Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In praise of Josh Gorges

When Bob the builder traded Craig Rivet to the San Jose Sharks for Josh Gorges and a 1st round pick, many were left scratching their heads. Why trade a veteran clubhouse leader and top-four dman for someone who was in and out of an inexperienced SJ blueline corps?

It turns out Bob saw more than most. Gorges in essence is Mike Komisarek without the bulk. Sure, he won't have as many thumping hits or intimidate many forwards -- the traits that most observers associate with Big K. But Gorges plays excellent defense, and makes smart, precise passes out of the defensive zone -- just like Big K.

It was no wonder that Carbo chose Gorges to pair up with Markov, who tends to wander into the offensive zone to create scoring chances. Gorges can be counted to not only stay at home, but to be exactly where he should be if the rush comes the other way.

And there may be no single greater measure of the success of this experiment than looking at Gorges' plus/minus: +12, enough to lead the team. And this after playing significant minutes, mostly against the opposition's top scorers. His TOI is now third on the team, and might even surpass Hamrlik's had he not been stuck on the third pairing for so long.

But now that Komisarek is coming back, what to do with Gorges? He's certainly too valuable to be relegated to the third pairing again. He will probably end up paired with Roman Hamrlik, except this time on his more natural left side. Hamrlik usually plays the left side, but has a pretty good backhand.

Brisebois will slide down to the third pairing, a more appropriate place for his limited defensive abilities. Limited not because of his skills, but simply because he gets pushed around far too easily. As the 6th dman, he can have limited 5-on-5 play, but get trotted out for the PP where his offensive skills can best be put to use.

Not that any of this will instantly cure the Habs' goal scoring woes. But great teams are built from the goalie out. The Habs have maybe the best goalie tandem in the league, and with the emergence of Gorges, a pretty solid blueline as well.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Manufacturing goals

It's no secret that the Habs have been offensively dismal over the past month or so. What is puzzling is why. The same players that had much success last year and early this year(at least ES) have been struggling to find the back of the net.

The lack of a sustained forecheck is certainly part of the problem. Carbo used to have the boys dump the puck in the zone and use their speed to get possession, then cycle the puck around trying to create a scoring chance. The crispness and creativity of those passes were a wonder to behold.

But no longer. Instead, opponents have been able to gain possession on those dump ins, reducing the Habs into a neutral zone stacking and trapping team. As in Detroit, they sometimes won't even try to forecheck, and instead hope to create a turnover by stacking the neutral zone with five players. Boring and certainly not using their natural talent, but it can be effective.

In so doing, Carbo announced that his patience was wearing thin. Out went Laraque's intimidating but offensively incapable presence. In went everyone that might help manufacture a goal. No longer would talent and line chemistry be relied upon. Those had somehow vanished anyway.

Part of this effort was to reshuffle the lines, most notably to get some right handed shots on scoring lines. The Habs are stacked with left handed scoring forwards, the only exception being Lang. They are also deep with right handed fourth liners, the only exception being Begin.

Every year when shopping for off season pickups, Gainey signs mostly right handers in an effort to rebalance this mostly left handed team. This has been noted before -- the recent additions of Robert Lang, Georges Laraque, the resigning of Patrice Brisebois and the eager pursuit of Brendan Shanahan and Mats Sundin makes the same case. I fully believe that even Michael Ryder would be in bleu, blanc et rouge had the Bruins not given him crazy money.

But right handed scoring forwards aren't always easy to come by, as evidenced by Bob's success on the free agent and trade market. So Carbo has been reduced to playing Kostopolous on the third line and sometimes higher. The only other right handed winger on the team is Dandenault, and he's clearly suited for fourth line or 6th dman duties, if skating at all.

So when Tanguay and Komisarek went down, Bob called up Matt D'Agostini, a right hander with offensive flair. Carbo stuck him on the first line of all places. But the more significant lineup news was that he finally was able to put a right hander on every line: D'Agostini with Koivu and Higgins; Lang with Kovalev and Latendresse; Kostopolous with Begin and Plekanec; and Lapierre with the flying Kostitsyns.

Those combinations made it difficult to tell a fourth line from a first (at least before TOI made Carbo's intentions clear), and had some obvious flaws: D'Agostini is a raw rookie; Lang, Kovalev and Latendresse might be the three slowest skaters on the team; Kostopolous and Begin would surely weigh down Plekanec -- if his lack of scoring could get any worse; ditto for Lapierre with the Kostitsyns.

But those standard appraisals only work when the scoring forwards are actually scoring. With the goal drought, Carbo has pulled out all the stops. Nobody's roles are a given, and he will try to manufacture goals from the bench until les gars can snap themselves out of this funk. Then maybe Carbo might let his crew use their talent alone to score goals and go back to his odd October lineups of all lefties on the scoring lines and all righties on the fourth line.

