Monday, June 28, 2010

Christmas in July

When I was a kid, the Sears Christmas Wish catalogue came in the mail every October. My mom would bring it home with the bills and flyers and casually toss it on the kitchen table, as if we hadn't been waiting breathlessly for it for weeks. We only got one copy, so my brothers and I would time-share a half hour each to peruse, unbothered, the source of all our December dreams. We worked out an elaborate system of marking pages with different-coloured markers; one for all the toys we wanted, another for the ones we REALLY wanted, and still another for the final choices. It was a painstaking process that went on for weeks and ended with the precious book in tatters, and the carefully-selected requests for Santa well-circled. On some level we knew, even as kids, that half the fun of making our choices was actually in having to choose. Sure, it would have been great to just pick out whatever we wanted and know we'd likely get it, but we would have missed something special if we didn't spend weeks deciding and anticipating. By the time Christmas morning arrived, the gifts we received were perfect because we were sure they were what we really wanted.

The first of July is like Christmas Day for hockey fans. After weeks of scouring lists of potential UFAs and planning fictional trades to make cap space, we know what we want. Oh, yes, Santa, Habs fans have a wish list as long as your belt. We want Ilya Kovalchuk on a line with Gionta and Gomez. We want Colby Armstrong to add some grit to the third line and Sergei Gonchar to launch rockets from the point. We want Anton Volchenkov playing second goalie to Carey Price, and a good solid backup who knows how to behave in the room and accepts his role.

The only problem is, the Grinch, in the form of the NHL salary cap, is going to steal all our free agents. Habs fans are the kids whose dads are seasonal workers. We got lots of goodies last year when the money was plentiful, but this year is tight and we're only allowed to ask for one or two small things.

Pierre Gauthier says he's not adverse to going over the cap, then finding a way to move contracts before the season starts. Maybe he can sign Volchenkov anyway, then trade Hamrlik to Ottawa to replace him. Or maybe he can send Andrei Kostitsyn to Calgary for their first-round pick next year, then hope like hell the Flames tank into a lottery pick. After the Sergei Kostitsyn trade, though, it looks like the Habs lineup is set. Dustin Boyd can play third-line centre cheaper than Dominic Moore, and Dan Ellis, if he signs, will make a very find backup goalie.

Gauthier says his defence is set and his forward lines "almost" set, or they were, before the Kostitsyn trade. Assuming he doesn't move Hamrlik, we can believe no blueliner from Hamilton will get a shot at the big team unless there's a long term injury. With Markov (whom Gauthier says is healing well from knee surgery and will possibly not miss any games in the fall), Subban (who would only lose the spot he inherited during the playoffs if he burned a Quebec flag outside Gauthier's office door while a tour of disabled kids passed by), Hamrlik, Spacek, Gorges and Gill, Ryan O'Byrne will be the seventh man.

Up front, the signing of Benoit Pouliot means the top six will, at least to start the season, be the same as the second half of last year. Again, that's barring a trade featuring Andrei Kostitsyn. Which leaves our Christmas-in-July wishlist narrowed down to a bit of filler on the bottom lines and a backup goalie; both now apparently filled with Boyd and Ellis. Throw in a rookie from Hamilton for fourth-line duty, probably Ryan White, or Lars Eller, if Boyd plays on the fourth line, and that's it.

It's not a bad lineup, but we've seen what it can do. What we don't know is whether a year of familiarity with each other, perhaps fewer injuries and a couple of tweaks will allow the team as it stands to improve. We don't know if it can repeat this year's playoffs without Jaro Halak. What it means is there will be few surprises on Thursday.

Mick Jagger took it from Santa when he said "you can't always get what you want." We Habs fans now have ourselves a good, sensible socks-and-underwear kind of team with potential. But, boy, it's hard not to be jealous of the team who gets a shiny new Kovalchuk for Christmas-in-July.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Flashback to Draft Past

Every year, on NHL draft day, young men in new suits sit anxiously with their parents in stiff-backed arena seats, waiting for older men in more expensive suits to decide their fates. Some wait for hours before hearing their names called. Some leave in tears of disappointment. The first-rounders have been wined and dined, measured and tested, and their wait is a short one. Watching at home, Terry Ryan has flashbacks.

Ryan toils for the Corner Brook Royals in the Newfoundland senior hockey league. At 33, he's still one of the best players on the ice, with 13 points in his last seven games. These days, though, hockey comes second in a life that includes a day job, a family and a budding career as an author.

His forthcoming book is called "Tales of a First-Round Nothing," and it says something about the comfort Ryan now feels in his own skin that he's able to write his story with such honesty. The draft, for him, isn't just a great memory. It's the highlight of his pro hockey career.

"A lot of people would say it's a whirlwind and they don't remember," he smiles. "I remember every second of it. I remember walking down out of my seat. The first thing I did was look over at my buddy, my linemate, Daymond Langkow, who had just gone fifth overall to Tampa Bay. I was walking up to the podium and we made eye contact and nothing was really said. We were just smiling, and it was a really weird moment. It was kind of like a baseball player getting drafted and going to the Yankees. I think if I'd gone to the Nashville Predators, or to Columbus...not to knock those teams, wouldn't have...I didn't have time that day to accept that I was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens."

He knew he was going to go high in the first round. His stock had been rising fast during his draft year. It was, he recalls, a perfect season. He had 110 points in 70 games, and most of the pro teams were knocking on his door.

"I know I could have played my whole career in the NHL," he reflects now. "All those scouts weren't wrong. At the same time, I also know everything has to go right. There's a bit of luck in this. There's a lot of injuries in hockey. If you get injured in your draft year, you're behind the eight-ball right away. You have to be put with good players. You have to be in the right environment. Your schooling has to be going right. All those things went right in my draft year."

The Bruins, choosing ninth overall, had been in contact. They assured Ryan they'd pick him in the first round. Other teams called too. The Washington Capitals flew him and some other prospects down south and put them through three hours of I.Q. tests and physical training. The Oilers flew them back up north and tested them again. There was no question Ryan would become the highest-ever NHL draft pick from Newfoundland. The only thing left to wonder about on draft day was how high he'd go, and which team would own him.

He never dreamed he'd be chosen by his favourite NHL team, and, even as a cocky kid minutes away from hearing his name called, had no reason to think the Habs were his destiny.

"I was in the elevator on the way to my seat with my dad and a couple of more, and Doug Robinson, who was the head scout for Montreal. Montreal was one of the only teams that didn't interview me at all. Nothing. So, I didn't really expect to talk to them. San Jose was picking twelfth and they told me they were picking me," Ryan remembers. "So, anyway, in the elevator, the draft was just starting and I was actually late to my seat. Doug Robinson said "Congrats on a good year. Western Hockey League power forward. I like to see that." I said, "Thanks Mr.Robinson. I think a lot of your organization." And on the way off the elevator he said, "Congrats on a good Memorial Cup." And I said, "Jeez, I didn't play in the Memorial Cup." So, I went a little closer to try and get a read on him, and I said, "Okay, Mr.Robinson, I'll see you." And he said, "Okay, thanks Shane." So, fifteen minutes before they drafted me, the Canadiens thought I was Shane Doan, by appearance."

