Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Habs Report: Apathy springs eternal

When the Habs were losing to the Blue Jackets in last night's game, my friend turned to me and said something that I'd been thinking, and something i expect everybody clear across Canada had been thinking as well.

It's the same old story.

And this wasn't just a statement about how the Canadiens always seem to come out flat against bottom dwellers and conversely play our best against better teams.  No this was much more than that, it was an all-encompassing declaration: we, the Habs, (and yes, Habs fans are indeed a part of the team) have been perpetually stuck in neutral since 1993.

Bold statement you say?

Not really.  When you put aside the many excuses for our failed attempts to regain our early 90's cup glory (bad drafting, bad trades, bad players, bad coaching, bad luck), it all ends up being just that, excuses, and simply put, not good enough.  After a loss the other day, Martin alluded to the fact that he's barely ever had Markov in the lineup since his coaching debut.  I'm sure some reporters at that particular press conference probably felt for the guy, but my first thought was "did Dan Bylsma ever whine about not having Crosby in the lineup"? I highly doubt it.  Habs fans across the country are beginning to get tired of the excuses.  Scratch that: they are tired, exhausted even.

Whether it was the Houle administration, where we frittered away star players in ridiculous trades and crippled our future with horrible drafting; the Savard administration, where we had no talent and were saved only by miraculous goaltending; or the Gainey/Gauthier administration, where we've had the most talent in years, but seemingly the wrong coach/system to harness it; it all comes back to the same thing: failure.

The big question then is: why has nothing much changed in almost 20 years?  Many will waffle on this particular question, humming and hawing about how there is no clear answer, that there are too many intangibles, yadda, yadda, yaddda.  I disagree.  The answer is quite simple:

It's the same old story.

Too simple you might ask? Unfortunately no, it really is as simple as that.  Since winning the cup in '93, the Montreal Canadiens have made no bold moves, no radical changes in philosophy, no substantial attempt to turn a perpetual also-ran into an annual contender. In 1995, they traded away their best player, Patrick Roy. 10 years later, they drafted their now best player, Carey Price.  Basically, they fixed a mistake.  in 2011, they acquired free agent Erik Cole. This was the first time in recent memory that the organization made an off-season acquisition that was desperately needed.  Yes, you heard me. First time. Since the mid-nineties, fans have been clamoring for a big, top 6 center or a dominating power forward.  15 years later we got one.  15 years...

And it's not like they haven't had their opportunities to turn the ship around.  Just 2 1/2 years ago, Bob Gainey had a truckload of cash lying around to spend on free agents, players that now make up the framework of our current team.  But instead of addressing those obvious needs, (big center and winger), we ended up with slightly better versions of the players we let go, just a bit smaller.  It was the beginning of what supposed to be a promising new era.  Instead it was just...

The same old story.

There is no clear solution to our problems, but I think a pretty good place to start is with the management team.  After all, it's a lot easier to change that than it is to completely change a team's personnel.  And heck, we've already done that.  We did change the team around, with basically the same management staff.  Maybe its a sign that all the marquee players we've brought in (Cammalieri, Gomez, Gionta, Spacek) have regressed since arriving.  Maybe, just maybe, they aren't the problem, just like the previous batch of stars (Kovalev, Koivu, Higgins, Ryder, Ribeiro) may not have been the problem either.

In my opinion, we've witnessed almost 2 decades worth of tinkering, and nothing else. GM's and managers have come and gone, with the same big talk about reclaiming past glories, but those statements were clearly empty promises.  In truth, nobody has really ever come in here and taken the bull by the horns.  It's sad to say, but the organization simply lacks balls, or a willingness to say "we've failed, time to try something else." Maybe the reason for that is because the team, no matter how much it fails to win trophies or impress it's fanbase in some way, is, and always will be, safely in the black.

So why would you make drastic changes if you're making millions?  Because, just like any profitable business, disaster might creep up on you if you remain complacent.  If there was one word to describe the Montreal Canadiens it would be just that: complacency.  Slowly but surely, fans are beginning to tire of this inactivity, this unwillingness to adapt with the times.  Simply put, people are getting apathetic.  Will we make the playoffs? Probably.  Does anyone really care?  Yes, but then also, to a certain extent, not really.  Because for the last god-knows-how-many-years we've seen this team be up and down during the season, battle for a playoff spot down the stretch, and then make a quick exit in the playoffs.

So now it's early December, we're struggling but hanging around, and fans are clamoring for a trade or a firing or something.

It's the same old story.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Habs notes: making the necessary adjustments

The Habs won last night, and like most Habs faithful, I was pretty happy about it.  Still, a couple of clear problems I've noticed since the beginning of the year propped up again, and to me, it's a lack of awareness by the coaching staff.

Hal Gill and Raphael Diaz are what should be the bottom pairing in the D corps.  One is slow and not very physical, and the other is small and skilled, but quite inexperienced.  Together they've been making plenty of gaffes, many of which have been leading to eventual goals.  I single them out because they've made the most obvious mistakes since the beginning of the year, but the defense as a whole has struggled.

One of the biggest problem with this team since the beginning of the year has been defensive zone clearances and breakouts. I'd say 90% of the goals they've given up this year all stem from a simple zone breakout gone wrong. In the second in third period last night they were much better, but sadly it was the exception rather than the norm. A lot of it has to do with forwards coming back to help the D's out. They just don't do it on a consistent basis. When Diaz and Gill are on the ice its the most noticeable, because Diaz, who is young, gives the puck to Gill way too much.  I assume it's because he's a rookie, and is probably being told by the coaches to use Gill more than he should be. Subban and Gorges were good with Gill because they knew not to let him handle the puck too much in his own zone.    

Two things, thus, should be done about this (besides just changing the pairing). 

1.  Tell Diaz that it's his primary responsibility to get the puck up ice.  Far too often have I seen Gill take it upon himself to chip the puck out or make the first breakout pass.  He's good at neither.  Diaz on the other hand is pretty good at both.  This is why I think it's the coaches fault for not identifying this problem and rectifying it.  Diaz probably knows he's better at zone clearances than Gill, but normally a rookie is waiting for a coach to tell him to take more charge of the situation.  As of now he's expecting Gill to do as much or more of this task, a task he's simply not up for.  How many times have you seen Gill receive a puck in his own zone and immediately look confused about why the puck was given to him, and what he should do next?  Waaaayyyyy too often.  Gill is good at one thing: playing without the puck.  He plays so badly with it that he probably has puck-related nightmares.  I'm not even kidding. 

2.  Force the forwards to recognize when this D pairing is on the ice, and make sure to always come back. Clearly, from how Martin explains it, the forwards are always supposed to come back, to be, as he puts it, five in the frame.  Clearly, the forwards either don't listen to Martin, or they don't believe it's that necessary for them to all come back.  It's almost as if half our team think that Hamrlik and Wisniewski are still back there, and that they'll have no problem getting the puck up ice.  Maybe Martin ought to take baby steps with his team and say: "Try your best to get back on D.  But when Diaz and Gill are on the ice, I'll bench your ass if you don't get back." Something like that anyway.  

It's been two straight games where this pairing has made a careless mistake in their own zone that has cost us the team a goal.  Both times it was a situation where one D-man had plenty of time, and simply decided that his only option was to make a lackluster pass back to his D partner.  Basically a routine play gone wrong.  I think that with a little bit of extra attention addressed to this situation by the coaches, these plays can be avoided altogether. As it stands I just don't see the proper adjustments being made, though.  

It's really rather simple: when you consistently get the puck quickly out of your zone, the forwards are still fresh enough to make effective entrances into the other team's zone.  This is why we seem to go through so many long stretches of offensive lethargy in a game.  Defensive zone breakouts.  Fix this problem, and suddenly your star forwards will start to shine.  Maybe last night was a sign of things to come.  One can only hope.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Habs

So it hasn't been the best start in the world.  Okay, it's been maybe one of the worst starts in the world. But who's counting? Okay, basically everyone in the city is.  But it's Les Glorieux! It's not like anyone has given up hope on them, right? Well maybe quite a few.  As for myself, well I'm still trying my hardest to stay optimistic, as hard as that is to be at the moment.  And believe me, it gets even more frustrating when you clearly see what adjustments the team should be making.  Here's a few that I've compiled since the beginning of the Habs 2011-12 campaign.

