Thursday, February 28, 2008

Jaroslav Dangerfield?

He just don't get no respect.

I've been watching the pundits dissect the Cristobal Huet trade and subsequent consequence of 20-year-old Carey Price becoming the Canadiens' number-one goalie. The prevailing school of thought is that Gainey may be losing his marbles to have dumped Huet with a playoff spot and potential post-season success at stake. Most experts think Carey Price is too young to be given the responsibility of manning the Habs' crease all by himself. After all, he's not Dryden or Roy, and a Calder Cup championship does not an NHL number-one make.

What the anaylists are overlooking is the fact that Carey Price is NOT alone. He has a very capable, though young, backup in Jaroslav Halak. Halak proved his mettle last season as a 21-year-old rookie, when he walked in to replace the injured Huet and almost hauled the Habs into the playoffs...after they'd spent the entire second half of the season trying hard to prove they didn't deserve to be there. But he seems to have vanished from the collective memory of hockey people.

I'm not saying Halak is better than Price or that he'll be some kind of miracle worker for the Habs if the team isn't working together to win. But he's a good young goalie in his own right who does deserve some notice for his contribution to the team in the past, and for performing well in Hamilton after being ignominously demoted in September, even after a strong training camp.

Carey Price is a good young goalie who has a big job ahead of him, with a lot of pressure to perform. And the pundits are right...he's twenty years old and it's to be expected that he'll falter at some point. But they're wrong to say that when that inevitably happens, the Habs will plummet. Halak is there to help, and even though he gets no respect, he's more than capable of doing that.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Price is Money

Price is money. Those were the words of Maxim Lapierre after last night's 5-1 win against Atlanta. In fact, yesterday was all about price: twenty-year-old Carey Price, handed the tiller of the good ship Canadiens, and the price of doing business when a GM wants to make a splash.

Well, Carey Price justified his GM's and his teammates' belief in him...for one night at least...with a great performance against the Thrashers. As for the other price...the one for bringing those same Thrashers' Marian Hossa to was too high.

Now that the frenzy of deadline day and its leadup has subsided, common sense says Bob Gainey was right. When the price for the privilege of renting Hossa for two months soared into the three-roster-players-and-a-prospect range, Gainey closed the bank. As he should have. He's got a young, mostly home-grown team with a special chemistry and a rare balance. His team leads the league with seven forty-point scorers. They sit second in league goal scoring, with no one having yet reached the thirty-goal plateau. I would rather see Maxim Lapierre and Christopher Higgins score FOR the Habs than against them. And I'd rather see Jaroslav Halak given a chance to develop for the team that drafted him, rather than padding a deal for a rental player.

I'm still disappointed in Gainey's failure to address the need for a third-line shut-down centre, which I think will hurt during the playoffs, and even in the tough western games leading up to the post-season. And I'm saddened at the loss of Cristobal Huet, as are his former teammates in Montreal. But even considering those lows, I'm happy with our little team. The Little Team That Could, even with no big stars.

They're young, they're fast, they're entertaining and they've got each other's backs. And, with any luck, the youthful goalies will provide the high-calibre netminding they need to win. I'm setting my expectations low right now. I want to see them make the playoffs in the top six in the East, which I think is reasonable, and I'd like them to win a round. After that, it's gravy for them. Maybe they'll surprise in the post-season, maybe they won't. Whatever happens, they'll have learned one more lesson in the school of experience that graduates champions. Best of all, they'll do it together.

In the meantime, Bob Gainey is sitting back with a healthy team on the ice and a healthy amount of cap space off it. He's still got his draft picks for what promises to be a deep pool this year. The team's young prospects are closer to making a difference in the NHL. There will be money to spend this summer, and the team is presenting itself as a desirable group for free agents to join for the franchise's centennial.

I think the price of a Cup is one the Habs can't afford this season. But they're getting there. And when the Hossas of the world have moved on to other teams at other costs, our team will be getting better. And when they are ready, Price will be too.

Price is money.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why, Bob? Why?!

The Montreal Canadiens are done. The words from TSN's "expert" panel could mean they've stopped trading for today. It could be a prediction of their playoff chances when you consider other teams' improvements.

Either way, I'm crushed. Cristobal Huet to Washington for Anaheim's second pick next year. Hal Freakin' Gill brought more back to the Leafs than that. I know there was a chance Huet would walk for nothing, and I suppose that pick is slightly better than nothing. But if this was an attempt to clear cap space or acquire a pick to be used as part of a bigger deal, it looks like Gainey has failed.

There's going to be a lot of screaming to that effect now that Marian Hossa's a Penguin. I won't be one of those who condemn Gainey for not getting a big gamebreaker like Jokinen or Hossa. But I do have to wonder why he didn't address some of the smaller needs. I would have liked Fedorov or Bobby Holik to address the shut-down centre problem at least.

It's harder to have faith in the Plan today. But I'll recover from the disappointment and I believe Gainey knows more than I do. I'm relieved he didn't trade any of the team's youth, especially Higgins, O'Byrne and Halak. Most especially Halak, who'll now get a chance to star in the NHL. Losing Huet is tough, and the return doesn't look good. Still, I have to believe there's a reason for it.

If I don't believe that, I have to think my team is a lot farther from the top than I'd like to see it.


Reason number 230932 why I don't like deadline day: I'm afraid the luck is running out.

I, like many Montreal Canadiens fans, believe Bob Gainey is the right man to be sitting in the GM's chair. He's got a plan, and he's ahead of schedule in seeing it bear fruit. He's smart and patient and disciplined. He's also a very, very lucky guy when it comes to dodging bullets from a gun he loads himself.

Let's take the case of Daniel Briere. He's put up twenty-two goals and thirty-three assists in sixty-two games. Not too shabby, right? Well, he's also a -24 and is making ten million dollars this year. Compare that with Tomas Plekanec, who's making 1.4 million dollars, is plus-four and has put up twenty-one goals and thirty-three assists in sixty-three games. So either that extra goal is worth 8.6 million bucks, or Bob Gainey got a major deal by paying Plekanec instead of Briere. The part that scares me is that the deal Gainey got appears to be pure luck, since Gainey did offer Briere the big contract and was left holding the money bag when Briere chose Philly instead. Maybe Plekanec would have had the same numbers even if Briere had come to Montreal. Or maybe he'd have been relegated to the third line with plugger linemates and have half those totals. Either way, the Habs would be a different team. Briere's millions would mean another player would have to go to make way for his salary, and considering Alex Kovalev's resurgence this year, the team salary structure would be seriously out of whack.

And speaking of Plekanec, it's pure luck he's still a Hab at all. When Gainey made the deal with the Rangers to bring Kovalev to Montreal, he offered Glen Sather his choice of four prospets. Sather chose Jozef Balej because he was the Hamilton Bulldogs' leading scorer at the time, passing over Plekanec. Whew...another bullet dodged.

And Sheldon Souray. Imagine if he'd accepted Gainey's 5.5 million last season. There would be no Roman Hamrlik who's stabilized the team defence immeasurably over last season. Instead, the team would be saddled with Souray's big dollars and defensive errors, as well as his constant injuries.

Yes, Gainey's been good, but he's also been very, very lucky that some of the things he's tried to do have fallen through. Imagine the team with giant salaries to Daniel Briere and Sheldon Souray, and Tomas Plekanec toiling away in Ranger Blue. Not a pretty picture, is it? That's why I'm hoping the trade deadline passes without any big splashes made by Gainey cannonballing into the pool. This is a year to be prudent.

