Sunday, April 3, 2011

Where Gainey Went Wrong

Bob Gainey had a good idea two years ago when he decided to overhaul the Canadiens. The team had been struggling to find an identity, with the hardworking, but second-tier, Saku Koivu and the phenominally talented, but lazy and moody, Alex Kovalev sending two different messages. Neither of those players were the ones who'd lead the team into the future, so Gainey cleaned house.

The team that didn't have an identity suddenly found one. The new Canadiens, focused around Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri would be fast, opportunistic and slick. It was a style of play that the Bell Centre faithful, many of whom were weaned on firewagon hockey, would surely embrace. The plan was bold, but, in the midst of the spending spree, Gainey overlooked one thing. The defence.

As we know, most responsible coaches espouse the theory that a team playing good defence will generate offensive chances. It's all about moving the puck smartly ahead and not getting caught in your own end. Gainey, however, in building a quick, skilled team at forward, hired a slow, aging defence at the same time. That disparity in team speed between the front lines and the back end has had huge consequences.

If you're going to have a team built to skate, it has to start from the blueline, and, aside from P.K.Subban (and to some degree, James Wisniewski), there's no speed there. As a result, the forwards have to skate harder to keep the gap smaller, and if they don't...if they're hurt or tired or sick or lazy...the D gets exposed. It also means the forwards have to come back deeper to help out when a slow defenceman is under pressure. That adds up to a lot of skating and more distance to travel in order to get back to the offensive zone, and that, in turn, means shifts wasted in the d-zone and fewer scoring opportunities.

That's also part of the reason why the Canadiens are penalized so frequently. Picture a typical play in the Canadiens' end: The opposing winger dumps the puck into Hal Gill's corner, then races to retrieve it. If Carey Price can't get to it first, Gill will pick it up. His first thought will be to pass it to Subban. If the forecheckers are fast and aggressive, however, Gill might not be able to get the puck to the guy who can really move it. In that situation, he dumps it around the boards, hoping one of his teammates will win a battle for it. Often, they don't. That leads to an opposition cycle and, many times, a desperation penalty to prevent a scoring chance.

People miss Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges because they're solid defencemen who can make a good first pass. What the team misses most, though, is their speed. Those guys make quick decisions and they get to the puck first. The defence, with them, manages to balance the slow Roman Hamrlik, Jaro Spacek and Hal Gill. Without them, and with Brent Sopel and Paul Mara...neither of them a speedster...the defence is too slow to maintain the momentum of the forwards. They end up playing a grinding, digging style that doesn't suit their size.

It's wrong to say all the Canadiens' problems start with the defence, but a lot of them do. Without a mobile, active D, it's a lot harder for a group of small forwards to use the advantage of their speed. That's what we're seeing in the last few weeks. They look slow because by the time they get the puck and work up a head of steam, the opponent's defence is ready for them. The Canadiens need a lot of things to improve, but first among them, and something Bob Gainey should have addressed when rebuilding this team, is a defence that can actually skate the puck.

That will be...must be...Pierre Gauthier's biggest decision this summer. Either he chooses to stick with the philosophy of speed and skill directed by Gainey, in which case he will absolutely have to focus on overhauling the defence, or he chooses to keep a ponderous D and change the style of the forward lines. Looking at the magnitude of the second option, and the rarity of the kind of big, productive forwards the Habs would need, it may be easier to just work on the D. The cap favours an overhaul on defence as well, as there will be money cleared up there in the summer, while the big contracts at forward are locked in.

Gauthier doesn't have to get the next Lidstrom, but he should at least be looking for guys who are under 35 and skate faster than the average glacier. Hal Gill and Roman Hamrlik are the kinds of solid, experienced defenders a competitive team can use to round out its top-seven defencemen. They're no longer the players a winning team can play for 25+ minutes a night. The anticipated returns of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges will help greatly and make Gauthier's job easier. Next year, though, with Jaro Spacek signed for another year, and basically unmoveable, the Gill and Hamrlik spots need an upgrade. Only then can Gainey's original vision be realized.


DanielleJam said...

I just can't see Markov coming back and avoiding another knee injury.

J.T. said...

@DanielleJam: Why not? Wisniewski's had his knee rebuilt three times, and he seems okay. And Michalek in Ottawa had a knee injury so bad they nearly amputated his leg, but he's been back for two years, relatively healthy. If given enough time to rehab properly, I can see Markov coming back for three or four solid seasons.

Anonymous said...

When I read your title I thought the post was going to be about how Gainey NEVER should have thrown McDonough into the Gomez deal...

...wait, maybe it was about that.

