Rabid Habs

Where Do Habs Go From Here?

Habs' PA Parentau

Depending on which Habs fan you speak with, the 2014-15 edition of the Montreal Canadiens can best be described as an unmitigated disaster or an overwhelming success. That is the range of emotion found within the vacuum of the world’s largest hockey fishbowl. And, although past performance should not be considered as a prelude to future results, most fans have a heightened sense of expectation in anticipation of opening night 2015.

Not unlike the stock market, hockey teams can be a volatile commodity.  Like blue chip investments, sound management can help to eliminate significant swings in standings, however variables, namely injuries, can unexpectedly arise and significantly adjust the outcome during a season.

Reflecting on the season that was, no team better exemplifies what it means to be dogged by volatility the way the Columbus Blue Jackets were. Personally, I believe Columbus joins a group of 3-4 teams who have the potential to take a significant step forward and grab a playoff position next season. So, in league so ripe with parity, where might the Montreal Canadiens find themselves hanging next season? Could the Habs once again contend for a division title, or will they take a step backwards and find themselves fighting for a playoff berth? As we saw this season the difference between finishing first in the Eastern Conference and finishing ninth was not that significant. The Ottawa Senators finished with 99 points and slotted into the postseason as the number 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Gone are the days of a first round “tune up.” Each and every playoff series is closely contended, with fractions of inches and/or seconds determining winners and losers.

Assuming the Habs remain healthy – by healthy I mean avoiding multiple injuries to significant players, reducing play for extended periods of time – I believe the team takes a step backwards. Injuries, such as those noted, would derail almost every team in the league. Should the Habs lose Price and PK for an extended period of time, not only would the playoffs be entirely unlikely, but the chance of a lottery pick would certainly exist. My greatest concern with the Canadiens is that they do nothing this offseason. If the Habs ice the same team as they did this season, and once again assuming that injuries don’t test the club’s depth, than it is very likely that they once again contend for a division crown. Of course, it also means that one, possibly two rounds of playoff hockey is all that we might see next Spring. Continuing the status quo offers the least amount of downside, however it also represents the least amount of upside potential. So much as many might outright dismiss the notion of tearing down and rebuilding a team that finished second overall with 110 points, I believe the time has come to transition the organization. Caution, these changes do offer the potential for short term loss. In fact, it is very likely that the organization does endure challenges. However, the changes I am proposing also come carry the greatest potential; the highest ceiling.

Although the salary cap has not been finalized, projections indicate that the cap should fall somewhere around the $71.5 million dollar projection. Here are my positional assessments as we move into 2015-16:

 

Centre

Like many other Habs fans, I would love to see Galchenyuk given the keys to the first line centre position. I believe insulating Chucky with the team’s BEST defensive forward – Pacioretty – would help to ease the transition and unburden him of some of the responsibilities that the position holds. However, unlike many other Canadiens fans, I am not 100% sure that I want Galchenyuk to play centre simply because I think he is the best option, but rather I believe it has more to do with the fact that I don’t see the team winning with either Plekanec or Desharnais in that role. As I watch other playoff teams this season I honestly ask myself where either DD or Pleks would fit on their roster? I do believe that Plekanec could be a 2nd line centre on most teams, however as he approaches 33 years of age, he is fast slipping into that “tweener role” (too good for the 3rd line, not good enough for the 2nd). Desharnais is a tremendous worker, giving everything he has to the team, but his results, especially in the playoffs are underwhelming at best. I don’t see how he is anything more than a 3rd line centre, not only in Montreal, but almost anywhere in the league. The one saving grace was always the notion that Desharnais and Pacioretty shared a unique chemistry playing together, but that notion was quickly extinguished this season when Pacioretty found himself alongside Plekanec or Galchenyuk, both of whom found instant chemistry with #67. Further, unlike Plekanec, I do believe Desharnais can be replaced internally and without significant impact to the team’s results. So much as I am prepared to also let Plekanec go, I do understand the void that this will create and do recognize that a major hole will be opened and not easily replaced.

Lars Eller has won my confidence however I don’t run the lines and distribute ice time. Although coach Therrien has provided him with more opportunity (specifically more TOI), Eller continues to play with inferior line-mates. Looking ahead, I believe Eller is best suited for the second line role that would be vacated by the repositioning of Plekanec. No forward raises his level of play as consistently as Eller does in big games. We have reached the point where this player must be challenged with a greater role and responsibilities. I fully believe that Eller seizes the opportunity and rewards the Canadiens with a strong season, but more importantly a strong postseason, with the added responsibility of playing on the 2nd line. Although I don’t believe he will begin the season as the team’s third line centre, I do believe that Jacob de la Rose will finish the season in that position. It is sometimes easy to forget that DLR is 19 years of age. His poise and understanding of the defensive side of hockey, in all three zones, is exceptional. Although I don’t ever anticipate significant offensive output, DLR is a capable player who could put up 10 goals and 15 assists, while locking down the opposition. Finally, Torey Mitchell, by virtue of his strong postseason and eagerness in re-signing in Montreal would be a great fit on the fourth line. Mitchell is a very capable player, with significantly more offensive upside than that of Manny Malhotra, but with little drop off in defensive play. Finally, as I look towards a transition of more youth into the lineup a veteran like Mitchell will help to steady the new class and ease the transition going forward.

