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Gomez Goes Home

In just seven short days, Habs fans have been given a lot to be grateful for: the lockout came to a theoretical end and Scott Gomez was asked to spend the 2012-13 at home, far away from the Bell Center.

Many were caught off guard by the timing of this decision, but I think we’re looking too hard to find something that isn’t there. Scott Gomez, simply put, is too expensive, too unproductive and too much of a distraction for the Habs to carry around any longer. Sure, he was liked in the room, and yeah, Marc Bergevin said he’d be given a shot this season. The former has nothing to do with performance on the ice, and the latter is just PR speak intended to prevent the boat from rocking. It wouldn’t be the first time that an executive said something that was intentionally misleading to keep the truth under wraps. I suppose Bergevin could have put it differently, and in a perfect world he would have, especially if he had no intention of keeping Gomez in the first place. At the end of the day this was such a necessary move that not too many people are going to take him to task for it.

If we want to do some digging, it’s not too hard to uncover the truth, laid bare in front of us. In his press conference  Bergevin went on to say that “this had nothing to do with Gomez’ game” (Video #1 above, 4:10 mark), but that his salary was just too much to deal with given that the cap is dropping for the 2013-14 season, and that if he gets hurt, he cannot be bought out. He tried to paint it as a straight business decision. Yes, Gomez will be bought out, but it was not strictly about business. During his Sunday morning press conference, Bergevin said (in French, 55 second mark of video #2) “We didn’t want to be handcuffed by this, or have to trade productive players to get under the cap.” Hmm, that’s interesting…he didn’t have to mention other “productive players”. This seemingly innocuous statement implies that Gomez is not one of his productive players, which we already knew. No shocks here. We can further back this up by pointing out that Bergevin said that “it has nothing to do with his game”, only to later state (in French,at the beginning of video #2) that “His cap hit is $7.3 million. If he was your No. 1 center, that’s fine. The decision was based on his production the last two years.” That’s odd. How can the decision to send him home not have anything to do with his game, yet be based on his production from the last two seasons? Bergevin slipped up, and with that, we can safely say that Gomez’ lack of production was the biggest cause for him being sent packing. Again, no mysteries. If Gomez was able to reproduce his production from 2009-10, he would not have been sent packing.

There are many facets to being a good, effective hockey player, and I don’t believe Gomez’ days as an NHL player are over. I do believe they are over as a top-two center relied upon for 50+ points. If you look hard enough, you can find data that will present Gomez as an unappreciated player, but that’s straight nonsense without footing in reality. The simple reality is that in a cap world, 7.4 million dollars has to deliver production on the scoreboard, period, and not some quasi-intangible number that suggests he’s actually doing something positive, when in fact he isn’t. The Canadiens don’t need him. He’s not better than Tomas Plekanec, he’s not going to disrupt the Desharnais line, and he’s not worth derailing Lars Eller’s development as at center. There was no room for him, lest we go through a season of Gomez complaining about a lack of ice time as he toils on the fourth line.

There’s no great mystery here, just a no-brainer decision to send home a player who had become superfluous, and far too expensive.

He’s Lying to You – Part 2

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.

Round ten billion – What to do with Scott Gomez

I like Scott Gomez. Really, I do. He’s a funny guy. He has personality. He’s a Cup champ, a former rookie of the year. He suffers no fools. Why wouldn’t I like him? Why would anybody not like him? Be that as it may, I like the Canadiens more. And I presume that the logo on the front means more than the names on the back for the vast majority of Habs fans.

It’s a slow news week with the Canadiens killing time until Friday’s match-up in Ottawa. During a slow news week, the go-to topic for local media has been “what to do with Scott Gomez when he’s healthy again“? It’s an easy topic to flog & blog, since everyone and their goldfish has an opinion. You can fill many pages and hours of air time with the myriad viewpoints out there. But aside from the whole “dead horse” angle of the debate that has raged virtually since the Habs traded for Gomez, it is an interesting topic today because the Canadiens have seemingly turned around their season since his absence from the lineup. The Canadiens are solid 3-1-1 without him, and a putrid 1-4-1 with him. Pretty stark difference, isn’t it? Is it that cut & dried though? Clearly, it’s not solely Gomez’ fault that the team got off to a near-disastrous start, but in calling a spade a spade, he did positively nothing to help. Like most die hard fans with a blog, I also have my thoughts on the situation and as you may very well guess, they are not “give him time and he’ll come through”.

While fixing the player would be the ideal scenario given all of the circumstances surrounding the player, the team, and the contract, that doesn’t seem to be possible anymore. After a thoroughly and deeply embarrassing 2010-11 season, he vowed to redouble his off-season efforts to come back strong for 2011-12. So far, no dice.

It’s one thing for him to look good while carrying the puck up the ice and gaining the offensive zone. Indeed, watching him fly up the ice with the biscuit is a sight to behold. It would be one of the things worth getting out of your seat for, except more often than not, the whole thing ends in disappointment. He’s a terrific skater with excellent speed and an intimidating stride. But that’s all null and void when the result is a predictable fade to the left side. If you’re a playmaker, it’s up to your linemates to finish the chances provided to them, but it’s your role to set them up in prime scoring positions. If the league has figured out the way you roll, adapt or you’re toast. It’s unfortunate that he has suffered an early season injury, since it only serves to further muddy the waters: his few remaining supporters trot out his ailment as yet another excuse for his slow start (and will continue to do so) while his critics point out that he’s simply picking up where he left off last year when he was healthy. He said, she said. Nobody wins.

So what is the solution?

The Canadiens won’t buy him out (or more aptly, they shouldn’t buy him out), so let’s just forget that right now and forever. Who wants millions of dollars of dead weight on the cap for the next several years when you’re the GM of a team that already has to allocate a large percentage of salary cap space solely for overpayments to UFAs because of the various reasons we blame: high taxes, language, schooling, fishbowl environment…

If somebody a lot smarter than me would come up with a figure that zeroed in on what percentage of cap space was dedicated solely to compensatory overpayments to UFAs, I think we’d see that the Habs start each season way behind the 8-ball. How would adding dead weight in the form of a Gomez’ buyout help that situation? It’s the cap world equivalent of blowing your brains out with a bazooka.

They can try to bury him in Hamilton in order to gain cap relief, but not one single person can claim to know whether or not Geoff Molson would approve of that. A 7 million dollar man in Hamilton? Yikes! And then to presume that Molson would follow up the demotion by green lighting the spending of the recovered cap space on his eventual replacement or other upgrade(s)? Again, nobody can claim to know how liberal Molson is with his spending. Yes, he has lots of money. Tons of it. But we cannot assume that he’s a willy-nilly free spender. He still has a budget-conscious board to report to. Everyone has a boss, including Geoff Molson. Regardless of how rich you are, it’s tough to justify an additional expenditure of 7 million dollars. You may reply with “yes, but a deep playoff run would offset that”. Probably, but you can’t guarantee a deep playoff run, and neither can Molson.

If Gomez were demonted to Hamilton, what negative effect would it have on Bulldogs? Not to say that Gomez is a locker room cancer. In fact, all indications are that he’s very popular in the room and a great teammate to have. But if Gomez is in Hamilton, is he their first line center? Probably, and that would flat out suck. He’d then be taking 20+ minutes per night away from what should be an important role for a developing player. Wade Redden has to be gobbling up a prospect’s minutes…ask the Rangers how they feel about that.

