Monday, May 30, 2011

Mr.Smith Goes to Montreal

Most Habs fans of a certain age recall May 5, 1986 with more than a touch of fond nostalgia. It was Game Three, Habs versus Rangers in the conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canadiens had won the first two games, so Game Three was, by no means, a do-or-die contest. It was, however, a game of Meaning in Habs' lore. Canadiens fans remember it as the beginning of Patrick Roy's metamorphasis as the original butterfly superstar. The 20-year-old rookie goalie faced 13 Rangers' shots in OT stopping them all, many spectacularly. He held his team in it until New York's James Patrick bumped a linesman and took himself out of the play, allowing Claude Lemieux enough of a break to bury the winner. That's what Habs fans remember about that night. Bobby Smith, the lanky, silky-handed centreman on the Canadiens top line at the time, recalls something other than Roy's heroics.

"My memory of that game is tying it up with about a minute left, so I have a different memory of it than most other people," Smith laughs.

A look back at the box score from that night proves his sense of recall is still pretty sharp a quarter century after the fact. The Rangers were up 3-2 and took a penalty with about three-and-a-half minutes to go. With 8 seconds left in the PP and 2 minutes in the period, Smith tipped a Larry Robinson shot behind John Vanbiesbrouck and set the stage for Patrick Roy's command performance.

The goal was typical of the very good, but understated...some would say underappreciated...player Smith was in his seven seasons as a Hab. In that Cup year, for example, he scored 31 goals and 86 points, but played second fiddle to Mats Naslund's 110 points. In 1988, Smith put up his best numbers in Montreal with 93 points, but the Habs lost out to Boston in the post-season and a great year was forgotten. The truth, though, is that Naslund would never have had his best season without Smith. And a player who was nearly a point-a-game through more than a thousand NHL games shouldn't be forgotten.

Bobby Smith arrived in Montreal in 1983, shortly after requesting a trade from the Minnesota North Stars. The Stars had hired a new coach with a different philosophy and Smith wanted a change of scenery. In this age of "Codes" and strange notions of what constitutes "respect," players are villified for asking to be traded. Smith thinks that's unfair.

"I used to always say it's the best job in the world except you spend too much time in the dentist chair and you don't get to choose where you live," he quips.

When he got the word that the trade to Montreal went through, the kid who grew up in nearby Ottawa was delighted.

"I can still remember the surreal feeling of my first practice with the Canadiens, and skating around and looking at my reflection with the CH on my chest in the glass," he recalls. "I always thought if you played baseball, you should play a few years with the Yankees, or football with the Dallas Cowboys. It's the same thing with the Canadiens. It was special in Montreal. I thought it was the centre of the hockey universe. Game night was a big special occasion. We played at about 107 percent of capacity most nights. There was a serious attitude there that was a surprise, even coming from a good team like Minnesota."

Smith says some of his most cherished hockey memories come from his time in Montreal, including what was, for him, the greatest moment of the 1986 Stanley Cup finals.

"No question. Being on the bench as the clock ticked down against Calgary. The score was 4-3 and the puck went across our blueline and you knew it was over. That was the moment. It wasn't clear until that moment that we were going to win the Stanley Cup, but I remember that moment very well," he says. He modestly neglects to mention that he was the one who scored the Cup-winning goal for the Habs, converting a Naslund feed about halfway through the third.

"For a point during my career,it was like that was a thing guys on other teams got to do," he continues. "For a while, the Islanders had three of the best six or seven players in the world and they kept winning. Then the OIlers seemed like they were going to win every year. It seemed that winning the Stanley Cup was something other teams did. Then all of a sudden, I was playing for the Montreal Canadiens and we weren't the best team in the league, as we may have been in '89, and we won."

Ah, yes. Eighty-nine. "The year that should have been" for many Canadiens fans who've never gotten over watching the best team in the league lose in the finals, while Lanny McDonald skated the Cup around Forum ice. Fortunately for Bobby Smith's peace of mind, however, he's able to put that loss in perspective.

"I played in 35 playoff series during my career. It's a tremendous accomplishment to win a playoff series," he explains. "It's far different from beating a team in the regular season, where you play a team on October 13, then you play them again on December 5. When you play against each other every second night and your team wins, that's a major accomplishment. Even at the end of a season, if you've won three playoff rounds and lost in the final, when the disappointment wears off, you say, hey, we won three playoff rounds. We're a good team."

The Canadiens were a good team in the '80s, and Bobby Smith was a big part of the club's success. Eventually, though, he decided it was time to move on. The Habs were bringing in younger centres and he could see a shrinking role in his future. He once again took control of his own hockey fate and asked for a trade back to Minnesota. He finished his last three years in the NHL back in the city where it all began. When the end came, he had no regrets.

"I was completely ready for it. I feel bad for the guys who leave and really have a tough adjustment," he muses. "Our final game was on a Sunday. I think I had a press conference on Tuesday. I was not a good player in my last year in the league, which made it a lot easier. I was a full-time student at the University of Minnesota and I did that for three years. So I never had a single day where I looked back and said, Oh, I wish I were still playing."

Of course, Bobby Smith and hockey have never been very far apart. The 1979 first-overall draft pick and Calder Trophy winner, who still holds the OHL single-season scoring record, is deeply involved in junior hockey. He's the majority owner of the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads, and spent the season just past behind the team's bench. Being Coach Smith wasn't something he'd envisioned for himself, but he says it was a valuable experience.

"I enjoyed it. I had a lot of experiences to pass on to those guys. I liked being around it all the time."

Even so, Smith has no desire to be a career coach. He's passed the reins in Halifax on to Dominique Ducharme, but will continue to be a hands-on owner with the Mooseheads. He lives in Arizona these days, where he moved when he took over as GM of the NHL's Coyotes after completing his B.S. and MBA degrees in 1996, but he makes several trips a year to catch his team in action and stay abreast of the daily details. He also keeps in touch with some old Habs teammates, including Mike McPhee who's now living in Halifax. The pair of them got together with the best and brightest of their former mates last year to talk about old times and celebrate the Canadiens' Centennial in Montreal.

On December 4, 2010, management invited the hundred players who contributed most to its century of success to come back for the big party. The official photo from the night shows Bobby Smith, the tallest guy in the back row, proudly wearing the CH one more time. He says the night was special, almost as though he never left.

"That's a bond that's always there, with those guys who you spend so much time with," Smith reminisces. "There are certain friends who you don't need a lot of time to reconnect very easily, so that hundredth anniversary was a lot of fun. If you're going to play a few years in the NHL, it's a treat to spend some of them in Montreal."