J.T. said...

@anon:, smallish forward. McDonagh...young, mobile D. I thought that trade was horrid at the time, and now it looks worse, considering how little of McDonagh's type exists in the organization. I wasn't overly keen on the O'Byrne trade either, but may feel better about that if Bournival and Tinordi pan out.

Anonymous said...

Where Gainey went wrong was losing so many players go for nothing. Not even draft picks which are the future of the team.Build up your assets and you can trade them for players that you need.

DanielleJam said...

I hope you're right...

Mike said...

Tough guy with nasty side TBD - Weber/Yemelin


Tough guy-Wiz

Also, we NEED to get rid of gomez. I don't care if it will cost us a third overall. addition by subtration.

We have a brilliant core to build around.. A Few examples:

Patches-Pleks-Cammy = 1.75+5+6= 12.75
AK-Eller-Gionta = 4+1.27+5= 10.27
X-DD-White = 2+ 1.25+.75= 4
Darche-Halpen-Moen = .6+ .800 +1.75 = 3.15
= 30.17

Markov-Gorges = 6+5 =11
Hammerlik-Subban = 4 + .875 = 4.875
x-Wiz = 2 + 3.75 = 5.75
= 21.64

Price = 2.75
Backup - 1.25
= 4
Total: 30.17 + 21.64 +4 = 55.80 And that is with taking no salary back for gomez which won't happen but I was very generous with my numbers... What do you think.

J.T. said...

@Mike: I agree that regardless of what benefits Gomez brings the team (which, this year have been decidedly few), the Canadiens just can't afford him if they're to be competitive. Guys making that kind of money are stars who carry their teams. Gomez is a complementary player who needs other expensive players to help him succeed. Even if he were to put up his usual 60 points and act as a leader in the room, the Canadiens still couldn't afford him at that price.

On your defensive alignment, you include Hamrlik but not Spacek. Reality says Spatcho is the defensive equivalent of Gomez in terms of having an immovable contract. He's on board for $3.8 million next season, like it or not. And with the numbers Wiz is putting up, he'll probably cost more than your alotted $3.75-million. He's making 3.25 now, and will likely go for a million more next year. It'd be a whole lot easier to work the cap without Gomez and Spacek's contracts, but Gauthier's most likely stuck with both of them. (Oh, and I wouldn't bring Hammer back for 4-million. That's WAY too much for a guy of his age. Plus, I'm in favour of getting faster on the back end.)

Mike said...

@ J.T.

I really think Hammer will be back. He does so much for the team. Also, Spatch has no place on this team anymore. he was replaced by Wiz. Spatchek might retire (age+knee, he has 2 kids i think), or he will be traded to a team where he can help teach their younger players.

Markov-Wiz= 6+4.25 =10.25
Gorges-Subban = 5 + .875 = 5.875
Hammer-Weber= 3.5 + .875? = 36.375
= 21.64
Mara as a 7th btw! He has been huge for us.

But looking at this, I don't see Wiz as a number 1 pairing. + Subban >Wiz and I don't think Subban is ready for the number 1 yet. Give him at least another year. I really think they will use Hammer to help Subban for 1 more year.
Another issue is that we have no grit on that defense. Wiz since he has been here has really toned down physically. He used to be vicious, crosschecking players in the crease... etc...

What do you think?

J.T. said...

@Mike: I think Spacek will NOT retire. He just had his knee cleaned up and he thinks he's ready to roll soon. He'll be there to collect his money, and the Habs had better hope he is. Since he was signed after he turned 35, his $3.8 million will count against the cap regardless of whether he retires. The contract isn't tradeable, so if the Habs are getting dinged for his money, they're better off with him in the lineup than they are with blowing that money for nothing.

I've heard a lot of talk about Bieksa as a Habs option to address the grit problem, but if Gauthier pursues him it'd likely mean Wiz is gone.

Mike said...

@ J.T.

ok. So let's take a look.

Markov-Gorges= 6+5 =11
Hammer-Subban = 3.5 + .875 = 4.375
Spatch-Weber= 3.3 + .800? = 4.1
= 19.48

Bieksa and habs rumours have been around for awhile...

What do you see the habs d pairings as?
Do we keep Weber? What about Yemelin? Does he finally come over?
The reason I'm afraid to throw 4+ mill to Wiz is because he is not as defensive gifted as PK, Not as creative offensively, he just has a great shot that PK is developing. He is not a PP QB. Not much value there.

Anonymous said...

