Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lou to the Q?

It must be tough to be the Great Francophone Hope. I remember the 2009 NHL draft in Montreal, with the Centennial-bashing Canadiens hosting the event. The Habs were choosing 18th overall, and had been crying out for a big, skilled centre for years; not to mention a francophone hero. The fans had been missing both, ever since Vincent Damphousse and Patrick Roy shipped out of town in the '90s. As the home team's turn came closer, the rumbling in the crowd began. "Loo-ee! Loo-ee! Loo-ee!" When St.Louis, with the 17th pick, chose defenceman David Rundblad, the rumbling swelled into a full-fledged chant. "LOOOO-EEE!!! LOOOOO-EEEEE!!!!" It didn't matter that ninety-five percent of the fans in the Bell Centre had never seen Louis Leblanc play, and most of the other five percent hadn't witnessed him on the ice since his Midget AAA days. It was enough that a hometown boy was ranked to go in the first round, and he was available when the Canadiens stepped up to pick. When Trevor Timmins actually called Leblanc's name, the crowd erupted in delirium. At that moment, dreams of Leblanc becoming the next great French Canadian Canadien began to take on a more solid form. Someday, people said, he might be the saviour of the Montreal Canadiens.

Maybe someday he will. Before that happens, though, he has a real chance to become the saviour of the Montreal Juniors. Attendance isn't good for Junior games. The team ranked tenth out of eighteen last year, with an average crowd of 2773 fans in the league's biggest market. That's a drop of 11% from the 2008-09 season, the team's first in Montreal after moving from St.John's. Just to put that figure in perspective, the second-biggest market in the Q, Quebec City, fills the Colisee with 12-thousand fans a game, up 3% from last year. Of course, a big reason for that difference is that the Juniors share a city with the Canadiens and in Montreal it's Habs or nothing for many fans. Perhaps the Remparts wouldn't be drawing as well if the Nordiques were still at the Colisee, but Quebec has always been a great supporter of junior and amateur hockey. Montreal has not. If the Juniors played in a rink the size of the one in Quebec, they'd be very lonely. There have been six different incarnations of QMJHL teams in the Montreal area in the last forty years and all of them have failed. In other words, if Juniors are going to live, something's got to give.

In this case, the something is the 19-year-old Leblanc. The Juniors gave up a lot to obtain the kid's Q rights from Chicoutimi, sending their first-round pick and prospect Guillaume Asselin away in exchange for the mere hope Leblanc would give up Harvard to play junior hockey. Now Leblanc has decided to take his chances with the Canadiens, affixing his Jean Hancock to a three-year entry-level deal, and the Juniors can almost smell that seed of hope starting to bloom into reality.

Leblanc will attend the Canadiens rookie camp and training camp, and he'll get every chance to prove what he can do. He won't make the big team, so it'll be either junior or the Bulldogs for him, depending on his camp. Based on his limited experience, with just 90 games played in the last two years, and his relatively immature physique, junior might be the best place for him. The Juniors must be crossing their fingers, toes and eyes in the hope that Leblanc has a good camp, but not a great one because, really, they need him more than the 'Dogs do.

Leblanc would be a huge boost for the Juniors. He's got the cachet of being a homeboy, a Habs' first-round pick and a potential star. Fans who have hopes for him being the next big Habs centre will come out to see him. Those who are curious about the kid, or find out what all the hype's about will come too. That 2773 average attendance will almost certainly go up, and the Juniors need that to happen. In a province full of Canadiens fans, Leblanc's presence will have a similar affect in other teams' arenas when the Juniors come to visit. The thing is, Leblanc's impact won't last long. The fans that will come to see him are Canadiens fans, not junior hockey fans. When Leblanc moves on, so will most of them. Leblanc will be a temporary saviour, but he'll give the Juniors a chance to build a bigger fan base. A lot can happen in a year.

The impact on Leblanc himself will be much more far-reaching. He's a very interesting guy. He's smart enough to get into Harvard and study there long enough to establish his eligibility. Now he's free to come back to the university and finish his degree whenever he wants to do so. He's also smart enough to know the Habs and the Juniors want him to focus on hockey, and he made them pay for him to leave Harvard. He's put the Canadiens on the clock by signing his entry-level contract now, rather than after he completes his junior eligibility. He's also ensured himself a year of pro earnings before a lot of guys get it. Leblanc wins if he goes to Harvard to work on his degree and plays for the Crimson, he wins if he's able to walk into the junior ranks and dominate as a 19-year-old, and he wins if he gets a year of pro experience in Hamilton. If hockey doesn't work out for him, he still wins because he can return to Harvard and finish his studies. Any team he plays for will also be a winner, especially in the case of the Juniors.

The only possible loser in the Leblanc case is the Montreal Canadiens. Developing a young first-rounder is a very delicate thing, and developing the future hometown face of the franchise in front of the adoring legions is even more delicate. See, nobody really knows if Leblanc's skills will translate to the higher levels of the game. He was a good Midget player, but so are a lot of players. He had a good US high school season two years ago, and a very respectable freshman year of college. Still, though, he played only thirty-one games last year; hardly enough to judge him. As long as Leblanc was at Harvard, the dream lived. If he's front and centre in Montreal, fans will know pretty soon how he looks against competition that wants to show him up or hurt him because of the hype around him. If he does poorly, the Canadiens get skewered for picking a kid based on his last name rather than his actual skill. If he does well, the expectations around him will become unreasonable. Either situation is a tough one for a young player to handle. That's the first hurdle Leblanc has to jump on the way to becoming the player the Habs need him to be.

Assuming he does become that player, the Habs will have to deal with his pending free agency at the relatively early age of 26. Leblanc isn't a superstar, and his development time will likely cover the length of his entry-level contract. That means by paying him to leave Harvard, they've deprived themselves of one of his cheaper years of service.

In the end, the team certainly weighed the decision carefully as did Leblanc himself. Last year, with so few games played, Leblanc essentially took a year off hockey compared to other guys his age. The Canadiens are giving him this year to catch up and prove he can handle a long season and playoffs while improving his skills. If he does, and if he handles the pressure of being the Great Francophone Hope, this year will be worth it for the big team.

The Juniors aren't too worried either way. They're stocking the lineup with older players in the hope of making a run at a title, and Leblanc will help stir up public interest. If he does well, great. If he's merely okay, well, his name will still sell, and that's what counts for them. For the Juniors, survival is the Great Francophone Hope, and Leblanc is the key. He'd better get used to the title now because he's got a lot of Montreal Canadiens fans who bestowed it on him the minute Trevor Timmins called his name.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Name That Captain!

Theme music rolls as the live game-show audience applauds wildly. Host Guy "Smiley" Carbonneau trots out to take centre stage, mic in hand (well, he's not doing anything else)

GC: Hey there, Habs fans! It's the night we've all been waiting for. We started all the way back in last October with a bunch of guys we didn't know at all. We watched them grow together and beat down two of the best teams in the East in the playoffs. So now, friends, it's time. Time to CHOOSE YOUR CAPTAIN!!

crowd cheers and whistles

GC: Alright! Let's meet our contestants! First up, he's small but he's got balls...Brian Gionta! How're you feeling Brian?
Gionta: Um, wow. This is pretty lame...I So, what am I supposed to do?
GC: Ha! I'm glad you asked! There's nothing to it, really. Each candidate will face a specific challenge that will test his fitness to be captain of the Montreal Canadiens. IF...and I'll say it again...IF you succeed in your challenge, you'll face our panel of judges. Are you ready, Brian Gionta?!
Gionta: Okay...I guess.

Music swells, backdrop curtain rises with a flourish to reveal a net, goal crease and a grinning, toothless Chris Pronger

GC: Brian Gionta, here's your challenge: You have to spend one minute in the crease with Chris Pronger without falling down. Bonus points if you hurt him instead. Ready? GO!

Gionta sighs, picks up a stick and helmet and plants himself in front of the net. Pronger starts with a butt-end and moves on to a quick succession of cross-checks to the back. He attempts a slew-foot, but Gionta nimbly avoids it. Pronger elbows Gionta in the head, the little guy stumbles, but stays on his feet. As the clock ticks down, Gionta slashes Pronger neatly in the ankle, making the behemoth wince. The crowd goes wild. Panting, Gionta returns centre stage.

GC: Well done, Little G. I think...let me check with the judges...yes, you picked up those bonus points there at the end. How do you feel?
Gionta: Hurt, what do you think?! And don't call me Little G.
GC: Heh heh...look at that passion, people! Thanks Brian. Now let's bring out the next contestant. He's got a college edumacation and he loves to tweet...welcome Mike Cammalleri!
Cammalleri: Hey, how's it going, Carbo?
GC: You tell me, in about five minutes. Are you ready for your challenge?
Cammalleri: I'm always ready. Bring it on.
GC: Your mission, Michael Cammalleri, if you choose to accept it (hee hee) is...

Curtain rises to reveal a goal with marked targets in the corners, and large, inflatable "players" shifting back and forth in front if it

GC: hit each target while shooting from one knee and avoiding the shot blockers. You have one minute. Go!

