Thursday, March 29, 2012

Out With the Old

I confess, when I heard from a colleague that Pierre Gauthier had been fired, I wasn't surprised. I smiled really hard for the next hour or so, and there might have been dancing. Then I thought, I have to be fair. Gauthier wasn't all bad.

Sure, he was silent to the point of disdain. He made trades, in the cases of Jaro Halak and Michael Cammalleri, in which he appeared to deal only with one team when others might have made better offers. He was involved as pro scout in the trade that brought Scott Gomez to Montreal and threw away a great prospect in the process. He gave Josh Gorges only a one-year deal, then ended up signing him long term for more than he would have if he'd just done that in the first place. At the same time, he bet on Andrei Markov's knee and lost. He made several ill-timed firings and trades, largely out of panic this season. And still...and still...he signed Erik Cole. He was the guy who finally signed Alexei Emelin. He got a solid return for Hal Gill. He was working on a long-term deal with Carey Price.

Admittedly, on the scale of good versus poor decisions, the poor weigh in like the fat kid on the see-saw. On these occasions, however, you try to think of something nice about the dearly departed. In the end, you say thanks for Cole and good luck in future endeavors, as long as they're far away from the Canadiens. Then you look to the future.

The future. It's an interesting place with a whole lot of unknowns. Chief among them is who will be the person who will shape the team into a competitor and draw it out of the hole into which it's sunk? Today, team owner Geoff Molson gave us some hint of what values that person will have. Molson said he doesn't want one-and-done playoff teams anymore. He wants winners, and he's prepared to do whatever he has to do to get them. He even went as far as to say that the sacrosanct "must speak French" rule for the Habs' G.M. is negotiable, as long as the team ends up with the best possible candidate for the job. At the same time, he announced he's going to consult with ex-Habs G.M. and Hall-of-Fame defenceman, Serge Savard, in the all-important decision about who'll be the Canadiens' new hockey boss.

That's an interesting choice. Savard has an undeniably stellar record as a player, including a stint as Habs captain. As a G.M., he's got two Stanley Cups. He's also responsible for some very questionable trades, including the infamous Chris Chelios for an aging Denis Savard deal. And he drafted some of the biggest first-round busts in Habs history, including Brent Bilodeau, David Wilkie, Brad Brown, Lindsay Vallis, Turner Stevenson, Eric Charron, Mark Pederson and Jose Charbonneau. That's a lot of first-round busts.

Recently, Jason Farris, who's director of business operations and development for the Dallas Stars, published the book, "Behind the Moves." It's an in-depth look at what it takes to be a winning NHL general manager. In his research, Farris talked at length with several men who've built winning teams, including Serge Savard. Savard's comments are revealing, giving some indication of the way he believes a team should be run and what qualities he'll presumably be looking for in his hunt for a new G.M.

"As a manager," he told Farris, "My best friend was being a player. Whatever I lived as a player, I brought it as a manager. I think I was very respected from the players. I had always been a team player, and I changed the whole bonus structure to be based on the team. So after a year or two, nobody had personal bonuses, not even the highest-scoring player."

From that, we can presume Savard will be looking for someone who's actually played NHL hockey, rather than one of the new breed of intellectual students of the game. It can also be deduced that it won't be just any former player, but rather a player who was a respected leader in his on-ice career.

Savard also told Farris, "I had a plan when I first became a G.M. After a couple of weeks, I said, 'I want this team to be built like the teams I played on. I want to build from the base, right from the draft. I want to be a family again, and I want half the team to be local.' So I had my plan, and that's the way I drafted, and it paid off."

Okay. Obviously, Savard is dedicated to returning the local, French-Canadian flavour to the team on the ice. One can draw from that, that he'll be looking for someone with the same sensibility. Having told reporters today that the new G.M. will speak French, a Quebec-born man could very well be the preferred candidate. His desire to build a team from the draft up could indicate a leaning toward someone who's got a solid background in player development. And the "family" comment could mean he'd like the new guy to have some connection to the team and its history.

