Sunday, July 25, 2010

New commenting rules

This is just a quick note to say I've switched the settings that allowed just anyone to comment on the blog. You now need to sign in via OpenID in order to post a comment, just so you'll be identified to all the other readers when you spout off your opinion on what I wrote.

I really hope this doesn't discourage people to comment on the site. I love it when something I write provokes long, drawn out debates/discussions. But I find that taking part in such a debate with four or five different anonymous users can be aggravating. OpenID is very easy to use, and will work if you're a member of basically any website in the world (Google, Yahoo!, Hotmail, Facebook etc...).

Anyhow, let me know if you run into any problems with the new system, and if you refuse to sign in you can contact me via e-mail by clicking on my profile link on the right hand side of the page.

I am working on (which means thinking about, which means procrastinating) something about Jacques Martin that I hope to have posted very soon.  

Monday, July 19, 2010

Call me an apologist

I wouldn't blame you if you did. For the amount of times I've used this space to defend Carey Price in the face of seemingly undeniable evidence that he is ever so obviously destined to be a bust, it could seem like I'm on Price's payroll.

But I'm not. Trust me.

However, from time to time I read things that inspire me to try and interject a little dose of perspective on things. Today, it happened twice.

The first was Richard Labbe's piece in La Presse where he claims an enormous number of hockey people have told him Price does not have the mental makeup to succeed in Montreal. This is a theory that has gained pretty widespread approval, though I'm not quite sure why. Because the kid likes to party? Because he's shown his frustration from time to time?

I'm not sure what kind of person it takes to succeed in Montreal. Yes, people love hockey here. Yes, people have high standards here. But do the Nashville Predators as an organization tolerate losing more than the Canadiens do? Don't all athletes making millions of dollars have an inherent pressure to perform? I suppose a player for the Canadiens needs to enjoy that "spice" of Montreal, as Bob Gainey put it, but I refuse to believe it takes someone with superhuman powers to overcome the pressure from the fans and media here.

Then, refreshingly, I was reading a blog post from Robert L of Habs Eyes on the Prize on how fans need to cut Price some slack, how he's going through the same growing pains everyone does, how he shouldn't be branded for the rest of his career just because of a few transgressions early on. It was refreshing.

But then I read a comment in response to the blog, and it led me right back on this path to writing in the wee hours of the morning about just what Price has accomplished thus far, no matter what people may perceive or think.

I know everyone has heard the comparisons of where Price stands with some of the greats of the game in terms of his age and what he's done. I'm also aware it gets tiresome. But the reason it is brought up so often is because it needs to be said.

Here are Price's career numbers at age 22 (he turns 23 on August 16):
134 GP, 60-48-18, 2.73 GAA, .912 SP

Here are the career numbers of some of the league's other top goalies at the same age, in no particular order:

Martin Brodeur - 91 GP, 48-23-14, 2.45 GAA, .909 SP
Roberto Luongo - 129 GP, 35-57-12, 2.74, .915
Ryan Miller - 15 GP, 6-8-1, 2.63, .902
Tomas Vokoun - 38 GP, 12-18-4, 3.04, .905
Cam Ward - 88 GP, 44-29-8, 3.12, .892
Marc-Andre Fleury - 138 GP, 57-57-17, 3.10, .901

The list is a short one (it is by no means exhaustive) largely because many of the best goalies in the NHL today hadn't even made the NHL at age 22. They include Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco, Jonas Hiller, Pekka Rinne, Dan Ellis and many, many others.

The point here is clear, that Price has gained a lot of valuable experience before many goalies even made the league, and among those who did Price measures up pretty darn well.

Some might respond that bringing Price to the NHL so early was a mistake, and it's a fair argument to make. Gainey never hid the fact his management, or mis-management, of Price was based on his desire to get the goalie this experience that will serve him well in the future. Gainey did so seemingly to the detriment of the team, and definitely to the detriment of Jaroslav Halak.

