Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The goalie price tag determines all

As I type this, there are less than 24 hours remaining until the unrestricted free agent market opens its doors wide open.

Pierre Gauthier has quite a day of negotiating ahead of him.

First on the docket is newly acquired goalie Dan Ellis, and one would think Gauthier would have all his focus on this one matter for the bulk of the day.

Ellis appeared on the NHL Network's "NHL Live" show just before 1 p.m. today and said all the right things, about how he dreamed of wearing the Habs jersey as a kid growing up in Northern Ontario, how the tradition of the franchise is appealing to him, how he's looking to play on a winning team and if that means sharing time with Carey Price, then so be it.

But it also sounded like if nothing is done by this time on July 1, then all bets are off.

"Right now Montreal is the most present situation, and like I said, I'm really excited," he said. "I hope something works out, but if not I'll have to move on."

Frankly, Ellis has to realize what the situation is here. The Canadiens are not desperate to sign him before he becomes a free agent, because as soon as that happens there will be about 10 other legitimate goalies that will also become available. That has to play into Ellis' salary demands because this is a buyer's market, and though he's a solid goaltender he is not a top-10 guy in the league.

Coming off a contract that paid him $1.75 million per year, Ellis probably can't expect to get much more than that from Montreal if there is any hope of him signing here.

He did mention on the show that he spoke to both Gauthier and head coach Jacques Martin after the trade on Tuesday, and he sounds sincerely excited about the possibility of signing with Montreal and playing in a hockey hotbed. Will that excitement translate into a bit of a discount to go to a winning situation, which he says is his priority? We'll see.

Otherwise, Gauthier is in no rush to lock up his other free agents, even Dominic Moore. It's a dangerous game, because after watching Moore in the playoffs some GM out there may want to grab him right off the bat. There won't be too many players available who will give you more bang for your buck than Moore did for the Canadiens last season.

Gauthier, however, can't address the Moore situation until his two goaltenders are locked up, whether that's Price and Ellis or Price and someone else like Martin Biron or Antero Niittymaki or whoever. I would have to imagine Gauthier is hoping his total goaltending bill will come in for less that $4 million, or basically how much he would have had to pay Jaroslav Halak alone if he'd decided to keep his playoff hero.

If he manages to do that, and I find it hard to see how he will if he hopes to sign Ellis, then he can afford to give Moore some money to come back as the third line centre and build on that chemistry we saw with Maxim Lapierre. But if the goalie bill comes in closer to $5 million, then I don't see how Moore can return.

Pierre LeBrun of reported that Marc-Andre Bergeron should be hitting the market tomorrow, which is not a shock, but still newsworthy when the agent admits as much. Otherwise, the only other UFA Gauthier needs to concern himself with is Dustin Boyd, who I doubt will be fielding a ton of phone calls tomorrow, but would still be important to lock up to avoid the possibility that Sergei Kostitsyn was traded for nothing. Well, I guess that's not so important, but still.

If Gauthier is a good boy and gets his homework done today by somehow signing Ellis, Boyd, Price and Moore, then there would be a slight chance we could see some movement by the Canadiens on other free agents who are made available tomorrow. 

But until the goaltending situation is settled, I don't think we should expect any Canada Day fireworks coming from the Habs.

UPDATE (1:27 pm) has some more quotes from Ellis' appearance on NHL Live here

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gauthier kills three birds with one stone

In trading the rights to Sergei Kostitsyn and future considerations to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday in exchange for the rights to restricted free agent centre Dustin Boyd and unrestricted free agent goalie Dan Ellis, Pierre Gauthier solved three problems at once.

Assuming, of course, he can get Ellis and Boyd to sign here.

Ellis, obviously, would be a tremendous insurance policy should Carey Price falter this season. The 30-year-old (his birthday was June 19) was 15-13-1 with the Preds last season with a .909 save percentage and 2.69 GAA, numbers that are at least competitive and at most better than Price's.

Gauthier said he would seek a good goaltender to "support" Price, and that's what he's done. It remains to be seen if Ellis is willing to accept a backup role and, consequently, backup money to come to Montreal. He made $1.8 million last year, and if he's willing to take similar money from the Canadiens then something could probably be worked out.

However, earlier Tuesday Ellis wrote on his Twitter account how excited he was for Thursday's opening of the free agent market. However he did send out a "Pretty cool" just before the trade was officially announced.

Boyd, who turns 24 on July 16, would seemingly be a perfect fit as a replacement for Glen Metropolit on the fourth line. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Boyd is no giant, but he plays the game hard and has good speed with decent hands. He was credited with 81 hits in 78 games last season in just under 11 minutes of ice time per game. Offensively, he had 11 goals and 13 assists in 60 games with the Calgary Flames and 18 games with Nashville.

So in one fell swoop, Gauthier has potentially filled the backup goalie spot, the fourth line centre spot and jettisoned the enfant terrible to Opryland.

Not a bad day's work.

UPDATE 6:36 p.m. The latest from Dan Ellis' Twitter: "Very excited about the trade! Its an honor to be part of a team with such great tradition and passion! Hope we can figure something out!"

UPDATE 9:21 pm - It appears Boyd was not given a qualifying offer by the Predators and is in fact UFA

Cap issues hinge on Price

The Canadiens salary cap situation cleared up a bit Monday when Tom Pyatt and Benoit Pouliot agreed to one-year deals for the upcoming season.

With Pyatt taking the league minimum at $500K and Pouliot getting a raise to $1.375 million, Habs GM Pierre Gauthier has about $6.9 million to play with to fill five or six roster spots. July 1 being Thursday, it's still difficult to say just how much of that money Gauthier can use on signing a new player.

Why? Because of the sticky situation that is Carey Price, the team's No. 1 netminder who remains a massive question mark and a huge gamble for Gauthier. But just how far does he take that gamble? 

