Monday, August 30, 2010

The News We've All Been Waiting For

Which news item is most significant for news-starved Canadiens fans?

a) Jaroslav Halak will be back in Montreal (signing autographs at Fairview)
b) Andrei Markov is skating alone
c) Sam Gagner signed for 2 years at just under $5 million

It's personal opinion, of course, but I think all three items are important.

The first item, with halak back in town is a bit of an embarassment to the Montreal executives who struggle to sign their chosen starter even with September a day away. Sure, Halak is thanking the fans and Allan Walsh is giving the Habs the finger, but this might also kick someone in those negotiations in the rear.

The second item is obviously great news. Once again it seems Andrei Markov can defy the odds and rehabilitate a serious injury in superhuman time. But in I'll believe it when I see it news, skating alone is often not the best sign of how close a player is to returning. At least Markov isn't just sitting around watching Eurovision, though.

The third item isn't Habs related, but it is RFA-related. A week ago, HabsWorld pundits told us that we shouldn't worry about Price's contract because he was just one of many RFAs unsigned. In their words:

"Everyone's waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop and that includes Price. Some of these players will have to be the first to sign - if they go short-term, those still waiting lose some leverage in shooting for a long-term deal that no one else seems to sign. If the GM's/owners cave and sign the long-term pact for some of these players, then you'll see a greater push for the longer-term deal from those still unsigned, which could really delay the process."

Not sure I agree with everything said there, but I go with the gist, which is precedent. Patric Hornqvist and Sam Gagner are forming the RFA part of the precedent for Carey price's contract. Combine that with the goalie signings of the summer and there are precedents aplenty to suggest Price's value according to league appraisors.

It will be interesting to see where that contract settles, but as more RFA deals fall into place, the NHL news should hot up, if not the Price contract resolution.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What Will Become Of Max Pacioretty?

Recently I was asked to contribute to a list of 25 Habs prospects under tha age of 25. While the top of the list fell out quite easily because it's top of mind, the middle and the bottom required some thought.

As I got to the middle portions, a lot of players who've been dormant in my mind for some time came back to the forefront. Chief among those was one-time prospect list hotshot Max Pacioretty. Big first round draft pick with rookie scoring at Michigan who makes the Habs at age 19 in a prospect averse era.

How did he ever slip down the counsciousness? What happened? And more pertinent, what is likely to happen from here?

Sound play, no scorer's touch

No matter how much the Canadiens want to will Pacioretty to become a power forward, it seems the signs so far point to a different trajectory.

Pacioretty was selected by the Habs on the back of a 21-goal campaign in the USHL at age 17. 21 goals in the USHL can go many ways (ask his undrafted Sioux City teammates). For Max it appeared to be the start of something good when he tickled the twine 15 times with the powerhouse Wolverines the next season. Still, it was prospect stuff. There were more levels at which he needed to be tested.

We know the story well from there. A goal in his first game, a few in his first week playing with Saku Koivu. He looked a keeper. but then the NHL settled on Max. He took time to work out the checking, how to get free, how to beat a goalie. I say he took time, he's taken time. The time extended through the entirety of his stint last season. No NHL scorer was Max Pacioretty at age 21.

The corroborating evidence for his less than subtle hands comes from the AHL. In 2 seasons and 60 games in total (with playoffs), Max has managed only 9 goals. That's an Andrew Conboy scoring clip.

He's more of a goals prevented than goals created type player. Over 52 games last season he created just 3.7 goals, which translated to 0.33 GC/60. Compared to top-liners who are over 1.00 GC/60, this seemss paltry. Compared to Maxim Lapierre (0.39 GC/60) who was dismal last regular season, flags go up. Goals were even scarce when he was on the ice (20 in all). He was on for about 1.8 GF/60 in all situations, with about 1.33 GF/60 at even strength. This was one of the poorest efforts on the team.

Goal prevention was different story. 1.816 GA/60 overall and 1.80 GA/60 at even strength. Max was the second best full-time player after Glen Metropolit at being stingy at even strength last season. A superb sign for a rookie.

This is not to say I don't think Pacioretty is a good player. It's just that his stats (3G, 1FA, 10SA. 14 Pts) only back up what we see. Unlike other young shooters, he more often than not shies from the shot and the selfish play and instead opts to get a head start on his backchecking assignment. It makes him a fine penalty killer and a great prospect for defensive duty from the front. The problem being that's not perhaps what the Habs expected or even wanted right away from the lanky American.

