Monday, December 28, 2009

Everything's backwards

Scott Gomez, after the Habs had allowed a staggering 94 shot attempts to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Boxing Day, half jokingly told reporters that he feared how Jaroslav Halak would react if they ever allowed fewer than 40 shots.

I'm not blaming Halak for Monday's 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, far from it, but I think we got our answer to that hypothesis. The Canadiens played their best collective team game in weeks in front of Halak on Monday night, meaning that for the first time in a long while he didn't need to be super human to get a win.

Montreal held Ottawa to only 50 shot attempts in the game, which is an indication of how much more the Canadiens had the puck and how often it was at the other end of the ice. That gives a goalie time to breathe, time to recuperate mentally, time to...lose his edge? Maybe in Halak's case, but generally speaking, the Habs will win a lot more games than they lose if they play the way they did in Kanata.

Again, I am not blaming Halak for the loss, I want that to be crystal clear, but he was merely good in this game. Not great, but good enough to win, if it weren't for the other goalie playing an outstanding game in his own right.

There were a lot of positives that came out of this loss, a lot more than came out of the four previous wins combined. But the one habit the Habs couldn't break was their propensity to take penalties in bunches.

After playing perhaps their best first period of the season (at least it feels that way), the Habs began their penalty parade with one minute left in the opening frame when Andrei Markov was called for interference, then went on to take another three in the second, and another in the opening minutes of the third. We all know what the residual effects of those penalties are, and the result was that when the Habs needed a goal in the third the great offensive rhythm they'd established in the first was long forgotten.

Another interesting note was that the Glen Metropolit line did not have a single shift in the second half of the third period. I didn't really catch their transgression, other than the fact they were on the ice for the winning goal, but I thought the blame on that one would have been placed at the feet of Marc-Andre Bergeron more than anyone else.

Finally, the Habs have to get better in the faceoff circle. Tomas Plekanec was 4-for-20 and Scott Gomez was 9-for-23 in the game, which explains why Mike Cammalleri took the draw with the goalie pulled at the end. Plekanec was 6-for-19, Gomez 5-for-14 in Toronto the other night, and those guys simply have to be better because in order to be a puck possession team, it helps to possess the puck.

On the positive side of things, we can now remember just how impressive Brian Gionta was to start this season. This guy just has something about him and that appears to have a very tangible effect on his teammates. Scott Gomez continued his strong run of games and Benoit Pouliot scored his first in a Habs uniform, the line accounted for 14 of the team's 31 shots on goal and a good number of the scoring chances as well.

The trickle down effect of Gionta's return had many streams. First, it takes pressure off the Tomas Plekanec line to produce not only goals, but time in the offensive zone. It causes a bit of a quandary for opposing coaches as to who they will use their top defence pairing against. And finally, it makes the Habs fourth line a pretty effective one with Maxim Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn and Matt D'Agostini.

If Roman Hamrlik can indeed come back into the fold in Florida, we might finally see the Canadiens team we expected back in training camp, one that hasn't played at full strength since Game One of the season. And if they bring what they showed in Ottawa down to sunny Florida, that reunion of sorts risks being a pretty joyous one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Some good game planning

Let's try and delve into the mind of Jacques Martin and figure out what he told his team prior to this 5-1 obliteration of the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night, quite possibly the most deceiving score we have seen in some time.

"O.K. team, this is a process," Martin surely began in his pre-game address to the team. "The process will start with us scoring a bunch of goals against a goalie who couldn't stop a beach ball, then we'll allow the worst team in hockey to bombard our own goalie with shots so we can increase his trade value, and we'll be 3-for-3 on this interminable road trip of ours. Sound good? Alright, let's go out there and do it!"

Honestly, the Habs earned their 2-0 lead in this game, nearly pissed it away when Scott Gomez decided to mouth off the ref and got an extra two minutes for it, and then took advantage of a very weak Cam Ward and an even weaker Manny Legace to rise out the win.

In the meantime, Jaroslav Halak made save after saved in the Habs net, stopping 46 of 47 shots, running his total to 133 out of 137 shots in his last three games. Does anyone in this room honestly believe the Habs would have even won one of the last three games without Halak? Didn't think so.

This, of course, begs the question as to Halak's value right now. The Flyers remain desperate for a goalie who can steal a game, something they haven't really had since Ron Hextall. Cristobal Huet, just days after being named the NHL's first star of the week for his stellar play, totally blew it in Chicago's biggest game of the year to lose 3-2 to the Sharks, despite the 'Hawks winning the shot count 47-14. And Detroit, well, they're just a mess dealing with a far more severe injury situation than the one facing your Habs, and a goalie like this could help them stem the tide until the Franzens and Kronwalls and Zetterbergs return.

But, are the Canadiens not a better team with Halak than without him? That's what a lot of you must be thinking right now, and I don't blame you. But if his value reaches a point where Bob Gainey can legitimately fill another hole on the team, then he has to trade him. Simple as that. If all that's coming back is a draft pick, then he can't trade him. You can trade him for a pick at the end of the year.

Aside from Halak, Tomas Plekanec has continued his skyrocketing climb into the NHL's stratosphere with three assists, giving him 43 points on the season, one behind Alex Ovechkin and ahead of guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Pretty impressive stuff, I can't say it enough.

That's it for now, as I'm about to head on the air for Hump Night on the Team 990 with my partner in crime Dave McGimpsey. But I'll leave you with this: how many teams win consistently while allowing 45.7 shots per game, as the Habs have the past three games? Not too many. Something has to change.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A tale of three free agents

There's a common thread between the three players most responsible for Monday night's improbable overtime win in Atlanta. With all the players Bob Gainey locked up to long-term contracts this summer, all three of the stars from Monday's game are impending free agents.

Tomas Plekanec, with his goal and three assists, hit the 40-point mark in his 38th game of the season. He had 39 points all of last season. Even his career year of 2007-08 was only 69 points, and he's now on pace to obliterate that. In case you haven't been paying attention, he's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

The guy on the receiving end of Plekanec's perfect saucer pass in OT was Marc-Andre Bergeron, scoring his second of the night and ninth of the season. Bergeron is only on this team because Andrei Markov is injured AND because his agent is pro-active and reached out to the Habs to remind them his client was available. Bergeron got the tying goal with the goalie pulled, and scored the winner on a beauty deke after taking that seeing-eye pass from Plekanec. He too is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and he's currently making a little over half what Georges Laraque makes.

Then there's Jaroslav Halak, the only reason this game didn't become an absolute joke after one period, when the Thrashers outshot the Habs 18-3 yet only led 1-0. Halak stopped 47 shots on the night, including a game-saver in overtime just before Bergeron's fourth game-winner of the season. He's stopped 87 of 90 shots over the past TWO games to give his team two wins they probably didn't deserve. Halak now has an 8-5-0 record with a .916 save percentage, good for 16th in the league, tied with Roberto Luongo, Cristobal Huet and Jimmy Howard. He is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, and you've got to believe he'd have a pretty good case in arbitration. He's also expressed a desire to play, and if that won't happen in Montreal then he wants a chance elsewhere. Can't say I blame him.

