Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sather evens things up

I guess this is payback for Jozef Balej.

When Bob Gainey hoodwinked Glen Sather into taking Balej in exchange for impending free agent Alex Kovalev back in 2004, Montreal was abuzz with the thought of a marquee name finally landing in the city.

Now, just over four years later, those two men have hooked up on another trade and Montreal is buzzing just as much over a marquee name.

Only this time, it is with rage.

Scott Gomez is a pretty good hockey player, and taken solely on his merits on the ice he would be worth taking a chance on.

But these days you can't look at a player in a vacuum.

Gomez represents a $7.357 million cap hit for the next five years, which should theoretically lessen his trade value. But, sensing Gainey's desperation to make a big move to improve his team down the middle, Sather managed to grab Christopher Higgins AND Ryan McDonagh AND Pavel Valentenko AND Doug Janik.

The deal is bad on so many levels, the worst of which is that the Rangers can now compete with the Habs on the free agent market.

Adding Gomez's salary brings the Habs cap space down to about $27.5 million, while the Rangers are suddenly at a shade over $25 million. The Rangers aren't out of the woods, however, because they only have three NHL forwards and four defencemen under contract for next season, so they can't exactly start spending that money all in one place. But this deal gets them out of a major league jam.

"It gives us a lot more options, more availability to do other things," Sather told reporters in a conference call. "We're not up against the cap now. We have lots of cap room. It just makes the options more inviting to us."

Secondly, this limits how much Gainey can spend on free agents Wednesday. Gainey knows as well as all of us do how poor of a track record he has when it comes to closing deals on UFAs, and this trade couldn't have been a bigger admission of that.

The third negative point is giving up on Ryan McDonagh, who only turned 20 two weeks ago. He may not be lighting things up at Wisconsin the way Trevor Timmins anticipated, but he's widely regarded to be a future top-pair defenceman and he may very well be an all-star by the time Gomez's contract runs out.

Finally (and I'm only stopping here because this is going to start getting redundant) this trade stinks because Gainey is committing all this money to someone who is essentially the same style of player as Saku Koivu. Yes, Gomez is more durable, has more points and has two rings, but he's basically a slightly better and far more expensive version of Koivu.

If Gainey had gone out and acquired a big bruising centre who could go mano-a-mano with Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger at that price, I would be the first to say "bravo." But this? A 5-foot-11, 200-pound Scott Gomez will not change the identity of this team one bit. In fact, he's an almost perfect fit to what has been the identity of the Habs for years.

It was only yesterday that Gainey said, "It’s not a question of spending money, that’s not the problem. It's to spend it properly, to spend the right amount on the right person."

I don't think Gainey chose the right person here.

But really, just as no player can be looked at in a vacuum, no trade can either. They all need to be placed in the context of the moves made around them, and in this case, that part of the story has yet to be told.

If Gainey is able to add Martin Havlat or Marian Hossa to play with Gomez and Alex Kovalev, then suddenly the Habs have a pretty credible looking first line. If he can add Francois Beauchemin or, better yet, somehow re-sign Mike Komisarek, then the team is starting to look pretty good.

Despite Gomez's $7.3 million cap hit Gainey still has a good deal of money to spend Wednesday. But this trade makes the pressure to get something out of free agency even more stifling, simply because adding Gomez does not make the Canadiens a better team than they were with Koivu and Alex Tanguay.

In essence, Gainey will be fighting for his job over the next few days.

Gomez, meanwhile, took some time before heading out on a fishing trip in Kenai, Alaska, just south of his hometown of Anchorage, to speak with the Montreal media.

The first thing he said, while we waited for CKAC to shutup so we could start the conference call, was addressed to Canadiens media relations director Dominick Saillant.

"Who did I get traded for?"

Oh, how I would love to be in the woods and away from all news sources right about now.

Otherwise, Gomez was actually pretty candid about rating his performance last season, which was basically the worst of his career when expectations and salary are taken into account. His 58 points in 77 games was his lowest mark since 2003, though he barely topped that with 60 points in 2007.

"If anyone was disappointed about last year, I would be the first," Gomez said. "That's why we play, there's always something to prove...You bet I was embarrassed about last year, the way I played."

An encouraging thought when trying to figure out if Gomez will be able to bounce back is that his most effective years, if not his most productive ones, came in a system in New Jersey that preached tight, disciplined defensive play. In New York that wasn't always the case, but it most definitely will be here under Jacques Martin, so maybe Gomez will be able to thrive.

He also spoke about Montreal's reputation as a hockey "Mecca" and that he feels like he "grew up in the Montreal organization" because of all the former Habs he came across in New Jersey. One of them, in fact, recently had Gomez's No. 19 raised to the Bell Centre rafters, so the newest member of the Habs will have to find another number.

"I thought about calling Larry and asking him," Gomez joked (I hope).

Finally, Gomez addressed the idea that he was crumbling under the pressure of his enormous contract.

"There's pride," he said. "I've never been about money, never grew up with it."

Unfortunately for him, now that he has it, money will be the number one consideration for Canadiens fans when judging Gomez on the ice. And something tells me whatever he does will never be good enough.

Gainey even had to overpay on trade market

Not only is Chris Higgins heading to the Rangers for Scott Gomez, Bob Gainey is sending Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko along with him.

Trading Higgins for Gomez is one thing, because you are basically doing the Rangers a favour by grabbing that ridiculous contract. But to throw in one of your top defensive prospects, even if he's not developping the way you would have liked, is simply way too much to pay for a player of Gomez's calibre.

Along with Gomez the Habs are getting centre Tom Pyatt, a fourth round pick from 2005 who was in the ECHL as recently as two years ago and has never played an NHL game, and defenceman Michael Busto, who went undrafted and has never even played in the AHL.

I don't want to rush to judgment too soon, but this could really blow up in Gainey's face.

More later, once I've been able to process this.

Gomez heading north, are Sedins still in play?

That big first line centre Bob Gainey was seeking became Scott Gomez on Tuesday.

I'm not sure if Gomez can compare to a Vincent Lecavalier, or even a Patrick Marleau, but at least he plays centre. I guess.

While giving up Chris Higgins to grab Gomez is not a crippling loss, the $7.3 million cap hit for each of the next five years definitely is.

In one fell swoop, Gainey has cut his spending capability to roughly $26 million with at least one defenceman and two forwards left to sign.

Will that be enough to still go after the Sedin twins tomorrow?

If so, and Gomez becomes Montreal's second line centre, then this deal starts to look a little more interesting.

But Gainey was hoping to swing a trade so he could use that player to convince free agents to sign here. I'm not sure Gomez accomplishes that.

On to Plan B...again

This is starting to sound like a bit of a broken record, but Bob Gainey will have to make other plans now that it appears Mike Komisarek will be testing the free agent waters Wednesday.

This shouldn't come as a huge shock seeing as Komisarek's agent Matt Keator has a history of advising his players to take full advantage of free agency, and also when you remember Komisarek speaking about his time in Montreal in the past tense the day after the Habs were eliminated by the Bruins in the playoffs.

But if it's not a shock to Gainey, it has to be a disappointment. A huge one.

Gainey thus far has struck out on every major move he's attempted to make in this summer of opportunity, and even though Keator appears to suggest he'll give the Habs the right to match the offers his client receives, I'd be stunned if big No. 8 were back in Montreal next year.

So, no Lecavalier (so far), no Komisarek (so far), and tomorrow we'll find out if Gainey is able to nab those Sedin twins.

Over the course of Gainey's tenure as GM, free agency has not been very kind to him, to put it mildly. One of the two major signings he's managed to pull off blew up in his face, while he was left at the altar by any number of big name players. Mats Sundin, Marian Hossa, Brendan Shanahan, Brian Rafalski, Ryan Smyth, native son Daniel Briere, the list goes on and on.

Does anyone believe this time will be any different? I certainly don't.

Montreal sports radio station CKAC has an interesting comparison up on its website showing how much more a $5 million player pays in taxes by playing in Montreal compared to a few other NHL cities. Once you see that Gainey essentially would have to outbid the Flames by $500,000 per year to reach the same level of take-home pay, you start to understand the challenge that lies in front of him.

That is something that needs to be fully understood when complaining that Roman Hamrlik makes too much money, because once a player is on the open market, the Habs are forced to overpay.

So when Komisarek gets an offer from another team and Keator comes back to Gainey with the figure, Gainey will likely have to match Komisarek's take-home pay as opposed to his actual salary. Which means that whichever GM decides that Komisarek is worth $5 million a year, Gainey will need to go over that figure quite substantially just to match the offer.

Something tells me that Gainey's collar is starting to feel a little tight right about now.

Unless the Sedins happen to love poutine and strippers.

A final push for Komisarek, and what are the alternatives?

It appears Bob Gainey is making a final push for Mike Komisarek, but I'm starting to wonder if it's worth the trouble.

First, courtesy of USA Today hockey scribe Kevin Allen on his Twitter feed, comes this posted at about 8 a.m. Tuesday morning:

"Noting that Montreal GM Bob Gainey will talk again today to agent Matt Keator about re-signing D Mike Komisarek"

Then, a few minutes later:

"From my poking about on Komisarek, I have the sense that the Habs believe they will land Sedins if the twins don't re-sign in Vancouver."

