Monday, March 15, 2010

Square Pegs in Round Holes

You have to be excited when you look at the situtation in Montreal right now. The Habs are winning games. More importantly than the actual fact of winning, though, is the way in which they're winning. Remember last season, when they started out really hot, but the wins were kind of unconvincing? A blown lead here, a last-ditch OT goal there, a lucky bounce somewhere else. None of it gave you the feeling the team was in control of their own fate. Instead of creating things, the players just let things happen to them. You don't get that feeling this time. Now, riding a five-game winning streak, you don't worry that it's all an illusion and the wheels are going to fall off at any minute. This time the players are earning what they get because they're working hard and playing a solid team game. Losses will still happen, but you don't fear they'll be debilitating to team morale and lead to a five-game losing streak.

The best part of it all is the injury problems that lead to much of the trouble earlier this season appear to be finally ending. Mike Cammalleri and Marc Andre Bergeron are the last two long-term residents of sickbay, and they're both skating again.

We're all awaiting Cammalleri's return with unabashed enthusiasm. We know what he can do and we know he'll simply bump Tom Pyatt back to Hamilton and immediately improve the Plekanec line and the power play without causing many ripples throughout the lineup. The Bergeron case, though, is more difficult.

MAB's got a cannon from the point and he played a big part in saving the early-season wretched PP. The man is also terrible defensively. The coaching staff really has a tough choice to make here. Do they sit Bergeron because the team is winning without him, or do they squeeze him in as an added weapon with the man advantage? If they play him, will it be on forward or defence? And who sits in his place?

Really, if Bergeron plays, it'll have to be on the fourth line. The defence isn't perfect, but it's got the best combination of pairings we've seen all year out there right now. Hal Gill is the weakest link, and Bergeron is certainly not better than him. The prevailing school of thought would have us accept that it's more important to have a solid defence than a solid fourth line. So, if Bergeron plays forward, he won't replace Glen Metropolit at centre. That leaves Mathieu Darche and Maxim Lapierre. In this scenario, you almost have to keep Darche. He's outplaying Lapierre and he's a smart player who's producing. Yet, we know that Lapierre can be effective if he uses his speed and size properly. The question is, do you risk messing up some pretty decent chemistry on the forward lines to make a place for a power play specialist and defensive liability?

My first thought was, no. You shouldn't mess with a winning lineup, and Bergeron really hadn't been contributing much on the PP since Christmas anyway. Without the PP goals from the point, he really brings absolutely nothing to the team. Then I thought, what's better, the threat of Bergeron scoring while he's actually doing nothing, or Lapierre just outright doing nothing? In that case, I'd have to go with the guy who might create some offence. What it comes down to for the coaching staff might be how well Lapierre performs in the next few games before Bergeron's ready to return. If he's aggressive and contributing on the fourth line, maybe he'll keep his spot.

The one thing the coaches have to be careful about is assuming just anybody can jump in on the fourth line and still make it work. For the first time all year, we're seeing good third and fourth lines that are helping the team win instead of just eating minutes. The current winning streak is evidence of how important those role players can be, and I'd be loathe to interfere with success if I were the coach.

Whatever Martin and Co. decide to do about Bergeron, though, it's a pretty small worry compared to some of the problems the team has faced this year. And as long as the wins keep coming, we'll keep smiling, no matter who's got to sit to make it happen.


James Parent said...

MAB's case is an interesting problem for the coaching staff. Bergeron's defensive issues are true as much if he plays defense or on the fourth line - maybe even more so when playing forward, because he's not comfortable doing it.
The fourth line as currently constructed (Metro/Darche/Laps or Maxwell) is barely holding its own in terms of territorial positioning. They get destroyed by the opposition's top 2 lines and the best we can hope is that they're evenly matched against the bottom 2 lines - which isn't always the case, as was evidenced saturday night against Boston's fourth line (admittedly Lucic makes for a very expensive 4th liner...). When we're at home, Martin can line-match properly and give the easy minutes to the fourth line but on the road, they become more of a liability.

From there, if MAB is added to the fourth line instead of, probably, Lapierre, things instantly get worse at 5v5. Our fourth line, already somewhat struggling defensively, becomes near useless and that forces Martin to reduce their minutes even more.
Think about it, those 3 guys already play only about 5-7 minutes when we're on the road, and are still costing us scoring chances against. With MAB that ice time probably drops to sub-5 minutes per game, putting more pressure on the other 3 lines.

