Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Credit where credit is due

I was reading TSN's preview on the Canadiens and they had an interesting note on Bob Gainey's track record at the draft table since taking over as GM in June of 2003:

"Depending on this year's performance and what the salary cap looks like next July, next year's team could look quite different with one or two key players out of the equation. But that doesn't mean Gainey isn't prepared. In five years as general manager, the former Habs great has done something that hasn't been seen in Montreal since the days of Sam Pollock and Frank Selke - assemble a legitimate Cup contender while developing a rich pool of young players waiting in the wings. Fourteen of the team's 23 projected regulars were drafted by the Canadiens, with ten of them selected since Gainey took over in 2003."

(Note: There are actually only seven of the projected 23 regulars who were drafted under Gainey's watch, eight if you count Kyle Chipchura, but that's still pretty impressive.)

While it's true that Gainey gets the final word on who the Canadiens draft in any given year, he is obviously not the one who digs these diamonds out of the rough. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of Trevor Timmins, who was hired as director of player personnel 11 months before Gainey, in July of 2002. There's a reason why Gainey has Timmins go to the podium every year to announce the Canadiens first round pick, because he is the one that deserves the lion's share of the credit if that player blossoms, and he's also the one that deserves much of the blame if he busts.

Over the course of Timmins' tenure, there's been a lot more blossoming than busting, and I thought it might be useful to go over his record after six years of leading Montreal's effort at the draft table.

The first pick Timmins ever made was Andrei Kostitsyn, selected 10th overall in the 2003 draft, and it was a tough one to make. Everyone agreed Kostitsyn had top-five talent, but his history with epilepsy scared off most teams. Canadiens team doctor David Mulder examined Kostitsyn and assured Timmins and Gainey - who had only been on the job a few weeks at that point - that medication would keep his condition under control.

Nonetheless, it was a gutsy move considering who remained on the board at the time: Jeff Carter (11th overall), Dustin Brown (13th), Brent Seabrook (14th), Steve Bernier (16th), Zach Parise (17th), Ryan Getzlaf (19th), Brent Burns (20th), Mike Richards (24th) and Corey Perry (28th), just to name a few. It has to rank among the greatest draft classes ever, as only one player chosen in the first round hasn't played a single NHL game (Hugh Jessiman, New York Rangers, 12th overall), and 23 of the 30 first-rounders have already played at least 100. By comparison, the first round in 2002 had four players who still haven't played an NHL game, and only 20 have played in at least 100.

Though people could always argue that Ryan Getzlaf or Jeff Carter would be the big centre the Canadiens have always lacked, we have only seen a sliver of the talent Kostitsyn has, so that comparison should wait a couple more years. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised to see Kostitsyn out-score both of them this season.

In that same 2003 draft, Timmins managed to find three more players who will start this season in Montreal, Maxim Lapierre (61st overall), Ryan O'Byrne (79th), and Jaroslav Halak (271st).

As far as debut performances go, that one has to rank right up there.

Over the subsequent years, Timmins has managed to unearth some gems in the later rounds like Mark Streit (262nd overall, 2004), Alexei Yemelin (84th, 2004), Sergei Kostitsyn (200th, 2005), Matt D'Agostini (190th, 2005) and Pavel Valentenko (139th, 2006).

But what we've witnessed at this last training camp is the tremendous job Timmins and his staff did in 2007, and this is where Gainey comes in. By trading Craig Rivet for the Sharks first rounder and Josh Gorges, he gave Timmins a chance to go grab Max Pacioretty 22nd overall. We still haven't seen how 12th overall pick Ryan McDonagh will pan out, but he had a solid freshman year at Wisconsin last season and we should have a better idea of how he projects when he plays at this year's world junior championships in Ottawa.

It's entirely conceivable that the Canadiens' first five picks from 2007 - McDonagh, Pacioretty, P.K. Subban (43rd overall), Olivier Fortier (65th) and Yannick Weber (73rd) - will all be playing in Montreal within two or three years. That is an extremely rare batting average for a single draft year, if indeed it works out like that.

Of course, Timmins has had some less impressive selections - David Fischer at 20th overall in 2006 with Claude Giroux and Patrik Berglund still on the board has to top that list - but you could pick apart any team's draft history and find glaring oversights every year. What makes Timmins special is that he benefits from other teams' mistakes more often than committing one himself.

It is this stable of talent in the system that makes the Armageddon scenario for next season's "Free Agent Frenzy: Canadiens edition" a little less daunting for Habs management, and knowing all these kids are waiting for their shot should be great motivation for the impending free agents on this year's team to try and earn a contract for next season.

Monday, September 29, 2008

No big surprises

The Canadiens cut 18 players Monday morning and the only real surprise is the number, not the names. Instead of 30 players surviving the first round of cuts it was 32, technically. But in reality the number of players remaining is 31 because defenceman Mathieu Carle was not cut, but he is recovering from a concussion and likely won't be ready for the start of the season.

The Hamilton Bulldogs begin training camp on Tuesday, and they'll be doing it without their top forward line, their top defence pairing and probably their number one goalie. Max Pacioretty, Ben Maxwell and Matt D'Agostini - who are expected to play together on the Bulldogs top unit according to head coach Don Lever - all survived Monday along with Gregory Stewart and Kyle Chipchura. On defence, Yannick Weber earned himself at least another exhibition game, as did Alex Henry. Marc Denis remains in camp, but I'd be surprised to see him get another start over the next week.

I would say the guy with the most pressure on his shoulders would have to be Chipchura, because his window is slowly closing on him even though he's only 22. His mere presence is having a desirable effect on Maxim Lapierre, who dropped the gloves with Panthers defenceman Keith Ballard on Sunday night. The way he did it wasn't all that honourable, mind you, because Lapierre dropped his mitts and started throwing punches before Ballarad even realized what was happening. But Lapierre is not a fighter, he's an agitator, and he knows Chipchura isn't a fighter either. So by dropping the gloves and showing that he's willing to do it, even if it isn't all that pretty, Lapierre was trying to show Guy Carbonneau he can offer something that Chipchura can't.

Chipchura has his own unique attributes that separate him from Lapierre as well - an ability to win faceoffs and superior hockey smarts - but the one area Lapierre beats him cleanly is speed, and that will likely be his ultimate downfall. Chipchura wasn't the fastest guy in junior, but he became even slower after ripping his right achilles tendon. He has to try twice as hard as the guy next to him to keep up with top-flight NHL forwards, and that's something Carbonneau simply can't have on a fourth line expected to draw some important assignments this season.

Maxwell's continued presence, to a lesser extent, could push both players to perform this week. He has the same bright hockey sense of Chipchura with a little more speed, but still not as much as Lapierre. His wild card is that he can fill in on the power play, while the other two can't. Both Lapierre and Chipchura remember what happened in last year's training camp when Lapierre was a surprise cut and Chipchura began the season in Montreal. I would imagine both guys see a little bit of potential for that situation repeating itself with Maxwell around.

A tough guy to impress

I wonder if the prospects who dressed Sunday for the Canadiens 3-2 shootout win over the Florida Panthers knew they had virtually no chance of affecting their immediate future with the organization.

Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau said as much following the game when asked if there was any chance that one of the kids could have changed his mind regarding the cuts that will be made Monday morning.

“It may be unfair, but I don’t think they changed my mind, I was kind of set on what I wanted to do before training camp,” Carbonneau said. “But it definitely gives me hope for the future.”

