Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Yesterday, the Canadiens released a new marketing campaign for the coming season. It's called "Rise Together," and the method the ad gurus decided to use to convey the sentiment is decidedly odd. It's meant to convey the idea that the team is on a dead serious mission to return itself to the glory of the past, and the determination of the players to work together to achieve that goal. At least, that's the idea. The depiction of it, however, is a weird amalgam of meshed faces, reminiscent of some '90s straight-to-video sci-fi flick.

I just don't get this whole approach. Sure, when the Canadiens were a mere shadow of their former, glorious selves, there was a need for such gimmicks. In the absence of winning, the team had to do something to provide fans with a show and justify the huge amounts of money they were willing to spend, given even a made-up reason to do so. Now, however, the team actually has a hope of really competing for the first time since the mid-90s. This is a time to celebrate, not pretend a bunch of young hockey players is the second coming of Easy Company on D-Day.

Maybe I'm getting curmudgeonly after so many years without a Cup, but I don't want to see the Habs portrayed as some kind of ultra-serious super-bots. I'd rather the marketing people had based their campaign on what's making me really like this team. Instead of trying to depict Carey Price and P.K. Subban as two halves of the same head, it would have been a whole lot more fun to see a picture of them being normal teammates together. They're good buddies, and candid shots showing that would have done a better job of convincing me this is a team that's rising together.

For me, this version of the team is about fun. They're young, they're talented and they've got potential. It's sure going to be a lot of fun watching them this year. Too bad the marketers missed one of the best tools they could have favour of a made-up, overdone image.

Then again, what's the point of marketing other than to get people to pay attention? I guess that's exactly what this new campaign is doing, melodramatic or not. Still, I can't imagine Price and Subban swooping in for a triple low five after a big win, and taking their morphed faces as seriously as the ad guys would like the rest of us to do. They have to feel a bit silly about the whole thing. I would. No, this time the marketing machine at the Bell Centre, while usually very good at taking the pulse of the fanbase, just got it wrong.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Seeing Red

Whenever a new player is signed or drafted by the Canadiens, he almost inevitably talks about how glad he is to be part of an Original Six team, one with a great history of winning. Usually, he'll mention how special it is to pull on that sweater, worn by so many legends. Well, it turns out there may be more to the sentiment than just mindless patter.

In the most recent edition of the psychology journal "Emotion," Dr.Andrew Elliot has published a scholarly article about the impact of the colour red on athletes' performance. It's called, "Perception of the Colour Red Enhances the Force and Velocity of Motor Output." The theory behind the research is that human beings are conditioned to react to the colour red. When faced with stress, danger or anger, our faces flush, sending warning signals to other people in a deeply primal response. Dr.Elliot decided to see how that natural reaction to red impacts athletes playing against a team wearing red.

He gave three groups of students a hand grip, and showed them a sign saying "squeeze," written on either a blue, gray or red background. The people shown the instruction in red squeezed the grip both faster and harder than the other two groups. In a second experiment, he gave two groups of kids a metal pinch clasp to press right after reading their participant numbers written in either gray or red. Once again, the kids reading the red sign reacted more strongly and quickly. The interesting thing is that all of this happens at a subconscious level and most of us don't even know it.

"Colour affects us in many ways depending on the context," explains Dr.Elliot. "Those colour effects fly under our awareness radar."

Perhaps that's one explanation why it seems so many teams find another gear when they play at the Bell Centre. They appear to always give a little bit more in Montreal. It might also help explain part of why the Canadiens have had such a history of success. Elliot's work concludes that opponents of teams wearing red are subconsciously intimidated, perceiving red as a threat.

"Threat evokes worry, task distraction, and self-preoccupation, all of which have been shown to tax mental resources," he writes. This, he concludes accounts for why students who see red right before a test perform worse and athletes playing an opponent wearing red are more likely to lose.

