Sunday, April 21, 2013

Playoff Ready

Well, friends, it looks like the Habs are rounding nicely into playoff form. In fact, having lost four of their last five with only three games to go, they could even be primed to bring home the franchise's 25th Stanley Cup. Okay, that sounds ridiculous with the way this team is playing right now, obviously. However, a quick look back at the last two Canadiens championship teams shows an encouraging pattern.

In 1985-86, the Habs stumbled down the stretch with a 3-6-1 record in their last ten games, with little hope of playoff success, a room divided between rookies and veterans and a goalie controversy. They were four games under .500 for the months of March and April, including a six-game losing streak. In no way was that team expected to win the Cup.

Then, in 1992-93, the Canadiens went 4-6 in their last ten, got outscored 36-24, were shutout twice and generally looked like a one-and-done playoff team. After losing the first two games against the Nordiques, nobody would have bet on what happened after that.

So, here we are again, with the playoffs looming and the Habs struggling. Common sense says the team is finally hitting the mat after having punched above its weight for 40 games. It's hard to believe a squad that finished 15th in the East last year and now is near the top of the conference has really made such a drastic turnaround in just one season. The whole year has had the ethereal feel of cotton candy: substantial on the stick, but barely a mouthful of melted sugar when you taste it. It was just a matter of time before the Habs meltdown happened, say today's sensible observers.

Not so fast, though. While we're asking ourselves what the hell has happened to Carey Price, the defence and the tenacious forecheck the team used to have, we need to remember the things that brought the Habs to this point are still there. There are no magic bullets for this year's Canadiens. They don't boast a superstar without whom they'd be lost. Everything they accomplished this season has been through hard work, team play and determined, relentless skating. Those things aren't irretrievably lost because of a few losses.

What we've seen in the last six games is the letdown of a team that was busting its butt to redeem itself after last year by getting back to the playoffs. Once it accomplished that goal, quite convincingly, against the Sabres back on April 11, they collectively relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, they forgot that if they aren't first on loose pucks, they risk exposing their rather shallow defence and their good-but-not-spectacular goaltender to more shots and better chances. If they don't buzz the offensive zone with three aggressive forwards, pushing their opponents back on their heels, they get pushed around themselves. If the forwards don't come back to help the D out, the defencemen are left with few breakout options for turning the play back the other way. They make low-percentage long passes, easily intercepted by opposing forwards. If they don't use their one deadly weapon...their its full advantage, they look very ordinary and not much of a threat.

The results of the last six games prove those unsettling facts. Why the Habs continue to make the same mistakes is the part that's tough to understand. Maybe they're more beat up than they're letting on. Perhaps the loss of Alexei Emelin and his physically-intimidating play has stolen some of their swagger and emboldened their opponents. Or perhaps it's the compressed schedule that preempted proper practice time. Maybe it's just the subconscious acceptance of having accomplished their first goal and the mental regrouping they need to do as they approach their second goal in the post-season. Whatever the reason for the current slide, it's far from unfixable. The Canadiens got where they are with a very simple approach, and they'll need to get back to those basics to recover their equilibrium.

One thing we, and the Habs, know is that the playoffs are a whole new beginning. That's why the eighth-place LA Kings were world beaters last spring. It's why a powerhouse Bruins team was beaten by the underdog Habs and rookie goalie Ken Dryden in 1971. And it's why the '93 and the '86 Canadiens struggled down the stretch in the regular season, then found new life in April. Once you're in, anything can happen. The Habs are a long way from dead, even if it feels like the paramedics are en route to the Bell Centre. For those of us who've seen this act before, some might say they could be getting ready to surprise a lot of people.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Goalie Controversy

There are a lot of panicked Habs fans this week, looking sideways at each other and whispering "pssst...wanna buy a goalie?" Carey Price's nickname should be The Pendulum. When he's winning games, critics talk about playoffs and Vezinas. When he's not...especially when he's losing spectacularly as he has in his last two (and five previous this season) starts...he's suddenly a dud who might bring a nice return if Oilers' new GM Craig MacTavish can be duped out of trading a young stud for him.