That future does indeed look quite bright with players like Yannick Weber in the pipeline. The Swiss defenceman with the right-handed shot is practically tailor-made for the spot opposite Andrei Markov on the Habs power play.

Weber looked to make an argument for his continued stay in Montreal on Sunday with yet another power play goal, this time off a sweet feed from Tomas Plekanec that sent him in alone on Tomas Vokoun for a nice top shelf wrister.

But it’s tough to keep Weber in Montreal because in five-on-five situations, he’s still too much of a liability. Carbonneau could use Weber much like he did his countryman Mark Streit last year, but that wouldn’t be doing Weber or the organization any favours.

Weber’s future in Montreal is on the blue line, and that’s where he should be playing full-time so he can learn the nuances of playing in his own end. Playing him at forward would not only be a disservice to him, but also to the team because the fourth line is going to be Carbonneau’s shutdown line this season, and will therefore be counted on to play some important minutes. Also, there are too many capable players already fighting for those three spots on that line.

There will be 30 players still in Habs camp as of Monday afternoon, and a little simple math could help in fashioning a guess as to who they may be.

Let's say the Habs keep three goalies, there's the seven returning defencemen and the 14 returning forwards fighting to play in the top-12. Throw Kyle Chipchura in there because he should at least survive Monday's cuts, even if he's likely on his way back to Hamilton eventually. That makes 25 players who should be safe on Monday.

So who are the other five?

One who is likely to still be around would have to be Max Pacioretty, if for no other reason that he wasn't in the lineup Sunday and you would think Carbonneau would at least give him a chance to win some points in the last game before the big cuts. When the head coach says you're ready to play in the NHL at 19, you generally aren't among the first ones to leave camp.

As for the other four, you're guess is probably as good as mine. If forced to fashion one, these would be my four: Ben Maxwell, Gregory Stewart, Matt D'Agostini and - here's the wildcard - David Desharnais. Carbonneau sent Desharnais out as the first shooter Sunday night, which is something he often does to reward players who he feels have had a good night. I feel the 5-foot-6 centre has had a great camp and really opened some eyes, which may or may not be rewarded Monday.

If Desharnais doesn't stick, it could very well be Weber that hangs around past the first round of cuts, or even Alex Henry after his two-fight performance Friday night. Brisebois is still injured, so Carbonneau would likely need an extra defenceman around for the final three exhibition games.

Of course, the argument is essentially moot because the five guys who survive Monday will likely be sent down later on in the week. The question is which two skaters among the 25 players mentioned earlier will survive to the start of the season?

I've already mentioned how Chipchura will really need to have a spectacular week to survive, but I think the final cut will likely have to be Mathieu Dandenault.

Dandenault would have to clear waivers to go to Hamilton, which shouldn't be a problem, but he could always get claimed by another team for half price on re-call waivers and I'm not sure the Canadiens want to be on the hook for half his salary and cap space while he plays elsewhere. So sending him down to Hamilton may mean keeping him there for the season, which would provide some cap relief but would deprive Carbonneau of a versatile player who can fill in at forward or defence.

If Dandenault isn't eventually cut, who will be? Steve Begin? Tom Kostopoulos? I doubt it. If Bob Gainey can't find someone willing to trade for Dandenault, the waiver route may be the only way to go.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sens are in trouble

As ecstatic as some people may be with the Canadiens 5-0 beat down of the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre on Friday night, I really thought the game said way more about the Sens than it did about the Habs.

Don't get me wrong, the Habs played really great and showed that the Hamilton Bulldogs might just be a pretty darned good team this year. But the Sens brought an NHL lineup to Montreal and got spanked by a team that dressed only 10 regulars.

It seems as though Ottawa is picking up where it left off last season, and you have to feel for new coach Craig Hartsburg, who is charged with forging an identity for a team that clearly lacks one. Makes you wonder if come Christmas time, Hartsburg won't be wishing he was coaching the Canadian world junior team in Ottawa instead of the Sens.

For the Habs, there were lots of encouraging signs, starting with the play of the Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn line. It was their first game of the pre-season as a unit, since Kovalev was making his long-awaited debut, and they were impressive.

When asked how he thought his top line performed, Habs head coach Guy Carbonneau paused and smiled before answering:

"I looks like they didn’t lose a step, they made some pretty good plays."

Kovalev at times looked like he was simply playing shinny, yet he was still the one that got the biggest rise out of the announced sellout crowd of 21,273 (it's pretty embarrassing, in my opinion, to announce a sellout when there are hundreds, if not thousands of empty seats clearly visible to everyone. But I digress...).

Andrei Kostitsyn looks to me like he is going to have a monster season. He's confident, he looks faster, and he'll have a full year playing with the knowledge that he won't get yanked from the lineup if he makes a mistake. His 26-goal output last year was essentially accomplished in half a season, maybe three quarters. It's scary to think what may come out of 82 games playing the way he did in the second half last year.

Plekanec's one-timer slap pass to Kostitsyn for the game's fourth goal was probably the play of the night, and every time I see him play I marvel at just how quietly spectacular he is. No fireworks, just production, and the best thing about it is that he's already talking about how he'll have to prove himself in the playoffs this year. And it's only the pre-season.

Carbonneau warned how it will be important for him to find line combinations up front that work, because last year he felt the team relied too heavily on the Plekanec line on too many nights. That's definitely true, because Michael Ryder's troubles essentially made Saku Koivu's line a non-factor far too often. Assuming no one goes into a funk like that this season, Carbonneau shouldn't have to worry about secondary scoring.

The pre-season is more about evaluating the kids than it is the veterans, though, and in that respect the Habs prospects shined brightly Friday night.

The big name on the marquee continues to be Max Pacioretty, who with every game makes the Craig Rivet trade to San Jose two years ago look better and better. Not sure if those people who were whining about Bob Gainey trading away a veteran at the deadline will be voicing their displeasure too loudly on that one today.

Pacioretty felt he played his best game of the pre-season Friday night, and his next one will most likely surpass this one, and so on, and so on. But the feeling of playing his first game in Montreal had Pacioretty a little awe-struck.

"I'm speechless, the fans are unbelievable," he said. "There's no words to describe what it's like playing in Montreal. People told me about it, but I was still shocked when I skated out there."

Just wait until you play in the playoffs kid.

Carbonneau didn't mince his words when asked which of the young players he was most impressed with Friday.

"Pacioretty is showing right now that he can play in the NHL," he said. "He's going to be a good player in the very near future."

Carbonneau named almost every young guy in the lineup after that, but it was clear that Pacioretty is in a class of his own. I didn't think it would be possible, or it would be at least unlikely that Pacioretty would get a call-up from Hamilton this year. I could very well be wrong on that one.

Some of the other highlights of this game was the new scoreboard, which is a bit ridiculous in terms of just how beautiful the picture on that massive hi-def screen. The best part about it for me was watching fights, of which there were four Friday, on the scoreboard because you really get in there. Also, the Habs have officially ditched U2's Vertigo after goals, and are now playing a song written by Simple Plan for the Canadiens called, wait for it, "Go Habs Go." Nice touch going with the local band.

Speaking of fights, Alex Henry had two of them and his tilt with Chris Neil was the most entertaining I've seen on the Bell Centre ice for quite some time. Henry went toe to toe in a 10-round bout with Neil and more than held his own. Prospect P.K. Subban also dropped the mitts, and I'll leave you with a funny little quote from a guy who will become a media darling in Montreal once he makes it here because he's so darn quotable.

