Sunday, November 29, 2009

Make Or Break

I don't know about you, but I'm really proud of the Habs so far this year. They've been without their best player all season, as well as up to eight of the guys who had regular spots to start the campaign. Tomas Plekanec and Carey Price faced huge questions about whether they'd be able to rebound from bad performances last season. The entire team had to answer the 64-thousand-dollar query: would the Gainey-gutted squad find some kind of cohesion within itself before the competition got too big a head start?

Happily, Plekanec and Price have answered the bell admirably. They're both playing some very strong hockey, particularly Plekanec, who's been the soul of consistency all season. The team also seems to have found the elusive chemistry it was looking for to start the year. Passing is improving, breakouts are getting a little better and the PK has improved substantially since October. Early season underperformers like Maxim Lapierre, Max Pacioretty, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Price have come around and look like they're catching on to what Martin wants from them. Newcomers Travis Moen and Jaro Spacek, rookies Tom Pyatt and Ryan White and the resurgent Roman Hamrlik and Glen Metropolit have all done their part to help the team win. Off the ice, everyone seems to be getting along okay, and the personalities Gainey's introduced to the room appear to have the right mix of guts, determination and a strong work ethic.

The doubts about whether the team can play have been put to rest. Now the question is, can the Habs get enough points in the bank to make the playoffs? This month is going to go a long way toward determining if the team we love in December will still be around to be loved in May.

The remaining Canadiens have been holding the fort well in the absence of so many regular players, and most of us have bought into the idea that if they can stay at .500 until Markov comes back, everything will be fine. I'm not so sure about that.

Looking at the numbers, you can see the Habs have 26 points in 26 games to date. In most seasons, an eighth-place team racks up an average of about 94-95 points and is between 8-10 games over .500. If the Habs maintain their current pace, and if Andrei Markov returns in early January as hoped, they will have 45 points in 45 games at that point. That leaves 37 games in which they'll have to make up at least 50 points. If they can remain at .500 until Markov comes back, they'll need to pick it up to about a .677 clip for the remainder of the season. It'd have to be a 25-12-0 record, or any combination of wins/loser points that tallies up to fifty points.

I've no doubt Markov's return will help the Habs, but you have to assume it'll take him a few games to get back into top form after not having played for nearly a year. And we have to remember, Markov is a premier defenceman but he's not God. He will improve the PP, the transition game and, hopefully, goals against, but his teammates will have to be at the tops of their games as well. If any of the major players slump or if the injuries to important team members continue, Markov's return alone won't be enough of a boost to make the team win the sheer number of games it will have to win to get a playoff berth.

So I think this month is really going to be make or break. The points that go in the bank now take some of the pressure off when Markov comes back. It's not going to be easy though. The month features 17 games, including four sets of back-to-back matches...none of which see the opposing team having played the night before..., seven games against division rivals, a shortened Christmas break of only two days, and a seven-game road trip. It's by far the toughest month of the season. If the Habs can come out of this month at something a little better than .500, I like their chances of landing a playoff spot. If, on the other hand, they either stay at .500 or worse, under it, the post-season may just be a wistful dream of what might have been, if only...

In the meantime I'm proud of what the Habs are doing so far. They just need to do it in a way that racks up the points a little bit faster. I'm having fun watching them, but I'm afraid they're going to run out of time. It's going to be a tough December. Let's hope it's a good one.

Hey! A Contest!

Well, I'm not much into self-promotion as you can probably tell by the lack of ads or anything on here, but I had an email today from a site that's running a contest for fans of Canadiens-themed blogs. You get to pick your top nine favourite blogs and they compete against each other for bragging rights. Somehow these guys heard of The H...and added it to the list.

So, if you read a lot of Habs blogs and you'd like to cast your vote, you can do it at:

I don't expect to win the thing...there are too many really good Habs bloggers out there. I read and respect a lot of them, and I think it'd be nice to go and show your support for the ones you like. Most of the bloggers do it for the love of the Habs and don't get anything out of it other than the pleasure you take in their writing. And who knows? You might discover a blog you don't read yet, that could become your new favourite!

Authority Always Wins

When I watched Travis Moen get called for a non-existent headshot on Rick Nash last week, just seconds after failing to draw a penalty when Nash slammed him face-first into the boards right in front of a ref, I started to wonder if there's possibly any truth to the Habs-fan paranoia that officials treat the Canadiens unfairly. Then I dismissed the idea, because there's nothing more whiny or unsportsmanlike than blaming a team's losses on bad officiating. It's the easiest thing to say and the hardest thing to prove, and every team's fans think their favourites get the worst of the ref's mistakes.

The impression stayed with me though, as I watched the Penguins game on Wenesday, and as I thought back on some of the other incidents of missed calls that would have favoured the Habs, and phantom calls that went against them. To put the matter to rest I decided to look at the numbers, and there it was, in black and white.

The Canadiens get an average of 3.04 PP opportunities each game, for a total of 76 man advantages in twenty-five games this season. That's the fewest power plays in the league. Ottawa also has had 76 PP chances, but in two fewer games, for a total of 3.30 power plays per game. After those two teams, it's not even close. Dallas has had 118 power plays this year, Carolina 112 and Pittsburgh 109.

While the Canadiens don't seem to draw many penalties, on the other side of the sheet...taking penalties...they're close to the top of the league. In terms of total penalty minutes per game, the Habs don't fare too badly. They're fifteenth overall, with a total of 13.6 minutes in the box each night. But a closer look at the penalty breakdown tells a different story. The Habs have been handed 126 minors, fourth-most in the league. Their thirteen major penalties are very modest compared to Calgary's league-high 27, so most of the Canadiens penalties come in the form of discretionary minors.

In looking back over the Habs' first twenty-five games, the team has taken 64 more penalties than it's drawn. That's the biggest differential in the league. Only Ottawa and Philadelphia (the league's most penalized team) are close, with differentials of -61 each. Three teams, Detroit, New Jersey and Nashville have more PPs than PKs. Most other teams range anywhere from a -1 to a -40 differential.

There's no question the Habs get a lot more penalties called against them than they get power plays. So, I started to wonder why that's happening. I looked at the referee pairings for each Habs game, and there's no outstanding pattern. No ref has worked more than three Habs games all season, but the penalty result is the same. Only three times in twenty-five games have the Canadiens had more PPs than their opponent. All three were home games, but there were six different refs involved. I see no connection with particular officials who might have it in for the Habs.

So, having eliminated the possibility of a referee bias as a cause, I looked at the typical reasons why teams draw penalties and, conversely, take them. Usually teams will draw penalties if they're skating hard, forcing the other team into hooks and holds, trips and crosschecks. With the exception of a couple of notable games, the Habs have been hustling. They've been going to the net and they've been using their speed in the offensive zone. I see no reason why the Canadiens should fail to draw more penalties than they do.

In terms of the penalties they take, however, it's possible the lack of mobility and strength on the back end with the extended absences of Markov and O'Byrne has played a role. If a D is caught up ice, or is overmatched, he'll end up taking a penalty to illegally accomplish what he can't within the rules. The fact that the two most penalized Habs, by a fair margin, are Hal Gill and Paul Mara would seem to back that up.

But taking penalties because the D is overmatched doesn't explain why the forwards aren't drawing more when they're pressuring the other team's defence, unless they're not really pressuring the other team much at all. The Canadiens scored first in ten of their twenty-five games, winning nine of them, which would indicate at least a strong start on many nights. The goals are few and far between most of the time though. The Habs are 27th in the league in goals scored per game. That's either an indication there's not enough talent in the lineup to score more, or a reflection of all the injuries the team has sustained, either of which could mean there's not much Canadiens pressure on the opposing net that would force the opposition into penalties. But that guess can be debunked as well, when you consider that the three teams that have scored less goals than the Canadiens per game have smaller penalty/power play differentials. Nashville is actually one of the three teams that get more powerplays than penalties, yet they score less often than the Habs.

Whatever the reason for the Canadiens' failure to draw penalties, it's a big problem. With games so often decided by special teams, taking nearly twice as many penalties as power plays it gets puts a team at a decided disadvantage. It makes the penalty killers work harder and keeps the scorers on the bench for longer. I'm sure there's a deeper analysis of the problem going on in the Canadiens' coach's room. If there's not, there should be, and the sooner the better. This is costing the Canadiens games, and with the parity in the standings, losing games now could very well mean losing a playoff spot later.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Caps vs. Habs: The Let's Not Get Shut Out Edition

Notes on the third and OT:

-The thing about this team is it strips away your resignation. You might go into a game expecting the team to lose it, but they raise their play and make you want more. It's so much fun when they win and so painful when they lose. I thought the Houle years anesthesized me, but it appears not to be the case.

-I'd honestly carry 22 guys and Bergeron's shot.

-Caps without Ovechkin would be the Habs. I hate tanking for glory.

-White has stones the size of the Rock of Gibraltar, which is a good thing, since that's just where that Green slapper hit him.

-Seriously? A penalty with twenty seconds to go? You just knew the tying goal was coming then. This team is going to kill me.

-If the Habs won a faceoff all night, it must have been one of those "moral victories" because I didn't see it actually happen.

-Shootout luck is gone too. Although I guess it would help to actually have an offensive player other than Cammalleri and Pleks (who sucks on shootouts) left in the lineup.

-Again, lots of heart, but heart alone can't always get you the two. On to Toronto.

Notes on the second:

-Beautiful to see Price stone Ovy on the breakaway. If only every game could go to shoout...

-Metro has more heart than a box of Valentines.

-It's a sad, sad thing when the PP can't get set up because Kyle Chipchura can't win the puck off the boards.

-I've heard Spacek has a cannon, but he's not fired it much this year. What a shot! And nice butt-in-Varlamov's-face by Pacioretty.

-Speaking of whom, Pax seems like he gets physically stronger every game.

-I just had a scary thought. What if the ghosts of the Forum HAVE moved to the Bell Centre...but only the ghosts of the sucky players?

-Holy crap, that was an incredible save...possible game saver. Scratch what I said about Price's hot streak being over. But really? Bergeron out against Ovechkin?

-Yzerman watching from above like the Eye of God. Checking out Price for Vancouver?

