Thursday, 29 August 2013

The 2014 Team USA jerseys are awful.

All right, I can't stand it, I have to speak up on the Team USA  jersey.  They're an abomination.  It's an example of what happens when designers are given too much free rein in coming up with a uniform, and go nuts, and lose sight of the original goal.  Or like when a hairdresser gets to decide what your girlfriend should look like and chops off all her hair to give her a radical, spunky look.  I like my jerseys the way they are, and my girlfriend's hair nice and long, dammit.

First off, the colours.  The palette they have to work with is pretty easy, the flag's red, white and blue work well on a hockey jersey, but they've decided to go with a darker blue with charcoal or greyish accents.  While the shimmery effects on the blue might look neat to a designer up close, from up high on a white ice, the effect will be lost.  It's a lost opportunity to have a nice classic blue jersey.

Second, the crest on the chest is kind of odd.  I hear it's a throwback to the 20's, but it's still not very iconic or inspiring.  They have lots of symbols or images they could have worked with, a bald eagle or the Statue of Liberty, a gunboat, a Wall Street titan raping the working class, but they've gone with what looks like the crests in the warnings I can't skip over at the start of a DVD, the ones trying to convince me that video piracy is not a victimless crime, and that George Lucas could really use some new marble in the ninth guest bathroom.  Anything would be better than that crest.  Why not just have the letters U-S-A in a diagonal down the jersey?  Would that be too simple, and not earn the designers their fat cheques?  Too easy?

Another concern is how awful the jerseys look on the guys.  Those are pro athletes, with great physiques, and still it looks like they're wearing a very dated K-Way from the eighties, the second generation that weren't all one colour, but had colour blocks and patterns and were unfashionable as soon as they hit the store racks.  Imagine what the average shlubby fan will look like with all that opportunity for back hair and pasty skin.  Hell, we don't need to imagine, just look at Phil Kessel, he'll serve as an example, and a warning to those who might be tempted to get one for their dad for Christmas.

I worked at a hotel where the managers were pleased to announce that the doormen and bellmen were going to be getting new uniforms designed by a leading Québec fashion house, I forget which one.  Anyway, when the unis were revealed, they proved to be hazardous to the boys' health.  They were made of a thick wool, with a trim cut and a mid-high collar that was shaped with a, I kid you not, metallic band that kept it from flopping or drooping.  It was like wearing a cheese grater around your neck, the boys were boiling and developed rashes around their necks, one developed an infection and had to go off work, and missed out on the summer tips he was relying on for school, it went through the grievance process...

Anyway, if those designers had only come to ask us what we needed, they would have learned what we liked, what we didn't, that lifting them bags in the sun is heavy and hot work and that having an unyielding metal collar pushing against your Adam's apple every time you bend down is not a good thing.  Maybe the older guys in their fourties or fifties would appreciate a little room in the middle so they can breathe and move around.  And maybe what they thought looked real good on their easels and when a model was standing ramrod straight wearing it wouldn't work when the wearer had to, uh, work.

Same with this hockey jersey.  If the players had been consulted, they'd never have gone along with this.  They maybe should have a say, seeing as they're going to play for their countries for free, maybe they should feel proud, not sheepish, when donning their uniform.

I remember Team Canada's jerseys or the new NHL jerseys a few years back were unveiled for a test run to the guys, and Todd Bertuzzi cracked that they were a little tight, he might wear it to the bar but wasn't sure about on the ice.  The designers tried to placate everyone, explain that they'd get used to it, it was a quantum leap in design and would be a more high-performance jersey, but I think they lost the battle, because eventually when the games came the players actually looked like hockey players, with loose sweaters, and not like offensive linemen shrink-wrapped into jerseys that are 'hold-proof'.  Maybe it's not too late for the Team USA guys.

Nike, you make bad jerseys.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Maple Leafs should trade uninterested Phil Kessel right now.

Interesting story on Phil Kessel on CBS's website, that he hasn't started negotiating an extension on his new deal with the Leafs.  He states he doesn't want to start now or have contract talks during the season.  Hmmm....

Cue the alarm for Leafs fans who finally saw some value in the playoffs for the player who eventually cost them Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight (I know, I know, let's pretend that's how it happened).  If he doesn't want to negotiate in-season, that means they'd have to wait until next summer to get it done.  That's cutting it close and risking that he might just walk away as an Unrestricted Free Agent with no compensation to the Leafs.

Phil Kessel is a famously private and shy individual, and is relatively awkward in his dealings with the suffocating media presence there.  The conventional wisdom is that he's not a good fit in Toronto and might thrive in an environment like Carolina or Phoenix where the public attention would be greatly reduced.  So to hear him say that he's not going to negotiate an extension now has got to send a cold chill down the spine of the Leafs organization.

We could blame Dave Nonis for not having this wrapped up on July 1, but they were busy chasing David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak, among other lesser fish.  Of course, the scuttlebutt is that Mr. Bozak was re-signed as Kessel-bait, seeing as they're apparently friends on and off the ice, so that's one reason they overpaid him.  Then again, how much will that contract sting if Phil Kessel bolts anyway?  

Further, Dave Nonis still doesn't know how much money he'll have left over next season after signing Cody Franson or Nazem Kadri, so that might be part of his thinking, he not wanting to put the cart before the horses, wanting to take care of his 2013 free agents before worrying about next year's, but it might have taken more time than he thought and have blown up in his face.

Thank you Nazem Kadri, you're the gift that keeps on giving.

So the Leafs may want to trade Phil Kessel now, sell high after he answered a lot of critics during the series against the Bruins.  Those who doubted his character and whether he was just a fancy scorer but not a clutch player.  If he's planning to walk at the end of the season, trading him now will get the Leafs near full-value, especially if Dave Nonis engages his agent and sends him to a preferred destination, one that has a high confidence they can extend his contract.

But there's another reason to trade him now, and it's plain to see when you look at his Team USA picture.  Ignore the horrible jersey for a second, let's not get into that, I don't want to get off on a rant, enough commenters have torn that to shreds already.  But really, why do Nike and Reebok feel they have to 'improve' on the classic hockey sweater, forever coming up with space age fabric that are "lighter, stretchier, and don't absorb sweat"?  When was the last time you were on the ice and thought "I'd be having a much better game if my jersey wasn't so sweat-soaked and unyielding to my movements, it's the only thing that's keeping me from getting all Larry Robinson on their ass"?  Exactly, never.  They're forever re-inventing the wheel and coming up with oblong oval things that they assure us will be better.

Look, if hockey players wanted tight stretchy satiny swishy silky jerseys, they'd be soccer players.  Cut it out and get us a regular jersey that doesn't suck.  Hockey isn't football or baseball or triathlon or soccer, it's hockey.  

Anyway, rant averted.  Getting back to the Phil Kessel picture, one of the awkward Team USA photos, and ignoring the ignoble jerseys... does that look like a player set to have a career year?  To blast out of the gates and go on a torrid streak that would increase his value for a contender eager for a scoring winger?  Or does it look like a disinterested guy who hasn't done any training all summer?  And a guy who might go into a funk that would be a deep mystery that Mark Masters will delve into daily next season.  

If Phil Kessel is a stock, I'm on the horn with my broker screaming: "SELL!  SELL!  SELL!..."

Alex Galchenyuk, centre for Team USA, but left wing for les Canadiens?

It's odd that Alex will be pulled in two different directions on the Canadiens lineup vs. putatively on the Team USA lineup.

On the Canadiens, it seems decided that he'll spend another season on the wing, for three reasons.  As Michel Therrien states, he wants to reduce the 19-year-old's pressure and responsibility, and continue to ease him into the flow of the NHL, so while he may get more minutes and more powerplay time, he won't be rushed into a topline centreman role yet.

Second, the Canadiens have a thoroughly discussed glut at centre.  We have Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller in the Top 9, with Daniel Brière as an option, he who reportedly feels more comfortable there rather than on the wing.  So Alex doesn't really have a spot there yet, he's not really needed for now.

Third, where we do need him is on the left side.  We have Max Pacioretty as a real Top 9 left-winger, and that's it.  René Bourque did well last season on the left, but again we've discussed how he had his best seasons in Calgary playing the right side.  There is no one in Hamilton who's ready to step in.  

So having Alex play left wing kills three birds, it fills a glaring organizational need on the left side, relieves the pressure on the centre position, and allows him to mature for another season, to progress with manageable assignments and minutes.

When we look at his role on Team USA though, he might be plunked down in a centre position.  With a projected roster at LW of Zach Parise, James Van Riemsdyk, Bobby Ryan, Max Pacioretty and Ryan Callaghan, there is no weakness on that side that Alex might palliate.  At centre though, the USA has Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Joe Pavelski and Derek Stefan.  A respectable group, but not necessarily the same depth as at wing.  Especially if an injury should strike, we can see how he could sneak in at centre to generate some offence, certainly as a thirteenth or fourteenth forward, one who can be injected into the lineup as a change of pace.

Also notable is that the four centres mentioned above are righties, so this is where Alex being a lefty might figure in the equation.  He's the guy to go to for draws on the right side in the offensive zone, he gives you offence and a go-to guy for the shootout, on top of Patrick Kane.  

