Saturday, 31 March 2012

Game 79: Montréal 2, Washington 3 (SO)

Tonight's game told us more about the Washington Capitals than the Montréal Canadiens. They were playing a tired team, that had played the previous night on the road and then traveled to D.C., and jumped to a 2-0 lead, but then couldn't put them away. They were facing the journeyman goaltender Peter Budaj, and should have stepped on the Canadiens neck, but couldn't close the deal in regulation. There's no harm done to their playoff chances, but it says a lot about their motivation and desire and mindset and playoff readiness.

The DD line has cooled off somewhat in recent games, and the centreman had a poor game compared to his usual standards. Maybe he is getting tired, or the motivation is hard to come by this late in the season, but he was responsible for a few breakdowns and finished his evening -1. On the offensive side, he didn't seem to click, and his hesitation to shoot in favour of passing to his teammates may be a detriment at this point. The opponents may have the book on him now, and cover the passing lanes and dare him to shoot, like they do to Tomas Kaberle. He'll need to work on his shot and one-timers this summer to address this issue.

P.K. Subban is finally listening to me. I've often asked him to stop relying on the big windup slapshot exclusively, and to fake it then deke the shot blocker and go around him for the wrist shot. We saw him use my tactic tonight to great effect if no tangible result. If he continues to do so, he will be more effective, and his slapshot will be more effective as well, if it ever hits the net, since the defenders won't be able to set up for it so easily.

Something had been bugging me about Brad Staubitz, and now I know what it is. He's a dead ringer for this guy .

Good night, we pick up the regulation tie point, but our draft standings competitors Minnesota and Toronto bungled their way to a win, so not too much damage done.

The choice of the Canadiens' next General Manager

As the Canadiens sift through a long list of potential candidates for their General Manager vacancy, there are a few trains of thought that can be seen in the fans.

One is the repetitive, reflexive assertion that they should hire 'the best man available regardless of language', in the face of these candidates' remarkable résumés and previous achievements. We find in the most likely candidates that two have shown the intellectual ability to obtain a law degree. A few are currently Assistant General Managers for other teams. A couple have intimate knowledge of the Collective Bargaining Agreement through their roles as NHLPA executives or as a player agent. All of them have shown talent and dedication by ascending the echelons of their profession, and at least some of the required qualifications and traits necessary to succeed as a GM.

Somehow these candidates don't satisfy the absolutists, who still feel that the team is hampering itself with an arbitrary and irrelevant language requirement, and that there are some clearly better candidates out there who will be shut out of the process because they are unilingual. When pressed to produce these budding Sam Pollocks and Bill Torreys lost in the wilderness, a few names are offered, but none that seem clearly more worthy of an interview than any of the names punted about, save for maybe Jim Nill.

Conversely, this faction discounts as meaningless or worthless the candidates' knowledge of the team's history and local market and the ability to communicate with its fans.

Another apparent misunderstanding is how the recruiting process is conducted, either generally or in the hockey world. Usually, a wide net is cast to review as many résumés and evaluate as many candidates as possible. Through various hurdles or benchmarks most are eliminated until a short list is drawn up, and these candidates get interviewed to evaluate their skills, personal abilities and potential fit within the organization. The interviewer or interview panel then may select a candidate, or maybe select a couple of finalists for another round of interviews if they are seen as being 'neck and neck', to allow for another opportunity to differentiate them.

In the end the person that is hired is sometimes clearly the best candidate and best fit, but most often there are a few candidates who would be suitable and the decision is a judgment call. It's not as if one candidate scores an 89 and everyone else is in the 60's and 70's, it's never that objective or clear cut. You end up having one candidate who impresses with her energy and enthusiasm and original ideas, and another who shows great experience and judgment and an impressive track record, and have to choose between the two.

If the choice was so obvious, if interviews were objective and categorical and not open to bias and error, there wouldn't be any dismissals. People would be hired into jobs and perform well in that role until promoted or recruited somewhere else. This is obviously not the case. Candidates are misevaluated or end up underperforming all the time. The best you can do is find a group of candidates who fit the profile and meet all the basic requirements and most of the preferred requirements, and then do your best and hope you come up with the right choice.

One of the more common errors, however, is to not winnow down your list and interview everyone. In these situations you end up with a lot of candidates that blend into a mishmash in the interview panel's mind. Those that were interviewed earlier in the process tend to fade from memory. The very first candidates and the ones who met the panel more recently tend to stand out in the panel's mind, at the expense of worthy but unlucky candidates scheduled in the long boring middle of the pack.

I remember going over candidate selection methods in a university industrial psychology course, and learning that none of them are foolproof. Interestingly, the one which recruiters or executives tend to prize the most, the interview, is one of the least accurate selection methods based on the retention rate of hirees, yet is the one that is most relied on and is the one that executives swear by. Studies demonstrated that a process which relied exclusively on résumé review and background and reference checks was a more effective way to find the right candidate than one which included an interview process. Still, it is almost impossible to convince an employer to hire a candidate without meeting them first in an interview.

Interestingly, the most effective way to select a candidate is the realistic job preview, where a candidate or group of candidates are put in the workplace and perform the duties required of them, or as near as is possible, and are evaluated thus. The realistic job preview consistently proves to be the best selection method, in that the candidate can evaluate whether the job and workplace is the right environment for herself, the potential coworkers can offer feedback to the recruiters, and the recruiters can see how the candidates perform. Practically, this selection method is hard to use in most settings, as there are problems with allowing candidates to do 'real work'. In some fields however, such as policing or the fire service or the military, cadet programs and ride-along programs serve this function and show great results.

In our case, candidates such as Marc Bergevin, Claude Loiselle and Julien Brisebois are already on their realistic job previews, in that they are performing in an Assistant GM role and can be evaluated on how they are performing in as near a position as we can come up with. Francois Giguère actually performed in the GM role and has a track record. All that would remain in their case would be to evaluate their fit within the organization.

Which brings us to another train of thought that is puzzling, which is that somehow Pierre McGuire is one of the candidates who deserves serious consideration for the position. While Mr. McGuire is an energetic broadcaster and a likable individual, he performed very poorly in an Assistant GM position with the Hartford Whalers, and has been out of the management ranks for more than a decade. If his résumé is reviewed against some of the other candidates that are bandied about, his shouldn't even make it on the short list pile.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Our boys in Hamilton in 2012-13

Looking forward to next season, what do we do with the onslaught of new talent on the Hamilton Bulldogs? We have Brendan Gallagher, Patrick Holland and Michaël Bournival from junior, and maybe Steve Quailer and Danny Kristo from college at forward. On defence, we have Greg Patery coming in from Michigan, and Jared Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, Morgan Ellis and maybe Darren Dietz from the CHL. Do we leave these kids in the AHL next season, come hell or high water, or do we draw upon them as needed, which we are certain to?

On the one hand, if some of these guys are mature mentally, and will get significant minutes, and are insulated against the pressure by a tacit understanding that next season is a rebuilding season instead of a ‘make the playoffs’ season, then they might as well learn the ropes in Montréal no?

On the other hand, it would be great to have these guys simmer for at least a full season and have them learn how to win, as you put it, on their own. It could be like when the Sherbrooke Canadiens won the Calder Cup and sent a wave of good players to Montréal the next season.

Another scenario I think about is where do we get the defensive defenceman we’re missing next season. Free agency tends to be pricey. Everyone here talks about Bryan Allen, but that guy is going to have options, he’ll probably get 10-15 offers. Every team needs a big steady defensive defenceman, we’re not the only ones. Plus, I remember this kid from his Vancouver days, and he wasn’t a showstopper, even when the standard is Craig Ludwig or Hal Gill.

So do we instead get a cheap body to plug a hole and by implication write off next season? Do we try out Mark Mitera, Craig Pateryn or Morgan Ellis in that role in training camp and take the guy who’s best suited, at the cost of a few losses? Do we rotate these guys in and out, shuffling them in from Hamilton to give them a taste/reward?

These issues to me are way more pressing than whether Carey let in a soft goal or whether René Bourque is lazy. At least these guys are there, they’re accounted for. It’s the holes in the roster that worry me.

Game 78: Montréal 1, New York Rangers 4

Nothing to report from this game, in that it went as expected. The Canadiens didn't overachieve, like they did a few times this season when they rose to the occasion or the opposition, or like when they, more frequently, laid an egg. This was a Goldilocks special, it was just right. As expected, the Canadiens two forward lines were not able to counter the Rangers' four lines. The Rangers' defence, led by Michael Del Zotto and bolstered by the 'McDonagh swing', easily outclassed the Canadiens'.

So the Canadiens were overmatched against the first place team, but they didn't give up, they didn't lie down. They expended effort, but it was understandably lacking spirit this late in this fishtailing season. Any bounce, any lift that could have been provided by the launch of the General Manager hiring process was absent, or maybe overestimated by the press and by this observer. The guys need to find motivation from within, to hold on to their jobs or earn a spot elsewhere, but that may be harder to achieve than we believe. Hockey players are emotional creatures, and when your team has cratered, it's hard to fight like it still matters.

Andrei Markov has faded noticeably since his auspicious debut. I saw him chugging back for a cleared puck, racing against a Ranger, and he looked Hal Gill-slow. Now I'm not panicking, it's good that he's out there playing and getting a head start on next season, but it would be better if he looked more comfortable and agile with each passing game. We might be too demanding in this regard. I did see him throw a hip check, which is good, but we also saw him limping off the ice near the end of the game. Now that could be nothing, just scar tissue being knocked loose and the knee being stressed in a different way than Andrei has been allowing it to in the last couple years. We have to remember that Andrei has been 'guarding' his left knee for that long now, favouring his other knee, and babying the injured one. When it gets that little extra impact or twist, he's going to feel it since his knee hasn't been stressed like that, and he's not ready for it psychologically.

