Bob Gainey had a good idea two years ago when he decided to overhaul the Canadiens. The team had been struggling to find an identity, with the hardworking, but second-tier, Saku Koivu and the phenominally talented, but lazy and moody, Alex Kovalev sending two different messages. Neither of those players were the ones who'd lead the team into the future, so Gainey cleaned house.
The team that didn't have an identity suddenly found one. The new Canadiens, focused around Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri would be fast, opportunistic and slick. It was a style of play that the Bell Centre faithful, many of whom were weaned on firewagon hockey, would surely embrace. The plan was bold, but, in the midst of the spending spree, Gainey overlooked one thing. The defence.
As we know, most responsible coaches espouse the theory that a team playing good defence will generate offensive chances. It's all about moving the puck smartly ahead and not getting caught in your own end. Gainey, however, in building a quick, skilled team at forward, hired a slow, aging defence at the same time. That disparity in team speed between the front lines and the back end has had huge consequences.
If you're going to have a team built to skate, it has to start from the blueline, and, aside from P.K.Subban (and to some degree, James Wisniewski), there's no speed there. As a result, the forwards have to skate harder to keep the gap smaller, and if they don't...if they're hurt or tired or sick or lazy...the D gets exposed. It also means the forwards have to come back deeper to help out when a slow defenceman is under pressure. That adds up to a lot of skating and more distance to travel in order to get back to the offensive zone, and that, in turn, means shifts wasted in the d-zone and fewer scoring opportunities.
That's also part of the reason why the Canadiens are penalized so frequently. Picture a typical play in the Canadiens' end: The opposing winger dumps the puck into Hal Gill's corner, then races to retrieve it. If Carey Price can't get to it first, Gill will pick it up. His first thought will be to pass it to Subban. If the forecheckers are fast and aggressive, however, Gill might not be able to get the puck to the guy who can really move it. In that situation, he dumps it around the boards, hoping one of his teammates will win a battle for it. Often, they don't. That leads to an opposition cycle and, many times, a desperation penalty to prevent a scoring chance.
People miss Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges because they're solid defencemen who can make a good first pass. What the team misses most, though, is their speed. Those guys make quick decisions and they get to the puck first. The defence, with them, manages to balance the slow Roman Hamrlik, Jaro Spacek and Hal Gill. Without them, and with Brent Sopel and Paul Mara...neither of them a speedster...the defence is too slow to maintain the momentum of the forwards. They end up playing a grinding, digging style that doesn't suit their size.
It's wrong to say all the Canadiens' problems start with the defence, but a lot of them do. Without a mobile, active D, it's a lot harder for a group of small forwards to use the advantage of their speed. That's what we're seeing in the last few weeks. They look slow because by the time they get the puck and work up a head of steam, the opponent's defence is ready for them. The Canadiens need a lot of things to improve, but first among them, and something Bob Gainey should have addressed when rebuilding this team, is a defence that can actually skate the puck.
That will be...must be...Pierre Gauthier's biggest decision this summer. Either he chooses to stick with the philosophy of speed and skill directed by Gainey, in which case he will absolutely have to focus on overhauling the defence, or he chooses to keep a ponderous D and change the style of the forward lines. Looking at the magnitude of the second option, and the rarity of the kind of big, productive forwards the Habs would need, it may be easier to just work on the D. The cap favours an overhaul on defence as well, as there will be money cleared up there in the summer, while the big contracts at forward are locked in.
Gauthier doesn't have to get the next Lidstrom, but he should at least be looking for guys who are under 35 and skate faster than the average glacier. Hal Gill and Roman Hamrlik are the kinds of solid, experienced defenders a competitive team can use to round out its top-seven defencemen. They're no longer the players a winning team can play for 25+ minutes a night. The anticipated returns of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges will help greatly and make Gauthier's job easier. Next year, though, with Jaro Spacek signed for another year, and basically unmoveable, the Gill and Hamrlik spots need an upgrade. Only then can Gainey's original vision be realized.