Saturday, 20 June 2015

Should Marc Bergevin go for it this off-season to try to win a Stanley Cup next year?

Is it time to 'go for it', capitalize on the window afforded us while Carey Price and Max Pacioretty are on cap-reasonable deals?  In theory, it makes sense, but I don't know if it's practical, possible.

For instance, doesn't P.K.'s $9M cap hit instantly negate this advantage?

For starters, going all-in would require a deft trade, almost an outright steal, whereby we get a great #1 centre, a scoring winger, but not giving up any high picks or 'untouchables', your Lars Ellers and Mike McCarrons and up.  That's the kind of X-box trade Marc Bergevin warned us about.

In the olden days, with the Canadiens run by hockey genius Sam Pollock, we could almost rely on these moves, but that was with other teams run by clowns, on a shoestring.  For years the Canadiens feasted because they were trying to actually ice the best team possible, while the Wirtzes ran two of the Original 6 teams as secondary concerns.  For them, hockey games were seat-filler events between profitable boxing and wrestling matches.

Now, every team is trying to win.  There are no, or fewer, crackpot owners like Harold Ballard who actively prevented their team from winning with their shenanigans.  There are no secrets anymore, communications are too good.  If a player is any good, he'll be found, he won't be kept a secret in a backwater.  Things like the 50-contract limit, waivers, the salary cap, they all make the previous Canadiens dynasties improbable today.

Front offices are staffed by capable teams of hockey men.  Mistakes will be made, but it's more on the margins, occasional.

At best, a team will place a correct value on a certain player compared to other teams, like the Flyers did with Claude Giroux, labeling him a first-rounder, while the Habs thought he could be available in the second round.  Or teams will find a player a couple rounds down from where he should have been, or as an undrafted UFA.

But even those teams that luck into Tom Brady make mistakes.  The Patriots get lots of credit for 'finding' him in the 6th round, but that means they ignored him for a few rounds also, drafting the likes of Jeff Marriott, Dave Stachelski, and Greg Randall before him.

The Lightning ignored Tyler Johnson so they could draft Kirill Gotovets and Alex Hutchings in 2009, and Geoffrey Schemitsch and Teigan Zahn in 2010.  Their breakout star was very much an afterthought.

There won't be drafts where one team accumulates Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson one year, and Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Andy Moog the next.  Or Petr Svoboda, Shayne Corson, Stéphane Richer, Patrick Roy drafts.  No Guy Lafleur, Murray Wilson, Larry Robinson drafts.  Not with 29 other teams in the league, all of them with more than a skeleton staff, with more than a Doug MacLean at the helm.

It's much harder to swindle another team now.  You can't be dishonest about your players, that's career suicide.  We see how Marc Bergevin has friends on every team in the league, he's a people person.  He's not going to hide the fact that a player has a bad knee.  Video and MRI's don't lie anyway.

There are good trades to be made, but these will be found to be so in hindsight.  The worst trade the Canucks ever made was when they traded a big young scoring winger they'd drafted in the first round a couple of years before but who wasn't panning out, and the best trade they ever made was when they traded a big young scoring winger they'd drafted in the first round a couple of years before but who wasn't panning out.  Fans bemoan the Cam Neely trade, but conveniently forget how their team transmuted Shawn Antoski, "the next Cam Neely, but bigger and better", into Markus Naslund.

Marc Bergevin says he's always looking to improve his team, that that's his job.  I'm sure he has a lot of lines in the water, he's taking the temperature, and if something comes up at a price he can bear, some objective limit he's set in advance, he'll put the trigger.

I've talked before how in my mind's eye, I can see Bob Gainey, who was ready to throw a lot of players and prospects at the Lightning to pry away Vincent Lecavalier, to finally get that longed-for "gros joueur de centre", the player we've been looking for since the Peter Mahovlich trade, slightly losing his bearings in the process.

