Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thirty Years of "The Game"

Thirty years ago, in 1983, former Habs goaltender Ken Dryden published a book. It was marketed as a hockey book, but it became much, much more than that. It became a Canadian classic that reaches far beyond the boundaries of sport. Today, there's a brand-new addition of the book in stores to mark its milestone anniversary, and new fans are discovering the 1970s Canadiens dynasty.

I first read "The Game" about five years after its publication, but nine years after Dryden hung up his skates. I never got to see him play, or witness one of the best teams ever in its prime. Through the book, however, I felt like I did. I also learned a lot about politics, team dynamics, psychology and the elements of success.

Since that first read, I've gone back to the book many times, and I always find something new in it. Dryden doesn't claim to be a prophet, but many of the things he wrote thirty years ago are still relevant; some of them even more than they were back then. I wanted to learn more about how the book came to be, and why people have always been able to find a copy of it on bookstore shelves since its publication, so I called Dryden to talk about it.

That led to a documentary for CBC Radio, which I've linked here for those interested in listening. Dryden is retired since 1979, but the book is still fresh and interesting 30 years later. We're lucky to have it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Flabulous Fans

Habs fans have faced a lot of frustration this season. One-goal losses. Scoring droughts. No Subban on the PK. Injuries. The self destruction of David Desharnais' career. The list goes on, but now there's more bad news. It turns out the Habs are making us fat.

Earlier this fall, French scientists Pierre Chandon and Yann Cornil released the results of their study of passionate fans' eating habits. Admittedly, they examined only fans of football and soccer, but they assure us the findings can apply to any sport.

In any case, after years of research, they discovered that if your team loses, you eat more and you eat worse. The danger isn't so much in watching your team lose, although there's evidence fans consume more snacks if they're emotionally detaching from a loss during a game. The real problem is the loser hangover.

The scientists learned fans of the losing team take in an average of 16% more saturated fats the day after a loss than winning fans, and 10% more calories overall. Fans of the winning team ate 5% fewer calories the day after the victory than they would on a normal day. Dr.Chandon says it's because fans with a deep emotional attachment to their favourite teams share some of the endorphin rush players feel when they win, and those feel-good hormones keep us from craving the comfort of extra food. They also make us feel more energetic, so we're more inclined to exercise rather than mope around. When passionate fans say  "we won" or "we lost," they really are feeling a real investment in their teams.

It gets worse for fans, though. Dr.Chandon's report finds fans eat the most when their teams lose a close one, or one they think the team should have won.

"People eat better when their football team wins and worse when it loses, especially if they lost unexpectedly, by a narrow margin or against a team of equal strength," he writes. If you consider that eight of the Habs 11 losses this year were by one goal, that adds up to a lot of angst-eating by disgruntled fans.

It goes even deeper. Really devoted fans eat worse if they even talk about a loss later on. The scientists did a little experiment with French soccer fans. They asked one group of fans to write about a memorable win by their favourite team. Another group wrote about a loss. Later, in a seemingly unrelated task, the researchers asked both groups of fans to choose a snack. Those who had written about losing most often chose chips or candy. Those with the winning stories were more inclined to choose grapes or tomatoes. Dwelling on losses, then, tends to make the poor-food choice phenomena last longer. And boy, can Habs fans dwell!

The researchers say the results of their work weren't really unexpected. Previous studies prove a team's losses can influence reckless driving, heart attacks and even domestic violence among passionate fans.

Dr.Chandon offers hope, though.

"Even if you are rooting for a perennial loser, there is a solution if you are concerned about healthy eating," he says. "After a defeat, write down what's really important to you in life. In our studies, this technique, called 'self-affirmation' completely eliminated the effects of defeats."

Of course, this approach will only work if your list of the most important things in life doesn't include "The Montreal Canadiens." If it does, for the sake of our health and our waistlines, the Habs had better start winning more often than they lose.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

P.K. on the PK

There's a squall, gusting up to a blizzard, of commentary on Michel Therrien's relationship with Norris-winner P.K.Subban in the ever-edgy world of Habs watchers these days. Therrien doesn't seem excited to talk about Subban as a potential member of the Canadian Olympic team. He's spare with his praise, and discusses one of the NHL's best young defencemen in terms of his still being a developing prospect...and, of more concern to critics...a developing human being. At the same time, Therrien has not been reluctant about calling out Subban's mistakes.

All of this has observers talking about everything from Subban's attitude (too cocky), to his one-dimensional play (too much O, not enough D), to a possible undercurrent of racism against black players in hockey, to Therrien's mishandling of the best young player the Canadiens have had the pleasure to dress in twenty years. As evidence of any or all of these theories, we're presented with the facts that Therrien chooses not to sing Subban's praises publicly, while refusing to play him in the last couple of minutes of games or on the penalty kill.

That last one...P.K. on the PK, or more correctly, his absence there...has fans really puzzled. Why, we wonder, is the guy currently holding the title of best NHL defenceman not defending when his team needs help the most? A close look at the numbers both answers the question, and raises a much more fundamental one.

The quick glance shows Subban's stats average out to almost seven goals against per 20 minutes shorthanded. That's up from 3 goals against per 20 minutes last year. That's a big slip, and enough to make a coach who watches statistics cut a player's ice time on the PK. What's interesting, though, is a look at Subban's numbers BMT, or Before Michel Therrien.

Previous to Therrien's arrival, Subban, had a pretty steady average of about 3-3.5 goals against per 60 minutes shorthanded, or roughly 1 per 20 minutes on the PK, with a variety of partners. Playing around 2:30 minutes a game on the PK in two seasons under Jacques Martin, Subban usually ended up around third among Habs penalty killers in ice time. In those two seasons, the Canadiens' PK ranked 7th (in 2010-11, Subban's rookie season) with an 84.4% efficiency rate and 2nd (in 2011-12) with 88.6% success.

Since Therrien was hired, Subban's ice time on the PK has been cut by half. Last season, he played 1:27 minutes per game, and the Canadiens dropped to 23rd in the league in penalty kill success, at only 79.8%. That fell further to 76% in the Habs playoff loss to Ottawa, during which Subban played only 0:29 shorthanded per game. This year, he's playing less than a minute shorthanded on average. The team's weak early PK seems to be recovering, currently at 8th in the league, albeit with a fairly small sample size of games at this point. That success rate has also been boosted by a very strong last five games, which skews the numbers from the previous 11. The numbers say, then, that the Habs for two seasons under Martin saw Subban play more on the PK and the team's numbers were generally better.

When Therrien arrived and Subban's time was reduced, the penalty kill success rate declined. Even the recent improvement (including the worrisome number of risky shot blocks) suggests the team is compensating for Subban's absence, rather than thriving because of it. The coach has not publicly explained why he's decided to put the team's record at risk while he, in his words, "guides the thoroughbred."

Subban isn't perfect. No 24-year-old defenceman is. Still he is the best D on the Canadiens roster. When a team is struggling to clear its own zone, and its best defensive tactic is for players to throw themselves in front of shots; when a typical breakout pass looks more like a Hail Mary and slow defencemen are knocked off the puck because they can't move fast enough to move it, you'd think a fast, skilled, slick-skating defenceman would be on the ice as much as possible.

"Coaching is about drawing the maximum out of players, and it’s all part of that. I’m quite aware of his talent, I know exactly how far he can go. We’re going to do what it takes to get there, that’s where he wants to go too," Therrien says.

How he can call benching his best defenceman on the penalty kill and when the game is on the line "drawing the maximum" out of him is a mystery. One could compare Subban's performance on the PK under Therrien versus Martin and say the latter got more out of Subban than the current coach. His responsibilities were greater and so were the team's results.

A fair comparison for Subban might be the Senators' Erik Karlsson. He's also a very young Norris winner better known for his offensive prowess than his defence. Yet, while we've all seen Karlsson pinch at the wrong time or get deked out of his shorts on occasion, his coach (the same guy who arguably outcoached Therrien last playoffs) has him playing 27+ minutes a night. It's true Karlsson doesn't spend a lot of time on the PK either. He averages just over a minute shorthanded. He does, however see about four minutes a night on the PP and sees his ice time increase as the game progresses and Ottawa is either defending a lead or needing a goal. While it's certainly wise to play to the awesome offensive strengths of both players, and understanding nobody can play half the game every night, it seems Karlsson has more of his coach's confidence than Subban does. You can bet there are no rumours of Karlsson being passed over by Team Sweden for the Olympics.

Watching the Habs struggle at .500 while their best defenceman could do more, it's difficult to find much sympathy for the coach. Therrien's got leeway to "teach" Subban when the team is doing well. When it's struggling, it's time to put your best guys on the ice and let them do what they do best. This is doubly true when the defence is still missing tough Alexei Emelin, and the other guys are getting manhandled. Therrien's willing to shake up the forward lines to turn things around, but his stubborn refusal to better use Subban's skills is hurting the team.

Perhaps Subban is nursing some injury, or Therrien fears he'll get hurt blocking shots on the PK. Maybe he just doesn't like the guy and feels he needs to learn a lesson. The coach hasn't revealed the thinking behind keeping Subban on the bench in important defensive situations. If it comes down to numbers, though, perhaps Therrien should ask himself why Subban was successful in those situations under other coaches and think about whether some of the blame for any perceived defensive weakness should rest with the coaching staff and how they use him.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Unstructured Fat Walruses and Better Goaltenders

Poor Lars Eller. The kid emerging as the Canadiens number-one centreman made a critical error that bought him a one-way ticket to his coach's post-Oilers'-game doghouse. He didn't fail to engage the opponent physically. He didn't have a mental lapse that led to a crucial goal or take a dumb penalty. Nope. Eller made the uncommon mistake of telling the truth.

When asked what he could expect from the Oilers prior to last night's game, Eller would have been wiser to reply "They're a good, fast young team. We expect them to come out flying and we have to be ready." End of answer. That's what the vast majority of other NHLers would have said. Instead, he actually gave a thoughtful and honest analysis of the team he'd played once already this month. "It can be anything, you know? They play a little bit like a junior team, I think, sometimes,” he said. “They take a lot risks, a lot of chances. They’re a little all over the place. There’s not a lot of structure always in their game. It can really be anything. You don’t know."

