Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Burying Gomez

As far as hockey news is concerned, we're firmly into the dog days of summer.  I'm relatively certain things just shut down whenever Bob McKenzie decides to go to his cottage, leaving us plenty of time to speculate on what the Habs roster will look like next season.  One of the more interesting questions, of course, revolves around what to do with Scott Gomez.  While many won't be happy until he's centring the first line for the 2013 Calder Cup Champion Hamilton Bulldogs, I actually believe that sending Gomez down to Hamilton would be a mistake.  It's important to look at this issue from two angles.  First, one must examine what Scott Gomez brings to the Canadiens in terms of on-ice contributions.  Second, if you do decide to bury his contract in Hamilton, you have to look at what can be done with the cap space you've freed up.  Gomez's positive on-ice contributions, combined with the dearth of quality free agent options available, make sending him to Hamilton a risky proposition.  I advocate that the correct route is the one that Bergevin appears to be taking: patience.
Scott Gomez – Useful Hockey Player
It's easy to mock his two goals from last season, but Scott Gomez is an extremely useful hockey player.  Some very smart people have looked at the numbers (see pieces by Chris Boyle and Cam Charron) in order to assess Gomez's value to the Montreal Canadiens.  Both of those pieces are highly recommended reading, but as a quick summary they both conclude that Gomez is extremely valuable when it comes to driving puck possession.  Teams with positive puck possession numbers tend to be more successful, making the Canadiens a better team with Gomez in the lineup than they are without him.
The easy retort to all this, of course, is that Gomez scored two goals last season.  Scott Gomez, however, clearly isn't a goal scorer.  His contributions lie in other areas of the game.  Justin Bourne points to Gomez as having one of the worst shots in the NHL, but still praises both his playmaking ability and elusiveness.  Cam Charron points out Gomez's high first assist rate, and even a simple "watch-the-game" smell test re-enforces the idea that Gomez has tremendous vision.  Having a poor shot is no excuse for scoring 2 goals in a season, but one would also anticipate that Gomez won't have a shooting percentage of 3.4 next season.  His goal scoring numbers will likely never be pretty (as Bourne points out, he's only topped 20 once in his career), but it might be smarter for everyone to simply recalibrate their expectations instead of expecting higher goal production.  As noted in the pieces linked to above, Gomez's contributions lie in other key areas.  While they may not be as evident as a flashy goal total, they're still very important.
The one issue I have with Cam Charron's piece is that I wouldn't call Scott Gomez under-rated.  I believe that a better label for Gomez is "under-appreciated".  Even if you're not a believer in advanced stats, you'd have to admit that Scott Gomez has an ability to carry the puck into the opposition end that's unmatched on the Montreal Canadiens.  I think that, at a certain level, most Habs fans are smart enough to recognize this and appreciate that Gomez is a talented player.  I'd go even further and say that most Habs fans probably aren't too surprised by the findings in the pieces by Boyle and Charron.  It's impossible to appreciate Gomez's contributions, however, because it's too easy to see a cap hit north of $7MM and ignore everything else.  Gomez's abilities, however evident they may be, are impossible to appreciate in the context of how much production one should get from what roughly amounts to 10% of your cap space.  While this is perfectly understandable, it shouldn't be allowed to take away from the fact that these contributions are both real and, while not worth $7MM, valuable.
What to do with the cap space?
As noted above, figuring out what to do with Scott Gomez is really a two-part question.  It's important to note that, as it stands, the Habs have $6.3MM in cap space with only Subban left to re-sign.  It's entirely possible for the Habs to keep Gomez in the fold without having to sacrifice anything from the current lineup.  If you still determine he's not worth wasting a roster spot on at his current cap hit, you need to have a plan for what's to be done with the additional cap space.  Like it or not, the Montreal Canadiens are an appreciably better team with Scott Gomez in the lineup.  You can't just pluck Gomez out of the lineup and hope for the best; there needs to be a clear plan in place.
Looking at the free agency pile, there aren't many options out there.  The Canadiens' most obvious need at the moment is a top 6 winger, specifically one who can slot in with Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec on the left wing.  It appears that Bergevin isn't interested in Alex Semin, who is unfortunately a right winger anyway, but beyond him there aren't many options I'd be interested in touching.  I'm sure a lot of people are intrigued by the possibility of Shane Doan, but the term and money that he's rumoured to be looking for (on a 35+ deal!) are insane.  The idea of a 38 year old Doan one day hobbling around the Bell Centre ice making 6 million a year isn't necessarily attractive.  Before anyone throws out the argument that he's a "character" guy or a "leader", it should also be noted that Doan is a bit of a cheap shot artist.  A simple YouTube search can easily confirm this, and he's not exactly the type of player I'm excited to be rooting for.  If the point of clearing up Gomez's cap hit is just to double down on another bad contract, then as a fan base we'd be right back where we started.
The other option would be, presumably, to free up the cap space to bring in a guy via trade.  Top 6 wingers aren't often available via trade, but one name that seems to be popping up a lot in rumours is Bobby Ryan.  The issue here, though, is simple: what trade assets do the Habs really have?  There's this idea, which I blame on the ridiculous trades you can pull off in NHL 12 (or in real life if you're Brian Burke), that you can get elite players for what essentially amounts to a hill of beans.  This obviously isn't the case.  If you want quality, you're going to have to be willing to give up quality.  You're not getting Bobby Ryan for Yannick Weber and spare parts just because you're willing to throw in your 2nd round pick.  The Habs have plenty of interesting prospects in the system, but projecting prospect success is always going to be risky.  You're likely going to need to send back an NHL ready guy, and Rene Bourque isn't going to cut it.  This is really just a matter of personal opinion, but I'm also not willing to give up a guy like Lars Eller without first seeing what he can do playing on a line with actual hockey players.  The fact that many teams will be willing and able to outbid the Habs, combined with the fact that it's not entirely clear how successful Bobby Ryan can be when separated from Getzlaf and Perry, make the trade route somewhat unrealistic in terms of landing a bigger money, top 6 guy.
The only real option with Scott Gomez is patience.  I can't imagine that anything will be done before the CBA is finalized, as pretty much any plan depends on the contents of the new agreement.  Even if you want to simply get rid of Gomez, burying bad contracts in the AHL could easily be phased out.  While the possibility of an amnesty clause has been bandied about by some, it's far from a guarantee.  Until you really know what your options are, it would be impossible to proceed in any way with Gomez.
The option everyone seems to discount offhand is a trade.  While I'm definitely in the minority on this issue, I don't think a trade is completely out of the question.  This is obviously a CBA dependant question, but the salary cap floor as it currently stands is relatively high.  Scott Gomez will have a cap hit of $7,357,143 for the next two season, but his actual salary will be $5,5MM in 2012-13 and $4,5MM in 2013-14.  Considering how useful of a player he can be, a team looking to boost their cap number for the next two seasons at a discount could certainly do worse, especially considering he'd be available essentially for free.
Let's be clear: Scott Gomez is obviously not worth his cap hit, and this piece should in no way be construed as advocating otherwise.  Not being worth a $7MM cap hit, however, should not be confused with not being a decent hockey player.  Scott Gomez contributes positively to the Montreal Canadiens when he's in the lineup.  The Habs cannot afford to simply remove what he brings to the table without having a solid plan in place to replace him.  Doubling down on another bad contract would bring us right back to square one, and considering the free agent options available that seems to be the only other possibility.  Habs fans may not like it, but if nothing else can be done with the cap space, having Gomez start the year in a Habs sweater is likely the best option.
Cap numbers via Capgeek – http://www.capgeek.com

