Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Look to the East: The Looming Threat of European Money

Having briefly touched upon the subject of IIHF treaties and transfer agreements in a piece more than a week ago (see The Future Habs D: Transfers and Treaties).

Interestingly for Tobalev and I, this sparked a number of conversations with people actually at the tournament and who had been reading our piece. What's more, one friend who is closer to the game than us was able to enlighten us quite a bit on this topic. He mentioned that he found our piece timely, seeing as the IIHF transfer agreement was the talk of the town in Halifax and Quebec, where the Europeans were gathered for the games.

Obviously since I wrote that last piece, the championships have ended, Russia has won and celebrated like it mattered to them and no Habs are playing hockey anymore. Even so, the transfer agreement looms over the NHL, and indeed the Canadiens off-season planning, and deserves a second look.

The talk of the tournament

At the moment, apparently most of the talk on the transfer agreement is focused on which players from the NHL will jump ship and take a payday in Russia. This is because Russian teams, already in their off-season, have been making offers to many top players in Europe and North America. The money may be such that NHL will be left with no choice but to let these players go.

Far from being the only concern for the NHL, the Czechs are already looking at not entering into a new agreement, and the same might be true of Sweden. The general feeling at the tournament, apparently, was that no agreement would be reached in the near future, at least. So, one would speculate that even the teams from other leagues in Finland, Germany and Switzerland wouldn't be far behind either once the big players drop out.

Personally, I think this is serious, and I see the absence of the agreement with the European clubs potentially affecting the league in three ways:

1) A temporary drop in Europeans across the league

2) More aggressive (and possibly longer-term) NHL contracts with flight risk players

3) A shift in power among clubs (those that can still tap European talent vs. those that resort to North Americans who would be classed as minor leaguers at the moment)

Less Europeans

A drop in the numbers of Europeans in the league could be viewed as a good or a bad thing. I can hear Don Cherry's "Let them go!", even now.

For me, I would consider it to be a large step backwards. After all, the last time the NHL was replete of Europeans, there were only 21 teams. At that time, the top teams were the top teams, but the argument could have been made that there was still not enough NHL-level talent coming out of Canada and the US (to some degree) to support so many teams. Imagine now trying to stock 30 teams with Canadian and US players only. The initial drop in play would be difficult to take. Never mind that many European players are also among the more skilled and most excellent at skating – the direction we thought the league was meant to be headed.

Interestingly, in our discussion it also came up that Russia, after all, is not currently the greatest place in the world to spend your youth. This is particularly true of the Siberian towns where the oil magnates operate their mega clubs. Other than Russians, the feeling is that no one wants to sign for more than one year in Russia right now. The lifestyle has not improved to the point for anyone to go there too long.

NHL GMs should not be resting on their laurels,though. This situation could, and will likely, change as Russian living conditions improve and as the list of overseas options includes countries like Sweden and Switzerland. Indeed, one need only ask the North Americans who have made tracks over to those leagues rather than toil in the AHL or lower leagues. We speculated about Finns and particularly Swedes (who already show their desires to return home on plenty of occasions – Naslund, Forsberg). If Sweden and Finland drop out of the agreement, the problem of losing players could get more serious.

The inevitability of the drop is real, though – even with only Russia and the Czechs on the outs. People in the know keep stating how the money coming out of the European leagues is bigger than before and those teams can afford to poach a player or two from "big" NHL clubs. The simple fact there are many times more clubs in Europe will put the onus on the NHL to stem the tide – as opposed to hoping all European clubs run dry of cash.

More aggressive contracts

An initial reaction will no doubt be to hold onto the Europeans who figure large in the plans of your club. Pittsburgh and Washington will likely ante up big for Malkin and Ovechkin, and why shouldn't they. However, teams like Montreal, New York, Dallas, etc. who are currently riding a cast of middle range European talent may be asked to pay over the odds for their players.

While the tactic of aggressive contracts to Europeans could indeed help to stem the tide of Europeans out of the NHL initially, there are only so many big contracts a team, and the league can sustain.

Power shift

Following a partial loss of talent and vain attempts to offer contracts, I see certain clubs giving up on the Euro game. Others will stick it out. This is the power shift – with access to more talented players open only to those willing to put up with the hassle. I spoke about this potential shift in power in the last piece as well. I truly believe that with any change in circumstances there comes a pressure to adapt. The teams that adapt the quickest and best will be the ones who form "dynasties" in the near future.

I cited the scouting of Detroit (particularly in Sweden) as the foundation of their rise to prominence once the NHL opened its doors wholesale to the European leagues in the early 1990s. Similarly, a team who positions itself to perform real and serious negotiations with Russian teams now – and other European teams later – will reap the harvest of European surplus fed by the exodus of Euro NHLers.

