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Questions face Habs as game #41 looms

I’m back from a wonderful vacation to Atlantic Canada, and the Habs are back from their worst road trip in a couple of years. While I wasn’t able to see all the games (hiking Newfoundland took priority - my Lord is it beautiful! Anyone living out there is very, very lucky), I saw enough to know the Canadiens are in trouble. That’s obvious to anyone, as they’ve fallen from the top of the Eastern Conference to eighth, and four points away from losing their playoff spot.

So what’s a General Manager to do?

Well, if you’re Pierre Gauthier, a couple of things.

Firstly, you deal a 2nd and a conditional 5th for James Wisniewski, formerly of the New York Islanders. A good deal? I’d like to think so. Yes, the Habs deal a second round draft pick, but they get Wisniewski for forty games. Quite often, players of his calibre go for a 2nd at the deadline. What does Wisniewski bring to the table? A solid first past, a great shot, and a physical aspect long missing from the Habs back end. He’s a poor man’s Sheldon Souray (and yes, that means he sometimes makes terrible defensive mistakes, apparent in his -18 rating as an Islander). However, despite the odd defensive miscue I’ve been impressed with Wisniewski thus far, as he’s posted five points over his first three games as a Hab. His nine shots have been a welcome addition, as the Canadiens can use as much offensive punch from the defence as possible, especially on the power play. A solid point shot has been missing since the injury to Andrei Markov. I’d like to think they’ve found a decent replacement.

Next, and perhaps more surprisingly, you ship veteran and fan favourite Max Lapierre to Anaheim for a 5th and defensive prospect Brett Festerling. Why? Well, rumours had swirled, as they had in the past, of Lapierre’s inability to get along with some teammates. Add to that Lapierre’s apparent complaints to management over playing time, and the writing was on the wall. However, while Lapierre had a disappointing eight points this year, I question the decision to suddenly ship him out. Here is a player Montreal drafted in the second round and spent years developing. He is only one year removed from a 15 goal season. However, his numbers and play had clearly taken a steep dive under Jacques Martin, who did not view him as being as useful as former coach Guy Carbonneau did.

Will the Canadiens miss Lapierre in the long term? Probably not. And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Mike Ribeiro for a washed up contract-heavy Finnish defenceman we shall not name. But anytime an organization spends years developing an asset, and then essentially lets that asset go for nothing, it had to be seen as a disappointment.

What comes next?

The Habs still have a few holes. Primarily, they lack a top six winger. They have from game one. They have presumably determined it is not Benoit Pouliot, as he hasn’t been given a shot there since the start of the year. So who is it? It doesn’t look like it’s Pacioretty, although he has opened up space for Scott Gomez. A player such as Jamie Benn would be the perfect fit, but the chances of him being available are, well, they don’t exist. As such, if I am in Pierre Gauthier’s shoes, I’m shopping for a proven, reliable top six winger, preferably someone with a bit of heft and physicality to his game. And if he’s not available, I’d be phoning up Bryan Murray to see if I can dump a contract like Jaroslav Spacek’s for Alex Kovalev. At this point, the Habs have about $3 million to work with. The room is there if they want to make a move.

Otherwise, the big hole in Montreal’s game is still the defence. Perhaps Wisniewski will change my mind after another five or ten games, but the defence is too slow and it doesn’t have a transition game. Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek are way, way past their prime. If there is any way Gauthier can dump Spacek’s contract, he has to do it.

Focusing further on defence, let’s get some consistency going with the approach to playing PK Subban. This guy shouldn’t in one night and out the next. He should be playing 20 minutes a game, consistently, night after night. It’s the only way he’s going to learn and get better. And guess what? People seem to have forgotten, but he’s actually a hell of a hockey player. His offensive talents might just help the Canadiens beef up their offensive game. But the guy has to play. And he’s got to play a lot.

In goal, yes Carey Price has struggled of late. Yes, he didn’t get voted onto the all star team. And despite the complaints of Montreal fans, that’s a good thing. Let’s hope Price doesn’t make the team, so that he can rest up and get ready for the playoff push. Price is talented, and he’ll get his game back. He just needs to play through it.

