Sunday, 3 December 2017

Game 27: Canadiens 10, Red Wings 1

On the 22nd anniversary of the Patrick Roy meltdown at the Forum against the Wings, the one that precipitated a seething feud between goalie and head coach Mario Tremblay into an outright divorce, the Canadiens shellacked Detroit 10-1, a bit of karma that salved the wound not at all.

(Reading: Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated on the fallout of that December 6 1995 game.)

1)  The boys on Sportsnet kept referring to what a difference a week makes, how everyone was calling for heads to roll at le Nouveau Forum, but four wins had made all that die down.  I want to introduce the Sportsnet talking heads to my confrères at ex-HIO/RATW.

2)  I'm not the only one who keeps it front of mind that the Canadiens have feasted on the Sabres, Senators and Red Wings on this streak, right?

How bad is the new Adams Division?  The Lightning are the best team in hockey, the Leafs are good and on the rise, and then it's a mishmash of mediocrity.

3)  I'm a Posi-Troll, but I do not take heart from this mini resurgence.  If anything, I think this is when we strike, while the iron is hot.  Let's unload Jordie Benn and Andrew Shaw for draft picks while they're playing well and we're dealing from a position of relative strength, rather than one of Houleian crisis.

4)  "Ken, that kid Byron who just lit your boys up last night, I hear you're interested?  You can have him for the Mantha kid, if Blashill doesn't like him.  Throw in Ouellet and his -2 from last night, and you can have Benn or Davidson, either or.  Hell take both, and give me a second-rounder, and we're square."

5)  Since when do the Canadiens' blue helmets come with a black chinstrap instead of white?  I'm always the last to notice these things, I admit.  A couple seasons back, there was a picture of Chris Chelios, just a head shot with him wearing a red helmet, and I was arguing that it was of him with the Wings or Blackhawks, not the Canadiens, since the red tint was wrong.  Someone pointed out patiently that yes, it must not be from his Canadiens days, since our boys don't have red helmets, just white ones and blue ones.  Until that moment, I would have sworn and put my hand in the fire that the Canadiens wore red helmets.  They must, right|?

6)  Is Nicolas Deslauriers the player we thought Devante Smith-Pelly/Stefan Matteau would be?  I've been uncharitable towards Mr. Deslauriers, I must admit, when he was a Sabre.

7)  Charles Hudon is going to be a useful forward.  And it's nice that Jacob de la Rose got on the scoreboard finally.  I don't have high expectations, just want him to be what Lars Eller was, a big body third-line centre who can skate all day, chip in 12 goals a season, and back down from Nazem Kadri when the going gets rough.

8)  David Schlemko and Jakub Jerabek are an uptick on Brendan Davidson and Joe Morrow, and relieve the pressure on a fading Victor Mete, but I'd still take Andrei Markov on my team.  Even if he deserted us.  Until Rasmus Dahlin gets here.

9)  An off-night for Max Pacioretty, the only forward to not garner a point for the Canadiens.  Meanwhile, Alex Galchenyuk bags four assists.  François Gagnon on L'Antichambre pointed out how he was quietly effective, didn't try anything overly spectacular, just got the puck to the open man and did his job.

10)  Carey almost got the shutout, stopped 22 of 23 shots.  All these scrimmages against the weak sisters of our division are hopefully doing wonders for his confidence, and rounding him into form, working out the kinks and the ouchies.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Game 24: Canadiens 3, Sabres 0

Okay, so we can't beat the Coyotes, but we have the Sabres' number.

--We won the game, but the Sabres won the Dahlin Derby, or this round of it anyway.

--Alex Galchenyuk can't buy a break.  He committed the mortal sin of scoring a goal when we were leading 1-0.  Thus giving us the worst lead in hockey, the dreaded two-goal lead.

--I barely saw Nathan Beaulieu.  Not that I was searching for him, maybe he had a steady, no-crisis game.  But he's not taken the step we dreaded he might in Buffalo, where he becomes an effective puck-moving Top 4 defenceman.

I'd still take him on our team though, over Jordie Benn, Brandon Davidson, Joe Morrow, or (nearly) 6 Million Dollar Man Karl Alzner.

--Carey is going to (mess with our stuff) if he keeps this up.  He'll get us a dozen or two meaningless points that will only (mess) with our draft ranking.  Blast his cool, smooth, effortless goaltending style.  Not a Charlie Lindgren bobble rebound.  Not one instance when he swam in his crease with his back to the shooter à la Mike Condon.

--It bears repeating that Nicolas Deslauriers made a name for himself in the LHJMQ as a defenceman.  He said last night on l'Antichambre that he was an offensive defenceman who never fought, it just never came up since it wasn't his role.  He figured out that he'd need to fight, more often than he expected, if he was to stick in the NHL.

