Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Whinging and whining

I actually almost feel guilty about not being happy with the team right now. I know, I know: they're 6-1-1. They've got thirteen of a possible sixteen points. Blah, blah, blah. The fact is, the wins aren't really satisfactory because you come away from them with a strong feeling of "Whew, they were lucky to win that one with the way they played." Of course, they're doing some things right. Faceoffs are better than they were last year, and their goal-differential has improved dramatically. Goaltending has been generally strong. But the problem is, despite the record, it's easier to list aspects of their game that aren't going well than it is to name those that are.

I don't like the long passes on the rush. Last year, passes were shorter, crisper and more efficient. The long passes are off the mark much too often, resulting in a lot of turnovers and odd-man rushes for the opponent. I don't like the way the PP is looking. I think it was a mistake to move Andrei Markov to the right side. He's propelled the powerplay to the top of the league's standings in each of the last two years by performing the left-side set-up role better than anyone in the NHL. The PP's lowly success rate seems to be proving that it's a lot easier to replace the shooter than it is the set-up guy. I'd like to see one of the Kostitsyns or even Hamrlik or Gorges on the right point instead of Markov. But...whatever way you slice it, the PP isn't clicking right now, and a team can't win without a powerplay indefinitely.

I'm not thrilled with the defence. There are too many shots against, and the D are too soft in giving up their own blueline. They're just not challenging opposition skaters.

And the number of penalties they're taking is too high. The PK is only middle of the pack, so spending too much time in the box will inevitably come back to burn them.

Oh, and last year's third line has become three guys trying to score goals by themselves rather than make the nifty little passing plays they did last year. It's become a rare thing to see the three of them breaking out on the rush together.

Worst of all, there are periods in which it looks like the team is regressing back to the lazy, take-a-period-off style they played two years ago.

The good thing here though, isn't the team's record, which I think they're lucky to have. I think it's that the poor play is very likely being caused by the weird schedule, combined with the fact that there have been quite a few injuries to start the year. It's very strange to see five days off between games this early in the season, and the Habs will face that twice in a month. That makes it tough for the players to get their rhythm going. We've all heard how difficult it is for players who've been sitting out for a while to get their "game timing" back. They say it's one thing to practice, and quite another to translate those skills into an actual game. I think the team played much better when they played three games in four nights than they did playing two games in eight days. Hopefully, after next week's five-day break, things will start to even out with the schedule and the team can get some kind of groove going.

And, hopefully, the rash of injuries the team has weathered to date is over for a while. (Hoping against hope Hamrlik is all right after that shot off the knee last night.) When all the players get a chance to work out with their real linemates for a few days, we probably will see an improvement in their game performance too. Right now, it's hard to see how their play could get any rougher, considering the lineup they have. Minnesota is going to be a very big test, and I'm not that optimistic the Habs are ready to play the game they need to play for a win in that game.

On a positive note, about that Tanguay?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

DE-fence (clap, clap, clap)

Well, the team has finally lost in regulation after getting away with some bad habits since the season started and surviving on the strength of their potent offence. With the loss to a stronger, better-organized Ducks team, no one can hide the bad habits under the proverbial rug anymore. The Habs have a problem on defence, and it's more obvious when playing better teams.

Part of the problem last night was Patrice Brisebois. When he was re-signed in September I didn't complain too much because I thought the team needed some veteran presence, and you won't find anyone who's more dedicated to the Montreal Canadiens than Breezer. He also came cheap and said publicly he was willing to accept a seventh-man role on defence. Add those facts to the truth that he can still make a decent outlet pass, he's helpful on the second wave of the PP and isn't completely embarrassing when used sparingly, and I was okay with it. But last night was the perfect example of why it was a mistake to bring Brisebois back, and it's not Breezer's's the coach's.

Basically, Guy Carbonneau insists on treating Brisebois like a viable top-six option on a nightly basis, and he isn't that player any longer. He's played in every game so far, although up until last night because of injuries. Fine. That's why he was hired. But when Carbonneau used the opportunity of having a full lineup last night to prove a point by sitting Ryan O'Byrne in favour of Breezer, it went too far. Brisebois was awful. He was weak in front of the net and in the corners, he gave the puck away repeatedly and he screened Halak on the first Ducks goal. In short, he was the wrong man to have on the ice for twenty minutes against an aggressive, strong team like Anaheim. O'Byrne might be making mistakes, but he has the potential to learn from them and improve. And last night showed he isn't worse than the guy who took his place.

The second problem I saw was Mike Komisarek. Komisarek is blocking shots and hitting, as usual. But he's mishandling the puck very often and he's getting exposed for his over-reliance on his partner, Andrei Markov, in the transition game. The opposition has figured out that Markov is the puck mover of the pair, so they're dumping it in on Komisarek's side, blocking his cross-ice pass to Markov and forcing #8 to make decisions that were traditionally Markov's to make. It may be that he's going through an adjustment period, but right now, it's pretty rough.

