Friday, February 8, 2013

White Out

Oh, Ryan White. What a mess he finds himself in today! For the second time in as many starts, White took a brain-dead double minor that ended up costing his team a goal and momentum. The first time, his pointless unsportsmanlike minor broke the game against Ottawa open as the Sens scored two and never looked back. White looked sick to his stomach on the bench, and sat out for three games after that. Last night in Buffalo, Travis Moen's injury opened the door of opportunity for White, who got the second chance Michel Therrien had promised him against the Sabres.

Given his short leash and his previous transgression, White did the worst possible thing he could have done, short of telling Therrien he'd fathered the coach's grandchild.  He let annoying Steve Ott goad him into mashing Ott's face into the ice and landed himself another stupid double minor for roughing.  Predictably, the Sabres scored almost immediately. The goal put Buffalo within reach and with tired players on their last shift of the game, the Canadiens gave up the tie and, eventually, the point.

White's penalties didn't just cost the team a win. They forced Tomas Plekanec, who's been the best player on the team all year, to play 5:29 tough minutes on the PK. Plekanec is Therrien's go-to penalty killer, but the more he's used in that role, the more his total minutes climb. That's not what you want in a hectic, compressed schedule. The Canadiens need him on offence, not killing dumb penalties all night.

Unfortunately for White, if you play with an edge, you have to play with a smart edge. So far this year, he's been forgetting the smart part. After just getting scratched for the same offence, the patience of the fans and of the coaching staff is wearing dangerously thin. The puck is now in Therrien's end of the ice when it comes to finding a way to deal with White without crushing his confidence. After all, the kid does have his good points, and there's no question about his passion for the game and for winning. This is what he told me last season, while working to recover from hernia surgery:

"Hockey's everything I've ever known and everything I love to do. My life revolves around it and it always has. Once they take that away from you...I didn't really know what else to do. I tried to stay around the rink as much as possible and be a part of the team, but it's tough when you're not contributing on the ice and you're not going to war with the guys. It was a tough season in that sense."

If White's having a tough season this year, it's down to his own choices. This is where Therrien's experience as a dad comes in. He'll have to count to ten (or a hundred), talk to White and, eventually, give him another chance. The young player will have to understand he's not on a short leash anymore. He's on a choke chain with a muzzle. There comes a point when a team just can't make room for a guy who makes the kinds of huge mistakes that costs games. White's almost there, but he's not worth discarding just yet.

And, of course, hockey is a team game. One guy's error, no matter how in-your-face dumb, doesn't doom the team to a loss all by itself. Last night, Peter Budaj wasn't very good. Perhaps it's too much to expect a guy who sees game action once every two weeks to be sharp when called upon, but that's essentially the job of a backup goalie in the NHL. So far, Budaj hasn't shown he can fill the role properly and make his teammates feel like he's giving them a chance to win. The tying goal, with two seconds left, would never have happened if Budaj had simply covered the puck in the crease. Carey Price can't play all the games, but with Budaj's play, he may have to play more back-to-backs than he would if his backup were more reliable.

In Budaj's defence, even though some of the goals he allowed were weak, he made some big saves as well. He just needs to stop the soft ones. If he doesn't, the defence changes its style and tends to fall back more to cover for him. (Lucky thing, too, because Raphael Diaz...who's been the anti-White in terms of smart play... pulled a goal right out of the net behind Budaj.) That ends up giving the opposing forwards more room in the offensive zone, and a guy like Vanek can use that to his great advantage.

The other big problem the Habs are facing is the complete dysfunction of last year's first line. David Desharnais is working hard, but he's getting shown up in the defensive side of the game. Max Pacioretty could be still dealing with sluggishness from his emergency appendectomy, although he showed signs of his old self last night. Erik Cole, however, has been nowhere to be seen for most of the season.

It's true Cole has traditionally been a slow starter and he does have a couple of goals this year. Still, ten games in, Cole has rarely shown the drive for the net or tenacious forechecking he did last season. He said before this season even began that he was thinking of retirement because of his disillusionment with the CBA process. He's been playing as though his mind is already on a tropical beach with his kids. Last season, a big reason why that line worked was Cole's powerful presence in the offensive zone. While opposing defencemen backed up to contain him, it created lots of room for Desharnais to put his creativity with the puck to good use. When Cole's trailing the play as he's often been doing this year,  Desharnais has to carry the puck a lot, and he's easier to stop than a truck like Cole.

The Canadiens are a work in progress, there's no doubt about that. They have a lot of issues to address, and some of them are bigger than Ryan White. Today, though, the focus and the blame will probably fall on the slumped shoulders of a kid who's showing more enthusiasm than good sense. Yesterday, I talked to former Habs coach and current senator, Jacques Demers. He had some words of advice White would be well served to learn.

