Friday, December 30, 2011

Asset Management

When this NHL season began, it was with a sense of hope. The Canadiens had taken the Bruins to OT in Game Seven of their playoff series just a few months previous. It could have been them making the Finals...maybe even winning the Cup...instead of their archrivals. Most promising of all, they managed to do it without the services of Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges or Max Pacioretty. One could just imagine how the presence of those guys could have held the Bruins to one fewer goal, or pushed that precious goal behind Tim Thomas instead. When Pierre Gauthier re-signed Markov, presumably with the understanding he'd be ready to play the majority of the season, then added much-needed power and size in Erik Cole, we had every reason to believe the team would be better than the one that pushed the Bruins to the brink last season.

Then the games began. Right from the beginning, there was something wrong with the team. Of course, it turned out Markov wasn't ready to start the season; far from it, and his erstwhile replacement, Roman Hamrlik, was in Washington. The injuries continued to pile up during the first few weeks of the season and there was something off with the players who remained in the lineup. They were working hard, but somehow not working together. Their effort, complicated by the inexperience of so many players, often seemed to be misdirected.

The losses accumulated as quickly as the injuries, and they started preying on the players' minds. The team became fragile mentally. Having blown so many third-period leads, they began to change their game in the third period and played with the fear of blowing another. Naturally, as they stiffened up and fell back into a defensive shell, their opponents sensed opportunity and seized it. The Canadiens problems began to snowball as one loss fed the next. Management didn't help matters by bringing in inadequate solutions like Tomas Kaberle, or firing coaches Perry Pearn and Jacques Martin. It helped even less when Geoff Molson effectively gelded new bench boss Randy Cunneyworth by saying the permanent coach would be required to speak French. Add to that his blithe assessment that the team, as constructed, could possibly be a competitive threat, and there seemed little hope for change from that quarter.

Now, after the latest blown lead to fellow bottom-feeder Tampa Bay, the Habs hopes for the post-season are as distant as Molson's statements from reality. This team will not make the playoffs, short of a semi-miraculous run in the second half of the season. Even then, the chances of making them in a favourable post-season position or of winning a round or two, aren't great. A squeak into eighth place and hope for another colossal playoff upset offer the best outcome a fan might expect at this point. What's more likely with a great roll right now is a finish between 8th and 10th and a crappy, mid-round draft pick...the kind Trevor Timmins blows with unfortunate regularity.

The fear we must face as helpless fans who are watching our beloved team founder, is that Gauthier will try to save his own ass by pulling out all the stops to get the Habs into the playoffs. The likelihood of his coming up short with this plan and ending up in ninth place (while probably losing his job anyway) won't deter him from doing it anyway. The essential problem with this is that it will result in poor asset management of the type we've seen in recent years, when Sheldon Souray wasn't moved at the deadline as Bob Gainey vainly hoped keeping him would give the team a push upward. Of course, it didn't work, Souray walked and the Canadiens missed a chance to pick up a valuable first-round pick for him. There are other examples, too numerous to detail outside a novel.

Now, Gauthier has to look...really the team he's got on the ice. He's got to make a list of players he expects to be part of this team in two years, and he's got to be ready to move the remaining people for parts that will help the team advance. He's got to ask difficult questions, like whether Michael Cammalleri's sub-par regular-season performances can continue to be overlooked because of his playoff goal scoring? If his poor play is a reason why the team misses the playoffs, then the answer to that is "no." A six-million dollar player who only performs in the post-season is useless if he can't help the team get there to begin with. If that's the case, then a playoff-bound team might offer a high return for what he can offer it on a Cup run. In that situation, Gauthier has to be willing to move Cammalleri in February.

Ditto for Hal Gill. Teams know he's a playoff beast on the PK and in the shot-blocking department. If he can bring a second or third-round pick, when he probably won't be back next year anyway, then Gauthier needs to move him. Tomas Kaberle should be gone as well, if there's a return to be had. Scott Gomez goes without saying. Travis Moen too, if there's a team needing a workhorse penalty-kill guy for the playoffs.

Essentially, there's a youth core the Habs can build on. Lars Eller, Louis Leblanc, Carey Price, P.K.Subban, Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty are a good start. Veterans like Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges and Erik Cole who are earning their money and still performing can contribute for the next few years. Other players are extraneous and must be exchanged for parts that can add to that core, whether that be draft picks or promising prospects. Realistically, there's no player outside the core that can bring a truly game-saving return, so Gauthier (or his replacement should he be fired before the deadline) must try to get something helpful for them. Something that will add to the core and help build a competitive team.

To accomplish this, the GM needs to have a plan. In the last several years, there hasn't been one. Bob Gainey had an idea of the type of team he'd like to build, but seemed to be derailed by the immaturity of some key players and the ennui of others. The complete blowing-up of that team three years ago appeared to be the result of frustration and anger on his part. Therefore, even though it's pretty widely accepted that a competitive team in the cap era must be built through the draft and good player development, Gainey went old-school and tried to buy a team through overpriced free agency. He lucked out in that the guys he brought in were of good character and got along with each other well. He failed to realize, however, how quickly their on-ice performances would deteriorate and how their inflated salaries would make it difficult for the team to move them if necessary.

That's got to be fixed now. The Canadiens need a GM with balls enough to move the players who have value but won't be with the team long-term. It needs to happen this year, at the deadline or before, because the Montreal Canadiens will have little choice but to be sellers this season. They've got to sell, to buy themselves a future.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Miracle

The Scene: Bob Gainey's office, seventh floor, Bell Centre. The phone rings.

Gainey: Hello?
Glen Sather: Bob? It's Slats.
Gainey: Oh, hello, Glen. How are you doing?
Sather: Fine, fine. Listen, Bob?
Gainey: Yes, Glen?
Sather: I've...been going through some things. All that drinking we did back in the '70s? Well, it stuck with me. I couldn't shake it. You've seen some of the contracts I've handed out, right? Well, that was the booze signing those deals. No...don't interrupt. It's okay now. I'm doing the twelve-step thing, and I'm at the part where I have to make ammends. I can't, in good conscience, keep Ryan McDonagh. We were drinking, I bought the last round and...well, it wasn't well done of me. I took advantage and stuck you with Gomez, so I shouldn't have stolen McDonagh as well. Listen. I'm trading him back to you for a seventh, okay?
Gainey: Um, okay. But you'll have to clear it with Pierre first.
Sather:(laughing) Yeah, right. So, we've got a deal?
Gainey: Of course!

An hour later, Gainey's phone rings again:

Gainey: Yes?
Scott Gomez: Bob? Hi. It's Scott.
Gainey: Hello, Scott. How's your recouperation going?
Gomez: Well, here's the thing, Bob. I've found Jesus.
Gainey: What? Was he missing? Ha ha.
Gomez: No, seriously, Bob. My new physio has shown me the light. He says we've all got to be responsible for what we take from the world, and make sure we give the same back. I'm taking too much, Bob. I need to retire from hockey and start giving something back.
Gainey: Seriously? You want to retire?
Gomez: It's the right thing to do. Hockey's been great, and I've earned a lot of money playing it, but it's time for me to be the giver, not the taker. I know this is hard for you to hear Bob, but I'm going to have to leave Montreal.
Gainey: ALL RIGHT!!...I mean, right is important. As in, the right thing. Scott, I'm proud of you. Do the what's right for you.
Gomez: Thanks, Bob. You're like a second dad.

A little later, the phone rings again:

Gainey, warily: Hello?
Sidney Crosby: Hi, Bob? It's Sidney.
Gainey: Sidney! How's your recovery going?
Crosby: I'm ready to go, Bob. But, you know what? I don't know how much time I might have left in the league, and I want to play where my heart is. I mean, I love Pittsburgh because they drafted me, and Mario's been really great. I won the Cup here. But my heart's always been in Montreal. I love the Habs and I want to end my career there, no matter how long I've got left.
Gainey: Well, Sid, that's great. But we just don't have the assets to trade for you.
Crosby: It's okay. My lawyers say the Pens didn't take proper care of my health and we have a helluva lawsuit here. They're willing to let me go for a token return.
Gainey: Yeah, right. Like,say, Diaz?
Crosby: Well, you'll have to do better than that, but if you sign and trade Kostitsyn, that might work. They need wingers for Geno.
Gainey: Thanks, Sid. I'll get on it.

Larry Carriere: Bob? Hi. It's Larry. I've...found something.
Gainey: You found something?
Carriere: Yeah. It's kind of weird.
Gainey: What do you mean?
Carriere: I found an old fax machine. Probably 20 years old. But there was a piece of paper stuck in it.
Gainey: So?
Carriere: Um, yeah. It's a contract. It says Scotty Bowman agrees to be GM and coach of the Canadiens until otherwise notified.
Gainey: Seriously? Is it signed?
Carriere: Yup. If we want to push it, he's ours.
Gainey: Push it.

And so, the Canadiens suddenly freed up seven million in cap space, which enabled them to sign Shea Weber. They traded a seventh-round pick to get Ryan McDonagh back. They traded a fifth and Andrei Kostitsyn for Sidney Crosby and they signed Scotty Bowman as GM and coach. The next season, they won the Stanley Cup and all their fans rejoiced.

And that, my friends, is my Christmas miracle story for you.

Merry Christmas, happy Hannukah and a very happy holiday for you who celebrate a different tradition. I'll see you for the tank in 2012.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Montreal Canadiens: The Museum Exhibit

The Montreal Canadiens are in an interesting position these days. While nominally maintaining their position as an active NHL team, they are, in fact an historical curiosity. The great Flying Frenchmen, the team that cloaked Quebec in the pride born of victory, are gone. That, however, doesn't stop the current, slickly packaged, version of the team from pretending there's still a semblance of that great franchise in existence.

