Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ranking Prospects

If you were to take the internauts' word for it, the Canadiens don't have a very bright future at all.

Today, Hockey Prospectus published their rationale for placing the Canadiens 24th on the list of 30 NHL teams (behind the Toronto Maple Leafs!).

Add this to the already sad ranking of #20 at Hockey's Future, and what's a Habs fan to think?

Think is the key word.

Detroit is the first ranked team on the Hockey Prospectus page in terms of prospects. This might be your first flag that methods need investigating.

Is Detroit the only team in the NHL without worthwhile player to make the NHL from drafts 2005-2010? They very well might be. Shawn Matthis, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader highlight the NHL leaders from the 30-odd players Detroit has selected in that time. Compare this to Carey Price (Hart trophy votes), Yannick Weber, Guillaume Latendresse, Sergei Kostitsyn (team's leading scorer), PK Subban to name but a few.

You can see the issue here. Part of it is that Montreal has promoted players to the NHL level -- thereby taking them out of the "prospect" ranking formulae. Part of the issue is that Detroit gives their players more time (partly because they can due to NHL roster depth).

Let's take the example of Brendan Smith. He was drafted #27 overall in the 2007 entry draft and played some god years in the NCAA since. Last year he put up decent numbers in the AHL as rookie. He projects as a good-looking top prospect for the Wings.

But now consider that he was taken only a few picks ahead of PK Subban, is older than PK and actually got less points as an AHL rookie than PK did as an NHL rookie. Detroit's ranking is being helped by a player much less exciting a prospect than PK, even though PK probably has many more productive NHL years ahead of him than Brendan will. And it doesn't stop there. Yannick Weber was also drafted that year and turned the AHL rookie success earlier than Smith. He has since made an NHL case and was scoring important NHL playoff goals against the Stanley Cup champions while Smith was watching the AHL playoffs.

So you see it's a bit of nonsense already, and I didn't even have to delve very far, or mention Carey Price.

The reason people came up with the saying "Hindsight is 20/20" is because predicting and foretelling very much isn't. The lesson here is to take these rankings with the appropriate amount of salt. While the player profiles provide an interesting read, the ranking process is tenuous. When one could make a case that #24 Montreal has better young prospects (NHL and AHL) than #1 Detroit, you can see my point.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On The Defensive

More tears have been shed in the past few days over a signing that some disagreed with the terms of than I remember for a long time.

The injustice: Josh Gorges, offered a mere 1-year term at double his previous salary. It's easy to see why that would be more troubling than the non-tendering of a contract to the second-longest captain in team history.

While we expect there to be factions of fans that attach themselves to one idol or another, what so surprised me was the response of the beat journalists on this one.

Eric Engels spent a whole weekend trying to work this one out (so he claimed). Glad I didn't give it a second thought now that I hear the turmoil it created for him:

Habs Refuse to Commit Long Term to Gorges

The always level Arpon Basu was nearly capsized by the sounds of it. Puzzled he said by the result of this affair:

A head scratcher

And Pat Hickey warns the Habs of stormy times ahead without the "ultimate team guy" they just signed for double his previous salary.

Short-term Gorges deal may end up hurting the Habs

Really? Really?

I don't mean to belittle the real anguish that fans and reporters alike felt for #26, but really?

Josh Gorges just signed a contract for double his former salary. He signed in a summer where other good team guys were just let go without so much as a wave: Halpern, Auld, Hamrlik, Sopel. He was the only Canadiens player to sign for a raise over qualifying. He got a raise despite his injury, despite his decisions about that injury (not getting surgery in an offseason).

If not that, I guess what we're beating ourselves up about is the term. A year. What an insult. For a team that hands out exuberant contracts to all of its up and comers every year. Oh wait...

So, if a year is in fact in keeping with the short length of many previous signings of similar nature (Koivu, Plekanec, Price), then what is all the fuss about?

Josh Gorges is back and there's nothing to say he won't be signed again and again and again. If he plays well, the Habs still get the first option. If he doesn't then they get the luxury of not having a Gomez clause factoring into their decisions about their future with Josh. It's good for the team and their prospects at improving their personnel. It's good for the chance of signing Subban and Price and maybe others next summer. It's good for the young guys to see an opportunity. It's even good for Josh who doubled his salary, did I mention?

In the end, it's salary cap world guys. No lifetime franchise players, maybe one or two. It might be painful, but "ultimate team guys" who play the role Josh Gorges has played will come and go, and keep coming and going, for as long as this league operates under this system.

No need to get defensive any about defensive defencemen.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Habs' Quiet Summer

A mere two years ago, I was spending Canada Day in Trafalgar Square and entertaining discussions with Habs fans from around the world on the additions of Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri, the imminent departures of Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu.