So Alex has a chance with a great first half of the season to grab a spot on Team USA, which would be a fantastic opportunity for his development and confidence.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Douglas Murray, Jarred Tinordi, and Nathan Beaulieu: Bringing Up Baby Too Soon

One of the upshots of the Douglas Murray signature is that it's thought that Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, who were considered to be in the running for a spot on the Canadiens' blueline, are now more likely to at least start the season in the AHL.  Certainly for Jarred Tinordi, who is projected to play the same role in the NHL that Douglas Murray has his entire career, this is a roadblock, and he'll have a less-obvious fit on the team he seemed to have, given the Alexei Emelin injury keeping him out of action until before Christmas.

A lot of observers wonder whether that's a positive development, since they'd like the kids to have a chance to play and develop, while others, me included, prefer a slow progression, a chance for a young player to dominate at a certain level before he moves up.  Jarred Tinordi had a productive season in Hamilton, but is far from having nothing left to learn at that level.  And we all remember Marc Bergevin's quote about often regretting bringing a player up too soon, but seldom regretting bringing them up too late.

For Jarred Tinordi, a 21-year-old who is still maturing physically, and would have been asked to play a physical role on the team, it's especially important that he be ready, since he'd be challenged by goons and tough guys and that's not optimal for a player who still has a lot of learning and filling out to do.

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago on Jarred and Nathan, and regarding being rushed up too soon and skill development, and used learning how to juggle as an analogy.  We also mentioned how Larry Robinson had the luxury of being drafted by a stacked Canadiens team, and was allowed to play in Halifax for a couple of seasons and develop his game, as opposed to comparable player Harold Snepts, who went straight to the NHL with the talent-starved Canucks, and never developed beyond a mediocre level.

This brings up the question: "Is there really any evidence that young(ish) players are ruined by playing in the NHL too soon?"

I think it's hard to have any scientific evidence with all or even most variables controlled.  We could do a statistical analysis on draftees who make it to the NHL, but I'm not even sure how we'd set it up, what parameters we'd employ.  There are so many variables to control, ownership, coaching, team and fan pressure, contracts, team needs, that it's almost impossible to do.

Practically, I think there is lots of anecdotal evidence of teams and desperate 'win now' GM's, or GM's selling hope for the future to their fan base, of rushing young players up to the big leagues before they're ready.  Either the kid isn't ready skills-wise and treads water, never getting to a point where he can progress and improve, or the money/fame goes to the rookie's head and he slacks off in practice or off-ice.

In our case, based on my limited knowledge of the particulars here, I think Jarred Tinordi is mentally readier to be in the NHL, he has a level head on his shoulders and seems to have the makeup and attitude to come in as a #6 and work hard to improve in practice, to do what the coaches tell him, and to not get too jubilant or too depressed based on results.  Greg Pateryn, based on his age alone, would be next in my mind, plus he has the added bonus of being a righty.  But "readier" doesn't mean ready, and I'll be happy if they have to slog it out in the AHL and prove their case rather than having a spot handed to them, and then having to keep our fingers crossed that they can pull it off.

Nathan Beaulieu, for reasons we're familiar with, needs to spend another season in the minors to gain physical and mental maturity.  He seems to have the skills to get to the next step, it's just his emotional intelligence I worry about.

So Douglas Murray will serve many roles on the Canadiens this season, but possibly his most important will be allowing our defence prospects to continue their apprenticeship in the AHL without any pressure to perform in the NHL right away.

Les Canadiens sign Douglas Murray to a one-year contract, plug a lot of holes in one fell swoop

There is some controversy regarding the Canadiens' acquisition of free agent defenceman Douglas Murray, but I don’t understand what the objections could be. He wasn’t signed because he’s Shea Weber, he was signed because his skillset complements what the Canadiens have already on the blue line. He fits in the puzzle really well. We get a big tough crease-clearer, what we’ve been pining for, at a reasonable cost for one year. No massive contract needed, no skin off our nose. If he doesn’t work out, we’ll be able to flip him for a draft pick.

The announcement makes Raphaël Diaz more effective and valuable.  We spent the entire last season moaning about how our defencemen were too small, they were all puck movers, we needed to improve our mix.  Well, we did that, we bought out Tomas Kaberle, let Yannick Weber go as a free agent, re-signed Davis Drewiske and added Douglas Murray.

Raphaël Diaz can be paired with a more physical defensive defenceman who can do more mucking in the corners, and feed him the puck when it's time to counter-attack.  They'll cover each other's weaknesses and can be an effective pair.

So we have Andrei Markov, P.K. and Raphaël Diaz to move the puck and work the powerplay, Josh Gorges, Francis Bouillon, Davis Drewiske and now Douglas Murray to play more defensively.  Alexei Emelin will add to this latter group halfway through the season.

In Hamilton, getting ready are Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn to pitch in defensively, and Nathan Beaulieu and possibly Magnus Nygren if we need help in the offensive zone.

So with Douglas Murray we have a much better mix, a much better complement of skills.  I’m sure there are more talented d-men out there with better numbers, but that’s not the issue. With Daddy Campbell as the NHL Executive VP of Hockey Operations (what madness), Mr. Murray will play an important role on the team.

When the going gets absurd, and the refs are trying to 'not inject themselves in the game', and 'letting them play' and 'letting the game flow', and elbows are flying, we now have options, some players who can deal with the rough stuff.  George Parros was brought in on a reasonable one-year deal, at little cost to the organization, in that the trade to the Panthers cost us a seventh-round pick next season, and a throw in minor-leaguer.  He will serve as the heavyweight policeman.  He knows his job and will neutralize the other team's Designated Puncher when necessary.

Mr. Murray is also able to take on heavyweights, based on his history, but we assume he'll only do that in rare occasions.  Still, the Threat of Murray will exist and cool the tempers of various Wayne Simmondses and Ryan Malones and Dion Phaneufs, the tough guys who feel tough when confronted with Brian Gionta and Yannick Weber.  We can expect him to play a regular shift, so he'll be in the lineup every game, compared to George Parros who may sit out a significant number of games.

We also have Brandon Prust, who now can concentrate more on being an 'energy', gritty player, and who'll still fight 10-15 times next season, but won't have to answer the bell against a heavyweight every night.  He'll instill respect, but won't get worn down so much as the season progresses.  I suspect he'll be more effective that way.

Ryan White can also focus on the same role, an energy player who'll be the middleweight, can adjust an opponent's attitude when necessary (and hello to you, Johnny Boychuk), but doesn't have to right all wrongs and take on all comers, like he did two seasons ago along with Brad Staubitz.

Which brings us to Travis Moen.  Rightly or wrongly, he was expected, at least by the fans, to do the heavy lifting along with Brandon Prust when it came to pugilism.  He's a big boy at 6'2" and 220 lbs, and has been effective doing this before, but was clearly uncomfortable and unwilling to assume that role last season.  We all suspect his recent concussion history, and his nothing-left-to-prove veteran status made him very cautious.  Now, with two heavyweights on his side, and with a respectable cadre of physical players, that expectation is removed, his load is reduced.  We can hope that he can take his fair share, and can focus on being an effective fourth-liner, be defensively responsible, throw some hits, and answer the bell when appropriate.

And now the mix on our team is much improved.  It is much better suited to the conditions that prevail currently in the NHL.  When we meet the Red Wings and they want to skate against us, we can adjust our roster and do that.  When the Senators or the Leafs or Bruins want to slash and crosscheck their way to a win, we'll be able to counter that too.

The Canadiens sign Douglas Murray; some fans still not happy

So the Canadiens announced that we'd signed the big tough 'crease-clearing' defenceman who'd protect Carey Price, and we already have a break in the ranks.  Marc Bergevin brought 6'3", 245 lb defenceman Douglas Murray into the fold, and there are those who are concerned that Mr. Murray may not be in tip top shape.  This would be based on an Arpon Basu remark during a radio interview that he has seen him in a dressing room context and that he carries a 'spare tire' around his middle.  So the addition of a veteran player to the roster at the cost of nothing save a very reasonable one-year contract is already decried by some.  Which I don't understand, or agree with.

Last season was a lockout season, and for a long while it did look like Gary Bettman would Leask-manoeuvre the season.  He seemed dead set on scuttling the ship and going down with it as opposed to letting it fall in enemy hands.  Bill 'The Hill' Daly was channeling George Armstrong Custer.  In that climate, I don't begrudge any veteran who took his foot off the gas with regards to his dryland summer training, and decided to give his body a break.  Good on those who had a 'good' lockout season, but everyone else gets a mulligan from me.

Further, from what little I know of Douglas Murray, there have often been whispers that his listed weight is a few pounds shy of the actual total on the scale, in the same manner as some more gargantuan offensive linemen, or Dustin Byfuglien.  Modesty imposes.  Watching Canucks games, you'd hear the announcers chortle at his massive size, but not in a negative way, more in an awestruck, 'I wish he were ours' manner.

So I have no reason to doubt Arpon Basu, and I'm not sure if it was a one-year, lockout-caused condition, and that he'll be more trim this training camp, or if this is just his now-normal playing weight.