I first found this out on a Québec blog, from the same guy who follows the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and who had a major man-crush on Sven Andrighetto, well before he was drafted by the Canadiens.  That blogger has described Nicolas Deslauriers as a "dominant" defenceman while he played for the Huskies, which I have to believe is a stretch, a misuse of the word 'dominant', but still.

--Jakub Jerabek has looked decent so far, certainly more noteworthy than Joe Morrow or Brandon Davidson. 

--Anti Niemmi should get a couple more starts, to ease Carey in, and give Al Montoya all the time he needs, and then a month beyond that.  Hopefully Mr. Niemmi can show some good performances, and we can flip him down the road to another team in need of a backup for another conditional fifth or thereabouts. 

--I know low-round picks have a very low chance of amounting to anything, and at the same time, we have unrealistic expectations of what a fifth-rounder can be because of Brendan Gallagher, but the secret in my mind is to have plenty of these picks.  Once you get to that level, you can take a chance on players who you might have had as a Do Not Draft, since you wouldn't take that player with a second-round pick where he was slated to go.  Now in the fifth-round, maybe you overlook those giant warts and take a flier on a player who has some great skill and/or upside, but is slow-footed (Mark Stone) or a coaching headache (Anthony Duclair).

I've been jealous of what Tampa has been able to do with their sackful of draft choices lately, being able to pick up Anthony Cirelli in the third round in 2015, Mathieu Joseph in the fourth round, and Bokondji Imama in the sixth, and Brayden Point in the late third in 2014.

Let's give Trevor Timmins a chance to work his magic, give him and his crew a shot at wowing us again, with a bunch of shots at the dart board where they can explore riskier options.  Let's allow them to, when presented with Lukas Vejdemo or Nicolas Roy, think "Why not both?"

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Torrey Mitchell traded to Kings for conditional fifth-round draft pick.

The Canadiens have traded Torrey Mitchell to the L.A. Kings for a conditional fifth-round pick.  If the Kings make the playoffs, the Canadiens will instead receive the 2018 fourth-round pick they gave up last season in exchange for Dwight King.

This trade makes me disproportionately happy.  For five years now, I've wished that we divest ourselves of non-core players or stalled prospects for low-round draft picks, to go back to the well again and try our luck. 

Torrey Mitchell served us well, was a welcome addition in that he was a true centre who shot right, so he helped us out when our only centres were all lefties (David Desharnais, Tomas Plekanec, Manny Malhotra, Lars Eller, etc.)  He was a local boy who was happy to be in Montréal, a veteran who'd won before, who complemented our arsenal of swift, fleet-footed forecheckers who might not think the game at a high-level offensively, might not score a lot, but did mesh well with the high-tempo puck pursuit and fast-break offence of Michel Therrien. 

Last season, he had a kaboom of a start to the season, when he and Phillip Danault and Paul Byron/Brian Flynn overwhelmed opposition fourth lines with their speed, and he and Phillip would split the faceoff duties, Torrey taking those on the right, Phillip those on the left.  It was a very good fourth line, and should have provided Tomas Plekanec more leash to focus on offence, if he hadn't chosen to hibernate for another winter.

This season though, with Jacob de la Rose and Charles Hudon needing to be rostered or lost on waivers, with Mike McCarron looming as a potential right-shot fourth-line centre, and with his effectiveness waning at least in the points column, Torrey wasn't even a regular, he'd been healthy-scratched a few times.  Either his footspeed is declining, or he's not a fit for Claude Julien's puck support five-man breakouts, but he was a diminishing asset. 

We'd acquired Torrey from the Sabres for a seventh-round pick and Jack Nevins, a middleweight scrappy enforcer in the OHL who we'd taken a flier on as an undrafted UFA, and who looks like he'll be a minor leaguer at best.  We made good use of Torrey's services, and now swap him for a fifth-round pick.  That's a win.  Would that every acquisition work out like that, like Dale Weise, rather than those of Mike Condon or Sven Andrighetto.

I understood Marc Bergevin's reasons for acquiring Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn, they were useful vets who'd bring a right shot to balance out our roster, who could play wing or centre.  But it always stuck in my craw that we didn't instead use Gabriel Dumont in that role, he was an agile rightie who can play centre, and who brings grit and toughness to boot.  Now, I'm not going to argue that Gabriel is just as good as Torrey, he's clearly not.  Torrey has had a long, productive NHL career, while Gabriel is still trying to establish himself, he just got waived by the Lightning and picked up by the Sens. 

But we had Gabriel in our system, we'd already spent a draft pick to acquire him and years developing him in the AHL.  Maybe he's not as good as Torrey Mitchell or Brian Flynn, but the difference is marginal.  He won't be the reason you win or lose games. 

