All Star Break: Decision Time

The All Star break is over, players raced around the rink, took slapshots and even shot pucks from the rafters of the arena. The (awful) tournament style games are done and teams are returning to the ice, with the NHL schedule starting on Monday. Making things worse, some teams like the Montreal Canadiens are coming out of their bye week, as fans and media members are chomping at the bit to see them back… either to cheer them on or to have new material to complain about.

The way things are shaping up, few teams are guaranteed a playoffs’ spot but many are in a position where they will soon have to make a decision if they’re going for it or if they start selling assets. As the deadline approaches, more teams will be joining the nine or so teams with little playoffs’ hopes, being either too far and/or having too many teams to pass in order to make it. Let’s have a look at roughly where teams find themselves at as the home stretch is upon us.

TEAMGPPTS
BUYERS
4971
5170
4968
5067
CONTENTION
4963
4862
4962
5162
4961
5061
5060
4858
4958
4957
4957
5057
5157
5257
5154
5154
5052
4751
SELLERS
4951
5051
4850
5046
4843
4842
4841
5041
5128

It goes without saying that there could be some surprises since as long as there’s a mathematical chance, anything can happen. This is basically “playing the odds” based on previous years. The nine teams considered as sellers all have pending unrestricted free agents (UFA) amongst them and those are often the most likely to be wearing a new uniform by trade deadline.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most prominent pending UFA’s on the nine team catalogued as sellers in the table up above. I’ve sorted them by position to make it easier to find how the supply sits today at each position. As we know, supply and demand dictates the market and right now, there are more buyers than sellers. It will change the closer we get to the deadline of February 24th.

TEAMNAMEPOSITIONCAP HIT ($)
Michael FrolikLW4,300,000
Conor ShearyLW3,000,000
Jimmy VeseyLW2,275,000
Zemgus GirgensonsLW1,600,000
Patrick MarleauLW700,000
Melker KarlssonLW2,000,000
Chris KreiderLW4,625,000
Nicolas DeslauriersLW950,000
Mikkel BoedkerLW4,000,000
Vladislav NamestnikovLW3,250,000
Trevor LewisLW2,000,000
Kyle CliffordLW1,600,000
Nate ThompsonC1,000,000
Matthew PecaC1,300,000
Joe ThorntonC2,000,000
Jean-Gabriel PageauC3,100,000
Ilya KovalchukRW700,000
Dale WeiseRW2,350,000
Jesper FastRW1,850,000
Wayne SimmondsRW5,000,000
Tyler ToffoliRW4,600,000
Zach BogosianD5,142,857
Marco ScandellaD4,000,000
Brenden DillonD3,270,000
Michael Del ZottoD750,000
Ron HainseyD3,500,000
Mark BorowieckiD1,200,000
Andy GreeneD5,000,000
Sami VatanenD4,875,000
Derek ForbortD2,525,000
Mike GreenD5,375,000
Jonathan EricssonD4,250,000
Trevor DaleyD3,166,666
Alex BiegaD825,000
Keith KinkaidG1,750,000
Aaron DellG1,900,000
Craig AndersonG4,750,000
Louis DomingueG1,150,000
Jimmy HowardG4,000,000
Marco Scandella, Nate Thompson and Ilya Kovalchuk could all find a new place to call home by Trade Deadline.

Looking at this breakdown, the centre position market is very thin, and teams are always looking for centres. This should drive the asking price up and perhaps even force teams wanting to buy into making more “hockey trades” than “rental trades”. There usually is a good demand for defensemen but even this early, the market seems saturated with a wide range of blue liners. There are some decent names in net for teams searching for an insurance policy in the event of an injury to a masked man.

Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin was taking advantage of the bye week to meet with his team of pro scouts and Assistant GMs in order to come up with a game plan for trade deadline. They are well positioned with Ilya Kovalchuk being so cheap, and with Nate Thompson as a centre with a good faceoffs’ percentage. Marco Scandella is a good defenseman but the return might not be what we had hoped for due to sheer numbers of players available at that position. As for Dale Weise, the Habs will likely have to eat half his salary in order to make teams interested. He has been playing some good hockey since being called up. Expect the unexpected, we are always told. While playoffs’ hockey seems unlikely this season, this should be an exciting time of year regardless. Go Habs Go!

Top Cheese: March 2019 Edition

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as the team is entering the exciting last stretch of the season, pushing for a spot in the playoffs. Four teams, including the Canadiens, are battling for the two Wild Card spots, three of which are also playing for the Metropolitan division’s third position, making for an exciting end to this regular season. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Less than 20 percent of the 2018-2019 regular season is left to play for the Canadiens and they find themselves in a dog fight to get in and gain the rights to play either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the leaders of the Metro division in the first round of the playoffs. Only 16 games, that’s what it boils down to, and we will find out if there will be some playoffs’ hockey at the Bell Centre come April. Players are banged up, they’re tired, but their sight is on playing for at least a chance to compete for the elusive Stanley Cup.

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One of those players on the Canadiens is team captain Shea Weber, who missed most of last season and the first couple of months to this season. While his play hasn’t been as sharp lately as we’re accustomed to seeing from him, he is still the backbone of that Montreal defense. If the Canadiens are going to make the playoffs, a lot of it will be on the shoulders of the one they call Man Mountain… and no one relishes that more than Weber, a true competitor who has proven time and time again that he can be counted on when everything is on the line.

