Thursday, July 31, 2008

Whoo Hoooo (or not)

It's finally the first day of August! It's the day Mats Sundin is finally going to announce which team's generous offer he'll accept, and which colours he'll be wearing at training camp next month. Or not. It might just be the day that's within a two-or-three-week window of Sundin's decision. Or, it might be the day on which the big bald Swede decides he actually *will* play another year rather than simply pack it in...but not the day on which he picks a team. Today might be a soft deadline. Or a ballpark deadline. Has anyone ever explained to J.P.Barry and Mats Sundin what the word "deadline" actually means?

Only one thing seems certain today, and that's that Sundin will have chosen a team by the time this month is over. Or not. He could retire. Although, considering his performance last season and his agent's body language, I'd say that's not likely. So, I guess it's safe to say that by this time next month, Big Mats will be a Hab.

Or not.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Payday payoff?

I don't know if there are official statistics on this, but I think there's enough anecdotal evidence out there to support the idea that players (with the notable exception of Michael Ryder) perform at a higher level when they're in the last year of their contracts. It's not unreasonable to assume that, when faced with the options of either creating some buzz and pulling down a new contract worth millions, or sitting around until August as you pray some team will hire you at the league minimum to fill out its roster, the urge to play like your butt's on fire tends to kick in in most cases. This apparent fact is great news for the Habs in their Centennial season.

Looking at the current roster, we see eight players heading for unrestricted free agency, including Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay and Mike Komisarek. Another four; Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Kyle Chipchura and Guillaume Latendresse, will be restricted free agents. In short, aside from the goaltenders, the Andreis and Roman Hamrlik, the entire core of the team is playing for new contracts this season. A lot of observers are concerned about this, wondering what will happen with the cap and whether Gainey will be able to re-sign them all for the 2009-10 season. There's been some criticism that Gainey has left himself open to a cap crunch that will result in losing an important member or two of what's become a pretty good team, just as it's about to enter its prime.

I think Gainey's done it on purpose. In a league in which the buzzword of the day is parity, every little advantage counts. A losing streak can plunge a team from contention to lottery pick in a couple of weeks, and one missed shot or defensive error can make the difference between two points and none. And while it's all well and good to expect the pride and dedication of professional athletes will drive them to give their best every night, it doesn't hurt to hold the promise of next year's salary over their heads. Maybe the guy who would have just dumped the puck in for a change will try harder to make a better pass that might turn into an assist. And maybe the guy who likes the perimeter will go harder to the net in an effort to boost his stats with a few dirty goals. Perhaps a little greater effort by individual players will add up to a few extra points for the team. And these days a few extra points could be the difference between a division title and barely making the playoffs.

This is a team that's serious about making a push for a Stanley Cup to mark its hundredth anniversary. Gainey's gone out and added Tanguay as an upgrade over Ryder and Laraque to instill some fear in the opposition. He's already improved a team that won the conference last year, and he's working on adding the missing link...a big, strong, skilled Mats Sundin. So, it's not really surprising that a GM as meticulous as Gainey is considers every detail, no matter how small or intangible, that might give his team a better chance of winning in this important season. And while it may make good business sense to him to have many options when it comes to filling the 2010 roster, it also gives him an undeniable psychological advantage to have so many players working for the money this year...when so many of us are hoping for the big playoff payoff.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

And one more thing, Mats...

I hate to harp on the Sundin Saga yet again, but I woke up this morning with an epiphany, much like the one Mats will have to have if he's going to make a decision about his hockey future sometime between now and the Habs' bicentennial celebrations. Between all the discussions and endless debates about who's offering the better money versus the better chances for a Cup versus the comforts of the familiar, we're all forgetting one thing. It's the thing that should be the deciding factor for Sundin, if he hasn't forgotten it too. It's so obvious, and such an important thing to consider if you're trying to decide whether to play a kid's game for another season.

Without dragging the point on too's FUN! Ask any hockey player to describe his best seasons and he'll say, almost without exception, that they were a lot of fun. Now, that may be due to the linguistic limitations of some hockey players, but I choose to believe the sentiment behind it is real. After all, it makes sense. Why would you subject your body to the rigours of an NHL season; the pounding, aching, injury-and-illness-inducing physical stress of it, if it weren't enormously satisfying to do so? And more importantly, what's left to motivate you to put yourself through that wringer after you've got all the fame and money and on-ice achievement you could ever have hoped to earn? I think the biggest inducement to play again at age 37 is the basic love of the game that the player feels when he's seven, and the most important part of his week is the morning he gets to go to the rink.