Cammalleri drops to one knee and starts firing. He shoots ten pucks, but hits only three targets

GC: Not bad, not bad. You missed that stick-side corner, but we'll let the judges decide how much that matters. Why do you think that corner was so tough to hit?
Cammalleri: Well, it's a philosophical thing really. I think the psyche of the modern player prevents him from revealing his best because he always believes there'll be another occasion when that extra effort will be even more necessary. He always keeps something in reserve, if you will. The funny thing is...
GC: Okay, thanks Michael Cammalleri!
Cammalleri: But I was going to say...
GC: Tell it to the judges...ha ha! Now, let's have contestant number three. I never understood a word he said and I think he was laughing at me sometimes, but I love him's the Russian General, Andrei Markov!

crowd stands and roars approval

GC: Welcome to the show, Andrei. This is a big night for you. Are you nervous?
Markov: No.
GC: Do you think you have what it takes to be me? I mean, the captain of the Montreal Canadiens?
Markov: (long pause) Um...yes? I vill do vhatever I can do to help the team to vin.
GC: Would it be special for you to be the Canadiens' first Russian captain?
Markov: But I em Canadian too, eh? Heh heh.
GC: Ah...good one, Andrei. Well, now it's time for your challenge.

curtain rises to show half a rink, with a bunch of large minor leaguers throwing themselves at the boards at intervals

GC: You must run from here, all around the end boards and back...and here's the tricky part...without getting hit and sustaining a season-ending injury. You have one minute...GO!

Markov runs like a madman, deftly avoiding the pounding checks. Just as he's about to finish, he steps on one of Mike Cammalleri's discarded pucks and falls awkwardly.

Markov: Oh, my enkle! Дорогой Бог, не раз. Ой, больно!
GC: Medics! Can we get the medics?! Andrei, can you walk?
Markov: (groans and mumbles inaudible Russian epithets)

Medics carry Markov off on a stretcher

GC: Okay. I'm sure Andrei will be fine. He heals like he's got penicillin for blood. Can we have our next contestant? Guys? he is! He loves the Lord and the Montreal Canadiens. Let's give a warm round of applause to Josh Gorges!
Gorges: Ah, thanks, Carbo.
GC: Okay, Josh, we know you're a fearless competitor, and your challenge is based on that.

curtain rises to reveal Zdeno Chara and twenty pucks

GC: It's a simple challenge, really. You have to block Chara's shots with whatever body part is closest, and then clear the rebound. Ready? You've got one minute, starting NOW!

Chara winds up and his first shot hits Gorges in the helmet. Gorges drops to the ground, motionless.

GC: Uh oh. Another contestant down. Can we get some help here? Wait...wait...he's getting up. Josh, are you okay?
Gorges: Huh? Grammy?
GC: Okay, Josh? I think you're hurt?
Gorges: I'm not hurt, Grammy. I want to keep playing.
GC: It's okay, Josh. You did good. Come sit down now.
Gorges: Wow, there's a big crack in my helmet. Can I have a new one?
GC: Sure you can, Josh. Doc, can you help him off the stage?
Gorges: Grammy?
GC: Heh, heh...a big round of applause for Josh Gorges. Now, coming up right after the break, our four finalists will make their cases for the captaincy to the panel of judges. So, let's meet our judges! First, we have Le Gros Bill, Jean Beliveau!

crowd goes nuts

GC: Nobody understands what it takes to be the captain of the Canadiens like Jean Beliveau, the longest-reigning captain in Habs history. Next on the panel, representing the players, is Jaroslav Halak!

people look confused

GC: Jaro led the team in last year's playoffs and knows all these players and their leadership styles extremely well. We asked him to be a judge because we were banking on him still being here this year, but he's kindly flown in from St.Louis to be here anyway. And our final panelist is, of course, coach Jacques Martin.

crowd shrugs

GC: Now, let's hear from our contestants. Each man gets one minute to make his case to the judges and to you, the fans. First up, let's hear it for Brian Gionta! Brian, you have one minute to tell the judges why you should be captain of the Habs.
Gionta: I've never really been a captain, but I think I could do a good job. I try to listen to what everybody has to say, and I want to win more than anything. I've got a lot of experience in the league, and I think I could be a good leader. That's all. Thanks.
GC: Thank you, Brian Gionta. Now, contestant number two! Here's Mike Cammalleri. Mike, tell the judges why YOU should be captain.
Cammalleri: Friends, judges, teammates, fans. I've come here today with a goal in mind, a goal of the most admirable, enviable kind. The Montreal Canadiens are, without a doubt, a legendary franchise. When I look back at who has captained this club, I'm humbled. Butch Bouchard, Rocket Richard, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Saku Koivu and, of course, Mr.Beliveau who we see sitting here on the panel, these are the names we can find in both the Hall of Fame and on the list of Canadiens captains. To be the leader of this team is a role any player would covet. We work hard all our lives to get to this place, and have a chance at a position like this. I think I would...
GC: Aaaaaannnnd thank you, Michael Cammalleri!
Cammalleri: But, I was going to say...
GC: Sorry, that's your minute. Hey, I could have used you when they were saying I couldn't communicate! Now, contestant number three, Andrei Markov!

Markov limps in on crutches

Markov: Heylo. I em Andrei. Mentreal is great city. I loff the city and the fens. I vork hard to help the team to vin. I alvays try. I be beck soon.
GC: Thank you, Andrei. That was the most coherent English I've ever heard from you. Were you holding out on me all that time?
Markov: Heh never know, Carbo.
GC: Now, here's our last candidate, Josh Gorges! Josh, how's your head? Are you ready to talk to the judges?
Gorges: Sure, Carbo. I'm used to a few little bumps. Okay, honourable judges, I don't think you should pick me. I'm looking at these guys who are better scorers, been around longer and have won Cups. I'm not better than them. I'm glad you chose me as a finalist, but for sure one of those other guys should be captain. Thanks a lot.
GC: Well...thanks, Josh. Now, it's time for our judges to make their decision. We're headed to commercial, but they'll talk over the break, and give us their choice, when we come back!

Over the commercial break, the judges confer.

GC: Aaaaannnnd we're back! Alright, judges, you talked during the break. Now it's time for our contestants to find out what you decided. Contestants, could you please line up here?
Beliveau: I would like to say all of the candidates are worthy captains. Brian, you have defied your size and made yourself into a scoring threat. I was always a tall player, but I saw my smaller teammates like Henri Richard work so hard to score goals. I know that you have to work harder than most. Michael, you are passionate and proud, and you have to be both of those things to be a captain. You can also back up your words with your actions on the ice. Andrei, you are the longest-serving Canadien and your play is always very fine. You have shown your loyalty to Montreal and you have been a fine assistant captain. Josh, you have given your body and your health for the good of the team. You don't score a lot, but you try like hell. Players respect that, and they listen when you speak. With all that in mind, we have chosen...
GC: WAIT! We'll find out the judges' decision after the break!!

dreary commercials for two minutes, mostly those Marine Land ads

GC: Aaaaannnnd we're back. I'm starting to like saying that. Anyway. Now, it's time for the other judges to speak. First up, Jacques Martin.
Martin: Thanks, everyone. I have coached all these players, and any one of them would make a good captain. I have to say, though, Brian, you exhibit so many leadership qualities, you're very qualified to be the Canadiens captain.
GC: Thank you, Jacques Martin! Now, Jaro Halak!
Halak: I like you Brian. You came through and saved my ass many times. I can see over your head though, so maybe you're not a captain.
GC: Thank you, judges. Now, here's our second contestant, Mike Cammalleri. Jacques?
Martin: Michael, you love the Canadiens, and you always give your best when you're on the ice. However, you never shut up, so that plays against you.
GC: Thanks, Jacques. Jaro?
Halak: He's right, Cammy. You never shut the hell up. We love you anyway, but you bug some people in the room.
GC: Our next candidate: Andrei Markov!
Markov: Heylo.
Halak: Andrei, you could be the captain. But you don't talk. The microphones need to hear a lot of lip-wagging from the captain, and you don't need that.
Martin: Andrei, I think you should be the guy who worries about his own position. You're very good at what you do. You don't need to have the pressure of being captain.
GC: Alright then! Now, our last contestant, Josh Gorges!
Martin: Josh, you did everything I asked and more. You gave everything to win and the other guys were happy to follow you in the playoffs.
Halak: Josh, you made me look very, very good. I mean, I was good, but you helped me look like superstar. I never said thanks, so thanks.
GC: Okay, potential captains! You can all gather backstage now, while the judges confer. We'll be RIGHT back, with a decision!!

Annoying commercials about tampons and Toyotas ensue...four minutes later...

GC: Now it's time. Our judges will now announce the NAME of the next CAPTAIN of the MONTREAL CANADIENS!!!
Martin: We have decided it's appropriate for the great Jean Beliveau to announce our decision.
Beliveau: Thank you very much. It's a great burden for me to choose a captain. When I played, the other players picked their leader. But times have changed now, and I will announce our decision. We have elected...CAREY PRICE!! Okay, a small joke. We've really elected...JOSH GORGES!!

crowd goes insane

Beliveau: Josh is the only member of the team who gives of himself without really expecting anything in return. He goes as hard as he can in every game, but, most importantly, he doesn't carry a burden of expectation with him. Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, if they struggle to put up points, will be ridiculed. Andrei Markov, if he has a long-term injury, will be questioned. Josh Gorges has the respect of his teammates, he's durable and he will give everything in him to win for the team. He's the captain. Congratulations, Josh.
GC: There you have it, fans. Josh Gorges is the new captain of the Montreal Canadiens. Join us again next year for our sequel, "Name that Coach!"