Prior to that came this last night from the Twitter feed of Penguins beat writer Rob Rossi:

"I'm hearing from several folks that Mike Komisarek might land with a Pens' Atlantic rival"

I could go on and on like this, but none of it changes my mind as to the unlikelihood that Komisarek is signing in Montreal.

So, I figured we may want to look at some alternatives to Komisarek that will be out there on Wednesday, and you may be surprised to learn there are a lot of them. The primary reason Komisarek is so attractive as a free agent is his age, and being both a physical presence and an elite shot blocker.

But if you decide to go after only one of those two skills, the shot blocking, there are still some capable defensive defencemen that look like they will be hitting the free agent market, and they will be far less expensive than Komisarek.

So here, in order, are who I think Bob Gainey should target to take Komisarek's spot on the Habs blueline, assuming it becomes vacated Wednesday:

1. Greg Zanon, 29, Nashville

I've been high on grabbing this guy for quite some time , but there is really no time like the present to be making a pitch for Zanon. His agent Peter Fish tells Tennessean reporter John Glennon that his client has received no offer from the Preds and will hit the market Wednesday.

Zanon is not a hulking giant like Komisarek, standing only 5-foot-11 but listed at a solid 201 pounds. Still, he finished third in the league in blocked shots with 237, just a shade over Komisarek's total of 207, albeit in 16 fewer games.

What you find looking at the blocked shot leaders is that it's rare to find defencemen who block a lot of shots and are credited with a lot of hits, which is what adds to Komisarek's value. But Zanon wasn't too shabby in the hits department either with 153, which was 24th in the league.

Zanon made only $750,000 last season, and I would imagine an offer doubling that salary would be snatched up in a second.

2. Rob Scuderi, 30, Pittsburgh

Scuderi had a tremendous playoff and will be looking to cash in on that fact, which is why Gainey should probably hold off on him because some GM will likely overpay for his services. But all things being equal, he would be a valuable defenceman to pick up because he is so positionally sound and was able to bring some stability to a defence corps in Pittsburgh that is anything but solid.

Scuderi looks like he will be free to hit the market and will likely be able to triple his $725,000 salary from last season, which is way too much.

3. Karlis Skrastins, 34, Florida

A little on the older side, Skrastins is a reliable stay at home guy who had a plus-nine rating for the Panthers last season while blocking a team-high 171 shots, ninth in the league. He made $2.4 million last season, but if he agreed to a massive pay cut he'd be a good value signing and could teach a thing or two to some of Montreal's younger defenders.

4. Jay McKee, 31, St. Louis

Finally, if desperation really sets in, Gainey could have McKee for a song. He was once the player that I find provides the best comparable for Komisarek's market value. The Blues just bought out the final year of his four-year, $16 million contract because McKee was grossly overpaid, and also because he was rarely healthy.

He played 69 games last season, his highest in three seasons with the Blues, and he's missed significant time to 9injury in all but one of his last six campaigns. If he can survive a whole season of playing the way he does, he'd be a reasonably valuable depth guy. But that's a big if.

A dangerous game of chicken

One thing that's refreshing in Bob Gainey's comments to the media yesterday is that, like his team's fans, he has no idea what will happen when free agency opens Wedsnesday at noon.

Yes, some fans may find that incredibly frightening, but I find it refreshing. Why? Because at least Gainey recognizes that this make-or-break plan he's concocted here could result in disaster just as easily as it could glowingly succeed.

"No, I'm not sure," Gainey said with a laugh when asked if he was confident about free agency. "It’s not a question of spending money, that’s not the problem. It's to spend it properly, to spend the right amount on the right person. If we spend too much on one position, there will be less for other positions. If we spend money on a player that doesn’t perform, we have a bigger problem than if we don’t spend the money."

Gainey appears to still be holding out hope for that big centre coming via the trade market, and he placed Alex Kovalev on the priority list by making him a contract offer Sunday. Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay will have to wait until after July 1 to find out if they still have a role on this team.

So, for those who have lost count, Gainey has made a concrete offer to only two of his 10 unrestricted free agents, deciding to hit free agency with a shell of a team under contract.

It's a dangerous game, but one that shouldn't be blown completely out of proportion. Every year fans and media alike wait impatiently on July 1 for a wave of contract announcements to come as the clock strikes 12:05. But usually, most of the news doesn't come out until the very end of the day, and it's only the absolute top-end guys who wind up signing on Day One.

An argument could be made that Tanguay falls under that elite category, but really the only one out of the group of 10 I see being signed by the end of Canada Day is Komisarek, who will benefit from a very favourable balance of supply and demand. I'd have to think we've seen his final days in a Habs uniform if he isn't signed by today.

As far as Koivu is concerned, he's as good as gone. I find that unfortunate, but it's a reality. Koivu said that if he gets to July 1 without a signed contract, his days in Montreal are likely over. It's hard to sign a contract when one isn't even offered.

So as of right this second, if you take for granted that all the restricted free agents are re-signed, this is what your Montreal Canadiens look like:

Higgins - Plekanec - D'Agostini
A. Kostitsyn - ??? - S. Kostitsyn
Latendresse - Lapierre - Pacioretty
Stewart - Chipchura - Laraque

Markov - ???
Hamrlik - ???
??? - O'Byrne


That's a whole lot of question marks, and there should be a lot more because the line I marked down as the Habs top trio should really be no higher than third on the depth chart.

Are you scared?

UPDATE: After having a coffee, and being reminded by my ever-alert readers, I realize I forgot a few guys on my depth chart. Here goes again:

Higgins - Plekanec - D'Agostini
A. Kostitsyn - Metropolit - S. Kostitsyn
Latendresse - Lapierre - Pacioretty
Stewart - Chipchura - Laraque

Markov - Gorges
Hamrlik - Weber
Subban - O'Byrne


There, the lineup is all filled out. I smell a Cup.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Tick tock, tick tock...

The clock is most definitely ticking on Bob Gainey these days.

First off, for the second year in a row, it appears that Gainey's Plan A is not going to work out.

Lightning GM Brian Lawton told the St Petersberg Times that he expects Vincent Lecavalier to start next season in Tampa Bay. Lawton also said Saturday that there were no significant talks of a big trade involving his team.

Meanwhile, Renaud Lavoie reports that Gainey was working until the moments before the start of the draft to try and grab Lecavalier, but that co-owner Len Barrie vetoed the trade. He adds that Gainey will continue trying to pry Lecavalier from the Lightning right up to the start of free agency Wednesday.

Frankly, I have trouble believing either story, at least partially. When Lawton says he "expects" Lecavalier to play for the Lightning next season, it's not exactly a gurantee. Sure, he may expect that to happen, but it doesn't mean it's going to happen.

I also have no doubt that Gainey was trying to work out a trade leading up to the draft, but I also believe that the ship may have sailed on that front because Gainey now has to concentrate on building his team for next season, and he's in far too critical a position to be putting all his eggs in one basket.

ESPN's Pierre LeBrun reported Saturday that Gainey was scheduled to talk to Saku Koivu's agent Don Baizley today at some point, which means he's probably having talks with some of his other key guys as well. I would imagine Alex Tanguay, Alex Kovalev and maybe even Mathieu Schneider's agents will all get calls today, while Mike Komisarek continues mulling over the long-term deal Gainey has already offered.

Gainey had better sign one or two of his own free agents by Tuesday afternoon or else he risks losing all of them on the open market, which would be an unmitigated disaster because I doubt he'll find a way to replace all of them with quality players in free agency.

A nice one-stop shopping trip would be to talk to J.P. Barry about the Sedin twins, who are back in Sweden. Apparently, Canucks GM Mike Gillis is there as well, again according to LeBrun, so there may be a chance that the Sedins re-up with Vancouver. But if they don't, I'm starting to think they are the best fit for the Canadiens at this point.

TSN's Darren Dreger mentions the Canadiens as a possible landing point for the Sedins, and his stat that the Sedins are two of only a dozen players in the NHL to score 70 points in every season since the lockout makes them a very enticing product.

The Sedins reportedly made an offer to Gillis that they would each sign 12-year, $63 million contracts, which is a rather miniscule cap hit of just over $5 million a season. I think Gainey might jump at that offer, but I also believe it was a bit of a hometown discount, if $126 million could ever be called that.

Gainey, as mellow a guy as you'll find, has to be freaking out a little right about now. July 1 is less than 48 hours away and he hasn't been able to complete a single trade nor has he signed any of his players, which definitely was not his master plan, assuming he had one.

That's not to say the trade market will shut down Wednesday as teams begin their ridiculous derby for free agents, especially if some team out there spends way too much on a given player and needs to shed salary before the start of next season.

But the possibility that Gainey enters the season sitting on a ton of cap space certainly remains, unless he's in the process of weaving some serious magic and negotiating with three or four players at once.

While the announcement that Guy Boucher will be coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs is certainly good news, as I've already made my feelings clear on that issue, the Habs need to get going on announcing some actual player transactions very soon.

