Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A peek into the Salary Cap crystal ball

Though Carey Price remains unsigned, the Canadiens salary cap situation this season appears pretty clear. And while there isn't a ton of room to spare, Pierre Gauthier should have some money left in the kitty to acquire some help at the trade deadline should he see fit.

But what about next year? Will the Canadiens be in any position to do some free agency shopping next summer? Will the situation become more flexible? Probably not.

Bob Gainey and Gauthier's spree last summer will still hamper the club next season, with Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Jaroslav Spacek taking up over $22 million between them. Add in Tomas Plekanec and Price (assuming he signs a deal for two or more years), and you may be looking at upwards of $30 million tied up in six players. Travis Moen ($1.5 million), Lars Eller ($1.27 million, including bonuses) and P.K. Subban ($875,000) are the only other players under contract for 2011-12.

If the cap for the 2011-12 remains relatively stable, the Canadiens will likely have about $25 million to fill out the remaining 13 or 14 spots on the roster, again depending on what happens with Price's contract. 

A sizeable chunk of that money will likely be earmarked for Andrei Markov, assuming he's still around after the trade deadline. An extremely conservative estimate would have Markov re-signing for an average of $6 million a year, though I believe he could get considerably more on the open market.

But while Markov is the one who will likely get most of the attention, there's another defenceman on the roster who may present an equally difficult conundrum for Gauthier.

Josh Gorges will be a restricted free agent after this season, one of four Habs rearguards with expiring contracts (Roman Hamrlik and Hal Gill are the others). I highly doubt Hamrlik and Gill will be brought back, but I have to believe Gorges has been identified as a member of the core group that needs to be locked up long term.

Gorges just turned 26 on Aug. 14 and last spring established himself as a key penalty killer and shutdown defenceman for the Habs. Last year's playoffs provided a league-wide showcase for Gorges as he was matched up against the two most dangerous players in the world in the first two rounds and shone.

Over the past two seasons Gorges has missed only one game, tying for the team lead in games played both years. Durability is definitely worth something. As far as his penalty killing is concerned, he and Gill were the only two Montreal defencemen among the regular top six who gave up fewer power play goals against when they were on the ice as the team gave up when they were off the ice. 

For those who may think that penalty killing prowess was largely due to playing with Gill, consider that Gorges allowed the fewest goals against per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time on the team in 2008-09. In fact, his on-ice/off-ice difference in power play goals against per 60 minutes was 3.43 two years ago, and dipped to 0.33 playing with Gill this past season.

But his skill-set and potential for continued growth makes Gorges a difficult player to price, since his value is not measured in goals and assists, but rather the complicated, headache-inducing stats I referred to earlier.

Looking around the league for similar type players, I found three potential comparables for Gorges who all suggest it may cost the Canadiens more than they're willing to spend to retain him. They are Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers (26 years old, forms top shutdown pairing with Marc Staal), Jeff Schultz of the Washington Capitals (24 years old, team's top defensive player) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the San Jose Sharks (23 years old, same as above).

Gorges will be older than all three of these players when his contract expires, but in terms of games played he's in the ballpark with all of them (Gorges - 328 GP, Girardi - 280 GP, Schultz - 247 GP, and Vlasic - 309 GP). All three of these players were signed to four-year contracts hovering around $3 million per year. Vlasic is entering the second year of his $3.1 million per year deal, while both Schultz ($2.75 million a year) and Girardi ($3.25 million) each signed their contracts this summer. You could add Nicklas Hjalmarsson's four-year deal at $3.5 million per to the list as well, though that came as a result of an offer sheet.

Speaking of which, if Gorges' contract negotiations are handled the way Price's have been, could he be open to an offer sheet himself?

If indeed Gorges gets a deal worth about $3 million, and Markov somehow signs for a $6 million cap hit, that would theoretically leave about $16 million to sign four defencemen, seven forwards and a backup goalie. This is when you have to hope players on entry level deals produce big, guys like Eller and Subban this year and eventually Louis Leblanc, Danny Kristo, Alexander Avtsin and others.

Because even though Hamrlik, Gill and probably Andrei Kostitsyn will come off the books to free up nearly $11 million after this season, it doesn't look as though the Canadiens will get any cap relief for quite some time. 

Other tidbits:

- CBC News reporter Michel Godbout caused a bit of a stir on Twitter today when he tweeted that Price plans to hold out unless he gets $3 million a year out of Gauthier. That led Quebecor's crack staff over at the QMI News Agency to write up a whole story based on a tweet. Brilliant. Later, RDS put out a story that Price's agent Gerry Johansson feels negotiations have progressed, but there is a long way to go (Uhh, Gerry? Training camp is a little over two weeks away. How long are we talking about here?). Frankly, I have little doubt that Price wants $3 million a year, but I have huge doubts that he would holdout. Or as Godbout put it, "strike."

