Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Definition of Insanity

There is an increasingly overused phrase that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. So perhaps some Habs fans and NHL pundits in general would deem it insanity for the Habs to reconstruct more or less the same roster as last year -- despite the flameout over the last half-season. But that's exactly what is proposed here, insane or not.

While many fans want to dump some of the current players, the simple fact is that there isn't a whole lot of UFA talent left out there to replace them. The Wings re-signed one of the most prized would-be UFA's (Franzen) and are apparently close to signing Hossa too. Koivu comes under constant criticism for not being a true #1 center. Take a look at the list of UFA centers next year. Koivu is near the top of that list.

Second, for whatever reason, not many players want to sign in Montreal, unless they already play for Montreal. The three most significant additions to the Habs last year -- Lang, Tanguay and Schneider -- all came via trade. In recent years, Hamrlik is the lone exception to this rule, but he already had narrowed his choices to the 6 Canadian teams. Other big free agent prizes like Hossa, Sundin and Shanahan were more the norm, and said "non, merci" to the, uh, opportunity to play in Montreal.

So the Habs either have to carry out a trade or two, or sign their current crop of free agents. For the first option, I would hope that the Lecavalier saga is over, now that Gainey has publicly berated Lightning GM Brian Lawton for allegedly using the Habs as leverage to get better deals for Lecavalier. Even if it weren't, how would Gainey get Vinny and still fit under the cap? He'd have to trade Andrei Kostitsyn and maybe his brother and a few other prospects like O'Byrne and Weber and not sign Koivu and Lang. Is Vinny really worth that much? Even without the lost players, is any player worth 20% of the cap? Not unless you're Roberto Luongo.

But signing most of the current roster is not just a matter of it being one of the few paths Gainey can take. It also makes good hockey sense.

This roster showed glimpses of brilliance, esp in the first half when the Habs posted their best record ever through 41 games. They were healthy, had confidence, and listened to the coaching staff. Granted, much of that fell away in the second half, saw a brief resurgence when Gainey took over, and waylaid by injuries (again) at the end.

But the core is still there: a top line to rival any other line in the league; secondary scoring; a gritty two way line; blue line depth; speed and skill throughout the roster.

The only thing missing is size, but size is overrated, at least in the new NHL. Playoff games were called more consistently this year, negating the size advantage that some teams may have. Last year it wasn't that way, and so Big Georges Laraque was obtained. Yet despite being the smaller team, the Habs outhit the Bruins. They recorded 115 hits in the 4 games, 40 more than the Bruins. Laraque only had 1o of them, so even if he hadn't played, the Bruins would have been significantly outhit.

Where size does matter, at least in part, is in protecting the puck. Can the player absorb a hit, or is he knocked off the puck easily? Can he take a hit to make a play? Some fans may cry for the return of Mike Ribeiro, but he is the epitome of a skill player easily relieved of the puck.

And even then, not every player who is strong on the puck is also big physically. Tiny Eric Perrin of Atlanta only had 21 giveaways in 78 games. And some of the big boys might be strong on the puck, can't do much with it anyway (see BGL). Still, if the choice were between a player with speed, skill and size vs the player with just speed and skill, the answer is easy. But those kinds of players aren't exactly a dime a dozen either.

The big test of this theory will be how the teams with speed and skill do in these playoffs. Those would be the Red Wings, Blackhawks, Penguins, Capitals and Sharks. Only the Sharks didn't advance, and that was mostly due to unbelievable goaltending on the part of Jonas Hiller. (The Caps almost faced the same fate until Lundquist couldn't carry the Rangers any more.)

To come: a breakdown of next year's roster.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Offseason Overview

Bob Gainey really has his work cut out for him. A season just imploded before him, up close and personal. And now he has maybe half a team under contract for next year, with a salary cap that may shrink anywhere from 1 to 6 million dollars from the previous season. Who exactly will be the Montreal Canadiens next year? And how can they be competitive with such an impending drastic makeover?

Or so goes the prevailing pessimistic view. Chances are that it won't be nearly that bad. Sure the Habs have 15 free agents, 10 of the unrestricted variety. So the GM could go wild and try to sign a whole new lineup.

But as Elliot Friedman points out, it's just not necessary. And good thing too, because the way Habs fans and the media treat their players, who'd want to come here? Certainly not Brendan Shanahan, Mats Sundin or Marian Hossa. At least some of the current UFA's are at least making noises that they want to stay, as crazy as that seems. Which begs the question: if it's so bad in Montreal, why would they want to stay? But let's just take them at their word, and address the larger question of what the Habs can do to prevent the late season collapse and early playoff exit.

The easy answer is less injuries. They were simply snakebit this year, and played much of the 4 playoff games without their top guns, including Markov, Lang, Tanguay and Schneider.

But that doesn't explain the post-All Star break swoon. While injuries played some part, most of the poor showing was due to shoddy defense and goaltending. The players themselves -- at least the healthy ones -- had enough talent to do better than they did. Somehow that talent just wasn't showcased on ice.