Otherwise, what looked to be a summer of opportunity will quickly turn into a summer of doom.

UPDATE: From USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen's twitter feed (you can follow it here) come these two Habs updates:

"GM Bob Gainey will be in discussions again today with agent Matt Keator about new deal for Komisarek. Habs desperate to keep Komisarek"

Then, a couple of hours later, comes this:

"Starting to believe Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin could be $5 million free agents because of the lack of available D men."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Now what?

The NHL draft has come and gone, the league's 29 other GMs have left town, and Bob Gainey has been left alone in his backyard holding a ball with no one to play with.

Of course, just because Gainey wasn't able to swing the deal for a big first-line centre he was hoping for this weekend doesn't mean it won't come down the road, and obviously he's hoping it will as he told TSN Friday night that it may not come until October.

But having it out of the way would have left Gainey with one fewer headache to deal with this summer, and now he has a real juggling act awaiting him as he shifts his focus toward the free agent market.

The unique window to negotiate with his stable of 10 unrestricted free agents comes to an end Wednesday and Gainey now has to guesstimate how much money he needs to leave in the vault to accommodate his new first line centre, should he be able to land one. Yes, Gainey knows how much a Vincent Lecavalier or a Patrick Marleau is due to earn over the coming years and he can use that information to make his budgetary decisions.

But what happens if nothing pans out on the trade market over the course of the summer? What does Gainey do then?

Judging from the responses of many of the league's GMs after the conclusion of today's draft, there doesn't appear to be much willingness on anyone's part to pull the trigger on a deal of any kind.

"There's still a real air of caution out there," Lightning GM Brian Lawton told me. "We had a lot of calls today discussing moving some of our roster players, but nothing of a magnanimous size, so to speak, that you're probably asking me about. We didn't have anything like that."

Now I didn't ask Lawton directly about Lecavalier, the question was more general to find out if he was a busy man over the weekend considering all the speculation regarding his need to cut payroll. But Lawton saw right through my question and still managed to put out yet another denial that Lecavalier is being pursued on the trade market, while also grossly misusing the word "magnanimous."

However, just a few minutes earlier, Panthers acting GM Randy Sexton was holding court with a group of reporters to discuss trading away Jay Bouwmeester's rights to the Calgary Flames, and he basically refuted Lawton's repeated claims that he wasn't shopping Lecavalier, or at least fielding offers.

"Teams were in on every deal," Sexton said. "They were in on Lecavalier. They were in on Hossa. They were in on Pronger and all of it. We were well along the way with three teams but they were in these other deals."

Aside from the fact Sexton revealed that Marian Hossa's negotiating rights were being discussed, Sexton confirmed not only that Lecavalier was in play, but also to what extent the entire league is in a holding pattern for some reason.

People talk about the economic climate and the salary cap, what Lawton called a "perfect storm" to breed cautiousness, but you would have thought that those two factors would lead to more deals, not fewer, as teams look to jettison cumbersome contracts to teams that can afford them.

Yet the only real big name player under contract to change hands over the weekend was Chris Pronger, and Sexton pointed out that the ridiculous price the Flyers paid to get him put the entire trade market completely out of whack.

"When Philly did the Pronger deal it adjusted two things, it adjusted a key player for us (Bouwmeester), and it adjusted the values," Sexton said. "That's why you haven't seen a lot of guys move. I know Bryan (Murray) felt strongly that Heatley's a quality player, but the offers he was getting didn’t meet what he felt. The Pronger deal set kind of a certain expectation of the value that should be derived, which is difficult for everybody else to pay."

Which raises the question: If one year of a 34-year-old Chris Pronger is worth what amounts to three first round draft picks, what is 11 years of a 29-year-old Lecavalier worth?

Anaheim received Luca Sbisa, who was taken 19th overall by the Flyers last year, plus the 21st overall pick this year and Philly's first-rounder next year. There's also a conditional third-rounder in 2010 or 2011 headed to Anaheim, which I would assume is tied to whether Pronger signs an extension with the Flyers.

To make the money work, the Ducks had to take back Joffrey Lupul, whom they originally drafted and, funnily enough, traded to Edmonton to get Pronger in the first place. Despite all his faults, Lupul still has 102 goals in only four seasons in the league, though he's now been traded three times. That's a pretty good throw-in for cap purposes.

Based on what Sexton said, this set the bar for what teams were seeking over the weekend in trying to swing deals. And if Ducks GM Bob Murray was able to get that out of the Flyers, God only knows what Lawton was trying to extract out of Gainey and surely others for Lecavalier.

But the news wasn't all bad for Gainey as his top scout Trevor Timmins appeared to have a pretty good weekend in the draft.

Grabbing Louis Leblanc at No. 18 was a bit lucky. I thought for sure he was going to the Wild, first picking at No. 12 and then No. 16 after trading down with the Isles. I have no doubt West Islander Blair Mackasey saw Leblanc play a ton while he was ripping up the Midget AAA league with Lac St. Louis, and Mackasey is a scout for Minnesota.

The Habs must have been thinking the same thing because they were trying to trade up to grab Leblanc, but without a second round pick as currency the deal was never consummated.

On day two of the draft Montreal continued addressing the lack of organizational depth at centre, proving once and for all that teams do in fact draft out of need and not simply the best player available.

Timmins had the good fortune of having Finnish centre Joonas Nattinen fall from his projected slot in the second round - where the Habs had no picks - down to the No. 65 slot. Nattinen was the 10th ranked European skater on the NHL Central Scouting list and was ranked 36th by Bob McKenzie of TSN and by The Hockey News, 28th by the International Scouting Service, 31st by the Red Line Report and 59th by McKeen's Hockey.

He's listed at 6-2, 183, and I can tell you from standing right next to him during his introduction to the Montreal media that those numbers aren't inflated. He's also a right-handed shot, like Leblanc, filling a need in that area as well.

Nattinen had four points in five games at the world juniors with Finland and he considers himself more of a playmaking centre than a scorer. When asked to compare himself to a current NHL player, Nattinen said he's like a cross between Mikko Koivu and Jason Spezza. That should tell you why that is a very stupid question to ask a young hockey player.

The Habs also grabbed American high school defenceman Mac Bennett from The Hotchkiss School at the No. 79 slot. His grandfather and two uncles all played in the NHL, and his uncle Curt gave him some sound advice on how to survive in the NHL.

"He told me that if I ever get in a fight, I should just sucker him," Bennett said with a laugh.

Bennett was the 40th ranked North American skater at NHL Central Scouting, while TSN had him at No. 56 overall. A rushing defenceman with a strong skating stride and powerful shot, Bennett is generously listed at 6-foot, 170 pounds. He's headed to the USHL next season and plans to attend Michigan University two years from now, like Max Pacioretty and Mike Komisarek.

Bennett joins a strong stable of defence prospects in the Habs system, particularly those of the offensive variety with Yannick Weber and P.K. Subban filling the same role, which makes me wonder if this was a necessary pick. But the philosophy of "best player available" sometimes wins out.

In the later rounds the Habs grabbed big Russian winger Alexander Avtsin and centres Gabriel Dumont, Dustin Walsh and Michael Cichy. My colleague at The Canadian Press Bill Beacon covered the Memorial Cup where Dumont played with the Drummondville Voltigeurs and he says Dumont's grit was impressive to watch.

Finally, with the very last pick in the draft, the Habs grabbed 6-foot-6 Finnish goalie Petteri Simila, marking the second straight year Timmins has opted for a giant in nets after nabbing 6-foot-8 Peterborough Petes goalie Jason Missiaen last year.

As the draft ended, the jam-packed floor began to slowly clear as GMs said their goodbyes and perhaps settled on when to continue negotiating some of the trades that were discussed over the weekend. A lot of them came over to the barrier separating the draft floor from the media area to kibitz with reporters.

But Bob Gainey wasn't one of them. As the draft floor cleared out slowly and the cleaning crew began making its way in, I saw him walk across the floor slowly, looking around and soaking in the scene. What was he thinking while he made that walk, I wondered? That this was a lost opportunity? That grabbing that coveted first-line centre will be tougher than he anticipated? That all this cap space and flexibility may be going to waste? Or maybe he left confident in the knowledge that some firm seeds were planted for a deal.

As he headed through the tunnel on his way out, he stopped to sign an autograph for a fan. To close out a weekend that had its share of highs and lows and heading into a period of great uncertainty, one that will likely define his time as GM of the Habs, that just may have been a perfect way for him to leave: Feeling the support of his fanbase behind him.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Habs get their homegrown kid

Maybe now we won't have to hear about how Trevor Timmins and the Montreal Canadiens ignore their own backyard.

The Habs selection of Kirkland's Louie Leblanc with the 18th pick fills two needs for the team, because not only is he a perfectly bilingual native, he's also headed to college next year.

The knock on Leblanc is that he's not playing against too much high-level competition because he spent an extra year in midget at Lac St. Louis and he played this past season the United States Hockey League, where he was named rookie of the year.

