Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Spending for the sake of spending

Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said yesterday that if Mats Sundin does not land in Montreal this fall - which still isn't a certainty, but is most definitely a probability - that he will "experiment" in training camp with Chris Higgins and Sergei Kostitsyn playing centre.
I've always felt that Higgins would be better at centre than on the wing, and he did pretty well there when given an audition after Saku Koivu went down last season, other than his performance on face-offs (35.5 per cent, ugh).
A lot of people of press row began wondering last year whether or not the younger Kostitsyn would also be better suited at centre, considering his excellent vision, speed and playmaking abilities, not to mention his bulldog attitude. My thoughts on this are that he would, just not on the Canadiens.
The problem, in my eyes, with putting him at centre is that he's too similar - in both style and stature - to Koivu and Tomas Plekanec. Having Sergei in the middle would mean none of the Canadiens top three centres would be either 6-feet tall or 200 pounds.
Granted, Higgins is no monster, but his style of play is a bit more of a change from Koivu and Plekanec than Kostitsyn would be.
I still believe the ideal situation would be to bring in a veteran to centre the third line, but barring that Higgins would be my choice to make the switch from the wing.

Still going on the premise that Sundin will not be heading to Montreal, another question that needs to be asked is whether or not it is worthwhile for the Canadiens to spend the remaining $6.5 million of cap space prior to the season, or if it would be more prudent to hold on to that money in order to swing a deal during the season.
The quick and easy answer is that having so much room under the cap once the season begins is essentially a waste, because NHL teams don't need too much wiggle room to make improvements. In other words, spending for the sake of spending may be the best move Bob Gainey could make.
The salary cap era so far has seen very little movement of players between teams in the early part of the season, to the point where The Mouth (aka Brian Burke) suggested last year to re-open the CBA and allow teams to eat salary in order to facilitate trades.
With most teams waiting until the home stretch to make their moves, they only need to have room to absorb about 20 per cent of a players salary because at the deadline about 80 per cent of the season is over.
Yet another factor that comes into play is that for a player to be made available in and around the deadline, two equally important conditions need to be respected: 1) The player, in almost every case, must be heading toward unrestricted free agency and 2) the team needs to be out of playoff contention.
So, with that in mind, what exactly would be available come March 3, 2009?
Not a whole lot.
For the purposes of this post, I looked at 21 teams who could be among the 14 non-playoff teams at the end of the season. But one thing that should be kept in mind is that quite a few, if not most of those teams will still be in the hunt for a playoff spot come March 3, so they may not be willing to throw in the towel by making a rental trade.
The only teams I gave a free pass into the playoffs were the Ducks, Stars, Red Wings, Habs, Rangers, Senators, Flyers, Penguins and Sharks. Out of all the rest of the NHL's teams, here's a subjective list of prominent impending unrestricted free agents that could be dangled as trade bait in March (current salary in brackets):
Atlanta: Jason Williams ($2.2 million)
Boston: none
Buffalo: Maxim Afinogenov, Jaroslav Spacek ($3.33 million each)
Calgary: Mike Cammalleri ($3.35 million), Todd Bertuzzi ($1.95 million), Adrian Aucoin ($4 million)
Carolina: none
Chicago: Martin Havlat ($6 million), Robert Lang ($4 million)
Columbus: Mike Peca ($1.315 million)
Colorado: Tyler Arnason ($1.675 million), Ian Laperrière ($1.15 million)
Edmonton: Erik Cole ($4 million)
Florida: Jay Bouwmeester ($4.8 million)
LA: Kyle Calder ($2.7 million), Derek Armstrong ($1.5 million)
Minnesota: Marian Gaborik ($6.33 million)
Nashville: Steve Sullivan ($3.2 million, still re-habbing a back injury that forced him to miss last season), Greg DeVries ($2.5 million)
New Jersey: John Madden ($2.94 million), Brian Gionta ($4 million)
NYI: Bill Guerin ($4.5 million), Doug Weight ($4.3 million), Mike Comrie ($4 million), Mike Sillinger ($2.2 million)
Phoenix: Steve Reinprecht ($2 million), Derek Morris ($3.9 million)
St. Louis: Keith Tkachuk ($4 million), Andy McDonald ($3.33 million)
Tampa Bay: Gary Roberts ($2 million), Mark Recchi ($1.5 million), Michel Ouellet (1.25 million)
Toronto: Nik Antropov ($2.05 million), Mark Bell ($2.17 million)
Vancouver: Henrik and Daniel Sedin ($3.575 million each), Mathias Ohlund ($3.5 million)
Washington: Sergei Fedorov ($4 million), Viktor Kozlov ($2.5 million)

Of those players, I would argue the only true impact guys are Gaborik, Bouwmeester, Cole, Cammalleri, the Sedins, Madden and maybe Havlat if he can stay healthy. Chances are pretty good that Bouwmeester will be the only one of those players to hit the auction block come deadline time.
But let's just say, for the sake of argument, that the Wild were to fall off the map and Gaborik - the highest paid player on the list - were made available. In order to add him, a team would only need roughly $1.3 million in cap space.
So hanging on to $6.5 million of cap room before the season starts would be a collossal waste for Gainey, because even though the Canadiens have a littany of young, promising players, this team is built to win now with all the impending free agents on the roster. And with the trend of the past couple of trade deadlines, where teams grossly overpaid for rentals, using that $6.5 million in cap space now would likely bring far better value than if it were used in March.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An excellent Plan B

