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Off-Season Game Plan: Montreal Canadiens

Scott Cullen
6/7/2011 3:20:47 PM
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After finishing first in the Eastern Conference in the 2007-2008 season, the Montreal Canadiens have squeaked into the playoffs with a lower seed for three consecutive seasons.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Canadiens roster that could undergo significant overhaul as they strive to put together a Cup contender.

Montreal lost in Game Seven overtime against a team that is currently playing for the Stanley Cup, so it's not like the current roster requires gutting in order to be competitive but, with eight unrestricted free agents, it's possible there will be several new faces in the blue, blanc et rouge next season.

While the Canadiens have a veteran core, particularly after re-signing Tomas Plekanec last summer, to go with the previous year's acquisitions Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, but the success of the franchise lnog-term is likely tied to the next generation.

That generation is anchored by goaltender Carey Price, who emerged as one of the game's best young starters last season, and defenceman P.K. Subban, who showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season.  Winger Max Pacioretty, whose season was ended prematurely by injury, also has potential remaining to be discovered.

Suggesting that Price and Subban are the difference-makers for the Canadiens doesn't diminish the importance of the other veterans on hand, but most of the Habs' veterans have established the level at which they can be expected to produce, whereas Price and Subban have the tantalizing upside of potential greatness ahead of them.

Having made the playoffs for four straight seasons, the Canadiens have enjoyed some playoff success, playing seven postseason rounds in those four years, but for a franchise that hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1993, there may be a sense of urgency to do more than just get into the top eight of the Eastern Conference.

The Canadiens were awfully active during the 2010-2011 season, both acquiring and promoting players to shore up holes, many of which were created by injuries.

For all the improvements that GM Pierre Gauthier made during the season, his most pressing issues this summer will likely involve a defence corps that has five unrestricted free agents including injury-plagued workhorse Andrei Markov and his ostensible replacement, James Wisniewski.

Rumours will linger, in the face of silence from the organization, that the Canadiens are interested in bringing Jaromir Jagr back to the NHL, hoping to capitalize on Jagr's chemistry at the World Championships with fellow Czech Tomas Plekanec but, after three years in the KHL, that seems bold even for a Canadiens team that hasn't been afraid to make bold moves in recent summers.

For all the possible acquisitions that the Canadiens might make, another potential source of improvement for next season could be centre Scott Gomez; after all, he couldn't be any worse than he was in 2010-2011, could he?

The fine line between winning and losing in the NHL playoffs means that the Canadiens may not be that far away from contending -- close enough that a couple of savvy moves could put them over the top -- but, considering the margin by which they've secured a playoff berth in recent seasons, if this summer's moves don't work out, next year's playoffs are hardly assured, either.

So, as always, a low-pressure offseason awaits in Montreal.

GM/COACH
Pierre Gauthier/Jacques Martin

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Tomas Plekanec 74.17 $5.0M
Mike Cammalleri 73.79 $6.0M
Brian Gionta 72.90 $5.0M
Scott Gomez 65.66 $7.357M
Travis Moen 61.40 $1.5M
Lars Eller 61.27 $1.271M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Max Pacioretty 74.13 RFA $910K
Andrei Kostitsyn 69.47 RFA $3.25M
Mathieu Darche 67.18 UFA $500K
David Desharnais 66.35 RFA $550K
Benoit Pouliot 65.06 RFA $1.35M
Jeff Halpern 64.59 UFA $600K
Ryan White 61.74 RFA $850K
Tom Pyatt 59.22 RFA $500K

Tomas Plekanec scored a career-high 70 points in 2009-2010, earning a lucrative new long-term contract and while last season's 57 points was a drop in production, it was still good enough to lead the Habs by ten points over his next-closest teammate.

Plekanec plays in all situations, playing a career-high 20:15 per game last season, and is so reliable in all zones, registering a plus rating in five of his six NHL seasons.

If the Habs are inclined to provide Plekanec more offensive support on his wings, his point totals could be even better.

Although Mike Cammalleri has been a big-time playoff performer in the last two seasons, scoring 29 points in 26 postseason games, he's struggled at times in the regular season, totaling 97 points in 132 games. Of course, injuries have played a part (since he's missed 32 games in that time).

Nevertheless, Cammalleri is one of the true snipers on the roster, four times surpassing 25 goals in a season, so he'll play a pivotal role in Montreal's offence.

Captain Brian Gionta has back-to-back seasons with 46 points and a plus-3 rating, though he played every game last season and missed 21 games in 2009-2010.

Like Cammalleri, Gionta is a finisher, willing to take his lumps in the hard areas around the net in order to score.

There may not have been a bigger disappointment in the league last season than Scott Gomez. Forget his contract, for a moment, but consider that he managed seven goals, 38 points and a minus-15 rating, while playing more than 18 minutes per game. Among forwards that played at least 50 games and 18 minutes per game last season, only four had fewer points than Gomez.

At some point (ie. the last two years of his contract), when his cap value becomes higher than the actual cash owed to him, Gomez's contract might have some value but, as it stands now, the Canadiens just need him to play a productive role as the club's second line centre.