But Timmins feels that the possibility of Leblanc playing in the world junior championships this Christmas will provide him with some quality opposition to showcase his talents. And even though Leblanc will be attending Harvard rather than a collegiate powerhouse, Timmins feels he will spend no more than two years in college before making the jump to the pros.

Though drafting Leblanc was a big story, the bigger story in my eyes was the fact Bob Gainey wasn't able to swing the deal for the big first-line centre he's looking for. There's a possibility that trade may still happen this weekend, but it's pretty unlikely.

Gainey's legacy as Habs GM is riding on the next two weeks, a very short window to completely overhaul a team. While a lot of people are taking the team's performance this season and crying for a complete re-build, the fact remains that the Canadiens still have some potentially nice pieces in place that just happened to have a rough year.

Still, if Gainey isn't able to acquire that big-name centre either Saturday or over early in the week, his years as GM risk being remembered as a complete and utter bust. And for any Canadiens fan born after, say, 1982, that's unfortunately how Gainey will be most remembered.

Cap to remain stable...for now

It appears the NHL will be announcing next year's salary cap figure, and since the NHLPA has voted in favour of applying its five per cent inflator option the cap will remain stable or even rise slightly.

I'm not sure if this news will really have an impact in what goes down today because teams are still worrying about next year's cap figure which is sure to plummet and, in the case of many clubs, their own internal budgets for player salaries.

As far as the Habs are concerned, it means Bob Gainey has roughly $33 million to spend on the club's restricted free agents (Higgins, Plekanec and Latendresse) plus five or six more players, as he put it Thursday. Assuming the three RFAs sign for an average of $2.5 million each, that would leave Gainey about $26 million for those five or six players, or $4 to $5 million per player.

While Pierre Boivin said the Habs intend to spend to the cap this year, Gainey also mentioned not wanting to burn all his options right off the bat like when he signed Sergei Samsonov and missed out on Jean-Pierre Dumont. So realistically, Gainey will likely shoot to spend about $30 million, leaving him with a $3.5 million cushion to work with.

The Daily Hab-it at the NHL draft

I'm pretty excited to be covering my very first NHL draft tonight, and it looks like it may shape up to be a good one.

Faced with the looming threat of a plunging salary cap next year, there are a lot of star players on the auction block right now and they could find some takers this evening, which should make for an exciting night for the crowd.

I'll be covering the evening's festivities for The Canadian Press, focusing my attention on the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames. But of course, I will be posting my reactions to any moves the Habs make over the course of the evening.

I'm not really sure if I'll have a lot of free time to be posting here, so for those of you who have succumbed to the Twitter revolution I would ask you to follow me there. I'll be posting little updates throughout the draft.

My twitter handle is @TheDailyHab_it, or you can access my feed by clicking on the link on the right hand side of this page.

See you all tonight, it should be a good one!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Haven't we seen this before?

Habs GM Bob Gainey came right out and said it Thursday afternoon: he's looking for a big centre and he hopes to find it via the trade market at the NHL draft.

The last time we heard Gainey speak so assertively and candidly on anything he planned on doing was when he was chasing after Marian Hossa at the trade deadline last year. We all know how that turned out.

For Gainey to come out and announce to his fan base that he is actively working on trades that would make the Canadiens "a lot better" shows, to me, that there is something big brewing and we could be privy to quite a night at the Bell Centre on Friday.

But is Gainey willing to close the deal? Is he willing to add that extra player, or that draft pick, or to take on the risk of a long-term contract? Basically, is he willing to not be Bob Gainey, at least for a couple of days?

In a direct response to a question regarding the possibility of acquiring Vincent Lecavalier, Gainey said, "It hasn’t been a secret that we’ve always been in the market for a big, strong first-line centre."

Though he declined to specifically address the Lecavalier situation, that answer shows me that there is a line in the water with the Lightning, but not necessarily only with the Lightning.

The fact Gainey wants to make a big deal at this draft has been generally assumed for quite some time, and having him confirm that intent has to be reassuring for fans.

But what I found was the most revealing part of Gainey's meeting with the media Thursday was that he confirmed having made an actual contract offer to Mike Komisarek. Not only that, but Gainey hasn't made an offer to anyone else. So what does that mean, exactly? What's the expiry date on the Komisarek offer? Is it this weekend? And who knows just how competitive an offer it is?

If Komisarek is seeking $5 million a year over a long-term deal, I don't think Gainey will be willing to go that high. I would have to believe that someone out there will be, but it's hard to handicap the behavioural tendencies of the league's GM's in this economic climate with owners breathing down their necks to be smart with their money.

As for the rest of the Habs free agents, Gainey says they understand the situation and are willing to wait until after the draft to talk contract. But really, what else would Gainey say? That Saku Koivu is insulted that after the years of loyal service he's offered this franchise he is now a second-rate priority? Or that Alex Tanguay is starting to get an idea of what he'll be worth on the open market? Or that Alex Kovalev won't sign unless he's assured of being captain?

No, Gainey will say they understand because that's what he has to say, even though his rationale that those players would like to play for a better team is pretty sound.

But he also seems to be admitting that with his assertion of being a major trade partner this weekend, his own performance as GM of the Habs will go down in history as being a positive or a negative one based on what happens over the next two days.

"I think the situation is somewhat risky," he said, "but risk brings opportunity and we’re open to opportunity."

Finally, Gainey says he anticipates holding on to the 18th pick in the draft because he would like to be able to make a first round pick in front of what is anticipated to be a standing-room crowd in the Bell Centre.

But could anyone really care less who the Habs pick in the first round, considering what's at stake?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The inmates are running the Habs

It would appear that the fortunes of your Montreal Canadiens over the next decade rest in the hands of what has to be the most dysfunctional management team the league has seen in years.

And in the NHL, that's saying a lot.

Tampa Bay Lightning co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie met with commissioner Gary Bettman earlier today in New York to settle their differences on how the team is run. It would appear Koules wants to stop the financial bleeding and cap the team's payroll at about $40 million, while Barrie wants to spend closer to the cap in the hopes of building a contender around Vincent Lecavalier.

Bettman seemingly did nothing to resolve the dispute, depending on whose sources you believe. St. Pete Times beat writer Damian Cristodero reports that maintaining the status quo means that both Koules and Barrie will have to approve any player moves, which greatly reduces the chances of Lecavalier being shipped out.

However, Tampa Tribune beat guy Eric Erlendsson says that the status quo means Koules gets the final say on hockey decisions.

Then there's Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com, who reports that his sources are telling him it is GM Brian Lawton who will be in charge of hockey matters. He also suggests that Lawton is kind of in the Koules camp when it comes to the general conflict with Barrie, but Lawton has repeatedly said he will not trade Lecavalier, which puts him in Barrie's camp on that issue.

Waiting patiently on the sidelines, meanwhile, for this ridiculous situation to play out is Bob Gainey, and one has to wonder when his patience will expire. Clearly, Gainey would be interested in acquiring Lecavalier, for the simple reason he's already admitted that not only was he interested back in December, he even reached the point where specific players were being discussed.

That kind of interest doesn't just go away.

But Gainey also made it clear that dealing with Lawton is not exactly his cup of tea, and with Lawton either working on his own or getting his direction from Tweedledum and Tweedledee, that working relationship isn't likely to improve anytime soon.

The only conceivable reason I can see for Gainey being this patient with this situation is that he must believe there's a robbery to be had here, especially if that now mythic offer of Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban was anywhere close to being enough to grab Lecavalier.

If Gainey didn't think he could pull off a Joe Thorntonesque heist here, does anyone think he would have the patience to wait on these fools to get their own house in order? The question now is whether or not that patience will last to July 1.

In my eyes, if this deal is not done by Friday night, it's not going to get done.

What's behind door No. 2, and can the Habs afford it?

It's looking pretty likely that the Habs will be looking to make a big splash on their home turf at this weekend's NHL draft.

GM Bob Gainey told The Gazette's Pat Hickey that he probably won't be signing any of his 10 unrestricted free agents until after the draft, which, as Hickey points out, leads to the possibility that Gainey does not want to tie up any of his money before attempting to swing a big trade this weekend.

Of course, everyone naturally assumes that Vincent Lecavalier would be the target of just such a deal, but based on our experience with Gainey I think it would be far more prudent to expect the unexpected. This is a man that rarely follows conventional wisdom.

But the fact remains that Lecavalier would fill the glaring need for a big No. 1 centre, and being a local boy of pur laine descent would make it a slam dunk.

But I was wondering what else might be out there on the trade market, a name that's a little further off the radar.

Well, one would be Patrick Marleau, who also fills the Canadiens needs and, even though he's an anglo from Saskatchewan, at least has a Francophone name (that counts for something, no?). Marleau has two years left on his contract with a cap hit of $6.3 million, which is far easier to digest than 11 years and $85 million for Lecavalier, especially for a man with a cautious nature like Gainey.

Marleau, 6-2, 220, played some wing this past season but is a natural centre who is responsible in his own end, which would please new head coach Jacques Martin. There is some question as to Marleau's stones come playoff time considering the Sharks consistent inability to go anywhere in the spring. For his career, Marleau has produced 0.7 points per game, a number that dips to 0.66 in the playoffs.

