Thursday, March 6th, 2008

How Do You Like Your Chances Now, Saku?

This Ottawa Citizen piece reminds us how Saku Koivu caused some controversy in the off-season by saying that the Habs weren't ready to contend; wonder how he's feeling now? The author says the Canadiens have all the right pieces to make a run - providing their untested goaltending holds up. If Price falters, he adds, Bob Gainey will get roasted (the French press already have the oven warmed up).

Habs Grit Their Teeth Over Officiating

Preparing to face the Coyotes tonight in Phoenix, the Canadiens had a day off before running through some drills with the coaches yesterday. Guy Carbonneau speaks to Pat Hickey here, discussing, among other things, his decision to go back to Carey Price in net after a bad game, and the team's frustration with the refereeing in San Jose the other night. Carey Price was literally bowled over by Patrick Marleau before one of San Jose's goals, and there were numerous phantom calls to go with a large number of missed calls. (All of which would be bearable if referees actually looked like this.)

It was indeed a badly-run game, but not unusually so, it must be said. The officiating in the NHL has been terrible since the beginning of the so-called "crackdown" on obstruction. It's not the focus on eliminating interference that's a problem; indeed, as most will admit, the automatic calls on hooking and holding have opened up the game, and the players have been much freer to strut their stuff, making it a more entertaining, more skill-based game. No, the "crackdown" has been a success in terms of eliminating the ugly stuff that used to clot the lanes, but it's had the unfortunate side effects of distracting officials from other fouls, while also making them less likely to call them.

Most of the refs in the NHL are still fairly old-school, and their philosophy is that they, the refs, "shouldn't affect the outcome" of the game. Now, obviously, a referee who avoids calling something, for whatever reason, is very clearly still "affecting" its outcome, but they don't see it that way. It is precisely that attitude that led to the constant hooking and holding that dominated the game from the mid-nineties until the recent past, and it is precisely that attitude that is to blame for the difficulty the NHL has had in trying to eliminate interference from the game.

Having been compelled - with the threat of demotion - to call even the slightest hint of a hook, the NHL refs have compensated by being more reluctant to call other types of penalties (checking from behind, double minors) if they think it's a borderline foul. Hence the growing irritation around the league from coaches, GMs, and players when referees blow calls.


Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

Dodging Bullets

When the trade deadline went by, many of us were a little disappointed that Bob Gainey and the Canadiens didn't pick up a big-name player to round out their attack. Never mind that most of us know, rationally, that with the third-best offense and one of the best records in the league, the Habs weren't really in the biggest need of a Marian Hossa: psychologically, we all just want the boost of seeing a star player in a Habs uniform. It's been too long.

We go through the same thing every summer during the free agent period: we hope against hope that Uncle Bob will bring home a shiny, new fifty-goal scorer for us to admire, but it just never seems to happen. And we sulk. But why? Do we want a good team, or a flashy roster? Both, I guess. But maybe we need to remember how dicey the free-agent thing is. Remember last summer? Most of the signings last year have been disappointments, including:
  • Bill Guerin, Islanders, 2 years/9 million, 37 points.
  • Paul Kariya, Predators, 3 years/18 million, 52 points
  • Jason Blake, Leafs, 5 years/20 million, 12 goals, 40 points
  • Ryan Smyth, Avalanche, 5 years/31.5 million, 45 games, 33 points
  • Kimmo Timonen, Flyers, 6 years/39 million, 36 points, -3
  • Scott Gomez, Rangers, 7 years/51 million, 14 goals
  • Daniel Briere, Flyers, 8 years/52 million, 57 points, -23
  • Chris Drury, Rangers, 5 years/35.25 million, 48 points, -5
  • Sheldon Souray, Edmonton, 5 years/27 million, 26 games, 3 goals
The production of most of these guys is just embarrassing in relation to what their agents extorted from GM's around the league. Think back to how badly the fans and media wanted Briere to sign in Montreal: now imagine being saddled with that contract! We should all be thanking Uncle Bob for not biting on that one, not to mention for his decision to walk away from Sheldon "Payday" Souray, who was still welcome on the Habs at a handsome salary despite his chronic shoulder problems, better known to Gainey and the Habs than to anyone else. But because of his greed, he's spent this season freezing in Edmonton, a stranger amongst his teammates, waiting alone for his shoulder to heal and being regarded as a bust by fans who have no connection to him. I can't say I have any sympathy.


Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

What's The Deal With Bob Gainey?

Funny piece in the Sun chain on "the lighter side of sports", featuring quips about recent events in the sporting world. French McFarlane has this one:
"You have to wonder who was advising Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey when he sent Cristobal Huet to Washington for a second-round draft pick -- Amy Winehouse or Gary Busey?"

Catching Up With Turner Stevenson
I've been wondering what became of Turner Stevenson since his retirement two years ago. The Prince George Citizen talks to the former Canadiens bruiser and finds him contemplating a coaching career.

I Think We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

It wasn't Carey Price's night: for three heroic games, the Habs were Stanley Cup contenders, Carey Price was the second coming of Ken Dryden, and Bob Gainey was a genius of epic proportions. Now it's like we've woken up after a wild party, with the cold light of day ordering us out of bed, next to a Coyote Ugly. Give the Habs credit for trying, they scored plenty of goals against Evgeni Nabokov, but Price let in soft goals early, late, and often. A series of weak ones left the Canadiens with no chance of winning.

It's just one game, and there are bound to others like it as Price continues to adjust to the difficulty of the NHL game, but it was still disconcerting to see the Habs drop a game they had every right to win thanks to sub-par netminding. Bob Gainey was, no doubt, expecting some of these when he anointed Price the Habs new number one goalie, but even he was probably shaking his head at Jody Shelly's embarrassing 1st goal of the season.

Is it a big deal? No. But the amount of attention that Price's first really bad game will get in Montreal is just another reminder of how hard it can be to play for the Canadiens. Luckily, Price seems to have exactly the right attitude - calm, bordering on comatose - to deal with all the craziness.

The Gazette largely soft-pedals Price's bad game: quoting Coach Carbonneau, Pat Hickey writes that while Price's game wasn't "memorable", he "didn't get much help" either. Carbo says, "We were getting beaten one-on-one," and chalks the loss up to bad defence. Carbo's a team guy for deflecting criticism from Price ... and so too is Hickey, I suppose!

Hickey also reports on the rejuvenation of Craig Rivet, who went to San Jose last winter in a trade that "benefitted both teams". Nice to see things going well for Rivet, who was always a favourite of mine. He was always a class act, from the days when I'd watch him play for the Baby Habs in Fredericton, right to the end. He needed the change of scene, as he himself admits, and truthfully the team had to move on too: he was a veteran journeyman on a squad that was being transformed by youth. He's fit in great in San Jose, where he's a steadying influence, and at the same time, Josh Gorges, acquired from the Sharks in the Rivet trade, has developed nicely into the Habs regular 6th d-man. Even better for the Habs is the promising player they picked up with the 1st round pick San Jose also traded: Max Pacioretty.


Monday, March 3rd, 2008

Canadiens Jet to Meet Sharks
Apologies for the tortured showtune pun, there just aren't nearly enough Broadway references available in sports-talk for me to pass any up. Once upon a time you could count on three or four good Jets vs Sharks jokes per season, but then the NHL left Winnipeg, sadly. Anyway. The Canadiens might be in tough against the Sharks tonight. The Vallejo Times Herald notes that San Jose heads into tonight's match on a five-game winning streak, and that the Sharks seem to have found their true form after an inconsistent season. Jonathan Cheechoo and Patrick Marleau have jolted back to life, Evgeni Nabokov remains solid as ever, and trade-deadline acquisition Brian Campbell adds the miss
ing link the San Jose offense needed to get going.

USA Today marks the beginning of a Canadiens four-game road trip, trumpeting the reborn Habs and their 3rd-best in the NHL offense: the Habs have averaged 3.11 goals per game. They'll need all that firepower against San Jose, which boasts the NHL's 2nd-best defense, and one of the NHL's best goalies. The Habs have outscored their opponents 13-4 in their past three games, but look for this one to be a tighter-checking game: the Habs like to keep it simple on the road, where they are the NHL's best team, and the Sharks have an aversion to offense. Factor in the recent hotness of Carey Price and Evgeni Nabokov, and you've got all the makings of a defensive struggle in a chess-match wrapped in a goaltenders' duel. Which means we'll probably get the exact opposite of what we expect, right? Curry Stat: the last game between the Habs and the Sharks in San Jose was exactly four years ago, on March 3rd, 2004.