"You have to have players who are disciplined," he explained. "I told my players before the playoffs, turn the other cheek. If you get a cheap shot, you don't like it. But don't retaliate, because if you do, you'll be the last guy and you'll get the penalty. Don't put your team in a vulnerable position. I told my players don't be selfish, because it could cost us the game."

White knows that from experience. Now he needs to show it's sunk into his head. He'll get another chance, but it won't be tomorrow.


Jay in PA said...

I accidentally fell asleep just after the goal brought on by White's penalty and missed the rest of the game, so I can't say much about our play down the line. However, it strikes me that the fourth line, which looked so deep at the beginning of the season, is now starting to be a serious concern. Colby Armstrong is not the second coming of Dominic Moore, or even of Colby Armstrong. White is like a bomb with a wiring fault--you never know when he's going to blow up and which team he's going to hurt in the process. Moen hasn't looked like much this year, but last year's fast start was kind of anomalous, anyway. And Eller is skating his butt off to try and get the hell off the fourth line, where he really doesn't belong in the first place.

There are changes Therrien can make. He can draw Blunden in for White, and I suppose it's time to do that. He can swap Eller and Prust and hope Eller's speed compensates for Prust's crashing and banging in creating space and opportunities for the kids. So far, MT has been pretty good about distributing the ice time, but if the team starts to really slump and the fourth line continues to underperform, that won't go on indefinitely.

Come trade deadline time, I wouldn't be surprised to see some Bob Gainey-style trades to shore up the energy line. Dominic Moore was one of the big reasons we went as far as we did in the playoffs in 2010. If neither Armstrong nor White pick up their games and become more intelligent and effective, we'll need someone like Moore to make that line relevant enough again to continue to roll all four lines into the playoffs.

I just realized that I've been expressing concern about the fourth line underperforming. Amazing how short my memory is to even think of having a fourth line, instead of a collection of spare parts and a seventh defenseman collecting a couple minutes' ice team each.

As a last note, it doesn't surprise me to see this team having its growing pains. Some guys are still getting back into the rhythm of the season after long layoffs. Other teams have seen what Therrien is trying to do and are now game-planning against it. Guys are getting banged up. And there are some bad breaks and mental breakdowns, too. The point is, the regular season is a time of frequent adjustment as the team tries to make, and then prepare for, the playoffs. Jacques Martin didn't seem to do much in terms of adjustment and strategizing, which was just as well since his teams never had much playoff hope anyway. Therrien is savvier than that. We'll see how he makes his first real adjustments very shortly, I think.

Ian said...

Your post nailed my thoughts bang on (not sure if that's a compliment). :))

I love the energy and heart White brought to the team in the past. For a small guy, he played big.

Unfortunately, he doesn't have the size to be a tough guy. And we have brought in players to fill that role.

I am not saying to get rid of him. We have to define his role and have him play it. He is not an enforcer. Takes too many beatings for the team. But a team player - that he is. ALL HEART.

Never going to be more than a 4th line player. And that's fine. Just has to play his role and stay within it.

I feel really bad for him today. I expect he feels much worse! Hopefully he will learn and grow from it. Everyone on the team could learn from him about how to play with heart.

I am glad hockey is back, and pleased at the good start we have had. Also keeping in mind the favourable schedule we have had so far. It will get tougher.

We lost something like 430 man games to injury last year, and I thought we were a better team than we showed. If healthy, we can make a noise. So far, so good.

The losses to Boston and Buffalo have bothered me. Points we need. But I'd rather lose those games than to the Laffs on Saturday (or any day). The opening day loss really bothered me.

So let's hope for a rebound on Saturday. I'd love to see PK and Eller lead us to a convincing win.

Mike Safoniuk said...

As always, you have some interesting thoughts.

White is a strange case in Montreal. Rarely do we see a player who can be such a hammerhead and yet still have fans thinking he's a nice guy. I've never met him but every impression I've been given by the people who have is that White is indeed a nice guy with lots of spirit and enthusiasm. So the question really is what to do with him.

Regardless of all that, hockey is a competitive sport and unfortunately I think it may be time to let him go. If I had my say, I'd likely place him on waivers and try to send him down to Hamilton. Sure there is a risk of losing him (now or upon re-entry) but I think that wouldn't be that dire for the team and it would give White a fresh start (and I think based on his character he deserves that). It lets him know how tight that proverbial choke-lease is and lets him get his game together with more ice time. More importantly I think it sends a clear message to the rest of the team that there is accountability for your actions.

I think Jay is right that Blunden would be a decent replacement (I do however disagree that the 4th line is a serious concern; I think it's exactly what it is ... a 4th line).

moeman said...

Great read JT.

Topham said...

Great timing on the headline.

Steve said...

I agree with your commentary. The question is does anyone know yet if we are we sellers or buyers.

I would love to sell Cole, unless we are cup bound this year or next he really cant help us. If we could get a couple of seconds for him from say the Leafs, Yahoo