The departure of Jaroslav Spacek from Montreal subverted the idea for this story before I got it started.
The Montreal Canadiens have been a middle of the road team this season and for most of their recent history. They have some good pieces; Carey Price, Mike Cammalleri, P.K. Subban for example. They also have a good quantity of dead wood that needs be cleared out, replaced and improved upon before this team is ready to challenge for, let alone win a Stanley Cup.
Despite the exciting playoff run in 2010, when they managed to knock off the President's Cup Trophy winner and the defending Stanley Cup champions in exciting back-to-back seven-game series, this Montreal lineup really needs a miracle to win a Stanley Cup.
I have listed the players that I think have to be replaced or will be replaced, in order from those that are least important to be removed to the most important. The lineup needs to be improved in these eight spots for the team to become a legitimate and hopefully enduring Stanley Cup contender.
The tiny, perfect captain of the Montreal Canadiens was signed to a five-year contract back in 2009. Bob Gainey had of vision of Gionta reuniting with old New Jersey Devil linemate Scott Gomez and managing to generate that 2005-06 offensive magic (82 games played, 48 goals, 41 assists.)
Unfortunately Gomez has turned out to be a bust, and Gionta has generated offensive numbers more reflective of the rest of his career than that one great season.
Gionta has scored 28 and 29 goals, en route to 46 points in each of his first two seasons in Montreal. He led the sniper-starved Habs in goal scoring both of those years. However, the 46-point total isn't really enough from a top-six forward.
Gionta was supposed to be a top-six forward, not just a first-line player for Les Canadiens. At age 32 it seems, despite always giving what seems like a great effort, that the 5-foot-7, 173-pound speedster is no longer top-six NHL material. Gionta is currently on pace to score around 20 goals and 40 points, again, if he can get back from his lower body injury soon.
He is perhaps not a player who must go before Montreal can challenge again for a Cup; but he is a player who can't be one of the top-six forwards on a Cup-capable team. He still could provide veteran leadership and depth offense from the third or fourth line.
Despite a glacial skating style and no offensive skills Montreal has gotten good value out of defenseman Hal Gill. Signed to add size and toughness to a tiny Montreal lineup, Gill has taken on the role of mentor in Montreal. He seems to have become the steadying stay at home presence on an increasingly young Montreal defense.
It is time, though, for the practically sessile Gill to think about hanging up the skates and perhaps becoming a defense coach in Montreal after this season. Gill will be 37 in April, and he is getting criminally slow on the ice. He could still contribute as a teacher and mentor, but it is probably the end of the line for him as a player.
The hope has to be Montreal is ready to develop their own young physical defensive defenseman. Jarred Tinordi in his second year with the London Knights was thought to have a chance to be that player. NHL size and more at 6-foot-7, he has been coming along slowly in junior. He already has mastered Gill's offensive style.
It may be a little early to rush to judgment on the returned from Russia Alexei Emelin. The 2004 third-round Canadiens draft pick (84th overall) has spent seven years playing 50-game seasons in Russia and the KHL. He brings a physicality to the defense that is often felt to be sadly lacking in Montreal. If he can catch you he will hit you.
Unfortunately, despite his age (25) and professional experience he seems too slow for the NHL. His decision making process, so far at least, doesn't seem to have been refined yet. On an injury-riddled defense it is still Emelin, who is often the odd man out while younger and much older defenders play.
It is too early to give up on someone I have only seen play a handful of times. He reminds me a little of Russian defenseman and former Canadien, Igor Ulanov, who had some gaping holes in his game as well. Ulanov, however, was a fierce defensman and a punishing hitter and managed to compensate for a lack of offense and speed.
Emelin will have to learn to compensate for his shortcomings. Montreal already has plenty of offensively skilled defensemen willing to cough up the puck. He needs to be safer with it. Right now he is getting moved down the depth chart by a group of young puck-movers. If he doesn't improve soon, he will be pushed right off it.
Poor Peter Budaj has only managed to get into four games this year, as Carey Price is leading the league in minutes played.
It was suggested that the addition of the former starter from Colorado would allow the Canadiens to take a bit of the load off of Price. That hasn't been the case, and Budaj is signed until the end of next season for $1.15 million.
A legitimate, younger backup goalie might fill this spot better for less money. It might be possible to package Budaj in a trade to a team that hasn't twigged yet to the fact that he really isn't an NHL starting goalie.
Budaj won't be around if, and hopefully, when the Canadiens become a Cup contender, because they don't need him to play. If they ever do need him to play he isn't good enough to take on the role.
This isn't a critical problem right now, because Price is healthy and is a work horse; but a better backup goalie is needed. You don't want to work Price into the ground and you need someone who can take over when Price gets hurt.
The talented Markov is beginning to look like he may never play in the NHL again. The latest arthroscopic surgery has him out until January.
Even if Markov can return and contribute, his NHL career doesn't appear to have enough time left in it to participate in a Montreal Canadiens' Cup run. He turns 33 on December 20th, and he has suffered three devastating leg injuries in the last three years.
Right now his is a spot that needs to be filled. The money spent on him could be better spent on another veteran defenseman.
The enigmatic Andrei Kostitsyn is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will be signing somewhere else. Turning 27 in February, he has never managed to match the 26-goal, 53-point season he put up back in 2007-08, his first full year in the NHL.
Kostitsyn is a shooter on a team that has lacked shooters in the past. He is quick and good with the puck. All that said he has nine goals and 14 points in the 21 of Montreal's 32 games he has played in this year.
It would be nice if Montreal could package him with Budaj at the trade deadline and get something in return. A team looking for a depth player with offensive skill could do worse. Perhaps on another team with more talent he could bloom as his brother Sergei appears to have done in Nashville.
Expecting much more than 25 goals or 50 points from Andrei is probably a mistake at this point in his career, but he has always looked like he could deliver more.
The aging, injured Spacek was one of my original inspirations for this piece. Before I managed to write it, he was gone to Carolina in a salary-dumping deal. The Hurricanes shed defenseman Tomas Kaberle and three years of his contract, at $4.25 million a year.
They picked up one year of Spacek. He will be 38 at the end of this season and looks about ready to retire.
His offense lagged and his defense was problematical at best. He was certainly not going to be re-signed in Montreal. The fact that they could trade him, even for an offensive defenseman with Kaberle's shortcomings, was shocking and leaves you feeling anyone is trade-able.
The biggest need in Montreal for years now has been for a first-line center. Tomas Plekanec gives Montreal one of the best and most complete second-line centers in the league.
Scott Gomez was traded for in the 2009 offseason to be the team's No. 1 center. A fast skater and very good playmaker, Gomez just hasn't been able to fill the role as No. 1 center in Montreal.
His first year saw him score a miserable 12 goals while setting up 47 more. Last year, his seven goals and 31 assists made him one of the worst offensive investments in ice time in the league.
This year, he has been hurt for much of the season. However, when healthy he has bumped down the depth chart, until he was playing as the third- or fourth-line center. At this rate, he will play himself off the roster before the year is out.
Perhaps the poorly aging Gomez (only 32 on December 23rd) could have found himself a spot on the fourth line as a depth player who could generate some offense from back there. His cap hit at $7.357 million a year makes it impossible for the team to employ him in that spot. That money needs to go towards finding that first-line center and signing players who are contributing in Montreal.
Look for Gomez to spend the last two years of his contract in Hamilton. He has a limited no-trade contract, but he can be moved.