Pierre Gauthier has been an unusually busy man this off-season, re-signing many of the team’s key players, adding Erik Cole and Peter Budaj to the fold and making a slew of other depth acquisitions. With all of the activity surrounding the organization, our writers were more than anxious to chime in. In this HW Mailbag, we discuss the Canadiens two major signings and whether or not the team has any more needs to address.
1) What are your feelings on the Erik Cole signing?
Michael Bitton: It’s a great signing. It’s an overpayment but if you don’t overpay on July 1st you don’t get the players you want. With Montreal’s young players capable of outplaying their contracts, Gauthier needed to add a top six forward to give this team a chance of contending. People are going to pick Montreal to finish 7th-10th out of habit but I think Montreal’s virtually a lock to make the playoffs even though some other Eastern teams have also improved. For over a decade the Canadiens have been criticized for lacking a power forward up front. Now, with Cole, Pacioretty, and Kostitsyn, Montreal should have one physical forward on each of their top 3 lines. They now have seven legitimate top 6 forwards by my count (two 1st liners, five 2nd liners), and with a healthy Markov, I don’t expect the team to struggle offensively the way they did last season. The salary is a bit high and the term is a year too long but in Cole’s final year he’ll be more like a Spacek than a Gomez – and every team has their Spacek every year.
Matt Dilworth: It is hard to fault Gauthier for going out and acquiring the one true element this team has lacked for so long: a big power-forward that can go to the net and score goals. The question is: was the cost too high? Erik Cole certainly fills Montreal’s needs at forward, and I believe that these characteristics (plus his broken neck history) will be beneficial to the budding power-forward Max Pacioretty. Additionally, aside from his stint in Edmonton, Cole has been a consistent 20-goal scorer, and should provide at minimum, secondary scoring. However, this package does come with risk as Cole has had his issues with injuries, missing large portions in all but 3 seasons, and has struggled playing with anyone not named Eric Staal. But, in the end, although I can’t help but think that this contract is one year and $1M too much, it will be well worth the price it took to pry him out of Carolina.
Brian La Rose: The contract is too long and for too much, but it’s a move that the Habs needed to make and it took that type of overpayment to lure him from Carolina who matched Montreal’s original 3 year, $12 million offer. When you look at the list of who was out there, how many prototypical proven power forwards were out there? The list basically started and ended with Cole. I don’t think he’s going to put up a ton of points (I’m thinking 40-45 if he stays healthy) but his physical presence and size will bring a lot more to the table than the stats may suggest. The fourth year could prove to be cumbersome but a lot can happen between now and then.
Louis Moustakas: Erik Cole, for the most part, can be relied on to play over 60 games, produce over 40 points and be amongst team leaders in hits. Although he is not the most prolific scorer, he adds the long-coveted physical element to Montreal’s scoring lines. However, as I have stated before, his dismal playoff figures, 14 points in 43 games, are of concern to me. Ultimately, I will only be truly sold on this signing if he puts up a decent showing in the post season.
Norm Szcyrek: Great FA signing. Cole is a well known Habs-killer, and to get one of them into the fold where he can put that extra level of commitment against the opposition, can only help. To boot, he’s a power forward, great skater, and a tireless worker. The signing is all positive.
Michael Richard: The Cole signing definitely addresses a need on the team, that being a physical forward. He played all 82 games last year which is a good sign. He also had 52 pts and 26 goals which would have been 2nd on the Canadiens in both categories. The one thing that makes me nervous about the deal is that it’s for 4 years and he’ll be 33 years old in November. The money is reasonable for the market but for someone who’s had serious injuries and concussions in the past, the term may come back to haunt us.
2) Is Peter Budaj a better option than Alex Auld?
Michael Bitton: Yes. The difference in Budaj and Auld’s salaries probably accurately reflect the very minor difference in their abilities as a backup but I am more confident in Budaj’s ability to play a half dozen games in a row in case Price suffers a minor injury. Auld did his job last season and finished with a solid record but most of his starts were against weak teams and he never looked great in goal. Avalanche fans that watched Budaj play last season don’t seem to think much of his current abilities so he’s hardly a #1 goalie but he should at least be a solid back up. By all accounts, he is just as much of a team player as Auld is.
Matt Dilworth: Absolutely. Auld was positively sheltered by Martin and was only played minimally and against easy opposition. As a result, Carey Price played a franchise-high 72 games without the benefit of any “gimmes” in net. Sure, Price may have risen to the occasion and carried the Canadiens to the playoffs, but is this something we want him to repeat every season? I’d be content to see Price see 5-10 less starts, with some easier opposition throughout the season. Although Budaj is coming off a dismal year (but who isn’t in Colorado?), I have more faith in his abilities that Auld’s to win a few games against tougher opposition. I believe that Martin will feel the same, and won’t be as reluctant to lighten Carey’s workload. The Canadiens will be better with the option of Budaj in net.
Brian La Rose: Without question, he’s a better option and a better fit. Don’t interpret that as a slight against Auld who did everything asked of him last year but Budaj has shown before he’s capable of playing more than just every fifth game or so. He’ll be on a better team now and will finally have a chance to work with a full time goalie coach (the Avs only have part time goaltending consultants) so it’s reasonable to expect he’ll be better this year. Most backups that hit the UFA market generally aren’t considered to have upside but Budaj was one of the few exceptions. The coaching staff should feel more confident playing him more often; giving Carey Price a little more rest certainly should help over the course of the year.