-Pleky's like a rolling stone.

-Hamrlik looks like a former first-overall pick.

-If someone could hogtie Ovechkin under the stands, the Habs could take this one.

Notes on the first:

-Not a smart penalty, Max. I thought college guys were brainier than that.

-Sergei's forcing Pleks into riskier, longer passes than he's used to making on the breakouts. A little too much cherry-picking going on there, I think.

-OB has improved his puck-handling dramatically and doesn't panic nearly as much as he used to do. Now, if he can only come to the realization that he's a very large mammal who can squish others at will, we'd be getting somewhere.

-No excuse for the number of times the Habs have the puck in their own end with a chance to clear, and end up mishandling it. Unless the excuse is they suddenly have been blinded by the coach's red glare.

-The Price hot streak is ending. The Fehr goal was softer than a summer breeze. Say "deflection" all you want, but if his stick's in position, that puck doesn't go five-hole.

-Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the Canadiens to clear the puck out of their own end.

-Word of advice: don't try to pokecheck Ovechkin. He knew you were going to try it two minutes ago and will embarrass you accordingly.

-I know the Caps owned the puck most of that period, but two goals on four shots just isn't good enough.

-Not expecting much better in the second, but I'm watching anyway. You can't count out a team with heart, even when it appears to be in cardiac arrest.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Junior Junkyard

I heard the story of a promising young hockey player today. He was tall for his age, with a hard shot and nice skating ability. He was always picked for the all-star teams and played in the toughest tournaments. His skill caught the eye of more than a couple of junior hockey scouts and he was chosen very high in the QMJHL draft. At sixteen, he and his parents faced a difficult decision. The young man wasn't the most mature sixteen-year-old ever born but he was so good at hockey it would have seemed cruel to forbid him to pursue his dream. They decided he could go for training camp and see what happened. He was lucky enough, and good enough, to make the team. His parents then had to choose to hand over custody of their impressionable son to a team of strangers and a family they'd never met.

It turned out to be a bad decision. The talented kid, away from home for the first time, ended up billeting with a man with gang ties. At sixteen, he was handed a bag of cocaine and told to "go have a good time." Not long after that, he started missing buses and turning up late for practices, and he began to get a reputation for having "attitude" issues. He lasted most of that rookie season before addiction caught up to him. The following year, he stayed in the Q only a little while before falling out with the team and having no choice but to quit and return home. He never managed to get straightened out, and now that boy plays for a pick-up junior team in his hometown.

That's not the kind of story you hear every day, and it's an extreme example of the perils of leaving home to chase the hockey dream at a young age. But, it's an illustration of one of the many reasons why the Canadian junior hockey system is not healthy for developing young men.

Physically, junior hockey is as demanding as the pro game without any of the luxuries. Teams play nearly seventy regular-season games, often travelling for hours by bus to get to road games. On those road trips, they eat fast food more often than not, so nutrition and sleep are often neglected by boys who are hoping their bodies will be their passports into the world of hockey riches.

Then there's the physical disparity among the players. Junior hockey accepts players between the ages of fifteen and twenty, so it's not unusual to see 5'8", 160lb sixteen-year-old rookies sharing the ice with 6'2", 200lb twenty-year-olds, with the benefit of three or four years of junior experience to their names. We saw the results of that when 204lb, 20-year-old Michael Liambas hit 175lb, 16-year-old Ben Fanelli hard enough to put him in intensive care. I honestly think Liambas didn't mean to cripple Fanelli. But his being so much heavier, older and more experienced helped make the hit a very devastating one.

If players manage to survive the physical hardships of junior hockey, they then have to face the struggles of trying to keep up with their studies. The sad fact is, many of them don't bother. Some are sure hockey will provide enough opportunities to make education unnecessary. Others just can't keep up. I spoke with the dad of a junior player who told me his son is expected to spend up to three hours at the rink and in the gym every morning. He goes to school in the afternoons and has games or workouts most evenings. There's no way he can keep up with a full class load, so he takes fewer courses than most of his classmates. Even with a reduced workload, he finds it nearly impossible to stay on top of homework and assignments. So, this year, when his classmates graduate, he won't be among them. He'll have to continue with high school for an extra year, perhaps even two, to get his diploma. The dad I talked to says his son will graduate because it's a condition of his parents' permission to play hockey. But some parents aren't as insistent and some kids aren't as motivated. There are kids playing junior hockey who aren't getting any schooling at all.

Then there's the emotional toll on players of having to leave home and family before they're ready, if they want to pursue a hockey career. Players find themselves living with strangers who may or may not provide the encouragement and support young men need as they're growing up. They get lonely, discouraged and scared. They can fall prey to people like Graham James, who made Theoren Fleury's life a hell.

And there're the temptations they face. Boys who were a big deal in their hometowns suddenly find themselves stars in bigger centres where hockey is a main attraction. There are puck bunnies, drugs, booze, sharks claiming to be agents and other hangers-on. There are the stupid things teenaged boys will do when they've got too much time together with too little to occupy it.
What's most bothersome about junior hockey though, is that adults are using children to make money for their teams. And make no mistake, at sixteen or seventeen, these boys are children. When money's involved, not every team is going to worry about whether the children in their employ are eating right, getting enough sleep or studying like they should. When billets are in short supply, not every team is going to thoroughly screen every volunteer who takes a kid into his home. These kids have no CBA that ensures they get their fair share of the money they help bring in. One hockey dad told me he has to send money every month to supplement the stipend the team pays his son, just to ensure the boy is eating properly.

It doesn't amaze me that some kids...many, many more than the junior leagues will admit to for fear of image to make it in junior and disappear from hockey. What does amaze me is that so many of them actually survive the experience and go on to become successful hockey players. Even then, while they're successful at hockey, a lot of pro hockey players aren't successful at life. The limited experiences junior hockey provides them in their formative years don't teach them how to relate to people outside their own teams and social groups. They don't take part in extracurricular activities or expand their studies outside hockey. And they live in a culture in which decisions are made for them and life revolves around the rink, the gym, the bus and the bar after practices and games.

There are exceptions, of course. Some players take it upon themselves to improve their minds and involve themselves in their communities. But life in junior makes accomplishing much outside hockey a difficult task. Still, junior is so entrenched in the old-world mindset of the hockey community, it will continue to work in the flawed manner it does now, paying only lip service to the well-being of the kids in the system.

I much prefer the American college system, in which players live normal university lives, play a reasonable number of games during the winter, and have time to study as well as play. The system has turned out a good many top-tier hockey players, and many more well-adjusted, well-educated young men. The junior scholarship program offering a year of university for every year of junior played just doesn't compare, with the lack of focus on studies at the high school level making it tough for players to qualify for university when hockey's over.

Parents have to make a choice. They have to decide whether to expose their kids to the perils of the junior system, or insist on their sons going to college if that option is open to them. A lot of parents, unfortunately, see only the hope in a budding hockey career and not the perils awaiting their son if he doesn't make it. They make choices on the assumption that their kid has the ability to make it as a pro. And sometimes, junior is a boy's only option if he wants to continue to play hockey at a high level.

I was really glad to hear Louis Leblanc had decided to go to Harvard. A lot of fans are complaining about the lower-level Harvard hockey program, but sometimes it's not all about hockey. Leblanc is talented and smart. If he wants to use hockey to ensure his future with a Harvard education, good for him. Players are pushed too hard too young anyway. Better for Leblanc to balance hockey with life and become a more well-rounded person, if he's to withstand the pressure he'll face to succeed in Montreal.

The boy whose sad story I heard about today has a younger brother. He's a real up-and-coming hockey player. About the same time his brother was struggling with the beginning of a drug addiction in junior, the younger kid was sent to Toronto to play against better competition in the city Metro league. He was thirteen, and the team had promised to find him a good billet. The parents met the billet family and were convinced their son would be in good hands. But just before the season began, the billet family withdrew from the program. The team didn't tell the kid's parents, so when the mother went to Toronto a week into the season to see how her son was doing, she found him and another thirteen-year-old living in an apartment by themselves because the team couldn't find another billet and didn't want to lose the players. This time, the parents took their son back home, against his protests. When he was seventeen, he went away again, this time to play junior. He ended up billeting with the owner of the team, who made sure he stayed on track.

He's doing well, but the parents will always worry and wonder whether junior hockey will end up chewing up and spitting out their younger son like it did his brother and so many other kids they'll never hear about.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

HabDogs vs. Pens - The Nobody Left in Steeltown Edition

Notes on the third:

-I think Plekanec was hurt in the Jackets game, in that big hit behind the net. He's not himself tonight. Slightly slower, slightly more hesitant about contact.

-Would have been nice to steal a point. But you can't expect miracles with this lineup.

-Dryden said of forwards: Scorers score and grinders grind. The problem is the team has lots of people grinding, but not enough of the other kind at the moment.

-I actually wasn't mad when Hammer took that penalty. He needed a rest.

-If only OB had been Markov. Or Gionta. Or...never mind.

-All things considered, it was a noble effort by the 'Dogs. Price could have been sharper, but was probably tired. Oh well. On to the Caps.

Notes on the second:

-Again, the penalties are frighteningly bizarre. Good PK though.

-The Pens have another gear. Our guys have been playing at the top of theirs, God love their little cotton socks.

-Cammy's game clock is ticking a couple of seconds slow tonight. He's juuuuusssst missing.

-Hammer looks tired.

-The zone clearances are less laborious than I thought they'd be, for the most part. The passing seems to have picked up. Must be because all those 'Dogs are so familiar with each other.

-Bill Guerin. The Undead. Someone get a bloody stake already.

-I love the Habs' heart so much. But this is like open-heart surgery.

-I'd like to see Desharnais get a point in his first game. He's a good kid who's come really far.

-Down three with tired legs in the third? They'll be like Bulldogs on chains. I just hope Crosby gets a hangnail or something and doesn't try to murder them before it ends.

Notes on the first:

-And now your headliners: Carey Price and the Bulldogs! With special guests, Cammy, Pleks and the Hammer.

-Overheard pregame: "Hey Jacques! I'll play up!": Price

-If you give the Habs an inch, they'll take a foot. If you give them a foot...they'll break it.