On the other hand, the added threat on the PP is a valid point. Whether Bergeron actually puts up points or not, his presence forces the opposition to play differently on their PK and that benefits the rest of our unit, especially Markov who has more room to move around.

It'll be interesting to see what they do... but if it was me, I'd have MAB keep the bench warm and pass the gatorade bottles around.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with your assessment that MAB is no better then Gill. The towering Inferno is useful (most of the time) on PK but MAB is a zillion times better at getting the puck out of the zone. Of course he can be a risky proposition at times but so is Markov. In fact, anyone who keeps the puck and try generate some offensive, will be more risky than guys who get rid of the puck within two seconds after getting it.

On the power play, will other teams place a guy on Hammer or Spacek as they did on Bergeron ? I seriously doubt it. So while he may not score as often as he did earlier, I don't really who scores the PP goals.

Anonymous said...

Another great article!

We just won four games without Lapierre and I certainally would be willing to try the rest of the season without him. Last year I thought he contributed but this year he has been a disaster.

MAB is not the greatest defensively but, for me, I would be inclined to use MAB on the fourth line and hope he can add an occassional goal on the PP but really all that matters is that the Habs keep winning!

pierre said...

Nothing but pertinence and good writing.... thanks J.T.

The team is playing as a team and once Cammy is back and big Andree is up to speed firewagon hockey situations when presented wont be a problem either..... there are no reasons not to be optimistic about our last twelves games.... this group is NOT last year's CLUB MED, Montreal edition.

When Gainey-Gauthier decided to eraised the past last june by raising our organisational IQ and depth with the hiring of Martin and Boucher little did I knew that there would be MUCH MORE to come after that..... after all, from experience, the UFA Market had never been kind to Montreal's demmands previously never mind that the up-coming one during last summer was a notoriously bared one in quantity as much as in quality..... there was NOTHING to it yet Gainey was able to mastermind a radical transformation of the CH in a nick of time out of it..... I still look at those 24 hours as being Bob's Golden Moment with us.

I believe that roster stability gives an extra edge to teams having it versus the ones without it..... with our core players signed for the long term I like our futur..... at the extreme opposite of such a notion is our team this season which are presently composed of 11 players who werent here last year..... the good news is that they are starting to mesh just at the right time emulating a type of cohesiveness mostly seen in team unaltered by change like BUFF.

Gainey brough enough fire power last summer but better than that he brough players who recognised the importance of playing as a team.... I give them credit along with Martin to be where we are now despite the serious injuries we had to put up with this year.

Despite a lost or a win Martin kepted saying during the season that the CH had a long way to go about improving itself, saying that attention to details and developping good habits were processes in which time was required in order to bring the type of durable benefits he had in mind..... juging from their performances of late this team has an identity and seems pretty secured about it...... its an exciting time, no doubts.

Another factor about having Bergeron in the line up ready for PP duties...... our players gets less abused by the oppositions.

MC said...

I think the only way it can work with Bergeron is to dress him as the 7th defensemen, go with 11 forwards, and rotate Pleks or Gomez through on the 4th line for about 10 minutes a game. Metro, Gomez,and Darche would give another scoring threat. Bergeron could then specialize on the PP where his shot is a devastating weapon. MAB could also give the D a rest on select shifts with the right match up, which could help our aging defensive core down the stretch.

Otherwise, he has to be a healthy scratch given the success this line up is having. I hate to say it because I like MAB, he competes really hard, but he just can't handle the big forwards down low and fast players often skate right by him on the rush. Maybe with a proper training camp he could improve his defensive play for next year.

Against a team like New Jersey who have taken the fewest minor penalties this year, it would not make sense to dress him. Against a team like Pittsburgh who have taken a lot of minor penalties, then the PP could make a difference in a 7 game series. My two cents.

Andrew Berkshire said...

You spoke too soon JT, Plekanec might be sitting with an injury.

About MAB vs Lapierre, I don't think it's that simple. Putting MAB in the lineup certainly helps the PP, but it kills the ability to roll 4 lines, which is the biggest reason we've been so successful since the olympics ended. The ice time the 4th line was taking up with Lapierre in the lineup ends up being divided between the other lines, and we get in the same rut as we were in before. I thank Bergeron for helping us so much earlier in the season, but without an injury on defense, there's no way he should draw back in.