Wednesday, 27 May 2015

2015 Off-Season: Should the Canadiens offer Josiah Didier a contract?

With the dust having settled somewhat after Marc Bergevin's mildly controversial end-of-season press conference, we can start to assess what moves the Canadiens will make in the off-season, starting with what to do with unsigned drafted players.

In 2013, we advocated offering a contract to Daniel Prybil, but not Olivier Archambault and Dustin Walsh, these three being the players whose rights were about to expire.  It came to pass that none of them were offered a deal.

In 2014, we thought Dalton Thrower should be signed, but not Mike Cichy and Erik Nystrom, and that came to pass, but we were puzzled by the decision to not offer Brady Vail a contract.

Ultimately, none of these players who were let go have come back to haunt the Canadiens.  It may happen that down the road one of these guys blossoms, but it will be a surprise, and we won't be able to fault the Canadiens for that decision, since they have to evaluate the players as they are now in their progression, and the likelihood that they will pan out.  

With the 50-contract limit, you can't hoard all your prospects, and hope that one of the very longshots turns it around and pays off like a lottery ticket.  You have to make educated decisions, weigh the opportunity cost of holding on to a fringe prospect versus having the flexibility to sign unrestricted free agents who are closer to the finish line.  

And so far, the pedestrian results offered by Brady Vail, Olivier Archambault and Daniel Prybil among the others cut loose vindicate the decision-making of the team, which allowed the brain trust to pursue and sign players like Jiri Sekac and Daniel Carr.  

The longest journey begins with the first step.  Slow and steady personnel moves like this eventually win the race.

This off-season, we don't have a handful of players we need to make decisions on.  The 2013 draft yielded a bounty of prospects, and the leading lights, Michael McCarron, Jacob de la Rose and Zachary Fucale are already signed.  Sven Andrighetto was picked as an overager, was immediately signed and folded into the talent-starved Bulldogs.  Arturri Lehkonen is still playing in Europe, delaying the decision in his case for another couple of years.

Longshot Connor Crisp is signed and already has a season in the AHL under his belt, although it was difficult for the rugged winger.  Hopefully he adapts more fully next season.

And Jérémy Grégoire, a lowly sixth-round pick, had an injury-marred season with the Drakkar in the LHJMQ, but came back with a vengeance when healthy, scoring at a greater than a point/game pace, and two points/game during the post-season.  His style of play should mesh well with the Canadiens' system and the AHL in general.

Which leaves unsigned from the 2013 draft only Martin Reway, who played one season in the LHJMQ with the Gatineau Olympiques, was drafted, played another season and then returned to Europe to play pro in the Czech League and earn more money than he could in the CHL.  While it's not ideal perhaps in terms of prospect development, the silver lining for the Canadiens is that through a technicality in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it gives the team until 2017 rather than this June to make a decision on whether to sign the diminutive Slovakian forward or not.  This is in contrast of some alarmist, misinformed reports to the contrary on a Canadiens blog and le Journal de Montréal, which again, as is its custom, gets it wrong.

While he is undoubtedly a skilled player, Martin Reway is also very small, beyond undersized.  While the NHL game may slowly be shifting away from the lumbering WHL grinders towards skill with the present success of the Tampa Bay Lightning's cadre of small fliers, his stature will probably still be a challenge for him, whether it's just in terms of an NHL GM bias, or a practical barrier to entry based on his actual play on the ice.  Certainly, his performance at the World Junior tournament turned heads, again.

His maturity is also in question, having clashed with Olympiques coach Benoit Groulx on a few occasions.  Marc Bergevin famously, avowedly prizes character, players who buy into the program and the team concept.  The Canadiens GM will have to weigh the team's need for talent and offence and goal-scoring versus the potential headaches this player could cause.

So far, the 2013 draft is a dramatic success, in that not a single player has been an outright whiff.  Everyone of them has progressed to the next level, and either has been signed or will be so in all likelihood, even the low-round picks.  Encomiums should rain down on Trevor Timmins and his staff for a clean sweep, as far as these things go.  And despite some overwrought bloggers who are tempted sometimes to justifiably, measuredly second-guess him.  And may still be proven right in the fullness of time...

In effect, the only drafted player the brain trust has to make a decision on this summer is Josiah Didier, a 2011 fourth-round pick of the Pierre Gauthier administration.  The GM had made a trade on draft day, dealing away a third-rounder, 78th overall, for two fourth-rounders, 97th and 108th overall, which Trevor Timmins used to pick Messrs. Didier and Archambault, respectively.

Josiah Didier has spent four seasons at the University of Denver.  His pluses are his tremendous size and his dogged defensive work that is loved by coaches.  The big negative, that would give the Canadiens pause, is his non-existent offence.  

