Thursday, July 26, 2012

The P.K. Puzzle

When you try to build a definitive image of P.K.Subban, it's difficult to bring that image into clear focus. Eventually, you realize that, instead of calling to mind a single emblematic picture of the player, you end up with a slide show.  There's Subban scoring his first-ever playoff goal to put the Habs up 1-0 against Pittsburgh, and accepting the pats on the back from his teammates with an air of surprise. Subban hitting Boston's Brad Marchand so hard with a clean open-ice check that the Bruin wasn't sure what sport he was playing. Subban, late in his rookie season, scoring a vital OT winner against Chicago and coming up with one of his notorious celebrations. Subban at the NHL All-Star breakaway challenge, charming the crowd in Carolina by changing sweaters with hometown hero Jeff Skinner. Subban having fun with Carey Price. Subban in a practice scuffle with Tomas Plekanec as last year's bad season got a little worse. The images don't really give you a single clear picture of Subban, and that's part of the problem newly-minted Habs G.M. Marc Bergevin is having right now.

So far this off-season, Bergevin has been systematically identifying the players he wants to keep and signing them to extensions. He quickly chose the guys he wanted to bring in to fill roster holes and got them signed too. Now, aside from persistent rumours that he's planning to sign one of Shane Doan or Alex Semin to play wing on the second line, the only task left in Bergein's "in" box is Subban.

When two sides are negotiating a contract, they're basing their ideas of fairness on their respective images of each other. So, right now, P.K.Subban sees himself as a young stud who saved the Habs when they had nobody on defence. He's right, to a degree. However, Bergeron sees him as a kid with a lot of developing yet to do, who had a great rookie playoff, a fair-to-middling official rookie season and a somewhat disappointing second year. Still, Subban is developing quickly, as he has through every level of hockey, which is a good thing.

The problem is, he's not an A-List stud like Drew Doughty or Shea Weber. Yet, in Montreal, he's been given those kinds of responsibilities. So Bergevin is looking at a lineup including Andrei Markov as the number-one D, not Subban. At the same time, Subban is expecting to be paid for the role he's played while Markov was hurt for the last two seasons. It's a difficult situation because Subban is still a restricted free agent and hasn't really stepped up, in the stats department at least, as a guy who deserves the money his buddy Carey Price just made.

It comes down to what Subban is asking. Bergevin, certainly, has made an offer based on his perception of Subban's development and what he expects of the next two or three or five years. The difference in negotiations now is in how Subban perceives himself and his role on a D that includes a healthy Markov. Ideally, Subban would be a top-four guy who can step up into the top pairing if there's an injury. And, as he's a homegrown player with tons of potential and a fan favourite, he deserves a legitimate contract to keep him around during his development years. The thing is, Subban may already see himself as a top guy. That would mean the gap between what he expects and what Bergevin is offering may be wider than is comfortable.

It's important to sign Subban soon, because the pickins' are pretty slim on the open market right now, and teams like the Flyers are desperate for young, talented D-men. The Habs, however, can't panic and use that excuse to overpay a guy who should be coming into his money in about four years, after he's proven he's really a stud. Right now, given Subban's resume, it would be wise to sign him for about four years, with a cap hit no higher than about four million. Probably, that's what Bergevin's offering. And, probably, that's what Subban's team is rejecting because they think he should be compensated for the two years in which he's stepped in for Markov.

The two sides need to come to an agreement soon, because the slide show of P.K.Subban we have in our heads right now will get longer, and the images will be more and more impressive. We just have to hope the team can strike a deal that pays fairly early on for his current skill and expands for the development we know is coming.

P.K.Subban is one of the cornerstones of the Canadiens future, especially if they hope to win a Cup in the next 3 to 5 years. However, if the idea is to keep him around for longer than that, the next contract can't be crazy. Hopefully, both sides will eventually realize that and the kid we all love to watch will get signed for 3 or 4 years in the next little while. With any luck, Bergevin won't cave and hand him a ten-year contract with tens of millions involved. That won't help anyone and the Canadiens will be poorer for it.

The image we have of P.K.Subban, the person, not the player, is of an open-hearted guy who grew up cheering for the Habs. He's a hard worker and a smiler. He needs to stay a Hab. We hope it happens that way.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Duct Tape and Spit

When the Canadiens ended their dreadful 2011-12 season in last place in the Eastern Conference, they had a lot of lineup holes to fill if they were to have any hope of improving. They were weak in the bottom six, short a couple of second-line wingers and they needed at least one solid, stay-at-home-style defenceman. Then Marc Bergevin came on board as GM, and the job of filling those holes fell to him.

