Montreal Canadiens stuck in neutralWhen I think of teams stuck in neutral this summer, I think of the Leafs, the Bruins who were caught too close to the cap ceiling, the Oilers who are spinning their wheels, talking big about the need to clear out guys like Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner, then diving right back into that pool with a ludicrous contract for Benoit Pouliot.
The Canadiens took two steps forward last season, reaching the 100-point mark for just the second time in 20 years and knocking off the Lightning and the Bruins in the playoffs on the way to an unexpected appearance in the Eastern Conference finals.
Now it might be time to take a step back.
Montreal isn't appreciably worse than it was in 2013–14, but it's hard to argue that the Habs are much better based on their first few weeks of summer activity. (...)
The Canucks too are kind of in purgatory. They're locked in because of the big contracts to their veterans, they can't quite race to the bottom against the Sabres and Islanders, but won't get in the playoffs either. And they assured themselves of mediocrity by signing a competent veteran goalie in Ryan Miller, who'll get them those extra four or five wins and OT losses that will murder their draft position.
Compared to those teams the Canadiens did well. They cleared out three underperforming veterans, righted the balance on their defence, signed a European UFA, among other forward-thinking moves.
Yet the main benefits of the off-season transactions and changes are more in the medium and long-term. And this is what Mr. Muir is missing. Sure adding Tom Gilbert and Mike Weaver on defence doesn't quicken the pulse and bring you to Stanley Cup rêveries, but it does bring players who are better fits and cost-effective into the mix. Plus, they're easily traded if any of the baby Bulldogs prove they're ready for the big time.
Losing Brian Gionta smarts, he's the captain and a role-model, but we couldn't afford him at the price the Sabres could in their special situation. This might be a move that looks better and better as the months progress, what with Brian's injuries and declining productivity.
And swapping Daniel Brière for Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau cancels out when their cap hits are considered; in fact, the Avs kind of win that one, since their player's contract only has one more year on it. But the Habs get the player they needed, a bigger, scoring winger, as opposed to a miscast player who was brought in to play on right wing but preferred and felt more comfortable at centre. Daniel Brière might have been fine if we had a hole at centre, but in fact he was up against Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais and Lars Eller for a Top 6 centre spot, with Alex Galchenyuk literally waiting in the wings.
So Daniel Brière ended the season on the fourth-line, and he'll now be replaced by Manny Malhotra, who is much better suited to that role. Mr. Malhotra is strong on faceoffs and on the penalty kill, he skates fast and has good size, so again we're trending in the right direction.
Allan Muir also failed to mention the addition of Jiri Sekac who could make the team out of camp. He's potentially NHL-ready, we signed him as a UFA, at no cost to the organization except an Entry-Level Contract.
All in all, all these moves are more subtle than signing a Paul Stasny. To the outsider, it might look like keeping abreast of the treadmill, but I see it more as putting players in positions to succeed, and giving the organization more flexibility. We used to bemoan that no team would ever take Josh Gorges or Brian Gionta or Daniel Brière off our hands, because of their unwieldy contracts. Well now we're free of these, and have added players who can at least provide the same level of production. And if a farmhand proves he needs to play on le Grand Club, we'll have a much easier time clearing a roster spot for him.
So instead of seeing our situation as being "stuck in neutral", I prefer to see it as developing pieces on the chessboard. Sure, we haven't captured any big pieces or put their King in check, but the last few moves haven't been wasted. Now our knights are in the middle of the board ready to strike, our bishops have open lanes, and our rooks are free to wreak havoc. It may not be spectacular to the casual observer, but these tactical moves allow us to now pursue our overall strategy.