Friday, September 28, 2007

Briefest of season previews

I had a big plan. Honest.

But, once preseason started and every topic was discussed and rediscussed for a couple of weeks, it seemed like a season preview would be repetitive and unnecessary.

If you want a good preview of the players on the Habs, try Four Habs Fans

If you want a division by division deal, and who that prognosticator would have finishing in the playoffs, TSN did a good job, even if they did get the results wrong.

As for me, I'll say this...

... I like this year's team better than last year's. I like the way we stuck to building from within (though we came awfully close to derailing the whole process with the Briere fiasco).

I think it means we will make the playoffs. More specifically, I think the Canadiens will get 96 points to 100 points this season. That's playoff material based on the past few years, barring an eastern conference OT loss binge of Floridian proportions. In fact, it should mean we get in without that Toronto game meaning anything (take that schedule makers!).

I'd tell you where the wins will come from, but I said it'd be short.

From what I've seen we have caught up to the Senators to play games with them now, we beat the Sabers regularly enough, the Bruins we love to play, and the Leafs, well we'll probably get 8 points from 8 games there.

Ouside the division, I think we take majority points from Atlanta, Washington, Islanders, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. Splits are available with New Jersey, Florida and thanks to the new rivalry Pittsburgh. Carolina and Rangers still like playing us a bit too much for big points harvests there.

Then in the West, we miss goalie central and Canadian match-ups so should catch some teams sleeping to at least even out there. Throw in a few OT losses and we have 96+.

Sounds easy, too bad all the other teams think they can pull the same trick.

Coutdown to 96 is on...

Welcoming with open arms

Everyone is excited as I am, I can tell, to welcome a new blogger to the site.

With all my trips, business and pleasure, Lions in Winter needs another reliable member to keep the stories ticking.

Tobalev, as he is known to Habs fans in Montreal, will take on the all-important post-game duties. I hope you all welcome him too and give him plenty of comments if he goes too far on his analyses.


Wild Imagination

Mr. Szporer at Les Glorieux want to tell us that the Habs should start sending a few scouts to Minnesota this winter.

The Habs and the rest of the league need to take note how much depth the Minnesota Wild have for the upcoming season.

An article questioning the depth of the Habs I can take (and have written actually), but did he pull the Wild out of a hat. The Habs will not:

continue to serve as doormats to the Minnesota Wilds of the league

as he put it. First of all, the Wild haven't exactly set the league on fire themselves, and secondly there must be some paralax when it comes to seeing their depth, because I for one can see the bottom of their pool pretty clearly.

Let's compare:
Higgins, Koivu, Ryder, Kostitsyn, Plekanec, Kovalev vs.
Gaborik, Koivu, Demitra, Rolston, Bouchard, Belanger

The Wild have an edge here. But in reality, while the names look good, the Wild don't exactly tear up the record book. Our top scorer outscored their's, and Souray tied them (Rolston and Demitra) in points. Sure Gaborik scores at a crazy rate, but he gets injured a lot, I should know from suffering with him on my team year after year in the pool.

Now onto the juicy bit:
Smolinski, Latendresse, Lapierre, Begin, Chipchura, Kostopoulos vs.
Belanger, Moore, Boogaard, Radivojevic, Walz, Veilleux

Can anyone else see the gulf? I can't. Wily veteran who started his career with the Bruins in the 90s? Check. Apparently, Radivojevic can step up to first-line production (as he did last year with Gaborik and Demitra when he got 11 goals and 24 points) at any time.

I think we have a better group here to be honest. We're not carrying a dopey fighter. We have youngsters who give a great effort, not to mention Begin for effort. We don't have Moore "one of the fastest and shiftiest talents in the game". Really? - sorry Jamie... but we have a 20 year-old who scored 16 goals last year. We have Lapierre who outpaced Moore for points last year anyway. In any case, the gulf is not wide...

Then there's the D:
Markov, Komisarek, Hamrlik, Streit (forgotten by Szporer), Bouillon, Gorges, Dandenault, O'Byrne, Brisebois vs.
Johnsson, Burns, Skoula, Foster, Schultz, Carney, Nummelin, ...

I don't like considering Brisebois depth, but everyone else on our list is better than or equal to Skoula. Also take into consideration not one of their defenders is as good as Markov, and it's looking like Hamrlik would be their number one as well. You can't vaunt Brent Burns as an up and coming D and put down Komisarek for being the same. Can you?

Lastly our triple headed goalie:
Huet, Halak, Price vs.
Backstrom, Harding

To me, in letting Fernandez jump, let their Huet go in favour of their first year sensation (Halak anyone). The Wild envy us here, no doubt. Backstrom is good, but Harding is no Price.

In fact, the Wild goalies tell you a lot about their team. They opted to bet on young goalies in order to spend their money elsewhere. This is something we haven't done in Montreal, obviously. To say it hurts our depth is a stretch.

Now compare the Habs to a team that's actually done something, you may be talking. The Wilds of this league and the Canadiens of this league look the same to me.

On an aside, Szporer, not one day earlier made the bold prediction of 6th for the Habs. So get out the champagne in St. Paul, 6th place doormats will be watching the Wild drafting 30th in June.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Does three goalies constitute depth?

On the day former Habs prospect Christopher Heino-Lindberg is due to face the pride of Ljubljana and his Kings as they moonlight in Central Europe. I thought it was fitting to address the rumours of a trade with the west-coasters.

Whether it’s full-time random rumour generators or casual fans, 3 goalies in Habs camp seems to equate to trade these days. We’ve been hearing for some time that Halak would be traded to San Jose or Los Angeles (real trade rumours always implicate the teams furthest apart geographically, remember? – hey where’s Anaheim?). Others want to wait and then trade Huet as soon as the boys prove their worth.

Our goaltender depth, if you go by the chatter in the air, is unprecedented in Habs history, maybe even the NHLs. After all, we do have Cristobal Huet (all-star), Jaroslav Halak (21-year old AHL success) and of course Carey Price (junior all-world golden child).

