Monday, June 27, 2011

Help Wanted

As the last significant date of the long, hockeyless off-season approaches, the Canadiens still have some very important positions available. A look at the Habs job board reveals the following ads for employment:

WANTED: One backup goalie. Must have degree from School of Hard Knocks or recognized alternative. At least five years of experience with a minimum of five different teams preferred. Successful candidate should have an uncanny ability to show absolutely no rust after sitting for fifteen straight games. Should also exhibit an ability to talk the starter off a ledge if required. Compensation to be discussed, but bargains preferred. No ambition necessary.

ARE YOU HUGE? Would Benoit Brunet describe you as "un gros bonhomme?" Do you play on the wing on an NHL team's top-two lines, or did you in your prime? If you answered "yes" to those questions, and you can put the puck in the net more often than Andrei Kostitsyn, the Montreal Canadiens have a job for you! The successful candidate should have a mean streak, but brains enough to avoid suspension, and enjoy standing directly in front of the opposing goalie. You should have been referred to as "a big body presence" by Pierre McGuire at least once, preferably with a lascivious glint in his eye. Leadership without ego and a willingness to sign for market value or less also appreciated. Centreman to be determined, but employer is open to discussing a "No Gomez" clause.

SEEKING: Assistant coach for storied NHL franchise. Prerequisties include actually having played a game of pro hockey, ever, and the ability to feel and exhibit emotion. Among the successful candidate's duties will be planning the powerplay, encouraging the team's youth and talking strategy during time-outs. In-game interviews with RDS, with the ability to deliver a convincing "merci" also required. Unilingual English-speakers who pose no threat to current boss preferred. Stanley Cup-winning experience, a playing connection to the team and a deep passion for the game are optional.

CALLING ALL UFAs: If you're a centreman from Prince Edward Island, and if you've won the Conn Smythe trophy at some point in your career, we'll overpay you to come to Montreal! Successful candidate should expect tremendous opportunities to play the best hockey of his life every night while getting skewered by the pundits on RDS. Optional chances to see himself burned in effigy by dissatisfied fans also available. French lessons not required, but recommended. An "I'm taking lessons but you'll never hear me actually speak French out loud" package is, in most cases, sufficient. Position contingent on successful disposal of current employee.

AVAILABLE: One smallish, slightly overused centreman with attitude. Average on faceoffs and the equal of a decent fourth-liner in point production, but still useful for achieving cap-floor status. Well-liked in the room and quite able to provide sarcastic, devil-may-care comments to the media. If you're in the market for a veteran presence who can take an ill-advised retaliation penalty at the most inopportune moments, then this guy is for you! Cost is minimal and may include late-round draft picks, promissory notes and/or bags of pucks. Shipping from Alaska will be at buyer's expense.

FOR HIRE: One cuddly Czech defenceman, love handles and quizzical expression included. Former Olympic gold medalist and Stanley Cup finalist. A vintage model, this D is still prepared to score up to five goals a season, and comes with a great attitude. Available as is, where is, for the low cost of "future considerations." Not recommended for teams who list "speed" or "value for money" as priorities.

NEEDED: French Canadian hockey player. Any skill level acceptable. Quebec-born candidates preferred, as Franco-Ontarians are often considered imposters in this role. Also, skaters preferred over goaltenders in order to minimize demands for the locally-born backup to take the net the minute the starter has two bad games in a row. If no stars available, a warm body who can fight and help Desharnais and Darche with post-game interviews will be considered. Interested parties please contact Pierre Boivin before Friday.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Shaping Up

As we head into draft weekend, it appears Pierre Gauthier's got a definite plan and is taking care of business early this summer. The shape the team is taking is both familiar and intriguing.