It was an overhaul to overhaul all overhauls. The core of the the team was torn out and millions of dollars were thrown at the repair job. For a twitter user, it was a busy few days.

Jump two years and here we are. It's July 25th already and the speed of news couldn't be helped by twitter -- there hasn't been any. I say none, that's untrue, but for fans used to reading and writing about this team a few times a day, the ten news items that have passed since playoff elimination put us in chat topic tundra.

It's hard to say whether I'd have been happier if searches on Google News had turned up more over these weeks or not. I'm sure a Gomez trade or a Brad Richards signing would have been hours of fun. But in many ways, I don't think I could be more pleased with the way the summer has gone to this point. Maybe that's because this summer I was hoping for relative lack of movement on many fronts, a sign of the content with the team of last season and the discontent with the markets (both free agent and trade).

So, on the heels of avoiding arbitration with a very modest contract, I present to you the top ten Habs quiet coups of Summer 2011:

1) Signing Andrei Markov to what he made before
The Habs could have been more aggressive with negotiation I'm sure. But the numbers they came to at the end made a lot of sense for a player they know and employ so well. There was no shenanigans, no Holmgrenisms in the contract. Just a straight vote of confidence in salary and term.

2) Winning over Alexei Emelin
We've known about this guy as a prospect for years. But he comes to Montreal now as one of the top defenders from the next best league in the world -- it's hard to imagine him not making a top 6. It sounded like it took some doing from Gauthier, perhaps wheels greased by some quality Slovakian Pilsener. A big addition without the inherent risks of dealing with other GMs trying to work you over.

3) Not blowing the budget right away
The salary cap went up by quite a fair margin making players out of many teams that may have thought themselves out, including the Habs. But it was good judgment to keep spending to a minimum on July 1, when the banks opened. The market was weak, and as we see now much of what was available at 3 pm that day is still on the shelves now.

4) Not trading up in the draft
Last year the Habs traded up in the draft and got Tinordi for the cost of two slightly lower picks. They came out with a bet on a tall player, but a step back in terms of depth (usually skillfully filled in second rounders). This year, the team must have considered doing the same when Beaulieu started being passed over. They got a player who dropped anyway and ended up with some bodies from the draft and picks for future years.

5) Repatriating Brock Trotter
Little fanfare for the move, but Brock Trotter was Hamilton's top scorer two seasons ago and he will be again. Both Hamilton and Trotter had got themselves into binds, and both found each other to get out.

6) Maintaining a presence in Switzerland
I harp on about the potential goldmine that could be mined in Russia by a more daring franchise. The Habs seem to be doing their mining quite well in Switzerland. First Streit and Weber, now Diaz and Berger through early free agent signings. Diaz comes with a pedigree and quite a reputation, while Berger is that big right-handed shot who scored as many or more goals in this year's OHL as lots of 2011's first rounders.

7) Resigning Hal Gill
Say what you want about the regular season, this guy is a playoff revelation. The guy who signed Rob Scuderi must be kicking himself now for missing the subtlety of Gill. His price is not a bargain, but a better package of mentor, shot blocker and cooler head is hard to find.

8) Shed no tears
The sentimental team rarely wins. So after good year(s) of service from Halpern, Auld, Pyatt and co. it was OK to watch them go. When the team felt there was a replacement coming up the depth chart, the player was not tendered. Simple. It's good hockey too.

9) Resigning Andrei Kostitsyn
A player who is big, talented and can score 20 goals on the Montreal Canadiens anemic roster. This was our hope from this year's free agency. Well, just ahead of that, Gauthier ignored the calls of the more melodramatic faithful and signed this very player from under his own nose. A good holding play.

10) Realizing a good top 6 requires a good top 7/8...
After Pacioretty and Kostitsyn were resigned, the team's intact top 6 from the healthy halcyon days of January was back. But with money in the pocket and a few seasons of watching temperamental forwards, Gauthier sprung for another to complement the group. Hopefully Travis Moen can earn his cheques with an off-ice view of Plekanec and Gomez from now on.

And the news that bore the story didn't make the list. The Gorges signing is a good solid move. But it was never going to be overlooked, it was never going to go to arbitration and it was never going to be exciting in terms of numbers, term or salary cap gymnastics. As he is on ice, Gorges quietly passed the puck to the next story without making much of a show of it...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Giveaway King says Ilya Kovalchuk is the NHL's giveaway king.

Scott Cullen says it's Joe Thornton. would say Hal Gill is the worst in Montreal, Cullen would say Spacek.

But there's a revelation here. The NHL tracks giveaways for the whole team, but does not. At some point, the website takes certain stats kept for goalies and throws them on the trash heap.

