Friday, May 20, 2011

The Curious Case Of Gorges

The Canadiens made a lot of moves this season. Seemingly all on defence. Rookies and minor leaguers showed good signs of progress too. Seemingly all on defence. And the free agents that one would put near the top of a list to re-sign are all on defence.

There's some interesting arithmetic going on in the Candiens organization as they bring in assets before deciding which ones they will need to part with.

After the Emelin signing, it was assumed (probably rightly) that the Russian was going to be in North America to play for NHL dollars.

One can add the courting of Andrei Markov (though as yet unfulfilled) as as a sign that he too is part of Plan A for Martin and Gauthier. I wouldn't disagree with the management there.

Subban is signed and unquestionably on the team.

That's three.

A fourth, like it or not, will likely be Jaroslav Spacek with a signed contract, an NHL education and the coach's trust already in hand.

The rest

The remaining two (really four, if you think about it) places will be taken up by the free agents and minor leaguers.

There are any number of unrestricted free agent defencemen around the league, and there are 5 on the Canadiens: Hamrlik, Wisniewski, Gill, Sopel and Mara.

In the restricted camp, the team has Josh Gorges, Alexandre Picard and Yannick Weber.

Hoping for their chance from Hamilton will be Brendon Nash, Mathieu Carle and even Raphael Diaz with contracts, and possibly more if signed.

From the names above, most sages seem to be coming up with the combination of Gorges, Gill and Weber, with an 8th to be filled by someone cheap I presume (Picard?).

But is this right? Are these the right players from the bottom list to go with the players in the list above?

Gill we know is a right answer. For Subban, for Price, for Martin. He doesn't look pretty doing it, but when the rules are curtailed, Hal Gill puts a pretty wide blanket over some threatening attacks. He's been the main reason that the team can even think about playing the way they do.

Weber started shakily, but made great strides I thought towards the end of the season and in the playoffs. He's versatile, has a good shot and has that underlying offensive side that tempts many a GM to hang on.

The case of Josh Gorges is curious, I think.

A fan favourite to be sure, most assume his place has been cemented for a decade to come by now.

Not that I think the fan admiration is misguided in any way, I'm a big fan myself of Josh. But, and it's a big but, I believe the value of Josh Gorges is intrinsically tied to the cap hit on his contract.

Josh Gorges is a solid defenceman, a very solid one. Having him on the team allowed many of us to see that our previous definitions of solid (Komisarek) were off the mark. For the past three seasons, the Habs have been getting this solid play for a bargain price. At the bargain price, it was inevitable that Gorges would show up in all kinds of lists like most-underrated in the NHL, best cap bargain, etc. That alone made him a big star, the anti-Sather signing.

But while his clockwork proficiency is wanted, needed by the team. Unfortunately the Canadiens have to live in a salary cap reality just like everyone else. And in their salary cap reality they have some pretty hefty salary cap clangers to account for (Gomez, Spacek, Moen, the guy they sign this summer who is meant to be "big"). In this world, the Canadiens need to be aware of more than the ability to make a simple pas safely.

The unknown here, I suppose is the mind of Josh Gorges. He's not a UFA so he can't get whatever he wants, but with RFA status comes a bit a of leverage and the possibility of arbitration. It is not inconceivable to think that he might double, triple or multiply his salary by some big factor.

Let's say for the sake of argument that the Habs are forced to face at least face the threat of arbitration in his case and the salary he ends up with is in the neighbourhood of $3 million. Let's say there's a few years on it. It's not an unreasonable salary for a player like him. It's less than Johnny Oduya.

But at $3 million is Josh Gorges the untouchable cornerstone of the Canadiens backline for years to come? A back line that may already include Subban, Markov, Emelin and Gill?

If Gomez is your benchmark, he'd still be a bargain. But what if Hamrlik does cut his rate in two? What if Sopel would stay for Gorges former salary? What if the team wants to see about Mathieu Carle at some point? What if the team needs those extra two million to address a forward hole?

Trade value
The other very interesting thing about Josh Gorges is that he is one of the few pieces the Canadiens have in their hands right now that has any sort of foreseeable value on the market.

Armchair GMs would all trade Spacek, and I'd applaud them if they could. But in all likelihood his contract is untradeable. The UFAs have no value at all to anyone of course. And Weber for all our praise is still largely unproven.

