Monday, December 31, 2007

All O, No D

Carbo's latest tinkerings with line combinations have at once taken advantage of the Habs' strengths, while laid bare their most glaring weakness. The lines go something like this:


There are so many oddities about these lines:
  1. Michael Ryder is playing again, after a few games as a healthy scratch. Ryder's situation deserves a post unto itself, so more on that later.
  2. The fourth line has no real center and two defensemen on the wings.
  3. All lefties on the "first" two lines, and only two on the "last" two.
  4. Three scoring lines, and one energy line.
As odd as these combinations are, they are a small bit of genius given the Habs' dearth of anyone resembling a defensive forward. Carbo split up the three catalysts for the Habs' offense: Higgins, Koivu and Kovalev. With each driving their respective lines, other coaches can't figure out against whom to send their better units. Carbo also sends all lines on the forecheck constantly, except in the third period when they fall back into a trap-like defensive shell with a four or five goal lead.

And that is exactly when this bold plan's soft underbelly is exposed. None of these guys are bona fide shut down forwards. The plan's success in the early going is based on keeping the puck in the offensive zone, and creating pressure with a constant forecheck. With the game safely in hand after two periods, Carbo figures he can just play defense, and ride out the last 20 minutes. But while these lines excel at being the aggressor, they aren't so good at playing D. The result, over the three games these lines have been in effect? Outscoring the opposition 10-2 in the first two periods vs being outscored 5-3 in the last (including OT).

So why not just play the third period just like the first two? Carbo would appear to be trying to run up the score, a big no-no esp given the Habs' lack of an enforcer. So Carbo has to hope that the big early game leads will continue, and that his team (and esp his goalies) can hold on in the third.

Granted, the last game against the Rangers is a little atypical, and maybe one could argue that shouldn't be counted against this plan. After all, the Habs could only dress 19 players -- Corey Locke had an equipment bag snafu at Toronto's Pearson airport. The baggage guys there must be Leafs fans. But his absence didn't hurt as much as the guy he was supposed to replace: Saku Koivu, out with the flu. (Deja vu. Haven't the Habs' medical staff heard of flu shots?) .

Koivu is the Habs' best faceoff guy, for three years running now. The Rangers ruthlessly exposed the Habs' weakness in the faceoff circle, winning 68% of the draws. The most costly, of course, was Drury's win late in the third to tie the game. Lapierre's return has helped, but with Plekanec consistently losing more than he wins, the Habs desperately need someone to center that fourth line with a better faceoff percentage, esp take some defensive zone draws.

In the first two games (against the Lightning and Panthers) Carbo turned to Kostopolous, a winger who has lost about two draws for every win over the last three seasons. That's a pretty damning lack of confidence in Chipchura, who was a healthy scratch in both games.

But against the Rangers, without Koivu, Carbo had no choice but to play Chipchura. He was woefully not up to the job. His line was on the ice the for the first two goals, all ending up at -2. Of course it didn't help that Tom Renney recognized the mismatch and sent Straka-Gomez-Jagr out each time. On the first goal, Renney even caught Carbo with Chipchura's line as well as the third defensive unit, Bouillon and Gorges. Might as well have given them the goal and not bother with the formalities.

But there's not a whole lot Carbo can do about his fourth line, even when his guys are healthy. Bob needs to get him some help, esp to center that fourth line. And that is the subject of my next post.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Young blood

So Bob has finally listened to the masses and brought back Max. Not sure what took him so long, although some have suggested that Lapierre was only sent down to learn how to play right wing.

In any case, Max is back. Hardly the cure to all that ails the Habs these days, but certainly a step in the right direction. Grabovski was also sent down to make room, so maybe Bob does realize that the Habs need help on D, not O.

But in a surprise move, Bob also brought up Ryan O'Byrne. Many were upset that Bob signed Patrice Brisebois instead of keeping O'Byrne on the roster. Although I was a bit surpised (shocked?) myself, I thought it made a certain amount of sense. Both Brisebois and O'Byrne could play the right side, but Brisebois is the sort of puck-moving dman the Habs need, esp on the PP. Streit would be the #1 PP QB, but a #2 is always good.

If Brisebois could keep his defensive gaffes to a minimum, then it'd be a pretty good pickup, for a very minimal cap hit. And he certainly played that way early on. But then, as the team started it's recent slide, Brisebois reverted to his prior self. Not continuously, on every shift. But, man, were there some bad plays on his part.

But I assume that O'Byrne's promotion was not just about Brisebois' failures. Blueliners take time to mature, and another stint in the AHL could only help, one would think. As one of the leading dmen on the Bulldogs, O'Byrne has showed that he was ready. And with Hamrlik's expertise at bringing along youngsters, O'Byrne could be a perfect fit just when the Habs needed him.

Again, neither Lapierre nor O'Byrne will be the savior Habs fans have been looking for. But it certainly is a step in the right direction. The next step? For Carbo to realize that defense wins games, and that he needs to put together two decent checking lines. Sure, Bob has hamstrung him by not signing decent replacements for Bonk and Johnson (much less re-signing Bonk and Johnson themselves). But Carbo's got to play the cards he's been dealt, and stop blaming Ryder for all the team's ailments.

I'm thinking maybe two checking lines, looking something like this:

Offense ain't the problem. It's D. Good defense -- including a good transition game -- is going to win games.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bring back Max, part III

There's been some interesting talk around the Habs recently, most curiously stated by Guy Lafleur, my childhood idol. He said that the Habs roll out four fourth lines. Now, that's a wee bit exaggerated. I don't think Koivu, Kovalev, Plekanec or Higgins belong on a fourth or even third line. But on a team with the talent of, say, the Senators, they'd be doing a lot of second line work.

There was also some discussion over at the Theory of Ice along the same lines. For those of you not familiar, the Theory is the pre-eminent Habs blog out there today. Interestingly enough, Jeff (the author of the equally good, but now retired Sisu Hockey), commented at length about what he saw as some warning signs.

