Sunday, January 2, 2011

Aftermath: Images

One should never write about a game lost in a heated moment until the emotion simmers down to a low boil and vision clears. If a person were to summarize today's loss to the Thrashers immediately afterwards, the treatise would have included such phrases as "Price sucks," "Cammalleri can't shoot" and "Spacek is brutal." That's what happens after a loss; everyone plays a part in it, but the blanket of blame tends to fall unevenly on the culprits who looked to observers to be most at fault.

The truth is, though, everyone plays a role in a win, as well as they do in a loss, sometimes one guy can really make the difference. Today, it was Carey Price. In hockey, things tend to even out over time, so you might look at the soft goals Price has been giving up lately as no more than a balancing of the scales after the many nights of lights-out goal he played earlier in the year. Of course, nobody can sustain that level of play for an entire year, so a bit of a slacker period was to be expected.
The concern with Price, though, is with his mental strength. The hope is that his newfound maturity will help him get through this patch without it becoming a full-blown trough of negativity in his mind. Every goalie slides once in a while, and if Price can recognize that and regroup, it'll be a major victory for him. If he can't, well, it really doesn't bear thinking about because the team can't win without him playing great in net.

This may be the reason why Jacques Martin has been so reluctant to rest Price. When a goalie is stealing games in a league in which every point counts, it's tempting to just keep rolling with him while he's hot. That's what Martin did, and a lot of people who know their goalies say Price looks tired now. That may or may not be true. There's certainly an argument to be made about the accumulative mental strain that comes with having to be nearly perfect every night or risk losing. Even a 23-year-old, fit, talented goaltender can become mentally and emotionally fatigued while his body feels rested. That, once again, goes back to Martin. The reason Price is under such pressure is because the team is playing a system that puts an inordinate amount of reliance on great goalkeeping.

Mike Boone over at Habs Inside/Out made a comment that really resonated today. He said, "Atlanta plays a sound, hard-grinding game in the image of their coach, Craig Ramsay." The part that stood was "in the image of their coach." Craig Ramsay played fourteen hard-grinding years in the NHL and won a Selke trophy for his trouble. The fundamentals he preaches are the ones he learned through experience. He's the kind of guy who doesn't ask his team to do things he wouldn't or couldn't have done himself when he played.

Jacques Martin is a different story. He had two mediocre seasons playing goal for St.Lawrence University in the early '70s. He never ground out a gruelling junior season, or bounced around the AHL on the buses. He never played a first NHL game or suffered through a very public slump. He never tried to break into the big league at 21, and he's never held the Stanley Cup over his head in triumph. It makes you wonder how well he's able to understand his players and convince them to do things his way, when his way wasn't along the same paths these guys have all followed.

In his book, "Playing With Fire," Theo Fleury wrote: "The coaches that bug me the most are the ones who've never played...Coaches who never played break guys down. Guys like me who became superstars, we would laugh at them. Because you know what? As long as I was scoring goals, they couldn't touch me...From an NHL player's perspective, if you want respect as a coach, you have to be willing to put your stuff on and sit beside me. I will get out there if you are willing to get your head beaten in with me. Dress and go to war with me, I'll do anything you want."

It's an interesting concept. Do guys who've won Cups like Gomez, Gionta, Gill and Moen; who've bled and sweated and broken their bodies to win, really buy it when a coach like Martin tells them what to do? They've won, he hasn't.

Fleury also writes, "There is so much money involved now that coaches cannot afford to lose. So what do they teach? Defence. They say it is what wins Stanley Cups. Trouble is, it is not much fun to watch a 0-0 hockey game. Five guys skating backwards through the neutral zone - who wants to watch that?"

It makes you wonder who wants to play that way either? When you're Mike Cammalleri or Lars Eller or Andrei Kostitsyn, how boring must it be to be always grinding on the boards in the neutral zone and rushing back to play defence? Naturally, there has to be a measure of defensive responsibility or the team would get blown out every night, but when it's all the time, it starts to get tedious.

Martin wants short shifts, but when players only get 40 seconds on the ice, and they're constantly skating out from their own end, it doesn't give them a lot of time to build anything offensively. He wants all five guys coming back to help in their own end, but that means all five guys have to move together to get the puck up into the offensive zone. It's great in theory, but not all guys are in the same kind of shape, or have the same speed. Breakdowns happen, and if you're not putting yourself in a position to score goals to overcome a deficit, you lose.

