Thursday, February 26, 2009

Boo Friggin' Hoo

So, Georges Laraque wants to play more, does he? Apparently, he feels he's not been used as much as he believed he would be when the Canadiens signed him last summer. He thinks if he doesn't get more ice time, he should be moved to another team that will give him what he wants.

Hmmm...okay. Let's think about this. The guy signed a contract last summer that will pay him a million and a half bucks every year for the next three. In return, he was fans and his teammates, at any punch guys who assaulted Canadiens goalies or abused smaller Habs players. Now, as far as I know, the Canadiens cheques haven't bounced. Yet Laraque isn't punching bad guys. Sure, he'll pre-arrange the occasional bout with the other team's goon. But that's not the sort of fight that inspires a team or qualifies as restitution for wrongs committed. When Milan Lucic hurt and embarrassed Mike Komisarek, Laraque's job was to tap Lucic on the shoulder and when Lucic refused to fight, Laraque was then supposed to take the instigator penalty and pound the guy anyway. Instead, he allowed Lucic to skate away because "he wasn't in the same weight class." When Kurt Sauer nailed Andrei Kostitsyn from behind, Laraque's job was to grab Sauer by the scruff of the neck and pop him one. Instead, he issued a politely-worded invitation to scuffle and while waiting for a reply got cuffed by the linesmen and sent off for roughing.

Well, sorry, Georges, I didn't know there were weigh-ins before the game and that policemen were bound to only arrest those who are big enough to qualify. Whatever happened to "you do the crime, you serve the time (in the box)?" As far as I can see, if a player is big enough to knock Carey Price down or hit Andrei Kostitsyn from behind, he's big enough to pay for it by having Laraque beat on him.

I don't like fighting in hockey, especially not the staged kind Laraque performs. But, if a team is going to employ a goon...and Laraque should have no illusions of grandeur about his role, because a goon he is...then a team expects the goon to do the job for which he was hired. When a goon can't keep up with the play because he's too slow, when he shows up at camp with recurring groin and back problems and misses extended periods of the season, when he's a minus five with two assists in 25 games, when five other fourth-liners on the team are outplaying him for ice time AND he's not punching people...what good is he?

Now, to make matters worse, Laraque has chosen the worst possible time to publicly bitch about his lack of playing time. The team is still struggling to emerge from a massive slump that could yet cost it a playoff berth. It's dealing with the fallout of accusations of excessive partying by some of the younger players, as well as the disclosure of the Kostitsyn brothers' association with an alleged drug trafficker. If the man has any brains at all, or has the least bit of concern for the fate of the team with which he's cast his lot for the next three years, he should know now is the time to keep his big yap shut. Now is the time to quietly express his concerns to Bob Gainey and let the GM deal with it as he sees fit. Taking it to the media at all, let alone at this point in the team's turbulent season, smacks of a me-first attitude that is the last thing the Canadiens need.

The problem with me-first is that it looks better in the mirror than it does with the naked eye. Laraque might think he's got the skills to contribute as an everyday player. He might believe his "Code"-governed brand of pseudo aggression is effective in preventing harm to his teammates. He possibly thinks his salary is fair compensation for the "skills" he brings to the game. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, just about every other GM in the league is sure to see a guy whose code has been antiquated by the reality of the game today. They'll see a guy who's played for five teams in four years because he's just not good enough at the things he wants to do, and not willing enough to do the thing he's good at, to earn a real place on a good team. And, they'll see a guy who's seriously overpaid for what he's not bringing.

If Laraque isn't smart enough to realize he's got it bloody made in Montreal, with his big salary and the legions who love him despite his failure to become an effective part of the team, he's got a serious problem. If he thinks he's more than a fourth-line player who will be shuffled in and out of the lineup like every other fourth-liner, and that he has a right to moan about it in public at the expense of team unity, then I hope he is traded.

Even if Bob Gainey shops him this week, though, I doubt there'll be a lineup for his services. So, shut up and take your money, Georges. We've seen what you can do, and we're not impressed.

Monday, February 23, 2009

L'Affaire Kostitsyn

Am I the only one to have some really mixed feelings about the whole Kostitsyn "scandal?" When I first heard it, I was just relieved because the Montreal media had been hinting at something much more shocking and damaging to players and the team. So, when it turned out the boys had been friends with a crook but weren't about to be charged with anything themselves, well, that seemed a lot better than I'd been expecting.