But in Boston we see a perfect comparison to Price, the one that took the more conventional route of learning in the minors and paying his dues before earning his starter's position. Tuukka Rask just completed his first full season in the NHL, even though he's five months older than Price, and he was dominant. You see a 22-12-5 record with a 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage and you say, "See? Price should have waited." Except who knows how Rask will respond to being the clear starter? Does anyone have any idea how he reacts to adversity? Has his head gotten used to being heaped with praise?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. I would say that the most valuable "experience" Price has gained came this season when he was knocked down a peg and saw his own mortality, for lack of a better term. He said it himself after the season that he got a wake up call watching Halak take his job and realized that he had stopped improving. Of course, talk is easy. Now that talk needs to be put into action.

Except while everyone is hoping Price shows a miraculously dramatic improvement this coming season, the fact is he doesn't have that far to go.

Yes, his won-loss record was atrocious at 13-20-5, and for whatever reason the Canadiens became a horrible team whenever Price was manning the net. A lot of people have some cockamamie explanations for why that was the case, like, for instance, Price didn't work as hard as Halak so his teammates didn't work for him. But his won-loss record needs to be looked at in the proper perspective.

The goalie stats at Behind the Net show that Price was really put behind the eight ball by his teammates more often than not. For starters, Price received just about the worst offensive support in the NHL among goalies who played at least 20 games. Only three goalies - Brian Boucher, Tim Thomas and Chris Osgood - were on the ice for fewer 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes of ice time than Price's 1.87. Now, it's not as if the Habs were lighting it up for Halak seeing as he's at 2.30, but still, that's better than 19 other goalies. Price's goal support was better than only three.

When a team is leading, especially the Jacques Martin-coached Canadiens, they have a tendency to shore up defensively. When you're trailing, or even tied, risks need to be taken and that subjects your goalie to higher quality scoring opportunities. It's true that Price appeared to rarely bail his teammates out when those chances came, but it's also true he saw an inordinate number of them.

The biggest statistical difference between Price and Halak came on the penalty kill. Price allowed over a full goal more than Halak for every 60 minutes they each played while down a man. Price was at 5.99 goals against per 60 shorthanded minutes, while Halak was at 4.96. But even here, there's an odd discrepancy to how their teammates played in front of each goalie. Price spent 5.87 minutes on the penalty kill for every 60 minutes of ice time, while Halak was only at 5.37 shorthanded minutes. 

While half a minute doesn't explain the wide gap in goals against, consider that Price's shorthanded minutes were seventh highest among goalies that played 20 games, yet his goals against was only 26th highest among that same subset. Halak, meanwhile, was 25th in the league in terms of shorthanded minutes and 42nd highest in goals against (or 12th best, depending on your perspective).

I don't profess to know why the Canadiens were such a wildly different team with Price in goal, nor am I able to figure out in any concrete way how many wins the lack of goal support and increased penalty-killing time may have cost him.

But I do know that Price will only be 23 when training camp begins, and while he has a lot to prove, he also has a lot to be proud of. In closing, I ask you this: Do you think Columbus fans should give up on Steve Mason just because he had a poor second season in the NHL at age 21?

Didn't think so.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gauthier vindicated by Koivu deal?

While spending much of the last season trying to figure out a price point for Tomas Plekanec as he put up crazy numbers while serving as one of the league's top penalty killers, I always figured Minnesota's Mikko Koivu would be a pretty strong comparable.

Except Koivu was still a ways away from his date with unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2011, so the lone remaining player - at least in my eyes - was Vancouver's Ryan Kesler. And as it turned out, Plekanec got the exact same six-year, $30 million contract Kesler did.

But then the Wild went and blew the doors off both of those deals by signing Koivu to a seven-year, $47.25 million contract on Thursday night, a whopping $6.75 million cap hit for a player who has never topped his output of 22 goals and 71 points of the past season.

Mike Gillis must be really smiling these days, because of the three players mentioned here he has the one with the most upside. Kesler is the youngest of the three at 25, he had the best numbers of the three with 25 goals and 75 points, and he has the most size of the three (granted, by only two pounds over Koivu) at 6-foot-2, 202 pounds.