"My folks were directly behind the penalty box, they were the first people I saw when I went in the box," he said. "I'm not too sure my mom was happy about that, but my dad didn't seem to mind."

That's probably because his dad, a lifelong Habs fan, was still coming down from the high of watching his boy play with the CH on his chest.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lost in the shuffle

Amid all the pomp and circumstance of Wednesday's announcement of the Canadiens plans for the centennial, I feel the most important announcement of them all got a little lost.

No, not the new gargantuan scoreboard at the Bell Centre, or the 10 million loonies that will be tattooed with the CH, or the postage stamp, or even the Monopoly game.

The coolest thing the Canadiens announced Wednesday was the construction of a state-of-the-art outdoor hockey rink in St-Michel, the first of five that will be built in the city over the next five years thanks to the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation.

This is not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill shinny park, it is a $500,000 facility with its own refrigeration system, ensuring good ice from November to March. Good shinny ice in the city has become harder and harder to find as our winters have gotten progressively warmer (something about greenhouse gases and global warming, you may have heard some people ranting about it recently). Not only that, but in the summer there will be a rubberized playing surface on the rink for basketball or street hockey, making it useful year-round. Choosing St-Michel, an area riddled with poverty and crime, is the cherry on the sundae because the rink is going where it's needed most.

This gesture was not necessary, the Canadiens could have easily focused the entirety of their centennial celebrations on themselves and no one would have batted an eye. As it is, it appears the merchandising machine will be running full steam ahead throughout the next two seasons, so the Habs will cash in on the milestone. But doing something like this, something that is quite frankly sorely needed in the city, is something that should be given its fair amount of credit.

The Canadiens are so popular, so ingrained into the culture of this province, that the organization can often come off as cold and distant. From a journalist's perspective, I often say that covering the Habs is akin to covering the White House, just in the way information is controlled and sifted with a fine-toothed comb.

The team, even when it's bad, is guaranteed to succeed at the box office, in TV ratings, at the concession stands, in merchandising, everything. So there is no public relations incentive for making such a gesture.

The only incentives evident here are good faith and community awareness.

How refreshing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Some random thoughts

Here are just a few of the things that jumped out at me watching the Habs take on the Sabres in Roberval:

- Man, I would have loved to have been there. The atmosphere looked fantastic in the rink, but I probably would have been outside watching on the big screen. That's likely where the real party was at.

- My blogging hero Mike Boone wants to see the Kostitsyn brothers play with Tomas Plekanec this season. I still prefer the idea of playing them with Saku Koivu, but the point here is that they should definitely play together. Those guys really know how to find each other out there, and am I the only one that noticed Andrei actually talking on the ice? If playing with his brother can get Andrei out of his shell a little bit, that alone is a big reason why they should be on the same line this season. I remember talking to Plekanec after a game last season where he played with the brothers, and he basically said he was on his own out there. The brothers spoke to each other in Russian on the ice and on the bench, and Plekanec said he got the impression that he would be best served simply going to the net for rebounds, because he was a bit of an afterthought to both of them. He didn't really seem to mind, and Koivu might, so maybe Plekanec would be a better fit there. Regardless, I am more convinced than ever that both brothers would thrive playing on the same line all season. Would anyone dare split up the Sedins in Vancouver? Would they be nearly as effective playing apart? I believe the same rationale applies here.

- New RDS analyst Michel Bergeron actually made an interesting point in the first intermission while discussing Alex Tanguay playing the point on the Habs power play. He noted that putting Tanguay on the left point would allow Andrei Markov to move to the right side, freeing him up for the one-timers he routinely set up for Mark Streit last year and Sheldon Souray the year before. I've always believed Markov's shot was an underused weapon because his role on the power play was largely that of a table-setter. If he were to move to the right point and a guy like Tanguay or Sergei Kostitsyn were used on the left, Markov's lethal shot could really cause some damage. His shot is not quite as potent as Souray's, but it's definitely harder and just as accurate as Streit's. Markov had 10 power play goals last year as the set up guy, I wonder how many he could score as the trigger man?

- Is it me, or is Mathieu Dandenault far more valuable as a defenceman than he is as a forward? Guy Carbonneau has already said he has no intention of using Dandenault on defence this season, but I feel his usefulness is very limited as a forward on a team that has so many guys fighting for fourth line ice time. Not sure how he would take this and if he would report, but if I were the Habs I would send Dandenault down to Hamilton to get re-acquainted with the position for a month or two (with the additional benefit being some salary cap relief while he's down there) and then he would be available to provide some depth on defence. If an injury were to befall one of the Canadiens new big three on defence for any extended period of time this season, all these expectations of finishing first in the East would essentially fly out the window. In case of an injury like that to either Markov, Mike Komisarek or Roman Hamrlik, having Dandenault as additional insurance could be the difference between simply missing out on finishing first in the conference and missing the playoffs altogether.

- Finally, Guy Carbonneau's tie selection is still in pre-season form. I would have thought he would pull out something a little snazzier for the crowd in Roberval, like perhaps the new orange Hermès number he got when he appeared on the season premiere of Tout le monde en parle Sunday night.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A tribute to Guy

I don't know if I'm totally late on this, but I caught the clip on Greg Wyshynski's excellent Puck Daddy blog and thought it should be shared with anyone who hasn't heard it. It's a musical tribute to Guy Carbonneau written and performed by Kris Newby, a teacher from Peterborough, Ontario. Yes, that's Bob Gainey's home town, but he shouldn't be offended becase he's got his own tribute song which can be heard on Newby's MySpace page.

A vote of confidence

Day two of Habs training camp Saturday in Pierrefonds didn't have a ton of news, which is why some people thought it noteworthy that Alex Kovalev was playing on a line with Robert Lang in the first group of Canadiens to skate through some basic drills in front of a packed house of fans at the Sportsplexe 4 Glaces.

That wasn't all that significant, because Guy Carbonneau snuffed out the possibility of the two former Penguins linemates rekindling that combination, at least not to start the season. He clearly stated that last year's top line of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn and Kovalev would start together because it would be "unfair" to the two younger guys to take Kovalev off the line.

For me, the most significant part of Lang's training camp line was that Guillaume Latendresse was skating opposite Kovalev. Latendresse has already stated he feels he has a job to lose in camp, and he said it again Saturday, but Carbonneau says that isn't the case at all.

When told of Latendresse's statement, the coach was pleased to see the 21-year-old from Ste-Catherine would be hungry, but he said in no uncertain terms that a spot on the Habs third line is reserved for him. He even went so far as to suggest that it might be in Latendresse's best interests not to overexert himself in camp trying to secure his spot.

In fact, as far as the coach is concerned, all nine forwards that will be playing on the top three lines are safe in training camp, and Carbonneau figures there are "five or six or even more" players fighting to play on the fourth line.

Based on the information made available Saturday, if I had to guess, I think the makeup of those three lines can be safely speculated on.

Carbonneau had Alex Tanguay, who said Friday he preferred playing on the left side, on right wing with Hamilton-bound youngsters Ben Maxwell and Max Pacioretty.

Carbonneau also said it would be tough for Latendresse to crack the top two lines, but the arrival of Lang would benefit him because it will allow the team to have three offensive lines.

I might be stretching a bit here, but based solely on those two bits of info I feel the top three lines will play out like this:

A. Kostitsyn - Plekanec - Kovalev
Higgins - Koivu - Tanguay
Latendresse - Lang - S. Kostitsyn

I've already declared my preference to have Koivu play between the Kostitsyn brothers and have Tanguay play with Kovalev and Plekanec, but I would be willing to bet Carbonneau will start the season with those three lines.