There are a lot of good candidates out there, and the decision, obviously, will rest with Molson. However, if Savard is going to have heavy input into that decision, we begin to get a picture of the kind of person for whom he's looking. The question is, if a highly-desirable candidate like Detroit's Jim Nill becomes available, would he really be considered without the ability to speak French? Molson says he would, Savard says he wouldn't.

Either way, it's good to look to the future with the hope that Molson will take his time with this decision and choose properly, rather than quietly slip an in-house candidate into the job as the team did with Gauthier. The new guy will have a lot to do to return the Canadiens to respectability. Gauthier might be gone, but he's left a Sherman-like trail of scorched earth behind him. That's enough to sober even today's most giddy celebration.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hurts So Good

In a hockey game that ends 2-1 in overtime, the three stars of the game are usually fairly predictable. The goalies, if they've played well, or the two goal scorers and the guy who pots the OT winner will most likely hear their names called for ovations. It's not often the first star is a stay-at-home defenceman who earns his bread by throwing himself in front of a very hard piece of frozen, vulcanized rubber propelled at great speed by men much larger and stronger than himself. When a man does that ten times in a single game and leads the league in doing so, however, people notice.

Josh Gorges this season has been the anti-Markov. After missing half of last year with a knee injury, he quietly returned on his surgically-repaired joint and picked up where he'd left off. The throw-in in the Craig Rivet trade has become one of the Canadiens' best, most reliable players, and one who has earned himself an important role in the rebuild the team is about to undergo.

There are many adjectives to describe the impression Gorges creates. Steady, worthy, fearless, upright, just to name a few. What he is, most importantly on this team that has seen its leadership group disintegrate this season, is a good example. When fans were bemoaning the fact that the Habs got a point that might help them rise out of the draft lottery in a nothing game at the end of a lost season, Gorges looked tortured by the loss. He stood in the dressing room after having been recognized as the first star, for his courage and willingness to endure pain in pursuit of victory, and he talked about how difficult it was to let the second point slip away. That's what the young players sharing this disappointing journey with him need to see.

In an organization's zeal to get younger, bigger, stronger and more skilled, it can overlook the qualities that bind all those things into a real team. Gorges will never be the biggest, strongest or best defenceman in Montreal, but he's the kind of player who can look anybody in the room in the eye and say, "I will do anything to win. Will you?" Every team, if it is to be successful, needs those account keepers; the guys who are able, through their own steadfastness, to shame better players into emulating them.

A team also needs to have guys who honestly, truly, hate to lose. Certainly, some guys are able to comfort themselves with the idea that there's always next game or next year, and feel satisfied in the fact that at least they tried their best to win even if it didn't work out. Gorges is the guy who will carry the burden of this season all summer, and will come to camp ready to block more shots and skate more minutes if it will help the team win. Young players can't get complacent with losing when they're sitting in the room with somebody who's tortured by it.

As the Habs evolve over the off-season and come back next year attempting to forget this one, Josh Gorges will play an important role in pulling the new incarnation of the team together. He won't score a ton of goals, and he won't make spectacular saves to bring home the shootout wins, but he will be the guy who inspires the teammates who do those things. He'll be the glue that helps put a broken, fragile team back together. And, sometimes, that makes a guy the first star of the game.

Afterthought: If Gorges were to be mic'ed up during a game, it might sound something like this.

Friday, March 9, 2012

And the Winner is...

This year, most of the Montreal Canadiens' fairytale storylines have been of The Brothers Grimm variety. Disney may have tried to sanitize the sadisitic old Germans for the consumption of vulnerable North American kids, but those guys had no problem killing princesses or destroying dreams, much like this edition of our beloved Habs.