- RDS also reported on Monday that Markov has begun skating on his own, which is an encouraging sign that perhaps his agent Don Meehan wasn't blowing hot air when he said his client may in fact be back in time for the start of the season. Basically, any time Markov returns before the calendar turns to November would have to be considered a miracle, so this news may make Markov's orthopedic surgeon a candidate for sainthood.

- Finally, my buddy Eric Engels made his case for why the Habs should reach out to Bill Guerin as a free agent. I can't say I disagree, assuming Guerin is willing to play for $1 million. He'd be a great addition to the team even if he's lost a step (you don't have to be particularly quick to play on the power play). He'd add some insurance against the strong likelihood that either Kostitsyn or Benoit Pouliot - or both - will not live up to their top-6 forward billing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Will past be prologue?

I would say it's pretty likely. In fact, there's not much about the Pierre Gauthier regime to suggest much has changed since Bob Gainey was in charge, including the fact that Gainey himself remains on staff as an advisor/consultant/puppet master to Gauthier.

One of the defining philosophies of the Gainey era was a reluctance to negotiate new contracts with free agents until the very last, possible moment, by which point it was often too late. The guiding principle applied to just about every impending free agent who played under Gainey.

At the end of last season, after all the players had made their rounds through the media and not long after Andrei Markov told us his priority this summer was to rehab from knee surgery and not necessarily think about a new contract, I asked Gauthier whether or not the injury would affect his plans of negotiating a contract extension with his best player.

"Not at all," Gauthier said. "We know he's a good player."

Of course, nowhere in that answer did Gauthier actually say that he planned on opening negotiations for an extension with Markov, and when pressed further on it, Gauthier clammed up. Would you expect any different? I didn't, but I had to try.

So here we are, three months later, and my buddy Jean-Francois Chaumont of Radio-Canada is reporting that Markov's agent Don Meehan has not received an invitation to the negotiating table from Gauthier. 

Shocking? Hardly.

But one would think the Canadiens will have learned from their past errors and would want to eliminate this potential distraction before it gathers steam. Gainey admitted it became one two years ago when half the team had their contracts up for renewal, and last season it dogged Tomas Plekanec as he found himself among the league's scoring leaders and proved to be the team's most durable and consistent forward.

Meehan told Chaumont that Gauthier wants to wait for the right moment to start negotiations for Markov. I would suggest that moment is right now.

If Markov is around for training camp - and Meehan suggests it's not out of the question that he will be recovered in time for the season opener - then does anyone honestly believe his contract status will not become THE story of the pre-season? Aside from the possibility that certain pockets of the media might start pushing for Louis Leblanc to make the team, this would be the number one talking point of camp.

On the other hand, the argument could be made that players care little about what the media talk about or what fans stress about, but precedent would suggest that if Markov remains unsigned by the start of the season then anything is possible with regards to his future in Montreal.

Markov could be a jewel of the 2011 free agent, one that will potentially include the likes of Joe Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Brad Richards, Patrice Bergeron and Tomas Kaberle, not to mention restricted free agents like Jeff Carter and Shea Weber.

Markov will be 32 on July 1, 2011, which may seem old but compared to other defencemen of his stature actually isn't. If I'm Meehan, or Markov for that matter, I'm pushing for a five-year contract in the $30 to $35 million range.

And that's where things get dicey for Gauthier. Does he want to commit that kind of money to a player who has had two major injuries in the past 10 months? Or one who will represent a $6 to $7 million cap hit at age 37? Or does he want upwards of $30 million in cap space tied up in only five players? Then there's the matter of the collective bargaining agreement expiring next September, a moment that appears to be the start of phase two of the NHL's attempt to mask its business deficiencies by further weakening the players in their "partnership" with the league. (UPDATE Aug 30, 2010 - Sorry, but I screwed up the expiry of the CBA, which is in September of 2012 and not next year. Still, it remains a factor to consider when signing Markov to an extension).

With all these factors to consider, perhaps it's wise on Gauthier's part to at least see how Markov recovers from this latest knee surgery before entering into negotiations. The problem is that with impending free agency comes trade speculation, especially as the deadline begins to approach, and even more especially if the Canadiens are struggling in the standings come February.