Smith says now he also received one of the best pieces of advice he ever got when he played for the Habs, but it didn't come from a coach or teammate. Even in the '80s, before the internet-fuelled obsessions of the new millenium, the Canadiens were the living competitive heartbeat of Montreal. Fans would gather outside the Forum before and after every practice and game, in the hope of making contact with their heroes. After one particularly bad night, Smith recalls being in no mood to greet the people who wanted to talk about what went wrong. His wife, Beth, caught his arm as they were about to walk out of the building.

"She said, these people will see you for two minutes and you will never see them again. If you make a bad impression, they'll remember that for the next twenty-five years," Smith laughs. "She was right."

Bobby Smith made very few bad impressions in his NHL career. While he remembers Montreal fondly, twenty-five years after he watched the clock tick down on a Habs Stanley Cup victory, Canadiens fans remember him with a smile as well.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Art of the Draw

There may, possibly, be a few things in the world closer than the Montreal/Boston playoff series this year. Henrik and Daniel Sedin are probably closer. So's John Tortorella's temper to the boiling point of mercury. Other than those examples, it's tough to think of anything that's been as neck-and-neck as that Habs/Bs series.

The stats show just how close it was, but if one team had a slight advantage in the numbers, it was actually the Canadiens. Each team scored 17 goals in the seven games. The Habs won the special-teams battle. They went 22.2% on the PP, while the Bruins failed to score. That gave the Canadiens a perfect 100% on the PK to Boston's 77.8%. The Bruins took more shots, with 243 versus the Habs' 229, although the Canadiens won the three games in which they were significantly outshot. In goal, Carey Price's .934 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average beat out Tim Thomas' .926 and 2.25. The only area in which the Bruins had the clear upper hand was on faceoffs. They were 53.3% for the series, while the Habs were just 46.7% on the draw.

The numbers mightn't seem that far apart, but the experts, the guys who built their reputations as faceoff specialists, say there's a world of difference between the Bruins' success rate and that of the Canadiens. The NHL didn't publish official faceoff stats before 1998, but that year, at age 39, Guy Carbonneau was second in the league, winning 59.4% of his draws. He says the faceoff was important then, but it's even more so now.

"In the past, because there was more scoring, I think faceoffs weren't as important as they are now. Now it's huge," Carbonneau states. "Games are tighter. Teams are a lot more equal. Every little detail is important. You talk a lot more now about power play and penalty killing. It was important in the past, but not life and death. And now, because of the new rules on the power play, time of possession is really big. Every time you win the faceoff, you don't have to chase the puck."

Carbonneau says the importance of faceoffs increases exponentially when a team doesn't score many goals to begin with.

"For low-scoring teams, all these little things are really important. I know Jacques Martin is spending a lot of time on penalty killing and power plays and those areas of the game because they're not going to score four or five goals a game. They have to really work on those little things, and faceoffs are a huge part of it," he says.

And the man who captained the Canadiens to their last Stanley Cup takes it a step further. He thinks teams without really good faceoff men are hard-pressed to win at all.

"There were not a lot of specialists in the past. Doug Jarvis comes to mind as one of the best, and as one of the guys who kind of built a career on that. Now every team is looking for one of those guys," Carbonneau explains. And if you don't have one? "You better score a lot of goals. There's less faceoffs now than there used to be during a game, but because every power play starts in the opposing zone, you need to win the puck, especially during the playoffs when the games are even closer."

Carbonneau's observation is right on, statistically speaking. There were actually about ten thousand fewer faceoffs in the league this year than there were ten years ago, dropping from an average of 5381 per team to 4709 per team. That's where Carbonneau's anecdotal evidence separates from the numbers, though. The top ten teams on faceoffs ten years ago scored 68 more PP goals than the bottom ten teams. This year, the bottom ten teams on the draw actually scored 109 more PP goals than the top teams. When you figure in PP opportunities, the scoring percentages of the top ten faceoff teams are pretty comparable to those of the bottom ten. So it seems that winning the faceoff in the opposing zone to start the PP actually doesn't improve scoring that much.

The Canadiens supported that in their only playoff series this year. Tomas Plekanec was a disappointing 43.3% on faceoffs. Scott Gomez was even more dismal, at 40.7%. Jeff Halpern won 73% of his faceoffs, but he played in only four games and didn't take any draws on the PP. Yet, winning all those faceoffs didn't give the Bruins a great advantage overall.

What's interesting, however, is that while Plekanec's faceoff average was generally poor, on the PK he was over 50%, and he took almost all of the shorthanded draws for the Habs in the series. So, while the Bruins controlled the faceoff at even strength, the Candiens did so on the PK, which perhaps explains, at least in part, why the Bruins got shut out with the man advantage.

Tim Taylor took thousands of faceoffs in the NHL as well, and managed to keep his percentage in the mid-fifties most years. He actually ranks sixth in the league since the lockout. He agrees with Carbonneau's idea that a team must have a faceoff specialist if it's going to win. In his theory, however, it's more an overall team performance stat than just a special-teams one.

"Puck possession is what it's about. The best teams in the league do not give the puck up much. You win the draw, you possess the puck and now the other team is chasing you. There's a huge connection between good teams and the teams that win the most faceoffs," Taylor attests. "You have to have one guy who can win big. If you can't win faceoffs, you're giving the other team a huge advantage. If you're chasing the puck all night, statistics say it's going to be really hard to win. If you don't have that guy it's going to be tough to win in the playoffs."

The standings back up Taylor's belief. The top faceoff teams this season were Vancouver, San Jose and Detroit; first, fourth and fifth overall in the league respectively. Same thing in the playoffs. The four remaining teams are all among the seven that are above 50% on the draw.

Still, having one guy in the top-six who's above 50% on faceoffs might not be enough. There's still a need to add that type of guy on the third or fourth lines as well. Those lines are responsible for secondary scoring, and, just as importantly, preventing goals against. Winning faceoffs helps with both those lower-line tasks. The excellent statistics website Behind the Net has figured that in the first seven seconds after a face-off in your own end, you are 10 times more likely to be scored on if you lost the draw than if you won it. The number crunchers at Behind the Net also have concluded 10% of all goals are scored within twenty seconds of winning the draw. Those stats indicate that a team's ability to score...and prevent being scored upon...improves when it's good at faceoffs.

The numbers also show that the top ten teams in the league on faceoffs average three more wins than the bottom ten. They tend to give up fewer goals overall, score more at even strength and are better on the PK as well. Habs fan-extraordinaire Jason Weiss figured out that the top six teams (the top 20%) in the league were 6.12% better on faceoffs than the bottom six (the lower 20%) this year. They also average six more wins, which leads him to conclude that each percentage point of improvement on the draw equals an extra win. If you look at the Habs with that in mind, a team average of 53% rather than 49% would have meant four extra wins. That would have translated to 104 points and the division title.

