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.