State of the Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens surprised everyone by beating the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals. This team had been depleted by injuries all season long and were finally able to pull everything together in the playoffs despite playing without their number one defenseman Andrei Markov.

Bob Gainey was heavily criticized for a number of his moves over the past few years but his overall record doesn’t look so bad. The Montreal Canadiens made it to the playoffs in five of the six years that Gainey was GM and three of those times they made it past the first round. He was also criticized for signing small players last summer but it certainly wasn’t a factor in these playoffs.

Let’s take a look at the 15 players they currently have under contract for next season:

Scott Gomez – F – $7,357,143 – When the Canadiens traded for Scott Gomez last summer, Gainey was criticized for acquiring another small center but, most importantly, for acquiring his 7 million dollar contract. Many failed to realize that this trade was done in preparation for July 1st and is probably what allowed Gainey to convince Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri to sign in Montreal. Sure Gomez probably isn’t worth more than 5 or 5.5 million but this trade was necessary in order to have a competitive team in 2009-10. Gomez picked up 59 points this season and added 14 in the playoffs; we can probably expect 65 to 70 from him next season if Gionta stays healthy and if Pouliot picks up his play a little next season – Overpaid.

Mike Cammalleri – F – $6,000,000 – He was on pace for 38 goals before suffering an injury in late January. He struggled for the final nine games of the regular season when he came back from his injury but picked it up again in the playoffs scoring 13 goals in 19 games. Had he not been hurt, Cammalleri probably would have finished in the top 30 for points and in the top 10 for goals. He is approximately the 25th most paid forward in the NHL which seems pretty fair, although one could argue that he is underpaid after the playoffs he had – Fair value.

Andrei Markov – D – $5,750,000 – Before the 2009-10 playoffs, the large majority of the Montreal Canadiens fans would have agreed that Andrei Markov was the most valuable player to the team. Over the past few years, the Canadiens had an awful record when Markov was out with an injury as he was pretty much their only good puck moving defenseman. Although he has been injured often over the past two years, he is still amongst the five best defensemen in the NHL in my opinion and is worth at least as much as Jay Bouwmeester who signed a deal worth 33 million over five years last summer – Good value.

Roman Hamrlik – D – $5,500,000 – He has finished second in time on ice per game in each of the last three years behind only Andrei Markov and, most of the time, has been solid defensively. The problem with Hamrlik is that he is starting to slow down at 36 years old and probably won’t get much more than 25 points next year. The Montreal Canadiens are very glad to have him but they just wish he was making 4 million a year instead of 5.5 – Overpaid.

Brian Gionta – F – $5,000,000 – Similar to Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta had a pretty good season overall but was slowed down by injuries. Gionta’s stats over 61 games would have given him 38 goals and 24 assists over a full season. This would have put him in the top 10 for goals and the top 50 for points. His offensive statistics are slightly worse than Cammalleri’s but his defensive play makes him just as valuable – Good value.

Jaroslav Spacek – D – $3,833,333 – Most agreed that this was a good signing by Bob Gainey last off-season but it didn’t turn out as well as expected. Spacek was disappointing for most of the season but played much better in the playoffs which could be good news for next season – Slightly overpaid.

Andrei Kostitsyn – F – $3,250,000 – He is an extremely talented player but who unfortunately is just as inconsistent. He remains a pretty good top six forward but his production has declined since signing a three-year deal in 2008. – Slightly overpaid.

Hal Gill – D – $2,250,000 – In just a few months, Hal Gill went from one of the most criticized players on the team to one of the most appreciated. Despite the criticism, he was solid defensively all season long and was a leader in the locker room. He does not bring much to the team offensively but he is excellent in his role – Fair value.

Travis Moen- F – $1,500,000 – He had the second best season of his career offensively with 20 points and was the second most used forward on the penalty kill. He won’t do anything special but he is one of the few third or fourth line forwards on the team that played regularly on the penalty kill – Fair value.

