Monday, January 12, 2009

Midway Evaluation

The Habs And Their Half Seasons

The Montreal Canadiens have rounded the post and are heading for home this regular season. Stats traders will have plenty to rave about with the team's 56 points in 41 games, as well as plenty to complain about – the powerplay for example.

The astonishing thing about this year's team has been the way points have just come to it. The beginning of the season was fraught with terrible defensive play for many of the games, yet the Habs piled up points. November was a period of gloom from the fans, yet the team squeezed 15 points out of 14 games. December and since has been peppered with important injuries, but the team rolls on. It seems like the team gets points despite itself, and just finds ways to win. And, suddenly without much brouhaha, we're at midway and the Habs are 5th in the NHL.


Much like the team's new penchant for the unspectacular, so go the individuals. That is not to say that there have not been moments of brilliance, because there have. Merely to say that you can't really stand back and point to one player, or even a couple on this team as an outsider without having watched the games. You can't lokk and say Malkin, Crosby or Carter, Gagne, Richards here. Each win has had a different hero (almost)

Fans of the Art Ross trophy are not following this edition of the Canadiens either. In fact, 26 teams in the NHL have a scorer ranking higher on the leaderboard than the Canadiens. The only ones to miss the feat were LA (Kopitar who is actually equal in points with Lang), Colorado (Stastny, who is one point back but has missed multiple games with injury) and the anemic Florida Panthers. If things continue as they have doe in the first half, poolers will be cursing the Habs and their 64-point men, while the top scorer on Montreal will be fighting it out for top 60 with 28 team's top scorers ahead of the pace.

But while the articles will flow about Kovalev, Plekanec and Higgins having worse seasons offensively; how many of them will note that the Canadiens are actually one of the top offensive teams in the league? Currently at 9th in goals scored, their per-game rate ranks them 8th (ahead of Pittsburgh even). How many will note that the Habs have become a Jennings trophy candidate without grossly cutting back on scoring?

When you read quotes like this one from Carbonneau:

"On a appris à gagner en équipe l’an passé," poursuit Carbo. "Lorsqu’il y a des moments difficiles, les gars se tiennent ensemble plutôt que de s’isoler."

"We've learned how to win", says Carbo. "When we have a difficult patch, guys now come together instead of isolating themselves."

you begin to get a feeling for what has changed over a couple of years. Winning is tantamount in the game plan. Stats and individual trophies: be damned. The heroes of the half season will be remembered for all kinds of things – leadership, effort, creativity and timely brilliance. The proverbial stats sheet can not tell you this story.

So, without further ado, here are the grades (school-style letter grades, from top to bottom) for the Montreal Canadiens first 41 games. You'll notice the marks are on the high side, but how could they not be, the Habs get a full A – someone must be responsible:

Forwards

1. Saku Koivu: A+
Koivu got off to a blazing start that even had the frostiest of media praising his exploits. His statistical contributions merit him a high grade. His contributions as leader and captain get him the top grade. Credit for a young team learning to win certainly goes the coaches, but one can't discount the example of Koivu, who all the way back to last year has shown he'll do anything, play with anyone to win. This year, again, he gave consistently excellent performances before his injury, despite losing his sniper and being given another rookie to foster. If for nothing else, the creation of Matt D'Agostini the goalscorer, makes Saku an A+.

2. Alexei Kovalev: A
For those of you who thought Kovalev was an enigma – you were right. For those of you who thought you had him figured out as an on/off type player – I respectfully submit that you are wrong. What we have seen for the first time in Alexei's Canadiens career is the off the scoresheet great game from Kovalev. Not just one, in fact, but many. Even the TV crew had to admit that Kovalev was hardly slumping when he didn't socre a goal for a quarter of a season. Even if his totals hadn't started to round out nicely, and even if he wasn't the team points leader (tied), he would be getting high marks from me. He is the number one penalty killer among the forwards now, and not because he scores on breakaways, but because of his defensive play. He has also strengthened his claim by leading the team to a 9-3-1 as captain.

3. Andrei Kostitsyn: A
No player on the Habs has been as offensively tricky than Andrei Kostitsyn. He has been player of the game a whopping 9 times for us, and 5 times named first star. His goals are both memorable and meaningful. And, if you're still not convinced, try this stat play which shows how he make every player he has played significant minutes with (barring Ryan O'Byrne) a better offensive producer.

4. Robert Lang: A
Apart from being a pleasant surprise for the Canadiens, Robert Lang has literally brought his A-game to the table. Like Koivu, he has been a great example to aspiring forwards – taking his orders and delivering no matter what they are. His 16 goals also include 3 game winners, and he has scored more than a few game-changing goals to boot.