Down the depth chart

Early last fall, Max Pacioretty was poised to step in for Guillaume Latendresse after any slip. He was pencilled as high as 6th in some Habs depth charts.

His own play, the play of others, and multiple changes and additions make me think he has slipped a substantial amount.

First and foremost is the addition of Pouliot, who outstrips Pacioretty on offense by such a degree that any conversation of Max on the Gomez line starts to seem desperate. Lars Eller has been a cut above Max in the AHL, and Pacioretty's 6 NHL goals can't refute that either.

Next is the rise of Tom Pyatt. He has the coaches blessing and plays a less peripheral game. The addition of Aaron Palushaj also hurts as it seems that Aaron might actually be the USHL Michigan scorer that the Habs intended Max to be. Then there's the additions of guys like Dustin Boyd and Ian Schultz, who aren't better options yet, but aren't far.

If Max is indeed progressing on the path to being a solid defensive forward, he may slip more. This is perhaps unfair, but let's face it, it's easier to teach defense than find offense and grooming a first round pick for 3rd line wing duty for the next 10 years is more suited to the 1970s Canadiens than a team desperately in search of secondary scoring.


This is an idea I floated a long time ago on Pacioretty. Needless to say it was laughed down, but I persist. Given Pacioretty's continued demonstration of strong game awareness and his persistent refusal to look like scoring more than once a month, what about defence?

Pacioretty might be the first convert in a while to go this way on the Habs, but turning a forward to backliner is nothing new at all. Markov was once a forward, and so were countless other NHL Dmen current and past. It might take some doing, but it might also salvage an NHLer from him.

My personal opinion is that it could work, but it would be a wait and see proposition. Pacioretty is big enough and a good enough skater, but there's no telling at how he might find positioning at the back. What's more, it's possible his skills are more suited to being the third man in the shut down move than the first or second.

Still, Ithe way things are going, the Habs will be losing Dmen, have lost Fischer and McDonagh, Valentenko and in all likelihood Emelin. O'Byrne is adequate but not first pairing stuff, Weber, who knows? Beyond Subban, Gorges and Markov there's space for a young buck.

And the forward situation suits this move too. The Habs are loaded with middle talent on the wings through Hamilton and beyond. Pacioretty is a good player, but is likely replacebale via internal promotion.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Late August

"If you are not going to play with heart, stay home. We don’t need you here.”

These are thye words that Andrei Markov supposedly uttered to Carey Price after a particularly shattering loss in late January this past season.

Today is August 23rd and as I settle back into the usual rhythm after trading backpacking for backlighting for a few days, I hear echoes of the quote again.

When I left, I was near certain that a return home would be coincident with a morning spent reading about Carey Price's new contract with the MOntreal Canadiens. After all, Carey is the only player of consequence left to be signed and Montreal is the NHL outfit that he will play with this season. But instead of a torrent of opinion and salary cap implications, there was vacuum. Instead, the only news of Canadiens goatending was of Cedrick Desjardins being traded. The only new of Carey Price was from recent rodeo activity.

To me this is troubling. Not only because this thought-to-be simple contract negotiation drags into one more week, but also because of the stories being rustled about our young cowherd.

January, you know is not that long ago. And January was never the first time that our starting goalie's workout habits were called into question. In a league where players now busy themselves with more training over the summer months than the winter ones, I find it somewhat disconcerting that the player Markov would have identified 7 months ago as among the most in need of a solid summer of training is now playing on horses.

Now, a stray story about a hometown rodeo appearance is not evidence for indictment. (And on the bright side it endorses his natural athleticism, as winning as a rookie in this event can't be easy).

A rodeo event that took up a couple of evenings isn't cutting into training. He could still be doing drills day and night for all we know. My own concern is that Carey might not yet quite grasp that he needs to improve and that in order to improve he must set about doing the hard work.

This is by no means meant to single Carey out. All athletes need to improve from their pre-pro levels if they want to find sustained success. Patrick Roy may have waltzed to a Conn Smythe in his first attempt, but it was the honing of his technique and his work at improving that allowed him to win the most games in NHL history. Hasek was a talented out-of-leaguer, but he had to practice and practice upon his North American arrival to become the stopper he was.

