Friday, June 26, 2009

Merry Draft Day!

Draft day is just like Christmas for hockey fans. Well, for this hockey fan anyway. I love the excitement and the chance that teams may make some big trades. I smile when I see the hope and joy on the faces of the kids who get picked; who can see the fulfillment of their young lives' dreams just a couple of short steps away.

I have hopes too. I hope Trevor Timmins and Bob Gainey finally hit a real first-round homerun this year. I hope the organization lands a player who can eventually fill the long-empty first-line centre position. I hope the draft team isn't swayed into putting too much emphasis on the origins of the player and weighs talent and character alone when choosing prospects. I hope there's a small trade that will bring a second-round pick to the Habs. And, if there's a big trade, I hope it's one that won't hamstring the organization for the next ten years. (You know what I mean.)

Yet, despite the hopes and dreams around the draft, there are some stark realities. A full sixty percent of the players taken today and tomorrow will never play even one NHL game. Another one out of five of the remaining forty percent will play less than ten games in the big league. Most of the rest will be competent hockey players and maybe two or three or five out of the hundreds of kids taken will be true NHL stars.

The value of these kids, so coveted as draft picks, will plummet immediately after their names are announced. What you'd get in a trade for a first-round pick is much, much greater than what you'd get for a prospect who's a former first-round pick. The Habs would have gotten a valuable roster player for the number 18 pick in 2004, but they'd get very little now for Kyle Chipchura. Once the eternal possibility of a draft pick has a name and a face and a set of finite skills, the dream is over and he's just part of the business.

But all that will be real tomorrow. Today, dreams and hopes rule and the one the Habs pick might be the one they're waiting for. Today is a day of infinite possibilities, and we get so few of those, we must dream while we can.

Happy draft day everyone, and Go Habs Go!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Komisarek Question

I think right now, pretty much everyone expects Mike Komisarek to leave the Habs next week. I'm not sure, though, why everybody's so convinced he's gone. He's never said anything about not wanting to stay in Montreal, or about wanting to test the free agent market on July 1. On the contrary, he's only ever said how much he enjoys Montreal and how good the team and the city have been to him over the years.

So, when you look at the reasons people give for why they think Komo's gone, there's nothing certain among them. Some people say it's his body language when interviewed close to the end of the season, and how he didn't say he'd definitely stay in Montreal after his contract ended. I know people want assurances and absolutes from players, but in this case, I don't fault Komisarek for hedging. He knew he was having a rotten season, and he knew his agent still had a deal to negotiate with Gainey. In that situation, he'd look pretty dumb if he tipped his hand. Say he tells the reporter "Oh, yeah, Montreal's great and I really want to stay here?" Immediately you hand the team ammunition in negotiations and Gainey starts pushing a hometown discount. Then, if the deal falls through for some reason, and he ends up somewhere else, he has to wear the hypocrite label for the rest of his career. Or, worse from a pride point of view, imagine he says "Montreal is my team, and I'm here to stay," only to find out Gainey intends to let him go on July 1? A smart negotiator hedges and keeps his intentions to himself until the deal is settled. I think Mike Komisarek is no dummy.

Others say Komisarek wants six million dollars a year, and that's why he won't be back in Montreal. Well, sure, I want six million dollars a year too. Who doesn't? But the only "evidence" I've seen that Komisarek or his agent have put that number on the table is from that infamous Russian newspaper article that also claimed Kovalev had agreed to a one-year deal between 6-7.5 million and was going to be handed the team captaincy. Right. That was just filled with truth, wasn't it?

Here's what I see happening: Gainey, like the other 28 GMs in the league (I don't count Brian Lawton because he's obviously just a puppet of Koules and Barrie, with less power than a 20- watt bulb), is waiting for the salary cap number to be released. He's also aware there's a lot of wheeling and dealing in the works for the weekend. In order to be ready to field unexpected opportunities, the GMs are waiting until after the draft to make their decisions about re-signings. That's not to say they haven't laid any groundwork. I believe they have their priorities set, barring unforeseen circumstances, and they've already had some preliminary talks with agents. Gainey has indicated that Komisarek is a priority for the Habs, so I have to think the interest in retaining Komo is there on the Canadiens side.

In that case, one of two things could happen to derail a deal. One: Komisarek is really turned off of Montreal and any deal Gainey offers won't be enough. And two: the money offered by Montreal won't match the number Komisarek believes he's worth.

I'm not sure about number one. Unless something truly awful happened in the dressing room this year of which we're not aware, it seems Komisarek has always liked Montreal. He goes back and forth from his summer home in New York to attend events in the off-season. And he's always spoken positively about the lifestyle in Montreal. I also see him as the kind of person who thinks loyalty is important. So, assuming last year hasn't poisoned him on the city and the team generally, I don't see him disliking Montreal enough to walk away at any cost.

That leaves number two. Bob Gainey has a number in head head that he thinks Komisarek is worth. Komisarek's got one too. Assuming Gainey's willing to give a little extra when he takes into account the interest of other teams in Komo's services and the general requirement to overpay for free agents, and Komisarek's willing to take a little less out of loyalty, you'd have to hope the numbers aren't as far apart as we might think. I don't support the idea that Komisarek is worth more than 4-5 million dollars a year. However, if the two sides are only a little apart, and it would require a few hundred thousand dollars to bridge the gap, I think it's probably wiser for Gainey to bend.