The thought of trading Markov away for what always amounts to prospects and/or draft picks at the deadline is probably revolting to most Habs fans, and rightfully so. Markov is without a doubt the best draft pick the Canadiens have made in the last 20 years, a player who developed here and has grown to love the city and his team. Being jettisoned as a rental is no way for that service history to come to an end, particularly when you consider how Saku Koivu departed here.

But besides sentimentality, Markov remains a top-end NHL defenceman who would undoubtedly garner tons of interest should he be allowed to hit the open market while still in the prime of his career.

The last time he was a free agent, Markov agreed to a contract after the season but prior to July 1. It was a deal that many people believed was somewhat outlandish at the time, but which now represents one of the best bargains in the NHL. Will that same scenario play itself out again in spite of all the warning signs Gauthier is facing?

I'm not sure, but it's looking more and more like we're going to find out, for better or for worse.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beyond comprehension

I was busy covering the Rogers Cup tennis tournament this evening when word began filtering its way through the press box that the Canadiens had traded away AHL All-Star goalie Cedrick Desjardins to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Karri Ramo.

Once I got past the initial feelings of disbelief, it was confusion that took over my thoughts as I tried to figure why - in the same summer you traded away perhaps the finest young goalie in the league, let alone the organization - you would immediately trade another promising young goalie for a castaway who has been relegated to KHL duty?

Several hours later, and I'm still wondering the same thing.

Ramo is reportedly under contract for one more year with Omsk and therefore will not be anywhere near Montreal this season. Desjardins, meanwhile, may get a chance to start in Tampa Bay sometime in the near future if Dan Ellis and Mike Smith falter. But frankly, if ever Carey Price doesn't find his game this season Desjardins might very well have been playing in Montreal this year as well.

Admittedly not a likely scenario, but a possible one nonetheless. Now, if Price were to get injured and Alex Auld proved inadequate as a full-time starter, what do the Canadiens do? Turn the reins to Curtis Sanford? Robert Mayer, for God's sakes?

I'm too tired to go into this in great detail right now, but frankly even if I weren't I'm not sure I'd have much more to add. 

The move is, in a word, baffling.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A philosophical change?

It's hard to know for sure, but with the last two Canadiens first round draft picks foregoing the colege route in favour of junior hockey over the past couple of weeks, one has to wonder whether or not Pierre Gauthier and the organization as a whole has decided to push its prospects in this direction.

We'll never know to what extent Gauthier pressured Louis Leblanc to leave Harvard for the Montreal Juniors or Jarred Tinordi to do the same to Notre-Dame in favour of the London Knights, but I would find it difficult to believe the Canadiens did not at least slightly nudge the two of them towards junior hockey.

That would be a pretty major philosophical shift, one that may have began when Max Pacioretty left the University of Michigan after his freshman year to sign with the Habs. Ironically enough, that's a case where leaving the player in school may have ultimately been the right call.

From an organizational viewpoint, the collegiate option looks like it has the best of both worlds. You have four years to evaluate a player before signing him to a professional contract, thereby slowing the free agency clock, but also delaying that player's arrival in Montreal. The case of David Fischer shows how a team can sometimes benefit from this, because the Canadiens didn't have to pay a dime to determine he is not NHL material (though he still may make it with another team).

Since the 2007 draft, or the year after Trevor Timmins went completely off the board to nab Fischer with the 20th overall pick, the Canadiens have used 13 of their 27 draft picks on players who were either in or heading to college. Of those, eight were selected in the third round or later. Of the remaining five who were selected in the top two rounds, Ryan McDonagh (12th overall, 2007) was traded and just signed his first pro contract with the Rangers, Pacioretty (22nd overall, 2007) is entering his third year in the pros, Danny Kristo (56th overall, 2008) is playing his second and possibly final season at North Dakota, Leblanc (18th overall, 2009) is playing with the Juniors and Tinordi (22nd overall, 2010) is heading to London.

So basically, three of the four first round picks since 2007 played two seasons of college hockey combined, and the other was traded.

Previously, both Mike Komisarek and Christopher Higgins played two years apiece in college before making the jump, while Ryan O'Byrne played three years at Cornell.

Again, I can't say for sure whether or not this is true, but it appears to me the Canadiens no longer want their top end prospects learning the game at the collegiate level. Which begs the question, why do they keep using their best picks on players they know are planning on attending college?

Monday, August 2, 2010

The coach, the goalie and the Next One

I know I promised this quite some time ago, but I went ahead and got caught up in summer laziness. So here, without further ado, are a few thoughts on what's been going on with the Habs of late. Consider it making up for lost time.

