Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Band of Brothers

To the surprise only of people living in caves for the last six months, Brian Gionta has finally been confirmed as the new Canadiens captain. It's a good, solid, safe choice for the organization. Gionta will never be the guy who needs to be walked around Montreal by the GM to get him out of a self-imposed funk. He'll never be the man photographed partying without discretion in Mexico, or stirring up controversy with an ill-advised word to the media.

On the contrary, Gio will always be the man with the politically-correct answer and the quiet, determined demeanor. He will operate with class and dignity off the ice, and he will always give every bit of himself he's capable of giving to his team on it. He'll take French lessons and patiently attend countless public functions as the official player representative. Gionta isn't a quote machine like Scott Gomez or Mike Cammalleri. He's not going to put up as many points as Tomas Plekanec or be an All-Star like Andrei Markov. But any man in the dressing room who can dog it without guilt after watching Gionta isn't likely to be a Hab for long.

If he had a single message today, in his inaugural address to the media as captain, it was that he won't really be holding office on his own. Markov and Gill will be the official alternates, but Gionta repeatedly credited the "leadership group" that emerged last year, particularly during the playoffs, for the role they played then and will continue to play. Coach Jacques Martin later named the members of that Group of Seven. Along with the three men wearing letters, he mentioned Plekanec, Cammalleri, Gomez and Josh Gorges. There's no doubt all seven are on the same page as Gionta and will back him up in the room and in public. A new captain can't have a better chance to succeed.

The first evidence of the leadership by committee approach in this new season has been in their collective defence of Carey Price. Cammalleri told the fans if they're behind the team, then they need to be behind Price because the team is behind him. Markov, in an interview in a Russian paper, told fans and media to lay off Price because the Halak trade wasn't his fault. Gorges said it's unfair to blame Price for goals against when the rest of the team was making such brutal defensive errors. Plekanec pleaded with the fans to give the kid a break. Gomez, in his inimitable way, told CJAD that fans should be booing Jaroslav Spacek instead of Price. They all have made it clear they stand together, in a way most of us don't remember a Canadiens team doing before, in defence of each other and the group. Take a swipe at one of us, they're saying, and you take one at us all.

When Gionta repeated today that his captaincy won't change much about how things worked last year, he meant it. The role of captain is an important one in Montreal, but the man holding it can't do it all alone. Last year, a group of strangers met in October to start a season. They were forged by adversity and low expectations into an entity stronger than the collection of individuals. Gionta was part of that, a newcomer who became a vital part of the playoff machine. He represents the team that emerged from the post-season battle, but he's not above it. He's a part of it, and every one of the men who went through last year's playoffs with him have his back.

Gionta might not be the funniest guy on the team, or the most skilled. He's certainly not the biggest or the most vocal. In the end, he wasn't chosen to represent any of those things. He was picked to represent the team this group of players has become, with their determination to make sacrifices of physical well-being and emotional comfort in an effort to win together. In that regard, there's nobody better for the job.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Scrap Heap

Johnny Bower, the great Hall of Fame goalie, was about 34 when he played his first full NHL season. He held an NHL job for another 11 years. When Gordie Howe eventually dropped the curtain on his great hockey career, he was 52 years old. It's probably safe to assume nobody will ever be greater at such an advanced age again. Some others have made an honourable run at it, though. Chris Chelios last played in the NHL at 47. Mark Recchi's still at it at 42 and Nik Lidstrom just signed a $6-million deal to play another season at 40. Those guys are the rare exceptions. Most other players aren't as physically blessed, and if I were an NHL player even thirty years of age or older, I'd be really worried about my future.

The NHL has gotten younger every year since the lockout. In 2005, the average NHL player was 27.41 years old. Last year that was down to 27.04. That might not seem to be a terribly great decrease, but when you remember that it's an average, it means that for every 20-year-old who makes an NHL team, there are two guys over 32 who don't.

Guys over 30 are getting treated like goalies these days. There are a lot of them, and most teams hold only a couple of spots for veterans, with the idea of providing "experience" or "leadership." Managers, in their zeal to promote prospects and encourage the progress of draft picks, forget that older guys can actually play hockey too. The problem is, the mature guys expect to be compensated for their contributions to the game and for their intangibles as well as their numbers. Unfortunately for them, the CBA and the hard-core GMs disagree with that sentiment.

The CBA doesn't support older guys. It forces teams to lock up their young talent before the guys hit unrestricted free agency, which often happens before those guys are in their primes. In that situation, a team may be looking at a youngster who's not really put up huge numbers, versus a veteran who reliably can do the job, on speculation that the rookie may outpace the vet in the long run. Given the NHL's lust for potential, the veteran player doesn't have a great chance in that scenario. We've seen guys retire in the last couple of years just because nobody would pay up for what they were worth. In the past, most of those guys would have gotten a "veteran influence, minimal minutes" spot, at least. Now, teams can't afford to spare even a dollar, so those types of players are out of luck.

There's no reason, outside the NHL salary cap, why Mathieu Dandenault should be retiring at age 34. He's not too old or too slow to be an NHL bottom-six defenceman for some team. Same thing for Glen Metropolit. He had to go to Switzerland because no NHL team would cough up the minimal dough it would have cost to have him in the lineup rather than a rookie.

Sure, in some cases, the player just can't understand that he can't cut it anymore. In other cases, though, the player is just dumped because he or his agent expect to be compensated properly and no team will pay him. Jose Theodore, for example. He's a former Vezina winner and had a good season with the Caps last year. You'd think some team would take a chance on him rather than throw their lots in with fringe or unproven goaltenders. Yet, everyone has passed him over because he's over 30 and maybe wants to be paid what his resume says he should get. The trend is toward giving the fringe spots in a lineup to cheap kids or less-talented scrubs because the big dollars go to the talent and there's little to spare.

It's funny, though, looking at the numbers, the age divide on the far ends of the spectrum haven't changed much in the last five years, compared to the five seasons preceeding the lockout. There are similar numbers of 18-20 year olds in the league post-lockout compared to the earlier five years. There are also similar numbers of guys in the 35-40 age group. That tells us the few phenomenal teenagers will always have a place, as will the veteran superstars like Lidstrom and Selanne. There'll be a place for guys who are specialists too. Hal Gill, for example, is an NHL senior citizen, but his play on the PK buys him a job.

Where the league is getting younger is within the middle class. Guys who were good at their jobs once, but may have lost a step as they enter their early thirties, have run out of time. So, Dandenault, who ten years ago would have found a place in the NHL, is now done at 34. Alex Kovalev is wondering if this is his last NHL season, as he looks at the market for guys his age who no longer bring it like they used to. Micheal Ryder will be lucky not to get dumped on waivers to free the cap-strapped Bruins from his salary.