But in light of what Koivu just received, I would think Pierre Gauthier has to be pretty happy with himself for locking up Plekanec at $5 million a season.

The Minnesota Star Tribune's Michael Russo reported in the immediate aftermath of breaking Koivu's contract signing that both he and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher agreed that Koivu could fetch $7 million a season on the open market next summer. 

With the CBA entering it's final season in 2011 and Donald Fehr about to take over the reins of the player's union, I'm not entirely sure Koivu could have fetched that much in that environment of uncertainty. But his value, in my eyes, is not far from that neighbourhood, maybe one or two blocks away.

So if that's the case, where would Plekanec's value had been on the open market, or Kesler's for that matter? Definitely north of $5 million a season, despite the cries of shock and dismay coming from some corners of the hockey media like HNIC's Elliotte Friedman and the Globe and Mail's James Mirtle, just to name a couple.

When a follower on Twitter mentioned to Russo just after he broke the Koivu signing that Plekanec was as good if not better than him, Russo's response was, "Give me a break man. I just coughed up a lung." ESPN's EJ Hradek quickly backed him up by writing, "Mikko Koivu much better than Tomas Plekanec...Period."

Oh really? Much better? Why exactly? 

Here's what the straight numbers say:

Mikko Koivu
Age 27
Regular Season
362 GP - 79G - 176A - 255pts - plus-10 - 0.70 ppg

11GP - 5G - 1A - 6pts - minus-1 - 0.55 ppg

Tomas Plekanec
Age 27
Regular Season
393 GP - 103G - 151A - 254pts - plus-25 - 0.65 ppg

40GP - 8G - 16A - 24pts - minus-8 - 0.60 ppg

Pretty similar, wouldn't you say? But when dealing with all-around players like these, the normal statistics don't really suffice. Which is why we're lucky we live in an age where you can delve a little deeper into a player's value to a team.

For instance, both Koivu and Plekanec are their respective team's primary penalty killers at the centre position, with Koivu logging 2:10 in SH ice time per game last season and Plekanec playing 2:44 per game. The advanced statistics found at the exhaustive web site of Gabe Desjardins Behind the Net show that when Plekanec was on the ice in a penalty kill situation, his team was better off than if he wasn't. Whereas when Koivu was on the ice, his team had a worse plus/minus than when he was on the bench.

A lot of factors can go into a stat like that, namely the strength of your goalie, your fellow penalty killers and also the efficiency of the first power play units in the two conferences. But stats are stats, and they do paint a picture, as limited as that picture may be.

Some other hockeymetric aficionados count on the Corsi rating to serve as the ultimate judge of a player's value. In basic terms, the Corsi rating counts how many shot attempts (which counts shots on goal, shots that were blocked and shots that missed the net) your team has versus the attempts of the opposing team while you are on the ice. To that you can add the Relative Corsi rating, which compares a player's on-ice rating to when he is off the ice. In this category, Koivu wins big with a plus-12.5, while Plekanec is at minus-2.3.

Of course, a lot of factors go into that number as well, such as how strong (or weak) the other lines are on your team, how good your linemates are and how often you face the opposing team's best defenders.

To figure things like that out, Desjardins blesses us with quality of competition and quality of teammates stats, and in both these areas we see that Plekanec faced tougher opponents with weaker teammates than Koivu did, all the while producing at a near equal rate all season. 

Plekanec's quality of competition rating last season was 0.069, which sounds minuscule but is actually quite high. In fact, among NHL centres who played at least 20 games, Plekanec ranked 16th in quality of competition. Koivu, meanwhile, ranked 90th among centres with a 0.007 rating. Inversely, Plekanec had a quality of teammates rating of 0.166, while Koivu's was 0.205. Yet, in spite of this apparent disadvantage for Plekanec, he produced 2.07 points per 60 minutes of ice time, just a shade underneath Koivu's 2.09 points.

However, the whole point of this exercise - which I hope has not given you a headache - is not to slag Koivu or the Wild for handing him that contract. In fact, I commend Fletcher for locking up a core player who is just entering his prime, has improved his point per game totals  in each of his five seasons and who has a unique skill set in the NHL. As a big, young, strong player who covers every inch of the ice and would have been entering a contract year, he probably deserves the money and could very well have gotten it on the open market (though, again, I doubt it just because of the labour circumstances).