You give Gabriel an opportunity.  You 'live with his mistakes'.  You energize your farmhands ("That could be me next!")  You develop him, groom him, and maybe get to swap him later on for a draft pick if he tops out.  It's the Circle of Life. 

In the short term, maybe you're better off spending draft picks acquiring fringe players, maybe your team is slightly better on the ice, but it's organizationally counterproductive to do so.  That's how you show up at the draft every June without a second-round pick, with only five picks, while Tampa has nine and Toronto has ten.  This is how we lose the race, as we have for decades now.  We constantly bitch about being broke, but go out to a restaurant dinner and blow fourty bucks we could have spent on a bag of rice and veggies and chicken that would have fed us for the week.

So, good trade.  Finally.  Sorry to see a homeboy like Torrey go.  Maybe he can return and work for the organization after his playing career is done.  We need guys like him.  But this trade is a step in the right direction, in a lost season.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The Canadiens shooting percentage is last in the league, and even worse than that.

So I'm taking a relatively Zen approach to this Canadiens' season, having decided early on, before training camp, that this was a fundamentally flawed team, without a #1 centre, a #2 centre, and a first pairing left defenceman.  Those are crucial elements to a team's success, there's no way to patch this need.  It's not like a couple years ago when we were weak on the right wing, and had to shift over a couple of left wingers. 

This led me to believe that the Canadiens won't make the playoffs, and that the best-case scenario is that the Canadiens get decent seasons from their trade pieces and make a few good trades prior to the deadline, to stock up on picks before the draft.  I don't want the Canadiens in a fight for the playoffs, clinging to Tomas Plekanec and Torrey Mitchell, and even worse, maybe trading for another round of Jordie Benns and Dwight Kings and Steve Otts as the deadline nears.

So I'm going to remain phlegmatic as the storm roils and the hounds bay for more blood and the Canadiens sink to the bottom.  I'll keep watching games but won't be expecting wins, I'll be happy with glimmers from Charles Hudon and Jacob de la Rose and Artturi Lehkonen. 

Tonight, watching L'Antichambre, I notice that they put up a graphic showing the Canadiens at the very bottom of the League in shooting percentage, which is sad in and of itself.  What is surprising is that the Canadiens are last by such a wide margin.  The Islanders are 25th at 7.8%, then the Rangers at 7.3%, then the Ducks, Coyotes and Stars clustered around 6.5%, and the Oilers 30th at 5.3%.

The Canadiens are at 3.9%.  One and half percent, roughly, from the second worst team.  It's not statistically insignificant.  It's a healthy margin.

Based on the comments I'd read on social media, Michel Therrien's brand of hockey was boring and defensive, and I disagreed about that specifically, but anyway, the same comments would state that Claude Julien's puck control system would take care of all that.  We'd control the puck instead of dumping the puck in, and by controlling the puck, boy howdy, that's how you score goals.

Maybe the Canadiens are caught out this season, with a team built for Michel Therrien's fast-break style and ill-suited for the Claude Julien system.  Maybe all it will take is a few more games for his system to become second-nature for the boys, and for it to bear fruit.  Maybe next year, when Mike McCarron has moved up, and a couple more moves are made, will the new coach have the team he really wants.

But for now, as an indicator, the shooting percentage, and the gap between us and the rest of the pack is shocking.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Vancouver has buyer's remorse on Olli Juolevi, covets Victor Mete

Interesting discussion on TSN 1040 Vancouver this week on how 2016 draft 5th overall pick Olli Juolevi is going back to Sweden this season, after an uninspiring training camp, and disappointing results and reports from his previous season in London with the Knights. The hosts bat around how their crown jewel didn’t really improve last season, how he was reportedly “bored” with the junior game and had a cocky, arrogant vibe.

Meanwhile, they cast jealous glances at Victor Mete, who they say improved every game he played, every benchmark he had to meet, worked hard at his game, and is now playing NHL games as a lowly 2016 4th-round pick while Mr. Juolevi is nowhere near ready, appearing stagnant.

They took time to rue some other Jim Benning moves, notably his gambling on trades for players who were drafted high but were not faring well in their situations, and rattled off names like Linden Vey and Emerson Etem and others who didn’t pay off, at the cost of a second-round pick each. The Derrick Pouliot trade falls in this sphere, and they hate the fact that again, Jim Benning chipped in a fourth-rounder on top of Andrey Pedan, a disturbing habit on his part. Since you could get a Victor Mete, let’s say, if you had a fourth-rounder to spend.

And as always, they trotted out the fifth-round pick they had to offer to sweeten the Zack Kassian for Brandon Prust trade. Based on the tone of their voice, Brandon Prust has now lost all of the luster he had when he rolled into Montréal with a UFA contract, proclaiming “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

The Canucks got boned two years in a row, dropping down three slots in the draft lottery, especially the Auston Matthews-Patrik Laine season. Especially when you consider that they didn’t outright tank, they were just bad and ravaged by injuries. I daresay Vancouver fans deserved Patrik Laine, he’d have looked great on the Sedins’ wing.

