Saturday, May 31, 2008

Beating the bushes and chasing the champions

There's a new philosophy in the cap-era NHL. It goes something like this: star players are great, but a team can only thrive on cheap young talent, the operative word being cheap. It might have been funny when Cliff Fletcher said "draft schmaft" fifteen years ago, but today that's sacrilege. Success at the draft table is more important than it ever has been. With free agency only a contract away, teams need to keep the young talent flowing to take the place of that which walks for big bucks when just coming into its prime. Look at today's Stanley Cup finalists. Both the Penguins and the Red Wings' stars were drafted by their respective teams. But Pittsburgh was in the fortunate position of having no-brainer picks in Crosby and Malkin. Detroit had the tougher job of finding jewels in the later part of the draft from where successful teams must choose. That's why their discoveries of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and the rest are impressive. A monkey could have successfully drafted Sidney Crosby. Picking Johan Franzen required some insight and skill.

But picking Franzen had another aspect of Detroit's philosophy inherent in it as well. He wasn't the typical 18-year-old kid at the draft, but a 24-year-old with four years in the Swedish Elite League behind him. He's just one example of how the Wings get talent from everywhere. Dan Cleary's another example. The former first-rounder looked like a bust after the Coyotes...his third NHL team...declined to qualify him in 2005. Detroit saw something in him and gave him a chance to make the team, which, obviously he did...convincingly. It's a good example of why the traditional ways of acquiring players...draft, trade, free agency...should no longer be the only ways. The team that has eyes everywhere and is able to jump on non-traditional players before other teams catch on is going to have an advantage.

Bob Gainey said in his season post mortem said he wants to follow the path Detroit has taken in building its team. He likes the mix of speed and team toughness the Wings display, and if this season was a taste of what that could be like in Montreal, we like it too. He's backing it up by following Detroit's combination of strong drafting and a non-traditional approach to player acquisition. Late-round gems like Jaroslav Halak and Sergei Kostitsyn make Gainey's draft record look especially shiny. Add to that the ninth-round selection of 27-year-old Mark Streit and we start to see some similarities to the way the Wings are doing things.

Gainey undoubtedly has eyes everywhere, and he's using them to find the overage late bloomer, the undrafted and the unexpected free agent. When small, shifty, high-scoring centre Brock Trotter was quietly dismissed from his program at the University of Denver, Gainey was waiting with a contract in hand. When undrafted centre David Desharnais looked to be finished in pro hockey after an unspectacular seven games in the AHL last year, Gainey offered him a tryout and signed him to a contract. Desharnais had 106 points in 68 ECHL games and looks to be ready to move up to Hamilton next year. When undrafted Janne Lahti had a strong season in the Finnish Elite League, Gainey signed him to a North American contract and brought him over for a look-see. When Fabian Brunnstrom decided to give North America a try, Gainey had the Habs in line as one of the three teams with which Brunnstrom considered signing. Of course, all these guys don't work out, but the point is, Gainey's there. He's aware they're available and he's making room in his organization to give them a chance. It only takes one big success at stealing a good player for nothing to make a GM look like a genius.

Now Phoenix's first-round pick from 2004, Blake Wheeler has become an unrestricted free agent because the 'Yotes failed to sign him after he completed his four years of college. Wheeler's six-foot-five and 220 pounds. He's a right-shooting centre who skates well and has nice hands around the net. There's some question about his attitude, but if he's worth a contract, you can bet Gainey will be quietly there with an offer.

It's encouraging to see the Wings in the final, after dominating their playoff so far, because I can see Gainey's serious about following their lead. The Habs' draft team is doing well in the last five or six years. The scouts are finding unheralded but talented players in college and in Europe, and finding them first. In an era when every dollar counts, the Canadiens are doing what they can to find good, cheap talent in non-traditional arenas.

I think Gainey has one lesson left to learn from Detroit, and that's to refrain from throwing huge money and long term at other teams' free agents. The Wings have signed their two premier stars...Lidstrom and Datsyuk to long-term, rich deals. They pay the others, including Zetterberg, who makes 2.9 million next year, and Tomas Holmstrom, who'll bring home two and a quarter million, something between fair and below market value. After they lost Mathieu Schneider last seaon, they chose a replacement on the UFA market in Brian Rafalski, and paid him a rich, but not completely outrageous six million a year. They're not throwing money at a player unless he's the exact fit for their needs, and even then, they throw moderate money instead of crazy money. No ten-million dollar Brieres for Detroit. They're wise with their cash, and that will help keep them on top for years to come.

If Gainey can manage his money like the Wings manage theirs, and if he can keep drafting and discovering players like they do, things are looking up for the Habs and their fans. It's a pattern of success the wise GM would do well to follow. And Bob Gainey is nothing if not wise.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A letter to Bob

Dear Mr.Gainey,

Hope your summer plans are going well. It's almost draft time, then free agent season...exciting!

As a life-long Habs' fan, I have a small request for you as you plan our team's future. Please, please, if you have any regard for the team you've built over the last several years, don't sign Marian Hossa this summer.

Yes, I know Hossa is a good, even great player. He's smart, fast, has a good shot and defensive awareness. But he's not clutch. Our team has proven it can win in the regular season. They finished first in the conference this year. What they need is a playoff winner. They need a guy who can find a way to get that goal when the team is down by one with a minute to go. They need the guy who will sacrifice his body to go to the net and deflect Kovalev's shot. Watching Hossa in the playoffs...he's not that guy.

Hossa will command a LOT of dough this year. He'll be looking to set himself up for or eight million a year for five to seven years...and there are plenty of takers. But, Bob, please don't be one of them.

Signing Hossa would mean less money to keep the Kostitsyns, Plekanec, Komisarek, Price, Higgins, Koivu, get the picture. He'd be nice on Koivu's wing, no question about it. But if Koivu gets hurt, who fills that spot? Right. Bob, you need a centre. You need Mats Sundin. So, if you need to bring in a big name to make fans happy and show your committment to pushing the team over the top in its centennial year, spend the money...whatever it bring Sundin to Montreal.

He's big, he's strong, he's a gamebreaker, and he'd instantly change the complexion of the team for the better. I know his instinct will be to run to Detroit and win a Cup. But Bob, if money will do it, spend the money. If he wants to date your daughter, ask her to help you out. This team needs a big, strong, gamebreaking centre, and Sundin's the one who fits the bill.

I'll leave it in your hands, Bob. You know what to do. I'm only worried you don't know what NOT to do. So, just to refresh, do NOT sign Hossa. That would be a grave, grave error on your part. Worse than signing Briere would have been.


A concerned Habs' fan.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Stanley vs. Gagarin

Okay, well it might be a little early to imagine a clash of the Cups...Stanley in North America versus the new Kontinental Hockey League's Gagarin Cup...but the KHL sees itself as a legitimate, if fledgling, competitor for the NHL. And there's fear in North America, among fans and NHL teams' management that the Russians might be right.