The team got the name right when the Canadiens staff took the podium to announce the eighth overall pick. Terry Ryan was overwhelmed. He'd been taken by his favourite team in the first round, and life couldn't have been better. He says now, that's as good as it got. Ryan spent the next year back in junior where he had a decent season, despite some injury problems. During the following campaign, the second after his draft, he finally got the phone call of his dreams and made his NHL debut. It didn't work out the way dreams are supposed to.

"The guys who drafted me got fired," he recalls. "I was a long shot for them. I wasn't the best skater. I had a lot of character. And I could score. But the times I was called up, it was because someone was hurt, it wasn't because they wanted me. I got maybe three shifts a game. In the minors, I was rookie of the year. I had 20 goals, I lead the league in fights. Everything I was doing in the minors was, if not on pace, then above expectations from what anybody thought. Years later, I look back and I'm not as bitter as I was. At the time, I was pretty upset. I was getting called up, getting one shift and I'd fight Tie Domi. I'd do it. I'd fight these guys because I wanted to make the most of my opportunity. There were over ten games in the NHL when I didn't even get one shift, and they don't even count as a game played. That happens to a lot of people."

After the first few games in the NHL, injuries struck. First, concussions, then a busted ankle. Frustrated at never getting a real shot with the Canadiens, he took his agent, Mike Barnett's, advice and sat out training camp. He never played in the NHL again. He's not bitter now, but getting past the feeling of being a disappointment to himself and his family was a long trip down a bumpy road.

"It was hard at first," Ryan admits. "It's a long story, which is why I wrote the book. I got to see the world from the other side for a while, and it was wild. I was the biggest prospect in Newfoundland. I was talked about as the best player on the island. I had all those things going for me. When I got hurt, I felt like I let the whole province down. It took a while. I got divorced the same year I was told I couldn't play anymore. I put on sixty pounds and went on a reality show and lost it. It was a long, long, long story. It was hard to deal with, but at the same time, my dad, who played pro hockey, said, "Hey, you could have got injured when you were 14 or 15. But you played in the NHL. You played for the Canadiens.""

That's what matters to Ryan now. He regrets skipping that last training camp, but he's come to terms with the way his NHL career panned out...or didn't. And he's still a Habs fan.

"Recently, in the last couple of years, I've flown up and gone to the Habs games, and you're reminded when you go to the building. There's six or seven hundred names there outside. The players. I was one of them. When you think about it like that, it's kind of mind blowing," he muses.

He says his story shouldn't be a sad one. He's had a good run in hockey, even if it hasn't been in the NHL. He likes the Corner Brook Royals.

"One thing I would tell young players is there's so much more than the NHL. There's so many opportunities, and the small percentage that make the NHL...they're to be commended and looked up to. But there are a lot of avenues that young players can take. I look at my whole experience as "Wow! This all happened to me!" And I can't believe it," Ryan marvels now, fifteen years after he became a first rounder. "The draft ended up being the highlight of my career. That and my first NHL game. Those things still happened and they were still great."

When Terry Ryan watches the draft now, he can still feel those teenage emotions; the hope, trepidation and wonder of it all. The thing he feels most now is quiet satisfaction. He made it after all and for the rest of it, we'll have to read the book.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Habs Notebook: Draft Week Edition

A few thoughts on this week's happenings:

-Lots of people want Andrei Kostitsyn traded because he's not got the smarts to go with his skills. I honestly wonder if there's something developmentally wrong with him. No joke. He was born fourteen months before the Chernobyl reactor blew, and sixty percent of the fallout from the explosion fell on Belarus. Considering that the Kostitsyns grew up in a city built around a bunch of chemical factories, recognized as THE most polluted city in one of the most polluted countries in Europe, Chernobyl was just the topper. Could there be a chance that Andrei Kostitsyn is a Chernobyl child, with all the fallout issues they face?

-Speaking of Kostitsyn, those who want him traded want to get a big, scoring winger in return. Unfortunately, Kostitsyn's not going to bring that much in a trade. If you consider he's able to pot 20-plus goals when he's asleep for half the season, Kostitsyn definitely has talent. It's the sleeping part that annoys Habs fans and will turn other GMs off in trade talks. Nobody's going to give up their big, 30-goal winger for a big, 25-goal winger with consistency issues, and there's no sense in trading down. The other possibility is to dump his contract for a pick and use the money to sign a guy like Colby Armstrong. Armstrong is probably worth twenty points less than Kostitsyn, but he'll go to the net and hit people. There's no question about his will to win, but again, it would be a downgrade from Kostitsyn in pure talent.

-I really hope Carey Price has a sports psychologist on retainer for this season. No matter what his physical gifts may be, he's proven himself to be a bit of a headcase. He needs to learn not to flip out when he gets booed (fairly or not) and to get past bad goals and bad games without glaring at his defencemen, breaking his stick or taking unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. He's very sensitive, and unless he can control that, he won't be long for Montreal. The problem is, the Canadiens now NEED him to get it together or they'll have traded Halak for nothing.

-There's lots of concern out there about the Habs being too small down the middle for too long a time now that Plekanec's locked up. The biggest evidence is the three shutouts against the Flyers in the playoffs. I think that theory is misleading because Gionta and Cammalleri were able to score, despite their size. The big guys, Pouliot and Kostitsyn, were the ones who didn't produce. Gomez and Plekanec contributed in other ways, and helped set up their small linemates. The other two did nothing. As far as I can see, the wings are a much bigger problem than the centres on the first two lines. Sigh. Remember when Pouliot used to score?

-The cap is very, very tight right now. There's only $8.8 million left for eight players, including a backup goalie. I think it's safe to say Gauthier isn't done moving pieces around just yet. With PK Subban ready to make the team, getting rid of the last year of Hamrlik's deal would make the most sense. It's also going to be the toughest thing to move. If he had better offensive numbers, it'd be easier, but that's not the case. It's probably safe to say Sergei Kostitsyn will be gone for a late pick and a few dollars saved by bringing up a kid from Hamilton (maybe Trotter...hopefully not Maxwell) to fill his job. Still, that's not going to save much money so it'll be interesting to see how Gauthier works the trade market for the rest of this week.

-With Darche signed to a one-way deal, it looks like he'll be the 13th forward. Assuming Pouliot gets qualified and Kostitsyn won't be traded, that means the top-six will be the same as last year. It also means there will be only the six bottom-six forward spots open for newcomers. Moen's already got one of those spots, so that leaves Moore, Pyatt, White, Lapierre, Eller, Maxwell, Trotter, Pacioretty, Sergei Kostitsyn and Desharnais as possible candidates for the other five positions. With so much internal competition and so little money, I think Gauthier won't be signing any new free agents of note unless he can dump considerable salary.