Still, he remains an elite-level talent and the Sharks are pretty tight against the cap this summer with $46.8 million committeed to 13 players, with Ryan Clowe headed to restricted free agency. Also, it's clear that Doug Wilson wants to change the image of his team, and he has dealt with Gainey in the past. Let's hope he forgets that Gainey totally bamboozled him in prying Josh Gorges and a first-rounder that turned into Max Pacioretty from him for Craig Rivet.

Shawn Horcoff is another name we've heard linked to the Habs in the past, and he is coming off a pretty horrendous season with the Oilers. Horcoff is about to start a six-year, $33 million contract, is not an elite centre by any stretch of the imagination, and he'll be 31 in September so he's not exactly a young pup. But he has had a couple of near point-per-game seasons and could benefit from a change in scenery. Still, I wouldn't endorse a move like this because he is way overpaid for a player of his stature.

Finally, there's the walking trade rumour Olli Jokinen in Calgary, whose arrival there kind of triggered the demise of a team that was on a considerable roll. Jokinen is entering the final year of a $5.5 million a year deal, and while he consistently produces big numbers, the general consensus that he's a bad teammate makes him a pretty unattractive target in my books.

Otherwise, there isn't a whole lot out there that may be available in terms of a big centre, but a few big names at other positions could still be in play.

Let's start in Atlanta and Columbus, where both Ilya Kovalchuk and Rick Nash are entering the final year of their contracts. Both will command mega contracts and both will likely be tempted to see if the grass is greener elsewhere, considering it's puke yellow where they both play now. The Thrashers and especially the Blue Jackets would be throwing away this season by trading their respective franchise players, but they could both get far more value for them now than they would at the trade deadline, and seeing as neither has hopes of winning the Stanley Cup this year a trade could be in the cards.

Finally, there are a handful of impact restricted free agents that could be too pricey for their current teams and could be swapped on the Bell Centre floor Friday evening. Jack Johnson, Phil Kessel and Travis Zajac are the most high-profile of the bunch, but players like Tuomo Ruutu and Anton Babchuk in Carolina, Brandon Dubinsky in New York, David Booth in Florida, Denis Grebeshkov in Edmonton, Colby Armstrong in Atlanta and Clowe in San Jose are all useful players and could be in play this weekend.

But as far as the Habs are concerned, I find it hard to believe that they would have the assets to attract too many of the players discussed here. Let's assume Gainey would not want to trade either Carey Price or Andrei Markov, simply because without those two players there's no point bringing in a star player because the team would be horrible.

What else is there to offer? Andrei Kostitsyn still has some trade value, apparently, despite his troubles this season, but is he enough to serve as the centrepiece of a blockbuster trade for a Lecavalier, Kovalchuk or Nash? Is Christopher Higgins, for that matter, or Tomas Plekanec?

Quite simply, no single player the Habs could offer would be enough to justify the return of a superstar, but what the Canadiens can do without toally crippling their system is offer a package of three or four young, cheap players a team could insert in its lineup to increase its depth. I can't see the Blue Jackets going for something like that, but the Thrashers are so desperate for NHL-calibre players they may very well be convinced, especially since Kari Lehtonen is a restricted free agent and someone like Jaroslav Halak could be valuable.

But the Lightning also fall into the same category as the Thrashers in so far as Tampa could use two or three young defencemen, which is a commodity the Canadiens just happen to have in abundance.

Tune in this weekend, there should be some fireworks.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Is Guy Boucher on his way to Hamilton?

With the news Monday that Habs GM Bob Gainey dismissed Hamilton Bulldogs coaches Don Lever and Ron Wilson by telephone last week, the first thought that crosses my mind is the possibility that Drummondville Voltigeurs head coach Guy Boucher could be on his way to Steeltown.

Rumours have been flying about the Canadiens interest in Boucher, and with the average shelf of a Montreal head coach sitting at about two and half seasons these days, it would be a good idea to have someone waiting in the wings to take the helm of the big club whenever Jacques Martin is fired.

I'm not saying Martin is a bad hire, it's just that every coach has an expiry date. If Martin doesn't deliver over the next couple of seasons, or if Gainey himself is fired in that span (which is perhaps a more likely scenario should the Canadiens struggle next season), then there will definitely be a new head man in Montreal.

Boucher appears to be someone that could eventually fill that role, and the AHL would be a necessary step for him in making that transition.

Lever's reaction to the news is expected, considering he thought he had a shot at the head job in Montreal, or at least an assistant's role. With the number of players Lever has developped who will be suiting up for the Habs this season, I would have thought he would be a valuable assistant for Martin. But he evidently thought otherwise.

Speaking of Martin, we got an idea over the weekend of just how little we are going to learn about the new head coach of the Canadiens. Jean-François Bégin of La Presse - who should really be commended for leading the pack on the Habs sale story - had an extensive interview with Martin that was published Saturday.

Esentially, other than a bit of professional background, the article taught us nothing about the man. I'm sure it wasn't for a lack of trying on Bégin's part - I know him to be a very thorough journalist - so what the big, two-page feature taught us is that we already know everything we're going to know about Jacques Martin.

Except, that is, how he handles extinguishing the inevitable fires that will burn in and around the Canadiens this season.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Habs sale reportedly complete

The obvious candidates to win the bidding war for the Montreal Canadiens have reportedly been named the victors.

La Presse's Jean-François Bégin is reporting that an agreement in principle between the Gillett and Molson families has been reached for the purchase of the Habs and the Bell Centre. The report states the agreement will be announced later today.

Though the report does not mention Gillett Entertainment Group and the Canadiens share of its new practice facility in Brossard, it should be assumed that they are both part of the deal.

La Presse did not have a dollar figure on the amount of the purchase, citing a source that says it is for well over $500 million. Sports Business Journal will report Monday that a deal will bring in over $600 million.

That's quite a return on an investment of $275 million to purchase 80.1 per cent of the team only eight years ago.

Canadiens fans should rejoice over this news because it will keep the team out of the hands of Quebecor World Media. Pierre Karl Péladeau was not shy to mention that he envisioned the Canadiens as part of his convergance-based empire, and that with all the media platforms at his disposal the public would get unprecedented access to their beloved team.

What he did not say is just how much that access would have cost, because you can be sure that Quebecor would seize on the fervent popularity of the team to cash in even more than Gillett was doing until now, which is saying a lot.

The urgency to strike a deal was becoming serious, as the NHL board of governors is set to meet in Montreal this week and Gillett reportedly was quite desperate to have the new owners approved at that meeting. Gillett and his Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks are facing a deadline for a $650 million loan with the Royal Bank of Scotland next month, though they have reportedly negotiated an extention of that deadline. Hicks is looking to sell his majority share of the Texas Rangers in an effort to come up with the money to cover his share of the loan.

Maybe now Bob Gainey and the hockey department can get busy announcing some news of its own.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Habs talking to Komisarek?

When I left the Canadiens post-mortem media day in Brossard following the completion of their sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins, I said goodbye to a few of my colleagues and wished them a good summer.

"Oh, I have a feeling we'll be back here quite often," one of them responded. "I'll see you next week."

That was April 23.

Here we are nearly two months later, and the one bit of news to come out of the Canadiens was the hiring of Jacques Martin as head coach. It was a biggie, admittedly, but otherwise news surrounding the team has been completely shut off, at least in terms of the hockey department.

News has abounded on the ownership situation, including yesterday's gem from prospective buyer René Angelil that the Canadiens don't elicit the same level of pride in Quebecers as they did way back in the day. Way back to 1993.

Mr. Angelil, it's easy to be the pride of a nation (easy now federalists, nation just sounds better than province in this context) when you're winning the Stanely Cup. But how exactly does he explain that the Canadiens have played in a sold out building for the last four seasons, in spite of a pretty mediocre product on the ice?

In that same story, Angelil's potential majority partner Pierre Karl Péladeau revealed that he's expecting an answer on Quebecor Media's bid for the team over the coming days. Now that is news, because the sooner this ownership business is settled, or at least slightly clarified, the better.

Over in Bob Gainey's Brossard office, meanwhile, one would have to imagine that things are very busy, even though nothing concrete is really happening.

First, we heard from Alex Tanguay's agent Bob Sauvé that Gainey had another priority to focus on before dealing with his client, which led to pretty wild speculation as to what that priority might in fact be.

Now, we are hearing from Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren that he believes Gainey is in negotiations with Mike Komisarek to bring him back to Montreal. The answer was given in the context of trading for free agent rights at next weekend's draft, an avenue Holmgren used very effectively to grab Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell a couple of years ago.

I have to believe that if Holmgren says he believes that, he has to have heard it from someone with a bit of credibility. Teams don't often talk about other team's players like that.

Now, even if Gainey is negotiating with Komisarek and that is what is keeping him from signing other UFA's like Tanguay or Saku Koivu or Alex Kovalev, that doesn't necessarily mean Komisarek will be back wearing Habs colours next season.

