Tuesday, January 27, 2009

He's just not that into you, Montreal

Ugh. It won't die. I watched some of the All-Star festivities last weekend, and my fondly-held fantasy that not one single reporter would bring up the Vinny-to-Montreal rumours, predictably, failed to come true. No, it didn't take Nostradamus to predict that Vincent Lecavalier would arrive in Montreal to the fanfare of a returning hero. My question is, what, beyond an accident of birth, did he ever do to warrant that? Sure, he's a good hockey player. So are Milan Hejduk and Shane Doan, but they didn't have fans falling at their feet in ecstasy. Admittedly, he's a native son. So are Martin St.Louis and Roberto Luongo, but nobody was shrieking their names to the exclusion of other sound at the Bell Centre.

As a Habs' fan, I was pleased to see what a lovely job Montreal did in hosting the ceremonies and the game. But I thought the city's hockey faithful fawning over Lecavalier, I assume in some unjustified attempt to convince him to come to play in Montreal, was both embarrassing and futile. First, there's no indication from Bob Gainey that he wants to acquire Lecavalier's crippling contract, in addition to the hefty chunk of the Canadiens' present and future he'd have to give away in exchange. Second, there's no indication Lecavalier wants to play in Montreal at all.

I know he said all the right words, and was gracious to a fault when answering the "What do you think of the rumours?" question in all its repetitive and thinly-veiled incarnations. But body language counts for something too. And when he was introduced on skills night to louder cheers than even Alex Kovalev or Carey Price, Lecavalier looked pained. He looked like a guy who wished he could just melt into the background, and that his name was Vince Calvillo. The stiff smile, bowed head, reluctant wave and sliding glance all spoke of a guy who's just...well...not that into playing in Montreal or the adoration that comes with it.

And, like a guy who keeps sending flowers and calling even when the girl he's chasing has tried to be nice about not wanting to date him, the fans keep humiliating themselves by showing their love for a player who doesn't want it.

So, for the sake of unrequited lovers everywhere, let him go, Montreal. I know many of you crave a native son to lead the Habs, regardless of salary, term or cost to the future. But he doesn't love you back. And even the fairy tales say you can't buy love or force it. Trying to do so makes hockey fans look desperate, and the Habs aren't a desperate team.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Evening up the all-stars

So, the All-Star Habs will hit the ice tomorrow to show off their hockey skills against the best of the best (except for all the guys who are hurt...and the ones who declined the invitation...so, I guess the best of the best who could make it to Montreal, but I digress.) Andrei Markov will slip right in there because he's the Canadiens' best player and a star no matter how you measure him. Alex Kovalev might not be the most consistent player out there, but there's no denying he's got the pretty skills that will make him look good in the Eastern Conference uniform with the "C" on his chest. Carey Price is just emerging, but there's little doubt he'll be showing his stuff at these games for years to come. Unfortunately, my favourite of the Habs' all-stars is the one taking the most flack for being voted into the show. Mike Komisarek is, of course, a premier stay-at-home defenceman who routinely leads the NHL in hits and blocked shots. But, while those are stats that help a team win through the grind of a long season and playoffs, they're not exactly the kind of skills you can show off in a venue like the all-star game.

As a result, Komisarek is being ridiculed by fans of other teams because he's the least offensively productive player at the game. That's not fair for him, although he's handling what might have been an embarrassment with a great deal of class. He's talking about how grateful he is to be considered for the honour and how proud he is to represent his team. And he's deflecting the credit for his being there onto his partner, Markov, whom he says makes everyone on the ice with him better. But a great guy like Komisarek shouldn't have to feel even marginally sheepish about being voted into a game like this. The voting by fans for the starting lineups at the all-star game needs to change.

And not just to avoid embarrassing decent men like Komisarek and Rory Fitzpatrick, either. Computerized voting and text messaging has turned the idea of a fan vote into a farce. Witness the close call this year when Pens' fans nearly text-messaged Marc Andre Fleury into the starting goaltender's spot, and two defencemen who had yet to play a game when voting started nearly ended up as starters.

I think the coaches of the two teams should choose the players, based on merit. I understand, however, that the NHL wants to include fans in the spectacle in its ongoing effort to reach out to people in places where hockey can't survive without gimmicks. To that end, I think the NHL should let the fans vote for the players who'll take part in the skills competition instead of those who'll take part in the game. This would serve three purposes. First, it would still allow the fans to have involvement in helping their favourite players make an appearance on the all-star stage. Second, it would allow players who may not have the package of skills necessary to be picked as an all-star...but who may have one excellent ability that would look great in a show-off session. And finally, it would save the honour of the all-star team selection for the truly deserving.

