Montreal starts the day 6 points behind the Maple Leafs for last spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The floundering Leafs have kept every Eastern team outside of the playoffs holding on to their (in some cases) very slim hopes of post-season play. The players are all talking about making the post-season, and you get the feeling that they honestly believe that it is possible. While you can easily make the case that Montreal is only 6 points behind the Leafs and could catch them – it is also important to note that Montreal currently sits only 1 point ahead of both Buffalo and Carolina for dead last. Buffalo has a game in hand. Both Buffalo and Carolina have a better record over their last 10 games, and so – while everyone wants to look forward at the potential of catching the Maple Leafs, I have to point out that Montreal is in the process of being caught as well.
I’m always of the opinion that the team should play as hard as it can regardless of their position in the standings. Players are out there competing for jobs. With so many young players on the club, it is critical that guys learn on the job. That is why I think that Montreal needs to stay the coarse – continue to trade impending UFAs for picks and prospects while shedding salary for next season. Montreal will benefit in multiple ways:
-The club will know which young players can be counted upon to hold down a full time position next season. No more question marks around guys like Eller, Emelin, Leblanc, Palushaj etc. These players need time to become next year’s Desharnais and Pacioretty. Getting 4th line minutes won’t cut it – especially if they are going to lose the time in favor of older veterans who don’t fit into the plans moving forward. The other opportunity is to see young guys like Schultz, Geoffrion (5 pts in 2 games since trade!) and others who haven’t had a good shot a playing time in the NHL just yet.
-If we keep the 2nd round picks (2 in each of the next 2 drafts) that we’ve amassed we’re bound to start seeing some deep improvement in both Hamilton and Montreal. Having the picks and prospects on hand is also the very best way to acquire high end talent. Rumors are right now that Columbus, for example, wants an impact player plus picks and prospects for Rick Nash. With a 8 or 9 players at the end of their Junior careers with the potential to start in the AHL next season (Tinordi, Beaulieu, Gallagher, Bournival, Kristo, Ellis, Holland, Bennet, and potentially Darren Dietz) the Habs have a huge contingent of young players upon which to build, and the basis on which to land an impact player should the availability of one who suits the long-term need of the club arise. I’m not saying the Habs could or should land Rick Nash – but as an example, it will not be long before they could land a talented player by leveraging the quantity of prospects in the system.
-The shedding of salary is still a large concern for the Habs. The roster – as currently constructed has 12 players signed for $44M for next season. This doesn’t include raises for Subban, Price, Eller, Emelin, Leblanc, and doesn’t include any UFA signings. It is purely speculation to tie them to any number, or to guess the value of potential UFAs, but if the Habs signed all players listed above and brought back AK46 they would be within $4M of the cap. That means forget being a player in any significant Free Agent signing. That may be for the best – but as has been lamented on this blog many times in the past, Montreal’s best players have not been their best-paid players for quite some time. You watch a team like Pittsburgh lock up yet another fantastic forward (James Neil) for 6 years and wonder: Would you rather have him than Gomez, Gionta, or Kaberle for the same money?
Anyways, there is a lot to sort out in the coming off-season. Obviously getting rid of Gomez would be a game-changer in terms of cap flexibility. Still, Montreal opens up many future possibilities by hanging onto picks and prospects. You never know which one may turn out to be the next 2nd round sleeper like PK Subban, or David Backes, or David Krejci.