To sum up, he pointed out that Smolinski's line was Carbo's first choice for lining up against the opposition's top line. Koivu's line was second. So this explains to a large degree why Plekanec's line has been feasting, while Koivu's not so much.

Gainey and Carbo don't have many options. Like Jeff said (and Lafleur exaggerated), we don't have many legitimate checking line forwards. Begin and Kostopolous tend to be agitator types. Chipchura, Latendresse and Grabovski are all young, and need to learn the nuances of defense and other player's tendencies. Smolinski is a crafty, but not getting any younger veteran. Dandenault is trying to re-learn his forward position.

On talented teams, the above seven would be fourth liners. It's hard to admit it, but it's true. But this is the hand we've been dealt (although I still don't understand why we didn't keep Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson). So how to go forward?

I've complained about the Habs inability to keep the lead. On the most recent Theory posting, e posts some interesting stats about late game leads. And given Jeff's point about Koivu's line playing as a second checking line, I wonder if what we really need is a solid, second checking line option.

This would free up Koivu's line to play against third and fourth liners. Well, at home anyway. On the road, we wouldn't have the last change, so it wouldn't work as well. But it should still help I think, esp on line changing during the play.

We don't have a lot of options, given the player personnel listed above. But of those, the weakest links on defense are clearly Latendresse and Grabovski. So I say (again) bring back Max. He proved last year that he's got some defensive chops. And if he can't shut down an opposing forward, he can sure get under their skin (see every game vs Crosby) and provoke them to take a bad penalty or two. And since Murray has been gone, there's been a roster spot open.

I'd see those two checking lines going something like this:

Carbo might even be tempted to switch Smolinski and Lapierre, if only to keep some veteran/rookie balance. Plus, you'd get an all French Canadian line. Tabarnac!

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Somehow Habs GM seem to have missed what should have been big news: Ilya Bryzgalov placed on waivers by the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, and subsequently picked up by the goalie starved and division rival Phoenix Coyotes.

This was a real stunner to me. It's well known that the Ducks were stacked with talent between the pipes. I think the Ducks could have won the Cup with either Bryzgalov or Giguere last year. In fact, Bryzgalov played the early rounds until Giguere was ready to come back.

I can understand not wanting to keep him, maybe for salary cap reasons. But why not trade him? Placing a player of his caliber on waivers almost guarantees someone will pick him up, and you get nothing in return -- except the salary cap space.

And Brian Burke had to have known that Phoenix would be licking their chops (like a rabid coyote?) if they had the chance to grab Bryzgalov. After all, this is the same team that signed David Aebischer to a free-agent contract. I feel bad for Abby and how he imploded last year, but man, that's desperate.

And what has Bryzgalov done since landing in the Valley of the Sun? He's won every one of this three starts, after the Coyotes got shut out by the Sharks back-to-back. It's only three games, but he's got a 1.30 GAA and .952 save percentage -- including a shootout win over his former team last night. That's gotta hurt.

What would Habs GM have done? Try to swing a deal to an Eastern Conference team. The East teams most in need of goaltending help would be the Leafs, Thrashers or Lightning. Maybe Burke would have gotten only a draft pick or two out of the deal. But at least it would be something. And then he'd only have face his former goaltender once every other year, instead of potentially 8 times or more with the Coyotes.

And I thought Burke was a genius for putting together that Pronger trade. Maybe Stanley Cup hangovers affect GM's too.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ryder about to bust loose?

There has been some talk on various Habs related sites about Michael Ryder. Some of the glass-half-empty crowd seem to ignore the Habs' hot start, almost 1/5 of the way through the season. Some question why Ryder should be on the first line, or even call for trading him altogether.

While he is prone to some outright silly plays, he is still the lone, legitimate sniper the Habs currently employ. When he forgets that, he tends to go into his prolonged slumps. But when he awakens, we see why he has led the Habs in goals scored the past two seasons.

The last game against Buffalo was illustrative of these two sides of Michael Ryder. On the downside, he seems to sometimes think he's the second coming of Alex Kovalev, trying to deke and fake out opponents while carrying the puck into the zone. Or he thinks he has Tomas Plekanec's speed, trying to blow past defenders on the right side. He is neither, and he should leave the puck carrying to Saku and the speed demon bit to Higgins.

But there were also a couple of instances in last night's game that made me think Ryder is starting to work again, trying to do the little things to get back on his game:
  1. In the second period, he laid out Derek Roy with a mid-ice, shoulder check. At first, I thought that must have been Steve Begin. But no, it was #73.
  2. On the first goal, he hustled back to the defensive zone to help cover for Andrei Markov -- and for Saku and Higgins, both of whom went to the bench. Markov, knowing he was covered defensively, was able to pick off the Buffalo entry pass. He fed it to Kostitsyn, who gave a nice feed to Plekanec for the game winner. All of this starts with Ryder hustling back on D.
So those are the little signs that Carbo must be pleased with. Enough to let Ryder stay on the top line, but probably not enough to quiet the vociferous few calling for a trade.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Keeping an Even Keel

I think the title of this post is some sort of sailing term, whereby a sailboat is kept from rocking to and fro by a steady hand upon the keel. Whatever that is.

A good analogy for all our good friends in Habland, no? Both for those who have been longtime passengers on the bandwagon, and those scrambling to get on.

To be sure, it certainly does look good:
  • #1 power play in the land
  • #5 in the Hab-hating TSN power ranking
  • Points all around, sprinkled like fairy dust upon checking line forward and highly paid sniper alike.
  • Plekanec and Kovalev making beautiful plays, instead of one mystifying the other like last year.
  • Kovalev still on pace for a 40 goal season, 1/8 of the way through the campaign.
  • Andrei Markov: quite simply, the bargain of the year. Second in scoring, multiple game winning goals, and ice time leader. All for millions less than Zdeno Chara.
  • Youngsters Grabovski and especially Chipchura looking right at home in the NHL.
  • Even Kostopolous turning his play around, without benefit of a benching.
  • Mathieu Dandenault, opportunistic forechecker extraordinaire? May the surprises never cease, at least of the pleasant variety.
But let's not get too giddy. The Habs looked pretty good early last season too. Then came Christmas, and the Habs seemed to take an extended holiday season. All the way through the off-season. Off course, a major injury to Huet and a a flu bug that wouldn't go away didn't help either. Plus Kovalev's vertigo. Chalk last season up to Murphy's Law. Or was it Ironic? Alanis has me all messed up.

