Thursday, February 5, 2015

Love, Loyalty and Consequences

Loyalty is a valuable commodity in a me-first business like pro hockey. It's rare that a team will stand by a long-serving player when his value on the ice isn't as high as it once was. The player is more likely to be shopped, bought out, demoted or simply not offered a contract. It's even more rare that a player will stand by a team when that team has tipped its hand about its own disloyalty to him. If a guy finds out the team wants him gone, he'll gather up his gear and his pride and get out of town. Jerry Lewis once said:

"I have a loyalty that runs in my bloodstream, when I lock into someone or something, you can't get me away from it because I commit to that thoroughly. That's in friendship, that's a deal, that's a commitment. Don't give me paper. I can get the same lawyer who drew it up to break it. But if you shake my hand, that's for life."

He might have been writing about Josh Gorges.

Gorges is a hard-knocks type; the kind of guy about whom hockey shows like to produce glossy TV profiles. Never drafted and undersized for an NHL defenceman, he convinced the San Jose Sharks to take a chance on him through his all-heart willingness to throw himself into the path of harm for his teammates' sake. He came to Montreal in 2007 when the Sharks wanted to make a playoff run and decided Craig Rivet would be the solid blueline presence they needed to shore up their defence. At the time, Gorges was bewildered that the team he thought had committed to him would let him go like that.

Gorges, however, was young and he bounced back, throwing all his love and loyalty into becoming a Canadien. He was the guy who took a puck off his head to keep it out of Montreal's net. He was the one who stood up in the room before Game Seven against the Penguins in the 2010 playoffs and gave the passionate speech that spurred his team to victory against a much stronger opponent. And it was Gorges who raised his hand when team management asked for a veteran to open his home to rookie Brendan Gallagher, who then lived with Gorges for two seasons. He was proud to be a Canadien, and that was rewarded in the "A" the team put on his chest and the six-year, $3.9-million per year contract they gave him on New Year's Day, 2012. Needless to say, he was not expecting to be on the trading block once again, just two and a half years later.

Yet, Bergevin sized up his lineup last summer and realized something had to give. The defence needed an upgrade. It had too many left-handers and only P.K. Subban on the right. The corps wasn't very big or offensively minded either. So, Bergevin looked around for a big, right-handed guy who could generate some points from the back end. He set his sights on 6'5" Cody Franson in Toronto. Franson's big, a right-handed shot and can generate offence, even if his defensive sense is sometimes lacking.

So, Bergevin had to dicker with Dave Nonis to find a deal that worked for both teams. Based on his lack of offense, his relatively small size and, ultimately, the contract Bergevin had given him, which would eventually hurt the Habs cap-wise, Gorges was the guy picked to go. Toronto needed a real leader and a guy who would play a stay-at-home role lacking in their defence corps. It looked like a done deal.

Then loyalty, in the form of Gorges' no-trade clause, came charging in to bite the Habs on the ass. It was a funny situation. Gorges vetoed the trade because he couldn't bear to play for the leafs. Why? Because he had given his all to the Habs and couldn't stomach the idea of suiting up for a team his loyalty to Montreal had taught him to hate. In the end, though, the loyalty Gorges felt for the Canadiens ended up screwing them over. Oh, the irony!

Some traitor (likely on the Toronto side, as Bergevin has always been extremely discreet) leaked the offer and Gorges was poleaxed by the idea that his beloved Habs wanted him gone. At that point, he had to go, even if it wasn't to the leafs. His idea of loyalty went both ways, and the idea that Bergevin would let him go broke his heart. So, he nixed the trade to Toronto. That meant Bergevin had to find some other place for him, which every GM in the league knew. Bergevin was over a barrel. He couldn't keep a guy who felt irrevocably betrayed, so he had to take whatever he could get. That turned out to be a Buffalo second-rounder, instead of the usable NHL D-man he really needed.

In turn, the right-handed, offensive-style D-man-shaped hole on defense remained. Enter, Tom Gilbert. Gilbert hasn't been as bad as a lot of critics say he has, but he's not been the big improvement the team needed over Gorges either. Now, even though the Habs have been having a pretty good season, the trade deadline looms and Bergevin is still stuck with the problem of improving his defense before the playoffs start. The issue that should have been solved...or at least addressed with his first the Gorges trade is still an issue.

Franson, who might have really helped the Habs, is now having a strong season on a crappy leafs team, likely looking to cash in as a much-coveted 27-year-old UFA this summer. Gorges is suffering through a dreadful (beating the Habs notwithstanding) season with a terrible Sabres team, losing almost every night. That's got to be hurting his competitive spirit. He's got the second-worst plus/minus in the league and has hit 30 years of age without a chance to win the Cup in his career unless he's traded yet again.

So today, what looked like admirable loyalty back in June has thrown a wrench into Bergevin's plans to improve the Canadiens. The problem now is the price for every decent player who could fit the bill in Montreal has tripled over what it would have cost to get Franson back in the summer. That could mean the Habs will have to be out on the bidding for likely players at the deadline. Having already spent one roster player upgrading that position, Bergevin must think twice about trading another NHLer, and more than twice about throwing picks or prospects away on a deadline deal. The more you think about it, the more it appears Gorges did the team he allegedly loved a big disservice.

Loyalty is an important thing on a hockey team. Without it, players put themselves first on the ice and the team falters. The problem is, NHL hockey is also a business and when emotion, whether on the player's side or management's, interferes in decisions necessary for the good of the group, it hurts the team. That's what happened in the Gorges trade, and now the Habs are paying the price of misguided loyalty.

