Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why Bob Gainey Will Not Appoint a Captain

Hockey is a game of instinct and reaction, of vision and sensation. It's a beautiful chaos, which is probably why the rules with which we attempt to harness it are the unspoken ones as often as they are the ones officially recorded in the referee's handbook. Some things, any hockey player will tell you, are just understood. Among those understandings, in Montreal, is that the players choose their own captain.

From the Rocket, through Beliveau, the Pocket Rocket, Cournoyer, Savard, Carbonneau and Koivu, some of the greatest, longest-standing captains in team history were all selected for leadership by their teammates. The fact that that trust was bestowed on them by their own colleagues was important to them. And it was because of that choice on their part that the players trusted, respected and accepted those captains. Bob Gainey knows this better than anyone, not because he was elected captain of the Canadiens by his teammates, but because he wasn't.

Gainey was appointed by coach Bob Berry, and the decision to bypass the players in selecting the captain made Gainey's transition into the role a difficult one for him and for his teammates. Here's how Larry Robinson described the situation in 1988, seven years after Gainey's appointment:

"Truth to be told, it seemed that Berry instinctively got off on the wrong foot with his very first act of authority, appointing Bob Gainey captain of the team after Serge Savard formally announced his retirement in August, 1981. We ourselves couldn't have picked a better man to replace Serge as captain than Bob Gainey but we never were given the chance. The various possible candidates for the job would have included the Flower, Guy Lapointe and myself, but none of us was the type of leader who would wear the C with the distinction of Savard, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau. All of these men had been elected by their peers, as Bob Gainey surely would have been. But that was taken away from us and there was resentment in the room. When the press conference was called to make the announcement, Bo wore a three-piece suit. The rest of his teammates wore jeans and polo shirts in a subtle protest.

The captain of the Montreal Canadiens always has been a players' player. While he may be used for two-way message traffic between players and management, he was always seen as a player first, a management messenger second... I can't say often enough that Bob Gainey turned out to be a magnificent leader and captain, a leader on the ice and off. But the players had the impression that someone in management just didn't trust us to have the good sense to elect him ourselves. Going into the 1981-82 season, there were a few noses out of joint."

Of course, now we can all agree with Robinson that Gainey was the player the team probably would have selected anyway, and he ended up being a great captain on a team with a history of great captains. But the start of his tenure with the C was unnecessarily difficult because of Berry's decision to appoint him. Gainey undoubtedly remembers that.

And that's Bob Gainey we're talking about. When he became captain, he'd already won four Stanley Cups, four Selke trophies and a Conn Smythe. He was recognized around the league for his leadership and dedication, and was acknowledged as the best defensive forward in NHL history. He was a career Hab, starting his ninth season in Montreal, when he became captain. If he experienced resentment from his teammates when he was handed the C, can you imagine what a guy like Mike Cammalleri or Scott Gomez would get if they became captain without even having played a game in the CH?

The captain's role may be largely symbolic when it comes to what happens on the ice these days. Even in the dressing room, players understand everyone has to accept a share of leadership within the team. But when hard times hit, and the emotional side of the game takes over, players...and fans too...still look to the captain for guidance. In Montreal, he has to be the guy who stands there after the game and answers the tough questions. And when things aren't going in the Canadiens' favour on the ice, he's the one who has to take the team by the throat and get a little more out of it. To do that effectively he's got to have the trust of his teammates, and as we know, trust is a gift that must be given freely.

Bob Gainey knows that, and that's why I can't imagine him appointing the captain and putting some other player through a version of what he experienced in his own ascension to the captaincy of the Canadiens.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Speed Kills

Yesterday I saw some of the candidates for Team Canada in the upcoming Olympics give interviews about their experience at the orientation camp in Calgary this week. The one thing they all mentioned, smiling through gasping breaths, was the speed at which Mike Babcock organizes practices. The players said they hit the ice at top speed from the first moment and never let up until they got off the ice. One of the other coaches...Lindy Ruff, I think...commented that "that's the only speed Mike knows." Babcock himself said if you want to be competitive with the best, you have to be in top condition.

It reminds me of all the stories you hear about the great '70s dynasty Habs teams. I've mentioned here before that I spoke with several members of the 1977 Canadiens a couple of years ago, while I was working on a 30th-anniversary retrospective of what I believe is the greatest hockey team ever assembled. The players from that team, even decades later, still have several things in common. One of them is the rueful memory of the way Scotty Bowman ran top speed. Here's what Rick Chartraw told me back then:

"I remember a funny story one time. I think it may have been a playoff game. It was the morning skate and we were playing Boston that night, and Boston was in town. We skated in the morning at ten o'clock and the other team would go on the ice at eleven o'clock for a warm up. Gerry Cheevers was sitting on the visitor's side of the rink at the Forum, watching us go through our morning skate. We had Kenny in one net and Bunny in the other. And the guys were just ripping shots at every corner, over shoulders, between legs, not taking anything off of them. And Gerry Cheevers...I was standing next to the boards...said, "The way you guys abuse your goaltenders, I'm gonna be sick." And we didn't think we were abusing them, and our goaltenders didn't either. It was their job to be challenged whether it was in practice or in games, to the nth degree. It was the way we did things. We did things at full throttle, whether it was practice or games. I think that's what made the games, for us...not easy...but easy to play at that level because we just always played at that level, whether it was practice or games."

Bowman did it and won. Babcock studied under Bowman, he does it and wins. Jacques Martin has the speed weapon in his arsenal and, as we know, it can be a very deadly weapon indeed. But if he's going to take best advantage of it, he's got to be like Babcock and Bowman and keep the team moving at full throttle every single time they're on the ice. The only way a team can effectively pass, make plays and shoot at top speed is if it does it every day at practice until it becomes automatic.