The truth, as it usually does, falls somewhere in the middle. Carey Price is a very good goaltender. He's technically sound, by all accounts he's a hard worker and he usually will make enough big saves to give his team the chance to win. On the other hand, Price tends to have enough stinkers to skew his numbers and keep him out of serious recognition as a top-tier goalie in the NHL. This year, for example, Price has had eight games out of his 34 starts in which he's allowed five or more goals. All ended in losses, excepting the bizarre comeback against Boston after Peter Budaj replaced him. To make a comparison with a truly elite goalie, the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist was Price's age in 2008. He gave up six goals twice and five goals three times over 72 games. He was a Vezina finalist that year, his third in the NHL. Price is in his sixth season and has never quite found that consistency from game to game or season to season.

Of course, comparisons of that kind don't serve a great purpose and they're too easy. They don't make allowances for the different cities, coaches or teammates, or different levels of maturity, physical health, innate talent, practice habits or mental strength that make each player his own man. Carey Price isn't Henrik Lundqvist. He's Carey Price, for better or for worse, and that's why there is a goalie controversy in Montreal.

The controversy isn't about whether Price or Budaj should start the next game or the first playoff game. It's not about whether Price or Jaroslav Halak should have been traded in the summer of 2010. Everyone, even those who passionately argue revisionist history, can accept the idea that Price has been much more durable, and therefore, more reliable, than Halak since the trade. The controversy isn't even about the idea that the Canadiens erred in choosing Price fifth overall back in the 2005 draft anymore. These days, Montreal's goalie controversy is between good Carey Price and struggling Carey Price.

When Carey Price is good, he exudes an aura of calm competence. He's quick, in position to face the puck, and to challenge shooters. He handles the puck well. He is, in many ways, a third defenceman and the anchor of his team's defence.

Struggling Carey Price is deep in  his net, loses his focus on the puck, lets weak floaters and squeakers through at the worst possible times and is visibly frustrated with himself. The thing is, every goaltender has a meltdown version of himself. So does just about every other player at every other position who slumps on the scoresheet or in the plus/minus department. They just don't look as bad.

The problem, as former Habs coach Jacques Demers so suscinctly put it, is that it all starts with goaltending. Teams take their mood from the goalie. If he's looking sharp and confident, the team will respond and let him do his job. If he's juggling the puck and looking behind him, his body language tells the team he's not ready. Then the defencemen start scrambling, trying to cover up in their own zone and help the goalie out. The result is chaos.

What Demers didn't say when talking about what it takes to win is that while it might all start with the goalie, the goalie is just a member of the team like everyone else. If Josh Gorges blows coverage or Andrei Markov pinches deep and can't get back, their mistakes cause goals against. When enough of those mistakes turn into goals, the score runs up, the goalie gets pulled and the pendulum of public opinion in the goalie controversy swings.

There's no question Carey Price is the struggling version of himself right now. The timing isn't great with only a handful of games left before playoffs. When Peter Budaj gets the start against a powerhouse like the Penguins, it creates unwanted doubt at a time when things should be coming together for the real season. Michel Therrien may be trying to shock Price out of his slump, because it's not encouraging to watch the guy you're counting on to bring you to any sort of post-season success playing like Hardy Astrom.

That said, Gorges isn't having a great time lately either. Two regulars on defence are missing, replaced with a green rookie and a guy who couldn't make the team in his last NHL home. Brandon Prust is playing hurt, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty score as often as an 80-year-old nun and Travis Moen has been MIA all year. The team's motto is "no excuses," but those facts do actually have an impact on how the team performs. Carey Price is the one who takes the lion's share of the blame, but he's not alone.

Price needs to be better, but the team around him needs to pick it up as well. Blaming the goalie for everything is both myopic and unfair. Price may or may not come out on top in the "is he or isn't he the real deal" goalie controversy. The only way he can answer the question is to stand up in the playoffs and prove himself. Critics need to be silent and allow him to do that.