But I'll take one small, savory sip from the goblet of satisfaction: maybe those who have called for Carbo's head will give him a reprieve, hopefully for the year. Surely his mixing and matching has worked to a certain extent, even if I'd still like to see Kostitsyn instead of Latendresse night in and night out.

Still, while the offense has been a revelation (especially the distributed nature thereof), I take issue with the defense. Many a game has been either lost or nearly so when the Habs take the early lead and then try to nurse it. They simply don't have the defensive talent to do it, it seems. Some examples:
  • Habs blow 3-0 lead over Pittsburgh, before Price puts the entire team on his back and wins in the shootout.
  • Habs take 5-1 lead over Carolina, but then let them creep back to within two goals before sealing it with the empty netter.
  • In Ottawa, they manage to scramble back to tie it at 3-3, but then give it away seconds later with 6 mins left in the game.
  • Habs have a slight 1-0 lead over Florida, but are otherwise dominating. They allow a late game tying goal, and then lost in the shootout.
  • Habs take 3-1 lead over Toronto, but end up losing in OT to the Leafs of all teams. Ugh.
Some of it I think is due to personnel. As much as I love Mark Streit, we really have four 3rd tier dmen: Streit, Bouillon, Gorges and Brisebois. Not much we can do about that in the short term. They're all doing well enough, but the average ice time is telling. Hamrlik, Komisarek and Markov average between 21-25 minutes. Whereas Brisebois, Streit and Bouillon average 17.5 to 18 minutes.

But we can improve the defense up front. In the Carolina game, Carbo juggled lines late and put Chipchura on the first line between Higgins and Ryder, dropping Koivu back to the fourth line.

But something a little more structural might be needed. To that end, I reiterate my call to bring back Max. He's a hard working, forechecking, get-under-your-skin little bastard, and would be perfect with any combination of Begin, Dandenault, Chipchura, Smolinski and Kostopolous.

Of course, this would boot Kostitsyn, Grabovksi and/or Latendresse from a regular slot. And while Grabovski has added some offensive punch, the rest haven't done a whole lot (although Kostitsyn hasn't gotten much of a chance lately). Plus, we seem to have enough offense to go around lately. Just need to tighten up on the defensive side.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bring back Max

While it's much too early to begin the hand-wringing, there are obviously some concerns about the Habs early season play. As predicted, the Habs play decent defense, and have stellar goaltending. But the offense is somewhat lacking.

Carbo has been juggling the last three lines like crazy, trying to find three scoring lines and one checking line. But we have more checking line forwards than we do scoring forwards. Plus, there are some guys who don't deserve much ice time, especially Tom Kostopolous. He's now a team worst -4 (albeit tied with my boy Mark Streit). But he doesn't make up for it with offensive upside. He was mostly an unknown when Bob signed him, and I was a little puzzled. But I figured Bob was looking at the following:
  • he's right handed, and Habs desperately need more
  • he could replace Mike Johnson on the right side of the third line, for cheaper than Johnson was being paid
  • if he doesn't work out there, stick Maxim Lapierre on the right side, and drop him to the fourth
Well Max didn't have a very good training camp, but is now tearing it up in Hamilton. Kostopolous, on the other hand, is not having a very good regular season, and is causing me to tear my hair out.

So Bob, how about the following:
  1. Put Garth and his broken foot on IR
  2. Let Kostopolous watch from the press box a few games
  3. Bring back Max
Carbo was complaining about the lack of energy his team has brought so far, esp when they only show up for a period or two. That was never Max's problem. Max won't help their scoring issues, but he can play D. And the Habs have had a bad habit of not holding leads (or momentum, as in the Ottawa game).

It's too bad that Bob didn't sign either Bonk or Johnson. Bonk signed with Nashville for only $1.475M per and Johnson at $.75M with St. Louis. Kostopolous on the other hand, got $.9k and Bryan Smolinski (ostensibly Bonk's replacement) got $2M. If Bob had thrown the same money at Johnson and Bonk, with maybe a compensation-for-playing-in-Montreal signing bonus, we'd have a legitimate shutdown line and still be under the cap. Oh well.

But let's not dwell entirely on the negatives. What about the positives so far, including:
  • Carey Price's unveiling as a legitimate NHL goalie. After two games he's not ready to unseat Huet as the #1, but it appears that Carbo is going with the tandem approach: play Huet 2-3 games, then Price. I think this works both in terms of keeping Huet fresh and healthy (see last year when not) and giving Price some valuable NHL game experience. Then, if Price is up to it, trade Huet.
  • Patrice Brisebois, decent dman. Who woulda thunk it? He's made one or two unholy giveaways, like against the Panthers. Luckily, Cristobal bailed him out on that one. Still not bad. I fully expected such an occurrence on every other shift. He might actually be earning his role as #4.
  • Mark Streit, PP setup man. I still think he deserves a shot at the #4, but maybe Carbo figures that Streit's defensive prowess is more helpful to Bouillon, who can make mistakes of his own -- sometimes going for the big hit and getting out of position. So is being #5 a testament to Streit's skill? Could be.
  • Alex Kovalev on almost a point per game pace? Also on pace for 41 goals, exactly where he needs to be? I guess I shoudn't be so surprised, given a player of his skill. But we've all known more disappointment from him than anything else, so I'm warily watching how this unfolds.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Give that man a raise!

Mark Streit seems to be the underdog hero of the moment, following his unexpected Sheldon Souray impersonation in the Habs' opening night win. Check out the recent articles on his exploits in the Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette.