So, if you consider fun a vital factor in making such a decision, you have to ask yourself, where would a 37-year-old offensive-style player have the most fun this year? Of course, I'm biased, but I'd think it'd be Montreal. It would have to be tremendously fun to fly around the ice in the Canadiens' speedy, offensive system. To be just one part of a well-oiled scoring machine, rather than the main cog of a more offensively-challenged team. To work on the powerplay with the likes of Andrei Markov, Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev setting you up. To hear the ovations when you connect with your talented linemates on a special goal. I mean, let's face it, scoring is FUN, and no team offers a player more chances to score than the Canadiens. That's important because as Sundin knows better than anyone, it's one thing to wish for a chance at the Cup, but the reality of the regular season, which can be a long, joyless grind before the playoffs even start, is quite another. If a player is going to spend 82 games pushing for a playoff spot, it would be a heck of a lot more attractive an option if he knows he's going to have a great time doing it.

I look at the revitalized Kovalev from last season as an example of the difference the simple enjoyment of the game can make in a player's career. And I think of Mats Sundin, and the lightening of spirit he could experience if he played in Montreal where he wouldn't be facing the constant humourless questions about what's wrong with the team he's supposed to be leading. In Montreal, he could put all that aside and just enjoy the ride. Because if creating beautiful plays on the ice is fun, winning lots of games is even more fun. The Habs have the team to win many games this season. With Sundin, they'd have the weapons to win many more. To be part of that and contribute to it binds a player to his teammates faster than any team-building exercise, and that feeling of brotherhood makes a dressing room a fun place to be around.

I don't claim to have any insight into what Mats Sundin is thinking right now. But I know if I were a hockey player, and I already had enough money to set me up for life, if I were to pick a place to play another season, I'd pick the one where I'd have a great time. I'd pick the place where my skills would be complemented by fast, creative linemates, the place where I'd be winning much more often than not, and the place where my responsibility ends with my performance on the ice. I hope Sundin hasn't forgotten how much fun hockey can really be, because if he thinks about that, the decision is easy.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Rumourcoaster

As Blood, Sweat and Tears put it, "What goes up must come down. Spinnin' wheel got to go 'round..." That's kind of how I'm feeling about the whole Sundin Saga these days. The rumours go round and round and still there's no real story. Every day the same non-news is taking up print inches, bandwidth and airtime for no good reason. And the arguments are getting so very repetitious and tedious.

In the media, it goes a bit like this:
Sundin's translated comments from a Swedish newspaper say: "I have three very good offers on the table from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, but I haven't yet decided if I want to continue my career. After thirteen years in Toronto, it feels like home. If the decision were only about money, Vancouver is in a class by itself. If it were only about money, I'd have signed with Vancouver already." The Toronto media interpret that to mean the captain isn't writing off the city he made home for the last thirteen years. The Vancouver media believe Sundin is stalling for the appropriate amount of time so it doesn't look like it's just for the money if/when he signs with the Canucks. Montreal media don't know what to think. All the pundits write about it, with the conclusion that we really don't know what Sundin's going to choose. One columnist even wrote an article about how people should stop trying to read between the lines, because there really isn't anything there to read. Sundin's a straight shooter and if he says he hasn't yet made up his mind to play, then he hasn't. It seems the guy just wants to be sure his body is ready for an 82-game grind at thirty-seven years of age.

The fans are worse though. It's like watching some particularly dumb lab rats run the same maze and never find the cheese. It starts with someone saying, "Well, if Sundin wants to play for a contender, he'll play for Montreal," followed by, "Yeah? Well, he's too loyal to Toronto to sign with their worst enemy. Anyway, if he was going to sign in Montreal, he would have signed when Gainey had his exclusive rights and the Leafs would have at least gotten something for him." That's followed by the "Yeah, but the Leafs treated him so badly by trying to force him to waive his no-trade clause, then trading his rights, he just wants them to suffer, so he'll sign in Montreal." Then the Canucks fans chime in, with "The Canucks are just as good a team as Montreal, with better money on the table, so Sundin will sign there after an appropriate amount of time to make it look like it was hard to choose the cash." Which sparks Habs fans to reply, "He's already got enough money. He doesn't want the travel in the west and if he wants to end his career with a Cup, he'll sign in Montreal." And Leafs fans join in with, "He'll sign in Vancouver because he doesn't want to play Toronto six times a year," while Habs fans counter "He'll sign in Montreal because he does." The never-ending argument just goes round and round, and the only relief will come when Sundin signs with someone. Because there won't be a more shocked person on the planet than me if the big bald Swede really does decide to pack it in.