In the end, Price may meet the challenge and end the goalie controversy this spring. If he doesn't, there may be a real reason to suspect he's actually little more than an above-average goalie with slump problems. Right now, he's 25, he's got six years and five playoffs in the NHL, and the test he's facing will label him, one way or the other, in eyes other than those constantly focusing on the Habs. A lot of fans aren't ready to trust him yet. It remains to be seen if his teammates do. Whatever happens, the pendulum will be weighted heavily to one side or the other by June.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Reality Check

Last weekend, at a provincial music competition, a 13-year-old boy with a special talent dazzled the audience with a fabulous rendition of an ├ętude by Chopin. His parents looked more nervous than he did, clenching their hands and nodding along in intense concentration. They needn't have worried. Their boy was flawless and took his bow with a smile of pride and relief. Then the next competitor took the stage. A 14-year-old kid from another town, his parents just as nervous and excited, his suit looking just as fresh-from-the-hanger, slid straight-backed onto the piano bench. As his hands hovered over the keys, awaiting the adjudicator's nod, the mother of the first competitor leaped to her feet and yelled, "Get off the stage, you bum! You suck!" She then proceeded to hurl epithets at the judges.

If that seems shocking and unbelievable, it's because it didn't really happen. There was a competition, and there were young people competing for musical honours. The parents, though, listened respectfully and afterwards applauded each other's children, congratulating them for their hard work and fine performances. After all, what sane parent would deride another's child in a public competition.

What really did happen last weekend was a championship hockey game. The kids were bantam age, 13-15 years old. The game, right from the outset, was rough with lots of hitting. There were two problems. First, a lot of the kids involved had never been taught to bodycheck properly. They were charging, boarding and hitting their opponents in the head. One kid emerged with a concussion after being run.

The second problem was the officiating. Despite the borderline hitting, there were no major penalties called. One team began to get bolder, taking further liberties. The other began to react out of frustration, hitting back. A young and relatively inexperienced linesman compared what he'd been taught about the rules (including a no-tolerance, automatic penalty policy for hits to the head, even through incidental contact) and what was actually going on during the game, and he skated off the ice, quitting the game several minutes before the final horn sounded. He'd been asking the ref to crack down and take control, but got no response. So, fearing a serious injury for some player, he called it a night. And all the while, parents from both sides were yelling and berating both the officials and the opposing players. That played a role in the linesman's decision to walk away as well.

There is something significantly the matter within minor hockey in this country. Parents who would never dream of screaming at a child playing the piano on stage think nothing of doing the same thing to children on a hockey rink. Some parents (who are often the coaches as well) think the four walls of the hockey arena places their behaviour somehow above the rules of civility and decency we expect to govern our actions in the rest of our lives. The question is why this happens.

Going to the source, you get various answers from parents. Some say it has to do with the accessibility of the pro game to kids and coaches. Whereas, not so many years ago, the NHL was something kids secretly dreamed about while they watched their heroes on Saturday nights, now every big-league game is easily available on TV. Young players see guys from their own town, or the next town over, making it big and their dreams change from simple childhood fantasies to serious career plans. Many times, the change is fostered by the parents who dream NHL dreams even before their children are old enough to do the same.

Other parents say they get carried away by the emotion of the game or the behaviour of opposing teams. They get angry if they think their kids are being shafted by bad officiating. Sometimes tension builds and tempers fray. Recently, I spoke with Fred Greening, whose son, Colin, plays for the Ottawa Senators. He told an amusing story of sitting with parents who were getting a little too wrapped up in the politics of minor hockey ice time and coaching. Greening (who marvels at the idea of putting pressure on kids about hockey) said, impatiently, "Listen, none of these kids are going to make the NHL anyway, so why does everyone get so worked up?" He might have been off-base about his own kid, ironically, but the sentiment was honest. Most boys never come close to an NHL career, but they can learn co-operation and teamwork and make life-long memories if they're let play the game for fun.

The result of bullying behaviour from the stands and behind the benches...and even inadvertently from "old school" officials who say they don't want to interfere too much and "just let them play"...should be a real worry for Hockey Canada. Players are leaving the game because their parents don't want them to risk injury, or because they abhor the ridiculous behaviour of others in the stands. They're leaving because the players themselves have had enough and don't like the feeling of playing with fear, or the frustration of coping with unchecked violence that prohibits them from playing a more skilled game. They're turning to soccer or basketball, or music video games or art instead. A Toronto Star article published last January says only 572 000 kids were registered in minor hockey, down 200 000 from its peak. Officials anticipate losing another 200 000 in the next decade. Some cautious parents aren't signing kids up for hockey at all. Others are leaving the game after they witness some of the behaviour in the rinks.