The KHL is basically the twenty teams of the old Russian Super League, plus four other teams that have been elevated from the lower ranks in former Soviet Republic countries. It's backed by big corporate money and the ambition of pride-filled Russian businessmen to bring hockey back to glory in their own country. They're looking at the recent World Championship gold medal win as an important tool in convincing the Russian public that their hockey is world class hockey. Now they want to convince the hockey federations of other countries like Sweden and Finland that the KHL has the potential to be a well-organized, legitimate powerhouse league. An important step in that process would be bringing wealthy Scandinavian teams like Farjestads and Jokerit into the KHL fold. That might be a while away from happening just yet, but the people who are running the new Russian league have big plans to keep their own players, attract new ones and make their league the equal of the NHL.

So far, the players who've abandoned the NHL in favour of playing in the Motherland have been the discontented (Alexei Yashin and Daniil Markov), the fringe (Robert Esche, John Grahame, Petr Cajanek and Chris Simon), the washed-up (Oleg Petrov and Darius Kasparitis) or the unproven (Alexander Perezhogin and Andre Taratukhin.) Of more concern to the brass of various NHL teams is the trend of Russian draftees refusing to abandon their own teams to cross the pond for NHL salaries. The Canadiens alone own the rights to defencemen Alexei Emelin and Konstantin Korneev...both very solid players who'd benefit the Habs' blueline immensely...and 1999 second-rounder, winger Alexander Buturlin, none of whom have played a game in the NHL. That's why top prospect Alexei Cherepanov, ranked in the top three talent-wise at last year's draft, dropped to the New York Rangers at number seventeen overall, even after many assurances that Cherepanov has every intention of finishing his contract with Omsk and coming to the NHL. It's also why Nikita Filatov, touted as the most talented skater available in next month's entry draft behind only Steven Stamkos, may drop significantly. He's likely to be chosen by a team already rich in young talent, which can afford to lose a gamble on a first-rounder who might not come over. Teams with higher picks who are desperate for a turnaround will bank on the sure-thing North American players.

But the tiny trickle of players back to Russia and the reluctance of NHL teams to draft Russian in recent drafts had already been happening before the KHL was formed back in March. Now though, the new league has a structure and form similar to that of the NHL, including a salary cap. And it has some interesting rules that may change the way players look at playing in Russia.

The salary cap, on paper, looks like it will actually benefit the NHL. KHL teams are required to spend between a minimum of ten million dollars and a maximum of 23.5 million on salaries. That total will be divided between 21 regular players who'll make a total maximum of 16.7 million between them, and four "star" players who'll make the other 6.8 million maximum. So if you consider that the average regular salary can be no more than about $795-thousand and the average "star" salary will be about 1.7 million dollars, the numbers don't compare to what the NHL can pay. But it seems as though there will be considerable flexibility within the cap that might include, for example, paying ten players peanuts and giving the other regular players bigger shares of the cash. Or paying just one "star" player the bulk of the reserved star money. Considering the essentially tax-free status of hockey income in Russia, the salaries automatically gain a third to a half of their value over and above a comparable salary in the NHL. And I say the cap will benefit the NHL on paper because there are no rules that say an owner can't handsomely reward a player for services outside of hockey, such as making public appearances on behalf of the parent company. I also haven't come across anything that says players can't receive in-kind bonuses on top of their salaries, which could serve to close the gap between NHL and KHL incomes. Of course, many of the smaller-market teams paying closer to the minimum cap figure won't be able to compete unless the richer teams play fair. It remains to be seen whether the ambition of challenging the NHL at its own game will trump the almighty dollar for some of these owners.

There are some interesting rules about eligible players too. Of the four "stars" on a team, the rules say three can be whomever the team feels like designating a star for salary purposes. But one of the "stars" has to be either a player with 40 NHL games under his belt, a Canadian or American junior player younger than twenty years old and selected in the first three rounds of the NHL entry draft, or a European player who played for his country in the most recent World Championships or Olympics. This is fairly significant, as the new league isn't just targetting young Russians anymore, but is trying to entice players from other countries. The second stipulation is directed specifically at the NHL entry-level contract. Now, if a junior-aged player is drafted, an NHL team has two years to sign that player. Once he has signed, he's subject to entry-level maximum amounts for the first three years he's under contract. The KHL rules would allow a Russian team to draft a young highly-touted North American player and immediately elevate him to "star" status at 18 years of age, with commensurate salary. This basically gives North American juniors a big financial incentive to skip the possible five years of low earnings they'd accrue at home in favour of instant wealth in Russia. It mightn't make much difference to a first-rounder like Stamkos or Tavares will be, with bonuses attached to their early NHL deals. But what about a PK Subban or Ben Maxwell, who, as second-round picks, could be well-paid "stars" in Russia rather than continue to toil in the junior ranks at home?

We won't see that sort of thing happen this year, as the first KHL draft is scheduled for next July. But it's a real possibility, especially for junior-aged players outside the first round. The other criteria for star status, including having played more than forty games in the NHL the previous season, won't change a lot. Hundreds of NHLers fit that requirement, and the real stars will still get the money and prestige they want in North America. It may, however, be tempting for mid-level players, who may still be restricted free agents and looking for a better deal, to find it in Russia. A guy like Guillaume Latendresse, who'll still be making RFA money for the next several years, could make the jump and do well overseas. Of course, he likely won't, since he's playing for his hometown team and is probably pretty happy with his situation. But, the point is, the opportunity is there and if more North Americans decided to go to Russia, the mystery of the place will dissolve and become more of a main-stream option. The Russians foresee a day when the KHL is similar to the old WHA in its ability to compete with the National Hockey League.

Another interesting move is the KHL contract rule that allows a team to sign any player older than seventeen years old. That trumps the NHL draft age by a year, and the rule also stipulates that a seventeen-year-old who signs a contract must sign for no less than four years. Also, each KHL team will have a farm, or junior, team it supports. A team will be allowed to protect its top three juniors from the draft and opt to sign them to four-year-deals at the age of sixteen. And, on top of that, if a team drafts an unprotected player from another team's farm club, it must pay cash compensation to the other team. In effect, the KHL teams will develop their own players and be given every opportunity to keep them from bolting overseas by locking them up to pro deals at very young ages. Would Ovechkin have stayed in Russia if he'd been signed to a long-term deal at sixteen years of age, and paid big money at home early on in his career? We don't know what he would have done, but the next Malkin or Ovechkin or Kovalchuk will have a much tougher choice to make. And for the Russian-born player who would ordinarily spend time in the North American minor leagues, versus a well-paid spot on a team at home, the choice is much easier.

Right now, rosters in the KHL can't be larger than 25, with a maximum of 5 foreign-born players, for a total of 120 non-Russian jobs. That could change if greater numbers of North Americans choose to test the waters in Russia. It's not hard to imagine a player who's having a hard time cracking an NHL lineup take off for a guaranteed, well-paid spot in Minsk. The Russians have big oil money behind them. They're working on a tv deal and expansion into the rest of Europe. They have the desire to make their league as prestigious and influential as the NHL. They have the home-grown talent and the will to keep it at home. They've also fired the first shots across the bow of the National Hockey League, in serving notice that it will be drafting North Americans next year.