When asked, our friend in the know agreed that having someone who knows how the system works would be very valuable to any team. He noted how teams in Europe do things so differently, an NHL team trying to negotiate the situation would need an insider who knows how the system works.

"Everyone calls it the wild west cause there’s no rules, it’s all gangsters and making/taking bribes."

Really, he said, it’s just a matter of being smart and getting a good Russian (for the current situation anyway) on your side.

What now for the Habs?

Obviously, it comes back to the Canadiens. While I am concerned about the NHL as a whole in so far as it provides the Canadiens with a league to compete with the best clubs in the world; I am not overly concerned with the plight of teams who may fall down because of a resistance to change or lack of adaptability. What concerns me is that the Habs get a leg up here for the next 10 years.

In terms of current players, the Habs probably have to resign themselves to losing Grabovski. We have been hearing that the word on the street is that he is at least entertaining offers. The writing seemed on the wall for him, as he keeps coming up short on lower lines and is not likely to unseat either Koivu or Plekanec for a top line spot.

The Habs will have to make serious strategic decisions, however, about key players like the Kostitsyns (are both to be kept???), Halak, and the youngsters in the pipeline (notably Valentenko.

As for mining the Russian league for talent at the current time, my friend and I were at a loggerheads. I suspect this is because there is no right answer.

My feeling is that the Habs should take advantage of the mass of NHL clubs who are clearly shying away from Russians by having a look at what's available – or at least letting young Russians know that Montreal is interested in players who want to play for the Stanley Cup.

My friend, who not only works in hockey, watched the World Champs and just generally is much better versed in this kind of stuff than I am warns the Canadiens GM to stay away:

There’s a reason these guys don’t play in the NHL. They aren’t driven by being the best in the world, or part of the best team in the world or a need to be challenged by the best. You don’t need someone or your team who plays the game for a living and cause it’s all he knows.

While I find his argument very convincing, I still find myself looking at Detroit again and thinking about finding the Russian Kronwalls, Franzens and Zetterbergs.

I don't know. What do you all think?

If nothing else, I think we'll all be talking about this soon enough, if not just now...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sporting News: Habs Players Snubbed

Thanks to Mike Boone for keeping up his posts and fishing this one out:

The Sporting News has named Bob Gainey National Hockey League Executive of the Year.

Gainey received 12 of 28 votes cast by league executives. Detroit vice-president/GM Ken Holland was second with six votes.

Sporting News Coach of the Year Mike Babcock got six of 18 votes cast by his peers, while Guy Carbonneau picked up five votes to finish second.

Alex Ovechkin was named Player of the Year, picking up 250 of a possible 287 votes in a poll of players conducted for the magazine. Evgeni Malkin finished second with 18 votes.

The Sporting News named Patrick Kane Rookie of the Year. The magazine's All-Star team includes Martin Brodeur, Mike Green, Nicklas Lidstrom, Ovechkin, Malkin and Jarome Iginla.

How funny that the year the players put it together and Gainey does little more than watch his previous work come to fruition, it is Gainey that is honoured and the players, namely Markov, that are snubbed.

I am excited for Washington that they are up and coming and made the playoffs for the first time in a while, but I don't think they necessarily merit 33% of the places on the all-star team for the season. One can hardly argue with the selections of Brodeur, Lidstrom, Ovechkin, Iginla and Malkin from this past season, but Mike Green should be up for discussion.

Questionable choice

Mike Green is definitely an up-and-comer, but I would hesitate to lay this honour on him just yet.

For on thing, the Capitals were not a good defensive team. While Lidstrom led defencemen in the NHL for scoring, he also led his team to the Jennings trophy. Green, while scoring 18 goals and 56 points led his team to a tied 17th best GA record (tied with Phoenix, no less).

For another thing, the Capitals play in what is hands down the worst division in the NHL. They played 32 games against division rivals, all of whom missed the playoffs. Most of their success came against these teams, as well.

Finally, I thought everyone was in agreement that Washington Capitals = Alexander Ovechkin. At least, that's why a player from a seventh place team is the heavy Hart trophy favourite, right? I would suggest that Mike Green without Ovechkin is probably a lesser player than all the alternatives (who incidentally, all play without Ovechkin).

My 6th All-Star

Looking through the league I see at least three legitimate candidates who would supersede Green in my ranking:

1) Dion Phaneuf
Already a Norris trophy candidate. Plays well at both ends. And, unlike Green, his team's seventh place finish came in what is probably the toughest division in the NHL.