Because sooner or later, the luck will run out.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Getting the Sundin end of the stick

I know it's got nothing to do with the Habs, today at least, but I have to say I'm really disgusted with the flack Mats Sundin is getting for refusing to waive his no-trade clause. Leafs fans, and fans of every other team whose players may have a no-trade clause, should understand those contracts were negotiated in good faith. Which, by definition, means the team willingly gave the player the right to veto a trade. And the team had to have understood that there might be every chance the player would use that veto if presented with a trade proposal. Acting as though the player is hurting the team or being unfair by invoking his no-trade clause is dirty pool on the team's part.

It shouldn't even be surprising that players use the clause at this point. It's a given that if a player requests the clause be part of his contract, it means he likes the team and the city and doesn't want to move.

So because the Toronto media has built up the necessity of trading Sundin for the good of the franchise, and has spent the last two weeks constantly speculating on where he might go and for what assets, while operating under the naive assumption that Sundin would waive his NTC out of an unselfish need to sacrifice himself for the team, the innocent Mats is feeling the backlash of angry fans whose delusional vision of the future has now been dashed.

Mats Sundin has done nothing wrong. He negotiated the clause and he's used it as is his right. If the team wanted to use Sundin to underwrite its future in a trade, it should have refused to grant the request for the NTC. That John Ferguson Jr. has boxed the Leafs into a corner by granting a mittful of NTCs to less-than-worthy candidates who are now hanging like anvils around the figurative neck of the franchise is no one's fault but his own. The surprise to me is that a player of Sundin's calibre is so dedicated to his team that he's willing to stay there and take the blame for its demise.

And, maybe this topic does have something to do with the Habs after all. The Canadiens aren't that many points up on where they were last season; deciding whether to buy or sell by the deadline. Those points make the difference between Sundin or Saku Koivu being the most-often mentioned name on the potential trading block, and Habs fans turning on Koivu because he decided to stay in Montreal. His NTC, like Sundin's, is a fact of life and he has every right to use it without flack from the team or the fans. However, the Habs are not the team on the bubble today and Koivu doesn't have to make the choice presented to Sundin. That's not to say he won't be asked to make that choice at some point in the future though. And he deserves respect for whatever decision he does every player with an NTC.

And on a final note, Sam Pollock was one of the greatest general managers in the history of the league. One of his iron-clad rules was a refusal to grant no-trade clauses in player contracts. Ken Dryden asked for one after a year-long contract dispute and was still refused. Pollock wasn't called Trader Sam for nothing. And he was a visionary in many ways...this being yet another. He knew thirty years ago you can't get much in return for a player you've promised not to trade, no matter how much you might want to dump him.

Win, Lose or Draw

As we get down to the short strokes on trade deadline watch, the more I'm convinced I don't want Gainey to make a big deal. I like Chris Higgins, even if he hasn't been producing much lately. I like Michael Ryder, even though he might leave as an UFA in July. I like Mikhail Grabovski, even though he's not very big. And I LOVE Jaroslav Halak, who I think has vast untapped potential. I don't want to see any of these guys go for a player who either has a bloated salary that exceeds his worth, like Brad Richards, or a player who might stay in Montreal through a playoff appearance then vanish, like Marian Hossa.

There are some players who *might* be worth giving up a piece of the future. Olli Jokinen is one. As a big centre who's tough and consistent with the points, he'd fill a long-term need. He's signed for two more seasons at a reasonable salary too. And the Panthers might not ask for Halak as part of the deal, which is one thing I'm dreading about any trade that Gainey pulls off. But even for the likes of Jokinen, the price can be too high. A package of Chris Higgins, a first round pick and prospects like O'Byrne or Valentenko could be doable. If Jacques Martin wants more than that, Gainey should back off and let the team he has determine its own fate.

In saying this, I'm not opposed to smaller deals for smaller parts. Maybe the aquisition of that third-line defensive specialist for Jonathan Ferland and a second-round pick. But beyond that, the thought of sending big pieces of the current team away for one guy, no matter how good, makes me queasy.

I think the Habs have some of the solutions to their problems in the system already. I think Halak might help shore up the goaltending. Defensive prospects are thick on the ground throughout the organization. Even scoring up front looks to be shaping up with Ben Maxwell, JT Wyman and Max Pacioretty developing.

So, if Gainey can land Jokinen for a fair price, I'm all for it. If he can't, I don't want him to gamble on plan B's like Hossa or Richards. The risk to the team's future is just too high, and the return far from guaranteed.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dream a little dream...

I want Halak. On veut Halak!!

WHY are we being forced to watch the rookie Price's growing pains and the inevitable Huet slump when we could be led by the Slovak Phenom? Maybe Halak would do nothing. Maybe he'd be the second Roy. I vote for the latter, since I've watched him this year be nothing short of phenomenal when it really matters.

Halak reminds me of Roy. Squishy like Gumby, but tight and in postition when he needs to be. Twitchy and squirmy, but solid when the shot comes...ON VEUT HALAK!!

WHY is the team keeping him sequestered in Hamilton? Is it because they've scouted everyone and decided that Price is the way to go? Or is it that they've drafted a goalie high and now feel the need to validate him with playing time?

Look...I know Halak wasn't drafted high. But he's got it. PLEASE, play him. We'll win with Halak. Write it down.

Friday, February 22, 2008

In the Still of the Crease

The afternoon sun slanting through the window belied the bitter temperature outside it, as Ken Dryden stood in a batter's crouch, demonstrating the stance of a player who doesn't have "it."

"It applies to any sport," he said. "Take baseball. If a batter is standing there in the batter's box, and he's twitching and swinging his bat and never settling down, he's going to have a hard time hitting the ball. The good hitters may swing a few times, but when that ball comes in, they go still...rock solid."

This impromptu demonstration was his response to my question, "What do you think of Carey Price?" More accurately, it was his second response. The first was, "Well, what do you think of him?" So there I was, humble blogger on the spot, having to explain to one of the greatest goalies in history my impressions of one of his brethren.

I said tentatively, "Well, I didn't see a lot of what the hype has been about until last week when he shut out Florida. But, in that game, he looked big in the net, he didn't go down unless he had to, he came out to face shooters, he was square to the play and he projected an attitude of confidence."

Dryden nodded slowly, then he said, "The thing I always look at is their feet. They all shuffle and move around in the crease, but when it counts...when the play is coming quickly and there are pucks flying and bodies in the way...the good ones settle down and go still, waiting for the play to come to them.

"I see that in Carey Price. When the play comes to him, he's rock solid...still...self-contained. You can see he's got it...that stillness you need."

On the constant comparisons between himself and Price, and whether he sees the similarities, Dryden had this to say:

"It's hard to compare because the game has changed so much. Styles are so different and goalies react in different ways," he said. "But that ability to separate the mind from the body and control the physical side of things, that's similar. I think if he were playing then, or I were playing now, we'd look very much alike."

We talked a little more as the shadows lengthened, and then he said goodbye. I watched him walk away in the chilly afternoon, just a little more convinced that Carey Price is for real.

Ghosts and goalies

As a team gets ready for the playoffs, and as the trade deadline approaches, GMs run through a mental list of their assets. That's surely what Bob Gainey is doing these days. What must he be thinking?

Does the team have two effective scoring lines? Since Koivu's annual post-all star resurrection and Michael Ryder's reappearance on the scoresheet, and with the Plekanec line continuing to contribute, the answer is yes. Does it have a good shut-down line? Right now, no, but that can be remedied by picking up one of any number of affordable centres who are good on the draw before the deadline. Lapierre on the wing can contribute in that area, and so can Begin. Does it have heart, confidence and team toughness? Yes to all three. What about the defence? Is it good enough to shut down the best players in the league? When Markov, Komisarek and Hamrlik are on their game, yes. And Josh Gorges and Francis Bouillon have rounded into a very, very solid third pair.