My point here is to shed light on where this team would be without these three guys, and how likely is it that any of them will be back next season?

But that's a discussion for another day, because right now there's a lot of things that need fixing on these Canadiens. Two glaring trends stand out to me - their horrible first periods and their brutal lack of discipline.

The Habs have been outscored 37-20 in the first period this season, and outshot by a staggering margin of 384-289. They have led at the first intermission only 13 times in 38 games, and have an 8-4-1 record in those games. Just imagine what their record would be if they led after 20 minutes more often?

I keep trying to figure out reasons why this is, and none jump out at me other than pointing the finger at the coaching staff. If you take away the first period this season, the Habs have outscored their opponents 73-68 the rest of the game. So if they can do that in the second and third periods, why not the first?

The lack of discipline has reached a preposterous level. Montreal gave Atlanta six chances on the power play Monday night, meaning the Habs have been shorthanded a whopping 169 times this season. That's the highest total in the league, higher than Anaheim, a franchise that prides itself on stupid penalties. The Habs are also second in the league in minor penalties, after the Flyers. Yet they are in the middle of the pack when it comes to penalty minutes per game. That's because the Canadiens generally don't fight, or take anyone with them to the penalty box for that matter.

Even though the Habs kill penalties with the best of them (more on that in a bit), the effect of taking so many penalties are varied, and crippling. First of all, it keeps players like Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn on the bench, preventing them from establishing some rhythm. It forces Jacques Martin to overuse players like Josh Gorges and Hal Gill, who are at their best when they're playing no more than 18 minutes or so. Of course, I'm saying that as if I know, but I don't because they've been forced to play far more than that every night due to their PK duties. Finally, Plekanec winds up having ridiculous nights like he did Monday, when he played 25:02, including 7:18 while short a man. Is that really what you want your leading point-getter spending so much energy on night after night? Blocking shots and running after players in his own end?

OK, I know, the Habs won and I'm being nothing but negative. So here is some positivity to end things on a high note. After Monday's game, the Habs have the best combined special teams in the league.

The power play, dismal only a month ago, is now third in the NHL with a 23 per cent efficiency rating. Over the first 29 games of the season, Montreal was 14-for-86 with the man advantage, a 16.3 per cent clip. But over the past nine games, the Canadiens power play has hit on 12 of 27 chances, a ridiculous 44.4 per cent success rate. The arrival of Andrei Markov can only help in that area.

Meanwhile, the penalty killing unit is defying the odds and sits seventh in the NHL at 84 per cent. To just put that in perspective, if the Habs were merely average penalty killers and saw their efficiency drop only four points to 80, they would have allowed eight more power play goals so far this season. The Canadiens played their 22nd one-goal game on Monday night, winning for the 10th time. How many of those wins do you think would have turned into losses thanks to those eight extra power play goals against?

The quality of a team's special teams units is generally measured by adding the success rate of the power play to that of the penalty killers. If the number equals more than 100, you're in pretty good shape. The Canadiens number is now 107, tied with the New York Rangers for tops in the NHL.

But, as Habs fans probably know better than anyone, any team that relies too much on special teams is not bound to go very far come spring time. Martin loves saying games are often decided by goaltending and special teams. Problem is, his team has had little else going for it of late.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Let the dominoes fall

Friday's announcement that Andrei Markov will be back in the Canadiens lineup in Long Island on Saturday night probably shouldn't have been too much of a surprise, because Jacques Martin strongly hinted at it a night earlier.

Though Martin was asked directly about Markov's visit with team doctor David Mulder, he skirted the question, clearly adhering to a PR strategy stating that Friday was the day to spoon feed the Markov news to the Montreal media.

But for the first time of the season, Martin voluntarily brought up the notion of injured players returning not once, but twice. And he did so without even being asked directly. Clearly, he knew then what we all know now, and I think something he said that night is probably the most important chain reaction of Markov's early return.

He spoke of returning players allowing him to "classify" other players in their proper slots.

We won't see that Saturday night if Roman Hamrlik is unable to play, and Markov won't likely be playing the same kind of minutes he would normally in case.

But when he is, and when Hamrlik returns, Montreal's defence will be exponentially improved.

Right now, certain people are playing far more than they are used to. Josh Gorges is logging 21:42 per night, over a minute and a half more than last year. Hal Gill is at 19:43 per game, his highest level since he played 20:42 with the Leafs two years ago. Paul Mara's 20:18 per game is his highest since three years ago.

In fact, the only two defenceman aside from Markov who are accustomed to playing over 20 minutes a game are Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek, which means two thirds of Montreal's defence corps is playing outside its comfort zone.

There are 120 minutes available for defencemen to play in a regulation hockey game. When Markov is back to full speed, he should take up about 24 minutes, while Hamrlik and Spacek will probably be pared down to 21 or 22 minutes a game. Whoever eventually plays with Markov or Hamrlik ( it looks like it might be Ryan O'Byrne with Markov on Saturday, but I doubt that will last) will likely be called on to play 20 minutes as well.

That leaves a little over 30 minutes for the last pair to play, and I don't see Martin breaking up the Gill-Gorges pairing, so they'll likely get knocked down at least two or three minutes a night in ice time. Gorges spends much of the game battling for position in front of the net and taking a beating while doing it. Gill appears to collapse a lung every time he has to retreat into his zone to collect a dump-in. I would have to think a reduced workload will make them both extremely more effective.

Hamrlik, meanwhile, won't be facing the opposing team's best forwards on a nightly basis, a job he's been doing very well thus far. So let's say the Habs are playing the Capitals, and suddenly, instead of checking Alex Ovechkin all night you're suddenly called on to watch Tomas Fleischmann. With all due respect to Fleischmann, that's a far less taxing assignment for Hamrlik, which should make him a much better player as well.

Let's suppose that O'Byrne actually winds up sticking as Markov's partner, though I think it will probably wind up being Mara eventually. But if it's O'Byrne, just imagine what that pairing could do for him. We saw it with Mike Komisarek before, maybe we'll see the same Markov effect on O'Byrne. And if not him, then maybe the effect will work on Mara.

Then there's Marc-Andre Bergeron, who will be lining up at forward Saturday, but will still be on the point opposite Markov on the power play. Teams have been cheating over to Bergeron to take away his shot from the point, but with the power play flowing through Markov on the other side teams won't be able to do that quite so much, which should allow MAB some more time to get some shots to the net. And we've already seen evidence that when that happens, the power play works.

The domino effect is that if the defence is more effective, the Canadiens should spend less time in their own end, whether Markov is on the ice or not. That should allow the Habs to have an improved transition game, which won't be very hard to do because the bar is very low in that department right now. Improved transition can lead to an increase in attack zone time, which often times leads to drawing more penalties from the opposition, which leads to goals for and prevents goals against in one fell swoop.