Price could simply be asked to sign his qualifying offer for about $900,000 and make things easy on the team's cap situation, but that's really not the way to go here, not right after anointing the guy as your starting goalie.

But at the same time, Gauthier can't throw gobs of money at Price nor can he sign him to a long-term deal that would buy some of his free agent years without knowing just what kind of goalie he's getting. A six-year, $15 million deal may look like the biggest bargain in the league by the end of the contract, or it could be a $2.5 million burden on the Habs cap halfway through if Price never realizes his limitless potential. By the same token, a two-year, $3 million deal means Gauthier may have to pay up extremely large when Price is only 25.

Therein lies the Catch-22 Gauthier finds himself in, but as far as I'm concerned he's already hitched his wagon to Price, so he may as well go all the way. Sign Price long term in the hopes that the contract will be a blessing rather than a curse.

Gauthier's decision - and Price's willingness to accept it - will go a long way toward determining how active the Canadiens are when the free agent market opens its doors Thursday.

The $6.9 million in available cap space does not include Maxim Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn and the other restricted free agents who received qualifying offers last week. I'm going to include Lapierre at $735,000 and also Max Pacioretty at $910,000 because I feel he figures large in the Canadiens plans next season.

That gets us down to around $5.25 million in remaining cap space, with Price, his backup and three or four more forwards to sign. Will one of those forwards be Dominic Moore? If so, that's at least another $1.3 million gone, leaving just under $4 million for two goalies and at least two forwards. If those other two forwards make the league minimum, that's $3 million left for the goalies.

So you see how this remains an extremely touchy situation for Gauthier, even though he was handed a gift when the salary cap was increased to $59.4 million for next season thanks to the player's association invoking their right to lose even more money to escrow.

Then again, there is always the possibility that Gauthier can shed some salary to make room for a move or two, and while many of you may be thinking of Andrei Kostitsyn, I'm not. He's only got one more year left on a deal that does not break the bank. He's been a maddeningly streaky player who takes forever to get going, but once he does, it can be special to watch. That month he strung together when his line with Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec was among the best in the league was good enough that Gauthier should take a chance it can happen again.

But a player like Roman Hamrlik could be intriguing to certain teams, especially with the news of the cap going up. Because as the cap rises, the salary floor rises as well and every year we see some teams scrambling to make it there. Next season, the floor will be $43.4 million, and by my count there should be five teams who will need to throw some money around to make it there: Phoenix, Nashville, Anaheim, Colorado and the New York Islanders.

Two of those teams jump out at me as potential trade partners for the Habs - the Ducks and Islanders. Anaheim just lost Scott Niedermayer and the defence could use a veteran presence aside from Lubomir Visnovsky. The Islanders, meanwhile, are known territory for Hamrlik, which is important because he has a limited no trade clause until Feb. 1 and would have to approve the team he is sent to.

If Gauthier can pull a trade like this off in the couple of days, then all bets are off as to what he does on July 1. But it's not very likely to happen that way, so Gauthier will probably have one singular focus on Thursday and that's to find a backup for Price. Because depending on whether or not the Chosen One grabs the reins of this opportunity and runs with it, that free agent signing may very well make or break the Habs season.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Is this Timmins' home run?

It had better be, because it cost the Canadiens a pretty big price to move up five spots and grab hulking American defenceman Jarred Tinordi with the 22nd pick in the NHL Draft on Friday.

Clearly, Trevor Timmins felt strongly enough about Tinordi to convince Pierre Gauthier to surrender the team's second round pick at #57 to the Phoenix Coyotes to move up and grab him. In return, the Canadiens also received the 113th pick in the draft.

If Tinordi turns out to be a top-four defenceman in the NHL, the trade will most definitely be worth it because there didn't appear to be much of a chance that he would survive all the way to Montreal's original pick at #27. The Sabres took another defenceman, Mark Pysyk, right after Montreal, and it appears as though the Canucks were prepared to scuttle their deal to acquire Keith Ballard from Florida if Tinordi were still on the board at #25.

But for now, I wonder if it was really worth it to use a second round pick to move up and grab Tinordi, especially with so many other players that appear to suit the Canadiens needs still on the board. Had they stayed at #27, the Habs could have chosen hulking centres Tyler Pitlick or Brock Nelson, or could have taken a chance on John MacFarland, or even taken the speedy California kid Emerson Etem.

It's hard to say if the Canadiens made the right move or not because I've never seen any of these people play, and from the sounds of it Tinordi is a very tantalizing prospect. Already 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, he was captain of the US under-18 team that won the world championships this season and it appears he can skate pretty well for a giant.

The timing may also be just about right on this one.

Hal Gill is likely entering his final season in Montreal, ditto Roman Hamrlik and perhaps even Andrei Markov. Jaroslav Spacek has two years left on his untradeable contract. That's two thirds of the Montreal defence corps which may be turning over in the next two years, which is at least how long it will take Tinordi to make the NHL. In fact, seeing him in Montreal in three or four years is probably way more likely.

By then, the Canadiens may have P.K. Subban, Ryan O'Byrne, Yannick Weber and Mathieu Carle playing in the top-6. Having Tinordi coming down the pipes will probably be pretty comforting by then.

But now the Canadiens will not pick again until the fourth round, and that 57th overall pick could have been used to shore up the depth of Montreal's farm system, which is starting to thin out after years of being considered one of the deepest in the NHL.

Here are some links to read more on Tinordi from, TSN, Hockey's Future and Red Line Report's Kyle Woodlief in USA Today (it's about two thirds of the way down the page).

Now the focus shifts to Gauthier playing the trade market Saturday. Benoit Pouliot was the only Canadiens restricted free agent not to receive a qualifying offer from the team, a baffling move unless Pouliot is on the verge of being traded. In fact, even then it's baffling, but it does show some degree of reticence on the part of Gauthier to have Pouliot around. 