Olli Juolevi was described as a safe pick, with maybe not the high ceiling Mikhail Sergachev had, but more certain to be an NHL regular, having a higher floor. I remember Jim Benning speaking highly of him, how he’d be your do-it-all first pairing defenceman for a long time, how he was making the smart decision all the time, he maybe wouldn’t wow you but he made things look easy.

Now, it seems he has the diva aspect to a high pick after all, he’s not your no-nonsense Nick Lidstrom, as some would float, compared to the temperamental Russian-with-KHL-risk tag some tried to attach to young Mr. Sergachev. Mikhail was seen as more boom-or-bust.

I never had a doubt who I wanted, if we weren’t going Top 3 or getting Pierre-Luc Dubois, I wanted the second coming of Larry Robinson, or at least Roman Hamrlik, the big strong defenceman who can skate, pass, shoot, defend, and seemingly has no warts. I was glad to have Misha at #9, and am sorry we had to let him go.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

My position paper on Victor Mete

I love Victor Mete as a prospect we got high in the fourth round. 

1)  Victor Mete is too small and frail to play in the NHL.  He's a 19 year old who still has a lot of growing and maturing to do, physically.  Saying that he's stocky doesn't address that fact.  Of course he's stocky and strong.  If he wasn't, he wouldn't be a successful OHL player, thriving against bigger peers with an explosive stride and low centre of gravity.

2)  Referring to Jakob Chychrun and Mikhail Sergachev as young defencemen who can play in the NHL is not relevant.  Those two had an NHL player build the year they were drafted.  They were physically mature last season.  Jakob Chychrun was 6'2" and 200 lbs at the Combine, and described as if carved out of rock.  Mikhail Sergachev was 6'2" and 221 lbs.

3)  Referring to Torey Krug or Ryan Ellis or Troy Stecher as undersized but agile puck movers who can thrive in "today's NHL" is not relevant.  Those players were 22 when they made the NHL for good.

4)  Playing Victor Mete in NHL games is risking his health and his player development.  There's a real chance you could stall or derail his development with an unfortunate injury.  His head will be at concussive-elbow-height for most NHL players.  Zac Rinaldo is still in the league.

5)  One of Marc Bergevin's better-known quotes, one of his mantras that are/should be an organizational touchstone is that 'you often regret calling up a player too early, you seldom regret calling up a player too late'.  Having Victor Mete held up as a potential partner for Shea Weber is a direct contravention of that principle.

6)  If Victor Mete was a potential third-pairing option who could be eased into the game alongside a trusty veteran who'd be a perfect complement off and on the ice, if he could be babied on to the powerplay and held off the penalty kill as a #6-7 d-man, if his skillset worked perfectly with the rest of the defensive rotation in a supporting role, maybe it would be a reasonable gamble to hurry along his development curve.  Instead, the reason he's staying with the club is because he's the 'perfect' complement to first-pairing stud Shea Weber.  His skillset and development doesn't match up to the expected role, not by a long shot.

7)  The reason he's being kept with le Grand Club is because we divested ourselves of Andrei Markov, Nathan Beaulieu and Alexei Emelin in the off-season, and because we lost Mark Barberio on waivers last winter.  Now, each of these decisions is defensible, there were pros and cons, it's reasonable to argue that with the complications of the 23-player roster and waivers and the expansion draft and arbitration and the salary cap, all these player moves had to happen. 

The contingencies failed, however.  The reason Victor Mete is being given a chance to fail is because none of the backup plans panned out.

8)  Most importantly, we're flailing and going for a Hail Mary when there's no need, and no chance of it succeeding.  The Canadiens, despite all the talk of the 'window' and the 'must-win', are a fundamentally flawed, undermanned unit.  The Canadiens don't have a proper #1 centre, don't have a proper #2 centre, and don't have a proper first pairing left defenceman.  We're not even sure we currently have an appropriate backup goalie.

This roster is not going to win the Stanley Cup.  It won't even go far in the playoffs.  My guess is they'll miss the playoffs. 

With this in mind, you shouldn't throw good money after bad.  You shouldn't risk the development of an organizational asset who'll benefit the team long-term for a short-term high-risk low-reward gamble.  Even if Victor Mete has as decent a season as can be expected from a 19-year-old fourth-round pick, it won't put the Canadiens over the top.  It might mean five or six more points in the regular season, but it's not the Penguins adding Ron Francis to the Lemieux-Jagr forward corps. 

Even lacking Andrei Markov or a decent Michael del Zotto-type substitute, the wise, better move is for Victor to go back to London, dominate the OHL and his peers as a #1 defenceman, be a leader on his team, get on the World Junior squad and see what he can do on a team stacked with talent and high-pressure no-tomorrow games, and get one year older, wiser, and more mature.  That's what will pay off in the long-term, not some half-baked scheme to see if he can do better than Brandon Davidson.