Just think how cool it would have been if Russ Courtnall could have been part of the fastest skater competition. He would never have made an all-star team, but boy, he was fast! It wasn't really fair that they should award that title without having guys like him involved. Same with Sheldon Souray. Now, he has made a couple of all-star teams because of his numbers. But he should have a chance to take part in the hardest shot competition every year, even if he isn't elected to the team. How could you name a guy champion of the hardest shot, if he didn't beat Souray to get it?

Electing the skills players would help get more players involved in the all-star weekend, and elevate the quality of the competition. It would also boost the rivalries among fans who claim their guy is the best at something. And, it would preserve the honour of being on an all-star team if the fan-voting were removed from that part of the festivities. I think one reason so many players are willing to give the weekend a pass is that fan voting has turned it into a popularity contest rather than a testament to skill. And there's no need for that to be so.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pepe's back!

I confess, when Claude Lemieux announced last summer that he planned to make a return to pro hockey, I laughed. He was forty-three, hadn't played in the NHL in five years and was pretty useless when he did play. But then the reports came out of the Phoenix camp, where he was skating with their prospects and it turned out the old guy didn't really look out of place. Then he signed a two-way contract with the Sharks and immediately went to China for some pro-level conditioning games. China? I laughed again.

But Lemieux persevered, and he played 23 games with Worcester in the American Hockey League, during which he scored eleven points. Now, against all odds, he's been called up to the NHL. The Sharks plan to give him four to eight minutes a game on the fourth line, let him acclimatize to the speed of the big league, and hope he can still raise his game to superhero levels in the playoffs like he did for Montreal, Colorado and New Jersey.

Pepe was one of my favourites when he was a Hab. He was nasty and annoying and...a winner. He won everywhere he went. So, on one hand I'm really happy to see this Cinderella story come true for a former Canadien who did almost as much as Patrick Roy to bring the '86 Cup to Montreal. On the other, I'm a little bit bitter. Now that Lemieux has come this far in his drive for a return to the NHL, I'm afraid of what he'll do for San Jose.

The Sharks are a very, very strong team, but one that's haunted by a legacy of playoff futility. Adding a guy who knows how to win, like Lemieux, can only be good for them. And, considering the fact that the Canadiens really want to win the Centennial Cup this year, that's bad for the Habs.

It makes me wonder why Bob Gainey never does anything like Doug Wilson did when he gave Claude Lemieux a chance. The Sharks had nothing to lose. It was a PR stunt to let the old skunk try out for their team. If he fails, they're on the hook for nothing but a minor-league salary. But if he succeeds, then they might just have gained that little bit of a post-season edge that could put them over the top. The Canadiens could have taken that chance too. What a story it would have been if Lemieux had made a comeback in Montreal twenty-three years after helping the team win a Cup as a rookie! But for whatever reason, Gainey decided not to extend a hand to Lemieux. I hope it was because Gainey knows Claude well and reasoned that such an offer could have detrimental effects in the room, or something like that.

If Gainey passed over Lemieux without at least considering making him an offer, I worry the Habs GM is too conservative or unimaginative to give his team a leg up on the other teams scrabbling to be the best. The Sharks, on the surface, didn't need extra help this year. They're rolling along on top of the league standings. But Wilson is willing to try anything to make his team even better and give it any advantage he can.

We'll see how Pepe does in San Jose. Maybe it'll turn out that he can no longer keep up with the pace in the NHL and the experiment will be filed under "not happening." But, maybe he'll step up and bring a bit of a spark to a team that needs one in the post season. It'll be interesting to watch the story unfold. I just can't help wishing it was unfolding in Montreal.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Stop bitching already!

I've been very impressed with the way the Habs have really buckled down to business since Christmas. Despite the rash of injuries with which they've been afflicted, the team continues to roll along and seems to have really pulled together in the face of adversity. Yet, fans continue to complain the team isn't perfect. Some even continue to think it's a good idea to gut the franchise to acquire Vincent Lecavalier. It's driving me crazy. So here are the top ten reasons why Habs fans need to stop bitching:

10. Jaro Halak. Sure, he's not perfect. Jaro sometimes forgets to get up after he's dropped to his knees to make a save. His rebounds make the puck look like a jet ball and they unfortunately often end up right back in the slot from whence they came. He's small and when he's lacking in confidence, he plays smaller. But, even with those weaknesses, Jaro gets the job done. He allows four goals against Ottawa, but then shuts down Spezza and Alfredsson in the shootout. He gives up five against Florida, failing to preserve two two-goal leads (and no...he wasn't the only one at fault) and again was perfect in the overtime and shootout to bring home the two points. If not for Halak's ability to collect wins under pressure, the Canadiens could be in much worse shape than they are right now. When Carey Price went down with his second injury of the year after Christmas, Halak filled his skates and gave his team a chance to win every night.

