When the Montreal Canadiens punted Brian Gionta and Josh Georges the team not only dumped their most recent captain but two thirds of their most visible leaders. On and off the ice in good seasons, bad stretches of team play, and when coaching came complete with three rings, a master of ceremonies and a big top, these two were a constant part of the equation on the positive side.

When Gionta inked his deal with the Buffalo Sabres, one of the most scrutinized captaincies in the NHL in one of the most intense media markets in the world. The question of who can replace him is a separate one than who should replace him. This isn’t a franchise at the bottom of the well that needs all the publicity it can get. There’s no freshly drafted future of the franchise who has oodles of talent and no bad history to trot out before the media.

Many will point to the flashiest player on the roster in situations like this and say yep that’s the guy!. In which case you’re looking at two or three players, P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Galchenyuk lead that race. Probably in that order. An argument can be made for David Desharnais, who likely lands the francophone vote as well.

Taking a look at each of those candidates many list Subban as the front runner, he’s dynamic, he’s fast, strong, he can score almost at will, he’s young, he seemingly adores the media. On the negative side he’s still got holes in his defensive game, is prone to blowing his top on the ice, and is about the living definition of lightening rod.

Max Pacioretty has been the goal scorer in Montreal for the past few seasons, he’s a bigger body, has a blistering shot and elevates his game against rivals, and at 25 he has years and years ahead of him on the ice. On the negative side not only is he not a local franophone he’s yet another American, has failed in every season of his career to play a full slate of games, and a lot of the penalties he takes can be construed as the “selfish” variety.

Brendan Gallagher is young, smooth skating, possesses a quick shot, willingness to go anywhere for the puck and plays much bigger than his size. From the other perspective, he’s developing a reputation much akin to that of Alex Burrows and Steve Ott, and putting the C on that type of player says things about your franchise. There’s also the notable divisions that have been evident on this team in the last three or four years including the one along age lines.

Alex Galchenyuk has oodles of skill, is a solid powerplay contributor, and may turn into an elite forward. On the negative side you’ve got everything that can be said against Pacioretty and much of what can be said against Gallagher in addition to having the ill grace to have a Russian father.

Skill wise, no one could really fault a choice to honor any of these men. But in a market like Montreal, or any of the other original six markets, it isn’t just about skill. That’s why if I were passing the C along to its next guardian, I’d also consider what their on ice temperament is like, how well respected they are by players around the NHL, and of course looking carefully at where I think the teams window is.

For that reason the obvious choice is none of the above. While giving the captaincy to at least two of those named above would not be a mistake, that doesn’t mean a better choice can’t and shouldn’t be made. That better choice is Tom Plekanec.

The long term deals under the still drying CBA are rolling in. Some of them make great sense, some make no sense. But given how hard line some of the owners were on not signing anyone longer than five years just a few short months ago, the deals are a bit eye opening when taken en-mass.

Matt Duchene is among the newest names to ink a lengthy deal. His five year deal starting July 1, 2015 will be his third contact and see him an unrestricted free agent at age 28.  The second forward taken in 2009, and the third pick overall he is second in scoring only to John Tavares in his draft class. The soft spoken forward out of the Brampton Battalion and Haliburton Ontario has had an up and down career.

A six million dollar contract is certainly not outside the zone of similar players, but it is a bit high and perhaps risky. The two forwards nearest him in scoring from that 2009 draft will both make less when this contract kicks in. Evander Kane in five less games has only two less goals than Duchene, and plays a much more physical game on a team less rich with high draft picks at forward. John Tavares handily leads Duchene in goals, assists, points and has been notably healthier, missing just 3 games since both debuted in the 2009-10 season. In the playoffs Duchene mustered just three assist in what is his only playoff appearance to date. With a lack of consistency, a scary series of injuries that include games lost to knee, ankle, and groin issues, and an inability to separate himself from the pack, a five year six million a year contract before Duchene even enters the final year of his second deal seems poorly thought out by the front office.

Dustin Brown is one of the better know players in the Western Conference, and perhaps the NHL as a whole. Well known both for playing physically and an ability to draw penalties that has earned him a derisive soubriquet “Fall Down Brown” from fan bases other than that of the Los Angeles Kings. While not an explosive scorer, and playing on a defensive minded team Brown taken 13th in the 2003 draft is tenth in scoring, and second in games played eclipsing the next several skaters by more than forty games.

