said...

Emelin will walk unless he gets ice time soon,I think Diaz should go to the Bulldogs and rotate Gill and Spacek.Logic however is foreign to JM and it will get much worse before any changes are made.
I really thought this week was ideal for something big to happen............

JF said...

The Gomez situation could be resolved temporarily as you suggest. He'll certainly be in the lineup, and at the moment I wouldn't move either Desharnais or Eller, both of whom are being more effective at centre than he was. Try him as a winger and let him take faceoffs. But the team needs to monitor the situation closely and be ready to make a tough decision if Gomez as a winger hurts them. Hamilton, a trade, waivers - these options will have to be considered seriously. Whatever happens this season, I think this has to be Gomez's last year as a Hab.

The situation on defence is trickier. I don't want to see the Habs lose Emelin, who brings the kind of toughness and meanness they've been lacking for too long. At the same time, Weber and Diaz are playing very intelligently and learning fast. We can't send Weber to Hamilton because of waivers, so I guess it might have to be Diaz. Realistically, he was expecting to play in Hamilton this year in any case, so he'd probably accect a demotion with good grace. And, if last year is anything to go by, he'd be back up at some point. Having too many Dmen is a better problem than not having enough.

Ian Cobb said...

Nice problems to have JT. nice article.

Gomez should play the wing while taking some face offs. He just might be the rotating line forward permanently. When Markov returns, I think Weber and Dias will play every second game or so.

Bash said...

A creative trade is the only answer. But does Gauthier have the moxy to do nay more than find little pieces. Granted they have been good little pieces but this is the defining moment. Gomez and his contract issues with Diaz or Weber and a pick for a winger with size and contract issues.

Anonymous said...

Good piece. Happy problems. And also, whats when Campoli rolls back in?

punkster said...

Tough to be a fan of a team with so much depth and young talent I suppose. I wouldn't lose any sleep over it unless you really think JM doesn't have the ability to work it all out.

Ray said...

Where do you see Campoli in the defense line-up?
That's going to push back our youngs even further from ice time.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I just don't see Diaz as a completely ready NHL D man just yet...makes too many easy errors and then winds up chasing his mistakes, getting caught out of position and subsequently fishing the puck out of his own net, in addition, him and Weber are basically the same defenseman, you only need one of one and play Emelin!

patience is a virtue said...

Diaz gets the short end of the stick due to his two-way contract. while i doubt that PG is going to trade him (or Weber) after getting caught with his pants down upon dealing O'B last season, playing Diaz now might have been part of a desperate trade strategy he started working on during the last few games of the losing streak (i.e. developing and showing off his promise).

The sooner Markov comes back, the better, but the days and weeks between now and then will determine who moves and who sits. My best guess is that one old feller (Gill or Spac) gets injured and changes the dynamic.

dusty said...

No matter how you look at it, the Habs defense is not very good and certainly not deep. Gill and Spacek are past their expiration dates and Weber, Diaz and Emelin are question marks. Campoli is a depth type player and Markov is a huge concern. If he comes back soon and is 90% of the player he was before surgery and can contribute for the remainder of his contract, the Habs can count themselves very fortunate.

Of course in Montreal the coach has to win now so I won't blame JM if he goes with the old farts. A brave GM would never have signed Gill, would use Spacek as a 7th D-man to mentor some of the younger guys and go with youth. Every time I watch the Rangers play, I see their young developing defense corps with more than a little envy.

As far as Gomez is concerned, it would be nice to see him on the wing. Watching him on the ice it's hard to tell what position he is playing anyway so let him take the odd draw and he'll never know the difference. As long as DD and Eller can keep a secret that is.

Thanks JT for another thought provoking post.

Steve said...

Great look at the tea leaves J.T. I would rotate Spack, Gill, - Yemlin, Diaz . Do it in pairs of one vet one rookie. There is no reason to flog the old guys, keep them off the boil till the playoffs.
Gomez is only useful in the event of injury, and as a faceoff expert, a plastic surgeon. Teams know he cant score, so any players he plays with are going to get outmanned. Putting him and Eller on the same line, is even worse, cause Eller so far is not a scoring threat.

Nick said...

I'd like to know what Emelin did wrong? Guarantee he's up in the press box bullshit. Yeah, let's lose him to rotate 6 offensive defenceman.(Markov, Subban, Weber, Diaz, Spacek, Campoli) Part of being a defenseman is defense. JM doesn't seem to realize this, nevermind all of the hassles to get Emelin here. I think they'll give him a shot playing with Markov, put Subban/Gorges and Gil/Spacek together, with Weber as the sixth D/forward. I'm sorry, but I see no upside to Raphael Diaz in Montreal. Hamilton, yes.