Sunday, February 28, 2010

About the Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament

- Jonathan Toews was the most brilliant forward for Team Canada, the young Blackhawks captain has the makings of a new Yzerman, their MVP player, Crosby may have scored the Gold Medal Goal, but without Toews I question if we would've made the Gold Medal Game. I am reminded of what Ken Dryden wrote about Bob Gainey in the "The Game" when he mentioned it would be too easy to say too much about Gainey, I feel the same way about Toews. What an incredible young man, a shining star for Canadian hockey.

- Roberto Luongo casts aside questions about his performance in the big games and good for him and proves above all else if you want to win, get yourself a goalie from Quebec.

- Sidney Crosby gets a pass from me for a while on "The Goal" but really, he could've been big so many times before this it's hard to declare him the best player in the world right now.

- Scott Niedermayer, I knew he'd be a fantastic Captain and he was, the best skating defencemen in the world exits with more international honours than anyone in Canadian hockey history and earned every single of them, oh and 4 Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe as well.

- Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty, it's going to be hard for any one man to have a Norris monopoly like Lidstrom enjoyed with all these talented players competing for years to come.

- Rick Nash could make Colombus huge if they give him the right talent to work with and put some names on their blue line. if LW Nikita Filatov comes back to Colombus next season, watch out.

- Joe Thornton has played his last Olympic games and that's a giant relief, good riddance to Chokin' Joe.

- Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry chanelled their Ducks teamwork at the right times in this tournament.

- Ryan Miller is a much better goalie than I thought.

- The play of Mike Richards, Ryan Getzlaf and Zach Parise this Tournament guarantee I will never hear the fucking end of who else Montreal could've drafted instead of Andrei Kostitsyn in 2003 when it comes to discussing the composition of the Habs.

- The Swedes and Russians were severely disappointing in this Tournament, Swedes are generally natural international competitors, while the Russian National Team playing politics with their KHL inclusions really burned them.

- Finland is the most accomplished hockey nation in the last 20 years, with 4 Olympic medals, Teemu Selanne exits the games a 4-time Olympic Medalist, 3 Bronze and 1 Silver. Team Captain Saku Koivu enjoyed his second medal as Team Captain and his 3rd as a member of the Finnish National Team. A great ending for the many Finnish veterans of the games that have brought class, tenacity and impeccable teamwork to the Olympics every time they competed. A nation of 5 million does a lot with very little.

- Jaroslav Halak has lit a fire under Carey Price with his Tournament play, the 22-year old will have to show his very best from this point on to keep his position. It is extremely unlikely both can be signed for next season, Carey Price will be to elite in nets from the start of the Boston game on Tuesday to keep himself in contention for his place on the team as their goalie.

- Chicago Blackhawks front office has to be breaking open the champagne. Their three long-term signings in Toews, Keith and Kane are Gold and Silver medalists at the Olympics, the Franchise Players of that team. Brent Seabrook another signed Blackhawks player collected a Gold as well. Marian Hossa came up huge for Slovakia in the Tournament, when one of his primary criticisms has been he can't turn it up for big games, every time Slovakia played this Tournament, it was a big game. The Playoffs look pretty strong with so many top competitors.

- Was Drew Doughty the best selection of the 2008 Entry Draft? Seems like it right now. 20-year old defencemen rarely play in the NHL, let alone the Olympic Winter Games for Team Canada, the country who generally fields bottom-pairing defencemen who could be top-pairing for any other country except perhaps Sweden. Went from 7th defencemen to a leading role on the team very quickly.

- Alex Ovechkin was thrown from the Olympics in rather inglorious fashion, he will have much work to do in the NHL playoffs this season to possibly claim a Stanley Cup and get himself back in the race with Crosby for championship honours. Kovalchuk and Malkin much the same, much to prove upon their return to the NHL.

- The competition level of these games was a magnificent thing to enjoy. Smaller hockey countries like Germany, Norway, Belarus, Switzerland and Latvia all competed fiercely each game they played, they may have left early but they proved that the growth of hockey is working around the world. Tore Vikingstad of Norway officially has the best hockey player name ever.

- Tomas Plekanec scored 3 goals in the Olympic Tournament not bad at all, let's see what he has in store for Montreal when he gets home. Sergei Kostitsyn had a goal and 4 assists, let's see how his Olympic experience charges him up. Andrei Markov had a rather regrettable Olympics while battling injury, I hope he recovers enough to serve with Montreal well in the home stretch. Jaroslav Halak backstopped his team to a Bronze Medal game, not bad for a 9th-round draft pick from 2003.

- Sweden and Finland are going to have to rebuild their hockey talent now, so many of their veterans have already said this is their final Olympics and more likely that even more of them will just not be ready for the 2014 games. I hope they can bring out fresh new talent to make themselves competitive, it would seem wrong if these countries didn't contend for Olympic medals.