I think the Russian league has the potential to be a real alternative, not just for Russian players, but for NHLers and North American juniors who want to enhance their earning potential at younger ages. But I can't see the big stars defecting there just yet. There are rumours that Jaromir Jagr will get an offer of twelve million over two years, tax free. If it's true, and he accepts it, he might be to the fledgling league what Bobby Hull was to the WHA.

Until that first big star breaks the barrier and heads to Russia though, the biggest threat right now is for teams like the Canadiens who have drafted a lot of Russians. The Habs have already seen three of its picks not come over at all, one leave after a couple of North American seasons and another, albeit Belarussian, likely to leave this summer. We've heard rumours of big offers for Andrei Kostitsyn, which he's denied. But if the league takes off, they'll resurface along with offers for his brother Sergei. And if Pavel Valentenko doesn't crack the roster this fall, you can be sure he'll generate some interest in Russia too. Trevor Timmins, like most NHL scouts, has moved away from drafting Russians. But there could still be consequences for having drafted so heavily from there in the past.

The other group that's already feeling the threat from the KHL includes the young players who have grown up dreaming of the NHL and now will find it a lot harder to get a chance in North America. On the other hand, an NHL team that takes a risk on a Russian it believes really wants to play in the NHL could end up with a steal or two. It's becoming a bigger gamble than it used to be, though.

It'll be very interesting to watch the development of the KHL. Will it be a real upstart league like the original WHA, or a fly-by-night dream like the attempt to resurrect the WHA a few years ago? Either way, NHL teams are walking carefully and being very cautious about their dealings with Russians from now on.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Say cheese

I'd like to start out today by saying I'm the last person in the world to censure someone for having a good time. I've been known to have a drink or five. Sometimes, I've bummed a drag off someone's smoke in the process. I have no right to tell anyone else not to do the same thing. But then again, I'm not a pro hockey player, with the hopes of thousands, maybe millions, of fans riding on my performance. I don't have hordes of little kids who idolize me and emulate my every move. Maybe it's not fair that pro hockey players have to live with that kind of scrutiny, but the fact is, they do.

I'm sure today's players aren't any different from the ones who played ten or twenty years ago. Habs have even been traded for their more extreme extracurricular activities in the past. But the internet has changed everything for today's players. What was once seen by a few dozen consenting adults inside a club, or preserved in private photo albums on actual paper, is now electronically recorded, shared and posted online for all the world to see. I don't know if the players don't know that, or if they do and just don't care.

But a bunch of the young Habs prospects who'd been travelling with the team as part of the taxi squad during the playoffs decided to go to Mexico after they were eliminated by the Flyers a couple of weeks ago. Of course, they had their cameras and phones with them and recorded the trip for posterity. The pictures ended up on various facebook accounts, and from there, were copied and reposted by fans all over the place. What was meant to be a fun trip to blow off some steam after a long season has become a series of images that are being dissected by people all over the world. Carey Price is in many of those pictures.

Now, I know Carey Price is a twenty-year-old guy who's dealt with a lot of pressure this year. He's a kid, cutting loose with a bunch of other kids, and really not doing anything terribly wrong in these pictures. But the problem is, he's not just an ordinary kid. He's willingly taken on a great deal of responsibility in accepting the job as the Canadiens' starting goalie. He's a hero to countless kids. He disappointed a lot of people when he didn't perform well in the playoffs and most fans accepted the excuses that he's young and was tired after two long seasons of hockey. It's a bit harder to do that when shots of him looking like a soft-bellied, hard-drinking smoker show up on the 'net. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the soft-spoken Price would be talking for quite a while to dispell the image of him those photos create.

Right now, Price still has the franchise saviour label attached to him, so he gets a lot of leeway with fans and management. But, to put things in perspective, imagine the flak if pictures of a doughy, fag-puffing Michael Ryder showed up online after the season he had? Right. You get the idea.

The internet isn't going away, obviously. And it has its benefits for fans who are able to glimpse their favourite players in candid moments uncensored by the team. But there's a fine line there for players between being accessible and being too real to be palatable. These young men are heroes because they can do things the rest of us can't. Their athletic abilities put them on a pedestal above the ordinary. When their private activities become so public, that pedestal is kicked away. It's a lot harder to marvel at a player's great drive to the net when you've seen pictures of him puking into a flowerpot on the internet.

To us adults, it means little in the long run. We might get angry because we love our team and we hate to see the kids responsible for winning games for it taking less than great physical care of themselves. But most of us are able to accept that the talent we admire on the ice is encapsulated in the bodies of silly, often immature 20-somethings who'll do silly, often immature things. Hell, most of us have done a lot worse ourselves. These days though, schools are doing a great job of teaching little kids that smoking sucks and drinking can be dangerous. What's a kid supposed to think when he googles his hero and sees him with a drink in one hand and a cigarette hanging from his lips?

So maybe the team needs to discuss the need to keep private time private with some of the players. Maybe the players need to think twice about where pictures end up before they pose for some of these shots, or post them online. Because once they're out there, they won't go away. Ever.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hot fun in the summertime

It's finally feeling a little bit like summer. The days are longer, the sun hotter and the hockey no longer nightly. As June approaches, most of us are considering our summer plans. We might be spending time at the cabin, or taking a family trip somewhere. Maybe just taking in the culture and happenings in our own cities for a few weeks. But we all know one guy whose plans are already set. Bob Gainey has a lot of work to do before the real dog days of August set in. We all have our own ideas about what we'd like to see happen for the good of the Canadiens this summer, and our ideas may or may not be on the same page as the Sporting News' Executive of the Year.

There are thirty days left until the 2008 entry draft. Forty-one until the annual free agent free-for-all gets underway. In that time, Gainey must decide what he's doing with UFAs Michael Ryder, Brian Smolinski, Patrice Brisebois and Mark Streit. RFAs Josh Gorges, Jaroslav Halak, Andrei Kostitsyn, Ryan O'Byrne, Maxim Lapierre, Mikhail Grabovski and Corey Locke must be dealt with as well. That's a lot of contract work right off the bat, before considerations of what UFA targets might be desirable, what trades or buyouts are necessary and what players might deserve early contract extension even arise.

I would expect the internal UFA questions will be the ones most easily answered. Ryder and his three million dollar cap-hit will be looking for employment elsewhere. Gainey said as much, when he mentioned in his season post mortem that the team had changed around Ryder this year, with the result that the skills he'd used best in the past didn't fit anymore.

I think the team will continue the youth movement and give Kyle Chipchura the shut-down centre duties, provided he has a good camp, which means Smolinski will be let go.

Brisebois has said he'd be interested in putting in another season. I could see that happening, if Gainey thinks O'Byrne isn't ready for the number-four spot on defence full time, and if Pavel Valentenko isn't ready for prime time, AND if Gainey isn't looking at another veteran D to fill that spot. It would give Carbonneau the option to spell O'Byrne with Brisebois once in a while, and have veteran help on D in case of injury. Of course, the risk is that Carbonneau will continue to overuse Brisebois, as he did at times this year. While it's comfortable for the coach to have that perceived safety net, it also means the younger guys get less time to develop...with the result that you have O'Byrne sitting in the playoffs because he's too inexperienced to play. Faced with that scenario, and if he thinks O'Byrne and/or Valentenko are ready to take the next step, I could see Gainey letting Brisebois go as well, for similar reasons to those behind the Cristobal Huet trade. Without the comfortable safety net, the coach has no choice but to play the kid and let him develop.

