As free agent frenzy comes to a standstill and development camps across the continent finish, most fans have come to the point where they wonder if their team has come out a winner or a loser from both the draft and free agency. I believe that the best way to assess if a team’s management has been successful during the rock n roll period of free agency and the draft is by identifying the main issues that appeared during the regular season and, if applicable, the playoffs. Then, you ask yourself the simple question: have these issues been addressed, if not wholly then at least partially?
Although the technique may seem obvious, the hardest part of the whole ordeal for a general manager, coach and president of a team can be to identify the issues that are haunting their team. Of course, some problems can be more obvious than Burrows’ bite on Patrice Bergeron during the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, but others can be much more subtle but just as important. For example, a GM may be aware that his team has a problem with scoring goals but an excellent defensive core, so he’ll spend all his money and draft picks on high profile scorers. Yet he may neglect the fact that his defensive core actually has a strong penchant for long term injuries which can be devastating to any team looking to make it on top, so he’ll forgo investing into the depth of his defense, which can come back to haunt the team once again when players start getting hurt once again.
The Habs are like any other team in the NHL: they have their set of issues that presented themselves during the season and playoffs that need to be addressed. In this series of blogs, I will go about identifying the issues that I feel were the most problematic during the 2010-2011 season and then see if Pierre Gauthier has done his part in attending to the issue. Then, at the end of the summer, we can come back to this post and see if, since the month of July, Gauthier has addressed the issues that he hasn’t addressed yet. In this post, I will take a look at the Habs’ most glaring issue during the past season: a small team that lacked a significant physical element.
Issue 1: Lack of Size
When entering the 2011 season, fans around the league knew that Montreal was icing one of the smallest teams (size wise) in recent history. Four of Montreal’s core offensive players (Gionta, Cammalleri, Gomez and Plekanec) are between 5’7 and 5’11, which means that it is nearly impossible for them to create space around the net against defenceman such as Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber.
Jacques Martin relied heavily on Ryan White, a rookie who spent the first half of the season in Hamilton, to act as the team’s enforcer, and although he did very well for a rookie, he was just that: a rookie. His presence in the lineup meant that the Habs were there to play hockey and not be bullied into submission. Whenever the Habs suffered through an extremely physical game, White was always in the lineup for the next encounter against that team. His willingness to fight mixed with his ability to drive for the puck in the corners and actually have a chance at getting it made him a valuable asset to a team plagued with coasters and players too small to fight for the puck in the corners.
Yet despite White’s physical presence, some of his hockey plays were questionable, especially some of his decisions in the defensive zone. As a rookie, he suffered from some poor on-ice decisions and sometimes an over-eagerness to engage in physical combat. But it is understandable that under the circumstances in which he developed(where he has no veteran physical player to mentor him), he did an excellent job for the Habs, which explains why Pierre Gauthier rewarded him with a 625k, one-way contract during this off-season.
Another move Gauthier made to amend the situation was to sign Erik Cole (for my full analysis of the Erik Cole signing, see my previous blog entry here). Although Cole is a very effective power forward, his career has been immeasurably plagued by injuries which have prevented him from being a constant force. Coming into his 11th season in the league, Cole provides the power forward that the team has been craving but have not been able to acquire in recent years. He brings a strong element of grit, strength and punishment to a team who severely lacks all of the above, and will go a long way to help the Habs clear the front of the net right on time for Markov’s return on the powerplay. All of this if, once again, he can remain healthy!
So, with the signing of Erik Cole, the re-signing of Ryan White and the return of Max Pacioretty from his devastating injury, are the Habs ready to compete with more physical teams such as the Bruins or the Flyers? I don’t believe so. With only one purely physical player in White, Montreal will be in a very poor position if he sustains a severe injury at any point during the season. With both Pacioretty and Cole either battling or returning from injuries, both their effectiveness and their ability to stay healty has yet to be proven. After these three players, the closes the Habs have to an enforcer/power forward is Travis Moen, who has enough trouble playing in his own zone that he doesn’t need the extra pressure of being the team’s only physical presence. Gauthier would go a long way in adding a feisty fourth-liner to his roster in the case of injury to one of aforementioned players, such as UFAs Frederic Sjostrom or Jarkko Ruutu.
The Cole acquisition has been, up to now, Gauthier’s most significant transaction of the summer. If the team is to remain the same when the regular season begins, Gauthier’s first off-season performances will be evaluated according to Cole’s performances. If Cole’s performances justify the huge pay raise he got during the summer, then Gauthier will come off as brilliant. But if Cole spends most of the season either on the LTIR or if his numbers flirt too closely with Scott Gomez’, Gauthier is going to have a lot of explaining to do to a lot of fans.