Don't you think the d would be a lot faster if Markov and Georges were playing? Honestly, how can you be critical of the defense foot speed with 2 of the top 3 d-men injured? Was Gainey supposed to foresee these injuries? What a thoughtless blog, and like most, just another bashing of the franchise by someone who doesn't really know what he/she is talking about.

Anonymous said...

If the habs have trouble getting the puck out of their own zone they should stop playing a trap where the other team just dumps the puck in. Wrong system. Read what Stephan Lebeau says on about JM's system.

J.T. said...

@Mike: I think the team can't afford to keep both Spacek and Hamrlik as top-six Ds next year. I'd hesitate at throwing $4-million at Wiz as well, because his own-zone play doesn't measure up to that price. The points are tempting, though. Nobody knows what the heck Yemelin will do, so no sense even counting him as a prospect at this point. I like Weber, so I'd keep him as a bottom-pair guy matched up with a grittier stay-at-home guy who can skate. Don't ask me who...that's Gauthier's job!

@anon (the one who thinks I don't know what I'm talking about): Of course the D would be faster with Markov and Gorges in the lineup, and naturally Gainey couldn't have foreseen that they'd be out long-term. He DID, however, go out and bring in Gill (who moves at the speed of tree growth) and Spacek (who's not a whole lot faster) to add to the already-slow Hamrlik. Those guys were brought in deliberately to be members of the Habs top-six, and they're all slow as cold molasses. Whether I know what I'm talking about or not (which is, of course, debatable), I know that much is based on fact. There's no bashing involved here, and it did involve quite a lot of thought, actually.

Anonymous said...


I know :( I really hope Markov can stay healthy. Our team is so different with him in the lineup. One thing that I wonder is if Gorges and Markov paired together will work. I feel like Markov excels with a more physical player. I was really hoping OB Would be that guy next year. But that is not happening...

You really think we can;t unload Gomez ANYWHERE??? haha i really hope not. The fact that his salary is lower then his cap hit has to help no?

J.T. said...

@anon (the one who really wants Gomez gone): Think about it for a second. If YOU were an NHL GM, would you touch Gomez and his cap hit with a barge pole? Especially after watching his increasingly declining production? Me neither.

dusty said...

Great analysis as usual. Perfect topic as the large number of comments attest.

Markov and Gorges will sign and return, hopefully healthy. With Subban that's 3 good players. Spacek will finish his contract as a 3rd pairing guy which is not so bad I guess. Weber is ok for a seventh so where do we get the other two? Hammer and Gill have to go and Wizzer will want too much. He's another Steit, good offence, defence not so good and 3.5+mil is way too much for him, especially long term on a team saddled with bad contracts. There must be some deals that can be made to pick up two young, big bodies somewhere in the league. They wouldn't need to be star quality just young and physical. And use the draft for defenceman and DON'T trade them away for a quick fix.

Too bad we don't have an unscrupulous GM. He could throw buckets of cash at Shea Weber and stick Gomer and Spatch on the Hamilton Express. Wouldn't that be fun?

Mike said...

@ J.T.

What about a team that is in a rebuilding phase. For example, a florida. They have made it clear to their "fans" that they are rebuilding. So why not completely tank for 3 years like Pittsburgh did and take gomez?

Anonymous said...

@anon who doesn't think JT knows what she's talking about. JT writes one of the more insightful and thoughtful blogs out there. I can't imagine the time, thought process and effort she puts into each blog post. Even though I'm not the biggest Habs fan in the world, I still check in with her writing daily to see what she has to say.

JT, keep up the great work! I love your blog.

Mike Safoniuk said...

Great article as always JT!

I'm not sold on the idea of burying Gomez's contract in Hamilton. For one thing, there is the issue of how he would take that and how that, in turn, would affect our prospects. The NHL owners, also seem less inclined to bury contracts since I believe that is money spent that does not count towards the NHL expenses (so essentially reducing the revenue without any adjustment of player-revenue as a result). There likely is pressure on gm's not to bury contracts.

It's more likely, in my opinion that Gomez be given a chance next year to redeem himself. After -next- year, Gomez's contract will go down to 5.5 million but the cap hit will still be 7.4 million. So if he has somewhat redeemed himself AND the Habs have a worthy UFA targeted for that money he'll be either traded to a team that needs to meet the cap minimum or his contract buried.

Ian said...

Leigh Anne, you have nailed the problem, IMO. We MUST play the JM system strictly because our defence is not mobile enough to play offence. The foot speed on D cannot play a high tempo offensive game. Period! Not trashing them, just pointing out what should be obvious.

It will be very interesting to see what PG does over the summer. He MUST focus on upgrading our older and slower D-men. Markov and Gorges back healthy will be a plus, but that's not enough.

