Thursday, January 31, 2013

Aftermath: Wobbly

You know how you can look at a little kid and just love him to bits, but at the same time he tries your patience to the point at which "time out" just isn't enough and you end up yelling at him? I'll bet Ryan White's parents felt like that more than once. Last night, I understood them.

The Canadiens have been doing many thing correctly this season. There are great improvements in attitude and approach to the game since last year's depressing basement finish. They are not perfect, however. The new style is still very much a work in progress. One of the biggest problems they're facing is with the penalty kill. Last year's PK was second in the league, with a stellar 88.6% efficiency rate. This year, the Canadiens sit at 78.1%, good for only 19th place. They've given up seven PP goals in their six games. So, when Ryan White got called for a marginal roughing call, then decided to antagonize already whistle-happy officials, which landed him a double minor, it was not a good thing. White's absence resulted in another two PP goals against, and that sunk the Habs in what had, up until then, been a pretty close game. On a night when the refs appeared to be working on commission, White could have been smarter. In the meantime, the coaching staff needs to address the PK immediately. Surely there are tapes somewhere showing a successful penalty kill that doesn't involve Hal Gill.

Of course, it's not all on White. The poor kid looked like Braveheart after the English killed his wife for the rest of the game. Hockey games are lost because a team makes mistakes, and White's was just the most obvious of the Canadiens' errors last night. There were defensive breakdowns enough to go around, and being behind on the scoreboard illuminated some problems inherent in the lineup. David Desharnais is struggling badly without Max Pacioretty. He's getting pushed around, and he's having trouble connecting with Lars Eller, who's never looked comfortable on the wing. The rookies showed they work best with a lead, when time and space are available. Tight checking by the Senators last night kept them to the outside and largely harmless.

The other big problem, though, aside from the PK, is faceoffs. The Canadiens haven't had a really stellar top line faceoff guy since Saku Koivu put up a 54.1% success rate in the 2008-09 season. Jeff Halpern, Dominic Moore and Maxim Lapierre were all good on the draw, but none of them took more than a thousand faceoffs in a season. Tomas Plekanec has averaged 1555 trips to the circle in the last four years because of his versatility after the puck drops. This year's team average is just 46.1%, which puts them fourth-last in the league. When you're facing a big, aggressive team like the Senators, you can't spend the night chasing the puck without giving up a lot of chances. The third goal, in particular, came directly from a lost faceoff on the PK. Plekanec, still the go-to faceoff guy is a dismal 44.8% on the draw. If the Canadiens hope to take advantage of their skills with the puck, they need to start a shift with the puck. They need a faceoff guy for those big draws, and they need someone like Guy Carbonneau or Yanic Perreault to come in and work with the centres.

All that said, the Canadiens this year are a work in progress. You can't really draw a whole lot from a third game in four nights, with two important young bodies in P.K.Subban and Max Pacioretty out of the lineup. Andrei Markov played a team-high 23:51 and Francis Bouillon got the second-highest amount of ice time with 21:25. These are not young men anymore. The amount of hockey they've played this week was bound to catch up with them and Markov, in particular, looked off his game. Their overuse will be mitigated by the return of Subban, who, hopefully will not be held out of the lineup longer than necessary in order for Michel Therrien to prove a point.

The positive from this game is that after a brutal second period (which seems to be a recurring theme so far in this young season), the Canadiens didn't quit in the third. They kept trying to get back in a game on which they would have given up last season. So, while Therrien will likely give Ryan White and a few others of his kids a stern talking-to today, they'll do better next time.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Aftermath: Horse Racing

Sometimes, a win is in the bag as the last note of the national anthems dies away. It's like watching a horse pull away down the stretch and you know nothing's going to catch it. Sometimes, though, it's like steeplechase, with mud pits and obstacles all through the race. Last night was the latter kind of win. The important thing for the Canadiens, though, is when they arrived at the finish line, they were ahead by a nose.

This is not the same team we watched last tank last season. Not entirely, anyway. There are still some old habits present, like blown leads and drops in intensity that can last an entire period. Last year, the leads were blown in the third period as the energy level seemed to flag every night. This year, it seems the second is the let-down period after a strong first and a rallying third. Inconsistent special teams are still there too, only last year, the penalty kill was brilliant and the power play anemic. This season, Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec and Raphael Diaz have transformed the PP with their precision puck-moving, while the PK has fans crossing their fingers hoping for the best.

The difference we're seeing is partly in attitude, and partly because of noticeable changes in strategy. The attitude says, "Okay, we're taking bad penalties, but we're hanging in there because we believe we can win." The strategy involves using the speed they have to advance, rather than hang back waiting for mistakes. The defencemen don't waste time looking for the perfect outlet. They move the puck ahead, rather than across the ice, and the forwards are in motion to receive it, not stationary at the blueline. They're carrying the puck with speed and short passes, rather than dumping and chasing it as the go-to play. They're showing what "active stick" is supposed to mean, meeting the opponent head-on, feet and sticks always in motion. That's forcing turnovers and keeping the other team on the defensive for long stretches. Carey Price, who would once have lost focus after a softie or two, is proving he can mentally regroup and raise his level of play when it's required.