So while Canadiens fans shouldn't be expecting too much out of Markov on Saturday in Long Island, it's not overstating things to say that Markov's arrival will have an impact on a whole slew of players, perhaps half the team.

I've been writing it for two months now that if the Habs can remain within striking distance of aplayoff spot, hovering around the .500 mark, then Markov will give them a shot. Well, after Friday night's games, the Habs are in a virtual four-way tie for ninth in the east with 33 points. But technically, the Canadiens are 12th because they've played the most games of the four teams.

This recent five-game swoon has left Montreal four points out of eighth, but only six points out of fifth. With 46 games left on the schedule, those are not insurmountable deficits, but the climb back will have to start on this seven-game road trip that begins Saturday night. Each and every one of those games is winnable, but none are guaranteed simply because the Habs are not nearly good enough to be able to mail it in and win.

But I think it's safe to say that Markov's mere presence, even if he himself is not his usual dominant self, will make this team a whole hell of a lot better.

Time to vote...again

I know, this is getting tiresome, but I've made Round 3 of the NHL Blog-off over at It's now down to the top five and three of us will make it to Round 4, which I hope is the final round of the competition, or pageant, or whatever it is.

My competition is pretty elite, with All Habs, Dennis Kane, Four Habs Fans, and The H Does Not Stand For Habs representing the upper crust of the Habs blogosphere. I'm pretty honoured to be in such a company, and I encourage any of you who haven't read those blogs to check them out because they are truly remarkable.

That being said, I'd appreciate it if you voted for me here, even if you like those blogs better than mine. Right now it's a dog fight, with six votes separating all five blogs. I'm in second with 13 votes, three back of Dennis. I'm still holding out hope that I'll win a new toaster oven or ice cream machine if I come out on top of this thing, but I'm starting to think that's a pipe dream.

I'll be back a little later tonight with my thoughts on the Markov Miracle and what it means to the Habs, but for now, get out there and vote.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mixed messages

The Canadiens did a few good things in their 3-1 loss to the Wild Thursday night, starting with outshooting their opponents and getting more power plays than their opponents for the first time in 10 games.

When a team has lost five games in a row, sometimes those are the things you need to look at to avoid a downward spiral of misery.

But when I brought it up with Mike Cammalleri after the game, he didn't share the same viewpoint at all.

“I was waiting for someone to bring that up," Cammalleri began by saying. "Moral victories suck in this business, I’m not going to sugar coat it. It’s a results-driven business, all out fans and all the people who care so much about this team want to see it win and so do we. When you talk about the process and working towards a goal, they’re things that we can look at. But they don’t really hold much weight as far as I’m concerned.”

Power to Cammalleri for calling like it is, because he's 100 per cent right. Moral victories do suck, because they are only brought up when you lose. And losing, by its very nature, sucks royally.

Except the man guiding this ship doesn't appear to feel the same way. Jacques Martin watched the same game we all did, and yes, the Habs got some shots and stayed out of the penalty box. But really, did they play all that well? I would say no, but not Martin.

"It was a hotly contested game," Martin said. "We worked better than we did over the last four or five games and created more chances to score."

Hotly contested? Really? Maybe it was contested, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it hot. Neither team looked like it had much gas in the tank, to be honest. The Wild were playing their fourth in seven nights, the Habs their third in four nights, and it showed. Just not to Martin.

"I thought our intensity was better tonight," he said. "We still have things to work on, but it was better."

The Habs play their next seven games on the road, a trip broken in two by the Christmas break. And in discussing the defeat, Martin finally evoked how badly some of the injured players are missed, which would have to mean Andrei Markov because he's really the only injured player that's close to a return. I ran into Roman Hamrlik after the game, and he said he was day to day, nothing more.

"With the return of certain players," Martin said, "it should allow us to classify players in their proper place."

Cammalleri was asked the same question earlier, whether the team was kind of waiting around for some of the injured guys to get back.

“We’ve had success with a lineup that was more depleted than the one we have right now," he said. "So I think we’re more looking within and looking in the mirror right now.”

Isn't that how it should be? Is it ever healthy to be using injuries as an excuse, no matter how valid an excuse it might be? Is it not strange that a player is saying all the right things and a coach is saying all the wrong ones?

I leave the answer to that question up to you.

I can't write about this game without mentioning poor old Guillaume Latendresse, who had a bit of rough one in his return to Montreal. He admitted afterwards that he was overly nervous at the start of the game, and he never quite recovered. But he made it clear that no matter how badly he thought he played, he got everything he wanted out of his return visit to the Bell Centre.

“Satisfied? I must have had no shots and maybe three hits (he actually was credited with five)," Latendresse said. "But the important thing is that we got two points even though we didn’t play well tonight. We’re a better team than that. But the only thing that was important to me tonight was to beat the Canadiens at home.”

Good for you Guillaume, you got what you wanted, but the boo birds that greeted him clearly hit home a bit. He told Mathias Brunet of La Presse last week that he would be hurt if he got booed, and it happened, though it wasn't all that vicious (a pocket of fans in the cheap seats took to chanting "Ann-ie Ville-neuve," his pop starlet girlfriend he left behind in Quebec).

“The positive is that I must have had an impact of some sort over my time here, so I’m not too worried about it.”

I highly doubt that, but he was right about one thing. There's no better way to stick it to a team than by beating them on their home rink. I'm sure Guillaume is still smiling over that.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The sky must be falling

Why? Because Habs GM Bob Gainey has actually weighed in on a rumour concerning his team.

He told Hall of Fame journalist Bertrand Raymond of (while locked out by his employer Le Journal de Montreal) that he contacted the Flyers to let them know Jaroslav Halak was available should they require his services.

This, my friends, means the chase to trade Halak is in full force. Gainey also told Raymond that he called other teams to inquire whether they would be interested in his backup goaltender, without specifying who those teams were. Furthermore, when asked to respond to the rumour that he would be seeking a top-six forward in return, Gainey did just that. I'm stunned.

"Let's be realistic," Gainey told Raymond. "I got a second round pick from the Washington Capitals for Cristobal Huet. The Philadelphia Flyers gave a second round pick to Buffalo for Martin Biron."

Of course, the difference here is that both those goalies were unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, while Halak will be restricted at the end of the season, and won't likely cost that much to re-sign. A team could probably have him for $1 million a year on a two or three-year deal.

Gainey said the Flyers reaction, and I would imagine he's referring to GM Paul Holmgren, to the news that Halak was available was, "Oh."

"And they didn't tell me if they'd be getting back to me," he added. "It was a brief discussion. We didn't get into details."

There is still some question as to whether or not Halak would withstand the rigours of being a starting goalie, but I would think Halak is a good risk to take. And most importantly, this is something Halak wants.

"The main reason I'm doing this is because Jaroslav wants a chance," Gainey told Raymond. "He feels he's ready to play a more important role and he's right to feel that way."

