Saturday, June 16, 2007

As Canadien as Possible #5: Second Chances

So today, the news comes down that Sergei Samsonov is, finally, no longer a Hab. Needless to say, all of Habistan was tremendously shocked. I, for one, was so shocked that I almost forgot that I’d already said my farewells to Sammy over four months ago, the first time they tried to unload him (See ‘Elegy for Sergei Samsonov’, on the sidebar, if you care). I have very little to add to my previous comments, given that very little changed between then and now, but it seemed only right to add a few words on this, the most serendipitous occasion of his official release.

Chicago, I think, is a good place for a second chance. It's a good place to try to reassemble the pieces of a shattered hockey career. It’s a big, crowded city where hockey attracts no significant attention, and probably Sammy will find the anonymity comforting at this point. He will play, nightly, in an arena less than half full of very subdued fans, in games that won’t be shown on television, which will receive no more than a brief summary on the bottom of the 6th page of the sports section, right after high school girls’ volleyball. He will not be a celebrity in Chicago, neither will he be an embarrassment. He will not even be interesting. He will play on a team that is not mediocre or borderline but out-and-out bad, but a team that needs his skill and his speed, and has no reason not to indulge him in whatever he thinks he needs to improve. He will be more unique with the Hawks, and he has a clearer and better opportunity (if he can take it) to step up to a more essential role than he ever could have had with the Canadiens. It’s a franchise in deep need of a little redemption, and willing to take some chances to get it. Maybe it’s where he belongs. (Oh, and should the man in question happen to read this: Sammy, I’ve got three words for you: Harold’s Chicken Shack. You can send your thanks via email.)

And what of us anxious Habistanis? Where does this leave us? Nowhere very different than we were yesterday, really- I wasn’t the only one who decided long ago that Sammy was not likely to be part of the team in 2007-2008. By the end of the season he had all but disappeared, he wasn’t playing and no one was even asking Carbonneau if he would play. Presumably he was still traveling with the team, still at practices, still in the dressing room, but unseen and unheard, an ineffectual ghost-Hab. They tell me that Sergei Samsonov is gone today. I say, he was gone months ago, leaving nothing but some uncomfortable numbers crowding up our cap.

For the Canadiens, this deal wasn’t about ‘getting rid of Samsonov’, Carbonneau had already taken care of that in his own way. This was about getting rid of Samsonov’s salary, and really, that’s all it did. In exchange, we didn’t get two players, we got two sets of smaller numbers, a cheaper buyout and an extra winger who’s most likely going to end up plugging a hole for the Bulldogs.

It is a deal typical of Gainey, in a way that is beginning to worry me- there’s more business-sense than hockey-sense to it. Many of my fellow fans are calling it a stroke of genius, and it is, in that nobody thought there was any way to move Sammy that made financial sense. It is the kind of trade Gainey is becoming famous for, the unloading trade, the subtraction trade, wherein he finds a way to send off some ill-fitting, over-expensive, or undesirable Hab in a way that has absolutely no downside for the Canadiens.

It is a very Gainey trade in that it is curiously generous, for as difficult and disliked as the players he moves have often been, he tends to put them in places that offer opportunity- in the past he’s traded our awkward bits to teams better than us, and with the exception of Theodore, they seem to mostly do alright in their new locations. Even with Samsonov, he managed to find a team that actively wanted him, a task that couldn’t have been easy given some of Sammy’s stats and behaviors last year.

But it’s also a very Gainey trade in that it didn’t really bring anything particularly useful to the Canadiens, and that’s the part that worries me. Not that he could have gotten anything great for Samsonov, but rather that it’s become uncomfortably typical for his best trades to be ones that gain us nothing but a timely loss. Gainey, it seems, tends to acquire players of whom little is expected and with whom little is done, ala Josh Gorges, Janne Niinimaa. While he (or his scouting staff) seems adept at finding inexpensive, multi-functional players in the Mark Streit or Mike Johnson mold, he’s done somewhat less well when it comes to Big Problems. Samsonov was, let’s not forget, his big-money signing of last summer, a signing that was thought to be necessary because of a real dearth of top-tier, fully developed forward talent on the roster. Though he’s done an admirable job of rectifying his error one year later, it still leaves the Habs with some serious gaps on the front lines that just aren’t going to be filled by a legion of utility-knife guys, even loveable, adorable, cost-effective ones with admirable work ethic.

I trust Bob Gainey. I respect the tenacity with which he adheres to his principles. I respect his conservative, circumspect approach to management. I respect him because he makes the kind of careful, precise, thoughtful and blessedly infrequent changes needed to build a good team. But I’m getting nervous, too, because if he’s serious about all those promises he’s made about improving the team post-haste, it’s going to require putting aside the conservatism that seems most natural to him and taking another big chance, as big as Sammy was at the time, maybe bigger. I love the idea of developing from within, but if we’re going that route exclusively, than this team’s got no chance at a Cup within the remainder of Koivu’s career, and certainly no chance by 2009.

So this is the calm before the storm. Something big is coming. The moves the Canadiens have made thus far have opened up roster slots and cap space, and one way or another, things are going to have to go there. The time of selling is passing away, soon it will be the time of buying, and that’s always the harder part, for the Canadiens in general and for Bob Gainey in particular.

I’m nervous.

[Oh yeah, and if you've got something urgent to say to me on this topic, say it quick, because this is going to get pushed way, way far down the page within the next 24 hours.]


Jordi said...

I'm not too shocked since well, I have been patiently waiting for a buyout. And there was always the talks with Chicago. Though, um, I have to laugh at the new concept of "pressure" he'll face there.

His puppy eyed enthusiasm kills me though. If only he just took a holiday before the season was over.

E said...

i am shocked- shocked!- to find that trading is going on in this league!

honestly, i've got to think this was better than a buyout for him, in terms of giving him a chance to resurrect his reputation.

but jordi, what everyone really wants to know now is, does this mean you're going to become a hawks fan?

Jordi said...

Martin Havlat! Toews!

I hope not, or else I'll have to sell my sisters for jersey money.

E said...

couldn't you just auction off a couple of the less-frequently-posting hloggers?

kazmojo said...

You're right, E. Never really looked at Bob's track record that way.

But then again, maybe he's rebuilding, without really saying that he's rebuilding. Habistan will never stand for a complete overhaul. So Bob is taking it apart piece by piece, off-season by off-season, ultimately waiting for some of those prospects to ripen and maintaining some modicum of competitiveness in the meantime.

(Maybe this is what Koivu sensed when he recently voiced some displeasure?)

As to this move, we still have the same two holes as when the off-season started: a defensively responsible, puck-moving dman and a top-6, net-charging, pay-the-price right winger. Considering the cap space Sammy was taking up, and the Habs utter lack of success on the UFA market, we desperately need the money to outrageously outbid any other team for the Rafalski's and the Smyth's.

Sure, Bob still needs to sign at least RFA's Ryder and Plekanec (if not Gorges and maybe UFA Johnson too). But now he's got more money to do it: $13M by my count. Still not enough, I think, to achieve all the aforementioned needs. Which is why I'm waiting for the other overpriced, Russian-made shoe to drop.

E said...

kaz, i'm sure gainey's been rebuilding in all but name, and i'd guess that's what koivu was referring to in his postseason comments. the question is, what's the timeline in his head for this process? i had guessed that the centennial is more or less the deadline, but if that's so, than he's going to have to start approaching completion on this little construction project soon.

god, this off-season has me more tense than the playoffs...