Of course, faceoffs are just one part of a very complex game. It's one thing to win the faceoffs, but quite another to take advantage of that by scoring. Just looking at this season, the Florida Panthers were fourth in the league in faceoff percentage. However, their two top faceoff men, Marty Reasoner at 54.5% and Stephen Weiss at 53.9%, managed to score only 81 points between them. They were winning the draws, but couldn't do anything with the puck afterwards. Contrast that with Vancouver's league-leading 54.9% success rate on the draw, coupled with the scoring exploits of top faceoff men Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin (combined 177 points between them) and you can see the difference. That's why it's important for the players who have the best chance of scoring be able to win more draws.

In the Canadiens' case, their two top centres take nearly half of all the team's faceoffs. Scott Gomez and Tomas Plekanec combined for just 95 points, and neither of them were over 50% last year. This season, Gomez was at 48%. Plekanec was exactly 50%, although he was slightly below that on both PP and PK draws. He was also markedly better at home than he was on the road. That doesn't surprise Carbonneau.

"I still don't like that the home team has to put their sticks down second because ninety percent of the time they don't put their stick down. I think they made a big deal of it because they didn't want any cheating at first, but it's a lot different now," he says.

Taylor says that requirement for the road player to put his stick down first is directly responsible for most players having better percentages at home.

"Faceoffs are one of those intriguing areas of the game where you can really cheat, and the best cheater is often the best one at winning the faceoffs," he explains. "What I mean by that is the visiting team has to put his stick in first, so the home team puts his stick in last. So actually, when you put your stick in, you don't actually stop. You go in in one swoop right away and time it so the referee is dropping the puck at the same time you're putting your stick in, which means you have a big advantage at home."

Some players learn how to compensate. Plekanec, Carbonneau says, was actually better three years ago when he coached the young Czech. He says in Plekanec's case, opponents started complaining about his favourite cheat.

"Tomas has a different style," Carbonneau says. "Europeans go on their forehand a lot. Tomas uses not only his stick, but uses his skate a lot. That kind of pisses off a lot of the guys, and when you piss off the other side, they tell the linesmen. Once in a while, they forget about it and he does it because he's got really good timing, good instinct and good anticipation. I wouldn't say he cheats, but he's got great timing of when to bring that skate to make it really hard on the opposing centreman. Now they've found a way to get around it."

Carbonneau says if he studied slow-motion video of Plekanec's faceoffs, he'd probably be able to find something to help him improve. (This from the man who'd stay after practice and take draws against Plekanec, beating him and all the other Canadiens centres handily at nearly 50 years of age.) He thinks there's only so much you can teach when it comes to owning the draw, however. Some of it is practice, some of it's learned technique and a lot more is instinct. But, he says, the biggest factor is wanting it more than the other guy.

"To me, you can't win them all, but you can't lose them all either. If you have a tough night and you can't win them, at least try to tie them up. If you tie up the stick, then the puck is lying there and someone can come in and get it. Communication is important," he believes. "It's the difference between a guy who's 56% or one who's 49%. A lot of it is attitude, going in there and wanting to win it."

Taylor agrees the mental aspect of faceoffs is very important, and that's something that can be taught.

"You can teach the importance of it. As the years go on, you realize the importance," he says. "You're trying to establish one up on a person. If you beat a guy three times in the neutral zone, it doesn't mean a whole lot. But then you have a big, important draw in the defensive zone and you've got him thinking, 'He's beaten me three times so I'll have to do something different.' Now this guy's out of his comfort zone, and getting in someone's head is huge. Every faceoff you take from the start of the game to the end is important."

Taylor points to Carbonneau as an example of how a player can really hone his faceoff technique and make himself dominant, if he has the will and work ethic to do so.

"He concentrated on it. He wasn't a guy on a PP who was going to take a one-timer. He was a defensive guy who took a lot of defensive faceoffs and he took pride in it. It was something in the character of his game that kept him in the league as long as he was," he states.

That, then would indicate that Plekanec and Gomez should be able to improve on the draw. We know they can do it. Plekanec was 51% a few years ago, and has proven his ability to put in the extra work he needs to do in order to improve himself. Gomez was around 53% with the Rangers and Devils, and 51% in his first year as a Hab. His 48% this year may have been further evidence of his generally listless play this season. Taylor says it's possible for centres to improve if they want to. He thinks the wingers also have to buy in, if the team's average is to get better.

The player's role in working on the technique and concentrating on the importance of winning draws is unquestionable, but his relationship with the linesmen is also a factor. Taylor thinks it's the most important variable for a centre.

"I think the best cheat is getting to know the linesmen really well, and being friendly with them. It's hard for a linesman, as a human being, if you're nice to him all the time, for him to kick you out. But if you're always "Oh, what the hell is that?" and giving him grief, then it's easy for him to kick you out. If you're nice as can be to him, it's tougher for him to kick you out. Now, being nicer gets you a bit more of an advantage when you're about to take a faceoff," he laughs.

Carbonneau says Taylor's spot on with that observation.

"They're pretty fair and they won't try to screw you over, but they do have a say about which side they throw the puck. If you piss off the linesman game in and game out, not only are they going to kick you out, but they'll drop the puck on one side of the circle a little more often and nobody can tell the difference," he grins.

Whether it's through watching video, practicing technique or befriending the linesmen, the conclusion here is that the Canadiens need Plekanec and Gomez to improve on faceoffs. That's the most important thing they can do this summer. They've both been better in the past, and can conceivably get there again with some attention to detail. Backing them up, within the current roster of centremen, there's hope Lars Eller and David Desharnais can improve on their 42.5% and 49.7% respectively. Some of the top-ten faceoff men in the league have improved as they got more experience. Ryan Kesler, for example, was 46.1% in his rookie season and has improved every year to sit at 57.4% this season. Carbonneau says experience plays a big role in learning the habits of opponents as well as the tendencies of the linesmen, and that helps young players improve as they progress in the league.

If the younger Habs don't improve right away, the Canadiens need a solid player on the lower lines who's excellent on draws. Jeff Halpern was really strong this season, but there's a question about how long he can stay healthy. Coming up in this free agent season, Marty Reasoner is available. He's good for maybe a dozen goals a year from the bottom lines, and was 54.4% on the draw last year. Vernon Fiddler doesn't put up as many points, but he's a solid 53.9%. Zenon Konopka is fourth in the league, with an impressive 57.7%, but he only scored 9 points last year. He's tough as nails, which wouldn't go astray with the Canadiens, but there, again, is the conundrum of an ability to win draws with no ability to handle the puck when you do.

