Saturday, September 13, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

Well, after a night to digest the acquisition of Robert Lang and another revival of Patrice Brisebois: The Return, I'm going to put myself in the "mildly excited" category. That's the class of emotion into which fall events like finding out you're having your favourite chicken for supper or knowing you've got a three-day weekend coming up.

The trade for Lang on its own isn't that bad. But it's inevitably tinged with the "what if" of Mats Sundin's phantom presence. Of course Lang doesn't compare to Sundin, but then again, Sundin was never a Canadien in the first place. And if Bob Gainey decided to move on plan B, we have to assume he was fairly certain the big bald Swede has decided red's not his colour. Still, after a summer of anticipation and dreaming of that gorgeous Tanguay/Sundin/Kovalev powerplay line, it's tough to let go just like that. So once we get past the wistfulness of what it would have been like with Sundin, we have to look at Lang as a separate issue.

The Canadiens had a third-line centre spot open. Sundin would have become the first-line centre, so the empty third spot would have belonged to Saku Koivu. Without a new first-liner, the third-line job was still open. So you have to look at the requirements of the position. The Habs were desperately short on right-handed shooters. They were also lacking a really top-notch faceoff man, and they were small down the middle. The guy they needed would be a big, gritty centre; a decent skater with a right-handed shot, great on the draw and able to put up enough points to make the third line a serious scoring threat, as well as defensively responsible enough to kill penalties and protect the puck late in tense games after it wins the draw.

Lang fits many of those requirements. At six-foot-three, he's undeniably big. He's over fifty-three percent on the draw, which is really great. He's not the fastest guy in the league, but his skating isn't a handicap, especially if he ends up playing with Kovalev or Latendresse. He's also put up more than fifty points every year in the last eight, and he's a good penalty killer. The big thing he's missing is the grit factor. He's known to be shy in the corners and he's not the first guy to show up at the party in the crease. He's also got a reputation for coasting when he should probably be pushing harder. His age and potential to go down with nagging injuries are concerns as well.

But, if you're Bob Gainey you have to consider who's out there to fill your requirements who won't cost you much. If a team's under the cap, the guy you want is going to be expensive, likely costing a roster player or at least a fine prospect. So you look at teams over the cap and see what's out there. Of that group, Lang is the best of the possibilities. He's honestly the guy with the most ticks in his favour on the score sheet of what you need, without costing you Maxim Lapierre in return.

Now, I think Gainey could have gotten Lang for less than a second-round pick if he'd waited Tallon out. Chicago would likely have been forced to waive him in order to get under the cap. But I guess from Gainey's point of view, other teams would have been prepared to offer a pick so if the Habs were to land him, he had to ante up.

Of course, there was also the possiblity of starting the year with Kyle Chipchura or Lapierre as the third-line centre. I would have been in favour of that idea as well, but if Gainey has chosen to bring in a veteran, we have to figure he thinks those players aren't yet ready for the role.

So, here we are, feeling like we're settling again. (Damn you, Sundin, for teasing us like that!) I'm consoling myself with the thought that Tanguay is better than Ryder. Lang is better than Smolinski, with the jury out on that being true in the playoffs just yet. And Laraque definitely offers a different element than Grabovski did. The team finished first last year, and now it's better. Here's hoping a walk by the river with Gainey and a reunion with Alex Kovalev on his wing will draw a great season out of Robert Lang. Because when it comes right down to it, that's all the Habs need from him. One stellar year and a strong playoffs. If he has that much in the tank, the deal will have been worth it. Because even though Sundin would have done the job spectacularly, Lang can still do it competently. And really, as long as the job gets done, does it matter who does it?

As for Breezer, well, he's a footnote. A lot of Habs' fans are upset at his re-signing because they see it as stagnating. But if the rookie D aren't ready for full-time work, there's no point in sitting them in the pressbox half the year. O'Byrne will get his chance to be the number four guy this year, and Breezer will simply be cheap veteran insurance who warms the bench, loves the team, keeps a good attitude and can pinch in with a nice first pass and decent PP ability when called upon. Nothing more than that. And for those who think Gainey should have acquired a top-four defenceman instead...well, you have to give to get. And he's stingy with his assets, as a good GM should be. Anyway, a top-four man would have cost a lot more in salary, which would have interferred with the team's ability to pay that third centre. This is a decent compromise.