We can't refuse to accept the situation we're in.  Marc Bergevin was left holding the bag when he couldn't come to an agreement with Andrei, and is now sitting on $8.5M of cap space and Karl Alzner as his only credible, tested option on the left side of the blue line.  Éric Desjardins isn't driving down from Laval and walking in the door. 

In that situation, you take your lumps.  You understand that it will be a long, tough season.  You suffer through it, you showcase your trade deadline chips and you plan ahead for the 2018 Draft.  You cross your fingers for a win at the Rasmus Dahlin lottery. 

You don't drag down Victor Mete with you.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Joël Bouchard on Victor Mete

Joël Bouchard of l'Armada in the LHJMQ, and who is involved as a GM of the World Junior Canadian team, shares his thoughts on Victor Mete.

He says he's liked him for a long time, isn't surprised by his early success at Canadiens camp, since his playing style meshes well with the current type of game in vogue in the NHL.  He says he plays a clean game, is a good defence partner, has good feet, good hands and is 'well-positioned'.  He keeps things simple with the puck, doesn't overhandle it, keeps his head up.  Nothing is complicated, unpredictable, or erratic with him, "what you see is what you get".  He had a good summer camp in Plymouth with Team Canada.  He'll potentially be a part of a strong defence squad for Team Canada this year.  He's a good person, not "complicated guy", he's fun.

Asked by Dave Morrissette if he'd be surprised if he stuck with the Canadiens, Mr. Bouchard says that nothing surprises him anymore, surprises always happen, and he brings up Jacob Chychrun and Travis Konecny as examples.  It's not necessarily the most obvious candidates (I think he meant the high draft picks), it depends also on the situation (I think he meant the penurious Phoenix owners were desperate to keep Jacob Chychrun on his Entry Level deal, instead of sending him back down if money wasn't so tight).  He also mentions Samuel Girard's early success in Nashville.  He says Victor Mete is just doing his thing, leaving his calling card, and the Canadiens are in a 'win-now' mode, so it will depend how things go.

Asked how he lasted until the fourth round, Mr. Bouchard immediately brings up his small stature.  Still, he's a gamer who shows up for big games, he shows leadership.  Generally, he says teams tend to overlook "good players", and will draft for "big potential", big players with high upside.  It makes sense, even though it's not necessarily his approach, to draft big players, to take 'homerun swings'.  He brings up Mike McCarron as an example, says the pick made sense, there are no other players drafted right after him who the Canadiens missed out on.  He calls Mike "a nice gamble", you can't find guys like that, they have their place in a draft.  But there's also room for good players, and Victor isn't big, isn't a sexy prospect, but he's a good player.  Those kind of players will tend to slide, every draft he sees a few players at the draft who he's shocked are still available by a certain point.  Sometimes the player who can't skate like the wind or who's not 6'4" will slide.  When the Canadiens drafted Victor Mete, he believes they knew what they were getting, a good player, a good kid, a guy who knows how to win and who won in London, but you weren't getting the 'wow factor'.

He also has high praise for Thomas Chabot, says he had him on Team Canada, but also faced him often in the LHJMQ and especially in the playoffs.  He says it's a little different in that he's got enough seniority that he can go to the AHL, whereas Victor is stuck going back to the OHL if he doesn't make the Canadiens.  The potential of Thomas Chabot is extraordinary on the long term.

I'll again whine that the Canadiens haven't already signed Joël Bouchard to work in the organization.  This summer, Sylvain Lefebvre's contract expired, it would have been a perfect time for Mr. Bouchard to come in and take the next step, coach the Rocket, bring a bit of excitement to the team, and prepare the succession for Claude Julien.  Same as the missed opportunity in 2016 when, after a season when the team demonstrably, shamefully quit on Michel Therrien, Guy Boucher was available to hire, was looking for an NHL coaching job.

I understand Marc Bergevin's desire for stability, for continuity, to stop the revolving door and the media madness in Montréal, but there should also be room in there for the maxim that 'you're always looking to improve the team'.  We'd have a stronger organization now with Guy Boucher and Joël Bouchard working for us.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

2017 Rugby Women's World Cup: Canada 98, Hong Kong 0

Just catching up to the Women's Rugby World Cup on the PVR, and it was a laugher for the Canadian women against the overmatched ladies from Hong-Kong, a 98-0 slaughter.  Women's rugby has a shorter history, and there are great differences in talent and participation levels between countries, as we see in other sports like hockey for example.

