Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fire Sale?

The sun is shining here today on a beautiful winter morning. The bright, sparkling day is in direct contrast with the Canadiens' current situation. Things are bad, folks. The Habs sit eighth today, but with three more games played than most of the teams around them. They're only ten up on the leafs, the worst team in the East. Andrei Kostitsyn is still weeks away from returning and now it looks like there's a good chance Mike Cammalleri's year is done. There goes the second line. We've got a coach who's putting Hal Gill out in four-on-four situations with a rookie callup and Marc-Andre Bergeron. And the schedule before the Olympics features games against Vancouver, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philly twice and Boston twice. While it may be possible the Canadiens can be over .500 in those seven games, it will be extremely difficult to do it with the injuries they have.

Of course, the old cliche says the games are played on the ice, not on paper, so anything's possible. But common sense says the Habs situation can't get much worse right now. With that in mind, the team's management must be thinking ahead to Wednesday, March 3; trade deadline day. It's just over a month away in real time, but only eight games away on the schedule because of the two-week Olympic break. For all intents and purposes, Bob Gainey has to decide before the Olympics whether he's going to buy, sell or stand pat by March 3. Brian Burke has already decided to sell the shop, moving six players out of town in two big trades today. If Gainey's going to follow suit, he's going to have to get on it while buyers are still looking for players.

The decision to buy would be a very impractical one for this team. It needs its draft picks to improve and it's aready stretched to the limit under the cap. Even if it somehow pulls through the latest devastating injury to Cammalleri and is still in a playoff spot by the break, it's hard to imagine a deadline acquisition that would be enough to make the Habs a contender this year. And it's contenders who buy at the deadline. That leaves the stay or sell options.

It's possible Gainey may decide to stay put. The team he built last summer didn't get much of a chance to prove anything this year, with the constant influx of injuries to key players. The top-six forwards, when they're healthy, are all talented and able to put points on the board. The size concerns are addressed with Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn. There's the hope an overhaul of the bottom-six forwards next season with cheaper, tougher players, might be reasonably done, and young defencemen like Subban and Weber might be able to take the places of likely departees Mara and Bergeron. Money can be found to extend Plekanec and the goalies. There's a reasonable argument to be made for giving the current squad a do-over next season. There's talent and heart there. It just needs some gritty support with a little offensive ability and a more active defence to be better.

The sell option is an intriguing one, though. Gainey has never been able to execute such a plan in the past because the team has always been right there on the bubble by the deadline, with as much chance of gaining a playoff spot as not. Gainey's a competitive guy and he's GM in a competitive city. If there's a chance for the playoffs, he's going to believe there's a chance for a Cup and he won't trade any of the team's key components away. This year is different. The injuries to top scorers like Kostitsyn and Cammalleri really hurt a team that already has difficulty racking up the goals. In the next seven games, the Canadiens have a very real possibility of falling completely off the bubble and down into the basement with the other sellers. In light of this possibility, Gainey has to have a yard-sale contingency plan.

Right now, he's got to be assessing the value of each player, both as a Canadien and as a commodity that can bring value to the Canadiens. Part of that process means identifying a core of players to which he will add draft picks and prospects. As I see it, the defensive core consists of Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Ryan O'Byrne. The "keeper" forwards include Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn, Brian Gionta, Benoit Pouliot and Travis Moen. Both goalies are keepers because they're young, talented and relatively cheap.

That leaves a lot of bargaining chips for Gainey to put in play during the Olympic break. On defence, a team like the Penguins which needs only a minor tweak or two, might be interested in a cannon like Bergeron's to give their moribund power play a boost. A young contender like the Caps could possibly use a veteran stay-at-home D like Roman Hamrlik to support their young guns on the blue line. There might not be a market for Paul Mara, but Jaroslav Spacek could be of value to some team with post-season hopes. Ditto for Hal Gill, who has his Cup-winning role with last year's Pens on his resume and might bring a pick or two in return for his ability on the PK. In all, there's a possibility Gainey could pick up a couple of prospects and three or four draft picks by jettisoning his defensive veterans.

Up front, if there's any way for Gainey to unload Scott Gomez' contract, he should do it. If not, then dumping a lot of blue-line salary will allow him to keep that contract as well as re-sign the free agents the team wants to keep. Glen Metropolit is for sale if he'll bring a decent prospect or a second-rounder. If anyone would take Georges Laraque for a seventh-round pick, it should be done. Max Lapierre, Matt D'Agostini and Sergei Kostitsyn are expendable, although I'd keep Kostitsyn unless there's a really attractive offer for him because there's a chance this year is an anomoly for him.

Tomas Plekanec is a special case. He must be either re-signed or traded in the next month, whether the Habs mean to stay put or be sellers. He's the Candiens' most valuable asset right now, and losing him for nothing will make the team consdierably poorer next year. Gainey has an idea about where the cap will be next season. He knows his ceiling on money and term for a deal with Plekanec. It's time to offer him the best deal the team can reasonably afford to make and let Plekanec take it or leave it. If he wants to stay in Montreal, he'll accept a fair contract. If he doesn't, he'll protest about wanting to feel out the market and we all know what that means. Plekanec could push a good team into the contending ranks, and teams will pay for that. He could bring a first-rounder and a player or good prospect to help ease the blow of losing him. If negotiations go badly after the season, it's still possible to trade him at the draft. But teams tend to overpay at deadline time when they're building for the playoffs much more than they do in the relatively clear-thinking summertime. It would kill me to see Plekanec go. He's my favourite player for any number of reasons, but if he's going anyway, the Habs need to get something for him.

The goalies, as I said, should both remain. They're too young to decide which one will be the better NHL player right now. As restricted free agents, the team has all the bargaining power with them. They should both get three-year deals for a total of no more than six million per season between them. If some team approaches Gainey with an irresistable offer for one or the other, though, it should be considered.

All of this is tough to swallow after the turmoil of the last couple of seasons, but it may be that the only way the team will get better is to take best advantage of a bad situation. If the team continues to fall in the standings it will be looking at a top-ten draft pick of its own and potentially a lottery pick. That's an opportunity for the team to acquire a star player for once. Add assets acquired in trades for current players and the turn around could be a quick one. Whatever it's going to be though, has to be determined in the next two weeks.

Bob Gainey has some very tough decisions to make. I hope he's already on the phone making a plan, just in case the Habs hit the Olympics heading downhill faster than Manuel Osborne-Paradis. Right now, it seems it'll be miraculous if they're not.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Habs vs. Sens - Ay Yi Yi Edition

Notes on the third:

-Didn't Sergei Kostitsyn used to score?

-The Habs problem is not size. It's willingness to go to the net. It's been the same problem for years and it's not getting any better. The thing is, we know they actually CAN do it, because they do whenever they're down a goal with a minute to go.

-Weber got beat on the Kovalev goal, but I thought he had a pretty solid game. So did O'Byrne. I think in two years, those two along with Markov, Gorges and Subban could be a decent mobile, young defence corps.

-Bob Cole: "Shot! Two shoots!" Just retire, Bob.

-I don't remember the last time I saw Cammalleri pass on the rush. Also on the mental missing list: the last time I saw the Habs get a rebound.

-If Cammalleri's gone, and it looks like he will be, you might as well look forward to baseball home openers. Hockey, for us, is done.

-I wonder if Gionta's house is painted goal-crease blue? He seems to like the colour.

-Andrei Markov is just offensively gifted. The opposition finds his gifts most offensive.

-Hal Gill cost the team this game. He and Martin. There's no way Plekanec should have been out there at the end for that faceoff. He'd already taken five in a row and he was gassed.

Notes on the second:

-When Gomez is just dumping the puck in on the rush, you can't expect much in the way of offence.

-Carbo on Halak: "All he does is go into the net and win games." I wish someone would ask him, "Well, Guy, why didn't you play him more last year?" Just to see what he'd say.

-At least the white shirts are getting on the puck first once in a while. I think they were last in every race in Florida.

-Gill gets stripped so often he should have a G-string and a pole. If the Habs are selling at the deadline, I hope Gainey red-tags that big pylon.

-When a team has had only five out of top six forwards in the lineup all year it's going to have trouble scoring. When it has no scoring at all from the bottom six, it's going to lost a lot of one-goal games.

-Pouliot was such a great acquisition. He's like a sapphire in a bag of marbles.

-Not a bad period. There's hope now. All the better to crush you with, my dear!

Notes on the first:

-It's Hockey's Tim Horton's Day in Canada!

-Hey, the Battle of the Ninth Rounders in net today!

-Jaro's pads are like springboards. His rebounds could do a triple somersault with a full twist before they hit the ice.

-I have a better chance of receiving a knighthood than the Habs do of receiving a pass on the fly.

-Carbo looks a little too smug when answering questions about what the Habs are doing wrong. How easily he forgets how much harder it was to answer them when he was in Martin's shoes.

-I don't understand how the Canadiens have the puck on their sticks in their own end, but just can't make it go from one player to another cleanly.

-Hal Gill is really good at being tall. Not so good at noticing where his man is in his own end.

-What a pair of crap calls on the O'Byrne hit. Neither player did anything wrong there. If the argument against banning head shots is that it will take hitting out of the game, that argument is already lost. A clean hit gets a penalty now half the time anyway.

-Well, Habs are only down by one. I'm honestly surprised.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Child's Guide to General Managing

You know what Bob Gainey's biggest problem is? He's too mature to be an NHL general manager. He believes in treating people with dignity. If a player wants out of Montreal, Gainey will do his best to send that player to a team well-suited for him, even when that player then whines about the way he was treated. If a player has a problem, Gainey will walk with him and talk it out. If a player is getting unfairly booed on home ice, Gainey will speak to the fans and ask them to show more patience. All in all, he's conducting himself with class at a job in which his every move is criticized and frequently found wanting. Still, he doesn't generally throw back any of the mud that spatters on him.