I look at it this way: If the Canadiens didn't have Komisarek in the last couple of years, the defence would have been made up of various combinations of Markov, Gorges, Hamrlik, O'Byrne, Dandenault, Bouillon, Streit and Brisebois. Under those circumstances, I think we'd all be screaming for Gainey to go out and hire a free agent defenceman with size, grit and the ability to hit people hard. If Komisarek belonged to, let's say, the Rangers, we'd be looking at him with a lot more charity than we are right now. I think in that case, nobody would balk at paying Komisarek a Hamrlik-like salary to acquire him.

You can also look at it this way: if Komisarek walks, who takes his place? Will it be another case like that of Mark Streit last year, where the Habs let him go and then had to trade draft picks later in the season to fill the hole he left? The Canadiens don't have anyone else like Komisarek, either in the NHL or in the farm system. And I don't really see anyone who brings what he does on the open market this summer. I know he can't score to save his life, and his play without Markov can be very iffy. But I also know he was injured this season, which affected his game. A healthy Komisarek is important in Montreal, and if he walks it will make next season much, much more difficult.

That's why I think Gainey will work something out with Komisarek. And while we won't necessarily like the price, I think we have to accept that you have to pay for free agents, even your own. And sometimes the monetary cost is less than the cost of losing the player.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Top Ten Things I Hope I Don't See This Summer

We all have our little pipe dreams about what we'd like to see happen with the Canadiens before the puck drops on the next season. My personal favourite is a neat trade for Jordan Staal. Yours might be signing Bouwmeester or the Sedins. But, being a long-time Habs fan, I'm well versed in the art of disappointed rationalizing. The constant disappointment tends to instill a sense of dread that hangs over every hope like the spectre of the leafs winning a Cup before the Canadiens manage to snag one. With that dread in mind, here are the top ten things I pray don't happen this summer:

10. Serge Savard becomes the right hand of the Molsons, with the power to make hockey decisions. Savard was a great, great defenceman in the NHL. He was a good captain of the Canadiens. He was a decent GM for several years. Now though, Savard is a businessman. He's not involved in hockey and hasn't been since well before the lockout and the birth of the "new" NHL. The man has never dealt within the cap world and hasn't been involved in team building for decades. The Molsons and Savard himself have to realize that his contributions to hockey are in the past and he should leave the hockey decisions to people who are actively involved in the game right now.

9. Gainey trades for Briere. The Flyers are desperate for cap space and the Habs are desperate for a scoring centre. I'm pretty sure Briere wouldn't exactly be on the top of Gainey's list at the moment, but we know how Plan A tends to quickly become Plan B or even Plan C in Montreal during the summer. If Plan A is signing Cammalleri for example, and Plan B is retaining Koivu, and neither of those work out, I fear Plan C is saving Holmgren from himself and taking Briere off his hands, for a hefty return to Philly, of course. I don't want Briere, because I think he's too small to make a big difference to the Habs. I don't want to send the Canadiens' promising, cheap young players to Philly to make their team better. And most of all, I don't want Gainey to be the one who lets Holmgren and his lack of foresight and bad planning off the hook.

8. Mike Komisarek signs for more than five million a year. I really like Komisarek, and I really think the team needs him. But in the real world, Komisarek's value is about 3.5 million a year. Add another million onto that for the typical Montreal overpayment required in the inflated free agent world, and that's about the limit Gainey should offer. However, because he has some intangibles the team needs like size on the blue line and leadership in the room, Gainey might stretch the offer to five million a year, or close to it. If Komisarek wants more than that, he'll have to walk. I hope it doesn't come to that, because he's a useful player who was hurt last year. And I want to believe that some of the players we cheer for are actually loyal to the team. Andrei Markov did it two years ago, and he's about seventeen times better a defenceman than Komisarek.

7. Alex Tanguay walks. I like Tanguay too. He's the first point-a-game player the Habs have acquired since Alex Kovalev. He's a fabulous passer and not afraid of physical contact. It was just bad luck that he ended up sustaining a major injury last year. The guy is in his prime and his style of play, which relies on vision and smooth hands, probably means he's got another five or six good years left in him. But beyond his value as an on-ice asset, I think the team can't afford to let Tanguay go right now. Gainey gave up valuable draft picks to obtain him, and if that works out to be a first and second pick for a half-season of Tanguay, that's a bad trade. Last year was basically a season-long trial period in which the Habs had a chance to show Tanguay how well he fits in Montreal. That needs to work out, for the good of the franchise.

6. Gainey is let go. A change of ownership usually means a full-scale revamp within management. I know Bob's made his share of mistakes, but so has every other GM in the league. If you look at the state of the team in the last two years, compared to the way it looked in the years before, you can see a pattern of overall improvement. I think Gainey is a good fit for the environment in Montreal and knows hockey and the difficulties of running the Habs better than most. At the moment I just don't see another candidate who could conceivably do a better job than Gainey, so I think it would be a mistake to get rid of him.

