Thursday, 24 January 2013

Game 1: Montréal 1, Toronto 2

I was all set to write my Game 1 recap before the game even began, and I was going to ramble on about how the Canadiens' convincing win against a less-than-mediocre roster shouldn't inflate our expectations for Nos Glorieux this season.  I was wrestling with my pre-season prediction post, and was working through the concept that our modest lineup would have much the same results as it did last season, but surely they'd blow through that collection of no-names in blue and white for a resounding opening win.  Right?

As underwhelming and nauseous a squad as the Maple Leafs appeared to be prior to puck drop, our heroes looked worse during the actual game.  Much worse.

Despite the 'No Excuses' motto that Head Coach Michel Therrien wants the organization to espouse, I found myself blaming the long pre-game torch ceremony.  As nice as it was to see Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer, among others, I'm of the opinion that these long proceedings tend not to favour the home team.  Instead of giving the boys a spiritual lift, they seem to sap the strength out of them, while the visiting team hangs out in their dressing room and waits for the signal for puck drop, and starts the game in a more routine fashion.

The player who caught my eye was Nazem Kadri, who finally played in a fashion that could justify his being picked 7th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft.  Which is sad.  I enjoyed chortling over the trials and tribulations of this young man the last couple of seasons, a schadenfreude based entirely on the colour of his jersey and the Toronto-centric national media spotlight directed at him.  If he pans out, there will be a little less levity in my life.

The Leafs scored both their goals on the powerplay, one on a penalty to Tomas Plekanec for administering a snow shower to Leafs goalie Ben Scrivens at a play stoppage.  We were pretty hard on P.K. Subban last season for having the same brain cramp, so Tomas shouldn't escape criticism for this.

It was noteworthy that the much-ballyhooed second line of Galchenyuk-Plekanec-Gionta didn't last the entire game.  In the third period, René Bourque replaced the rookie on the line, in apparent recognition of his effort and effectiveness.  While the short patience Coach Therrien showed for the lines he used during the previous week's camp was puzzling, it's encouraging that Mr. Bourque seems to have recovered from the abdominal injury which he says hampered him last season, and that he seems poised to contribute to the team's success in proportion to his talent and physical gifts.

Overall, a disappointing start to the season, one that will sharpen the cries from P.K. Subban's supporters for the team to sign him for what he thinks he's worth.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

2013 season prediction for the Montréal Canadiens

As a Montréal Canadiens fan, there is reason to be excited about this season, shortened though it may be.  There are indications that the team will play with intensity and there are surprises to look forward to, as well as the opportunity to see youngsters develop.

So excited, maybe, but not optimistic, at least as far as the standings go and a shot at the playoffs.  The team has a couple of new faces but is fundamentally unchanged from last season's squad that produced bottom-dwelling results.

It can be refreshing to contemplate that players such as Alex Galchenyuk, Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong are now on the roster, at the expense of plugs such as Blake Geoffrion, Aaron Palushaj, Mike Blunden and Mathieu Darche.  It seems like an unquestionable upgrade from last season, except that these callups and fourth-liners were mostly there to fill out a roster ravaged by injuries as March and April dragged on.  When compared with the 2011-12 opening game roster though, they are missing talented, offensively-gifted players like Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri, and these guys have not been replaced.

So on paper, this is not a stronger team than last season's.  The pieces are even less impressive.  The presence of an Andrei Markov is countered by the absence of P.K. Subban.  We're reduced, if we are to predict an improvement in the team's performance, to bank on incremental development of the team's constituents, and intangibles.

So we hope to hold the line, and maybe even wish for a marginal improvement for the top line, despite the fact that Erik Cole had a career year.  We count on Carey Price and Josh Gorges to be the horses they have been for a couple of seasons.  We expect Andrei Markov to perform largely as a he did prior to his two lost seasons.  Same goes for Brian Gionta, he's expected to not suffer any consequences from a season-ending injury and another calendar year having passed.  Francis Bouillon surely has a couple useful seasons left.  Brandon Prust will offer full value for the big contract he signed in July and redress past wrongs.

We then add in improved offense from Tomas Plekanec, who had a down year, and for Lars Eller to bloom into the kind of production you'd expect from a player of his size and pedigree, and who was acquired at the cost of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak.  We think that René Bourque will return to the form he showed with the Flames.  The young trio of defencemen of Emelin-Diaz-Weber will have benefited from their rookie season and will be more reliable and productive.

Only the most biased fans can believe that such a scenario is likely or even reasonable.  In fact, we can expect that for each player who will take a big step forward, another will seem to regress.  Career seasons tend not to repeat.

So the best-case scenario has a low probability of occurring.  It's just as likely that, for example, the Pacioretty-Cole-Desharnais line will find the going tougher now that teams will game-plan and line-match against them.  P.K. Subban's contract negotiations and possible protracted absence can serve as a distraction, and the team is much less formidable without him.  Other difficulties will arise, such as players not finding the new system or coaching team matching well with their skills and mindset.

