Unless this is your first day paying attention to NHL hockey, you don’t require much of an explanation for why the Montreal Canadiens decided to pay Scott Gomez a small fortune not to play for them.
The official impetus is that the Habs — who are on the hook, regardless, for Gomez’s $7.4-million salary cap hit this year — don’t want to risk him being hurt during the season, thereby nullifying their ability to buy out the final year of his contract next summer. That’s certainly reason enough for bold action, but beyond worrying about their need to clear significant cap space, the Canadiens must also focus on keeping roster spots open to find out what some other players can do, specifically young centres David Desharnais and Lars Eller.
If everyone will kindly prepare their scoff reflex, I’ll go ahead and say I believe Gomez still has something to offer an NHL team. The past two seasons have been absolutely miserable for him, the most recent campaign being shortened significantly because of a concussion. Still, when Gomez becomes a free agent next summer at age 33, some team desperate for offence might do well to take a cheap chance on a player who should have a significant shoulder chip.
Isn’t Montreal one of those offence-challenged teams, you ask? Fair play. Certainly the Habs aren’t in a position to turn many people away, but the only spot Gomez can potentially contribute something is from one of the top two centre holes and those are reserved for Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec.
The Canadiens are trying to make the playoffs like everybody else, but the reality is, with a new management regime on the heels of finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference last year, the organization is also evaluating the inventory and figuring out a long-term plan.
It’s more important to see if Desharnais can follow up on the solid 60 points he posted in his first full campaign last year than to see if Gomez can get back to being a reasonably productive player. Even if he becomes the equivalent of a 55-point guy again, it’s not like the Habs — who have more cap space spoken for than all but two teams in 2013-14 — aren’t still going to cut him loose one second after a buyout becomes possible.
So why not move him down to the third line? Because Lars Eller is entering his third season in the NHL, scored 16 goals last year and the Canadiens need to see if there really was any reason to trade Jaroslav Halak for him almost three years ago. Eller hasn’t show much in the way of consistent hands yet, but he is a 6-foot-2 player who hustles and is at least conscious of trying to learn the defensive side of the game. And there’s no purpose throwing Gomez over the boards in a fourth-line role for a team that wants to incorporate more anger in its approach. Those 12 minutes are better off going to abrasive players who can fulfill Montreal’s new mandate of being a little less fun to play against.
Really, getting injured was the only thing Gomez could do to continue drawing paycheques from his current contract beyond this summer. By asking him to stay home, the Canadiens have negated that nightmare scenario while simultaneously giving themselves a chance to figure out what some other players will be worth.