There's no doubt that Travis Moen puts forth an honest day's work and has played 160 games over the last two seasons, so he's durable, but his skill set doesn't warrant the kind of ice time he's received either.

Moen can be very good in a fourth-line role with the ability to move up the depth chart on occasion when injuries hit or line shake-up is required.

Lars Eller endured some growing pains in his rookie season, scoring two points in the first 23 games, and finishing with a modest 17 points, but the 22-year-old showed enough promise that he can be groomed to play a bigger role as a checking forward.

For a Canadiens team that lacks size up front, the presence of Max Pacioretty was an important addition, as he brought size (6--foot-2, 196 pounds) and skill (14 goals in 37 games).

Pacioretty's season was ended after a devastating check by Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, but reports indicate that he's now healthy and should be ready for next season and the Canadiens will be glad to have him back in a top-six forward role.

It says something about his talent that the Canadiens continue to give Andrei Kostitsyn chances and last season's 45 points represented the second-highest total of his career, but he still leaves the feeling as if there is still more waiting to be discovered.

Since he's a restricted free agent, it won't be easy to determine a value for Kostitsyn long-term, which could make it difficult to ascertain a fair value -- for either side -- on a long-term deal.

Tiny David Desharnais has scored at every level and got his chance in the NHL last season and he produced, scoring 22 points with minimal playing time in 43 games.

Desharnais hasn't necessarily established that he can be counted on in a regular role, but the 24-year-old showed enough that he should be able to find a role, helping on the power play at the very least.

Though it appears Benoit Pouliot will never live up to his draft slot, fourth overall in 2005, he did manage a career-high 30 points in a limited role last season. Pouliot has good size and he can put the puck in the net, just not consistently enough to warrant a top-six role.

23-year-old winger Ryan White got his longest stint in the NHL, playing 27 games for the Canadiens last season and, while his skating could still use improvement, the gritty forward added a new dimension of aggressiveness and physical play on the fourth line.

Tom Pyatt brings his lunch pail to work, but has 12 points in 101 career NHL games, so he's always on the fringe of the lineup; a useful depth player and penalty killer.

With veterans Mathieu Darche and Jeff Halpern heading for unrestricted free agency, the Canadiens may be in the market for some changes up front.

If prospect Louis Leblanc is ready to make the jump from junior, that would surely offer more skill, but the lineup could use a good two-way centre, one that might be able to move up and play more minutes if Gomez doesn't rebound. Eric Belanger, Michal Handzus and Marcel Goc are centres that have been able to check and score a little bit throughout their careers.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
P.K. Subban 71.54 $875K
Jaroslav Spacek 63.87 $3.833M
Hal Gill 59.36 $2.25M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
James Wisniewski 74.20 UFA $3.25M
Roman Hamrlik 70.06 UFA $5.5M
Andrei Markov 66.53 UFA $5.75M
Yannick Weber 65.20 RFA $875K
Josh Gorges 62.55 RFA $1.1M
Alexandre Picard 61.92 RFA $600K
Brent Sopel 61.14 UFA $2.333M
Paul Mara 60.73 UFA $750K

He may play like a wild child sometimes, but P.K. Subban's rookie season sure looked like it would be the beginning of a star's career. Sometimes there are too many histrionics, but Subban can get under the skin of his opponents and it makes it all the more devastating when he makes a skillful play to score or set up a goal.

22-year-old Subban is going to be a fixture on the Montreal blueline, likely to play even more than he did as a rookie and he played quite a bit, as one of five Canadiens blueliners to play more than 21 minutes per game last season.

Jaroslav Spacek missed 23 games due to knee surgery, but the 37-year-old was still effective when he was in the lineup, finishing with a team-best plus-9 rating. He's not capable of playing 22 minutes or more a night at this stage of his career, but can get the job done if he's playing 18-20.

Hal Gill was a combined minus-19 over the last two seasons with Montreal, but seems to have a found a niche, as a penalty killer and the mind-the-store complement to freewheeling Subban.

It seems as though he's been on the fringe of the Canadiens' roster for some time, but Yannick Weber is still just 22-year-old, coming off a 41-game rookie season.

Weber has been utilized as a forward at times, as he hasn't been able to earn a regular spot on the blueline, but he has the mobility and puck skills to benefit the unit.

A knee injury limited Josh Gorges to 36 games last season, taking away a reliable defensive presence on the Canadiens' blueline. Gorges has played more than 20 minutes per game for three consecutive seasons, working his way into a shutdown role. If he comes back healthy next season, Gorges will provide a stabilizing veteran presence.

A bubble player who can just as easily be out of the lineup as in it, Alexandre Picard performed admirably in the extra defenceman role for the Canadiens last season. He's played between 24 and 62 games in each of the last five seasons, has been an even player in the last two seasons and had the best shot differential per 60 minutes among Habs blueliners (according to www.behindthenet.ca).

With five unrestricted free agents on their defence alone, the Canadiens could have some significant turnover in personnel. Andrei Markov, who hasn't been able to stay healthy the last couple seasons or James Wisniewski, who was impressive after coming over from the Islanders in a trade, would figure to hold first priority for one premier spot on the Montreal defence. The other one, along with Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara could all test the open market.