The Canadiens looked like the better team today. They had the chances and they took the shots. The difference, aside from goaltending, was that the Thrashers played in Craig Ramsay's image...hard-nosed and aggressive around the crease. That strategy resulted in two of their four goals. They have an image to emulate. If the identity of a team comes from the coach on down, where will the Habs get theirs? From a guy who never played the game at the same level as the guys he's coaching?

Look at the Sabres. Lindy Ruff was as tough as they come as a player, but he chipped in some points too because he never quit. His teams, even though they don't have the greatest talent in the league, are always ready and they always try. They go to the net and they skate hard because that's what their coach did. A guy like Mike Babcock, even though he didn't play in the NHL, earned his stripes by winning as a coach. He's got that reputation now, and players respect that.

Jacques Martin has neither the NHL reputation or a championship record as a coach. There's nothing in his background that says NHL players should respect him as boss. He has no image in which to mold his team.

People will argue Martin got the team to the conference finals last spring. Others will say it wasn't him at all, but the personal sacrifices made by Gill and Gorges in their shotblocking, Plekanec's superb shut-down job on Backstrom and Crosby and Halak's otherworldly goaltending. Without those guys taking pride in themselves and their own game, all Martin's systems and planning would have gone for nothing.

Jacques Martin is a good, safe coach. He's not going to be creating anything new or firing up the troops. That's Kirk Muller's job. He's going to overplay his goalie because he needs the best goaltending possible to win games in his conservative system. The question is, can that kind of coach work with a team of players built for offence? Judging by the numbers the goalscorers are putting up this year, it's a legitmate one, and the answer doesn't look like it's greatly in Martin's favour.

A game like today's is frustrating because the Habs did so many things right, from the number of shots, to the good PP, to the good waves of offensive pressure. They finally got a point after being down a goal (three times, no less!). The goaltending let them down today, and that's got to change with strong competition coming up. The question is, in whose image will the Habs go forward? After the emotion of the loss wears off, it's a question that still doesn't have an answer.


Anonymous said...

Fleury's concept is, indeed, interesting. I wonder if Gionta and Gomez laughed at the late Pat Burns, a coach who didn't play but who coached them to a Stanley Cup championship? Up until 2003 Burns had not won a Cup but that didn't stop his team from buying what he was selling. Fleury's opinions are his own. Maybe former Cup winners like the ones listed above have different views.

Mandy said...

Well, that's a great post, and it certainly casts JM in a bad light. But more than the fact he hasn't won anything or played in the NHL is the way he coaches. How can you not show emotion? When it's 3-2, or 3-3, or OT, don't you wanna lean over and say, "You can do it, guys, you can win this!" Rouse up the players' emotions! And another thing: talk to the refs once in a while!! Argue! Protest! Don't take things lying down!

Martin's driving me nuts.

And there is something wrong with Cammy. I don't know what, but something bad.

Price looked hungover.

But they played much, much better. And that's a positive sign.

Number31 said...

I still think Bob was aiming to build this team for Guy Boucher with how they drafted/signed so many puck moving defenceman and got guys like Gomez, Gionta, Cammy...

Raj said...

Good points, JT - as always. I don't think the listlessness we've seen in the team is simply fatigue. The recent losses can't be blamed on the schedule or the officiating, or on lack of talent. The team has its quota of talent. While I'm not sure coaches need to have played the game or to have won Cups to be credible -- if so, Wayne Gretzky would have been the greatest coach of all time -- I do think Fleury has a point. Coaches shouldn't be emotionally distant. They should demand a lot from their players but also be able to care to SHOW that they care about them and they should certainly stick up for them during the game and with the media.

JM has said of AK46 when he was playing well that it must be because it's his contract yea. He agrees it was a "good call" by the officials when MaxPac got a major AND a game misconduct for boarding. While what happened to Eaton was unfortunate. MaxPac was simply finishing his check -- what message does that send to Max to say it was a "good call" and to imply his check was undisciplined? Would Peter Lavioliette have said that about any of his players? Were the public humiliations of Subban, AK46 and Pouliot necessary? I'm sure Subban did indeed have lessons to learn on and off the ice but JM apparently went days or even a week or two before discussing these with him. If Ryan O'Byrne was so mediocre a Dman, why is he now on the top pairing -- and the leader in hits -- for Colorado? JM is busily scribbling away when he's behind the bench during a game but doesn't seem engaged and doesn't outwardly seem to care about his players. If any of this is true (and I don't know that it is) why would the payers want to play their hearts out night after night?

