Monday, February 21, 2011

Aftermath: Slump

I always wondered how big stars managed to play with people who were obviously below their pay grade. What must Gretzky have felt, when he made a brilliant play to put a puck directly on the tape of some scrub who immediately shot it into the stands? What about Orr, thinking four plays ahead, and bound to play with a guy who could only react in the moment? Hockey is a team game. That's what makes it wonderful to watch. It's also what makes it torture on the gifted. Watching Carey Price these days, one wonders if he's not experiencing a little bit of that frustration.

The young goaltender has responded to the impossible pressure he faced in the wake of the Jaro Halak trade with admirable aplomb. He's been the model of consistency, with only an occasional bad goal against. On most nights, he's the reason his team wins. Rarely is he the reason why it loses. He's doing all of it with a newfound maturity and a poise he's developed even while his every move is scrutinized by thousands of self-appointed critics.

So, really, nobody could blame him if he's getting frustrated with the terrible team in front of him. It's got to be maddening for him to make a couple of really nice saves to keep his teammates in the game, only to see perimeter chance after perimeter chance turned away by his counterpart at the other end. It has to drive him crazy sometimes to be faced with one odd-man rush after another when his patchwork defence breaks down. Last year, when he was struggling and probably not nearly as entitled to righteous indignation, Price would glare at the offending defencemen. This season, he's much more stoic about his teammates' mistakes, which, considering the number of them he sees every night, is impressive.

While Price's play has been above reproach for most of the season, the team's total reliance on his ability is a big problem. It's great to have the kind of goalie who can bail you out under pressure. It's not so great to build your entire game plan upon his ability to do that, but that's what the Canadiens have done.

The defence plays a delicate game of angling skilled opponenets to the outside. They block shots and passing lanes to give Price more room. The problem is, when the opponents don't play along and allow the Canadiens' D to box them out; when they crash Price and crowd the defence instead, the system breaks down and Price is left hanging.

The problem is compounded by the forwards playing a defence-first game that has them spending little time in the O-zone because they're charged with rushing back to help defend their own end. It's tough to score when nobody's in front of the net and the guy in the corner has one, easily-defended passing option because his linemates are waiting to hurry back on D.

The Canadiens have speed. They have skill. They have intestinal fortitude. They don't have the goals to show for it, because they don't play a system that encourages offence. People will blame Martin, and he deserves the criticism to some degree. On the other hand, critics also have to understand that a more offensive system requires a strong defence with good puck-handling abilities. The Canadiens don't have that. With the injuries they've got, the best they can muster is holding the fort in their own end. When they fail at that, Price pays know.

The Habs have serious injury problems. They also have deep limitations when it comes to aggression and goal production. These are not issues that can be fixed by a couple of deadline-day tweaks. If Pierre Gauthier is going to make a move, he should either make a significant move that will bring serious help long term...which will require giving up something significant in exchange...or he should do nothing. If the Canadiens fall out of the playoff picture, so be it. Perhaps they'll luck into a draft pick that will fill one of the team's many needs sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, Carey Price is the only man on the team who brings his solid, reliable, often brilliant game every night. He deserves credit for that. He also deserves applause for not showing a star's frustration with teammates who play like anything but.


Anonymous said...

That was a good read, I have to say I agree with you 100% especially about a trade.

I almost don't even want us to make the play offs just to beat in the 1st round. I'm not saying we should tank or anything I'm just getting a bit tired of just barely making the playoffs.

Woodvid said...

As usual, completely agree. Especially with this statement: "If the Canadiens fall out of the playoff picture, so be it. Perhaps they'll luck into a draft pick that will fill one of the team's many needs sooner rather than later."

Honestly, we are done. And we can't really fault the players -- they are just too beat up. Who can realistically lose Markov, Gorges and too many others to mention and do better than we've done? Not to mention those who are playing hurt: probably Pleks, Gill, Pax, Wiz (obviously) and gods know who else.

Let's shoot for a decent draft pick, let some kids get some experience this year, let the vets heal, and start fresh next year.

The only thing that makes me gag a little is the thought of Brodeur and the Devils swooping in and taking our playoff spot. Hey they're only 10 points out of the playoffs now and winning every game...

Of course, it's a Monday morning in February after a horrible road game by the Habs. Maybe things will look a little better tomorrow morning.

Ian said...

Always a great read, Leigh Anne.

I'm getting so frustrated with the results. I 'knew' at 2-0 it was over. I had zero hope. Does that make me a fair-weather fan? No! It's reality, unfortunately.

I'm not going to crap over all the players. I know they want to win (though it wouldn't break my heart to see some of them gone).

I don't expect PG to be able to pull the trigger on a big deal. It would be nice to be surprised, but I don't think so. Also, I'd rather not overpay and lose future assets and prospects.