Louis Moustakas: Peter Budaj is accustomed to heavier workloads, having played over 34 games in six of the past seven seasons. On top of that, he has extensive experience at both the World Championship and Olympic levels. He may have had a mediocre season in Colorado, but all signs point to Budaj being far more capable of handling tougher opposition and a heavier workload. While his and Auld’s career numbers are similar, it is worth noting that the Slovak has had a much steadier career. Auld, on the contrary, has played for 8 different clubs and was in the minors as recently as 2008. While he enjoys the reputation of being a good teammate and serviceable backup, there is usually a good reason when players bounce around the league as much.
Norm Szcyrek: Aside from last season, Budaj has been a decent goaltender in the NHL. Alex Auld was inconsistent when he was called upon to relieve Price, who had to bail him out a few times. The Habs brass must believe in Budaj more, since they offered him a 2 year contract.
Michael Richard: Auld did an admirable job last season but Budaj is definitely an improvement. He’s had the #1 role before and has played over 50 games in a season twice so if, God forbid, anything should happen to Price he is a capable backup. His numbers weren’t great last season but he has enough experience and a small enough ego to do the job of a backup goaltender.
3) What needs, if any, should Pierre Gauthier seek to address by the start of the season?
Michael Bitton: There are no pressing needs but I think it’s likely a 13th/14th forward is added, ideally a veteran center with some size and face off ability. The decision will probably come down to whether Gauthier feels one of Trotter and Engqvist are good enough to fill that spot. I don’t see any other defensemen coming. A top 6er would bump Emelin onto the bench – a turn of events that might have him quickly return to the KHL – and a depth D isn’t necessary with Weber, younger and cheaper, already in that spot. I do believe in the rumours that Gauthier is open to making a trade that would bring in an upgrade on Kostitsyn but it’s hardly a desperate situation and I don’t think any trade will happen.
Matt Dilworth: Although there are many areas on which Gauthier could improve upon, I think realistically he needs to work on two areas. Assuming that Josh Gorges and Ryan White are signed to the big club, I think Gauthier should seek some help for the 4th line and sign some veteran depth on defense. With the loss of Jeff Halpern, we are left with a vacancy on the bottom line, which would likely be filled by Andreas Engqvist if the season started tomorrow. What is needed though, barring an impressive rookie performance, is a RH centre with the ability to play some tough defensive minutes and win some face-offs. Last year, the insertion of Halpern allowed Tomas Plekanec to take a breather on the PK on occasion, thus permitting him to play his offensive game in the other team’s zone. If this need isn’t addressed, look for Plekanec’s offensive numbers to dip as his defensive zone time increases.
It is well-known that Montreal’s blue line has consistently decimated by injuries of late, and odds are that Gauthier will have to sign some defensemen at some point during the season. For me, it would make more sense to have that player in the fold from the outset, rotate him into the lineup throughout the season as needed, and thus provide some rest for the veterans while hopefully decreasing the probability of injury. I would like to see Paul Mara in this role. He has shown that he is a great team guy, can play tough minutes, and has accepted sitting out multiple games at a time. Factor in his physical presence, and I think that the Habs could do much worse with Mara as the 8th D.
Brian La Rose: Personally, I’d feel a lot more confident with another depth defenseman in the system. I thought they had the perfect one in Alexandre Picard (who went and signed a two-way deal in Pittsburgh) but obviously they wanted to go in another direction. There are no guarantees with rookies and as much as we want to see Alexei Yemelin and/or Raphael Diaz succeed, they are rookies and there will be growing pains. Having another veteran buffer would be useful, particularly if they can find one who addresses the toughness concerns at the same time. Up front, it would be nice to see them add another top-9 forward but Gauthier would be wise to wait for a while and see who’s still available (and willing to take a lesser deal) come mid-late August. There’s no need to spend to the cap right away, having some extra space could really come in handy during the season.
Louis Moustakas: Like the majority of my colleagues, I am of the belief that a bottom-six forward would be a useful acquisition. After all, with the departures of Jeff Halpern, Tom Pyatt and Benoit Pouliot, there are clearly some holes to fill in that area. It seems somewhat unfortunate that players like Eric Bélanger and Max Talbot signed elsewhere, as they both would have fit the bill nicely. The fact remains that francophone talent is an important consideration for the franchise and, at the moment, local content on the team is very low. The aforementioned players represented wonderful opportunities for management to kill two birds with one stone. Remaining Quebec natives such as J.P Dumont and Steve Bernier are intriguing, but do not necessarily fill any sort of glaring need.
Norm Szcyrek: The Habs could use more depth on defense. Both Markov and Gorges have had serious knee surgeries, the type that takes a certain amount of time to heal, as Markov found out last fall. I predict that another veteran will be signed for close to the league minimum.
Michael Richard: The goaltending and defense are in good shape so a forward should be the priority. Any type of forward that can score goals is always welcome but they don’t come cheap so an area that can be addressed without blowing the budget is a player to take face-offs. Jeff Halpern and Max Lapierre were the only two players to be over 50% last year and they’re both gone. Is Yanic Perreault still playing?