René Bourque has been getting assailed by fans for being slow, uninvolved, almost apathetic. There are drums beating already for him to be shipped out, and I want to again state that while I wish he was more productive right now, he has all of next season to prove himself. In a way, his torpor is helping us stay high in the draft rankings, so it's an opportune slump for us. Next season, once he's gotten over the repercussions of his suspension and he's fully digested the trade, maybe has a chance to get truly settled in Montréal, has a new coach who can maybe push the right buttons with him, and plays with the right linemates and on a team with more direction, he may get on track and start potting goals. With the Leafs looking to beef up over the summer, and the Senators and Bruins already embracing their inner goon, we'll be happy to have that big guy on our second or third line, at a reasonable price. He's not the issue on our team, there are many other holes to worry about.

One player I do worry about is Blake Geoffrion. He does look like he lacks explosion and is a step behind the action. This summer, Blake must forego the golf and wakeboarding and bagging Nashville honeys and instead rent a place in Brossard across the street from the practice complex, and basically live at the gym. He has to do a full summer of explosion training, power skating and plyometrics. He has to show up at training camp leaner, meaner and with noticeably more jump in his stride. He may think that he's training hard right now, but he has to take it two levels higher, and make the strength and conditioning coaches his best friends. I'm not talking about the cliché 'I put on ten pounds of muscle this summer' idea (which is usually a load of bunk), I'm talking pure squats and deadlifts and box jumps and skating until he wants to throw up. His career over the next two seasons will be defined by the effort he expends over the summer. The kid has talent, he was a Hobey Baker winner, now he needs to allow himself to succeed.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Régime change in Brossard

Big big news from Montréal today, and welcome news, in that Mr. Pierre Gauthier has been relieved of his duties as the Canadiens General Manager. Also, Bob Gainey, who was working as an advisor to the GM, was informed that his contract which expires this summer will not be renewed.

Not that these gentlemen were bad people or incompetent, but the results speak for themselves, both when using the 'Parcells test' while looking at the standings, and also in the erosion of talent from the roster over the last year, and of prestige from the organization. Mr. Gainey's gambit to go for a small skilled team that would skate the opposition into the ground was ultimately undone by the CABAL of Jeremy Jacobs, Colin Campbell and Don Cherry, who are steering the game back to the dark days of the brawling seventies and the clutch and grab nineties.

The relationship between the team and its managers was no longer beneficial or workable, so it was time to part ways with these two gentlemen and go in a new direction. A paradoxical angle is that many commentors today applauded the move, but also pined for organizational stability, and lauded the Buffalos and Nashvilles of the league who stick with their GM-Coach combinations year after year, through thick and thin.

One encouraging aspect of today's announcement was the performance of Geoff Molson. I had a favourable opinion of him since his interview at the start of the season on RDS, during which he said all the right things: his love of the Canadiens, the fact that he plays hockey himself and his sons do, how he spent time in the Canadiens online ticket-buying system so he could find out what the experience is like for the fans and how it could be improved. The fact that he was eloquent and spoke flawless French was a big plus. The clincher was his assertion that he would be an arms-length owner, and that while he would serve as President, he wouldn't meddle in day-to-day operations, which was great news to those of us who don't want a George Steibrenner or Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones in charge of the Canadiens.

Despite this great start, he was splattered by the rotten season the team endured. He was ridiculed when he gave the team and its staff a vote of confidence. He was derided by a number of fans as over his head, or vilified as a beer salesman who didn't care about winning, but only for profits. It seemed he was cut little slack in having taken over a team that was having a measure of success in the playoffs and deciding to let the current managers continue their seeming good work. He also wasn't given any credit for the fact that he had only been in the President's office for less than a year.

Thankfully, his press conference today allayed a lot of fears and he seems to have bought himself some time and regained some credibility in the eyes of his critics. He again spoke of the history and tradition of the Canadiens, of how squeaking into the playoffs was not an indicator of success. He was honest on a number of topics, in both languages.

His main coup was the announcement that he had hired Serge Savard as his advisor for the candidate selection process. While Mr. Savard has been out of the NHL for a while, he still brings a lot of good judgment, connections and experience to the table. It speaks highly of Mr. Molson that he has the humility to share the spotlight and admit he needs help. This comes on the heels of reports that he has been seeking advice from pretty much anyone he could in the last few weeks, so he is genuine in asking for help, it's not a publicity stunt.

There's not much to add to the torrent of positive comments with respect to Mr. Savard. It is a great indication that Mr. Molson understands that the Canadiens have a few advantages that other organizations don't, one of which is a deep pool of qualified, talented men to build an organization with. One of the talking heads spoke in contrast and unflatteringly of the Leafs and quipped: "I wonder if Brian Burke is calling Bill Derlago for advice?"

To have resources like Serge Savard and not use them is borderline sabotage. It seems that Geoff Molson 'gets it', and he will capitalize on the strengths of his team.

Another advantage the Canadiens have is this hereditary, generational, visceral attachment that the team has with its fans. Mr. Molson again shows that he gets it by stating clearly that having a GM who can speak French is important, if not a mandatory qualification. While this is grist for the mill for those who reflexively repeat that the Canadiens should hire 'the best qualified candidate', this can be addressed in two ways.

One is the veritable plethora of candidates who are rattled off when the speculation begins as to who will replace Mr. Gauthier. There are at least half a dozen very qualified candidates who are bilingual and can step into the role, some holding Assistant GM positions currently and being considered as ready by hockey people to take the next step. Vincent Damphousse is a smart guy who owns businesses and who in his time on the NHLPA bargaining committee got to know the Collective Bargaining Agreement exhaustively. Pat Brisson is a very respected player agent who is touted by analysts as the next one to go to the other side of the table and become a GM. If anything, there may be too many candidates to interview.

It is clear to see that the requirement to speak French will not prevent the team from interviewing many qualified candidates. The 'best qualified' candidate is an elusive beast. It's not always clear who is the best candidate. There's no objective test. If there was, there wouldn't be so many subsequent dismissals, in the hockey world and in the real world.

In reality, the person that tends to get hired is the person that has a strong enough résumé to get on a short list, and then impresses the hiring committee with their personal qualities, the force of their ideas and the fit with the organization. It's not like the World's Strongest Man or a cage brawl where there is an objective, indisputable champion. Out of the short list, you usually feel good about two or three candidates, and then you hope to choose the right one.

There is no unemployed Sam Pollock out there without any warts who will be denied a chance at employment because he doesn't speak French. All those mythical 'best qualified' candidates, those who have talent and experience, are either currently employed or were let go from somewhere else because they were found wanting. When the analysts on TSN were asked, after providing the exhaustive list of bilingual potential candidates, to provide a few names of candidates who don't speak French, they could only muster a couple of unmemorable suggestions.

Which brings us to the other way we can address the 'best candidate'. If Mr. Molson understands that the attachment between the fans and the team is a strength we can capitalize on, then he knows he has to nurture that bond, feed it. To do so, he has to, as we did in the past by design and by accident, ensure that there is local representation on the team, that Québec boys are stars and heroes and win the Cup and create another generation of boys who want to grow up and be a Canadien too. This kind of attachment is priceless. Or rather, we may find out the price or the advantage if we are able to sign P.A. Parenteau this summer at a hometeam discount. We need to have more generations of little hockey players who identify with the team and would give anything to play here, instead of the deplorable Daniel Brière situation, where a homeboy chose for various reasons to stay away.

We need our managers to understand this, and to do everything in their power that more David Desharnais and Alexandre Burrows are discovered instead of slipping through the cracks. Serge Savard has spoken ably on the subject, and it is reassuring that he will recommend we hire a GM who shares this philosophy.

It should be an exciting end of season now, as opposed to what we thought as recently as yesterday, that the remaining five games would be a Bataan Death March. Instead they'll be the background action to the main players. Let's hope that we end up with a young, talented, bright GM who quickly hires Patrick Roy, uh, I mean our next coach, and sets us up well in anticipation of the draft in June.

Mike Komisarek for Tomas Kaberle?

All right, I’ll float this idea again, except I’m a little more serious this time:

How about we approach the Leafs and offer to take Mike Komisarek off their hands in return for offloading Tomas Kaberle on them? The contracts are virtually identical in terms of cap hit, dollars and term.


1) I can’t stand Tomas Kaberle.

2) We desperately need the skillset that Mike has, and don’t really need Mr. Kaberle’s, especially with Andrei Markov back next season, and Raphaël Diaz and Yannick Weber still on the roster.

3) With a clearly defined role, maybe Mike can approach the level of play he showed while he was here. He wouldn’t be the big acquisition who has to justify his big free agency bucks he currently is in TO, but rather the guy slotted as a #5 or #6 defensive defenceman, the big strong guy who clears the net and inspires respect for our goalie.

Trying to make lemonade out of a lemon.

Fire away.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Game 77: Montréal 2, Florida 3 (SO)

In our plummet to the bottom, we have reached our floor, in that we can go no lower than 29th, Columbus having clinched the last/first spot in preparation for the draft lottery. Our team worries me though, since we have some pieces that can prevent some losses, or at least outright losses, losses in regulation that solidify our draft position. We have a goalie, we have hungry rookies who are trying to impress whoever will be calling the shots next training camp, we have a #1 line that is still playing hard, like it matters, and like they enjoy playing with each other instead of being all glum and comatose.

This loss is a familiar story for our team this season: play hard, work hard, grab a lead, cough it up in the third, settle for a regulation tie, and lose it in the shootout. And I can't think of another, original way to state it, so I'll grab my violin and pluck out the old dirge that this 'loser' point is killing our chances for a killer draft, and that the deadly Leafs are on the prowl, wielding their familiar weapons: dreadful, beer-league quality goaltending and a crestfallen team whose morale is being obliterated by a tyrannical coach. Those guys are dangerous, they have been there before, they know how to get the job done. You can see it in their eyes, they have the killer attitude.

Our team is not as bad as the Leafs. We have a lot of gaping holes in the roster, but there is a strong foundation to build on. At forward we have five or six NHL-worthy players, and now must find six more to fill out our corps. We can do so with one or three judicious free agent signings, maybe by trading a prospect for a player ready for the NHL, and hopefully by infilling from our system, maybe one more summer of development will yield dividends with some of our farmhands and current bottom-liners. We can hope that our first-round draft pick will be ready to fill one of these holes at forward. On defence, we have four very solid players, and then a plethora of question marks. Solid reinforcements are tantalizingly close, maybe in time for the 2013 training camp. We are set and more at goaltender.

