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.


Topham said...

Tempting, tempting.

But consider the teams that tank and fail, and those that never tank and succeed. Tanking doesn't guarantee anything and only when mixed with luck does it turn out.

I'd rather hope for luck with some playoffs, than hope for luck without...

J.T. said...

@Topham: I agree on hoping for luck with playoffs. I want hope in the playoffs more than anything. But the problem is, as it stands, I don't have any. If they do get into the playoffs, which, at the moment, is a very big "if," then I have absolutely no hope the Canadiens will win four out of seven games against just about any team above them.

We've tried hope and luck for more than a decade now. I'm sick of it. I want a sure bet. To me, that's a top-five pick. And this time, NOT A GOALIE! How great would Kopitar look on the Habs' first line right about now? Right.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what you are saying here, but like Topham tanking is no guarantee of anything. The '93 win is testament that anything can happen and in dramatic fashion too (wasn't that win that much more satisfying as a result). By no means am i implying that we are THOSE Habs because i don't believe it for a minute, but i'm not a fan of the tanker concept.

I had a whole bunch of ideas and thoughts i wanted to write about but at the end of the day i believe it boils down to "THE SYSTEM". There's no way that elite athletes can look that disorganized all the time. Also when the Elite coaches come to play us they seem to dismantle us like we are nothing. That to me tells me the players are not adjusting well to opposing tactics and that our system is one dimensional (i.e Non existant).

I'm not saying this would change anything but i would sure love to see Guy Boucher up here. Fresh young and with new ideas. He's got a not so talented squad playing VERY GOOD HOCKEY. Why can't JM do the same?

DB said...

This year has been like ridng the kiddy roller-coaster - absolutely no fun because the peaks are too small. And it's unlikely we'll get off the kiddy coaster unless changes are made at the trade deadline.

What changes should be made? I thnk Bob needs to trade the following players:

Spacek - He doesn't bring a physical presence and his offense is lower than expected so trade him for whatever you can get. Bring up Subban or Weber to take his place.

Gomez - is untradeable because of his contract.

Mara/Metro - Trade if you can get a 4th round pick or better. Otherwise let go as free agents and replace with Carle and Pyatt.

Laraque - when he scored his goal he looked like a pee-wee player leaning on his stick for balance. Take whatever you can get and free up the cap space.

Hamrlik - is still a good player. Trade him if the return is a first round pick or a good young player. Otherwise keep him around to mentor Subban next year.

Gill - trade for a 3rd round pick or better.

Halak/Price - trade one at the deadline only if some team will overpay. If neither is traded start contract negotiations ASAP to determine if you will need to trade one before the draft.

Martin - fire at the end of the year and replace with Boucher. He can replace Carbo on HNIC or he can go on tour as Count Chocula.

A cautionary note: A top five pick is nice, but does not guarantee top-end talent. Here are some top 5 picks who are not yet stars. Some are good solid players, but they are not stars.

2007 - Turris, Hickey, Alzner
2006 - all are top end talent
2005 - Pouliot
2004 - Ladd, Wheeler, Barker
2003 - Zherdev, Horton
2002 - Lehtonen, Pitkanen, Whitney
2001 - Svitov, Chistov,

Anonymous said...

Well said J.T. Precisely what I have been saying for the last two years. Finishing mid pack and struggling for a playoff spot every year makes no sense. The only reasoning for this, is for short term profits that playoff games bring. It is not about winning or success on the ice. Bob must go, if the Habs want any chance to move forward.

Shan said...

Completely agree. It seems like they keep being reincarnated as the same animal. It's depressing. We laugh at the Leafs, but their franchise has movement for better or worse, and that means if their cup drought ever ends, it could happen before ours.

dusty said...

-Even the pessimist in me was shocked by the Ranger game. The Rangers aren't very good, in fact they a very similar to the Habs. They can't score, rely on their goaltending and are often lazy and embarassing to their fans and coaching staff. So with Halak playing, an horrible Ottawa effort fresh in their minds, I foolishly expected a close, hard fought game. And they were physically intimidated to add insult to injury.
-Everything about the Habs is mediocre at this point and the future looks grim as you point out. When I look at the team I would really like to trade the whole franchise for any number of other teams (not the leafs) as I really don't like any of the players very much. I don't think there is a keeper anywhere not even Markov. I'd trade him and anybody else who would bring a good return and looking over the roster, he's probably the only Hab anybody would want. I'm sure everyone is thinking I'm nuts but this team needs a complete makeover.
-I can't blame Bob for blowing up last years team. I actually thought the new Habs would be good and really looked forward to the season, so I'm at a complete loss as to what is happening. As your excellent in depth examination of the situation points out, there is a long way to go before the Habs will even be respectable again.

punkster said...