RDS recently did an extremely unscientific comparison (using the extremely useless giveaways statistic as one of the criteria) and determined that Komisarek is worth no more than $3.75 million per season. If Gainey thinks he can get Komisarek under contract for $4 million a year, he's dreaming, even though it's probably true he's worth no more than that. His agent Matt Keator knows very well the inflationary nature of the free agent market, and Komisarek can easily fetch another $1 million or so per year when 10 or 11 teams are competing for his services.

Jay McKee, a defenceman with a similar skill set, managed to grab a four-year, $16 million contract from the St. Louis Blues in the summer of 2006 after a phenomenal playoff run with the Sabres to Game 7 of the conference final. That was three years ago, under a more restraining salary cap, and McKee was 29 at the time. I see no reason why another GM today wouldn't think to offer even more money to a 27-year-old who may very well have more of his best years ahead of him.

In any case, today is June 18, which leaves Gainey 12 days to figure out which of his 10 UFA's he wants to keep, who he'll be selecting in next weekend's draft, who he can trade for at the draft, and who he would like to target once the meat market opens on July 1.

Gainey may be waiting to hear what next season's salary cap figure will be, which something that should be revealed next week after the NHLPA decides this weekend whether or not it wants to implement its 5 per cent inflator option. But really, does it make that big of a difference whether you have $30 million or $33 million to spend in the offseason?

I'm hardly someone who has the right to be scolding someone for leaving things to the last minute, but this is getting somewhat ridiculous.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Will Leblanc be The One?

It's time for the predictable Habs draft assumption.

This annual ritual closely follows the conclusion of the Stanley Cup final (one, by the way, that I correctly predicted on April 15. Just saying.). It involves a number of draft "experts" from around the hockey world taking for granted that the Montreal Canadiens will draft a promising Quebec native in the first round of the NHL entry draft.

An integral part of this annual ritual is the availability of just such a player, as every ranking out there always seems to have some Quebecois ranked right around the spot the Habs are picking. Naturally, the Canadiens will take him with that pick, no?

Well, ever since Réjean Houle passed over Simon Gagné to pick his linemate Éric Chouinard with the 16th overall pick in 1998, the Canadiens have not chosen a homegrown talent with their first round pick.

But that doesn't stop people, year after year, from making the assumption that the Habs braintrust will put some sort of priority on a Quebec product, largely because a good portion of their fanbase wants it to be so.

But those same fans also want their team to win first and foremost, and Bob Gainey could draft nothing but Latvians for years and no one would bat an eye if it brought the city a Stanley Cup.

This year, the conveniently-ranked prospect is Kirkland native Louis Leblanc of the Omaha Lancers from the United States Hockey League, a highly-touted two-way centre/winger headed to Harvard on a full scholarship next year. He was named the USHL rookie of the year with 59 points in 60 games this year and has been invited to the Canadian junior team's summer evaluation camp.

I've seen a few mock drafts sending Leblanc to the Habs at No. 18, the most recent being Shane Malloy, whom TSN dubs a "Prospect Insider."

I wrote a piece for The Gazette about Leblanc back in 2006, when he was a rookie in the Midget AAA Hockey League at Lac St-Louis, and I saw him play a couple of other times over the next two years. He dominated midget hockey, but of course that doesn't say a whole lot about how someone will project in the NHL (I also saw Guillaume Latendresse and Mathieu Carle do the same, which should give you an idea of how midget dominance means very little).

On the ice, Leblanc was the complete package back in the day, but what I remember most about him was just how insightful he was, even as a 15-year-old meeting with a reporter in a Kirkland Tim Horton's.

Anyhow, I won't pretend to know whether or not the Habs should grab Leblanc in that slot, but I will venture a guess that they won't, simply because everyone expects it and as we've all learned, this team is rarely predictable. But of all the apparent chosen ones over the past few years, Leblanc is the one that best meets the criteria of a Habs draft pick because he is heading to college in the U.S., which would give the Canadiens some extra time to judge his talent before deciding to offer him a contract and starting the free agency clock.

But this is also an extremely deep draft, and while Leblanc appears to be a very good prospect he doesn't meet the Habs glaring need for size at forward, more specifically centre. Trevor Timmins and his staff may just find someone else who fits the bill a little better, and if they pass on Leblanc they will surely be widely criticized for it.

Because slamming the Habs for ignoring Quebec talent is another annual ritual around these parts, and summer simply wouldn't be the same without it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Burke pulls a fast one

The writing appeared to be on the wall for Francois Allaire to leave Anaheim and come back to the Canadiens, but Brian Burke had other ideas.

The former Ducks GM hired Allaire yesterday as the Maple Leafs goalie consultant, thereby depriving the Habs and Bob Gainey of the best candidate out there to fill Rollie Melanson's recently vacated job.

This would appear to be a severe blow, seeing as Allaire made it clear he wanted to be closer to his teenage kids, and how could he get much closer than Montreal? Which is what makes me believe that Gainey wasn't all that interested in Allaire's services, which also leads me to believe that the new goalie coach has essentially been hired already.

We should get a clearer idea of what the Canadiens coaching staff will look like by Monday, as June 15 was the loose deadline set by Gainey seeing as that is when Don Lever and Ron Wilson's contracts expire. I would be stunned to see any of the assistant coaches return, but stranger things have happened.

Today is also significant because we learned of at least three legitimate offers to buy the Canadiens and everything that comes with them. One group is led by the Molson brothers, while another is a bizarre marriage between Quebecor Media, the Quebec Federation of Labour and Les Productions Feeling, a company owned by Céline Dion's husband and manager, René Angelil. The grouping is bizarre because Quebecor Media head honcho Pierre Karl Péladeau is in the process of trying to break the union at his flagship newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal.

One other American group submitted a bid, according to the La Presse report, but only bidders where the majority of shareholders would be Quebecers will benefit from a provincial government loan that could reach as high as $100 million.

The NHL board of governors meet in Montreal in two weeks as a prelude to the draft, and it would appear George Gillett would like this settled in time to present the new buyers and get them approved at that meeting.

Meanwhile, the hockey department appears to be in no rush to get moving as Alex Tanguay tells colleague Marc de Foy that he hasn't heard from the Canadiens. I find that odd because at the Jacques Martin hiring on June 1, Bob Gainey said he would be speaking with all the team's available free agents over the course of that week. Here we are, well over a week later, and one of the two free agents likely to attract the most attention on the open market hasn't been contacted, at least not as of Tuesday.

The other coveted free agent, Mike Komisarek, appears destined to test the market, in which case Gainey is almost sure to be outbid by some rogue GM who is looking for the next Scott Stevens, but will wind up with the next Jay McKee.

UPDATE: Was reading the Journal de Montréal over lunch and saw that a fourth group led by Stephen Bronfman has also submitted a bid to buy the Canadiens and that the bid is worth around $450 million. The newspaper, which would be very well plugged in on this seeing as it is Péladeau's mouthpiece, also reports that the American bidder is in fact Montreal native Graeme Roustan. You can read more about Roustan here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The first domino falls

Dany Heatley's request for a trade from the Ottawa Senators is only the first example of what should be a bountiful trade market this summer, perhaps one of the biggest in terms of star power changing hands.

Bob Gainey mentioned this situation at the Jacques Martin press conference, noting that the trade market over the next 18 months should get flooded as teams start to get handcuffed by the salary cap and financial constraints.

I highly doubt the Canadiens would be able to pry Heatley loose from the Senators simply because they would have to overpay in order to convince Bryan Murray to trade a game-breaker to a division rival. A western team would be a more likely destination, especially considering Heatley's Alberta roots. Because, believe it or not, Heatley's no movement clause would allow him to veto any trade, even though he himself requested one.

But that situation will be far from unique in the coming weeks, and the Canadiens are very well positioned to pounce should other star players become available on the trade market.

The factors to look at here start with every team's cap situation, not only for the coming season but - more importantly - the one after. According to NHL first officer Bill Daly, in an e-mail exchange with Star-Ledger reporter Rich Chere, the cap could remain flat at $56.7 million next year or drop as low as $54.3 million.

But in 2010/11, when the real effects of the current recession are fully felt in terms of sponsorship dollars and season ticket renewals, that number could lie anywhere between $48 million and $50 million.

Already, there are a few teams that would be right up against a $50 million cap in 2010/11. The Flyers, for instance, have $43 million committed to only 11 players in 2010/11, which also happens to be the same year stud defenceman Braydon Coburn is up for restricted free agency. The Rangers have $35.7 million going to seven players, the Bruins have $34.7 million tied up in eight players, and the Avalanche have $21.6 million going to only four players two years from now.

This is why the Canadiens can either choose to attack this summer, or wait for next summer when teams start to get really desperate. The big question mark for the Habs will be Carey Price's next contract when he hits restricted free agency next summer. If he has a big year he could be in line for a Paul Stastny type of deal (five years, $33 million), or something more reasonable like what Zach Parise signed for two years ago in New Jersey as a restricted free agent (four years, $12.5 million).

Even if Price were to sign for Stastny-like dollars, the Habs would still be in good shape heading into the desperate summer of 2010, assuming Gainey doesn't go overboard spending on free agents or absorbing big contracts through trades in the coming weeks and months.