I find it unlikely that even as easy-going a character as Price could miss this. I'm sure he's aware that work needs to be put in. Then my question is: when? The summer of 2008 was fishing, rodeo and fun at home, last summer too. Is this summer another rest from a long season?

Every player at this level got here through a passion for winning and bacause they made an early habit of doing just that. The passion for winning is within all high-level athletes, I'm sure. There's no concern there. None at all. The heart, the passion that I'm worried about (and perhaps Markov too) is the passion to make this sport of hockey the all.

If hockey was the all, would a player risk injury in the off-season? Would a player eschew the top-tier training that could be found in his new hometown or other bigger centres?

My holiday readin included a book by Gare Joyce about the world of NHL scouting. It deals comprehensively with young players and their roads to the NHL. In it, there are stories of all kinds, including those of players whose hearts never doted on the sport they excelled at. Players who ended up in hockey with eyes for football, golf, other pursuits.

I'd never really considered that Carey Price wasn't a hockey player through and through. I've been hard on him getting starts he needs to earn rather than inherit. I've been worried that he gets bored during games and wants to be part of the whole game.

The stories of other juniors, the lingering contract talks, the pursuits he clearly so loves (and can't talk enough about) in the summer. I'm wodering now.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Oh Dear, Not Again NHL

Is the NHL trying to solidify its reputation downin the US as a farce?

This story from Puck Daddy shows how the league can't even keep track of the winners of the 4 team trophies it hands out every year (4 a year...).

Pretty comical, and their cockamamie excuses for the error and for their cover up are just as bad.

I'll chalk it up with inability to make proactive decisions on contracts, lack of agreement (or will to sign an agreement) with the IIHF, ridiculously inconsistent officiating (seaon v.s playoffs) and lack of consequence for going over the salary cap as reasons the league needs to take a seriously look at its operations and the people conducting its business.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Could The Habs Do A Losing Season?

Over the weekend, I was watching TSN and was surprised to see a feature on a Canadiens prospect at the Canadian junior camp. It was Louis Leblanc again, of course, and the story revolved around his decision to pull out the stops by playing in the QMJHL. Part of the report noted that good old Louis had had a great little scrimmage at the camp. Apparently, he’s been creating some one-game chemistry with Sean Couturier.

Sean Couturier? This is when my ears piqued. Sean Couturier led the QMJHL in scoring this past season. He played on the Drummondville Voltigeurs. He was born in Phoenix, but grew up partly in Quebec to Quebecois father and former junior hockey star Sylvain Couturier. He’s 6’4” and 193 lbs, is still 17 years old and is touted to e the first overall pick in the 2011 draft.

In short, the Canadiens might be interested.

The problem for the Canadiens is that since the draft started, or at least since they had a canny GM, players like Couturier are only available through a deft trading hand or the old-fashioned way, with a bit of losing. Gauthier has shown his hand at the swaps already, and it ain’t deft, so that leaves the losing.

Could the Canadiens be a loser?

Last season the Canadiens made the playoffs by a single point thanks to an OT loss in the last game of the season. While that proved to be a critical point looking back on the conference finalist season, we should not forget that it could have been so different.

So what you say? Here’s what. Had the Canadiens missed a single point it would have been early misery for Habs fans this spring. But 14 points less and it gets really interesting – the Habs would have tied the maple Leafs in points and been in line for a top two pick in the NHl entry draft.

14 points is a lot in the NHL. But 14 points can escape quickly too.

Imagine Benoit Pouliot had not stormed the barricades upon his arrival, but rather settled into his Minnesota Wild and his latter Canadiens form. Imagine Sergei Kostitsyn had been banished on a permanent basis and the Canadiens toiled some more with Pacioretty and Maxwell. Imagine Gainey had insisted on giving Carey Price every on ice learning experience he could gather, while ignoring the value that time on the bench could bring. Imagine Andrei Markov had healed like a regular human with a completely severed tendon. Imagine the Habs hadn't won so many early season OT games as they did.

I’ll admit, it’s a lot of what ifs, and it doesn’t account for corrections that could and probably would have been made to make a salvage attempt for the season. But suffice to say, it wasn’t that far off.

So remembering all those what ifs, have a look at this upcoming season. Pouliot isn’t changing teams this year (yet) and may still be playoff Ben. Sergei is gone anyway, Pacioretty and Maxwell look due some time. There is no Halak to take starts away from Carey Price anymore. And, Andrei Markov is already injured, though he may be healing just as well as before. Everyone else is healthy as I write, but injury, late night whining on French language chat shows, is an inevitability, not a variable.