-The draft is also really up in the air for the Canadiens. They have many needs, but are in line for another "project" pick. There are a couple of interesting possibilities, though. Dylan McIlrath is the guy a lot of Habs fans would like to get. He's a huge, tough defenceman who's pretty good in a stay-at-home role and has untapped offensive potential. He can also pound the snot out of guys. If he's available at #27, he'd be a good pick. If he's not and the Habs go for a forward, Tyler Pitlick (great name!) and John McFarland are a couple of centres with size and potential. The knock on McFarland is his low goal total in junior, and there's a question about his dedication in some circles, which is shouted down in others. Pitlick is from Minnesota, so he's a Timmins natural, as is Brock Nelson, a third possible choice if the Habs go with a big centre. Then there's the Kabanov question. Kirill Kabanov has top-five talent, but because of the "Russian factor" and some concerns about his headspace generally, has fallen sharply down the draft ranks. I'd think the Canadiens will at least consider him if he's available when they pick, although they may have finally been burned enough by Russians to bypass him despite his talent. Habs will need a goalie too, but will probably take one in the later rounds. Calvin Pickard could be available when the Habs choose, but I can't see them spending their first on a goaltender who could challenge Price within a couple of years.

-Speaking of Price, his contract is still up in the air. It doesn't make a lot of sense for Gauthier to have traded Halak with Price still unsigned. The goalie didn't have a lot of negotiating power with competition around, but now he's in the drivers' seat. Gauthier needs to sign him to keep him away from offer sheets, but based on last year's stats, the contract didn't need to be high before Halak got dealt. Price could have been qualified on his base salary of $895-thousand. Now that number will most likely shoot up.

-In terms of team structure, I'd like to see a change from the traditional "top-two lines/third line/barely used mishmash of a fourth line" set-up Martin used last year. Since the first and second lines will be likely the same as last year's, I'd like to see a very good defensive third line which will take some of the PK duties off Plekanec, Gomez and Gionta. I really liked the Moore/Pyatt/Lapierre line in the playoffs and wouldn't mind seeing it used full-time as the third line. If Moore can't be re-signed, perhaps Moen or White could take the empty spot with Lapierre moving to centre. What I'd like to see for the fourth line is three promising youngsters who complement each other. Maybe Eller, Trotter and Desharnais. I remember when White, Trotter and Desharnais got a start together last year when half the regulars were hurt, and they were on fire. I think giving them some ice time with other players at the same level could help them all develop in the NHL, and if it works, it gives the team a very nice option of having three scoring lines. It's a nice thought, although it would mean dumping Moen if Moore's back, so it probably wouldn't happen. Too bad.

-People are worried about Plekanec's no-trade clause. I think there's no need to be concerned. He's the type of guy who, if the GM came to him and said "You're not what we need anymore," would waive the no-trade because he wouldn't want to stay if they don't want him. I think he's got the clause because it gives him peace of mind. Now, when he hears his name in trade rumours, he knows it's BS. And, if there should be a deal to a crappy team requiring him to waive his NTC, he can decline and wait to go to a better team. Overall though, if it came down to getting stuck with an unproductive Plekanec or asking him to waive his NTC, I think he'd just agree to go.

Hall of Shame

So, the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee has decided to pass Pat Burns over for admission this year for some incomprehensible reason, or maybe, for no reason at all. Perhaps the selection committee thinks he's enough of a fighter to stay alive until next year, despite the cancer eating away at him.

The man is going to be in the Hall some day. It should have been yesterday. He's got all the qualifications, and, if not for the devastating cancer he's battling, he'd still be coaching in the NHL. He's the only coach in league history to have won the Jack Adams with three different teams, he's got a winning record and a Stanley Cup. There's no doubt he'll be inducted eventually. Why the committee chose to let him and his family wait, when there's little chance he'll live to receive the honour in person, just defies logic and compassion.

I find it hard to believe that either none of the selection committee chose to use his "builder" nomination privilege to put Burns' name forward, or, if he was actually nominated by the committee, that fifty percent of the guys who vote didn't think he was worthy to be picked this year. These are not random yahoos. They're respected hockey men, and, you'd think, capable of understanding that time is of the essence in Burns' induction.

Overlooking Burns does two things. First, it cheapens the inductions of the people who actually got in this year. It should be a momentous occasion for women's hockey to see the first two female players honoured in the Hall. Instead, Angela James' and Cammi Granato's inductions will always be overshadowed by the slight to Burns. Dino Ciccarelli, too, will always remember being part of the Hall class that screwed Pat Burns over. The second thing it does is make hockey look like a chump sport in the eyes of a lot of fans. Thousands of people lobbied to have Burns inducted this year on compassionate grounds, as well as merit. The committee's failure to do that is a big "screw you" to the people who wanted him in the Hall.

The wise men on the selection committee, however, decided that Jimmy Devellano, who's hale and hearty, and former Flames owner Doc Seaman (ever hear of him before? anyone?), who's already dead, were better inductees this year. I hope when Seaman's family is there to receive their father's award posthumously, they'll have some tips for Pat Burns' kids, who'll probably be doing the same thing whenever the committee decides to let a great coach in. I'm thinking some of the shine will be off the HOF ring by that time.

"We have an unbelievable tough task to make selections," Hall of Fame chairman Jim Gregory said. "We don't comment on anyone who wasn't selected." Great grammar, there, Jim. And, screw you and the committee too.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Good News

Well, finally the Canadiens have decided to refrain from letting a pending free agent walk for nothing. The Streits and Sourays of the past could have brought so much value to the team if management had had the wherewithal to move them when their value was high. This time, though, the Habs were on the ball. They managed to hold onto a great asset, and at a relative bargain too. It's great to see a guy who really loves playing in Montreal have his loyalty rewarded with a nice contract and a little peace of mind, especially when he was only a week away from testing the market and possibly getting quite a bit more money elsewhere. Devotion like that is a rare thing, and I'm happy to see some people still have it. Thank God for Mathieu Darche!

Okay...I kid. Obviously, I'm delighted Tomas Plekanec decided to re-sign in Montreal. I like the money, which I think is a discount over what he would have received on the free-agent market. His consistent 20-plus goal scoring pace and his strong two-way play would have given him a lot of power on the auction block. It wouldn't have hurt, either, that he would have been the best centre outside Patrick Marleau to go on sale on July first. The term is good too. He's going to turn 34 in the last year of the deal, which isn't old.

I even like the no-trade clause. Some fans are getting worried about that, and ordinarily, I'd agree. I think Sam Pollock and his belief that no player should be exempt from getting traded were right. BUT, in Plekanec's case, I think the only thing he really wants is to feel appreciated. I think a big part of his poor season two years ago was due to hearing his name thrown out there in the aborted Lecavalier trade rumours. That, I think, hurt and distracted him. In his case, having the security of knowing he's wanted by the organization will help him perform better.

What I really like, though, is that he said all along he wanted to stay in Montreal, and it wasn't a lip-service kind of stance. He'd seriously thought about the consequences of leaving, versus staying, and back in April he explained what he wanted, and why.

"Every case is different," he said then. "But I have noticed a pattern. The way it usually goes is, a player will leave Montreal and they can't stop talking about how much easier it is, and how it's so much more relaxed where they are. They'll brag about how there are two or three media in the room and how you can go anywhere and no one knows who you are. But then, two or three years later, the reality sinks in. That's when they're like, 'Wow, Montreal was special, that's the place.' But by then it's too late. That stuff has always stayed with me."

