Too bad the NHL isn’t more like The Wizard of Oz. In film, you can arrive at the famous final scene, tap your heels together three times and, suddenly, you’re back in Kansas, content in the knowledge it was just a dream.
If life were like that, then maybe the job of fixing the Montreal Canadiens wouldn’t be nearly as onerous as it will be for Patrick Roy or Julien BriseBois or Claude Loiselle or whoever ends up replacing Pierre Gauthier as the team’s next general manager.
In the beginning, the job will need to come with a generous supply of magic wands.
You could wave the first and say, “Scott Gomez, just a bad dream.” And not only would $7-million (U.S.) of annual salary cap space go poof into the night along with the Tin Man, but defenceman Ryan McDonagh (dealt to the New York Rangers in the Gomez trade) would be back in the Habs organization – just the sort of young building block to pair with P.K. Subban for a team that has gaping holes on its blueline.
Sadly, the reality will be a little harsher than that. And so whoever ends up taking over will be required to spend the first 12 months on the job simply unravelling the sins of the past.
In the salary cap NHL, turnarounds don’t just happen with the flick of the switch – or the powerful magic of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. If you have too many dollars committed to too many unproductive players, you have a choice of two: Either buy them out (and carry the remains of the contract against your cap for years to come) or suffer along until the contract expires.
In Gomez’s case, just because he is such a lightning rod and has been such a poor fit in the Montreal market, they’ll need to swallow hard and scatter him to the wind. Gomez was to the on-ice product what Gauthier was to the front office: A symbol of abject failure, a hastily turned-to Plan B, the fall-back position after Montreal’s flirtation with acquiring Vincent Lecavalier from Tampa Bay came to a screeching halt.
Team owner Geoff Molson says he wants consistency and stability going forward. Well, you don’t start the real process of rebuilding until all the detritus of the past is cleared away.
But all the news is not grim in Montreal. At the very least, the Canadiens have what the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, need and covet: a young, solid, stalwart goaltender.
Carey Price has proven he can play in a demanding, challenging market. Goaltending is a difficult job at the best of times and in the pressure cooker that’s Montreal, it can eat up even the steadiest of personalities. But Price is a talent and he’s also got the panache to withstand the heat.
Steadying and deepening the defence corps (and getting a real sense of whether Andrei Markov can return from injury to play at a high level) is a priority. But one could also argue Montreal has collectively the weakest group of forwards, from No. 1 to 12, of any team in the Eastern Conference.
Think about the opposition: Pittsburgh starts with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal; Washington with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom; New Jersey has Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrick Elias; Philadelphia has Claude Giroux, Danny Brière and Jaromir Jagr. Tampa can toss out Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. The Rangers have Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards, and even the Islanders have John Tavares. …
Montreal’s top forwards are all good players, but if Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole are your scorers, that’s not good enough to compete, night after night, through an 82-game season and expect to make the playoffs in the East.
Luckily for Montreal, forwards are generally easier to find, recruit and develop than goaltenders or defencemen. They arrive sooner and make an impact faster. You’d have to think the Canadiens can get a couple of replacement parts in a hurry, if they choose to.
In the coming entry draft, where they will have a high pick, a trio of high-end Russian forwards will be available, including Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk and Mikhail Grigorenko. Lots of teams are scared of Russians because of the KHL complication, but all figure to be dynamic players – maybe even soon – and dynamic is a quality sorely lacking in the Montreal system.
The other intriguing possibility involves Roy and another of his former protégés with the Quebec Remparts, Alexander Radulov, who is currently finding his NHL stride again with the Nashville Predators. Because of how the NHL’s revenue-sharing system works, Nashville will always need to juggle its current ambitions against its budgetary realities and Radulov will be a restricted free agent this summer.
The priority in Nashville will be to get defencemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber signed to long-term contract extensions this summer, and if that means Radulov’s stay there is short, well, he becomes an asset that they can dangle on the market. What if the Canadiens target both Yakupov and Radulov as two high-end talents to plug into a lineup? Add them without subtracting others and suddenly, the talent gap doesn’t seem nearly as wide.
In a perfect world, the next generation of Habs stars would be named Giroux and Bergeron, not Yakupov and Radulov. But if you can’t have the Flying Frenchmen, maybe the Racing Russians can be the next best thing.