A couple of seasons ago, it was thought that teams could and should have a big tough nasty #6 defenceman who didn't do much except hit, clear the crease, make the opposition a little bit more likely to tiptoe around the slot, and occasionally enter into a fight.  This was especially so in the Canadiens fans' minds, tired as we were of getting pushed around by the Leafs and Bruins, among other usual suspects.

It's debatable now that this need is still the case.  The heavyweight designated puncher has been extirpated from the game.  The game has shifted more and more in favour of players, of defencemen who can skate, create offensively, or at least make a decent first pass to start the breakout of the zone.  The unidimensional defensive defenceman may also be going the way of the dodo.

So it's a little less likely that Josiah can have a pro career, given his struggles in the offensive area.  If CHL defencemen need to score approximately 0.6 pts/game in their draft year to have a good chance at an NHL career, where does that leave Josiah with his 0.25 pts/game in his senior season in the NCAA?  

Further hurdles exist to his being signed by the Canadiens, to having a likely chance to succeed at the NHL level, like the fact that his likely role, that of the ornery defensive defenceman, is being applied for by a few others in the Canadiens' farm system.  It's like Josiah is getting to the party too late.  

A few seasons ago, we had Jaro Spacek, Raphaël Diaz, Yannick Weber, and Tomas Kaberle as our light-hitting defencemen.  P.K. Subban was a little young to really contribute any toughness.  Hal Gill was a little too tame, despite his great size, although he'd jump in when things exploded and neutralize his man, usually the biggest one around.  Josh Gorges was willing, a gamer, but rarely inspired any fear in anyone.

If Josiah had been around then, fully matured as a prospect, he might have won a job by default.  Now, he has other youngster vying for a similar role, among them Greg Pateryn, Jarred Tinordi, and Brett Lernout.  He'd have to beat out many challengers.

Another challenge he'll have is that if he joins the farm team, he'll be another rightie on a blueline replete with them.  It's arguable that we have too many of them.  

I've been harping on this for a couple of seasons, but it seems the Canadiens made a conscious decision a few seasons ago to balance out their blue-chip, can't-miss leftie prospects Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu with a plethora of right-shooting longshot prospects.

We have on the rolls right now, slated to join the AHL team next season, righties Darren Dietz, Dalton Thrower, Morgan Ellis,  and Brett Lernout.  Magnus Nygren is still in the picture nominally.  Greg Pateryn has probably made the NHL for good, but will 'block' any likely advancement by these youngsters, adding to the complex picture.

So it's worthwhile to ask whether Josiah is a fit for the organization, whether a longshot like him would be better served being given a shot with another club that needs his services to a greater degree than do the Canadiens.  A few commenters on social media have been predicting a trade by the Canadiens, to unclog the system of so many defencemen prospects who can't all be developed at once.  Things may be coming to a head in this regard.

The Canadiens have until August 2015 to sign Josiah, so they have some time to make a decision in his case, or make a trade.  It’s noteworthy that Josiah played eight games with the Bulldogs to end the season, but it was on a tryout contract, so the Canadiens were still hedging their bets.

My hunch, based on the kid's diligence, character and leadership on the Denver U. team, is that he'll get a contract offer.  The Canadiens aren't hurting for spots on their 50-contract limit, there's room to retain this asset, even if it's then swapped out later on to another team for another one we have a greater need for.

Ron Reusch on Guy Boucher.

I like Ron Reusch as a personality, like the fact that his blog gives us something to chew over in the fallow summer months, but this article is shoddy.  It would be great if Mr. Reusch correctly used the words its and it's.

He also calls Marc Bergevin "Bergeron" in the final paragraph.

And don't get me started with the habit he has of using the internet wackery of starting sentences with "..." when he does his pre-game notes.  Those are an eyesore, I wish a professional journalist would not do that.  I actually refuse to read those.

That lack of attention makes his site less than a must-read, and makes me wonder what else he's getting wrong.

So I really like the content of this article, the recent history of the powerplay and how it correlates with some coaching staff changes, but it's a bit of a pain to read.  And I'm not sure I can trust the info with those other errors in the article.

As far as the Guy Boucher comments, I'd love it if he was hired by the Canadiens, but I'm not sure of the dynamics, of having a guy who is obviously gunning for a head coaching job as the assistant.  It works sometimes, we seen guys go back to assistant duty before returning as head coach, but it's relatively rare.

Plus, I want to stockpile Mr. Boucher, have him on hand as a 'callup' if Michel Therrien loses his magic touch.  If he's a Canadiens assistant coach, it would be hard for him to pivot and become the head coach, that's been a problem for others in the past, it rarely works.