The main factor though is that the biggest weaknesses of the team still exist.  The team lacks goal scoring and offensive explosiveness, as well as depth.  Marc Bergevin has gone a long way to alleviate the lack of team toughness that fans and analysts decried in recent seasons, but he is handcuffed when it comes to putting more pucks in the net.  It is probable that any great leap forward in that area will arise when the contingent of young draftees like Sebastian Collberg, Danny Kristo, Louis Leblanc, Tim Bozon and Charles Hudon, among others, graduate with the Grand Club in a couple of seasons.

Until then, and until the young Bulldogs persist through their first season's growing pains, the Canadiens' depth chart will be painfully thin, and the inevitable injuries will nullify the best-case scenario.  Whereas the future looks bright when we look at the Canadiens' system, this is really only in the medium-term.  There is no immediate help for the team on the farm, and the plan to roll four lines and play with intensity every game will have to be changed when Michel Therrien finds himself as short-handed as Randy Cunneyworth was last season.

Taking all this into account, and suspecting that Marc Bergevin will not sell the farm to improve the club's fortunes in this shortened season, but will rather stand pat, I believe the Canadiens will finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and out of the playoffs.  This will in no way diminish my interest and enjoyment while watching the games, strong in the belief that this is the right course of action for the organization at this stage of the unending five-year plan.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

P.K. Subban playing with fans' patience

After Erik Cole's gauche sortie Saturday, it's now Penell Karl's turn to try Montréal Canadiens fans patience.  Word is that he's seeking a five or six or seven-year-deal, worth 4 no 5 no 6 no (are you kidding me!?) $7M/year.  No one really knows, but everyone has an opinion.  Some decry him as being inept in managing his public persona in this post-lockout period, of being undeserving of the demands that are bruited on social media, while others tout him as the best defenceman if not player on the team, a sure-fire future Norris Trophy winner, and state that a long-term deal will turn into a bargain in a couple years..

One unfortunate consequence of the salary cap system in the National Hockey League is that it transforms committed fans into vigilant custodians of the team's payroll.  Whereas before fans would harry their team's ownership to pay whatever it costs to retain the hometown stars, nowadays fans are forced to take a stand on the wage a player will receive, as overspending on players decreases the likelihood that one's team will be successful and championship material.  In the days of the Guy Lafleur or Larry Robinson holdouts, every fan howled that the team made enough money to pay these guys what they wanted, and that they sure as hell deserved it.  Especially if Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson are worth millions to the Rangers...

So I'm now, as a fan who can't resist the pull of NHL hockey, forced to care how big P.K.'s paycheque will be.  And I unfortunately have to side with Canadiens' General Manager Marc Bergevin on this one.  He's trying to install a salary system whereby players entering their third pro contract, on the eve of their Unrestricted Free Agent years, get rewarded by receiving long-term security, as Carey Price and Max Pacioretty did this summer.  Players who haven't reached that level of seniority have to graduate to more modest contracts and prove themselves.  Mr. Bergevin is trying to clean up the financial mess left behind by the previous régime, and he realizes that cap flexibility is gold in the current NHL.

P.K. is a fine young man with oodles of talent and charisma, the Canadiens are his boyhood favourite team and he wants to be here, he can play with skill and toughness, he played the most minutes of any Canadiens last season, at even-strength against the opponent's top line, and on special teams.  Guys like that are hard to find.  As tempted as we might be to bend the rules in his case, we have to mind the veritable peacock's tail of red flags he carries around.  His sometimes irritating loquaciousness do not make him a unanimously beloved denizen of the dressing room.  His tendency, mentioned in hushed tones to the journalists who cover the Canadiens, to go against team rules, also grate.  There's his apparent resistance to coaching, as demonstrated by his run-ins with coaches.  There are also run-ins with teammates on practice ice.  His insistence on rocketing wild, skull-high slapshots off the glass on powerplay make his teammates cringe.  His resolve to start trouble on the ice last season, paired with his infrequent instances of finishing what he started, must have worn on Josh Gorges, Hal Gill, Travis Moen, and whoever else had to come in and fight his battles.

Another point to bear in mind is that P.K. was the best and most used defenceman on the team last year by default, because Andrei Markov was injured and we traded away Ryan McDonagh, and we let Mark Streit and James Wisniewski and Sheldon Souray walk in free agency.  While he is undeniably talented, if we hadn't stripmined all of our talent on the blue line in the last five years, he would have been called up from Hamilton and assumed a third-pairing role, and then slowly increased his minutes and responsibility.  Just because we didn't have a #1 defenceman last season doesn't mean he inherits the crown and fat paycheque by squatters' rights.  That's the kind of thinking that makes Leafs fans proclaim Nikolai Antropov and Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn as surefire superstars.

