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11-10-2011, 10:20 AM
Slew Foots
Haters gonna hate
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An asset manager's view of the habs - Part I: Forwards

Since I have some spare time today, I've decided to share my thoughts on the state of our beloved Habs franchise - not necessarily because I believe I have some groundbreaking insight, but simply because I enjoy thinking and talking about the Habs (more than I enjoy thinking and talking about investing and financial assets, which is what I actually get paid to do) and haven't had the chance to do so in a long time, and I'm curious to hear other people's thoughts.

I don't think I'm alone in being concerned about the team's performance of late, especially given the increasingly competitive landscape in the NHL. Fundamentally, I believe the Habs should make the playoffs this year despite questionable asset utilization by Martin (e.g. overplaying underperforming declining veterans at the expense of youth, insisting on playing a single forechecker system when we have enough speed to play a more aggressive forechecking game) and asset management decisions by Gauthier in the offseason (and by Gainey previously; e.g.: Gomez trade, Gionta signing).

1. Forwards:
1.1 - Summary: We have some good depth at the NHL level in terms of NHL calibre forwards. We may not have superstar/elite level talent, but we do have four forwards with a good size/skill mix (Cole, Pacioretty, Eller, Kostitsyn) who have all performed reasonably well so far - something we haven't had in a while. Unfortunately, many of our smaller forwards (Gionta, Gomez, Cammalleri) have underperformed (especially with respect to the dollar amount invested in them). All 3 need to step up if the Habs are going to make the playoffs. Other than that, I actually like our current mix of size and skill, and youth and experience. I believe we should make the playoffs and could do well this year as long as Martin starts to use his assets a little better.

1.1 Player-by-player assessment (cap hit, years remaining including this year):

Gomez (7.357M, 3 years): Clearly, Gainey made a horrible decision in acquiring him while giving away a stud like McDonagh, and a decent bang-for-buck player like Higgins (in a cap world, you keep your assets who are giving you decent results for a good price, and you stay away from assets who are overpaid - a rule ignored by Gainey et al.). Now, none of this is Gomez's fault, so a lot of the criticism people are giving him is unfair to a certain extent. Yes, he should be playing better, but people are blinded by his cap hit. He is still a good player. He is still a better option than Desharnais as our 2nd line center (not as good an option as Eller though - I'll get to that later). As much as Gomez needs to be less predictable with his game, Desharnais is much more predictable, and is often overmatched in 5 on 5 situations and down low since he is smaller, much weaker and slower than Gomez.

Cammalleri (6M, 3 years): He needs to be better for the habs to have success, but he is actually a good signing since he's still in his prime, contrary to a guy like Gionta for example. Needless to say he is a playoff beast - he needs to be better in the regular season. Markov's return will help boost Cammy's PP production. Martin also needs to free Cammy from a center like Desharnais and put him with Plekanec to increase his chances at success. Knowing Cammalleri has a tendency to pout, I'm sure he would prefer knowing he is playing on the 1st line.

Plekanec (5M, 5 years): Great signing because of all that he brings to the team. Even when he's struggling offensively, he's a stalwart defensively. Needs to play with Cammalleri to see his production increase, and I would pair those two smaller guys back with Cole now that he's got his swagger back.

Gionta (5M, 3 years): Admirable work rate, but no longer a top-six player on this team in my opinion. He has never been a player who uses his linemates well, and now that he's scoring less, he really does bring little value in a top-six role 5-on-5. He is still very good defensively though, so I would use him on the PK and reduce his PP time (he gets way too much PP time at the expense of younger & more talented players). If he's as good a leader as people say he is, Martin shouldn't worry about alienating Gionta by reducing his PP time and transitioning him to a 3rd line role. He is a player who is declining, and still has 3 years left on his contract. I honestly would have rather seen the team keep Koivu than sign Gionta: Koivu's cheaper and would have given us similar production in points. I also don't get why Gionta doesn’t get any flak from the media for his poor production (especially given his salary) and for the fact that he’s a captain who can’t speak French. Any insight on why the media was so much harder on Koivu than on Gionta would be greatly appreciated.