Louis Leblanc is showing us something, even though he has been affected by injuries the last couple of years, and his development could have stalled. We kind of wish that he'd spent the entire season in Hamilton being the #1 centre and being the horse, but he's making the best of his limited minutes, and tonight kind of showed up René Bourque. Again, next season it would be nice if we could let him mature in Hamilton, but we may not have that luxury since we don't have enough NHL players, and he may force the team's hand with his play anyway.

Frédéric St-Denis is another player who is making it hard for us to ignore him. I've discounted his effective play so far this season, believing he didn't bring a skillset to the team that we needed, in that we already have smaller, mobile defencemen on the roster, yet again tonight he was effective, always well-positioned, used his stick to compensate for his lack of physical strength, and gathered an assist when he sent Louis Leblanc off on his 3-on-0 goal. I may be slow on the uptake, but tonight was the first time I began to question whether he might do significantly better than Yannick Weber or Tomas Kaberle or Chris Campoli.

I'm a little worried by Ryan White. He hasn't scored a goal yet, isn't creating any chances through diligent forechecking like he was last season, and may be overcompensating by fighting too often. He went up against Erik Gudbranson even though he gave up a significant size advantage. Ryan wasn't a mere fighter when he was drafted out of the WHL, he was seen as a hard-working centre and was ranked ahead of Ben Maxwell and Milan Lucic by NHL Central Scouting his draft year. Another detail which I noted was that his hair was dry as he went to the penalty box, as if he hadn't had the icetime to work up a good sweat beforehand. I know he's trying to contribute any way he can, but I don't want him to marginalize himself into a Rick Rypien-type middleweight who takes on all comers and does not much else. It might mean a short career for him.

Mark Napier vs. Mike Bossy

Regarding the Mark Napier vs. Mike Bossy draft, the thinking among Montréal fans at the time, and contrary to the Doug Wickenheiser pick, was unanimous that the local kid/scoring machine should be our choice if we had a crack at him. We didn't have the resources available today to do any research, but none of the picks that year were as sexy as picking him seemed to be. There were grumblings that he was too soft and might get killed in the NHL, but those fears existed during his junior career also. He was obviously a target every game he played, and was intimidated and threatened by goons specifically brought in to take him out, yet he persevered. The junior leagues in the seventies were just as crazy as you might expect, and opposition coaches didn't want him to beat them.

The retort to the line that he might be too soft was that you just had to surround him with the proper players, as he was with the National de Laval, and like the Islanders did by lining him up with Clarke Gillies and Bryan Trottier, and the Oilers did with Wayne Gretzky and Dave Semenko.

Another line of reasoning was that he wasn't a strong defensive player. There's a story that during the 1977 draft, Bill Torrey asked his chief scout who was left when their turn came up in the first round. The reply was: "Mike Bossy, can score but can't check, and Dwight Foster, can check but can't score."

"Get me the scorer," Torrey is reputed to have said, "I'll teach him how to check."

The Canadiens had a shot at him at the #10 overall slot, but chose to go with Mark Napier, who seemed to be as good a scorer as Mr. Bossy in junior, and had played a pro season in the WHA with Birmingham without ending up deceased, so they felt he was a better candidate. They may have been greedy or unrealistic and thought that Mr. Bossy would still be waiting for them at #20 overall. They ended up missing by three slots, and got Normand Dupont as the consolation prize.

Doug Wickenheiser vs. Denis Savard

Regarding the Doug Wickenheiser draft, while there was a significant contingent who felt at the time that local boy Denis Savard should be the choice, we were then as now afflicted with the ‘gros joueur de centre’ mania.

We had traded away Peter Mahovlich, we complained that he was slow, and stopped skating when he stickhandled, which he did all too often. We learned after his trade that he partied too hard and drove Scotty Bowman nuts.

So before the draft, the Montréal Matin, La Presse, le Journal de Montréal, the call-in show ‘Les Amateurs de Sports’ on CKAC, all agreed that we needed to draft a big centre to plug in between Steve Shutt and Guy Lafleur.

One look at their stats confirmed the wisdom of drafting Mr. Wickenheiser. He scored more goals and points than Mr. Savard did, in a league that was more defensive and didn’t tend to produce high-scorers. He was the obvious choice.

In hindsight, it’s easy to rue that call. If we had chosen Denis Savard, he might have been crushed by expectations and not developed also, or he might have let the adulation and party favours go to his head, and Doug Wickenheiser might have had a much better career in Chicago with time to develop and less pressure. I don’t necessarily believe that, as Denis Savard showed he had the fire to be the best and would have done so anywhere, whereas Doug Wickenheiser seemed too placid for the role he was meant to fill.

In our next draft, we have the added disadvantage of drafting eighteen year old players, as opposed to twenty year olds back then, so it’s even more of a conjecture as to how these kids will turn out.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Game 76: Montréal 1, Philadelphia 4

We're mathematically eliminated. It doesn't even sting.

Good result for the organization, we lose in regular time and the Leafs lose in OT to hamper themselves with an unwanted point in the standings. Minny and the Islanders kept pace though.

Remember the house party at the really cute girl's house, where you were up against three other goobers trying to be the last one to leave, and you were dragging your feet and stalling and helping her clean up and putting another CD on and misremembering where your jacket was and doggone it now you'd miss your bus so you had at least another half hour to kill....

Few positives to point out, even the reliable penalty-kill unit gave up three goals on five chances. Let's see, let's see..... Oh yeah: Josh Gorges blocked six shots, maintaining his lead as the league leader.

Claude Giroux was kept off the scoresheet. So was David Fischer.

Wayne Simmonds wasn't permitted to be the bully he usually tries to be against the Canadiens, or at least the smaller, meeker Canadiens he faced earlier this season. When he blew a fuse in the third, Mike Blunden and Ryan White were right there on him, and the refs actually got the call right, calling him for two deserved minors and a misconduct.

Six more to go. Let's see a René Bourque goal explosion before the season ends, and more excellent all-round performances from P.K. Subban (psst!... P.K.... Use your wrist shot more. Fake the slapper, then move to the centre and wrist it.)

Friday, 23 March 2012

Game 75: Montréal 5, Ottawa 1

As the season draws to a close, there is nothing left for Canadiens fans but to enjoy the games, and Erik Cole took charge of our entertainment value in the first period. He potted 3 goals in the first five minutes of the game, and could easily have had three more throughout the remaining fifty-five minutes, as well as Max. Both big wingers were dangerous all game, generating scoring chances every time they were on the ice.

Again, I tip my hat to Erik Cole for the ensemble of his oeuvre this season, characterized by a fiery will to win, great leadership and camaraderie with his teammates, and a spectacular bull-in-the-china-shop style, crashing the crease as relentlessly as do waves upon a beach. He has persevered all season, during winning and losing streaks, in close games or during blowouts, against physical or finesse teams, through injuries and aches and pains caused by innumerable crosschecks and collisions with the boards or posts. He fought on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and the streets, he never surrendered. My only regret is that we won't see his playoff beard this season.

The second period’s entertainment, however, was ‘orchestrated’ by putrid refereeing, with the culprits wallowing contentedly in the mire provided by the evil triumvirate of Jeremy Jacobs, Colin Campbell and Don Cherry. The Senators came out slashing, crosschecking and generally gooning from the opening faceoff, and the refs were attentively ineffective. You could see them, with furrowed brows, all eagle-eyed, watching everything and seeing nothing. They allowed the Senators to perpetrate their anti-hockey relatively unencumbered. After every stoppage in front of the Canadiens net, the facewashes and rabbit punches and crosschecks came out, and somehow the refs would think these infractions cancelled out on both sides. Which is completely ridiculous.

In rugby, scrums and mauls are sometimes intentionally collapsed by the defending team if they feel they are losing too much ground or are about to be pushed backward over their own goalline. That is, they used to be brought to the ground, because the International Rugby Board, the sports governing body, has now outlawed these tactics, which above all were extremely dangerous for players, in that these collapses will sometimes result in a serious, paralyzing neck injury. This was also seen as anti-rugby, it evened the odds for the less talented teams and killed the flow and spectacle.

A problem might have existed to determine who actually caused the collapse with certainty, since in this roiling mass of humanity it's difficult to see who stopped pushing and standing and decided to drag down his opponents. In theory. In practice, the very easy solution was to automatically ascribe the fault (and penalty) to the defending team, since they have everything to gain by fouling the play, as opposed to the team on the attack. So now, when a maul or scrum is collapsed, the attacking team gets the ball on a penalty. It's automatic. There is no attempt to decide if it was intentional. Or, with NHL-think, if the team on the attack had it coming. Or whether the game is too close and it's too close a score to award a penalty. Or whether this late in the game we should just 'let them play'.

In a game like tonight's game, it's obvious who's starting the scrums, "le niaisage" as Marc Denis of RDS put it. It's the team that's behind in the score, with Chris Neil and Zenon Konopka and Nick Foligno and Zack Smith on the ice instead of Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza. It's pretty flipping obvious who should be marching to the penalty box after every one of these whistles.

As a boy I used to watch a lot of wrestling, and would feel anxiety and panic in response to the incompetence of the referees. It would literally play with my mind, I would verge on tears, I was so outraged at the unfairness of it all, and how the refs had to be blind or crooked. On tag team matches, I would often see two refs push back Jacques Rougeau who had entered the ring without being tagged, and direct him back to his corner outside the ropes. He was only trying to come to the assistance of Denis Gauthier or his cousin Raymond, the other team was cheating, but it didn't matter to the refs, they would escort him back, with their backs turned to the action. Meanwhile, Michel 'Justice' Dubois and Abdullah the Butcher would have hapless Raymond trussed up in the other corner, with a rope around his neck. Justice Dubois would be working his midsection with something he pulled out of his sock, and Abdullah the Butcher might be digging at his scalp with Eddie Creatchman's false teeth. And I would lose my marbles. I'd point at the screen and yell at the refs, point to what they were missing, and to the cheating. "Non, non," my father would say, "ils trichent pas, c'est de la stratégie!" He'd then raise his arms and proclaim in unison with his favourite wrestler: "Justice!!!!"