As long as the Canadiens keep doing those things right, they can compete against any team. When they stop moving and start retreating, that's when big, talented teams like the Jets (and Bruins, Rangers, Senators, Blackhawks, Blues...) can push back. For the most part, though, the Canadiens are sticking to the plan, and it's working for them. Credit for that must go not only to the players, but to the coaching staff. Michel Therrien has tailored a system to suit the team he's got and he has everyone buying in. Even the comments from the players about P.K.Subban's return to the lineup are uniform in their consistency, which indicates leadership at the top is setting the agenda.

What we're seeing is a businesslike approach to the game plan from a group of players who don't want to experience a year as dreadful as the last one ever again. As a result, the wins are coming and the team feeling is building. Watching the two rookies, Gallagher and Galchenyuk, blossom in this environment is more exciting than anything we've seen from this team since the 2010 playoffs. The difference is, this feels like a real step toward building a strong, competitive team, rather than an ephemeral, miraculous playoff bubble that can be burst by the first physically aggressive team it encounters.

Now, if the refs would stop calling diving on clear boarding infractions, the Canadiens would only have to worry about the opponent. A steeplechase is tough enough without running against zebras. In any case, five games in, admittedly a small sample size, the Habs are showing they have the horses to be respectable every night. Sometimes they'll pull away and sometimes they'll grind out a close one. Some nights, they'll be the team left in the dust. The least they'll do is run their best race.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Aftermath: Renewal

My seven-year-old daughter watched the first period of the game against the Devils last night and she asked me a question I'm sure she didn't mean to be as layered as it really was. She asked, "Is this a new Habs team?" Watching the same period and mentally comparing it to the majority of last season, I could answer only, "Yes, it definitely is."

It's more than a coincidence that every single difference-maker last night wasn't a Canadien last season, or at least wasn't on the roster for the entire year. The first goal, for example, came from a net-crashing Ryan White, who spent months on the sidelines last season recovering from a sports hernia. He's the type of player who'll do anything to win, and putting him on a real fourth line of like-minded players (no more spare defencemen or Georges Laraque types in that role!) gives the Habs an important element they had been missing. As they say, a fourth line won't win you the Cup, but it can certainly support your better players and pin the opposition in their zone while the top guys get a breather. We saw that happen several times last night. There were a couple of whole shifts in which the Devils couldn't break out because of the fourth line's buzzing. That it translated to White's goal was a very welcome bonus.

The second Habs marker was a thing of beauty and a vision of lovely things to come. Brendon Gallagher finished his first NHL goal off a textbook 2-on-1 feed from future star Alex Galchenyuk. The pair of them have some serious chemistry and could conceivably be making magic for a long time. For the first time in recent memory, a young Canadiens player isn't just "promising" or "intriguing." Galchenyuk isn't waiting to grow into his potential. He's already out there putting up NHL points. The ever-smiling Gallagher is his perfect partner and the presence of Brandon Prust gives the kids the room they need to do their thing. It won't be long before they outgrow Prust's ability to keep up with them, but for now, the trio gives the Habs a threatening third line that will hurt opponents' defenders. When you think that a year ago, Prust was in New York, Gallagher in junior and Galchenyuk missing a year with reconstructive knee surgery, it's a small miracle that they've all found their places in the Canadiens lineup.

The overtime winner was vintage General Andrei Markov. If there was any doubt about how seriously the Canadiens missed him for the majority of the last two seasons, it's been erased by the realization that he's now scored the winning goal in every Habs victory this year. He's playing more than 20 high-demand minutes a game, and doing it while making very few errors. Mentally, he's just so much more highly evolved than the average NHL defenceman, he's like a university prof teaching Grade Four. No team can last for long without its elite blueliner, and the Canadiens are a different squad with Markov in the lineup.

Brian Gionta didn't score last night, but he was tirelessly dangerous on every shift. A lot of fans didn't worry too much when Gionta went down for 41 games last season. His small stature and streakiness sometimes lead people to underestimate him. Watching him so far this young season, one is reminded of how much he really brings. He balances the Plekanec line, with finish and a nose for the net. His speed forces mistakes by the opposition. And there's something to be said for having the captain on the ice busting his butt as an example for the team, rather than trying to lead from the therapy room.

While the new and newly-returned guys made the difference last night, the players who lived through last year's debacle of a season had some high points too. Carey Price allowed three goals for the first time this year, but he (and his posts) made some important saves as well. Rene Bourque needs to recalibrate the scope on his stick and start hitting the net instead of firing high, but he had good chances because he was aggressive. He'll get his points if he keeps it up. Erik Cole is coming to life too. He showed signs of the powerhouse who drove to the net to either score or draw a penalty we all learned to love last season.