The fourth line remains a bit of a crapshoot, but a rotation of Georges Laraque, Tom Kostopoulos, Steve Begin, Maxim Lapierre and perhaps Kyle Chipchura or Mathieu Dandenault is on the horizon, and each of those five guys should be prepared to sit in the pressbox more than a few times this season.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bob's master plan

It was quite the scene over at the Bell Centre on Friday as the Habs opened camp with physcials and testing, which for some of the players is a cruel form of torture.

There was no shortage of topics to discuss with the guys who were sent out like sacrificial lambs to get dissected by the Montreal media, but for my money, there were two that stood out.

The first was the appearance of captain Saku Koivu and his belief that this is the best Canadiens team he's ever played on, which is what I wrote about for The Canadian Press.

What I didn't write about, however, and the topic on which I was a bit obsessed this morning was the potential impact - positive or negative - of having so many players on the team in the final year of their contracts.

Most of the guys simply didn't want to talk about it, and Koivu even made a pre-season plea to the media that they not hound players about the subject all season long (that's what you call being a captain, people).

Here's an example of the disinterest shown by one of the more prominent members of that group, Alex Kovalev.

"I’m still a hockey player and that’s all I worry about," he said. "As long as I can play a full season and have a successful season for myself and for the team, that’s all I worry about, not the contract.”

Pretty typical stuff from a wily player, but two of the young veterans on the team had reactions that I found very refreshing.

The first was Mike Komisarek, who looked like he wanted to squirm away and hide under a rock as soon as the topic of his contract status came up. Komisarek last season grew very comfortable dealing with the media (I try not to refer to it as "speaking" with the media, because no one actually talks like that), so to see his body language when someone asked if he'd like to have a new contract signed before the end of the season was very strange.

“I’m not an agent, I’m a player," Komisarek said, visibly uncomfortable. "I don’t negotiate contracts, that’s not what I do.”

Now, I have absolutely no inside information on this whatsoever, so please take it for what it's worth, but when I saw Komisarek's reaction to the line of questioning I became convinced that contract talks with Bob Gainey were underway and he was just trying not to divulge anything he wasn't supposed to.

Just my opinion, not a statement of fact or even a rumour.

If it's true, it would be the smartest thing Gainey has done since taking over as the team's GM.

The other player who had some insight into the topic was Christopher Higgins, who as usual just laid it all out there for us. Higgins is as open a player as I've ever encoutered in my eight years covering the team.

I remember once in his rookie season, Higgins was stopped on a pivotal penalty shot where he tried a simple wrist shot from the slot. After the game, I asked him if he had a tendency to shoot rather than deke in those situations, expecting Higgins to say he won't answer that because it would be giving away a valuable secret. Instead, to my and everyone else's great surprise, he just turned to me and said, "Yeah, I do."

It was the same Higgins on Friday morning who was discussing not only his contract status, but that of everyone else, and even why it may be that Gainey has set the team up this way.

When the subject of how many guys are heading to free agency next season first came up, Higgins summed it up very succinctly.

"Yeah, it's pretty crazy," he started, before continuing. "It could be a bad thing, it could be a good thing. The way it could become a bad thing is if guys become selfish and let their own personal play dictate how they act. But it also could be a good thing to keep guys hungry throughout the year, guys realize their contract’s up and every game they can improve their status for next year. I think what’s great about this team is we are very close and we are a pretty selfless group as a whole, so I don’t think there are going to be too many problems with all the contracts coming up."

As opposed to his captain, Higgins said it's only natural the media and the fans be a bit preoccupied with the contract situation and he's sure Friday was not the last day he'll hear it brought up.

"Obviously there are a lot of big names with their contracts coming up," he said. "We know we’re going to get asked about it a lot. But as long as the team does well, you’re more than likely going to do well yourself. That’s the mindset going in right now.”

Higgins was also asked whether the situation creates a sense on the team that this is the year it was built by Gainey to win, which is certainly what it appears like from the outside.

“I don’t know if he planned it out, I couldn’t get in his head and tell you that, but it is strange how a lot of players have contracts up this year," Higgins said. "Maybe he just wants to keep guys hungry. He always talks about internal competition within the team for ice time and he sees that as being very healthy.”

So there you have it, maybe this is Gainey's master plan to essentially blackmail a Cup run out of his team. But probably not.

My own theory is that a lot of the contracts come up this year because there was the possibility it would be the last year of the collective bargaining agreement, with the players having the right to pull out and re-negotiate at the end of the season, and Gainey didn't want to be handcuffed with a lot of big contracts if he didn't know the rules of the game that would potentially be in place.

Now that it appears pretty clear the players will in fact not pull out of the CBA, Gainey should be able to get on to the business of retaining some of his key guys, of which Komisarek and Higgins are the two most important in my eyes.

Higgins gave further evidence Friday of why I feel he is one of those core players for the team moving forward when he discussed his goals for this season.

"We’re going to have a team that's very offensively gifted so the points should be there. But I want to be a player that’s looked at as a go-to player in the last minute of a game, whether we’re up or down a goal," Higgins said. "I’ve always wanted to be that player."

He also admitted that wearing the assistant captain's "A" last season was a bit too heavy a burden and he needed to learn how to handle the added responsibilities, one of which is talking to guys like me without actually saying anything, a skill he's still working on.

"It was the first year I wore a letter on my jersey, and there’s expectations that come with that. There were a lot of things I learned with that. I think I made some mistakes, I said certain things I wish I could take back in the locker room, but that’s just part of the learning curve. I’ve definitely thought about that a lot over the summer, all of the things I’ve done wrong and the things I’ve done right over the past year. I just want to continue to do the right things more frequently."

Finally, and I feel most importantly, Higgins recognized one of his biggest problems from seasons past when discussing his tendency to be too harsh a judge of his own play.

“That’s always been what people have said about me, that I’m my own worst critic and that I get down on myself too easily. I definitely want to work on that. When things aren’t going well, I’m always the one who’s coming down on me the hardest no matter what anyone else says. No one is ever as hard on me as myself. I think I just have to stay a little more positive, it’s a long season and you’re going to play bad games and have bad stretches. I just don’t want them to continue as long as they have in the past.”

I feel that is what kept Higgins from having a 35-goal season last year, if not more, and if he can fix it that number should be more than attainable this season.

To sign or not to sign

The dilemma facing Bob Gainey as he faces the prospect of negotiating contracts with a massive chunk of his team's core players before July 1, 2009 is whether or not he would be best served using last season as a base to work on, or rolling the dice and seeing what the players do this year before going to the bargaining table.

For two of his key, arbitration-eligible impending restricted free agent forwards, Tomas Plekanec and Christopher Higgins, I would suggest two different courses of action (just in case he's looking for suggestions).

I think everyone can agree these two guys - along with Carey Price, Mike Komisarek, Andrei Markov and the Kostitsyn brothers - will form the core of this team for many years to come. I've already written about what I think should be done with Komisarek, who, in my eyes, should be priority number one and not be allowed to begin the season without a contract extension in place, largely because he's heading toward unrestricted free agency in July.

But in the case of Higgins and Plekanec, I don't think the same approach should be taken with the two players, largely because of the disparity between their two seasons last year.

Higgins is coming off a career year, but his 27-goal output was not that much higher than his two previous campaigns of 22 and 23 goals.