And for a lesson in how to put together a lineup with almost perfect shooting balance, just look at the league leading SJ Sharks (3.75 goals per game). Here's a typical lineup:

Marleau (L) - Thornton (L) - Setoguchi (R)
Michalek (L) - Pavelski (R) - Clowe (R)
Grier (R) - Goc (L) - Cheechoo (R)
Shelley (L) - Roenick (R) - Plihal (L)

Blake (R) - Vlasic (L)
Boyle (R) - Lukowich (L)
Ehrhoff (L) - Murray (L)

Of course, it doesn't hurt that they're loaded with talent, blue line experience and speed.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A new business model

An interesting, supposedly confidential internal NHL report was published by the Toronto Star recently. The report lists the Habs as second in the NHL in overall revenue. It doesn't list actual profit, but this one sentence stood out: "The six Canadian teams account for 31 per cent of the $1.1 billion (U.S.) in league ticket revenue, and have gone through league-leading double-digit increases over last season."

Granted, most of the revenue increases are due to the strength of the Canadian dollar -- assuming this report was accounting for inflation and using one currency (either US or Canadian) as a baseline for comparison. Also, this is overall revenue, not profit. Given the Canadian tax situation, which can differ widely by province, it is doubtful that Canadian teams are going to turn into the NY Rangers of free agent signings.

Still, the fact that Canadian teams are getting back on a more equal footing bodes well for the future. Especially so for the Habs, who have been building from within by drafting very well. One would hope that the improved revenue situation would enable the Habs to keep their talent after having nurtured their progress for so long -- assuming the salary cap will allow them to do so.

But perhaps more interesting was the note that the NHL derives almost half its revenue from ticket sales. The NFL, on the other hand, has billion-dollar, multi-year television contracts, and is expanding its prime time television viewing with Thursday and Saturday night games.

Such was the model Gary Bettman wanted to follow when he pushed expansion teams to such hockey hotbeds as Nashville, Columbus, Phoenix and the like. The logic was that better geographic coverage in the US would lead to a big national deal with one of the four American networks.

In some places, the strategy of building a hockey fan base where none existed did work. In San Jose, games are regularly sold out. Years ago, the Sharks had the longest sellout streak in the NHL, broken only on Oscar night. But that in itself was telling. Fans would rather watch the Oscars than the Sharks -- more or less because there wasn't much else to do in San Jose.

So now that Canadian franchises are doing so well, and the huge television contract dream has failed to materialize, talk is getting louder about moving one of the poor performing US franchises (like the Coyotes) back to Canada.

And perhaps along with that, a new business model for generating revenue is needed. Instead of relying on old models from other leagues that don't necessarily translate, why not embrace new models and new technologies, especially the internet. RDS, the Montreal-based television broadcaster that owns rights to all Habs games, recently began webcasting games, for a small fee.

For fans of such storied franchises as the Montreal Canadiens, this could have a huge impact -- especially for those fans who can't get RDS as readily as others. The financial impact could be huge as well, and the NHL would be wise to both encourage such endeavors as well as to guide them to benefit the league as a whole, especially financially.

Escaping the restrictions imposed by traditional broadcast television would only serve to further nurture the US market for hockey. Currently, many US viewers have to subscribe to insanely expensive cable and satellite packages to get the games they want to see. And that's only when the packages are even available. Center Ice, despite its advertising as carrying all NHL games, consistently drops games, especially in the playoffs -- even when Versus isn't carrying the game.

Unfortunately, due to broadcast licensing agreements between Canada and other countries, RDS webcasts are not available in the US and many other countries. The NHL would do well to lobby both Canadian and American governments to drop these restrictions, so that hockey fans can see their teams in action regardless of where they live.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Hope for the future

Everybody wants to emulate a winner. Last year the Anaheim Ducks brutalized their way to the top. This year, some teams tried to do the same, most notably the Philadelphia Flyers. But some early (and very necessary) intervention by Colin Campbell seemed to have righted that ship, at least for the regular season.

Now its the playoffs, and the "sticky" play has returned (as noted ad nauseum in the last post). Occasionally though, there are breakthroughs, where the refs start calling the penalties as they should be. This was notably absent for much of the Bruins-Habs series, but the Habs managed to pull through.

For the Flyers series, the officiating has been better, but there has still been a lot of hooking and holding going on. Not egregious enough to pull down a player, but enough to eliminate space for the much more talented Habs.

Probably the best example is the supposed dominance of Biron. While he has played better than either Halak or Price (for the most part), he hasn't been unbeatable. He has always been prone to giving up juicy rebounds, and this series is no different. The difference is that the Habs can get to them. So much hooking, holding and general interference is happening in front of the net that they can't break free.