In 1982, Ken Dryden wrote that the Canadiens going forward could either be good, or be French. A number of factors, from expansion, to the draft, to free agency to an influx of foreign-born players would inevitably mean that the best French Canadien players would not be so easily available to their local team. That's come true in many ways. What Dryden perhaps didn't foresee, however was the salary cap that would put the squeeze on so many teams, the Quebec tax structure that makes Montreal salaries 25% less than those in some U.S. states, the drop in the number of Quebec children who play hockey and the mid-nineties insistence on drafting big and tough rather than looking for the good local guy. Add bad management and poor drafting and the team Dryden knew deteriorated perhaps more quickly than he expected.

Many, many factors contribute to the league-wide parity that means the slightest disadvantage can make the difference between winning or losing. The Canadiens, rather than recognizing that the past is the past and winning today requires playing on the same level as every other team, insist on limiting themselves to only French-speaking candidates for important positions like GM and coach. So, since Jacques Martin has been fired, the team has installed Randy Cunneyworth as interim coach. Yet, right from the start, he's hamstrung by the language issue. Geoff Molson, with today's statement that the coach must speak French, tells Cunneyworth that no matter what he does...even if he were to drag this underachieving team into the playoffs and somehow win the Cup...he'll be let go at the end of the season unless he can learn French between now and then. What kind of motivation is that for a coach?

The irony of the insistence on French speakers at the management level is that there's very little regard for having French players on the ice anymore. Serge Savard, in the recent book "Behind the Moves," which offers a look inside the philosophies of winning NHL GMs, said he believed in making up to half his players local. He said those guys lived in the city, so if they performed badly, there was no place for them to run and hide during the summer. They had a vested interest in winning. They also had a sense of local pride, having grown up cheering for the team. Savard said the Q was underappreciated in the NHL, so a team willing to take a chance on Quebec players would find some gems. He said he never would have passed up players like David Perron or Claude Giroux in favour of American guys. Not, he said, that the players the Habs picked were necessarily bad (although, in David Fischer's case, he's got a more than valid point), but taking a chance on the guys who grew up as Habs fans in the team's own back yard would have paid off in those cases.

In any case, the Habs as they used to be...the dominant, winning team...are gone. For nearly twenty years they've been a bunch of also-rans or worse, while preserving the precious illusion that they're still the pride of Quebec. Certainly Quebecers are proud of the history of the team, but I wonder how many of them are proud of the current incarnation? How many of them would honestly say it's better to preserve the team's place as a cultural and historical icon than to pursue winning in the modern NHL?

Maybe it's the majority. Maybe people are willing to accept mediocrity, as long as the coach and GM can mumble meaningless platitudes for the edification of the French-language media. If that's the case, then the Habs are nothing more than an historical oddity; a once-great team wallowing in the increasingly distant memory of its own glory. The question is, how much longer will the marketing team be able to disguise the reality of the on-ice product? With no reasonable chance of topping the league these days, the vital youth fan-base, most of which don't remember the Habs winning the Cup at all, won't keep buying what management is selling.

The thing is, there are a lot of Canadiens fans who just want to see a winning team, who don't give a crap if the coach can speak French or not. So, for us, it was very, very disheartening to see Molson tell Cunneyworth he's not good enough because he doesn't speak the right language. For those of us who cheer for a hockey team, not a cultural institution, it was disappointing. About as disappointing as the cultural institution has been on the ice for this season and most of the last twenty.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

No Excuses

Many Canadiens fans are celebrating today, and not because Christmas is only a week away. The Jacques Martin era, much maligned by those disgruntled enough not to care who replaced him, is over.

Martin's dismissal, on its own, won't do a whole lot to change the Canadiens' fortunes unless Randy Cunneyworth steps into the top job with a radically different approach to the game. As mentioned here before, Martin wasn't necessarily a bad coach. There are, however, several indications that he wasn't the right coach for this particular bunch of players. And, while nobody will admit to having quit on Martin, there's a chance some of the offensively-inclined players under his charge might have been getting sick of the style they were required to play.

The thing about Martin is, up until now, he was able to take a diminished group and, through tightly controlled defence, help it overachieve. He began to lose control when his defence was so badly depleted through injury that it exposed the weaknesses of the forwards hobbled by The System. It's one thing to be unable to score more than two goals when the D keeps the other team to just a single. When the defence, however, gives up three or four, the losses begin to pile up.

Pierre Gauthier said today that pre-game preparation was an issue in Martin's firing, as was sustained compete level throughout the game. All those statements mean is that Gauthier is a shithead. Nobody can reasonably believe a coach who's been behind the bench for as many games as Martin has suddenly lost the ability to formulate a game plan. And there's no way he's been telling the team to slack off when it's up a goal with fifteen minutes to go. Pierre Gauthier, the same as countless GMs before him, has no answer to the dismal performances of the players he's acquired...other than to blame the coach.

Cunneyworth may benefit from the early post-firing soul searching most players experience. They feel guilty, knowing Martin probably couldn't do a whole lot more than he did, and so they'll start looking at themselves for a moment. Mike Cammalleri must know if he was scoring goals, his coach might not have lost his job. Ditto Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.

In the end, though, the early guilt-fuelled energy following a coach's dismissal doesn't last long. When it passes, all the excuses are gone. All the "If only the team had a different coach...different system...different philosophy" lamentations have been realized. Now we'll know what we've got here. And what it'll come down to is that the Habs aren't really that good. Cammalleri isn't Claude Giroux. David Desharnais isn't Martin St.Louis and Josh Gorges isn't Shea Weber. Outside Carey Price, this team doesn't have a star. They are what they are and their only hope is to find a way to work together to be better collectively than the sum of their parts should be. That's not outside the realm of possibility, of course. Other teams have done it and gone far with that kind of strength-in-numbers approach.

We'll see if Gauthier's sacrifice of Martin is worth it. Cunneyworth is in the spotlight now and he's got a fair piece of work cut out for him. He'll have to convince the Canadiens that whatever their individual talents or the system they're asked to play, they have to buy into working together. Otherwise they can book their early-April tee times now, regardless of who's behind the bench.

Friday, December 9, 2011


For your viewing (dis)pleasure, a video re-enactment of today's trade between the Montreal Canadiens and the Carolina Hurricanes. Starring Jim Rutherford as "seller" and Pierre Gauthier as "gullible customer." Also featuring a cameo by Tomas Kaberle as "Albatross."

Enjoy. If you can wipe the tears away long enough to watch.


I have a confession to make. My excitement regarding the Canadiens' season has been reduced to the moment each morning when I check my email news alerts to see whether Jacques Martin has been fired yet. When I learn that he hasn't, the sense of disappointment caused by knowing almost from the moment the season started that the Habs won't be in the playoffs is renewed.

The funny thing is, I don't think Martin is necessarily a bad coach. In fact, not knowing much about what really goes on inside an NHL dressing room, I would guess he's at least as good as most and probably better than some others of his colleagues. Sure, he makes inexplicable personnel decisions, is stubborn to a fault and is as emotionally demonstrative as a stone Buddha, but those things don't necessarily make him irredeemable as a coach. He probably wouldn't have spent as much time as he has in the NHL if that was the case, especially when he's got no credibility as a player to fall back on.

No, the reason I look with anticipation for Martin's dismissal is because I'm hoping something will happen to shake up the bunch on the ice before it's too late. Perhaps it's not fair that a coach should have to pay the price for failing to motivate a bunch of men overpaid to play a boy's game, but when those man-boys lose enough games, something's got to give. Maybe the guilt of knowing they cost a man his job will inspire them to actually hold onto a lead for once.

This is getting depressing to watch. All the excitement we should be feeling and the fun we should be having watching hockey is absent. The end results...blown leads, wasted PPs, futile shootouts, too-many-men, Carey Price left hanging...are becoming so predictable, the only thing the Habs are inspiring is Geoff Molson's accountant. This is the first fall in the last five in which I didn't go to Montreal to take in a game at the Bell Centre. Having seen some of the dismal performances the team has handed in at home and comparing the results to the inflated cost of a ticket, I couldn't justify it.

There are injuries, of course, and replacement players who are either not ready or not very good, but few teams have escaped without those issues. The difference between winning teams...even those with less talent than the Canadiens have on paper...and losers is that they have a plan and they work together to execute it. The Habs aren't not working, precisely. Most of them appear to be trying. The thing is, they look like they're trying all by themselves. It's like watching a tug-of-war with three people on one side and fifteen on the other. The team that's pulling together inevitably wins. They're able find the extra bit of energy when they're down a goal or two, and the Canadiens, hauling like hell in five different directions, don't.

Judging by the amount of writing he does in his little notebook, Jacques Martin probably has a plan. If he does, however, the team isn't executing it. The question is, why not? If it's because they don't understand it and what they're supposed to do, it's up to Martin to find a way to get the message across. If it's because they don't have the manpower to follow the plan, then it's Martin's job to change the plan to suit the people he's got available. In either case, the spotlight's got to shine on Martin and what he's doing to give the team a clear blueprint for winning. Using the abyssmal power play as a glaring example, there's obviously a breakdown between the plan and the execution. It's probably not helping that players are rarely on the ice with the same teammates for more than a game or two. There are legitmate questions Pierre Gauthier should be asking Martin right about now.

It always comes back to the coach in any case, because a GM can't fire a player like Michael Cammalleri, who, for the low, low price of six million a year is weak as watered wine in his own end and isn't producing points either. He might be money in the playoffs, but this team, as it stands, is not going to be in the playoffs. Something has to change immediately because the team is rapidly approaching the tipping point at which post-season hopes disappear.

