Monday, 22 September 2014

Canadiens get some fresh digs, and a fresh new left winger?

Watching L'Antichambre can be a frightful slog sometimes, and you end up giving your thumb a vigourous workout on the remote, doing reps on the skip button, but tonight's installment was enjoyable.  They had as a guest Pierre Houde, and his dignified manner and speaking voice are always a treat.

During a discussion on the energy, talent, and potential of Nikita Scherbak, the panelists were in agreement that they should rein in their enthusiasm, since there are only a couple of spots available on the team, so it's a fait acompli that he's headed back to the WHL.

Or is it?  Which is what Mr. Houde interjected, in his polite, deferential tone, that Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien have been emphatic since they took office that they wouldn't deviate from the plan, the goal, which is to win the Stanley Cup.  He continued that they've taken big or controversial decisions before, without giving examples, but I imagine one he was thinking of was keeping Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk after the training camp which followed Gary Bettman's Third Lockout.

He finished by saying that a natural response after the success of last spring, coming so close to the Stanley Cup Final, would have been to try to recapture the magic, keep that team intact, and take a run at it again this year.  Instead, the team has undergone a significant change, with a multitude of players being churned.  That in his mind indicates fresh thinking, and a management team that sticks to its convictions.

François Gagnon then discussed the new dressing room and the new digs at the New Forum.  Apparently, the dressing room has been doubled in size, and major improvements have been made to the training and physio areas, the lounge where the players take their meals, among others.  This started from a simple conversation this spring, when Pierre Gervais, the equipment manager, was approached by team owner Geoff Molson, who asked him where the facilities ranked with respect to the rest of the league.  Mr. Gervais replied that when the team moved from the Forum, the new facility was at the very top, but twenty years on was now in the bottom third.  At which point, apparently, Mr. Molson sent out a memo and started cutting cheques, and presto, we did a reno.

It's refreshing when we compare to certain organizations which can't get out of their own way.  We can think of Charles Wang who wouldn't spend his own money to improve Nassau Coliseum or build himself a new rink, and for decades has run a laughingstock of a team.  Instead, Geoff Molson, if we are to trust the anecdote as factual, made a decision and got quick results, instead of studying and hemming and hawing.  And this was not driven by complaints, as far as we know, but from Mr. Molson's attention to detail, and desire to run a first-class organization.

And, as all the panelists agree, not only is the renovated facility going to be an attractant for free agents, and a tool for re-signing our own players, but I have to think that the mentality, the way the Canadiens conduct business, is refreshing and will win over players.

Canadiens won't have an enforcer, will use 'team toughness' concept in 2014-15

As relates to the toughness-goon question, and whether the Canadiens will import an enforcer at this late stage to start the season, Dave Morrissette asked Marc Bergevin that very question during their interview.  Mr. Bergevin said that he discussed this with Michel Therrien, and they feel comfortable going into the year with the roster they have.  He says Michel Therrien wants to roll four lines, and that they'll use a 'team toughness' concept.

So it seems that Marc Bergevin isn't biding his time to pick up an enforcer from a cap-strapped team, as we we sort of assuming.  He mentioned that the team will have more size generally, and specifically referred to Dale Weise as one example.  The simple subtraction of Daniel Brière, Brian Gionta and even Josh Gorges, all of who will be replaced by players of a larger stature, will ensure the team isn't such a small team, such an inviting target.

This team toughness approach doesn't worry me when it comes to playing a team like the Sharks if they dress John Scott, for example, he'll know he doesn't have a partner to dance with, will generally be unable to catch up to anyone with the puck, and any of his three or four minutes of icetime will be clearly in our advantage.  What I'm more concerned with are the teams like the Bruins and Flyers (as always), teams that have some behemoths who actually play for them and who we know from empirical evidence are much more tame when a Douglas Murray and George Parros is cruising the ice occasionally.