-Honestly, the Habs have no business getting a point out of this game tonight, if you look at them on paper. I thought it was good they held the Pens off until halfway through the period.

-Bylsma has Crosby out against Mara for a reason. The big guy's been slightly less than stellar with the bigger minutes he's getting in the last couple of games.

-Price looks as comfortable handling the puck as a cowboy in his favourite saloon.

-Note to Sergei: You are not Kovalev. Please forget everything you learned about puckhogging from him. This message will self-destruct in five, four, three...

-Pacioretty's a testament to on-the-job training.

-Nice smack in the lips Pleks gave Crosby. I think it gave him a fat(ter) lip.

-White and Pyatt are playing some stellar minutes. I think we're seeing the last of Chipchura as a Hab with the emergence of these two in the role he was supposed to be playing.

-Down only one and holding their own with the champs. I'll take it and hope for more in the second.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jackets vs. Bulldogs - The Ouchie Edition

Notes on the third and OT (sorry, out of habit):

-Benoit Pouliot on RDS looks like the prom king next to Jacques Demers' big fat shop teacher.

-Metropolit is worth his weight in opium. Which six other GMs must have been smoking when they let him go.

-The second Bergeron goal was truly a team effort. Every Bulldog on the ice had a smack at it, until Daddy took over with the big-league shot. And for the people who rag on me for slamming MAB (you know who you are) he didn't suck on D tonight. Mara was worse.

-I keep thinking Pyatt's "94" is Latendresse. I guess there actually will be a little adjustment after all.

-Speaking of which, the departed one's bosom buddy is playing MAD. Good on ya, Lappy!

-Price is going to have to find himself an unmarked panel van and a good fence for all the games he's stealing.

-If the Pleks/Cammy/AK line was a Queen song, it'd be "It's a Kind of Magic."

-What a great win by the depleted troops! It makes me fear tomorrow a little less.

Notes on the second:

-I guess if the team managed to gel after the first twenty games, it's now a bowl of jello salad with all the injuries.

-How can the Columbus first line NOT be killing the Habs? They've got a superstar in Nash, a francophone who used to cheer for the Habs growing up, and Umberger. It's Habs kryptonite.

-The reffing in this one is really atrocious, and I don't often comment on the reffing. But there's something wrong when the calls suddenly start favouring the second-most penalized team in the league. The Mara one was the only good call against the Habs so far.

-Nash goes through Gorges like a dose of salts.

-Price seems to be better at the splits this year. Maybe he's joining Laraque for post-tofu shake yoga sessions. It'd be easily 5-2 without him in there.

-I'm not one to advocate Carbo-copying, but MAB could be a fourth-line LW and still use the shot without scaring the crap out of us on D.

-Lapierre is starting to play like he doesn't want the next ticket to ride.

-White is turning out to be that rarest of commodities: a smart grinder.

-The thing I like best about Cammalleri is that he always keeps going forward. When most guys get the puck taken from them, they stop chasing it. Cammy never stops going after it. That trait alone gets him ten goals a year.

-Sergei looks like he's finally getting the diesel fumes out of his head.

-Well, someone took the paddles to the Habs and jolted them to life in the last five minutes. Let's see if they can keep breathing long enough to get at least a point.

Notes on the first:

-I don't know why everyone thinks Sergei's return will spur AK on to greater heights. Not all brothers are best friends. A friend of mine actively can't stand his brother and would probably ask to be traded if the two of them had to play together.

-Random scary thought of the night: I bet you anything Martin Brodeur will either tie or beat the all-time shutout record on Dec.16, when the Habs are in town. Grrr...I hate him and his Habs-killing.

-It's good you can hear the boys shouting at each other on the ice. That "lead your blindfolded partner around with voice commands" thing they did at Teen Ranch could come in pretty handy, when you consider number of strangers in the lineup.

-O'Byrne might not crush people as often as we'd like, but he *is* getting a lot better at using his size to help him retain possession of the puck instead of freaking out and giving it away every time.

-Cammalleri is hot as the earth's molten core.

-Mara looked like Jack Tripper on the sitcom zone clearance attempt just before the Nash goal.

-It's official. A textbook hip check is now a penalty in the "Head Shots R Us" NHL.

-I think Pacioretty is getting it.

-White shirts are on just about every loose puck first, and if they're not, they just shove the red shirts aside and take it anyway.

-The coaches need to make sure the Habs know they're actually allowed to be in the middle of the ice and don't have to ALWAYS clear around the boards.

-That was not an encouraging twenty minutes, but hopefully it's the worst period of the night.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gui! Gui! Gone!

The Scene: A back table at Buona Notte. A somber group has gathered to remember a departed colleague

Maxim Lapierre: (clears throat, wipes eyes) Guys, thanks for coming. I really needed some support tonight. I feel like I'm walking off balance. He was always next to me. In the room. On the plane. At the hotel. I'm going!
Mike Cammalleri: (pats Lapierre on back) Well, you'll be okay, Max. It's just the business. Gui will have a chance to make a new start. Don't you want what's best for him?
Lapierre: Sure. But what about me? Who's going to be my roomie now? I'll be stuck with Laraque, and he'll feed me eggplant chips cooked in I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. Gui always kept a Big Mac in the dresser drawer in case we got hungry late at night. And he was a helluva Parcheesi player. We used to play for cheesies. (sobs) Damn it, Gui! Why couldn't you be more Holmstrom than Lafleur? You big, talented bastard!
Marc-Andre Bergeron: (mumbling to himself) I'm gonna have to do twice the RDS interviews now. Damn, that sucks!
Cammalleri: Well, guys, let's get a round in and we'll talk about our good memories of Gui, okay? (beckons to waitress)
Carey Price: I'll go first. Gui always brought the hottest girls to the parties. (raises glass) To Gui!

All shout: GUI!

Josh Gorges: Me next. Gui let me score more goals by not standing in the crease and getting in the way of my shot. To Gui!

All shout: GUI!

Kyle Chipchura: Gui always made me look fast.

All: GUI!

Sergei Kostitsyn: I go. I thenk heem for my job agen. To Gui!

All: GUI!

Lapierre: Thanks guys. It's good to know I'm not alone. But it's so Nobody's gonna miss him more than me.

Heads turn as a disturbance near the front of the restaurant escalates and a familiar voice shrieks in agony in the now-quiet room

Benoit Brunet: Guillaume! NOOOOOOOOO!! Guillaume!!

Eyes swivel back to Lapierre

Lapierre: Okay, well maybe someone will. (gasps) foot!
Gorges: What's the matter, man?
Lapierre: It's killing me. I think Gui just woke up from his nap and banged his foot on the corner of the bed. I can feel the pain.
Gorges: Oh, for God's sake! You're not twins!
Lapierre: Oh, hold on guys. I've got a text from Gui! He says he likes Minny so far. The guys are good, and the coach says all he has to do to succeed there is improve his skating a bit and go to the net more. He says no problem.
Cammalleri: See, that's got to make you feel better.
Lapierre: Yeah, he says I'd like it there too, if things don't work out here. That's good to know.
Anyway, you guys were great to come help me work through this. To Gui!

All: Gui! Gui! Gui!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

C Is For Captain, That's Good Enough For Me

Get your arguments and ridicule ready everyone. I'm gonna say something that's been on my mind for the last month, and you're gonna laugh. And argue. But I don't care anymore. It's got to be said. So, here goes: I think Tomas Plekanec should be considered for captain. There. It's out there.

Before you argue and ridicule, though, let me make the case for it. When you think of the qualities you'd like to have in a captain, what comes to mind? For me, they are work ethic, history with the team, contributions on the ice, leadership on the ice and in the room, the ability to publicly represent the team and personal strength. Of course, French would be an asset in Montreal too, but the current crop of players can't provide that option. So, looking at the factors I've named, Plekanec is not a ridiculous candidate for the "C."

Work ethic. Plekanec is the first one on the ice at practice every single day. He shows up at training camp in the best possible physical shape each season, and he never, ever takes a shift off during a game. The man works hard and any player taking an example from him would be better for it.

History with the team. Pleks is homegrown, which means he knows the organization intimately. He worked his way up to the big team after being a third-round draft pick and spending parts of four seasons in Hamilton. He knows what it means to be demoted and to be a young player fighting for ice time in Montreal. He also knows what it feels like to see your hard work pay off on the scoreboard. There's a lot of knowledge he can pass on to the younger players who are following the same path he took to get to Montreal.

Contributions on the ice. Nobody can argue with the results Plekanec's getting this year. Without any consistency in his linemates, he's been the team's best player. He's the team leader in scoring, is a great penalty killer, takes the important faceoffs and hustles all night long. This year, he's even introduced a higher level of chippiness in the corners too, which is certainly welcome.

Leadership. This is an intangible nobody can really quantify, except for the players in the room. But there are hints about what's going on there. You hear respect in their voices when players like Mike Cammalleri and Max Pacioretty talk about how hard Plekanec works and how well he's playing. You see him on the ice, talking and gesturing, communicating with his teammates with great confidence. You hear the stories about how he's taken it upon himself to talk Andrei Kostitsyn through his slump, explaining that Kostitsyn doesn't like yelling and needs to be praised when he does something good. Those things say "leader" to me, but of course, they don't tell the whole story. Only his teammates know that part.

Ability to represent the team in the community. Plekanec speaks English very well and is extremely accomodating with the media, especially this year. He'd have no trouble functioning appropriately at official events. He gives the impression he's comfortable in Montreal and he knows and respects the history of the team.

Personal strength. We all know Plekanec's candor and blunt self-assessment can be detrimental to his reputation. Nobody's going to forget the infamous "little girl" comment, no matter how well he plays. But Plekanec says those things because he cares. Two years ago when the team got eliminated by Philly, the enduring image for me was of Pleks desperately throwing himself at the empty net to try to prevent the back-breaking final goal, then lying desolate in the crease afterwards. He wants to win and he wants to be the best player on the team. That takes determination and pride. He's gone through some very tough times and learned from them. It's a process, and at 27, his character is still evolving.

