Sunday, February 14, 2010

Aftermath: Sadness

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.

15 comments:

DB said...

I too am puzzled at why Martin keeps the reins so tight on certain players. I can understand doing it in a close game, or when a player hasn't responded well to coaching, but doing it most of the time only serves to choke the life out of the player.

A case in point is D'Ags - The way they've handled him this year isn't good for D'Ags and it isn't good for the team. The Habs should either give him a regular 3rd/4th line shift and live with the mistakes or get rid of him if they don't think he can do the job.

I remember a Mike Green interview a little while after Boudreau took over from Hanlon. Green said the best thing about Boudreau was that he didn't bench a player because of mistakes. He talked to them about what they did wrong and sent them back out. Green said this really helped the confidence of the young players.

kyleroussel said...

I've been calling for Martin's head since late-November. I knew then that there was something not right with this team, and it wasn't the injuries. Partly, it was the absent players, but it was more in the style of play. It was just wrong. At the end of the centennial game, many delusional fans thought it would be the start of s new century of success. I wasn't fooled, and I have yet to let this team suck me back in, even after victories against Vancouver, Washington, Pittsburgh and New Jersey in recent weeks.

We can hope all we want for the firing of Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier, but it's very likely not going to happen. They've got their little fiefdom set up and both have long-term contracts. I am very afraid for the future of this team, as I feel like Gauthier will sell assets to squeeze in to 8th, and Jacques Martin will do his best to make sure those acquisitions play his sleep inducing hockey.

The difference between you and I, J.T., is that I had my bout of sadness a while ago, and now I'm just resigned to the fact that this team is going to stay on the hamster wheel of mediocrity, sometimes hopping off long enough to move forward and make us think there's something here to be hopeful of. There isn't. Not with this current mix of players, and certainly not with this management and coaching group.

SeriousHabit Steve said...

Very cogent assessment; I too believe that Martin has mishandled the assets as to what is currently the 2010 Habs. I sincerely believe (flame me now) that this team and its current makeup and style is better suited to the coaching style of one Guy Carboneau. The lack of grit aside I still believe Carbo would have managed this team's assets better and with more results.

My distinct opinion is that Gainey knew this. His premature firing of Carbo last year; he has fallen on his sword and has opened the door to bring back Carbo, by his departure...

Pragmatism states that Martin will remain in Montreal for awhile, but you can't diiscount the Molson's stake in the Habs. I am betting that we will see Guy again and not so far off in the future...

Anonymous said...

I don't feel that Carbo is the answer. Been there, done that. I felt the same trepidation with Carbo behind the bench as I do with Martin. Of course I may be judging both too harshly because of the injuries they had to deal with. Somehow I feel that the answer lies in Hamilton in one Guy Boucher.

Harry said...

I remember the Darche statement about Hamilton being a completely different system and that's not hard to believe by the product of the two teams.Gauthier is just an extension of Gainey-same type of thinking and that is bad.A clean sweep is the only way from Boivin on down and that will be difficult. Not sure how much Jeff Molson knows about the business but I hope he learns fast.The GM does not have to be French in my thinking if the coach is because the coach has to talk to the media after every on ice event,practice or game but the GM only has to speak now and then.
There seems to be a lot of 'tough' d men around but we don't have any yet...
Moore is a mystery-he must have done something in Fla to deserve the chance but looking at the stats-I don't know what it was.....
I'm so mad and depressed I don't even want to watch the Olympics......

Andrew Berkshire said...

Unfortunately we're between a rock and a hard place. Guy Boucher needs another year in Hamilton before we bring him into the NHL. We don't need to have a new GM make a reactionary decision and get rid of him if we struggle under his leadership for awhile.

If we do get rid of Martin (who I hate), the only plausible solution I can think of is to name Kirk Muller interim head coach. The question is whether or not Muller would be willing to go back to special teams coach after Boucher's inevitable promotion. I really don't want to risk losing Muller, because he's been outstanding working the special teams. Outside the goalies, Muller has been the biggest bright spot this season.

Anonymous said...

