Monday, 27 January 2014

Michel Therrien juggles lines, left defencemen play on the right, and other Canadiens ailments.

About Michel Therrien's constant line juggling, and what some term his bizarre decisions, do we not remember how last season every time he made a line change or tweak, it came up aces?  I'm struggling to remember specifics, although the kid line was one, and putting Brandon Prust with Alex and Brendan was another, but everything he touched turned to gold, the line he'd conjured up would go on a scoring streak for three or four games, pick up the slack from the others that didn't click.

We need to factor this in to our analysis of the current situation.  He had success mixing and matching lines last season, so it's understandable that he'd resort to it now.  Further, if we fault him for some moves that clearly aren't working, let's credit him with all the moves that did work last season.  Let's not pretend that he's Typhoid Mary now, but that he wasn't King Midas last season.  In effect, he should be drawing down some of the kudos he accumulated last season, with a last-place team he took to second in the conference.  He's not starting at zero.

So yeah, putting Lars Eller on left wing isn't yielding dividends now, but if he'd pulled that move last season they'd have set the league on fire.  Yet we wouldn't call the coach a genius, 'cause we plain don't like the gruff diseloquent sod.

And yeah, putting P.K. on with Douglas Murray doesn't seem like an inspired decision, but you can just see the coaches in their office, shrugging their shoulders, reluctantly admitting that it's not clicking with Josh or even Andrei now, so they think to themselves: "Well, he used to play well with Hal Gill, let's give Douglas a shot at it..."  Again, if in a couple of games they stabilize and become an effective pair for the rest of the season, and Andrei and Alexei do the same, we won't throw Michel Therrien a party, we'll look for warts elsewhere.

And to all the keen-eyed observers who rail against playing Alexei Emelin or Francis Bouillon or Nathan Beaulieu on the right side, what is the solution?  We only have two righties, P.K. and Raphaël Diaz, everyone else is a leftie, right down to Davis Drewiske.  Now in Hamilton, the funny thing is, our two blue-chippers Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu are also lefties, but everyone else is a rightie.  Greg Pateryn, Darren Dietz, Magnus Nygren before he high-tailed it back to Europe, all righties.  Dalton Thrower is a rightie, as well as every other defenceman in the pipeline, except for Mac Bennett.  So the organization, looking long-term, has taken the shotgun approach to rectify this imbalance.

In the meantime though, we're going to have to play left-shooting defencemen on the right on at least one pairing.  There's no way around it.  But as was discussed in the leadup to the Canadian Olympic Team selection, lefties are used to playing on the right, they've probably had to do so at some point in their career.  When I was playing minor hockey, I played with two other D-men, and we were all lefties, so we had to adapt.  We'd each take a turn on the far side, then the side closer to the bench, then take a short break on the bench before getting back out there.  Probably our best defenceman, who was a rightie, was constantly injured, but when he was around, our coaches would send him out there for most of the game, meaning someone else (me) had to sit more.  He never had to sit, or play off, he got lots of icetime on his natural side, whereas we all pitched in and played right on the second pairing.

The Canadiens, and l'équipe Plomberie Langlois aren't the only ones dealing with this though.  The Canucks for example only have Kevin Bieksa and Chris Tanev as righties on the blue line, everyone else is a leftie.  There is callup Yannick Weber, who has been playing forward/#7 defenceman and picking up powerplay minutes but hasn't been able to really crack the lineup, even as a rightie.

So yeah, righties, since they're more 'rare', usually never have to play on the left, they always get to play on the right, since they don't have competition.  So our lefties will have to learn to adapt.  And this brings us to the case of Raphaël Diaz.

I've long been a booster, a champion of his.  The 2012 season, I was glad to see Roman Hamrlik not re-signed, and advocated that Jaro Spacek should sit in favour of Raphaël, Yannick and Alexei, who all needed to play I thought.  Alexei eventually proved himself worthy, Yannick did not and was not retained.  Raphaël showed flashes, but he suffered injuries and we had to be patient.  Until this season.  He simply hasn't progressed enough in the three years he's had, and some of that may not be his fault, but he had a huge opportunity by virtue of being a right-handed defenceman, and he didn't seize it.  So now before this summer we have to re-sign him to a UFA contract, and Gaston Therrien of RDS was saying the negotiations were for a 3-4 year deal at 3-4 million per.