In the last couple of seasons, I've had a chance to sit in on a couple of Habs practices. The thing that stood out for me both times (aside from Plekanec being first on the ice and last off on both occasions) was the great amount of time the players spent standing around. They ran some drills, but there were long stretches while some players were involved and others were just watching. I don't remember any stretch in which all the players were running at full speed for a sustained period. The lack of speed in practice actually surprised me because I remembered reading in Larry Robinson's book about how the team, including Guy Carbonneau, was bitterly opposed to Bob Berry's coaching in the early '80s, in large part because of the slow, boring practices he ran. The holdovers from the '70s had been taught practices mirror a team's game performance and slow practices would lead to slow games. Judging by the games we watched last year, with the speedsters looking like they were skating in mud and all the missed passes, I'd say there's a deep truth in that theory.

Jacques Martin's got an exceptionally fast group of forwards (with a couple of notable exceptions in Laraque and Latendresse, but even Gui is picking it up) with an exceptional lack of height on his team right now. As they say, you can't hit what you can't catch, and if the Canadiens are flying at top speed, they're going to be very, very hard to catch. It's up to the coach to make that happen. And if Martin's smart, which I think he is, that'll start with some upbeat, dedicated practices. If speed is to be the weapon of choice, it's best to have it primed and ready at all times. No more standing around, Jacques!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

44 Down: Czech Mate

Have you ever noticed that in most crossword puzzles, there's a long word in the middle of the grid that supports the rest of the puzzle? It's the foundation word, and the other words all connect to it somehow. If the Habs were a crossword, the foundation word would be something like this: _ O M A _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _, and the clue would be "44 Across: Czech-born skater, whose rebound could make the difference in the Canadiens' season." If you started to write "Tomas Plekanec," though, I hope you're doing the puzzle in pencil.

There are many Canadiens who need to erase last year's injury-plagued, underperforming season with a fresh start, perhaps none more than Roman Hamrlik. The Hammer came to Montreal shrouded in doubt two seasons ago. He was Bob Gainey's premier free agent acquisition, in the wake of Sheldon Souray's painful departure, and became the second-highest-paid player on the team. Everyone knew he wouldn't replace Souray's cannon on the PP, but there was some hope he'd be able to stablize a rather porous defence and maybe help young Ryan O'Byrne adjust to the big time.

He was so much better than that, though. Hamrlik, on many nights, was the best Habs defenceman on the ice. He was a rock in his own end and moved the puck out of trouble calmly and efficiently just about every time he had the chance. And while playing a ton of big minutes, he also supported the inexperienced play of O'Byrne and covered up the stinky brainfarts of the Breezer. The 5.5 million bucks a year looked like a bargain. Then, last year happened. Everything that went so well for Hamrlik and the team in The Good Season completely went into the dumper last year.

I think one of the biggest issues the team had last season was its weak defensive play in its own end, and that started with the defencemen. As a group, they failed to clear opponents from the front of the net, and the puck from their own zone. They gave up forty-plus shots on way too many occasions and they got beaten by speed embarrassingly often. The "highlight" of Ovechkin blowing by Hamrlik, even though that particular play wasn't all the Hammer's fault, still haunts my dreams. As does Hamrlik passing the puck directly to Michael Ryder in the final game of last spring's wretched playoff. Of course, Ryder was right in the slot when the giveaway happened, and he blasted it smartly past Price. Even worse, that wasn't even the first time Hamrlik had made the exact same play last season. Suddenly, the 5.5 million started to stink a bit and the contract began to resemble something that rhymes with "schmalbatross."

There are a lot of questions about whether Andrei Kostitsyn will break out this year, and whether Tomas Plekanec will rebound. The team needs the newcomers, especially Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, to earn their money and put up the points. But the fact remains that no matter how well the forwards perform either individually or as a group, it all starts with defence. Mike Cammalleri said today that one of the reasons why he signed with Montreal was because of the puck-moving defencemen on the roster. He named Andrei Markov and Hamrlik specifically. That's because the forwards can be as fast and slick as they want, but they're not going to be able to use those skills to maximum advantage without a smart, mobile defence that can get the puck moving smoothly forward. The D starts the play, more often than not, and if it can't, the forwards are crippled.

That's why Hamrlik's the most important rebound candidate on the team right now. If a forward slumps, he's got eleven other guys to take the heat off him. If a D who plays more than a period per game is struggling, the whole team suffers. The funny thing is, Hamrlik put up more points last year than he did in his first season in Montreal, and his plus/minus wasn't that different...but he wasn't the same in his own zone. He gave the puck away and didn't recover as quickly as he needed to on too many occasions. He was productive on the scoreboard, but not dependable in the defensive zone. And while his own points totals climbed, I think some of the reason why the forwards' totals fell almost universally was because of the weaker play in the team's own end, starting with Hamrlik. In The Good Season, Hammer was the one who'd chase down a dump-in, avoid the forechecker and neatly pass the puck out of trouble to a skating forward. Many times, that would translate to a couple of forward passes and a goal. Hamrlik might not have recorded an assist on the play, but he was often the one who started the rush. Last season, his forward passes were made with less conviction and were often intercepted. Hamrlik was much less of a factor in the offense of the team, even as his personal stats increased.

The thing is, Hamrlik is a Hab for the foreseeable future. He's 35, and his cap-heavy deal isn't making him all that attractive to other teams. Right now, he's the Habs second-highest paid D behind Markov. If he's going to account for that much of the cap and that many minutes on the ice, he's got to earn it. Last year's effort from him wasn't good enough. I know he was probably thrown by the swirling rumours of his involvement with an alleged mobster, and there were rumours that he was nursing a broken foot through the latter part of the season and the playoffs. But those are excuses. He's being paid for his ability to be a rock on defence, and he's got to step up and be that rock like he did two years ago. We know he can do it. We've seen it. We need to see it again, or someday soon his crossword clue will be "44 Down: Biggest waste of contract space on the Habs' roster."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Try a Little Tenderness

