Off-season priorities for the Montreal Canadiens
Now that the cheering has stopped, the chewing can begin.
By participating in 19 playoff games over three rounds this spring, the Montreal Canadiens played about 14 more postseason contests than many expected they would.
Along the way, we saw some stunning saves from Jaroslav Halak, some clutch scoring from Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta and, in general, more desire and commitment from the Habs than most believed they had in them.
Tempted as some Montreal fans may be to revel a little longer in the highs of an unexpected run, the only relevant question now is what does this all mean for the Canadiens moving forward?
The easy thing to do when a team surprises the way Montreal did is to assume it's headed in the right direction. But when you look at the basic makeup of this club, it's clear much work needs to be done before advancing to the conference final is a legit goal, not an occurrence borne out of wild over-achievement.
(If you want hard evidence that a final-four trip isn't necessarily a sign things are about to get real rosy, consider that after making the East final in 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes looked like they might draft first overall for much of this season.)
Depending on who you ask, the major off-season priority for Montreal is either signing potential UFA Tomas Plekanec or trading Carey Price in order to officially open up the top job for Halak, while simultaneously addressing shortcomings in other areas.
Dealing first with Plekanec, he has said all along he'd like to remain in Montreal and while he's not about to get bilked on a hometown discount just to stay there, it feels like there's a deal to be done that can benefit both sides.
The 27-year-old pivot let the team down offensively in the latter stages of the playoffs, registering just four assists in the final 13 games and failing to muster up even a single point in the five-game conference final loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Still, it's hard to imagine the Canadiens don't want Plekanec back because he's a hard worker whose value goes beyond yearly point totals, which this season happened to be a healthy 25 goals and 70 points in 82 games to lead the squad. In truth, with Scott Gomez in the fold, the Habs really have two pivots more suited to a second-line role as opposed to a clear No. 1. The Canadiens already struggle to score goals, so losing one half – or more – of their production up the middle would definitely hurt.
Speaking of goal-scoring woes, part of the impetus to deal Price would be the need to improve in that area. Both Price, who turns 23 this August, and Halak, 25, are eligible to become restricted free agents July 1, with Halak holding arbitration rights.
The debate over which young goalie is the right guy to lead the Canadiens in the future has become as never-ending and circular as the line of questioning that still has us wondering who's on first base.
Given the monster clutch performances Halak just turned in for his team, it's highly unlikely he'll be the one packing his bags this summer. And for those who think this guy came out of nowhere to stun the hockey world this season, it should be pointed out that while he definitely took his game far beyond where it had ever previously been, Halak apprenticed in the American League for a couple seasons and has been steadily improving as an NHL netminder over the past three years.
His performance down the stretch and in the playoffs is the culmination of a lot of hard work and only occurred after he showed the mental resiliency to keep believing in himself after more than a year of the organization doing everything in its power to find a way to make Price the No. 1 guy.
The conservative approach would be to try and keep both creasemen in-house and let this thing play out over more time. And let's be clear about the fact that if Halak hadn't emerged the way he did, re-signing Price – a big, talented guy who is in the infant stages of his NHL career – would be a no-brainer.
But when you're paying Gomez $7.3 million annually to be a 60-point center, you've gone a long way in restricting your ability to spend money in other places, especially considering it's going to take around $5 million to retain Plekanec.
Further to that, you don't have to be an expert body-language reader to know neither goalie is content with the setup as it currently exists.
Could trading Price turn out to be a situation where the Habs hand another team a top-tier starter for the next 10 years? Absolutely. But sometimes you've got to swallow hard and commit to a plan. You can't let fear drive the team bus on this one, so unless GM Pierre Gauthier is completely convinced Price is the pony to bet on long-term, it's time to clear the crease for the guy who's done nothing but everything that's been asked of him during his career in Montreal.
Other off-season items of business could include naming a captain and extending the contract of Andrei Markov, who'll be busy rehabilitating his right knee after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL sustained in Game 1 of the team's second round series versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. Markov, who'll likely miss the first month or so of 2010-11, can become a UFA next summer and, even though he'll be 32 at the time, the Habs can ill afford to let him walk.
As for who could wear the "C" next season, it speaks to the quality of the leadership group that any one of about three guys – Gionta, Cammalleri or Josh Gorges – would make great candidates.
The Canadiens' postseason run proved, collectively, they've got more gumption than many of us thought, but the overall skill level of the team still needs to be significantly inflated before a trip to the conference final becomes more of an expectation than an exception.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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