Montreal has $18 million committed to six players for the 2010/11 season right now, while that number is $23.5 million for 11 players going into next season.

There are a lot of ways Gainey could decide to move this summer, so let's look at some of his options:

Restricted free agency
The Bruins did a nice job of locking up David Krejci with a three-year deal, but that left them vulnerable to someone coming to swoop Phil Kessel off his feet with a fat offer sheet. I wouldn't suggest Gainey do that, simply because of Kessel's reputation as a bad teammate, but there are other candidates that would suit Montreal's needs.

Number one on my list would be Ryan Clowe of the San Jose Sharks, who have definite cap issues going into next year with $46.8 million committed to 13 players. The Sharks also need to sign fellow restricted free agents Marcel Goc and Greenfield Park's Torrey Mitchell, but Clowe would clearly be their priority. Also, San Jose has Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski coming up in restricted free agency after this season, while both Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov will be unrestricted free agents next summer.

A right-handed shooting winger that weighs in at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds and turns 27 in the fall, Clowe has had some injury issues but is otherwise exactly what the Canadiens lack - a big forward with some touch around the net that can fill a power play role.

With the cap issues the Sharks are facing, a somewhat inflated offer of $10 million for three years (which would be a raise from $1.6 million this year) might be enough to get the Sharks to back off. Or it might not, but it's worth a try.

The other main restricted free agent worth targeting would be Brandon Dubinsky of the Rangers. A solid two-way centre with some jam in his game, Dubinsky will only be 24 at the start of next season and is in line for a pretty significant raise from his $635,000 salary. I would consider Dubinsky to be a perfect fit for a Jacques Martin-coached team, and the Rangers have no way of possibly matching any offer sheet with any semblance of a significant raise.

The Rangers already have $42.1 million locked up in 11 players for next year, and their situation the year after is even worse.

The trade market
Taking a look around the teams in the league and their cap/financial situations going forward, a few potential impact players can be identified as possibly being available for the right price. That price, of course, would be draft picks and prospects because the main motivation for trading these players are financial.

The Canadiens don't have a whole hell of a lot when it comes to high-end talent, but one thing they have in abundance is prospects, and Gainey has already gone on record as saying that the time has come for the Habs to start "using our good drafting to help ourselves more in the shorter term." The next two summers should present a perfect opportunity to do just that.

A lot of big-name players will be entering the final year of their contracts this season: Ilya Kovalchuk, Marc Savard, Olli Jokinen, Rick Nash, Alexander Frolov, Roberto Luongo, Sergei Gonchar and Marleau and Nabokov, just to name a few. There's also several second-tier players in the same situation, such as: Antoine Vermette, Kim Johnsson, Marek Zidlicky, Dan Hamhuis, Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov, Zbynek Michalek, Pavel Kubina, Willie Mitchell and Pavol Demitra.

Under normal circumstances, these players would only be available at the trade deadline. But with financial constraints playing a role, it's entirely possible that some of them would be available at the draft in a couple of weeks.

Then there are the teams that have great young talent whose contracts will be up next summer, and I'm thinking mainly of Chicago and Washington. The Blackhawks have $25.5 million committed to six players for the 2010/11 season, but both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are up for restricted free agency. Same goes for the Capitals, who have $30.1 million headed to eight players in 10/11, but both Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom are up for RFA status.

Unrestricted free agency
I only put this up here because, technically, it is an option for Gainey this summer. Even though he'll be able to outbid most teams for a given player, I don't anticipate him going crazy for the likes of Jay Bouwmeester or Marian Gaborik.

Gainey may use this avenue to plug holes in his lineup with, say, the signing of a Francois Beauchemin or a Sammy Pahlsson or an Ian Laperrière, but guys like the Sedin twins, Martin Havlat or Marian Hossa will quickly enter the realm of the ridiculous in terms of salary and term - even in this economic climate - and that simply isn't Gainey's style.

He did admit that six or even seven-year contracts don't scare him as much as they used to, but now we're seeing guys getting 10 and 11-year deals. Gainey still appeared a little squeamish speaking in those terms, which is why he'll probably get outbid for the top-end guys again this summer.

And loooking at how many teams have their hands tied with albatross contracts, Gainey's reluctance to hand out decade-long contracts is probably a good thing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is it over for Russians with the Habs?

I would have to believe that this will be the last straw when it comes to Alexei Yemelin's chances of landing a job with the Montreal Canadiens.

Marc De Foy reported this evening at ruefrontenac.com that Yemelin had signed a new two-year contract with Ak Bars Kazan.

For many followers of the Canadiens, Yemelin has been kind of a mythic figure for years, his name always popping up as a potential centrepiece of a revamped Habs defence corps that would include Ryan McDonough, P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber and perhaps even David Fischer.

As De Foy points out in his piece, Bob Gainey may have been expecting Yemelin to serve as a possible replacement should Mike Komisarek decide to play elsewhere this summer. Yemelin supposedly has a similar physical edge to his game and may have been a decent fill-in, even though it's difficult to know whether or not he is NHL-ready seeing as Yemelin is hardly ripping up the KHL.

To have Yemelin opt for a two-year deal in Russia rather than sign with the Canadiens - who were apparently in negotiations with Don Meehan for his services - may mark the end of this relationship.

I know if I were Gainey, I would be pretty unimpressed right about now with Russian players. Let's look at what's happened with Russian Habs over the past few years:

Case 1) Alex Kovalev dogs it one year, reportedly tells a Russian newspaper that his coach is racist, comes back to have a near career year, then dogs it again until Gainey is forced to sit him down, only to have him finish the season on fire. A model of consistency.

Case 2) Alexander Perezhogin (who is actually Kazakh but plays for Russia internationally), unhappy with his playing time and salary in Montreal, decides to go home and play in the KHL. Perezhogin has been a very effective player in Russia with 91 points in 105 games over the past two seasons with Ufa Salavat Yulayev.

Case 3) Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn (who are actually Belarusian) are found to have at least 2,000 phone conversations with a reputed mobster, but are cleared of any wrongdoing. Both brothers have horrible seasons on the ice.

Case 4) Pavel Valentenko, tired of learning in Hamilton, heads back to play in the KHL for more money after only four games with the Bulldogs this season, his father seemingly negotiating a contract with Moscow Dynamo behind his and his agent's back.

Case 5) Alexei Yemelin signs for another two years with Ak Bars Kazan, a contract that will take him to age 25 without having played a single game in North America as a professional.

Really, the only positive story for a Russian player over the past few years in Montreal has been Andrei Markov, and it's probably no coincidence that he makes a ton of money.

This decision by Yemelin shouldn't necessarily be a huge surprise, and at least he didn't sign with the Habs only to come over here and bolt back to Russia. If he doesn't want to play in the NHL, that's his decision.

But that decision may have just scratched another NHL team off the list of those willing to take a chance on young Russian players.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Andy J. Smith for pointing out the failed Sergei Samsonov free agent experiment as another Russian experience gone wrong for Gainey. That signing just came off the books this year as the Habs still had the buyouts of Jassen Cullimore and Tony Salmeleinen on their cap figure.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Don't tell me I have to become a Martin apologist

Unfortunately, it appears I do.

Criticism of Bob Gainey's decision to poach Jacques Martin from the Florida Panthers and install him as the first experienced head coach of the Canadiens since 1995 has been pouring in from all sides, except for the large majority of the French media which have deemed the move as brilliant.

The most stinging criticism I've read came via Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber, simply because I respect his opinion so much. When he reports that every hockey executive he spoke with at the Stanley Cup final feels Gainey blew it with this hire, that has to give fans some reason for concern.

On the other end of the spectrum was La Presse curmudgeon Réjean Tremblay, who considers Martin "tailor made" for the position and gave Gainey a "Bravo" for hiring him, the same Gainey that Tremblay felt needed to be fired as recently as late April.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between, but I would have to say it is leaning ever so slightly toward the brilliant side.

First of all, like it or not, the pool of candidates is severely limited by the language issue, so a lot of the Bruce Boudreau or Cory Clouston types that are so en vogue right now could not even be considered. Add to that Gainey's insistence that the new coach have a long and proven track record in the NHL, and the potential list becomes minuscule.

Essentially, you had Bob Hartley and Marc Crawford as available candidates that fit the bill, and not a whole lot else. Martin was not available, tied to a contract to serve as GM of the Panthers until 2011-12, and therefore flew under the radar a bit.

The fact Florida CEO Alan Cohen gave no resistance to Martin's departure says a little something about what he thinks of the work he did, but much of the Panthers problems right now are tied to Mike Keenan trading away Roberto Luongo for a bag of pucks just before being fired. In fact, I would say the only reason the Panthers came within a point of the playoffs this season was Martin's shrewd move of trading away Olli Jokinen to rebuild a defence corps that was among the best in the conference by grabbing Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton from the Coyotes.

Listen, I am not and never have been a big fan of Martin's simply because, no matter what he says, he's a boring coach who champions an unattractive version of a beautiful game. But I do have to give credit where it is due, and what he accomplished in Ottawa was pretty extraordinary.

