Monday, February 1, 2010

GM Bob Gainey at the crossroads

We should know more about the extent of damage done to Mike Cammalleri’s right knee when he has an MRI done in Montreal this morning, assuming the swelling has gone down enough to remove the inflatable cast and get good imaging. What we do know is that the offensive production of Mike Cammalleri cannot be replaced, not when he was providing 27% of the teams 5 on 5 goal production which was already ranked dead last in the NHL going into the game against Ottawa.

So, now with 26 games left to play over the next 10 weeks and just 7 games before the Olympic break, any damage beyond an MCL or ACL sprain will likely end Mike Cammalleri’s season. Replays of the incident certainly suggest the damage is severe so it’s a safe bet Cammalleri will be out past the March 3rd trading deadline, as will Andrei Kostitsyn though he’s expected to be back soon after.

Teams can and do stay competitive enough to weather the loss of a key offensive player, if their secondary scoring can pick up the slack and contribute more during their absence. The problem with the Montreal Canadiens is that they were already trying to find a trading partner to replace the offense lost with the injury to Andrei Kostitsyn when Cammalleri went down on Saturday. All year the Habs secondary scoring has been led by 35 year old and soon to be UFA, Glen Metropolit who’s been fading fast as the grind of the season has taken its toll, and 21 year old Max Pacioretty who’s been sent down to Hamilton to work with Head Coach Guy Boucher. That leaves Maxim Lapierre, Travis Moen, Sergei Kostitsyn, Matt D’Agostini, Mathieu Darche, Ben Maxwell and a converted Marc-Andre Bergeron to step up and contribute more. Minus Bergeron, that group has scored just 27 goals in 281 total games played while the group leader with 10 of those goals, Metropolit hasn’t scored since Dec 23rd.

Of course, the major concern with the secondary scoring group is that even if they did provide “more” at this point, it wouldn’t even get them up to par compared to last season, a season which everyone would rather forget, let alone put a dent into the production lost with the injury to Mike Cammalleri. So, with seven games to play before the Olympic break and six of them against conference rivals there’s no question Montreal Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey has come to the crossroads if Cammalleri is indeed lost for any significant amount of time.

In my opinion, Gainey will have to decide if the Canadiens will be buyers or sellers in the next 72 hours. Waiting until the 72 hour trade window opens after the Olympic break will certainly be too late to improve the club’s chances at making the playoffs. The Habs play the Bruins, in Boston the day before the deadline and then go on a three game western road trip immediately afterwards, and we all know west coast trips aren’t usually kind to the Montreal Canadiens. So, the time is now for Gainey and the Molsons to decide which direction the Habs will go.

Personally, I feel there are three main issues that must be understood before a sensible decision can be made. First, in terms of salary lost to injury this season only Edmonton and Detroit have suffered more than the Habs... and that was before the loss of Cammalleri. Second, the secondary scoring unit has been a dismal failure. They haven’t produced anything close to acceptable numbers, let alone given any indication they’re capable of increasing their offensive production to off-set the loss of Cammalleri while Andrei Kostitsyn won’t be back for at least eight more games. Third, the defence has been over-worked since they lost Andrei Markov the very first game of the year. As a result, Roman Hamrlik has been forced to play far too many minutes, Jaroslav Spacek has been forced to play on the right side all year long, Ryan O’Byrne has missed 19 games with a knee injury and another 11 due to family illness and both Gill & Mara have missed time due to injury. What isn’t a problem however, as much as the media want it to be is goaltending. Both Halak & Price are RFAs so there really isn’t an urgent need to trade one or the other... yet.

Can Bob Gainey make another true hockey deal like he did with Benoit Pouliot, at a time when most GMs are more concerned about moving substantial salaries, knowing that if Tomas Plekanec is to be resigned a minimum of $3 Million in salary will need to be cleared for next season, on top of all the expected off-season moves? Cap-wise, the Habs can only afford to bring in an additional $2 Million in salary at this point so any impact rental would likely require salary going back the other way. And with the loss of Mike Cammalleri, many GMs will certainly be asking for PK Subban in the hope that Bob Gainey will make a move similar to Darryl Sutter in Calgary and make a short term panic trade to save the season... and his job.

If I were advising Bob Gainey, I’d tell him to sit down with the Molsons and say that given the overall situation, the Montreal Canadiens would be best served by becoming sellers in the next 72 hours and not trade key assets, especially draft picks and prospects for rental players on what is almost certainly a lost season. Instead, I would hope they identify which players are keys to the future, start moving the players who aren't and work towards finishing among the bottom 5 teams in the league. And since a lottery pick is just two points away, it’s certainly not a long drop to finally get an elite prospect to build around.

Now, what do I think Gainey will actually do? I think he’ll make one trade before Thursday’s game in Boston, at marginal expense to give the team a chance at making the playoffs. If the team doesn’t respond in the six games after that, the Habs will be sellers coming out of the Olympic break.

The good news is that the Habs aren't as bad as people think... or hope in the case of some Montreal tabloid media personalities. It's just that in the cap era, teams can only sustain themselves through injuries if others step up to fill the void and nobody has all beyond a 35 year old who's fading and a 21 year old who couldn't handle the pressure of being asked to do too much too soon.