Friday, January 27, 2012

Weaponry

Let's try a little experiment. First, get comfy in your chair. Now, clear your mind of all the discontent inspired by the Canadiens wretched season to date. Okay, if you're all set, think about Andrei Kostitsyn. Then, close your eyes and see what picture comes to mind. When I tried this, the first thing I saw was a goal he scored against Atlanta about three or four years ago, in which he grabbed the puck in his own end, powered around a couple of Thrashers in the neutral zone, cracked the defence like a nut and slipped a lovely backhand past the Thrashers' goalie. It was a spectacular individual effort for an extremely memorable goal.

It was also a goal that epitomized the problem between Habs fans and Kostitsyn. When the Canadiens chose him tenth overall in 2003, they were taking a pretty big chance. In a draft that featured such strong North American players as Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Zach Parise, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Ryan Kesler...just to name a few of the guys chosen after Kostitsyn...the Canadiens took a Belarussian kid with health concerns and no English. His talent, though, was without dispute.

What Trevor Timmins, in his first draft as Canadiens' head scout, failed to consider was Kostitsyn's ability, or inability, to use that talent consistently. As a result, when Kostitsyn scored goals like the one against Atlanta, fans were just as frustrated by the rarity of those highlight plays as they were thrilled to see them happen.

His draft position in that 2003 Super Draft, along with the hope spent on him because of the players the Canadiens didn't take, and his own tremendous ability, combined to create a set of high expectations to which Kostitsyn has rarely lived up. Because of that, a lot of people have labelled him a disappointment and wouldn't mind seeing him traded for picks or prospects at the deadline.

If you reset your image of him, however, and look at what he really is rather than what you expected him to be, you begin to realize his value. In each of the three NHL seasons in which he's played more than 60 games, he's scored at least 20 goals. He's on pace to do the same again this season. He's also a physically big presence on the ice and can deliver the kind of hits that make opposing defencemen move quickly to avoid him. He's not the superstar fans hoped he'd be, but he's not without worth. Far from it.

For $3.25-million a year, Kostitsyn's numbers are comparable to other players with similar numbers and consistency issues. Michael Ryder just signed for $3.5-million with Dallas. Ales Hemsky makes $4.1-million in Edmonton. Drew Stafford in Buffalo gets $4-million. All things considered, Kostitsyn could even be considered a bargain for what he brings.

Another plus for Kostitsyn is that now, as he's about to turn 27, he "gets it" at last. He has finally learned to drive the net hard when he can and to use his size to make room for himself and his linemates. He's got chemistry with Lars Eller that makes things happen. He was instrumental in Eller's epic four-goal game earlier this month, and he and Eller combined on the dirty work that resulted in Alexei Emelin's first NHL goal against Detroit. Kostitsyn is doing a lot of the little things that make a player, while not necessarily a star, a valuable contributor.

Whether it's because he's following the example of players like Erik Cole or (giving credit where it's due) taking ex-coach Jacques Martin's instruction to heart, Kostitsyn has found a way to help the Canadiens a lot more than he hurts them. It wasn't always that way, but it is now. It's even hard to remember the last dumbass penalty he took. In fact, the guy who used to regularly send Guy Carbonneau's blood pressure soaring with his ill-advised infractions has taken only five minors in 39 games this year to date.

All of this is to make the case for the Canadiens re-signing Kostitsyn. He's already come out and said he wants to stay in Montreal, and he's willing to take less than he might get on the open market to do so. (Or at least that's what he told Marc Antoine Godin of La Presse, who tweeted as much.) If Pierre Gauthier or his successor is committed to making the Canadiens a bigger, more aggressive team, it would be a shame to get rid of a guy who's fairly consistent in his goal scoring, is built like a tank and has learned to use his size. That he's home-grown and one of the longest-serving Habs is a nice bonus.

In the big picture, Kostitsyn isn't a distraction off the ice. He's learned to be more responsible on it. And he's not asking outrageous amounts of money to put up 20+ goals. There's also the devil-you-know factor. Gauthier or his successor could trade Kostitsyn for a pick or prospect at the deadline, or let him walk in the summer and use his money to sign someone else, but there's no guarantee that Kostitsyn's replacement would be better than the guy they let go.

Watching Kostitsyn this year has made a convert of this fan, who used to think he was the biggest liability on the team. He's earned himself an extension in Montreal through his improved style of play. Seeing him participating in conversations on the bench, and hearing his teammates talk teasingly about him reveals a little bit of how well he's become part of the fabric of the team. He deserves another two to three years on his contract for a modest raise.

Once, when I pictured Kostitsyn, he'd be standing at the top of the circle watching helplessly as his check escaped his coverage and scored. Or he'd be sitting in the penalty box after yet another o-zone trip, staring vacantly in front of him. It's a different picture now, one that the player has worked hard to create. It should be rewarded.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Fall Guy

Here's how Merriam Webster defines the term, "scapegoat:"

1: a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which he is sent into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur
2
a : one that bears the blame for others
b : one that is the object of irrational hostility

In the case of P.K.Subban, definition 2(a) is happening to him right now, but it's definition 2(b) we should be worried about.

Before you can say "wait a second...the kid's not blameless," we can all agree that no, he's not. He very often makes the risky choice when the simple one is both easier and safer. He winds up for half an hour before he takes a poorly-aimed slapshot, when a quick, accurate wrister would do. He yaps at and needles his opponents, but isn't very good at answering the bell when they come looking for payback. He's been seen on TV arguing with his coaches. And he sometimes irritates his teammates enough that they go after him in practice. All of that is true.