The re-signings of Mathieu Darche, Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty were safe, and probably wise, decisions. Darche adds an element of heart and hard work that only a guy with his hard-knocks experience in the game can contribute. He's an example of how working your ass off, even with limited talent, can get a player. For that, he's inspirational. As a bonus, he can also pop in a few goals on the second PP unit and kill penalties. Gill's a leader and one of the guys who can effectively give "The Look" in the room when things aren't going well. He's willing to beat himself up to win, even if he handles the puck like play-doh, and he's excellent on the PK. Kostitsyn is straight-forward. He has the talent to score forty goals, but he will never do it. He can, however, score 25 every season, and that's not something just any second-liner manages to do. It seemed that last year he finally managed to figure out he's a large mammal who can do some damage in the hits department as well. He has significant value. Desharnais and Pacioretty are full of potential. Each of them has leaped his own hurdles to get to this point in his career, and together in Hamilton, they were dynamite. With Pacioretty fully healed from his attempted murder at the hands of Zdeno Chara, there's no reason to expect them to do anything but improve. Two years for each of them gives them the security to take chances and management the time it needs to assess them properly.

On defence, the signings of Alexei Yemelin and Raphael Diaz are very interesting. The Habs have long been craving a tough-as-nails defender with wheels and a mean streak. By all accounts, Yemelin is that guy. It's kind of funny, though. For Habs fans, he's the equivalent of Sesame Street's Snuffaluffagus. Everyone swears he's real, but nobody ever sees him. At the same time, he's been lauded as The Best Defenceman Not In the NHL (thanks, McGuire.) That'll change at camp, and it'll either be a big deflation of our Sesame balloon, or he'll be for real. If the Habs scouts, who've presumably seen more of him than we have, think he's worth signing, perhaps he'll actually be good enough to make a difference. Diaz, on the other hand is a mystery. Like Streit, but not quite like Streit. The best all-around defenceman in the Swiss league, but what does that really mean? Habs fans assume he'll start in Hamilton, but the element of the unknown about him is fascinating. What if he's better than Spacek in camp? What if he's better than Yemelin? Interesting stuff.

Then there are the rumours. Yannick Weber's rumoured to be close to a two-year deal. So's Andrei Markov. And, of course, there's Jaromir Jagr. Weber, really, should be signed. He's the perfect example of the kind of player the Habs tend to develop to the point of NHL usefulness, then quit on while fans gnash their teeth watching him score for somebody else. After watching his playoff performance, it's easy to imagine him stepping onto some other team and putting up a solid 40 points on the blueline. This is a player who needs a real chance in Montreal so management doesn't regret letting him go. Markov is rumoured to be close to signing for two years at the same salary as last season. If he stays healthy, that's a steal with the cap going up to $64-million. There's no reason to think his string of bad luck will continue, so fans can hope he's going to play more than a handful of games next year. That immediately makes the Canadiens better than they were last season.

Jagr's a different kettle of fish altogether. He's of the "almost came to Montreal" breed that includes Briere, Shanahan, Sundin and countless others. Sure, he'd be an asset, if he can keep his head out of his own ass for 82 games plus playoffs. He looked great with Tomas Plekanec at the Olympics and again at the Worlds. Those, though, were short tournaments. Who knows if he remembers what an 82-game grind is really like? The idea of a Cammalleri-Plekanec-Jagr first line makes a lot fans swoon, but on this one we should take a chill pill. Too many free agents have sized up the tax and fan obsession levels in Montreal and decided to go somewhere more peaceful. Gauthier's the only one who knows how serious the man is about the Habs, and he's not talking anytime soon.

Among the outstanding questions are: Will Wisniewski be re-signed, now that the cap has gone up? Who will be the backup goalie? Is there space enough to sign a top-six forward if Jagr doesn't sign, and if so, who's out there? Now we're entering the intriguing part of the next couple of weeks.

James Wisniewski isn't perfect, by a long shot. But, he's got a long, hard shot. That makes him an asset on the PP. His willingness to fight if he's got to is a point in his favour as well. Signing him's a tough choice though, because he's one of the players you'd call a luxury guy. He makes some bad decisions in his own end, which end up costing goals. Then again, his offence and mobility make him more of a compensation-for-error type player than, say, a Sheldon Souray was. The thing with Wiz is he should be on the second or third pairing on a good team. In his last few seasons, he's been stuck playing top-line minutes because one of the guys higher up the food chain has been hurt long-term. Given his proper role, he could excel for a team. The problem is, because he's been given primo minutes, he's put up lots of points. Unfortunately, his numbers will dictate his market value, and in that case, he might be too expensive for Gauthier. If he's reasonable, however, he should be signed because he offers a lot in a second-pairing role. And, given the recent state of the defence's long-term health, he's the kind of guy who can step into a more demanding role if needed.