Finally, Ron Reusch refers to "some of the stuff Bucher (sic) pulled while coaching Tampa Bay", which I think is a tired fallacy, based mainly on the say-so of congenital idiot Chris Pronger.  Guy Boucher played a defensive system, we should get over it.  It only became a circus when the Flyers got involved.  Big surprise.

If Guy Boucher had had a goaltender while in Tampa, his tenure would have been much longer, and more successful, based on his success and his players' testimonials from his days as a Bulldogs coach.

In any case, this may be a case of us having tunnel vision, thinking that there isn't anyone else out there who can help beside Guy Boucher.  There are plenty of candidates who have proven themselves in junior, university hockey, the AHL, etc.

Social media has focused on Dan Lacroix as the possible/likely culprit of the impotence of the powerplay, but I wouldn't hesitate on including Clément Jodoin in our bullseye as well.  He's the video and strategy guy, the man who's supposed to break down opponents, figure out how to attack them.  The powerplay was kind of toothless when Gerard Gallant was in charge of it too.  And Clément Jodoin is a common denominator to both.  If his wonkish style is ineffective, isn't getting through to his charges, his role should be reviewed too, not just Dan Lacroix's.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Memorial Cup Round-robin: Generals 2, Rockets 1

Toughts on the Generals-Rockets game in the Memorial Cup preliminaries.

--The Oshawa coach didn't roll his four lines to start the game, instead trying to rely on his top 2 lines and matching up Cole Cassels against star Rocket forward Leon Draisaitl.  This approach meant relatively more icetime for Michael McCarron early on, and he stood out, driving to the net early on and generating a scoring chance when his winger rang the rebound off the crossbar.

--On another sequence, with a prolonged cycle game when giant Hunter Smith was also on the ice, Mike came out of the corner with a clean possession and fed his winger, again for a strong scoring chance.

--Kelowna was the home team, so they had 'last change', Dan Lambert could see who D.J. Smith was sending out on the ice for faceoffs and react accordingly.  The way the Oshawa coach handled this disadvantage was by sending out Michael McCarron for draws early and often, almost daring his counterpart to send out his star centre.  When he did, Mike would take the faceoff, and then quickly leave the ice and allow Cole Cassels to jump on.

Again, great assignments for our boy, lots of responsibility and heavy minutes.  It's doubtful that he'll play Top 6 centre in the pros, but this icetime is good training for him, and his ability to take draws might come in handy in the NHL, especially since he's a rightie.

--The first period closed with Michael on the rush getting a shot off that squeaked through the goalie and hit the far post.  Great period by him, he drew plaudits from the play-by-play crew, generating scoring chances, coming close in goalmouth scrambles.  Nice job.

--During the intermission, Patrick Roy was a guest of the panel, and was asked about Zachary Fucale.  I'm not sure if he confused the time he scouted him as a junior coach or GM, or if he started saying something and thought better of it due to the NHL tampering rules, but he gave a jumbled story about trying to obtain an extra first round pick to draft him, but he obviously thinks highly of his character and his competitive ability and mental makeup.

Which is fine by me.  If we're going to get someone's stamp of approval for our young goalie, we could do worse than having Patrick Roy's.

--I'll observe again that Sportsnet is diligent about describing first-round NHL picks as "Montréal first-rounder Mike McCarron" or "Washington Capital prospect Madison Bowey", and even for "Calgary second-round pick Hunter Smith", but it doesn't extend to the Canucks' Cole Cassels for some reason.  Maybe this nicety doesn't extend to third-rounders?

Living in B.C., we get a lot of references to Cole Cassels as a forward who could figure in the Canucks future, and that's partly due to the bare shelves of their system the last few years, but certainly also to the great progress he's shown since he's been drafted, and his good showing at prospect camps and rookie camps.

--The Generals strangled play some more in the second period, allowing precious few chances to the Rockets, and scored twice to lead 2-0, until a late goal on the rush by Kelowna closed the period at 2-1.  

I noticed that Michael played a lot at the end of the period, and didn't look great defensively on the goal and a couple other close calls.  I wondered if he was getting a little winded, or had geared down a bit to pace himself for the long haul.

--Nice feature on Michael in the second intermission, how he was a trade target of the Generals to make a run to the Memorial Cup, how he's fit in, how much his play has improved.

--Third period was a little more uneven for Michael, he struggled a little bit on faceoffs, was on the ice for a few sequences when the Rockets dominated.

--The Rockets had eight or ten chances to tie the score late in the third on a five-on-three powerplay, but they were more rushed, more scrambly than snipy and clinical, so no solid shots got off, it was more batting at a bouncing puck when the goalie seemed vulnerable, ripe for the taking.