So, that leaves goaltending. Does the team have playoff calibre goaltending? Having watched Cristobal Huet blow hot and cold for much of the second part of the season, including a very cold patch (aside from the shootout against the Rangers) right now, I have to say I don't feel terribly confident in his ability to be The Man. He looked awful last night. Carey Price looked awful against the Rangers, after one great and two good starts before that. The question is, can one of these goalies step up his game and dominate in the playoffs? Right now, I don't know. And that's a very big question to have unanswered a month before the post-season begins.

The ultimate irony here, of course, is that when all the pundits were predicting a Habs crash and burn season, they still gave kudos to the depth and quality of the Canadiens' goaltending. Which is why the uncertainty of it now is a little surprising. I love Cristobal Huet. I think he's a great teammate and a soothing influence in the dressing room. But I can't believe the players have huge confidence in him when they never know if he's going to let in a stinker. He almost always does at some point in a game. The problem is, many of them are at terrible times...when the team is trying to hold a lead late in a game, when they've just tied a game they've been trailing, or in the last minute of a close period. And to make things worse, Huet often makes some stellar saves which he negates by allowing a lousy goal.

Carey Price has shown us flashes of what will be. But whether he can put it all together for a playoff run in his rookie season is debatable. Of course, it's not unheard-of. Dryden. Roy. Heck, even Cam Ward against the Habs a couple of years ago. So far Price is no worse than Roy was in his rookie season. But that doesn't mean he'll be able to crank it up a notch and be consistent during the playoffs.

Right now, the Habs don't have a lot of options. Playing tighter D, which would be easier with a real shut-down centre and a fourth top defenceman like Dan Boyle, would help a great deal. But when it comes down to it, the goalie really is the last line of defence, and when the D isn't perfect, they have to be able to count on the netminder to bail them out once in a while. Maybe Huet or Price will be able to find that within their abilities. Maybe Jaroslav Halak deserves a shot to be a hero. But as it stands, the state of the Habs goaltending for the playoffs is a huge question.

The only thing worse than that uncertainty as we head into March is the certainty that they don't have what it takes in net. I'd rather not know for sure until the playoffs start.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stud shopping

To market, to market to buy a big stud
Home again, home again...ugh, it's a dud!

The rumours are rampant that the deal sending Michael Ryder away in either a trade directly to Atlanta or in a three-way deal involving Calgary...all in an effort to bring Marian Hossa to done. La Presse is even reporting the Canadiens have ordered the Incredible H's favourite gear in Habs' colours.

Now, I'm on the record as being very, very cautious when it comes to deadline dealing. I'd even be content to take the current lineup into the playoffs with maybe a little bit of third-line tinkering. It's partly because I think teams have grossly overpaid for deadline rentals with very little positive return in the past. And it's partly because I think dealing right now would be risky for the momentum building in the Habs' room. Even so, I admit the thought of acquiring a real, bona fide superstar makes me drool just a little bit. The picture of Hossa flanking Koivu and Higgins is as pretty as anything Monet ever painted. But, as everyone knows, he won't come cheap. And a trade is only the beginning.

If Gainey is to trade for Hossa, one must assume the intent is to keep him in the bleu, blanc et rouge for at least a few years to come. So he'll have to pick up the contract negotiations where Don Waddell leaves off. That's going to mean long term, and big money. Huge the seven-to-eight million dollar range for several years. If he were the final piece of a Cup contender, with all the other pieces clearly defined and paid accordingly, that would be fine. But the Habs aren't a mature organism just yet.

Right now, we don't know what Mike Komisarek's upside is going to be. Or Tomas Plekanec's. Or the Kostitsyn brothers, or Ryan O'Byrne, or any number of good young players coming up through the system. So, if a player like Plekanec turns out to be a point-a-game man who'd make four to six million on the open market, Gainey will have to pay up to keep him. Likewise Komisarek, who'll be an UFA after next season and could command five million a year. The core is continuing to improve and will become expensive to retain. Adding Hossa, whose upside we do know, to the mix complicates things. Because if that happens, Gainey must inevitably make choices. Does he lock himself into Hossa now, and then later have to give up Plekanec whose value is increasing? Or Komisarek who's an anchor of character, toughness and steady D on the blueline? Those are tough choices to make when you don't have all the facts.

Don't get me wrong...I'd love to see the Habs improve to the degree they would with the addition of a player like Hossa. But I'm concerned that the time isn't right for bringing in a player like that when it comes to long-range planning. If we knew definitively what the players already on the team will be bringing in the future, it would be okay.

But we don't know, and shopping for a superstar right now is like picking out a roast with a blindfold on. It feels right and smells right, but you might be picking it while there's a prime cut right next to it that you just don't see. The problem is, when you take the blindfold off, it's too late and you can't afford both.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Un-Dead

When a hockey team is nearly a hundred years old, and has played thousands of games, it's tough to find something it hasn't done before. Well, the Habs have done it. Down 5-0 to the Wretched Rangers and looking to be swept in the season series, they came back. Boy, did they come back!

The game to me is a series of freeze-framed images. Michael Ryder's laser-accurate shot on his first goal. Tomas Plekanec winning draw after draw when it really counted. Alex Kovalev falling over backwards from the kick of his shot on the tying goal. Andrei Markov morphing into Bobby Orr and seeming to be everywhere at once. Cristobal Huet stoning the Rangers in the shootout and leaping into Mike Komisarek's arms. The smiles on every single player's face as they filed into the dressing room. I still can't believe it really happened.

But now, in the harsh light of day, as we bask in the glow of a team united, we have to wonder how long it will last. Bob Gainey is in Florida as the season barrels toward the trade deadline on Tuesday. The pundits say he's the busiest GM at the meetings, and that the Habs are the Canadian team most likely to make a deal. There's talk of Higgins for Hossa, and Ryder and a pick for Tanguay. Gainey himself has admitted wanting to add an "A" player. An "impact" player.

That sounds good in theory. And, placing the euphoria of last night's comeback at arm's length and assuming the cold eye of analysis, it even makes sense on paper. There *are* ingredients the Habs still lack, which common sense says need to be acquired if the team is to seriously contend for the Cup. Things like a big winger for Koivu, a shut-down centre and maybe one more top-four defenceman with an edge and some playof experience. Possibly a bit of sandpaper and size.

But there's one thing the Habs have that even some of the greater teams in terms of pure talent don't. They have real chemistry. The reason that comeback worked is because every player on the team went to the wall for his mates. They supported each other and fought for each other. And that cohesion is rare and precious. Sure, Gainey might add Hossa or Tanguay, but he risks losing something more than a Higgins or Ryder in the process. Adding and subtracting players at this point, when the team has become one unit in spirit and in execution, is as great a risk as it is to hope the new player fulfills expectations.

Cristobal Huet and Michael Ryder...two of the often-mentioned names in trade scuttlebutt...played crucial roles in that team resurrection last night. It may have still worked without them. And it may not have. The problem it creates for Bob Gainey is now his decisions have become much more difficult. The temptation is for him to continue with his plans to improve the team for a playoff run. But now it's become clear the consequences of giving into temptation may be much more serious than originally thought.

