Thursday, October 8, 2015

Captaining is Hard

The great Irish rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll once said "When you are captain, you are never speaking for yourself." That voice of experience is speaking directly to the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty this week.

Pacioretty got a sense of what it really means to be the captain of the Canadiens last year, when the team lost the immortal Jean Beliveau. The outpouring of love for the Beliveau family and the thousands who made time to pay their last respects seemed to resonate with the young American. He talked about understanding better what it means to be a role model in Montreal and trying to live up to the legacy of the men like Beliveau who wore the sweater before him.

Of course, lots of players say they get it, but in Pacioretty's case, it really seemed to be true. He walked a little taller, spoke a little more thoughtfully and made sure he was a bit more sharply dressed. In emulating Beliveau, he appeared to take on a bit of the dignity and graciousness with which the great captain carried himself. That's why it was really not much of a surprise when his teammates decided Pacioretty is the man they want to lead them in the room and on the ice.

Now the joy of putting on the "C" for the first time...which he said he couldn't look at too much for fear of becoming too evaporating and the real work of being the captain begins. In Montreal, driven by a natural love of their team which is pumped up like a wrestler on steroids by the Habs' own marketing machine, fans want a piece of the Canadiens. And, often, as is the case this week, when that piece is a pound of flesh, they want to hear from the captain.

When newly-acquired Zach Kassian was involved in an early-morning truck crash that broke his foot and nose, and was then sent to Stage Two of the NHL's substance abuse program, every microphone in town hovered next to Pacioretty's locker, waiting to see how the new captain would handle his first Habs controversy. Reporters tried to bait him by referring to GM Marc Bergevin's comments about Kassian's lack of judgement. Pacioretty didn't shrink from it, or let Kassian off the hook. He shouldered his role as leader and said the team is glad the man isn't too badly hurt, and his fellow players are there for him. He also said Kassian made a big mistake and is extremely lucky. When asked whether the episode could be a cautionary tale for young players, Pacioretty (ironically, with Kassian's name plate visible on the next locker) said flatly, "No. There is nothing positive in this. We're all blessed to be here in the NHL, and there's nothing positive about this." He then shut the door on that line of questioning and turned the conversation to the upcoming season opener, explaining that was the team's most urgent priority.

That sounds an awfully lot like a captain to me. A buddy of mine says the most important quality a captain can have, aside from basic skill and experience, is the ability to give "The Look." That's how he describes the kind of fierce gravity the best players can summon when calling out an errant or underperforming teammate. The trick is, you not only have to have the ability to give it, you have to know when to do it as well. On Monday morning, in the midst of all those reporters, Pacioretty had "The Look."

When you think about five years ago, when the questions Pacioretty was answering were all about whether he could cut it in the NHL at all, it's testament to the work and determination he's put into developing into the person and player he is now. It hasn't been easy. From those early doubts about whether he could ever be a big-league scorer, to the series of unfortunate and bizarre injuries that have happened to him, he's had to overcome a lot in his young career.

Those trials have shaped him into the guy who not only gives honest commentary on the unfortunate case of Kassian, but also on his own performance and that of his team as a whole. They've also made him the type of man who stepped on the ice against the leafs and scored the two goals his team needed to secure victory. Not even Beliveau did that in his first game as captain.

There was a lot of talk about which of the several possible Canadiens candidates should wear the "C" this summer. Bergevin did the right thing by leaving it up to the players themselves to decide. So far, it looks like they made the right decision. Pacioretty is ready for the job, even when it means, as O'Driscoll said, he's never speaking for himself. He's speaking for the Montreal Canadiens, and the hockey world is listening.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Disposable Heroes

There's angst in Habsville today because general manager Marc Bergevin isn't happy with the behaviour of Zach Kassian. Kassian was in a truck wreck with two young women at six thirty in the morning, and the optics of the situation are bad. Bad enough to make Bergevin question Kassian's character; the most vital of Canadiens characteristics under the current management. Kassian is now in Stage Two of the NHL's substance abuse program. Guys who fail Stage One go to Stage Two, and the guys who've failed Stage One in the past have done things like drive drunk and abuse cocaine while receiving treatment without strictures.

The thing is, the NHL is, in its rather reluctant way, looking after Kassian and trying to push him into a treatment program that will enable him to continue his career. The program isn't perfect, but at least it's a defined series of consequences for specific behaviour. That's not the case with every crime, or investigation into a potential crime.

Patrick Kane and the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks have had quite an offseason. On June 15, the 'Hawks closed out their third successful playoff run in the last six years. A day later, the president of the United States was tweeting them with congratulations and an invitation to visit the White House. The rest of the summer passed in a pleasant haze of celebration for the Blackhawks, who are now assured of their legacy as a modern-day dynasty. At least, it was pleasant until August 6, when an unnamed young woman filed a complaint of sexual assault against star forward Patrick Kane.

Journalists who reported on the case were, understandably, understated in their analysis. Kane is a mega-star, the kind who makes ten million bucks a year and probably has a key to the city of Chicago kicking around in his sock drawer. Nobody wanted to make a misstep and imply the incident could have negative consequences for Kane's career. And rightly so, as far as unbiased reporting goes. That principal, of course, didn't stop Kane's fans from accusing the woman of lying and gold-digging.

Now, with bizarre tales of evidence tampering and a hoax perpetrated by the complainant's mother, the case is even more strange. However, while journalists (if not fans) are walking a very careful line in their coverage, the Blackhawks themselves decided not to follow suit. They instead invited Kane to training camp and stood behind him, even though there's still no legal resolution in his favour. They went so far as to trot Kane out for a press conference at which he answered no questions and merely apologized for the "distraction" he caused his teammates.

The cynics among us will say the 'Hawks are being so solicitous of Kane's comfort because of who he is. If he was, say, carrying a pesky contract pressuring their cap, yet no longer putting up the numbers he used to, one might wonder whether the team's goodwill would have been so expansive. The previous year's Cup-winning LA Kings' sure wasn't.

Full disclosure? I don't like Mike Richards. I didn't like him with the Flyers, I didn't like him with the Kings and I really didn't like him when he...whom I always considered a bit of a hotheaded mouthpiece...suggested P.K.Subban needed to show more respect to established veterans, presumably Richards himself, or suffer the consequences. However, as much as I dislike Richards, I dislike equally what's happening to him.

By now we all know the "substance" the RCMP has charged Richards with possessing when stopped at the border back in June was oxycontin. That's all we know. We don't know if Richards has a long-term addiction stemming from his well-documented partying days or if he, like so many other NHL players before him, took the painkiller to deal with an injury and got hooked. We don't even know he was taking the pills at all, as the charge is merely for possessing them. Perhaps the Kings executives who decided to terminate his contract know the full story. Either way, the optics of the whole situation cast a hard-hearted, mercenary shadow over the Kings organization.

The team had already waived and demoted Richards, once a highly-coveted piece of two Cup-winners, after it ran into a cap crunch and Richards was no longer pulling his weight on the ice. Unfortunately for the Kings, the latest CBA doesn't allow for cap relief  when burying contracts in the minors like teams could do back in the good old days of covering up GM mistakes. So, when Richards got caught at the border, it gave the Kings an out. They terminated the remaining four years of his contract, worth $22-million, on the grounds of conduct unbecoming an NHL player. Boom. With the stroke of a pen, Dean Lombardi saved himself more than four million bucks a year against the cap and got rid of an underperforming player who would have been a real problem to trade.