Now normally I'll preach patience with kids and prospects, but Raphaël is no longer one, he's a full-fledged player, and he's not showing enough to merit that deal.  If he was still an RFA, or if there was no limits on rosters and contracts and salary mass, maybe we could risk it, but these limits exist, and going on the evidence in front of us we can't justify that deal.  He's not big and strong enough for the league, and his offence, which we hoped would bloom this season, after injuries and concussions the last two seasons, simply has not come around.  For him to be worth keeping on the roster, he'd have to have a Mathieu Schneider-esque influence on our roster, be what Torey Krug is to the Bruins, the undersized kid who creates offence and goals with his skating and passing and smarts.  Instead, he's having an anemic influence on our powerplay, so much so that Josh Gorges or Francis Bouillon don't look that much worse on the second pairing.

Next season we'll have P.K., Andrei (probably), Alexei, and Josh earning big bucks on the back end, along with the triumphant return of James Wisniewski (trust me on this one, it's too good not to happen) adding to the payroll.  The other defencemen will need to be cheaper, more cost-effective, either rookies like Jarred or Nathan, or cheapies like Douglas at $1.5M per.  We won't be able to play an ineffectual #5 D at $3.5M, that will be too much of a squeeze on the cap.  So thanks Raphaël, it's been nice knowing you, but we're sending you to Nashville for a second-rounder.

So my hope is that the Canadiens don't re-sign Raphaël, but rather trade him at the deadline.  Or, if he does sign a contract, I hope it's much more on the lower end of the range that Gaston Therrien reports.

The Canadiens can ride out a tough spell, but the fans can't.

I don't understand why so many Canadiens fans are losing their marbles.  When the season started the general consensus was that the Canadiens would fight for a playoff spot.  Few expected them to be at the top of the standings like the Penguins and the Bruins, or the Blackhawks in the West.  So far, we have overachieved, but are now mired in a slump.  This is hardly surprising.  Over the course of the season, we'll have hot streaks and cold snaps.

Further, we all seemed to agree that the correct course of action was to be steady as she goes, ride out some more veteran contracts, and develop the kids in the pipeline.  That has been happening.  Last summer we jettisoned Tomas Kaberle, and this summer Brian Gionta will come off the books.  Placeholders and complementary pieces like George Parros, Douglas Murray, and Francis Bouillon were patched on to the team, but most will not be retained, as Jeff Halpern and Yannick Weber were let go last season.  The inexplicable Daniel Brière detour will also not seriously affect our journey.

Meanwhile, the youths in Hamilton that we possibly may have slightly overhyped in our feverish collective mind have shown to be mere mortals, to not be quite the world-beaters we had them pegged as.  They're getting some beneficial games in the AHL or other leagues, as they learn their trade.  We have to be patient.  That's what we swore we'd do, in unison.  Gone were the days when we would rush kids to the bigs before they were ready, we intoned in July.  The song remains the same, or at least it should.

We can't have an emotional collapse because we were exposed by Evgeni Malkin, Sydney Crosby, James Neal and Kris Letang during a road game.  We'd have been suckers to bet otherwise.  We had to expect this.  We vowed that we would ride out these storms to reach the promised land.

So let's stop foaming at the mouth because the Sens got Bobby Ryan and the Leafs got James van Riemsdyk, yet Marc Bergevin "sits on his hands".  For Marc Bergevin to get in the game, he needs some trading chips.  René Bourque at this moment is barely enough to ante in.  We don't have a 6'3" 240 lbs defenceman formerly drafted fifth overall to swap with, one who we know has topped out and we can safely part with.  When we have a surfeit of draft picks and prospects, then we'll be in a position where not only we can, but actually we'll have to trade quantity for quality, as the Sens did.

Let's not have a nervous breakdown about, say, the imminent return of Davis Drewiske.  Again, despite what the Chicken Littles squawk, he is eminently disposable, and does not "clog up" our roster, regardless of his menacing one-way contract, which so many posters fear but misunderstand.  He makes minimum wage, and can be sent down to Hamilton with no cap hit.  The worst that can happen is that he gets claimed by another team on waivers.

We should favour stability over kneejerk decisions, and by that I mean let's not fire Michel Therrien and keep the coaching merry-go-round spinning.  As much as many posters love Mike Babcock, he's not available for hire.  The only star candidates out there, Dallas Eakins and Paul Maurice, have already been snapped up.  There's no wizard out there who can turn Josh Gorges into Rod Langway, Lars Eller into Bobby Smith, or Brian Gionta into Yvan Cournoyer.  We have the team that we have, there's no miracle worker who can change that.

This is where the rubber meets the road guys.  We knew what kind of season we were in for in September, or at least we thought we knew, and mostly all of us made pious promises that we didn't want to sacrifice our future for rentals, and that squeaking into the playoffs wasn't our goal, we wanted a strong organization with a deep system full of prospects putting in a full apprenticeship in the minors, and young players fighting for a roster spot.  The way to get there is to stay the course, and not to abandon ship at the first squall.