If chemistry is the cost of doing business, it might be time for Gainey to close the shop.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dwelling on the Dark Ages

Okay, Habs fans...see that? That flash of brilliance you catch out of the corner of your eye every once in a while? I think it's the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. With the team sitting (even if it's possibly just temporarily) in first place and the young players taking big roles in the group's current success, it's the best the Habs have looked in the last fourteen years. And while the present looks good, the future looks better. Not only does the team have young, talented players coming up through the system, it also has the management in place to make sure those players develop to the best advantage of the franchise. Bob Gainey isn't likely to throw the next young Chris Chelios or Patrick Roy away for nothing.

Yeah, I know it's a little early to be singing "Happy Days Are Here Again," but I think the worst is over. So I need to ask: how'd you do it? How did you survive the darkest time in the franchise's history since 1940, when it nearly folded?

I learned how to look away when things got really bad, and how to appreciate the small bright spots like Saku Koivu's play and the scattered heroic win when they shouldn't have come close. I learned humility at the hands of Leafs fans, and patience as I waited through the long winter of the team's hibernation. I learned not to expect less, exactly, but to face reality and bide my time. My pain tolerance improved immeasurably. But, I'm proud to say I stuck with this team and I feel like my faith is going to be vindicated, finally.

And somehow, I think the Enlightenment will be sweeter for having lived through the Dark Ages.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Laughing all the way to a W

I love it when the Habs win. The day is a little brighter, the energy a little higher when they do. I love it even more when they make me laugh while they're winning. Last night's victory over the Flyers was full of moments, some of which will make the highlight reel and some that won't, but they all made me smile.

I loved watching Cristobal Huet standing in the tunnel after the first period, high-fiving his teammates as they passed by into the dressing room, then verbally slamming some loud-mouthed Flyers' fans who were hanging over the glass taunting his team.

The look on Guy Carbonneau's...the Crown Prince of Sardonic's....face after the Flyers' weird second goal was priceless. I can't actually describe it in a way that does it justice, but it was a unique combination of rolling his eyes at the heavens, a sarcastic smirk and a kind of Gallic eyebrow-raise that perfectly expressed his displeasure with the vagaries of Fate and the whims of the hockey gods.

Alex Kovalev's genuine pleasure after Michael Ryder's second-period goal was contagious. It didn't fall into the "funny" category, but it made me and everyone who saw it smile and feel really good to see Ryder's teammates are still rooting for him.

Steve Begin's takedown of Jason Smith was brilliant. He just grabbed Smith and slammed him to the ice in a memorable show of strength and heart (after the initial fight, inspired by a clean hit, started to go south on #22). It was such a microcosm of the Habs' general manhandling of the Flyers this year, it made me laugh.

But the moment that stole the show...the one for which this game will be remembered...was the Bouillon goal at the end of the first period. With ten seconds to go, Andrei Kostitsyn was violently slammed to the ice. The players on both sides seemed to think there'd be a whistle, and several Flyers prepared to scrum with Josh Gorges who'd come to Kostitsyn's defence. Unfortunately for the Flyers, there wasn't a whistle and the only ones who seemed to recognize that fact were Francis Bouillon and Tomas Plekanec. They turned the play the other way and broke into the Philly zone on a two-on-one. Bouillon held the puck and with one second to go in the period, blasted it past Niittymaki for his first goal in a year. That was funny enough. But the best part was back in the Habs' zone. While Bouillon was racing down the ice to score, Flyers' defenceman Jim Vandermeer was 200 feet away, challenging Josh Gorges to fight. There he was, completely unaware of the play and his own role in the game, glaring at Gorges, gloves on the ice. Gorges just sort of shook his head and pointed down the ice to where Bouillon's shot was beating Niittymaki. It was brilliant. I'm laughing right now as I think about it again.

Yes...I love it when the Habs win. I'll take two points any night. But they get bonus points for doing it with style, and humour.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Feelin' Groovy

Hello lamp post...whatcha knowin'? I can see the legend growin'...

Yup...Carey Price got his first shutout, which we're all sure will be the first of many. The moment of truth, or to be precise, the minute and fifty-two seconds of truth, came on a Philadelphia five-on-three in the third period. Markov and Komisarek were in the box and Hamrlik broke his stick halfway through the penalty kill. So, essentially, the top three defencemen on the team were unavailable and only two Habs had sticks to counter five Flyers.

Price stopped eight shots on the two-man disadvantage. Eight. Calmly and casually, as though it were practice. Flyers kept firing, and Price kept stopping. It was a performance reminiscent of Roy in '86 .

Afterwards, he spoke to the media. He said that PK felt like it lasted eight hours. For the fans it felt like at least sixteen. But Price pulled it off. He was the first star and deservedly so.

Now the questions start. Who will start the second in the Philly back-to-backs? Common sense and the fans' demands would say Price. He's young, he's hot and he's the future. But Guy Carbonneau said on Hockey Night in Canada that he intends to play Huet as much as possible down the stretch. He's been the number one, after all, all season. Still, he's been struggling lately and Price looks to have the hot hand.

I say forget players' feelings here. It's the stretch drive and every point counts. Price is in that zone where pucks look like hubcaps and the game is moving in slo-mo. He's in the Flyers' heads. They were rolling their eyes with slumping shoulders after that 5-on-3. They don't believe they can beat him. Price should play as long as he's winning.

And consider this: A win tomorrow night means the Habs are tied for first in the East. Life, I love you. All is groovy.

Sacking Saku

Last week, I was asked to take part in a radio debate about the future of Saku Koivu. The question: should he stay a Hab or should he go elsewhere? I confess, my first reaction was why? I saw no reason to discuss the possibility of the good captain's departure from the city and the team he's made his own. But I dutifully sat down and thought about it. My position was clear: of course he stays. So then I listed all the reasons why I feel that way. I didn't get time to express them was, after all, only a half hour program! So, here they are now: the top ten reasons why Saku Koivu should remain a Hab. (If you had any doubts about it yourself.)

10. He carried the team during lousy times...some of the lousiest in the nearly one hundred year history of the franchise. For ten years, he was the team's brightest light and only star. Now that the team is turning around, he deserves the chance to enjoy success for the first time in his career.

9. He had a career season last year, which proves he's not washed up just yet.

8. Kovalev. Remember last year? Everyone in the city and in Habdom in general wanted to pitch him under a bus. Now he's the best player on the ice every night...often for both teams. So, if Koivu's having a less-than-stellar year on the scoresheet, remember Kovalev and have patience.

7. Chris Clark. There's an argument that the captain should have to be the best player on the ice, and lead by numbers and performance. Clark is proof that a captain doesn't have to be the best guy...just a heart and soul guy who works hard every game. Like Clark does for the Washington Ovechkins, Koivu does that and does it well.

6. The kids. With a slew of rookies and sophomores on the team this year and likely in the next couple of years as well, there must be some veteran balance in the room and on the ice. Who better than the man who's the face of the franchise in recent memory to show the kids the ropes?

5. The return. If Gainey *were* interested in trading Koivu, he'd get little for him right now. The only teams looking to pick up veterans at the moment are playoff teams. That's why you don't often see deals between two buyers at the deadline. If the Habs traded a guy like Koivu, it would be for something to help the team right now, like a big forward who can score, or a strong fourth defenceman. Those are assets with which playoff teams won't part, so there's not much of a market for a fair return for Koivu.

4. The playoffs. Every year around Christmas, the wear and tear grinds Koivu down and he becomes invisible for a stretch of time up until the all-star break. Then, as spring approaches, he starts to rev it up again until he's dominant in the playoffs. That's the kind of player every team wants as a leader in the post-season. He's there when it counts.