Of the others, Roman Hamrlik is as steady as he was last year, Francis Bouillon is as tough and Josh Gorges is showing just as much intelligence and heart. But, if O'Byrne truly isn't ready to be the number-four D on the team and Gorges is considered too small, then Gainey needs to bring in a defenceman. Because as likeable and useful as the current D-men are, they didn't win last year and without help they're not likely to miraculously improve enough to win this year either. I saw Scott Neidermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin (let's not go there) stymie the likes of Kovalev seemingly effortlessly last night, and outside of Markov, the Habs don't really have a comparable answer on defence.

It's not just the defencemen, though. The forwards were lax in getting back and covering their own zone. The PK was ineffectual in clearing the zone and there seemed to be a general amnesia when it came to challenging the rushing Ducks. They gave up their own blueline much too easily. Some of that can be rectified with a better focus on hard work. I mean, if the leafs can beat Detroit with hard work, the Habs surely can beat the likes of Anaheim, whom everyone was beating to start the season.

The irony of last night is that the team, in its worst and most-exposed defensive effort, gave up its fewest shots against of the season with 25. Previously, they were giving up an average of 32 per game...third highest in the league. I don't buy all the talk about the shots being from the outside and relatively harmless. A high shots-allowed total reveals a problem with the team's defensive coverage, no matter where those shots are coming from.

I know every team will lose games, and not every loss will be closely-contested enough to be palatable. But I haven't seen the team have a real, convincing, 60-minute win yet this year, and last night shone a glaring spotlight on their weaknesses. So, if we're recognizing this, you can bet Bob Gainey is too. There are several options he can exercise to address the defence problem. There's assigning the existing players to focus on D more, reducing the freedom the defencemen now have to support the offence on the rush. And there's the previously-mentioned idea of bringing in another top-four man. (Although I do understand Gainey's reluctance to give up valuable futures for what would likely be a rental.) Then there's the idea of hiring a proper defence coach.

Doug Jarvis isn't necessarily doing a bad job with the D, but I can't help thinking it would be better all around to have a guy who's actually played the position offering instruction. It's hard not to imagine the insight a guy like Larry Robinson (yeah, I know he's taken, but you know what I mean) could give Mike Komisarek about using his size to control guys like Getzlaf. Or how he might help devise strategies for the defence to use to beat the tight forechecking that seems to bedevil them against big teams. In a year as important as this one, what's the harm in bringing in someone to help the defence? At least we'd know the team is willing to try anything to improve.

One thing's certain: they're going to have to try something. And it's going to have to start on the back end.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008'll come

So, the Habs are six games into their season and have yet to lose in regulation. Their even-strength goal differential is the best in the league for the first time in recent memory. Both goalies are rocking the crease, and the Captain's line is rocking the opposition, including the long-awaited Latendresse in an emerging power forward role. Everything's going according to plan, right?

Wrong. These are the Habs, and we are Habs' fans. There's always something that's not perfect. I'm on record myself as saying I'm impatient for the night when everyone's healthy and all three offensive lines are firing. It's going to be fun, and we haven't seen it yet. But you have to think it'll come...especially to last year's first line. Unfortunately a lot of fans aren't very patient, and they're starting to get on Alex Kovalev's and Tomas Plekanec's cases already. I'm assuming Andrei Kostitsyn gets a pass because he took a serious blow to the head last game.

It's true the team's erstwhile first line isn't tearing up the ice like it did last year. But consider this: some smart coaches have figured out Kovalev is the engine that drives that line. They've realized double-teaming him doesn't work...he just finds space around his shadows and dishes the puck to his linemates. So instead they're having their players cover Pleks and AKost. That means Kovalev is left holding the puck and has no one to receive a pass. He's able to hold the biscuit for a while, but inevitably ends up coughing it up when the opposition checkers move in.

Now, this is an interesting dilemma because of the question of who will ultimately solve it. It seems obvious that it should be the players' problem. They're the ones out there on the ice and the ones who must find a way to get around the lane-clogging defence of the other team. But I think the coaches have a role here too, when it comes to helping the former first line find a way to cope. I think it's up to them to designate another puck-carrier on that line for one thing. Andrei Kostitsyn is well able to lug the puck up through the neutral zone. If the opposition is keying on Kovalev, that'll throw them a little. And, I think when that line has the puck, the defence should be on alert for more opportunities to sneak a pinch in. If the opposition is covering Plekanec and Kostitsyn when Kovalev has the puck, who's going to cover a pinching Markov or Gorges? It would give Kovalev another option to pass, and more moving targets for the other team to cover.

It'll be intriguing to see what Carbo does to help his players out in terms of strategy. So far, he's come at them with the old "don't rest on your harder" line. Sure, that's fine. But these guys' bread and butter isn't grinding on the boards and in the corners. They need options for their slick style to work, and it's up to Carbonneau and his staff to help them find those options. It's up to Kovy and Co. to listen and follow the coaches' advice, as well as come up with some creativity (and, yes, hard work) of their own.