But Habs GM is still optimistic about the future. Most of the skilled teams have done well, esp the Red Wings and Penguins. The Sharks and Habs would also fall into that category, but are behind the 8-ball right now. Still, as pointed out over at Sisu Hockey, it might just all be bad luck. In almost every other statistical category, the Habs have outplayed the Flyers.

So while a 25th Stanley Cup championship would be the ultimate this year, a Red Wings-Penguins final would be a decent second best. Then instead of emulating the Ducks, maybe other teams will start playing catch up with the skill teams, and the NHL on-ice product would be that much more satisfying.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Stanley Cup Playoffs: Gotta Hate It!

Yes, that borders on the blasphemous, but that's the only conclusion Habs GM can come to after watching the first few games of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Teams with more ability to play quasi-Charlestown Chiefs style hockey are rewarded. Those with actual skill? Not so much.

Let me be clear: I do not object to hitting. It's a natural and necessary part of the sport. Even in womens hockey -- where checking is banned -- one still sees plenty of contact. And in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the hitting seems to reach a fever pitch. That's all well and good.

But the hitting must be legal. That means no pinning an opposing player against the ice or boards when the opposing player does not have the puck. Or hitting him at all. That's interference, plain and simple. If he does have the puck, then he better look out (esp if the Habs' Big K is on the ice). And if, when defending against an opponent with the puck, you take your free hand off the stick to wrap it around the opponent -- that's holding. Even if it was only for the briefest of moments. These are basic definitions of penalties that were well understood during the regular season.

And perhaps some will argue that the officials should just let the players play, lest the officials insert themselves into the outcome of the game. This argument never made much sense to me. The officials are there to enforce the rules. If someone breaks them, they get penalized. If they don't call the rules, the players are penalized anyway -- and usually the ones with the most skill. So not enforcing the rules changes the outcome too, and the officials are still center stage.

Part of the argument against the obstruction crackdown in the post-lockout NHL was that too many penalties detracted from the flow of the game. Games would be decided by special teams play, as 5-on-5 play would be few and far between. Indeed this was the case initially. But eventually players grew accustomed to the play, and penalties were called with less frequency. Coaches adjusted their game plans as well, emphasizing shot blocking since clutching and grabbing were now outlawed.

But somehow those lessons keep getting lost every time the playoffs roll around. Let's take a few examples from this year's early series:
  1. The supremely skilled Plekanec line has been replaced in offensive effectiveness by the so-called "buzz cut boys": Begin-Smolinski-Kostopolous. The most recent example was the lone Habs goal in the 2-1 loss at Boston. Smolinski clearly interfered with the Bruins dman behind the goal line, allowing Kostopolous to break free in front and shove the puck under Thomas' pad.
  2. Plekanec now likens his play to that of a "little girl" -- as if somehow he has to transform himself into one of the Hansen brothers? More telling is Carbo's reaction to Plekanec's assessment: "Most of the time, you have more room in the regular season, more time to make your plays. But playoff time is a little different. You have to put (aside) a little of the skills and use more grit." Put aside skill??? One would think that the playoffs is when true skill is elevated, not to mention rewarded.
  3. In the West, probably the best example of skill vs thugs are the Sharks vs the Flames. In game 3, the Sharks opened the game with 3 goals in less than 4 minutes. Then the Flames turned up the hits, most savagely exemplified by Cory Sarich's head crushing hit on captain Patrick Marleau 12 minutes into the first. Seemingly everyone but the refs thought it was a penalty. Sarich even started heading toward the penalty box, escorted by a linesman. But no penalty was called, and the Sharks went on to allow 4 straight goals by the Flames.
Maybe this is so disappointing this year because of how beautifully the Habs played this year. At times their 5-on-5 play resembled a power play, keeping the puck away from the opposition with such skill as to inspire awe from even the most jaded of viewers. Or maybe its the unfulfilled promise of the "new-NHL" which has managed to at least partly open up the ice for skilled players in the regular season, only to once again disappoint us in the playoffs.

Does every team have to turn into the thuggish Anaheim Ducks to smashmouth their way to the Cup? I sincerely hope not.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Go Caps Go?

A GM should maintain some semblance of objectivity towards players. They are, after all, employees, contracted to perform a service for some specific length of time, for a set fee.

But it's a little hard to maintain that objectivity when it comes to Cristobal Huet. He was, after all, the man who almost single handedly saved the team when it went into its Jose Theodore-induced freefall through the standings.

He came in as a virtual afterthought in the trade for Mathieu Garon, right after the 2003-04 season. Garon was the Habs backup netminder at the time, but only after Theo had seemingly laid claim to his status a the #1. Garon was thus deemed expendable, and was traded to the LA Kings for Radek Bonk, a largely disappointing centerman. Cristobal Huet was thrown in, as the Habs had no other backup goaltender with NHL experience.