The argument most of you will present is that there are other guys who are better with the media and more charismatic, like Cammalleri. There's Gionta, who's the definition of "intense." There's Markov who's the team's best all-around player and Hamrlik who's got seniority. All of those players could be candidates for the captaincy when the "C" is finally awarded. My point is that Plekanec should be included in that group as well. His play this year should have earned him that respect, both from the fans and from the team's management.

So there you go. Pleky for captain. I'd vote for him.

Wings vs. Habs - One More Stupid Jersey Edition

Notes on the third:

-Does Cammalleri have enough time left in the season to get fifty? He's the best signing of the lot from last summer.

-Whatever else, this team has more heart than a deck of cards.

-Lapierre's new role appears to be "Guy who takes late penalty to make things interesting."

-But seriously...can we PLEASE kill that delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck out. Worst. Penalty. In. Hockey.

-I think Pleks' pants were falling down. Every time the camera was on him he was pulling them up. I guess that's what happens when you're trying to contain two giant brass balls.

-Hammer's picked a helluva time to have a fantastic season. The Habs'd be ten points lower in the standings without him.

-Too bad they couldn't pull it off in OT, but it's an early Christmas miracle that they managed to snag a point tonight. Adeste fideles.

Notes on the second:

-The more I think about it, the angrier I'm getting at that stupid Laraque penalty fest. If I'm Gainey, I waive him tomorrow. He's a disgrace to Craig Ludwig's number.

-I think no-touch icing would be safer for players, but isn't it fun when a Hab beats out an icing like Pax did?

-What the hell's with all the gratuitous falling down? The Canadiens spent more time on their knees than a gaggle of nuns.

-The worst part about this is the Habs are actually playing pretty well at even strength.

-I'm liking the little Bulldog puppies. So jowly and growly.

-Some unusual hesitation in Gorges' game tonight. You can almost see him thinking, which is not good. Defencemen should never think.

-As the remaining good players play bigger and bigger minutes, you just have to wonder who's going to be the next injury in the pile. It's like the hockey version of Jenga.

-Chipchura was sent away last year to improve his faceoffs. I haven't checked the numbers, but it seems he's done that. Too bad he would have sat tonight in favour of the Useless Vegan if Gomez had played.

-Andrei Kostitsyn just doesn't seem that smart. He's got a ton of talent, but he makes dumb decisions. I guess that's the definition of idiot savant, though, isn't it?

-Moen on the boards is as effective as penicillin on the clap.

-Just get 'em to OT, boys. Then you have 'em where you want 'em.

Notes on the first:

-Moen, Metropolit and Cammalleri. I think we can stop calling them the "first" line at this point.

-Laraque mumbling to himself during the anthems: God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far away from here. Me mumbling at the end of the period: I wish God had listened.

-The sweaters are freaking me out. Way too leafish.

-Gomez' contract is not my favourite thing in the world. It actually ranks somewhere between the Bruins and hemorrhoids. But the team misses him on the ice, especially when they're more than half the period on the PK.

-Superstitious? Price still in the country-'n-western mask he's worn through this good streak. Red pads too, instead of the retro ones.

-I swear I saw a two-man forecheck by the boys in bleu. Was it an accident, I wonder?

-White hits like a November gale.

-I'm getting nervous for the first time this season. It hasn't happened all year because I haven't expected anything out of these guys. Where have these expectations come from?

-When Laraque's in the box for longer than he'd likely be on the ice during the game, and it *isn't* for fighting, he needs to be gone. Now. Last year, actually, but I'll take now. Idiot.

-Damn it. Nearly killed six minutes and then that stupid bounce-in. Price has to be the unluckiest goalie in the entire world. How many of those kinds of flukes go in on him?

-It started out so well, and ended in utter crap. It's the on-ice version of The Godfather movies.

-Death by stupidity.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Habs vs.Caps - The Please Don't Hurt Us Edition

Notes on the third:

-Pacioretty in the between-periods interview had so much adrenaline and testosterone coursing through him, the effort to speak coherently nearly made him gag.

-I like the little slingshot move Cammalleri has on the boards. He nearly always gets it out to his linemate.

-What the hell is with the "hurry-up" faceoff? That's the stupidest thing I've ever seen, including the over-the-glass delay-of-game penalty and Mike Milbury.

-Oh, Pax. I think they taught shooting angles in the *second* year of college.

-Every time I see Pleks pass to Hammer, I think "Czech sausage."

-Does anyone else think Spacek should be wearing leiderhosen and a little feathered cap?

-If they'd lost, Martin should have been skewered for having Bergeron out there with two minutes to go. That second goal was on the coach.

-I like Mara. He's like an old dog in the don't notice him until he growls at the intruder.

-Solid game by Price, Pleks and just about everyone. I was proud of them tonight.

Notes on the second:

-Everyone in the league fears Ovechkin, but I fear Fleischmann. He hurts the Habs every time.

-Could it be? Was that a second line I saw there? Yes, by George, I think it was! Beautiful work by AK on the Pleks goal.

-Pax made a beautiful birthday play to get himself into a 2-on-1. He needs the confidence to shoot, though.

-I think Latendresse is actually playing some fantastic hockey this year. He's just playing it in an alternate dimension. It's not his fault.

-Very nice period. I'm having fun, and that's the thing that's been missing all year.

Notes on the first:

-It's not a good thing that my only hope going into this one is that it not be a blowout. Be gentle with us, Ovy!

-Gorges must have a real love-hate relationship with Price. If he's not falling on him himself, he's knocking other guys into him. He's going to seriously hurt Price one of these days.

-There's something wrong with the sound on my TV, so all I can hear is the crowd. The announcers are just a dim background noise. It's glorious!

-Spacek is working on a Guiness World Record for most giveaways before Christmas. He's hoping to hit a thousand, and he's already halfway there. Go Spatch!

-Moen on the top line is helping create some space for the midgets. Too bad he doesn't have better hands, but you can't win 'em all.

-Man, oh man, Ovechkin goes through the Habs like a machete through cheese.

-Bergeron is like diarrhea. It's embarrassing, stinks and you'll do anything to get rid of it.

-The plan there was to stay out of the box, right? Okay then. Just checking.

-Damn...announcer sound is back. Pierre McGuire Homoerotic Comment of the period: "It hit Carey Price right on the knob and knocked the stick right out of his hands."

-Poor Metro looks like he's dragging a 260-pound piano around on his line.

-Speaking of which, Laraque just discovered not everyone follows the Code. Erskine didn't even wait for a properly-worded reply before knocking down the "Heavyweight Champ of the NHL." If he can't even win a fight, it's time to cut him lose.

-All in all, not a bad start. I thought they'd be in a deeper hole than a hard rock miner by now.

Not Fair

You know how they say life's not fair, and sports is less fair than life? Well, sometimes that's really true. I was watching the hockey highlights this morning (way to go leafs...can't stop laughing, even though it'll probably bring bad karma down on me) and I saw the Anaheim fans fist-fighting over a stick Scott Neidermayer had thrown into the crowd, intended for a little girl. The incident reminded me that, yeah, sometimes sports really aren't fair. Here's my top ten most unfair things about the NHL (this week at least):

10. Souveniers in the crowd. The Neidermayer incident made me realize this one. Sure, the troglodytes were fighting over the stick that had been meant for a child in the first row, which was unfair to the kid. But it's also not fair that it had been intended for her in the first place. The kid is sitting in the first row! She's wearing a personalized RBK sweater. Chances are, that kid's parents are doing pretty well, and they can afford to buy a game-used Neidermayer stick if the kid really wants one. I'd have liked the kid whose parents can only afford nosebleed tickets to get a souvenier for once. But that kid is so far away from the players, there's no chance he'd bring home a casually-tossed stick or puck.

9. Refs who "meant" to blow the whistle. I've seen this happen twice this week and both times, the puck was in the net for at least a second before the whistle blew. It cost the Wings and last night, likely the leafs, points. And both times, the ref said he "meant" to blow the whistle. That's long been an acceptable reason to deny goals, but there has to be some sort of time limit here. The ref can't "mean" to blow the whistle for seconds at a time while the puck sits in the net. Especially these days, when the replay clearly shows a team is unfairly denied a goal. The league has to address this before some ref "means" to whistle down the Cup-winning goal.

8. Georges Laraque. At this point, nobody can convince me this man signed with the Canadiens last year with no knowledge that he's permanently injured. He was hurt with the Penguins the previous year, came to camp injured last year and again this season. Yet, he signed a three-year deal for exceptionally good money with the Habs, knowing very well he'd not be able to fulfill his part of the bargain. If Bob Gainey didn't have the opportunity or permission to have Laraque medically examined before signing, or if he took Laraque's word that he was in good shape, that's unfortunate. But at this point, I see Laraque as being in breach of contract in Montreal.

7. The leafs. For the first time in my life, I actually almost feel bad for leafs fans. I watched the Canes/leafs game last night, to get a handle on where the Habs actually rank among the worst teams in the league. Seems there are at least two worse than them, but only one of them had the face to raise ticket prices again this year. As a long-suffering Canadiens fan, I know the frustration that comes with losing, and the pure addiction that keeps me coming back for more. Shame on the leafs for taking advantage of their fans' loyalty and gouging them to see unfiltered crap on ice. I'm amazed they don't start throwing stuff.

6. Coaches' comments. Sometimes, the things coaches say are just not fair. Maybe it's meant to make players mad, so they rise up in protest at the injustice and play better. But, I think, more times it's that the coaches are thoughtless in their comments. I watched Ron Wilson last night, talking about how "some people who are busy feeling sorry for themselves" have to be better. That was unfair, because Wilson has to be better. He put a previously-benched Luke Schenn out there on an important PK, then benched him again when the 'Canes tied it up. That was stupid coaching, and it's not fair for him to call the players out without taking any blame himself. Another example: Jacques Martin saying Carey Price needed to improve his work ethic. That was unfair, when everyone, including Martin, had been mentioning earlier this season how Price was working his tail off in practice. To say someone needs to improve work ethic is to say he's lazy and unmotivated. Whatever else Price is, he's not that, and it was unfair of Martin to say he is.