That leaves Streit. It's a tough one, because he can play forward and defence in an age when multi-taskers have greater value because they're cap-friendly. On the other hand, he's fairly soft on defence and won't play any higher than the third line up front. Then again, he's got some nice hands and his point totals have risen dramatically every season, up to 62 this year. But, he's going to be thirty-two and will be looking for a long-term deal with a set-for-life salary, which might not fit into Gainey's plans. He's a leader and a good team player who's really paid his dues in getting this far, and he's said his goal is to stay in Montreal. But we heard a similar song and dance from Sheldon Souray last year. The see-saw can really go back and forth as you add up the pros and cons of Streit. What it comes down to, I think, is how badly he would be missed if he walked, and what kind of deal would make him happy. Right now, he helps the first powerplay unit (he gets a pass from me on his miserable playoff performance because he was playing hurt) and has the potential to make the third line an offensively dangerous one. So, unless Gainey has an UFA signing in mind for the top two lines that would allow Sergei Kostitsyn to man the point on the PP while working on the third line, Streit's contributions would be missed. So, if he's willing to sign a two or three year deal for no more than 2-2.5 million per, I think Gainey should do it. If he's not, then it may be time to let him walk.

Of the RFAs, most will be straightforward re-signings. Andrei Kostitsyn and Halak have been rumoured to have Russian teams interested in their services. But with a salary cap coming in the new Kontinental Hockey League (at least in theory), the big salaries for relatively unproven young players may be tougher to come by. I think Kostitsyn likes playing with his brother, and his chances of cashing in for a big payday in Montreal are good if he keeps improving. I would expect him to sign a deal similar to those inked by Plekanec, Komisarek and Higgins last season. I'm guessing two years at somewhere around the two-million per mark is probably close to a fair offer. That way, Kostitsyn is still restricted when the deal ends, at which point Gainey will have a better idea of what kind of long-term deal he deserves. Halak will get a million or so, for two or three years. He should sign, as he's said he wants to be in the NHL at this point in his career, believing he can always try Europe when he's older if his current path doesn't work out. He might not be thrilled with being Price's backup for the foreseeable future, but if he's smart, he knows the best way to get an NHL number one job and the accompanying salary is to play his best when he gets a chance. He knows too that Price is far from a proven commodity right now, and he could get more games than originally planned if he plays well. His options are limited, and not necessarily better anywhere else than they are in Montreal.

Gorges will command a healthy raise, as he's proven he can play in the NHL and has gotten better and better with every game he's played. He deserves a million and a quarter for each of the next three years. O'Byrne should get three years for something between 850-grand and one million, as should Max Lapierre. Grabovski's a toss-up. He has skills, but hasn't been able to be consistent in the few chances he's received at the NHL level. Given a long stretch to play, he might show more, but at nearly 25 years old, he'll be thinking of making some money now. He's the one who'll likely take his chances in Russia if he can, as his NHL salary would likely be in the half-million to three-quarter million range based on his performance to date. If I were Gainey, I'd offer him two years at 750-thousand, but he'd be quite likely to reject that. And if Corey Locke is signed, it would be to trade him, I think. He's yet to prove himself worthy of a long shot in the NHL, and with guys like Brock Trotter coming up behind him with similar size and skillsets, Locke's time with the Habs might be up.

I don't know if Gainey has any plans to make a big trade at the draft, but considering the team's lack of picks this season (just five), I would like to see him turn Mathieu Dandenault into a draft pick. Dandenault is a great guy by all accounts, and one who was willing to come home to Montreal when many others weren't. But he spent a good part of this year in the pressbox, and with more young players pushing for a spot, he's not likely to get more ice time next year. Rather than see him languish unhappily, taking up a roster spot and 1.7 million dollars worth of cap space, I'd like him to go somewhere where he can play...even if it's for a sixth or seventh-round pick.

There's no doubt Gainey's got a lot of thinking and planning to do while the rest of us are off sunning ourselves. Once he gets his own house in order, which should start happening in the next two or three weeks, we can start looking toward the draft and July 1...two days in the bliss of summertime that bring hockey, in all its chaotic glory, back into our collective focus.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The ups and downs

Hockey's a weird game. I was watching Dallas and Detroit's game five yesterday and boy, how things have turned around since the beginning of the series. For the first three games, Detroit looked like an indomitable less than the class of the field and the best team in hockey. People were talking about Chris Osgood as the Conn Smythe winner and expecting a Wings' sweep of the Stars. Two games later, and there are visible chinks in the armour. The mighty Lidstrom is making errors, Osgood looks human and Datsyuk and Zetterberg can't score.

I don't get it. How can a team that looks so impressive one day look so vulnerable the next? It underlines how very difficult a task it is to win the Stanley Cup. Even the very best can look like chumps on occasion. I guess the difference between a contender and a wannabe is the best teams are able to stop the slide before it's too late. That may be what it really means to "learn to win." It's the experience of playing badly as a team, as every team does sometimes, but in the process, not forgetting what made you good in the first place. It's being able to think about what you did right, and then do it again, even in the face of adversity.

That's the lesson I hope the Habs took from this year's playoffs. They started to make mistakes and it seemed like they forgot what got them there in the first place. The Red Wings, on the other hand, made mistakes, but I believe we'll see them come out tomorrow and calmly get back to the fundamentals that made them the number one team in the league. That's what I think the young teams need to learn the most.

We'll see if Pittsburgh comes out and ends Philly's season today. They played a poor game in game four, and looked rattled at the end. They've had a year on Montreal to learn how to put things in perspective and win when it counts. If they can pull it together convincingly, it'll give me hope the Habs can do it next year.

The other alternative is to be another Ottawa. A regular-season powerhouse and postseason choker. That's a team that's never learned to put a bad game behind them and remember why they were good. They panic and sweat and mentally collapse every year. Which seems to underline the fact that mental resolve may be the most important factor in building a winner in hockey.

Detroit's a great team. So is Ottawa. But one can pull it together and look within to find solutions to their problems before it's too late. The other dwells on the problem and sinks deeper and deeper into it without finding an answer. I think the Habs are building to be more like Detroit. Gainey has made no secret of preferring players who have been chosen to play for their national teams, and who have been captains of their minor and junior teams in the past. He believes, and I have no reason to doubt him, that those are indicators of players with resolve and determination. They're the kinds of players who can put the brakes on a slide and who have the mental strength to look beyond their immediate problem and focus on the truth of their abilities.

I hope that's what well see next season. Unless, of course, Detroit founders in the next couple of games and blows this theory straight to hell. Then I don't know what to expect, because hockey's a weird game.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The greatest team in history

Thirty-one years ago today, Clarence Campbell passed out the Stanley Cup for the last time before handing the reins of NHL governorship over to John Zeigler. It was in Boston Garden, and the great trophy was received by acting captain of the Montreal Canadiens, Serge Savard, after the Habs swept the Bruins in four straight games. It was the Canadiens' twentieth Stanley Cup.