The best option, as it always has been, is to try and trade him. To anyone, for anyone. Cut losses. That possibility becomes tantalizingly possible at the end of this season (changes to the new CBA notwithstanding), especially when you consider that the salary cap will probably make another big jump for the 2012-13 season, making it even more difficult for cash-strapped teams to hit the cap floor. How? Gomez will be paid $5.5 million for 2012-13, but his salary cap hit will remain high at $7.36 million. An attractive option for restricted-budget teams that perpetually struggle to reach the cap floor; they get the high cap hit to help reach the floor, but they don’t actually have to pay out the big number.

But that doesn’t help the Habs today, does it?

It’s pretty clear to me that Lars Eller and David Desharnais can replicate Gomez’ offensive numbers. They aren’t as well rounded in other aspects of the game as Gomez has been, but they’re rapidly improving, especially in the case of Eller. The question is whether or not Head Coach Jacques Martin will take a “global view” and do what’s best for the team’s success today…or will he go back to the old “Coach’s prerogative” refrain and put Gomez back in to a situation that clearly is not working? Can Gomez be made a healthy scratch? Would a Coach noted for favouring his veterans do that? Would such a move provoke anger among his teammates and disrupt team chemistry? In this blogger’s opinion, players want to win, period. If you asked any member of the team if they want to have success or have their pals around (both isn’t an option here), they’d choose success every time. As Head Coach, it is up to Jacques Martin to put the best possible team on the ice to help deliver success. Anything less should be a fireable offense. Right now, the Canadiens are very much looking like a team that can not only compete, but thrive without Gomez.

What’s your take on Gomez?

2011-12 Habs Milestone Tracker

As we bake in the hot summer sun, incubating our collective yearning for the return of the hockey season (note: I’m just fine with summer sticking around a good while longer), there is once again no shortage of milestones within reach for most of the players who will don the bleu, blanc et rouge this season. Some will be absolute lay-ups, some will depend on performance, and most will depend on the ultimate of bugaboos: health.

Let’s get the young players out of the way first, since by simply showing up they’ll reach certain low-hanging fruits:

Carey Price: he who just celebrated his 24th birthday will undoubtedly pick up his 100th win of his young career, as he’s only 2 wins shy of that mark today. He may even have that milestone locked up by the end of the first weekend of action. If Price has a season similar to last year, he’ll also have a decent shot at his 20th career shutout. That puts him about 100 behind Martin Brodeur, who hasn’t retired yet, but who’s counting?

Andrei Kostitsyn: If fans want to continue to talk about “potential” with this lad, I’m going to continue putting him in the younguns group. When you take a look at the milestones that are within AK46′s reach this year (in a Habs jersey or not), you can kinda see where fans are feeling impatient with him. He’ll play his 400th career game as the playoff push reaches its peak, but he’ll almost certainly hit 100 career goals, and 100 career assists (and thus 200 career points) well before that. Doesn’t it feel like he has – or should have – scored 100 career goals already?

P.K. Subban: He’ll play his 100th game as the season creeps past the 1/4 pole, and if he avoids the dreaded “Sophomore Jinx” and turns in a Norris candidate season (yes, I know that’s a bit of a reach), he’ll threaten to break 100 career points. If that happens, General Manager Gauthier better grow some long arms because he’ll have to reach deep in to his pockets to keep Subban happy.

Max Pacioretty: Following near decapitation, it will be interesting to see if the Habs young scorer can pick up where he left off last season. An exceptionally healthy and productive 2011-2012 campaign will see Pacioretty breach 200 career games, while threatening the 50 career goals mark as well as the 100 career points plateau.

David Desharnais, Lars Eller, Ryan White and Yannick Weber will all break the “100 career games” barrier. Significant statistical milestones are still way down the road for these four. Establishing themselves as full-time NHLers remains job #1 for them, and they’ll all undoubtedly reach that status this season.

Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz and other assorted young hopefuls and farmhands will crack an NHL roster for the first time this year. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.

As for the veterans on the team, the milestones are as beefy as their paychecks.

Perhaps the most significant of all of reachable milestones for this Habs bunch will take place (barring injury of course) on October 20th in Pittsburgh, where he won a Stanley Cup ring. Hal Gill will play his 1000th career game. Not bad for a guy who has been the butt of many, many “slow as molasses” jokes for his entire career. He must be doing something right to have stuck around this long, and 1000 games is a LONG time.

Not far behind is Jaroslav Spacek, his 66th match will be the 900th of his successful career.

If his past two seasons are any indication, then these upcoming milestones may have to wait a while longer. But let’s be positive and believe that the worst is behind for
Andrei Markov, who will have to be remarkably healthy if he wants to play his 700th career game. If he hasn’t lost any of his tremendous skill, then he may also flirt with (but probably not reach) his 100th career goal (he sits at 81). He will, however, probably notch his 300th career assist and 400th career point; he only needs 15 and 34 respectively to reach those benchmarks.

Is this season the last in a Habs uniform for Josh Gorges? I sure as hell hope not. He  just celebrated a birthday (his 27th) and will be entering the prime of his career. For a kid who was signed as an undrafted free agent, Gorges has since gone on to play in 364 NHL games. His 36th game of the upcoming season will be his 400th. Not to shabby at all. If you want to consider 10 career goals for a typical stay-at-home defenseman in the middle of his career as as a milestone, then more power to you, as that’s what Gorges is looking at this season. 10 career goals? Eat your heart out, P.J. Stock.

Mike Cammalleri: the proud new father may have other things on his mind right now, but he has a handful of meaningful milestones on the horizon: His 4th game of the year will be  number 500 for his career. His 23rd goal will be his 200th, while his 16th point will be his 400th.

Brian Gionta: even if the Captain plays in every regular season game, he will fall just shy of playing his 700th career game. Gionta will never be confused with Adam Oates, Craig Janney, and other skilled set up men, but his 5th assist of the season will be the 200th of his career, to go along with his 209 career goals.

Scott Gomez: Spacek won’t be the only member of the team to hit 900 career games played. In what everyone, Gomez especially, hopes is a big bounce-back year, he’s also in line to rack up his 700th career point. He only needs to post 25 points to get there, but let’s hope he can get there sooner than later.

Tomas Plekanec: Mr. Everything for the Habs is quietly racking up some impressive longevity numbers. His 30th game of the year will be his 500th career game played, and his 14th assist will be the 200th of his career. Fun game: will Plekanec pick up 14 assists for 200 before Gionta picks up 5 for 200 on his career?

Erik Cole: the Habs prized off-season acquisition will have to prove that he can be durable for more than one full season if he wants to play in his 700th career game. He currently sits at 620 and will have to play in all but 2 regular season games to reach this milestone. Also within reach for Cole is his 200th career goal (16 goals shy), and his 400th point (10 points shy).