When he does pick a team, I really hope it's the Habs. There's not a more perfect player available out there for the Canadiens. He'd fit in the lineup like a dovetailed drawer...seamlessly and smoothly. But if he does decide to go with the Leafs, Canucks or no one, I (probably futilely) hope that decision doesn't open a Pandora's box of vitriol directed at Bob Gainey. I don't want to hear that Gainey could have tried harder, or spent more money or sacrificed a goat to get Sundin in a Canadiens' uniform. The bottom line is, he made what we can assume is a fair offer without sacrificing other important players from the lineup, or hamstringing himself capwise like other GMs who'll have to dump salary before the season opens. I'm sure the attractions of playing in Montreal have been adequately explained to Sundin. The easy travel, great hockey environment, skilled linemates, playoff potential, and salary have been laid out before him like treasures at the feet of a king. If he chooses elsewhere, it won't be Gainey's fault.

It won't be Sundin's fault either. Whatever he does, he's never given any team's fans a reason to think he's theirs. So, if he chooses Vancouver, I hope Habs fans respect both him and his right to choose that team. At least, whatever happens, the rumourcoaster will finally stop. Hopefully before we all get motion sick.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Forgotten Man

It's a little bit ironic and a lot interesting that Alex Tanguay has been a member of the Canadiens for a grand total of almost one month, but most fans haven't really noticed. At least, I figure they haven't because of all the bellyaching about Gainey not making any big moves this off season, or drafting a home-grown player. The fact that he traded the 25th pick for an established local star seems to be overlooked by many of the complainers. I think it's almost shocking to see the lack of excitement about the acquisition of a young, French Canadian player with tons of skill on the ice.

Now, I'm sure a lot of the aforementioned bellyaching is because of the torturous "will he or won't he" Sundin vigil. In the oasis-like mirage of the big, bald Swede centering the Habs' first line in their Centennial season, the actual lone palm tree in the desert that is Alex Tanguay looks scrawny and insignificant in comparison. But, the thing is, Tanguay is real. And his acquisition is a real boon to the Habs' lineup, at least on paper.

No one can predict what Tanguay will do when he's faced with the pressure of playing in his native land. Or how he'll blend with a lineup that's pretty tight since last year. But all signs point to him doing well. He's never had a reputation for being a head case in the room. He's fast, and he can handle the puck, which fits beautifully with the Canadiens' style. When you consider Micheal Ryder's abyssmal performance offensively last season, you have to think Tanguay can't fail to be an upgrade on the right wing. His presence will improve on the best offence, and number one power play in the league. Defensively, he's no slouch either. As much as critics get on his case for being soft, you don't end up with a career plus-144 by being easy to play against. The man can make a nifty pass, and he can put the puck in the net himself. When you consider the linemates he'll have to work with and the powerplay time he's likely to get, it's not far-fetched to think he'll improve on last season's disappointing 18 goals and 58 points. Add his not-too-horrible cap hit of just over five million for one year only, and the fact that he waived his no-trade clause in Calgary because he chose to play in Montreal, and things are looking good. Not to mention he's only 28 and is eminently re-signable if he should prove to be a huge hit in Montreal.

While I find it funny he's been largely an afterthought since his acquisition, the Sundin saga may actually be a blessing in disguise for Tanguay. While everyone is salivating over the potential of the big bald one gracing Montreal with his presence and breathlessly composing their imaginary super lineups featuring Sundin on the first trio, Tanguay is quietly getting ready for the coming season. No one's following him around asking for interviews or autographs as he trains. No one's jumping out of bushes to take his picture. He's adapting to the idea of what it means to play in Montreal without the pressure of a million people watching him do it. If Sundin signs, Tanguay will thrive in the shade. If not, he'll have to learn to deal with more attention than he's getting now, but he'll have these precious few months of Sundin spec to prepare himself for that. And by then I hope he so loves the idea of being a Hab that he'll put up with the crap that goes along with being one of the team's stars.

In any case, I'm still hoping Tanguay continues to be an understudy among new acquisitions in Montreal when Big Mats makes up his mind. I'm sure Alex does too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Can the time pass any slower?

The 2008-09 (otherwise known as the Hundred Years of Habs) NHL schedule is supposed to come out tomorrow. Which means it's still approximately eighty days until the actual hockey starts. Now, I know Phileas Fogg made it around the world in that amount of time. But he had adventure, close calls and the excitement of foreign lands to sustain him. We poor hockey fans are stuck here, pacing, dreaming and...waiting. And waiting.