Dr.Elliot's study isn't the only one with similar evidence of the dominance of the colour red for athletes. In 2004, a team of British anthropologists studied Olympic athletes randomly assigned red or blue uniforms in one-on-one competition in various sports. When otherwise equally matched, the athletes in red won the majority of the competitions. When one athlete was obviously better than the other, colour didn't matter, but...and this is the interesting bit...when one athlete was only slightly inferior to another, wearing red was enough to make up the difference in performance. The athletes in red won 57% of Olympic Taekwondo matches, 55% in boxing and 53% of wrestling matches. That study appeared in the journal "Nature" on May 19, 2005.

Other studies on the subject of the effect of red include one analysis of the British Premier League from 1947 to 2003. The researchers discovered the team wearing red won both the majority of their home games and more titles than teams wearing other colours over the years. A pair of German researchers studied the German professional football league and they found the team in red wins more often, but they weren't sold on the connection between red and victory in terms of uniform colour alone. They thought it might have been a situation in which competitive, aggressive men...natural athletes...prefer red and are attracted to the team for that reason, which gives it a leg up.

Any way you look at it, though, the research shows when all other things are pretty close to equal, wearing red can give a team an advantage. Maybe that's one reason why players really are subconsciously glad to pull on the CH. Perhaps the Habs can prove it again, next time they're up against one of those gray or blue-wearing teams that just don't do it for the competitive psyche.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Top Ten "Ifs" Facing the Habs

Roger Whitaker once sang, " won't believe in if anymore. It's an illusion." He wasn't crooning about an NHL hockey team's chances to win it all, but he might as well have been. "If's" what it comes down to, in the end. The GM brings in the best players he can fit into his budget. He hires the guy he thinks will do the best job coaching them. He provides the team with the best support staff and facilities he can. Then the rest is up to "if."

Every team has its own "ifs." The Penguins are wondering now if Sidney Crosby will still be the same player after losing half of last year with a head injury. The Capitals are waiting to see if Alex Ovechkin can step it up and carry his team to the next level. Bruins fans want to know if their team is for real, or if it just lucked into being the healthiest one in the playoffs. Canadiens fans have a whole list of their own, including:

10. Faceoffs. The only notable statistical difference between the Habs and Bruins in their seven-game playoff series was in faceoff percentage. The Canadiens got killed in the circle and that ended up making the difference in a super tight match up. So, IF the Canadiens are to contend, they need to improve on draws, either by having Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez work harder to get better at it or by bringing in someone who's already good at it.

9. Scott Gomez. Speaking of Gomez, if the Canadiens are to improve on last year's finish, they need their second-line centre to play much, much better. Gomez not only failed to produce himself, but he also did nothing to help his linemates produce either. No team whose second-line centre puts up fewer than 40 points is going to go very far.

8. Max Pacioretty. This one's a big IF. Before his near-decapitation by Zdeno Chara, Pax had finally become a productive NHL player. Now he's got to not only pick up where he left off in terms of his development, but he's also got to do it while overcoming the huge mental hurdle left behind after an injury like that. Will he be able to continue the effective physical style he was developing before he was hurt? If he can, the Canadiens will benefit hugely.

7. Lars Eller. Eller started to show progression with his play in the post-season, particularly in his defensive awareness and the gritty way in which he soldiered on with a dislocated shoulder. He'll be coming off major surgery to start this season, but if he can continue to develop into the NHL player many people think he can, he'll give the Habs a solid third-line scoring option that will help the team improve.

6. Josh Gorges. Gorges is another guy coming back from a major injury and who may or may not be the same player he was before. One theory is that, having played essentially without a major ligament in his knee for his entire NHL career, he'll be a better, more mobile skater with an intact leg. The other theory is that some guys never recover from that kind of injury and become more prone to getting hurt after it. Obviously management fears the latter is a possibility, which accounts for the one-year deal Gorges has signed. If he's able to be the player he was before his injury, and if he's inclined to put aside hurt feelings about Gauthier's lack of long-term commitment to him, he'll help make the Habs defence a whole lot better than it was at the end of last year.