The 88-point Canadiens team that just made the playoffs last year could very well be outsiders this season, and they're not many slips away from a 14-point tumble. They could be a loser.

Could the Canadiens really be a loser?

Upstairs, I postulate that it is mathematically possible for the Canadiens to be a loser. 74 points is not out of the realm of possibility. 68 points either. The team as it stands is an 88-point team that traded its best player and looks to be relying on rookies and temperamental wingers to carry significant pressure.

But in Montreal mathematics means little. What matters more than that is tolerance for loss. The tolerance of fans, coach, GM and owners. Because the opening day Canadiens will not necessarily be the closing day Canadiens.

We know a bit about fan tolerance. It’s close to nil. If 2 losses can sway millions, imagine a hopeless February and March. Tolerance from Martin might not be at its height either. This isn’t Ottawa 1995, this could be Martin’s last stand and he’ll not relish the role of lottery leader. The same must be true of “interim” GM Gauthier. He’s inherited a job without test and has moved boldly to already put his own neck on the line. I’m not sure he could rationalize the losing to save his own hide. Finally, the owners. While it may be best to take a crack at lose-win cycle that works for other teams, it may not fit with the Molson vision for the Canadiens as a fat calf.

Decisions in a losing Montreal Canadiens organization rest on a hair trigger, with movement, perhaps at a great future cost, often seen as the perfect mean to relieve the dissonance.

Could you stomach a losing season?

For me there are two competing interests in my heart on this question. Ultimately, only the Cup remains as a goal. For one, I see the cold practicality of losing badly if the team is to lose at all (that is to miss the playoffs anyway). Juxtaposed with that is the memory that the 88-point Canadiens made the conference final and were beaten by the 89-point Flyers, mediocrity in the season means less in the arena of the playoffs. And seasons of pain don’t guarantee anything at all (hello Thrashers and Blue Jackets fans).

Still: “Leblanc. Leblanc remet a Couturier. Couturier contourne Orpik. Couturier a Dumont. Et le but.” You have to admit it has a certain ring.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Gionta For Captain?

You can see the results below, but LIW readers have voted and chosen brian Gionta for captain. Gionta gets 37% of your votes followed next by Markov at 21% and Cammalleri and Gorges at 15%.

Gionta an adequate choice

In my personal opinon, I think you've chosen adequately. Gionta will be a good captain for now. I just don't think it's a long-term solution. It's more Shayne Corson than Saku Koivu if you get my drift.

The reason I say this is because of all the contracts on the Habs, Gionta's stands out. It is as once the an overpay, but also the most moveable of the overpays given that Gionta has demonstrated veteran leadership and quick hands. As such, I'm not sure Gionta is more than a transitio0n captain. That transition might very well be a more than worthwhile 3 years, however.

Gomez shunned

I'm not entirely surprised by your shunning of Gomez, but I do wonder how he gets less votes than "No captain" (which has been highly unpopular) and only a single vote more than unlikely captain material Carey Price.

We have been told that management will be choosing the captain, so I think it only fair to warn the readers that I consider Gomez a frontrunner for the opening. For one thing, he's already been a captain, he's in Montreal for the long-term (like it or not) and he's shown his leadership already on the team.

He's an awkward speaker when it comes to interviews, a bit boring. But you have to like how he made friends with lapierre so fast after being traded, and he seems to have fitted himself in.

0 votes for Hal Gill

Another oddity is 0 votes for Hal Gill. If we're going for a temporary fix, Hal might not be such a bad bet. He doesn't do any more or less than is asked of him, and is a clear favourite of Martin after those playoffs. He must be in the running if for no toher reason than his assistant captaincy that ran all season long.

Josh Gorges

You know how it was once catchy to say that Josh Gorges was the most underrated player in the NHL? I don't think we can say that any more. His aura has taken on more than it probably should, in my opinion. Yes he works hard and yes he plays a simple and solid game, but this is what he needs to do to keep NHL employment.

It's this writer's opinion that Josh is a valuable piece on the team, one that I hope management can hold onto for the right price for a long while. Hoever, I think he thrives in the background when all he's asked to do, he does well. I may well be wrong, but liftin him to such a big role may be to the detriment of his simple passing game.