People will scoff at that and say the Habs are only a point behind Ottawa for eighth place. They fail to point out that there are two other teams a point out of eighth as well, both of which have played fewer games than the Canadiens. One of those is Washington, which can reasonably be expected to pick up points at a better pace than they have been doing recently. The Canadiens have an uphill battle to the post-season, make no mistake about it. And that's only IF they turn things around right now. They're more than a third of the way into the season and things only get tougher as more teams feel desperation setting in.

Whether Jacques Martin is a good coach or not is immaterial at this point. The team needs a kick in the ass and he's not providing it. Perhaps his removal would do the trick. If not, well, this team is losing with him and can lose just as well without him. The hope that maybe a change in the coaching department would spark some kind of turnaround is becoming enough of a reason to let Martin go. Whether Molson feels the same way, knowing he's on the hook for a year and a half of Martin's salary and reported early-dismissal penalty of two million, remains to be seen. The looming loss of playoff revenue may help him make up his mind.

Some fans aren't too worried because they figure a playoff miss will mean big, positive changes in management and on the roster, as well as a good draft pick. The problem is, they're not bad enough to beat out Carolina or the Islanders for a lottery pick and yet another middle-of-the-pack Trevor Timmins special won't change a thing. It's time for action now, if the team has any hope of clawing its way to the top half of the conference. Now, I've got to go check my email and see if there's any news.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Baby Boom

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold.

First, it was Michael Cammalleri. He came to training camp a first-time new dad and people have been wondering all season why he doesn't have quite the jump we'd like to see from him every night. He was caught failing to pay adequate attention to his surroundings when he allowed himself to be cut by Yannick Weber's skate. The "injury" meant he could rest at home with his little daughter for a couple of weeks.

Then, it was Hal Gill. His third child was born this season and he's been looking slower and more klutzy than ever with the puck. Sure, his shot-blocking has been fine, but he developed a mysterious infection after getting cut in the leg last month. Not coincidentally, he ended up spending more time at home with the baby while recouperating.

Now, it's Tomas Plekanec. His first baby, a little boy (pictured above), was born on Sunday and already he's missing practice to spend time with his family. How long will it be before he develops some strange ailment or borderline injury that will require him to stay away from the team? And if he doesn't disappear altogether, can we expect his play to remain as consistent as it usually is?

With all the analysis of the Canadiens' sub-par performance this year, few people have pinpointed the real reason for it: babies. Babies whine, cry, poop and demand, keeping hardworking hockey players from their pre-game naps. These guys have to be in tip-top shape, but how are they supposed to work out when they're pushing a stroller? These underhanded miniature people are undermining our team, and must be controlled at once. After all, if Plekanec has been subverted, it won't be long before the rest of his teammates follow suit. There could already be others we just haven't heard about.

Then again, on the plus side, it's only 18 years before Plekanec Junior is eligible to be drafted by the Habs. Okay. In that case, congratulations to the proud new dad!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tell the Truth

Whenever I was reluctant to spill some piece of information I knew would land me in hot water as a kid, my mother would look me in the eye and say, "Tell the truth and shame the devil." She'd skewer me with equal parts guilt and a gimlet eye and before long the story would come spilling out. Sometimes I wish my mother could pull that trick on Pierre Gauthier, because, really, there's no need for the way he refuses to tell anybody what's happening with our team.

Gauthier needs to get over himself. He's not the head of CSIS or the chairman of the United Nations security council. He's the general manager of a fairly mediocre hockey team with some depressingly serious problems. He talks (when he talks) about the need for employees to communicate in both official languages, which he's more than capable of doing. Yet, he chooses to hide away in his seventh-floor office and remain unaccountable to the people who, although the organization seems to disdain them, actually pay the bills.

Right now, the ridiculousness of the Andrei Markov saga is making the Canadiens management look like a poorly-written spy show. On Canadian TV. Markov was practicing with contact in a regular pairing and made the trip to California, obviously with the intent to play at least once on the three-game sojourn. Instead, reporters tweeted Markov wasn't on the ice in Anaheim. Then he wasn't in San Jose at all, and speculation about whether he'd stayed behind in Anaheim or gone ahead to L.A. ran rampant. People began to question whether Markov had had another setback and was seeking medical help. The only sound from Gauthier's office was the echo of lettuce crunching in the silence.

If management's intention in suppressing information is to keep a lid on the bubbling cauldron of gossip in Montreal, it fails miserably. When no one's saying what's really going on, people start imagining all manner of possibilities. That's how the rumours the Habs hate so much get started in the future. A frank explanation would be much more effective in quashing unwanted speculation.

I'm not saying Gauthier should be obliged to satisfy the unquenchable thirst for every drop of information he can decant for the masses. Of course, the Canadiens are a business operation and some things, like who's targeted in a trade or who's high in draft consideration, should be kept in-house. However, when an important player like Markov is having setbacks, the fans and media deserve to know. Nobody's asking to see his MRI, for God's sake. People would just appreciate it if the organization had the decency to say, "Andrei's not feeling quite up to playing yet. He's gone to see a doctor in L.A. We'll have more information after that, and a better timeline for his return." Unfortunately, the arrogant cone of silence descends and the usual trickle of information becomes a dried creek bed.

And, it is arrogant, without a doubt. Why should Pierre Gauthier be allowed to disregard honest questions about what's happening with the team and its important players? Yes, the Canadiens are a business, but a business is only as strong as its customer base. Gauthier's decision to ignore the fans simply reveals his comfort in the knowledge that if one person quits coming to the Bell Centre, there'll be another there to take his place before the ink on the ticket is dry. He and the Canadiens take the fans for granted because they can.

We're not asking for much. We'd just like to have some kind of idea whether the team we pay through the nose to watch will be healthy at any point this season. We'd like to know if there's a chance we'll see our favourite player on the ice at last. Whether Gauthier's refusal to tell us the slightest bit of the truth comes from paranoia about revealing internal secrets or from disdain at our temerity in asking in the first place, it's not acceptable.

Come on, Gauthier. Tell the truth and shame the devil.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Markov's First Name Is Not Jesus

It's a wonderful thing that Andrei Markov is finally ready to come back to the Canadiens. On a personal level, can you even imagine the frustration and boredom he's dealt with in the last two years? The weeks of pain after surgery, then day after day of repetitive exercises in the gym. The days stretch into weeks and then months and ice time never seems closer. You never feel like you're part of the team because you don't travel with them, you don't skate with them and you watch all the games from the press box. After two years, nearly half the players on the team have never actually played with you, and you feel like your name is being forgotten. Not to mention the fans' assumption that after three injuries in two years, no matter how talented you are, you're now not only injury-prone, but likely to crap out before the playoffs. Markov has hoed a very tough row for the last couple of seasons.

What makes it harder for him is the fans who expect him to be God. He's supposed to come back to an injury-ravaged, underperforming, poorly-coached team and lead it into the playoffs. He's expected to save the power play, solidify the defence and boost the attack. In truth, his return might be an early holiday gift for fans, but Markov's return isn't likely to be the Second Coming.

After two years away from the game (save the seven games he played last season), Markov is going to be rusty. He's going to look slow sometimes and he's going to make tactical errors when required to make crucial decisions at high speed. He'll probably pinch deep and not get back in time to prevent a break every once in a while. He's just not at game pace yet. Patience is important in letting him re-adapt to the NHL game, but the fear is that fans have no patience left.

Four or five years ago, when minor injuries would keep Markov out of the lineup for a couple of games, the team's win/loss record without him was dismal. He was the engine that drove the Canadiens' special teams and the guy responsible for shutting down the opponents' best guys. Then, two seasons ago when Carey Price's skate slashed his tendon and cost him most of the year, the Habs had to learn to cope without Markov long term. They managed it, remaining a playoff team even in The General's absence. From the fans' perspective, the old habit of relying on Markov never really went away, though.

While the team focused on making the most of the assets it had left, the fans dreamed of "When Markov comes back." As in, "When Markov comes back, the D will move the puck better, the power play will score again and have-not will be no more." That's a heavy burden to place on a guy who's missed a lot of hockey. Markov is lucky to be blessed with great instincts and hockey sense, and they may help him adapt his game to accomodate a possible reduction of mobility. He will certainly help the team, but the fans need to remember there's a chance he won't be the same player who used to control the Habs blueline and make the All-Star game without having to be voted in. The trick is to accept him for what he brings and learn not to mourn what he doesn't.

That could be tough for a lot of people who've been breathlessly waiting with stars in their eyes for the day Markov returns. Because once he returns and the dream becomes reality, there's no more hiding the truth of what the Canadiens really are. For better or worse, the real Habs will be revealed, and it may not be pretty. We can hope the verdict will lean toward the "better" side of the scales, but it should probably be a cautious optimism. For now, instead of hoping Markov will save the season, it'll be nice just to see him back on the ice. It's been too long.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Maximum Suspension

When Max Pacioretty lowered the boom on Kris Letang on Saturday night, most of us figured Brendan Shanahan would send him to the press box. The only question was whether the suspension would be for one game or two. Shanahan surprised many by handing down a three-game sentence; a pretty stiff penalty in light of some of the other hits we've seen go unpunished this year. And you know what? Pacioretty deserved it.