Travis Moen: The ultimate plumber has shown he has staying power, as evidenced by his 522 career games; each one of them played in a punishing, rugged style that takes a toll not only on opponents, but on the player himself. He’s been remarkably healthy during the course of his hard-fought career and if he plays in 78 games, that’ll be good enough to put him up to 600 for his career. His 7th goal of the year, should he get there, will represent his 50th career goal, while his 2nd assist will also put him up to 50 for his career. All told, his 9th point will put him in to triple digits for his career.

Mathieu Darche: The man is all guts and courage, and he’s fought hard to play in each one of his 189 career games spanning 11 years and 5 NHL teams. His 11th game of the year will put him at the 200 games played level; not so impressive for players with “pedigree”, but for this blogger, I can’t think of a sweeter milestone reached for any member of the team this year. He’s well deserving of his new contract, and should have the admiration of all hockey fans.

Peter Budaj: Let’s hope he’s a patient guy. There’s really not a lot for Price’s new backup to look forward to. His 100th loss (currently at 91) and 10th career shutout (currently at 9) are within reach. Let’s just say that if he does hit 100 career losses, his season will be a spectacular failure, or it means that Price gets hurt and Budaj is pressed in to more action than any of us bargained or hoped for.

While the season is still over a month away, and while changes to the roster may still take place, it always helps to stoke the fires of enthusiasm by looking ahead to what the year may hold in store for us and for the Habs. Needless to say, if the majority of the above listed milestones can be hit, the Habs can look forward to a very strong season.

Which milestone do you see as the most important? I look at the potential milestones within reach for Markov, Pacioretty and Cole as important beacons. If those 3 players can remain on the ice, the numbers should follow, and that’s a great omen for fans.

There’s Anchors, and then There’s Anchors

Hal Gill is an anchor.
Scott Gomez is an anchor.
Brian Gionta is an anchor.
Jaroslav Spacek is an anchor.
Andrei Markov is an anchor (what kind is TBD!).
Georges Laraque is an anchor.
Max Pacioretty, Carey Price and PK Subban are anchors.

We use the word a lot when describing players, and it has a double meaning. One is good, the other is not good whatsoever.

Jagr to Habs? Just say NO.

There’s never a dull moment in Montreal when it comes to the Habs, even when the 2010-2011 edition is firmly entrenched in a summer dirt nap. We have a constant stream of stories to dissect and flog to death, and this off-season is no exception.

Pierre Gauthier has presented with an opportunity that would make John Ferguson, Jr. drool with envy: the chance to sign an over-the-hill mercenary. Given the credentials of this particular mercenary, I’d consider it if he wanted to come for REAL cheap, for one year, and as a third liner/power play specialist but I don’t think this mercenary is down with any of that. In any scenario, Jaromir Jagr probably wants a multi-year deal, and clearly would only sign after being promised significant ice time with a given team’s top offensive talent.

We can concoct any number of reasons as to why it would or wouldn’t work in Montreal, but one fact that I personally can’t ignore is the sincerity of a guy who’s doing his negotiating and leveraging through the media. Giving a potential short list of NHL teams he’d be willing to play for (NYR, PIT, MTL) just smacks of putting a bunch of male betta fish together in the same bowl and seeing who comes out on top. And by on top, I of course mean reaching deeper in to his pockets. Jagr is trying to play teams against one another, if not leagues against one another. Frankly I don’t think he wants to play in the NHL at all where he will surely get less money and less playing time than he would get in the KHL. The idea of a one last romp for the future hall of famer is cute and will have many fans dreaming of the flowing mullets of days gone by. Leave it in the past where it belongs; we can always look fondly back on pictures like this and romanticize about the phenomenal skills that Jagr brought to the rink.

As far as the player himself, circa 2011, I don’t think he has the legs, stamina or desire to compete as a 2-way forward in a Jacques Martin system. For the same reasons I don’t think Kovalev and Martin would have worked, I don’t think Jagr would work, either. It’s just that cut & dry for me.

But I’m willing to look at the other side with an open mind and see how and where Jagr would fit. Assuming for a second that Habs GM Pierre Gauthier pulled the trigger on the former NHL superstar, how would this affect the roster? Well for starters, it would likely mean that given their chemistry, Jagr would be paired with Plekanec at center, and Cammalleri on the opposite wing. This bounces Max Pacioretty or Andrei Kostitsyn down to the line featuring Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Would YOU want either of those guys playing on the black hole that is Scott Gomez’ wing? Would you even want to take the chance that Gomez just had a bad year and will bounce back? Think long and hard about that one. The other option is to put Jagr with Gomez…but there isn’t enough bleach in the world to dissolve that horrifying vision from my head. The only scenario in which this could work is to pair Jagr with Lars Eller on the 3rd line. But then we come full circle to the argument that Jagr likely wouldn’t want third line ice time & duty. If Gomez struggles again in the first half of the season, Eller could very well supplant him as the team’s full time second line center, but then we arrive back in the situation where Jagr is back where he can no longer play – among the top 6 forwards.

You may have also noticed a missing name from that list: Andrei Kostitsyn. Now, I’m fairly certain that the majority of Habs fans would cut Kostitsyn loose at the drop of a hat. They would not lose a wink of sleep if he ended up elsewhere next season as many have had enough of his see-saw performances. But I believe that as a cost-controlled RFA, he’s in the Habs plans for 2011-12, and he will once again figure in to the top-6. His final 20 regular season games salvaged an otherwise subpar season, and his physical presence cannot be dismissed. In other words: something would have to give if Jagr were brought in…but what? Jacques Martin is not the most creative coach in the world, and I can’t see him meshing with a wild card like Jagr.

I believe that the Habs are closer to Cup contention than most people think. It’s not that outlandish a thought when you get right down to it. They have the goaltending. With Markov and Gorges back in the picture, they have the main ingredients on the blue line. Up front, they’ve got to add some grit and size with skill, but beyond that, this is a fairly complete team with as good a shot as anyone. With some health next year, a key trade deadline acquisition or two may be the final pieces…maybe at that point Jagr would work to shore up the power play, but then again, he’s such a big name you’ve got to wonder what his presence does to a locker room at that point of the season?

But to me the Habs biggest and most glaring problem is even strength scoring, and I really, really can’t see Jagr as the answer to that problem. The Habs were ranked 15th out of 16 among playoff teams this year. They ranked near the bottom of the 30-team NHL in terms of even-strength scoring. Jaromir Jagr still has hands and he still has some ability to produce offense. But in a defense-first Jacques Martin system, how would a guy who has never adhered to a “system” fit in?

In the end, bringing in Jagr is too much of a gamble. He’s another ill-fitting piece to a puzzle that doesn’t need what Jagr has. Jaromir Jagr is like a denver boot to the Habs lineup. Just say no.

2010-2011 Habs: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It’s always a difficult task to try and segment a 7-month long season in to 3 distinct buckets, as the memories all tend to fade and fall victim to what romanticism and to what feels most comfortable. The Habs have been a veritable roller coaster for two full seasons now…and what a roller coaster it is. Dizzying heights and stomach-churning drops galore. As strange as it is, would the highs feel as good as they do if not for the abyssmal depths that this team sunk to at times? Probably not.

Let’s start from the bottom of the barrel and finish on a high, shall we?

