No Cup For You! (Or, Welcome Back, Mathieu Schneider)

So, Mathieu Schneider is a Hab again. My first thought was, "Hey, Carbo and Muller will be happy to have another ’93 alum on the roster. Maybe they should go after Mike Keane now…he’s still playing." Then I thought, "Hey, Carbo will soon get his wish to coach an entire roster of defencemen!" Unfortunately they sent O’Byrne back to Hamilton, so I guess the dream died there. But, after all the lame old-guy jokes, at heart I was so disappointed in the Schneider trade.

Not because I don’t like Schneider, or because I don’t think his remaining skillset might help the Habs. Not even because of his hugely inflated salary (Yeah, Burke…keep signing guys for that kind of coin and the leafs will be basement dwellers forever…but I digress.) I was disappointed because of the reason for the aquisition, and the future cost of it.

What it comes down to is that Schneider had to be brought in to make up for an earlier mistake by Bob Gainey. The team’s power play has been atrocious all year, and the only ingredient missing from last season’s number one unit is Mark Streit. Gainey decided to let Streit go, with no viable alternative for replacing him on the blueline during the man advantage. I don’t know if the hunt for Sundin had anything to do with making Streit’s cost prohibitive, but I have to think a serious attempt to re-sign Streit during the season last year would have been successful, and for a price less than what the Islanders paid to acquire him. Considering the complete waste of 1.5 million dollars the Georges Laraque signing has turned out to be, it’s not impossible to think Gainey could have found the money for Streit while still saving up for The Impossible Swedish Dream. In any event, Streit is playing decent defence and making a huge difference to the Islanders’ power play while the Canadiens’ PP has plunged to 25th overall in the league and Patrice Brisebois patrols the blueline every night. I have to think, regardless of his reputed softness on the back end, that Streit’s positives would have trumped Breezer’s. However, with Streit toiling on Long Island, and the Canadiens toiling in the toilet, Gainey had to do something to bolster the point on the power play and improve the defence’s ability to move the puck out of their own end. Enter Schneider. Exit two draft picks in what are expected to be two pretty strong drafts. The third-rounder isn’t a great concern, as the Canadiens get a pick back from Atlanta, likely to be a third-rounder this year, so that comes out even. The second-rounder, though, is another story.

The upside of this move is that Schneider, who’s had a tough time in Atlanta this season, has been playing his best hockey of the year recently. The downsides are more numerous, and more obvious. Schneider’s stats are pretty similar to his old pal Breezer’s, but for many times the cost. Schneider is a free agent after this year, and is unlikely to be retained. And the Canadiens are expecting a thirty-nine-year-old defenceman to step in and patch a very big hole in a very ragged team fabric. The team needs leadership, a calm, competent presence on the back end and a weapon on the power play. Schneider may offer those things, but it’s asking a lot of a single player who’s coming into a troubled team with only twenty-five games to go in the season. And bringing Schneider in as a stop-gap means Ryan O’Byrne’s development is once again stifled as the Canadiens go with veteran defencemen in what’s likely to be a vain attempt at post-season success.

The biggest problem, however, is the cost of the trade. A second-round pick might not sound like much, but if you consider who second-round picks turn out to be, it hurts a little more. Recent Habs’ second-rounders include Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse, Ben Maxwell, Mathieu Carle, P.K.Subban and the promising Danny Kristo. When the draft pick has a face and a name, you have to ask yourself if you’d trade any of those guys for twenty-five games of Mathieu Schneider at age 39, when a Cup isn’t very likely. I wouldn’t. And I can’t help wondering who that second-rounder will turn out to be when Atlanta calls his name this summer, and if the Habs would have traded the reality of that guy for Schneider either.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to trading futures for success in the now, if there’s success to be had. At some point, you have to stop planning for the future and let the future be today, right? The problem with this trade is that I don’t believe the Canadiens are primed for success this year. I think Gainey has overestimated his team’s readiness to contend.  What I see now is a general manager who’s built himself a team that’s not going to compete for the Stanley Cup in its Centennial season, as he’d hoped it would. So he’s patching holes in a sinking ship, just so he can keep it afloat until April. But, at the risk of seriously overextending a metaphor, if anyone, including Bob Gainey, thinks the Habs won’t be sunk by any of Boston, Philly, New Jersey or Washington in the first round of the playoffs, that person is an eternal optimist. If the Habs make the playoffs to begin with, they’re going to be very hard-pressed to win a round, and Mathieu Schneider won’t make the difference.

Gainey’s always been good at repairing his mistakes. He got rid of a floundering Jose Theodore and his giant contract, after he’d signed the goalie to the deal in the first place. He ditched the problematic Sergei Samsonov on Chicago for a couple of buyouts, after previously signing Samsonov to a nice two-year deal. But sometimes it’s easier to fix the moves you make than the moves you don’t. Mathieu Schneider is the repair job on a Gainey mistake in letting Streit walk, and it’s not going to be good enough. If the Habs were going to part with a pick, it would have been better to use it on a player who might still be around and contributing after this April.

It may be that Gainey has other moves in mind to shore up holes created by the loss of Robert Lang and the obvious lack of talented grit up front, although he’s obviously trading from a position of weakness at this point. I hope he doesn’t. I don’t want Tomas Plekanec or Chris Higgins traded for another patch on the S.S. Centennial’s hull. It’s not worth it because I think the Canadiens needed more than a few patches last summer. They needed to keep Mark Streit then and hold onto their draft pick instead of acquiring Mathieu Schneider now. They needed to get Ryan Malone-type grit (but cheaper) instead of Georges Laraque-type passive aggression. I know injuries have undone a lot of the good work Gainey did last summer, in his acquisitions of Lang and Alex Tanguay. But some of the moves he didn’t make are adding to the hurt this team is feeling right now. And it may be time to admit it’s too late to go back to fix the errors now instead of giving away picks that might actually be a part of a successful Canadiens team in the future.

I don’t want to give up on this season, or on the work Bob Gainey has done. However, I’m a realist and I can see how our team stacks up against the serious contenders. Now is not the time to be deadline buyers. The price is much too high and the reward will be much too low.

Oh yeah, before I forget…welcome back, Matt! Ninety-three was great. Good luck in the Centennial. You’re going to need it.

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