I'm also concerned that our pugilists aren't up to snuff, even to the moderate level we've decided to aspire to.  Brandon Prust is a willing combatant, and is very skilled at it.  I'm not as fatalistic as everyone seems to be that he's 'done'.  Sure he had a difficult season last year, but that doesn't mean his career is over, or his shoulders are shot, as a lot of aspiring Dr. Recchis are quick to assume.  I'd just like him to tone it down a bit, he has nothing to prove.  He can answer the bell, but maybe not go looking for trouble, or starting it, or accommodating young up-and-comers who want to make a name for themselves.

Travis Moen and Dale Weise aren't very good scrappers.  Travis is big and tough, but he's getting up in years and lost a bit of nasty.  The elephant in the room is whether his next concussion will be his last, or even whether the last one should have been.  Two seasons ago, Travis had a poor season, and caught some heat for not 'stepping up' sometimes, but that changed last season, he seemed more ready to take up some of the load.  I deduced, from what insiders were saying and from his behaviour, that he didn't mind being a bit player behind a George Parros, as long as he had support by the likes of Brandon, Douglas Murray, Jarred Tinordi, etc.  It'll be interesting to see if he'll be reluctant once again to tangle with heavyweights, whether he decides that this isn't his job, that he'll take on a Johnny Boychuk or an Evander Kane, but a Matt Kassian is out of his league, and not part of his job description.

Dale Weise had a big impact on the team upon his arrival last season, and it was discussed at length how he's best used as a fourth-line forechecker and energy player, but was miscast when asked to be a scrapper by Mike Gillis, Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella.  It's strange that he couldn't refocus his game once Tom Sestito joined the team, or that he wasn't allowed to.  In any case, Dale can cancel out another team's middleweight, he can answer the bell, but that's about the extent of his expected contribution to the cause.  Which could/should be enough, hopefully.

Another player this team toughness philosophy will affect is Jarred Tinordi.  This will play in his favour, in that in his training camp battle with Nathan Beaulieu for the available third-pairing job, he can bring a lot of snarl to the table.  If we had an extra Mike McPhee or Chris Nilan on the roster now, Nathan would have the inside track, but as it is, Jarred has that extra arrow in his quiver.

One final point is the icetime given to Brandon Prust.  He was brought to sign as a free agent with the Habs when Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin showed up on his doorstep on July 1 with a generous contract offer, and probably a lot of promises as to the importance of his role with the team, and how he'd be used.  We see this somewhat in how Michel Therrien doesn't hesitate to move him up the lineup when possible, whether with the kids for a while two seasons ago, or to a higher line when injuries strike, or to kill penalties.

I was worried a little bit about whether Brandon might be bound for, almost locked into a fourth-line role, and what that might do for his morale.  Michel Bergeron on L'Antichambre used to repeat that you can't put a heart-and-soul player like Brandon Prust, a guy who gives you everything and sacrifices himself every game for his teammates, on a fourth line.  He'd argue that he had to be on a third-line and be given a leadership role equal to his contribution.

We see the importance of Brandon Prust on the team when watching him interact with his teammates on 24CH.  He's obviously a beloved teammate, one of the ringleaders.  He's forever tussling and play-fighting with Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, P.K., always involved in the pranks going on in the dressing room.  In that context, you can grasp the validity of Michel Bergeron's observation even better.

My fears are allayed somewhat by the 'roll four lines' philosophy the team will use.  The fourth line won't be the mismatched cast of horrors from three years ago, an indigestible Aaron Palushaj-Petteri Nokelainen-Frédéric St. Denis-Brad Staubitz-Rajesh Koothrappali goulash.  It won't be centred by Ryan White and used sparingly.  The addition of a credible checking centre in Manny Malhotra, and potential linemates Dale Weise and Michaël Bournival means they'll get around twelve minutes a night, not three or four.

Add in penalty kill time and Brandon will be kept busy, will get his minutes and won't be embittered as is feared by Michel Bergeron, by being shunted aside until it's time to square off with a Colton Orr.  He'll be an integral part of the team, even on a fourth line.

It's somewhere between a toothless attack and a vicious homage.--Paul Rudd

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Bokondji Imama back in Baie-Comeau, picks up an assist against the Remparts in first game.