The way Halak has behaved himself over the past few years, I too feel he's earned his shot. He didn't say a peep when Carey Price sped by him on the organizational depth chart, and when everyone could plainly see that Halak deserved to take over the starting role last season while Price struggled, he didn't say a word.

But, this is no time for Gainey to be doing anyone any favours. If he's going to trade Halak, he needs to get more than a pick in return. He's trading a young, cheap and capable goalie here, and that has some value. Probably not as much as some people seem to think, but more than a second round pick.

So, Gainey at least admitted he's made Halak available to some other teams, and I think an educated guess can lead us to who those teams are.

The Detroit Red Wings had a scout at last night's Habs-Sabres game, and the Wings don't play Montreal again this year while they don't face the Sabres until March. I doubt the Wings sent someone to the Bell Centre to scout anyone other than Halak, but I guess anything's possible.

As I noted (very late) last night, I thought Halak was pretty ordinary in that loss to the Sabres. He made a number of solid saves, but I felt his rebound control wasn't up to snuff and despite being screened he probably should have had that point shot by Andrej Sekera. One thing's for sure, he wasn't a factor in the game in either sense. If you're a team looking at acquiring a goalie, you would like to at least notice him during a game.

But Halak's track record is pretty strong and I don't think any team will make a decision on him one way or the other based on one game.

I like Halak, always have. But he's a luxury item, insurance in case the guy you have clearly tabbed as your franchise player falters. I think everyone would agree hat this a team that can't afford luxury items right now.

Furthermore, while Curtis Sanford was likely signed in the offseason with the idea of replacing Halak in the event of a trade or injury, Cedrick Desjardins is burning it up in Hamilton and is one of the best goalies in the AHL right now. The 24-year-old is in his fourth season with Hamilton and is continuing the steady progression he showed over the first three, posting a 1.45 GAA and .944 save percentage in 14 games.

Numbers like that make Halak that much more of a luxury.

UPDATE (1:32 p.m.) - Halak confirmed that he has indeed requested a trade.

The other side of stupid penalties

The Canadiens buried themselves with undisciplined play yet again Monday night, with yet another parade to the penalty box likely costing them at least a point in a 4-3 loss to the Sabres.

The consequences of those penalties are blatantly obvious when a 5-on-3 power play results and the opposing team scores the winning goal, but I want to look at what isn't so obvious.

During Monday's game, two of Montreal's most dangerous players were Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitysn. Neither of them play on the penalty kill, and even if they did, it wouldn't be a situation where they can best exploit their skills.

Cammalleri played 17:47 on the night, or 91 seconds fewer than Travis Moen. Kostitsyn was on the ice for 16:46, or just under a minute less than his younger brother Sergei, who had an excellent game but still is not quite as dynamic an offensive force as Andrei. Josh Gorges led all Habs defencemen in ice time with 24:29, and while he's a noble player who always puts in a solid effort, Montreal is in trouble when he's your top minute-muncher on defence.

The point I'm trying to make is the Habs are a team with very little firepower, especially the way it is currently composed, and when they continuously take penalty after penalty they are preventing what little firepower they do have from getting out on the playing surface.

So even though the power play is producing at a ridiculous rate these days, 7-for-16 over the last five games, it's overshadowed by the fact Montreal is spending 10-12 minutes a game killing penalties. Even if the penalty kill continues to shine, that kind of frequency prevents the team from creating any kind of offensive rhythm, which leads to an inability to sustain pressure, which leads to an inability to draw penalties from the other team, which puts pressure on your goalie, and so on, and so on.

This team has a lot of limitations, but playing with discipline is something the Canadiens can control. Granted, often times the Habs are taking penalties as a result of extended periods pinned in their own end, but you would think that after the same pattern repeating itself over so many games the message would get through to pay extra careful attention to what you're doing with your stick or your hands.

Obviously, the message is not getting through, and head coach Jacques Martin says he'll soon be in a position to do something about it.

"Right now, we have 20 healthy players. We basically played with 11 forwards tonight," Martin said after the game, when asked when he will start to impose consequences to the players who are showing a consistent lack of discipline at key moments. "But we'll have some players coming back eventually."

So for now, his hands are tied. But if he could, you have to figure Glen Metropolit would be due for a punishment after back-to-back games of taking penalties that cost his team the game. I love Metropolit for everything he brings to the table, but these penalties the last two games have been inexcusable.

A final note before I pass out for the night on Jaroslav Halak. First off, let me say that I don't believe in showcasing players, and I'm not sure NHL teams do either. Trades are usually made after weeks, if not months of scouting, and I have trouble believing a team will base its decision on a given player based on a single game seen live.

However, having said that, it's clear that Halak has been a subject of discussion lately, and rightly so. At his salary, practically every team in the league could add him to their puzzle without suffering severe cap consequences, and he's a very capable goalie. I was expecting to see scouts from the some of the usual suspects who have been linked to him of late, but the only one that caught my eye was a Detroit Red Wings scout.

The Red Wings don't play the Habs again this year and they play Buffalo three months from now, so the presence of the scout could not be explained by simple advanced scouting. While I don't blame Halak for Monday's loss, I can't imagine that scout was overly impressed.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Get out and vote, round two

Hi everyone, just a quick post to let you know that I made round two of this blog-off competition over at, an attempt at establishing the No. 1 favourite Habs blog among fans.

I'm up against some pretty stiff competition as it's the cream of the crop that have made the second round, and I can use a hand. Right now, I'm in a three-way tie for sixth out of nine teams, which can also be spun to say that I'm in a three-way tie for second-to-last. The top five blogs will advance to the third round, and I'm only two votes away from being in third as I'm writing this.

If you feel like it, you can vote for my blog here. You have to register for the site to vote, which makes it a bit of a pain, but I leave it up to you whether or not you want to bother. Thanks if you do, and thanks if you don't as well. Just so you know, I haven't voted once, so don't feel guilty if you don't feel like it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

An early Christmas miracle?

Andrei Markov skated hard for close to an hour in Brossard today, and he will be travelling to Atlanta with the team.

Good news, to be sure, but the team said he would not be in the lineup against the Thrashers. Markov was to meet with doctors early next week, which could have been an occasion for him to get the green light to play.

That, in and of itself, is not a miracle, though Markov's rapid progress from a devastating injury is definitely a great dose of good fortune for a team that hasn't had a lot of it this year.

But then, at 1:43 p.m., I got an e-mail from the team stating that Yannick Weber had been sent down to the Hamilton Bulldogs, two days after he'd been called up, and without playing a game. His call up was seemingly as insurance in case Jaroslav Spacek couldn't play against the Penguins on Thursday.

So Spacek finally wound up playing, but in my eyes, his performance was far from reassuring as far as his health is concerned. I would think that under the circumstances, having Weber around in Atlanta would give Jacques Martin the option of dressing seven defencemen in case Spacek was still a step too slow to keep up, which certainly appeared to be the case Thursday night.