 In hindsight, that was probably child abuse on my father's part.

During this game, and during many others, notably against the Bruins, I sense the same impotent rage rising. I see Nick Foligno elbowing Josh Gorges in the head, then later punching Andrei Markov in the back of the head, with Paul MacLean smirking behind the bench, the same week that the NFL suspended coach Payton for an entire year in the name of player safety. I see Mark Stuart buffoonishly chasing after Andrei Kostistyn in a circle around the Jets' zone, slashing him ten times by my count in the process, with no whistle. As I've stated before, the two minutes should have been ringing up like in a pinball game, ping ping ping, until the guy spent the whole next period in the box. I see Brad Marchand punching Daniel Sedin five times in the face, with no call. I see him diving at Alexei Emelin's knees mere weeks after being suspended for the very same offence, with no call.

At least at the end of the wrestling match I'd get my retribution, I'd get justice, real justice, not Dubois 'Justice'. The Rougeaus would get a surge of righteous energy and pull it out in the end, they'd fly at the villains from the third rope with acrobatics and somersaults and 'scientific' wrestling, as taught by the chief proponent Edouard Carpentier. I don't get a cathartic apotheosis with hockey like I used to with La Lutte du Samedi, just more of Nick Kypreos, Mike Milbury, Gary Bettman and, increasingly, Brendan Shanahan.

Can I state again my distaste for Chris Neil and all he stands for? He's a downright bully, always cruising around the ice with a scowl on his face and thuggery on his mind. How he gets to stay in this game after shoving a referee aside, to start a meaningless, unprovoked fight against Ryan White after the first period siren, I don't understand.

And as I write this, I'm watching the St. John Sea Dogs playing the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, and three or four fights just happened, to the cackles of the announcers who speak of players 'standing up for themselves' and 'sending a message', fully cognizant of the fact that some of these players are not even adults.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Game 74: Montréal 0, Buffalo 3

Did Randy Cunneyworth pound the final nail in his own coffin by pulling Carey Price from the net with 3 and a half minutes to play in an absolutely meaningless game for the Canadiens, especially when they were down 3-0? What an absolutely bizarre move. What was he trying to gain by doing so? His team is eliminated, there is nothing crucial about this game, and all he can reasonably expect from this move is to ruin Ryan Miller's shutout.

While he has not overwhelmed anyone with his coaching acumen during his tortured head coaching stint in Montréal, Mr. Cunneyworth has the luxury of a lot of sympathy from observers in the league because of the situation he was parachuted into and how he has kept a certain personal dignity as the ship goes down underneath him. If however many more scenes occur like his argument with Chris Campoli on the bench during the last game, and these fabricated empty-net situations at the end of this game, he may further damage his standing in the league and make it harder on himself to get another shot at a NHL head coaching job.

Les Glorieux played more like a defeated, eliminated team than they have recently. We didn't see the energy and the bite they have shown in the last six games, from the net out. Carey Price was okay, the defencemen were invisible except for P.K. Subban, and the top two forward lines weren't able to compensate for the third and fourth line. While this resulted in a soporific game, and I seriously considered using the fast-forward function many times while watching, and only reminding myself that the season is over soon gave me the strength not to, I give the boys a pass, the last few weeks have been rough, and we can't expect miracles from this roster.

A quick comment on René Bourque, who is catching a lot of heat from fans now as his cold spell drags on. He seems to be having more of a spark lately, although it hasn't resulted in a goal. I think that next season, with a new start and a new coach, new teammates, and hopefully better linemates, a better acclimation to Montréal, and greater remove from his suspension, which he admits has played havoc with his mindset while he plays, he will be much more effective. The key here is to accept what we have in Mr. Bourque, and temper our expectations accordingly. He's a big, strong winger who can hit, and a legitimate NHL'er who can score goals from in close. He's moody and streaky, we know that also, so we can't get in a tizzy when he's quiet for five or ten games. Let's plug him in on a line with a good playmaker and another winger who'll complement his game, let's expect 20-25 goals from him, let's appreciate his efforts on the penalty kill, and remember that he came with lots of salary cap relief, a prospect and a 2nd-rounder. He's not someone we need to worry about as we play out the string, let's give him a chance to establish his life here, and come out with a better mindset at training camp.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Guy Lafleur drove his career into the guardrail

I read today that Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro shouldn't have been cast off from the Canadiens despite their partying ways, that is doesn't matter as long as they produce, since partying never hurt Guy Lafleur for example. To which I'm flabbergasted and retort: "Partying never hurt Guy Lafleur?" What do you say about his last four or five seasons with the team? Were these worthy of a player of his talent?

Here are his stats, with his first season in 1972 listed, all the way to his last one with the Canadiens in 1984-85.

73 29 35 64 48
70 28 27 55 51
73 21 35 56 29
70 53 66 119 37
80 56 69 125 36
80 56 80 136 20
78 60 72 132 26
80 52 77 129 28
74 50 75 125 12
51 27 43 70 29
66 27 57 84 24
68 27 49 76 12
80 30 40 70 19
19 2 3 5 10

I read another post today that trots out the old trope that the Cabal of Ronald Corey, Serge Savard and Jacques Lemaire intentionally humiliated Guy by putting him on the fourth line and ‘force’ him to retire. This one really sticks in my craw.  Sure, three guys whose job it is to ice the best team possible and win the Cup 'made' their 'best' player play on the fourth line.

If Guy Lafleur had abstained or at least moderated his drinking and smoking and other recreational substances, if he wasn’t out partying all night regularly, he would have eased off into the golden years of his career like Joe Sakic or Steve Yzerman did. They adapted and evolved their play to match their eroding skills and the team needs. The reason he ended up on the fourth line and eventually out of the league is of his own doing. He is the author of his own misery.

Is Guy Lafleur a tragic hero to some degree? Without a doubt. Was he a huge influence on me growing up, and the major reason we won four Stanley Cups in the late seventies? Again, indubitably. But was he forced out of the league by sinister forces against which he was powerless? Yes, but only if you are referring to the scourge of addiction.

If Guy had still been potting 30-40 goals a season and was still one of the best skaters in the league, Jacques Lemaire would have been only too happy to play him relentlessly, and Serge Savard would have kept tacking on years to his contracts.

Patrick Roy, Pierre Alexandre Parenteau are a good start on the way back to respectability

I’m trying to catch up to the controversy (controversies) of the day surrounding the Montreal Canadiens.

One is the rumour that Geoff Molson has an agreement in principle with Patrick Roy that he will be the next Canadiens coach, and it will be announced at season's end.

I’m clearly on record as being in favour of Patrick Roy being the next coach of the Canadiens, despite some of the lucid objections brought forth by many. I heard him being interviewed on radio, and he does sound mature and thoughtful, it’s worth a listen, and it’s certainly a change from the platitudes we hear from the current Canadiens régime.

Especially if he’s surrounded with the right assistants (fingers crossed: Larry Robinson and Guy Carbonneau), I think he has the potential to transform our team from one that works very hard to avoid getting scored on and hopefully win to one that skates on to opposition rinks and engenders more of the respect and even fear of yesteryears.

There are mostly positive comments about P.A. Parenteau and the possibility that he gets an offer from and eventually signs with the Canadiens, but some doubters and a little ridicule at he being the next francophone ‘saviour’ of the team. While this has been a tough season, there’s no need to get bitter. If we’re not there already.

Our team needs NHL talent, we are hard up to fill out a roster, we use AHL’ers who aren’t ready yet for the big leagues currently. If he joins the team, we have plugged a big huge hole, in that we have more scoring, talent, and we have bumped an AHL’er back down to the minors. We can never have too much talent, especially when you consider that injuries will perennially thin out the herd.

As far as his origins, they are noteworthy in that they give us a competitive advantage. He has a personal relationship with David Desharnais and claims he wants to play here. He might even take a hometown discount to do so. We have a few cards we can play here, one of them being a huge fanbase that churns out NHL’ers who have a soft spot for the team, let’s use this. This is the opposite situation of the case where we’d have to overpay Daniel Brière for him to come here, since he doesn’t value putting on the CH sweater.

In the very long view, it is important that kids growing up in Québec love the Canadiens and recognize themselves in the team, and a bit of the team in themselves. This generates more lifelong fans who will support the team, and more players who dream of making it to the NHL and wearing the bleu-blanc-rouge. In the salary-cap world we live in, this is an important strategic edge we have on the St-Louis Blues and the Florida Panthers. If Geoff Molson understands anything, it needs to be that there must be a strong, visceral, emotional connection between the fans and leurs Glorieux.

Having accepted that, we can begin to accept that signing Mr. Parenteau, or drafting local players and signing local free agents, and hiring homegrown coaches is not just a cynical pander to the unwashed masses, but a natural fit for this team and one that yields long-term dividends that are harder to quantify.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Game 73: Montréal 2, New York Islanders 3 (SO)

Who are these guys, Parker Lewis? They can't lose, or at least, lose properly. All these regulation ties are killing our schemes of getting Jonathan Huberdeau, Mikhail Grigorenko and Nathan MacKinnon at the cost of a couple of second-round picks, Scott Gomez and Yannick Weber.

Anyway, the most important revelation in this game occurred during the RDS pre-game show, when it was stated that Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau is good friends with David Desharnais, they met as a result of both being ex-Chicoutimi Saguenéens at a golf tournament and have hung around and kept in regular contact since then. During the profile, Mr. Parenteau explained that he 'was' a fan of the Canadiens growing up, "but not anymore" he quickly took care to specify, in the same tone you'd use when you tell your current squeeze that your ex or that cute cashier from work "is just a friend".

So that's settled, we sign this guy this summer. He's an unrestricted free agent, the Islanders are squeezing every penny, and Uniondale is not the most attractive hockey destination around, so we can make him a good offer, and rely on the magnetism of the 'chandail bleu-blanc-rouge' to clinch the deal. We then stick the sixty-point winger on the David Desharnais line with Max, see if these guys can cook up another big cauldron of chemistry for us next season. Erik Cole gets shifted on to Tomas Plekanec's line with René Bourque and he takes the big lug under his wing, uses his particular brand of orneriness and toughness mixed in with an infectious good humour to influence him and point him in the right direction. Lars Eller reunites with Travis Moen and is given the captain Brian Gionta to add a bit of consistency and hockey IQ to the line, and all of a sudden the depth situation isn't so dire, we have three lines which don't induce a gag reflex.