5. Erik Cole. A lot of hopes are riding on Cole's ability to provide muscle and skill for the top six. That will largely depend on Cole's ability to stay healthy and to find chemistry with at least one centre in Montreal. If he's able to do both, the first two lines will be improved immeasurably.

4. P.K.Subban. It's a rare talent that doesn't have some sort of sophomore slump. Subban's development has been so rapid and relatively flawless, a regression or plateau season wouldn't be at all unusual. If, however, he's able to continue to grow as a player and contribute like he did last year, he'll help anchor a much-improved defence.

3. The assistant coaches. These guys don't usually get a ton of credit, but they do have a role to play. Kirk Muller didn't just help with special teams and in-game communication, he also played an important part as the mediator between Martin and the team. And he was a passionate person who was able to rally the players for the big games. Without him, there'll be a void in the room. If Randy Cunneyworth can take Muller's place in that regard, Muller's loss can be mitigated.

2. Andrei Markov. One of the two biggest "ifs" facing the Canadiens this year is whether Markov, having not played for the best part of the last two years, can get his game back. Team management has banked on it, choosing to commit to him for three more seasons while letting James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik (who, ironically, played Markov's minutes the last two seasons) go. So many things can go wrong with this hope, and the team doesn't have a safety net if it doesn't work out. Markov not only has to come back from a devastating string of injuries, but also return with the all-star game he possessed before he got hurt. With him playing at the top of his ability, the Canadiens are a different, and a better, team. If he can do it.

1. Carey Price. The only "if" as big as Markov is Price. Going into last season in the wake of the Jaroslav Halak trade, Price was a huge question mark. Nobody knew if he could find the strength of will to come back from a terrible year and the character to not only withstand the heightened public scrutiny, but carry the team every night as well. He pulled it off and did it convincingly. Now the question is whether he can do it again. If he can...if the Price we saw last year is the real deal...then the Habs have a chance to contend.

Those are ten pretty big "ifs" leading into the new season. Should five of the ten work out in the Habs' favour, they'll have a pretty good year. Should all ten of those questions be answered in the affirmative and the team stays relatively healthy, the Canadiens can win the Stanley Cup. It's been a long time since we could say that with some degree of realism. Roger Whitaker said "if's" an illusion, and most of us have stopped believing all those "ifs" can really happen. Just imagine, though, if they did.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tempests and Teapots

It's a good thing Andrei Kostitsyn can't speak English very well. It appears that, when given time, a willing reporter's ear and the chance to vent in his own language, he took the opportunity to tell said reporter all about how Jacques Martin doesn't like him, doesn't listen to him and didn't explain why Kostitsyn bounced around the lineup all last season.

Now, while it's fairly certain Kostitsyn isn't the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, he might have a point with his complaints. Surely Martin had bigger issues with which to deal last season than Kostitsyn's concerns. He had, for example, a D-corps decimated by season-ending injury and a top-six centreman who was missing in action for the majority of the year. So, perhaps, the Belarussian whose most erudite English phrase is "shoot puck, score goals" was at a disadvantage when trying to understand what his coach wanted of him. Maybe he felt a little left out, let down and just plain baffled. That he chose to express those sentiments publicly wasn't the wisest course of action, considering the Canadiens brass's antipathy to even the slightest whiff of trouble in the dressing room.

The problem facing Canadiens management now is whether Kostitsyn is worth soothing. That Pierre Gauthier was content to sign him for one year, ending in unrestricted free agency, is an indication of the organazation's uncertainty about Kostitsyn's long-term value. Signing Erik Cole for four years also underlines AK's precarious position as a top-six winger in Montreal.

The thing is, Kostitsyn is a good player. Perhaps he's not a consistent top-six guy all the time, but he's got definite skills. He's a tank on skates, and one of the few Canadiens forwards who hits with authority. He's also got a wicked wrister and he's good for twenty goals even in an off year. And, while he might have voiced his displeasure with the coach, his teammates seem to like him. Post-game kudos for and teasing of "Kush" were common last year.