9. Maxim Lapierre. Lapierre has picked an ideal time to really blossom into a hard-checking, faceoff-winning, goal-scoring, do-it-all kind of player. For a guy who got sent to Hamilton out of training camp last year because he got outplayed by Kyle Chipchura, he's come a long way. And the line he's centering with Guillaume Latendresse and Tom Kostopoulos has played a big role in the consistency the team has acquired since Christmas. He's also managing to take the heat off an underperforming Tomas Plekanec and fill the gap left down the middle of the lineup with the absence of Saku Koivu.

8. The powerplay. Words fail me when I think about how awful the powerplay was through most of the first half of the season. At one point, my heart would actually sink when I realized the Habs would have to plod their way through yet another man advantage. It got so bad I considered it a successful powerplay if the Canadiens just managed to prevent a short-handed goal against. In the last ten games or so, though, the PP has risen from the dead. It's finally helping make the difference in close games and making teams think twice about taking a penalty against the Habs. That, in turn, means the Canadiens' speed game has more room to manouver, which results in more even-strength scoring too.

7. Patrice Brisebois. I was among the many who groaned heartily when Bob Gainey re-signed Breezer for yet another season, but I comforted myself with the thought that the old geezer would just be a reserve. He'd spend most of his time in the pressbox and play a scattered game against a soft opponent, just to shake the rust off. As it turns out, of course, he's been called upon to do much more than that. Mike Komisarek got hurt. Ryan O'Byrne wasn't ready. For one reason or another, Brisebois has been the number six D on the team for most of the season, and, although he still makes the occasional egregious error, he's not really much worse than any other team's number-six blueliner. In the end, it turns out the Canadiens don't have a better option at the moment and Brisebois has filled in and done a mostly decent job.

6. Guy Carbonneau. Carbo's name is the first to come up in sentences including the words "fire, now" and "stupid system" when things are going badly. But he's rarely mentioned when the team's winning. That's not fair. Of course, he does stubborn, inexplicable things like insisting on putting Tom Kostopoulos on the powerplay when TK's got about as much chance of scoring there as one of the Molson Ex dancing girls. But as Jacques Demers told USA Today this week, Carbo's communication skills have improved by a lot, and his bench management has become world class since he started two years ago. Witness the fact that he not only is now aware he's entitled to a timeout, but sometimes, he actually uses it! And when the team put up some of its stinkier games in November, rather than call out players in the media as he would have done in his rookie year, Carbo shut up and praised the good parts of the team instead. He's also learned to zip it with the officals for the most part. All in all, Carbo is doing a good job with this team under some pretty tough circumstances.

5. The farm system. How many teams can lose an entire first line, starting goalie and a couple of solid role players, call up a few guys from the farm and keep rolling without missing a beat? Not too many. The likes of Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Greg Stewart, Kyle Chipchura and Yannick Weber not only covered for the missing players, but looked like bona fide NHLers while doing it. That's a credit to Don Lever in Hamilton and Trevor Timmins' drafting prowess.

4. The Boston Bruins. Habs fans everywhere are obsessed with the Bruins-Canadiens electric rivalry this year. Rightly so, too. The Bruins are a great team. But while the rivalry is fun, the Bruins are serving another purpose for the Habs. Last season, the inexplicable dominance over Boston gave the Habs a somewhat inflated sense of their own invulnerability. That came back to bite them in the playoffs when the blinders fell off and they realized the Bruins were a really good team. This season, the advantage falls to the Bruins...but they're showing the Canadiens what they have to do to win, and giving the Habs a target to aim for in the second half. The Habs are always better when they have something to chase. The Bruins are also taking the heat off the Canadiens in that everyone else is aiming for them too.

3. The rebound factor. Mike Komisarek said after the loss to Boston last week that the team prides itself on its ability to come back after a loss, which it did nicely with subsequent wins over Nashville and Ottawa. That ability to be consistent is something in which the team has pride...and means the fans aren't suffering through the extended losing streaks of two seasons ago.

2. The playoffs. For the first time in a long while, we started the season with a playoff spot already confirmed in most of our minds. Even last year, before the big second half that propelled the team to the conference title, we worried about the team missing the post-season by a nose, like it did in 2006-07. It's nice to be worrying about what seed the Habs will be in late April, instead of whether they'll be playing then at all.

And the number one reason why Habs fans need to stop bitching:

1. They're winning. A lot. And when it comes down to it, that's what the fans want. Sure, we want dominating, hockey-clinic type wins if we can get them. We wouldn't turn up our noses at powerplay hat tricks and goalie shutouts. But in a long season, bounces can be strange and referees unstable. Sometimes a team is tired or sick or just off and doesn't look so good. Considering that, we should be glad the points keep piling up and the team is right up there with the best in the league. After all, when we look back at the Centennial season, we'll see the team's record, and we won't remember the game they took a period off or the goalie allowed a lousy one. That's not to say those things don't offer up some opportunity for lively debate among fans, but they shouldn't suck the joy out of a victory as they seem to do sometimes...resulting in the aforementioned bitching. Winning is all that matters, and the Habs are doing it. Be happy, fans.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Spoiling the goalie

There was an article in the Globe & Mail yesterday, detailing how young butterfly goaltenders are having more problems with the infamous "lower body" injury now than at any time in NHL history. We're seeing number-one goaltenders go down for long periods with knee, hip, groin and ankle problems, largely because of the stress the butterfly style takes on the joints. The experts in the article, including butterfly-style guru Francois Allaire and former goalie Darren Pang, cite the increasing speed of the game, requiring goalies to make more and harder saves, as a primary reason for the rash of goaltender injuries. Overwork of a team's number one goalie is another reason.