The Ugly

The Pacioretty/Chara incident. This will certainly be one of the infamous moments in Habs history, for all the wrong reasons. Everyone has their own personal opinion on whether or not Chara intended to severely injure Pacioretty, but the fact will always be that Pacioretty came within fractions of an inch from losing his career, his ability to walk, or perhaps even worse. That he luckily escaped severe handicap is a blessing, but it also fuels the knuckle-draggers who think the whole thing was overblown. Pacioretty was out cold on the ice – that by definition is a severe concussion. That he seemed to avoid post-concussion symptoms is what has Dr. Recchi, Boston media, and Bruins fans in such a confused tizzy. Any way you slice it, this was a horrific incident that touched off a frenzy in Montreal unseen in decades. Predictably, the rest of the hockey world points and laughs. Thankfully Pacioretty will be back next year and looking to pick up where he left off.

Injuries to Markov and Gorges. Why, oh why can’t the Habs stay in one piece for one year? If you spend any time reading here, you know me as somebody that doesn’t buy the injuries as an excuse for underachieving, or failure. Everyone suffers from injuries, and the Habs were somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of man-games lost to injury. Yeah, yeah, the whole quality vs quantity argument. Given the importance of Markov and Gorges to the team, it seems grossly unfair that both would be shelved for many months. Will either be back next season? Time will tell, but I would like to see them both return, for the right price of course.

Scott Gomez. No breakdown of the Habs season would be complete without looking at Gomez’ horrific season. After his putrid start, his supporters said that he’s a second half player. When he didn’t get going after the all star break, his supporters entrenched themselves deeper and said he was a playoff performer and we should be patient. When all is said and done, he never really got going at all. 38 points, -15. Underwhelming playoff performance aside from a strong first game. His last goal would come in early February, while all other facets of his game tumbled to appaling levels. The Canadiens can’t afford another season like that from a guy who eats such a large chunk of cap space. It will be tough to move him in any scenario, but its safe to say that his nightmarish season could have single-handedly cost the Habs a playoff spot if not for Carey Price’s brilliance.

Booing Carey Price. What’s the matter with the people who booed Carey Price – in the preseason no less? The real work hadn’t yet begun and those who sleep in Halak jammies were already out with their pitchforks. Needless to say, within weeks they no longer had any credibility, as Price forcibly duct taped every single one of the haters mouths shut. Booing the home team is never smart. Singling out a young player who needed support more than scorn was borderline criminal. In the end, all Price needed was confidence and he’d take care of the rest. On many nights, he was left on his own and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s what the greats do, and Carey Price is already great. When it’s all said and done, his name will not look out of place with the likes of Plante, Vezina, Roy, and Dryden.

The rivalry with Boston. For the better part of a century, the Habs and Bruins built one of the greatest rivalries in sports. In 2011, however, it went from an on-ice rivalry, to outright vitriolic hate in all directions. The players don’t like one another, but the fans and media have helped propel this rivalry to very nasty, unfriendly places. There’s no need to rehash it all, as it all cuts so close to the bone but it’s safe to say that this rivalry, which had cooled slightly in recent years, even with several playoff matchups has been renewed. We hope that it stays on the ice and produces exciting hockey, but I somehow doubt that. Winning with grace has eluded certain fanbases and the teams they follow.

The Bad

Opening round loss to the Bruins. After the tumultuous season that the Habs suffered at the hands of the Bruins (despite winning 4 of 6 games), roaring out to a 2-0 series lead had everyone thinking about the 2010 playoffs and another Cinderella run. Surely, with a 0-26 record when falling behind by two games, the Bruins were toast, right? Sadly for Habs fans, the Bruins fought back, broke through the barrier that was so successful last year for Montreal and eventually won the series. In seven games. In overtime. It doesn’t get worse than that for Habs fans who were around when the Canadiens hadn’t lost to the Bruins in the playoffs for 40 years. Yes, 40 years.

Inability to score at even strength – ‘The System’. Listening to the season ending post-mortem press conference, Jacques Martin would have you believe that his puck possession system in fully in place, and that the Habs do not struggle to score goals. Those paying attention know that he is simply deflecting, avoiding and outright lying about the type of hockey he has his team playing. It was tough to argue with him as the Habs hobbled through the season and still hung on to 6th place in the East. But again, when looking at all of the stats and evidence, the real system is Carey Price. Without 70+ games of terrific hockey from the Habs netminder, it would have been lights out after the regular season. It’s dangerous to rely solely on special teams and goaltending, and hopefully everyone now realizes that.

Underachieving forwards. All 6 of the top forwards had sub-par years. Starting with the aforementioned Gomez, but filtering down to each and every one of Plekanec, Gionta, Kostitsyn, Cammalleri and whoever the 6th forward was on any given day. None had what I’d call a strong year. Aside from Gomez’ putrid performance, the others all had decent, but underwhelming performances. We’ll never know how Pacioretty would have affected things if not for his head-first dive in to a stanchion, but it’s clear – the system prevents the Habs best offensive talents from reaching their potential. We’ve long forgotten what it’s like to have a forward finish among the league leaders in terms of production, and as long as the defense-first system lives, the Habs will struggle to score – regardless of the PR spin the coach and management decides to sell us, and regardless of what talent may be lured to town.

Moving Ryan O’Byrne, then trading to acquire more defense. This is a sticky one. The coach didn’t trust O’Byrne, which is his prerogative. I have to admit that I didn’t have much faith in O’Byrne, either, but I did want him in the lineup on a more consistent basis so that he could develop the confidence that fans would then absorb by osmosis. The organization didn’t see it that way, and shipped him to Colorado – where he played quite well – for another small prospect forward in Michael Bournival. We can only ponder how management reacted once O’Byrne was no longer available once their defensemen started to drop like flies. Would O’Byrne have drawn back in to the lineup, or would coach Martin continue to select others like Alexandre Picard over him? We’ll never know, but what is certain is that there was no rush to move him as quickly as they did.

Scattered, disorganized, immobile defense. Valiant warriors one and all: Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, Brent Sopel, Paul Mara. All are guys with guts, and all performed as well as they could. In the end, it was clear that they were asked to do more than they were capable of – whether through lack of skill, or the slow erosion of age, these guys simply couldn’t do the things necessary to win for long enough. Opponents know that if they press on their older, slower bodies, they’ll end up with the puck in the Canadiens zone, and they’ll force these older players to take penalties. And take penalties they did; the Habs were near the summit of the league in terms of minor penalties taken; another blight on ‘the system’. It’s tough to score goals when the puck is always in your own end. Individually they all seem like terrific teammates, but in order to get better, some changes will need to be made, and hard decisions taken. It’s hard to do, but teams don’t get better by “being nice”.

Picking on PK. I would have put this in the “ugly” section if PK showed any signs of caring what other think of him outside of his locker room. Instead, Pernell Karl turned the corner at midseason and, given the ice time he received because of injuries to Markov and Gorges, he opened eyes across the league. However, not all eyes are as tolerant as we would like them to be in 2011. Racial slurs became common, and the league feigned horror at the “disrespect” the Habs young rearguard displayed on the ice. What a load of trash. Brad Marchand and Cam Fowler pulled similar stunts to what Subban did this year, and yet received no criticism. Racial undertones aside, PK gets a lot of flack simply because he’s GREAT and still a long way from his full potential. This scares other teams and their fans. Almost all non-Habs fans would admit to wanting him on their team, and this is a testament to PK’s resolve, evolving maturity, and lastly, to Trevor Timmins, who has hit a grand slam by drafting this kid in the second round. For once, it’s awfully nice having a player that everyone else says “how did we miss this guy” about.