1. Fixing the Powerplay

Aaaaaahhhh, the good ole' PP.  When have we ever won anything without one?  I can't remember myself, because well, I probably wasn't born yet.  For a team that has relied so heavily on its special teams in the last decade or two, you'd think that they'd be flying in special consultants from around the globe to make it better.  Or maybe, and here's a radical idea, watching tape of other team's powerplay.  You know, the ones that actually work?

First thing I would do, and this is fairly obvious, is to get rid of the 4 forward alignment. Basically, in a word, duh.  It just doesn't work.  Plekanec and Kostitsyn make the same mistake time and time again, that being the mistake of thinking too much.  There's no time to think on the PP, the thinking should have already been done in practice.  When the point-men get the puck on the PP, the last thing they should be doing is holding on to it and thinking about what to do. The second they begin to think, is another second for the PK-ers to get back into position, and there-in lies the problem of the PP in general.  Our PP is far too predictable.  But I'll get back to that in a second.

First thing to do is replace Plekanec or AK with a d-man.  Clearly Emelin is the choice here.  Clearly Martin has no faith in him, but that's because Martin is to worried about giving up goals.  Clearly, he should be worried about scoring them instead.  Emelin played a lot of minutes in the KHL on the PP last year, and played very well.  To have so much faith in Diaz and so little in Emelin is senseless in my opinion.

But what makes defensmen such a better option than forwards on the point you may ask? It comes down to regularity.  Defensmen are simply more used to making offensive decisions from the blueline than forwards are.  This makes them better at lateral passes, passes down-low, and an assortment of shots on net.  And by being more accustomed with these maneuvers, they do them all much quicker, which is the key to any good PP.

Secondly, replace Desharnais on the first unit with Eller.  This is not as obvious, but to me, critical.  There's a reason why Gomez is not on the first PP unit, and it's quickly becoming the reason why Desharnais shouldn't be on it either: they're not a threat to score.  Name me one good PP unit that has a player on it that isn't a viable shooter. Stop thinking, cuz' there isn't one.

You simply can't have a player on the ice for the biggest portion of your PP that refuses to shoot.  How many times have we seen Desharnais try to force the puck inside to Darche or Pacioretty.  A lot.  How many times has it worked? Like never.  Why? Duh, the other team knows it's coming, every bloody time.  Put Eller in there, and a whole lot changes.  Besides being able to make the quick in front-of-the-net pass, Eller is also capable of crashing the net and shooting the puck.  He can do multiple things which makes him, yup, you guessed it: unpredictable.

Three, go and watch the Vancouver Canucks PP.  Right, this will never happen because Martin and Pearn know it all, and after all it's not their fault: it's the players not doing what they're told.  Or... maybe what they're told is garbage?  What makes the Canucks PP effect?  Pass and move.  That's the system.  What happens when you have five guys in perpetual motion? You have four guys in perpetual motion guarding them, which means, drum roll please, openings have a habit of being created.  And that's just the beginning. Once you begin to move that much faster than the defence, you force them to commit errors in coverage, because they begin to scramble to retain their proper positioning.

What I've noticed since the beginning of the year is that our PP is the one scrambling to retain its position, and the opposing PK have been the ones moving quicker.  Of course this makes no sense, right? How can our opponents who have less players be in better position than us?  Wrong personnel on the ice is one. Wrong strategy is two.  Wrong decision-making is three.  And the Habs have made these mistakes game in, game out.

3. Giving Cole a role

A friend of mine came up with this headline yesterday, and I couldn't put it any better.  In what world do you have your newest, big free agent signing playing 11 minutes in a game? In a game that went into overtime no less?  In Jacques Martin's world of course. C'mon, Jacques.  It's time to wake up. If your team is having difficulties in every facet of its game, is it really a good idea to keep a veteran player like Cole glued to the bench? For a veteran's coach like Martin, this should be the easiest thing for him to figure out on his own.

I don't care what line he's on.  Leave him with Desharnais and Pacioretty if you like.  But get him more involved in the game.  Have him double shift on the 4th line every once in awhile. If all else fails, throw him on the PP to mix things up.  Work him into the penalty kill. Bottom line: make him feel like he's an important part of the team.  Just because he's a veteran doesn't mean he can't lose his confidence, too.  But that would require our coach to be forward thinking.  Whoops, wrong coach...

3. Time for Cunneyworth to become more Muller-like

I know, dream on.  But somebody has to be talking to the players on the bench, motivating them, getting them going.  Cunneyworth probably doesn't think it's his place yet, but he's going to need to start asserting himself a bit more back there.  A lot can change in a game, and sometimes the game-plan can go out the window a bit.  When that happens, and your head coach is a robot, someone else behind the bench has to help rally the troops.  With Pearn being as silent if not more so than Martin, the role of communicator and motivator seems to rest heavily on Cunneyworth.  I hope he's up for the challenge.

4. How to solve a problem like Weber, Emelin and Diaz

There's a lot of work to be done, and sadly I'm not completely sure if this coaching staff is capable of making it happen.  If i were in their shoes, I would notice that my three new starting defensemen (Diaz, Emelin, and Weber) all like to get into the play offensively, and use it to my advantage.  Their problems on defence become apparent when they're being stagnant in their own zone, when they lose their man due to poor communication and just overall inexperience.

But how many goals have been scored against them due to pinching up into the play and being unable to get back and cover in time?  Very few.  If anything, they all have a knack for getting back into the play defensively.  Basically all I'm saying is let the players be themselves on the ice.  You can't make them into veteran defensive stalwarts over night; it happens gradually if it happens at all (and in the case of these young d-men, probably never).  Better to find a way to use them more efficiently, then to try to turn them into something that they'll never be...

Buckle up folks.  It's going to be a rough ride.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Panic on the streets of Habtown: Canadiens pre-preseason report

Yemelin's fat. Spacek's fit. Markov's dying. Gomez's is apparently a liar (how else could he get injured if he was supposedly in such good shape?).  You get the picture.  Montreal is dying for hockey news, and this is what they came up with.  My Dad of all people asked me the other day why i hadn't written anything in a while, considering how there was suddenly so much in the news about the Habs, and more specifically, about Markov's injury woes.  He assumed i had a plethora of information with which to draw from.  My first response was one of laughter. "What news? All this is is sensationalism at its best, your typical making-a-mountain-out-of-a-molehill scenario."  Then i thought about it further and realized i did have a wealth of information to draw from.  I could talk about how ridiculous the media is here.

Take RDS for instance.  The day the news came out that Markov had had water removed from his knee, and that he was no longer on schedule to begin the season like everybody thought he was, panic spread like wildfire.  People questioned the Habs doctors, questioned the organization, questioned Markov himself.  This went on for a day or two until finally it seemed to be put to rest a bit.  Markov declared that he wasn't worried, that he was more worried about the media (can't blame him).  Probably the best and at least the most well-known sports doctor in North America, James Andrews, explained that Markov's affliction was extremely common among sufferers of this injury, and it wasn't anything to be concerned about.  Great, I thought, nothing really to worry about, Markov may not be fit for the season's debut, but would be back not too long after that.  I slept easy that night.

Then i woke up the next day and began to surf the net as i often do.  Made the mistake of checking into RDS.  The headline declared this: "Markov toujours dans la nĂ©ant".  Which roughly translates to "Markov still in the void."  Obviously, like anyone reading this, I panicked, thinking that overnight Markov's little setback had turned into God knows what.  The first paragraph of the article didn't exactly ease my worries, either.  In a nutshell it basically said that Markov had not made any progress in his recovery in the last nine months.  Cue more panic.  Cue anguish.  What does this mean? Is Markov going to have to begin his recovery process all over again? Will he be out till November? December? The whole year?  But then i kept reading.  Realized that there was no new news here.  All it was was the same information from the last two days, just more scary sounding...

Welcome to Montreal.  Welcome to hockey preseason.  Welcome to madness.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Habs Summer Thus Far…


I’m not going to mince words here: The fact that GM Pierre Gauthier acquired Eric Cole, a fast-skating, big-bodied forward, pretty much makes this offseason a success.  Anything Gauthier does from this point forward is figurative icing on the cake, because let’s face it: Cole was practically everything the Habs needed.

Cole, a 6’2 205 lbs power forward, is getting up there in age, 32, but after last year’s successful season (26-26-52-pts-82 games), doesn’t seem to be slowing down much.  The Habs signed him to a 4-year contract that will take him to age 36, but it’s worth it when you factor in the intangibles he brings to the table.  Though he may not be as physical a presence as he once was, Cole is not a player that is easily pushed around, a quality that the Habs clearly had the need for.  