The tolerance for older guys who cost more against the cap has finally run out in the NHL. There's always a desire for a "veteran element" in the foundation of a team's construction, but now a "veteran" is 28-year-old Mike Cammalleri or 31-year-old Andrei Markov. Thirty-six-year-old Roman Hamrlik is in his last contract year and will have trouble finding a job next year.

This past summer marked the first time NHL GMs finally realized the folly of signing players in their thirties, which had once been the prime age for harnessing prime free agents, to long, expensive deals in a salary cap world. Now the guys they signed in the past: Wade Redden, Cristobal Huet and Sheldon Souray find themselves waived to the minors or to Europe. Only Huet is yet 35 years old.

Ten years ago, Mike Modano would have retired a Dallas Star. A first-overall pick when the franchise was in Minnesota, Modano was the team's franchise player for 20 years. In the past, he would have been given a courtesy contract to allow him one last year with the only team he's known. But the capped-out NHL has no place for sentiment and Modano will retire a Detroit Red Wing.

And it's going to get worse. In today's NHL, young is good; cheap and young is better. Guys in their thirties who aren't among the league's talented elite are feeling the squeeze. What's always been an uncertain business with a short shelf-life is getting more uncertain for the guys who find themselves on the scrap heap, waiting for a call. For many of them, that call will never come and they'll end up quietly slipping out of the hockey world for good. They're casualties of the cap in a way guys like Bower and Howe never had to worry about. For fans who see their favourites dismissed because they're no longer 25, it's sad.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I've been uneasy since the Jaroslav Halak trade last summer, which is kind of strange for me. I really liked Halak, but I'm a team-first kind of blogger. Even if I personally like a player, I'll suck up my own disappointment at his departure if the team is better for it. The Halak trade has been bugging me, though. After last night, I'm starting to understand why. It's because the Halak trade was a terrible mistake.

Now, for those of you who are going to start screaming about people who judge Carey Price on the strength of one lousy pre-season game: chill out. I'm with you on that. My belief that the Halak trade was a mistake is not based on skill at all. I think Price has a lot of talent. I think he's had to learn a lot, and learn it early just to survive in Montreal. But I think people are going to make his professional life in that city so difficult he's going to leave.

I watched the first pre-season game against the Bruins, hoping desperately for Price to shine. I wanted him to come out and announce "I'm the number-one goalie, and the team made the right decision to keep me," by the way he played. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Playing behind three rookie defencemen and three vets more interested in testing out their game legs than in winning that game, Price was left alone a lot. The goals he allowed were by no means entirely his fault, but that didn't matter. He needed to be superhuman, in a pre-season game to win the grudging approval of a few hundred idiots in the rafters of the Bell Centre. Honestly, listening to them, I wished there was a way to pick their mascot...the biggest, loudest, stupidest, drunkest one of them all...and stick him in the net for twenty minutes. Then I'd like Carey Price to boo the hell out of him for everybody to hear.

That's not possible, though. So, we have to deal with real facts. They are:

-Carey Price is a very young goalie who's still learning to be a man as well as an NHL goalie.
-Carey Price is talented but not perfect, and has been inconsistent during his learning process.
-Most fans understand the man is struggling to establish himself, but are aware there's a need for a measure of patience in the matter.
-Some other fans are idiots who feel the need to boo the goaltender the organization has chosen to be its future in his first pre-season game of the season.

The problem with this combination of facts is that Price inevitably makes mistakes, lets in huge stinkers and loses games. Every single goalie in the world does the same thing. Price, however, is the only one unlucky enough to be saddled with the tools in parts of the Bell Centre.

The really dumb thing about it is if a few hundred people jeer the goalie, they can be heard over the thousands of people who are cheering the team. Then, the next day, the story is "Price gets booed." Add to that the fact that Price then gets criticized in public for not facing the media to answer such brilliant questions as "How do you feel about getting booed in a pre-season game," and it gets more ridiculous. If he answers that question with a joke about it only being pre-season, he gets criticized for not taking his job seriously. If he beats himself up, he'll be called mentally fragile. He can't win, and standing there to answer questions that have only obvious answers does nothing to endear him to those asking or to those reading what he says.

It all comes together to create a terrible circle of futility. Price comes out tentatively after facing a huge crash in confidence last season. He gives up a weak goal. Fans start booing. Price gets more tentative. The booing gets louder. Price's confidence drops. He starts thinking too much. He makes a mistake and lets in another goal. The booing gets louder. He makes a save and the idiots give him the sarcastic cheer. Price ducks the media. Media write about how Price is making a mistake to duck questions. Price comes out tentative in the next game and the cycle continues.

If the Canadiens had kept Halak, they could have signed him to a similar deal, perhaps a little less, to the one the Blues gave him. He would have made mistakes, let in stinkers and lost games exactly the same as Price will do. The difference is, Halak has never had to live up to anything. He never had to be a hero before he ever played a game in the NHL. He never attracted the attention or the expectations of the idiots. He could have survived in Montreal.

Carey Price will not survive. Nobody could, under these circumstances. He can be as bright and talented as he wants, but the yahoos in the cheap seats don't want to deal with his growing pains. They expected a franchise goalie, and they let him have it when he disappoints. The team is supporting him now, but there's a limit to how long that will last if Price's play starts costing them games.

The common argument to the contrary is that this is nothing new. Jacques Plante said there was nothing worse than having a red light go on and 16-thousand people boo every time he made a mistake at work. Ken Dryden wrote about hearing every boo and every time the crowd started chanting for Bunny Larocque. Patrick Roy threw up his hands in frustration when the crowd jeered him. Those Hall-of-Famers heard the criticism and felt the intended insults keenly. They were also established pros with a history of winning by the time the boos rained down. They weren't youngsters just trying to carve out a career. Plante and Dryden had the crowd early because they were playing on powerhouse teams. Roy pulled off a miracle Cup in his rookie year and bought himself three or four years of tolerance. Price doesn't have either of those advantages. Plante was a native son, Dryden was a mature rookie at 23 and Roy was the cockiest SOB on the planet. Price doesn't have those points in his favour either. He's got a hard job to win back the fans who want to make his home starts embarrassing and miserable whenever he makes a mistake.

It's not even all the fans' fault either. Team management built him up to be the hero people were told to expect. When he didn't turn out to be that hero, some fans reacted like spoiled children and turned on him. The situation can't go on indefinitely, if only because Price is coming to the point in his career at which he can get away from the situation he's in.

And, really, who wouldn't want to bail? Who among those who yell at Price would choose to remain in an environment in which his professional performance is constantly criticized, dissected and examined? If Price remains in Montreal when he's legally allowed to bolt, I will be shocked.

That's why trading Halak was a huge mistake. Price might be a better goalie than Halak, or he might not. In Montreal he'll never have the peace he needs to learn how to be his best. He will leave, and what will happen then? The Canadiens will have no young, talented goalie. They'll be like every other team trying to sign or trade to fill a position at which they were stacked last summer.