I mean, it's still not good, and Bob Gainey was right to say team management is "very concerned" about it. But this is where I find myself vascillating about what side to take in this. On the one hand, I feel sorry for the Kostitsyns. They're very young, they're in a new country and they don't speak the language very well. They're also rich and playing hockey for a very glamourous, popular team in a very cosmopolitan city. They should have "Prey" written across their foreheads. They're the perfect candidates to be used by a slimy, unscrupulous guy who wants the prestige of having an "in" to the team and its players. It's here I think the team falls down on the job when it comes to looking after their young players. We saw it with Carey Price last year, in his poor conditioning and questionable health decisions. Young guys living alone in expensive apartments, often on their own for the first time in their lives, are prone to eating junk food, partying too much, the case of young guys from other countries who are trying to adapt to a culture as well as their own budding independence...falling prey to unpleasant characters, both male and female.

Bob Gainey says the team gives young draftees a week-long primer on being a pro hockey player. The NHL also sends a "security" expert to talk to all the players about not trusting the wrong people and being careful about their public behaviour. I think it's not enough. When these guys start out, they're no older than university kids. I don't know about you, but I was an idiot in university. I did some dumb things I'd be really embarrassed to see photographed and posted on the internet. And once they're up there, they never go away. That's a big price to pay for acting like a dumb kid, but it's the reality that these kids are rich and famous and their dumb acts are news. I think a week-long gettin'-to-know-ya camp doesn't quite drive that home, and the team needs to have its own people the players can turn to for coordinators or something like that. Just trustworthy people who know the city and can help guys find apartments, buy cars, arrange insurance and accountants and translators and homemade meal delivery service. People who are plugged in and can advise a player of the consequences of his dumbass behaviour or ill-advised friendships...or just talk to them about the things they're feeling or worried about. Sometimes, when parents are far away and coaches and GMs unapproachable on some issues, a young person just needs someone to talk to. It makes me hope the team has learned from the latest "scandal" and when young men like Yannick Weber, Ben Maxwell, PK Subban and Max Pacioretty challenge for full-time spots on the team in the next couple of years, there'll be better support for them. You can't build a team around youth without preparing for the fallout. That's one part of my take on the Kostitsyn story.

On the other hand, although young people make dumb mistakes, they twenty or so...have certain character values entrenched in their basic makeup that define who they are. While a guy might get drunk and barf under the table after dancing on it, the conscious choices he makes are guided by his core values. So, if a young man has a wife and a baby at home, it doesn't reflect well on him to have his dubious friends hook him up with women on the side. It's easy to forgive the poorly-considered crimes of youth, but flaws in character are tougher to overcome. In the end, while the team should do more to help prevent players straying for the lack of basic guidance, it can't reach into a man's private life and govern his decisions.

When I look at the story today, I can see both sides of it, and I still don't know what to think. I guess I hope whoever needs to learn lessons from this has learned them. I hope nobody is hurt long-term by it. And most of all, I hope it somehow becomes a point of unity for this troubled team and they manage to turn themselves around.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Oh, Kovy!

I know a lot of people are happy Bob Gainey has sent Alex Kovalev home, either to re-ignite the listless winger's desire to play hockey or to put the finishing touches on a trade that sends Kovalev away for good. I agree Gainey had to do something dramatic to get the team's attention during this horrendous slide. And I agree the "something" had to involve Kovalev who's been the most obvious slacker on the team. Last year's 84-point team leader who played with passion and drive just about every night has become disinterested. This year his production seems to be in inverse proportion to his lazy penalties and giveaways. I know Kovalev has always been guilty of the latter, but as Gainey himself said yesterday, if he was putting up points, the deficiencies in his game would be overlooked. As it is, though, without the points, the bad habits are much more glaring and are a poor example for young players who look to the veterans for guidance.

Although I know Gainey had to move, I'm not happy about it. I'm really sorry it's come to this. Kovalev has to be one of the most colossal wastes of talent in NHL history. There's not a player who's shared ice with him who doesn't marvel at the man's fantastic skills. He's been called the greatest puckhandler in the game today, a force, brilliantly creative on the ice and unbelievably talented. Yet he continues to lack the effort needed to put the talent to its best use. It's like having a gorgeous sports car in the driveway with an empty gas tank: it looks great, but it's not going to get you where you need to go.

So, I'm sad to see Kovalev seemingly headed out of Montreal. I'm sad the Habs' most talented player doesn't have the dedication to use his talent to help the team every night. I'm sorry he'll go down in history as one of the Hall of Fame's greatest "might have beens."