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yes! Hockey Information!

Finally! The Montreal Canadiens, the kings of openness and transparency in information distribution have decided to hire someone to study coaching trends and figure out what systems other teams are using. Now the coaches will know for sure that the Flyers depend on Carcillo and Richards to crash the net and torment the goalie, and they'll be certain that the leafs will try to hurt people when they're losing. This is a dream job. It's a professional fan with a title and a dental plan. And Ken Morin, late of the ECHL's Bakersville Condors, is the lucky winner of that position. Hockey Information Coordinator. Nice work, if you can get it!

Morin isn't the only guy joining the Habs staff. Gauthier has brought in five new scouts as well, to replace the guys he turfed a couple of months ago. That's great to see, if only because the more eyes looking at prospects, the better. I only wish we knew more about what makes these guys better than the old guys. Sure, Serge Boisvert was a happy inmate of "Alcatraz" back in 1986 and his name's on the Cup despite his mostly minor-league career. But I'd like to know what credentials he has to scout the Q...arguably the most important region to many Montreal fans...for the Habs.

And sure, Ryan Jankowski has been around for the acquisition of some of the Islanders good young talent, but how hard was that, when the Isles have had so many can't-miss draft positions in recent years? I like the idea of getting Christer Rockstrom, who had a sharp eye for the Wings, to scout Europe. The Canadiens had been seriously lax in that region.

Still, unless we take the time to really search out the backgrounds of these guys, we don't know a lot about them. I think the scouts are possibly the most important employees in the organization. If they don't find the talent, the GM's got nothing to barter and the coaches have nothing to develop into a team. A great scout can turn a low-round draft pick into a steal and a first-rounder into a home run. So when the Habs announce they've hired scouts, I want them to announce it like a movie studio announces its next big-budget picture.

I want to hear that Christer Rockstrom was instrumental in turning a Detroit Red Wings third-round pick into perennial all-star and Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom. I want a list of Islanders players Jankowski found that weren't top-five no-brainers. Sell it to us, Habs! Give us five new reasons to hope this bunch will find better talent than the other guys did, so the GM won't have to trade for prospects to top up a shallow organizational talent pool.

The Canadiens are where they are right now partially because of bad drafting. A failure to pick the right guys means the team has to go out and buy them instead. Just imagine, for example, if, in any one of the last seven or eight years, the Habs had picked a real NHL centreman. There've been lots of them available when Montreal has drafted. If the Canadiens had filled that long-standing organizational need for free with a draft pick, the Gomez trade wouldn't have happened and the team wouldn't now be saddled with that contract. (Disclaimer for those who'll jump to defend Gomez: He's a good player, but the contract hurts.) Just one successful first-round choice of a centre...let's say Carter in 2003...would mean the team would be bigger down the middle, not in a cap crunch and still in possession of Ryan McDonagh's rights. Higgins might have been traded anyway, but it would have been for another piece the team needed instead of Gomez. One draft good pick...and I'm not even talking about a superstar, just a good, solid player...would have drastically improved the team we see on the ice now.

So, if these guys can get the Habs drafting better, they're going to be really important hires and I want to know all about them. Hey! Maybe I should write to the new Hockey Information Coordinator. He'd have all the answers, right?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Yappy Lappy

I hate to say this, but Maxim Lapierre is going to have to fight. I hate it because I think hockey should have evolved past fighting. The game is so fast, skilled and thrilling without fisticuffs, yet it's still part of the NHL. So, since it is, Lapierre is going to have to step up.

I was watching TSN count down the top ten agitators in hockey tonight, and one thing that stood out among them was that they didn't only yap and needle and annoy; they also backed it up when the guys they tormented turned on them. Lapierre got an honourable mention on the agitator list. Bob McKenzie pointed out the absolutely horrible faces he makes at his opponents. There's no doubt that's a brilliant agitating tactic, and Lapierre could be a total bastard to play against if he'd back it up.

Last year when he turtled against Steve Montador, he became a laughingstock. You don't mind an agitator who doesn't fight much, but one who dishes it out without the ability to ever take it is just distasteful. Sometimes, a guy has to put his fists where his big mouth is, or he borders on becoming a liability.

I think Maxim Lapierre is one of the few players who could be better by fighting. He's got speed, a little bit of offensive ability and those nasty faces he makes. If he could pound people who wanted a piece of him, he'd be truly fearsome. It wouldn't have to be every time, but often enough to send the message that there's a price to pay for spooning his own medicine back to him. One of my favourite moments from the last playoffs was when the Canadiens scored against Pittsburgh while Pens defenceman Brooks Orpik was behind the Habs net trying to murder Lapierre, instead of playing his position. That's what Lapierre is good at, but he'd be even better if people were not only annoyed by him, but afraid of him too.

The thing is, he can do it. He's not a small guy, and he's good on his skates. If he chose to take a few beatings to establish his reputation as a guy who'll back up his nonsense, then he'd be taken more seriously.

I honestly believe the days of the fighters in the NHL are numbered. There's too much better in the game to have room for fighting. But while it's still a part of hockey, teams don't really need guys like Georges Laraque anymore. They need fast guys who can kill penalties, make horrid faces and knock opponents on their asses when appropriate. They need the guy Maxim Lapierre could be if he took his aggressiveness to the other player's nose once in a while.

I like Lapierre. I think last year was an off-year for him, and he's capable of much better. If that means knocking some guys around once in a while, so be it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The New Kid On the Block

Pernell Karl Subban must be having a pretty nice summer. Since his draft in the second round in 2007, he's won two junior world championships, put up a stellar rookie season in Hamilton and roared onto the NHL scene with the poise of a veteran during the playoff heat. He was disappointed by the Habs' fall to earth at the hands of the Flyers, and even more disappointed when his Bulldogs, the team he calls his "second family," went down in Game Seven of the AHL semi-finals two days later. Still, young Pernell Karl is set for the summer. He'll blow into camp in September, fit, strong and 21 years old, with a spot in the Canadiens' top-six his to lose. Really, the only way he could not end up in the Habs' top six would be if he burned a Quebec flag in front of Pierre Boivin's office door while urinating on Youppi, just as a tour of disabled kids passes by.

So, PK will be the big new rookie. Unless the world implodes or he has a desperately horrid training camp, he'll be on the Canadiens' defence next season. The question is not whether the kid will slump in his first full NHL season, but what will happen when he does.

I have no worries about PK himself. He's the epitome of confidence and his certainty about the level of his own skill seems unwavering. There are a couple of things that do worry me, though. First is how Jacques Martin and Perry Pearn will react when the rookie struggles. Their handling of Ryan O'Byrne isn't cause for great optimism as a precedent. Last year we saw Marc Andre Bergeron make horrible mistake after horrible mistake and remain in the lineup. O'Byrne got one chance per game and if he screwed up, he sat for the rest of the night. He was scratched in favour of Bergeron more often than not, after everyone was healthy. O'Byrne has taken his benchings and scratchings in stride. He never complains and keeps working for his next chance. Subban is a different kind of personality. I don't know if he's ever had to deal with being relegated to the sidelines because the coaches don't like his on-ice performance. If Martin handles him like he's handled O'Byrne, it may not be as simple a decision and the consequences may be more far-reaching.

I respect the way Subban's handled himself through his meteoric rise in hockey. He's always projected a positive attitude and a humility a lot of guys in his position wouldn't have. It was impressive to see him report to development camp with guys just drafted, and declare there's always something to learn even after you've played twenty minutes a game in the playoffs. So far, however, he's been able to maintain those characteristics because he's always succeeded. It'll be challenging for him if he's faced with what feels like failure. If he rises above it and manages to keep his emotions on an even keel, he'll be fine, but there's a definite risk there.

The second thing I worry about when Subban navigates the treacherous waters of being an NHL rookie is the crowd at the Bell Centre. Fickle is too charitable a term for the way some people treat their own team. The fans want the newer, fresher version of the guy they worshipped last year. They scream for prospects to make the team, then have no patience with them if the kids slump or make big, glaring defensive errors. The guy they demanded to see brought up from Hamilton should be demoted by Christmas if the paying customers had their way. It can be really hard for a young player to be the toast of the town one day and the biggest bum on ice the next. It's harder if the kid lives by himself in a big, tempting city like Montreal.

PK Subban has all the talent he needs to be a very good player in the NHL, and this year he'll get his chance to prove that. We all want him to step in and be for the Habs what a guy like Tyler Myers is to the Sabres or Drew Doughty is to the Kings. He might be that player someday. Chances are, though, he won't get there unless he has a few ups and downs first. A kid like him should be handled carefully to make sure he gets where he's capable of being. I'm not talking babying him like the team has babied Carey Price, but just giving the guy more than one chance. If he gets caught at the blueline on a spinerama that leads to a breakaway, yes, the coaches should correct him, loudly if necessary. Then they should send him right back out for his next shift. Martin needs to remember that no kid with enthusiasm and tons of skill learns much when he's nailed to the bench.