Then there's Sergei Kostitsyn, who spouted off again on the Canadiens to a Belarusian newspaper. He slammed the team for trading away Jaroslav Halak, slammed Carey Price, slammed Jacques Martin. The guy just never learns.

Gauthier says Pouliot will likely receive his qualifying offer by Monday's deadline, but if that's the case, why wait? And as far as Kostitsyn goes, I think if Gauthier is unable to trade him he'll go to the KHL.

Seeing as Gauthier won't have much to do for a lot of the day Saturday, maybe he can work on resolving these two nagging issues.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A new logo for The Daily Hab-it

Many thanks to Andy J. Smith, who used my profile photo to fashion a new logo for the site. Pretty snazzy, if you ask me.

He actually completed the illustration just as the playoffs began, and as many of you noticed, I got a little busy around that time and didn't really tend to the blog too much. Then I forgot he had done it, until reading his comments on my Plekanec post.

So thanks again Andy, and there's your work, in all its glory.

If any of you are interested in checking out some of Andy's other work, you can visit his website or his blog.

A romantic at heart

Tomas Plekanec burned the midnight oil in his native Kladno today to speak to reporters about his new six-year, $30 million contract with the Canadiens, one that includes some form of no-trade clause that the man wouldn't divulge details on.

He reiterated that his long-stated desire to remain with the Canadiens was not lip service, it was genuine. And he proved it by signing a contract that I remain convinced leaves a significant amount of money on the table, at least on a per season basis in the short term.

"It sounds cliché but it's so true," Plekanec said, "playing in Montreal is special."

A lot of the hockey media appeared pretty surprised on Twitter over the course of the day at how much money Pierre Gauthier threw at Plekanec. I understand being a bit leery about the term, but not the annual salary.

There's two reasons why, the first being Quebec's killer taxes, and the second being a free agent market short on elite forwards, let alone centres. That demand-driven market probably would have seen Plekanec getting a contract with a ridiculous amount of money attached to it, perhaps even virtually tax-free, but he wasn't interested in exploring that route.

"I wasn't thinking too much about July 1," he said. "I knew we would negotiate with Montreal first and that was my priority. I was confident I would stay in Montreal."

As for the money he may have left on the table, Plekanec said he and his agent Rick Curran had looked at the possibilities of what an open-market negotiation - or auction - would bring in. He didn't say it outright, even though I asked explicitly, but it seems like he was comfortable giving the Canadiens a bit of a hometown discount.

"My decision wasn't about the money, my decision was based on Montreal and everything I've done in eight years with Montreal," he said. "Money is obviously a big part of it, but it's not everything."

And that's what it came down to: He likes the city. He likes the coach, who clearly likes him as a player. It's the only organization he's ever known.

He said he wants to take on more of a leadership role, though I find it hard to see how he will do that. Plekanec is not a Rah Rah type personality. He leads by example and always has, even when he stunk it up two seasons ago. He's always first on the ice at practice. He always gives everything he has.

That's usually all you can ask of a player, but I suppose when you pull in $5 million a year you're expected to provide a little more. Though I know a lot of legendary players who made huge dollars, more than $5 million, who did all their leading through on-ice performance. 

Maybe Plekanec can simply continue being that type of leader, maybe he can just be comfortable in his skin as the player that he is and that he's become. Plekanec was never considered one of the Canadiens top prospects until suddenly he became one of their top players. When asked Tuesday whether he feels the contract will motivate him to improve his production, particularly in the playoffs, Plekanec defended himself. 

And he did so legitimately, not as an excuse.

"I'm a two-way player," he said. "I'm asked to play a two-way game and I'll do it. You mention the playoffs, well that was my role...I have to do everything well."

That is true to a large extent, but in order to be a true two-way threat you have to produce at both ends of the ice. Not necessarily in prolific fashion, but it should be in a somewhat consistent fashion, and that's what Plekanec needs to work on next off-season.

But that's a year away. For now, this to me is a great success story for a little-known player who has diligently made his way to the upper-echelon of two-way NHL centres, a very exclusive club that counts perhaps four or five members.

"I've worked through the system, I worked very hard in Hamilton to get noticed," he said. "Everything I've got in my career, I've deserved. I feel very proud."

That may be true, and he should feel proud for signing a contract that should ensure he and his family will never really need to work again.

But now comes the hard part. Now he has to go out and continue earning that pay cheque, continue putting his body on the line to block shots in penalty-killing situations, continue using his speed and deceptive toughness to be effective in the offensive zone. In short, he needs to do everything he did last season, but get even better at it.

It remains to be seen if he can, or if what we saw last season was the best he had to offer. 

But for now, Plekanec should just be appreciated for placing some degree of loyalty ahead of solely looking at money.

This also completes the loop of the Jaroslav Halak trade of last week, what many people felt was Armageddon, but which was really just a necessary evil to allow this signing to happen. So maybe Gauthier too needs a nod here, for making the unpopular trade that allowed this signing to take place. Because everyone who was screaming evil at Halak being traded would have been doing the same if Plekanec were allowed to walk away for nothing. 

Plekanec is back, cap situation tightens

TSN's Bob McKenzie reported that Tomas Plekanec has signed what is believed to be a six-year deal with the Habs for $30 million.

Without knowing the nuts and bolts of the deal, my first reaction is that Plekanec was a man of his word. He truly wanted to stay in Montreal and signed this contract knowing full well that he could have been paid more handsomely had he waited for July 1.

It looked to be a perfect storm for Plekanec, with the NHLPA voting Tuesday to invoke its right to apply a five per cent growth factor onto next year's salary cap, which should push it above the $59 million mark. With every team having an extra $2 million+ to play with (or at least the teams that spend to the cap), Plekanec really could have cashed in on Canada Day, especially considering he could have signed with a team that had no state taxes instead of the team with by far the most punitive income taxes in the whole NHL.