As much as I love it when players are workout warriors like P.K. or Max, it's normal that some players are a little less dedicated to the gym.  There'll be a range in that regard, some coming in jacked like Lars, some who work kind of hard but don't really know how to get these results, or care to.  It takes all kinds.  If Douglas Murray found that he can be effective being a little heavier, he may have had no reason to change his formula.  We've all played with guys who weren't Men's Fitness cover models, but were the best once on the ice or field.

Anyway, my only strong image of Douglas Murray was during last season's playoffs, when he was handling the puck behind his net, and an opposition forward wheeled around the other side and tried to bodycheck him.  And it wasn't really like he hit a brick wall, since he didn't hit Mr. Murray and just crumple at his feet or deflect off him, but more like he'd shouldered into a trampoline, he literally bounced backwards.  So maybe the ten or twenty extra pounds he carries ensure that he's an immovable object, and there won't be any irresistible forces.

So to recap, the Canadiens have added the big tough defenceman everyone was clamouring for, especially because freight-train Alexei Emelin is injured and will be unavailable/convalescing/getting back up to speed from his knee injury.  Yes he's a lefty, which isn't optimal, and which is why I was campaigning for Jeff Schultz, and then less stridently Ryan O'Byrne, but I have to believe the Canadiens brain trust knew those two and others were available, and chose to come to an agreement with Mr. Murray instead.  He'll bring a physical, defensive component to our defensive corps that has been lacking, and will improve the mix of our team.  Yes, he's not a great skater or offensively gifted, but that's not why we signed him.  What he brings to the table we needed, badly.  Good job Mr. Bergevin.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Prescott, Arizona symbol of everything that is wrong with new, fierce capitalism

We spoke of the firefighters who died in Prescott.  We surmised that some basic mistakes were made to cause this tragedy, and hoped that we'd learn these painful lessons again.  Those who died would be honoured and remembered as heroes who paid the ultimate price to protect their community.

Unfortunately, their community is keen on paying a much more reasonable price.

Word has spread that the six fulltime firefighters who died that day will receive full survivor benefits for their families, but the families of the thirteen who were part-time are out of luck according to the L.A. Times.  As they put it, maybe those guys should have only partially protected the community.

The insane are truly running the asylum.  If we don't treat our doctors and nurses and teachers and police officers and firefighters fairly, if we send the message that the only careers worth pursuing are on Wall Street, we'll end up with the society we deserve.

Do we really want the ambulance attendants who show up when our mom needs help to be the lowest bidders?  Or do we want them to be treated as the crucial professionals that they are?

Thoughts on Nathan Beaulieu's guilty plea to assault charges.

Nathan Beaulieu and his father Jacques plead guilty to assault charges in court on Wednesday August 14, and received conditional discharges from Judge Ontario Court Justice Eleanor Schnall.  Their lawyer is quoted in the London Free Press story as saying the event was "an isolated incident", which may be the case but doesn't make it less troubling.

What is also troubling is the way a lot of Canadiens fans are minimizing the assault.   Generally, I understand the impulse for us to believe in and defend our prospect, but some of us are still describing it as possibly a fracas where Nathan may have been stepping in to "stand up for his dad", or just an old-fashioned fight, an alcohol-aided brawl where boys were being boys.  The Beaulieus were charged just because "they won", it's being surmised, so "we have to wait for the other side of the story".

There is no other side to this story.  When they plead guilty, there had to be an agreement as to the facts of the case.  You're not allowed to plead guilty with your fingers crossed, or with a 'whatever' attitude.  When you plead guilty, the Crown and the Defence Counsel agree to this statement of fact.  The guilty party agrees that what is read out in court as the events, are the events.  That's the story.  That's what happened.  The London Free Press article does a pretty good job of describing what happened.

So we can't dismiss it as nothing more than a beery punchup.  What happened is, one gentlemen is getting assaulted by Jacques and Nathan Beaulieu, and gets punched eight times in the head.  He manages to escape to his truck, locks himself in.  Based on the article, I deduce that he drives away from the scene.  Now, still according to the article, the Beaulieus aren't done, they want to keep hammering at this guy, so they ask the other victim where the pickup truck guy lives, and they beat on him to get the address.  Holy Crap!  That's terrifying behaviour, for both victims.  That's really far down the road to rageaholic behaviour, and thuggery.

We have to be clear about this, the Beaulieus weren't involved in a fight, they committed an assault, they attacked an unwilling party two against one, then attacked another party two against one.  It shouldn't be confused with heroic bar exploits, and incidents of self-defence.  In this instance, the Beaulieus were bullies and jerks, and were judged as such.

Now some of us may be tough guys who've seen it rain, we've taken a few punches and dealt out a few too, and it's no big deal.  Well that's well and good for you, but for most people being in a fight is frightening, it's humiliating, it's stressful.  In this case, one guy has to run away to his truck and barricade himself in, and finds out later that they were beating up the other guy to find out the address to finish what they started.  Where was this going to stop?  At what point were they going to be satisfied?  How much does the victim's imagination race to the worst-case scenario, and how long does it keep him up at night and provide him with nightmares?

Ultimately, no grave injuries were suffered by the victims, no weapons were used, and in terms of the Criminal Justice system this is not a huge deal, so the Beaulieus escape with a conditional discharge.  This is appropriate when you search the web for various sentences handed out for assault in Canada.

Good for them, and I hope they make the best of this chance they get, but this is a huge black mark.  They were drunk, they were idiots and vandals while guests in someone else's house, attacked two other people, and then didn't know when to back off when the fight was clearly over.  They are getting off lightly, and they better make good use of this slap on the wrist, and take steps to deal with this anger-bully tendency they displayed.

Again, this was not a fight, it was an assault that they plead guilty to.  Let's not minimize it because a Canadien is involved.  If Brad Marchand was involved instead of our boy, we'd crucify him.  We can't gloss over the behaviour just because the kid is a Hamilton Bulldog and we pin a lot of hopes on him.

So Nathan pleads guilty and gets a break, a fresh start, let's hope he wises up and that he applies himself, as Walt would say to Jesse.  Nathan had better grow up, and get his temper under control, and learn to respect others and act appropriately when a guest in someone's home.  This is not the first red flag that pops up for him, he needs to bear down, keep his nose clean, work hard, and try to achieve, instead of coasting and expecting good things to happen.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Zdeno Chara is no longer the dominant defenceman he once was.

I came across a list by a contributor on social media of his Top 10 NHL players, and he listed Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Pavel Datsyuk 1 through 4, which is hard to argue, but then puts in Zdeno Chara at #5.  Which troubles me greatly.  Zdeno Chara as the 5th best current NHL'er.

I'll admit that it's very difficult for me to be objective about him, first because he's a Bruin, and second because of his psychopathic-criminal behaviour on the ice.  There is the mendacious explanations after his great crimes too, he's in a league with Andrew Ference in that department.  After his botched assassination of Max Pacioretty, he tried to pretend that he didn't know who he was driving head first into the glass with a butt-end, and that he wasn't even aware where he was on the ice.  When he got caught on video deviously yet brazenly slugging Sidney Crosby right in his surgically-repaired jaw, the very first game that Sid played after removing his face shield, he dissembled, and tried to argue with the reporter questioning him, challenging him to prove that it was his arm doing the punching.  These are the ravings of a deeply troubled, insecure man who is a menace to others and himself.

Further, that his behaviours have been tacitly endorsed by the NHL has harmed his reputation.  A lot of the furor about these incidents is due to the fact that he got off scot-free.  If he'd been given a token suspension, most people would have resigned themselves that it was concordant with the NHL's already dubious record of effective discipline in incidents like these, and would have moved on.  In fact, by looking the other way and enabling him and the Bruins, they didn't allow him to wipe the slate clean.  He still wears his crimes and is diminished by them, instead of being absolved of them, he's almost like O.J. walking around a free man after the 'Not Guilty' verdict.

Another difficulty I have with evaluating his play is that I can't be objective about him while he's playing either.  I block my ears and chant "La la la la la la ..." when an announcer waxes elegiac on what a sportsman he is, a competitor, blah blah blah, I stop listening.  And when I don't actively ignore him on the ice, I watch for instances when he fails and his team gets scored on and he looks all downcast and despondent while I dance a jig in my living room and high-five my poster of Yvon Lambert.  So I don't follow him throughout a game and try to objectively, critically evaluate him, like I would with Dustin Byfuglien or Drew Doughty or Martin St. Louis.  I'm just ready to criticize him, at the drop of a puck.

So with that disclaimer, I'll still argue that to rate Zdeno Chara #5 on a list of top NHL players is much, much too high, in 2013.  There may have been a time four or five years ago when he was that good, but not no more.  No way no how.  With any parameter you use.  Not with "The player I'd most like to start building a franchise with...", he's too old.  Not with point production, he's easily outclassed by a handful of other defencemen in that department.  Not with all-around excellence, he scuffles and boots the play too often these last couple of seasons.  

The icetime argument is problematic.  While it's a good indicator, it's not as precise as we'd like, since it's influenced by factors like coaching decisions, and the quality of the other defencemen on a particular player's team.  If your #3-6 defencemen are pretty good, you don't need to rely so much on your #1 and won't deploy him quite as much as if they stunk.  Using P.K. as another illustration, his icetime didn't match the quality of his play, but there were reasons why the coaching staff did that.  That doesn't mean to me that he played less excellently than Zdeno Chara last season, quite the contrary.  Mr. Chara regularly goofed or gaffed or tripped or got caught out of position or lost a corner battle in the few games I watched him play, whereas P.K.'s mistakes were few and far between.  I remember the one OT game when he went for a big hit in the neutral zone and lost the game as a result, but that's maybe it.  So the fact that he had more icetime than P.K. doesn't mean to me that he's better.

