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!


Topham said...

I like you am a proponent of the "team toughness" approach, or the "whatever it takes not to ice a guy who can't skate or play" approach.

I find it funny that you mentioned Laraque taking a place from greg Stewart, because that is exactly who it will be. Stewart is one of those new breed of tough guys, who's not quite as big or as good at fighting, but does more Barnaby than Ray.

Incidentally, I would prefer Stewart to Laraque, as he has the will to prove himself. Laraque is nearing the end and is looking to be paid for what he is. He will no longer be pretending to play hockey like he did in his early years when he scored his fair share.

What's more, just who is Laraque meant to be fighting? He is the undisputed fighting champion because fighters have left the league in droves. Where the Canadiens were at the vanguard of teams that shed their fighters early, they have now returned to the pack.

Not a devastating move by Gainey, but hardly one of his better ones...

CheGordito said...

"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. "

I know what you mean. And isn't it a sad statement about hockey?

J.T. said...

I agree fighters are disappearing, but I'm not sure they won't make a comeback. The league in many ways is settling back into its pre-lockout mindset, including the phenomenon of ballooning salaries. If GMs are filling their rosters with long-term, expensive deals, they'll round them out with cheap bodies. As some of those bodies are young talent who'll score bigger deals sooner, the mainstays will be the cheap, veteran grinders and, yes, goons. Anyway, I think Gainey's got a fairly decent handle on what the team needs, and Laraque didn't seem to be a panic move at I'll assume he'll help to some degree.

I completely agree. I wish there were no goons in hockey at all. But as long as the mindset is there, I suppose Gainey feels he might as well have that weapon on hand if it's needed.

Unknown said...

From the late 50's to 1970, I was a regular at the Forum. Not for the big team (I couldn't afford it) but for the Junior Canadiens. I saw, Backstrom, Rousseau, Laperrière, Savard, Lemaire, Pleau and all their teamates get hammered by those Ontario bastards, year after year and I suffered and was humiliated all this time.

Then in the 66/67 season a young kid with the familiar name of Bouchard made the team. Everything started to change. Now, the toughest guy was playing for us.

I don't like fighting anymore than the next guy but hell, seeing our guy beating the crap of the others, was a nice change. Then, in the years after came Guy Lapointe, Moose Dupont, Serge Lajeunesse, Gary Connelly and Alan Globensky.

At the same time, we began winning championships. Of course the goals were scored by Houle, Tardif, Perreault and Martin but now they had some space on the ice.

I'm not saying we'll win the Cup next season (and then again, we might) but at least we'll probably get a little more respect from Lucic and Downie and ll the others. And I believe Big Georges won't even have to fight as many times (13) as he did last season.

I also believe Laraque can play a little hockey. At least, as well as the Aaron Downey and Garth Murray of a not so distant past. And if Carbonneau decides (just once in a while), to have Georges impersonate Holmstrom, in front of a goalie during an occasionnal power play, I think he could manage to do it.

Silver in 16 said...

I enjoy JT's blog and visit almost as regularly as I go to HIO. Boone and Stubbs provide lots of info, but for analysis that doesn't get drowned out (sometimes) by the decibels and shrillness -- I like THDNSFH.

So, Georges... well, like JT and the posters-to-date, I was tickled and I'll offer up an additional perspective that relates to our Centennial Year and Bob’s ambitions for The Team.

For starters, we all know that everything Bob does has a reason, and usually more than one. I start examining the Georges signing by looking back to ’75-’76 when the Broadstreet Bullies had just absconded with hockey for two straight years. Then came the pre-season donnybrook in Philly when Scotty iced our tough guys and they iced the Flyers. That exhibition game set the tone for the Stanley Cup final and I have a vivid recollection of a Jim Roberts TV interview between the first and second period of the first game of that Habs-Filly Final: “So, Jim, how many games is it going to go?”, and Jim’s answer: “Four.”

And, while I dislike fighting, I recognize that it’s a reality in today’s NHL, which says that having Laraque will mean no one will mess with the Habs throughout the year, i.e. Komisarek won’t have to jeopardize his hands protecting Carey Price and his crease; Plekanec and the Brothers K will be able to fly the way they can; Markov won’t have to worry as much about getting pasted into the glass.

Therefore, by the time the play-offs role around, we should pretty much have our game in place. At the NHL level, a few degrees makes such a big difference, and confidence and familiarity can add to those degrees. We took our “highlight reel hockey” into this year’s play-offs and squeaked by boston, but couldn’t adjust to Philly’s “clog-the-slot/play-your-position” style.

Not this coming year. Georges will ride herd through the regular season and by the time April rolls around, he’ll be riding the play-off pine. But we’ll have solidified into a team confidence that will begin with Carey Price and will be capable of making the play-off playing changes.

Which brings up another reason why Bob signed Georges. How long do you think it took Bob to communicate the Laraque signing to Sundin? I’ll bet he didn’t e-mail – naw, it takes too long for the server to clear messages, so, Bob would have phoned.

Finally, even if Sundin doesn’t come to Les Habs, I’m sure Bob already has a trading deadline/play-off strategy in the works in the event that: Sundin doesn’t sign; Kovalev doesn’t repeat; and injuries. There’ll be names in each column of players with one-year contracts, and players who are about to become UFAs and RFAs on July 1, 2009.

Whereas some GMs play checkers, Bob plays chess. In fact, I’ll bet he’s already looking at ’09-10 and thinking about how we can keep our losses down to 8 games.