Thursday, January 19, 2012

Quick notes from last night...

5 on 5:  When you outshoot the opponents 30-16, you can't be playing that bad.  Sure we had a ridiculously long PP in the 3rd, but it's not like a bulk of shots came from that (i'll get to that in a minute).  In general, we played the right way all game long, which is to say we fore-checked well, we created opportunities in around the net, and we limited the Caps' scoring chances.  Unfortunately nothing went in, and the very few scoring chances the visitors had, they scored on.  Washington has a very deep squad with a lot of highly skilled players, and it showed last night.  The goals scored by Perreault and Johannson were ones you'd rarely see a Habs player score.  The goal scored by Ovechkin was a picture perfect slap shot with an equally perfect screen.

The game overall reminded me a bit of our playoff tilt with the Caps 2 years ago, except with the roles reversed.  There, it seemed like the Capitals game plan was shoot as often as possible and hope for the best.  The Habs game plan was hit them hard in transition and win with speed and skill.  Last night Washington scored exactly that way, taking full advantage on the counter attack on the few chances they had.  Did they win? Yes.  Did they play much better? Not really.

The PP:  What can you say anymore?  They literally have no idea what they're doing.  Mix that in with not a lot of great PP threats and you have a real problem on your hands.

Solutions?  Do some research and change it up.  I remember telling a friend in November (or maybe even October) that they should watch tape of other teams and take some notes.  Vancouver was an example of a team to check out, but maybe that was mistake because we have nothing that resembles their players on our team.  Unfortunately, after a quick look around the league for similar quality players on the blueline and upfront, I came up with the Phoenix Coyotes.  Where do the Coyotes sit in PP percentage? 29th, just ahead of us.  So scratch that.  How about the NY Islanders? They currently sit 6th in the NHL at 19.4%. That's pretty darn good.  They have Mark Streit on D who is obviously quite good, but not really anyone that much better than us on D.  Our forwards stack up pretty evenly, so then it must just come down to execution.  I'm pretty sure that if Cunneyworth watched tape of their PP, one thing would become abundantly clear:  They hit the net on a regular basis from the points.  I could probably count on two hands the amount of wrist shots PK Subban has successfully hit the net with on the PP.  To me, him and Weber are the big reason why they struggle so much.  They simply don't have the wherewithal to consistently get the puck on net--it just doesn't come naturally to them.

Before this year, the Canadiens had traded for or signed a PP shooter early on in the season or just before.  In succession, they acquired Mathieu Schneider, M.A. Bergeron, and James Wisniewski.  All three of these players greatly improved the Habs PP.  I remember it being night and day last year with the acquisition of Wisniewski, where we had gone 0 for god knows how many before picking him up.  He instantly changed the fortune of the team.

This year? Tomas Kaberle.  Since his arrival I think our team and PP has gotten worse.  People would have laughed, but I bet this team would have been better off with Brian McCabe right now.  As old and horrible as he is defensively, at least he could do the one thing none of the Habs' D seem able to do. Hit the net.

Hit the net. What a concept.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bourque is a nice pickup

Remember how happy you were when we signed Erik Cole earlier this year? Well, trading for Rene Bourque 6 months later is not a whole lot different.  Let me explain.

Rene Bourque and Erik Cole are essentially the same type of player.  One is faster (Cole), and the other is more physical (Bourque), but in the end they amount to the same type of player and production.  They both like to drive the net with speed, and muck it up in front of the net.

They are exactly what this team needs, and it shows that Pierre Gauthier is finally getting it.

So why do most pundits say Calgary won this trade?

Well, quite simply, it's the year of picking on the Habs organization, so get used to hearing how much of a failure they are.  Every year, Canadian sports journalists (save those in Quebec) pick the Habs to miss the playoffs (or just sneak in), and this year they finally got their wish.  It's a banner year for talking heads covering hockey, in large part due to the Canadiens' horrible season.  Instead of eating their words, they've had chance after chance to gloat about how right they were about the team's failure, from the players right up to the ownership group (see Mike Milbury on CBC).