I'm not sure if the off-season passes slower when you're cheering for a good team or a bad one. If the team is bad, and you know the coming season is going to be embarrassing, you're not exactly champing at the bit to get on with it. On the other hand, you know, in your optimistic hockey fan heart, that anything can happen and teams can surprise. Especially if the last season has been a bad one, you're anxious to see the team get on the ice for a new start and another chance to prove it's not as rotten as you think. But, if the team is good, the agony of the wait is sweet and painful at the same time. You know the season's going to be so much fun, so the anticipation is pretty high. But the wait is interminable.

I'm already tired of the off-season. The nuggets of news dropping from Habs' brass are so small...the Grabovsky and Locke trades, the development camp and Pacioretty's great showing, the good reviews on Pateryn who was acquired in the Grabs deal, Georges Laraque choosing number 17...are relatively insignificant to the big picture, but still overanalyzed and discussed ad nauseum because there's just nothing else to talk about. The worst part is, there's another two months of this before we even get the excitement of training camp to whet our appetites for opening night.

I'm just wondering how I'm going to kill the next Habless eighty days. Hey! Maybe a trip...I wonder if I can follow in Fogg's footsteps with the price of gas as high as it is? Anything, to distract myself from the deadening lack of hockey. In the meantime, a little methadone for the withdrawal. This is the best recap of last season I've seen:

Enjoy the wait. (sigh)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Lessons learned

I'm so impressed with Bob Gainey. He's been getting a rough ride from some fans lately because of his failure to sign a superstar to vault the Habs into serious contender altitude (assuming Sundin goes elsewhere), and it's such unfair criticism. This is a guy who built the 1999 Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars, so he knows what it takes to win. But after the lockout, the proven methods of team-building became obsolete and managers had to learn how to operate under a whole new set of rules.

The Cup champion Lightning were suddenly hamstrung with all their salary tied up in three superstars and no room for a decent supporting cast. Teams that had relied on drawing talent from the free agent pool, eschewing serious focus on the draft and internal development, found themselves able to afford only half the talent they needed to get by. Really, the only team that turned out to have been doing things right for the new system was Detroit. By drafting well and developing their own players, they were able to stock their roster with cheap talent that came with a built-in loyalty to their organization. They supplemented that talent with a few carefully chosen veterans and had a clear vision of what style team they wanted to put on the ice. Bob Gainey and other old-system GMs had to adjust, and fast. Gainey, being the quick study he is, figured out what works and started to mold his team in the Red Wings' pattern. It's not something that can be done quickly, especially when you're starting from nothing as Gainey did. But he's making undeniable progress.

What I like best about what Gainey's done is the way he learns from his mistakes. He's certainly made some doozies, but the good thing is, he doesn't make the same ones twice. Take the Sergei Samsonov signing, for example. Gainey admitted Samsonov was, at best, plan B when Brendan Shanahan didn't respond to intense courting. The team needed another forward, and rather than go with a less flashy but reliable choice, or promote a kid from within the organization, Gainey took a flyer on a guy who didn't really offer what he wanted, but looked to be better than nothing. Of course, we all know what happened afterwards. Samsonov didn't fit the role the Habs wanted him to play, he became disgruntled and fell out with Carbonneau. Gainey ended up having to trade him for Chicago's junk and, in turn, buy out those players. So, last free agent season, when Sheldon Souray and his 26 powerplay goals became too dear, Gainey chose his plan B much more carefully. Instead of splashing out on a big name that didn't fit the team's needs or style, he surprised most of us by hiring Roman Hamrlik to provide stability and muscle to the defence. Of course, some of us questioned Hammer's pricetag, but the value for money he's provided has since silenced the criticism.

Then there's the mistake Gainey made in paying big money and long term for a young player with one great season under his belt when he signed Jose Theodore to a mega-deal back in 2005, three years after Theo's career-best. Bob did damage control by trading Theodore and his contract before the window closed completely on his tradeability. But more importantly, he learned a lesson about paying the big money for consistency, not flash. So Saku Koivu, Andre Markov and Hamrlik now get the money. Young, talented, but not proven over the long-term players, like Tomas Plekanec, Mike Komisarek, Chris Higgins and Andrei Kostitsyn, get deals appropriate to their experience and the marketplace, on terms that give them a chance to prove their consistency before the next contract.

The Grabovski situation is another example of Gainey's learned wisdom. When Mike Ribeiro became expendable, and the team had a need for a veteran defenceman, Gainey dumped Ribeiro for a used-up Janne Niinimaa. That stands as one of his worst trades. So, this year, when Mikhail Grabovski became expendable, rather than trade him for a band-aid for the current lineup, Gainey used him to get a prospect defenceman Trevor Timmins likes as well as another draft pick for the future. It's smart on three fronts...first, by keeping roster and cap space open for that impact player who can still be signed before the season starts, and second, by eliminating the kind of immediate fallout Gainey had to deal with when Ribeiro bloomed and Niinimaa sucked. It's smarter to deter potential criticism by shrouding the deal in the potential of prospects, so even if Grabovski scores thirty goals in Toronto (which I don't think he will) no one can say much about the deal until they see how the return pans out in four or five years' time. And third, because under the cap, it's always smart to keep as many picks and prospects developing in your system as possible.