Last season, Hal Gill had a whopping 62 giveaways. But even he was eclipsed by the free-passing Carey Price for whom the league noted 77 giveaways.

77 giveaways for our goalie places him at the distinguished rank of 11th in a tie with Drew Doughty. It's unclear if he was surpassed by other goalies (because I neither have the time nor the interest to compile that many stats), but chances are based on games played and impressions that very few if any beat him to the mark.

Considering also that every one of Carey Price's giveaways was in the defensive zone and that unlike Thornton who offset his GvA with 114 takeaways, Carey had a single act of out of crease thievery. Never mind that he, unlike defenders, is rarely obligated to handle the puck. He must surely be the leader in unnecessary giveaways if nothing else.

For me, no discussion of giveaways in the NHL should take place without mention of our local leader in this regard. And, hey, who wouldn't want to be in the heady company of guys like Kovalchuk, Thornton, St. Louis and Keith with all the trophies they've won. Price is keeping some good company with his puck handling.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Gorging On Shooting Stats

The other day I read that Josh Gorges better look out at arbitration, because he is in fact the worst defenceman in the entire league at putting shots on net – or at least he was last season.

The stats compiled by Scott Cullen at TSN rely on two statistics – shots on goal and missed shots. Add them together and one can get an idea of how many shots released by a player actually hit the net. Josh Gorges was the worst Dman in the league with a meager 51.3% of his shots actually hitting the net. I’m not sure this will really be the breaking point for Gorges, however, as he only directed 39 shots on or off the net anyway.

Still, the article did inspire me to delve a little deeper into the stats I collected this past season. For your summertime pleasure, then, I present a look into chances, shots and attempts for the 2010-11 Montreal Canadiens (regular season).

Shots on net

Credit to Scott Cullen for a good topical subject. To go further, however, I am going to look at all shots (not just the ones recorded on the NHL’s main page) from the season, including those that were blocked by defenders.
Sadly for Josh Gorges, the news gets worse. When we factor in his 23 blocked attempts, we actually find that he only got 32% of the shots released from his stick on net. I don’t know how the NHL stacks up in this regard, but I can tell you only Andreas Engqvist was worse on the Habs, and he only had 4 attempts.

% shots/attempt

Top tier (>60%): Moen (72%), Lapierre, White, Desharnais, Pouliot

Second tier (51-60%): Dawes, O’Byrne, Pacioretty, Mara, Darche, Gionta, Plekanec, Gomez, Cammalleri, Halpern, Pyatt, Markov, Kostitsyn, Subban

Third tier (41-50%): Palushaj, Nash, Wisniewski, Hamrlik, Eller, Gill, Picard, Boyd

Bottom tier (<40%): Weber, Spacek, Sopel, Gorges, Engqvist (25%)

From this data, I think we can infer a few things. First, forwards have clearer sightlines and so generally convert more of their attempts into shots on net. Second, getting shots on net is not really a great measure of player quality (sorry, Scott Cullen). I think we all watched enough of Travis Moen, Maxim Lapierre and Ryan White to know we’d rather see a few missed shots if it means a player who is actually capable of beating a goalie can have the puck on his stick once in a while.

Chances on net

Just as a blocked shot or a missed shot may be a waste, so too could an ill-advised shot from a bad angle, a low percentage shot.
Thanks to Olivier at En Attendant les Nordiques we now have two seasons worth of analysis on which shots came from dangerous positions.

% chances/attempt

Outlier (>50%): Palushaj (67%)

Top tier (41-50%): Kostitsyn, Cammalleri, Moen, Lapierre, Plekanec, Darche, Desharnais, Eller, Gionta, Pouliot

Second tier (31-40%): Dawes, Halpern, Pacioretty, Gomez, Boyd

Third tier (21-30%): White, Pyatt, Engqvist, Markov

Fourth tier (11-20%): Wisniewski, Subban, Picard

Bottom tier (1-10%): Hamrlik, Gorges, Weber, Gill, Spacek

No chances (0%) Sopel, Mara, Nash, O’Byrne

Kostitsyn and Cammalleri’s presence at second and third is telling because most think of those two as the best pure shooters on the team. Given that a scoring chance in Olivier’s analysis is defined as an attempt (on net, missed or blocked) from a dangerous area, this data shows how these two guys excel at getting in position (or at least in not shooting from bad positions).

Defencemen don’t have the same opportunity to get into “chance” territory. But consider that 22% of Andrei Markov’s attempts were scoring chances … positioning again, and we can just see the PP pinch.

Chances needed to score

A common exclamation in my household is: “How many chances does this guy need to be fed to put one in?” The mark of a scorer is reliability in good positions. But like shooting percentage, this stat gives insight into the luck (good or bad) that was at play as well.