With the lockout the next season, Huet didn't get a chance to play for the Habs until 2005-06, the same year when Theo fell apart. Habs coach Claude Julien took to playing Huet more and more often, until GM Bob Gainey decided that his team had to go with his anointed #1 -- and fired Julien.

It was midway through the 2005-06 season that Gainey realized Julien was right. Gainey had stepped behind the bench, and could see first hand what Julien experienced. Not only was Theo that bad, but Huet was that good. Huet saved the season for the Habs and took them to the playoffs, where they lost to the Hurricanes -- but only after some liberties were taken with Huet by the 'Canes forwards and Saku Koivu was lost to an eye injury that threatened to end his career.

So it wasn't by accident that the Washington Capitals were left off the list of potential first round matchups for the Habs this postseason (see previous post). It would simply be too awkward to be cheering against the man who showed many Habs players, press and fans what it means to be a professional athlete.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The postseason

The Habs are in optimal position for the postseason. Leading the Northeast places them second in the conference, which today would lead to a first round matchup with the Boston Bruins. Of course much could change in the next month. The Habs could get overtaken by the Senators, dropping them (probably) to fifth, behind the three conference leaders and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Bruins also could get overtaken by a number of teams behind them, notably the Flyers, Panthers or Sabres. Or they could drop out of playoff contention altogether.

But here's hoping that the status quo stays. Here's their record versus the Bruins and other possible first round matchups, with average goals for and against

Teams Record GF GA
Bruins 6-0 5.3 2
Penguins 2-2 2.75 3
Flyers 4-0 3.75 1.5
Sabres 3-3 2.5 2.5
Panthers 2-2 2.5 2
Senators 1-5 1.83 3.83
Hurricanes 1-3 3 3.5
Devils 2-2 2.5 2
Rangers 1-3 3.25 4.5

Of course, these are all regular season stats. The playoffs are completely different, where defense and rugged play win games. Just ask the Anaheim Ducks. The Habs have been getting by on their offense, ranking 2nd in the league in scoring but 13th in goals against. The latter has to improve if they want to go far this postseason.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The aftermath

The trade deadline came and went, and the Habs shocked many by appearing to be selling rather than buying. Trading your #1 goaltender might lend itself to such an interpretation.

But of course there's much more to it than that. Cristobal Huet is an unrestricted free agent his upcoming offseason, and unless Carey Price showed he was incapable of taking on the #1 duties next season, Huet would not be re-signed. So why let him get away for nothing?

However, it seems like Gainey got almost just that in return: a second round draft pick ... in 2009.

So it's not really about Huet's impending departure either. It's more about the future, and it's imminent arrival.

Gainey apparently was intent on landing Marian Hossa, at least to close out this season. But he was not willing to give up any of his highly touted prospects in return. Instead, he has chosen to go to battle with this team of mostly unproven youngsters.

And none more so than Carey Price. Gainey has laid the burden of being #1 squarely on his shoulders. Certainly a tall order for a 20 year old, who had yet to put in a full year in the AHL, and spent some time there this year as well. (BTW, Price isn't the first Habs rookie goaltender to be sent down to the minors to work on his form, esp to stand up more. Patrick Roy did the same).

But it's also up to the Kostitsyn brothers, Higgins, Plekanec, Komisarek, O'Byrne and the like -- the young core of this team that Gainey refused to trade. By not trading them, Gainey has signaled his confidence in them. Passing the torch, as it were.

This is a team whose rebuilding is almost over (more on that later). Why would Gainey rent a player like Hossa, when this is a team that can go all the way. Maybe not this year, but conceivably in the near future.

And Hossa almost certainly would have been a rental. The Habs are significantly under the cap this season, and presumably next season's cap would be even higher. But let's say that Gainey was able to get Hossa without trading any of his existing players. He might be able to sign Hossa and his upcoming free agents, given what Hossa supposedly wanted ($7M+ per year).

But why would he do that, and risk the carefully constructed salary balance to date? Kovalev and Koivu are his highest paid forwards, with Koivu earning only $.25M more than Kovy per year. And over the same span too. On D, Markov and Hamrlik are the highest paid, with the same differential as Kovy and Koivu. Gainey isn't going to bring in anyone to earn much more than any of them, the veteran leaders of this club. Not without risking egos and the careful chemistry that shows the resilience to come back to win from a 5-0 deficit.

So don't expect Hossa in the tricolore next year either. Gainey has himself a team. A cohesive unit that can win games now, and for the foreseeable future.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Buyers and Sellers

Ah, the annual trade deadline. Time to separate the contenders from rebuilders. Last year, the Habs were caught in between. Trade upcoming UFA Sheldon Souray for some prospects and/or draft picks, and essentially give up hope of making the playoffs that year? Or go for it, and keep Souray for the rest of the season in an attempt to make the playoffs, knowing that he almost certainly would leave with his huge goal-scoring slapshot for bigger money elsewhere in the offseason?