Centre depth: Galchenyuk, Eller, Plekanec, de la Rose, Mitchell

Prediction: Desharnais is moved this offseason, opening the opportunity for Galchenyuk to move to centre ice on the top line. Bergevin hedges his bet by keeping Plekanec in the fold, but, with his contract set to expire in June 2016, his status is largely dependent on Chucky’s ability to handle the 1st line role. Should Galchenyuk succeed (which I believe he will, in large part due to Pacioretty), I fully expect that Plekanec will be traded during the season. Following Plekanec’s departure, de la Rose moves onto the 3rd line. Mitchell is the consistent on the fourth line from opening night.

 

Wing

With almost every winger under contract going into 2015-16, we might not see significant change in this group. I do not expect Brian Flynn to return as his age and contract status are likely to land him a deal above the entry level salary of an internal prospect. Pacioretty and Gallagher will remain fixtures within the top six. One of the two remaining voids will likely be filled internally with one of Scherbak, Hudon, Andrighetto, Gregoire, Thomas, Carr or McCarron given an opportunity out of training camp. I have always believed that top six players; players with skill, need to be given an opportunity in their natural habitat –within the top six and surrounded by skill. There is no value in placing a skilled prospect on the fourth line to try and learn the game and adjust to the speed. This dated approach is stale and reeks of strategy utilized under previous regimes. There is room for a prospect to make this team and the payroll flexibility it would afford the organization would help in landing a complimentary player who could help address the goal scoring deficiency. To this end, every effort will be made to move PA Parenteau and his $4 million dollar salary. Dale Weise and Jacob de la Rose should start the season on the 3rd line however  I anticipate movement at this position and would not be surprised to see a revolving door as the coaching staff tries to find a combination that can help to absorb ice time and contribute offence.

Brandon Prust, a crowd favorite and lifeline within the dressing room could very likely find himself following Josh Gorges as the second popular player traded in consecutive years. So much as I love watching Prust stick up for teammates, I have trouble shaking two beliefs; firstly, I believe he is a marked man. I believe the NHL is an old boys club and Prust is on the radar of every official across the league. There are times that he has been a distraction and works to undue focus with his undisciplined play. As other teams continue to disarm, his role has lost significance and his effectiveness has been reduced. Lastly, Prust has battled significant injuries and is a pending free agent (June 2016). If the Canadiens are not committed to re-signing Prust (which I don’t believe they are), then exploratory talks need to be launched in an effort to gauge market value. I could see Prust starting the season in Montreal, but, like Plekanec, I fully expect that he is dealt during the season.

Injuries, unfortunately, greatly defined Bournival’s season. His ability to overcome these injuries will determine his status going forward. Bournival and Christian Thomas are both RFA’s and need new contracts. I expect that the Canadiens sign Thomas, however am not certain that they see a long term role for Bournival.

Like Tinordi (who I will discuss later), I could see a sign and trade or trade prior to signing should there be interest from other organizations. Devante Smith Pelly will open the season as a fourth line winger and will be expected to contribute with greater consistency next season. His off season conditioning and continued adjustment to the Canadiens organization, style of play and hockey culture will define the success, or lack thereof, of his trade.

Wing depth: Pacioretty, Trade Acquisition, Gallagher, Prospect, de la Rose, Weise, Smith-Pelly, Prospect

 

Defence

I ought to be counted among those who believe that Jeff Petry needs to be re-signed. Unfortunately, the Petry camp is also aware of the Canadiens’ needs and could command a salary far above actual value. So much as I would love to have Petry on the team his signing might only be possible should one of Gilbert/Emelin/Markov be moved. The Emelin contract carries trade restrictions, which could make his move very difficult, at least this season. As the contract matures, the clauses lessen and the Canadiens will have the ability to maneuver as they feel necessary. As the Bruins are likely headed into a retool, Emelin’s usefulness diminishes, which ultimately leaves me asking – why is he on the team? Truth is, Bergevin is not without fault and the Emelin deal remains one of the biggest mistakes in his short tenure as GM (4 years @ $4.1 million per season). Bergevin gambled that the player would respond following ACL surgery, however he has not regained the form that led many to regard his physical play as among the most dominate in the league prior to his injury. Now, relying almost exclusively on skill, Emelin has struggled to find consistency. Aside from an incredible night in Pittsburgh (in January), there were far more bad plays than good, even as his role shrunk. Keep in mind that Emelin started the season alongside PK on the first line. When the season ended he was playing on the 5/6 pairing. The only reason I have Emelin in my lineup projections is the unlikelihood of trading this player.