Top tier (<5): Jeff Halpern (3.73), Subban, Wisniewski, Desharnais, Picard, Gill, Pacioretty

Second tier (5-10): Gorges, Darche, Hamrlik, Boyd, White, Pouliot, Gionta, Plekanec, Markov, Cammalleri, Kostitsyn, Lapierre, Eller

Bottom tier (>10): Moen, Spacek, Gomez, Weber, Pyatt (17.00)

Conspicuous in these lists are players at the top and bottom that are no longer around: Pyatt for his utter futility around the net given good chances and Halpern, Picard and Wisniewski based on the bet they might never replicate this form. Gomez too should be ashamed of his presence on this list, as it’s hard to blame everyone else for one’s poor stats when one take nearly 13 chances to score a goal.

Chance creation while on ice

In fairness to Josh Gorges, his job when he’s on the ice is not shot or chance creation. In fact, when he’s on the ice as part of a 5-man unit, he is usually the 5th (sometimes the 4th) player responsible for that aspect of the game.

To evaluate Gorges contribution to offense is difficult. Really it is about how he creates space for his teammates through quick and crisp defensive play and transition. Of course, there’s not one measure of this. If there were, we wouldn’t need to waste our time with things like Corsi.

One measure that comes close to this is zone shift. Unfortunately, I don’t track that. So my proxy for this activity today will be percentage of attempts that are scored as scoring chances while a player is on the ice – the idea being that each player is ultimately driving to create scoring with his team unit and avoid non-chances, so this percentage gives one look into the quest.


Top tier (>50%): Cammalleri (54%)

Second tier (41-50%): Plekanec, Wisniewski, Kostitsyn, Gionta, Subban, Markov

Third tier (31-40%): Desharnais, Gomez, Hamrlik, Darche, Pacioretty, Weber, Gorges, Spacek, Gill, Picard, Moen, Sopel, Lapierre

Fourth tier (21-30%): Boyd, Halpern, Mara, Pouliot, Pyatt, Eller, White, Palushaj

Bottom tier (<20%): O’Byrne, Nash, Dawes, Engqvist (8%)

Maybe it’s the way we watch the game, but it’s uncanny how this list pans out. I think of Cammalleri as really the only undisputed star on the Habs, and there I he is, miles ahead. The next tier lists the guys I would say have better than average offensive instincts. That fourth tier has a lot of “steer clears”.

The big surprise (though obviously not to Habs management) is Pouliot. While he ranked highly in converting his own attempts into scoring chances, it seems those he played with were simply bad. Apparently management didn’t think his hands were clean in this debacle.

This look into shots is no more definitive than Scott Cullen's work, but it does at least give Josh Gorges a little bit of hope. It appears from this at least that shots/attempt is the area in which he performed worst last season. In fact, in some of the other areas he did quite well. And to vindicate management decisions here, he does appear to be better than Mara, Sopel and some of the other former Habs.

Apart from Gorges, there's more insights, I'm sure. Cammalleri looks good in most lists and Markov looks the class at the back end. So at least logic isn't defied. Further than this, I'll leave the conclusions to you all.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Not Yet Time To Write Off AK46

Just today, there were a couple of good articles on the Habs. One looked back at the Corsi-related stats for the Habs over the 2010-11 season, the other anticipated 10 possible surprises for the upcoming season. Read both. They’re good summer reading for hockey fans.

Both articles, whether intentionally or not, ignored/slighted Andrei Kostitsyn.

In the first, the author looked at Andrei stats and concluded that he was an adequate (“fairly solid” actually) top 6 forward. Nothing wrong with that on its own.

The second article is only fun speculation, I’m aware. Yet in keeping with popular trends, the surprises weighed heavily on Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty, even Erik Cole. In fact, the article mentions every top forward on the team except for Andrei Kostitsyn. Pacioretty is the top potential surprise, Eller #3, Gomez is in there, and the others could all benefit from Cole.

I don’t wish to pick on articles that took summer air and made it into readable articles on the Habs, but I use them to introduce what I have been noticing as a trend among summer Habs fans.

When it comes to scoring lines and Andrei Kostitsyn, it appears that the majority are simply brushing him aside, some even actively writing him off.

How many times have I read that Pacioretty will benefit from Cole on his line? Or that Eller will be ready to step in for Gomez? How many times have I seen comment on the soon-to-be miraculous influence that 3-time 20-, 1-time 30-goalscorer Erik Cole would have on this team? And how many times have we heard that Andrei might not be a complete write-off because he had some late season chemistry with Lars Eller?

In a summer of gushing positivity, the stream has been diverted around the Belarussian.