5. No replay on injuries. This has long been an issue for me, but it came up again last night when I saw Kostopoulos get sticked by his own teammate to open a cut on his face. The leafs' Ian White got a four-minute minor for it, when a simple replay would have shown he wasn't at fault. I go back to Saku Koivu nearly losing an eye with no penalty call, and Andrei Kostitsyn nearly getting decapitated by Kurt Sauer last season, again with no call. When a player is bleeding or unconscious, the ref needs to be able to look at a replay to see what happened. There's obviously been a foul in those situations, and if the refs miss it, it should be reviewed. Otherwise the offending player is getting away with an infraction, and that's not fair.

4. Bad timing. I read earlier this week about an undrafted junior player, Ted Stephens of the Moncton Wildcats. He was invited to the Habs rookie camp, but because the team didn't file the paperwork with the NHL on time, he missed that opportunity. Now, I'm not saying Ted Stephens would have rocked the rookie camp and signed a contract with the Canadiens, but it's not fair that something as silly as a secretary's mistake might have cost him his only chance to ever try out for an NHL team. Even more unfair? I bet that sort of thing happens all the time, and those little things can make the difference to someone getting a chance or not.

3. Height restrictions. I'm already on the record as a supporter of David Desharnais. The unfair thing with him is that he hasn't already gotten a chance at the NHL because of his diminutive size. It's not fair that a small player has to be ten times better than everyone else to get a shot, even if he's got tons of talent, but at the same time there are dozens and dozens of ham-handed scrubs like Greg Stewart who get to play in the NHL because they have "big" on their side. Coaches and GMs make the argument that smaller players will get pushed around and won't be able to handle the physical stress of playing against huge, punishing NHL defencemen. The problem is, those players don't get a chance to prove the coaches wrong because nobody will trust a short guy.

2. Shootout points. It's time to end this nonsense practice of making some games worth three points in the standings. There are no ties anymore, so there's no longer a need for points at all. The NHL needs to go with wins and losses, like football, baseball and basketball do. The loser point skews the standings and puts some teams ahead of others because they manage to lose more often in extra time. That's ridiculous. Keep the shootout, if you must, NHL, but drop the pointless points.

And the number one unfair thing about hockey:

1. Tanking for glory. Watching the Blackhawks/Flames game last night, you could see the difference tanking makes. The Flames have been a steady, if not spectacular, team in the last several years, consistently choosing in the bottom third of the draft since lucking out in the post-lockout lottery and picking Phaneuf at number nine. Before 2004, however, they had a wretched 9-year streak of missing the playoffs...just not bad enough to land themselves a top-five draft pick. By not tanking, the Flames missed out on such spectacular difference-makers as Rick Nash, Ilya Kovulchuk, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester, Dany Heatley, Marion Gaborik, the Sedin brothers, Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Roberto Luongo. Imagine if they'd been just a little bit worse? What a team they'd have! The 'Hawks, on the other hand, were that bad. With three top-three picks in four seasons, they landed Toews, Kane and Cam Barker. Not a bad result for three or four rotten seasons. Watching them destroy Calgary last night made me realize how unfair it is that teams with bad management get the option of redeeming everything by being terrible for a few years, while teams whose managers try to improve and remain respectable, are doomed to wallow in mediocrity because they can't draft top players. There's a whiff of the unfair around Pittsburgh's stacked team of superstars and the Capitals, as well as the Blackhawks. I think the NHL should change the rules so every draft position in the first round is determined by lottery, which gives every team a fair chance at the star players. Failing that, the league should allow a team no more than two top-five picks in consecutive years, and only one number-one pick in five years. Why should Tampa be allowed to build another Cup winner on the backs of Stamkos, Hedman and whoever they'll pick this year, just because their owners and managers are the most incompetent in the league? Rewarding people for sucking at their jobs is the most unfair thing in hockey.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Take a Chance On Me

Last fall, the Hamilton Bulldogs held their training camp in St.John's, Newfoundland. I was there to do some interviews with the 'Dogs hopefuls, and while I was standing in the hallway outside the dressing room, a little guy carrying a couple of sticks and a blowtorch approached the tool-covered table beside me. He smiled and asked if I'd like to borrow the blowtorch. After assuring him my blowtorch needs were minimal, we struck up a conversation. He was a really upbeat and funny guy but when I asked him what he wanted from his first year as a Bulldog, he answered quietly, "I just want them to take a chance on me."

The kid was David Desharnais, bypassed in the NHL draft because of his height, (generously listed at 5'7") even though he put up 374 points in 262 games in the Q. After junior, he headed off to the Cincinnati Cyclones and proceeded to set a rookie scoring record in the ECHL, with 106 points in 68 games. The Habs invited him to training camp two seasons ago, and liked him well enough to sign him to a two-year, two-way deal. Last year, his AHL rookie season, Desharnais played 77 games and put up a respectable 58 points, good for fifth among the league's first-year players. He came into Montreal's camp again this fall and impressed again, flying on the ice and making some very nice passes. He also proved he's not afraid to go to the dirty parts of the rink with bigger players.

Unfortunately, the glut of small players at centre, and in scoring roles generally, with the Habs meant Desharnais didn't really have a great shot at making the big team out of camp. Even worse for him, he broke his foot in the Dogs' final preseason contest, missing the first month of the season. He's been back in the lineup for four games now, and has scored three times also addeding a pair of assists. Five points in four games might not sound like spectacular numbers, but they're more than solid. Here's what coach Guy Boucher had to say after Desharnais' first game back with the Bulldogs:

"Offensively (Desharnais) was our best player in that game," said Boucher. "He had a tremendous camp with Montreal and he just picked up where he left off. He's one of those guys who changes the pace of the game because he's extremely good at seeing open spaces and attacking them. He makes the game faster and then makes it slower. I thought I'd give him maybe five shifts in the game and I ended up double shifting him."

Now that the Habs' doctors have confirmed Brian Gionta is gone indefinitely with a broken foot, the team finds itself short one goal-scoring midget. I think this could be the chance for which David Desharnais has been waiting. He's a good skater, a natural point-producer and an all-around tough little bugger. Considering the facts that the Habs are desperate for an offensive spark and that Sergei Kostitsyn seems to be banished for the time being, there's really nobody else in Hamilton who fits the bill. Ben Maxwell, maybe, but he's a different sort of player than Desharnais. The little guy is the kind who plays with heart and fire and skill...reminds me a bit of Gionta, actually. And nobody in Hamilton will play harder for the Habs than the Quebecois kid who never expected to play in the big league but always dreamed about it anyway. Seriously: what have the Canadiens got to lose at this point?

After I said goodbye to Desharnais on that fall afternoon last year, I sat in the stands and watched him play a pre-season game. The 'Dogs lost, but they scored two goals. One was off a beautiful cross-ice pass by Desharnais. The other was scored by the little guy himself, as he drove to the net, was tripped, but continued to push the puck ahead of him, flipping it over the goalie as he slid into the crease. I've seen a lot of goals since then, but I can still picture that one clearly. And I can still see the glint in his eye when he proclaimed the only thing he wants is a chance.

I'd like to see him get it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

'Canes vs. Habs - Who Sucks Less Edition

Notes on the third, OT and SO:

-How is it that the wretched Hurricane's cross-ice passes always land with perfect accuracy on the intended recipient's stick while the Habs' are so often intercepted? Could it be the CH has become the worst team in the NHL?

-I think the video coach needs to be fired. He's obviously not looking at this year's tapes.

-It's not good when the goalie has the best first pass this side of the blue line.

-Nice to see Latendresse ended his nap in time to appear awake in this one. He had at least two of his patented wraparound attempts which work approximately 1.4% of the time.

-If there's a Carolina firesale anytime soon, I'd happily take LaRose. He's got more balls than a bingo tumbler.

-Another measure of suckage: A goalie who was waived last year and had no team until last week looks like Roy in the playoffs with a grudge against the Habs.

-I hope the DCPD is on high alert for Friday, because the Habs are going to be murdered in Washington.

-Chernobyl Boy has awakened! Nice play by AK for his glorious SECOND goal of the season.

-Speaking of whom, Andrei'd absolutely KILL goalies who were 7'4".

-Spacek is like that nursery rhyme about the little girl: When she was good, she was very, very good. When she was bad, she was horrid. Tonight? Horrid.

-Hamrlik played the shift of his Habs life in OT.

-Thank God Lapierre is an idiot savant in the shootout.

Notes on the second:

-'Canes are just blasting into the Habs zone as though the D are actually holograms. In MAB's case, I'm not sure that's inaccurate.

-Watching this game, all I can think about is whoever's got Ovechkin in their pools will be getting a LOT of points in the next week or so.

-Good thing the Sutter boys got rich at hockey and managed to buy...I mean attract...some decent-looking women. The kid isn't the gargoyle his dad and uncles are.

-On the first 'Canes goal, Gorges looked like a guy who suddenly notices he's naked in a crowd. He doesn't know if he should cover his ass or his junk, and the moment of indecisiveness completely exposes him.

-On the second 'Canes goal, Spacek was like the blind guy in the crowd who doesn't notice he's naked and walks right through the room while everybody points.

-Plekanec is like Raphael forced to join the road-painting crew with Bubba and Zeke.

-Well, the good thing about this is Gainey's biggest decision this summer will be Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin.

-Too bad hockey didn't end when the Habs were 99 years old.

-The only way you can tell the Habs are on a PP is because RDS has that little red Sup.Numerique bar under Montreal's name.

-Price is going to have to think about officially changing his first name to "The Beleaguered."

-This team reminds me of what you're supposed to tell your kid after he burns down your house by passing out drunk on the couch while waiting for his fries to cook: I don't hate you, but I hate your behaviour.

Notes on the first:

-If the Venus de Milo is looking for her stone hands, she should check Travis Moen's locker.

-When I was in high school, I took "environmental science." On the public exam was the question, "What is a lung?" The answer: "A lung is an organ that is affected by air pollution." This game is THAT kind of test. If you pass it, it's no big deal. If you fail it, your parents and the guidance counsellor admit you to rehab.

-Not to harp on the Gomez thing, but you really have to wish Gainey'd just waited to see how Plekanec would be playing this year before paying three times as much for a guy who doesn't put up as many points. Beautiful pass from Pleks to Pax. If the kid goes to the net, his improved play will pay off on that line.