The Cristobal Huet trade too. Gainey chose in 2007 to keep Sheldon Souray around for a playoff push, even though there was an even-money chance that Souray might walk in the offseason. Of course, he did, and Gainey had nothing to show for it. So, when assessing his goaltending before last trade deadline, he went the other way. It would have been good to have Huet around as a confidence-builder for Price in the playoffs, but the chances he'd walk after the season were almost guaranteed. So, Gainey got a decent draft pick for him, which, considering the market for goalies at the deadline, was a respectable return. Now that Huet has walked and signed that mega deal in Chicago, Gainey still has something concrete in compensation for his loss.

But of all the things he's improved on, I think one of the most important is his ability to wait. That might sound ridiculous because everyone knows Gainey's a patient man. But this is the first time he's had the luxury of having a team he can ice without adding anyone else. So he can sit back with millions in cap space and wait for the right move to come to him. Maybe that's Sundin. If the big bald Swede decides to stay home this winter, maybe that's a player another team that's pushed itself over the cap...and there are forced to dump for cheap. Two years ago, when Gainey jumped to sign Samsonov, he missed an opportunity to pick up J.P.Dumont a couple of weeks later, when the Sabres walked away from Dumont's arbitration settlement. That won't happen again. If Sundin doesn't sign, Gainey won't miss out on the next Dumont.

The Habs, thanks to Gainey, are in a very enviable position right now. The man is a student of the game, and has learned to adapt the post-lockout world as well or better than any other GM out there. Those who think otherwise may have to learn a few lessons of their own.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I was thrilled to see Jaroslav Halak signed for another two years, at what I think is a great steal of a contract. The 23-year-old Slovak will receive 1.55 million dollars over the course of the deal, which, when you consider some of the head-scratching contracts out there these days, is both fair and cap-friendly.

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big Halak fan. He's made the most of every chance he's been given, working his way up from the ninth round of the 2003 draft (think about it...if there were only seven rounds back then, as there are now, he'd have gone undrafted altogether), through the ranks of the Q, the ECHL and the AHL. He's posted stellar numbers at every level and when thrown to the wolves in the form of standing in for the injured Cristobal Huet on a tanking Canadiens team, he damn near dragged them into the playoffs with his play. I thought it was unfair when he was sent to Hamilton last season after a great camp, and worse that when he was called up he didn't get a single start until after Huet was traded to Washington.

This year, though, Halak gets his chance. He's going to push Carey Price, because although both are quiet, pretty even-keel type guys, they're both competitive. And Halak might be the more competitive of the two. He's had to overcome so much to get this shot, he's going to sink his teeth into it like a pit bull. There's something about aura of resolve, perhaps...that you don't see in every young player. I'm looking forward to watching him this year. There's nothing as exhilarating as cheering for an underdog to overcome the odds.

That's not to say I don't like Carey Price, or that I wish Halak to overtake him for the number one spot. On the contrary, if Price is the better goalie, which he likely is, I want him to succeed to the greatest benefit of both himself and the team. But there's nothing to say that a backup goalie has to be a guy who plays six games a year like they do behind Luongo or Brodeur. In fact, I think that's ridiculous. New Jersey and Vancouver put their star goalies in that position because on any given night, those goalies are the best players on their teams. And, just as the Habs wouldn't voluntarily sit Kovalev or Markov because that would significantly reduce their chances of winning, those teams won't voluntarily sit their starting goalies in favour of the backups.

I think that complete reliance on one goalie costs the team eventually, when the playoffs arrive and the goalie is burnt out from playing seventy-plus games in the regular season. When the Habs were in mid-dynasty in the seventies, Ken Dryden played only around fifty games, with Bunny Larocque playing around thirty. Dryden talks about their internal competition in "The Game," explaining that it worked because Larocque was never satisfied with playing thirty games, and always pushed for more, which kept Dryden on his toes. And if Dryden were hurt or got pulled, Larocque was perfectly capable of winning games for the team as well. Of course, it turned out that Larocque, while an excellent backup to Dryden, never really cut it as a number one. That may be the case for Halak as well...or for Price, if he (remembering that he's only 20) begins to struggle. The point is, it's to a team's benefit to have two competitive goalies who can carry as much of the playing load as they're asked to bear. If a team can spread the work around, with fairly even chances of winning with either, that team will be more consistent and it will arrive at the playoffs with a strong, well-rested tandem it can rely on when it counts.