Two years ago I arrived in Montreal for the Canadiens' third home game of the season, against the Buffalo Sabres. (Incidentally, the game in which Kyle Chipchura scored his first NHL goal, but I digress.) Anyway, as the taxi headed away from Trudeau on its route downtown, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of Canadiens advertising everywhere. I mean, I knew hockey is the only game in town in Montreal, so the fact that Habs' logos were pervasive didn't surprise me. But the "faces" the team had chosen for its blanket marketing campaign did. Instead of pushing Captain Koivu or Andrei Markov, the team's best player, the team decided to go young and go local. So the larger-than-life images of Chris Higgins, Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse and the traitor were everywhere that season. I could understand Higgins and the traitor...they were former first-round draft picks who seemed to represent the future of the team. But Lapierre and Latendresse baffled me. Except for being local boys, they really hadn't proven much in the NHL. In half a season the year previous, Lapierre had tallied just twelve points. Latendresse fared slightly better, with 29 points in 80 games. It didn't surprise me when Lapierre went to Hamilton out of training camp, embarrassing the team's marketing people. Latendresse, however, managed to hang on and match his rookie season's goal total.

Now, here we are two years later with Higgins and the traitor collecting paycheques elsewhere. Lapierre seems to have found a new gear to his game and it looks like the third-line centre job on the big team is his to lose. Latendresse, though, is still something of a mystery. Can he be a real power forward? Is he a top-six guy? Can he eventually find a way to put all his tools together and carve out a permanent role for himself? Of all the players I want to see succeed this season, Latendresse is right up at the top of the list.

I have to admit, Gui has never been one of my particular favourites among the Habs of the last few years. He's always seemed sort of nondescript to me. He was a big man who didn't really use his body that much. And he was a guy with soft hands who didn't light it up much either. He wasn't a great skater and not much of a fighter. He had the size to be dangerous in front of the net, but never really went where he needed to go to be effective. He's always been the guy who was too good for junior but not quite good enough for the NHL and who didn't qualify for anything in between.

It's been a bit of a hard road for him, though, despite the snide comments from fans and media about his having been handed a job in the NHL without really earning it. At one point, he was ranked in the top ten overall in draft projections for his year. A shoulder injury, poor world junior tournament and a concussion in the two seasons before his draft saw him drop out of the top fifty junior players on Central Scouting's list. Still, he showed up at his first pro camp raring to go, and he scored two PP goals and assisted on another in his very first pre-season game. At that point, the expectations...already high for a big francophone kid with hands...started to really take off. It didn't lower the bar any when fans started chanting "Gui! Gui! Gui!" at him, reminiscent of the adoration showered down on the great Guy Lafleur thirty years earlier. So, Latendresse had a great camp but ended up going back to junior. He came into Montreal a year later and did it again. The team at that point really had no choice but to keep in the NHL.

So there he was, nineteen years old, the first teenager to crack the Canadiens lineup in decades. A big local boy into the bargain. He was instantly a hero, without having proven a thing. Unfortunately for him, though, he wasn't really a hero. He wasn't Lafleur, or even anything close. His presence on the team stirred up a wave of adoration and expectation that he couldn't possibly justify with his play on the ice.

But...and this is why I'm rooting for him this year...he's handled himself with a grace well beyond his years in the face of all of that. He calmly dealt with Patrick Roy's public accusation that he was only on the team because he was French. He quietly dealt with fans, without getting a fat head or becoming a notorious party boy. He was told his skating needed work and he needed to lose weight, so he worked like a dog all last summer to make that happen. When you consider Latendresse came out of the same draft as Carey Price, you realize how young he really is. Price is getting every bit of leeway his youth and inexperience allow, but Latendresse, despite having dealt with the pressure and expectations of Montreal's hockey faithful in a much more mature manner than Price has, is rejected out of hand by many when he can't hold down a spot on the first line.

I think Latendresse has the tools to be a really effective NHL player. His goals-per-game total increased last year, and he likely would have cracked the 20 barrier if he'd stayed healthy. He has a really special chemistry with Lapierre, and I think with a good winger on that line, Latendresse has the potential to start making a name for himself this year. I was surprised to see a stat recently that shows Latendresse is the fourth-highest scoring NHL player from his entire draft class, behind only Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar, and Paul Stastny. Not bad, I think.

Anyway, I really hope this is Gui's season. He's got the talent and he's got the opportunity. This is his chance to show why the team was right to put his face on all those posters two years ago.

Monday, August 17, 2009

For Your Viewing (Dis)Pleasure

Here he is, in all his glory. Notice how happy he is to be wearing the blue and white? He's positively glowing. I guess you can get lots of expensive facials with five-and-a-half million bucks a year. And I guess the salons are better in Toronto.

My feelings on this matter are best summarized by this seventeenth-century John Henry Dryden ditty:

Farewell Ungrateful Traitor!

Farewell, ungrateful traitor!

Farewell, my perjur'd swain!

Let never injur'd woman

Believe a man again.

The pleasure of possessing

Surpasses all expressing,

But 'tis too short a blessing,

And love too long a pain.

'Tis easy to deceive us

In pity of your pain,

But when we love, you leave us

To rail at you in vain.

Before we have descried it,

There is no joy beside it,

But she that once has tried it

Will never love again.

The passion you pretended

Was only to obtain,

But once the charm is ended,

The charmer you disdain.

Your love by ours we measure

Till we have lost our treasure,

But dying is a pleasure

When living is a pain.

You think John Dryden knew Mike Komisarek?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr.President

Awww...our little goalie is growing up so quickly. It seems like only yesterday that Carey Price was a seventeen-year-old shy, lanky draft pick. Now he's heading into his third NHL season and has been through the wringer on his journey from then to now. He's been fat, thin, injured, healthy, an all-star, a hero, a disappointment and a scapegoat booed out of his own rink. He's been both annointed and vilified by the public. His career so far has been so tumultuous it's hard to believe he's just turning 22 today. This morning, I heard an old country song on the radio that made me think of him. "Why don't you love me like you used to do? Why do you treat me like a worn-out shoe? My hair is still curly and my eyes are still blue, so why don't you love me like you used to do?" Habs fans are a fickle bunch, aren't we?

