Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Weakest Link

My ten-year-old asked an interesting question yesterday. She, like most ten-year-olds, thinks in terms of social hierarchy. Is that person the coolest kid? Who's the smartest in the class? Everything and everyone has a category, and it's all very black and white. So, in ongoing efforts to spark in her even a mild interest in hockey, we were talking about the Habs. (Which conversations, I must admit, inevitably begin with a sigh and polite, though bored, attention.) She listened to me going on about my concerns regarding Carey Price's workload. Then she asked, "Hey! Who's the Habs suckiest player?"

I started to answer, but then realized, that's actually a pretty hard question. If you're talking about scoring goals, I explained, it'd have to be someone like Hal Gill, who never scores. Then again, Gill is excellent at killing penalties, and that's important. My daughter said, "Well who's the worst at letting the other team score then?" I thought about that, and told her Scott Gomez is on the ice most often when the other team scores (you can't count Wisniewski because most of his numbers come from the Islanders), so I guess it's him. On the other hand, he's also fifth in team scoring.

I don't know, I said. What would you call "suckiest?" Well, she answered, who's the guy who isn't much good at scoring goals or stopping them? She headed me off at the pass when she quickly added, "And NOT a goalie!"

The question is a good one, because if you believe the old axiom that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then a contending hockey team is only as strong as its weakest player. A team might have a superstar like Jarome Iginla, but if it also carries a waivable guy like Ales Kotalik, it's probably not going to win the Cup. Look at Philly. Not only do four players already have more than forty points, but their worst forward, Daniel Carcillo, plays a versatile role and adds value.

With that standard in mind, my ten-year-old's question is really who's the low-water mark on the Habs? In other words, if everybody on the team is better than "X", the team itself will be better, so "X" is what player? Immediately, Alexandre Picard comes to mind. He's not a consistent defenceman, and the team is certainly weaker with him in the lineup. However, one cannot pass judgement on the team's construction based on his presence because of the injuries on defence. Instead, we must look at regulars; guys who are in the lineup every day, even when everyone is healthy.

The team's lowest-scoring forward is Tom Pyatt, with four points, including one goal, in 39 games. He's a solid contributor on the PK, but he still stands at -4 in his plus/minus rating. Travis Moen has three goals and nine points in 49 games. He's a -3, and although he's the only Hab who's won a fight in recent memory, he's not particularly effective in crashing the net or making the big hits that a fourth-line guy should be contributing if he doesn't score.

The good thing about those two guys is that they're an upgrade on the depth players the Habs have been able to dress in the last few seasons. They're better quality than Georges Laraque (shudder) or Marc-Andre Bergeron playing as a fourth-line forward. It's no coincidence that as the lower-tier players improve, so does the team as a whole. Better players mean a more even distribution of ice time throughout the lineup, and more goals scored while allowing fewer.

The Canadiens have respectable, hardworking bottom-line players and they're a respectable, hardworking team. If one buys the "weakest link" theory, they won't really be a contender until the "suckiest" player on the team is better than Moen or Pyatt.

In the end, I answered my ten-year-old's question with the best truth I could distill: there really aren't any truly sucky players with the Canadiens this year. Even when Gomez isn't playing the way he should be, he doesn't outright suck (most of the time). That's a huge improvement over the last few years when we could easily point to a roster player with absolutely no redeemable value. Going forward, though, it must continue to get better. Right now, the "suckiest" players on the team are solid. When those guys are actually valuable contributors, the Habs will contend.


Stuart in Alberta said...

I recall a Hab from the '70s (but can't recall his name) saying that the 4-year team had the best 3rd and 4th lines in the league -- yes, there were Lafleur and Schutt and Lemaire and Mahovlich, etc., but the pick-up-the-slack players, such as Wilson, Tremblay, Risebrough and Chartraw chipped in for the occasional goal, while checking the opposing top 6. Gotta have depth from the top to the bottom, alright...

Jeff - Halifax said...

Hi J.T.,

The world may not need another Habs blog, but your's is one they should keep. I've followed your blogs fairly regularly over the last year and find your opinions and analysis to be honest and insightful and with the underlying passion that only a Habs fan can have.

Just to add my two cents, I think that while no one on the Habs current roster truly sucks, I think there are two separate bars for measuring suckishness. You cannot, theoretically anyways, measure Gomez against the same criteria you measure Pyatt for example. There are other factors that drive expectations for top six players that are not the same for bottom six. If we measure Gomez against his peer group, (others making a similar salary and who are top six) he would likely fall on the lower end of the scale in terms of production. So the ROI in Gomez's case is not great comparatively speaking. Conversely, in Pyatt's case, his contribution, relative to his peer group and the investment made in him, is pretty decent.

While its true that there is no single player who truly sucks, there is a significant discrepancy between our top six and the top six players of the true contenders. I wish it were otherwise, but...

Enjoy the reads. Keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

The difference between good teams and true contenders is the fourth line. The reason the Hawks beat the Flyers was because as Richards said after game 6, the Hawks had a fourth line the Flyers didn't. The Habs don't look much different from the Bruins (just an example as the B's are not conteneders) until you look at the fourth line. Thornton, Marchand and Campbell make a big contribution with energy, hitting and some scoring to boot. Moen and Pyatt do not.

My vote for suckiest player (a great question, thank your daughter for me) goes to Scotty. He is expected to provide strength in the chain and he doesn't on most nights. Without him the Habs could afford a better fourth line and have plenty left over to fill his second-third line role.