If you look at the other GMs around the league, you've got Burke who's hugely admired and respected even though he says things like "leafs fans will boo the Canadiens if Toronto ever gets the draft." Lombardi in LA is getting kudos for building a good young team, but he publicly criticizes one of the most respected university hockey programs in the US, claiming Michigan doesn't coach its players. Other GMs have no problem waiving players they committed to long-term as free agents after only a year or two. They dump veterans to the minors to get rid of their contracts. They spill the beans on confidential trade talks, they snap up players other teams try to demote, even when they say they won't, and they trade players to places where they've asked not to be sent. They send offer sheets to other team's good young players and screw up contract structures for everyone else. Gainey doesn't do those things.

So, if the Habs' GM is going to compete in today's NHL, he's going to have to get his hands dirty. Since few people have dirtier hands than a four-year-old, I think the best advice on how to make other people give you what you want comes from a little kid. Here are some pointers on how Gainey can be a better GM, the preschool way:

1. Identify your target. If a four-year-old wants an ice cream sundae, that kid will focus on that sundae until the end of the world, or until he gets it, whichever comes first. The singlemindedness of purpose is amazing to behold. You can try to distract him with a cookie instead, or change the subject by offering to play a game, or let him watch a cartoon in the hope he'll forget. The kid will happily go along with your distraction, then five seconds after it's over he'll say, "Can I have a sundae NOW?" In the end, you will probably end up in the Dairy Queen drive through. This is what Gainey needs to do. He has to focus on what exactly he wants, then not waver from that until he gets it. Instead of trying to find "a player" to fit a particular role, Gainey has to look at the specific player he thinks will solve a problem, then move pieces until he gets that player. So far, substitutes for what he really wants have not worked out that well.

2. Nag, nag, nag. When your four-year-old wants one more story at bedtime, she will first ask nicely, "One more?" If you say no, the kid will say, "Please? Pretty please?" If the answer is still no, the kid will wheedle and eventually cry. She might not get the story, but she will make it very tough to say no and she'll make you think twice about going through the routine next time. Sometimes it's just easier to say yes. Gainey could use this principle of pre-school negotiation as well. If he wants a player the other GM is reluctant to part with, the conversation can't end after an initial refusal. Gainey needs to bring that player's name up every chance he gets. If the guy goes into a slump, ask about him. If he's injured, ask again. If he's got a conflict with someone in the room or with the coach, ask again. If he's got young teammates who are in line for big contracts and there's a cap issue, ask again. I suspect sometimes a single trade proposal is refused and the GM moves on to another target. A four-year-old would never do that.

3. Choose your time of attack wisely. The preschooler will wait until you're lying on the couch half asleep before asking if he can put the cat in the bathtub. You mumble, "Sure," before you realize what's really going on. Then you have a big problem explaining why you said yes and now you're saying no. Gainey needs to do the same thing. If he wants Patrick Sharpe, he needs to take Scotty and Stan Bowman out for dinner in Montreal. Maybe walk by the old Forum and reminisce about the good old days. Then, when they're feeling warm and fuzzy, drop the proposal. It might not work, but it's better than a cold call and a cold "no." Deals are made in stranger ways.

4. Start big, but accept small. The four-year-old will ask for a picnic at the beach, but will accept a cookie in the sandbox as an appropriate aproximation of what he asked for. Sometimes it turns out that's all he wanted anyway. So, if Gainey wants Backes, he needs to ask for Brewer and Oshie, then work his way down. In the end, just Backes looks good compared to the original request.

5. Use your imagination. A little kid looks at a sweater hanging in the closet and sees a monster. She'll pick up a set of blocks and build a castle. Sometimes a GM needs to look beyond the obvious in targeting a player. A team might need a number-one centre, but there isn't one out there to fit the bill. So maybe there's a good winger who can play centre, or there's a stacked team with a third-line centre who has great potential but can't break out behind a couple of other good players at his position. Maybe some team has a prospect that's not working out, but a GM thinks might be better in his organization's system. There are ways to get what you want if you let yourself imagine.

6. If you don't get what you want, throw a tantrum. Even the most well-mannered, docile four-year-old will eventually crack if denied what he wants for long enough. Screaming and throwing things might not get him the thing he covets, but he'll be heard. Gainey is too quiet. He rarely ever uses the power he has as GM of one of the richest teams in the league to fight for his team's advantage.

Bob Gainey is a smart man. But sometimes he needs to connect with his inner four-year-old when it comes to getting what he wants. Staying mature and above it all isn't working that well for him, so maybe preschool persistence and dirty hands are the way to go.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The "Media" Issue

I am a hockey fan, and have been since I was eleven years old. I'm a hockey blogger because I love the sport, am passionately devoted to the Canadiens and need to vent about it in writing. By trade though, I'm a journalist.

It was as a journalist that I watched with disgusted dismay as a radio broadcaster in Montreal abused the trust of his listeners and planted a seed of rumour that blossomed into a weed of scandal. Yesterday, as you likely know by now, Tony Marinaro of The Team 990 informed his audience he'd been told by unnamed sources that Andrei Markov had confronted Carey Price in the dressing room following last Wednesday's loss to St.Louis. Marinaro, still without naming sources, even had a quote. "Play with heart or go home. We don't want you here," he claimed Markov said. He went on to describe how the incident has divided the Habs' room between Price and Markov supporters. The "match it or you're falling behind" mentality of many other media outlets, including RDS and TSN immediately jumped on it, running it as a news highlight, with Marinaro as the source.

Disgust is a mild word to describe my reaction to this sequence of events. When I was taught the fundamentals of journalism, there were four inviolable rules.

First, always name your sources unless there's a compelling reason not to do so, such as the source's personal safety or livelihood being at risk as a consequence of speaking to the media. In those cases, it's paramount that permission be granted by the editor or producer to run the story without naming the sources, and the person who grants that permission must know the identities of the sources and be satisfied they're credible.

Second, always balance the story. A reputable reporter should never go to press or air with a story before at least calling the subject of any accusations to get their side of things. The subject has the right to refuse comment, and if they do, the reporter is obliged to let the audience know an attempt was made to achieve journalistic balance.

Third, never take another publication's word for anything. Reporters are human and different outlets have different journalistic standards. Not everyone gets the story right or reports it ethically and repeating someone else's story without doing the legwork yourself means you're accepting the standards of another reporter as your own.

Fourth, and most importantly, determine whether the public has a right to know the information. Journalists are meant to serve the public by providing information that's in the people's best interest to know. That issue comes with many ethical questions, but fundamentally comes down to whether the information the journalist knows would improve the public's understanding of an issue that affects their lives, reveal a wrong committed or answer a question people are asking.

In the case of Marinaro, he failed to name sources which immediately reduced the credibility of the story. He also failed to balance it. He didn't ask Carey Price or Andrei Markov for their take on what happened, or if anything even did happen. Right away, Marinaro showed himself to be not much more than a rumour monger. What he's doing is certainly not journalism. The problem with this, of course, is two-fold. The media feeding-frenzy around the Canadiens requires many others to jump on the story for fear of being left behind and missing something juicy. And the people who listen to the program take what Marinaro says as truth because he's got the platform to spread his rumour on the radio.

It shocked me yesterday to read so many fan comments that focussed on whether Markov was right or wrong to call Price out after that game. Very, very few people asked the basic and essential question: How do we know this story is even true? Most people accepted what Marinaro said just because he said it on the radio. More shameful, however, was the acceptance of the story by supposedly reputable media outlets. TSN, at least, informed the audience that the Canadiens had refused comment on the issue, which indicated that the network had attempted to verify the story. But it still held a panel discussion about the possible state of the Habs' dressing room, based entirely on what Marinaro had to say. That's irresponsible at best.

Of greater concern though, is the complete disregard of cardinal rule number four. Nobody involved in this asked whether the public has a right to know this story. So, let's ask it here. Does the public have a right to know about a conversation between two hockey players behind closed doors? In other words, what purpose does broadcasting the details of that conversation serve? As far as I can see, the information doesn't improve public understanding of any issue. It doesn't reveal wrongdoing, and it doesn't address a question of public concern. Knowing Andrei Markov may have called out Carey Price does not improve the lives of hockey fans in any way. On the other hand, it pushes an already struggling team into the national spotlight for unpleasant reasons. It creates questions about the unity of the team and puts players on the spot. It helps make the kind of toxic environment players aren't sad to leave and few others are willing to join. When Tony Marinaro announced this story, he wasn't serving the public interest. He was serving his own. Since his broadcast, his name has been on the front page of TSN's website and discussed by its panelists. He's being quoted by all his rivals on radio. What fun for him!

This sort of bottom-feeding, malicious spreading of rumours isn't journalism, but is increasingly being mistaken for it. I read a comment online the other day, to the effect that newspapers and on-the-ground reporters will soon be replaced by internet fora. What a mistaken point of view. Without the on-the-ground journalists, we have no witnesses and we have no access. We are then captives of the Tony Marinaros of the world, who have little contact with the subjects about whom they gossip. If the Canadiens have news to report, honest journalists will report it. If they don't, rumour-mongers will make up stories to titillate their audiences.

The line between blogging and serious reporting is becoming increasingly blurry these days, and that's a big problem for journalists. When I blog, I'm not required to maintain the standards of journalism. I'm free to write opinions, rants or parodies and not have them be mistaken for actual news reports. When I'm reporting, I have much stricter guidelines and standards governing what I write. The problem is, with the sheer volume of material available to people online and on the airwaves, it tends to get dumped into a single mental repository and it gets tougher to distinguish between rumour and truth. That does a grave disservice to those reporters who *do* follow journalistic standards and actually make sure what they're reporting is the truth.

People like Marinaro, who broadcast things the public doesn't need to know, and do so without any sort of journalistic checks and balances make Montreal a hell for players. So, next time you wonder why free agents won't sign with the Canadiens or young players developed by the organization are relieved when they leave the team, look no further than your friendly neighbourhood gossips. The only way to stop them is to stop giving them credibility, and that means making yourself a responsible member of the audience. You need to examine whether the person giving you the information is following guidelines of good journalism. You have to ask questions like whether the reporter is telling you where he or she got the information they're passing on to you. Are there reputable sources named? You have to decide if there's balance in the story and whether both sides are presented. And you have to ask yourself whether the information you're hearing is something you really need to know. Who benefits from the story you're being told?

