Thursday, 29 September 2011

Pre-Season Game #7: Tampa Bay 4, Montreal 0

Well the Canadiens lost 6-0 against the Lightning, but with a couple of assists from the referees whittled that down to 4-0. The fact that it was a pre-season game soothed the sting a little bit, and the fact that I have Steve Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier in the HIO Memorial hockey pool was another balm.

I was ready to be patient, and I preached calm even though the Canadiens had won only one game out of six so far, since its roster was rife with AHL'ers and no-hopers. This was the first game the Canadiens would have a legitimate roster out on the ice, and my expectations were ratcheted up. To finally see the Cole-Pacioretty power tandem on their respective lines wreaking havoc and the vaunted third scoring line with an Andrei Kostitsyn eyeing a big season to reap a big contract in the summer was going to be a treat.

This game was a mild disappointment, and there are many culprits who will participate in the Airing of Grievances. Let's work from the net out.

Peter Budaj didn't look solid or confident in nets. He battled the puck, got caught by the camera looking behind him on saves, let a slapper from Mr. Lecavalier dribble through his pads into the net but was saved by the referee's whistle. He made easy saves look difficult. This is worrisome in that a shaky goalie makes his defencemen tense, and the forwards press to score goals, instead of being loose and confident.

This summer I supported the decision to let Alex Auld go, since I wasn't impressed with his play last season anyway, and believed the management team was in a better position to evaluate options in goal. Much was made of the fact that Mr. Budaj had played without a dedicated goalie coach in Colorado, and that the tutelage of Canadiens goalie coach Groulx would allow him to reach his potential. It appears that he still has a lot of work to do, and some confidence to gain before Jacques Martin will be willing to rest Carey Price on a more regular basis than he did last season.

The defence corps seemed to be a strength this summer. Notwithstanding the absence of Andrei Markov, the replacement of long-in-the-tooth veterans Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara with Yannick Weber, Alexei Yemelin and Raphaël Diaz seemed a definite upgrade. I now have to temper my enthusiasm and accept that even though they are younger and more mobile, they may not be quite ready for NHL duty. Having said that, I think it's a positive step for the team to play its prospects rather than veterans, even if it costs us a few wins in the regular season. Long-term, we will benefit, but I may have to accept that there will be growing pains. The signing of Chris Campoli will mitigate these somewhat.

PK Subban is a magician, but may be putting too much responsibility on himself to do too much. Again, I see him choosing to make the difficult play rather than the simple play on a regular basis. You can surprise a forechecking forward by faking a pass or clearing attempt then rushing the puck if it's not your go-to move. After a while, if that's what you regularly do, opposing coaches will pick up on this, it will show up on game films, and they will tell their forwards to not bite on the first move and simply go for the body. PK needs to calm down a little bit, keep making his outlet passes and choose his spots carefully when to make his end-to-end rushes.

In the forwards, I saw flashes from the players we need big seasons from , but it's worrisome that they couldn't manage a goal, even with many power-play opportunities, including a 5 on 3. They may still be discombobulated by the abating cavalcade of rookies, but Mr. Gionta, Cammalleri, Gomez, Cole and Plekanec need to bury their chances.

Brendan Gallagher seemed to come back down to earth. He again showed flashes of brilliance, but the fact that he hasn't yet scored in the pre-season, despite playing with frontline players, may have ended his hopes of starting the season with the grand club. I think it's probably best for him to play first line minutes in junior with the Giants and have a chance to play on the Canadian team in the World Junior tournament this season.

Then again, maybe playing on the same line as Mr. Kostitsyn is what sapped the strength of the Canadiens putative new Mighty Mouse. Mr. Kostitsyn was abysmal tonight, noticed only for his many faults and failings. The sequence which was highlighted on TSN, during which he carried the puck over the blue line in the Tampa zone, coasted and then feebly tried a one-handed pass through the skates of a Lighting defender, was a headscratchingly awful decision. We often talk of players with high 'hockey IQ' or hockey sense. We should admit to each other that Andrei has low hockey sense, kind of like Gaston Gingras and Mark Napier and Gilbert Delorme had, lots of physical tools dulled by a marshmallow mind. It doesn't help that he often chooses the easy play, in this case the low-percentage pass, instead of the demanding play, which in this case would have been to try to sweep around the defender or to chip the puck in the corner and outskate him. I wrote after the third pre-season game against the Senators, during which Mr. Cole and Mr. Pacioretty shined, that their example might inspire him. That may still be true, since in this case Mr. Cole and Pacioretty didn't set the world on fire, and Mr. Kostitsyn was even more sedate.

Mike Blunden distributed some good bodychecks and was noticeable on the ice, contrary to his linemate Andreas Engqvist. Michaël Bournival hit a post on a wicked wrist shot, he's another junior player who should find a way onto the World Junior team.

Saturday is another opportunity for the team to jell, followed by a retreat at Blue Mountain. Thankfully, the start of the season should be relatively easy, with games against the Leafs and Jets, then at home against the Flames and Avalanche. While the first two will not be walks in the park since they will be played in arenas filled with rabid fans, these four games can serve as final tuneups before the real season starts with a game against the new-look Sabres.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Cole, Pacioretty models for Kostitsyn to pattern his behaviour after?