The Failure of Pouliot. Benny, Benny, Benny. Last year I referred to you as Jimmy Olsen on a team of superheroes. You did nothing to change that this year, even though I thought you may be turning a corner at a few points. Have a nice career in some other jersey. I can’t devote any more space to you and your underachieving ways.

The Heritage Classic. Everyone loves an outdoor game, right? The mystique, the roots of the game, the fresh air. Yeah, sure they do. On this cold February evening, the Habs, decided that being in front of a gigantic, captive North-American audience was the right time to play one of the worst games of the season, being blanked 4-0 to the Calgary Flames at McMahon Stadium. It was a flaccid performance, coming off the heels of an equally putrid loss to the bottom-feeding Oilers.

Departures we hate to see. It hasn’t happened yet, but it certainly appears that Kirk Muller is on his way out of Montreal. What a shame that the Canadiens organization should lose two young coaching talents in Guy Boucher and Kirk Muller in consecutive years. If there’s one argument for Habs brass in keeping Jacques Martin around it’s that if they cut him loose any time soon after losing Boucher and Muller, they’ll be roasted. Other players potentially on their way out include Andrei Markov, Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and a few others. Some are near and dear to Habs fans, and we’d hate to see them go. In some cases, it’s necessary, but in the case of Kirk Muller you’d hope the Canadiens would do whatever it takes to keep a guy that the players reportedly adore. The fans seem to like him, too.

The Good

A new captain for a new era. After going through an entire season with no captain, the Canadiens decided it was time to name a new one to replace Saku Koivu. Raise your hand if you don’t like Brian Gionta as Captain. Nobody? I thought so. Stoic, heart of a lion, non-stop motor…what’s not to like about Brian Gionta? Nothing, that’s what.

Price’s rebirth. Carey Price had been, until this season started, a very controversial figure. How refreshing it is then, that under more pressure than ANY player in the league, Price responds with the type of season he had. There’s a case to be made that he should have been nominated for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. Certainly there is no post-season in Montreal without his consistently solid play. Each and every single Habs fan should be in awe of how he played and conducted himself this year. And General Manager Gauthier should lock him up for a very, very long time as soon as possible. Don’t wait until Price increases his value even higher.

Subban’s emergence. He’s already been mentioned, but how amazing was PK Subban this season? He’s clearly the best rookie defenseman the Habs have had since the mid-80′s, and there are whispers that he’s gone and made Andrei Markov expendable. I don’t necessarily believe that, as the sophomore jinx has bitten the best of them, including Tyler Myers and Drew Doughty. Subban could easily have a setback next year, but what is clear is that at 21 years old, Subban is going to be the Canadiens top defenseman in a couple years from now, and will be for a long, long time. As with Price, Gauthier should lock up Subban immediately, before his price tag is elevated with Norris credentials.

Weber shines. Below the radar, and in Subban’s immense shadow lies the solid, versatile Yannick Weber. He may never be a top pairing defenseman, but he can be an effective power play specialist, while not embarassing himself on defense. He also proved that he could play a fourth line role, bringing back images of another Swiss-born, under-the-radar, jack-of-all-trades former Hab in Mark Streit. I believe he’s been underrated all season long and has earned a permanent spot on the blueline.

Pacioretty’s promise. Where’s our power forward? How many times had you heard that over the past decade? Safe to say that if you had a dime for every time you heard that from a fan, or member of the media, you’d be living the sweet life out in California’s beatiful San Fernando Valley (hat tip to Dr. Venkman for that beauty). Before being savagely injured, Pacioretty was just entering his own. He was the Habs best forward at the time of his injury, and seemed to be the answer to the gaping hole among the top 6 forwards. When Pacioretty revealed that he would have been ready to face the Capitals should the Habs have beaten Boston, fans sighed in disappointment. So close. On the other hand, he gets a full off-season to stregthen his neck and be absolutely certain that he wasn’t rushing back. Then again, it took a wicked slap shot to the ribs and a trip to the hospital before Pacioretty really heated up in the first place, so who knows, maybe he would have been even better after recovering from his neck problems.

Discovery of Desharnais. Talk about found money! Everyone knew about his skill, and his pal Pacioretty said he was the best center he had ever played with. It didn’t take long for Habs fans to see what he was talking about. Though he’s another small forward on a team of small forwards, I think Claude Julien got it right on when he said that Desharnais looks like he could be another Martin St-Louis. Let’s hope the Canadiens are able to find a permanent and fitting role for this pint-sized dynamo. It will be tough, as the Habs have Gomez, Plekanec and Eller at center already. Eller is ill-suited to play wing, and it would be a shame for Desharnais to toil on the fourth line with all that skill being devoted to a checking role. The answer, as hard as it may be to accomplish, is to somehow move Gomez. As much as I’d like to give him the chance to redeem himself (and this likely will be the path we go down), I’d spit nails if young talent was sacrificed for overpaid underachievers. Young homegrown talent is raring to go, and shouldn’t be stifled or discarded. If Habs management is intent on letting fresh coaching talent walk away, as well as prime prospects in low salary brackets in favour of bloated, stale contracts in Jacques Martin and Scott Gomez, then they should be immediately fired.

BAMF Ryan White. Finally, a player with wheels, and a willingness to get his nose dirty. Every team needs players like Ryan White. When members of the team come out and publicly state that White should have been on the team since the start of the season, that’s a criticism on the coaches and management, who were either asleep at the switch, or ignorant of their team’s needs. Either way, it’s a huge compliment to Ryan White, who, despite not being a heavy weight, finally brings accountability for other teams who feel like they can take liberties on the Habs without having to answer for it.

Koivu 2.0: Enter Lars Eller. Somebody said it on Twitter, and I think it’s totally appropriate (if you know who said it, please let me know). Eller is Koivu in a bigger body. What a dream come true for Habs fans! For a decade we wished that Saku could have been a little bigger and a little more durable. As big as his heart was and still is, he always wore down as the seasons took their inevitable toll. Lars Eller may not have had the numbers to prove it, but he has playmaking skills, skating ability, defensive awareness and size down the middle – one of the Habs missing key ingredients. We would love to see him develop his finish around the net in coming years, but it’s clear to me that the Habs have won the Halak trade hands-down. With Eller in the fold, and a reborn Carey Price, it’s in fact a steal and Gauthier deserves credit, despite what Pierre McGuire’s bitterness will tell you.

Mike Cammalleri - playoff wizard. Two seasons. 26 playoff games. 16 goals. 13 assists. 29 points. Any questions? Many thought that they could throw Cammalleri under the same bus that Gomez found himself under all season. While Gomez apologists tried to tell us that he would produce in the playoffs, and that Cammalleri hadn’t proven anything, we now know better. Cammalleri is a gamer, and brings his best to the post season. While he’s merely average defensively, he’s the Habs go-to guy on offense in the playoffs. He simply gets it done unlike any Hab player in recent years in the post season.