At twenty-eight years old we know who Dustin Brown is, and what to expect of him in any given season. 22-26 goals, 25-32 assists. Add to that more than 275 hits a season, about two minutes of short handed time on ice per night, and a durable body and the Kings captain’s 8 year signing is a bit less risky. It is unlikely. The new deal will keep him locked up until he’s 37, while some might argue he’s slightly overpaid in the early years of the contract that will about even out over the final two or three years. Overall, a reasonable deal. Offensive production might fade towards the end of his deal, but he does enough on the ice that his offense isn’t his primary contribution.

One of the most difficult positions in hockey, in fact the most difficult position to project is goaltender. They take longer to develop than even defensemen and aside from healthy in their teens and early twenties there is nothing that will indicate if a player will play a long time in the NHL or not. This makes signing a goalie to an eight year contract a risk that is hard to even grant “calculated” status. Recent history has shown us Dwayne Roloson go from All Star quality play one season to saying his NHL goodbyes the next year. Steve Mason broke into the NHL and won the Calder on the strength of a 61 game season with Columbus, and a .916sv%.

Tuukka Rask’s contract makes ties him for top paid NHL goalie with Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne. Rask was drafted the same year as Quick and has played less than half as many regular season games, and a third less playoff games. Quick has also notably won a Cup, and been his team key contributor in that crusade. Rask has also worked a very light workload in his NHL career serving mostly as a backup and being sidelined by break downs to a frame that can only be called “spindly”. For some reason the Boston Bruins front office saw fit to give an enormous contract to a goalie who has a serious groin injury on his resume, has tossed teammates under the bus, and had perhaps the most notable temper tantrum in the last decade of AHL hockey.

The normally shrewd Peter Chiarelli made a curious move here. The Bruins aren’t completely without goaltending. Svedberg has adjusted to the North American game quite well, even bringing a level of aggression that would do Ron Hextall proud with him, Malcolm Subban, Zane Gotherberg, and Adam Morrison are all part of the system. And the team has recently found itself to be rich in NHL quality defenseman with the emergence of Krug, Bartkowsi, and Hamilton, not to mention the acquisition of Morrow and other blueliners in the system. I’m a bit baffled by a contract that is about 20% high and long.

If goaltenders are the hardest to project even after they hit the NHL, defenseman are probably the easiest by their mid twenties. That makes the New York Rangers locking up Ryan McDonagh almost a no brainer. The 12th pick of the 2007 draft by the Montreal Canadiens, McDonagh never played for the Habs as he was traded to the Rangers as part of the Scott Gomez fleecing of the Canadiens.

Since breaking into the NHL in his first year out of college he’s played just about every game, and all three of his first seasons under a harsh and demanding coach. How well he’ll adjust to the new head coaches system is anyone’s guess, but head coaches are more easily replaced than star defensemen. The contact will leave him a UFA at age 30.With a cap hit of less than five million a year for defenseman who was averaged 25 minutes a night for each of the last two regular seasons and 26.5 in the last two post seasons, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that Sather and company got a good deal.

Hockey fans and worse the media who cover the NHL tend to focus entirely too much on a small handful of players, and in a league with six hundred or so high end athletes that’s just a shame. Here’s today’s list of players you should take the time to watch.

Jiri  Tlusty:

You’d think that on a team with Semin, E. Staal, J. Staal, that if someone were going to be in the top ten in the NHL in goals, it’d be one of those three, in about that order. Nope Jiri Tlusty has 19 goals this season, Perhaps more interesting is that on a team with a good shot at winning the draft lottery, whose scoring is upside down by 24 goals is a plus 14.  At 18 minutes a night, and playing in all situations, Tlusty will give you plenty of opportunities to watch and appreciate.

 

Vladimir Sobotka

Best known for the type of physical game that you might expect from a guy six inches and forty pounds heavier, the Trebic, Czech Republic native is putting up his offensive season to date. A 2005 draft pick in the 4th round he’s 19th overall in games played in his draft class has always played a smart two way game and can be counted on for an aggressive penalty kill.

