Saturday, November 29, 2008


I should start this by saying I think Guy Carbonneau is a smart man. I think he's a good hockey man, and if Bob Gainey thinks he has what it takes to coach the Montreal Canadiens, then I'm probably not well-informed enough to question that. I support Carbonneau because the coach always takes the fall when things are going wrong. But that's unfair in this case because the same coach with the same players managed to lead the team to the top spot in the conference last season. As Carbonneau has said himself, the coach cannot go on the ice and play for the team. And I don't see how his methods of motivating the players have changed so drastically since last year. No, the fault for this lousy stretch has to lie with the players. That said, though, Carbonneau isn't perfect, and while I believe he's not the root cause of the current troubles...I think his biggest weakness is what made him such a great player: stubborn intractability.

The team played a great game against Detroit, despite missing Tanguay, Latendresse and Komisarek. Predictably, everyone talked about what a well-coached game that was. Carbonneau was forced to juggle things, and was inspired to play Tom Kostopoulos on Higgins and Koivu's line after Tanguay went down. It worked well because Detroit plays a strong defensive game and Kostopoulos gave the first line a good forechecking presence to counter that. Now, I have a hard time believing Carbonneau and company arrived in Washington and said, "What the hell must be tired from playing the Wings, and these guys are icing a bunch of minor-leaguers. Take it easy out there." Of course he told the team to play the same game they'd played in Detroit. But the problem is, Carbonneau doesn't adjust to differences between opponents.

Sure, the Kostopoulos thing worked in an emergency situation in Detroit...but that was a case in which the whole team was pumped about playing the Cup champs and stepped it up a notch to cover for their missing teammates. We all know TK is not a goal scorer, and what worked once...through hard work and great good fortune...was unlikely to continue working for the long haul. Yet, Carbonneau stubbornly refuses to change the lineup if it won the game before. Facing a depleted team with a very young, inexperienced defence in the Caps last night, Carbonneau didn't need to have the team play the smothering game they played against the Wings. He could have put Andrei Kostitsyn on the top line instead of Kostopoulos and his brother on the Plekanec line and let the offence push the Caps' inexperienced D. It didn't work out that way. I saw three occasions last night when Tom the Bomb just couldn't complete the play that Koivu started.

It's easy to second-guess of course. But it seems to me that Carbonneau's ability to make quick adjustments in-game, and modify his lineup to meet the particular circumstances of each opponent is lacking. He's not stupid, and sometimes he makes very good choices. But often he just stubbornly throws the same players out in the same situations because it worked one time before. How long will he keep forcing Tomas Plekanec to play with a dispeptic Alex Kovalev? It's frustrating for us, but worse is that it's not helping motivate the players.

Worst of all is when Carbonneau has to face the fact his moves aren't working and he admits he doesn't know what to do. That's scary for us and must be worrying the players. They're trained from a very young age to listen to the coach above all else. And like all basic training, it's what you fall back on when things are at their worst, when you can't see a solution to the problem yourself and when all seems lost. It's one thing to be winning and feel like you're talented, smart and fast. But when you're losing, even if you're a millionaire, you look to authority to solve the problem. In this case, though, when the players fall back on their blind faith in their coach to give them answers...they're just getting more questions.

Carbonneau needs to make some assertive decisions, like identifying the player who's hurting the team the most and benching him, regardless of age, status, salary or numbers. If the player in question is angry about that, Carbonneau needs to stand up and rip him a new one. He can't keep letting the same guys make the same mistakes over and over. It's not getting better and he's the one who has to find it in himself to make smart changes as required. Intractability in a coach is a fatal flaw. If Carbonneau can't solve that weakness in himself, it will inevitably lead to his demise behind the bench. And that's too bad because he's got a lot of other traits in his favour.