Small package, huge heart. The small forwards may get beaten up, but they simply don’t go away. Time and time again they fought back this season, led by guys who punch much higher than their weight. Captain Gionta certainly leads the way with his fearlessness, and never say die work ethic, but others like Plekanec, Cammalleri and Desharnais showed no fear when it comes to facing adversity. Young players like Eller, Desharnais, Subban, Weber, Pacioretty are soaking in some extremely vital lessons. They see smaller guys working their tails off, and the attitude is infectious. This bodes very well for chemistry and identity of the Habs’ future.

Departures we like to see. Pierre Boivin. Thanks for making the Habs more relevant than they’ve ever been, during their longest Stanley Cup drought in history. Your business acumen and marketing prowess (along with Ray Lalonde) is to be commended. You guys made the Habs a glossy, flashy, only-show-in-town behemoth. Your work has enlivened the Habs for a new generation and has somehow made the Canadiens even more of a religion than they already were. However, your sociological policies have held the Canadiens back where it counts most – on the ice. You honoured the past glory of the franchise to the point of distracting fans to the mediocrity of recent teams. We’re all grateful for what you did in honouring greats like Geoffrion, Robinson, Cournoyer, Savard, Gainey, Roy and others, and we thank you for that. Really, we do. The ceremonies were touching, classy and the gold standard by which all sports teams should aspire to. Good luck in your future endeavors, but I can’t say that I’m sad to see you go.

Mathieu Darche. What more can be said about this guy? Bemoaned by nearly all Habs fans for signing a one-way deal, I was in the minority who thought this was a wise, value-packed signing, and I’m glad that I was proven right. He filled in admirably on the second line when Pacioretty went down, scoring several big goals in areas on the ice where Habs have feared to tread for years. He has to be a tremendous influence on young players who have more skill and upside than Darche, but may lack the work ethic required at the NHL level. Darche spent time all over the lineup, and even spent time in the press box. Without having access to the locker room, I’d bet my last penny that he did everything with a smile on his face.

Triple low-fives. How much fun is the post-victory ritual between Subban and Price?

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Expectations

It’s a word that we use often. Pierre McGuire constantly reminds us to “manage” them, but we often let them get away from us just the same. When we talk about individual players, coaches, teams and outcomes, we all have our own expectations for what the final analysis should read. Sometimes their fair, sometimes they’re more fantasy than reality-based.

I can’t recall a playoff series that has such a wide gamut of expectations on either side of the fence as this 33rd matchup between Montreal and Boston. Both sides expect (demand?) victory, and both sides have compelling cases as to why their side will come out on top.

No doubt Bruins fans, and indeed Bruins management expect their team to employ the ‘Big, Bad Bruins’ philosophy. It’s been their identity for decades, and it’s how they play the game. They’ll expect the belief of superior size, and skill, propelled by their two most recent home wins over Montreal, to grind the Habs in to a gooey tri-coloured paste. They’ll expect to break the Canadiens’ will through intimidation. The Bruins almost certainly expect to prove that their Northeast Division win wasn’t all for naught, and they want to do it with authority. Their Head Coach, Claude Julien expects that his team will carry their strong regular season in to the playoffs with their rough-and-tumble style, and escape the first round unscathed (no doubt he has to expect that, otherwise he can expect to be shown the door). General Manager Peter Chiarelli clearly expects big things, as he was the one pulling the trigger on significant trade deadline upgrades. He will have answering to do if the Bruins don’t go very deep in the playoffs.

The Bruins see this postseason as a prime chance to win it all for the first time since 1972. They’ve added Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley, and Chris Kelly for their playoff run…you don’t make those types of additions if you don’t think your window is wide open. These moves signaled the Bruins intentions and expectations, and they desperately want to capitalize before that window slams shut. The pressure is squarely and intensely on the Bruins to squash their pesky little foes and take another step in leveling the scales – which currently tip heavily in Montreal’s favour: 24 playoff series victories to the Bruins’ 8. Should the Bruins again fall to their bitter rivals (the Habs represent the ultimate bear trap) you can expect a lot of questions. You can expect a lot of anger. You can probably also expect some big changes.

The Bruins have elite goaltending, but I’m not sure what to expect of Tim Thomas, and I bet I’m not the only one. He’s a virtual lock for the Vézina trophy as the league’s best regular season goaltender, as he should be, but his numbers against the Habs are anything but impressive. Who will we see? The former and probable once-again Vézina winner, or the guy with bambi legs when facing the Habs?

Goaltending aside, there’s a lot of very good talent up front wearing black and gold. Bergeron, Horton, Krejci, Peverley, Ryder, Recchi, Marchand and Lucic are all terrific players in their own right. They’re a solid mix of power, skill, speed, and sharpshooting. Overall they lack playoff experience, but Dr. Recchi’s long career probably carries enough experience for everyone to share in. Defensively, however is where the Bruins are vulnerable. Outside of Chara, their defense is nothing to write home about. They’re not horrendous, but the quicker Habs forwards should be able to exploit that weakness – provided the Canadiens can get possession of the puck.

As for the Habs and their fans, last year’s improbable run deep in to the playoffs broke ground that nobody with the CH tatooed on their heart had seen since 1993 - a lifetime for fans spoiled by annual Cup parades. That run to the Eastern Conference Finals – for better or worse – sent the explicit message that simply making the playoffs is no longer enough. The happy news – if you can call it that – is that both the team and fanbase seem to be in lock-step with this belief. The team knows the bar has been raised, and the fans are all too happy to go along with that.

Recall that just one year ago, it was a pretty much a brand new Habs roster, with new coaching, new management and new ownership…how could they have done what they did considering all of the upheaval? It was mind-boggling to be sure, but fast forward to the present day, and the new car smell has worn off this Habs team. The Canadiens are now expected to replicate their results from last year – or at the very least not bow out in round one – not to the hated Bruins – and especially not after what Chara did to Max Pacioretty. It’s simply unacceptable to Montreal fans – no matter their conference rankings – that the Canadiens be eliminated by the Bruins. It’s the bitterest of pills. Fans of the Bruins will undoubtedly be upset should the Bruins fail, but most of them will quickly get behind the Celtics and Red Sox to soothe their pain (though the Sox may not be the ideal place to find solace right now). In Montreal, fans will gnash their teeth over a loss to the Bruins all summer long.

Getting a little more granular, Habs fans expect greatness from Carey Price, despite his less-than-stellar career playoff numbers. His playoff experience certainly is a mixed bag, but think back to Price’s rookie season and his performances in the first round against the Bruins – most notably his game seven performance. His 5-11 playoff record is underwhelming, but it overshadows some brilliant performances, and is skewed by the complete no-show the Habs put forth during the centennial collpase. After a terrific regular season, and with a solid record against Boston over the past 2 years there’s little reason to expect anything different from the Habs netminder. He will almost certainly be good, but he needs to be better than Tim Thomas if the Canadiens are to win this series. There will be defensive lapses all around him and he will have to continue to bail out his mates, as has done since October.