The team can defend the notion that they are not a small team all they want (their overall weight and height averages are on par with the rest of the league) but what’s important is the size of their top 6. Players like Gionta, Cammalieri, Plekanec and Gomez require strong, physical linemates to create space for them.  Unfortunately, just being big is not quite good enough, as we saw with last year’s Travis Moen project. 

When Moen lined up on numerous occasions with either the Plekanec or Gomez line, it quickly became clear that it’s hard to create space for your linemates if the defence doesn’t care that you’re on the ice.  Moen’s inability to put the puck in the net (along with fellow Martin pet projects such as Tom Pyatt, Maxime Lapierre, Lars Eller and Benoit Pouliot) made it very hard for our small talented forwards to distinguish themselves offensively.

The addition of Cole, a proven 25-30 goal scorer, thus makes the team exponentially better.  For not only did Gauthier acquire a top 6 forward, he acquired a top 6 forward that will make every player in the top 6 more dangerous, something I’d argue would not have been the case if they had signed Ville Leino instead, a potentially more skilled player, but not nearly as big and physical as Cole.

Budaj, Willsie, Blunden, and Trotter

Compared to Cole, these signings were not exactly what you would call exciting. Peter Budaj is a bit of a weird one, simply because I don’t think he’s that great. That said, maybe (hopefully) the Habs did their homework on this one and discovered that he plays better in a back-up role than as a starter. Budaj has played as a clear backup only once in his career, in the 09-10 season behind Craig Anderson, and his numbers in 15 games were decent (5-5-2, 2.64, .917).  

It’s hard to really judge his performance last year since the entire Avalanche team mailed it in, in the last few months.  I’ll hesitantly say that this is, for now, a decent signing.  I think Budaj is an upgrade on Auld from last year, but unlike Auld, who’s been a backup for many years, Budaj will have to prove that he’s capable of withstanding the mental rigors of sometimes going 10-15 games between starts. 

I think he’ll be fine, but just would have assumed that Gauthier would acquire a goalie more akin to being a backup, someone like Johan Hedberg, for instance.

Willsie, Blunden, and Trotter are basically depth/AHL moves.  Willsie and Trotter were brought in to replace the offence lost with Dustin Boyd and Nigel Dawes leaving for the KHL.  Blunden will probably start the year in the AHL as well, but may also have very real chances of playing many games with the big club. 

Blunden is a big boy (6’3 207), and could be useful on the 4th line to add some physicality and grit.  He also appears to have more potential scoring punch than say Tom Pyatt and Ryan White, who just yesterday signed a one-year, one-way deal with the club. 

Though most of the team is pretty much set in stone, there will be some solid competition in training camp for the 6-7 D-man spot, along with bottom-6 duties. 

On offense, look for Ryan White, David Desharnais, Mike Blunden, Matthieu Darche, Travis Moen, Lars Eller and most probably another soon-to-be signed forward (big winger or center) to fight it out for potential ice-time.  

You could even throw Andrei Kostitsyn and Max Pacioretty into that mix, seeing as though there are no guarantees that either will be in the top 6 (Though you’d assume Pacioretty has the inside track on that spot). 

On defense it will be particularly dicey for the bottom spots in the rotation.  Yannick Weber seemed to improve leaps and bounds last year, but he’ll be fighting for ice with newly signed draft pick Alexei Yemelin (who goes back to the KHL if he doesn’t stick) and veteran Yaroslav Spacek, who, though clearly on the down-slope of his career, will probably not be riding the pine with a veteran’s coach like Jacques Martin at the helm.

Even with this potential logjam shaking up, don’t be surprised to see Gauthier go out and acquire another d-man just to be on the safe side, something along the lines of an Alexandre Picard (low-cost, low reward type).

I’ll do another Habs post the second we get another key player (yes, we could be waiting a while…).

Peace out

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Or maybe more precisely in this case, theft!  Because what else could you call the highway robbery that took place on July 1st, when The Washington Capitals traded goalie Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first rounder in 2012 and either a 2012 or 2013 second rounder.  On the surface it seems like a somewhat fair deal.

Varlamov is after all an-ex 1st rounder himself, going 23rd overall in 2006, and has been nothing if not consistently good thus far in his career, with a record of 30-13-12, a G.A.A of 2.39 and SV% of .917.  No the problem here is not that I think Varlamov isn't a promising young talent.  The problem is that Colorado traded a 1st rounder to get him, a 1st round pick that should translate into at least a top 10 pick next year.  Because let's face facts: Colorado hasn't gotten a whole lot better so far this off-season, and this coming off a year where they had the second-worst record in the entire NHL.

Colorado will argue that Varlamov will put them in the winning column on a more consistent basis.  To that i say: is he at this point in his career much better than last year's Avalanche starter, Craig Anderson? Anderson you'll remember is only a year removed from posting a career year, playing 71 games and recording 38 wins.

They obviously see something in Varlamov, something worth giving up a potential lottery pick for.  I don't see it, and few hockey minds out there do either.  But what makes this trade so absurd is that the most coveted goalie on the free agent market, Tomas Vokoun, was available before this trade went down.  Sure Vokoun is getting old (he just turned 35), but he's shown no sign of slowing down, his G.A.A. and SV% not wavering from 2.5 and .920 over the last 5 years (and that on a piss-poor team).  And the Avalanche could have gotten him without giving away anything!

When Free Agency began, Colorado were among maybe 2-3 teams max in the league that needed a goalie.  With a ton of money at their disposal (and a need to get to the cap floor) Vokoun and Colorado seemed like an obvious match.  But, no.  That would have apparently been too easy for their brain dead GM.  Instead they went out of their way to trade for a goalie who still hasn't come close to playing a full NHL season, and traded away what should be huge picks next year.  Adding injury to insult, Washington turned around and signed Vokoun to a one year deal for, get this, 1.5 million$!!!  Literal chump change considering his pedigree and numbers over the years.

This could literally turn out to be one of the worst deals since Brian Burke signed Phil Kessel to an offer sheet, sacrificing two first rounders in the process.  Colorado is nowhere near good enough to be anything better than a middling team next year at best, and at worst a basement dweller.  Washington will be licking their chops all year long, salivating at the thought of drafting maybe 3rd, 2nd, or even...  yes its very possible the Avs will finish dead last...

So who won this trade? WASHINGTON.  It's not even close...

Another key trade that went down was between the Nashville Predators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and again, I'm a little blown away by what went down.  On the surface the trade looks bad, and when you dig a little deeper, it still looks like a steal.  Here's the tale of the tape: Nashville sent Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson to the Leafs for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney and a conditional draft choice.  It looks bad at first glance.  Clearly Nashville gave up the two best players in the deal.  So why did they do it?

Lombardi is coming off a year where he basically didn't play due to post-concussion syndrome, and his career going forward is in doubt.  Nashville desperately wanted to get out from under a contract where they would have to pay him 7 million over the next 2 years, and in order to have someone take on this contract, they had to add Franson to the deal to sweeten the pot.  This actually makes perfect sense.  What makes no sense, to me anyway, is that Nashville were unable to get anything back besides a journeyman defenseman and a minor league player.

What happened here was one team (the Leafs) taking advantage of a desperate team (the Preds).  Nashville, a small market team, needed to free up money to sign RFA superstar D-man Shea Weber this year, and make sure there was still money left over to re-sign Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne next year.  Toronto was more than willing to take on the extra salary, seeing Franson as a potential stalwart on D for years to come.

Sadly, this is one of those trades you don't want to see happen as a hockey fan, a trade that is made possible due to the relative poorness and richness of two teams. Nashville basically had to sacrifice one of their good young players because they felt that they couldn't afford not to.  Toronto clearly wins the trade, and you can't really blame them from figuratively stealing candy from a baby.  They too, are in desperation mode.  Not financially speaking, but the pressure to get better in Toronto is palpable, felt only as much in maybe a handful of sports markets today. In the end, it's just too bad that this all happened to Nashville.

