Thursday, March 27, 2008

First, But Not Home and Away

All's rosy in Montreal. First place in March. It has been truly impressive.

However, a couple of nights ago, it was the West who clinched the rights to the President's trophy.

Even with all the positives floating around, I thought it would be worth a look at the reasons (I believe) that the Habs are not Detroit, not running away with the league or, indeed, the East title. In keeping with the accepted format, I'll list my 10 reasons here:

1. Michael Ryder – he's had some great games, even playing the standout role in a few important wins over the season. But, it remains that up until February or so, he was not playing first-line calibre hockey. He has scored 10 less goals than he normally would have, and less than half of what we might have hoped. His play in November in particular, before line 1B got going, probably cost the team some possible points. His play since February, however, probably played a big role in that much vaunted 10-3-1 since the Huet trade.

2. Young players – when you start the season with so many players under the age of 23, you should expect some nights dedicated to learning from mistakes. Carey Price certainly had a few before his competition for the number one job came from Slovakia, not France. Andrei Kostitsyn took a couple of months more learning than some might have hoped. Latendresse, also a mere 20 years of age, is learning how to play nightly.

3. The West – better than the East at the moment. When I say better, I refer to their top few teams, that is Detroit, Dallas, San Jose and Anaheim, all of whom handled the Habs with relative ease. More wins in the West would have added daylight between us and the pack. Not to worry, we have a couple of months to figure out how to do it...

4. Christopher Higgins – obviously not a bad player to have around. However, if Koivu was given a star winger, Higgins would not have to play the role that he has been trying to play for most of the season. Chris is a great player, but in only his 3rd season, may need more time to figure out how to be a top-line goalscorer. Chris has also done exactly what should have been expected of him, with steady improvement of his totals. Some wild predictions for him early, which had they come true, would have made him a 40-goalscorer and earned the Habs points in the standings.

5. Too many defensemen – signing Brisebois, playing Dandenault, these were early season mistakes. Now on the radio you will hear about rolling 4 forward lines. Well, that's not how it started in October. Playing 8 defensemen (sometime 2 up front), in hindsight, was clearly holding back the best offense in the league. The change, I think was made around the Sergei Kostitsyn move, what I think was an admission the original plan (including overloading with D) was going awry.

6. Goaltending choices – first and foremost, not playing Halak. Halak could have and should have played. He is a very good goalie who could have stolen points. Instead, Carey Price (in December) and Cristobal Huet (in February) were played, even when they probably needed some rest and recalibration.

7. French Canadians – Pascal Leclaire, Dany Sabourin, Martin St. Louis. Come on. Every French Canadian seems to play that much better in Montreal than anywhere else. Their superhuman efforts on some nights have cost the Habs.

8. Summer signings – Smolinski, Brisebois and Kostopoulos. Initially these players played more than they do now. Clearly, as the season progressed, they have found their proper roles. In addition to the signings that were made, consider the signings that were not made: Brian Rafalski, Teemu Selanne. These moves could have helped the Habs in the short-term garner more wins.

9. The plan – most of the above also fall in some way into this category. We didn't sign a scoring winger for Koivu because we chose to develop young players instead (NOTE: Gainey would have gladly obtained someone, provided the cost was acceptable – see Hossa – but not at the expense of people integral to his plan). Basically, I think even Bob Gainey would tell you this year has come sooner than anticipated. But consider that if Buffalo and Ottawa were gunning for 110+ points like a year earlier, the Habs would be in a fight for 5th. The Canadiens, in essence, are right where they planned to be, it's the rest of the teams that have slipped or fallen.

10. Jason Spezza and the Ottawa Senators – the antithesis of the Bruins. The Senators know the Canadiens have weaknesses and exploit them. They, as the best team in the East coming in, understand how to exploit a rookie defenseman and goalie. It's not magic what they do, it's called setting the tone. They know that if they set the tone, the Habs will begin to question how they can possibly climb back against Spezza, Alfredsson and co. Last game, the Habs set the tone and won. Is the lesson, therefore learned? Let's hope so.


All that realism, here's my disclaimer. As I said, I believe the Habs are right where they wanted to be and should be (maybe 4-5 points better, or a couple of Boston wins). This list should not be seen as a negative piece, but rather as a list of things that, in some cases could be improved, in order to step up to Detroit's level.

In some instances, the lessons have been learned on the fly. In fact, if you look at the pace since Game 29 or so, you'd see an upturn in the points-per-game average of the Habs: the 8 D is out the window, Price has learned a lot (as have other youngsters), Ryder has been steadily improving. To call it a season of two halves would be an exaggeration, but it would not be crazy to say this team has, especially since January, taken big steps beyond some its Eastern rivals.

As we know the quest for 96 is over, so we can look for 100+ and first and more importantly then move onto the quest for 32 more big points this spring...

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