I want Price to succeed, but he's going to have to be extraordinarily mentally strong to put up with the crap he hears in Montreal. The only way he can turn things around is by winning a lot more than he loses. That's tough to do when you're getting crap for every mistake. When it comes time to re-sign, I wonder if he will. I'm very uneasy about the whole situation, and the future of a position about which the Canadiens shouldn't have had to worry.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rhino Burn

The definition of "tipping point" is the culmination of a build-up of small changes that effects a big change. In climatology, it means the point at which environmental damage cannot be reversed. In epidemiology, it's when the number of people with a disease begins to rapidly increase within a population. For Ryan O'Byrne, it's the 2010-11 NHL season. This is the year when O'Byrne either proves he's a valuable part of the Canadiens roster, he becomes trade bait, or he's simply let walk at the end of the year.

His career actually started out really well. After leaving Cornell a year early to go pro, he got the call from Montreal just before Christmas in 2007. In his first NHL game against the hated Bruins, he scored his first two big-league points, both assists. He played a great game. His size and mobility had Habs fans and management drooling at the possibilities he brought to the lineup. In 32 more games that year, he added a goal and four additional assists to his total. He didn't really play as strong a complete game again, but the promise was there. People were willing to forgive a lot because of his physical stature and because he was considered a little behind his peers developmentally, having spent three seasons in the college ranks.

Then, things started to go wrong for him. Three weeks after that great game in Boston, he broke his thumb in a fight in Florida. He missed 16 games. When he came back to the lineup, again in Florida, he was arrested for the infamous purse-snatching incident, which turned out to be an effort to protect a teammate from having damaging photos made public. Bob Gainey let him off the hook for that one.

Gainey signed him to a 3-year contract that summer, but he was never able to keep his spot in the lineup. He spent 18 games of the 2008-09 season in Hamilton, and played only 37 in Montreal, including the unfortunate Islanders game in which he scored the own-goal winner. It was a month after that, on New Year's Eve, that he was demoted. He never really got his confidence back.

O'Byrne came into camp last year, stronger, confident and determined to finally win a real job with the Canadiens. When Andrei Markov got hurt in the first game of the year, the team had a lot of defensive minutes to fill, and O'Byrne was playing well. Then, less than a week later, O'Byrne went down to a knee injury and missed 19 games himself. He came back, but six weeks later missed another seven games while spending time with his terminally-ill mother. By the time he returned, in late January, the Canadiens were already fighting for their playoff lives and O'Byrne's place had been taken by Marc Andre Bergeron. Jacques Martin decided Bergeron's shot on the PP gave the Habs a better chance of winning than a rusty, distracted O'Byrne did when everyone was healthy. If O'Byrne was playing and made a glaring giveaway or found himself out of position on an opposition scoring chance, Martin gave few second chances. The defenceman began to worry mistakes would mean his butt would quickly collect splinters.

The thing is, when O'Byrne got ice time with Markov, he was steady-to-good on most nights. He was never really a top-four guy without his all-star partner, but he was certainly good enough to play NHL top-six minutes. He'll never blind a goalie with his slapper, but he has a decent wrist shot. And he has promise to get better. What it comes down to, is the guy has been extraordinarily unlucky. The long college stint with few games played, the arrest, the legendary own goal, the injuries, the family problems and losing the coach's confidence have all combined to nearly destroy his own.

A lot of critics look at O'Byrne and say, well he's 26 and he's played 125 games in the NHL; there should be no excuse now for rookie mistakes and inconsistency. It might be argued, however, that O'Byrne's 125 games have been played under unusually difficult circumstances.

This year he's come into camp again, one season left on that Gainey three-year deal to prove he belongs in Montreal. He's saying the right things. He's been working out hard and is physically healthy. He's taken boxing lessons to improve his fitness and balance, and provide a set of fists in defence of his smaller teammates. He's even consulted with a sports psychologist to work on his confidence, which has been battered and beaten in the last three seasons. His body language says something else, though. Watching him speak, he looks as though he knows he's on the clock. There's a bleakness under the determination in his face and posture.

It won't be easy for him. When all the Canadiens' defencemen are healthy this year, including rookie P.K. Subban, who'll be playing top-six minutes, O'Byrne's likely to be the seventh guy. He's got a shot to make an impression early, with Markov out to start the year, and Roman Hamrlik possibly missing some time as well. If he can hit without taking himself out of the play, make calm, accurate passes out of his own end and contribute to the offence a little bit, he'll have a chance. He's able to do it, but this season, without the distractions he's faced in other years, he's got to do it consistently. If he's consistent, he can push a veteran to claim a place of his own.

O'Byrne offers something the Habs don't really have in their system, in the combination of his size, his skating ability and his decent vision. Jarred Tinordi will be that guy in about three years, but now the role is O'Byrne's to fill. Hamrlik, Gill and Spacek are all ten years older and won't be around in two years. If O'Byrne can establish a claim to a full-time job in Montreal, he could be around a while. If, on the other hand, he has another unlucky, inconsistent season, he'll probably be gone next season.

He's at the tipping point.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Plekanec Rising

It's only a few months behind us, but already the Canadiens' unexpected and impressive playoff run of last spring is fading gracefully into a series of snapshots; sepia-tinted memories of two exciting, riveting months that brought fans and team together. Cammalleri batting a goal out of the air. Snap. Halak stopping two, three, four shots in a row. Snap. Plekanec burying the Game One winner in OT, Subban mirroring Crosby's moves in the corner, Moen blowing by Gonchar to score. Snap. Snap. Snap. The mental photographs of the playoff run are indelible and romantic. The truth is, while the spring was great fun, it's fall now and the players believe they've still got work to do before they're sitting back, satisfied, drinking beer from the Cup.

Pierre Gauthier gave his "state of the team" address this week, and he discussed the reasoning behind the summer's moves. High on his to-do list, he mentioned, was the re-signing of Tomas Plekanec. Management wanted to keep the playoff core intact, and Gauthier said Plekanec is a key part of that core. The centreman's new, six-year deal and accompanying no-trade clause both lock him up and free him. Security works both ways in the NHL.

Plekanec is a very involved part of the way the team functions on the ice, racking up time in every situation. He's facing pressure to perform and prove, again, that he's worth the contract he signed. Still, he says, he didn't spend the summer thinking up offensive targets for this year.

"I didn't set any goals," he reveals. "I just want to be healthy and play in a way that will help the team. It is always nice when you add up goals and assists, but my game is not about points. It's two-way play and it goes back to the playoffs performance."

Plekanec's playoff performance was dissected like a lab frog all summer. He put up decent offensive numbers, but he also played a vital shut-down role, especially against Sidney Crosby in the Penguins series. The closer he shadowed Crosby, the fewer points he scored himself. At the same time, Crosby wasn't scoring either, but the drop in Plekanec's numbers had the casual fan wondering why he "disappeared" in the playoffs.