Despite their small market status, Nashville almost always fields a winning team, and just came off a very successful season where they not only made it to the playoffs, but took Stanley Cup finalist Vancouver to 6 games in the second round.  Just goes to show that no matter how good you draft and manage a team, attendance numbers and TV revenues are even more important.  All this begs the question: why the heck is their even a hockey team in Nashville?  Gary Bettman says hi...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Free Agency 2011: Trades and Signings

Free agency is a real shit show.  Everyday there's a new signing or trade, so there is no good day to really start analyzing what is transpiring.  So what I'll do is everyone once in awhile update you on the happenings around the league.  I thought today would be as good a day as any, seeing as though a rather colossal trade went down last night: Dany Heatley of the Sharks for Martin Havlat of Wild.

Instant analysis: Both guys have their issues, which is no surprise when big name players are traded.  Heatley is allergic to big games, aka The Playoffs.  Why does a two-time 50 goal scorer always seem to disappear in the playoffs? After watching Heatley pot a measly 5 goals in 32 games, Sharks GM Doug Murray was clearly tired of trying to figure it out.

Havlat's problems are different. Playoff scoring? Well for starters, you have to participate in the playoffs to have a problem like that.  Havlat has only made it to the big dance once in the last 5 years.  The last time he did play though, in 08-09 with the Blackhawks, he performed well enough, recording 15 points in 16 games.  Where Havlat errs is in his effort level from game to game. Known league wide for being a dominant one-on-one player, you'd think his stats would reflect his talent-level, but it rarely does.  It's not that he's not productive: his .84 ppg is nothing to scoff at.  He's just always a player that has left you wanting more, which is probably why he'll be on a 3rd team in 6 years.

So who wins the trade? I'd say both teams win.  Heatley has shown me that he plays well when there's little to no pressure,  and Minnesota, though packed each and every night, is far less a pressure cooker than San Jose, where finishing amongst the leaders in the regular season is clearly not good enough for their fans.  Minnesota is dying to just play a playoff series, and getting a proven top end scorer is a smart move by the Wild.

As far as San Jose is concerned, I think getting rid of Heatley and his big contract is a good start, as they will save 2.5M a year with this deal.  With the addition of Havlat, they got an asset they needed, speed, and lost an asset they maybe had enough of, goal scoring.  Havlat is a better match with speedier centers like Couture or Pavelski, who Heatley had a hard time clicking with.  In a sense, Heatley's fate was sealed when he failed to fit with Thornton, the ideal, east/west and cerebral center for Heatley.  

For GM Doug Wilson, this trade is probably secondary to the one he made a week earlier with the same Wild.  Wilson sent Devin Setoguchi, 2010 1st rounder Charlie Coyle and a 2011 1st rounder for defenseman Brent Burns.  Though it may appear to be a large bounty to pay, Burns was truly the missing piece in San Jose's playoff run last year, a big bruising d-man who's also an offensive threat.

This is the kind of trade I've been expecting for a long time from the Sharks, a team that has always had a Stanley Cup contending offense, but never the proper balance defensively.  Brent Burns is basically a younger version of Rob Blake, and there's no reason not to believe that Burns' presence will pay dividends in the playoffs this coming year.

Will getting Burns and Havlat be enough to put them over the top?  Hard to say.  I'm still not crazy about Niemi in nets, despite his inspired play last year, and Joe Thornton still doesn't scream "leader" to me.  Definitely like the moves the Sharks made, but not calling them the champs just yet.

Tomorrow i'll talk about another big trade, this time between the Avs and Caps.  Don't worry, this time i'll have a clear winner and loser for y'all...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Habs Draft Recap

Well we knew we weren't going to get a player that was going to play anytime soon. In fact, almost every team save 3 or 4 were going to land such a player, so the goal in the first round was to pick someone that was loaded with potential, and one that played the brand of hockey that fit the Canadiens mold.  In Nathan Beaulieu, the Habs snagged such a player, and maybe got a little lucky in the process.

Similar to Louis Leblanc two years ago, Beaulieu was ranked by many in and around the top 10-12 picks, and Gauthier was more than happy to select the big, slick, offensive defenseman. Compared to players such as PK Subban, Keith Yandle and Mike Green, you could probably guess why.  And with a name like Beaulieu, he'll probably be getting even more hype over the next couple of years, despite the fact that he doesn't actually speak much French.  What he does do is play a savvy, up tempo styled game, sees the ice remarkably well, and has improved in his own end every year in the Q.  His first big test on the world stage will probably come this fall in the World Junior tourney.  It will be a first glimpse for most Habs fans to see how he measures up against the rest of the top picks in this and last year's draft.  Its still fairly difficult at the moment to really say how good this pick is, but its hard not to like it from what I've heard and read.

As for the rest of Canadiens' picks, well it's pretty much a crap shoot when you draft from the 4th round on, but I'll try my best to analyze them as a whole.  What i took out of the Pierre Gauthier interview was that each selection feels a bit like a homerun type pick.   They will all take a while to develop (3-4 years) but there may be a gem or two among them.

Their selection of defenseman Magnus Nygren from Sweden really has that feel.  An overager (21 years old),  He was a relative unknown commodity up until this past year when he was called up by Fajerstad of the Swedish Elite league.  His stellar play (especially from an offensive standpoint) caught the eye of Canadiens euro scout Crister Rockstrom (ex Rangers scout), and after finishing the playoffs with the second highest point total amongst D-man, he got Timmins on board as well.  After recently signing Rafael Diaz form the Swiss league and having prior success drafting then overage prospect Mark Streit, we shouln't be too surprised with this pick, nor should we be surprised if it works out well for the Habs.

Say what you will about Timmins' draft success, one thing is certain; he has a knack for finding good mid to late round picks in recent years.  Names like Halak, Streit, D'agostini, Kostitsyn, Ryder quickly come to mind, all drafted after the 6th round.

The most intriguing pick by Timmins at this point is Daniel Pribyl of the Czech Republic, a tall lanky center (6'3 190) that could be a steal if he fills out and continues to improve.  At last year's World Juniors, Pribyl posted an impressive 7 points (3g, 4a) in 8 games.  His development may have taken a step sideways however, as he was not selected by a CHL team in the import draft. He'll continue to play in the Czech Elite league, where he'll most probably receive much less time than he would have otherwise.

Other draftees were Josiah Didier, An American d-man who fits Gauthier's profile of a rapid climber in the draft;  Quebecois Olivier Archambault, who was the 1st pick overall in QMJHL draft two years ago; Darren Dietz from the Saskatoon Blades, a rugged D-man who impressively climbed the depth chart on a very deep squad; and Colin Sullivan, a smooth skating d-man that has been on Timmins' radar for a while as a potential late round steal.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Blue Jays Review

Coming in to the season, there was obviously a lot of uncertainty about how the team would perform as a whole.  No one knew if the young pitching staff would hold up. No one knew who would end up closing ballgames (they still don’t).  No one knew if Jose Bautista would be the same kind of impact player.  The list of questions went on and on.  After 2 months and 56 games played, some questions have been answered, some haven’t.  Here’s how I’ve seen things unfold thus far:

Starting Pitching:

All things considered, a pretty decent start.  This is a very young and talented staff that is still learning how to pitch.  I know that may sound a bit trite, but it’s really evident if you watch each game.  No one is doubting how good guys like Morrow and Drabek will be; but they haven’t figure out how to harness all their pitches and become solid second and third starters.  Romero is already there in my opinion; he has the knack for winning.  Whether the Blue Jays will be a contender by the end of this season rests on the shoulders of the rest of the staff, and if they’re able to put it all together. 

Relief Pitching:

Good and bad.  The middle relief has been great.  The closers have been awful.  This sounds like a broken record for the Blue Jays organization, and you’d think they’d get it right eventually.  Between Rauch, Dotel and Francisco there has been no clear winner, and Farrell has been forced to pretty much go with a different guy each night.  Who knows, maybe that will eventually become a winning formula, keeping all three guys fighting hard to win the coveted spot.  As far as the middle relief is concerned, everyone has pitched very well.  To put it into perspective, Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, Carlos Villanueva and Marc Rzepczynski have a combined ERA of 2.20 in over 127 innings pitched (as of June 1st).


