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» 2010 » August

  • Who will step up?

    One thing is clear as the Canadiens head into a new NHL season this fall: in order for the Habs to make another deep post-season run, it is critical that the young players on the team emerge as capable support for the big-money earning foursome of Gomez, Gionta, Cammalleri, and Plekanec. While its entirely fair to expect that those who make the money produce, in order to win in the NHL – you need a contribution throughout your lineup. Last season those four players previously mentioned combined to lead the team in points – even though Gionta and Cammalleri played only 61 and 65 games respectively.

    The big four were brought in to lead the team – but they’re going to need some help if the Canadiens are going to be anything more than a middle of the pack team. The question is: who among the forwards will be the guy to make the leap forward?

    We’ve all waited in agony while Andrei Kostitsyn took 1 step forward and 2 steps back during the past couple of seasons. The enigmatic sniper can be very dangerous when his game is on – but exactly when that will happen – I’m not convinced even Andrei knows.  Everyone has heard about which players the Habs missed in order to select Andrei with the 10th over-all pick in 2003. I won’t get into that.. But I will say that since he signed his contract following the 07-08 season in which he amassed 53 points in 72 games , there has been a lot of waiting, and not much return. His 33 points in 59 games came in bunches, frustrating fans as he scored just often enough, to perpetuate the optimism that his break out was eminent.  We’ll see what happens this year. If he can stay healthy he has the tools to put up good numbers – but in the eyes of most Habs fans – he already has one foot out the door.

    Benoit Pouliot was a revelation when he come over in a mid-season trade from the Minnesota Wild for fellow under-performer Guillaume Latendresse. In 39 regular season games with the Canadiens Benny scored 24 points (15 goals) which would have been a positive story going into his first full year with the club if he had not disappeared entirely in the playoffs – scoring only 2 points in 18 games. Pouliot has the size and skills to make an impact on the top 6. The question is, does he have the drive to do the things he has to do to be a top tier forward in the NHL?

    Lars Eller came to the Canadiens via the Jaroslav Halak deal and while there is always an abundance of optimism for young players wearing Habs sweaters – there is an added sense of urgency surrounding Eller’s debut. The fact that he was the major cog in the trade that sent the Canadiens’ playoff hero packing makes for added pressure considering Eller has only a handful of games at the NHL level. He does have the tools to be a good NHLer though. The 21 year old Dane was drafted 13th overall by the Blues in 2007, scoring 57 points in 70 games in Peoria of the AHL. Those are good numbers for a young player, but the real test for Lars will come when he is called upon at some point during the season to fill into the top 6. At 6’1 200 he has the size to be effective. Still, for a guy who has played 7 NHL games, the Habs are asking a lot which will add a whole lot of pressure to his 2010-11 season.

    Maxime Lapierre will never be confused with the upper-echelon of NHL goal scorers, but as a 25 year old with ample size, he does have a place on this team if he can play more like the Max from the playoffs and less like the Max from the regular season. His underwhelming 14 points in 76 games were not blown away by his 4 points in 19 playoff games, but Max re-found his abilities as a super-pest who will doggedly eat up minutes with an aggressive forcheck, win faceoffs when called upon and provide puck possession with his ability on the cycle game. I would never put Max in the top 6, but from a “this guy needs to step up” perspective – Lapierre fits the bill. He’s no longer a young guy. I love him when he’s playing big but the Habs have simply too many guys coming up to have passengers this year.

    There is no doubt in my mind that PK Subban will be the biggest addition to the team this season. And while the spark he gives us should produce points, he will need one of his young brethren to make a similar jump in production. No doubt there are other guys who could potentially see time in the top 6: Alexander Avtsin, Max Pacioretti, Ryan White, David Desharnais, Matt Darche and Ben Maxwell could all get a look. Who is going to be the one to do it? Or are we doomed to another year of watching the “big 4″ create every single offensive chance?

  • The Dog Days – a few thoughts on non-news.

    You know you’re in the dog days of summer when things NOT happening are the main story lines in the NHL-related media. Lately the only NHL news is non-news: with Tomas Kaberle NOT being traded and Ilya Kovalchuk NOT being signed. These two non-stories have definitely made me think about the NHL and the slow changes that we are witnessing to the way teams approach free-agents and trades in the Salary Cap era.

    What I’m getting at is this: Over the years we’ve witnessed a lot of ludicrous management by those desperate to land the big fish at any cost. I can think back to countless deadline days in which teams ponied up WAY more than a player is worth – setting precedent after, horrible precedent for how to land impact players. I think back to the deal for Marian Hossa in which the Penguins gave up young roster players (Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen), a highly touted prospect (Angelo Espisito) and first round pick. While the Penguins were in a good spot, it had the potential to be a king’s ransom for the Thrashers – in return for a guy who signed with another team the very next year.

    It was a sign that the hockey community had gone star-crazy. It was a sign that it was a seller’s market – which was terrible for teams who wanted to build responsibly – and trade on fair terms. While some could argue that Hossa – who is a perennial a top-level forward was worth the bounty given up, they cannot argue that other lesser talents did not reap the same sort of reward.

    But something has seemingly changed recently. Maybe the Salary Cap has caused a renewal of fiscal conservativism among NHL general managers? Maybe the collective group is plain-tired of being fleeced in order to make a move? Clearly with the Kovalchuk contract the NHL has drawn a line in the sand. Have we seen NHL GM’s make a similar stand on Kaberle?

    I’m not going to say that Tomas Kaberle isn’t a good offensive defenseman. He is. A guy that can put up points like he can is a valuable commodity. But just because you’re the best player on your team does not make you necessarily one of the best on every team. Tomas Kaberle can put up 30-60 points just about every year. He’s also as soft as it gets and has been a minus player consistently on an admittedly bad team. The important question then, is what is Kaberle’s worth in a trade – not in the eyes of Leafs fans – but the rest of the league.

    Clearly the league has spoken. There was interest in a player who could make an offensive contribution on a contending team, but no one was willing to over-pay to the tune of Brian Burke’s lofty expectations. I for one could not be happier about it. We’ve come to a point in which mortgaging your team’s future by giving away prospects and draft picks for a year-long rental is no longer en vogue.  Don’t tell Brian Burke. And don’t tell Leaf fans who thought that Kaberle would somehow return one of the high-first round picks that Burke “pee’d” away in the Phil Kessel deal. Maybe that is not fair. I do not mean to dump on die-hard Laffers who over-value their players and prospects in exactly the same manner that we do here.  But there is no way that a team is going to give up a potential star to rent Kaberle.

    The fact is that Kaberle’s value was MUCH higher with two years left on his contract. Burke missed the boat.  His highly-public media-infused negotiating tactics aside, Kaberle’s value simply isn’t where Leaf fans think it is. In past years he would have commanded a lot in return – but not these days. Not when GM’s are being so careful about their prospects because of the Salary Cap.  It gives new light to the kind of conditions that Pierre Gauthier was working with when he traded Halak. The current climate isn’t going to provide the same kind of bounty as in past days. Gauthier got a roster player (1st rounder) and a prospect for a young emerging goalie who was arguably the MVP of the playoffs for his club.

    Something tells me Burke was looking for much more than that. The problem is that it is a buyers market. The only team that “needed” to make a deal was the Leafs. Now they have 8 defenseman, and Cap problems to boot. I’m sure they’ll be fine by the start of the season, but when you play these things out in public – you have to deal with the public backlash when they fall apart.