Similarly, the fans need to remember that even if Subban is the goat sometimes, he's still the player they wanted so badly to make the team. Players might say they don't hear the booing, but they do, and it hurts. Fans also need to keep in mind that the kid they're booing today is the free agent of tomorrow who'll remember the loyalty shown to him when it's his turn to show some back.

I can't wait to see PK Subban on the Habs blueline this year. He's going to make some spectacular rushes, he'll be huge fun on the powerplay, he'll give great quote and he'll skate like the wind. I want to see Martin try him in the shootout, and I know he'll use his size to paste a few unsuspecting forwards. I know he'll also make some truly boneheaded plays, he'll probably go through a scoring drought and he may even cost the team a game. It's all part of the ride. We need to suck it up and take the bad with the good, because I think the good is going to be very, very good and we'll be glad we waited for it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

THDNSFH Goes Curmudgeon

See that nice autograph in the picture to the left? I don't have to tell you whose name that is, because you can read it. I can take out my signed photo of Jean Beliveau and show it off to Habs fans and they admire not only the picture of Le Gros Bill with the Cup, but the beautiful, legible signature as well. My kid can look at that and say, "Mom, who's Jean Beliveau?" (okay, my grandkid, because my kids know who Beliveau is...) and I will be able to tell him that's one of the finest men to ever wear a Montreal Canadiens' sweater. Similarly, the names of Yvan Cournoyer, Maurice Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, Ken Dryden, Bob Gainey and Jacques Lemaire will live on in their autographs because they signed with beautiful, legible penmanship a fan can cherish forever.

Then we have the modern player. I don't know if it's because the education system is failing abysmally to provide adequate instruction in cursive writing, or if the players actively try to develop a "signature" that in no way resembles their actual name, but I challenge you to decipher most NHL player's autographs.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't bother me. I'm past the age of waiting for NHL players to sign my scrap of paper outside the rink. (Yes, I admit I do have Tomas Plekanec's autograph, but that's on a game-worn jersey, so it's different. (It is!) Plus, he's one of the few who actually signs a name you can read.) Once though, I was a kid who thought a Canadien's...any Canadien's...signature was a treasure to be carefully folded and tucked away with the most cherished of keepsakes. It was a tangible link between me and my heroes. Mats Naslund actually touched this paper; for one moment we met and he acknowledged that he knew I was out there rooting for him. The autograph is just a reminder to me of that special moment. I came across the little scraps of paper from childhood not long ago, and read the names on them. Naslund, Serge Savard, Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Bobby Smith...they're all clear and well-defined. Others, like Chris Chelios, Claude Lemieux and Mike McPhee are reasonably understandable. Only two of the whole pile...I'm talking to you, Petr Svoboda and Patrick Roy...are known only unto God and those who cheered for them for years.

Now, of course, autographs are much more than just treasured mementos pasted into a kid's scrapbook for posterity. They're important to charities who sell them to raise money for good causes. They support the businesses of people who collect them en masse and sell them, in turn, to richer collectors who can't or won't ask for them in person. They're even a source of income for the old players who sign them and actually need the money to offset poor pension plans. Yet, it's interesting that the more commercial players' signatures become, the more illegible they become too.

Some of it's understandable. Russian players, for example, grew up with a Cyrillic alphabet, so their names would be difficult for most North Americans to decipher, even if the guy wrote it clearly. Others may just have bad handwriting, be writing at odd angles in a crowd of autograph seekers or be in a big hurry. But it's hard to imagine a modern player who's asked to sign more autographs than Jean Beliveau or Maurice Richard did, and they managed to make theirs meaningful and readable.

The reason this is on my mind is because a while back I came across an advertisement for an auction of "Blackberry Curves, used and autographed by NHL All Stars." The slick little devices were to be sold to raise money for charity, and the signatures of the hockey players were supposed to make them more valuable than the generic one you just pick up anywhere. The thing is, there wasn't one single recognizable name on them. Unless the owner pointed it out and said, "Hey, see my blackberry, autographed by Sheldon Souray?" you'd never have a clue what that scribble is supposed to be. I just don't get how the careless, indecipherable scrawls that pass for autographs today have any value at all, let alone actually add value to an item. And, outside an iconic signature like Alex Ovechkin's, I can't see how some of these players' autographs will evoke memories in the future when the people looking at them have no idea to whom they belonged.

Fans give a lot to make sure the NHL stays afloat and the players are rewarded very handsomely for their efforts. I appreciate that the players give back by offering their time and autographs to the fans. But, if they're doing it anyway, how hard is it to make sure someone can actually read it? I look at my Jean Beliveau signature, and Bob Gainey's and Yvan Cournoyer's, and I'm glad there was a generation of players I'll always remember because if I forget, I can just read their names.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Letter of the Law

So, Ilya Kovalchuck, the Waffling Russian, has signed for 17 years with New Jersey. He'll make about $10-million for several seasons of that contract and a total of $102-million. His cap hit, however, is less than six. Lou Lamoriello has officially entered the cheating cheaty cheater's club in the eyes of GMs who deal within the stated salary cap rules. The only exploitable cap loophole in the current CBA is the ability of teams to front-load contracts, so they can give the players long-term deals with low average cap hits. They do this knowing the player will be off the books long before the contract expires.

In idiomatic terms, there's a little thing called "the spirit of the law," however. Front-loading contracts certainly follows the letter of the law, in that there's nothing in the CBA that prevents the practice. It's obviously an end-run around the contract, though, which isn't exactly following the spirit of the law that is the NHL salary cap. The cap was introduced in the first place to prevent wealthy teams and perennial contenders from hoarding all the good players, leaving the also-rans with the dregs of the talent pool. The cap was supposed to ensure parity by making sure talent was spread evenly around, if only because the spendthrifts (yeah, I'm talking to you, Sather) wouldn't be able to afford to sign every good free agent or pay their young stars outrageous sums to keep them around. Better distribution of talent would enable small-market teams to compete without bankrupting themselves.

So now we've got bold GMs like Lamoriello, Paul Holmgren and Dale Tallon realizing they can still sign the big-name, big-talent players they covet by simply extending their contracts for enough years to make the average cap hit relatively painless. Holmgren may yet get burned for signing Chris Pronger to a seven-year, front-loaded deal, but only because Pronger signed after age 35 which means his cap hit counts even if he retires.

The NHL investigated the Pronger and Marian Hossa contracts because officials suspected the teams had negotiated early retirements as part of those deals. Of course, the investigation proved nothing. How could it, unless someone was stupid enough to write down what was implicit in the length of the contract itself? As the lengths and dollar values of the contracts themselves did not contravene the CBA, the league approved them. The NHL now has five days to approve the Kovalchuk deal, or challenge it. It will be allowed to stand, because Lamoriello has not broken the letter of the law, irrespective of its spirit.

Since the NHL has decided that it's going to allow those big, front-loaded contracts, a GM like Pierre Gauthier must re-examine the way he does business. The obvious conclusion is that he would be irresponsible not to take advantage of the loophole. Andrei Markov is coming into the last year of his deal with the Habs, and will need to be re-signed. (Despite the calls of some fans to trade him because he's been hurt twice in the last year and he's over thirty, make no mistake the General is the Habs' best player and will be retained.) Gauthier could try to negotiate a traditional contract with him for, let's say, $30-million over five years, with a cap hit of $6-million. Or he could follow in Uncle Lou's and Holmgren's footsteps and front-load a deal with Markov that would pay him $40-million for ten years, with the same $30-million Markov would have made in the shorter deal all paid up front and the remaining $10-million parcelled out over the last years of the deal. That would drop the cap hit to a very palatable $4-million, with the tacit understanding that Markov will probably retire long before he's 41 years old. He and his cap hit would then be off the books.

Even better, there's nothing stopping Gauthier from signing Markov to a twenty-year deal for $45-million total salary. He'd get $30-million or so in the first five years of the deal, then $15-million spread over the remaining fifteen, most of it concentrated in years six, seven and eight. It would bring Markov's cap hit down to a brilliant $2.25-million a year for the duration of his time with the Habs. When he retired at 38 or 39 years of age, he'd no longer count against the cap.

Considering the NHL's inability to plug the contractual loophole and other GMs' willingness to use it to their advantage, Gauthier is going to have to consider doing the same if he's going to compete. He doesn't have to be crazy about it like Lamoriello was with Kovalchuk. Uncle Lou will be stuck with that contract if Kovalchuk's production drops after he's thirty-five and he's still costing nearly $6-million against the cap for nine more years, or until he retires. If the cap hit is too high, even front-loading won't help reduce the damage when the player is no longer worth that price. While mega contracts are a risk, no matter how they're managed, there's still a definite benefit in using the front-loading tactic to reduce what would have been a reasonable cap hit to a negligable one, though.

Nobody would begrudge Markov $6-million a year for the last of his best seasons, for example. But everyone would dance for joy if Gauthier was able to cut a fair deal for the player, with a tiny cap hit that would benefit the team.

If the gloves are off for NHL GMs in exploiting the cap, the Markov extension is a great chance for Gauthier to join the party. He'd even be breaking new ground, in a way. To date, the big contracts have been given to big names who GMs feel might be the final pieces already-good teams need to put them over the top. Nobody's yet used front-loading to actually build a team in the first place. Imagine the damage the 'Hawks could have done to the league if they'd signed all their young stars for twenty years, with tiny cap hits that would enable the team to add big guns every year at the trade deadline? It's a scary thought.