Rick Dipietro and Roberto Luongo are both required to play seventy-plus games for their teams, and both have missed extended periods with knee and groin injuries this season. There are other goalies missing time this year too...about a dozen of them...whose teams can ill-afford their absence. Of concern to Habs' fans though, is Carey Price's situation. At twenty-one, Price is still developing both physically and mentally. In his first full NHL season as the Canadiens' number-one goalie, Price was on pace to play sixty-plus of the team's eighty-two games until he suffered a quadriceps/knee injury and missed four games before Christmas. He came back for a few games, then went down again...this time with an ankle injury that's caused him to miss another seven games and counting. The injuries might just be fluky, or unlucky. Or they might be the temporary result of putting stress on joints that are still developing. But they might not.

An interesting stat in the Globe article says that no Stanley Cup-winning goaltender since 2002 has played more than 56 games a year. It supports two beliefs I've always held. One, that a team needs a strong, capable backup goalie...not just in case of injury, but to carry his share of the load. And, two, that a goalie who plays ninety-percent of his team's regular season games, doesn't just risk injury, but risks being too exhausted come playoff time to be at the top of his game.

Ken Dryden, in "The Game," talks about balancing his workload with backup Bunny Larocque. At the beginning of the year, Dryden, a stand-up style goalie, would plan to start most of the team's games, with Laroque pushed into the background. In the end, Dryden would play fifty-five to sixty of the team's eighty games. He admitted Laroque's role was more than just that of a spare part. The backup pushed Dryden to be better and keep sharp, and he was able to step in seamlessly when the team needed him. However, if a team had a goaltender like Dryden today, he'd be playing seventy-five games. And he'd be doing it on his knees in the butterfly. A goalie's workload is a lot more physically stressful than it was in Dryden's day, but it's also increased to the point where injuries are almost inevitable.

I think it's time for smart teams to go back to better management of their goaltenders. The goalies might not like it...especially the ambitious guys like Price who can only hope to break records if they play seventy-five games a year like Martin Brodeur does. But for their own good and longevity, coaches need to make sure goalies aren't overworked. Physical therapists need to work specialized strengthening exercises into goaltenders' routines. And practice time needs to be reduced for the number one goalie. Most importantly, teams need to carry two goaltenders who are able to shoulder the load when needed. Too often, teams keep one expensive goalie and one throwaway guy who gets a bare minimum of games, possibly for cap reasons. But a balanced system of sharing net duties will not only help keep both backstops fresh and challenged, but also help prevent injuries.

People talk about trading Jaro Halak because he won't be happy if he's only getting fifteen or twenty starts a year in Montreal. I agree, that's not enough work to keep him happy. But I think he should be getting a bigger share of the games than that. He's proven he can bring home the wins when called upon, and if having him play more means Price stays healthy, it's a good thing. I'd rather have Price play fifty games in the regular season, then be sharp and well-rested enough to play twenty more in the playoffs, than I would have him play seventy games in the regular season and flame out in the first round.

Carey Price is the franchise player the Canadiens haven't had since Patrick Roy. There's no question about that. But his position and style of play puts him at a higher risk of injury than his fellow goalies from past eras. It would be tragic if the Canadiens have found the right player to bring the team back to the Cup finals, only to lose him to a wonky knee or ankle because they overused him in the regular season. To avoid that, the team needs to take special care of Price. And it needs to start now.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Say it ain't so!

TSN's Bob McKenzie is now reporting that the Canadiens have already proposed a trade package to Tampa for Vincent Lecavalier. He says "sources close to the team" have told him the package includes Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, PK Subban, Josh Gorges and at least a couple of first round draft picks. Can you say "overpayment," boys and girls.

I love Bob Gainey. I think he's very smart and knows a ton about the game. My one fear with him is that he tends to run after every big name he thinks might be available in his quest to add the elusive "impact player." Fortunately for us and the team, Daniel Briere and Ryan Smyth decided to go elsewhere, and the Penguins swooped in and mortgaged their future for two months of Marian Hossa instead of letting Gainey do it to the Habs. Gainey's been saved from his own wishes, against his will. But would any of us want Briere's contract now? Or Smyth's? Or wish we'd won the Hossa sweepstakes only to see him ditch our team for Detroit? I don't think so. It's the same for Lecavalier. The pipe dream that the Next Great French Canadian Superstar could be a Hab is so irresistable to some that they'd do anything to get him, to the detriment of the team as a whole.