Or maybe Gorges lashed out after feeling betrayed in the only way he could. There's a conversation to be had about the prevalence of no-trade clauses in this story, but the end result is the same. The Canadiens now have fewer options, just because a loyal soldier said he wouldn't go when told to...turning out not to be so loyal after all. So, perhaps real loyalty in hockey isn't just rare. Maybe it's just a nice idea.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Long Journey Home

In the Middle Ages, if a foot soldier broke his company's rules, he might have been forced to run the gauntlet in punishment. His comrades would strip him to the waist and form two lines facing each other. The offending soldier would have to pass between, while each man beat him in turn, using anything from a metal glove to a club. If the NHL existed back then, the 82-game regular season would be pretty much the same thing. It's long, emotionally exhausting, painful and often dreary. Nobody emerges without physical evidence of having been beaten.

A wise man once said in the regular season all that matters is you finish in the top eight, relatively healthy, and then anything can happen when the real season starts. As we head into the post All-Star stretch, those wise words ring true.

You know how you have a really busy stretch at work leading up to the holidays, trying to get everything done before you have a few blessed days off? And then, in the new year, the let-down hits you in the long, dreary days of winter, with spring looking so far off and work just feeling like drudgery? What do you do? You slack off. Maybe you take a sick day when you're really not all that sick. Or maybe you spend a little more time playing computer games or messaging friends at work than you normally would. Perhaps you push a project back a day or two because you didn't feel like staying late to finish it. The point is, we all drop our intensity level at work from time to time, just because we're tired of it.

Hockey players might play a game for a living, but our dream job is, for them, just a job sometimes. They get sick, or hurt. They lose confidence. They face nights when they're comfortable in the standings and it's a Tuesday night and the worst team in the league is in town and they just don't feel inspired. It happens. The beauty of a house-league regular season is there's room for that. It's not the playoffs in which a couple of stinkers can ruin you.

Of course, we don't like to see the Habs blow a chance to beat a bad team and rise in the standings, especially if we're the unfortunates who paid half a year's salary to watch it happen in person. In the end, however, it's something that might have benefits. A couple of losses like that can re-energize prideful players who get mad at the way they played and bring it for the next game. Those kinds of games also give the team a mental break in the long, long run of an 82-game season. Obviously, the Habs didn't show up against Buffalo (several times) or Edmonton this year. If they had, however, come out in every single game to date with all engines firing and then ended up in first place, what would they have left in April? President's Trophy winners have only ever gone on to win the Stanley Cup eight times.

The regular season isn't for domination. It's for staying as healthy as possible and winning enough games to qualify for the playoffs. It's about building team chemistry and tweaking the lineup and the system to be ready for the playoffs. It gives the GM a chance to call up a lot of young players and check out his available assets before the playoffs. And it lets him see the holes in the fabric of his team so he can pinpoint players to fill them at the deadline as he gives the coaches the best roster possible for the playoffs. It's all about those playoffs.

Witness the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup winners, the LA Kings. In 2012, the Kings finished eighth in the Western Conference, third in their division. They arrived in the post-season a distant consideration behind the powerful St.Louis Blues, the 2011 Cup finalist Canucks, and the perennially contending Red Wings and Blackhawks. Nobody really considered them a real threat to make it to the top of the heap in the tooth-and-claw battle of the NHL playoffs. Yet, they plowed Vancouver over in five, swept the Blues, pounded Phoenix 4-1 and ended it against New Jersey in six games. They were big, tough, strong, healthy and opportunistic.

In 2013, the Kings finished fifth in the conference and second in their division. They didn't win the Cup, but they did go three rounds deep, losing in the conference finals. (Incidentally, that's the closest the Habs have come to a Cup since 1993, the memories of which we treasure as triumphant.) Move along to the 2014 season, and the Kings finished sixth in the West, third in their division. They took the mighty Sharks, Ducks and Blackhawks to seven games each and won because they were strong and healthy. Then they decimated the Rangers to win their second Cup in three years.

Not too many teams have had that kind of consistent playoff success in the cap era. The Kings, however, have perfected the art of slumming it in the regular season and cranking up their game when it matters. Hockey players are competitive and they want to be first. The Kings have figured out how not to care if they win their conference or their division. They don't care about anything except navigating the 82-game house league and getting to the other side healthy and ready.

This is the mindset the Canadiens need too.  The pressure in Montreal to win every game is high, and the team tries its best to satisfy that demand. That's why sometimes the odd night when the effort's not there and nothing goes right is beneficial. It reminds fans the players aren't superheroes, and the players that the regular season is a slog and they're not supposed to be a finished product just yet. A wakeup call that there's work to be done keeps the team from feeling too cocky and helps avoid the trap of heading into the playoffs without having faced any adversity during the season.

So, hopefully, while we're cursing Therrien, critiquing the PP and generally wringing our hands over the shame of losing to the last-place Sabres, there are more constructive things going on inside the Habs hierarchy. The escalator up and down from Hamilton should be giving Marc Bergevin time to assess what he's got in the system, as he's preparing to trade for the right winger and defenceman the team needs for a post-season run.

The Habs have run the gauntlet pretty well so far this year. If sometimes a weak guy gets in a good shot that leaves a bruise, it just reminds them to run a little faster next time. In April, the Sabres won't matter. All that will is how well the team has used their 82 games to prepare for the only season anyone cares about.