I suppose there's still a chance Kovalev has really been sent home to rest his aging, possibly injured, body for a few days, and that the rest will do him good. Perhaps he'll be back on Saturday feeling better and with a great desire to show everyone who doubted his heart that they were wrong. Somehow, I doubt it.

A man of Bob Gainey's stature doesn't take such a drastic measure against an employee in public unless the bridge isn't only burned, but the ashes have been swept up and a ferry installed in its place. I think Kovalev won't play for the Canadiens again unless no team will meet whatever minimum price of draft picks or prospects Gainey's willing to accept for him. And if it comes to that, if there are truly no takers and Kovalev remains a Hab, I think it will be disasterous. Kovalev pouted two years ago when he was demoted to the fourth line for his lacklustre play. I dread to think what his reaction might be if he's reinserted into the lineup after a public humilation by his boss.

I hate that it's come to this. I know something had to give. But I can't help thinking the Canadiens' problems go deeper than Kovalev. He's just the saddest, most public symbol of the whole sorry mess.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Price Check

First thing I'd like to say is I like Carey Price. I think he's a good young goalie with potential to be great. But I'd also like to say I think he's not great yet. The prizes he's won to date: CHL goalie of the year, World Junior Championship MVP, Calder Cup MVP, have been won by others who've never used those prizes as a springboard to greatness. Admittedly, not all of them have been won by one guy, but even their accumulated prestige don't mean the guy in question is destined for NHL greatness.

One thing Price's early success did give him, perhaps mistakenly, was a well-paved road to the big time. No toiling in the minors for him, even though his coach in Montreal thought he probably should spend some time in Hamilton. He was annointed a can't-miss player and elevated by GM Bob Gainey straight to the NHL. It lasted half a season before poor play and a complete loss of confidence culminating in a bout of post-game tears in the dressing room earned Price a trip to the minors to get his game back in order out of the glare of the Montreal spotlight. After his recall, he performed well until the playoffs arrived. Then, a combination of mental fatigue and a body carrying thirty pounds of excess junk-food weight caught up with him and his play suffered. The Habs were ignominously eliminated by Philly and two weeks later, Price's holiday pictures from Cancun, featuring him drinking heavily and smoking showed up on the internet. It looked like the golden boy had a lot of growing up to do.

I thought Price's newfound resolve to do better this year, visible in his physical fitness at training camp, was proof the kid was maturing. But the latest bad stretch has me wondering if that's true.
Price has looked bad on many goals against since the all-star game. That's to be expected, to a degree. He's still very young, he's coping with his first year of being a number-one goalie in the NHL and the mental pacing that requires. He's just coming back from an injury. In many ways, he's still finding his way through the minefield of pro life. But during the recent slump, I've seen something in Price that worries me.

While the goalie has been at fault for some of the bad goals, his teammates have also made their share of mistakes which have found their way to the back of Price's net, through little fault of his own. When that's happened, I've seen Price roll his eyes, shake his head, bang his stick or glare at his teammates. It gives two impressions to the observer when he does that. One, that Price's concentration isn't where it should be, which makes you wonder about his mental toughness. And two, that he's forgetting hockey's a team game and he needs to be shouting encouragement, not casting blame.

Ken Dryden wrote in "The Game" about a time in 1973 when Scotty Bowman took him aside and asked whether Dryden thought he was "too big" for the team. The goalie was obviously the star on a squad that had yet to blossom into the powerhouse it would be in the latter part of the decade, and Dryden allowed his frustration with his teammates' mistakes to show from time to time. Bowman's implication that Dryden's ego was turning him into a fathead struck a nerve with the goalie. He was hurt and resentful, and says when the team won Bowman his first Cup in 1973 he "hung from him like a rag" when Bowman attempted to hug him in victory. But the coach's comments made Dryden think about how he perceived his teammates and how they perceived him. Bowman never had to ask Dryden again if he thought he was bigger than the team.

I wonder if Carey Price...a young guy who's enjoyed a meteoric rise to the number-one goaltending job in Montreal, and who has one of the best hockey resumes on the team...sometimes thinks he's bigger than the team too. His body language in many games recently has been screaming accusations at the teammates who've let him down. The problem with that though, is that if you're bigger than the team, you're standing there by yourself.

While watching Price in the post-game video after Saturday's humiliation by the leafs, my heart went out to him as he tried to choke back tears. Sure, he allowed a handful of rotten goals and was a very large part of why the team lost. But after the game, he looked lost, lonely and bewildered. He looked like a kid who needs his team to gather round and lift him up. There's no Cristobal Huet to help smooth the bumps in Price's road this year. Because of waiver problems, there's no trip to Hamilton to help him get back on track out of sight of the Montreal media. Price will have to get his emotions under control and find his game in full view of every Canadiens' follower, and he can't do it alone.