His great size is another reason trotted out to claim that he's the best defenceman, and at one time that may have been true.  He was unbelievably big and strong, and his long reach changed passing lanes, but I think now it's starting to play against him.  He can't anymore overcome the obstacles faced by a man of his great bulk when it comes to agility or mobility.  He's regularly outskated and caught flat-footed now.

Randy Johnson was another player whose freakish size presented great challenges to the opposition, in terms of velocity and release angle and movement on the ball.  It was also a great challenge to him, in that it took him a comparative long time to get his big body coordinated and under control.  Once he did, he was a dominant pitcher for years, until age slowly caught up to him, he lost a little something off his fastball, injuries crept in, and he wasn't as effective anymore.  Still freakishly big, still intimidating as all heck, but not the Cy Young winner he had been.

Manute Bol is a further example of a player whose height presented other teams with a great difficulty.  I'm not basketball expert, but the story was that at 7'7", he presented opposition shooters with a problem they'd never been faced with.  His long arms interdicted certain shots, either in terms of blocks, or in ensuring that a shot wasn't even attempted.  Teams would set up as usual, pass the ball around and get to a point where usually they'd have a makeable shot, but Mr. Bol's presence in the paint prevented that, and thwarted what they'd normally do.  Again, however, once injuries limited his mobility even further, they found a way to work around that, and his effectiveness became even more limited.

So the fact that Zdeno Chara is tall and big isn't enough for us to just outright him the Norris Trophy.  Sure, he's still a formidable challenge, but it's a solvable problem.  

One way Goliath can be slain is with a slew of Davids who skate him into the ground, outracing him to the puck, and stickhandling around him, darting to where he ain't, making him move.  We've seen that a lot from the Canadiens, from Brian Gionta and David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec and others, who run circles around him and confuse him and tie him up in knots in his own gangly limbs.  This has always been the case, but lately he has seemed even more vulnerable to that attack.

More surprisingly, the Leafs and the Blackhawks tried to beat him with physical play and pure size and strength, attacking him strength on strength, in effect attempting a frontal assault instead of looking for a flanking manoeuvre.  And it was remarkably effective.  

In the 2010 playoffs, I remember Mathieu Darche trying to hit Zdeno Chara three or four times behind his net, and the RDS crew noted his great courage and heart, but the results spoke for themselves, he just bounced off, and looked like he got the worst of that collision every time.  Pierre Houde quickly advised that hitting Zdeno Chara was a waste of time, he was too big and strong, immune to any consequences, you were wasting your time by doing so, you might as well direct your efforts in another manner instead of beating your head against a concrete wall.  And either Mathieu heard this, or the coaching staff heard this, or they came to this same conclusion independently, because after a couple of games nobody really tried to hit him.  

This year though, Randy Carlyle had a really smart insight when he decided that if he was going to give Colton Orr six to eight minutes of icetime, it might as well be focused in the right direction, and he told his boy to not worry about puck handling or passing or backchecking or anything like that, since he can't do any of these things anyway, and instead cruise around and wait for an opportunity to hit Zdeno Chara.  And that's what he did, just lurk around until the puck ended up in Mr. Chara's corner, and then he'd attempt to paste him to the boards.  Now Mr. Orr got a few clean licks in, missed more than that, and it's not like he blew Zdeno Chara up or anything, but it got him thinking and worrying, got him frazzled and frustrated, despite Glenn Healy's wrong-headed and misinformed claims that he is unperturbed by being bodychecked.  

In fact, Zdeno Chara has played his entire career under the previous conditions, where he's the biggest baddest guy around, and where nobody hits him, so he's never had to worry about pain or playing with his head up or about having to rush a pass or clear around the boards before he got pasted.  He got used to that, and this year when these conditions changed it troubled him and got him off his game to have to worry about Colton Orr, and later against the 'Hawks about Brian Bickell.  This is a new development, and I believe every other team saw it and will use that strategy.  George Parros will be told to play it the same way, try to stay in the area where Mr. Chara is, that's your first concern in the offensive zone, and when he's near the boards try to hit him.  You'll miss a lot, you'll not win every hit, but just having him worry about it will throw him off his normal game, where he's above such considerations.

Another book in the Zdeno Chara Bible is about his fearsome shot, and what a weapon that is.  Now it might be going against the grain, but I don't think his slapshot is all it's cracked up to be.  

He has never scored more than 19 goals in a season, and starting from the 2009-10 season has notched 7 (tied for 37th among defencemen), 14 (tied for 6th), 12 (tied for 6th), and 7 (shortened season, tied for 14th) goals.  Admittedly, these are excellent, All-Star totals, but they're not head and shoulders above everyone else's.  Which indicates that while the shot is intimidating, it's not the advantage that we're being led to believe it is.  It's like the Big Bertha or the V-2 rocket, weapons that struck fear in the hearts of the Allies and the civilian populations, but ultimately proved to be limited in their scope and not the game-changers they might have have been thought of as.  In effect, Zdeno Chara's slapshot is unbeatable during the All-Star game, but not in game situations.

Another indication of its lack of potency is the toothless Bruins powerplay over the last few years.  They've been searching for answers and can't get it to click, despite being able to throw out scorers like Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, and Nathan Horton, centres Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, and hulking forwards like Milan Lucic and even Shawn Thornton to stand in front of the net.  You'd think that having Zdeno Chara stand back there with that howitzer would generate goals, but it doesn't, and sometimes they put him in as a forward in desperation, or he goes from the blue line and goes behind the net to battle for the puck.  These are not the hallmarks of a defencemen with that great a shot.  

So taken together, I don't believe that Zdeno Chara is that great a defenceman anymore.  He's clearly the Bruins' #1, he's still an All-Star and a guy you have to game-plan for, a guy that's impossible to 'match up' against, but his powers are diminishing, there are thermal exhaust ports riddling that Death Star.  

Further, I think we as Canadiens fans have Bruins issues.  We have inferiority complexes when it comes to Zdeno Chara being immune to the wizened, vestigial arm of the law, and as regards Milan Lucic's crushing dismemberments of our physical defencemen.  It causes us to inflate the importance and merit of the Bruins players, and Mr. Chara.  Conversely, we rarely get to watch players like Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, being in the Western Conference and getting little exposure on Canadian TV.  

So is Zdeno Chara a Top 5 defenceman.  Probably, for another year or two.  Is he a Top Twenty NHL'er?  M'okay....  But I think saying he's the best player after Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Pavel Datsyuk is massively inflating his importance and worth.  

Friday, 16 August 2013

Mobility on defence is nice, but then there's Colin Campbell

Some discussion online today about how the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks defencemen weren't all hulking giants, but rather NHL-normal sized players who skate and defend well.  This was brought up as a way to be optimistic about the Canadiens' prospects this season, seeing as our blueline is nothing if not mobile.  A piece of supporting evidence was referred to in an Ulf Samuelsson's blog post in The Hockey News about mobility being primordial, and size in and of itself not being a guarantee of success.  But I couldn't agree, and wondered where the dissonance was.

I didn't have a problem with the analysis of the Chicago defence, I concur that they're mobile and not all lumbering behemoths.  My caution with respect to Chicago is always that they do have a few big, tough players to mix in and out of their lineup when necessary.  Brent Seabrook at 6'3" and 220 lbs is a mainstay and gets first-pairing minutes, and they can always mix in pugnacious Sheldon Brookbank when desired.  Add in the sizeable forwards like Brian Bickell and Brandon Bollig, and the Hawks could respond when the elbows started flying.  Further, fresh off winning a Stanley Cup, they have added poster boy for facilitated aggression Mike Kostka, the former defender-of-the-future/flavour-of-the-week for the Leafs (see Colaiacovo, Carlo; Schenn, Luke; Yushkevich, Dmitri) and crosschecker-in-training, as well as Theo Peckham, a guy who'll get a few strategically-managed but precious minutes in Colin Campbell's NHL.

Compared to the Canadiens' situation, we can see how we don't match up.  Our one big defenceman is currently injured, and will probably have a difficult season while returning from ACL reconstruction.  Even when healthy, Alexei Emelin cannot play an enforcer role due to his medical history of facial fractures, he can't be the Chris Pronger or Craig Ludwig on the blue line, the guy who can mix it up when necessary.  We pin a lot of hopes on Jarred Tinordi, but I'm fearful that he'll be asked to do too much too soon in that department.  Especially coming out of training camp, it won't be optimal for him to be our lone physical d-man at 21 years old.  My cautious self would rather he be left in the AHL for a while yet, and bring in a sacrificial plug like Ryan O'Byrne instead.

In reference to Ulf Samuelsson's blog, I was having some serious disagreements with the post, wondering how he can be so far out of touch, until I came back to it later, and managed to comprehend that, gee-whiz, it's from way back in 2008.  Back when the New Hope hadn't been crushed yet.  Before Bob Gainey took his Virage Vitesse and signed up Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, and traded for (cough, strangle, gasp...).  There was an optimism then that the game was going to be about skating and skill and scoring.