5. Saku Koivu walks. There aren't a whole lot of quality centres available as free agents this summer, and anyone who's an improvement on Koivu will cost a fair amount in a trade situation. This is one of those cases in which a bird in the hand is better than two Sedins in the bush. Koivu is no longer a number-one centre, but he's a good centre and will help any team he joins. Considering his long history with the Canadiens and the fact that he's probably willing to accept a slightly smaller salary and a different role on the team, then he should be re-signed. Look at it this way: Koivu is better than Lapierre, Metropolit and Chipchura. He's comparable to Plekanec. If Gainey can't swing a trade for a centre without using half the team's roster and prospects to do it, or if he can't attract another UFA to fill the role Koivu plays, the Habs still need the captain.

4. Fans boo the Habs first-round draft pick. I expect the fans in the Bell Centre to jeer whatever kid Trevor Timmins chooses at number 18, if the player's name doesn't sound French. It's not fair, it's mean and it's potentially damaging to the team's selection. What kind of start in building a relationship with the city and the team is it when the player is on the defensive on his first day as a Canadien? I hope it won't happen, or that the team will just pick Louis Leblanc and get it over with. But I'm not expecting much.

3. Any of the Canadiens' UFAs sign with arch-rivals. It was bad enough last year watching Michael Ryder play for the Bruins and subsequently destroy the Habs in the playoffs. Imagine how awful it would be to see Komisarek with a big, blue leaf on his sweater hammering Plekanec or Kostitsyn? Or Kovalev cashing Malkin's feeds with the Pens? Or Bouillon helping shore up the Rangers' iffy blue line? If the Habs don't re-sign them, I hope they go west. Or to really bad teams.

2. Gainey overpays for mid-range players to fill good players' roles. I don't want to see any downgrades. If Komisarek or Koivu leave, I don't want to see big money spent to bring in guys not quite as good, who will barely keep the team at the same level it was last year. If Gainey can't attract better players, he might as well spend the money to keep the ones he's already got.

And the number one thing I hope doesn't happen this summer:

1. A trade for Vincent Lecavalier. English is a fairly limited language when it comes to expressing emotion, so words aren't quite sufficient to explain how much I want Lecavalier to remain far away in Tampa. His questionable health, his acquisition price which would gut the Habs, and most of all, his ridiculous, bloated, too-long contract make him an untouchable for me. I just foresee any such trade ending in disaster. Imagine the hopes and dreams riding on this thirty-year-old in Montreal? The moment he puts up only a 75-point, 30-goal season while cashing his ten-million dollar salary, the love the city has for him now will turn to disappointment. The booing will start when he slips below the 70-point threshold at age 35, and he's still ringing up a 7.7-million dollar cap hit. It won't be pretty. And, in the meantime, the five or six players the Habs would have traded away for Lecavalier will help make Tampa a much better team as the Habs get poorer overall. Vinny didn't make the Lightning win all by himself, and he won't make the Habs win either. If we can get through the weekend without hearing Bettman announce that particular trade, I'll consider the draft a moral victory for sensible Canadiens fans everywhere.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rethinking Strategy

Trevor Timmins is a BPA man. We know that, and, in theory, picking the best player available when you step up to the podium at the amateur draft isn't a bad strategy. But this year, I think it might be time to make an exception to the rule.

The fact is, the Canadiens need a solid, offensively-talented centre with some size. They've had the same need for well over a decade and drafting the BPA has failed to address it. I hate to beat the 2003 draft to death yet again, but if Timmins had been looking for a big, strong centre that year, he might have chosen a guy like Getzlaf, instead of the best player available who, in Timmins' book, was Andrei Kostitsyn. Not that I don't think Kostitsyn's got talent. On the contrary, I think only a lack of consistency is preventing him from becoming a seventy-point player. But Kostitsyn is another winger on a team with lots of wingers and no top centres either on the big team or in the system.

The theory behind the BPA is that you can't draft for immediate needs because the dynamic and composition of a team will likely change by the time the kid you draft is ready for the big time. The common defence of Timmins' strict adherence to that theory is the Carey Price selection. Just about everyone was surprised to see the Price pick when Jose Theodore was number one in Montreal and had won a Hart and Vezina trophy in the not-too-distant past. Who would have predicted Theo's massive implosion after Price was picked? So, by choosing the BPA in 2005, according to Timmins' list, the Habs snagged themselves a possible franchise goalie who became the organization's top hope at that position after Theodore was traded. Sure, they could have taken Kopitar who would now be the team's number-one centre. But they wouldn't have Price to guard the net for the next ten years. It's still too early to say whether that argument is a valid one. Would the team be better or worse off with Kopitar centering the first line and a Halak/Huet tandem in nets? We won't know until Price develops fully and we see how important he is to the Canadiens in the next several seasons. In the meantime, the hole at centre is still not filled.

