Friday, May 31, 2013

The Buyout

It's a rare NHL general manager who doesn't make a fairly sizable mistake at some point in his career, often when he's new to the job. However, even savvy, seasoned veterans do things like trade young players and prospects for Scott Gomez and his horrid contract, or draft Patrick Stefan first overall, or let Zdeno Chara walk while keeping Wade Redden instead, or sign Mike Komisarek to a massive deal. Most of the time, the manager in question has to spend years making up for a big mistake, or find a willing sucker to take the problem off his hands.

This year offers a rare opportunity for general managers to, if not wipe their slates entirely clean, get a mulligan on some of their worst errors. Or, in the case of brand new GMs, to get rid of some of the mess they inherited from their predecessors. The two compliance buyouts allowed in the next two seasons under the new CBA will see some big contracts erased from the cap hits of teams across the league.

Marc Bergevin wasted no time in exercising his first option, which was to unceremoniously dump the aforementioned Gomez, after the player's numbers dropped every season since Bob Gainey acquired him from New York for way too much in assets and way too much salary. That move will save the remaining $7.4-million cap hit for the coming season. It also leaves Bergevin with one more buyout to clear space in a tight cap year. The question now is, on whom will he use that option?

At first glance, it seems obvious that Bergevin will choose to pay Tomas Kaberle to go away. Kaberle was acquired by Pierre Gauthier in one of his last, poorly-thought-out, reactionary moves of the 2011-12 season.  With a thin defence and aching power play, Gauthier sent now-retired Jaroslav Spacek to Carolina for Kaberle, in hopes the latter would bring some desperately-needed scoring to the Canadiens' blue line. While it turned out Kaberle is still able to put up some points, he's also prone to defensive errors and, on a team that's not that tough on the back end, is unfortunately soft for his size. As a result, even though Kaberle's play in the ten games in which he skated for the Canadiens this year wasn't glaringly horrible, he was shelved with weeks to go in the regular season and all through the playoffs, presumably to protect him from an injury that would scuttle a planned buyout.

Buying out Kaberle would save Bergevin and the Canadiens a tidy $4.25-million this year, which would enable the team to look for bargains among other teams' buyouts, UFAs whose teams can't afford to re-sign them, and gritty bottom-line guys to pump up the team's sandpaper quotient. So, you'd think, given the evidence, that Bergevin would just say, "Yeah, we're going to buy out Kaberle," when that question was posed during his season-ending press conference. He didn't. Instead he said he'd look for a trade option first, then consider a buyout.

So, if, by some chance, Kaberle isn't the player bought out, Bergevin has other options. Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta make more money than Kaberle. Travis Moen and David Desharnais are signed for longer term. There could be benefits in buying out any of them.

Markov has been an All Star defenceman in his career. Nobody can doubt his on-ice smarts or his vision. He's got the shot and the brilliant passing ability he always had. However, age and repeated knee injuries have taken their toll and he's no longer the skater he needs to be to play his game. The bold pinches he makes and the savvy positional play at which he's always excelled need mobility and quickness. As this season wore on, we saw him drop in his point production and make more defensive mistakes than ever before. Perhaps he played too many minutes, but nobody suffered more with the loss of Alexei Emelin to injury than Markov. Emelin did a lot of the puck retrieval and heavy work in front of the net that left Markov exposed in his absence. After the pain the man suffered for two straight years, it's not difficult to understand why he might want to avoid the same again, but it doesn't help the team when Markov gives up on the puck to avoid a hit. All that said, given sensible minutes and a solid partner, Markov can be an asset to any team. The problem is, in Montreal, he played top-two minutes against top competition much too often this year. If he were to be bought out, the Canadiens would save $5.75-million on the cap, which is far from insignificant. Without him, both Raphael Diaz and P.K.Subban can play solid PP minutes. And perhaps, it would give Bergevin the chance to acquire a more physical D-man, which is what the Habs really need. Whether there's anyone who fits the top-four bill better than Markov is up for debate.