Well, Gainey gambled and lost. He kept Souray, but the Habs still didn't make the playoffs, losing in the last game to the Leafs (who scored the winner with 7 skaters on the ice). Who could blame him? There are a number of teams this year who are also on the bubble, not knowing if they are buyers or sellers.

This year there is no such drama in what the Habs will do. They are undoubtedly contenders. And they undoubtedly need help, up front on one of the scoring lines. Carbo has tried all year to throw out three scoring lines, and one energy line. Of course, it didn't help that he constantly benched his only right-handed scoring threat (Ryder) and juggled every line but Plekanec's.

Still, the Habs can only field 7 1/2 legitimate scoring line forwards: Koivu, Kovalev, Higgins, Plekanec, the Kostitsyn brothers, Ryder and sometimes Streit. (Latendresse could be a scoring line forward, but hasn't shown the consistency.) The rest of their forwards are really fourth liners, in terms of the "energy" that Carbo likes to see coming from his fourth line forwards. These would be Kostopolous, Begin, Lapierre and Dandenault. Of course that leaves out Smolinski, who hasn't been much use anywhere.

So the Habs have more fourth liners than they need, and not enough scoring line forwards. The obvious hole is the center position on the third line. So that would be an obvious place to pick up some help.

But another possibility would be to move one of the other forwards to center that line and replace him in the lineup. The most likely player under this scenario would be Higgins, who broke in with the Habs as a center. And the best possibility to replace him would actually be a right winger, not the left wing he would vacate, as Ryder, Kostopolous, and Kovalev are the only natural right wingers on the team.

And who would Gainey give up to land either such player? Given that the sellers typically are looking for long term help, Gainey would be pressed to give up some of his outstanding prospects. And since the Habs have depth at both defense and between the pipes, expect someone like Halak, Danis, O'Byrne, Valetenko and the like to be involved. So none of the existing scoring line forwards would be moved, including Ryder, Koivu or Higgins (among those that have been involved in recent rumors).

And who are the sellers? Those that have almost no shot at the playoffs this year, and need to restock for the future, with prospects and/or draft picks. These teams are Los Angeles, Edmonton, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Atlanta. The Thrashers are the most interesting, as they could be a contender, but Marian Hossa -- a UFA at the end of the year -- has made it clear he won't resign with Atlanta.

Hossa, a big time scoring right wing, would fit beautifully with the Habs. Gainey has said that he only wants to trade for a gamebreaker, and Hossa certainly fits the bill. Atlanta also needs blue line help, so they'd be taking a hard look at the Hamilton roster. Indeed Atlanta GM Don Waddell was spotted at a recent Bulldogs game.

Others who might draw interest:
  • Atlanta's Bobby Holik, a potential UFA after this season. A big right handed center, he'd be perfect as the Habs third centerman. He brings the right kind of nasty to the playoff mix, and ranks first in the NHL among players with at least 800 faceoffs. He might actually be a better fit than Hossa.
  • From the Kings, the main trade pieces are on D, esp Rob Blake, Oleg Tverdosky and Brad Stuart -- not where the Habs need help. But the Kings desperately need a goalie. Unless they're willing to part with Alexander Frolov or Anze Kopitar (highly unlikely) don't expect a trade with the Kings.
  • The Leafs' main attraction would have been Mats Sundin, but he won't drop his no trade clause. They also have Kaberle and McCabe, but the Habs don't need blueline help.
  • The Bolts have the big three, of whom probably only Brad Richards will be traded. LeCavalier and St. Louis have more affordable contracts, so some money will no doubt be involved in a Richards trade. He'd be a great third center for the Habs, but will Gainey blow his carefully constructed contract structure on a guy who makes almost double what either Koivu or Kovalev make?
  • Chicago has Martin Havlat and Robert Lang, but both were just signed as UFA's this season. They most likely will try to move Nikolai Khabibulin, assuming someone wants to take his fat contract and underachieving ways. Needless to say, the Habs don't need a goalie.
  • The Oilers are a bit like the Kings. Deep on young talent up front, with veterans in back. Only they have a goalie. So they may just stand pat (more or less) come the deadline.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Who needs UFA's anyway?

As mentioned in the last post, the Habs' season high 3 game losing streak coincided more or less with the absence of Roman Hamrlik.

But now that both Hamrlik and O'Byrne are back, Carbo has a different problem: where to play all his dmen. If you include Streit and Dandenault, the Habs have 9 blueliners on their active roster. Of course, Dandy has played right wing all season, but not very successfully. He's a team worst -12.

