The end of the season nears, and teams are starting to self-select into categories such as 'strong playoff contender' and 'worthy of a playoff berth', or, as the Sabres clearly believe now, 'draft lottery candidate'. The young Sabres must be planning their Vegas and Cabo post-season trips right along with the young Colorado Avalanche members who were the targets of Jean-Sébastien Giguère's post-loss tirade on Monday.
This was an example of a game where a team that is stronger plays hard enough to win, but not so hard as to deplete itself and hamper its chances down the road due to exhaustion or injury, and also to avoid waking the opponents out of their sulk. If the Sabres wanted to go through the motions and lose without paying the price, the Canadiens were going to let them. Except for flashes of goonery and idiocy from the likes of (usual suspects) Patrick Kaleta and Steve Ott, as well as uncharacteristic undisciplined play from Ryan Miller and Tyler Myers, the Sabres were relatively dispassionate, unnoticeable participants, like movie extras brought in the flesh out the show.
Tyler Myers spoke post-game about how this might have been the worst showing and least inspired effort to come from his team since he'd been in Buffalo. He tried the brave, plain-talking role that Mr. Giguère did, but didn't pull it off as effectively, mainly because he was one of the more visible culprits of this 'mail-it-in' game they foisted on their fans. Indeed, on the first Canadiens' goal which was eventually awarded to René Bourque (nice to have you back big guy), he got caught flat-footed when, leading an odd-man rush into the Canadiens' zone, his chip-in on the side glass hit a stanchion, took a funny bounce which was corralled by the Canadiens forwards and taken quickly the other way. I clearly noticed Mr. Myers chugging back to defend at the time, and replays bore out that indeed, his 75% effort was what allowed Brian Gionta, the trailer on a three on two with René Bourque and Tomas Plekanec, to get a shot on net that went in off Mr. Bourque's skate.
Tyler Myers dogged it. Plain and simple. He gave a semblance of effort to get back in coverage, but assumed he couldn't catch up on the play, and kind of gave up. The thing is, if he had chased down the play, if he had tried, Brian Gionta would have been covered and not in the clear for a drop pass. It's on him. He and his $10M signing bonus, and his $5.5M cap hit until 2019.
We can wonder what the big influx in salary does to the kid's motivation and mindset. So far, he had a Calder Trophy-worthy rookie year, a second season that didn't show the progression the Sabres would have liked, and a third season during which he struggled. In return, Sabres' owner and fan Terry Pegula and General Manager Darcy Regier rewarded him with a huge contract, hoping to secure a player who they consider a big part of their future. So far, it seems to be the wrong tack to take. As was pointed out by the CBC crew calling the game, there was no need to do so, since without any arbitration rights, and with Unrestricted Free Agency far down the road for Mr. Myers, the Sabres held all the cards. Their plan to show the player 'loyalty', and to reward him for his potential rather than for his actual production, is so far proving to be disastrous.
Now, Tyler Myers is a player gifted with tremendous physical size and athletic gifts, and can probably bear down and become a good-to-great player, but that will be dependent on him. If he works hard in the off-season on his conditioning, and in season on his game during practices, he can recapture his rookie year magic. But without the external motivation of playing for a big contract, and with all the attendant distractions caused by the piles of money coming in, can he achieve this? Is he buying/building a big house? One for his parents? Does he need a big garage for his new Porsche? Did he just buy the pub he always wanted to run with his buddies, and is that place bleeding money? Are the partners now fighting? Are his fiancée and his girlfriend(s) fighting?
This case study is instructive when we look at our own young defenceman P.K. Subban, who probably was seeking a contract comparable to Mr. Myers' this summer, and was rebuffed by Canadiens' management, who made him sign a 'bridge' second contract instead. Some observers are claiming this is a big mistake, and that the Canadiens would have been better served to buy a few of P.K.'s UFA years at a comparative discount in July. They say that P.K. will end up costing more in the long run because of this bridge contract.