The question now is, if Carbonneau can't make that inner adjustment, what will Bob Gainey do?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Draft Graveyard

You know what's frustrating? I was reading the NHL's Central Scouting ranking of the best young prospects for the coming draft, and while I was salivating over the potential of some of these guys, I was also irritated to know the Habs won't get any of them. The young players who'll be ready to jump straight from junior to the NHL because they're that talented won't be in Montreal unless they fall down the rankings for some reason or join the Habs after their indentured servitude in Florida ends. Worse is knowing that it's often pointless for those players to go to those remote outposts of the hockey world. The teams that get them won't build up enough to be contenders. They'll just continue to be poor teams with a few good players in exile.

Look at Atlanta for example: They drafted Dany Heatley second overall in 2000. He wasn't happy in Atlanta, so the Thrashers traded him to Ottawa for Marian Hossa. Hossa wasn't happy in Atlanta, so they traded him for a package of non-stars to Pittsburgh, just to avoid having him bolt with no return at all. Now the one-two punch of Hossa/Kovalchuk has become just Kovalchuck, and guess what? There's talk that Ilya's not happy in Atlanta. He's consistently the subject of trade talk, because the perception across the league is that he'll bail as quickly as he can the minute he's a free agent in 2011. Atlanta's the worst team in the east again this year, so they'll get another top-five draft pick. What's the point? The franchise is disarray, with only one playoff appearance (and no wins) in its history.

Founded in 1999, the Thrashers picked either first or second overall in their first four entry drafts. Of those players (Heatley, Kari Lehtonen, Kovalchuk and Patrick Stefan), only Kovalchuk and Lehtonen remain with the organization, although Lehtonen was placed on waivers last week. The others were traded before they made a difference in the organization, and the players the Thrashers got in return did little to help turn the franchise into a winner. The number eight-overall pick in 2003, Braydon Coburn, is now anchoring the Flyers' defence in Philadelphia. The Thrashers got Alexei Zhitnik in exchange, and have since bought out his contract.

Most of the high picks awarded to the Thrashers have managed to escape from Georgia after years of futility. But again, what's the point? Why are players of such high ability forced to languish in obscurity, waiting for an ill-advised trade or free agency? The answer, of course, is because Gary Bettman wants these pointless franchises to survive, and the draft system as it is allows the worst teams to pick the best players. It rewards lousy GMs with pick after pick in the top five, most of whom go to waste, mired in defeat on useless teams. Good GMs, like Bob Gainey, get the mid-to-late round picks that may or may not pan out. The only time the Canadiens got to pick in the top-five in recent years was the post-lockout draft, when they got Carey Price at number five. Can you imagine the damage the Habs and Trevor Timmins could do with a couple of high picks? You can be guaranteed they wouldn't be traded away for the likes of Alexei Zhitnik.

I think the first round of the draft should be lottery all the way. Luck of the draw. It's still a crap-shoot in some ways, because even having a top-five pick doesn't mean you'll choose a guaranteed star. But, if a team like Detroit, that, with careful management and wise drafting, has produced a perennial contender, gets the first overall pick...good for them. Or if a consistently late-round team gets could be the difference between always finishing eighth or becoming a contender. Better take the chance of having a great team get stronger than hand the best prospects over to the likes of the Atlanta Thrashers to misuse and disillusion every single year.

Making the first round a lottery would also help eliminate the Tampa Bay Syndrome. A team, like Pittsburgh or Atlanta, who chooses in the top five every year...especially if it's a real blue-chip year...could end up with three or four budding superstars who all have big contracts coming due at the same time. They end up keeping them all, and shelling out a fortune to do so, which leaves them with little to fill the rest of the roster. Picking draft positions by lottery means the superstars are spread around the league and the salary on each team more evenly distributed.

I just want to see good, prudent general managers have a real chance to draft a star without tanking. That's particularly important for the Habs, where the pressure to draft hometown boys is enormous. Unfortunately, the Q often tends to turn out big stars or good pluggers with little in between. Imagine if the draft lottery allowed the Canadiens to pick Vincent Lecavalier? With the jury still out on Price's long-term impact, it's been a long, long time since the Habs have been in the position to add a real franchise player without mortgaging their future in a trade.