However, on the other side of the ledger beside his name are a whole lot of good things, beginning with his promise. The average Habs fan probably wasn't aware P.K.Subban was in the world until the 2007 draft. It had been a good draft for Montreal, with two first-round picks and both choices, Ryan McDonagh and Max Pacioretty, looking like keepers. So, when the Canadiens' brass stepped up to the podium for the 43rd overall pick in the second round, it was with the sense that any further draft success would be gravy.

About five minutes after his name was called, though, it was apparent that Subban would be different. First, he was a black kid from the toughest part of Toronto, which separated him immediately from ninety-nine percent of the other hopefuls in the room. Second, he spoke in something other than clich├ęs. His exuberance at having been chosen by the team he grew up supporting drew media like bees to pollen. He told them he hoped to make the big team at training camp, that the Habs wouldn't be sorry they picked him and that one day he'd help the Canadiens win the Cup, after which he'd bring it to Toronto and parade it around. If the media were impressed with him at that point, the fans fell in love with him.

In the time since he landed on the hockey map for Canadiens fans, he's represented Canada at the world juniors twice. He had a successful year, including making the AHL All-Star team, under Guy Boucher in Hamilton, and scored a point in his first NHL call-up that February. He made the big team for good in the most pressure-packed environment possible: Game Six of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the absence of key veterans, the rookie Subban played twenty-plus minutes a game as the Habs enjoyed their best post-season run since 1993. He looked like a star in the making and fans chanted his name. His first full NHL season ended with respectable numbers and a spot on the league's All-Rookie team.

Now, here we are in one of the worst seasons in Canadiens history and Subban seems to be taking more than his share of the criticism for what's gone wrong. It's true he's making lots of mistakes, but debatable whether he's making more than Hal Gill, who's got seven points and is a minus nine. Or Tomas Kaberle, who's got one more point than Subban, but is a wretched minus 12. Subban's got 19 points and is even in plus/minus. Yet, certain elements in the media and among fans are suggesting that he's a liability on the ice, has a bad attitude off it, and is not immune from trade talk. Ex-coach Jacques Martin, purposely or not, stirred the pot when he said that Subban has difficulty following the game plan, is possibly more interested in himself than the team and generally has a whole lot of growing up to do. Martin's comments have many people making trade proposals that send Subban to Anaheim for Bobby Ryan, or similar swaps.

How quickly disgruntled fans can dismiss every good thing a player has done in the last four years. What they forget is P.K.Subban is 22 years old. Most kids of that age are just stumbling bleary-eyed from university, ink still wet on their brand-new degrees and no inkling of how they'll put them to use. Or they're bumming around Europe, finding themselves. Or they're working a minimum wage job that pays the rent and lets them party every weekend. Very few of them are expected to anchor an NHL team's injury-ravaged defence corps. Jack Todd in the Gazette points to Erik Karlsson in Ottawa as being both younger and better than Subban, but he neglects to point out that not every kid grows up at the same pace.

P.K.Subban is having some very public growing pains, but he's one of the kids it's worth waiting for. For every giveaway he makes, there are two nice outlet passes. For every dumb penalty, there are a couple of shots blocked on the PK. For every spat he has in practice, there are three teammates he makes laugh. There are a whole lot of reasons to expect Subban to grow into the talent we know he's got.

When he was called up in those playoffs two years ago, he conducted himself like the consumate pro we hope he'll end up being some day. At the same time, he was a twenty-year-old who was listening to the sweet chimes of his name on twenty-one thousand tongues every night. Adulation like that can turn the head of the most sensible player, let alone that of a young man just starting to realize the dream of a lifetime.

If Subban has lost focus, he's certainly young enough to pull back and reset his priorities and attitudes. A great deal of this will be the responsibility of management. By now, most people realize Randy Cunneyworth won't be the Canadiens' coach in September. The team has an opportunity to bring in a person who can mentor a player of Subban's calibre and teach him how to use his talent to the best of his ability, while guiding him along on the road to becoming a real pro.

That's where the second part of that definition comes in. While Subban might be taking more than his share of heat for the state of the team, he's starting to attract an unwarranted amount of hostility. It's this to which the already-jumpy management is overly attuned right now. Firing Jacques Martin and trading Michael Cammalleri mid-game were panicky, reactive moves. They're just the kind of decisions that make fans worry Pierre Gauthier might be quick enough on the trigger to trade a guy like Subban. That would be a terrible mistake at this point in his development. He's not perfect, but he's going to get better. Possibly, a whole lot better. When Carey Price was glaring at his defencemen and breaking his stick after losses two seasons ago, he looked like his attitude might be writing his ticket out of Montreal. Watching him now, it's hard to remember that entitled, spoiled kid. Subban will grow up just as well.

The problem fans are dealing with right now is the frustration and disappointment of this wretched season. Subban is becoming the focus for some because he represents all the team's inherent ability that's just not panning out on the ice. As they say, love and hate are two sides of the same coin. In this case, Subban is the lightning rod because so many hoped he would be the one to lead the team into a better future. Watching him struggle epitomizes the team's struggle. When this passes; when the team turns it around and starts winning again, nobody will be picking Subban apart. And, most likely, we'll be really glad to have him.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cunney's Worth

It's been a month now since Randy Cunneyworth was unceremoniously handed the reins of the skittish Canadiens, setting off a stampede of language critics, including his own management. The month hasn't been easy. The new coach has dealt with bad press, a struggling team, a lack of internal support and a player traded part way through a game. When he took over, the team's record was 13-12-7. It wasn't exactly earth-shattering, but the playoffs were within the realm of possibility, given a decent winning streak. That hasn't happened. Under Cunneyworth, the free fall has continued and his 4-8-1 record has the team sitting closer to last than eighth.