- To all critics of Saku Koivu: He's won three Olympics medals as a Captain of the Finnish National Team, he is a leader who never had a team who could win a Stanley Cup. He wore the CH with as much honour as any Captain who came before him and gave everything he had to Montreal. He is credited by his teammates by giving the speech in the 2nd intermission that stirred his team to their Bronze Medal victory no less.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Has to be said...

Regarding the 5-3 loss to the United States in Men's Olympic Hockey.

- Thornton is the most useless player the NHL ever saw that was tagged with the "star" label, you can't find him in an important game with bloodhounds and a spy satellite, he just isn't there.

- Brodeur is too old and played too many games in New Jersey this season, thank you very fucking much you dumb son of a bitch Jacques Lemaire, who's also an assistant coach of Team Canada. It wasn't enough that you tried to destroy hockey with the trap system?

- Sidney Crosby has not been 'the best player in the world' in this Tournament, he's shown up at the end of the Swiss and US games, not beforehand, too little, too late Kid, especially against a much tougher opponent. It's not the All-Star game.

- Chris Pronger is about as useful as a bag of hammers. He's old, he's slow and he has no smarts to make up for his lack of speed. Niedermayer hasn't been great but at least he has a brain, Pronger's just been terrible.

- Patrice Bergeron either paid someone off, slept with someone or has family members with Hockey Canada. He is nowhere near the skill level of his fellow Team Canada members and while we often joked only 2-3 American players could make Team Canada, I don't see how Bergeron could have made Team USA if the situations were reversed.

- As a general rule, San Jose Sharks players who have been there for several years should not be considered for Olympic squad spots.

- Ryan Getzlaf, the darling pick of all armchair GMs in Montreal from the 2003 draft was a considerable non-factor in the game. I know I mentioned him in my previous post about better drafting choices as well, but at the same time, I make my point that not all star players are fit for a big pressure market and game. Getzlaf hasn't earned his keep so far. Corey Perry was just about as useful and considering the amount of time those two play together in Anaheim one would expect much, much better.

- Duncan Keith and Keith Seabrook should be permanent D-partners from this point forward in the Tournament. Enough experimentation, keep one of the few stable pairings you have on the team and use it, 20 minutes or more a game, they know how to do their job.

- Elite shooters, many of them, Ryan Miller is lying on his stomach, add some lift to your shot so you don't hit his body, you top-corner the puck instead and get a goal to tie the game.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The argument for Montreal to expand their scouting department

It's damn simple really, the New Jersey Devils have the largest scouting department in the NHL with 23 active scouts to evaluate talent for their team and are known for making very few mistakes at the annual NHL Entry Draft or when it comes to signing undrafted players, or acquiring players through trades.

New Jersey can't fill their arena when the Montreal Canadiens are in town most of the time, or other big-name teams. They play a very boring style of hockey that rarely lifts fans out of their seats and engenders excitement about their trap style of hockey. This club is not nearly as wealthy as say, a hockey club that sells out their 21,273 seat arena with 54 luxury boxes and sells just about every item imaginable that you can stick the Montreal Canadiens crest on. Montreal currently has 15 scouts working for them and considering their wealth, you would think in order to gain a leg up on the competition, they could double their scouting department. They have the money to hire away scouts from other teams, make better offers to the best people and cast a wider net around the world to get their talent. Why go so far? Simple, I'll examine Montreal's work in the Entry Draft at the 1st round for the Canadiens and what kind of personnel the team passed up on from 2000 to 2006. I won't discuss the 2007-2009 drafts as I feel it's too early to really count out the selections there, although some astute scouting acquired P.K. Subban, who may emerge as the finest defencemen of the 2007 draft.

The 2000 Draft

D Ron Hainsey, selected 13th overall
- Ron Hainsey's tenure with the Canadiens organization was troubled and ended up with him being picked off of waivers to Colombus and he ended up in Atlanta currently, the organization screwed up, but there were also better choices.

C Marcel Hossa, selected 16th overall
- Marcel, the brother of NHL star player Marian Hossa, he never came close to emulating his brother and is now a player in the KHL.

With more astute observation by the scouts, these superior choices were all available
- D Brooks Orpik 18th overall, key shutdown defencemen for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
- D Anton Volchenkov 21st overall, Ottawa's best physical defencemen, delivers one of the hardest checks in the NHL and is a shot-blocking piece of concrete around his net.
- RW Brad Boyes 24th overall, a good-size winger with a 43 and then 33 goal season in his two previous NHL seasons.
- D Niklas Kronwall 29th overall, the heir apparent to Detroit's top defencemen title when Niklas Lidstrom retires, he can break a man with his check and can quarterback a PP.

