Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vincent Lecavalier as a Hab? Looking at both sides...

With the talk of Gomez not panning out (23 games into his contract!), the Lecavalier trade talk has come up again, partly because of the emergence of Steve Stamkos in Tampa as their next superstar. Stamkos is young, he was in drafted in 2008 and after having a rough rookie campaign, turned the sophomore jinx on his head with a brilliant 2nd season, making Lecavalier seem a little superfluous with his recent injury troubles and declining season stats in his last 2 seasons. I should mention at this point for pure comparison, Vincent Lecavalier is 7.7 on the annual salary cap hit until 2020, Scott Gomez is a cap hit of 7.3 million until 2014.

Lecavalier is a very rare breed of French Canadian in the NHL today, he is a star player. He is the only star French-Canadian forward to be drafted first overall since Turgeon and Lemieux in the 80s. Quebec has fallen off the hockey map in producing star players, while the 50s were dominated by the Richards, Plante, Beliveau, Bouchard, Geoffrion, the 60s again by Beliveau, Henri Richard, Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Laperriere, Provost and Tremblay, then the 70s by Lemaire, Cournoyer, Lapointe, Savard, Lafleur and Henri Richard. Three decades when the NHL was much smaller but somehow, a handful of French Canadians in Montreal would terrorize the entire league. Right now there are four what I would call, Impact French Canadian players in an NHL that spans over 700 players, 30 teams when the population of Quebec is over 7.5 million people. Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Marc-Andre Fleury and Martin Brodeur, each of these players can change the outcome of games by their own inspired play and ability. The rest are not, Simon Gagne has hit 40 goals twice, but seems a natural winger with a scoring touch but not a gamebreaker, Daniel Briere has more glass in him than a 15th century Roman Catholic Cathedral and Derrick Brassard in Columbus is too early to tell.

Quebec hockey seems to be suffering and there doesn't seem to be an easy solution or a pipeline of young talent to solve that. There is talk that French Canadian players are generally too small, that the Quebec junior leagues don't introduce hitting early enough to prepare players for it, the raw talent doesn't exist, the talk is endless and the issue should be addressed but I have no idea how to fix it so I won't bother trying to. Bottom line, there are few French Canadian players who can live up to the expectations of the Montreal Canadiens fans, who were spoiled endlessly by a parade of giants in Habs uniforms for decades and now dream of a new Beliveau, Rocket Richard or Lafleur on the roster. Lecavalier seems the natural fit, Brodeur is closer to retirement than anything else, Marc-Andre Fleury is happy in Pittsburgh and Martin St. Louis has seven years on Montreal's potential 40-goal man Mike Cammalleri and adds no size to the team, which is a weakness in Montreal's Top 6 group. Montreal seems to need a big centre to bolster their top two lines and Lecavalier could be the ticket.

Let's consider what a "Big" centre is for a team first though, let's say for argument, 6'2" and no less. For the top 25 scoring centres in the NHL last season we have the following details.
- I am excluding Kessel and Franzen from the listing, as they mostly played wingers in their last season, I am replacing them with Nik Antropov and Ryan Kesler from the 26th and 27th positions on the list.

1. PIT Evgeni Malkin, 6'3", 113 points - Age: 23
2. PIT Sidney Crosby, 5'11", 103 points - Age: 22
3. DET Pavel Datsyuk, 5'11", 97 points - Age: 31
4. ANA Ryan Getzlaf 6'4", 91 points - Age: 24
5. BOS Marc Savard, 5'10", 88 points - Age: 32
6. WSH Nicklas Backstrom, 6'1", 88 points - Age: 22
7. SJS Joe Thornton, 6'4", 86 points - Age: 30
8. PHI Jeff Carter 6'3", 84 points - Age: 24
9. VAN Henrik Sedin 6'2", 82 points - Age: 29
10. PHI Mike Richards, 5'11", 80 points - Age: 24
11. DAL Mike Ribiero, 6'0", 78 points - Age: 29
12. CAR Eric Staal, 6'4", 75 points - Age: 25 - x
13. OTT Jason Spezza, 6'3", 73 points - Age: 26
14. ATL Todd White, 5'10", 73 points - Age: 34
15. BOS David Krejci, 6'0", 73 points - Age: 23
16. SJS Patrick Marleau, 6'2", 71 points - Age: 30
17. BUF Derek Roy, 5'9", 70 points - Age: 26
18. CHI Jonathan Toews, 6'2", 69 points - Age: 21
19. TBL Vincent Lecavalier, 6'4", 67 points - Age: 29
20. MIN Mikko Koivu, 6'2", 67 points - Age: 26
21. LAK Anze Kopitar, 6'3", 66 points - Age: 22
22. NJD Travis Zajac, 6'3", 62 points - Age: 24
23. FLA Stephen Weiss, 5'11", 61 points - Age: 26
24. ATL Nik Antropov, 6'6", 59 points - Age: 29
25. VAN Ryan Kesler, 6'2", 59 points - Age 25

Now let's start striking off these players by why they can't work when we talk about a Big centre helping bring a Stanley Cup in Montreal, I'll leave Crosby out of the "Big" exclusion because he's Crosby, Backstrom is 6'1" so he gets a pass too because he's so good.