Georges Laraque – F – $1,500,000 – Laraque was asked to leave the team in January and will probably be bought out this off-season. This would cost the Canadiens $500,000 in cap room for the next two seasons instead of $1,500,000 for the next year.

Josh Gorges – D – $1,100,000 – He was excellent all season long and was the most consistent defenseman on the team. He had the most time on ice per game on the penalty kill and fourth most at even strength. Gorges finally got the recognition he deserved from the media in the playoffs and will be a huge bargain next season – Great value.

Ryan O’Byrne – D – $941,667 – He was heavily criticized last season but picked up his play this season and seems to be improving. He still isn’t much more than a sixth or seventh defenseman but he definitely has the potential to develop into a top four guy in a couple of years – Fair value.

Max Pacioretty – F – $875,000 – He was expected to play with Gionta and Gomez this season but was a big disappointment this season. He is still only 21 years old so has plenty of time to develop but – Fair value.

P.K. Subban – D – $875,000 – At times in the 2010 Playoffs, Subban looked like the best defenseman on the team. He still has a lot to learn but he made tremendous steps this season and will be a top four defenseman as well as a potential Calder candidate in 2010-11 – Great value.

Ben Maxwell – F – $850,000 – He didn’t play much with the Canadiens this season but had a pretty good season with the Bulldogs and should make the big team next year as the 12th or 13th forward – Fair value.

Here’s what we have when we put all that together:
Great value: 2
Good value: 2
Fair value: 6
Slightly overpaid: 2
Overpaid: 2

Total Cap Hit: $45,582,143 (assuming George Laraque is bought out)

The Montreal Canadiens defense is pretty set for the 2010-11 season with Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill, Josh Gorges, Ryan O’Byrne and P.K. Subban. This is the same defensive core which played so well in the 2010 Playoffs with one exception: Andrei Markov replacing Marc-Andre Bergeron. Bergeron could still be signed as a 12th forward / 7th defenseman and power play specialist but it probably won’t happen unless Gauthier is able to trade Hamrlik or Spacek this summer.

At forward, the Canadiens will resign Maxim Lapierre, Tom Pyatt and Benoit Pouliot for a total of about 3 to 3.5 million which will bring the total cap hit to close to 49 million for 17 players including 10 forwards. Dominic Moore, Glen Metropolit and Mathieu Darche could also be resigned as UFA’s for close to the minimum. If we add two forwards at 2 million (whether amongst the three named above or others), the cap hit will now be at around 51 million for 19 players.

This leaves us with the three biggest question marks of the off-season: Tomas Plekanec, Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price. Tomas Plekanec will ask for a contract similar to Ryan Kesler (30 million over 6 years). Both have very similar productions offensively but Kesler has been a nominee for the Selke Trophy in each of the past two years. Based on that, Plekanec is worth about 4.25 to 4.5 million a year in my opinion. Jaroslav Halak will definitely ask for more money than Kari Lehtonen who recently signed a three-year deal worth 10.65M. It will be very difficult to sign Halak for less than 4 million dollars a year unless it is a one or two year deal. Carey Price would be cheaper than Halak but we’re still not sure if he’s ready to start 60 to 65 games and be the number one goaltender on a playoff team.

Pierre Gauthier will have to make some decisions this summer since he cannot afford to keep all three players and probably can’t even afford to keep both Halak and Plekanec unless he makes a trade. One solution would be to deal Price along with either Hamrlik and Spacek for a young NHL-ready player making close to the minimum (and picks or prospects depending on the player) and then to resign Bergeron as a seventh defenseman. The only way to keep both Halak and Price would be to trade a defenseman for a center to replace Plekanec on the second line but that’s unlikely to happen.

In my opinion, the most likely possibility is that Carey Price will be dealt either for a center to replace Plekanec or with either Hamrlik or Spacek for a young forward to play with Gionta and Gomez. If the Canadiens stay healthy next season, they’ve shown us that they are amongst the best teams in the Eastern Conference and 95 to 100 points is certainly within reach for the 2010-11 season.