As for what’s on tap over the next few days, Montreal faces Pittsburgh tomorrow, the halfway mark of their season, before Saturday’s nationally televised tilt with Boston. Two great games, and I am excited for both. Don’t fret Habs fans, this is just a slump. The team will play it’s way out of it.

In the meantime, enjoy the second half of the season. And let’s see what the general manager has up his sleeves. Something tells me he’s not done tinkering yet.

Filed in: NHL Teams, Montreal Canadiens, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: carey+price, james+wisniewski, pierre+gauthier, pk+subban, pk+subban

Comments

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Montreal has really screwed up with Subban. After the first benching, which was rumoured to be because his teammates didn’t like all the talking he was doing, his confidence has gone out the window and he is playing without the edge that made him so dynamic in the first part of the season.

Gauthier is in tough, but I have confidence that he will make smart moves that will help in both the short term and long term.

Posted by BlackXinu on 01/05/11 at 10:29 PM ET

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you know, every time i read this blog, i think to myself, maybe this guy is on to something, then i read suggestions of re-acquiring kovalev, who had one good season in montreal and otherwise sucks, and is largely disinterested in playing hard.  or perhaps, you might suggest the signing of guerin or some other washed up ex-star.  as for ribeiro, you may recall (or maybe you won’t since you live in toronto) that he was, like lapierre, also a locker room cancer, so trading him for a used bag of pucks (aka: nimminaa) wasn’t a waste of time. 

and so here’s the thing: the habs are a real time for the first time since i can remember, and with lapierre gone, it just gets better, and the team will pull themselves out of the funk.  all teams go through them.  look at the capitals.

Posted by Ransacker on 01/05/11 at 11:26 PM ET

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Thanks for the comments. I agree completely on Subban, but Spezza went through this as well and turned out ok in the end, and I do believe Subban will be fine as well. He just needs to play.

As for mentioning Kovalev, you may note it is a tad tongue in cheek. After all, the guy only has 19 points, and the only way I’d take the contract is to deal a contract that is worse (ie Spacek). I don’t think that would be a bad move in today’s NHL. Would Kovalev fix all of the Habs offensive problems? Of course not. But he’d clear cap space next year and maybe, just maybe, he’d give the Canadiens some inspired play down the stretch.

As for Ribeiro, I completely agree regarding his issues in the locker room. He, Pierre Dagenais and Jose Theodore clearly had a clique going, and every paper and radio station reported on it constantly. That aside, Ribeiro had 51 and 65 points in the preceding two seasons. Lapierre is a fourth line centre. I still believe the Habs got hosed on Ribeiro, and I don’t think anyone else will agree. Regardless, in today’s NHL, a center scoring over 50 points, let alone 60, making low dollars is a steal. In either case, hockey is a business. My suggestion was that a successful business, hockey team or otherwise, can’t afford to just give assets away. Especially when it has spent years (as in both cases) developing them.

The question becomes, if both were such terrible locker room players, why did the Canadiens spend years, and countless dollars, developing them? Just like a truck or another capital asset, at some point you need to cut ties and buy a replacement. I would suggest, if attitude were the defining factor in both cases, it took far too long to realize it. And that goes back to management.

Thanks as always for the comments. I forgot to mention in the article that I liked what David Desharnais brought on Sunday. I’m excited to see how his role develops.

Posted by The Upper Canadien from Toronto on 01/05/11 at 11:38 PM ET

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Regarding Kovalev: I don’t think Murray will trade one problem for another. Kovalev for Spacek is wishful thinking, at best. I think Montreal needs to bite the bullet on Hamrlik until the end of this season, and with Spacek until the end of next year. Any team scouting the Habs knows that they’d love to dump them, and I don’t think anyone is going to bite.

P.K. Subban: As far as I’m concerned, play him every day or send him down to Hamilton and have him play there ever day. This “on one, off one” garbage isn’t working. He’s young, and he’s going to make mistakes. But his upside far exceeds his current shortcomings. Let him play, let him learn, and watch him flourish.

I agree with Ransacker. They Habs will pull out of think funk. They just need to start playing with confidence again.

Posted by Briney on 01/06/11 at 03:05 PM ET

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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