Plekanec is one of the very few pending UFAs, along with Andrei Markov and Saku Koivu...maybe Alex Kovalev right after his trade from the Rangers...who could have done better elsewhere and chose Montreal instead. I believe him when he says Montreal is his second home and he loves the city and the fans, because he signed on the dotted line and proved it.

One thing I really liked today was hearing him say "All I've accomplished, I fully deserve." Of course, he does. He's worked very hard to improve himself as a player. It's only now, though, that he's overcome his natural tendency to put himself down and minimize his status. He's a good player, and he'll be better for finally being able to admit it.

People will say Pleks didn't pull his weight in the playoffs. I say he was assigned to shut down Ovechkin and Crosby, and how many goals did they score? He was playing with a nagging hip injury, yet he still played every PK and checked the best guys in the league. He's the first player on the ice at practice every day and shows the young guys what it takes to work your way up in the league. He's not lacking courage or effort.

There are other guys who score more, and some who play better shut-down defence. There are few who do both as well as Tomas Plekanec. The Habs got a good player with a good heart on a good deal today. We should be happy.

I hope he goes out and buys a hell of a lot of turtlenecks.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Drafting Dreamers

On Friday, the best 18-year-old hockey players on the planet will find out to which NHL team their foreseeable futures will be tied. These are kids who've been toiling in the gym every day since they were twelve or thirteen. They've run countless miles and spent every summer in at least one hockey school. They've left their homes before they were ready and many of them have given up a real chance at an education. They've won and lost, felt triumph and despair. All of it has been funnelled into a single goal: to make the NHL.

While scouts drool over big frames and explosive speed, blistering shots and leadership qualities, they're also looking for something else. They know these kids are all committed to a career in pro hockey. Less clear are their individual reasons for wanting that career. I think there are two kinds of players: pragmatists and idealists.

The pragmatist wants to play in the NHL because he knows he's got the skill to make it in pro hockey. He wants the fame and the money, and the phrase "it's a business" isn't far from his lips. The idealist believes in the romance of the sport. For him, it's all about brotherhood and fighting the good fight. The dream of the Stanley Cup makes him smile in his sleep. It's an important distinction. The idealist is the one who'll play hurt, overcome despair and keep believing, even when his team is down three games to none in a playoff series. Maybe he's naive, but he'll win more often because he wills it.

The trick in the draft is picking the believer who's also got the skills. The Canadiens have failed at this, at least in the first round. Andrei Kostitsyn has the ability, but he's never shown an idealistic drive to win. I can't claim to know what he feels, but his play doesn't reflect a burning desire to get his name on the Cup. Kyle Chipchura had dreams and drive, but never had the skill to be more than a decent third-liner. Louis Leblanc has a lot of talent, but he's a pragmatist who carefully weighed his opportunities and went with Harvard so he'd have a backup plan in case hockey doesn't work out. That's smart, and it's a very sensible choice. It makes you wonder, though, if he's able to see possbility in a jungle of reality. Can he truly believe he's going to be an NHL champion? PK Subban can, but he's a rare personality. Sometimes, especially in the first round, a team's "best player available" has to be more than just talent. Skill gives a guy the tools he needs to succeed. Dreams give him the will to use them.

I think the Canadiens did so well in the playoffs this year because they had more idealists on the team than pragmatists. A lot of guys would have looked at facing the Caps in the first round as an insurmountable challenge. Some would shrug and say "what the hell, we're getting paid anyway." Others see only as far as the next shift and go all out, blocking shots and trying like hell every time they're on the ice because they believe in the dream. If the balance on a team tips toward the latter kind of player, that team has a chance.

In a draft of 18-year-olds, idealism abounds. Most of these kids see the dream, floating tantalizingly within reach. By the time they're 25, most of them will have lost some of that. They'll be traded, demoted, or, like Jonathan Toews this week, have to face the fact that the team makes decisions because of money, not love. Finding a player who can manage to find joy and keep dreaming even when he's seen the truth up close is a special thing.

That's what I want the Habs to bring home on Friday. Twenty-seventh overall is far from a sure-thing draft position and the team needs something at every position. So whether they pick a bruising stay-at-home defenceman, a winger with some size and hands, even a goalie to restock the organization's pipeline after the Halak trade, the player they choose will be a project. He won't make the NHL right away, and may have to struggle through some time in the minors before he gets close.

I hope they pick a player who has a chance to help the team in some capacity in a couple of years. More than that, I hope they choose a dreamer.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Class Dismissed

From my blue plastic seat, closer to the better-than-real-life action on the massive screen hanging from the Bell Centre's rafters than to the real-life game on the blue-tinted ice far below, I can see him. From here, he's a dressmaker's pin; silver-suited and white-tipped, straight and sharp. I know it's him because he sits in the third row behind the bench, and he's as consistent as a heartbeat. I think about making an intermission pilgrimage to spend a moment in his presence, just so I can say I was this close to greatness. As the thought crosses my mind, the big screen intercepts it and there he is: Jean Beliveau in glorious HD, nodding graciously in acknowledgement of the warm applause that swells to fill the building. I see other pilgrims climbing the steps to pay homage, scraps of paper ready to collect his carefully-drawn signature. He patiently signs them all, and shakes every extended hand. What a nice man, I think. Even after all this time he's still committed to these people who stand in awe of him. That's class.

I think about that. "Class" is a term so easily overused, its meaning is just as easily lost. Very often, it's what we say when a rich man who plays a boy's game for a living shows basic human kindness to another. Or when a man who plays that game better than any of us ever could shares some of the spoils he earns. I wonder why an athlete who donates to charity is "classy," while a retired teacher who does the same thing is unremarkable? Why, when my dad stops to help a stranded woman change her flat tire, nobody knows about it, but when the Capitals' Brooks Laich does it, it makes headlines all over North America? Maybe it's because these guys play the game so much better than we can, we treat them with a godlike deference. When they lower themselves to be just like the rest of us and do something good or kind, we're grateful and they're "classy."

Class is more than that, though. It's something tougher to label than a simple act of decency or generosity. Class isn't just making the grand gesture. It's doing the little things, and even more important, thinking to do them. A nice man visits the hospital and distributes team memorabilia on schedule. A classy one remembers a child's name afterwards, and mentions it when he's interviewed on Hockey Night In Canada.

The Canadiens have always been labelled a "classy" organization because they've done the little things right. When a star player retired before his contract ran out, the Habs would pay him his remaining salary anyway. When a guy like Steve Shutt wasn't playing well anymore, the Habs let him choose the team to which he'd be traded. Then, when he wanted to retire a Hab two years later, they traded for his rights. When other teams forgot their alumni, the Canadiens honoured theirs. When a guy like Doug Harvey was down on his luck, the Habs offered him a job. Of course, they haven't always done the classy thing, but they've done it often enough that they became known for it.

As time has passed, though, the Canadiens have become more like everybody else. It's obvious in the arena. The sound system, big screen and gimmicks that fill every lull in play are no different from those in any other NHL rink. There's no soul in the Bell Centre because it's no longer the home of a hockey dynasty. It's the storefront of a business operation, and when business is of the greatest importance, class is the first thing to go.

