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Cap Situation Handcuffing The Habs

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Remember the good ol’ days when there was no salary cap? When the richest teams could outbid everyone else to get all of the marquee free agents by throwing ridiculous money at them? And it worked so well… NOT! Baseball is ridiculous with some teams spending four times more on payroll than others. The NHL salary cap, in spite of making it difficult to complete trades and to fix teams’ mistakes, is there to stay and for good reasons.

Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin finds himself in a difficult position to start the 2016-2017 season, as he finds his team with approximately $1.4 million dollars of projected cap space with a roster of 22 players (14 forwards, 8 defensemen and 2 goaltenders), according to generalfanager.com. Granted, the team might decide to go with 13 forwards and/or seven defensemen to start the season, giving a bit more room under the cap, but those cuts are likely to be rather small salaries (relatively speaking) anyway.

Yet, rumours keep circulating through traditional and non-traditional media to the effect that Bergevin is still trying to tweak his line-up for the upcoming season. Just days ago, François Gagnon on RDS wrote that the name of Nathan Beaulieu was circulating around the NHL and Bergevin, just like he did with P.K. Subban, did nothing to appease the rumours:

“My job is to improve the team. Nathan (Beaulieu) is not being showcased, to borrow a hockey expression, but I have received calls and yes, I’m listening to what other teams have to offer. It’s my job to listen, analyse. Nathan is a good young defenseman. We still don’t know what role he will play in the NHL. If I want to improve my team, I must move players who have value. That’s exactly what I did when trading P.K. (Subban) to acquire a guy like Shea Weber. You get nothing for nothing in the NHL.” ~ Marc Bergevin

But what exactly could Bergevin be looking for to improve his team? For one, the Canadiens have been tied to rumours about defensemen for quite some time. While they did improve defensively with the Subban and Shea Weber trade, many believe that this move is showing a “win now” attitude. The Beaulieu rumours would go along those lines, particularly that the Habs have been linked to UFA Kris Russell and more recently, Kevin Shattenkirk, more experienced defensemen.

Another question mark on the Canadiens is the team’s ability to score goals and that, even with the addition of Alexander Radulov who, let’s face it, is a question mark at this point. There is a blatant hole on left wing, behind Max Pacioretty, particularly if Alex Galchenyuk plays at centre. While Sven Andrighetto has shown some good things, is he ready to have an impact on the top-6 on a regular basis?

Rookies

As we’ve explored in a recent look at the team’s Top-12 prospects, there are some very interesting young guns who might be ready to step in this season, due mostly to the fact that Bergevin is building through the draft as he said he would. But on a team where it seems like “win now” is the attitude, it leaves huge question marks. With rookies also comes the learning curve of NHL play. The calibre of play will go up from rookie camp to the main camp. It will go up a couple of notches during exhibition games and will seriously rise when the NHL season starts. And the hockey being played in the NHL in October won’t be at the same level as what will be played comes January. There is no telling how rookies would perform and continue to develop at that point.

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Artturi Lehknonen

Many, including Saku Koivu, seem to feel like Artturi Lehkonen is NHL ready. What no one can predict is at what level he can contribute. While he did well against men in the Swedish Elite League, this is the NHL, the highest calibre of hockey in the world and it’s being played on smaller ice surfaces.

Michael McCarron is also showing great signs and he came close to making the big club as a rookie last year. He showed up at rookie camp at 226 lbs, which is 10 lbs lighter than last year at the same time. He adjusted his diet and training regiment this summer in order to be faster on the ice, speed being a bit of a question mark about him. He will be battling hard for a position but again, can he produce on offense regularly?

Another outstanding rookie trying to make the big club is Nikita Scherbak, who scored a beauty in the rookie tournament against the young Penguins. He has the size and speed, and we know that the talent is there as well.

 

Creating cap space

How exactly could Bergevin do this without creating huge holes in his line-up? That’s the dilemma that he’s faced with at this point.

