Monday, June 30, 2014

No Trade, Bad Grade

Four years ago, just after the Habs' Tomas Plekanec had signed his current long-term contract, I asked him about whether the no-trade clause included in the deal made him feel more secure about his future in Montreal. He had, after all, spent the previous couple of seasons as rumour-mill trade bait. This is what he said:

"Well, first of all, 'no trade' clause doesn't mean much. If somebody asks you to leave, I don't think you'll want to stay, right? And, obviously, if your name is in all the rumours, it's not a great feeling."

This is the position in which Josh Gorges finds himself today. The partial no-trade clause he agreed to as part of his four-season contract, designed to protect him from having to play in an undesirable city, has come back to bite both him and the Canadiens in the butt. As Plekanec so succinctly put it, nobody wants to stay where he's not wanted.

In Gorges' case, without the no-trade clause, Marc Bergevin could have made discrete inquiries and arranged a trade that would best work for the team. Gorges would have been shocked and disappointed, but would have adjusted as so many players before him have done. As it stands, Bergevin apparently had a trade worked out, but was obliged to request Gorges' permission. Gorges refused to give because it was allegedly to the leafs, who are on his no-trade list.

So now, we have Gorges hurt and angry on one side and Marc Bergevin looking for another trade (for whatever reason...that's another issue) to which Gorges will agree on the other. Unfortunately for Bergevin, once that "we don't want you" genie is out of the bottle, there's no putting it back. Gorges, as a guy whose intrinsic value is in his unwavering dedication to giving everything for his team, can't help but find it tough to live up to his own standard when he knows Bergevin wanted him gone. When that genie escapes, the GM has virtually no choice but to trade the guy, and all his colleagues know it. If Gorges might have brought back a top-six winger or other valuable player for Montreal, his value will now be lower as the vultures know Bergevin has got to move him.

Then there's the impact on the rest of the team. With captain Brian Gionta's status in limbo, there's pressure on guys like P.K.Subban and Carey Price to take on more of a leadership role. Not to mention, Gorges and Price are very close off the ice and the move will undoubtedly be felt by Price, especially in the way it was handled.

Really, in the end, no-trade clauses do more harm than good for many players. In the old days, when hardly anyone had them, guys could convince themselves they were going to a team that wanted them, rather than being discarded by the one letting them go. These days, when they're asked to waive a no-trade clause there's no hiding from the fact the team they've bled for wants to ditch them.

Tomas Plekanec was right.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wilted Flower

Guy Lafleur is at it again. Unsatisfied with his status as hockey legend and Quebec hero, the former Canadiens star periodically enjoys expressing his opinion of the current incarnation of his old team. Quite often, the opinion is negative and hurtful. In 2008, he talked about the team being composed of "four fourth lines." In 2009, he said long-time captain Saku Koivu should have been traded years ago and should just go away to Minnesota to play with his brother. In 2012, he slammed the idea of the Habs hiring Patrick Roy as coach because he's too volatile. Now he's ridiculing Max Pacioretty and Tomas Vanek, claiming they're not ready to 'pay the price' to win in the playoffs and the team should let them go. All this, of course, is coming from an official Canadiens ambassador.

Nobody is denying Lafleur's right to speak his mind, and, as a team legend, his opinion carries weight and attracts comment. He's often lauded for his fearlessness in sharing his thoughts so freely. Where he's wrong, however, is in failing to recognizing the responsibility that comes with influence. When Lafleur says Vanek and Pacioretty failed to rise to the occasion in the post-season, it's not just the public hearing that. Inevitably, those players will hear it too. And, unless Lafleur actually talked to them and understands where they were coming from, he's being reckless with their reputations.

Pacioretty is 25 years old and is just emerging from his first real playoff experience with 11 points in 17 games including two series-winning goals. He's a streaky player, as are most goal scorers. He's also a career Canadien coming into his own as a go-to winger, on a very cap-friendly long-term deal. He took 55 shots in the playoffs, with an unfortunate 9.1% shooting percentage. He was involved, even if the goals weren't going in. This is a guy who is dedicated to training his body and giving back to the city in which he plays. While he may have some issues with confidence, it's all part of his development.

Vanek is 30, and has had the misfortune of playing for some terrible teams through his career. Still, in his previous 36 playoff games, he scored 20 points. His post-season this year was statistically better, with 10 points in 17 games. Even so, there's no comparison with his regular-season stats, which put him at 0.83 points per game, versus his 0.59 PPG in the post-season. In terms of his involvement for the Canadiens, he had 28 shots, with a strong 18% shooting percentage. One can't help but think if he'd taken more shots, he could have made more of a difference. He admitted as much himself after the team had been eliminated. He's also said all along he plans to hit the open market for the best contract he can get this summer.

These are two different players, at two different points in their careers, with two very different motivations. For Lafleur to lump the two of them together shows his lack of subtlety and understanding. A more thoughtful critic might remember that in his own first real playoff run of 17 games, he contributed only 8 points. He might think about how he felt when people complained about his lack of expected production in the early years, and how they said he might be a first-overall bust. Then, maybe, he'd consider what it would have been like for him if team icons like Jean Beliveau had chosen to dump on him in the press, and perhaps feel a bit of gratitude that he didn't have to deal with that.

Thomas Vanek likely won't be in Montreal very long after July 1, and Lafleur's comments probably won't affect the big pay day he's looking for. Max Pacioretty will be at Habs training camp in September, and he'll be asked about Lafleur's opinion of him. He'll think about how he recovered from a devastating injury as a Canadien, and how he always pushed himself to get better and get back in the lineup to help his team. He'll remember having a breakout year and almost cracking the forty-goal barrier, he'll consider the money he left on the table when he signed his contract, and he'll think about the work he's done every year to improve mentally and physically. While he's staring blankly over the field of microphones in his face and telling the media he can't help what other people think, and that he was doing the best he could in the playoffs, he'll probably be wondering too. He'll wonder why a guy who had such a great, honourable career would throw a fellow player under the bus like that.

Guy Lafleur had nothing to gain by making those comments, save a bit of a media furour and his name topping the sports news again. In his callous disregard for the fact that Pacioretty and Vanek are now in the position in which he once found himself...real people playing a tough game in the public eye...he did himself no favours. Nor is he helping the all-too-brief careers of players who could only be hurt by the things he said. It was thoughtless and those players deserve better from one of their own.