A birthday is always a good time for taking stock of your life and making resolutions about where you want to go. Price certainly has a lot to think about. Now, on the brink of his second season as the Habs' number-one goalie, the hopes of the team are riding on him in a way they haven't really done before. Last year the team was expected to be good enough to cover up any minor mistakes its young goalie might make. But the injuries and poor performances of so many players left Price exposed in a way nobody could have predicted. Every error he made seemed to result in a back-breaking goal against and his confidence plummeted along with his stats.

Now, Bob Gainey has set the team up to give Price the best possible chance to be successful. The defence is generally more mobile and tougher than last year, and will probably manage to keep the shot totals below last season's typical forty. The forwards are faster and able to play a puck-possession, defensively responsible game, designed to keep the puck out of the Habs end as much as possible. Jacques Martin's style of hockey is very goalie-friendly as well, and the new goaltending coach, Pierre Groulx, has a reputation for allowing his charges to work in the style in which they're most comfortable. Management has given Price all the help it can.

The rest of it will be up to him, and it won't be easy. In creating the best possible set of circumstances for Price's improvement, Gainey has also effectively turned the team over to him. After the Summer Purge, nobody knows how all the new players will fit in or who'll emerge in the leadership roles. Price is a constant, and he'll have to be on his game right away while the new guys adjust and find their places on the team. He has to inspire the confidence of his new teammates; they have to know he's there and won't fail them. The Habs have enough adapting to do without worrying about the goalie killing them with poor play. It's a huge responsibility for a guy who's had trouble carrying the load in the past. But the bare truth is this year's team goes only as far as Carey Price can take it. It makes you wonder what he might wish for when he blows out his candles today.

The good news in all of this, however is Price is likely on the cusp of putting his consistency problems behind him and breaking out for real. If you look at other great goaltenders around the league, you can see it's pretty common for a goalie to truly establish himself around his third or fourth NHL season. Patrick Roy had his first really dominant season (33-5-6, 2.47 GAA, .908 SV%) in 1989, his fourth full season when he was 24 years old. Martin Brodeur had a good rookie season, but he first showed Hall of Fame numbers in 1997 (37-15-13, 1.88 GAA, .927 SV%), at age 24, in his fourth full NHL campaign. Roberto Luongo established himself in the league's goaltending elite in 2004 (24-33-14 on a weak Panthers team, 2.43 GAA, .931 SV%) in his fourth full season as an NHL starter, at age 24. Miikka Kiprusoff broke out in 2004 as well (24-10-4, 1.70 GAA, .933 SV%). He was only in his third full NHL season at that point, but he was 27 years old after having spent several early career seasons in Europe. Marc-Andre Fleury put up his best numbers in his third NHL season when he was 23 and won the Cup at 24. And he was the first-overall draft pick in his class.

In other words, Carey Price's development is right on track. In fact, if you look at the other top goalies mentioned, a breakout season this year would put him ahead of the curve those other guys followed. Although, I wonder how Martin Brodeur would have reacted if the faithful in New Jersey booed him out of the rink in his second season? As for the questionable mental toughness and tendency to get discouraged Price has shown in the past, I've decided not to worry about those anymore. Winning cures those problems, and I think the winning will start to come more consistently for him pretty soon.

Now we just have to be patient and let Price's talent and his growing maturity help him develop into the goalie we think he can be. And we need to remember that the weight of the Habs' world is resting on the shoulders of a guy who's just 22 years old today...younger than just about every star goalie's break-out age. It's a heavy burden for someone who's had to grow up so fast, and my birthday wish for Price, and for the Habs, is that he's truly ready to carry it. I want to look back on his 25th birthday and say, "Wow, it's amazing we ever thought Price wouldn't be a superstar," while our biggest worry is how to get tickets to watch the team hoist its newest Cup banner in the fall.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dream Team Building

Have you ever wondered what really goes on at those team-building getaways the Habs hold every fall? I never did until now, and that's only because the team is such a disconnected group heading into camp. It makes me wonder how on earth they're going to become a cohesive unit in the couple of weeks before the season opens. I imagine they'll be going away on retreat sometime between the end of exhibition games and the first of October. And I imagine it might go something like this:

The Scene: A mountain retreat somewhere north of Montreal, in late September

A middle-aged man with long hair, purple bifocals and a pointy devil-beard called Rafael strolls to the centre of a large conference room that's been cleared of furniture. A circle of uncomfortable-looking large men in sweats watch the leader approach. He steps into the middle of the circle and steeples his fingers while slowly turning and surveying the men in his charge.

Rafael: Hello, gentlemen. My name is Rafael, and over the next few days, I am going to make you into a team. You will hate me before it's over, and you may even cry. But you will be a team.
Mike Cammalleri: (aside to Paul Mara) I pretty much hate him already.
Mara: (snickers)
Rafael: Do you have something you'd like to share with the group, (checks nametag) PAUL?
Mara: on. (grins at Cammalleri)
Rafael: Alrighty then. We're going to work in pairs today. I have your names here in this box, and I'll choose random partners. The idea is to get you all to really know a teammate other than the people with whom you'd normally spend your time. So if you get matched with a roommate or a close friend, let me know and we'll choose a different partner. Any questions? Okay then. (rummages in box) First name...Andrei...KO-seet-sin?...Okay, Andrei, step up right here. (rummages again) Your partner will be...Sergei...Koseetsin. Hmmm...are you guys related?
A.Kostitsyn: Nope. I have no brother.
S.Kostitsyn: I meet you at World Championship, no?
A.Kostitsyn: Never, no.
Rafael: (hesitates) Oooo...kaaay. Next pair...Hal Gill. Your partner will be...let me see here...Brian Gionta. We've got Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. Next...Georges Laraque and Scott Gomez. Andrei Markov and Tomas Plekanec...