But he said he wanted to stay in Montreal, and that's what he did. It's good to know there's some honesty left in this business.

So couple that news with the earlier nugget that Mathieu Darche has re-signed for $550K on a one-year, one-way deal, and the Canadiens salary cap picture gets a lot clearer heading towards Friday's draft and the start of free agency.

According to, the Habs have 15 players under contract including Plekanec and Darche, but not including Ben Maxwell (who is on the roster on the site because he finished the season in Montreal, but is no way assured of making the team next year). Those 15 players take up about $51.5 million in cap space. (UPDATE 4:28 P.M. - The site's been updated and showed my math is wrong. Maxwell has been taken off the roster and Plekanec has been added, giving the Habs a $50.1 million payroll. When you add Darche's contract, that make's it about $50.6 million.)

Let's say we're working with a $59 million cap for now, so that would leave Pierre Gauthier with $7.5 million (UPDATE - this should read $8.4 million) to fill out seven to eight roster spots, including both goaltenders.

Let's also say Carey Price, Benoit Pouliot, Maxim Lapierre and Tom Pyatt are brought back for a total of $4 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. That leaves somewhere in the neighbourhood of $3.5 million (No, that should be $4.4 million) to sign a veteran backup goalie who will compete for playing time, plus three more forwards.

I'm going to say one of those forwards will be Max Pacioretty, and his price tag will be $910K, leaving around $2.6 million (No, more like $3.5 million) for the backup goalie and two more forwards.

Can it be done? Does that leave Gauthier enough wiggle room to be a player in free agency? Can he unload some salary in the form of Andrei Kostitsyn ($3.25 million) or Roman Hamrlik ($5.5 million)? Will he react to the arrival of Nathan Horton to the division, shoring up a Bruins attack that sorely needed it? Or will Gauthier simply allow the Habs to complete the draft and fill the roster with players from Hamilton in order to conserve some space for next year's trade deadline?

All questions that are still left to be answered in what is quickly becoming a bonanza week of hockey news. Stay tuned...

More on Timmins' slugging percentage at draft table

Robert Lefebvre at Habs Eyes on the Prize has linked to a thorough NHL-wide draft analysis done by Daoust of Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets

The impressive study has a section which examines the years 2001-2007, which precedes Timmins' arrival in 2003 but is a pretty accurate portrait of his time here. The work shows that while Montreal is among the league's best at finding players who play in the NHL, finding impact players has not been quite as successful. In those years Montreal has drafted one player that has averaged 40+ points per season: Tomas Plekanec, who has averaged 50.8 points per season over his five full years in the NHL. So the Canadiens have been very good with quantity, not so hot on quality.

Having said that, it should be noted that 11 teams did not draft a single player that has averaged 40 points per year, more than a third of the league. Also, Montreal is one of eight teams to have found only one such player in that time frame. So that's 19 out of 30 teams which drafted one or zero such players, and that only makes the Canadiens a non-elite team when it comes to finding upper-echelon talent.

I wanted to get an idea of how the quality played out on a per game basis of drafted players who made the NHL. Daoust's chart includes each team's total number of games played and total number of points for their drafted players, so using the two numbers I figured out the points per game per team. 

What I found is that Montreal's points per game is 20th in the league over the period of 2001-2007, even though the Canadiens had the sixth-best average pick over that time. Of course, Montreal only had one top-five pick in that period and used it on a goalie, and the next highest selection at #7 was used on Mike Komisarek in 2001, prior to Timmins' arrival. Montreal's points per game of .380 is below the league average of .411. Here's the full list, and please let me know if my math or methodology is wrong (I don't think you'll be shocked to see the top two).

  1. Washington - .567 points per game
  2. Pittsburgh - .545
  3. Philadelphia - .489
  4. Buffalo - .467
  5. St Louis - .462
  6. Atlanta - .460
  7. Colorado - .458
  8. New Jersey - .456
  9. Anaheim - .440
  10. Carolina - .430
  11. Vancouver - .426
  12. Los Angeles - .425
  13. Chicago - .424
  14. San Jose - .421
  15. Ottawa - .408
  16. Toronto - .3944
  17. Calgary - .3942
  18. Florida - .393
  19. Detroit - .3804
  20. MONTREAL - .3802
  21. Edmonton - .379
  22. Minnesota - .372
  23. New York Islanders - .3501
  24. New York Rangers - .3496
  25. Dallas - .3487
  26. Nashville - .3482
  27. Columbus - .347
  28. Boston - .342
  29. Phoenix - .309
  30. Tampa Bay - .198
There are some teams I'm frankly shocked to see so low. A club like Atlanta, for instance, appears to be masking a real drafting deficiency with the prolific scoring of a no-brainer pick like Ilya Kovalchuk, who has over half of the Thrashers total points from drafted players in the study (642 out 1,111). And what to say about Columbus, who has Rick Nash accounting for about 32 per cent of his team's total (422 of 1,321).

A lot of factors go into a list like this, especially first round draft position and how many defencemen and goalies were selected by each team. But I think it gives a pretty good picture of the Canadiens so-called draft success of late.

If finding players who simply play in the NHL is what you're after, the Canadiens have been among the best. But if finding players who make a difference in winning you games is your ultimate goal, then there's some improvement needed.

In other words, it's time for Timmins and the Habs to start hitting some long balls instead of line-drive singles. 

What will the week ahead bring?

By this time next week, it's entirely possible the Canadiens will be a vastly changed team. Not quite as vastly as last summer, but if Pierre Gauthier is going to make any changes, this would be the week to do it.

First and foremost is the Tomas Plekanec situation. If he remains unsigned by Friday's NHL draft, the possibility his rights will be dealt away increases enormously. I am in no way privy to what's happening in the discussions between Gauthier and Plekanec's agent Rick Curran, but I have to imagine it's like one big game of chicken right now. And the car's getting closer.

