Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gainey At The Tipping Point: Is Gionta An Injury Too Far?

It's official, Brian Gionta is injured.

According to RDS reports, Gionta will be out for an undetermined length of time.

This injury sends ripples through the whole lineup, meaning a less effective #1 line and PP, to be served up with less effective lines #2-4 and PK. Gionta is the fourth major injury for this team in the young campaign, and the second of serious consequence.

The length of Gionta's injury means everything to me here. If he's out a couple of weeks – fine, we suck it up. If it's a month or more – Gainey has some critical decisions to make, because he will have lost his best defender and his best all-around forward while work continues with a skeleton crew.

You all know how I felt about Gainey replacing Andrei Markov with an offense-only cast-off. Bergeron has replaced one element of the Markov offering while falling excruciatingly short on the 15 other areas of his proficiency. It was never a tolerable situation for me, but now that Gionta is removed from the equation, it is especially unpalatable.

If, in the worst case, Gionta is out for 4-5 weeks, the team could be floundering through. A month from Tuesday would mean 15 games. Should the go just about 0.500, with a generous helping of luck and contribution from the suddenly awakened, the team could still be a playoff outsider at the 36-game mark. Given that they've been a low-scoring sub-500 unit with 8-goal Gionta to this point, one would expect nothing more.

The way I see it, Gainey has played the gamble with wait and see to this point. Now his wait and see is becoming more clear – a struggling team who may struggle more. It speaks to decision time for me.

Where to finish?

There are only two places worth finishing in this league: at the top and at the bottom. To finish the middle, as the Canadiens and Leafs and Oilers can attest to is to live behind the rotation of teams that go from top to bottom, bottom to top.

Playing without Gionta is not the issue here. The issue remains playing without Markov. Playing without Markov and vying for the playoffs with a full team is just about realistic to the less sceptical among us. But playing without Markov on a depleted team who've already dug themselves a hole to get out of? Doesn't that look like a losing battle?

What do I suggest?

The specifics of the moves are beyond me at this point. However, I think Gainey will need to make his decision now before it's too late. Simply put, I propose that he decide that we are vying to be in the top teams (ergo, make a move to help that happen) or that we are vying to be in the bottom teams (ergo, make moves to a) help this happen and b) be in better position for next season).

Going for it at this point, isn't crazy. It is conceivable that a simple addition (through shipping prospects or picks) could land the right player to carry the team through 15 games and bolster what we've been seeing in action when Gionta does return.

The opposite scenario would require some strong will and a more maneuvering, but could turn the Canadiens into a better outfit for next season, just as it worked for the Flyers 3 years ago. Assets like Halak would have to be shopped, as would some players of full and actual value (i.e., not Gomez) – getting a few first rounders this season might make it worthwhile.

I don't know where I want this to end up (top or bottom), but I can tell you that I don't want to stumble into 9th/10th in the East and come into next season with a 2009 Mr. Hockey playing defenceman from Minnesota. Tough decisions lie behind all the successes in this league – I think it's time Gainey stopped putting his off.

Don't you think?

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