I don't want this to happen. Yet, I dread it might happen because Gainey's in the habit of swinging for the fences, and this time, if the rumours of how serious the Lightning's financial troubles are happen to be true, the owners might go for it and hamstring Gainey in his own ambition.

So, here are the top ten reasons why Lecavalier to Montreal would be a very, very bad idea:

10. The package. Trading three productive, dedicated core players, plus a top prospect who could turn out to be a very good offensive d-man, PLUS two first rounders which are the building blocks of your franchise is tantamount to giving up a big chunk of the future for the now. That assumes the Habs are ready to win the Cup with the installation of Lecavalier, which is a pretty big assumption. It also strips the core of the team by quite a lot. Lecavalier can't make Tampa win without a supporting cast. I think he wouldn't make Montreal win without one either.

9. Vinny the superstar. Lecavalier has done very well in his last couple of seasons, putting up totals of 108 and 92 points. He's never produced that well before, and this year he's on pace for only 72 points. I know the team isn't doing well, but Sidney Crosby is also playing on an underperforming team and he's on pace for 108 points. You might think it's ridiculous to compare Lecavalier and Crosby, but the deal we're talking about, and the contract we're talking about taking on, is in the Crosby ballpark...and Lecavalier's career numbers just aren't.

8. The money. Lecavalier stands to make ten million dollars in actual salary for each of the next seven years, and will not be a free agent until he's forty.

7. Star power. McKenzie says the Canadiens have made their offer, but it all depends on whether Lecavalier wants to move. And if he doesn't, the owners will have to try to talk him around and hope he cooperates. I think if Bob Gainey wants to move any player on his roster outside of Saku Koivu, he can do it without consequences. A player like Lecavalier adds complications because he has power with management and must be stroked. That's not without consequences in the room.

6. The expectations. If Lecavalier were to show up in Montreal with that contract, and for that cost to the current roster, he'd be expected to not only put up a hundred points a year, but also represent the Habs in the community with class, dignity and patience. He'd be expected to be the modern incarnation of Jean Beliveau. Unfortunately for him, there's only one Beliveau. Lecavalier is used to anonymity in Florida. He represents the franchise, but can go to the mall with nobody recognizing him. That won't happen in Montreal. If he decides the demands in Montreal make him unhappy, he and the team are stuck with the situation. It'll be worse if he doesn't perform as expected. Fans in Montreal will turn on him if he comes up with seventy-five points with that salary. And it won't be pretty.

5. The chemistry. The Habs have a very tight team and great chemistry now. Higgins is close to Komisarek and Price. Gorges is tight with Price. Plekanec is a Hab since his draft and is well-liked by all his contemporaries. Throwing those guys away for a new face is bound to stir resentment and uncertainty in the room. With only half a season to get over all that and find new chemistry with Lecavalier is hoping for a lot.

4. The supporting cast. Lecavalier can't win in Tampa without a supporting staff. Neither will he win in Montreal without one. Trading two of the hardest workers and arguably most talented young forwards on the team means the Habs have to make this year their window for a Cup. If they miss it, I don't know if they'll have the horses to go for it again next year.

3. Pleky. On a personal note, I haven't had a favourite Hab since Patrick Roy, until Plekanec. It took me eight years to get over Roy's trade. I really don't want to go through that again. But on a practical note, the Habs are not deep at centre throughout the organization. Without Plekanec, Lecavalier and Koivu stand as the only two offensive centres on the big team, assuming Lang won't be re-signed if Koivu is, and with Vinny's contract. Maxwell may pan out, or he may not. And Koivu will be gone in a couple of years. The Habs need young centres, and trading away a talented one with both offensive and defensive skill would be a mistake.

2. No-trade clause. If Lecavalier comes to Montreal and it's not working out for the team, Gainey's hands are tied. We saw what the no-trade clause did to Toronto's rebuilding attempts last summer. Of course, Vinny is a different player altogether, and there might be no reason for anyone to want him to waive his clause. But if there is...say if he's not producing and the team is cap-strung...it could get ugly and complicated.

1. Eleven years. ELEVEN years. Until he's FORTY. That's too long for anyone. That's Garth Snow territory. Eleven years scares the living crap out of me.

And those, my friends, are the reasons why it will be a HUGE mistake for Bob Gainey to trade for Vincent Lecavalier. Lecavalier could have been in Montreal in 2005, and again last summer if he chose to go there. He could be a Hab for no cost but money. He chose to stay with his own team. That's fine. That's loyalty. But now that he seems to be open to changing his mind, the cost is too much. It's time for Gainey to say, no, he's too late.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Top secret

You know what's really irritating for an obsessive hockey fan who's desperate for every scrap of information about his or her team? For me at least, it's the neurotic secrecy NHL teams insist on when it comes to player injuries.