"Unfortunately, that's the way it is," Plekanec explains. "I'm sure that if I said "it bothers me" it wouldn't change a thing. At the end of the season, at the press conference, Coach Martin answered this question about my performance and my role in the playoffs. It's just too bad some people didn't recognize it. I still think I did my job well enough to help the team go through that second round."

Part of the perception of Plekanec's playoffs has to do with the infamous "little girl" comment in the second round against the Flyers two years ago. When asked about his performance in the midst of a frustrating, losing series, he said, "I'm playing like a little girl." The comment has followed him ever since.

"I'm not sure if 'regret' is the right word," he says when asked about whether he'd like a do-over on that statement. "I was obviously thinking about this 'quote' a lot. I was disappointed that some people interpreted it the wrong way. But at the end of the day, it didn't change anything in my career. To answer that question straight up, yes, I would have used a different metaphor."

That's all in the past now, and Plekanec has earned his new contract. He's been a workhorse for the Habs, regardless of his opinions about his own play. This season, he'll be expected to continue playing the first minute of every penalty kill and power play, as well as facing off against the toughest lines the opposition can throw out on the ice. Some speculate that the physical responsibility of the penalty kill wore him down toward the end of last year, but Plekanec says the power play is actually the tougher assignment.

"I'd say the power play because the fans expect you to score," he explains. "Really, it's all important, but the power play has to give you a boost for even-strength play, even if you don't score. The same can be said for the penalty kill. If you kill a big PK, it will give you a boost for even strength also."

The one role that seemed beyond him last year, and in which he'd like to improve, was the shootout. As the team's leading scorer, he hoped to be better in those situations. The baffling part to him was his success in game breakaways in comparison.

"I'm not sure why that is. When I was a kid in junior or even before, I was excellent in shootouts. Maybe I'm thinking too much, even if I don't want to," he muses. On regular breakaways, you have no time to think. That's the only way I can explain it."

He has the comfort now of knowing he's got the next six years in Montreal to work on his game and contribute without the fear of a trade throwing his life and career suddenly into chaos. The new contract and its no-trade clause should mean his name won't come up in trade rumours as often as it did a couple of seasons ago, when he was reported to be included in a proposed deal for Vincent Lecavalier. Still, he thinks the security the contract offers doesn't mean he can become complacent.

"Well, first of all, 'no trade' clause doesn't mean much," he reasons. "If somebody asks you to leave, I don't think you'll want to stay, right? And obviously, if your name is in all the rumours it's not a great feeling."

That's a feeling Plekanec, with a couple of good wingers beside him, shouldn't have again for a while. He's looking forward to the fresh start of a new season. He's been playing squash and tennis and following ex-Habs conditioning coach Scott Livingston's fitness program to get ready physically. Mentally, he feels the responsibility of a veteran to be a leader, although he's not about to start giving pep talks.

"Well, I don't think that people from the outside will see the difference I could make," he says. "I won't change. I am a quiet person and my leadership shows through my performace on the ice more than in the dressing room."

The snapshots of memory created during the last playoffs have raised expectations for this year's team. The players know each other now, and are going into the season mostly healthy, which they so often weren't last year. Plekanec says the experience the Cup-winning veterans bring to the lineup is invaluable, and will come in handy when the playoffs roll around again.

There's a lot of hockey on the schedule before next spring, though. The games, no matter how talented the players, still have to be fought and won if the Canadiens want to make some more of those golden playoff moments. However the season turns out, though, there's no doubt Tomas Plekanec will play an important part in writing and illustrating this year's Montreal Canadiens story.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Science of Expectation

Rookie camp is just about to wrap up in Montreal, with most of the Habs prospects and invitees likely knowing they won't get a real NHL spot to start this season. Most of them are jockeying for position on the call-up list and hoping to get noticed for something...anything...that will stamp their passports to Montreal if a place should open during the season. First-timers like Jarred Tinordi are busy just checking things out and making a good impression. A guy like Ben Maxwell who, at 22, is four years removed from his draft year, is getting a bit more desperate. He's had no points in his 20 NHL games to date and the chances to show he can play in the big league are running out as players behind him push hard for their own opportunities. He fought PK Subban in camp, not just because of the frustration of losing a lopsided scrimmage, but because of the frustration of his career situation.

In a newspaper article published in the summer, Josh Gorges was referred to as a "veteran defenceman" for the Canadiens. While it's true Gorges cracked the San Jose Sharks lineup when he was just 21, it's funny to think of a man who's 26 years old as a "veteran" anything. In the real world, a person who's 26 would be breaking into his or her chosen career field, or perhaps still in graduate school. Lots of 26-year-olds are just trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. In the rest of the world, 26 is very much a rookie.

In the compressed career of a hockey player, in which an entire professional life is crammed into less than 20 years, age is a very relative thing. Gorges may be a veteran after five NHL seasons because in ten years he may be finished altogether. Maxwell may be running out of time because he's set to spend a third precious year under contract in the minors. So, because of the small window of opportunity to play pro hockey, young players work out like maniacs to build their bodies bigger, faster and stronger as quickly as possible. As a result, hockey players' bodies are fitter and more impressive than those of most of their peers.

Their minds aren't any better, though. While a player can control, to an extent, the amount of weight he gains and the shape of his body, he can't control the development of his brain. It grows and matures in exactly the same way as those of other young people of the same age. Now science is proving that parts of the human brain don't fully develop until the early-to-mid 20s. Those final areas to mature tend to be important to playing professional hockey at top speed.

The Society for Neuroscience said in January, 2007:
"Scientists once thought the brain's key development ended within the first few years of life. Now, thanks to advanced brain imaging technology and adolescent research, scientists are learning more about the teenage brain both in health and in disease. They know now that the brain continues to develop at least into a person's twenties. Other parts of the brain also undergo refinement during the teen years. Areas associated with more basic functions, including the motor and sensory areas, mature early. Areas involved in planning and decision-making, including the prefrontal cortex -- the cognitive or reasoning area of the brain important for controlling impulses and emotions -- appear not to have yet reached adult dimension during the early twenties. The brain's reward center, the ventral striatum, also is more active during adolescence than in adulthood, and the adolescent brain still is strengthening connections between its reasoning- and emotion-related regions."

In other words, a young hockey player's brain may be perfectly able to control agility, speed and vision, but it's entirely to be expected that it can't control emotion or have the ability to make quick, rational decisions in the same way an older adult does. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health puts it this way:

"Studies have suggested that the frontal lobes do not fully mature until young adulthood. To confirm this in living humans, the UCLA researchers compared MRI scans of young adults, 23-30, with those of teens, 12-16. They looked for signs of myelin, which would imply more mature, efficient connections, within gray matter. As expected, areas of the frontal lobe showed the largest differences between young adults and teens. This increased myelination in the adult frontal cortex likely relates to the maturation of cognitive processing and other "executive" functions."

The journal Nature Neuroscience says:
"Neuropsychological studies show that the frontal lobes are essential for such functions as response inhibition, emotional regulation, planning and organization."