He could try to trade away some contracts. Rumours have circulated around Alexei Emelin and his $4.1 million cap hit for some time, but he’s still there and one would think that had he had to be traded, it would already be done by now. He is also one of the few physical defensemen on the team so one has to wonder if trading him would make the Canadiens too soft defensively.

Tomas Plekanec had five goals in his first six games to start the season last year. Bergevin extended him for two years at $6 million per season (without a NTC) and he then scored 9 goals in his last 76 games after that. But if you were to trade him, you create a huge hole as the team isn’t rich on points producing centres at the time of writing those lines. While I personally would like to see the Canadiens get bigger up the middle, if you trade Plekanec, you must get another points producing centre in return, which is unlikely.

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David Desharnais

Many (myself included) are puzzled at the fact that David Desharnais is still with the Canadiens. Either the Canadiens are oblivious at what he has shown last year, or they simply couldn’t find a taker for him, which I’m hoping is the case. Buying him out would have freed-up just over $2 million of cap space, but would have added $1.2 million to buyout cap for the next two years, for a team which is already hit with $1.3 million this year for Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau‘s buyout. Unfortunately, the buyout window closed on June 30th.

While this team is much improved from last season, I’m not convinced that it can be considered a contender just yet. If the attitude is “win now”, something has to be done and Bergevin still has some serious work to do. Trades are difficult to complete during the season with so many teams tight against the salary cap. But once some teams start struggling off the gate, we could start seeing some action. That usually starts happening in November. In the meantime, we might just have to see what direction the Canadiens’ brass decides to go, perhaps seeing how those young guns have progressed.

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Beaulieu’s Chance to Shine

BeaulieuWeber

There are many facets to consider when looking at the block buster trade that Habs’ GM Marc Bergevin has completed this summer and most so-called experts and bloggers around the internet have pretty much touched on all of them. From the departure of beloved Subban, going from surprise, to frustration and now coming around to realising that the guy they got in return isn’t just “an average defenseman”, to borrow some analytics “expert” opinion…

While Shea Weber broke into the NHL with the Nashville Predators the same year as Ryan Suter did, back in the 2005-2006 season, it is hard to tell who made whom the defenseman that they are today. One thing that we know though is that Weber, with his physical and intimidating play, has been a pretty good insurance policy for Suter who didn’t have to look twice over his shoulder, knowing that his teammate had his back.

Many people thought that we would see Weber’s true value, expecting a drop in his production, when Suter signed with the Minnesota Wild as a free agent. With the exception of the lockout season, which saw Suter get four more points than Weber, it’s the Predator’s defenseman who has had the upper-hand on his former pairing partner since then. Still, his team continued to climb in the standings and were considered last year as a contender in the Western Conference, especially after knocking out the number one seed Anaheim Ducks.

Another young Predators’ defenseman has greatly benefited from Weber’s play, leadership and teaching since breaking into the NHL back in 2012-2013 and you may have heard of him: Roman Josi. You can bet that while he is an outstanding young defenseman, Josi will be the first one to notice his departure and to miss Weber. Wait, correct that… he will be second to goaltender Pekka Rinne!

Beaulieu’s turn

Nathan Beaulieu is a young defenseman who has shown flashes of brilliance in the past two seasons with the Canadiens. At 23 years old (will turn 24 in December), he has unfortunately made more headlines with his off-ice partying pictures than he has on the ice but that might change this season. For one, Devante Smith-Pelly is gone. For two, Alex Galchenyuk has dumped his bimbo and seems poised to take the next step. Then, good buddy ol’ pal P.K. Subban is gone and that might just serve as a wake-up call for the young defender who was also rumoured to be offered in a trade for some offense. As long as he doesn’t fight in the bars alongside… his dad!