Then reality set in.  The Bruins mugged and cheated their way to a befouled Stanley Cup.  Teams like the Blues and the Kings set the new prototype for play in the NHL with squadrons of big forwards who pound opponents into submission.  

Erik Gryba happened.  The Senators do have Norris-trophy winner Erik Karlsson, who is supremely talented and relatively slight of build, but then they have these guys.

Cody Ceci         6-2 205 R
Jared Cowen 6-5 220 L
Eric Gryba         6-4 215 R
Marc Methot 6-3 224 L
Chris Phillips 6-3 216 L
Patrick Wiercioch        6-4 192 L

So the Senators don't favour mobility.  I don't see "an increasing number of smaller defensemen (finding) success playing in the NHL" as being proven by the Ottawa roster.  They've gone the other way, and with the complicit negligence of NHL refereeing, put the Canadiens in a box in the playoffs last season.  Ulf Samuelsson's crystal ball is faulty.  Or, more accurately, he was conned by Gary Bettman's office.  And so was Bob Gainey.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Who will be the next captain of the Montréal Canadiens?

The succession plan for the next Canadiens Captain is murky, we have to admit.  There is no embarrassment of potential candidates as there was in the sixties, seventies and eighties, players who had long toiled and succeeded in bleu blanc rouge.

The selection process is up for question.  I always felt that the Captain should be elected by his peers, but sometimes what a team needs is not a popularity contest but someone who'll kick a few cans.  We saw how the Flyers thought Mike Richards had the support of his teammates but may not have been the right man at the right time for the job, and engineered the coup that installed Chris Pronger in his position.

Also, there's the case of the Canadiens after Bob Gainey served and needed replacing.  A vote by the players was split between Guy Carbonneau and Chris Chelios, so it was decided that they'd be co-captains, and alternate wearing the 'C'.  Apparently all that did was intensify a dressing-room split into two factions, and it eventually contributed to the decision to trade away Chris Chelios.

Then again, appointing a captain is sometimes also not the right move.  Veterans can get miffed if management parachute their Golden Boy in the role.  I can't remember who told this story for certain, but I think it's Guy Lafleur, who was called to a meeting in Irving Grundman's office after Serge Savard retired.  He and Larry Robinson were there in their warmups, not sure what was going on, when in walked Bob Gainey wearing a suit.  They were then told that Bob would serve as the captain.  Larry and Guy looked at each other, since as the veterans they felt they were next in line, and were expecting a vote.  Bob Gainey knew in advance what was going to happen, and it was perfectly awkward and everyone left in silence.  I wonder in retrospect whether that fed into Guy's cynicism and rebelliousness, and whether he might have had a more distinguished end to his career if he'd been voted captain, and had felt compelled to act as such.  Instead, maybe he nihilistically increased his partying and eased off on the conditioning and effort on the ice, wondering what was the use, they'd never win a Cup without Ken Dryden and the Big 3.

So looking at the current roster, there isn't a clear successor, let alone three or four who could fill the role.  Not yet.  In a couple of years we could think that then.  All the likely candidates have holes in their résumés.  So if Brian Gionta doesn't return for next season, as is likely, I think we may go back to the situation we saw post-Saku, when there was a year played with three assistants and no incumbent.  After that time, I would prefer that a vote be held, but as Tom Renney is quoted by Michael Farber in a Sports Illustrated article: "There's an old saying: 'The coach always counts the vote.'"

Yannick Weber struggling with Canucks' depth chart, 'mix' considerations

Yannick Weber's travails may not be over.  While he's currently the 6th d-man on the Canucks' depth chart, he'll probably drop one spot when Chris Tanev is re-signed.  And now, apparently they are eyeing Douglas Murray, they want to improve their 'mix' too I guess.

The Canucks are noticeably weak on the fourth line, with marginal guys like Tom Sestito and Mike Santorelli populating it last year.  Maybe Yannick can get some minutes on the 4th line and pitch in on the powerplay?

Of course, I'm being ironic about him playing at forward, something he doesn't relish, and that his compatriot Mark Streit didn't either when he was a Canadien. Yannick will be in a better situation than in Montréal, he’ll have a better opportunity to contribute, and there won’t be five guys in the AHL pushing to get his spot like there would have been with the Canadiens.  The Canucks farm system is depleted, he has a couple of seasons to show his worth.

The Canucks have three good powerplay d-men in Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Jason Garrison. They need a fourth. Dan Hamhuis can get by in that spot, and Chris Tanev shows promise, but that’s it.

Yannick can be that guy if he’s not a gong show in defensive situations.

So yeah, I’m joking about forward, but they did use Keith Ballard at forward a few times last season, they had no one else that made more sense, and they liked having him as an option in case of an injury. So it’s not that far-fetched that Yannick could get five minutes a game as a 4th-line winger and powerplay duty in some games.  But we'll wish him the best, and hope that things click for him out on the West Coast, he's a nice kid and deserves it.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Marc Bergevin tried to get Kerby Rychel.

This video provides an interesting glimpse of the behind-the-scenes prep before the 2013 NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Nothing earth-shattering or too revelatory, but kind of cool that it goes pretty much as we surmise.  They have their man-crushes, players high on their list, they wonder if they can trade down and still get their guy, they strategize about which teams are gunning for a particular player, they're open to offers but don't adhere strictly to the 'value chart', it's like my fantasy hockey or fantasy football drafts with marginally higher stakes.

Also, did I hear right, after that phone call before they picked Kerby Rychel at #19?  Jarmo Kekalainen picks up the phone, listens for a second, says: "No.  We're making the pick."  He then hangs up the phone and when asked who it was, answers: "Berj..."

As in Marc Bergevin?  I guess he was after Kerby Rychel too, but the Blue Jackets wanted him just as much.  Or maybe they were after Anthony Mantha?  Oh well, either way, our boy tried.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Ken Griffey Jr. and Jody Shelley getting their unjust reward

Signs of the Apocalypse

So the Mariners, like the Canucks with Pavel Bure, have decided to honour Ken Griffey Jr.  The simpering, sniveling brat who pouted his way out of beautiful Seattle to end up, of all places, in Cincinnati.  Now he's all choked up about being honoured by the team that he kicked in the crotch, the winter before A-Fraud had his go as well.

Meanwhile, Jody Shelley, who played 627 NHL games over 11 seasons, scoring 18 goals and 54 points but amassing 1538 penalty minutes has been hired by the Blue Jackets as a "broadcast associate and team ambassador."

So great, another Don Cherry/Mike Milbury (and sadly, I have to admit, Chris Nilan) type to set the tone for the game.  Because the fighting-elbowing-crosschecking aspect of old-time hockey is woefully underrepresented in NHL broadcast coverage, with only P.J. Stock and Brad May and Nick Kypreos to advocate for the BloodPound Gang when they cross the line, and explain that "they're not really that kind of player".  Nobody ever is.

A thoughtful TSN viewer had this to say: "Now that's a guy that played the game the right way, honestly. It doesn't matter if you are a fourth line peacekeeper or a top line sniper, just bring it every shift. We could use a few more like him in the game. Good luck in your new job from a Bruins fan."

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Review: "The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory" by D'Arcy Jenish

I was recently harried/bullied/shamed into reading D'Arcy Jenish's "The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory" by an acquaintance.  Not that I had anything against the book offhand, I was vaguely aware of its publication but just felt that I knew the history of my favourite hockey team pretty thoroughly, and could more profitably invest the time reading a multitude of other books.  I mean, I can rattle off the broad strokes:

The creation of the team.  The Maroon-Canadiens rivalry.  Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat.  The Morenz funeral at centre ice of the Forum.  The lean years.  Maurice Richard's early-career injury years.  The Rocket blasts off.  50 in 50.  The Richard Riot.  "I opened the vault and told him: 'Here you go Jean, help yourself'".  The 5 Stanley Cups in a row.  The Henri Richard-Cournoyer interregnum.  Jean Béliveau being relieved by Frank Mahovlich.  Ken Dryden beats the Bruins, wins the Conn Smythe.  Guy Lafleur takes off the helmet and scores 50.  4 more Cups.  The Bowman, Lemaire, Dryden defections.  The Irving Grundman years.  Then Serge Savard, Patrick Roy, and two more Cups.  Then the Sack of Rome.

That's it, ain't it?  Except I can imagine some wiseacres telling me to hold on a minute, how can you ignore Doug Harvey?  Jacques Plante?  Boom Boom?  What about Newsy?  You can't gloss over the contributions of Chris Nilan, John Ferguson, Émile Bouchard, without them the scorers wouldn't have been able to do their thing, they'll object.  And who can forget Odie and Sprague Cleghorn?  And that's precisely the issue.  It's such a rich history with its various epochs that there are a lot of details to fill in.

I thought I knew pretty much all I needed to know, but I wasn't as strong on a lot of facts and details as I could be, and it was helpful to buzz through this very readable, well-researched book.  The first few chapters contain the most thorough and richly-detailed account I've ever read of the creation of the NHA, which morphed into the NHL, of how the Canadiens came to existence, of the social conditions which prevailed in Montréal at the time, its economy and layout.  There are some amusing and oddly familiar passages detailing how owners fought and tried to outbid each other for talented players, all the while trying to sign them to restrictive contracts, and trying to rig the system to prevent player movement.  