It's generally recognized that most hockey players really come into their own, or "enter their primes" at around 24-25 years of age. It's very reasonable to assume this maturation period has less to do with his physical abilities than it does with the development of his brain to the point at which his decision-making, emotional control and strategic thinking are on the same level as the skills of his legs and hands. The military knows and uses this fact, deliberately recruiting younger soldiers who are more malleable mentally than older ones.

Of course, there are some players who make it at a very early age. Their physical skills are so great, they're able to dominate even before they're fully mentally mature. Carey Price, for example, made the NHL at age 20. Nobody denies he's got elite-level skills, but he's often been criticized for the apparent emotional and mental immaturity that's led to on-ice inconsistency. The thing is, he's perfectly normal. This year, at 23, his brain development is just catching up to his physical skill level. If he suddenly seems able to control his emotions and make smart, quick decisions, critics will rave about how he's finally living up to his hype. Really, though, he's just finishing his normal brain growth.

The guys like Maxwell, who are good, but not great, are the ones who really have it tough. In a competition for jobs in which every advantage is vital, the kid whose brain development is slightly ahead will probably look better on the ice. Scouts will comment on his "hockey sense." The average, or slightly-below-average kid in terms of rate of brain development, will lag behind in that area. Unfortunately for those players, they can't control how quickly their mental faculties achieve maturity. They just have to wait for it to happen on schedule. The problem is, the tiny window of opportunity a player has in which to prove he can be an NHL player often closes before he really grows up.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The New Kids

Remember on the first day of school, when you'd show up with your new school bag and the jeans with the crease still in the legs, all nervous about your new teacher? Or at least you were nervous until you looked around and saw the new kid, standing there miserably uncertain and alone. The new kid has the toughest job in school. He's got to be cool enough to fit in, but not cocky enough to have the other kids think he's a jerk. If he's weird or different, he'll be eaten alive.

The Canadiens' new kids are facing a big challenge too. They'll all have jobs to do, but even more importantly, they'll also have to find a place on a team that bonded pretty tightly last spring. Chemistry within a team is a delicate thing. Last season, management purged the distractions of Georges Laraque and Sergei Kostitsyn, to help build that chemistry. The guys coming in will have some pressure on them to fit in and make sure they don't rock what has become a very stable team foundation.

Jeff Halpern will find a place. He's a smart guy, with an economics degree from Princeton. He's been a leader too, having captained his college team in his senior year, as well as Team USA at the 2008 World Championships and the Washington Capitals. Having been the leader of the pack before, he knows how important it is for the new guy to ease his way in and not try to take over. He understands he's got to work to get respect, because he's done it everywhere he's been.

"But I think the biggest thing is my approach that my job can be taken away at any moment, from Day 1," Halpern said in 2008. "This game is so enjoyable. I always say the best thing about the NHL is you get to continue your youth. And get to do it for a living. I know the players who have moved on, they miss being in a room with the competitive atmosphere of the season."

Halpern also knows the pain of losing, first hand. In his senior year in college, Princeton was tied with Michigan in the NCAA playoffs when he scored the winning goal on his own net. It took a long time for him to get over that, but he learned patience, humility and perseverance from the experience. That's the kind of mindset the Canadiens can welcome.

He's had personal difficulty to overcome in his life as well. In 2001, Halpern tore his anterior cruciate ligament on January 16, ironically, in a game against the Canadiens, and had season-ending surgery. He was coming off a strong second season offensively, but never scored as many goals again after the operation. Tragedy struck his family on February 11, 2005 when his mother, Gloria, along with his aunt and uncle were killed in a horrific automobile accident. Those kinds of sorrows and disappointments make or break a man, and Halpern has survived.

Alex Auld is another guy who will probably fit in pretty well. He's bounced around the NHL for his entire career, never quite making a bid to be a number-one goalie. The Canadiens are his eighth team and by now, he's used to being the new kid. He says all the right things, accepting his role as a backup. He won't complain if he doesn't play much. He'll also have his teammates' backs in a way other guys respect.

In 2006, while backing up Ed Belfour with the Panthers, Belfour caused a disturbance in a nightclub. A bunch of his teammates, including Auld, tried to get him to leave and go up to his room. Witnesses said Belfour was flailing around and fighting off his teammates. At some point during the proceedings, Auld fell and smacked his head, causing him to miss playing time. He could have skewered Belfour and told the truth about what happened. Instead, he sucked it up, said it was an accident and partly his fault, and helped reduce the heat on Belfour. That's the kind of guy who makes an effort to be part of the team.

It's kind of cool he was actually a goalie model for the creators of NHL 07 too, so at least he's got a conversation starter in his favour.

Dustin Boyd has never done anything really noteworthy in the NHL, or even given a memorable interview. He's just a kid with some skills who's never been able to find the consistency to fulfill that talent. He's looking at his third team in two years, so he's got to know he's on borrowed time to prove something at the NHL level. The good thing about him is he's got a reputation for hard work and a willingness to stand up for his mates. If he does that and spends his time trying to even out his game, he'll find a place.

Lars Eller is a kid who's more than a self-interested hockey player. In playing for the Blues' AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, last season, he became the team's nominee for AHL man of the year, for his outstanding contributions to the local community and charitable organizations. Most of the guys who receive those nominations are the older guys who've been around a while. It's not often that a rookie, especially a European rookie playing his first North American season, gets a nod like that. It says something about the kind of character Eller has.

On the ice, he joined PK Subban on the AHL all-rookie team; a fact a lot of people forget when drooling over Subban's potential. He didn't waste time scoring in the NHL either, potting one in his first game for the Blues. He showed he can step it up in big games when he helped Denmark beat the US at the World Championships last year. His skill and his off-ice demeanor are both needed on the Canadiens roster, and if he works hard, he'll have a place. (A little aside for fans who hate the leafs: Eller was actually chosen with the first-round pick Toronto sent to San Jose in the Vesa Toskala/Mark Bell trade. Thanks, leafs.)

The last new guy the Habs will welcome this year is P.K. Subban. After last spring's playoffs, we forget this is actually Subban's rookie season and that he's played only two regular-season NHL games. Still he's already proven he can fit in with the team pretty seamlessly. Unusually for a new kid, he even adds something important to the room. It's almost prophetic when you look back at some of the things Subban has said about his competitive mindset.

"It kind of just clicks! I mean the playoffs are where good players are separated from the great players, and that's what motivated me", he said during the Belleville Bulls playoff run in 2007. "I wanted to be better than everybody else in the most important time of the year."

In the same year, just after his draft, an interviewer asked him what NHL team or player he most looked forward to playing against. He said, "Sidney Crosby, because I look forward to challenging him one on one." Remembering how he performed in the playoffs for the Canadiens, and specifically, how brilliantly he matched Crosby move for move, it's clear Subban has the determination he needs to achieve his goals. That belongs on this Habs' roster. It's the type of attitude Pierre Gauthier meant when he talked today about the Canadiens being skilled and intelligent.