1. Datsyuk, Savard, Richards, Ribiero, White, Krejci, Roy, Weiss, that is eight players out of 25 eliminated on size and Ribiero's a double foul because he couldn't hack it in Montreal. That's 17 left.
2. Thornton, Antropov and Marleau are playoff ghosts, we're now down to 14. Antropov's pretty flaky in regular season as well.
3. Kopitar has never seen the playoffs, Henrik Sedin has only one good playoff season, Carter has had two flat playoff appearances out of 3 times he's made it there, Kesler has 4 points in 11 playoff games. That's 10 now, if we're going to really pick apart what we need, we need a star who's playoff-ready.
4. Malkin, Crosby, Toews, Getzlaf, Staal, Backstrom, Koivu are all Franchise players and vital to the future of their teams. No trade can be made for Malkin and Crosby without it involving holding Ray Shero and Mario Lemieux's wives being held hostage. Toews is the face of the Blackhawks and serves as their Captain and quite well at that, Getzlaf is the future of the Ducks up front. Staal is the Hurricanes when it comes to the forwards, especially with Brind'amour in the twilight of his career. Nicklas Backstrom is the No. 1 centre in Washington, he and Ovechkin could have 100-point seasons together for five years or more in a row and there's talk about him as a future captain, he's not going anywhere. Mikko Koivu is the leader of the Wild as they try to transform their team to a more offensively-minded game and he has solid two-way abilities, the bigger Koivu with more durability. Any deal involving those Franchise players would be a ransom of prospects, picks plus giving up Price or Markov in the deal and that means the team loses their Star D-Man or Goalie for the Star of the forwards, so the team's still in a hole in another area or the team just says "no way in hell are we giving this guy up!" So that leaves the last three contestants in "Montreal's next Top Centre!"

That leaves Lecavalier, Spezza and Zajac left over. Spezza is not a very defensively minded centre and would likely command an exchange of Markov or Price, or two high-value forwards in return and that puts a deep hole into Montreal's Top-6 forwards with 2 going for 1 or a hole in one of the other two areas. Zajac is nearly point per game this season, but has 42, 34 and 62 points in three earlier seasons and I can't say he's ever really impressed me.

Lecavalier works for Montreal the most in these trade talks because Tampa is really looking for a way to relieve their financial issues and having Lecavalier until he's 40 doesn't help them there. If Gomez and he were to switch sides, that gives Tampa a five-year hit rather than a 10-year hit on the cap and if they are desperate enough, they can buy out Gomez for the last 2 years of his contract if he really weighes them down. Now on the flipside, if Lecavalier becomes an underachiever in Montreal, that's on us but at this point, how many big, top scoring centres are there available that don't command a king's ransom in trading for? The team would have to tank to get a No. 1 centre in the draft and even that's no guarantee. I'm not huge on this acquisition but it does give Montreal the big centre that they've lacked for years and would at least give RDS a legit francophone star to rave about.

There are drawbacks, Lecavalier has battled injury of late and his scoring touch seems to be a bit off, with only 5 goals in 25 games for a former 50-goal scorer, although with 16 assists as well he is a step up on Gomez certainly. Although I find it hard to believe a player of Lecavalier's talent is 'spent' and can't become at least a 70-point, if not 80-point player at least until his mid-thirties with the right teammates and coaching. Lecavalier has a fondness for Tampa Bay and the low-pressure atmosphere of playing there, being the star in the toughest hockey market in the NHL for underperforming players is not a picnic and he may not want to invite such trouble, he has a life in Tampa and he may not feel like uprooting, he does have a no-trade clause in his contract as well so he could kill the deal anyway. Keeping Lecavalier at this cost if he regresses to a 60-point man could be a disaster for Montreal at 7.7 million a year until 2020 or he retires, as at least with Gomez, in five years he's gone and in the last two years if times are desperate, the buy-out option doesn't cripple the team for seven more years.