His losing record has gone some way toward cementing the perception that Cunneyworth is no more than a lame duck, holding the spot until the real coach is hired next summer. Add to that his rookie mistakes, like scratching Alexei Emelin in favour of Chris Campoli, and the constant switching up of players' roles, and the temptation is to dismiss Cunneyworth out of hand.

That's doing the new guy an injustice. He may have been thrown into the head coach's job with little thought or planning from boss Pierre Gauthier, but Cunneyworth has handled the language flap and the microscopic scrutiny of his bench decisions with aplomb. He's appeared calm, articulate and intelligent in his press briefings. Behind the bench, he's actively encouraging players and instructing them during the game.

That may be the single greatest difference-making quality that Cunneyworth brings to this team. He communicates. "Communicator" is the new-NHL buzz word for "good coach." It might be a reach to say that being able to speak "player" is enough to revive a season already on life-support. However, it seems to be making a difference for young players at a crucial stage in their development. They need confidence in themselves if they're to continue to progress, and that's a really difficult thing to build in a losing environment. That's why the things the players themselves have been saying about Cunneyworth are encouraging hope for their advancement on the ice, if not for his behind the bench.

"I really enjoy playing for Randy," Lars Eller said just before his breakout four-point game. "He's very close to the players, you can always go and talk to him and he'll talk to you about things. You never feel bad asking him a question because you know he wants to make you a better player."

"There was a lot of communication on the bench between the players and the coaches in the third because of all the leads we’ve been giving up lately," Max Pacioretty said after the win against Ottawa earlier this month. "That communication from the coaches was huge and because of that we knew we weren’t going to let things slip away. Tonight I think you have to credit the biggest part of our victory to the coaches. If you had a camera on them you’d see how vocal they were. They tweaked a lot of things in the third and it helped us a lot.”

"I have a lot of confidence playing under Randy. I have a lot of ice
time and everything's going well," Mike Blunden said.

David Desharnais gave a bit of insight into Cunneyworth's pre-game pep talk technique when he said, "The coach told us before the game that we should get pissed off right off the start."

P.K.Subban is playing some of his best hockey of the season since the coaching change, showing much more confidence and good decision-making than he did for the first thirty-plus games.

Even the veterans feel good dealing with Cunneyworth.

“I’m playing with lots of confidence and playing with good players
helps," Travis Moen said. "We’re getting lots of ice time and we’re taking advantage of that.”

What's even better for morale is the way Cunneyworth talks publicly about his charges. He's talked about being happy for and proud of his young players, which has to make them feel that they're on the right track. It's refreshing to hear a coach name names in a positive way, when that upbeat reinforcement is deserved. Nobody wants to work for someone who doesn't seem to appreciate his effort, so you have to think Cunneyworth's approach is helping the team warm up to him.

Of course, from the fan's point of view, the coach and players could pull a John and Yoko-stye love in, but none of it matters until they start winning games. If Cunneyworth is to start somewhere, though, building a positive rapport with the players is a good choice. In order to lead effectively, he's got to have the team buying in. That seems to be happening, slowly. The big question is whether there's enough time left in the season for anything Cunneyworth does to make a difference in the Habs immediate fortunes.

If, as most expect, the team misses the playoffs and Cunneyworth is let go in April, the lessons of good communication with the coach and a positive attitude in the face of adversity are important ones for the impressionable youngsters under his care to learn. If Cunneyworth accomplishes little else, they can take that much away from this coach who's doing his best in tough circumstances.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thee-a-tah


If you're a theatre buff, this Canadiens season has had it all. It started out as a suspense piece. The team had looked pretty decent against the Bruins in the playoffs last year and were expected to get Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Max Pacioretty back from injury, as well as add Erik Cole for this season. Even though there were lots of questions, from whether Carey Price would be able to duplicate last year's stellar effort to how well Cole would fit into the lineup, hope abounded. Fans held their collective breath, waiting for the answers.

The play quickly became a drama, as Markov's long-awaited return was both delayed and shrouded in mystery. The team got off to its worst start since it nearly folded in the '40s, and Pierre Gauthier, in a bizarre and ludicrous attempt to right the ship, fired assistant coach Perry Pearn ninety minutes before a game.

Drama morphed into comedy as we watched chance after chance hit posts or miss the net, while the Habs' opponents were benefitting from every bounce and soft goal allowed. It was almost comical to watch a perfect 2-on-1 pass bounce over the stick of the receiver...again. Or yet another green rookie score his first NHL goal against Carey Price. A third period Habs lead was like like slapstick, blown as surely as a clown getting a pie in the face. It was hard to believe things could keep going like that.

They did, however, and comedy became tragedy. The injuries continued to pile up and so did the losses. Teammates fought in practice, the coach got fired before morning skate and the new coach got virtually fired before he started, for failing to speak the right language. Morale hadn't been this low since the team backed into the playoffs by virtue of other teams' losses in 2009 and got swept in the first round by the Bruins. That horrible Centennial season and playoff humiliation triggered the Bob Gainey housecleaning that brought in the batch of undersized, expensive free agents that, until last night, dominated the lineup.