Anonymous said...

The coach may or may not be the problem. A coach who has the support of the veterans will not lose the room. Rookies seldom lead successful insurrections.

The habs are paying Carbo to not coach. Molson wont want to pay Carbo and Martin to not coach. This team isnt great right now. The defence just cant handle the load. If we had a legit Stanley Cup contender and they were under performing I would blame the coach but at this point the players dont believe it is worth getting injured for a bubble team.

Anonymous said...

I have a hunch the guys are dead serious about winning. The rest of the league spent Oct/Nov getting their games down. The Habs have sunk to 25th in goals scored yet are 8th in shots. Over 40 games that indicates they shoot a lot but don't score a lot. They shoot from low percentage locations a lot. From the perimeter.

The team's D game is over rated. It simply depends on keeping the shots to the perimeter. When you begin to take dumb penalties, give up D zone turnovers the combination is deadly. Price often goes into a mid-season funk. Add in teams taking the puck away (rather than a turnover where you give it away) and Price has to walk on water for the team to win.

Martin got a pass last year because the team surprised in the playoffs. You need to remember they lost their way in. Their entire 2010 was dreadful except for Oct/Nov. The vaunted playoff run was in fact a losing record.

Is the talent there? Yes except for a center. Martin's system can work if every cog meshes and the other team makes the first mistake. The Habs are the ones making the first and often sequential mistakes. Could the Habs win under a different coach?

Thanks for the Fleury quotes. I remember how Gilmour got traded from St Louis to Calgary and almost single handedly destroyed Montreal to take the cup. That was a strong Calgary team and Fleury was on it. But like all teams the goalie and some others got credit. To my thinking it was Gilmour. Sad that Theo, who played on many really good teams, was never able to recreate that finals.

Doug said...

Everyone seems to want to pick the team apart and place blame for the slump they're going through. This happens to every team sometime through the year. Just look at Washington lately. The fact is that if the complainers were such great coaches,goalies,or goal scorers, why the hell are they not the professional hockey people, and Martin, Price, and Cammalleri not working at Tim's??? Fluery may have been a good little hockey player, but with his character, to take him seriously as being someone who knows how things should be done is a joke. The fact is that you don't have to have played the game to be a good coach. History has proven that. As for saying Mac Pac's was the right call, well that's what he had to say "publicly ", because when it happens to a Habs player then he has the face to argue the point.

Ian said...

I look at Ron Wilson with the Laffs. I can't stand the guy, but he has no talent on the ice to coach, so his results are to be expected.

I look at JM and the Habs. There is oodles of talent there, but he's not getting it out of them.

Poulliot should be a top-six forward. AK46 is underachieving. What's with Cammy? And so on.

Ryan O'B had size and ability, and, IMO, a good upside. JM ruined him. He's doing it with the young guys here, too. Look what he did to PK. How do we go from touting PK as a contender for the Calder, then start talking that he might be sent to Hamilton!!!

I don't know what the right answer is. All I know is that this team is underperforming. The potential a lot higher than the results are showing. And that is the coach's job!

I get really grumpy when we lose. I have to put my authentic Habs leather jacket away until we finally win a game. I can't stomach that the game is typically over when we get down a goal or two. Perhaps this is because I'm an old-timer who got to watch the glory days, where we could score two or three goals in short spans of time. We were never out of a game, despite the score.

I'm not on - or off - the fire JM bandwagon. I just know that he's not doing his job.

Ted said...

While I do think the argument seems sound at first blush, you start thinking of the coaches in the league and fewer of them are superstar players or even NHL caliber players. Bowman and Babcock are the best arguments against what you're suggesting but so is Burns, Keane and Boudreau. Furthermore, I wouldn't give a plug nickel to play for Sutter.

Let's face it, the equation always is if you win you're a genius and if you lose you're an idiot.
The one thing I'm certain of is that with the amount of money now being invested in teams the trend will be more towards the Boucher type who are educated in Sports psychology, motivation etc rather than the Wayne Gretzky. By the way - I don't think he was a very good coach.

punkster said...