I watched the Remparts-Drakkar game from Friday, and kept an eye on Bokondji Imama during the game.  He didn't impress at first, but by the third period he seemed more involved, got a couple of odd-man rushes in, shot the puck at the net a few times, came close to scoring himself.  He picked up an assist, when he was involved in a late goal as the Drakkar were trying to tie up the score, buzzing around the net.

His skating needs work, he's below average compared to the others, but his puck skills aren't bad, he can take and make a pass.  He's effective along the boards, often coming out with the puck, and I suspect that's partly because opponents can't match up physically, or hesitate to do so.

He certainly was involved on the physical side, he's impossible to ignore whenever there's a scrum or nonsense after the whistle.  Very understandably, some opponents would literally turn sideways and refuse to make eye-contact, they'd make themselves scarce, get away from the pile, which is reasonable behaviour for a 165 lbs teenager confronted with a specimen like young Mr. Imama.

And not to harp on TVA, but in an interview between the second and third periods, they kept referring to him as "un espoir des Canadiens", a Canadiens prospect, which is false.  He would have been "un espoir des Canadiens" if he'd been signed to a contract before being sent back, but they chose not to, so he's now headed for another crack at the draft as a 19-year-old.  He's a prospect, but not for any team, he's unaligned.

So Mr. Imama was a little flustered, embarrassed by this, but gamely carried on, gushed about the organization, the experience he had, and talked about what he wanted to accomplish in the coming season.

It wasn't the only misstep by TVA, they'd also wrongly announced previously that Mr. Imama had been arrested at the wheel of a rented Porsche in Ottawa during camp, which they later unreservedly retracted.

Meanwhile, the Leafs did sign a training camp invite, Cody Donaghey of the Remparts.  Which burns my toast, they found a 'free' prospect out of the prospect-rookie camp process, and we didn't.

So overall, a fair effort by Bokondji Imama, who could be having difficulty focusing and getting motivated, getting back in the flow of LHJMQ action in the next few games, although it should pass as he sets his eyes to the 2015 draft.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

P.A. Parenteau's fitness level, journalistic access, and 'inside' knowledge.

The Max Pacioretty-David Desharnais-P.A. Parenteau line did some damage again during the Blanc-Rouge scrimmage, with the newcomer getting two goals and an assist.  The NHL website has a story on him by Arpon Basu, which discusses on which line he might play, and how he came in camp in great shape according to the testing done two days ago.

I'll get on my hobby horse again, but this is a few mentions of Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau's fitness level.  Marc Bergevin on l'Antichambre explained that they expected good things from him, that he and Michel Therrien had asked him to report to camp in great shape.

Which kind of makes you ask "Don't you ask that of everybody?"  And it starts to dawn on you that P.A.'s difficult season last year, the two MCL strains, and being in Patrick Roy's doghouse, maybe it wasn't arbitrary, or just a function of two people who don't mesh well.  Maybe this all started when the player reported at camp out of condition, and the coach disapproved.

We're not getting any quotes about coaches asking Brendan Gallagher or Max Pacioretty or Andrei Markov to report in great shape.  Presumably, nobody had to ask, that was understood and not an concern for anyone.

René Bourque had a difficult season last year, but we can't attribute it to fitness or lack thereof.  He passed, in Paul Maurice's words, the 'shirt-off test', last season and this one.  But there have been allusions to focus and state of mind.  Was he having girlfriend problems?  Money issues?  A lawsuit weighing on his mind?

Again, these are things that reporters know, but won't share with us, to not blow their access with the team and their sources, so this knowledge remains 'inside knowledge', to be doled out when the conditions are right.

We saw how Dave Feschuk got hold of the Steve Spott "Phil Kessel is 15 pounds overweight and won't listen" story, did impeccable work, and was assailed by some as stirring up trouble, that these issues with Phil Kessel are well-known, why even bring them up?  Well, these issues are well-known to you Darren, but not to us, since you act as an employee of the Leafs, instead of a journalist, and you never told us.