I don't want to start any rumours, but sending Weber down today shortly after revealing that Markov is making the trip to Atlanta is definitely some ripe material for speculation. So that's all I'm doing here, speculating.

In all likelihood, Markov won't play in Atlanta. I just find it curious that Montreal would first say that Weber will be joining the team on the trip and then, less that two hours later, announce that Weber was being sent back to Hamilton.

That's all I'm saying.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The plan finally failed

The Canadiens followed their recent formula for winning games perfectly on Thursday night against the defending Stanley Cup champs.

Get badly outshot? Check.

Give up gobs of scoring chances? Check.

Get superb goaltending to bail us out? Check.

Take a ton of penalties, and kill them all off? Check.

Get a power play goal with limited chances? Check.

So, how on earth did this not result in a Habs victory? Because it's not a very sound plan for winning hockey games. Montreal has gotten away with it on more than a few occasions, but you just knew it would come back to bite them at some point.

This is a luxury you have when you have otherwordly goaltending, as the Habs have been getting from Carey Price. But even he has his limits, and when a rather innocuous looking shot from Pascal Dupuis was fired towards him in the third, he finally flinched.

Jacques Martin mentioned it in his post-game press conference, good things happen when you shoot the puck, and ultimately the deserving team won the game.

What I find unfortunate is that the brutally horrendous whistle from Chris Lee that negated what would have been Scott Gomez's tying goal is likely going to mask the fact the Habs are playing with fire every night. I, like all of you, am still in shock every time I see that Lee is working an NHL game. I only have his experience with the Canadiens to go on, but it just seems like every time Lee is working a Habs game, something happens where he draws attention to himself.

This time, with Lee hogging the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, I fear people will be thinking of how the Habs were robbed of a point. Instead, what people should be thinking is how the Pens managed to outshoot the Canadiens 41-21, or how they directed 80 pucks towards the net compared to Montreal's 46, or how the Habs had only two power plays to Pittsburgh's five? If this were a one-off anomaly, then it would be unreasonable to blame the Canadiens for all those things when facing such a formidable opponent. But this was not an isolated incident. Far from it.

The Habs have been outshot by at least 10 shots a dozen times this season, but they have done the same to the opposition only three times. Thursday's game was the second time this season Montreal's given up 20 more shots than it took, but twice more the margin was 19 and another time it was 17. I realize shots on goal can sometimes be misleading, but not all the time.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but how many of you remember that five-game stretch where the Canadiens allowed no more than 23 shots in a game? That was way back in October, when it appeared that Martin's puck possession system was really starting to take hold. In the 23 games since, the Habs have kept opponents under 30 shots only five times, and they now find themselves 24th in the league with 31.6 shots against per game.

OK, those who come here regularly know that I try, whenever possible, to draw at least one positive from the game. The penalty killing is an obvious choice, as the streak has now hit 27 straight games, while the power play goal scored by Roman Hamrlik came as a result of some of the quickest puck movement I've seen from the Canadiens all year. Then there's Price, who was a shining light for the entire organization once again. He's brought his save percentage up to .914 with his last five weeks of work, but if you exclude his two worst games of the season (in Vancouver and at home to Atlanta) Price has a mark of .924 in all his other games. That is a pretty elite number.

But the most important number in my eyes remains .500, and that is where the Canadiens still find themselves today. Will they still be there when Andrei Markov gets back? Difficult to say. If we take the best case scenario and say Markov will play on Dec. 30 in Tampa, that leaves nine games between now and then, in a span of only 20 days. Seven of those are on the road, and five are against teams that are ahead of them in the standings as of right now. So, if the Habs win the four games against the teams below them (Minnesota, Islanders, Carolina and Toronto), then they will only be one game under .500 when Markov returns, and probably still well within striking distance for a playoff spot.

Anyone who says they could have seen that coming back on Oct. 1 is lying.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Very interesting radio

I was attempting to navigate the city this afternoon when I caught CKAC's Martin McGuire giving his daily update on the goings on in Habs land. While his take on the day's news is always interesting, I must say today's hit was really ear-catching.

First, McGuire talked about Andrei Markov's spin around the ice during today's scrimmage in Brossard, where he was paired with Roman Hamrlik. Afterwards, Markov was asked if he had a date in mind for his return.

"Yeah, I have a date in mind," Markov said.

Do you want to tell us?


McGuire, without any proof or confirmation, said he has a hunch that Markov is shooting for the holiday trip to Florida, which starts Dec. 30, or 11 games from now. That would bring us to one game past the halfway mark of the season.

Now I wasn't there today and I have no expertise in the interpretation of body language, but the way Markov answered that question, I would have to say maybe Martin is on to something here.

Later in his little report, McGuire also noted - again without confirmation - that the Habs have begun preliminary contract explorations with Tomas Plekanec and his agent Rick Curran. If indeed that's the case (the morality of reporting things on the air without confirming it first is a topic for another day, but since it was reported I felt an obligation to tell you all about it), then I would do anything to be a fly on the wall to hear what each side is looking for.

My contention that Plekanec needs to be traded while his value is at its highest has been the subject of much debate here, as well it should, because he looks to be rounding into form right about now. How much of a reward he is seeking for that development, and how much revenge he may want to exact for the Canadiens refusal to offer him anything more than a one-year deal in the summer, will go a long way to determining whether or not he can be fit into next year's cap structure.

Finally, I thought I should way in on all this Ryan White business, and I've got to say it doesn't look very good for Bob Gainey and Julien BriseBois. If indeed each of them thought the other had informed the league of the call-up, then maybe they should assign that menial task to someone else in the office. That way, at least they would be sure the call would be made, or the e-mail sent, or whatever.

All I know is that I got the press release just after 12:30 on game day. You would think a simple CC to the NHL would do it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The ugliest winning streak in team history

OK, that might be laying it on a little thick, but the Habs current three-game winning run has hardly been a work of art.

But who really cares? The NHL standings sure don't, because they reward two points to any team that wins, and the Habs did just that Tuesday night with a 4-1 victory over in Ottawa, beating the conference's top home team in its own barn.

If Friday night's 5-1 thumping of the Bruins could be attributed to emotion, and Monday night's snoozefest over the Flyers could be attributed to opportunism, Tuesday night's win came courtesy of Jacques Martin's two favourite factors for determining the outcome of hockey games: goaltending and special teams.

Martin loves to say that one of those two often decides who will win a game, and on Tuesday he had both of them going for him.

First the goaltending, and I'm so happy for Jaroslav Halak that he was able to steal a win with an outstanding 45-save performance. Watching Carey Price play the way he has the past month from the bench could not have been easy, and it was made only worse by an extremely weak showing in Buffalo. Halak has been a model citizen throughout his time with the team when he's had every reason to lash out and feel like he's been treated unfairly. When he didn't start Game 3 in last year's playoffs, I thought he would demand a trade out of town, but he didn't. I sincerely hope Bob Gainey is able to find somewhere for Halak to play this offseason, or even at this year's deadline, because the guy deserves it. I just wonder if Gainey will be able to get proper value for what looks to be a very promising goalie when that day comes.

