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.


kyleroussel said...

Nice article Arjun.

I don't mind (again) Gainey waiting until next season to get really aggressive should the cap drop to the 48-50 million range. If he does, the assumption is that he won't even go NEAR the cap this coming season, which will drive fans in this town right around the bend. If he wants to prep himself for next season, it's going to be a bumpy ride until then!


Arpon Basu said...

It's Arpon, Kyle. But that's OK.

moeman said...

As always, a good read.

Number31 said...

Very well put. I've always thought of Gainey as a rather smart GM... When I see players sign for super long-term contracts, I immediately frown upon it 'cause you better damn well like it there enough to stay that whole contract (or a sizeable chunk of it), especially if you're someone making Heatley's numbers (which is not an easy number set to move, just like Lecavalier's). Fans, media, they can go insane all they want, we know they will anyway. They'll bring up the "5 year rebuilding plan" thing, but they'll have forgotten that if he's going to wait for next season to use his cards, the 5 years were spent rebuilding a full deck that he'll be able to work with. (People forget just how empty our cupboards were before he arrived).

cjhouse_girl said...

Let's hope you're right. I would love both Clowe & Dubinsky they would add some talent & grit to Montreal's top 6.

It would be great if we could get some top end talent in trades if not this year then next. I'm willing to wait to see how this all plays out. The fact that Montreal has cap space is to their benefit.

Sliver24 said...

I'm 100% behind Gainey's decision not to sign huge contracts that are measured in decades as opposed to years.

Sure, I'm disappointed when big stars end up elsewhere, but I realize that the fault does not lie with Gainey but with other GMs that are reckless with their clubs' money.

Before the lockout it was just plain frustrating. Now it's great!

I smile a little every time I think that Daniel Briere has become a spare part in Philly that's actually preventing the team from making moves.

The one exception I would make is Vinny. As far as I'm concerned Bob should be doing everything in his power to bring him to Montreal at almost any price (just not Price).

But as a consistent top-5 centre in the NHL, with Vinny there is no doubt that he's the real deal.