He could have let up before making contact with Letang, but he didn't. He knew he was wrong too, as was apparent with his immediate apology. The hit broke Letang's nose, but didn't prevent him from returning to score the winner in OT. Pacioretty, in this case, was very lucky nothing worse happened. Having been the victim of that crushing hit by Zdeno Chara last year, he knows better than most what the consequences of irresposible hits can be. The very fact that he's been there himself and was affected deeply enough to start a foundation to help treat brain injuries should justify the three-game suspension. If a guy who's been on the receiving end of a head shot can still hit another player that way, it shows even the best of intentions can fall by the wayside in the heat of the action. Shanahan's reaction underlines the need for all players to be responsible for what they do on the ice, and accept the consequences for hurting another guy.

This is where the NHL has a problem. While few will dispute that Pacioretty deserved a suspension, it's tough to swallow when Boston's Milan Lucic can run over Buffalo's Ryan Miller, concussing him, and get nothing for it. If the league is to regain a modicum of respect, it has to be consistent in its discipline. The alternative is looking amateurish and appearing as though the NHL brass plays favourites. When conspiracy theories like those become the norm, hockey draws a step closer to professional wrestling in the public's perception.

When Brendan Shanahan became the NHL's Super Cop, many previously-disillusioned fans saw it as a sign of change. The hope was that a former player of Shanahan's stature (without a kid playing in the league) would be the soul of thoughtful justice. That hope grew with the rash of suspensions Shanahan dispensed in the pre-season. The carefully detailed explanation videos he prepared for each case made a lot of sense.

It seems, however, that in the analysis of the minutiae of every hit, Shanahan is losing sight of the bottom line. The question should be, "Did Player X hit Player Y in the head?" If the answer is "yes," then it's suspension-worthy. Shanahan, with his talk of angles of a guy's head, which foot the player's weight rests upon and perceived intent, is making these cases much more convoluted than they should be. In the case of Pacioretty, the player making the hit nailed his opponent in the head and, despite instant remorse, got a significant suspension. Canadiens fans can recognize the risk inherent in that hit and understand the decision.

It's when the super slo-mo view of a fast game provides excuses for glossing over actions that we feel progress is moving at a snail's pace. So, today it's not hard for Habs fans to feel there's no justice in the league. Hits on Pacioretty and Chris Campoli saw the perpetrators go free, while Pacioretty as the hitter rather than the hittee got suspended. The argument today isn't whether he should have been punished, it's why so many others are not. That's what the NHL and Shanahan need to fix.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's On You, Jacques

I don't usually pile on when everyone is blaming the coach for a loss. After all, there's only so much the guy behind the bench can do. He makes the plan and sends the players out to execute it, so it's not his fault if they fail to do that. That is, unless the plan is entirely stupid to begin with.

In the case of the Canadiens against the Penguins, Jacques Martin chose to put Hal Gill and Yannick Weber together as a defensive pair. The biggest, softest, slowest and most immobile D on the team, with one of the smallest, least confident and most recently mistake-prone. The combination, to the most casual observer's view, was wrong-headed and doomed to failure.

Sure enough, Weber and Gill were on the ice not only for the lousy tying goal, but also for the winner in OT. There is no excuse. It's overtime, Martin. You don't have to keep the same guys paired up, especially if they're obviously not performing overly well. You overplay your best in hopes of snagging the second point. For this alone, Martin must be questioned regarding his choice of personnel.

Scotty Bowman said the secret to good coaching is in knowing which players to have on the ice at any given moment. Obviously, Jacques Martin hasn't grasped that. He's got the paperwork and video prep down, but he has no instincts about who to play, when. For that reason alone, he must go.

Carey Price threw his stick in disgust after the winning goal, and rightly so. He was hung out to dry by the coach, yet again, and a surplus of games like this will make him think twice about signing long-term in Montreal. The coach is wrong. He makes bad decisions. I find it hard to watch.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Goalies Are Different

Everybody knows goalies are a different breed. From Glenn Hall puking before every game to Gary "Suitcase" Smith showering between periods and Patrick Roy talking to his goalposts, they're often on a planet of their own. Unfortunately, while their minds may seem to be elsewhere, their brains are actually still on the same plane, taking the same risks as every other player. However, a lot of the evidence proves when it comes to concussions, there's a different standard for goalies.

On March 16, 2011, the NHL's new concussion protocol came into effect. It says, in part, that "players suspected of having a concussion will be removed from the game and sent to a quiet place free from distraction so they can be examined by the on-site team physician. The physician will use the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool test to evaluate the player. Symptoms include loss of consciousness, motor incoordination or balance problems, a blank or vacant look, slow to get up after a hit to the head, disorientation, clutching of the head after a hit or visible facial injury in combination with another symptom." The league received immediate positive feedback for the change, and many brain-safety advocates saw it as a step in the right direction.

On March 18, 2011, the Canadiens took on the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. With the Rangers up 5-3 late in the third, Benoit Pouliot crashed hard into Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, bowling him over. The trainer hurried to the netminder's aid as Lundqvist was very slow to get up, holding his head. Instead of the "quiet room" treament, however, Lundqvist got an on-ice neck massage from the trainer and stayed in to finish the game. He complained of a stiff neck after the game, but managed to play, and win, two days later.

On October 22, 2011, the leafs visited the Habs at the Bell Centre. Just over a minute and a half into the first period, Brian Gionta attempted to duck through the crease. In the process, he bumped goalie James Reimer, hard, in the head. Play went on during a delayed penalty call in the Canadiens end, while Reimer remained helmetless, on his knees, in his crease. Again, the goalie, although obviously rattled, was not removed to the quiet room. In this case, didn't even get the benefit of a neck massage, as the trainer wasn't summoned at all. The Hockey Night in Canada announcers called the hit "a pretty good jolt," and Glenn Healey commented that it was "a pretty good show by Reimer." The goaltender got up and played the rest of the first period. He left the game during the intermission, claiming something, "didn't feel right."

Toronto coach Ron Wilson said of the Reimer hit the following day: "He got an elbow in the head and felt whiplash like effects and he could've finished the game but it's early the season and we didn't want to risk it. He should be OK and we will see how he feels tomorrow." A month later, Reimer still hasn't played again because of "concussion-like symptoms," which Brian Burke denies add up to an actual concussion and Reimer's mother says is the latest of several career concussions her son has sustained.

On November 12, 2011, the Bruins met the Sabres in Boston. With the Sabres up 1-0 about six minutes into the opening period, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller came out of his net to beat Milan Lucic to the puck and clear it out of danger. Lucic, with a full head of steam and no intention of letting up, drove an elbow into Miller's head. The goaltender lost his helmet and was later diagnosed with a concussion. Again, no trainer rushed to the scene and Miller ended up playing the rest of the first and the second period before finally leaving the game with "neck pain." The announcers during the game called it a deliberate attempt to injure, but NHL policeman Brendan Shanahan said the hit didn't deserve a suspension. Given some of the suspensions he's handed down for very similar hits on skaters, it seems the NHL discipline office thinks goalies should be judged differently. Miller himself had another opinion.

So now two teams just in the Northeast division are missing their top goalies with concussions, and in neither case did anyone take the hurt player off the ice for assessment according to the league's concussion protocol. Last March, the Rangers were just lucky the same thing didn't happen to Henrik Lundqvist. While it's true that goalies are better equipped than their teammates to handle pucks to the face and head, and may seem impervious to the kinds of injuries other players endure, one must remember the brain inside the helmet doesn't know if it belongs to a goalie or a centreman. It knows only the repercussions of a blow to the head, which are the same for a goalie as for anyone else.

On this day, when Sydney Crosby is set to come back from the concussion that has kept him from the game for the last ten months, head injuries and their consequences are on the public radar more than they ever have been. Hockey Canada has made important changes to women's and minor hockey on the road to preventing head shots. Researchers are improving equipment and even the dinosaur-paced NHL is moving toward harsher penalties for those who cause head injuries. Except when it comes to goalies.

Few people would argue Crosby is the Pittsburgh Penguins' most important player. It's his status and elite skill level that have shone a light on his injury and helped force the changes we've seen in the last year. For many teams without a skater of Crosby's ability, however, the goaltender can be their biggest, or only, star. Losing that player can be devastating. Just imagine, for example, the Canadiens with Carey Price sitting out a concussion for weeks or months.

Sadly, after the Lucic hit on Ryan Miller, one of the most common debates among commentators and fans was whether the Sabres were too "soft" and let Lucic "get away" with the hit. The problem with that train of thought is the reaction doesn't matter if the goalie has already been hurt. And, Miller's teammates should not have been expeted to protect him when the league protects everybody else.

Adam Proteau writes for the Hockey News, and he's the author of the new book, "Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing Hockey." On the issue of how goalies are treated under the concussion protocol, Proteau says:

"It's about evening the playing field across the board and saying it doesn't matter how many minutes you play or what position you play. You deserve to be safe in your work environment, or as safe as possible."

Those are words the league needs to take to heart during the evolution of developing respect for the brain in hockey. A goaltender should have the same degree of protection as any other player, and hitting him in the head should carry the same consequences. Goalies may be different, but their brains are not.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gorgeous Gorges

He might not be the most classically handsome man on the Canadiens' team, with his military haircut, blunt features and scarred visage, but Josh Gorges is a beautiful speciman of a defenceman. His best features don't show on the outside, with the possible exception of the determination in his eyes. Still, his teammates know what he's all about and in the absence of anybody more experienced on the blueline, the Habs' young D-corps is following him.

Gorges' story is an inspirational one. Undersized and undrafted, he came off a Memorial Cup championship as captain of the Kelowna Rockets and, after an injury-shortened season in the AHL, elbowed his way onto the San Jose Sharks roster in 2005. He never really found a permanent home on the Sharks' blueline, though. Relatively inexperienced, he played well when called upon, but was the easy guy to scratch when facing big, banging western conference teams. So, when the Sharks were gearing up for one of their innumerable failed playoff runs in 2007, they went looking for a veteran D-man to shore up their back end. Enter Craig Rivet, with Gorges and a Sharks' first heading to Montreal.