Of course, the NHL players association has a problem with this, claiming the Kings are unfairly ending Richards' employment, and has filed a grievance to that effect. It's likely the association will win, too, because the NHL's drug policy calls for rehab, not firing. And, the whole situation has opened up a gaping window into the callousness that is pro hockey. In a league that sells itself with romantic "It's the Cup" commercials and lauds the "heart-and-soul" value of guys who are willing to put their physical and mental health at risk to make rich owners richer, the "it's a business" underbelly of it all is enough to make anyone cynical.

The differences between Kane and Richards right now are that one of them has been charged with a crime while the other is under investigation, and that one of them is still useful while the other is considered past it. However, the biggest difference between them and the way in which they've been treated by their respective teams is perhaps in the nature of the allegations or charges involved.

Richards fell afoul of the NHL drug policy, which landed him within a specific set of parameters for assessment, addictions treatment and punishment. That's where Zach Kassian is right now. Unfortunate, but manageable. The accusation against Kane opens the door to a murky world of inattention, neglect and nonchalance when it comes to pro sport and violence against women. There's nothing in NHL policy that says when a player faces a serious accusation, he should be away from the team with pay until he's vindicated or charged. There's no consistency from team to team, and there's no league-mandated standard for what happens in such cases.

Teams say they do offer seminars on the topic and instruct on proper behaviour in rookie and training camps. Unfortunately, by that time players have often been exposed to the rape and violence culture prevalent in junior hockey. Laura Robinson, in her book, Crossing the Line, does an excellent job of delving into the seriousness of the problem and the common approach of blaming the woman or girl instead of addressing the root causes of the violence in sexual relationships within hockey culture.

The NHL has a long way to go in addressing the way its men treat women, and how it, as a league, regulates and responds to assaults and accusations of assault. Perhaps if it were more progressive in its approach, it wouldn't matter if a player facing allegations of that nature was a superstar or a plugger. And maybe a guy caught with some illegal pills wouldn't be facing the possible loss of his career and millions of dollars, while a guy accused of rape gets to suit up at training camp and carry on with his life.

Zach Kassian is fortunate his problems, whatever they may be, can be addressed within a prescribed program administered by the league. He's lucky he still has some potential use to an NHL team, or he could be suffering Richards' fate right now.

Patrick Kane very well could be cleared of the accusations he faces. Or he might be charged. Either way, one would think the team would go to bat for him in a way the Kings didn't for Richards, or the Habs for Kassian. Whatever happens, the NHL needs to make sure when player abuses a woman...even has the accusation of abusing a woman...there's a set of consequences clearly defined, just the same as there is when there's a drug or alcohol violation. occurs.

There needs to be a policy of respect for the complainant and the understanding that all hockey players, no matter their status, will be treated the same way. That applies to drug and alcohol abuse, and, just as importantly, abuse of a woman.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Elevator Pitch

Advertising guru and broadcaster Terry O'Reilly was on CBC Radio recently, and he was telling a story. It was the spring of 2006 and the Miami Heat were leading the Dallas Mavericks three games to two in the NBA championship series. The challenge for Heat coach Pat Riley was a mental one. Games 6 and 7 would be played on the Mavericks' home floor, and Riley didn't want there to be a Game 7 at all. So, how could he pitch to his players the urgency of winning Game 6, and have them believe him and execute the plan? Simply, as it turned out. He held a team meeting before the crucial road trip and he told the players to pack for one night. One suit, he said, would be all they'd need because they'd be back home to celebrate the championship after Game 6. Well, the players, expecting strategy and platitudes, bought what the coach was selling. They followed through and won the title in six.

Pat Riley was a great professional coach because he knew a simple truth. The coach isn't just the guy who decides the lineup and plans in-game strategy, he's also a salesman. Given a lineup of rich, entitled men to coach, he didn't have to worry much about talent. The players he coached wouldn't have been in the NBA without it. His job was to motivate those talented, rich, entitled men to push their physical and emotional limits in a collaborative effort to win basketball games. In other words, he had to find the message to which they'd respond, then he had to pitch it with all the savvy of a Madison Avenue ad executive. He became an expert at the elevator pitch.

The elevator pitch, in advertising, is the line you take if you have to win someone over to your way of thinking in the time it'd take to travel a few floors in an elevator with them. It has to be convincing, original, powerful and brief. It's a useful approach for a coach because it's a straightforward message, simple to convey and to understand. It becomes a rallying cry with repetition.

The Canadiens Michel Therrien finds himself in the kind of situation that separates the good coaches from the jokers right now. With his team down two home losses against the Tampa Bay Lightning, including a hot-headed penalty-filled disaster of a Game 2, Therrien has got to pitch his team a message that will make players buy into what he's selling. After Game 1, he blamed the heartbreaking double-OT loss on a missed offside. He wasn't able to pull the team together and regroup after that, and the Game 2 bench was in disarray, with morale falling as the chance of victory disappeared. Now he's got one chance before the series is all but blown. The x's and o's don't matter. It's too late to fix the power play. Line shuffling has proven to be ineffectual. It's time for his elevator pitch.

The question is, does Therrien have it in him?  This is the point when players are starting to panic and doubts are creeping in. It's the time when "be first on puck," "be 'ard on puck" and "skate, skate!" aren't cutting it. The team has heard those exhortations ad nauseam and now they need inspiration. Perhaps, somewhere deep down, Therrien has a Jacques Demers-like speech he can deliver, convincing the players through his raw passion that he truly believes they're going to come back. Not that they can come back, but that they will. Or perhaps he doesn't

The thing with a good elevator pitch is, even if it turns out the Habs are so inferior a team to the Lightning they really didn't have a chance, they can still pull together and play with dignity and discipline. Perhaps they'll even find the motivation and the breaks to win. Either way, if a coach is to have a purpose and prove his mettle, this is his moment. Therrien needs to pitch his butt off and he'd better hope he still has enough respect in the dressing room to have his players buy into the message. Even if most of us believe he's probably no Pat Riley.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dead Poets, Dreams and the Habs

In November, 1985, MGM released the movie "Rocky IV," and I went with my brothers to see it; the last film on the big screen before our local theatre closed down. The film was okay, but the soundtrack...ah, the soundtrack. That album became a secret personal pump-up play list to which I'd listen before every Habs game in the spring of 1986, during that season's magical, unexpected Stanley Cup run. In the superstitious mind of a kid Canadiens fan, playing "Eye of the Tiger" on game day meant the hockey gods were appeased, the juices were flowing and the beloved players somehow just knew we willed them to win. Nobody else knew about this secret ritual because nobody else could understand how the right song could make the spirit lift and the heart fill with confidence.

If only I'd known about Tim Thompson then. He would have gotten it. Thompson played junior hockey, then when that path ended, studied history in university. He grew up surrounded by music on mixed tapes and in his dad's huge vinyl collection, and he absorbed it genre by genre, singer and song, until it was part of him. In the end he became neither a hockey player nor an historian nor a musician. Instead, he found the perfect craft for all his talents and became a brilliant video editor. He learned how to weave threads of history through the intricate tapestries of his Hockey Night in Canada pre-game videos, always set to the perfect, gut-churning song.

"I've always had this weirdly cinematic mind," Thompson explains. "I'll see a bird flying overhead and someone walking across the street and a certain song will come into my head. And growing up playing hockey with music always around, these two roads, hockey and music intersected in my life and turned into this really cool career."

It was a great career, too. In his eight years at Hockey Night in Canada, he lived the rush of trying to cut video like a 33 played on 45 for two straight months in the spring, ready with a new piece of art nearly every playoff night. When he talks about choosing just the right song and the perfect images to go with it, his words are a passionate tumble.

