If you hit up an online sportsbook like http://topbet.com/sportsbook/, you’d have found good odds on whether or not I’d follow up my last post with a sequel. With so much material to write about, you could have taken it to the bank!
During the post-game press conference following the Habs 3-2 shootout loss to the Sabres on Monday night, Head Coach Jacques Martin added to his ever-growing pile of perplexing, curious and false statements carefully designed to deflect pointed questions, avoid damning himself and erect trickster smokescreens. I’m not sure when he’s going to stop insulting the intelligence of the fans and media with his ridiculous answers, but it’s clear from the audacity of some of his replies that he’s running out of tricks.
In a game where the Canadiens dictated the pace and tone through 40 minutes, something changed during the second intermission. In easing back on the accelerator, the Canadiens let the upstart Sabres back in the game. Whether the players were instructed to play it safe or if the players did it themselves out of instinct, lack of confidence or fear of winning, when asked for the reasons behind the Canadiens collapse, Martin offered up the following:
“…a lot of youth on the backend, and they took advantage”.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. With P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber, Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz patrolling the blue line, there certainly were many young kids trying to hold the fort. But is it right to blame them for the loss? A team that has ZERO shots on goal in the third period through 14 minutes sounds like a team that isn’t intent on doing the same things that made them successful through the first 40 minutes – and that includes much more than a handful of young defencemen who played their hearts out. Since taking over as Coach in 2009, Jacques Martin has proven nothing if not that he strongly favours his veterans and only leans on young players if he has no other choice. How else do you explain his overuse of Mathieu Darche on the powerplay? Or Travis Moen on top scoring lines? Or bypassing Lars Eller at nearly every turn despite his rapid improvement? Or benching a slumping Andrei Kostitsyn? Last season, P.K. Subban didn’t rise to prominence until both Markov and Gorges were lost, leaving Martin with no other choice but to play the high-risk/high-reward Subban for 20+ minutes per night.
So are the young defencemen truly to blame, as the Coach would have us believe, or is Martin taking the easy, predictable path of least resistance? After all, if he starts shining the light of blame on his veterans, he can kiss his locker room support – and eventually his job – goodbye. It’s the last bastion of a Coach who can’t adapt, adjust to an evolving game, or make the best use of available resources. Whether it’s strategy or tactics, he simply marinates in old school game plans, then wraps himself in the kevlar vest that is the happiness of veterans while cursing the youth at every turn.
As I listened to Martin drive over his young rearguards and then back over them again, I thought back to the past two seasons. Oddly, I don’t remember him ever publicly smacking his veterans for their questionable-at-times play. So I took a look at the numbers, and admittedly it’s difficult to try and quantify poor defence. But if we look at turnovers/giveaways under the Jacques Martin reign, we’ll see some eye-popping numbers. No, turnovers aren’t the be-all-end-all metric, but they’re a good starting point. If we can agree that turnovers are a barometer of a player without an idea of what to do with the puck, a player in a panic, a player without poise and without the benefit of experience, then surely veterans must be the opposite, and the numbers will reflect that, right?
Let’s start with this current 2011-12 season. The Canadiens are currently 4th overall in the league in giveaways – that’s 4th most, not 4th least. At first glance you’ll say “AHA! You see, with some many young defencemen, it’s no wonder they’re 4th overall!” Ok, but keep reading. Among the defencemen, it should shock nobody that Subban leads the pack. He’s committed the 6th most turnovers in the entire league, with 17. It’s no surprise that Subban has struggled this year, mightily at times and was guilty of the turnover that led to the Sabres tying goal on Monday night. We’ll concede this to Coach Martin. Right on Subban’s heels is Hal Gill, coming in at 11th place with 16 turnovers, followed by Yannick Weber (31st with14), Josh Gorges (50th with 12) and Raphael Diaz (115th with 9). For their parts, Emelin and Spacek were way down the list, so we’ll let them off the hook. But overall it’s a pretty fair mix of vets and young players, wouldn’t you say? But no, in Martin’s mind it’s easier to only single out the under-25 set. You’ll tell me that Gill didn’t play, and Spacek left Monday’s Buffalo game early. True, but take a look – Gill is still near the top of the leaderboard even if he hasn’t played every game. Hal Gill of 1000+ games played! (Disclaimer: I really like Hal Gill; he can play on my team as long as he wants; his good outweighs the bad).