Last night's game was a good example of what happens when each line shows up to play.  You could look at the stats from the game and say that the Desharnais line did everything, but there's so much more to it than that.  One line cannot be effective if the other three are useless.  Of course that's obvious, but that's the story of the Canadiens season thus far.  Most games that I've watched have consisted of one, maybe two lines each game putting pressure on the opposing defense.  This, in my opinion, is the major reason why they lose more often than not.

You can point your finger at the defense all you want, and I guess that's the easy thing to do.  After all, they're young, small, and easily pushed around.  But the big reason to why they've looked bad this year is because they're overworked due to the offense's ineffectiveness.

Think of an ineffective offense in football as a good analogy.  If your offense is bad in football, it usually means that your defense is on the field way too much.  When your defense is always on the field, the consequences are obvious. You get tired. You get beat up.  You get ineffective.

The same happens in hockey, but in perhaps a less blatant way.  All those shifts where the forwards don't fore-check, don't pressure the defense, and basically spend no time in the other team's zone, basically mean that the defense is working overtime.  This has been the Habs' season in nutshell.

Last night was an example of the opposite.  Why don't we see it more often?  Who knows.  I will say this though:  What Randy Cunneyworth did in last night's game, where he benched Lars Eller for a whole period, showed to me that the coach means business.  He's setting the precedent for the consequences of not working every shift.  Eventually this should sink in with all the players, and there will probably be a greater chance of seeing games like we saw last night.

One can only hope.  The good news is that they we ridded ourselves of a player who clearly had no intention of getting the message.

Will Bourque be as hard-headed? Maybe.  But at least he costs 2,700,000$ less.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Michael “Untradeable?” Cammalleri… Traded

Okay, so I know I said yesterday that I thought a bunch of players on the Montreal Canadiens were immovable, and that near the top of that list was Michael Cammalleri.  I looked at his contract, his play over the last year or so, and really couldn’t see another GM trading for him.  It would take a miracle.  It would take a GM maybe more desperate than ours to make it happen. 

Well it happened.  Jay Feaster, GM of the Calgary Flames needed to shake things up nearly as badly as we did, enough so that he traded for a 6m$ player that has scored 9 goals in 38 games year.  The only good news about Cammalleri is that he’s scored near 40 goals playing for the Flames and his partner in crime, Jarome Iginla.  To me, though, the good news ends there.  It seems strange that most pundits believe it’s more a shoe-in for Cammalleri to succeed post-trade than it is for Rene Bourque. What exactly are they basing this on? Scoring totals from three years ago? Playoff performances two years ago?  Is anyone looking at the current versions of these players?

All I’m hearing is the bad things about Bourque, how he doesn’t care, he’s a headcase, etc,. Well just because Kelly Hrudey had nothing bad to say about Cammalleri, doesn’t mean his “care meter” wasn’t also severly broken.  Will he do better in Calgary? Probably.  But the more important question for Habs fans should be: was he ever going to get better here? I seriously doubt it.

You can say all you want about how badly Gauthier handled the optics of this trade, as well as the dual firings earlier in the year, but as far as this trade is concerned, I like it.

If you read my last blog, I made it pretty clear that Cammalleri was not part of the solution in Montreal.  What’s worse, his gigantic contract was going to inhibit management from potentially bringing back, or bringing in certain players.  Cammalleri is, and always has been, a player that’s needed the perfect storm to be at his best. 

Sure, you can say the same about a lot of players, but maybe no more so than this player.  His game is a lot like Brett Hull’s, a player that made a name for himself with his rocket of a shot, and being in the right place at the right time to unleash it.  The problem is that Hull scored the bulk of his goals in an era where goalies weren’t as good, nor were their defenses (or more specifically, defensive systems).  Like Cammalleri, he scored the bulk of his goals from outside the hashmarks with one-timers.