The bottom line is, it'll come. These are smart guys we're talking about, both on the ice and off it. They know the game and they'll figure it out. We just have to be patient and give them a chance before we start ragging on them. It's a test, both of the players and of the coaching staff. But, isn't that what a championship season really is? A test of skill, and will, and strategy? There's no point in criticism'll only frustrate us as fans and annoys the players who get to hear about our frustration in the press. A friend says you can't judge a team until the 26-game mark. I think that's a good idea. Let's give them 26 games, and if the Plekanec line is still struggling, then we can ask stressed-out questions about what's going on with them. Until then, let's just chill. It'll come.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lineup ferris wheel

I was at the Coyotes/Habs game on Saturday night, and I was so impressed with the Koivu/Tanguay/Latendresse line it's difficult to explain the impression of compact unity the three gave every time they hit the ice. I said once before, but it bears repeating, that Alex Tanguay was made to play for this team. His speed, vision and passing ability are at an elite level. And, despite scouting reports to the contrary, I find him to be neither reluctant to shoot or weak in traffic.

Latendresse appears to be coming into his own and fulfilling all that promise he showed in his first two training camps. Of course, it's only been five games, but his skating is better, he's hitting, and, most importantly, he's going to the front of the net and being rewarded with points for his efforts. It seemed in the past that he felt himself to be more like a Tanguay than the power forward Habs' fans coveted. But now he looks like he's finally got the message that his quick hands and slick linemates will click when he puts himself and his large mass in difficult areas in the slot. The most marked difference for him this year is his start. It took him thirteen games to record a point in his rookie season and quite a while to get off the mark in his second too. Better conditioning and better linemates are finally giving him the opportunity to take advantage of his skills that playing spotty minutes with fourth-liners did not. I think he's going to take a lot of heat off himself this season, and I'm glad for it.

And Koivu? Wow. He's involved, he's smooth, he's energetic. He's also playing less than fourteen minutes a night, which is brilliant use of the captain by Guy Carbonneau. For the first time in years, Koivu looks like the enthusiastic kid he was when he was awarded the "C" back in the '90s. I think it's partly due to fewer minutes keeping him fresh, and partly due to playing with the best linemates of his career. If hockey is supposed to be fun, playing with guys who compliment you and take advantage of your best attributes to score goals has to be right up there as the most fun you can have.

The thing that frustrates me, though, is that old lineup ferris wheel. It seems to always be turning, and when one line is at the top, the other is at the bottom. Looking at the roster, I've been waiting since the Lang signing to see the three top lines all click to completely decimate the opposition. The Koivu line is fulfilling its promise, but the Plekanec line is not. They're not playing badly, but they haven't been the awesome dominating force they were last year either, and Plekanec has yet to pot his first goal. And now, with the Andrei Kostitsyn injury, they're going to be broken up for a while. The Lang line has looked good and worked hard, but poor Tom Kostopoulos just doesn't have the finishing skill that line needs and with Chris Higgins hurt too, we haven't seen that line completely up to speed either. Still, it baffles me that there only ever seems to be one line delivering, even when there are three lines perfectly able to do so. The injuries are accountable for some of it, but Andrei Kostitsyn didn't get hurt until Saturday, and their line wasn't nearly as dangerous as the Koivu line.

Some of it may be simply because the other team tends to put their best defensive players out against the most dangerous line, and based on last year, that would be the Plekanec line. But you'd think that the attention would shift to the Koivu line based on how well they've played, which should have opened up some ice for the Plekanec line. Or maybe the other teams just haven't adapted to the new Habs yet.

Either way, I can't help hoping when everyone is healthy we'll finally see it. We'll see wave after wave of dominance as the three offensive lines all find their chemistry and put the fear of God into the rest of the league. In the meantime, I'll just have to enjoy the happiness of Koivu, the emergence of Latendresse and the perfect fit of Alex Tanguay. The wheel has stopped for a little while, and they've ended up on top.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Game Two: Habs vs. leafs

Notes on the second:

-Gui! looking great tonight. I wonder if there'll be a spot for Higgins on the second line when he comes back?

-Breezer's best quality is his porcelain skin. He bleeds like a hemophiliac, which is going to get his team lots of four-minute PPs.

-Speaking of the PP, Tanguay's like a cat burglar with the keys to the Crown Jewels. He was made for this team.

-I wonder what Gainey was writing on that pad after the second Sergei Kostitsyn goal? Maybe "Ole, ole, ole, ole..."

-If I ever make a Habs drinking game, it's going to have "Lapierre passes on a 2-on-1" as the trigger to chug the bottle. Only problem is, you'd come away sober.

-Faceoffs and the PK...two big questions before the season started...both looking good early.

