Since the season ended so abruptly and dishearteningly against the Senators, we've been talking at cross-purposes as Canadiens fans in the "Canadiens are too small"-"Are not!"- "Are too!" debate. The thing is, this debate isn't as polarized as some have been in the recent past (Price vs. Halak, Kaberle is a somewhat effective d-man on powerplays who can still sort of help and produce a half a point per game vs. lynching Pierre Gauthier, Konopka vs. sanity). It's not even the tide shifting as much as a sea change. We're left debating getting bigger quickly, versus getting way more bigger way more quicker, damn the torpedoes full speed ahead.
Some moderates point out that big doesn't necessarily mean tough, and vice versa, and there's truth to that. Marc Bergevin pointed out how much heart Brendan Gallagher has at his year-end press conference. As a contrast, Hal Gill, Benoit Pouliot and Guillaume Latendresse are brought up. This conversation usually ends up moving the goalposts, and we end up agreeing that the Canadiens do have lots of heart, and fight to the bitter end. What was the question again?
Some caution we're already big, and point to the average weight or height of our team compared to the rest of the league, that we're only a couple inches shorter than the Senators, and three pounds under the average weight of the Bruins, for example. Heck, we're almost even if we take out Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic, they skew the data, they don't really count. The fact that we rank 28th and 30th in these average team measurements are statistical anomalies, and probably not significant. We're just looking to confirm our perceptual bias, because it makes us feel bad when Chris Neil gets all scowly and grabs Brendan Gallagher's head with both hands and tries to unscrew it from his shoulders so he can take it home as a keepsake, to the mute, complacent assent of the referees. Three pounds aren't really that much, and neither are ten or twelve, that's just a couple of weight classes in boxing. Right?...
Baseball has its 'Mendoza line', which denotes a .200 batting average, and which is thought to be the minimum proficiency a baseball player must maintain to remain in the major leagues. Hockey is at risk of developing its own such demarcation, namely that a player needs to be 6 feet tall to be considered draftable and likely to have a career in the NHL. To deviate from that a player pretty much has to be named Crosby, McKinnon or Drouin. And after the parade of giants that is the blue line of the Capitals or Senators or a dozen other teams, the Mendoza line for defencemen might be creeping up to 6'2". Our reinforcements from Saskatoon, Darren Dietz at 6'1" and Dalton Thrower at 'really close to 6 feet tall' will be considered short in Gary Bettman's NHL.
Of course, we exhort ourselves, we should get some huge guys, but not necessarily goons. Rather, we should look for giant players who can play hockey, skate, and score some goals, because there're warehouses full of these guys, just sitting and waiting for a call, all cobwebby, like Maytag repairmen.
I have to admit that watching the Blues vs. the Kings this year, and the Kings last season, and the Bruins the year before that, and the way the Canucks and Canadiens get beaten down playoff after playoff, has me convinced. I fought the good fight, tried to be a proponent of elegant, skillful hockey, of the frères Rougeau being superior to Abdullah the Butcher, but I've decided I need to be a realist as opposed to an idealist.
One thing that stands out in my mind is how much of a crosschecking menace Dion Phaneuf is against our smaller skill guys, how he's big bad Dion after the whistle when he wants to take a free shot at Brian Gionta, compared to his muted appearances against the Bruins in these playoffs. His was a shameful performance, another embarrassment in a long sequence of these for Toronto fans, that he wears the C on his jersey, as he was a veritable purring wittle kitty cat against Milan Lucic and Sean Thornton, stopping short of voluntarily surrendering his lunch money during pre-game warmups as a ploy to ingratiate himself and sail through the game unscathed. Also, like when faced with Brandon Prust, he was much less intrepid than when confronted with Aaron Palushaj last season.
I remember other instances like these last season, like Ryan Malone being a rampaging buffalo and tossing Canadiens out of his way while trying to decapitate Alexei Emelin or Chris Campoli, but being much less hotheaded one game when confronted on a regular basis by Mike Blunden and Brad Staubitz. These two gentlemen must have a post-career future as crisis counsellors because they had a real calming influence on Mr. Malone. A similar effect was obtained when Travis Moen and Alexei Emelin were fronting Wayne Simmonds after whistles in front of the net, he was a lot less elbowy and facewashy then.
So the craven Dion Phaneuf is the final piece of anecdotal evidence that I need to admit that the Canadiens need to sacrifice some speed and quickness for some beef and nastiness, at the cost of my viewing enjoyment. The 1986 team was fun to watch because it won, but Steve Rooney and Dave Maley didn't exactly get the pulse racing. I'd watch our slog against the Whalers or the Sabres, then stay up late and watch the second game, the offensive show that was the Oilers against the Flames or the Jets, all the skating and passing and scoring, and wonder to myself which installment of the double-header I enjoyed watching more.
So will our future Canadiens be: big, tough, cementally-handed, plodding, resolute, skirmishy and facejabby and headlocky, crosscheck resistant and unaverse, eager to "pay the price" and scrum in front of the net, lumberingly efficient, soporific perhaps on occasion, relentless battering rams but hopeless with the puck on their stick and the top half of the net wide open. But they will be Darwinianly adapted to their Hobbes-ian environment, and ultimately more successful than our current herd of sprightly gazelles.
Which is progress, I guess.