There was nothing untrue there. Eller observed a young team that sometimes plays a disorganized game as it tries to find consistency. However, in media scrums where cliche is king, Eller's openness became a lightning rod for a thin-skinned opposing coach. The Great Dane is in good company. Remember Tomas Plekanec in the 2008 playoffs, when he was asked about his performance against the Bruins? He answered, "The last couple of games I played like a little girl out there." While the papers commended him for his frankness, critics and opponents have never forgotten to throw that back at him years later.

Remember in 2010, prior to Game One against Washington? Somebody asked Plekanec how his eighth-place Canadiens matched up with the powerhouse Caps. He said: "It's not as though we are facing Brodeur or Miller. They don't have a dominant goaltender.  When you look at the goaltending matchup in this series it favours our team.  I just believe that our goaltending is more solid than theirs."

That was an honest assessment too, and one with which few could argue, given the respective records and histories of the goalies involved. The only way Plekanec saved himself from prolonged ridicule in that case was by blasting the Game One OT winner past a flat-footed Jose Theodore, and helping his team win that series. Then there was Brandon Prust and his response to Senator's coach Paul Maclean, after Maclean blamed Raphael Diaz for Lars Eller's Game One concussion and face-rearrangement last year.

Prust gave as good as his team got, calling Maclean a "bug-eyed fat walrus." While great fodder for photoshoppers everywhere, Prust's comments ended up being used against him as the Sens took control of the series. Both Prust and Plekanec learned the hard way to keep colour out of their commentary. Now, unfortunately, Lars Eller is receiving the same lesson. That means one less guy will feel free to voice his actual opinion, and will, instead retreat into the trite and meaningless.

The irony is, while various coaches like to use the words of opponents to pump up their teams, it's never the words that make the difference. The Canadiens didn't get eliminated in the playoffs because Tomas Plekanec called himself a little girl or Brandon Prust said Paul Maclean was a fat walrus. They got eliminated because a series of unfortunate events; injuries, timely errors, poor overall player performances, better opposition, added up to an early vacation. In just the same way, the Habs did not lose to Edmonton because the Oilers coach was furious at Lars Eller.

They lost because every single player GM Marc Bergevin acquired to improve the team last summer (every one!) is injured. They lost because the defence that needed shoring up the moment Alexei Emelin went down with a knee injury last April is just as badly off as it was then. They lost because Max Pacioretty is out (again) with another of the myriad of injuries that seem to sideline him whenever he just starts to get rolling. They lost because their lack of forward depth has Travis Moen playing shifts in the top-six. And they lost because, for some inexplicable reason, they failed to show up for the second period, which has been a persistent issue under Michel Therrien's coaching system. They did not lose because Lars Eller frankly evaluated his opponent in a pre-game interview.

It's easy for Therrien to say Eller's comment was "unacceptable." It's much more difficult for him to find a reasonable answer for the team's consistent second-period slump, and why his team is 18th in the league in wins after holding a first-period lead. It's harder to say why his team has a discipline issue. The Habs are 24th in the NHL in times shorthanded, having played fewer games than many other teams. Therrien would rather talk about Eller than about why the Habs PK ranks 18th in the league, while Norris winner PK Subban plays 1:11 a night shorthanded and Andrei Markov and Raphael Diaz (!) more than three minutes per game.

Lars Eller and his honest comments gave Therrien a chance to talk about something other than his own team's problems. And, rest assured, there are problems. Some will be alleviated when the injured players return. Some are systemic and must be solved at a basic systems or philosophical level. Either way, Eller is the least of the Habs problems. This team needed to beat Edmonton because it's not going to get any easier with a slate of big, hungry Western teams on the schedule this year.

As for Dallas Eakins, he can gloat and call out a guy like Eller all he likes, but if he listened closely to what the kid said, he'd have heard the ring of truth in those comments. He might laugh now, but his team is far from having a playoff spot locked up at this point. So, in the end, all he did was give the media a distraction from both the Habs and the Oilers problems, and make sure one more guy in an NHL dressing room never speaks his mind again.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Boy, it seems the long knives are out for Daniel Briere already this season. The other night during the Vancouver game, I joked with a friend that with his cheesy haircut and Scott Gomez-like tendencies, Briere should actually be called "Gruyere" instead. I was pretty disgusted with his soft, slow, obviously-36-year-old game to start the season. I'm still opposed to his signing, but the fact is, that ship has sailed and whether deckhand or officer, Briere is in Montreal for the foreseeable future.

The Habs have no "get out of contract jail free" cards left to play, so buying out Gruy...oops...Briere would hamstring a team that's got a lot of hot youth to sign in the immediate future. Trading a guy who got bought out by his last team and has done nothing to improve the fortunes of his new one is as likely as Marc Bergevin deciding his favourite word is no longer "character." Hamilton's not an option because of the player's no movement clause. So, it's in the interests of Habs fans everywhere to lobby the hockey gods for Briere to find his game.

It's not easy to find the positives. One assist in five games, with top wingers and two minutes of PP time per night puts him on pace for 16 points over 82 games. In the first five games, he's been largely invisible physically, has dragged down Max Pacioretty's play and has failed to make use of his time with the man advantage. He's also gotten an inordinate amount of airtime on 24CH, if you're into that kind of thing. There's not a lot there to love.

So, we have to look for something. We know Briere is excellent in the playoffs. His career points average during the regular season is .77 per game. In the post-season, he figures in the scoring every night. If the Habs make the playoffs, he'll help. That's something. He also satisfies the desire of management to add local players to the mix. As long as he's holding a spot, Marc Bergevin won't go looking for a worse guy to fill that requirement. And, be assured, there are worse choices to carry the "hometown boy" flag.

Okay, that's pretty much it. That's what I can find on the positive side of his presence in Montreal. So, now we just have to hope he finds some way to fit in with this team and prove he's not Bergevin's first huge mistake. Or, at least, that he doesn't hurt the team until the playoffs arrive and the Habs, hopefully, even without his help, have nailed down a spot. It doesn't matter, really, in the end. Positive or negative, we're stuck with him and it's to nobody's benefit to spend the next two years complaining about Daniel Briere.

Daniel Gruyere on the other hand...

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Smoking Torch

In the aftermath of George Parros' fight and subsequent concussion on Tuesday night, the outcome of the game itself became something of a secondary story line. Thank goodness it did, because not only did the Habs lose yet another game to the leafs, but they did it after yet another over-the-top session of wallowing in their past glory.

The torch was appropriate when the Forum closed in 1996, marking the end of an era and the passing to a new one with a Cup win still in recent memory. It was appropriate during the ill-fated Centennial celebrations, which were supposed to pay tribute to all the great players who made the organization one of the most successful in sports. It's no longer appropriate.

When a team has done exactly nothing of note in more than twenty years, the ties to the past begin to fray. Where once a culture of winning existed, in which young players learned the game from the champions who came before, there's now a culture of poor drafting, bad management and ill-conceived free-agent signings. Marc Bergevin and his crew might be turning things around, but it doesn't happen overnight and there's only so much you can hide in the soft glow of the torch.

In the meantime, trotting out the greats of the past to hand the torch off to a group that's nowhere near contending for a Cup only serves to underline the difference between then and now. You can only sell the glorious, if dusty, past for so long before people stop buying it. The Habs are rapidly reaching that point. When the team released its top-ten game DVD box set during the Centennial, it was pretty telling that the only game in the last twenty years to make it to the list was a regular-season comeback against the Rangers, with Michael Ryder the star of the night.

To top it all off, if the torch itself isn't a cynical enough gimmick by the Habs marketing team, handing it off to Daniel Briere, of all people, was just a ridiculous attempt to kiss the butts of fans who've wanted a hometown hero for a long time. The Rocket once passed the metaphorical torch to Beliveau, who passed it to Lafleur. Having Lafleur pass the literal torch, nearly thirty years after he left the Habs, to an aging, declining, mercenary, bought-out free agent who deigned to sign in Montreal because the money was right this time around, was silly. Not only that, but passing it to a guy who'd just signed and had never proven himself as a Montreal Canadien in any way was insulting to the team's captain and to the Norris-winning defenceman who received no individual acknowledgement at all.

So if the torch, as overplayed and trite as it has become, is supposed to carry some symbolic meaning of the team's intention to stride off into the future, building on the foundation laid by those who came before, what does the way that ceremony played out mean to a guy like P.K.Subban? The guy has only managed to bring the team its first significant individual honour in 11 years, but he's still left standing on the sidelines to watch the newly-anointed St.Daniel of Montreal made much of at the first home game of the year. That's not striding into the future, Habs. That's grasping for the straws of past glory, while the future is ignored on the off chance that he'll get too big a head and consider himself above the team.

It's time to put the torch away. It shouldn't be seen again until the modern Habs; guys like Subban and Pacioretty and Price and Eller and Galchenyuk have done their part to add to the team's legacy. And, if there's a guy who's a legitimate star in their midst, even if he's from Toronto, of Caribbean heritage and doesn't speak French, perhaps it's time for the team to recognize that's where future glory lies. It's time for the Subbans of the world to carry the Canadiens forward and the Brieres to take a back seat until they've proven they deserve to be honoured in Montreal.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fighting is Stupid

George Parros is a big, strong man. He's generally acknowledged to be a good teammate and an interesting guy. He's Princeton educated with a degree in economics and was once named the fourth-smartest athlete in all of professional sports. George Parros has a lot going for him, but he is not a hockey player.

A hockey player's main job is to either score goals or prevent goals from being scored against his team. Parros' main job is to fight. He's in the NHL not because he's a smart guy or a good teammate or a great skater or has slick hands. He's there because he's 6'5", 230 pounds and can punch really hard. Last night, a stupid missed punch in a stupid fight meant to prove...what exactly?...caused him to crash with all his height and weight to the ice and injure his brain. His Princeton brain.