-Halak is slick as the wake of the Exxon Valdez. I hope the team can keep him happy enough to keep him.

-I want Cujo.

Notes on the first:

-Okay, I'm keeping a running tally on Komisarek's bid for a new contract. I'm starting with a base figure of three million per, and after the first, he's hovering around 2.8 now.

-Gui! lost weight, learned how to skate and apparently got an injection of hockey sense along with his B12 over the summer. What a pass on the Hammer goal! Only thing with him is even though he's got skills, he always seems to be shocked to find himself in a position to use them.

-And, speaking of which, Hammer has decided to become a more offensive tool. Seven shots last night and a goal tonight. I hope he keeps it up.

-The fourth line is doing what a fourth line should...keep the opposition pinned in their own end while the good players get a breather. Can't ask more of them than that, really.

-Plekanec playing keepaway with the leafs' D has made this game worth watching, all on its own. It's like watching a bunch of kids be amazed when the birthday-party magician pulls a bouquet of roses out of his sleeve.

-Halak is smooth as fresh ice, and just as cool. I don't know what it is, but he reminds me a bit of Roy.

-Kovalev can probably pull a loonie out of Toskala's ear while he's scoring on him...he's that magical.

-Lapierre isn't convincing me he misses the smell of diesel exhaust. He might get a sniff of it on Steeltown buses if he's not careful.

-Grabovski doesn't look as little like an NHLer with the leafs as he did with the Habs.

Friday, October 10, 2008

In-Game Summaries

Well, I don't know if this'll work because you're all so busy during intermissions, but I'm going to attempt to post period-by-period summaries for your enjoyment if you're around to read them. Let's see how it goes. Meet you here, Saturday, first intermission of Habs/leafs 2008, Take One.

Likin' the Langy, not so much the Tangy

First game, first loss. Yeah, yeah, I know it's not "technically" a loss because they got the loser point. But it's still not the glorious start to the Centennial we were all hoping for. In the first game, loss though it was, I thought Carey Price played pretty decently, lousy high shots to the stick side in the SO notwithstanding. Pleky tried hard, but Kovy and AKost were MIA. And Lang was grand...scored a beauty and made some heady plays later in the game.

The captain didn't look like he's all that concerned about earning another contract and Komisarek seemed to be Back to the Future in his own rookie season, especially on the Sabres' goal. I'm not sure Markov was aware the season has begun. And Latendresse may be faster, but not so much gooder.

All in all, not the bang I was hoping for when it comes to opening hundredth seasons of legendary franchises. And the leafs aren't going to be total pushovers. Ron Wilson has taught them to play western style "choke you till you give up the lousy puck" trap, and they forecheck like rabid pitbulls. So, if our boys get out of this weekend with three points, it'll be pretty good.

Let's hope the "A" squad shows up for the leafs. I just can't bear the taunting if they don't.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The economy and the cap

As we watch stock markets plummet to three-year lows and the value of the Canadian dollar against the greenback drop, most of us probably have more important things to worry about than how all this will affect the NHL salary cap. But the fact is, the cap will feel the economic crisis and most GMs are not doing anything to protect themselves.

I ran into Julien BriseBois, the Canadiens' capologist, last week, and I had a chance to ask him what he thinks is going to happen. It was an interesting conversation, not least because he says the economic crisis won't be felt at its worst by NHL teams right away. That's because the cap for next year is based on this year's league revenue. If you look at the collective bargaining agreement, you'll see "hockey-based revenue" described pretty specifically. It includes things like ticket sales, merchandise sales, television and radio deals, advertising on boards, ice and arena buildings, concessions, team publications like magazines and programs, and special appearances by team personnel and mascots. BriseBois says most teams have already sold their season tickets for this year, and many healthy markets have sold out individual games as well. So, once the tickets are sold, fans tend to buy the concessions and programs at the games, and some will continue to pick up a hat or jersey while they're there. BriseBois also explains most of the advertising deals, like those for naming rights on arenas, as well as broadcasting deals between teams and their radio and TV carriers include escalating clauses, so they pay a little more each year of the deal to retain those rights.

What that all means is that much of the league revenue on which next year's cap will be based was generated before the worst of the financial crisis hit. So when the capologists at the NHL get together this summer, they'll calculate the cap for 2009-10 according to how much the league made this year, without taking into consideration the fact that next year's revenue is quite likely to fall. Which means the cap two years from now will be forced to either stand pat, or quite possibly drop.

BriseBois explains that the NHL survives on the middle class spending money. They're the ones who buy the jerseys, the game tickets and the ten-dollar beers. They're the ones who buy the Centre Ice package to watch their team's games. But when they're worried about their investments going into the tank and losing their jobs as companies tighten their belts, they stop spending on luxuries like hockey games. Then you take the companies themselves. They're the ones buying season tickets and corporate boxes to entertain clients. They're the ones paying for advertising on arena boards. But it's been proven in the past that when economic times get tough, advertising and entertainment budgets are the first expenses to be slashed. Of course, existing advertising and broadcasting contracts will continue to provide increasing revenue to league coffers. But there's concern that those up for renewal will disappear.