Watching the good things, it's easy to overlook some of the weaknesses the team still shows, though. Lars Eller has a lot of skill, but he needs to push harder to make his skill work for him. He's got a chance now with Max Pacioretty's absence. Last night he did some good things, but he'll have to show some dominance if he's going to impress Therrien. Yannick Weber looked really rusty and confused, which is forgivable to a degree since it was his first NHL game of the year. If he doesn't turn it around very quickly, he could be on borrowed time in Montreal. David Desharnais has been lost all season. Whether it's because he's getting more attention from defenders or if he's just not up to speed yet, he's been largely a non-factor. Team discipline, particularly in the form of Prust, wasn't what it should be either. It's great to be aggressive, but he's got to learn to dial it back with the hitting from behind. Raphael Diaz, so strong in the first three games, was a little slow in his decision-making last night, which limited his options. Too often, the team looked confused in its own end. Faceoffs, as was the case last year, were generally dreadful.

These, though, are fixable concerns. The season will not be without ups and downs. No season ever is. The team will have to weather missing Pacioretty, and the P.K.Subban situation isn't helping anyone. The convincing message the Canadiens sent last night, however, is that they are a team with a new philosophy to go along with the new faces. So, yes, this is really a new Habs team.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Aftermath: Revelations

There is a tome among the annals of Christian literature that purports to give us glimpses of the future and warnings of our fate. The Book of Revelations is oblique and open to many interpretations. Similar things can be said of the Canadiens' second game of this lockout-shortened season. They might not be profound, but there were certainly revelations about what the team can do when properly motivated.

First among them is Andrei Markov. It's no revelation that Markov is a supremely intelligent and skilled player in all parts of the game. Those whose memories stretch back longer than the last two years are able to appreciate how much he's meant to the Canadiens, and how much they suffered in his absence. Since, however, the memories of most hockey fans are akin to goldfish being surprised by the appearance of the castle on every pass around the bowl, Markov's value has been lost in the inevitable "he's washed up, let's trade him" talk. Well, last night he exploded...twice, actually...back into the collective consciousness of Canadiens fans with brilliant defensive play, smart passing and two laser-guided missiles that made the Habs power play a real weapon for the first time in more than a year. A healthy Markov is a tremendous asset that cannot be underestimated. Picture any team missing an elite defenceman, like Boston without Chara or Nashville without Weber and you get a better understanding of what Markov means.

Then there's Raphael Diaz. The second-year NHLer is showing a poise he didn't have last season, and that's enabling him to make the most of what's turning out to be a surprisingly varied set of skills. The first goal of the night, a beautiful series of passes ending with Tomas Plekanec threading the needle (no revelations there!), began with a very nifty play by Diaz. He outskated the Panthers forechecker in the corner, then made a quick and accurate pass up to a hard-skating Brian Gionta, who then saucered it to Plekanec. Diaz showed agility, smarts and skill, all within that 10-second play. His contributions on the power play could end up being very significant for the Habs this year.

Rene Bourque revealed another side of himself too. The player who looked disinterested or lazy when you actually remembered he was in the lineup last season was hitting people like a mob boss. After showing up as one of the better Canadiens in the season opener, he continued to prove he deserves a place on the second line. (Soon to reclaim the title of first line if early trends prevail.) Last year, Bourque looked nothing like a player who's scored 27 goals in consecutive seasons. In the last two games, as he's hitting, constantly moving, forechecking and going to the net, we can see why the Flames gave him a long-term contract. Unfortunately we've also see the other side of Bourque, so it remains to be seen whether his new-found intensity will be long-lasting.

The Gallys, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, with a grand total of three NHL games between them, were like eager puppies, rushing around, sniffing in every corner and jumping on strangers in an effort to get to the front of the net. It worked, as both registered their first NHL points. Better, though, was the impression of readiness they exuded. Both were involved and smart, and both have undeniable skill. They're going to be a lot of fun to watch.

Brandon Prust was a bit of a revelation too. He's not exactly an unknown quantity, but you don't pay attention to him when he's with the other team until he hurts you. When he's part of the home team, however, you notice all the little things he does right, and the decision to appoint him Guardian of the Gallys turns out to be a lot smarter than it looks on paper.

On the other hand, last year's first line isn't connecting like it did last year. That becomes very obvious when compared to the hard-driving, dangerous Plekanec line which was a threat on every shift and underlines how greatly Plekanec suffered with the merry-go-round of linemates he was given last year. Erik Cole, in particular, looks out of step. That may be simply because he's the oldest guy on that line and may be feeling the lack of a training camp more than others. It may be because last year's success is forcing other teams to defend him more closely. One can hope it's not because of  his pre-season comments about considering early retirement. If his heart's not in it, that's a much bigger problem than a slow physical start. The Canadiens need him and his linemates if they hope to improve over last season. A nagging problem with the team's lineup is the failure to ever have two strong scoring lines working at the same time. With Plekanec's trio working, the Habs could be really competitive with Desharnais' line going as well.

