Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Was Briere Right?

Since the response from the readers hasn't been overwhelming and the response from the Habs has been downright underwhelming, I am foregoing the review of opposition players. Time to focus our positive energy on the team we want to receive it...

Nearly 10 months ago, when the Flyers were the worst team in the NHL and the Canadiens might as well have been, Daniel Briere stuck a knife in the back of all Montreal fans.

No, it wasn't his signing with Philadelphia - that probably ended up being a big favour to us - but it's what he claimed his reasoning was:

"The Philadedelphia Flyers give me a better chance at winning the Stanley Cup."

Following three games of evidence collected, although still a bit premature, I want to ask: Was he right?

The answer is not simple.

Our outrage at first must surely have been fueled by our fear that what Briere said may be true. But, at the same time, we all watch hockey and we know the Flyers don't have any Kostitsyns, any goaltending prospects and were for the most part the same team that managed the least regular season points in recent memory.

The answer is complex, but it shouldn't be, and wouldn't be, but for strange thinking among hockey people.

The complexity of the answer stems from the fact the NHL, and many of its influential touts, are intent on playing two distinct types of hockey in two distinct seasons.

Witness last night's game. Habs fan frustration towards the officials in this game does not originate from a perceived imbalance of calls on the night (we couldn't care less about that). It comes out of a recognition that a large number of tactics and plays that are being allowed to pass in these in these playoffs (including last night) would have been called during the 82-game part of the quest for the Stanley Cup.

Personally, I feel this "playoff hockey" officiating is to the ultimate detriment of the sport of hockey. While it allows jobbing teams like the Bruins and Flyers a chance to compete in the spring, it totally throws other teams, who've grown and built success over months, completely off course. It forces those teams, perhaps not built entirely around the use of size, force and loose interpretation of the rules, to play more tentatively. It forces them to relegate the game that won them their success to the sidelines while scrambling to stay in step with their sparring partner. The changes are sometimes even very tangible as players who contributed substantially to success are benched in favour of "playoff veterans".

Just last night, Tobalev and I were talking about how poorly O'Byrne played. Tobalev said: "Everyone knows you can't play a rookie defenceman in the playoffs. Amazingly, washed-up veterans are just what you need on D in the playoffs."

My feeling is that O'Byrne is out of step because he has not learned how to "cheat" yet, that is to play playoff hockey and get away with it. So, even though he's been better than Jason Smith over the season, he looks far worse after nights like last night. This would also be the reason for the futile decision to play Streit up front, I suspect.

A classic case of the regular season/playoff dichotomy were the Ottawa Senators of the early century (or early noughties, as they call them in England). Now that the Senators reign may be coming to an end, I would ask whether the league is happy that a team like Ottawa, an expansion success story and one-time model for how to build lasting success, never really had a shout at the Stanley Cup.

Sure, they made the final last year, but that was only after they had traded their former identity in Hossa and Havlat away to make more room for playoff heroes like Fisher and Neil. "Optimising" their line-up for playoff battles and Don Cherry did not even take them far enough. Ultimately, they came up short against a team that with the notable exceptions of Selanne, McDonald and Niedermayr were brought in to force a Stanley Cup shaped-peg into a square-shaped hole in Anaheim.

As Habs fans, perhaps we look at Ottawa and smirk and even have a chuckle about the pretenders we pretend they are. We shouldn't.

The Canadiens are a team being built in the image of Ottawa from that period. Our brain trust now was their brain trust then. We are trying to emulate the system of perpetual talent coming through, largely through outperforming competitors at European and US scouting. When we enjoy our decade of reward as Ottawa did, will we end up looking for Chris Neils to replace our Kostitsyns? I hope not.

However, after watching the games the past few nights, I feel that if the NHL does nothing to improve the consistency of its officiating (specifically from regular season to playoffs), then we are stuck. They will be encouraging us and other teams to play down to the level of playoff battlers, instead of striving to be exciting and positive like the Canadiens of this year and the Senators of this past decade.

I fear we may be in for comfortable 7-month stretches, followed by quite uncomfortable 1-month stretches – like the one we are experiencing now. The Canadiens will be forced to play a game they were not grafted in for. Sergei Kostitsyn will be hitting Hatchers instead of exposing his weak skating. Kovalev will be retaliating for hits instead of instigating highlight reel plays.

So was Briere right? If Daniel had said the Flyers gave him a better chance at making the playoffs, he would have been wrong. But, if these games (like the last 9 for us) continue, he may be closer to the truth than we initially thought.

For the record, I still think Briere is way off. The Canadiens have it in them to beat this team and then one or two more as well. Plus, he probably never thought about his statement like we have, I'd say anything for 10 million a year (and to get a grumpy wife off my back) too...

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