Michael Cammalleri's departure seems to indicate the team recognizes the lack of size has been problematic. It also signals the transition of this theatrical season from tragedy to farce. Many fans, myself included, thought the year had become bad enough to consider moving high-priced underachievers like Cammalleri for a real rebuild of picks and prospects. The operative word there is "consider." Gauthier may be saying Cammalleri's recent strong words about his teammates' losing mentality had nothing to do with the timing of the trade, but it looks suspicious. Add to that the bizarrely unorthodox move of pulling Cammalleri out of the game in the second intermission to tell him he was dealt, but not where, and it gets weirder. When you throw in Bob McKenzie's claim that other GMs say they didn't know Cammalleri was available and would have been interested, and you've got yet another chapter in the tragic play this season has become.

Nothing against Rene Bourque, but four years of his inconsistency is a long time, regardless of his comparatively low cap hit. And he doesn't look thrilled about moving to Montreal. Watching the Bourque press conference after he learned of the trade, it's hard to tell if he wants to puke or cry. Or both. It would have been nice if Gauthier had been willing to shop around a bit more; maybe stop smoking whatever herbal hallucinagen he prefers, and accept that the Canadiens need a first-round pick more than they need another inconsistent, mid-range forward with a long-term contract. There's always a hope and the wish that Bourque will use his nice size to ramp up the level of physical play in the Canadiens' lineup, and bring 30 goals along with it. As they say, however, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And the Canadiens are certainly beggars at this point.

For those who'll throw back something like, "you wouldn't like this deal if the return was Crosby," that's not the case. There was nothing wrong with trading Cammalleri, who's just not been consistently dangerous (to the other team) in a Canadiens uniform, great 2010 playoff notwithstanding. There was certainly something wrong in Gauthier's not casting a wider net for a deal. And there's probably something wrong in the team's apparent lack of a plan. Is this to be a rebuild with youth via picks and prospects? Or is it to be a shuffling of veteran parts for other veterans who might scrape the team into eighth and an early elimination? Worst thought of all, does management seriously think the team can contend as it is, with a just few minor tweaks? Stay tuned for the mystery part of our programme.

The curtain dropped on the first act of this season two games ago. Act Two has been straight out of Vaudeville. The ending is anybody's guess.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Star Light, Star Bright

So, Carey Price is an All-Star. It's come to this. The Canadiens are so bad, they don't really have a legitimate star among them, so they're subject to the pity pick.

Based on talent alone, Price deserves consideration for a spot. Based on this year's numbers, which is normally the case for All-Star selection, he's not exactly top-three in the Eastern Conference. His 2.46 GAA has him 20th in the league, and his SV% (the more telling stat) of .913 has him 24th. Those aren't terrible numbers, but they're certainly not All-Star stats.

No, this is a situation in which a prominent, wealthy Canadian team sucks so badly the league appoints a representative just so the fans can say a Hab was there. This is Yannick Perreault representing Phoenix a few years ago. He didn't belong there either, but he was a pity pick. It's not as bad as the fans voting Mike Komisarek an All-Star starter, but it's not something to be proud about.

This, to be clear, is not a knock on Price. He's conducted himself with dignity all season, in the face of one disaster after another. Most of the time, if the team has a chance to scrape up a point, it's because of him. He's given up some weak goals, but every goalie does. It's not Price's fault everyone expects him to be perfect every night. Considering his workload and the horrendous defence in front of him, it's a miracle Price has managed to even keep his numbers within the realm of respectability at all. He might even feel a little embarrassed about getting sent to the game, knowing that Marc-Andre Fleury, Tuuka Rask and even Jose Theodore are having better years. If he were in the Western Conference, even a pity pick wouldn't get him to the game.

This is not a condemnation of Price in any way, but it's a clear indication of how far the Habs have fallen this year. When the season started, they had legitmate candidates on the voting ballot. Now it's unthinkable that any of those guys should have even been considered as All-Stars. Price would be better off claiming family responsibility or something similar and taking a week's holiday. He's been worked to death for nothing all season anyway.

The All-Star game is only watchable when your team has got players involved. When the only one there is suiting up only because somebody has to go, "watchable" becomes "excruciating." Oh well, at least Price can't get picked last in the captain draft because goalies have to go early. Ovechkin won't get to "Kessel" him and really make this year memorable for the wrong reasons.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cammy Unplugged

Michael Cammalleri has a lot going for him. He's good enough to have scored 39 goals and notched a couple of point-per-game seasons in the NHL. He takes elite care of his body. He's a new dad, with a happy home life. Problem is, he's not showing any of that on the ice this season. In fact, he's pretty much been a dud.

Game after game, Cammy's looking as lost as Hansel and Gretel in his own zone, only he hasn't left a trail of breadcrumbs to the other team's net. Unfortunately, the Canadiens aren't paying him six million bucks a year to put up fewer than twenty goals. That kind of money is for elite players, and Cammalleri so far this year has not looked elite. Because Scott Gomez is so spectacularly little value for dollars, most critics' radars hadn't yet focused on Cammalleri for the first thirty-odd games of the season. Factor in Cammalleri's great playoff performances and he's forgiven a lot. Until Gomez went down with injury, that is. Now with the team's worst-performing forward out of action, suddenly Cammalleri's failure to backcheck, weakness on the boards and general lack of effectiveness on offence is glaringly apparent.