But it's Carbo's healthy scratches from two of the past three games that are most interesting: Smolinski, Kostopolous and Brisebois. Kostopolous and Smolinski were supposed to replace Mike Johnson and Radek Bonk in the lineup, and were paid more together than both Johnson and Bonk ultimately received from St. Louis and Nashville respectively. Brisebois provided veteran blueline insurance, presumably until O'Byrne was ready to come up.

The most interesting part is that all were UFA signings this year. And yet all are sitting in the press box, and for good reason. Smolinski was centering the fourth line, more or less until Begin got back. Smolinski replaced Begin in the last game against the Penguins, coincidentally the same time the Habs 4 game win streak was snapped. Presumably Smolinski played because of Begin's atrocious faceoff percentage this year (28.8%). But Begin's pitbull style of forechecking is sorely needed by the Habs. Maybe only Komisarek and Bouillon hit as frequently and ferociously, and that's only in the defensive end.

Brisebois was out as soon as Hamrlik came back. But his real replacement was O'Byrne, who can really skate well for a big man. And, of course, he hits. Hard. This gives Carbo some real physical presence on each of his blueline combinations.

Kostopolous is the hardest to figure out why he is sitting. One could argue that Ryder has taken his spot on the right wing, but Ryder never deserved to be benched. Kostopolous' real replacement is Dandenault, who has more points (12 to K's 9) but a worse +/- (-12 to K's -8). Carbo has Dandy playing on a line with Latendresse centered by Begin or Smolinski, the most likely line where Kostopolous would play.

In a Theory of Ice post from last season, e recounted a conversation with an old-time Habs fan who more or less said that the Habs don't buy UFA's. They grow their own talent the old-fashioned way. There certainly is an appeal to that, as we can follow their progress from fresh-faced draftee to uncertain rookie to veteran playmaker. And the Habs' surprising showing this year is in no small part due to the play of their youngsters, players who have been drafted and groomed by Habs GM's.

But the UFA's? Apart from the very big exception of Roman Hamrlik (and his very big contract), they haven't contributed much at all.

Now that's not to say that the Habs can continue going to the well for all their roster needs. No doubt they are deep on the blue line (O'Byrne, Valentenko, Emelin) and between the pipes (Price, Halak, Danis). But if they want to move forward, they need some help on the scoring end, especially to help Carbo fully realize his strategy of throwing out three full fledged scoring lines. And with the upcoming trade deadline, look for Gainey to move one or more of the above mentioned assets for a high end scoring threat -- more on this in the next post.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The Habs recent success (season high 4 game win streak) probably has much to do with the team's depth and health. This win streak follows a season high 3 game losing streak, one in which their frequent defensive lapses showed how much they missed Roman Hamrlik. He has settled in nicely as the #3 blueliner, and has showed his versatility in pairing up with veteran playmakers Patrice Brisebois (playing on the right) and Mark Streit (playing on the left), as well as the young rookie Ryan O'Byrne.

Hamrlik was gone not because of injury but because of some strange flu-like illness that also left him with an undiagnosed rash (TMI?). Last season, a flu bug spread through the clubhouse, contributing greatly to the Habs' midseason slide. So despite Hamrlik's value, he was quarantined from the rest of the team until he got better.

And not a moment too soon. Even though he is not the club's best dman (that honor would go to Markov or maybe even Komisarek), his replacement -- Patrice Brisebois -- was not up to the task. Brisebois slide into Hamrlik's spot, and promptly showed why he was run out of town a few years ago.

With O'Byrne still on the mend with his broken hand, Carbo didn't have much choice. So he tried juggling his defensive combinations, much like he often juggles his forwards. As the best defensive dman, Komisarek ended up double shifting a lot. That didn't seem to work well: in the Habs' 6-1 shellacking by Ottawa, Komisarek was -3. When was the last time that has ever happened?

So Hamrlik goes and the Habs lose 3 in row. He returns and they've now won 4 in a row. Does this mean that Hamrlik is the team MVP? Hardly. But he does fill a valuable role on the team, being the shutdown dman on the second pairing. And while playing with O'Byrne, he plays a similar mentoring role as in Calgary with Dion Phaneuf. I would think that Carbo would also have a difficult time replacing Bouillon, Markov or Komisarek should any of them be unavailable.

But it does mean that Hamrlik's signing was well worth the big money paid to him -- second highest on the team, only behind Andrei Markov. His stats bear it out too: among full time dmen, only second to Markov in points and only second to Komisarek in plus/minus.

Most interestingly, the Habs' recent streaks also prove that maybe they don't need UFA's. Beyond Hamrlik anyway. This post has gone on too long already, so let's take that up next time.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Carbo's straw man

Almost all season long, Michael Ryder has been on Carbo's (and many a Habs' fan's) shit list. He was out of the lineup as a healthy scratch for five games. Only since after Christmas has he started playing again.

