Thursday, April 23, 2009

And Now, the End Is Near...

As the Habs face the final curtain, I don't know whether to be saddened or relieved by the coup de grace the Bs are about to deliver to the bloody, doomed, ill-conceived, egotistical, arrogant Centennial season. When the number of things that have gone wrong this year go wrong...well, you have to think there's a greater force than Bob Gainey at work here. Somebody's trying to tell us something. And that something may just be, "Get your self-congratulatory heads out of the past and shut up about glory until there's an actual chance to experience glory again before the twentieth anniversary of the last Cup rolls around." I don't have any hope the Habs can pull off a miracle and win the next four games, despite what our good Captain says about anything being possible. I don't really have any hope they can win even this fourth game and salvage some small measure of dignity. BUT, I am not without hope altogether. Here are the top ten things I hope for, as the seasons turn from hockey spring to hockey summer for us:

10. Bob Gainey stays. Or, at least doesn't make a hasty decision to leave based on his disillusionment this season. I think Gainey won't be fired, so the decision will be his own. There's no question he's made a lot of mistakes (Ribeiro, Streit, etc.). But he's also made some very good decisions (Lang, Tanguay, Rivet, etc.). Who among us were expecting this year's results when we looked at the projected lineup in September? Sure, the Big Bald Swede chose Vancouver, but Gainey's second choice of Robert Lang turned out to be inspired. And, sure, maybe the team was short a top-four D-man from the get-go, but we all thought that would be a handicap in the third or fourth round of the playoffs...not in making the playoffs at all. Gainey made a hell of a good stab at putting together a contender this year, only to have it injured into extinction. For those who think he should have made a desperation trade at the deadline for a Lang replacement, I defend him because I think he realized there's a balance between going all-in and saving something for later. He'd already traded a first, three seconds and a third-round draft pick for Lang, Tanguay and Schneider. Seller teams at the deadline want draft picks and futures, and Gainey had already reached his limit of what he was prepared to part with in the none-too-guaranteed pursuit of a Centennial Cup. He goes into the off-season now with a lot of contracts expired and the potential to give the team a dramatic facelift, and I'm willing to give him the chance to try.

9. A low-key draft. The last big event of the cursed Centennial is the draft in June, to be held at the Bell Centre. Honestly, if they make a big, black-and-white-video splash, trotting out Jean Beliveau to open the thing, sending out invitations with Centennial stamps and holding a Hall-of-Fame dinner in Centennial Square, I'll barf. I just want them to respectfully welcome everyone to the draft and let the picking begin. Enough with the glorious past, which is just mocked by the pathetic present. Unless, of course, they can reunite all the remaining first-rounders of the glorious past, like Ray Martyniuk, Robin Sadler, Rod Schutt, Jan Ingman and Mark Pederson. Then, there could be the "We Drafted French" category, featuring such luminaries as Alain Heroux, Alfie Turcotte, Jose Charbonneau, Eric Charron and Eric Chouinard. That could be followed by the "We Drafted Big" display, with special appearances by Lindsay Vallis, Turner Stevenson, Brent Bilodeau, David Wilkie, Brad Brown, Terry Ryan, Matt Higgins and Jason Ward. The special ceremony could be introduced by former first-rounder Rejean Houle and conclude with a video trubute to Doug Wickenheiser. Hey...on second thought, maybe a Draft Retrospective would be in order after all, if only to teach the organization a little humility.

8. A successful draft. I'm not a nember of the Church of Trevor Timmins. I think Timmins has done a fine job restocking what had been a pretty bare farm system since his arrival in 2003. The team has lots of solid, if unspectacular, prospects, as is evidenced by the Bulldogs' Calder Cup win two years ago. And seeing guys like Jaro Halak, Carey Price, Andrei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse already cemented in the NHL lineup, with others like Greg Stewart, Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Ryan O'Byrne and Yannick Weber getting time and looking like possible regulars next season, you can't deny Timmins can spot NHL potential. My beef with him is that he doesn't seem able to land a stud...a real first-line, top-D kind of player. His first-rounders just aren't that impressive for the most part. Perhaps it has to do with his "best player available" strategy instead of drafting for organizational need. I know the thinking behind the BPA strategy is that the need today might not be the need in three or four years when that player is NHL-ready. But let's get serious: the Habs have been looking for a number-one centre for years and there's still not one in the system, with all due respect to Ben Maxwell. It's no secret it's tough for scouts to land a blue-chipper when a team is consistently finishing in the middle of the draft order. But Timmins had the number-ten overall pick in one of the deepest drafts in history in 2003, and the number-five overall pick in 2005. Talented franchise centres who went in those drafts AFTER the Habs chose Andrei Kostitsyn and Carey Price, respectively, include Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Zach Parise, Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar. This year, in another deep draft, the Habs will probably pick around number 17. It's not the best position, admittedly, but there are good players to be had. I hope if there's a stud there when the Habs pick, Timmins will finally recognize it and choose someone other than a Mr.Hockey winner who spends the next four years at a US college and then never really pans out.