2) Zdeno Chara
We saw what kind of a defender he was in our series. And, having seen what else Boston has to offer, it wouldn't be a stretch to say Chara led a team pretty much bereft of talent (certainly Ovechkin-calibre talent) to the same number of points as Washington in a much tougher division.

3) Andrei Markov
Outpointed Green. Led his team to first overall in the East. Choreographed the best PP in the league. Played on a defense that was significantly stingier in much tougher divisional games. What's more, he did it all without Ovechkin (with all respect to Kovalev).

I select Andrei Markov for the team instead of Green. He not only has better credentials than Green to make it, but the Canadiens deserve to be recognised for the season they had (and Markov would be a good representative) rather than the Capitals being given a double gong for pipping the flailing Canes at the post.

As if to prove the point, in the last head-to-head, Markov's Russia prevailed. Let's hope the next magazine gets its selections right...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Head Coach Therrien: No Thanks

Now that Michel Therrien is on the verge of a Stanley Cup final, some Montrealers have gotten to thinking that we let one get away.

Let me assure you: we didn't – not in Therrien anyway.

I wrote a review of Therrien's Montreal tenure before (and you can read it here). The facts show he misused his resources, squandered opportunity and generally didn't do very well. He may have matured, but he was not a good coach back then.

Whether he is a good coach now or not is not clear, nor is it of great concern to me. While there is some skill involved in coaching the current league MVP, the upcoming league MVP and other first overall picks, the fact is there are at least twenty odd coaches who could handle that brief. I think many an illustrious Florida coach could get wins out of Crosby, Malkin and Hossa.

Let's not let one Stanley Cup final appearance have us longing for the Michel "Second penalty" Therrien.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Flyers Flop: Impostors Outed

Vengeance futile:

The Philadelphia Flyers and their ridiculous playoff marketing are out of the playoff

Flyers reporter Chuck Gormley, who forgot to revise his playoff report after the victory vs. the Habs, had this to say this morning:

In the process, the Flyers found a natural-born leader in Mike Richards, who justified his 12-year, $69 million contract by playing every shift in the playoffs as if it was his last.

In Marty Biron, they found a goaltender in his prime who could raise his level of play in the postseason.

In Jeff Carter and R.J. Umberger, they found two budding stars capable of producing clutch goals when the spotlight was at its hottest.

Having ousted the Canadiens on the backs of two or three solid performers and a bit of fortune, the Flyers earned Gormley's accolades. But then they proceeded to turn around and throw up a brick against the favourite Penguins.

Hugely satisfying (and dissatisfying at once) to the Canadiens fan is to watch the very players who played playoff heroes two weeks ago outed for the impostors they are. I wouldn't say it brings me much comfort that Biron started letting in goals again or that Umberger returned to 13-goal form, but for posterity have a look at what we could have seen:

Umberger 0.20 goals per game vs. the Penguins
A return to close to his 0.18 goals per game of the regular season. The anomalous 1.60 goals per game against the Habs was just fortuitous timing after all.

Biron .876 save percentage
No more breakaway game savers here. He let in good goals, bad goals, powerplay goals even. It wasn't a return to normal (far worse), but anyone who purported he was a playoff calibre starter is seeing Cloutiers.

While the Flyers fans should be and are happy about going from 15th to runner-up in the East, the players, managers and reporters need to have a think about what happened in the last 5 games. There was this:
It was a harsh reality for a close-knit group of guys that was only seven wins away from bringing Philadelphia its first championship since 1983.

And this:
They just ran into a hot team. Pittsburgh hasn’t lost in regulation at Mellon Arena since February, around the same time when they last lost back-to-back games.

And then the pot calling the kettle black:
“I think we really had a chance to beat these guys,” Scott Hartnell said. “The chances they had were because of our mistakes.”

Pretty rich for a team that made the second round on a non-goal, scored on every meaningful shot they took in the second round and then faced a far superior opponent and proved just how superior they were. All quotes neglect to recognise that the Flyers are out because the Penguins are so so much better than their competition. This was not a bad luck semi-final. You don't lose a playoff round in 5 games on a 6-0 rout if you're unlucky. This was a mismatch through and through.

Canadiens management should take note as well. While our fans and management can take consolation in the fact that our team at least played as well if not better than their opponents before they went out – the same feeling would not pervade had the opponent been the Penguins.

However, Flyers fans should not take offence. Sure they were impostors for the Eastern conference championship, but I have a feeling 13 other teams would have looked the same this spring.