Now I know sometimes the secrecy is reasonable. If, for example, Carey Price were heading into the playoffs with a wonky ankle, you wouldn't want the opposition to know how serious the injury was, where it was located or when he'd be likely to start. Not knowing which goalie they'd face would put a bit of doubt into the opposing players' heads. And if the location and severity of the injury were known, and Price decided to play through it, it wouldn't take much for a guy to accidentally-on-purpose fall on him just right and put him out of commission. In that situation, "lower body" and "day-to-day" make sense.

But during the regular season, when everybody already knows the guy is hurt; when he's out for several games anyway, what's the harm in saying "Carey Price has a sprained ankle and will be out for three weeks?" Players don't take chances during the regular season. They take their time and make sure they're a hundred percent healthy before they come back. This "Carey Price has a lower body injury and is day-to-day" is just irritating and frustrating for fans who want to know what's going on with the team and what lineup we can expect to see on a given night. Knowing when the guy is coming back gives us some sense of how badly he's hurt and what the consequences might be for the team and the rest of the players.

Less obsessive fans might ask why any of that matters. The player will be back when he's back, right? Well, though that's true, the very definition of fan (short for fanatic) means we want to know what's happening. We're connected to this team and we want to be able to project wins and losses and lineups based on who's going to be in or out of the lineup.

And we care about the players. We want to know if a guy is struggling through a tough rehab or is trying a revolutionary new treatment. We want to cheer on a favourite player as we follow his progress back to the ice. But all the secrecy surrounding injuries means those stories are closed to us.

I understand an NHL team has its reasons for secrecy sometimes. But the silly policy of keeping all injuries under wraps is insulting to the intelligence of fans who saw a guy get a hit to the shoulder that obviously caused an injury and is later called an "upper body" problem.

Right now, I want to know what's wrong with Carey Price. We all know it's a groin or an ankle. The opposition teams know too. So what's the problem with letting us know what it is and how long he'll be out? It's not as though it'll make a difference to his length of recovery time or anything like that. Looking at the schedule, I want to know if he'll be available for the Bruins game. I want to know how much hope I should have for a victory, and what weapons the Canadiens will have ready in their arsenal against their biggest rival.

But I don't know anything. The team won't tell us, and that's really annoying.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A tooth grinder

I'm not one to presume I know more than Bob Gainey when it comes to hockey or the Canadiens. I think it'd be more than a little arrogant to think I see something he doesn't. He's there, he's close to the players and he's been steeped in hockey all his life. He's also a proven winner as player, coach and manager. The man knows the game. Therefore, when he decides a player no longer fits into the plans of the Canadiens, whether for reasons of ability or finance, I have faith those reasons are justified.

I admit I can't help but grimace when it seems every single player the Canadiens let go comes back to bite them in the butt. Last year the Habs had a three-goal lead against Nashville, heading into the third period. The Predators made a dramatic comeback, capped by Radek Bonk's goal with 48 seconds to go. Bonk then won it for the Preds in the shootout. Three weeks later, Canadiens failed to show up in an embarrassing game against the Dallas Stars. Former Hab Mike Ribeiro got a goal and two assists and laughed at the fizzling Montreal team afterwards. This season, the Habs have been dinged by Sergei Samsonov twice in two losses against Carolina. Samsonov has 8 goals in 41 games...two of them against Montreal and both deciding factors in close games. Mikhail Grabovsky scored a goal and an assist in the year's most embarrassing loss in Toronto, then pointed at the scoreboard and taunted his former team. Jose Theodore has shut the Canadiens out this season, and even Jassen Cullimore, whom the Canadiens are still paying to go away, has potted one for Florida against them. We're still waiting for the inevitable revenge that will surely be taken by Michael Ryder, Sheldon Souray, Cristobal Huet and the great Richard Zednik before the year is out. It's uncanny.

Despite the bizarre fortunes of ex-players against the Habs though, I rarely wish for any of those players back (except for Souray occasionally...and not even all of him, just his slapper). Even Michael Ryder, who's a compatriot and now doing very well in Boston, I thought needed to play on a team other than the Canadiens for style reasons. They did their time in Montreal, and for reasons best known and understood by Bob, they've moved on. The exception to that is Mark Streit.

I thought the Canadiens' scouting staff did a great job in finding Streit and bringing him into the fold. And Streit himself was so thrilled and excited to be taken in the draft after being overlooked for years, he took a pay cut to come to North America and play for the Habs. He never complained when he was benched for many games three years ago, or when he was played as a forward for the first time in his life the season after that. All his teammates liked him and he quietly improved on both offence and defence, putting up a tidy 62 points last season while pumping up the Canadiens' powerplay.