Validation for Martin

It's rare that I agree with anything Michel Bergeron says, but I actually did agree with his take on the hiring of Randy Cunneyworth as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs. OK, agree may be a bit too strong of a word. But a few things become clear with this decision by Pierre Gauthier, and the most important one is that the hiring was a big show of support for Jacques Martin.

As Bergeron mentions, the Canadiens have a unique dynamic when hiring a coach for their minor league affiliate because they need to continue grooming potential coaches to take over the big club. Like it or not, the Canadiens are drawing from a limited pool of coaching options because they must hire someone who can express himself in both official languages. In that sense, Cunneyworth is extremely unlikely to get promoted within the organization unless he goes out and signs up for French lessons.

When Guy Boucher was in Hamilton, there was grumbling among a large sector of the fan base to get him in Montreal as quickly as possible even though Martin had been on the job for less than one year. Much like many people didn't want Gauthier to get a French-Canadian back-up for Carey Price (assuming he's ever signed, more on that later) to avoid potential language-based controversies, hiring Cunneyworth to coach the Bulldogs takes a potential source of heat off of Martin.

Cunneyworth is a very capable coach who, having played for Martin in Ottawa, will know how to prepare players for the strict (some would say stifling) regime that awaits them in Montreal.

But Martin will no longer have to be looking over his shoulder at who's coming up from behind, because the No. 2 in the organization is simply not qualified to take the main gig.

Still, I feel Martin will have a heavy burden this season to show that he actually had a role to play in the Habs tremendous run through the playoffs last season. It's been too readily accepted that Jaroslav Halak was the one and only reason the Canadiens made the Eastern Conference final, but I believe Martin deserves some of the credit.

Just when it looked like he was repeating the same mistakes that made him a playoff bust in Ottawa - refusing to shorten his bench, losing match-up battles - Martin took his game up a notch. Down 3-1 to the Washington Capitals, Martin took it to his counterpart Bruce Boudreau and won the battle. Yes, Halak was outstanding, but there was a game plan surrounding him, one that worked to unlikely success for two playoff rounds.

Now Martin has to prove he can shape another game plan around Price and with the other pieces he's been given. He's adding P.K. Subban for an entire season, will Martin give him the liberty to express his offensive flair and creativity? Will Lars Eller be allowed to make mistakes as a rookie and play through them, or will he find himself on the bench for long stretches like Benoit Pouliot? Will Martin be able to coax something, anything, out of Andrei Kostitsyn on a consistent basis, especially now that the distraction of his little brother is gone? Will he be able to absorb the loss of Andrei Markov for the first couple of months now that it isn't coinciding with Martin having to learn about all his players for the first time?

These are all questions that Martin needs to answer this season, but he will do so secure in the knowledge there's no one in Hamilton knocking on the door looking to steal his job.

It's getting dicey with Price

Clearly, Carey Price's agent Gerry Johansson is trying to play a little hardball with the Habs, likely trying to squeeze a bit more term and money out of Gauthier. But I think Gauthier knows that ultimately, Price will have to come crawling to him and accept whatever he's offering. Will he really want to holdout when half the fan base (if not more) already resents the fact he was retained and Halak was shipped out of town?

When Gauthier last discussed the negotiations with Price, he went out of his way to mention that he is a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights. In other words, all the leverage is on the Canadiens side. The only recourse available to Price to put a little pressure on the other side is to hold out and leave Gauthier to ponder to possibility of starting the season with Alex Auld as his starting goaltender.

It really wouldn't be the smartest course of action for Price, especially if he wants to avoid the headache of getting his own fans off his back while he tries to re-establish himself as one of the league's most promising young goalies. But on the other hand, Gauthier might be wise not to be too vicious in his negotiating either, because if this is the goalie of the future any bad blood will wind up costing the team in the future.

The Blackhawks walked away from their Stanley Cup-winner today after Antti Niemi was awarded a $2.75 million contract by an arbiter. Niemi becomes an unrestricted free agent as a result, but this really has very little impact on what eventually happens to Price. Niemi is 26, Price is 22. Niemi has won a Stanley Cup, Price was won a series in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And finally, Niemi is a UFA, Price is an RFA with no arbitration rights, as Gauthier so menacingly pointed out.

And for anyone who thinks the Habs will sign Niemi and trade away Price, stop it right now. Too much time and heartache has been invested in Price at this point for the team to cut its losses. Say what you will about how he was handled, and we can see now that Price was probably rushed to the NHL, but he is not a hopeless case. The Habs need to see if he can recover and continue his development. In fact, they don't really have much of a choice because they can still come out of this investment a winner if Price blossoms as he should. To see that happen in another uniform would be simply too painful.