Brian Gionta will make $5-million this coming season. He's always been a solid point producer, despite his diminutive height, but in the last couple of seasons, injuries have begun to catch up to the 34-year-old captain. Two torn biceps in consecutive years, a broken foot, and an unnamed arm injury have interfered with his ability to be there when his team really needs him. Even if he remains perfectly healthy in the coming year, he's likely good for about 50 points, which, for his salary, would probably be seen as under-producing.  However, Gionta brings intangibles money can't buy. He's tough, determined and passionate on the ice. He's also the captain, and Bergevin, as an ex-player himself, is likely to have a certain respect for that position that would colour his treatment of the guy holding it. So, while considerable money can be saved by buying out Gionta, the likelihood of the GM sending the captain home is very slim. For the sake of one year, pride and class will keep Gionta in the lineup until next summer.

Both Gionta and Markov are players whose contracts Bergevin inherited. David Desharnais is another matter. The tiny centreman has a new deal for four years, at $3.5-million per, courtesy of the new GM himself. Desharnais has always been an overachiever. He was a walk-on in junior, made the team and shocked people with his output. He signed with the Habs and got sent to the ECHL, where he led his team to the championship and was playoff MVP. He started racking up points with Max Pacioretty in Hamilton and the pair translated that to first-line minutes in Montreal. It seemed as though nothing would stop the guy. Then, he signed his big deal with the Habs. It seemed as though other teams caught onto him at the exact same time. He suddenly faced tougher opposition and the points began to dwindle. Too often, he got held up at the blueline, as the linemates who used to make room for him weren't doing that anymore. Now, coming off a disappointing season, he's looking like less of a bet to earn the contract Bergevin has handed him.

Bergevin faces a tough decision here. He obviously had faith Desharnais would be worth the contract he signed. Now that flaws in his game are more than obvious, there's probably a level of regret at the impetuousness of his decision to offer that deal midway through the season. Still, it's awfully tough to admit you made a big mistake in a contract that will cost you for the foreseeable future. For that reason alone, as well as the fact that he's a talented homeboy, it's unlikely Desharnais will be a buyout, but that's not to say it's an impossibility.

That leaves Travis Moen. Moen will make nearly two million dollars for each of the next three years. He was hired to provide grit and muscle on the third or fourth line, and to make sure nobody picked on his smaller, skilled linemates. Unfortunately, he's too often been the go-to winger when a top-six guy is injured; a job at which he's not been notably successful. And, in the bottom six, this past season...the first of his new, Bergevin-sanctioned deal...has been beyond unremarkable. He had only 6 points in 48 games, but, of course, that's not what the Habs are looking for from him. They want hits and grit and fight. He did have 82 hits in his 48 games, but none of them were the kind that make people stand up and say, 'whoa, that guy can HIT.'  He had more giveaways, 11, than takeaways, 2. And, for a defensive guy, 22 blocked shots weren't that many. In short, Moen was pretty much invisible this year, despite his new contract. In the playoffs, he had a clear scoresheet, with the exception of his minus-two and his one misguided major penalty in the ill-fated Game Four against the Senators. He fought four times during the regular season and dominated all four, but none of them were game-changing fights. So, in effect, Moen was fairly invisible this season. That raises the question: do we want Moen to be one of the tough guys this team needs to advance in the league?  The answer is no. However, the relatively small salary he collects, could make the GM lean toward letting him work it out.  The question stemming from that is: do the Habs want a different guy to fill that position as tough guy in the bottom six? Since there are other guys probably available as UFAs this summer, the answer may be in the affirmative.

So, looking at the lineup, Bergevin has choices, but they may practically come down to Kaberle or Moen. Kaberle will save six million over three years. Kaberle saves four over one year. The temptation is to say Kaberle's millions will be better spent on real help this year, when money's tight and bigger parts needed than Moen's money can cover. Then again, maybe the boss has had enough of watching Moen not earning the money he paid him only last year. In any case, we shouldn't be totally shocked if Bergevin decides to buy out someone other than the guy we all expect.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


 I don't usually jump on the "refs did it" bandwagon. Every fan base does that when they don't like the way a game turns out, and I've always thought it a little demeaning to do the same. Last night, though, it happened. Friends and I were watching Game Four...the most pivotal game in most playoff series...between the Canadiens and Senators. When Mika Zibanejad’s third-period goal crossed the line, the replay showed two things. First, that rookie Jarred Tinordi had made a rookie defenceman's error and lost his man on the open side of the net while poking at the puck instead. Second, that Zibanejad kicked the puck into the net. Everyone watching with me said, "That was kicked in." I agreed, but I also said, "The league is never calling that back." Sure enough, the goal stood and that decision led to the spiral of disaster that became the heartbreaking, backbreaking loss.