I think the depth is nice, and things are looking up for the Habs; however, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We were talking about great depth last year too, with Huet and Aebischer. We know how shallow it looked in February. Furthermore, an injury and we don’t have much depth, two injuries and we are panicking. Halak and Danis on the big club anyone? How about Cedrick Desjardins? We’ll start callin LA about their AHL goalie.

Basically, I don’t think Gainey should be openly looking for a trade. Simple.

- Danis is the only expendable body in the mix, and his value (judging by his safe passage through waivers) is higher to all of us than it is to opposition GMs.
- Huet’s value is not very high right at the moment and would only take a hit if his GM were making calls trying to unload him
- Halak is a prospect, plain and simple. Apart from last season (which some GMs may view as an anomaly), his value is not great either
- Price has value. It’s high. But there’s no way we should actively shop him. We have to play hard to get if we deal this one and draw out more than Rucinsky and Thibault in return (apologies to Kovalenko…)

As it stands, we have a nice situation for the team. Huet and Halak/Price with the Habs, then Price/Halak with the Bulldogs. Their status means they could be shuttled up and down without clearing waivers, which is a huge plus. Danis, not so. He has to clear waivers to make the jump. The waiver-free movement makes keeping both Halak and Price very sensible.

Now, if someone comes offering a top offensive talent or defense prospect – for the sake of argument let’s say Jack Johnson – then we should listen.

Even then, I would hope to get an NHL-capable goalie with waiver-free movement capability in return to keep that flexibility. After all, management has worked hard to create depth so the Montreal Canadiens can win. If a trade gets us closer to winning, and hurts the Bulldogs, so be it. If we trade a top goaltending prospect for a top defenseman/forward prospect and more, then so be it.

In Bob we trust, right?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The trouble with 8

No, I've not got a problem with Komisarek. I was thinking about what kind of message it sends to keep on 8 defensemen. Even that isn't so bad, but the Habs dressing 7 defensemen, that's where I draw the line. It sends the wrong message and gets the season underway on the wrong foot.

Numerous quotes have indicated that the Canadiens intend to keep on 8 defensemen, no matter what else happens. Why does Habs management want to stick with 8? Let's start at the beginning:

Do we have too many NHL quality defensemen?

No we don't. It was very touching that some people seem to think JF Cote is a victim of too many NHL calibre players (well I'm sure it was for him anyway). There is no crisis here, except maybe a lack of quality Ds. Beyond the top 3, you could argue the drop is steep. To an outsider (aka Leaf fan), the group looks worse than say White, Calaiacovo and Stralman. I happen to think they're pretty good, better than that Leaf group. But let's not pretend we couldn't improve on the group.

Are the extra guys here to get a look at the NHL?

Well, no. Not really. One of the guys is Brisebois hanging on to an NHL career by a thread. Some people say the same about Dandenault and Bouillon (not me yet). O'Byrne is up to get a look, but he could take a spot if we had one less man. Gorges is establishing his place in the league, not auditioning. If he doesn't make the cut, then he should be sent down.

I think we all know who I would send down/cut loose, and it'snot Gorges who I admire quite a bit.

Lastly, are we so low on forwards that it makes no difference?

If you need an answer, you missed the 342 posts in the last week about training camp, D'Agostini and Lil' K. Grabovski is likely to be cut as well, and Locke just was. We are brimming with forward prospects that could cut their teeth in the real league, but choose to give a bonus place to an "insurance" policy or two.

To me sticking with the 8 defenseman strategy from last year (an unsuccessful campaign over 82 games) shows a lack of courage on the part of the management. A team that had trouble scoring needs scorers and a good variety of them. What the struggling offense doesn't need is defensemen on one of the 4 lines.

In my opinion, the Habs need to start creating wins rather than preventing losses. We should try new things:

- Keep a rookie (say Grabovski) and play him on the scoring lines
- Try 3 scoring lines (assuming one is earmarked for checking duties)
- Instead of juggling to D to adapt to the opponent's attack, juggle the forwards to make the other team adapt
- Get a few guys used to playing with Koivu and with Kovalev, not with Bouillon
- Keep the competition for the forward spots hot by keeping someone with a real claim on the roster.

The old cliche "Defense wins championships" is true enough, but it neglects to mention that

I prefer: "Giving your defense a lead wins championships".

Of all the decisions left, let's hope Carbo and Gainey take the proactive approach and build a team that plays to win rather than not to lose.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Josh Gorges: A Forgotten Prospect

I don't always agree with Mike Boone, but this time I do. I think Josh Gorges has something to offer the Habs this year.

In a funny way, some fans are dismissing Gorges as some small Sharks cast-off. A veteran who couldn't cut it in the West. Well, he's no such thing. If Josh Gorges were drafted and bred in Hamilton, then I feel that Canadiens fans would be calling for him in Montreal.

Some things you should know about Josh:

1) His last name is Gorges (not Georges)

2) He is younger than bona fide prospect O'Byrne

3) He cracked the Sharks at age 21, youg for a defenseman and already has 104 games in the NHL under his belt at 23

4) He was the captain of his junior team

5) He led a team with only one current NHLer (Shea Weber) to a Memorial Cup (2003-04)

6) He was born the same day (one year earlier) than Weber his Kelowna teammate

7) He posted 15 points in 17 games in that Cup run (2003-04)

8) He was better than point-per-game in 2002-03 in both the regular season and in the playoffs (20 points in 19 games in the playoffs)

9) Played for Team Canada at WJCs

10) Mike Boone likes him to make the team this year

11) So do I

Habs cut possible NHLers

So, today Bob Gainey promoted 29 players to our championship club. There players can develop in a winning environment without 65 reporters in their faces after their morning skate and all us bloggers watching them tie their skates with baited breath.

Unfortunately, the cuts in this case also expose some of our impressive harvest of prospects to other teams with less skill at the draft. Columbus have been relying on our waiver cast-offs for years to build their defense, maybe this year they'll grab a goalie and take aim at the playoffs for the first time (in 2013).