So, although it's disappointing to accept the end of the Sundin Saga, it's time to look ahead with the roster we now have. It is better than last year's team. And if we remember it at all, last year's team didn't exactly suck.


Topham said...

This team is definitely better than last year's team is it?

I suppose if we all forget Streit and Huet weree ever Canadiens, that might be true.

Yes, Tanguay is better than Ryder, but he'll also have to replace Streit on the PP. Who replaces Streit even strength?

And Huet, but for a bad 5 games in February and contract demands we didn't think we would have the money to meet, was an all-star goalie for us last year. His January was simply amazing and kept the team from slipping into their usual funk. Price will be Price, but can Halak be Huet? Maybe but not on 6 games of work.

The main hope for improvement is yet to be seen. It is to see whether Carbo can commit a valued winger to Saku Koivu. Carbo criminally underused Koivu's skill last year while saddling him with old 10 chances per goal Higgins and A perplexed Michael Ryder. It will be the line combinations that swing the votes, I think. If Carbonneau uses Koivu to drag Latendresse into the 20-goal zone, then he will be squandering the true talent up front.

In that way, the addition of Lang might help mightily. He might actually suck away some of the lesser lights like Latendresse to open Koivu for a Kostitsyn or two. It could also go too far, though, if Carbo decides Koivu gets the checking gig, giving up the second-line duties to a declining Robert Lang.

I oouldn't say they aren't better, just that the jury should still be weighing the evidence. Exhibits D and E, Huet and Streit need to be considered among all the other evidence. We'll all just have to wait a month to see.

pierre said...

I dont know the meaning of '' Auld Lang Syne '' but I do agree with you J.T. that our team looked like an improved version of its former self ... their potential to generate exciting hockey as been maintained (and then some) while the team's competitive value has increased.

I believe in Gainey's hockey philosophy based on pressure and attack and also in Ken Holland's observation and team's assemblage basic moto that
'' talented players like to play with talented players ''..... in my book to be successfull at the former you need to have the later... the pieces gathered by Gainey this summer inspire confidence because they are coherent with our direction as I perceive it to be.

Adding Tanguay and Lang has created the opportunity for our team to be 3 lines deep in scoring talents ... those 3 lines are now the core of our identity as a team ... the center of gravity around which everything else will find its proper places and usefullness.

The first positive by-product of our enhanced structural integrity might lead to a significant improvement of our scoring at even strenght.... a weakness we never managed to ameliorate since the locked-out.

I predict higher cohesion from our team when working as a unit of 5 throughout the season ... improved puck transition from our own end and increased puck possession time overall.... therefore some reduction of shots against and a slight reduction in goals against.... despite the fact that the Price-Halak tandem might be sligtly less solid than the Price-Huet tandem we had last season.... a smoug less.... if at all.

Our improved even strenght scoring will make us less dependant on our highly efficient PP of the last 2 years to win games ... still, with Lang's right handed shot, Tanguay's habilities and Laraque's optional value I still think that we could be in the top 5 even without Streit at the point... and better than that if Sergei Kostitsyn become a success story working in tandem with Markov at the point.

When all put together our potential to finish first overall in scoring seems pretty hight to me.... its not dreaming to think that some of our player's will have worked their skills in the summer and that some others will be more matured.... Sergei, Andre, Higgins, Latendresse, Komisarek, Gorges and O' Byrne are names that comes to mind.

TOPHAM concerns seems exagerated on their own ( Streit at even strenght ? Koivu lonesome road ? ) yet real at time ( the goal situation ) but for me anyway they pale if not vanish entirelly in comparaison with the potential gains our team will access with the new package that is Tanguay, Lang and Laraque...... thats the way I see it..... but the season ahead seems promising to be an entertaining one... wetter it lean one way or the other.