That 1976-77 Canadiens team was the best NHL squad in history. Some will argue for the '80s Oilers, but though they were great, the Habs had them beat on defence. They were better in every way than the '80s Islanders and the '90s Penguins and Devils. Perhaps the '50s Habs could compare in many ways, but I maintain the '70s version of the Canadiens was deeper and faster than their earlier incarnation. In 1976-77, the Habs had sixty wins against only eight losses, only one of those on home ice. Imagine...eight losses over an entire season?! That team outscored the opposition by an incredible 2.76 goals per game, scoring two hundred more goals than they allowed. There are teams today that barely score that many goals per game at all...never mind outscore the opposition by that much. The Habs finished 26 points ahead of second-place Boston, and Ken Dryden had ten shutouts, with another four in fourteen playoff games. Various Canadiens won the Vezina, Art Ross, Norris, Jack Adams, Pearson, Hart and Conn Smythe trophies. Four of the first team all star spots and one second went to the Habs. The team went undefeated at home from November 1, 1976 to April 2, 1977, a total of thirty-four games including 28 wins and six ties, a record that still stands today. Other records that team still holds: most points in a season, with 132 and fewest losses, with the aforementioned eight.

Many members of the Canadiens from that team have gone on to influence the league by coaching and managing other teams. Larry Robinson won a Cup behind New Jersey's bench. Jacques Lemaire is one of the league's most respected and successful coaches. Doug Risebrough and Bob Gainey have become well-regarded general managers. There are many others.

Last year, on the thirtieth anniversary of that team's Cup win, I had the privilege of speaking with several members of it to reminisce and talk about how their legacy has changed the game. Here's some of what they had to say:

Rick Chartraw:
"I remember a funny story one time. I think it may have been a playoff game. It was the morning skate and we were playing Boston that night, and Boston was in town. We skated in the morning at ten o'clock and the other team would go on the ice at eleven o'clock for a warm up. Gerry Cheevers was sitting on the visitor's side of the rink at the Forum, watching us go through our morning skate. We had Kenny in one net and Bunny in the other. And the guys were just ripping shots at every corner, over shoulders, between legs, not taking anything off of them. And Gerry Cheevers...I was standing next to the boards...said, "The way you guys abuse your goaltenders, I'm gonna be sick." And we didn't think we were abusing them, and our goaltenders didn't either. It was their job to be challenged whether it was in practice or in games, to the nth degree. It was the way we did things. We did things at full throttle, whether it was practice or games. I think that's what made the games, for us...not easy...but easy to play at that level because we just always played at that level, whether it was practice or games."

"We weren't just the fastest team in the league, or the best puck movers, but we were also the toughest. We had ten guys on that team who could take on anyone else if need be and win. I think other teams, who years prior tended to try and take advantage of Montreal because they were known as just lightweight skaters, found out that we could play very very physically and if need be, go toe to toe with anyone in the league and come away winners. And we didn't just have all this talent, and leadership and a coach who understood the game so well and how to put players together, but we were also the hardest working team in the NHL. In practice, when you were doing sprints, everyone was hugely competitive. Guys were going as hard as they could, all the time."

"I just remember, sitting on the bench, there were times when...Scotty would stay very close to the vest and move lines in and out off the bench, and not be too animated as long as the game was close. I remember times when the guys would say, "Let's keep it close," so we could have peace on the bench. And then at the end of the game, we'd turn it on a little bit and get it to the next level and walk away with a win. The team was so good that we could play it that way sometimes."

Doug Risebrough:
"We're all here today trying to figure out what does team mean. And, to me, the best example of it was that era, when the Montreal Canadiens were a team. Why were we a team? We were a team because there was a tremendous respect for each other in the room. There was a respect that we were different, English or French, there were differences, but there was respect that we were all doing it together. As a young player, I thought the veterans on the team treated me outstandingly. They included me, they were interested in me. That wasn't the case in other organizations. It was a team in that you had a role, and if you did your thing, we'd all be successful. And everything that was pounded into us, and that came natural to the people that were there, was always a consideration of doing something that was good for the team. It was the best team, that had the best players in the league, and we all made sacrifices for the team. And the best players made more sacrifices, but they were the best examples."

"I remember the people more than I remember the games or the moments. And when the team is as good as it was, everyone thinks it must have been easy. Well, there's adversity in those years. You see people raw, and they need help. And you're there to help, or somebody's there to help you."

Steve Shutt:
"The memories that I have of that team is that we were a genuine team. Lafleur was no more important that Dougie Jarvis, and he wasn't treated any differently. And that might be the biggest difference between our era and hockey right now. I remember going into the dressing room and just being happy to go in there because they were a good bunch of guys and I genuinely liked them."

"You see the guys who've gone on in hockey and really have set the tone for the NHL for the last decade. All of these guys that have gone into the league and really defined the Montreal Canadiens' style, which is hard work and really compete in every game. I think you're going to see we made more of a difference when we retired than when we actually played the game."

Murray Wilson:
"We'd won the Cup in '76 and I guess we were a little cocky. But Scotty never let anyone get cocky for very long. He had different ways to cut you back to size. I remember training camp that year a little bit. Scotty basically said, "You think you're good, do you? Let's see how good you can really be." Montreal Canadiens training camp started off with one win the Stanley Cup. And it started on the first day. Other teams' aspirations maybe weren't that lofty."

"I've always wondered if they actually had a recipe for us and put the ingredients together? Or did it just kind of mold and meld its way as we went along as individuals, as hockey players, as performers?"

Ken Dryden:
"It's something that in some ways can be haunting. You don't really replicate that environment (when it's over). You can't do it for lots of reasons, yet you're stuck with that image inside you that draws you and drives you and you can't quite achieve again. But it's fun in the trying, and it just makes you better in everything else that you try."

"As the Flyers were winning, everybody wanted to be like the Flyers. So, I think it's important that we won. I mean, there are good teams, there are great teams and there are important teams. There are a lot of Stanley Cup winners, and many of them are great or near great teams. There are not very many that are also important teams. I think the Montreal Canadiens of that time were also a very important team."

So, as we watch a very good Detroit team try to oust the Stars tonight, let's raise a glass to that important team that thirty-one years ago today, finished the greatest season in NHL history.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Not ready for goodbye

Wow. I thought I was ready to say goodbye to the Habs this year. They played a great season. There's so much hope for the future. I thought I'd accepted their ignominous departure from the playoffs as an inevitable part of their development as a team. But I'm not ready. This is crap!

It's been what? Ten days since their elimination? It feels like ten weeks. Usually when the Habs don't make the playoffs or they get dumped out early, I take solace in watching the other teams play. I pride myself on being a hockey fan...not just a Habs fan. But this year it's really tough. I admit, watching the Dallas/Detroit series is fun because Ribeiro is getting trounced and it looks good on him. But the Philly/Pittsburgh series is killing me. Montreal should be there.

I don't know exactly what happened to the Habs in the second round. I know, theoretically, that they got bad luck, a hot opposition goalie in Biron and poor goaltending of their own. But watching the Pens own the Flyers makes me think Montreal should really have taken Philly down. I hate watching that series, because I know not only should the Habs be in it, but they'd also being giving the Pens a better challenge. It'd be more fun for the fans too. Speed on speed, offence on offence. It would have been great.