There is, in the midst of all the darkness and dungeons, however, a tale Walt Disney's descendents would love to make into a modern-day hero story. It would go like this: A young up-and-coming hockey player with lots of potential, who'd never really found a way to unlock it, gets sent to the minors to find himself. It's a tough time for him because he was a first-round draft pick with expectations. While toiling in the land of epic bus trips, he's paired up with a plucky but undersized linemate. The underachieving big guy and his overachieving, pint-sized buddy find instant chemistry and they shoot to the top of league scoring together. Then they get called up to the big team within a week of each other. Our hero finds a new level of confidence and begins to finally show signs of living up to the talent everyone knows he has. Enter the villain.

One night, the emerging star is cutting down the wing on a fast break, fire in his eyes as he races for the puck. He doesn't realize the behemoth defender skating for his team's hated rival has him in his sights. There's a history there. In the previous game, the two had tangled briefly and the big guy remembers that. He cuts across to intercept our hero and levels him, driving his head into a rink stanchion. The young man drops to the ice as though shot, and lies unmoving as onlookers cover their mouths in fear and horror. Everyone watching knows this is bad, potentially really bad. Their fears aren't allayed as the team doctors race down to ice level and the stretcher rolls out. It turns out he's not only got a head injury, but the hit has broken his neck.

Flash forward to one year from the day of his injury. The young man has worked his way back from injury and is once more paired with his old buddy from the minors, who's having a breakout year in the big league. The team isn't doing so well, but the two of them are the bright spots in a lousy season. On the first anniversary of the hit that nearly ruined his life, with dramatic music rising to a crescendo, our hero scores his 30th goal of the year, finally fulfilling all his early potential and delighting the legions who have tracked his journey.

It's a great story, all the more so because it's true. Like all fairy tales (notwithstanding the Grimm ones), however, it's a purely romantic tale. It doesn't look beneath the surface to the nights in the hospital when a young hockey player wondered if he'd ever be the same. It doesn't spend long, sweaty hours in a gym with him as he rebuilds a broken body. It doesn't delve inside his head to witness the doubts about his ability or the fear of playing again that surely must have resided there. It's not present on the dark nights when a return to the game seemed very far away. True stories can translate to the world of fairy tales, but the reality is often more Grimm than Disney.

That's why Max Pacioretty should win the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy this year. The award is meant to pay tribute to the man who best exemplifies perseverence, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Few players in the NHL this year have persevered through more obstacles than Pacioretty, not only in the recovery from his own injury and the mental roadblocks it set for him, but also in dealing with the public fallout of the injury. The Chara hit on him became emblematic of a head-shot epidemic in the NHL and enraged a sports community and a nation. When, after all, has anyone heard of major sponsors threatening to pull their support if the league doesn't clean up its act? It happened to the NHL after the Pacioretty injury. Changes have begun to creep into the game, partially spurred on by the horror of the hit and the furor over the league's subsequent lack of action against Chara.

In regards to sportsmanship, Pacioretty has always been a physical, but clean, player. Then, this year, he hit the Penguins' Kris Letang in the head and got suspended. In an ironic twist, he committed the same crime that had rallied people in his support a year before. Pacioretty, however, immediately expressed remorse and concern for Letang's well-being. It may be a sign of how deeply affected he was by the hit that his own play suffered afterwords, by his own admission because he was unsure about what he could and could not safely do on the ice. If the Letang play came naturally to him, he would not have been bothered by it later, and that would make him less than the sportsman he's been for the majority of his career.

As for dedication to hockey, well, the very fact that Pacioretty was so driven to return to the game that could very easily have cost his life is testament to how he feels about the sport. That he's come back to the NHL to play every shift with effort and determination is the very embodiment of dedication. To do it in the lowering environment that is Montreal this year is impressive. To do it while working off the ice to improve medical treatment for people with his kind of injury is inspiring.