No doubt part of this antipathy is the increased expectations raised by his hefty contract signed over the off season. A 30 goal scorer each of the past two seasons, his coaches and fans expected more production this season, not less.

But Habs GM sees it differently. Quite simply, Ryder is not a first line winger. In that sense, almost $3M for the 1 year was probably too much. But is that Ryder's fault? Or his agent's? Maybe both -- who knows how these contract negotiations unfold. One wonders if the only reason he was signed for 1 year was that Gainey was unwilling to pay him first line winger money for any extended period of time, and that he had 1 year to prove to the team that he was.

Ryder has always been a streaky scorer. Last year, he virtually disappeared during the latter part of the season, only to re-emerge with a burst of goals right before the end of the season.

He also was a 8th round draft pick (216th overall) 10 years ago. So in a sense, he has already gone beyond expectations.

But most unfair is his treatment by Carbo. Carbo knows that his team has three sparkplugs, at least offensively: Koivu, Kovalev and Higgins. He probably realized this from the beginning of the season, giving Kovy and Higgins the alternate captain slots vacated by Souray and Rivet.

But it was only recently that he truly capitalized on this and split up the three. Now all three drive their respective lines (except for the last game in Atlanta, which Habs GM prays was just a one game aberration due to the matchup difficulties with Atlanta's top two lines). All three also play significant minutes on the PP and PK too.

Every other forward are secondary to these three, including Ryder. And that also includes Latendresse, the Kostitsyn brothers and Plekanec. But until those three were split up, Ryder was the fall guy. It was his fault that the Habs weren't doing better (although Latendresse got a heaping pile of blame too).

To be sure, all have benefited from these new pairings. And it is simply because other teams find matchups difficult. Of course, it does help that Bob brought back Lapierre and the younger Kostitsyn too. None of these three lines would have worked very well with Grabovski, Begin, Smolinski or one of the other early season regulars.

But even as successful as these lines have been, Carbo hasn't fully gotten off the "Blame Ryder" wagon. Higgins' line is often used as a two-way line, as Lapierre has decent faceoff and defensive skills. So Ryder is often skating against the oppositions' top lines. This is naturally going to make scoring more difficult.

In fact, Ryder has been matched up against other teams' toughest lines all season long. According to the voluminous stats compiled at BehindTheNet, only Smolinski has had tougher "quality of competition" among Habs' forwards. But Smolinski, in fewer games, has racked up a -6 plus/minus, whereas Ryder has maintained a more respectable -3.

Carbo has also not used him much on the PP. Here are Ryder's PP time-on-ice stats from the last 5 games

vs. Atlanta Thrashers: : 9 seconds
vs. New York Islanders: 0 minutes
vs. New York Rangers: 2 minutes, 15 seconds
vs. Boston Bruins: 1 minute, 15 seconds
vs. Chicago Blackhawks: 0 minutes

That's an average of about 44 seconds per game. If Carbo were really interested in getting Ryder back on track, why not get him more minutes in the NHL's #1 PP? He'd be esp effective as the LW on the first unit (essentially to improve the shooting angle from the left side), with the left handed Kovalev playing on the right.

Does Carbo want Ryder to fail? Maybe he doesn't like Newfies. Who knows. But since coming back Ryder has tallied 4 goals and 2 assists in 10 games, translating to 33 goals and 16 assists projected over an entire season. Not bad for a guy who seems to draw the toughest assignments night in and night out.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Brisebois for Brown

The last post argued why the Habs should swing a trade for the Sharks' seldom-used Curtis Brown.

But who among the Habs would the Sharks want in return? From our vantage point, the Sharks are most in need of a backup goaltender with NHL experience and an offensive dman, preferably right handed. Turns out the Habs are well stocked with both: Yann Danis or Jaroslav Halak for the former, or Patrice Brisebois for the latter.

The low risk route for the Sharks is to get a backup goaltender. So far this year, Nabokov has played every game. Although he has done well, one wonders how long that can last. Martin Brodeur once played 78 games, and then into the playoffs. But that's Martin Brodeur. Nabokov doesn't have an ironman reputation.

Not having a proven backup is (usually) asking for trouble, but Sharks GM Doug Wilson traded the reliable Vesa Toskala to the Leafs before this season. Part of that was to unload Mark Bell, but most Sharks fans were left scratching their heads as to who would back up Nabokov for his days off and if injury were to occur.

The Habs could afford to part with either Danis or Halak at this point. The conventional thinking was that Huet would be allowed to walk next year and Price would be the #1. Halak or Danis would back up Price, with the other as a #3 should injury befall Price. But Price hasn't played all that well, certainly not enough to supplant Huet. Habs GM wouldn't be surprised if Bob were to send Price to the minors this season, and start the paperwork for re-signing Huet. If that were to happen, both Halak and Danis would still be plying their trade for the Bulldogs next season -- not an ideal situation for either.