Once, they might have offered Saku Koivu another role within the organization rather than just unceremoniously cut him loose. They would have said their captain at least deserved a choice about whether to stay, even if it wasn't on the ice. When a player like Hal Gill missed the team flight with an injury during a gruelling playoff, the Canadiens could have paid for private transportation for him, instead of forcing him to take an all-day commercial flight on a small plane while he bore a leg full of stitches. When a team icon like Larry Robinson called about a job, the classy Canadiens would have made it a priority to show him some courtesy and phone him back.

The Canadiens want to be the team they used to be. Management wants to be seen as extraordinary, but they can't do it while they're acting in a very ordinary way. If "class" is doing the little things right and treating people with respect, the Canadiens aren't very classy anymore.

Jean Beliveau is the last link to that world in which the Canadiens were the class of the NHL. He's a classy man because he always makes an extra effort to show respect and kindness, even when he doesn't feel like it. He thinks about other people. Watching him graciously shake hands with fans around him at the Bell Centre, I can see it. He is the Canadiens, as they used to be. When he no longer sits three rows behind the bench, nobody will remember the Habs were once synonymous with "class." I feel sad.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


HALAK, Jaroslav - Traded quietly away on his vacation at the age of 25, goaltender Jaroslav Halak will best be remembered for leading a mediocre Montreal Canadiens team to its best playoff showing since the great Patrick Roy caught lightning in a bottle seventeen years previously.

A quiet, humble man, Halak, known as "Jaro" to his friends and "you goddamn rubber bastard" by Sidney Crosby, was born in Bratislava, Slovakia on May 13, 1985. He grew up in modest circumstances, but knew from the age of four he wanted to be an NHL goaltender. His desire baffled his family and friends who hoped he would one day lead Slovakia to the World Cup.

Unfortunately, Halak suffered from birth from a serious case of NotCanadianitis. He was unexpectedly drafted by the Canadiens in 2003, despite his condition, which he continued to battle in the years following his selection. He put up stellar save percentages and demonstrated a deep desire to win hockey games at every level. In 2005, however, Halak fell victim to a secondary ailment: Notafirstrounderia. Canadiens management had doubts about whether a non-Canadian, ninth-round goalie could really make a difference for their team. Halak was subsequently exiled to the minors, banished from his AHL team as it won the Calder Cup, recalled and left to sit on the bench in Montreal and relegated to backup status behind a teammate who had the good fortune to be both Canadian AND a first-round draft pick.

Still, Halak persisted and, when the team finally had no other choice, he briefly became the Canadiens' number-one goalie. He inspired belief in his team and passion in his fans. He never quit, and he was hailed as a great teammate and a winner by all who knew him.

At one time, late in his life as a Hab, Halak was wrongly accused of demanding a trade. He later insisted he'd done nothing but ask for more ice time. This spawned savage debate among Canadiens' fans about who should be the Habs' top goalie. Many never realized Halak had already won that title.

Sadly, Halak succumbed to his ailments shortly after the playoffs. NotCanadianitis and Notafirstrounderia proved a deadly combination for the young goalie. When he developed side effects including ProbablyCan'tAffordHimNow, he quietly "went west." On June 17, 2010, Jaroslav Halak gave up his bleu-blanc-et-rouge spirit, as Pierre Gauthier stood by holding the plug.

Halak leaves to mourn a legion of heartbroken Habs fans who believed he was the next great Canadiens goalie, Carey Price,who will now be one softie away from a lynching, Pierre Gauthier, whose legacy could very well ride on this trade, Lars Eller and Ian Schultz, who will forever be expected to be better than they are, and teammates who knew they could win every night with him in net.

A memorial service will be held sometime in the new season at the Bell Centre. Time and date will follow, as soon as the NHL schedule makers reveal when the Blues will next play in Montreal.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tough Guys

I'm so grateful for Hal Gill. Sure, I know I was among the skeptics when we watched him handle the puck like he had shovels for hands all season. I sighed as gustily as anybody when he chugged up ice like a disabled aircraft carrier, with a comparable turning radius. When the playoffs came, though; when games really mattered and the big prize was on the line, he gave an actual pound of flesh in his determination to win. He fearlessly blocked dozens of shots that left his carcass splotched with bruises in various shades of livid. Playing with fifty-two stitches in his left calf had to have hurt like a bugger, but aside from a little awkwardness in his stride, you'd never know he was skating with more thread in his hide than a leather coat.

I bring this up now because of the World Cup. Like many of you, I've substituted hockey obsession with an interest in the big soccer tournament, at least to kill some time before the NHL draft. I don't watch a lot of soccer, aside from a passing interest in the English premier league. Still, I figured, it's the biggest competition in the world. Nation versus nation, passion, pride, skill and glory. Aside from the psychotic-episode-inducing drone of the vuvuzelas, what's not to like?

I'll tell you what: the diving. Oh. My. God. Watching these supremely-talented athletes throw themselves to the grass, writhing in agony after the slightest brush of an opponent's boot, makes Mike Ribeiro's theatrics in the 2004 playoffs look Oscar-worthy. It's so ridiculous. They grimace and flinch, clutch their body parts and shout in agony...then take a hand up and continue as though nothing happened. And it's not just once or twice. It happens seven or eight times a game, and nobody's above doing it. For a hockey fan, this is unbelievable.

We're used to watching guys like Gill, and Bob Gainey, who played with two separated shoulders. Travis Moen had fifty stitches in his face and missed one game. Andrei Markov had his tendon severed and came back to play weeks ahead of schedule. We're accustomed to players who will come off the ice under their own power unless they're unconscious. Soccer players, to a hockey fan, are big, rich, talented wimps. I'd like to see one of them nailed in the corner by Zdeno Chara, or blocking a MAB slapper. They think soccer cleats hurt? I'd like to see them take a skate in the leg like Gill did, just so they'd know the difference between "ow" and "HOLY LORD, there are only ten pints of blood in the human body and four of them are on the ice!"

I can appreciate the significance of the World Cup, and the strategy of the game. When it comes to pure admiration of the athletes, however, give me hockey every time. If I'm going to watch a game played by men, I want to see men on the playing surface. Guys faking injuries on every play just don't impress in quite the same way. Hal Gill might not have the dexterity of Messi or the speed of Ronaldo, but he's got real courage. For that, I'm glad he's on our team, and I'm glad to be a hockey fan.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Downsizing on the Farm

Five years ago when the "New" NHL was still new, the NHL bosses wiped the sheen of nervous sweat from their foreheads and got back to business as usual. They'd seen the abyss: a world in which the NHL stopped play for a year and many, many fans didn't care. They came back in the summer of 2005 and set out to make a splash to convince the fans their teams would be stronger and better than ever.

The Senators made the huge Hossa-for-Heatley trade. Other teams threw money at the raft of free agents available after the lockout. Big names like Peter Forsberg and Joe Nieuwendyk signed new deals, some for big coin. In New Jersey, Lou Lamoriello brought in three players to help bolster his young core. He signed bruising defenceman Dan McGillis for $4.4-million over two years, and all-star Alexander Mogilny on a two-year, $7-million deal. Then the reality of the salary cap hit home.

