Tuesday's announcement that cagey veteran Jeff Halpern agreed to a one-year deal with the Canadiens for the bargain basement price of $600,000 will cause various trickle-down effects throughout the organization.
Firstly, it essentially removes any and all drama for training camp as Bulldogs hopefuls like Max Pacioretty, Ryan White, Ben Maxwell, David Desharnais, Aaron Palushaj and others have very little chance of sticking with the big club. The Canadiens now have 23 one-way contracts, while the aforementioned players all have two-way deals.
(UPDATE, Sept 8, 10:27 a.m. Thanks to commenter Marc-Philippe for pointing out that the Habs don't have 23 one-way deals, they have 20. Lars Eller, P.K. Subban and Alexandre Picard are all on two-way deals, the former two the entry-level variety. However, I think Eller and Subban are both locks to make the team, while Picard's low cap hit gives him the inside track on a roster spot. The Habs could also choose to go with a 22-man roster and send Picard to Hamilton, which would save a lot of cap space. My bad. Carry on.)
Montreal is not so poverty-stricken that it would refuse to pay someone an NHL salary to play in Hamilton, but those guys are going to have to be far better than one of those players with one-way deals in order to make the team. It's not impossible that one of the Hamilton kids will see time in Montreal eventually, especially if injuries hit, but it's not likely to come out of camp.
Not only that, but Halpern actually saves the Canadiens about $250,000 on the cap when compared to the Bulldogs players mentioned above seeing as all of them except Desharnais make at least $850,000 in the NHL (Desharnais would make $550,000, which is basically a wash with Halpern's contract).
With Halpern signed, Pierre Gauthier has a little over $350,000 in cap space remaining if he doesn't plan on using the bonus cushion (which he obviously would rather not do). If one of the Hamilton kids had made the team, that cap space would have been at $100,000 or less.
So, in addition to adding one veteran presence to the roster, this signing gives Gauthier the ability to add another veteran at the trade deadline should the opportunity or need arise. Working in highly theoretical terms, if Gauthier still had $350,000 in cap space available at the Feb. 28, 2011 trade deadline, it would allow him to acquire a player with a $1.58 million annual salary. Having only $100,000 in cap space, on the other hand, would get Gauthier a $451,000 player, which doesn't exist seeing as that's lower than the league minimum.
There's a long list of players who risk missing the playoffs and are due to become unrestricted free agents after the season making less than $1.58 million, including Joel Ward ($1.5 million), Anton Babchuk ($1.4 million), Karlis Skrastins ($1.375 million), John Madden ($1.25 million), Curtis Glencross ($1.2 million), Marty Reasoner ($1.15 million), Todd Marchant ($1.125 million), Milan Jurcina ($1 million) and Ben Eager ($965,000), among many others. I know none of those names will make any of you jump out of your seats, but would the thought of adding Dominic Moore at the deadline have sent you into a frenzy last summer?
There's also the possibility that Gauthier could choose to use the bonus cushion if the team looks as though it will contend. That would bump the available cap space to nearly $780,000, which would allow for the acquisition of a $3.5 million player at the deadline.
But the ultimate effect, potentially, I can see from adding Jeff Halpern is getting some defensive relief for Tomas Plekanec.
With Halpern on board from the start of the year, as opposed to adding Moore just before the Olympic break last season, it's possible Jacques Martin will reduce Plekanec's workload in his own end and allow him and his linemates to concentrate their efforts at the offensive end of the ice.
Plekanec would never say this explicitly, and trust me, I tried as hard as I could to get it out of him at the end of last season, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind being freed up to save his energy for offensive shifts. Last year Plekanec started his shifts in the defensive zone more often than any other forward on the team, which severely hampers not only his ability to score, but those of his linemates as well.
Plekanec insists he has no problem with this, but I also know for a fact he gets very annoyed when his lack of production in the playoffs is brought up, as it was in the conference call following his signing a six-year, $30 million contract earlier this summer. He had two extremely difficult defensive assignments in the first two rounds of the post-season and still produced reasonably well, all things considered.
Now, if Halpern could help form a true shutdown line with, perhaps, Dustin Boyd and Travis Moen on his wings, maybe Martin would be more inclined to send those three out there in defensive zone faceoff situations than Plekanec.
Considering Plekanec spent most of his time last season playing with Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn - not exactly two of the more defensive-minded players on the team - just think of how many wasted shifts they had running around in their own end chasing the puck. Now try and think if the number of those shifts were cut in half because Halpern was taking them. Don't you think there would be some added benefit of Plekanec diverting that energy towards the other team's net? I do. It remains to be seen if Martin does as well.
Halpern could also take some of Plekanec's team-leading penalty-killing time away, further freeing some energy for offence.
It's also entirely possible that Halpern's arrival will have absolutely no effect on how Martin uses Plekanec, and that's fine as well. As I've tried to demonstrate several times here, Plekanec is one of the best two-way centres in the NHL and I see no problem with Martin using that versatility to its full potential.
But it would be at least interesting to see what Plekanec would be like offensively if he weren't so burdened with defensive responsibilities, and I think Halpern's arrival could offer a glimpse into that scenario.
I'll conclude with what I feel could be the opening night line combinations at forward. Your thoughts on the matter are always welcomed:
Cammalleri - Plekanec - Kostitsyn
Pouliot - Gomez - Gionta
Darche/Pyatt - Eller - Lapierre
Moen - Halpern - Boyd