So, Gainey apparently made Streit an offer before last season started, but didn't include a promise that Streit would be allowed to play defence full-time, or otherwise indicate that the Canadiens were committed to Streit's future. That might have been understandable at the time, considering the fact that Streit was nearly 30 and had really not proven a lot up to that point. However, I'm disappointed Gainey didn't see what Streit was doing during the season last year and make him a real offer then. Rumour had it that last Christmas, Streit was willing to sign for two years at two-and-a-half million per season and a committment to play on defence. Considering the fact that he currently leads all defencemen in points and the Isles' PP has gone from 29th in the league to 17th while the Habs' has dropped from first to nearly last...well, that deal might have been a pretty big steal. It looks even better when you see Patrice Brisebois playing a regular shift in the Habs' top six. Is he a better defenceman than Mark Streit at this point? If you said "yes" you might have some video to watch.

I know there's no point in indulging in hindsight, and I usually avoid it. What's done is done and all that. But I liked Mark Streit for his versatility, his heart and the points he put up. I thought he was really valuable to the Canadiens' success, and I was disappointed when Gainey didn't see fit to offer him a contract while his price was still relatively low last year. Of course there was no way Gainey would match the Islanders' offer when Streit made it to free agency, but it seems he didn't bother to make much of an offer at all. Perhaps he thought Streit would be easily replaced and the team would just keep trucking along. This decision proves everyone, even Bob Gainey, makes mistakes.

This one makes me grind my teeth every time another ineffectual Canadiens powerplay hits the ice. It's getting harder to stop thinking about what might have been...but I have to hope Gainey can find a solution to fix this error before the lack of a powerplay costs the team a playoff series. After all, Bob Gainey knows a heck of a lot more about hockey than I ever will.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What to do with Kovy?

I think Alex Kovalev could be the best puck handler in the NHL. I've seen those DVD clips...you know the ones...where he whips the puck between obstacles at lightning speed, weaving complicated patterns and never losing it. I've seen him flick the puck one-handed into the top corner of the net. And I've seen him bounce it like a paddle-ball and bat it out of the air right into the net from centre ice. That's why I think he could be the best puck handler in the NHL.

The reason why I think he may not be the best puck handler in the NHL is because on the DVD, he does all those crazy tricks with empty nets and between stationary objects. The problem with that is that in real games, there's a goalie and a bunch of other players who want to take the puck away from him...and quite often these days, they do. The awful giveaway on the powerplay against Florida on Sunday was perhaps the worst example of what we've become used to seeing from Kovalev four or five times a night. In a typical Kovalev play, he attempted to stickhandle through four Panthers who'd lined up on the blueline, expecting just such a move from him. Naturally, he was stripped of the puck, the Panthers went the other way on a breakaway and scored a shorthanded goal. There are three vital problems with that play, which illustrate why Kovalev is not the same player he was last season.

First, he tried to do everything by himself while his linemates had to hang back waiting to see what he'd do. That eliminates the ability of the team to attack with speed, as Kovalev tends to slow the pace of the game and forces everyone else to stop while he's got the puck. That neutralizes one of the Habs' best assets...their quickness. It also makes it very easy for a team to defend against the Montreal attack. If Kovalev's got the puck, they focus on him and have a high-percentage chance of taking it off him.

Second, once he'd been stripped of the puck, Kovalev had no chance of catching up to cover for his mistake. He's not as fast as he used to be, so when he miscalculates on a dangle, he can't get out of trouble like he could five or six years ago.

And third, it was predictable. The whole Florida team knew Kovalev would attempt to carry the puck into their zone. So did the Habs, the announcers and the blind guy in section 265. Everyone knows what Kovalev will do, and he rarely fools anyone with a quick change of plan. The testament to his tremendous talent is that sometimes he actually manages to pull off his intended move, even with everyone aware of his intentions. But his inclination to make those low-percentage rushes means he's usually dealing with a pretty high failure rate.

I was among the multitudes who really enjoyed Kovalev last year. He worked hard, used his linemates and his great shot and managed a thrill-a-minute just about every night. The impressive things he did outweighed the lousy. This year, there are a lot more scary-bad plays than scary-good. I'm not quite sure if there's any one reason for why that is. He's always been the same player, after all. I recently read a New York Times article about him written in his sophomore year that could have been published yesterday. But I think there's a clue to the explanation in something he said last season when asked about his renaissance.

He said when he needed to find new life in his game, he went back to look at tapes of his rookie year. He realized that back then his feet were constantly moving and he noticed that as he got older, he tended to coast a little more. So, last year he deliberately and consciously got back to moving his feet all the time. It worked, because his contant motion made his stickhandling that much trickier and harder to contain.

This year he's stopped doing that. Notice him on the PP, held up against the right boards, standing still and looking for a play. The opposition has all the time in the world to either block his passing lanes or converge on him and force him to turn the puck over. Notice him in his "office" in the right faceoff circle: Last year, when he got the puck there, it was because he was blasting in from the boards, or across from the slot, and arrived just in time to hit the one-timer. This year, he's standing still there, waiting for a pass. And when he gets it, he hesitates just long enough for the D to block his shot and the goalie to slide across and take those precious three inches away.