Subban is also careful to understand his immense, and really undeserved (just yet), popularity could be a source of division in the room. He welcomes the teasing of the veterans and speaks with great humility to make sure his teammates know he's not getting a fat head from all the attention. This is a kid too smart not to find his niche.

The first days with a new group are never easy for the new kids. It's especially tough when the group is as tight as the Habs became last spring. These newcomers, though, have the tools and the attitude they need to fit into that group. And fitting in is the first and most important step in being able to effectively do the jobs for which they were hired.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Cavalry's Coming

You can bet nobody is as happy as Tomas Plekanec at the Canadiens' signing of Jeff Halpern yesterday. Halpern is something the Canadiens haven't had in quite a while: a real, true-blue defensive specialist. In the last several years, the guys the Habs have used to fill that role in the bottom six have been former goal scorers on the downside, or aging vets lacking at least one of the tools needed to be an ideal shut-down player.

Halpern fills a perfect niche for the Canadiens. He's 34, so not too old. He's a PK specialist, and a right-handed centre with a bit of size. Best of all, he wins faceoffs. In the last five NHL seasons, he's consistently above 51% on the draw, which would make him the Habs' best centreman in that department. That should make a big difference to the Canadiens' game. Puck possession starts with the faceoff, and the Habs lost 50.3% of theirs last season. Plekanec, in particular, didn't have a great year in the faceoff circle, finishing with only a 49% win rate. That's a tough stat, because he took the majority of the team's draws...1615 of them, which placed him third in the league behind Sidney Crosby and Paul Stastny. A guy who takes that many faceoffs needs to have a better percentage on the draw if the team is to be successful in the puck possession game. Plekanec is capable of better; he was at 51% in 2008-09, but it's not his specialty. Having a guy like Halpern, with a better chance of winning big draws, gives the puck to the Canadiens more often. And, as they say, you can't score if you don't have the puck, it's also true you score more often if you *do* have the puck. That's good for the offensively-talented guys like Plekanec who benefit when they have more scoring chances.

The addition of Halpern also gives Plekanec a break on the defensive side of the game. Last season, Plekanec played an average of 2:44 a game on the PK, versus his 2:38 on the PP. Part of that is because the Canadiens as a team were shorthanded and on the power play an even 148 times. Ideally, though, Plekanec should get more time on the PP and at even strength so he can really focus on scoring goals. Killing penalties is hard work and a guy who does it several times a night will feel it later in the year. It's no coincidence that Plekanec's rate of production began to drop after the Olympic break. He had 21 points in 17 games in December when he was fresh. In March and April, he had just 10 points in 19 games. He also took 14 minutes of penalties in the 19 games post-Olympics, as compared with just 10 PIM in 26 games over October and November. Tired players take more hooking and holding calls than fresh ones. With Halpern in the lineup, Plekanec should spend less time on the PK this season, which will help him keep his legs for the stretch run.

Halpern, by winning faceoffs in the defensive zone, should also help cut down on the number of dumb penalties the Habs take in the first place. If they're in possession of the puck and moving it out of their zone efficiently off the draw, there's less running around and taking desperate tripping, hooking or interference penalties.

Halpern's signing, especially at the reported $600-thousand is a great deal for the Habs. He's got a good reputation for hard work and leadership in the dressing room, which fits with the attitude the team developed in the playoffs. His pay is very cap-friendly and leaves that extra bit of money for the possible acquisition of some deadline playoff help if needed. He can also use his right-handed shot on the PP, like Glen Metropolit did last year, to pot a few goals now and then.

The only possible drawback is the message it sends to the kids in the organization that the big team is set already. It doesn't leave an easy opening for a guy like White, Pacioretty, Desharnais or Maxwell to grab a roster spot. On the other hand, if one of those guys has such a great camp that it's impossible to cut him, Halpern outranks Mathieu Darche on the depth chart. The kids don't have to beat Halpern. They have to beat out Darche, which is still possible for them to do.

There are a lot of reasons for fans to be pleased with the Halpern signing. If he stays healthy, he's going to fix a couple of cracks in last year's lineup. Sometimes, the small things are the things that really make a difference in the big picture. The players know that, and we can assume that's why Tomas Plekanec should be smiling today.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Special Teams

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we've got ourselves a least to start the season. With Carey Price signed to back up Alex Auld*, the Habs are okay in net. They have seven NHL-calibre defencemen in Markov, Subban, Hamrlik, Spacek, Gill, Gorges and O'Byrne, and at least three more capable of playing in the NHL if needed. The top two lines are set for now, with Plekanec, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn on the first and Gomez, Gionta and Pouliot on the second. Of the remaining seven forward positions, Darche, Lapierre, Moen and Pyatt have four of them and two more will likely be taken by Boyd and Eller. It seems like the only question to be answered at camp will be who'll win the battle for that last bottom-line job.

There are a couple of specific problems the coaching staff will be trying to solve at camp, though. The Habs' special teams need help right out of the gate.

The Canadiens power play has finished top five in the NHL four times in the last five years, topping the league twice. That's because it's followed a very successful formula. Setting up three slick forwards around the circles draws the defenders in. Lining up Andrei Markov on the left point with a left-shooting cannon on the right opens up the deadly attack from the blue line. If opponents defend the net, they get burned from the point. If they defend the point shot, Markov sneaks in and burns them at the net. It doesn't really matter who's firing the cannon. Sheldon Souray had a career year on the PP with Markov. He bolted to Edmonton and Mark Streit stepped in, keeping the PP in first place. When Streit left for New York, the team attempted to make Markov the shooter on the PP, rather than the set-up guy. It was horrible. The Habs hovered near last place in power-play goals for most of the season, until, in desperation, Bob Gainey went out and traded for Mathieu Schneider. Things started to turn around right away. Last year, there wasn't a plan until Markov got hurt and Gainey hired Marc Andre Bergeron and his bazooka point shot.

So, going into this season, the PP is again missing a trigger man. When the roster is healthy, Subban will be taking Bergeron's spot in the lineup. That would be fine, because Subban's got a rocket of a shot too, if he wasn't a right-handed shooter. He is, though, so he's not going to work with Markov on the one-timer like Streit, Souray and Bergeron did. Yannick Weber has a nice, heavy shot, but there's no room for him on the team unless he displaces O'Byrne in camp or someone else gets hurt early on in the season. So, in camp this year, there will have to be a solution to the missing link on the power play.

Barring a significant change on D, or Spacek finding his shot this year, something's got to change with that old successful formula. A couple of the choices are to have a forward...perhaps Andre the right point, with Subban setting up in the mid-slot like he did at the 2009 World Junior Championships. It's possible to have Subban be the point man on the right with someone other than Markov setting him up. Another idea is to have Subban take the left point and Markov the right, in the shooter's role. It didn't work before, but Markov never had anybody who could work the puck like Subban before. There are some possibilities there, but the coaches need to have something in place by the time camp is over.