Either way, though, Gauthier would be wise to jump on the front-loading trend. After all, playing by the spirit of the law doesn't get you far when your competition is playing only by the letter of it. It's reasonable to suspect that there's a limited window for this kind of deal because it's likely the NHL will close the loophole in the next collective agreement. The letter and the spirit of the law will be the same thing soon enough, and the bold GMs who take advantage before that happens will be better off than those who don't.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Goat's Salvation

Pierre Gauthier is not an exciting man. He's not got the bull-moose aggressiveness of a Brian Burke or the sleek Hall-of-Fame pedigree of a Steve Yzerman, either of whom could capture the imagination of the fans. He's an unremarkable businessman who got his job with an unremarkable record, probably because his friends were in a position to hire him, and he fulfilled the requirements of lineage and language with a team for which those things are important.

For a lot of fans, Gauthier is a placeholder. He's there until Geoff Molson turns the ship in another direction and cleans house in favour of a more exciting team of managers. He's done little remarkable in his brief tenure as Habs GM, with the exception of trading Jaroslav Halak. That was either a ballsy or completely loony move, depending on how well Halak plays for St.Louis over the next four years.

For others, Gauthier is a quiet captain, holding the good ship Canadiens on the steady course to respectability set by Bob Gainey. He's making the best of a tight cap situation and trying to gradually improve an already-decent team.

Whatever your view of Gauthier, there's one thing he's doing well. He's doing what any good salesman does: marketing a coveted commodity to his customers. Hockey fans, like the consumers of any product, want to believe that the new thing on the market; the thing they don't already have, is the best thing available. For hockey fans, the thing they crave is possibility.

Possibility, as it applies to hockey players, is in the form of young talent. The draft pick is always more valuable than the prospect because it's got more possibility. A GM can always imagine a first-rounder as the next Sidney Crosby, or a second-round sleeper as the next P.K. Subban. Once that pick becomes a definable prospect with strengths and weaknesses, it drops in value because its possibilities are then limited. Similarly, a new prospect is always better than one that's been in a team's system and hasn't developed as quickly as hoped, because the new guy has more possibility. One can always imagine that his talent is unlimited, but factors like the other team's sub-standard development system, or maybe an injury or an unsympathetic coach, has hindered the expression of that talent. When that guy, who was once so highly-touted, is with our team, we think, his potential is once again incalculable.

That's what Gauthier is doing so successfully right now. A look at the Habs' prospect cupboard last year revealed little in the way of real promise. Subban was just starting his first year of pro hockey and we had no idea how well he'd adapt. Pacioretty was pencilled in to start with the big team, but with no guarantees he'd find any kind of offensive ability. Maxwell, White, Desharnais and Trotter were still considered years away from making the Habs, if they ever did. On defence, Weber and Carle came into camp with high hopes, but neither of them stood out enough to threaten for a spot in Montreal. What had once been touted as one of the league's top prospect systems suddenly looked pretty bleak.

It got worse when the NHL season started. Sergei Kostitsyn, seemingly filled with talent, became a problem child. Pacioretty couldn't cut it at the NHL level. Maxwell was invisible. Desharnais, Trotter and White had one great game together, then got their ice time cut in their second game in Montreal, leading to their demotion. The film of possibility was stripped from the kids and fans began to wonder where the next generation of talent would come from.

Gauthier started badly, trading a second-round pick for veteran Dominic Moore. The price for a lower-tier rental player seemed much too high for people who thirst for possibility. It turned out Moore was a strong asset during the latter part of the season and into the playoffs, and the criticism of the trade died down. Then Gauthier really got to work. He traded Sergei Kostitsyn for Dustin Boyd. Then he traded Jaroslav Halak for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. At the draft, he traded up to get Jarred Tinordi. And shortly afterwards, he convinced Alexander Avtsin to sign with the Habs.

Suddenly, the garden of possibility the fans had believed had become an arid desert began to bloom once again. The loss of Halak stings, but the return of two strong prospects starts the hum of potential thrumming in the veins of die-hards, lessening the hurt of the trade. Nobody thought Sergei Kostitsyn would bring much at all, so the idea of getting Dustin Boyd, who'd been such a bright hope on Canada's world junior team and so highly rated by the Flames, for him, was a thrill for Habs fans. A lot of people thought trading up in this year's draft and losing another second-round pick in the process just to get Tinordi was foolish. Now, looking at the great predictions of Tinordi's promise and reading how many other teams would have liked him, it seems a good idea.

Gauthier may be unremarkable and he may make mistakes, but one thing he's done right is revamping the Habs prospect list. Eller, Schultz, Boyd, Tinordi, Kristo, Leblanc, Subban, Avtsin, Pacioretty, Weber, Carle, Maxwell, Desharnais and Trotter looks a heck of a lot better list than the one we saw going into camp last season. So, Gauthier is bringing in potential and possibility, and that's what fans really want.

Whether any of that possibility and potential becomes NHL skill and talent is another story. But a GM can buy a lot of leeway by providing hope to his fanbase. That's what Gauthier has done. When he eventually goes off on his unremarkable way, we may be thanking him for that. Or we may feel we've been duped, once again. Luckily for an unremarkable man, time and possibility are on his side.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Good Was Halak?

The Montreal Canadiens have been eliminated from the playoffs on my birthday three times over the years in which I've been a fan of the team. I confess, I was fully expecting this year to become the fourth instance on that unhappy list. The Habs had fallen into a 3-1 deficit in their series against the mighty Capitals. They scraped out a 2-1 win in the fifth game, thanks to some stellar goaltending by Jaroslav Halak, but nobody thought they'd be able to do more than that. So on the day of Game Six, my birthday, I was pretty sure the Canadiens would end their season with yet another first-round elimination. It turned out Halak believed in himself and the team more than I did. He absorbed everything the Caps could throw at him, making an incredible 53 saves en route to a 4-1 triumph and a forced Game Seven. It was one hell of a birthday present. Afterwards, people who've been around for longer than I have said it was one of the best goaltending performances they'd seen, ever. It certainly was for me. I remember the legendary Patrick Roy OT against the Rangers in Game Three in 1986, and I thought Halak was as good as that.

When time passes, though, we tend to remember things differently. Saves get more miraculous, glove hands quicker and the number of shots more impossible as our memories soften the reality of what we witnessed. Sometimes, we go back to the video years later and what we recalled as being a brilliant performance was really kind of ordinary, with a few great saves thrown in. I wondered if it would be that way for Halak's Game Six miracle against Washington. Maybe, if we went back and looked at the tapes with an objective eye, it wouldn't really measure up to Roy or Dryden. Perhaps it was all a trick of perception; fans fooled by living so long without a miracle that even a minor miracle would seem spectacular.

As I wondered about that, and about how great Halak's playoff performance really was in the context of the great goalie performances Habs fans have witnessed over the years, I got an email from a reader. Michael Whitehouse is a stats guy, and he decided to look at the save percentages of Canadiens goalies in playoff series from 1986 to the present. The goalie had to have played at least three games in the series to be considered. Here's a chart of what he found, including save percentage and average number of shots faced per game:

That was intriguing enough to get Michael looking a bit farther into Habs history. He went back to 1971, to the amazing Ken Dryden performance in the playoffs that year. It turns out that in nearly forty years of Canadiens playoff goaltending, Jaro Halak is in the top five for save percentage in a series. Our perceptions are true and our memories aren't playing tricks on us. He really was that good.

Here's the link to Michael Whitehouse's chart documenting the goalie stats of every Canadiens playoff series since 1971. For those who have trouble deciphering the chart, Michael has concluded the top five performances for a Canadiens goalie in a playoff series since 1971 are as follows:

1. Steve Penney, 1984, Round 1 vs. Boston: .974 save percentage
2. Ken Dryden, 1976, Round 2 vs. Chicago: .973 save percentage
3. Ken Dryden, 1977, Round 2 vs. St. Louis: .962 save percentage
4. Patrick Roy, 1989, Round 3 vs. Philly: .940 save percentage
5. Jaroslav Halak, 2010, Round 1 vs. Washington: .939 save percentage

Maybe it'll turn out that Halak will be more Steve Penney than Ken Dryden when we look back at his career in twenty years. Or maybe he'll have a place among the greats by then. Either way, nothing can take away the fact that he played an incredible series against the Capitals and his name can be safely mentioned in the same breath as the best playoff performers in Habs history. In my memory, it'll be one of the best birthdays ever.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Every year, NHL general managers meet someplace sunny to talk about ways to make the game better. In the end, they seem to talk a lot, but the outcomes are fairly small achievements like modifying the size of goalie equipment. Last season, they finally at least talked about attempting to reduce concussions, but we'll still have to wait to see whether anything will actually change in the coming season. While concussions are a very serious issue that need attention immediately, there are other things with which general managers should concern themselves. Here are the top-ten things the NHL needs to change:

10. The delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass. This is the dumbest penalty in hockey. It's certainly a deterrent from doing it on purpose, which a lot of defencemen and goalies used to do to get out of trouble. Now, however, we're seeing teams get penalized for doing it by accident. The problem is, it often happens when a team is already shorthanded and the defenceman panics under pressure. Someday, a very important goal is going to be scored on a power play after a DOG penalty, and that sucks. The league should make throwing the puck over the glass the same as icing, with a faceoff in the offending team's zone and no line change permitted.