Leblanc sees the light

While working on a story for The Gazette on education in the QMJHL I found myself in the Montreal Juniors offices a couple of weeks ago, and the decision facing Louis Leblanc was obviously a hot topic for team president Martin Routhier. Juniors GM and head coach Pascal Vincent gave up a lot to get Leblanc's rights from Chicoutimi, former first round pick Guillaume Asselin and the team's first-rounder in 2011 (though that draft pick and another would have come back to Montreal if Leblanc decided not to leave Harvard). Routhier was adamant that the best place for Leblanc was playing with the Juniors if he hoped to have a career in the NHL.

It appears Leblanc and his agent Pat Brisson (who no longer has to be referred to as an adviser) agreed with Routhier's assessment. And frankly, so do I. Leblanc was not playing enough hockey at Harvard, and considering the talent on that team I have no idea why they did so poorly last season. Playing with the Juniors (assuming the Canadiens don't assign Leblanc to Hamilton, which would be shocking) will give Leblanc a better chance to make the Canadian junior team because he'll arrive on the same footing as everyone else. Last year Leblanc had to write an exam during the final selection camp in Regina. This year he should have no such problems, even though he would likely be taking a few courses at McGill while playing for the Juniors.

But ultimately, it will speed up Leblanc's hockey development and give him the best chance to make the Canadiens within the next two or three years. Plus, if ever hockey doesn't work out, he can always return to Harvard and finish his degree later.

It's a win-win situation for Leblanc, and a promising sign for the Canadiens.

Moore signs for a pittance

For the first time in his professional hockey career, Dominic Moore signed a two-year contract with the Tamps Bay Lightning at a very reasonable price tag of $1.1 million per season. He proved to be a valuable player in the playoffs, and at 30 years of age (as of Tuesday) still has some good hockey left in him.

I still fail to understand why he wasn't brought back to Montreal, especially at a price that is $250,000 lower than what Pouliot will pull in this season. Let's hope Maxim Lapierre continues his performance from last season's playoffs, but I got the impression that Moore played a big role in Lapierre's resurgence.

Koivu hails Markov as captain material

Speaking from Finland to Richard Labbe of La Presse, Saku Koivu feels Markov would make a fine Montreal Canadiens captain. I've been on record as saying that Markov was my original choice to fill that role, and Markov himself said he hadn't been asked and wouldn't necessarily say no if he was.

There's been a bit of a manufactured controversy lately on whether or not Markov should learn French, an issue that haunted Koivu through the latter part of his record run as Canadiens captain. But really, I don't know if that will play into Martin's final decision, because it is clearly his decision to make.

After last season's playoffs I shifted my opinion on this, and I now feel Brian Gionta is the man for the job. As far as "lead by example" leadership is concerned, Gionta is the perfect candidate because his effort level never drops on the ice, and only goes higher when the situation warrants it. In the dressing room, he is just as good as Koivu was at saying a lot to reporters without saying a whole lot. The team definitely likes that about him. 

Timmins on thin ice?   

The Canadiens hiring of former New York Islanders assistant GM and head of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski as an amateur scout has to be a source of mild concern for Canadiens director of player recruitment and development Trevor Timmins.

Gauthier's decision to revamp Timmins' scouting staff was the first sign that his reign as the Canadiens draft guru could be coming to an end, and Jankowski's arrival could be another sign.

Then again, it could mean absolutely nothing. With Subban set to make his mark with the team this year and other Timmins draft picks like Alexander Avtsin and Leblanc coming down the pipe, maybe the Canadiens will be able to unearth an impact player from the large number of solid-yet-unspectacular players he has drafted over the years.

Speaking of which, 2010 first-rounder Jarred Tinordi (who cost the Canadiens their second-rounder as well) was cut today from the US Junior team's selection camp roster, meaning he will have no opportunity to try out for the team that will compete in Buffalo at Christmas time. Not a very good sign, especially when Brock Nelson, a big centre that would have been available at the Canadiens original slot of 27th overall, will be attending the camp.

Governance lessons from Toronto? 

Very quickly on this one, but I don't see where Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie gets off telling Geoffrey Molson he's making a big mistake by taking over from Pierre Boivin as president of his own team. 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Leafs are not exactly a model of governance in professional sports. I see his point, that Boivin is a good man and did a great job as president of the team, and also that owning a team while serving as president can be problematic. But I'm not sure a team that had been mired by meddlesome ownership prior to the arrival of Brian Burke should be giving out advice on how other owners should handle their own teams. Just my two cents.