Of course, we here at Habs GM have always been Mark Streit fans. Well "always" is a little strong, but certainly at least since the 2006 Olympics.

But I guess Marky Mark won't get to have more ice time with the Fun Bunch if Patrice Brisebois keeps up his strong play. Sure it was just one game, but after virtually zero preseason ice time, Brisebois' play was pleasantly uneventful.

So that sets up quite the nice conundrum for Bob and co. All sorts of depth on the blueline, and of the veteran variety as well. Having Gorges sit, after (by all accounts) an impressive preseason shows that Bob might just know what he's doing. Whoever doubted him? Ok, well me, I guess, with just signing Brisebois in the first place.

So the Habs have the luxury of sitting capable dmen, just as they have the luxury of sitting NHL-caliber goaltenders -- and even sending them to the farm. Now Bob can sit back and wait for the fruits of his labors to ripen, and snap up the first good offer from a team desperate for quality dmen and netminders.

Yes, I know, I'm getting way ahead of myself here. After all it was just one game. Brisebois might fall apart, and Streit could get hurt. But there again, depth helps -- in steps Dandenault and Gorges. So not bad, Bob. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Final Cut

Yes, I know it should be plural. But I just love the name ... of that album. Pink Floyd's last with Roger Waters. Some good tunes, but I think the acrimony between band members spilled over into the creative process.

Ok, ok back to the Habs. Some interesting final cuts made by Bob and company. I'm a bit surprised by some of them, given what I thought would play out. But my trust is in Bob -- despite any claims made by the title I've given this blog. I firmly believe that he is righting this ship, largely through the paper arts. He's gotten rid of most of the bloated salaries (Theo, Sammy) and bad locker room vibe (Dagenais, Ribeiro, etc) and has the farm stocked with lots of young talent to pull us through to a Cup win hopefully in the near future.

There's still one guy left whom you could argue fits into both the bloated-salary and bad-locker-room-vibe categories: Alex Kovalev. Gainey beat me to the punchline, but after writing the last post, I came to the same conclusion. Kovalev has got to start earning that $4.5M this year. Sure that's not superstar money these days, but it ain't chump change either. He's also got the "A" pinned to his chest now, so he'd better start leading in the clubhouse too.

I saw a game last year, where RDS had him mic'd up. He was non-stop yapping, esp to his linemates on the bench. I thought that could only be a good thing. He's a veteran, and he had some youngsters playing with him at times. Who wouldn't want to have some personal hockey tutoring by Alex Kovalev?

Except this dude has to prove the adage wrong, the one where "those who can't do, teach." Kovy's got to do it, all over the ice. 40 goals would sure be nice. If not, he might truly be the final cut.

As to the other roster news:
  • Price is staying. Very interesting. Gainey apparently overruled Carbo on this one. Even more interesting. I thought Price would go to Hamilton, given Carbo's earlier statement on Price. So either Price will be sitting a lot, or will be playing more than the usual backup. I think the latter. I suspect Bob will try to move Huet and maybe Halak or Danis too.
  • Lapierre isn't. I really liked what I saw from Lapierre last year. He mixes it up, getting opponents to take bad penalties, but plays good D too. But apparently that didn't show this preseason. I'm sure he'll be back.
  • And neither is O'Byrne. I'm sure he'll be the first to be called up should the Habs defensive corps thin out from injury, illness or sheer ineffectiveness.
  • Brisebois is #4. WTF? That's all I have to say. No, I have more. I thought for sure that his signing was all about depth on the right side, esp if O'Byrne (another righty) wasn't ready. But now he's slotted ahead of Streit, Dandenault, Bouillon and Gorges? I don't get it.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Scoring lines

I decided to write about the 1st and 2nd lines in one post, given the fluidity that often happens in trying to create mismatches with opponents and chemistry on the lines themselves.

Ok, the truth: I'm really late with this, and since the season starts tomorrow, I better get moving. I should have had all this done by now, and be on to commenting on what really happened.

So now I'm in the awkward position of having to pretend that the final cuts didn't happen, and stay in my little Habs GM bubble.

Here's what I foresaw happening for the Habs final scoring pairs:

1st: Kostitsyn-Koivu-Kovalev
2nd: Higgins-Plekanec-Ryder

All sorts of problems with these lines on the surface, but easily explainable:
  1. Chris Higgins is our best left wing. What's he doing on the second line? The simple answer is balance. Scotty Bowman even weighed in last year, saying that the Habs would do best if they would split up Higgins from the rest of their top line and thereby force other teams to have to concentrate on one line or the other. Who am I to argue with Scotty?
  2. Only one right hander among 6 forwards? This isn't ideal to be certain. But that's what happens when you get a left-handed right winger with the kind of talent that Alexei Kovalev brings. Last year, the answer was to bring in a right-handed left winger by the name of Sergei Samsonov. That didn't work out so well. Then with Kovalev's sliding play, he ended up playing with the team's lone right-handed center, Maxim Lapierre. I don't see that happening again this year, so I put him on the top line. His pre-season play seemed to warrant the move anyway
  3. Kostitsyn playing on the top line? I just like they symmetry. Call it the KKK line. Ok, wait. Don't call it that.
There are some other benefits to these lineups too. First, Higgins and Plekanec play a balls-out type of game. They'll crash the net and pay the price to create a scoring chance. They can also carry the puck effectively. Ryder can do neither of these. But he's a sniper, and the talents of the other two ought to open up some ice for him.

The first line really only has Koivu in the mold of Plekanec and Higgins. Kostitsyn has shown some goal scoring ability, and has speed to boot. Kovalev is old and slow, but uses it to his advantage. He likes to trail the play, and with Koivu and Kostitsyn rushing forward quickly, that ought to leave him opportunities to grab rebounds, throw a nifty move or two and bury the puck.

Or at least that's the theory.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The third line

Now for the third line, often known as the checking line. These are the guys that don't get much glory, very little by way of ESPN or TSN coverage. But they are essential. If defense wins Cups, then our checking line has got to have it all working.