There are two possible conclusions that can be drawn from this. One is that Higgins will always be a solid 25-goal scorer who can play on both ends of the ice, but that he'll never become an elite sniper. The other is that Higgins has shown that he can consistently score and he's on the verge of a breakout performance, if not this year then perhaps the next.

I would tend to favour the latter evaluation, largely because he scored 27 goals last year despite a long period where he missed two or three beautiful chances a night, and it started to get in his head. As he matures, those slumps won't stress him out as much and when he's in a position to score, he likely will.

So it might be a good idea to sign him now, before he does hit that breakout year, which could very well be this one.

Now the question is how much Higgins is worth right now, and I believe there are two recently signed restricted free agents that serve as pretty useful comparables.

The first is Ottawa's Antoine Vermette, who avoided arbitration by signing a two-year, $5.525 million deal. Vermette, 26, is a year older than Higgins but has followed a very similar career path, posting near identical numbers over the past three seasons. They are both versatile, high-energy guys who are valuable penalty-killers while also chipping in offensively.

Vermette, however, will be an unrestricted free agent in two years, which is probably not the way to go here with Higgins because by then he may play his way into a contract that would price him off the team.

The other comparable is R.J. Umberger, who was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets (yes, that means the Habs will probably never face him in the playoffs again, though Price may very well have nightmares about the guy the rest of his life) and signed a 4-year deal for $3.75 million per season to ride shotgun for Rick Nash.

Umberger is also 26 and has slightly less impressive career numbers, but they're in the same ballpark as Higgins and Vermette and his performance in the playoffs last season is probably what led Columbus to lock him up long-term.

If Gainey could get Higgins to sign on for the same money as Umberger, yet tack on another year to the deal, I think it would be great value by the end of the contract. If either Gainey or Higgins prefer to go short-term, however, Vermette's deal should serve as the template.

As far as Plekanec is concerned, I think Gainey might want to wait and see how the season plays out. It's a gamble, because Plekanec could very well eclipse his tremendous season of last year and cost the Canadiens a lot more than he would right now. But Plekanec's numbers put him in some pretty lofty company last year.

Consider that his 69-point campaign had him hovering around guys like Olli Jokinen (71 points), Scott Gomez (70), Rick Nash (69) and Marian Hossa (67), with the average salary of those players in excess of $6.3 million anually. Of course, Plekanec won't command that kind of money, but you get my point.

A couple of comparables based on age (Plekanec turns 26 on Halloween) and number of years playing at an elite level (which in Plekanec's case is one) show that right now, he would be worth about $4 million per year.

The Blues' Brad Boyes and Patrick Sharp of the 'Hawks, both 26-year-old restricted free agents who had breakout seasons last year, each signed 4-year deals this summer. Boyes got $4 million a year and Sharp got $3.9 million per.

The advantage the Canadiens have that neither the Blues nor the Blackhawks did is that Gainey can wait and see if last season was an aberration for Plekanec, which it likely wasn't, but since he's only had one season like it the question needs to be asked.

If Plekanec answers that question with an 80-point season, the gamble will have failed. But frankly, I think that's a problem Gainey would love to have.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tack another free agent on to the list

I remember the day of the press conference announcing Bob Gainey's decision to fire Claude Julien and bring in Guy Carbonneau, and The Gazette's Red Fisher was the first to ask a question. He cut right to the chase, asking Carbonneau how many years he got on his contract.

Carbonneau laughed at first, then answered that both sides mutually agreed not to divulge that information.

Though Fisher probably got his answer later that day, today he decides to share it with the rest of us that Carbonneau is entering the final season of his three-year deal as a lame duck Jack Adams award finalist.

So what gives here? What more does Carbonneau have to prove? If anything, he's only going to get better as a coach, and I find it somewhat deplorable that this wasn't taken care of over the summer. Carbonneau, of course, isn't worried about it. He says he's had some talks with Gainey and that it will be taken care of "sooner rather than later."

With all the work on Gainey's plate over the coming 10 months - some pesky thing about having over two thirds of your team heading to free agency next season - he would be wise to get Carbonneau's name on a new deal for at least the next three years before tackling all those other contracts.

In other news today, Mathieu Schneider has apparently cleared waivers and should be taking a u-turn on re-call waivers any day now. His re-call cap hit of just over $2.8 million is basically a steal, even if his legs aren't quite as quick as they used to be. He would slide in very nicely into the Habs top four, pairing with Andrei Markov on the top power play unit and alongside the steady Roman Hamrlik in even strength situations.

Alas, there's virtually no chance the Canadiens will be able to get him. Cap issues aside, Montreal is way down the list of teams who have priority on a waiver pick-up because the order is based on position in the standings. In this case, last year's final standings are used, which puts the Tampa Bay Lightning at the top. If I were a betting man, I would think Schneider won't get to the second team on the list.

Tampa has just over $2.5 million in available cap space, which is close enough that they could do some maneuvering to fit Schneider in. His veteran presence is sorely needed on a defence corps anchored by Andrej Meszaros (22), Matt Carle (24), Paul Ranger (24) and Shane O'Brien (25).

Having Schneider fall into their lap would truly be a gift, and I would be stunned if they didn't grab him.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Take it easy on the Pac man

Here we go again.

Every year at Canadiens training camp, there is a cause célèbre that the media embraces as a guy who could, or should make the main club in October.

In 2005 and 2006, it was Guillaume Latendresse, last year it was Sergei Kostitsyn, and this year it already appears evident that it's going to be Max Pacioretty.

The poor kid was besieged by reporters at the opening of the Habs rookie camp Sunday, getting asked from every direction how he's handling the pressure of expectations being placed on him by the organization. Power to him for not biting, because there couldn't be any less pressure coming from the Canadiens brass for him to make the jump straight to the NHL out of college.

Thankfully for the Habs, they have the option of sending Pacioretty to the AHL, which was an avenue that wasn't available to Latendresse in both '05 and '06 because he would have had to be sent down to junior (yet another advantage of choosing the college route). Two years ago, sending Latendresse to junior appeared to be a waste of time because he needed to learn how difficult it is to play against men when you can't just bully your way to success. That's exactly what Pacioretty can and will learn in Hamilton.

There are very few cases where a 19-year-old player arrives at his first pro camp and beats out an established player for a job, especially on a team with so few holes like the Canadiens.

Pacioretty might very well have an excellent training camp and force the Canadiens management into making a tough decision, but the best one they could make in his case would be for him to at least start the season in Hamilton and get his feet wet.

Does anyone else remember how Latendresse began his pro career in 2005? After a prolonged media campaign throughout training camp to get him on the team, Latendresse went pointless through his first 13 games, and with every passing goose egg the questions became louder on whether the Canadiens made a mistake keeping him in Montreal, even though he was seeing very limited ice time. On top of that, he finished the season with no points in his last eight games, showing just how demanding an NHL season can be on a teenager.

If Montreal had been able to send Latendresse to Hamilton two years ago, they would have in a heartbeat, and that's exactly what I feel will happen to Pacioretty. The Canadiens management signed Pacioretty to a pro deal right away so that he could perhaps be ready to fill a top-six role next year, when there will be far fewer forwards in the lineup because at least two - if not more - of Montreal's six UFA forwards won't be back.

It's interesting that Latendresse and Pacioretty are being compared here, because in my eyes if there's anyone who's at risk of losing his job to the big rookie, it would be #84, and it appears he knows it. It's a good sign that Latendresse has been working hard with a power skating coach and also to shed a few pounds in the offseason, because this could very well be a make or break year for him. It's a ridiculous thing to say about a 21-year-old player, but it's true nonetheless.