Any way you mix it, taking either of these two for Montreal would have vastly improved the team, just Volchenkov and Orpik alone would have made Montreal's own zone a punishing, fearsome place for any team to try and enter easily. Markov with Volchenkov has been a fantasy of mine for several months now.

The 2001 Draft

D Mike Komisarek, selected 7th overall
- He was a good guy for Montreal, but his position went to his head. Playing alongside Markov inflated his value and created a sense that he was worth 4 million and over a season, despite having the offensive instincts of your average NHL goaltender. 10-point defencemen who can block shots and hit are handy, but his poor fighting skills and lack of will after the Lucic fight in the 08-09 season seemed to indicate he was not a solid rock for team leadership if he is so easily rattled. Still, he could've been traded for value when Volchenkov/Orpik/Kronwall would've come out as better prospects in the system down the road, a decent pick in a fairly weak draft year.

C Alexander Perezhogin, selected 25th overall
- Another pick that never worked out, limited time in Montreal but never established a role, now a KHL player like Marcel Hossa. A wasted pick considering his impact and no other NHL clubs attempting to get him.

Accepting the Komisarek pick, Perezhogin had several worthy replacements.
- C David Steckel at 30th overall, 6'6" and a solid 3rd/4th line role-playing centre. Little scoring aptitude, but a faceoff specialist and PK man that would benefit the club greatly, role-players can't be undersold at times.
- D Fedor Tyutin at 40th overall, 6'3", generally solid defencemen who could find Top-4 work with his abilities, okay offensively and can do shut-down work.
- C Michael Cammalleri at 49th overall, well I shouldn't have to tell you about Montreal's favourite goal-scoring sensation this season. Could've had him with an astute scout watching him carefully perhaps and probably at cheaper than 6 million a season as well.

The 2002 Draft

C Christopher Higgins, selected 14th overall
- A failure of player development, or a case of a player who just couldn't function in a party city, I'm not sure. He hasn't been the same since the 07-08 season after reeling off 3 straight 20-goal seasons since joining the Big Club full time. I find it hard to talk against this pick as the line after him was pretty thin for good players.

Although, Cam Ward, the goalie who bounced Montreal from the 2006 NHL Playoffs was taken by Carolina at 25th overall. The team could have potentially selected an elite goaltender in 2002, something to think about. Duncan Keith was also taken in the 2nd round, careful scouting might have delivered what is this some writer's favourite for a Norris trophy.

The 2003 Draft

I hate talking about the 2003 draft, I really do, of 30 players taken in the 1st round, nearly every single of them has seen NHL action and a fair number of them are prominent NHL stars and Andrei gets a lot of flak for not developing as quickly as his fellow draft class members.

RW Andrei Kostitsyn, 10th overall
- I really like Andrei Kostitsyn, I like his strength, his speed and his fantastic reflexes. I love his nickname AK46, the guy has a cannon of a shot either with his wrist shot or his slapshot and he can hit the net with it with ease when he's on his game. The problem has been his consistency, after a breakout season in 07-08, he had 27 goals and 25 assists, not bad for a 22-year old kid taken 10th overall at the time.
- I suspect part of the problem with Andrei after his breakout was more of his star linemate, Alex Kovalev. Kovalev is a magnificent player when it comes to stickhandling and shooting, he is an artist with the puck and is so creative offensively you'd think he would have more than two seasons where he went over 80 points. The problem is while he is an artist with the puck, he is an artist that is often lacking inspiration. Andrei is a young player that needed to learn to give his effort all the time because goals and assists would come from effort, Kovalev was not an example of that. In the 08-09 season, with Robert Lang, a veteran player who did provide that kind of play and support for Andrei, led Andrei and his brother Sergei on a campaign of terror across the NHL in January, they were the team's best line for that month.
- There have been other issues, the culture shock of sorts of Andrei Kostitsyn, a Belarusian native to moving to Montreal of all places, he had spent time in Hamilton but I suspect the young man would have done well to live with a veteran member of the organization and someone who he could speak freely with, namely the team's finest defencemen, Andrei Markov. It couldn't have been easy for him to get used to the city I think and Markov could have helped him in that.
- The bad press of the 08-09 season, when in a horrible piece of yellow journalism, La Presse did their best to smear the Kostitsyn brothers as gangsters. Andrei and Sergei both really went into a funk after that point and who could blame them? Their adopted team and city had them labelled as gangsters when they were doing their best to win hockey games for the team. They'd lost Robert Lang, their veteran centre who had been leading them to great results not long before and they'd had trouble rediscovering their magic.