Hossa a Penguin or not, the teams in the East will need to do better to make the finals in upcoming seasons.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Future Habs D: Transfers and Treaties

No more than a blip on most peoples' radar during our ongoing playoff run: at the end of April/beginning of May it emerged the IIHF transfer agreement was heading for collapse, in all likelihood.

The Hockey News carried the story.

The article notes how the Czechs are stepping into line with the Russians in their boycott of an uneven playing field with piddly transfer money for young stars. It also notes that should the agreement fall down (as seems likely), the current flat fee for players will be a thing of the past and player transfers will be negotiated on an individual basis – much like the world of soccer.

Spector of FoxSports also addresses the issue of international transfers. While his take on matters is altogether correct for the transfer of superstars (suggesting the NHL money will win the day), he does little to acknowledge the way the landscape will change for NHL clubs looking to populate their support positions with more talented Russians, Czechs and Swedes. The individual negotiation of terms for terms for transfers of 3rd and 4th defencemen and 2nd line wingers could be a turn off for the lazier NHL GMs, and the cheaper of the owners.

On the flip side, while reluctant teams withdraw, there could be a boon for teams who choose the stick with the recruitment of Eastern Europeans. The simple mechanics of supply and demand governing the process over time.

So where does this leave the Canadiens?

Like the Detroit Red Wings, the Montreal Canadiens are becoming a poster franchise for the use of intelligent European scouting teamed with effective integration strategies for the players once they arrive. While Detroit uses its expertise in Sweden to exploit the top Swedish leagues, Montreal has been plucking diamonds from the rough in Russia and former Soviet republics like Belarus.

The franchise currently has three defensive prospects from Russia (already balking at flat fees) in the development pipeline:

1) Pavel Valentenko

2) Alexei Emelin

3) Konstantin Korneev

Valentenko is currently under the Habs tutelage in Hamilton, with a North American contract assuring his availability to the big club for the near future. However, if he isn't resigned, he could fly the coop rather than stick around for life in the AHL.

Emelin is the great white hope, and is technically bound to his RSL club through next season. While Korneev (little Markov) is playing with CSKA for the foreseeable future, as well as demonstrating his worth with the Russian National squad in Quebec City.

The Canadiens could conceivably have all three players lined up on the blue line next season, though that seems very unlikely indeed. Partly due to seniority, mostly due to transfer arrangements. However, over time it seems that at least a couple of these three young Dmen would prove to be significant upgrades on other available options like Cote and Carle.

I would be happy to see any of the three with the team as we move away from washed up veterans (Brisebois, Dandenault) and make the Bell Centre a defensive fortress. I hope the first steps are taken this summer with some resolution on the best of the three (Emelin), and who wouldn't want an offensive youngster like Korneev on that second PP?

If I had Gillett's ear, I would be preparing for a presentation on the benefits of being at the vanguard of transfer activity as the new NHL system moves to a world soccer transfer market. I would suggest the following strategy:

1) Hire a transfer specialist – preferably someone who can speak Russian or Czech

2) Begin to make inroads with mega-clubs like CSKA, AK Bars Kazan and Avangard Omsk

3) Foster good feeling with Russian teams by presenting fair offers for Emelin and Korneev (maybe that Huet money he saved could come to good use after all)

The NHL:Euro environment is in the throes of change and the teams that adapt quickest will stand to gain the most (much like Detroit's scouting visions from the early 1990s).

The immediate impact of being at the vanguard of this movement for the Canadiens could be a superb defensive backline. The long-term benefits could lead to them playing with a stacked deck for years to come. If the Habs don't, some other team will.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Beyond Brunnstrom: Dredging for Talent

So Fabian Brunnstrom has flown. To Dallas.

The Canadiens were losers in these sweepstakes, but nowhere near a big losers as those teams not even mentioned in the sweepstakes.

How many teams were looking at Brunnstrom?

Six? Maybe eight?

This is a free player. Through development. You can see how he plays against men. Albeit not NHL players, but the risk is still so minimal compared to an entry draft pick. What's more the alleged bonus-laden contract takes the sting of potential flop away almost completely.

The teams not looking at players like these are behind the times. Detroit, Dallas, Montreal. No surprise teams like Florida, Columbus, Chicago and Phoenix aren't on the list.

So what to do now that Fabian's gone?

Back on the horse, I say. Detroit got back on the horse with immediate effect. They picked up Ville Leino, making time for the talks in the midst of a Stanley Cup quest.

That makes two conference finalists thinking ahead. The Canadiens need to keep up.

The Canadiens also have a precedent for this kind of behaviour. They signed Oleg Petrov after a brilliant Swiss season, they signed Mark Streit, they took Cristobal Huet on board based on his foreign league stats. Their most recent gamble was Janne Lahti from last summer. It looks like it didn't pay off, but at least we're still in the hunt for these freebies.

