Mar 31, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Colby Armstrong (9) against the Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Sabres 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Colby Armstrong: what are we getting?

Colby Armstrong was the first UFA signing of Marc Bergevin‘s career as a GM. The Habs signed him to a one-year, one-million contract right out of the gates, to much jeering. The Habs fanbase mostly knew Armstrong for the way he had brained Saku Koivu a few years back, and for having recently been bought out by Toronto after struggling with injuries for the better part of two seasons. The question that immediately flew around was: “If he’s not good enough for Toronto, why would he be good enough for Montreal?”

That’s not the right question to ask. Setting aside the quesiton of whether the Toronto front office should be seen as an authority team-building, Toronto was on the hook for three million dollars on the last year of Armstrong’s contract. They had, evidently, decided he was not likely to give them enough value for that price tag — enough so that they were willing to take a one-million hit over the next two years to be rid of him. The question then becomes, “If Colby Armstrong wasn’t worth three million dollars to Toronto, can he be worth one million to Montreal?”

To answer that question, we again turn to the venerable, terrifying Gabriel Desjardins’ indispensable behindthenet.ca resource:

Season GP TOI QoC Corsi Rel Corsi PDO Pens taken Pens drawn Zonestart
2007-2008 72 12.24 0.956 8.1 -5.86 1028 0.9 1.4 39.1%
2008-2009 82 12.37 0.691 10.7 0.77 1021 1.2 1.1 40.3%
2009-2010 79 11.94 0.603 0.9 -1.02 1013 0.9 1 47.1%
2010-2011 50 13.28 0.321 2.1 -3.61 1010 0.6 1.2 46.1%
2011-2012 29 8.95 0.153 -7.9 -11.32 939 0.5 0.9 50.4%

This goes a bit far back in history — as far back as Behind the Net goes, actually. But I think it’s important in this case given Armstrong’s health situation and the role he had with Atlanta and, for most of 2007-2008, with Therrien’s Penguins as well.

The last line shows us that, beyond a doubt, Armstrong’s last season was terrible. Facing middling competition at best and a neutral distribution of offensive faceoff, he ended up with very weak possession numbers, spending most of his time in the defensive zone. He still managed to draw significantly more penalties than he took, however, and his PDO (the sum of the shooting percentage and save percentage of his teammates while he was on the ice) tells us that his plus-minus (-8 in 29 games) exagerrated how bad it was. Based on those last 29 games, Armstrong did not look like a NHL-quality player.

The situation is much different if we look at the previous years. Even in 2010-2011, Armstrong faced moderately tough competition, had a defensive skew to the faceoffs he took, and still managed to do better than his team possession-wise, all while drawing twice as many penalties as he took. That Colby Armstrong is a competent third-liner and defensive specialist, and well worth a one-million price tag, if not more.

With Atlanta and Pittsburgh, however, Armstrong shines: tough competition, heavily defensive zone starts, and mostly managing to stay even in possession and routinely outperforming the rest of his club. All this while still drawing generally more penalties than he takes. This Armstrong is a strong defensive specialist, strong enough that he might not have looked out of place occasionally playing on Tomas Plekanec‘s wing in defensive situations. This is the player that the Leafs thought they were getting, before injuries derailed Armstrong’s career.

At one million for one year, Colby Armstrong represents an excellent low-risk, short-term bet. At the absolute worst he is no longer a NHL-quality player, in which case the Habs can simply demote him, eat the one million price tag, remove him from their cap and be free of him in a year. More likely he’s capable of being at least a competent fourth-liner, for which a one million dollar price tag is appropriate. But at age 29, there’s the chance that by staying healthy he recaptures his pre-2011-2012 form (or even his Atlanta form), in which case the Habs end up with a solid defensive specialist at a discount price. This sort of move is one way to enhance cap efficiency, and while it’s not ground-breaking or anything, it’s still a strategically sound signing. As Therrien likes to give his scorers offensive zone starts and weak competition, defensive specialists to handle the tough minutes are necessary in his scheme, and Armstrong, while he’s a gamble, looks like a good bet to fill one of those positions.

To answer our earlier question, then: Armstrong may not have been worth three million to the Leafs, but the odds are quite good that he can be worth one million to Montreal.

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