--Generals win and advance straight to the final.  If I was coldly calculating, I'd have preferred they lost, to give our prospects potentially two more high-stakes games, the semi-final game AND the final, instead of the one he's now guaranteed.  But I'll take it.  Good for Mike and good for us that he's in this position, has a chance to finish off his junior career on a major high, set him up to take the next step in the right frame of mind.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Memorial Cup Round-robin: Generals 5, Remparts 4 (OT)

The Generals got through the Remparts 5-4 in overtime to assure themselves of a playoff berth.

This is the matchup Canadiens fans most anticipated, the Generals and hulking forward Michael McCarron and the Remparts with all-star goalie Zachary Fucale.  Two jewels in the crown, big pieces on the farm for the Canadiens, players who can have a big say on the future success of the franchise.

And as discussed earlier, this would be a game where fans were conflicted.  Sure, you want Michael to score and produce and have a good game, but not at the expense of the goalie, the other guy you're cheering for.  You want him to stone the other team.  Except for Michael, who we want to score.  Round and round we go.

Both guys held up their end of the bargain early.  Michael scored the first goal of the game with a textbook deflection of a shot from the point.  Zachary had no chance on it, the puck was headed for the crossbar and bounced down at his feet and through his legs.  The play was actually reviewed by the refs to ensure Michael's stick didn't touch the puck above the crossbar.

Later, Mike and Mike (Dal Colle) took off on a two-on-one, with our boy carrying the puck, then making a perfect pass right on the tape of his linemate's stick, who converted it for the Generals' second goal.  Again, Zachary could not be faulted on this one, it was a well-executed two-on-one, with a cross-crease pass and no bobbled puck.

Aside from that, Zach was solid, making a few good saves, handling the puck well, getting kudos from the broadcast team.

The second period was more of the same, with Mike showing dominance in terms of his size and play along the boards, and Zachary Fucale minding the store, and shutting down the other team.

It wasn't flawless for Michael, he's not quite Eric Lindros just yet.  While he was strong on the cycle, he sometimes would bury the puck, allow himself to get outnumbered and eventually lose it.  He got surprised in his zone when off-balance and a smaller Rempart decided to ignore his stickhandling and just stick a shoulder into him, which rocked him backward.  And on one sequence on a powerplay, he stood high in the slot and banged his stick incessantly, asking for the puck, when he wasn't really that great an option or that open.

So maybe we should participate in the draft this June after all, pick up some new prospects.  I don't think Michael by himself will solve everyone of our problems.

But it's great to see the development in his game, the confidence, the leadership he's asserting as a 19-year-old player.

And it's cool to see him getting some love from the media.  Damien Cox of Sportsnet did a focus segment on him during the second intermission, and Rob Faulds interviewed him on-ice before puck drop at the start of the third.

Two quick goals started off the third.  The Generals got a powerplay goal on a shot from the point, and again I'll make an allowance for Zachary that he was screened by 6'6" Hunter Smith.

The Remparts tied it up at 3-3, also on the powerplay.  Michael McCarron I assume lost the draw on the penalty kill, but I can't swear to it, since Sportsnet's picture didn't show us the play, the director was more interested in a shot of the Generals' coach behind the bench than the actual play going on.  Par for the course for them I guess, they routinely miss faceoffs when they're too busy showing slick graphics or promos.

The third period was more of the same for Michael, a strong drive to the net for a good shot and scoring chance, a wraparound attempt, strong play on faceoffs and the cycle.  Oshawa coach D.J. Smith relied on him quite a bit, giving him lots of ice and responsibility, killing penalties, powerplay, everything.

Another hiccup though, when trying to stickhandle and deke behind his own net with the puck, and almost getting burned.  This isn't the time to be fancy Mike, your coach would love a 'strong play' right now.  Just bang it off the glass.

Zachary also distinguished himself, resisting the onslaught when the Generals were bottling up the Remparts.

A long overtime period was needed with the score tied 4-4 after 60 minutes, and it went as the latter stages of the game went, with the Generals dominating positional play, spending a lot of time in the Québec zone, until the Remparts would break out and be dangerous on the rush.  The Generals won late, on a goal by defenceman Stephen Desrochers off a clean faceoff win by Canucks prospect Cole Cassels.

Zachary, who was bombarded with 50 shots during the game, might have gone down a little early on that one, but again it's hard to say he's responsible for that one, with the hard shot going in off the crossbar, it wasn't a cream puff by any means.

So now the Remparts have to beat the Océanic to try to make the playoff round.  It would be sweet revenge for them, after losing the Presidents' Cup against this very same team, in overtime of Game 7.  Should be a good game too.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Memorial Cup Round-robin: Generals 4, Océanic 3

This game was interesting for this Habs fan for two reasons: to see Canadiens 2013 first-rounder Michael McCarron assert himself and continue his progression, and to see a Flyers prospect and a Leafs prospect fall flat on their face.