The other argument in favour of the BPA theory is that you can't have too much talent. So, in theory, if a team decides the best player available is a defenceman four or five years in a row, that's no problem because it can later trade one of those talented young D-men for the other pieces the team needs. Or, it can bring in free agents to plug the holes. That's theory. But the reality is because of the salary cap, teams are placing greater value than ever on cheap, young talent. That means they're reluctant to trade prospects until they have a very good idea about the kid's upside and potential to contribute in the NHL. Nobody wants to unload a kid if there's a chance he might bloom for another team. So they hold onto the prospects until they know if they're NHL quality or not. But by then, the other teams know it too, so there are few bargains to be had in trades. The strange irony of the value teams place on their own prospects, however, is that they don't place the same value on other teams' kids. So, while a GM might be willing to part with a couple of D-prospects in exchange for a good young forward, the other GM might not think prospects are worth as much as his NHL-calibre forward. And most organizations have only a few real prized prospects that might interest other teams. The problem is, those are the kids a GM's own team needs to build around.

Take the Habs for example. While they're flush with defence prospects, they have very little at centre. If they want to trade for a centre, what can they offer? Subban and Weber for Getzlaf or Staal? Right. So, the trading thing, while ideal in theory, doesn't exactly pan out as imagined very often.

As for filling holes through free agency, well, that might work for other teams, but Montreal has never been successful at that. As we know.

So, it's back to the draft. I agree that in most cases it's tough to predict what a team's needs might be in five years, when a mid-round draft pick is finally ready to contribute at the NHL level. But in Montreal, the greatest need is the same one the team has had for years, and there's nobody on the farm team who looks like he'll be capable of filling that need in the next several seasons.

That's why, when Trevor Timmins steps up to the mic, I hope he picks the best centre available. He may gamble and miss, but the draft is just that way, regardless of which strategy you use. I'm sure he thought David Fischer was the best player available three years ago, and that's not exactly been a huge homerun yet. Perhaps if he'd been drafting for need that year, Patrik Berglund would have scored 21 goals in his rookie NHL season in Montreal instead of St.Louis. While I agree drafting for need isn't the best way to go generally, I think it's a special circumstance in Montreal this year. At least we'll know the team tried to fill that hole in centre, even if it ultimately doesn't work out.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Boy, I'm glad things are moving along and the sale of the Habs is official, if not final. I like the idea of the Molson brothers as owners. They've got the family history with the team and the Quebec roots. They get it. They know what's important to the people who pay the bills, and it isn't the hyped-up pageantry of an overblown Centennial celebration we saw last season. Fans want a winner, and so do the new owners. Hopefully, that means they're willing to pay for what they want and keep their noses out of hockey decisions.

Say what you will about George Gillet though, he's leaving the Molson brothers some pretty big loafers to fill. Even though he doesn't know hockey the way Canadians who are weaned on the sport know it, he was a good owner. He never dropped into the dressing room with ideas for the powerplay, as the loonies in Tampa like to do. He never imposed an artificial salary cap within the team or stinted on the essentials (such as a scouting staff) to save money like the guy in Buffalo did. He never publicly questioned the competency of the hockey men he hired to run the team. He did give Bob Gainey and his staff the freedom to improve the team dramatically in the last six years.

But Gillett's greatest strength as an owner lay in the fact that he's a good guy. He cheered for the team and he treated the players with a great deal of respect and care. He was generous with his employees both generally, by doing things like building them the state-of-the-art Brossard training facility, and personally. When Saku Koivu was sick with cancer and wasn't allowed to fly on commercial airlines, Gillett sent him home to Finland on his private jet. He did the same thing for Mike Komisarek when the latter's mother was dying of cancer. He had Chris Higgins over for dinner at the Gillett family home while the player was recouperating from shoulder surgery in Colorado.

The Canadiens might not have a great many selling points when it comes to attracting new players or enticing current ones to stay, but Gillett was one of them. So, I'm wondering now what impact his cutting ties with the Habs will have on the players who had developed a personal loyalty to the man? Will a contract offer now seem a little less appealing than the same deal would have with Gillett paying the bills? Komisarek and Koivu certainly must consider how different the Canadiens organization will seem for them under new ownership. And they'll be weighing the Canadiens against potential offers from other teams in two weeks' time.

I just hope Gillett's departure doesn't make the Canadiens side of the scale too light to tip the balance in Montreal's favour. I'd like to believe the Molsons will be at least as good as, if not better than, Gillett when it comes to owning the team. But until they prove they are, I'd like to see the players give them a chance rather than follow Uncle George out of Montreal.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Trade Winds: Light

Yesterday, my kid went a field trip to a museum. All the kids in the class brought some money to buy a trinket at the museum's gift shop and on the way home, they were comparing the amount of change they had left over. My kid suggested to her bus seatmate that she'd like to trade coins. When the negotiations were completed, the other kid had traded a loonie AND a piece of hand-painted driftwood for a quarter. I asked my daughter if she thought it was right to take the other kid's dollar while giving only a quarter in exchange. She said, "Well, the other kid wanted to do it."

The whole story made me wish there were GMs in the NHL who'd be similarly willing to trade their dollar players for the Canadiens' quarters. But while my kid may be the Sam Pollock of schoolyard trades, unfortunately for the Habs, the heyday of Trader Sam is long gone.

