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.

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