The players cut include (from Habs Inside/Out):

Yann Danis (must clear waivers)
Loïc Lacasse
Cédrick Desjardins

Andrew Archer (must clear waivers)
Mathieu Biron (must clear waivers)

Mathieu Carle
Marvin Degon
Jon Gleed
Jamie Rivers (must clear waivers)
Pavel Valentenko

Mathieu Aubin
Ajay Baines
Thomas Beauregard
Jimmy Bonneau
Matt D'Agostini
David Desharnais
Jonathan Ferland (must clear waivers)
Sergei Kostitsyn
Janne Lahti
Francis Lemieux
Corey Locke (must clear waivers)
Eric Manlow
Ben Maxwell (to junior)
Duncan Milroy (must clear waivers)
Ryan Russell
Gregory Stewart
Cory Urquhart (must clear waivers)
Ryan White (to junior)

The players in bold must clear waivers, and based on what other teams have made available, I would expect someone to go here. The most likely candidates for me seem like Yann Danis and Corey Locke.

It's a shame, because the luxury of carrying these players would have been nice, but waivers would have been a worry with every call-up and demotion throughout the season. So a tough decision, but one we probably had to take. If we didn't have Grabovski, the loss of Locke would hurt more. Obviously, we can't cry about Danis, with the other three able goalies we have.

Don't expect Danis to end up in LA though. LaBarbera is superior and Bernier is a hot prospect. They aren't as goalie poor as we think. The likely thieves are Tampa, Islanders and Blue Jackets (again).

As for Locke, any team without a small lead center would be open to 2nd-line scoring potential. I think Phoenix could use him.

Milroy was a hope for me, but showing he's not up to it this year says a lot about his stats from last season (professional AHLer). He has been surpassed by his last batch of prospects in the organisation, I think. And, we shouldn't see him in camp again next year. Ditto Ferland.

So what does it mean for our team - the one in Mtl. Price stays (for a week), and Grabovski, O'Byrne and Chipchura have an extended chance to make it.

Given the choice of the players left, this is who I'd want for opening night:

Higgins Koivu Ryder
Kostitsyn Plekanec Kovalev
Latendresse Smolinski Kostopoulos
Begin Chipchura Lapierre

Markov Komisarek
Hamrlik Streit
Bouillon O'Byrne


Sitting out: Murray (he's still here???), Grabovski (would love to see him in), Brisebois (hopefully a last-minute cut?), Dandenault, Gorges and Price (in Hamilton by next week).

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Chris Higgins: Aspiring 40-goal man

When it comes to Christopher Higgins, I think the words "pleaant surprise" would express my feelings best. He may indeed even be a future captain of the team - a role he would seemingly relish.

He is not, however, the "Dauphin", the Golden Child that some people would pretend that he is. The ridiculous coverage that preceded his return to exhibition play this week was seriously misplaced.
One quote about Higgins from HabsWorld, gives you an idea of what I mean:

Chris Higgins is that unique player that has first line talent but plays like a fourth liner; a player who plays as if every shift is his last. He is in many ways the most versatile forward on the Habs roster, he excels on the power play, he is a threat on the penalty kill, and he can play all three forward positions. But more importantly it is how he plays the game.

I like Chris Higgins. I like the way he plays, I love that his education has made him into a mature leader at such a young age. I greatly enjoy his intelligent and modest comments which stand out so much from his peers hyperbole.

But, let's be clear about what Chris Higgins can do for our team.

In his first two seasons, the greatest thing he has done has been to find chemistry with just about anyone he has played with. He works hard, skates fast and can pass and shoot with quality. At the same time, he has scored 23 then 22 goals and 38 points in each season. In fairness, he did miss 21 games last season, but his prorated totals would only be 29 goals and 52 points.

It is my opinion that he will grow into a better player, and even reach higher totals, but he will never be the focal point of a team. The reason: his game is straightforward and 2-dimensional. I don't mean that in a derorgatory way - many players choose the up and down game, and many with great success. Many goalscorers would be thrilled to be called 2-dimensional, as they're probably used to the 1-dimensional tag (ahem, Michael Ryder). But the fact remains, Higgins needs to play with a center who can take the other team's top checker. He is not a zig-zagger and would be contained if he was playing with lesser lights. It is Koivu who elevates Higgins and not the other way around.

Coming off several years of starvation for a winger that could score and play hard (post-Recchi or the Dackell years as we like to call them), we have to be careful not to burden poor Higgins with the weight of the team's goalscoring.

Exaggerating the worth pf players like Higgins is the symptom of a syndrome that has affected the minds of many hockey fans (including those in Montreal) - grinder-worship (aka floater-loathing). The flaw here is that hard work is not enough. You need talent. Heck, Dackell worked hard, so do the Blue Jackets.

If it's goals we want, it's talent we need. Higgins will give us 30, maybe even 40, but he will never give us 60. But don't be confused, Higgins only provides a small step up in talent from Savage and Rucinsky. The talent we so missed for a near decade is found in our whipping boys, Ryder and Kovalev. If we continue to deride Ryder, who is only one season more experience than Higgins, but is the better goalscorer, as well as Kovalev, who is the only player with the talent to get a sniff of 50 goals on our team; we risk setting the team back a long way. As fans we have to learn that floating is part of goalscoring, and that digging it out of the corner, means you can't be in front of the net.

Higgins is a heroic digger, who can score when he gets the chance, but he's not got the killer goalscorer in him. He doesn't want to be the best goalscorer in the league. He wants to be Mr. everything. He said it himself:

“Chris replied, in a very confident voice, ‘I want to be a 40/40 (goals/assists) man with a big fat (Stanley Cup) ring on my finger.’

Let's celebrate Higgins for what he is. Applaud as he reaches 30 goals and 60 points this year. Let's put away the messianic language when we talk about him.

And, let's also appreciate our talent: Koivu, Kovalev and Ryder - since taking their contributions for granted and, heaven forbid, losing them would show us what a team of hard workers without enough talent can do (again!).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Do you think it'll ever get this sad for us?

