Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Maledictus Anno

The ancient Romans had a term for "horrible year." An "annus horribilus" is a year that isn't just bad...we're not talking people forgetting your birthday or breaking a's a spectacular disappointment in every way. It's how Queen Elizabeth II defined 1992. That year, two of her children got very publicly divorced, her heir, the Prince of Wales got separated after his wife's tell-all book mortified the family and his own embarrassing conversations with his mistress went public, the Royal Family was forced to pay income tax and Windsor Castle burned. That's an annus horribilius. 

The Montreal Canadiens had an annus horribilus in 2012. Andre Markov got hurt in the first game of the season and was out for months. Max Pacioretty was suspended for a hit on Kris Letang, which affected the former's mindset toward physical play long afterwards. The power play was in the basement, so the team traded for Tomas Kaberle who'd later have to be bought out. GM Pierre Gauthier fired coach Jacques Martin and appointed Randy Cunneyworth, whose inability to speak French sparked protests from the most disgruntled purists, as interim. Mike Cammalleri was traded in the middle of a game. The team was eliminated from the playoffs in March and then owner Geoff Molson fired Gauthier. The only silver lining in that horrible year was the opportunity to draft third overall. The team chose Alex Galchenyuk that June.

This season has been another torturous year for fans and, very likely, for the players who just want to win. This time, though, it feels like more than an annus horribilus. No, this year is a maledictus anno. A cursed year. If 2012 was a collection of unfortunate events, 2016 is the year in which everything the team touches turns to garbage. It's really almost unbelievable.

It started right from training camp. GM Marc Bergevin needed size and scoring up front, so he traded for Zach Kassian and signed Alexander Semin. Kassian promptly ended up embroiled in scandal after his early-morning companion crashed his truck into a tree, injuring the player who then ended up in the league's substance abuse program. Semin lit it up in training camp, but when the season started he regressed to the mean of his most recent years in the league and stopped scoring. He was waived and released. The off-season was instantly a bust.

Then the injuries hit. Carey Price, the heart and soul of the team and its best player, first went down at the end of October. He re-injured himself after a brief return and has only been seen since while wincing in pain as he tried to skate. Brendan Gallagher who plays every shift as though it's his last, missed six weeks after breaking his fingers blocking a shot. Ten days after Gallagher's injury, the team's plunge to the cellar began. Coach Michel Therrien, rather than simply replacing Gallagher on the hot line with Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty, decided to mix up all the lines and in the process broke any chemistry there had been in the early part of the season.

When the steep decline began in early December, Therrien blamed "puck luck." As in, the Canadiens didn't have any. While it's a cheap excuse on the surface, it has to be admitted there was a grain of truth in it in this case. The team consistently outshot opponents in the early part of the decline, but couldn't put a puck in the other net to save their lives. Sometimes they'd meet a goalie who stood on his head. Other times, they'd hit four posts in a game, all of which bounced out. They missed breakaways and deflected pucks into their own net. A defenceman misfired on a clearing attempt and it ended up directly on the stick of the sniper in front of his net on more than one occasion. Every mistake seemed to end up as a goal against, while their greatest efforts failed to produce results. Eventually, they lost confidence and started thinking too much about every play, which we know in hockey is the kiss of death. The losses piled up.

Pacioretty, the new captain who had in September talked about how he was honoured to follow in the tradition of the great Jean Beliveau, lost his temper and swore in a very un-Beliveau way about the team's performance in a post-game scrum. It wasn't his finest moment, but might have been redeemed if he'd stepped up with passion and a few goals. He didn't. He has 15 points in the 34 games since the slide began on December 3. Eleven of those points came only after Brendan Gallagher returned from injury. When the team looked to the captain to lead it through adversity, Pacioretty put up four points in 13 games.

On December 19th, all-time great Canadiens player and Hall-of-Famer Dickie Moore died, casting a pall over long-time fans who remembered him helping wreathe the franchise in glory. Modern Bell Centre fans accorded his memory 49 seconds of silence.

In mid-January, Galchenyuk and Devante Smith-Pelly were called on the carpet in Bergevin's office to explain why a gathering at Galchenyuk's place resulted in an early morning incident with police in attendance and an alleged domestic assault by his girlfriend. The press, looking for something other than another loss to talk about, exploded.

P.K. Subban, always a lightning rod for criticism, appeared on video in a profanity-laden pump-up speech in early January. A few days later, he ranted and swore in a post-game media scrum about the fact he's not paid to score goals. For a guy who makes nine-million dollars a year, that statement was more than a little controversial.

In the midst of all the drama, other players went down to injury and young players like Charles Hudon and Sven Andrighetto got called up, only to be relegated to fourth-line minutes and demoted again, even when they performed well. The coaching staff took heat for poor personnel decisions and a system, including a moribund PP, that clearly fails without Price to support it. They allowed former first-round pick Jarred Tinordi to languish in the press box for 30-plus games. In response, Bergevin publicly defended the coaches, saying they won't be going anywhere this year. He dumped Tinordi instead, in a go-nowhere trade that brought goon John Scott in return. The move shamed the franchise because it appeared Bergevin co-operated with the NHL brass in taking Scott just to keep him out of the All-Star game, which spectacularly backfired. Since that decision and the open support of his coaching staff, the on-ice product has only gotten worse.