Sometimes, even Grimm fairy tales have happy endings. Let this be one of those for Max Pacioretty. The Montreal Canadiens might not deserve many honours this year, but this young man really does.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

For Want of a Nail

Do you remember the old nursery rhyme, "For Want of a Nail?" If you don't, it goes like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

With Pierre Gauthier's decision to re-sign Andrei Markov and hope the MIA defenceman would be ready to anchor the Canadiens' blue line, Markov essentially became the proverbial nail. In considering where this season first went wrong, there's no question the shaky state of the defence corps has been a major contributing factor.

Markov was supposed to be there. He was supposed to be The General, and quarterback the power play. He should have been teaching P.K.Subban how to be an NHL defenceman and taking the heaviest minutes off the kid. In anticipation of his return, Gauthier allowed Roman Hamrlik, who'd filled the Markov-less gap over the two previous seasons, to walk away. Ditto James Wisniewski, who'd cost a second-round draft pick to come in and stabilize the PP just a few months earlier. That left a D-corps featuring two guys brand-new to North American hockey in Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin, two sophomores in Subban and Yannick Weber, two senior citizens whose combined top speed might possibly have challenged a crawling baby in Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek, the unfortunate Chris Campoli who got hurt in his first game, and Josh Gorges.

That sad lineup of defencemen meant everyone had to step up a spot to fill in for Markov. Gorges has been a warrior, thankfully none the worse for his knee surgery. Unfortunately, Emelin and Diaz were on steep learning curves, Subban regressed...possibly from trying to do too much...and Weber was wildly inconsistent. Gill and Spacek were slow and not particularly good with the puck. As a result, Diaz, Weber, Emelin, Gorges, Campoli and Subban have a total of 18 goals between them all year. The now-departed Gill and Spacek added another one goal. The dreadful lack of scoring from the back end and popgun power play led to the acquisition of Tomas Kaberle, who has contributed two goals while failing to improve the PP or fill a defensive hole, all on a bad contract. In total, the Canadiens defence without Markov has put up 112 points.

The number of points scored from the blueline may seem like a bonus, as the common perception is the forwards supply most of the points. Stats say that's not true. A look at the top ten teams in the league shows an average of 128 points scored by defencemen to date. The bottom ten teams' D-corps put up an average of 99 points. If you take the points scored by defencemen, and look at the percentage of the team's total scoring to which they contribute, the difference is even more noticable. The top ten teams' defence helped out on 65.4% of all the goals they score. On the bottom-ten teams, that number is 59.3%. If you look at the top five teams in the league, the very cream of the crop...legitimate Cup contenders...the numbers are startling. On those teams, the defence contributes to 73.6% of all the goals they score. That means they're moving the puck accurately up to the players who are putting the puck in the net. The Canadiens, at 65%, were better than average, but certainly not good enough to rank with the best.

In fact, scoring is only part of the tale. The best teams' defences not only score points, they also prevent the other team from scoring. While the Canadiens' D aren't the worst on the points front, and should probably be about middle of the pack, standings-wise, based on that fact, their inability to keep the puck out of their own net at even-strength is their undoing. Here, once again, the absence of Markov is keenly felt. The Habs have the best PK in the league, probably because the worst of the defencemen don't play on it, and the best defensive forwards do. However, at even strength, the Habs give up more goals than they score. They score only .91 goals for each one they give up, which puts them at 23rd in the league, a good indication of the defence corps' performance this year.

Then there's the power play. Hovering around last place in the league all year, it currently sits at 28th. When Markov is available, he provides the two-fold threat of a set-up from the left point as well as the back-door sneak up the left wing to pop a goal of his own. In his last full season for the Canadiens (painfully, three years ago), Markov had 24 points at even strength, and a sparkling 39 on the PP. If the Canadiens had 39 more PP goals this year, they'd jump from 28th to first; from a pitiful 14.6% to a dominant 30.5%. Of course, that's just adding Markov's PP contribution to the 36 goals the Habs already have, and that's not realistic. Some of the points put up by others would naturally not have happened if Markov had been on the ice instead. Still, even allowing for, say, 10 fewer PP goals by others, Markov on the PP would still have the Canadiens PP sitting first in the league.