It's somewhere between a toothless attack and a vicious homage.--Paul Rudd

Are the Winnipeg Jets, by coddling Evander Kane, about to take off?

Interesting to see how the Winnipeg Jets are handling Evander Kane's situation this pre-season.  They repelled any notion that he would be traded this summer, sending a clear message to the league, the team and the player.

Now in camp, they intend to put him on a line with Mark Scheifele and possibly Blake Wheeler.  If that lasts, he'll basically be on a stacked line and have lots of opportunities to put up points.

And maybe that makes him happy, or close enough, in Winnipeg.

This summer, at the height of the fan turmoil surrounding Mr. Kane, Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press explained that the Jets not only were not willing to trade him because they thought they couldn't get fair value in return, but also thought his value would actually rise this season, after a blip due to injuries and growing pains the previous one.  They think he's about to take off as a genuine star in the league.

Head Coach Paul Maurice could also have an effect.  When he took over last year, he crowed about the size of the team, how he himself was already a pretty big guy, yet on the ice during scrums he has to look up at pretty much every one of his players.  When he was asked what had gone wrong, he was polite and respectful of former coach Claude Noël, speaking nebulously about systems and buy-in and respect.

This season, it's clear what he intends to change, and that's the relatively lax work ethic.  He put his players on notice last spring that they needed to come into camp in better shape, and Mathieu Perreault was wheezing about the hard practice they had to go through on the first day of camp.

Now, if only the Jets could get their hands on a goalie.  I wonder if we sent them Dustin Tokarski, whether we could get a big scoring winger back in return?...

Friday, 19 September 2014

Training Camp scrimmage: Blancs 3, Rouges 3

Some quick thoughts:

1) I love the pairing of Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn.  I know we always remind ourselves that it's only training camp, but I can't help but think that it's management kind of tipping their hand as to their wishful thinking.

2)  Not so enamoured of the Francis Bouillon and Magnus Nygren pairing, are they the long-long shots?  I don't want to waste Magnus Nygren, I think of him as a 150% boostified version of Raphaël Diaz or Yannick Weber.  Or one who could actually pan out.

3)  Gabriel Dumont not looking out of place.  I have a soft spot for this kid, he's not a yappy undersized player who stirs things up and lets bigger guys clean up his mess, but almost the opposite.  He plays hard and tough, and if anyone has a problem he'll gladly accommodate them, as Mike Zygomanis found out the hard way last season.

Obviously his small size is a hurdle, we already had a full portion of undersized players on our team last season, but without hoping for injuries, I hope he gets a look during a callup this season.

4)  Christian Thomas is looking good since the start of camp.  I read an article recently which reminded us that he dealt with a sports hernia injury at the start of the season, and he explained that he never felt right during the season.  This of course could explain his underwhelming production in Hamilton.

He started under a cloud in the eyes of many Habs fans, being traded for the much-ballyhooed Danny Kristo, a bigger player we felt might have been more ready, and who outproduced him in the AHL, but a strong camp from Christian will be a nice start to redeeming himself in our esteem.

5)  It didn't take long for P.A. Parenteau to end up on the first line with Max and David.  As in, no time at all.  It does seem like a natural combo, a rightie who's known as a point producer, and a slightly bigger winger to go opposite Max.

Stéphane Leroux and Gaston Therrien were saying that it made sense to put them together early and see if they can develop some chemistry.  We saw again last season with the Thomas Vanek experiments how long it can take for a forward line who want to pass and set up plays to score to find that groove, for everyone to figure out their roles.  As opposed to a Dale Weise on a fourth line, where the plays are more simple, dump and chase and forecheck and drive the net.

6)  I saw Mike McCarron gain the zone and go right to the front of the net.  Good job kid.

7)  Drayson Bowman impressed early, caught the eye.  I hope he can pass through waivers and catch on in Hamilton, that team really needs some talent and experience to balance out another influx of rookies, and all the losing is getting old, for the fans and the players.  They need to have a stronger lineup and a chance to win every night.