We started this game off on a good note, with Aaron Palushaj potting his first goal, on a called bank shot off the heel of Alex Montoya's stick into the side pocket. Mr. Palushaj was beginning to remind me of Réjean Houle the player, in that he skates all over the ice with abandon and has innumerable scoring chances which he invariably buries into the goalie's pads or the net above the glass. Good for the young man, may he become an effective NHL'er while playing for the Canadiens.

Another good moment was after the Ryan White fight against Matt Martin. Once in the penalty box, RDS replayed a clip which showed Mr. White smiling and sticking his tongue out and shrugging, while across the ice Brad Staubitz laughed back at him from the player's bench, tapping his stick against the boards. Ryan was effectively saying: "Don't worry about it big guy, you took care of it last night (in his fight against Chris Neil), I got it tonight." During the game against the Minnesota Wild on March 1, Ryan had started a fight against Stéphane Veilleux right off the opening faceoff, and I contended that possibly Ryan had done so to excuse Brad Staubitz from the necessity of starting a fight against one of his former teammates so soon after changing teams. I feel even more secure in advancing this theory now, it seems that these two characters communicate with each other, and that their pugilistic efforts may be more strategic than spontaneous. And again, great move against Minnesota Ryan, and tonight to give Brad Staubitz a rest after a big fight the previous night.

Peter Budaj played solidly, stopping 36 of 38 shots. If he has another 3 or 4 games to prove what he can do, and continues to perform as he has lately, we can feel comfortable about our backup goalie situation and worry about other areas of the roster. He has improved since a shaky start in training camp and earlier in the season. We had heard that he wasn't provided with a goalie coach in Colorado, and hoped that intensive work with Canadiens goalie coach Pierre Groulx would pay dividends; we may be seeing those now.

An area of concern is the lack of playing time that our youngsters are receiving. The analysts on Hockey Night in Canada pre-game explained how Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has effectively given up on this season and is now coaching as if he had the luxury of an early training camp for next season. As such, he is holding long, spirited practices every day, even on gameday morning skates, to improve his team's work ethic and fitness, even if it comes at the cost of gametime fatigue and a loss or two. He is also auditioning his players, and will be a couple steps ahead next season as far as knowing who he can rely on in what situations. Finally he is installing his system so that his boys can hit the ground running next October.

Let's compare that with Coach Cunneyworth. Although he can't be blamed for this, since he is playing the hand he was dealt, he is trying to win every game to polish up his resume and cushion his next landing spot. So he's overplaying his veterans, at the cost of our young players seeing very little action. Tonight, Aaron Palushaj and Louis Leblanc were the goal-scorers for les Glorieux, and yet received 3:36 and 11:04 minutes of icetime respectively. Lars Eller got 18 minutes, but out of position as a winger, although the coach was doing this to give Tomas Plekanec some help on his line.

Coach Cunneyworth also frequently gives his team days and practices off to keep them fresh for games. That's great for Josh Gorges and Tomas Plekanec, who log heavy minutes, but does nothing for Petteri Nokelainen and Ryan White, they can't stay fit by taking days off and playing ten minutes a game. We've noticed how the Canadiens seem to fade and give up leads in the third period, and it may be appropriate to question whether the fitness level is what it should be.

Finally, there is every indication that the team is rudderless and is going on auto-pilot, and on the leadership and professionalism of the veterans. We discussed last night that one of the powerplays was being drawn up by Erik Cole and his linemates on the ice during a break, instead of by the coaches, and also touched on the spat between Mr. Cunneyworth and Chris Campoli on the bench. We pined in yesterday's game recap for a strong leader for our coach next season, one who wouldn't take any guff from the refs or his players, one who would make the trains run on time, and the comparison between our lame duck coach and the Leafs' situation and how they're set up for next season makes this desire even stronger.

Amateurs on That’s Hockey 2 Nite

Watching That’s Hockey 2 Nite (ugh… is Prince the exec producer on this show?) and Kevin Daneyko says “Daniel Alfredsson gives the howdy doody to the Montreal defenceman, I believe that’s Desjarnais”. And it’s not a typo, he pronounced it as a cross between ‘Desjardins’ and ‘Desharnais’. Motormouth Steve Kouleas retorted: “I think that was Mathieu Darche actually, number 52″.

The jersey number was there clear as day, number 62, it was Frédéric St-Denis who got deked by Mr. Alfredsson.

How unprofessional is it for these two clowns to just wing it like that?How hard is it to check the rosters on the game recap on

When I comment on this site I take 5 seconds to check or Wikipedia or CapGeek, I don’t say “I think…”, I state a fact. These guys have staffers, a budget, they have no excuse.

There’s more. They replayed the goal a couple of minutes later, and Mr. Daneyko says Daniel Alfredsson does the “Howdy Doody on a forward there, not a defenceman….”

If you’re so unclear on what’s going on, so confused that it encroaches on your commentary, don’t you just stop rolling the cameras and do your homework and come back once you’ve got your facts straight?

Friday, 16 March 2012

Game 72: Montréal 1, Ottawa 2 (OT)

The Canadiens get a C for effort and a E for results. They squander a draft-position-solidifying loss by hanging on, in the face of a 33-14 shots-on-goal disadvantage, to a 1-1 regulation tie, and cough up the win in overtime. At this rate we're going to fall in the standings at a slower pace than the Maple Leafs.

There is a bright side. By losing to the Senators, we allowed them to vault all the way to second place, dropping the vacillating Bruins to seventh in the Conference, with champion of personal freedom (IN HIS PRIVATE LIFE!!! DON'T MISUNDERSTAND HIM! IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HIS PERFORMANCE AS A HOCKEY PLAYER!) Tim Thomas leading the swoon.

Our boys tried hard in a way. We can assert this by relying on their penalty killing prowess, whereby they killed off 9 powerplays, which doesn't happen without a lot of sweat and pain. Ask Josh Gorges, who blocked 10 shots, and Tomas Plekanec, who played 12 of his 27 minutes shorthanded. What was missing was a little bit of passion or magic. I saw René Bourque and Ryan White chugging hard to skate back for backchecking duties, but there was a resignation in their bearing, as if they were performing a duty, as if they were trying hard for the cameras and the coaches, almost giving themselves plausible deniability, instead of being driven by a hatred for losing and a hunger for the puck. In stereo, both stood up and stopped skating as soon as they crossed the blueline, their job seemingly done.

Carey Price was cool, almost clinical in keeping us in the game. He has a few detractors among Montréal fans, but received nothing but plaudits from the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast crew, despite their documented Toronto bias. He was described as a superstar and a no-brainer choice for the 2014 Team Canada squad. We should cherish him and refuse to take him for granted.

The Two and a Half Men line didn't get on the scoreboard, which goes a long way in explaining this loss. If this team is going to have a chance to win, they can't have an off-night. We saw during the game broadcast Max Pacioretty having words on the bench, reportedly with P.K. Subban, after the latter sent a rocket from the point on the powerplay at him at earlobe vicinity, while he was trying to screen the Sens goalie. The technical crew then played earlier footage of the powerplay squad drawing up the play on the ice during a break, with Erik Cole assigning tasks, and Max skating off with a smirk on his face, as if he knew what was coming. Erik has had issues with P.K.'s shot before, I wonder if it was in the back of his mind as he told Max "You go stand in front of the net, I've done my share this year already."

Which bring to mind the question, why are the guys drawing up their plays as if they're playing shinny, instead of their coach? Why is Mr. Cunneyworth having a debate with his third pairing defenceman Chris Campoli during a TV timeout, and why does Mr. Campoli feel empowered to retort and provide his views on the subject?

Bill Parcells famously said that 'you are what your record says you are', so never mind about potential and injuries, if you're in last place you're a last place team. In Mr. Cunneyworth's case, he took a mediocre team 2 points out of a playoff spot and turned it into a bad team and drove it to the bottom of the standings. So, even bearing in mind that he was put in a difficult situation, he is what his record indicates. He must be replaced next season. I'll repeat that I want a coach who'll provide strong leadership, and will put an end to the bickering on the bench and between players. My inclination, as stated before, would be to hire Patrick Roy, a strong passionate man with credentials who won't tolerate shenanigans, and who'll make the trains run on time.

Tomorrow the Islanders. Go Habs go! No half-measures. Win outright, or lose, but no regulation tie please.

Hey sportscaster! (4)

Hey Glenn Healy! Stop using the word 'calmness', it's unnecessary to add the suffix 'ness' to 'calm' to turn it into a noun, it's already a noun. Why go adding an extra syllable to a word unnecessarily, broadcasting is about economy and using the 'mot juste'. Besides, it sounds horrible, it's a made up word like 'competency' or 'resiliency', it's a double-speak word that has buzz. It sounds new and exciting, but it really isn't. If you want to say that Carey Price is showing a lot of calm, just say that, exactly like that. And tell all your little buddies who talk about sports for a living to do likewise. Stop using calmness. And resiliency.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Game 71: Montréal 3, Ottawa 2 (SO)

This has been a tough couple of days for this Canadiens fan, as he watches his other favourite team, the San Diego Chargers, being dismantled by salary cap pressures. The shuffling of players in and out with no consideration for the fans' attachment for players they have grown to know and love over the seasons is one of the facets of the league that makes the NFL really tough to love sometimes.

The NHL isn't immune to those issues, although it is an order of magnitude removed in severity. A team can hold on to its most important players and create a core, then tweak the roster with peripheral additions over many seasons.

The Canadiens used to have unparalleled organizational depth and stability, which slowly eroded during the Irving Grundman years, solidified during the reign of Serge Savard, and then collapsed under the cursed touch of Réjean Houle, our very own version of an anti-Midas. We thought that the Bob Gainey-Guy Carbonneau régime would set the ship on the right course, and the last two seasons' results during the playoffs seemed to indicate smoother sailing ahead.

Which brings us to this season. The Canadiens seem almost bipolar, capable of good to great performances, with outstanding athletes leading the way, or of putrid outings where half the roster doesn't seem NHL-worthy.