3. His linemates. Rarely has Koivu ever had a pair of wingers to compliment his style. This year, with the slumping Ryder and the intermittent Higgins, he's not had much chance to pile up the points. He's making the plays, but the guys on his wings aren't finishing. You have to think that, given better wingers, he's due for a big year.

2. His role. Many offensive players are done when their numbers start to dwindle. But Koivu has proven, with stellar PK work and some nice play in his own zone this year, that he's more versatile than previously thought. He's the type of player who can change roles as he ages, still contributing something of value to a winning team.

And, the number one reason why Saku Koivu should remain a Hab until he quits:

1. The players on the team elected him as captain at 24 years of age. We don't know what goes on in the room, but if the majority of his teammates decided that a 24-year-old kid had something special enough to make him captain of the Montreal Canadiens, then that's good enough for me.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Vision of Light

Well, I've finally seen it. I've been told for the last two years that Carey Price has the makings of being a franchise goaltender. I've heard sung the praises of his size, his quickness, his unflappability under pressure and his fabulous positioning. I looked for it. I waited for it. But I felt like the only person in the world who'd not seen it.

I have to confess: I thought he was good, but not earthshatteringly great, in the famous world junior championship shootout versus the United States last year. He DID allow three or four goals in it and was saved by the heroic hat trick of Jonathan Toews. He played solidly in the Calder Cup playoffs last year, but I didn't see the next incarnation of Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur in his game.

I was encouraged by his first NHL game in Pittsburgh. It seemed like destiny, his starting his first NHL game on the same date, against the same team as Roy and Ken Dryden had done in previous years. He played very well, and I thought, maybe there's something to all the hype. But his defence also played very well and protected their young goalie carefully. When the team started treating him like a real other words, leaving him to fend for himself several times in the run of a game...the lustre dimmed and he looked very, very ordinary on many nights. Then, after his devastating loss to Washington a month ago, when he cried after the game and looked distracted and weak during it, I started to worry. He went to Hamilton to rebuild his confidence and got bombed in two straight games. I had to remind myself that he's just twenty years old and he's still got a lot to learn.

But last night, I finally saw it. He was standing up and facing shooters. His glove was quick and his feet quicker. He was bold and well-positioned, and improved as the pressure built and the game raced closer to overtime. He looked, in a word, unbeatable. When Panthers shooters swarmed his crease, for the first time in his pro career, I had no fear they'd whack one by him. The defining moment for me came when the team was killing Captain Koivu's latest hooking penalty with two minutes to go in regulation. With Panthers buzzing his zone, Price calmly gathered the puck and lofted it over their heads and down the ice.

I have to remember, he's only twenty. He's still got a lot to learn. But for the first time, I have real confidence he'll get there. There will be bad goals sometimes, and bad games, but I've seen the light. October 10 might have been Carey Price's first NHL game, but February 13 is the day he arrived.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

All good things must come to an end

Yes, everything good must end, and to everything there is a season. Turn, turn, turn, etc.
In other words, the time has come to drop the curtain on the Plekanec/Kovalev/A.Kostitsyn line. At least temporarily.

The Habs should have learned this lesson last year, when Koivu/Higgins/Ryder were the sweetheart line providing the fat kid's share of the scoring. Even though the bottom two lines were horrid and the second line of Plekanec/Kovalev/Samsonov (shiver) wasn't clicking at all, Carbonneau refused to mess with the Koivu line, even in the hope of helping the other forwards get going. He stuck with that line until the Christmas slump hit and it, too, went cold. So the Habs began their tumble down the standings, and eventually out of the playoffs, with no one at all scoring goals.

So here we are now with the reverse. The Plekanec line was, until this week, on fire...thanks to a rejuvenated Kovalev and emergent #14. The Koivu line? One looks tired and old, one can't finish if his immortal soul depended on it and the other one's in the coach's doghouse. No help's coming from that quarter. The kid line of Latendresse/Lapierre/S.Kostitsyn has had its moments, but is far from consistent. And the mix-and-match box of fourth liners doesn't often turn up a gem.

The big problem now is sports reporters...and opposing coaches...have clued into the fact that the Plekanec line is now the Canadiens' number one. All the checking and hitting and generally dirty diversion tactics the other teams can employ are directed at that line. Most nights, they'll still squeeze out a point or two on the PP, and even some at even strength occasionally. But it's a lot tougher now than it was when they were romping through the league unchecked.

Carbonneau's been trying to get his secondary scoring without touching that line, but it isn't working. And now the top trio's production is drying to a trickle while it's under constant pressure. So the time has come to bust it up.

The Kostitsyn brothers have shown flashes of magic put them together. Koivu will benefit from their youth, creativity and ability to get the puck through traffic. Plekanec and Kovalev have found some special chemistry, so let them stay together and add hard-working Higgins to their line to crash the crease and help them get the puck. That should result in two scoring lines that will split the focus of the opposition's checkers.

If it translates to goals...and might be worth saying goodbye to what was a very good thing.

Startling stats and the need for a closer

Well, we've all seen it many times this season: the Habs are up by a goal. Or two. Or even three. Then the opposition starts to press, the Canadiens wilt and it's farewell to the lead. Often, the turnaround is because of what I like to call the "backbreaker" goal. In my definition, that's a goal against scored with three minutes or less to go in the period.

It seems to happen so often, I felt compelled to take a closer look and determine whether the phenomenon is one of perception or fact. Unfortunately, the numbers say it's a fact.

The Canadiens have played 57 games this season so far. In that span, they've allowed 158 goals. And of that number, 33 have come in the last three minutes of a period...backbreaker goals. That's a full 20.9 percent of all the goals the team has allowed. And it gets worse. Of the thirty-three backbreakers, seven have come in the first period, ten in the second and a whopping sixteen in the third. In sixteen of 57 games played, or 28 percent, the Canadiens have allowed a goal in the last three minutes of regulation time. Those backbreakers are the kinds of goals that change the momentum of games, or kill the hope of a comeback. The ones in the third, especially, often seal a victory for the opponent.

What this informal study tells me is the team is seriously missing a shut-down line, or at the very least, a shut-down forward who's reliable on big faceoffs late in the period. Someone like New Jersey's John Madden or Sammy Pahlsson from Anaheim. Someone who can win the draw, clear the puck, block an important shot, check the other team's top guy and keep his head under pressure.

Maybe that player is Kyle Chipchura in the next couple of seasons. That's why he was drafted, but we don't know if he'll reach his potential in that role. If he does, it probably won't be this season. In the meantime, Bob Gainey has to seriously consider a temporary player to perform those duties successfully before the Canadiens can hope to compete in the post-season. Or even get into the post-season if things keep going the way they have been so far this month. Gainey must admit at this point that Brian Smolinski isn't that player. Neither is Steve Begin or Tom Kostopoulos.

Just imagine: if only five of those sixteen third-period backbreakers had been prevented, the Habs could very well be comfortably in first place today. It's time to take this issue very seriously, and if Gainey's words at his mid-season team update about focussing on faceoffs and goal prevention can be taken at face value, I think he's on the same page. I hope so, and I hope to see someone who can fill that role added to the roster before the backbreakers cost the season.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

It's not exactly a long way down

Well, it's not quite time to panic, but the Canadiens' last three games have proven two indisputable facts. One: this is a team that does not win when it doesn't skate. Two: Roman Hamrlik is the difference between a team that's challenging for first in the conference and one that's steadily slipping down the ranks in the very close quarters of the Eastern Conference.

