Forrest Gump's mama wasn't wrong when she told her boy stupid is as stupid does. If she had felt the need to illustrate that statement, she could have shown him the latter half of the first period of last night's Habs vs.Flyers game. As has become typical when these two teams meet, play started out fairly evenly, until the Canadiens took three stupid penalties in succession, gave up two goals on a couple of 5-on-3s and gave up the ghost shortly after.
The pattern is clear. The explanation for it isn't. The easy answer is the Flyers are just simply a better team. They have three lines of scoring depth and a dirty, hardworking fourth line. They have two solid defensive veterans in Pronger and Timonen and a couple of young blueline studs in Coburn and Carle. Their goalie's rarely threatened because the forwards have the puck all the time, so all he has to do is be decent, which he is.
That's the easy answer. Rarely, however, is anything as simple as the easy answer. The Canadiens, after all, shut out that same Flyers team in their first meeting of the season. The Canucks, too, are probably a better team than the Habs overall, but they got the same result. In both cases, the Canadiens prevailed because they worked like dogs. Everybody skated, everybody tried. They got great goaltending, they scored powerplay goals and they scored first. That's the formula the Canadiens need to follow if they're going to win against better teams.
What we saw last night was the Habs succumbing to laziness; Kryptonite to a game plan that requires outworking the other team. The simplest, and probably most effective, way to tell which team is skating harder is to look at who gets to loose pucks first. Last night, most of the time, it was the team wearing eye-scalding orange. That meant the Canadiens were trying to catch up and take the puck off a team that's very good at holding onto it. Those lazy, stupid penalties were the result of all that skating from behind. Going down two PP goals was pretty much game over for the Canadiens.
It's tempting to get frustrated after a game like that because it seems to underline the Habs' weaknesses and prove they're not a contender for the Cup. While we know they can beat the Flyers, we also know it's not likely the Canadiens would prevail in a best-of-seven series unless they can consistently outskate, outwork and outgoal them. So while we may be frustrated, we can hope Pierre Gauthier sees a game like this as a measuring stick as he tries to address some of his team's needs.
The comparison between the Habs and the Flyers is most glaring at the centre position. Jeff Carter is big, strong, crashes the net and scores a lot of goals. Mike Richards is tough, strong and crashes the net. Daniel Briere is crafty and fast and is well able to score. In comparison, Tomas Plekanec matches up well with Briere. After that, the Habs are weak. Lars Eller is a big boy, and he showed some jam against the Flyers. He's just a kid, though, and needs seasoning before he's playing a bigger role on offence. David Desharnais is gritty and goes to the net, but he's small. Scott Gomez is expensive and too often a liability.
Looking at that comparison, it's clear Gomez has to go. His ill-advised penalties cost the Habs in the playoffs last year and continue to do so. His production is dropping as well. He put up fewer than sixty points in the last two seasons, and is on pace for less than fifty this year. A team in a cap world simply cannot have more than seven-million dollars worth of salary tied up in a single player who puts up only fifty points.
The chief argument in Gomez' favour is that he's one of the few Canadiens who can take the puck through the neutral zone at speed. The problem is, when he gets where he's going, he does nothing with it. It happens so often that you have to wonder what's the point? Look at him next to Jeff Carter: Carter's younger, bigger and is on pace for 35 goals. Right there you see one of the major differences between Montreal and Philly. The Canadiens need a centreman who can score goals and really lead the first line. Plekanec is a great two-way man, but his split focus means his offence probably isn't as potent as it could be. There are rumours Gauthier is after Jason Arnott, but that's a temporary fix and possibly not even a fix at all. Brad Richards will be UFA this summer, but chances are good the Stars will re-sign him because there's no better centre coming onto the market. Louis Leblanc might be a guy who can compete against teams like the Flyers, but he's likely two or three years away in his development. It's possible to send an offer to an RFA centre like T.J.Oshie or Brandon Dubinsky. That, however would open the Habs to relaliatory offers on guys like Max Pacioretty and Benoit Pouliot.
The weakness at centre must be addressed, and if it can't happen through free agency, reasonable trade or from within the organization, then Gauthier must get rid of Gomez and bolster the centres he's got with better wingers instead. He'll need Gomez' cap money to do that. Either way, Gomez is not bringing enough to the team for what he costs, and must go if the Canadiens are to improve right now.
The other potential reality we might have to accept is that this edition of the team was never meant to win a Cup. We have to consider that Bob Gainey brought in the free agents he did two years ago in order to keep the team respectably competitive as it waits for the players who are the real hope of the future to develop. Subban, Pacioretty and Price are all players who could be a big part of a contender in the next five years. Josh Gorges and Tomas Plekanec will be valuable veterans. Pouliot, Weber and Eller are young enough to develop into important pieces of the puzzle. Then there are the unknowns; the guys who will make the difference between more "almost" years and real contending seasons: Leblanc, Danny Kristo, Aaron Palushaj, Jarred Tinordi. If those guys come through, along with whomever the team picks this year and next, the Habs will be better ready to meet teams like the Flyers.
In the meantime, the Habs are what they are: a better-than-average team with a depleted defence and weakness up the middle. If Gauthier can find a way to address that weakness on the top line by using Gomez' money to strengthen the forward corps, the Canadiens might compete sooner rather than later. If he doesn't, the team won't improve until the new wave of players arrives. That means we'll have to put up with games against good teams, when our guys aren't outworking their opponents. When that happens, we'll get outcomes like last night's, because, as Mrs.Gump said, stupid is as stupid does. And taking it easy against a team like Philly is pretty stupid.