Plekanec and Curran have made no bones expressing their interest in returning to Montreal, and Gauthier has replied in kind. But to what extent is Gauthier hoping that desire to return turns into a cash savings for the Canadiens? Because Plekanec has made it pretty clear, or at the very least hinted very strongly, that he won't just accept any old contract offer so he can keep calling Montreal home.

But this is also a tricky spot for Gauthier. I think he sees in Scott Gomez what can happen when a player is overvalued in his contract year. There are other examples around the league as well - Shawn Horcoff in Edmonton, Jason Spezza in Ottawa, Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa, Tomas Vanek in Buffalo, Wade Redden and Chris Drury in New York, Daniel (Call me Danny) Briere in Philly, even Alexander Semin in Washington.

Of course, I don't expect Plekanec do get the kind of money out of Gauthier that those players received. But if he decides to go to July 1, it's not outside the realm of possibility he'll attract a $6 million a year contract.

How much of that is Plekanec willing to leave on the table in order to stay with the Canadiens? How desperate is Gauthier to have Plekanec back? Is he willing to go above $5 million a year on a long-term deal? We'll find out this week, because if it's not done by Friday I suspect it may not get done at all.  And I also suspect that Gauthier is worried about having such a large cap number pinned to a player that is very, very similar to Gomez, who is clearly here for the long haul.

But while Gauthier continues talking to Curran, and one would hope those talks will be very frequent this week, there is the NHL trade market that he will need to pay attention to. 

It hasn't been a very large sample size in terms of Gauthier's time in Montreal, but I think it's become pretty clear that he's not afraid to get the ball rolling on the trade market. He jumped the trade deadline queue prior to the Olympics by pulling the trigger on the Dominic Moore deal. It drew the ire of nearly the entire NHL when Gauthier gave up a second round draft pick for Moore, but as it turned out Gauthier got the player he wanted and a second round pick appeared to be about right in terms of value. By the time the trade deadline came and went, Gauthier did nothing else. 

Gauthier did it again with the Jaroslav Halak trade to St. Louis, preferring to get the player he wanted (Lars Eller) rather than wait and see what other teams offered. Will he do the same thing again? Is that Gauthier's only move, or will he come out with a surprise blockbuster prior to Friday's draft?

The players rumoured to be available on the trade market certainly are tantalizing. USA Today's Kevin Allen reported today on Twitter that Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien could be in play as the Hawks try to get their salary cap in order. If there was one player you could look at and say the Canadiens are sorely lacking that, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound winger with soft hands in front who can at least keep up with Patrick Kane would certainly be at the top of the list. 

Ditto Nathan Horton of the Panthers, whose agent fully expects will be traded by Friday, as he's only 25 and would fit the profile of something the Habs are missing - skilled size.

But what does Gauthier really have to bring to the trade table, now that his most attractive asset has already been shipped to St Louis? I would imagine just about any team in the NHL would love to get their hands on P.K. Subban, but I would assume he's just about untouchable. Otherwise, will anyone really give up anything of value to get one of the Kostitsyn brothers, let alone both? Who wants Roman Hamrlik, who has a limited no trade clause until Feb 1? Perhaps Ryan O'Byrne might interest someone, but is he worth more than a draft pick?

I suppose a package could be put together with all the spare parts on the Canadiens, but no GM worth his mettle will give up anything good for that, and unfortunately Mike Milbury no longer holds a management position in the NHL.

But there is one chip that Gauthier holds, and that's Andrei Markov, who has a limited no trade clause of his own. Could he be in play this week, even though he will miss the first two months of the season and is entering the final year of his contract? What kind of return would he bring?

In the case of the Blackhawks, you can forget it, because taking on Markov's salary would be counter-productive to their reason for trading Byfuglien to begin with. But how about for Horton? Would a package of Markov and Andrei Kostitsyn for Horton and a pick/player entice Dale Tallon, giving him a veteran Russian defenceman to help with the development of Dimitry Kulikov and a talented, young forward who could conceivably equal Horton's production at a lower price?

That might be fine in theory, but chances are that Tallon would likely find some more attractive options out there. And frankly, trading Markov probably shouldn't be as high on Gauthier's priority list as re-signing him to an extension. In this situation, there's no reason to believe Gauthier will get full value for Markov's talent. And if Markov's allowed to enter the regular season with no extension, his future will be a distraction all year and his status around deadline time will be one of the hottest topics in the NHL.

Gauthier said after the season that Markov's injury has no impact on the team's plans when it comes to a contract extension, though he wouldn't go so far as to say that one would be signed this summer. If one isn't signed, you can be sure it will be a topic of conversation starting at the Canadiens golf tournament right through to the trade deadline and beyond. That can't happen.

But ultimately, what is the priority this week? It's the draft in Los Angeles starting Friday night, where Montreal will have the 27th overall selection because of the NHL's wacky system of determining draft position based on a two-month tournament rather than a seven-month season.

It hasn't been a very fruitful spot to be picking in recent years. In a very unscientific look at the draft between 1999 and 2006, the 27th overall pick never played a single game in the NHL on three occasions (1999, 2002 and 2005). The pick in '05, Joe Finley by the Washington Capitals, spent last season in the ECHL and likely will never make the pros. 

Out of the eight players selected in that spot, three went on to establish themselves as NHLers: Jeff Woywitka (Philadelphia Flyers, 2001, 188 GP, currently with Dallas Stars), Jeff Tambellini (Los Angeles Kings, 2003, 180 GP, currently with New York Islanders), and Jeff Schultz (Washington Capitals, 2004, 247 GP, still with Caps). 

The 27th overall pick in 2006, Ivan Vishnevsky, was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers by the Stars last season and still could make the NHL.