"The art of hockey. It's such a great sport, really rich fodder for what I was doing," he enthuses. "You have this beautiful, graceful, elegant side of the game, and then you have the dark, physical, uncompromising side. And the two often clash head-on in the blink of an eye and create this beautiful storm. You add the history and the past and lay a really great song under that and it really takes off."

It's all in the eyes, Thompson says. If you know what to look for...the drive, the trepidation, the desire and the'll find it in the eyes. It's one of his little secrets; the kind that elevate his work and let his gifts shine.

"I use a lot of people's eyes. I really feel that dives into the humanity of the players as people. You read a lot in their eyes. At least I do. So I would see a lot of the anthem shots, or the cameras would catch guys getting ready in the dressing room, staring off into space or on the bench visualizing what was to come. All those things got me excited and made me think of a certain song or lyric I could build it around."

Things were going well for Thompson, glorying in the love of his dream job. Then CBC lost the rights to Hockey Night in Canada to Rogers. The new guys wanted things their way and that way wasn't the way of art or emotion or creative beauty. In February, Rogers gave Thompson the boot and the dream job ended, just like that.

Fortunately for him and for hockey fans, art and emotion and creative beauty...and history and passion...are the way of the Montreal Canadiens. Few organizations recognize the power of ceremony and feeling like the Habs do, so when Thompson found himself out of work, he hardly had time to absorb it before his Twitter inbox lit up.

"Kevin Gilmour, one of the executives with Montreal messaged me  and said he had an idea and asked if we could talk," he remembers. "He was a big fan of what I'd been doing on Hockey Night and asked if I'd be interested in doing something for a specific team. I said that would be amazing and I had this idea in my head to do the piece that came out with Dream On and the scenes from  Dead Poets Society. I made it at home in my studio over two days last week and they were really, really ecstatic about it."

The piece, with Dream On and the scenes from Dead Poets Society has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of hockey fans. It's a powerful blend of Aerosmith, Robin Williams at his pep-talk-giving best and Habs, past and present, with special care to pay tribute to those of the Canadiens family who have so sadly left us. It's a wonderful example of Thompson's fine work, and it seems almost meant to be.

"I have a huge love of history and that organization has it in spades and celebrates and does it so well," he says. "My dad's from Montreal as well, and his dad played a bit for the Maroons, so my dad was around some of the old Habs and old Maroons back in the day. I have a lot of respect for that city and that organization, and it was an honour to be asked to do this by the team itself."

The Aerosmith selection fits the piece perfectly, but it's almost an aberration for Thompson, who often chose to highlight obscure Canadian musicians in his Hockey Night in Canada days.

"I have the knack for finding songs," he states, matter-of-factly. "My benchmark for that is it an honest song and does it fit and work in the situation. And I didn't care if it was someone that would sell out arenas, or someone who plays to 20 people on Queen Street. If it's honest and it works, there's no better feeling."

The Canadiens have given an artist the chance to have that feeling again. even if not in the daily whirl of producing for the big show at the busiest time of the year. He hopes the relationship between creator and hockey team can continue, or that the opportunity will open new doors.

"I know what guys are feeling when they're standing there during the anthem and they look like they want to throw up. That nervous tension. As Ken Dryden said, "The game is coming and there's nothing you can do to stop it." Maybe having that knowledge and knowing what those feelings are like helps with shot selection, to elicit the most feeling. You try to make something that will really hit people," Thompson says.  "Hopefully, in the end, you make people want to climb a mountain or run through a wall or cry their eyes out. If you do one of those things, you've done your job."

Job well done, Tim. I wish I'd known you in 1986.

Click here to see Tim Thompson's Habs playoff 2014-15 video.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

I Can't Like Therrien

Okay, to be honest, I haven't tried really hard to like the Habs re-tread coach. I strongly disliked him on his first go-round behind the bench and I was deliriously happy when he got canned. So, it was like an E.coli-fueled hallucination to see him given another chance to turn the Canadiens into an unimaginative squad of interchangeable drones who futilely dump and chase a puck they rarely actually retrieve.

I'm aware not everyone feels this way. A lot of fans look at the team's lofty record this season and its third-round playoff trip last year and believe Therrien must be doing something right. Maybe he is, although I can't actually define what that good thing might possibly be. On the other hand, I have no trouble listing the reasons why I will never...can Michel Therrien as the coach of the Habs.

10. His staff. I understand the desire to have French-speaking coaches in Montreal. I really do, in a way I never used to before I recently read a nice piece about all the things the Canadiens do for the community and the province of Quebec. They are part of the fabric of the city, beyond their existence as a hockey team. So, to have coaches who are steeped in the culture and tradition of that relationship, including their language, makes sense. That said, Therrien didn't just hire good people who happen to be bilingual. He hired his buddies, who may or may not have had a chance of employment with any team other than the Habs. He also hired people extremely unlikely to succeed him, or offer Marc Bergevin a viable option to replace him should the need arise. In essence, he surrounded himself with people who are no better or more creative than he is himself, ensuring limits on original thought within the coaching staff. The exception is Stephane Waite, who was a Bergevin, not a Therrien, selection.

9. His inexplicable decision-making. How many goals have we seen scored against the Habs by the opposing team's top line, which happens to be on the ice at the same time as the Canadiens fourth line and third defence pair? At the Bell Centre when Therrien has last change? Sadly, more than one, which isn't a good thing.  How often have we seen Tom Gilbert or Alexei Emelin struggle in a game, yet be sent out to start a crucial penalty kill with the score close? Scotty Bowman once said the most important thing a coach can do is make sure the right players are on the ice at the right time. I wonder what Scotty thinks of some of Therrien's personnel choices?

8. Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk was eased into the NHL as an eighteen-year-old with limited ice time in protected situations during a shortened season. The next year, you'd expect a kid who'd gotten his feet wet and knew what to expect would get a little more responsibility. Maybe you'd even expect him to move into the centre position the Habs had in mind for him when the picked him third overall. That didn't exactly happen, but he did get slight increases in ice time and got some minutes on the PP as well. Finally between games 30 and 40 this year, Therrien decided to try Galchenuk at centre with Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. In that ten-game stretch, after a couple of games to adjust, Galchenyuk put up 9 points. Yet, inexplicably, Therrien decided to abandon the experiment and put David Desharnais back at centre and move Galchenyuk to the wing. Galchenyuk needs to work on his defensive game, of course, but he was proving he can play effectively in an offensive role when Therrien took that away from him. As a comparable, Filip Forsberg was a fellow 2012 first rounder, and he's getting more ice time, more responsibility and more points on a defensively-tight Nashville team. It was fine for Therrien to ease Galchenyuk into the NHL, but he needs to let him fly now, and won't do it because it might mess with the system.

7. The PP. At the moment, the Canadiens power play ranks 23rd in the league, with a success rate of 16.6%. That ranks them slightly lower than the leafs. The leafs. Think about that. Even the layest of lay people who see the Habs play with the man advantage can see there's something wrong. There's little movement among the forwards who seem to think their reason for being is to get the puck to P.K.Subban on the point. Subban's options are then a broadly-telegraphed slapshot, another pass with another chance to be intercepted or a rush to the net through the defending box. There's nobody in front of the opposing goalie most of the time. And, David Desharnais has tallied an average of 2:20 per game on the PP, with a grand total of 11 PP points in 79 games. More on that later, but the problem isn't just that the Habs PP isn't producing. It's that it's not been producing for the better part of two years and Therrien and his staff have done nothing to change things. From starting every PP with Desharnais, to playing the same lines as at even strength almost without exception, to failing to instill net presence, the PP is a fail. It's the kind of deep, systemic problem that reveals the weaknesses of a team whose record otherwise hides a multitude of sins. And it's the kind of problem that derails a playoff run when goals are hard to come by and encourages opponents to take liberties when they know there'll be no scoreboard retaliation.