This victory against Ottawa was another illustration of what this team can be capable of. The number one line flies up and down the ice, constantly threatening to score, and never stinting on effort. Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban were a study in complementary tandems, with Mr. Gorges sacrificing his body to block shots and kill penalties, while P.K. is an exhilarating offensive force, who is strong and fast on his skates and protects the puck well, and used a nice wrist shot to set up David Desharnais' deflection on the second goal. Andrei Markov had a more discreet game than his first two, with no gems on offence or clunkers on defence, but with every outing will solidify our confidence that he will reclaim his #1 spot on the defence depth chart, and push everyone else a rung down, closer to where they belong. Carey Price was the solid, confidence-inspiring goalie who will anchor our team for the next decade.

The rest of the roster is riddled with question marks. We can choose to believe that this was a one-off, a blip of a season which will be rectified by next season, with one or two shrewd free-agent acquisitions and the return to health of Brian Gionta, Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche. Some of the low-performers on this team will be counted on to round out the roster however, and to plug holes when injuries strike. Hamilton will not necessarily be of more help than it was this season, we will have an influx of young players there who are all at least another season away from being able to contribute.

Does Tomas Plekanec return to form next year, with better linemates and a clean slate? Does René Bourque produce the expected streaky 25 goals, along with his good work on penalty killing duty? Do Lars Eller and Louis Leblanc continue their progression and become strong, regular contributors? Does Alexei Emelin continue to develop as a second pairing defenceman who hits like a train and shows some nascent offensive skill? Does either Yannick Weber or Raphaël Diaz or both become effective NHL defencemen after a difficult baptism by fire, if their responsibilities are reduced appropriately?

These questions are important in that in following the team so closely this year it is impossible to not become attached to these guys and want the best for them. I want them to develop together, individually and as a team. I don't want a shakeup and a blowup for the sake of change, with a whole slew of new faces, some tarnished by having worn the wrong uniforms. I want at least some of the boys who come to Hamilton next season to be in our organization for their whole career, and to seep into the roster and absorb the culture and pass it on to the next generation. I want a team. I don't want to, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, just cheer the laundry, cheer the uniform and not care who is inside the jersey, who wears it and how they do it.

The Chargers on Monday cut Marcus McNeill, a left tackle of immense proportions, talent and promise, because he is suffering from spinal column and spinal cord issues he incurred at least partly while playing for them. It was a heartless, ridiculous move that is completely sensible and rational according to NFL rules. The fact that he has a 'contract' is of no import. He is now a liability, and must be removed from the roster. If possible, he will be re-signed for a lower amount, and even less guarantees on his salary. Somehow that's not wrong. We're not supposed to care that we cheered for this guy for years, that he played at a Pro Bowl level for our team at the risk of his health and maybe even his life. We'll applaud the next guy plugged in his spot.

I want the revolving door on the Canadiens to stop. I don't want Carey Price to do his lunging pokecheck on another team. I want David Desharnais to continue to grow as a player in our uniform, not for him to be traded while his value is high. I want Brendan Gallagher and Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec to retire as Canadiens. I know it is, but is it really too much to ask?

Monday, 12 March 2012

Game 70: Montréal 2, Buffalo 3 (OT)

Another heartbreaker in more ways than one. We tie it up with one second left to push the game into overtime, only to lose, and be saddled with a loss and the regulation tie point, which does nothing to enhance our draft status. We keep losing games but picking up a point, it seems Les Fantômes du Forum aren't aware that we are in a race to the bottom, pitted against the redoubtable Leafs in a Clash of the Inept.

Enjoyable game nonetheless. Whereas everything seemed to click in Edmonton and Vancouver, we were back to the same old song, with the first line providing all the offence, but with a different beat with Andrei Markov back. Unfortunately, Andrei seemed even more awkward in this game, so our fears that his magic touch alone will rocket us to ninth place in the standings can be allayed. We need to be logical and understand that he's going through the mother of all training camps, having not played in two seasons and doing so with a knee he needs to learn to trust again. It'll come, and despite some doubts it seems clearer yet that to play him in our remaining brace of games is good strategy.

Andrei was caught out of position, flagrantly so, on a couple of occasions, and was on the ice for all three Buffalo goals. There were fewer sparks of magic than on Saturday, but his smarts and hockey sense shone through on the tieing goal in the final seconds of regulation. Just before, the Sabres had barely gotten the puck out of their zone and were about to organize an odd-man rush on to the Canadiens empty-net. It would have been game over as soon as they started skating, except that Andrei correctly read the play, reasoned that there was no point in staying back to defend the empty net, and instead pinched up and rushed the puck carrier, knocking the puck free and enabling the Canadiens to regain possession. Andrei can read the play and can be aggressive, and needs to find the happy medium now that he's not feeling quite as agile on his skates, but this play was pure gold, like the Andrei Markov of old.

And then there's Scott Gomez, who again provided us with a demonstration of his ineffectiveness on his first shift of the game. He was standing off the left wing side of the Sabres' net, hoping for a rebound while his linemates attacked the front of the net, when the puck squirted free in his general direction, but corralled by the Buffalo defenceman. He made a move as if he was going to outflank Mr. Gomez along the back boards and then up-ice, a fake on which Mr. Gomez bit and thus started to veer in that direction to cut him off. The Buffalo defender smartly changed direction and went behind his net and got the puck out of the Sabres' zone. All this would be run-of-the-mill, except that this action initially took place when Mr. Gomez was less than a metre from the Buffalo puck carrier. Instead of biting on the fake, or even having to guess which direction he would go, to his corner or the other way around the net, he could have simply put his shoulder into him. Not that he needed to hit the man violently, or that it would have taken much of a hit, his opponent was skating from a full stop, so he could have neutralized him easily by a simple, basic bodycheck, separated him from the puck, and kept the pressure on in the offensive zone.

Rather than this, the Canadiens were left scrambling in their own zone, with the Sabres buzzing, and Louis Leblanc was able to showcase himself in that he did exactly the opposite of Mr. Gomez and was effective in doing so. While the puck was being batted around, Patrick Kaleta had an opportunity on Peter Budaj's right side, when a near pop fly came to him. He gloved the puck and tried to read/deke Louis Leblanc to figure where he should deposit the puck and then be in a position to shoot or pass it. Mr. Leblanc didn't bother trying to guess, he didn't give Mr. Kaleta an option, he simply stepped into him and separated him from the puck. This wasn't a very hard hit, he barely had taken a couple of strides toward him, but it was enough to do the job, even if Mr. Kaleta is bigger and stronger.

How a an undersized rookie can get this right while a decorated, crafty veteran will boot it all over the infield is incomprehensible. Unless you posit that Mr. Leblanc actually cares and expends effort.

Oh, and I will again ask all his detractors to please stand up and explain yet again how David Desharnais is too small to be a #1 centre. Please weave into your exposé supporting evidence from the performance of Tyler Ennis, all 5'9", 160 lbs of him.

While most naysayers now grudgingly admit that David has been effective, they'll still trot out the old tropes that he's too slow, he needs to be insulated by the two wingers that he was given as gift without ever earning the right to play with them. I think we need to rearrange our mindset to accommodate the fact that Mr. Desharnais has learned to play in a manner that capitalizes on his diminutive stature. He plays differently than a crashing, bruising Joe Thornton or Bobby Smith. He finds the open areas, darts in and out with quickness that behemoths can't match. He plays with intelligence and vision, since all his career he has not been in a position to overpower adversaries with physical dominance. That makes him hard to defend, as his decisions and positioning are unorthodox, unpredictable. We tend to think that in hockey, bigger is automatically better, but if David were 5'11" and 190 lbs, would he be that much better? Or would he have learned to play the same way as everyone else and not have the singular attributes that make him so effective in his second season? Or would he be incapable of moving around the ice in the manner that he does? Or would he get creamed along the boards routinely, instead of using his low centre of gravity to his advantage, and opposing greater strength with timing, quickness and precision?

All I know is that his pass on Erik Cole's goal was another beauty. It didn't look difficult, it wasn't a cross-ice saucer in full flight, but again it was a smart play that froze the goalie, and a pass that went tape-to-tape. On his goal, we saw a sniper pull the trigger after setting up the puck and burying it absolutely top shelf. Ryan Miller had slid across and was blocking most of the bottom of the net with the right pad and his blocker. I can think of a few Canadiens who would have hurried and mashed the puck into Mr. Miller's pad, but David took his time and didn't miss. These plays don't happen accidentally over a whole season, at one point we have to applaud the genius, as I did when I bounded off my couch and jumped for joy.

So another loss, another loser point, another lose-lose game. Bring back the tie games, these OT losses are worse than kissing your own sister.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

François Gagnon is a good, professional journalist

There has been some outcry in the last few months regarding La Presse columnist François Gagnon and his work from Canadiens fans. Some of it is based on his reporting of Mike Cammalleri's thoughts before his subsequent trade to the Flames.

Some of it is based on his column regarding the wisdom of trading P.K. Subban.

In any case, there is an unfair characterization of this man as a muckraker and cheap shot artist which is completely undeserved, and I would like to address it so that anglophone Canadiens fans who cannot read his columns for themselves get the full story, not just the bleatings of those who jump to opinions and conclusions without all the facts.

In the first article, Mike Cammalleri was speaking with Mr. Gagnon and I believe Arpon Basu, after a more 'official' press scrum, and in a moment when he let his guard down and probably speaking out of frustration, he stated that the team was practicing and playing with a loser mentality. He added that game planning and watching game films was all well and good, but that at some point the team had to be allowed to play, and not be trained to fear making a mistake. He compared the present mentality to that which the team had on their playoff run in 2010. He stated that he could go on, but that he would refrain from doing so and advised his interlocutors to read between the lines. He then complained about his icetime, stating that he was used to playing more when asked about his decreased performance and production this season. When pressed about a particular play during the game against the Blues on January 10 on which he left Jason Arnott uncovered and was widely blamed for a goal against, Mr. Cammalleri accepted responsibility initially, but then quickly deflected it by stating that he had only had five appearances until that point in the middle of the second, and he normally would have been more involved and had made "fifteen" big plays by then.