Lots of people are saying today the Habs lay back and allowed the loss to happen to them.  I disagree.
Every team, especially a beat-up team facing an air-tight goalie, is naturally going to want to cling to a two-goal lead. It's instinctive, and it will happen more often than not. That said, even though the Senators out shot the Habs in the third, they didn't have many real threatening chances. Canadiens were doing a decent job at moving the puck out of their zone and even kept it in the Ottawa zone for stretches, although they didn't get a lot of chances.

When the Zibanejad goal was kicked in...and it set a slightly fragile team on edge. Still, they likely would have held off the Senators for the win without the repeated questionable icing calls and subsequent faceoffs that meant Plekanec, struggling in the circle, couldn't get off. I always understood icing would be called if a team shot the puck the length of the ice, out of reach of the opposing defence. Twice the Canadiens lobbed the puck out, and twice Senators defencemen glided gently along after it. Twice they could have easily retrieved the puck with a modicum of effort, and twice the linesmen called icing. Given enough chances to re-set the play with the man advantage, the Senators would have been pretty brutal if they didn't get a good chance.

The funny thing is, the reluctance of "classy" fans to point at the officiating when looking for the cause of a heartbreaking loss is so pervasive, we're looking to blame anything else. So, the team didn't take enough shots in the third. They had the wrong guy out for faceoffs. They couldn't clear the front of the net. They benched Galchenyuk (who, even his biggest defender has to admit is pretty lost in his own end, a LOT) for the third when they could have used a goal. All of those reasons for the loss are acceptable, but it isn't PC to say the officials played a part.

Well, they did. If that first Sens goal had been called back as it should have been, the rest of the whole disaster wouldn't have happened. If the Canadiens had somehow found another way to lose all on their own, that would be a different story. Last night, though, they had a lot of help from an increasingly weak group of NHL officials.

The loss would have been worse, marginally, if it had been the deciding game of the series. As it stands, without Carey Price, Brian Gionta, Ryan White and Lars Eller and with Max Pacioretty very likely nursing some kind of debilitating injury, the bell is tolling for the Habs today. They may take Game Five at the Bell Centre tomorrow, or they may be completely out of gas. Either way, it's not likely they'll pull off three wins in a row at this point. The win they should have had last night would have given them some life, even with the injuries they face. Now, the Habs playoffs are on life support.

It's not cool to blame the officiating for your team's losing a big game these days. I don't care. The Habs got jobbed.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Goon Show

More fingers are pointing at the Canadiens today than Andrew Ference sticks up at opposing fans when the Bruins are winning. Everyone's got a pet theory about what happened to completely take the Habs away from their game and fall into the trap of attempting to play someone else's. So, today, there are many explanations for why the small, fast Habs tried to out-hit and out-tough a bigger, stronger team. Everyone's trying to pinpoint the minute the Canadiens rolled over and gave up that pivotal game.

A lot of those pointing fingers and weary explanations are directed at Carey Price. Craig Anderson has been very strong in the Senators' net despite facing more shots than Price. The Canadiens goaltender needs to be at least as good if the Habs are to have a chance in this series. In Game Two, he was spectacular. In Games One and Three, not so much. That's why some deconstructionists are saying the tide turned at 1:18 of the third period, when Price whiffed on a clear shot by Senators rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau. That gave Ottawa a two-goal lead that must have seemed insurmountable with the way Anderson was playing. It was all downhill from there.

Other Monday morning critics look instead at the first goal of the game, at 5:58 of the first period with the Habs two men down. That, many believe, was emblematic of the indiscipline that marked the beginning of the Canadiens collapse. Certainly, penalties...many of them stupid...played a big part in the result of the game.

Perhaps, though, the real catalyst of the team's melt-down happened before any of that, and was the result of a penalty that wasn't called. Nineteen seconds into the game, the Canadiens P.K.Subban held the puck just behind his own blueline, and was looking for a passing option. The Senators' Erik Condra bore down on Subban, crosschecking him in the head and knocking him to the ice. It was a questionable hit at the very least, but play continued without a whistle. From that moment on, Subban and the Canadiens were thinking more about hitting back and getting even than they were about skating and speed.