Can’t complain much.  The Blue Jays are in around the top 5 in pretty much every major category, which is kind of surprising when you consider the amount of injuries the team has sustained thus far.  Adam Lind, who’s been out for almost a month, was the Jays hottest hitter before he got injured, and is their second best hitter overall.  Other key players like Bautista, Hill, Davis and Escobar have all missed time to an assortment of injuries, and Farrell has not been able to pencil in his opening day starting lineup since, well, opening day.  Lind has begun a rehab stint in Dunedin, and should be back in the starting nine this weekend against Baltimore.  It should be interesting to see how the lineup will shape up with his return.  I expect something like this: Escobar-Patterson-Bautista-Lind-Hill-Rivera-Arencibia-Davis-Nix.  Thames is swinging a good bat and I think he’ll be in the lineup as the DH against righties, and Rivera against lefties.  Encarnacion is the odd man out at the moment, with Nix looking more confident offensively and defensively.  I assume that Farrell would rather have Encarnacion at third rather than Nix, but Farrell looks to be a coach that will play the hotter player, regardless of a player’s potential.  With Lawrie bound to come up sometime this year, one can only conclude that Encarnacion’s days in the organization are numbered.

If this sounds like the resume of a .500 team, it’s probably because that’s exactly what it is.  The Jays currently sit 28-28, 4 games back of first place New York, and 2 games of Boston for the Wild Card spot.  No one really expected the Jays to challenge this year, but I wouldn't completely discount their chances from what I’ve seen thus far.  I see the offense continuing to produce and I also believe that key starters like Morrow and Drabek will be better as the season progresses.  The biggest question mark for me is the closers, as games against the best teams in the AL East will come down to the final innings.  If Francisco and Rauch continue to remain inconsistent, I really don’t see how the Blue Jays can compete.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, and who knows, maybe a knight and shining armor will emerge to take over the ninth inning duties, a job that no one has done well in recent memory.  At this point I’d probably take back B.J. Ryan.  Yeah, it’s gotten that bad…

Monday, May 23, 2011

Habs summer decisions

Unfortunately, due to the fact he was signed at or after the age of 35 years, Yaro Spacek can not be bought out.  That leaves the Habs with two options: play him or trade him.  As much as I’d like to see him go, I’ll admit that Spacek is still a serviceable defenseman.  Is he overpaid: clearly.   Are there better options in our organization to fill his role next year, which would be the 5th or 6th d-man?  Probably.  Alexei Yemelin was recently signed by the Habs, and many believe he’ll be able to fit right in, despite his lack of North American hockey experience.  Yannick Weber is a now a known commodity with the club, and I personally think he is ready for a full NHL season.  With the likely re-signings of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, and probably one of Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski, our D could look something like this next year:


The Habs do have a surplus of money at their disposal 25 to 28 million, depending on if the cap goes up or not) but this money will need to be spread out over an abundance of players.  The Canadiens have 18 free agents this summer, so there will be a lot of hard decisions to make for GM Pierre Gauthier.  The biggest decision will be which area gets more of a facelift, the defense or offense.  Most assume it will be the D, because this is where the greatest percentage of free agents lie, but Gauthier could just as easily bring most of the starters from last season back.  The core of the offense will be back next season (Plekanec, Gomez, Gionta, Cammalieri, Pacioretty) but there are quite a few spots to be filled.  The future of potential stars Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot is still unclear, and many would like to see the bottom 6 get more rugged.  In a nutshell, there are many areas where the Canadiens could improve, and only so much money to improve them.  In the end at least one of these areas will probably have to be sacrificed, and it will be up to management to choose the best way to spend their money.

In descending order, here is the list of priorities as I see them:

1. Solidify the D

The key here is balance.  I think that the signing of Emelin was an excellent start, because he brings much needed size and physicality that the D lacked last year.  Re-sign Markov and Gorges.  Re-up Weber, and put him into the starting line-up. I think he’s ready to take on a bigger role with the team, and should be more prominent on the PP next year.  One of Gill and Hamrlik will be back—they will play the role of veteran presence, which every D corps needs.  If Spacek has to play, have him play a far more diminished role. 

2. Make the bottom 6 harder to play against

A player like Ryan White is a nice start, but the rest (Eller, Desharnis, Halpern, Moen, Pyatt, Darche) were simply not a pain to play against.  What you need are players that combine speed, physicality and aggressiveness, players that can sustain a solid fore-check, and give respite to the top line guys.  The current conference finals have shown that the team who has the harder working bottom lines usually come out on top.  This should be a main focus for the Canadiens going forward.

3. Finding another top 6 forward

It seems every year that fans cry out for that big rugged forward that can give a better balance to our smallish top 6.  This year will be no different, where many will question whether guys like Kostitsyn and Pouliot will ever be able to get the job done, and whether it’s time to throw in the towel with these players.  Hard to know, but personally I’d give Kostitsyn one more chance to prove his worth.  Pouliot has the talent, but it seems he’s his own worst enemy.  The bottom line is that there are many very talented players in the league, but the ones that succeed have the mental toughness to get over the hump.  Pouliot may get over this hump one day, but I don’t think it will be with the Canadiens.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Big decisions ahead for GM Gauthier

The season may be over for the Montreal Canadiens players, but for GM Pierre Gauthier, a new chapter to the season has just begun. With the draft and free agency just around the corner, Gauthier will have many tough decisions to make, the first and most obvious being whether or not to re-sign injury-plagued star defensman Andrei Markov to a new contract.  What Gauthier decides to do here will likely begin a domino effect throughout the rest of the lineup, as a number of other players are up for a new contract. These players include forwards Andrei Kostitsyn, Benoit Pouliot, Jeff Halpern, Max Pacioretty, Tom Pyatt, Mathieu Darche, David Desharnais, Ryan White and defensemen Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill, James Wizniewski, Paul Mara, Brent Sopel, Yannick Weber, Josh Gorges, Alexandre Picard and goalie Alex Auld.

Basically it would have been a whole lot easier to just make a list of who's definitely staying. Half of the players listed above are restricted free agents (RFA's), which means that they are still at the mercy of the Habs organization to a certain extent (unless they decide to hold out).  Either way, their future with the Habs will likely be effected in some way by what happens with Andrei Markov, who will  probably be negotiating the largest contract, money wise. Markov made 5.75M a year over the last 4 years, and if he stays for a similar amount of money, other players will be left out of the picture to make way for this contract.  The question is, after all the major injuries Markov has sustained over the last couple of years, how much exactly is he worth? This, and the rest of the mostly free-agent bound D corps will probably be the first headache for Gauthier.  Hamrlik has reportedly said he wants to come back at a reduced salary (he made 5.5M last year), but do the Habs want him back? Wizniewski was probably the revelation of the year, coming in a 1/3 of the way through the season and doing a bang-up job replacing most of Markov's minutes, but will he now cost too much to bring back? Josh Gorges was considered one of, if not the most reliable defenseman for the Habs before his untimely injury.  His return with the club is likely (he's an RFA) but how much will his pay increase?  Finally there is Hal Gill, who quietly stabilized the D all year long, and helped rein in their superstar in training, PK Subban.  You'd think that with the team's slowness on D being a problem all year long, the organization wouldn't bring both Gill and Hamrlik, who are two of the slowest and oldest D on the team, back into the fold. Decisions, decisions, decisions, and none of them no-brainers.  Add into the mix the possibility of draft pick Alexei Emelin coming over from the KHL, Yannick Weber out-performing Yaro Spacek most of the year, and you have the makings of a severely complicated log-jam on your hands.  And that's just the defense.

On offense, the biggest contract to be negotiated is that of Andrei Kostitsyn, perhaps the most enigmatic player on the Habs roster.  After another year of ups and downs, it's still unclear whether he's going to get better or worse.  All the potential is there, and this year he even showed his ability to be a physical force on the ice. However, he also showed that he could disappear for games on end, or make a multitude of brain cramps in any given game.  He made 3.25M last year, and one would think that his contract won't be going up much.  The question therefore will come down to whether or not there are better options out there for similar amounts of money.   This may not be that obvious a question, because not only may be those options be limited, but those players will also be quite hard to obtain.  It may just be simpler to hold onto Kostitsyn, and hope that he shapes into the power forward he has the potential to become.

After that, there's the case of Benoit Pouliot, who seemed to play himself out of the lineup during the stretch run to the playoffs.  One would assume he's played his last game in a Habs uniform.  David Desharnais is an interesting case.  Everyone marveled at his work ethic and capacity to put up points despite limited ice-time, but the question invariably becomes how he fits into the lineup next year.  With Lars Eller coming into his own as the 3rd line center towards the end of the season, one has to question how realistic it would be to rely on Desharnais, who is barely 5'6, to start as your 4th line center.  If he does make the team next year, I fully expect him to be used as a rover type player, a guy that has no position set in stone.  The same thing could of course be said about checkers Ryan White, Tom Pyatt and Mathieu Darche. White will probably make the team due to his physical capabilities. Darche has the size and hockey IQ to be a solid provider once again.  Pyatt could be on the outside looking in, if only because there are younger, cheaper versions of himself ready to play in Hamilton.  UFA Jeff Halpern looks like he'll be in the position that Dominic Moore was in last year at this time.  The company line will be, "we liked your work, but we've decided to go in a different direction."  This basically means we'll try to replace you with someone younger, and if that doesn't work out, we'll find a veteran kind of like you. 