Some part of that has to be coaching. After Carbo was fired and Gainey took over, some players perked up noticeably, esp Higgins and Kovalev. Gainey has to find someone who can continue that, and get the rest of the team playing as well. The Habs simply seemed to have stopped listening to Carbo, for whatever reason.

Friedman's article points out Price's recent deficiencies. He was spot on describing how Price is at his best when he seemingly doesn't move. He just plays positional goaltending and uses his big body to make the save. No theatrics necessary. Gainey has to hire someone who can better mentor and bring Price along, and maybe restore some of his confidence. Rollie Melanson may not be that guy.

But maybe the bigger portion of the offseason work is to sign a new team. As unpopular as this may seem, every current Habs RFA and almost every UFA should be brought back. With a lower cap a near certainty, this will take some fancy accounting to make it all pencil out. But as the Red Wings showed, the cap can be gotten around, if teams with the money are willing to bet long term on some of their star players. Who wouldn't want to lock up Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen for as long as possible? The same goes for Mike Komisarek and Alex Tanguay, and even older veterans like Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev.

So it might be possible to squeeze all those free agents under an even lower cap. But that begs the question: why sign the same roster that was more or less responsible for the implosion this season?

That's a big question, best taken up by another post.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Round 1, Game 4: Bruins 4, Canadiens 1

Pretty much the same as before. Habs outgunned and outmanned. They tried to slug their way through it, but couldn't dislodge Boston. Simply too much skill on their side, and half our skill guys are in the infirmary.

But somehow that fact seems to escape the so called fans at the Bell Centre. First they boo the American anthem (in game 3 and tonight as well). Now they jeer Carey Price? He didn't have a good game 2, but on every night, on almost every goal, his defense abandoned him. Let's break it down, goal by pathetic goal:

1) Hamrlik forgets that Michael Ryder no longer plays for the Habs and lays out a perfect feed for him, leaving Price no time to react to such a bone headed play. Byron Bitz could have tossed that one in.

2) Higgins can't finish off his check on Krejci, who bursts past him, feeds it to Ryder on the right, who passes it right back. O'Byrne does a whirling dervish trying to keep track of the puck, and Price is left with no one guarding the back door.

3) Dandenault leisurely skates by the penalty box, failing to notice Kessel standing up and ready to bust out of the box just a few feet away. Kessel takes the feed from Bergeron, and goes in on what was maybe the 4th breakaway in the second period alone, and Kessel's second. Price got the others but doesn't get this one -- it was just a matter of time.

4) Ryder scores on a beautiful 3-on-2 passing play. Somehow the two Habs defenders fail to get a stick on the puck, and the back door is open yet again.

Price had a chance on only the third goal. And that's off the stick of Phil Kessel, for pete's sake. He of 36 regular season goals, leading the high octane Bruins. How is it that the supposedly knowledgeable hockey fans of Montreal fail to grasp that?

But perhaps I'm too harsh. There were some fans who tried to drown out the anthem booers tonight. And there were some fans who tried to drown out the booers at the end of the game, and show some appreciation for the way these Habs tried to battle through the injuries that decimated their squad.

But boy did there seem to be a lot of people jeering Price. I really hope those were two middle fingers he was holding up under his blocker and glove. Too bad he only had two.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Round 1, Game 3: Bruins 4, Canadiens 2

Even when the Habs get a set of refs that seem tailor made to their makeshift lineup, they still can't pull it out. A sizable chunk of their skilled players -- Lang, Tanguay, Markov, Schneider -- can't play, due to one injury or another. That opens up space for the Habs' version of the Hansen brothers -- O'Byrne, Laraque, Stewart. And the refs misplace their whistles.

It all seems to come together for most of the first period. The Habs outhit, outmuscle and outplay the Bruins. But still they somehow manage to lose. Even without Lucic, the Bruins can play this game. They seemingly can play any game: Don Cherry style guts and glory, or Flying Frenchmen speed and skill.

The only thing that might come of this series is the opportunity for some of the youngsters to get a good dose of what playoff hockey is all about. That and maybe Bell Centre fans finding some class.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Round 1, Game 2: Bruins 5, Canadiens 1

Ouch. So much for the theory that if the games are called tight (or at least as tight as regular season games), then the Bruins size advantage would be outweighed by the Habs' skill advantage. Turns out the Bruins have more skill than the Habs -- or at least the Habs that showed up Saturday night.

Maybe part of it was that Gainey was juggling like crazy, more than the insane idea of lining up Laraque with Koivu and Kovalev. At least he finally came to his senses and put the big line back out at the end. Making things worse was Bouillon coming in -- then promptly going out. Thank God for Mathieu Dandenault. He's switched from RW to D more than once this year, mid game, and done well enough each time. That better be good enough to resign him.

Maybe the other part was that perhaps their most talented player -- Andrei Markov -- still couldn't play. The Habs have some skill up front, one line's worth anyway. But the blue line doesn't have that kind of skill without Markov.

