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.


Sliver24 said...

I think you're on to something when you say that Gauthier wants to see how Markov looks after his injuries but you forgot one thing: Subban.

If P.K. shows he can do a reasonable job of filling Markov's role on D, at least offensively, that at least makes Markov less necessary, if not expendable.

Trading Markov at the deadline will undoubtedly bring a healthy return of prospects and/or young players, which is something the Habs desperately need more of, if only because of the hefty contracts they're carrying in the top-six forwards.

After this season Hamrlik will come off the books, as will Hal Gill. All of a sudden there's a whole lot of wiggle room when it comes to the cap, and - as you rightly pointed out - a whole lot of talent available on the open market.

Kamal Panesar said...

I think that whether Gauthier decides to trade or keep Markov will have a little bit to do with how he recovers from injury, but more to do with how the team fares this season.

I agree with you, Arpon, in that the Gautheir regime does not—at least not so far—seem very different from the Gainey one.

And, at the end of the day, that is a crying shame. If there is one thing that Gainey showed over the last few years of his tenure, it is that he is a GM who manages teams as if they were operating in a pre-cap world.

The league has changed, the teams have changed, and the players have changed. Yet, the Habs keep reaching back in time to the likes of Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier.

Sadly, this team will not get markedly better until Gauthier et al. rethinks their strategies or are fired.

kyleroussel said...

Gauthier so far hasn't been much different than Gainey...but he hasn't had to be. He made changes to the 3rd and 4th lines, and took the bullet for Gainey by trading Halak. It's nearly impossible to judge Gauthier's work as Habs GM to this point, but Price's signing, and Markov will be 2 of the defining factors. Lars Eller is another defining factor, but it will be years before we see how that turns out.

As for Markov's future, I wrote a piece on this very topic exactly 2 weeks ago...if you have the time, I'd love for you to check it out:

I know it feels like spam to drop a link like that, and I apologize, but if we're going to have this conversation, there's a good chunk of fan opinion already in place.

MathMan said...

The problem with trading Markov away is always the same: the moment this is done, the Habs' #1 most-pressing-need is for a top-end #1 D-man, and those guys are rare. So rare that team unload their rosters to get one. They don't just trade them away. Without a guy of this caliber, frankly, the Habs don't have much of a shot at being even competitive.

Subban isn't ready to do that now, and probably won't be for at least 3 to 5 years... if ever (heresy!).

I think it's wise for Gauthier to see how Markov recovers from his latest injury before he negotiates, but re-signing him should be a no-brainer unless the organization's plan changes to a middle-term rebuild.

kyleroussel said...

@Mathman - I agree with you - bringing back Markov should be a no brainer unless he's clearly slowed by his accumulating injuries, or if he's simply asking too much money/term. Gauthier won't have a ton of money to play with next season.

My biggest point of contention is that Gauthier have a deal in place before the deadline. If it gets to the point where no deal is in place, can Gauthier gamble that he'd be able to retain Markov in free agency? Can he take the risk of having Markov walk away for nothing? No way.

He needs to be signed before the deadline, or he needs to begin feeling out the market. He won't necessarily have to move him if the return stinks, but at least do your homework and know what Markov is worth.

James said...

If we agree that Markov is probably worth around 7M per year, and we agree that the Habs can't really afford a 7M cap hit for the next 5-6 years, then the only realistic way he stays is through one of those loophole contracts.
Offer him 42 millions, on 8 years, structured like this: 7,6M per year for 5 years, then 2M in the 6th year, than 1M for the last 2 years. Average cap hit is 5,25M, lower than his current salary. He'd still get a nice pay bump and considering his injury history it's rather unlikely he'll still be playing and producing at 37 years old.

With the Kovalchuk situation the NHL has showed that contract length is their main point of contention with this deals, so taking Markov to 40 should be reasonable enough - it is well known that D play longer than forwards.