On another topic altogether, is anyone else intrigued by the fact the Anaheim Ducks put Mathieu Schneider on waivers almost immediately after the Habs acquired Robert Lang? Is it possible that Schneider was Bob Gainey's Plan C in this whole Mats Sundin affair, and that he was the only one in the entire league interested in trading for Schneider's services? I would have to believe that was the case, because the timing of it all is just too perfect for it not to be.

I wonder if Gainey is having any second thoughts on signing Patrice Brisebois now? If Schneider ever makes it to re-entry waivers, any team in the league could have him for half price, or $2.8125 million for the season. Currently, with Brisebois' cap hit at $1.5 million ($750,000 in base salary and another $750,000 in potential bonuses), the Habs have a shade over $1 million in cap space going into the season.

Had Gainey not signed Brisebois, he could have put in a claim for Schneider on re-entry waivers and not had too much cap housecleaning to do. Now, if Gainey were to make a claim on Schneider, he would essentially have to put Mathieu Dandenault on waivers (which he may do anyway) and send him to Hamilton for the season, where he would make a cool $1.725 million.

Just imagine a top-four defence of Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek, then Roman Hamrlik and Mathieu Schneider. It would be the envy of the conference, at the very least.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The best move available

Yes, Mats Sundin would have had a bigger impact and made the Canadiens a legitimate Cup contender, but barring that, this was the best fit available for Bob Gainey right now. The fact he was able to get Robert Lang from the 'Hawks on Friday without surrendering a player from the organization only makes it that much better.
Say what you will about Lang - that at 37 years old he's lost a step or two, that his playoff performances have been less than outstanding, that he's not the toughest customer in the league - but his addition gives the Canadiens three solid scoring lines, and a pretty elite checking line as well.
I outlined the reasons why I thought Gainey should grab Lang in my inaugural post on this blog, so I won't go through those again. But just look at the domino effect this creates among the Habs forwards.
Lang, Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec are now centring a group of six very capable wingers - Alex Kovalev, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, Chris Higgins, Alex Tanguay, and Guillaume Latendresse (OK, he's not very capable just yet). Whatever combination you come up with out of those nine players should work reasonably well, and be more or less interchangeable on the ice. Then the checking line would be drawn from the group of Maxim Lapierre, Kyle Chipchura, Georges Laraque, Steve Begin and Tom Kostopoulos (assuming Chipchura or Lapierre don't get cut in camp, which is a very real possibility).
This is what I would do with the forward lines:

Tanguay - Plekanec - Kovalev
A. Kostitsyn - Koivu - S. Kostitsyn
Higgins - Lang - Latendresse
Kostopoulos - Begin/Lapierre - Laraque

Now, Gainey just has to hope that Sundin remains as non-commital as ever for as long as possible, but frankly, I'm not sure how he will perform without going through training camp and he could mess up the chemistry of whatever team he eventually signs with. This is a far less risky option, especially since it only cost Gainey a second rounder.
In the end, Gainey managed to turn Mikhail Grabovski into Robert Lang and Greg Pateryn, because the second round pick he sent to the Blackhawks was the one that came back from the Leafs for Grabovski. Not a bad return for a guy who didn't really figure in the team's plans anymore and is completely unproven in the NHL.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Komisarek and friends

It appears that both Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes and Jason Pominville of the Buffalo Sabres are close to signing contract extensions with their respective clubs. Both are set to hit restricted free agency next summer, which makes me wonder where Bob Gainey is at in terms of negotiating a contract extension for Mike Komisarek.
Komisarek is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, as all of you surely know, at which point he'll only be 27 years old and entering the prime years of his career. Based on his incredible improvement over last summer, it's hard to imagine Komisarek won't become one of the league's premier shutdown defencemen this season, if he isn't already among that group.
Gainey has said that he isn't totally against negotiating with players during the season, but his preference has always been to wait until the season ends. Habs fans should be hoping it doesn't come to that with Komisarek.
If the Canadiens make a long playoff run next spring, it will only increase Komisarek's value on the open market because his intangibles are the ones that shine through come playoff time. Simply look at what happened with Jay McKee after the Sabres run to the conference final in 2006. He wound up with an inflated four-year, $16 million contract with the St. Louis Blues because of the shot-blocking clinic he put on in those playoffs.
This is why Gainey needs to get Komisarek's signature on a deal as soon as possible, not because he may be interested in testing the free agent waters - I think it's clear that the guy enjoys playing in Montreal - but because his value today is far lower than it probably will be at season's end. Also, Gainey has a lot of other contracts to deal with next summer, so knowing exactly how much Komisarek will be making would allow him to properly plan his cap space for next season and set his priorities for who he wants to re-sign.
So what exactly is Komisarek worth today? Judging on a couple of recent signings, I'd say he's worth a lot.
Take Andrej Meszaros, a 23-year-old restricted free agent who signed with the Lightning for six years and $24 million. He had a down year last season playing alongside a fading Wade Redden, but his age and potential could justify the dollar figure, and definitely the term of his deal. Meszaros had 101 hits and 100 blocked shots with the Senators last season playing 21:02 per game, and was only a plus-5.
Another recent signing was Keith Ballard in Florida, who inked a six-year, $25.2 million contract extension with the Panthers and thus avoided restricted free agency. Ballard will be 26 when his new deal kicks in, and he had 169 hits and 162 blocked shots playing 21:15 per game with Phoenix last season, posting a plus-7 rating, which was third-best on the team.
Then there's Ron Hainsey, who broke the bank by inking a five-year, $22.5 million deal with Atlanta as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Hainsey is not at all the same style of player as Komisarek, so it's difficult to compare the two other than the fact that Hainsey is 27.
So if Meszaros is worth $4 million per year, Ballard is worth $4.2 million per year and Hainsey is worth $4.5 million per year, with neither of the first two eligible for unrestricted free agency, it can be safely assumed that Komisarek's value starts at the $5 million mark.
Another interesting element to this equation comes courtesy of Raleigh News & Observer columnist Luke DeCock, who by the way got a very deserved promotion after years of extremely solid coverage as the Carolina Hurricanes beat reporter. He writes that the NHL's insurance will only cover contracts up to seven years in length, so any thought of giving a Komisarek a deal in the double-digit term realm of those signed by Vincent Lecavalier, Mike Richards and Rick DiPietro is likely out of the question, especially considering the rugged style of game he plays.
If I had to guess, I would think Komisarek would jump at a six-year contract for the same money Andrei Markov is making, $5.75 million. That would work out to $34.5 million over six years, and I'm willing to bet that would be a huge bargain over the life of the deal, if not next season. Gainey might even be able to get that number down to $30 million over six years, but I doubt it.
If Komisarek is allowed to hit the open market, or even inflate his value by playing this entire season without an extension in place, I don't think he could be had for the same amount.
It really is time for Gainey to wrap up his work for this season by making whatever deal he has in mind as a contingency plan once Mats Sundin says he can't decide whether to have waffles or cereal for breakfast, let alone whether or not he'll play this year. Once he does that, Gainey can focus his attention on getting Komisarek locked up prior to the start of the season so he can then move on to the seven other unrestricted free agents and the four restricted free agents on his roster, starting with the arbitration-eligible Chris Higgins and Tomas Plekanec. More on them soon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The end is near