While that may not be very encouraging to anyone hoping the Habs will unearth a star this Friday night, legitimate NHLers have consistently been available in and around that pick between 1999 and 2006: In 1999, Martin Havlat went 26th overall to Ottawa (and Habs scouting guru Trevor Timmins). In 2000 the end of the first round was a bounty of solid players with Brad Boyes going 24th overall to Toronto, Steve Ott 25th to Dallas, Brian Sutherby 26th to Washington, Justin Williams 28th to Los Angeles and Niklas Kronwall 29th to Detroit. In 2001 David Steckel went 30th to Los Angeles, in 2003 Corey Perry went 28th to Anaheim and Loui Eriksson went 33rd to Dallas, Mark Fistric went 28th to Dallas and Mike Green 29th to Washington in 2004, and Matt Niskanen was 28th to Dallas in 2005 with Steve Downie also going 29th to Philadelphia.

So the pressure is on Timmins and his vastly reduced amateur scouting staff to unearth a future player from the 27th spot on Friday night. Timmins has received his share of criticism over some of his first round picks, and a good chunk of his past home runs are now playing for other teams (Mark Streit, Jaroslav Halak, Guillaume Latendresse, Sergei Kostitsyn...oops, jumped the gun on that one).

Subban has a chance to be the best player to come out of the 2007 draft not named Kane and Max Pacioretty should not be written off just yet. But I still feel the heat will start on Timmins soon if he doesn't start to find some impact players, because only six members of the team that were dressed in the final game of the playoffs were drafted under his watch (Andrei Kostitsyn, Halak, Subban, Lapierre, O'Byrne and Carey Price). Only one of those could be described as a true impact player.

I'm not sure if I'm being unduly harsh, but that doesn't seem to be a strong percentage after seven years on the job.

Friday, June 18, 2010

For what it's worth

I know a lot of you don't want to hear this right now. You don't want to know anything other than how the Habs are doomed because Pierre Gauthier foolishly traded Jaroslav Halak away for, in the words of the esteemed Justin Trudeau, "two hockey sticks and a bag of magic beans."

But I just wanted to give my take on the guy Gauthier chose to keep, the one who will be your starting goaltender in the fall, whether you like it or not.

Carey Price has undergone an incredible transformation in the past 13-odd months, at least in my eyes. Think back to the petulant kid who was pulling his Patrick Roy impression as he received mock cheers from the Bell Centre "faithful" for making a routine stop in the final game of a sweep at the hands of the hated Boston Bruins. That night, Bob Gainey warned those fans - or "bullies" as he called them - to be careful who they booed out of town.

The next day, as player after player was fed to the Montreal media for what would be the last time for many of them, Price was the big story. He was the one everyone wanted to talk to. Gainey came out and famously referred to Price as a "thoroughbred" in defending his decision to stick with him throughout the playoffs. 

Ultimately, Price didn't come out for what we reporters call a "scrum," he had a press conference all to himself, broadcast live to Habs nation. A ball cap pulled down near his eyes, Price was barely audible as he tried to explain his feelings, tried to say how badly it hurt to be made the scapegoat for a season that spiraled out of control, attempted to convince people he still wanted to be in Montreal.

But despite his greatest efforts, Price came off as a spoiled, pouty kid that day. His public image was never lower, and the theory was born that he will never, ever succeed in the pressure cooker that is Montreal.

A year later, at the same getaway day event after the Canadiens elimination from the Eastern Conference final, a ride that was orchestrated by his fellow goalie Halak, there was no press conference organized for Price. His media availability was not broadcast live to the nation. He was not wearing a baseball cap.

Price spoke for the better part of 45 minutes to wave after wave of reporters and did it with a smile on his face. He talked one hell of a game. He was candid about the infamous incident with Andrei Markov following, ironically enough, an overtime loss to Halak's new team, the St Louis Blues. He said that was a wake up call that came about a year too late. He admitted that starting in the all-star game, being on the cover of ESPN Magazine, being anointed the goalie of the future for the most glorious brand in professional hockey got to his head. He felt he'd made it, and he "plateaued," as he called it.

While he was busy plateauing, Halak was busy working. Working to continue proving his value, and working to pass Price on the Habs depth chart. When Markov called him out for what was perceived to be a soft goal in overtime and for his work ethic in general, Price said it clicked.

"When I was sitting on the bench there was a decision that I made, if things weren't going to work out it wasn't going to be from a lack of effort," Price said about a million times that day. "I put a lot of effort into the last two months as far as being supportive and just working hard in general."

I remember talking to Price for a long while in Washington after practice prior to Game 2. My story that day was on Halak and his ascension to these heights, but of course, Halak wasn't available to speak to reporters. So I spoke to Price about Halak. You would think it would be an awkward conversation, but it surprisingly wasn't at all, simply because Price was so comfortable in his skin and with the situation. But the one thing that was abundantly clear in that conversation was that Price's comfort level with the situation had an expiry date.

But still, his attitude was refreshing because this was the same guy who often threw his teammates under the bus following a bad game, particularly doing so on the ice when he felt his defencemen let him down. Price had some help in changing that ugly side of his personality, particularly from Hal Gill. Renaud Lavoie of RDS wrote a great little profile on Gill just before the playoffs, or just before writing nice little profiles on Gill became mandatory for the entire working hockey media. In it, he talks about how Gill pulled Price aside and explained to him that for all the times his defencemen made him look bad, there were just as many times that his defencemen made him look good as well.

It was just one example of the continued growth of Carey Price, a maturing process I felt I saw first hand in how he dealt with being knocked down a peg, something he probably needed. And you know what? How many of us at the age of 22 didn't have some growing up to  do? I know I did.

So you can count me among what appears to be a minority of people who believes that Price has the mental fortitude to survive in this market. Actually, I believe he will thrive here.