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Shea Weber and Carey Price

Which makes Claude Julien‘s decision against the Pittsburgh Penguins that much more puzzling. On Saturday night, he gave the duty to neutralize Sidney Crosby to the defense pairing of Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn, and Sid the Kid finished the night with… four points in a Pens’ 5-1 victory at the Bell Centre. For fans and media members, who are not privileged to inside information, this decision is mind boggling at the very least and, in my humble opinion, could end up being the difference between making or missing the playoffs when it’s all said and done.

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But one would be foolish to blame it all is on Julien. Marc Bergevin has yet to address the team’s biggest need, finding a suitable partner for Weber, a left-handed defenseman who can log big minutes in a shutdown role against opponents’ top lines. Victor Mete is doing okay but when you have to rely on Mike Reilly or Benn on your top-4, it exposes the glaring need at that position. With the trade deadline come and gone, that gaping hole is still there and ultimately, the Canadiens are paying for it.

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The truth is that the Canadiens are greatly missing Andrei Markov. Maybe not Markov at his age, but a Markov-type player. Someone with his passing abilities, someone with his vision, a left-handed shot who can dish the puck from the point on the powerplay… but we’ll get back to that later on. Seeing the Habs with over nine million dollars under the cap and the GM’s inability to fill that hole in the summer or at trade deadline, perhaps Bergevin could have given the Russian defenseman a contract? Hindsight being 20-20, of course.

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All is not lost however, at least not for the mid to short term. Much like we’ve seen with Jonathan Drouin, the discussions held at the trade deadline often carry over to the Summer months and one can only hope that Bergevin’s talks for a quality left defenseman can pay off in the off-season. Could a Jonas Brodin, a Cam Fowler, a Shayne Gostisbehere, a Hampus Lindholm or another similar defenseman be coming in the summer? We can’t rule that out.

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Yes, Alexander Romanov might be on the verge of coming to North America. Yes, Josh Brook has played on his off-side for a bit. But it’s far from ideal. Mostly, it’s unrealistic to expect a green rookie to fill that role. The Canadiens are better off doing the right thing, as they are doing with young Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and bring those guys up slowly and protect them with favourable matchups. As they should try to hang onto them instead of trading them for temporary help, the team MUST resist the temptation of rushing their top young talent. This also means that they must find some sort of stop-gap.

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One options that might be available is putting an offer in to pending UFA Jake Gardiner or the Maple Leafs, who will likely be unable to resign him. But is giving Gardiner, a very ordinary defenseman defensively, a guy who has been the scapegoat in Toronto more often than not, a contract in the seven million dollar range a smart move? Allow me to doubt it. In my opinion, Bergevin is better off sacrificing some assets and pick and chose the defenseman that he truly wants through a trade. Someone with a more cap-friendly contract and with term left to it.

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Here’s something that I’ve read that really irks me… Why trade to improve this year when the team doesn’t have a shot at the Stanley Cup, if others teams like Tampa Bay are stronger? Then why play the season then? Why want to make the playoffs? Why did the other teams fighting with the Habs for a playoffs’ spot trade to improve? If it’s pointless for the Habs, shouldn’t it be pointless for all other teams on the bubble? I’ll tell you why. When you are this close to a playoffs’ spot, you MUST try to get it. The experience gained by the young Canadiens would be most valuable in the long run. And I remember 1986 as if it was yesterday.

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In 1986, the Canadiens had no chance according to everyone around the NHL. But they had a great young goaltender and some young kids who didn’t know better. They had a balanced offense with multiple players around the 20 goals mark. Mostly though, they made the playoffs, giving them a chance to be in a position to battle for Lord Stanley. When you don’t make the playoffs, your chances are zero percent. Even a couple percentage points are better than zero. So folks, unless you have a crystal ball, stop pretending that you know better. You are talking odds and those odds can be beaten. It’s been proven time and time again in pro sports.

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Perhaps the most amazing thing about this season’s Canadiens is the fact that they are in the position that they are in, without a powerplay worth being called that. Sitting at a league worst 12.4 percent, the Habs have been unable to fix that issue all season long. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t start clicking. You see, a lot of it is playing on the players’ mind. They are making poor passing choices, and the passes are often off for one-timers or to keep the opponents’ penalty killers honest. Confidence plays a huge role in hockey and if my five decades of hockey have taught me anything at all, it’s that it can change quickly… with a bit of success.

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One guy who has been playing great hockey is Max Domi, although not so much on the powerplay. While I personally predicted that he would do well, he is playing well beyond what anyone could have expected when the Canadiens made his acquisition. And he’s doing all of this at the centre position, as the team’s number one centre nonetheless, with few points on the powerplay. Anyone miss Alex Galchenyuk… and his father?

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When the Canadiens acquired Jonathan Drouin, he and Max Pacioretty started practicing together in the off-season, hoping to develop chemistry, a chemistry that never came about. The same cannot be said between Drouin and Domi however. They started the season together and had great success, then got separated for a while but just recently, Julien put them back together and they started to produce again. Fast and creative, those two look for each other and it’s working. If only they could transpose that to the powerplay…

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Even a few percentage points improvement on the powerplay would go a long way to improving the Habs’ chances to make the playoffs but let’s be real here… their odds dropped drastically after losing that game against the Penguins. It is my opinion that they will fall just short of their quest and had Bergevin brought in some help at the deadline, and Julien made a better decision against Pittsburgh, this team would be part of the Spring Showdown.

What’s done is done and we can only look at the future. Bergevin must address the team’s needs on left defense as he’s done with the centre position this past summer. If he does that and if the team avoids key injuries, the Canadiens should be in the playoffs next season. Until then, let’s put that under the “experience gaining” category. Go Habs Go!