So, I was browsing the Atlanta Thrashers website to see if my pool rookie, Bryan Little, has any shot at all of making the team, and more importantly Kovalchuk's line. The site then did some reloading and story 2 came up. Whoa.

"Be there when the banner is raised" it said.

Did I miss a year of hockey or something? Since when did Atlanta win the Stanley Cup?

Oh wait, nowadays people raise banners for just making the final, maybe they did that?

No, President's trophy?

Retiring an Atlanta Flames number?

No. turns out it was this:

On opening night, Oct. 5 vs. Washington, the Thrashers will kick-off the regular season in style with a banner-raising ceremony honoring last year's Southeast Division Championship. It's a game you won't want to miss!

Oh, the division championship. You beat all 4 other teams in the Southeast for the first time in 8 years. Great work!

Nevermind that you looked like winning the conference for a few months, nearly missed the playoffs then got swept by the 6th place team. You beat Florida and Washington, and Carolina and Tampa Bay.

Admittedly, Tampa and Carolina had won 2 of the past three Cups, but I have news for you Atlanta, they didn't raise division champ banners those seasons.

Does anyone think it will ever be this dire for the Habs. I mean, let's be honest, we haven't been top of the division since about 1989. Since that time we've won more cups than division titles. It would be a moment to be proud of 2008 Northeast division champs. Or how about: "2008: Qualified for the playoffs".

Maybe it is time we raise a few more banners. If we did it retroactively we could close the blue seats to make room for them, or just forget TV coverage with all the banners draping over the ice. On the same line of achievement, we could retire every number worn by a 40 goal scorer or 80 point getter. Sergei Kostitsyn would look better in 174 anyway...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ste. Flannelle

Good fun to be had on the Ste. Flanelle blog.

If you understand French, it's worth listening to their Radio shows. The one on the playoffs is good, and the one on Koivu had good bits as well.

Chink in Price's armour

More from the insanely overdone coverage of a game that is already on TV:

Price evaluated his performance as "7 or 8" on a scale of 10.
"I don't really have any regrets," Price added. "You can always play better, but I felt comfortable.
"I made some good saves, but they capitalized on their chances. For giving up three goals, I thought I played pretty well," Price concluded. "I wouldn't change a lot."

I'm afraid this tells me something I didn't want to know about Carey Price: He is no Patrick Roy, at least not yet...

An athlete striving to be the best at what he does should accept nothing less than the best. This is what makes the best stand apart from the also-rans.

No regrets??? How about playing better, like you said in your next statement?

I'm sorry, but an 8 is reserved for a near perfect performance, especially in a self assessment.

Even in a great playoff win, a great athlete will know things that he did wrong but got away with. In this case, we all saw what Carey did not get away with. 3 goals in 30 minutes should elicit a little bit of self-examination, especially when you're trying out to make a team.

I would say this quote alone indicates that the boy has a lot to learn. First and foremost, don't buy into your own hype...

The good news is that this stuff can be learned. And modest, well-spoken and all-star goalies go a long way to helping you figure it out...

Canadiens loss is good news

Two games down. A win and a loss.

With the first loss, we all went from full analysis of every aspect of the game to it's only exhibition season in 48 hours. The media (which would now include bloggers read a lot more frequently than myself) is driving all Habs fans into frenzy with a headline and cherry-picked quote driven campaign.

Fair enough. Newspapers need to get more and more sensational to attract readers. They go way beyond the reporting of yesteryear and stretch for interesting twists and stories within the games that often just aren't there.

If we only look at the headlines, the cuts for the Canadiens camp would be simple. One group turned up, won the game and talked about intensity in every game, even in September. The other group, well they lost a "meaningless" game, but let's be honest, they could all just be cut right?

Canadiens fans, media and bloggers are bgetting a bit carried away this pre-season, I feel. I think Canadiens fans need to get their feet on the ground. Cup dreaming is one thing in late May and June, quite another after a single game in September.

There's no question players should approach every game with intensity and designs as to how they will win. But the wonderful thing about sports is that, on most occasions, both teams do this every night - giving us the spectacle of the game. A team that looks outplayed may well (dare I say) have played to the best of their abilities with full 100% (no 110% here) effort. Sometimes, our beloved Habs may lose to a better team.

By most assessments, and a recently-completed 82-game season, the Penguins are a better team. Beating them anywhere close to 50% of the time is an anomaly, and a great success. I'm not suggesting the players approach games with this inferiority on their minds; I am, however, suggesting that fans keep it in mind in undertaking their analyses. As fans, these exhibition games offer a chance to see what we're in for this season and prepare for some winning and some losing.

So losing is OK?

I, for one, happen to think that loss last night was a very good thing. And, not because it made decisions for cuts any easier. But, because some important lessons would have been learned by the coaches and players.

Don't try to lose... there's nothing to learn from that.

Change centremen and wingers around - find the best combinations.
Try new things on the PP - learn that they don't work.
Start the playoff goalie when he's tired - find out how much he can take.
Resist making a trade to fill a hole - see if the others step in.

The perspective I try to take is that the game the Canadiens are in is the Stanley Cup game, and only one team wins every year. There are five big stages in the game, with many little points to be won along the way.

Looking at past seasons, and excluding a league-wide OT loss conspiracy, a team should be looking at 95-100 points to assure comfortable qualification for the playoffs (stage 1). So, basically we are looking for 45 odd wins, and hanging on for a few OT losses. Let's assume (45 wins and 5 OT losses) – that leaves 32 losses (the horror).

Getting past stage 1 is relatively easy with a bit of concentration – win a few more than half your games, and steal a few points along the way. Winning the next four stages is hard. Better get the lessons in while you can (i.e., now!).

We all need to learn that not every game is do or die. Win when winning is there for the taking, and learn from the losses. Most games (i.e., more than 60 I'd say) are winnable up to the last 10 minutes. To win a Cup, the Canadiens need to build a resilient and adaptable group of players who read from the same page. This is how an unbeatable force gets built, not through trades, not through free agency.