9. Points. Get rid of them. The NHL has a winner and a loser in every game. There's no need for points anymore. Making some games worth three points creates an imbalance in the standings, rewarding teams for losing. The league should dump the points and go by wins and losses like every other major sport does.

8. Fighting. Eliminate it. The game has evolved beyond fisticuffs at this point. There's no evidence to support the myth that great numbers of fans come out to see fights, or would stay away if fights were banned. There are very, very few fights in the playoffs when the hockey is at its best. Solid leagues like the European pro leagues and U.S. college leagues, somehow manage to play great hockey without fighting. The old-time fight sparked by passion and real anger has mostly disappeared, leaving the sport with staged, emotionless bouts that do little to change the direction of a game. On the other hand, encouraging fighting in junior hockey puts kids at risk of serious injury or even death for no good reason. Rewarding teenagers for fighting encourages aggressive, violent behaviour outside of the rink as well. And fighting in the pros leads to avoidable injury...just ask Sheldon Souray, who could be losing his NHL job early because he missed so much time after getting hurt fighting.

7. Contracts. The CBA doesn't allow anything to change a contract after it's been agreed by both parties. Obviously, it's important for players' security that teams not have the right to contract do-overs. Every GM in the league would be backpedalling on big, fat, ill-advised deals if they could. It's unfortunate, though, that players themselves can't ask for a renegotiation. I know Cristobal Huet was thrilled to score big money with Chicago, but now, with the team in a serious cap crunch, it's very likely Huet will be dumped in the minors. He may be fine with collecting his millions in the AHL or Europe, but what if he's not? If he's the kind of player who'd like to stay in the NHL for a couple of million less, he should have the opportunity to cut that deal with management. Of course, if players had the right to renegotiate, they'd also be vulnerable to pressure from management to do so, even if it's not what they want. That's a concern, but it's really no different than players getting pressured to waive no-trade clauses in contracts they've negotiated in good faith. They can just say no, after all.

6. Replay. The NHL is futuristic in its use of replay compared to baseball or soccer. The biggest gap now, though, is with missed injuries. If a player is writhing on the ice or obviously bleeding with no call, the refs should be allowed to say, "Hey, we didn't see what happened there. Let's go to the replay." It would give the officials another tool to help them police the game justly. The league should also consider instituting replay challenges to be used at the coach's discretion once per game, similar to the rule in NFL football. Officials are human; they screw up. With replay challenges, if a coach sees something the refs don't, it would give him a chance to correct a call that could change a game's outcome.

5. Specialists. There are a lot of guys around with one particular skill, who aren't really that good at much else. (See: Bergeron, Marc-Andre) There is, however, a way to give some guys with only one marketable skill a place in the NHL. The number of players a team can dress for a game should be increased from 20 to 21, so specialists can have a role, without having to play a regular shift. Baseball does it with the DH and football has the place kicker. The extra guy on a hockey team could be a guy like Bergeron, who specializes in the point shot for the PP. It could be a guy who only plays on the PK. Maybe it's a guy like Yanic Perreault, who's otherworldly on faceoffs, but can't do much else. Or it could be a player who's too small or slow to survive in a game, but who's spectacular in the shootout. That way, coaches wouldn't be forced to increase the workload of his better players, or screw up his line formations to fit in a guy who's only good at one more sitting Ryan O'Byrne just to get Bergeron's shot in the lineup. The NHLPA should support such a move because it would offer more opportunities to members who wouldn't otherwise make the NHL, or whose skills are fading and could use the specialist spot to hang on for an extra year or two.

4. Taxes. The salary cap is extremely inequitable, as we've seen in the case of the Canadiens, because of the variance in local tax rates. For example, if a free agent is considering signing with either the Canadiens or the Lightning, and both teams are offering him $5-million a year over a five-year contract, he's got to consider how much of that money he'll actually take home. In Tampa, he's got to pay 35% of it in federal income tax, while, in Montreal, the feds only take 29%. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, however, the state of Florida doesn't take an extra share of the player's income for itself, while the province of Quebec taxes at 24%. So, in Tampa, that $25-million deal translates to $16.25-million in take-home pay. In Quebec, it's only $13.25-million. That's a fair chunk of change for anyone, even a rich hockey player. That means the Canadiens have to offer a player a million dollars more a year to even be in the same take-home ballpark. Since all teams operate under the same cap, that means while the Habs are paying more for their top players, they end up with less for a strong supporting cast. If the NHL is serious about establishing parity in the league, it needs to make the salary cap applicable after taxes. In other words, teams dealing with higher local taxes could exceed the salary cap by the difference in tax rates, using the lowest-taxed NHL location as the base. Therefore, if Tampa's %35 rate is the lowest, compared to Montreal's %53, the Canadiens should be able to spend %18 more than the Panthers or Lightning can on player salaries. Otherwise, the cap inevitably favours teams in lower-taxed jurisdictions.

3. Composite sticks. Ban them. Composites are lighter and allow a player to shoot harder, no doubt. BUT, they break at terrible times, as Saku Koivu and Team Finland can attest, after losing the Olympic gold medal game on a broken-stick faceoff, and the Red Wings will second, after losing a vital playoff game when Nik Lidstrom's stick broke to allow a breakaway. They're also causing a lot of injuries when players block shots at the kinds of speeds composites allow. And they're hugely expensive. Players went to composite because they perceived a competitive advantage by doing so. There's no definitive evidence that composites are markedly better than wood. Composite sticks in hockey are the equivalent of aluminum bats in baseball. Just as the bats give hitters an unfair advantage over fielders, the sticks give shooters an edge on defenders. The NHL should insist on wood, just like baseball does.

2. Contracts, part two. Teams are able to beat the cap right now by offering huge, front-loaded contracts for long term that will bring the average cap hit down to a manageable number. The Hossa contract in Chicago and the Pronger deal in Philly are two examples. Now Lou Lamoriello is rumoured to be offering Ilya Kovalchuk a seventeen-year deal that would meet Kovalchuck's $100-million contract demand, but reduce the cap hit for the Devils to less than $6-million, which will disappear when Kovalchuk retires long before the seventeen years are up. It's a legal loophole in the CBA, but it gives strong teams the best shot at the best players. If a team wants to stack its lineup, it can do so by filling it with great players on cheap cap hits. The argument in favour of this is that any team can do the same thing. That's true, in theory, but if a player has a chance to play for a Cup contender or a bottom-feeder for the long-term, he's going to pick the team where he can win. That creates a system with powerful contenders versus poor cousins that can't attract good players. There are two ways for the league to counter the long-term, front-loaded loophole. One is to make a player's actual annual salary, not the average over the term of the contract, count against the cap each season. Alternately, the current clause that forces a team to absorb the cap hit of any player who signs after the age of 35, regardless of whether he retires during the deal, could be expanded. It could include any player who turns 35 while signed to a long-term deal. That way, if a team is on the hook for all salary committed to a player after he's 35, it eliminates the advantage in signing players until they're over 40 to beat the cap.

And, the number one thing the NHL needs to change:

1. The draft. In a cap world, teams rely heavily on good, cheap, young talent. The most cost-efficient way to build a team is by drafting that talent and developing it within the team's system. The problem is, drafting 18-year-old kids is a total crap shoot. The average 18-year-old player hasn't finished growing and, in many cases, hasn't gained control of his own skills. If he gets hurt in his draft year, he risks not being chosen at all. A team that invests money, resources and draft picks in these kids depends in large part on luck in hoping those investments pay off. The NHL used to draft players at age 20, when they were more mature physically and emotionally. The only reason the age shifted was to counter the WHA, which resorted to drafting teenagers to stake a claim on the best talent before the NHL did in the '70s. Now, with no North American competition for that talent, it would benefit teams to go back to drafting players at 20. They'd have a much better handle on what they're getting in the players they pick. It'd be good for the vast majority of the kids too. Some of them have to make the agonizing decision about whether to play junior hockey or college. Often, they choose junior because they think it's the quickest way to get noticed by scouts and get drafted. Moving the draft age to 20 would make it easier for players to choose a year or two of college while playing hockey. It would be tough for the very elite teenage players who outstrip the competition in their age group and are ready for the NHL at 18 or 19. For most, though, the extra time to develop before having to worry about the draft would be beneficial.

Those are the most important issues, outside of concussions, the NHL needs to address. We can rest assured that at the next GM's or Board of Governor's meetings, none of them will be on the agenda.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What Price Price?

Decisions, decisions. The NHL offseason in the cap era is all about making smart choices. GMs have to make sure they hold onto their core assets, let the right guys go and supplement the roster with the best free agents they can get. They have to do it all while keeping to contract limits, staying under the cap and planning for how things will play out for about four years down the line. Unfortunately for fans, a lot of general managers aren't smart enough to do all that. They get blinded by ambition and backed into corners just like ordinary mortals. Sometimes, not being truly psychic, they just pick the wrong players.

So, what does a smart GM do with Carey Price? What does one offer a young, talented, entitled goaltender whom one has already clearly declared will be the go-to guy for the foreseeable future? It's a tough number to determine.

