The Montreal Canadiens wheeling and dealings of the past week leave little doubt that Canadiens GM Bob Gainey and staff are hard at work preparing for next season. With Andrei Markov tagged for four more years, an offer tended to Sheldon Souray, an overseas late bloomer gobbled up as a free agent, and a trade for a prospect ready for the AHL, it has been a whirlwind 7 days for Gainey and company.
The latest two moves are curious ones involving players previously unknown to Canadiens fans. Gainey will have an abundance of files on his desk this summer, as the organization continues to build in both the smartest and cheaper of ways - from within.
Ryan Russell and Janne Lahti
Janne Lahti, who signed for 1 year, is a Finnish winger of decent size, who notched 20 goals in the Elite league this season. He is said to have good defensive credentials as well as a wicked shot. He became noticable upon scoring a bunch of goals in the recent World Tournament. Lahti was also being pursued by the Washington Capitals. His addition will add depth to an already stacked organization that is worthy of envy when it comes to prospects. The Lahti contract is most likely a one way deal, and can benefit the Habs or the Bulldogs. Still it is unliky the Canadiens lured him overseas with an AHL destination in mind.
Ryan Russell is a Kootenay Ice teammate of Ben Maxwell, a Canadiens draft choice in 2006. Russell had been drafted in the 7th round of 2005 by the Rangers and had not signed with New York. As he would have re-entered the draft as an unsigned player, the Canadiens scooped him up in exchange for a pick (their 7th in 2007) they likely would have used to select him in the event he was still available. The fact that Montreal took no chance and traded for him, signifies that they see something of worth in him that suggests possibly another team was onto him also. It's a smart move by the organization to sign a known quantity rather than draft and gamble on the unknown. The Habs brass showed their savvy on this move by getting a player who can essentially fit right in to the organization somewhere, right away.
What both these moves are showing fans, is that the Gainey - Timmins - Gauthier front office greatly understand the reasoning behind maintaining a stockpile of talent at every level in the organization. Not only are they busy propping up the Canadiens for next season, they have a keen eye on the Hamilton Bulldogs as well. As everyone knows, the Bulldogs begin the Calder Cup final this evening (they threw Hershey a knockout punch, didn't they?), and the best thing for the Habs would be to assure they are perenial contenders. Solidifying a competitive farm team in the end can only help maintain a steady flow of well developed prospects to the big club.
Since the announcement of the new CBA in 2005, there are new and important realities that NHL GM's have to deal with in regards to contracts. Youth will play a large role in all teams ability to compete and the better NHL teams will be stocked with young and cheaper talent.
It is primordial that a team has at least half of its starting lineup's younger players in a under 25 or 26 age group. With free agency coming as early as age 25 soon, there will be great turnover of this group annually, and the recent moves made by Gainey and company address and solidify this need head on.
The defection of Alexander Perezhogin also raises another spectre in dealing with the lower end contracts. There is now much competiton from overseas, as European and Russian league teams are in similar dollar markets for players that are on a team's lower end of the pay scale.
The basic truth is that NHL teams will hardly try to compete with this situation, they will simply find other players. Imagine for a second the ruckus caused by the Canadiens had they matched Perezoghin's offer and one quickly understands why the Canadiens didn't flinch.
The lower end deals, especially the multi-year ones, are giving the Canadiens organization additional flexability in light of having to negotiate longer termed UFA deals. What can greatly eat up cap space for a team are injuries and this is one of the ways a team plans for it.
Last season, the Canadiens were essentially capped out in mid season, having to return Maxim Lapierre to Hamilton in order to manage a few bucks they might need come the year end trade deadline. It is also the reason behind the trading of Craig Rivet. The money saved could have helped pay for a rent-a-player should Gainey and staff felt the need to aquire one at that point. It also allowed the team a longer look at Lapierre and Andrei Kostitsyn.
Having a solid foundation in Hamilton, both economically and talent wise, helps the Canadiens remain competitive both on the ice and in the boardroom.
As the Canadiens will surely be subtracting some players and their salaries from last seasons club, so will the Bulldogs. Certain Hamilton players will graduate to the NHL, some will be cast aside, and some will be offered new deals. Gainey will attempt to resign RFA's and will let others walk away. Whether certain prospects are still deemed NHL bound will come into play. The Canadiens will likely attempt to keep certain players uniquely for their usefulness to the Bulldogs.
