Over the next couple of months, I will be taking a closer look at each of the Eastern Conference teams to show what their current status is and where their offseason focus lies. Knowing a team’s strategy should provide extra assistance in any offseason trading or keeper decisions. This week I’ll take a look at the Montreal Canadiens.
As a reference, I’ll add each of the teams I’ve covered here at the top in case you’d like to look at some of the other game plans.
UFA: Travis Moen, Mathieu Darche, Brad Staubitz, Chris Campoli, Nate Lawson
RFA: Carey Price, Lars Eller, Blake Geoffrion, Aaron Palushaj, Ryan White, Mike Blunden, Petteri Nokelainen, Alexei Emelin, Brendon Nash, Raphael Diaz, P.K. Subban, Frederic St-Denis, Mark Mitera
Rostered players signed for next season: 13
Available cap space: $27.6M
The cap space above (taken from capgeek.com) consists of eight forwards, four defensemen, and one goaltender. Of the eight forwards, five have NTC or NMC’s (Gomez, Plekanec, Gionta, Cole, and Bourque), making up a whopping $25.19M. The only other three under contract to end the season were Pacioretty, Desharnais, and Leblanc (the only player on a two-way contract of this bunch). Of the four defensemen signed, two carry NTC’s in Markov and Gorges.
At forward, Tomas Plekanec is Montreal’s top center, hands down. There have been varying experiments in regards to which wingers will skate with him, but as long as Brian Gionta is healthy, he should be a lock for the right wing slot. Of the others under contract, Rene Bourque and Louis Leblanc are the only two that would be challenging for the left wing slot, with Bourque having the inside track for now. The “second line,” if you even want to call it that, consists of Cole-Desharnais-Pacioretty and was Montreal’s most potent line combination for the majority of the season. Because of last season’s success, it’s a safe assumption that this line will stick together next season, at least to start the year.
That leaves only Scott Gomez and his albatross $7.36M cap hit (assuming no buy out) to occupy the third line with one of Bourque/Leblanc. Of the pending free agents, Montreal will most likely look to bring back Eller and Geoffrion first, then consider two or three of the rest of the group (Palushaj, White, Blunden, Moen, Nokelainen, Darche, and Staubitz). Eller and Geoffrion will be penciled in for third line minutes, but will likely have opportunities to log top six minutes as well. Depending on chemistry and work ethic, either one could be a surprise to stick in a top role. Moen is an outstanding shut down forward with a Cup under his belt already, making him a great choice for the fourth line.
Thanks to a significant amount of pending free agents, the Canadiens have a ton of options available to them in terms of how they want to mold their team next season. Assuming they continue what they have done in the past, they will look to model two solid scoring lines, a mediocre scoring/checking line, and a true shutdown line. In this format, the most desirable fantasy forwards are Cole, Desharnais, Pacioretty, and Plekanec first and foremost. Gionta and Bourque are dark horse candidates, but ultimately the Canadiens will continue to experiment with wingers on Plekanec’s line until the right chemistry is found. When that happens, there could be some new faces in Montreal’s top six, pushing Plekanec’s value back up to where it should be.
In terms of players ready to contribute at a higher level, the Canadiens have Eller, Geoffrion, and Palushaj who have all seen a decent chunk of NHL time and are all pending RFA’s. The next crop of candidates includes Alexander Avtsin, Andreas Engqvist, Patrick Holland, and Joonas Nättinen. Avtsin has already spent two full seasons in Hamilton and has not done much to impress, so it is unlikely to expect significant NHL contributions for now. Engvist is a bit older at 24 years old, but brings a strong two-way presence in his game. He is 6’3” and finished second in scoring in Hamilton last season (43 points in 60 games), while dressing in a Montreal uniform for 12 games as well. He would make for a valuable depth player, depending on how much experience/veteran leadership the Canadiens wish to have in the locker room. The last two players – Holland and Nättinen – are both skilled wingers under contract. Holland is a year younger, but coming off a huge year in the WHL where he led the league in assists (84) and finished sixth overall in scoring (109), while skating in 72 games. Nättinen has one year of AHL experience after crossing the pond, but might have a lower ceiling in terms of point production.
On defense, the Canadiens have Markov, Kaberle, Gorges, and Weber under contract, and they will likely be pushing hard to re-sign pending RFA’s Subban, Diaz, and Emelin. Assuming all three are brought back, the Canadiens’ top four will likely consist of Markov (if healthy), Kaberle, Subban, and one of Diaz or Gorges. Emelin and the other of Diaz/Gorges should round out the defense.