By all accounts, it appears Bob Gainey laid down his final sales pitch to Mats Sundin in Toronto over the weekend, and with that pitch, some semblance of a deadline appears to have been set for the big Swede to make up his mind.
Barry told the Globe and Mail's Tim Wharnsby that Gainey would like an answer "quite soon," which at least confirms that he is not willing to enter the season with all that cap room to spare.
Barry's description of Gainey's pitch as being an "excellent case for why Mats should play in Montreal" may or may not indicate which way his client is leaning. But one thing that has become abundantly clear throughout this Summer of Mats is that this guy does not like deadlines, and he does not make decisions on anyone else's schedule.
In my eyes, seeing as the guy has already come out and said he probably won't make a decision before the start of the season, Sundin is not likely to be in Montreal for physicals on Sept. 19.
Barry's quote in the Globe also indicates that Gainey has other irons in the fire, and every day that goes by without a decision from Sundin is a day where another team can swoop in and grab that player Gainey is waiting to acquire. The big threat here, in my opinion, is the Vancouver Canucks.
Sitting on nearly $9 million in available cap space would not look good on new GM Mike Gillis, and though he's stated publicly that he's willing to wait on Sundin, I can't believe he will begin the season with the roster he has now based on the hope that the Swedish saviour will come. I'm not even sure that Sundin is a good fit for the Canucks. Who would he play with? Pavol Demitra and Kyle Wellwood? Would he move over to the wing to play with the Sedins? Is it even worth it for the Canucks to be in this melodrama, considering Sundin is far from the lone piece needed to be considered a legitimate Cup contender?
If Gainey is looking to grab a forward should Sundin remain on the fence too long, he should be proactive and beat the Canucks to the punch. If Gainey's eye is on Mathieu Schneider, the Canucks aren't much of a threat because the blue line is not where their weakness lies, but that certainly is not the case for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The latest entry into the Sundin sweepstakes may also try to grab Schneider from Anaheim because, even with Andrej Meszaros, their defence is very young and could benefit from someone with his experience.
In any case, Gainey was smart to try and speed up Sundin's decision-making process, and at least now he can tell himself he gave it his best shot. But in order to ensure that his alternate plan is still available, Gainey would be best served to act on it sooner rather than later.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

This is your brain...this is your brain on Mats

If indeed Mr. Sundin is in town this weekend to meet with Bob Gainey, I believe it's time for Gainey to just say no to Mats. Say no to the paralysis this guy is inflicting on your summer plans. Say no to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Sundin will want to join the team in December. Say no to the continuation of this ridiculously epic saga.
Gainey needs to tell Sundin this weekend that his offer has a deadline of, say, Wednesday, and after that the Canadiens will move on to other matters. Maybe that's exactly what Sundin needs, a firm ultimatum, before making a decision. But most importantly, training camp is only two weeks away and Gainey needs to fill out his roster with the impact player he can afford to add with the cap space he's kept on layaway for Sundin.
If Sundin's indecision wasn't enough to drive at least six GM's crazy (it's actually far more than that), his agent J.P. Barry added more intrigue to the drama Friday when he let it slip out on Toronto radio that his client was deciding between "Toronto and another team." He then promptly denied what he said to the Vancouver Sun, saying, "He hasn't narrowed it down at all. He's still trying to decide whether or not he's going to play and he won't comment to me, or anybody else, about teams until he does that. I mean, if he has narrowed it down to two, that would be big news. At this stage, I would practically put out a press release if he's narrowed it down to two teams."
OK, then why exactly did Barry say it was between Toronto and another team, on live radio no less?
Regardless, even if Montreal is "another team," Gainey needs to move on, with or without Sundin. I have no problem with Sundin taking his time to make his decision, but I would have a problem with a team gambling its potential for success this season on the whims of a man who isn't even sure whether he feels like playing. Sundin can take all the time he needs to decide, but that doesn't mean Gainey can wait because, unlike Sundin, he has a bit of a firm deadline.
While it's not unheard of for big time trades to happen in October and November, they have become extremely rare since the advent of the cap. Last year, for instance, there were five trades in October and November, and the biggest name changing hands was Brian Sutherby.
The year before, there were 10 trades in those two months, but they were all relatively minor deals, with the biggest one being either Brad Isbister going to the Rangers, or maybe it was Mikael Tellqvist getting shipped off to Phoenix for Tyson Nash.
The year prior to the lockout, some of that players that changed hands in Ocotober and November included Steve Konowalchuk, Miikka Kiprusoff and Martin Straka, while Mike Comrie was shipped out of Edmonton in mid-December.
Anyhow, the point is that teams now are far more willing to make a major move before the end of training camp, and that is especially true of the teams Gainey has probably been speaking with because they need to get under the salary cap very soon.
Which brings us to Gainey's next move. While I still maintain that Robert Lang would be a good fit for the Canadiens, the name of Mathieu Schneider is being floated out there more and more often, the latest being Pierre McGuire on the Team 990 the other day.
The addition of Schneider would take care of filling Mark Streit's spot on the power play, and he would give the Canadiens the best top-four defence in the conference by a fair margin.
But what exactly would it take to pry Schneider from the Ducks? Would a decent prospect and a pick cut it? Or would Brian Burke demand an A-list prospect like Ryan McDonagh or Max Pacioretty? In any case, Gainey doesn't need to add Schneider, while Burke is in a position where he basically has to unload him if he wants Teemu Selanne to play in Anaheim this season. So Gainey would be dealing from a position of strength, and from that position could offer up a middle-tier prospect like Matt D'Agostini and a second or third round draft pick for Schneider. That deal's a bit of a no-brainer, but giving up anything more should give Gainey pause for thought.

Friday, September 5, 2008

I wonder why...

...players like Daniel Brière, Brendan Shanahan, Brian Rafalski, Marian Hossa, possibly Mats Sundin and scores of others choose to continue their careers in other cities when they see the love-fest that Saku Koivu is treated to in Montreal every year? I mean, don't they all wish for this adulation? This appreciation of a career-long commitment to a team and a community? This respect given to a man that overcame cancer and a vision-threatening eye-gouging to come back and lead his team on the ice? Why, for heaven's sake, would this not be a huge selling point to free agents?
The stuff being written and said about Koivu over his decision not to attend the Habs golf tournament is simply the latest in a long line of unjustified attacks he has been subject to over his career.
I'll never forget the day a TVA news reporter was at the Bell Centre to ask Koivu - his eye swollen shut and facing the cameras and microphones of the Habs media throng for the first time since Justin Williams had nearly blinded him in one eye - why exactly the captain of the Canadiens doesn't speak French. It's a fair question, that just wasn't the time for it to be asked, but to Koivu's credit he answered it with grace, largely because it appeared he knew it was coming (the same reporter had asked Bob Gainey the same question earlier that day).
Does anyone really think anecdotes like that one don't make their way around the league? Does anyone think this latest tempest in a teapot won't either?
If I were Gainey, I would sit down with certain members of the media and ask them to cool it, because they are making his job infinitely more difficult. Gainey often likes to say that he has no problem selling the idea of playing in Montreal to free agents, and that he has to turn players down who contact him looking for a contract. That may very well be true, but the fact is that Gainey has failed in every one of his repeated attempts to bring in a big name free agent, and though there are a lot of factors involved - income taxes, children's education in French, and the previous mediocre status of the franchise being the principle ones - the treatment of Koivu by certain members of the media has to rank right up there in the minds of a star free agent thinking of coming to the Canadiens.
Of course, Gainey would never go to a Hall of Fame writer like Bertrand Raymond, who has more hockey knowledge and experience in his pinky toe than I ever will in my whole body, and tell him what he can and can't write. And he won't go to the team's radio broadcaster CKAC and ask them to keep their talk show hosts in line.
But perhaps what certain media outlets should realize is that having a winning team in Montreal works to their benefit, because the average person on the street wants to know about a winning team, but they don't particularly care who did and who didn't show up to the pre-season golf tournament. Essentially, wins sell more papers than controversies, and tying the GM's hands when it comes to improving the club is therefore counter-productive.
I personally feel Koivu should have seen this coming, and maybe he should have made the effort to be at the golf tournament. The fact he wasn't there, probably knowing full well the consequences of his absence, makes me wonder if he even cares about what the media - and by extension the fans - think anymore.
If someone like Saku Koivu has gotten to that point, it doesn't bode particularly well for the future chances of the Habs to attract big-name talent to Montreal. It even raises the question of whether current players will want to re-up with the team, though I believe that those who live through the experience of being a winning club in Montreal are sold pretty quickly on how cool that can be.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sundin all-out?