The current draft system is supposed to encourage parity, by allowing poor teams to improve themselves by adding young talent. What it really does is keep middle-of-the-pack teams stuck in the middle. And that's really frustrating.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Watching yet another Debacle on Ice in Carolina last night, I came to realize several truths, which I hold to be self-evident. Among them:

-Andrei Kostitsyn is a right winger. He has always been a right winger, and the only reason he was a left winger last year was because Alex Kovalev is a right winger. On Lang's line, Kostitsyn is the right winger, and it was evident in his play, as one of the very few bright spots in a dismal display, that he prefers to play on his natural side. He's better there, and he should not be moved back to the left.

-Alex Kovalev, for whatever reason, is the Kovalev of 2006-07 vintage. I believed then that part of the reason for his lousy play was injury. If that's the case this time around, and if those knees need a surgeon's attention again, it's best for him to do that now rather than later. As it stands, he's managed to mess up the Plekanec/Kostitsyn combo. With him on the wing last night, the Koivu/Tanguay duo had its worst game of the year. If he's going to drag down whatever line he's on, he's either going to have to look after his health/mental issues or sit. Since no one wants the consequences of sitting him, it may be time for Bob Gainey to ask him out for a stroll. Where is Bob Gainey, anyway?

-Guy Carbonneau wants to send a message, but says his hands are tied because he waiver rules and roster limits prevent him from moving players between Montreal and Hamilton. But he says the fourth line is the best one every night. Problem solved: bench the guilty parties (I'm thinking Sergei Kostitsyn and Chris Higgins to start.) Make the third and fourth lines Begin-Lang-Kostopoulos and Dandenault-Lapierre-Laraque for a game. Better have two working fourth lines than three non-productive offensive lines.

-If they refuse to hire a proper defence coach, which I think is needed, they should get Josh Gorges to do a seminar on playing D the San Jose way. Remember when he first came over in the Rivet trade? He said he thought the Montreal and San Jose systems were vastly different in that San Jose's method involved challenging forwards at the blue line. Gorges has been playing his heart out and living up to the challenge of filling in on the first pairing. If he remembers the San Jose style I'd let him teach the rest of them how to do it.

-I saw Tomas Plekanec forechecking with aggression and speed last night. But when he hassled the Carolina defenceman off the puck, there was no Hab in the zone to take a pass. It was a brilliant illustration of the failure of the one-man forecheck. If Guy Carbonneau can look at the tape of that game and suggest otherwise, his hockey smarts aren't as highly developed as I think they are.

-The idea of placing Tom Kostopoulos on the second line might have been good in theory, in terms of getting some hard work and aggression there. But after the first whiff by TK (also known by his Indian name, Big Wind No Goal) the experiment had to end. Three whiffs later, the combination was just dismal.

-Carey Price is an NHL goalie, and a darn good one. Anyone who thinks otherwise has an agenda or astigmatism.

-If the Canadiens continue playing this way, they will not only be deeply humiliated on Roy Night on Saturday, but they will be in grave danger of ending the Centennial season on the playoff sidelines. But, speaking of the post-season, if there's one thing we should have learned from past years is the team is capable of playing a game completely different from how they're playing now. I remember last November they looked as bad as they did last night and then turned it around to look very, very good on many other nights. Right now it's hard to believe that could happen this year. But, if we don't have faith when they suck, we don't get to celebrate the good times quite as exuberantly either.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Getting back on track

I woke up at 4:30 this morning, and even in my state of half-sleep I was furious. As I rose to the surface of consciousness, I remembered why. It was because of the complete anihilation of the Habs by their arch-rivals from Beantown, less than a week after the complete anihilation of the Habs by their arch-rivals from Hogtown. Mmmm...pork and beans. And the Habs as mincemeat on the side.

The cool and trendy thing to do today is to flip out and stress about what's wrong with the team. How far will it slide before something makes it stop? How badly can it actually play? How embarrassing will it be if the six All-Star starters are Habs and the Habs are in the tank by the time the game rolls around? What if they miss the playoffs?