Ten minutes of selecting partners pass

Rafael: Okay, you've all got partners now. We're going to start with some basic trust exercises. First, I want one partner to turn his back on the other.
Cammalleri: (in a stage whisper) I wouldn't turn my back on you...
(snickers around the circle, withering glance from Rafael)
Rafael: Then I want you to fall back and let your partner catch you. This will duplicate what happens on the ice, when you must depend on your teammates to be successful. Okay, ready? One...two...three...
Gionta: (wheezes) Gill, you freakin' battleship. Get off me before I crap my pants.
Gill: Sorry man...blame the freak for putting us together.
Gionta: Jeez, don't worry about me...go haul Big Georges off Gomer. I don't think he can breathe.
Rafael: Very good, everyone. Well, mostly. Sergei, you're supposed to actually catch your partner, you know.
Sergei: But so funny when brother...ah, partner...fall on floor.
Rafael: We're not here to be funny, we're here to become a team. Now, we're going to perform a little truth exercise. We can't really bond unless we're honest with one another. I'm going to ask each of you to tell his partner the first thing that comes to mind when you think of him. Let's start with...Andrei and Tomas. Go ahead, Andrei, what's the first thing you think of when you think about your teammate Tomas?
Markov: (shrugs) Um...I guess...leetle girl. Sorry, Pleky. He say tell truth.
Plekanec: Thanks a lot Marky. Nobody will ever forget that, will they?
Markov: You score thirty, we never say "girl" again, okay?
Rafael: Good, good. Now, Tomas, what comes to mind when you think of Andrei?
Plekanec: First thing is probably Komo, I guess. They played together so...
Markov: You don't say that name to me! You take it back! I love Canadiens. That leaf-boy is traitor. All the time I save his ass. Then he go to enemies like Habs bad vodka that make him sick. He make me sick. He says Marky make me player I am. Marky the best. Then he run away? Bah! I am glad he is gone. I maybe get some help now. Maybe somebody else carry puck out for a change. Traitor leaf!

(Entire team stares open-mouthed, having never heard Markov utter more than two consecutive words. After a beat of silence...)

Cammalleri: Hey, Marky, they told me you never shut up, but I didn't believe them.
Gorges: Yeah, shut up, Marky. Let someone else get a word in for a change.
Rafael: Okay, we're getting off track. Let's switch it up. We're going to play a game called Mine Field now. One partner will be blindfolded and the other will guide him through a series of obstacles using only verbal commands. Our first pair will be Jaroslav and Carey. Okay, Carey, here's the blindfold...can you see? Good. Now, Jaroslav, you tell him where to go.
Jaro: Really? I tell Carey where to go? Bob listening? Haha. (intercepts Rafael's glare) Okay. Pricey, there is a bar in the way. About four feet up. Pretend there is a shot coming from point in about three seconds and drop to the knees. Haha. Just kidding. Crawl under bar. Now, stand up. Turn left, take two steps. Step over fruitcake leader guy blocking the way. Sorry, leader guy. Just kidding. Oh...not high enough. You okay, Pricey? You rolling around like when you got no clue where is the puck. Hahaha...just kidding.
Price: Look, Jaro, it's not my fault, okay? I can't help it if they keep putting me in there no matter what. I think you deserve more time.
Jaro: Really? Aw, man. That make me feel so good. Hey, you need to turn left and take three steps to side or you fall down again. Oops. Other left. Hahaha. Sorry. Really sorry this time.
Rafael: (emerging from back room with a box of foam paddles) Hey, you guys, that's a great breakthrough. I feel you releasing some of your pent-up feelings about each other and your roles on the team. Let's keep that going. I want everyone to take one of these paddles. We're going to vent some frustration. In this exercise, I want you to approach someone who's bothered you in some way, or with whom you've got an unspoken frustration. And, this may be shocking, but I want you to hit him with your paddle, while you tell him what's on your mind. Then, when the problem has been verbalized, I want you to go off to a quiet place and talk it out. Does everyone have a paddle? Ready? GO!

(Rafael turns and bolts as 23 pissed-off hockey players chase him with foam paddles. He's not fast enough. Ten minutes later, the team-building guru is naked and hog-tied with hockey tape on the floor, quietly weeping as 23 paddles lie scattered around his trembling form and their wielders troop off together for a couple of beers.)

Bob Gainey: (quietly surveying the damage) Well, Jacques, I think that went well.
Jacques Martin: Bob, you're a genius.
Gainey: Not really. I've known for a long time that the best way to build a team is to give them all a common enemy. The rest sorts itself out.
Martin: I think that poor fruit has earned his bonus, wouldn't you say?
Gainey: If this bunch wins a Cup, you can double it.
Martin: So, did this tell you who should be captain?
Gainey: Yup.
Martin: Who do you think?
Gainey: (smiles)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Carpe Diem Jacques

As we've all been dealing with the departures of some of our favourite Habs, it's made me wonder what the guys who are left are thinking about it all. So far, all we've heard from the incumbents are words like "shock" and "stunned." Nobody was expecting such a team-wide purge of personnel and it sounds like the guys who survived the Centennial Gutting are feeling a bit like the ground has been washed away under their feet.

When you think about it, it must be pretty shocking. The young holdovers from last year...Latendresse, Lapierre, Price, Halak, Gorges, Plekanec, the Kostitsyns...have all (with the exception of Gorges) known only one organization and one captain throughout their short pro careers. Now the rug has been pulled out from under them and the way things were is no longer the way things will continue. For them, it means their roles can change. They can choose new identities in the team infrastructure. Leadership is up for grabs. It'll be an opportunity for some of the young guys. Others, like Plekanec, are looking at the purge as a warning from management: shape up or get out. Those guys will feel like they're on trial all season as they search for their place in the new team hierarchy. They'll be wondering how long it'll be before they get shown the door like so many of their teammates have been already. Then, you throw in a whole bunch of new guys who know nothing about what it's like to play hockey in Montreal, and the uncertainty deepens.