To make it worse, his family...his real family, not the "hockey family" that pays him to hit people...was there to see him carried away on a stretcher. His blood stained the ice and his glazed eyes stared without comprehension, and for what? It wasn't for the glory of the Habs, who fought four times and still lost the game. It wasn't for his own glory, as it's his concussion, rather than his hockey or fighting skills, that's making headlines today. It wasn't for fans, because the only people cheering after he collapsed cannot be called fans of sport.

Fighting does not belong in hockey. The rules of the game itself oppose it, assessing a major penalty for those who partake. New penalties addressing fighting...the instigator, suspensions for leaving the bench to join a fight, instigating a fight in the last five minutes of a game, the aggressor penalty...are all meant to limit fighting, not support it. At the end of the season, there are no awards given to the player or team that fights the most or the best. It's not an "outlet" for the naturally violent emotions generated by playing a hard-hitting, physical game. If it were, people like David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec would be dropping the gloves regularly. Hiring people to fight on their behalf belies the "emotional vent" theory.

Also undermining the argument that players must have a way to purge their violent feelings is the fact that when games are really important...playoffs, Olympics...nobody fights. If emotions drive fights, one would think the biggest games would generate more of those emotions than a run-of-the-mill regular-season game on a Tuesday night. Yet, it doesn't seem to work that way. The fighters fight while the skilled players watch. Perhaps the league's leading scorers and top goalies don't have any emotions so don't need a vent.

Every other major league sport ejects fighters from their games. All those other "emotional" athletes are told fighting is an unacceptable way to express themselves and, for the most part, they don't do it. Hockey's allowing it makes the league look something less than professional. When the most well-known hockey joke is "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out," the game itself becomes a bit of a joke.

The NHL believes fans come to games or tune into them on TV in the hope of seeing a fight. Yet, playoff games draw the biggest audiences, and fights in those are few and far between. That would, perhaps, suggest to the league that fans are more drawn to actual hockey than to the sideshow fights that plague regular-season games. The NHLPA argues fighting is "part of the game," while it stands by and watches as professional boxers in hockey gear get beaten night after night, sustaining injuries that put their actual careers and futures at risk. It's no coincidence that, were fighting to be eliminated from hockey, a quarter of the league's players who currently hold borderline fourth-line "toughness" jobs would be out of work.

The argument that eliminating fighting would lead to an increase in stick infractions doesn't hold water either. Other leagues, like the NCAA, have banned fighting and show no notable increase in players sustaining serious injuries from stick fouls. There is, however, ample evidence that fighting causes serious injury, and in the sad case of Don Sanderson, death. Referees can control the stick infractions by calling them tightly. Players soon know that extra slash or high stick isn't worth it, with so much of a game's outcome determined by special teams.

Kids watch their NHL heroes fighting. They emulate the pros, so they fight too. Fighting is part of hockey because it's taught by example to the youngest players. It's part of hockey because junior hockey and NHL GMs will hire a guy who can't otherwise cut it  if he can fight. They make a buck off the backs of guys who can't let go of the dream and are willing to risk their health for it, because fighting might put a couple of extra bums in seats. Now parents are rebelling. They don't sign their kids up for hockey in the numbers they used to, at least in part because they don't want to put children at risk of injury. They don't want them to fight. Kids aren't allowed to fight at school or on the playground, but they get rewarded if they fight at the rink. That's the same mentality that says a parent who curses or boos a kid at a piano recital is crazy, but the same person is perfectly within his rights to yell at children on a hockey rink.

Last year, the Globe and Mail newspaper surveyed Canadians and asked whether they'd support a fighting ban in hockey. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they want fighting banned in all junior hockey. Sixty-eight percent want it gone from the game altogether. When questioned about the skills they believe are necessary to play the game, 95% of Canadians believe skating is essential. Ninety-three percent say shooting the puck is an important skill. Seven percent say it's important for a hockey player to know how to fight.

The NHL cannot, in good conscience, take a stand against concussions at the same time it's allowing fighting. Yet, Commissioner Gary Bettmen continues to be a hypocrite, citing the old "part of the game" argument. At the same time, the NHL is tacitly admitting something's got to give by instituting the silly "no taking your helmet off during a fight" rule this year. It's allegedly supposed to reduce fighting injuries, and maybe prevent a fight if a guy doesn't want to cut his knuckles on a visor. It's more likely an attempt by the league to get out in front of a lawsuit launched by the family of former fighter Derek Boogaard, who died at 28 years of age in 2011. Boogaard's brain showed signs of a degenerative brain disorder that can be caused by repeated blows to the head. The family is suing partly because it says the NHL exploited Boogaard's ability to fight, which contributed to his death, and partly because it allowed him access to the painkillers he needed to deal with the physical consequences of fighting, and to which he became addicted. If there's one thing likely to move NHL owners, it's their bottom lines, and a successful suit against them would not be good news. So, voila! The NHL says players can't take their helmets off during fights, showing a sudden concern for the well-being of players. You can still fight, says the league, but we want to protect your head while you do it. It's a cynical approach to a serious issue, at best.

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are more boldly admitting it's not a great idea for teenagers to punch each other in the face, so they're looking at steps to eliminate fights among junior-aged players. The process is abominably slow, but it's at least an acknowledgement that there is a problem.

In the end, it's a sad commentary that after all the hype about the Habs/leafs opening game, the story emerging from it is George Parros' concussion. It's pathetic that some who support fighting are making the case that he could have easily slipped and fallen in a similar way at any point during the game, therefore it shouldn't be considered a "fighting injury." Sure, he might have fallen anyway. He didn't, though. He fell during a fight. When a guy plays six minutes a game and his main job is fighting, the chances of his falling during a fight rather than in an innocent hockey play are greatly increased. The bottom line is, if he hadn't been fighting last night, it wouldn't have happened.

If there were no fighting, perhaps George Parros wouldn't be receiving an NHL salary today. It's quite likely he wouldn't be. He also wouldn't be sitting at home nursing a concussion right now. He'd probably be using his undamaged Princeton brain to do something productive, and he'd be feeling a lot better.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Re-Aligning the Habs Chances

There's a lot a coaching staff can control as it gets a team ready for a new hockey season. Coaches can plan systems and choose which players work best together. They can manage ice time and ensure the right guys are on the ice in a given situation. After that, though, most of the rest of it is out of their hands. Nobody can control injuries or poor officiating, for example.

The same is true of the schedule, which can give a team its toughest games when players are fresh early in the year and an easier run in the playoff stretch drive, or stack the deck against it with the toughest competition coming when key players are hurt. In this Olympic year, with re-alignment adding three new teams to the Habs' division, the schedule could end up being more of a factor than usual.

For the first time in years, the team's performance against the West will be really important. Players typically feel the divisional games they play are the most crucial games to win, and that will still apply in terms of controlling whether a rival picks up two points. However, 28 games against the other conference will go a long way in determining playoff positions this year. On one hand, having extra divisional games against Florida could help build up the points. On the other, facing powerful teams like the Blues, Kings, Blackhawks and Sharks multiple times throughout the season will certainly make it tougher to remain in the playoff hunt.

For the Canadiens, a lot of those vital western games come right at the beginning of the schedule. After opening against the leafs, nine of the remaining 12 games the Habs play in October will be against western teams. That could play one of two ways. Either the team will be relatively healthy with fresh legs that give the players their best chance against tough teams and a long road trip. Or, the team will still find itself coping with the early-season "gelling" period and struggle.The first  trip to the West will tell us a lot about this year's team, as it will be measured against some good, skilled opposition. A strong start there could set the team up for a playoff season. A poor road trip would have the opposite effect. With three-point games and league-wide parity, it's tougher than it used to be for a team to recover from a bad start.

This year, the schedule will be fairly compact because of the Olympic break stopping play for much of February. That means the playoff push for teams post-Olympics could be pretty intense, particularly for those whose star players went deep into the tournament in Russia. In the Habs' case, while the majority of Western games come early in the season, the bulk of games during the stretch drive will be within the division. Weirdly, after the opening night leafs matchup, the next intra-division game the Canadiens have is against the Senators in November. By March and April, when those divisional games start to pile up, every point is more hotly contested than in October and the competition more intense. With the Canadiens struggling last year against the leafs, Senators and Bruins, and with the addition of a competitive Detroit team to the division, the last 21 games...12 against Atlantic competition...could very well make or break the Habs' playoff hopes.

The schedule is always a factor in every team's fortunes. This year, however, with the Olympics, the new division alignments and the funny way Western games and divisional games pile up at opposite ends of the season, it could be more of an unseen hand kind of factor this year. The Canadiens will be pressed to be more than the fast, skilled team they tried to be last season. This year, the competition is going to be tough and the Habs will have to raise their game to meet it. The schedule is out of their hands, but their response to it is not.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sophomore Slump

Most hockey fans were bitter and angry when last year's scheduled NHL opening night came and went without a single faceoff. So, when the lockout ended five months later, it took a while for many people to let those feelings go and get back to filling the rinks and buying team merchandise at an even faster rate than they had before the work stoppage.

Canadiens fans were luckier than most, though. Two kids, neither of whom was really expected to make the team in January, not only made the cut, but also played a big role in turning the Habs' fortunes around. Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher lit up the Bell Centre with their youthful enthusiasm and gave fans two really good reasons to put the lockout behind them.

While was great to enjoy the fun provided by a pair of exciting rookies, it does lead to the big question heading into the new season: Will they be able to do it again? The dreaded sophomore slump doesn't happen to every player, but it hits enough of them to give some credence to the perception that it does.

The slump or "jinx" isn't unique to hockey, or even sports. University students commonly drop their performance in their second year, and writers and musicians often come up with sub-par second efforts after an initial blockbuster novel or album. The arts, study and sports are all very different fields, but the reason why the sophomore slump affects all of them is quite possibly the same.

The Harvard Crimson published a piece in February of 1963, explaining why the second year can be tougher than the first. It reads, in part:

"Throughout high school the student was probably under constant pressure to get into a good college; in the freshman year he was preoccupied with surviving at Harvard. But in the sophomore year there is usually no "next step" to serve as a motivation - graduate school, three years away, is still remote. With his two most familiar impetuses removed - error and a concern for the future - the sophomore is frequently struck with an overpowering apathy toward his academic work."