I think I have a name for them: Eric Westrum.

I have put him forward as an option before. And as I mentioned then:

He played for the Springfield Falcons and Utah Grizzlies like Streit. Check.
After trying to make it in North America, he turned to the Swiss League, where he picked up his offensive numbers. Check.

What's even more interesting is that Erik's Dad is Pat Westrum, the Montreal Canadiens hotshot scout.

Sure he's a risk, but he's big, he's a winger, he's dominated a foreign league and he's Habs family...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

From Souray to Huet: A Year of Gainey

Since people have been calling me audacious to challenge the reign of Bob Gainey, I have been meaning to explain myself. I was actually trying to come up with a title and a direction for a post just yesterday, when I read this piece by Eric Engels on hockeybuzz.com

The piece gave me direction (almost directly opposite) and a title. So here we go.

Let me start at the beginning here, by summarising why criticism of Bob Gainey (GM) is even pertinent at this time:

  1. The NHL season is not over, but the Canadiens are out
  2. The Canadiens lost to an opponent whom they beat 4 times in the regular season, in the majority of games the season before, were the worst team in the NHL the year before, in 5 games
  3. Bob Gainey both made moves and refrained from making moves over the season

Eric Engels begins his own article by wondering how anyone could question Gainey. I think he is calling me (and others who question Gainey) a moron:

What do you think of Bob Gainey now? It’s amazing how many people can doubt someone with as much integrity, and hockey-knowledge as Bob Gainey possesses. Moreover, it’s amazing how people doubt someone who’s proven that all his decisions are methodically considered, and unwavering under colossal pressure. He built a team that no one thought would contend for the playoffs, let alone the Stanley Cup, and yet there are still some morons out there who don’t understand the value of his decisions—decisions that gave our fair city the best hockey season we’ve witnessed in two decades.

I suppose I merited that tag for being unclear. Of course, I don't question Bob Gainey's commitment, integrity or hockey knowledge. But, unfortunately for Bob, he is not the only good GM around. He is not even the only GM trying to set up a winning team. He is not the only GM to oversee a team with improving fortunes, either. I suppose the criticism (which I called disappointment) is that Bob, while doing an excellent job, is being outperformed. Or, at least has been outperformed over the last months. And, since there is only one trophy, being outperformed often means going home trophyless at the end of 8 long months of hockey.

Bob Gainey as GM has shown great talent for man management and hirings in the front office, a knack for the amateur draft and for signing players to good value contracts without hand-cuffing the franchise. His area of weakness, in my opinion, has been the addition of existing NHL talent – more specifically still: trades.

If you compare Bob to his peers, he appears to be more patient, more cerebral, and more cautious. All these characteristics serve him well for many of his duties, but as I questioned before, will Gainey be able move away from his patient, cautious approach and seize an opportunity when it comes?

Darren (from the comments of the last entry) noted that the Penguins GM, also in the midst of building a team gave up a lot for Marian Hossa, as he judged there was a chance to push for the Cup. At present, it seems like Shero's move is paying dividends, but we have yet to receive the final verdict. In any case, I wouldn't be writing this article about my GM if I were a Pittsburgh fan today. Shero wasn't the only GM to move. Brett Hull made a sly trade for Brad Richards, and his Stars, while reeling, are still alive too. Detroit didn't move too much at the deadline (Brad Stuart for free though), but amazed again last summer by adding the top free agent defenceman to their already talent-laden camp. While I don't like what Paul Holmgren did with the Flyers, no one can deny the jump they made in the standings. His notable addition of a veteran goalie has helped stem the tide of Nittymaki free-fall.

I could go beyond these four as well, but I won't. All this was to show that Bob Gainey, a talented guy, has talented peers too. And, from the looks of it, they are beating him handily at trades and attracting free agents, while he builds the patient way. I think if he wants to bring his team to the top table, he has to get a bit braver. If the biggest decision you make all season is whether to trade away impending free agents or not, perhaps he is getting left behind.

I say this like I say Plekanec needs to work on face-offs – a mere statement of opinion that one aspect of Bob's game could use a shine.

Evidence: a few recent decisions

Not trading Souray
Trading Souray would have been an obvious admission of defeat on the part of Bob Gainey. In his 5-year rebuilding plan, missing the playoffs in 2007 was a step backwards considering the team being employed in games and the free agent signings of the summer.