At the end of the Blues game on Tuesday night, people booed when Cammalleri touched the puck. It may have been coincidence...just disgruntled fans voicing their displeasure at playing premium prices to watch a crap game. Or, it may have been actively directed at Cammalleri. The buzz around his bad play this year is growing louder.

Cammalleri reacted with the comments that have enraged some members of the fan base and have others lauding him for telling the truth about a terrible team and a terrible season. He said he's been hampered by the drop in his ice time he's seen since Randy Cunneyworth took over behind the bench. And he said the team is playing with a losing mentality that basically means the players don't believe they can win, feeling the slightest mistake will result in disaster. Sure enough, with everyone feeling that way, that's what happens.

The thing that's grating on some fans is Cammalleri's repeated use of "we" in his comments. It appears as though he doesn't take much of the blame for his poor play, but looks to share it with teammates or, in the case of the limited ice time, the coaching staff. That may be tactical on his part, in an effort to shame the team into playing better. Unfortunately, it comes across as a veteran player failing to shoulder the responsibility for his own inability to live up to expectations. Reinforcing that impression is Cunneyworth's response, which essentially is that Cammalleri is getting the ice time he deserves based on his play.

The question is, what do Cammalleri's words and his frustration mean in the big picture? He may be upset enough to want a trade away from Montreal, but his contract and his numbers don't match and he'll be hard to move. It's possible someone might take him at the deadline based on his stellar post-season record, but the return, considering the years left on his deal, won't be what it might have been if he was performing well.

If Cammalleri is seriously unhappy and showing few signs of breaking out of a season-long slump, it might be best for the team to move him if possible, just to release a player who never fit well into Jacques Martin's system, heavy on defensive responsibility. It would also signal the rebuild and give Cammalleri a chance to succeed elsewhere. If the team plans to start again with youth, it doesn't need an unhappy, underperforming veteran influencing the young players. Moving him could free up quite a bit of cap space as a bonus.

If Cammalleri isn't really done with Montreal and his words came from frustration, well, he might still have to go. The team that's stuck with the Gomez contract can't keep another one like it. Cammalleri, if he doesn't come up with a major turnaround soon, is at risk of becoming another albatross. He wants more ice time to prove himself. Cunneyworth and he need to sit down and discuss the issue, and the coach should probably take a flyer on giving the player more ice, with the caveat that if his interest level and own-zone play don't pick up...a lot...then he loses that privilege in favour of players who work harder.

Right now there are more benefits in letting Cammalleri go than there are in keeping him. It's up to him to examine his own words and take them to heart. He can turn it around and raise his value again, but he's going to have to put in the work. At the moment, it doesn't sound like he's willing to do that. We know he's better than this.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sense and Sensibility

Guy Lafleur might have been one of the biggest stars who ever wore the blue-blanc-rouge, but he hasn't always been the world's most verbally prudent ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens. Witness back in 2008, when he publicly mocked the team for having "four fourth lines." Or in 2009, when he ripped both former teammate Bob Gainey for mishandling Alex Kovalev, and Guy Carbonneau for failing to distribute ice time properly. Or, again in 2009, when he announced it was time for long-time captain Saku Koivu to leave Montreal. No, Lafleur's shoot-from-the-lip style hasn't always endeared him to modern fans, or, likely, to team management.

The thing with Lafleur is, when a hockey player does what he did on the ice for this particular team, he ascends from mere mortal to godlike status. Even trouble with the law or a reputation for partying to excess can never really tarnish the status such a player enjoys. With that status comes respect. When he speaks, people listen. In the past, Lafleur has chosen to use that power to jab at his former team and stir the pot of controversy that constantly bubbles just below the surface of hockey in Montreal.

This week, however, he chose to put himself out there on the issue of Randy Cunneyworth, in a surprisingly sensible and positive way. Cunneyworth has been gelded by his own team's management at least twice, all over his inability to speak French. Some members of the media and the gaggle of nationalist fans who will demonstrate against the anglo coach at the Bell Centre today were delighted to see the team hang Cunneyworth out to dry. Lafleur, interestingly, took the opposite view.

He told the Vancouver Sun that winning games should trump whatever language the coach speaks.

"Times change," he said. "It's not the same anymore. I know it's important to the French people in Quebec, but, in the end, they only need a winning team. That's it. When I played, Bob Berry was our coach and didn't speak much French. Scotty Bowman didn't speak to us in French when he was coaching. We won games, we won Stanley Cups and everybody was happy."

He went on to add, "If I was hiring the coach, I would try to get the best guy out there for the job, to make sure the team got to the playoffs and had a chance at the Stanley Cup."

He also criticized the constant demand for the coach to hold press conferences, after every game and every practice. The media, he believes, should speak one-on-one to the players and coaches and leave it at that. His point of view puts him in a familiar place: directly at odds with what the GM and ownership of the team are doing. In this case, though, he's got the backing of the majority of fans...merry band of Bell Centre protesters notwithstanding...who think the same thing. Fans want a winning team. They want a Cup, and that's it. Not one real Canadiens fan would say, "Oh, no thanks. I'd rather have a bilingual coach than a championship." These things become important only when the team is losing.