There's nothing new revealed in the number of penalties the Habs took. Admittedly, some of the nine calls against them (including Ryan White's 17 minutes for instigating a fight) were questionable. Josh Gorges' hit on George Parros was borderline, for one. Still, the Canadiens have to be very careful about putting themselves into position to take those iffy penalties. They were lucky Florida took nearly as many minors, but they'll pay for their lack of discipline against better teams.

The greatest revelation of the night was the team itself. They proved if they hit and don't stop skating, they have the skill to compete. Carey Price, stellar and, at times spectacular, again last night, gives the Canadiens a legitimate chance to win every night. A revitalized power play with Markov and Diaz on the points makes the team better than it was last year.

The first win of the year was against a tired team playing its third game in four nights, and even working as hard as they did last night won't translate to a Habs victory every time. Just as after the first game of the year,  we have to be careful about reading too much into a single 60-minute segment in a team's life. There's a lot of growing and learning to do, but last night proved there's raw material there to work with. That's a revelation.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Torch

Pundits and fans, both for and against the Habs, were nearly unanimous in their opinion on Saturday that the home-opening ceremony, featuring a burning torch passed from former captain to former captain, was both touching and well done. Nearly everyone who mentioned it made a comment like "nobody does these things like the Habs." So it feels rather traitorous to say I didn't think the same thing.

It's not that it's not wonderful to see legends like Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer showing they're still connected to the team they helped make great. The memories they evoke for those who remember them playing are sweet. The problem is, it's been a very long time since those men skated out in the sweater, and many of the people packing the Bell Centre on Saturday never saw them play. Half of them probably didn't even see Vincent Damphousse, the most recent captain to take part in the ceremony. So, while including the past in the ceremony was nice, focusing on it serves to underline the stark fact that the franchise hasn't won a Stanley Cup in twenty years. The Habs bring out the heroes because there's nothing else left of greatness within the organization.

The saddest part of the ceremony was the frailty of those great men. Beliveau, at 81, held the torch with a trembling hand. Seventy-six year old Richard had trouble negotiating the Bell Centre stairs. Showing them still having to carry the torch, literally and figuratively belies the lines of John McCrae on the Canadiens dressing room wall. "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high." Those words mean the men who have brought glory to the franchise are ready to pass the responsibility to the young men who will protect and carry on their legacy. Only, there's been nobody fit to do that in two decades so the weary old men are still called to duty.

The torch, too, was a symbol overwrought with in-your-face sentiment. When it emerged, I felt vaguely embarrassed and slightly uncomfortable; a little bit like Ottawa fans must have felt when their team broke out the Spartan to launch their 2008 playoff bid. The Senators looked like they were trying to stir their fans' emotions with a gimmick, and so, on Saturday night, did the Habs. Maybe the problem is the frequency with which the organization does this kind of thing. After so many versions of ceremonies in which the Canadiens remind us of past glories, we start to get bored with it all and want to experience some glory for ourselves. We don't want stories, we want the real thing, and without it, the ceremonies lose their meaning.

That said, there were three moments that stood out through the whole thing. First, when current captain Brian Gionta received the torch from Beliveau. He had a look of such pride and respect on his face as he took the flame from the greatest captain the team has ever had. Second was Alex Galchenyuk standing at centre ice listening with bemused awe to the thundering ovation of fans who want nothing more than to see him succeed for them. And third was when Carey Price came out last and didn't just hold the torch in the middle of the arena, but thrust it straight over his head with a kind of fierce defiance. These are the players who will move the team into the future, and really take the figurative torch from the failing hands who are getting too old to be the beating heart of the franchise much longer.

It's those players who should be the focus of the next ceremony. Instead of simply honouring the past, the Canadiens have made the mistake of wallowing in it. The team needs to look ahead and build something of which these young men can be proud. When new players come to Montreal, instead of saying they're glad to be playing for a team with such a great history, they should be saying they're thrilled to be signing with a winner. Otherwise there will be nobody left who remembers what it's like to be a champion in Montreal and the torch will flicker and go out.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Aftermath: That Sucking Feeling

Well, the Habs, almost predictably, dropped a game against the leafs broadcast nationally on Hockey Night in Canada, following a nostalgia-filled ceremony. It was pretty much a recipe for disaster, judging by recent performances in those circumstances.

It certainly wasn't the outcome fans were hoping for after a nine-month absence from NHL hockey, which was evidenced by the restlessness and occasional booing emanating from the Bell Centre crowd. Really, I disagree with jeering your own team, but I understand the feeling behind it. It was warranted.

First, we have to get the excuses out of the way. The Habs' new motto is "No Excuses," so saying they were rusty and hadn't had a proper training camp doesn't cut it. So did the leafs, and they still came out looking like they wanted to win. We might say the problem was the number of penalties the Canadiens took right out of the gate, which threw off their rhythm. That's true, they did. However, they are responsible for their own actions and can't blame the refs for the rest of the game in which they were just failing to set up any offence.