Similarly, a young hockey player with the drive to make the NHL, then stick with a team during his first season, may sometimes find himself without an immediate or concrete goal as he starts his second.

If the Canadiens are to match last year's performance, both Galchenyuk and Gallagher have to continue to progress. With that in mind, it's important to consider the types of players they are, and what drives them. In the case of Galchenyuk, he has the distinction of being a top-three draft pick. If his own desire to bring it every night isn't enough, the superior talent that got him to this point can help him keep developing. With their high level of skill, most players drafted very early do actually progress well.

In the five NHL drafts between 2007 and 2011, 11 of the top 15 players taken have been forwards. Of those, 8 equaled or bettered their rookie performances.  Two of other three, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog, had their second seasons interrupted by the lockout and injuries, and their production did drop slightly. Jonathan Huberdeau didn't make the NHL in his draft year, so can't be compared to the others. Galchenyuk, in terms of skill and potential, deserved to be a top-three pick. If his path follows the majority of his fellow draftees, Habs fans have nothing to worry about this year.

In Gallagher's case, he obviously wasn't drafted as a top talent, but his play at the NHL level did garner him a Calder nomination. Looking at the performance of the rookie-of-the-year finalists over the last five years isn't quite as clear-cut as comparing top draft picks. For one thing, more goalies tend to be Calder nominees than top-three picks, and the development trajectory of goaltenders can be much more volatile than that of forwards. Jimmy Howard, for example, had a stellar rookie year, then a rotten sophomore season. He got his game back on track after that, while Steve Mason has never managed to match the quality of his first season's play. Also, Calder picks can be more fluky, as the nominations are based on only one season's play, as opposed to the more complete body of work that gets a player chosen high in the draft.

Of the Calder-nominated forwards who were not also top-three draft picks in the last five years, only the 2009 ninth pick, Logan Couture and the 2008 fourth choice, Nicklas Backstrom, maintained or improved their rookie numbers. Obviously, then, it can be more difficult for lower draft picks to keep up the pace after they win a spot the NHL.

Numbers and trends don't tell the whole story, though. Brendan Gallagher isn't like most other players. His personal commitment to every shift he plays won't disappear because he's achieved his NHL goal. He may have been an undersized fifth-round pick, but his internal fire works in his favour. Most of the time, he just wants it more than the other guy. If Galchenyuk has superior talent to go along with his work effort, Gallagher has superior desire.  And, as anyone who's ever watched a hockey game can tell you, heart cannot be underrated.

A couple of years ago, author Robert H.Miller published "Campus Confidential," in which he addressed the sophomore slump and asked grad students for advice on how to combat it. This is part of what he wrote:

"The best antidote for the sophomore slump is activity. But not just any activity. We mean goal-centered activity - activity that has you exploring the areas that you have decided are of interest to you and that propel you forward toward a set of longer-terms goals that you've established for yourself. To avoid the sophomore slump, be sure that you have set out your goals for the sophomore year and that you have identified what you hope to explore this year in all areas of your life and have decided on two or three specific, tangible activities that will motivate you in each of those areas."

The trick, in other words, is to give yourself something new and specific to aim for when it feels like you've already met your previous goals. In the cases of both Galchenyuk and Gallagher, it's time for them to start thinking of earning more ice time, improving on last year's personal numbers, proving they can sustain the pace over a full schedule and helping the Habs go deeper into the playoffs. While those are partially team goals, the two sophomores are a big part of the team. Their direction will help determine the direction the Canadiens take this year. And, you have to believe they're on the way up.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Value of Markov

Orthopedic surgeon Dr.Robert Ray once said, "If God had intended man to engage in strenuous sports, He would have given us better knees." Nobody can attest to the truth of that statement quite as fervently as Andrei Markov.

The Habs blueliner, after having been fairly durable for the first eight years of his NHL career, played in only twenty out of his team's 164 games in 2010-11 and 2011-12. The first time his knee ligaments tore was during the Habs' magical 2010 playoff run, after an unfortunate collision with dirty Matt Cooke. He came back relatively early from reconstructive surgery, but the return lasted only seven games. An awkward fall after an Eric Staal hit sent Markov back under the knife, causing him miss the rest of the season. He didn't return until the following March.

For a player who depends so greatly on a cerebral sort of defence, requiring superior mobility to position himself properly, Markov's injuries could have been career-ending. So, when the Canadiens, signed him to a new, rich, three-year deal in the summer of 2011, with no guarantees he'd ever be the same player again, most critics reacted somewhere between skepticism and outrage. Now in the last year of that contract, which pays him 5.75-million a season, questions about Markov's worth...and whether he should get a final contract in Montreal...still abound.

After having played only 13 games in the 2011-12 season, last year offered Markov his first real opportunity to show what he and his rebuilt knee could do. To his credit, he and the knee managed to play all 48 games in the lockout-shortened season. It was the first time since 2009 that he'd suited up for more than 45 games in a year. Added to the 21 games he played in the KHL while waiting for the NHL to restart, he answered the durability question. If there were any remaining doubts, Markov put them to rest by topping the Canadiens in ice time per game, with 24:08 minutes a night. That's more than his career average.

On the offensive side of the game, he proved he's still got it as well. Markov's 8 power play goals and 4 game-winners both topped all NHL defencemen. His 12.7% shooting percentage was also top of the list. Markov's 30 points placed him fourth among all D-men in the league. And, he scored one of only two OT winners for the Habs.

In his own end, paired with Alexei Emelin until the latter's season-ending knee injury, Markov played 107:26 minutes on the PK, second only to Josh Gorges. He and Emelin were a collective plus-one while defending together and, while shorthanded, the pair allowed 5.7 goals against per 60 minutes of PK time, better than any other pair playing more than 25 shorthanded minutes.  It doesn't look good for Markov, however, that his team was ranked only 23rd in the league on the PK. A closer look at the other members of the PK units does help his case somewhat, however.

If the team's goaltender is its best penalty-killer, it must be noted that Carey Price was responsible for 30 shorthanded goals against, good for 81st in the league with a 75th-ranked .804 SV% on the PK. Peter Budaj, with the same defenders in front of him, had a .898 SV%. Josh Gorges, who was the only Canadien with more PK time than Markov, was on the ice for five more shorthanded goals against. So, the Canadiens' PK woes certainly didn't fall solely on the Russian's shoulders.

That said, Markov was on the ice for 54 goals against, the most on the team, and 20 more than P.K.Subban, who played only marginally fewer minutes per game. He also gave the puck away 50 times, which ranked him third in the league, with much less ice time than the leaders.

Numbers tell only part of the story, though. Anyone watching Markov over the course of his career would have noticed last year a difference in the smooth, effortless skating style that enabled him to anticipate the play and put himself between the puck and the opposing player. For the first time in his life, Markov looked slow. Really slow. Perhaps it was the knee, or maybe just the normal effects of age after a guy sees 30 in the rearview mirror. Either way, Markov moved differently than he used to do. The funny thing was, he seemed to be the only person who didn't notice.

Markov has always been a risk-taker. He's been the kind of defenceman who would pinch deep when the team needed a goal, relying on his speed to get him back into position if the play didn't work out. He would always take his chances with a long, precision, high-risk cross-ice pass if he thought he could spring a guy for a breakaway, counting on his mobility to cover if the pass was intercepted. When he came back to start last season, he still did those things the way he always used to do. The problem last year was, he couldn't quite catch up if his intended play went wrong. He wasn't as fast as he used to be.

While he was playing with Emelin, a typical faceoff would lead to something like this: Habs lose the draw, puck is dumped into the Canadiens end, Emelin retrieves it, passes to Markov, who then moves it up ice by passing to a forward in motion, or by skating it out himself. After Emelin went down, Markov played with, at various times, Subban, Gorges and Rafael Diaz. He found himself having to be first to the puck much more often and taking the resultant hits. His effectiveness as a puck-mover was then neutralized.

A lot of observers will blame Markov's apparent decline on the absence of Emelin. However, surprisingly, the team's PK stats stayed pretty much the same both pre-and-post Emelin. At even strength, however, Markov's numbers dropped once he had to become the puck retriever rather than the puck mover. In the last 11 games of the year, after Emelin went down, Markov was a minus-six. His points-per-game dropped slightly and his minutes were reduced.

The irony in that is that the team was actually better with Markov playing bigger minutes. When he was on the ice more than 25 minutes a game, the Habs went 7-2, and Markov scored six points. When he played less than 23 minutes a night, his team was 8-6, while Markov put up five points. There's no doubt, the Canadiens are better with Markov than without him.

The question is, will the Habs brass see it that way? The numbers from last season would seem to indicate Markov is as good as ever on the PP and on offence. However, like any older defenceman, he needs help in his own zone. So, if the Habs can partner him with someone who can fight off the forecheck and move the puck up, Markov should be able to continue to do the job for which he's best suited. If he's matched with a suitable partner, he can continue to eat minutes and pump up the offence.

All of that means Markov, depending on his partner this year and his performance, is likely deserving of a new contract in Montreal. He's played all 12 of his NHL seasons with the Habs, and it would be admirable if he could end his playing days with the team that drafted him. All he really needs is a quick partner with some size who can retrieve the puck and get it to him. Jarred Tinordi would be lovely in that role.

Any way you measure it, though, Markov is still a valuable defenceman. Even if God could have given him better knees.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Last Chance Leblanc?

If the language of hockey players is built on cliche, then, by design, their interchangeable comments reveal very little about the true hopes and insecurities of young men who make their time-limited livings with their bodies. "They're a great bunch of guys," and "Never get too high, never get too low" don't exactly tell you when a player doesn't like a dressing room clique or when he's afraid he'll never be quite the same after an injury. If there's any insight at all to be had from a hockey player's stock answers, you get it when a guy announces, often unprompted, "I'm still young."