I just feel it needs to be reiterated how good the Plekanec contract really is when compared to Koivu's and that, as unbelievable as it may sound, $5 million a year for one of the rare do-it-all centres in the NHL is very fair, if not a bargain. Even though I didn't think so a few months ago.

I also wanted to touch briefly on some of the other Habs news to emerge Thursday, led by the apparent candidacy of Julien Brisebois to become Steve Yzerman's assistant in Tampa Bay. The Canadiens resident capologist, Brisebois was a busy boy as the Canadiens had to walk a tightrope all season to give them the wiggle room that allowed them to add Dominic Moore prior to the Olympic break.

Losing him would hurt, especially since Gauthier has never before been the head man in a cap world until now. Brisebois has an encyclopedic knowledge of the CBA. Whenever I had a question about some convoluted process such as Long Term Injury Relief or bonus overage or anything like that, Brisebois always had a quick answer that he could shoot off the top of his head. It was impressive, even though he could have been totally pulling my leg and I wouldn't have known the difference.

But as painful as a potential Brisebois departure would be, I don't know if a capologist is impossible to replace, especially seeing as RDS is reporting Gauthier already has someone in mind.

Alexander Avtsin also signed a three-year entry-level contract with the team Thursday, which makes his desire to play in North America official. I would have to think he will be bound for Hamilton eventually, but it adds some depth in an area where the team really needs some - scoring wingers with size. If Andrei Kostitsyn or Benoit Pouliot don't work out and are shipped out of here at season's end, what's in the cupboard? Max Pacioretty and not a whole lot else. The tantalizing potential of Avtsin, who was prolific as a junior in Russia, could prove to a be a wild card down the road, or maybe even as soon as this season. Kind of like Sergei Kostit... Oh, never mind.

And finally, congratulations goes out to Andrei Markov, who will officially become a Canadian citizen on Friday. I guess he finally figured that since half his pay cheque goes to the government, may as well be a citizen, right?

Can't say I blame him.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lapierre latest one-year wonder, expect Price to follow

In spite of a pretty remarkable playoff run, Maxim Lapierre still has a lot to prove.

Is he that motor-mouthed ball of energy we saw in the playoffs, or the passive, non-forechecking softy we saw in the regular season?

Lapierre revealed late in the regular season when his play began picking up that a lingering foot injury is what caused his performance to dip, and that once that had gone away, he was able to play his own game again.

Of course, that's a pretty easy crutch to throw out there as a reason, but you can only do that when you are once again an effective member of the team, which he clearly was in the playoffs.

The lasting image for me of Lapierre's post-season came late in Game 7 of the first round, chasing Capitals "defenceman" Mike Green for a puck deep in Washington territory and distracting him enough to allow Dominic Moore to swoop in, grab the puck and score far side on Semyon Varlamov. That would turn out to be the winning goal of the series and allowed the Habs to continue a magical spring ride that sent emotions sky high in Montreal and also put millions in pure profits in the team coffers.

So, like many of the decisions he's been forced to make this off-season, Pierre Gauthier had to decide which Lapierre he was signing to a new contract. Was it the one that clearly got under his opponents' skin to great effectiveness in the playoffs, the one that used his speed to force turnovers on the forecheck, the one that was very often one of the best Canadiens forwards on the ice? Or was it the Lapierre that spent most of the season peeling away from finishing his hits on the forecheck, that didn't look the least bit fast and didn't appear to have any impact on the outcome of a game?

It appears that Gauthier decided that he didn't want to decide.

Giving Lapierre a one-year deal for $900,000 tells me that Gauthier doesn't buy his post-season performance, that he wants to see it for 82-plus games before giving him a long-term deal that would keep him in his hometown for the foreseeable future.

Now it's up to Lapierre to go out and prove that last season's lethargy really was injury-related and that he is in fact the guy we saw in the playoffs and especially two years ago, when he was often times the lone shining light in what was a dismal season.