-I think the problem with the D is they're literally afraid of the puck. Nobody has the confidence to just carry the damn thing out of the zone if necessary. They always look to pass and half the time get intercepted.

-Memo to Jacques the Knife: Please do not play MAB on the same shift as the Affirmative Action Twins. It's so much easier to just hand the puck over without pretending to fight it.

-Oh, and can someone tell the crowd chanting "GUI" at Latendresse as he puffs up-ice is as close to being sacreligious as crapping on the jersey? No wonder the Forum ghosts don't like the new place.

-When the 'Canes PK can clear the puck effortlessly, you know your powerplay is sucking harder than a hooker on commission.

-Looks like Pax got dumped hard just at the end there. Can't be good if he's already nursing an injury.

-Hmmm...not convincing. There was WAY too much Carolina pressure in that period.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Scotty G Has Got To Go!

I'll preface this by saying I don't believe Scott Gomez is a bad person. He's not a terrible hockey player either. On the contrary, he's an exceptionally good passer and has some nice speed through the neutral zone that allows him to carry the puck into the other team's end with great success. He's also pleasant to the media and patient with the fans, by most accounts. The biggest problem with Gomez is his price tag. His contract is killing the Habs.

If the Canadiens are going to improve as a team, they can't have Scott Gomez, making what he does, as the number-one centre. Many of us recognized that fact when Gainey traded for him last June. The guy had one career season in New Jersey and that morphed into the present ridiculous contract Glen Sather lavished upon him. Now that he's returned to his usual fifteen-goal seasons, the 7.357-million dollar cap hit he brings is too high for his on-ice contributions. With his eleven points in twenty games this year, he's being roundly out-performed by Tomas Plekanec, and even Glen Metropolit, at his own position. And that's with the best wingers on the team, a spot on the top PP unit and nearly 21 minutes of icetime a game. Gomez is a 4-million dollar a year player, at the most. If he were making that kind of money, Habs fans could have patience to wait for him to produce his usual 40+ assists. But since he's making the money he's worth, as well as that of another strong top-six forward, he's going to have to go.

The CBA ensures no contract can be renegotiated, so Gainey has four choices. He can try to trade Gomez, he can buy him out or he can waive him and hope someone claims him on re-entry waivers, or he can deep-six him and his contract down to Hamilton.

Option one: trade. If the rumours of last season had any credence, Gomez was on the block in New York for the better part of a year before Gainey bit on him. And the only reason Gainey did so was because he'd struck out on every other option he'd tried in his quest to attain a top centre. Unless another team with tons of cap space and in need of a .55 point-per-game smallish centre suddenly starts sniffing around Gomez' doghouse, I'd think a trade involving him (unless sweetened with a player with a small hit and of greater value to a team, like Gorges or Halak, or by the addition of draft picks which the team can't afford to give up) is extremely unlikely to happen.

Option two: buyout. This is economically not feasible for the Habs. There are four years remaining on Gomez' deal right now. The buyout rules say two-thirds of that salary counts against the Habs' cap, spread over double the remaining years on the contract. That means the Habs would be on the hook for 2.43 million bucks in each of the next eight years. With the cap projected to drop next year and no real clear picture of what will happen with it after that, that's way too much to pay for a player to NOT play for you.

Option three: waivers. Once again, finances come into play. If the Habs waive Gomez, it's unlikely any team would claim the salary without waiting for re-entry waivers. And if the Canadiens place Gomez on re-entry, he'd likely be claimed, but it would leave the Habs paying him 3.68-million dollars in each of the next four years while he's playing elsewhere. They can't afford to do that.

Option four: dumping Gomez to Hamilton for good. Since options two and three are completely financially impossible for the Canadiens, and if some kind of trade can't be arranged, this might be the only thing the Habs can do to rid themselves of Gomez. It's not something I can imagine Gainey doing, as it would be both an admission of a fairly massive mistake on his part, as well as a devastating blow to a proud, not unskilled player. Unfortunately, Gainey or whoever his successor will be, might have no choice. It would require the cooperation of the Molsons, who'd essentially be dumping nearly thirty million dollars on a minor-league player. That is, of course, unless Gomez refused to go to Hamilton and instead went to play in Europe, which is not an impossible hope.

But, looking at the other contracts to which the team is bound, and the players that will have to either be retained or replaced, there just isn't room for a luxury like Gomez. One of the Habs' biggest weaknesses with the current roster is a complete lack of secondary scoring. In order to address that, the team will have to retain Tomas Plekanec, who's playing himself into a raise. It will also have to acquire a couple of wingers to play with him, unless Andrei Kostitsyn finds his game. Gomez' removal from the roster would allow the GM to sign a decent centre to replace him as well as a supporting winger for Plekanec. If Kostitsyn doesn't wake up, he could be traded for another second-line winger. The only way any of this happens, however, is if Gomez' hit is removed from the team's cap. Keeping that salary while the cap goes down means Plekanec and possibly Metropolit and Mara, who've both been steady acquisitions, will be lost. That would make the team poorer in talent than it is now, and Gomez would continue to put up his fifteen goals while raking in the biggest payday in Habs history. Considering how craptacular the Habs look right now, it's hard to imagine what they'd be like with even less talent in the lineup.

There might be another way to bring in the pieces the Canadiens need to improve that I haven't thought about. But honestly, I don't see it. If Gainey's lucky enough to get rid of Laraque, the savings would only go towards raises for the goalies or Plekanec. The other big contracts: Cammalleri, Hamrlik and Gionta, are earning their money this year. Markov is worth more than he makes, AND will have to be extended during the Gomez contract period. Gomez makes the most and contributes the least of the highest-paid guys on the team, so it seems to me he's the logical choice to go if a salary dump is requried. It only remains to be seen whether management has the courage to do it for the good of the team.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Give 'Em A Break!

As the Habs' fortunes spiral ever lower this season, I think we're being a little too hard on the players. They're not gods. They're not even superheroes. The time has come for us to take a moment and think about the fact that these are just young men trying to earn a living like everybody else.

These guys play of the roughest pro sports on the the highest level. That means they have to spend an hour of their lives on the ice nearly every single day, six months of the year. Then they probably have to spend another hour in the gym to make sure their bodies remain in tip-top shape. That's two entire hours of physical exertion just about every single day. Add another hour for physical therapy if they've got an injury, and they're at risk of pushing lunch back. That's not healthy when you're talking about a job that requires regular sustenence in order to remain in peak condition. Adding to their burden are the obligatory team-mandated public appearances, which often interfere with their afternoon naps. There's also the serious risk of carpal tunnel syndrome and/or bordom from the repetitive signing of autographs.

So, considering the physical stress NHL players must endure, it's unconscionable that just because they didn't have their best night in Nashville they should lose their precious, necessary day off. How can Jacques Martin expect his players to perform when he's forcing them to practice on a day when they had planned to sleep in? Not to mention making them skate hard for a full eight minutes at the end of practice. Eight minutes! Is he trying to kill them? Thank heavens they got today off instead, or who knows what we could expect to see from them against Carolina. Nothing good, you can be sure.

Look at poor, young, exhausted Guillaume Latendresse as an example of how physically demanding an NHL job can be. The guy is so wrung out, he was probably secretly glad to be scratched from the Nashville game. Unfortunately for him, when Brian Gionta went down with an injury just before puck-drop, Latendresse had to be rooted up from his well-deserved sleep back at the hotel. To add insult to injury, he was then expected to suit up and play a full 7:54 of hockey while still groggy. Who can blame him if he didn't register in the boxscore? You wouldn't perform well either, if people expected you to interrupt your after-supper nap for a shift at work.

People point to the money the players make as justification for unrealistic expectations. But it's just money. It can't buy extra talent or energy. Think about it. Would you be able to perform better at your job if you made seven figures instead of five? Would you be more dedicated or feel like you needed to work harder to earn all that dirty old money? I mean, come on! That's the coach's job. He's the guy who's supposed to push the right buttons and motivate the players to want to earn the millions. If he can't do his job, we can't blame the players for sucking. It's not their fault nobody's prodding them to play better.

Then you have to look at the pressure they face. Careers are short in hockey. The players have to make sure they set themselves up for life in just a few years. It's unrealistic to expect a man, probably almost forty when he retires from hockey, to go out and get a soft job like regular people after he's been used to the hard life of pro sports.

So it's time we fans think a little bit about that hard life. The hours of training every week. The stress of first class travel. The buckets of dirty old money and the pressure that comes with it. And as we think about that, we should have a little more compassion for the players. We need to stop expecting them to perform at the top of their game when sometimes they don't even get the day off when they were promised they would. We have to remember they're constantly dealing with the near-harrassment of pretty women wanting to bed them and business people insisting on giving them free stuff. Then there's the embarrassment of having to answer some very personal questions posed by the voracious media every single day. Questions like why they keep losing and why they can't score goals or keep the puck out of their net. They just can't escape the scrutiny that comes with being an elite athlete, so we need to give them a break.

After all, we're the ones who'll lose out if we're not kinder to the players. If the fans' displeasure becomes too stressful, they might start dogging it during games. They'll tune out the coach and stop playing his system. Then they'll start quitting on the goalies during games and losing more than they win. And we wouldn't want that to happen.

The Gellin' Point

Okay, Habs fans, here we are. The quarter pole. The point we've all been waiting for before passing judgement on the latest bunch of recruits wearing our beloved CH; the moment when we're supposed to have a clue what kind of season these guys can deliver. It'll take twenty games, we said, for the team to gel after the summer's gutting. So, what do you think?

