It took me a while to figure out what to write today. After the game last night I was angry because the team got my hopes up again, only to dash them. I was frustrated because I think a healthy Canadiens team is a whole lot better than the garbage we saw last night, and the injuries have robbed us of that. I was bitter because I think Jacques Martin is absolutely the wrong coach for this team and his errors in philosophy are stifling the players. And I was disappointed because I thought that, even with the injuries, the Habs would stand up and give a brave account of themselves. That they not only lost, but let themselves be bullied in the process, was tough to swallow.
In the end though, I'm just sad. The bright spots of this season: Plekanec's great year, the unexpected wins over teams like the Caps and Pens, the early return of Markov from his horrible injury and the debut of P.K. Subban aren't enough to hide the fatal flaws built deep into the foundation of the team. There's a lot of work to be done in improving the Canadiens, and I'm not sure the management team has either the expertise or the tools needed to get it done. There certainly isn't time to do it before any remaining hope of playoff success this year is extinguished.
Three things need to happen to see an immediate turnaround before next year. The first is coaching. Jacques Martin has to go. He's teaching the team some sort of antiquated, pre-lockout defensive style that isn't working for the players he's got, and he's not adjusting to the on-ice reality before his eyes. He's also got a habit of doling out in-game punishments. Young players are getting ice time if they prove themselves beyond expectations. If they make a mistake though, they're quickly benched. There's no reason why Ryan O'Byrne should have played so few minutes in the last two games. With Spacek and Gorges probably feeling fairly battered from recent hits, Hamrlik struggling with huge minutes and Markov out, punishing O'Byrne for mistakes made by cutting his ice time only ended up hurting the team. O'Byrne has shown he can be a good defenceman who knows how to use his size. He makes mistakes, but so do the veterans. Sitting him when Martin doesn't do the same thing to Hamrlik or Gill is stupid, divisive and costly. I don't like Martin, and I don't like his methods. When Darche first came up from Hamilton, a reporter asked him if the team philosophy of keeping the same system in the minors as on the big team had helped him make the transition so well. Darche answered that the system in Hamilton is completely different that that in Montreal. The main difference seems to be that the Bulldogs are actually winning.
The second thing that must change is defence. The last two generations of GMs/coaches in Montreal have reiterated that you have to build a team from the net out. There's nothing wrong with the goaltending. Both goalies, when given proper defensive support, are capable of winning games. The defence itself needs to be overhauled. Spacek was acquired for his abilities on offence as well as in his own end. He's a smart player, but he's been on his off-side all year and, at 36, seems to be struggling with big minutes. He's also lost his shot and he's not a punishing player to play against. Hamrlik can still play big minutes, but after a while he starts to show the wear. O'Byrne can play a big-man's game, but can't be relied upon to be the only tough blueliner. Gorges is a solid all-around player, but he won't physically hurt you. Gill is huge, he's slow, doesn't hit anybody and can't handle the puck. Markov is an all-star, but his skills are finesse, not pounding people. Neither Mara nor Bergeron should be back next year. Of the current D, I would keep Gorges, O'Byrne and Markov. Subban will make the team next year. To complement Subban and Markov, the team needs a couple of solid stay-at-home defencemen who can skate and hurt people. Volchenkov in Ottawa fits the bill, but he'll be expensive to sign. Whatever else happens though, the defence needs some grit and it needs a coach. Outside of his relationship with Jacques Martin, I don't know what qualifies Perry Pearn to coach NHL defencemen. Get rid of him and hire a proper defence coach, for God's sake.
The third thing that must happen is an overhaul of the bottom six forwards. The top six guys on any team are supposed to score goals. I have absolutely no doubt that Gionta, Gomez, Pouliot and Kostitsyn, Plekanec, Cammalleri can successfully do that job. The job of the bottom six guys is to check the other team's top players, wear out the other team's defence with a feisty, aggressive forecheck and hit often and hard. Basically, they should be creating havoc every time they're on the ice. Imagining the team was perfectly healthy, the bottom six would be a choice of Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn, D'Agostini, Moen, Metropolit, Moore, Darche and Bergeron. That's just not good enough. There's not one single player there, with the possible exception of Moen, who's tough to play against. Nobody hits. Nobody hurts. Nobody makes a player think twice about pushing a Hab around. I'm not talking about a goon, because I think Georges Laraque was one of Gainey's biggest mistakes. I'm talking about a guy like Scott Hartnell or Chris Neil. The kinds of players who hurt you and make you hate them. Other teams laugh at the Canadiens because they don't do anything to inspire hatred.
Ryan White is tough to play against. He's a hitting machine who can skate and cause trouble in the offensive zone. But Martin keeps sending him to Hamilton. Darche can do it once in a while but he's a minor leaguer because he doesn't do it regularly. Max Lapierre used to do it, but has vanished this season. Sergei Kostitsyn is a set-up man with a bit of jam to his game, but he's not scaring anybody. Gauthier needs to find the kind of bottom-line players the Flyers would hire and sign a couple of them to fill out those third and fourth lines for next year.
I talk about next year, because we were waiting for the seven games before the Olympic break to tell us whether this team should be selling off assets or not. Though they managed to go 4-3 in those games, their pitiful losses to the Flyers and Bruins showed us this isn't a playoff team. In the playoffs, when the hitting intensifies, head games are rife and the refs forget their whistles, the Canadiens will be in trouble without the bedrock of a tough defence and an injection of toughness on the bottom two lines. Gainey brought in the offence, but left the team without the supporting cast it needs to succeed.
I think this isn't the kind of thing you can fix with a couple of deadline moves. The needs of the team have to be very specifically defined, then the players that best fit those specific roles acquired with care and forethought. If Gauthier does anything now, I hope it's no more than moving players who obviously won't improve the team next year.
This team may still make the playoffs. If, by some miracle the whole team is healthy by the time the playoffs start, they might even steal a round. But this isn't a Stanley Cup team. This is a team under construction. That it's still that way after so many years of futility makes me really sad.