Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Gainey Gets His Centre

Like the rest of you, I had a bit of trouble getting to grips with this trade at first. I mean, at first glance, it goes against conventional wisdom – and on several levels.

It is at once adding an overpaid player and a long-term contract in a time where flexibility is being touted everywhere. It also puts in place a #1 centre who is no bigger than Saku Koivu, thereby either blocking, or certainly reducing the chances of installing someone really big. Finally, I suppose the timing. It does really smack of a move that could have been made after Gainey tried his luck with the UFAs.

A good night's sleep has me thinking a little differently this morning.

Trade reports were misleading

The first we heard of the trade was Higgins for Gomez. Fair enough. But later it came out that it was Higgins, McDonagh, Valentenko and Janik for Gomez and others.

Psychologically this was bruising. Higgins for Gomez at first sounds great, though there's anxiety about the salary. But McDonagh as a throw-in reeks of Rejean Houle, and Valentenko to top it off.

My rest has given me new perspective. First of all, I think realistically this trade was McDonagh for Gomez, or at best McDonagh and Higgins. For their part Janik and Valentenko were already nothing to me. They were never to play for the Canadiens, so trade chips for the league, they might as well be. But just switching Higgins to the throw-in, from McDonagh puts it all in a new light for me. It's hot prospect for top centre. Fine. Throw in a winger who can be replaced by almost any number of the draft picks we've made from the last 5 years (since he's no longer a talented top-liner).

Trade in full

Perspective renewed, I looked again. I even bothered to check what the other two guys have done and why Gainey might have been interested in them instead of just fretting at losing a Russian I liked.

There's no doubt from anyone here that the best player in the trade is Scott Gomez. If Sam Pollock was evaluating the trade, he might say that Montreal won on the basis of that fact alone. Luckily for Sam he didn't have to weigh up for salary eaten.

Seriously though, Montreal did alright here. Gomez is a top-line player, and though Pyatt and Busto haven't an NHL game between them, there's reason enough to believe at least one of them will one day.

Tom Pyatt for his part wasn't a standout in his draft year so fell. But despite his small stature, he managed to cobble an excellent 40+ goal season in the OHL 2 years ago to go with 2 WJC gold medals for Canada. Two team Canada appearances alone show there's something to him. I wouldn't be that surprised if he replaces Higgins outright – after all what's 11 goals and 12 assists?

Michael Busto
is a lower leaguer, so written off in a flash. But was he selected or was he a throw away? The simple fact that he played for the Kootenay Ice in 2006-07 tells me that he was hand-picked by the Habs, simply because they will have watched that team quite a bit scouting Ben Maxwell and Ryan Russell. In some ways, I see this then as a bonus draft pick. He's a big enough defenceman who could conceivably one day play in the league. It's as good as Janik, and realistically better than Valentenko. Not a bad upgrade.

The Canadiens for their part gave up less than our initial emotional outpouring suggests, I think. I mean look at it from the Rangers point of view. Sure, they're happy about ditching a $7.3 million salary so they can waste all the cap room by the end of today on another Roszival, but take the salary aspect away and it's a different picture.

First, they get Ryan McDonagh who at this point can't be called anything more than a prospect. No offense to Ryan, but how does one expect him to be the next Chris Chelios when it's debatable whether he's even a top 3 defender on his own team, let alone the league. And it's not like Wisconsin were the top team in the league. Add to that the fact that Markov is a fixture in Montreal, Gorges has progressed and Weber and Subban have easily leapfrogged him in the pecking order, McDonagh was not value enough to fetch a Gomez.

Chris Higgins of course is a known quantity for Canadiens fans. But this season, I think was a little closer to the truth than Chris might like to admit. To say we were surprised when he notched 22 goals as a rookie would be an understatement. Nothing in his past suggested he could or would do that. He solidified his reputation as a twenty goal threat the next two seasons, with 23 and 27, but to go to thirty? It's a stretch. Ironically, the only way Higgins might do that is with a supreme passing talent like Gomez, since he needs open nets on most nights, usually 3 or 4 per goal. Seeing as his unreliability with the finish probably meant his career path now reads 3rd/4th liner, where's the harm in losing him? After all, as we know, 3rd/4th liners are truly the only commodity that one can pick up with any success in this league. Losing Higgins for the Habs means creating a place that a Hamilton player can fill almost right away. For the Rangers, picking up Higgins means they get a lot of energy and a bit of hope.

Finally, Valentenko and Janik. Valentenko is likely in Russia for good now, since he's too good in his own mind to take a tryout at this point, yet not good enough in the eyes of NHL execs to get guaranteed money. Why the Rangers wanted him, I'm not sure. one to watch. Janik, the forgotten man, was never going to play in Montreal. He failed a tryout where all he had to do was outplay O'Byrne.

Salary balance

I can't convince you or myself that we're better off with salary today than we were yesterday. The Gomez salary is horrendous. It is, however, about par for the course for top players who've received a contract in the past 3 seasons. It is worse than say Sundin, Richards, Briere, Richards and any other number of top centres.

I will also suggest that Gainey is reshuffling his salary so that players are paid in the old-fashioned top-heavy way. Getting rid of Higgins (the potentially $3 million 3rd liner), Bouillon and Dandenault ($2 million spares) is the indication for me. We should know more by the weekend.

For another thing, Gainey must surely know by today that salary flexibility isn't all it's cracked up to be. Nor will it be next year, in all likelihood. I wouldn't say you want to fill your cap up with overpayment, but it seems having loads to spend on July 1 is a false promise, to say the least. Might as well gamble with a player instead of gambling with bargaining power again.

Saku Koivu

The hardest aspect of this trade to take is the chance that Saku Koivu might have been replaced with a younger and heavier version. Gomez, from all accounts is a bit of a Koivu with his tenacity, his playoff performance and his incredible passing vision.

Many fans are visibly upset that we have gone for the Koivu "upgrade". But unlike me, it's not because they are sad to lose Saku (RDS poll showed that).

I think many fans presumed that the small skillful centre era was coming to an end. I think most fans deemed that era to be a failure. Personally, I'm glad Gainey is not so closed-minded as that. And, frankly, I think blaming Koivu for the lack of Stanley Cup parades even over the last 5 years is wholly unfair. In fact, if there were one thing I'd take from these last ten years of Koivu, it's that the whole big centre myth is a bit bogus. Someone competitive, given wingers with enough talent to bury a chance (see not Higgins) is what you need. After all it was Briere/Richards to beat the Canadiens one year and Savard/Krejci the next. Datsyuk's been to the Stanley Cup final in both years, Joe Thornton never got a sniff.

So sadness then? Koivu's gone?

Well he ain't gone yet. And, depending on the results of today's efforts, he may not be gone for this season either. I've seen others who agree that Gomez, Koivu, Plekanec would be nice. I think so too. I also think the possibility of future trades is there either way too.

Obviously I had a good sleep. As I can see from comments all around, many of you didn't. I wish you a better day and a sleep just like mine after the fireworks have gone off this evening so that you can start to see something positive in supporting this team (with Gomez at the helm) for the next 9+ months.

Happy Canada Day all.

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