Next comes the special teams, and the stars of the show over the past couple of weeks have been the penalty killers. It's no coincidence that the return of Hal Gill on Friday night helped produce a perfect 7-for-7 night. It was another perfect performance tonight, shutting the Sens out on seven chances, and Gill blocked a team-high three shots. His pairing with Josh Gorges has become a dominant one when short a man, and considering how often the Habs find themselves in that situation, it's pretty useful to have such a strong shutdown pairing.

For the fifth time this season, the power play produced a pair of goals, and both came as a direct result of Marc-Andre Bergeron. His point shots have been impressive all season, but now it's his poise with the puck and overall ability to settle the power play down with an astute decision that I'm finding quite surprising. On top of that, the first period injury to Jaroslav Spacek forced him into some penalty killing duty as well, and he didn't totally embarrass himself, which has to be considered a victory. But in all seriousness, Bergeron did not have the benefit of training camp, and I think his play in his own end is improving with every game. It will probably never reach a level where it could be considered good, or even decent, but right now I would say it's tolerable, and that's just fine when he does what he's doing on the power play. He's now tied for second among NHL defencemen with four power play goals, and his eight points with the man advantage has him 17th. When Andrei Markov comes back to start teeing him up for one-timers, I think Bergeron might just become a more important player than any of us ever imagined he would be.

The Habs will be shooting to match a season high with a fourth win in a row Thursday night at home against Pittsburgh, and they will have a lot of things going for them. A likely starting nod for a rested and still dominant Price, Mike Cammalleri riding a streak of of five goals over three games, Tomas Plekanec with six assists over the same span, and a team that just seems to have a bit of lucky mojo going right now. How else to explain outscoring their opponents 12-3 over the past three games while being outshot 89-69 over the same span? Or giving up 18 power plays in three games, yet leading 3-0 on the special teams scoreboard?

Simple, the Habs have hit a stretch of good luck, and after all the injuries so far this season, it's pretty well deserved. And well timed, because all of a sudden the Canadiens are alone in eighth place with 32 points, just three back of the division-leading Boston Bruins, and back on the good side of .500.

Just imagine what they'll be able to do when they actually start playing well.

The ends justify the means

The Habs put an exclamation point on their last game of the first century, but the first one of the next century could probably be best described using what, a comma? As in, "The Canadiens won, but..."

No matter how ugly Monday night's 3-1 win over the self-destructing Flyers may have been, particularly compared to the excitement of Friday night's rout of the Bruins, the fact remains that Montreal won both games. In very different ways, but the standings don't reward style points.

Good thing, because this game reeked in every way.

Still, there were lots of positives to be drawn from this second straight win, and the biggest one for me was the work of the penalty killers, who ran their streak to 15 straight in four games since allowing Eric Fehr to score that tying goal in the dying seconds in a shootout loss to the Caps. The Flyers barely threatened to score on the power play, and while they ran their own futility streak to 19 straight chances, the Habs PK played a big role in that.

Sergei Kostitsyn, for all his faults, has gained Jacques Martin's trust and is now cemented into a penalty killing role. Generally, you want your hard workers out there when down a man, which explains why Tomas Plekanec and Travis Moen are mainstays. Not sure why that makes Scott Gomez a regular, but the fact Martin keeps sending the younger Kostitsyn out there shows what the coach thinks of his enfant terrible these days.

Another positive was Mike Cammalleri scoring another goal, this one the game-winner off a great feed from Maxim Lapierre. It was Cammalleri's 16th of the season, which puts him on pace for 43 over 82 games, which would eclipse the 39 he scored in Calgary this year if he maintains the rhythm. I'm still waiting for Cammalleri to bring up all the doubts about his reliance on Jarome Iginla to score all those goals (a myth I think I debunked back in September). Somehow, I think Cammalleri is pretty good at scoring goals, with or without Iginla.

Of course, having Tomas Plekanec as your centre has certainly helped Cammalleri, and Plekanec continues to help himself toward a huge free agent payday at the end of the season, whether it's from the Canadiens or some other team. His two assists Monday night gave him 28 points on the season, or only 11 shy of his total for all of last season. He's been the Canadiens most consistent, most versatile and hardest working player game in and game out this season, which is why I still think it's time to trade him and get some value in return.

But the marquee story remains, in my eyes, Carey Price. He was only called upon to make 14 saves in this win, but he didn't give up a backbreaking stinker or do any of the other disconcerting things he had made habitual since last year's All-Star break. In his last 13 starts, Price has a .932 save percentage and a 1.96 goals against average, and I'm going to keep bringing these numbers up as long as he keeps playing like the start goalie everyone projected him to be.

On the negative side of the ledger, the "upper body" (read: shoulder) injury suffered by Paul Mara could sideline him for a while. He won't play Tuesday night in Ottawa, and who knows for how long after that. While Marc-Andre Bergeron is admittedly a nightmare on skates in his own end, his value is that he almost single-handedly makes the power play because of his ability to get shots through to the net. That alone forces you to live with his defensive short-comings, which aren't quite as bad as everyone makes them out to be. But they're bad. If Mara is out for any amount of time, those shortcomings will go back to the fore, But until then, Bergeron scoredd his sixth of the season to provide the final 3-1 cushion, allowing the Habs to sit on a two-goal lead halfway through the third. His sixth goal of the season puts him in a tie for sixth among the NHL's defenceman.

The Habs are still a work in progress, but at least there appears to be some progress being made.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Oh what a night

I wrote recently how the Montreal Canadiens had a great sense of timing, but I was being sarcastic. Last night, however, the Habs timing could not have been any better.

Following a stirring ceremony to commemorate the Habs' 100th birthday, one that filled the Bell Centre with enough emotion to last another century, the Canadiens used every ounce of the subsequent adrenaline rush to pound the Bruins 5-1.

When Mike Cammalleri completed his second period hat trick and people's headgear began littering the ice, the Bell Centre was as loud as I've heard it for a regular season game, except maybe for the return of Saku Koivu from cancer.

"I was fighting back tears on the bench," Cammalleri said afterwards.

I think the reason for a lot of that noise was a release of a deep-seeded tension on the part of the fans that their team, their beloved team, would manage to ruin an extraordinary evening with yet another less than ordinary effort. Based on the previous two games, there was no reason to believe the Habs would be able to rise to the occasion against a very hot Bruins team, one that is taking out its frustration on the poor Maple Leafs as I type this.

After the game, I asked Cammalleri if the team had that same fear that they would mess the bed with so many hockey legends in the building watching them on a night the organization has invested so much time, money and energy into.

"I don't know if fear is the right word for it," Cammalleri said, after thinking about his answer for a little while. "But there was definitely a sense of urgency."