I have to give the Flyers credit. They did what they had to do against Montreal. They were, when it counted, the better team. But I hate that they're just going to fold against Pittsburgh. I want the team that beats Montreal to be the Cup winners. Not an also-ran team that gets killed immediately after eliminating the Habs.

So, here I am, watching the World Championships to catch a glimpse of Koivu or Plekanec or Markov in an effort to feed my Habs addiction. (Speaking of which, does anyone think there's the slightest hope Koivu might persuade Selanne to give Montreal a try for a year? I'll live in hope, because that would be impressive, to say the least.) I'm planning for the draft that's 38 days away, in the hope that Trevor Timmins picks a nice big centre we can drool over for the next dozen years. (I have favourites, which I'll blog about closer to the draft.) I'm getting excited over announcements like the signing of Ryan White, which I think is just great. But the rhythm of the season, the three-a-week game days is missing and I miss it. I don't do off-season well.

Anyway, fortunately, neither the Pens nor the Flyers are going to beat the Wings. Detroit for the Cup. I'm calling it now. But damn...I wish they were playing the Habs for it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wishin' and hopin'

I don't know what I was really expecting, but yesterday I listened to the complete audio of Bob Gainey's season post-mortem, with Guy Carbonneau on hand to play Robin to Gainey's Batman, should the need arise. (Thanks to Dave Stubbs at Habs Inside/Out for thoughtfully providing the audio for all the out-of-towners and/or people who work during working hours.)

Anyway, out of fifty minutes of audio, I gleaned three vital points of interest. One, Gainey doesn't think Michael Ryder is a piece of crap, but believes instead that the team just outgrew Ryder's style and abilities. Fair enough. At least we can deduce from that the concrete fact that Ryder will not be back in Montreal next year. Two, Gainey thinks the team is set in goal and is developing enough defencemen in-house to meet the team's immediate and future needs. He will be looking to tinker with the forward lines, looking first at Hamilton, then the rest of the league for candidates. And three, Guy Carbonneau's dedication to his lucky ugly tie for some inexplicable reason induced hundreds of other men to send him their ties in the mail. Okay then.

Gainey, of course, gave no indication whether he's This close or T h i s close to landing UFA-candy Fabian Brunnstrom. We don't know if he's planning to bring back Smolinski or the Breezer. We've no idea if he's already negotiating a new contract with Andrei Kostitsyn or planning to work on long-term extensions for Plekanec and Komisarek. There's no clue about what he wants from this summer's draft or who with Hamilton might be ready to make the jump to the NHL in his view. Basically, any questions we would have liked to have him answer will remain mysteries until the plan is revealed in the fullness of time. He says he hasn't had time to assess the season and think about these things just yet. Yeah, okay, I...a humble blogger...have had time to think about them, but Bob Gainey...GM extrordinaire...has not. Right.

It was mildly disappointing that Gainey let slip so few glimpses of what that plan might entail. But realistically, he has nothing to gain by outlining the details for us now. If he were to say that he's signing Streit, Brunnstrom is coming, Komisarek will ink a six-year deal and he's trading Dandenault for scrap on draft day, we'd all have fantastic expectations of those events actually taking place. But a lot can happen. Streit might decide he wants a longer-term deal than Gainey wants to give him, Brunnstrom could opt for Sweden West at the last moment, Komisarek could decide he'd like to check out the market next season and there might be no takers for Dandenault. So, Gainey, as frustrating as it is for us, is smart to keep the plan to himself until he's got a signature on paper to announce.

That leaves us with three months of speculation and theorizing to do. We all have our pet visions of what lines we'd like to see, who we'd trade for whom and what UFA we'd like to target. I certainly have mine. I think one of the weaknesses the team faced in the playoffs, and all season, was the vulnerability of the defence to a strong forecheck. I think Ryan O'Byrne did a fine job in his rookie year. Josh Gorges improved by leaps and bounds. But on a serious contender, both young men would be bottom-pair defencemen right now. They're neither as experienced nor as quick-thinking as they need to be to play top-four minutes just yet. Francis Bouillon is tough, and a great skater, but he's small and often finds himself out of position in his own zone. Streit is inconsistent and Brisebois is incapable of playing big minutes. So, if Gainey were thinking of making a serious run at the Cup in the club's centennial year, I would hope he'd add a fourth legitimate top-four D. Brian Campbell would be a dream, but with Mike Komisarek still to be extended and Pavel Valentenko, Mathieu Carle, O'Byrne and Gorges needing NHL time to learn and develop, it's more of a pipe dream. There's no way Campbell will settle for less than five million a year, and he'll want a long-term deal. Both factors would hamper Gainey's ability to grow the defence corps from within. This, I suspect, is why he's expressed his contentment with the D. Basically, he can't improve it significantly without creating a logjam amongst the developing prospects. And of course, once you do that, you risk stunting the young guys' progression and reducing their trade value should you decide to move them.

So, by default then, Gainey is looking at improving the forwards. The first name that jumps out at me from the list of unrestricted free agents, and the one that would make the most immediate impact on the team without requiring a super long-term contract, is Mats Sundin. I know, I know...he's got blue and white stamped all over him. But he's everything the Canadiens need. He's a big, strong, aggressive player who's hard to move off the puck, hard to push away from the net (where he likes to go,) and is like a runaway freight train when there's a minute to go and the team needs a big goal. Thinking of Sundin, Plekanec, Koivu and Chipchura down centre is enough to make me drool. Imagine Sundin with Sergei Kostitsyn setting him up and Latendresse working the puck off the boards for him. Imagine the reunion of the Higgins/Plekanec/Andrei Kostitsyn line that lit up the scoreboard at the end of last season. Picture Koivu with Kovalev and a hungry D'Agostini or (gasp) a second free agent acquisition like Andrew Burnette or Ryan Malone. Dream of a shutdown line of Chipchura, Kostpolous and Begin. Of course, I'm not trying to predict line combinations point is the addition of a guy like Sundin could shake up the forward lines dramatically, giving the team three potent scoring lines and a decent checking line.

I think Jaromir Jagr would have the same kind of impact. Brian Rolston would help, to a lesser degree. I wouldn't mind seeing any of those older guys signed to a two-year deal with the Habs, if Gainey could reverse all the hard luck of his past free-agent acquisition attempts and convince one of them to move to the Mecca of hockey. What I don't want to see is Gainey breaking the bank on a long-term deal for a guy like Marian Hossa. Sure, he's great. But the price would be problematic when all the young Habs need to be re-signed. The years would be great while he's producing, but problematic if he slows down. I cringed at the rumoured deals on the table for Briere and, to a lesser degree, Ryan Smyth last year, not so much because of the cost, but because of the term. I wouldn't want to hang my team's future on a blind bet that these guys will be both healthy and productive six or seven years from now. That said, I still don't think Daniel Briere is worth ten million bucks this year.