But for all that, Habs GM thinks that Wilson would rather have Brisebois in exchange for Brown. The Sharks need someone like Brisebois to help their woeful offense and PP. For all his defensive deficiencies, Brisebois is fairly effective at moving the puck in the transition game -- crucial in today's NHL. Those same skills make him a good PP QB option.

The Sharks play exceptionally good defense, so Brisebois' adventures in his own zone would not hurt as much. The Sharks lead the league in GAA, doing so with a remarkably young defensive corps. They are also #2 on the PK. If there is one weakness, it is that they are all lefties, except for Craig Rivet. Balance on the blueline is essential.

Perhaps this is the reason the Sharks have not had more production from their blueline. Clearly, all their dmen are defensively responsible, and Nabokov is displaying All Star form. Brisebois would help on the offensive end, when healthy and when paired with a stay-at-home dman like Kyle McLaren.

And, as noted in the last post, the Sharks just need more goals in general. A better transition game would go a long way toward achieving this. Their 23rd ranked PP could also use the help.

No trade proposal is complete without a salary cap analysis. And this is the icing on the cake: Brown, Brisebois and Danis all make $700k per year, and all will be UFA's at the end of this season. Halak makes only $500k, so other considerations may have to be thrown in to make that deal balance out.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Downtown Curtis Brown

Carbo continues to show confidence in both his fourth line and his third defensive pairing. But that confidence hasn't been rewarded with exemplary play. Let's look at the last three games:
  • Carbo had all five on the ice against the Rangers' Straka-Gomez-Jagr line (with disastrous consequences, as noted in the last post).
  • He did it again against the Lightning's St. Louis-Prospal-Lecavalier line. This time the goal was almost entirely due to Bouillon and Gorges: an absolutely terrible exchange between the two in front of the Habs net, while the Lightning's entire top line was hovering around trying to create a turnover. No need. Gorges did it almost single-handedly.
  • And against the Capitals, Carbo had Chipchura and Kostopolous as his #1 PK unit. On the Caps PP goal, Chipchura loses the draw, Nylander pulls the puck back to Ovechkin, who rips it past the helpless Price.
Now while Carbo can be taken to task for being overconfident in Chipchura, Dandenault, Kostopolous, Gorges and Bouillon, one could argue that he doesn't have much choice given his personnel. Indeed that was where we left things last time.

As noted in the last post, Carbo has struck upon a set of line combinations that on the one hand takes advantage of the roster's offensive talents but has also woefully exposed their defensive liabilities. This post is dedicated to a proposition that would rectify that situation: swing a trade with the San Jose Sharks for Curtis Brown.

Brown would be the missing link to Carbo's latest plan, allowing him to keep the first three lines intact, while gaining a much more effective fourth line -- one that would both excel as an "energy" line as well as having some defensive chops. Brown could probably center a line between Begin on the left and Kostopolous on the right.

Brown has always been a great faceoff guy, and a very good defensive forward as well. He's not the energy type of player one would normally see on a fourth line, but with him at center, Carbo would have an alternative to Koivu's or Lapierre's line for defensive zone draws. With his addition, the only truly defensively less-than-adequate line would be Plekanec's. If Carbo did get stuck with his 4th line out against Heatley-Spezza-Alfredsson or the like, we all wouldn't have to wait for the inevitable red light to start flashing behind Huet's head. Brown's skills could also help the Habs' woeful PK, mired near the bottom of the league for most of the season.

Interestingly, Brown's strengths are exactly why the Sharks haven't used him much this year. They need goals, not defense. They are second in the league in goals allowed per game, but a shocking 22nd in goals scored per game (with Marleau, Cheechoo, Thornton and company??). They are also #1 in faceoff efficiency -- all without using Brown's skills in the faceoff circle.

And how exactly does this rectify the Habs' 3rd defensive pairings liabilities? There are already a number of guys, beyond Kostopolous and Begin who were vying for 4th line minutes. Smolinski, Chipchura, Dandenault and Streit specifically. Adding Brown further crowds the mix, no?

So Streit and Dandenault should move back to the blueline. Streit is an easy argument. He's extremely valuable as the #1 powerplay QB on the NHL's #1 powerplay. Find him some minutes, anywhere. Dandenault? Well, he was passable as a 6th dman last year. He was certainly better than Gorges or O'Byrne have been this year. And probably no worse defensively than Brisebois, though nowhere near as efficient on offense.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Dandenault. In fact, it might be better to keep Brisebois as the #6 dman, where his defensive liabilities would be minimized and his offensive skills used on the PP as the 2nd QB. But Brisebois is the guy the Sharks will want. This post is already way too long, so wait for the next posting to find out why.