Right now, fans are desperately hoping for a major draft-day trade that will bring a real, true superstar to Montreal. Lecavalier, Heatley, Staal and Kovalchuk all have their factions of support within Habs fandom. The problem is, Bob Gainey doesn't have much of value to trade for them; or, more precisely, anything of value from which he's willing to part.

The Canadiens have more free cap space than any other NHL team this summer. That's because nearly every big salary the team paid out last year is now off the books, and with the salaries go the rights to the team's best players. You know, the ones who might actually be worth packaging in a trade for a superstar. So, what Gainey's looking at as trade bait is a somewhat skilled, if inconsistent and largely unproven, young core of forwards. It's hard to imagine Ottawa accepting a package consisting of Max Lapierre, Andrei Kostitsyn and Guillaume Latendresse for Dany Heatley. Those three all together barely come close to Heatley's goal totals. In any case, the loss of three or four roster players from the Canadiens would hurt the team more than the addition of one superstar would help it. Even if they don't score a ton of goals, they do fill important, if lesser, roles on the team.

So, assuming teams with superstars to trade wouldn't be satisfied with a package of second or third-tier forwards, you then have to consider the other players the Habs still have under contract. Of those, Andrei Markov and Carey Price have the most value on the market, and could possibly be the centrepiece of a trade on the Canadiens' side. But Markov is the team MVP and one of the top puck-moving defencemen in the league. Trading him might bring a good forward in return, but it would open up a massive hole on defence which would counteract any positives up front. And Price is the hoped-for superstar-to-be on which Gainey is staking his career as general manager. There's no way he's getting traded, partly because Gainey loves him and partly because of the huge fear of him developing into the next Brodeur in some other city.

So, when it comes down to it, when other teams put their crown jewel players on the market, the Canadiens just don't have the players of equal value to give in return. Fans will continue to be disappointed when Gainey doesn't make a massive trade on draft day, but last year's acquisition of Alex Tanguay for draft picks is about as good as it gets when a team is as limited in star players as Montreal is right now.

In other words, you might be able to trade a quarter for a loonie on the school bus, but it's not very likely to happen in the NHL. And that's somthing fans are just going to have to deal with.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hopes and Hindsight: Twenty Years Later

Once upon a time...lets call it June, 1989...there was an eighteen-year-old hockey player with stars in his eyes and a first-round ranking in the upcoming NHL draft. The kid was a francophone defenceman from Montreal; not a huge guy, but a dynamic offensive force and powerplay quarterback for his team in the Q. The kid talked to Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Hartford before the draft, but since the Whalers had already sent him a team cap and jersey and verbally expressed interest in making him their first-round pick, he was all set to join the Whale. That's what was going on behind the scenes.

In public, the fans and media were clamouring for the team to draft a hometown boy. The Canadiens were picking thirteenth overall, and there was an exciting Montreal-born prospect ranked fifteenth. When the Canadiens' turn came, surprisingly, the local boy was still available, having been passed over by the Whalers who had said they planned to take him at the number ten spot. The Whalers picked Bobby Holik instead. The kid's heart jumped when Habs' GM Serge Savard stepped up to the mic and announced "The Montreal Canadiens are pleased to select...from the Seattle Thunderbirds, Lindsay Vallis." Then, he thought for sure Buffalo would take him at fourteenth, but again, it didn't happen. The first round ended, and the fifteenth-ranked pick was still there.

In the end, the Canadiens, picking in the second round at number thirty overall, called his name...and Patrice Brisebois became a Hab. Fans were thrilled their team landed the best Quebec-born prospect in the draft, and in the second round too. He was a steal. Back then, twenty years ago this draft, Brisebois was over the moon to be chosen by his hometown team. He said, "I'm so happy! From the age of five, every Saturday night I watched the Canadiens on television. I knew everything about the club. And now I've been drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. I can hardly believe it!" He went on to talk about the sacrifices he'd have to make to make the big time and how he was willing to do whatever it took to be an NHL player.

Remembering the starry-eyed kid Brisebois was back then, and knowing now how things worked out for him, twenty years of hindsight should be able to give us a bit of perspective on this year's draft. The kid who was ranked fifteenth overall, with such high hopes piled on his future, went on to become a serviceable, if fairly soft, fairly risky, NHL defenceman with a nice point shot. Still, out of the sixteen QMJHL players chosen in the twelve rounds of the 1989 draft, Breezer played the most games in the NHL and was the only one to play a real role in winning a Stanley Cup. (Andre Racicot, also drafted by the Habs in 1989, was backup to Patrick Roy in 1993, but played only one period, giving up two goals on nine shots.)

It just goes to show that the draft is a crap shoot. I'm sure the Habs thought their first pick twenty years ago, Lindsay Vallis, would be the big, strong offensive forward they've been looking for ever since. And nobody thought much of it when the Red Wings drafted a smallish defenceman from Sweden in the third round. Nicklas Lidstrom has won four Cups, a Conn Smythe and six Stanley Cups since.

