Sunday, 28 August 2016

A deeper look at the Canadiens' 'overly' defensive system.

Regarding Michel Therrien's defensive dump and chase style, we had this discussion last summer on HockeyInsideOut, when we did a deep dive on what specifically was so defensive about Michel Therrien's system.  I asked the genuine question about what was different about our style of play compared to other teams.  I don't think I absorbed/retained it all, but some of the points made by krob, Ed, Coach K and others were that:

1)  the puck is moved out of the defensive zone predominantly on the left side (which is predictable, easy to thwart in the age of advance scouting and video coaches),

2)  if there is no breakaway or odd-man rush, the puck is deposited in the back of their zone,

3)  at the start of the season, a two-player forecheck was used but for some reason was ratcheted back to one player in most cases,

4)  when forechecking/without the puck in the opposite or neutral zone, the general idea is to cut off access to the centre of the ice, to 'funnel' them to the boards, and,

5)  defencemen were expected to make a 'good first pass', to move the puck up quick, but if there was no obvious outlet they were to chip it ahead and let our forwards get to it first or harry the opponent who was to retrieve it, and generally this created a lot breakaways by Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, Paul Byron and others.

Now, this emphasis on moving the puck up quickly and pressuring the puck on defence is a) different than the very defensive style of Jacques Martin, which was all about collapsing quickly back to our zone and circling the wagons, as epitomized by Hal Gill and Josh Gorges, and b) not that different than other systems used by other teams, notably Alain Vigneault's Canucks.

I've posted about this before, but the New Pacific Coliseum can be a silent, sedate barn, and when there was a lull in the action, you could often hear Monsieur Vigneault yelling "Speed!  Speed!  Speed!" at his players when they were in possession of the puck and breaking out of their zone.  Chris Higgins, Ryan Kesler, role players like Dale Weise, they'd bust out of there like bats out of hell and wait for a stretch pass.

And there was a dispensation for the Sedins, whose game is more about puck possession and cycling in the offensive zone, like a boxer setting up his opponent with a steady jab, trying to trap him in the corner and waiting for an opening.  The Sedins got lots of minutes, but they tended to start with a faceoff in the offensive zone, which was a good use of their talent, have them already set up there:  Ryan Kesler digs the puck out of the defensive zone, moves it up-ice near their net, where the Sedins can then finish the job.

That got me thinking that that's what the head coach had in mind with David Desharnais, let him start more of his shifts in the offensive zone, which lines up better with his skill set, and let Tomas and Lars take more of the defensive-zone faceoffs, bring the puck up-ice.

And when John Tortorella took over, he didn't believe in this specialization, he believed that everyone should (wait for it...) take a bite of the sandwich, so he had the Sedin brothers take their fair share of defensive zone faceoffs, and kill their share of penalties too, and the Canucks had an abysmal season.

But back to the Canadiens' overly-defensive system, as much of HIO describes it, and Philippe Cantin of La Presse, the dreaded dump-and-chase, the thinking is that this is a simplistic, defeatist style, you have the puck but give up possession, etc.

The thing is, in football, this kind of fast-paced system with long passes and based on speed is actually seen as an offensive system, a no-huddle offence or the old run-and-shoot.  I don't know about basketball much, but a similar system might be what they call a fast-break offence, as opposed to the more plodding Triangle offence of Phil Jackson, or whatever.  It's like the difference between the style of the Expos with Ron LeFlore and Tim Raines, or the St. Louis Cardinals with Willie McGee, versus the Philadelphia Phillies and Mike Schmidt or the Baltimore Orioles and Earl Weaver's strategy of the three-run homer, which sabermetrics later showed was ultimately the right way to go.

So again, I wonder how accurate it is to describe the Canadiens as having a defensive system because they use a dump-in in response to a five-player wall at the offensive zone blue line.  Maybe if we called it a fast-break offence we could view it in a more positive light.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Congratulations to Brazil for winning the gold medal in men's soccer. I guess.