Sergei Bobrovsky

A .932sv% across 32 games would be impressive in any NHL goalie. For a guy to rebound from an .899Sv% last season to that is simply staggering. The only guy ahead of Bobrovsky in save percentage is Craig Anderson, who has played half as many games. Arguments for a more important goalie in the NHL, or one who has played better are really tough to make, and even tougher to believe. If you don’t believe in goalie as MVP’s, it might be time to change that belief.

John Tavares

This man is literally more valuable to his team than Malkin or Crosby are to the Penguins, than Toews is to the Blackhawks, or either Sedin is to the Canucks. He might not have the complete game of Toews, or the pull with the referees of Crosby. There is simply no argument that can be made for the Islanders being in playoff position without Tavares playing like Tavares. If you pull him from the lineup for any five game stretch this year they are a lottery team.

Alex Goligoski

When the NHL’s top defensemen are named this guy somehow never comes up. People look at the trade for James Neal he was a part of and dismiss him. This is a bad, bad thing to do. Take a look at who he’s skating with in points among defensemen, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Francois Beauchemin, Kevin Shattenkirk, and then look at how much more efficient he is. Some of those men play with much better forward corps, and almost all of them play several more minutes a night.

The dividing line between the upper echelon of the NHL’s forwards in terms of pay and the merely competent is always sliding upwards. Right now the line is slipping from the five million mark upwards. Without knowing what the next CBA will look like, much less the next two or three annual caps we’ll take a look at the league and who’s earning about twice the leagues average salary or more.

The Southeast division has an interesting topography in terms of forwards who meet this strata. Two teams have no forwards making five million dollars or more a season. The Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets are those two teams, arguably they have forwards who might make it there on their next contracts, The Carolina Hurricanes have just one forward making more than five million dollars a year, and he is the second highest paid player in the division. The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning each have three accounting for about one third of the payroll of each team.

The Disposable:

  • Vincent Lecavalier has fallen far from grace. At one time the arguably best forward in the NHL, certainly top five. A combination of factors has removed him from the elite. Some would argue he’s the only reason there is still a team in Tampa Bay, and there is more than a little truth to that. However, he is not currently earning his salary on the ice. Injuries, lack of NHL quality complimentary players, and chaos on and off the ice in recent years have taken some of the wind out of his sales. If he manages to get healthy for a long period of time and overcomes his limited athleticism before he ages much more he could elevate his play again, but all signs point in the other direction.
  • Alex Semin is a goal scorer. That’s it. And he’s only a goal scorer when he’s healthy and motivated. Which isn’t often. Since entering the NHL in the 2003-4 season he has played in 80 or more games exactly zero times. Three of the six years since returning to the Washington Capitals after a two year trip to Russia around the lockout he has played 65 games or less. He also has a plethora of penalties each year that scream of immaturity and poor preparation. This year three diving penalties, eight hooting, and six tripping penalties. But at 28 years old he’s still young so we should all hold out great hope. He is I believe the only player to be called out by current teammates in the media for lack of commitment,.

The Interesting:

  • Steven Stamkos is an elite goalscorer. As evidenced by taking a slapshot to the face and coming back to play in the same period last year in the playoffs he’s not exactly going to sit unless he’s got to. Unfortunately at this point in his development he’s simply a gutsy goal scorer. He’s not particularly responsible with the puck, he doesn’t kill penalties, his faceoff win percentage is uninspiring, and given the number of PIM’s he manages to rack up without dropping the gloves he may want to work on his temper a bit, or get sneakier.
  • Niklas Backstrom is in this category only because of the giant question mark over his head regarding how good he in the wake of his serious concussion. We’ve seen players like Patrice Bergeron take over a year to fully recover, we’ve seen guys like David Booth come back and never be the same, and we’ve seen guys like Marc Savard who have (likely) had their career ended. Enormously talented, it’s hard to remember this is just his fourth year in the NHL A meteoric rise at Ovechkins side was questioned because of who he was playing with, now it’s clear the synergy between the pair is indeed two way.