As for backup goalie, Alex Auld did a decent job behind Carey Price, but he wasn't the kind of guy you'd put in net for twenty games if Price were hurt. Perhaps it's time to look elsewhere, for a guy who's had to fill in for long stretches before. Price was lucky to be healthy all last season, but butterfly goalies are known to suffer joint injuries. Habs need a goalie who'll be able to step in if that should happen.

In terms of rounding out the top-six, everyone agrees Travis Moen cannot continue to be a top-line forward. No team with him playing an important offensive role is going to win. That's the reason why Jagr's a consideration, even at his advanced age. Among the other options, Brooks Laich of the Capitals is a possibility. He's big, he goes to the net and he's got the ability to chip in some backbreaking goals. Depending on what Wisniewski asks for, Laich could be a possibility.

Among the recent rumours is one that the Habs are thinking of offering Roman Hamrlik a contract. Inarguably, he's stepped up in the last two seasons when Markov went down to injury. However, the Canadiens defence must get younger and faster than it was last year. Keeping Gill, Spacek AND Hamrlik does nothing to help. If Hamrlik is to be offered a contract, it must mean Spacek is traded to a team that needs to hit the cap floor. Both of them can't remain on the same team if the defence is to improve.

Disturbingly, there's been no talk at all about Josh Gorges. Gorges must be signed, as he's one of the few defencemen in his prime who's rock solid in his own end. Hopefully, news of his contract will come soon.

It's interesting that the skeleton of last year's team is intact, and Gauthier seems intent on bringing back much of the flesh as well. That would indicate to fans that team management believes these guys are close to contending. That they were one goal away from eliminating the Bruins even without Markov, Gorges and Pacioretty backs up that theory.

Familiarity is a good thing within a team that gets along and knows how to work together. Gauthier is providing lots of that, and proving he believes the team can win as is. On the flip side, the newcomers he's brining, or is rumoured to be bringing, can only help the team improve.

All in all, the off-season so far has been very reassuring for fans. We know management thinks the team is close. We must take heart from that.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Deconstructing a Champion

So, here we are, eighteen years after the Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup. Fans who remember the sixties and seventies must feel as though they're trudging through the desert with no oasis in sight, but, thanks to the Canucks choke job, the Habs remain the most recent Canadian champion.

Reflecting on the great moments of '93, and the players who provided them, one must wonder why that success didn't continue. The Canadiens had some very good players which should have either kept producing well or brought a solid return that would have produced in their stead. Shockingly, however, a series of absolutely disasterous trades let Cup-winning players go for guys who were never able to duplicate any level of their success. In fact, if you break down where each player ended up, and what the Habs got back, it turns out there are only two players affiliated with today's organization with any links at all to that last champion.

Take that year's Conn Smythe winner, for example. Patrick Roy was one of the best goaltenders the NHL had ever seen, and was instrumental in bringing the last two Cups to Montreal. When he and management fell out and Ronald Corey decided he had to go, Roy and heart-and-soul Mike Keane went to Colorado for Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky and Jocelyn Thibault. Kovalenko was later traded to Edmonton Oilers for Scott Thornton, who was then traded for Juha Lind (who went back to Europe). Rucinsky was later included in a trade that sent Benoit Brunet to Dallas. Thibault went in the Dave Manson trade to Chicago. Neither the Rucinsky or Thibeault trades returned anything worthwhile to Montreal.

The Cup-winning captain, Guy Carbonneau, was dumped to the St.Louis Blues one year later for Jim Montgomery, who was claimed off of waivers after playing five totally unproductive games for the Canadiens.

The big stars on offense went for little-to-nothing as well. Brian Bellows, who put up 88 points in '93, and 15 more in the playoffs, was traded for Marc Bureau who later left as a free agent.

Vincent Damphousse, led the team in scoring in the Cup-winning season with 98 points, and was traded to Tampa for draft picks that became Marcel Hossa (traded for Garth Murray, who was lost to waivers) and Marc-Andre Thinel (left for Europe).

