Monday, July 04, 2011

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.

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