I don't really hold any ill will towards Samuel Morin and Frédéric Gauthier (respectively), but it's kind of the same dynamic I have with Malcolm Subban: I don't want them to be successful at this point in their career.  Until they change address.  And I hope all the rumours about a possible trade out of Boston for Malcolm come true so we can start cheering for him.

My first reason for watching was borne out early, with on his first shift Michael McCarron making a good pass on an odd-man rush and streaking to the net for a rebound.  None was to be had, but you have to love the instincts, such behaviour will be fruitful in the pros.

On his second shift, Michael took a draw in the offensive zone, and instead of going backwards on his backhand, he poked the puck forward, pushed/kicked it to his winger as he bowled the opposite centreman over onto his butt.  Tobias Lindberg shot once, got a rebound and cashed it in.  Advantage, McCarron.

The Generals jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead, and the theme for the talking heads was the complete domination they had over the Océanic, limiting them to 2 shots in 15 minutes.  The last five minutes of the period was all Rimouski though, as they evened the score, and the analysts shook their heads and explained that junior hockey is a game played by young men, and that emotion plays a big role, both positively and negatively, you can see wild swings in momentum quite often.

In the second period, while on a powerplay Mike McCarron took a draw in the offensive zone and won it, and shortly thereafter took on Samuel Morin in a visor-punching  contest.  We didn't see what started it, how it came about, due to poor camera work and director work from Sportsnet, but Michael got the takedown after an uneventful scrap.  Game, McCarron.

Later, Mike had a golden opportunity to finish off his Gordie Howe hat trick when he got the puck right on the doorstep of the Rimouski net, with the Océanic goalie already down on his knees.  Our boy didn't quite bossy it though, he réjeanhouled it instead and lifted it above the crossbar, and over the glass into the netting.

Little hiccup early in the third, with Michael killing a penalty.  He won the faceoff, the Generals couldn't quite clear the puck, but he eventually stole it away from a rival and took off on a two-on-two break.  He didn't have the jets though, he got caught from behind by Frédéric Gauthier, who turned the puck over and went the other way with it.  The Océanic quickly scored.

Okay, maybe it was a medium hiccup.  Nothing wrong with being aggressive on the penalty kill, but you need to be aware, if you don't have separation, maybe just clear it, make the safe play.

Still waiting on the Gordie Howe hat trick.

And then Mr. Gauthier took a nice pass in the slot for a good scoring chance later, so while he was relatively invisible the first 40 minutes, the kid was now coming on.

Oh well, maybe it's with the Marlies that he's destined to bust...

The Generals scored the go-ahead goal in the third, a beauty by their other twin-tower Hunter Smith, a 6'6" Calgary draft pick.

Michael had a couple more strong shifts in the third, where he and his linemates played a strong cycle game and pushed around the smaller Océanic players, and set our boy up for a couple of chances, but couldn't find mesh.

The Generals win their initial game.  About which I'm mildly conflicted.

In a way I don't really have a dog in this fight, and usually I'd want the LHJMQ team to win, but in this case I want Mike to get as much icetime and big-game experience as possible, which means they need to win and get in the tourney playoffs.

Tomorrow, Mike is trying to score on Zachary Fucale when the Generals play the Remparts, so we'll have even more mixed feelings I guess.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Memorial Cup Round-robin: Remparts 4, Rockets 3

The Remparts won 4-3 against the Kelowna Rockets, but it could easily have been 8-3. The Remparts had countless great opportunities to score, Anthony Duclair having three or four breakaways himself, but couldn’t cash in any of them.

Whoever is their powerplay strategist, Marc Bergevin should pay close attention. They pass the puck around with celerity, there’s a lot of creativity, lots of potency in that attack.

I said earlier today that I wasn’t a big fan of Leon Draisaitl, but after seeing him play tonight, I’m at least a medium fan now. Good looking player, reminded me of Vincent Damphousse for some reason, skates with power and authority, but great puck control, dekes, passes. Again though, discipline was an issue for him, he got tangled up with a Rempart after the horn sounded at the end of the second period, and he got a ten-minute misconduct for his troubles. Losing him for that long in a tight game may have been the determinant factor.

Speaking of discipline, the Remparts had it sewn up after an Adam Erne empty-netter, leading 4-2 with a little over a minute left, but then they tried to goon it up, rub the Rockets’ nose in it I guess. Marc-Olivier Roy and Massimo Carozza were pains in the butt all night, slashing and jawing in scrums after whistles. This time the Remparts got caught, and drew two minor penalties.

