Thursday, July 23, 2009

Canadiens Rival Report

I don't want to really say who has won or lost free agency, because it's a hard game to get into. But I was thinking about the Habs and how they may or may not have improved and it occurred that I shouldn't be making an absolute judgment, but a relative one.

From a more relative point of view, Gainey has been doing quite a job. While he has been working hard to replace his outgoing team, he has also had the time to land punches on some pretty key rivals like Buffalo, the Rangers, Devils and especially the Panthers.

In this article, I take a look (team-by-team) at our rivals in the East and see how they've done in their makeovers at trade deadline and summer signing time. For once, I don't talk much about Montreal (I can hear the sighs...).

Atlanta Thrashers

Trade deadline: Got worse – lost Schneider and Havelid

Summer moves: Improved so far through free agency and trades – gaining Antropov and Kubina and losing Exelby

Montreal influence: Marginal, since Schneider was a rental and could re-sign there

Verdict: Overall, Atlanta have probably marginally improved. Unless they can do more before the fall, they will have trouble covering the gap between draft lottery and playoffs

Boston Bruins

Trade deadline: Improved – acquired Montador and Recchi for bit part players

Summer moves: Equilibrium – Begin in, Recchi re-signed and two defencemen out

Montreal influence: Marginal, though their inactivity in July may look like complacency with hindsight – something a pathetic Montreal playoff effort could take partial credit for

Verdict: Boston haven't improved much, but they didn't need to. If the status quo persists, there's nothing but player regression that will slow them. keeping Kessel is key, though. Or at least getting good return for him. And should they lose him for picks or prospects, they might find their offensive engine falling apart

Buffalo Sabres

Trade deadline: Improved – picked up Dominic Moore for nothing

Summer moves: Slight fall – Montador and DiPenta do not replace Spacek

Montreal influence: Signing Spacek has left Buffalo without their PP QB for now. A landed punch on an important rival for Gainey

Verdict: For yet another year, it looks like Buffalo will have to rely on Rochester recharge. They still have some very good forwards and Ryan Miller, but years of leaking stars without effort to replace them will mean a fight for the bottom of the playoffs again in all likelihood

Carolina Hurricanes

Trade deadline: Slight improvement – bringing Cole back was nice, but it cost Williams; Jokinen, though, was a win

Summer moves: Stalled – Kostopoulos and Alberts won't change this team's fate

Montreal influence: None

Verdict: Carolina have had a good team for a few years now, and it mostly comes down to Eric Staal. Last year's move to pick up Pitkanen was a bit of a coup, too. They haven't improved much, but probably didn't need to. They should be right in the thick of the Southeast title race

Florida Panthers

Trade deadline: No moves

Summer moves: Severe hemorrhage – Bouwmeester was lost for Leopold (not good); in addition Boynton and Skrastins, 2 main players in their effective defence, have gone with only 8-game Ville Koistinen to replace

Montreal influence: Stealing Florida's GM may turn out to be the move of the summer for Bob Gainey. The way it has paralysed this club will mean that Monteal likely won't need a tie-break to pip Florida to a playoff spot

Verdict: Disarray in Florida. It reminds me of the Expos – stars raised, stars traded, in a never-ending road to degradation of the roster. Signing a few key free agents could turn the verdict around (and there's time), but as of now, Florida is a weaker team than last year

New Jersey Devils

Trade deadline: Slightly improved – acquired Havelid for a younger D

Summer moves: Gotten worse – Madden, Gionta, Rupp, Clemmenson and possibly Shanahan out. In comes Yann Danis

Montreal influence: Joining the jackals by stripping Gionta from the Devils' carcass was a targeted move, no doubt – worsening a rival, while replacing an outgoing part

Verdict: You never write off New Jersey, but one of these days losing key players will hurt the team. It may not be until Brodeur retires, but you could see how losing Madden and Gionta could break the camel's back after Niedermayer, Gomez and Rafalski. There's still time for Lou to weave his magic, though, and Jacques Lemaire coming back may be the first signal of what's to come.

New York Islanders

Trade deadline: Worsened – dumped everyone they could, while taking on as little as they could get away with

Summer moves: Improved – Roloson and Biron (and Tavares, of course) are upgrades

Montreal influence: None, although they did draft JT in Montreal...

