Thursday, September 18, 2008

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.

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