If you want to boil it down, how about this (as stolen from the 2004 Flames): Let's never get beaten two games in a row.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Now that Brisebois is injured...

Will he be on the next flight to Paris?

Will he be unable to spin the whole way around when he falls down?

Will he still be able to lift both arms when he blames Huet for a goal against?

And most importantly, will he still have time to play himself out of a spot?

Stay tuned for the outcome...

10 Questions

Pierre Durocher of the Journal de Montreal had 10 burning questions today about the upcoming season for the Habs. I wanted to take a look at his answers and give mine:

1) Is Carey Price ready for the NHL?

Durocher's answer: Yes.

My answer: Yes.

In my opinion, this was never the question. It should have been: Is Carey Price going to have a good enough camp to unseat two pretty good goalies in Huet and Halak?

2) How will the PP be without Souray's slapper?

Durocher's answer: Worse.

My answer: Worse.

I think, that Souray had a once-in-a-lifetime year last year. Even with him back, we would have slipped. Plus everyone knew our tricks. Hopefully, we have some more. Remember that Malakhov pass that used to work so well?

3) Who will fill the leadership void left by Rivet and Souray?

Durocher's answer: Higgins and Komisarek.

My answer: Hamrlik and Smolinski.

4) Is it a crucial season for Koivu?

Durocher's answer: Yes.

My answer: Yes.

They all are. But Koivu wants to see the team improve, and may get antsy if 13th place is on the horizon.

5) Where will Brisebois fit in?

Durocher's answer: 4th to 7th defenseman.

My answer: 7th defenseman who is slowly worked out of the team over time.

I can't see him sustaining a level worth a place for very long. Our defense is not full of Traverses and Laflammes anymore.

6) Who will play with Hamrlik?

Durocher's answer: Could be anyone.

My answer: Streit.

7) WWill Carbonneau be able to get Kovalev back on track?

Durocher's answer: Hopes so.

My answer: Won't have anything to do with Carbonneau, everything to do with Alex.

He has pride, and it was injured. I think he comes back.

8) Who will Smolinski's wingers be?

Durocher's answer: Begin and Kostopoulos. Possibly Kostitsyn.

My answer: Kovalev and Lahti.

9) What will the next controversy with the club be?

Durocher's answer: Kovalev or Dandenault ask for a trade.

My answer: Brisebois refuses to report to Hamilton.

10) Where will the Canadiens finish th e season?

Durocher's answer: 11th or worse.

My answer: 6th or better.

We will beat Buffalo at their own game this time around.

Type rest of the post here

Cuts? Let's just invite everyone.

Two unlucky rookies were cut from the Canadiens rookie camp. One can only assume that the drills went really well then, right? Only Conboy and Kishel, who probably would have run out of cash if they had to continue paying their own way, were cut. So, essentially everyone's in.

Compared to last year, that makes an extra 10 bodies: 2 up front and an astonishing 8 extra defensemen.

The majority of players lost from last year were NHLers (Aebischer, Rivet, Souray, Bonk, Johnson and crew). Most of the youngsters from last year are back, though not perennial cuts Michael Lambert and James Sanford.

Is this a good sign? I can only hope so. I mean obviously someone doesn't like making cuts, but they'll certainly have to make a whole lot in the next few days – no choice.

I think 22 defensemen for 8 spots is a bit excessive. Consider that Markov, Komisarek, Hamrlik and Streit are guaranteed just because of past performance, NHL creds and salaries. That makes 18 for 4 spots. On the bright side, Brisebois who could only be described as below average, might actually fall out of the top 9 of the also rans. Here's to hoping...

Up front, they simply need the numbers to make a rotational squad for games and scrimmages, so fair enough. otherwise, I don't think Greg Stewart and Cory Urquhart need to endure another camp.

Anyway, here's the full list. We'll see what happens:


RIVET, Craig
SOURAY, Sheldon

BONK, Radek
LAMBERT, Michaël

HALAK, Jaroslav
HUET, Cristobal
PRICE, Carey

ARCHER, Andrew
CÔTÉ, Jean-Philippe
MARKOV, Andrei

AUBIN, Mathieu
BÉGIN, Steve
FERLAND, Jonathan
LEMIEUX, Francis
LOCKE, Corey
MILROY, Duncan
RYDER, Michael
STEWART, Gregory

New invitees:

BIRON, Mathieu
CARLE, Mathieu
CEPEK, Cameron
DEGON, Marvin
LABRIE, Mathieu
PICHE, Sebastien
WEBER, Yannick

FORTIER, Olivier
LAHTI, Janne

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

From Belarus With Love

Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, as well as Mikhail Grabovski. The Canadiens have been doing a good job at scouring the steppes for hockey talent in recent years. If they keep sending us this kind of talent, we should look into sister city status for Minsk.

With reporters and bloggers on other sites looking at our rookies, I thought I’d have a look at what could become a big part of future Habs teams – the Belarussian contingent.

Belarus has reportedly made a concerted effort since the dissolution of the Soviet Union to promote and develop its youth hockey. The Canadiens were paying attention, harvesting three of the top products of the effort:

Andrei Kostitsyn – 6’ 0”, 202 lbs.
The former 10th overall pick looks like he finally found his place on the Canadiens at the end of last season. He has some highlight reel potential (as we all saw with that crazy behind the back pass to Plekanec), but what I like about him most is his strength on the puck. For that matter, he also displays quite a bit of strength off the puck.

If you’re strong on the puck at age 22 against established NHLers, the future does look good. Afterall, a lot of the game nowadays takes place along the boards, where strength is paramount. And, if you’re going to try and stickhandle into the opposition’s zone, you can’t be weak on your feet.

All his scouting reports talk about a great shot, and we’ve seen a few. Hopefully, he’ll use that more in the upcoming season and find a few goals on his stats sheet at the end of the year.