Once you determine which sources you respect and believe, the best thing you can do is ignore the ones who don't fit that description. A drop in their following can send the message that we don't appreciate their tactics and we don't like what they're doing to our team.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Aftermath: Down the Terlet

Last night's game reminded me of an episode of "All In the Family." Remember when the show would be getting a little bit too serious? There'd be an intense discussion about race or God or the war in Vietnam, and suddenly, someone would notice Archie wasn't in the room. "Where's Ah-chie," Edith would ask. And from up above, the perfectly-timed flush of the upstairs terlet would echo through the house, breaking the tension and cracking everyone up.

So last night I saw Carey Price left all by himself while a Tampa forward sneaked to the side of the net for an easy cross-crease tap-in, completely undetected by anyone on the Habs side. "Where's the defence?" I asked. FLUSH.

I saw the Habs struggle to score at even-strength. "Where's the power play?" I asked. FLUSH.

I saw Canadiens players walked around, intercepted, stripped on the boards and forechecked into the ice in their own end. "Where's the System?" I asked. FLUSH.

I saw the eleven Canadiens forwards dump the puck in and fail to retrieve it. They made huge cross-ice passes that never found their targets. They took bad-angle shots rather than pass to the open man. "Where's the big line?" I asked. FLUSH.

And down the terlet with the crap the Canadiens called a game last night went another little bit of hope that this team can put it together and be a playoff factor. We have to accept they won't. They are wasting their time and ours with this pointless wheel-spinning.

I'm the last person to say they don't care or they're not trying. I think these guys wouldn't be where they are if they didn't have tremendous determination and pride in what they do. They care. But, they look tired, frustrated, disheartened and, in the end, just not good enough.

We talked here before about whether the Habs should or should not tank for a top draft pick. I think most of us agree no professional team worth its salt would ever lose games on purpose. Bob Gainey would never give up to the point where he'd start playing less than the best players he's got available in the hope of losing more games. But I think the tank debate is over. The Canadiens don't have a choice in the matter. They are being completely outclassed by the other bubble teams they need to beat. That tells me there's something seriously wrong with this group. I suspect it has a lot to do with coaching, but since Jacques the Knife is on a four-year deal and the Habs are already paying Carbonneau to not coach them, we can expect him to be in the job until at least the end of next year when Carbo comes off the books.

When a team loses nine one-goal games in regulation, failing to even take advantage of the OT loser point, it's not going places. When it hasn't been more than two games above .500 all year, it's in trouble. When only Toronto, Edmonton and Carolina have more regulation losses, you're looking at a lottery team when everything shakes down.

After last weekend, I had hope this team was finally coming together and turning things around. Now I ask, "Where are THOSE Canadiens?" FLUSH.

Yup, it's just like an episode of "All In the Family." Except when the Habs flush the off-screen terlet just when things are getting tense, nobody's laughing.

Habs vs. Lighting - Meh Edition

Notes on the third:

-It's not a good sign when I'm just hoping Plekanec will score because I have him in my pool.

-Speaking of matter what, Pleks never stops trying. I hope he's still trying in Montreal next season.

-When's the last time Bergeron wired one into the back of the net? This is why Gainey picked him off the trash heap.

-This team sucks. Good night. I'm glad the next one is in the afternoon, so I don't have to waste another night at this.

Notes on the second:

-Habs fans are lucky Price and Halak are RFA this year and not UFA. Otherwise the debate wouldn't be about which one is better, but about which one management is begging to stay. At this rate, there'd be no reason for either of them to stick around.

-The Habs would be in this game if it wasn't for the stellar play of Nittymaaki. Hahahaha...sorry, couldn't keep it in.

-Good lord, Hedman is skinny.

-Not a bad bout by O'Byrne. It's good policy for loser teams to have a guy who can fight and give the fans a reason to buy tickets.

-I wonder why, when the Habs give it away it ends up in their net, but when the Lightning give it away, no harm done?

-Walkom called, Walkom called, broken gla-a-ass. (Only Annie Lennox fans will get that.)

-If the Canadiens have a beer, it's from a tankard. If they were to join the military, they would drive tanks. Their favourite movie is Tankenstein.

-Can we prorogue this game until after the Olympics? It'd be a lot more fun to pick it up again after we've watched some hard-working athletes win gold medals.

Notes on the first:

-I wanted the Gill and Gorges pairing, but I'm not sure it's the greatest. In theory, the big guy would help the smaller puck mover out. But Gill doesn't act like a big guy.

-I really hate how the TB arena PA guy has to tell the fans when it's a powerplay.

-The mysteries I'd like to solve include whether there's life after death, the true cure for cancer and the nature of the Habs' alleged "System."

-It's time for someone to draw a picture for the Habs that will explain to them more clearly than words will, that the net has a "front door" and a "back door" and if everyone is watching the front door, the guy without the puck is sneaking in the back for a pass. I mean, come on! It's Atom level stuff we're talking about here.

-And while we're drawing pictures, a map to the net would be helpful for the Habs shooters.

-Sucky period, and about to get suckier when the tired legs and lack of a defenceman start to sink in.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Aftermath: Asked and Answered

Yesterday I said the Florida game would be a definitive one for the Canadiens. Given the pressure to move up in the standings, the two days of rest, the injuries to the opponent and the momentum coming off their best two games of the season, all the variables were in place for the Habs to come out with a win. That meant the usual lame excuses for losing would not apply. That game was one the Canadiens had to win, for the playoffs but also for themselves. The question facing them was: "Can we not only make the playoffs, but prove to ourselves that we can compete in the post-season if we do make it?"

The answer came back with depressing surety: No.

Murray Wilson on CJAD put it best when he said the Habs were doing too much reaching in that game. That exactly described what I saw. Instead of skating for the puck, the Habs were stopping a stride or two short and just reaching out for it with their sticks. And, as anyone with even high school physics will tell you, when an object like a body is applying force against an object with less mass, like a stick, the heavier object is going to win that battle. That's what the Panthers did. They went into the corners and onto the boards leading with their bodies. The Habs lead with their sticks. The bodies won.

So, what does that tell us about the Habs' chances of making the playoffs? Not much. They're still in a dogfight with five or six other teams for a seventh or eighth seed. They might make it. That game, however, tells us something about the Habs' vision of themselves as a team. A good team, when it really needs to win a game, believes it will win. It comes out skating, hitting and competing. It might not win every time, but it gives a damn good showing in a loss. The Canadiens don't see themselves as a good team. Last night they were passive, slow and, most revealing, took fewer than twenty shots. In the NHL, if a team doesn't believe in itself, it has no chance.

I think the Canadiens have enough talent to be competitive. The defence isn't the best in the league, but with Andrei Markov bringing all-star skill, and veteran experience in Hamrlik and Spacek, it's not the worst. The goaltending is stellar. The special teams are excellent, and the top two lines can score when everyone's healthy. That's a better package than a lot of teams have. But no matter how talented a team is, it won't win when it matters if it doesn't believe it will.

Listening to the bewildered post-game comments from the players who couldn't explain why they failed to play better last night, that's the message I got. They say they didn't play with confidence, but what they mean is this is a team that doesn't believe in itself. If it doesn't have that vital winning mindset, its talent will only be enough to keep it at an average performance level.

So, this will be an average team, with average chances of making the playoffs, and an average showing if it does manage to make it into the top eight. Its GM will walk to the podium in Los Angeles this June and call the name of an average draft pick. It will be another average year for a franchise that has forgotten it used to believe in winning.

If the difference between winning and being average is believing, well, belief can be instilled. A captain or a coach can bring the passion of belief to a room and make it contagious. But the Habs have no captain, and can anyone picture Jacques Martin breathing the fire of life into this team? Me neither.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump's mother, average is as average does. The Canadiens do average really well. The disappointment for us is that we believe in them more than they do themselves. That answers a lot of our questions about the team this year.

Habs vs. Panthers - Gotta Have It Edition

Notes on the third:

-It was way more fun watching them win 6-0. I've noticed a strange absence of uncomfortable heart palpitations when that happens.

-The main problem with Moen on a scoring line is that he only has one move: the dump-in. That means his littler, skilled linemates have to retrieve it off the boards. That rarely works.

-It seems unfair that shootout goals don't count in a goaltenders stats but penalty shot goals do. What's the difference?

-So many Canadiens line changes look like rather than changing on the fly, they're changing on the stroll.

-Sergei Kostitsyn could be a world-class playmaker if he had some linemates who could finish.

-Not much a goalie can do when both of his defencemen are looking for the puck instead of moving guys out of the crease. In that case, the odds are pretty good the other guys will find the puck first.

-The Panthers win because, despite a lack of great skill, they don't take many nights off. The Habs do. That's why, in this statement game, we got an answer we didn't want to hear.

-I hate Florida.

Notes on the second:

-I just noticed "Clammier Camel Hail" is an anagram of Michael Cammalleri. I think there's a secret message in there somewhere. Tomas Plekanec can be made into "someplace tank." We won't go there.

-Gomez is so much better with the puck in a crowd than he is alone. It's as though, faced with a rush of options, his brain explodes.

-So, Hamrlik gets cut on a high stick with no call. Four-minute PP denied. THIS is why there needs to be replay on incidents that cause injury.

-Bergeron doesn't fight hard enough for the puck. Twice I saw him let up instead of really going for it on footraces.

-Maxwell is showing some promise on the Pleks line, although he still reminds me of a newborn foal, all gangly and wide-eyed.

-I'm convinced there's something wrong with Markov. He's just not playing like he can.

-If anybody in the NHL can teach Sergei Kostitsyn what it means to carry a lunch pail to work every day, it's Metropolit.

-That was some beautiful hand-eye coordination by Plekanec. Sign him, Bob!

-I think I'll be chewing my nails down to the bone before this is over.

