Monday, May 28, 2012

The Nine-Second Hero

On a warm, Calgary night in May of 1986, someone took a photograph. In it, preserved like a dragonfly in amber, 20-year-old Claude Lemieux has thrust the Stanley Cup into the air above his head, face contorted in  a kind of sobbing ecstasy. Standing on his right, smiling with indulgent joy is fellow rookie Brian Skrudland. The picture is emblematic of the run that saw the Canadiens win an unexpected, but deeply welcome championship. Lemieux was the emotional catalyst who scored ten goals in 20 playoff games, including four winners, two of them in OT. Skrudland was the support guy, a solid, hardworking two-way centre who shared a lot of on-ice moments with Lemieux, but rarely commanded the spotlight. Most of the time. On another spring night in Calgary, six days before that iconic photograph was taken, Skrudland had a chance to be the hero and he grabbed it.

If you Google Brian Skrudland's name now, the second result that pops up is "Brian Skrudland OT goal." Twenty-six years after he scored his first NHL playoff goal, it's still the moment for which he's best remembered. On May 18, nine seconds into overtime of Game Two of the Stanley Cup final, Skrudland set an NHL record for scoring the fastest OT goal in playoff history. The funny thing is, his line, with grinder Mike McPhee and Lemieux, was probably on the ice to start the extra period only because coach Jean Perron hoped hot-hand Lemieux might pop one.

"First of all, what the heck was I doing on the ice was what most Habs fans would say," Skrudland laughs. "And flanked by second-year Mike McPhee and first-year Mike Lalor on the point and Claude Lemieux, first-year player. And there we were, with our lives on the line and who would have ever thought? But, what an opportunity. As I say to Mike McPhee, I was probably the only guy in the league who could have put it in off the post with the whole four-by-six in front of me."

The Flames had jumped out to a two-goal lead in that game, and having won Game One, had the Habs in a hole. Then the Canadiens' unlikely heros jumped into action. Defenceman Gaston Gingras scored his first of the playoffs early in the second period. Then, early in the third, rookie Dave Maley popped his first of the post-season. For the remainder of the period, the teams were locked in stalemate. A long overtime loomed. Enter Brian Skrudland. After winning the faceoff back to his own D, he broke for the Calgary zone on a two-on-one. Linemate McPhee faked a shot, then slid a perfect pass cross-ice to Skrudland, which he did, in fact, ring off the post and in. The goal stunned the Flames and helped the Habs avoid falling behind in the series two games to none. Momentum changed in that moment. The Canadiens never looked back, bringing home their 23rd Cup six nights later. While the goal cemented Skrudland's place in the NHL record book, it also helped his team create something special.

"That was the pinnacle. With winning comes a relationship with people that lasts a lifetime," he reflects. "Seven of us won a Calder Cup together the previous year, and our expectations of one another were already implemented in that we played the game to win. It was just a real special time from start to finish, for the decade I was in the organization."

The team's rookies might have had expectations of each other, but none of them carried the expectations of one of the team's greatest icons.

"One of my favourite stories of that entire playoffs was Toe Blake walking in after we beat Boston in the first round and saying, "Congratulations. You haven't won anything yet."," Skrudland recounts with a laugh. "Then the second round and Hartford and it was "Congratulations, you haven't won anything yet." Then we're in the third round against the Rangers and once again, here's Mr.Blake saying, "Congratulations, you haven't won anything yet." Then, of course, Calgary. And he walked up and said, "Congratulations. That's only one.""

Sometimes, when a player wins a Cup in his rookie season, he thinks that's the way it's supposed to be and he may take it for granted that he's got many more chances to win another. For Skrudland, though, just three years after that magical Montreal run, the Flames got their revenge and sent the Habs packing in the Cup Finals. Skrudland learned the bitterness of coming so close and going away with nothing. He says he feels lucky he got a chance to erase that bad taste by winning again with Dallas in 1999. He admits he still winces a little when he remembers losing to the Flames, however. It doesn't help that the NHL seems to be constantly running a playoff TV ad showing Lanny McDonald scoring in the final game, with Skrudland ineffectually trailing the play.

"Couldn't they just fast-forward it a little bit and cut me out of it? It burns. Now when I'm at an event with Lanny and he flashes '89, I flash '86," he chuckles ruefully.

Back now to that triumphant photograph. The moment is frozen forever, but of course there were other moments; celebratory moments when time ticked on and left the still frame behind. In the wake of their triumph, the Habs began a months-long whirlwind of parties, honours and fun. Most of the Habs, that is. For Skrudland, the celebrations were, well, painful. He explains why his smile in the photo isn't quite as wide as those of some of his teammates.