That's why I don't understand Habs' fans who advocate trading Halak. Sure, there may come a day when it becomes too expensive to keep both Price and Halak, or that one of them will become disgruntled at a lack of starts. But, right now, you have two very young, potential star goalies with a lot to prove. They'll push each other to greater heights all year, and learn a lot in the process. Halak's trade value at the moment would be minimal, because even though he's got a great minor-league resume, his NHL CV wouldn't bring home the fabulous return some fans think it should.

No, Halak is right where he belongs. He'll start the season as Carey Price's wingman, with the potential to push for the pilot's seat. It'll be good for the team, good for both goalies and good for the fans who want to see the team win as much as possible. And, all for a bargain price.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Big Georges

I have to admit, I'm feeling a bit guilty. I've long been a proponent of the "we don't really need a goon" theory. I loved it when Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau declared last season that they supported the idea of team toughness, rather than that of giving five minutes a game to a "tough guy" who contributed nothing except a fight every three games. I was proud of the Habs when the Bruins and Flyers roughed them up, and our guys came to each other's aid, even if they were doomed to lose. (We did notice you clutching Chara, though, Lats.) But the intention was there. Even if they couldn't win a fight (nice trying though, TK), the support was there. I didn't buy the idea that the Habs lost in the playoffs because they weren't tough enough.

So then, Gainey announced he's signed Georges Laraque. Big Georges. Heavyweight champion of the NHL. I have to admit, my heart sank. I thought of all the drawbacks...that Laraque's 1.5 million salary for three years was too much. That his presence in the lineup would take a spot from a kid like Greg Stewart. That I recently read a poll of NHL players naming the worst skater in the league and Laraque was in the top five. That he'll cost the team a bunch of powerplays against.

Then I started listening to the thoughts of other Habs fans. They were thrilled. The thought of Laraque beating the crap out of Milan Lucic was sending them into paroxysms of joy. The "Laraque is better than Chuck Norris" threads and the posted video highlights all over the internet were hilarious.

This is where my guilt comes in. I really do think team toughness is better. Like the seventies Habs...they had a lot of guys, like Rick Chartraw and Pierre Bouchard and Larry Robinson...who could lay down the law and fight all comers. They were tough as nails, but they weren't exactly goons. Every one of them contributed in ways other than the five minute penalty. Even the eighties Habs, with the great Chris Nilan, had a guy who could beat the living daylights out of pretty much anyone, but he could knock in 20 goals too. He was crazy, but had other talents. Laraque isn't that. He's a guy whose point totals are in the teens for the last several years. Yet, I've started to get that feeling that other Habs' fans are describing.

It's bragging rights. For many years, we, as Habs fans, have dealt in moral victories: Yeah...your guy beat the snot out of ours, but our guy was braver. Or: Okay, your guy scared the bejeezus out of our guy, but we still won in OT. But now, for the first time in years, Habs fans can say, "Yeah? Our guy can beat up your guy!" and mean it. We can gloat about having the skilled guys to beat the other team, AND the tough guy who can beat all the other tough guys. It's exhilarating. It's like being in grade six and having the biggest big brother in high school. You can pretty much do whatever you want and no one will bother you. The Habs are that kid now. Andrei Kostitsyn, Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec (Kovalev's exempt because of his bionic elbow) will get more respect and more room because the other team knows if they don't...Big Georges will take offence. Carey Price won't have to knock guys in the back of the helmet for crowding him if Laraque is there to do it for him. It gives the team room to add a little cockiness to their repertoire in a way they haven't been able to do before. No more false respect for fear of getting killed. If Gainey meant to abandon his theory of team toughness and go out to get a goon, he got the best damn goon on the market.

So, here I am, finding the Laraque highlight videos make me smile, the piston-like right hand giving me as much joy as a Kovalev wrister from the right circle or a Komisarek cruncher on the boards. He's ours! I'm exulting. And, I'm guilty. Because, I really do believe in the concept of team toughness over that of carrying a goon. I think a group of guys who can play the game, yet convincingly stand up for themselves beats a team of softies who rely on the intimidation factor of a goon every time.

