Monday, May 14, 2012

Jack Todd Getting It Right Today

It doesn't happen very often, but in the wane of aSuper Moon, even Jack Todd can still put together a column that gets my head nodding. As a tribute to the guy I used to buy newspapers for in my younger days, I link his piece here.

Why I think he's right?

The playoffs are boring.

I mean, don't get me wrong, they have exciting moments, such as Brad Richards tying goal with seconds to go. A goal which saved a team from elimination (essentially). But on the whole, the playoffs are very boring indeed.

Why is that? It behoofs the NHL to be asking themselves this question. Is it because there's no fighting? Not in my opinion, though some rumble that it is. I think it's due to the same very things that Todd starts to point out. Shot-blocking, grinding, etc., etc.

He gets it so right when he sums it up:
"The new NHL was supposed to be all about movement, skating, offence and talent. Right now it’s about obstruction, shot blocking, grinders and boredom."
The league's singular inability to enforce their own rules is the biggest culprit in all this. Instead of getting to watch Ovechkin vs. Lundqvist, we see Girardi vs. Beagle. No offense to the latter, but no one fell in love with a game for the skills they provide. That is except the coaches who employ those players solely for those assets and the way they fit into their simplistic game plan.

I could legitimately coach in the NHL right now. There is one strategy, and I know it. Dump, chase hard, grind, block. If you do that, I play you. Hunter made the playoffs because of it, but criminally went out against an opponent there for the taking for his complete lack of adaptability to situational circumstances.

The NHL is literally wasting the careers of some of the most dynamic players seen in a generation. They'll be lucky to get more like these if youngsters grow up adhering to the wisdom of current coaching strategy.

Russians are picked on too much

It's gotten to the point where Russians are being singled out to a ludicrous degree. Read Todd for the synopsis. The criticism is so systematic that it's built into every word that comes out of a commentator's mouth. The default to look for Russian shortcomings and praise grinding heroics.

Kovalchuk has been outstanding and we hear very little indeed. Doesn't fit the script.

Time for a new script to go along with a new game with rule enforcement.


Can't say I agree with Todd about Beckham in full, however.

Never a great soccer player? Perhaps not, but then the list of greats would be pretty concise. During his youth at Manchester United Beckham was never a Ronaldinho ball handler or a Messi mesmerizer, but he was excellent at almost everything else. If you could watch a midfield with Roy Keane, Paul Schole, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham and come away saying any one of them was not great, it was probably a game reffed by NHL officials.

Beckham never delivered England the World Cup he and his generation looked like they could, but his delivery into the World Cup in 2002 was everything that greatness is about. Wouldn't expect Jack Todd to get it completely right, though, would we?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Pleased As Punch With Bergevin

The overwhelming feeling I am getting from the Canadiens media these last few days is that they are a happy bunch. And why not?

To understand how pleased they must be, it bears reflecting on where they were just a year ago.

With Gauthier in charge and Jacques Martin installed as coach, the world of soundbytes and stories was getting to be hard work. Gauthier a man who rarely had a press conference, and when he did said nothing of substance, and Martin genuine in his plainness, just honestly taking everything in stride and wondering what the fuss was about.

I sincerely believe that that constituted a moment of panic for the gigantic media machine that has assembled itself to live parasitically off the Canadiens. Without the fruits of preferred access, without privelege of any extra information, what was there to be to continue to define the professional media with the amateur pundit?

With all access pass provided by full broadcast of every game and tightened communication strategies limiting all expression from top to bottom, the distinction was to stay at time and the salary commanded.

If the Gauthier way had time to fully establish itself as the way forward, one would have to guess that higher ups at media outlets would resort with the Canadiens press to many of the same measures they have implemented for the reporting of all other news -- syndication with copy and pastes.

I think we understood just how real this fight was for the media and just how dire they believed their own circumstances to be when the Markov affair unfolded last fall. Not many paid to provide elaborate coverage was able to scoop Gauthier on the status of the best player in town. They reacted as if they had been duped. Really they had been made obsolete for an instant. If the media genuinely knew nothing of Markov, then why would we defer to their opinions instead of the hordes of willing and even fresh-viewed amateurs who go about their coverage with more joy and reckless abandon.