I'm taking heart from Gainey's comment in yesterday's briefing that he's found a pattern of management that works for him; one that doesn't involve any fifteen-year contracts. I hope the success the team experienced this season with its low-cost, home-grown players helped prove blowing the budget on one big star isn't the way to go for the Canadiens. I like that the players are growing up in the organization together and developing a rare kind of chemistry. Hopefully, the wise addition of a couple of parts will make the team better in a year when expectations from within and without will be very, very high.

Whatever happens, though, we'll have to wait and see. We can dream all we want to, but Bob Gainey, the Sphinx of Montreal, isn't about to tell us if our dreams are coming true.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Carey Price

I had a bit of an epiphany last night. In the absence of Habs hockey, I figured the next best thing was Habs' prospect hockey. So I tuned into Game 3 of the OHL final between the Belleville Bulls and the Kitchener Rangers. Habs' 2007 second-round pick P.K.Subban plays defence for Belleville, and 3rd-rounder Yannick Weber is on Kitchener's blueline. (In the game, powerhouse Kitchener went up 3-0 in the series, with a 5-3 win...Weber had an assist, Subban was shutout...but I digress.)

Anyway, what caught my attention was the goaltending on these teams. Both goalies made some nice saves...Parker Van Buskirk stopped 45 of 50 shots for Belleville...but they looked like junior goalies. Kitchener's Josh Unice was a third-round selection of the Chicago Black Hawks last year, but he still looks like it'd be a big jump for him to play AHL-calibre hockey next season.

Watching them, I started to think about some of the big name kid goalies that are projected to carry their franchises in the NHL at some point in their careers. Tuukka Rask, first-round pick of Toronto and now a Bruin's prospect, is supposed to be their number one goalie in a few years. This season, he played four games for Boston...the rest in Providence, where he was the AHL's number two goalie (interestingly, behind Habs' brief insurance goalie, Michael Leighton) with a 0.929 SV%. Jonathan Bernier, picked eleventh overall two years ago, and who's supposed to be the Kings' saviour in net, was ranked fifteenth in the AHL, with a SV% of 0.908. Leafs' goaltending future Justin Pogge is playing second-fiddle to former NHL also-ran Scott Clemmenson with the Marlies.

Thinking about all this as I watched the OHL finals made me realize, with a sudden clarity, as though someone had switched on a light in my head, Carey Price was playing where these guys are playing last year. He has gone from the world of the Unices and Van Buskirks, past the world of the Pogges, Berniers and Rasks, to the realm of the Brodeurs and Luongos in one season. When you consider his stats in the NHL, behind a defence that ranged from brilliant to porous on any given night, and realize that his 2.56 GAA was nineteenth in the league, and his 0.920 SV% ranked him seventh, it starts to sink in. He's not only playing with the big boys, while his highly-touted contemporaries are still playing junior or American League Hockey, but he's competing with the big boys too.

Something he said in the post-game hush of the subdued Habs room on Saturday night sticks with me. He talked about feeling like he'd played for two straight years. He'd gone from Habs' development camp in September of 2006, straight into Tri-Cities regular season. He missed Christmas break that season to win the world junior championship, then joined the Hamilton Bulldogs for the Calder Cup playoffs which didn't wrap up till almost mid-June 2007. A brief six weeks later, he was heading into camp in Montreal and played 41 regular season games and eleven playoff games. Who could blame him for saying "I don't want to look at my equipment for three months?" That's a hell of a lot of hockey for a 20-year-old to play. And it wasn't just any kind of hockey. It was high-intensity, high-profile hockey, both as the number one goalie in Tri-City and then in Montreal, and in the playoffs...junior, AHL and NHL. When you consider what he's faced and conquered since training camp, 2006, and then compare that to what his contempories have done, it's pretty incredible.

Yet, we've been judging him on the same criteria as we'd judge an established NHL goalie. I know Bob Gainey chose to take that risk and put that pressure on Price. But in hindsight, it may not have been a mistake in that Price isn't able to handle the pressure or the NHL competition, but that he was too burnt out to keep up his high level of play consistently through this year's playoffs. In retrospect, maybe the team should have been less concerned with finishing first overall and instead played Jaroslav Halak more down the stretch.

In any event, watching other young goalies, just a year removed from where Carey Price was this time last season, I realize what a special talent Price really is. I'm disappointed he was outgoaled by Marin Biron this year, but I think it won't happen again. I think three months off and entering the season in Montreal as the undisputed number one goalie will cement Price as the NHL goalie he's destined to become. I think we haven't seen what this kid can really do, and when he comes back with a rest and a clear head, he's going to make us realize why he was able to follow the trajectory he has, and why the other goalies his age are just a bunch of other goalies.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

What a ride!

Well, you have to admit, it was a great ride. Who would have thought, back in September, that we'd still be talking hockey in May? Honestly, not many of us. So, yeah, it was a successful season.

There are issues, though. For next season. But since we have lots of time, I'll blog about them tomorrow.

Thanks, Habs for a wonderful season. Thanks for not losing more than three in a row all year to keep our spirits up during a long winter. Thanks for showing the youth can really contribute. Thanks for being exciting, and fast and fun to watch. You were great, and this loss doesn't take away from that.

I'm sad tonight...especially because I really threw my heart into rooting for a win. I hope Carey's lousy performance means Karma will even up and he'll steal a couple for his team in the future. It's hard to swallow losing to an inferior team. But, such is life. And the beat goes on. We'll be back next year...that much more experienced and qualified to make a good run.



Okay, what the hell. I've been keeping the hoping at arms-length because I've seen this before. The odds are so long, and the chance of a comeback so slim...when you look at the big picture. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit is really hard. But, still, when you look at it as one game tonight on home ice, after everything going against Montreal in the three previous games, you have to think something's gotta give.

Alex Kovalev can't have completely forgotten how to score. Chris Higgins is due. So is Andrei Kostitsyn. Goals from the defence have been more rare than normal and the PP still has the same guys with the same skills. No way is Carey Price as soft as he's appeared so far. Oh, yeah...something's gotta give.

So, I'm throwing my heart out there in belief. All week, I've been preparing myself for a loss, and getting ready to say goodbye to the season and the team as we know it in its 2008 incarnation. That way, if the loss happens, I won't be crushed, yet again, by great hopes coming to naught. But, that's the safe way. I think holding back and looking at things with cynicism means you don't feel the losses as keenly. But, you don't feel the victories as deeply either. That's why I've decided to expect a win. I'm believing in a win. Just one win tonight, to take the wind out of those arseholes' sails. I'm going to put my heart into rooting hard for that win to happen.

I will not expect every Flyer play to end up in a goal. I will not complain about the Habs' missed chances or the penalties called. I will anticipate every Canadiens' rush and PP as the one that will put them over the top. I will believe that tonight, the Habs will not only be the better team on paper and on the ice...but on the scoreboard as well.

When the final siren wails, and the team is standing at centre ice to salute their fans, I will raise a toast to the great season they've had...and the win. It will be balm to the beleaguered fan's battered ego to see the Flyers leave silently, heads down, wondering what the hell hit them. I will cheer when the team congratulates Price after it's over.

The Habs have every reason to win. They have every advantage in being on home ice. They're due. They've shown heart and dedication all year. They will prevail.