Sure enough, the Rockets pulled their goalie and quickly scored on a 6-on-3. A game that was already won turned unnecessarily into a nailbiter for the Remparts.

One man-crush which abated somewhat was Madison Bowey, the silky smooth skating defenceman with a big right-handed shot, he starred at the World Juniors, loved how he played. He had a difficult night though, turning the puck over, missing on passes. He may have been rusty after a long layoff, the Rockets having dispatched their opponents in the WHL final over a week ago.

Solid, solid night by Zachary Fucale, he made some excellent saves, seemed in control. Good to see him back on his game after a difficult end of the regular season for him.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Is it time to trade Tomas Plekanec for a healthy return?

For two off-seasons I’ve been posting that Tomas Plekanec should be traded. Not in the Stéphane Langdeau sense of “se débarrasser de Plekanec”, not in the Jiri Sekac-HIO-style of ‘giving up on him’, just that we keep circling around the same question about lack of size up the middle, lack of scoring on the wing, etc., yet we stand pat, season after season.

It’s time to adjust our roster, “brasser la soupe.”

Tomas is a trade chip that can return some value. Teams are always looking to upgrade at centre, with size if possible, but not necessarily. Centre centre centre. That’s all I hear from Canucks fans, especially now that Ryan Kesler is gone.

That’s all I hear from my Oiler fan friends, why they kept Leon Draisaitl far later than they should have in the NHL instead of sending him back to junior. ‘Mac T’ had RNH on his first line, then Leon Draisaitl as his second-line centre, then a succession of nobodies for the third line. Matt Hendricks was a stopgap option for the fourth line.

So yeah, despite the near-rant from Marc Bergevin, let’s install Alex Galchenyuk at centre, let’s give our melancholy Dane a boot in the rear and tell him to get going. Let’s scour the sport, C. Montgomery Burns-style ("Alright, find me some good players. LIVING players! Scour the professional ranks. The American League, the National League, the Negro League!”), and see if there are unloved minor league centres out there, or NHL’ers who can be obtained by trade.

Let’s keep David Desharnais as a swing-utility player, a guy who can play Top 9, at centre or left wing, be an insurance policy. And I say this with cold-eyed realism, knowing full well that his trade value is low to non-existent, due to his size and cap hit.

Let’s bring up the kids from the minors for a look, a three-game audition, groom them, ease them in. Not to interrupt their AHL apprenticeship, just to keep our finger on the pulse, help their progression along. Charles Hudon had an extended audition at centre with the Bulldogs, let’s see if that recurs next season, if he can hack a game or two in the bigs. Let’s see if Jacob can take a big step next year, with his rookie pro season under his belt.

So I think it’s time for Tomas to ply his trade somewhere else. I like the guy, like how he competes, how he represents the team. I like how he busted P.K.’s chops after the Olympics roster announcement, when he asked him if he’d made the Canadian squad. P.K. said yes. Tomas said, with a very stern look: “Good. For us.” Meaning, the Czech team’s chances were enhanced by P.K.’s presence on our roster. Classic.

After another mildly disappointing playoffs, with a couple of gaffes that shouldn’t be expected from a smart two-way vet like him, and after another season of not really clicking with his wingers, after many other seasons of making allowances for him for having David or Scott Gomez or Saku playing ahead of him, and of excusing his lack of production by pointing at the poor quality of his wingers, or the paucity of his o-zone starts, or his being worn out from overuse on the penalty kill, I’ve kind of run out of runway for him.

Not a bad player, just maybe not the right player for our team at this time, maybe not the right fit.

Tomas had a good career in Montréal, but it’s time to unclog the logjam at centre, draw from that relative strength to shore up weaknesses elsewhere. And I understand Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien when they say that having more centres on a roster is great, they can play wing and be available in certain situations to pitch in, but really, we’ve taken enough kicks at this can, let’s try a different approach.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

'15 Playoffs Round 2, Game 6: Canadiens 1, Lightning 4

Let's get this over with.  Which may have been what some Canadiens had in mind in this game.  Certainly once they were behind in the score, at least.

The Canadiens were eliminated from the post-season with a 4-1 loss to a Lightning team that found its bearings again, and played more like the edition we saw in Game 2 and 3, fast, skilled, scoring goals that left no doubt.

In fact, the final game was a microcosm of the series: Tampa being fast and lethal on offence, featuring pinpoint passing and sure snipers, while the Canadiens came up short when generating opportunities, hitting a post, leaving pucks in the crease uncashed.  For the Canadiens to win, they had to dominate Tampa, hope that they didn't get lucky once or twice, and for all the chaff left around Ben Bishop's net to find its way into his net.

Tampa's first two goals, a beautiful deviation by Nikita Kucherov on a sly setup from Ondrej Palat, and a wrist shot from Steven Stamkos from directly in front of Carey Price's net, were no-doubters.  No luck was involved.