All summer long some Canadiens harped on the fact that Erik Cole would be a mentor for Max Pacioretty, specifically with respect to the fact that both had experienced similar neck injuries. I thought this was nothing more than a happy coincidence, and the observation trite. I figured any information or advice Mr. Cole had he would have been happy to volunteer even if he and Mr. Pacioretty were on different teams. Doctors, physiotherapists, former patients who aren't necessarily NHL players could also be used as a resource. So I thought this angle was overplayed, and while it might have some benefits, the vastly more important aspect was that opposing teams would not be able to key on one player or one line. A shutdown line or slash-and-hack-and-grab artist would not be able to focus on Max with Erik now on board.

After watching three pre-season games, it is demonstrably the case that the Canadiens are much stronger with both players than it was during the playoffs last year. They provide a physical presence and an offensive threat with speed that will give headaches to opposing coaches. The lineup looks orders of magnitude more formidable than that which was iced last season or the season before. With a younger, more mobile and creative defence corps than we have had recently, and with stable goaltending, this team will catch a lot of pre-season pundits off-guard, with their sleepy-headed predictions of this team eking into the playoffs likely to make them recant by Christmas.

The rookies we expected a lot from are showing what they're made of, starting with Brendan Gallagher and Nathan Beaulieu. Jared Tinordi comes as advertised, a big raw kid who will develop into a steady defensive presence with a dollop of menace. Raphael Diaz looks promising, and Alexei Yemelin is pretty much plug-and-play. Unfortunately, Louis Leblanc and Michaël Bournival's injuries prevent them from showcasing their skills. As for Andreas Engqvist, he may get a spot on the roster by necessity rather than by a dazzling showing. Aaron Palushaj seems bound for Hamilton.

But now I want to come back to the mentorship angle. I now wonder if the showing by Mr. Cole and Mr. Pacioretty can inspire Andrei Kostitsyn to perform at a level close to where his physical abilities would seem to allow. We saw an offensive outburst by him after the Cole goal against the Stars. Andrei seems to need external sources of motivation, it might serve him well to see Max and Erik claim the puck and take it to the net with authority. To see them being successful playing the 'power forward' game and receiving the adulation of the New Forum crowds, or simply to observe their hard work and skating shift after shift might make the penny drop for Mr. Kostitsyn. It might be a nice unanticipated consequence that these three talented wingers compete with each other in a friendly rivalry for icetime and bragging rights.

Friday, 23 September 2011

There's a new sheriff in town

Brendan Shanahan's decision to suspend Jody Shelley for his hit on Jay Rosehill hit all the right notes. A suitable length of punishment for a dangerous, boneheaded act. A clear explanation, on video no less, of the reasoning behind the decision. A clear statement that Mr. Shelley's past transgressions were weighed in the decision.

Meanwhile Pierre Maguire was on radio advocating for leniency because Mr. Shelley was trying to win a job with the Flyers and a suspension might result in him getting cut from the team. There was a mention that he is not 'that kind of player', to which one is forced to wonder if not he who is? Mr. Shanahan has a lot of work to do to overcome the old boys' network in the NHL and its hidebound mentality and 'code of honour'. This was a definitely positive first step in that direction.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Pre-Season Game #2: Buffalo 3, Montreal 1

Another loss for the Canadiens after last night's shootout loss, this one ending in a closer score of 3-1. Given that the Sabres scored an empty-netter in the last minute, this was a more evenly contested game than Monday night's 6-3 result against the Dallas Stars, especially when considering the fact that the Sabres had 14 regular players in their lineup, compared to 9 for the Canadiens. The score isn't the important consideration, especially this early in the pre-season, when the team's intent is to allow young players an opportunity to showcase their talent instead of being as competitive as possible.

PK Subban caught everyone's eye with flashy skating and puck-handling, almost to excess in one viewer's opinion. He seemed to more often than not choose the difficult or fancy play over the simple one, and the expectation here was that he would soon commit a blunder of bench-stapling proportion. Instead, he scored the Canadiens lone goal on a beautiful setup by another promising youngster. I wondered if he was trying to take too much on his shoulders, with so many regulars missing from the lineup. Let's hope he's only trying some moves out during the exhibition season, and he'll tone it down during the regular season.

Nathan Beaulieu put in an impressive performance, tallying an assist on the lone goal. He played the most minutes of any defenceman, five-on-five, on the power-play and the penalty kill. He showed remarkable poise for an 18 year old, rushing the puck and supporting the attack in the offensive zone, as well as making a couple of sweet long outlet passes that led directly to scoring chances. The Antichambre denizens were discussing the possibility of keeping him with the big club instead of sending him down to his junior team this season.

Among the forwards, Max Pacioretty played a good game, getting good shots on goals. His centreman David Desharnais provided a lot of excitement, constantly being around the puck despite his reputation of not being a fast skater.