6. The lines. The Habs have played 79 regular-season games and Therrien still doesn't have a first or second line that's played together more than ten games in a row. His only solution when the Habs are facing adversity is to switch right wingers. After moving Desharnais to the second line with Galchenuk and P.A.Parenteau, and Tomas Plekanec to centre with Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher during game 76 of the season, Therrien seemed surprised at the instant improvement in the way the lines attacked. The fact that Plekanec and Pacioretty showed great chemistry on the PK for most of the year didn't inspire him to use that pair at even-strength, or during 4-on-4 OT.

5. His history. Therrien is in his third stint as an NHL coach, and the one thing his teams all have in common is a below-average ability to possess the puck. As the numbers show, every time Therrien gets fired, the team immediately gets better at holding on to the puck and creating offence. In 2009, the Penguins turfed him, though they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals the season before. Even with a lineup including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins were bad at puck possession and choked by the defence-first system they were unsuited to play. As then-GM Ray Shero said at the time of the firing, "I didn't like... the direction the team was going. I've watched for a number of weeks and, at the end of the day, the direction is not what I wanted to have here. I wasn't comfortable, and that's why the change was made. It wasn't so much the outcome, it was how the game was played." How the game was played, he said. Well, at the time, the Pens were playing a dump-and-chase, grinding game that failed to take advantage of the players' offensive skills and creativity. It required them to collapse in front of Marc-Andre Fleury and protect the net, giving up tonnes of scoring chances and shots against. It all sounds sadly familiar, with the exception being that Shero recognized the futility of playing that system with those players and took action.

4. His influence on his boss. Which brings us to the fact that it's unlikely Bergevin will be parting ways with his friend Mike any time soon. When he brought Therrien on board, Bergevin talked about how he was the right man for the job and reinforced his support with last summer's four-year extensions for Therrien and all his staff. Meanwhile, Bergevin had to trade Travis Moen and Rene Bourque at least in part because Therrien insisted on playing them over young players who needed to develop. Therrien wants to play a grinding style and didn't think Jiri Sekac fit in with that, so Bergevin obliged his coach and traded Sekac for Devante Smith-Pelly. The latter has a stellar one assist in 17 games for the Habs. It's concerning if Bergevin places enough weight on Therrien's opinion that it skews his vision for the team and influences his personnel decisions.

3. His lack of accountability. Therrien has said after losses that he needs his top line to be better, or Lars Eller to be better, or his PP to be better, or his D-corps to be better. He never, ever says the coaching staff needs to be better, starting with himself and his own decisions.

2. Carey Price. Price is, right now, the best goaltender in the world. James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail recently crunched the numbers and concluded if the Habs had even an average-to-good NHL goalie in Price's place they probably wouldn't make the playoffs. Price has entered his prime years now, and is sustaining Therrien's system, despite the fact that the Canadiens give up 30.3 shots per game, good for 23rd in the league. They also rank 23rd for goals per game, with just 2.57 scored. That doesn't leave a lot of room for goalie error. Combine that with the defensive inability to clear the puck without incurring an icing or a giveaway on many occasions, and it's pretty clear the Habs win because of Price and despite Therrien. Which means, even though Price will do his best in the playoffs, he'll have to be superhuman to drag this team through a successful run. With Therrien's four-year extension, however, it's conceivable Price will allow him to keep his job and this futile system for the entirety of Price's best years.

1. David Desharnais. I have always been a Desharnais supporter. Back in 2010, after he'd recently been cut from Habs camp, to his great disappointment, I was impressed when I spoke to him about his determination to get back to the NHL. He's a hard-working, friendly guy who probably surprised a lot of people when he did make it back to the big time, and put up an impressive 60 points in the Canadiens dreadful 2011-12 season. Desharnais has a lot to recommend him as a person and a player, but he is not, unfortunately, an NHL top-line centre. Yet, Therrien insanely pairs him with the team's best winger and, until recently, started them together on every power play. This year, Pacioretty has 7 PP goals. Desharnais has assists on only two of them. Of Pacioretty's 37 total goals to date, DD figures in eleven. Dale Weise has points on 8, Subban on 12. These numbers do not suggest that Pacioretty needs Desharnais to produce. Yet, Therrien continued for almost the entire season to keep those two together, even during long stretches when neither of them scored. Anyone else on the team who fails to perform gets moved, but not Desharnais. His offensive starts are the most generous of any Canadiens player. He doesn't play the PK. And he's on pace for fewer than 50 points. Plekanec, who plays with a revolving door of lesser wingers as well as two minutes a night on the PK, is on pace for 56. Eller, who spends half his time in Therrien's doghouse on the third line, who gets no PP time and fewer even-strength minutes than Desharnais, is tied with him in goals with 13. Yet, no matter what, Therrien gives Desharnais every possible chance he'd never give anyone else. It's blatant favouritism and it's reached the point at which Canadiens fans hate a player who's a good guy, just because he's the teacher's pet.

The bottom line in all of this is the Canadiens have the ability to play a more offensive, aggressive style than they are currently doing. Therrien plays the safe way because it keeps him in a job, but the Habs will not win with his system. It's just a question of when Bergevin finally wakes up and recognizes the fact. I've been waiting 21 years for the Canadiens to win their 25th Cup, and as long as Therrien's behind the bench, I'll be waiting longer. That's why I can't like Michel Therrien.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Love, Loyalty and Consequences

Loyalty is a valuable commodity in a me-first business like pro hockey. It's rare that a team will stand by a long-serving player when his value on the ice isn't as high as it once was. The player is more likely to be shopped, bought out, demoted or simply not offered a contract. It's even more rare that a player will stand by a team when that team has tipped its hand about its own disloyalty to him. If a guy finds out the team wants him gone, he'll gather up his gear and his pride and get out of town. Jerry Lewis once said:

"I have a loyalty that runs in my bloodstream, when I lock into someone or something, you can't get me away from it because I commit to that thoroughly. That's in friendship, that's a deal, that's a commitment. Don't give me paper. I can get the same lawyer who drew it up to break it. But if you shake my hand, that's for life."

He might have been writing about Josh Gorges.

Gorges is a hard-knocks type; the kind of guy about whom hockey shows like to produce glossy TV profiles. Never drafted and undersized for an NHL defenceman, he convinced the San Jose Sharks to take a chance on him through his all-heart willingness to throw himself into the path of harm for his teammates' sake. He came to Montreal in 2007 when the Sharks wanted to make a playoff run and decided Craig Rivet would be the solid blueline presence they needed to shore up their defence. At the time, Gorges was bewildered that the team he thought had committed to him would let him go like that.

Gorges, however, was young and he bounced back, throwing all his love and loyalty into becoming a Canadien. He was the guy who took a puck off his head to keep it out of Montreal's net. He was the one who stood up in the room before Game Seven against the Penguins in the 2010 playoffs and gave the passionate speech that spurred his team to victory against a much stronger opponent. And it was Gorges who raised his hand when team management asked for a veteran to open his home to rookie Brendan Gallagher, who then lived with Gorges for two seasons. He was proud to be a Canadien, and that was rewarded in the "A" the team put on his chest and the six-year, $3.9-million per year contract they gave him on New Year's Day, 2012. Needless to say, he was not expecting to be on the trading block once again, just two and a half years later.