There's a lot of meaning in that little phrase. It tells you the player is fully aware of how little time he's got to make it as a pro and earn the financial security that makes his years of hard work worthwhile. It also reveals the fear that lurks underneath every injury and every season of stalled development, further narrowing his small window of opportunity. It's a protest against the precious time he sees working against him.

Back in January, with the NHL lockout just over and teams scrambling to hold hurry-up training camps, it was something of a surprise when the Habs didn't invite Louis Leblanc to Montreal. Granted, there wasn't a lot of time to get a team together and Leblanc wasn't having a great season in Hamilton, but the kid had had a decent rookie year in Montreal in 2011-12, even while being bounced between the Canadiens and Bulldogs for a good part of the year. Nobody could blame him for expecting an invitation to camp. It was around the time he was told he'd be staying with the Bulldogs, and then was questioned about the move, that Leblanc felt the need to declare "I'm still young."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The 2009 first-round pick spent just one season at Harvard before signing his entry-level deal with the Canadiens and heading to junior for a year. Leblanc had a fine season with the Montreal Juniors and impressed with Team Canada at the WJC, despite playing a good part of the year with a shoulder injury requiring post-season surgery. The kid was moving up in the world. His luck continued in the fall of 2011 when he got his first call-up from Hamilton and made his NHL debut on November 30. In 42 NHL games, he scored five goals, five assists and was a +3, with about 11 minutes of ice time per night. It was supposed to be all uphill from there.

Then things started to go wrong. First, the Canadiens acquired forwards Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust in the offseason, which immediately made the competition for a spot on the forward lines tougher. Still, he would have had a chance to attend camp and compete for a spot if the unfortunate lockout hadn't derailed him. Without the delayed opening of the season, things might have been very different for Leblanc. Instead, he started his season in Hamilton and in just the third game of the year, he suffered a high ankle sprain.

This is a devastating injury for a hockey player. It happens when the syndesmotic ligaments, which connect the fibula and tibia in the lower leg, are damaged or torn by the outward rotation of the ankle. It's common in hockey players because it usually comes from getting hit. The result of this is leg pain and an inability to support weight or maintain normal range of motion...not a good thing for someone who skates for a living. Often, treatment includes immobilization for several weeks, which can lead to a protracted period of stiffness in the leg, foot and ankle even after the athlete returns to play. Recent studies say the average length of time it takes for a person to come back after such an injury is 55 days. Hockey players, specifically, have an average of 45 days of recovery before returning to the ice, but time off in individual cases studied has been up to 137 days. Research has proven that 60% of players who suffer from this kind of injury still experience chronic ankle pain, instability and limitations when tested (by hopping) six months after the injury happens.

In Leblanc's case, he sustained his sprain on October 20. He was was back on the ice less than 30 days later and played on November 21. Upon his return, he was a different player. In the 21 games between his first game back and the discovery that he hadn't been invited to the Habs camp, he scored one goal and just three points. This was not the same player both Canadiens and Bulldogs fans had seen the year before. Studies suggest he was quite likely suffering from the ankle sprain for a long time after his return to the game.

So, he didn't get invited to camp, but 'Dogs teammates Brendan Gallagher and Gabriel Dumont were asked. Gallagher and first-round pick Alex Galchenyuk made the big team and Dumont positioned himself as a priority call-up. Leblanc continued to struggle and ended up with only 18 points in 62 games in Hamilton. By the end of the year, Gallagher and Galchenyuk had cemented their roster spots in Montreal. Even Dumont appeared to have passed Leblanc on the depth chart after posting 31 points in 55 games for a wretched  'Dogs team and getting rewarded with 10 regular season and 3 playoff games in Montreal.

All of this means Leblanc has a whole lot to prove this year. GM Marc Bergevin has said he's still in the Habs plans and the chance to re-establish his value is his to grab. Leblanc himself says he fell into the trap of dwelling on his bad luck last year, but that's behind him now. He says he's increased the intensity of his summer workouts with an eye to improving his lower body strength and becoming a better skater.

If Leblanc can remain injury-free, there's no reason why he can't once again demonstrate the tools that had scouts calling him a "skilled, versatile forward with upside." He's always been known as a smart guy who works hard and is a quiet leader. Bergevin says he wants players with good character, and he wants to build the Canadiens through the draft. Both of those preferences are good reasons to give Leblanc every chance to get back to the NHL. Having patience with a former first-rounder who's also a homegrown player can't hurt a team developing from within.

The trick for Leblanc will be remaining positive, even if, as is likely (barring injuries), he finds himself once again starting the year in Hamilton. That will be tough for a guy who seemed to be on the way up, only to find his career stalling and his window shrinking. Another demotion will inevitably be worrisome for him, nearly five years past his draft date and rapidly approaching his best-before. Pro hockey is a cruel game and the truth in most cases is, if a guy can't show he's full-time NHL material by the time he's 23 or 24, he probably never will. Leblanc will be 23 in January, and he's going to have to work his butt off to make up the ground he lost last year.

He can certainly do it, though. With the right attitude and lots of determination, he can get back to where he wants to be, and he can benefit the team that drafted him. After all, he's still young.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Know When To Hold 'Em

You know how sometimes you drive through a city work site and you see the local workers all standing around a bunch of trucks, drinking coffee? And then you drive back an hour later, and they're drinking coffee again...or still? Yeah, well, those guys get it. They have learned never to let the bosses know what they're capable of doing. You know how to fix a truck, even though your actual job is driving the truck? Never tell the bosses that, or you'll be expected to do it. Never let 'em know you can solve an electrical problem if you're a plumber. They'll just call on you to use your skill, but there won't be any benefit in it. You don't get more money or appreciation. You end up doing somebody else's job and you get nothing.

Tomas Plekanec hasn't learned that lesson. Some people are just hardwired to work hard all the time, and they're predisposed to please people. So, here we have Plekanec who's the Canadiens' best centreman offensively, but he's also capable of being the best defensive centre on the team. As it turns out, a lot of players in the organization are able to make slick passes. Not very many are able to cover Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin in the playoffs.

Plekanec is 31 this year. He doesn't have a whole lot of years left to be at his best as an NHL player. Yet, because he's demonstrated his skill at both ends of the ice, he'll, once again, end up taking most of the defensive zone faceoffs and killing penalties because there's nobody else able to do it as well. The past two seasons have seen David Desharnais gifted the best two wingers on the team because most offensive wingers aren't necessarily great in their own end. Plekanec, who's a better centre, gets stuck with the likes of Travis Moen on his line for extended periods because he's playing so much defense.

This is an oversight of Marc Bergevin as GM. He needed to bring in a player who could help Plekanec, either a third or fouth-line centre with superior faceoff skills, or an offensive winger who can handle defensive assignments. He did neither. So, once again, Plekanec will be expected to play massive defensive minutes on a team that really could use some goal scoring. Once again, he'll have a great October and November, then start to flag after Christmas, culminating in criticism of his lack of production in the playoffs (if the team makes them) because he's been given a tough defensive assignment.

Plekanec has been a professional in every way in his years with the Habs. He deserves a chance to be the clear-cut, number-one centre without a bunch of other roles thrust upon him. Soon, Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller will surpass him offensively and he'll be relegated to a third-line shut-down role. He should be given a chance this year to take the best wingers on the this case Max Pacioretty and Galchenyuk...and unleash his speed and hands on offence without having to be the defensive conscience of the forward corps.

If there's any justice in the coach's office, Plekanec should be given an offensive assignment this season, and a chance to be a star for once. He's been the most reliable player on the team for years, and even if he'd never ask for it himself, he deserves a chance to just go for it. While it's great to find satisfaction in being a shut-down guy, those joys are usually reserved for those who can't contribute in any other way. Plekanec is more than that. Sometimes, he must regret letting the bosses know what he can really do.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Summer Review

Wow. September already! After a long, hockey-less August, (with the exception of the overwhelming and slightly nauseating number of sports reporters who felt the need to loudly explain their choices for Team Canada's men's Olympic hockey team) the disappointment of the Canadiens' rotten injury luck against the Senators in April is finally easing. With the slightly frosty scent of a new season in the evening air these days, it's time to look ahead to what GM Marc Bergevin's new additions...and what he failed to add...will do for the Habs' immediate future.

1. Michael McCarron. The Canadiens' first-round draft pick is an interesting acquisition. When the kid himself said he was surprised to go in the top thirty, you know the team went a bit off the board with the selection. Bergevin talked about the character and size the kid owns, with the potential to get even bigger than his current 6'5", 228 lbs. The GM also admitted he tried to swing a substantial trade involving picks and players to move into the draft's top ten, which would seem to be an admission that McCarron wasn't on the top of the Canadiens' list, so they decided to address an organizational need and go with huge size instead of Trevor Timmins' usual "best player available" approach. This could be a brilliant gambit. It could also prove that Timmins' strategy was the right one all along and bring on nightmares about previous "big" picks, Eric Chouinard, Jason Ward, Terry Ryan, Brad Brown, David Wilkie...okay, that's enough of that. You know the list and you get the point. Still, one can't help admiring the kid for his announcement that he'd be pleased to answer the bell if Milan Lucic should ring it in his vicinity, and secretly hoping McCarron could actually teach the brute a lesson. Time, as it does for all draft picks outside the top five and Brendan Gallagher, will tell.

2. Daniel Briere. In the space of a year, the Canadiens traded in Erik Cole for Michael Ryder, who has now become Briere. Bergevin defended the decision to sign yet another small, defensively iffy, and recently fragile top-nine forward by claiming Briere is a man of character and may be even better than Ryder on the ice. While the GM may be of that opinion, the likelihood of the sentiment proving true is far from certain. In the last five years, Ryder has scored 114 goals and 224 points in 363 games. Briere, on the other hand, has been available for 285 of his team's games and has managed 93 goals and 211 points. So, by the numbers, Briere is far from being better than Ryder. Briere is also three years older than Ryder, which would mean, as his last name isn't Howe, Chelios or Selanne, Briere is two years closer to done. Defensively, Briere is a career -18, compared with Ryder's +25. Admittedly, plus/minus isn't the most reliable indicator, and Ryder did spend three years with the tightly-disciplined Bruins, but knowing Ryder isn't the most dedicated guy in his own end makes you wonder how weak Briere really is. The size issue has been over analyzed to the point of boredom, but there's no question the team has given up physical power on the wing. That means there's a further question about where to play Briere. Does Michel Therrien use him with David Desharnais? Or on a line with Brian Gionta? Or Brendan Gallagher? He must play in the top nine, but how do you balance lines when four of your forwards are under 5'10" and less than 180 lbs? As Bergevin said, character, speed and skill matter as much as size. Still, the fact remains that one or two small players are fine. Relying on four of them for a good proportion of your offence will get you killed against the Senators, leafs, Bruins, Blackhawks and Kings. Probably the Islanders too. This was a disappointing signing on paper and it will take a lot to make it work on the ice.