Looking back now, most fans consider that trade to be the best one Bob Gainey made as Habs GM. At the time it looked like the first would be the most important element changing hands. Gorges had a tough time finding a full-time spot in Montreal with Andrei Markov (remember him?), Mark Streit, Roman Hamrlik, Francis Bouillon, Patrice Brisebois, Mike Komisarek, Mathieu Dandenault and Ryan O'Byrne already there. He spent a lot of nights in the press box and was mentioned as a throw-in in more than a few trade rumours.

Gradually, however, Gorges wormed his way onto the daily roster. With blueline injuries in his second year in Montreal, he ended up playing a solid 81 games and has never looked back. We've seen his value increase as he's proven he can take a beating (remember the Mike Green slapper to the head?) and keep on going. He's been so indestructible, in fact, that when he announced he'd been playing essentially without an ACL in his knee for seven years and would finally need surgery last season, it was shocking. Not surprising at all has been his return from rehab, as though nothing ever happened. This, in contrast with poor Andre Markov's trials, is a testament to his recuperative abilities.

He was a leader on his Memorial Cup team in Kelowna, and he's done the same thing in Montreal. During the Habs miracle playoff run two years ago, just before Game Seven against the Caps, three guys spoke to the team. One of them was Gorges, and every ear in the room was tuned to him. He even got several mentions as a potential captain before Brian Gionta was awarded the C. Now we're seeing him stand up and support a decimated defence corps on which he, at 27, is the veteran.

Gorges has been a rock for the majority of the season. He's killing every penalty, and taking on the most skilled players on the other team. He's even putting up points at a faster rate than ever. Already this year, with no PP time, he's got 8 points in 18 games. That puts him on pace for 36 for the season, a third better than his previous career-high 23.

It can't be overlooked either that he's very close to Carey Price and is a steadying presence for the sometimes mercurial goaltender.

One could argue this is a contract year and Gorges, as always, has something to prove. On the other hand, it's hard to make the case that a player who's always given his heart and soul to the team was holding back in anticipation of a better deal before now.

Gorges admitted he was a little hurt the Canadiens only offered him a one-year deal last summer. It must have been particularly hard to swallow in light of the more-frequently injured Andrei Markov's three-year contract. He's not letting that interfere with his job, however, which is testament to his total commitment to the team.

If Pierre Gauthier has an ounce of sense, he'll be drawing up a long-term deal for Gorges right about now. It would be a lovely New Year's gift for Habs fans to see #26 locked up for a few years. He's got nothing left to prove.

Josh Gorges may not be beautiful, but he's a beauty. And the Habs' blueline would be a much uglier place without him.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Dear Jacques Letter

Dear Jacques,

It pains me to write you this letter. We've had some good times in the past, but this season you've turned so cold and unmoving. I thought about whether I should just wait and see if you'd come around, but I've decided things have dragged on long enough. So, I have to ask, why do you hate me? I give you chance after chance, but you don't seem to care. All I want to do is go dancing; have a little fun. Maybe score once in a while.

You proved you don't love me anymore, so I wanted to go out with Tomas Plekanec. You can't let me be happy, though. You always find something else for him to do. One day he's digging ditches, next day taking out the garbage. At the end of the week, he's got nothing left for me. You never let him get my motor running.

No. Instead you push me at Mathieu Darche. Mathieu Darche?! I mean, he's a great guy and all, but he's really not my type. He's hardworking, sure. He just doesn't make me respond to his Edward Scissorhands-like touch.

I confess, I'm desperate. At this point, I'd take an impotent Scott Gomez rush. At least it's exciting for a little while, even if he's got the finish of raw lumber. You keep telling me it'll be different when Andrei Markov arrives, but you've been saying the same thing for two years now. I can't deal with this teasing for much longer.

I'm just a mess. When I look back at old videos, I don't recognize myself. I used to be hot and dangerous. Now I'm sloppy and disorganized. I've gone to hell and, Jacques? I blame you. You think you know what's best for me, but you keep setting me up with the wrong guys. There's no chemistry and my chances of scoring are among the lowest in the league. What I don't get is why you don't see it. Everyone else does. The pundits are all talking about it. Fans are pointing at me and gossiping about my problems. People are calling me useless and pathetic.

Why are you so stubborn, Jacques? I know Josh Gorges doesn't really have a silky touch, but he's performing this year. He's built up more points than any other blueliner you've got. I'd like a shot with him. You know, maybe give Plekanec a job he's more suited to do, so he's rested enough to take me out on weekends. When he's overworked, he leaves me hanging and I make bad, costly decisions. I'm letting strangers score as often as my own guys. Seriously, give Gorges a chance to make me happy.

I just want to be productive again. Honestly? I want to put out. This is probably tough for you to hear because I know you're pretty well opposed to offensive freedom. But, Jacques, this is the New NHL, and we have every right to score. Kirk Muller had the right idea, but he's left me in your cold hands and now I'm lost.

The funny thing is, as much as you hate me, you need me. You have to admit it, or you're going to regret it later. If I'm not happy, you and your players won't be happy either. So consider this a cry for help. Think about putting your dislike of me aside and being a little more flexible. Plekanec is your boy, I know, but he'd be so much better with me if you just gave him his freedom.

Please, Jacques. Before it's too late, loosen up. Let me do what I do best and I can help you. If you don't, well, it's going to be a long, depressing season and I'm going to cost you a lot of games. That's a promise.


Your Power Play.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lest We Forget

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

- John McCrae

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Think Tank

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold.

Picture, if you will, two Habs fans. One is the patient fan. He faithfully watches all the games, pays half a week's salary to go to the Bell Centre when he gets a chance and proudly wears his vintage Saku Koivu sweater during the playoffs. The patient fan tries to see logic in the coach's and general manager's decisions. He explains losses as unfortunate encounters with hot goalies or getting jobbed by the refs. He believes there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the Habs that a nice five-game winning streak can't fix.

The other fan is the angry fan. He's this close to cancelling his subscription to RDS, he regards ticket prices on Stub Hub with horror and is ashamed to wear his Guy Lafleur sweater in public. The angry fan thinks Pierre Gauthier should be fired for failing to address the team's pressing needs, and Jacques Martin is mentally deficient for not recognizing a forward on the point during the PP isn't working. He believes the Habs as constructed and managed just can't score, and they take a lot of minor penalties because they're stuck with a system that doesn't play to their strengths. He sees a long, disappointing season, probably culminating in a playoff miss, unless dramatic changes happen immediately.

The patient fan and the angry fan are so diametrically opposed in their basic philosophies, they rarely cross paths outside internet message boards. When the two worlds collide these days, however, they're like two sumo wrestlers grappling for purchase on black ice. The slippery ground in this case is the "tank" debate.

The patient fan takes the anti-tank argument. The basic points of debate include: a)these are the Montreal Canadiens, and the proud fanbase won't accept being a league bottom-feeder, b)missing the playoffs is too costly for the owners, c)players sign in places where they're going to have success and a tank season undermines that selling option, even for homegrown UFAs like Carey Price, and, d)tanking doesn't guarantee anything because you still have to draft and develop the right player(s), see Atlanta/Winnipeg as Exhibit A

The angry fan wants to tank the season, and preferably the sooner the better. He says a)the Montreal Canadiens have been mediocre for nearly 20 years, are on the verge of becoming irrelevant when discussion of modern success arises and can only break out of the middle-of-the-road rut by drafting a real superstar, b)missing the playoffs will be a wakeup call for the owners who'll then turf Gauthier, Martin, Bob Gainey and all their relatives and friends, c)free agents are not the way to build the core of a team and the Canadiens need to unload some of the ones they've previously signed at the trade deadline in order to facilitate the tanking process, and, d)tanking a year doesn't mean long-term failure because one great draft pick can make a huge difference, see Philadelphia as Exhibit A.

That, in some version, is pretty much how the debate proceeds. What neither side really says, though, is that the debate is in danger of becoming moot. With their latest two-game losing slide, the Habs bandwagon risks branching off the mainstream highway and taking a one-way turnoff to Tanksville, PQ, population 21,273. In short, the Canadiens may be tanking all by themselves, without any help at all from the debaters.

It's not that they're not trying. They are. These are professional hockey players, several of them Stanley Cup winners. They're proud and they're skilled enough to have reached this level and won before. As a collective, though, something's missing. Whether it's a lack of bench leadership with the departure of Kirk Muller, a lack of on-ice cohesion, particularly during the PP, with the loss of Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski or just plain bad luck with injuries and weird scheduling, there's something wrong with the Canadiens. Maybe it's just as simple as playing in a league in which a poor start can put you permanently behind the eight-ball for the season. Parity's a bitch, especially when you've been drafting in the middle of the pack for years and really haven't upgraded the big team very much in the last three seasons.

It feels terribly disloyal, but even the most patient of fans, when faced with an inevitable tank, can't help thinking about the sure-thing, rock-star junior players just waiting to be plucked out of the NHL lottery. Imagining slick winger Nail Yakupov in the starting lineup makes even the most ardent playoff-lover think how much better a chance the Habs would have in the post-season with that kind of scoring talent in the lineup.

In the same way, even the most angry fan, when he knows the season could really be lost, feels the regret of missing out while other teams go for the Cup. He finds it hard to admit it, but cyncism takes a back seat to hope when the post-season begins, as long as his team is in it. And even the angriest fan knows that there are no guarantees with those tempting prospects. Yakupov could be the next Kovalchuk or the next Patrik Stefan. One doesn't know how a change of league or an injury could influence the way that kid will turn out as a pro.

