Off-Season Game Plan: Canadiens

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Scott Cullen
6/3/2009 3:03:23 PM
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With so much optimism going into the 2008-2009 season, the Montreal Canadiens limped into the playoffs and were unmercifully swept out by the arch-rival Boston Bruins.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Habs, with incredible salary cap flexibility, could do this summer in an effort to alter the franchise's direction.

Reports have surfaced that the Canadiens made an offer to Alex Kovalev to keep him for another season, while also giving him the captaincy. While keeping Kovalev isn't the worst thing in the world, it would seem terribly shortsighted to overspend to keep him when Kovalev is a 36-year-old coming off a mediocre season.

Furthermore, if those reports are accurate, that could pave the way for longtime captain Saku Koivu and/or defensive stalwart Mike Komisarek to leave as free agents. In both cases, the Canadiens can probably find better use for their money than going into bidding wars for them.

If the Canadiens are inclined to use their cap flexibility in an effort to re-shape the roster, why not put out substantial offers to Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin? If not the Sedins, how about free agent snipers Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa or Martin Havlat? Even if the franchise is taking a cautious approach in the face of a potentially declining salary cap, those have to be the targets when you have about $30-million in cap space, right?

Depending on how the money is spent up front, the Canadiens may get involved in the Jay Bouwmeester sweepstakes. He's not the big shooter on the power play that the Habs lacked for much of the season, but Bouwmeester is capable of logging major minutes, easing the load on Andrei Markov.

However the Canadiens choose to spend their money this summer, they absolutely have to be more successful than they've been in previous summers, when they have reportedly been in the running for marquee free agents, only to come up short time after time.

Whether it takes more money or simply a better sales pitch on the benefits of playing in Montreal, the Canadiens have to figure it out and make substantial upgrades to a roster that came up well short of expectations in the franchise's 100th year.

Before the Canadiens get to that stage, they have some other issues to address: ownership and coaching.

Whether George Gillett actually sells the team will play a role in how the Habs operate this summer, and who will call the shots from behind the bench will obviously help dictate what kind of team the Habs will ice next season.

Rest assured, with this many issues, it's not going to be a boring summer in Montreal.

GM/COACH
Bob Gainey/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Maxim Lapierre 72.14 $800K
Andrei Kostitsyn 70.86 $3.25M
Sergei Kostitsyn 64.28 $585K
Max Pacioretty 64.13 $875K
Glen Metropolit 61.15 $1.0M
Georges Laraque 54.98 $1.5M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Alex Tanguay 78.44 UFA $5.375M
Alex Kovalev 76.12 UFA $4.5M
Robert Lang 75.99 UFA $4.0M
Saku Koivu 75.93 UFA $600K
Chris Higgins 70.25 RFA $1.9M
Guillaume Latendresse 69.47 RFA $850K
Tomas Plekanec 67.70 RFA $1.8M
Tom Kostopoulos 65.24 UFA $900K
Matt D'Agostini 63.72 RFA $508K

Top Prospects: Ben Maxwell (22-36-58, plus-6 in 73 GP; Hamilton-AHL), Kyle Chipchura (14-21-35, plus-28 in 51 GP; Hamilton-AHL)

Maxim Lapierre continues to develop, setting career marks in goals, points and plus-minus last season. Not only is he an effective checker, he's one of the more aggravating players to play against and the Canadiens need that kind of edge in the lineup.

The Kostitsyn brothers generated headlines for all the wrong reasons, whether for their relationship with an alleged mobster or being involved in a ridiculous feud with Maple Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski.

Even so, the brothers are talented and for that reason it's probably worth showing some patience. Andrei Kostitsyn is streaky and needs a more well-rounded game to go with his dazzling one-on-one moves, but the 24-year-old has barely scratched the surface of his potential.

Sergei Kostitsyn had a forgettable second season, which included a demotion to the AHL, but the younger brother has good puck skills and can work the point on the power play; it's just a matter of him maturing and taking more responsibility for putting forth a more complete effort.

Though he seems to have been rushed out of the University of Michigan before he refined his scoring touch, Max Pacioretty has the size and speed to be a solid pro. How high he climbs up the depth chart depends on how frequently Pacioretty can finish.

Glen Metropolit is now with his seventh NHL team and has topped 20 points in a season just twice, so his role is going to be limited. At the same time, he doesn't shortchange in the effort department, which makes it easy enough to find a spot for him.

Returning home didn't exactly have the desired effect for Georges Laraque, who didn't score a goal, had a career-low two points and a minus-6 rating in just 33 games. For the money he's being paid, it would be nice to at least get Big Georges into the lineup more often.

Christopher Higgins is coming off his worst pro season, but has the speed, skill and instincts to be a quality complementary scorer, even if he ends up playing in a responsible checking role with some power play time.

While his overall total of 26 points represented the lowest of his three-year NHL career, Guillaume Latendresse showed progress while only skating in 56 games. Latendresse can still work on improving his speed and overall consistency, but he uses his big body well in the corners and could easily be a 20-goal scorer.