7. Smart management of contracts. Everyone knows the cap is going down in the next couple of years. That likely means smart GMs won't be throwing stupid money and long term at mid-range free agents like they did in the good old Drury/Gomez/Briere/Smyth days. And it means there will be teams that get capped out pretty quickly because they did pay stupid money and long-term for those mid-range guys and now can't get rid of them. The Habs face this off-season with a raft of unrestricted free agents and several underperforming restricted ones. That frees up a ton of money and opens a lot of possibilities for roster changes. I don't believe guys like Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins are done based on their lousy seasons this year. Their numbers will help get them re-signed for cheap and save money for the eternal struggle to land a star.

6. A good trade. I specify "good" here because I do NOT want to see assets and futures traded to acquire a certain albatross contract attached to a certain physically-uncertain francophone saviour out of Tampa Bay. For me, a good trade would be a sensible package to Pittsburgh for Jordan Staal. He's the big, talented centre the Habs need, and he's signed for four years at four million per. Admittedly, his numbers haven't been top-shelf since his 29-goal rookie season. But you have to remember he's playing the third-line centre role behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Also, the Pens have had trouble icing enough decent wingers to play with all their good centres. Based on their overabundance down the middle and their potential cap issues with all the big contracts they already have, I think Staal's moveable, and I think the Habs should be first in line.

5. The renaissance of Carey Price. This must happen. The Canadiens invested their highest draft pick in years in him, when they could have spent it on the centre they needed, or on a big, talented D like Marc Staal. If Price turns out to be unreliable, it will set the organization back years. So, I hope he goes home and has a good talk with his parents, clears his head and comes back a more mature, focussed human being and a more consistent goalie.

4. The hiring of a good, experienced coach. This is something the Habs have been lacking for years because of the "need" to hire a francophone. I think it would be great to have a guy who speaks both official languages, but I don't want to see the team limit its choices because language is a priority. I've had enough with the rookie coaches who use the Habs to learn their way through the NHL, then end up doing well elsewhere. The Habs shouldn't be Coaching Kindergarten anymore, even if it means the new guy speaks only English. The team needs someone with experience, a system and a track record of winning.

3. Ownership stability. I like George Gillett's ownership. He cheers for the team, but keeps his nose out of the hockey management side of things. And he's not been cheap with Gainey either. There's speculation now that he might be able to unload his expensive half-share of the Liverpool FC, which would prevent his having to ditch the Habs to refinance his loans. I'd like to see Gillett continue as owner, because I'm not sure any of the alternatives I've heard mentioned would be the best thing for the team.

2. Weeding out of "bad apples." When Guy Carbonneau left his final press conference, he said he'd be happy to speak with Bob Gainey about "bad apples" on the team over the summer. I hope if there really are bad apples they're removed immediately, regardless of the amount of talent they may possess. It's better to have a close team than a scattered, more talented one.

And the number one thing I hope for as this season comes to an end:

1. Fun. This was a real "team" last year. I mean a team whose players stood up for each other, who genuinely liked each other and played hard for the love of the game and the team. I think the Habs did the right thing by rebuilding from the inside with guys who know no other city or team and whose loyalties aren't divided. The first players from that rebuild are now the young, homegrown veterans that should be taking over and leading the way. So, I hope that whatever happened this year to derail what looked like a promising team development was just an aberration. I hope the team can put this year away and pick up where they left off last year. Last year was fun. This year has been anything but. I can stand losing. I can stand disappointment. But I can't take another season of absolutely no fun. So, here's to better days ahead and a few hopes finally coming true as the long wait for a new season begins.


Woodvid said...

Always love reading your thoughts, JT. You always hit the nail(s) on the head. See you next year.

Anonymous said...

Great list. Disappointing season, but maybe you're right. Maybe there's a lesson here for the team and all us fans to let go of the past already and start trumpeting the present and future. Here's hoping our Habs come back strong next year.

Jay in PA said...

Thanks for making fun #1. I couldn't care less about this benighted effort at merchandising and pride that is the 100th year of the franchise. I just want to end each game not feeling like I've just wasted three hours.

Two years ago, when all the Habs had was a power play and got beat out by the leafs in the last game for contention for the last playoff spot (which the Islanders then took in their last game), the team was fun to watch. Last year, when they were picked to finish out of the money, the team was fun to watch. This year was nothing but a series of disappointments and outright heartbreaks.

Maybe it was the injuries. Maybe it was the failure of some players to live up to their potential (see Kostitsyn, Andrei; Plekanec, Tomas; Komisarek, Mike for beginners). Maybe it's that some players were rushed too quickly to the NHL (see Price, Carey; Kostitsyn, Sergei). Maybe the centennial was just a big magnifying glass that fried the team under the glare of oversaturated marketing. Maybe Koivu and Kovalev were cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. I don't know and I don't care. Just show me some hockey worth watching again, and I'll be fine. But for now, I'm going to do my best to just forget this year in Canadiens history.

AL said...

Right again, J.T.

If Bob Gainey does quit, they should hire you as his replacement. Then hockey would definitely be fun again. :D

Unknown said...

d bifford sent me over here to read your list, JT. Great stuff. I feel as if you've articulated my inchoate inner mumblings. Season 101 is right around the corner.