Thursday, October 26, 2017

Eating Their Young

There's something seriously wrong in Montreal when it comes to nurturing the next generation.

Take a look at the last ten years of drafting. In 2007, the Canadiens picked four future NHL players. Only Max Pacioretty remains with the team, where he still regularly faces public criticism about his fitness to be captain, his on-ice production and his crises of confidence. Somehow, he claims to love playing in Montreal.

P.K.Subban was traded for Shea Weber after several years of veiled implications that he was a me-first player and amid outright finger pointing from his coach. Ryan McDonagh didn't even get the chance to prove himself in the NHL before getting traded for Scott Gomez, in part because management didn't like his performance at the world juniors the previous winter. He's now a star in New York. Yannick Weber had an up-and-down career in Montreal, but remains in the NHL with the Predators. That was the best draft class the Canadiens have had in the last decade.

The next two drafts, in 2008 and 2009, saw 112 NHL games played among the twelve players chosen. Notable among them was first-rounder Louis Leblanc, who suffered the dreaded high-ankle sprain in 2012. He came back in the AHL to minimal ice-time with scrub linemates and little PP time. Worse were reports that coach Sylvain Lefebvre systematically destroyed his confidence, even that he tied elastic bands to the player's skates to improve his stride. Leblanc eventually was traded for a fifth-round pick.

In 2010, the draft yielded NHLer Brendan Gallagher in the fifth round. The year's first-rounder was Jarred Tinordi who never earned the trust of his coaches and was traded for a couple of scrubs shortly before receiving a 20-game suspension for drug violations. The following year, the Habs picked one NHLer in first-rounder Nathan Beaulieu. He's now a member of the Buffalo Sabres; traded for a third-round pick after failing to live up to his potential in Montreal, and following newspaper reports about his penchant for partying and his lack of respect for fans.

That brings us to 2012. For the first time since Carey Price was drafted fifth overall in 2005, the Canadiens had a lottery pick and a chance to add some serious talent to a struggling lineup. Some might argue (with hindsight) that Filip Forsberg would have been the more productive pick, but Galchenyuk was a solid choice with tons of potential.

As it's turned out, though, his developmental learning curve has been just as steep and rocky as some of his predecessors'. Thrust into the NHL spotlight at 18, Galchenyuk has been the subject of debate about whether he's qualified to play centre every season since. He's been publicly mocked for being involved in a domestic altercation with a girlfriend and criticized for being Beaulieu's party pal. This season he's been regularly demoted to fourth-line wing duty in punishment for a lack of production.

Now this young player is dealing with the malicious revelation that he may have voluntarily entered the NHL's substance abuse treatment program. The person who decided to publicly announce this was none other than ex-player and ex-coach Mario Tremblay who was convicted last year for refusing to give a give a breath sample in a suspected drunk driving incident.

A player who voluntarily looks for help in the alcoholic culture of the NHL is to be applauded. We don't need to know their names or why they look for help. It's enough that they're self-aware enough to seek counselling in the first place.

For an alleged hockey professional to break the sacred confidence of rehab and betray a young player is unforgivable. Tremblay should be ashamed.

In the meantime, the Galchenyuk case is just the latest public embarrassment of a young player in Montreal. The party culture, the adulation of young women and the open-door policy of the local bar owners gives young men a degree of licence they don't get anywhere else. Unsurprisingly, they fall under the thrall of such privilege. The fact the team does little to help youngsters deal with the wealth of temptation in their city is shameful.

Management studiously ignores the problems off ice and focus on criticism on the ice. That does nothing but destroy confidence and leave young players adrift.

Just look at the last ten years and decide if the Canadiens' strategy of developing youngsters is working.


Friday, September 29, 2017


I confess, I haven't watched too much of the Canadiens' dreadful 2017-18 pre-season. Over years of supporting this team, I've realized the games in September really don't reflect what will happen when October comes. Still, you have to think ZERO wins in the warm-up games can't be a good sign.

There are many reasons why Habs fans are going into the new year with trepidation. The loss of Andrei Markov who, even in his late thirties, played a ton of solid minutes on the back end last year will impact the stability of the blueline. Paying top dollar and term for Carey Price while doing little to shore up last year's struggling offence (Jonathan Drouin can't do everything) puts the team a knee injury away from disaster. The prospects are obviously not a match for those of other teams in the Northeast division. Victor Mete aside, it's hard to imagine most of them making the NHL any time soon.

Those are some stark facts which most of us recognize and we're skeptical going into the season because of them. Most of us.

I have a friend, however, who's one of the most loyal Canadiens followers I've ever met. I mean, this is a serious fan. She grew up in the '70s in Massachusetts and wore a Habs sweater to the Boston Garden, which was a life-threatening move at the time. She's attended the Canadiens fantasy camp more than once. She has cats named for members of the 1950s Punch Line. She's been known to stalk Jacques Lemaire.

When myself and my cynical fellow fans watch games, we start to get sarcastic around the time the second PP of the game shoots blanks. By the time the team is getting shut out by the Hurricanes, we're angry at management, the inept forwards and the universe. Not my friend.

The Canadiens might be down 3-0 with a minute to go, and she's reminding us Bill Mosienko scored a hat trick in 21 seconds, and Jean Beliveau did it in 44. If they're down by three with twenty seconds to go, she reminds us records are made to be broken. She tells us Karma will save the day.