With the aforementioned centennial sweep at the hands of the Bruins a long faded (repressed?) memory, it should not factor in to anybody’s psyche in this series; the Habs roster reset of last season took care of that, even if the Bruins choose to use that sweep as a source of confidence. So what else do Habs fans expect? Certainly they expect the best players to perform like the best players, as they should. That means Plekanec, Gomez, Cammalleri and Gionta need to produce on the scoreboard, with no exceptions. If Plekanec can’t produce points on the road, if Gomez can’t salvage his disastrous season in the playoffs (where he usually excels), if Cammallieri goes stone cold again, and if Gionta is neutralized, the Habs are done like dinner. There cannot be any “yes, but X was good defensively” or “yeah but X played hurt” type of excuses if they fire blanks. Guys in their paygrade don’t earn several million dollars just to be defensively reliable; Jeff Halpern is. Mathieu Darche is. Tom Pyatt is. Also, at this stage, everyone has a nagging injury, so that excuse carries little water except for with apologists. This is the time of year when good players really earn the paychecks and make their names, so these four key cogs need to deliver on the scoreboard, end of story. It would be grossly unfair to the likes of Lars Eller, David Desharnais, Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot to expect them to carry the load offensively, and any production from Moen, Darche, Pyatt, Halpern, and White while certainly welcome, should be seen as found money. It can be argued that the Canadiens’ under-25 group is a prime reason why the Habs are in the playoffs, but it will have to be the highly paid veterans who lead the charge. Defensively, the group “is what it is”. They’re slow, old, not very tough and don’t move the puck particularly well. As they did in virtually each of the 82 games, the Canadiens will be caught running around their own zone in a frantic, disorganized mess from time to time. This is expected, and habitual with this team. Anyone surprised at that may need to be handed the smelling salts. While it’s unlikely for the defense to clean up its act now when they have even more miles on the tires, their veteran savvy may reveal a trick or two up their sleeve. Shot blocking is one thing; physicality, and quickly moving the puck with purpose are other animals entirely. By now you know which ones the Canadiens do well, and which ones they don’t. The questions is which of the things that they don’t do well can they mitigate the most?

We can expect Jacques Martin and his staff to be steady in their demeanor, even if it isn’t always deemed the ideal approach. Don’t expect any surprises. Don’t expect much emotion, or much reaction to anything. There will be canned coach-speak, and the common clichés. In this respect, the Habs coaching staff is as easy to set expectations for as it gets. If there’s one unfortunate expectation it’s that the coaching staff has been unable to stop the Canadiens from taking minor penalties through 82 games, and there’s not much reason to think they’ll find a way to stop it now…but any more bench minors for Too Many Men should be viewed as unacceptable. The Canadiens already spend too much time on the penalty kill and in their own end at even strength. There’s no need to make that problem worse by taking entirely preventable penalties. While the Habs usually do a good job of killing penalties, any time spent on the penalty kill is time wasted in the Bruins zone, and precious energy spent by the likes of Tomas Plekanec and Roman Hamrlik. On the flip side of the special teams battle, the Habs do a terrible job of drawing penalties. They’re not big enough to force opponents to take interference penalties, and they don’t play a style that allows their speed to force opponents to hook, hold, grab and trip with much frequency. In order for the Habs to get on the power play, they need to be antagonistic thorns in the Bruins’ side, and they need to avoid retaliating when they do raise the Bruins ire. They need to be that team that the Bruins constantly whine about. Getting under the Bruins’ skin and getting them off their game is paramount.

If the Canadiens are planning on applying pieces of last year’s playoff game plan to this year’s, it would be at best a risky gambit. While the Canadiens allowed offensive-minded players like Ovechkin, Semin, Crosby and Malkin to fire at will, once they faced the Flyers, who are a deeper, more evenly distributed team they were stopped dead in their tracks. This Bruins team more closely mirrors that fatal Flyers bunch in that there isn’t one or two players to shut down in order to win. Stop Ovechkin and Backstrom – you win. Stop Crosby and Malkin – you win. Stop Richards and Carter? Oops - what about Brière and Giroux? It’s tough to identify just a couple of Bruins to stop, because others are eminently capable of seamlessly filling the void; they’re like the Hydra that way. No doubt they’re a formidable group, and they’ll seek to overwhelm the slow-moving Habs defense. The Canadiens would love to block as many shots as they did last year, but it would be dangerous indeed to allow the Bruins free passage in the Habs zone as they did with the Capitals and Penguins.

At the end of this long-winded post, I’m expecting a simlarly long series that will go at least 6 games. I believe that whoever takes the first game will eventually win in 6 games…and I think Carey Price will steal game 1 in Boston.

Found: A Home for Two Wingers

Prior to the start of the season, the Canadiens had several challenges in front of them. Among them:

  • Would Carey Price be able to handle the pressures of not only carrying a team on his shoulders, but force fans forget about playoff hero Jaroslav Halak?
  • Would the smallish Canadiens forwards be able to grind out another season and remain productive?
  • Would Andrei Markov be able to return to the lineup and give his team a badly needed shot of adrenaline?
  • How would an aging, eroding defense hold up?

Most of those questions have been answered by now, but there’s another question that everyone had on their mind: Would Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot be able to deliver the goods? With little cap flexibility and not many assets to wheel & deal, Pierre Gauthier knew, as did everyone else, that if the Canadiens scoring prayers were to be answered it would be because his two big, skilled wingers answered those prayers.

Through 65 games, their numbers aren’t all that impressive on the surface:

  • Andrei Kostitsyn – 16 goals, 20 assists in 64 games, with a +3 rating.
  • Benoit Pouliot – 13 goals, 13 assists in 62 games, with a +7 rating.

There’s a litany of excuses and exonerations for both, though both have earned their fair share of criticism. In the case of AK46, some of criticism snowballs to a big ball of hate while Pouliot’s criticism leans more towards resigned ambivalence. I’m not sure which is worse; at least the hate shows that people care and expect more.

As Jacques Martin shuffles lines, he seems to have stumbled on something that finally works. Kostitsyn is now riding shotgun with Lars Eller and Travis Moen, forming what is far and away the Canadiens biggest line. Kostitsyn and Eller seem to have chemistry together and have been feasting on favourable matchups as teams throw their top defenses out against the likes of Plekanec and Gomez (though why would anyone bother these days with Gomez?). Pouliot, for his part has been quietly effective with mini-mite David Desharnais. He’s still prone to moments of stupidity and still finds ways to disappear for prolonged periods, but he’s not the bambi-legged, fragile kid that he was when faced with superior opposition near the start of the season. Right now, Kostitsyn and to a lesser degree, Pouliot are finding their all-important comfort zones. Perhaps they won’t put up the numbers expected of players selected in the top-10 of an NHL draft; in fact, under a stifling Jacques Martin ‘defense-first’ system, it’s unlikely that their numbers will ever cause eyeballs to pop. But they do have the talent to totally overwhelm the bottom lines of opposing teams and provide the Canadiens the secondary scoring that they desperately need.