The incongruency with other moves (Rivet trade), however, suggests that Gainey may have attempted to trade Souray, but felt the value he would get in return was too low. Too low, even compared to 20 odd games worth of Sheldon, that is. It is also conceivable that Gainey legitimately wanted to sign Souray; and, as such, kept his man on board in order that they might work out a deal later. Either of these two give Gainey a legitimate excuse for the non-trade.

However, in the case of the Souray non-trade, I think we would be correct in speculating, however, that the playoffs (both for Gainey's record and Gillett's pocketbook) were a factor. If so, any reasonable critic could state that Gainey tampered with future success for a low-hanging fruit. A critic would not be wrong in pointing out that the move this year was inconsistent with the move last year – even at the risk of being called a moron by the eminent Mr. Engels.

My personal stance on Souray is ambivalence. I think calling him our best player last season is a stretch, considering how poor he was in his day-to-day position. It would have been nice to get something for him, but, I think the other GMs were wise to his deficiencies – so value would be lower. His points and goals during the stretch run provided hope and most of all entertainment.

At the end of the day, it's safe to say, I would have been upset with a draft pick for Souray just as I was for Huet.

Trading Huet
At the risk of angering the "get over it" gang, I'll voice my displeasure over this trade once again.

I should probably start by saying I would be pretty unhapppy at getting a second round pick for 80% of the current team. In principle, I think trading an NHL-calibre body for a 10% chance of getting an NHL body at some point in the future is lunacy. Apart from high first round picks, there are no guarantees in the draft. A second-round pick can turn into something special, but on average it won't.

I am also very much against making negative trades with players that aren't causing a problem of some kind on the team (let's say Dagenais as an example for that). There is absolutely nothing wrong, in my opinion, with losing a player for nothing if it means you get to keep that player for 20+ games. I have many times criticised Rejean Houle for this kind of negative management, and so to see Gainey resort to it was disappointing to say the least.

I also have to state, though, that I have absolutely nothing against a GM using his knowledge of the situation and intuition to determine that the time for his team is just not now. The Huet trade, if nothing else, announced to me that the GM of the team did not think he had the horses to run with Detroit, Dallas, Anaheim or San Jose. The evidence from the season would certainly prove him right.

All that said, I have yet to be convinced by anyone that trading Huet was necessary to allow Carey Price more starts – he could have been played more regardless of who was backing him up. Or to give Halak a real chance – but I think evidence for that theory has been blown out of the water. Or that Huet was a problem in the dressing room.

So what gives?

It all comes back to either money or the negative trade. Neither option offers anything positive for me.

You all know my opinion on Huet. But, on the trade itself, I was also disappointed. Brave would have been holding Huet when finding all you could get would be a second round pick. I thought the decision was neither brave nor creative. Creative would have been trading Halak in the hope that Washington would cough up more. What irks me is how unproductive and unnecessary the trade was. All told, it brought Gainey back down off his pedestal for me.

The Hossa non-trade
It's much more difficult to debate a non-trade than a trade since nothing is really known about it. What we do know about this particular non-trade was that Gainey was interested and he balked before the deadline at some point.

This non-trade is more interesting than the billions of other possibilities that could be dreamed up becuase it involved Marian Hossa – a scoring winger for Koivu. You see Hossa is a legitimate NHL star. He is a 40-goal threat, a puck carrier, a shooter and a nightmare for opposing teams to plan for. Most players could only dream of being as good as Hossa has been already.

The rumour is that player 1 in the trade for us was Christopher Higgins (at least for Waddell). For players like Hossa, a GM pays heavily (nothing is free), but in getting the best player in the trade often wins the trade by a landslide. In my opinion, it wouldn't matter who players 2, 3 and 4 were – especially if they were not in the NHL. So you have Higgins (and friends) for Hossa (20+ games). Under the circumstances, I think Gainey did the right thing here (especially having already traded goaltender insurance). A playoff rental would have gone against the grain of the team this year.

The order of proceedings
Finally, with regard to the trade deadline this season, you have the order of events prior to the trade deadline. Huet is traded then some time later Gainey pulls out of the Hossa trade.

This is noteworthy because it is in this order and not the opposite: Gainey pulls out of the Hossa trade then trades Huet.

In the latter, Gainey would have been trying to push his team over the top, been stifled, pulled out and then got what he could for a player who he deemed replaceable and unsignable.

In the former (and real) scenario, Gainey appeared to waver. It's only speculative of course, but by trading his number one goalie from a mere 2 weeks earlier (all-star and NHL three-star from January), Gainey paints the picture that he doesn't believe in the Habs playoff chances. Fair enough, he was probably right, but why then pursue a playoff addition like Hossa?