J.T. you and I as fans may wish and hope that they play for the cup but that's not the case. It's the money. However, I can't argue with the concept of ridding ourselves of the deadwood. At the deadline and in July. Build around that core of good players we know we have and give some Bulldogs a chance to experience the big leagues for a while. We're not going anywhere this year so let's make the most of our failures. Nothing like failure to teach a good lesson.

Anonymous said...

You are 100% right in what you say. This team must get worse to get better, it`s the only way.

Olivier said...

I think the habs are playing in a market that doesn't allow them to tank. Too much money to make in the playoffs to punt them, and again this year we have a cap team. I see them treading water and hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and once this season is done it hinges on their ability to sign Pleks.

Woodvid said...

I think it'd take more than 3 years to start competing. More like 5 years -- before the next 3 years' picks can really contribute. Do we really want to wait that long? The answer may be something as simple as writing off the rest of this year, get a good draft pick, and bring in Boucher next season.

Mike said...

Everything you say is true so terrible to see a team I have followed for over 40 years look so hopeless. I hate how lousy teams from the States, can get all the top picks because of fan apathy. They can tank for years and be rewarded. In Bettmans NHL this is the way it is sadly.

Denise T said...

Tanks, JT, for your usual excellent insight and for expressing the disgust most of us are feeling after years of cheering on mediocrity!

Any cup contender needs grit to go along with talent and good coaching. So, what do we have? We've got some talent but not enough depth, we have a bit of moxy (this year, the players will defend each other in a scrum), but that's not grit and won't scare teams in any way, and then, of course, we've got "the system".

Bring on the tanks!

Anonymous said...

Welcome to Thankville, QC! Population: 2 (and counting).

For those who doubt, I will say this:

Since 1989, only two 1st choice were total bust (Daigle in '93 and Stefan in '99). The top pick is the surest thing in the world. Even Little Bobby and Timmy couldn't skrew that up.

And for those who are against, I respect that, but keep in mind that you've waited 14 years to have one good year. How long can another 2-3 years be!?

HardHabits said...

Thanks for reiterating what I've been saying since last season's great meltdown on HIO and have gotten slammed so often for doing so. Although I see the pain lasting a bit longer than 2-3 years. I also see another big change needed. No more alumni as coach or GM. The torch is doused, spent, and out of fuel.

Anonymous said...

I'm agreeing with all of you.

But the biggest problems, Jacque Martin and his passive, non agessive, no body check, dump on the board and dont chase SYSTEM.

I mean, I wouldnt mind having a team sitting 12-13 in the league but that gives me good game to watch.

right now, I think (i'm pretty damn sure) that the Habs are the lousiest team to watch on TV. No excitement, no shot, no energy,no body check( i mean come on, 3-4 check to each players never killed anybody)

And all of that is THE SYSTEM, I totally agree that THE SYSTEM is the worst part of the Habs this year.

Why cant Bobyy boy or the Molson's see that?

We want excitement, a good show and if we're lucky a win. We got none of the above lately.

How many times as the Habs losse a game that they should have win( I'd say 2-3, not more) the rest of the HABS losses, they didnt work it out, lazy plays. In fact, they won a lot more game that they werent suppose to win because of goaltending..

Please, fire the leprechaun that is JM already...

James Parent said...

Martin isn't going anywhere - he's on a 4 years / 6M contract, and the Habs are still paying Carbo's deal. So over 3M per year for coaches, another 3M per year for the front office, that's A LOT of money, even for a rich franchise.
I doubt the Molsons would ever approve of firing JM with this kind of contract on the books. To us fans, it might be a no-brainer decision (personally I'm not sure about that) but financially, it's not a good call.

dusty said...

-Just a thought on the subject matter under discussion. It appears that the Habs are capable of tanking unintentionally; the question of tanking for a draft pick may well be moot.

J.T. said...

@dusty: That's hilarious. I swear I just had that exact conversation with a friend of mine. He said the Habs are actually quietly tanking while we're having this discussion, just because they can't help it. I call it the Stealth Tank.

J.T. said...

@James: Thanks for bringing up that point. I meant to make it as well, but it slipped my mind in the general wrath I'm feeling toward this team at the moment. Martin isn't getting fired at least until Carbo is off the books. That's through the end of next season. The Molson's might consider paying out two years of Martin's contract as well as Boucher's salary, but there's no way they're paying THREE coaches, two of whom the team has fired.

Anonymous said...

You can't give up hope. With this team, hope and blind faith is all we have!

Another thing to consider is the parity that now exists in the salary cap era. The difference between the best and worst teams is closer than ever. Carolina made it to the conference final last year, now they are aweful. Colorado was supposed to be among the worst in the West this year according to many "experts". The Habs are not that far from being good (or bad for that matter).

