NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23: Brandon Prust #8 of the New York Rangers fights with Bradley Mills #47 of the New Jersey Devils during their pre season game on September 23 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
I really am curious about the pitches the various candidates made to Geoff Molson and Serge Savard when being interviewed for the position of General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens. What were the areas of organizational weakness that were brought up? What were the areas of team building philosophy and asset valuation when it came to typical free agency seasons? How much value is placed on specific skill sets?
We're never privy to these conversations, and barring a Brian Burke like candidness/boorishness we really don't know a lot about how certain GM's feel about things. They always brag about their successes and try and blame the individual players for their failures. Every once in a while they'll blame a college coach for producing an awful defenceman. But for the most part, they keep their personal philosophies close to their vest. The really bad ones end up as TV commentators promoting their losing philosophies to the rest of the world. In fact, we know of one of the Montreal runner-up's personal philosophies because he spouts them off every chance he gets, including the preposterous notion that Nail Yakupov was worth more than P.K. Subban and Alex Galchenyuk combined.
On the first free agent signings of Marc Bergevin's tenure, I can't help but wonder what he said. He came from Chicago, which had a pretty strict hierarchy when it came to valuing players. They throw money at their top six forwards, their top four defencemen, and take on a couple of risks on depth players but for the most part keep them cheap. Skill was valued, both offensively and defensively, but pay was highly related with ice time. Amongst their bottom six forwards, they have three players currently on entry level contracts of varying talents. There's toughness and size on the roster but not a large investment there. Chicago has some problem contracts, like Michael Frolik, Johnny Oduya and Rostislav Olesz, but since their high end delivers on their paycheques this is not a tremendous issue.
Montreal doesn't have quite the same luxury. Scott Gomez's deal is an anchor. Andrei Markov's injury history doesn't help matters even if he returns to the form we're used to seeing from him. We'll have to pay for a goaltender, but at least there's a quality one here rather than in Chicago. Tomas Kaberle is currently the second highest paid defencemen, though likely will be bumped to third on that list when Subban's contract is negotiated. Rene Bourque is similar to Olesz/Frolik in terms of deal, but having it on top of Gomez/Kaberle doesn't help Bergevin.
I say all this even though the fanbase and media already knows these things. The reason I do this is because with about $15m in cap space that isn't efficiently used, it's probably a good idea to go into free agency with a plan to maximize the value on what cap space you have remaining. This was a good market. Free agent targets included superstars like Zack Parise and Ryan Suter, veteran stars Shane Doan and Ray Whitney, future Hall of Famers Jaromir Jagr and Martin Brodeur, breakout players Jason Garrison and Pierre-Alexander Parenteau, three time 30 goal scorer Alexander Semin, and a fairly substantial list of supporting players that have forged successful careers or players who have fallen on tough times whether injury based or team/self-inflicted. In need of a top two left winger, a fourth line centre, and a defenceman to either play in the top four or step up in case of a Markov injury, the Habs walked away from the first day of free agency adding...
Soon to be 37 year old journeyman Francis Bouillon to a 1 year, $1.5m contract. Bouillon's a servicable player who is familiar to both the coach and the team, but he was a number five defenceman on Nashville last year and considering the criticism in years past about aging vets like Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, and Hal Gill on the Habs blueline, doesn't seem like a reliable bet to play above his role. He isn't a notable improvement on guys like Kaberle or Raphael Diaz. When you add Yannick Weber and Frederic St. Denis as viable third pairing options, there is a surplus of options and all Bouillon does is change the mix up a bit and maybe make one of the current low impact defencemen irrelevant. This isn't bad addition, but it's not exactly filling a pressing need. It's possible a player like St. Denis could've filled this role on the team with some trust built between him and the coaching staff.
Right winger Colby Armstrong, fresh off a buyout from the Toronto Maple Leafs, to a 1 year, $1m contract. This is a pretty low impact risk and really is a decent deal in a vacuum. You're taking a player who has had some success with the coach in the past (although as Sidney Crosby's winger) and is coming off a rough couple years in terms of both on ice play and injury history. The ability has been there before in the player, and he could play above his salary and become a viable top 9 forward for you this season. He shoots right handed and is a possible 2nd unit PP guy as well as skating an effective ES shift. It's not bad. The team has Travis Moen, Ryan White, and Louis Leblanc as well as Bourque as possible bottom six players. It's a good mix of players, and Armstrong falls somewhere in between those guys as a guy with speed, size, and aggressiveness. All these players can play, and their skill sets are complimentary. Leblanc and White could both play centre if need be. Three are right handed shooters, two are left.
Left Winger Brandon Prust to a 4 year, $10m contract. This is where it all goes wrong. Prust averaged 11:56 of ice time last year, down from 13:49 the year before. He was third in shorthanded ice time on the Rangers, who were the fifth best team on the PK last year, so there's value there. Of course, it wasn't an area of need at all: the Habs were good at preventing goals, especially on the penalty kill where they ranked second in the NHL last year. All of the bottom six forwards mentioned in the paragraph above took shifts on the PK with success last year, including the maligned Bourque and especially Moen. Prust did lead the Rangers in a couple of categories, both related to each other: penalty minutes and fighting majors. In fact, Prust tied for the league lead with 20 major penalties last year with Shawn Thornton. He's a goon that can play, but he still doesn't play all that much. Fighting doesn't contribute to hockey play at all... play literally stops when it happens. He kills penalties, which was the area of the team that least needed reinforcement. He doesn't even play centre. The team spent $1.875m for the next 4 years on Travis Moen just earlier this weekend, who essentially does the same thing.
This is a bad allocation of limited resources. Prust plays a high energy game and takes a regular shift but has a low value impact on the game. He's making more money than Moen and White combined. The team signed Colby Armstrong, who has the potential to be a more valuable player on the team, for less money. They valued the entertainment element of hockey instead of the winning games part. Prust is a style signing. He's a luxury item. His fighting in itself puts him at an increased risk of injury. And he was given good money.
There's a chance the Habs will land a higher impact player in free agency. But with all the investment in the bottom part of the roster, this Habs team already looks nothing like the Blackhawks' distribution of resources that Bergevin was familiar with. It looks nothing like Los Angeles or New Jersey for that matter, either. If you can't spend the money on the high end, it's best not to cripple yourself moving forward by investing long term on the lower end of your roster. In signing Brandon Prust to a four year deal at $2.5m per season, Bergevin has hamstrung his ability to optimize the value in his roster moving forward.
While adding Bouillon may have changed up the mix of the lower end of the defence, the lower end of the forward group now looks awfully similar. And either Leblanc or White are playing centre full time, or the brutal Petteri Nokelainen is. No needs were really addressed. But a decent amount of a limited pool of money was spent doing it.