Monday, November 1, 2010

Money Changes Everything

Imagine, if you will, a tale of two forwards. One of them is young and promising. At 21 years old, he's just getting started on an NHL career so the coach has him playing with low-scoring wingers, getting fourth-line minutes as he gets his feet wet in NHL waters. It's tough, because he's primarily a playmaker, and he's managed only one assist in 11 games. Even so, he's showing a nice passing ability and conscientious backcheck.

The other player is a veteran with a Calder Trophy and two Stanley Cup rings in his pocket. He's also a playmaker, but he's got one of the team's best snipers on his wing and gets first-line minutes and PP time every night. Still, he's got only one (rather flukey) goal and a pair of assists in 11 games. The main differences between the two men are their relative years of experience and their contracts.

Of course, the two are Lars Eller and Scott Gomez. It's understandable, in terms of experience, why Jacques Martin is giving Gomez every chance to get his game going. The guy consistently puts up 40-plus assists every year, even when his goal totals hover around 15 a season, give or take a couple. When a player depends as much on his linemates' production as Gomez does, it's not fair to blame him for low point totals just because his wingers are snakebitten. That's the reasonable argument for Gomez' continued preferred treatment by the coaching staff. When you know what to expect from a guy with experience, you have to give him a chance to do what you know he can. It's much tougher to give an unproven player that kind of leeway because you don't know what you should really be expecting from him.

The question with Gomez is, how long does Martin wait before the "experience" advantage runs its course? One answer is surely: not much longer. The unfortunate truth about the Canadiens offence all season is if Tomas Plekanec's line doesn't score, the team has a tough time winning. Luckily, Plekanec's line has scored in nearly every game so far. The Halpern line is contributing some secondary scoring, which is what fans can expect of them. The heavy lifting, though, is supposed to be split between Plekanec and Gomez. Pleks is doing his part. Gomez is not.

Part of the reason is Gionta's stunning bad luck in finishing. Part of it is the revolving winger on Gomez' other side. I think a lot of Travis Moen as a hardworking grinder, but he is not a natural goal scorer. Benoit Pouliot has two goals and six points in 11 games on the third line. One might think he'd offer more options for Gomez if given a longer stint on the second line, but Martin seems uninterested in reuniting that combo.

So, here we have a second-line that's severely underperforming and there seems to be no immediate solution because the coach insists on maintaining status quo between Gomez and Gionta. We can understand it to some degree. They've had success before and there's no reason to think they won't have it again. The problem is, they're not having it now. While Gomez' struggles rest partly with his wingers, a big part of the blame has to fall on him. He's been working solo too often, blowing through the neutral zone and ending up in the other team's end alone, and then giving the puck away. He's making bad, low-percentage passes into traffic and he's almost always looking for Gionta while ignoring the revolving winger on his line. He's just not playing very well.

Sometimes, when that happens, it's worth moving a promising kid onto that line for a few games. Perhaps switching Eller and Gomez would work on a number of fronts. It would poke Gomez a bit, maybe make him mad enough to step up his intensity level. It would also force him to work a bit harder on the creativity side to have to adjust to different linemates. And it would give Eller a chance to show what he can do with better wingers. Maybe he's the one who'd be able to get Gionta and Pouliot going.

Maybe none of that would happen, but at this stage of the season, is there anything wrong with trying it to see? Would it be worse than putting Travis Moen out there with Gomez and Gionta? The problem is, Gomez gets preferential treatment not only because of his experience, but because of his contract. It would look bad for Martin to demote the guy making the most money on the team to the third line, so he holds his nose and hopes to hell the guy starts performing.

Paul Coffey appeared on TSN's Off the Record last week. He was part of a panel talking about Ilya Kovalchuk's benching, and he explained the politics of money in the NHL.

"The problem I have in today's game is the coaches treat guys different because they make more money," he said. "And to me, I don't care. There can only be one set of rules."

He went on to say that that's not the case these days. There are two sets of rules; one for the ordinary player and one for the guys making top-of-the-line salaries. Owners, GMs and coaches have to justify the money they spend, so they give those guys every possible chance to succeed. It's like the treatment first-round draft picks get, versus fourth rounders. The organization will always favour the guy in whom it's invested more.

Right now, it's early in the year and Gomez will probably get back on track. It's just disappointing to watch his aimless play continue while the coach does nothing to shake things up in the meantime. Moving him to another line wouldn't destroy him, but it would send the message that everyone on the team is equal and will be played according to effort and performance. Leaving him on the second line while he's doing nothing to deserve it isn't fair. Pouliot got demoted and Dustin Boyd scratched, and neither of them has played worse than Gomez.