Yet, Bergevin sized up his lineup last summer and realized something had to give. The defence needed an upgrade. It had too many left-handers and only P.K. Subban on the right. The corps wasn't very big or offensively minded either. So, Bergevin looked around for a big, right-handed guy who could generate some points from the back end. He set his sights on 6'5" Cody Franson in Toronto. Franson's big, a right-handed shot and can generate offence, even if his defensive sense is sometimes lacking.

So, Bergevin had to dicker with Dave Nonis to find a deal that worked for both teams. Based on his lack of offense, his relatively small size and, ultimately, the contract Bergevin had given him, which would eventually hurt the Habs cap-wise, Gorges was the guy picked to go. Toronto needed a real leader and a guy who would play a stay-at-home role lacking in their defence corps. It looked like a done deal.

Then loyalty, in the form of Gorges' no-trade clause, came charging in to bite the Habs on the ass. It was a funny situation. Gorges vetoed the trade because he couldn't bear to play for the leafs. Why? Because he had given his all to the Habs and couldn't stomach the idea of suiting up for a team his loyalty to Montreal had taught him to hate. In the end, though, the loyalty Gorges felt for the Canadiens ended up screwing them over. Oh, the irony!

Some traitor (likely on the Toronto side, as Bergevin has always been extremely discreet) leaked the offer and Gorges was poleaxed by the idea that his beloved Habs wanted him gone. At that point, he had to go, even if it wasn't to the leafs. His idea of loyalty went both ways, and the idea that Bergevin would let him go broke his heart. So, he nixed the trade to Toronto. That meant Bergevin had to find some other place for him, which every GM in the league knew. Bergevin was over a barrel. He couldn't keep a guy who felt irrevocably betrayed, so he had to take whatever he could get. That turned out to be a Buffalo second-rounder, instead of the usable NHL D-man he really needed.

In turn, the right-handed, offensive-style D-man-shaped hole on defense remained. Enter, Tom Gilbert. Gilbert hasn't been as bad as a lot of critics say he has, but he's not been the big improvement the team needed over Gorges either. Now, even though the Habs have been having a pretty good season, the trade deadline looms and Bergevin is still stuck with the problem of improving his defense before the playoffs start. The issue that should have been solved...or at least addressed with his first the Gorges trade is still an issue.

Franson, who might have really helped the Habs, is now having a strong season on a crappy leafs team, likely looking to cash in as a much-coveted 27-year-old UFA this summer. Gorges is suffering through a dreadful (beating the Habs notwithstanding) season with a terrible Sabres team, losing almost every night. That's got to be hurting his competitive spirit. He's got the second-worst plus/minus in the league and has hit 30 years of age without a chance to win the Cup in his career unless he's traded yet again.

So today, what looked like admirable loyalty back in June has thrown a wrench into Bergevin's plans to improve the Canadiens. The problem now is the price for every decent player who could fit the bill in Montreal has tripled over what it would have cost to get Franson back in the summer. That could mean the Habs will have to be out on the bidding for likely players at the deadline. Having already spent one roster player upgrading that position, Bergevin must think twice about trading another NHLer, and more than twice about throwing picks or prospects away on a deadline deal. The more you think about it, the more it appears Gorges did the team he allegedly loved a big disservice.

Loyalty is an important thing on a hockey team. Without it, players put themselves first on the ice and the team falters. The problem is, NHL hockey is also a business and when emotion, whether on the player's side or management's, interferes in decisions necessary for the good of the group, it hurts the team. That's what happened in the Gorges trade, and now the Habs are paying the price of misguided loyalty.

Or maybe Gorges lashed out after feeling betrayed in the only way he could. There's a conversation to be had about the prevalence of no-trade clauses in this story, but the end result is the same. The Canadiens now have fewer options, just because a loyal soldier said he wouldn't go when told to...turning out not to be so loyal after all. So, perhaps real loyalty in hockey isn't just rare. Maybe it's just a nice idea.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Long Journey Home

In the Middle Ages, if a foot soldier broke his company's rules, he might have been forced to run the gauntlet in punishment. His comrades would strip him to the waist and form two lines facing each other. The offending soldier would have to pass between, while each man beat him in turn, using anything from a metal glove to a club. If the NHL existed back then, the 82-game regular season would be pretty much the same thing. It's long, emotionally exhausting, painful and often dreary. Nobody emerges without physical evidence of having been beaten.

A wise man once said in the regular season all that matters is you finish in the top eight, relatively healthy, and then anything can happen when the real season starts. As we head into the post All-Star stretch, those wise words ring true.

You know how you have a really busy stretch at work leading up to the holidays, trying to get everything done before you have a few blessed days off? And then, in the new year, the let-down hits you in the long, dreary days of winter, with spring looking so far off and work just feeling like drudgery? What do you do? You slack off. Maybe you take a sick day when you're really not all that sick. Or maybe you spend a little more time playing computer games or messaging friends at work than you normally would. Perhaps you push a project back a day or two because you didn't feel like staying late to finish it. The point is, we all drop our intensity level at work from time to time, just because we're tired of it.

Hockey players might play a game for a living, but our dream job is, for them, just a job sometimes. They get sick, or hurt. They lose confidence. They face nights when they're comfortable in the standings and it's a Tuesday night and the worst team in the league is in town and they just don't feel inspired. It happens. The beauty of a house-league regular season is there's room for that. It's not the playoffs in which a couple of stinkers can ruin you.

Of course, we don't like to see the Habs blow a chance to beat a bad team and rise in the standings, especially if we're the unfortunates who paid half a year's salary to watch it happen in person. In the end, however, it's something that might have benefits. A couple of losses like that can re-energize prideful players who get mad at the way they played and bring it for the next game. Those kinds of games also give the team a mental break in the long, long run of an 82-game season. Obviously, the Habs didn't show up against Buffalo (several times) or Edmonton this year. If they had, however, come out in every single game to date with all engines firing and then ended up in first place, what would they have left in April? President's Trophy winners have only ever gone on to win the Stanley Cup eight times.

The regular season isn't for domination. It's for staying as healthy as possible and winning enough games to qualify for the playoffs. It's about building team chemistry and tweaking the lineup and the system to be ready for the playoffs. It gives the GM a chance to call up a lot of young players and check out his available assets before the playoffs. And it lets him see the holes in the fabric of his team so he can pinpoint players to fill them at the deadline as he gives the coaches the best roster possible for the playoffs. It's all about those playoffs.

Witness the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup winners, the LA Kings. In 2012, the Kings finished eighth in the Western Conference, third in their division. They arrived in the post-season a distant consideration behind the powerful St.Louis Blues, the 2011 Cup finalist Canucks, and the perennially contending Red Wings and Blackhawks. Nobody really considered them a real threat to make it to the top of the heap in the tooth-and-claw battle of the NHL playoffs. Yet, they plowed Vancouver over in five, swept the Blues, pounded Phoenix 4-1 and ended it against New Jersey in six games. They were big, tough, strong, healthy and opportunistic.

In 2013, the Kings finished fifth in the conference and second in their division. They didn't win the Cup, but they did go three rounds deep, losing in the conference finals. (Incidentally, that's the closest the Habs have come to a Cup since 1993, the memories of which we treasure as triumphant.) Move along to the 2014 season, and the Kings finished sixth in the West, third in their division. They took the mighty Sharks, Ducks and Blackhawks to seven games each and won because they were strong and healthy. Then they decimated the Rangers to win their second Cup in three years.