On one hand, you've got Price's resume. He's got the advantage of being a high first-round draft pick, which means the Canadiens already have a lot invested in him. When a team gets to pick in the top-five, it needs that pick to pan out or risk setting the organization back for years. It's easy now to think about what might have happened if the Habs had chosen Anze Kopitar instead of Price, and what the lineup and the cap situation might look like with him at centre instead of Gomez, with Halak in goal. To keep people from dwelling...unhappily...on that "what if," the Canadiens really need Price to be great. They've given him more chances than most young players get, which proves how badly they want him to be a success. So that's in Price's favour.

Also on his side are his minor-league accomplishments; the rather dusty World Junior Championship gold medal and Calder Cup title with the Bulldogs. He's also had some flashes of brilliance at the NHL level and been voted into the league's All-Star game.

Balancing the scale on the other side, though, is his inconsistency. There's certainly cause for concern there. Price has long had a penchant for allowing a soft or weird goal at bad times, which means he's not usually a "shutout" type of goalie. In two of his three NHL seasons, he's had a long stretch of losing games and found himself unable to bounce back. In his rookie year, he was sent to Hamilton to recover. Last year, he lost his starting job to Jaro Halak. Of course, losing isn't always the goalie's fault. As any cliche-monger will tell you, it's a team game, and often, when Price has been losing, the rest of the team has sucked too. Overall, Price's career numbers aren't bad.

There are also questions about his maturity. We've all seen him act out on the ice when he's angry or disappointed. We've heard the stories about him busting the drywall in the visitor's room after one loss, and crying after others. We've wondered about the allegations that he took a little too fondly to the night life in Montreal. On the flip side, most of his teammates and his boss speak positively about his acceptance of the backup role during the playoffs and his hard work when he wasn't playing.

His agent will surely argue that Price's stats compare favourably to other young goalies like Cam Ward and Marc-Andre Fleury at the same age. And, if negotiations go really hard-ball, Price's camp has in its favour the indisputable fact that Pierre Gauthier's back is to the wall. Gauthier has chosen Price over Halak, and hired the unimpressive Alex Auld to back him up. This is Price's team, and that's inevitably going to play in contract talks. It's too late now to muse that maybe Gauthier should have tried to sign Price before trading Halak, or at least before signing Auld. Price's number-one annointing has given him the trump card in these negotiations.

So, what should he get? As we know, goalies are usually a dime a dozen, and as we've seen this summer, there are usually a few good ones kicking around for hire at a decent rate. With that in mind, and considering that Price is basically a big 'ol bundle of potential tied up with unanswered questions, there's an argument to be made for him to get a one-year deal at similar money to what he would have made last year if he'd hit his bonuses; about two million dollars. A one-year deal tells Price that yes, he's the number-one guy right now, but continuing in that role will depend on his performance in the coming season. An audition year, if you like. A do-over on last season.

The very fact that the team wants so badly for Price to succeed, however, means Gauthier won't play hardball. Price's agent will argue for a long-term deal, at least four years, with an escalating salary. It's safe to bet Price will come in at around a three-million dollar cap hit for four years, slightly more if the deal is for five seasons.

There are always hard choices to make in the summertime, but for Pierre Gauthier, this one is a career-maker. Or breaker. It's all up to Carey Price.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Off With the Head!

There's a well-established tradition in the NHL that fans recognize and honour, and which nobody in the league establishment acknowledges. It manifested itself at the entry draft in Los Angeles and the Stanley Cup presentation in Philadelphia this year, but it's the same no matter wherever or whenever those events are held. It's a universal bond of NHL fanhood to boo Gary Bettman as loudly and rudely as possible.

It's not difficult to comprehend why fans don't like Bettman; especially Canadian fans. His gimmicky interest in increasing goal scoring, his insistence on forcing the southern-market agenda and his blatant disregard of the interests of Canadian-based teams that stand as the backbone of the league's economy drive most real hockey fans nuts. The year of no hockey just to force the salary cap issue didn't help either. What is hard to understand, though, is why the owners still put up with him.

The current bunch of team owners didn't, after all, hire Bettman to begin with. He was parachuted into the job by none other than convicted fraudster Bruce McNall. The then-Kings owner was the NHL's golden boy back in 1992. He'd pulled off the trade of the century in bringing Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles. Hockey, which had been at best a carnival side-show, the poor cousin who shared digs with the mighty Lakers, suddenly became cool in one of the biggest markets in America. That McNall was able to pull off such a feat, with a team that had been an NHL footnote for its lifetime, lent him a golden glow most in the hockey world unabashedly admired. McNall was elected chairman of the league's Board of Governors...the NHL's second-highest 1992. It fell to the Board and McNall to hire a commissioner to run the league. Gil Stein was in office at the time, and McNall got rid of him by promising him a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame if he'd step down. That opened the door for McNall's choice: the guy who was second-in-command of the NBA. That guy turned down the job, and McNall went for the third-in-command of the basketball league: Gary Bettman.

The Gretzky Effect in L.A. was inspirational for a lot of nouveau riche potential owners. A lot of guys thought they could make hockey fly in places where ice was only found in drinks and hockey was a game played by prep-school girls in short skirts. Bettman sold a vision to those guys. The league was taking off, he said, and there'd be fans flocking to southern markets once they'd been introduced to the game, just like in L.A. A big, national TV deal wouldn't be far behind.

Of course, it didn't work out that way. Ownership of many of the southern teams has been unstable and, in some cases, criminal. Speculators who bought into the NHL promise soon found out the game was a harder sell than Bettman had led them to believe. Now the NHL has been forced to take over in Phoenix. Ownership in Florida, Atlanta and Dallas is shaky. Teams that actually make money, like the Habs, have to share revenue with the teams who give tickets away just to get butts in the seats. The NHL is, by no means, an owner's dream club.

After all, when the "NHL" is paying the bills of the Phoenix Coyotes, that actually means the other owners are footing the cost. When Bettman's personal vendetta against Jim Balsillie prevents the purchase of the team, it means he's downloading the cost of his hubris on the rest of the owners.

Seventeen years after his appointment as league commissioner, there's still no national television deal for hockey in the United States. Canadian teams are still providing 37% of league total revenue, but are a minority when it comes to league decision-making. Bettman gives condescending interviews about how the NHL will "someday" expand to Canada but fans will need to be patient. Meanwhile, several of his sunbelt teams are in real danger of going belly up, and Bettman won't consider relocation as an option for saving them.

Fans of teams like the Canadiens, who want to see an equitable system of sharing wealth that includes consideration of local tax rates, are ignored. That's why they're mad. The teams fans love are being held hostage by a little man from basketball who hasn't delivered on his big promises. It's a mystery why the owners are still not noticing Bettman's wearing no clothes.

When he gets booed, commentators make note. They chuckle indulgently as the catcalls rain down on Bettman's head. Underneath the tradition, the "we must boo Bettman because it's expected" performance, though, there's real anger. Fans don't like him because he's not been good for the game. The owners need to wake up and realize why people are jeering the guy who's supposed to be leading the league into the future.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Drunken Sailors

If we can learn anything from NHL free agency, it's that panic and greed make uncomfortable bedfellows. Players in the primes of their careers can see the end, if not near, then at least within spittin' distance. They want the most money they can get because the bodies that buy them a life of privilege don't last for long. Who can blame them, if they peddle the remaining use of those bodies to the highest bidders? Most of them are trained for little else, and must make the most of their physical tickets to financial security.

On the side of teams, there's pressure to get better and do it as quickly as possible. General managers know their time is finite too. They want a winning team on their resumes, and they aren't overly concerned with consequences that will inevitably arise on the watches of their successors.

When those two tides; the greed of self-preservation and the panic of being the guy who comes up empty on free agent day meet, they create a perfect storm of overpayment and almost-certain future regret.

Remember June, 2007? Sheldon Souray had just scored 26 goals for the Habs and set an NHL record for powerplay goals by a defenceman in a season. He wasn't the hottest in his own end, but he could fight, he was a strong leader on the team, and oh! That shot! We saw him once break a defenceman's stick on its blurred path directly to the back of the net. And, what about the time he put the puck right through the twine? Back then, he could have picked his dream job. Bob Gainey offered him big money to stay in Montreal. Souray says other teams offered him more. In the end, sentiment and money combined to lead him home to Edmonton. He was a local boy who remembered the glory days of the team and thought the modern incarnation operated on the same plane.

Flash forward three years into a five-year deal and Souray has cleared waivers, after suffering two injury-plagued seasons and a feud with management that's culminated in aspersions against his character on the team's part and irreparable public bridge-burning on his. Now, he'll either spend the remainder of his contract in the minors, he'll be forced to go to Europe for work, or the Oilers will bite the bullet on half of his salary for two years after they put him on re-entry waivers. None of the likely outcomes of his impasse with the Oilers will be his choice. The bright hope of free agency has become a bitter disappointment for him AND the team.