I should mention the alternatives, but a lack of good player development for Andrei I feel is more the reason than anything of why we haven't seem him match the offensive abilities of the following players and the bad press, he and his brother didn't deserve.
- C Jeff Carter, 11th overall, a 40-goal scorer with Philidelphia last season, at 6'3" he would've been a big centre for the Canadiens organization.
- C Zach Parise, 17th overall, a 40-goal scorer with New Jersey last season, an inch shorter than AK but a two-way forward with great offensive instincts.
- C Ryan Getzlaf, 19th overall, the big centre everyone's talked about for Montreal for years, a scoring sensation in Anaheim, his prescence in Montreal would've been quite welcome to many.
- C Mike Richards, 24th overall, I hate his guts but he's an excellent two-way forward with a 30-goal range and lives to score shorthanded goals.

The 2004 Draft

C Kyle Chipchura, 18th overall

- It's hard to hate this kid for having his achilles tendon slashed in an accident and permanently hampering a player whose speed was never his greatest asset. It was nobody's fault that happened really, but he doesn't seem to really possess a skill set that justifies a 1st round selection. His passing was terrible and he had no nose for the net, coupled with poor foot speed, I wonder what the scouts really saw in him.

Replacement choices:
- C Travis Zajac, 20th overall, a strong and capable centre with the New Jersey Devils, with 62 points last season including 20 goals.
- D Jeff Schultz, 27th overall, Mike Green's physical partner in Washington, a physical shutdown player that tempers Green's overly offensive instincts with solid defence as his partner, at 6'6" he provides some serious physical prescence.
- D Mike Green, 29th overall, Washington made 3 picks in the 2004 Draft, Ovechkin, Schultz and Green, all 3 today are bonafide NHLers, one is the best offensive forward in the NHL and one is the best offensive defencemen in the NHL while their 3rd pick is a solid defensive defencemen, that is the power of scouting. Mike Green would've been quite the coup for Montreal.

At this point, likely someone on the blue line would have had to go in a year or two with such an embarrasment of riches, but Montreal could've commanded a hefty price with so many talented defencemen and so many teams desperate to have an operative Top 4. Picks, prospects and talented forwards could have been acquired for the club.

The 2005 Draft

G Carey Price, 5th overall
- This was not a wasted pick, the players taken 6th-10th overall have not exactly gone on to stellar NHL careers. Price's only fault was his being rushed to the NHL too quickly and player development not taking it's proper course with him.
- A further year in the AHL and possibly a Calder Cup repeat win would've been what he needed, but an overestimation of his progression in nets led to his being brought in too early, coupled with the fact that again, the organization ignored the need to follow the course as more NHL clubs are doing and having young stars live with the veteran players of the organization.
- A lost cause? Hardly, it's been a bumpy road but I've seen him dominant too often in his young career to think this is a tragic story that will never get better.

Possible replacements: You have to discuss the alternatives after all. If you consider that Cam Ward could've been close to ready for NHL action at this point, there was only one top talent left that you could reasonably argue drafing was good for the organization.

- C Anze Kopitar, 11th overall, another of those big centres the organization has chased but has failed to get a hold of, the top scorer in LA, the only Slovenian in the NHL from a country with about 1,000 registered hockey players. He has a great skill set but I wonder about how well he would've adapted to Montreal like several of the other young stars. A possibility though, if handled properly.

The 2006 Draft

D David Fischer, 20th overall

- I don't know the full story on Fischer, I've heard reports he struggled with some injuries that have hampered him but I can't be certain about that, the number of games played in NCAA hockey would seem to dispute that and it seems more like the pick was just wasted. It happens and there weren't that many gems taken after him.

Potential replacements: Not a lot, but there were a couple of definite improvements.

RW Claude Giroux, 22nd overall
- An offensive forward with Philidelphia, small but a definite NHL-quality player. Could have been moved for other assets or kept on as a depth player for the term of his rookie contract.

G Semyon Varlamov, 23rd overall
- The potential starting, franchise goalie of the Washington Capitals they've not had since Olaf Kolzig. He showed great ability in the 2009 playoffs and is practically undefeated in regular season NHL appearances. He's struggled with injury this season but his ability is apparent and could have a very bright NHL future.

Bottom Line:

Forwards: Not a lot, I still hold that AK's still on class with some of his fellow draft members and hasn't had the development necessary to show it. He'll come around, but if Getzlaf or Carter had been taken, it would have allowed either of them and Tomas Plekanec to hold the #1 and #2 centre slots, allowing Captain Saku Koivu to go back to the 3rd line in a reduced role, but still holding team leadership until a new leader emerged from the ranks. Potential drafting of Michael Cammalleri would have improved things notably as well for offensive purposes. The key though is with the all the defensive prospects on the Canadiens depth chart, dealing some for offensive talent would have been simpler considering the lack of depth across the NHL for good defencemen and Montreal could have commanded some very strong prices in the trade market.