Last year, the Habs had a decent third line. It revolved around Radek Bonk at center and Mike Johnson at right wing. A lefty and a righty, and they formed the core of one of the best PK's in the league -- at least for the first half of the season. And even when season began to collapse right around Christmas, the Habs maintained a pretty good PK rating. It was only later in the season did that slide as well.

And maybe it was this slide that made Bob think they were expendable. Neither was resigned, with Bonk going to Nashville and Johnson still a free agent. Bob got replacements for both, and for a lot less: Bryan Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos.

Of the two, I think Smolinski is the bigger addition. Some have wondered whether TK will end up on the third or fourth line. I haven't seen him play, but I think the only person to displace him from the third line would be Maxim Lapierre. Chipchura's too much of an unknown to get more than 4th line minutes, and Latendresse isn't a guy I would pick to help shut down an opponents' top line.

So I have TK on the checking line's right wing, although it's all by virtue of reputation. With my extreme Habs' blinders on, I've never seen the dude play. Never even heard of him before Bob picked him up.

On Smolinski's left is the more important piece: Steve Begin. He's a heart-and-soul type. Leaves it all out on the ice, much like Bouillon and Lapierre. In fact, he leaves a little too much out there, as he was oft injured last year. I don't think any other Hab blocked shots as frequently as Begin did.

Begin is also a lefty, complementing Smolinski's right-handed shot, so the two of them will make a nice first PK unit. Begin also can play center, meaning that he can take important defensive zone draws on the PK, in case Smolinski gets booted. Smolinski can then feel a bit more comfortable in being aggressive in the faceoff circle. Begin will have his back.

Begin is one of my favorites. I want to see him get more ice time, and playing with a veteran playmaker like Bryan Smolinski.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The fourth line

Yes, yes, I know I skipped the first defensive pairing. But anyone who's really wondering who will be Carbo's top shutdown pair hasn't been paying attention (psst, Markov and Komisarek; Shut 'Em Down should be their anthem).

So I'm skipping the obvious and heading directly to the Habs' fourth line. For some teams, this is a chance to break in rookies. For some fortunate few, it's a second checking line. And for the remainder, it's an "energy" line, designed to disrupt the rhythm of an opponent, kind of like an offspeed or changeup pitch in baseball. Rarely, it's a combination of all three.

This year, I think the Habs will have a line that's a little bit of everything. Maxim Lapierre will be on the right wing, providing that bit of energy (remember the incidents with Ray Emery? Emery's a hothead, but Lapierre did his job). The rookie breaking in will be Kyle Chipchura at center, and Guilliame Latendresse will provide a bit of scoring pop and muscle in the corners at left wing.

And with Lapierre's and Chipchura's defensive capabilities, they could function as a second penalty kill unit. Three reasons why:
  1. Both can and are being groomed into shutdown, checking-line players. Lapierre shadowed a few star players last year. We all remember how he got under Sidney Crosby's skin. That was kind of funny.
  2. Both play center, meaning that either have a lot of experience at faceoffs. This is critical on the PK, as the first guy to take the faceoff can be a little more, uh, aggressive in his approach. If he gets kicked out, there's an equally adept faceoff man waiting to take his place.
  3. Last but not least, Lapierre is right-handed and Chipchura is a lefty. As I've mentioned before, this is very important on defense.
Garth Murray might occasionally crack the lineup, as he's the only pugilist with any chance of making the roster. I'm guessing that he'll push Latendresse for ice time. Lats tended to disappear at times last year, and if that happens again, he'll be watching from the press box more often.

And if injuries hit, we might see Dandenault or Streit lining up as a forward again. Dandenault has more experience at it, but Streit looked much more comfortable and confident in that role. Still, I'd much rather see Streit as a top-4 dman, so let's hope the injury and illness bug doesn't hit again this year.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Blueliners: the second pairing

I better pick up the pace here, seeing as the new season is just around the corner. No more long and rambling introductions; lets get straight to brass tacks (whatever that means): Guy and Bob will go with Hamrlik and Streit for their second pairing. Both are left handed, but the word is that Hamrlik is almost as good on his backhand as on his forehand. So he could play either side. That ought to give Bob and Carbo some options.

We all know Hamrlik is going to make the team and play on the second pairing. No surprise there. He's good, and is probably deserving of his fat contract, but still won't break up the excellent first tandem we have in Markov-Komisarek.

Streit, on the other hand, has been quite a revelation in his short tenure with the Habs. When he broke in a couple of years ago, he looked really nervous and lacked confidence. Then he went to the Olympics. I think he even captained the team. The same team that started off really hot, losing only to Finland in the preliminary round.

He came back seemingly reinvigorated and full of confidence. I remember one game where an opposing forward had an unimpeded breakaway. But Streit caught up, lunged and dove on the ice, deftly swatting the puck off the other guy's stick without touching him. It was brilliant.

I thought he had a chance last year too, but with the experience of Rivet, Souray, Komisarek, Markov, Bouillon and Dandenault all ahead of him, it was a tough lineup to crack. But he stuck with it, eventually playing left wing of all things, even on Saku's line. And he didn't fare too badly, ultimately netting 10 goals and 26 assists.

So this year ought to be his year. He's paid his dues. And Hamrlik is the best partner for him. He's big and he hits -- from what I've heard anyway. Streit can skate and pass as well as anyone, but his size has always been a limitation. Hamrlik, even though left handed, is apparently almost as good on his forehand as his back hand. Streit could then play the left side, with Hamrlik on the right.

Streit's offensive skills set him up to be an ideal PP QB. I wouldn't be surprised if he pairs with Markov on the first unit, as Komisarek might not be quite ready to be setting up Markov's slapshot with some nifty passes. I love big Mike, but O is not his forte.

Another reason to root for Mark Streit? Apparently he took less money to play with the Habs than he would have made had he remained in Europe. He wants to play with and compete against the best. This isn't about money for him.

Now isn't that refreshing?