I am here to defend Andrei’s case (yet again), because I just don’t think it’s time to write this guy completely out of the plans yet. By all means take the evidence and arguments presented elsewhere into your consideration. But to fill in the information gap, please also consider this:

1) Same pace as Erik Cole over the last 4 years

Andrei Kostitsyn (2007-2011): 292 GP, 84 G, 88 A, 172 Pts (0.29 G/G, 0.30 A/G, 0.59 Pts/G)

Erik Cole (2007-2011): 275 GP, 77 G, 84 A, 161 Pts (0.28 G/G, 0.31 A/G, 0.59 Pts/G)

Both players have had the benefit of some great scoring linemates (Kovalev, Staal) and both have had moments on less productive units. Still, at the end of the day, they both produced at an uncannily similar rate. These guys are even the same weight.

2) Even strength scoring strength

15 goals, 13 A1, 6 A2 for 34 points at even strength.

It doesn’t sound that impressive, but considering that puts him 3rd in goals, 1st in assists and 2nd in points on the team, it’s not shabby. Even despite Pacioretty’s streaky greatness, Andrei actually rivaled him at ES with 1.85 vs. 1.93 Pts/60 and 0.82 vs. 0.84 G/60. He was also a fair shade better than Cammalleri, Eller and (of course) Gomez in this regard.

3) Passing to Plekanec

We dwell on goals sometimes if we label someone a goalscorer, and that’s fair. But if we want one of our centres to continue being a 20-30 goal threat, someone has to do the set-up work. Now Cammalleri is a fine and underrated passer, but so is Andrei.

Because 17 of Andrei’s 25 assists were first assists, he ended up creating more goals than one would expect from a 45 point getter. His 0.981 goals created/60 was second on the team to only Pacioretty, and at even strength, he outdistanced everyone with 0.923 GC/60.

4) Important goals

I addressed this before (The Ideal 20 Goalscorer), but it’s worth reiterating. A large percentage of Andrei’s goals were important goals: 6 GWG, 2 GTG and 3 first goals. Totals that put him in the top 3 on the team in each category (first in GW, tied with Gionta).

5) Chances generated

In the age of advanced stats, we have been lulled into comparing elements like Corsi and Team chances for and against as readings for players. There is nothing wrong with this, but we must remember that Corsi and chance differentials were built as extra tools to be taken into account with all the other measures, not as exclusive “be-all, end-all” metrics.

So it’s worth throwing in another advanced stat for Andrei here. Chances on net released from his stick. I believe there is something to be said for getting into position and actually being able to direct what Olivier deems to be a chance against a goalie.

Andrei was 3rd on the team in absolute chances by my count and 2nd in chances per 60 minutes behind Brian Gionta (7.94 Ch/60 vs. 7.69 Ch/60).

Based on these things, and a history of watching this player, I’m suggesting it’s far too early to write Andrei Kostitsyn out of the Canadiens plans for the roster, the top two lines or indeed the top line.

Cole is an interesting addition and Pacioretty and Eller gave us all something to be optimistic about at times last season, but all the while Andrei was there – scoring 20 goals and providing an ES threat even in what people called an off season.

I think this is a positive. If Cole plays as well as he can and still only cracks the third line, he will no doubt still be an upgrade on Moen or Darche for all the reasons that have been expounded over the past two weeks. If Pacioretty needs more time to grow and has to eat his pride a bit while playing in the bottom six, he too will still be an improvement on the options that were available last season.

Of course, it could be that it will be Kostitsyn patrolling the third wave with Eller or Gomez. It’s just me and some of the evidence don’t see things turning out that way.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Waiting On Breakout Seasons

The Canadiens go into the season with a pretty good group of 6 defencemen and top 6 forwards. Yet with Erik Cole (and hopefully Andrei Markov) replacing James Wisniewski and Benoit Pouliot, the question of goalscoring still looms heavy.

Optimists will tell us that the progression of Pacioretty, Eller, Desharnais and others will more than make up for this concern.

Oh, optimism. I came across this article this morning about some Philly fans who are likely more optimistic than those projecting our first rounders (Mike Testwuide? He was tried out by the Habs years ago and underwhelmed...). But the points made still carry a lot of relevance for Habs fans. Another good read.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Will Travis Moen's Value Ever be Higher?

A twist, and suddenly teams may look and Travis Moen and say - hey, he's just what we need. Maybe even teams that have watched him labour on the first/second line.

The focus has naturally turned to Gomez and Spacek on this salary floor story, but it would be irresponsible to leave out Moen, who at his current salary is also a bit of a waste of money (the fighter that can't fight, the big guy who doesn't check, etc, etc.)

I'd suggest that even the mismanaged franchises among those listed in this article know enough to steer clear of G-Love, and probably Spacek too. But for a cool $1.5 million of salary floor relief, the fully playable/moveable/benchable Moen is salary floor magic.