Best shot blocker in the NHL: Mike Komisarek? That's what this unnamed NHL executive told the Sporting News. Elsewhere on the same site, the same Habs defenseman is projected as a future Team USA captain, and we can only hope that he's around long enough to be considered for the same role on the Canadiens, after Saku Koivu hangs them up.

Afternoon Update

Kind of the same old story, but if you just can't get enough of reading about Canadiens GM Bob Gainey and his ballsy decision to hand the wheel to rookie phenom Carey Price, then CBC Sports has a pretty good story about it. Some new comments from coach Guy Carbonneau and captain Saku Koivu on the subject, and also a word or two from the Habs new back-up, Jaro Halak.

What? You need even more? Okay, here's senior The Hockey News writer Ken Campbell's two cents. This is actually a really good article: he reads Bob Gainey's mind a little bit and says the Huet deal has less to do with confidence in Price than it does with a lack of confidence in Huet. Campbell says that Gainey clearly believes that Huet will stumble in the playoffs, and therefore feels he has nothing to lose in rolling the dice with Price. Well, if that's what Gainey was thinking, I believe he is wrong, for what that's worth. Huet is the Rodney Dangerfield of NHL goalies: he'll need a Cup and Conn Smythe before he gets any respect out there.

Guy Carbonneau: coach of the year? Hockey.com says so, and why not? You'll be reading a lot more articles like this one if the Habs keep up their winning ways. Cynical fans know that the Adams award is often given to a coach just because his team turned things around, even if it's clear that the coach had little to do with the turn-around, but unlike last year's winner Alain Vigneault - who had a lot of help from Roberto Luongo, or last year's runner-up Michel Therrien - um, Crosby? Malkin? - Carbonneau has actually been a major factor in his team's renascence. He has devised an innovative and unique team system (the "hybrid-trap") that the team has bought into and learned to play to great effect. He has evolved from throwing tantrums at refs and getting into confrontations with his stars into a patient bench boss who knows how to manage his players. In short, he has done a truly good job, and deserves a lot of credit, maybe even the Adams.

Morning Papers

Return of the Todd! Jack is back after a surprisingly brief retirement, apparently compelled to resurface in the sports pages to defend Bob Gainey from the bleating of critics, who were openly critical of his failure to land an "impact" player, or of the Huet trade, or both. Todd praises not only Gainey's decisions, but his very decisiveness, his calm, his deportment, his commitment to the city, his assurance ... I was expecting him to start talking about what a snappy dresser Gainey is by the end! Anyway, Gainey deserves any kudos anyone wants to give him, and it's great to have Jack Todd back writing about the Montreal Canadiens.

A couple of pieces on Carey Price in the Gazette. One recounts the whirlwind of his last fourteen months: between the WJC, the Calder Cup, and his ascension to Montreal's #1 goalie, it's like he's living in a highlight reel. Then there's Dave Stubbs's interview piece, wherein he talks to Price about becoming the man at an age where most guys aren't close to being a man, and about his friendship with Cristobal Huet. A good read, which is nothing at all unusal for a Dave Stubbs piece!

Dear God. Those Toronto fans still think the Leafs are going to the playoffs. Read here as Mike Zeisberger of The Sun says what most Torontonians will only quietly think when completely alone. It's true that the Leafs have won 5 of their last 6 or something, but that's all just part of their usual late-season surge to just-below playoff contention. It's how they always do it. It's how they've managed to miss the playoffs three years running without even getting a decent draft pick out of it. It's how they roll.

The Habs are still technically in first place in the highly complex Eastern conference playoff race, but they've got company from the Penguins, who beat the Devils yesterday to equal the Canadiens with 81 points. The Habs have the game in hand, though. It's still anybody's race, however, with the Canadiens, Penguins, Devils, and Senators all in the hunt ... not to mention the surging Boston Bruins.


Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

Rumours of Rumours
Bruce Garrioch at the Toronto Sun serves up a boatload of post-deadline scuttlebutt. It may or may not be true, but either way it's fun. Items of note: Huet had the Caps at hello, they'll re-sign him this summer and cut ties with Kolzig; Alex Tanguay was willing to go to Montreal, but Daryll Sutter wanted more than Gainey would offer; Hossa is a good bet to sign with the Bruins this summer, being best pals with Zdeno Chara, so it's lucky Montreal didn't spend a lot to rent him; and finally, the Habs called Chicago to inquire about Martin Havlat, apparently out of a desire to hook him up with Marian Hossa on an all-new top line. Now that's juicy.

Future is Now?
It's a little jar
ring to see Carey Price on the cover of The Hockey News's Future Watch issue, ranked as the number one prospect in hockey. Jarring, I say, because last time I checked, Carey Price was not a prospect at all, but was in fact the Montreal Canadiens' starting goalie! That must mean that the future ... has arrived. I look forward to enjoying Canadiens games on my Holodeck, eating nutritional capsules, using the Force, and flying to work with my jet-pack on my back. If Price's recent play is any indication, the future rocks.

ESPN: Predictions Redux
8:05pm (E
In an article that looks at this season's unexpected events, ESPN online heralds the Canadiens' number-one status with wonderment, saying, "
Before the season, if you had said the Montreal Canadiens were the best team in the Eastern Conference, most people would have called you crazy." Most people, including ESPN, it hardly needs to be added. They go on to add that Carey Price is "making Bob Gainey look like a genius for trading away Cristobal Huet."

Wicked Sticks of the East
6:45pm (EST)

The Montreal Canadiens became the top team in the Eastern Conference (for however long it lasts) the hard way: they took it away from the team that had it. An impressive feat for a team that was largely written off before the season got underway, even more impressive considering that the game that earned them their current heady status came against nemesis Marty Brodeur and his New Jersey Devils.

So how have they done it? Mike Boone of Habs Inside Out is right on the money: "Here's my one-word explanation: Youth ... In a salary cap league where you can't throw money at your mistakes, scouting and player development are the keys to success. Chapeau to Trevor Timmins and his staff. And bravo to Bob Gainey, who has doggedly stuck to a team-building plan that is ahead of schedule." Well said.

It is indeed all about the young players: the Habs would be nowhere without them. But the guy who coached a lot of them in Hamilton - Don Lever - should also come in for some praise. Just look at how a little time with the Bulldogs has turned around the season of Mikhail Grabovski, or at how easily Ryan O'Byrne has made the transition to the NHL.

And while we're praising coaches, how about a little love for Guy Carbonneau? The much-maligned (online at least) Montreal coach, ridiculed for juggling his lines and goaltenders, has moulded this raw collection of hockey prospects into fledgling contenders. He's learned patience with the refs and has proven that's he's open-minded enough to admit when he was wrong and learn from his mistakes. He's a smart guy, a scholar of the game, and the NHL's best new coach.

Sunshine & Rainbows

It's all coming up roses at the Gazette. Red Fisher is happy to be wrong about predicting that the Canadiens would squeak into the playoffs at number seven, which was a wildly optimistic prediction when it was made last fall. As he points out, the Habs have been successful because all the pre-season question marks - goaltending, development of the young players, the fate of the power-play after Souray, Kovalev, Carbonneau's maturation as a coach - have all had positive answers. Everything has broken their way this year, a run of good luck they've earned after a decade of futility. Elsewhere in the Gazette, Pat Hickey reports on the game, singling out Carey Price as the hero (with an assist from the ever-more dangerous Andrei Kostitsyn), while Kevin Mio talks to Josh Gorges (aka Mike Boone's Man) about solidifying his place on the team's top six defencemen.


Saturday, March 1st, 2008

Oh, Please

Not blogging today, because I'm retiling the bathroom, but I had to post up this stupid idea from TSN's Darren Dreger: he writes that Bob Gainey is in the running to take over the Leafs. Does he just make this crap up, or what? Just as all of Gainey's drafting and planning is coming to fruition, following the retirement of his jersey, and going into the year of the Canadiens' 100th anniversary, all of a sudden he's going to jump ship and go manage the Leafs? What a brilliant rumour this is. So that's what happens when you live at the centre of the universe too long, eh?