It was a daunting task, and only one of many facing the Habs' new boss. He was also responsible for revamping the front office, planting the seeds of a new team culture, drafting the best player possible in the highest spot the Habs had chosen since 1980 and re-signing the team's future corner stones. Through all of that, it appears Bergevin does have a plan for the Canadiens. He wants a front office with experience and smarts. He wants players with character and skill.

The front office part seems to be going well. The on-ice part of the plan is harder to achieve. Unfortunately for those who want to see an immediate turnaround in this team, the fix is going to take more than one season. Bergevin certainly acquired character in his free agent signings, but the remaining skill the players have is questionable.

He addressed the need for veteran D by bringing Francis Bouillon back to Montreal. Bouillon has defied the odds by playing tough NHL defence for 12 seasons, despite standing only 5'8" tall. This year, however, he will turn 37 years old and is coming off a series of groin injury and concussion problems. On the plus side, Bouillon's contract is only for a year, as he's obviously a place-holder who'll give the prospects in Hamilton a chance to develop.

On paper, Bergevin has beefed up the bottom six forwards with the signings of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong. Both players are tough, in-your-face types, of which there's been a serious shortage in Montreal in recent years. Both also come with questions. Armstrong played only 79 games in his two seasons in Toronto because of a series of injuries. Prust has been traded three times in the last four years, which usually means there's a younger, better player behind him. The four-year contract is the longest of his NHL career, and one wonders whether he'll be surpassed by a Habs prospect before that term is up.

If Bouillon, Armstrong and Prust stay healthy, which, at the moment, is a big "IF," then they will improve some of last season's weaknesses. They'll make the team a fair bit rougher around the edges and bring a no-quit attitude to the room. They will not, however, score many points, and this is the biggest problem the Canadiens will have again in the coming season.

Last year, David Desharnais did an admirable job centering the team's two best wingers in Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. The trio was the Habs' best in terms of offensive production. Tomas Plekanec, on the other hand, who entered the season as the number-one centreman, ended up with more linemates than Hugh Hefner has bunnies. He also was given the majority of tough defensive assignments up the middle and his stats reflected both of those facts.

Going into this season, we assume Brian Gionta will be ready to take his place back on Plekanec's right side. If he stays healthy (and, again, that's a big IF, considering the injury problems he dealt with last year, his size and his aging body), he will bring some skill and consistency to that line. The problem is the left side, and it seems as though Bergevin and Michel Therrien have decided to play the inconsistent Rene Bourque there.

Having scored 58 and 50 points in the two years prior to last season, with 27 goals each year, there's an argument to be made that Bourque has the goal-scoring ability to play second-line minutes. Last year's 18 goals and 24 points, along with his -19 in the plus/minus category are the other side of that argument. Plekanec plays a vital role defensively, and therefore, so must his linemates. If a guy is going to be non-committal and lazy, it's going to cost that whole line in terms of effectiveness at both ends of the ice. Bergevin's decision to give Bourque another chance and hope Therrien gets more consistency out of him than he showed last year is risky.

On one side, if Bourque turns it around and he and Gionta are able to put up the 25 goals apiece of which they're capable, Bergevin looks like a pretty smart guy. On the other side, if Bourque continues to play the sulky hockey he did last season, it leaves the top six forwards short a man. That, in turn, leaves the team not much farther ahead than it was last year.

Bergevin is taking a fairly conservative approach right now, trying to patch the holes with cheap pieces that all come with some degree of risk. By giving guys like Bourque and, it would appear, Scott Gomez, a second chance under a new regime, he's hoping they'll save him the cost of trading assets or spending money he can't afford to replace them. This is marking time until the new wave of home-grown much of which had been squandered by previous management regimes in exchange for expensive quick ready to take over.

What that means is the team we saw lose its way to worst in the East last season probably won't be markedly better this year. But, you might argue, there's no way the bad luck of injuries will strike again. Andrei Markov will start the year healthy and Gionta will be back. That's true, of course, but injuries happen every year. Maybe a new coach will make a difference. Perhaps Bourque will make a comeback and give the team two real top lines again. All of this is possible, but it's also strictly based on hope. The lineup, as constituted on paper right now, will be a little bit tougher and hopefully better organized on the ice. It won't score many more goals or prevent a whole lot more than it did last year. And it won't suddenly develop a power play or win shootouts when it didn't do so in the last season.