5. Maxim Lapierre: A
Something has happened to Maxime Lapierre this season. He has matured from player who skates around, chasing the puck and doing a fine job at hounding to one who wants to control the play when he is on the ice. He no longer looks for the best chance to get off for a line change, rather he looks at the opposition and makes a plan as to how he and his line will keep/take the puck. 54.4% on faceoffs, 8 goals and the ability to play in any situation point to Maxim as one of the main reasons the Habs have more points as of Game 41 this year.

6. Alex Tanguay: B+
I think we are all slowly learning what Alex Tanguay is all about. I think the Keenan's among us (those who'd rather play Benoit Brunet hockey than Alexei Kovalev hockey) can see why he didn't make it in Calgary. But look at the stats sheet and you can see why he has been a major scorer for years. Alex plays innocuously, but scores regularly. He does not make opportunities through force, but slides into good positions to make the difference. He gets a B+ for being involved in so many goals, but tailing off from his early A form.

7. Tom Kostopoulos: B+
Every shift from Tom Kostopoulos is full value. This year he has added better decision-making to his arsenal which has led to the formation of a very strong third line for the Habs, and major contributing line during the latest winning streak. Unfortunately, his 3 goals speak the truth, and I can't think of thousands of opportunities missed (like Higgins). He does an admirable job on the higher lines, but his talents stil suit the lower ones.

8. Tomas Plekanec: B+
He lives well with a slump, I've taken note. In the mould of the Habs, Tomas is a statistically-poor, yet win-rich player. He plays in all the important situations and still gets the second most ice among forwards. What's more, how many games can you go home and question Tomas' effort. No longer a rookie, but a veteran, his ability to commit to team winning in times of costly slump (for that new contract), speaks of his value to the team. Plus, no one is faster – that alone makes him invaluable.

9. Max Pacioretty: B+
With very few games to go on, it's hard to evaluate Max – especially considering his predecessor D'Agostini's career path thus far. Though goal in first game and 4 points in 5 is A material, he has been the beneficiary of being on the number one line when it is firing properly again. High marks, to be confirmed by a second half of games.

10. Christopher Higgins: B
Higgins can't hit a zamboni any more with a puck, but apart from that he is a fine player. Unfortunately this season has been tumultuous for Chris. His initial return from injury was a team-changing event (and not for the better), and the rest of his season is mainly memorable for injury. Apart from a hat-trick against Ottawa, he has been statistically poor. But as pointed out, his play away from the scorecard has been good as ever. Strangely, his latest injury seems to have carved him a role, as the Lapierre-Latendresse duo is crying out most nights for someone a little bit more adept than Tom Kostopoulos (and his ceaseless effort).

11. Matt D'Agostini: B
I don't want to fault the scorer too much for being streaky. Those who come beneath are just as streaky if less prolific in good times. 6 goals in 19 NHL games is no laughing matter, nor are the 19 games for that matter. Still, given the seniority and the reserves coming back, a B will not be enough to be a Canadien come April and he msut re-find his original form.

12. Sergei Kostitsyn: B
Highs and lows from SK74 over 41 games. His highs are high and he has now been named first star a team-second 3 times. He has 5 PP goals on a terrible PP thus far as well. His attitude has been questioned and problematic at times, but it's a lot to expect every 20 year-old to make adjustment to the league in less than a year. In short he's been good.

13. Guillaume Latendresse: B
Another player with high and lows who's been mostly good is Guillaume Latendresse. His abilities include the Tanguay space-finding and a good shot, but unfortunately exclude perfect judgment and the ability to seize an opportunity. Still young, these things must be learned of course. A B is a good mark for Latendresse.

14. Kyle Chipchura: B
Considering his limited ice time so far, I've been impressed. His puck shielding and winning abilities are easily NHL-calibre. He needs to grasp a chance and hold on, as well as learn how to win a faceoff to make sure he jumps into the top 12 forwards on this list by season's end.

15. Steve Begin: B-
A fifteenth forward with a B- or higher – I told you the Habs were good and I'd show it. Begin has been his usual reliable self. He gives all the energy he ever did and makes up the energetic part of the energy line. His place, though, is far from guaranteed by this play as new players show us that keeping the puck and winning it back doesn't take Steve Begin expediture, and is actually a much more efficient way to win a game.