By the middle of the third period, the Habs looked like they'd been to the body shop and had the rust scaled off. Of course, by then, it was too late to make a real difference. Brian Gionta at least kept the team from yet another ignominious shutout in a big game. The players who fans expect to make a difference: Max Pacioretty, Erik Cole, Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais were pretty ineffective. One might forgive Plekanec who's playing hurt, but this is the No Excuses team.

Still, there were positives. When the legs started to come back to life in the third, there were signs of potential on the offence. Alex Galchenyuk performed admirably in his first NHL game. He was noticeable on every shift (until Therrien moved him to the third line) and had a couple of nice chances. He's going to be an NHL player if they don't ruin him. Andrei Markov showed beautiful awareness on the ice, with lovely tape-to-tape breakout passes. Rene Bourque was more interested than he's ever been as a Hab. He was going to the right places and was just slightly left of dangerous. The David Desharnais line, with Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty not playing any serious hockey at all and Desharnais getting only 16 games in Switzerland in the last nine months, was out of step, but will be much better when they remember their connections. Alex Emelin laid some very heavy checks. Brandon Prust played his role perfectly, stirring things up, fighting and crashing around. Lars Eller showed some decent moves. Carey Price was solid and kept the result closer than it should have been. Scott Gomez was negotiating to play in San Jose.

On the other hand, Josh Gorges was beaten more than Andrei Kostitsyn on an IQ test. He looked slow and backward and made fans wonder whether heart and soul without wheels is really worth a long-term contract.   The PK, the only redeemable feature of last year's Canadiens, got exposed twice, not a good sign if a team takes as many penalties as the Habs did. (Although the Plekanec penalty for snowing the goalie was ridiculous. Was he supposed to fall on top of him instead of stopping?) Passes generally were more off-target than the first twenty-seven attempts to kill Bin Laden. The power play looked like a bunch of kindergartners trying to square dance. Therrien's response seemed to be switching up his lines, but, as we know, that doesn't necessarily get players going.

So today, a lot of fans are going to be wondering whether this season will be an abbreviated version of last year, or if the team will get its act together before it hits the dreaded losing streak that will end their hopes early. The answer is, it's tough to say after one game. As a good hockey buddy says, "Have patience." That's wise advice, even if it's difficult to practice. The fact is, there's just not a lot of room for error this year. A ten-game losing streak is recoverable in an 82-game season. With only 48 games, five losses in a row can sink a team.

Watching the first game of the year, one has to believe the Habs aren't ready for prime time. Galchenyuk was a great draft pick and Trevor Timmins would love to choose high in this year's deep draft. Yet, one game hardly tells a story. Ten games, maybe, but not one. So, fans, don't drop the torch just yet. Give these proud players a couple of more chances to prove they're in it to win it. They deserve that much.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Will He Stay Or Will He Go

When the Canadiens skate out to the strains of an inevitably emotional and well-produced opening audio/video montage befitting a Stanley Cup champion on Saturday night, you can be sure some of the team's best recent draft picks will be leading the way.

Carey Price will hit the ice first, defying the laws of physics by having the team both behind him and on his shoulders. Max Pacioretty will bring his new, bigger, more wrecking-ball-like body to the fray. It's still up in the air whether P.K.Subban will tell his agent to suck it up and make a deal. Either way, the real question is: Will 2012 number-three-overall pick Alex Galchenyuk join the boys as they take on this abbreviated season?

Having seen quite a bit of the young hopeful during his OHL season with Sarnia, and at the World Junior championships, he looks like he has the skills to be an NHLer before too long.  He already has a big-league body. He's got sweet hands and a clever hockey mind. He's captain in Sarnia because he's got a drive to win and the ability to lead others by his work ethic. At Habs camp, he's been lauded as "coachable," "smart," "skilled," and "looking good." Whether those accolades add up to confidence-building or an actual indication of his NHL readiness is still up for debate at this moment.

Looking at the Canadiens lineup, there's an obvious second-line wing hole that needs a sizable, goal-scoring player. Tomas Plekanec cannot go another season with a revolving barn door of Clydesdales. He's earned better than that, and getting the chance to centre Galchenyuk in his NHL debut is definitely better.  Also, the Habs lineup generally needs more goal-scoring punch, and any chance to bring in a natural sniper would certainly be welcome.

On the other hand, Galchenyuk is 18 with a teenager's inexperience. It's a delicate situation in Montreal, especially during a shortened season, in that nobody wants to expose a future cornerstone to pressure and expectation he might not be ready to handle. Yet, nobody wants to deny the kid his chance to make the team on his own merit either.