Rugby is also a sport that lends itself to huge blowouts.  When you're faced with a team that is bigger/stronger/faster/more talented than you are, and you're getting shelled and run through and run over, it's hard to keep your focus and tackle just as hard as you can and run all out, especially as the second half drags on.  You lose your desire and the other team piles it on and you get sulky and bitter and dejected.  You don't necessarily stop trying, but it's hard to sacrifice yourself in a lost cause.  You start looking at your teammates and wondering if they're working as hard as they should, you think the opposite fullback is being a bit of a glamour boy and deserves to be put back in his place, you question if your own teammate's hamstring pull was all that bad and whether he just pulled himself and left you to deal with the mess, and your own game falls apart.

It's easier to desultorily backcheck in hockey, to coast around once you get up to speed, to just get in position and clog up a lane, but in rugby, once you stop running and once you stop hustling to the breakdowns, there's no way to limit the damage.

Magali Harvey has a great name for rugby, and a great game.  Fast, agile and good with her ball handling, she scored five tries and made us question, again, why she wasn't included on the Olympic squad in Rio.  The coach explained at the time that the best team isn't necessarily built from the best players, that he was looking at the program in a holistic manner, keeping an eye on the future, blah blah blah, but it all sounded like hogwash to me.  With the P.K. Subban situation having just exploded, it was hard to not see parallels, a massively talented player and a coach who couldn't get on the same page.

 Another athlete who caught the eye was Canadian captain Kelly Russell.  The big, strong and fast #8 was all over the field, surehanded with the ball, solid in her tackles, always supporting the ball carriers.  She chipped in three tries herself.

So a good start for the team, but one that shouldn't carry too much weight, Hong Kong being known as one of the 'minnows' at this tournament, just happy to be there.

[Further reading from]

Another crucifixion of Gary Bettman, this one occasioned by the expansion draft.

(June 18, 2017)

One more point about this expansion draft, about Gary Bettman being tone deaf, and not seizing on opportunities to grow the game. I’ve read over the years quite a few apologists claiming that the NHL is a business, and that he’s doing his job since he’s increased NHL revenues. My retort to that is that the reason we love hockey and consume it ravenously isn’t that it’s a business like steel-making or the insurance gambit, but rather that we have grown up with the game and are emotionally attached to our team, to our game’s greatest players. There’s a romance associated with hockey and its history, and an affection for the players we grew up with.

And, while it’s true that NHL revenues are growing, they’re doing so at a slower pace than that of the NFL, NBA, MLB and PGA. Heck, even soccer is growing at a faster rate than than pro hockey. The rising tide of exploding media revenues and ticket prices somehow isn’t raising our leaky boat as well as all the others. If anything, Gary is underperforming compared to his counterparts.

We’ve seen many, many blunders committed by Visionary Gary, one of which may yet be averted, namely his stated refusal to let NHL players compete in next year’s Winter Olympics. Added to his three lockouts of the sport, and it gets difficult to assert that Gary really does like hockey, when he stands in its way so often.

He claimed after his Second Lockout that he wanted to open up the game, to increase offence, but in practice, after an initial blip, he’s allowed GM’s and coaches to strangle the life out of the games, to promote defence over offence. We see this in how the NHL allows slashing and hacking routinely, as evidenced by the recent playoffs, and by Marc Méthot’s exploded finger.

We see it in how the sport is guided by veteran high-profile coaches like Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien, all of who preach ‘responsible’ hockey, ‘playing the right way’, and ‘being on the right side of the puck’.

Meanwhile, Linus Omark is playing in Europe. Yes, that Linus Omark. The one who caused Don Cherry to turn purple with rage. Who wasn’t showing the proper “respect” for the game, according to various NHL players.

And meanwhile, NHL GM’s and pundits contorted themselves to find a way to protect goalless wonders like Jordie Benn and Brendan Gaunce from being claimed, horrors be, by the Las Vegas Gilded Questing Troubadours.

Gary Bettman also has a false sense of what fans want to see, how they want to be entertained, evidenced by his lame awards ceremonies, or his puzzling ‘samurai’ TV ads after his Second Lockout. Of course, these ads were motivated by a desire to focus on the sport in general, instead of spotlighting its stars.

Which is remarkable, given his background in the NBA, and the way that league goes all-in when it comes to marketing its greatest stars. At the time, the NHL had marketable, TV and fan-friendly stars such as Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier, among many others, it could have leaned on to re-launch the league to its fans. Instead, it cooked up a cockamamie campaign centered on a faceless, nameless anonymous warrior-player embodied by an actor. Ludricrous.

And this leads us to the expansion draft, and the release of the protection lists for every team. For months this has been discussion fodder for hockey fans, and this morning is all the rage on social media and hockey blogs. The expansion draft process sells, yet Gary at first didn’t want to release the lists, under the pretense that it might embarrass some players. More likely, the desire was that GM’s not be assailed for their decisions, that they not be held to account a couple years down the road. Or that they not have to have tough conversations with some players and their agents.