When the outdoor game was announced, I had some excitement, but by the time the game came yesterday, I had only one thing in mind - two points. We needed them badly.

I didn't like watching it (well, the part of it I stayed with) as it seemed weird with no fans around the rink. It was too open in the areas around the ice. But I digress. I am worried about the result inside the boards.

I get frustrated with our lack of scoring. On paper, we have guys who should have much better stats. Is it the system that restricts them? Must be. Yet the system gives us a chance to win every night if we show up with a team effort.

I grew up watching the Habs winning five in a row in the late fifties. And the Lafleur days after that. We had offensive power, firewagon hockey. But look at the defence we had then, too.

We can't have wide open hockey with the defence we have today. I hate to admit it but JM is using the system that will work with what he's got available.

So, what I guess I'm trying to say is we need to upgrade our defence. You build from the net out. We've got the net covered (although I'm not sold on our backup). We've got forwards who 'should' be able to put up points. Our hole is on defence, IMO.

Thank God for Carey. We go only as far as he can carry us.

While most people expect us to be creamed against the Canucks, perhaps the boys will step up with a gutsy performance, and Carey will play our of his tree, so we can pull a major upset (if you don't dream, your dreams can't come true).

Keep up the great writing, Leigh Anne. Yours is easily my favourite of all the blogs I read about my Habs.

Anonymous said...

We need to see what they look like after a few games on regular ice with Cammaleri, Gill and Wisneiski all in the lineup. It is way too early to give up the ship.

MathMan said...

Wow. how does one get to that conclusion, I wonder?

The Habs have outchanced their opponents more often than not. They've also outshot them. They've managed to get themselves up to 4th in overall shots... and still are 26th in goals against.

This is incredible. They've managed to increase their shots on goal by 4.4 -- that's an extra 15% more real offense -- relatuve to last year and ended up with literally bupkis. Their puck luck as been so rotten that even with that 15% increase in offense, they've managed to score *less*!

And because people get blinded by goals and final score, people don't realize that the Habs have demonstrated an *utterly amazing* improvement, especially with 5-on-5 offense, and then they whine about how Carey Price is the only good thing on the team. He is not, and it's doing a massive disservice to the team to say so.

And calling the team in front of him, the best edition of the Habs in 15 years, one of the 4 or 5 best teams in the conference, calling them a "terrible team" is... words fail me, so greatly is that divorced from reality.

What's killing the Habs offense is an appalling lack of puck luck in shooting. There's nothing wrong with the system or with the players. They're generating plenty of offense. They're just not able to buy a goal.

JJ said...

agreed on all angles.

dusty said...

Unfortunately the Habs are committed to Gomez, Gionta, Cammalleri and Plekanec until 2014. Offense will be problematic depending on these players as they age and decline over the next few years. Max Pac looks like a keeper but that's about it. DD would be good on a team with grit but not in Montreal. The only hope is to sign some physical players for the 3rd and 4th lines to provide cycling and energy to make the Habs at least hard to play against. This is what PG should be looking for and unless he does and fast the Habs will be out golfing in April. Carolina and New Jersey will finish ahead of the Habs if he doesn't and the Canadiens will get another mid pack draft choice who will be described as a "project" and packaged away in the future like McDonagh and Tinordi will probably be.

As you can see, my depression over last nights debacle hasn't gone away.

Anonymous said...

great read. agree 100% on your comments on the "system". Been saying this for the last two years! We have skilled players that are not producing the numbers they should: Cammy, Pleks, Pouliot, kostisyn (yup, i said it...Kostisyn; he has some sick skils, with a great shot. He can be a 30 goal scorer in this league) And these guys are not producing all because of the "system"

Anonymous said...

If you have no forecheck--you have no offence.
Martin is entirely the wrong coach for producing
offensive pressure.Management is responsible for
getting players who can play a gritty offesive
game. Wait till next year--what a load of crap.
Isn't 18 years long enough. Losers mentality.

rogieshan said...

Enjoy reading your blog. I think after watching Martin implement his system for almost two years now, it is safe to say that it is far too demanding for the players to sustain over an entire season. It requires every individual on the team to carry it and we simply don't have enough horses to do it consistently. It is easy to detect the passengers on the squard when it breaks down (re: Gomez & Kostitsyn). All we can hope for is that they come together again in the playoffs like they did last spring.

Woodvid said...

Mathman: a whole bunch o' perimeter shots ain't gonna win you games. I'm sorry, but that's what the Habs are, a perimeter team. I think they had 39 shots last night. Did any of them look dangerous? Maybe one. Maybe.

J.T. said...

@MathMan: Sorry. Not buying the "bad luck" angle at all. I watch every game, and I see where the shots are coming from. You can take a million shots a game on an NHL goalie, but if he's unscreened and the shots are coming from the blueline or the boards, he's going to stop a very high percentage of them.

