I coach and manage a AAA hockey organization here in Montreal called the Montreal Junior Prospects. The way AAA works in this city, is that coaches/managers (myself in this case) recruit players to play for them for some tournaments in the spring. The competition for the top players is difficult because there are so few of them and there are so many teams. In my experience with this level; when recruiting a player, 99% of them ask the same first question – WHO ELSE IS ON THE TEAM? Ultimately, players don’t care about the coach, the training program, the tournaments or the history of the organization; they want to play with good players.
And that’s why Bob Gainey made that trade for Gomez.
He gave up a lot for Gomez and his hefty cap hit. Chris Higgins (a young, valuable 2nd line player) and D prospect Ryan McDonagh was a bigger price tag than what I would have predicted. It’s seems obvious that Gainey has identified his 2 top D prospects as PK Subban and Yannick Weber and felt that McDonagh was dispensable and not progressing as they had thought. It is pointless to argue whether or not this is true, because we will only know for sure 5 years from now. All that being said; Bob made an investment, and he seems to realize that part of the reason he can’t attract free agents is because he hasn’t attracted any free agents! By acquiring a player who can still effectively center a top line at the very least, all of a sudden when a player asks “WHO ELSE IS ON THE TEAM?”; the answer is, “well we have a spot for you on our top line centered by Scott Gomez.” This year’s market was loaded with high-end wingers, so the acquisition of Gomez was essential, whether fans like it or not.
And that’s why Bob Gainey was able to lure Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta.
Cammalleri admitted that in his conference call; mentioning that the acquisition of Scott Gomez was a major reason he decided to sign with the Habs. That and 30 million other reasons. To the same degree, Gionta signed because he knew that he would have a chance to have the same quality centerman that he did in his most successful years in Jersey. The other 2 signings were on the blue line. The Canadiens acquired Jaroslav Spacek, a quality puck mover and PP specialist who had 45 points and was a plus player (+2) on a non-playoff team in 80 games last year. With the loss of Komisarek (still fuming over that one!), Montreal also felt a need to replace his size, physical presence, shutdown ability and penalty killing skills on the back-end. Enter the 6’7 Hal Gill and his famous long stick (insert sexual innuendo). Kovalev for one admitted in the past that Gill was so tough to play against because it’s so tough to get around him. He is past his prime but Gill still brings a lot to the table.
On the positive side; Gomez (29 years old) replaces Koivu (35 years old) as the number one center, which is an unquestionable upgrade; the Habs are getting someone who is much more skilled, younger and comes with 2 rings. Cammalleri (27 years old) replaces Tanguay (30 years old) on the LW, which is also a major upgrade in that they acquire a younger player who has two 30+ goal seasons in his last 3 years versus a player who has never hit 30 in his career. The Kovalev-Gionta comparison is tough because Kovalev is better. Both are declining a bit in terms of production, but when you ask yourself would you rather Kovalev for 2 years or Gionta for 5, the answer is not so clear. Kovalev is 36 with 102 goals since the lockout, whereas Gionta is 30 with 115 goals in the same timeframe. Gionta will be hit or miss depending on how Gomez fits in. The high-end talent on this team just got exponentially better and younger. The Habs’ former corps of top line players were approaching “over the hill” status and they have been replaced by guys that can lead the way for years to come for the young crop of forwards currently establishing themselves at the pro level. The defense did get older, but with age comes experience. The Habs have added a PP threat in Spacek and a fantastic penalty killer in Hal Gill. Special teams are very important in the new NHL, which is why these signings might pay off.
There are legitimate concerns as well on the part of most fans. These players were all paid a premium price to come and play here and Gainey has a lot invested in this group of FAs. Bob has potentially handcuffed himself for the future with expensive contracts, but we will have to wait and see. Also, by adding so many new faces, this is basically one big chemistry test. By compiling all of these ingredients, fans might witness a renaissance of the storied franchise or they could implode. Size is another issue; the Habs are very small up front, but this is a skill game now so this might not be as big of an issue as people are expecting. Finally, there are the intangibles, which is my biggest worry. There has been a complete overhaul of the leadership of the team, so building a team first atmosphere might be very difficult for new coach Jacques Martin. There is now a large group of guys 23 and under and another large group of guys 27 and over. The guys like Komisarek and Higgins were able to help bridge that gap, who’s going to do it now?
I am not proclaiming that the Canadiens are Cup contenders, nor am I insinuating that the signings were crazy and Bob Gainey is out of his mind. I want fans to understand that this is not about a few signings, it’s what the signings represent. Gainey is the GM in a city that is behind the eight ball when it comes to attracting free agents, and he just shattered that stereotype. Whether or not this will all work out is the big question, but the fact that he was able to attract free agents was a huge step in the right direction.
To recap; I said the Habs needed 2 top 6 forwards, 1 top 4 D-man and 1 3rd pairing D-man. Cammalleri and Gionta fit the bill as top 6 forwards. Spacek is a fringe top 4 at this point in his career but still effective. Hal Gill is a quality acquisition as a 3rd pairing guy. In my opinion, and this is tough to do at this point, the Habs could still use one more top 6 forward (ideally a big center or Kovalev) and another D couldn’t hurt. Plekanec and Halak can and should be used as trade bait to address at least one of those needs. Gainey still has 10 million to spend on 4 RFAs, so there will be room to make one more bold move.
For now; enjoy the new look Habs – the only team in the NHL whose top players wouldn’t be admitted onto most roller coasters!
UPDATE – Interestingly enough, after 2 days of free agency, only 1 of Montreal's 4 “premier” free agents have been signed to contracts. Can 30 GMs all collectively be wrong, or is it possible that these guys are simply not as valuable as people think?
About the Author
Written by Corey Krakower
I am the Director of NHL Content & Habs writer for ProSportsBlogging.com; I have spent 8 seasons behind the bench as a minor hockey coach; and I am the future GM of the Montreal Canadiens (according to my mom). I spend my days managing the Harrow Sports brand in my hometown of Montreal and I moonlight as a Hockey Advisor for Pi Athlete Management. Most importantly, I'll throw anyone under the bus for a laugh.