Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is bad hockey a cause for Gastro?

Sorry for the short vacation here folks, but I was struck with a heavy-duty case of gastroenteritis on Sunday evening.

Coincidentally, or maybe not so, it hit me right around the time Guy Carbonneau was telling reporters in St. Louis just how well his Montreal Canadiens played Sunday. I wasn't in St. Louis, but is it possible the coach's reaction to the game forced the onset of this bug?

Probably not, but you get my drift.

I understand the concept of positive reinforcement, I understand that you sometimes need to re-adjust expectations, and I understand the Canadiens were playing an early game in a different time zone a day after playing in Montreal. But, regardless of all those factors, the game the Habs played in St. Louis on Sunday night was far from encouraging.

How does 0-for-10 on the power play become encouraging, or the fact that five of those power plays were wiped out after the Canadiens took penalties? (As an aside, how on earth is Chris Lee still an NHL referee? But I digress...)

How does a shootout win eeked out at the last minute against one of the worst teams in the NHL become encouraging?

The line changes made by Carbonneau on Sunday, which will be given another audition tonight in Raleigh, showed that the head coach is willing to try new things. If there was anything encouraging about that game in St. Louis, that would be it.

Putting Alex Kovalev on a line with Saku Koivu has long been suggested in desperate times by people in the media and fans on the airwaves, but Carbonneau has been reluctant because in the past, the two haven't shown the greatest chemistry playing together.

But the fact remains that a line of Kovalev, Koivu and Alex Tanguay puts the team's three most accomplished forwards on one line, and I believe it's worth a shot to see if they click and become the Canadiens version of Alfredsson, Heatley and Spezza. OK, bad example, but you see where I'm going with that.

The line juggling also puts the Kostitsyn brothers together with Robert Lang, and I thought that line was pretty effective Sunday night. At least we have Carbonneau finally acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, the Kostitsyns enjoy playing with each other.

That left Tomas Plekanec on a line with Christopher Higgins and a rotation of Tom Kostopoulos and Guillaume Latendresse, which brings me to my next point today.

Paul Stastny just signed a five-year contract extension worth $33 million, thus avoiding restricted free agency. That's also where new linemates Mr. Higgins and Mr. Plekanec are headed on July 1.

I find putting a value on these two guys to be increasignly difficult, especially with some of the deals being handed out to young players now. Anze Kopitar is locked up for seven years at $6.8 million per, and now Stastny signs for five years at $6.6 per.

So what does that have to do with Higgins and Plekanec? Not a whole lot, as far as I'm concerned, because we're dealing with an entirely different class of player in Kopitar and Stastny. The only way it does impact their situation is that players in that service bracket are getting big time commitments from their own teams to stick around.

I think the best comparables among recently signed players remain Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks and Pierre-Marc Bouchard of the Minnesota Wild. Bouchard has played over 100 more NHL games than either Higgins or Plekanec, but that's only because he made the jump straight from junior. Sharp, meanwhile, has played about 50 more games than the Habs duo, but he's been around much longer and bounced around the Flyers system before finally landing a job in Chicago.

Bouchard, based on three straight solid seasons, signed a five-year deal worth $20.4 million while Sharp, based on one outstanding year and not a whole lot else, signed for four years and $15.6 million.

In both cases, that's a cap hit hovering around $4 million per year, and if Bob Gainey has to shell out that kind of dough to keep both Higgins and Plekanec I have trouble seeing how he'll also sign unrestricted free agents Mike Komisarek, Koivu, Kovalev and Tanguay who, collectively, would cost more than $20 million.

That doesn't even take into account Carey Price's next contract after the 2009-10 season, which will assuredly be in the range of those signed by Stastny and Kopitar, if not higher, and that's money Gainey will have to keep handy.

Doesn't all this make Andrei Kostitsyn's three-year deal at $3.25 million a year look like the bargain of the century?

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