The move doesn't defy logic or anything, but it does defy (at least a little again) the idea that Gainey is infallible and without peer in the NHL.

The verdict
I hope Bob Gainey supporters understand that I still very much think he is a great GM. Possibly the best in the league, and certainly the best man for the Montreal Canadiens job. I merely question whether he will be able to deliver Detroit-style decade-long dominance if he doesn't adjust his game.

In my opinion, if he is to turn another rebuilding team into a dynastic rule, he must get a bit braver and more creative. I specifically point to trades as his area to focus his work on, as most other aspects of his GM play are top of the charts.

Nowadays, the price you should expect to pay to win the Cup is steep. This is simply because teams are playing for the single Cup – they will give up 5 years from now for this year. I think, as stated earlier, that he does need to be brave – probably this summer or next season – to add bodies the way his peers with playoff hockey to play and trophies in their cupboard do.

To win, even once, Gainey will have to play their game a little. If Gainey doesn't, and doesn't as a result ever move to the 6th year in his 5-year plan, we may just be lamenting the upshot team of the year (see Flyers this year) for many years to come.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Wading Through The Rhetoric

If another person tells me to be happy about the way the season ended because the Habs disproved the "experts", I might lose it.

Sure McGuire and others had the Habs coming 13th. But, the fact is, I dismissed that claim back in September, minutes after it was made. And sure, I didn't predict a first place finish, but we did have 96 points posted on the site the entire season as our reasonable target. I predicted 96-100 before the games began, and so was off by a lop-sided Bruins series.

Of course I was pleased that the Canadiens made the playoffs and had a great finish to the season, but I wouldn't put surprise among the emotions I felt.

With regard to the regular season, I feel the Canadiens put themselves in very good position to take advantage of unfolding developments in the East with a superb January. It was then that they solidified their playoff bid, gained massively on Ottawa and threw their name into the ring for the bout for conference leader. From there on, they played some very impressive games under pressure, and benefited just as much from some key injuries to key players and bad runs from their rivals.

So when I look at the season, I see a good step from last season and a very modest improvement in terms of the 5-year plan (with 6 more wins than 2003-04 and 5 more than 2005-06).

I also look at the 2007-08 season as full of small successes, both in team development and player development. The most pleasant surprises were the blossoming of Andrei Kostitsyn and the solidification of Mike Komisarek. Add to that the emergence of Mark Streit as a true NHL star, Kovalev turning solid play into goals and points, and the continued surge of Tomas Plekanec and you have a raft of bona fide success stories to fill the summer pages.


The reasons for disappointment are few indeed, yet they linger as the sting of the playoff loss is slow to dissipate.

My first disappointment were Carbonneau's first steps into the playoffs. Game 1 of the playoffs saw him alter the successful lineup card to reinsert some mostly ineffective performers. The only reason I can see for him doing so was to add a veteran presence to his team – an altogether even more depressing indictment of his total lack of experience and lateral thinking.

How can anyone look at a slow defensive team like the Bruins and decide to add more defensive options? Maybe he wanted to get the 4 home gates? I really don't know. If his omission of Grabovski throughout was depressing, his choices with Ryder were devastating. Refusing to play Streit at the back when our true depth is at forward was perplexing, all the more so when he deployed Streit as one of his preferred D in the best parts of the Philly series.

In the context of the season, the decision to go with 8 defencemen was very disappointing indeed. Having written at length on the subject of the Canadiens turnaround in December, I was decidedly deflated to see both Dandenault and Brisebois in the lineup for the start of the playoffs. As the Canadiens struggled to produce up front for the first time since December, one might have been forgiven for thinking Carbonneau might see the link in line-up decisions himself – he didn't.

All told, coaching can only take you so far. But negative coaching like this can drag a soaring team down (and it did). Carbonneau will need to be a whole lot braver in the future if he hopes to attain greater heights than Therrien and Julien did (both second round losers themselves). His coaching in the season earned him a deserved nod for the Adams trophy. His reactionary coaching in the playoffs earned him an extra month of summer.

There was also some disappointment with the players in general.

Complacency crept in against the Bruins, and the Canadiens only won in the end thanks to being able to reach for Saku Koivu. Amazingly after that lesson, they let the complacency come back.

Sure they hit posts, but for the most part their shots were rushed, unemphatic and from poor positions. Many people focus on Streit's point play, but I could equally cite Begin and Latendresse's constant shooting from poor position, the Kostitsyns' lack of killer instinct and Kovalev's distraction. Koivu played an exemplary playoffs again, and when the Canadiens followed his lead, they managed to crack Biron. The times where they sulked and hoped for pretty plays and weak shots to go in for them, they fell behind the tempo.

