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.


Jay in PA said...

It's worth it to remember that Bergevin's moves last year were head-scratchers, at best: First, he signed Prust for a widely-derided 4 years at 2.5M per--a contract that even Glen Sather wouldn't offer, I should note. He put Michel Therrien, of all people, back behind the Canadiens' bench, which the kindest commentators considered to be nuts. Then he won a game of chicken with Subban despite an arena full of fans chanting for PK. All of those moves proved to be winners last year--though he's going to end up paying through the teeth to sign Subban long term... But you know what? Maybe he was going to end up doing that no matter what, and he saved cap space while he could. In the end, Bergevin looked nothing if not prescient, especially for a GM who was new to a team, and a team that was in utter turmoil, to boot.

Now, with a year under his belt, his moves--including Briere--suggest stopgap transition measures on a team that is preparing for a serious Cup run in a year or two. The size and toughness quotient--if not the overall hockey skill--has gone up, and that will not only save Prust (who is too valuable to be an enforcer), but the other members of Mrs. Falbo's Tiny Town from unnecessary wear and tear until they reach that point. Plus, the team now has enough depth on defense to survive the loss of a couple of guys without resorting to desperate trades for the likes of Tomas Kaberle.

Specifically, Parros' five minutes of ice time may not provide much direct value to the team, but if his presence and toughness (and Murray's, too) keep the rest of the team from being definitively ground into the boards every game, I'm all for it. Murray may be slow, but it is not humanly possible for him to be slower than Hal Gill, who once lost a footrace against a lighthouse. Murray offers many of Gill's virtues and resulting benefits, plus a willingness to actually hit and fight, which Gill would not. And while Briere is clearly past his prime, Ryder's scoring had to be replaced--and if Briere doesn't compare favorably to Ryder, at least he's in the same ballpark, and is miles ahead of Erik "Mr. Disillusioned" Cole.

The main point here is that this is a team that is entering the season a little bigger and tougher, and ultimately not worse than the team that began last year's shortened season. Bergevin did what he could, recognizing that no free agent or potential trade partner is looking to be a sucker. If the team can stay healthy and avoid catastrophic injuries around playoff time, I think they'll be competitive. It's an incremental improvement, and until the farm system produces a contending team, I think that's what we have to settle for.

J.T. said...

@Jay: I agree many of Bergevin's early moves didn't look great at first, but some of them turned out okay. Still, there are the long-term deals to Desharnais and Moen that continue to raise questions about the GM's judgement. Those can still be salvaged if the guys in question are better than they were last year...but right now, those signings don't inspire confidence. (And I say this as a big fan of DD's heart and underdog story.)

I think, regarding Parros, that the days of the pure goon are over, at least as far as real contenders are concerned. Maybe he'll prove to be more than that, and really contribute, but I think any benefit his size and toughness brings is mitigated by his limitations as a player. We'll see.

And, with respect, wait until you see Murray skate. Gill may have lost a footrace to a lighthouse, but I believe Murray lost one to Gill.

In any case, I agree with your conclusion that this team will be a place-holder for the contender we hope to see in a couple of seasons. I'm not sure whether it'll be slightly better or slightly worse than last season, but it won't be a huge difference either way.

Unknown said...

Since taking over the Habs, Marc Bergevin has said many times that the way to build is through drafting and development, and that in order to contend, a team needs a good balance between speed and skill, size and toughness. Both our most recent draft and the moves Bergevin made this summer reflect this view. He added size and toughness, as well as skill, to our prospect pool, while slightly altering the balance of the team and filling some holes.

As you point out, the three additions - Brière, Parros, and Murray - are stopgap measures. That is precisely what I like about them. Bergevin knows that the Habs are at least a couple of seasons away from being contenders. Our prospects are simply not ready. But the additions should help make us competitive in the meantime without affecting our cap situation going forward or hindering the development of our young players. I'd much rather two years of Brière than seven of Clarkson or four of Lecavalier. I like that Bergevn is sticking to his plan, and I really think the team is on the right path.

As for Price, I hope that Stephane Waite can help him reach elite level, but I think you're right in saying that it's largely up to him. He has the physical and technical tools; it's the mental side of goaltending that he doesn't seem to be in full control of. But in hiring Waite, Bergevin has shown that he is committed to giving Price the best possible chance to succeed. If he never does become more than he is now, we have Zach Fucale waiting in the wings.

Unknown said...

Well balanced and fair analysis, J.T., it's refreshing to see that some observers of the game are above the crowd of naive believers and stubborn detractors of the HABS.

We have to remember that the patchwork Bergevin did, as disappointing as it looks, is intended to keep money for the (awfully big) contracts that the Gallies and Eller will get soon. Lecavalier didn't fit with the HABS, neither in the alignment or on the payroll.

And as a Desharnais fan, I bet you that DD will get as many points as Lecavalier this season (supposing he plays more games of course, hahaha). Last year the attention was all on Desharnais, who suffered from this, and from the Cole fiasco (as Pacio did too, remember ?). This year, Gallagher and Pacio will get most of it, which will open space for D. Underdogs perform better in the shadow...

Layvack said...

I don't get why you say Ryder with 224 points in 363 games and Briere, with 211 points in 285 games is better than Briere, that's only 13 points in a difference of 78 games. To me Briere is better. Where was the bigger and younger Ryder in the playoffs, where Briere has more than 1 point a game? Briere is known to be a clutch player while Ryder is known to put up his points i off-sided games.

As for Murray and Parros they with bring the physicality needed.

Let's not forget the the shortened season was meant to be chaos for the new staff, system and practically no training camp.

I think that Moen was probably injured last season. But remember the season before at the start he was leading the team in points at one time and that Prust last year played, him too top 6. Those two will be playing 4th line, probably the best in all the league and capable of scoring. No I'm not worried at all for the Habs.

Price's numbers are a lot better than one might see, at 5 vs 5 he's up there, it's the PK that did him in and the lack of physical play on the D. Murray is slow, but he can hit and block shots but mostly better known to clear the front of the net and also good on PK, which will help Price's numbers a bundle a bundle. Recall that his numbers started the downfall with Emelin's injury.

No I'm not worried at all for the Habs.

Steve said...

While not exactly an elite team, this team has the potential to make a serious run. IF Price can put it all together, if Eller can find his offence, if PK gets some offensive support 5 on 5, and if Diaz can be a poor mans Karlson, plan the parade.

Deniz Bevan said...

I just had to rant about this somewhere... Heard Price on the news the other day saying that playing in Montreal makes him feel like "a hobbit in a hole" - and he means it in a bad way!
Someone get him a copy of the books, quick! Then he'd see how comfortable and welcoming a hobbit hole really is.

Deniz Bevan said...