Michel Therrien would have liked to have exhibition games in which to judge whether Galchenyuk can translate those nice skills to games against NHL players. Without those trial games, it's tougher, but Therrien has nothing to lose by giving the kid a chance for the five games before his first contract year kicks in. The problem comes after those five games, when the Habs have to decide whether he's better off on a steep learning curve in Montreal, with all its attendant confidence issues and inevitable mistakes, or burning up junior with little developmental reward.  Perhaps the right place for him would be Hamilton, but the CHL/AHL eligibility rules prevent that.

In the end, it will come down to what Marc Bergevin envisions in his master plan for the Habs. If he thinks the team can make a playoff run to which Galchenyuk can contribute, he'll be more likely to keep the kid on the roster and burn up a year of his entry-level deal. If he thinks the team isn't ready for a serious playoff challenge, he'll be tempted to send Galchenyuk back to junior rather than waste a contract year in a losing cause. If nothing else, we can tell a lot about what management really thinks of the lineup by the decision made after the fifth game of the season.

In any case, Galchenyuk is the most exciting offensive prospect the Habs have had in many years. With any luck, the organization will recognize his potential, without being blinded into rushing him if he's not ready. That said, if he's close to NHL capability, I'd rather see him gain pro experience and get to know the players he'll be working with for the foreseeable future than spend another year in junior. Even if the Habs are losing this year, he can learn a lot more in Montreal. If they're winning, he could be the player who makes a difference. People worry that rushing a player into the league before he's ready can have long-term negative effects on him and his development. That's certainly true for later draft picks. When a guy has as much skill and is as smart as Galchenyuk, though, the potential for him to adapt quickly is enormous. In his case, he'd also avoid the pitfall many young players face in dealing with limited playing time and weak linemates. If he sticks, Galchenyuk will play on the second line and the power play. He'll get his development time.

I hope he stays. Habs fans have been stuck with frustrating, dump and chase hockey for too long. We deserve some excitement and fun. I think Galchenyuk is good enough to bring both.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


As the days of the abbreviated NHL training camps slip away, it's becoming more likely that the Canadiens will open their season on Saturday night without P.K.Subban in the lineup. The 2007 second-round pick would be starting his third full year with the club if not for a stalemate between his agent, Don Meehan, and Habs' G.M. Marc Bergevin.

Without the benefit of a fly's eye view from a handy wall in Bergevin's office, it would appear one of two things is happening. Either Bergevin is trying to seriously low ball Subban because of the looming cap crunch he's facing next year, or Subban believes he is entitled to a greater payday than he perhaps deserves.

If Bergevin is balking for fear of next year's payroll, there are ways to save money other than alienating a talented young player who could be a cornerstone of the organization for many years to come. The team is entitled to another buyout before next season, and after that, some big contracts (Markov, Kaberle, Gionta) run out. Unless Subban and Meehan are asking for really big money and/or term, there's little reason for Bergevin to drag out negotiations for cap reasons. If the two sides are close, there's a solution available.

If, however, Subban is expecting a big payday on a second contract, there may be a larger issue. Of the NHL defencemen who are his contemporaries and who signed mega-money long-term deals while still RFA, most are demonstrably better than Subban. For example, Erik Karlsson's 7-year, 6.5-million per year contract with Ottawa makes him the tenth highest-paid D in the league. He also has a 78-point season and a Norris Trophy to his credit. Drew Doughty has an 8-year deal with the Kings, with a 7-million cap hit, placing him fourth in the league among defencemen. Doughty's name is on the Stanley Cup, he's got an Olympic gold medal, he was drafted second overall and became a Norris finalist. Tyler Myers, another first-rounder, has a 5.5-million cap hit in Buffalo for 7 seasons. He's a former NHL rookie of the year and in his worst season points-wise, he had one point less than Subban did in his best year. None of these comparisons are meant to diminish the value, ability or potential of Subban, but those three players are the only defencemen under 25 with cap hits bigger than 4-million dollars.

Looking at an in-house comparison, Subban's should perhaps expect to follow the path of teammate Carey Price. Price came to the team as the Canadiens' highest draft pick since Petr Svoboda in 1984. His subsequent performances at the World Juniors and in the Bulldogs' Calder Cup championship launched his star and built expectations. Price, like Subban, had some bumpy moments in Montreal, culminating with losing the starting job during the 2010 playoff run. Still, there was never a question in the minds of management that the team's future was linked to Price's success. Subban also came to town with high expectations and has had some stretches of living up to them, and other periods of slow production and public controversy. Both young players are very important parts of the team's future.

Price's second contract was for two years, with a cap hit of 2.75-million. That gave the team a two-year break on paying big money, while Price had a chance to prove himself and cash in on his third deal, which he did last summer. A lot of people who don't get to sit inside contract negotiations might say if it's good enough for Carey Price, it should be good enough for P.K.Subban. That may be logical, but of course nobody really knows the circumstances. It's just a comparison worth mentioning.