In the end, nobody really wants a tank season. The irony is the fans who swear they do and those who vow they don't come together only when tanking becomes a certainty. Looking at the distinct possibility of a lost season now, tankers and anti-tankers can agree a top draft pick might make a difference next year, but the price is very, very high. If tanking happens despite the team's best efforts there's little we can do about it, but the team really needs to take whatever drastic measures it must to prevent it.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hit and Sit

Here's a newsflash for those who admantly disagree that all head shots...accidental or not...should be removed from the game, for fear of losing good, clean bodychecks: hitting is already leaving hockey. It's not the rules-makers doing it, either. It's the guys on the ice; the players and referees themselves.

The Canadiens lost to the Rangers because Mike Blunden laid a solid bodycheck and the Rangers, as so many teams do these days, took exception. In the unjustified scrum that followed, the Habs drew the short-handed straw and lost their fourth-line centreman. The Rangers scored on the 5-on-3 and that was enough to get them rolling. Without a fourth line, the Habs played catch-up all night and, despite showing lots of heart (when they weren't in the box), they couldn't quite make it all the way back.

We see this so often. A perfectly legal check, intended only to remove the puck from the puck carrier, triggers foolish and unwarrented retribution. Players say they want hitting in hockey, but when someone actually delivers a good hit, they take offence. There was no reason for the Rangers to get all up in arms over the Blunden hit. When they did, the refs shouldn't have fallen for it and punished the Canadiens with the extra penalty. They shouldn't even have called the first penalty. They called the Blunden hit interference, but the definition of interference is "impeding the motion of a player not in possession of the puck." The Ranger player had the puck when Blunden hit him, which made the check legal.

In the end, it didn't matter. The refs called a lot of borderline penalties on the Canadiens and not the Rangers. That's the way it goes sometimes, and you can give the Habs kudos for pushing back. It's just too bad a good effort was spoiled because the Rangers can't take a check.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Habs Sit, Rangers Flit

An inauspicious start. Pax is slowing down after his first few games of offensive aggression.

Habs killed that PP easier than Raid kills ants.

Blunden hit looked clean to me. So now, if a guy falls down after a check, it's a cue for a line brawl? Sometimes I hate the NHL.

Excellent. Habs down two men after just killing off a penalty. It stretches the limits of faith to hope this will even out in the end.

Something you didn't know: the name "Jaroslav" means "glory of spring." Let's hope Spacek is living up to his name next May.

If the Habs were ever playing with a manpower advantage this game, they might have a chance.

If this game was a musical, it'd be Little Shop of Horrors.

Can we please let McDonagh go? Lamenting his trade is as productive as crying about drafting AK instead of Getzlaf or Perry.

This is not Desharnais' finest night.

Well, the good thing is, it's the Rangers. No team in the league likes blowing leads more.

Interesting. Looking up NHL player ratings of best/worst officials in the league, and Tim Peel finishes second-worst.

Dirtiest trick in hockey is holding the stick with your armpit to make it look like you're being hooked. Dumb refs fall for it every time.

Spacek is doing a good job on his proper side.

ANOTHER Habs penalty?! I can't watch this much longer.

Moen to Pleks on the bench: Sorry, man. Didn't mean to go offside. Pleks: No problem. (under breath...idiot)

Jesus lives! The Rangers got a penalty!

Andrei Kostitsyn should be extended. Now.

Just realized: Erik Cole is a better-skating Michael Ryder.

Avery's face makes me wish someone would kick him in the nuts with skates on.

Gionta's got to start scoring. He's been an anchor most nights.

Is it just me, or does that thing that sticks up out of the back of a goalie's pants look like an overnight maxi-pad?

They're pulling Price. Stats say Rangers win 5-3.

The game was thrown from the first penalty. NO chance for the Habs to come back. Too bad, because they were hot at even strength.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Streak Continues - Habs vs.Sens

Anybody else sick of telling leafs fans, "Talk to me in April?"

Gill's reminding us why a ten-foot stick is good on the P.K. Price must have a long one too.

Habs looking as good as Wild Bill on the draw so far tonight.

Sometimes Hal Gill has an out-of-body experience and plays like Ray Bourque. Tonight may be one of those nights.

I might be wrong (happens a lot), but I think Lars Eller has a chance of making the Halak trade look like pure genius.

I wonder how long players spend practicing flipping the puck into their hands to give to the linesmen, while looking completely nonchalant?

If a D is supposed to give up a penalty shot for closing his hand on the puck, what should Gonchar get for catching and throwing it out?

On these nights when the Habs have a thousand chances, do they ever score?

David Desharnais is really a tiny miracle. Who would have put him in the NHL two years ago?

Okay, Habs are dominating through half the game now. That means they're gonna lose, right?

Just noticed I'm asking a LOT of questions tonight.

Ha ha! Chris Neil with a nosebleed. I hope Desharnais gave it to him.

Cole scores his third, and Martin is frantically writing in his notebook. Hope it says, "I will not limit his ice...I will not limit his ice...I will not..."

I know people hate him 'cause he's dumb, but he scores! Sign AK to an extension!

It sucks when the PK gives up a goal, but when it's obviously cleared and the linesman flubs the call, that sucks. Fortunately not this time

One would think a team with a big "O" on its sweaters would feel like a bunch of losers. So far, not so much.

Nice job Pleks, mirroring Foligno and annoying the life out of him.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Take a Seat

For a team that's spent most of this young season dealing with a depleted roster, the Canadiens now have an interesting dilemma. By all accounts, Andrei Markov had some successful tests on his knee in the last couple of weeks and is now skating in Montreal. If all is well, one might imagine he'll be cleared to play sooner rather than later, which is wonderful news for the Canadiens as a whole. It may not, however, be good tidings for whichever defenceman has to sit out to make room for him. Similarly, a forward will have to take a seat with the imminent return of Scott Gomez from a minor injury.

Neither of these decisions will be easy to make. Up front, it's tough to argue that either of David Desharnais, who's got 7 points in eleven games, or Lars Eller, who's been using his size to great advantage and just scored his first goal, should be bounced to the wing to make room for Gomez. The veteran had just one assist and was minus-one in the six games he played before his injury. The Canadiens have won their last three games without Gomez and, it could be argued, haven't missed him at all. Considering the performance of the team's young centremen in his absence, a case could be made that the Habs, as a team, function better without him. However, unless Pierre Gauthier is willing to trade or demote Gomez, he will be back in the lineup, and getting significant minutes as well.

So, one forward will have to sit, and the easy choice from Jacques Martin's position is Mike Blunden. The big winger got called up from Hamilton to bring some size and sandpaper to the fourth line in place of Aaron Palushaj. His arrival, together with the trade for fourth-line centre Petteri Nokelainen, helped solidfy the bottom trio. Those guys won't be a huge risk to score, but they can withstand a pounding from the other team's fourth line, and they, especially Nokelainen, can kill penalties and take faceoffs. If Blunden sits, Mathieu Darche and presumably Travis Moen would flank Nokelainen.

That would leave some combination of Erik Cole, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Cammalleri, Max Pacioretty and Brian Gionta as legitimate top-nine wingers. With Tomas Plekanec entrenched as the number-one centreman, that means one of Eller, Desharnais or Gomez would have to move to the wing. Considering the strong play of Eller and Desharnais during the winning streak, it should probably be Gomez who takes a winger's spot. The two younger guys aren't as good as Gomez on faceoffs, but there's nothing stopping Gomez from taking draws, even if he's playing on the wing. It makes sense to move him because once Gomez crosses the opposing blueline, which he does very well, he peels off to the wing anyway. Eller and Desharnais go to the net more directly, as a centre is supposed to do. It may work, or it may not, but it's worth a try. Gomez surely wasn't doing much at centre, so maybe a change of assignment might spark him a bit. At the least, it would disturb the lines that are scoring now as little as possible.

The bigger dilemma for Jacques Martin will be on defence. Young, relatively inexperienced guys like Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz have steadied their play in the last several games. They're learning on the job, which can give a cautious coach like Martin another reason to dye his hair. All in all, though, they're doing relatively well. Jaroslav Spacek has brought stability since his return from injury. The veteran is playing moderate minutes on his natural left side and is looking pretty solid. Josh Gorges, despite a couple of glaring gaffes, is a workhorse and is putting up more points than he ever has before at the NHL level. P.K.Subban eats minutes as well, and even when making mistakes is a threat to the opposition. Hal Gill is, perhaps, the sketchiest of the D-men so far this year, but Martin loves him on the PK and would never sit him.

While those six guys are in the lineup every night, an (one would imagine) unimpressed Alexei Emelin is downing steamies in the Bell Centre pressbox. This is a guy with size, mobility and a mean streak...exactly the kind of defenceman the Habs need...who the Habs have been courting since they drafted him seven years ago. He finally arrived in North America and now finds himself the odd man out in a defensive logjam in Montreal. This is a touchy situation. Presumably Emelin left Russia because he believed he'd be playing in the NHL. We know he's got an out clause in his contract that allows him to return to the KHL if he's not on the Habs roster. So, how long will it be before he decides this healthy scratch stuff is crap? The problem is, the Canadiens need a guy like him. The bigger problem is, they need him to be NHL-ready right now. He's not as ready as the other young guys, even though he's not making any terrible errors, and Martin has chosen to trust Weber and Diaz instead.

The difficulty Martin faces is that the Canadiens are in a competitive division and need to give themselves the best chance to win every night. To do that, they have to ice the best defence they can. At the same time, they have to give their young and inexperienced players a chance to develop so when injuries hit, they've got the depth to handle it. They're risking losing Emelin if they don't play him.