 I don’t have statistical analysis on this, but it seems to me that goalies aren’t giving up nearly as many goals from those spots.  And if Cammalleri isn’t scoring from those spots, he’s simply not scoring at all.  That is unless he decides to suddenly work harder to get to the dirtier areas (a.k.a. near the net) to score goals.  If he does, it will simply be another example of a player who gave up trying in Montreal (see Ryder, Kostitsyn, Ribeiro), and turned it around with another team.  Can’t really blame the GM for that, can you?

So out goes Cammalleri and his 6M/a year contract through the 2013/2014 season, a 2012 5th round pick, and the rights to KHL goalie Karri Ramo.  In comes Bourque, paid 3.33M a year through 2014-15, a 2nd rounder in 2013 and center Patrick Holland, a 7th rounder in 2010, and currently 9th in WHL scoring with 57 points in 40 games.  If someone told me that we traded Cammalleri for Patrick Holland and a 2nd round pick, I probably wouldn’t be thrilled, but at least I would take solace in the fact that we shed salary, and that would be a victory in itself.  The fact that we got Bourque as well was just icing on the cake.  You can say what you want about the guy, but the facts are these: He can score goals, and score them in places where a lot of our players are scared to go. 

Is he inconsistent: yes. 

Does he do stupid things once in a while: yes. 

But is he better player for the current Montreal Canadiens than Michael Cammalleri? 

I believe so.  The Canadiens are a team that needs to get bigger, but more importantly, without clear superstar-type players, they need to shed guys that are one-dimensional.  Rene Bourque might not be the hardest worker, but he adds more than one dimension to the team, something that is already a step up from Cammalleri.  He has size, strength and goal-scoring ability.  Both players have been accused of disappearing at times, but at least Bourque can lean on the defence a bit, can be asked to just forecheck if nothing else is working, and he’ll be more effective than Cammalleri.  The worst kind of player to have on your team is a one-trick pony, and that’s exactly what Cammalleri is.

The best part about this trade though is the monetary implications.  We just lost a player that was out-scored 67-54 by his trade counterpart.  The only thing he beats Bourque on is his pay rate, which is 2.7m$ more a year.  Before this trade was completed, I had serious doubts about whether or not Andrei Kostitsyn could be re-signed for next year.  With the money saved on the Cammalleri deal, they're now well on their way to bringing him back.  Like him or not, Kostitsyn is one of the few Hab players that has improved this year.  He has obvious chemistry with Eller, and it would be a shame to ship out a player who’s finally starting to really come in to his own.  As Eller improves so too will Kostitsyn, and both their point totals will go up subsequently.  Kostitsyn will not cost a king’s ransom to keep (between 3.5-4m a year), simply because he’s not having a great year point-wise.  To add to that, I seriously doubt we’ll find a player on the free agent market who’s as good as Kostitsyn at that price.  So if it means we traded Cammalleri to keep Kostitsyn, it’s a win for us.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mid-Season Habs Report:  Injuries and bad luck mask the truth

As I write this report, just minutes before what would usually be a much-anticipated battle with the Canadiens’ archrival the Bruins, I find myself queerly detached from tonight’s tilt.  In truth, the most interesting Montreal news of the day had to do with another sport entirely, soccer, where the Montreal Impact made their first ever draft selection, Andrew Wenger (1st pick overall). 
To be honest, the best thing about the usually Habs-crazed months of March and April will be the Impact this year.  Will they be any good? Odds are not in their favor.  But at least there will be an abundance of hope and buzz, words that can’t be associated with Nos Glorieux at the moment.

If this sounds like I’m giving up on the team this year, it’s probably because I am.  It hasn’t been a good year, and my crystal ball predicts it won’t get much better.  For the first time in a few years the team hasn’t overachieved, hasn’t pulled wins out of their butt, hasn’t held the fort against other, equally average teams.  It’s been a year of realization for the team (or so we hope): they’re not nearly as good as they thought they were.

