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.