Nowhere was that urgency more evident than on the penalty kill, where Canadiens fans who had taken to booing Hal Gill saw why he's a valuable piece of the team. Gill and Josh Gorges were vital in killing off a two-minute 5-on-3 when Jaro Spacek and Maxim Lapierre took penalties on the same play.

By sprawling on the ice, Gill eliminated the bread and butter play for a two-man advantage - the cross-crease back door pass - and he effectively dealt with Zdeno Chara in front of the net. That's not small task. Gorges, meanwhile, was putting his body on the line every chance he got, taking one slap shot in the ribs and barely even flinching.

I was also interested to see Sergei Kostitsyn used twice during that penalty kill, alternating with Tomas Plekanec in the forward spot. That's a pretty long way from where he was only two weeks ago, riding the bus in Hamilton, but it shows that Jacques Martin's trust can be won over with solid play.

That 5-on-3 was the definite turning point, as Cammalleri got his first of the night about 30 seconds after it ended and the rout was beginning to take hold. It was the fifth time this season the Habs have allowed seven power plays against, but the first time they've managed to shutout their opponents and the penalty killing unit has now killed off 11 straight and 13 of their last 14. That recent success has gotten Montreal up to 13th in the league, which makes it the only major statistical category where the Habs are ranked in the top half of the NHL.

Of course, the team's best penalty killer is the goalie, and Carey Price had a spectacular night. Again. Yes, he's had some nights over the past month when he was merely average, but he's had none when he was atrocious, and he's had a few like he did Friday night. For those who have lost count, Price has a .932 save percentage and a 2.20 goals against average over his last 12 starts, and the only reason his record is 6-4-2 is because the Habs scored a grand total of two goals in his four regulation losses over that stretch.

But Price's performance last night also clouds another aspect of Friday night's Bell Centre love fest, and that was just how soundly the Bruins controlled the play in every aspect except the scoreboard. While the Bruins outshot the Habs by a reasonable margin of 38-29, the shot attempts told a very different story as Boston attempted 79 while the Habs had only 46. Granted, much of that disparity came as a result of the third period when the Canadiens sat on their 5-0 lead, but the fact remains that this could have been a very different result if Price hadn't been so solid and if Tim Thomas hadn't been quite so bad.

So yes, the Habs victory and the ceremony that preceded and the justice done for Butch Bouchard and Elmer Lach were all wonderful, making the evening one of the most memorable ever in that building's short history. But we'll only know Monday and Tuesday, when Montreal hosts the flailing Flyers and heads to Kanata to face the Sens, whether or not that fantastic night will be a turning point in the season or just a one-off anomaly.

To be perfectly honest, I don't know which one is true. But either way, that was one hell of a night.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Who's responsible for the starts?

Generally, it's the coaching staff - and more specifically the head coach - who takes the heat when a team looks woefully unprepared to start a game.

If it was only a case of the last two games where the Canadiens looked horrible in the first period, it might be excusable. But this has become a season-long trend, and it's one that can't necessarily be blamed on injuries or anything else.

After Thursday night's 6-2 loss in Buffalo, the Habs have now been outscored 32-13 in the first period of games this season. The last two games, the first period meltdowns have been a lethal combination of poor goaltending and daydreaming defence. Carey Price should have been able to keep the two first period markers out of his net on Tuesday, and Jaroslav Halak didn't do himself any favours with poor rebound control in Buffalo, though I acknowledge it's not easy when you've been sitting on the bench for three weeks.

But, porous goaltending aside, how is it that teams regularly get the jump on the Canadiens right off the opening faceoff? Are they not mentally ready to play the game? Is it a tactical issue? Are their opponents being poorly scouted? Either way, all those factors fall under the purview of coaching. Over the last three games alone, the Habs have been outscored 7-0 in the first period. Only a tremendous second period by the Canadiens against Washington on Saturday night allowed them to salvage a point in those three contests.

With two key offensive players missing, the Habs can't afford to be playing catch-up hockey all the time. The Habs have trailed after the first period 17 times in 28 games, and they have a 4-11-2 record in those games. When they have led or tied after 20 minutes, that record jumps to 8-3-0.

I'm not saying coaches have to be fired or anything, but Jacques Martin needs to make some sort of an adjustment here, and fast. Because if there was one game where the Habs would be excused for having a slow start, it would be Friday, where the pre-game centennial ceremony is seemingly being directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

But a poor start against a hot Boston Bruins team that has picked up points in six straight games - winning five of them - will ensure a spoiled birthday party Friday night unless Price can pull off a miracle. And no hockey team should be banking on their goalie to steal them a win. The Canadiens appear unwilling, or unable, to play what used to be Martin's trademark - boring, shutdown hockey. When you have two key offensive players out and several others playing themselves back into game shape, it's what needs to be done.

Should the Habs fall into the same trap Friday night and drop the game to Boston - which looks extremely likely from where I sit - it would drop their record to 12-15-2. That would be the first time Montreal would be three games below .500 since Oct. 17, when they were 2-5-0 after losing five straight games.

Without Andrei Markov in the lineup, the Habs have done a great job sticking near that "magical" .500 plateau, which is where I believe they need to be when Markov returns to have any hope of a playoff berth. But if the Habs drop to three games back on Friday, with some pretty tough competition on the horizon over a busy month of December, a very real danger exists of dropping right out of the race.

Not to be overly dramatic, but the Canadiens need to win Friday to stop the bleeding and hang around the vicinity of eighth place. If they drop too far back, they just might not be able to make it all the way back when (or if) they ever get fully healthy. And, if that's not motivation enough for them, the Habs should consider this: the Leafs are only three points behind them, and Toronto has a game in hand.

Be afraid people.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sorry boss

You've got to hand it to them, your Montreal Canadiens have an impeccable sense of timing.

Three days before the team's big blowout 100th birthday party, on the very day that ownership changed hands, with not one but two champions in the house, and finally while the facing the hated Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs went out and embarrassed themselves Tuesday night in a listless 3-0 loss.

Seeing the Montreal Alouettes receive a rousing standing ovation prior to the game when they came out on the ice with the Grey Cup in tow, perhaps some of the Habs felt the people had already gotten their money's worth for the evening and decided not to show up. Give the Leafs some credit here, as they took it to a team that was sitting at home waiting for them after they played the night before, and this despite losing their starting goalie after one period.

But mostly, the Habs were really horrendous on this night, a game that was their worst on home ice this season, something head coach Jacques Martin had no trouble agreeing with.

To me, the juxtaposition of the Canadiens performance against a bitter rival that is below them in the standings versus what new owner Geoff Molson was saying just a couple of hours before the game was too rich to ignore.

Molson and his partnership group received approval from the NHL board of governors on Tuesday, and in addressing the media he expressed no concern whatsoever about the direction the team was going. Bob Gainey and Pierre Boivin received the traditional vote of confidence, and everything looked fine and dandy in Molson's eyes.

