Ahh there’s nothing like a once-in-a-lifetime goal drought to isolate the two poles in Habs land.
On one side, there’s the rabble rousers who resort to the trade everyone, fire everyone rhetoric. On the other side, there are the kumbaya types that don’t see any reason to panic; being outscored 12-0 over 3 important games is no different than being outscored 12-9 in those 3 same games. A loss is a loss is a loss, after all.
The rioters are expecting hellfire and brimstone to fall at any moment now, while the calm, zen-like members of Habs Nations look back to last season as proof that anything can and will happen.
The crazies are willing to throw everyone under the tank treads for lack of results – blow the whole thing up (again!); the peace & love crowd cite injuries as the reason for poor performances and promise a better showing in the playoffs.
Let’s start with the coach and get him out of the way. Anyone who has spent any time here knows that I’m not a fan of Jacques Martin’s system, nor a fan of his monotone approach. Never have been, not since he took over as coach. I hear he’s been vocal, nasty and angry during some practices throughout the year, but it would be nice for some of that ire to be directed at the officials once in a while. I get the feeling that the Coach does not even care to give the perception that he is publicly willing to stand up for his team. Does he deserve to be fired? No, not today he doesn’t…or more aptly put, firing him today would be counterproductive, as a massive shitstorm of controversy would swarm and overwhelm the team. The Habs organization has made its bed with this staff, and we’ll have to live with it for now. No coach has made it through 4 full seasons as head coach in Montreal since the late Pat Burns about 20 years ago, so chances are that Martin is closer to the end of his tenure than to the beginning. Injuries aren’t the reason why his passive system has been in use for so long; he’s employed it since taking over the job (despite saying that he would install a speed game based on puck possession). I had gotten off of his case recently, as I had rationalized that as players drop, the system can make lesser replacement players productive in a very simple way. But once the real talent comes back in to the mix, the system stifles, as offensively minded players struggle to think defense first. I feel that a coach – one man plus his staff – ought to adjust to the strengths of his 20+ players rather than force those players to swallow a system that doesn’t suit them. Simply put – the coach does not adapt. It’s one size fits all, take it or leave it.
As for the players? I think it’s fair to say that they’ve under delivered, with the exception of Carey Price, PK Subban and perhaps Andrei Kostitsyn. Others like Mathieu Darche, Hal Gill, David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Alex Auld have all made valuable contributions to the team (and why some of those names creep up in discussions for the Jacques Beauchamp award for unsung hero), but either haven’t been around long enough to be part of the core or don’t have the responsibility to carry the heaviest of loads. Unfortunately the players that have had the worst seasons are the ones paid the most money to produce. Whehter they’re playing hurt, or been overused, you have no choice but to take them at their word: when they lace up their skates to hit the ice, they are doing so with an implicit agreement that they are healthy enough to play and produce. By suiting up, they themselves eliminate the injury excuse.
When you play in a system that emphasizes defense, any reduction in offense is going to have a major effect at some point. As fellow blogger HabsWatch points out, when it comes to playoff success it is indeed offense that wins, not defense, as is the popular belief (I highly recommend reading both part one and part two if you have not yet done so). While its easy to blame the lack of offense (Habs rank 24th in the league in goals per game) on the Coach, the truth is that not even Coach Martin wants this little offensive production to work with, and that’s where accountability to the players comes in. That the Canadiens are still in a tie for 6th place, and a few points ahead of last year’s pace can almost be entirely attributed to Carey Price, who has earned a star in 25 of his 34 wins (12 1st star selections, 8 2nd star selections, 5 3rd star selections). Just call him Mr. Spackle. What other conclusion can one arrive at? As Rick at All Habs points out, it is the responsibility of the Coach to create the conditions for success. No player among the top 6 is delivering a good return on their significant salary. Don’t look to injuries to try and deflect all criticism of Martin; the Canadiens are 17th in the league in man-games lost. Yes, yes quality over quantity…but again, as Rick points out:
Martin-apologists claim that coaches of teams who experience injuries, all revert to playing a more defensive game. Statistics don’t support this argument. Of the top five teams in the league in terms of goals scored, four of them have lost more man-games to injury than the Canadiens.
We can argue until we are blue in the face over relative terms of talent missing from rosters but there’s no question – based on statistics – that the Canadiens don’t have it as bad as we think when it comes to injuries, and that they must adopt a defensive system as losses pile up.
All told, responsibility is shared from the Coach, down through the players on the bench. Whenever the season ends, blame (isn’t that a nasty word?) will be shared throughout the team. The big question is what will happen in the off-season to rectify the issues?
Peering in to my sometimes right, often wrong crystal ball, there’s a couple ways this season plays out.
1- The Canadiens make the playoffs, but get trounced by a much stronger opponent somewhere along the way. The angry mob resumes their act on the call in shows and on twitter, while the other side divorces themselves from that segment, saying that the frustrated, emotionally compromised vocal ones are not “true” fans. They claim that the team that has too many bobos and too many tired bodies to make a dent in the playoff picture…they say that they are proud of their team just for getting there considering the injuries (again, never mind the fact that 16 other teams – more than half the league – have it worse than the Habs. It also can’t be ignored that 7 other playoff teams have had more injury trouble than the Canadiens). These arguments hold some validity and merit. In my humble view it also gives a free pass to a team that doesn’t quite have its act together.
2- The Canadiens make the playoffs, and lightning strikes in the same place again. Cinderella descends on Montreal again and douses the angry mob with cold water. They fall in line, sing ‘olé’, loot stores and burn police cars, while the do-gooders do the Balky dance of joy, thumbing their noses at those who were ever worried or angry in the first place. Staking out the high ground, so to speak.
Despite my opposition to the chosen style of play, and despite my reluctance to swallow the excuse of injuries, I am not hitting the panic button – nor will I hit the panic button, even if the Canadiens get shut out in each of their 6 final regular season games. The panic button is something to be pushed when desperate solutions are needed. The fact is that there is no trade, signing or firing that can be done at this point that will vault the Habs in to being a Cup contender. The key to the Canadiens success lies where it always has: in the dressing room. This group of players will need to figure out how to score and how to win again. With 6 games left, there’s still time for David to refocus and find the confidence necessary to stand up to Goliath. The Canadiens haven’t forgotten how to play hockey in the past week. They will win again, and they almost certainly will get on the board tonight vs the Thrashers.
The world is not coming to an end. As we should have learned last year, there is always a reason to have faith, but we should also recognize that lightning typically doesn’t strike in the same place twice. Despite how the two poles behave, the true believing eternal optimists are to be envied for the ability to roll with the punches and enjoy the ride wherever it goes. On the flip side, it is possible to have faith, while looking closely at the statistics with open mind and go against the grain of popular opinion. It doesn’t necessarily make one uneducated or a bandwagon jumper to voice concern or shine a light on some of the ugly truths.