I recently rediscovered a book written about junior hockey players and their struggle to make the big time. It profiled six players who would go on to play in the '89 Memorial Cup playoffs, and the dream of every one of them was to make an NHL team. Four of them...Mike Ricci, Donald Audette, John Tanner and Breezer...did. The other two never came close. So many things can ruin a player's chances at a hockey career. An untimely injury, a coach who doesn't help him develop properly, a bad supporting cast, lots of heart and not enough talent: any of those can end a dream before it's realized.

In the book, Brisebois...the bright-eyed, big-dreaming version...writes with wonder about getting a chance to play in SaskPlace for the first time. He enthuses about how great it was to stay in the Holiday Inn, and how good the meals were there. Yet he wasn't naive enough to think getting drafted was the end of the hard work and sacrifice for him.

We look at Brisebois now and forget he was that kid twenty years ago. Now he's a grizzled veteran of 1009 NHL games whose career is probably over. Maybe he wasn't what he was projected to be back then, but he made something of his opportunity and played to the best of his ability. He might not have been a star, but he was useful.

So, this year, when the draft opens up and we all cross our fingers hoping the Habs will pick our favourites, remember the Breezer. A lot of fans are shouting for the Canadiens to trade up and pick Louis Leblanc, or take Jordan Caron, because the draft is in Montreal and they want a francophone pick. One of those guys might be the best player available when Bob Gainey goes to the mic. They'll likely be hoping to hear their names called by their childhood favourite team. And, let's say one of them does get picked. He might be Lindsay Vallis, who plays one game in the NHL...or he might be a useful, dedicated player like Brisebois. Maybe he'll be a star. The point is, we never know how a draft pick will pan out.

I just hope people remember every one of the kids whose names will be called in Montreal is the living embodiment of hope and promise. Some of them will live up to the hype, but most won't. Maybe the Habs' guy will be a diamond in the rough, like Lidstrom. Maybe he'll be someone who never lives up to his ranking, but, like Brisebois, can help contribute to a winning team. Whoever he turns out to be, francophone or not, I hope the fans cheer for him and welcome him and his dream to the Canadiens. That day will be one of the most important days of his life. Let him take good memories away from the Bell Centre, because that may be all he ever has of the NHL. Or it may be the first NHL moment in a long career he'll remember forever.

At least the Breezer got a Cup before he was booed out of Montreal.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Do Something Already!

I'm bored. The Cup Finals are winding down and the draft is just over two weeks away. The Canadiens have a LOT to do before the season starts, and even though I'm not exactly expecting miracles, I still wish something would happen. For news-starved Habs fans (who have as much hope of having their team actually playing in June as they do of meeting a talking fish who grants them three wishes), this is the time of year when even re-signing the Breezer would be titillating.

I'm at that stage now, where I log onto the computer in the morning with that half-hopeful/half-fearful sense of anticipation: Today must be the day something happens. It's exactly three weeks to July 1, and Saku said he figured he'd be gone if not re-signed by then. Surely Gainey's not planning to leave it all until the last minute, right?

Come on, Bob. Throw us a bone. Announce something! I hear Breezer's sitting by his phone, refusing even to golf or polish his racecar for fear of missing your call. Saku's getting all shrivelly in the sauna while he tries to figure out if he should have a Habs-memorabilia yard sale on July 2. Poor Komisarek can't decide if he should stock up on blue-and-orange sweats or if he should hold off and just use the money to pay his agent an appreciation bonus for getting him out of the northeast and away from Lucic. Ray Shero is watching Jordan Staal's price tag increase and rubbing his hands together in glee as he calculates what he'll get for the kid in a draft-day trade. You need to move Bob!

If there is a lot of stuff just about to be revealed, that's great. But it's too quiet in Habs-world lately. Much too quiet.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Let the Summer of Rejection Begin

I wondered who'd be the first to say "no thanks" to the Canadiens' overtures this summer. Maybe unsurprisingly, it's turned out to be Alexei Yemelin, the hard-nosed Russian defenceman the Habs drafted in the third round in 2004. Yemelin has, on at least three occasions since his draft, wavered back and forth between signing in Montreal and signing in Russia...picking Russia every time. Now it seems he's picked his home country again, although the Habs were wooing him hard.

There's nothing wrong with that choice, of course. The man is a free agent with the right to choose his own destiny. If one of his choices is a two-way deal in North America, far from his home and family, with a good part of the season likely spent riding buses and making peanuts, and the other choice is a million-dollar deal to stay home and live pretty well near his family...well, which would you choose?

The thing is, when Canadiens fans hear even their own draft picks say they'd rather play elsewhere, the outlook for the team's future gets pretty discouraging. It feels like just the first step in a long summer of watching all the big free agents sign with other teams while they say they were "down to two teams...Montreal and..." the team with which they actually play. Then will come the emotional blows of having Pierre McGuire on TSN's Free Agent Frenzy announce Mike Komisarek and Saku Koivu have signed with teams other than Montreal.

Alexei Yemelin choosing Russia is, in itself, not really a big deal. Draft picks are a crap shoot after all. Who's to say a third-rounder from 2004 would be in the NHL now if he'd been drafted out of North America? Who's to say Yemelin would be an NHL regular even if he did come over? No, it's not Yemelin. It's what his decision represents, which is a pending summer of rejection.