One addition that could make an impact right away is that of Russian defenceman Alexei Yemelin, a 25-year-old who has been toiling in the KHL and the Russian Super League dating back to 2004-2005. Yemelin is coming off his best season and may be ready to not only play, but play significant minutes, for Montreal next season.

If Montreal doesn't secure the services of any of their own free agent defencemen, then the Habs will have some money to throw at a big-ticket free agent like Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, Joni Pitkanen or Eric Brewer.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Carey Price 79.37 $2.75M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Alex Auld 70.68 UFA $1.0M

Handed the number one goaltending job when Jaroslav Halak was dealt to St. Louis, Carey Price responded with a breakthrough season, with the most wins (38), shutouts (eight), best goals against average (2.35) and save percentage (.923) of his career.

Not yet 24-years-old, Price is now the Habs' franchise player, the backbone of the team and when he plays well he gives the team a chance to win; if he doesn't play well, it's going to be an uphill battle.

Alex Auld was good in his role as a seldom-used backup. If he's not brought back, other veterans like Mathieu Garon, Johan Hedberg or Marty Turco may be worthwhile options.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Louis LeBlanc C Montreal (QMJHL) 26-32-58,+20, 51 GP
Alexei Yemelin D Kazan-AK-Bars (KHL) 11-15-26,+16, 52 GP
Danny Kristo RW North Dakota (WCHA) 8-20-28,+6, 34 GP
Jarred Tinordi D London (OHL) 1-13-14,-8, 63 GP
Aaron Palushaj RW Hamilton (AHL) 22-35-57,+22, 68 GP
Alexander Avtsin RW Hamilton (AHL) 5-15-20,+2, 58 GP
Brendon Nash D Hamilton (AHL) 5-25-30,+22, 75 GP
Andreas Engqvist C Hamilton (AHL) 10-15-25,+8, 71 GP
Mathieu Carle D Hamilton (AHL) 11-18-29,+19, 68 GP
Brendan Gallagher RW Vancouver (WHL) 44-47-91,+29, 66 GP

Currently recovering from shoulder surgery, Louis Leblanc is carrying the hopes of being the Habs' next Francophone star, which can be a heavy burden, but he had a good year in the QMJHL after leaving Harvard and may not be too far away from contending for a spot on the Canadiens' roster.

While Alexei Yemelin scored 26 points last season in the KHL, he's considered more of a physical defensive presence, having exceeded 100 penalty minutes three times in Russia, despite his seasons not running longer than 56 games. While penalty standards may be different, it's safe to expect Yemelin to not shy away from physical play.

A second-round pick in 2008, Danny Kristo has played for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux for the last two seasons, but another year on campus would probably be best for his development.

Towering defenceman Jarred Tinordi went through some growings pains, figuratively not literally, during his first season in the Ontario Hockey League, but the 19-year-old has time to fill out his frame and round out his game before he's asked to help the Habs.

Acquired from St. Louis for Matt D'Agostini in 2009-2010, Aaron Palushaj was one of six AHLers to have at least 55 points and a plus-20 rating last season, so he could be in line for a call-up at some point to see, with a longer look, if his game is up to snuff for the NHL.

Raw talent in a big body, Alexander Avtsin didn't play a big role as an AHL rookie, but was 19-year-old for most of the season, so he was ahead of the curve when it came to competition for his age. Now, to see if he can produce at that level.

A reliable defenceman with good size, Brendon Nash struggled in his cup of coffee with the Canadiens last season, but he had a strong showing overall in his first pro season.

23-year-old Swedish centre Andreas Engqvist put up modest point totals in his first AHL season, but he was a strong two-way player nonetheless and, at 6-foot-4, has the size to be an effective checking centre.

After four seasons in the AHL, Mathieu Carle has shown that he can excel at that level, but that doesn't guarantee a spot in the NHL and, barring injuries, he may be hard-pressed to crack the roster in Montreal.

A fifth-round pick last summer, Brendan Gallagher isn't big, but he's feisty and has 85 goals and 219 penalty minutes in the WHL over the last two seasons.

A couple of other prospects warrant watching. Signed out of the Swiss league, 25-year-old defenceman Raphael Diaz scored 39 points in 45 games with Zug and could be another find for Montreal along the lines of Mark Streit.

Forward Michael Bournival, who was acquired from Colorado in the Ryan O'Byrne trade, also bears watching; a third-round pick last summer, he has the speed and skill to create scoring chances.

Check out a possible roster on www.capggek.com, with a few signings and many departures included. http://bit.ly/iN2EoF

DRAFT
17th - Zack Phillips, Ty Rattie, Joe Morrow.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canadiens have approximately $37.3M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 11 players.

Needs: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, backup goaltender.

What I said the Canadiens needed last year: Three top nine forwards.

They added: Jeff Halpern, Lars Eller, Dustin Boyd, P.K. Subban, Alexandre Picard.

TRADE MARKET Andrei Kostitsyn, Scott Gomez, Jaroslav Spacek.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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