Uncle Lou, Hall-of-Famer, one of the most respected GMs in the NHL, decided he'd made a couple of mistakes by signing those guys for millions in the off-season. The New NHL wasn't like the old one, and money not so freely spent. When Patrick Elias came back from a bout with hepatitis after Christmas in the 2005-06 season, the Devils were stuck financially. They had to find a way to fit him under the cap, and something had to give. "Something" turned out to be McGillis and Mogilny. They, and their combined $5.7-million cap hit, were jettisoned to the Albany River Rats within two weeks of each other. Neither ever played an NHL game again.

McGillis was the first to go (Gerry Warner, a smart and thougtful Habs fan on the Canadiens usenet group, coined the term "McGillisized" for NHL players who get dumped to the minors for cap reasons), but his demotion didn't raise too many eyebrows. He was, after all, a low-scoring defenceman who'd already bounced around a few teams. Mogilny, however, was a different story. This was a possible Hall-of-Famer; a guy who put up better than a point a game in nearly a thousand NHL starts. His unceremonious booting to the AHL was heralded as a harbinger of things to come. The new reality would be "perform or get out." Only thing is, it hasn't really worked out that way.

Just about every team, including our Habs, has gone crazy with free agent contracts at some point since McGillis and Mogilny were McGillisized five years ago. A lot of GMs have regretted a signing too, but most have found a way to dodge the bullet without having to McGillisize a player. Brian Burke signed a 38-year-old Mathieu Schnieder to a $5.5-million a year deal, then dumped him on Atlanta after just one season. Burke did try to waive him first, but didn't actually send him to the minors when he cleared. Daniel Briere went to Philly for eight years, with a cap hit of $6.5-million. Within a year he was the subject of trade rumours, after not living up to huge expecations based on his contract value. The Flyers ducked the lowering cap boom when Briere ended up requiring hernia surgery, effectively removing his salary from the team's payroll for most of the next season. The Rangers stuck themselves with several huge contracts, but managed to unload Scott Gomez' remaining five years at $7.3-million per on Montreal.

The time for those kinds of lucky solutions to ill-advised contracts may be ending, though. The flush years of the cap increasing by several million dollars have ended because of the global recession. While it'll go up again this year, it will be by a much more modest amount than we've seen in other years.

There's an element of distaste involved in McGillisizing a player. The thinking is that if a player signs the contract handed to him by some crazy GM, it's unfair for said GM to dump the player when the team's circumstances change, or if it's later deemed the player doesn't live up to the amount on his paycheck. It's not the player's fault, critics reason. He's hardly going to say, "No thanks, I think I should take a million less so I don't become a liability two years down the road." It's considered "unclassy" to send a veteran player to the minors for cap reasons. The thing is, ask any player and he'll tell you the NHL is a business first. Yet, the older managers seem to be much more sentimental about the realities of business than the players do.

What's interesting is that Burke and Lamoriello, two of the biggest promoters of class in their business dealings, viewed dumping a contract in the minors as a reasonable solution to their cap problems, even if, in Burke's case, he ended up trading the player before burying him in the AHL.

What's more interesting is the Blackhawks' situation this summer. The Cup champs are seriously over the cap, and with player bonuses kicking in, the vise tightens. They have a $5.6-million a year goalie in Cristobal Huet who didn't play a minute in the playoffs. No team can afford to keep a backup goalie at that price. Stan Bowman is seriously cash-strapped and, if it comes down to a choice between unloading one of his young stars or dumping his expensive backup goalie in the minors, what's he going to do? I expect Huet will be starring in Rockford come October.

The thing is, if the champs have to take to McGillisizing players to stay under the cap, it may set an example for other GMs with similar problems. Right now, a general manager will do whatever he can to trade a player, or simply keep some young talent in the minors until a bad contract runs out. But if Bowman expediates his cap solution by dumping a rich contract in the AHL, it may become more socially acceptable for other GMs to do the same thing. There are lots of them who'd like to try.

Glen Sather wouldn't be overly reluctant to ditch a contract like Wade Redden's or Chris Drury's. Lamoriello has proven he'll McGillisize if he has to, and Patrik Elias' six million is getting painful in Jersey. The Canadiens have the unmoveable Hamrlik contract at $5.5-million, as well as the Gomez deal. The Oilers wouldn't be adverse to burying Sheldon Souray or Shawn Horcoff. It's only a matter of time before Steve Yzerman looks at Vincent Lecavalier's giant contract and wants an out.

McGillisizing isn't going to work for every team. Some of them aren't rich enough to pay millions to a minor leaguer. But, if you look at who's cap-stuck right now, it isn't the poor teams, for the most part. Those teams are prudent about spending in the first place, because they can't afford to throw money away. It's the wealthy teams like the Rangers and Canadiens who fling money around when they get the chance. And it's the wealthy teams who subsequently regret their big signings and want a do-over. Those teams' owners can afford to pay a couple of years of major league salary to an AHL player.

I think a lot of NHL general managers are looking at Chicago this summer, because the 'Hawks have the worst cap crunch in the league to deal with right now. If, as expected, Bowman dumps some salary to the AHL, expect others to take that as a green light to do the same without being labelled "unclassy" (a death-knell in the NHL's old boys' club). I hope Pierre Gauthier is paying attention.

There will come a point when the niceties of keeping a guy around because he's "a great team player" or "used to be a star" aren't enough to prevent demotions of established players. The cap is a business reality and GMs will have to become hardened to sending guys to the minors for salary reasons. It's not the players' fault; it's the general managers'. They gave the contracts, and the contracts are bad. They're going to have to admit it and risk getting a reputation for being jerks.

The Canadiens are in cap trouble. They risk losing good young players like one of the goalies or Tomas Plekanec because of the Hamrlik and Gomez contracts. McGillisizing may become a necessity. I just hope, in the business that is hockey, romantic feelings of class don't prevent Gauthier from doing what he must. The GM's job is to ice the best players possible, not the players with the most expensive contracts. If the GM can convince the owners to pay a big-league salary to an AHL-calibre player who no longer cuts it, he's got to do so. The players aren't naive. They know very well the NHL is a business. They have no problem leaving a team for another when money calls. The managers have to take the same cold-blooded view of things for the good of their teams.

Sure, it's their own fault they get into these cap-restricting situations. But they have a way out if they choose to use it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hey, What About THIS Guy?

Well, Guy Boucher's officially gone to Tampa, along with his entire staff in Hamilton. That leaves three jobs open for the people who will mold and develop the Canadiens prospects. In the grand scheme of things, the men who will be hired in those positions will be just as important to the future of the Canadiens as anybody behind the bench in Montreal.

Listening to the continued bemoaning of Boucher's departure is getting a little wearisome, though. Fact is, Boucher's no longer a Hab and the work has to start soon to hire a coach who can take his place. And you know what? It turns out there are actually OTHER young genius coaches out there. One of them has even worked with Habs prospects already, and done a darn fine job of it. Chuck Weber has been head coach of the Cincinnati Cyclones, the ECHL affiliate of both the Habs and the Nashville Predators, for the last four years. In that time, he's led his team to the Kelly Cup championship twice and the third round of the playoffs twice more. He's coached guys like David Desharnais and Cedrick Desjardins, both of whom dominated the ECHL under his guidance and are now doing well in Hamilton.