Kirk Muller was the second-highest scorer on the '93 Habs, and a revered leader in the dressing room. He has a complicated legacy with the Canadiens. Two years after the Cup win he was traded to the Islanders for Vladimir Malakhov (later traded to New Jersey Devils for Sheldon Souray (walked as a free agent), Josh DeWolf (left for Germany) and round 2 pick in the 2001 draft (Andreas Holmqvist, who played out his career in Europe)) and Pierre Turgeon. Turgeon was later traded to St. Louis Blues for Murray Baron, Shayne Corson (left as a free agent) and 5th-rounder in the 1997 draft (Gennady Razin who left for Russia). Baron was traded for Dave Manson the same year. Manson was later traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for Jeff Hackett, Eric Weinrich, Alain Nasreddine and a conditional draft pick (Chris Dyment, traded for a Czech pick who never came over, who, in turn was traded for Michael Lambert who never made the NHL). Hackett was traded to San Jose Sharks for Niklas Sundstrom (left Montreal for Sweden) and a 3rd-round pick in the 2004 draft (Paul Baier, who never made the NHL) who became part of a package to the Kings for Christobal Huet and Radek Bonk.) Huet was traded to Washington for a 2nd round pick (which became Jeremy Morin), which was traded along with the Habs 2010 3rd to Atlanta for Mathieu Schneider (left as a free agent) and a third round pick (Joonas Nattinen). Weinrich was traded to Boston for Patrick Traverse (later traded for Mathieu Biron, who left for Europe). Nasreddine was traded to to Edmonton Oilers for Christian Laflamme (left as a free agent) and Matthieu Descoteaux (left for Europe). So, Nattinen, recently signed to an entry-level deal with the Habs, is one of the two players directly connected to the '93 Cup victory.

Then there's the defence. The Cup-winning defence consisted of, at various times, Eric Desjardins, Mathieu Schneider, Kevin Haller, Patrice Brisebois, J.J.Daigneault, Lyle Odelein, Rob Ramage, Sean Hill and Donald Dufresne. Daigneault was traded to St. Louis Blues for Pat Jablonski, who, in turn, was traded to Phoenix Coyotes for Steve Cheredaryk (left as a minor-league free agent). Schneider was included in the Muller trade to the Islanders. Haller was traded to Philly for Yves Racine, who was then claimed on waivers by San Jose. Breezer left as a free agent. Odelein was traded to Devils for Stephane Richer, who was then traded to Tampa Bay Lightning for Patrick Poulin (demoted and retired), Igor Ulanov (included in Nasreddine trade) and Mick Vukota (went to IHL and then retired). Ramage was traded to the Flyers for cash. Hill was claimed in the expansion draft by the Ducks. Dufresne was a weird one. He actually was traded for Rob Ramage, but as a "future consideration." Because Tampa hadn't settled that part of the trade with Montreal, both Dufresne and Ramage won the Cup.

Then there's Desjardins. He, along with Gilbert Dionne and John LeClair went to Philly in one of the worst trades of the period. They were traded for Mark Recchi and a 3rd-round pick in the 1995 draft (Martin Hohenberger, who left for Europe). Recchi was later traded back to the Flyers for Dainius Zubrus, a 2nd-round pick in the 1999 draft (Matt Carkner, who left as a free agent) and a 6th-round pick in the 2000 draft (Scott Selig, who left hockey in 2006). Zubrus was traded to the Capitals for Jan Bulis, who left as a free agent, Richard Zednik and a first-round pick in the 2001 draft (Alexander Perezhogin, who left for Europe). Zednik was traded for a Capitals 3rd-round pick in 2007. That pick was Olivier Fortier, the only other player in the Canadiens organization with a direct link to the '93 Cup.

If a team is to have long-term success, it needs to make the most of its assets over the years. Some of the players the Canadiens got back for the Cup-winners they traded were useful and helped the team for a time. In the end, however, management's failure to bring back a solid return for star players like Roy, LeClair, Muller, Damphousse and Desjardins, as well as important support players like Carbonneau, resulted in the arid period of stagnation we witnessed through many of the years following that Cup win.