Well, this was always going to be a transitional year anyway. We should be thinking 2-3 seasons ahead - by which point Martin can readily be replaced by Boucher (look for this to happen sometime in 2011). Meanwhile, if you (a) overhaul the bottom 6 somewhat - shouldn't be too tough to do; and (b) achieve adequate improvement from within in the top-6 and top-4 (e.g., MaxPac, Pouliot, Subban establish themselves there); and (c) enjoy ongoing maturation from one or both goalies, you have enough improvement on the solid core we now possess to be legitimate contenders. My fear is that Gauthier isn't the diamond stuff you need to stick to this plan and ruthlessly purge the bits that don't fit.

dusty said...

Great post J.T. I only hope that Gauthier shares your vision. I hope we can deal Hamrlik to a contender and get some cap space. I like Hammer alot but the Habs aren't going anywhere so give the guy a break and a chance to play for a winner. Nobody will take Spacek or Gill so we're stuck with them. Don't want to see Lapierre, D'Agostini, Moore, Darche, Bergeron or Metropolit (like him but he's small and getting old) next year.

I still hope the Habs make the playoffs if only to see a few more games even if they do lose them all. I still love those sweaters.

Howard said...

I agree that Martin has to go, the sooner the better. Seeing PK Subban out there on the weekend I shuddered when I thought how Martin could destroy his confidence which I think is his key. He's a force of nature not to be messed with! Think of how O'byrne must feel after being benched for most of the game on Sat night and being used as a punching bag by Laperriere.
As far as the bottom two lines go, I think we can make a decent third checking/scoring line out of Darche, SK, Moore. We can improve just by adding a bruiser to the fourth line with Metro and Moen although i think Metro is beginning to show his age like Spacek and Hammer due to too much ice time brought upon my the meted out punishments of a Draconian coach. Just the addition of one Neal-esque player would make a huge difference. Why do they all sign in PHilly???
We may have to wave Spacek and Gill if noone can take them. With Markov/O'byrne, Gorges/Subban we have a couple of nifty pairs. Add a couple of real tough D on the bottom and we're set. I don't think 5-6 guys are hard to find either. I hate to say it but where are the traitor and Francis B when you need them?
I'd say that changing the coach and adding a few missing pieces while deleting the dead weight would greatly transform the team.

Howard said...

I don't think that the Molsons have a succession plan to make a sweeping change. Pierre Boivin, for all the money he made the team during the horrifying centenniel (it's like fiddling while Rome burned) should be the first to go. That would be followed by a chain reaction of Gauthier, Martin, Timmins et al. The team needs a completely different culture. Unfortunately, with recent events I think we'll be like if we can rid ourselves of Martin and Mr. High School Minnesota.

Anonymous said...

Have to disagree JT . O'byrne is not very good takes bad penalties ( are there any other kind?) and does not hit enough for a guy his size and has just not progressed within the Habs organization.

They have to retool and unload Gomez, Spacek, Hammer and Gill this year or next. What is clear is PK can make the jump next year and play and Gorges is a gamer but is really a 5 or 6 d man!!

dusty said...

Totally agree Howard.

V said...

Can't say I agree with you about Martin JT. You could be right in the long run and I just don't think it is fair to evaluate the man's coaching in light of the injuries to the team. In fact, led by another coach, things could have been worse. I don't think anyone knows whether the record is largely a result of his coaching or circumstance.

You don't make definitive assessments about key people under these circumstances... we are still very much in wait and see mode with Martin and he deserves the better part of another season before we can fairly make a call.

punkster said...

Fair assessment J.T. Go back to the comments from last summer and through the fall, both here and on other sites. There was a common theme supporting your call for changes to the D and the 3rd and 4th lines. Those are the keys I believe and not necessarily yet another new coach.

Anonymous said...

I felt something like resignation. Games in hand are big to me, so this may be the closest the team comes to the playoffs.

I am not sure the hockey GM runs the team. Lemaire 'consulted' during last years playoffs, didn't stay. I have a bad feeling about this. Sort of like Maple Leaf Enterprises East. I would feel better if Boivin went, and a new coach came in. I didn't like Clarke's remarks on TSN last week, his contempt for Montreal's average goalies, and the team itself, was unfortunately not jammed down his throat on the weekend. I have to admit, the Montreal Canadiens are really, really soft.

It is hard to look from the outside in at a team you are devoted to. I can't really do it, but when I try I don't like what I see. BGL gave them one tough game, in last years playoffs. Talked a lot. Lots of talk in Montreal, very little walk the walk.

Love your stuff JT, keep the faith,
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