"First of all, when you break your jaw in three places in Game Five and you try to celebrate, it isn't much fun," he remembers. "I had minced food for the next six weeks of my life, but I did find the odd straw that favoured a flavour I loved, and I had a few evenings out with the guys. It was one of those events when you look back and you know you missed out on a lot as well."

He may have missed some of the nights on the town, but he'll always have The Goal. The unlikely night a warrior became a record-setting hero has outlasted the fleeting celebrity of a winner's celebration. In that photo there are two guys who know what it feels like to be a star.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The New NHL Order

Brian Skrudland laced up his skates and left every drop of sweat and, often, blood, he could wring out of himself on NHL ice rinks for 881 games over seventeen seasons. Marc Bergevin played 1191 NHL games, breaking into the big league in 1984-85, just one year before Skrudland made his debut with the Canadiens. With 13 different home teams between them over their 2000 combined games, it's something of an accomplishment that the two never dressed in the same room. That's not to say, however, that they didn't know something about each other.

"A funny story about Marc Bergevin," Skrudland, now director of player development with the Florida Panthers, recalls with a laugh. "Every time I walked into an arena and Bergevin was on the opposite team, he would always impersonate Brian Skrudland getting ready for a faceoff and then skating. So, he would be pulling his elbows up and putting everyone in position. And then going into the faceoff and really whacking and hacking. And then he would go for a quick little skate and, of course, it drew a pretty good smile from those who were watching.

"I walked into Dale Tallon's office last year before our home opener and there sat Marc Bergevin. It was the first time I'd ever actually met him, and Dale and him are pretty good buddies. So I walked in and said, "You son of a bitch. I've never met you before and now I finally get the chance." Dale said, "You've never met him before and you're calling him a son of a bitch?" I explained the story and we all had a good chuckle."

This is the new network of former players who are moving into today's NHL management positions. Some played together, some faced each other in corners or over faceoff dots or fists, but they all know each other in some fashion.  After recalling his 'official' introduction to Bergevin, Skrudland was quick to wish the new Habs G.M. well.

"Congratulations to Marc. I think that's going to be a nice fit," he praises.

That's how it works today. Brian knows Dale, who  knows Marc, who knows Stan, who knows Ken, and the web of interactions is spun. When a trade is on the table, one of the most valuable things a GM can have going for him is his network of connections. These days, as well, it's not just one guy who's responsible for building that network. Management of up-and-coming NHL clubs is based on teams of executives that collaborate in decision-making. The loner autocrat general manager is a thing of the past. Skrudland says he sees the way everyone works together in Florida's front office as a positive thing.

"It's a group effort. Here, Mike Santos, our assistant GM and Dale work together. Then there's the money side, the business side, that has their say in it. There are a lot of fingers in that pot. It's about having those people in place, having good people in place and making those decisions as a group," he explains.

Skrudland says that collaborative approach applies to scouting and drafting prospects too. When teams invest so much time and money into developing draft picks, it's vital they know as much as they can about the players they're choosing.

"It's amazing. That's the thing that really gets me in regards to speaking with some of those guys who absolutely study it. It's almost an analytical thing today. Everybody knows where the guy last went to the bathroom, for crying out loud. That's how in-depth we are today," he marvels. "But, at the end of the day, as we can see, you still can't measure a heart. At the end of the day, there's still a lot of great hockey players out there that may not have the greatest skill, but we can see how beneficial they are, especially these last four teams. They've got a lot of those kinds of players and they make a big difference."

Skrudland looks at the success Edmonton and Florida have had in their high draft picks of the last few years, and knows if a team chooses properly, the right pick can really help turn its fortunes around. He thinks Montreal has a chance to do that in June, if Bergevin and his team can work together to make a wise choice.

So, in the new era of management team-building and networking, one wonders whether Skrudland himself is thinking of using some of those hard-won connections to move up in the front-office ranks.

"I learn as I go along the way. I certainly pay attention to what people are doing and what they're saying. There's always part of me that wants to be a bigger part of the action," he confesses. "Maybe one day down the road, I'll find my way back behind the bench again for a couple of years because that's where I think all the fun is.  It really is a challenge. Coaches today have to not only coach a hockey team, but there's the media and it's more of a full-time job than it's ever been."

One thing is certain: Brian Skrudland didn't play more than 800 NHL games because he was a fool. Lots of Habs fans wonder Bergevin and his team might consider trading the Canadiens third-overall pick this June for an already-developing prospect like Florida's Jonathan Huberdau, currently starring in the Memorial Cup playoffs for the Saint John Sea Dogs.