Notes on the first:

-Walkom back from the head office to the ice is happening because the NHL is desperate for quality refs.

-In Spacek's offical Habs' photo he looks like a demented refugee from Oktoberfest. Bring on the bratwurst!

-I love Moen as much as anybody, but he's like a pickup in a porche showroom on that line.

-Seriously, with all the stylish people in Montreal, can't someone dress Jacques the Knife? He looks like the garbageman bought a suit for his daughter's wedding.

-Spacek would have been great on a firing squad. He shoots for the head every time.

-Gill is to the puck what a wood chipper was to that guy in "Fargo."

-Awful way to end the period, with a penalty with under a second to go.

-I hope that was just a slow start after some unaccustomed time in the sun. Our guys are going to have to step it up if they want the desperately need W tonight.

The Season In a Game

I think tonight's game is going to tell us an awful lot about the hopes of this year's Montreal Canadiens. A lot has happened since this time last year. The lineup has been gutted, the Halak vs. Price debate has heated up, injuries have ravaged the players and controversy has surrounded the departures of Guillaume Latendresse and Georges Laraque. The demotion of Sergei Kostitsyn early in the year and the lack of a team captain have had tongues wagging around the league. The team has been surrounded by questions that only time could answer. Through it all, the Canadiens have managed (with a little help from the wretched Eastern Conference) to stay within reach of a playoff position.

This is it though. If a team gets a half-dozen cockups or do-overs during the course of a long season, the Canadiens have used up theirs. If they blow another chance to move this season ahead, they will have a very, very difficult time finishing top-eight this year.

They can't have it any better right now. The goaltending is hot, the special teams are good, the additions of Pouliot, Darche and O'Byrne to the lineup have improved even-strength play. The teams racing with them for the final couple of playoff spots have obligingly lost important games in hand this week.

Tonight, the Habs play Florida, which has just lost leading scorer Nathan Horton and should be...must be...a beatable team. The stage is set for what will become, when we look back, a game that could turn the season for good or for ill. If the Canadiens win, they keep the pressure on the teams around them and rack up valuable points. They knock the Panthers, one of their immediate competitors for a playoff spot, down a place. They extend their winning streak to three games and put themselves three games above .500 for the first time all year.

If they lose, they blow the temporary advantage they've got with all the teams around them failing to advance in the standings this week. They stay mired in mediocrity and remain uncertain about which team they really are: the one that got stomped 6-2 by the Rangers or the one that came back and pounded the Rangers 6-0.

That's the most important thing about this game tonight. It will tell the Habs what kind of team they are. Good teams beat the teams they should beat most of the time, but always when it really matters. Coming off two huge victories against the Rangers and Devils, there's a bit of momentum happening for the Canadiens. A win tonight validates that fledgling belief that maybe this team can play really well. It says, "we're moving ahead and we've learned from the mistakes we've made." A win keeps the momentum going and gives the team the feeling it's not just trying to stay alive, but that it's actually building toward something.

Not to be too dramatic about it, but I think this game is one of those subtle "message" games in which the team needs to find an answer to a question it's asking itself. The question is: "Are we good enough to not just get into the playoffs, but to play convincingly well to win once we're in?"

They, and we, will know the answer before the day is out.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Paging Dr.Boucher

Guy Boucher doesn't see himself as a hockey coach as much as he does a teacher. He thinks his role as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs is to help young players learn to be better while teaching them how to win at the same time. Turns out, it's not just the young guys who think Boucher knows his stuff.

After last night's game, I listened to Mathieu Darche talk about Boucher and I was so impressed with what he had to say, I can't wait for Boucher to be the Canadiens coach some day. When asked how the Hamilton system compares with Montreal's, Darche said the two are completely different. He describes how Boucher emphasizes hard work from every player above Xs and Os.

"It's very new-age and I think it works. It's five men everywhere. It's not one or two guys here and there," says Darche.

Darche has a history with Boucher. Back in the days when the coach was a player, Boucher came down with a bizarre virus that blurred his vision, weakened his right side and gave him vertigo. Boucher says he went from thinking about nothing but hockey to wondering whether he'd even live. During the five years it took him to recover fully, it became clear he wouldn't play hockey again. Boucher thought about what he wanted to do in life, and he decided he wanted to teach other guys to be better hockey players. He joined the McGill Redmen as an assistant coach, and that's where he first crossed paths with Darche.

"He was there my sophomore year (in 1997) and I went from zero goals to 21 goals in 26 games," said Darche. "Guy was one of the big reasons why. He would stay after practice and work on my shot."

Darche isn't the only guy singing Boucher's praises. Philippe Lefebvre, who played for Boucher with the junior Drummondville Voltigeurs says Boucher helped him improve enough to land a rookie-camp invite from the Habs.

“Guy is the best coach I’ve ever had," says Lefebvre. "On one hand, he brings that psychology that can really help motivate you to be your best. He’s also a great strategist; he’s got a great system, which is sometimes a little complex, but it works,”

Sidney Crosby, who had Boucher as an assistant coach in Rimouski, loves him. (Boucher returns the feeling, using Crosby video to underline the importance of going to the net for goals to his current troops.) Ryan White and Tom Pyatt both gave props to the Bulldogs coach for preparing them for what they'd face in Montreal. Mathieu Carle said he'd learned more in a month under Boucher than he had in two previous years in Hamilton. PK Subban is having an outstanding rookie campaign with the 'Dogs, crediting the coach and his assistants for a lot of it. One of those assistants, Daniel Lacroix, says Boucher's secret to success is that he treats the players like people, not like parts of a machine.

“His philosophy is pretty clear, that we have to coach to get to know the players first,” says Lacroix. “As a philosophy from a head coach, not only does he say it, but he lives it on a day-to-day basis.”

Boucher confirms that approach. He says it's important to see each player as an individual and develop a relationship with him on a personal level. He believes a player will only respect and listen to a coach if he feels the coach is doing the same for him. At the same time, he rewards hard work above anything else. He insists players never take the easy way out and lets them know it if they try to do that.

So far, nobody can deny the success of Boucher's methods. The coach has a master's degree in sports psychology, as well as undergrad degrees in history, which he says teaches lessons about learning from the past, and engineering, which he thinks gives him an adavantage in analysing players' on-ice performances.

“All the movements that hockey players do — the torques that they do with shooting and their transfer of weight — basically, they are vectors,” Boucher said. “It has really helped me segment and break down movements of players.”

It all translates into a winning record that has pundits and analysts calling Boucher a coaching phenom. Last season he took Drummondville to first place and a Memorial Cup berth, with a remarkable 400% improvement in the team's record over the previous year. This year, he's got the Bulldogs, not the AHL's most talented team, sitting in first place in their conference and second in the league.

Boucher is getting lots of credit for saving Sergei Kostitsyn. He turned what looked to be a sure ticket out of Montreal into a renewed start for the kid, complete with improved attitude and better work habits. Now the coach will have to save Max Pacioretty.

Pacioretty is raw potential in a big frame. He can skate well, he's not afraid to be hit and he's willing to do what he's told. He just needs someone who can guide him and show him how to put his skills to their best use. He needs to be taught. That wasn't happening for him in Montreal.

After a promising start to the year, Pacioretty has looked more lost every month. He seems unsure about his role and where he should be on the ice. Red Berenson, his college coach at Michigan, said he wasn't sure Pacioretty was ready for professional hockey when he left school early last year. Berenson, another great teaching coach, knows what he's talking about. Pacioretty has the potential to be a really good NHL player and redeem the Habs' dismal first-round drafting record somewhat. But he needs someone to teach him how.

Lucky for him, and for the Habs, he couldn't have a better teacher than Guy Boucher. If the Habs win a Cup in the next decade, I think this guy could be behind the bench for it. And hopefully, Max Pacioretty will be one of the key contributors if that glorious day ever comes. With Boucher helping him, at least he's got a chance, which is something a lot of Habs prospects haven't had. Until now.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rangers vs. Habs - Jockeying For Position Edition

Notes on the third:

-I wish this game could have lasted all night!

-Rangers should have started Zaba. He was good in that period.

-When Andrei Kostitsyn gets back, this team is going to have some serious offence on the first two lines.

-Boy, can Tortorella ever give a death stare?!

-PING! Halak has a very good relationship with his posts.

-Nice to see the Rangers goon show end in a 5-on-3. And Plekanec has the sweetest backhand I've seen in a very long time.

-Well, I guess O'Byrne answered the "Who's going to fight with Laraque gone?" question. Voros got Rhino Burn. The big guy played a really solid game all around.

-Cammalleri's little row with Lapierre seemed to have inspired both of them. This game was like make-up sex.

-I wonder if Gainey smiled?

Notes on the second:

-Wow...the Habs lead the league in four-on-four goals. Too bad that pesky five-on-five thing gets in the way so much.

-Gill's a great passer if he doesn't have to cover a distance of greater than his own height.

-I love how Cammalleri holsters his stick after a goal. The only difference between him and an Old West gunfighter is he doesn't blow the smoke off it first.

-Lapierre is playing his best game of the year. He looks like he's really happy to have Darche on his line. Or anyone other than Laraque.

-Cammalleri is the Lundqvist Killer. What is it now? Six goals in three games? I think that should be classified as regicide against the King.

-Pouliot has a very scary habit of passing the puck backwards into his own zone. Fortunately, the goals he scores more than make up for it.

-The crowd is so elated, even the booing of Higgins and Avery is half-hearted.

-Jaro's forays out of the net are more adventurous than Columbus' on the high seas.

-A five-goal lead makes me nervous ever since the big Comeback game two years ago. Not that we've seen many five-goal leads, but still.

Notes on the first:

-Jacques Martin has the ugliest collection of insurance-salesman ties in the league.

-It's the little things that make hockey entertaining. The linesman handed Avery's helmet to him in the penalty box, then discreetly wiped his hand on his pants.

-The Habs passing is more disgraceful than Lady Godiva's afternoon ride through Coventry.

-Spacek finally gets a puck on the net and it turns into a goal. I'd love to see that happen a little more often.