He got in trouble when he got rebuffed and turned his sights on Scott Gomez.  He'd habituated to a steep cost in the prior wheeling and dealing, which now felt more palatable, so when he looked into the bargain option of the NYR centre, and Glen Sather asked for Chris Higgins and Ryan McDonagh plus plus, he didn't really blink.

I made the analogy of the process of buying a truck, where you establish you need a crew cab or at least an extra cab, long box, canopy, four-wheel drive, nothing older than ten years, so you have your list and a set cost in mind.  But then you get in the market and you come close on a couple of deals, but instead of the ten grand "Tops!" you were set to spend, now you've crept up in the 12, maybe 15 grand for something nice.  And after test-driving and coming close and missing out a couple times, and needing the damn truck because you've got that contract job starting next week, all of a sudden you need to pull the trigger on something.

So you find a truck in the pennysaver, and it's not exactly what you had in mind, it's a regular cab and two-wheel drive, but you rationalize and think "I'll drive this for a year, instead of three or four, it'll pay for itself, I can flip it next summer for this amount pretty much.  With good winter rubber and some weight in the back do I really need 4WD anyway?"  The good thing is that you can get this for $9500, which is a lot easier to swallow than the $14500 you'd offered for that really nice perfect truck you missed out on.  Man, that was everything you wanted, but this one is kind of nice too...

Before you started the search, you'd never have paid $9500 for this heap though.  At that time you'd have thought you'd pay six or seven for this subpar truck.  But swimming in the $15000 waters for a couple of weeks, now $9500 doesn't look like all that much anymore, it's a positive bargain, in fact...

So you kind of agree on the deal but when you come to pick up the truck and sign the papers, the tape deck is missing from the dash, that's not included, and neither were the winter tires that the seller had mentioned, and you know you're getting jerked around but you're under the gun, you grumble and sneer a little at the seller, but you sign and get the damn truck you need, finally.

That's my explanation to myself for the Scott Gomez trade, Bob Gainey habituated himself to a steep cost trying to land bigger fish, and when he went after smaller prey didn't re-bait the hook.

And I think that's what Marc Bergevin won't fall victim too.  We've seen him be very frugal in trades so far.

We had rumours floating around about P.A. Parenteau for a full season before he landed here, in exchange for Daniel Brière, a centre who didn't fit into the plans.  We heard that he had been interested in Sergei Gonchar for a while, but waited until he could get him at the modest cost of Travis Moen and his unwieldy contract.

Trade deadline deals are turning out to be his specialty.  He landed Thomas Vanek for a second-rounder and a prospect, when past experience showed that such a player usually comes at the cost of a first-rounder plus.  That's what the 'Hawks paid for Antoine Vermette this spring.

This year, the Canadiens got Jeff Petry for a second-round and an eventual fourth-round pick, on the morning of the deadline.  It seems that Marc Bergevin held firm, and was rewarded for his patience.  Compare to the Kings' acquisition of Andrej Sekera, who cost them a first-rounder and prospect Roland McKeown, a 2014 second-rounder.

So I'm sure Marc Bergevin has tested the waters on Joe Thornton and Eric Staal, on James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul.  He's checked the price tag, figured out what's close to affordable.  He's made his pitch.

In both the Thomas Vanek trade and the Jeff Petry trade, in the post-deadline press conference, the Canadiens GM explained that he made his offer the morning of, then waited for the other team to accept or decline.  I don't know too much more than that, but it seems to be his strategy, he figures out with his brain trust who he wants, what he's prepared to pay, then sticks with it.  He doesn't get sidetracked with modifications and throw-ins and codicils, that before you know it land you in a bidding war.

So Marc Bergevin for all we know may have bids out there for high-ticket items.  Or he may have decided that the asking price for the items he seeks is too rich for his blood.

