Friday, March 18, 2011

Aftermath: The System

Back in September, very few Canadiens fans would have said they'd prefer Jacques Martin to Guy Boucher. Most of us were gnashing our teeth that the coach of the future had bolted to the Bolts. Now, though, it's time to reconsider that opinion. You have to wonder where the Canadiens would be at this point in the season without Martin at the helm.

In good times, with a healthy lineup, the Canadiens are a speedy, skilled team that might chafe at the defensive restrictions a coach like Martin places upon it. That kind of team would thrive under Boucher's "everybody go" approach. The Canadiens, though, are no longer that team. They're a battered, injury-ridden squad reduced to plugging holes with every warm body the Hamilton Bulldogs can produce. That's the reality of the hand Martin's been dealt, and yet the team continues to win.

The beauty of the system that drives us all mad in good times is that everyone has a job with a very simple set of instructions. That means every player on the team can fill in where needed. Lose a top-six power forward? Plug in a grinding fourth-liner, and the system absorbs him seamlessly.

It certainly helps the system to function when the young players being asked to fill in are of the quality of David Desharnais, P.K.Subban, Lars Eller and Yannick Weber. Those guys are grabbing their opportunity and making the very most of it. It's hard to believe sometimes that if the Canadiens starting lineup had stayed healthy, Desharnais, Weber and Ryan White would be buried in Hamilton. They're shining in Montreal and it's mostly due to their own talent and hard work. Part of the credit for their success, though, is due to the fact that they (and everyone on the ice with them) know exactly what they're supposed to be doing.

It helps that the Bulldogs are playing a similar kind of game, as their roster is also becoming increasingly depleted. Randy Cunneyworth is producing NHL-ready players who are defensively responsible and fit into Montreal very nicely. His success in Hamilton is certainly taking some of the sting out of Boucher's departure.

It also helps that Carey Price has stayed healthy and gives the team a chance every single night. There's a lot of talk about him possibly winning the Vezina and/or Hart this year. I don't think he will, because Tim Thomas' numbers are too impressive and because the people who vote for the Hart trophy are very inclined to award it to the guy who scores the most. Price definitely deserves serious consideration, though. Without superstar talent up front, Martin's system can only work if there's a good goalie holding the fort. The Habs have that, in spades.

Roman Hamrlik's steady play and monster minutes through the latest rash of injuries is another reason for the success of both the system and the Habs. He's been so reliable for Martin, and keeps chugging along, no matter how much ice time he's getting. Hammer's been entirely honest about wanting to finish his career in Montreal, and his willingness to take a reduced role and a smaller salary to do so. If there were any way to get rid of Jaroslav Spacek's contract, it would be great to keep Hamrlik for another year instead. Unfortunately, it's unlikely Pierre Gauthier can find a taker for Spacek and the team can't keep both of them when Markov and Gorges return. Right now, though, Hamrlik is saving the defence and allowing the system to function.

Watching the team calmly block shots, keep the Lightning to the outside and jump on their chances as though nothing had changed in the lineup since October is a little bit amazing. After the game last night, I thought about whether Canadiens fans would still prefer Guy Boucher to Jacques Martin. I think in good times, it's easy to say yes to that. When the team is more full of holes than David Aebischer, though, you want a steady hand guiding it. You want experience and you want a tight, defensive system that allows replacement players to step in on the fly and contribute. Martin is safe, and he's the right man to keep the Canadiens rolling along in hard times. At this moment, I'm glad to have him.


Kyle Roussel said...

This reminds of the title of a post that my pal Steve wrote a month ago or so titled something along the lines of "Martin Makes Habs Good, not Great".

He can take a decimated team and bring up to the level that we see the Habs currently trucking along at. He's also a guy that can take a speedy, skilled team that the Habs ought to be when healthy, and hold them back to what we currently see the Habs trucking along at.

Which is to say, as Steve's title said: Martin makes the Habs good, not great.

I guess given the situation these days, that ought to be good enough.

J.T. said...

@Kyle: Exactly right. Under normal circumstances, Martin and his system are limiting and frustrating. But with such a decimated lineup, he's a godsend. A guy like Boucher just wouldn't be able to carry out his game plan with the injuries the Habs have now.

I guess it's kind of like having MAB on the roster. When he's blasting goals from the point, it's great, but when he's not, it drives you crazy that he's taking up a roster spot. You keep Martin around for the bad times, but he's maddening when things are going well.

Hadulf said...

...more full of holes than David Aebischer.... That made my day!

Good read J.T.

Let's hope that Martin can be "good enough" in the playoffs...Maybe "good enough" can get us far.

V said...

I have read a lot elsewhere about how Martin and his style are holding the Habs back and now I see it here. I don't really understand that.

Presumably, if we were not held back, we would be in first or second place in the conference right now (unless you think without Martin this team could be up there with Vancouver - highly unlikely).

The two best teams in our conference right now are Philadelphia and Washington and they have about the same number of points as the second and third best team in the West - so right now about 92 points is extremely good.

We are currently 7 points behind that with a game in hand on some of the teams that are there. I know every team has injuries, but the loss of two top players in Markov and Gorges for the year has probably directly accounted for 3-4 losses that could have been wins with them in the lineup. Heck, Markov probably could have made that up in power play goals/assists on his own - we have had a lot of one goal losses where our Markov led, league-leading powerplay from previous years could have made the difference.

I think injuries are the primary reason this Martin coached team is not playing to its potential among the league leaders.

Unknown said...

Well said!

It is amazing how the Guy Boucher system looked really good after 20 games but looks like it has a lot more flaw with about 10 to go.

JM's system, while perhaps not the most exciting, is tried and tested and it, along with Price, are the only reasons why the Habs have not only survived the injuries, but are thriving.

Number31 said...

Dunno... I still would prefer Boucher. But that's mostly because I still feel Bob was building up this team for him and didn't expect him to leave so quickly. The Habs defence have guys that are more suitable for Boucher's system both now and in the future. Same with the forwards. Never mind he'd actually have a GOOD goalie that also moves the puck.

Boucher's all about moving the puck, about attacking, about being aggressive. Martin's is all about picking your spots, rope-a-dope shot blocking, and watching...which, to me, is why they tend to shoot themselves in the foot more often than not. Tampa's success in the playoffs will be hindered more by their poor defencemen and an old drama queen goalie who grimaces after every save rather than Boucher's system. But that's just how I see it.