It's kind of sad that the legacy of the last Canadian champion consists of only Olivier Fortier and Joonas Nattinen; a third-line grinder with a big heart and a Finnish centreman who's good on the draw. They may or may not ever make the NHL, but back in '93, you wouldn't have traded both of them for Guy Carbonneau. As it turns out, the Canadiens traded the entire Stanley Cup-winning team for them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The State of the Game

As I watched Game Four of the Stanley Cup Finals, I realized the Boston Bruins would be very fitting NHL champions this year. A league champion should be the team that best exemplifies the qualities of the game as it exists in a particular season. This year, the Bruins are that team.

Let's take a look at the most important stories in the league this year. Perhaps the most significant of those has been the devastating hits to the head sustained by so many players, including superstar Sidney Crosby. The hit that galvanized the entire hockey world with the single demand to "DO something," however, happened when Zdeno Chara crushed Max Pacioretty into a stanchion and broke his neck. Nobody who watched that game will forget the young Canadien lying motionless on the ice, not knowing if he would play hockey again, or even live. The timing of it, with the Bruins getting creamed by the Canadiens and Chara having developed a dislike of Pacioretty to go with his frustration at losing that game, smacked of intent to "teach the guy a lesson." Of course, the hit, while bringing the debate on head shots to a boil, cost Pacioretty the remainder of his season and quite likely helped the Bruins win their first-round series.

Following from that was the second-most important NHL story of the year. The league's discipline policy has always been vague and inconsistent at best, but the decision to let Chara go without a single game's suspension set off a level of public outrage the NHL brass was obviously not anticipating. The conflict of interest in having the father of a player acting as league disciplinarian began to take on a level of rather ominous significance. In that sense, the Bruins were the poster team for what's wrong with NHL discipline.

I talked to a former NHL player yesterday who told me he's not impressed with the way so many current players are acting like they're still in minor hockey. The constant pushing after the whistle by some teams, the childish taunting of opponents and the public bitching about other players is becoming embarrassing. Prominent examples of such behaviour have been on public display during these playoffs. The Bruins have become notorious for initiating post-whistle garbage in every game they've played. We saw it during the season as they facewashed and crosschecked their way to the Northeast division title, and it's been even more noticable during the post-season. Even goalie Tim Thomas is in on the act, throwing himself at opponents in his crease. (Which, incidentally is a penalty, but was twice uncalled in the playoffs.)

The taunting in the Finals, which respected pros have called ridiculous, has been the epitome of sore winning. There's nothing quite as unpalatable in the world of sports as a team or player that can't win with grace. Watching Max Lapierre tease Patrice Bergeron by shoving his fingers in the biting victim's face was bad enough. Seeing Mark Recchi and Milan Lucic duplicate the gesture in the next game with the gleeful meanness born of gloating was stomach-turning. Couple that with classy gestures like Andrew Ference's one-finger salute to the Bell Centre crowd after a Bruins win, and Nathan Horton's squirting a fan with water before flinging the bottle at him in the stands, and the poor sportsmanship displayed during these playoffs has reached a new low.

Then there's the bitching. Players like Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi complaining about the Canadiens for being a team of divers is more than a little hypocritical. Marchand's got two diving penalties in these playoffs and has attempted the manouver many more times than he's been caught. Recchi's dismissal of the seriousness of Max Pacioretty's injury in the media before the playoffs began revealed a bit of the character of these Bruins. Tim Thomas revealed a bit more when he had an opportunity to be gracious following his team's defeat of the Canadiens. When asked about the play of Habs rookie P.K.Subban, Thomas could have taken the high road and said something non-committal. Instead, he chose to sink as low as possible and call the kid a "travesty" to hockey.

I've been disillusioned with the NHL since the league's lack of intestinal fortitude both led to the Pacioretty hit and failed to levy justice for it. The playoffs have served to underline a lot of the inherent problems in the NHL right now, not least by presenting the Bruins as a Stanley Cup finalist. Should the Bs win, they'd certainly be fitting champions. After all, no team exhibits the cheap shots, public whining and poor sportsmanship polluting the league better than the Bruins.

*Post Script: I neglected to mention a side effect of a team like the Bruins doing well. The attitude and behaviour rubs off on those who follow the team, especially if those fans have been long deprived of any kind of notable success. Look no further than the comments section below for an example of such behaviour, better than anything I could describe. Naturally, it's posted by "anonymous."