Then, you must consider the Canadian dollar. With huge increases in the dollar's value last year because of skyrocketing commodity prices and a depressed US economy, the six Canadian franchises contributed thirty-one percent to the NHL's total revenue, according to a leaked league document. Now, with sinking oil prices and a rallying US dollar, the loonie's value against the greenback is falling. Experts predict the downward trend will continue for the next several months. So the huge hockey revenue earned in Canadian dollars and converted to even more US dollars will take a hit this year.

The inherent problem with this is that next year's cap will likely go up slightly because the money it's based upon has already been made. So, when teams like the Canadiens sit down to sign their players this summer, players and agents will look at an increased cap and the big, juicy contracts their peers signed last year, and expect no less. However, GMs have to know a cap crunch is probably coming the year after next. So, if they sign players up to or over the cap like they did last summer, especially on long-term escalating contracts, they're going to end up having to dump players the following year, just to get under the cap when it fails to go up or falls. The problem is, many teams will be in the same boat so there won't be a market for the players everyone's trying to dump. Teams' financial hands will be tied and we'll see respected players waived and demoted because their clubs can no longer afford them. We'll also likely see good young players stagnate in the minors because teams can't afford their contracts.

So, knowing this, you might wonder why GMs wouldn't take the sensible approach and try to save cap space in anticipation of an approaching drop in the ceiling. An NHL source explained it simply this way: "Most GMs don't care. They know they won't be in those jobs in five years' time and they want to win now. They'll spend as much money as they think they need to to beat out the other GMs with little thought to future consequences."

BriseBois compares the situation to the US banking crisis, in which institutions lent money they couldn't hope to get back out of recklessness and greed. Hockey teams, driven by the same vices, will spend more money this summer than they can realistically expect to have in hand in two years' time. But there's no US government to come to the aid of the NHL. We might see the teams come on bended knee to the NHLPA for a one-time across-the-board salary reduction in their own version of a bailout. Or the teams may just try to cut where they can and muddle through.

Which, as Habs' fans leaves us with two pressing questions. One, will Bob Gainey join the spendthrift club when he faces re-signing his ten unrestricted free agents and four restricted ones in the coming summer, or will he try to be prudent and let someone go if their demands put the team's financial future in jeopardy? And, two, will the Canadiens' free agents settle for lower money or less term in order to keep the team together when the cap crisis comes? Pressing questions...with unpredictable answers. But one thing is certain: the NHL may be able to delay the reality the rest of the business world is dealing with, but it can't escape it.

Can't wait!

Only three more days before we can all crack a beer, tune in RDS (or, if we're really lucky, take our seat in the Bell Centre) and watch some honest-to-God meaningful hockey again. This off-season has felt like it's lasted about a year, probably because when there's really something to look forward to, like Christmas or a trip abroad, the time drags interminably. And, for the first time in a very long time, we truly have a hockey team that makes us impatient for the season to start.

There's so much to look forward to this year, I'm sure everyone has their personal expectations. I like the little things...the things that tell us these are the Habs and no one else; the team for which we've been waiting all summer. So, as the Centennial season opens, I'll be watching for:

-The first time Alex Kovalev gets cut across the beak. It seems like whenever he plays a particularly good game, he comes out of it with a big cut right across the bridge of the honker. Bonus if he gets his first hat trick in a Habs uniform and does the moonwalk on Bell Centre ice. The place would go crazy.

-The first time Saku Koivu takes a candyass hooking penalty, followed by Carbo rolling his eyes, ostensibly at the ref. It's just not a Habs game without a Koivu hooking penalty. Especially if it comes in the offensive zone when the team is on a powerplay. We love Koivu, but his penchant for those is maddening. I'm hoping he'll have it under control this year, but I'm not really expecting it to happen.

-The first powerplay goal. Will it be a blast from the point by Markov? Or a tic-tac-toe from Kovy-to-Pleks-to-Akost? Maybe Koivu behind the net to Sergei sneaking in from the point? All the possibilities are there, and all of them are beautiful.

-The first big 5-on-3 successful PK that turns a game around. I don't think there's much as exciting as watching a beleaguered goalie shut down the other team's PP and crush their spirit at the same time.

-The first time Andrei Kostitsyn skates through the whole opposing team and makes their D look silly.

-The first time the team is down by two late in a game and we see the line of Koivu-Lang-Laraque on the ice because Carbo has already tried every other possible combination.

-The first game against Jersey to see if they've really solved Brodeur or not, and the first game against the Bruins to see if they've really solved the Habs or not.

-The first time Komisarek crushes someone and creates that little gap in the space-time continuum in which everyone in the building can only stare open-mouthed at the destruction he leaves in his wake.