So as the pages flew by and the story reached the more familiar, well-trodden ground of the Maurice Richard years, I was quite happy to keep reading, even though I'd made a decision beforehand that I'd skim over stuff I already knew or found repetitive, or that I'd even put the book down if I felt so inclined.  There was no need to, there was enough new material and interesting detail, obtained either through interviews or from numerous newspaper archives to regale this reader.  The use of material from defunct papers like "La Patrie" and "The Montreal Herald" for example is well-received, and gives lots of flavour to the history.

Author D'Arcy Jenish is a skillful writer, having a few books to his credit already, including "The Stanley Cup: A Hundred Years of Hockey at its Best", and having served as a senior contributor to Maclean's, when Maclean's was still Maclean's and Canada's answer to Time Magazine, not the histrionic right-wing rag that it has sadly become.  Mr. Jenish is a self-professed lifelong fan of the Canadiens, and does the material justice, treating it with affection but probity.

So as the storyline became more and more familiar to this reader, with no surprises as to what a season or a player's career held, it still engrossed and enlightened and coloured in some minutia.  The author confirms some of the circumstances surrounding some controversial player moves, such as Claude Lemieux and Pierre Turgeon and Chris Chelios and Rod Langway among many others.  He gives an insider account of the decline of Guy Lafleur's career, and how he was ultimately the author of his own misfortune, and not the victim of shadowy forces beyond his control.  He gives an unflinching account of the reign of Irving Grundman and Réjean Houle, and the roles Sam Pollock, Scotty Bowman and Jean Beliveau played in the former's hire, and the almost criminal responsibility Ronald Corey holds for leading the latter to slaughter. 

The only fly in the ointment is the very hopeful final passage describing how Bob Gainey now has the organization well in hand and steered in the right direction, and rattles off the long list of talented prospects that will ensure the success of the team as 2009 approaches.  It is a bit of a clunker with five years of hindsight, but is not enough to undo all the good work the author has done to that point.

This history is intended and rewarding for any reader who is a fan of or interested in the Montréal Canadiens.  The novice will find an authoritative introduction to the subject, and the initiated fans will enjoy the manner in which the familiar subject matter is presented, yet still learn lots.  It is therefore highly recommended, and should be easy to find at any public library in Canada at least.

Should the Canadiens sign Ryan O'Byrne

Lots of talk on social media over the last few weeks on the merits of the Canadiens potentially signing unrestricted free agent Ryan O'Byrne.  Lots of objections are raised, that he's too slow, he's not that good, or not as tough as his size would appear to indicate.  Which to me are all valid in some way, but miss the essential point that he's not being considered for first pairing duty, but more like a #6 or #7 defenceman.  We're not signing him thinking he's Shea Weber.

I have been in favour of this move, since he just checks off a lot of the needs on our list:

1)  Big  ✔
2)  Shoots right ✔
3)  Available for free (UFA) ✔
4)  Cheap, easy on the cap (desperate, would sign for one year) ✔
5)  Allows us to keep a kid in Hamilton ✔
6)  Competent NHL'er, will do the job on the 3rd pair ✔

With him on the roster, we'd have Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Francis Bouillon and Davis Drewiske on the left, P.K., Raphaël Diaz and Ryan O'Byrne on the right side to start camp.



(inj.) Alexei Emelin

Callups: Tinordi, Beaulieu, Pateryn, Nygren

When Alexei returns, and if Jarred is showing he's ready in Hamilton, at the end of the season our blue line could look like this:


Spares: Cube, O'Byrne

If it's impossible to keep Jarred Tinordi off the Canadiens roster at the end of camp, since he's that good and completely ready, then he stays up and we make a decision, someone has to be dealt.  But if not, this would allow us to not rush him or Nathan Beaulieu, to let them get another solid season in the AHL , or at least the start of one, and be called up when injuries strike.  We'd have a balanced slate of d-men we could ice, and Mr. Drewiske to do spot duty when necessary.

To me, absent any character or other concerns Marc Bergevin might have, signing Ryan O'Byrne to a one-year contract is a no-brainer.  It fits our roster needs, and allows us to tread water until the kids are ready and Alexei is rehabbed and ready to go.

The kicker would be that we'd have Ryan O'Byrne, and Michaël Bournival.  Since we agonize so frequently on our recent poor asset management, it would be a happy change that the guy we got in a trade is progressing in an encouraging manner, plus the player we sacrificed in exchange back in the fold, at no cost to us.  Not quite payback for Janne Niinimaa, but a good start.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Is Wayne Gretzky the best ever? Would he be the best ever if played now?

With the 25th anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky trade, the question is posed whether he's the greatest player of all time, or is Bobby Orr, or even Mario Lemieux, or...  It's problematic, maybe impossible to determine, for a lot of the reasons, but it's also inevitable that it gets asked and debated about.

I think players like Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe had a combination of genetic gifts that would have made them a success in any age.  They had loads of natural ability that would have served them well with whatever training methods, equipment, style of play or standard of refereeing reigned.

But then again, Gordie Howe credits a lot of his physical gifts and strength to all the hay bales he threw around working on the farm.  If he was born nowadays in the city, and played computer games instead of developing a never-quit work ethic while working the family farm, would he be the same player?

And if Walter Gretzky is caught in the modern economy, without a steady union job that provides a secure future for his family, does he ever own a house and have the ability to build a backyard rink where Wayne develops that otherwordly vision and those puck skills?

Does Guy Lafleur become the player he did if in a post-9/11 world of airtight security his local rink is locked up tight and alarmed after hours, and he can't sneak in and get his alone time on the ice early mornings?

If Larry Robinson, instead of being drafted in the second round on a deep Montréal team and having the opportunity to go to Halifax and work on his game, and becoming the relative late-bloomer All-Star he was, goes to the putrid Vancouver Canucks and is rushed into service, does he become Harold Snepts?  In fact, since his draft age is now 18 instead of 20 back then, does he get drafted at all, seeing as how he wasn't setting the Ontario junior leagues on fire at that age?

So I usually stop myself and just consider that the players who were so dominant in their era compared to their peers who grew up in roughly the same conditions would probably have done well in any era.  So the conversation returns to Wayne and Bobby Orr and Mario, and guys like Eddie Shore and Doug Harvey and Joe Malone, who scored 44 goals in 22 games.  That has to be the standard, that we judge them against a backdrop of their peers, so to speak.

Renaud Lavoie leaves cushy RDS for the TVA Sports adventure

News item: Hockey insider Renaud Lavoie is leaving RDS to join TVA Sports.

TVA was/is the 'main' private broadcast channel, as opposed to public broadcaster Radio-Canada, it's like CTV to CBC.  As a kid growing up, Radio-Canada, the french arm of the CBC, generally showed or attempted to show quality programming, while TVA showed all shlock and dubbed American shows like "CHiPS" and "SWAT".

Radio-Canada had "La Soirée du Hockey" on Saturday nights, which was a professional, almost highbrow telecast, with quality announcers like René Lecavalier, Gilles Tremblay, Richard Garneau, Claude Quenneville, and Lionel Duval among others.  It was sponsored by Molson, and during the 'beer wars' of the eighties, O'Keefe got some injunction from the courts to be allowed to air Nordiques games, and they were shown on TVA, with awful on-air dolts and production values.  Sometimes they would bump a Canadiens game on Saturdays and force us to watch a Nordiques games, and I would go insane.  I knew it was futile, but I never bought O'Keefe products ever.

TVA had other less than stellar moments, such as an election in the eighties, when they proudly bragged beforehand that they had acquired a computer, which was high-tech stuff at the time, and it would allow faster reporting of the results and earlier projection of the winners.  So at the start of the program, they had a whiz-bang digital graphic on the bottom of the screen showing the results, how many Parti Québécois candidates were leading, how many Libérals, how many Union Nationales and Créditistes, and surprisingly a Marxiste-Léniniste or two.  As the election results came in, more and more Marxistes started leading their ridings, but also some Rhinocéros, Communiste, etc.  After a while, they realized they had a problem, because no one else was reporting what they were seeing, on any other channel, so they turned off their computer and went back to the old manual tallying of votes, but they didn't have the staff on hand for that, they had a skeleton crew since they thought they were automated.  Their election night was a shambles, and they announced they'd use Radio Canada's results, a 'courtoisie' among colleagues.

When they investigated later, they realized they'd done a BASIC programming error, where a subroutine would attribute votes to the candidate based on alphabetical order, which is how so many fringe parties were thought to be leading their ridings.  For years after, 'l'ordinateur du dix', or, Channel 10's computer (the Montréal TVA station was Télé-Métropole on channel 10) was the source of great mirth in Québec, and an easy way to deride a popsicle stand of a TV network.  When they'd have technical difficulties, everyone would pipe up that it was time to "déploguer l'ordinateur du dix".  If your paycheque was wrong and you were working it out with your boss, he'd scratch his head and agree with you, and say that it must have been calculated by 'l'ordinateur du dix'.

