Monday, July 16, 2012

Duct Tape and Spit

When the Canadiens ended their dreadful 2011-12 season in last place in the Eastern Conference, they had a lot of lineup holes to fill if they were to have any hope of improving. They were weak in the bottom six, short a couple of second-line wingers and they needed at least one solid, stay-at-home-style defenceman. Then Marc Bergevin came on board as GM, and the job of filling those holes fell to him.

It was a daunting task, and only one of many facing the Habs' new boss. He was also responsible for revamping the front office, planting the seeds of a new team culture, drafting the best player possible in the highest spot the Habs had chosen since 1980 and re-signing the team's future corner stones. Through all of that, it appears Bergevin does have a plan for the Canadiens. He wants a front office with experience and smarts. He wants players with character and skill.

The front office part seems to be going well. The on-ice part of the plan is harder to achieve. Unfortunately for those who want to see an immediate turnaround in this team, the fix is going to take more than one season. Bergevin certainly acquired character in his free agent signings, but the remaining skill the players have is questionable.

He addressed the need for veteran D by bringing Francis Bouillon back to Montreal. Bouillon has defied the odds by playing tough NHL defence for 12 seasons, despite standing only 5'8" tall. This year, however, he will turn 37 years old and is coming off a series of groin injury and concussion problems. On the plus side, Bouillon's contract is only for a year, as he's obviously a place-holder who'll give the prospects in Hamilton a chance to develop.

On paper, Bergevin has beefed up the bottom six forwards with the signings of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong. Both players are tough, in-your-face types, of which there's been a serious shortage in Montreal in recent years. Both also come with questions. Armstrong played only 79 games in his two seasons in Toronto because of a series of injuries. Prust has been traded three times in the last four years, which usually means there's a younger, better player behind him. The four-year contract is the longest of his NHL career, and one wonders whether he'll be surpassed by a Habs prospect before that term is up.

If Bouillon, Armstrong and Prust stay healthy, which, at the moment, is a big "IF," then they will improve some of last season's weaknesses. They'll make the team a fair bit rougher around the edges and bring a no-quit attitude to the room. They will not, however, score many points, and this is the biggest problem the Canadiens will have again in the coming season.

Last year, David Desharnais did an admirable job centering the team's two best wingers in Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. The trio was the Habs' best in terms of offensive production. Tomas Plekanec, on the other hand, who entered the season as the number-one centreman, ended up with more linemates than Hugh Hefner has bunnies. He also was given the majority of tough defensive assignments up the middle and his stats reflected both of those facts.

Going into this season, we assume Brian Gionta will be ready to take his place back on Plekanec's right side. If he stays healthy (and, again, that's a big IF, considering the injury problems he dealt with last year, his size and his aging body), he will bring some skill and consistency to that line. The problem is the left side, and it seems as though Bergevin and Michel Therrien have decided to play the inconsistent Rene Bourque there.

Having scored 58 and 50 points in the two years prior to last season, with 27 goals each year, there's an argument to be made that Bourque has the goal-scoring ability to play second-line minutes. Last year's 18 goals and 24 points, along with his -19 in the plus/minus category are the other side of that argument. Plekanec plays a vital role defensively, and therefore, so must his linemates. If a guy is going to be non-committal and lazy, it's going to cost that whole line in terms of effectiveness at both ends of the ice. Bergevin's decision to give Bourque another chance and hope Therrien gets more consistency out of him than he showed last year is risky.

On one side, if Bourque turns it around and he and Gionta are able to put up the 25 goals apiece of which they're capable, Bergevin looks like a pretty smart guy. On the other side, if Bourque continues to play the sulky hockey he did last season, it leaves the top six forwards short a man. That, in turn, leaves the team not much farther ahead than it was last year.

Bergevin is taking a fairly conservative approach right now, trying to patch the holes with cheap pieces that all come with some degree of risk. By giving guys like Bourque and, it would appear, Scott Gomez, a second chance under a new regime, he's hoping they'll save him the cost of trading assets or spending money he can't afford to replace them. This is marking time until the new wave of home-grown much of which had been squandered by previous management regimes in exchange for expensive quick ready to take over.