The Habs stopped skating against the Rangers two weeks ago. They sputtered in the third against Ottawa and nearly lost that one after holding a three-goal lead. They haven't skated for an entire game, or really, even a whole period in the last three against the Leafs, Sens and Lightning. Those two against the basement-dwellers translate to four points they would have bagged in January, which they've squandered now. It seems they forget those were the kind of squandered points that cost them a playoff berth last season. When you look like you're skating in quicksand, it doesn't take long before you start sinking. Whether the answer is benchings or a call-up (Lapierre for Chipchura?), something's gotta give. This is a busy month, and the team can't afford to take nights off. If this has been a slump, it must end immediately.

Part of the answer may be in Hamrlik's return. Without him, the team has lost four of its last five games. When he's missing, the twenty-five minutes of solid icetime he eats have to be filled by someone else. O'Byrne did a decent job last night, but Streit, Bouillon and especially Brisebois, are NOT in the same league on the boards or in clearing the zone as Hamrlik. And that's where the team has paid the price. Opposing forwards are setting up in the Habs' zone at will and badly outshooting them. Without Hamrlik, the defence looks very much like last year's, with very similar results.

The good news is we know the team can skate for entire games. We've seen it this season, and when it happens, they can beat anyone. They just have to be interested enough to do it. And, unlike last year, we know the D is suffering because Hamrlik and O'Byrne were out...not just because it's a terrible corps with no hope of improvement. Hopefully, Hamrlik will be ready to go against Florida and things will get back to normal before the damage gets into write-off territory.

Because, really, those who don't skate in the East will get lapped pretty quickly. And those who forget their history are bound to repeat it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

King's pawn to E4

Brian Murray has made the first move in the intricate chess game of give and take between contenders and wannabes at the NHL trade deadline. The Corvo/Eaves for Stillman/Commodore deal is significant in that it adds second-line scoring and a grittier defenceman to an already strong Senators team.

So now, the question becomes, what does Bob Gainey do to counter that? Time is getting short as the deadline looms in two weeks. The Hossa rumours continue to fly, as the Jokinen talk quiets somewhat. But I think Gainey can't afford a splashy move like that right now.

The Habs are a good, young team. But, as Ottawa proved with last Saturday's bitch-slapping of the Canadiens, the Senators are better. They're primed to win a Cup right NOW, and they're tinkering with minor parts to make sure that happens. The Habs still need work on some major parts, like solidifying the defence, and adding some secondary scoring of their own. A big gamebreaker, of which the Senators have three, is also a must. So, if Gainey can follow Murray's lead and tinker a bit to solve some of the smaller issues this year without giving up too much of the future, that's fine. The Habs should make the playoffs and maybe surprise people.

In the end, Ottawa's time is now, while the Canadiens' time is still in the future. The parts Gainey needs are in the system, or are developing into assets he can use to trade for what he needs at a later date. This year, unless the perfect deal for a great addition is available, I wouldn't expect to see much movement by Patient Bob.

Either way, the clock is ticking and Murray has made the first move. It'll be interesting to see who's got checkmate when the game ends in two weeks.


If you're like me, and more than likely Tom Kostopoulos and Ryan O'Byrne, you've probably heard all the jokes by now.

"Why'd he steal a purse?" "Because it matched his pumps!" Hahahahaha.
"Whose purse was it anyway?" "Brisebois'." Hahahahaha.
"It wasn't O'Byrne. Lapierre stole the purse and hid in the corner, and O'Byrne had to stand up to the cops." Hahahahahaha.

Then there's the speculation: It was probably just a drunken mistake. It might have been part of some stupid rookie initiation prank gone horribly wrong. Maybe he was so far gone he thought it really was his girlfriend's purse. Perhaps the woman had some embarrassing pictures on her phone he was trying to erase before they went public. Maybe he's a kleptomaniac. (Yes...I actually saw kleptomania as an excuse raised by a fan online today!)

Whatever really happened, we'll never know unless it comes out in court or if one of the players chooses to tell us. The team has rallied around the two players involved. Most importantly, Bob Gainey has come out and said the team won't take any action against the two. That, to me, is pretty telling. Gainey has a reputation for being one of the most honest and upright people in hockey. If he's talked to the players involved and has decided not to at least suspend them or fine them for their actions, he obviously believes the incident was minor.

I hope that's the case. Because today I thought of the woman involved. If she was somehow party to the "party" and became involved in a misunderstanding, that's one thing. But if she was an innocent bystander who turned around to find her purse, with her money, her phone and her ID suddenly missing, it's not so minor. If you've ever had your purse or wallet stolen, you know the panic and headaches it causes. So if Ryan O'Byrne really did steal that woman's purse, for whatever reason, I'd hope the team realizes it's not a joke. Right now, Bob Gainey is treating it as a one-off mistake, and that's fine. I trust him and his judgement, and I'm relieved he thinks it's not a big deal.

Now, let's put purse-gate in the past and drop the puck already!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

To rent or not to rent?

Brian Burke is a genius. Not for managing the current Stanley Cup champions. Or for letting Dustin Penner go and pocketing Edmonton's draft picks. Or for assembling the best defence in the NHL. No, he's a genius because he's found a way to avoid renting players at the trade deadline. Perfectly legal and free, in terms of giving up valuable picks and prospects for some team's pending UFA to use just for a playoff run.

He's keeping a stable of ringers, and it's working for him. Scott Neidermayer showed up after a nice long rest and the team's mediocre fortunes immediately turned around. They added Teemu Selanne and suddenly they're looking like Cup favourites again. A lot of people are saying Burke's cheating the Cap system. It's true he does save salary by giving those guys pro-rated contracts. He's then able to afford better quality players than he could if he had to pay them for the full season. But I don't think it's cheating...I think it's a good example for everyone else to follow.

Bob Gainey for example. Saku Koivu probably has a couple of full seasons left in him. But we're seeing his annual mid-season slump start earlier and end later recently, mainly because his style of play grinds his body down and saps his energy. That gets worse with age. So, let him play his last two full seasons, become a free agent and sign a pro-rated deal after Christmas for the following two or three seasons. He'd be fresh for the stretch drive, and we know he plays his best game in the playoffs. In short...he's the perfect rental. Exhibit B: Alex Kovalev. He's 35 this month and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. He wants to keep playing for a long time and really likes Montreal. When he's 38, he'd probably enjoy having half the year off and then really bring it for the playoffs where he traditionally shines. This would allow Gainey to let the kids carry the team and get it into good position, then bring in the veteran reinforcements to put it over the top. And all for the price of a pro-rated contract while keeping his futures and other assets off the market.

The benefits are many. Not only does the team gain experience and fresh veterans for the stretch drive and the playoffs, but the players themselves can continue to contribute long after they would have retired from playing full seasons. It allows the salary cap to be spread around among more players too.

Oh yes...Brian Burke is onto something. And if Gainey and other GMs are smart, they'll get on board and develop their own rentals from within. It's another way of building a competitive team without relying on deadline deals, and one that's already proving to have merit in Anaheim.

Smoke is to "Shut Down" what Bouillon is to "Tall"

Let me be the first to say I don't think Brian Smolinski is a bad guy. I've never heard anything negative said about him from any of the teams for which he's played. His teammates seem to like him. He smiles a lot. But when Bob Gainey was shopping for a shut-down centre with experience and some offensive upside to replace Radek Bonk last summer, he made an expensive purchase with a no-return policy in Smolinski.

Smolinski isn't a write-off as an NHLer. He's fine most nights as a fourth-line centre. He, Begin and Kostopoulos are often able to force the play in the opposing zone for long stretches, and they don't mind getting dirty in the corners. Unfortunately, Smolinski and his linemates aren't only being asked to do what they do well. They're being asked to shut down the NHL's top lines and play a defensive game they don't have the talent to play.