With Lapierre signed the Canadiens cap situation becomes even more clear, and it also explains what is taking Gauthier so long to sign Carey Price. According to the Canadiens have $4.7 million of cap space remaining, except that doesn't count Price's contract plus those of the Hamilton players who will make the team this year. Also, it does count the $425,000 in bonus money included in Lars Eller's contract, and I'm sure the Canadiens would rather not use the bonus overage if it can be avoided.

So, if we take for granted that there will be two players from Hamilton that will make the team this year and they will cost no more than $900,000 each, plus if we remove the overage for Eller's bonuses, that leaves around $2.5 million to get Price signed and leave a little wiggle room for the upcoming season.

That amount of cap space essentially rules out the possibility of getting Price locked up long term because Gauthier can't offer an average salary greater than $2 million per year. Considering the Canadiens have essentially handed the No. 1 job to Price and the team has no other viable options, it's hard to imagine Price accepting so little on a multi-year deal. If he were signed prior to the Jaroslav Halak trade, then maybe something could have been worked out, but not now.

So, like Lapierre, it looks as though it will be up to Price to prove himself this year and earn himself a big contract, because I'd be stunned to see either side agreeing to each other's terms on a long-term marriage.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Are these your Montreal Canadiens?

Pierre Gauthier met with the media Tuesday to say very little, but the one revelation he did provide was that the team will not be extending a contract offer to Dominic Moore and that, for all intents and purposes, his team is set going into next season.

Of course, Carey Price and Maxim Lapierre still need to be signed, but once that is done Gauthier wants to make sure there will be spots remaining for some young (read: cheap) players to fill out the bottom six forwards.

The Canadiens, not including the potential bonus overage for Lars Eller's contract, have just about $5.2 million in salary cap space with Price and Lapierre still to sign, and with the contracts of one or two Hamilton players to add.

That really shouldn't be too big of a squeeze for Gauthier to manage, but what might this team look like, and are you comfortable with it? Because it appears Gauthier is.

Here's how I see a healthy Habs team lining up in the fall (or early winter, if you will, when Andrei Markov is ready to play).

Line 1A - Benoit Pouliot - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta
Line 1B - Michael Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Line 3 - Maxim Lapierre - Lars Eller - Travis Moen
Line 4 - Tom Pyatt - Dustin Boyd - Mathieu Darche

Knocking on the door: Max Pacioretty, Ryan White, David Desharnais, Brock Trotter

Defence pairing 1 - Andrei Markov - P.K. Subban
Defence pairing 2 - Roman Hamrlik - Jaroslav Spacek
Defence pairing 3 - Hal Gill - Josh Gorges

Odd man out - Ryan O'Byrne

I don't know about you, but considering the injury-riddled season the Canadiens just went through, and the maddeningly inconsistent season both Kostitsyn and Pouliot had, would you not rather have Moore on board to serve as some measure of insurance and depth? To at least know that the third line is set? That it can build on what happened in the playoffs? I would.

Gauthier said the realities of the cap and youngsters pushing for lineup spots made signing Moore and the team's other UFA's impossible. Sorry, don't buy it. If Gauthier wanted to have Moore back he could have, unless his salary demands are completely outrageous. 

But how can they be? Moore is not an idiot. He saw himself skating at his alma mater Harvard when the season began last year. He knows he's never scored more than 13 goals in a season. He knows there's not a whole lot of money available out there when even Ilya Kovalchuk's contract demands can't be met.

So Gauthier could have negotiated with Moore if he chose to do so, but he didn't. Unless, of course, today's news that he wouldn't be signed is simply another part of the negotiation. But I doubt that.

So Moore is gone and I feel that's a mistake, though I can admit it's probably not a critical one.