I don't blame Bob Gainey for this. He's offered money and term and personal attention to the UFAs he's courted. But, the taxes in Montreal are outrageous. The weather's not as nice as it is in Florida or Anaheim or Vancouver (hey, there, Mats!). The interest in the team of fans and media has crossed the border into obsessive. Those are the reasons typically given for why free agents pick other teams...after first using Montreal's interest to maximize their offers from those others. But beyond all those reasons is the main one: Montreal isn't a contender. And the corollary to that: Montreal doesn't have a superstar to build around. If a top winger has the chance to play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a team that will contend, why wouldn't he take a little less to do that instead of signing in Montreal where he'll make more...but be scrutinized by the media, booed by his own fans, taxed to death, criticized for not speaking French and played on a line with number-one centre Tomas Plekanec? The situation in Montreal isn't Gainey's fault though. He's dealing with the above-mentioned limitations in signing free agents. He's also drafting mid-to-late order every year. He's doing what he can in an environment in which every mis-step is tantamount to disaster.

In the end, it doesn't matter. If the Canadiens are willing to sit back and let the league happen around them, there will be no change in their circumstances. Yemelin's decision to stay in Russia is just the opening of the first vein. I expect the bleeding to continue throughout the summer.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Not So Great Expectations

So, what are you expecting the Canadiens to look like next year? This summer is such a Fulcrum of Fortune when it comes to the Habs. There are so many unknowns, it's not possible to predict where the team might end up.

The one thing we do know is that there's a completely different feel around the franchise this summer compared to last. Around this time last year, we were excited about the draft, but even more excited that the team that had finished first in the East was in line to get even better. The Habs were in the hunt for Mats Sundin (we thought) and they'd traded their first-round draft pick for Alex Tanguay. The thought of what the first three lines would look like had us salivating enough to overlook the weaknesses on defence and the inexperience in goal. Our team was going to contend, damn it!

As we know, it didn't pan out that way. Neither did our expectations from two years ago pan out, when we were expecting a bubble team and got a conference champion. So, maybe it's a good thing we have no way to predict what next year's Habs will look like. Without great expectations, we're more likely to be happy with what we get...or at least not have such lofty heights from which to plummet.

Right now, my expectations are very, very low. Bob Gainey has a lot of money to spend, but he's got to use it to fill some pretty big slots on the team. As it stands, the Habs need an entire first line and a top-pairing well as a couple of reliable third or fourth-liners and some bottom-pairing D. Considering how difficult it is to get free agents to come to Montreal and that this year's crop of free agents isn't overloaded with top-tier talent, I'm not really expecting to fill many of those holes on the UFA market. I'm also not overly expectant of keeping all the current Habs who fill those positions at the moment. Gainey may not want to overpay in either money or term for players he doesn't envision playing major roles on the team past next season. Some of those players may just be sick of Montreal and want to play somewhere else for a change.

I see next year's Habs being a mix of the young core we already know...the Kostitsyns, Price, Halak, Plekanec, Gorges, Higgins, D'Agostini, O'Byrne, Latendresse, Lapierre and maybe Weber and Pacioretty...and veteran free agent players with some fatal flaw that keeps them from commanding top attention from the contending teams. We may see Kovalev back because Gainey can't replace him on the PP. Koivu or Tanguay or Komisarek may agree to re-sign for whatever reason (I'd guess reason number one would be because Gainey might be willing to overpay for them in the face of little interest in the Habs from better players.) Only one thing is fairly certain: the Bouwmeesters, Gaboriks, Sedins and Havlats of the world will not be playing in Montreal next season.

That's what I'm expecting to see on the ice, but that's where the expectations stop. I have no clue how they'll do in action. I have to think Plekanec, Higgins, Kostitsyn and Price will be better than they were last year. That'll help. But whether whichever players Gainey finds to fill the other holes will be good enough to win is anybody's guess.

So, I'm not going to expect anything. If they win, great. It'll be like two years ago when we were so pleasantly surprised by the team's great showing in the regular season. That was fun to watch because we didn't think it would happen. If they don't win, well, we weren't expecting them to anyway.

In the meantime, while I'm not expecting anything, I find I'm watching Gainey's moves with interest. It's kind of relaxing, really. I spent last summer impatiently wishing for the season...the Centennial in which the Habs would dominate the start. This year, it's back to enjoying the nice weather, the barbeques, the long evenings and the absence of hand-wringing over hockey. It's good. When the season starts, I'll be watching with avid interest. But I'm not expecting a Cup. Or even a playoff berth. That way, whatever we get will be a surprise. With any luck, it'll be a pleasant one.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Help Wanted

This is a personal request for all of you who read here. Years ago, I had a VHS tape called "Les Canadiens: A Saga." It was an hour-long video made for the Canadiens 75th anniversary, I think. The copyright on it was 1985. Anyway, my copy went missing and I'd love to replace it. If anyone has a copy, it'd be great if I could get a dub of it. It had some great old footage of Jacques Plante and Aurele Joliat, among others.

So, if you can help me out, I'd really appreciate it!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What If?