I watched the Flyers/Rangers game yesterday. The Flyers scored four goals. On the first one, Carter and Giroux were both in the crease, and Carter tipped a chip shot off the boards. On the second one, Giroux scored on a third attempt, with three Flyers buzzing the net. The third goal was a third attempt by Carcillo, right on Lundqvist's doorstep, with help rushing in to cash a rebound if he couldn't get it done. Then Versteeg got the empty-netter. The first three goals the Flyers scored had a couple of things in common: They all involved second or third chances and they all featured at least one (but usually more) Flyers in the crease area. That's how you score goals in the NHL.

It doesn't matter whether the Candiens increase their shots by 15% or 115%. As long as they're not going to the net (which they mostly don't) and they're not supporting each other for rebounds, a lot of those long, first-chance, unscreened shots just won't go in.

So, with all due respect, there's something very much wrong when a team isn't going to the net for rebounds and screens and it isn't getting second chances. In a typical Habs game, how many shots are off rebounds? Just start watching for that, and you'll see what I mean.

On an average rush, the Canadiens (after probably losing the draw) either a)lug the puck through the neutral zone, peel off and attempt a pass to a teammate at the blueline or on the other side of the offensive zone. Then the puck carrier stays on the perimeter, nine times out of ten. If the pass gets through, the receiver will shoot. The puck is then smothered by the goalie or cleared by the defenceman who's not being pressured by the Canadiens forwards. One shot, one chance and done. Probably no goal. The alternative to this is b) a dump in, which sometimes leads to some cycling around the boards until the Habs forechecker eventually loses control and the puck leaves the o-zone with no damage done.

This has to change. The puck carrier either needs to go directly to the net when entering the o-zone (Gomez is the biggest failure at this), or he needs to go there as soon as he dishes off. The fact that they, as a group, are failing to do this indicates that there is, in fact, something wrong with either the system or the players or both.

Anonymous said...

Same comments as last year about tanking and hoping for a good draft pick...
No way!
You really think drafting in 10th would be a lot better than in 16th? The odds are pretty much the same....please stop it. We want to win. If we do trade I agree with JT 100% let's make a splash, or nothing. Bringing a player like Penner from EDM is NOT going to change anything...or barely. Hockey is as mentionned a team game. Everyone is mentionning our speed as a great asset, I agree that it is a great asset but you need space in hockey to use that speed which is often 10% of the game. Watch closely the next hockey game how much time is spent fighting on the boards to gain the puck. We are playing a style of hockey that is not for the players we have. Like asking dwarves to dunk in basketball. That is not the way to go. Gomez, Cammy, Gio and Plek are good hockey player but they need support & space...they are the same. too small and fast...

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with JT's response to Mathman. Perimeter shots are all we produce. No rebounds cashed in, no sustained pressure.

I have watched the habs offensive system the whole year watching for this. They dont pressure the defense and they are too quick to flee to cover the neutral zone.

One forechecker cannot beat two defenders very often and even when they do there is no-one in front of the net.

JM's system is passive defense. Kind of like the Maginot line. We all know how that worked out.


Anonymous said...

It is the system. It is the coaching. It is not the players. The players are doing as they are told. They are professionals and they MUST do what they are instructed to do.
With Martin at the helm, expect no changes and no chance for a Cup. And as far as being a defensive oriented coach, this team is not playing solid positional defense. Sure we have injuries but the job falls on the shoulders of the COACH to instruct the players on what to do EFFECTIVELY on defense. Too often we see the forwards sagging toward Price instead of playing defense. Martin needs to go.

MathMan said...

@JT: sorry, but with all due respect, going by general impressions is a great way to go astray, due to confirmation bias. And shot quality arguments are almost always, to use a polite term, suspect.

Unless you're doing like Olivier and are systematically counting things such as scoring chances, and you are not basing yourself on statistical record, you are simply in no position to make blanket statements. Your own impressions of what is happening will inevitably color your perception, as it does for any human that doesn't apply some sort of system to their observation.

Montreal is the unluckiest team in the league when it comes to converting shots into goals, and the term "unlucky" is used advisedly. Even if there were a shot quality issue (and again, such arguments are almost invariably post hoc confirmation bias) they could simply not end up with such low scoring numbers solely via agency.

Simply put, if you are for example going to make the claim that the Habs don't get rebound chances, then I don't want to read the usual "small team" general impression stuff. I've read that before and found it to be a load of crock. I want numbers, for both the Habs and other teams. I want you to prove that the Habs are somehow significantly less likely to get second chance shots.

For example, you could make your argument by going to Olivier's scoring chances blog (he even has the chance data on a spreadsheet, these days), define a "rebound chance" as a chance occuring within 5 seconds of another chance, and count. In the Heritage Classic game, you will find that the Habs had three such chances, and the Flames... *zero*. (If you want to stretch the definition to 7 seconds, which I think is a stretch, the Flames end up with two).

