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.