3. Vincent Lecavalier. This one generated lots of chatter and some grumpy mumbling about how the Habs once again failed to bring their local star home. In reality, this was never going to happen, even though Vinnie would have been a much better francophone addition (if there had to be one) than Briere. Lecavalier has always been polite when asked about whether he'd like to play for the Canadiens someday, never coming straight out with a heartfelt "Hell, no!" So when the Lightning bought him out of his obscene contract, the day diehard Vinnie watchers had almost given up hope of ever seeing finally arrived. All he'd cost would be cap space. No picks or prospects or roster players would be required, to the relief of those who still shudder to remember the Gainey-led trade of half the roster for Lecavalier, which was blessedly vetoed by Gary Bettman. In any case, when Vinnie hit the market, Bergevin and Lecavalier both knew Lecavalier would never come to Montreal. He is not, as far as anyone knows, a particularly stupid man. And it would be supremely stupid of him to sign in a city that would expect not just a piece of him, but all of him, all the time. If Carey Price complains about not being able to go out for groceries and feeling like a "hobbit in a hole," you can only imagine how quickly The Great French Hope would drown in the ecstasy of legions of rabid Habs fans. Still, Bergevin was duty-bound to cover his own butt and call Vinnie to ask about his intentions. One might imagine the conversation going something like this:

-Bergevin: "Yeah, Vinnie? I'm calling to ask if you'll consider playing for the Canadiens."
-Lecavalier: "Hahahahahahaha!'re not kidding, are you?"
-Bergevin: "I know, I know. Anyway, I'll just tell them I really wanted you to play for us. You leak the terms of the deal and say you had to go with the better offer, no matter how much you would have loved to wear the CH. That way, I asked, you regretfully declined and they'll eventually leave us both the hell alone. Deal?"
-Lecavalier: "Deal."

In the end, Lecavalier would have been more useful than Briere, but it was never going to happen.

4. George Parros. In a word, blech. Yes, the guy is huge and he can fight. He also plays an average of six minutes a game and has a grand total of 18 goals in eight years. If the experience of watching Georges Laraque employ The Code wasn't enough to turn a Habs fan off one-dimensional goons, then the idea of giving up a roster spot to a hulking snowplow who can't skate should do it. If the Habs are supposed to be built on skill and speed, this is a pointless step backwards. At the same time, as long as fighting is allowed in the league, Brandon Prust can't be expected to fight every time someone needs a punch in the head and he could use some help to mete out his frontier justice. Parros isn't the right guy, though. He just doesn't fit the style the Canadiens are trying to play. He's an extremely limited player, so even if he's full of character and Therrien would like to give him more ice time, he can't handle it. He's also going to be 34 years old in December and the average goon doesn't maintain his appetite for earning his supper with his fists much longer than that. Add to that the realization that Parros is also not a stupid man...quite the opposite in fact. Watching some of the men who filled his role in the past dying young, and learning more about the long-term impact of head injuries is bound to influence a smart man's decisions about whom, when and how often to fight. As we learned with Laraque, a picky goon is a useless goon. All that said, Parros won't be too much worse than the departed Colby Armstrong and, like Armstrong, is known to be a much-loved teammate. For one year and a cap hit less than a million bucks, Parros won't be a long-term mistake for Bergevin, even if the sucky Panthers were willing to trade him for peanuts.

5. Douglas Murray. This guy will help address a desperate need for size and hitting on the blueline while Alexei Emelin is recovering from knee surgery. We all saw what happened when Emelin went down for the season last year, and the opposition took it as a cue to run rings around the slowing Andrei Markov. If Murray can help put some fear back into opposing skaters and kill a few penalties, that will be welcome. Again, though, if you saw him with the Penguins during the playoffs, the man is sloooow. If it's true that you have to catch 'em if you want to hit 'em, Murray will be hearing a lot of the Doppler Effect as he tries to line guys up. Again, though, it's one year and will help fill the Emelin-sized hole the Habs will sport until Christmas.

6. Stephane Waite. As Carey Price failed to find another level and become more than just a good-to-sometimes-great goalie last season, Pierre Groulx was shown the door to make way for new goaltending coach Waite. Having coached both Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi as they won the Cup with the 'Hawks, you can't argue with his record of success. In the end, though, as the great Ken Dryden said:

"Because the demands on a goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself. Not a puck, not an opponent, not a quirk of size or style. Him. The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all are symptoms of his position, in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing. The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accepts them and puts them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots, his body quickly following."

In other words, Carey Price can have the best goalie coach in the world, but he can only learn so much about style and technique. The rest is up to him. Maybe Waite will help him unlock the potential many believe he still has inside, maybe not. Maybe Price will always be just a good-to-sometimes-great goaltender, and there is no more potential to show. Either way, the answers will come from him, not his coach. Who was Dryden's goalie coach, anyway? Right.

Overall, the summer's moves feel a bit like Bergevin's trying to please everyone without a real direction for the team's future in mind. So there's Briere to fill the organization's well-known desire to bring back some French finesse, as well as the practical need for an offensive-minded winger. There's Parros to answer the eternal bawling about the team's softness and lack of size. Murray ups the average size on defence and makes the team's height and weight stats comparable to others in the league. Bergevin has managed to address a lot of complaints about the makeup of the team, but it all feels very temporary. None of these guys will make the Habs contend any sooner, so Bergevin is either marking time while prospects mature or he's a little muddled about what kind of team he really wants to build. Real questions, like the need for a good, reliable faceoff man and mobile, sizeable help on D, and more power on the wings, remain unanswered. Here's hoping for some surprises, because the information we have now says the Canadiens will be shopping with the same list again next summer.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Paying the Piper

Watching P.K.Subban accept the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenceman on Saturday night was an absolute delight. Not only did he carry himself with grace and intelligence, but he looked darn smart in his outstanding mustard-coloured suit as well. For Subban, whose attitude and style have been over analyzed and found wanting by so many pundits around the league since his arrival in Montreal three years ago, his Norris win must be a bit of a vindication, even if he's too classy to say so.

Now, in the aftermath of Subban's victory, Habs fans, who enjoyed the moment for about thirty seconds before finding something to worry about, are worrying. Specifically, they're worrying about how much GM Marc Bergevin will now have to pay to retain the Norris-calibre defenceman's services. Many are slamming Bergevin for failing to sign Subban long-term last summer. That, they say, would have avoided the Subban start-of-season holdout. And, it would have kept the cap hit for a long deal to a manageable level, since Subban had not yet proven he deserved a superstar's salary. Now, the concern is Norris-winner Subban will need extra millions to stick around and the team won't be able to afford a winning supporting cast.

Habs fans, as usual, are probably getting worked up much earlier than they actually need to. No matter what happened last summer, P.K.Subban is going to get paid. If he had signed long-term, the dollar value of this year and next would have been much higher than it turned out to be. That would have been problematic for next year especially, with a dropping salary cap and big, long-term salaries already on the books.

Also, Subban's agent, Don Meehan, is widely recognized as being one of the smartest guys in the business. There's little chance he would have been willing to accept a low-ball offer on behalf of his client, knowing the potential of the young player and the role he had already assumed for the Canadiens. Meehan, as well as any GM or fan out there, could see the composition of the Habs D-corps, the potential (or lack thereof) of replacing Subban from among the up-and-comers in Hamilton, the cap situation both this and next year, the comparable defenders who could be available through trade and the Habs' ability to make such a trade and the choices likely to hit the free agent market. He knew what Subban means to the Canadiens and would mean in the future, and he was hardly likely to sacrifice his commission on an overly cap-friendly hometown discount. So, even if Bergevin had come up with the five-year, five-million-per kind of contract fans were advocating, Meehan might have been fairly hesitant about committing his player to what could be a major bargain for the team.

Now, when Meehan and Bergevin open negotiations on Subban's extension, the Habs will be talking about the young man's place on a roster that will be losing the big-money contracts of Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov. The salary cap will likely be on the rise from next year's post-lockout reduction. Subban will cost a lot to lock up long-term, but his Norris win should actually put minds at ease. Last season, nobody really knew whether Subban would be able to put all his special skills together to consistently dominate the game. Bergevin obviously had cap concerns for the coming season, but he also wanted to see Subban prove himself before he committed big money to the kid. That he got more out of Subban than he bargained for shouldn't be viewed as a mistake on his part, but as a happy surprise for the team. Now, when the Habs pay the man, they know they're paying a star what he's worth. Those earned contracts aren't the ones that hurt teams. Paying the likes of Scott Gomez superstar money is what prevents a team from becoming competitive.

In his comments, both post-holdout and post-Norris win, Subban expressed himself with confidence, but was also very clear about his personal goal being the Stanley Cup, and being part of a winning team, rather than the star of the team. Smart players, like Sidney Crosby, earn their money. They also make sure they don't take salaries so big their bosses will never be able to pay enough other good players to form a winning team. So, even though the market may say Subban deserves seven or eight million a year, he'll take his desire to be part of a winning team into account when he enters contract negotiations.