Blueliners: the third pairing

Ok, back to the breakdown of the (predicted) Habs' roster for this upcoming campaign. We've covered netminders and backup dmen. Now on to the third pairing. This one was a little difficult, given how well O'Byrne played in Hamilton this year, and the strong showing he's giving in pre-season. The Habs definitely need another hard hitting dman, to go along with new alternate captain Mike Komisarek.

O'Byrne is also a righty, and that would help balance out the Habs' defensive corps. Of the candidates with a realistic shot at making the club, only Dandenault, Komisarek and Brisebois are right handed. Brisebois will make the club but won't be playing regularly.

So that leaves a spot open, right?

I don't think so. Like I said before, I think the Habs are going with a veteran lineup, esp along the blueline. They signed two veterans in Hamrlik and Brisebois, and another two (Streit and Dandenault) have the flexibility to play a forward slot as well. Given the Habs' injury and illness woes last season, that is much needed flexibility.

So I'm sticking with Dandenault and Bouillon as the third pairing. Both had their struggles last year, but so did the entire team. And with the depth on defense this year, they should only need to play against third and fourth liners.

Dandenault and Bouillon have to know the heat is on, what with younger and perhaps hungrier players waiting for their shot (Gorges and O'Byrne especially). So this is their last shot.

Not exactly a rousing endorsement. And I admit that I've got a bit of a soft spot for the two, esp Bouillon. He leaves it all on the ice, night in and night out. And Dandenault does what is asked of him, even playing O. If Kovalev had this kind of heart, the Habs wouldn't have been watching the playoffs from home last year.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More rumors

So there's a rumor making its rounds of the Habs blogosphere that the Sharks might be interested in our incumbent backup goalie, Jaroslav Halak. Just a rumor, sure, but one posted on RDS -- an outlet not normally known for publishing BS.

And it makes a certain amount of sense. The Sharks once were the envy of most of the NHL for their goaltending situation. They basically had two #1 goalies in Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala. And this was after trading away Mikka Kiprusoff (yikes! Who pulled the trigger on that one?!). They also had a very capable #3 in Nolan Schaefer, but inexplicably traded him away too.

Nabokov will still provide them quality starts for most of the season. But for those back-to-back games and other days when he needs rest, who will turn to? Thomas Greiss? Dmitri Patzold? They might have potential, but neither has played a single minute in the NHL. And like I've said before, goalies need time to mature.

Doug Wilson is a smart GM. He's built a contender, and for the long haul too. The Sharks are a trendy pre-season pick to win it all. They've got scoring, some toughness, a decent, maturing defense (our old friend Craig Rivet will help there) and excellent starting goaltending. But their Achilles heel, IMO, is their backup goaltending.

That is the Habs' overwhelming strength. And the Sharks are strong where the Habs are weak -- big forwards who can put the puck in the net. Now I don't see Joe Thornton, Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo or Patrick Marleau coming over. Halak just isn't worth that much, at least not now.

But maybe Steve Bernier? He fills that big hole on the top two lines, plus he's right handed. The fact that he's French-Canadian is just gravy. Imagine him and Latendresse lining up on either side of Saku Koivu. I like it.

Others have suggested Ryan Clowe, who showed up big in last year's playoffs. He started on the fourth line, and ended on the first and second lines.

A trade to a Pacific Division rival makes all sorts of sense too, although I thought it would be LA. Well, we'll see how this all plays out.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


So word out of training camp is that Mathieu Dandenault is on the hot seat. Much of what is printed in La Presse is complete garbage, at least when it concerns the Habs. Notice that there is no direct quote of what Carbo said regarding Dandenault. But one interesting thing was noted: the Habs would carry 8 dmen this year.

Now that I can believe, and three reasons why:
  1. Both Mark Streit and Dandenault can play either forward or D.
  2. The forward positions are a little more in flux, given the departures of Bonk, Johnson, Samsonov, Perezhogin and others. Sure, they will be replaced mostly by veterans, but who knows how all that will pan out. I don't think anyone predicted saw Sammy going down quite as badly as he did.
  3. The addition of Patrice Brisebois. I doubt he's going to play much, but he didn't sign to shuttle back and forth from Hamilton either.
But Dandenault can't get any worse treatment than Brisebois or Bouillon. These are the three lowest performing veteran blueliners on the team. Bouillon was actually scratched a few times last year, whereas I can't remember Dandenault being scratched once. And we all know of the defensive liabilities of Breeze-by.

But if any or all of these guys play like they are capable of playing, they make for decent 3rd pairing material.

And that, my friends, is one helluva long re-introduction to my ongoing series of the upcoming Habs lineup. We last left with the thrilling episode of who was to man the pipes for the Habs this season. And true to how one builds a winning hockey team, we proceed to the blueliners.

I was going to start with the third line pairings. But given the Habs' aforementioned predisposition to carrying 8 dmen, I'll start with my predictions of the unlucky two who will ride the pine most of the season.

And for the best good-enough-to-make-the-squad-but-not-good-enough-to-play-regularly performance, the awards go to: Patrice Brisebois and Josh Gorges!

Not really going out on a limb there. Given my last post on the importance of balancing right handers and left handers on the blue line, it's no shock that one (Brisebois) is a righty and the other is a lefty. This keeps options open for Bob and Carbo, along with the insurance that Streit and Dandenault bring with their ability to play D or O.

Not to give too much away, but my bets are on the veterans for the entire blueline. Dmen take longer to mature, much like goalies. You have to bring them along slowly, to teach them the finer points of clearing the crease and blasting a shot from the point. You don't want to some awkward rookie being your next-to-last hope with Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson hurtling down the ice.

Brisebois can't be much worse than Niinimaa last year (can he?). And Gorges played decently if unspectacularly last year. I've heard much displeasure about him from Sharks' fans, but I think the Sharks' blueline is far too dependent on youngsters, like Gorges. If you have a youngster in the lineup, you to pair him with a veteran. Many credit Hamrlik's work with Dion Phaneuf as a reason why Phaneuf fared so well in his first few years. So I think Gorges will do (and has done) well with the well-seasoned Montreal blueline.