In the end, winning faceoffs brings with it a great many benefits for a team. Tim Taylor explains it best: "You have to be able to win faceoffs. You might think the difference between 49 and 52 isn't that big, but it is because those are scoring opportunities you're giving up."

The Canadiens loss in the playoffs this year is proof the team needs to improve its faceoff success. Without winning draws, the team is limited in its ability to take advantage of its scoring talent. The experts agree.

*Thanks to Guy Carbonneau and Tim Taylor for their input. Also thanks to Jason Weiss. Photo is of Ken Danby's 1997 work, "Face Off."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Whatever You Do, Don't Say "Habs"

I'm waiting for the axe to fall, and I've got my legal defence all planned. The Habs are on the warpath, and have been for the last few months, stomping foes who dare defy their copyright.

So far, we know about the former Habs Inside/Out website being forced to change its name to "Hockey" Inside/Out. Then there's the schwarma restaurant in Montreal that got slapped with an $89-thousand fine for displaying a cartoon picture of the owner in a Canadiens' sweater on the outside of the building, with a "Go Habs Go" caption underneath. He got a warning letter from the league about copyright infringement and so he painted over the logo on the sweater. That wasn't enough for the Canadiens or the NHL, though, so they levied the fine, which totals a thousand dollars for each day the picture (now removed) was displayed.

It's an interesting tactic for a league dependent on the goodwill of fans to keep it afloat. On one hand, it's understandable that the NHL, which enters into sponsorship agreements with businesses and service providers for lots of dough, would want to protect the integrity of those agreements. After all, if Tim Horton's pays a hefty sum to be the official restaurant of the NHL, it's not really fair for other restaurants to give the impression through their advertising that they're affiliated in some way with the NHL or the Canadiens without paying.

On the other hand, the arbitrary nature of the fine in the restaurant's case raises an interesting question: When does displaying a slogan or team colours cross the line between showing fan pride and breaking copyright? According to the NHL, it seems to be when the person or business using the word "Habs" in its name or showing the colours on its restaurant wall has the potential to make money from the exercise, of which the league doesn't get a cut.

The NHL and the Canadiens are about business, of course, and they have to protect their bottom line. The problem is, they're a lot more than just a business. If Bell Canada or Via Rail sees another company using their logos or implying a relationship with their colours or slogans, there's an obvious copyright infringement. It's not likely the guy with the schwarma place in downtown Montreal would display a picture of himself riding a Via train or using a Bell phone to show his love of those companies.

The Canadiens inspire love, devotion and a fervent desire to show support for the team. They're an integral part of the history of Montreal and Quebec, and the fans who support them feel a sense of ownership toward them. After all, without the fans' adoration and the dollars that love inspires them to spend on tickets and merchandise, there would be no team. People need trains and phones. It can be argued they don't actually need professional hockey. It's particularly galling that the "Go Habs Go" slogan the NHL is fining people for using improperly was actually invented by the fans, who've been passionately shouting encouragement to their team for a hundred years.

It's a risky thing for the league to take that devotion and hang a cynic's label on it. The restaurant owner in question claims he was only showing support for his team. The NHL says he was illegally using the Habs logo, colours and slogan in a cold-hearted attempt to attract more business. In the big picture, though, what did the league gain by fining him? The move has made a great many hockey fans, who themselves wear the sweater, display banners at work and scream "Go Habs Go" at every opportunity, angry. They feel one of their own has been singled out and punished by the corporate machine of the league. The move seems a tad arrogant; a "there are always other fans to replace you if you don't like it" approach. Fans wonder where the crack-down will end.

In these cases, it's not as though the restaurant owner was claiming to be associated with the Habs or promising anything he shouldn't have. Similarly, it's not like the Montreal Gazette's hockey-themed web page was claiming to be anything more than a site where fans could gather to talk about hockey and get the latest news. In the latter case, especially, the cease-and-desist order was against a company offering a service appreciated by the fans who pay the team's bills.

The NHL and the Canadiens are legally entitled to take a hard line on enforcing their copyrights. (Although when the hell did they copyright "Habs" anyway? Seems to me the journalists who coined it and the fans who adopted it should have had some rights there.) Their choosing to exercise those rights in the way they have is really bad PR and, many fans feel, unnecessary. The Canadiens didn't lose anything in either of those cases, and in the case of the Gazette, they may actually have gained some new fans.

So, I'm waiting for the hammer to come down on my poor blog now. My legal defence is that I'm saying the "H" does NOT stand for Habs. If, one day, I get a letter from the Canadiens lawyers, I hope it stands up in court.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Summer Daze

When I was a kid, my brothers, our friends and I spent most of our waking hours outdoors. We had a grassy meadow behind our house, and every summer my youngest brother would build a cabin there, only to tear it down every fall and start over again the following summer. It started out as a simple lean-to the first year. Then it developed four walls and a flat roof. Then he learned how to build a peaked roof. In its final incarnation the cabin had a loft and built-in furniture, painted with the leftover sky-blue a neighbour kindly donated after re-doing his living room. That summer was the best year of the cabin. My brother and his buddies had a great time building it. I spent rainy days inside it, sitting at the little crooked table, creating my own hockey league.

I dragged my brothers and about four friends into the league as well, but it was really my baby. I re-named all the NHL teams (I remember the Hartford Insurance Salesmen being one stellar example) and designed uniforms for them. Then I designed a draft system for stocking the teams, which included the automatic assignment of each fantasy GM's favourite player to their rosters before anything else happened. Then everyone picked their franchise (mine, of course, was the Montreal Black Aces, with very sharp red and black uniforms) and stocked it with players. This process took up a good part of the summer, with many revisions, trades, logo re-designs and, most often, lineup creation games. We'd prepare for imaginary matches against each other, setting the lines to exploit or shut down those of our opponents, while the other kids debated who'd win based on our line combos: "No way Carbonneau keeps Gretzky from scoring!" "Yeah, but Carbo's got Hawerchuk on his line, and he'll even it out." "No way you can do that! Hawerchuk's a centre too!"

I was thinking about the cabin and our hockey league the other day, and it made me laugh, because grown-up hockey fans do the same thing exactly, no matter how old they are.

Remember four years ago, about this time? The Canadiens announced they'd signed a European player in whom several NHL teams had interest. The rumour was he'd all but decided to go with the Capitals when the Habs swept in and beat George McPhee to him. Canadiens fan sites on the internet exploded with enthusiasm as people posted their dream lineups featuring the 6'2", 200-pounder described as "the Finnish Claude Lemieux" and having a "similar style to Eric Cole," prominently among the starters. That player was Janne Lahti.