He took one dimensional wingers like Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat and turned them into complete players, plus he made Jason Spezza a pretty dominant centre, though not one I would necessarily want leading my team.

While his Senators teams were constantly being labeled as soft come playoff time, and it was largely justified, the fact remains that Martin could never rely on a dominant playoff goalie. He platooned Damian Rhodes and Ron Tugnutt in 98-99, which resulted in a first round sweep at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres. Deadline acquisition Tom Barrasso lost in six games to the Leafs in 99-00, and then it was Patrick Lalime in goal for the next four years.

Lalime's playoff numbers, you might be surprised to know, were actually pretty outstanding over those four playoff seasons. He had a 1.77 GAA and .926 save percentage, but only a 21-20 record thanks to his propensity for allowing bad goals at bad times. Nevertheless, Martin's Senators made it to the seventh game of the 2003 Conference final before losing by a goal to the eventual Cup-champion New Jersey Devils.

The one year Martin coached Roberto Luongo in Florida, he was also handcuffed with aging veterans Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Martin Gélinas and Jozef Stumpel in his lineup. Then Keenan traded Luongo away for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld, leaving Martin to coach an old team with an aging Ed Belfour in nets.

Listen, I'm not trying to make excuses for Jacques Martin, but I don't really believe he's been given a fair shake for the playoff failures of the Senators. I'm also not saying that Carey Price will provide Martin with a dominant playoff goalie for the first time in his coaching career, because Price clearly hasn't shown yet that he's that guy.

All I'm saying is that Martin has accomplished a lot without necessarily having the best cards dealt to him. For instance, if you look at the Senators lineup in Martin's first full season with the team, Alexei Yashin was 22, Daniel Alfredsson was 23, Alexandre Daigle was 21, Radek Bonk was 20 and Wade Redden was 19. Yet Martin still got the team in the playoffs. Two years later, they finished second in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Canadiens obviously don't have that kind of high-ceiling young talent, but I would have to believe that guys like the Kostitsyn brothers, Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, Ryan O'Byrne, Yannick Weber, Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty and maybe even P.K. Subban will all benefit from Martin's presence and will grow far more than they would have under Guy Carbonneau.

In fact, I can see Higgins and Plekanec in particular thriving under Martin because they appear to be perfectly suited to his coaching philosophy, which hinges on defensive responsibility leading to offensive opportunities.

So let's give the guy a chance and see what he can do with what is likely to be the best roster Martin has ever had when starting a new job.

If he can't get it done by Christmas, of course, he should be fired.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Martin hiring like an admission of fault

Bob Gainey didn't say so directly, but speaking to reporters following the formal press conference announcing Jacques Martin as the new head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, the Habs GM kind of admitted that maybe hiring Guy Carbonneau was a mistake.

If you read between the lines during the press conference, you could hear that admission if you really wanted to. When Gainey spoke of the need for a "professional coach," for instance, he was saying that Montreal is not the ideal place to be learning on the job.

"We wanted to find someone who has lived through getting his sea legs and having experience in a similar market where the attention and the following is there every day. Someone who is a professional who either has not been a player and is a professional coach, or who may have been a player but doesn't think of himself as a player anymore," Gainey said. "Those were some of the thoughts when I was trying to create a vision for the coach of our team."

That part about "doesn't think of himself as a player anymore" essentially described Carbonneau's biggest problem as coach. Carbonneau admitted he had trouble distinguishing his role as coach from his role as player, which was often to grab a guy by the scruff of the neck and give him the straight goods on how he was playing.

Carbonneau couldn't do that as a coach, and he didn't know any other way to communicate, so when things started to go bad he simply turned to line shuffling to send his message rather than sitting a player down and explaining to him what he was doing wrong and how he can play better.

It wasn't only Carbonneau that was placed in that position of learning on the job here, but the four head coaches who preceded him were also making their NHL debuts in the fishbowl that is Montreal.

Martin, however, has managed difficult and pressure-packed situations in Ottawa, particularly his team's repeated playoff failures, and so he should in theory be better equipped than Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, Claude Julien and Carbonneau were to manage expectations and deal with the pressure from fans and media alike.

You can read my report on the press conference here, but there are a few details I left out of my story for CP.

First and foremost was Gainey's tacit admission that trade talks for Vincent Lecavalier are not necessarily dead in the water, despite Gainey's public attack on Lightning GM Brian Lawton's integrity just over a month ago.

Gainey and Lawton were seen chatting at the NHL combines over the weekend, and when asked whether the Lecavalier trade talks could be revived, Gainey did not deny it. In fact, his answer could even be contrued as a confirmation that the talks are alive and well.

I'll let you decide.

When asked the question directly by the Team 990's Tony Marinaro after the press conference whether or not Lecavalier is still in play, here is what Gainey said:

"I think there’s going to be trade discussions because teams are finding a new geography in the cap, in revenues and in areas other than just competitiveness. So I think almost anything is possible in the next little while, and by little while I mean next year too, like in the next 18 months."

Though Gainey was speaking in general terms, it was in response to a very specific question about Lecavalier. There's definitely no denial in there, and one team deaing with a "new geography" in revenues is definitely the Lightning. Even though Lawton insists Lecavalier is not available, you've got to believe he and Gainey were not making summer vacation plans when they were chatting in Toronto over the weekend.

Further on that theme, Gainey spoke about the Habs flexibility when it comes to this summer's free agent market. The Habs only have about $23.5 million committed in salaries for next season, by far the lowest number in the league, and the only teams that are close are those that won't spend to the cap in any case like Phoenix and Atlanta.

If indeed the cap drops by $2 million or so for next season, then a lot of teams will be very close to the ceiling with slots to fill on their roster. Those teams will need to find someone to take a hefty contract off their hands, which would put Gainey in a position of great power because he could stand to acquire an impact player for very little, since those teams wouldn't be interested in taking salary back.

Teams like the Bruins ($46.7 million committed for next season), Sabres ($46.5 million), Flames ($46.9 million), Red Wings ($51.3 million), Oilers ($46.9 million), Senators ($50.9 million), Flyers ($54 million), Penguins ($46.8 million), Sharks ($46.8 million), and Capitals ($45.9 million) are the most in danger of needing to shed salaries in order to fill out their roster for next season.

Some of those teams have atractive restricted free agents they might not be able to keep, led by Phil Kessel and David Krejci in Boston, Ryan Clowe in San Jose, Jiri Hudler in Detroit, Denis Grebeshkov in Edmonton and Drew Stafford in Buffalo. Others, meanwhile, will want to get rid of a contract because the cap is expected to really plummet two seasons from now, while others will simply be ordered by their owners to trim the budget because the team is bleeding money.

"It’s a different marketplace," Gainey said. "We know the cap number is changing and we can easily see a number of teams that are having financial problems. I think we’re going to walk gently and tenderly over the next month and look for possibilities to really improve our team. We have the least amount of money committed of any team in the league, and so it gives us the greatest opportunity to find a player another team may not be able to handle."

This puts the Canadiens, for the first time in recent memory, in a position of great bargaining strength come free agent season. Gainey can outbid most teams should he choose to do so, or he can grab established stars for prospects or draft picks. He said that in the five years leading up to this past season, the Habs were in drafting and development mode. But that conservative approach is now seemingly over.

"We’re at that tipping point where we have to look at using our good drafting to help ourselves more in the shorter term," Gainey said.

One thing's for sure, seeing as Gainey will apparently remain as GM of the Canadiens, this offseason will be a defining moment for his tenure here. Starting with Monday's hiring of Martin, Gainey will be able to cement his legacy in Habs management with a succesful summer of re-building this roster that is now littered with holes all over the place.

Should Gainey fail, he will unfortunately be remembered in Montreal more for his management blunders than his Hall of Fame career on the ice.

The Flying Frenchmen?

Jacques Martin will be named the new head coach of the Montreal Canadiens at 2 p.m. this afternoon, according to several media outlets.

A four-time Jack Adams award nominee, Martin fits the bill on many requirements for the new Habs coach. He's Francophone, experienced and a horrible quote. He is not a Stanley Cup winner, however, and both Marc Crawford and Bob Hartley are, which makes me wonder why they weren't considered.

I find this announcement to be pretty curious seeing as Bob Gainey himself admitted to La Presse recently that there will in fact be a new owner for the team, which means his job may very well be in jeopardy, especially if the Serge Savard/BCE bid winds up winning the auction for the Habs.

I feel that Gainey is making this move in order to better protect his coveted thoroughbred, Carey Price. There's no better coach out there for making a goaltender feel safe and secure than Martin because of his stifling, and many would say boring, defensive system.

Martin benefitted from a very skilled lineup in Ottawa built through several years of solid drafting, which allowed his teams to produce offence despite the handcuffs Martin would put on his forwards. I'm not sure the personnel he will have at his disposal in Montreal will be quite so adept at notching goals based on skill alone, unless Gainey is able to grab some high-end talent in free agency this summer.

I'll report back after this afternoon's press conference at the Bell Centre. I'm sure Martin will have some tremendously interesting things to say.