Fast-forward to today, and RDS is now doing the Canadiens' broadcast, and after what I thought was a rough start, with Yvon Pednault among others being an irritant to the eardrums, they are now doing a great job, Pierre Houde and Marc Denis at the forefront.  RDS is the French sister network to TSN, and both are owned by Bell.

TVA Sports is the specialty offshoot of TVA, kind of like CTV Sportsnet was to CTV at its inception.  It is also trying to be the main competitor to RDS.  It is without Canadiens' broadcast rights, and is owned by Vidéotron, which is a Pierre Péladeau company.  I've never seen any of their programming, but to stay competitive, they cover the Canadiens and have an 'Antichambre' of their own, with Jacques Martin as a regular guest I believe.  They're jockeying for position with RDS, and getting ready for a day when Mr. Péladeau receives his NHL franchise and uses the taxpayer-built Nouveau Colisée to provide content for his networks, that he'll then use to extort usurious fees out of the Québec viewers, who are already paying for his team through their taxes.

As far as Renaud Lavoie jumping to TVA Sports good for him for the probable raise he got, but I'm sorry to see him go, he's excellent, and I put him on equal footing with Bob McKenzie in terms of the quality of his sources and his reliability.  I'll miss not seeing him on RDS.  He'll improve TVA Sports, they've had some clowns on there, I think Louis Jean is one of them.  Not even watching them, but catching their stuff from Twitter being bandied about, they've made some really bad mistakes and had some scoops that were plain wrong.  I know there was more than one, but the one I remember was when Marc Bergevin was announced as GM and he began the housecleaning, one of the TVA Sports guys, it might have been Louis Jean, tried to scoop everyone and said Scott Gomez was being bought out.  Which nobody else picked up on, Bob McKenzie and Renaud Lavoie said nothing for a few hours, then tweeted that that wasn't the case.  I'm sure a few greybeards in Québec clucked like I did that it must have been the fault of 'l'ordinateur du dix'.

I think back to when Damien Cox went to Sportsnet, leaving TSN.  He might have more airtime on Sportsnet, but he's surrounded by goons and lost some of his prestige I think.  At TSN, his acerbic tone and controversial nature worked well on "The Reporters".  Dave Hodge's forceful personality and formidable intellect kept him in check, as did the authority which Michael Farber can bring to a discussion.

Similarly, Adam Schefter was a trusted NFL reporter who broke a lot of stories on the contract/business side, and when he left the NFL Network I thought that would be a big loss for them.  I had a suspicion that he might suffer from the move to ESPN too, maybe he wouldn't be the preferred "Leaker in Chief" when he was no longer the company guy, but I needn't have worried, since his new employers are even more powerful and reach a broader audience.  He's even more popular now if anything.  What's interesting though is that the NFL Network replaced him with Jason La Canfora, who had a solid résumé and credibility before the hire, and they didn't really skip a beat.

So Renaud Lavoie is jumping ship to a much less powerful network, with a much smaller viewership, and one that doesn't enjoy an exclusive contract with the local NHL team.  It will be a feat if his reporting cred and the personal relationships he has cultivated over the years are enough to prevent the erosion of his reputation.

It'll be interesting to see how much of his prestige/kingmaker power Mr. Lavoie takes with him to TVA Sports.  No question that he's a good reporter, as I've said before I don't believe a rumour until it's tweeted by Bob McKenzie or him, but a lot of that credibility rubbed off from the other professionals at RDS, and the fact that they're the broadcast partners of the Canadiens.  Without that platform, he may have to work harder to get GM's, agents and players to confide in him, or use him as a conduit to leak strategic info.

So I do question the move, and wish he hadn't done it, mainly because out here in BC, there are no providers who carry TVA Sports.  I wish him the best all the same.

The new John Tortorella Canucks, and what could have been

Great recap on the Canucks' outlook this off-season on today.  Everyone is trying to say the right things, John Tortorella downplaying his reputation as a defensive coach, saying they'll be aggressive this season, and tougher to play against.  Chris Higgins painting his former coach's methods in a favourable light, of building up his team and installing his system in training camp day by day, and asking for nothing less than 100%.

The article outlines the competitiveness of the team in the past few years, but how it fell on hard times since the Finals loss to Boston, and especially last season.

Personally, I don't think the team needed a coaching change, what it needed was a full healthy season from Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa.  A nice bonus could come from David Booth too, he's the forgotten man since he hasn't been able to contribute since coming over from Florida.  If Mr. Booth could plug one of the holes on the wing and chip in 20 or more goals that would go a long way to making their season a success.

What it needed also, and we'll cry over spilled milk here, is for the Canucks to get some immediate assets back from trading Roberto Luongo, and failing that, for Corey Schneider.  I know the goalie market is soft, but before their window closes, the Canucks needed a significant contributor on their third or fourth line in return for one of their goalies.  That's easier said than done, but that's what would have made Mike Gillis' reputation, if he could have navigated that.  It's a results business, and he fumbled that.

Furthermore, he and his predecessors have never managed to find that big talented winger to play with the Sedin brothers.  They've squandered draft picks, they've let marketable defencemen such as Christian Ehrhoff and Mathias Ohlund walk in free agency, over the years they should have found a way to cobble a trade together to find them their James Neal.  Alex Burrows is a nice player and really handy to have on your roster, but on a trio with the Sedins, it's like sprinkling sugar on a piece of chocolate cake, you wonder if there's not another more complementary topping.

Josh Gorges cannot bulk up by 10-15 pounds

A couple of thoughts on Josh Gorges, who's taking some abuse by fans due to his less-than-inspired 2013 campaign:

1)  Again, the notion that Josh Gorges can put on appreciably more muscle is a pipe dream.  Josh Gorges is not a skinny fat kid who can fill in and add 10-15 pounds of muscle on his frame.  He's a grown man, he's as big as he's going to get, he's mature physically.  Further, he trains diligently with his Kelowna Rockets buddies in the off-season, guys like Shea Weber and Nolan Yonkman.  Carey Price joins them for some of their summer regimen.  So we have to realize that he's not an untrained athlete who can make astonishing gains by hitting the gym seriously, he's already close to peak ability, any gains will be incremental.

Usually, hockey players do a lot of off-season training, but then the grind of the season undoes a lot of that work.  As I've written before, when a player says that he's put on "ten pounds of pure muscle" over the off-season, a lot of that is just normal recuperation that would happen if he just sat on the couch for three months.  So six or eight of those ten pounds are muscles taking on more water and glycogen because they're having the opportunity to replenish, the final few pounds are legit.

I'll repeat that Josh isn't noodling around, he's working hard in the gym, under the supervision of a personal trainer who's highly qualified.  He's not wasting his time, and there are no low-hanging fruits.  It's not like he's training wrong, and if he changed his routine he could pack on ten pounds easily.  Josh is aware that bigger and stronger would be to his advantage, he'd get there if he could.

We can wish Josh was bigger, but not that he would train any harder.  He's doing everything possible to be as fit and strong as he can be.  If he shows up at camp one year ten pounds heavier, and it's not due to cheeseburgers, I'm checking his phone to see if he has BioGenesis on speed-dial.

Josh Gorges is a 6'1", 200 lbs defenceman, that's who he is.

2)  Guys like Josh who block a lot of shots aren't just effective when they actually block one, it's all the other shots that don't happen because they're in the frickin' way.  It happens all the time, you're a defenceman at the blue line in the offensive zone, you get a hold of the skittering puck that someone tried to clear out of the zone off the boards, and by the time you've settled it down and taken a step to the inside and looked up, there's a forward bearing down on you.  So you give a head bob and a half windup, and that makes him square up and coast in, you go further in and draw back again, but now a dman has gotten in the lane and you can't see the net, so you try to change the shot angle but by now the forward is right on top of you, and your defence partner is covered so you can't deal him the puck, so now you kind of flip the puck in the corner in a panic, and hope your winger can get it back.  And the shot blockers have done their job.

At least that's the way it would work for me, I didn't quite have the Guy Lapointe or Andrei Markov moves.  And that's how the Hal Gills and Josh Gorges change the game, it's by routinely being in the right position to be able to block the shot, and forcing another play.

When I was playing minor hockey, we were told/taught not to try to block shots, to let the goalie handle it, he had the padding on, that's his job.  If we tried to block, we'd just screen him, and possibly cause a deflection.  Still, I'd sometimes be scrambling to get back in position and see a guy wind up, and I'd lunge at the puck with a skate or my stick as it whistled by, and yeah, often it would end up in my net.

Nowadays, the equipment for d-men is much better, so they can absorb the impact of the puck, something it couldn't do for me twenty years ago, when I broke a bone in my foot taking a slapshot on my skate.  They can be a little bit braver.

Also, goalies now play the butterfly, the percentages, they're not 'reaction' goalies like before, who would see the puck and stack the pads.  Now they try to get in the right position, come out so as to cut down the angles as best they can, flare out their big pads and hide as much of the net as possible.  Sure, a d-man trying to block a shot can screen them or deflect a puck into the net, but more likely he'll deflect off to the side.  A deflection that carries through to the net is again more likely to hit the goalie than find open net.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

David Desharnais can be effective because of his size, not in spite of it.