The star of the night for this viewer was Brendan Gallagher. Another small player, Mr. Gallagher was reported to be creative and productive with the puck, but afflicted with the dreaded 'small and slow' tag when he was drafted. A strength and conditioning coach's son, he has worked assiduously this last year and is now a quick and strong skater, as evidenced by his performance tonight. Whereas some of the other young Canadiens forwards showed heart but seemed a step behind the play (Philip DeSimone, Aaron Palushaj, Gabriel Dumont), Mr. Gallagher was a step ahead, creating room and opportunities with his stickhandling and mobility. It is obvious that he would benefit from another season in Junior, during which he could mature physically and hopefully play high-caliber competitive hockey during the World Junior tournament over Christmas, but it is tempting to think about keeping him in Montreal for at least the start of the season.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Thoughts on the Canadiens first pre-season game

I write this during the midpoint of the second period, as both teams are warming up their backup goaltenders.

The Cammalleri-Plekanec-Cole line is dominant, but so is the Ryder-Ribeiro-Morrow line. It's not hard to see that there is still quite a jump between Junior Major and AHL players and established NHL'ers.

All the players that we fall in love with during the summer and early training camp and hope they can be a pleasant surprise during the season (Brock Trotter, Mike Blunden, Alain Berger) are all showing a need for seasoning in the minors. Aaron Palushaj isn't remarkable. Jared Tinordi is as advertised, a safe keep-it-simple defenceman.

Andrei Kostistsyn's eruption in the second period will not serve to sate the appetite of Canadiens's fans. If anything, it will only increase the pressure on him to maintain that superior level of performance.

Ian Schultz's fight with Mr. Wathier is the kind of nonsense that could easily be eliminated from the game of hockey.

Yanick Weber and Raphael Diaz are an intriguing defence pairing, like candy for hypoglycemic Montreal fans. Weber is creative but can make mistakes, but has shown the mobility to minimize the damage when he goofs.

As the game ends, we can agree that of the youngsters, the defencemen Diaz, Weber and Yemelin were the most NHL-ready. Jeff Woywitka seemed to be missing a step at first, but either he improved or I warmed up to him as the game went on. I liked his positional awareness during his goal, he found an open spot and created his goal by being available for his one-timer. None of the forwards aside from the established players made enough of an impression to warrant a second look. The roster on the forwards side seem as set as before camp started.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Busy Hice, it's full câlice!

The Canadiens will have 64 players split into three squads for their three day camp at the practice facility in Brossard, Quebec. Sixty four. That's a lot of jaded veterans and starry-eyed rookies in close quarters, and much potential for clashes and collisions.

The squads are found by clicking here.

Team C has two interesting lines. Maybe the coaching staff has been reading the line combinations Canadiens fans have been posting on forums since June. These two posted below have been fairly unanimous among Canadiens fans. And I thought it was pointless…

David Desharnais – Lars Eller – Andrei Kostitsyn
Travis Moen – Andreas Engqvist – Ryan White

This one has a nice look to it, might be ready in 2-3 years time, although Mathieu might have retired by then. It would be great if a bigger winger like Alain Berger or Steve Quailer was on left wing.

Mathieu Darche – Michael Bournival – Brendan Gallagher

Every team has a slew of rookies who look great and bottomless hope for this season and beyond, but objectively, the Canadiens are entitled to more of both. Indubitably.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Is Danny Kristo worth the hype?

Am I the only one who thinks Danny Kristo is overhyped? The Canadiens drafted him in the second round in 2008 and he hasn’t set the world on fire, but some of us talk about him like he’s the Second Coming.
I don’t remember a second-rounder being so hyped since maybe Chris Chelios. General Manager Serge Savard kept telling us to wait until we see him, that he was going to be a heck of a player with a major impact on the team, so much so that the francophone media started referring to him as ‘Le Sauveur Chelios’. Lucky for us he was right.
I remember Mike Ribeiro being rushed up to the team too soon, but at that time we were bereft of hope, clutching at straws. The Claude Lemieux-Sergio Momesso draft also got a lot of hype, but that’s because we had seen those guys in junior, and we didn’t need to be sold like we did with Mr. Chelios, or are now with Mr. Kristo. Same goes with Stéphane Richer, I remember the Saguenéens being angry that he was in Montreal riding the bench instead of filling their arena, but we knew what he could turn into. When I get frustrated at Andrei Kostitsyn, it’s because I think he has the tools to have a similar impact as Mr. Richer, or at least seemed to at one time.
Some of you may bring up PK Subban, but again I think we saw him perform in the World Junior tournament and didn’t need to be preached to, we were already converted. If anything, the fans kind of thought we were being Subban-teased by the organization, we were ready for action before they gave it up.
I get the sense that if it wasn’t for the fact that the Canadiens traded away our first-rounder in 2008, we wouldn’t be so concerned with him. If we had kept our first-round pick, we’d be agonizing over Greg Nemisz, and how he needs to pack on some pounds and be stronger on the puck, and how he’s possibly a wasted pick who’ll never be a Top 6 forward, bla bla blah. Danny Kristo wouldn’t get any of the spotlight now trained on him.