Thursday, 4 April 2013

Game 37: Canadiens 4, Jets 1

We can see tonight's game as exposition to some of the issues the Canadiens face in terms of building the team for the next couple of years.

Let's start with my favourite hobby horse this season, but in a good way compared to last season, and discuss P.K. Subban.  He didn't have an eye-catching night like he had against the Flyers, but his ordinary performance was still good enough to net him two assists and vault him into the points lead for defencemen despite having missed the start of the season due to his contract negotiations.  Which is leading a lot of Chicken Littles to freak out that he's surely going to be a Norris Trophy finalist, which leads them to argue that not signing P.K. to a Tyler Myers/Drew Doughty-style second contract, but rather the very modest bridge contract he received, is a huge mistake and will cost the team way more money in the long run.  To which I reply that P.K. is not an automaton, performing in a sterile, controlled environment.  He's an emotional, impulsive, impressionable kid, who still needs a lot of direction and support.  To hand him the keys to the city after the uneven performance of last season would most probably have been the wrong move to make.

We can refer again to Messrs. Myers and Doughty as being kids who didn't have to earn it, and were possibly ill-served by their munificient contracts at such an early point in their career.  Unless a player is a full-formed superstar and team leader by the time their first contract expires (Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews), it's not wise to put all this pressure on them and remove some of their incentive to continue working on their game.

When P.K.'s turn comes to come to the cash window and get paid, sometime during next season probably, he'll be a couple years better, wiser, and we'll be happy to pay full price for a fledgling superstar, but one who is much closer to his apogee.  To have rewarded him for last season's rollercoaster ride would have been a gamble for the team, and the returns uncertain.  Now, instead of picking a growth stock and hoping it pays off, we'll buy a blue chip stock, pay more, but rake in the dividends for a decade.

Michael Ryder is another player who's playing for a big contract.  He's an Unrestricted Free Agent in July unless the Canadiens ink him, and he's making a big push in that direction.  Two goals and one assist tonight bring him to a point a game since he joined the team.  As Gaston Therrien says on l'Antichambre, he's the kind of player who has to score, since he doesn't hit or play defence, so he's doing that.  The question now is whether the Canadiens can afford to pay him what he'll be worth in July, or afford to let him walk.

I'm afraid that this will be a James Wisniewski situation, where a player brought in to play a specific role does it excellently, but then prices himself out of the team's salary structure.  Some team out there will want to shower him with $5M/year for five years or more, and that's too rich for our blood.  They'll use the Mikhail Grabovski and Ryan O'Reilly deals as comparables, and we'll take the long view and reason that we'd regret that contract in the third year or so.  What if his enthusiasm/motivation lags once he's set, like happened to Erik Cole this year?

Alex Galchenyuk played at centre tonight, a happy result of the unfortunate injury to Tomas Plekanec.  Michel Therrien was quite clear in his post-game remarks that the organization and coaching staff are very aware that he's a centreman, and that he played more freely due to having more ice to play with, but also tempered that by stating that he's also quite young and being developed with care, noting that he could be playing junior this year and next.  Again, Gaston Therrien summarized what has been hashed over online by fans for a couple seasons now, noting that the Canadiens have four centres who are offensively-minded and not really a fit for fourth-line duty, and a decision will need to be made next season.

What that decision will be is a humdinger of a dilly (sorry, I was exposed to too many shots of Ned Flanders' image on Peter Budaj's mask).  Lars Eller was moved to the top line and acquitted himself very well in Tomas Plekanec's stead, tallying two assists on the powerplay and shutting down the Jets man-advantage along with the other penalty killers.  Marc Bergevin told how Lars Eller is the player he was receiving the most calls about from other GM's when he took the job.  Obviously, these sly customers were trying to buy low on the kid, and that won't be possible anymore, the secret's out that he's big and talented and getting better as the season advances.  Lars just needs to find that extra gear.  He can still be indecisive, either with the puck, or with his fists as he demonstrated against the Flyers.  His tilt with Claude Giroux seemed to take him by surprise, he did nothing to dissuade his opponent, but once he was in it he responded late.  Next time I would expect that when a pipsqueak like Mr. Giroux takes liberties, that Lars slaps him down.

Which brings us to Alexei Emelin, who got into a fight again, with another tough customer, taking on Evander Kane after last tangling with Zdeno Chara.  Alexei has to make up his mind.  If he's not going to fight, he needs to turn away from the tiresome post-whistle scrums, not 'front' players and crosscheck them.  He can play tough but fair and refuse invitations to fight.  If he's going to fight, which we're told he can't because of previous facial reconstruction surgery, but anyway if he does, then he needs to fight, instead of dropping the gloves and half-turtling and just trying to survive.  It has to be one or the other.  If he's a long-term piece on defence, he needs to play solid defence, hit the opposition, and grow his sneaky offensive game, but he can't start fights that he can't finish, because that job then falls onto other players.  The Canadiens don't have any gorillas who can take up that slack, we can't have any of our players do unto others, then split.

Brian Gionta has attracted some muted criticism from fans this season for being short.  That's about the, ahem, size of it.  He's quietly done the job expected of him, which is to work tirelessly, be the quiet selfless leader, and score some goals, which he has, potting another one tonight on a deflection while he was screening Ondrej Pavelec, and eleven so far this season, and being fifth in team scoring.  His size, however, and the size of his contract, are like a red flag for fans with Bruins issues, and they fantasize about trading him away.  Of course, his No Trade Clause is a bit of a hurdle, as well as the fact that he's done everything that's been asked of him.  Expect Mr. Gionta to at least finish out his contract with the team.

So a big two-pointer, the team needed this win, which was backstopped by Peter Budaj, who split the back-to-back with Carey.  Much was made of the decision Michel Therrien took to start him at the New Forum, and how nice it was to allow him to play in front of family members who traveled from Slovakia to visit.  I'm starting to wonder about the guy, I had my doubts about him last season.  We were told how he didn't have a full-time goalie coach with the Avalanche, and what a hard worker he was, and that he was a perfect backup.  We can now see all that work and coaching paying off, he's more solid, visibly more assured in front of the net than last season's early adventures.  He improved at the end, and we gave him the benefit of the doubt, but now I'm wondering whether he's doing too well.  Will he also be in line for a big raise in July?  One we can't afford on a backup goalie?

Looking at CagGeek, his $1.15M salary is right in line with clear backups like Martin Biron and Johan Hedberg, veterans who don't have any pretensions to the #1 spot.  He has a good, productive, supportive relationship with Carey Price, clearly accepts his role, and is unfailingly described as a hard worker who'll put in the extra minutes before and after practice.  He's well liked by his teammates, and seems to have gained the confidence of the coaching staff, a big improvement over last season, when we felt we were conceding a game when starting him in nets.  Let's hope that the Canadiens can treat him fairly and retain him, we need a guy like that, to spell Carey, and heaven forfend, step in and play competently if he's injured.

Up next, the dirty Bruins, who since Patrice Bergeron is injured and off their roster, have absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsover.  Let's hope we can skate them into submission and run circles around aging mastodon Zdeno Chara.

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