As for whether the team should keep Markov or not, well to me that's a no brainer. Sure it's better to be sure he's fully recovered from his injury but truthfully, this kind of player is nearly irreplaceable. And Subban, as of now, is nowhere near being the player Markov is. As MathMan says, he won't be in the foreseeable future either... even if he does develop into a true legitimate #1 D, where's the hurt in having 2? Philly does and they are considered having one of the deepest D in the NHL. I wouldn't mind the Habs being in a similar situation!
If Markov is outperforming a 5,25M contract because the Habs exploit this loophole, they can retain Subban on his ELC and then through his first RFA years also on an outperforming contract and we'd be very set on D for several years.

Now, back down from my cloud... of course the thought of signing one of these 'cap-circumventing' contracts would never even cross Gauthier's mind.

pfhabs said...

@Arpon & Kamal:

-gentlemen not sure why you thought a Gauthier regime would be vastly different from a Gainey regime

1. didn't Bob say that the Ghost was the only man he trusted to turn the GM role over to ? he sees Gauthier as possessing many of the same traits and attributes as a GM

2. hasn't Gauthier been Gainey's assistant GM and Head of Pro scouting for the last 7 years ?

3. Bob had/has a management philosophy of delegating and then relying heavily on his managers' recommendations whether that be in amateur drafting or pro player evaluation/acquisition/release

4. Gauthier is largely responsible for the acquisition of guys like Ninnimma, Traverse, Abeschier, Johnson, Laraque, Mara, Gomez, Spacek, Gill; allowing Souray, Streit, Komisarek, Koivu, Moore, Metro to walk or not assessing players like Beauchemin as fit to play

5. in my view what we've had for 7 going into 8 years is as much Gauthier's team as it was Gainey's team

-I'm not surprised that there is very little to choose from between the two but surprised that others thought that there would be a significant difference

-further the whole organizational thought process has been exacerbated by the employment of Martin and Pearn who were disciples of Gauthier in Ottawa

-going forward I do not expect a major shift in thinking/actions. so if Molson wants a change I think that Kamal's second option is the only one that will achieve that change

-simply put en francais 'il doit etre merci et bonsoir' or in english 'don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out'

Arpon Basu said...

A few belated reactions here:

@sliver: The Subban factor is definitely a big one, but I believe his presence on the team gives Gauthier even more reason to bring Markov back. I can't think of a better mentor for someone with Subban's skill set than Markov, and having him to learn from will only make Subban a better player.

@Kamal and pfhabs: The main point of the piece was less about the seamless transition from the Gainey to Gauthier regime (if that can even be considered a transition at all) and more about how Gauthier should proceed with Markov. But I think Gauthier showed with the Plekanec negotiation that he's at least willing to talk to his core players during the season, and it ultimately led to a contract being signed. It's a good sign in this instance, but that's assuming Gauthier sees Markov as a key player that he needs to have at any cost. That was what I was trying to explore here.

@Kyle: Just read your piece and I'm sorry I missed it prior to writing this. Would have saved me some work, because I could have just posted your link. I agree with much of what you said, as you can probably tell. Nice work.

@MathMan: You're right, a No. 1 d-man is vital for any team to succeed. But can this team compete with Markov, Pleks, Cammy, Gomez and Gionta surrounded by complementary pieces? Because that's all they would be able to afford if Markov gets what he's worth.

Finally, @James: The idea of front-loading a deal for Markov to age 40 is definitely not a bad one, particularly since that loophole is likely to be closed in the next CBA. I'd have to think the Markov camp would go for this, but I also think Gauthier might prefer ripping out his own eyeballs before signing a 32-year-old to an eight-year deal.

Patrick Moss said...

I don't get the big fuss here. Markov is already being paid $5.75 million. Even if he gets paid $6 - $6.5million on a new deal, that is not such a huge change from what is already going on. And even if you take into account Josh Gorges' $2million raise (so lets say between Gorges and Markov there is a raise of $3 million), the contracts of Roman Hamrlik and Hall Gill come off the books this year (almost $8 million dollars). So that's a cap GAIN of $5million to sign two extra d-men (assuming O'Byrne doesn't take one of those spots). Spacek's $3.87 comes off the year after that (if he isn't traded first). To say nothing of AK-46's $3.3 million deal.