The former tenth-overall draft pick is probably never going to be the 35-40 goal scorer the team was hoping for eight years ago. That doesn't mean 20-plus goals are worthless. Natural goal scorers aren't a dime a dozen out there, and Kostitsyn started last season very well on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri. It appeared he might finally be having the breakout season about which fans had dreamed. That all screeched to a halt when, in an attempt to jump-start Scott Gomez, Martin yanked Kostitsyn off the Plekanec line. Gomez and Kostitsyn had as much chemistry as a beagle and a duck-billed platypus and Kostitsyn's numbers went south.

Looking at last year objectively, an argument can be made that Kostitsyn's inconsistency, this time around, wasn't all his fault. And maybe the year before, the aftereffects of the concussion he sustained at the hands of Kurt Sauer might have played a role. If management is willing to take those mitigating factors into consideration and overlook complaints probably made out of frustration, Martin will have to really try with Kostitsyn. He has an asset that can help the team if he can find the key to working with the player. That is, after all, the heart of his role as coach.

Maybe nothing will make a difference and Kostitsyn will have another inconsistent year with long cold stretches during which he looks like he was introduced to hockey last week. Maybe he'll go quietly to another team at some point during the season, after Gauthier has time to let the whiff of potential discontent die away and he can get a decent return for him.

Then again, if Martin really tries to connect with a young player who's got obvious communication problems to go along with his hockey skill, there's a chance the two can clear the air and the Canadiens can get the best out of a player for whom they had great hopes. And it's not just about Kostitsyn in the big picture. With young Russians like Alexei Emelin, Alexander Avtsin and, someday, Maxim Trunev, in the pipeline, the Canadiens need a coach who can get through to them.

The worst possible thing that could happen is for Gauthier to get frustrated with the situation and dump Kostitsyn right away. Memories of the Ribeiro-for-Niinimaa trade should make that choice an obvious no-go.

Andrei Kostitsyn offers the Canadiens the kind of depth they haven't had in years. He can play on the third line with Lars Eller or David Desharnais, and he can play on the first with Tomas Plekanec. Either way, he gives them a legimate top-nine scoring forwards, which is a hallmark of any contender. Considering how unlikely it would be to replace his sure-thing 20 goals via trade early in the year, it's worth it to the team to try to work it out with Kostitsyn, at least for now.

Thanks to a Russian journalist and Twitter, we know what Andrei Kostitsyn was really thinking when he muttered, "work hard, shoot puck, score goals." Now it's up to Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin to work with him and draw out his ability to help the team. After all, not every player is a Brian Gionta or Tomas Plekanec. Sometimes, a little one language or another...can go a long way.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Scrap Heap

When Bob Gainey resigned his commission at the helm of the good ship Canadiens 18 months ago, many fans had serious doubts about his successor's suitability for the job. While management post-Gainey hasn't been flawless, it's been pleasantly surprising.

One thing Pierre Gauthier has managed to do fairly well in his tenure as Habs GM is turn up just the right player to fill a void when needed. Last September, after Dominic Moore left for Tampa, Gauthier plucked an unemployed Jeff Halpern off the free agent scrap heap to take his place for less money. When Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges were lost for the season, the GM brought in some much-needed punch on D with the acquisition of James Wisniewski. This summer, recognizing the fact that the Canadiens can't contend as long as Travis Moen or Mathieu Darche are playing in the top six, Gauthier signed Erik Cole to fix the problem.

Now the Habs' skipper has just over five million dollars in cap space left, 21 players signed and a few decisions to make. While it's wise to keep a few million dollars around until training camp just in case some team needs to make an emergency salary dump (*cough*Buffalo*cough*), there's no point in keeping more than a couple of million after rosters are set. That means the Habs could certainly add a player or two from the scrap heap, assuming there's anyone out there who can help improve the team.