If I were the coach, I would be trying to get Andrei going before I worry about Latendresse. I think he could use a strong start on a top line (possibly with Plekanec or Koivu), which I think would set him up for a break-out streak where he gets comfortable enough to use that strength and shot. Latendresse already shoots, is already playing physically and is going to score on his own, I think. Kostitsyn just needs a nudge I feel.

Sergei Kostitsyn – 5’ 11”, 190 lbs.
Sergei was a very shrewd late round pick indeed. And so was going to the London Knights, the 80s Oilers of the OHL. Sergei scored an astonishing number of goals and points for the after-thought little brother pick. Coming through the ranks, his stats look a whole lot more impressive than Andrei’s did. Finishing third in league scoring behind “draft jumper” John Tavares and teammate Patrick Kane a year after winning OHL rookie of the year. He did play with first-round quality players in both his years in London. Some ask where he would be without Kane and Gagner. Others have asked the legitimate counter question: where would those two be without Kostitsyn.

It is encouraging to hear nice words about Sergei coming fomr both his coach and assistant coach in London, not least because they had quite the careers themselves (Dale Hunter and Dave Gagner). Both think he is NHL-bound, and qualify that his game has the physical edge you need to be an NHLer. I’d think they know what they’re talking about, the two of them.

With a training camp invite, it is not inconceivable that Sergei makes the Habs this year. However, with all the young talent on one-way contracts, it makes it a little less likely. If he has a stunning season in Hamilton, he could be up for a few games later in the year with a view to a trade or starting in 2008.

Mikhail Grabovski – 5’ 11””, 183 lbs.

The only non-Kostitsyn of the three, Grabovski has made a name for himself without a brother to lean on. Putting up some great numbers two years ago in the Russian league (full of players his senior) speaks to how skilled he is. And last year’s training camp performance produced more than a few cries for a place for him in Montreal. He did eventually play a few games in the NHL, not looking too out of place.

Last season was a successful apprenticeship to the North American game, by most accounts. From what I have seen, he is a good skater with good passing. He has good balance, though not the strength of Andrei Kostitsyn. He does look a bit faster and is quite a shifty guy out on the ice.

I think Grabovski will be given a chance this year, but as the youngsters will be numerous, the onus will be on him to reproduce his last year’s form. I don’t think there’s much reason he would be held back if he stands out. I look forward to him giving some of the older guys a real push for their spots. There’s nothing wrong with having good players like him down in Hamilton either, winning and ready to be called up when needed.

A few facts about their native Belarus to close it up.

The Lonely Planet has a lot of nice things to say about the former Soviet republic:

Belarus is a vast steppe straddling the shortest route between Moscow and the Polish border. Wide stretches of unbroken birch groves, vast forested marshlands and wooden villages amid rolling green and black fields give it a haunting beauty.

The NHL website has lots of info on the country’s hockey and heritage:

Belarus' hockey heritage is one of the few aspects of its culture that was not suppressed under communism. Belarusians have long had a deep love of hockey that has survived and thrived for decades.

The Stanley Cup has been to Minsk, thanks to Nikolai Khabibulin who is married to a Belarussian.

As of 2006, Belarus had 14 indoor arenas in total – probably at least 3-fold less than the Montreal area alone.

Wayne Gretzky has Belarussian heritage – his grandfather moved from Belarus to Canada in the early part of the 20th century.

Famous NHLers from the past 15 years are few, current ones include Hab Andrei and Ruslan Salei, and future ones include our boys Sergei and Mikhail.

I think we may owe a debt of gratitude to this country’s continued and recently revitalised commitment to hockey development. Hopefully the Stanley Cup will be making a return trip to Gorky Park in short shrift.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Halak of respect?

Apart form the growing buzz of Habs fans singing Price, Price, Price, all of the newspapers and Habs blogs these days are talking up the former first rounder. One of, if not my favourite, Habs blog (eyesontheprize) guarantees, with a bit of bravado, that Carey Price will start the season in Montreal. Why? Well the Calder Cup run proved he has nothing to learn in the AHL of course.

I was as thrilled as anyone when the Bulldogs won the Calder Cup, but the resulting hype surrounding Carey Price has been ridiculous. The guy won the Calder Cup and the playoff MVP with his stellar play. All this in addition to his eye-catching play at the 2006 WJC.

Both fine achievements. No doubt.

Before we hand Carey the keys to the Bell Centre, maybe it’s worth considering what he did the other 80 games of his season (and prior to last year)– the ones with his team, the Tri-city Americans:

1) Carey Price compiled decent stats with 2.45 GAA (7th) and .917 S% (3rd), the two players that beat him out in save % – Leland Irving in both categories (1.86, .929), Taylor Dakers (2.16, .919) – show that he probably wasn’t the top goalie over the WHL season. Tyson Sexsmith, who beat Carey in GAA (with 1.79) also won the Memorial Cup with his Vancouver Giants.

It’s worth noting that none of the three is slated to play in the NHL for certain this year.

2) Carey’s heroics didn’t pay off for his team last season. They finished 4th in the league, but were eliminated in the first round of the WHL playoffs. Carey Price did best again in save %, good enough for 7th in the WHL playoffs. Both Dakers and Sexsmith bested him again

3) His stats from the year before suggest that he was never the top WHL goalie (2.87 GAA and .906 save %), which made him look like an average to below average WHL goalie. And another first round elimination with a sub-900 save % in the playoffs, didn’t exactly point to big-game pedigree at the time.

What these stats show me is that Carey is very much a can-miss prospect. Let’s face it Team Canada goalies always look good. I mean we don’t think Pogge will be a star do we? And the Hamilton Cup run shows real improvement from Carey, especially following the disappointing elimination of his own team (which consequently freed him up to play for the Bulldogs).

The foolhardiness of proclaiming him an NHLer already belies a skewed perspective, one with blinders to the majority of his form last year.