Of course, as it turned out, Lahti played 65 games for the Hamilton Bulldogs and none for the Habs. He put up 18 points in the AHL and went quietly back home to Finland at season's end. The reality was such a disappointment after so many fans had been hoping he'd be at least a good third-liner, and pencilled him in accordingly.

Now we're doing the same thing with Alexei Yemelin. The Habs finally signed him yesterday for a reasonable cap hit of just under a million bucks. If he makes the team, and can contribute significantly, he'll be a bargain. If he doesn't, he's got a clause in his new contract that allows him to go back to Russia rather than take a huge pay cut to play in Hamilton. It's a rare provision for an entry-level contract, but its existence means neither Yemelin nor team management are absolutely convinced he's ready to play in the NHL.

Yet, Canadiens fans, full of hope and excitement in the early stages of a very long, dry off-season, already see him starting the year on the Habs' blueline. The truth is, most of us know very little about the guy. We know he's grown physically since his draft year, and now reportedly weighs in at 220 pounds to go with his 6'1". We know he's got a reputation for walking (and sometimes crossing) a fine line between rough and downright dirty play, highlighted by three seasons in the KHL with more than a hundred penalty minutes apiece. We know he's found a bit more offense this year than he's ever shown, racking up 11 goals and 15 assists in 52 games. And we know that, although he made the Russian national team for the recent world championships, he didn't play a prominent or even a really noticeable role.

There's a lot more we don't know. Most of us have never seen him play in the KHL, or at least not for a whole game. We don't know if his speed and aggression will translate to the NHL, or if he'll be able or willing to play within Jacques Martin's system. Unlike a North American prospect, we actually have very little to go on when it comes to judging his ability to play or adapt on and off the ice. He's a mystery, really. Yet, there he is, paired with Andrei Markov or P.K.Subban in the majority of fans' fantasy line combos.

We do this because it's fun to dream in the summer. It's cool to think our team might finally have pulled one over on the rest of the league and brought in an important player without losing a thing. I just hope people don't crash too hard if it turns out that Yemelin is really just a serviceable sixth defenceman who likes to hit, or even isn't quite cut out for the NHL at all. The real anger and disappointment that comes in winter out of broken summer dreams is unfortunate.

Right now, with October still five months away, we can pretend Yemelin really is the solution to a bunch of the Habs' problems. We can imagine he'll be tough, mobile, a little bit crazy and able to pop a goal or two. We can hope he'll adapt well to North America and fit in with the team. That's because summer's all about pretending, whether it's a cabin in the meadow, a make-believe hockey league or the real Montreal Canadiens we love to manage in our minds.

I hope when the fall comes and it's time to pull the cabin down or accept the reality of the new player the Habs just signed, we're able to put the pretend away and move on without too great a burden of unrequited expectation.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Plot Thickens

Well, the old adage that wonders never cease may have some truth to it after all. Reliable sources, including the almost-always-right Bob McKenzie, say Alexei Yemelin is finally (most likely) coming (almost surely) to Montreal.

McKenzie and other half-reliable media sources say Pierre Gauthier is in Slovakia now, at the World Championships (where, incidentally, Plekanec and Jagr look like the second coming of Gretzky/Kurri) to watch and/or negotiate with Yemelin. Reliable Bob even goes as far as to say that unless things go completely off the rails, Yemelin should be in the Habs top-six D next year because he's that NHL-ready.

So. The question for Gauthier is, if he signs Yemelin and the guy needs to be either in the NHL or go back to Russia, as is rumoured, what does the GM do with the rest of the Habs' defence?

Some things are set in stone. P.K. Subban will be back, will be a top-two D and will play at least 20 minutes per game. Jaro Spacek will be back. He will come to camp slightly overweight, struggle with speed and most likely be in the bottom pair. In between those two, the lineup's open.

Don Meehan has confirmed talks with Andrei Markov will get serious next week. So we can assume Gauthier will do what it takes, and it shouldn't take too much when you consider the depth of his injury issues, to get Markov back. He, likely then, will take up at least 5.5 million in cap space.

Josh Gorges also will be back. He won't demand primo money, but whatever Gauthier pays him will be worth it. In Gorges you know you get a shut-down guy who'll kill himself to win, and who'll support Carey Price to his own detriment. That means four spots, plus Yemelin, are taken.

So, the sixth spot is the question. Yannick Weber isn't the most physical guy in the world, but he has definite offensive ability and a talent for angling wingers out of the play. He's like a younger Mark Streit. A lot of Habs fans regret letting Streit walk, but you should remember Streit didn't make the NHL until he was 29 years old. Weber is 22. He's got a long way to go, but, although he's been outpaced by Subban's mercurial rise to prominence, he's already very competent in his own right.

Then there's the Wisniewski question. He's a points machine, but not always steady on the defensive side of the game. That's a question in itself, but added to that is the fact that opposing GMs tend to see only the points and jack up the price accordingly. So Gauthier has to ask himself whether a lot of points is worth the inflated price Wiz will command. It's a question that will have to be answered quickly because a guy with Wisniewski's numbers won't sit around much longer than July 1.

Added to that is Hal Gill. Gill isn't a speedster by even Anne Shirley's imagination, and he handles the puck like it's made of nitroglycerin, but he's smart and experienced and carries himself with a foreboding sort of leadership that appeals to Subban. His PK ability is also an addition to a defensive lineup that's shaping up to be more offensive-minded than last year's.

Roman Hamrlik is willing to come back for a major discount because he wants to finish his career in Montreal. That can't be disregarded. Hammer has stepped up in each of the last two seasons when Markov went down to injury. He's old, but he was once a number-one-overall draft pick for a reason. Given reasonable minutes in the 15-18 range, Hamrlik could be more than serviceable.

That's eight possible defencemen in the mix for the Canadiens top-six next season. Of the eight, Subban, Markov, Gorges, Spacek and Yemelin, if he signs, are in unless things go terribly wrong with contract negotiations. That leaves the sixth man and the spare. Weber is young and promising and the Habs have spent a lot of time and money invested in his development. He's also performed pretty well in the playoffs at the NHL level. One would have to think the Canadiens are committed to giving him a full year to prove himself.

If Weber is to make the team, assuming he's not traded, it leaves only one extra spot, to be decided between Wisniewski, Hamrlik and Gill. Wisniewski, based on his stats this year, is likely to ask for a raise on his 3.25-million salary. He'll get it, too. For the Canadiens, it depends on where they want to spend the rest of their money. If they cough up four or 4.5-million for Wiz, it means they might not be able to upgrade at forward. Investing in Wisniewski means the team has to expect a whole lot more offence from the backend, which might not be a chance Gauthier is willing to take.