-Metropolit can really handle the puck. I bet he plays a mean yo-yo too.

-Gill and O'Byrne bring to mind the good old days when the Habs' D was known as "The Trees." That's a tall pair there.

-Poor Halak. He looks like the guy in the pie-throwing booth at the country fair. He's standing in there gamely, but he knows he's getting a face full of coconut creme before too much longer.

-Overall, a pretty solid period. I hope the wheels don't fall off in the second like they did last time these two teams met.

All Is Not Lost

Things are pretty grim in Habsland these days. A playoff berth is looking as hard to secure as a spot on the next shuttle to the International Space Station, with the win-one, lose-one ride the team's been on all year. Last night was one of only two great games the Canadiens have played all year, the other being the Centennial game against the Bruins. They played hard, they skated, they were disciplined, they buried their chances and got the timely goaltending they needed in their own end. It's enough to make a Habs fan hope. So, this is a good time to look at the positives in the middle of this turbulent season. For those of you who've forgotten to smile while watching the Habs, here are ten things to make you remember how:

10. The Bulldogs. If you can't stand watching the Debacle On Ice that is the big team on a lot of nights, catch the 'Dogs online or at Copps. Now, THIS is a fun team to watch. They're not the most talented team in the AHL, but Guy Boucher has them playing solid, tight hockey. It's entertaining to watch them right now, but it's also good that players in Hamilton are learning how to win in a winning culture, so any of them who ever do play in Montreal will bring good attitudes and habits with them. And it's excellent to see Boucher working out his apprenticeship successfully, because I think he'll end up being a very good NHL coach someday soon, hopefully in Montreal.

9. Tomas Plekanec. The rebound year continues for Pleks. The big question facing him after his hot start was whether he'd be able to maintain the PPG pace through the dog days of the season. After his brief slump following Andrei Kostitsyn's injury, he's recovered and is again putting up the points, killing penalties and working like a Trojan on every shift. He's fun to watch, is perfectly capable of centering one of the top lines for the next five or six years, and Gainey wants to keep him.

8. Special teams. The powerplay is second overall in the league, and the penalty kill is seventh. There aren't many things the Habs don't have to improve, but special teams are among the bright spots.

7. Jean Beliveau. Seeing Le Gros Bill sitting there behind the Canadiens' bench every night gives me a reason to smile. Knowing he's recovering well from his stroke and will soon be back on his feet is uplifting to the fans. Hopefully it'll boost the team too.

6. The top six. When, or if, everyone in that group is healthy, those are two dangerous scoring lines. Gionta and Cammalleri might be small, but Andrei Kostitsyn and Pouliot are not, and they make a huge difference. If Plekanec can be retained, that top six going into next season can do some damage. We just haven't seen it so far because of the injuries to one or more of them all the time. With any luck, they'll stay healthier next year.

5. Andrei Markov. Even playing less than his best, Markov is such a good player. His offensive skills are a joy to watch. And his recovery from that injury should have every Habs fan breathing a sigh of relief. It could have turned out much worse, if that cut had permanently damaged his ability to skate.

4. Goaltending. Debate about who should start on any given night aside, the Habs are blessed at this position. They have three good young goalies in Price, Halak and Desjardins down in Hamilton. If Price struggles, Halak can pick up the slack. If Halak drops the ball, Price can step in. If anyone gets hurt, Desjardins gets a shot. It's a great, great problem to have. Since both NHL goalies are RFA this summer and the trade market for netminders very weak generally, it's conceivable they both can be retained. This would be a good thing.

3. PK Subban. The Habs have a lot of hardworking prospects like Ryan White and Tom Pyatt. They don't have many with star power, but Subban is definitely at the top of the list. He's having a fantastic rookie season in Hamilton, including locking down the win for his side in the AHL All-Star Game. His offensive numbers look good, he's near the top of the league in plus/minus and he oozes enthusiasm and good will. The best part is the team is doing the right thing by letting him learn the pro game with a good minor league coach before bringing him to Montreal.

2. The Eastern Conference. If the Habs were going to have a desperately inconsistent season, this was the year to do it. Ordinarily, they'd be so far out of a playoff spot with this record that they'd be booking tee times already. But this season there are enough teams having similar seasons to give the Habs a chance to make it, even at this late date. The clock is ticking, but the alarm hasn't gone off yet.

And, the number one thing we can smile about during these uncertain days in Habdom:

1. Benoit Pouliot. I love this trade. Guillaume Latendresse is making the fans in Minnesota happy. Good for him. He was never, ever going to do what he's doing there in Montreal. For all his whining to the contrary, he had chances and couldn't put it together consistently. His failure to do so left a gaping hole on the top lines in Montreal. Pouliot fills that hole beautifully. He's got the size, speed and skills to really be a factor every night, and he's successfully doing that for his new team. It's so rare to take a reclamation project like that and see it work out beyond everyone's biggest hopes, so if Pouliot can keep it up, this will be a huge success for Bob Gainey. And the guy is only 23, so we can expect him to be an important factor in whatever rebuild the team will have to go through in the next couple of yers. Of course, consistency is still a question for him, but if he finds it, he'll be a building block for the future.

So there you go. Some people think the atmosphere around the blog has been a little too heavy on the doom and gloom lately, so now you have ten reasons to smile at your Canadiens. At least for today.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Habs vs. Devils - What's the Point Edition

Notes on the third:

-The two-ref system puts too many guys on the boards in the way of the puck. Another thing to hate about it.

-D'Agostini can't do much on the ice these days, so he's kindly offered to fill the role of team punching bag in the absence of a goon.

-If Darche never plays another NHL game, he'll remember this one.

-The defence can't complete a pass to save their collective lives, but it didn't come back to haunt them tonight.

-Let this put to rest the argument that Halak can't win against top teams. He was great.

-Boy, did Gionta ever want that empty net at the end?!

-Good game. Now, Habs, either play thirty more of them, or go home.

Notes on the second:

-Anyone think Pouliot wants to stick it to Lemaire, just a bit?

-Halak handles the puck like Edward Scissorhands handles origami.

-Lapierre seems to have a better game every time they deep-six another French guy from the roster. The footsteps he's hearing are getting louder.

-The Gill/Mara pairing is in the grand Habs tradition of Souray/Rivet and Dandouillon. Scary crap on ice.

-Wow. Who knew Darche could tip better than Bill Gates? Oops, never mind. On replay that looks like Gionta's goal.

-The power play looked as organized as the space under a three-year-old's bed.

-It's a miracle to me that more open guys at the backdoor in the Habs crease don't score.

-If things go according to history, the Devils will tie this up pretty soon. I hope Jaro is ready for an onslaught.

Notes on the first:

-Martin looks like he buys his suits at mafia estate sales.

-Any Habs-based drinking game should have a "Mara falls on his ass" component.

-Okay, when the Devils have ONE major scoring threat, how hard is it to keep someone on him so he doesn't have a freaking BREAKAWAY every single time they meet?

-Why does it take the Devils PA guy ten minutes to announce a goal? Did they have to wake him?

-Watching Pleks look to his right for his linemate on the rush, see that it's Moen and then give up on the pass and take the shot himself is more painful than shaving with a brick.

-You know what the Habs do wrong? They start every rush standing still. The defencemen take the puck behind the net and wait until everyone has stopped skating, then they try to take it out while the opposing forecheckers set themselves up in the passing lanes.

-Gomez could put a puck through the eye of a needle, and Pouliot can shoot it before the goalie knows he's got it.

-There are signs of life here, but the Habs are so very fragile.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hope For A Great Man

Back in the seventeenth century, English poet John Donne wrote: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main..."

Those words of humility and community are true for all of us, but they do not apply to Jean Beliveau. He is an exception because he is not a piece of the Canadiens or a part of the main. He is the main. Jean Beliveau is the Canadiens. Of course, he would be the first person to quietly deny that statement, but that's what he does. We, who see him without the filter of self-effacement, can say otherwise.

Without him, the Canadiens no longer rise above the anchors of, selfishness, failure...that drag them from the exalted heights of the past into the bland ordinariness of the present. Jean Beliveau, sitting in his place behind the team, literally and symbolically, reminds us the Canadiens have something no other team does. He makes us believe they have a history and a tradition that bring a little magic to a time that has very little magic of its own. He makes the team important and lends it a gravity today's circus threatens to strip from it. As long as he's there, he is the "class" people refer to when they talk about the Canadiens. He is the history and the dignity and the pride.

There are other players who helped make the Canadiens great, of course. But Jean Beliveau made the team a legend. Now, as he lies in a Montreal hospital suffering the after-effects of a stroke, we hope for his return to health. We pray, if we pray. He's already done so much for the team we love, but we're selfish. We can't let him go. We need him and so do the Canadiens. If there was ever a worthy reason for the current incarnation of the Team Jean Built to rally, this is it.

Donne said no man is an island, but he didn't know Jean Beliveau.

Buh Bye, Laraque

I'm glad Georges Laraque isn't a Canadien anymore. I never wanted him to be a Canadien in the first place, so when I heard the news the team plans to buy him out, my first thought was one of relief. That was quickly followed by frustration as I realized Gainey has had to give up precious cap space to get rid of Laraque; a move necessitated by the no-movement clause in Laraque's contract.

Now, I'm just mad. Laraque is bitching to the media about how the move is "classless" because of all the emotional stuff he's dealing with involving his personal ties to Haiti. He told TSN that Jacques Martin doesn't like him and doesn't like toughness.

First of all, people get fired every day when they don't perform at the jobs for which they've been hired. Laraque was hired to fight. He can talk all he wants to about how he's more than just a goon and how he wants to be known for his hockey skills. The truth is, if he had any hockey skills, he left them behind in Edmonton in the days before chronic injury made him more of a liability than an asset. When Bob Gainey signed that man to a three-year deal, it was because the Habs needed a tough-assed mother who would put the fear of God into opponents and let the skilled guys do their thing. Laraque refused to live up to his end of the bargain. Other Habs players constantly fought their own battles, even with Laraque in the lineup. Even when he did fight, it was only ever a staged bought with another team's "heavyweight." I also think Laraque misrepresented himself when he came to Montreal. He's been injured constantly since his arrival, and that didn't happen in the summer between his leaving Pittsburgh and signing in Montreal. He had chronic back and groin injuries and knew it when he signed. Those two facts are grounds for firing in any job.