Defence: Andrei Markov with 3 partners selected out of a possible listing of of Brooks Orpik, Duncan Keith, Jeff Schultz, Anton Volchenkov, Niklas Kronwall and Mike Green. Any way you slice it, that is severe, punishing hitting power with fantastic puck-moving ability. Montreal's defence wouldn't be quite the Big Three of Robinson, Savard and Lapointe, but it would be the most fearsome blue line in the whole NHL, with others traded for more picks, prospects or talented forwards.

Goaltending: Cam Ward, he's had his critics for World Championship performances but a 2006 Conn Smythe on his shelf and pushing his team to a Conference Final in the 2009 playoffs indicates a serious amount of skill. He could've been a veteran prescence for Carey Price if he was still selected 5th overall and possibly shuffled along later if Price proved to be the better candidate. Semyon Varlamov in the system as well would've given the team an embarrasment of riches at that position.

So consider this lineup for yourself, with an allowance that Mike Komisarek with possible ingredients was moved in the 2003 draft for Anaheim's 19th overall pick. This would be the potential Canadiens roster for the 2008-2009 season that ended so poorly last year and this isn't even the most ambitious list I could put up. Also, Gui Latendresse moved in a much earlier deal for Ben Pouliot, but again, this isn't as stacked as I could've made it.

Michael Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Benoit Pouliot - Ryan Getzlaf - Alex Kovalev
Christopher Higgins - Saku Koivu - Sergei Kostitsyn
Tom Kostopolous - Maxim Lapierre - An enforcer not named George Laraque

Andrei Markov - Anton Volchenkov
Mike Green - Brooks Orpik
Josh Gorges - Ryan O'Byrne

Jaroslav Halak (would split duties with Huet for 07-08, Huet departed but Jaro is No. 1)
Carey Price (would have spent the 07-08 season in the AHL)

I'd call that a Cup Contender squad and I didn't even mention Ward, Kronwall, Keith, Giroux or several other options I came across while studying those draft groups. Obviously not all draft choices can pay off, but if you doubled the scouting department and spent the money to hire the best scouting people in the world, you can bet you'd find a lot more draft gems than what Montreal came up with across those 7 years of drafting.

That's a cap-compliant roster by the way compared against what most of those players were earning at the time and based on the concept that management would extend the young players smartly before their contracts ran up. A 1st-class hockey power without tanking for top 5 picks, just spending where it counts, player development and drafting. A dream, but honestly, with 30 top scouts working for the organization, it would've been a much more easily achieved dream.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I've said it before....

I will say it again, Joe Thornton should never be involved in any game that's important. He doesn't have it in him to raise his game, or even maintain it. It's something when a player like Glen Metropolit or Travis Moen whiffs on a basically empty net, they're not 1st-line superstars, they're 4th-line grinders for the most part. Joe Thornton's supposed to be one of the great sensations of the NHL, but has failed to be a force in International Play or the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his entire career.

What really bothered me about Team Canada's PP?: They had Dan Boyle, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, all San Jose players, all who have done many power plays together this season and most of the time they couldn't execute. 4 regular teammates, the Olympics and besides the Marleau goal, a whole lot of nothing.

Sidney Crosby took until the the Shootout to justify himself as a top player for Canada, most of the game he did not exactly put on a show against a Swiss team that should have been easy considering he plays in the NHL and is in a race with Alexander Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard Trophy and has an Art Ross trophy on his shelf. Rick Nash had some strong play but he was often by himself it seemed and made some mental mistakes.

Ryan Getzlaf, what he showed against Edmonton before he shipped out for the Olympics was quite absent for the most part and he showed little chemistry with fellow Duck Corey Perry, despite the two being teammates of Jonas Hiller and should very well know after many team practices how to beat him. Eric Staal seemed to be in a fog the entire night.

Chris Pronger showed why he shouldn't be on the team, old and a very angry player, he was completely out of position for 2nd Swiss goal when he went for a retaliation hit rather than play his position. Niedermayer showed his age as well, no glaring bad plays but age has taken a toll on him and prevents him from playing as well as he used to.

Patrice Bergeron must have some relatives at Hockey Canada as besides being a good faceoff man, failed to demonstrate why he was selected ahead of Steven Stamkos, Jeff Carter, Martin St. Louis and other notable Canadian forwards.

Mike Green should have made this team, the combined efforts of Weber, Pronger, Niedermayer, Doughty and Boyle on the PP produced exactly one goal when Weber's rebound became a Marleau goal. Most of the time, they missed the net completely when taking point shots and these are supposed to be elite NHL defencemen with PP qualities? Irritating as hell.

Okay I'm angry, but this is a team Canada should have pounded with little effort, lack of energy and focus from many players and reliance upon 3 players on the San Jose line that are notoriously unreliable in big pressure games would have been disastrous against Russia, Sweden or Finland.