"People have asked me that, but Huberdeau is going nowhere. He'll be the face of the Florida Panthers for hopefully the next decade. He's doing a lot for Saint John. But (Habs prospect) Michael Bournival is a good young player too," he soothes with a laugh.

Maybe a job higher up the NHL management ranks is in Skrudland's future. If it is, though, he knows he won't be working alone. And, chances are, the people he'll work with will be guys he played with or against in his NHL career. Perhaps there'll even be a son of a bitch among them. All in the name of good fun...and good business...of course.

*Coming soon: Skrudland's memories of the '86 Cup and his record-setting 9-second OT goal against Calgary.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Pick

The ten players taken first overall in the NHL's last decade of draft picks have played a total of 3548 NHL games and scored 3009 points. Three of them are captains of their teams, and three are Stanley Cup winners. All of them, with the exception of Erik Johnson, who chose to play one more year of college following his draft, jumped directly from junior hockey to the NHL. Scouting, it would appear, has evolved to the point at which a consensus first-overall pick is almost a sure thing to not only be an NHL player, but to be a very effective one. Psychological testing, number crunching, character interviews and medical care translate promising kids to big-league stars sooner rather than later. That's why holding that first pick is the dream of every team that's had to give up other dreams when they weren't good enough to make them come true. It's a ticket on the express train back to respectability.

Lottery picks, generally, are a pretty good bet for producing NHLers. The thing is, however, after the top two positions, while first-rounders still make the big league at a pretty high rate compared to later-round picks, their  overall production doesn't compare to the cream of the crop. The last decade's second-overall picks have played 3080 NHL games between them, and put up 2079 points. There are 2 assistant captains and four Cup winners in that group. Then, when you move down to the third-overall picks, they've played a comparable number of NHL games, with 3027 among them. They've produced one guy wearing his team's "C" and another with an "A" and they boast two Cup winners, but they've only compiled 1543 points. Third-overall picks are also much less likely to make the big team right away than the guys chosen just two places ahead of them. That can be frustrating when a team needs that pick to make a difference as quickly as possible.

It might be argued that the Canadiens aren't as badly off in terms of assets as some other lottery teams. With a solid goaltender in Carey Price, a good, young stud D-man in P.K.Subban and an excellent power forward in Max Pacioretty, the bones of a youth movement are there. Reliable veterans like Erik Cole, Brian Gionta, Andrei Markov and Tomas Plekanec add to the Habs' assets. Lars Eller, David Desharnais and Alexei Emelin are keepers as well. So, the cupboard, at least at the NHL level, isn't exactly bare in Montreal. They have the luxury of drafting a third-overall pick and letting him marinate in juniors for a couple of years until he's ready for a shot at pro hockey.

The question is, is that the wisest move? The Canadiens haven't had such a high pick since 1980, so this year's draft offers a great chance to add an important asset to a team with an already-decent core. Yet, a lottery pick, once you get past the number-one overall, is never as valuable as he is when he's still a possibility. Possibility, as it relates to hockey players, is like gold on the stock market. Or, maybe it's like virginity on the Victorian bridal mart. You're never as valuable as when you have it intact. Once a player is chosen, he's no longer a "lottery pick."  He's a real guy, with shortcomings and injuries and attitude and...well...never quite the same as he was when he was a mystery who could have been anything. So, the Habs have to decide now how they're going to handle the promise that's worth so much. There are several choices.

First, they can keep the pick. They can draft the best player available at the number-three spot and let him develop within the organization. That's a good plan because if the BPA is, say, a defenceman, he could add to the stash of Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Mac Bennett. If he's a forward, he could end up being a really good NHL centreman or a winger, and the Habs could use help in either position.  If he develops on schedule, and he's got the sense and the balls to deal with Montreal at a young age, he could be a star. Of course, if all the young Habs prospects end up proving themselves, the development of the pick could make one of the other guys expendable to fill another hole in the system; an additional benefit.

Second, there's the option to trade it. That choice, in itself, comes with several possibilities. Bergevin could, for example, try to package the third with something the Oilers need and trade up for the chance to pick consensus number-one, Nail Yakupov. The Oilers are stacked with young, scoring talent up front, but need veteran leadership and defence. The Canadians have both, but would have to weigh very carefully whether the acquisition of the first pick would be worth the loss of a roster player like Plekanec or Subban, because that's probably what the Oilers would demand, if not a solid prospect like Beaulieu who could grow up with the other young guys there. The rumoured interest of the other lottery teams in trading up would raise the stakes and let Steve Tambellini pick the juiciest of the offers. He'd then add a nice piece to his roster while still choosing a blue-chip young defenceman like Ryan Murray or Matt Dumba.

