This year matters for the Montreal Canadiens

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

A challenge to all of those who say it does not matter what the Montreal Canadiens do in 2013-14 as they are not 'supposed' to contend.

This season, the Montreal Canadiens have played two teams that are favoured very heavily as Cup Contenders in the 2013-14 season: The San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues. Montreal did not win either contest, but both were closely contested contests leading to very slim margins of victory for the opponent.

Why did Montreal lose these games?

Consider the Canadiens' off-season acquisitions. Daniel Briere, Douglas Murray and George Parros. They also extended two other players in Francis Bouillon, and David Desharnais. Thus far this season, there hasn't been a game where any of these players has been a positive factor in the team winning, though there are some losses to hang on them.

Some say that the Habs weren't ready to contend this season and needed some tough veterans to help with that, but the only thing that's become tougher with these moves is keeping the puck out of the net. Bouillon isn't there just for toughness, but his struggles this season have been well documented.

The Canadiens have tied up $11.4375M in these five players. That is a whopping 17.8% of the salary cap, which is a hefty sum to waste on what has thus far been dead weight. It's even more egregious when you realize that all of that money was spent due to cap space made available by having young players like P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, and Lars Eller on bargain contracts. Bargains don't really matter if you don't use the resulting space effectively though.

Players like Subban aren't available on the free market every summer, but surely with $11.4375M to spend, something of value could have been added. We can break this down for each player, and we'll start with...

George Parros

Parros has been awful this season, on the ice for 21 minutes at even strength, and five goals against. Surely the Canadiens would have been better off with savvy, underrated veteran Jeff Halpern, who began his season in Europe and has since signed a bargain basement $.600M deal in Phoenix. Halpern loves Montreal and he has been brilliant in two stretches with the club, give him a generous raise to $.800M and it's tough to imagine him not signing.

If you want to go younger, Mason Raymond was a cost-effective reclamation project that was available all summer for just $1M. More than Parros, sure, but also a player who can play in the top-9 and fits with the Canadiens' identity of high speed transition hockey.

Douglas Murray

Murray has been similarly awful, spending almost all of his time getting shelled in his own zone in spite of being the most sheltered regular on the Habs' roster. Another former Hab was available during the summer in Ron Hainsey, who was probably the best guy on the market, undervalued coming off of a contract that overpaid him. Hainsey is a capably top-4 defenseman who has a solid two-way game, which would have provided insurance for the injured Alexei Emelin. He signed in Carolina for $2M, so given Quebec taxes he likely could have been signed for about $2.5M.

If Hainsey is too expensive for your tastes, Tom Gilbert ended up signing in Florida for just $.900M on a one year deal, and has given them top pairing minutes with even possession. Keep in mind that Gilbert is also a right-side defenseman, something the Habs need. Even if you account for taxation differences and bring Gilbert up to $1.1M, he's still cheaper than Murray, and is there any real doubt that he'd be better?

Murray was signed as depth until Emelin came back, but given that Bouillon is paid the same amount, why not sign a better defenseman who can push Bouillon out of the lineup when Emelin returns, solidifying your depth.

Taken one step further, you could replace both Bouillon and Murray with Hainsey and Gilbert. The option to do so was there, so let's take a look at the salary cap implications of those potential moves.

Players Cap hit in millions
Hainsey / Gilbert / Raymond 4.350
Hainsey / Beaulieu / Raymond 4.175
Hainsey / Gilbert / Halpern 4.150
Hainsey / Beaulieu / Halpern 3.975
Bouillon / Murray / Parros 3.9375
Gilbert / Bouillon / Halpern 3.400
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Raymond 3.025
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Halpern 2.825

Hainsey's inclusion makes any combination more expensive than the current $3.9375M against the cap, but the increase in talent level seems more than worth it, especially when the most expensive option available is only $.4124M extra.

Now for the two bigger drains on the salary cap.

Danny Briere

Coming off of two concussion and the worst season of his career, Briere was obviously in decline to anyone who was paying attention. The idea of signing him as a playoff performer can sound good in theory, but Mike Cammalleri has that same pedigree, along with being younger, and was jettisoned out of town without much regret. After suffering a third concussion this season, it's looking more and more like Briere was a bad signing, but what were the alternatives?

After advocating for him last summer, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out Jaromir Jagr, who is older, yet healthier and still putting up great production. Jagr is signed to a contract that pays him $2M in salary and $2M in bonuses for a $4M cap hit, and even if the Habs had to tack on an extra 500K for $4.5M, the term would have been one year instead of Briere's two.

Other options include possession beast Clarke MacArthur, who signed a two year $3.25M deal in Ottawa after consistently putting up over a half point per game over the last three seasons. Even if you had to tack on a little bit of extra salary to bring him to $3.5M, he still comes in cheaper, younger, better, and more durable than Briere.

Damien Brunner also went cheap, signing a two year $2.5M deal with New Jersey. Brunner is similar to MacArthur in that he's younger and a bigger scoring threat than Briere. He doesn't have the defensive value of MacArthur, but that's why he's cheaper. Increase his salary to $2.75M and he's still over $1M less than Briere's cost.