So that is basically, in a nutshell, what the Canadiens GM will have to deal with, along with the NHL draft, in the coming weeks. If you're exhausted from reading the short novel I just wrote, imagine how exhausting it will be for the guy in charge of making all of these decisions.  So far all of you armchair GM's out there who think you can a better job than Gauthier, maybe it's time to a step back and realize that it's one of the hardest jobs in hockey.  Especially when you consider that one of the most skeptical and critical fan-bases in the world is watching and analyzing your every move, waiting for you to trip up.  So, as Pierre Gauthier gears up for what will be an action-filled couple of months, I wish him the best of luck. He's going to need every ounce of it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Scapegoat, Spacegoat, Martygoat?

Well I'll admit it, Spacek looks bad, looks like he's in training camp trying to get into game-shape in what are the most important games of the year.  He looks slow and a little lost on the ice, a lot of which can be attributed to the fact that he had been out of the lineup for 2 months prior to the playoffs.  So the big question is, with Paul Mara and Yannick Weber lying in wait, 2 players that appear to be more up for the task of 6th defensman, why is Spacek still in the lineup? It seems that Habs fans and media alike have argued about which player(s) are the scapegoats for all the losses this year, but almost everybody can agree that Jacques Martin is the real problem. 

It should have been clear after Weber's goal and solid performance in game 2 that he deserved to be back in the lineup, but he was benched.  It should have been clear that Spacek looked extra rusty in game 3's loss and that it was time to take advantage of their D depth, but no changes were made.  Martin's obsession with giving veterans a limitless leash could very well be the straw that breaks the camel's back.  With that said, my biggest problem with Martin is, and has been all year, his inability to adapt to in-game situations.  Last night was another glaring example of this.  The second the team took a 3-1 lead, which capped off about 7-10 minutes of complete domination, the Habs clearly took their foot off the pedal and resorted back to a completely defensive system. From that point on they never looked the same, and the Bruins began to take control of the game.  The change began immediately after the Bruins timeout, where Julien riled up his team, probably telling them to start playing like the Canadiens.  I don't know what Martin said to his team, if anything at all, but somehow they got the message to start playing like the Bruins. 

The key word here is aggression, or lack there of.  In the first two games, the Habs were super aggressive on the fore-check and one-on-one battles in all three zones.  Not only did this result in great scoring opportunities, but our defense became more aggressive on the puck carrier as well.  When we switch from this aggression to ultra passivity (as seen in the 2nd period of last nights game) the defensemen become nothing more than pylons to shoot around.  The reason Spacek gets caught flat-footed on the Ryder goal is because he is barely moving to begin with.  It's like a goaltender who gives up a goal because he hasn't seen a shot for ten minutes: You're more likely to screw up if you're constantly waiting for the action to come to you, instead of being constantly implicated in it.  That doesn't mean that the d-men need to pinch all the time, or that the forwards always have to fore-check like crazy--no team, especially a smallish one like the Habs can sustain that kind of pressure. However, you're only adding fuel to the fire, i.e. giving the Bruins confidence (that they had little of), by continuously putting no pressure on their D, and letting their forwards walk willy-nilly into our zone, time and time again.  The Habs lost the game because they went into a defensive shell, and it's not the first time we've seen this.  Hopefully if we get a lead of this magnitude again, we'll know how to handle it better, because last night was a complete travesty.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Habs/Bruins: Anger Management

It's been 3 games of pretty intense competition thus far between these two storied franchises. There's been a lot of energy, a lot of nice hits, goals and saves.  Overall, it's been very entertaining, and the casual fan is probably enthralled.  For me though, I sense something integral to the series missing: visible hatred.  Besides two moronic plays, one being Chara rubbing out Plekanec for no apparent reason, and another where Pouliot ran a Bruin player for equally obscure reasons (you'll remember that White had already done the job quite satisfactorily on that play), the series hasn't really displayed any of the anger-filled elements from the regular season series.  Strangely, it appears as though the Canadiens are the more angry and physical team, as if the Bruins are convinced that if they resort to violence they'll lose via the power play.  This strikes me as odd because the Bruins seemed to be an unstoppable force when they controlled the physical side of the game during the regular season.  It would appear that both coaches are instituting their very own schools of anger management, so to not let the series careen out of control.  Sadly, this may mean that the games from this point forward will be, in a word, boring.  If the Bruins start playing Jacques Martin hockey, which is to get the lead and try to stifle the neutral zone, limiting the opportunities for an up-and-down, ebb-and-flow-like game, it could become a real snooze-fest.

Good thing we have the Sharks/Kings to watch.  Last night's game was absolutely absurd.  Here was a case of two teams, the Sharks in the first, and the Kings in the second, completely dropping the ball defensively.  If you're a Habs fan and want to find out what happens when Price doesn't sit on his head, now that was the game for you.  Niemi gave up 4 goals on 10 shots, the goals being the shots that were the toughies, so to speak.  You expect your star goalie to at least make a couple of big saves: he made none.  But who cares about defense, let's talk offense, and in particular the San Jose Sharks.  If you want to know what kind of forwards I'd like to see on the Habs, just to take a quick look at the Sharks second line of Heatley, Couture and Clowe.  Each player can score, hit, pass and control the puck with ease in the down-low cycle. The smallest player on the line: Couture at 6'1 200.  Clowe is like Travis Moen but better at everything, Heatley a 6'2 version of Cammalieri, Couture plays with the same gusto and perseverance as Plekanec, but can actual score on a breakaway. In short they're a dominant trio, and need i remind you, it's the Sharks SECOND line.  Oh to dream...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Habs report: Game 82

The last game of the year has arrived and all I can say is, what a bizarre season it has been.  We currently sit in 6th with 94 points, and considering our two best players have been a goalie and a rookie, I’m surprised we’re not in 12th.  But that’s what the current edition of the Habs are all about: defying the odds and critics alike, every step of the way.  They enter the playoffs as the team nobody is afraid on paper, but for some reason nobody really wants to play.  There are two major reasons for this. One is obviously Carey Price.  He’s the type of goalie that rarely misses a shot that he can see, and has taken his game to a new level this year.  Price used to be a goalie that relied solely on his technique and positioning to stop pucks.  This year he has learnt the art of scrambling and fighting for pucks, making desperation-type saves.  This is bad news for any Hab opponent. The second thing that makes the Canadiens a scary team to play has less to do with the team, and more to do with the arena they play in.  The Bell centre, with its loud and lets face it, annoying fans, can be a very hellish place to play in.  If there’s a packed house that can make you lose your concentration, it’s the Bell Centre.  All the players know it, and they can’t help but think about it when they first step on to the ice. It’s no fluke that the Bruins play so badly in the Bell Centre, and so much better at home.  If the Habs draw the Bruins in the playoffs, it would only make sense that the series would go the distance. There are few teams in any sport that have a fan base as passionate as these two clubs. After all that has gone on between these teams all year long, it would be fitting to see them go head-to-head in the first round—any sports fan would tend to agree.