Yes, defence is a talent. Carbonneau had it. Smolinski does not. This is why we see leads evaporate late in the third period. It's why the PK isn't as good as it was last year, and it's why the team gets hemmed in its own zone when the better opposing lines are on the ice.

Gainey can't return Smolinski now, or even trade him in for a better model. But if he heads back to the store before the February 26th deadline, a REAL defensive centre (Holik or Fedorov anyone??) should top his shopping list. Smolinski is a nice guy, but he's not the one we ordered.

Halak the Slovak

When Carey Price was sixteen, he was already on the radar of NHL scouts. He got into only one game for the Tri-City Americans, but he was a big kid with great positioning in the net and nice puck-handling skills. His much-vaunted unflappable demeanor was just starting to develop. By the time he was eighteen, he'd been scouted, interviewed, studied and assessed to within an inch of his life.

When Jaroslav Halak was seventeen, he was toiling away for his hometown team, Bratislava, in the Slovak junior league. He played nine games and put up a nice 2.26 goals against average. That was good enough to buy him twelve starts in the senior league the following year, in which he posted a 1.66 GAA and 0.942 save percentage. Someone noticed and the Lewiston Maineiacs took a chance on a little-known Slovak goalie who was willing to move overseas and take a shot at pro hockey. His decent numbers in his one junior season attracted the eye of Canadiens' scouts, who advised the Habs to throw a 271st overall pick at him in 2003. He turned pro and immediately impressed in the ECHL, which bought him a ticket to Hamilton where he kept winning and stopping an average of 92 percent of the shots he faced. Then the injury to Cristobal Huet last season forced him into the big time. He responded by winning his first four games, behind a defence that was...shall we say...less than stellar. He inspired a flagging team and dragged it to within one point of a playoff position. He came back to training camp this season and looked great again.

But something went wrong for Halak. He wasn't supposed to be that good. He came from a place where scouts didn't linger long and where a player could be very talented, yet out of the general consciousness of hockey watchers in North America. Carey Price, on the other hand, was in the public eye from the first time he laced up in midget AAA. Scouts saw enough of him to rank him very high in the first round of his draft.

So, here we have two young goaltenders. One is a blue-chip prospect. A first rounder with a hockey pedigree and one very, very impressive season under his belt. The other is a guy who's never won anything special and was a throwaway pick in the last round of his draft. He fought his way up through the ranks, impressing teammates and fans along the way. The Canadiens are lucky enough to own the rights to both of them.

Unfortunately for Halak though, the team has invested in Price. After picking him at number five overall, the team has to make sure he has every chance to make it. They're handling him with kid gloves, ensuring he has enough playing time and access to all the resources he needs to succeed. Halak is a bonus; a guy who was never supposed to make it anyway. The team is treating him that way now. Demoted after a very good training camp. Called up and let sit on the bench for weeks without a start. Demoted again. He's two years older than Carey Price, but he's being treated like he's already a second-class journeyman.

My hope is that Carey Price is the real deal. I want him to be the franchise goalie everyone is predicting he will become. My concern is that the organization's preoccupation with Price is blinding it to the fact that there's another very young, very good goaltender in the system as well. Halak has proven himself at every level at which he's played. He deserves a chance to play in the NHL. But if the Canadiens don't take care to give him just a little bit of the attention they give Price, they risk hindering his development or losing him to another organization who will give him a shot.

And what if Price *doesn't* pan out? What if he's meant to be very good, but not great? And what if Halak, not Price, is the next great Canadiens goalie but the team doesn't recognize it until it's too late? I think the organization needs to take better care of Halak, because so far, he's proven he's a winner. And the road he's had to take to get where he is now required a lot more struggle than the golden path a first round pick follows.

I wonder if Carey Price had been born in Slovakia, and Jaroslav Halak in B.C., who'd be the future franchise goalie today?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Atlas has NOT shrugged

Okay, everyone. I know it's tempting to look up and check for pieces of sky tumbling toward your unguarded head, but really, it's not necessary. Sure the Habs lost a stinker last night. And a boring crapfest to the leafs in the game before. But let's all put on the brakes and calm down for a moment.

This is the team that was supposed to be WELL out of the playoffs according to most of the "experts." They're five points behind the mighty Sens. This is the team that was supposed to see its PP plummet after Souray's departure. They're second in the league. This is the team that was supposed to swan-dive after Christmas. They have a better record after than before the holidays. So, they're not lowering themselves to our expectations so far.

They're not going to win every game, and some of them will stink. We have to remember they're a very young team that still needs three major components: a fourth strong D, a shut-down centre, and a scoring forward. Those parts are coming in the system, so we may have to wait. We should be good at that by now.

The problem we have is that everytime the team overachieves, we believe it. Instead of saying, hey, they're playing over their heads, we EXPECT them to be able to overtake the Sens. Seriously...Ottawa is a team featuring a perrennial 50-goal scorer. And two of arguably the best 20 players in the world. Our team can't match that, yet we're surprised when we lose to them. I guess that's good...we still have high expectations after years of futility. But really, we need to take it easy and realize the Habs are still two years away from adding the players they need to fill the holes they have.

The Sens are at the top of their game right now. The Habs are still rising. It's not shameful to lose to them...there will come a day when our guys are pounding the crap out of them. But we, as fans, need to support the guys we have and enjoy the ride. They're on the way up. The Sens, though, must win it now or never. And they're looking behind instead of ahead.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Dandy ain't no Bobby Orr

Okay, so you're the coach of the Montreal Canadiens. You have a right wing spot open, you need offence and you have two players from which to choose. Player one has scored 85 goals in the last three years. He's not the fastest skater on the team, but he's got a lethal wrist shot and he hits people when the opportunity arises. Player two has played crappy defence for the last seven years and is now a converted forward. He's a fast skater, but isn't a natural goalscorer and isn't likely to become one overnight. He also isn't physical, doesn't shoot much and is pretty much invisible in many games. Player one is in a slump, player two will never be better than he is right now. So, whom do you choose?

I'm betting almost everyone would choose player one. If you're looking for offence, you want the guy who knows how to score, right? Not if you're Guy Carbonneau. No, Guy's using Mathieu Dandenault over Michael Ryder because he's trying to send Ryder some kind of message about doing more on the ice...which he hasn't seen in three games. Ryder, as I've noted before, is at least partially a victim of his two slumping linemates: Higgins and Koivu. Neither of them is doing any better with the plethora of linemates with whom they've been paired recently. So, stick Ryder back in there and leave them to sort it out among themselves. They might just find the chemistry they had in the second half of last season. If they don't...well, at least you don't have a slumping player on each of two other lines and a goalscorer in the pressbox while the first line carries the team.

For a team that's pretty hard up for secondary scoring recently, at least there's a chance Ryder will find his touch. Dandenault doesn't offer even that chance. And even Gretzky would be hard pressed to pot one from the pressbox.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Good for Gainey (and his dignity)

I'd like to tip my proverbial hat to Bob Gainey's dignity. While GMs across the league slaver over the idea of adding a healthy Peter Forsberg to their rosters in the hope that he'll be the difference in a successful playoff run (Nashville, anyone??), and have begun compiling ridiculous offers for his services, Forsberg has already begun rejecting those offers. No Foppa for you, Penguins! Or Red Wings. Or Flames. Or Sharks. Or any number of other dancing monkey GMs. Anaheim, Philadelphia and Colorado, among others, are still on their knees in the begging position.