If you want to make blanket statements that go against statistical record, don't go by conventional wisdom or by "I watched all the game and subjectively observed this general trend". Where's your evidence?

And hey, it doesn't have to be charity work. If you can create a model for how shot quality impacts shooting performance, there's 150$ in it for you:

dusty said...

JT your answer to MathMan is spot on. The Flyers are the perfect example of a team I want in Montreal. Until we get a GM with that vision, the Habs and their fans are doomed. Love him or hate him, Burke knows this and will at least try to deliver a team that can contend. If Montreal continues this speed and skill plan, I'm betting the leafs are a better team than the Habs in two or three years maybe less.

One more thought which I find totally depressing. Plekanec isn't as good as ANY of the Flyer centers. Richards, Carter, Giroux and Briere are all better than Pleky and I love Pleky but the truth is the truth.

Anonymous said...

Hey JT, good for you. Hockey is a game about desire. You take it to the opponent and the net. If it was about crunching numbers the 71 Cup would read Boston not Montreal.

I have to say the team can play a pretty passing game. When they are spot on it is very pleasant to hear the tack of pucks moving back and forth. If you check inside the Cup there is no special engraving for "guys with the cutest passes."

In your previous column you wrote "They're quitting now. You can see it. Not the kids. The vets." There you go. Again spot on. The guys who are supposed to be leading are tossing in the towel. That is likely for one of two reasons. A) They always were quitters or B) They realize they are going nowhere like this. The kids aren't sure of which is which yet. Kostitsyn will come in on the numbers this season (surprise huh) but the others won't. Yet Kost gets the gears for playing exactly as he is instructed to play, and the coach calmly waits for what happened everywhere else he coached to happen again.

Funny game this hockey.

Anonymous said...

This doom and gloom talk is all really nice, but are you guys SERIOUSLY expecting a team with Hamrlik-Wiz as its FIRST DEFENSE PAIRING to compete? Really? Our top 6 sunday was something like: Hamrlik-Wiz; Gill-Subban; Mara-Weber. It has got to be one of the worst top 6 in the entire league! What can the coach do with that? Sunday, our second PK wave during the 5 on 3 consisted of Mara and Wiz on the back-end. Mara and Wiz! Result: instant goal for the Flames. If our forwards were facing that kind of ridiculously weak D, they'd score too!
We lost our no1 and no4 D-men for the season and we don't have the offense superstars like the Canucks to overcome that. No coach will change that, no trade can bring Markov and Gorges back. It sucks, but what can you do?

MC said...

I think a bigger problem than the system is some of the personnel decisions and line pairings. How can they keep putting Moen with Gomez? Moen is a career grinder who has already reached maximum potential, which is one goal every ten games. Gomez is a billed as a point-per-game playmaker who depends on his linemates for success. I can't think of a worse player to put with Gomez. It's what you would do if you were trying to sabotage Gomez' career. Moen played almost 15 mins on Sunday, the third highest for a winger, while a budding talent like Pouliot who can actually convert passes into goals was riding pine for all but 10 minutes. The Habs really need to pick up a right-shooting right winger with talent to play with Gomez, or give one of the right wingers in Hamilton an audition; anyone but Moen.

Why isn't Eller in Hamilton? They chose him to be a top six player but he is clearly not quite ready. He is certainly not a grinder,or a special teams guy, and he has questionable defensive skills, so he doesn't fit in the bottom six either. If he is not in your top six, then he should be in Hamilton learning how to be, like Pacioretty did. I suspect if Eller wasn't tied to the Halak trade (and the GM's ego) he would have been sent down long ago.

I could give other examples, but my point is that small adjustments like this can lift the entire team. Part of the Devil's revival under Lemaire is that he is putting players together who compliment each other's talents. Rolston is producing again on a point-per-game pace because Lemaire has put him back on the top line and shown some faith and confidence in him. Lemaire was an offensive guy when he played so he knows that offensive-minded players need to play with equally creative and talented players.

Anonymous said...

I don't give Price that much credit. I think he's a pretty good goallie, but he always gives a bad goal or two. Too often between the legs. Doesn't cover his angles good enough. to many goals where he's not tight against the post. When they're close up on him, he should lay on his side stacking up his pads instead of doing the split from post to post with a huge gap between his legs. He needs to work on his style. His bad goals seldom deflates the energy his teammates are showing while trying to score a goal at the other end.

Anonymous said...

Sportsnet just reported Spacek out for the season with a knee injury? Is this true?!

Anonymous said...

Where would the Habs be in the standingsby now if......

1. Markov & Gorges would be healthy?

2. Cammi, Gionta and Gomez would combine for 70 goals?

3. AK 46 would at least contribute REGULARLY?

They'd be close to tops in the East & for sure top of division just like back in November.