I'm tempted to think that's the extent of it.  He doesn't strike me as a wheeler and dealer, like Paul Holmgren, who was so lauded for getting Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds, until the wheeling and dealing exploded in his face, when the James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn deal didn't look so good anymore, when Scott Hartnell was signed to an instant-buyer's-remorse contract, when he 'won' the Vincent Lecavalier sweepstakes.

Nobody lauds Paul Holmgren anymore on social media, about how he's bold, how he 'goes for it.'

Marc Bergevin has been very clear in his actions and his declarations: the Canadiens will draft and develop their way to success.  As much as it's tempting to see this moment in time as a window of opportunity, I think he's still in the patience mode of his plan.  For the first couple of years he had to outwait the Scott Gomez, Tomas Kaberle, Brian Gionta deals.

Now he has to wait for his farm club to fill up with prospects.  That's not going as quickly as we'd like, but that's the situation we're in.  If you can shed an Andrew Ladd and sub in a Brandon Saad, jettison a Dave Bolland to a sad-sack franchise because you have an Andrew Shaw in the wings, that's the way to succeed in the salary cap NHL.

So he's waiting while he primes the pump.  He needs to be able to make trades from a position of strength, because he has players who are ready to step up, rather than out of desperation.  As the prospects and draft picks amass, he can start wheeling and dealing with more authority, like a poker player with a big stack of chips opposed to some who are worried about whether to ante in.

So should Marc Bergevin go for it, go all in?  Should he try to maximize this window of opportunity, while Carey and Max are on cheap-ish contracts, and while Andrei Markov can still contribute?

The thing is, I don’t think this a real window. Not if we go into the playoffs again with the same lineup at centre.

We can all agree that we’re solid/set in goal, that we’re comparable to most teams on defence.  I just disagree that the pieces are all there for us to be true contenders, to make a run during that window. The underwhelming play of our centres is flagrant.  We need our true #1, notre gros joueur de centre. But we don’t have Keith Acton on hand to flip for Bobby Smith.

I can compare this ‘window’ to the Markus Naslund-Todd Bertuzzi years in Vancouver. They were both veterans, and the thinking was that they had three or four seasons where they could drag a team to the Cup based on their dominance alone, along with Bryan McCabe and Ed Jovanoski among others.

Except every season their centre was Brendan Morrison, a nice player in a Tyler Bozak or Adam Henrique way, but not the kind of guy who you’d want centering two All-Stars.

And in goal was Dan Cloutier, a guy who was described as an emotional and scrappy goaltender, but never as a guy who could win you a series on his own.

Those two big holes on the roster existed year after year, I’m sure that GM Brian Burke tried to shop around for upgrades, but always played it cautiously and stood pat, returned with the same basic roster. And they’d get bounced out early.

I think that Canuck window was an illusory window, they didn’t have the horses to get there. A few great players, sure, but not a great Stanley Cup-worthy team.

I feel the same way after this year's playoffs.  Watching David and Tomas being ineffectual, David getting hooked and crosschecked and mugged, and watching Tomas miss passes and commit uncharacteristic gaffes for a seasoned veteran, I conclude that we are in such an illusory window.

It’s like we’re at the bottom of a snowy road, and we’ve tried four or five times to skid our way up, the tires spinning and humming, and we get close a couple of times, we think we’re there, but then we stall and start to slide sideways and backwards, and we have to go back to the bottom, take another run up, slip and slide and fishtail, and almost make it…

At some point, we have to understand that this ain’t going to work, we need to go back home and put on the snow tires, even if theoretically it’s going to take more time. We have to realize that practically, that’s the only way we’re getting up that hill. The loss of time is immaterial, because we weren’t going to get up with the next try, or the one after that. Taking the time to go back home to re-shod our car is actually an investment, the only way to go.

If we take a step back next year, if we miss the playoffs, so be it. We’ll have invested the time in developing players, and get a better draft pick in June.

So no, we shouldn't 'go for it', let's keep drafting and developing and building organizational depth.  We're not there yet.

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