I disagree with this interpretation. There is nothing wrong with making P.K. prove himself on the ice, to pay him for his actual production, instead of potential. There's no downside to him receiving the big signing bonus when he's two years more mature, two years wiser.
Also, there is no certainty that P.K. would be having the lights-out year he's currently having if he'd had the big windfall this summer. Would he have integrated into the team as well as he did if he'd come in proud as a peacock, instead of humble and determined? Would he listen to Coach Therrien and his assistants if he regarded them with the certainty that he'd be here longer than they would, and that he could buy and sell them twice over? Would he think that since he's the star of the team, he needs to play like one, and have the fans chant his name, never mind what the game plan says? Would he have cut short his legendary summer training to deal with some of the financial and lifestyle distractions we've batted around earlier?
Would he have played like he did yesterday, well within his means, using his teammates yet mixing in a couple of rushes when it seemed appropriate? Bagging another goal and assist and being named the game's first star? Indeed, refusing to accept the season that he's having as a big plus is a sign that for some fans, the glass is never half full but rather two-thirds empty.
There were some rumblings that the game's second star Michael Ryder didn't accept his 'demotion' to the 'third' line without some rancor. After all, like Michel Bergeron pointed out on l'Antichambre, players are human, and take some things personally. It's natural that he'd question the move since things were going really well for him on the Tomas Plekanec line, where he was cruising along at a point per game pace. Nevertheless, Mr. Ryder had a good night, tallying two more assists with Lars Eller and on the wing opposite the resurgent Alex Galchenyuk. The youngster went through a long dry spell on the score sheet recently, but never stopped skating or playing hard, and things are starting to click again for him. And we can hope that Michael Ryder sees this as a positive, that he's not shifted down to a lesser trio, but rather being given an opportunity to play on his preferred right wing. Let's hope that he understands that the top 3 lines are all counted on to produce, there's not that much of a dropoff between the first and second and third line anyway, and that the icetime he'll receive will be relatively equal to what he'd get on the other two lines in the Top 3.
The third star Brendan Gallagher potted another goal from in close, as his usually are. He took a ridiculous licking in front of the refs, who were growing bashful at the amount of penalties they were having to call against the Sabres, and looked the other way as he got crosschecked and slashed repeatedly, notably by Tyler Myers and Ryan Miller. He also took a big hit from Steve Ott along the boards, which was notable for the way his helmet got jostled askew as he fell to the ice.
It's still surprising to me how ineffective hockey helmets are in this period of supposed heightened concussion awareness. Some of them are visibly flimsy, barely more than a shell devoid of padding, ill-fitted so that they float around on the players' heads and even fall off at modest amounts of contact, and equipped with a visor that players push up so far that their eyes are not optimally protected.
What needs to happen is for a standard to be enacted that mandates the amount of padding or shock protection it must provide. Probably it needs to specify what areas of the head it must protect, certainly with respect to the ears, and probably the eyes and face. Finally, a standard for how the helmet must be worn is needed as well. It is not acceptable that helmets literally fall off a player's head with minimal jostling. The practice of wearing the chinstrap purposely loose, so the helmet can be donned without undoing it, must stop. The days of a helmet floating around on a player's head loose as if it were a salad bowl, and that can be 'adjusted' with a semi-vigorous nod, must end.
Helmets, to fully protect players from impact, need to be worn tight to the scalp, like a motorcycle or football helmet. This way, direct impacts will be absorbed better, and the chance that a helmet will not be in proper position when impacts occur(think Donald Brashear being slashed by Marty McSorley) will be much more remote.
When I played football, we had a choice with respect to brand, we could choose Bike or Riddell, and the style of facemask we wanted. The wide receivers got the sleeker two bar faceguard, while linebackers and linemen took the beefier one with a central vertical bar to prevent eye pokes and other such incidents. After that, the trainers were in charge, and they selected the proper size, and then fitted it with extra pads if necessary, as well as inflated the air bladder properly. During games and practices, the trainers had little pumps on them and would observe the way helmets fit on players, sometimes grabbing the faceguard and twisting this way and that to make sure the fit was still right. If not, they'd make adjustments right then.