I admit that's a rhetorical question, for no true bleu (blanc et rouge) fan can be happy with the absolute suckage we're seeing on the ice right now. The team's record is 9-11, which is a call for emergency help if I've ever heard one. Right at the moment, we're looking at a decimated defence corps struggling to move the puck effectively. Of all the stats the NHL keeps, Habs are in the top five in only one: giveaways. Number one in the league is Roman Hamrlik. Scott Gomez is number two. Jaroslav Spacek is number four and Hal Gill has dropped to sixth place because he's only had a chance to give the puck away in fourteen games rather than the twenty the rest of them have had. Those stats might possibly be affected by whoever counts giveaways in the Bell Centre. Perhaps that person's perception of what constitutes a giveaway is somewhat more scrupulous than those of the giveaway-counters in other rinks. Maybe, but I don't think so, since takeaways (presumably giveaways by the other team) would also be high. The Habs have 190 giveaways and only 90 takeaways (good for ninth in the league.) We see it ourselves on the ice every game. The defence struggles under pressure and throws the puck out of trouble in any way possible...over the glass, the length of the ice or onto an opponent's stick. We might make some allowances for this, because of all the injuries on D. But if the team's defensive core is so crippled by the loss of the as-yet unproven Ryan O'Byrne and 6/7 man Hal Gill, it's much more handicapped than we think. Markov, of course, can never be replaced. But attempting to do so by signing Bergeron and claiming Leach isn't solving the problem.

The forwards are another horror story. Cammalleri makes the top ten in one NHL category: shots on goal, coming in in eighth place. It's no surprise he's leading the team in points. You can't score if you don't shoot, which is proven among the league leaders. The top point scorers in the NHL have similar shooting percentages to Cammalleri's, but they just take more shots. The Canadiens, on the other hand, don't shoot the puck. Alexander Ovechkin is the league leader, with 86 shots in 14 games, or an average of 6.1 shots per game. Compare that with Andrei Kostitsyn, supposedly one of the Habs' snipers, who has 38 shots in 20 games for an average of 1.9 shots per game. To make it worse, Ovechkin has a 16.3% shooting average, while Kostitsyn's is 2.6%. In other words, the only way he's going to put up points is to shoot much, much more often. Tomas Plekanec is doing fine points-wise, but could be doing better if he'd shoot more. He's only taking 2.4 shots a game. So is Scott Gomez. That's still better than Guillaume Latendresse's 1.25, Matt D'Agostini's 1.45 and Maxim Lapierre's 1.65. When the secondary scorers you're relying on to put points on the board don't shoot the puck, there's not going to be a lot of scoring happening. Then again, it's hard to shoot the puck when you're constantly giving it away.

The goalies struggled for many of the twenty games so far, no surprise considering the hard-pressed D. They, at least, seem to have found some consistency. Both of them have turned in some very strong performances in the last five games. Unfortunately, they've found their grooves just when the slow trickle of Habs goalscoring has dried up like a puddle in the Sahara.

The coaches are unimpressive, having failed either to get the team playing a discernable system or to adjust the system to the players' weaknesses.

So, at the quarter point of the season, we have to conclude this is really a pretty bad team. Andrei Markov's return will help the D, and it will lend the forwards a hand in moving the puck up ice better. But Markov won't be returning until another two quarters of the season have passed. At that point, there's only so much one man can do. And we still haven't seen the Canadiens play New Jersey, Philly, Detroit or most of the really strong teams in the league.

Last season, we were frustrated because the Habs so often declined to show up for games against weak opponents and ended up blowing points because of it. Then, they'd turn around and beat a good team like San Jose the next night, just to prove they could elevate their game when they tried. This year, the team tries its best most nights and still loses. When it doesn't show up at all, we get a butt-kicking like the one in Nashville last night.

I don't like what I'm seeing with this team, mostly because it doesn't end here. The same core of players, with the possible subtractions of Tomas Plekanec, Paul Mara and Glen Metropolit will be around for the foreseeable future. If that's not enough to put the fear of God in you as a Habs fan, you're a better fan than I am. Honestly? The thing I'm most dreading (aside from Boston landing the first-overall pick...thanks Burkie, you moron) is that Markov's return will give the team a late-season push up to ninth place. There'll be no playoffs, no players will be either traded or re-signed during the stretch drive and the draft pick will be another mid-tier third liner. I hope the Habs manage to pull it together somehow in the next twenty games, but if they don't...if they're going to miss the playoffs anyway...I hope they miss big and finally land themselves a solid top-five pick that will make a real difference. Other than that, Gainey's going to have to 'fess up to some mistakes and fix them if the mess we see on the ice now is going to improve at all in the next five years. I see only one way to do that...and I'll say more about that later.

So, are we gellin' yet?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Notes From the Yotes

Unfortunately, I had to go to bed before the best part of last night's Habs/Yotes matchup. But in the two periods I saw, I have come to some unalterable conclusions, including:

-Carey Price MUST wear a neck protector. I've always had a problem watching that long expanse of exposed throat sticking out of his sweater. Those too young to remember Clint Malarchuk's brush with death in the '80s, courtesy of a slashed corotid artery, might recall Richard Zednik's horrible encounter with Olli Jokinen's skate blade two years ago. I think all players should wear throat protection, but goalies especially. They're constantly exposed not only to flying pucks, but sticks and skates hacking and slashing at random during crease scrums. And nine times out of ten, the goalie is down at skate level while those scrums are taking place. If Price was wearing a throat protector last night, Paul Mara's stick wouldn't have dropped him like a cannon and the first Coyotes goal wouldn't have gone in. He should take the incident as a warning and realize it could have been a skate. He practices with the guard on, anyway, so it's not like he's completely unused to it.

-Bob Gainey MUST re-sign Tomas Plekanec in January, before he heads into free agency. The man is currently the first-line centre on the team, without any wingers. He's a no-quit worker with the wheels of an F-1 car and the hands of a brain surgeon. If he leaves via free agency without Gainey doing his damnedest to keep him, I will lose all faith in the GM.

-Tom Pyatt is surprisingly good. His acquisition is making the Gomez trade almost palatable.

-If Glen Metropolit doesn't win the team's unsung hero award, there is no justice. I love everything about the guy, from his gap-toothed, incredulous grin when he scores to his dogged work on the PK. He's got to be one of the best waiver pickups in Habs history. It's hard to believe he's as good as he's been when you remember the first shift he took as a Canadien last season. Remember? He gave the puck away and the Flyers immediately scored. Then he took a boneheaded penalty right after. Boy, was THAT game misleading! Too bad he's not five years younger.

-If Spacek is seriously hurt, the team's patchwork D will not be able to compete with most teams. It's going to be a very tough stretch if he's out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Naked Draft

Remember that story from your childhood? The one about the emperor? He believed the shifty tailor who claimed the clothes he'd made were so fine they were invisible to the naked eye, and he ended up parading around the city, starkers. The only one with the courage to point out the emperor had been shafted and was actually in the altogether was a naive little girl.

Unfortunately, I think I have to play the role of the little girl in the story of the Canadiens' recent draft history. After the atrocious legacy of first-rounders to the Habs' (dis)credit throughout the nineties, we've been cutting Trevor Timmins a lot of slack because he's actually picking guys who are able to play in the NHL. However, it may be time to finally admit the head scout isn't doing such a great job. His responsibility to the team is to pick players who make the it better, not just guys who can play in the NHL. And so far, not one player Trevor Timmins has picked has really made the Habs a better team.

Seriously, the most recent Habs draftee that's actually making an impact on the big team is Tomas Plekanec. He was picked in the third round in 2001. Eight years ago. Eight. That's a huge number of years in a league in which a team's window to win typically amounts to five years or less. Trevor Timmins has been drafting for the Habs since 2003. In that time he's picked guys like Andrei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, Kyle Chipchura, Ryan White, Matt D'Agostini, Greg Stewart, Ryan O'Byrne, Carey Price, Jaro Halak, Mathieu Carle and Max Pacioretty. Disregarding the players he might have picked instead of any of those guys (although Carter, Richards, Getzlaf, Parise, Lucic, Kopitar, Perron et al are enough to make you cry) the fact remains none of the Timmins draftees on the team right now are difference-makers. And that's what drafting is all about. In the end, the only thing that matters is that the player you pick helps your team win. Nobody cares at this point that Datsyuk was drafted in the seventy-ninth round of his draft. What matters is that he's helping his team win games.

The first rounders are particularly grievous. If we look at all the other teams in the East, we see at least one player drafted in the first round by most of those teams that have become important, if not franchise players. In the northeast, Ottawa has Spezza. Buffalo has Vanek and Stafford. Boston had Kessel, and has now turned him into TWO first rounders. Only the leafs' draft record is worse than the Habs', with no first rounders of their own choosing on the roster in important roles. The other teams in the East also have first-rounders who make a difference. Pittsburgh? Okay...let's not talk about them. Philly has Carter and Richards, Gagne, Giroux and Van Riemsdyk. Caps? Again, an embarrassment of riches. Atlanta has Kovalchuk and Little, Isles have Okposo and Tavares, Devils have Parise, Zajak and Brodeur, Florida has Olecz, Horton, Weiss and Frolik, Tampa has Stamkos and Hedman, Carolina has Staal and Ward and the Rangers have Staal and Del Zotto. So, every team in the East, bar the Habs and leafs has a first-round pick contributing significantly to its success.

Looking at the Habs' first rounders, it's too early to judge Leblanc from 2009. Their first rounder in 2008 went to Calgary for Tanguay. The 2007 picks were Pacioretty, who's struggling to score at the NHL level and McDonagh, who's now a Ranger. In 2006, the Habs picked David Fischer, who's in his fourth year of college hockey and still considered a "prospect." The year 2005 saw the selection of Carey Price at number five overall, which was a risky pick at the time and still hasn't been justified by the player's performance. (Don't think about Kopitar...don't think about Kopitar...) In 2004, the Habs picked Kyle Chipchura who's been fighting and failing to nail down a fourth-line role on the team for three years now. And Timmins' first draft year with the Habs, the 2003 Super Draft, brought us Andre Kostitsyn. He of the five points in 18 games. So, yes, the first round under Timmins has been less than stellar, to put it kindly.

I have another issue with Timmins' picks though, and that's their similarity. When the team picked Lapierre, it was picking a good defensive centre with heart and great leadership qualities. Fine. But then, Timmins went out and drafted Chipchura, Olivier Fortier, Ryan White and Mathieu Aubin. Description? All good defensive centres with great leadership qualities. So then Timmins picked defencemen to address the organization's deficiency in that department. He chose Ryan O'Byrne, a big guy with mobility, if not a lot of offence, who was headed to college. Then he picked Joe Stejkal, Fischer and Mcdonagh...all mobile guys with some size and not a lot of offence. To offset that, he picked an offensive D with a great shot and not stellar in his own end in Mark Streit. Then he picked Yannick Weber, Mathieu Carle and PK Subban who all fit the exact same bill. You can't fill a roster with those kinds of players without sacrificing something.