With the dismissal of the entire leadership of last year's team and the unfamiliarity between the shellshocked returnees and the newcomers, the Habs are pretty adrift right now. This is where Jacques Martin's biggest challenge will lie. Aside from instituting an on-ice system and an off-ice philosophy, he's first going to have to set himself up as a touchstone for the younger players. They have to know if they're unsure about the direction of the team or their roles on it, the coach is the one with the answers. He's the one who will assign jobs to those who are not inclined to step up and take them on their own. He also has to be a clear communicator with the older guys, and have very carefully defined expectations he can relay to them.

The team's new identity will, by necessity, come from the coaching staff. It's a rare opportunity for Martin, as it's not very often a coach comes into a new team with absolutely no pre-set culture into which he must fit. He doesn't have to break up cliques or bend any entrenched attitudes to his will for the simple reason that there aren't any.

It's a double-edged sword though. On one hand, Martin has a unique chance to really make the team his own. Everyone is getting a new start and he can take them in any direction he wants. But on the other hand, if he chooses wrongly, the season could be a disaster. It's like being a test pilot on a brand new aircraft. If you pull off the prescribed manouvers, you're a hero. If you miscalculate, you're crashing down in a multi-million dollar pile of crumpled metal.

Bob Gainey is relying on Martin's experience and his ability to know when to push a button and when to back off. He won't be just a coach. He'll be a mentor, a guide, a disciplinarian and a tactician. I have a lot of hope Martin is the right guy to pull this off. He's been criticized for his boring manner, but in this case, I think it would serve the team's collective purpose better to have a quiet-mannered man at the helm, rather than an explosive guy who loses it when things (inevitably) start to go wrong. So, if Martin is the right skipper to steady the Habs ship and break in the new crew, the only question remaining is how quickly he can get it all together.

Two weeks of training camp are all he has before the season opener on the first of October. That's not a lot of time, so I like what I'm hearing about the coach visiting Carey Price in Calgary, and talking to some of the newly-acquired veterans on the phone in the leadup to camp. For a man who's got to not only coach the team, but also help build it, he's got some of the foundation laid already.

From the fan's point of view, we have to understand the season is long and a team can't be built from scratch in a couple of weeks, even if there's unusually good chemistry among some of the players. If there's a rough start, we have to be patient. I have faith Jacques Martin can do a good job in re-creating our team. But we have to give him and the scattered group of players in his charge a real chance to show what they can do. There's enough uncertainty around the team now without giving the players doubts about the support of their fans.

It's a big job for Martin, and a big chance to really make something of his own. It'll be interesting to see what he can really do with that chance.

Poor Pleky

In checking the latest Habs news around the 'net this morning, I came across an article in a Czech newspaper that features an interview with Tomas Plekanec. I was very worried about him going to arbitration because of the potential damage it would do to his relationship with the team. Then he avoided that by signing a one-year deal for 2.75 million; a nice raise and the show of respect from the team he said he was hoping to see. I thought it was all over, and things would be back on track for him now.

But reading today's interview is really discouraging, at least for someone who wants to see Plekanec bounce back and remain a Hab for a long time. In the story, he says he feels like he's on probation this year. He figures if he fails to have a great season, he'll be traded at the earliest opportunity. He says he's trying to put the uncertainty and the trade rumours out of his head and just focus on having a good season, because he enjoys Montreal and he'd like to stay. But although he's saying that, we know his confidence is a fragile thing and the uncertainty will undoubtedly weigh on his peace of mind this season. It's almost as though he's resigning himself to moving on next year, if he doesn't get traded during this season.

I know a lot of fans are ready to see the end of Plekanec. His last season wasn't great and his playoff performances, while as good as anyone else's on the team in the last couple of years, haven't been stellar. But Plekanec, given good linemates and a clean slate, is a very useful player who's more than capable of being a solid second centre. There's nobody else in the Habs' system who fills that void right now, or even the season after next unless Ben Maxell, Louis Leblanc or some surprise like Maxim Trunev can take on that role. And with Plekanec's current market value at an ebb, he's probably worth more to the Canadiens on his own than the return he'd bring from elsewhere.

He says he's looking forward to playing with his new teammates. I hope things work out for him, because the team needs him to be at his best. And he needs to prove to Gainey that he's worth the backing of a multi-year contract. A guy like Plekanec needs to be given confidence in order for him to be confident. Without that support from the team, he's going to feel like he's on trial all year, which will make for tough going this season. If he can perform under that kind of pressure, he should be able to quiet most of the doubting voices out there...including the one in his own head...about his ability to produce during tough times.

And maybe next year, the tone of the interviews he gives before camp will be much more upbeat. I just hope he's still a Hab when he's giving them.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The 260-Pound Elephant In the Room

While we're all wondering about how the new Habs will look in the coming season, and if they'll live up to their new salaries and expectations, we already have an answer to one of the questions we were asking ourselves this time last year. Remember back then? Bob Gainey announced he'd signed Georges Laraque for 1.5 million for three years. We were wondering how having the NHL's heavyweight champion in the lineup would help our team repeat as conference champs.

I remember it. Habs fans were shouting from the rooftops, "You won't beat up on us anymore, NHL." Steve Begin was grinning, talking about how the whole team would feel two inches taller with Big Georges on their side. Laraque was supposed to be the toughness the team had seemed to lack in its playoff exit at the hands of the Flyers two months before. I also remember thinking I didn't like the pricetag for Laraque's "services" and I didn't think the team needed a full-fledged goon. I thought it needed a team-toughness approach, and Guy Carbonneau agreed. But Gainey bought Laraque and we know what happened after that.

Laraque was hurt for most of the year, and when he did play, he was a terrible disappointment. He was slow, ineffective and worst of all, he wouldn't fight the people he needed to fight...because they said "no thanks" to his polite requests to rumble. Now Gainey's up against the cap and there's not a lot of room to manouver. When you look at ways to improve the team, you have to think Laraque's got to go.