I think an experience like this will teach the young goaltender a couple of important lessons. For one, he'll learn the world doesn't end because of a bad stretch of regular-season hockey. And for another, he'll learn that even the most talented, brightly shining young star is part of a team. His successes and failures must be shared by his teammates, as he must share in theirs. Whether those lessons will help him get his confidence back and thereby raise the level of his play remains to be seen. Last year was an NHL trial run for Price, and he was given a get-of-Montreal-free card to fix his problems. The only help he'll have this year will be found within himself and in the support of the other 19 guys wearing the CH on the ice with him.

How he deals with this could make or break him as an NHL goalie. All we can do is root for him and believe he'll find a way to turn it around. The Canadiens have invested a big chunk of their future in betting he makes it. Let's hope they're right.

Monday, February 2, 2009

How much dough for Komo?

Alright, I'm going to put my head on the proverbial chopping block with this one, but here goes: I think Mike Komisarek is overrated. Not just by Habs fans, either. I think Komo is considered to be more than he really is by most of the league.

There, now that the controversial opinion is on the table, let's dissect it. First, we should look at what Komisarek actually is, which is a big, strong, fairly mobile defenceman with a huge heart and extremely limited offensive ability. (Breakaways courtesy of Brian McCabe notwithstanding.) That package is one many teams would find valuable. The fact that he hovers around the top of the league in hits and blocked shots every year increases that value significantly. But, in terms of pay, most comparable guys in the league, like shot-blocking machine Anton Volchenkov in Ottawa, whose cap hit is 2.5 million, and St.Louis' Jay McKee who comes in at four million a year, don't make anywhere near the giant salary many are projecting for Komisarek.

Of course, I know a player's contract is about more than just his numbers. There are the intangibles, like his presence in the room, his impact on the chemistry of the team and his leadership abilities. No one can deny Komisarek is a great unifying force for the Canadiens. He's the first guy to pat a teammate on the back when he's done something great, or console him when he's made a mistake. He'll drop the gloves in defence of his mates. He's well-spoken and confident in public, and seems well-liked and respected within his team. But, is that enough to make him worth the five-plus million a year that many fans and pundits are predicting he'll pull down in his next contract?

While the intangibles are great, and should certainly play a role in negotiations, they still can't be the biggest factor in a GM's decision about what kind of offer to make a player. And, this year, Komisarek's play on the ice isn't good enough to warrant a giant deal. I've seen him make some pretty horrible mistakes that have cost the team, including yesterday's rotten giveaway to Dennis Wideman with a second to go in the first period that ended up in the Habs' net for a backbreaking, game-tying goal. In the game against the Kings on Saturday, Komisarek made a play that's become fairly typical of him this year. On the PK, he abandoned the man he was supposed to be covering in favour of double-teaming partner Andrei Markov's man. As a result, Komisarek's guy was wide open and tapped in an easy goal. Also this season, Komisarek's puck-handling has been fairly shaky. He's always relied heavily on Markov to start the play up the ice, but this year he often seems completely lost about what to do with the puck if he can't get it to his partner. His first pass is often intercepted, seemingly more often than it was in previous years.

Other general managers drool over Komisarek's physical package, and I'm sure many of them would have been willing to offer him five or six million a year in a long-term least before worrisome rumours about a looming drop in the salary cap began to emerge this season. Even so, there will probably be a team or two desperate for solid defence that will cough up the dough for Komisarek this summer. That's why I hope Bob Gainey signs the big guy before it comes to that.

Gainey won't win a bidding war for Komisarek's services because he knows what we know...that Komo isn't the equal of defencemen like Jay Bouwmeester or Zdeno Chara, or even Markov, who actually present a well-rounded game on the ice and, it can be argued, deserve the millions they get. I think Komisarek is important to the Canadiens' future, and he's got the intangibles to be captain material someday. But if he's to stick around, he'll have to consider some intangibles too.

Does he really like Montreal as much as he says he does? (Sorry, Mike, but your old buddy Souray fed us that line once before. Fool me once, and all that.) If he's telling the truth about that, I think he and Gainey can negotiate a fair deal, somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 million dollars a year. He's certainly worth that, despite his shortcomings. I'd like to see a deal happen sooner rather than later, because the high bidders are circling and if he hits the open market, Komisarek will not only be overrated, he'll be overpaid for it. And it won't be in Montreal.