Gorges signed or unsigned provides a suite the three-fold advantage of age, non-UFa and proven NHL play. If the Canadiens really want to upgrade at forward, and I hope someone has keyed on that need, then a trade has to be in the mix. If a trade's in the mix, I can't see how Josh Gorges isn't on the table.

If I were GM, I wouldn't trade him now or at the draft, or before signing him (cap be damned until fall). I'd keep him and play him and see how the whole corps pans out. But hey, I'm not Gauthier. Sometimes the man makes trades earlier than I would.

Anyway, the point here isn't that I want to see Gorges go. I don't. The point is that based on the order negotiations have taken place, a fan needed to raise the possibility that perhaps the dogma that Josh Gorges is here forever might be in question. It's curious that the log jam on D never really raised a discussion on him and his place.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Say Emelin, You Say Yemelin:

Gauthier Wise Not To Call The Whole Thing Off

Alex, Alexei. Emelin, Yemelin. Whatever you want to call this guy, only one name really now matters: Canadiens defenceman.

In what proved to be a very worthwhile trip to the land of Pilsener and dumplings, Pierre Gauthier has come away with what will be, if not the, one of the prized signings of the summer for the Habs.

I say prized signing because it's a game changer, a depth chart changer. When he looked down the barrel of defensive injuries this season, Gauthier came up with Wisniewski, Sopel, Mara. All were good recovery shots, but recovery shots they were. Subban was here, Weber was basically here, O'Byrne was gone. Gauthier had left himself exposed to Brendon Nash call ups.

In Slovakia, Gauthier has gone some way to remedy that. First Swiss D-man Diaz, and now Alexei Emelin (we never boarded the Kastitsyn train, we're not boarding the Yemelin one either). The potential depth chart now looks more safe, and with more protection for true up and comers Subban and Weber.

The Alexei Emelin signing is particularly exciting. Most reports will tell you that he had a banner offensive year for his team AK Bars Kazan this season. Most reports are missing the point. He's not been an offensive defenceman in his career, he's not likely going to morph into one in Montreal. This guy is a competitor, this guy is a winner.

Winning pedigree

Alexei came up the ranks with his local club, Lada Togliatti in the inland Russian town Togliatti on the Volga. There he learned how to play and how to win, lessons he carried with him to AK Bars Kazan. Together with his 27 points, Emelin has quite a cabinet full of medals and trophies:

2 Gagrin Cups
1 WJC Gold, 1 WJC Silver
1 WC Silver, 1 WC Bronze
2 Continental Cups

Think this insignificant? Gauthier and Gainey don't. Their recent rebuild sought players just like this guy, and though this record is peppered with unfamiliar and oft-discounted trophies instead of Memorial Cups and Stanley Cups, it still shows Emelin was on teams that won.

This is important for a defenceman. Defence, after all is where a team record can truly be solidified (or taken apart). In playoff time, we can all see tangible evidence of this (maybe not last night). A team that can commit to playing defence, being patient, "playing the system" that is designed for its component strengths can win. Emelin seems to know this stuff, at least by the evidence.

Fear factor

As you know, I don't like a dirty player. And there certainly is the fear that Emelin may be one. However, I am also prone to lament a team that provides nothing for opposing forwards to think about.

I would be very happy if Alexei Emelin never meets Colin Campbell or Gary Bettman until the time of the Stanley Cup presentation. But in reining in his aggression, I hope the Canadiens allow him to throw plenty of legal and timely body checks.

From what we have seen, from what we've heard, Emelin is a player one pays attention to when he's on the ice. Though I don't like the idea of intimidation, I must recognise that the Habs aren't winning while teams that subscribe to the intimidation methods are still alive. It's a common theme in the media that the Habs lack size. but in reality, if Emelin replaced Gill, the change in personnel would bring less size, but more "size", or what the pundits can't express in other words. Emelin offers that player that can strike a bit of fear and more importantly hesitation into opponents. Paired with someone like Markov or Subban, the space and time his reputation alone might free is worth the price of the contract alone.

25 years old

The bonus in this story is that Emelin is only 25 years old (just 25, actually). He's done all this, played 7 years at the highest levels of Russian hockey (with a 4-year tenure on the Russian squad) in his defensive youth.