First off, welcome to my humble beginnings in the sports blogosphere. I'm not quite sure what I can add to the already exhaustive supply of sports opinions available out there, but I feel this will become a place where Habs fans can go for a unique take on their team. So let's get started.
Bob Gainey came out today and said he wasn't optimistic about Mats Sundin signing with the Canadiens whenever he decides to end this ridiculous game of cat and mouse he's calling a reflection on his career.
If Sundin had any interest in playing for the Habs, he would have signed on the dotted line by now. In June, his indecision regarding his future was a little easier to believe. But now? There's no reason to believe Sundin hasn't already made up his mind whether he will or will not play.
If he's decided not to play, he's done a disservice to the teams waiting on him to move forward finalizing their rosters for the upcoming season.
On the other hand, if he has decided he'll play - which is the likeliest of scenarios - why on earth would he have not come out with it? The only possible reason is the team he wants to play for can't really welcome him into the fold just yet. Of the teams that are known to be interested in his services, only the Rangers and Flyers don't have the available cap space to accomodate Sundin's potential salary demands, and it appears to be common knowledge that Sundin loves New York.
Both Gainey and Guy Carbonneau - speaking to reporters at the latter's charity golf tournament - said they are prepared to move on without Sundin, though Gainey was a little more reluctant to go that far.
What Gainey did say of interest was that should Sundin choose to sign elsewhere or retire, he would start looking toward teams that need to shed salary to get under the cap in order to grab another player.
In my book, Gainey is already very well advanced in those talks if he decided to divulge that kind of information to one of my pesky colleagues (in this case, omnipresent RDS reporter Renaud Lavoie).
So, with that in mind, let's play a fun little game of speculation and try to out figure out where exactly Gainey may be looking to grab an extra piece of the puzzle.
First off, can we all agree that he would be looking for another centre to provide some offence and win faceoffs, seeing as that is the role Sundin would have filled in Montreal were he not so wishy-washy?
According to, there are currently six teams over the $56.7 million salary cap: the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals.
We can eliminate the Flyers and Capitals as potential trade suitors because both those teams hope to be competing with the Canadiens in an eventual playoff run (though Gainey had no problems handing the Leafs the Cup by shipping them Mikhail Grabovski this summer, but I digress).
That leaves the Ducks, Flames, 'Hawks and Sharks as potential trade partners, and of those teams, I only see three guys in the running to fill the Habs' hole at centre.
The Flames are overrun with capable centres, and could possibly be willing to part with Craig Conroy for very little. Conroy's a good faceoff man, but I don't think he has the legs to keep up with any of the potential linemates he would have on the Habs. Someone who would on the Flames is Matthew Lombardi, but I highly doubt Darryl Sutter would give him up without demanding at least a good, young roster player in return. In any case, shedding Conroy's $1.05 million salary would not solve the Flames' cap woes.
The rumours of Patrick Marleau's trade to the Habs have been nauseatingly constant over the last two years, but he's another guy that would slide in nicely on the Habs, assuming he could bounce back from his atrocious season last year (I had him in my pool, so I'm still seething a little). Marleau's also pretty good in the faceoff circle and he's an obvious talent, but the Sharks have no reason to do something this drastic, seeing as they're only about $225,000 over the cap. Trading away $6.3 million in salary would be a bit of overkill, and frankly, I'm not sure Gainey wants the risk of that contract on the books for the next two years for a guy who only had 48 points and was a minus-19 last year.
So that leaves who I feel is the ideal candidate for Gainey to go after once Sundin lets the world know he has no desire to play in Montreal. That would be the Blackhawks' Robert Lang.
He is the ideal Plan B in this situation, in that he provides nearly everything Sundin would.
He won 53.1 per cent of his faceoffs last year - higher than any of the centres on the Canadiens - and he's a right-handed shot, just like Sundin and unlike Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec.
Lang does turn 38 in December, making him a year older than the Swedish one, but at $4 million for one season he is far more affordable and would provide Gainey some wiggle room to make a move at the deadline. Even in terms of size, Lang (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) is not as far as you would think from Sundin (6-foot-5, 231).
Lang's been extremely consistent since firmly establishing himself as an NHL player in 1998-99. That season, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was the only one where Lang did not score at least 50 points, and last season he had a more than respectable 54 points playing for a non-playoff team. The '98-'99 and '99-'00 were the only ones in the last 10 years where Lang has been a minus player.
The question here is how much would it cost to get him to Montreal? The 'Hawks are only $416,000 above the cap, but that's with just 10 NHL forwards under contract, and even that's a stretch because one of them is Ben Eager. Chicago is not exactly swimming in talent up front, and losing Lang as a second-line centre would be a definite blow to the team's depth up the middle because Patrick Sharp would have to play centre full-time (he's listed as a winger, but he took the third most face-offs on the team last year).
Lang would, in all likelihood, require a roster player and a forward prospect in return, which may be a price that Gainey is unwilling to pay. But the alternative - having both Maxim Lapierre and Kyle Chipchura among the top four centres - is not all that attractive either.