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have to be 1st unit penalty kill from now, they know how to play it and they are natural partners from Chicago, they know where the other is going to be almost like the Sedins do and have been the lynchpin of Chicago's defensive success all season. They need to be used where they will be most effective and a coordinated penalty kill is going to be massive in an unforgiving Olympic Tournament.

I sound mad but when you have this kind of talent on your team, you really should get better results. They're not missing half of their best scorers due to injury and even if they were, that still puts them head and shoulders above most of the competition. It was a lack of will to win that made this so close and nearly a disaster.

The Americans are next and they are vulnerable, their depth is not strong and their defence is ripe for picking by an aggressive squad of elite talents, Canada should be able to steamroll them and if they can't, they only have themselves to blame.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Gainey Era is over, here comes the Gauthier Era!

Well, the 15th General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens has stepped down from his position and I won't take time to debate his moves, it's easy to armchair GM, it's a lot harder to be the GM and I've already discussed his actions as the GM far, far too long already.

I won't say much about Gauthier as it has been a while since he actively ran an NHL team so it's hard to say what he may have learned in recent years in running an organization. I'll post my first real opinion about him after the March 3rd trade deadline and see what he comes up with. If Tomas Plekanec is re-signed, if a goaltender is moved, a change on the blue line is made, who knows what Gauthier might have planned.

I will say this though, Gainey exited with class. When asked about disappointments, he mentioned none, rather than appear a bitter man upset with his players, the city and media criticism, he simply spoke of what he enjoyed in his time. He brought respectability to his position and the organization in his time after a long time of the team management being a laughingstock.

We'll see what we get, not terribly enthused about Gauthier and expected him to be named an interim GM with a full search for a new GM to begin and a new one named in time for the 2010 Entry Draft.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Well, what do we have here?

A 60-minute effort from the Canadiens that drops the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, granted, Malkin and Crosby were generally underwhelming in the match, but this was a team that had soundly defeated Montreal in recent history with their glut of talented forwards, defencemen and goaltending.

Most of us (including myself) considered a win very difficult to manage, if not impossible considering the talent they were going up against unless luck was seriously on Montreal's side. From the fluky goal that could have been called as a penalty to start the match to Gionta's backhanded beauty to Darche's blast that chased Marc-Andre Fleury from the nets and became the game-winning goal, the Canadiens for a full 60 minutes took advantage of a team that has not been at their best in a while. Halak did not have to stand on his head and you can call the 2nd goal he allowed suspect, but he made several beauty saves that could've left this a much closer game had he not been alert.

Montreal won thanks to the inspiring efforts of the Hamilton Bulldog's top line and Guy Boucher's haymaker against all the opposition he faces in the AHL, Brock Trotter, David Desharnais and Ryan White. Two of the top 15 scorers in the AHL in Trotter (25G, 28A) and David Desharnais (16G, 32A) with a born shit-disturbing energy player, Ryan White (12G, 8A and 95 Penalty Minutes) who plays the PK as well as anyone, hits and does whatever he has to for his teammates. They generated scoring chances, drew three penalties and kept the Penguins on their heels and nearly notched a goal more than once. They were a solid unit in Hamilton and surprised Pittsburgh with their well-executed play, a 4th line that has consistent line mates on a team is a rarity with how these lines are usually drawn up, but these Bulldogs had been linemates for some time and brought a level of coordination that the Penguins 4th-liners found hard to match.

Right now, it's hard to argue against sending the kids back down with the energy and effort they bring to a game, Boucher's work in Hamilton has created a highly coordinated unit that Jacques Martin was able to throw in whenever he felt he needed to send the Penguins off their game and force them to play defence rather than try to gain control of the game. The frustratingly inconsistent play of Montreal's most improved forward last year, Maxim Lapierre saw him have less ice time than any player on the ice, the kids each having at least a minute and a half more of ice time.

And that brings me to #40, Maxim Lapierre was at his best with his legs pumping, hitting and generally being a bastard but this year he's done that about 3 or 4 times in 59 games that's horrendous. I'd like to see if he can turn things around as at 24, he's a much better choice to anchor the 3rd line than a 35-year old Glen Metropolit for the long-term future but Glen's playing a whole other level above Lapierre and has all season. These kids can replace him, easily and will work harder than he apparently is willing to, which is frustating for me, a Canadiens fan who owns a #40 Maxim Lapierre t-shirt but sees a guy who defined work ethic in 08-09 to defining a performance that would embarass Alex Kovalev in terms of inconsistency. Hopefully playing this 4th line will illustrate to Maxim what is required from here in on to win hockey games because really, you take the Maxim Lapierre of 08-09, put him with Metropolit and Moen on that 3rd line and honestly, you should have one of the best checking lines in the NHL.