It looks like, unless something dramatic happens and Shane Doan finds his way to Montreal, the Canadiens may still struggle to win enough games to grab a playoff spot. This is the time when all of us who wished for a proper rebuild from the draft are seeing that wish come true, but it's also the time for patience because it's not going to happen in the coming season.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


When Marc Bergevin took over as Habs' G.M., he breezed in with a smile and a wink and the promise of a new lightness in the organization's hierarchy. After the oppressive secrecy of the Pierre Gauthier era, Bergevin's willingness to speak frankly about his decision-making was a great relief. It turns out, however, that the new boss isn't immune from a little glossing over of the truth when it suits him.

There's been a lot of discussion in the last week about the Canadiens decision to pass over Larry Robinson as a member of the new coaching staff. The Hall-of-Fame defenceman claimed to be interested in Montreal and the rest of us were certainly interested in welcoming an expert of his stature back to the fold. Then to the disappointment of many, the team announced the job would go to J.J.Daigneault instead.

Now, there's nothing on Daigneault's record as a minor-league coach that says he isn't ready for the NHL. He comes with glowing reviews from the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Connecticut, where he spent the last five years instructing many members of New York's impressive young blueline corps. As is the case with any new guy coming to the organization, we can just wish him the best and hope, for the good of the team, he does a great job.

That said, there's something not quite right about the way in which the Bergevin team handled the Daigneault-over-Robinson hiring. Sometime after Robinson's New Jersey Devils lost in the Stanley Cup final on June 11, Bergevin requested permission to approach Robinson, then called to assess the big man's interest in a job with the Canadiens. According to the Montreal Gazette, calls went back and forth between the two sides, but because of storm damage to his property, Robinson wasn't able to jump on a plane and meet Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien for an immediate in-person interview.

In the end, Bergevin called Robinson just before the team announced Daigneault's appointment and told Robinson Therrien really liked his interview with Daigneault and that's why the Canadiens went in that direction. Robinson said he understood and that it was a business decision. Although many fans were disappointed such a great Canadien would not be returning to Montreal, most were willing to give Daigneault a shot.

That should have been the end of the story, but a piece in the Hartford Courant this week makes one wonder whether Robinson was really a consideration at all. The article gives a little insight into the speed-of-light hiring process the team employed in choosing Daigneault:

"When Montreal was searching for an assistant to concentrate on the defense, Daigneault’s name was mentioned in the Canadian media," the story reads.  "But he did not apply for the job because he was still under contract with the Rangers.
"It wasn’t until the Canadiens contacted Sather that the offer came. Daigneault was working at the Rangers’ prospect camp last Friday when Sather told him he would waive the final year of his contract if he wanted to leave.
"By the time Daigneault arrived at his West Hartfford home Friday afternoon, a contract was waiting for him. By 3:30 in the afternoon, he was officially employed by the Canadiens."

From the first contact with Sather until the contract arrived on Daigneault's desk, just three hours passed. It doesn't give one confidence that the great impression Daigneault allegedly made on Therrien was more than a cursory resume check. Played D in the NHL? Check. Promising career working with minor-league defencemen? Check. Unthreatening? Check.
In the Gazette article, Robinson took care to explain it would never be his goal to use his experience and stature to undermine Therrien. Given the rapid hiring of the minor-league Daigneault instead, it appears Therrien wasn't buying that. 
In the end, Daigneault will possibly do a fine job in teaching the new crop of Habs D-men. Fans everywhere hope he does at least as well as we know Robinson would have done. It would have been nice if Bergevin had been more truthful about how Daigneault was chosen to coach in Montreal, though. When a legend like Larry Robinson is involved, the team owes it to him to be as open as possible. Telling him Daigneault beat him out for the job fair and square because of a great interview (obviously by phone, if it even went in-depth at all, which negates the excuse that Robinson lost out when he couldn't make it to Montreal) isn't the classiest move. People talk and this stuff makes the papers.
Perhaps Bergevin found himself in a difficult position. Maybe he and Therrien wanted a younger, more up-and-coming assistant coach, but they were feeling the pressure to at least give Robinson the courtesy of a phone call. However, if they were never intending to hire him, they shouldn't have pretended they might. And they shouldn't have pretended that Daigneault was in the mix for longer than three hours and somehow blew them out of the water in the interview process. The way this was handled may be due to inexperience on Bergevin's part, but it smells a bit Gauthier-ish. Let's hope that's where the similarities end.