The Cream:

  • Alex Ovechkin, down year or not he contributes physically, passes, skates hits, and yeah he can score goals. You can argue he has more to contribute (and he does) all you want, but the truth is he just about single handedly dragged the team into the playoffs in the years before Carlson and Alzner provided defensemen who could play defense. When he’s on he’s incredible, when he’s off he’s disappointing with nearly forty goals.
  • Martin St Louis is the little engine that could, and did, and continues to do. He’s adapted his game to become more of a distributor of the puck in the last several years. He can still score at a more than respectable rate, he’s credited with almost 20 more takeaways than giveaways this season and he’s highly disciplined. Dollar for dollar the best of the $5,000,000 forwards in the southeast division.
  • Eric Staal, like Ovechkin, Staal is not having the best season of his career. He is however the single player in the Southeast division who has been burdened with doing the most with the least for a very long time. Unlike the rest of the $5 million dollar forwards in the division he’s a regular contributor to the penalty kill where he has pretty consistently picked up points since his rookie year.

Arguably, two forwards in the division could join the 5+ club soon. Kris Versteeg of the Florida Panthers, is rather well traveled but has fit in as well in Florida as he seemed to in Chicago. Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets is on the last year of his entry level deal, if he decides to play hard ball in the negotiations or signs a long term deal, he could bounce over the five million mark as well.

The dividing line between the upper echelon of the NHL’s forwards in terms of pay and the merely competent is always sliding upwards. Right now the line is slipping from the five million mark upwards. Without knowing what the next CBA will look like, much less the next two or three annual caps we’ll take a look at the league and who’s earning about twice the leagues average salary or more.

In the Northeast division, there are this year or next only a handful at this salary or more. The Montreal Canadiens have three on the list, Scott Gomez, Thomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta, combining for a cap hit of $17,357,143. The Ottawa Senators have just Jason Spezza making north of five million, and he’s got making a cool seven million with a no trade clause. The second highest paid forward in the division is Thomas Vanek, who along with Pominville are over the threshold for the Sabres. Boston boasts Patrice Bergeron, Brian Rolston and David Krejci. The Maple Leafs lay claim to Mikhail Grabosi and Phil Kessel.

A brief look at the disposable:

  • Gomez is a punchline. He appears to be liked by his teammates, but with 38 points in the 2010-11 season, and a boatload of missed games in the 2011-12 season that’s allowed him to put up 11 points in 38 games, he’s not in anyway living up to his contract. While it’s true no one forced the Rangers to sign him to the contract or the Canadiens to trade for him, he’s unlikely to see another contract worth north of $2million anywhere in the NHL when his deal expires in two more seasons. He’ll be 34 by then and can retire if he chooses having suffered through his $51,000,000 seven year contract.
  • Phil Kessel is exactly the player he was at the end of his second season. He’s a one dimensional goal scorer who disappears for weeks at a time. He shows up and blows the doors off the league working hard for October, showing interest in November and then might as well not exist the rest of the season. He’s shut down on a regular basis by smart defense regardless of it is the top pairing or the third against him. He “didn’t want to be traded” from Boston, and landed in Toronto to the tune of $5,400,000 a year and frequent “Thank You Kessel!” chants. If he did any thing other than score or at least did it consistently all year he’d be an elite player, as it is his contract is dead money December 1st onward.
  • Brian Rolston, while part of his issue is simply not fitting into the plan and system on Long Island, his age has more than a small part in it. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be in the NHL in two years, and how much he plays from now until the end of the season in Boston depends on how fast Horton and Peverley work their way back into the lineup.

 

The interesting:

  • David Krejci is nearly a mercurial as Phil Kessel. He shows up willy-nilly, sometimes for a game, other times for a week or even a month. Then like responsible government he becomes a myth for days, weeks and months at a time. His saving grace is that even if he’s not particularly physical he’s willing to hit, take a hit to make a play and can be counted on not to make reasonable efforts defensively when engaged.  Next year the soon to be 26 year old becomes the highest paid Boston Bruins forward with a cap hit of $5.25m.
  • Brian Gionta may be proof that going from the Atlantic division to the Canadiens is a bad career move. No one would bat an eyelash at the numbers he put up for the Devils and his current contract. Unfortunately when your production drops about 20 percent people tend to notice. Not a complete waste of a contract, but possibly they are putting him on the ice too much. His last year in New Jersey he played about four minutes less per game and produced twenty percent more points, including picking up shorthanded points. Nineteen and a half minutes a night is a lot for any forward. At an even $5m he’s worth watching to see what happens if and when a new coach takes over, especially if the team drafts a high end forward like Filip Forsberg or Alex Galchenyuk who might make the immediate jump to the NHL.
  • Thomas Vanek is another curious case. The last three seasons have seen his numbers spiral. Even if you throw this season where the Buffalo Sabres had more injuries than can be counted out, the last two years are still wanting. He’s got a ton of ability, but is very, very streaky. Realistically he hasn’t much support around him in recent years, and that will drag any one down. But after two 40+ goal seasons, more is needed. Maybe if he’s paired with skilled import Hodgson he’ll revitalize himself.