We also have to wonder about Mr. Bergevin's mindset in this shortened season.  Is he going in thinking playoffs and a couple of rounds are possible, or does he see this as a rebuilding year?  If it's the latter, any leverage P.K. might think he holds vanishes, for his absence from the lineup allows the team to evaluate the other youngsters like Yannick Weber, Raphaël Diaz and Alexei Emelin, to display Tomas Kaberle so as to increase his trade value at the deadline, as well as jockey for drafting position for next summer.

So as badly as I want P.K. to sign and be in uniform on Saturday and for us all to be a happy family, I want even more for Mr. Bergevin to show resolve and prudence and not upset the applecart, and shackle the team with another long-term contract on the basis of promise and potential.  I want P.K. to get his millions, but in due time, and if it means he sits out for a while longer, and we miss seeing play a couple games or even a dozen, then so be it.  We're building for the long-term here, we just got out of the Scott Gomez mess, let's not jump into any more 'entangling alliances' unless really necessary.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Erik Cole is understandably bitter

The Montréal Canadiens' scoring winger and all-round stand-up guy Erik Cole has made some disconcerting statements about his mindset following the ratification of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the National Hockey League and the NHL Player's Association.  In effect, he claims to be so disenchanted with the deal that the Association was able to strike with their employers, and skeptical of its fairness, that he is contemplating retirement at the end of the season.  The prospect of losing ten percent or more of the value of his contract through escrow clawbacks leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, seeing as he signed this contract only last summer, especially since he more than held up his end of the bargain so far.

Now, I don't believe for a second that he will go through with this, and walk away from the remaining two seasons and $9M (minus the Bettman Larceny Factor of course, which will probably work out to as much as a million dollar removed from his compensation).  I think that when he's back in the dressing room with the boys, and on the ice having fun at practice, and when he cashes in some David Desharnais feeds and 21 000 fans erupt in the New Forum, he'll quickly come around.  He enjoys the game, it's what he does and he's very good at it, he won't quit cold turkey out of spite.

On the other hand, I don't think he's being disingenuous.  Mr. Cole has been a stalwart supporter of the Association and its good fight against the owners, serving as a player representative alternate to Josh Gorges, and making himself available to the media to explain the players' stance and counter the management disinformation campaign.  As such, he's been strongly committed to the cause, and it's perfectly believable that now that it's over, and the NHL pretty much had its way, that he's feeling let down and contemplative.  He's genuine in expressing his feelings, and what he's going through.  If he'd had a week to cool off, those feelings would not have been so raw, and he'd probably have had the willpower to hold his tongue.

That Erik Cole is going through this, and that Ilya Kovalchuk is not overjoyed at the prospect of leaving his current team in his home country to go back to toil for the Devils, after being Scarlet-lettered as one of the culprits for the owners' third lockout in two decades, is understandable.  Just as there were pragmatists/bootlickers like Roman Hamrlik in the players' camp, there were also some highly militant, outraged members, and that they won't be all rainbows and sunshine in the space of a couple days at the prospect of heading back to work and shaking hands with their bosses, and acting like they haven't been heisted again, without much recourse.

So if Erik isn't all polished and doesn't speak in platitudes and opens his heart and bares his soul and overstates his possible course of action and still wants to send a message to the owners and hasn't quite given up the fight yet, let's cut the guy a break or two.  He's proven himself to the fans of Montréal all of last season by being a leader on and off the ice, by working tirelessly and spectacularly, by scoring a career-high in goals and bringing spectators out of their seats with his thrilling rushes to the net, and by never giving up and playing his heart out for every game of a very difficult season.  Erik's all right in my book, and he should be so in yours.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

How the Canadiens shape up as they head into camp

Over the last couple of summers, we've had fun trying to divine how the Canadiens' roster would look as they opened the season.  We'd make up line combinations and defensive pairings, and sprinkle in judicious but putative free agent acquisitions.  I for example campaigned for the addition of Shane O'Brien, and later of Taylor Pyatt.  It was clean, harmless fun to tide us over after the excitement of the draft but before the start of training camps.

This summer it was a harder task, as the opportunity of unloading Scott Gomez onto the Hamilton Bulldogs to nullify his cap hit was dependent on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement allowing this practice to continue.  As we now know, the Canadiens will no longer have this option, the new CBA specifying that players on a one-way contract still count on an NHL team's salary cap total even if they're toiling in the minors.

So our fantasies of clearing Mr. Gomez' $7.4M off the books, and clearing our roster of his trademarked 'charge-into-the-zone, fake-rush-to-the-net, curl-to-the-sideboards' move that fools no one no longer nohow are dashed.  We're stuck with him until next summer.