Meanwhile, with Tuesday's signing of Sergei Kostitsyn by the Nashville Predators, it looks as though no compensatory draft picks will be changing hands between the Habs and Preds. This article on the Predators website spells out the conditions attached to that trade, and it appears as though draft picks would only be tacked on if any of the three players involved failed to sign an NHL contract with any NHL team

So, because Dan Ellis, Boyd and Kostitsyn all signed NHL contracts, the conditional picks are washed away. Except there was never any doubt that Ellis and Boyd would sign somewhere. The only doubt here surrounded Kostitsyn, so I wonder why Gauthier agreed to the conditions seeing as Kostitsyn was also probably the player with the most upside in the trade. 

And finally, Jaroslav Halak signed a four-year, $15 million deal with the Blues on Tuesday, thereby confirming he was out the Canadiens price range. The contract was actually a very good deal for the Blues, who purchased Halak's first two years of unrestricted free agency at a reasonable cap hit of $3.75 million annually.

But having that hit instead of whatever Price will sign for may have prevented Montreal from signing Tomas Plekanec, and who knows if Gauthier would have been able to get an NHL-ready prospect like Eller for Price on the trade market. So while I think the Blues got a bargain, I still believe Halak was too pricey for the Habs, and that was only confirmed on Tuesday.

But as I said right after the trade, this Eller kid had better be good.  

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What will change?

The Canadiens, in their uniquely charming, understated, late-afternoon way, announced Monday that Pierre Boivin will be entering his final season as team president after an 11-year tenure where he helped establish and oversaw perhaps the greatest marketing machine in the National Hockey League.

As people will soon start coming out of the woodwork to talk about Boivin's career as the business head of the most storied franchise in hockey, many will undoubtedly mention that his era also coincided with the darkest period in team history. Those people will find some way to blame Boivin for that, even though he really had very little to do with any of it.

In fact, it is that very same dark period that made what Boivin accomplished so extraordinary. Never before in Canadiens history has the team really had to worry about marketing. When you win Stanley Cups in every decade of your existence, it's not necessarily that tough to convince people to come watch your team play.

Boivin's arrival as team president almost perfectly matches up with my career covering the Canadiens. My first season, 2000-01, had players like Eric Landry, Christian Laflamme, Juha Lind, Patrick Poulin, Craig Darby, Patrick Traverse and other similarly forgettable players patrolling the ice at the Bell Centre. My seat in the press box, perched high above the visiting bench, often had wide expanses of empty seats behind it.

But who would want to watch that team, you may ask? Well I would counter, who would really want to watch many of the Canadiens teams since the lockout, which have mostly been middling teams that squeak into the playoffs? In a market that prided itself on expecting excellence, on poo-pooing first round playoff wins because it was beneath them, this was not an easy sell. 

Boivin, to his credit, realized this and created a monster, one that has the Canadiens at the forefront of the city's thoughts nearly 12 months a year, one that has produced a sold out building every night since 2005. He has managed to convert the first generation of Canadiens fans in the team's long history never to have truly experienced a Stanley Cup victory, a generation the team just as easily could have lost to the ravages of mediocrity, but didn't at least in part due to Boivin's foresight and refusal to sit on the laurels of past success.

The team's head of marketing Ray Lalonde deserves a good deal of the credit (or is it blame?) for creating the frenzied fervor the city now has for what is really a middle of the pack team. But Lalonde got his mandate from Boivin, and it is that undying popularity that allowed George Gillett to more than double his investment in the team when it was sold to a group led by Geoff Molson.

So now, it will be Molson making all these business decisions, and that's his prerogative, even though it would be unreasonable to expect Boivin to do a much better job than he's already done from a business perspective.

Where I suppose he could be criticized is failing to hire the right people that would win the Canadiens a Stanley Cup. When Boivin was hired, Rejean Houle was still general manager of the team. He quickly replaced Houle with Andre Savard, who was replaced by Bob Gainey. I don't think anyone could fault either of those hires.

His latest decision to replace Gainey with Pierre Gauthier without so much as conducting a search for any other potential candidates merits some criticism, but Boivin did not make that call on his own. Molson was already in place at the time.

So how will things change under Molson's presidency, which doesn't officially start until June 30, 2011 but in reality must begin immediately? I'm not sure, but if I had to bet I would imagine that most fans won't see much of a change at all. If Molson is to be believed, he will not interfere with the hockey department, which was always Boivin's way as well. 