Three players of character whose contracts are expiring that Gainey will attempt to keep in the fold are Yann Danis, Corey Locke, and Duncan Milroy.The reasoning behind holding onto all three players vary, but cover the span of scenarios applicable to the reasoning behind holding onto such character players. It is an example of what Gainey and the organization are doing extremely well.
In Danis' case, it would be smart to keep him because an organization can never have enough quality goaltenders. Danis has performed up to expectations in Hamilton, but has been outdistanced by a pair of thouroughbred goalie prospects in Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price. Danis will likely wish to move on, considering the logjam in goal ahead of him.
Evidently, Carey Price will one day soon become the number goalie in Montreal, barring a disaster of course. In that viewpoint, both Halak and Cristobal Huet have number one goalie status written all over them, and it wouldn't be surprising to see either one of them moved in this upcoming season. Considering that a team trades from its greatest strength, and that David Aebischer is (thankfully) no longer in the picture, a more defined role for Danis awaits.
If the Bulldogs are to benefit from Danis' experience for another season, every player on that squad wins with such a decision. So does Danis, as he gets to showcase himself in a situation of strength and gains bargaining power should he eventually wish to leave the organization. It makes sense for him to stay, as it makes sense for Gainey to keep him.
As for Milroy and Locke, both players have consistantly gotten better with each year, as is evident this playoff season. Each have an outside chance of making the Canadiens next fall, depending on their performances in camp, and who returns to the Habs as far as UFA's go. Milroy had his first taste of NHL experience this season and did not look out of place. Locke has been rejuvenated as a winger in these playoffs, and his skill levels have never been in doubt. The Canadiens will not let him go without offering him what amounts to a one way contract, regardless of where he ends up playing next season. Again, should both be Hamilton bound, it continues to keep the Bulldogs an experienced veteran club.
Keeping Hamilton solid is all part of the Gainey plan. Players graduating from junior who will make up part of the Bulldogs lineup next season, can only benefit from rubbing shoulders with players who have had experience and success at that level.
It makes perfect sense to continue to surround the younger players in the organization with the best possible support in order to fast track them to the NHL. Considering the importance of low level salaries on an NHL team, spending the dollars at the AHL level where this is no cap, is one way to circumvent one monetary issue.
By all evidence, championship teams are built from the net out. Gainey was surely grinning his biggest grin in months, knowing this, while watching Carey Price stone the defending Calder Cup champs with a 46 save shutout performance last night.
The fruition of the Canadiens hard work in building from within was clearly on display in Hershey last night. Breeding and grooming the multitude of Habs prospects to play in a team mode in front of solid goaltending clearly has its benefits. Seeing the organizations youngest faces learn this fact night in and night out in Hamilton suggests that the organization is on the right track to another championship.
The Canadiens masterplan involves several points toward this goal, and they are acheiving it in smart steps.
Start with a stockpile of talent based on character driven players. Keep an abundance of them, at low level prices, both in the NHL and AHL. Bolster the younger American League talent with winning and experienced teammates to fast track their ascendance to the NHL. Groom the players in the same system the NHL club plays in order to simplify transition. Reload annually, with an eye keenly focused on all these simpler goals, and eventually winning begins to take care of itself.
There are many who wish Bob Gainey would break form and try every possible free agent and trade avenue to win a Stanley Cup all in one year. If you are one of those who believe such impatience works, you haven't studied the Toronto Maple Leafs of the last ten seasons.
Toronto has gone for broke quite often, believing they were perhaps one player away from a Stanley Cup. They never were.
They pillaged their talent ranks of depth annually believing this myth, while trading for that one player. This season, their farm team finished dead last in their division. The Maple Leafs continuously stumble without a plan that involves vision.
I'd rather not be witness to a Canadiens GM building a team resembling the 2007 Maple Leafs or Marlies.
Gainey, well atuned to the realities of today's NHL, is using the same blueprint that found success with the 1976 Canadiens.
It will doubtfully deliver a dynasty, but a Stanley Cup is in the masterplan.