I think the Habs can turn things around if they can get two lines scoring. I think they may have it with Cammalleri-Plekanec-Kostitsyn and Gionta-Gomez-Pouliot, so AK has to get healthy. Right now they are a one-line team which is too easy to shut down. Having Dags available for the fourth line also makes that line better. With SK and Dags on his wings, maybe LaPierre can find his form from last year. Let's just say that I don't think H. Sedin would be the league's leading scorer with Laraque and Bergeron on his wings.

So don't give up hope, 19-12-1 is possible for the rest of the year if they can get healthy. Let the rage and frustration be your muse for writing more great blog entries.

Anonymous said...

Picking the best available player available (particularly in the first round) has made Trevor Timmins a single hitter. Picking the 10th to 25th best rated talent should provide you with future 3rd and 4rd line forwards or 5th or 6th D. That makes you a single hitter. you can become a homerun hitter if you pick with flair and have very talented scouts. Ryan Getzlaf was considered a number 15th to 20th pick, by most teams. Anaheim had him at # 5. So, they were able to get him with their 19th rank. That's a homerun.

I believe top 6 forwards or prime D are picked in the first ten picks of the first round or are a homerun, à la Zetterberg, Datsyuk or Luc Robitaille.

The best Canadiens picks in the last 25 years, have mostly been chosen in the late rounds. Markov, Halak. Even Patrick Roy was a third round choice.

Teams like Detroit, New Jersey and a few others never have a top ten pick but still manage to remain competitive, year after year becauser they hit a lot of homeruns.

Perhaps it's a major change of philosophy that should be considered.

Anonymous said...

I really wish the Habs would do it this year.

We are clearly far far behind (not in terms of point, in terms of play) the top teams. The only thing that could allow this team to get a cup, or hell even a third round in the play-offs (because honestly, I'd be quite happy with that if we could get one in the next 5 years the way things have been going...) is pure luck, including about 20 players from the other teams getting a season ending injury before the playoffs, and you can't build on that.

I'm not giving up on the core that we have with Gomez, Gionta, Cammy, Plek (hopefully, he will stay here), Markov, hell even Andrei K and Pouliot. We have some other interesting players like Gorges who in my opinion is a great 5-6 defenseman, the problem with him is mostly that he should never be #2. MaxPac, didn't give up on him yet.

But the rest is all more than replaceable. Hamrlik is actually an important piece, but I just can't see him as our core for the next years due to his age, unless we can sign him for a much lower price after his contract ends as a solid 3rd defenseman to pair with Subban, and he is possibly one of the highest value guy we could trade to a team that wants to make a run for the cup and has some cap room for the end of the year.

But there is one thing that sadly reduces my hopes for the future of this team, and it's Bob. I'm far from a Bob hater, I think he made a lot of good moves (even if he made some attrocious ones), but there is one thing he has been very consistant with and that is VERY bad for a team that wants to rebuild, and it's patching with aging veterans.

When we had tons of defensemen that were down earlier, did he give a chance to Carle? Something like 2 games, in which he actually looked quite decent, to then replace him by... Jay Leach?! Who never did anything better, but simply prevented a youth to have an opportunity. Weber, who got brought back for a short time to be used paired with Gill, and not in PP most of the time (how the hell can he showcase his talent?).

Desharnais who had one game, after sitting in a limo for the whole day, playing 5 minutes on the 4th line with people that had no offensive talent whatsoever, while he has around 1.3 PPG in the AHL, ranking 4th of the league for players with over 30 games for that, and while we have a big offensive problem with AK out he brings Darche, an older veteran of the AHL with some NHL experience, over Trotter or Desharnais who are both banking points non-stop down there.

The only Bulldogs players who really had their chance were Pyatt and White, and they showed that they have some speed and grit, but they will never be goal scorers and at best could give energy in a 4th line.

Bob simply does not let the young players have their chance and will constantly patch with old veterans, with the only exception of 1st rounders for which they actually seem to give too much chances too early. Makes you wonder why they bother to go get guys like Desharnais if they're not going to bring them up when their offensive is deficient due to injuries and they're the best scorers in their farm team.

I can't see this changing for Bob, and I so I don't think he will ever do what you suggest. I think a GM change is required to have one that will willingly trade all the old veterans that are holding the team a bit higher but not high enough, and give room for the kids to develop and, as you nicely said, play for the future.

Seriously, remove Hamrlik alone from this team, and I doubt we'll be above 13th-14th place at the end of the year. It doesn't require much work for the Habs to tank, they're pretty good at it already.

DB said...

Two playoff games would provide enough revenue to cover the rest of Martin's contract. If it's felt that a new coach would get them into the playoffs and Martin would't then it's a no brainer to fire Martin.

Mek said...

One horrible, stinky, detestable counter-example : Toronto.
Tanking is no guaranty.