Exacerbating the situation is the return of Markov. If he stays healthy for more than a week, another of the current six defencemen will have to bow out to give him a spot. Knowing Martin, that means one of Weber or Diaz. Again, it means one of the young, promising defencemen will be stunted in his development for lack of ice time.

Given the situation in Montreal now, with Gorges being the only defenceman in his prime, it's important for the younger Ds to get some playing time. That means, even if they make mistakes, Emelin has to play instead of Gill some nights. Diaz will have to draw in instead of Spacek. However, knowing Martin, he'll play the veterans every night, regardless of how many mistakes they make. If he does, and Emelin or Diaz walk, it will hurt the Canadiens. It's a dilemma, without question. Whether Jacques Martin can sort it without costing the team in the long run is a test of good faith. If only our faith wasn't already stretched thin.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bruins Drink Habs Bathwater

The organ in the Bell Centre is a treat. That's a fan's addition, so thanks to Geoff Molson.

Okay, sometimes Subban just spins for the hell of it.

Gill handles the puck like a live grenade, but a lucky post keeps Peverley off the board.

Is Martin supposed to be The Count or The Penguin for Halloween?

Cole's driving the net like a transport truck.

I swear to God if Darche starts this PP, I'm getting a Jacques Martin voodoo doll and a box of straight pins.

Okay. There's irony for you. Plekanec with the point-shot goal, with Darche screening Rask.

If you're going to score your first of the season, launching the puck hard enough to leave a vapour trail is a good way to do it.

Is it my imagination, or are the Habs winning more puck battles then they used to?

Great stop on Kelly. Price's game is tighter than a sphincter tonight.

Funny how the Bruins harass Subban in Boston to please their cretinous fans, but never go near him in Montreal.

Desharnais is smoother than a wax job and quicker than a lecher's hands.

Liking how animated Cunneyworth is behind the bench after the Eller gaffe. Somebody on that staff needs to have a pulse.

Glad to see the refs calling them like they see them, instead of trying to even things out with BS makeup calls.

5-on-3. Let's hope Gill's ten-foot stick has come to play.

Habs leading scorer Moen seems to have cooled off.

One thing I like about this year's Habs is that they jump on turnovers like sharks on blood.

Martin's Halloween costume might be uncertain, but Julien's Mr.Potato Head outfit is perfect. Cool of him to dress up for the weekend.

Okay...offically wicked: The organist is playing the '80s Habs anthem, "Bleu, Blanc, Rouge."

Pleks with the empty-netter to seal it. Anyone think he's got a bit of a grudge against these guys?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bruins Are Still Cheap and Dirty

Not a great time to punch Krejci in the face, P.K. I'm not saying don't punch him in the face, but pick a better spot.

If Travis Moen had a bouquet for every fabulous chance he's blown, he could have decorated Westminster for the Royal Wedding.

Subban's getting the puck off his stick so quickly tonight the Bs fans hardly have time to get a good boo going.

Spacek and Weber are harmonious a pair as Ike and Tina...the later years.

Dumb penalty by Nokelainen. Fourth liners should be seen and not heard.

Terrible goal against for Price. That casual stance thing he's been doing this year really burned him there.

Anybody missing Scott Gomez lately? Me neither.

The Habs are more susceptible to an aggressive forecheck than a teenaged boy is to Megan Fox in a bikini.

At this point, using Darche on the PP instead of Kostitsyn is plain negligence.

Erik Cole tips better than Deep Throat to Woodward and Bernstein.

Price is so into this game. Loved the fist pump after stoning Peverley.

Subban's got to be smarter. He let Marchand taunt him into leaving his team with five D for nine minutes.

If the Habs are in contention for the Jennings this year, does Diaz get a share?

If I don't stroke out during a Habs/Bruins game, it's never gonna happen.

Watching Erik Cole try to clear his zone is like watching a three-legged dog try to run.

The always-classy Claude Julien is now sending Scott Thornton out to run Subban.

Tomas Plekanec is made of two parts steel wool and one part hockey juice.

Watching Hal Gill rush back to cover in his own end is like watching the Queen Mary heading out to sea.

Great shot of Cam Neely in the pressbox, watching the Bs get stymied by yet another Habs goalie.

Star light, star bright, Carey got his wish tonight.

A Glimmer of Hope

Well, it turns out the Habs' wretched losing streak was all the fault of Carey Price's pink pads. As soon as the goalie went back to his cowboy gear, he was...well...a cowboy in the net again.

Or maybe the fault belonged to Perry Pearn. With the assistant coach axed an hour before puck drop, Randy Ladouceur descended from the press box to run the defence and PK behind the bench. Both looked leagues better than they did under the guidance, or lack thereof, of Jacques Martin's best friend.

The wakeup call Martin should have received from Pearn's firing apparently wasn't received, though. Tomas Plekanec was still on the point on the PP, even though it doesn't work. Erik Cole finally got significant time with the man advantage (4:22), but only 9:11 at even strength. This a player who's been improving in each of the last several games, and who needs icetime to score. Thirteen minutes doesn't cut it.

Still, the Canadiens managed to win despite some of those decisions, in no small part because of Yannick Weber and Max Pacioretty. Weber played nearly 22 minutes of solid defence, made the team believe it had a chance when he wired the first goal with two seconds to go in the first, and ended the night with a plus-one rating. Pacioretty played despite the wrist injury he sustained against Florida, and racked up two goals (ironically, on wrist shots) and an assist. He also provided a big, aggressive presence with skill up front, which gave the Canadiens offence a different dynamic when he was on the ice.

Other promising signs from last night included Tomas Plekanec once again racking up a 56% success rate in the faceoff circle. David Desharnais was at 53%. The team scored a PP goal, which is a rare phenomenon so far this season. And Josh Gorges posted his fourth and fifth assists; a new level of offensive contribution for the blueliner. Andrei Kostitsyn, who's been working very hard this season despite limited ice time (including a joke of 0:29 on the PP last night)and shuffling linemates, went to the net and got the go-ahead goal halfway through the second. And the PK, which has been as porous as coral, kept the Flyers off the board.

So, despite some of Martin's ongoing baffling decisions, the Habs looked like they have had enough of the losing. We'll see tonight whether the Curse of the Pink Pads or the ghost of Perry Pearn were only temporarily exorcised.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stanching the Wound: Flyers vs. Habs

How long before Hal Gill is minus a million?

If Jagr is going to salute after every goal, we'll soon be rooting for friendly fire to take him out.

TSN is ripping Moen a new one for his brutal coverage on the Jagr goal.
That's no way to respect the team's leading scorer!

So, Perry Pearn's gone. I guess if your right arm is gangrenous, the first thing you do is cut off your right hand.

Interesting. Egypt is selling itself as a great tourist spot. Does that mean if there's a coup at the Bell, marketers will see opportunity?

Weber's shot will be shown in super slo-mo so Bryzgalov can see it. Maybe the luck is changing. It's usually the other team that gets one late.

The Habs offence is full of more unrequited love than Dante and Beatrice.

What's wrong with Plekanec? I'm guessing his cootie catcher linemates.

Suddenly, the Habs have become aware of the fact that they have talent. LOVING Pacioretty.

Pacioretty's what a first-rounder looks like. Habs management should take note.

Well, I bet Perry Pearn's loaded. Wherever he is.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Cry In the Wilderness

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold.

The Scene: A lonely mountain top, somewhere in downtown Montreal. A weary pilgrim beseeches his Lord for answers.

Jacques Martin: Lord, I have arrived at the end of my rope. I need answers, and I need them soon, or I will lose the only job I ever really wanted.


Martin: Lord. I beg you to give me the answers I need. I'm listening.

Wind whistling

Martin: (nearly shouting) Lord! Can't you hear me?! I'm a desperate man!

The Almighty: Yes, Jacques, I can hear you. (sighs)
Martin: Oh, thank...well...You.
The Almighty: So, Jacques, what exactly do you want Me to do for you?
Martin: Well, Lord, I've lost control of my team. I need to know how to get them to listen again.
The Almighty: Jacques, did I not give you Erik Cole?
Martin: Yes, Lord, but...
The Almighty: NO BUTS! (lightning flashes) I gave you my son Erik because he will drive the net and help insulate your small forwards. Yet, instead of using him for the purpose for which I created him, you are wasting him on the bench.
Martin: Oh Lord, but Mathieu Darche...
The Almighty: SILENCE! Mathieu Darche is a loyal and industrious servant, but when I was giving out talent, he was in the looks line. He does the best he can with what he's got, but you can't replace Me-given talent. Look what happened when you actually put Cole on the power play last night.
Martin: Lord, our defence is so depleted, there's not much I could do...
The Almighty: Excuses, Jacques! Every team's got injuries. Look at the Penguins. My son Sidney and most of his talented cohort were missing when you played them, but they controlled the play because they all know what they're supposed to do. Communication, Jacques. Did I not give you a brain and a tongue?
Martin: It's not my fault we're shorthanded so often, though, Lord.
The Almighty: You can't pass the buck on this one. You've already taken three too-many men penalties. That's because My children have no clue when they're supposed to be on the ice, or who they're supposed to be on with. If you stop scrambling the lines like eggs, you might see a difference in these things.
Martin: Lord, I'm trying to put the right forwards out there, but they keep shooting right into the goalie. I don't know how to make them score.
The Almighty: I know it's difficult for you to admit you don't know something. In this case, only I know the answer. It turns out goalies pray more.
Martin: Praying might help us?
The Almighty: Not really. It gets repetitive. Look, Jacques. You're asking a fast, skilled and not overly physical team to play a dump-and-chase, shutdown game. Let Me see, how can I explain this? It's like asking the Queen to mud wrestle.
Martin: Oh.
The Almighty: Yes. Oh. Now, there's nothing more I can do for you today. I've got an urgent call from Ilya Bryzgalov.
Martin: Lord?
The Almighty: (sighs) Yes, Jacques?
Martin: Um, is there any chance I can save my job?
The Almighty: There is a chance. All things are possible with Me. You must repent and put The System behind you. You must use the players I have given you properly and you must lay off the Brylcreem. It went out in the '60s.
Martin: Yes Lord. I'll try.
The Almighty: Do that Jacques. Oh, and Jacques?
Martin: Yes, Lord?
The Almighty: I'm...uh...sorry about the ears. That was an accident. Good luck!

