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.