Andrei Markov's ability to score and help others do the same is sorely missed on the current edition of the Canadiens. Without him, they're like the Red Wings without Lidstrom or the Predators without Weber. The team misses the points, but perhaps even more, it misses his steadying influence on the blueline. The young defencemen miss him as a mentor. And everyone pays the price when players who don't have a third of Markov's ability are forced to pick up the slack.

There's no doubt many things have gone wrong with the Canadiens this year. The problems are much more far-reaching than just the defence. One can argue, however, that the problems began for want of a nail. A nail called Andrei Markov.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Help Wanted

The Montreal Canadiens management is nothing if not protective of the organization's reputation. You have to think, then, that this year has been exceptionally painful. When everyone from the lowest leaf fan to Jack Edwards is laughing at your once-proud team, it has to hurt. A lot. With that in mind, the Canadiens plan to spend the off-season starting over, from the top down. A top-notch team of corporate headhunters, great former Habs and Bob MacKenzie has been assembled to begin the search for the Canadiens' new general manager. They have prepared the following comprehensive questionnaire, designed to find the individual best suited for one of the highest-pressure jobs in hockey:

Please answer all questions as accurately as possible. Extra space is available on the back.


1. My ideal team is built on:

a) solid goaltending and special teams
b) size and toughness
c) speed and skill
d) Patrice Brisebois

2. I would be willing to trade Carey Price for:

a) a big centreman like Ryan Getzlaf
b) a big, franchise defenceman like Shea Weber
c) a big bag of weed
d) Vincent Lecavalier

3. My draft strategy can best be described as:

a) always choosing the best player available
b) always choosing Minnesota's Mr.Hockey
c) always choosing by organizational need
d) always choosing a guy who'll be trumped by the guy the Bruins take two picks later

4. I believe long-term contracts are:

a) necessary in today's NHL
b) only for carefully chosen franchise cornerstones
c) only for Scott Gomez
d) determined by picking a card, any card

5. I prefer to be drunk:

a) in the morning
b) only at special occasions
c) all the time
d) right before the trade deadline

6. I believe a team should be constructed:

a) through the draft
b) out of Lego
c) through free agency
d) while drunk

7. I would like to model myself after:

a) Ken Holland
b) Mike Milbury
c) Brian Burke
d) Charlie Sheen

8. I would best describe my feelings about the media as:

a) wary...I've heard bad things
b) open...they're there to help us talk to the fans
c) friendly...I hope to work in TSN's Insider panel when I get fired
d) angry...they always report it when I'm caught sexting

9. I believe a coach should primarily be:

a) firm with the players
b) loyal to the GM
c) in possession of a wide array of attractive ties
d) able to speak the language of the team's best players...Russian

10. Under my stewardship, the Canadiens can reasonably be expected to win the Stanley Cup in:

a) 2-3 years
b) sometime before the leafs win it
c) this century
d) your dreams

SECTION B: ESSAY QUESTIONS (Please complete any three of five)

1. Assuming there are no amnesty buyouts at the beginning of the new CBA, describe how you would handle the Scott Gomez situation, and explain your decision. (No hit men or one-way tickets to Anchorage, please)

2. Compare and contrast: Garth Snow and Sam Pollock

3. If Carey Price were to approach you and request a trade, would you handle it more like Rejean Houle, Scott Howson or Bryan Murray? Why?

4. Your team is on a long losing streak and fans and media are screaming for your head. Do you step down, or do you axe the coach with whom you've bled in the trenches for years and made your kid's godfather in an effort to save your own ass? Explain your choice.

5. What are your thoughts about the place the Canadiens have in society and how best to preserve that connection while building a winning team? (We will know if you rip off either of Roch Carrier's or Jean Beliveau's books.)

Good luck to all candidates. (Not you, McGuire.)