The Gauthier removal was the blessing they craved, and I wonder whether or not they had their say. The Canadiens, you see, are not so far removed from the media machine that they feed, they certainly enjoy the reach and notoriety it can give the team. A paid crew will still write reviews on a season laid dead months before. Publicity that would not be guaranteed from amateurs fatigued with the thought of hockey in bleu, blanc, rouge.

And their relief was further enhanced by the hiring of Marc Bergevin. Never mind that he speaks French for a minute (although that certainly is important). The fact he is a personable character who seems to have no qualm with open policy is much more valuable to the machine. Today I read Bertrand Raymond's opinion on the matter and it reads like a Hallelujah. He even retreads every former GM he has known, praising those who enhanced his life and slagging those who did not. It's telling that Andre Savard comes out with a shinier review than Sam Pollock. The vilification of Gainey and Gauthier is a contrast to the apology he offers for the affable Rejean Houle.

So understand then that the media has more than one agenda here, or so it seems to me. I say understand, to you knowledgeable folks I should say don't forget. Bergevin will ultimately be judged for the hockey he manages to coax from a team he puts together, but that judgment is a way off. Until such time, it seems he will be cast in rays of appreciation just for smiling, talking and letting the media back in. I would think that the media being as pleased as punch with man in a year should not determine how each fan feels about the situation. Just my observations.

On the coach

I guess now Marc is in his chair, the attention of the organization and the speculation moves firmly to the position of head coach.

It's an interesting decision, and I hope to offer more comment in a full reflection on the topic.

I do have some preliminary questions/concerns:

What are the criteria really going to be?

I ask because M. Raymond rambled briefly on how HNIC misunderstands Quebec when they might suggest someone like Quenneville. His line: "Heureusement, le nom de Quenneville vient de s'effacer de lui-même" is a troubling stance for a fan who wants the best candiate available. Especially when it is followed by discussion on the glory years of Savard-Therrien.

I understand the importance of language as a factor in the decision, but funnily I look at the Cunneyworth episode from a different lens than many. Most fans weren't in constant uproar over Cunneyworth (well not until they realised he would lose more than Martin). The fanbase was surprisingly accepting, I thought, actually.

I all factors should be weighed in a balance. With the GM, I feel comfortable this was carried out. Bergevin won out because he was a serious candidate. He happens to be from Montreal, and this definitely weighed in, but it doesn't stand out as his main quality.

A candidate like Michel Therrien for me is a non-starter, and I'mappalled to see his name in the mix. Yes he did pretty well with the Penguins, but he has certainly been outdone by a fair margin by the newcomer Bylsma, and most of the time without the same arsenal. He was not in my estimation part of some golden age with the Habs, but part of a dark age, and I surely recall rejoicing at his departure more than any other. Would he be on a list that did not start with language? Not one you'd be happy to not have to include Quenneville on.

Anyway, enjoy the Flyerless playoffs and catch up soon.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Marc Bergevin Era To Begin in Montreal

The headline is that Marc Bergevin of the Chicago Blackhawks has just been named the next GM of the Montreal Canadiens.

The bylines speak of how narrowly we have just avoided subjecting league general manager meetings to countless "monster" references and Canadiens fans to a Pierre McGuire tenure.

I have had little time to digest the news, but I can say that the feeling sitting with me now is not jubilation. I can't say that Bergevin ever enthralled me as a candidate after perusing his actual record. There is a definite sense of relief that it won't be McGuire. And a lot of unease in knowing that the due process threw the TSN man up as the second candidate for the job.

The requirements met

One can only assume that the requirements on that list in front of Geoff Molson have been met in most part by Bergevin.

We know of one for certain that is met, and this will be of some relief to those who heard about the interview and courting of Jim Nill.

Otherwise, what are we getting? Well the titles on his CV read like they should. He has been a pro scout, a head of pro scouting, head of scouting and latterly an assistant GM. He was 20 years a player, and a Stanley Cup winner as an executive. It's a bit better than pundit and one-year coach.

But let's dig deeper. Bergevin was an exec with the Blackhawks when they won, but how responsible was he for any of the on-ice triumph?


The 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks were partly drafted while Bergevin was around, but the only serious pieces to be added were Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. No offense to our new GM, but anyone would have picked those guys. The responsibility for those picks goes to the abysmal play of the players who managed to land their team in great drafting position in the right years.

Other than those two, the core was largely acquired through the draft, but almost entirely before Bergevin's arrival on the scene. A real hard look at the drafting that has taken place since 2006 in Chicago will reveal that the spoils are little beyond Kane and Toews.