Anyway, I did all that last night. Today I'm breaking from the cool and trendy ranks of frenzied Habs fans and looking for a bit of perspective. Of course, there's no doubt that the team stunk... terribly...from Price out. But, if you remember some of the lousy losses from last year's first-place season, it's not as smelly as it could be.

Recall the 4-1 game against Dallas, with Ribeiro scoring four points? The 3-0 lead against the Rangers that miraculously turned into a Rags' comeback and a Habs loss? The 3-0 loss to Columbus on Bob Gainey Night? The 4-1 complete ownership handed down by the Wings? The back-to-back humiliations delivered by the Sabres, including a 3-0 shutout, last November? The 4-0 shutout by Jersey, courtesy of Brodeur the Nemesis? The 6-1 pounding and utter domination by the Sens?

The point is there were many horrendous games last year as well. We stressed and gnawed and worried, and they still finished on top of the conference. That's not to forgive last night's game, because it's a good sign the team is doing many things wrong. But they did last year as well, and the same group managed to pull it together and right the wrongs. I don't like what's happening, but it take some crap to grow a bouquet, so I'll have patience and hope things turn around.

Tomorrow's game against Philly will tell us a lot. If the team can come back and play well, even with a loss, I'll have hope things aren't as badly wrong as they appear right now. If not...well, Bob may have to start his post-season planning a little early. I have to believe it won't come to that.

I need some sleep.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Bi-Polar Habs

This is the weirdest season so far. The team looks fantastic in the standings, and very often like crap on the ice. They float for periods at a time, but they still win. They play a game or two, then they're off for a week. I know every year is compared to a roller-coaster ride, but this one is like the Six Flags Great Adventure.

I know I'm sounding alarmist with these doomsday posts, but if there's one basic truth in physics, it's that what goes up must come down. I guess the reverse of that happened on Saturday, when the Habs' precipitous drop in interest and effort in the first two periods was replaced by awesome-to-behold passion and firepower in the third. But even with seventeen of a possible twenty points in the bank, you have to wonder when the laws of nature will assert themselves and the team that's been racking up half-hearted wins will start to see heart-breaking losses on the scoreboard instead.

Don't get me wrong...I loved the Islanders' game. Hockey's entertainment, right? Right. And it was bloody well entertaining to watch a game you thought was certainly an ignominous loss become a humdinger come-from-behind powerhouse victory. Watching the Plekanec line emerge from its torpor to light the rink on fire was pure adrenaline-pumping thrilling. But when the dust settled, and the glory of the victory faded to a pale golden glow, the nagging worries are still there.

The team was 0-for-5 on the PP, and gave up two goals on the Isles seven man advantages. Worse, they were a really weak 37% on the draw. As Kovalev said after the game, they were lucky they were playing the Isles and not a team like the Devils. They should have been killed in that game, and would have been if the Islanders had had more experience holding a lead and a better goalie in the net. As a Habs' fan, you can't help wondering what another five-day break will do to the fragile momentum that brilliant twelve minutes in New York sparked on Saturday. Staggering out of the blocks on Friday could mean a couple of losses in a little more than 24 hours, if they're not very careful to be disciplined and come up with a better all-around effort than they've shown in many games this year. There's no doubt the talent is's the will and attention to hard work and detail that seem at issue right now.

You know, even though the Islanders' game was a great outcome for a team that didn't really deserve two points, I thought at the time it might have been better if the Habs had lost that one. They seem to be leading a bit of a charmed life when it comes to winning games without really functioning at full capacity, which can make a team feel like it's pretty invincible even when it's not playing great. Then I thought, no, they'd better steal whatever points they can now because the roller coaster will certainly head for a plunge at some point and when that happens it's better to have "lucky" points in the banks to cushion the fall. One way or another, lessons will be learned. I just wish the team would learn them while things are going undeservedly well.