The money is certainly there if the will is there.

Bottom line: Unless the Habs decide to undergo a wholesale rebuild, how can they afford NOT to sign Markov?

Ricky said...

Personally, I don't want Gauthier to sign Markov until we see how he's recovered and performing, after coming back from this injury. As much as I like Markov and as integral as he is to the Habs offence/defence, we can't ignore the fact that he's had three major injuries since April 2009. For a guy who was relatively injury free for the early parts of his career, he's recently been going through a Koivu-esque period of getting hurt too easily. If I'm Gauthier, this would severely weigh on my mind before handing out big money and long term on Markov's next contract. There's still a lot of time to play with so there's no rush in getting him signed immediately. Wait and see how he performs and then work on a contract or trade. Gauthier is in full control here. If Gauthier decides to go the trade route, we have to remember that Markov has a no-trade clause until Feb 1, 2011. A clause that allows him to specify seven teams in each conference where he would accept a trade to.

Patrick Moss said...

Ricky -

Of course Gauthier should exercise caution regarding Markov's injury status and ability to compete. But let's remember, the injuries suffered by Markov were freak accidents, and thankfully, unrelated. But the fact remains, Markov is more important to this team than any other skater currently on the roster. In fact, he is the only Top-50 type player on the roster. As soon as he leaves (if he leaves), the Habs would have to go out and find someone to replace him. And, let's also not forget, aging players like Gonchar and Lidstrom are still proving their worth, season after season, despite being 4-7 years older than Markov.

Even if Gauthier decides he can't keep Markov because of his injuries, it still leaves a gaping hole in the lineup. And the only way it makes sense not to re-sign Markov would be if Gauthier decides on a whole-sale rebuild, or if he knows someone who can step in and fill Markov's role.

DM said...

I think the new DH-I logo is awesome.

Milos Coko said...

I really like the front-loading idea with Markov's case. At 32 years old he's at an age where it's not really circumventing the CBA all that much, and depending on how the Kovalchuk saga unfolds I think you could get away with tacking more than 8 years on there. However, all this should be pending how Markov recovers. Knee injuries have a way of changing players significantly - even more so at Markov's age.

pmk said...

ARPON : "You're right, a No. 1 d-man is vital for any team to succeed. But can this team compete with Markov, Pleks, Cammy, Gomez and Gionta surrounded by complementary pieces?"

re: I do think the habs can compete with this core (eventually) We have a number of good pieces (eller, p.k. leblanc, kristo, pacioretty, avtsin, tinordi) that are 2- 4 years from making a serious impact. When these players start making serious contributions to the line up that is when I believe the habs will become actual contenders. like it or not we are in a mini rebuild right now. Of course I just hope we didn't trade the wrong goalie...

Arpon Basu said...

Good point pmk. Problem is that some of those young core guys will also come off their entry level deals in that 2-4 year time frame. If Subban keeps developing the way he has, he'll be in for a big pay day. And if Price plays to his potential his pay day will come as well. But you're right in the sense that the Habs need production from guys on entry level contracts in the next few years, starting with Eller and Subban this season.

pierre said...

The resulted benefits gained when Markov is on the ice are knowned to all and I am excited at the prospect of seeing those same benefits getting extented now that Subban will get to add its own ice time on top of Markov's own....... adding without substracting is key here if we are to start this new decade with an improved puck moving D squad fully able to exploit the forward's speed and talents of the team.

As consequences of having Markov and Subban making up for one third of our D corps I would expect our evenstrengh game to improved over any of the previous editions we've seen here since the lockout........ better transition game, better puck support, more goals.

Our next step will be taken when our talented prospects will be joining in our third line to bolster the scoring depth of our team..... yet it could happen before that if some of our present depth players surprise us.

Hopefully Gauthier can tap in from the saving attached to signing a player before 35 into his retirement years..... it would help and might even be crucial for a scenario close to what has been described here and in these posts to unfold and make sens cap wise.