So the next post will continue this ongoing thrilling saga of how Bob is building a Stanley Cup contender. That is, if other more intriguing developments don't intervene.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Righties and Lefties

Ok, one more tangent before I dive into the rest of the much anticipated dissection of the Habs' lineup. I promise. Ok, I don't promise. But I'll try.

When looking at lineups, I get a little obsessive about who is right handed and who is left handed. For good reason, at least as far as obsessions go. The Habs, like many teams, are a little heavy with left handers (more on that later). That's not good, as on any one forward line, or any one defensive pairing, you need a balance of lefties and righties.

Here's why: most players shoot and pass best on their forehand. Some are so dependent on one side, that they'll go to illegal lengths to change the curve of their stick. How many times have you seen someone set up perfectly on one side of the net, with both goalie and defenseman out of position? But he doesn't shoot. No, he wastes precious milliseconds spinning to his forehand to get a better shot. In some cases, that's all the goalie or defenseman needs to get back in position. Or if he does try to get off a backhander, it's so weak that it'd be lucky to go in the general direction of the net.

So for forwards, it's just a matter of odds. Not everyone is going to get a puck on their forehand in the offensive zone, even if you had all left-handed left wingers and right-handed right wingers. But if each line could have just one right hander, that'd be preferable, esp on the penalty kill.

But for blueliners, it's a necessity. It's just much easier to catch the puck hurtling around the boards on your forehand. And not just because that's the side where they're most comfortable. But also because the curve of the blade is better suited to catch the puck.

Bob realizes much the same thing. Look at who he has picked up the past couple of years: Mike Johnson, Sergei Samsonov, Aaron Downey, Patrice Brisebois, Tom Kostopolous, and Brian Smolinski. All right handers. Even Hamrlik's signing could be attributed in part to restoring balance, as he's supposedly as good on his forehand as his backhand. In fact these types of players are preferable, as they aren't dependent on one side alone.

And Carbo has taken advantage of the rebalancing, esp with his defensive pairings. Last year, he paired up his dmen more or less like this (on the left are the lefties, the right are the righties):

Markov(L) - Komisarek(R)
Souray(L) - Rivet(R)
Bouillon(L) - Dandenault(R)

So Hamrlik's ambidextrous ability hasn't taken Souray's spot so much as Rivet's. I'll argue (later) that Streit will be the one to take Souray's spot in the top 4.

But why so many left handers? When I was growing up, I was always told to play with the stick that seemed most natural. For whatever reason, I felt most comfortable with the left handed sticks -- even though I wrote right handed, threw right handed, picked my nose right handed. Actually the latter was more of an ambidextrous activity, but you get my meaning.

I'm guessing that for whatever reason, most players feel comfortable from the left side. I doubt it has anything to do with the dominant side for other activities, ie, if you write right handed, then you play hockey left handed. From what I know only 10% of the world is left hand dominant, so hockey would have dreadfully few right handers. So how does it break down? Who knows?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Rumors and innuendo

Ok, I'm diverting from my incisive and definitive position-by-position analysis of the Habs to present a totally unsubstantiated, completely fabricated rumor that I'd like to start. See, I write this blog, so I get to take off on any wild tangent I want.

Actually, it's not so wild. It does relate to the last post in that I talked about how the Habs' biggest strength going into the 2007-08 season is goaltending. So here it is: Bob Gainey is considering sending Cristobal Huet back to the Kings for Alexander Frolov.

No, I'm not a total nutjob, I swear (I think? Would a nutjob ever admit to being a nutjob?). There is some substance to this.

The Kings desperately need a starting goalie, and my take is that letting Garon walk was part of Kings GM Dean Lombardi's plan to snag a proven #1 goalie. Lombardi is no dummy, and knows contenders are built from the goalie on out. Remember, he's the guy that drafted both Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov, but wasn't the guy who traded Mikka Kiprusoff for a 2nd round pick (that was Lombardi's successor).

But so far, Lombardi's offseason has focused on the blueline, adding two former Sharks in Tom Preissing and Brad Stuart. Preissing had an impressive season with the Sens, posting a whopping +40. Stuart was one of the key pieces in the Joe Thornton trade, and will surely be a top 4 dman in La La land. Lombardi also added veteran Jon Klemm, for added depth. Now add returnees Rob Blake, Lubomir Visnovsky, Jack Johnson and Jaroslav Modry, and LA's defense looks much better than last year -- at least on paper.

So Lombardi's blueline appears to be in better shape, but he let his best goalie go. Why? Does he really think that career backups JS Aubin, Dan Cloutier and Jason LaBarbera will suddenly transform into starting material? Well, I guess it is LA, and perhaps the Hollywood vibe has gone to his head.

Or maybe because he thinks there are other options, via trade. He would have loved to snag one of his former goalies from the Sharks, but no way Doug Wilson is going to let either one play against him 8 times a year. So Toskala was shipped to the Leafs. The Ducks also have a couple of #1's. Ilya Bryzgalov would be a great fit in LA, but the same intra-division trade story there; Brian Burke wouldn't do it.

But if Carey Price forces Gainey's hand, then he'd first shop either Halak or Huet out west, for the same reason neither Burke nor Wilson would want to deal with Lombardi.

So why Huet? Why not Halak? Huet is a proven commodity. Halak has loads of potential, but won't bring back as much as Huet will. And I'd assume that if Price is ready for the big time, Carbo's not going to want him riding the bench.

Still, it could be Halak that goes. As I said in my last post, Huet will need lots of rest if he is to play a full season. That would allow a youngster like Price enough playing time. But Lombardi would want more than just Halak. Maybe Alexei Kovalev? Nah, Lombardi ain't dumb. Maybe Andrei Kostitsyn? That would suck, but I think Lombardi would want a right hander. Lombo has been carefully balancing his team much like Gainey has, picking up right handers where possible. If you look at the 3 dmen he signed, two were righties (Preissing and Klemm). Add Blake, and you've got 3 righties that can play every night.