So, although he so often sticks his foot in it, in this case, Lafleur is speaking for the majority. And this time, he's right.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

CEllerBration

*
Every once in a while, even in the darkest of winters, we're gifted with a gem of a day. Out of the cold and gloom, the sun breaks through, the wind stops blowing and everything glistens with pristine perfection. For Habs fans, Lars Eller's performance against the Jets was one of those perfect days in the midst of a dark dreary winter of a hockey season.

Back in the 2007 season, I remember checking out some video and reading the scouting reports of prospects coming up for that year's NHL entry draft. Elite Prospects had this to say about Eller: "A very good all-round and skilled forward. Eller has quick feet, soft hands and a good work ethic. He is a skilled playmaker, but also a decent scorer. Works hard and is valuable in shorthanded situations. Quite a spectacular player with few weaknesses." In the second half of that season, his ranking rose from consideration as an early-to-mid second-round pick to making many scouts' top fifteen. I remember being really impressed by his video clips and thinking he'd be an ideal choice for a Habs team long deprived of big, skilled centremen.

On his draft day, it looked like the Habs would actually have the chance to land him. The L.A.Kings went off the board, picking Thomas Hickey fourth overall, which bumped all the higher-ranked prospects down. As the picks were announced and Eller remained unchosen, it seemed only the pressure to pick homegrown Angelo Esposito might sway the Habs away from calling Eller's name. When Trevor Timmins stepped up to the podium, dreams of the Canadiens finally getting that coveted centre bloomed to life, then quickly died like spring roses in an early frost, as the head scout chose American defenceman Ryan McDonagh instead. Eller went to the St.Louis Blues with the very next pick.

Flash forward to June of 2010, and McDonagh had become Rangers property in the Scott Gomez trade. Jaroslav Halak, hero of the most successful playoff performance Montreal had seen in nearly twenty years, was traded to the Blues for...Lars Eller. A lot of Canadiens fans bemoaned not only the loss of Halak, but the return as well. Critics thought Pierre Gauthier should have demanded a bigger name like T.J.Oshie, David Backes or David Perron. Eller, meanwhile, had played only seven NHL games as a callup in his first North American pro season.

Of course, now that reality has replaced the mad glory of that playoff run in 2010, it's apparent that the market for goalies wasn't that great that year. And, when level heads examine the situation, a guy like David Perron would have been much too high a price for the Blues to pay. Gauthier took a flyer on a prospect with great upside, which didn't hurt the Blues' roster as much. Now it's looking more and more as though the Canadiens probably won that trade.

Last night, Eller was nothing short of brilliant. Everything he touched turned into gold. He and his linemates, Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn, looked like three interlocking cogs in a well-oiled machine. Their passes connected with ease, their hits opened up space for each other and it all combined to give Eller the game of a lifetime. His extended first-star celebration and the pure jubilation that spawned it was just the shiny bow on an elegant gift.

Of course, one game, even a spectacular one, does not a career make. It doesn't even a season make. However, in Eller's case, the Jets game might be a notice to the rest of the league that the kid is beginning to fulfill the potential that had scouts drooling in 2007. When he first began with the Canadiens last year, he showed tantalizing glimpses of his ability to see the ice and move the puck. Once in a while, he'd use his body to protect it and make a really nice offensive play. Then he'd screw up his defensive assignment or take a dumb penalty and end up on the bench. Sometimes, fans wondered if the only reason he held a berth on the Habs roster at all was to allow Gauthier to save face over the Halak trade.

He really began to show his mettle in the playoffs last year. He had only two assists in seven games, but he was aggressive and strong on the puck and was a presence on the ice. One wonders what might have happened in that fateful Game Seven if Eller hadn't been playing with a separated shoulder that would require summer surgery. He began this season fresh out of rehab and took a couple of weeks to get up to speed. Still, his play wasn't as consistent as the coaches and fans would like to see.

Gradually, though, he tightened up defensively and he saw his ice time slowly increase, from an average of 11 minutes a game last year to 14:30 this season. In his first ten games after returning from injury, he had only a goal and an assist, but he was a solid plus-four. Jacques Martin began to entrust him with penalty-killing duty, at which he showed considerable skill. He now plays an average of 1:20 per game on the PK, second among centres only to Tomas Plekanec. Paired with Michael Cammalleri, he's been on the ice for only one short-handed goal against in 16 minutes of PK time. He's got two shorthanded goals and an assist.

Hindering his progression this season have been the team's injury problems and subsequent line shuffling, which mean he's played not less than 24 minutes and not more than 130 with eight different sets of linemates. That's not counting single-game experiments that didn't stick. If he's found a home with Moen and Kostitsyn (who, as a line, have only 24 seconds of PP time, by the way...Eller himself averaging only 32 power play seconds per game), then it'll be for the first time this season. Eller had chemistry with Kostitsyn late last season, and it looks like that may not have been a fluke.

Randy Cunneyworth seems to be good for Eller too. In the first three games under the new coach, Eller was -3 and saw his ice time drop to just 11 minutes a game. Finally, Cunneyworth made the young player a healthy scratch. In the four games since, Eller has five goals and seven points, and is +5, with only two penalty minutes. He's averaging nearly 18 minutes a game. His hugely improved points totals are attributable largely to that spectacular game against the Jets, but if better ice time and stable linemates, together with the trust of his coach, helped him produce that gem, perhaps it's the beginning of more good things for him.

The kind of game Eller played last night is the kind of game that can spark the confidence not only of the player, but the team. It's the kind of rare performance that can start something big enough to turn a season around. Maybe it'll work out that way. Or maybe it won't. Perhaps it will be nothing more than a ray of precious light in a very dark season. Even if it is, though, it has value. For one night, Lars Eller lifted the cloud of gloom hanging over the Canadiens and gave us a reason to really cheer for them again.