At this point, nobody really doubts Subban and the Canadiens will come to a deal. Bergevin has already confirmed he won't be trading the player and as an RFA, Subban's options are limited. The big problem with the situation right now is its timing. Coming off a horrible team season and long summer, followed by the five-month league lockout, the Canadiens are facing a packed schedule in which every point carries huge significance. Playing even one game without a complete lineup reduces their chances of success. When the missing player is a top-four defenceman who eats minutes, the loss hurts a little more, as does the fact that he's missing for business reasons, not hockey reasons. Subban's missing camp is one thing, but when he starts sitting out games that count, the goodwill of fans and even teammates will eventually sour.We all know hockey is a business, but fans have had quite enough of the business of hockey at this point.

P.K.Subban is a good hockey player. He's got potential to be a great hockey player. Right now, he's got to stop and think...very hard...about whether he can recognize the difference. He's not great yet, and probably won't end up getting paid as though he is, no matter how long he sits home without a contract. The hope is that he and his agent can put things in perspective before Saturday.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Men at Work

The scene: Brossard, first day of Habs training camp, dressing room

Brian Gionta: Guys! It's so great to have everyone back together, finally. Last year really sucked, but I think we'll be better this season, even if it's short. I'm feeling great. Marky's back. Prusty and Armdog will be kicking some ass. Everybody's in good shape. It's been a weird few months, though, not seeing most of you guys for so long. So, what have you all been doing to keep busy?
Carey Price: The usual. Roping some calves, oiling my boots, hanging in the sweat lodge, counting my new money. Designed 27 new masks. You know, same old, same old. You should hear about Gorgie, though.
Gionta: Yeah, what did you do, Gorgie?
Josh Gorges: Huh? Well, I played this game against Washington, and Mike Green wound up for a slapper. I didn't even think about it, just got in front of it and stopped it with my head. You should see my helmet!

Silence for a beat

Price: Um, Gorgie? That was two years ago.
Gorges: Seriously? That would explain why this girl keeps texting me about our wedding.
Price: Yeeaahh. You should maybe get that checked. What about you, Pleky?
Tomas Plekanec: I had the best hockey season of my life. My hero was always Jagr, and I got to centre him back home. I was top of the league in scoring with Jagr on my wing. It was amazing.
Rene Bourque: What are you trying to say Pleky?
Plekanec: Seriously, Bourkie? I'm not calling you out. Most people just don't have the moves like Jagr. What did you do, Davey?
David Desharnais: Well, I went to Switzerland for a while. It was pretty fun. You get an apartment and a car along with your pay. My numbers were great too. Helped that I played against Diaz and Weber. Ha ha!
Max Pacioretty: I tried Switzerland too, but it just didn't work out. So I came home and spent the last few months pushing heavy stuff around.
Gorges: What kind of stuff?
Pacioretty: Mostly a giant metal sled. Sometimes an effigy of Chara. Sometimes my wallet.
Colby Armstrong: Well, I'm just glad we're back to work. Even when I tried to take Koivu's head off that time, I still liked the Habs. This is really a kid's dream come true. If I score Saturday night, I'm gonna thank the leafs for paying for half the goal.
Erik Cole: If you do, I'll give you one of my new hats. I got into fashion during the lockout, and now I'm thinking I might want to do it full-time. I like how you can be political and send a message, and still look good at the same time. I feel like clothes are what I was meant to do. Hockey's getting so heartless and businessy. Whaddya think, Gomer? You want to get into fashion with me?  Gomer? Hey, anybody see Gomer?

Blank looks as players glance around, then collectively shrug

Cole: Oh well, I'm sure he's around here somewhere. Hey Marky! How's the knee feeling?
Andrei Markov: It's a long time I didn't practice with the team. I love the game. I work hard to be beck soon.
Cole: Ah, Marky, didn't you just play a bunch of games in Russia?
Markov: Yeah, but nobody there ask me about the knee. I learn answers to say when people say knee, so I practice.
Alexei Emelin:  По крайней мере, ваше колено не делает тревоги в аэропорту кольцо. Попробуйте имеющих пластины в вашем лице некоторое время. Тогда глупые ублюдки хотят, чтобы вы бороться. Черт.
Markov: Вы не знаете глупый пока вы были здесь в течение многих лет. Репортеры знаю только шесть вопросов к вам.
Emelin: Тренер имеет booger висит у него из носа.
Markov: (switching to English) Alex says he is very heppy to be beck also.

Door opens, P.K.Subban enters, looking furtively around

Subban: Hey guys. I was never here, okay? I just came to pick up some mail. Mike Richards and Timmy Thomas get pissy when you don't sign the pictures they want. Then you get all the drama...
Gionta: P.K.! When will we see you back in the room for real?
Subban: Everything will happen when it's supposed to happen, Gio. I'm pretty zen about it.
Gionta: Well, we can sure use you. Hope you get a deal done soon. Who's gonna low-five Pricey?
Travis Moen: Hey, P.K., a bunch of us were playing some exhibition hockey to fill the time. What were you up to?
Subban: (takes a big breath, starts to speak, then shakes his head, grins and says) Nothing worth taking about, my friend. Nothing at all. Okay. I'm outta here. Beat the leafs!