The problem is, I don't know if Kovalev can duplicate that kind of physical effort again. He's not getting any younger, he's got chronic knee problems and I'm not sure he wants to end up fading in the playoffs like he did last year. I think he worked harder and more consistently last season than he had for a long time...if ever. When the playoffs arrived, he had nothing left. He's always been a player known for stepping up his game in the post-season, but last season he couldn't do it. Unfortunately, after last year, the team is expecting him to be the guy who carries it.

So here we are at the current dilemma: what does Gainey do with Kovy? Considering his age, his likely salary expectations and cap limitations for next season, I think it's a good bet Gainey won't bring him back for another year. But this year is a different story. After his numbers last season, his reputation and the greed many teams have when it comes to adding offence, Kovalev might bring a decent return if he's traded before the deadline. There's no denying his talent, or that he's actually putting up points this year, regardless of his style of play. But I see Andrei Kostitsyn playing better without him and Tomas Plekanec struggling to play with the One-Man Show. I see the giveaways costing goals against, and the powerplay struggling while Kovalev holds the puck too long or makes cross-ice passes that get intercepted. I also see the team's need for a strong top-six defenceman to replace Brisebois, and I think Kovalev's value could help bring that to the team.

But does his talent trump his liability? I try to picture the team without him, and it's tough. Because just when you think you can't take him anymore...that one more lousy giveaway will drive you demented...he picks a corner only he could pick. Or he'll blast a shot from the point that no one sees except the goal judge. I honestly can't decide if he needs to stay or go, and I think Bob Gainey can't either. So while Bob and I waffle on the question, I expect the deadline will come and go and Alex Kovalev will finish this year a Hab. Then he'll give the puck away and cost the team a playoff game and we'll scream about the fact that Gainey should have traded him at the deadline for a defenceman.

But there you go. That's life with Alex. The guy who might be the best puck handler in the league.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

What's Halaking?

Boy, is Jaro Halak getting crap for his last two starts! I've seen fans looking for his trade, his demotion to Hamilton and his head on a platter. I've even seen one person hope the banners in the rafters fall on his head and kill him, which I thought was both tasteless and more than slightly psychotic.

I agree Halak's play has been on the south side of stellar for the last couple of outings. I also agree he played a big role in the loss to Jersey (although one goal by the offence isn't going to win you too many either.) But he had little help on D in the stinkaroo against Florida, with two of the goals coming from behind screens provided by his own players. The Kovalev shorthanded giveaway for a Florida 1-on-Jaro wasn't exactly designed to make a goalie's life easier either. But I digress. I think there's a simple reason why Halak hasn't been doing all that well since Price's latest injury.

Halak is not a backup goalie. He's used to being number one wherever he's played; not sitting for weeks at a time and waiting for a chance to step in. It takes a whole different mindset in terms of confidence and preparation to be a good backup. Ideally, you want a guy who's a little older and has had natural ambition tempered by acceptance of his limitations. You want someone who is able to maintain his confidence even when he's not playing and find a groove within minutes instead of periods or games.

Halak is still very young and needs to play more to keep developing. He's liable to have his confidence take a hit when he sees Carey Price play game after game. And he shows rust when he's inserted after a week or two, or when Price is hurt. I think Halak is a much better goalie than we've seen in the last week. We saw him get better and better when he filled in for the injured Cristobal Huet two seasons ago, nearly dragging a slumping team into the playoffs. When he doesn't get the chance to be "the man," he has nothing to build on and must feel like he's starting from scratch and having to re-prove himself every time he gets a start. That has to be discouraging for a young goaltender who sees his future as following one of two paths: He either learns how to be a reliable backup, or he asks for a trade. Either way, his play has to improve with very few chances to show what he can do.

This is a difficult mental test for Halak. If he's going to improve his trade value or increase his current team's faith in him, he's got to learn to show confidence even when he doesn't really feel it. He's got to acquire an ability to focus like he's in a ten-game groove right from the first minute he's in there. And he's got to learn to shake off a bad goal and buckle down instead of going to pieces. That's a tall order for a 22-year-old goalie.

But you know what? I think Halak can do it. He's beaten the odds at every level of hockey he's played. He never should have even made the NHL, considering his low draft position and lack of hype. He knows what he's got to do, and so does Rollie Melanson. If he plays Wednesday against the Rangers, I think we'll see a calmer, more focussed Halak. It may have something to do with the fact that the team tends to play a different game against tough competition. But I think the goalie will have some say in what happens, in a good way.

I hope so. I always root for the underdog, and if it means Halak's improved play writes his ticket out of Montreal and a number one job elsewhere, well...that's hockey. I like the guy, and I want him to win games for the Habs while he's with them. And that means learning how to be a good backup...fast.