As for tonight’s game, well it would be nice to see some actual chemistry on the Plekanec line.  I feel like they’re close, but not quite there yet.  Getting a goal (or two) tonight against a Leafs team that will definitely not be going through the motions, would be a huge plus going into the playoffs.  Another player I’d like to see have a strong game is Benoit Pouliot.  He’s looked completely out of sorts lately, nothing like the Pouliot we saw at the beginning of the year, when he was scoring important goals and being a fore-checking nuisance for opposing defenses.  Maybe he needs his old linemates Mathieu Darche and Jeff Halpern to get going, I don’t know.  What I do know Is that he’s a player that can get hot and be a serious thorn in the side of opponents, but unfortunately can be the complete opposite as well; as in a player that takes bad penalties and does nothing but hurt his own team.  He’s the type of role player that can make a huge difference, good or bad, in the upcoming playoffs.  Besides that, I hope to see the Canadiens, win or lose, put in a playoff-type performance tonight.  They aren’t a team that can afford to put up a stinker in its last game, and go into the playoffs doubting their own abilities.  Being supremely confident is not one of their top qualities, and if there’s a playoff-bound team out there that needs to end the season on a positive note, it’s the Canadiens. So regardless of how little this game might mean in the standings or whom they play, to win tonight’s game would be a boon for the team psychologically, if nothing else.  And as I’ve said before, the mental aspect of the game, being zoned in and confident in yourself and your teammates, has proven to be the ultimate factor in winning or losing, in all sports.  In a league like the current NHL, one that is the poster child for parity, the mental edge is, in my opinion, the ultimate intangible for who comes out on top. One only has to look at the Montreal Canadiens’ run last year to the Conference Finals, or perhaps their unexpected Stanley Cup victory in 1993, to see that the proof is undoubtedly in the pudding.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I got a feeling...

Ooooooh oooooooh, that tonight we actually score a goal!  I know, I got big dreams.  But seriously, tonight's gonna be a good night... Okay I'll stop. So everyone's going berserk over the line changes tonight; why would you split them up, why would you put him with him, bla bla bla...  Listen, when a team plays their butts off, wins the majority of puck battles in all zones, and does all the little things right--it practically doesn't matter what the lines are.  Martin knows that Eller and AK work well together; but he also knows that 2 guys who can only score goals against the other team's worst players, aren't going to win you the cup. So here's another shot for AK to play in the top 6 and prove that he can score against the big boys.  In order to win more than a couple of games in the playoffs, the guys who get paid the big bucks have to be our best players--there's no way around it.  When Pittsburgh won the cup 2 years ago, Max Talbot played great, but Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Gonchar and Staal were still the team's best players.  So for those of you who think that the answer to our problems is playing Eller and Desharnais 20 minutes a game, White 18, and Gomez 12, well you're just flat wrong.  And please don't put Subban in the same category as the guys i just mentioned, because we all know that maybe he's the best skater we've drafted since maybe LeClair and Desjardins in '87. He can play 25 minutes a game in the playoffs as a rookie because he's just that good. Eller, Desharnais and White are just not there yet, and it seems like only me, Martin and the coaching staff are aware of that.  So be it.

Mark my words: if we're celebrating a first round victory approximately a month from now, it will be because we got serious production from our top line guys, and not because a bunch of rookies put the team on their backs.  I know it's every Gomez hater's wet dream to see him ride the pine while Desharnais scores points in bunches during the playoffs, but it's just not happening.  Reality bites I know; but at least you don't wake up from a great dream and start crying because you realize in a flash that it's not real.  So you can drink from my bittersweet Gomez oasis or stay in your dreamy, Eller mirage. It's up to you.  Just don't expect me to let you on the Gomez/Gionta/Cammy bandwagon when we leave town for round 2.  This bus is full; no room for haters.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Habs go Wild in Minnesota

Um, didn’t see that one coming.  Honestly, I’m always surprised when the Habs score more than 3 goals, let alone 8, and that with a full line-up. Scoring 8 goals without 8 regulars is kind of well, absurd, but I’m not complaining.  It was clearly a game where one team, the Wild, pretty much gave up playing after the first minute of play.  Minnesota is currently in that in-between zone, too good to be considered spoilers, and not good enough to be considered playoff contenders.   It’s really the last place you want to be in, emotionally speaking.  Around a week ago they were fighting for a playoff spot, and right in the thick of it.  But after their recent streak of losses, it’s pretty much clear that it’s not going to happen for them, and last night’s game was a collective swan song.  You can never say that a team has completely given up on the season, but the Wild are as close as you can get to that.  The Canadiens took full advantage of the situation, as they should have, and got the much needed two points.  The Habs are still on the outside looking in for the coveted 4-5 spot in the conference, a position that would greatly enhance their chances of passing on to the second round.  As it stands, fate seems to have the Habs barreling head long into a match-up with the Bruins, either with home-ice advantage or not.  Hard to know if that would be good or bad news, but I bet if you ask Montreal players their opinion on the subject, they’d probably say they relish the chance at beating Boston.  Personally I’d rather avoid them, but I know that’s a just due to the worry of getting another one of our players severely concussed.  Because besides that, Montreal has for the most part handled the Bruins quite well this season.  The team that looks the most dangerous at the moment seems to be the Capitals, who have to learnt how to win the close games by playing actual defense.

Personally, I’m at the point where I’ve decided that any kind of winning in the playoffs, be it a couple of games let alone rounds, is pure gravy for this season.  With all the injuries, horrible misfortunes, and under-performances by key players, this team has incredibly overachieved this year.  It’s almost a carbon copy of my Louisville Cardinals, and when they lost in their first round game, I was sad but not altogether surprised.  Overacheiving takes a lot out of you, and sometimes you simply have nothing left in the tank by season’s end.  So here’s hoping the Habs do well in the playoffs, but I think we should all tip our hat to the coaching staff and the GM, for just making the playoffs in the first place—a remarkable accomplishment in itself due to the calamity which was and is the Canadiens 2010-2011 season.  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Canadian Jinx

So it's official: I royally jinxed the teams with Canadian players.  Texas, Syracuse and Gonzaga all lost this weekend, Texas and Syracuse losing in close games, both coming down to the final seconds.  The good news is that besides Richmond winning, I failed to notice that there is also a Canadian on Marquette (who beat Syracause), named Junior Cadougan.  Of course now that I've mentioned him, I guess I've basically given his team a death sentence!

P.S. Virginia Commonwealth is this year's cinderella. They just destroyed #4 seed Purdue, and will go on to face fellow underdog #10 Florida State in the Sweet 16. Richmond will take on #1 Kansas, while Marquette gets #2 seed North Carolina.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cards lose; who to root for now?

Well with my team out, I guess you could say that "March Madness" has morphed into "March Sadness." Louisville failed my no.1 key to winning, with both Siva and Knowles getting into foul trouble, and worse, Knowles having to leave the game with 8 minutes left due to injury.

So what now? Hard to watch any sport without anyone to root for, even something as exciting as the NCAA tournament.  My solution is pretty simple: Go Canada!  I'm not the most patriotic person when it comes to politics, but when it comes to sports I become fanatical.  Fortunately here, there's actually some really good Canadian talent in the tournament, talent that has already helped 4 teams advance on to the round of 32.  Texas, Syracuse, Gonzaga and Richmond all have key Canadian members, some of which have NBA aspirations as well.  Here's a quick peak at them:

1. Texas's duo of 2010 McDonald's All-Americans Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph.  

Texas is my dark horse team to win it all, and a big reason is because of these two freshmen Toronto natives. Thompson is a power forward that does everything on the floor, defensively and offensively.  In the first game against Oakland, he scored 17, brought down 10 boards and blocked an eye-opening 7 shots.  Joseph might not be as impressive as his teammate, but he's certainly been as effective, averaging just 1.5 turnovers a game manning the point. A big guard, Joseph is relied on a lot (32.3 minutes per game) despite his freshman status, and is a very good 3-point shooter, averaging 41%.  This duo, along with sophomore star Jordan Hamilton are all 3 potential lottery picks as early as next year, with Thompson projecting to be a top 5 pick if he forgoes his final 3 years.  Definitely an exciting team to watch!

Edit: Thompson said today that he’ll be back for another year at least, making Texas almost a lock for a top 5 preseason pick next year.  Another All-American Torontonian, guard Myck Kabongo, joins the mix next year, which might force them to change their name from Texas to the Toronto Longhorns!

2. Kris Joseph, Syracuse Orangeman

Kris Joseph is small forward that can do it all, and is extremely difficult to guard because of his dribbling and post-up abilities. What makes matters worse for defenders is the fact he can also effectively stroke the 3, averaging 37% for the season. Joseph led the Orange with a 14.4 clip, and was second in rebounding, averaging 5 a game.  Joseph is from my hometown of Montreal, and will probably be the first Montrealer to be drafted in the 1st round, ever.  Definitely hard to not root for this guy!

3. Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk, Mangisto Arop, Gonzaga Bulldogs

Senior Robert Sacre is the heart and soul of the Bulldogs up front, averaging 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game.  Youngsters Olynyk and Arop come in off the bench and play far less, but are quite impactful when they get their opportunities.  Gonzaga were among the most impressive teams in their easy first round victory over favorite St. John’s, and though not favored to beat BYU in the next round, are picked by many experts to win the tilt.