When all else fails blame the coach. Come on J.T., they can't score. All those shots on the road and yesterday and they still can't score. Sure Price has been off, Martin coaches conservatively and T. Fleury is a highly regarded armchair philosopher. They can't score goals. Fix that and this team improves considerably.

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head:

"Jacques Martin is a good, safe coach.
That's Kirk Muller's job."

Anonymous said...

Gainey hired Martin because of his ability to communicate with the media and his experience in hockey management. The list of candidates for the job wasn't long to put it mildly. Although I'm not thrilled with JM and his style, the players are more responsible for the mounting losses than he is. Coaches can only do so much. With most coaches lasting only a few years (Trotz and Ruff notable exceptions) it seems clear that most wear out the welcome even when successful (eg Laviollete, Tortorella, Tippett...) so it's the players have pull together and man up on the ice. JM is here to stay not because of the money but because there aren't any other options. The Habs better get over it if they don't like the coach, which none of us outsiders know for a fact. All we really know is that WE don't like the coach!

Danno said...

Martin is an enigma. He is robotic and enigmatic but he does have a winning record in spite of not winning the ultimate prize. It appears he doesn't have a great rapport with the players and seems to favour the veterans who at times are underperforming as badly as the rookies. Only time will tell if Martin can successfully pull the team together and take them to the finals. But in spite of 2 1/2 years left on his contract he hasn't got much time to prove himself. Montreal is a tough audience and he must produce results or he will find himself working in another capacity.

Dee T. said...

When Gainey blew up the team 2 years ago and built the current roster on speed and talent, I figured he was building it NOT in his image, but in the image he always wanted to be as a player. He has said a fast team built on skill is exciting to watch. Who'd disagree wth that? Then he brought in JM preaching a calm, patient, defensive style of hockey that's respectable but boring, and severley lacking in back end size and grit. The D on this team is wat too soft. Other teams forwards have no trouble gaining our zone and going to the net. I don't understand how this can be called a defensive system and if it makes sense to build one on speed and skill and expect the desired results of a really good defensive system.
In my opinion, JM isn't the worst coach I've seen behind the bench for the Habs -- and I've been watching the team for 40 years. I prefer his calmness anyday to Michel Therrien's screaming red-faced bench tantrums. I think some players react well to calmness, while others, don't. You can't please everyone and anything less than the Cup will not be good enough for the passionate fans of this hockey-crazed city.

For the most part, I like seeing the effort made by the current roster of players who really give a damn about winning most nights, even if they don't always succeed. As long as the effort is there, the on ice product is a work in progress, as it always should be, and more steps can be made going forward.

Anonymous said...

Montreal management got exactly the coach they wanted. Conservative,French veteran coach who plays a defense first system. This insulates their prize Price and most guarantees a team that won't get blown out and make the playoffs. Management cares about winning only in that it most ensures playoff games and dollars. Martin ensures that he does NOT bring Cups. Too bad for us, but that is the reality in Montreal. I thought Geoff Molson would signal a change. I was wrong.

Anonymous said...

Fleury's comments are misguided. Though he was a very good hockey player he was never a superstar. Gretzky and Lemieux were Superstars. So was Messier and Coffey. Anderson was not. Shutt was not and neither was Fleury .

To Say a coach has to have played the game is ridiculous. He just has to know how to lead and get the team to follow and have a pulse for who is playing and who is not. " you have to be willing to put your stuff on and sit beside me? Wha?

The greatest coach in professional hockey had a minor league career. Yes Scotty Bowman. He was a master motivator, constantly pushing buttons to get the best out of players. It is no accident that Steve Yzerman had not won the cup until Scotty came along.

I will say that defense is emphasized( and overly so) and can be taught . Which is why i continually parrot getting a player who has scored at every level he has played. Let him score and teach him defense and let his linemates be the responsible ones.

The problem with Martin is he does not adapt well during the game. I believe the Habs need to learn how to play different styles when it calls for it. And I think the style he preaches( whatever that is) does not allow the players to flourish.

But the bigger problem with the Habs is they have not identified big players who can play. That is the game nowadays. Creating space. Sure Gionta, Cammi can play but they need guys that crash the net get dirty and can cycle the puck!!

Anonymous said...

Then again Perron followed Lemaire. Cup. Demers followed Pat Burns. Cup. Maybe success is spelled relief from that system. Is Martin just the building block necessary for the club to excel?