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.