UFA Season Part 1: Who Should Bergevin Pursue Among Forwards?
Disclaimer: This post assumes that Scott Gomez is not a Hab next year.
Lost amidst the depression inducing terrible play of the Montreal Canadiens this season is the fact that selling off several players has left the team's depth a little thin going into next season.
There are players who may potentially fill holes in Louis Leblanc and Rene Bourque, but both looked more suitable for 3rd line duty last season, against weaker competition. Bourque in particular seemed to crater when given tough minutes with Tomas Plekanec.
Due to their success last season, Michel Therrien is unlikely to break up the Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole, at least to start the season. The line is unlikely to stick together the whole season, but for argument's sake let's assume that line is set and see where the holes are among the forwards.
Brian Gionta will likely slot in on Plekanec's right wing on the tough minutes line, but that line needs a left winger capable of playing against the opposition's best players since Mike Cammalleri was traded and Pacioretty is unlikely to start there.
The third line should be solid to start out, with Lars Eller centering Bourque and Leblanc. The third line may not be as strong to start out as it was last year with Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen, but a full offseason to build muscle instead of rehabbing shoulder surgery should benefit Leblanc, while Bourque is unlikely to be quite as futile next year, especially if the level of competition he faces is lessened.
There are lots of options within the organization for the fourth line with Ryan White, Blake Geoffrion and Aaron Palushaj. The Canadiens may also choose to go with a bit more experience and retain Mathieu Darche or Travis Moen. But there is a distinct element missing on the 4th line, and that's a capable center. Petteri Nokelainen was woefully unfit for the position last year.
The UFA market is a bit thin this summer, but there are some solid talents and underrated players available. To identify who is best for Bergevin to pursue, I thought it would be interesting to break down the players who fit the two player types the Canadiens need next year in the same way we broke down Habs players for the quarterly reviews.
To figure out what UFAs would be worth targeting for the Canadiens in each position, I created a spreadsheet recording the advanced stats for the top 20 centers and 18 left wingers on the market. I gave each category a rating of 1-20 or 1-18 based on the ranking each player had in their group, and then weighted the categories by what would apply most to each position. For example, even strength goals/60 was weighted much higher for the left wing position that it was for the center position because of the needs of the Canadiens. We'll call the results their "Habs score".
Tough minutes Left Wingers
Zach Parise is likely a pipe dream, but he's undeniably the cream of the crop. A defensively sound elite player who could instantly turn the Canadiens' offense into something to fear. Parise would round out the contingent of American wingers on the top two lines as well.
Habs Score: 513.5
Last contract cap hit: $6,000,000
Prospective cap hit: $7,000,000+
Is he an attractive option: Yes. Parise is worth the salary. He's worth moving other pieces to afford him if that's necessary.
Ray Whitney actually came up as the leader in the breakdown, beating out Parise by 0.5 points with a whopping 514. That his points came out to the Montreal area code is a nice touch, but I dropped him down a bit due to his age. That said, Whitney is a legitimate 1st line player even in his advanced age. He plays tough minutes and continue to put up a ton of points against the stiffest competition of any LW in this study.
Habs Score: 514
Last contract cap hit: $3,000,000
Prospective cap hit: $3,000,000-5,000,000
Is he an attractive option: Yes. Whitney is old, but he's a high end talent. His hockey sense leads to him taking advantage of plays most players wouldn't try. In Phoenix he's made everyone he plays with better.
Ryan Smyth is an interesting case. Smyth played very tough minutes for the Oilers in order to shelter the young kid line, but like Whitney he's also getting on in age. Unlike Whitney, he's no longer a great point producer, but for a certain price his second line production is nothing to scoff at. Smyth has spurned Montreal before though, going to Colorado instead for less money the last time he was a UFA.
Habs Score: 446.5
Last contract cap hit: $6,250,000
Prospective cap hit: $3,000,000-5,000,000
Is he an attractive option: Depends. Smyth took a lot of low ball salary deals in order to stay in Edmonton during his prime, and at his age this will be his last major contract. If he wants more than $3M per season on a 1 or two year deal, it's probably best to walk away.
Alexander Semin is an interesting case. According to Neil Greenberg's scoring chance data (Washington Post and ESPN), Semin had the best scoring chance differential of the entire Capitals team in the regular season. Not only that, but a poor offensive season and constant media narrative that he's a choker or doesn't care has made him perhaps the most underrated pure scorer in the NHL. Semin is also much more of a complete player than he gets credit for. There's speculation that Semin will bolt to the KHL, but why would he choose now to do so? A team offering him a 3-5 year contract may get him for a decent wage too.
Habs Score: 412.5
Last contract cap hit: $6,700,000
Prospective cap hit: $4,000,000-6,500,000
Is he an attractive option: Depends. If Semin could be had for under 6 million per year on a contract under 5 years long, he would be a great signing. Going too high or too long and it's a bit of a liability.
Dustin Penner is another potential bargain. A brutal season in LA due almost entirely to poor shooting luck should dampen his perceived value significantly, and a smart GM will be able to pluck a top 6 forward for little cost. Like Semin, it's next to impossible for Penner to make as much on his next contract as we did on his last one, and he'll probably be looking for a short term deal with may benefit the Habs.