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NHL Playoffs Round 3 Schedule

The Philadelphia Flyers completed a historic comeback tonight against the Boston Bruins and will host the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday in game one. That same afternoon the San Jose Sharks will host the Chicago Blackhawks.

Here is the complete schedule for round three:

Eastern Conference
Philadelphia Flyers vs Montreal Canadiens
Sunday, May 16 at Philadelphia, 7:00 p.m. VERSUS, CBC, RDS
Tuesday, May 18 at Philadelphia, 7:00 p.m. VERSUS, CBC, RDS
Thursday, May 20 at Montreal, 7:00 p.m. VERSUS, CBC, RDS
Saturday, May 22 at Montreal, 3:00 p.m. NBC, CBC, RDS
*Monday, May 24 at Philadelphia, 7:00 p.m. VERSUS, CBC, RDS
*Wednesday, May 26 at Montreal, 7:00 p.m. VERSUS, CBC, RDS
*Friday, May 28 at Philadelphia, 7:00 p.m. VERSUS, CBC, RDS

Western Conference
San Jose Sharks vs Chicago Blackhawks
Sunday, May 16 at San Jose, 3:00 p.m. NBC, TSN, RDS
Tuesday, May 18 at San Jose, 10:00 p.m. VERSUS, TSN, RDS
Friday, May 21 at Chicago, 8:00 p.m. VERSUS, TSN, RDS
Sunday, May 23 at Chicago, 3:00 p.m. NBC, TSN, RDS
*Tuesday, May 25 at San Jose, 9:00 p.m. VERSUS, TSN, RDS
*Thursday, May 27 at Chicago, 8:00 p.m. VERSUS, TSN, RDS
*Saturday, May 29 at San Jose, 8:00 p.m. VERSUS, TSN, RDS

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Montreal Canadiens sell out Bell Centre for Game 7!

The Montreal Canadiens organization will allow fans to watch the game 7 between the Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins in High Definition at the Bell Centre on Wednesday night. Tickets went on sale at 10:00AM this morning for $7.50 and were sold out within a few hours later.

I know it’s only $7.50 but it’s still pretty amazing that a team can sell over 21,000 tickets to watch a game that they could watch for free at home or in any bar around the city. The fans in Montreal love their hockey and they know the atmosphere will be unbelievable on Wednesday night at the Bell Centre. Tickets are even selling on Ebay for more than three times the price.

The game 7 between the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals had the highest audience for any NHL game on TSN and was the most watched NHL Conference Quarterfinals game on U.S. cable since 2003. I have to believe that the ratings for Wednesday night’s game will be as high. This postseason has been one of the few high points for the NHL in the past decade and things could finally be turning around.

A (Fast) Learning Curve for P.K. Subban

P.K. Subban was an emergency call up before game six against the Washington Capitals after the team found out that Jaroslav Spacek’s virus was more serious than initially anticipated. Subban recorded three points in his first four NHL Playoffs games adding to the two he recorded earlier this year in his only two NHL regular season games. So far against the Penguins, he has averaged nearly 22 minutes per game and has already passed Ryan O’Byrne and Marc-Andre Bergeron on the depth chart.

In his first seven NHL games, P.K. Subban looked like a 10-year veteran. He was calm defensively, always making the simple play, jumping up at the right time and taking smart chances when he felt he could. However, last night was quite the opposite as he struggled mightily in the first period. Despite being tripped, he missed the puck in the offensive zone which led to the Maxime Talbot breakaway goal and, a little later, he tried to spin and slipped which gave Evgeni Malkin a very good scoring chance. He also looked nervous early on in the defensive zone when making his first pass. Despite all that, Jacques Martin kept him in the game and gave him 22 minutes of ice time and Subban responded beautifully. He settled down, with the help of his teammates, and looked much better in the third period.