Meanwhile, Tomas Plekanec was slamming his stick to the ice after a miss, P.A. Parenteau hit a post but this time didn't bank it in.  The powerplay failed to connect on its two opportunities.  So it goes...

As Habs fans, we may have underestimated the difficulty of winning a Game 6 on the road in Tampa Bay, where the Lightning held the best home record this season, in our haste to imagine a Game 7 at the New Forum where we'd hold all the cards, the momentum.  We may have looked beyond the sixth game.

We'll dissect the corpse over the next couple of weeks, get ready for the draft and free agency, build our funeral pyres and gallows, but until then, it's appropriate tonight that we congratulate this group of men for a great season, where they quieted the naysayers yet managed to inflate their expectations, a neat trick all in all.

To the management team, the coaching staff, the support staff and the players, a job well done.

Now get to work and find us some snipers.  With character.  And size.  And grit.  But don't sell the farm.

Get to it.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

'15 Playoffs Round 2, Game 5: Canadiens 2, Lightning 1

The Canadiens staved off elimination tonight with a 2-1 win that was much closer than it by all rights should have been.  (Do we use the word 'stave' in any context or meaning other than teams avoiding elimination?)

The win was obtained courtesy of an offensive explosion from the heretofore dormant hyphenated right wingers Devante Smith-Pelly and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau.  Both of them finally picked up their first post-season (hey, hyphen!) goal, and it was high time, since that was all the scoring the Canadiens could muster.

Fans sometimes castigate the Canadiens for being a team that plays on the periphery.  Certainly, they've been shooting on the periphery.  SportsCentre opened with a video-audio montage of all the posts they hit this game, to go along with all the other posts they've hit so far in this series.

And it may be an apt microcosm for this matchup, one team with a behemoth of a goalie who blots out the sun and obliterates angles with his 6'7" frame, and another with a plucky band of brothers long on heart but short on snipe, the modern-day Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

This was something that was discussed in hushed tones in the Canadiens dressing room probably, until the irrepressible P.K. Subban impishly blurted out that Tampa goalie Ben Bishop had "been sitting on a horseshoe", overloading the Lightning's bulletin board to the point of collapse.

You don't do that, provide the other side with extra incentive, certainly not in the playoffs.  You say how those guys in the other room are talented and they work hard and the next game is going to be a battle.  You don't point and laugh.

Even though P.K. was decidedly right.  And again tonight, Mr. Bishop looked clumsy, was caught stumbling by the HNIC cameras in an isolation shot when tracking the puck.  He let pucks get by him and slam into the post, repeatedly.

The thing is even both Canadien goals clanged in off the iron.  And that's kind of the point.  Ben Bishop isn't an athletic or goaltending marvel, but he's effective, he poses a problem for the opposition.  He covers a tonne of the net just by being in the crease.  He was only beaten by two perfect shots that banked in off the posts; half an inch further out and they wouldn't have gone in, they'd have bounced out.  A couple of inches in and they would have been occluded by the gargantuan goalie, haplessly struck in his acromegalic shoulders.

Not to go too far down the path of Charles Wang's sumo-wrestler-as-a-goalie idea, but there's getting to be a ceiling for what players can do when faced by gigantor netminders.  In the days of Rogatien Vachon and Emile Francis, there was a lot of net to be seen, to shoot at, but goalies nowadays are as much as a foot taller, and have much lighter equipment that doesn't soak up sweat and water off the ice, doesn't bog the goalie down, can be made bigger without sacrificing agility and mobility.

Hockey skate and stick technology has been outpaced by goalie technology.  It's like World War 1; one side has horses and muskets, and the other has tanks and mustard gas.

The laughable sport of basketball has a similar problem, with a net set at a certain height that allows a colossal human being who can barely get around to have a significant contribution to offer a team, by standing near his own net, à la Marc Eaton or Manute Bol.  Hockey may be hitting its head on this ceiling, with the evermore obsolescent 4'X6' dimensions of the hockey cage.  This needs to be looked at.

So as unsteady and unimpressive as Ben Bishop was, he still had an effect on the game.

Fortunately, so did Devante Smith-Pelly, who I reverse-jinxed today by claiming to be unimpressed with his hands and skill level, and P.A. Parenteau.  Both of these guys have fallen off the radar, so much so that we might be tempted to think of their snipes as 'secondary scoring', but it would be an inaccurate representation.  Both of those dudes were brought in to play on the Top 6, to add offence.

So again, the Canadiens played a game where they were clearly the better team, but couldn't prove it decisively on the scoreboard.  Games 1 and 3 should have been wins but turned into one-goal losses.  Tonight's game, despite a preponderance of scoring chances on the Good Guys' side, came right down to the wire again.