-The first Habs blowout. I love a good blowout. It's fun to get tense over a close game sometimes, but there's nothing like sitting back and enjoying the deluge of goals the Habs can produce when everything's going well.

-The first ceremony. This is going to be a season of moments, and no one does them like the Canadiens.

And, oh, so much more. I just can't wait for the season to start. Here's hoping it's a healthy one and the boys do what they need to do to be ready for the second week of April. Until then, it's going to be a helluva ride.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fisher's vendetta

I wonder if there's anything more pathetic than an old man who spends his precious dwindling time adding kindling to the flickering flame of a grudge most others let burn out long ago? I caught up with my reading today, after having been away at the 'Dogs camp on the weekend. I usually read all the Habs-related coverage in the Gazette, including Red Fisher's Red Line, even when I don't necessarily agree with all he has to say. I respect the fact that Fisher has had a very long and distinguished career covering our great team and continues to write when most others have either retired or died. But his vendetta against Patrick Roy has got to end.

The headline on this week's Red Line, if you haven't read it already, is: "Schneider Made Right Decision When He Didn't Quit Canadiens After Fight With Roy." The column is about how much Fisher likes and respects Mathieu Schneider and is surprised the Penguins didn't snap him up off waivers because of their injuries on defence. But Fisher takes the opportunity afforded him in writing about Schneider to recount a dressing room incident from the early nineties, in which Roy and Schneider nearly came to blows. Predictably, Fisher as relates it, Roy started the whole thing and Schneider had to be talked (by Fisher, the article implies) into staying with the team and bearing with the arrogant goalie's behaviour.

Okay, Red, we get it.

He dislikes Patrick Roy intensely. He may even hate the man. But guess what? A lot of us don't. Some of us see this week's column as yet another small-minded attempt to discredit a guy with whom Fisher's got a problem. Frankly, I'm sick of it. I'm tired of reading the same rehashed column about Roy and how he "quit" on the team every time he's honoured. Literally, the same article. I swear it's just stored in his hard-drive and hauled out whenever Roy needs to be brought down a peg. Fisher wrote it when Roy was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and printed it again when the Habs announced number thirty-three would be retired. Yet, Fisher then attended the official announcement of the jersey retirement, only to sit there and stare at Roy rather than ask a question when he was called upon. How miserable is that? If Red hates Roy as much as he writes that he does, why would he bother to show up at the announcement at all? The very smallness of attending that event for no other reason than to show Patrick Roy his disdain for him does little but discredit Fisher himself.

In this week's story about Schneider's intent to walk away from the Canadiens after a fight with Roy, Fisher fails to condemn Schneider for threatening to quit on the team. That's the very fault he cites to justify his utter condemnation of Roy's legacy in Montreal...yet he mildly prefaces the Schneider story with a fond, "I like Schneider. Always have..." So, apparently, if Red Fisher likes you, he sees little problem with your "quitting" on the team. If he doesn't, then readers have to be subjected to story after story about your failure as a human being for years.

The obvious answer is, well, don't read it. But the problem I have is that I do often enjoy Red Fisher's reminiscences, especially about the great Habs who have passed away, and whose memories have so few witnesses remaining. He's a link to the team's past.

But that link has its pitfalls. When Fisher is living in the past, he continues to dwell on crimes that have long been forgiven by others. If the Montreal Canadiens have grace and class enough to welcome Patrick Roy back to the fold, and Roy has class enough to return, then Red Fisher does himself and his readers a disservice by feeding the feeble fire of his petty vendetta.

It's time to write about something new, and let the ghosts rest. After all, when you're pushing ninety, it might be time to devote some time to wondering how people will remember you. And I'm betting no one wants the words "bitter," "petty," and "small-minded" to figure in the stories that are written when they're gone.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

At the Bulldogs' camp

Well, the 'Dogs are fast, I'll give them that. I had a great view of their game versus the Manitoba Moose, (which they lost, 3-2) sitting directly behind the Hamilton bench. There are a lot of little speedy guys in the lineup, but the one who stands out, by a fair margin, is David Desharnais. After watching him practice, and seeing him in the game last night, I think if there's a small man in the Habs' system with a real chance to make the NHL, it's him. He's short, but he's solidly built and he's a very good skater. He's also strong and, with his low centre of gravity, tough to knock off the puck. I ran into him in the hallway, and he was busy sawing three inches off an already shortened stick...smiling, quick and sure-handed. In the game, he scored one goal by driving the net with the puck and continuing his forward momentum after being tripped, pushing the puck ahead of him and through the goalie. He then assisted on the 'Dogs second goal with a sweet pass from the left of the net right onto J.T.Wyman's tape as Wyman slid into the slot from the point. In today's game, (the championship versus the Marlies...4-3 'Dogs in OT) Desharnais had another two assists to finish the mini-tournament with six points in three games. He was named tournament MVP as well. I really like him, and I'm rooting for him to get a shot at the NHL. If he puts up points in Hamilton like he did in Cincinnati last year, it may be tough to deny him a spot.