It would be nice to have a reliable veteran defenceman like Scott Hannan to help shore up the defence with the departures of Roman Hamrlik and Wisniewski. There's a lot of uncertainty about the health of Markov and Gorges and the NHL readiness of Yannick Weber, Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz. However, considering the fact that there are eight potential NHL Ds coming to camp, Gauthier's likely to take a wait-and-see approach on defence. So any tinkering that will happen in the next few weeks will probably be to the forward lines.

Right now, unless some team is willing to trade a top-line centre for Scott Gomez before camp opens, the top six forwards appear to be set. Likely, Tomas Plekanec will centre Cole and Mike Cammalleri. Gomez will play with Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty.

The bottom six and a spare forward are still open to tinkering. Last season, one of the big differences between the Habs and other top teams was the general ineffectiveness of the third and, in particular, the fourth lines. Nobody on those lines contributed much to the scoring, but neither did they provide any degree of robust physical play. Right now, it appears as though the Canadiens will be going with three scoring lines, with Lars Eller and Andre Kostitsyn together with either Mathieu Darche or David Desharnais.

That leaves the fourth line. If the Habs are to contend, that bottom line has to have an identity. It can't remain just a melting pot for whatever spare parts (Laraque? A spare defenceman? Ugh!) don't fit anywhere else. A good fourth line should either be energetic and aggressive enough to forecheck the opponent into the ice, or tight enough defensively to play shut-down on the other team's top players.

Looking at potential fourth line candidates right now, Ryan White and Travis Moen will probably land there, with one of Darche or Desharnais. If Desharnais is to be a third-line winger, there's room for a defensive-minded centreman for the fourth line. If Desharnais is to centre the fourth line, he'll need a big winger who can play a solid two-way game. Two current scrap heapers who could fill those roles nicely are John Madden and Trent Hunter.

Madden is a bit long in the tooth at 38, but he's still able to skate and he's a shut-down star. He's not bad on faceoffs (averaged better than 52% in the last five years) which is a need the Habs must fill. He's known to be a tireless worker, a leader and a team-first kind of player. He's a three-time Cup winner. He also managed 25 points on Minnesota's fourth line last year, which was comparable to what Halpern produced in Montreal. Paired up with White, Darche or Moen, Madden could give the Habs' fourth line a defensive identity. Signing him would likely be a one-year option, in case a home-grown player like Andreas Engqvist isn't ready to take on that role full time.

Hunter, on the other hand, would bring a different look altogether to that line. He's a big man (6'3", 220 lbs) who loves to hit. He's also good for 30-40 points a year and can pinch in on a top line if necessary. He's able to play a defensive game when needed and is a right-handed shot. For a Habs fan, the most enduring memory of Hunter as an Islander is of him bearing down on the slow Canadiens defence and tormenting them into making mistakes all game long. The man was a pain to play against, which, in theory, would make him a great guy to have on your side. Hunter is a bit of a risk, though, coming off MCL reconstructive surgery that forced him to miss most of last season. On the other hand, he's still fairly young, having just turned 31, and has been cleared by both the Islanders and Devils doctors who say he'll be ready for camp.

Both Madden and Hunter would be low-cost, short-term options to help revitalize the Canadiens fourth line. Both of them could blend well with White's energy and Darche's tenacity. They both can chip in points from a bottom line. Both would be better, in his own way, than Moen, and isn't that the point of adding players? A GM should look to his team's weakest player and improve that position if he wants to make the team better as a whole. It's the hockey version of a chain being only as strong as its weakest link. Last year, the fourth line was a weak link for the Habs because it didn't really do much of anything. Adding a player who can give that line a purpose and earn it some ice time would be a help in so many ways. It would provide a defensive weapon against other teams' top players. It would help spread out ice time to keep everyone fresh late in games. And it would score a vital goal or two in a pinch. Barring an unexpected player hitting the market before camp starts, either of those players would help the Canadiens.