--Soccer is all kinds of crap, a risible Theatre of the Absurd that stretches over an interminable hour and half, plus impenetrable ‘ínjury time’. Except that now the ‘strategy’ is not to play for that 90 minutes, no, now the highest expression of this slow-motion debacle of a sport is to not play and ‘draw’, and to not play for the additional ‘extra time’ also, until the standstill can stand no more and we go to penalties, when I’m told it’s high drama to see which will be the idiot who misses the broad side of a barn with the ball and loses the game for his team with this unconscionable gaffe.

Which really stumps me, because Ma Tante Gertrude could score on a penalty kick, and she’s passed away ten years ago. The net is the size of a shipping container, and you’re like ten feet away. And the goalie isn’t even supposed to move until the shooter touches the ball.

Of course, because this is soccer, the goalies do move before they should, but it’s tolerated, because soccer is an unending charade of cheating and lying and twisting the rules and faking and pretending that we don’t know that everyone is exaggerating and cheating and lying, and if a player isn’t diving and grabassing and hystrionicing he’s not trying to win hard enough. Or rather, not trying to nil-nil to extra time hard enough.

--I’m watching Poland play Germany at handball right now. When two players were involved in a collision, over and above what is allowable in the normal course of play, one of them was given a yellow card and removed from the surface of play for two minutes, like in hockey, and his team had to play one man short.

And because the other player stayed on the court for a few moments, and had to be attended to by the team’s medical staff, he also had to leave the playing surface. The play-by-play man told the home audience that since the player stayed down, and caused a delay in the game’s resumption, he had to sit out three attacks, or three possessions of his team.

Kind of like how Brendan Gallagher explained how, when he was a kid, he might have laid it on a little thick once during a game, when struck by an opponent, to draw a penalty in his team’s favour. He retreated to his bench haltingly, the coaches/trainers jumped out to assist him. Once things were sorted out by the refs, he tried to jump on the ice to take part in the powerplay.

Except his coach grabbed the back of his jersey and held him back, had him sit out three shifts while he ‘recuperated’. Brendan knew of this rule, it was an internal checks-and-balances thing they had, a Don Cherry-certified policy to Brad Marchand-proof a team, ensure it plays the right way, like good Canadian kids.  So he had to sit and stew and wait, and vow he'd never do that again.  And grow up to tell the tale as a never-quit professional hockey player.

So it appears that the biggest difference between soccer and handball isn’t merely the proscription of the use of hands in one sport, it’s the fact that in handball the first thing to occur at the start of a match isn’t for everyone, the players, the refs, the fans, the hangers-on, the press, the broadcasters, to stick their heads up their own and each other’s rectums.

--In handball, when a team’s players pass the ball to each other a few too many times, when they hold the ball too long without truly making an attack, the ref signals a ‘passive play’ infraction.
Passive Play: It is illegal to keep the ball in a team’s possession without making a recognizable attempt to attack and to try to score. In other words, a team cannot stall (free-throw awarded to the other team).
There you go. An easy fix to one of the top twenty-five most egregiously wrong things to do with soccer.

--I learned a lot of what I know of soccer as a kid, watching our new team in the North American Soccer League, le Manic de Montréal.  They were shiny and new and exciting, and like the repulsive little joiner that I was, I adopted the team and watched them on TV and read everything I could about them in La Presse and begged my father to take me to see them play at the Olympic Stadium, who'd noncommittally snort a "We'll see" at me in response.

I remember a few things, Gordon Hill, Thompson Usiyan.  I remember the latter having his mind blown at his first sight of snow, making a snowball with a huge grin on his face, pictured on the front page of La Presse's sports section.

One of the things I absorbed was how teams played different styles, different systems, and how that was reflected most obviously in how they are distributed on the field.  Most teams played a 3-4-3, with three forwards, four midfielders and three defenders.  Some exciting teams out there, and I hoped Le Manic would be one of them, played a 4-3-3.  That's what Les Canadiens would do, isn't it?  Send Richard and Lafleur and Béliveau and Geoffrion out there to swarm the opposition net, and the job of the Robinsons and Lapointes and Savards would be to get the ball upfield quickly and feed them the puck ball?  And sure enough, there were some boring teams out there who played a 3-3-4, and their rosters were probably filled with Mike Houghs and Tiger Williamses.

