Yesterday's big hoopla from the NHL-NHLPA marathon stare down was the suggestion that each team in the league will now be permitted to buy out two contracts with amnesty against the usual buyout conditions.
Sure, there are lots of questions, and we know not of the strings attached, but let's ignore that for a second and assume this will be as easy as it could be. Which player(s) would/should/could the Canadiens use this privilege to strike from the books in 2013 and beyond?
I begin with the case of Scott Gomez. With the Canadiens in tight with the salary cap, the chunk of salary his buyout would free up under the cap makes him the first very obvious candidate for consideration in cap compliance land.
Advantages of a Gomez buyout
1. Salary cap room
Obviously. $7.3 odd million stricken from the records make it possible for the Canadiens to comply with the cap and explore other options
2. Replacing a player on the downswing with one on the upswing
Gomez is not on the upswing of his career. In fact, it appears to the casual observer that he is very much on the downswing. When he came to Montreal, he was producing less points, but there were many things in his game that were of great value to his team. The 2010 playoff run benefited greatly from his play. Two years removed from that time, however, and two seasons of even more dramatic decline leave Habs fans looking at a player that is more and more difficult to defend. His benefits have now become almost obscure. He is NHL level, but the relative benefit of icing this player vs. another have closed to almost nil.
The Habs have a fair number of players they should investigate at the highest level as they move forward in a rebuild. David Desharnais, foremost, would benefit from another season (part season) in a scoring role. Beneath him on the chart, Eller, Leblanc and even Galchenyuk are more important to the future Habs than is Gomez at this point.
3. Wingers for Plekanec
It is to Plekanec's eternal credit that he can play well with anyone and make almost everyone better. But for much of the past few years, this trait has hurt Plekanec's own freedom and production, and has hurt the team. Plekanec is probably the best offensive centre on the Canadiens club, yet with Gomez, Eller and Desharnais, he was not always given the wingers to show it. With Gomez out of the picture, it would seem that Plekanec's place with Gionta (at least) could be made permanent and his claim to the next best winger of the day would be solid.
Possible advantages of retaining Gomez
1. The value of a back-diving contract
It may be a foreign thought to most Canadiens fans, and a forgotten reality to others, but back-diving contracts like Gomez's were structured the way they were to a) compensate the player to the level he was asking up front, and b) make the contract tradeable in its latter stages.
The most compelling reason I can think of not to buy out Scott Gomez is that he is finally entering a stage in his contract where he is paid less than his cap hit suggests. This is of no value or interest to teams that make a profit and wish to maximize the use of their free cap space. But for teams that are not currently so interested in winning and would prefer to mitigate the damage of playing a season with no support for the loser team, then players like Gomez are of great help to get to a mandated salary floor.
This current season, Gomez was slated to be paid $.5.5 million, with $4.5 million next year. His cap hit endures at the magical $7.357 level. To a team in a US-middle-market rebuild, his contract represents $2m the $3m of money that never has to be paid.
For the Canadiens to use this as an asset would require finding a trade partner. I 'd suggest this could be possible, and should, of course, be explored.
2. If strings are attached...
I know I said we'd assume no strings attached on amnesty buyouts. But it's worth mentioning that if strings are to be attached it could very much influence this Gomez decision.
The Habs are a relatively weak team, and look to be that way until some long-term assets come through. I believe that Gomez's contract should expire before the team has to worry about playing a Western conference team in a playoff series.
If there is residual salary left over in the same way it is left over under the previous CBA, a Gomez buyout could do more harm than good, as it would extend part of his significant cap hit into years well beyond its expiry date. A 2015-16 team on the rise would be better off with full, clean salary options than to be burdened with the ghost hit of Scott Gomez.
Note: I did not mention a turnaround in Gomez's play, because frankly I believe that for a team in cap trouble like the Canadiens are, with few prospects of grand success this year or the next, a good year or two for Gomez would be irrelevant and certainly would not be worth the alternative measures it would require to become cap compliant.
The case for Gomez is actually pretty cut and dry really. As a player who is paid so much more than his play can possibly justify on a team with too little room to even pay their most important (and unsigned) player, he wears a permanent buyout sign on his back.
But as always, I would hate for the team and its management to take this decision too quickly without first considering the possible opportunities that could exist on the other side of the decision. We have seen too many times how decisions like that can take a team in its upswing to one dwelling in a basement.
In sum, I'd buy him out if nothing comes back from my enquiries to salary-floor sweepers.