Gill and Hamrlik are the other in-house options, and Gauthier knows very well what each of them can bring. Hamrlik, while not the recognized leader Gill is, is a more well-rounded player with better skills. He's also faster than Gill, which, in the interest of improving the overall speed and mobility of the defence, would make him the better choice.

Of course, there are several things that could happen to shake up the current thinking on defence. Spacek's contract makes him the least-useful potential candidate for a top-six role when it comes to value for money. If there are any takers, Gauthier could trade him and keep both Hamrlik and Gill instead. There's also a chance Weber could be traded for another piece of the forward puzzle, creating room. And there's always the possibility that Gauthier could be eyeing another type of defenceman altogether, which would mean bringing in someone entirely new and dropping a couple of this year's team. Any or all of those "if" factors could happen, which would change the landscape of the defence altogether.

The decision about how to fill those last two spots will depend on where Gauthier sees the biggest team need. Does he think any extra money needs to go up front? If so, Wiz will probably walk. Does he think a mobile, offense-minded D is the way to go? Then, he might keep Wiz and hold on to Hamrlik as the extra man. Or, does he think the D needs to be bigger and stronger, as well as cost-effective? If so, he might let Wiz go and keep Gill along with bringing in another stay-at-home type of steady defenceman with a low-paying contract who hits.

There are lots of possibilities for tweaking the construction of the D for next year, but the news of Yemelin's contract negotiations answers a lot of questions. The news that talks will soon start with Markov, and, we can assume, Gorges as well, answers several more. If all parties sign, we can see the picture start to form.

That's if everything goes as expected. However, if there's one thing we've learned from years of waiting for this or that guy to sign, it's that you can't expect anything.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Sometime last week, one of those sketchy, oft-translated bits of rumour originating in some foreign paper trickled into the sphere of Canadiens fans. A Czech news service reported Jaromir Jagr is contemplating a return to the NHL, and that Montreal might be one of his preferred destinations.

The inevitable discussion and dissection of the rumour has ranged from skepticism about its validity, to dismissal of Jagr's ability to play in the NHL again, to a drooling, covetous chorus of "yes, please!" Having seen Jagr play in the Olympics last year and in this year's World Championships alongside Tomas Plekanec, a lot of fans think the idea of signing the 39-yer-old Jagr wouldn't be a bad idea.

Now, CJAD has asked Plekanec himself about his current linemate's intentions. In summary, Pleks says Jagr's still got all the tools to play in the NHL. His offensive skill, his shot and his ability to protect the puck are all still in evidence, and Plekanec thinks the smaller NHL ice would actually help Jagr be even better. He does not, however, claim to know whether his boyhood hero is really planning an NHL comeback.

The idea, a Habs fan must confess, is tempting. While it's been three years since Jagr skated at the NHL level, he did manage to put up 71 points in his last season with a very offensively-challenged Rangers team. (Ironically, the last good season Scott Gomez had as well.) Jagr's been playing at nearly a point-per-game level in the KHL, which is also a notoriously low-scoring league. And his play with Plekanec at the international tournaments in the last two years is more than a little bit magical. The two have some very nice chemistry that could help a low-scoring Habs roster. Adding to the temptation is the realization that there really aren't a lot of potentially affordable wingers with size who are able to put up a considerable number of points.

On the downside, Jagr is almost 40, and while guys like Nicklas Lidstrom and Teemu Selanne look as good as ever at that age, they've never taken three years away from the NHL game and tried to come back. There's no guarantee Jagr can make the transition again, or that his speed will be good enough on a team that depends on the quickness of its attack. If it is adequate, there's still a question about how long a guy his age can keep up the pace. Would he be able to sustain it throughout an 82-game season? There's also a concern about how well a guy who's most interested in scoring would get along within the often-stifling confines of The System. Then there's the money issue. Jagr's always been about the money, which is what brought him to Russia in the first place. Nothing in his history says he'd be willing to play for the 2-3 million the Canadiens could afford on a one-year contract.

If he is, though...oh, that's tempting. Watching him at the World Championships on Plekanec's wing, it's very tempting. You just know Pleks would work even harder than usual if he's playing with the guy whose poster was on his boyhood bedroom wall. And you'd have to think that if Jagr bothers to come back for one last hurrah in the NHL, it'd be more about making a last run at the Cup and having fun than about adding a couple of extra million to his bottom line.

If Jagr were willing to come to Montreal, he woudn't be required to be the team's superstar or its emotional leader. The only job he'd have is to would be to put up points, which he's shown every indication he's still able to do. As long as he's willing to buy into the team-first concept, he'd be a great addition to the Canadiens attack. That's a big "if" though, for a guy who's always been the star.

Knowing how rumours usually work, all of this is likely moot...or will be when Jagr re-signs in Omsk next week. Still, in the news-barren stretch between playoff elimination and training camp, it's a rumour worth contemplating.

Monday, May 9, 2011

What's Done Is Done

There's a verse in the Irish balled, "The Town I Loved So Well," that goes "What's done is done and what's won is won, and what's lost is lost and gone forever." It's a song a lot of Habs fans should be singing. Listening to and reading fan comments as the playoffs drag on, there's a lot of regret out there.

Every time Chris Higgins scores a goal for Vancouver, Habs fans grit their teeth behind complaints of another first-rounder gone for nothing. That inevitably brings up Ryan McDonagh, the promising first-round defenceman who went to the Rangers with Higgins in the horrid Scott Gomez trade. Then there's the angst over Sergei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre who are still in the playoffs, while the guys the Habs got for them are rotting in the minors. Anybody connected to RDS is also crying about Guy Boucher coaching Tampa into the conference finals while Jacques Martin is setting up his summer hockey school.

It's only natural to chafe as we watch former players do well when the ones the team has kept have failed to bring home the hardware again. It helps, sometimes, to think instead about the close encounters with bad trades the team has had. Some of the deals that fell through for one reason or another would have made the Gomez trade look like a bargain.

Take, for example, the Alex Kovalev trade. Back in 2004, the Rangers had had it with the enigmatic Kovalev and his game-to-game inconsistency. Bob Gainey saw an opportunity to pick up a talented player for cheap, so he offered Glen Sather a second-rounder and a prospect of Sather's choice. The three prospects on the list were Alexander Perezhogin, Jozef Balej and Tomas Plekanec. At the time, Balej was the leading scorer for the Bulldogs in Hamilton, so Sather picked him up in exchange for Kovalev. In retrospect, it was a great deal. Balej played only 13 games for the Rangers, with a grand total of 5 points, before disappearing into the minors and then to European hockey. Kovalev had that one great 84-point season when the Habs finished on top of the Eastern Conference that was well worth the loss of Balej. It gets a whole lot more questionable, though, if you imagine what would have happened if Sather had picked Plekanec instead. Watching Pleks playing his great two-way game for the Rangers while Kovalev walked to the Senators would have hurt a lot.