So Mats Sundin has already begun preparing for his life after hockey, signing on as a spokesman for Pokerstars.com. Does this necessarily mean the big Swede is done for good? No, but it is a clear step out the door, and who can really blame him? This is a man who has spent his entire professional career playing for two franchises that had no real chance for success, and he continued to show up every night despite the hopelesseness of the situation. If he does come back, I can't imagine the NHL will be thrilled having one of it players promoting a gambling site after the entire Rick Tocchet kerfuffle a few years back.
A comment that interested me from the Habs golf tournament the other day came from Francis Bouillon, who told Francois Gagnon of La Presse that he's starting to get sick of all the clamour around Sundin. I have to admit this is something that didn't really occur to me over the summer while everyone was holding their breath waiting to see if Sundin would join the Habs. As Bouillon points out, no one has really given enough attention to Bob Gainey's acquisition of Alex Tanguay without losing a single player from the organization, aside from whoever he would have selected with that first round pick. For a team that already had a potent offence, this was quite a coup.
Another thing that is being slightly ignored is that the Habs ripped up the league last season essentially riding two centres, the same two centres they have now.
Bryan Smolinski didn't really start playing last year until February, so the bulk of the year consisted of Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec centring two scoring lines, and even then Michael Ryder's struggles made the Koivu line largely ineffective. Replacing Ryder with Tanguay is a monstrous step up, though I'm of the opinion that playing Tanguay with Koivu would be a mistake. The two are very similar in style and playing them together would be a waste of their playmaking skills.
I know a lot of people may find this unthinkable, but I would throw Koivu between the Kostitsyn brothers. The lone drawback would be that the line's nickname could be the KKK line, which no one would want to see, but I feel playing with the brothers could give the captain a boost late in his career. That way, you can throw Plekanec and Alex Kovalev with Tanguay, giving that line a bonafide playmaker and allowing Plekanec to concentrate on putting the puck in the net. I feel Plekanec could score 35 goals this season if he weren't burdened with trying to constantly set up Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn. Chris Higgins could slide down to what would be a pretty solid third line with Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse, while the fourth line would be a mish-mash of Kyle Chipchura, Steve Begin (who can play centre), Tom Kostopoulos and Georges Laraque.
Speaking of Laraque, he got his first taste of why he has avoided playing in Montreal all this time when certain media were up in arms that he skipped the Habs golf tournament. Laraque even felt the need to call CKAC and explain himself, noting he hates golf and preferred staying in Edmonton to continue his preparation for training camp. Welcome to Montreal big guy.
Finally, Marian Gaborik seemed to suggest he intends on playing out his contract with the Minnesota Wild this season to see what free agency can bring him in an interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Michael Russo, which raises the spectre of a trade deadline deal if the Wild aren't in contention for the playoffs. Habs fans can start salivating now.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Price of success

First of all, sorry for the long delay between posts here. I guess I could tell you I've been charging my batteries in view of the long season ahead, but that would be a lie.
The idle time was not completely wasted, however, as I had an interesting conversation I'd like to share with you.
I, like many of you, was wondering how Carey Price was digesting his experience in last year's playoffs. Though he expressed his excitement to be back in town and shrugged off the suggestion he spent all summer ruminating over it when he spoke to reporters at the Canadiens golf tournament, my main curiosity centred around whether Price has ever had to deal with an end to the season quite like the one he had last year.
When you've been successful at basically every level you've ever played, I guess the only drawback is that you don't gain much exprience in dealing with disappointments.
So I decided to look through his career numbers, and nowhere in there is it apparent Price ever finished off a year the way his playoffs ended last season.
But numbers never tell the whole story, and that's when I remembered a blog written by the CBC's Elliotte Friedman during last year's playoffs where he spoke to Tri-City Americans GM Bob Tory about Price. Having scouted and drafted him out of bantam, who better to ask if Price has ever gone through anything similar than Tory?
First of all, Tory is adamant that last year's Canadiens ouster was not Price's fault, and I'd have to agree with him. While his game definitely dipped considerably, the biggest problem for the Canadiens was burying their chances at the other end of the ice. I would be inclined to believe that Price would have been a very different goalie playing with the lead against Philadelphia, which his teammates were never able to provide him.
With that disclaimer out of the way, though, Tory pointed to one situation Price went through when he was 15 and decided to go play Junior "B" hockey with the Quesnel Millionaires.
"It wasn't a good situation for him, so he left the team at Christmas and went back to Williams Lake to play midget," Tory recalled. "It wasn't a very good team, but he led them to the provincial champonship. So he took a negative situation and turned it into a postive one."
Granted, that anecdote doesn't speak to how Price can handle an entire summer's worth of time to mull over a perceived failure, but it is further evidence that his nerves are not exactly human.
Tory is very well placed to speak about how Price can handle pressure, because he saw an example of it very early in his junior career. When he was only 16, the Americans decided to throw Price in net for their first round playoff series against Portland instead of regular starter Tyler Weiman, and Price promptly led Tri-City to a five-game series win.
That's essentially the same scenario that played out in Hamilton two years ago, except in that case Price led the Bulldogs all the way to the Calder Cup.
In Tory's eyes, everything Price went through over the past two years - an MVP performance and a gold medal at the world junior championship, a Calder Cup title in Hamilton, winning a spot on the Canadiens, being named the starter with the trade of Cristobal Huet, and earning his first NHL playoff series win - would have crumbled a lesser-minded man.
"Just think of how he handled that emotional roller coaster. I mean, that's a lot," Tory said. "To experience all that in one season is an incredible experience for a player."
In other words, Price was given a crash course in maturity, which may have been Bob Gainey's plan all along when he shipped out Huet.
But in Tory's eyes, Price didn't need any crash courses, because his parents gave him all the maturity a young man could need, and more.
Since Price left the Americans, his dad Jerry has begun working for the team as a Northern B.C. scout and goalie coach. Tory would have brought him on board earlier, but the elder Price insisted his son be off the team before he took the job to avoid any appearance of inpropriety.
"That's just an example of the kind of family they are," he said. "They're just very grounded."
So, what does all this mean about how Price will be able to perform this season? Not a whole lot, because it's clear Price has never really been in this situation before.
But everything in his past, both on the ice and off, suggests this kid has it in him to simply go out and do the job that's asked of him. Except he's being asked to lead the league's most storied franchise to its former glory in its centennial season, a task that would be monumental for Martin Brodeur, let alone Carey Price.