So why Frolov? The Habs need a big, right handed sniper to play alongside Koivu. Frolov fits the bill perfectly. He led the Kings in goals with 35 last year. Not to jinx him, but as a right handed left winger he fits (on paper) with Kovalev, a left handed right winger. Of course, Sergei Samsonov was supposed to fill the exact same role too. I don't think that turned out too well.

But let's not let that one analogy ruin a perfectly good rumor. Suffice it to say that the Habs need big right handed dudes that can put the puck in the net. Those aren't exactly a dime a dozen. And with the Kings need for a #1 netminder, this rumor has some legs.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Building a contender: goaltending

This is the first in an ongoing series, examining the Habs more or less line by line.

This post examines where any good GM ought to start when building a contender: between the pipes. The Habs are in as good a situation as any team going into this next season. Cristobal Huet is the incumbent starter. Since dethroning King Jose some time back, he has been at or near the top of the league in save percentage.

I'd argue that this is a more important stat than GAA, as it's typically a better indication of how good your defense is. Dominik Hasek was near the top last year in GAA, but faced a paltry amount of shots. And well he should, given the guys in front of him: Dany Markov, Nik Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, etc.

The Habs, on the other hand, didn't give much help on D. Souray and Rivet were great in the locker room, but are a little slow for today's NHL. And when injuries and illness hit, Janne Niinimaa as the veteran backup surely tried many a Habs' fan's pulmonary activity.

But back to Cristobal. He is a cool customer in the crease, seemingly always in position and therefore rarely in need of the spectacular save. The opposite could be said for his predecessor, who make many a highlight reel with his acrobatic saves. Huet doesn't have Jose's lateral mobility, so positioning is critical. How many times does the puck hit him squarely in the CH? He makes shooters look like they have bad aim, but I think they just wonder how he can always be in the right place at the right time.

As much as I admire his game, I have questions about Cristobal's ability to carry the load 65-70 games per year. He's never been a full time starter before his fortuitous landing in Habland. The year before, he took over mid-season and played only 36 games -- almost all of them in eye-opening form.

He started off last season not quite as well, allowing David Aebischer back into contention as the #1. But he rounded into form again only to fall apart in late December. He then tore his hamstring, and yet came back ahead of schedule late in the season. How's that for up and down?

My theory? He doesn't have the stamina for a full time goalie. Play him 2 out of every 3 starts or so, and that ought to give him the rest he needs.

And this plays right into the Canadiens' strengths: they have potentially three goalies who could capably back up Huet. Jaroslav Halak is the incumbent, a veritable Cristobal Jr: cool as ice in the nets, and usually impeccably positioned. He looks like he needs to learn some shooters' tendencies, but that will come with time.

Yann Danis is the oft-forgotten potential backup. Prior to last year, he was the Hamilton Bulldogs' go-to guy. That is, until Jaroslav started making noise last year. Then when Huet went down, Halak got the call over Danis. I remember seeing Danis as Theo's backup a few years back, and was impressed.

So I wouldn't blame him if he were a little frustrated. And it gets worse for him -- but good for the Habs. Danis now has to contend with not one young star in Halak, but also Carey Price. Bob drafted Price a few years back, puzzling many as he already had a Conn Smythe/Vezina winner locked up in a multi-year contract. But in any sport, you always draft the best player available. If you end up having an embarassment of riches at one position, then you work the trade market.

That's what will happen in Hab land, sooner or later. I think Bob will/should be patient with Price. It's never a good idea to rush a goalie. But if Price should prove his worth sooner rather than later, then someone's got to move. Price is only worth bringing up if he's ready to take over. If he's the goalie of the future, why have him riding the pine when he could be playing full time in Hamilton?

In my next post, I'll examine a possible trade scenario, one that will take advantage of the Habs' goaltending strength and take care of their most glaring weakness going into this season.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

First things First

It's always appropriate and polite to start things off with introductions (and this blog will be nothing if not appropriate and polite. Well maybe just polite.)

I'm a long time Habs fan, since the days of Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Ken Dryden. There was a period in the 80's and 90's where I didn't pay nearly as much attention to the Habs as the true die-hard I am now. I guess my hockey fix (obsession?) was being satisfied by weekly 3 hour sessions of road hockey. I was a rather mediocre defenseman, and not much better as a goalie. But it was fun!

As I grew older, my body could no longer take the pounding and I had to scratch that hockey itch in some form. Besides watching each and every game, regular and post-season, I frequent the many blogs that post the latest Habs news and opinions. Just in case you're interested (and you're probably not, but hey, you've made it this far), here are what I think are the best out there:

A Theory of Ice: thoughts and observations on the Habs and ice hockey in general by a recent convert to the Habs faith. It's a philosophical treatise in the making. This might just be the most intelligent blog I have ever read, on any subject. "E" balances out this intelligence with humor and class. And by humor, I mean laugh out loud humor. A must read, even if sometimes her philosophizing goes way above my head.

Habs Inside/Out: This is the best place for Habs news, started and staffed by the Montreal Gazette. Unlike some other Montreal newspapers, the Gazette generally doesn't feed on problems in Habland. They are, for the most part, real fans who want to see the Habs do well and generally support the team, it's players, coaches and management. Not to say they are blind sycophants either. I'd like to say they are "Fair and Balanced" but that might be taken the wrong way. I wish I could say the same for some of those who post comments there, but I think some people like drama and seek to create it wherever they go. Let's not do that here, eh?

Four Habs Fans: This site is more funny than informative, but I can't visit it that often. See, I spend way too much time surfing blogs and news while at work, and the oft-posted shots of strippers would push that bad habit a bit too far. But still, these guys are pretty funny.

Nos Canadiens: My french sucks, but from what little I can read of this blog, I like. I guess it's terrible that the only motivation I have to improve my french is to read blogs like this and watch RDS. Heck, understanding only half of what Yvon Pedneault and Pierre Houde have to say is better than the drivel that emanates from your standard CBC HNIC broadcasters.