Not too many teams have had that kind of consistent playoff success in the cap era. The Kings, however, have perfected the art of slumming it in the regular season and cranking up their game when it matters. Hockey players are competitive and they want to be first. The Kings have figured out how not to care if they win their conference or their division. They don't care about anything except navigating the 82-game house league and getting to the other side healthy and ready.

This is the mindset the Canadiens need too.  The pressure in Montreal to win every game is high, and the team tries its best to satisfy that demand. That's why sometimes the odd night when the effort's not there and nothing goes right is beneficial. It reminds fans the players aren't superheroes, and the players that the regular season is a slog and they're not supposed to be a finished product just yet. A wakeup call that there's work to be done keeps the team from feeling too cocky and helps avoid the trap of heading into the playoffs without having faced any adversity during the season.

So, hopefully, while we're cursing Therrien, critiquing the PP and generally wringing our hands over the shame of losing to the last-place Sabres, there are more constructive things going on inside the Habs hierarchy. The escalator up and down from Hamilton should be giving Marc Bergevin time to assess what he's got in the system, as he's preparing to trade for the right winger and defenceman the team needs for a post-season run.

The Habs have run the gauntlet pretty well so far this year. If sometimes a weak guy gets in a good shot that leaves a bruise, it just reminds them to run a little faster next time. In April, the Sabres won't matter. All that will is how well the team has used their 82 games to prepare for the only season anyone cares about.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sweet Dreams are Made of This

The Scene: Las Vegas, The NHL awards ceremony, June, 2015

Ron MacLean: It's time now to present the second of our major awards tonight. Georges Vezina was a puck-stopper extraordinaire for the Montreal Canadiens back in the 1920s. The Chicoutimi Cucumber was cold as ice, but didn't go down all that nice because it was illegal for goalies to fall to their knees to stop a puck back then. He didn't wear a mask, but he was still a bandit and he was a lean, mean, pre-poutine machine. He...

Voice from the wings: Maclean! Get on with it!

MacLean: (Ahem)...Joining me now to present the Vezina Trophy to this year's best goaltender, as voted on by NHL general managers, one of the greatest goalies since Vezina stood black and blue in the bleu, blanc et rouge...

Voice from the wings: MACLEAN!

MacLean: Martin Brodeur!!
Martin Brodeur: Good evening, everyone. I'd like to thank the St.Louis Blues for giving me a job for this season, although I don't know why it took such a long time to call me. Ha ha! Me. Marty Brodeur. Holder of every major goalie record in NHL history. I could have helped you, Hextall. And you, MacTavish. And you...

Voice from the wings: Psssst! Marty! We talked about this!

Brodeur: Okay, ha ha. I digress. I'm pleased to be here to present the Vezina Trophy, which I have won four times, to the best goalie in the NHL this year, who was me for many seasons. This year's nominees are:

Slick video package rolls: "He backstopped the Predators to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final, broke the 50-win mark for the first time in his career and posted a league-leading 11 shutouts...Pekka Rinne! He led the Penguins to the President's Trophy and set a league record for save percentage in a season with a .941 mark...Marc-Andre Fleury! And, he withstood an NHL record 3000 shots against him this year, somehow dragged his lacklustre Canadiens teammates into the post-season, and won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP...Carey Price!

Applause dies away

Brodeur: And the winner is...(fumbles with envelope)...Martin Brodeur!! Ha ha! Just kidding. The winner is...Carey Price.

Camera three-shot zooms in on a shocked Price who looks around for a prank crew, vaguely hugs his wife and makes his way to the stage.

Brodeur: Congratulations, Carey. Nobody thought you'd be up here without a real team in front of you, but you pulled it off. I don't know man...Emelin AND Gilbert? And Therrien for a coach? Boy, do you deserve this win!

Brodeur hands trophy to Price, reluctantly releasing it after a slightly embarrassing tug-of-war.

Carey Price: Thanks a lot. I really can't believe I'm here. Like, really. Wow. I don't have a speech or anything because I mean...Pekka. And Flower. And all the great goalie performances around the league this year, and all of those guys with those great defences helping them out...I never thought I'd be up here. Thanks so much, though. I'd like to thank my parents and my family. My wife. Mr.Molson and the Canadiens for giving me the chance to play in the NHL. There were times when I wanted to pull a Patrick Roy...sorry Patrick...and throw in the towel. Now I'm glad I didn't, so thanks.
Maclean: Now, Carey, before you leave the stage, we have a special presentation for you. It's the first time a trophy winner's entire team has asked to come to the presentation ceremony to express their appreciation. In the long history of NHL trophies, the individual has been given a chance to shine especially brightly in the collective glow of his team's success.For you, Carey, it's become Habitual to...

Exasperated voice from the wings: This is why we're ending your contract, MacLean!

MacLean: Now, with no further ado, the Montreal Canadiens!

Habs players shuffle shamefacedly onto the stage. P.K. Subban steps forward.

Subban: Pricey, I just want to say you're a great teammate and sorry for all those times I thought I'd go end-to-end and didn't really make it back to help you out. Also, for the times when I was behind the net or on the wrong side when there were guys running you. And I'm especially sorry for that time I temporarily blinded you on the plane with my suit choice. You didn't deserve that.
David Desharnais: Pricer, I think I speak for Patch when I say we're sorry we made the power play as dangerous as a bed of marshmallows all season long. It's hard to win when we stink up the rink like rotten potatoes for a minute out of every PP. Youppi! would have been more potent. You were great to not yell at us or anything, so thanks, man.
Max Pacioretty: What Davey said, there, Pricer. Seriously, we're so in tune all the time. He's the best centre I've ever had.
Dustin Tokarski: Carey, thanks for being such a great mentor. Watching you from the bench all year has been awesome. I mean, I don't really need to play anyhow. Who needs a few games under their belt to develop and learn? Not me! Ha ha. Yeah, it's excellent just to open and close the gate and rock my huge collection of ball caps all season long. So yeah...thanks a whole lot.
Tomas Plekanec: I just want to thank the rest of the league for not busting your knee again this playoffs. You were great in the Finals after you stayed healthy long enough to get there.
Brendan Gallagher: Pricer, thanks for letting me eat at your place every night. With Gorgie gone, I almost had to buy my own groceries. You're a lifesaver, man. Oh yeah, and thanks for the tips on how to drive goalies nuts without getting caught. And for all you refs in attendance tonight...I'm just kidding! Really. Kidding. Ha ha!
Andrei Markov:  Carey, I did not know how to tell my feelinks about you, so I med a small poem. It goes...ahem...I will sey it in Russian...Розы красные. Фиалки синие. Вы очень хорошо вратарь. Chucky can mek it to say in English.
Alex Galchenyuk: Um, yeah. Marky says "Your butterfly is like a beautiful angel. Your eyes seek the puck like lasers and jaguars are not as quick as you." It rhymes better in Russian.
Markov: But, that's not...
Galchenyuk: Shh, Marky. Trust me.
Michel Therrien: Pricer, you were 'ard on da puck all year. Thanks a lot for my job, eh? Heh heh.
MacLean: There you have it, folks. The Montreal Canadiens! Carey, how do you feel, now that you've won your first Vezina, and can add it to your Hart, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup?
Price: It's surreal, definitely. It hasn't really sunk in yet, to be honest. I do want to thank my teammates for coming here tonight and admitting I single-handedly dragged their sorry asses through the majority of the last two seasons.That's big of them...except Davey and Gally, of course. Anyway, this is like a dream...a dream...a dream...a dream...

The alarm next to Price's pillow sounds, startling the goalie from his beautiful dream and signaling an hour before another January practice...sighing, he climbs out of bed to start the day...

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Enough, Already!