Well, only three weeks to go before the NHL draft hits Montreal. As usual, the best prospects in the world will paste smiles on their faces as they stride to the podium to put on the sweaters of the most hopeless franchises in the league. The good teams will once again rely on the hit-and-miss reports prepared by their scouts and hope the prospects that fall outside the "sure-thing" category will pan out, to allow them to re-stock with quality players.

I don't think the draft is fair. Bad teams and bad management get rewarded with good players who get buried in markets where hockey rates behind NASCAR, while teams in hockey cities end up with mid-range players with a high hit-or-miss quotient. The teams that keep the southern franchises afloat with revenue sharing have little to no chance of landing a real superstar in the draft. The stars instead end up on the very franchises teams like the Habs help support. It's not fair for the players either, who end up being little better than indentured servants to whatever crap team that picks them.

I've had ideas for changing the draft format allowing each team to protect one player from its geographically allotted "development zone" before the draft starts, then continuing with the first round as usual. I've also thought of making the draft a lottery every year. Every team's name would go into the drum and the draft order would be randomly selected so every team has the same chance to draft a superstar. Sure, the worst team in the league wouldn't get the best player every year, and sometimes a team like Detroit would get richer. But the overall effect would be to help permanently mid-range teams get better. Without the chance to draft high, that won't happen for many the Habs.

But lately I've been thinking, why have a draft at all? I love the stories of the "living room wars" from the forties and fifties, when scouts had to work the prospect's parents and often had to get really creative to convince a player to sign a contract. I'd like to see that come back. If a player wants to play for the Canadiens or the leafs or the Devils, why shouldn't he have the chance to do so? If a Swedish kid is undecided, but the Habs' European scout can convince his parents that Montreal is the right place for him, why can't he try to do that? I like the idea that a team can develop hometown loyalty by grooming kids in its own backyard, then sign them when they grow up.

People complain about the loss of the Canadiens' francophone identity. The draft is directly responsible for that. If the Habs had had the chance to woo Mario Lemieux or Vincent Lecavalier and sign them, does anyone think those players would have chosen to go to Pittsburgh or Tampa instead? Of course not. They would have likely signed with the hometown team that supported them through their minor league days and for which all their friends and families cheered.

There are those who'd argue that giving teams free rein to court and sign any player they can will set up a bias in favour of teams based in fertile hockey development regions. I think, so what? Why shouldn't the places that love hockey and actually play hockey get to keep their local players close to home? Why should they have to go keep the Florida Panthers afloat instead of playing hockey where it should be played? If it comes down to Toronto and Montreal for the Cup every year because the best players in the world choose to sign with their favourite teams, so be it. Maybe that's the way it should be.

So, I say, dump the draft. Abandon awarding the best players to teams that tank for years. It's not good enough and it's not fair for the cities that develop hockey players and see them play out their pro careers as a "Lightning."

Monday, June 1, 2009

Here's Your Team, Carey Price

KA-THUNK! (rattle rattle)

That was the sound of my heart falling when I heard Jacques Martin will be the Habs' new coach. You know what came immediately to mind? A passage from "The Game," in which Steve Shutt is teasing Doug Risebrough about his boring suits. He said, "Dougie, I didn't know 'drab' came in so many colours." That's pretty much how I feel about Martin. He's drab, he's boring and he's got a reputation for coaching a really painful style of hockey.

BUT...there's always a "but..."he's also experienced and speaks French, so two of the "Montreal requirements" have been met. He's never won anything, but I guess there's a first time for everything. More significant than his past or his facility in both official languages though, is what his hiring tells me about the direction the Canadiens are taking.

Bob Gainey intends this to be Carey Price's team, like the Devils are Martin Brodeur's team, or the Canucks are Roberto Luongo's team. Gainey has staked his best-ever draft pick, his team's playoff fortunes for two straight seasons and his reputation as a team-builder on the success or failure of a kid goalie. But he's now giving him the best possible chance to make a real go of it.

Rollie Melanson is out, and whether it's fair or not to the ex-coach, you can be sure it's because he did not further Price's development. The new goalie coach will be someone who either has worked with Price in the past, like Olaf Kolzig or Eli Wilson, or someone with an impeccable reputation as a coach, like Francois Allaire. The Franchise's development will be priority number one when the new coaching staff takes the ice in September.

And Martin's hiring fits in with the "project Price" philosophy too. One of the biggest problems Price had this year, aside from letting in bizarre and deflating goals at bad times (which, hopefully, the new goalie coach will address) was that his defence routinely allowed odd-man rushes and failed to clear rebounds out of the crease. Under Martin, that will stop. He will have the team playing a sound defensive system that will be clear to every player on the ice. Once the defence is organized, Price will be free to play his game and not worry about the shot-barrage he routinely faced this season.

So, while Martin is boring and drab, his role in Montreal isn't to be exciting. His job is to make the team in front of Carey Price play better so The Franchise can do his job to the best of his abilities. Gainey wants to be vindicated for his faith in Carey Price, and he wants to see whatever spark that caused him to be drafted at number five overall fanned into the flame of stardom.

Make no mistake. Carey Price is the Montreal Canadiens, for better or for worse. Bob Gainey has hired Jacques Martin to make sure it's for better. We'll see. And we'll try to stay awake while we're waiting.