Monday, October 24, 2011

And the Suck Rolls On - Panthers vs. Habs

That was a beautiful point shot by Diaz. See what happens when there are two real Ds on the PP? Hope Penguin was taking notes on that.

Hal Gill can go from 0-2 in 60 seconds flat.

Desharnais between Pacioretty and Cole is like a shrimp salad sandwich.

NASA can rest easy about cancelling the shuttle program. They can always send stuff to the International Space Station on a Budaj rebound.

Cammalleri talks a lot about not being small if you come out with the puck. I guess he's small then.

Shockingly, Darche is unable to make use of his silken hands to convert on the PP. Martin can't believe it.

Martin's like a line in Dryden's "The Game." Shutt to Jarvis in yet another gray-toned suit: "I didn't know drab came in so many colours."

Quick! Get the duct tape! Peter Budaj has sprung a leak!

The Habs in their own end look like they're fighting a strong cross wind.

PP goal now goes to Erik Cole. So, Penguin. Cole had only 3 PP goals in Carolina last year, but one on his first real PP chance in Montreal. Hope that's in the notebook.

Skille on against Skillsy.

Someone should tell the Habs they don't get extra points for making nineteen passes before they take a shot.

Budaj makes a great stop on the PK. Goalie controversy!

So far Budaj is holding the fort, but he's got to be the scariest Habs goalie since Aebischer.

Gill has his place, but he moves like an elephant dances and he's minus-two tonight.

One guy who's working his ass off for little reward: Andrei Kostitsyn.
Martin sees his job flashing before his eyes.

It always amazes me when Martin thinks a team that can't score on the PP will miraculously pump out a goal with the goalie out.

I wonder how long before the Occupy the Bell Centre movement either demands mass refunds or razes the place to the ground?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Step Right Up!

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold

The Canadiens season is rapidly becoming a carnival guessing game. How many clowns can fit into the tiny car? How much does the fat lady really weigh? How many games can the sucky hockey team lose before something gives? The popular guess is, not many more.

The Canadiens are in that position in which you know one more clown can't possibly squeeze into that car. The fat lady is 400 pounds and the Habs, at 1-6 to start the year, are spiralling into a void of suckage not seen since something a big 1995. That year, the team started with a handful of losses and Serge Savard and Jacques Demers, Cup winners just two years previous, found themselves on the street. In considering that sequence of events, one might recall that neither Pierre Gauthier nor Jacques Martin has the luxury of resting on his Cup-winning laurels.

The terrible cycle in which the team is caught means they either keep the goals against low and can't score themselves, or they score enough to win, but give up more than they get. Carey Price has been good enough to win on most nights, but he's been waiting four games to get his hundredth win.

Every power play looks disorganized and fruitless; no surprise with Tomas Plekanec on the point and Mathieu Darche on the first wave. Scotty Bowman always says the trick to good coaching is having the right people on the ice at the right time. There's certainly a time and place for Darche, but first-wave PP is probably not it. Erik Cole hasn't done squat in a Habs uniform, so maybe a coach should think about jump-starting him with some PP time. Perhaps a good coach should recognize that Tomas Plekanec, who's got a cannon off the rush, doesn't have quite the same shot on the point. Maybe a successful coach would recognize that there are better shooters and Plekanec's skills are in making sneaky passes and setting up the guy who's willing to break for the net.

Cole's a story unto himself. After a less-than-stellar stint in Edmonton, and a bounce-back on his return to Carolina, there was great concern at the time of his signing in Montreal that he only plays well with Eric Staal. As a heart-and-soul kind of player, he's got to be willing to sacrifice himself to play his game properly. It was clear when he signed that he came to Montreal for the money, and while nobody would accuse him of not trying, he can't make himself love his new team the way he did his old one. It's got to happen naturally, and it hasn't happened yet. The Habs need what he can bring, but he's not bringing it.

Then there's the defence, or what's left of it. The three guys with fewer than 100 NHL games between them are holding up surprisingly well. It's their experienced teammates who are making the most egregious errors. Josh Gorges alone has been directly responsible for two dreadful mistakes that have led to backbreaking goals. P.K.Subban's getting denuded by Paul Stastny is still fresh in our minds as well. It's not really their fault. Gorges is meant to be a 3-5 defenceman and he's essentially playing top minutes at the moment. We forget Subban's got one NHL season under his belt and Hal Gill has 1000 NHL games, but looks like he's 1000 years old half the time. Short of a trade, there's no help coming in the forseeable future, unless you consider Jaroslav Spacek your personal Jesus.

If there's one positive from the most recent disappointment, it's that the team is no worse with Scott Gomez out of the lineup. Lars Eller, in fact, did an excellent job in the second-line centre position. He set up Travis Moen (who sits in 11th spot in the league in goals scored) for a beautiful shorthanded goal in the first, and made a nice pass to Andrei Kostitsyn on his goal as well. He was also 56% on faceoffs and led the team with a plus-three rating. He killed penalties (but didn't get any PP time...that's Darche's spot, after all) and he used his size to make room for himself. The kid is going to be good, and if he keeps up this level of play in Gomez' continued absence, he'll be proving there's no need to hold onto the vastly underwhelming veteran.

That's a small comfort in the face of some very large problems. The Canadiens are rapidly approaching the point of "somthing's gotta give." The clown car is full.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Habs Keep Sucking

"NHL leading scorer Phil Kessel" is as incongruous a statement as "U.S President Sarah Palin."

Why does Phaneuf always look like he's mentally multiplying by 13?

Grabovski may be scoring more these days, but he still looks like a rodeo clown.

Hal Gill's a member of the silver stick club. Sounds like he should get his porn for free from now on.

Ha ha! Komisarek getting ready for a return pass. Like anyone would pass it BACK to him.

Travis Moen: Breakaway king.

Strange world when Moen with puck possession fills you with a sense of possibility.

If empty nets were diamonds, the Habs would be Elizabeth Taylor.

One-Ball Phil just completed his set by gelding Gorges.

It's ironic the Habs keep getting called for too many men, when most of us think they haven't enough.

Cunneyworth looks like he's pacing behind the bench with a load in his pants. He probably does.

That's funny. Perry Pearn's on RDS talking about passion in the game. That's like asking Spock about emotion.

Maybe the Habs are just tired of being in the playoffs. That's got to take a lot out of a team.

Friday, October 21, 2011


It might not be time to push the panic button just yet, but the Canadiens are rapidly descending through the recognized stages of suckage. They started with "unprepared" and have at various times achieved levels of "frustrated," "overwhelmed" and "unlucky." Last night they finally hit a new low with "totally outclassed."

After a game against Buffalo in which they did many things right and were stymied only by Ryan Miller's heroics, one might have logically assumed the Canadiens would recognize the positives and try the same things against Pittsburgh. That didn't happen. Instead of building on the good things from Buffalo, they came out looking listless and uncommitted against a severely depleted Penguins team.

It's hard to find a reason or even a lame excuse for why that might have happened. Injuries can't factor in because the Pens were more hurt than the Habs. Fatigue's not the answer, because the Canadiens have played among the fewest games of any other team in the league. It came down to the fact that Dan Bylsma's team, despite missing all of its stars, was ready to play from the moment the puck was dropped. Jacques Martin's team was not.

There'll be a lot of talk today about the players having tuned Martin out already. The question should be more along the lines of whether they had ever tuned him in to begin with. Martin might not be the most exciting coach, but he's at least managed to keep the team on an even keel for most of the last couple of seasons. The only thing different this year is that he lacks a translator. Previously, Kirk Muller, who speaks player, was the conduit between the team and the coach. He was very, very well-liked by the players, so maybe that level of trust and understanding is missing this year. Certainly his influence on the PP is missing. It's rarely looked so inept for such a stretch of games in the last two years.

Then again, maybe Muller's absence has nothing to do with the malaise we witnessed last night and on other nights in this young season. Maybe the Canadiens' mix of well-paid, but not exactly star veterans and inexperienced youth is just not good enough to compete with other teams who've improved since last season. In a league featuring the kind of parity we see in the NHL, it doesn't take much for one team to fall out of the race. With three-point games keeping points totals artificially inflated, it's difficult to climb the standings when you slip early. Look at the Devils last year. The perennial playoff team got off to a dreadful start and even a supernatural late-season drive couldn't salvage a playoff spot. On the bright side, they finished the year with dignity and they got the excellent young Adam Larsson in the draft. Somehow, though, it's doubtful Jacques Lemaire would come out of retirement to try and save the Habs.

So, six games into the season isn't quite time to push that big red panic button, but losing five of those six games is definitely a wake-up call. If the Canadiens are to right this ship, this has to be the mid-season losing streak. A playoff team can afford one, maybe two slumps in a season. If this is one of those, the team can still be fine. If it's a pattern for the rest of the season, the Canadiens might be this year's Devils and the time for the panic button will come sooner rather than later.