As the season winds down, Therrien has called out Subban for a loss against the Avalanche. Subban fell down late in the third and the Avs scored the winning goal on a blown 3-on-3 right after. The coach's ill-thought-out comments turned the spotlight once again on the Habs for negative reasons. Of all the players who could have been targeted for failure; David Desharnais with 133 minutes of PP ice time and five points to show for it, Dale Weise, playing in the top-six for most of the year with 25 points in 55 games, Therrien chose to admonish his best player.

All of those things might stem from bad luck or frustration at losing or the logical result of missing the team's backbone for the majority of the year. There are signs, though, that the awfulness of this season is more than just those normal problems. This may, in fact, be cosmic.

For example, just when it seems the year is a write-off and some players can be jettisoned before the deadline in exchange for picks or prospects, two possible guys who could be moved in Desharnais and Tom Gilbert get hurt and can't be traded. Desharnais, in particular, has been one of the most durable Canadiens up until now, missing only four games since the 2012-13 season.

Last weekend, the Canadiens held their annual open practice for fans, at which they tossed souvenirs into the most supportive crowd they've seen since October. A puck thrown by Subban accidentally hit a month-old baby in the head.  It's the second time a Subban-launched puck hit a kid in the crowd. That's not bad luck. That's the universe kicking you in the ass while you're down.

Even the Habs PR team is cursed. They stupidly allowed fan tweets to appear in the team's official Twitter timeline, completely opening themselves to abuse by trolls and haters. Naturally, they were caught out, mortified and forced to apologize.

This season has lurched from one disaster to another in a way that's hard to match without an evil eye trained on the team. Worst of all, just when it seems the Canadiens will drop low enough to snag a great lottery draft pick, they suddenly string together three wins to sabotage their own tank. It's obvious, by now, that they won't make the playoffs. And it appears they'll acquire just enough points to scuttle the draft lottery as well.

It may be a coincidence, or it may not, depending on what you believe about hockey gods and Forum ghosts, that the hallowed old rink that saw so much of the Canadiens legend born, closed twenty years ago this spring. Whatever mystique the team had back then, that made other teams believe the Habs were always a threat because of their charmed existence seems long gone since they moved from the Forum.

Whether bad luck, leaf fans with voodoo dolls or angry ghosts, something is wrong here. This isn't just an annus horribilus. This is a full-blown maledictus anno. This is the kind of thing a team might take a long, long time from which to recover.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Michel Therrien is a stupid man.

That is the only conclusion one can draw after his post-loss comments on Wednesday. To watch a team lose its twenty-third game in the last thirty-two, then decide the latest defeat was the fault of the team's only All-Star was dumb. To then decide it would be a good idea to bench him when the team desperately needed a goal, then call him out publicly and blame him for the loss was the work of an imbecile.

P.K.Subban can be frustrating to watch. Any Habs fan who regularly sees him play has, at some point, yelled for him to just shoot, dammit! However, it's safe to say there have been many, many more times when his brilliant outlet pass led to an important goal or his fantastic skating helped him move the puck out of trouble. With Subban, you know there will be thrills and sometimes, he'll make a mistake. To say he, above anyone else, cost his team the game is pure garbage.

Subban is on the ice nearly half the game and is his team's leading scorer. Ninety-five percent of the time, the play he makes is the right one. In Wednesday's game, the guy fell down. He didn't make a dumb pass like most of his blueline colleagues are wont to do. He didn't take a stupid penalty. He just fell down. When he dropped out of the play, there were still three Canadiens facing three Colorado players. They failed to cover Jarome Iginla when he scored the go-ahead goal. Yet, Therrien didn't mention any of them.

This wasn't a one-off for the coach, either. Right from the start of his tenure, he announced his intention to make Subban a better player and a better person. Yes, the guy who gave ten million bucks to a children's hospital had to learn class and generosity from Michel Therrien, who is not exactly known for his contributions to the community. Therrien has benched Subban for making mistakes and at one time, refused to play him at the ends of games, demonstrating a lack of trust in him. This coach kept his best defenceman off the penalty kill for an entire season. He wouldn't answer when asked whether Subban deserved to make the Olympic team. He banned Subban's "low-five" win celebration with Carey Price. He scratched him for two games after his holdout four years ago because "he had to learn the system." It's safe to say Therrien doesn't like Subban.

At this point though, Therrien's treatment of Subban is ridiculous. The player is fun-loving, kind, generous, talented and classy. He's not perfect, but neither is David Desharnais, who can do no wrong in Therrien's eyes. He's a crappy coach and a petty man who's treating one of the best hockey players around like a mistake-prone rookie. The fact that Subban hasn't punched him out literally or verbally demonstrates the class and patience of the player.

That Marc Bergevin has promised Therrien's job is safe raises questions about the competence of the GM as well. If he can't see that a rotten coach calling out an All-Star for a simple mistake is laughable, well, perhaps he's dumb too. But not as dumb as Therrien, because the coach is a truly stupid man.

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.