P.K. Subban was known for his incredible offensive production with the Belleville Bulls, earning 76 points in 56 games in 2008-09. He was equally impressive with the Hamilton Bulldogs with 53 points in 77 games this season but the most surprising aspect of his play was his defense. I hadn’t seen Subban play much before he was called up for those two games in February but I was expecting him to look a little like Yannick Weber. A player who looks to get his slap shot off on the power play at any price and is a liability defensively. Instead, I saw a player who: is calm, moves the puck very well on the power play, understands that Scott Gomez is the player who carries the puck on the Montreal PP and, most importantly, is very solid in the defensive zone. Montreal Canadiens fans are starting to realize how good this guy is and also how much of an impact Hamilton head coach Guy Boucher had on his play.

The soon to be 21-year old still has a lot to learn but, as he said last night after the game: “it’s all part of learning, you’ve go to enjoy that and I did.” For the first time in a little while, the Montreal Canadiens have a prospect (excluding goalies) that they can be really excited about and who will be a contender for the Calder Trophy next season.

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State of the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs in five consecutive seasons after making them in six consecutive years from 1999 to 2004. Their win total has decreased for five straight years and the near future isn’t looking much brighter unless Brian Burke can pull some magic this summer.

From 2003 to 2007, the Toronto Maple Leafs made only four selections in the first two rounds of the NHL Entry Draft. That means that they traded six of their ten picks (before making them) in order to improve in the short run. You can even add Tuukka Rask to the list as he was traded for Andrew Raycroft one year after being drafted. Amongst their other picks, Jiri Tlusty was traded this year, John Doherty never made the AHL which leaves Nikolai Kulemin as the only player currently in the Leafs organization. The future of the team is therefore in the hands of late round picks such as Viktor Stalberg, Anton Stralman, John Mitchell and Carl Gunnarsson (all picked in the fifth round or later) as well as draft picks from the last two years which include Luke Schenn and Nazem Kadri.

As we know, the Leafs also traded three of their next four picks in the top two rounds in exchange for Phil Kessel. It certainly is possible to build a team with free agency or with late draft picks but the odds of success are much lower than if they had a number of high draft picks ready to make the jump in the next year or two.

Let’s take a look at the 15 players they currently have under contract for next season:

Dion Phaneuf – D – $6,500,000 – The Leafs traded Matt Stajan, Nik Hagman, Jamal Mayers and Ian White in exchange for Phaneuf and others earlier this year. It might not seem like much considering Stajan and Mayers were set to become UFA’s but Phaneuf has a heavy contract at 6.5 million. Phaneuf came first in an NHL poll where players were asked who the most overrated player in the league is. I can’t say I agree with this assessment but most would agree that he would not receive 6.5 million if he were a UFA this summer – Slightly overpaid.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere – G – $6,000,000 – He was pretty good in his final 15 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs but he has a save percentage of only 0.903 over his last 81 games. That is a pretty big drop from the 0.918 he averaged in 381 games from 2000 to 2008. He is still only 32 years old so he could return to the level he was at a few years ago, but 6 million is still way too much for him – Overpaid.

Phil Kessel – F – $5,400,000 – He is by far the best forward on the Toronto Maple Leafs even though the trade for him looks pretty bad at the moment. His statistics are very similar to Brian Gionta’s who signed for 5 million with the Canadiens last off-season. It is therefore a fair salary for him but he could become a bargain in the next year or two if he gets to play with better players – Fair value.

Mike Komisarek – D – $4,500,000 – If I had to take a vote as to who is the most overrated player in NHL, I probably would have selected Mike Komisarek. He is a very intense player but he often gets out of position because he wants to hit, he is amongst the most undisciplined players in the NHL and he has only 62 points in 395 career games – Slighty overpaid.

Tomas Kaberle – D – $4,250,000 – Tomas Kaberle somewhat makes up for the salaries of Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek. He is above average defensively and has 258 points in 377 games since the lockout which made him one of the top ten scoring defensemen in four of the last five seasons – Great value.

Francois Beauchemin – D – $3,800,000 – He averaged 25:27 of ice time per game in 2009-10 including about three minutes per game on the penalty kill as well as the power play. His offensive stats are not particularly good but it was still a good signing by Brian Burke – Good value.