Big Georges is, without doubt, big and strong. He can fight like a pitbull when he wants to do so. But he's also a flake. Don't get me wrong, he's a nice flake. Salt of the earth. But he's got these ideas in his head about honour among goons that just don't work in the role he's expected to play.

A couple of months ago I had an email exchange with Laraque, about the seal hunt. As we know, the big guy has decided to go veggie, and that's great as a personal lifestyle choice. However, PETA pounced on his decision to change the way he eats and used him to promote its own agenda. They wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, austensibly from Laraque, and had him sign it. Needless to say, it contained some ridiculous propaganda and it made me really angry. I've heard PETA and the other groups who make money by villifying sealers propogate many lies over the years, but for some reason, when they used the celebrity of an ill-informed hockey player to promote their cause, it got to me. So, I emailed Laraque and told him the truth. I told him about the federal monitoring of the hunt and the uses of the seal carcass, including as heart replacement valves in humans and in the nutrition of third-world children. I told him about the overabundance of seals and their destruction of the fish populations, and about the vet-approved methods of killing the animals as humanely as possible. Laraque was very receptive, and polite. But his question to me was, "Would God want us to eat animals?"

I found his logic in this issue very similar to his logic about The Code by which he fights. He has it in his head that he can't fight anyone who's not also a goon, because it wouldn't be fair. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. The cheap shot guys win the day. It's those guys who inspire fear among the opposition because players know they don't play fair and are willing to hurt. They don't fear Laraque and his Code because they can just say no and everything will be fine.

So, the Canadiens are now paying a guy a million and a half bucks a year to be slow on a team of speedsters, to be polite in a job that requires rudeness, and to be offensively petrified on a team that feeds off skill.

The conclusion is Big Georges has to go. The Canadiens can't afford a buyout in case there's a cap drop next year. It's not likely anyone wants to trade for his contract. So, Gainey needs to waive Laraque. If no one claims him, he'll have to toil in Hamilton, which is about the level he should be playing at anyhow. Laraque, while he might have had skill outside fighting to be an NHL player once, has it no longer.

I hope this is resolved by the time the season starts.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Last Chances

It takes about thirty seconds for the value of a draft pick to drop by half. When a GM steps up to the mic and puts a name on that pick, it's no longer a rich commodity with a wealth of possibility. It's a real player with flaws and weaknesses and a personality. At that point, the hopes of the team and its fans shift from the possibilities of a draft pick to the potential of the new prospect. And of course, actual potential isn't worth as much as unlimited possibility, so when the asset changes from pick to prospect, his value drops.

It's up to him to rebuild that value, and most players have about six years, tops, to do so. By the time he's 24, a player will have a label. He might be a two-way third liner in the NHL or a legitimate All Star. He might be a career AHLer, or a guy whose only shot at pro hockey is in the European leagues. Either way, it's not that common for a player to change the label he's earned by the sixth season after his draft. If he's not fulfilling the promise his draft team thought he had, he'll probably be looking for a new chance with another organization that doesn't see him as being a disappointment.

Looking at the current Habs, it's clear that some of them are facing their last chances with the Canadiens. For them, the upcoming training camp will be the biggest one of their careers to date. This is the year they make it, or leave the organization.

First on the list is Kyle Chipchura. Chipchura has gone from being a first-round draft pick with potential to be an elite shut-down third line centre in the NHL, to being a guy who excells at the AHL level but can't seem to step up his game enough to stick in the big league. Chipchura was chosen for his defensive play, his size and his leadership qualities. He's demonstrating all of those abilities in Hamilton, but when he's been called up to Montreal he's had trouble with consistency. In his favour at camp this year is the fact that Bob Gainey just signed him to a new one-year deal, which equates to one more chance to win a permanent spot on the team. Running against him is the reality that he'll be fighting for a fourth-line centre position with Glen Metropolit, who did a good job there last year, and possibly even 2006 draftees Ben Maxwell and Ryan White. If one of those guys has a better camp than Chipchura, he's bound for Hamilton again and I don't think he'll be back if that happens.

I was there at the Bell Centre when Kyle Chipchura scored his first NHL goal, and I've had a soft spot for him ever since. I hope he makes the team this year, if only because I hate to see a first rounder go bust. But if he's going to make the most of this last chance he'll have to have to have the camp of his life, and then play some very convincing hockey in the first twenty-five games of the season. I think Jacques Martin will help Chipchura's chances, because his defence-first system plays to the latter's strengths. But Chipper will have to prove he's worked hard to improve his faceoffs, and that his positional play can make up for shortcomings in skating important issue on a team that looks to be built for flight. We'll see next month whether his best is good enough to keep him around as a Hab.

Also on the list of last chancers is Ryan O'Byrne. He just turned 25 and has had two chances to learn at the NHL level. He's ended up splitting both of the last two seasons between Montreal and Hamilton and is best known around the league for his horrid own-goal against the Islanders last year (the video of which still makes me ill, not least because of his own sickened expression when it happened), and stealing a purse in Florida. Unfortunately for the Canadiens defence, the last two years of placing O'Byrne with mentor Roman Hamrlik have resulted in O'Byrne's demotion and Patrice Brisebois being forced to play top-six minutes instead.

In O'Byrne's favour at this year's camp is his great size, which, as they say, you can't teach. And Bob Gainey liked him well enough to sign him to a three-year contract last summer, which at least gives him a little job security for the moment. Also helping him will be his experience at the NHL level. He might not have been great so far, but he must have learned a few valuable lessons about what not to do. He's withstood humiliation and mockery, demotions and benchings which, since they didn't kill him, must have made him stronger. And O'Byrne has a little more leeway than some others because he plays defence, which is generally recognized as being a tougher position to learn, and he spent three full years in college which may have set his development back a little. I thought he had a good playoff last year against Boston, one of the few Habs who did, and outplayed Komisarek in those four games. The man can skate well for his size, he's not a bad passer when he's not panicking and he can hit when he's not running out of position to do it. It's just a matter of him putting it all together with a little maturity. The problem is, time is running out for him to do it. Going against him at camp is the fact that Gainey has hired Paul Mara, Hal Gill and Jaro Spacek to complement Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Hamrlik. That means O'Byrne has to either beat out a proven NHL defenceman for a top-six spot, or he'll be fighting for the seventh position with Yannick Weber and possibly, if he has a monster camp, PK Subban. If O'Byrne gets sent back to Hamilton again, this could be it for him as a Hab.