In Martin’s first season as Habs Coach, the Canadiens committed 910 turnovers, good for 2nd most in the entire league. Leading the group? Roman Hamrlik (3rd in the NHL with 86), Jaroslav Spacek (4th in the NHL with 81), and Hal Gill (8th in the NHL with 76). Well that’s weird. Weren’t those players all in their mid-thirties at the time, with the benefit of experience that thousands of games under their collective belts provides? 2 of the top 5 in the league? 3 of the top 10? Funny, I don’t recall Coach Martin ever blaming his veterans for the team’s defensive woes back then, do you?
Last season in 2010-2011, the Canadiens had a marked improvement. They finished the year with 738 turnovers, still good for a lousy 7th in the NHL. It’s pretty sad when a 7th place finish is seen as a big improvement. Leading the pack? James Wisniewski (23rd with 67, with Isles and Habs), Hal Gill (30th with 62 giveaways), Subban (49th with 56 and who was a rookie playing the role of a #1 defenceman), Jaroslav Spacek (54th with 55) and Roman Hamrlik (62nd with 53). So while there was a significant improvement, and nobody was even in the top 20, as a team the Canadiens were still guilty of far too many turnovers, and it was largely the veterans who were at fault. Still, we never heard Martin come down on them.
I’ve intentionally left the forwards out of the mix, but rest assured that veterans like Plekanec, Cammalleri and Gomez have all been guilty of many, many turnovers in the past 2+ seasons. Seasoned veterans, all three of them, and they all are among the team leaders in coughing up the puck.
If you’re still with me, I thank you for sticking around. It can be challenging to slog through so many stats and it can be even harder to make sense of them. If you leave this page with any sort of takeaway, it’s this:
- Experienced defencemen are vitally important, but it’s lazy to always blame young rearguards simply because the Coach says so, or because they make the easiest, most convenient target. The numbers show, at least in part, that in the Jacques Martin era, veterans are just as likely as young defencemen to make egregious turnovers. Regardless of who’s in the lineup (old or young) this team coughs the puck up with regularity.
Instead of pointing the finger of blame at the young blue line, perhaps Martin should be made to explain why his team constantly eases off in third periods? If they maintained an aggressive forecheck, and truly were a puck possession team as he claims they are, then the puck would spend more time in the offensive zone and the “culpable kids” would have less burden on their shoulders, no? We know he said that it’s not the plan to back off, but as I pointed out in part 1, he’s either full of it, or he has incompetent players, and I’m certain it’s not the latter.
With a litany of preposterous answers on the record, Jacques Martin is steadily painting himself in to a corner. The answers all dovetail nicely with his most preposterous claim of all – that the Canadiens are in fact a puck-possession team. How can that possibly be true when his team:
- Gives away the puck more often than the average team?
- Is perennially close to the bottom of the league in goals for?
- Has been in the bottom third of the league in minor penalties for the past 2+ seasons?
Is there something that the Wizard of Oz is keeping secret from us lowly, uneducated fans and bloggers? If it hasn’t become obvious already, this team is often an unfocused, confused group under the watch of Jacques Martin. Getting by with miraculous goaltending is not a sustainable plan for winning.
I’m not saying that the Habs’ young defencemen are perfect or that any of them are going to earn a Norris nomination any time soon. But it’s not asking too much for Martin to show a little even-handedness when doling out accountability through the media. If, as some suggest, falling back to protect a lead is a sign of a team without confidence or experience, then it would behoove the coach to stop throwing the kids to the wolves. The last time I looked, young players not only comprise the majority of his defensive corps right now, but more than anything they need encouragement and mentoring. Not the goat horns.