Habs Score: 404.5
Last contract cap hit: $4,250,000
Prospective cap hit: $2,000,000-4,000,000
Is he an attractive option: Yes. Penner is a possibly steal of a deal. He's not as good of a player as Parise or Semin, but he will be significantly cheaper, which should allow for upgrades in other areas.
Jiri Hudler is primed to take a bigger role with an NHL team. Whether that be with the Detroit Red Wings or another team is up for debate. Hudler can score, there's no debate there. He'll give you 20+ goals if you sign him, but I don't think he can handle the tough minutes that being on a line with Plekanec would offer, and his small size doesn't make him attractive to a team that's looking to get bigger.
Habs Score: 365
Last contract cap hit: $2,875,000
Prospective cap hit: $3,000,000-4,500,000
Is he an attractive option: Not really. Hudler is a very solid player, but his playing style is basically a less talented Cammalleri, which doesn't seem like a great option with Plekanec and Gionta. Hudler also doesn't play very tough minutes, which doesn't fit well with the needs of the Canadiens.
Fourth line Centers
*Note: Several of the top scoring UFA centers were deemed too good to be 4th liners for obvious reasons. Daymond Langkow and Olli Jokinen were in this group. The top scoring center in the study that fit the 4th liner mould was Jim Slater, but the Winnipeg Jets signed him to a new deal after the study was completed.
Dominic Moore is fondly remembered by Habs fans for his brief tenure here, and for good reason. Moore has become a savvy vet who turns it up a notch come playoff time, and he's a speedster to boot. He can play tough minutes, he can play the PK, he can chip in a goal when it's needed.
Habs Score: 302
Last contract cap hit: $1,100,000
Prospective cap hit: $1,000,000-2,000,000
Is he an attractive option: Yes. Not only did he score highest of the remaining centers, but he's already been exposed to the market and excelled. He's cheaper than many other options and chips in scoring as well.
Samuel Pahlsson is getting up there in age, but that's okay because he wouldn't be expected to play the role he did in his prime. It likely also makes him less expensive. The problem with Pahlsson would be luring him out of Vancouver, which is an attractive place to play for any player, especially with Alain Vigneault remaining the head coach. Pahlsson played the toughest minutes of any center on the UFA market aside from Olli Jokinen.
Habs Score: 287
Last contract cap hit: $2,650,000
Prospective cap hit: $1,500,000-2,500,000
Is he an attractive option: Yes. Pahlsson's defensive acumen is still great, and he's an excellent buffer to take a huge amount of defensive zone starts and allow the top 3 lines to create offense. He's an expensive option, but one that would be worth it for Plekanec come playoff time.
Paul Gaustad is a little bit overrated, evidenced by the 1st round pick Nashville gave up for him at the trade deadline, but that doesn't mean he isn't good. He's also a big man and pretty physical, unless Milan Lucic hurts his goalie. Gaustad played extremely tough minutes for the Sabres and could do the same for Montreal in order to ease the load on players like Plekanec and Gionta. Gaustad scored lower than the next guy down, but I bumped him up due to his familiarity with the division and his physical play.
Habs Score: 272
Last contract cap hit: $2,300,000
Prospective cap hit: $2,000,000-3,000,000
Is he an attractive option: Depends. If the cap doesn't get rolled back under the new CBA, the Canadiens could have money to throw around for Gaustad, but since he's likely to be more expensive than many of the other options, and isn't clearly better, he may not be worth it.
Torrey Mitchell is a speedster. He seems to be itching to breakout in San Jose, but isn't afforded the opportunity. The Sharks are pretty good at retaining players, but it might be time for Mitchell to move on to greener pastures.
Habs Score: 280.5
Last contract cap hit: $1,366,667
Prospective cap hit: $1,500,000-$2,500,000
Is he an attractive option: It's unclear. Mitchell is definitely a good player, but he might not fit the mold of the 4th line center who can take the tough minutes that Montreal needs.
Jeff Halpern, like Moore, has been here before. He played extremely well for the Canadiens in a very tough job and even filled in ably on the top line with Plekanec for a spell during the injury ravaged regular season of 2010-11. Halpern is getting on in years, and wasn't treated very will under Hunter's regime in Washington, but he may have one more good year in him. He scored lower than the person below him, but like Gaustad I pumped him up due to his familiarity with the market.
Habs Score: 253
Last contract cap hit: $825,000
Prospective cap hit: $800,000-$1,000,000
Is he an attractive option: Yes. Halpern is old and comes with an injury risk, but he still plays his role well and could give some much needed relief for Tomas Plekanec in the defensive zone and on the PK.
Adam Burish is a bit of a pest, but he's also become a fairly solid 4th line option. Burish played tough minutes as far as zone starts go, but the quality of his competition was fairly weak. He did chip in a lot of offense compared to his peers though, only Gaustad outscored him at even strength.
Habs Score: 260
Last contract cap hit: $1,150,000
Prospective cap hit: $1,150,000-1,750,000
Is he an attractive option: Depends. If the other guys on this list are all gone come the time that the Habs come knocking, then Burish is a good backup option. I'm not sure if he's worth a raise on his last contract though and being a UFA with some clout for the first time, he'll be looking for a payday.