It's always a tough situation when your team isn't winning, but it's even tougher when you know the team was a legitimate contender when healthy. That's the situation we are dealing with right now in Montreal, and after 33 games it doesn't seem to be improving.
As the defense got healthier, Brian Gionta and Travis Moen went down. As it stands right now, the Canadiens are playing with a team below the salary floor, and have been for most of the season. They've lost more man-games to injury than any other team, and more salary has been in the pressbox or injured than any other team.
At a certain point, it becomes impossible to contend against an onslaught of injuries. As I said to Jay Baruchel earlier in the night, it's like trying to climb a mountain while wearing skis, sans poles.
The Canadiens are in a position very reminiscent of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2006-07. They're loaded with a lot of talented players, but certain organizational weaknesses (caused by poor decisions in Philly and injuries in Montreal) have lead to (so far) extremely disappointing seasons. Philadelphia made the smart decision to sell off assets like Peter Forsberg and take the high pick to come back stronger the next year. It netted them James Van Riemsdyk.
The Canadiens could do the same thing, but they're actually in a better position than the Flyers were.
Right now the Canadiens have quite a few expiring contracts, and with the CBA opening this summer, even if the team finds it impossible to trade Gomez, it's highly likely that there will be either a buyout amnesty period, or a one player for each team buyout amnesty (one time only) kind of thing.
Pierre Gauthier needs to take a hard look at his team and evaluate which players are core players. As it stands, he has a great chance to maximize value for several players. Not that I think Gauthier gives a crap what I think, but here's what I would tell him to do if he did:
Andrei Kostitsyn is having a great year and he's about to be a UFA. The organization has shown that they want to keep him around and vice versa, in spite of constant media rumours, but the situation with him right now is too tantalizing to not take advantage. Kostitsyn is shooting at 20% right now and on pace for about 30 goals. He's big, hits, not very expensive and scores in the clutch. He's the ideal trade deadline pickup for any team. I don't think it's out of the question that he could bring a 1st round pick in return. Personally I would also go after Kostitsyn in the offseason, but that may be a dead end. Players that could replace Kostistyn should be available in the offseason, such as Ales Hemsky, Tuomo Ruutu, or Dustin Penner.
Travis Moen is a very good defensive forward and one of the best penalty killing wingers in the game. Another type of player that's always in high demand around deadline time. While he would never fetch what Kostitsyn would, he's also having a career shooting year at 25%. He's versatile and can handle top competition without looking bad, while chipping in clutch goals. He also has a Cup ring which doesn't hurt. Remember that values are inflated around deadline time, Gill grabbed a 2nd rounder and a 5th rounder for Toronto a few years ago, Moen could possibly return the same.
Speaking of Hal Gill, this is probably his final season. He's bled for the team and I think giving him another chance to win it all would be good for him. He wouldn't net as much as he did when he was younger, but a 3rd round pick isn't out of the question either if he continues to shine on the PK.
Defensive depth is always at a premium going into the playoffs, and Chris Campoli can provide that. He's looked pretty slick for Montreal in the few games that he's been back (aside from his gaffe on the GWG tonight), and he's clearly not part of the long term plans in Montreal. It's not out of the question that a guy who can provide offense like Campoli could net a 2nd round pick. After all, he was traded for one last year.
Tomas Kaberle is probably difficult to trade again this season because of his two remaining years and many teams have spent to near their max already. However in the offseason $4.25M over just 2 years isn't hard to move if Kaberle continues to put up solid numbers with Montreal on the powerplay. There's also the question of Philadelphia this year, as they've lost Pronger for the season. Kaberle could never replace Pronger, but he would help them on the PP. Since Kaberle was acquired for essentially nothing (a 35+ contract for Spacek that was about to end), the Canadiens don't really need to worry about getting value for Kaberle. Essentially anything they get in a trade for him, even a 5th round pick, is a win because you get cap space the next two years as well.
If you can get anything at all for Mathieu Darche, it's worth a shot. He's easily replaceable. A 5th rounder for Darche would be more than fine.
I really like Yannick Weber but the writing may be on the wall for him. In many ways he's been outperformed by Raphael Diaz, and the Habs have a glut of top end young defensemen who are either better than him now, or will be in a year or two. Even if Gill, Campoli and Kaberle get traded, and Markov stays injured, Weber still has to battle P.K. Subban, Josh Gorges, Alexei Emelin, Diaz, and whatever other veteran D the team decides to bring in. Not to mention that Nathan Beaulieu is progressing faster than originally thought. A few years down the road, Weber could also be in a battle with Jarred Tinordi, Morgan Ellis, Mac Bennett, Greg Pateryn, Darren Dietz or maybe even Brendan Nash or Frederic St- Denis. Basically the Canadiens have a ton of puck moving defensemen in the system, and he may just be redundant. Add to that, a young, talented puck mover with a right handed shot and a bullet from the point has a lot of value.
This one is a really long shot, but because of the number of small players on the team, and the fact that Gionta and Mike Cammalleri have more years and high dollars attached to them (hard to move), you have to consider moving David Desharnais. However even more than Weber, you don't make this trade unless you're getting a massive steal. Desharnais has obvious weaknesses, but he's producing points at a solid rate for 850K a year. Yes, he needs to be sheltered by Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole, but you're still getting some great production out of a low cost player. It would have to be close to the moon to move him before the deadline of next season, but worth listening to offers because of the specific makeup of the team.
Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Josh Gorges and Lars Eller should be signed to long term contracts as soon as humanly possible. 3-5 years for each would be most desirable, although I'm guessing Eller will only get 2 because he's yet to break out offensively. These 4 guys, along with Pacioretty and Plekanec, are the core of the team's future.
Following this plan, as I understand the Habs draft pick situation, and assuming you get a 5th rounder for Kaberle either at the deadline or before the draft and retain Weber and Desharnais, the Habs head into the 2012 draft table with two 1st round picks, three 2nd round picks, two 3rd round picks, one 4th round pick, three 5th round picks, one 6th and one 7th round pick. That's a massive opportunity to either move for other players you want or add prospect depth. There's also the distinct possibility than Montreal could land within the draft lottery due to losing all these players.
Purely hypothetically, say the Canadiens draft Mikhail Grigorenko. That would put the Habs depth chart going into 2012-13 in this situation:
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|Max Pacioretty||Tomas Plekanec||Erik Cole|
|Mike Cammalleri||Lars Eller||Brian Gionta|
|[UFA]||Mikhail Grigorenko||Louis Leblanc|
|[UFA}||David Desharnais||Ryan White|
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Andrei Markov||P.K. Subban|
|Alexei Emelin||Josh Gorges|
|Nathan Beaulieu?||Yannick Weber|
Clearly this is a glass half full of what could be available and what could be done, but I don't think many Habs fans would be disappointed with this going into the season. One solid UFA signing at forward like Tuomo Ruutu or Dustin Penner (who could be had at a discount after a terrible year) and this team is retooled and ready to contend.
Food for thought for frustrated fans.