After Bergevin moved from his pro scouting duties, the results look especially thin. But he is a man who claims to relinquish control when he feels his expertise is stretched. An amateur scouting guru he is not. Trevor Timmins future in all this should be key.

Pro scouting

A pro scout is an important piece in an organization and has a big contribution to make in personnel decisions at the pro and system level. So what, if anything, can we read on this ability of Bergevin's in his Blackhawk record.

Well, if you talk 2010 Stanley Champs, as the most optimistic will be prone to do, it is important to note the importance of the amateur draft in building that team. Even so, as we well know in Montreal, drafting a player does not ensure he blossoms in the city of his drafting. The retention of the drafted has to be applauded in part.

To me, the big acquisitions that were made under Bergevin's time in Chicago were pretty significant. Patrick Sharp was a key piece added to the mix just after the lockout. Someone on the Blackhawks side of things recognized his special abilities and nabbed him for the rebate price of Matt Ellison and a 3rd rounder. Bergevin's role? Who knows. We know he had a job with the Hawks at the time, that's all. Andrew Ladd was acquired the year Bergevin was in charge of the pro scouts, so I'd expect a say. I think this acquisition was astute also, a young Cup winner (now two time) who provided that unmatched depth for Chicago up front. Kris Versteeg was also acquired for a languishing Brandon Bochenski of recent KHL fame.

To me this shows someone had an eye for underappreciated talent. To me it shows the organization was casting a pretty wide net. It obviously had eyes on the AHL, for example. This is a big point of optimism for me. The Habs have been abysmal at pro scouting by most standards, and having a GM who might have the knack will be a new skill base.

Team restructure

Let's face it, this is a mandatory skill in Montreal.

This will be the second major restructure since Gainey's five year plan lapsed two years ago. The fans are fickle and the organization responds to this. How a team restructures and makes its decision in doing this is vital for future success. We have just recently witnessed how not to do this, I think.

Were the Gainey/Gauthier method the right way about things, they'd still be in employ. But their personnel decisions at the top and next level down have left scars that will be long to heal. I look to Bergevin's experience then of the 2010 dismantling of salary to allay some fear. The Blackhawks played all their cards to win the Cup and it paid off. But to avoid being the Florida Marlins of the NHL, and wasting the careers of young stars like Keith, Kane and Toews in the process, the right decisions had to be made to ensure a new contender could emerge.

Obviously, the verdict is still coming in on what they did, but I for one think that the team did well under the circumstances. Toews, the centrepiece, Keith the backbone and Kane the gamebreaker remain. Hossa was creatively signed despite the odds and Patrick Sharp remains. Somehow, the team managed to break apart the salary largely by offloading the players they would have continued to play in lesser roles.

One can imagine how Gauthier/Gainey would have handled a taxi cab incident with Patrick Kane and somehow resigned Kris Versteeg to far too much money. It's ruthless and pitiless, but the Blackhawks made tough decisions, used the role players for that Cup run and then discarded them when they were required by rules to do something. I can only hope that part of this pragmatism comes with Bergevin to Montreal.

I am so tired of seeing stop gaps touted as solutions and tough decisions being deferred to the free agent market.

Player management

It's not certain, but perhaps one of the reasons Bergevin now reigns in Montreal is due to his personality. A GM who can relate to others, especially his players, especially his trouble players, will be a big plus in Montreal. Marc is no Bob Gainey, but he has the credibility of a 20-year career and the approachability of prankster. Cross our fingers that the end of trading "difficult" players with no plan in place on how to replace the asset is passing.

Overall hopeful

As I was writing, I have to admit that hope began to come over me. It is a hopeful thing that a new guy who seems such a departure from the staid old standards is coming in.

While he likely won due to his longer experience than some, I would hope that Bergevin yet realises that a few years as a pro scout means he has some learning left to do. I hope that he has a good read of the Montreal Canadiens draft record and the excellent blogs that properly tout it and retains many of the personnel responsible for it. I hope he puts an end to the Canadiens astrangement from Sweden. I hope he delegates to their judgment in this and upcoming drafts.

We must also remember that Savard remains, at least for the time being. Savard who helped build the last Canadiens Dynasty group (unrecognized yet by many) and has proven in other areas to be an astute man of talent.

The team is still in decent hands. What remains to be seen is whether decent can be turned into excellent by this new one-two punch.