DT said...

JT, I always admire your hockey smarts but you wrote this as if Gainey hadn't included Markov and Georges in the plan. They were in the plan all along, only, who knew they'd get injured?

patience is a virtue said...

Nice blog post and discussion.

I partly agree with the critique above - Markov, Hammer, Gill, Gorges, Spac, O'B, Subban, Weber was a pretty good balance of skill, speed, age and size. No big mistake from BG there. The gamble just didn't pay off on Spac - while he doesn't get beat on the outside as often as Gill or Hammer, he has indeed slowed. More importantly, his point production has plummeted since Buffalo.

Moving forward, PG will choose one of Gill or Hammer to return. My guess is Gill - for his leadership, PK prowess and affordability. Hammer's steadfast resilience and point production the past two seasons make it highly doubtful that he will need to come down below $3M, which is what would be necessary for the Habs to sign him. Gill will sign for about $2M for one.

Markov-Gorges, 5.75 for 1 + 3.5 for 4 = 9.25
Subban-Gill, .875 + 2 for 1 = 2.875
Spac-Weber, 3.83 + 1 for 2 = 4.83
Mara .750 for 1 (brings affordable toughness)

Total = 17.705

Another option would be to let Gill walk and sign the Wiz for ~$4.5M, and play him with either Markov or Subban. Problem there is that both Price and PK's contracts come up at the end of next season, and the Wiz is going to be looking for a long-term deal (3-5 years). Hard to lock him in at 4.5 for, say 4 years, and have space to sign Carey for that much or more, and PK for even more when he eventually becomes a UFA.

I would love it if PG could make Markov-Subban-Wiz-Gorges work as our top 4, but I just can't see it. It just doesn't seem doable cap-wise.

A last option might be to let Gill and the Wiz walk and sign a faster, big, tough UFA to play with Subban = Brewer?

Anonymous said...

"Patience is a Virtue" is 100% correct in the sense that what people often forget about are the length of the contracts, your future commitments, and who you want/need to sign in the future.

Max, Benny and Lars are three guys, for example, that may or may not be 2/3 years away from a big payday. That's why, as frustrating as Gomez's contract is now, it is just frustrating. What will make it difficult later is when (if) these guys become the future of this team and it becomes clear that we can't sign them because Gomez's contract does not allow them to fit under the cap. In that sense, here is my bold prediction: Gomez plays out his contract in Montreal so long as this does not become painfully obvious that he will cost us someone in our system. If that is the case, I think that he could possibly be moved (or put in the minors if he has a season like this one) in his last year. Before that, I think we're stuck.

Likewise, I want to see Markov back but they have to make sure that his contract won't take up undue space that will prevent us from signing someone like Subban - a guy who is making .875 M next year but could be making 5M the next, depending on the season.

Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that Montreal is a classy organisation and wants to stay that way: I can't see Spacek or Gomez ever being put in the minors by this club.

Anonymous said...

That was a blog worth thinking about, thanks.

I think Gomez simply doesn't score or assist enough in relation to his +-, his penalty minutes, and his time on the ice. You're not going to want to hear this either but Pleks takes way too many penalties, and at the wrong times.

I can see Gomez going the Redden route the moment someone steps up on the team. I don't see any of the others doing that soon. Until someone can fill the role of a #1 center on the team then Gomez will stay.

If Markov can come back healthy the the whole dynamic changes. Markov can get the puck, hang onto the puck, and see the ice. If Markov and Gorges can come back healthy then Subban and Gill (for instance) are a deadly second pair. Spac and Webber or Wiz or another would do fine. But being chased into the corners causes stress on knees, ankles, and in Bettman's NHL, heads.

So to me the real issue is the limitation put on the team by the NHL: the cap. If you are tying up 7 million a year that player has to deliver. He has to chew up the minutes and take the other teams best players to the bench when he goes off.

Gomez is not doing that. He takes the ice time but scares no one and delivers very little. Pleks who should be playing against the opponents number 2 or 3 lines is getting chewed up by their best or their best checkers.

Gomez decides to play like he can, well that is a whole different ball of wax.

Me, I don't think Martin's style suits the team. I understand it. I just don't think it suits the makeup of the team. If they had a Pronger or a Crosby, or Ovechkin, a dominant player, then yeah maybe. But for that style to work your guys have to not only execute but finish without exception. Most of the team can't finish.

Come the playoffs we'll see. But I really think most Eastern teams will take them out fairly quickly.

Again thanks for the blog. The anon who said you were blowing smoke is just another cranky giving us other anons a bad name:-)

I'll use WP or Google or something next time;-}