I know we went through that last season with guys like Martin St. Pierre, Nick Tarnasky and Akim Aliu brought in as AHL vets, but let's try again and hope that players like Mr. Bowman and T.J. Hensick and Jake Dowell at forward, and Bobby Shea and Joe Finley on D, that they can support the young vets like Patrick Holland and Gabriel Dumont and the new kids, and they can contend for a playoff spot.

8)  If anything, the stronger goaltending tandem of Joey McDonald with either Dustin Tokarski, or more likely Mike Condon, should be worth three or four wins by themselves.

9)  Seeing Davis Drewiske out there, I don't want to be uncharitable, but I couldn't help but think that he'll be needed in Hamilton as well, if only since he with Mac Bennett and Joe Finley will be the only lefties on defence, unless Jarred Tinordi or Nathan Beaulieu get sent down.  There are a lot of righties on defence, with prospects Greg Pateryn, Morgan Ellis, Darren Dietz, and Dalton Thrower, and invites David Makowski, Bobby Shea, Justin Baker, Evan Wardley, ...

So, uh, sorry Davis, but we need you more down there than up with the big club.  That one-way contract of yours should soothe the sting somewhat, you'll still get paid.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Newsflash: Michel Therrien wins a popularity contest! Fans polled are satisfied with his and Marc Bergevin's work.

Le Journal de Montréal offers today, aside from breathless reports about Jean Béliveau and his arrest in Ottawa last night at the wheel of a rented Porsche, the results of a poll among Canadiens fans.  There are lots of articles about various questions and the numbers, but the one I jumped to is the popularity question for GM Marc Bergevin and Head Coach Michel Therrien.

I sometimes address the 'Two Solitudes' question, and try to make the point that what rages as controversy on Habs Inside Out and Hockey's Future boards isn't necessarily so for all fans, specifically franchophone supporters of les Canadiens.  In this matter, we can see that dichotomy.

For Marc Bergevin, 79% of respondents claim to be satisfied with the job he's done so far, and Michel Therrien gets an even better grade of 84%.  

Now the methodology is unclear, I can't find how the poll was conducted beyond the fact that Sondages Léger did the work and asked 1000 respondents, and it's almost certainly not a poll of french-speaking fans only, but we can assume they're the vast majority, Le Journal probably being more interested in reporting on fans in Québec rather than those far-flung fans in Whistler, Sydney and Turku.

And the numbers couldn't be more clear.  I don't know what the results to the same question may have been when Michel Therrien was first hired, it was generally greeted as good news as best I can remember it, but there was a significant undercurrent of unease, for a lot of the same reasons we bat around on HIO: his gruff, sometimes inarticulate manner, his coaching style that prefers effort to talent or mostly anything else, and his checkered history and track record.

But after two seasons of surprisingly good results, it seems the fans have come to the conclusion that the coach might know what he's doing and have the team pointed in the right direction.  

This concords with all the public pronouncements from the players.  Many reporters have tried to get an Andrei Kostitsyn moment out of one of them, to get a player to whine about his icetime or the style employed, but they overwhelmingly parrot that their coach is doing a good job and they love to play on their team.

Like many fans I had strong qualms when Michel Therrien was announced as the head coach, but I must surrender to the evidence, and say that he has my confidence.  Until the team starts to underdeliver.

Friday, 12 September 2014

More observations before the 2014 Canadiens rookie camp.

A good overview of the Canadiens rookie camp before it plays out is offered by La Presse.

For those of us who don't parlent français, here are the broad strokes:

1)  Following up on a July article in which Tim Bozon said his goal was to recuperate enough to make it to the rookie camp, the Canadiens' winger is happy to have reached his goal.

2)  Suddenly there's a dearth of centremen in Hamilton, while two short seasons ago we were taking players like Louis Leblanc off centre and putting them on the wing, since there were too many.  Now, with just T.J. Hensick and Gabriel Dumont as natural centres, the coast is clear for Charles Hudon to continue at centre, after trying the position for the first time at the prospect development camp.