The guy is just thirty-seven, but he's been coaching in the pros for eleven years. He played some college defence, and realized that, while he wasn't much of a defenceman, he understood the game and was able to teach it to others. That's what he prides himself on now. He's made the decision to be a career coach, and he's got big dreams.

I had a chance to talk with Chuck Weber today, and it turns out he's the kind of guy who makes you realize there's more than Guy Boucher in the ranks of up-and-coming coaches. He says he and Boucher have talked together and shared notes. While Weber is more conservative than Boucher's 1-3-1 system, in terms of letting his defencemen pinch deep, he favours a 2-1-2 with aggression on the forecheck and on the puck...similar to the style the Flyers played in this year's post-season. He believes all kinds of other positive, promising things too. And he'd love to coach in Hamilton. I'd love for him to get the chance.

If you're interested in what Chuck Weber's got to say about coaching, you can check out what sort of inadvertently turned out to sound like a job interview here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bye Bye Boucher

Lots of Habs fans are mourning the loss of Guy Boucher to the Tampa Bay Lightning today. Lots more are making fun of those fans, wondering why people are freaking out about losing a coach who's received a lot of hype but has never won a championship.

I think I understand from whence both sides come. It's true Boucher has a great track record, with his teams in Drummondville and Hamilton performing exceptionally well in the regular season. Still, while he's won world under-18 and under-20 gold medals as an assistant coach, his own teams haven't won the big tournaments. His players praise his style, approach and system, and observers say he's destined to break new ground as his career progresses. That still remains unproven in the NHL, where he'll have to deal with jaded big-money pros.

There's no doubt it would have been nice for the Habs to hold onto Boucher because there's no reason to believe he won't be able to find success in the big league. He fits all the criteria a Canadiens coach must fulfill, and if he's truly a rising star, it's a shame to see him go elsewhere and make another team better. He's also a rookie and will undoubtedly have to make rookie mistakes. We've already seen enough of those from Montreal coaches in the last decade to last a lifetime.

I think the sense of loss a lot of Habs fans are feeling for a guy who's not yet proven himself is part of a greater phenomenon. What it comes down to is, the Habs never get the big star. Every year there's a Steven Stamkos, John Tavares or Taylor Hall who everyone knows will make a huge difference to whatever team drafts him. That team is never the Habs. Each summer, a big-name free agent or two hits the market. The Canadiens are always high on the players' lists, but in the end they almost always go elsewhere. When Bob Gainey stepped down, there was an opportunity for the team to really look around and bring in the best GM-in-waiting candidate out there. Jim Nill in Detroit comes to mind. Instead, the team quickly slid Pierre Gauthier into the role without really exploring other options. When Guy Carbonneau got fired, Gainey had a chance to find a young, creative coach to help develop the young players. He went old-school instead and hired Jacques Martin.

It's not that Gauthier or Martin or the number-27 pick or free agent signing Travis Moen are necessarily sub-standard or bad. They're just boring. BORE-ING. Boring and dusty and a bit shabby compared to the talent other teams attract. We're Habs fans. We want flashy players, smart, bold managers and wily, entertaining coaches. We're sick and tired of never making a splash. As a collective, we're weary of always seeming to settle for the best we can get, rather than the best there is.

Guy Boucher was a splash. He represents the exciting, talented guy everybody wants, and the Habs had him in their system. Watching him head off to Tampa...incidentally, a team that gets a LOT of splash-makers and has a Cup to prove disappointing. That's why so many of us are feeling kind of gloomy right now.

The salary cap and current contracts mean the Canadiens we saw on the ice three weeks ago (is it only three weeks?!) are going to be pretty much the same guys we'll see in October. If their playoff performance is an accurate indicator of their potential, that's not a bad thing. If, however, the playoffs were a one-off and the reality of the Habs is actually the up-and-down exercise in frustration we endured for 82 regular-season games, changes have to happen. Boucher represented hope in that regard. If it turns out Martin and his system had a whole lot less to do with getting to the semi-finals than Hal Gill's giant stick, Cammalleri's thirteen goals or Halak's acrobatics, we could know there was a new, exciting option waiting in the wings. With Boucher's departure, we have to face the fact that we're stuck with Martin, even if the team flounders, because there's nothing better in the offing. That's frustrating, and a bit of a downer.

The thing with these disappointments, though, is that they pass. When free agents like Shanahan and Briere chose other teams a lot of us were disappointed, but when we saw the reality of their ups and downs, we were a bit relieved they went elsewhere. When Bob Gainey signed and traded for a bunch of little guys last summer, many of us were angry. The reality of their performance went a long way in assuaging that anger.

So, maybe when we see the reality of Guy Boucher's performance in Tampa, we'll be crying harder over his loss than we do about picking Andrei Kostitsyn in the first round in 2003. Or, maybe we won't.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Plekanec Question

Guess what I noticed today? Jonathan Toews, whose praises pundits were singing from the mountaintops as perhaps the best all-round player in the NHL during the first three rounds of the playoffs, has no goals against the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. He has two assists, and he's a minus four. He has two assists more than Tomas Plekanec had in a five-game series against the Flyers, in three of which NOBODY on his team had a point. The funny thing is, though, Chicago fans aren't ready to dump Toews or call him names because of it. Sure, he's struggling against Philly. Sometimes good players struggle when they're being checked hard. But the Chicago fans are saying, "Hey, we have faith he'll come through."

As Plekanec slides closer to unrestricted free agency, there are a lot of Habs fans who think it's better to let him walk. They're saying he'll be asking for too much money to justify his playoff points totals, even though he finished 26th in the league in points during the season. The people who dump on him for not lighting up the Flyers forget that without his 70 points this year, the Habs wouldn't have been in the playoffs in the first place. The one thing the "let him walk" camp doesn't have a handle on is who will replace him?

Let's look at what Plekanec does for the Canadiens. As mentioned, he's a top-thirty scorer in the league. He works very hard on every shift. He handles the first wave of the PK and, in fact, is among the top ten in NHL forwards in shorthanded ice time. He also helps out on the PP, takes a lot of important faceoffs and plays a consistent twenty minutes a night.

If the Habs were to replace him, they have to examine one of three options. They need to either promote from within, pull someone off the free-agent market or make a trade. At the moment, there is no centreman in Hamilton who's able to fill all the roles Plekanec fills for the Canadiens. Ben Maxwell has played twenty regular season games and has scored no points. David Desharnais might crack the roster one day, but he will not step into Plekanec's spot in October and put up 70 points. Louis Leblanc is three years away, and nobody even knows if he'll fulfill his promise as a future NHLer. So, internal promotion is not an option at this time.

A quick examination of the free agent market shows exactly ONE centre better than Plekanec. Patrick Marleau can play the position and he can put up points. He will also be much more expensive than Plekanec, so he's not an option for the Canadiens. After Marleau, the next tier of centre available is...Tomas Plekanec. And after Pleks, you get into 40-50 point guys like Matthew Lombardi or Matt Cullen, or unpredictable head cases like Olli Jokinen, who may or may not ever have another good year. The guys below Plekanec in the pecking order may come cheaper, but it's debatable how much cheaper they'd be, and the trade-off in points, PK work and attitude have to be considered in the cost. I look at it this way: If the Canadiens were looking to pull in the best centre on the market they could likely afford...assuming they had no ties to any of them...they'd pick Tomas Plekanec.