Why? Because I, like Gainey, feel he's a pretty good goalie who's trying to find his way. On top of his athleticism and his much, much improved physical conditioning, I feel Price is a goalie who has a style and stature that will stand the test of time. When he's on top of things pucks just hit him and he makes very difficult saves look unspectacular. He hasn't been like that in some time, but I'm convinced he will be again.

Also, Price's large frame will not be prone to the whims of the NHL competition committee. Remember back when Jose Theodore was really good? When he was winning Hart and Vezina Trophies? Then, suddenly, he wasn't. Coincidentally, that coincided with the season where the NHL first cracked down on goalie equipment, something the league is seemingly going to do again next season

A fellow reporter pointed out to me during the playoffs that a crackdown like this could hurt Halak in a big way. At only 5-foot-10, Halak's pads come up to about his mid thigh, so when he's in his butterfly the excess padding helps to cover his 5-hole. If that excess is taken away, will Halak's game suffer? Possibly, and possibly not. But it would probably affect Price a lot less than it will Halak.

But really, I have very little doubt that Halak will be a huge success in St. Louis, because even if the equipment thing throws him for a loop I'm confident he'll just work that much harder to get past it and adjust. That's just what he does. 

But no matter what anybody says or thinks - myself included - absolutely no one has any idea what Price will be two years from now, let alone four or five years down the road.

I think he'll be great, probably better than Halak. But he might not. I just feel Price should be given a chance to at least go down that road before he's placed before the jury.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Everyone breathe deeply

I know that on the face of it, today's trade of Jaroslav Halak to the St Louis Blues looks like a total ripoff. But if you go a little deeper underneath the surface, you'll see that Pierre Gauthier was not dealing from a position of strength.

Only two weeks from today, a bevy of goalies were going to be made available in unrestricted free agency. None of those goalies would cost a prospective team needing a starter anything in terms of players. And Halak's salary will probably rival what's given to guys like Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco et al.

Gauthier said today that the "majority of teams have established goalies" and their own personal evaluation made it clear that Halak was going to cost the team too much money. Carey Price, on the other hand, can be given a qualifying offer of less that $1 million.

But Gauthier also wanted to make it as clear as possible that this was a "big picture" trade, that he and the organization felt that Price will mature into a top-end goalie in the coming years, perhaps as soon as next season. I would have to agree with him, but it's admittedly a big risk. Price still has a question mark next to him, and Halak doesn't, or at least not nearly as big of one.

But how come Halak, practically single-handedly responsible for the Habs trip to the Eastern Conference final, could only warrant two prospects in return? Gauthier made it pretty clear the interest was limited.

"We listened to all the possibilities that were presented to us by teams that were seriously interested, and we made the best trade available to us," he said. "And we're very happy with the trade we made with the players we got in return."

Some might say Gauthier can't say anything else, and it's true we'll have to take his word. But with the goalie market about to be flooded, I can see where he was coming from. My initial reaction was why Gauthier didn't wait until the draft, when teams suddenly get a little more desperate and might be willing to give up a little more. Here's what he had to say on that.

"We had a good idea of what the market would bear as soon as we started talking with interested teams," he said. "We can't leave a good trade on the table waiting for something we knew would never come."

Blues president John Davidson and new GM Doug Armstrong seemed pretty pleased with themselves in speaking to reporters today, and why shouldn't they be? They removed no one from their roster and added the hottest young goalie in the league. But Davidson said it was a very difficult decision to let Eller go and that he will be very exciting for fans in Montreal.

"But we had to give to get," he said.

Again, what else is he supposed to say? But I think this trade will need some time before it can be fully evaluated. First, how much will Halak get from the Blues? Second, how well will he play for St. Louis? Will Carey Price be able to shoulder the load, now and in the future? Which free agent goalie will Gauthier pick up to be his back up? Will Eller make the Canadiens this season?

That's a lot of questions, some of which won't be answered for years. But right now, Gauthier has put himself on the hot seat by making a very difficult call, one that has the fan base frothing mad. For that, he should probably be applauded.

Halak is gone

Pierre Gauthier has made his first big move as Canadiens GM by trading Jarsolav Halak to the St Louis Blues for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.

Eller played seven games in the NHL last year, Schultz played the whole season in junior with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen even though he's 20 years old.

This could very well be a PR disaster for the Canadiens because they are not getting an established NHL player in return. But in pure hockey terms, Gauthier must have really believed in Eller's potential. And that had better be some potential that is about to be realized, like in the first two weeks of the season, because the pressure on Eller to perform will be monstrous.

But one thing that can't be ignored is that Halak is a free agent, a restricted one, but a free agent nonetheless. It's not that easy to trade an unsigned goalie that is looking at getting a pretty monstrous raise this season. You need a team with cap space and a team with a deep stable of prospects.

So now the Carey Price era will begin in earnest. I have always been for this move, I just thought Halak would fetch more than this on the trade market. Gauthier is on a conference call at 4:15, will check back here after that.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Boucher waves goodbye

Only hours after it appeared that maybe Guy Boucher would indeed remain in the Canadiens family he so glowingly spoke about last Thursday, it appears the talented young coach is going to be joining Steve Yzerman, Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay.'s Martin Leclerc reported late Monday night that Boucher is indeed taking Yzerman's offer to become his first coaching hire. And it's a mighty good one, I might add.

I personally felt like the fit may be better in Columbus, but obviously Boucher disagreed. He's got two young, rising stars to build around in Stamkos and Victor Hedman and highly skilled veterans to help him sell his message, assuming they buy into it. Of course, no one I've ever spoken to who has played for Boucher has ever said a single bad thing about him, so I don't see why guys like St. Louis and Lecavalier would not jump on board. 

Frankly, it doesn't particularly matter why Boucher decided to choose Tampa Bay over Columbus, not when it comes to the Canadiens. All that matters is that the hottest coaching talent in hockey just left the organization.