If it turns out that he can't inspire his teammates enough to save the season, he's given his fans a glimpse of the player he's capable of being. And that's a very special light indeed.



*photo by Yahoo! sports

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Roy-al Flush

The Canadiens have a blessed past. They have offered a stage to some of the greatest players the game of hockey has ever known. Rocket Richard lit a flame of passion in the hearts of those who roared to their feet when he powered his way over the opposing blueline. Jean Beliveau embodied the class for which the organization became known. Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden and the rest of the '70s dynasty composed probably the greatest team ever assembled.

For Habs fans of a certain age, though, the only real true-blue, home-grown, Canadiens superstar we ever knew was a gawky, quirky goaltender. Patrick Roy probably gets slightly too much credit for the wonderful Cup runs in 1986 and 1993. Although in the cold light of retrospect, we know he didn't do it all by himself, he was the one with the breathtaking OT performance in Game Three against the Rangers. He was the one with the lightning glove. He was the one with The Wink. In the end, his leaving polarized fans of that generation like nothing else could have done. Half of those who had loved him blamed the team and poor management. The other half saw their love distilled into hatred for a player they say quit on his team. What they really meant was they hated him for breaking their hearts. His departure is still a poorly-healed wound for those who pinpoint that moment as the beginning of the end of the Canadiens as a true contender.

Every once in a while, Roy's past as a Canadien and his leaving of the team bubble to the surface of Habs gossip again. Five years ago it was because of his induction into the Hall of Fame. Then it was his number retirement and participation in the Habs Centennial ceremonies. Now it's because his name is one of the more prominent mentioned as a potential coach of the Canadiens.

As always, when Roy's name comes up, fans are divided. Some firmly believe he's the passionate, take-no-prisoners coach the Canadiens need. And where better to find such a coach than within the team's legion of French-speaking superstars? Others are of the equally-entrenched opinion that Roy's sometimes egotistical, high-handed and mercurial behaviour would create more controversy than he or the team can handle.

When it comes down to it, though, both those opinions are just opinions. Nobody knows how Patrick Roy would do as an NHL coach because he's never been one before. His only experience as coach has been of the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts. There, his record has been decent, if not spectacular. As a mid-season replacement in the 2005-06 season with host Quebec, he coached the team to the Memorial Cup championship. Since then, his teams have made the playoffs every year, but have never made the Cup finals since. In the years since his win, Roy's temper has made headlines more than once. He was investigated for assault in 2007 after an off-ice incident reportedly involving an exchange of punches with an opposing team owner. In 2008, there was the now-infamous attack of an opponent by Roy's player and son, goaltender Jonathan, which many observers claimed was ordered by Roy himself.

His record in Quebec as a coach is also complicated because he's got total control there. He's owner and GM as well as coach, so if he wants a particular player or wants to manipulate the draft, he's got the power to do so. Likewise, if a player crosses him, he can dismiss that player. Then there's the matter of the guys he coaches. These are starry-eyed kids not yet twenty years old. Their dreams depend on pleasing their coach, and they're inclinded to do whatever he demands without question.

There's no doubt, other coaches have prospered in the NHL after apprenticing only in junior hockey. In Roy's case, however, one wonders how his "I'm in charge" setup in the Q would translate in his communications with millionaire professionals. Roy's passion for winning, in this case, could as easily be his undoing as it could be his best asset. Remember Roy's former captain, Guy Carbonneau, for instance. Few players hated losing more than Carbo, and when faced with players who just didn't seem to burn with the same fire, he more often than not looked lost and confused about how to get through to them. He just expected players to want it as much as he did, and when they didn't, he had no answers.

Roy might turn out to be a good NHL coach. He's said he'd listen if the Canadiens came calling, just as he'd listen if Colorado asked him again. It might actually be a great thing if he served some time working for another team before trying his hand in Montreal. Once installed behind the Habs' bench, his every comment would be dissected and, with the jackal-like tendency of some members of the media who would wait for him to fail, one can imagine the potential fireworks.

Canadiens fans of a certain age who still love what Patrick Roy did for our team would secretly love for him to take over, shake up the team and inspire the players to accept nothing less than winning. We imagine how he might support a great goalie like Carey Price and help him develop. Those of us who were devastated when he left Montreal after that horrible game in 1995 view his candidacy with more than a grain of caution. He loves to win, but can we trust him not to blow up and ruin everything? It's a big step, and maybe Montreal's not the right place for him to take it. At least not yet.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Classless

Last week I wrote that Pierre Gauthier is a shithead. I said it because when he fired Jacques Martin two weeks ago, he blamed the coach for failing to prepare the team properly and for the players' lack of compete level in third periods. Those statements were ridiculous, as Martin certainly didn't suddenly change the game prep that had been perfectly acceptable to Gauthier until this year, nor did he tell the players to change the plan and start sucking in the third. If Gauthier had been honest, he would have admitted he fired Martin because the team is going to hell on a rail this year and shock treatment was required. The statements Gauthier made were insulting to Martin and basically classless.

The problem is, his entire reign as Habs GM has been marked by such low-class decisions. This year alone, he declined to make even a token offer to Kirk Muller which might have kept the popular coach around. Muller's departure may or may not be partly responsible for the dreadful state of the Canadiens this year, but the callous way he was let go without even a phone call was classless.