With not much cap room for this season, accounting for P.K. Subban's new contract still to come, the Canadiens won't have much flexibility to add players.  Also, with a very short training camp, and few if any pre-season games, the opportunity to gauge how the team is doing and adjusting the mix as needed, as Pierre Gauthier tried to do last fall with the in-camp addition of Chris Campoli, will be severely limited.

The strategy used will depend on the outlook Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin have for this season.  It's possible he may think that in a shortened season it's anyone's Cup for the taking, and therefore load up with a few cheap veterans for a playoff run, taking advantage of a Carey Price who should be coming into his prime, and veterans like Erik Cole, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec before it's too late.

Our sense however is that he's a cautious fellow who takes a long view of building a roster.  It's much more likely that he will ride the players he has as far as they'll take him, and he'll see how things shake out.  I don't imagine he'd suffer a team that was buffoonish and gutless; his addition of heart and soul veterans Brandon Prust and Francis Brouillon are good indications of his mindset.  If however the Canadiens tried hard and battled, and new Head Coach Michel Therrien provided new leadership and discipline, but the team again finished at the bottom of the standings, I don't think the brain trust, Trevor Timmins first and foremost, would mind very much.

Another factor to take into consideration is the reinforcements available in Hamilton, which are, lamentably, almost non-existent.  I say this with great hope that the kids now down on the farm will pay great dividends eventually, but not this year.  The evidence is plain to see when watching Bulldogs games or reading the game recaps and boxscores.  No Bulldog is tearing up the league.  None is too good for that level of play, à la Justin Schultz.  Louis Leblanc is having a difficult, unproductive season.  Michaël Bournival is mired in a ten-game slump.  Aaron Palushaj was having an underwhelming campaign before suffering a shoulder injury.

Blake Geoffrion, who seemed to be taking his veteran role on a young team seriously, and who I thought might earn a spot on the Grand Club when the season started, unfortunately suffered a serious head injury, and his career is now on hold.  Greg Pateryn, another older player who I hoped might be able to pitch in later in the season in a third pairing defensive role, is also out with a serious injury, his development stalled.  About the only players who seem like they could pitch in right now are Gabriel Dumont and Mike Blunden, who could be callups for spot duty on the fourth line.

So our best move will be to leave the youngsters in Hamilton to marinate for a full season at least.  Mr. Bergevin's maxim that you rarely regret bringing up a player too late allows us to confidently predict that the crown jewels (Louis Leblanc, Jared Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu) and supporting players will continue playing in the AHL, adapting and developing their skills to a higher level of competition.  They may get an injury callup of a couple of games to 'get a taste', but probably not more than that.

Some will argue that some young players are mentally tough enough to 'take' a season or two of being outgunned in the NHL, until they mature and their skills catch up.  They explain that a young player may benefit from being tempered in the fire of tougher competition right away.  I counter that with the fact that it's not just a mental toughness issue, but also a skill development issue.  If a player feels overwhelmed by the pace of the play, and the toughness of the opponent, he will pick up some bad habits, being forced to tread water.  Sink or swim rarely works, a step by step process of skill acquisition and development is almost always preferred.

Which brings us to the Alex Galchenyuk quandary.  What to do, what to do...

Mr. Galchenyuk does seem to be head and shoulders over the rest of the OHL competition, but I still think he can develop in Sarnia, by playing big minutes in tough situations, and leading his team to the playoffs.  I don't think he'd be wasting his time there, like maybe Jonathan Huberdeau might in St-John.  Another factor to consider is that while he had a strong showing with the US team at the World Juniors, he didn't dominate and seem as if he was NHL-ready.  The fact that he seemed to not be able to gain US Head Coach Phil Housley's full trust, as controversial as that might be, is an indicator that he still has a lot to learn at the junior level.

I think it was Rick Dudley who said that for a player to win an NHL roster spot out of junior, he had to win it cleanly, outright.  If the Canadiens are tempted to plug the giant hole on Tomas Plekanec's left wing with Alex Galchenyuk, let's hope that it will be based on what they see in camp, and not in their dreams.

Finally, we would prefer it if Mr. Bergevin can come to an agreement with Don Meehan and sign P.K. Subban to a contract relatively quickly.  Despite more red flags this off-season as to how P.K. fits in with the rest of the team in the dressing room, he is an undeniable talent who we can't do without.  I don't see the delay in getting him to ink a contract as a snub, but rather as evidence that the new management team is going to be prudent with its dollars and avoid the pitfalls the prior administration repeatedly dove into headfirst.  If Mr. Meehan was as amenable as Lars Eller's agent (again, Lars' contract is curiously cap-friendly for the team), or if P.K. adopted Max Pacioretty's view that getting long-term security was worth a 'hometown' discount' for the Canadiens, the deal would be done already.  As it is, Mr. Meehan and Mr. Bergevin are bargaining hard with each other, which is their prerogative.