That said, nobody would blame Subban for feeling slightly sour about some of the actions of and comments made by his coach and GM in the last year. He accepted his current two-year deal under obvious duress, as Bergevin had made himself clear about not budging, despite what Subban thought (rightly as it turned out) was inadequate compensation for his contributions to the team. Subban was a bargain this year and will be one next year as well, and that has to chafe a player who feels he deserved better for what he provides to his team. Then, Bergevin, after Subban's nomination for the Norris, tempered his positive comments by calling the player "a work in progress." Coach Michel Therrien banned Subban and Carey Price's "triple-low-five" post-win celebration, saying the players were making the focus about themselves rather than the team. And, in March, Therrien singled out Subban for taking a bad penalty that cost a game-winning PP goal. All in all, Subban didn't get a whole lot of public love from his immediate bosses, and noticeably didn't mention either of Bergevin or Therrien in the list of thank yous he handed out after his Norris win. Whether Subban remembers those things during negotiations is anybody's guess, but one would hope he doesn't.

The temptation now, based on the way Bergevin has handled the Subban file, will be for the Habs GM to wait until the new season is well underway before opening talks on a new deal. If Subban continues to perform at the level he showed en route to winning the Norris, there will be no option other than to offer the player superstar money, with the hope that he'll be lenient in his demands in the interest of having good teammates around him. If Subban, no longer driven by the post-holdout commentary about his motivation and his subsequent desire to "show 'em," regresses a bit, it might inspire Bergevin to try to haggle.

The important thing after Subban's win, is to make sure the player is happy. After all, the last guy to win the Norris in Montreal ended up in Chicago two years later. Chris Chelios went on to win two more Norris Trophies there, along with two Stanley Cups in Detroit. The Canadiens let their last great defenceman go on to find glory elsewhere. It's imperative that they don't do the same thing to Subban. In the end, that means Subban's contract will be expensive and long. It will also be worth it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Buyout

It's a rare NHL general manager who doesn't make a fairly sizable mistake at some point in his career, often when he's new to the job. However, even savvy, seasoned veterans do things like trade young players and prospects for Scott Gomez and his horrid contract, or draft Patrick Stefan first overall, or let Zdeno Chara walk while keeping Wade Redden instead, or sign Mike Komisarek to a massive deal. Most of the time, the manager in question has to spend years making up for a big mistake, or find a willing sucker to take the problem off his hands.

This year offers a rare opportunity for general managers to, if not wipe their slates entirely clean, get a mulligan on some of their worst errors. Or, in the case of brand new GMs, to get rid of some of the mess they inherited from their predecessors. The two compliance buyouts allowed in the next two seasons under the new CBA will see some big contracts erased from the cap hits of teams across the league.

Marc Bergevin wasted no time in exercising his first option, which was to unceremoniously dump the aforementioned Gomez, after the player's numbers dropped every season since Bob Gainey acquired him from New York for way too much in assets and way too much salary. That move will save the remaining $7.4-million cap hit for the coming season. It also leaves Bergevin with one more buyout to clear space in a tight cap year. The question now is, on whom will he use that option?

At first glance, it seems obvious that Bergevin will choose to pay Tomas Kaberle to go away. Kaberle was acquired by Pierre Gauthier in one of his last, poorly-thought-out, reactionary moves of the 2011-12 season.  With a thin defence and aching power play, Gauthier sent now-retired Jaroslav Spacek to Carolina for Kaberle, in hopes the latter would bring some desperately-needed scoring to the Canadiens' blue line. While it turned out Kaberle is still able to put up some points, he's also prone to defensive errors and, on a team that's not that tough on the back end, is unfortunately soft for his size. As a result, even though Kaberle's play in the ten games in which he skated for the Canadiens this year wasn't glaringly horrible, he was shelved with weeks to go in the regular season and all through the playoffs, presumably to protect him from an injury that would scuttle a planned buyout.

Buying out Kaberle would save Bergevin and the Canadiens a tidy $4.25-million this year, which would enable the team to look for bargains among other teams' buyouts, UFAs whose teams can't afford to re-sign them, and gritty bottom-line guys to pump up the team's sandpaper quotient. So, you'd think, given the evidence, that Bergevin would just say, "Yeah, we're going to buy out Kaberle," when that question was posed during his season-ending press conference. He didn't. Instead he said he'd look for a trade option first, then consider a buyout.

So, if, by some chance, Kaberle isn't the player bought out, Bergevin has other options. Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta make more money than Kaberle. Travis Moen and David Desharnais are signed for longer term. There could be benefits in buying out any of them.

Markov has been an All Star defenceman in his career. Nobody can doubt his on-ice smarts or his vision. He's got the shot and the brilliant passing ability he always had. However, age and repeated knee injuries have taken their toll and he's no longer the skater he needs to be to play his game. The bold pinches he makes and the savvy positional play at which he's always excelled need mobility and quickness. As this season wore on, we saw him drop in his point production and make more defensive mistakes than ever before. Perhaps he played too many minutes, but nobody suffered more with the loss of Alexei Emelin to injury than Markov. Emelin did a lot of the puck retrieval and heavy work in front of the net that left Markov exposed in his absence. After the pain the man suffered for two straight years, it's not difficult to understand why he might want to avoid the same again, but it doesn't help the team when Markov gives up on the puck to avoid a hit. All that said, given sensible minutes and a solid partner, Markov can be an asset to any team. The problem is, in Montreal, he played top-two minutes against top competition much too often this year. If he were to be bought out, the Canadiens would save $5.75-million on the cap, which is far from insignificant. Without him, both Raphael Diaz and P.K.Subban can play solid PP minutes. And perhaps, it would give Bergevin the chance to acquire a more physical D-man, which is what the Habs really need. Whether there's anyone who fits the top-four bill better than Markov is up for debate.

Brian Gionta will make $5-million this coming season. He's always been a solid point producer, despite his diminutive height, but in the last couple of seasons, injuries have begun to catch up to the 34-year-old captain. Two torn biceps in consecutive years, a broken foot, and an unnamed arm injury have interfered with his ability to be there when his team really needs him. Even if he remains perfectly healthy in the coming year, he's likely good for about 50 points, which, for his salary, would probably be seen as under-producing.  However, Gionta brings intangibles money can't buy. He's tough, determined and passionate on the ice. He's also the captain, and Bergevin, as an ex-player himself, is likely to have a certain respect for that position that would colour his treatment of the guy holding it. So, while considerable money can be saved by buying out Gionta, the likelihood of the GM sending the captain home is very slim. For the sake of one year, pride and class will keep Gionta in the lineup until next summer.

Both Gionta and Markov are players whose contracts Bergevin inherited. David Desharnais is another matter. The tiny centreman has a new deal for four years, at $3.5-million per, courtesy of the new GM himself. Desharnais has always been an overachiever. He was a walk-on in junior, made the team and shocked people with his output. He signed with the Habs and got sent to the ECHL, where he led his team to the championship and was playoff MVP. He started racking up points with Max Pacioretty in Hamilton and the pair translated that to first-line minutes in Montreal. It seemed as though nothing would stop the guy. Then, he signed his big deal with the Habs. It seemed as though other teams caught onto him at the exact same time. He suddenly faced tougher opposition and the points began to dwindle. Too often, he got held up at the blueline, as the linemates who used to make room for him weren't doing that anymore. Now, coming off a disappointing season, he's looking like less of a bet to earn the contract Bergevin has handed him.

Bergevin faces a tough decision here. He obviously had faith Desharnais would be worth the contract he signed. Now that flaws in his game are more than obvious, there's probably a level of regret at the impetuousness of his decision to offer that deal midway through the season. Still, it's awfully tough to admit you made a big mistake in a contract that will cost you for the foreseeable future. For that reason alone, as well as the fact that he's a talented homeboy, it's unlikely Desharnais will be a buyout, but that's not to say it's an impossibility.

That leaves Travis Moen. Moen will make nearly two million dollars for each of the next three years. He was hired to provide grit and muscle on the third or fourth line, and to make sure nobody picked on his smaller, skilled linemates. Unfortunately, he's too often been the go-to winger when a top-six guy is injured; a job at which he's not been notably successful. And, in the bottom six, this past season...the first of his new, Bergevin-sanctioned deal...has been beyond unremarkable. He had only 6 points in 48 games, but, of course, that's not what the Habs are looking for from him. They want hits and grit and fight. He did have 82 hits in his 48 games, but none of them were the kind that make people stand up and say, 'whoa, that guy can HIT.'  He had more giveaways, 11, than takeaways, 2. And, for a defensive guy, 22 blocked shots weren't that many. In short, Moen was pretty much invisible this year, despite his new contract. In the playoffs, he had a clear scoresheet, with the exception of his minus-two and his one misguided major penalty in the ill-fated Game Four against the Senators. He fought four times during the regular season and dominated all four, but none of them were game-changing fights. So, in effect, Moen was fairly invisible this season. That raises the question: do we want Moen to be one of the tough guys this team needs to advance in the league?  The answer is no. However, the relatively small salary he collects, could make the GM lean toward letting him work it out.  The question stemming from that is: do the Habs want a different guy to fill that position as tough guy in the bottom six? Since there are other guys probably available as UFAs this summer, the answer may be in the affirmative.

So, looking at the lineup, Bergevin has choices, but they may practically come down to Kaberle or Moen. Kaberle will save six million over three years. Kaberle saves four over one year. The temptation is to say Kaberle's millions will be better spent on real help this year, when money's tight and bigger parts needed than Moen's money can cover. Then again, maybe the boss has had enough of watching Moen not earning the money he paid him only last year. In any case, we shouldn't be totally shocked if Bergevin decides to buy out someone other than the guy we all expect.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


 I don't usually jump on the "refs did it" bandwagon. Every fan base does that when they don't like the way a game turns out, and I've always thought it a little demeaning to do the same. Last night, though, it happened. Friends and I were watching Game Four...the most pivotal game in most playoff series...between the Canadiens and Senators. When Mika Zibanejad’s third-period goal crossed the line, the replay showed two things. First, that rookie Jarred Tinordi had made a rookie defenceman's error and lost his man on the open side of the net while poking at the puck instead. Second, that Zibanejad kicked the puck into the net. Everyone watching with me said, "That was kicked in." I agreed, but I also said, "The league is never calling that back." Sure enough, the goal stood and that decision led to the spiral of disaster that became the heartbreaking, backbreaking loss.

