Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Photo courtesy of Josie Gold.
Picture, if you will, two Habs fans. One is the patient fan. He faithfully watches all the games, pays half a week's salary to go to the Bell Centre when he gets a chance and proudly wears his vintage Saku Koivu sweater during the playoffs. The patient fan tries to see logic in the coach's and general manager's decisions. He explains losses as unfortunate encounters with hot goalies or getting jobbed by the refs. He believes there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the Habs that a nice five-game winning streak can't fix.
The other fan is the angry fan. He's this close to cancelling his subscription to RDS, he regards ticket prices on Stub Hub with horror and is ashamed to wear his Guy Lafleur sweater in public. The angry fan thinks Pierre Gauthier should be fired for failing to address the team's pressing needs, and Jacques Martin is mentally deficient for not recognizing a forward on the point during the PP isn't working. He believes the Habs as constructed and managed just can't score, and they take a lot of minor penalties because they're stuck with a system that doesn't play to their strengths. He sees a long, disappointing season, probably culminating in a playoff miss, unless dramatic changes happen immediately.
The patient fan and the angry fan are so diametrically opposed in their basic philosophies, they rarely cross paths outside internet message boards. When the two worlds collide these days, however, they're like two sumo wrestlers grappling for purchase on black ice. The slippery ground in this case is the "tank" debate.
The patient fan takes the anti-tank argument. The basic points of debate include: a)these are the Montreal Canadiens, and the proud fanbase won't accept being a league bottom-feeder, b)missing the playoffs is too costly for the owners, c)players sign in places where they're going to have success and a tank season undermines that selling option, even for homegrown UFAs like Carey Price, and, d)tanking doesn't guarantee anything because you still have to draft and develop the right player(s), see Atlanta/Winnipeg as Exhibit A
The angry fan wants to tank the season, and preferably the sooner the better. He says a)the Montreal Canadiens have been mediocre for nearly 20 years, are on the verge of becoming irrelevant when discussion of modern success arises and can only break out of the middle-of-the-road rut by drafting a real superstar, b)missing the playoffs will be a wakeup call for the owners who'll then turf Gauthier, Martin, Bob Gainey and all their relatives and friends, c)free agents are not the way to build the core of a team and the Canadiens need to unload some of the ones they've previously signed at the trade deadline in order to facilitate the tanking process, and, d)tanking a year doesn't mean long-term failure because one great draft pick can make a huge difference, see Philadelphia as Exhibit A.
That, in some version, is pretty much how the debate proceeds. What neither side really says, though, is that the debate is in danger of becoming moot. With their latest two-game losing slide, the Habs bandwagon risks branching off the mainstream highway and taking a one-way turnoff to Tanksville, PQ, population 21,273. In short, the Canadiens may be tanking all by themselves, without any help at all from the debaters.
It's not that they're not trying. They are. These are professional hockey players, several of them Stanley Cup winners. They're proud and they're skilled enough to have reached this level and won before. As a collective, though, something's missing. Whether it's a lack of bench leadership with the departure of Kirk Muller, a lack of on-ice cohesion, particularly during the PP, with the loss of Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski or just plain bad luck with injuries and weird scheduling, there's something wrong with the Canadiens. Maybe it's just as simple as playing in a league in which a poor start can put you permanently behind the eight-ball for the season. Parity's a bitch, especially when you've been drafting in the middle of the pack for years and really haven't upgraded the big team very much in the last three seasons.
It feels terribly disloyal, but even the most patient of fans, when faced with an inevitable tank, can't help thinking about the sure-thing, rock-star junior players just waiting to be plucked out of the NHL lottery. Imagining slick winger Nail Yakupov in the starting lineup makes even the most ardent playoff-lover think how much better a chance the Habs would have in the post-season with that kind of scoring talent in the lineup.
In the same way, even the most angry fan, when he knows the season could really be lost, feels the regret of missing out while other teams go for the Cup. He finds it hard to admit it, but cyncism takes a back seat to hope when the post-season begins, as long as his team is in it. And even the angriest fan knows that there are no guarantees with those tempting prospects. Yakupov could be the next Kovalchuk or the next Patrik Stefan. One doesn't know how a change of league or an injury could influence the way that kid will turn out as a pro.
In the end, nobody really wants a tank season. The irony is the fans who swear they do and those who vow they don't come together only when tanking becomes a certainty. Looking at the distinct possibility of a lost season now, tankers and anti-tankers can agree a top draft pick might make a difference next year, but the price is very, very high. If tanking happens despite the team's best efforts there's little we can do about it, but the team really needs to take whatever drastic measures it must to prevent it.
Posted by J.T. at 7:16 AM