General roar of approval as players head out to take the ice for the first official post-lockout practice.

Peter Budaj: (entering and looking around in confusion) Guys? Hellooo! Where did everybody go? The lockout's over, right? Right?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dear Mr.Molson, Now That the Lockout's Over...

A friend of mine, a fellow Habs fan, called me on Sunday morning to talk about the end of the lockout. He ended up breaking the news because I had so distanced myself from the ongoing foolishness between the NHL and the NHLPA that I had stopped checking for updates first thing every morning. I have to admit, the news was rather anticlimactic. It was good to hear we'll no longer be subjected to basketball highlights interrupted only by the minutiae of compliance buyouts, sources of hockey-related revenue and pension plan details every time we turn on the sports news. On the other hand, my primary response to the end of the lockout was, "Oh well, back to losing sleep on game nights."

That's the funny thing. I'm angry at the NHL owners for making the lockout happen. I'm not exactly thrilled with the way some of the players behaved during it. Yet, I know I will still watch the Canadiens when their games start again. Now, however, it's a bit different than it was in years past. Now, if they're down 5-0 to the Rangers, I'll probably shut the game off and grab an extra hour of sleep rather than stick it out in the hope of a miraculous comeback. If they do manage to come back, I can find out about it in the morning and be happy. If they don't, I won't be quite as bothered by the score as I would have been five years ago.

I will be just as excited to see a Tomas Plekanec shorthanded breakaway as I've always been. I'll still laugh when Carey Price stones someone in a shootout and strikes a pose, or when Eric Cole high-fives the ref. I'll still be interested in how Marc Bergevin handles the team, what P.K.Subban's deal will be (I'd give him $3.5 for two years and his long-term deal after that), and whether Andrei Markov can return to form. I won't be buying NHL merchandise, though. I made a promise to myself not to contribute to the money the two sides will be fighting over in eight or ten years time when this new deal ends and another lockout looms.

That brings me back to the friend who told me the lockout was over. He and I and a group of other like-minded people from various parts of North America try to get to Montreal once a year to catch a game at the Bell Centre. We pay for plane tickets, hotels, meals out, seats with 100% mark-ups (after we fail to be chosen in the group sales lottery), concessions and, usually, some sort of souvenir. It's a costly weekend, but for us, the thrill of hearing the roof blow off the place when the Habs score in OT is worth it. There's nothing like being transported by the game so you're jumping up and down but don't remember leaving your seat. We have come to love this team for many reasons and it's that common love of the Canadiens that brought us together in the first place. Sticking to my guns about not supporting hockey-related revenue won't be difficult, with the sole exception of this yearly visit. It would take a significant gesture of apology from the Canadiens for their role in the lockout and disregard for fans to bring us back. That's why I wrote to Geoff Molson.

I told him about our disappointment in the way fans were at the bottom of the priority list during the lockout. I explained how we come from all over and spend a lot of money to celebrate the Habs every year. I asked him, if he has any power at all, not to allow a lame "Thank you, fans" campaign with nothing behind the words. I suggested he offer the first three home games free of charge, complete with free concessions, and that children be allowed in for free for the rest of the season. That, I told him, would show the fans who support his team and fill his coffers every year the Canadiens are genuine in their desire to make things right with them. Of course, in my new hockey cynicism, I realized my suggestion is extremely unlikely to happen and expected my email to disappear into the ether along with the first half of the NHL season.

So, the next day, I got an answer from Geoff Molson.He thanked me for my letter and for my and my friends' support of the team. He said he understands the fans' frustrations and that we're not alone in that. He hopes the new management and new players on the team will make the games more exciting this year. And he hopes I and my friends come back to the Bell Centre this season, with thanks for our spending on games in the past. He was very gracious and has probably been sending a lot of these kinds of emailed replies to angry fans in the last few days.

In the end, though, Geoff Molson did not say the Canadiens will do anything to make this up to fans. He apologized, but apologies are words and, as we learned last time around, words are cheap. Seats in the Bell Centre and a pint of warm Molson's are not.

While it was kind of Mr.Molson to respond to my concerns, his answer has not affected my ambivalence about returning to the Bell Centre. I'll watch the games and I'll support the Canadiens in spirit because the habit of a lifetime is hard to break, but when it comes to putting my money where my heart is, I'm just not sure.  Maybe friendship in the Habs will trump the reluctance to contribute to the NHL's almighty bottom line. Maybe, if the team's ownership isn't prepared to make it worth our while to attend games, the players on the ice will. One thing I'm sure about is, even if the Bell Centre is full every night, as it likely will be, the fans are coming back a little more warily with a little less enthusiasm or patience. That, and nine months without NHL hockey, makes them, if they're like me, a whole lot more willing to tune out and walk away if this team proves it isn't worth the price of admission.