Cole (4.5M, 4 years): Started off poorly, but has really stepped up nicely of late. His contract is inflated, but contracts will usually have to be slightly inflated in order to attract assets to Montreal. I expect his play to decline over time, but hopefully not too much. If he can sustain his current play for the first two seasons of his contract, I can live with his contract. He has good size, good speed and his link up play with linemates has been better than expected.

Kostitsyn (3.25M, 1 year): Arguably our best forward this year. His combination of size and skill is a very rare commodity. His consistent work rate this year has been a pleasant surprise. What hasn’t been surprising has been Martin’s poor utilization of Kostitsyn. He really needs to be given more PP time – it doesn’t make any sense why guys like Gionta or Desharnais would get so much more PP time. Kostitsyn would be great playing the half-boards position on one of our PP units (like Kovy) – he has a sweet wrister, and has an uncanny ability to find the open man on the opposite wing with a precise laser pass (can set up Weber or Subban for the one-timer as the move up and down the right wing looking for a seam). He is also one of the few assets we have who gives us very good value for what we pay him. He needs to be signed for 2-3 years minimum: he’s still relatively young and in his prime, and has intriguing chemistry with our two emerging skilled forwards: Eller and Pacioretty. Another reason to keep Kostitsyn is that we don’t have too much elite forward talent in the youth pipelines (I don’t expect guys like Leblanc or Palushaj to ever produce what Kostitsyn can).

Pacioretty (1.625M, 2 years): He’s having a great season so far. I like the fact that he works really hard too, so I expect him to continue to improve his body positioning around the crease in order to get more scoring chances and enhance his finishing ability. He’s emerging as the power forward we’ve been looking for.

Moen (1.5M, 1 year): He’s also having a great season so far. He has good speed and size, he’s reliable defensively, he can fight when necessary and he can chip in on one of the top 3 lines in case of injury even though he’s best utilized on the long run on an energy/4th line. I would re-sign him for 2-3 years at the right price (somewhere in the 1 – 1.5M range).

Eller (1.27M, 1 year): He’s already our second best center. He may not have as much finishing ability as we’d like to see (I expect that to improve as he continues to mature and grow in confidence), but he’s capable of putting solid numbers right away if we place him with two speedy guys who can put the puck in the net like Kostitsyn and Pacioretty (that could be a potent line for years to come).

Desharnais (850K, 2 years): I like him, because he works really hard and has overcome the odds to establish himself as an NHL player. That being said, I don’t see him as being able to center a 2nd line in the NHL. He lacks foot speed, he’s very easy to knock off the puck down low, and he’s very predictable in his play. People claim he’s a great playmaker, but his passes surprisingly often lack precision. He is a very smart and has good offensive instincts, but he often doesn’t execute the play properly since he’s not as skilled as you would think. I’m OK with him getting some PP time, but not as much as he’s being given right now, since his PP play is too predictable (always tries the same cross-crease pass). When the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Kostitsyn line had success, it was a more a function of Kostitsyn and Pacioretty’s play together than Desharnais’s link up with the two in my opinion. I believe he would be best utilized in a 3rd line winger role with PK time and a bit of PP time – in other words, I still think he is an important player on the team.

Darche (700K, 1 year): Won’t say much other than the fact that he is the ideal 13th forward to have on your team.

White (625K, 1 year): Can’t wait for him to get back – he’ll make our 4th line that much better.

Blunden (615K, 1 year): Hasn’t been bad so far – should go back to Hamilton once White is ready.

Nokelainen (550K, 1 year): He’s been better than expected. I think he’s very good in his role as our number 4 center.

Proposed lines (% of 5-on-5 time):

Cammalleri – Plekanec – Cole (33%)
Pacioretty – Eller – Kostitsyn (33%)
Desharnais – Gomez – Gionta (21%)
White – Nokelainen – Moen (13%)

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