(Note: I like Moen. It's nothing personal, but one has to admit that if a player can provide the same play for league minimum, $1 million is there for the taking. Anyway, I just think you should all check out the article...)

Monday, July 04, 2011

Cole Shoulders High Expectations in Montreal

Two somewhat paranormal coincidences to report, one being my comment on Topham's Thursday post about my "dream signing" being Erik Cole; and him being signed hours later. The second is that I apparently agree with Jack Todd, for once. Eerie.

So why Erik Cole?

In my opinion, the biggest need for the Habs up front this off-season was clear: a proven top-6 winger with size. We've all talked before on many occasions about the need for a power forward, preferably a good winger to play with the albatross that is Scott Gomez. Someone who can battle in front of the net, and not have Andrew Leighton simply look over their heads if they set a screen. Someone who can score at least 20 goals a season; the more, the better. Having another RH shot among the forwards would also be a big plus, as only Gionta and Ryan White currently qualify.

Now, we knew we were fooling ourselves if we even dared think about Jaromir Jagr or Brad Richards; and wonder idly if there was ever any talk from head office to, say, the Sharks about Setoguchi or Pavelski when they were moved. The UFA pool was fairly shallow this year, so Montreal didn't have a lot of great choices. Once Philly wrapped up RFA Claude Giroux, the market consisted basically of Cole, Michael Ryder, and Jamie Langenbrunner.

Michael Ryder
We've been here before. Ryder was a Calder-nominated rookie for us back in 2003-04, scoring 25 goals and 38 assists. He had 2 straight 30-goal campaigns after the lockout, but a sub-par 2007-08 season (likely due to personal issues related to his brother) saw him benched by Carbonneau and left to free agency. He rebounded with Boston, scoring 27 goals and over 50 points again, but since has trailed off to 33 points last season and 41 this year despite around 15 minutes of ice-time. He's a proven scorer, and at 6' and 192 lbs is large for a Habs forward. Somehow I don't know that he'd welcome an offer from Montreal, nor that Montreal fans would be happy to have him back; and there's no guarantee he'll ever return to his 30-goal form. Dallas will pay him $3.5M per year for the next two seasons finding out.

Jamie Langenbrunner
The oldest of the trio at 35, Langenbrunner is a proven 2-way forward that's won two Cups (one with Dallas in 1999, and one with New Jersey in 2003). He fit in well with New Jersey's conservative style of play and Jacques Martin would probably love him for it. He's scored 20+ goals 4 times in 16 NHL seasons and twice came within 2 goals of the mark; and has 6 seasons with 50+ points. He's got good size at 6'1" and 205 lbs. Given that he's still unsigned, I'm left wondering why - he would have likely been a decent addition to many squads and his last contract was only worth $2.8M/yr. I am guessing Pierre Gauthier talked to him, but the fact he's still unsigned makes me think there's something a little fishy.

Erik Cole
At 32 years old and beginning his 10th NHL season, Cole has had his problems with injuries with an astonishing 86 games missed since the lockout. However, he's managed to clear 50 points 4 times in that span, and score 20+ three times (with another 18-goal season). However, he doesn't seem to play well with people who aren't Hurricanes: he had a pretty disastrous 27 points in 63 games with the Oilers in 2008-09 before returning to Carolina to put up 15 points in a mere 17 games. Still, he can be productive while playing tough minutes against hard opposition, and was one of only 5 players to score over 25 goals and deliver over 200 hits last season.

I reasoned that we need a big, RH winger that can hit and score. To me, Cole was the best choice. I think he's the biggest offensive threat of the three, he uses his size and at 6'2" and 205 lbs he's far from small. If he can stay healthy, and he did play 82 games last year, I don't think it's unreasonable to think he can put away another 25 goals and help Gomez pull his numbers up to reasonable levels - but I'm expecting a fair amount of line-juggling from Jacques Martin early on and the lines might not be what we're expecting. I was hoping to sign him for a little less than $4.5M for 2-3 years, but he'll be 37 at the contract's end and not exactly ancient. The reality is that we have to pay a premium to get players from the US that would rather not pay Canadian and Quebec taxes.

Maybe less like a "dream signing," and more like a realistic one. I guess I don't dream very big. But if Cole stays healthy, I think he can be the physical 25-goal scorer we could use so badly; and it least it's a dream that has a chance of coming true.

Let us know in the comments who I missed, and who you would have rather seen putting on the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge this past weekend.

