Saturday, January 25, 2014

Not A Crisis

Three weeks ago, Newfoundland was in the midst of a huge winter storm when a fire at a power-generating plant fried the province's electrical grid. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their power, many for several days. Temperatures were lower than -30 with windchill. Oil trucks couldn't refuel homes because the machines that fill them run on electricity. Old people were being evacuated from seniors' homes without backup generators. One person died and several others were hospitalized because of carbon monoxide poisoning they got from using propane stoves and barbecues inside, trying to stay warm. After two days of sitting in the cold and dark, people started asking "Where's the premier?" Kathy Dunderdale had not addressed the public during all this time. When she finally did, she looked out over the bank of microphones and announced, "This is not a crisis."

That was not a good PR move, to say the least. Talk show lines lit up. News reports gauging public opinion reflected voters' outrage. There was even a Twitter hashtag, #notacrisis, with hundreds of sarcasm-laced jibes directed at the province's first minister. Fast forward to today and Dunderdale is no longer premier. She stepped down after one of her caucus defected, naming #notacrisis as one of the reasons why. The premier, he said, didn't show appropriate leadership in a time when the people needed it.

The Montreal Canadiens, Marc Bergevin specifically, can take a lesson from this. Right now the team is in a playoff position. It's benefited from the excellent play of Carey Price, a single early-season winning streak and some scattered opportunism in OT and shootouts. It looked great against the Cup-champion Blackhawks and fooled some of the people into thinking it's a better team than it really is. Most of us, however,  are not fooled. This team is one blackout away from full-on crisis.

The Canadiens are in free fall. In their last twenty games, they have three regulation wins. Three. They've pulled off four OT and shootout wins to go with those. The other thirteen games are losses. There were close losses, blowout losses and blown-lead losses. However you measure them, though, thirteen losses in twenty games does not a playoff team make.

Their defence is falling apart. Every member of the D-corps has worse personal stats in the last twenty games than he did in the first twenty. This corresponds, almost exactly, with the breakup of the Subban/Markov pairing on December 17. In the 14 games in which Alexei Emelin was paired with Josh Gorges, the pair allowed only 1.1 goals per 60 minutes of play which is the best on the team for pairings playing over 100 minutes together. Markov and Subban together were on for 2.2 G/60min. After the breakup of those pairings, Markov/Emelin have allowed 3.4 G/60min. That's more than two goals a game higher than Markov/Subban, which is a big difference when that pair plays around 20 minutes a night.

The powerplay, which had been one of the Canadiens' strengths earlier in the year, is not functioning anymore. In the first 20 games of the season, the Habs scored 18 PPG in 76 chances, for a 23.7% success rate. In the last 20, they've scored only 9 PPG in 65 chances, converting on only 13. 8% of their opportunities. In a league in which special teams make or break a season, this is not a good sign.

Carey Price's stats, of course, have dropped off during the last 20 games. That's got little to do with him. The dreadful collapse of his defence has been largely responsible for his misfortune. The PK has dropped from 87% effectiveness in the first 20 to 82% in the last 20 as well.

Lots of the problems the Habs are facing are the result of poor coaching. Giving the ineffectual Rene Bourque, Francis Bouillon and Daniel Briere significant time on the power play means fewer goals scored there. Breaking up the most effective defensive pair has resulted in more goals against. Refusing to play the forwards with the most chemistry together has reduced even-strength goals. There's no denying Michel Therrien and his staff are failing to follow Scotty Bowman's cardinal rule for coaches: "Make sure the right guys are on the ice at the right time."

The other ingredient, and perhaps the major one, in the Habs fail stew is the personnel the coaches have been given. Marc Bergevin is a rookie GM, and will make mistakes. However, if you look at the successful moves he's made versus the unsuccessful ones, the balance is not in his favour. The signings of Briere, Murray and George Parros have all been colossal mistakes. Parros' fights have rarely made a difference in a game, he's been concussed twice and he can't do anything else on the ice but fight. Briere was in decline long before he arrived in Montreal, and has shown little sign of making any kind of comeback. He's small, poor defensively and ineffective on offence. Murray is a slow pylon on defence and a wash on offence. None of these players are worth the money Bergevin paid to get them.

Bergevin hired the coaching staff we now see making such baffling decisions. He talks about "character" as one of the most important assets of his acquisitions, without any apparent idea of where these players will fit in the lineup and what they can contribute. So far, Bergevin has not impressed. The Habs are in big trouble. They're on the way out of a playoff spot, and they're sliding there quickly. This is the time for a real leader to step up and make some authoritative decisions to fix the problems. Otherwise, he's late to the party, claiming it's not a crisis.

And we know what happens when there's a crisis and the leader says there's not.


Unknown said...

Could not agree more JT. Been waiting for another column for days.

moeman said...

Well said, again.

UK3X said...

A clearer, more concise summation of what is wrong I am yet to read. I have been very critical of the coach without giving due consideration to the GM. I have been guilty of thinking that if he could make Stanley Cup champs out of the Hawks, he could do it with the Habs...but I lost track of the fact that he wasn't GM in Chicago...I am going to blame it all on my being so blinded by who Bergervin had to take over from...

Steve said...

Biere over Jager now thats a mistake. Maybe MB is just making a case to forget about pure wool and just get some good sheep to herd.

I am glad I do not have to decide wheter or not to have a big sale, or just ride out the storm and re group in the offseason.