Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Trade Deadline and What's Next

The trade deadline came and went yesterday, and as usual didn't live up to its hype. The NHL's 30 teams and fans of all of those teams waited eagerly for 6 long months for this one big chance to make a serious move, possibly the chance to become a contender. Most teams (25+) come out of the trade day (no longer a deadline, it is now the only day we see any significant trades all year) feeling that they are no better than the day before, thus no better than they were on October 1st. Despite the disappointment that this annual event brings for most fans it also brings a lot of relief to learn a lot of your key players weren't sacrificed because of economics.

On the Habs front there were of course the two big stories - the 2 Hs. Huet's departure has left a lot of fans wondering why we couldn't make it work it with him, why a former all-star would be pushed aside for virtually nothing, why we they thought 32 was too old. The rest of the Habs fans out there are pleased to see Price get his chance, believing that his 27 games to date weren't chance enough. Essentially it could be argued that by letting Cristobal go we were able to call-up Halak, which of course is true, but couldn't we have done this with Huet still with the team? If this whole thing was really about Price and Halak being given their chance why couldn't we demote Huet and have him there just in case? I seem to remember the Oilers having 3 goalies when they went to the finals in 2006, it turned out to be a good thing too because one struggled and one got injured. This trade would have looked a lot better if I was somewhat excited about a late second round pick next year. Deep draft or not how many second round picks ever make it? And those that do are normally overlooked by other teams, thus would likely be available in the third round.

Not getting Hossa represents both a failure and a bit of luck for the Habs. Hossa was likely not worth the 4 players that Atlanta was asking, especially considering that he may (probably) not have re-signed with us. Player rentals rarely mean a guaranteed cup and often turn out to be huge busts that your team pays for over the following seasons. He would have fit nicely alongside Saku, but again that would have been at the expense of our future by reducing some youngsters playing time; namely Sergei Kostitsyn. On the other hand I feel that the Habs blew yet another chance to land a big-name player. In the 'New' NHL there are only really 2 opportunities to get proven scorers like Hossa - the deadline and via free-agency. The price will always be high to score a big player, but if you ever want one you are going to have to pay. Eventually I think that we will have to just do it; go out and overpay for someone. No one will sign here because they don't believe that we are a true contender. The ironic thing is that Hossa would have probably made us a better team down the stretch and into the playoffs and it may just have been enough to encourage someone to sign with us in July. This team is being built little by little and this is a plan that I like a lot. I just hope that Gainey realizes that if we ever want that one big veteran piece to push us over the edge we will have to overpay, because if we don't someone else will.

We have 18 games left and in order to make the playoffs comfortably (according to Topham's formula) we need 19 more points for a total of 96 (based on the current pace in the eastern conference 94 should get us in). Losing in OT isn't something we should try to do, but getting to OT is. We need all the points we can get and as long as the league has that stupid rule that a losing team gets points I want to be the team that takes the most advantage of it. We have a very good chance of not only making the playoffs, but, for the first time in years, finishing in the top 4, possibly even top 2 (3rd is impossible). We have been better that Ottawa over the past 4 months and have have matched up better against the rest of the league than them all year. I think that getting home-ice for the first 2 rounds may be very plausible at this point. If there is one area of our team game that must improve it is our defence, especially the penalty-kill. We have shown good moments this year at the back end, but it is time to work out the kinks and put 15 solid efforts forward from here on in. The penalties won't be called as frequently in the playoffs (because the NHL can't decide on consistent rules for this game) and that means we won't be able to rely on our league leading power-play; the importance for defence has never been greater.

We head into the final month of the season with 13 healthy forwards and 2 more that are defencemen. We have incredible depth at this position and our balanced scoring will only help us as we go forward. There are a lot of good players to choose from so it shouldn't be hard to make 4 decent trios. Koivu's line may be the key to our success; if he can get going with Higgins and Ryder (as they have the past few weeks) we will be set. My hope is that we will get scoring from 2 different lines in each game, that will not only give the team confidence, but will confuse opposing teams who generally tend to just focus on Kovalev-Plekanec-Kostitsyn.

Defence wins games, defence wins cups. Robinson-Savard, Desjardins-Schneider, Stevens-Niedermayer, Pronger-Nierdermayer - these were all great tandems that led their teams to cups - it is rare to see a winning team have sub-par defence. Markov, Komisarek and Hamrlik are our big 3, there is no doubt there, but it is time they start playing like it. Over the past few weeks I haven't felt like they have been at their best and that is something that must change fast. The rest of our corps has been solid all year, led mainly by a resurgent Bouillon. O'Byrne has played well at times, but also tends to go through prolonged rough patches. The answer for me to that problem is Streit, who's experience, leadership and skill will bring a little more stability to the position. We still have Brisebois and Dandenault, but I would say that barring catastrophe you'll never see either of those guys line-up at the Habs blue-line again.

That just leaves our goaltenders, a now very unproven commodity. It could be argued that Price has more big-game experience than the out-going Huet, but what Price lacks is a level of experience that simply comes with age and time. That is not to say that Price won't be able to do what he did last year with Hamilton, it just means it is less likely. The good news about Halak and Price is they are both fantastic goalies, mature beyond their years and they seem to know how to win. It isn't like we are lining up with Thibault and Fiset here, these guys are the real-deal (at least that's what I've been told). We must, however, be prepared for the worse; carrying a whole city on their backs may cause them to falter. The two youngsters have just 45 games of NHL experience between them, including no playoff experience. To put that in perspective there are 20 goalies with 45 or more games played so far this year in the league. Their combined age of 42 is equal to the age of the dominator, and they were just 5 and 8 the last time the Habs won the cup. All of that being said I think we are very lucky to have them both as they both have tons of potential. If I was ever going to go with 2 goalies so young in Habs history this would be my tandem. I am hoping that Halak will share some of the load down the stretch and that if he outplays Price he will see more ice than he has done thus far. We have a bright future ahead of us with these two, time to see if that future starts now.


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