The Reshuffle

Habs And Rivals After Busy Free Agency Period

In: Erik Cole, Peter Budaj
Out: James Wisnieski, Roman Hamrlik, Benoit Pouliot, Alex Auld

On the surface, this is Cole for Pouliot + cash and Budaj for Auld. Both moves are fine with me, even if I still think Pouliot has a special talent that I wish was a few more divisions away.

On the surface, it also looks like the Habs have created a hole on defence.
Of course they have (Hamrlik and Wisniewski were #1 and #2 at times last season), but the additions don't account for Andrei Markov who was essentially "not there" last year and that of Alexei Emelin.

Markov will easily plug the gap left by the Wizz (who did a bang up job of trying to fill Markov's position in his absence). Hamrlik, however, will be missed. Weber and Emelin are not at Roman's level yet, not even as a committee, so this is a subtraction as it stands.

Overall then, Montreal has taken a small step back so far on the backline, and taken a decent step forward up front. Overall, they look a slightly better team. Compared to themselves.

But once again, it's important not to take this situation in isolation. Just because Montreal adds 8 goals at forward doesn't mean a spot in the standings. That can't be determined without looking at the rivals and how they performed.

The teams ahead of the Habs

Last year, 5 teams beat the Habs by a fair margin in the East. Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston and Tampa Bay. All 5 teams were active in the past few weeks and will likely keep tweaking.

The Washington Capitals, winners of the East last season may be the most improved of all. The Caps overpaid to improve their forward depth (Brouwer, Ward), but it is still improved. On top of that, they added Hamrlik and upgraded on Semyon Varlamov by stealing Tomas Vokoun from the rest of the league. Add to this the fact that Washington can claim their own "Gomezes" (players who can't go anywhere but up) with Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom coming off quiet years.

In my opinion, Washington won't be caught or overtaken by the Habs with the moves and rosters as they stand.

In: Brouwer, Joel Ward, Hamrlik, Vokoun, Potulny, Halpern
Out: Varlamov, Boyd Gordon, Andrew Gordon, Sturm, Bradley

Philadelphia made waves early with their shock trades of Carter and Richards, but true to form added the salary right back in the form of Bryzgalov and Jagr.

The biggest difference in Philadelphia should be Bryzgalov, who, while overpaid, is a vast improvement over Leighton and Boucher. It's hard to know how much Philly gave up at the front through Richards, Carter and later Leino; but Voracek, Jagr and co. might lighten the blow at least a bit.

Overall, I still feel schizo Holmgren downgraded his team by going old and young at the same time. But the downgrade isn't to the point where I feel Philly will struggle to make the playoffs.

In: Bryzgalov, Voracek, Simonds, Schenn, Lilja, Talbot, Jagr
Out: Carter, Richards, Powe, Boucher, Leino, Carcillo, O'Donnell

Pittsburgh have been quieter till now. Happy it seems to wait the return of their cavalry. If people in Montreal are excited about having Markov back and Gomez having nowhere to go but up, imagine the Pens fans delight at the thought of adding to last season's plucky team through Crosby and Malkin.

Pittsburgh also quietly switched Talbot and Rupp for Steve Sullivan, who when healthy should find a place beside one of the big two.

It's perhaps not headline stuff, but the returning wounded improve Pittsburgh far beyond anything Montreal could have hoped to do anyway. This team will once again challenge for the top and the Cup barring injuries again.

In: Sullivan, Valabik
Out: Talbot, Rupp

Chiarelli must have had his day with the Stanley Cup on Friday because he did very little indeed. It says he lost Valabik, but he wasn't a big league Bruins. Essentially the balance was Ryder for Pouliot. Payment aside, this is a downgrade. While both have been Montreal playoff benchees, Ryder at least thrives with Julien. Pouliot may or may not.

Boston's minor downgrade may be enough for Montreal to challenge. Remember after all, that Boston only pipped the Habs at the end thanks to a certain few head-to-head encounters where focus was lost.

In: Pouliot
Out: Ryder, Valabik

In his second season, Stevie Y is slower out the gates. He changed his back-up goalie (Garon for Smith) and added some depth D, but lost Bergenheim and Gagne and may have to fight off offers for Stamkos.

Tampa improved by leaps and bounds last season and will still be fueled forward by Stamkos and Hedman, but questions about how much longer Roloson can perform, not to mention how much further Lecavalier will slide, point to some vulnerabilities there for rival Eastern clubs.

I think on balance Tampa will hold their position, at least for another season. It wouldn't be all that surprising if the Habs gained on this outfit, though.

In: Gervais, Garon, Gilroy
Out: Smith, Bergenheim, Gagne, Jones

The teams around the Habs

Montreal posted a 6th place finish last season. 6th place last season, indeed any season, is indication of membership in the competitive pack, the peloton.