The thing is, Souray's not alone. The list of guys who've signed their dream contracts only to have them turn into nightmares is long and sad. Brad Richards in Tampa. Jason Blake and Brian McCabe in Toronto. Alexei Yashin on Long Island. Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden with the Rangers. Christobal Huet and Brian Campbell in Chicago. Mathieu Schneider in Anaheim. All of them have either been dumped by the teams that signed them with great expectations, or know their teams would love now to get rid of the contracts if anyone would take them. It's only a matter of time before guys like Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Daniel Briere and Vincent Lecavalier top their teams' "get rid of" lists.

General managers, in this set-up, have the high road staked out. They're just trying to make their teams better, after all. If they make a mistake on a big signing out of the panic of being left without a chair on musical free agent day, the fans are later supportive of dumping the player in most cases. The player's the one who gets the grief for being overpaid and a disappointment.

Scott Gomez is a good example. He's a fine player. He's smart, courageous and skilled. He also signed a contract that priced him about two million dollars a year higher than his stats say he should make, relative to the market. When he did so, he surely thought about his long-term future. I wonder if he considered the constant second-guessing he'd face about his salary, and how it would make him defensive about those questions? I wonder if maybe, when he's home in Alaska, he feels a little bit uncomfortable when his old friends jab at him about his wealth? It might seem a small price for him to pay for setting up his future security, but it can't be fun to be made feel he's not earning the money he makes. And he's one of the lucky ones. He landed with another NHL team willing to take on his monster deal. Others will follow the Souray path and the humiliation of being waived and passed over.

Now there's Ilya Kovalchuk. The Islanders have reportedly offered him ten million dollars for ten years. It's impossible for that deal to work out in the player's favour, outside of the actual money. There's no way a player who's already 27 years old can produce enough points to keep fans and management happy enough for the next ten years, to justify that kind of salary. Maybe he just wants the money. Maybe he doesn't mind the idea that he'll inevitably become an albatross around that team's salary cap when its young players need to be paid well too. They'll want to get rid of him, and he'll be hurt if he cares for things like respect and dignity.

Because as much as players say "it's a business," I think most of them don't believe it in their hearts. Hockey, after all, is all about heart. Management expects players to sacrifice their bodies, accept pain and injury and perform through illness and fatigue. The bosses, in their clean offices, expect no less and consider the millions they shell out to be appropriate compensation. The players want to give what's expected, but human frailty sometimes prevents that. In their hearts, players think their limitations will be understood. That's the line between their definition of business and that of the managers. Players think doing their best is enough. Managers, who feel they're not getting their money's worth, say otherwise.

That's why a smart player with bargaining power should think about taking a little less term or a little less money. It's not like they won't be set for life with a million dollars less in the long run. But it might help them avoid a lot of bitterness when the biggest deal they can score turns sour, as so many of them do. In the NHL, five years is a lifetime and, unless the timing and the player are exactly right, long deals become outdated long before the player is ready for that to happen. All because panic and greed collided on the first day of July.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Goalies

There's a new rule of team-building in the salary-capped NHL, and it's not a good one for the last line of defence. Once upon a time, general managers lived by the "build from the net out" principal. Start with a great goalie, they reasoned, and then make the rest of your team work around him. It was a proven technique. Sam Pollock did it with great success in Montreal. His modern-day disciple, Lou Lamoriello has redone it with Martin Brodeur in New Jersey. Times are changing, though, and changing fast.

NHL GMs tend to be a bit monkey-see, monkey-do when picking up players in free agency. In 2007, after the Ducks won the Cup with a big, aggressive team, everyone wanted big, aggressive forwards and Scott Hartnell was one of the most-coveted free agents. Then, in 2008 and 2009, when Detroit and Pittsburgh won with fast, skilled teams, everyone changed gears and started looking for fast, skilled players. Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa topped every team's wish list. This year Philly and Chicago got to the Stanley Cup Finals with gritty, skilled teams with negligible goaltending, and everyone has decided goaltending doesn't matter all that much.

In the first 24 hours of free agency, the average player contract signed was worth $1.59 million dollars. The average goalie contract was worth only $1.04 million. The gap is actually much wider, though. Of 56 skaters signed, 16 of them have cap hits of $3-million or more. Not one goalie signed for more than $2-million against the cap.

This is not a league in which the netminder is god anymore. Teams are looking around and deciding that the big-money goalies aren't earning their pay. Luongo, Brodeur and Miller were out in the first round of the playoffs. Lundqvist and Kiprusoff didn't make it at all, and Thomas, Huet, Osgood and Theodore became humble backups to their kid partners. On the other hand, Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi ended up in the Stanley Cup Finals and Jaroslav Halak played the best goal of the post-season. All of them made less than a million dollars. GMs have figured out they don't really need to shell out big money for goalies anymore.

Exhibit A: Jaroslav Halak leads the Habs to the third round of the playoffs with some of the most spectacular goaltending we've seen since Patrick Roy. Habs decide they can't afford to pay him three or four million a year, even though they're paying other players ridiculous amounts of money relative to their contributions to playoff success. Habs trade Halak to St.Louis for prospects. Andrei Kostitsyn, who did nothing outside Game Two in Washington, remains a Hab.

Exhibit B: July 1, 2010. Goalies available include former Vezina and Hart winner Jose Theodore, former Stars stalwart Marty Turco and former powerhouse goalie Evgeni Nabokov. They're joined by a bunch of also-rans who change teams every second year, if not every year. Who's signed at the end of the day? The also-rans. The guys with the great resumes get nothing. It's a market in which good goalies are overqualified for the position and get no interest.

It's not just the money, either. Goalies are also getting little in the way of job security. The average player contract in the first 24 hours of free agency was for 2.125 years. Goalies signed for only 1.45 years on average. Goalies are becoming disposable, in the way that coaches have always been. And, Brodeur aside, when was the last time a goalie played his entire career with one team? Even Luongo has been traded twice. Bryzgalov and Anderson, two of the league's top-ten winning goalies last season, have been through waivers. Now, if a goalie is coming up for renewal, if he wants greater term or money than the cap will allow, the GM can just shrug and let him walk.

The turnover among goalies is pretty amazing too, relative to other players. Of the top-ten winning goalies five years ago, eight of them are no longer with those teams. Four don't currently have NHL jobs at all. Compare that to the top-ten point producers, and you see only five of them having changed teams. Only one of them, Jaromir Jagr, is no longer in the league.

The funny thing is, even though they're getting little respect on the contract side of things, goalies still get more than their share of the kudos or blame for a win or a loss. Halak was superman in the playoffs, and nobody remembers the shots Gill and Gorges blocked. Luongo was the goat in Vancouver's loss to Chicago, and a lot of fans were ready to lynch him.

Being a goalie is honestly becoming the hardest job to get, and keep in the NHL. Maybe it's because it's just basically a hard job. The shots are harder, faster and more accurate now than they were before the advent of the composite stick, and on any given night, 18 different players can be firing anywhere from 20 to 50 shots on goal. Perhaps it's because there's always a younger or cheaper option available for teams who only need to fill two slots each season, so they have no problem dumping a goalie who gets too old or expensive. Or maybe it's because goaltending has become such a science, the difference between a really good NHL goalie and a merely decent one is very small.

Whatever the reason for the trend away from opening the coffers for a goalie, it's bad news for netminders who want to cash in. These days, being a defenceman is the way to go. Teams who want to copy Philly and Chicago's makeup see strong defence in front of those no-name goalies. It's no coincidence, then, that the biggest money handed out since the free agent market opened has been to the better available defencemen. Of the sixteen guys who got deals with a cap hit of more than $3-million a year, ten of them are blueliners. This is the new way NHL teams are building, and goalies like Turco and Nabokov may have to settle for a lot less than they're actually worth.


Well, I hope Carey Price can play close to 82 games this year. And I hope he can win a good chunk of them, because Pierre Gauthier has given the Canadiens no other choice. Cristobal Huet and Jaroslav Halak threatened Price's role as the annointed number-one goalie in Montreal and both of them got the boot. So, when Gauthier went shopping for a backup, he made sure to pick someone who's absolutely no threat to Price. He got that by spending a million bucks on a lousy goalie.

The CH will be Alex Auld's eighth NHL sweater, his seventh in the last four years. When a goalie can't hold a backup spot for more than a season at a time, you know he's destined for a career as an afterthought. This signing is fine (if overpriced by about a third) if you've got a starting goalie who plays seventy-plus games a year and has proven his ability to handle the workload and to bring his best every night. It's maybe not such a great idea when you have a designated number-one goaltender who has never played more than 52 games in a season and has had both extraordinary bad luck and difficulties dealing with failure.

There's no doubt now, if there had ever been any, that Carey Price is the unquestioned number-one. He will have no choice but to play the lion's share of the games, because Auld is not good enough to steal his job. There will be no "veteran mentor" thing happening, because Auld isn't good enough to teach Price much of anything, especially about being a starting goalie in a city like Montreal. And the Habs had better hope Price doesn't get hurt for any length of time, or they'll be no better off than the Flyers or Senators in nets.

More importantly, however, the Habs have to hope Price is really ready and able to take on the role and the workload management has definitively handed to him. Signing Auld has effectively removed Price's safety net, and, for a team that has no guarantee of being in the playoffs, it's placing a huge burden of responsibility on Price. His failure doesn't bear consideration.

I join all Canadiens fans in wishing Carey Price the best. The team will live or die with him now as it never has had to do before. It'll be a defining year for the guy who'll now be tending the Habs net virtually by himself.