It’s getting to be that time of year again.
Flurries of snowfall have begun to dot the weather forecast. Toys and candy have appeared, seemingly from thin air, waist-high at every retail check-out on the planet. And children big and small are starting to compose their holiday wish lists.
As we cross the quarter-season mark, the dust has finally settled on what was a tumultuous start to the NHL season. Each year, around this time, teams begin to evaluate their true standing in the league. Statistical blips have been accounted for (it turns out Jonathan Quick will not be finishing the season with 44 shutouts) and clubs are comfortable enough with what they’ve seen to start making necessary changes, as evidenced by the recent coaching changes in Washington and Carolina.
So what would the Montreal Canadiens like for Christmas this year? They’ve certainly been on their best behaviour, climbing from 21st in the NHL in penalty minutes per game last year all the way up to 11th this season. In fact, the Habs have dropped more than a full minor penalty per game from their 2011 pace, seeing their average time on the penalty kill plummet from 13.4 minutes last year to just 11.1 minutes this year.
If the Canadiens are going to continue to compete for a playoff spot however, there are likely a few early season inconsistencies which will need to be addressed. If I were Pierre Gauthier, here’s what the top 4 items on my wish list would look like:
#4– A Little Dumb Luck.
It may sound obvious, but what would benefit the Habs most right now are a few lucky breaks. For a team that is coached by Jacques Martin to have a 5-8 record in games decided by goal or less (including OT and SO) is downright unacceptable. Martin is known for running a tight ship and his defensive-minded approach should be garnering better results. A fortunate bounce once in a while would go a long in helping the playoff picture.
#3- The (Healthy) Return of Andrei Markov.
Canadiens fans have been holding their collective breath since Markov signed a three year extension this past June. At his best, Markov is one of the game’s truly elite defensemen and along with PK Subban, brings a dynamic 1-2 punch on the power play with which few teams can compete. With his return from off-season knee surgery now imminent, fans in Montreal are nervously waiting to see how well the Russian superstar can bounce back. Given his medical history, it may be now or never for Markov.
#2- A Miracle for Scott Gomez.
Right up until last Monday, Scott Gomez was technically a better value than Sidney Crosby this season. They had scored the same number of goals (none) and Gomez had more assists (4). And with Gomez making $7.35m compared to Crosby’s $8.7m, he was practically a steal. Of course, Crosby passed him in the scoring race within three hours…because that’s what centre-men who make more than $7m do; they score.
The truth is, there are no easy solutions when it comes to Gomez. The Canadiens aren’t likely to find a suitor whose focus is solely on reaching the cap floor. The Florida Panthers proved this off-season that even teams looking to take on salary can find much better bargains than what Gomez offers. And demoting him to the minors means that they will either be paying the most expensive player in the AHL, or they will be paying him more than $3.5m to play for someone else.
The only answer is a miracle. Gomez needs to come back from his current groin injury and set the league on fire. He needs to once again find his speed through the neutral zone and generate some offensive chemistry with any one of Andrei Kostitsyn, Erik Cole, or Max Pacioretty. Gomez lacks the size to simply charge the net and score ugly goals, which is usually the solution to a scoring slump. So one of the Canadiens’ few big-bodied wingers might just have to step in and do it for him.
And speaking of miracles…
#1- Eric Staal.
Bear in mind this is just a wish list, but this trade makes sense for a number of reasons. Here’s how I see it breaking down;
To Carolina- Scott Gomez, Andrei Kostitsyn, Jaroslav Spacek
To Montreal- Eric Staal, conditional draft pick (2nd or 3rd round)
Carolina is off to a terrible start this season, and management apparently believes that the issues run at least deep enough to warrant the firing of Paul Maurice. With Kirk Muller stepping
in as head coach, the all-important familiarity factor falls perfectly into place. Not only did Andrei Kostitsyn put up career numbers while Muller was an assistant in Montreal, but a change of scenery and escape from Jacques Martin’s defensive strategies may be just what the doctor ordered for Gomez as well.
After the debacle that was the Tomas Kaberle signing this off-season, the ‘Canes could certainly use reinforcements on the blue line. And with Raphael Diaz proving himself to be a legitimate NHL defenseman, Spacek could very well be the odd man out in Montreal. The breakdown of average ice-time shows that Spacek will basically become a number six defenseman once Markov returns to the line-up.
In addition, Gomez and Spacek would also provide a veteran presence that has been sorely missed in Carolina since the retirement of Rod Brind’amour.
With Staal starting the season on pace for career lows in nearly every offensive category, trade rumours have been buzzing out of Raleigh for weeks now. And with Erik Cole finally hitting his stride in Montreal after leaving Carolina via free agency this summer, Staal could probably be reminded pretty easily of who was skating on his left wing during his most productive offensive seasons.
They might not be the most traditional gifts. However, sitting a single point out of a playoff position a quarter of the way through the season, I’m certain any Habs’ fan would agree;
Fruit cakes and stocking-stuffers are fine, but we also wouldn’t be heart-broken with another pile of Cole.