So armed with this ancient knowledge, and since the feed popped up on my screen without the remote in my hand, thumb ready to hit 'Previous Channel', and because I'm nothing if not open-minded, I started to watch one of the elimination games of the Women's tournament.  It was the kickoff of the 'extra time', the teams were tied.  "Overtime," I thought, "should be exciting."  I'm one of those idiots who hopes for the best.

On my screen, one team, I'm not sure which one, it might have even been the Canadian team in one of their games, was arrayed in a 1-5-4.  With the score tied, in OT of a game that led to a medal game.  The five midfielders were rigidly in line, as if they were impaled on a foosball rod, they shifted as a unit, with the exact distance between each other maintained, the line as straight as if it were maintained by laser guide.  They were of course well well back from the opposite team and the ball, which was being listlessly tapped back and forth, from side to side.  The one forward trotted back and forth, back and forth from side to side, with a metronomic and futile fastidiousness.

I didn't watch more than a minute of this putrid pantomime before I found my remote and some track and field on another channel.

--Having said that, it was great to see Brazil win the gold medal, the outpouring of emotion in the stands after this baffling non-spectacle ended in the favour of the local fans was great to see. That mom kissing her son in a sea of yellow just tugged at the heart strings. If they felt half as good as we did when Sydney scored the golden goal in Vancouver in 2010, it will be an unforgettable memory for all of Brazil, and a win for everyone, not just the moneyed élites.


--Men’s volleyball gold medal game going on right now, between sentimental favourites Brazil and Italy, on TSN 2.

You know, both teams are trying and playing hard, they’re sweating, they’re working with desperation and determination, and their concern isn’t on their coiffures. They’re working as a team, they’re exhorting each other and congratulating themselves, even if they lose a point, instead of bickering and gesticulating at each other and fighting among themselves.

The game is a spectacular display of skill and power, no one is trotting around at half speed.

When the ball goes out of bounds, there’s no kabuki about who’ll take the corner or throw in the ball, and no grade-school pushing and whining about who gets to stand where, with open-palmed overemotional appeals to the ref.

When a close call occurs, one team will appeal the ruling, without surrounding the referee and hyping themselves into a telenovela of demonstration and vendetta. Instead, they resort to a video replay, there’s an objective result in less than a minute, and play resumes.

Each team gets a turn defending, and if they’re successful, they immediately go on the attack and the other team defends furiously, back and forth.

Everyone should give it a watch.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Shea Weber is not a catastrophic return for P.K. Subban

So, as I centimetre away from the ledge, I think I can come around to the fact that Shea Weber is no Andrei Kovalenko-Martin Rucinsky-Jocelyn Thibault package, a combination of odds and ends that makes you go “Who? Really?”

I’ve often lusted after Shea Weber, when I creeped around hockeydb, I’d stalk him at the 2003 draft page, ask myself why oh why did we waste a pick on Corey Urqhart in the second round, when both Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber were right there, ripe for the taking, it was so obviously clear from my vantage point thousands of kilometres away and five years later. I was so impressed with his game during the 2010 Olympics, and again in 2014.

I still wouldn’t have made this trade, as a greedy fan I’m outraged the thieving Preds didn’t throw in Samuel Girard and a 2017 first-rounder to even begin negotiations, a few more picks and prospects at the ready in their back pocket. The gall of David Poile. It’s a deadly sin I believe.

But Shea Weber as compensation is closer in magnitude to Rick Green and Ryan Walter, not nearly enough for Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin, but still useful players who’ll help us for many seasons.

I’ll miss P.K., wish we’d have found the right buttons to push, but I’ll make do with the new puppy, since my old dog had to go to my distant aunt’s farm in the country to run free and wild.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Team Canada and Noah Juulsen at the Summer Showcase.

Not much to talk about these days, it’s hard to think about any worthwhile subjects to write about, as Brendan Kelly now demonstrates weekly, but the WJC Team Canada showing last week is a sore point we can pick at.