But the one area of the hockey department that Boivin did interject from time to time was the  importance of having francophones on the team. He spoke up just before and after the Habs made their unsuccessful run at Daniel Briere as a free agent, and also said that Vincent Lecavalier would be an obvious free agent target for the Canadiens, only to have him sign what amounts to a lifetime contract extension with the Lightning. And finally, when defending the decision not to open up a search to replace Gainey as GM, Boivin admitted that the two main requirements for the job were NHL experience and bilingualism. That whittled the list down to a very low number, and three members of that extremely short list had already been fired as Habs GM (one who wasn't, Dale Tallon, might have at least merited an interview).

Funnily, I feel like on this matter, Boivin didn't satisfy either of the two solitudes. Some anglos who would rather have a winning product than worry about the ancestry of the players felt Boivin was too preoccupied with this reality of running a professional hockey franchise in Quebec. Many francophones felt Boivin did not view the language issue as the reality that it so clearly is.

One of those francophones is Bertrand Raymond, who wrote on the RDS website that this was a foreseeable move. He wrote that Boivin was surely pushed out of a job he would have loved to keep for many more years, and that Molson surely had this move in mind when the purchase was completed but wanted to wait and let the dust settle before taking a more active role running the team.

But he also writes of Boivin's supposedly poor record for insisting that having francophone players be a priority for the organization. He cites the example of Francois Beauchemin being passed over as a free agent last summer in favour of Jaroslav Spacek for the same amount of money (Spacek actually makes a little over $33,000 more per season that Beauchemin), or Martin Biron being allowed to sign with the Rangers for less money than was given Alex Auld on July 1.

"Geoff Molson would never go so far as to establish the difference between a Biron or an Auld in hockey terms," Raymond concludes, "but when he seriously mentions during a board meeting that the Canadiens, who have never been this poor in this area, must have more Francophones in their ranks, people would be best served to listen to the remark.

"And maybe things will change for the better very soon."

That might be true, but I doubt it will come in the form Raymond refers to. I seriously doubt Molson will be sitting in Gauthier's office looking over trade proposals and insisting he choose the one that brings a francophone to the team, nor will he instruct Gauthier to base any personnel decisions on a players ability to do television interviews in french.

But one area he may have an influence is at the draft table, or at the very least having more of a team presence in the junior and even midget hockey rinks of the province. With Gauthier jettisoning half his scouting staff prior to the draft, there's only one, part-time scout working for the team in Quebec. For much of Boivin's time here, Quebec scouting was a clear weakness that - considering the public relations repercussions - he should have addressed. I don't think Molson would be stepping on the toes of either Gauthier or Trevor Timmins if he strongly suggested the team hire a team of, say, five scouts devoted solely to Quebec. Perhaps that would allow the team to avoid the public embarrassment of missing out on a David Perron or Claude Giroux on draft day.

But, almost more importantly when it comes to Molson's job as president, it would be the right message to send to the fans and media that the Montreal Canadiens will spare no expense in trying to unearth the next francophone hockey star, which appears to be a dying breed.

The failure to deliver that message to the population was probably Boivin's greatest failing. And perhaps even his only one.

But other than this one, largely cosmetic area of team management, I highly doubt we will see much of a change in organizational philosophy with Boivin gone and Molson taking over. Because ultimately, was Boivin not there to serve as the owner's eyes and ears, to carry out the mandate handed to him by his boss? 

So all Molson is really doing here is cutting out the middleman.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Gauthier's got a short alphabet

Back when he traded Jaroslav Halak to the Blues, Habs GM Pierre Gauthier said he not only had a Plan B, but had a plan for every letter of the alphabet.

I'm wondering where on that alphabetical chart the signing of Alex Auld fit in? Clearly, Plan A was signing Dan Ellis to play alongside Carey Price and challenge him for ice time. But when that didn't work, what was the next option? Auld? Really?

Martin Biron, according to people who know these things, inquired with the Canadiens whether or not they would be interested in his services. He was given a "no" answer, and promptly signed with the Rangers for two years at $875,000 per to sit and watch Hanrik Lundqvist.