Not to stir up the hornet's nest, but does anyone else here get the vibe that we've achieved assimilation with the Borg now, and that resistance to the meme that David Desharnais is worthless as a hockey player and must be disposed of because he's small is futile?  That fact makes it impossible for him to "win puck battles" or "score dirty goals", goes the refrain.  We've reached a point in the discourse where it's a black-white, right-wrong, baby-with-the-bath-water kind of deal.

Now I grant that David was not as effective last season as he was the previous season, but I suspect that his size in some ways works to his advantage, and that he may be a better player for it.  Yes, it disadvantages him in terms of contact where the outcome is determined by sheer physical strength, and in the faceoff circle depending on how the linemen are feeling, but he's learned to use his small stature to account for that.

One way he does this is by being jitterbug quick and able to dart into an area or after the puck quicker than your average defensive lummox.  His shorter stick enables him to operate in a small space that an octopus like Hal Gill would find impossible.  He can turn on a dime and change direction, notably along the boards, and opponents have a tough time keeping up.  He also gets down low enough that when an opponent tries to bodycheck him, they have a tough time delivering a wallop at him, he's down around their knees and they can't bodycheck as they normally would.

I will repeat that if he was more average size, say 5'11" and 185 lbs, he wouldn't be as quick and as difficult to deal for opponents.  He also probably would have learned to think the game differently, and not have adjusted to capitalize on the size mismatch when it plays in his favour.  He'd be your average player who doesn't do anything different or any better than anyone else.

Dare I say it, his small size is a weapon for him.  Of course, this gets nullified, and becomes a deficit when crosschecking becomes de rigueur, and wrestling moves are allowed into the game, right when February rolls around, but that's a structural problems that the NHL has, and not a fundamental failing on David's part for which he should be scorned.

And that's where the question of mix comes in.  Sure with Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher and Daniel Brière on the team, our mix is something that needs to be adjusted, but ultimately, a team is better with a variety of assets and skills and abilities.  Once that's addressed, the remaining jackrabbits will be more effective, and their size will be an asset rather than a liability.

A propos is the promising turn of Michael McCarron just two games into the WJC summer prep tournament at Lake Placid.  While it'll be okay if a prospect defenceman or one of the scoring forwards on the farm don't pan out, we can't miss on this guy.  If he's in the lineup, he brings balance back to the mix.  He won't be able to do everything by himself, he'll need some Mike Lalor-Rick Chartraw footsoldiers and some Mike McPhee-frontliners to help out, but if we have that then two or three artistes would be able to thrive and give opposite teams headaches.  So him, and Jacob de la Rose, they're kind of essential.

So yeah, the four-year contract extension for David is not a slam dunk right now, and the Daniel Brière signing seems inapt in our current situation, but we can't allow ourselves to think that a specific player is worthless because he's small, or that we need a uniform forward corps of Shayne Corsons.  Although, in a pinch, I'd probably take that.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Fucale, Hudon, Vail, McCarron, Lehkonen, Collberg, de la Rose and Reway at the World Junior Championships?

So as the summer selection camps heat up, the question is asked: For the upcoming World Juniors, whom do the Habs have as current hopefuls?

Let's be optimistic as we analyze our chances.  We'll assume no discipline or off-ice issues, injuries or serious downturn in production and performance for any player, since it's a given these could derail their chances.

Canada – Fucale, Hudon?  Zach Fucale is a shoo-in to make it, since there are only three goalies invited to the summer camp.  There were three goalies on the roster in 2013, but only two in 2012.  He is the earliest-drafted, highest-rated (Hockey's Future, Central Scouting) of the three.  Big game experience, won the Memorial Cup.  For Charles Hudon, he made it on the team last season but missed out due to injury.  The management staff really liked his game and what he brought to the team, unless Brent Sutter wants a different team makeup, you would think he'd earn a roster spot again with another year of development under his belt.
USA – Vail, McCarron?  Brady Vail might be in tough, he's not a big name or flashy, but might make it on the roster as a role player?  He is more mature as a 19 year old player, that might play in his favour.  Mike McCarron is also facing strong competition at forward, he's going to have to play his way on the roster in the first couple of months in London, but he brings an X-factor, the tremendous size he has, that coaches find hard to resist, even as an 18 year old.
Finland – Lehkonen?  Artturi Lehknonen is guaranteed a spot, he was on Team Finland last season.
Sweden – Collberg, de la Rose? Same with Sebastian Collberg and Jacob de la Rose, they were both on Team Sweden at last year's Championship.  With an additional season of development, they're guaranteed a spot.
Slovakia – Reway?  Again, Martin Reway was on his WJC team last season as a 17 year old, he's guaranteed to be on it this year.
Czech – None
Russia – None
Switzerland – None (Sven Andrighetto was on this roster last season, but is now too old to participate.)

So we have five guaranteed prospects next Christmas at the WJC, a reasonable chance to have six, and if Brady Vail sneaks his way onto the USA roster we'd have seven.

Hockey Canada working to make hockey accessible to all, Part 3

Maybe a final thought about Hockey Canada trying to make hockey accessible is that there are different degrees of hockey, we can't be purists who insist that hockey means minor hockey with coaches and set teams and all that.  In gym class in high school, we played Cosom hockey (does that still exist?) for a while, and we had an intra-mural league, and we'd do that for a month then rotate through volleyball and handball and as spring hit we'd do track and field and softball.  Anyway, everyone loved floor hockey, but the guys who for some reason or other had never played or touched a hockey stick were especially happy to play.  You could tell the guys who played minor hockey, we had more moves, but the other guys and girls were really into it.  Our fantastic phys ed teacher Mr. Roblin would insist on keeping the sticks down, he'd be ruthless about calling a penalty on anyone who raised their stick above their waist for any reason, that kept it safe, and everyone had a good time.  And if we didn't play Cosom hockey, some of our classmates might never have played hockey of any kind.

So ball hockey leagues are a good way to introduce people to the sport, they'll get a kick out of it.  Rollerblading is kind of dying after the big boom in the nineties, but players like Joe Mullen and Brady Vail came to hockey by way of roller hockey, so that should be encouraged also, the cost is minimal to have a paved surface for hockey compared to maintaining an ice sheet.  Here, we have a couple of tennis courts that have been repurposed into a roller hockey area, and it has basketball nets and is used by novice skateboarders when hockey isn't being played.

Hockey Canada should encourage programs like that, we see a few, but they should be seen as not just an add-on, a sidetrack, a luxury, but rather as a feeder system, and just as legitimate as 'real' hockey.  Jonathan Drouin famously started playing ball hockey, he loved stickhandling and dekeing, and would even play hockey on an outdoor rink while wearing snow boots.  Eventually, his parents told him he'd need to learn how to skate to continue playing, and look at how that worked out.

Trevor Timmins is the best talent evaluator in the NHL, according to the data

Anyone attacking Trevor Timmins' acumen as an evaluator of talent and his drafting record is off base.  The facts, the stats, don't support their arguments.

Ed Wiles of the Vancouver Province set up a statistical scoring model to evaluate NHL teams according to their success at the draft table, and here is what he found:

Sorry, can’t explain this but the numbers don’t lie. The Habs have the highest rating in the study. In 2003, they took six players who made the NHL. In 2005, they selected four more NHLers. In 2007, four more including Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban. The high-end talent hasn’t been there but the Habs have consistently found players.
Average: .338. Slugging; .613. Grade; A-minus.

The original Province article is no longer available, but it is reposted in its entirety here if you want to read more and see the methodology.

Habs Eyes on the Prize Managing Editor Andrew Berkshire was inspired by this and made up his own more intricate model, which he felt might yield a clearer picture, and again, here is what he found:


Slugging Points Batting % Best pick of the decade
63.75 0.438 [9th] P.K. Subban [6 points]
Surprisingly the Habs came out on top again. The Habs accumulated a ton of points for drafting top pairing defensemen like Subban, Ryan McDonagh and Mark Streit. They also didn't waste their one top 5 pick when they grabbed an elite goaltender in Carey Price. The biggest problem the Canadiens seem to have isn't drafting or development (which are the popular refrains among the ignorant), but undervaluing their own players and losing them for inadequate return. The list of players who were valued at 3 or more points that the Canadiens have traded or lost to free agency is quite long; Chris Higgins, Jaroslav Halak, Andrei Kostitsyn, Streit, Mikhail Grabovski, Sergei Kostitsyn, and McDonagh. Some of those players brought in a nice return (Lars Eller for example), but it's a lot of depth to lose in a short time since all those players were parted with in the last 4 years.

So please, all you alarmists, chew on this and see if it enlightens you a little bit.  Understand that nobody bats a thousand.

If you still want to bash Trevor Timmins, here is my challenge:  tell us right now who is this year's Andrei Kostitsyn, and who is this year's Ryan Kesler.  Don't give us generalities, or a group of players who maybe...  just come right out and tell us the name of the 2013 NHL Draft's version of David Fischer and Claude Giroux.  Be clear and tell us in no uncertain terms the name of the Hugh Jessiman of 2013, and the P.K. Subban as well.  Extra points if you can tell us who is this year's Andrei Markov or Henrik Zetterberg.  We'll put it in the vault and come back in five years and discuss it, see how smart you are without the benefit of hindsight.  But it shouldn't be a problem right, since it's so obvious?