Speaking of Wyman, I was surprised to see him on defence in the Saturday game. I'm not sure if he was there because the team was short on D with Henry and Weber still in Montreal, or if it was an experiment Don Lever was trying. In any case, he looked comfortable on the point during powerplays...less certain at even strength. But he didn't look awful by any means, and he did fire a very nice shot for the team's second goal. I don't know if we'll see that happen again, but it's interesting.

Pavel Valentenko looked strong for much of the game, but he took some big hits. In practice, he wasn't working that hard, at least to outward appearances, but he was a horse during the game. At one point he got tired of being targetted by some of the Moose's bigger guys, and he pasted one of them to the right of the Manitoba net. He ended up getting a boarding penalty for his trouble, but they left him alone for the most part afterwards. He's a good skater and had a couple of nice shots on the PP.

I was looking forward to seeing Ben Maxwell after being impressed with him in his pre-season games with the Habs, but he was scratched. He practiced in the morning, but I saw him afterwards with what looked suspiciously like an ice pack under his t-shirt in the middle of his back. I hope he's not injured again this year. The big knock on him is that he's hurt a lot, and is possibly a fragile player. Otherwise, he's great though.

Matt D'Agostini didn't do anything spectacular. He was good on the PK and made a couple of smart plays to clear the puck. He played a regular shift with Ryan White and Greg Stewart, and none of them were much of a threat on offence. I don't know if it's post-NHL-camp-cut syndrome, but those three looked like they weren't all that interested in the game for most of it. Towards the end, though, when the 'Dogs were down by a goal with a couple of minutes to go, they turned it on a bit. Stewart looked like he was really trying at that point, but it didn't come to anything.

I thought Shawn Belle did a decent job manning the left point with Wyman on his right. Again, he wasn't spectacular, but he didn't do anything glaringly bad either. Which, I guess is what you want from a journeyman.

Cedrick Desjardins was steady in goal. The second one he allowed was a result of going down too early, but he made some nice saves as well. I think he'll be surprising at the AHL level.

One guy who really surprised me was Chad Anderson. He was very steady as Valentenko's partner, and played a smart game on the PP, with some nice atypical passing decisions. I think he might end up being an interesting and useful pickup.

Other than those guys, I noticed Trotter a couple of times for good plays he made. No one else really made much of an impression on me, either in practice or in the game. I did get to speak to some of the players after practice though, and I'll have details of some of those conversations in later blogs.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I don't get it

I tuned into the Habs/Bruins game on CJAD last night, hoping for a good old-fashioned Bear hunt. It sounds like the Canadiens managed that, scoring three powerplay goals while holding the Bruins to one, even without the Habs' top-three defencemen in the lineup. It should have been a nice, comfortable pre-season victory over an opponent that's going to challenge Montreal in the coming season.

But it wasn't quite as nice or comfortable as the majority Habs' fans would have liked. That's because their some of their brethern who packed the Bell Centre decided that it was a great idea to taunt Michael Ryder all night long, for...nothing? Every time he touched the puck, the boos and derisive chants of "Ry-derrrrr" cascaded from the cheap seats. It was disrespectful when there was no call for disrespect. And nasty when there was no need for nastiness.

Ryder is trying to start his career over again in a new city, after knowing no professional organization except Montreal's. In his time with the Habs, he led the team in goals scored in two of the last three seasons, and even in his disappointing campaign last year managed some memorable scoring the first two goals in the magical Comeback game against the Rangers in Februrary. Ryder has never disparaged the Habs or their management, even after his production dropped off when he saw his powerplay time...his bread and butter...disappear. He didn't say a negative word when he found himself in Carbonneau's doghouse and scratched from the lineup. He worked hard in practice and made sure he didn't become a distraction to his teammates. Except for failing to score thirty goals for a third straight year, Ryder did everything right last season. Yet, he was greeted on his return to Montreal with catcalls and disdain.

I was trying to figure out why fans acted that way. Was it because Ryder was wearing a Bruins sweater? Or because he became the city's annual whipping boy last year, and the derision carried over? Or maybe just because he failed to score very many goals last season? Whatever the cause, it doesn't seem to me that Ryder did anything worthy of the treatment he got. I heard one fan say he has the right to boo whomever he wants when he pays his money to see the team. Fair enough. But, why would you want to boo someone as innocuous as Ryder in the first place? Samsonov, who complained to the media, arrived at camp out of shape, took Gainey's money and produced nothing and dogged it on the ice...okay, yeah, I can see booing him, if you must. Chara? Okay, he's the captain and one of the Habs' biggest threats with one of their biggest rivals. But Ryder? Please. Someone else argued that Ryder threw paper airplanes in the pressbox after he'd been scratched one night, and appeared not to care. There was never any evidence outside a reporter's comment in a blog that that actually happened at all. But, even if it did...let he who has never given in to frustration and anger throw the first plane.