Tyler Bozak – F – $3,725,000 – Tyler Bozak was offered very large bonuses in order to sign with the Maple Leafs and has a very high cap hit because of that. He should develop into a pretty good player but he will be overpaid until his entry level contract runs out after next season – Slightly overpaid.

Jeff Finger – D – $3,500,000 – Jeff Finger is one of the worst signings of the past few years in the NHL but the good news is that the Leafs can stick him in the farm for the next two years. He’ll be one of the highest paid players in the AHL but at least it will clear up 3.5 million in cap room – Overpaid.

Luke Schenn – D – $2,975,000 – He is another player with very large rookie bonuses who takes up a lot of room on the salary cap. Schenn was used for over 20 minutes in 13 of his final 30 games and should be used even more in 2010-11. He will also be overpaid until his entry level contract runs out at the end of next season but should be a very good defenseman in the near future – Slightly overpaid.

Mikhail Grabovski – F – $2,900,000 – He signed a contract worth 8.7 million over three years at the end of the 2008-09 season. He recorded 35 points in 59 games in 2009-10 and I don’t see him getting much more than 50 points in a season. 2.9 million dollars per season is a lot of money for a 50 points player who is a liability defensively – Slightly overpaid.

Nazem Kadri – F – $1,750,000 – It is pretty safe to assume that Kadri will make the team next season. He was very impressive in the training camp and in his one game with the Maple Leafs this season. His offensive production will depend heavily on his ice time but he could easily record 40 to 50 points in his rookie campaign – Fair value.

Colton Orr – F – $1,000,000 – He was dressed for every game this season but played only 6:51 per game – Fair value.

Viktor Stalberg – F – $850,000 – He was the second best scorer on the Marlies with 33 points despite playing in only 39 games and recorded 14 points in 40 games with the Leafs. He could eventually be a pretty good second line player in the NHL but probably not for another season or two – Fair value.

Luca Caputi – F – $833,333 – Caputi has been a good player in the AHL in each of the past two seasons and looked good late in the year with the Leafs. He is two and a half years younger than both Bozak and Stalberg and could breakout as early as next season – Fair value.

Carl Gunnarsson – D – $800,000 – Gunnarsson looked surprisingly good when he joined the Leafs this season and was rewarded by Ron Wilson. He is still young but any defenseman who plays over 21 minutes and costs only $800,000 is a bargain – Great value.

Here’s what you have when you put all that together:
Great value: 2
Good value: 1
Fair value: 5
Slightly overpaid: 5
Overpaid: 2

Total Cap Hit: $47,033,333 (assuming Jeff Finger plays in the AHL in 2010-11)

The Toronto Maple Leafs defense is pretty much set for the 2010-11 season with Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Tomas Kaberle if he is not traded. In net, playing time will be split between Giguere and Gustavsson. Gustavsson will probably receive a small increase over last year and earn between 1 and 1.5 million depending on the length of his new contract.

On forward, the Leafs should resign Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and Christian Hanson for a total of about 3.5 to 4 million. Add that to Gustavsson’s contract and the Leafs will have 19 players under contract for a total of about 52 million dollars. Assuming the salary cap stays approximately the same, it would leave about 5 million to add two forwards and a seventh defenseman. If the Leafs are able to trade Tomas Kaberle for draft picks and good young talent, it could clear an additional 4.25 million and allow them to make a move for top end talent like Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrick Marleau or Alexander Frolov.

It will once again be very difficult for the Toronto Maple Leafs to make the playoffs in 2010-11 and Brian Burke knows that. When he made the trade of Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala for Jean-Sebastien Giguere, he was losing 2 million in cap room in 2010-11 but gaining 4 million in 2011-12. In 2011-12, the Leafs will not only get rid of Giguere’s contract but also save on Bozak and Schenn’s contracts. Young players like Kessel, Bozak, Kadri, Kulemin, Stalberg, Caputi, Schenn and Gustavsson will improve and the additional cap room will allow them to add another forward for the top two lines at 4 to 5 million. Their success this season will depend on how Brian Burke spends his money in the off-season but I see them finishing with 80 to 85 points.