The cream:

  • Jason Spezza for all the negative press he’s earned over the years is still a very highly skilled center working around the fact he’s been marooned on a team with little NHL talent for the last several seasons. Hometown All Star appearance aside, with one more goal he’ll be the least heralded 30 goal man in the NHL. He’s won almost 54% of his faceoffs this season, won over 56% last season and is over a point per game this season while spending a lot of time on lines with guys you probably can’t name. The Ottawa Senators star center is on the books for $7m a year with a no NTC>
  • Patrice Bergeron in any reasonable version of the universe Bergeron would probably own at least two Selkie trophies. That could finally be addressed this season.  He wins faceoffs, is arguably eclipsed defensively only by Norris trophy winner Zdeno Chara on the Boston Bruins. He’s a former 30 goal scorer who has not often been gifted in terms of his linemates offensive abilities and despite that he’s 6th in total points for the fabled 2003 draft, just 6 points behind Zach Parise, and ahead of a number of big names taken ahead of him like Richards, Carter, Kesler, Eriksson, and Brown among others. He’s taking home $5m with a no movement clause.
  • Thomas Plekanec is living the post Thornton pre-Savard era of Patrice Bergeron’s career in Montreal. There’s very little offensive help and he’s spending entirely too much time on the ice. With almost 21 minutes a night of ice time sucking down his reserves his production would plummet even if there were someone to pass the puck too. More than three of those minutes are spent standing in front of slapshots as he plays and produces points short handed. If I’m going to point to a guy in the league currently “under producing” and say it’s the system or team, it’ him. The $5m and ntc are about what he deserves simply for taking the mess the team is quietly.
  • Mikhail Grabovksi is the newest member of the club. If I were taking over the general managers job in Toronto, immediately after scheduling weekly time with a therapist, I’d put him officially on the teams “untouchable” list. Much like Plekanec or Bergeron he’s a gamer. He shows up ready to play and play hard. He may or may not prove to be as offensively gifted as some of the other players on the list, but he doesn’t take nights off and he brings his game no matter how bad the teams situation is.

The NHL has a lot of players. You’d never know this from the advertising that might mention six or seven, and usually only one or two,  you know who they are. Despite the dearth of mentions of other players worth noting, here’s a few to know. Some are purely fun to watch, some might give you a leg up on your next fantasy hockey league draft. Here’s a few to keep you busy

Adam Henrique: The young New Jersey Devils center has been money in the bank since his call up. He leads all rookie forwards in TOIG. He’s tied for first in assists and third in points on his team. Seems to do just about everything well.

Brad Marchand: Last weeks NHL first star is more than just a pest extraordinaire. Last years playoffs were not a fluke. Watch him handle the puck at full stick extension or two inches in front of his skates. He’s leading the Bruins in goals.

Jarome Iginla: The Calgary Flames captain may seem like an odd player to highlight given that he’s won the scoring title in the past, but It seems the only time you hear about him is when it’s October and he’s having one of his patented slow-roll starts. The guy has been just about a point per game winger his whole career, without ever having a center who could be called a top 20 NHL pivot.

Jared Cowen: Fellow rookie Adam Larsson, teammate of Henrique may be getting what press is spared on newly minted NHL defensemen but Cowen is the real deal. The six foot seven behemoth is a lot faster than many would expect, is climbing the scoring charts. He’s nearing triple digits in hits, is blocking a lot of shots and has more takeaways than giveaways.

Mike Smith:  Don’t look now, but before Smith injured himself he’d climbed to #12 in save percentage and was among the league leaders with 15 wins on the season. The 15 wins had him tied with Quick and Lundquist.