Sanity prevailed though. Probably due to the realization that these lists would be leaked anyway, the NHL backtracked upon its initial decision and allowed the lists to be disseminated to the fans. Which is what is right and proper and practical, never mind the ruffled feathers.

But it’s not the first time the League tries to operate in secret, or states its preference in that regard. We all remember Gary’s boneheaded statement that fans don’t want websites like CapGeek, don’t care for that type of information, when his blessed salary cap has actually made that knowledge central to any hockey discussion.

There was also the 2005 Entry Draft. The NHL and Gary came out of his Second Lockout battered and bloodied, exhausted by the more than year-long fight, and only signed the new CBA in July. Feeling rushed for time, and thinking this was the best way to go, Gary decided that the next draft would be decided by a lottery, and it would be held by phone, away from the cameras, because who has time for anything else?

It took the people at TSN to intervene, and make the league realize that, as broadcast partners, they wanted/needed that content, and that hockey fans were actually greatly interested in where Sidney Crosby would end up. Without TSN, the lottery might have been held in relative secret, and we can imagine all the conspiracy theories that would have been fueled by that move. Frozen envelope anyone?

And we often hear that Gary is merely a shifty lawyer who does the owners' bidding, but it’s imprecise to say that he’s a lawyer for the owners. He’s actually the NHL Commissioner, that’s his job, and he probably has a retinue of actual lawyers to do the drudge work.

It’s such a simplistic way to look at it, that he’s merely doing the owners bidding, and therefore is blameless in the various catastrophes that befall the NHL regularly under his dictatorship. I worked for a restaurant manager once who painted on the wall in a backroom, “Did you make a sale today, or did you just take orders?” Do you think that that cantankerous cuss, with the smarm and the eye-rolling just takes orders, or do you think he makes a sale once in a while? Do you think the owners are of a single bloc, or do they maybe differ on certain matters, and that Gary may influence where they decide to go?

Your lawyer can and will often decide what’s best for you, will recommend a course of action, and you’re usually wise to follow it. Sometimes, you’ll put your foot down, and make the decision. “We’re suing”, you’ll tell her. Or, “I don’t have the money to take this to court, let’s settle as best we can.” But usually, your lawyer has a big influence in your decision, in your direction.

Same with your doctor. He’s the expert, the guy you trust to help you decide. If he wants to be all aggressive and operate and go with an array of treatments, who are you to argue? That’s what you pay him for. Sure, sometimes you’ll choose a treatment option, or go get a second opinion, but mainly, you’ll trust your doc to guide your decision-making.

And you can’t convince me that Gary’s divisive, adversarial style and abrasive personality is strictly to align with the owners, that it doesn’t come naturally to him. To believe that Gary isn’t always spoiling for a fight, that he’s a meek and weak underling to Jeremy Jacobs is not tenable.

Gary Bettman may be seen to serve the owners well with his ornery approach to every question/battle. But there is another way. Sure his penny-pinching ways save money for the owners directly, tangibly.

But what if they’d hired an inspiring leader instead, a supportive manager who understood that while you’ll save a couple dozen bucks by sending a busboy home on a not overly busy night, you’re better off in the long run, in the big picture, by keeping him and ensuring he’s motivated and enjoys his job, and by allowing the waitresses and other staff to have comparatively more time to spend with their guests and upsell them and provide them with a better evening and better experience, which will grow revenues in the long run with their return visits. Maybe the couple dozen bucks that drop to the bottom line tonight are fool’s gold, maybe it’s a false economy.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and unsurprisingly, the NHL chooses the wrong way, by choosing the short-term dollar over the longterm health of the game. It chose profit over fan experience again and again, and now wonders why the NBA has zoomed by it in terms of revenue and ratings, even as they cash their one-time expansion cheques from William ‘Shiny Hockey’ Foley.

So one more big spitty raspberry for Gary Bettman and his insensate grasp of what the sport needs and the fans want. With you at the helm Gary, the NBA can sleep soundly and worry-free. And maybe that’s been the plan all along.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Canadiens' enduring #1 Centre search

On the Canadiens' historical failure to obtain #1 or franchise centres, the thought occurred to me, and I wonder what you guys think, but is there a true blue #1 centre that we could have drafted recently, within the Bergevin tenure or shortly before, that we overlooked? Strictly in the first round mind you, I’m not talking about a long shot or anything, but at our draft position, was there a Mark Scheifele or a Ryan Johansen or a Sean Monahan who we could have picked and then plopped onto our roster for a decade as a Top 6 centreman and team leader that we passed over?

We’ve been looking for our ‘gros joueur de centre’ ever since I was a kid, since we traded away Peter Mahovlich, and we had interludes with Bobby Smith and Pierre Turgeon, but the quest continues, and I don’t think recently we’ve had a chance to fill that need neatly and easily and botched it by drafting a tough grinding winger instead.