It used to be that our team was the 800 lbs gorilla in this tourney, with the odd fallow year here and there, but that seems to be a thing of the past. The American squad, especially, seemed a step ahead, a notch above. They were bigger, faster, more talented, more cocky, and seemed to mesh better than our hopefuls.

And this was a bit of a surprise. The games against Finland and Sweden Team Canada had a bit of a ‘split squad’ situation going on, but for the last game I felt head coach Dominique Ducharme had sent out the players who by and large will be the team we actually ice this Christmas, barring one or two surprises. So we had our A Team out there against the Americans, and we got schooled.

At one point, the TSN crew of Gord Miller and Craig Button spent five excruciating minutes dissecting the epochal dilemma the Leafs face with Mitch Marner next season. Oh the woe, the gnashing of teeth, since he might be too slight for the NHL they surmised, couldn’t meet the age requirement for the AHL, but was much, much too strong now for the OHL, wasn’t he? The amusing aspect was that, as they reached their conclusions, Mitch Marner was being punked by the Team USA players, getting knocked down and denied access to the puck by the bigger, stronger adversaries. He looked like a boy amongst men, and definitely not ‘too strong for the OHL’ at that point.

In any case, Hockey Canada needs to review its programs and its selection methods. I don’t think Keegan Kolesar, in this day and age, should ever be considered for Team Canada, or any players of his ilk in fact, whether the game is played on North American ice or the larger European surfaces. No matter what amount of heart and soul these players bring, the whole team gets dispirited when it can’t score. Brent Sutter hockey has been proven not to work at the WJC.

Noah Juulsen gets a B+ for his two games played. The first game he played was the OT loss against Finland. As usual he skated agilely all over the ice, made good decisions and seemed to be a good pairing with Thomas Chabot, the only d-man returning from last year’s team. He didn’t pick up any points, but also wasn’t on the ice for any goals against. He controlled play when he was on the ice, preventing crises before they developed. Compared to Jacob Chychrun, who was on the ice for both goals and was at last partially responsible for both, and stumbled and pratfalled his way through the game, Noah was a stud.

Yet a blogger gave the mindless appraisal that Noah “doit en donner plus”, seemingly based only on the fact that he didn’t appear on the scoresheet. Which is hogwash. I know Noah had an uneven season last year, and I know hunting season is open, that it’s fashionable to slam anything and anyone related to the Canadiens these days, but to criticize Noah for his game based on the boxscore is moronic.

Plus, I hate this expression, which has taken hold with many observers. The most prominent practitioner is RDS’ Gaston Therrien, whose analysis often stops there, that this prospect and that prospect and this player and everyone “doit en donner plus”, an uninformative generality that’s more of a copout than anything. It translates as someone ‘must give more’ or ‘must give some more’, and if that doesn’t sound right, like it doesn’t mean much, then I’ve captured the essence of it.

What exactly is it that the subject “doit en donner plus”? Is it more effort, are we saying the player is lazy, slacking off? Are we talking about more grit, more hits? More production, more goals, more points? More Corsi for, more shots? More Corsi against, more fewer shots?

This is such an non-insight, it’s so devoid of meaning, that it drives me up the wall. Fans in the stands have more trenchant observations than pros who crutch themselves up with this claptrap.

Anyway, I was eager to see Noah have another solid outing on Saturday so I could shove it in that guy’s face, but he had a couple of hiccups. He was on the ice for a goal against when he didn’t shine, and he also had a chychrunesque stumble, when while skating backwards defending an odd-man rush he got his feet tangled and crashed to the ice like Bambi. He didn’t have a bad game, necessarily, but in a difficult outing for Team Canada, Noah was not a standout, for any positive reasons at least.

So now Noah needs to have a strong start to his season, and a good showing at the December camp, but I have to believe that unless things go terribly wrong he’s a solid bet to make the Team Canada roster as a 19-year-old who was the last man cut at last year’s selection camp.

Add in Mikhail Sergachev playing for the Russian team, and my fanboy hopes that Will Bitten torches the OHL early and makes the WJC roster as a surprise addition, and we’ll have a reason to watch the tourney this year.