Timmins gets a lot of credit because of the sheer number of his picks who have made the NHL. But if you look at the number of his picks who actually make a significant contribution to the team, you begin to realize he's possibly overhyped. That's because for a team like Montreal, which has been middle-of-the-pack for more than a decade, drafting is vital. It's the only opportunity a team has to get really good players for free. If they can't draft well, they have to fill important roles on the team through trades or free agency. Trades are tough when you don't have assets you've drafted to send to your trading partner. Free agency costs money and eats cap space which keeps you from filling other holes on your roster. Drafting well gives you a leg up on the opposition because you can use your assets and money to ADD to the team you've built, rather than use them to build from scratch.

I guess we can ignore the fact that many of the successful picks on other teams have managed to make an impact at an early age, and accept that most of the Timmins picks are 25 or under. But at some point we're going to have to stop using youth as an excuse for lack of talent.

So, I have to say, right now...Trevor Timmins has no clothes. And neither do the Habs.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Great Debate

Sheldon Souray. David Booth. Matt D'Agostini. Darcy Tucker. Andreas Lilja. Robert Nilsson. Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Petr Sykora. Chris Drury. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. Kurt Sauer. Victor Hedman.

As NHL general managers meet in Toronto to discuss the head shot issue, that's the list of NHLers currently out of their team's lineup with concussions. Jonathan Toews would have been on the list as well, but he returned to play this week. Many others have had concussions of varying degrees of seriousness this season. Many others will have them before the year is out. And still others will have them and try to cover it up and keep playing, because they think the team needs them or because they're barely hanging on to an NHL job and they can't afford to take time off that might give a rival a chance at their spots.

I've accused the NHL before of turning a blind eye to the dramatically rising problem of head injury in the league. It's comfortable for the managers to leave things as they are, even though it's been proven that the after-effects of concussion can negatively impact a player's health for the rest of his life, and despite studies showing early-onset dementia and premature death in some athletes who've had repeated head injuries. So, it should be a good thing that the GMs are finally seriously discussing the issue.

Unfortunately, these men won't be able to really change anything. For one thing, they're too divided a group. As Rob Ray pointed out on TSN's Off the Record this evening, GMs will fight to protect the type of team they're building. A manager with a small, speedy team will be more interested in rule changes that reduce obstruction and rough play, while a guy who's building a big, tough, hard-hitting team will strive to protect his own interests. Any rule change that happens as the result of an agreement within that group will inevitably be a half-hearted compromise. They may say a player who hits another on his blind side will be penalized. Then they'll spend forever negotiating to determine what constitutes a blind side.

The problem is so deep-rooted in the game at this point that a meeting of GMs and a carefully-worded rule change won't fix it. Almost every player you hear discussing the issue mentions the word "respect." And that's the crux of it. If a player respects another, he'll not nail a guy who doesn't have the puck so hard he knocks him out. Or hit him from behind, or head him off while he's cutting around the net, or while his head is turned in the neutral zone. But when players are taught to hit and hit hard, preferably to hurt, from the first day they're allowed to body check in minor hockey, you can't put those kinds of brakes on him when he reaches the pro level.

Respect is something that comes from good parenting in childhood, solid friends, good coaches who emphasize sportsmanship and upstanding examples among the pros kids worship. Too few kids get those kinds of influences in their formative years in the game, and it shows when they treat their opponents like targets when they become professionals themselves. That's a grassroots problem, and not one a meeting of GMs can fix overnight.

Violence isn't a new thing in hockey. There have always been crazy-ass players who'll lose it and try to hurt someone. But the almost cavalier damage more and more players are inflicting on opponents is a relatively new development. Some blame the equipment that's like hitting a rock wall. Some say it's because the players are bigger and faster and have more power to hurt when flying at full speed in an enclosed space. Everyone brings up the respect issue.

Of those issues, equipment can be changed. Mark Messier is helping develop a new a helmet to help reduce the damage of impact on the brain. Other manufacturers are working on shoulder and elbow pads with padding on the outside, protecting the players from direct contact with the molded plastic underneath. Respect is going to be tougher. It's going to have to start with education for coaches and parents, and strict rules of conduct starting at the earliest levels of hockey with serious consequences for breaking them. The issue of increasing size and speed among player who play in rinks that are not increasing in size can't be fixed. It could have been, fifteen years ago when nearly NHL team built a new, state-of-the-art rink. But every one of them built around the traditional-sized ice surface and now can't change without great difficulty and expense.

So, in an effort to reduce impact on players' heads and make the game both cleaner and more exciting, I think the most effective solution would be to make the game four-on-four. You have to admit some of the most exciting hockey we've seen this year has been during coincidental minor penalties, and in OT. That's because the players have room to be creative and to move. They do not, on the other hand, have time to think about rushing across the ice to nail an opponent in the head. With more ice to cover, a player just can't take the chance of taking himself out of the play like that.

I know it would be a radical change to the game we know. But there is a precedent. In the early days of hockey, six skaters, including a rover, played on each side. As the skills and speed of the players increased, however, the rover had less and less to do. By 1923 every pro league had decided the extra skater just crowded the ice, and the rover position was eliminated. And other changes have come into the game in more recent years, like the institution of the two-referee system.

Four-on-four sounds like it's pushing things too far, but really, what would be lost? Not speed or skill. Certainly not dramatic goaltending or solid defence. Maybe a reduction in rosters would mean fewer jobs for the fringe players, but many of those tend to be goons or the guilty parties in dangerous hits in the first place. The NHL wants more goals. Four-on-four would provide that. It would open the ice up for the skilled players and let them really shine. It would also be easier for the refs to be more consistent, with fewer players to watch.

Anyway, that's my suggestion. I suspect it's at least an effective solution to the head shot problem as the GMs will come up with at their meetings. In the end, though, someone is going to have to do something to protect these guys from themselves, and it might have to be something radical.

In the meantime, while NHL general managers talk, the list of damaged brains in hockey grows longer.

On the Controversy

Does anyone else find it funny that, of all the problems with the Canadiens, ranging from a severe lack of second-line wingers, injuries to key defencemen and underachieving young players, so many people are focussing on the play of the goalies as a reason for the uninspiring sub-.500 record the team is currently sporting?

I like Jaro Halak. I like the fact that he's had to fight and scratch for every opportunity he's ever been given, and most of the time he justifies any faith shown in him. I also like Carey Price. He's a talented young guy who has every possibility of fulfilling his great promise. Neither of these young goalies is perfect, but neither are they terrible. Halak was great in the loss to Calgary last night. Price has stolen outright two of the team's measly eight wins. At this point, the goalies are the least of this team's worries.

That said, though, I think there's justification in giving Halak a little more playing time than he's used to having. As Ken Dryden wrote in "The Game," there are good "good team" goalies and there are good "bad team" goalies. He said, in essence, that a good "good team" goalie needs to be able to stop the pucks he's supposed to stop and be ready for that occasional moment when his team needs him to come up with a big save. A good "bad team" goalie can give up a bad goal, but then redeem himself with inspired play and improbable saves after that. Based on his definitions, I think Price is a good "good team" goalie. Halak is a good "bad team" goalie, and right now, the Habs are a bad team.

Price is a very good technical goalie, and is at his best when he's able to get set and predict the pattern of the play. Behind a good team defence, he's great. If his D is helping him out by keeping the shots to the outside, most of the time he'll stop them. It's when it gets scrambly, when the puck is in his feet and nobody can clear it that he's got problems. That's why, when the Habs score and the opponent responds by pushing back hard, when the defence starts to struggle, Price so often gives up the next goal fairly quickly. Halak on the other hand, is less technically perfect, but more reflexive. His more unorthodox style helps him in those crease battles, when he somehow manages to find a way to smother the puck or clear it out himself. When the defence is as unpredictable as the Canadiens' is right now, you need a good "bad team" goalie.

But even more important than individual style, Dryden says the most important skill a goalie needs is the ability to put mental hang-ups out of his head. Here's what he writes:

"Because the demands on a goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie, the biggest enemy is himself. Not a puck, not an opponent, not a quirk of size or style. Him. The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all are symptoms of his position, in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing. The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accepts them and puts them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots, his body quickly following. It is why Vachon was superb in Los Angeles and as a high-priced free agent messiah, poor in Detroit. It is why Dan Bouchard, Tretiak-sized, athletic, technically flawless, lurches annoyingly in and out of mediocrity."

We have to admit, no matter how much we're rooting for him or admire him, Carey Price has yet to discover the ability to control his neuroses. From the crying after losses to the Royesque salute in the final game last year, and on to the wall-punching and dropping the f-bomb on live TV after losses this season, the kid is not in great control of his own emotions. And, until he gets that part of his game together, he looks more like the inconsistent Bouchard than the steely-minded Dryden. Maybe it's because he's still so young and he cares so much about winning. Maybe it'll turn out to be a fatal flaw in his ability to fulfill his promise. Either way, right now, the Canadiens aren't helping him out much in learning to deal with the ups and downs that come with playing goal for a very middle-of-the road kind of team.

Playing Halak, who does seem to have a better handle on his own reactions, a little more often might help a bad team win a few more games. It would also relieve some of the organization-imposed pressure on Price to be the undisputed number-one guy. It would give Price a chance to deal with his emotions and learn how to keep them out of his game. And, I believe, if he can accomplish that, he can become a great goalie.

The point here is, the goalie on whom the team has pinned its greatest hopes isn't ready for the role. He, and the team, are fortunate to have a second good, young goalie on the team who can carry a good part of the netminding load and give his partner time and space to develop into the goalie we hope he can be. Halak is there to help the team win, but also to help support his partner, Price. In light of that point of view, I don't see a goaltending controversy in Montreal at all.

It's time to stop worrying about the goalies. I mean, come on! Look at the rest of the team and check out the problems. NOW you can worry.