“I think Bob Gainey has done an excellent job re-building this team,” he said. “The team has an enormous amount of depth. There have been injuries and people have come up, and done their job, and done it well. There are many new players, there’s a new coach, there’s a new owner. And I feel we are in the process of building a great organization.”

One poor game doesn't necessarily make what he said any less true, but it certainly doesn't help the optics of the situation.

Frankly, after spending over half a billion dollars of various people's money acquiring the team, Molson wasn't going to come out and say the team needs to be blown up and everyone's fired. But the fact is, the organization is in a tough spot and likely won't contend for a Cup any time soon. No, the team is not horrible, it might even be good. But it's not a contender.

“The profitability of the team we bought depends on its success as well, and we will do everything we can to try and win with this team,” Molson said. “We feel we have the right people in the right places to win.”

That, of course, is up for debate, but what I was most interested in trying to find out was how this multi-tentacled ownership group was going to function. The fact Geoff Molson was there alone today spoke volumes.

“The general partner of this partnership is me, and I will be the chairman of the board and the CEO of the partnership,” Molson said. “I’m also going to be the governor representing the team with the NHL and quite involved on a daily basis as the lead general partner of the partnership group.”

Molson said there is some sort of agreement in place with the partners as to how much say they will have on major decisions like taking on a big contract or trading a popular player, but he wouldn't say what that agreement consists of. So, if you happen to be worried that, for instance, one of the partners might insist on making outlandish trade and contract offers in an effort to acquire every Quebec-born player in the league, there's no way of knowing how much pull he will have in making that happen.

However, Molson strongly suggested that it will be the hockey operations department who will be making the hockey decisions, which means the chance of having a whole gaggle of meddling owners is pretty minimal. For now.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is it time to sell high?

With the excellent start to the season Tomas Plekanec has had, people are coming out of the woodwork screaming at the top of their lungs that Bob Gainey must sign him to a new contract immediately to ensure he doesn't add his name to the long list of free agents who have left town for nothing in return.

Gainey admitted that his policy of not negotiating during the season was not set in stone, and that it shifts from year to year. Seeing as Plekanec is the only significant unrestricted free agent on the team this year, I would imagine that policy might change.

But it's not some policy that will prevent Gainey from negotiating. No, it's his salary cap situation next season and the impending restricted free agency of Carey Price that will have the biggest impact on his decision-making.

As I've written before, Montreal's cap situation next year couldn't be much tighter, and the strong play of Price lately, along with Plekanec's great start, is only making it more difficult to figure out how Gainey plans on filling out his roster next season.

Let's recap quickly: Montreal has 14 players signed next season at a total cost of $45.6 million. Among those without contracts are Price, Plekanec, Glen Metropolit, Maxim Lapierre, Benoit Pouliot, Sergei Kostitsyn, Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Of those players, I think it's reasonable to believe that Mara and Bergeron likely won't be back, and as much as it kills me to say it, neither will Metropolit. Lapierre is arbitration eligible, but he doesn't have much of a leg to stand on right now, while Pouliot and Kostitsyn are not. Let's also assume (and hope) that Gainey buys out the final year of Georges Laraque's contract, which is something he should have done this past summer. Finally, let's assume the cap remains frozen at $56.8 million next season, which is a scenario that is starting to look more and more likely.

So, with Laraque's hypothetical buyout adding $1 million in cap space but also an additional roster spot to fill, the Habs should have about $12.2 million in cap room next season to sign nine or 10 players.

If Lapierre, Pouliot and Kostitsyn are all signed for about $900,000, that removes $2.7 million from that figure, leaving Gainey with another $9.5 million. If Mara and Bergeron are replaced by two guys from Hamilton, say Yannick Weber and P.K. Subban, that knocks another $1.75 million off. That would leave $7.75 million to sign Price, Plekanec, a backup goalie (assuming Jaroslav Halak is traded rather than signing another contract as a restricted free agent) and one or two more forwards to fill out the roster. If we take for granted that those role players and the backup goalie will cost about $800,000 apiece, it would leave in the neighbourhood of $5.35 million left for Price and Plekanec.

Still with me? Good, because I think it's clear to anyone who's playing attention that $5.35 million will simply not get it done in terms of signing both players, seeing as just one of them could in all likelihood command a good chunk of that extra money.

But, cap situation aside, the question needs to be asked whether or not the Canadiens are good enough to warrant this kind of extensive cap stretching, and also whether or not Plekanec is the right fit as the No. 2 (or No. 1) centre on this team moving forward.

For better or for worse - and I think it's too early to judge definitively, but it's likely for the worse - the Habs have Scott Gomez penciled in as their top line centre for the next four seasons. You can't have someone eating up $7.3 million of cap space without having him play top-line minutes.

So seeing as that is the current situation, is Plekanec the ideal second line forward? Not in my view, because his game is extremely similar to that of Gomez - small, speedy and crafty, though Plekanec has shown far more jam in his game than Gomez has. Ideally, the Habs would have a big, strong and mean second line centre to complement Gomez, but those don't grow on trees, and it doesn't appear as though Pouliot could ever become that kind of player.

The avenues for a solution to this situation are twofold, in my eyes. First is the option I floated way back in July, which would be to trade Gomez to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Vinny Lecavalier. The two players have a virtually identical cap hit (about $400K more for Lecavalier), but since Gomez's contract is front-loaded he is a far cheaper option for the cash-strapped Lightning, and Lecavalier hasn't exactly been lighting things up this season. The Lightning would save $16.5 million in real dollars over the next four years if they made this deal, not to mention that they could crawl out from under Gomez's contract six years sooner than they could with Lecavalier.

Under this scenario, re-signing Plekanec makes perfect sense because he is a different style of player than Lecavalier and therefore a better complement as a No. 2 centre, at least in my eyes. Then it would just be a question of fitting him under the cap, which would still be no easy task.

But if the Lightning don't want Gomez (or the Habs no longer want Lecavalier, or Lecavalier doesn't want to waive his no trade to come here), then I believe the next option would be to trade Plekanec at this year's deadline. His value as a player is sky high right now, and if he plays well at the Olympics - where he could be the Czech Republic's top-line centre - then it will only climb higher. The Habs could command a first-round pick and a young roster player in return that they could build around for the future, and who would be far lighter on the cap for next season.

The thought of trading Plekanec cannot be palatable to most of you, and I understand. Trust me, no one has more respect for Plekanec than I do. He works his butt off, and the old cliche of being first on the ice and last off at practice certainly applies to him. Not only that, but he was telling reporters a little while back about how he worked hard to improve the mental side of his game over the summer, and the CBC's Elliotte Friedman reports this week that Plekanec got a big pep talk from Jaromir Jagr over the summer that helped his confidence management.

I would hate to see Plekanec go, but it might be made necessary by the corner Gainey painted himself into over the summer with his free agent spending spree. And if that's not depressing enough, ask yourself what will happen when Andrei Markov's bargain of a contract is up two years from now?