The only problem is, I don't think Karma is as good a friend as she does. One definition of it is: "The spiritual principal of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of  that individual (effect.)" In other words, if you do good things, good things will come back to you. Likewise, if bad things (like the other team scoring on an iffy penalty call) happen to you, good things will come to offset the bad.

That's a great theory for the hopeful among us. However, Karma isn't an in-game phenomenon. She has a long-term memory and she owes Canadiens fans a lot of payback. 

Once upon a time, the Habs were members of a six-team league, blessed with a copious number of talented players right in their own back yard who all dreamed of playing in Montreal. The set-up brought five Cups in a row in the '50s and more in the '60s. Even after expansion the Habs had the best GM in the business in Sam Pollock. Pollock maneuvered the 1971 draft to land Guy Lafleur with the first pick. He regularly traded chaff for wheat, to the detriment of those who dealt with him. As a result, the Canadiens won a ton of Stanley Cups and fans did a lot of rubbing it in. 

Now here we are with a dubiously-skilled GM in Marc Bergevin, with 2012 first-round pick Alex Galchenyuk, the most recent top draft choice to make the NHL, on the third line with trade rumours troubling him. The team is 25 seasons out from its last Stanley Cup and doesn't look much like a contender this year. Some might say, Karma is balancing the scales for decades of triumph with the drought we're in now. leafs fans are laughing at us. 

I admire my friend for never giving up on the Canadiens, no matter what. She truly believes Karma will help them pull off the last-second OT goal or defend a precarious lead under pressure. I feel for the fans who are as optimistic as she is. Thanks to her, I believe in Karma too.

Only thing is, I believe Karma is a bitch.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Price for Price

Carey Price is unquestionably one of the best goaltenders in the world right now.  He's a Vezina and Hart Trophy winner. He led Canada to Olympic gold. He was a high first-round draft pick and a world junior gold medalist. The man is the real deal; a legit superstar.

The only prize of significance Price has yet to win is the Stanley Cup. And one can argue he never will as long as he's in Montreal. General manager Marc Bergevin has had five years to take advantage of Price's prime and build a championship calibre team around him. Most would agree he's failed to do that. The Habs are not the Penguins or Blackhawks. That's why now is the right time to trade Price.

The Canadiens have been trying to improve at the centre position for years now, but due to poor first-round drafting and suspect development of its prospects, the club has stagnated. A big reason for that is a chronic lack of tradeable assets. When you draft mediocre players it's tough to move them for players of greater value. You can't trade draft picks when you need them desperately yourself. And, when the roster is full of underperformers, it means potential trade partners want more than the diminutive winger who hasn't scored in twelve games with whom you're willing to part.

To really gain, you have to give, and the Canadiens have little to give that would bring a significant return. The one enticing piece they could offer right now is Price. Even though he struggled for a lengthy period this season and has missed serious time with injuries in the last couple of years, his reputation as one of the best money goalies in the league persists. Teams close to a Cup, but missing that security in net, would be potential trade partners and the return would be high.

There is a compelling case to move Price now. First of all, as a butterfly-style goalie with a history of joint injuries, his body's warranty is not unlimited. Turning thirty this summer, he may have two years or five of healthy play ahead of him. He may also end up with a debilitating injury in training camp next fall. He's not infallible and if he's hurt long-term, he's no good to the Canadiens and his return in a trade will drop precipitously.

The second issue the Canadiens will have with Price is his next contract. He's got one year left with a cap hit of 6.5-million dollars, which, when you consider his role on the team and his contributions to it, is extremely reasonable. However, after next year, he'll be looking for lifetime security. He doesn't know, any more than we do, how long his body will hold up. At 31, a five or six-year deal will take him into his declining years even if he remains healthy. So, he'll likely be looking for the kind of money most teams' best players make. That's not unfair, but Bergevin has to be careful about ending up in a Luongo trap.

Back in 2010, the Canucks signed Luongo to a twelve-year, 64-million dollar contract. At the same time, a young Corey Schneider was proving himself as an up-and-coming star. The Canucks would have loved to move Luongo to save the cap space and make room for Schneider, but the former's contract made him untradeable. In the end, Schneider got traded because he needed to play to fulfill his potential. Later when the collective bargaining agreement allowed salary retention, Luongo went to Florida and the Canucks ended up with neither of their star goalies; replacing them with an aging Ryan Miller and three out of the last four years with no playoffs.

The Canadiens now are in a situation in which the goalie is the undisputed best player on the team. That means he has the most value. Watching the team in this playoff, in which one or two goals against are enough to lose a game, it's proof Price needs to go in exchange for a variety of pieces that will improve the team. After all, teams have won the Cup with decent, not star, goalies. But they've rarely won with ONLY a goalie.

So, what's fair value for Price? Any team trading for him must, at the very least, offer its first-round pick. Then, considering the Habs dearth of useful prospects, there must be two solid prospect offers. One on forward and one on defence. A third-or-fourth line NHLer wouldn't be out of the equation either.

Any way you look at it, Price's time of usefulness is coming to an end. A smart GM would realize that a team's best player can't be its goalie without other players to back him up. On the other hand, you CAN have a solid team with a merely decent goalie. If Bergevin can come to the logical conclusion, Price will move and the return for him will be the foundation of the next Cup.