In a season of many disappointments for the Canadiens, few skaters fell short of expectations like Tomas Plekanec, who followed a career-best season in 2007-2008 with what may well have been a career-worst in 2008-2009. Plekanec has the tools to be a very good two-way centre, but depends on quality linemates to help elevate his own game.

Matt D'Agostini's rookie season started well, as he scored four goals in his first five games, but it finished quietly with an ugly minus-17 rating in 53 games. While D'Agostini has obvious potential, he'll have to improve his play without the puck to establish himself as an NHL regular.

With so many free agents, the Canadiens are almost dealing with a blank slate up front, at least at the top of the depth chart.

That means the Canadiens should have an opportunity to bid for some of the top names on the free agent market, whether that means the Sedin Twins, Martin Havlat, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik or perhaps a blockbuster trade involving Vincent Lecavalier (the rumour that won't go away until Lecavalier leaves Tampa Bay) or Ilya Kovalchuk.

Then again, the Canadiens could simply earmark that money to ensure the return of Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay

One thing is clear: with this much cap space, the Canadiens' roster ought to look dramatically different next season.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Andrei Markov 81.95 $5.75M
Roman Hamrlik 74.06 $5.5M
Josh Gorges 71.54 $1.0M
Ryan O'Byrne 60.44 $725K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Mathieu Schneider 70.56 UFA $5.75M
Mike Komisarek 66.82 UFA $1.5M
Patrice Brisebois 66.73 UFA $750K
Francis Bouillon 64.80 UFA $1.875M
Mathieu Dandenault 63.50 UFA $1.75M

Top Prospects: Ryan McDonagh (5-11-16, minus-2 in 36 GP; Wisconsin-WCHA), Yannick Weber (16-28-44, plus-11 in 68 GP; Hamilton-AHL), P.K. Subban (14-62-76, plus-47 in 56 GP; Bellevile-OHL), Alexei Yemelin (0-3-3, even in 51 GP; Ak-Bars Kazan-KHL)

Andrei Markov is one of the league's best puck-moving defencemen, ranking second among all blueliners with 64 points and leading NHL defencemen with 39 power play points. Though he's not physical, Markov is generally reliable defensively as well and is a worthy number one for the Canadiens.

Even though he's now 35, Roman Hamrlik remains steady on the back end. He's not asked to do as much offensively as he was earlier in his career, but Hamrlik can still contribute while logging top-four minutes.

Perhaps no Canadiens player surpassed expectations like Josh Gorges, who suddenly emerged as a viable top-four defenceman; steady in his own end and gaining confidence with the puck. If Gorges can build on his breakthrough campaign, that would be a huge boost.

Inconsistency plagued Ryan O'Byrne in his second partial season. He has the size to be an effective stay-at-home defenceman, but is still a work-in-progress.

With five unrestricted free agent defencemen, there is naturally going to be some turnover. Keeping a veteran like Mathieu Schneider, who made an immediate impact on the power play, is advisable if the price is right, but Mike Komisarek figures to be in enough demand on the open market that the Habs won't get good value if they go into a bidding war for Komisarek's services.

That will leave several openings, for either rookies or free agents. Russian defender Alexei Yemelin and mobile Yannick Weber, who earned a playoff promotion, would be a couple of options to make the jump, but the Habs may want to check out the free agent market for a veteran or two to stabilize the unit, particularly if Schneider isn't re-signed.

Francois Beauchemin, Darryl Sydor, Ville Koistinen or Philippe Boucher would be some external free agent options that would help.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Salary
Jaroslav Halak 71.25 $800K
Carey Price 64.83 $850K

Top Prospect: Cedrick Desjardins (16-12-0, 4 SO, 2.55 GAA, .919 SVPCT in 30 GP; Hamilton-AHL)

It's not easy for a 21-year-old to be considered a franchise saviour goaltender in Montreal, particularly when Carey Price's play was merely mortal for long stretches of his second season. Bob Gainey made it clear, after the playoff loss to the Bruins, that he's sticking with Price and sees his struggles as valuable lessons that will help him on the way to becoming a premier goaltender. For better or worse, Gainey seems committed to that prospect.

Should the bloom officially fall off Price, Jaroslav Halak has shown potential when given the chance. Only 24, Halak still needs to become more consistent, but it's not easy to take that next step when dealing with the playing schedule of a backup.

With two young goaltenders already in the NHL, the Canadiens could use a veteran on the farm, like Marc Denis was last season, to at least provide a more experienced option in the event of injury.

DRAFT
18th - John Moore, Simon Despres, Peter Holland.

FREE AGENCY
The Canadiens have approximately $22.7-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: Three first line forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen

What I said the Canadiens needed last year: One top nine forward, one defenceman

Who did they add? Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang.

TRADE MARKET
Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn, Matt D'Agostini.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca 

Canadiens bench (Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
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