I found the whole thing really disheartening. Once upon a time, fans in Montreal were renowned for their grace and class...cheering a worthy opponent when he made a particularly impressive play, or one of their own who'd left and returned with a rival. Of course, that's not to say there was no such thing as booing. Any player who hurt a Hab or dogged it for the Canadiens would hear about it. But there was always a reason. I'm afraid, in this hundredth year of Canadiens' history, that the team will honour its greats and mark its Centennial with all measure of dignity and class...but their fans will let them down and be the only embarrassment marring the anniversary.

Flavour of the week

Did you just love Max Pacioretty in that pre-season game against Detroit? I did. He was fast, aggressive, smart and did everything right on both his regulation-time goal and his shootout beauty. He made a really good case for himself in his effort to prove he deserves an NHL job. It'll be hard to cut hard that he might actually push a regular out of the lineup and steal a spot with the big team. Most likely though, the decision, hard as it is, will be the same one Bob Gainey made last year when Sergei Kostitsyn had a stellar camp and still started the year in Hamilton.

Because when it comes down to it, Pacioretty is nineteen years old with one college season and a pro training camp separating him from his US high school team. There's no doubt he's got tons of natural ability, and that he'll be a good NHL player whenever he gets his shot. But there's not a player of that age or background who can't learn something and refine his game with a stint in the minors, and with a teaching coach like the Bulldogs' Don Lever. As good as he looks right now, Pacioretty has the potential to be even better, which might not be realized if he's thrust into an NHL role right now. The coaching staff has to decide if it's in the best interests of Pacioretty to launch his first rigorous pro season under the bright lights and high expectations of Montreal. Sergei Kostitsyn did well after his call up last season, but he had an older brother on the team who could act as mentor and friend. Carey Price, on the other hand, experienced deep valleys in morale and had to learn on the fly how to take care of himself physically. Which speaks to the theory that just because a player's skills are ready for the NHL, the player himself may not be as prepared for that reality.

I think it's great to be positive about Max Pac's future with the Habs, and look forward to the contributions he will make to the team's success. But fans need to be a little more patient and not leap on the "play him now" bandwagon...lambasting the coaches if they choose to send him to Hamilton. Remember how everyone loved Guillaume Latendresse as an eighteen-year-old, after his first camp when he hit everything in sight? Remember the outcry when he was sent back to junior, only to come back with another great camp as a nineteen-year-old? Yet, when he made the team and the path of his development became rockier, the same fans who demanded to see him promoted were ready to trade him for ice shavings. Same thing with Greg Stewart. He had one great game last season, and now he's everyone's choice for the fourth line, ahead of Kostopoulos, Lapierre and Begin. I wonder how many ordinary games on Stewart's part it would take before fans are ready to discard him in favour of the next unproven rookie?

It's easy to understand in a way. The kids are the living embodiment of potential and hope. They still have the possibility to be or do anything, and they haven't yet proven they can't. So it's tempting to look at them as better than the players whose experience has exposed their human and hockey weaknesses. And rest assured, they all have them.

The other problem with promoting Pacioretty right now though, is determining where he'll play. He's too good to be limited to fourth-line minutes and a banging, checking role. Yet who of Higgins, Koivu, Latendresse, the Kostitsyns, Tanguay, Plekanec, Kovalev and Lang will move to make way for him? The easy answer is Latendresse, but that's too easy. You can bet the team isn't going to give up on the local boy who's worked really hard to improve on his decent first two seasons, and who's just 21 himself. Really, unless someone seriously plays himself out of a spot, and I mean Samsonov or Ryder-like, or there's a top-nine winger hurt, there just isn't room for Max Pac.

Matters are further complicated by Kyle Chipchura, who was drafted to be the team's shut-down centre and is developing nicely toward that, with some fine games...even if not as spectacular as Pacioretty... in pre-season as well. Considering the fact that his role would fit the fourth line and his NHL experience to date probably puts him a little closer to a full-time job, he's mounting a strong challenge for a big-league spot as well. And with 23 NHLers on staff already, the team would have to cut someone just to get Chipchura onto the fourth line. Finding two regulars who are expendable enough to make room for Pacioretty and Chipchura is much tougher.

As I mentioned before, this is the consequence of having a very good team and a very good development system. There will always be too many players for too few jobs. That means management will have to make some difficult choices about cutting good players. In Pacioretty's case, it's not so tough when you look at the big picture. He's very young and his chance will come when several spots open up next season. In the meantime, he can learn the pro ropes in Hamilton and be ready when he's called, whether for a couple of injury-relief games, or to replace someone who fails to perform. We fans should just be glad he's a Hab, and look forward to his (hopefully) long career in Canadiens' colours...when the time is right.