What that means is the team we saw lose its way to worst in the East last season probably won't be markedly better this year. But, you might argue, there's no way the bad luck of injuries will strike again. Andrei Markov will start the year healthy and Gionta will be back. That's true, of course, but injuries happen every year. Maybe a new coach will make a difference. Perhaps Bourque will make a comeback and give the team two real top lines again. All of this is possible, but it's also strictly based on hope. The lineup, as constituted on paper right now, will be a little bit tougher and hopefully better organized on the ice. It won't score many more goals or prevent a whole lot more than it did last year. And it won't suddenly develop a power play or win shootouts when it didn't do so in the last season.

It looks like, unless something dramatic happens and Shane Doan finds his way to Montreal, the Canadiens may still struggle to win enough games to grab a playoff spot. This is the time when all of us who wished for a proper rebuild from the draft are seeing that wish come true, but it's also the time for patience because it's not going to happen in the coming season.


Anonymous said...

Hey....where have you been?.......Good points all around. When do you think they will give Lars a chance on the 2nd line? I know he plays better at centre, but.....we'll need goals more than a 3rd line shutdown guy. Maybe if Plek can't get a linemate, he can switch roles with Lars and Plec can be the 3rd line shutdown guy and Lars can go with Gionta and ?????????

Anonymous said...

Bourque reminds me of Stephane Richer. Both were big, talented wingers who could dominate a game if they were in the right frame of mind.

Unfortunately, both were labelled inconsistent and lazy because they often appeared bored and disinterested with the action on the ice.

Richer's lack of motivation was caused by depression (He's discussed it on OTR). That doesn't mean Bourques's inconsistent play was also caused by depression. It's just a possibility that I hope the Habs investigate because depression can be treated.


StuartInAlberta said...

Actually, your mention of Markov being healthy brings up a concern that I hope someone can address. An accountant friend (who's very good and catches the loopholes) commented on my questioning 'why bring Markov back for the last few games of the season -- he's not going to change things, other than help us finish ahead of Edmonton?'
The accountant invoked some sort of insurance clause that apparently a player has to play 20 games after an injury before the team can collect on him "retiring as being unable to play".
That makes a frightening amount of sense -- play a few games at the end of the season, and then the balance at the beginning of the upcoming year -- especially when everything I've heard is that players don't come back from the injuries and surgeries that Markov has had.
Comments/enlightenment, please.

the Maritimer said...

When you finish dead last in your conference and third last overall, you got problems that generally aren't fixed overnight. Expect another bottom five finish next season. This rebuild will take 2-3 years. They are weak down the middle (until maybe Galchenyuk is ready) and the defence is marshmallow soft. Patience is indeed required.

JF said...

Hard to disagree with this assessment. The front office looks good, and the team on the ice will be tougher to play against but, like last year's team, will struggle to score goals and win games.

But I think the new coach will make a bigger difference than most are willing to believe. When Michel Therrien was introduced to the media, he talked a lot about work ethic and conditioning, implying that these factors were at the root of the Habs' repeated third-period collapses last year. He could be right. Players whose conditioning and work ethic are inadequate will find it hard to play a full 60 minutes and to maintain their focus when the game is on the line. And it wasn't just the Habs' inability to hang onto a lead that was the problem; there were very few games in which they played three solid periods. If they started the game well, they inexplicably failed to show up in the second period or were unable to keep the pressure on in the third. Improved conditioning might go a long way to solving this problem. And it's at least a possibility that it could also help on the injury front.

The coaching change could also improve the powerplay. Randy Cunneyworth was responsible for this the entire season, and it can't be said that he had much success. I wouldn't be surprised if Therrien and his assistants did a lot better.

So while I agree that the rebuild is going to take at least a couple of seasons, I think next year's team will be quite a lot better than last year's. Bergevin did not do much to add scoring (and we should be glad that he resisted the temptation to throw big money at Jaromir Jagr or Alexander Semin and will not trade prospects for a winger); but the changes he did make will ensure that the team plays much better as a team. We may still miss the playoffs, but I don't think we'll be in the basement.

RL said...