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Everyone around the league knows that Beaulieu has everything to be successful. At 6-foot 2-inches and 205 lbs, he has the size and the grit to battle in the NHL. He also possesses NHL speed as a smooth skater and has a boomer of a shot, with some very good offensive flair.  And that’s what team captain Max Pacioretty sees in him as well, as he pointed out at his golf tournament this summer:

It’s time for Beaulieu to shine. He was our best player at times last year and we want to see him back to that level right from the start. It’s time for him to showcase his great talent. (Source: RDS)

Seeing a quality player and rock solid defenseman like Weber with the team, he should have for personal objective to prove head coach Michel Therrien that he wants to be paired up with him. And if he has worked out like he should this summer, nobody would be happier than Therrien to put the Canadiens first round pick in 2011 (17th overall) in that position of success. It will be up to him to seize his opportunity to show, like Suter and Josi did before him, what he’s truly made of. He would have never been playing regularly with Subban, let’s face it.

 

Kesler: When You Bite More Than You Can Chew

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It’s exhibition game night of a tournament that’s made to sell the game around the world, trying to shine lights on the National Hockey League and its products. It’s a marketing opportunity for Gary Bettman‘s league to sell more jerseys, television time, and to ensure that the league is in the news for the right reasons, while garnishing the revenue line. While you have the best players in the world competing for the World Cup of hockey, it’s early, even before training camp and already, you play a high level game… for fun.

Someone should have told that to John Tortorella and to the US team, particularly to Ryan Kesler, as the Americans were playing as if it was game seven of the Winter Olympics, although dirtier, trying to run the Canadians at every opportunity, whether it was clean or not. To further prove this, Tortorella called out Montreal Canadiens’ captain Max Pacioretty whom he felt wasn’t showing enough effort to his liking… after a couple of exhibition games in September!

Team Canada, on the other hand, was slowly getting into game shape, working on building chemistry and perfecting head coach Mike Babcock‘s system. But how quickly things changed! In the first game of a back-t0-back between the two rivals, Kesler was issued a five minutes penalty for drilling Canada’s top defenseman Shea Weber from behind into the boards behind Carey Price‘s net. While Weber saw him coming, he was far from expecting Kesler to finish his check considering the game and the fact that he was showing him his number, while in a rather vulnerable position. You be the judge:

Luckly for him, Kesler found himself in the arms of Jonathan Toews, who came to defend his teammate, as Weber was heading straight for him to teach him a hard learned lesson! That would have been fun to watch, although Kesler wouldn’t have liked it quite as much as we would have…

Rallying point

Seeing how chippy and dirty the first game was, Babcock chose to sit team captain Sidney Crosby for game two and rightfully so. However, it became apparent very quickly that Kesler was not only a target for Team Canada, but he had awoken the beast in them! First, revenge came from a very unlikely source as New York Islanders’ star player John Tavares, not known for his physical play, took out Kesler in the Americans’ corner very early in the game, to set the tone.

Tavares was going in that corner with one purpose, and he knew that number 17 was there, make no mistakes. I’m not so sure that he would have done that had it been anyone else getting that puck but Kesler felt that one and he must have known then that it would be a long game for him.

Later in that same game, the San Jose Sharks were involved in the retaliation as Kesler was racing for the puck with Brent Burns after his shot was blocked. In a close foot race, Kesler played the puck but what he wasn’t expecting was for Joe Thornton, also not known for his physical play, used his 6-foot 4-inches frame and 220 lbs to propel Kesler flying into the boards, not even concerned about playing the puck.

Kesler also felt that one and while Big Joe was issued a minor penalty for his trouble, but no one on the Canadian bench was upset about the penalty, particularly not Weber and Babcock. And imagine… Kesler has yet to hear back from Weber himself, from his 6-foot 4-inches and 236 lbs!

The way Team Canada responded to Kesler’s dirty hit in the first exhibition game, particularly the combination of hits by the two JT (John Tavares and Joe Thornton), two players not known for their physical play, might serve as a turning point for this team, particularly against Tortorella and the Americans.

Remember that it’s the Nashville Predators who, in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last Spring, shocked the hockey world by defeating Kesler’s Anaheim Ducks and knocking them out early on… with Weber being a huge reason for that happening.

Mark your calendars folks as the Canadiens will be facing the Ducks twice this season, the first time being on November 29th, in Anaheim, then again at the Bell Centre on December 20th.