It also belittles the accomplishments of our other prospect goalie: Jaroslav Halak. He who led the AHL in most statistics for the entire season. He who faced NHL shooters and won his games under pressure. And were it not for a hugely complimentary call-up to his country’s senior national team, he may have taken his NHL-enhanced confidence to the Calder Cup as well. Halak, who was purported in the same article, to have a lot left to learn in the AHL, actually has a claim to having done all he can down there as well in my eyes – perhaps even a better one than Carey Price.

Don't get me wrong though. I very much support the idea of Carey Price in Montreal, even to start. But I would like him to earn that job. I think Gainey is probably on the same page as me here. In fact, I'll make a guarantee of my own:

Carey Price will not start the season in Montreal if Halak and Huet outplay him in training camp.

It would not be a waste for him to play in Hamilton by any means as suggested by eyesontheprize, simply because he could benefit from learning how to put together 60 games in a season. Even Carey Price knows that, he's said as much on more than one occasion.

Habs get it right with the rookies

Carey Price, Janne Lahti, Kyle Chipchura all had one thing in common this weekend: they didn't play any hockey games. That's because the Canadiens have bucked a trend they started by opting not to have a rookie tournament. The first few sessions for the rookies were dedicated to drills:

From the Gazette:
There hasn't been a chance to evaluate Lahti in game situations because the first two days of the rookie camp have been devoted to drills. Stickhandling was the focus for the skaters yesterday as Sean Skinner showed his expertise.

Want to know why Canadian players rise to the top in the playoffs, why their scoring doesn't tail off like Europeans in March?

Well it's because from the age of 6 onwards, Canadians play hockey games from autumn to spring. Ice time is scarce, so it's games >> practices. Juniors get an NHL-type gameload in their seasons before entry into the bigs.

But, want to know why Europeans figure in the scoring leaders, can skate so well and have actually figured out how to get over the blueline without lobbing the puck into the corner?

Practice, practice, practice.

That's why I was happy to hear the Habs rookies were actually practicing (and maybe even learning a bit) before the other training camp starts. In my opinion, a few days dedicated to practicing skills is going to be a whole lot more valuable than 4 games against other rookies – most of whom will never ever pull on an NHL sweater anyway.

Carey Price will have to stop Crosby, Elias and Alfredsson to make the Canadiens. Stopping shots from Toronto's third tier can't help him prepare for that anymore than his seasons in junior did.

The young defensemen will have to hone their puck skills if they hope to play in Montreal, a frantic game with dumpouts and 17 minutes of ice (most without the puck) isn't going to greatly help them either.

There are enough games already, so it'snice to see the Habs realise this and work to help their prospects improve. Well done management, another positive decision...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Pierre Boivin lays down the law

Good old Pierre Boivin. He gave the media (La Presse/RDS in particular) the what for today when he asked them to relent in their ridiculous endless fantasies and conspiracy theories around the Briere signing.

If you understand French, I recommend you watch the video on

He also let slip that we were after Rafalski on July 1, which I think is really good news. Obviously we didn't get him, but at least the talent evaluators have their heads screwed on straight. That only leaves one mystery defenseman of the supposed three we were after at large (as Hamrlik was also one).

And, did anyone else notice we haven't had a single story in La Presse about why Ryan Smyth didn't make his way up the I87?

I heard he asked to play with Samsonov and Shayne Corson who he felt familiar with from the Cup run and his rookie season in Edmonton, but Gainey turned him down, then retroactively traded Sergei and let Ryan down slowly with the news of Corson's signing with Toronto and susequent retirement. So close.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Daniel Briere = Not Jean Beliveau

Let's get a couple of things straight: Daniel Briere got 95 points last year, but he is no 90-point scorer. He'll have to do that a few more times to get picked up as a 90-point man in my pool (eh, Eric Staal, 100-point man). Also, Daniel Briere went to Philadelphia for the money. Bottom line. Full stop.

Jean Beliveau in quality, class and indeed offensive ability he is not. So let's stop acting like he could have been...

An article today in La Presse invented a conversation that they claim has now been supported by two people close to Briere. I believe what they are saying, I do. But let's face it, would Daniel Briere really prefer to go to the last place team (who are improving, yes, because there's no place to go but up) if the money wasn't more? Any player knows that lines aren't set for the season. He could have come to the Habs (and if he is indeed a 90-point man) taken the first-line minutes if he wanted to. Carbonneau wouldn't have given him 2 bums on his wings if he were producing.

Daniel Briere went to Philadelphia because he wanted more money (after taxes). He may have gone there to avoid the inane media stories that Saku Koivu has to endure daily. But I very much doubt he went to Philadelphia to play with Mike Knuble on the "first line" instead of Kovalev and Latendresse on the "second line" here. If he did, he is a fool and knows nothing about our coach who couldn't promise to keep two linemates together for more than 2 periods.

On another tack, let's assume Briere did ask to play with Ryder and Higgins. Why should Bob Gainey feel coerced by someone he is going out of his way to please with 42 million dollars, no less. Gainey has a known quantity in Saku Koivu, a perennial PPG threat, with an uncanny ability to step it up in the big games. Briere is not so much Koivu's superior (though his most recent campaign seems to exagerrate the gulf in quality), and doesn't tend to look better in May, but somewhat worse, in fact.

Saku Koivu is the core of the team right now, and Gainey has built around him up front. While Koivu might be willing to move to the second line in name, it would still be a slap in the face. This is not Vincent Lecavalier we are talking about, but Daniel Briere.

In any case, I am glad we didn't get the little greedy one-time 95 point man, who would look awfully overpaid (in my opinion) when playing in Carbo's system and putting up Koivu-like numbers. I'm also glad he went to the Flyers – who were last even with the superior Forsberg last season. I am, yet again, highly disappointed in the French press, who do nothing but badger Koivu about anything and everything day and night. Ca suffi.

Canadiens rookie camp

So the Canadiens rookie camp is just around the corner (see The invitations have been sent. And seeing as how everyone is intent on arguing that we are a better team thanks to all our young talent, I thought it would be worth a look.