You always have to consider that some players wouldn't entertain the idea of signing in Montreal, but only MacArthur didn't have to wait for a contract this summer.

Now once more, let us look at three alternate cap hits when these forwards are linked to some of the earlier potential combinations for the sake of clarity.

Players Cap Hit (M) Cap Hit with Jagr (M)
Hainsey / Gilbert / Raymond 4.35 8.85
Hainsey / Beaulieu / Halpern 3.975 8.475
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Raymond 3.025 7.525

Players Cap Hit (M) Cap Hit with MacArthur (M)
Hainsey / Gilbert / Raymond 4.35 7.85
Hainsey / Beaulieu / Halpern 3.975 7.475
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Raymond 3.025 6.525

Players Cap Hit (M) Cap Hit with Brunner (M)
Hainsey / Gilbert / Raymond 4.35 7.1
Hainsey / Beaulieu / Halpern 3.975 6.725
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Raymond 3.025 5.775

At this stage, the Canadiens are spending at most, $8.85M and at the least $5.575M, though you could cut that down even further with different combinations Halpern instead of Raymond, or Bouillon instead of Hainsey.

David Desharnais

Now we hit the tricky part with Desharnais. To be honest, I never liked him for the NHL and I believe almost everyone knows my feelings about it. His lacking an elite skating tool or a decent shot had me feeling he was too limited to have staying power, but his play this year has been worse than anyone anticipated.

Though dealing Desharnais instead of extending him would likely have lead to a declaration of war from RDS, let's imagine for a moment that Marc Bergevin was bold enough to do it, but the return was picks instead of immediate help.

Now who replaces him for the coming season? Arguably the Habs could have not replaced him at all.

No one could have predicted the impact that Michael Bournival would have the impact he has, so we have to assume that the Canadiens don't want to go into the season with seven guaranteed top-9 guys.

What are your options? Because they let Desharnais go, the top priority may be a center, so Halpern is an easy decision to sign. Then they have to grab two of Jagr, MacArthur, Raymond, and Brunner, or leave a spot open for a kid.

Now again, let us consider some cap hits resulting from various scenarios.

Players Cap Hit (M)
Hainsey / Gilbert / Halpern / Jagr / MacArthur 12.25
Hainsey / Beaulieu / Halpern / Jagr / Brunner 11.225
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Halpern / Jagr / Brunner 10.075
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Halpern / MacArthur / Brunner 9.075
Hainsey / Gilbert / Halpern / MacArthur / Raymond 8.65
Hainsey / Beaulieu / Halpern / MacArthur / Raymond 8.475
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Halpern / MacArthur / Raymond 7.325

As you can see, the highest cap hit combination is to $12.25M, or $.8125M above the $11.4375M above the expense of Briere, Desharnais, Murray, Bouillon and Parros, with the rest being cheaper to significantly cheaper options.

This is all under the scenario that you feel Desharnais must be replaced by a veteran skater. If management is confident that one of Louis Leblanc ($.870M) or Michael Bournival ($.660M)solves their problem, the savings get even more significant.

Players Cap Hit (M)
Hainsey / Gilbert / Halpern / Jagr / Leblanc 9.52
Hainsey / Beaulieu / Halpern / Jagr / Leblanc 9.345
Hainsey / Gilbert / Halpern / MacArthur / Bournival 8.31
Gilbert / Beaulieu / Halpern / Brunner / Bournival 6.325

The cap savings here are extreme, and if you ascribe to the notion that the Habs aren't contenders this year, it makes even more sense to save money while building for the future.

The Core

10 forwards: $25.818M

6 defensemen: $16.3875M

2 goaltenders: $7.9M

Total cap hit: 50.10055M

Whether the Canadiens feel that this is purely a development year, or they want to contend, they could have very easily used their cap space more efficiently this summer. They would either be saving money during a year they didn't feel they were contending in, or leaving space to add a significant piece en route to the playoffs.

I do not write this as a condemnation of Marc Bergevin, he is a new GM and he is obviously still learning some of the ins and outs. He has not yet put the team in a position where they have to sacrifice futures for the wrong reasons, but he does have a lesson to learn about signing for value in free agency. The Canadiens can afford to spend to the cap, but with the local tax rates always adding extra dollars to any deal they sign, Bergevin has less wiggle room for mistakes than anyone else in the league.

Every year in the NHL matters. Value signings that pay off, rookies playing well above what they are being paid and a top-end goalie along with an elite defensemen arguably provide a formula that lets a team at least try to contend in the playoffs. Montreal has plenty of good tools at their disposal, and who knows, a good trade at the right time can make all the difference. Look at what trading for Michael Ryder did last season.

This is the last year the Canadiens will have Subban with a cap hit of $2.875M. Alexei Emelin's salary is more than doubling next season to $4.1M over this year's $2M. Lars Eller will not be making $1.325M next year. This is the second to last year that Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher will be on their entry level deals.

With that kind of value, it seems foolish to say the Canadiens should not even bother trying to get anything done by making some smart short-term signings and using the rest of their proven skaters to get things done.

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