We'll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The bright spots

Okay...deep breath...I think I've vented enough about the rotten parts of losing in the playoffs. Time to look on the bright side (cue Monty Python whistle). There are actually a whole lot of things I like about the Habs in these playoffs, even if they're not all working to get some wins on the board.

I really like Josh Gorges. He's not the biggest D out there, but, man, is he tough?! I've seen him get pounded time after time and still get up for more. His defensive play is getting better and better, and yesterday I saw him twice take out bigger Flyers one-on-one, neatly taking the man instead of the puck. He and Bouillon have formed a nice, reliable third defense pair, and Gorges has been one of the top three D-men on the ice for the Habs on many nights.

I like Carbo's stupid tie. For years, other teams have had talismans of some kind, like the Flames green hard hat they gave to the hardest worker in each game during their Cup finals run two years ago. I think it's a sign of a tight team when they can publicly admit they have a good luck charm like the tie. That's a good thing, even if the tie is hideous.

Tomas Plekanec is making me happy. He's not the biggest guy out there, and he's used to having more time and space to do his thing. He struggled in the Boston series under tight checking, but he's adapted and the last few games against Philly he's looked more like himself. His claim to fame is that he never quits and works hard on every shift. We're seeing that now, along with his opportunistic visits to the Flyers' crease that have resulted in a couple of desperately-needed goals. He's taking a page from the captain's book, and I like it.

Speaking of the Captain...what can you say? He's a playoff guy and it shows. Hurt, tired, under pressure, he always comes through when it counts most. I'm proud to say he's the leader of my team.

The signs of future brilliance from Carey Price are comforting. When it mattered, in game seven, he came through with a shutout. He'll get better with the consistency as he matures, but that was some fine goaltending under the gun.

Maxim Lapierre on the penalty kill. He's doing a great job, and his speed is helping to bother the opposition. He doesn't actually do much with the puck when he gets it, but he's really good at making sure the other team can't do anything either. And that has value.

Sergei Kostitsyn is consistently making some beautiful passes, and when he learns to control his chippiness a bit better and and stops looking for his brother exclusively, he'll be a deadly playmaker. We forgive Price a lot because he's just 20, but we forget, Sergei is from the same draft. So is Latendresse, who also is frustrating in his youth and needs time and patience.

The no-quit attitude. No matter how big a hole they get into, both on the board and psychologically, they somehow find the mental fortitude to regroup and fight back. It doesn't always work, but they keep trying anyway.

All of these things make me think this team isn't a one-year wonder, and will be back with a vengeance next year. Who knows? Maybe they'll even get it together and scare Philly a little before it's all over. Whatever happens, I like them.

A top ten

Top ten reasons I hate the series with the Flyers:

10. The smirking. I really, really hate the Orangemen foregoing all the rules of sportsmanship and laughing at the Habs while they're down. And freakin' Umberger, raising his arm to celebrate the empty-netter with two seconds to go. What an ass. If I were the Habs, I'd pull a Brodeur and refuse to shake any of their hands when this is over.

9. Biron. There has never been a goalie as lucky as this in life. I know the Habs are hitting him a lot, and he's seeing most of the shots. BUT, he's stopping pucks when he has absolutely no idea where they are. He's benefiting from posts, crossbars and bad aim. His defencemen have pulled pucks out from behind him twice, and at least one shot has passed through the crease behind him when he didn't know where it was. There's good, and there's owing your soul to the devil. I'll leave it to Biron's conscience to determine which he is.

8. The feeling of inevitability. It's like watching a train frantically slamming on the brakes before it hits the car on the tracks. It's screaming and sliding, and doing its best, but you just know it's going to crush that car and there's not a damn thing the engineer or anyone watching can do about it.

7. The ulcers. Despite it all, I can't stop hoping for a better result. I feel like I'm watching a Roadrunner cartoon in which the bird runs by the same cactus twelve times, the scenery repeating over and over. The futile cheering is hurting my digestion.

6. The gloating. Non-Habs fans, which include ninety percent of the English-language media in the country are loving this, and getting their jollies dissecting it for the viewing/listening/reading public, of which I am an unfortunate part.

5. The unfairness. If the Habs were sucking, I'd say, fine...they deserve to lose. But they're not. They're trying hard and attempting to do all the things they did right all year. They don't deserve to be ousted so easily.

4. The bellyaching. Habs fans are gutting the team on paper, blaming one guy, then another for the losses. I know it's frustrating, but it's a team game. There's no need to hunt up a scapegoat.

3. The disappointment. After such a great year, I was really hoping for a semi-final appearance at least. It would help relieve the wounds of all the futility of the last fifteen years. I thought they should be able to beat the Flyers.

2. The lost sleep. I have to work early in the morning. Staying up to watch all these losses, then not being able to sleep afterwards is devastating.

And, the number one reason why I hate the series with the Flyers:

1. Saku Koivu. The man is made for the playoffs. He's tough and competitive and ramps up his game when everything's on the line. He's playing injured and still leading the team on and off the ice. When I think of some of the names that are on the Cup, while his is not, it just seems so unfair. He's given everything to this team, and each year they fail to win is one year closer to Koivu's retiring without ever touching the Cup he wants to win so badly. I know other great players have never won either...but after what Koivu's gone through in his career, it seems like a small thing to have him retire a winner. I just hope he can stick around until his team is mature enough to do it for him.


As I warned you earlier, good reader, I'm having trouble shaking off the teeth-grinding frustration of this playoff series. The bitter, bitter irony of it all is breathtaking.

Before the season started, everyone and his mother was saying the Habs couldn't score, but they could rely on the tremendous depth of their goaltending to steal a few games for them. They were supposed to finish out of the playoffs, as we all know. But here we are now, a hundred and four points, the highest-scoring team in the league and first in the east later, and NOW the team can't score. AND the goaltending is inexperienced and inconsistent.

The powerplay was supposed to drop in its effectiveness after Souray's departure last year. Instead, it performed better than the year before and maintained it's first-place status. But, here we are now, with the powerplay tanking and fond memories of The Slapper making us wish Big Sheldon hadn't departed for the west.

Everyone commented on how unnaturally healthy the Canadiens remained all season. Now we have Koivu playing on a broken foot, Komisarek still not himself after that late-season hip injury, Markov supposedly playing with a bad knee and shoulder and Price with a rumoured broken finger on his glove hand. I suspect we won't know the real extent of some of these injuries until it's all over.

The team completely dominated Boston and Philly all year, sweeping the season series with both teams. Now, here we are, barely dropping the Bruins in seven and looking to get ousted in five by the Flyers.

Consistency has been the Habs' hallmark this season, and Carbo has been very vocal about his pleasure in the fact that the team didn't really have a major slump. In fact, the longest losing streak they weathered all year has been three games. How bitterly, bitterly ironic that they should face a four-game losing streak in the second round of the playoffs.

It's just blowing my mind that everything the team had going for it all season has suddenly gone to crap and NOW all the dire pre-season predictions are coming true. Maybe they overstepped the bounds of confidence at some point and got cocky. Maybe this is the hockey gods' version of a bolt of lightning.

ZAP! Sizzle! Done. sigh