Then there was Perry Pearn's firing. Gauthier tried to pin the blame for the team's dreadful start on Pearn, while simultaneously firing a warning shot over Jacques Martin's bow. Martin found out about his closest colleague's dismissal an hour and a half before a game. The GM handled the situation awkwardly and, once again, with no class.

When Gauthier traded Jaroslav Spacek, he gave us another example of his disregard for people. He called Spacek in just as he was about to go onto the ice for practice and told him he'd been dealt. When Spacek asked where to, Gauthier said he couldn't tell him because the deal hadn't been approved by the league. So, a good man and dedicated player, sat there for an hour and a half knowing he'd be facing a huge life change, while the asshole responsible refused to tell him the details.

Now the latest example of outright classlessness is in the way Gauthier essentially fired Randy Cunneyworth in front of the media. In his latest state of the team address, he apologized for hiring a coach who didn't speak French and assured the media that the coach who will start the season next year will be bilingual. The statement was a completely unnecessary repeat of the comments made by Geoff Molson last week. Molson already threw Cunneyworth under the bus over the language issue, but Gauthier's comments basically tell the team this guy's not going to be around long, so whatever he's attempting to do is temporary. He has managed to destroy Cunneyworth's chances of making a real mark in his first NHL coaching position, and limit the respect he can expect to garner in the room. There was no reason for Gauthier to say those things, and his decision to do so was smug, disrespecful and disdainful of Cunneyworth. It's further evidence, if there hasn't been enough, that Gauthier has little of the class on which the Habs organization has traditionally built its reputation.

When the team president failed to return Larry Robinson's phone calls when Robinson expressed interest in a coaching position, we knew the days of the "Classy Canadiens" were numbered. Now they're gone, and whatever we might think of Gauthier's managerial decisions in themselves, the way he treats people is emblematic of what the organization has become.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Time For a Chill Pill

Okay, folks. Let's all take a deep breath and count to ten before we express our frustration and fury with the Habs out loud. We fans have every right to be disappointed and bitter, but some of us are saying some ridiculous things.

There are, for example, the ones who think Carey Price's giving up "soft" goals proves he's responsible for the third-period meltdowns. Let's take a step back and examine that statement. Consider that he played 72 regular-season games last season and has logged the most minutes of any goalie in the league so far this year. Goaltending is a physical job, but it's also a very, very demanding position mentally. If Price looks like he loses his focus sometimes, there's a good chance he's pretty damn tired. A guy like Martin Brodeur, who had a hermetic defence in front of him for most of his career, could successfully play that much. Carey Price, with a spotty D and ineffectual offence to rely on, gets screwed if he's showing signs of fatigue.

Then there are the people who think Tomas Plekanec should be traded for a pick. Plekanec has been the team's leading scorer for the last three seasons, while carrying the heaviest defensive burden among all forwards. Under Jacques Martin, he played more than twenty minutes a night in all situations, often responsible for shutting down the other team's top line. This year, he's been saddled with the deeply slumping Michael Cammalleri for a good part of the season, and with the inconsistent Andrei Kostitsyn for the rest of it. For a guy whose points are mostly assists, Plekanec needs effective wingers. He's usually good for a good number of PP points, but this season spent much of his power play time manning the point, which proved to be a desperate misuse of his abilities. Right now, Plekanec is showing frustration with his own play and that of the team. He's missing open nets and taking dumb penalties, then reacting with head shaking and eye rolling. As we've seen with Plekanec in the past, and with countless others, confidence is essential to performance. When frustration sets in, it tends to build upon itself until something positive happens to break the pattern. So, while Plekanec is going through a rough patch at the moment, he'll recover from it because he's too good a player not to. Trading him now would be a terrible mistake.

A lot of people are wondering what's wrong with Max Pacioretty. The kid we saw start the season playing a fast, aggressive, productive game is as lost as the rest of his team now. After his suspension for hitting Kris Letang, he said he was confused about what's permissible and what's not, and he'd be afraid to hit anyone anymore, now that he's got a record as a head-hunter. What we might have heard as the anger and frustration of a young player who felt his suspension was unfair, relative to other league decisions, now has the ring of truth. Pacioretty has changed his game since then, and not for the better. He was deeply affected by the hit and its disciplinary aftermath, and someone needs to sit him down and talk to him about it.

While knee-jerk reactions are understandable right now, we have to try and find the positives in this mess, just to avoid outright crying about it. Positives like Alexei Emelin. That kid is a human wrecking ball and a joy to watch. He's caught on to the NHL game very quickly and prevents trouble in his own zone by keeping opponents from entering it in the first place. Lars Eller is another bright spot. He's big, strong, smart and already a trusted penalty killer. He knows how to put himself in the right places, and if he keeps doing that, the points will come. David Desharnais is smart and creative and doesn't let his size prevent him from doing what he sets out to do. Erik Cole is the power forward the Canadiens haven't had in recent memory. He's turned out to be a very good signing and would only be better with more productive linemates.

This season is as good as lost, but there are still small pleasures to be had in watching the games. We need to think about finding them where we can, rather than dumping on good players having a rough time. Fans have no power to change anything, so we need to chill out a bit. The players who are trying to be better would probably appreciate that.

Can Jim Mora Speak French?

If Jim Mora can make this speech in French, he should be the Canadiens new permanent coach. At least he'd be telling the truth.