Patience... sadly I have two young children (4 and 1) that drain every last ounce of it ;-)

I'm going into this season with hopes and expectations!!! Hoping for Ws but expecting the Ls that is....

I would have a hard time taking the CH seriously this season if the have both Bourque AND Gomez on the starting Roster. It would signal another Tank Year!!! Remember the 2013 draft year is supposed to be spectacular some say even better than the '05 draft that saw Crosby Kopitar, Marc Staal and yes even Carey.

Raj said...

I hate to seem like a pessimist but I think Bergevin's moves have been lackluster. (Timmins's have been great -- he had a superb draft).

Firstly, his choice for assistant GM. Rick Dudley has bounced around from one exec position to another. You have to wonder why. Full disclosure -- I am biased towards using advanced stats. Neither Bergevin nor Dudley seem to believe in them. Contrast that with Mike Gillis in Vancouver or Doug Wilson in San Jose. The Wings are secretive about their methods but I believe Holland and Nill do give credence to them. Which organizations have had success recently, if not Detroit, San Jose and Vancouver?

Secondly, the coach. Really, was a retread Therrien the best choice? Even JM might have been better.

Thirdly -- Prust at 2.5 million per year for 4 years? Really? What was Bergevin thinking? I don't mind the signing but the salary and term?

Fourthly -- Lars at around 1.3 million per year and Moen at 1.8? Way to reward the players who put out for you game after game.

I wish I could be optimistic the rebuild will take just 2 or 3 years. With MB at the helm, I feel it's going to take a whole lot more than that. Molson's promise to us that the old ways would change hasn't materialized. We are back to the mantras of pugnaciousness, "heart" (whatever that means) and conditioning. You'll remember JM remarked conditioning would be one of his goals, too. Using players effectively, not setting them up to fail, judging them by metrics other than visual ones -- all that doesn't seem to be in our team's future. I can see us trading young players again for nothing because of "attitude" problems, because that's what the traditionalists do. MB hasn't impressed me as being anything but an old-school hockey guy who is savvy with modern media. The shine won't last long when the team loses, as I believe it will (and often at that).

No, this rebuild is going to be a lot more than 2 - 3 years, in my view. Let's hope not another 20. We won't be able to laugh at the Leafs then.

Anonymous said...

Great blog again Leigh Anne.

I think they brought Bou back to teach the young D and because he would come back.

I like the new structure and Therrien for all his candid explosions has a winning NHL record as a coach. I wasn't happy when they let Muller go, glad when they let Martin go, and stunned when Cunnyworth declared nothing would change because he believed in Martin's system. (Why on earth did he think Martin was removed?)

The Canadiens seem to have a structure now. Young guys need structure. Talent is fine, both the Kostitsyn's have talent and personality for example, but you need to develop character. I think the Canadiens under Bergevin are trying to do that. I hope they are.

Twenty years since the team won a Cup or even come close. That indicates to me at least that any change in structure and management is better than the status quo.

Boullion will be able to handle the boo-birds and has the character and skills to teach so many young D (and others). With management managing players and pros teaching them there is a good chance things will get better.

Jay in PA said...

I'm coming late to the commentary party, but I felt like chipping in and noting that Prust's inability to stick with other teams may be less of an indicator than it appears at first blush. Dominic Moore, who I thought was a key factor in the playoff run in 2010, is now looking to play for his 10th team. Why, when he played solid, determined hockey in a 3rd/4th-line role and potted a few playoff goals, the Habs declined to re-sign him was and remains a mystery to me. I can only believe that some players have the appearance of being easily replaceable, even though, as the Habs' experience the past two years shows, replacing them is actually pretty tough.

With that, Prust may not be the second coming of Chris Nilan, but he is entering the prime of his career and has many of the critical qualities that the team needs on its lower lines. To those who gripe about the terms of his contract, he is not a bargain, no, but the Habs are not a bargain-hunting team and it's pointless to judge them in those terms: It's not your money or mine--at least, not directly--and the team simply isn't working with the value mindset that consumers (or less-wealthy teams) do. Prust's contract might make him less-tradeable, but so what? All we have to do is look for him to fulfill his role and his potential, and judge him against that. He can hardly be worse than BGL, after all.