But, realistically, I have to admit that the Habs, outside the powerplay or a Komisarek bodycheck, rarely intimidate anyone. And if Laraque can add an element of scariness to the Canadiens' roster, that's a good thing. As someone put it to me today, if he can be an extra tool in the toolbox that lets our guys win...he's worth it. So, here I am, waving the goon banner. Go, Georges, Go!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Understanding Mats

So, most of us working stiffs have been looking incredulously at each other since the Vancouver Canucks offered Mats Sundin twenty million smackaroos over the next couple of seasons, with no real pressure to win a Cup or anything to complicate the deal. And if we weren't incredulous at the offer itself, we're all pretty flabbergasted that the big bald one left the money on the table because he's just not sure he wants to play anymore. I don't know about you, but I'd dig ditches, stand in a beehive or clean outhouses for twenty million bucks, never mind play a game I love and at which I excel. Obviously, I, like most of you, had a little trouble understanding how that kind of money can mean nothing to someone.

That is, until today. We're finally getting some nice, hot summer weather, so today I packed up the old blanket, cooler and sunscreen and hit the beach. It was great. The sun was warm enough to heat the lake and dry your suit in just a few minutes after a swim. There was just enough of a breeze to keep you from overheating and keep the flies away. Big fluffy white clouds drifted in the azure sky, and the light on the water danced like thousands of stars. Little kids laughed and ran and dug in the sand, and good looking people in bathing suits chatted or read trashy novels. Far out on the lake, sleek canoes slipped along and white sailed flirted with the horizon. Coming home, warm, tired and smelling of coconut, the winter and the expenditure of energy seemed very far away.

I've been in the workforce for fifteen years. I'm tired. Days like this make it hard to think of giving your all to the job, when it's so much more fun to relax and soak up the sun, and you only get three or four weeks a year to feel that free. Today I thought about how much harder it would be to motivate myself for work if I already had enough money to set me up very comfortably for the rest of my life, and if I were just starting a new family. And how tough it would be to decide to devote my mind and body to as difficult an endeavor as playing a year in the National Hockey League at the age of thirty-seven, if I really didn't have to do it anymore.

I think I get Sundin now. He's got money, reputation, a sure place in the Hall of Fame. He's been off work since April, enjoying the good life and healing all the nagging injuries his job inflicts. He's thinking about his wedding coming up, and the summer parties he's having with friends and family. The urgency of making decisions because his livelihood depends on it is past for him.

But you know what happens? In August, the beach isn't quite as novel anymore. The evenings carry a little hint of the coming fall. The metabolism starts to stir again, and the sense of renewal and purpose rises in the veins like sap in the trees. You look around and everyone is heading back to work and school or flying south with a great burst of energy. Then the thought of hitting the ice again crosses your mind. Your feet itch to feel blades under them, and you want the feel of the puck snapping on your stick. You remember how you love the game and you wonder how it would feel to sit by and watch games you know you could be starring in.

Oh yes, I think Mats Sundin will be back. But I also understand why his decision will come later in the summer. I just hope he chooses to skate in blue, blanc et rouge this season...and that patient Bob is waiting when he does.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It must be hard to keep Hummers in gas

Wow. So, here we are, just beginning day three of free agency and I'm already slightly ill every time I think about some of the deals handed out. I mean, I thought a lot of Michael Ryder, but four million bucks a year? I don't think so. Maybe he'll find some heretofore unseen level of accuracy playing with Marc Savard as his set-up man and he'll miraculously put up numbers worthy of that contract. Or not. And Ryder's not the worst example of the crazy overspending that went on on Tuesday. The leafs signing a 28-year-old bottom pairing defenceman with one year of NHL experience for 3.5 million is worse. So is the Cristobal Huet deal in Chicago that pays him more than Brodeur and brings the Hawks' goaltending bill up to a hearty twelve million.

It makes me wonder what's driving the whole thing. Is it the supply and demand theory, in which there are few quality players to fill a great number of holes? Is it player greed? Is it mismanagement on behalf of very many of the NHL's GMs? Is it the rising salary cap? Maybe it's a little bit of all of the above, but when it comes down to it, I have to think agents play a part in it all. I mean, picture the scene without them. On July 1, Mark Streit (to pick a name) is sitting at home. The phone rings. It's the Chicago Black Hawks. They say, "Hey, Mark, we really liked your work on the powerplay in Montreal this year, and we'd like to offer you two and a half million a year to play for us for the next three years." Streit says, "That sounds great, but let me think about it." He sits there for the next three hours, watching the signings on TV and realizing his opportunities are dwindling and his phone hasn't rung again. He calls the Black Hawks back and says, "Thanks, I'd love to accept your offer." Twenty minutes later the Islanders call and say, "Hey, Mark, we're interested in your playing for us this year." Too late...Streit's already accepted the Chicago deal. But what happens when the agent enters the picture? The 'Hawks call comes to him. He says, "That's an interesting offer, but Mark is one of the most versatile players in the NHL who can play both forward and D, as well as anchor your powerplay. I've had interest from six other teams, including one in your division, and the going rate is higher than what you're offering." The Hawks say they'll think about it. Half an hour later they call back and up the offer to three and a half million a year. Streit's agent calls Streit with the offer and says, "They've gone up a mill, but I'm pretty sure you're worth more. I advise waiting a little while." The Hawks call back and say they can't go any higher and they're backing out. The Isles call the agent and express interest in Streit for three million a year. The agent responds, "I've got an offer on the table for three and a half for three years right now, so no deal." The Isles look at their relatively low drawing power and their need on defence and they panic. They cough up four million a year for five years, which Streit accepts. The agent pockets four hundred grand a year for the important service of playing one team off another, inflating the player's sense of what he's worth and driving up the going rate.