This baptism by championships is a development coup. While the Bulldogs have been a decent team to be around on and off for the past few years, it's hard to see how Emelin would have received the benefits of Russian call-ups and professional mentorship the likes that he has received.

This is not to say there won't be bumps in the road as he adjust to the North American style. I think most would anticipate a long adjustment period. Maybe more than a one-year contract.

But a winner will find a way.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Getting off Scott-Free

With a long and painful off-season ahead of us and a lot of action before the Cup gets taken anywhere (go... um... 'Nucks, I guess?), many pundits are already weighing in with their well-considered opinions of what Pierre Gauthier needs to do with the team over the summer. And of course, Scott Gomez is the name on everyone's lips.

Unquestionably the goat of the team this season, and for good reason: Gomez gets more than he gives. By that, I mean that his contract is worth more than he's been contributing on the ice. And even if Gainey didn't make the contract originally, he did trade for it in a gamble. A gamble that lost, if you compare his scoring with other players earning that kind of coin. And we fans see a little red, because there's few things we hate like feeling ripped off.

We can talk about everything he does apart from scoring, and it's a lot. Younger players often cite him as a role model and mentor. He carries the puck through neutral ice very well (even if he goes straight to the corner from there). He can be shifty and unpredictable in the offensive zone (even if he often isn't). He understands the concept of back-checking and kills penalties fairly well (when he feels like it).

But we don't want the team paying $7.5M for a depth and character player. That's what Jeff Halpern gets $600k for. For $7.5M, we want the Rick Nashes and Jarome Iginlas of the league, not the... well, not the Scott Gomezes or Chris Druries (thanks, Sather).

So what are the options? Well, frankly some of the proposals are ridiculous, so ridiculous they could only come from the mouths of Habs fanatics. Ted Bird of radio fame suggests that if Gomez was seriously contrite about his worst season ever, he would renegotiate his contract for a lower wage. Mr. Bird laughs this off himself, and I think we can all agree that this will never happen.

The second option would be to trade Gomez. This is just as ridiculous as the above proposal, and must have been made by someone used to negotiating trade deals with their 8-year-old nephew. Gomez is coming off his worst season of all-time, and is therefore at his lowest value of all-time. A good salesman might have been able to trade Gomez for a bag of pucks if he'd scored 65 points this season, but he didn't crack 40. The thought that Gauthier can "just find a way" to trade him implies that NHL GMs are either a) absolute morons, or b) not watching the numbers very closely. And remember Glen Sather already had this guy once. Suffice to say that since neither your Playstation 3's AI nor your 8-year-old nephew are negotiating the deal, we're not going to see him traded any time soon (no matter how hard we wish).

Third on the list: ship him to the Bulldogs, pay the salary, and lose the cap hit. One the one hand, it's been done before. The Rangers shipped Wade Redden to the minors at $6.5M per year (Sather again), and the Oilers did it with Souray at $4.5M. It does have the tremendous advantage of freeing up the cap space to get Brad Richards or... um... well, there's not a whole lot of great UFA first-line, elite centres out there, and that's what the Habs (still) need. As Topham is fond of pointing out: once the cap space is free - assuming Geoff Molson doesn't mind paying $7.5M for a Bulldog - who does Gauthier gun for? If he can't land Brad Richards, then what?

Fourth is to buy out the contract like was done with Georges Laracque, who still costs the Habs a half-million in cap hit next season. The reason this isn't a great option (besides the $17M up-front payout) is that, as pointed out by Elliote Friedman, under the current CBA he'd still be a $4-5M cap hit for the next couple years, declining to $2M in 2016-17. Do we really want to take a $4M cap hit for absolutely nothing? Once we're paying $4M for nothing, the question suddenly becomes "Is Gomez worth $3.5M?" I suspect he is.

Fifth, and most likely: status quo. For all the reasons above, and a new CBA to negotiate next summer, I think the smart money says Gomez will be suiting up in the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge come fall. I'm not thrilled about this past season's performance, but we can hope it might spur him to come back hungry and in top shape. He's not a bad hockey player. Mind you, he's not $7.5M good either.

If Gomez were to be put on waivers and shipped to Hamilton tomorrow, who would you hope to sign this summer? Is Gomez worth $3.5M? How many points next season would Gomez have to score in order for you to be only slightly disappointed with his salary? Let us know in the comments.