Verdict: It's a long way to go from ECHL team to NHL team and you can only play one goalie at a time. Unless Tavares finds the NHL as easy as the OHL, the Isles have not done enough to remove themselves from the cellar

New York Rangers

Trade deadline: Improved – acquired Antropov and Morris for players that had a future

Summer moves: Equilibrium – an interesting set of moves for the Rangers as Gaborik comes in to replace Gomez and Naslund. Losing Mara and Antropov may hurt, but acquiring Higgins, Kotalik and Brashear should offset some of that

Montreal influence: Trading for Gomez has left NY without a bona fide #1 centre for Gaborik (Dubinsky may cut it, but it's to be seen); the signing was Mara was a pretty good kick to Glen Sather too

Verdict: Like Montreal, the Rangers have changed a lot. New York should still battle for the playoffs (and will move to make sure they do if they're looking short in January), but how well they do may still be hanging in the balance with Zherdev. Should they lose him, they will not be as offensively threatening as last year – and if you know the Rangers, that's a very scary thought

Philadelphia Flyers

Trade deadline: Sideways – Carcillo for Upshall

Summer moves: Sideways again – you can't dispute Pronger will probably help, but Emery is a big gamble. Losing the players they did in the trade, both their goalies and Mike Knuble (a hidden gem among the reliable goalscorers of the league) offset gains from big Pronger in my opinion

Montreal influence: None

Verdict: A playoff team that took sideways steps should still be a playoff team. And, adding Pronger will be a bigger help for the playoffs (which is probably where the logic behind this move comes in). Like Boston, any regression among players that may yet be overachievers from last year will change the whole story

Pittsburgh Penguins

Trade deadline: Improved – Guerin and Kunitz in, Whitney out

Summer moves: Equilibrium – losing Gill, Scuderi and Garon, it could be worse. Jay McKee should be able to make what was largely a barely adequate defence in the first place barely adequate again

Montreal influence: Marginal, losing Gill probably won't hurt the Penguins too much

Verdict: The Cup winners retain the favourite tag as they retain their key ingredients Crosby, Malkin and Gonchar. They'll find someone to take the place of Sykora and Satan. The weaker Atlantic is theirs for the taking

Tampa Bay Lightning

Trade deadline: Liquidation – like the Islanders everything out for little in

Summer moves: Vast improvement – Hedman, Ohlund and Foster should make their D better than it's been since 2004 and Nittymaki may be the goalie that's just good enough to keep the team in games

Montreal influence: Unfulfilled. What could have caused major disruption to their summer has seemingly not affected Brian Lawton's signing record

Verdict: Tampa has a long way to go from their abysmal seasons of 2007-08 and 2008-09. Hedman and Ohlund are steps in the right direction, but their forward depth also needs work. I think there's another season of growing to be done here. Like Tavares, though, Stamkos could be the wild card who proves me wrong

Toronto Maple Leafs

Trade deadline: Worsened – unloaded players for picks

Summer moves: Bettered – no players lost and a couple of pretty good ones in

Montreal influence: Questionable. They did sign a Montreal player and a player that the Montreal public was asking for – but Brian Burke doesn't do spite, does he?

Verdict: As of today, Toronto are not improved enough in my eyes to challenge for division leads or probably even playoff berths. However, they're close. You'll note that they flirted with the playoffs before trading Antropov and Moore, so if those two are replaced through signings, it could be close. The wild card is always the Toronto spirit – as seemingly write-off teams often make it to March with a real shout

Washington Capitals

Trade deadline: No moves

Summer moves: Stable – Morrison and Knuble come in with a couple of very nice signings, but they'll likely be replacing Fedorov and Kozlov

Montreal influence: None

Verdict: With Ovechkin, Semin, Green and Backstrom this team is and will be Pittsburgh's thorn in the side for years to come. I don't think there's any question that they'll contend for their division and cruise into the playoffs. The questions they have all seem to lead to better outcomes: if Varlamov plays like a star, they'll have a goalie for the first time since Huet's month there; if Morrison produces, they'll have a second line...

Montreal's relative position

If we assume that Montreal has remained stable, neither improving nor falling down this summer from an isolated viewpoint, then I'd have to say that their relative position is looking slightly better today than it was on June 15th.

No top teams in the East have made sweeping and convincing changes, and in fact a couple of the teams from among the 7 that were ahead of us in the standings last season are on the verge of entering the season in worse positions than before.

What's more the teams in the playoff crunch (6-12) where Montreal reside have been lacklustre in their signing success as well. Among them, it seems that pesky Buffalo and Florida could actually fall out of the race, barring further adjustments.

It's not the rousing return to the 1970s that we're all after, but a playoff clinch with 4 games to go is not to be sniffed at, and that could be within reach. Should be an interesting rest of the summer as we see this relative position evolve. And then the season, when all this speculation goes out the window, n'est-ce pas?

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