16. Mathieu Dandenault: C+
Mathieu Dandenault played very well for Mathieu Dandenault. The problem for him being, he is not competing with himself for grades, nor a place on the team. I can live with a forward who is fast and plays to basically disconcert the other team for a minute at a time like Dandenault, but not when there's someone on the bench who can do that and more. Mat's place in the line-up may have come and gone, but his place in the entourage has not. His exemplary attitudes and hard work must surely be helping this young team develop.

17. Ben Maxwell: C
Another difficult case. Ben seemed well out of his depth in the NHL. If marks are to be earned, he has a lot left to do.

18. Georges Laraque: D
No one expected Georges to play well. But I think we expected him to fight, maybe even intimidate someone once in a while. So far, he has fought injury more than anyone else. His ridiculous stance on the Lucic fight made a mockery of him and his place on this team. If not for some surprisingly sound shifts (though far worse than any conceivable replacement) keep him from failing the first half.


Defencemen

1. Andrei Markov: A+
The maestro. It is no exaggeration to say that as goes Markov, so go the Canadiens. He is rarely the cause of a loss, but can often be the inspiration in a win. The key to Markov's game is that he takes care of defence first, and then steps forward and organises attacks. As he flirts with the league lead in Dman scoring, he does so on a team that plays for wins first (Streit, Souray, ahem). In addition to being the most worthy all-star from the voting bonanza, he also looks the most likely trophy threat.

2. Roman Hamrlik: A
Teams can't win with just one great defenceman. There have to be options. Hamrlik is the perfect option. Like Andrei, he takes care of defence first. His calming influence on everyone, including O'Byrne, Brisebois, Bouillon and the viewers, is invaluable. When he plays well the team plays well, too – hence a good first half. The transformation of the Canadiens from playoff outsider to this could be traced to Souray for Hamrlik without too much reaching, you know.

3. Josh Gorges: A
Josh has been playing top defence. His A is not a "well done" to a previously underrated player, but full recognition of quality NHL defending over half a season. He is so committed to positioning, it's pleasure to watch him away form the puck. Also as willing as any leader on the team, and the most sensible of interviewees. You want a future captain from this young team, don't overlook this guy.

4. Francis Bouillon: B
The sharp drop-off in marks here is no typo. The fact is Bouillon is tops in a different tier of defenders. His mistakes are not for want of effort, but mistakes there are. Still, you don't get Jennings trophy defence from C-grade defenders and Francis is a fine 5th option. I'm sure one of the picks form around the league in that regard.

5. Mike Komisarek: B-
First Mike learned how to play good defence in the NHL. Next he learned that people were really impressed with high numbers in the checks and blocked shots categories. He forgot from his first lesson that the two aren't synonymous. This season it seems like Mike is on a mission to lead the league in one or both categories. He hits for the hit, often putting himself out of position; and he plays goalie when we already have 2 of the best. A trip back in time about one season would make him a remarkable defender again, maybe even worthy of his all-star nod. I could do without all the stats.

6. Patrice Brisebois: B-
Most NHL defenders lose loads of battles. Patrice is no different. As a 6th man back there, he has been doing well enough. Sure there have been plenty of mistakes, but the way he had been playing had limited the damage as he was never trying to do too much in the first place. A return to egomania could be his undoing – let's hope not. A return to his self-limiting play of the early season would be most welcome if he has to be dressed over Weber.

7. Ryan O'Byrne: C
The worst thing he did was make a rookie mistake. That was not the problem, the problem was that the best was not good enough – he did nothing to distance himself from rookie play. He was understandably unsettled by an own goal and all the attention, but truth be told, he wasn't great before that instant in time. He gets a passing grade only because the Canadiens were still a good team with him in the lineup.

8. Yannick Weber: N/A
15 minutes is not enough to give a solid impression of Yannick. I hope for more minutes, and soon.


Goaltenders

1. Carey Price: A+
Top ten in multiple categories in NHL rankings, his contribution to the Habs has been undeniable so far. His value to the fan, as we've seen during Halak's reign, is that he positions himself so well and so far ahead of the play that many saves look too easy. Only a year into his career, to be A+ on a 56-point team midway through the season is an impressive feat. Tough tests to come though, no doubt.

2. Jaroslav Halak: B+
It's been an up and down half season from Jaro. Cruising at first with top-rate efficiency, but now wins. Lately, more wins but more goals against too. On average he has been very good: 9 wins and 19 points in 17 games with a great .910 save%. Playing in Carey's ever-increasing shadow has been difficult, but Jaro has done admirably. A capable back-up, capable of even better – not a bad situation for the Habs.

3. Marc Denis: N/A
7 shots against. Not enough to evaluate the would-be comebacker. That Carbo sticks with Halak so devoutly is telling for me, though.

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