Tuesday, February 16, 2016

True Blue (Blanc et Rouge)

Long ago, in the age of Back to the Future and The Goonies, when Ronald Reagan was president and the world's population was only 4.8 billion, a skinny, twitchy goaltender made his NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens. Patrick Roy was unorthodox, brash and a little bit nuts, but he became the touchstone for a generation of fans who were just a little too young to appreciate the '70s dynasty that preceded him.

That impressionable generation watched a team of kids play their hearts out in the spring of '86, led by otherworldly play from Roy, in what would become the last great victory by the Hall-of-Fame veterans. The excitement of that run and the emotion of that victory left an indelible imprint on the hearts of fans who, from that year on, would truly believe if you make the playoffs anything can happen. They believed in the ghosts of the Forum and the magic of the Montreal Canadiens and nothing would ever, ever change that.

Now, here we are 30 years after that thrilling ride to the Cup. That young, idealistic group of Habs fans has seen a lot in the last three decades. One last Cup in '93 kept the home fires burning, but heroes have also been traded or retired since then. Bad trades, bad drafts, bad coaches, missed chances, missed playoffs and broken hearts have followed, but still the eternal flame of Habs fandom burned within the hearts of the loyal.

So, it is with grief and confusion that even the most devoted are now torn between the desire to cheer for the team to win, even though the odds of making the playoffs are dropping faster than the price of a barrel of crude, or embracing futility in the hope of getting a top draft pick.

The latter doesn't sit well with true blue fans. Years of rooting for a team against all odds becomes an ingrained habit and the idea of willingly accepting failure hurts. Yet, in these days of league parity and inexperienced, stubborn team management, what's a fan to do?

Nobody knows if Marc Bergevin actually guessed the team he built was paper-thin without Carey Price propping it up. We only know the numbers last year suggested the team would likely be on the playoff bubble without him, yet Bergevin failed to acquire a reasonable support system for the goalie should he have remained healthy, or to carry the team in his absence. "Trades are tough to make," he says, while other teams seem to make them all the time.

We don't know whether Bergevin truly believes Michel Therrien is the right coach for this team. We see only puzzling decisions about player deployment coming from behind the bench, and a power play that's been three years on life support. Yet, Bergevin says he's sticking with his bench crew and goes to visit the players in the dressing room instead.

Unfortunately for heart-and-soul Habs fans, finishing high in the draft lottery may be the only way to save the Canadiens from their own management. (Then again, the use of the last lottery pick, Alex Galchenyuk, would indicate this team can screw up even a no-brainer.) One thing is certain: if the Canadiens make the playoffs and draft in the middle of the pack, they're probably not going to find a player who'll be an immediate difference-maker. The Jarred Tinordis and Louis Leblancs of the world are proof of that.

The teams at the top now are those who drafted, repeatedly, in the top three. That's how the Captials got Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. It's how the Penguins got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and how the Panthers got Aleksander Barkov, Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad. Sure, some teams, like Dallas (Seguin, Sharp and Spezza) are doing well because their management teams have been astute traders. That option appears to be unavailable to the Habs GM, who has a penchant of handing out large, long-term contracts to middle-of-the-road players, capping himself out of trade contention.

In some ways it's a mercy the Habs have taken this dilemma out of the hands of fans. It doesn't matter if we root for a win or a loss. We just have to wait out the inevitability of it all. The guilt we feel comes in being glad about it, even though we know the worse the team loses, the better the chance it'll acquire a player who can help it win when the perpetrators of the current fiasco are long gone.

There isn't a Habs fan who's ever witnessed his or her team with the Cup who wants to see the disaster this season has become. It stinks. At some level, however, one can't help feeling the team is a hostage right now and the only way out is to draft its way out. It's not much of a silver lining, but it's the only way real fans can hope their way through this. Some will say that's being a bad fan, but really, it just come from being there for the long haul. Those who came on board in those long ago winning seasons know what it's really all about, and if it takes being stoic, or even glad, about an unsalvageable free fall, well, we just have to believe drafting good players will prevail over bad management. Someday.


moeman said...

Very well said J.T. Merci.

UK3X said...

JT, as usual you are so right on the mark with your analysis. The challenge the Habs will have with having to depend on the draft is that they have a GM who is openly committed to a coach who doesn't have even the most remote idea of how to work with a talented rookie goal scorer. Do you think that McDavid would be even close to being considered as rookie of the year if he played in Montreal? He'd be getting 10-12 minutes of ice every 3 games if he was lucky. I've said this on a number of occasions...No one in the world (except Therrien) gives a flying F if Chucky can play D. He's (or was...) a goal scorer. That's why he was drafted as high as he was. Pittsburgh canned Therrien because he didn't have a clue how to manage goal scorers - he tried to make them into D-men. Sid the Kid owes his career to whoever made the decision to sack Therrien. The NHL poster boy is never ever going to be the guy who wins the Selke! I'd rather have Eller as a defensive liability and scoring 40-50 goals a season than as a scared out of his mind backchecking 10 goal a season waste of space.

Mike Safoniuk said...

Always a pleasure to read your articles. I think you encapsulated the fans' angst well here. The elephant in the room is Quebec taxes. My belief is that the Habs have to pay a premium to players to offset the extra taxes that are deducted. So that means that the salary cap is not really a level playing field for that reason.

Steve said...

every institution in this world is faily miserably, Some like the Habs management seem to make a promise and break it more than others.

Ian said...

Ironically, I just had this conversation with my son-in-law, also a Habs' fan. I have been a Habs' fan since the 1950's, saw them win many Cups, and I still want them to win every game they play. When they lose, I am frustrated.

But, given the sad state of affairs, I want them to end up in a good lottery draft situation, so they need to continue losing to do this.

That's hard to accept. Maybe the League owes us some leeway after the John Scott trade to let us drop in the standings while still winning most of the games left?

I want to draft in the top 3 this year, not miss the playoffs and draft in the middle of the pack.

Last night, in Colorado, after MT threw Subban under the bus for a 'selfish play' that cost the Habs the game, it just refueled my hatred of the way he coaches and treats certain players, especially Subban. THE GUY LOST AN EDGE AND LOST THE PUCK! Shit happens! For all he does for the team, Subban continues to be disliked by MT.

FIRE FREAKING MT NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!