Another noteworthy RFA is Frederick St-Denis, who scored 28 points in 54 games in the AHL, while adding three points in 17 games for Montreal. St-Denis’ performance is especially interesting, considering he finished with a plus-three rating as an undersized (5’11”) defenseman skating for a team that finished third-worst in the league. He will be one to watch for 2012-13.
Other options under contract include Brendon Nash, Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, and Morgan Ellis. Nash is a pending RFA who spent almost the entire season in Hamilton and led the blue line in scoring, albeit with an underwhelming 30 points in 75 games. Jarred Tinordi is a 6’7” beast of a prospect that will bring mostly a physical presence and little offensive contributions. Nathan Beaulieu comes joins Hamilton this year after spending four seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs, where he finished as the team’s top defenseman (52 points and 100 PIM in 53 games). Ellis had 52 points in 60 QMJHL games and brings a bit of leadership and smarts to his game. He served as captain of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles for a year and a half before being traded to Shawinigan, where he elevated his play even higher. The leadership quality and ability to perform in a changing environment could give him a chance to turn some heads and earn a few cups of coffee.
In goal, Peter Budaj is under contract for one season, but Carey Price is a pending RFA. Price is clearly the top goalie for the next decade or so in Montreal. Although his performance wasn’t as good as his 2010-11 performance, Price still maintained a very respectable 2.43 GAA and .916 save percentage, certainly good enough numbers to command a raise from his $2.75M salary. The Canadiens know just how important getting Price under contract will be, and it is likely they will do whatever it takes to get the deal finalized.
When looking at Montreal’s succession planning, the options in Hamilton are rather interesting. Peter Delmas and Robert Mayer are still under contract, while Nate Lawson is set to become a free agent. Should the Canadiens let Lawson walk (a decent prospect in his own right), they will be leaning on a pair of 22 year olds. Mayer has seen the most ice time in Hamilton, but is less skilled than Delmas and Lawson. Delmas, a former second-round choice by the Colorado Avalanche in 2008, spent the majority of the last two seasons in the ECHL, although this was simply due to the fact that there were too many bodies in front of him on the depth chart. Whenever Delmas suited up for AHL duty, he performed admirably. With Budaj’s contract expiring after the next season, Delmas could work his way into the backup role behind Carey Price, all of course depending on (1) if he gets the opportunity to play full time in the AHL next season and (2) how well he performs. At this point, he has certainly taken a bit of time to develop, but the stars could align rather quickly for him. If the Canadiens decide to keep Lawson, it will likely be Lawson who elevates to the role of backup, rather than Mayer or Delmas.
Biggest holes to fill: Forward slots. This includes one or two top-six wingers to skate with Plekanec (if they decide Gionta and Bourque are not good enough or are not healthy) and the need to fill out their third and fourth lines. After that, the next hole would be at defense, where the team could use some more skilled players, in terms of both offensive and defensive abilities.
Priorities: The top priority has to be to re-sign Carey Price. After that, there are a number of pending free agents to deal with. The organization will need to decide what type of team they are looking to build and then decide if they simply want to re-sign the players they have or bring in new faces. Due to the high amount of free agents, now would be a great time to re-shape the team if that is the direction they wish to pursue. If the Habs decide to keep the bodies they have, their defensemen – Subban, Diaz, Emelin, St-Denis – should be the second priority behind Price. Next should come the forwards – Eller, Geoffrion, Palushaj. Unfortunately, they have a ton of cap space locked up into a handful of forwards who aren’t pulling their weight. This may force the Habs to buy out Scott Gomez or roll the dice on a bounceback season (a pretty risky endeavor) and bring in some cheaper talent or even rely on some homegrown product.
This last season was atrocious for Montreal, but things should be getting better in the next 1-2 years. They are set in goal, which is not an easy thing for most organizations to say. Carey Price is a top fantasy goaltender for now and while Budaj might not be an attractive option, there may be some future Montreal backups that could be attractive. They also have a somewhat strong defensive crop with a couple stars and some good upcoming talent in the pipeline. Markov and Subban should be able to contribute nicely, and Diaz, Kaberle, and Emelin could surprise as well. At forward they one really strong line made up of three worthwhile fantasy assets in Cole, Pacioretty, and Desharnais, followed by a top line that is still trying to find the right chemistry. Of that line, Plekanec is the base, while Bourque and Gionta have the inside track to round out the wings. If either or both fail to produce, do not be surprised if others get a shot though. This makes guys like Eller, Leblanc, Geoffrion, Holland, and Nättinen worth watching closely.
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