The American Hockey League is one of the best developmental leagues for young hockey players in the world. Some of the best and brightest in the NHL served their pro apprenticeships riding the buses in the AHL. It's a great stepping stone to a life on the private planes of the biggest league in hockey.

Unfortunately, as well as grooming players on the rise, the AHL is a pit stop for guys on the way down and the permanent home of those who've gone as far in the game as they will ever go. The league's job is to separate the wheat from the chaff and there's a great big pile of chaff there. While the competition is tough, there's an element of the Wild West, with some guys who've got nothing to lose and others who'll do anything to advance.

That's a problem when there are valuable first-round picks, into whom organizations have invested a ton of time and development money, scrabbling for purchase among the riffraff...because the riffraff fights. They fight a lot, trying to impress or just to keep a job. When those valuable first-rounders end up crossing fists with guys who fight a whole lot more than they do, there can be problems.

Witness Jarred Tinordi last night. In the second period of the game between the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Utica Comets, Tinordi threw down with Islanders' third-round pick Andrey Pedan. Pedan, recently a player in the ECHL, has played only 15 games for Utica, but he fights frequently. He's already destroyed a couple of guys in the AHL this season, and last night, Tinordi became another of his TKOs. Pedan hit Tinordi in the mouth hard enough to render him unconscious, and the big guy went down, hitting the ice face first. He needs dental work and is likely concussed.

Jarred Tinordi is a valuable player in the Canadiens system. He's very close to being the NHL defenceman the Habs drafted him to be. Pedan may or may not make the NHL and play for the Islanders. Now, a stupid fight has hurt a guy who has his whole big league career in front of him, for the sake of what? Pride? Competitiveness? In the big picture, a fight in an AHL game will mean nothing to Tinordi's hockey career, with the possible exception of wrecking it.

Tinordi is a big guy, great skater and smart hockey player. He shouldn't have to fight in the AHL to prove to anyone he's bound for the NHL. No player should have to fight. So many good players are hurt in pointless fights and so many others fall victim to the long-term effects of brain damage caused in fights. Tinordi had a horrible fall and an embarrassing outcome to his tilt last night, but how much worse could it have been? What if that unconscious face plant had caused his brain to bleed? Or given him a head injury that impaired his function? It could easily have happened, and what a waste if it did.

It's time for hockey to ban fighting. The AHL is the testing ground for most new rules the NHL is contemplating. If the developmental league experiments with a fighting ban, the hockey world might be surprised to see very few people miss it. And, if the AHL can prove that, the NHL has an example to follow. It has to happen, before someone like Jarred Tinordi sees his potential and his career erased in a fight that never should have been fought. These guys should be fighting to make the NHL, not fighting each other.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Sins of the Father

The Montreal Canadiens have experienced so many remarkable moments in their 105-year history, they tend to blend together like a kaleidoscope of glory. The bursts of bright colour, though, show best against black...the absorption of all light...and the Canadiens have had their share of those moments too. In illustration, let us take a stroll back in time to June 30, 2009.

The Montreal morning dawned in a coolish, damp haze of moody cloud. It smelled like there'd be rain, and the day would fulfill that promise. Hockey fans woke up with a sense of anticipation that belied the weather. Their beloved Habs were about to become the first NHL team to celebrate 100 years, and the following day, NHL free-agent signing day, would set the tone for how that Centennial team would look.

The Canadiens were coming off a miserable season in which they'd barely scraped into the playoffs, the coach had been fired and the team slumped off to the golf course in early April, swept in the first round by the hated Bruins. So, July 1, 2009 beckoned with the hope of renewal. That would certainly come, as we now know, when general manager Bob Gainey completely overhauled the lineup, signing six free agents and letting veterans Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev walk. All of that activity, as momentous as it was, would still end up being an aftershock to the events of June 30.

A few minutes after three o'clock that afternoon, as the ragged cloud overhead began to gather for the coming rain storm in Montreal, Gainey and New York Rangers GM Glen Sather signed off on a trade that would be on the list of the worst in Canadiens history. The centrepiece at the time was Scott Gomez, whom Gainey believed would make a better top-line pivot than the departing Koivu. Despite his outrageous salary and declining production, Gomez was supposed to provide a scoring option up the middle which the Habs had been seriously lacking.

Now, of course, with the clarity of hindsight, we know the real key to that trade was defenceman Ryan McDonagh. At the time of the trade, he was a #12 overall pick heading into his junior year at the University of Wisconsin. Habs head scout Trevor Timmins, was over the moon to get the kid in the 2007 draft, but wasn't consulted when he was added to the deal for Gomez as a throw-in prospect.

Canadiens fans have had more than five years to let the wound heal, as other prospects have grown into NHL jobs and the dreadfully overpaid, unproductive Gomez...and Gainey...are long gone. In New York, McDonagh has become a young stud at both ends of the ice, playing solid defence and contributing on key goals as well. He's developed into the kind of strong leader Timmins predicted he'd be, and has been rewarded by taking on the Rangers' captaincy this season.

In the aftermath of most trades, even the bad ones, teams and their fans do move on after a while. Watching McDonagh perform in New York should, by now, inspire nothing more than a twinge of regret and a sighed "if only." It's not quite as easy as that, however. Losing McDonagh has had deeper consequences than Gainey or Timmins or anyone else could have known at the time. Losing McDonagh has changed the path of P.K.Subban, and not for the better.

The Habs picked McDonagh, a lefthanded, well-rounded defender, in the first round of that 2007 draft. Then in the second round they took Subban, a righthanded, flashy D with tons of potential, rapidly improving what had been seen as his suspect play in his own end. The pair were meant to grow into the NHL together, giving the Canadiens a solid top-two on the blueline for years to come. The McDonagh trade broke up that dream, but it also left a big hole in the development of the Habs' defence.

Now, instead of having two young, defensive studs sharing the bulk of the load, allowing a veteran like Andrei Markov to slide back to the second pair with more manageable minutes, Subban, like the cheese in the song, stands alone. He's the only young, established star the Habs have on the blueline and they depend on him disproportionally, when compared with teams like Chicago or, yes, the Rangers, who can share responsibility among their young D-men.

At this point, if Subban were to be injured, there is literally nobody in the system who can do what he does. There's no option to trade for someone who can fill his role if he went down for a long time either, because the team couldn't afford the cost. He is the only choice the Canadiens have to play those big minutes, including special teams, against the best opposition. That fact increases Subban's value, but there's an unfortunate, insidious consequence to that fact, too. As long as Subban is, in effect, untouchable, he faces very few repercussions for his mistakes.

Take the Jan.6 game against the Lightning, for example. After taking one unfortunate penalty in a close game, Subban later proceeded to make an exceptionally heedless and impulsive decision that cost his team a chance at the win. When he reached across to the Tampa bench from his own spot on the Habs bench to slash a Bolts player, he ended up in the box again and the Lightning scored the winner on the subsequent PP. By any standard, that second penalty was stupid and selfish, which, in a game reliant on smarts and teamwork, was deserving of a wake-up call from his coach. Michel Therrien, though, did nothing. There was nothing he could do. The Canadiens were still down a couple of goals and trying to mount a comeback. Subban was the best offensive option on the back end.  So, Subban just went right back out as though nothing had happened.

Imagine for a moment that Lars Eller had committed that foul. Or Max Pacioretty or Jiri Sekac. If one of those guys had abandoned his senses and made a play like that to cost his team the game, he'd be collecting splinters in his backside while Therrien fumed. The thing is, they wouldn't do that. Those guys keep their destructive urges in check. Apologists for Subban argue the Lightning player should have had a penalty for an illegal hit on Markov. They say Subban should be forgiven because he's mercurial, governed by his powerful emotional response to in-game situations, and his emotion is what makes him great.

