Thursday, January 8, 2009

Latendresse's price just went up

Jordan Staal avoided restricted free agency Thursday by signing a four-year deal worth $16 million, providing yet another idea of what the Canadiens RFAs in waiting may cost to retain.

Though I've been focusing on Tomas Plekanec and Christopher Higgins, the recent play of Guillaume Latendresse makes him a player in this conversation as well. If he has a big second half as his line continues to improve, Latendresse's price tag could climb higher than the assumed $1 million a year he was probably worth before the season.

On the other side of the coin, both Plekanec and Higgins have done nothing to increase their value so far this year.

Staal is 20 years old and playing his third season. After a 29-goal rookie year he suffered a sophomore slump last year and dropped to 12. So far this season, he has 11 goals and 10 assists in 41 games.

Those numbers are nothing to scream about, but the Penguins are obviously paying for potential in his case, which may be the position Bob Gainey finds himself in when it comes to Latendresse.

Latendresse is also in his third season, he's one year older than Staal and this may be surprising to some of you, but Latendresse's career numbers are not that far off Staal's. In 204 career games, Staal has 52 goals and 39 assists for 91 points. In 185 career games, Latendresse has 38 goals and 33 assists for 71 points. That comes out to 0.45 points per game for Staal and 0.38 for Latendresse, which over an 82-game season is a difference of about six points.

I'm not saying Latendresse is worth $4 million per year, far from it. But as he appears to be finding his game, his value is far higher than $1 million per year, and you can be sure this Staal signing will come up in negotiations between Gainey and agent Pat Brisson.

As clear as it's become that at least one, if not two, of Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev will not be back next year, I think it's becoming equally clear that one of Higgins, Plekanec and Latendresse will also be playing elsewhere in 2009-10.

With Mike Komisarek to sign this year and Carey Price to sign after next season, some difficult choices will need to be made, especially in light of the near certainty that the 2010-11 salary cap will decrease in a significant way.

Which brings up the matter of perhaps trading one of Plekanec, Higgins or Latendresse by the deadline, seeing as their youth makes them more marketable than any of the impending UFAs.

I don't think the Canadiens would entertain the idea of dealing Latendresse, especially not when he looks to be emerging from the growing pains that defined the first two years of his career.

Though everyone believes Higgins is a hot commodity around the league, I have to believe that right now Plekanec is the one that could get the better return in a trade, and I would also think he's the one the team would rather trade of the two. Whether it's warranted or not, Higgins has been identified as a core player by the Canadiens, a fact made clear when he was given a letter on his jersey prior to last season.

Plekanec, on the other hand, may be looked at as a beneficiary of circumstance, and his consistent absence from the scoresheet this season is helping that belief. I personally feel Plekanec is not a great top-six centre, but he is an elite third-line guy who can kill penalties and pitch in 40-50 points a season.

There has to be a market out there for someone like Plekanec, who might in fact wind up becoming a legitimate top-six forward under different circumstances. If he and a pick or prospect would be enough to bring in a quarterback for the power play, which is a dire need in these parts, then Gainey should pull the trigger. Because, in any case, it looks like there's one good, young player who will be leaving Montreal at the end of the season, so why not try to turn him into a needed asset?

UPDATE: Was that a power play quarterback you wanted? Tomas Kaberle told the Toronto Sun today he would not necessarily say no if asked to waive his no-trade clause. He's signed for two more years at a modest $4.25 million per season.

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