Chris Higgins scored 12 goals and 23 points in 57 games for the Montreal Canadiens last season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Chris Higgins might be the first athlete in the history of pro sports to find life in Manhattan a little slower than his previous stop. New York City is a lot of things, but it’s rarely the place you go for a reprieve from the madness.
For Higgins, though, Broadway might just represent the step back he needs to leap two strides forward in his still-developing career.
To say Higgins was an afterthought in the deal that sent Scott Gomez to the Montreal Canadiens back on June 30 would be inaccurate, just as it would be folly to think the Rangers honed in on Higgins as a guy they had to have on their team.
No, that trade came about thanks to shared desperation; Montreal was dying to add a center who could inject some offense into its lineup as the team prepared to let Saku Koivu walk as a free agent.
The Rangers, meanwhile, wanted to rid themselves of one of hockey’s most cumbersome salaries, namely the deal that calls for Gomez to make an inflated average of $7.3 million over the next five seasons.
Call it a motivated marriage.
In the end, the Rangers scored an absolute coup by dealing Gomez (did we mention he had 58 points last year?) and his hefty paychecks for a guy who can play both ways on your second line, plus 2007 first-rounder Ryan McDonagh and another blueline prospect, Pavel Valentenko.
I couldn’t say for sure what Habs scouts think of McDonagh’s progress and there’s reason to believe Valentenko isn’t all that interested in North American hockey. He left the Hamilton Bulldogs last year to play for Moscow Dynamo of the Kontinental League and isn’t at New York’s training camp right now.
Still, given how anxious the Rangers were for a do-over on signing Gomez to that monster deal, had you told me they traded him for Chris Higgins or two prospects, one of which is a first-rounder from two years ago, I’d have thought they made out pretty well.
But Higgins and two prospects? My goodness…
Focusing on Higgins, there’s plenty of reason to believe the 26-year-old will be a boon to the Blueshirts.
The Long Island boy became an NHL regular after the lockout, but had two seasons cut short because of injury. On the two occasions Higgins did play a full season, he posted goal totals of 23 (as a rookie) and 27. In 2006-07 he tallied 22 times despite playing just 61 games. In addition, Higgins isn’t shy about getting involved physically, he kills penalties and just generally doesn’t take in-game holidays.
Last year was an absolutely miserable experience for everybody associated with the Canadiens and if Carey Price was a poster boy for that pain, Higgins was a pretty direct understudy.
He was limited to just 57 games thanks to hand and groin troubles, and mustered just 12 goals.
More than that, Higgins looked like a man in need of a change, assuming that is indeed as good as a rest. He’s an engaging guy, willing to speak candidly with those of us who ask questions – and there are a lot of us in Montreal, especially when things are going bad.
Higgins did his best to keep his head up, but his eyes had the look of a young professional who was pulling 90-hour work weeks in the hope of becoming a partner in the firm before the age of 30. Something about his entire disposition seemed to scream, “I can handle this madness for a while, but something’s gotta give soon.”
Now he’s got his fresh start. New York will never be confused with Nashville, but Higgins won’t experience anything close to the Montreal microscope there. Expect the luggage under his eyes to get a lot lighter.
Higgins, like Gomez, will be motivated to erase the memory of last year with a strong showing this time out. Further incentive comes in the fact he’s set to become a UFA next July.
There’s a 30-goal season in Chris Higgins. In fact, there’s likely a 55-point campaign in him, too, which is actually only 10 points shy of the roughly 65 points Gomez has averaged over a nine-season career.
If Higgins’ breakthrough comes this season with New York, his combination of work ethic and touch will make him a very valued and wealthy man next summer.
That should be enough to cheer anybody up.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
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