If the coach is seeing signs Gomez is about to get it together, or knows his experience will get him going, that's one thing. If he's continuing to give him good linemates and high minutes because he's the team's highest-paid player, that's another thing altogether.

Seeing Martin apparently willing to scratch Jaro Spacek in favour of Alexandre Picard is encouraging. Spacek has his good points, but he's been playing poorly this year. If he sits because his play dictates he should, regardless of his salary, Martin will be making the right choice. Still, Spacek's money is nowhere close to Gomez'. It would be nice to see Martin break up the second line for a little while, despite Gomez' salary. Something's got to give to get those players moving before too much time passes. We'll see if Martin's got the 'nads to move the team's highest-paid player around in the lineup, for the good of the whole group.


Unknown said...

Martin's relationship with his team is a lot about keeping the veterans happy and it did him a lot of good in the playoffs last year. He's going to wait a little while longer before shaking Gomez up.

MC said...

Good post JT. Your title says it all. Money does change everything. The money puts coaches and GMs in tough spots with their owners. If a player becomes disgruntled, it can cost the owner a lot of money for little return, like the Heatley or Souray situation.

As long as the Habs keep winning, there will be lots of patience. But if they start losing, I think you will see a shake up because it is obvious to everyone that it is not working, and JM will have no choice. I look at Cammalleri and he is doing a lot of things right except scoring, so it is not too worrisome because his timing will come eventually. But with Gomez, he has not shown any reason to make you think things will change. He is not shooting and he is not going to the dirty parts of the ice to create chances. The opposing D just keep him to the outside and cover the wingers, which is too easy for them. Until he starts attacking the net with and without the puck, that line is in trouble. The sad part is that if he did attack the net more, he would open up more space for passes and he actually has a decent (not great but decent)shot.

Eller is not afraid to skate in traffic, so putting him with Pouliot and Gionta would be an interesting experiment for a few games. It certainly could not be worse offensively.

Ian said...

From what I've seen of Gomez this year, it's like we have Grabovski back. Skating miles weaving all over the ice, more East-West than North-South, then having no play and losing the puck. I'm not trying to dump on the guy, but he's not doing anything productive at all. What he's being paid is secondary, but, when factored in, just makes this that much worse. I hope he wakes up soon because a second line chipping in with some goals here and there would go a long way to a successful season.

Anonymous said...

I think we wouldn't even be talking about it if he didn't make such a ridiculous amount of money... I mean the team is winning and Gomez is actually +1 and playing quite well defensively. Gionta and Gomez have the same amount of points which indicate to me that they sre both responsible. Had Gionta converted on 3 or 4 more blatant occasions, both would be at a reasonable clip. Gomez is a clutch player and I have confidence he will play a more prominent role soon.

One thing I would like to see is Eller on the left wing. I guess that's a lot of playmaking, but would be interesting because the game style does fit.

MathMan said...

Warning: rant ahead.

I have had it to up here with this nonsense about how Gomez and Gionta are playing poorly and aren't giving the team what they want. This entire situation is a massive, massive argument for microstats and just plain scoring chances and not focussing so much on plain offensive production.

Gionta and Gomez are both playing perfectly fine. They're outchancing their opposition. Gomez is setting up Gionta very well and Gionta is racking up four shots a game and a stupid number of scoring chances.

But Gionta's not scoring. It's a typical scorer's slump, unusual only for its length, the fact that it occurs at the start of the season, and the ridiculously high amount of scoring chances that just won't go in. And that's entirely luck-driven. There's nothing Gionta or Gomez could do differently than keep trying. You'd think that in Montreal we'd have enough experience in watching hockey to recognize that.

They have no problems that a bit more luck wouldn't solve. If Martin benches Gomez, he'll lose a lot of my respect for his personnel management skill. His possible benching of Spacek isn't exactly the best idea to begin with, but at least there's more justification.

Eller cannot, at this point of his career, do the job Gomez does, full stop. He's a rookie with under 20 games of experience and Gomez goes against top-6 forwards all the time and, this year, gets a lot more defensive faceoffs and brings them back up. But quite beyond Eller's ability, the reason breaking up Gomez and Gionta makes no sense is because except for puck luck, *that line is working well*. Martin would lose a lot of my respect for his personnel management skills if he were to panic (when his team is winning, no less) and break up a successful line that seems on the verge of breaking out.

I mean, at the pace at which he's racking up chances and shots, Gionta should literally be headed towards a 35-goal season if he'd had only average luck.

Here's my fearless prediction: at some point the puck will start going in for Gionta, and Gomez will start raking in assists. And people will rave about how Gionta found his intensity back and Gomez is playing a lot more incisively and not so aimlessly anymore.