It was easy to interpret this as a clear shot at his new coach Randy Cunneyworth. General Manager Pierre Gauthier, who has lately been accused of using Mr. Cunneyworth as a 'sacrificial lamb', in that instance moved quickly to quell this nascent mutiny, and to send a clear message to the team that dissension and airings of grievances in the media would not be tolerated, and sent Mr. Cammalleri to Calgary. Once there, Mike explained that his thoughts were supposed to be semi-'off the record', that Mr. Gagnon (who he didn't name), had inflated his words and sensationalized the story. He seemed clearly happy and relieved to be out of Montréal.

It's interesting that initially Mr. Basu chose not to publish the Cammalleri cri de coeur, while Mr. Gagnon did. Mr. Basu may have decided that this was indeed a private conversation, while Mr. Gagnon didn't. It's important to note that Mr. Gagnon is an experienced veteran of sports journalism, whereas Mr. Basu is just embarking on his new career. In any case, I often resent the fact that reporters get all this access to teams and their players, but then don't use that access, not for our benefit anyway. We often hear the real dirt on a player once he gets traded away. Canadiens fans made Jessica Rusnak a hero for her daring to ask Jacques Martin why he refused to play Erik Cole more often on the powerplay, which all fans would shout at their TV screen, but which none of the established media would murmur at press gatherings with the head coach.

So Mr. Gagnon, in the final analysis, did his job by reporting the divisive statements of a player who was by his conduct campaigning for a ticket out of town. He didn't muckrake, he didn't exaggerate, he told us what was going on, for which we should all be thankful.

His article on a potential P.K. Subban trade is even more controversial, and even more misunderstood and misreported. The headline used was: "Trading Subban? Why Not?" His column started by stating that with the Canadiens sliding in the standings, the trade deadline looming and the need for a rebuild evident, there weren't any 'untouchables' in the dressing room, given that even Wayne Gretzky was traded. He then immediately cautions that trading doesn't mean 'giving', and that with the sorry record of the Canadiens recently with trades, that it isn't surprising that this subject is controversial and provokes an emotional reaction from fans. He then lists examples of players who left in ultimately bad trades such as Mike Ribeiro and José Théodore. To acquire players such as Ryan Getzlaf, Eric Staal or Anze Kopitar, who were the object of many fans' affection in late January, he explains that offering Travis Moen wouldn't suffice. There are two impact players on the Habs, Carey Price and P.K. Subban, and because we are devoid of depth at goalie, we can't trade Carey, unless a crazy-good offer comes our way. So logically, to acquire such quality players, Mr. Subban would have to be traded.

Mr. Gagnon takes care to explain that P.K. is the Habs' best defenceman and while he may not yet be at the level of a Tyler Myers, Drew Doughty or Erik Karlsson, he is destined to a great career, despite his troubles in his second full season. He explains that the presence of Jared Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu in the organization make him more easily replaceable, although neither is projected to be as good a defenceman as P.K. will become. So he concludes that to acquire a big centre that we have been pining for, it would be dumb to refuse to consider trading P.K. He takes care to stress that possibility doesn't mean necessity, and again that trading doesn't mean giving. He finishes with the example of the Blues, who traded big pieces in Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first-rounder, but received Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart and a second-rounder in return.

So this is nothing incendiary, nothing provocative, just a columnist punting around an idea that is circulating throughout the Canadiens' fandom as they regress in the standings. He is not advocating that Mr. Subban be run out of town on a rail, as a call-in show host might, but simply explaining to fans that to get a #1 centre you'll need to trade a #1 defenceman, not a bag of spare parts.

It is noteworthy that Mr. Gagnon is no longer a reporter but now a columnist for La Presse, one who covers the Canadiens and hockey in general. As such, he is required to provide opinion and context, as opposed to just the 5 W's. This is just what he did with the two previous pieces. Mr. Gagnon is a pro who covered the Senators and now the Canadiens for decades now.

It is also important to nip in the bud the frequent mentions of the 'French media' as being a problem for the Canadiens. This is becoming a meme that isn't challenged, a reflexive scapegoat that's held up as an unalloyed evil. Let's be careful with this generalization. When imbeciles such as Mike Milbury or Don Cherry or Eklund babble illogically, we don't condemn the 'English media' as a whole in a kneejerk fashion, we understand that they're outliers and for everyone of them there are two Elliott Friedmans and Pierre Lebruns and Dave Stubbs.

Andrei Markov is working through the scar tissue.

Regarding Andrei Markov, some posters, and some broadcasters last night, remarked that he looked awkward at times, far different than the smooth skater we've come to know. I will take for granted that there are no issues in terms of pain, swelling, looseness in the knee, or else the docs wouldn't have let him jump on the ice.

One issue Andrei will work through is a lot of scar tissue in the knee, which is collagen inside the joint kind of binding some pieces that should move smoothly. A lot of this is worked out during rehab, but there's always some left before you return to full duties and he will break up this scar tissue by playing. The stops and starts and sudden stresses on the knee that you can't replicate in training will take care of that.

Another reason, which I think is even more important, is that Andrei has been 'guarding' his knee for essentially two years now. He has been careful to not put too much strain or weight on it, has been limping to protect it, would gasp and fall off it if he made a weird move that would give him sharp pain. All these habits and reflexes have been ingrained in him for so long that it will take time for him to learn to trust his knee, to not be afraid to push it, and to have these reflexes and habits diminish and disappear.

Until then, we can expect Andrei to try a quick pivot, feel a twinge in his knee, which is normal as scar tissue is being broken up and the joint being stretched in a manner it hasn't been in a long while, and have him stop skating or fall to the ice in anticipation of pain or further damage.

Josh Gorges very early in the season had a collision where he fell in the corner with his reconstructed leg underneath him, and he winced and cringed in anticipation, as did we before our plasma screens, but after skating off to the bench, gingerly testing his knee, he realized that he was okay, and we haven't seen him guarding his knee since. Not hoping for such an awkward fall for Andrei, but an accumulation of moments like these which will reassure him that his knee is fine, and convalescence is behind him.

Game 69: Montréal 4, Vancouver 1

What a game! Grigoren-who? Yakupov, shmakupov. I want more wins like these, where we outskate and outhit and outgoaltend the opposition, they're addictive.

The Canadiens weathered the storm in the first period, due to the solid work of Carey Price. He's had some bumps in the road lately and has been accused of not playing inspired or even focused hockey, but the feeling here is that his mental preparation and readiness at worst mirrors that of the team. In any case, he sent out the message in the first that he was ready, and it may have strengthened the resolve of his teammates and made them believe they were in this game and could pull it off.

Brad Staubitz is slowly starting to win me over. I understand that Pierre Gauthier added him to the roster due to the injuries to Mathieu Darche and Travis Moen, and also to react to present circumstances in the NHL, where the Milburites are seemingly ruling the roost, having ousted the Bossyans from any position of power they may still have held. Mr. Staubitz has been restrained in his actions, playing hard and throwing bodychecks but not being called for cheap penalties and dumb plays. He has given a good account of himself when he has dropped the gloves, as shown again tonight against the taller, bigger Zack Kassian. I haven't noticed this before, but in this tilt Mr. Staubitz fought as a lefthander, which may have surprised Mr. Kassian. His hard bodycheck against Alex Edler in the third forced the latter to flip the puck into the stands and take a delay of game penalty, which led to P.K.'s goal on the two-man advantage. Another point in his favour, and this one may seem farfetched, but I liked how he skated hard after a loose puck in the first period, one which could have yielded a scoring chance, but in which race he was beaten by Roberto Luongo. It is crazy that we're reduced to noticing this, but it was good to see that he veered away from contact with the goalie, as opposed to the mendacious Milan Lucic who "could only brace for impact" when confronted with a similar situation against Ryan Miller. If Mr. Staubitz can continue playing hard and clean and smart like he does presently, I'll be happy to have him on this team.

My friend Eric joined me shortly after the scrap, and as we drank beers and chin-wagged, we weren't as concentrated on the game as we could have been. He did make it in plenty of time to see Ryan Kesler score for the Canucks, at which juncture we both bellowed at the screen: "Kesler, you're adequately compensated!" This is a tradition which started during the 2006-07 season when we were roommates. Bobby Clarke had just signed Ryan to a $1.9 million offer sheet with the Flyers, and the Canucks petulantly had to match it while NHL GM's howled at Mr. Clarke's perfidy. It was comedic how the Flyers GM gave as good as he got, exclaiming that if he wasn't supposed to make use of the offer sheet provisions, maybe the NHL should take it out of the CBA. In any case, a young Ryan Kesler, still learning the NHL game, was overvalued thought most commenters and analysts, and Eric and I would proclaim: "Kesler, you're overpaid!" whenever he struggled. A couple years later, as his play improved to the point that he was outplaying his contract, we would decry: "Kesler, you're underpaid!" Which brings us to the point we're at today, where we find it necessary to point out the equilibrium between his performance and his remuneration, to quizzical looks from onlookers who aren't in the know.

The Blake Geoffrion goal on a Louis Leblanc was a nice moment, it's great to see our young AHL callups produce, but it got Eric grumbling about Roberto Luongo's performance, although not as much as the first Erik Cole goal. I tried to sell it as a sniper's goal, on a backhand, which every goalie will tell you is the hardest shot to stop, but he wasn't buying. We did discuss the possibility of pulling Roberto for Corey Schneider, but I talked him out of it, told him it sent the wrong message to his teammates. We got a little sidetracked about how the Canucks should have handled things at the trade deadline, since I think keeping Mr. Schneider indicates that management doesn't trust their $64 million man. I thought they should have flipped their backup goalie to the Lightning for pieces to help on their Cup run, as the Canucks should load up to win this year, their future is now. He countered that they should have traded Roberto for Vincent Lecavalier, swapping crazy contracts with each other, and I found that notion intriguing. With Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Vincent Lecavalier, the Canucks would have been super deep at centre, and much stronger for the playoffs. Unfortunately, the NHL isn't run by lively minds such as ours, and there were two pesky No Trade Clauses that might have caused a problem. So we let the matter rest.

