Thursday, April 22, 2010

Small World

Size does matter. It matters in bank accounts, plates of pasta and watchdogs. I'm not convinced it matters much for hockey players; at least not talented hockey players. Pundits and hockey experts looking for reasons to explain why the Habs are losing the series against the Caps check out the team's vital statistics and comfortably conclude it's because they're too small. It doesn't take much effort to say that. Gionta and Cammalleri are certainly unusually short for NHL forwards, and neither Plekanec nor Gomez tops six feet down the middle, so their lack of stature makes a convenient excuse. But when you look a little more closely, you see Cammalleri leading the team with six points in four games. Plekanec has four in four, including three goals. Gionta has three points, two huge goals among them.

No, the problem with the Habs isn't size. All the commonly-cited reasons why it should be, like smaller players wear down late in games, smaller players don't get scoring chances because they can't get to the net or smaller players can be intimidated more easily are just pure crap in their case. Gionta, Cammalleri and Plekanec scored their goals from a couple of feet in front of the net. On the PP, you'll find Gionta planted firmly in the crease. Plekanec will get dirty in the corners when he has to; so will Cammalleri. Sure, they can have problems when they play a team that thrives on smash-mouth hockey like the Flyers, but so do most teams with skilled players who don't do well in the grinding department. That's not the case in the Capitals series because it's been extremely tame physically, relative to most playoff hockey.

The bigger problem with the Habs (no pun intended...seriously) is that 6'3" Benoit Pouliot has one assist in four games. So does the big PP threat, Marc-Andre Bergeron. Travis Moen, Tom Pyatt, Mathieu Darche, Sergei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre have zero points between them. The little guys are doing their job. Their supporting cast is not. To make matters worse, of the guys who aren't scoring, only Kostitsyn is a plus player, at plus one. Bergeron is a team-leading spectacular minus-eight in four games. When your defence and your bottom-six forwards don't score and don't stop the other team from scoring either, you will lose hockey games. That has nothing to do with size.

The Habs are losing to a team that, yes, is bigger on average than they are. But it's also a team that finishes its chances and features one of the best pure snipers in hockey. The Habs don't finish as many chances because they don't have a superstar or two who can turn it up a notch when the need is upon them. The Caps take advantage of defensive breakdowns and they use their massive amount of scoring ability to cash in. That, again, has nothing to do with size. As we've seen with guys like Georges Laraque, big without talent is useless. Talent without size, however, can help a team win.

Small is a problem when it comes with naivete, slow skating or a lack of hockey sense. It's a problem when it comes without heart or courage. None of the Habs small guys are inexperienced, slow, dumb or afraid. They, and Martin St.Louis, Patrick Kane and Theo Fleury and Mats Naslund before them, can play hockey. They can do the job, and they have been doing it during the playoffs. If the big guys on the team were doing half as well, the Habs would not be losing and size wouldn't be an issue for all the people looking for excuses.

Tolkien said "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future." He's right, even when it comes to hockey players.


Anonymous said...

Listen, that OV guy scored four goals in four games. Some of our players scored nearly as many. I think that we are doing very well when you compare it that way. Montreal is not doing bad at all. Losing yes, but we barely got in the playoff door; we struggled all year and in the last four games against the Caps we stood side-by-side with them for many periods and toppled them in others.

I'm happy with their performance thus far. Will we win? No. But what I like is that we gave that team a scare and in the process we showed the players and the fans that the Caps really aren't that great. OV four goals? Big deal!! AK had three in one game and he's no superstar.

I'm happy and proud.

Anonymous said...

How Hab fan expectations have fallen, happy and proud to be out in 5. No wonder this franchise is joining the leafs in futility.

Brian said...

There is a big difference between being "big" and playing so. The Habs on average are not that much smaller than their opponents but certainly play like they are. Also, it should be noted that this has been one of the least physical series of the first round. Had this team faced the Flyers instead of the Caps, this would have been over in four with bruises that they would nurse into the summer.

JVF said...

Nice. Thanks for so eloquently putting an end to that myth. Henri Richard was small and so was Yvan Cournoyer.

MathMan said...

It really is quite amazing the lengths people will go to blame everything on size, isn't it?

I especially like this phrase: "Pundits and hockey experts looking for reasons to explain why the Habs are losing the series against the Caps check out the team's vital statistics and comfortably conclude it's because they're too small." A lot of hockey pundits are either lazy or don't know the game very well, so they cling on to tired cliches and easy explanations. The problem is that this then colors the perception of the public.

I almost wish that the Habs would get bigger, so I could see what would get blamed next when the situation doesn't improve.

Anonymous said...

Giroux, Briere and Richards all under 6' and under 200lbs. Nobody calls them smurfs. It's attitude and heart that is lacking on the Habs. Change that or join the lottery brigade.

DB said...