But really, what were the Canadiens supposed to do? The only way Boucher would be coaching in Montreal right now would be if Bob Gainey had hired him right out of junior last summer, and bringing in a rookie coach was exactly what he didn't want to do after firing Guy Carbonneau. Experience was the number one criteria for that coaching hire (aside from that pesky language thing, of course) so Gainey was not about to hand the job to yet another rookie, even though it seemed pretty obvious back then that Boucher was destined for the NHL. Still, Gainey might very well have been roasted for hiring another coach with no experience to come and learn (read: fail) in Montreal so he could succeed elsewhere.

So Gainey went with Jacques Martin, and to lure him out of Florida he threw big money and a cushy four-year contract at him as well (which, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie, is what Yzerman is throwing at Boucher). That contract, and the fact Martin just led an injury-riddled team into the playoffs for a near-magical ride to the conference final made it so there was really no way to justify a coaching change in Montreal at this time.

And unfortunately for the Canadiens, the time to make Boucher coach was now.

I've heard a lot of people say that Boucher will be able to come back after gaining experience elsewhere, so that for once the Canadiens are not the league's coaching farm system. But I don't think Boucher will be the coach in Montreal any time soon because he's going to build something pretty great with Yzerman in Tampa Bay. It's just a feeling I have, just like I did about Claude Julien, but it's one I didn't have about Michel Therrien or Alain Vigneault. As it turns out, all three of them went on to become more than competent NHL coaches after learning the job in Montreal. 

I think it could be quite a while before we see Boucher out of a job and available at a time when the Canadiens need a head coach.  But I can assure you of one thing: should the Habs get off to a slow start and the Lightning rockets out of the gates, the heat will be on Pierre Gauthier and Martin like never before.

That's just the nature of the beast in this city.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Hab at heart

No, I'm not saying that because I feel that Guy Boucher has some insane level of undying loyalty to the Canadiens that he would turn down an NHL job in the hopes of one day coaching in Montreal.

I'm saying that because he managed to speak to reporters today for a full hour without giving the slightest clue as to what he would he do should the opportunity to grab an NHL job arise.

Boucher is a smart man, that's hardly breaking news. But after listening to him speak at length today about the rumours and innuendo swirling around him regarding a potential job in Columbus or elsewhere, I came away even more impressed with Boucher than I already was.

Here's the story I wrote today on Boucher's future and also a little bit of what makes him successful as a coach, but really, that only probably scratches the surface.

Just hearing P.K. Subban talk about the Bulldogs as his family made me understand what kind of a mastermind Boucher is when it comes to dealing with people. But today, he provided several other examples.

My colleague and good buddy from La Presse Marc-Antoine Godin asked Boucher today why he wasn't on the ice with the Canadiens prospects at the ongoing development camp in Brossard. Here's what he said:

"From above it lets me takes notes. All the scouts are there, they're the ones that know these guys, and if I'm on the ice I can't ask them questions immediately. I'm not going to skate around with a notebook so I can write down my questions to ask them later. I prefer being up there to ask my questions, and I filled out a whole notebook on each player. It lets me gather some information before having them with me next year so I'm ahead of the game. I have an approach that is individual, and that takes information on each individual. This allows me to do that."

If you had seen the drills these guys were doing, you would be wondering like I was how Boucher managed to fill out notebooks on each player. But that answer, that approach, shows Boucher is a coach of men. He doesn't coach a team, he coaches men and makes them into a team based on the individual needs of each man. This guy, clearly, understands what makes players tick. Or at least, that is Boucher's priority, not X's and O's and systems and whatnot.

That's not to say Boucher leaves tactics aside, because he's also a progressive thinker on that front, but he wants to make absolutely certain he knows everything possible about the players he will be asking to give their all for him and the team. That is new school coaching, and something I think today's player really needs.

The Canadiens are in an impossible situation when it comes to Boucher. Pierre Gauthier has made it clear the team will not stand in his way if an NHL team comes calling, which is exactly the same approach every other team in the league would take. You don't want to be known as an organization that holds coaches back, so anyone hoping the Habs would force Boucher to honour his multi-year contract can forget it.

But his loss would be a great one, simply because Montreal's young prospects are being exposed to his approach, and it's something they will carry with them forever whether Boucher is here or not. Another season of that kind of influence would mean a great deal to the organization.

I asked Philippe Lefebvre - the undrafted prospect from the Drummondville Voltigeurs that got a tryout with the Canadiens last year thanks in large part to Boucher and earned himself a pro contract - to describe the uniqueness of playing under such a cerebral coach.

"It's tough to say," Lefebvre said. "It's an experience you have to go through to understand."

That answer told me that Lefebvre was deeply impacted by coming into contact with Boucher, and whether or not he ever gets a chance to play for him again I got the impression that his contact with Boucher will stay with him forever.

Boucher dropped a bunch of hints that he's enjoying his time with the Canadiens, and he's also on record saying that someone needs to spend a lot of time in the trenches in order to make sure they are prepared for the future. He's the type of guy I could see saying to himself that perhaps he needs to experience a season in the AHL where everything doesn't turn out so well, where he doesn't win coach of the year and his team finishes with the second best record in the league and comes within a game of the Calder Cup. That maybe he needs to fail and recover at that level before moving on.

But I have trouble believing a man who has Boucher's self-confidence - and it's oozing off of him - would turn down a shot at an NHL job.

If indeed he is offered the job in Columbus, Boucher would have a team with a superstar offensive talent, some young pieces around him up front to support him, and a young goalie that still shows a ton of promise despite a rough sophomore season. He'd have a suspect defence, but that would be the only downside.

You could do worse for a first gig, because usually when you're hired as an NHL coach it's because the team is not succeeding. The new coach in Atlanta, for instance, will be walking into a situation where he is bound to fail. But Columbus has the potential to succeed even though this past season was atrocious. 

If I were him, I'd take it. But I'm not him, and he might not.