There are three basic classes of rookie: drafted players, free agents and try-out players. Of the three, the drafted players get the longer looks, since they have been touted for some time, so even a slip in form could be seen as just that, a slip.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the try-outs have this one shot to make the team. Not all of them will, and it is surprising when even a single try-out player makes it. Free agents (like Janne Lahti) fall somewhere in the middle, but make the team with high enough frequency (e.g., Mark Streit, Pierre Dagenais, Oleg Petrov (second time)).

The way I see it, no more than 10 of these guys will see a game this year. And no more than 15 will probably ever see a game. This is simply because we already have some young players who will be very hard to budge for the next ten years (Andrei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse and Tomas Plekanec among others). However, there are a couple of permanent roster spots that may be up for grabs, so a lucky few may be plying their trade in the NHL full-time in 2007/2008.

The 5 candidates that stand-out for me as players that could make the team outright this year are:

1) Kyle Chipchura (stats)
By all accounts, Chipchura sounds like a third-line forward. What I like about him is that he has been a captain of his teams and even his country. What's more in that final of the WJCs he really stood out for me – something big game players tend to be able to do. He may fit nicely on the third or fourth line while he learns, but could probably be called upon for scoring line duties if asked. A player to watch for.

2) Janne Lahti (stats)
For one thing, he's 25 – so he wouldn't be invited if there weren't a real chance for him. For another, he scored 20 goals in the Finnish league, which is quite good in only 56 games. And he caught fire a bit in the playoffs. However, the main reason I think he might make the team is because while not huge, he's not little. He was also targeted by a few other NHL teams, which is a good sign.

3) Carey Price (stats)
What needs to be said here? A great WJC and a great Calder Cup run have put him into the spotlight. I think a season in the minors would be better, but he has a realistic chance if for no other reason than Gainey having said so. Plus we only have 2 other legitimate goalie candidates, so the competition isn't really thick.

4) Ryan White (stats)
“He’s not a great physical specimen he’s not necessarily in great physical condition, but when we put him on the ice, he does nothing but win battles,” said Hitmen GM and head coach Kelly Kisio. He just sounds like the type of player who will go to camp and win himself a spot. If he plays his cards right, he could wave Garth Murray goodbye on his way into the dressing room.

5) Ryan O'Byrne (stats)
Because defensemen get injured, he will get himself high enough in the line to see some games. From his Calder Cup play, he has the quality to stick if he gets in the door.

Those with a realistic chance (in my opinion) of a game or two this year, and full NHL seasons on their horizons include:

1) Sergei Kostitsyn (stats) – not quite his time yet.

2) Mathieu Aubin (stats) – big enough to make the team for size alone, he'll have to show he can play.

3) Mathieu Carle (stats) – maybe San Jose will get confused and trade us their Matt Carle?

4) Pavel Valentenko (stats) – again, not quite time for him.

5) Matt D'Agostini (stats) – could break through, but probably needs another season to impress.

6) Ben Maxwell (stats) – will be in Hamilton.

7) PK Subban (stats) – despite his attitude, he's probably not quite star enough to make thee league straight from Junior.

and to a lesser extent Thomas Beauregard (who may turn out to be a goalscorer in the big leagues after all), Yannick Weber and Cedrick Desjardins.

As for the rest, they need to unseat some of the guys ahead of them to even have a shot at being on the teamsheet one day. But that is what this camp is for – to see what everyone can do. I for one am looking forward to it and hoping we have a few guys coming through to the big camp with intentions of making the team...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sheldon Souray and the leadership void

Season previews are out and it seems like the Habs have gotten worse. Some say slightly worse, some say much worse. I don't know how I would do if someone asked me to predict how each team would finish (on a deadline), but I don't think it's easy. My problem with their assessment of the Habd is not so much where they end up, as the assumptions upon which their predictions are based. The one that has got me most up in arms is the total void of leadership left behind when Rivet and Souray departed.

My issue is this: if Rivet and Souray were the leaders of the Canadiens last season (if), then where exactly were they leading us?

We were a playoff team who missed the playoffs, or a non-playoff team who almost made them. We did not clinch in February or March. We did not sweep aside our first round opponents. We did not win the Cup (right?). Our leaders led the club to the golf course.

If you base the success of a season on the final result (as most should and do), then 9 teams in the Eastern conference alone outperformed us. Chances are the 9 teams also had a better leader than we did in Rivet and Souray. Toronto had Sundin, the Rangers had Shanahan, Buffalo had Drury. But who did the Thrashers have? Well apparently, not all the leaders in the league are recognised leadership guys. Maybe Holik led them, who knows. He couldn't save the Rangers all those years, but with the right defense behind him...

Rivet and Souray may talk a good game to the cameras, but if he was so blessed in leadership, why couldn't he talk to Samsonov, Kovalev and Perezhogin?

We need to face the fact that the Habs were in disarray from February on, and Rivet and Souray nor anyone else was not leader enough to unite the troops to the cause.

So, if they weren't the solution to the problem, what were they? Well here's the unasked question:

Were Craig Rivet and Sheldon Souray part of the problem?

Rivet was traded during the slump, maybe there's something in that.

Souray was never really given an offer he would accept, maybe that was intentional.

We know Gainey cleaned house when he got rid of Dagenais, Theodore and then Ribeiro. Maybe Souray and Rivet were always slated to leave. Maybe they aren't good with the younger guys. Maybe they aren't willing to adapt (ahem, pass the puck on the PP) when the going gets rough.

I don't think it's likely that either guy was what people call a cancer in the locker room, but players that are in the plans are kept no matter what (read: Andrei Markov). Both are gone, and both have been replaced. I don't think we are too worse for wear having lost them.

All this gushing praise for their leadership and intangible qualities simply ignores the fact that the team achieved nothing of note while they were part of it.

Obviously, this implies that every player we have had in the past 14 years has been a washout. So do we throw everyone out and start over? Of course not. But I like to think that the people in charge are sticking to a plan and keeping the components they need to achieve their goals.

I look forward to a season where the team makes the playoffs, someone new speaks to the reporters and we anoint someone new the leader of the group. To the season...