Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Buyer's Market

Probably nobody was expecting the Canadiens to be in first place in the Eastern Conference with only 20 games to go in the regular season. I know I wasn't. I thought if the team made the playoffs, that would be fine. If it didn't, another high pick like Alex Galchenyuk would be just fine as well. Those kinds of prospects, after all, don't grow on trees and are generally only available as compensation for regular-season failure. And most Habs fans were getting pretty tired of twenty years of either no playoffs at all or quick exits if they did get in.

So now, a carefully tweaked team under the command of Marc Bergevin has a new attitude and new players like Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Brandon Prust and Michael Ryder. Old players with new life like Rene Bourque and Andrei Markov are helping too. And young guys with a year under their belts like Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller and Raphael Diaz are stepping up to give the team a depth it hasn't had for years. Together with coach Michel Therrien's new approach to offence and an aggressive forecheck, the Canadiens find themselves far exceeding anybody's expectations.

Now, former Selke winner, Habs captain and coach Guy Carbonneau is suggesting the team can be even better. He said on television the other night that a team doesn't get many opportunities to put it all together and go for the Cup. That's very true. How many players missed out in the finals and thought their team was good enough to be back next year, only to never reach those heights again? Carbonneau said he thinks it's time for Bergevin to make a trade to upgrade the Canadiens for the playoffs, because he thinks we're seeing one of those special seasons in a team's life.

It's so tantalizing to dream about that. Imagine if this is really a Cinderella team, with a Cup in its destiny. This year has been so much fun to watch and the team so heroic in its way. It's easy to think this is for real and the ride will continue deep into the spring. The question is, does Bergevin think the same way? He said at the beginning of the season that he'd only trade for parts at the deadline if he was 100% sure the team was ready to win.

With that in mind, think about it. What would happen to the Habs if P.K.Subban got hurt long-term? Or Carey Price? Tomas Plekanec? Right now, this isn't a team that has solid answers to those questions. You might argue every team has the same kinds of questions with which to cope, but the top contenders have serious depth to help fill in those holes.

Similarly, the top contenders have pieces with which they can afford to part when they're trying to upgrade for the playoffs. Extra draft picks or a winger who'd be top-six almost anywhere else, but is only top-nine for the big teams, can go a long way as trade bait. The Habs don't have a whole lot of value to trade. They've got Tomas Kaberle and an injured Yannick Weber. Possibly a prospect like Louis Leblanc or Morgan Ellis, or the rights to potentially lost-for-nothing Danny Kristo, if Bergevin really thinks there's something deep about this team. The Habs draft picks...six within the top 90 spots...are valuable in a deep draft for a team that wants to build the kind of depth contenders have. Trading them now is a gamble.

If the Canadiens are really ready to make a serious run at the Cup, it's worth it. If not, those picks will become the players who will provide the depth and the bargaining chips in a couple of years. Wasting them for a premature playoff bid will only slow down the rebuild Bergevin has so brilliantly begun. Considering the risk for a less-than-sure reward, it seems fairly certain the GM won't make any blockbuster moves in the next couple of weeks. That's even more apparent when you consider that Bergevin also said he's not interested in trading for a rental player. He wants guys who will be worth the price of a trade by providing more than just temporary service. The cost of adding such players at the deadline is so inflated it's not worth doing it.

That's not to deny the obvious truth that even a Habs team that's managed to keep winning, even with significant injuries, could use a bit of tweaking. Brandon Prust has been such a brilliant addition to the team, but he could use some help carrying the toughness load. Another guy with heart who can skate and hit would be welcome. (That should be Travis Moen, but he's been largely invisible.) And Bergevin obviously recognizes the need for a big, solid presence on the blueline, which likely accounts for the recent auditions of Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn. After all, if you can fill the need at home, it eliminates the need to go shopping.

Because of the cost of adding pieces at the deadline, which I think the Canadiens can't really afford at this point in their evolution, as well as the risk of messing with team chemistry...that most elusive of intangibles... I think Bergevin should be very conservative at the deadline. Unless he can land a player who can contribute beyond this season, on a good contract for sensible return, I'm content to see what this fun, determined team can do in the playoffs just as it is.

We'll know very soon what Bergevin himself really thinks of this unlikely first-place team. He said he wouldn't jump until it looked like the Cup was really within reach. So, if he moves to add to the roster before April 3, we may be looking forward to a very unexpected, but very welcome playoff ride.


Unknown said...

I would like to know what you meant by "potentially lost for nothing Danny Kristo". Has there been new development about him that I missed?

Jay in PA said...

Carbo is overreacting because he's so used to seeing the dismal, injury-wracked, one-trick-pony Habs teams of recent years that he is feverishly imagining this to be the year that karma makes up for past curses, and he wants to play armchair GM to make it happen. And let's face it, the minimum requirement for talking heads in the media is that they have something to talk about that they can defend. It doesn't need to right, just defensible.

This is a well-coached team of good, great, and becoming-great players who are playing to their strengths and winning games because they are simply outplaying other teams. It's not like this is some kind of a once-in-a-lifetime year where it is all magically coming together and we're just missing the final piece to take us the rest of the way. It's more like this is the beginning of an arc of contention for the Habs, and maybe even one of dominance, for a team that is stocked with blossoming young talent, and set to stock up even more in a deep draft.

Bergevin has shown himself to be both a canny judge of talent and a shrewd negotiator with other GMs. Whether he's been lucky, good, or both, I am beginning to trust that any move he makes will be a good one and will either have positive long-term value and/or negligible short-term cost. Like you, if he does make a move, I doubt it will be a big one--too many players are playing too well. And if he makes no move, I don't think anyone on the team would mind, given the strong chemistry in the room. I'm comfortable with it, even if Carbo may profess not to be. But I'm confident that he'll find something else to talk about tomorrow.

Steve said...

I agree, do not sell the future unless your sure your going to make history in the present. I would package our overflowing prospects, especially D men for a top five draft pick.

UK3X said...

I think that the last time the Habs made a blockbuster trade for someone and won the Stanley Cup was when the got Frank Mahovlich for Mickey Redmond in 1971. That would be the kind of trade worth making if Bergevin feels this is the time. He was an establish player, a proven winner and he wasn't on his last legs. Mahovlich won another Cup with the Habs in '73 so he was anything but a short term rental. There is a lot that can be said for having the experience of a Cup run and a Cup win in the dressing room. Wait a minute - is that what he got Ryder for then?...

Anonymous said...

I agree,let's not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet.
MB has put together a tremendous staff and is not afraid to use their experience,I'm sure the needed pieces will be added when and where available.

Thanks JT

northcoasthab87 said...

My recommendation is to start the development effort on cloning Markov.

When Markov is healthy, the Habs are contenders. When he is out they are pretenders.

I still think Boston and Pittsburgh have more talent and depth than the Habs. Perhaps the math will work out and a Habs-Leafs first round match up will help the NHL redeem itself this season.

J.T. said...

@Edgar: re: Kristo, I meant he's finishing his university soon and the Habs will have a short window to sign him or he becomes an UFA. While he may sign with Montreal, the possibility is there for him to wait it out and choose his own deal elsewhere.

moeman said...

Thoughtful read.

Phil G said...

I for one am not surprised.The team was as it was last year.Certain players have matured nicely.The injuries last year as well as the organizational changes happening at the time caused a lot of turmoil within it ranks.I hope the GM leaves the team alone for now.Only after a good trade opportunity comes be it..he has said already ..only IF it improves the team over all.I like that strategy.