Jacques Martin doesn't like toughness? I ask, how would Georges Laraque know? Laraque rarely fights and when he has recently, he's lost. Opponents aren't afraid of him anymore for his fighting skills. As for other kinds of toughness, he's never the guy who lays the big hit because he's too slow to keep up and he's not the gritty grinding type because he doesn't have any puck-handling skills. I'd say Georges Laraque is the last guy in hockey who should talk about toughness because the sort of pseudo-goonery he engages in, without any other discernible sandpaper to back it up, is the opposite of tough. Tough is hard to play against. Georges Laraque is a picnic in the park for the opposition.

As for playing the Haiti card, I think *that's* classless. After the Canadiens raised a hundred and sixty thousand dollars for the cause, Laraque's job was to say "thank you." Throwing his emotional state into this to make Gainey look bad is ridiculous. We all have personal issues to deal with. If you've had a death in your family recently or your house burned down or your child is sick, you have to deal with those things as well as do your job. If you don't, you risk getting fired. That's life. It's not fun or fair, but everyone else has to deal with performing at work AND handling personal issues. Why does Georges Laraque think he's above all that? I think it's pretty fair of the Canadiens to pay him his salary while releasing him to go do the work he obviously is driven to do. He should take that money, shut up and go do it.

I hate the fact that Gainey signed this guy to a three-year deal for that kind of money. I hate it even more that he now has to pay out most of that salary in cap space, as a penalty for making the deal in the first place. But I'm not sorry to see the arse-end of Georges Laraque.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blues vs. Habs - I Got the Blues Edition

Notes on the third:

-I feel bad for Cammalleri, Plekanec and Price.

-This is like watching the late '90s all over again. Except I don't think those teams got paid as much.

-Why do they tease us like that? An equalizer with less than a minute to go makes us think they're clutch.

-Tanking is no longer debatable. This team is doing it, like it or not. If the Habs can get an all-star in the draft, it's like saying the guy shot next to you didn't die in vain.

Notes on the second:

-Anybody remember good hockey? Anybody?

-Darche is showing the speed difference between the NHL and the AHL is pretty dramatic.

-I don't remember the last time Bergeron scored a goal. And if he's not scoring, he's as much use as a eunuch in a sperm bank.

-The Bell Centre DJ is playing "Clap Your Hands," and 21 273 are looking up with "You've got to be kidding me" expressions.

-I feel the pain of the paying customers, but I still feel booing your own team does nothing to help.

-Yay! Another delay-of-game penalty. At least they're leading the league in SOMETHING.

-Unless there's a massive change of momentum in the third, welcome to the third five-game losing streak of the year because this team isn't winning on the weekend either.

Notes on the first:

-See? This is why TSN should never have bought the Hockey Theme. They just ruined it with all their nifty new takes on it.

-I can actually watch on TSN now, because any criticism the Habs get is probably justified.

-Moen looks like he fights on a merry-go-round.

-I think the Habs must have the highest percentage of brutal delay-of-game penalties in the league.

-Awesome first goal allowed by Price. You can say "tipped" all you like, but NHL goalies stop tipped shots. And the second one? Squeezed through his legs to come out for the rebound. It's not all his fault, but he's not helping.

-Perron is making Pacioretty look like another Trevor Timmins steal. Of his Canadiens salary.

-The Stealth Tank strategy is becoming increasingly obvious. Soon it's just going to be the Tank.

-Price has apparently decided eight D isn't enough, so he's joining the rush now. I think he's losing it.

-I wonder how long it'll be before Pouliot can score a goal without anyone on RDS saying "Latendresse?" Oh yeah...I had to switch when the glee on TSN got to be too much to take.

-Is it just his face, or does the rest of Spacek look like the Czech version of the Pillsbury Doughboy too?

-Gomez has so much skill, but he looks like he doesn't give a flying damn so often.

-I think the Canadiens need to practice the 2-on-1 sometime. Both the goalie and the D always play the shooter and nobody plays the pass.

-I hate Martin, the System and losing. Ugh.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Tank Debate

After last night's absolute disgrace in New York, I sat there with the TV off, in the silence of my living room, awash in anger and frustration. When the worst of it began to recede and rational thought returned, one question stood out in my mind. What is this team playing for?

If you asked any of the players on the team, they'd almost certainly tell you they're playing for a chance to win the Stanley Cup. I'm sure, in their minds and hearts, that's what they believe. The reality is, however greatly they'd like to win the Cup, the team as a whole doesn't have the ability to do so. After blowing two vital games on the weekend and looking listless, disorganized and confused while doing so, the likelihood of the team's missing the playoffs altogether is increasing. If this team does make the playoffs at all, can anyone imagine it beating Washington, New Jersey, Philly, Pittsburgh, Buffalo or any of the other teams that will finish ahead of Montreal? Me neither.

What's incredible about this is the same issues of defensive zone confusion, softness up front, underachieving youngsters and a perceived lack of effort on many nights that we saw for the last several the perfect 2007-08 season...are still there, despite last summer's total housecleaning. It baffles me that what's almost an entirely different team is playing the same depressing, stifling game as last year's version. It doesn't make any sense because the overhaul was so thorough. Bad habits and bad attitudes were jettisoned in favour of hardworking heart-and-soul guys like Cammalleri and Gionta. There are only two possible conclusions. Either the coach is really bad and is failing to properly use the assets the GM has given him, or the team itself just isn't good enough and the similarities we see to last year are there because, well, this is what bad teams look like.

I started thinking about the contenders for the Cup this year. Pittsburgh. Washington. New Jersey. San Jose. Chicago. Then I started to think about who, on this edition of the Canadiens, would make any of those teams. Andrei Markov could do it. Tomas Plekanec could contribute, as could Cammalleri and Gionta. Gomez could play a role, but only if he were granted a couple of very strong wingers. Metropolit, Moen and possibly Hamrlik could possibly fill a small role killing penalties or providing fourth-line energy on a contender. The rest of the Canadiens wouldn't cut it. The entire Canadiens fourth line, as well as Pacioretty, D'Agostini, O'Byrne and Mara would have been cut from a contender in training camp, if they were even invited to be there at all.

The Canadiens have too many players that are either one-dimensional or no-dimensional. The drop-off after the top-tier of players is much, much too steep. After Markov and Hamrlik on defence, the rest of the top-six would be ranked 6-10 on a contender. Gomez, Gionta and Pouliot can score. Plekanec and Cammelleri can too, as can Andrei Kostitsyn when he's healthy and his head's in the game. Moen and Metropolit try like hell and sometimes knock in a hardworking goal. But Laraque, Lapierre, D'Agostini, Pacioretty, Mara and most nights Sergei Kostitsyn do absolutely nothing. They don't hit, they're not particularly great defensively, they don't fight and they don't score. That's too many non-contributors for an NHL roster. Gorges makes good decisions in his own end most of the time, but gets pushed around. Gill kills penalties well, but handles the puck terribly; he's huge and never hits. Spacek knows where to pass the puck, but can't hit the net to save his life and, at 35, is looking at deteriorating further from here. O'Byrne is big but doesn't know how to use his size to be scary. This is a team of two solitudes: players who can and players who'd like to, but can't pull it off. There are not enough of the former.

This is what happens when you build a team of middling draft picks and free agents. You get players not good enough to go higher in their drafts and players other teams let walk for some reason, to whom you have to pay a premium that ties up your cap and keeps you from improving.

So, what are the Canadiens really playing for? It's not the Stanley Cup, because they don't have a chance of winning it. If it's for the playoffs, that's not good enough. There's a pretty decent chance they won't make it, and if they do, they'll scrape in in eighth place again this year and end up getting humilated by whichever contender wins the conference. They can't be playing for pride or for each other because they'd show more passion if they did. They're not playing for the money or for the fans because they get the money anyway, and the fans will still fill the Bell no matter what they do.

I want the Canadiens to really play for the Cup. The "make the playoffs and anything can happen" strategy just isn't realistic with this team. They don't have what it takes to make a real run. So, what we're looking at is a mid-pack team with no shot of winning anything. In June, it will have another mid-round draft pick that will take three or four years to make the third line or bottom-pair defence on yet another mid-pack edition of the big team.

I believe the only way to really build a competitive team is through the draft. Teams either need to choose can't-miss prospects in the top five, or they need to be extremely shrewd and wise in choosing later in the draft. Trevor Timmins' mid-round picks are neither shrewd nor wise. Andrei Kostitsyn isn't the worst player to come out of the 2003 first round, but he's not in the top ten either. Carey Price is struggling to find consistency in the NHL, Kyle Chipchura is playing a support role in Anaheim, David Fischer is stagnating in college, Ryan McDonagh is still in college too and will be a Ranger if he ever develops and Max Pacioretty is struggling to keep up on the third line in Montreal. None of those first-round picks are the kinds of players that raise a franchise above the ordinary. On the contrary: they're the kinds of players that make a team ordinary.

Since Timmins has never pulled off a first-round coup, or any coup, with the possible exception of PK Subban, the Canadiens are obviously not going to develop into a contender with him guiding the selections. This is a team in need of some bedrock and without stealing a gem in the middle of the pack, it's going to have to find a way to get a can't-miss top-five pick. There are two ways to do that. They either have to trade for one, or get into a position in which they'll be able to draft one on their own.

Trading for one will not be possible. The teams that are in the running for those high picks regard them, and rightly so, as their own hope of rising above mediocrity. Those picks are worth their weight in gold and only a very serious overpayment will pry one lose. Frankly, the Canadiens don't have the kinds of pieces a desperate team would need if it were to give up its lottery pick, and Brian Burke has already parted with all of his.