Then there's Jaroslav Halak. The Flyers lost in the playoffs with a stacked team largely because their goaltending was awful. Halak will forever be an indelible bright spot in Canadiens lore for his brilliant performance in last year's unexpected playoff run. We forget, though, that before he became a playoff hero, Halak was on the trading block. Gainey was flush in goal with his boy, Carey Price. He was willing to move Halak to solidify Price's hold on the number-one job in Montreal, and Philly was looking, as always, for help in goal. Reports at the time indicated Gainey wanted a second-round pick for Halak, but Paul Holmgren felt that was too much for a relatively unproven goalie. (If you'll recall, Gainey had received a second for veteran Cristobal Huet just the season before.) Holmgren turned Gainey down and Halak went on to do what he did last spring.

Of course, in the end he was traded, but instead of that second-rounder, he brought back Lars Eller, who's already showing signs of being a positive on the Canadiens roster for years to come. Ian Schultz, the throw-in in the trade, also has potential to provide some grit on the Habs third or fourth line in the future. Lots of people were sorry to see Halak go, but in retrospect, if that trade had to happen, far better it be for Eller and Schultz than for a Flyers second-rounder. Can you even imagine how we'd have felt if Halak had had last year's brilliant playoff run in a Philly sweater? They'd have won the Cup and the Price/Halak debate would have gone on forever, no matter how well Price played after the trade.

Finally, the mother of all near-misses. Habs fans have been crying about Vincent Lecavalier using his big, talented Frenchness to help the Tampa Bay Lightning since he was drafted first overall in 1998. He's approached free agency twice since then, and rumours about him possibly signing with Montreal ran rampant. Then, in the summer of 2009, Lecavalier was about to start the first year of an 11-year contract worth 10 million bucks a season, complete with no-trade clause, and the rumours were swirling again. Names like Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges, P.K.Subban, Carey Price and Chris Higgins, as well as multiple first-round draft picks were all mentioned in potential packages for Lecavalier. Later, Brian Lawton...much to Gainey's chagrin...revealed Plekanec, Higgins and Gorges were indeed on the table. Gainey confirmed to the Globe & Mail that the Lightning were asking for Subban as well. Ken Campbell reported in The Hockey News that there actually was a deal in place that included Plekanec, Price and a prospect, believed to be Subban. Campbell said the deal was done, but Gary Bettman refused league approval because of an ongoing battle between the feuding Lightning owners.

The upside of the Lecavalier deal would have been that the Habs wouldn't have acquired Gomez and would have held onto McDonagh. That's about it. Lecavalier is more productive than Gomez, but his contract is many times worse. When the Habs are done with Gomez in three years or less, the Lightning will still have seven years of Lecavalier's nearly 8-million dollar cap hit. That will hamper their ability to pay Steven Stamkos what he's worth while remaining competitive. And cap hit aside, can you imagine the Canadiens without Subban, Price, Plekanec and Gorges? A trade involving any three of those four, plus a package of first-rounders would have gutted the heart and future of the Canadiens. They'd be saddled with a huge, long-term contract which would limit their ability to replace those young players, while the Lightning would be building around Stamkos with help from a great young goalie, star defenceman, solid two-way centre and/or steady, reliable blueline leader.

When you contemplate the horror of that scenario, understand that that deal was actually done. It was ready to receive league sanction, and, if not for Bettman's veto, would have happened nearly two years ago. That's enough to give most Habs fans nightmares, even as they imagine how cool it'd be for Vinny to be in Montreal.

Sometimes, when we're tempted to cry about ex-Habs and where they are now, we have to remember how much worse things could really be. Through a combination of serendipity and the fortuitous intervention of the hockey gods, the Canadiens have retained the core of players who will lead them for many years to come. Understanding that, it's time to say "what's done is done" in regards to some of the smaller, less disasterous trades, and let it go.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Need For Speed

In the last two years, ten members of Canada's national alpine ski team have sustained serious injuries, ranging from concussion to torn knee ligaments and broken legs. While it's not uncommon for skiers to fall and hurt themselves, sometimes seriously, the number of bad injuries at the highest level is becoming frightening to those who govern the sport.

Official reports say 42% of all World Cup skiers sustained an injury in 2009, with 23% forcing the athletes off the slopes for more than a week. Skiers and organizers together have come to the conclusion that the sport has become too fast for the human body, even in its best-trained condition, to sustain. Advances in equipment to make it less wind-resistant and more aerodynamic, better training techiques for skiers, cutting-edge skis and slopes doctored to make them icier and faster have all combined to make downhill skiing too dangerous for the best athletes in the world.

The same thing is happening in hockey. The rise in the number of serious injuries like concussion and knee ligament tears is becoming alarming. Since the lockout, which changed the rules to limit obstruction and speed up the game, the rate of concussions has risen from about 75 per year to more than 90. The NHL's concussion expert, Dr.Ruben Echemendia, says there are likely a couple of reasons for the increase.

"It could be that we are making inroads in terms of our ability to communicate to players that they need to report their symptoms, that this is a serious injury and there's increased awareness and identification of the injury," Echemendia says. "It could also be that more concussions are being caused because players are bigger, faster."

Echemendia cites the speed of collisions between players as a possible contributor to the severity of concussions as well as the occurrence of them.

It's not just concussions, either. Many young, important players are getting sidelined with serious knee injuries as well. Zach Parise missed an entire season. So did Andrei Markov. Evgeni Malkin missed half a year. Chris Drury, Chris Campoli, Josh Gorges, Jordan Hendry, Rob Niedermayer, Josh Harding and Brendan Morrison all went under the knife this season. That's more than one in ten NHLers with serious knee injuries this year alone. Look at the Canadiens roster and you'll see James Wisniewski and Jeff Halpern, both of whom had serious ligament damage and long recoveries.

Then there are the number of players breaking bones; hands, feet and legs, blocking shots. The game is demanding a greater commitment to team defence now, which means everyone's got to block shots. However, composite sticks and stronger players are launching the puck at faster speeds than ever before. That speed is hurting players.

Faced with the realization that the speed of their sport was hurting athletes, Alpine Canada announced this week it's making concrete changes to slow things down. It called a two-day safety summit involving coaches, doctors, athletes and equipment designers. After the discussion, all parties agreed to recommend changing the layout of courses to reduce speed, raising the minimum age for downhillers to 18, adding more padding to suits to create more drag and slow them down and banning the injection of water to courses to make them icier and faster. Experts are also recommending the use of back braces and mouth guards, as well as better helmets, to reduce injuries.