In today's NHL, scoring from the blueline is critical. The Bruins, Sharks and Red Wings all have it. Sure, the Habs have Schneider and Brisebois, but both are defensive liabilities. Markov is the only player that can play both ends.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Round 1, Game 1: Bruins 4, Canadiens 2

Despite the outcome, Habs fans should be at least somewhat encouraged by the play of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Despite all the warning signs of a rough-and-tumble series, both teams kept their emotions in check for the most part, and played decent hockey. The refs actually acted like they were being paid to enforce the rules, and called a good game by not letting the clutch-and-grab go unnoticed and keeping a free flow.

Their defense played pretty well, despite having a converted forward, an old fart who skates as fast as I do and another old fart who gets pushed off the puck easier than my 6 year old. Sure there were a few lapses, like Gorges' brain freeze of a cross check. He knows better, but it was probably just a matter of a little too much force applied to what was supposed to be an "I'm still here" reminder of a cross check.

One wonders what might be if Bouillon and especially Markov can return to the blue line. If the refs keep calling it tight, the series could very well tilt in the Habs' favor, where their skill and speed would be allowed room to operate.

For all these reasons, one hopes that Big Georges Laraque won't be skating on the first line again. And if Bouillon and/or Markov returns, Dandenault should move up front and nudge BGL out of the lineup altogether.

BGL was inserted to provide some toughness during these playoffs, and to protect the star players. Gainey signed him last off season for this very moment, after Philly and Boston both physically dominated the Habs last year. It's a decent strategy, esp with the Bruins adding more size themselves.

The problem is that BGL simply can't play hockey. He skates around in slow circles, mostly looking for someone to engage in some verbal jousting. And when he tries to play the body, he's usually not very successful -- he's so slow, there's plenty of time to get out of the way.

His stick handling skills are also atrocious. He was set up multiple times for some decent scoring chances, but couldn't even get a decent shot most of the time.

On the other hand, the man he swapped places with was the Habs' main offensive weapon. Tanguay had an assist, a game high +2, and would have had a PP goal had it not been for a pact-with-the-devil display of goaltending by Tim Thomas.

When Tanguay was on the ice -- no matter what line -- the ice started tilting toward the Bruins' end. This was obvious by mid-2nd period. And when Gainey had his big line out to start the 3rd, I had hope that he had seen it too. But Laraque soon resumed his position on Koivu's wing. Presumably he was there to give Kovalev and Koivu more room. It's hard to say if that worked, but it's almost a lock that Tanguay on that line would have resulted in better scoring chances.

Still, there is much reason for hope that this series might extend long enough for the Habs to get healthy and pull out a series win.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Paging Steve Begin

The Habs return to postseason play in dramatic fashion. Who woulda thunk they'd do it with the 7th or 8th seed?

Regardless, the Habs showed some fight in the penalty filled penultimate regular season game with Boston. And all this without Big Georges Laraque and Gregory Stewart. Still, they managed to hold their own. Kind of.

Which really should make a Habs fan wistful for Steve Begin. Here was a good old Quebec boy who hit everything in sight. And with the playoffs looming, this is exactly what the Habs need.

As much as any fan of pure skilled hockey must hate it, the playoffs are all about gritty play, hard hitting and garbage goals. Habs fans must still remember all the goalie interference penalties that went uncalled when Carolina beat the Habs in seven a few years back. Rod Brind'Amour was viewed as a playoff hero, but most of those "goals" would have actually resulted in penalties in the regular season.

For this reason, Lapierre's line will do especially well in the playoffs. Latendresse has the most skill on this line, although Lapierre can do his share of scoring. And Kostopolous is the lone holdover from the "Lunchbucket Line" last year.

It didn't have to be this way. Sure, the Habs got an experienced dman in return. And experience along the blueline is very valuable, as the Habs found out when three of their top 6 dmen were all out at the same time (Markov, Schneider and Bouillon). But the Habs also had Dandenault playing forward. One could argue whether Dandenault or Janik would be better suiting protecting the defensive zone. But having Begin in the same lineup and especially available for the playoffs, I think the argument tilts toward the fact that this was not a good trade.

Sure the Habs got Glen Metropolit without giving up players or picks (or pucks for that matter). He's almost identical in size to Begin: both are 6'0" and around 195 lbs. And both have posted eerily similar stats this year. Metropolit has 6 goals and 11 assists in 71 games, about .23 pts/game. Begin has 8 goals and 5 assists in 61 games, good for .21 pts/game.

Metropolit is a right handed shot, and Gainey has shown a preference for trying to rebalance the Habs lineup. But come playoffs, balanced shots are nice but grit and energy rule the day. This year, Begin is among the league leaders in hits per minutes played.

Metropolit? In some games he seems to shy away from hits.

And while Metropolit makes $300k less than Begin, his contract extends into next year. Begin could have been invited back for the same amount as Metropolit, should Gainey want to keep him.

Had Begin stuck around, he might be centering the line with Higgins and Dandenault. That would give the Habs two lines that play strong on the puck, dish out hits, and take hits to make a play. If those two lines are thrown out against some of the other, harder hitting lines of any almost any playoff opponent, the two skilled lines (esp Koivu's), might find a little more space on the ice to do what they do best.