The PK needs some help too, mainly because Tomas Plekanec shouldn't be killing every penalty this year. He had a great season last year, but his point production dropped off somewhat after the Olympics. He looked like he was out of gas as the playoffs wound down too. Killing penalties is hard work, and Plekanec is good at it, which is helpful when a team takes as many as the Habs do. In the last few years, however, Pleks has really developed the offensive side of his game and he should be allowed to focus on that more this season. He should only be killing penalties in really vital situations so he stays fresher down the stretch. That means someone else has to step up in that role. It's an opportunity for Boyd, Eller or White (if he makes it) to take on some of the PK responsibility and let guys like Pleks and Gomez worry about scoring the goals.

Special teams are more important than ever in the NHL, so camp is the time to fill some of those holes and identify solutions. The Canadiens can't open the season this year just hoping the PP will work itself out, or that Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez can kill every penalty. Now that the roster is pretty much set to start the new campaign, it's up to the coaches to put the right men in the right jobs and trust they make the decisions that will give the team the best start it can get.

*Just kidding! Couldn't resist.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Course of Action

There's a lot to look forward to in the new hockey season, especially now that the Carey Price Two Step has wrapped up, to the satisfaction of all but a few disgruntled fanatics who think he's desperately overpaid. With that settled, the new question up for debate is who will be the next captain? The consensus is that it will almost certainly be one of Markov, Cammalleri, Gionta or Gorges, with Gionta probably in the lead and Gorges a sentimental favourite. Regardless of which man Jacques Martin chooses to wear the "C," however, that man needs to have a plan. He's not only got to take the team under his leadership, but he's got to get a handle on the outside forces that affect the Canadiens as well.

Everybody knows the general obsession with the Habs has led to a level of media exposure and public two languages...very few pro hockey players experience. That's what makes the captain's role in Montreal different from that in any other NHL city. In Montreal, the captain of the Canadiens is a celebrity with a great deal of responsibility.

That's why whoever gets appointed captain needs to be very direct and firm in his dealing with the media. The first thing he needs to do is be very forthright about the language issue. As ridiculous as many people regard making an issue of the language a hockey player speaks, there's an element among Montreal fans and media that will constantly harp on the fact that the new captain doesn't speak French. And, unless the captain is Maxim Lapierre, that will inevitably be the case. So, the new captain can't politely sidestep the issue like Saku Koivu did. He needs to come right out, before he's even asked about it, and tell people he either has already learned or plans to soon learn enough French to make himself understood, as a sign of respect. It would be even better, though, if he hired himself a translator until he's ready to speak French himself. Bring in an eager student from McGill or Concordia and pay him or her $30 an hour to stand beside the captain after practices and games and translate for the French media. That would eliminate the French issue right from the start.

The second thing that needs to be addressed is the media dissection of the team in the form of rumours or innuendo. It's not the captain's place to address damaging media stories about teammates' outside behaviour unless he knows for a fact they're false. But he can certainly make it clear that falsehood and rumour-mongering won't be tolerated by the players. The ideal thing for him to do would be to serve notice immediately by holding a press conference and announcing that any reporter who makes up anything to hurt the team would be persona non grata in the dressing room. The captain can't prevent the team's PR people from allowing the press in, but he can influence who he'll talk to and who he'll advise his teammates to talk to. In fact, he can even take it a step further. If the media is riding, say, Carey Price, in a way the captain feels is unfair, he can tell the offending reporters that Price will no longer be speaking to them. They'll have to go through the captain instead.

It would be a nice stamp of ownership of the captaincy for the new guy to do something of his own for the community as well. The players may contribute to big charities on their own, and they're obliged to take part in certain team-arranged events. It would be a fine gesture, though, if the captain were to be the head of a small, local effort supported by just his teammates. Maybe something like sponsoring a minor hockey team at whose practices the captain shows up to offer tips once in a while. It would be a way to get a little more personal with the community.

It's also important for the new captain to make sure his teammates know he's got their backs first. He'll be appointed by management, and in that kind of situation there has to be at least some level of wondering in the room about whether he's the team's guy or the coach's guy. The captain needs to be there for his teammates first, and he needs to let them know it right away.

A new captain could certainly earn himself some points and some valuable tips by calling up Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey and inviting them to lunch...a sort of captain's round table. Those guys know better than anyone how to succeed as a captain in Montreal and it could only be a good thing to talk to them about it.

None of those ideas are difficult or all that time-consuming to implement, but they're the kinds of things the new captain should be willing to try. The year without anybody wearing the "C" has effectively laid to rest the ghost of Saku Koivu for most fans. It's no longer a crime for someone to be the captain, as it would have seemed last year. Now that there will certainly be a captain, he needs to put his own stamp on the position and take control. If the Canadiens are going to be serious about winning, they need to have a no-BS captain who's willing to speak his mind in public as well as behind the dressing room door.

It's exciting to not only look forward to a new captain, but to see how he develops his own identity in that role as well. Whoever it is, let's hope he's got a plan.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Kovy and the Habs

So, little Gary Bettman shook his big...executive Donald Fehr and expected the ex-baseball union man to quake in his boots? It'll be interesting to see what happens with the revamped Ilya Kovalchuk deal, now that the NHL has apparently thrown an ultimatum at the players' association. Bettman wants the players to tweak the CBA to close the front-loaded contract "oversight," in exchange for the NHL's approval of the Kovy contract. The NHL is looking for cap hits on multi-year deals that end when a player is 40, so the hit would be an average of the years up until that age. The league also wants a cap-calculation formula that places a greater cap hit on the years with higher salary. Punishment for the players refusing to re-open the CBA early will be swift and deadly. Not only will Bettman and Co. reject the Kovalchuk deal, they'll also cancel Roberto Luongo's contract and start investigating Marian Hossa's as possible cases of cap circumvention. The deadline for a decision remains 5:00 tomorrow afternoon.

The latest monkey wrench thrown into the gears, though, is the players' association decision to delay confirming Fehr as executive director until the 30 team reps review his conditions of employment. The conditions include a $3-million a year salary, a legal consulting job for Fehr's lawyer brother and absolute autonomy to make personnel decisions within the union. The rumour is that some guys, like Calgary's Robin Regehr, may have cold feet about Fehr and/or his conditions. The upshot of that is the players approach the Friday deadline on the Kovalchuk deal with no leadership. The deadline could conceivably be extended, if there's progress in the discussion (to be read as: if the players show signs of bending to Bettman's desire.) A delay could give the players enough time to get Fehr installed and take a position on the issue. Then again, if I were Fehr, I'd have to ask whether I really want to join a group that's leaking my employment demands to Larry Brooks at the New York Post. In addition, on the timeline of the hockey season, this is all dragging on a little too close to the start of camp.