Now, I admit that's probably a naive vision of how these things really work. And I in no way advocate a return to the days when teams owned players and they toiled for peanuts while the owners got richer. But I have to think that there's a problem when a bunch of lawyers and accountants stand to take a healthy portion of what they can squeeze out of a team on behalf of a player. Obviously, the desire to squeeze a little harder is there when part of the juice is going into your own glass. And when you're talking about the kind of money NHL players are making, that's a lot of juice...enough to inspire some people to do whatever they have to do to get a deal signed. JP Barry told TSN he was pushing hard for Mats Sundin to decide his future before the market opened. I don't think he would have been quite as anxious to "push" Sundin to accept a deal if he were a salaried employee, getting the same amount whether Sundin sat home next year or played for ten million dollars. But as the system stands, it must be killing him that Sundin's refusing to jump at the Canucks' twenty million, two-year offer...depriving Barry of two million bucks.

I once had a discussion with a former NHL player about the amount of influence and even control agents have over the players. He laughed and said, "You know, half of these guys didn't finish high school because of hockey. I know guys who can't read. Yet they're supposed to manage this kind of money?" I argued that players who leave home at fifteen or sixteen and make their own ways in the world have to be street-wise and hard to fool, at least to some degree. But when you think about it, the agents are the ones with the contacts, the influence and the knowledge of how the system works. When a young player, in his ignorance of all that, hires a representative, he hands over control to the agent. He also saves himself the trouble and need to learn the ropes himself. Add into the bargain the agent's desire to look out for number one, and related need to make the player think agents are indispensible, and you can see where the system of player dependence begins.

I wouldn't want to go back to the golden era of hockey when it comes to player representation, if only because the owners were the ones raking in the lion's share of the gold. The thought of Maurice Richard selling fish line from the trunk of his car to make a living after hockey is sickening, after what he contributed to the success of the game. It's pitiful to think the likes of Doug Harvey were blackballed because they dared to stand up and try to create a union to protect themselves. And it's sad to imagine Bobby Orr losing his life savings at the hands of the unscrupulous Alan Eagleson. Those pioneers paved the way for modern NHLers to have rights, and to reap the benefits of their skills. And for what? So Jeff Finger can take home three and a half million dollars a year? I don't think that was what those guys had in mind.

I think the problem stems from a sense of distrust between team managers and the players. The managers and owners think the players are holding them hostage with their giant contract demands. The players think the owners are screwing them over, lying about profits and keeping the lion's share for themselves. In this system of distrust, no one ultimately benefits. As salaries keep ballooning, today's players get rich, but the system they're part of does nothing to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the league. The owners shell out the cash now, but complain about losing money at the same time. It's only a matter of time before the whole thing comes to a head in another labour which the league can ill afford. And who's sitting in the middle of this cold war? The agents.

There are a few notable examples of how things can work when there is trust between the player and the owner. Look at Martin Brodeur. He wants to win, and knows the team can't pay gigantic salaries to a few it it's going to support a balanced roster. So he takes less money...albeit still in the multi-millions...than he's worth to make sure management can afford to build a strong team around him. Sidney Crosby has arguably done the same thing. Their agents know what the players want and they carry out the paperwork to make it happen...which is what an agent is supposed to do. But those examples are few and far between.

It all just makes me wonder what the Rocket and Bobby Orr would make on the open market, if Michael Ryder makes four million a year. And I wonder what they'd think when they signed that deal?

Administrative note

This is just a note to let you know if you've been trying to post a comment, and if it appears that your comment hasn't been received successfully, it's because I've begun moderating comments before they appear on the blog. That's thanks to a couple of complete morons who've been trolling here in the last couple of months. So, don't worry, your comments have been received and if they're not disposable idiocy, they will appear on the blog after I've had a chance to clear them. Sorry for the red tape, but those of us who choose to act like grown-ups are still forced to take measures to deal with the childish tantrums of others.