An even more serious problem might be with the young officials involved in these games. They are often players or former players who decide to try their hands at reffing or working the lines for a change of pace and a few bucks. They take the time to train for the role, and they usually work the games under the guidance of an experienced official. It's tough enough for them to follow the game, remember all the rules and react appropriately without dealing with the rage from the stands. Any provincial hockey association will tell you it's not a problem to attract young officials and train them. The difficulty is in keeping them. The Calgary Minor Hockey Association says a typical year sees a 50% turnover in its referees. A third of all minor hockey officials in New Brunswick quit each season. In Saskatchewan, about 40% of their officials throw in the towel every year. In almost every province, the number-one reason given by those who quit is the seriousness of verbal abuse from the stands and from coaches.

The constant turnover of officials hurts the game. It means the more experienced referees and linesmen needed to control the games of teen aged players are getting fewer, and many of those quitting are high-quality officials. That can leave younger, more inexperienced or not as talented people in charge of games that can get out of hand without firm enforcement of the rules. In BC, in 2005, three young refs quit because of threats of physical violence from the stands. After that, for every 50 new people joining the officiating ranks, 50 older refs and linesmen quit. The problem isn't going away.

The young linesman in this story was ready to quit hockey entirely when he left the ice on the weekend. His referee disappointed him by letting too much violence go unpenalized and by losing control of the game. He told parents he was sickened by what was happening on the ice and in the stands. Now, his minor hockey association is trying to convince him to give it another shot in an effort to keep a promising young official in the system. He may or may not decide to stick around.

Parents and coaches screaming at a hockey rink need to stop and listen to themselves. Then they need to ask whether they'd stand up and shout what they're saying to a young opposing hockey player or official on the ice to a performer in the middle of a concert hall. If they wouldn't, they need to sit down and shut up. Their big mouths and ridiculous behaviour are driving young people away from the game, and hockey can only be worse for that.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Trophy Boys

When the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty accepted the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy last year at the NHL awards, he was proud, but, he was probably also a bit embarrassed. Pacioretty isn't the kind of guy who likes standing in front of a crowd making acceptance speeches. He's also not the type of person who feels good about receiving an individual award in a year in which his team finished dead last in the East, even if said award was very well-deserved for his personal triumph in returning to the game after a serious injury.

Canadiens fans, despite their disappointment with the season, were happy to see Pacioretty honoured, if only because his Masterton win was the first individual trophy a Canadiens player had claimed since Jose Theodore's Hart and Vezina wins in 2002. The end of the ten-year drought (okay, Saku Koivu's King Clancy trophy in 2007 technically counts, but we're talking about on-ice awards) for the Canadiens at the NHL awards awakened a bit of nostalgia for the days when the team picture was printed in red, white, blue and silver. Remember the 1989 team picture (above) with the Wales Trophy for winning the conference title, the Selke for Guy Carbonneau, Lady Byng for Mats Naslund, Vezina for Patrick Roy, Norris for Chris Chelios and Adams for Pat Burns? Or perhaps you remember the 1977 Habs with their Wales Trophy, Guy Lafleur's Art Ross, Hart and Conn Smythe awards, Larry Robinson's Norris and Ken Dryden's and Bunny Larocque's Vezina, with the big, beautiful Stanley Cup right in the middle? (Lafleur's Lester Pearson and Scotty Bowman's Adams aren't in the shot.)
It may be a while before a Canadiens team picture includes those kinds of riches again. Even so, several Canadiens deserve serious consideration for individual awards this season.

Michel Therrien is an obvious contender for the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year. Anytime a coach takes a last-place team and turns it into a division leader in one season, he's got to draw some attention for his ability. Therrien has done that by tailoring his systems to bring out the best in the players he's got, rather than trying to make his team play a style for which it's unsuited. He's gone beyond even that, however, in that he's managed to change the very culture within the Canadiens' dressing room. His insistence that every player be accountable and drop the excuses for failing to do so, and his rewarding good play with good ice time have the team responding with a willingness to buy in to his message. There are few things that can create hate and discontent more than a feeling of being treated unjustly. Therrien's rules make sure that doesn't happen because there are real reasons for the decisions he makes, and everyone understands that. Even the "don't step on the logo" rule, which seems silly on the surface, is telling the players the Canadiens sweater deserves respect and instills a sense of pride in the men wearing it. Therrien has done a very good job in his return to Montreal, and deserves to be recognized for that.