The Alpine Canada recommendations won't just sit on the shelf and collect dust. The FIS, the international governing body for alpine skiing is onside and is committed to reducing injuries caused by excessive speed as well.

That's what skiing is doing to fix a problem plaguing its young athletes. It's time for hockey to do the same thing. The speed of the game has surpassed the ability of the players' bodies to absorb it safely. Whether it's sacrificing revenue to remove seats and expand the ice surface or reducing the number of players dressed for a game in order to force them to conserve speed, something's got to give. Composite sticks must be reconsidered because they're driving the puck too hard. If skiing can do it, so can hockey. It will soon have no choice because all the concussion protocols in the world don't address the fact that a lot of these injuries are happening because the game has become too fast for players to handle.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Marked Off

Canadiens fans, as a breed, have very short memories. As proof, imagine three years ago, when the Habs won the Eastern Conference. The team's power play was tops in the league, and the buzz of excitement when fans watched Andrei Markov slide a cross-ice pass through four opponents for a one-timer and a goal was automatic. Recall the burst of surprised appreciation when Markov sneaked in from the point to catch a goalie napping, which he did so often he might have patented the move. Or remember him calmly angling an opposing winger out of the play and using his stick to strip the guy and send the puck the other way. Two years ago, same thing. The guy had his best career season offensively, and people were buying "Markov is God" shirts.

Now, fast-forward to this year. Coming off a terrible series of injuries, including two anterior cruciate ligament reconstructions within five months, the buzz around Markov is about whether the Canadiens should even bother to re-sign him this summer. A quick poll of Habs fans I know returned these comments: "He's injury-prone, let him go." "Wisniewski is younger and puts up as many points, so sign him instead." "I'd take him back, but only for a year, and for less than three million." How quickly we forget.

Andrei Markov, when he's healthy, is an All-Star calibre defenceman. His vision is brilliant, he's creative and smart and savvy. He's the kind of D-man who can launch an attack from his own zone with a single pass, who can play 30 minutes a night against the other team's top line and come out on top. He can kill penalties and quarterback a powerplay, all while racking up points of his own. This is a defenceman any team would be lucky to have.

The caveat, of course is, "when he's healthy." So, let's look at that question in detail. In the last two seasons, Markov has missed all but 52 regular season and 8 playoff games. His first major injury in that stretch was the cut tendon, courtesy of an errant Carey Price skate blade, that took him out of the lineup for a good part of last season. That injury must be dismissed as a freak incident. He came back from that to put up 34 points in just 45 games, going plus-eleven in the process. So, no problem there.

The Matt Cooke hit that led to his first ACL reconstruction, likewise, could have happened to anyone. Players blow knees all the time, and that particular kind of tear isn't indicative of a specific frailty in a person's physical makeup. You fall awkwardly, your knee twists the wrong way and you rupture a ligament. So, you go through surgery and get your ligament fixed. That's what Markov did. Unfortunately, he may not have waited long enough before his return to the game.

The prescribed rehab schedule recommended by most reputable orthopedic surgeons suggests a minimum six months before returning to demanding sport. Markov returned a little more than five months after surgery, which, in retrospect, might have been a mistake.

There are several possible reasons for ACL reconstruction failure. Overall, the grafts fail up to 8% of the time, and up to 95% of those failures are due to physician error in placing the graft. Other factors, however, that can contribute to reconstruction failure include overly-aggressive rehab or trauma to the joint before healing is fully complete. So, what looked like a fairly simple play when Eric Staal took Markov into the boards last November, ended in another knee injury.

Markov's second surgery, last December 8, was conducted by Dr.James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr.Andrews specializes in repairing joint damage for high-level athletes in impact sports like football, snowboarding and even ballroom dancing. He's very highly regarded in the field. Of the several kinds of graft available for ACL repair, Dr.Andrews is well-known for using the patellar tendon graft, in which a tendon is taken from beside the kneecap, with pieces of bone attached to either end. Those bone pieces are screwed into existing bone in the knee joint and the tendon is used to replace the missing ACL. The success rate of that surgery in terms of the patient returning to his full range of motion in sport is between 85-95%, largely depending on the quality of the surgeon and proper strengthening and healing time.

There are possible side effects, which include pain in kneeling and the potential of breaking the kneecap more easily than someone who never had the proceedure. Overall, however, a good ACL reconstruction using this method, given enough time to heal with proper strengthening of the supporting muscles, should produce a knee at least as strong as the one with which a person is born. Even so, there's always risk that a knee that's been perfectly repaired just isn't as able to handle the rigours of high-performance sport as it was before the injury. That's the risk on the list of side effects.

So, assuming Markov's doctor did a good job, which is reasonable, and Markov himself is working diligently to strengthen his affected leg, there's every reason to hope he won't be any more fragile upon his return than he was two years ago. Recall, if you will, that up until he was cut by Price's skate, Markov missed only nine games over the previous three seasons combined. He was no more or less fragile than anybody else. The question about whether he can still handle the stress of playing high-speed hockey should be answered fairly quickly, and if it's in the affirmative, the strength of the repair itself should not be an issue.

If concerns about his health can be laid to rest, the upside in re-signing Markov is high. At 32 he's still in his prime, and his play in both ends of the ice immediately improves upon this year's defence corps. The Canadiens need D-men who can move the puck quickly and accurately, and Markov brings that. He offensive ability can also infuse new life into an often moribund Habs attack. In 2008-09, his last full season with the Canadiens, he scored 64 points, seven more than Tomas Plekanec's team-leading 57 this year. In the big picture, you can compare the fact that Markov has put up .59 points-per-game throughout his career, while a guy like Nicklas Lidstrom has scored .57 PPG. And Markov's ability to play big minutes in tough situations relieves the pressure on less-skilled defencemen who've been required to take those shifts in his absence.

Add to the on-ice ability Markov brings to the lineup the intangibles like leadership, experience and dedication to the organization, and the decision to re-sign him becomes even easier. He's reportedly looking for a three-year deal, probably at similar money to what he made in his last contract, maybe a little less as a goodwill gesture for the team's taking the risk that his knee rehab is for real. One thing's sure: if the Canadiens are finicky about taking Markov back, there are a whole bunch of other teams that won't be so nervous.

Think back to last season, and the expectation was that Markov would be a leading contender to captain the team. The qualities that made him a candidate for the "C" haven't gone away because he's had knee surgery. In a little spin on irony, a lot of Habs fans want to replace Markov with Wisniewski; a man who's had his knee rebuilt three times. In the end, if there's a better-than-even chance Markov is his old self come fall, which all evidence suggests there is, he must remain a Canadien.

How quickly we forget.