I hate the idea of a team tanking for years, like the top contenders this year have done, in order to become a powerhouse based on top-five picks. I also hate the mediocrity continually drafting in the middle of the pack creates. I think there's a happy medium somewhere in there, in which a team with a lot of good pieces finds itself at the bottom one year and manages to draft a piece than can really make a difference. Philly did it with a lottery finish three years ago. They landed van Riemsdyk, who's going to be a really good NHL player. A smart trade for Braydon Coburn, the maturation of their 2003 picks Richards and Carter and the wise plundering of the stripped-down Predators for Hartnell and Timonen and the Flyers were back to respectability within a year.

The Canadiens have to do something similar. The team we're looking at next year is the same team we're looking at now, with the possible addition of PK Subban instead of Paul Mara, and perhaps a new bottom-six forward instead of one of the goalies and maybe Ryan White instead of Matt D'Agostini or Maxim Lapierre. Any changes between now and next year, based on the long-term contracts Gainey has signed with players last summer, will be mostly cosmetic. They need a draft homerun who will make an impact on the team right away, and the only way to get it is to finish really low in the standings.

No team of NHL players with any pride would ever lose games on purpose. But the Canadiens lose even when they're trying. Stripping the lineup down to its core essentials and filling the rest with Bulldogs should happen before another year of hopelessness has passed. I would keep Markov, Gorges, O'Byrne, Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, Cammalleri, Gionta, Metropolit, Moen, Pouliot, Pacioretty and the goalies. The rest of them I would trade for whatever they might bring. What Gainey did last year; letting the old guys go and replacing them with similar new guys, didn't work. So, it's time to take it down to the bare bones and build from there. It might take three years before the team is ready to compete. But if we keep going like we are now, we're looking at another ten years of mediocrity. I'd rather the pain of one bad finish than ten heartbreaking ones.

At least, in a stripped-down situation, when we ask the question "what are they playing for?" we can answer "the future." Right now, they're playing for nothing. It makes me unhappy to say this. I love the Habs and I don't want to see them be a bottom feeding team. But I can't stand the pointlessness of it anymore. There's no plan. There's no direction. I don't see Gainey doing any more than tread water, and I don't think any other person in his position would be able to do more either. You just can't develop a team in the NHL today without top-end, cheap young talent. I'm going to catch hell for this, I know. But I think the Habs need to play for the future.

Habs vs. Rangers - Need It Edition

Notes on the third:

-Bergeron's begun missing the net with the bomb now. Time to send him to the glue factory.

-My God, this is an awful hockey team. Just awful. Yet, they'll still finish tenth and end up with a nobody in the first round again. This is so painful to watch.

-I'm not losing any more sleep over this. There are eight minutes to go and I'm packing it in because I think the Habs have as much chance of getting this to OT as I do of winning the Nobel Prize in Physics. Sucky game, sucky team.

Notes on the second:

-Nice job tying up Houdini on the Rangers first goal, there Mara.

-I wonder if Wild fans are as disgusted watching Pouliot finally use his size in Montreal as we are at seeing Latendresse do it over there?

-Watching D'Agostini struggle on the Pleks line is like watching Fred and Ginger dance in leg irons.

-Hall "Icing" Gill can be so frustrating to watch handling the puck.

-Bloody hell! Two shorties in two nights? When the PP starts costing you goals, it's time to start declining them. AND, hasn't the Habs D ever heard of taking a "good" penalty and pulling down the guy on the breakaway? For God's sake.

-Markov's looking like hell for the last half-dozen games. I hope it's just the early adrenaline of coming back from the injury wearing off and not a long-term thing.

-Spacek and Hamrlik also looking like crap, especially on the go-ahead goal. And Gorges, who was having a decent night, decides to fall into the Avery trap and get his ass handed to him too.

-I'm sensing a pattern here. Does the Habs entire D suck tonight or what?

-Halak is looking uncharacteristically frantic tonight.

-Not a bad showing with the fisticuffs by Pouliot. So, I guess now that he's a goalscorer, Laraque doesn't do that stuff anymore.

-Habs just collapsed and gave that period away. Unbelievable. Shots on the game are 24-10 for the Rangers. Go System!

Notes on the first:

-The rink looks really dark. They're not accidentally in Jersey, are they?

-I'm sure there's stupider than Avery, but most of it is institutionalized.

-The PP should be wearing a toe tag for identification purposes.

-Czech sausage! Pleks served that up on a platter and Cammalleri found it delicious. I hope he goes for seconds.

-One of the biggest problems the Habs have is having the puck clean on their sticks in their own end, then soft-serving it right to the other team rather than decisively clearing it out. It happened EIGHT times on the first Rangers' PP.

-Mara on a breakaway for comic relief. This game has it all.

-Gionta has incredible hand-eye coordination. And the best part about him being the tiniest man in the NHL is even when he hits it in with a high stick, it isn't above the crossbar.

-It's possible D'Agostini actually has negative value at the moment. He's soon going to have to start paying the Habs for his place in the lineup.

-I think the Rangers are the only team in the NHL that passes the puck worse than the Habs do.

-Nice period, but I expect Tortarella to bust a blood vessel and a couple of vocal cords during the intermission, which might make his team try to tie this up.

A Game of Percentages

I sat here last night after watching that wretched loss to a team the Habs need to beat, in a game they really needed to win, and tried to figure out what's wrong with the Canadiens. Why is this team hovering around .500, and why does it seem to take one step forward, then drop back to the median again?

The goaltending is getting most of the blame, and it's true Carey Price didn't have his best game last night. But a weak game here and there doesn't account for an entire season's pattern. Both Price and Halak are in the top thirty among NHL goalies for both save percentage (Halak is fourth, with a .927 mark, and Price is sixteenth at .915) and goals-against average (Price is twenty-first, with a GAA of 2.69 and Halak is thirteenth at 2.46). There's no question Halak's numbers are better, although the reasons why that's so are up for eternal debate. Looking at the bigger picture though, both goalies are playing well enough to rank pretty highly in vital statistics league-wide. So goaltending is not, or should not be, the issue.

More concerning is the number of shots the goalies face every night. Although neither of the pair ranks among the top ten for games played by goalies, both are in the top thirty for shots against. The Habs allow an average of 31 shots per game on Price and 32 on Halak, which has them 28th overall in the league for shots allowed. In the meantime, they take only 27.7 shots per game themselves, which means they're outshot significantly most of the time. The low shots total means the Habs score only 2.49 goals per game, which ranks them 26th overall. If you do the math, you can see the Canadiens, on average, score a goal for every 11 shots they take. When you see the difference between the Habs, at 26th in the league in goals per game are only .3 of a goal behind the 11th-place Stars, it becomes clear that taking even five more shots a game would dramatically increase the chances of scoring more goals.

Another issue is falling behind early. The Habs have been outscored 45-32 in the first period this season. They've given up the first goal of the game 28 times and scored it themselves only 21 times. It wouldn't be that bad, but unfortunately, the team's winning percentage when trailing after one period is a dismal .250, which puts them twentieth in the league for that stat. So, slow starts are a problem.

There's also concern that the special teams aren't compensating more for weaknesses at even strength, which implies five-on-five play is even weaker than it appears statistically. The power play, despite its dreadful 0-for-6 performance last night is still tied with the mighty Caps for first overall. The penalty kill is eighth in the league, despite being shorthanded more than 23 other teams. The old adage says that special teams are successful if their efficency rates added together equal a hundred or better. The Canadiens PP is working at 24.7 percent and the PK is 84.2 percent, for a total of 108.9. That's pretty darn good. In fact, it's the best total on special teams in the whole NHL. So, if a team doing that well on special teams is still so very average overall, its even-strength play is pretty weak.

If a team is outshot consistently, gets behind early consistently and has great special teams and very weak five-on-five play, what can the problem be? I thought it might be personnel, so I compared the Habs with several other teams to see how they stack up offensively. It turns out, they're pretty similar. Most teams have six or seven players, not including defencemen, with at least twenty points in at least twenty games played. The Habs have six forwards who've put up at least twenty points, which is consistent with the rest of the league. Looking at the lower-scoring lines, most teams have six or seven players with twenty points or less, among them three regular forwards with ten or fewer points. The Habs are right on target with six forwards under twenty points, including three under ten points. In terms of offence from the defence, the Habs again are comparable to most teams. Canadiens defencemen have put up 88 points so far this season. The Wings D has 82, Sabres 91, Flames 82 and Bruins 90, just to name a few. So the Canadiens are comparable to teams ahead of them in the standings when it comes to average production through the lineup. There are no real glaring discrepancies between them and other teams, even though it might feel like the Canadiens' third and fourth lines or the defencemen rarely contribute.

The Habs aren't worse than other teams in terms of offensive contributions from regular players overall. But they have played more one-goal and OT games than every team except Calgary, Minnesota and the Islanders, and they have the most regulation losses in one-goal games in the league, with ten. Ten games in which they weren't able to get to OT and steal the loser points that give some of the teams ahead of them the advantage in the standings. While it appears the Canadiens stack up against the rest of their immediate competition in general production of their offensive players, it seems as though they can't get the desperation goals some of their rivals get.

In my mind, the difference between the Habs and their immediate competition comes down to one of two things. It's either that the team is stocked with the wrong players, or it's got the wrong coach. On the player side, size has been discussed ad nauseum as a reason why the Habs draw so few penalties and why they lose possession of the puck along the boards so often. But outside of Cammalleri and Gionta, the Canadiens aren't all that small, and nobody can fault the performance of those two. Gomez and Plekanec have also been producing, even though they're under six feet tall. While it's true the Habs are 24th in the league in hits, New Jersey, Buffalo and Colorado have less and the lack hasn't hurt those teams. The Canadiens lead the league in blocked shots, so courage isn't at issue here. One player stat that does seem to be hurting the team is giveaways, in which the Habs lead the league by a wide margin over the Oilers.

So, here we have a team that falls behind early in games, leads the league in giveaways, loses more one-goal games in regulation than anyone else and gets outshot most nights. The same team also has fantastic special teams, very strong goaltending and a balance of offence through the lineup comparable to other teams ahead of them in the standings. This makes me think there's something wrong with the coach's even-strength system of play.

