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.