We now head back to Tampa Bay, steal a game there, and then bring it home for a Game 7 on home ice in front of demented fans.  Easy peasy.

And I'd strongly suggest that Les Boys use the strategy I implored them to enact today, to score four or five goals very early on, to take the other team out of the game.  Patent pending.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Canadiens-Lightning: Pre-Game Thoughts

1)  My sense about tonight’s game, and the rest of the series, is that the Tampa Bay Lightning are very talented, and when they’re on their game, cohesive and firing on all cylinders, they’re hard to beat and we don’t match up very well with them.

They’re not unbeatable though. We dominated play in Games 1 and 3, two one-goal losses in which we didn’t get the puck luck. We beat Ben Bishop quite a few times, but the puck didn’t end up in the actual net, just on his forehead once, on the post half a dozen times, skittering through the crease, etc.

They’re like a knockout artist in boxing though, only needing one punch, or a batting order with lots of homerun hitters, who can put you away with one or two swings. And if they have a good night, it can be a slaughter.

So I’m modestly optimistic about Game 5, on home ice, feel we can win and go back to Tampa for Game 6, but I’m not underestimating the explosiveness of their team, or the propensity Ben Bishop has for throwing a shutout, the problem he causes for the opposition with his sheer size.

2)  We get Steve Kozari and Marc Joannette as refs for tonight's game.  So we have to fear the Québec referee who bends over backwards to show he's impartial.

I hate how that's become the norm.  Either we get a dyed-in-the-wool Hab-hater Ontario ref, who grew up wearing a Leaf jersey and sneering along with Don Cherry at visor-wearing "Europeans and French guys", or a local guy who feels he has to meet their low bar, to prove himself.

Ron McLean would have an easy solution to all this.

3)  Devante Smith-Pelly has had little effect on this series, aside from soaking up minutes on the right wing and delivering a few hits.

My sense before the trade, admiring the player from afar, mostly from his hockeydb page early on when he was the sole second-rounder of that class who was playing at the NHL level, was that he was a talented kid, an early-bloomer who'd be a big Top 6 forward, kind of like Curtis Glencross or Wayne Simmonds, a guy you can pencil in for some hits, who can resist the Tim Gleasons and Deryk Engellands out there, and notch twenty goals and season.

It's early yet, he's only 22, so he has room to develop, but so far I'm a little disappointed in his hands, his offensive acumen.  He does deliver on the toughness, the hits, the disciplined play, he's contributed that, and he's not lazy, the effort and commitment is definitely there.

But I thought he was a little niftier around the net.  And since there's a giant vacuum on the team in that regard, nobody who's naturally gifted at causing havoc in the crease and screening the goalie, I thought he take to it like a fish to water, compared to Anaheim where maybe there were three or four other guys who did that well and 'blocked' his development path.

He's got hands of stone, both based on his results so far, and what I've seen.  You don't see him make nice plays that don't quite connect, that come oh-so-close, and gives you that sense that he'll explode soon.  He doesn't wow you, doesn't show you the flashes of skill that promise a better future.

He's still valuable, an asset to the team, and there's hope that he'll improve, just maybe it won't be an immediate, showy addition to the roster like Dale Weise was last season.

But I temper my fanboy frustration by going back to the fact that he's only 22.  Looking at hockeydb yesterday, I noted that he's from the same draft class as Jarred Tinordi, who's still developing in the AHL.  And I'm very patient with Jarred, think the best is yet to come, so I should allow Devo some of the same latitude.

There's no rush in the grand scheme of things, it's not like he's about to turn UFA and we have to fish or cut bait with him.  We've got time to turn him into a productive Canadien yet.

I just want him to train with Max or P.K. this summer, join the latter for some crazy workouts at Laylor Performance in Toronto.  Work on his legs, squat until you puke, and get some explosiveness in his lower body, and maybe keep up with the pace a little better next season, be a little quicker, be on the puck instead of half-a-step behind.

4)  Tuukka Rask after a few goals, swearing, smashing his stick? Rattled.

Miika Kiprusoff after a few goals, calmly skating out of his crease to allow one of his d-men to retrieve the puck from his net, re-focusing, then coming back to take a swig of water and carry on? Not rattled.

Carey Price after a few goals, still poker-faced, still talking calmly with Andrei and P.K. about where they should be on faceoffs, not changing his expression or his style, still making saves and making them look easy in the third period of a lost game? Not rattled.

Ben Bishop swimming in his crease, on his backside, bobbling and mishandling the puck, dropping his stick numerous times, fainting after being brushed, whining to the refs, with the saucer eyes caught by the camera? Rattled.