Lots of people are saying today the Habs lay back and allowed the loss to happen to them.  I disagree.
Every team, especially a beat-up team facing an air-tight goalie, is naturally going to want to cling to a two-goal lead. It's instinctive, and it will happen more often than not. That said, even though the Senators out shot the Habs in the third, they didn't have many real threatening chances. Canadiens were doing a decent job at moving the puck out of their zone and even kept it in the Ottawa zone for stretches, although they didn't get a lot of chances.

When the Zibanejad goal was kicked in...and it set a slightly fragile team on edge. Still, they likely would have held off the Senators for the win without the repeated questionable icing calls and subsequent faceoffs that meant Plekanec, struggling in the circle, couldn't get off. I always understood icing would be called if a team shot the puck the length of the ice, out of reach of the opposing defence. Twice the Canadiens lobbed the puck out, and twice Senators defencemen glided gently along after it. Twice they could have easily retrieved the puck with a modicum of effort, and twice the linesmen called icing. Given enough chances to re-set the play with the man advantage, the Senators would have been pretty brutal if they didn't get a good chance.

The funny thing is, the reluctance of "classy" fans to point at the officiating when looking for the cause of a heartbreaking loss is so pervasive, we're looking to blame anything else. So, the team didn't take enough shots in the third. They had the wrong guy out for faceoffs. They couldn't clear the front of the net. They benched Galchenyuk (who, even his biggest defender has to admit is pretty lost in his own end, a LOT) for the third when they could have used a goal. All of those reasons for the loss are acceptable, but it isn't PC to say the officials played a part.

Well, they did. If that first Sens goal had been called back as it should have been, the rest of the whole disaster wouldn't have happened. If the Canadiens had somehow found another way to lose all on their own, that would be a different story. Last night, though, they had a lot of help from an increasingly weak group of NHL officials.

The loss would have been worse, marginally, if it had been the deciding game of the series. As it stands, without Carey Price, Brian Gionta, Ryan White and Lars Eller and with Max Pacioretty very likely nursing some kind of debilitating injury, the bell is tolling for the Habs today. They may take Game Five at the Bell Centre tomorrow, or they may be completely out of gas. Either way, it's not likely they'll pull off three wins in a row at this point. The win they should have had last night would have given them some life, even with the injuries they face. Now, the Habs playoffs are on life support.

It's not cool to blame the officiating for your team's losing a big game these days. I don't care. The Habs got jobbed.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Goon Show

More fingers are pointing at the Canadiens today than Andrew Ference sticks up at opposing fans when the Bruins are winning. Everyone's got a pet theory about what happened to completely take the Habs away from their game and fall into the trap of attempting to play someone else's. So, today, there are many explanations for why the small, fast Habs tried to out-hit and out-tough a bigger, stronger team. Everyone's trying to pinpoint the minute the Canadiens rolled over and gave up that pivotal game.

A lot of those pointing fingers and weary explanations are directed at Carey Price. Craig Anderson has been very strong in the Senators' net despite facing more shots than Price. The Canadiens goaltender needs to be at least as good if the Habs are to have a chance in this series. In Game Two, he was spectacular. In Games One and Three, not so much. That's why some deconstructionists are saying the tide turned at 1:18 of the third period, when Price whiffed on a clear shot by Senators rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau. That gave Ottawa a two-goal lead that must have seemed insurmountable with the way Anderson was playing. It was all downhill from there.

Other Monday morning critics look instead at the first goal of the game, at 5:58 of the first period with the Habs two men down. That, many believe, was emblematic of the indiscipline that marked the beginning of the Canadiens collapse. Certainly, penalties...many of them stupid...played a big part in the result of the game.

Perhaps, though, the real catalyst of the team's melt-down happened before any of that, and was the result of a penalty that wasn't called. Nineteen seconds into the game, the Canadiens P.K.Subban held the puck just behind his own blueline, and was looking for a passing option. The Senators' Erik Condra bore down on Subban, crosschecking him in the head and knocking him to the ice. It was a questionable hit at the very least, but play continued without a whistle. From that moment on, Subban and the Canadiens were thinking more about hitting back and getting even than they were about skating and speed.

The Senators aren't stupid. They know Subban and Brendan Gallagher are the emotional hearts of the Canadiens. Both players were targets last night, but their responses were very different. Gallagher just kept playing his game as hard as he could. Subban fell into the Ottawa trap. While the Senators were penalized twice in the first period for attacking Gallagher, Subban took his first minor of the game at 12:04 of the same frame. He was called twice more in the second, for high-sticking (a bizarre, after-the-fact penalty on the first Pageau goal that should have been a delayed call and thus negated when the puck went in) and for hooking. At 8:31 of the third, he finally lost it and pummelled Senator Kyle Turris. He ended up getting a fighting major, double minor and, almost mercifully, a game misconduct. In between his trips to the box, Subban was visibly frustrated and fell back into old habits of trying to make dramatic stretch passes and end-to-end rushes. While entertaining, the showy Subban is not the most effective Subban. By successfully taking him out of the game, the Senators removed one of the Canadiens' most important weapons and, in doing so, set a tone.

Subban was frustrated and angry, as evidenced by his completely out-of-line public lambasting of teammate Max Pacioretty on the bench, and so his teammates became. When a player is as involved as Subban, it's hard for his emotion to be contained. Michel Therrien, for all his useful passion in the first two games, lost control of the mood on his bench as well. He needed to call his time out and get his players, particularly Subban, back on track before it was too late. He didn't.

Ultimately, the greatest failure lay with the officials in that game. If the correct call had been made on the head shot to Subban on the very first shift, the referees would have sent the message that targeting certain players would not be tolerated. Subban might have felt justice had been served and he might have kept a better leash on his temper. Instead, the play went uncalled and the Habs, Subban first among them, embarked on a doomed mission to find their own vengeance.

Subban is a franchise defenceman. If he's not playing his game, he's not effective and becomes a pawn of the opposition. He's got arguably as big an impact on the team and its fortunes as Price does. How those guys go, so go the Habs. Last night, Price was soft and Subban angry, and that is the identity their team wore. They have to realize the reffing is terrible and rise above it. If they and the Canadiens sink into the mud, they'll soon suffocate. They have a day to recognize the truth of that. In the meantime, they'll find themselves the targets of a lot of fingers.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Head Games

The Stanley Cup playoffs are defined by many things. They're fast, they're exciting and they're high stakes. They feature games in which players spit out their teeth, calmly hand them to the trainer and keep going to turn in the best post-season performance of their lives. There's no doubt the Cup is the toughest trophy to win in pro sports, and the games are a test of endurance, toughness and strategy as much as they are of pure skill.

There are a couple of Stanley Cup cliches about how to win playoff games. Number one, they say, is to have superior goaltending. When all other things are equal, or even if one team's an underdog, a hot goalie can steal a game or more. Number two, according to the experts, is that defense wins championships. A solid D can shut down the best players in the world. We know cliches are true for a reason because we've seen Patrick Roy, Jose Theodore and Jaroslav Halak steal playoff series for the Habs. And we saw what happened to Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin when the Habs defensive blanket covered them up.

Perhaps undervalued in the lexicon of playoff advantages is the impact a coach can have. It's not so much in terms of systems or in-game adjustments, although those things matter. However, once the playoffs arrive, there's not much a coach can do to alter the patterns and habits installed throughout the season. No, at that point, the coach's role is different. Instead of being the guy who calls out the room or bag-skates a team after a bad game, or who calls an unwanted Sunday practice to work on the power play, he becomes an emotional bellwether. Players look to the coach for direction in what can be highly-charged games with very big consequences.

So, while the goaltenders in the Ottawa/Montreal Northeast Division quarter final have each had an excellent victory and the defense for each team has registered a win, Michel Therrien is beating the emotional pants off   of Paul MacLean.

MacLean's "we're the poor underdog" routine before Game One was disingenuous and a disservice to his players, who fought hard all year to remain relevant. Therrien indulged in no such theatrics. He calmly said his team would rely on good goaltending and solid team play and would keep the style that got them to where they were. Therrien came across as being calm and professional. MacLean looked like his guys needed a reason to get pumped.

MacLean really lost his credibility as an emotional manipulator, however, after Game One, and the devastating hit on Lars Eller that left the Habs player bleeding and unconscious. Rather than take the high road and say it was unfortunate to see a player hurt, or he'd wait to see what the league decided, he decided to blame Canadiens Raphael Diaz for making the pass Eller was receiving when he got hit. Not only that, but in pretending he didn't know exactly who'd been hit or "Player 61's" name, he look like a smug, rank amateur. That's when Therrien ate him for lunch.

His reaction was masterful. He talked about how he was so hurt inside to see a fine player like Eller bleeding like that. He got angry when asked about MacLean's comments, but refused to stoop to  his level and talk about blame on the hit. He was the soul of the righteous wronged and he set the emotional tone for his team. (His reaction may also have had something to do with Gryba's two-game suspension, but we'll never know for sure.) Make no mistake, if Brandon Prust wasn't following the lead of his coach, he would never have felt free enough to call MacLean a "bug-eyed fat walrus." Therrien's show of emotion allowed his players to react with passion as well, and that gave them the mood they needed for Game Two.

With the absence of not only Eller, but Max Pacioretty and captain Brian Gionta as well, the Canadiens needed to rely on the scrubs to take their places. Those are players who need an emotional touchstone to play their best. Ryan White needed a chance after his over-the-edge play cost the team earlier in the year, and he needed the coach to have patience and faith in him. Therrien provided both, and he also gave White the charge of passion he needed to play his best game in the NHL. Jeff Halpern, Colby Armstrong and Gabriel Dumont are loyal soldiers who react well to the feeling that they're fighting in the trenches. With his words and actions, Therrien gave his team someone to rally around, and helped create the feeling he wants his players to carry onto the ice.

It may not be a playoff cliche that among coaches the best emotional manipulator wins, but that's what happened last night. Therrien, having learned from going too far in the past, has become a master. MacLean may win coach of the year, but Therrien knows a few tricks the Walrus still can't pull off.