The Senators aren't stupid. They know Subban and Brendan Gallagher are the emotional hearts of the Canadiens. Both players were targets last night, but their responses were very different. Gallagher just kept playing his game as hard as he could. Subban fell into the Ottawa trap. While the Senators were penalized twice in the first period for attacking Gallagher, Subban took his first minor of the game at 12:04 of the same frame. He was called twice more in the second, for high-sticking (a bizarre, after-the-fact penalty on the first Pageau goal that should have been a delayed call and thus negated when the puck went in) and for hooking. At 8:31 of the third, he finally lost it and pummelled Senator Kyle Turris. He ended up getting a fighting major, double minor and, almost mercifully, a game misconduct. In between his trips to the box, Subban was visibly frustrated and fell back into old habits of trying to make dramatic stretch passes and end-to-end rushes. While entertaining, the showy Subban is not the most effective Subban. By successfully taking him out of the game, the Senators removed one of the Canadiens' most important weapons and, in doing so, set a tone.

Subban was frustrated and angry, as evidenced by his completely out-of-line public lambasting of teammate Max Pacioretty on the bench, and so his teammates became. When a player is as involved as Subban, it's hard for his emotion to be contained. Michel Therrien, for all his useful passion in the first two games, lost control of the mood on his bench as well. He needed to call his time out and get his players, particularly Subban, back on track before it was too late. He didn't.

Ultimately, the greatest failure lay with the officials in that game. If the correct call had been made on the head shot to Subban on the very first shift, the referees would have sent the message that targeting certain players would not be tolerated. Subban might have felt justice had been served and he might have kept a better leash on his temper. Instead, the play went uncalled and the Habs, Subban first among them, embarked on a doomed mission to find their own vengeance.

Subban is a franchise defenceman. If he's not playing his game, he's not effective and becomes a pawn of the opposition. He's got arguably as big an impact on the team and its fortunes as Price does. How those guys go, so go the Habs. Last night, Price was soft and Subban angry, and that is the identity their team wore. They have to realize the reffing is terrible and rise above it. If they and the Canadiens sink into the mud, they'll soon suffocate. They have a day to recognize the truth of that. In the meantime, they'll find themselves the targets of a lot of fingers.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Head Games

The Stanley Cup playoffs are defined by many things. They're fast, they're exciting and they're high stakes. They feature games in which players spit out their teeth, calmly hand them to the trainer and keep going to turn in the best post-season performance of their lives. There's no doubt the Cup is the toughest trophy to win in pro sports, and the games are a test of endurance, toughness and strategy as much as they are of pure skill.

There are a couple of Stanley Cup cliches about how to win playoff games. Number one, they say, is to have superior goaltending. When all other things are equal, or even if one team's an underdog, a hot goalie can steal a game or more. Number two, according to the experts, is that defense wins championships. A solid D can shut down the best players in the world. We know cliches are true for a reason because we've seen Patrick Roy, Jose Theodore and Jaroslav Halak steal playoff series for the Habs. And we saw what happened to Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin when the Habs defensive blanket covered them up.

Perhaps undervalued in the lexicon of playoff advantages is the impact a coach can have. It's not so much in terms of systems or in-game adjustments, although those things matter. However, once the playoffs arrive, there's not much a coach can do to alter the patterns and habits installed throughout the season. No, at that point, the coach's role is different. Instead of being the guy who calls out the room or bag-skates a team after a bad game, or who calls an unwanted Sunday practice to work on the power play, he becomes an emotional bellwether. Players look to the coach for direction in what can be highly-charged games with very big consequences.

So, while the goaltenders in the Ottawa/Montreal Northeast Division quarter final have each had an excellent victory and the defense for each team has registered a win, Michel Therrien is beating the emotional pants off   of Paul MacLean.

MacLean's "we're the poor underdog" routine before Game One was disingenuous and a disservice to his players, who fought hard all year to remain relevant. Therrien indulged in no such theatrics. He calmly said his team would rely on good goaltending and solid team play and would keep the style that got them to where they were. Therrien came across as being calm and professional. MacLean looked like his guys needed a reason to get pumped.

MacLean really lost his credibility as an emotional manipulator, however, after Game One, and the devastating hit on Lars Eller that left the Habs player bleeding and unconscious. Rather than take the high road and say it was unfortunate to see a player hurt, or he'd wait to see what the league decided, he decided to blame Canadiens Raphael Diaz for making the pass Eller was receiving when he got hit. Not only that, but in pretending he didn't know exactly who'd been hit or "Player 61's" name, he look like a smug, rank amateur. That's when Therrien ate him for lunch.