So what happens when we get some players back from injury if these AHL kids keep proving they belong here? Who plays where? With Sergei Kostitsyn becoming a reliable defensive forward and Benoit Pouliot resurrecting his potential as a star NHL player, there are some choices to make.

The Canadiens Offence at full health:

You have a 23-man NHL roster and Laraque unfortunately is a waste of space and taking up slot #23 and you have Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, leaving you at 20 men left to work with, one reserve forward and one reserve defencemen.

1st Line: Ideally, you restore the line of Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn who had terrorized the opposition until Andrei Kostitsyn had injured his knee. The aggressive, punishing forecheck of Andrei Kostitsyn, his soft hands and great speed gave the opposition pause while Tomas Plekanec's great vision and passing ability has him always ready to feed a winger with a clear shot, while Mike Cammalleri's nose for the net had him on track for a 40-goal season before he fell to injury.

2nd Line: Benoit Pouliot will not be gone for long, which will lead the restoration of what the fellows at Four Habs Fans affectionately termed the Giant Mexican Chicken Line, that is, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Benoit Pouliot. Together, they had brought a secondary scoring threat up behind the top line run by Plekanec until Andrei had been injured. When restored, the speed, size and net prescence of Pouliot will give Gomez, a great playmaker himself a partner to feed while Gionta's impossible speed and fearless nature in the offensive zone further endangers the oppostion.

3rd Line: I am conflicted, but as it stands, Glen Metropolit, Travis Moen and Sergei Kostitsyn would be a wise pairing. Sergei has been snakebitten this year in scoring but anyone who's seen his passing ability, speed and stick skills know he's a solid threat when he's on the ice. Glen Metropolit is a surprising threat to anyone who faces him, a journeyman for much of his career and a defensive forward much like Sergei Kostitsyn, it's hard to slip around these two if they want to keep you out of the offensive zone. Travis Moen brings a respectable physical prescence to this line, he has a good solid check and while it has been some time since he found the net, he's always willing to hang around the front of an opposition net. His hands are not much better than that of the man he essentially replaced, Tom "The Bomb" Kostopolous but his larger size and commitment to his physical game is a key component of any good checking line.

4th Line: The Inglorious Bulldogs as I like to call them, David Desharnais, Brock Trotter and Ryan White. Desharnais surrenders an inch in height to Brian Gionta, but he's got just as much heart as his fellow teammate of small stature and great skills in the offensive zone including a very crisp pass. Brock Trotter was an undrafted college free agent, but has become a solid signing, 4th in points in the AHL before his call up, his scouting report calls him a 'beast from the blue in' and nearly scored more than once and led the entire game in SOG with 5, he and his line mate Desharnais were even rewarded with power play time for their solid effort, granted that also was due to Benoit Pouliot, Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri also missing with injury. Ryan White had a previous stint with Montreal and showed a great willingness like Moen, Pouliot or Kostitsyn on the other lines to engage the body, he scraped with and wrestled down Bill Guerin towards the end of the game as the Penguins became highly undisciplined as they were losing to an Eastern Conference bubble team. White can manage a penalty kill and has speed to keep with his linemates, Mike Boone of the Gazette termed them the best 4th line the Canadiens have had this season, it's impossible to disagree, especially considering how many games that 4th line including George Laraque. Brock Trotter never played an NHL game before that night, David Desharnais had one game and Ryan White, 14 games. They took the Penguins to task for not taking the Canadiens seriously and made them pay, it's hard to argue with results like that. Perhaps they knew they had nothing to lose as emergency replacements, but you have to admire their commitment.

Spare Parts: This leaves Matt D'Agostini, Maxim Lapierre and Marc-Andre Bergeron out as 4th-line players but D'Agostini has been terrible this season and needs either a term under Guy Boucher to right himself, provided he could clear waivers to return to Hamilton or needs to be moved out of the organization, his flash in the pan goal scoring streak seems like a distant memory and D'Agostini a very different player. Marc-Andre Bergeron's laser on the power play is a luxury the Canadiens, a team that needs to challenge their opposition with a strong work ethic and 60-minute hockey can't afford to have really. He's not a forward, he's a defenceman with a very limited range outside of the power play, he's small, not overpowered in strength for his size like Francis Boullion was and doesn't have good defensive instincts compared to anyone else on the team except Paul Mara. Maxim Lapierre needs to sit in the press box and think and hard about his future because if the Bulldogs line does what they just need for 10 games in a row, he could get a very sore ass from sitting in the Press Box for the remaining 22 games in the season, or out the door in a trade package much sooner than that, along with Paul Mara, our depth defencemen who's leading the team with a -16 differential.