In time for me to celebrate P.K. Subban's sweet goal on the 5 on 3 powerplay. The Canadiens controlled the puck, looked as if they knew what to do with the puck, Andrei Markov looked like The General of old, and P.K. didn't hit the rafters with his windup, he just took a good hard shot that actually hit the net. I took the time to sing 'The Ballad of Andrei Markov', as Eric, like so many other hockey 'fans', doesn't really know him. I find that Andrei flies under the radar outside of Montreal, I've won countless hockey pools by grabbing him way later than he should have lasted, and then giggled as he piled up the points. It's surprising that in a media-saturated market like Montreal, our players don't get the attention that guys like Dion Phaneuf and James Reimer and Matt Stajan and Darcy Tucker and Tie Domi get.

By the time Erik Cole made it 4-1, Eric was offering to trade me Roberto Luongo for Carey Price straight up. I rejected that crazy offer. Years and years ago, I was proposing this same deal to him, a swap of hometown goalies, but back then Carey was going through growing pains, and Roberto seemed rock-solid and to just be itching for a chance at the post-season. As Carey progressed and Roberto amassed critics, my offer changed, and I would request draft picks and players to make the deal. Nowadays, I feel very comfortable with Carey and without Roberto, so Eric's feeble entreaties are brusquely rebuffed.

So bring on the Sabres. We're not going to the playoffs, let's ruin their chances as well.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Would the Canadiens be better off with Chris Higgins and Ron Hainsey?

We sometimes use a microscope to focus in on the minutiae of our organization's errors, and fail to understand that every other team has made the same mistakes repeatedly. Living in the Vancouver area, I can observe the average deluded Canucks fan dispassionately, as Jane Goodall observed her tribe of chimps. I can report that they have the same tales of woe of players who the team gave up on and who then blossomed elsewhere, but they also benefited greatly when they were the happy recipients of young players about to blossom into stars.

The Cam Neely-Barry Pederson trade is the classic example of a team trading away a young homegrown talent in return for a current star on the downslope of his career. Mr. Neely had been drafted by the Canucks in 1983 and showed promise, but not quickly enough for the team. They wanted a scoring 1st line center to compete with the Oiler's Wayne Gretzky, the Jets' Dale Hawerchuk among others, and thought they couldn't compete without that building block (sound familiar?). They set their sights on Barry Pederson, a Boston Bruins center and prolific scorer, as well as a Canadiens killer. Mr. Pederson was a B.C. product and had had a couple of rough seasons after a shoulder surgery to remove a tumor from his shoulder had diminished his production. The Canucks thought they'd trade for him when his value was low, and swapped Burnaby-born Cam Neely for him. Of course, the Canucks being the inept organization that they were, were convinced to sweeten the deal for the injured and unproductive Pederson by chipping in a first-round draft pick, who turned out to be Glen Wesley.

Most of you know how this story turned out. Barry Pederson, as productive as he was for a time in Boston, never regained his magic touch in Vancouver. Meanwhile, Cam Neely had a Hall of Fame career and terrorized Montreal fans to an even greater degree than Mr. Pederson. Glen Wesley developed into a mere All-Star, he was obviously a 'throw-in' in this deal. To this day, mentioning Cam Neely to a Canucks fan elicits howls of frustration.

What they don't go on and on about is the Markus Naslund for Alex Stojanov heist they pulled off with Pittsburgh. The Canucks drafted Mr. Stojanov 7th overall in 1991, and hoped he would develop into an even bigger meaner Cam Neely. His claim to fame was his fights with Eric Lindros in the OHL, and a nice scoring touch to go with that. After a couple of seasons in the minors and a shoulder surgery however, they realized that he probably would never develop as expected, and shipped him off to the Pittsburgh Penguins in return for Markus Naslund, who had been drafted 16th overall in '91 as well. Mr. Naslund had oodles of talent, but a fractious relationship with the Penguins as related to his contract negotiations and ice time. The Penguins lost patience and decided to re-trucculate™ by swapping him for Mr. Stojanov.

The rest is well-known. You never heard from Mr. Stojanov again, but Markus Naslund would go on to be the team captain, set the franchise scoring record, have his jersey retired, and to be considered as maybe the greatest Canuck. Somehow, when Markus Naslund comes up, Vancouver fans don't focus on how they fleeced the Pittsburgh fans, they just talk about how great he was and how dominant his line with Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi was.

So when we worry about dealing away the Kostistyn brothers or Matt D'Agostini, let's keep a sense of proportion. Sure it would have been nice to receive fair value for Mike Ribeiro, but deep down we are probably all glad he's gone. It would be great if the salary cap hadn't forced the departures of Sheldon Souray and Marc Streit and James Wisniewski, but that's the world we live in. The Sharks' fans are probably looking at highlights of Max Pacioretty's 30th goal and rueing the Craig Rivet for Josh Gorges and a first-rounder deal. Win some, lose some. Yin yang.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Game 68: Montréal 5, Edmonton 3

A game in front of a partial home-crowd led to a Pyrrhic victory for the Canadiens, one that does wonders for the confidence and self-pride of Les Glorieux, but greatly diminishes the odds we'll drop beyond the Oilers to Columbusian depths in the standings, which we might rue in June. This was kind of like blowing the mortgage payment on a pretty good house party, fun while it lasted, but now what?

Confronted with an Oiler team that has lots of promising offensive talent, the Canadiens threw a training camp split squad on the ice. The NHL'ers played well, with P.K. Subban playing an almost flawless game, save for a penalty that can be forgiven, since it was a roughing penalty instead of one of his more brainless infractions. Max Pacioretty potted two goals, one an empty-netter to reach 30 for the season. Tomas Plekanec played with the energy of old. Our AHL players didn't dazzle, but they played hard, with heart. Blake Geoffrion had a couple opportunities to score. Scott Gomez skated hard and was productive with the puck on occasion, earning an assist. Aaron Palushaj seemed dangerous, surely giving Oiler coach Tom Renney a few cold sweats, but flubbed eight or nine shots on a perennially open net. He has now played 28 games for the Canadiens, earning a grand total of one assist. I sometimes wonder if he's destined to be one of those guys you find on, with 40 or 50 games played, no goals and twenty penalty minutes in their NHL career, followed by five seasons playing for the Orlando Solar Bears and HC Fribourg-Gottéron.

A thought that occurred to me while watching was that we should put in a call to Brian Burke as soon as the season is over and swap him Tomas Kaberle for Mike Komisarek, relieving each team of a headache in return for a pain somewhere else. I know Mike has fallen a few levels since leaving Montréal, but he can't possibly do worse than Mr. Kaberle. I don't care that he gets occasional points on the powerplay, Tomas Kaberle is the worst player on the team night in night out, and the one who cares the least.

The Linus Omark goal provides us with a case study. In the official scoresheet, it is deemed an unassisted goal, but it should really show Mr. Kaberle as having assisted on it, if not gift-wrapping it and putting a nice festive bow on it. He had control of the puck deep in his own zone, and made a poorly thought-out and weak backhand pass to no one in the high slot. No one in white that is, the puck cruised through the zone and may have crossed the blue line in another 15 seconds or so, but Mr. Omark swooped in and wristed it in the net, a nice bank shot off Alexei Emelin's pants.

En français, a blind pass or one that ends up going nowhere is often referred to as "une passe à l'aveuglette". The word comes from the root word 'aveugle', which means 'blind', and is used whenever a player dishes off the puck with a poorly conceived pass, which usually ends up being a giveaway or icing. Wags will often say "Le maudit L'Aveuglette, y pogne jamais le puck"; they have conjured up a hapless player named L'Aveuglette who never receives the passes intended for him.

I firmly believe that Tomas Kaberle thinks he is playing with L'Aveuglette and would swear on all that is holy that he can see him when he's out there on the ice, much like Haley Joel Osment could see dead people. There is no other explanation for that poor a pass. Had he had a live hand grenade about to go off on the end of his stick, he would have propelled it to the same exact location to try to save his teammates' lives. In that area of the ice, no Canadien would have been harmed. They would all have been equidistantly safe.

When the Tomas Kaberle trade was announced, I may have posted a harangue that decried the move, but after that I vowed to myself that I would not harp on this subject. I was convinced that Tomas' own ineptitude would serve as my megaphone. Unfortunately, it is so staggering that it also serves as the trigger to set off all the alarms and all the fears about where this organization is headed.

René Bourque has been attracting negative attention lately, but I'm comfortable with his play. He is what we expected. He's big, can play physical, is serviceable as a third-liner who can move up to the second on occasion. He plays well on the penalty kill, and can also play on the powerplay. We knew him to be streaky and that his style makes him seem disaffected sometimes. We can expect around 25 goals from him. And that's exactly what we are getting from him. Next year we'll be looking for enough legitimate NHL players to fill out a roster. Mr. Bourque is not one of our worries. He'll fill his role and a hole in our lineup, we don't need to get on his case because he's not Clarke Gillies. Or Erik Cole. He is René Bourque, and on balance I'm happy to have him on the team.

Of note also was the performance of special teams. We've been fretting that the Good Guys have given up on the season and on the coach, but as has been mentioned by others on HIO, the results obtained by the penalty killing units shows that they still have some fight left. Their success depends on effort, hard work, sacrifice and determination. Even with the loss of Hal Gill, which I thought might drastically reduce the PK's effectiveness, they haven't skipped a beat. Against the best powerplay in the league tonight, they allowed one goal out of four. Not great in terms of the percentage, since Edmonton has been clicking on a 25% pace this season, but they often bottled up the Oilers and didn't allow them to establish themselves in the zone and get comfortable. The bonus was that the Canadiens' powerplay was 2/4, and featured a reinvigorated Tomas Plekanec and René Bourque, who seemed dangerous on the second wave after a long stretch of games where nothing seemed to work. Our powerplay strategy had degenerated to sending out the Desharnais line on the first wave, then hoping for a flukey bounce from the ragtag collection we sent out on the second.

Thus heartened, we move on to Vancouver for a big big game on Saturday. Hopefully Mr. Desharnais' leg twinge can be alleviated with a couple days of physiotherapy, we'll need all hands on deck to bring down the mighty mighty Canucks.