On the flip side, it’s been a great year for almost all our prospects.  Greg Pateryn (2008 2nd) and Mac Bennett (2009 3rd) are the top D pairing for the always dominant, Michigan Wolverines.  Morgan Ellis (2010 4th) is one of the best two–way d-men in the Q, and after a trade to the Shawinigan Cataractes, will get his shot to show his class on the national stage at the Memorial Cup.  As will teammate Michael Bournival (2010 3rd), who is fresh off his solid performance at the WJC.  Speaking of the WJC, Nathan Beaulieu (2011 1st) and Brendan Gallagher (2010 5th) also made the team, with the latter notably having a monster game in the semifinal tilt against the Russians.  Other notables having solid seasons are Danny Kristo (2008 2nd), Steve Qualier (2008 3rd), and Darren Dietz (2011 5th).

If it sounds like my gushing over prospects is a way of deflecting from the actual misery of the big club, it’s probably because I am.   Can you blame me?  I mean, who wants to talk about a team that relies on Travis Moen to score goals?  Who’s best overall d-man is Josh Gorges?  Who’s best forward is Erik Cole?  In what world does that sound like a recipe for success?

The truth is, we are in the midst of one of our worst seasons in years.  And I’m not just talking about the team on the ice: I’m talking about the organization as a whole.  It all began with the ill-advised re-signing of Andrei Markov who has yet to play a game this season.  To make matters worse, The Canadiens went ahead and traded for another bad contract, Tomas Kaberle, a so-so d-man that they are now stuck with for 2 ½ years. We re-signed Josh Gorges, which is good. However, the contracts signed to Kaberle, Markov and eventually Price and Subban, will probably mean the departures of two our better players this year, Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen. 

Michael Cammalleri is having a horrible season.  He somehow has nine goals; I have no idea how he scored them because he seems so disinterested in playing hockey this year, he must have scored them through osmosis.  Brian Gionta, who now looks to be lost for the year, is having a similarly disappointing year, production wise.  The effort is there, but nothing else it seems.  The same can be said for Tomas Plekanec.  Lots of effort, little results.  And that’s just the thing with this team: there’s just only so much you can do when you’re short on talent.  From the looks of it, our two most talented forwards (Eller and Kostitsyn) play together on the 3rd line.  With Markov out, we probably have the league least talented D corps in the league.  P.K. Subban?  He’s pretty good but would probably be the 4th best D on almost any other team.  Here, he’s treated and utilized like our no.1.

Getting the picture? We simply don’t have that good a team.  Certain players are underachieving  (Cammalleri, Gionta, Plekanec), but then again, there are those who are overachieving as well (Desharnais, Cole, Eller).  What it all amounts to is a team that is still miles away from contending for a cup. 

But it’s not necessarily as simple a problem as we need more talent to succeed.  If that were the case, we could probably be a contender as early as next year.  Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.   There’s the small issue of our untradeable players.  Let me introduce you to the following players signed for the next 2 ½ years: Michael Cammalleri (6M a year), Scott Gomez (7.3M a year), Tomas Kaberle (4.25M a year) Andrei Markov (5.75M a year) and Brian Gionta (5M a year). That’s 28.3M$.  That’s a lot of dough being tied up into players that are pretty useless at the moment. 

No other team in the league is suffering from such a problem at the moment.  Even Anaheim, who are having a rough season, are getting way more bang for their buck from their stars then we are.  What it all means is two things:  Not only are we handcuffed financially from improving our club, but we’re also stuck having to play these players for the foreseeable future.  Want to see Brendan Gallagher play right wing next year? I know I do.  But where?  Unless Gionta and Cammalieri get injured or sent to the minors, there’s simply no room for Gallagher on the team.   The same goes for almost any other burgeoning prospect in our system.  They’re all stuck waiting in queue behind a bunch of overpaid, underachieving players that are currently immovable objects.

Sadly, I have more bad news.  Unless the organization pulls a rabbit out of the hat and magically makes a couple of these horrid contracts disappear, I’ll probably be writing an identical mid-season report next year…