So, here we are with little Gary flexing his muscle and testing the currently-leaderless NHLPA's resistance. This will go one of two ways. It will either mean the players association caves in order to keep Bettman from nixing some of its highest-profile contracts, and agrees to changes in the CBA to prevent those types of contracts from happening in the future. Or, the players, without a leader, will refuse to grant CBA concessions and open a huge can of worms, contractually speaking.

If the players agree to the concessions in exchange for approval of the Kovalchuk deal, I'd hope they also argue to include a change or two of their own. Maybe, for example, that a player can request a renegotiation of his deal if he so chooses. I'm sure some guys, like perhaps, Cristobal Huet, would be inclined to take a pay cut in order to remain in the NHL or stay with a cap-strapped team, if they were allowed to make changes in their contracts. I don't expect the players to have their own concerns heard here, though. Again, it goes back to having no leadership, which is why Bettman is pursuing this right now.

So, assuming the players cave and agree to Bettman's demands, there are a few possible effects on the Habs. First, Kovalchuk will be allowed to play with the Devils for the foreseeable future, even though the NHL has admitted the Devils tried to circumvent the cap. The Canadiens could do without a superstar scoring forward in Jersey.

Second, the Canadiens won't get to do the same thing for Markov. I don't know if Gauthier had it in mind to try a front-loaded deal, but it would have made sense for the Habs to get their best defenceman to finish his career in Montreal with an attractive cap hit. That possibility, and the chance of doing it for future players like Cammalleri, Price or Subban will be gone. In the meantime, teams like Philly, Chicago, Vancouver, Jersey and Detroit that have already taken advantage of the loophole to stack their teams will be allowed to continue to do so. That creates an unfair competitive environment.

Third, there's no mention anywhere about grandfathering in existing contracts when it comes to applying the new cap-hit math. If that were to apply to all contracts, the Gomez deal would hurt the Habs more than it does already because he still has two years of making a higher salary than his cap hit, which is one of the things Bettman's proposed new formula would address. In the new formula, the annual cap hit would actually be closer to the real value of the salary in the player's highest-paid years, which could boost Gomez' cap hit for two years. On the other hand, his hit would be lower for the years following, when he's got a lower actual dollar value versus cap hit...but then he'd be harder to trade to a cap-floor team that wants to pay less money in exchange for a higher hit.

Worst of all, if Bettman is allowed to run roughshod over the players' association now, it doesn't look good for a peaceful CBA negotiation in two years. If the players confirm Fehr as executive director, he'll want to save face next time the association is up against Bettman. It won't be pleasant or easy, and could possibly mean another lockout or a players' strike. That's not good for any team or for hockey fans.

On the other hand, the average-joe NHLer, some of whom might be player reps for their teams and have voting power in this issue, might be glad to see the end of the big, front-loaded deal. They know only the elite players get rewarded with those. In the meantime, because the cap averages don't match up with actual money paid out by the teams...on which the players' percentage of league revenue is based...that means there's less actual money for the middle-of-the-road player. If, for example, a team makes a million bucks and the players' share is 540-thousand of that, if a team has to pay one guy 100-thousand, there's a limited amount the rest of the team can share. Even if the guy's cap hit says he's only counting for 60-thousand of that million, he's still taking more actual money out of the players' percentage. This aspect of things wouldn't affect the Habs too much, because most of the Canadiens' big contracts, with the exception of Gomez, are evenly balanced between cap hit and actual salary. League-wide, though, every player is affected when a few players get an abnormally large share of total player revenue.

If the players decide they can't or don't want to open the CBA without a leader to negotiate for them, they may have no choice but to go ahead and refuse Bettman. Consequences in the form of terminated contracts and penalties against the teams convicted in the league's court of justice will follow. If the Devils and the other teams accused of contract violations lose the players as well as draft picks or cap space, it would, of course, be good for the Canadiens competitively. It's never a bad thing for your opponent to take a hit. Then again, that will mean players like Kovalchuk, Luongo and possibly Hossa will suddenly be free agents who either renegotiate for a lot less actual money with their current teams or find new teams. It's too late for most teams to get in on that kind of UFA bounty, so only a few GMs with lots of cap space could afford them. The Canadiens really don't need to see the Isles, Thrashers, Lightning or Panthers add one of those guys.

It'll be very interesting to see what becomes of this because it will, in one way or another, affect the Canadiens. This is a show of power for Bettman. He's pushing now to see what happens, and if the players decide to push back, I don't see this ending well for hockey.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Strike Back

The scene: a horse ranch in Northern British Columbia. A phone rings.

Carey Price: Hello?
Josh Gorges: Hey, Pricey. It's me.
Price: Gorgy! 'Sup, man? Lookin' forward to seeing you guys next week.
Gorges: Not too much happening on my end. You're making some news, though.
Price: No way! What's going on? Hey! Did they show my rodeo stuff on TV?!
Gorges: Yeah, yeah. You're a rodeo star. You're a real...

Price interrupts excitedly

Price: I'm getting better every time. I've won nearly seven hundred bucks this summer, you know.
Gorges: Yeah, well, I hope you can live on that.
Price: Huh?
Gorges: What's with all this talk about you holding out?
Price: Whoa! Holding out? Who the hell is saying that?
Gorges: Where've you been all summer? In the woods or something? Never mind, don't answer that. The papers are saying if you don't get three mill a year, you're going on strike. They're quoting someone very, very close to you.
Price: Oh man! This totally sucks.
Gorges: Carey, I have to ask, is there any truth to this? Best to spill now if there is.
Price: Jeez, Gorgy. Who died and made you captain? Ha ha!
Gorges: Seriously. We have to figure out how to deal with this. Who've you been talking to?
Price: Nobody, I swear. I dropped my phone in the horse trough when the season ended and I just got a new one on Monday. You and my agent are the only ones with the number. Hey, it wasn't you, was it? I'll have to go all Laraque on your ass.
Gorges: Ha ha! Good one! You know it wasn't me. What the hell did you say to your agent?
Price: Nothing, I swear. Just small talk, mostly. I told him the secret to calf-roping is to get out of the gate in three seconds or less and strike quick.
Gorges: Uh oh. What else?
Price: Well, um, he asked me about my ballgame the other night and I said I thought I had ball three, but they called me out on a strike.
Gorges: Okay, I'm starting to see a pattern here. Is that it?
Price: Pretty much. I said I downloaded the original three Star Wars flicks, and my favourite was the Empire Strikes Back. Oh, and I told him I was breaking a new colt and even though he threw me three times I didn't have the heart to strike him. Then we talked about my contract for a few minutes, and that was it.
Gorges: I think I see what went wrong. Here's what I think we should do...
Price: Gor...? You...break...up. Stup... phone. Got... ...ception up here. Wha... do? I mill... go on ...ike.
Gorges: Oh man! No wonder they say this team has communication problems. Pricey? Carey? Damn!