None of which will be true. They'll be playing exactly as they have so far. But the production will fool the kind of superficial analyst we have in our sports media.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

tight read.... good teams win because eveyone is treated fairly... no freebees because once upon a time u were good.

Anonymous said...

At this point is it worth trying a move to Gomez to the left side? Might force him to take a few shots.
Put Eller or even Pouliot between them?

J.T. said...

@mathman: Rant noted. I agree Eller's not nearly ready for the second-line role full time. I'm also not advocating benching Gomez at all. I'm advocating MOVING him...perhaps switching with Eller...just to shake things up. I agree Gionta's had bad luck. Maybe giving him a different centre with a different approach for a couple of games would help him break out. Maybe giving Gomez some basic, hardworking linemates would force him to get out of the "always pass to Gionta" rut he gets into sometimes.

See, I agree they'll come around eventually. But sometimes if the coach mixes things around a bit, he might help that happen. It's been eleven games and they're not producing. What can changing things up hurt? That's my point. That, and I hope Martin isn't choosing to keep the status quo because he's afraid of pissing off the guy making the most money...and the guys who pay him.

Anonymous said...

good post. Treat Gomez the same. I'm sick of hearing about his ridiculous pay. He's not earning it. He's overpaid and we have to live with it. Maybe he helped last year in the playoffs but we didn't reach as far as we did with Gomez, that had a lot to do with the team. I just hope he pulls his weight. When I watch him, I count more mistakes and stupid decisions than scoring chances (via Gionta). I like the Spacek decision as he has not been playing well. I agree with the post about Eller's inexperience v. Gomez's. Putting him in that position may hurt his development.

V said...

Just reading some of these comments and can't help but agree with MathMan.

Gomez rushes that end in nothing look bad when they don't work, but as MM points out, they are working well enough to put Gionta's shots on a 35 goal/season pace. All this without a second winger on the line who can pass or shoot. Maybe half of those 'broken plays' would be fine with someone approaching Gionta's skill level on the other wing. Besides, those rushes by Gomez are good for more than goals... think of how much less time we spend in our zone because of his efforts.

Martin is very, very patient with vets. I can't see him doing anything rash with a vet even if it looks rash from our point of view way back in the cheap seats. Gomez starts every season very slowly. He is going to be just fine.

Topham said...

I agree with Mathman. Gomez has not been playing badly, in fact at times he's been one of the best. And he has skills that Eller just doesn't possess.

Moving him would solve neither his lack of assists or Gionta's lack of goals.

J.T. said...

@V: Fine, then Martin should solve the problem by putting someone with skill on the other wing and LEAVING HIM THERE for a few games. If Pouliot is the best option, he should be given a real shot there. Either way, something's got to give soon with that line. It's great to say Gomez starts slowly, but he's lucky the team has been winning while the second line does nothing. That won't go on indefinitely.

@Topham: Maybe it wouldn't help, maybe it would. My question is how long Martin is willing to wait before at least trying something.

Anonymous said...

Gomez is setting up Gionta well, if Gio had some luck they would each have 10 pts its not like they arent getting chances.

Anonymous said...

watch gomez after he loses the puck. He loafs...even if for a second or 2, he simply is not all there mentally.His concentration is not where it needs to be. I agree that a little line change for him is in order.

On a more macro level, this team will need to lose gomez and his dispoportionate salary in this very difficult age of the salary cap. We have plenty of young centers who I believe will outpace gomez and for a lot less money. An example? desharnais is today, a better player than gomez. Given the same linemates and same minutes, I GUARANTEE desharnais get his points and helps his linemates get theirs too.Cant we offload gomez to someone? won't someone bite? I say dump him...were not going to the cup this year anyhow, so lets get rid of him, get rids of the negativity, and start to let some kids play at this level. Maybe its eller, maybe its desharnais, maybe its maxwell. All 3 to be sure are upgrades on gomez on a variety of levels.

Anonymous said...

Desharnais is the man and he deserves his shot. Let the little guy PROVE what he has PROVED at every level he has ever played at. I will put money on him outpacing gomez given the same minutes and same linemates. I have ZERO doubt. Its time desharnais got his fair shot.

Anonymous said...

Without a doubt, Gomez is aware of his lack-lustre performance, and this must have an impact on his linemates, and in the dressing room. However, he isn't lazy on the ice. He simply has not clicked this year, and neither has Gionta. With the most shots on the team, if Gionta started scoring, you'd see Gomez' points start growing.
In any event, Gomez is a performer in the playoffs, and Gionta knows that. Everyone in that dressing room knows that. And so do the fans.