Trade options for the Gomez/Lecavalier deal

- Gomez for Lecavalier, straight swap, not likely but possible depending upon Tampa's desperation to move him.
- Gomez and two picks, a 1st and 2-rounder for Lecavalier, 2010 isn't that good of a draft year according to most reports and Montreal with most of their players recovering won't be in the Top 10 position for a really high first round pick if they play to their abilities especially if Lecavalier is in the mix. Leaves the 2010 draft a little barren for Montreal, but Lecavalier is a proven player and not a roll of the dice. Tampa could use the picks to their advantage.
- Gomez, with prospects for Lecavalier, P.K. Subban is off the table, he's too vital to the team's future. Not much left, but I'm sure something in the pipe can entice Tampa.
- Gomez, with Pacioretty or a Kostitsyn for Lecavalier, no, no, put down the pitchforks I like Pacioretty as well but if he brings in Lecavalier well that's how it has to be. I said a Kostityn because while I dream of having both of them as the wingers to a big centre like Lecavalier, that leaves the rest of the Top 6 as Gionta/Cammmalleri/Pleks and that's a bit of an undersized line. If a Kostitsyn is moved, Pacioretty can develop to Top 6 potential I believe, move on to the Top 2 lines and we maintain a balanced Top 6 of size and speed. Either deal gives Tampa an extra forward they can develop, a young player with strong potential.

I haven't mentioned Markov or Price because simply, trading a superstar in one area of the ice for one in another doesn't solve the team's problems because then we're missing serious depth in another area.

Lecavalier is one of the less insane deals out there for Montreal to acquire a big, powerful centre with a 70, 80-point season capability based on availability in the market and what it would cost in the trade. He is going to be more of a burden to Tampa now because of the emergence of Stamkos and the need to sign him to a long-term extension with a lot of money involved, not to mention the Hedman contract down the line. Few teams would want to take on his contract, but he could be a great player in Montreal, get the French media to shut up for a while and he does have the skill set to help lift Montreal to contender status. He could be a star player and with a winger like Cammalleri, they could probably put up 90 goals between the two of them.

The market for star big centres is brutal, the solutions these days are overpaying in a trade, tanking for a high draft choice or overspending in free agency and there's no star big centre going into free agency this season besides Jokinen and he's barely tasted the playoffs. There are lesser centres out there, but if we want the big centre everyone always seems to be going on about needing, Lecavalier is not insane if Gainey negotiates a deal like the ones above I suggested. Montreal can't toss in too much for Lecavalier without hurting themselves too much, but if a tough, but acceptable deal is made why not? Lecavalier may not be the cure to all our ills but having him on board certainly couldn't hurt the team's chances in the next several years.

At the same time, Lecavalier is now entering the second half of his NHL career after starting at 18 and this contract counts on his playing until his 40th birthday or so, in which time he will be paid on average 7.7 million a year and that's a big cap hit. He's suffered shoulder injuries and undergone wrist surgery in the last year. Will he hit 50 goals again? I would not wager on it. 80-point seasons? I think for the next five years, but the next ten? Does he want to be a Hab? Maybe, he is a Montrealer, always comes out to play against Montreal and wears No. 4 because of Beliveau.

Lecavalier is a hell of a roll of the dice in terms of trading value and what he does if he has a 10-year stay in Montreal, but he could be what we need. It's not like there are a lot of other big talented centres floating around and considering how hard it is to get a high-profile free agent to come here, the fact that none of our centres in the prospect chart are looking like No. 1 men there's an argument that the Lecavalier trade is the best shot. A home town boy with the size and skill set Montreal could use. The real unknown factor is his ability to fit into the locker room and work with Jacques Martin, a notoriously difficult coach to work for when you're underperforming. Would he wear the C on this team? Is he that capable of a leader to be the Captain of the Montreal Canadiens? Would Martin give it to Gionta or Cammalleri instead, would RDS try and scandalize that?

It's a sticky situation, but sadly, it's actually one of the better possibilities for Montreal in trading terms since there's less of the hacking off your leg in exchange for getting your arm back as opposed to most big centres out there and their trade value since Lecavalier's down in value. The other solution is waiting for a big centre to go to free agency, but given how teams are locking up players these days (if Kovalchuk extends with Atlanta, 2010 FA will be a desert) or tanking for a #1 or #2 pick, there's not much we can do in Montreal except hope that big centre prospects Joonas Nattinen, Andreas Engqvist or Dustin Walsh become phenoms in the next year or two. I would say though, considering how thin the market is, perhaps Gainey isn't a total bum for not getting us a big centre, perhaps he's in the position much of the NHL is in, there just aren't enough to go around, 10 big centres with proven playoff ability for 30 NHL teams and 4 of them play on only two teams.

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