A team can't perform on special teams as well as the Habs do if they're fatally flawed in either offence or defence. In fact, the very recognition that they've been missing at least one top-line forward all year, yet still manage to pull out the number of wins they do tells me the talent is there. The goaltending is there most nights. But even though the talent is there, this is a team that can't seem to complete a pass and gives the puck away instead. It's a team that doesn't penetrate the offensive zone for shots well enough, and spends too much time in its own zone. It's a team that can't ramp it up to score a tying goal when they're desperate. This is a systemic issue, and it's one Jacques Martin needs to address.

My big fear, when Gainey announced the Martin hiring, was that he'd make the team play the stifling pre-lockout brand of hockey we saw the Panthers play for years. It seems my fear is coming true. This team should be playing a much more exciting brand of hockey. It has speed, but doesn't use it. It has offensive punch, but isn't in the other team's zone enough to capitalize on it. Martin has to address his system here. Injuries have hurt the team a lot, but this system isn't helping. It's slow, clumsy, predictable and ineffective, and I refuse to believe it's solely because the players aren't capable of performing better.

The team's playoff hopes are in your hands, Jacques. Do something, and do it quick.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sens vs. Habs - Four Pointer Edition

Notes on the third:

-Thank God for RDS. I couldn't take Cole anymore.

-Gionta is such a tiny beast. He's like a rabid chihuahua.

-Pacioretty looked the most like an AHL player he's looked all year tonight.

-Cammalleri isn't the best guy to be carrying the puck into the offensive zone. He's not got the moves Gomez has.

-It's some freak of numbers that this PP is still ranked first in the league. Or do other teams' power plays just suck more?

-This one's on Price and the wretched PP. Horrible, boring, lousy, heartless, stinking, brutal, disgusting, wretched excuse for a game.

Notes on the second:

-I think Plekanec has actually scored two goals from that weird angle this year. Good for him to break the slump.

-Price is not having a stellar night. I guess there's no question about who's starting tomorrow. The only question is, will we see Jaro tonight as well?

-I'm really glad Spacek and Hamrlik aren't going to the Olympics. Two weeks off, especially for Spacek who's looking tired, will be very important down the stretch.

-I see angry Sens who don't want to fall two points behind Montreal. I don't see angry Canadiens.

-Habs D are challenging the neutral zone better than they were earlier in the year.

-The Canadiens look like they're trying to save something for tomorrow night. Someone needs to tell them tomorrow is a lot tougher if they lost tonight.

Notes on the first:

-I wondered how long I'd be able to stand HNIC, but I thought I'd give it a shot, despite Bob "I Hate Montreal" Cole's lousy play-by-play because I've never heard Carbo's colour commentary before. So far, the big insight from him is "Markov is important to Montreal." Hmmm...really, Carbo?

-Another Brodeur in nets against Montreal. It's freaking me out to hear them say "Great save Brodeur!" Just when I was hoping the first one would soon retire, too.

-The stick in Markov's face is the very reason why they need to have video review on plays that cause injuries.

-D'Agostini made a nice little move at the blue line to get the shot through. He needs to do that more often.

-Weird closeup on the ref holding Markov by the sleeve. No idea what that was all about.

-Price can never hold the puck when it hits him. It's like watching him in a greased pig-catching contest.

-The Gomez line had a great game of monkey-in-the-middle in the Sens end for a shift, but they forget that one of the monkeys has to shoot the puck once in a while.

-Once again, the first goal against is completely deflating. There's nothing worse than allowing a shorty.

-Pouliot makes me forget whiny Latendresse even exists, despite his giveaway on the Sens goal. Imagine, a big guy who goes to the net?!

-Gomez is hotter than his mama's taco sauce tonight.

-Too bad the PP is so dreadful tonight. They never get this many chances, and the even-up calls will be coming soon.

-I can't stand Alfredsson.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Stars vs. Habs - Finally Some Hockey Edition

Notes on the third:

-Price's pretty glove might have saved that game. Maybe some of the "weak glove side" criticisms will start to die down if he does that a couple more times.

-I think the problem with D'Ags on the Pleks line is that he can't pass. Kostitsyn can pass AND shoot. D'Agostini can only shoot, which limits the line's capabilities.

-Can we call that spot in the slot on the PP the G-Spot? Gionta with the deuce!

-I can't believe NHL refs are still fooled by the old "stick your hand under the other guy's arm for a pretend hold" ploy. But, apparently, they are.

-I think the Stars are the only team in the NHL softer on the boards than the Habs. Yay!

-Gomez with the ferocious PK. He's a lion...when he's not being a lamb. Credit to him for standing tall since Christmas, though.

-Nice to see the Cammy-One-Knee special for the insurance. Now Pleks is officially the coldest guy on the team.

-Who knew Laraque would get the team going like that with a goal instead of a fight? Whatever works, I'm just glad they got the two.

Notes on the second:

-Well, there's no doubt the team loves Laraque, even if the rest of us think he's generally an inanimate object. Nice reaction on his first goal as a Hab, from him and his teammates. I didn't think I'd live to see it.

-The pressure's on Cammalleri and Plekanec now. No excuses if even Laraque can score.

-Pouliot makes me really not give a crap how many points Latendresse puts up in Minny. I'll take the speed AND the scoring, thanks.

-Fistric sounds like a Saxon male prostitute's stage name.

-Is that the real Mike Modano, or is that the stuffed and mounted version the Stars keep handy in case the old guy sleeps in? Never mind. It's the real one that still has a fourth-line goal in him.

-Boy, Mara and Gill are an iffy defence pairing.

-The good thing about playing the Stars is the Habs can keep the puck in the offensive end more because the Stars play the same exact "system" the Habs do. They know where the puck's going.

-Spacek can still hit. He's like a pie in the face...kinda goofy, but still blinds you.

-Oh! I just realized. I think the Laraque goal was his first shot of the season. The man has a 1.000 shooting percentage. Put him with Plekanec, stat!

-I wasn't looking forward to a shooting contest with the Stars, but if that's what it takes, I hope our guys get the last shot.

Notes on the first:

-Well, I guess it's good that the Stars won't be immediately spotted the two goals Ribeiro would have gloated about scoring.

-Plekanec keeps passing where AK would be, but Moen didn't get the map.

-The first goal was softer than the kittens in a toilet paper ad. Not a great start for Price. Markov looked like crap on that one too.

-Gionta goes to the net like he's six-foot-nine, two-sixty. His heart must be half of that, at least.

-Robidas. Of course. With Ribeiro out, the OTHER ex-Hab had to hit the score sheet.

-Martin's suit reminds me of a quote from The Game: "I didn't know drab came in so many colours."

-Very uncertain period. Habs need to look like they want to win, and Price has to stop the rest of them.


In all the uproar about L'Affaire Burrows/Auger this week, I find it very, very surprising that hardly anybody is talking about what I think was the greater injustice perpetrated in Pittsburgh on January 7.

The Flyers were winning 5-3, when it appeared Philly had scored a sixth goal. The play went to video review, but after inspection of the available video, the league ruled no angle clearly showed the puck going over the goal line. No goal.

The problem? There WAS an angle that clearly showed the puck going over the goal line. The Pittsburgh homer broadcaster, Fox Sports Network Pittsburgh, which carried the only feed of the game, decided not to send that particular angle on to the league. The NHL is investigating the matter, but it seems pretty clear-cut that the only video clip that could have hurt the home team was purposely excluded from the tape sent to Toronto for judgement.

In the end, the Flyers won the game anyway, 7-4, so the cheating didn't really matter. This time. But, one must ask, what if that disallowed goal that kept the game at 5-3 gave the Penguins the emotional boost they needed to make a comeback? What if they'd won it 6-5 in OT? The Flyers are making a push back up the standings, and a loss in that game would have hurt them.

It's not the first time this has happened, either. Two years ago when Chris Pronger "stepped on" the neck of Ryan Kesler in what the Canucks claimed was a deliberate attempt to injure, the league first ruled there'd be no suspension involved because disciplinary officials didn't have any video proof that clearly showed Pronger stomping on Kesler. The league reversed that decision when, a few days later, the hometown Anaheim broadcaster...again the only source of tape of the game, and a source clearly interested in keeping Pronger on the ice..."found" a piece of tape that did, in fact, show Pronger jumping on Kesler on purpose.

This is a very, very dangerous thing. With video now such an important tool in league discipline and game outcomes, it must be above reproach in its integrity. The NHL cannot rely on hometown bias by broadcasters to dictate the fates of teams.

In a way, you almost can't blame the broadcasters, though. Often, they work for the teams themselves and their livelihoods depend on not pissing off the people who pay their salaries. So, if Brian Burke says, "Listen guys, we need Pronger. You don't have any tape showing he did anything wrong, do you," what do you do? I don't know if it went down that way, but you have to think there's an implication there that hometown broadcasters should be seen as supportive of the teams that pay them, especially in low-interest markets where balanced coverage can be seen as being too much coverage of the other guys.

Regardless, it's up to the NHL, which depends so heavily on video review, to make sure the tape its officials use is beyond reproach. The league is going to have to set it up so it has duplicates of all the tape first hand, without relying on local video editors to send it in. This didn't cost the Flyers, and Pronger got his suspension in the end. But you have to wonder, how many times has it happened when the broadcasters didn't get caught? And you have to worry about what will happen if a playoff game is on the line and the video editor in Buffalo or Nashville, who wants his team to succeed, gets tempted to "lose" a crucial bit of footage?

If the NHL wants to be taken seriously, these are questions that must never be answered. The league needs to solve this problem immediately. And, in the midst of all the fuss over Auger and Burrows, people need to talk about it. It's bad enough when the incompetence of on-ice officials hurts a team (yeah, I'm talking to YOU, Chris Lee!) and is written off as "human error". The video problem is an issue that has the potential to be much more devastating to a team's fortunes and the league's credibility than Stephane Auger ever dreamed of being.