With just fourteen games to go in the regular season, Brendan Gallagher has pundits and prognosticators including his name in lists of Calder trophy candidates as rookie of the year, although few are touting him to actually win it. While they're right to say Gallagher deserves consideration, it may be premature to dismiss his chances of going home with the silver. Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau and Tampa's Cory Conacher are ahead of Gallagher in points, with 25 and 24 respectively, compared to Gallagher's 20. They also have played 6 and 4 games more than the Montreal rookie. Interestingly, they are both minus players, while Gallagher is fourth on the Canadiens with a plus-8. Gallagher is smaller than Huberdeau and younger than Conacher, but he's still keeping pace with them.

Numbers aside, one could argue Gallagher has contributed more to the overall performance of his team than the other candidates for rookie of the year. Nobody can deny his net-driving tenacity creates chances in the offensive zone that add to his value beyond the points he scores himself. In the recent Boston comeback game, for example, Gallagher not only scored a goal in tight, but his screen in front of the Bruins' net led directly to Andrei Markov's equalizer. Scoring in the shootout to win it was just the flag on top of the mountain for him. He's got more game-winning goals (3) than any other rookie, even though his 13:37 minutes of ice time per game are the least among the top scoring first-year players in the league. Not bad for a fifth-round draft pick who should get some serious votes for the Calder.

That brings us to P.K.Subban. When his season started with a contract holdout, not many people thought he would be a Norris trophy contender when the campaign hit the home stretch.Yet, there he stands. The early-season favourite as the league's best defenceman, in the absence of Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, was Pittsburgh's Kris Letang. Now, with both Letang and Subban having played 28 games, they've scored 28 and 27 points, respectively. Subban, though, has ten goals, including 6 on the PP, to Letang's 3. In fact, those ten goals of Subban's put him at the top of the list for D-men. He's also a respectable +10, which is a testament to the fact that he's very solid in his own end. (Letang is a +11 on a powerful Penguins team, and has zero PP goals, incidentally.)

The other night, on Hockey Night in Canada, the broadcast team was idly discussing Subban's progress and agreed he should be considered for the Norris, likely winning it some day...but not this year. They said he'd have to play between 25 and 30 minutes a night to be a serious contender. Big minutes prove a defenceman's worth, apparently. On the other hand, it's impressive to note that Subban is putting up the kind of points he is while playing just 22:45 a night. That's about 3 minutes fewer than Letang and 5 minutes less than defensive scoring leader Ryan Suter. (28 points in 34 games.) You might be forgiven for thinking scoring more points in fewer minutes makes a guy a better player than those who need more time to achieve the same result.

Interestingly, in Subban's case, it seems his new all-business attitude is gaining him the respect he lacked earlier in his career. Gone are the triple low-fives after wins. No longer do we see Subban indulging in crazy goal celebrations or chasing opponents around while chirping and grinning at them. His interviews are brief and could call them terse...with little of his former "aw shucks" goofiness. Marc Bergevin and Therrien wanted a more workmanlike Subban who focused only on playing up to his potential and within Therrien's system. Subban, always the coachable guy, listened and transformed himself into the serious, dedicated player who's now getting mentioned in the same breath as the best defencemen in the game. Last year, even if he had scored at the same kind of pace as this season, he would never have been taken seriously by most of the people who vote for the Norris.

Back to the Masterton, since it seems to always go to a guy who comes back to play after serious illness or injury, Andrei Markov might have a shot this year. He's fifth in scoring among defencemen after playing only 65 games in the previous three seasons, due to a slashed tendon and his two major knee reconstructions. The fact that he's playing as well as he is (although probably not quite as mobile as he used to be) after all that adversity should get him a few votes.

So, when the Habs gather at the end of the year to pose for their final team photo, it's certainly possible a few lovely silver keepsakes could adorn the foreground. Somehow, though, you get the feeling most of the guys eligible to win them wouldn't be satisfied unless that big, silver Cup stands in the place of honour.