Shortly thereafter, Gauthier came to terms with Auld on a one-year, $1 million contract. Baffling, really, when you consider what the goalie market was shaping up to be.

I understand Gauthier had his hands tied in terms of the salary cap, and the unknown commodity of Price's next contract (though by this point you would hope Gauthier has at least a ballpark figure on how much that will cost). But once it became clear that he wasn't going to give Ellis the extra year and $500,000 per season it would take to match the offer he ultimately accepted with Tampa Bay (though he likely would have had to pay more to compensate for Quebec's income taxes), Gauthier should have just sat back and let the dust settle a little bit to see what was left.

It was a game of musical chairs for the goalies, with far fewer jobs than there were players. At the end of the day, Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco and Jose Theodore remain available. Johan Hedberg may have jumped at the chance to actually play more than once a month before deciding to go back up Martin Brodeur in New Jersey for $500,000 more than Auld received from Gauthier.

Again, going back to when he traded Halak, Gauthier said he would go out and get another good goalie to complement Price. But Auld will not compete with Price for ice time, he will play a very traditional back-up role. And whether or not he's a good goalie is barely even debatable.

Of Auld's 19 starts with a pretty bad Dallas Stars team last season, he gave up three or more goals 13 times. He had what was probably the best season of his career a year prior with Ottawa, when he went 16-18-7 with a 2.47 GAA and .911 save percentage. But just when it looked like Auld was going to be the man in Ottawa, he fell apart.

After starting the season 9-6-3, Auld went 7-12-4 from Dec. 8 to the end of the season. Of course, we all know (or at least we should) that a won-loss record is not a good reflection of a goaltender because it's more of a team stat. So, in compiling that 9-6-3 record, Auld had a stellar 1.98 GAA with a .925 save percentage, but from Dec. 8 on he went to a 2.86 GAA and a .902 save percentage.

The season before that Auld played extremely well for the Bruins, going 9-7-5 with a 2.32 GAA and .919 save percentage. 

But aside from the numbers, this is Auld's eighth team since 2006. That's about two teams a year. Does that fill you with confidence?

Perhaps I'm wrong about Auld. Maybe he'll become a revelation this season and be able to log 30 starts without costing the Habs a playoff spot. But if not, if I'm right, Price had better be ready to fulfill his potential right now.

Of course, that's assuming Price will come to terms on a new contract, because he remains unsigned as a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights. If ever there was a situation where a holdout would be in order, I would imagine this would be it. If I'm Price's agent Gerry Johansson, I'm shooting for the moon with this contract. The Canadiens were negotiating from a position of strength before trading Halak and signing Auld, but they aren't anymore. Johansson knows very well the Habs have no recourse if his client isn't taken care of, and he can use that to his advantage.

I'm sure he doesn't want to holdout and will likely sign prior to training camp, but the way Gauthier has handled this situation - or at least the order in which he's gone about his business - has empowered Price a great deal. He has to know Gauthier won't want to start the season with a tandem of Auld and Curtis Sanford, who was also re-signed Thursday. Will Price use that to his advantage? Only time will tell.

Aside from the goaltending, Gauthier was able to lock up Dustin Boyd to a $650,000 a year contract. That makes the Sergei Kostitsyn trade worth it, even though Ellis got away. Boyd is not a game-breaker and has nowhere near as high a ceiling as Kostitsyn does. But he won't make headlines, and that's what the Canadiens want out of their fourth-liners, which was also a big reason Georges Laraque was asked to leave.

Boyd may turn into another Pyatt type with more offence, and that's just fine.

With the Boyd and Auld signings, Gauthier has a little under $5.3 million left in cap space if the bonus overage allowance is not used. If Max Pacioretty is included on next year's team, that cap space drops to $4.4 million to take care of Price, Maxim Lapierre and perhaps one other forward like Dominic Moore, who I still think Gauthier should bring back.

So Gauthier is probably done in the free agent pool. And right now, I can't say he was a very strong swimmer.