Of course, off-season speculation is just a time filler for bored fans. Pierre Gauthier is likely looking at all the options available and knows better than most of us what the team needs. He's proven he knows how to tweak a team that's already pretty good. If he can find a scrap heap player to make it better, we'll be in for a fun year.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Fond (and Not So Fond) Farewells

Canadiens fans are in a really fun position right now. With youth on the rise and a solid base, the team is building toward something good. That gives us something to which to look forward in the long, arid off-season. The flip side of that is the sense of nostalgia and regret we feel when long-time NHLers finally admit they're done and call it a career.

This summer, familiar faces like Kris Draper, Mark Recchi and Chris Osgood decided to give up their playing careers. They all went out with a sense of accomplishment after winning championships and enjoying long years at the top. Others, like Patrick Lalime and Craig Conroy bowed out with grace because nobody wanted to hire them anymore. They had the sense to recognize their time was up and admit it with an official retirement. Guys who weren't quite ready to hang 'em up just yet, like Brent Sopel, went to Europe and pretended they were really excited to do so. Then, there's Alex Kovalev.

L'Artiste has left the NHL in the same swirl of controversy that surrounded him through much of his 18 seasons in North America. Rather than leave graciously, Kovalev has decided to slam the coaching techniques of Cory Clouston and once again refuse to accept blame for his own often indifferent play. Just as he did in Montreal four years ago, Kovalev blamed the media for his benchings and painted himself the misunderstood martyr. After his first 'misquoted' interview to a Russian paper while in Montreal, Bob Gainey soothed his ego and Kovalev responded with a stellar 2008 season. Unfortunately, the new attitude didn't stick, and we saw Kovalev's drama contribute to the Canadiens' horrid Centennial season when Gainey finally threw up his hands and sent him home.

Having witnessed the best and the worst of Kovalev as a Canadien, the only emotion left for him now as he flounces back to Russia is a sense of deep pity. So many of those who played with and against him lauded his skill level as the highest they'd ever witnessed, yet the constant slag against him was his inconsistent effort. To have the kind of skill he has without the ability to call it forth at will must be incredibly frustrating, not only for the fans, but also for the player in that position.

A few years ago, someone, perhaps the Globe&Mail's Roy MacGregor, wrote a profile of Kovalev. In it, he speculated that perhaps Kovalev's inconsistent play wasn't because he didn't want to be better, but that, maybe, he couldn't. Perhaps the tremendous skill he possessed wasn't always his to command, like a great writer who gets blocked and can't produce anything readable. If that's so, it's understandable that he should be baffled by his own inability to be "on" every night.

It's not, however, acceptable that he should look to place the blame elsewhere. At this stage in his life, if he's still pointing fingers at anyone other than himself, it's just pathetic.

Kovalev has scored more than a thousand points in the NHL. For most players, that would be a ticket to the Hall of Fame. Yet, when the TSN sports panel discussed the issue tonight, the unanimous opinion on Kovalev's chances was a resounding "no."

Still, despite it all, Kovalev had the chance to leave the NHL with grace and class, celebrating his successes and his Stanley Cup win with the Rangers. So many of his peers took the high road, even when it was apparent they were retiring only because they could no longer find an NHL employer. Kovalev, in as unrealistic a statement as the one he made when he speculated about playing until he's fifty, is talking about finishing these two years in the KHL and then coming back to the NHL. It's sad.

Alex Kovalev will probably be remembered by hockey fans generally as a guy who could blow your mind on Saturday, then disappear on Monday. For Canadiens fans, he'll always be a dividing element. Some were desperate to have him back in Montreal; most were glad to see him go. Either way, it's a pity to see such talent tantalize for so long, without realizing its promise.