Taking a closer look, Kostitsyn had 10 points in 11 October games. Recently he’s posted 7 points in his past 5 games. Combining those 16 games, AK46 has 17 points. Pretty impressive I’d say. The other 48 games, sadly, aren’t as pretty, as he totaled just 7 goals and 12 assists. Interestingly, Habs scribe Arpon Basu revealed what I think is a telling stat. While Kostitsyn can be maddening from game to game, and week to week, as evidenced in the break down of this season, his overall numbers are astoundingly consistent from season to season: in each of the past 3 seasons, AK46 has posted remarkably similar numbers: 0.55, 0.56; 0.56 points per game.

Perhaps its time for us to recognize the pattern and see him for what he is and stop harping on him to become what we think he ought to be. Afterall, if we recall Einstein’s definition of insanity:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The temptation for Jacques Martin will be to put Kostitsyn back on the top line with Plekanec and Cammalleri, and that may eventually be the right move – especially come mid-April. But for now, Kostitsyn is back on the scoresheet with the consistency that Habs Nation has been longing for, and he deserves credit for riding out the very choppy waters to this point. He’s found solid footing with Eller and perhaps he’s found a good home on whichever line you consider it to be. The happy byproduct is that Lars Eller is thriving in an increased offensive role. It’s a huge win-win for the Habs. It would be a mistake in this blogger’s opinion to jerk Kostitsyn back to the “top” line now while he’s in the midst of his best hockey since October.

I would be remiss not to point out that something will eventually have to give, because Jeff Halpern, like Travis Moen, Mathieu Darche, Tom Pyatt and Ryan White before him- are not legit first line wingers. They can plug a hole, as Glen Metropolit did last season, but they aren’t permanent solutions. But while Kostitsyn is surging, don’t pull the rug out from under him. He’s proven to be a guy that doesn’t respond to the whip in a good way. He needs to gain confidence by putting the puck in the net, and its becoming clear that the best way for him to accomplish that is to lessen the pressures on him and let him beat up on weaker opposition.

Martin goofed at the start of November when he separated Kostitsyn from Plekanec in an attempt to spark the sea of despair that is Gomez’ wing. Coach Martin has received a huge amount of criticism for not adapting or learning from his mistakes. He’d be as insane as some fans if he repeated it again.

It’s fixed for now, Jacques, don’t break it.

Mythbusting

When you follow a team that generates as much discussion and speculation as the Habs, urban legends and outright myths are bound to spring up like dandelions. Two of the most popular myths that have endured for years are that the Canadiens cannot lure superstar free agents to Montreal for reasons relating to media pressure, taxes, political strife, and the fishbowl atmosphere. When former General Manager Bob Gainey signed big names like Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri to long-term contracts, much of the long-held myth died. Other lower tier free agents like Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Travis Moen also elected to ply their trade in la Belle Province. Tomas Plekanec elected to return to Montreal when he could have likely gone elsewhere for more money. Gainey proved that as long as the dollars are there, the signatures will follow. This doesn’t mean that it will be a cake walk to sign big names in the future, but it’s far cry from the “fat chance” that it was just a few years ago.

The other myth is one that has needed a debunking in the worst way, and that is the long-held belief that once the Canadiens give up on a young player, he goes on to stardom elsewhere in the league. I don’t know where the myth started, but maybe it traces back to the early 90′s when the Canadiens sent John LeClair to Philadelphia. LeClair went on to 50-goal fame with the Flyers, something no Habs fan saw coming, and something that hasn’t been easy to swallow nearly 20 years later. Perhaps some would refer to the deal that sent Chelios to Chicago for an over-the-hill Denis Savard? On the flip side, let’s also recall that youngster Gilbert Dionne, he of 60 career goals with the Canadiens over parts of 5 seasons was sent packing, only to accomplish less than nothing with the duration of his NHL career. If he had scored 2 goals per game in the 27 games he had left in front of him in his NHL career, he would not have matched his career output in Montreal. Eric Desjardins and Mathieu Schneider went on to have terrific careers after playing with the Canadiens (and being contributors to a 24th cup victory, I may add), but its not like the Canadiens “gave up” on those guys. Both played several years in Montreal and were part of deals that were intended to make the Canadiens better. Give to get, as it were.

Today it seems that the consensus among fans is that once the Canadiens trade Andrei Kostitsyn away, he will instantly fulfill his first round draft pick promise and score 30 goals without breaking a sweat. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. If he finds the right fit, he will. If he doesn’t get his head in the game, he won’t. If he does manage to consistently score, it will undoubtedly fuel the fire that says youngsters departing Montreal instantly get better by changing scenery, or escaping the clutches of vile gangster Jabba the Hut Head Coach Jacques Martin.

But let’s take a quick look at the ledger, shall we? Without breaking down every stat and every situation, the Canadiens have let the following “young” players go over the past few years:

  • Michael Ryder
  • Chris Higgins
  • Mike Komisarek
  • Mikhail Grabovski
  • Sergei Kostitsyn
  • Kyle Chipchura
  • Guillaume Latendresse
  • Max Lapierre
  • Matt D’Agostini
  • Ryan McDonagh
  • Jaroslav Halak

It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and without breaking it down in to minutae, at a glance we can see that of those names, only Belarussians Mikhail Grabovski and Sergei Kostitsyn have Habs fans up in arms today. Micheal Ryder has remained a decent player, but isn’t blowing anyone away in Boston and while Latendresse had some success after his trade last year, he’s been hurt for the vast majority of this season. Matt D’Agostini has posted respectable numbers overall, but he isn’t exactly burning up the scoresheet, either. In fact his recent stats suggest he’s slipping back to the form that saw him wear out his welcome in Montreal. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh has been a solid addition to the Rangers blue line but has a long way to go. He will always be known as a guy that was traded away so that the Canadiens could get their man in Scott Gomez. No doubt that the sting of that trade will help fan the flames. The rest of the names: Higgins, Komisarek, Chipchura, and Lapierre have all gone on to circle the drain in their post-Canadiens tenures. Higgins continues to struggle to find the form that had Habs fans labeling him as the team’s future captain. He’s seen time in New York, Calgary, and now Florida, with few signs that he will return to being the player that had three consecutive 20-goal seasons in Montreal. Mike Komisarek has been a huge failure in Toronto after signing a big contract, and everyone except Brian Burke will admit that. Kyle Chipchura is a spare part in Anaheim as he was in Montreal, and Max Lapierre is utterly lost with the same Anaheim team. Perhaps most famously, Jaroslav Halak has been very average with the Blues this season after enchanting an entire city with his performance last year. After a fantastic start to the season, his play has eroded significantly.

Circumstances vary, and the jury is still out on many of these players, but it’s clear from just taking a quick look at the list that very few players actually leave Montreal and become poster boys for success, or are cautionary tales for giving up too early. The myth is just that: A myth. It’s no guarantee that a young player will become a star elsewhere. That said, in this age of the salary cap, it is imperative that teams get the best from their young players or suffer the consequences. The Canadiens have struggled in this aspect, but it’s pretty clear to me that they were not always dealing with blue-chip stocks. I’m not getting in to what the Canadiens got (or didn’t get) in return for these players when they were given their walking papers. That’s a separate issue for another time.

But for now, we can at least try to shelve the discussion that all youngsters dumped by the Canadiens become superstars elsewhere.

Can you think of any other Habs that were traded away, only to become stars elsewhere?


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