So much as he embodies the Canadiens spirit and has become a fixture on the PP alongside Subban, Markov showed signs of stress this postseason. He looked every bit his age and, as his contract carries two more years @ $5.75 annually, there is a real worry about what The General has left in the tank. It is a given that his minutes must be cut, but it’s a double edged sword; The Habs are paying Markov to be a top pairing player. That contract begins to look pretty bad if he can only go for 18 minutes a night on the 2nd or 3rd pairing. Like some others, the third year and not the cost was my primary concern with Markov’s deal. There is no satisfaction in being justified in these concerns. The fact remains that Markov slowed significantly last year and was subsequently exposed by the Rangers and once again this year was targeted by the opposition. I don’t believe the Canadiens have any appetite for moving The General, therefore effective management of his play will be critical going forward. There simply can NOT be cases where Markov plays more minutes than PK, injuries aside.

Gilbert had an up and down season and should not be counted upon for contributions beyond that of depth and insurance on the 3rd pairing. His play, at times, was very promising however he was prone to breakdowns which often resulted in goals against. Considering the lack of free agent defencemen, his contract status could prove to be very attractive (1 year remaining @ $2.25 million dollars) and might be used as leverage in a potential trade.

I was fortunate enough to have seen Pateryn play his first game of the season live, in Ottawa. He was shaky and unsteady as the game started, however found his groove and quickly hit his stride. By the third period, he had become a steady contributor. This game perfectly illustrated what would become a very effective season. It might not have always been pretty, but Pateryn proved to be effective, poised and physical on the 3rdpairing. His contract status ($562,500) provides payroll flexibility and helps to offset the Subban and Markov deals.

Lastly, no player in the organization is poised to take a bigger step forward than Nathan Beaulieu. The time has come to take off the reigns and give the kid the chance to play alongside Subban. Beaulieu has the skill and speed to fit the top pairing and will compliment PK. By adjusting to the new role now, Nate will help the organization begin the transition away from Markov and into the future.

Finally, as we look to the 7th defenceman one naturally turns to Tinordi, however I am not sure that there is a future for the hulking defenceman within the organization. Although the sample size is very small, Josiah Didier could be a part of the equation as might be Darren Dietz or the surging Morgan Ellis. I still believe that there needs to be a major injection of talent into the forward group and there needs to be something going the other way if such a deal was to be facilitated. As a pending RFA, the potential of moving forward without Tinordi in the organization is very real. So much as I would hate seeing him become the defenceman that I believe he can be, I would also be intrigued with what he might bring in return on the open market. So much as I love the size, skating and physical play, my biggest knock on Tinordi is his inability to make the outlet pass, whether it be 5’ or 50’. Pateryn was able to make that pass and subsequently forged a future in the lineup. Tinordi has not proven that he can make the pass and therefore has struggled to find a role.

Defensive Depth: Subban, Beaulieu, Petry, Markov, Pateryn, Gilbert, Emelin, Prospect

 

Goalie

Carey Price. Carey Price……… Yeah, that’s pretty easy. Not so easy however will be the decision that fronts the organization at training camp as the club chooses between Mike Condon and Dustin Tokarski. I fully expect Condon to not only challenge for the backup role, but push for playing time going forward. So much as Price is Mr. Everything I also believe he needs to be steadied by a capable partner, able to reduce his workload from 65+ games down into the 58-62 game range. Although this doesn’t sound like a significant difference, I believe the mental fatigue of playing behind a team that was so thoroughly dominated in shots and possession is terrific. It will be important to insulate Price and provide the team steady, consistent play going forward. In this respect, I would not be surprised to either see Condon bump Tokarski, or to otherwise see Tokarski traded (his contract status would require waivers).

 

So, there you have it. Opening night roster and salary projections:

 

Pacioretty ($4.25M) – Galchenyuk ($4.5 M) – Trade ($6M)

Prospect ($1M) – Eller ($3.75M) – Gallagher ($3.75M)

de la Rose ($800K) – Plekanec ($5M) – Weise ($1.25M)

Prospect ($1M) – Mitchell ($1.5M) – DSP ($875K)

 

Beaulieu ($2.5M) – PK ($9M)

Markov ($5.75M) – Petry ($5.5M)

Emelin ($4.1M) – Pateryn ($562K)

 

Price ($6.5M) – Condon ($600K)

 

Prospect ($800K)

Prospect ($800K)

Free Agent ($1M)

 

Total salary: $70.8 million dollars