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Bergevin's July 1

Eric Engels started off his column on Hockey Buzz today by making a great point, and one well worth remembering.  Engels pointed out how, only 5 days into the opening of unrestricted free agency, it's far too early to assess or criticize the work that Marc Bergevin has done.  We have no idea what the team's lineup will look like on opening night, and until then it's impossible to evaluate the team that Bergevin is trying to build.  For the most part, I agree with Engels on this.  With that said, however, I feel a lot can be gained from looking at what Marc Bergevin chose to prioritize on July 1.  By signing guys like Armstrong, Prust and Bouillon on the first day of free agency, Bergevin sent a clear message that he felt the Habs lacked "character" and needed to get tougher in order to win.

First off, I'd like to address the perception that the Habs somehow had a need in those areas.  In my opinion, twitter user @felixpotvin put it best.  Loosely paraphrased, he tweeted on July 1 that "if your biggest need is your 4th line, congratulations, you just won the Stanley Cup".  The Habs didn't finish 15th in the East last year because they didn't have enough players willing to drop the gloves.  Almost every piece I've read on the subject has indicated that fighting in no way impacts the momentum of the game.  The Habs finished 15th last year because they misused their personnel, and simply did not have enough guys capable of driving play effectively.  It's commonly said that you win with guys like Prust (or Moen, or any other tough "hard-working player").  It's all well and good to have "grit" guys like them, but hockey is still about scoring more goals than the opposition.  You don't win with guys like Prust; you win with high-skill players producing at an extremely high level.  The Boston Bruins didn't win the Stanley Cup because they had a lot of tough players on their team.  They won because they had a lot of people who are very good at playing hockey.
The real issue is that players like Prust should represent the cheaper, interchangeable parts of your roster.  You can get Brandon Prust's production from plenty of players without committing 4 years and 10 million dollars on July 1.  This isn't to knock Brandon Prust; from what I can see the guy played some tough minutes last year and didn't get killed.  Brandon Prust, however, is going to be available in some shape or form all summer for about 1 million less in salary and far less term.  Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong and Francis Bouillon are all useful players.  They are not, however, players you should ever feel the need to chase on July 1 and overpay. 
Outside of clich├ęs and platitudes, I don't even see what the point of having a "tough" 3rd line is.  The commonly used explanations are that "it's good to have some (sandpaper/jam) in the lineup", or "you need to be able to grit out a few goals and get to the dirty areas".  It's all well and good to say these things, but there's no evidence that these expressions mean anything.  I would have much rather seen a 3rd line that could be dangerous offensively (for example, Bourque-Eller-Leblanc) and force the other team to spread their defensive responsibilities a little thin.
This isn't me knocking Bergevin for not going and signing some amazing top 6 forward on July 1.  I understand free agency isn't that simple, and that when the time comes Bergevin will likely address that need.  I'm also not saying I won't cheer for these guys; odds are I'll be just as excited as everyone else whenever Prust does anything.  My issue is that these signings weren't ones that needed to be done right away.  The Habs have plenty of players who can fill the roles that Prust and Bouillon are going to be asked to fill.  Everyone understands that you incur a premium when you sign someone on July 1.  I don't see any evidence that these guys are worth paying that premium for.