Rounding out the list of last chance guys, this time by his own choice, is Jaroslav Halak. Jaro has had great numbers everywhere he's played. He's proven he's a competitor and a dedicated professional. He pulled the Canadiens back into playoff contention three years ago as a 21-year-old rookie. The next season he was unfairly sent to Hamilton in favour of Carey Price, after outplaying him in camp, and proceeded to dominate the AHL with a .929 save percentage. Then, last year, he won a few miraculous 40+ save games to stop the Habs' wretched slide down the standings after Christmas and get the team into the playoffs. Despite that, he was still benched in favour of Price, no matter how badly Price performed. This isn't meant to be a condemnation of Price, or a deification of Halak, but it's a fact that Halak hasn't been treated very well in Montreal, despite some extremely helpful performances on his part. If the Canadiens (namely Gainey and Martin) continue to shove Halak off to the side even when he's playing better than Price, the team will lose him. And that will be a mistake. He's not asking to play every game, but he is expecting a fair shake. I hope he gets one because the team is better for having a backup as capable as Halak.

I'd like to see these guys take full advantage of their last chances. A fan develops something of an attachment to the players the team drafts and develops, and we want to see them make it. We should see some fierce competition in camp next month as these guys fight for their professional lives. This is the year their value will be determined and they have to the Canadiens or another team...that they're worth at least a chance.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Big Fat Cheaters

So, here we are in the dog days. The BBQ days. The beach days, golf days, picnic days and...if you're really desperate for a fix...ball hockey days. Outside of some cute "we're trying on our new Habs sweaters" video from the new Canadiens, and some lame speculation about dumping everyone remaining from last year's team in exchange for Patrick Marleau and his 6.3-million-dollar contract, there's really nothing happening with our favourite team at the moment.

That means it's a good time to talk about some big fat cheaters who are signing players to big fat contracts in the hope that those guys will retire before their deals end, eliminating their cap hits. I'm glad the NHL is finally deciding to investigate the Flyers and the 'Hawks for the ridiculous front-loaded deals they made with Chris Pronger and Marian Hossa respectively. You might argue that Paul Holmgren and Dale Tallon were just taking advantage of a perfectly legitimate loophole by signing those guys to long-term deals which will average out to a lower cap hit during the player's productive years and then disappear altogether when the player retires before the deal ends. The problem is, the GMs and players aren't supposed to be plotting said retirement before the deal is even signed. That goes against the spirit of the CBA and helps teams load up on good players while staying under the cap.

The NHL is looking for evidence that the Flyers and Blackhawks actually had some sort of agreement from Pronger and Hossa to retire before their deals end. Unless there's something on paper between them or one of the parties involved in the negotiations of those contracts swears an affadavit that the agreement existed, the NHL will be out of luck. But the loophole is there and the NHL is going to have to close it if only because it gives contending teams like Detroit and Philly and Chicago an extra weapon. These deals, even if they can't be negated legally, have at least opened the league's eyes to that much.

Say Montreal was only a defenceman away from being a real, true contender and, say, Dan Boyle* was available but the Habs have only a few million in cap space remaining. Right now, there's nothing (except prudence, which seems to be in short supply among NHL GMs these days) stopping Bob Gainey from offering 33-year-old Boyle a ten-year deal, with annual salaries of six, six, five, five, four, three, two, two, two and one million. Of course, Boyle doesn't have to accept, but if he does, that gives the Habs a top defenceman at a 3.6 million dollar cap hit. Assuming the Habs are already a loaded team and Boyle's only looking for a Cup, it's a way for Gainey to beat the system and unfairly stack his team still further. Meanwhile, the team knows ahead of time that Boyle plans to retire at forty, so his cap hit and actually salary disappear three years before the deal actually ends.

The thing that baffles me about all this is why the NHL's proletariat doesn't seem to mind getting stiffed out of its share of the NHL money pie. The CBA sets a limit of between fifty-four and fifty-seven percent on the players' share of league revenue. So, if a guy like Hossa is working the system to get more money up front, that means there's less money for another guy on the lower tier of player incomes. If the upper tier of salaries goes to maybe ten percent of the players in the league, you'd think the other ninety percent of guys who make less when the top ten get better paydays, it's kind of amazing there's not more grumbling about it.

This isn't fair to teams that traditionally struggle to attract free agents, or, especially, to those whose GMs play by the rules. How can Honest Bob, with his hefty five-year deals to free agents, compete with the likes of the Hossa and Pronger deals? In Holmgren's case, he's not only manipulating the cap in the case of the Hossa contract...nobody can convince me he didn't do it last year in Daniel Briere's case as well. As far as I'm concerned, Briere's injury trouble was exaggerated long enough to get him off the cap until the team only had to dump a couple of minor role players to fit him in at the end of the season. And, I think we're going to see a lot more of this kind of "creative" cap management in the next couple of years as GMs around the league have to find ways to make up for some of the mental contracts they've gotten into while still icing competitive teams.

Gary Bettman got his way when it came to getting the cap installed, but if the actual management of the cap is so full of holes, it negates the whole purpose of the thing. The league needs to either have a hard, airtight cap, or it needs to drop it altogether. Allowing the cap to be manipulated to serve the interests of the better teams means nobody's any better off than they were before the lockout.

And I can't stand the thought that we'll have ended up losing an entire year of hockey for absolutely nothing.

*Yes, for the sticklers, I KNOW Dan Boyle is signed in San Jose for four more years. It's just an illustration. :)