The Canadiens, considering the prospects remaining after Yakupov, might be interested in trading down a pick or two. Trevor Timmins has carefully weighed his options and probably has a pretty good idea by now who's at the top of his want list. If he's still on the fence, he'll certainly know his mind by draft day, and if he thinks his guy (maybe Filip Forsberg?) will still be there at number four or five, the Canadiens might take a roster player or prospect from another team in exchange for swapping draft spots.

There's another trade option as well. Some other team might really want one of this year's top prospects and be willing to part with a star prospect of their own, straight up, for the Habs' pick. Would Bergevin, for example, be interested in moving his third-overall this year for Florida's third-overall last year? So, Jonathan Huberdeau for the guy Florida wants in this year's draft? That would give the Panthers two first-rounders this year and the Habs a home-grown prospect one year closer than this year's pick to making the big team. That's potentially the best value Bergevin can get from his draft choice, and would make a lot of fans deliriously happy.

G.M. runner-up Pierre McGuire, among others, has suggested the Habs might want to use the pick to solidify the NHL roster with a proven player like Jordan Staal. That would certainly help the team fast-track back to competitive status. On the other hand, a move like that would assume that the draft pick's potential wouldn't meet or exceed Staal's, which is a big risk to take. It would also mean taking on a cap hit that could be put off by keeping the draft pick on an entry-level contract for three years. And the likelihood of Pittsburgh demanding something extra to sweeten such a deal for a proven player would lower the trade's return for the Canadiens.

Bergevin has some great options with this draft position. Whatever he decides to do with the pick, the Canadiens are winners. It's going to be an interesting few weeks until he makes his selection.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The New Guy

I would like to be among the first to offer Jeff Goldblum a very warm welcome on his first day as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. Goldblum was a surprise finalist for the job, given the fact that IMDB lists him as starring in six different Hollywood projects at the moment. The man has skills and a phenomenal ability to manage his time, no doubt about it.

His acting background will certainly be an asset to him in his new role. On Law & Order, he learned the astute observational powers of a criminal detective. Even though Andrei Kostitsyn now plies his trade in Nashville, that skill is one that would serve any general manager well. On Will & Grace, he learned to drink cat's pee. That will be invaluable when dealing with Montreal's media. On Saturday Night Live, he proved he can handle a live audience and can think on his feet, again, helpful in handling the daily media throng. Independence Day taught him who to call when the world is blowing up. In Jurassic Park, he learned what happens when history comes to life and overwhelms you, which is vital knowledge when dealing with the Canadiens' marketing department. And, in The Fly, he figured out how to morph into a giant insect when one of his experiments goes horribly wrong. Obviously, a valuable skill.

Goldblum has many personal attributes that will help him as Habs' GM. He's versatile, suave and handsome. Montreal fans appreciate those qualities and will show him great tolerance because of them. On movie sets, you get used to doing the same thing over and over again, with minimal achievement, which describes the Habs of the last 20 years, so the patience learned there will help. He's got a wicked sense of humour, but is able to turn sensitive on a dime, and that will certainly help him strike the right tone publicly, no matter what the situation he's facing. His line on his first day, "The Montreal Canadiens are me," is easily as evocative as his remark on South Park that "I'm afraid that Earth, a-all of Earth, is nothing but an intergalactic reality-TV show." You can't write that stuff.

Now, of course, the question becomes, who does Goldblum hire as coach? He's got a wide cast of former co-stars from which to choose, among them some true All-Stars. Glenn Close from The Big Chill is scary enough to put the fear of God into the most hardened hockey player. If she doesn't know the game, she'll learn pretty quickly. Sam Shepard from The Right Stuff would be crusty and brilliant enough to rival Scotty Bowman. And Laura Dern can beat down resurrected dinosaurs, so she'll have little trouble with puck throwers. Those are just a handful of possible candidates.

At first, I admit, I was wary of seeing a Hollywood actor become GM of the Habs. How would we ever know if he was being sincere, or just playing a part, I wondered? What does he really know about hockey? Then I realized, Goldblum is the perfect choice. He's a chameleon who can change to fit any situation; a teflon GM, if you will. There won't be a situation to which Goldblum can't adapt. And, as Glen Sather has proven for years, if you act like you know what you're doing, most of the time, that's good enough. So, welcome, Jeff Goldblum. You never won an Oscar, but maybe someday your name will be on the Stanley Cup. Some would say that's the greater honour of the two anyway.