I’m asking the question before going on to Hockey DB to do my own research, maybe I’m forgetting about an obvious case, but the only example I can think of recently of a big talented centre who was passed over in favour of someone else is Anze Kopitar for Carey Price. And that's not so recent, actually.  I admit I wasn’t paying much attention back then, remember reading that the Canadiens had picked this kid Price from B.C., fifth overall, and my kneejerk reaction was “Not a goalie!…” But I didn’t know what the other options were aside from Gilbert Brulé, and wasn’t the accepted wisdom back then that Anze Kopitar was certainly intriguing, but not necessarily a no-brainer, there were doubts about picking a Slovenian player so high?

Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud, but it’s my sense that we just haven’t been ‘lucky’ at the draft, that we’ve not had the chance to pick high when a franchise centre was up for grabs, that we’d have a chance at.

Even last June, we had the #9 pick, and it’s clear in my mind that Mikhail Sergachev was the best option for us. No shot at Auston Matthews, no shot at Pierre-Luc Dubois, and with reservations about Tyson Jost (size), Logan Brown (skating and skill level, conditioning) and Michael McLeod (maybe not a Top 6 centre), Mikhail Sergachev, the kid with all the tools and no visible flaws was the way to go.

Another thought I get about can’t-miss franchise-centres and how easy/difficult they are to find is when I think back to the 2012 draft. We held the #3 pick, and we all had our hearts set on Alex Galchenyuk, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Nail Yakupov was pretty much guaranteed to be the first overall pick, but the Oilers then as forever needed defence, so it was possible that they might take Ryan Murray instead, or that they’d prefer Alex to Nail, since he was a more valuable centre.

And Columbus at #2 seemed likely to pick Ryan Murray, although they might also go off the board, they might snatch our centre right before our very eyes.

So we had long and far-ranging discussions on social media about what the Canadiens could or should do, if we couldn’t pick Alex at #3, or even as a strategic move, to maximize our assets.

A lot of this talk was on the idea of trading down a few spots to draft Mikhail Grigorenko, who had started the season as the top-ranked CHL prospect for the next draft, but had a difficult season marred by injury and illness (mononucleosis). Or, some discussed trading down further to the middle of the first round and drafting one of Brendan Gaunce or Radek Faksa. The thinking was that they were just as good or almost as the more ballyhooed Galchenyuk and Grigorenko, that you could get your big centre that way and stockpile another asset, maybe a late first or early second round pick.

The Flames’ Jay Feaster, the day of the draft, shocked a few people by choosing centre Mark Jankowski out of Stanstead College (?) 21st overall, and then proclaiming him the best prospect in the draft.

Fast forward a few years, and we have to admit that the scouts had these players properly ranked, with Alex as the best centre prospect, and Grigo a few slots back, then Brendan Gaunce, Radek Faksa and Zemgus Girgensson in their own mid to late-first round tier.

For me, seeing the travails of Brendan Gaunce as a Canuck, seeing his ‘ceiling’ creep lower and lower every season, it puts the difficulty of finding and developing big talented centres in perspective.

In all this, I’m receptive to the argument that five years on, it seems the Canadiens are no further ahead than they were when Marc Bergevin took the reins, in terms of still relying on the same core group, save the P.K.-for-Shea swap. Sure, Gally and Chucky are now mature and in the meat of their careers, they’re no longer raw rookies, but on the flip side, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov are nearing the end of the line. We’re seemingly treading water.

The only way Marc Bergevin’s hot seat cools off is if the young players all take a big step forward, Charles Hudon, Jacob de la Rose, Mike McCarron, Daniel Carr, if they can be a wave of fresh legs and energy, and organically replace the offence and minutes that is lost by the departure of Alex Radulov, Lars Eller, Dale Weise, guys who contributed to the success of the team in the recent past.

But in terms of not getting that #1 centre, I don’t think Marc Bergevin has much to account for. There hasn’t been one available to us since Alex Galchenyuk, and we took him. That’s how you get these guys, you have to draft a Sean Monahan or a Bo Horvat. They’re tough to acquire otherwise, especially if most players list us as a forbidden team on their limited NTCs. If Eric Staal and Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier don’t want to come here, there’s not much Marc Bergevin can do about that at the trade deadline or when July 1 comes around.

I would argue that we haven’t had a Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby available to us certainly, but not even a second-tier franchise centre, if there is such a thing, a Sean Monahan or Mark Scheifle, that we could have claimed for ourselves.

I think this can help us put Marc Bergevin’s “failure to obtain a #1 centre” in context. He didn’t have one to pick up in the draft, but he also didn’t trade a first round pick for a hill of beans and then see that pick become a Jeff Carter.