Could the Habs use Forsberg? If he's healthy and willing, of course they could. He'd add an important dimension of strength and offence to the lineup, along with playoff experience and leadership. But will the Habs line up and beg him to pick them? Not going to happen.

Bob Gainey, in his quiet, dignified way said, "No thanks, we're not interested in Forsberg." I'm sure the rejection almost killed the big galoot. Okay, really he could care less. But Gainey sent a message with that statement. He's saying he'll pick the guy he wants, and when he does, he won't have to beg for his services. He'll want to come play for a contender. Way to go, Bob!

He Is Ryder, Hear Him Roar

Okay...maybe Ryder won't roar. It's not his style. He's one of the most laid-back, pleasant, genuinely nice people I've ever met. But he should be roaring, at least to his coach and GM.

The Canadiens are treating him like crap and have basically run him out of Montreal. The man scored 85 goals in his first three NHL seasons. Last year, he was a minus 25, and the coach and GM told him, "improve your defensive play." So he did. It also changed the way he plays. He started thinking of getting into position to prevent odd man rushes into his own zone, instead of thinking of getting in position to one-time passes in the offensive zone. The goals were hard to come by. After a while, he started hesitating with the puck on his stick, which, for a guy who built a career out of a super-quick release and hard, accurate wrister, was the worst thing he could have done. The line-shuffling helped a bit, but he never stayed on the same line long enough to prove much. Then he became the healthy scratch of the week.

So, here we have a player who's proven he can score goals, sitting in the pressbox, while a converted defenseman with fewer points and a worse plus/minus in more games played takes his spot. No one's pointing at Saku Koivu or Chris Higgins who are also doing nothing, and coincidentally, are the ones who should be setting up a sniper like Ryder. Number seventy-three is taking all the heat for the former first line's demise.

Now we will undoubtedly see him traded before the deadline. He will end up out west, and Bob Gainey will get some grinder, or underachiever or draft pick for him. Maybe the trade will work out for Montreal, maybe it will be another Ribeiro-for-Niinimaa. But it didn't have to be this way. If Ryder had been let play with someone other than his struggling former first linemates for a decent stretch, he might have put up some respectable numbers and helped the team complement the Plekanec line's scoring. Once you know how to put the puck in the net, you don't forget it. He will go to another team and he'll find it again.

I'm sorry Ryder's stay in Montreal will end on such an ignominous note. He might not be roaring...but all of us who cheered him in the past will be doing so on his behalf.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Killer Kovalev

This is a bit old now, except for waiting another couple of hours to be sure he doesn't get suspended for tonight's game against Ottawa. But did anyone else quietly cheer when Alex Kovalev decked Ryan Hollweg on Sunday? I know it was a blatant elbow, and should probably have been a penalty. I also know it could have hurt Hollweg and that you don't want to see an influx of vigilante justice in the NHL.

But in this age of teams carrying "enforcers" to take umbrage on behalf of abused stars, it was great to see a skilled player stand up for himself. Kind of like watching Vinny Lecavalier or Jarome Iginla fight and win. Kovalev's elbow sent a message to those who will undoubtedly be using every trick, legal or otherwise, in the book to stop him as the stretch drive heats up. It said, cheap shot me and expect the same back. Coming from a star who's also six-foot-two and 210 pounds, it's a message a lot of players will think about before taking a shot at Kovalev.

And, as a Canadiens' fan, when the biggest criticism of my team is that it's small and soft, it made me smile to see one of the most talented Habs on the ice pound the snot out of a proven cheap-shot artist.

Of course the consequence of Kovalev's action was Hollweg's classless running of Sergei Kostitsyn shortly afterwards, which proves that when dealing with some of these cretins, discretion may in fact be the better part of valour.

Still, despite my nobler instincts, I had to cheer when Kovy pulled a Gordie Howe on Hollweg. Hit hard and don't get caught. It's not a strategy I'd advocate for frequent use. But as a way to put the idea of consequences in the heads of the league's more thick-skulled players, it only takes a couple of times.

Getting high on trade rumours

Well, the days are finally starting to get longer, the hockey is getting more serious and the trade deadline is looming with all its inherent speculation and crazy rumours. I hope the players who say they don't listen to rumours or read the sports pages these days (hello, Michael Ryder) really mean it. Because if, as a fan, it's hard to think of anything else, I can imagine how much more distracting all the talk is for players.

Will Bob Gainey move Ryder? Will he package Chris Higgins, picks and prospects for Marian Hossa or Olli Jokinen? What about the goaltenders...can Yann Danis or Jaroslav Halak bring something useful at the deadline? The questions are many, and as each day without any action passes I find myself scouring the web, even...God forgive me...reading Eklund for any hint of a juicy rumour. And I'm not the only one. Fan forums (fora?) and blogs all over the place...even legitimate media...are rife with speculation. It's distracting us from the fact that the Habs are only three points out of first in the East and could overtake Ottawa with a couple of good games this week. It's also making us overlook the contributions our players make in favour of speculation on what they might be worth on the open market and whom the team might acquire in exchange.

So, it's time to take a deep breath and channel Patient Bob for a moment. First, we must understand that Gainey never makes the trade everyone thinks he's going to make. Second, the trades he does make at the deadline tend to either add necessary pieces at cheap prices (Balej and a second for Kovalev), or exchange extraneous pieces for building blocks for the future (Rivet for Gorges and a first).

Focussing on what the team really needs right now, the priorities are obviously a big scoring winger to play with Koivu, a fourth very strong defenceman and a big, shut-down centre who's good on the draw. Of those needs, we then have to examine what Gainey can afford. Goalscorers with size are at a premium. They're what every team needs, and any good ones potentially on the market, like Hossa is rumoured to be, will cost young, talented roster players, picks and prospects, with no guarantee he re-signs after this season. The other needs might be more affordable, but before giving away assets, Gainey should look at options that cost the least first.

For low cost (just money, not money AND players) I advocate looking for free agents first. What's Danny Markov doing in Russia right now? He'd fit nicely in the number four defence slot next to Hamrlik and would help a lot for a playoff run. I'd also throw some money at Forsberg and see what happens. If free agents aren't available, then it's time to look at a trade.

I think if there's only one deal to be made before the deadline, it should be for a real shut down centre. The problem the Habs are running into repeatedly, especially when Carbonneau insists on linematching, is that the Smolinski line is out there against the other team's top line. Smolinski isn't the complete waste of space he was impersonating for a good chunk of the season to date. But he's no Guy Carbonneau either. The Habs need the guy Smolinski was supposed to be when Gainey signed him. I don't know who's available in exchange for Mathieu Dandeault or Michael Ryder and a pick, but if he's out there, I expect Gainey to land him.

That's the trade to which we can realistically look forward. I know the talk this year is that the East is wide open and the addition of a big gamebreaker could mean a guaranteed trip to the finals. But Gainey isn't going to trade players he's carefully cultivated for years for an UFA like Marian Hossa. He isn't willing to part with the price of an Olli Jokinen. If he can steal an underachiever for cheap, he might. But anything other than the quiet addition of a fourth d-man or checking centre would be not just surprising, but a good reason for me to have to use the crash cart I'm keeping in the closet for the playoffs.

So while we obsess over every scout spotted in the Bell Centre pressbox and every whisper of Ryder for Tanguay, we can rest assured that Patient Bob is quietly improving the team he's quietly built. It's not very exciting for flamboyant GM wannabes, but it's better for the heart. And it's certainly better for the team on the ice, which is turning out to be providing all the excitement we really need.