Power Play: The power play with the team at full health can avoid the need for Bergeron simply by moving a forward back to the point, preferably Andrei Kostitsyn. By placing him at the point with Andrei Markov for the rest of the season, you maintain the powerful slapshot at the point, while you move Benoit Pouliot to play wing, then use Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec to create a 5-point scoring threat for a team's PK to deal with. With Markov's great instinct to rush the play and join the attack or move the puck, Andrei Kostitsyn's bomb from the point, Benoit Pouliot's front of net prescence and reflexes, Mike Cammalleri's right faceoff circle one-timer and of course, Tomas Plekanec's ability to put the puck on anyone's stick, that's a nightmare for a PK unit, especially a tired one.

The second unit loses some strength with Sergei Kostitsyn, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez being the forwards with Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek manning the points but it's still a good unit with Gomez's passing ability, Gionta's net prescence and reflexes while Sergei has an ability to thread a pass where it needs to go, Spacek and Hamrlik are a natural pair on defence really as well so they'd work naturally together. Less firepower of course, but second wave is second wave for a reason and they can still do damage.


The defensive pairs right now, I wouldn't change a thing.

1st Line: MVP defenceman Andrei Markov has Ryan O'Byrne, a tough, physical defensive partner who can hit, fight, has a right-handed shot and is brimming with potential to easily replace Mike Komisarek with far superior instincts about handling the puck than Komisarek ever managed. Markov is just the best D-Man Montreal's had since Chris Chelios left town in terms of pure ability.

2nd Pair: Roman Hamrlik is the model of a consistent defencemen, probably not the flashiest of defencmen to be taken 1st overall in the draft, but you can't say he was a wasted choice either. He plays a solid, consistent game with no complaints, he gives hits, block shots and rarely makes the wrong move and saved the Canadiens season while they waited for Andrei Markov to mend. Jaroslav Spacek has been less successful in his first season as a Montreal Canadien, but partnering with his fellow Czech has created a pretty good defensive pair, albeit I could go without his required useless penalty every other game.

3rd Pair: Hall Gill, yes he's slow, yes he doesn't fight, yes he doesn't hit the way you'd expect a 6'7" NHL player to constantly pound his opponents but he has a good check he can use at times, a highly active stick that breaks up plays effectively and he can police the front of the net. He can shove guys right out of a goalie's face and when scrums start, he can seperate players with a sweep of his hand. If you have a 5-on-3 to kill, you also want him out there because of his ability to ruin plays by breaking up passes and blocking shots, dropping himself so he'll cover the goalie's lower half without obstructing the view. Josh Gorges is a good partner for him, a constant, battling defencemen who pours his heart out on every shift, he'll do whatever he has to do and gives some mobility to the Gill line to cover his partner's lack of speed. Together, they form one of those solid 3rd pairs on defence you like to see, you don't really notice them and that's what you need from them.

Conclusions: Can a team of this composition contend? When they want to, they can. We've seen it this season, albeit rarely but they can do it. Hard work, 60-minute effort from checking lines like I mentioned and scoring threats from a very capable, very potent Top 6. That's a team that can surprise in the playoffs if they can actually maintain their health when their Top 6 forwards start returning. I won't say we'd do something unexpected like roll over the Washington Capitals given the year they are having, but we could certainly bleed them dry before the final buzzer sounded.

I haven't mentioned goaltending because I'm tired of the debate. What Price did when the team needed their asses saved in Early October and then all through November can't be forgotten, but Halak stepped up in key points too and for longer stretches and is for now, the #1 goalie in Montreal with 17 wins. The big point is, the goaltending can't carry this team all year along and the skaters have to help the goalies. Price should get some starts to stay sharp and give the team an option of sending out a goalie on any night who isn't dead tired or stone cold from the bench.

The composition I lay out I believe can be competitive, provided the Bulldogs line continues to do what they are doing now and the offence stays healthy. The team has an easier March compared to several of their Conferecne opponents with so many games before the Olympic break, so they'll have more time to rest, heal and prepare for March and boost their record to the point where they stand much higher in the East than they are right now. They will not capture a Division title, but getting to 4th/5th in the East with a healthy lineup does not appear out of reach, it is an 8-point seperation from 5th and 9 points from 4th, but I doubt the Ottawa Senators will be going on any more 11-game winning streaks this season and they could slide badly after the Leafs bursting their bubble. Canadiens have a chance to gain ground on their opponents with an easier March schedule and they'll need to exploit that.

Playoffs are possible, the team isn't as weak on the depth chart as some would like to say, the opportunity is there if the team can take the opportunity to exploit it and Jacques Martin can take his hand off the team and not squeeze so tightly to regulate them. The Canadiens are set up for firewagon hockey, JM needs to let them use that and while he should preach defence, he needs to encourage his offensive forwards to follow their instincts.