4.  Francis Cedric Martel, Richmond Spiders

Though not nearly as highly touted as the other Canucks mentioned above, Montreal-born Martel, a junior forward who comes in off the bench, is intriguing player to watch this tournament.  In his first game against favored Vanderbilt, Martel knocked down 4 3-pointers, grabbed 5 boards and blocked 2 shots, giving him possibly his best career performance.  The Spiders are being talked about as a potential Cinderella team, and they have a good chance of continuing on to the Sweet 16 with a match-up against Morehead State tonight. 

You can catch the Richmond/Morehead State and Gonzaga/BYU games tonight, starting at 5:15 and 7:45 respectively.   In Sunday's games, Texas plays Arizona at 6:10, while Syracuse takes on Marquette at 7:45.

Monday, March 14, 2011

How Louisville can win it all

To be honest, they probably won't win.  Even as a diehard fan, I can't sit here and say with a straight face that I actually think they'll win. There are far too many things working against them, or have been working against them all year long.   Right off the top, Louisville is missing 4 potentially key pieces, players that could have made a huge difference this year.  Two big guards, Memphis 6'5 transfer Robert Sallie (who averaged 10.5pts last season) and top 50 recruit Justin Coleman (also 6'5) failed to join the club due to academic restraints.  Top returning rebounder Jared Swopshire had a sports hernia injury in the summer that he was supposed to recover from in December.  He never came back, and is out for the year.  Next in line to fill in for Swopshire was last year's top recruit Rakeem Buckles, and he did an admirable job, unitl he too got injured.  Buckles has been injured most of the year, and will also not be participating in the tournament.  So there you have it:  two top rebounders and two potentially influential big guards that basically never played for the team this year.  Instead, its been a bunch of guys that no one really expected to play much this year that have picked up the slack.  Guys like Gorgui Dieng, Chris Smith, and Stephen Van Treese have all gotten the job done off the bench, and all the guards have stepped up their defense game to help out on the boards.  It's required an effort level that most players on other teams would not have been willing to give, but that's what makes this Louisville squad special.  Despite their obvious lack of talent and size, they've overcome the odds all year long.  So can they keep it going?  Well let's just say a whole lot has to go right.  Here's how I think it's possible:

1.) Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles must stay out of foul trouble 

Everything on offense flows from these two players.  The Cards are a team that live and die by the three, and not many teams have players who can dribble, drive and kick as well as these two guys can.  If both Knowles and Siva can avoid fouls early, they will be in good shape against anyone, even Kansas.  The problem that they face is that most of their fouls occur while implementing Pitino's frenetic defense.  Pitino tries to get opposing offenses to speed up their dribble which causes turnovers, but on the negative side it results in a lot of blocking, and other ticky-tack fouls.  It will be up to Siva and Knowles to put the pressure on all game, without taking needless fouls.  Against the best guards in the country, this will require defensive gems from both of them, and I think they're capable of doing it, especially Knowles who's in his last year.

2.) Terrence Jennings must play defense and rebound

Simply put, Jennings needs to be a monster in the paint area.  Nobody else has the talent or size inside to make a difference on the boards, with the exception of  Dieng's blocking prowess.  Jennings has been improving all year long so i think he's up for the challenge, but there will be little room for error against the Kansas's and Ohio State's of the world.

3.) The three-point shooters must continue to be good

I wouldn't even be talking about the Cards right now if it wasn't for their prowess behind the arc this year.  What makes the Cards so dangerous is that they have so many guys who can shoot the 3 well.  Smith, Kuric, Knowles and Marra have all been lights out at different times during the year.

4.) Controlling the pace

Louisville is a team that has made a name for itself all year long by putting up points in spurts, and the only way to do that is to turn the game into a track meet.  The vast majority of the games they lost this year were played at a snail pace.  Upping the tempo will have to be their goal in every game, no matter who they play.

If all four of these criteria are met, Louisville will either win or barely lose against anyone in the country. You have my word on it.  The amount of effort it requires, physically and psychologically, is enormous, but if there was a team to do it, it would be this Pitino-coached team.  He's said himself that he's never had a team play as a whole as much as this squad, and for a guy who has 5 final fours and a national championship under his belt, that's saying a lot.  We'll find out soon enough if all that hard work will amount to anything.  Either way, they've already accomplished much more than anyone, including themselves could have ever imagined.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Looking for respite?

If you're like one of my friends who has basically had it with the NHL and is looking for another sport to watch, I have two words for you: March Madness.  To me, this annual American college basketball tournament, involving now 68 teams, is unrivaled in terms of excitement and drama.  For those of you who fell in love with this past Olympics, this is probably as close as it gets.  Of the over a 1,000 athletes that take part in this tournament (and the weeks that lead up to it), only a small percentage ever become NBA players.  For most of the kids taking part, this is their one big chance to do something great on a big stage, their one opportunity to shine.  Kids are not playing for money, they're not playing for a contract; it's all about the team and winning for your fans; the essential nature of what sports is supposed to be about.

For those not acquainted to the game of college basketball, well try to learn the rules--it's worth it.  Go to this link: for a quick briefing on the ins-and-outs of the game.

The tournament begins next Thursday, March 17th, with conference tournaments currently underway across the nation.

NHL 100% to blame for latest calamity

Over the past couple of days i have spent countless hours listening to talk radio, watching hockey analysts, and talking to friends about what unfolded at the Bell Centre Tuesday night.  I'm exhausted.  My opinion is this: Zdeno Chara should have been suspended for his illegal hit on Max Pacioretty, regardless of his intent.  To say that what he did was a split-second, in the heat of the play type act does not get him off the hook.  You could say that every hit from behind that has resulted in a suspension was also non-premeditated, and also simply in the heat of the moment.  They all still got suspended.  The problem here is that like Richards' hit on Booth and Cooke's hit on Savard last year, they didn't have a rule in place to correctly penalize the offender.  They changed the rule after the Cooke hit to make any hit to the head illegal and liable for suspension.  But it was too late, the damage had already been done; Savard is currently at home suffering headaches every day, his life in shambles.  And now this, a "hockey play" that has resulted in Max Pacioretty being millimeters away from paralysis.  Well maybe after enough outcry they may change the rules once again, but again, it will be too late.  The league has proven time and again that they're not forward thinking, that they simply react and repair.  When someone eventually gets killed on the ice what will they do then?  How do you repair a situation like that?  I wouldn't mind hearing Gary Bettman's answer to that question.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Barcelona tops 10-men Arsenal

Well, all i can say is this: Most teams can barely contain Barcelona with eleven men. With ten, it's basically football suicide. That said, Arsenal strategy out of the gate was a little odd. You'd think that their goal would have been to get a quick away goal THEN sit back and play defense for the rest of the game, but this was definitely not the case.  For almost the entire first half, Barcelona seemed to be in complete control, with Arsenal rarely connecting on a pass on the rare occasion they had the ball.  Still, Arsenal's defense had been doing a remarkably good job of limiting any real scoring chances by the Camp Nou side.  It was an eventual brain cramp by Fabregas at the tail end of the first half that put Barca ahead, with Messi finishing beautifully.
The second half could not have started any better for Arsenal.  On basically their first scoring chance of the entire game, Busquets headed into his own net on a corner, and suddenly Arsenal was back into the lead on aggregate.  But then the unthinkable: Robin Van Persie is caught offside on a through-ball and kicks the ball wide.  Van Persie, who had already received a yellow in the first half, is sanctioned again for kicking the ball after the whistle, and subsequently booted from the game.  Considering that there was 98,000 fans screaming all at once, you could understand Van Persie frustration, that there was a good chance he couldn't hear the whistle.  A pretty harsh decision by the ref, considering the importance of the game.  Yes, the referee was simply following the rulebook to a tee, but you'd think there would be a certain amount leniency in such a situation. But there was none, and the game took an understandably sharp turn in Barcelona's favor. Within 10 minutes Barcelona had already scored twice, and the game was quickly out of Arsenal's reach.  You could say that Barcelona looked like they were going to win anyway, but the fact of the matter is that Arsenal had a huge advantage with the own goal by Busquets, and the game changed completely with a very questionable decision by the referee.  For sports fans, its always a disappointment for a game to be decided by the officials, as was the case here.  As for me, obvious disappointment as my favorite player and team are now out of the competition...