Because, in the end, that's what'll it will be...a waste of promise. Whether it was the fault of Kovalev's body or his mind, something went missing in his NHL career. Nobody with his skill level will ever be remembered with such frustration. His four years as a Canadien exemplified his entire career. We loved his skill and hated his foolishness. It's sad that the last salvo he'll make at the NHL is foolish. It diminishes a man who did great things, when the spirit moved him.

Thankfully we, as Canadiens fans, had the Kovalev experience and can now realize the promise the team's young players might fulfill. They may never be as spectacularly skilled as Kovalev, but they'll be consistent and they'll give their best for the team at all times.

Kovalev might have left the NHL with a similar legacy. Instead, he's going with hard feelings and accusations. That's unbefitting a guy of his skills, and it's a pity.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Letting Go

My grandfather always used to say a man can be a Jack of all trades, but he'd be a master of none. I look at Tomas Plekanec and I see my grandfather's wisdom.

I should preface this argument with the statement that I have always been a big Plekanec fan. I own not only a game-worn sweater, but also a game-worn turtleneck. (Don't ask me how I got it.) I am a fan of Plekanec's because he's able to do everything well. He can kill a penalty like Carbonneau, score a PP goal like Lemieux, work like a stevadore and bring as much passion to a game as the kid in "King Leary." He does a little bit of everything well, and does it with heart and soul.

The problem, though, is that Plekanec has to be a number-one centre. While it's helpful to be pretty good at lots of things, a number-one centre has to be GREAT at one thing. He's got to score. He's got to be the guy everyone looks to to pound in the winning goal in OT; the guy who can rally a team down by two; the guy who makes the PP potent. Tomas Plekanec can do those things, but he tempers that ability with his desire to prevent goals against his team. He is the consumate two-way centreman.

Every winning team needs a guy like Plekanec, who can anchor an excellent second or third line with his all-round skill. A player like that works best in a supporting role, backing up the offensive-minded top-line centreman. In the case of the Canadiens, Plekanec, by default, has to be that top guy, but he's not allowed to play a purely offensive role. Most teams don't have their top centre killing more penalties than any other forward. The Canadiens do, because Plekanec's the best PK guy on the team and the Habs take a lot of penalties. In the end, that means Plekanec spends a lot of time in defensive situations, which, in turn, means his scoring opportunities are reduced. And 57 points from your number-one centre just isn't good enough for an offensively challenged team.

It appears the Canadiens forward lines are pretty much set for the new season. With no significant changes down the middle, it's up to the coaching staff to change Plekanec's role. As hard as it may be to assign PK duties to a player who's not quite as good defensively, Jacques Martin needs to allow his top-line players to focus on scoring goals.

Erik Cole should help with this. He tends to open space for his linemates and is good at getting the puck into the offensive zone. He also draws a lot of penalties, which will help keep his line on the attack. The other centres can help too. Lars Eller was starting to get the hang of being an NHL player at the end of last season, and if he turns out to be a threat on the attack, the opponent will have to spread defensive coverage more thinly. Scott Gomez can't possibly be worse than last year, but if he's just as bad offensively, he can take on some of Plekanec's defensive assignments. More than one guy has managed to resurrect a flagging career by re-inventing himself as a shut-down player.

While the other forwards can help, Martin will have to take the biggest role in making Plekanec a more productive offensive player. Plekanec is coachable because does what he's told. He's proven he's willing to sacrifice personal numbers when he's asked to focus on a defensive role instead. It's all about the team for him. Martin has to explain that even though Plekanec prides himself on his two-way play, the lack of scoring hurts the team. Then...the hardest part of all...Martin needs to actually loosen the reins and let Plekanec and his linemates loose on offence. He can't give in to the temptation to have them kill penalties or take defensive shadow assignments just because it's safer.

Plekanec has the skill and speed to be the guy other teams try to shut down, rather than the other way around. He just needs the freedom to be able to do it. That freedom has to come from the coach, because, while it's nice to have a guy who's a jack of all trades, it's great to have one who's the master of a skill his team needs badly.