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.