His reaction was masterful. He talked about how he was so hurt inside to see a fine player like Eller bleeding like that. He got angry when asked about MacLean's comments, but refused to stoop to  his level and talk about blame on the hit. He was the soul of the righteous wronged and he set the emotional tone for his team. (His reaction may also have had something to do with Gryba's two-game suspension, but we'll never know for sure.) Make no mistake, if Brandon Prust wasn't following the lead of his coach, he would never have felt free enough to call MacLean a "bug-eyed fat walrus." Therrien's show of emotion allowed his players to react with passion as well, and that gave them the mood they needed for Game Two.

With the absence of not only Eller, but Max Pacioretty and captain Brian Gionta as well, the Canadiens needed to rely on the scrubs to take their places. Those are players who need an emotional touchstone to play their best. Ryan White needed a chance after his over-the-edge play cost the team earlier in the year, and he needed the coach to have patience and faith in him. Therrien provided both, and he also gave White the charge of passion he needed to play his best game in the NHL. Jeff Halpern, Colby Armstrong and Gabriel Dumont are loyal soldiers who react well to the feeling that they're fighting in the trenches. With his words and actions, Therrien gave his team someone to rally around, and helped create the feeling he wants his players to carry onto the ice.

It may not be a playoff cliche that among coaches the best emotional manipulator wins, but that's what happened last night. Therrien, having learned from going too far in the past, has become a master. MacLean may win coach of the year, but Therrien knows a few tricks the Walrus still can't pull off.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dear Mr.Molson

Dear Geoff (can I call you Geoff?),

I have loved the team you own for a very long time now. I've loved it for more years than I lived before knowing it. My first sports hero was Patrick Roy, and my first sense of the vicarious thrill of fandom was courtesy of the 1986 Stanley Cup champions. However, since the Canadiens last won the Cup in 1993, things have gone horribly wrong for this great franchise.

I'm not sure what started it. Perhaps it was trading the team's last Hall of Fame player in a fit of anger, or leaving behind the Ghosts of the Forum. Maybe it was the hard economic times in the early part of the century that necessitated the purging of expensive salaries and the talent they attracted. Or maybe it was just the harsh reality of mediocre management getting taken to the woodshed in a league full of cutthroat winners. Whatever the cause, the Canadiens lost their identity.

Last season was the basement floor, both emotionally and in the standings. Something was obviously very wrong within the culture of the team as determined by those in upper management, and the on-ice product reflected that in its dispiriting last-place finish. For the first time in many years, I couldn't watch the ends of games. Sometimes it was hard to even watch their beginnings.

After the season mercifully came to an end, I didn't even care about the looming months without hockey. I honestly expected yet another endless five-year rebuild, considering the paucity of stars in the prospect pool and the number of expensive locked-in contracts on the NHL roster. As it turns out, I underestimated the willingness of a team owner, who is also a devoted hockey fan, to strip the organization down to its bones.

You could have sat there, cashing cheques, knowing the seats in your rink would be full for hockey games no matter how well or how badly the team performed. Some people might have turned away from a poor team, but just as many more would still show up for the hype and the spectacle. You could have let Pierre Gauthier continue along the secretive, alienating path he walked for six years. You could have watched Scott Gomez smirk his way through another season and kept the money you had to pay him to go away.

Instead, you went out and found the best possible person to renew the team's reputation for class and smarts. In Marc Bergevin, you hired someone who knows the game from the inside and who understands the intangible elements of success that go much deeper than just the physical talent available. Even more importantly, you knew enough to stand back and let him do his work. As a fan yourself, I'm sure the temptation to weigh in on hockey matters must have tickled the back of your mind sometimes. You resisted being a butt-in owner and trusted the judgement of the people you hired to make the right decisions.

So far, the turnaround has been more rapid than anyone could have expected. The people who work for you are making sure the Montreal Canadiens are a fun, exciting team again. They're proud of wearing the CH again. They may not win every game, and they may not go very far in these playoffs, but they are once again giving us hope that we'll see a 25th Stanley Cup in Montreal before we die. Right now, that hope is the best thing you could give to fans who were pretty darn depressed about what had happened to the team.

I want to say thanks for bringing in the right people and giving them room to work. And, thanks for loving this team as much as I do.

Go, Habs, Go!