The trade option is interesting as well. Looking at what the Habs have to offer in exchange, we see one of the two goalies, a couple of aging defencemen, an underperforming forward or two and a gigantic, overinflated contract. Of the bait available, the goalies are the best of the lot. They're both young, relatively cheap and talented. There are a lot of teams in need of quality goaltending. The only problem is, teams tend to get cheap when it comes to hiring a young goalie.

In the grand scheme of things, a GM wants to improve his team when he makes a trade, not make a horizontal move. In that case, Gauthier should be able to call up another GM and say, "Hi, we want your 80-point centre. What would it take?" Right now, I can't think of anything the Habs have to offer that would pry that kind of player away from a team. To put a face on it, you're talking an Eric Staal type.

If we can admit the Habs don't have the trade bait to bring in a better centre than Plekanec, they're in a horizontal move position, in attempting to acquire someone just "as good" as him. In that case, the team would have spent the few trade assets it has in order to replace a player instead of using them to fill another need. Plekanec is available for just money. If he's signed, Gauthier can trade to improve the defence, toughen up the bottom six or maybe bring in a top-line winger who can work with Pleks or Gomez.

People blame Plekanec for not being a "true" number-one centre. Too small, everyone says. Well, the little guy ended up in the top-thirty NHL scorers this year, which, if thirty NHL teams have a top line, means he's right up there with other teams' best players. He'll deserve a raise this year, and, if it weren't for the wretched Gomez contract, it wouldn't be an issue. My concern is Gomez is getting the number-one centre money, but Pleks is putting up the better numbers. That's an imbalance that's not going to work in the long-term. Nobody can make more money than Gomez under the cap, so nobody better than him is going to fill in that "true" number-one centre role. Except, maybe, Tomas Plekanec.

The Canadiens need to fill the number-two centre position this summer, one way or another. If it's not with Plekanec, it'll have to be a downgrade because the team can't afford to get anyone better. Looking at the team that barely scraped into the playoffs this year, even with Plekanec's 70 points in the lineup, the thought of what a downgrade down the middle will really mean is scary. Plekanec needs to be signed if the Habs are even going to maintain the level of play we saw this year. A four-year deal at 4.5 million per isn't unreasonable for what he brings, and it's still relatively tradeable if it doesn't work out.

The funny thing is, as the 2009-10 season is about to finally grind to a halt, we can look back objectively and judge how players performed this year, in the big picture. Guess who finished two points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks captain? Not that Plekanec is ever going to be the same kind of player as Jonathan Toews, but both of them have proven there's value in being multi-dimensional. And sometimes, what a player does isn't counted in points. It's nice that Blackhawks fans recognize that.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Where Have All the Coaches Gone?

A friend who spent some time around the Canadiens during the playoffs told me he was really impressed by Kirk Muller's performance. It turns out that behind the boyish grin is a keen, strategic mind, and underneath the natty suits boils a cauldron of passion he's able to use to inspire others. I know it shouldn't have been a surprise to be told it was his plan the players were following in the first two rounds, or that he was their most ardent cheerleader. He had the reputation of being able to drag a team to greater heights by the sheer force of personality when he was team captain too. However, I do own up to being a bit surprised by the idea that he has brains as well. I guess he does such a good impression of the always-smiling, slightly goofy, boyishly handsome sidekick, it's easy to overlook the toughness and smarts he keeps hidden. Unfortunately for the Habs though, my friend wasn't the only one impressed by Muller's mastery of x's and o's, as well as players' emotions during the playoffs.

If there's any truth to the rumours swirling around the Habs right now, Muller is in contention for a couple of NHL head coaching jobs, in Tampa and in New Jersey. He's also been offered the head coaching position in Hamilton if Guy Boucher decides to accept the Columbus Blue Jackets' top job, although rumours also suggest Captain Kirk doesn't want to coach the 'Dogs. Either way, the chances that Muller will soon move on are increasing. I'm convinced we don't know the full extent of his value to the Canadiens, and we won't until he's gone somewhere else. I want the Habs to keep him, but if his ambitions extend beyond being an assistant coach, the sad truth is the Canadiens have nothing to offer him. Normally, a quality assistant like Muller would be the heir-apparent when the current head coach inevitably gets axed. In Montreal that's not the case because of the self-imposed glass language ceiling. If Muller can't speak French, even if he's cut his coaching teeth within the organization and he's a desirable candidate for at least two other NHL teams who are looking for coaches, he'll never be considered in Montreal.

This brings me to Boucher, who *was* the heir-apparent to Jacques Martin. He's going to tell the Jackets tomorrow whether he accepts their offer to coach. It seems overly optimistic to hope he'll turn it down. A thirty-eight-year-old guy doesn't get approached to coach in the National Hockey League every day, and Columbus has a nice, quiet media and a yaffle of young, talented players to mold. The money and benefits beat the hell out of the AHL too.

Boucher is, by all accounts, something special. He's smart, well-educated, a great communicator and a creative systems guy. He even speaks the right language. He's young, and he understands the mindset of guys who grew up with the right to ask questions and have a say about the answers. He's everything the Canadiens need. Obviously, though, the team can't stand in the way of an employee's opportunity to advance his career. Assuming he makes the expected choice and goes to Columbus, we can always hope the stars will align and he'll somehow be available when it's time for Martin to go. That's a lot for which to hope.

That's why I think the Habs are failing themselves in a very important area. A coach sets the direction a team will follow, and if you want a winning team, you need a coach who's smart enough, passionate enough and empathetic enough to win. Guys like that aren't thick on the ground. When you find one, whom you know is right for your team, you have to work harder to keep him. Kirk Muller is a guy like that, but if he wants to be a head coach he'll eventually leave because Gauthier and his French-first mantra will stifle him. Guy Boucher is another one, but the Habs are doing nothing to retain him. I think, if he's as special a coach as we've been led to believe, the Habs need to take a chance with him. Move Martin up to the assistant GM job and hire Boucher now. Offer Boucher a ton of money and a promise he'll be Martin's successor in a year or two. Just do something.

I think a coach is just as important as any player on a team. You wouldn't let your a top prospect walk without at least trying to negotiate with him. When you find a guy who has the potential to be a really great coach, you can't let him go without trying to hold on to him either. The Habs should know this better than most teams. It's been a long time since they've had an all-star coach, and they've filled the role too many times with rookies who weren't right for the job aside from their bilingualism. When the chance to hang onto a promising young coach like Boucher comes, they need to jump at it.

Martin might be Gauthier's buddy, but no coach sticks around forever. When the Habs continue to play mediocre hockey, somebody's got to take the blame and Martin will eventually be moved up or out. When that day comes, you want a guy like Kirk Muller or Guy Boucher to be ready to step in. If those guys are allowed to go coach other teams, the Habs had better have a plan B ready. Coaching the Montreal Canadiens is a tough job and many guys have proven they can't handle it. It's as rare as finding a Jaro Halak in the ninth round of the draft to find a coach who can. The Habs have two of them, and are probably just going to let them go.

If that happens, who's going to be inspiring the team in next year's playoffs?