You know what? His emotion does make him great, but his indiscipline costs the team. When the Canadiens were down, Pacioretty pushed up his level of play and scored a goal, exhorting the bench to follow his example. He tried to channel his passion into a productive result on the ice, rather than a destructive one off it.

This is where the loss of McDonagh is keenly felt. With a strong, skilled contemporary pushing him to be be better, Subban would face consequences. In that alternate universe in which Gainey had never thrown a prospect into the Gomez trade, Subban would sit while McDonagh led the Canadiens comeback attempt against Tampa. In the big picture, McDonagh would be challenging for the captaincy, forcing Subban to raise his level of consistency at the same time. Without that temperate influence, the young player who's top dog by default can lose perspective and start rationalizing his errors instead of thinking before he makes them.

Subban's current contract is also a consequence of the McDonagh trade. Because of his cheese-stands-alone status, Subban's team of negotiators could demand the world and get it. The Habs had no choice.

A trade in hockey is like the proverbial stone cast into the water. Ripples spread, sometimes dissipating quickly, but at other times they widen until you can see them from miles away. It's too late now to undo the McDonagh trade. He's another team's captain and star young player. Still, we can acknowledge the consequences of that move have been more far-reaching and, perhaps, more subtle than we could have imagined on June 30, 2009.

It rained in Montreal that day, which ended in thunder and lighting. Looking back, it was fitting.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

It's Hard Out There For a D

Once upon a time, in the waning days of the Edmonton Oilers offensive juggernaut and before the New Jersey Devils tried to choke hockey to death on its own D, NHL defencemen had it pretty good. If someone dumped a puck into the corner, a blueliner could depend on his partner to interfere with the forward chasing it, giving him a chance to get there first. If there was an opponent in his goalie's crease, the defenceman could get away with tactics just short of cold-blooded murder to clear the traffic away. If he iced the puck under pressure, he could go back to the bench for a breather. If he happened to knock it into the crowd while chipping it off the glass, the only consequence would be a faceoff. Yup. Life was good then, for a D.

Then 2005 happened and the New NHL, with all its rule changes intended to "improve the game" (read: fix the league-wide scoring shortage engendered by the aforementioned Devils and their brutal trap style) was born. Most observers at the time expected the increased importance of special teams with the crackdown on interference and stick fouls, the reduction of the size of goalie equipment and the elimination of the two-line offside would make things a lot tougher for the netminders. Surprisingly, they adapted incredibly well. They got bigger and more technically sound, and, excepting a brief blip in the first post-lockout season, the average number of goals against each season has pretty well returned to pre-2005 levels.

The guys who really have felt the change are the defencemen, and they're the ones getting the flack for blowing games that goalies used to get. Chris Chelios, the NHL's longest-tenured D-man, played through the transition and really felt the difference in his game after the lockout.

"The new rules, the new game, does not benefit defencemen whatsoever. Even though I was a good skater, it'd be a lot harder now to put up the numbers and have success that I did at that position," he declares. The biggest difference?

"Protecting yourself. The fact that your teammates can't hold up or run interference for you or get in the way, you've got guys coming full bore, forechecking, you have no time. The biggest difference is time. You don't have the time you used to and it's kind of a one-sided affair. When a forward chips the puck past you, you can't bump him, but when a defenceman turns to go after the puck, it's open season on him, for the forwards to finish their checks."

Chelios says many defencemen, himself included, were able to adapt to the new rules, but it meant playing a different game than the one they were used to.

"You had to learn to be smarter positionally and not use your stick to hook or hold. Staying closer to home. Walking the line in front of the net and being more careful," he explains.

The resulting problem, is a lot of hockey's offence comes by way of a strong, creative defence. Chelios says that's not happening the way it used to, and the legacy of those 2005 rule changes...aided by the coaching response to the exact opposite of the increased scoring the league intended.

"Very few defenceman today have that long leash offensively we had in the '90s because there's so much structure. I got systemized and structured, but that's the new wave of coaches. Everything is so much over-analyzed compared to what it was," he explains. "Computers and videos and coaches take the skill out of hockey, not the rules or anything they've changed.  Coaching is so much more sophisticated, and that's the biggest difference between now and the '90s."

Sylvain Lefebvre is one of that new breed of coaches, guiding the Canadiens AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. In his playing days, he was a pre-lockout defenceman with a pre-lockout mentality. Now he's teaching the young guys to play the modern way.

"When they first came up with the changes, they wouldn't let you battle in front of the net. Now, they let you battle more. But it's body position, boxing out in front of the net and blocking shots more than it used to be. Then, we did those things, but we could do it with more ferocity." He continues, "It's a different era and a different kind of play, but there are still fundamentals there to be taught and to be learned. Stick positioning...I tell defencemen you're going to save yourself a lot of work if you have a good stick, taking away seam passes, pokechecking, basically directing where you want the puck carrier to go. You do that with your stick."

Lefebvre admits Chelios is right about the coaching. It doesn't matter what skillset a young D comes to Hamilton with until he learns to play within the system.

"They have to adapt to a certain structure we strongly believe in," he says. "Then they have to improve their individual weaknesses, whether it's skating, pivoting, skating with the puck, getting available for your partner, pass receiving, whatever. Defence is not easy to play. The toughest thing to teach is to score goals. Find holes and get the puck through to the net. Teaching confidence to do that, and repetition, doing it again and again. It's fun teaching, and it's very challenging at times."

It's tougher for young Ds to find that freedom when they're tied to the boundaries of a defence-first kind of system. That's why Chelios says certain players stand out to him now, partly because of the way their teams play.

"Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, they're real creative," Chelios reflects. "Their skill comes out mostly because their coaches allow it. For every bad thing they do, they do thirty good things. I love watching players who have that flexibility, whose coaches allow it. I wish more of them would."

Aside from the impact on the creativity and offense of NHL defencemen, both Chelios and Lefebvre believe the post-lockout rules put the health of blueliners at risk.

"Even back then, you still had to be able to move quickly when you saw Teemu Selanne or Pavel Bure coming down the wing at you. You had to be able to skate backward and pivot quickly. That hasn't changed," Lefebvre says. "It's just that before, you could hold up for your partner when someone was on the forecheck. Or your forwards, you could ask them to hold up for you to go get the puck, and that would make a difference, for the forwards to have the puck on their stick or off the glass. Now you can't hold up anymore. You can ask the forwards to keep their ice a little bit in front of opposing forwards to slow them down, but now you have to be quick going back for pucks. Goalies will play the puck a little bit more and the forwards will get back quicker for the breakouts."

Rather than simply lamenting the changes, Chelios thinks the NHL needs to go back and revisit the interference rules, for the betterment of the game.

"I still think they'd better make the adjustment so the players can interfere with each other, as long as they're not using their sticks in some way," he says. "There are way too many players getting injured. It's not going to stop. Even in basketball, you're allowed to run interference. Imagine football without blocking. I think they made a big mistake, and they have to find a happy medium to protect the defencemen."

Chelios says there are egos involved in the rules committees who make those decisions, and they don't like to admit they're wrong. He believes NHL defencemen have it much tougher than he did when he was in his prime, and they...and the game...are paying the price.

One thing's for sure: it's a lot harder out there for a D than it used to be. So maybe, if a defenceman misses a pokecheck or doesn't get good body position on an opponent from time to time, with so many of those trusty '90s-era weapons forbidden to them, they deserve a bit of a break.