Montreal's problem isn't that it's a small team it's that it's a team that does not have a big physical presence. They lose at least as many battles for the puck along the boards and in the corners as they win; they have trouble dominating the slot; and they have very few players that have a physical edge to their game.

Size, attitude and strength are the main factors in determining if a player can effectively play a physical game with size being the main factor. There are small players like Gionta and Cammalleri who do not shy away from physical play. They will go into the corners and will go to the net, but they will often lose battles for the puck or will be blocked from reaching the puck because they give up 40 to 50 pounds to most defensemen.

Gomez, Pleks, Metro and Moore are essentially the same size and play the same game with different offensive skill levels. They are good two-way centres who battle hard for the puck, but none of them are physically dominate centres. Mike Richards is the same size as Gomez and Pleks (5 11 and 195 to 200 lbs), but has a physical element to his game that Gomez and Pleks do not which might be why no one says he is small.

Pouliot and AK46 have some size, but don't consistently use it to fight for the puck or to fight for position in the slot. Of the rest of the forwards only Moen and Lapierre could be considered to have a physical element to their game.

On defence only Gill and O'Byrne are big men. The rest are under 210 lbs and while they will fight hard for the puck they do have trouble dealing with forwards who are bigger than them. Gill uses his size to clear out the slot and win battles along the boards, but he rarely uses it to deliver bodychecks. That leaves O'Byrne as the only defenseman with size that likes to use it to hit players.

How to improve Montreal's physical presence (coaching style, player changes) is a debate for another day, but until the issue is addressed Montreal will not be a contender.

Anonymous said...

I agree that size was not much of a factor in this serie, but it might have been if we managed to go through the Caps (there's still a mathematical chance too, right? Not that I expect it to happen...) and then had to face some team like the Flyers that played it more physical. In the long run, over the course of possibly 20-28 games, I think that smaller sized players are at a disadvantage.

With that being said though, I agree that it is FAR from the primarily problem. It is not the reason we are losing this serie at all. Hamrlik screwing up BIG time in multiple occasions, and the overall greater talent of the Caps that manage to capitalize on nearly every single chance they get, are what put us in this place.

The habs have dominated a majority of the periods in pretty much every game except the first (which, sadly, is the only one we ended up winning). The problem is that they couldn't put many points on board while dominating and having 5-10 min of not being top-notch put 3 at the back of our own net. That's just what greater talent, not effort or size, does.

I fully agree that our 'supporting cast' of 3rd and 4th liners, with the exception of Metropolit, has been abysmal. They really have not done anything good or nearly in this serie, and the little they did (say draw a penalty here and there) was outweighted by the bad they did by allowing goals scored against them. And it's not for a lack of size, Lapierre and Moen are not too small.

I'm actually getting quite happy with our core players, our top 6 forwards (although AK is still way too inconsistent and Pouliot I'm not having a clear idea on what to expect from him next season but both have the talent required to be there), I'm even comfortable with most of our defensemen out of MAB and Hamrlik (and if all goes well, both should be gone this summer). Our goaltenders, both of them, are fine too.

But our supporting cast of 3rd-4th liners has been aweful all year except for a handful of games. Something REALLY needs to happen there, and I'm hoping that some of our draft guys, like MaxPac, maybe Desharnais or Trotter, etc. can fill the spots and maybe we can acquire some decent guy on the UFA market to complete, but I'm really not comfortable with the players we have there now for the moment. They have not been contributing in these playoffs at all, whereas the Caps always have that freaking Fehr to throw at us...

moeman said...

I agree 100% with J.T. (did I mention I love her?)

Some small players play really, really big.
Prime examples are men of the stature of Saku.

Weird thing about the media ripping the Habs small/shortness, its coming from really small/short media hacks and small, utterly unqualified to comment ex-NHLers, ex-coaches and ex-wannabes.

MC said...

Amen JT, I am so sick of hearing how the lack of size is hurting the Habs. It is such a crock of crap. And Pierre Macguire gets a national audience to spew it every time the Habs are losing. As JT would say, he deserves a kick in the nuts. I would like to see the Habs come back in this series just to rub it Macguire's smarmy face.

Size is only one element of a hockey player's value as a forward. Players like Spezza and Penner are big and strong but do not have a physical element to their game. In fact, Edmonton almost ruined Penner by trying to turn him into a power forward. Gionta goes to all the dirty parts of the ice and mostly comes out on top because of his strength, speed, hard shot, hand-eye coordination and hockey sense, which are all more important than size.

Being small is only a problem for a forward if you don't know how to protect yourself (and size didn't help the Lindros brothers in this regard), which is not a problem for any of the smaller Habs (when is the last time you saw Gomez get hit in the open ice?). I agree with JT, if the Habs have a personnel problem, it is with their bigger forwards.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about size. Sometimes I think it really is just about how the game is going back in time and then other times I wonder, what the Hell? What? Ok, so you take a "little" you give a lot! It's not as simple as being out there and seeing it all before your eyes.