The Buffalo Sabres were the 7th place team last spring. They actually matched the Canadiens 96 points and did it thanks to a a flourish at the finish. The Habs beat them on the tie break of 44 wins vs. 43 wins.

All that to say that these two teams are quite close. In fact, they've been leap-frogging each other for a few seasons since the lockout.

So far from being inconsequential, the moves Buffalo made (and makes) will directly affect the Habs. This is quite a pity for the Habs, because like Washington, Buffalo went out and made some pretty substantial and positive moves.

Their defence alone merits their inclusion in any list of winners from this period. While ejecting Steve Montador and Chris Butler, the Sabres added Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff. This makes for an interesting unit at the back, and an improved one.

On top of that, the Sabres overpaid to add Ville Leino - a feisty and combative forward who would have been considered an answer to the Habs "power forward" need himself. To make space, they let Tim Connolly go, but this shouldn't be too traumatic for the team.

On balance, this makes Buffalo better. Factor in a likely return to league elite numbers for Ryan Miller behind that defence and the Habs should be prepared to look at the Sabres ahead of them in the standings for a while.

In: Regehr, Kotalik, Ehrhoff, Leino
Out: Butler, Montador, Mancari, Connolly

The Rangers were also close to the Habs. In fact, Montreal only beat them on the strength of 3 extra OTLs. Adherents of Corsi and the like will also question NYR's inferiority in light of the +35 goal differential they put up vs. +7 for Montreal.

New York didn't go wild as they have done in the past, but they scored the big goal. After letting Chris Drury go to create space, the Rangers nabbed Brad Richards to play with Marian Gaborik. This is a big improvement for a team whose lack was goal-making. The Rangers improvement is substantial and bigger I feel than a Pouliot upgrade at this point.

In: Richards, Rupp
Out: Drury, Gilroy

Finally, the Carolina Hurricanes. 5 points back of the Habs, the Canes challenged for the playoff spot right to the end.

And here finally there is some good news for the Habs. Though the Canes hung onto their better free agents, they did lose Erik Cole (an important goal-getter for them) and may yet lose others.

Montreal's slight gains get bigger compared to this relative rival who looked to replace Cole cheaply through Ponikarovsky, Brent and Anthony Stewart. Cheap replacements rarely work and these I feel make their forward attack even more hodge podge than it ever has been. Carolina's steps back should give Montreal some breathing space.

In: Tim Brent, Boucher, Ponikarovsky, Stewart
Out: Cole

The New Jersey Devils

The Devils stand in a category alone. The best team in the NHL from late December on can't be pooled with the Leafs and Panthers of this league. They must be considered a serious rival for all the reasons they have been a serious rival to everyone in the East for two decades.

Interesting then that New Jersey's balance ledger is empty. A few pretty insignificant resignings point to the Devils standing pat. The Parise signing is the biggest factor in NJ and it seems like the higher means they'll be able to get that done.

Adding basically the best all around LW in the game to any team would be scary. To add him to the team that surged so strongly at the end of 2010-11 is a bit scary.

I'd think Montreal needs to think of NJ as a serious playoff rival this year, just another team added to the peloton for those last few spots.


The stragglers

The 5 remaining teams in the East should be just that come April - the 5 remaining teams in the East. Some have tried hard to make steps (Florida) and some have stood virtually still (Ottawa, NYI). I'm sure the Leafs Nation will implore us to consider them a new rival, but it's hard to see how adding two injured/injury prone centres really answers the glaring deficiency they had, even if Cody Franson is a very handsome pick up. Tobalev also pointed out that the Monster/Reimer proposition should be an interesting one.

On balance

Keeping in mind that there's still many summer days ahead to change rosters, the Habs look like they should be holding some playoff ground in the East.

The Gauthier moves (and non-moves, I suppose) put the team in a slightly better position than the one they finished in.

By my count, two teams ahead of them distanced themselves further (Washington, Pittsburgh and the three others ahead probably did little enough damage to stay ahead. IN the pack that should occupy 6-10 in the East, Montreal looks competitive. I wouldn't be surprised to see Buffalo or NYR overtake, but Carolina should slip behind the Habs, and NJ likely won't overtake the Habs without seriously damaging the record of Philly or NYR.

I still believe that Pierre must do more from now till autumn's onset. Beyond replacing Halpern, which will happen as it always does, Gauthier should probably seek to supplement his backline and even add another forward that can score. There are plenty of attractive targets left in the UFA pool (Babchuk, Frolov, Miettinen, Stillman) and teams like NJ might need to trade yet.

I'm pleased , however, that Gauthier has put himself in a decent position four days into free agency. With money yet to spend, he is in touch and could credibly overtake some rivals here. This in itself is a positive thing, as mad signings (Randy McKay) might often have the opposite effect.