3)  Again we go over how Jiri Sekac, Jacob de la Rose and Sven Andrighetto might be called upon to fill the third-line winger spot.  The author is careful to mention that the solution might be to simply flip René Bourque over to right wing, and plug Michaël Bournival in on the left side.

4)  It's a make-or-break year for Patrick Holland and Christian Thomas, who underwhelmed in Hamilton and during callups last season.  It's noted that Patrick Holland isn't a Bergevin man, but rather was brought in by Pierre Gauthier in the Mike Cammalleri trade.

5)  Zachary Fucale's difficult end to his season last spring is discussed.  His junior coach Dominic Ducharme is not worried, saying he has played three impressive seasons since he started as a 16-year-old, long seasons that went deep in the playoffs, and it's normal that he may have sagged a bit.

6)  Players on tryout: Philippe Gadoury is noted, how he scored 20 goals in 19 games after joining the Mooseheads midway through the season, after playing Junior A.  Tyler Hill, a 6'5" Mike McCarron clone is also highlighted, and he had a difficult first year in the OHL after playing in the USHL.  Again like Mike McCarron.

Toothless, clueless NHL again tries to curb diving, and to re-invent the wheel.

The NHL announced a new system to try to address the "diving epidemic", and it's an improvement on the last, but still a more of a half-step, a tentative attempt to eradicate a problem that's easy to solve if you attack its root.

I'll say it again, the way to curb diving is to call the actual penalties that precipitate the dives.  Last night on TSN's "That's Hockey", both the insipid Darren Dreger and the conformist Jamie McLennan were in lockstep with the GM's on this one, and harped on how diving was horrible, blah blah blah.

They used two videos to illustrate what is wrong with the act of diving, and just how outrageous it is.   One of them featured Ryan Kesler really laying it on thick, but the opposing player had first grabbed him with his arms as in a wrestling move.  The other featured a player falling back as if he'd been hit in the chest with a shotgun beanbag round, again a transparent dive, but what triggered it was a post-whistle outright punch to the chest by his opponent.

Neither of the esteemed analysts thought to mention that both of these previous acts should have been penalized, and that the diver was possibly frustrated at the repeated offences that didn't cause the refs to blow their whistles, and was just trying to help the refs figure things out.

This idea of a graduated scale where repeated offenders' names are circulated, and which leads to fines, suspensions and repercussions for the coach is much better than idiot Colin Campbell's previous byzantine system of correspondences, "Stop it or I'll warn you to stop again", but it's relatively lenient and ponderous.

It should be based on video review of game tapes, not just calls on the ice, and 'two strikes and you're out'.  First time is a warning, second time you're suspended.  Penalties shouldn't just be to the coach to, but also the team, in terms of draft and/or salary cap penalties.

But the actual root of the problem, and the easiest way to address this, is to penalize players when the hook, hold, trip, etc.  If players know that when they're restrained, the other guys will get penalized, they won't feel a need or think they gain an advantage by diving.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Francis Bouillon will be at the Canadiens training camp on a tryout basis.

Guillaume Latendresse, acting as a panelist on the RDS show "L'Antichambre", just broke the news that Francis Bouillon will be at the Canadiens training camp on a tryout basis.  I thought I'd check in to witness the meltdown at this news on social media, but I'm surprised at the calm that reigns.  I guess it will wait until tomorrow, maybe the Eastern Time Zone fanboys have already gone to bed.

I'm not really happy at the news, but the fact that he's on a tryout makes it less worrisome.  He gets a chance to get in game shape with the Habs, and if he gets a call from another team great for him.  If we get injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, we can use Frankie as a patch job for the very very very last time.

I'll never fault him for his heart and his effort, and I hope things work out for him, but I hope we find that we don't need him coming out of camp, that Jarred and Nathan have things well in hand on the third pair.  We have a backlog of young d-men in Hamilton, we should rely on them rather than a soon-to-be 39 year old modestly talented defender, as proud and noble a warrior he may be.