Something akin to this must happen in hockey. Sure, the helmets will be heavier, and hotter, to the chagrin of Randy Carlyle, but in the name of player safety, this needs to happen, despite their objections. If I'm a team owner, and I have a tonne of money invested in Patrice Bergeron or Sidney Crosby futures, I insure this with proper helmet equipment and use, and enjoin the NHLPA to assist in overcoming player resistance. The discomfort is a small price to pay for long-term health, and technology will evolve to meet these standards with greater comfort and weight savings.
Brendan has a history of concussions, and must realize that with his style of play and the attention he receives from opponents, he has to put the odds on his side, and do a better job of selecting and wearing his helmet. The way he popped up after the Steve Ott hit with the helmet tilted forward so it was covering his eyebrows, and the way he shook it backward with a nod of his head, is proof that he needs to sit down, or be sat down with, the trainers and make better decisions in that area.
Peter Budaj didn't deserve a star, seeing so few shots, but we can applaud the fact that his contract got extended with a modest but deserved raise. We were afraid that he might have played himself into such a big raise that we wouldn't be able to afford his services in next season's reduced-cap climate, but in the end he chose to remain with the team as the backup to Carey Price. He has improved since he first appeared last season, when we were told he didn't have a goalie coach in Colorado. His shaky, uncertain play at the start of last season has disappeared, he responded to the coaching, and is now an ideal backup. It's great that his solid play and strong contribution to the team dynamics have been recognized.
One final word about how undervalued Andrei Markov is. Whenever the reasons behind the Canadiens' big jump in the standings from last season to this one are being discussed, the change in leadership and coaching staff are usually front and centre. Things like the team culture, the dismissal of Scott Gomez and later Erik Cole, the energy brought in by the two rookies are brought up. Only then it seems, almost as a throwaway, are the great jump in development by P.K. Subban and the return of Andrei Markov brought up. Which is back assward if you ask me.
Andrei Markov may not be as mobile as he once was, but he's still every bit the heady player and firey competitor he always was. He's adapted to his new circumstances and has lost little of his effectiveness. Before Alexei Emelin got injured, it was a sight to see how they both communicated. If Andrei knew he would get beat to the puck in a race to the corner, or if he'd likely get plastered once there, he'd often call for a switch, and Alexei would do the heavy lifting in the corner while Andrei headed for the front of the net. It worked great, with the younger, bigger defenceman could cover off some of the gaps in the veteran's game, and allowed the latter to still be mondo productive offensively and on the powerplay.
His contribution to the powerplay cannot be overstated. We've often talked of how he made Marc Streit and Sheldon Souray stars, and made Mike Komisarek rich. We're now seeing him have a similar effect on P.K. Subban. The youngster is having an unreal year points-wise, and in half a season has vaulted in the Rest Of The League's consciousness from 'undisciplined prima donna diving instigator' to 'Norris Trophy candidate with a cannon'. While P.K. has always had the physical tools, he's learning the finer points of the game, at least offensively, from Andrei. The transformation in his approach on the powerplay, where he used to think one-timer first, last and always, is unbelievable. The variations he shows now, where he can go slap shot/cannon/slap pass/wrist shot/rebound off the boards/deke/pass from the blue line, are frustrating defenders every game. Further, he's learning the little things from Andrei, the art of drawing in a defender before dealing the puck to a teammate, the delay while juggling with the puck right at the blue line. The greater touch on the passes. The greater use of teammates to help them help him. It's so far removed from his one-trick pony act from the previous seasons, where he tried to one-time everything from the bottom of the faceoff circle.
Andrei is fourth in the league in scoring for defencemen, and the prime reason for the big jump in production for the powerplay. This improved production bodes well for the playoffs, and will hopefully temper the ardor of the more brainless players like the Otts and Kaletas of this world. He is the prime candidate in my view for the comeback player of the year.