I was also disappointed in Price.

Of course, everyone was a bit disappointed he couldn't muster more big saves, but it's not this that hurt most. After hearing ever so much about this prospect's character, it was most disappointing to see him utterly pack it in on at least 3 occasions. Going for the fatigue excuse was also a let-down, since he is only 20 years old and the Canadiens should be a team that aspires to win more than 1 Stanley Cup in a row.

Finally, I would be committing a sin of omission if I didn't also express my disappointment with Bob Gainey.

I believe Darren put it best in the comments when he doubted whether Gainey would be be able to go beyond the patient builder and take some risks. Was this the year to take a risk? As the playoffs were virtually assured by the deadline, and with a raft of young assets on the farm, it seemed like it could be. The right deal didn't come along you say? That's what happens when you only start looking in February...

The fact that he plays the game as everyone else does (signings only in the summer, trades only at the deadline) is also a disappointment, as I was hoping for something more creative from our GM. The credit he should be given for sticking with Carey Price for the stretch should be balanced with the nothing-but-budgetary trade of Cristobal Huet.

All in all, satisfaction is the winning feeling as time goes on, but I hope the people who actually have power to make decisions and be creative aren't sitting on their laurels. Being satisfied with progress is mature, but it is not the attitude for an aspiring dynasty.

While I don't think airing disappointments publicly would be in the interest of Gainey, Carbonneau and the management team, I hope they have some.

I hope they use them to fuel the fire for winning.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hockey Season Never Ends

Though Tobalev and I have been taking sometime to catch our breath (read sulk), don't count us out until October.

First of all, there's the World Champs with Habs involvement, the playoffs, post-season analysis (to what depth I'm not sure yet) and all the good stuff that happens in the off season.

I won't promise a post a day, as the playoffs have been hard, but look for a few opinions on the Habs, hockey and associated topics in the months to come.

Thanks to all of you for reading our stuff. We're flattered by some of the comments and happy that you choose to look beyond the traditional media's narrow view with us here at LIW.

See you sooner rather than later.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Reasons to Believe: Shattered

OK, so the season's over.

What happened to "Believe in something and it will come true"?

Have we been cheated all those years by people repeating this old adage? I don't think so. I think the truth is that not many people believed in the first place and even less believed after game 4.

First of all, witness that only 3 people replied to the post to believe. It's true this site isn't a forum and doesn't always solicit an enormous number of comments, but we had a flood of them a few days earlier about Halak. Where's Geoff's positivity for example? Especially given that Price would be the starter...

I think what actually happened is that I stole the only real reason to believe with the first item on the list, Saku Koivu. I mean, come on, I know I included it, but how many really counted Carey Price's determination and demeanour as a real reason to believe. I had serious doubts with even adding his name to the list. Appears my worries weren't unfounded.

As much for exorcising some bad feelings of my own as to provide any insight, I wanted to revisit those now hollow reasons we cited to believe:

1) Saku Koivu

I think the captain came through yet again with the effort and the skill. He basically did his part, and heroics beyond creating goals and chances were unfortunately out of even his long reach. And, yet again he shows his hunger for success by immediately heading off to fight for gold with his country.

2) Carey Price's form since his 2008 anointment (Tru7h)

As I mentioned, this reason was tenuous at best. He was either injured (the generous take) or completely fazed by the increased tempo of playoff hockey.More disturbing was his total loss of focus after a bad goal – something, incidentally, we were promised this goalie didn't ever succumb to. I for one could endure a few more broken sticks if it meant he could break out of a prolonged sulk during the same game. He has a lot of learning to do (as we knew) and it may yet be a long road with him yet.

3) Elimination games (Tru7h)

As for elimination games, I was initially sold on this reason, but the fact remains they hadn't exactly won a Cup, had they?

This team puts themselves in unnecessary elimination games sometimes, thereby skewing their record here. Until they make it past the second round, I don't think this could count as a positive for them again. What's more, most of the Habs turbo-charged efforts in elimination games can be traced back to their captain.

4) The fans

This obviously factored into an early lead (a "depart cannon" if you will), but Bell Centre fans are fickle and know a lost cause when they see one. Enthusiastic cheering and hopeful bursts only masked the fact that Game 4's outcome had sealed the fate of the Habs in fans' minds.

5) Bob Gainey (Tru7h)

A stretch to be sure. Turns out Gainey didn't do anything too drastic to change Carbonneau's plan. Sure Price played, as expected, but there were no drastic measure anywhere else. Gainey played his hand with the Huet trade anyway, when he said that "The Canadiens are going nowhere this season, so we'll save the owner a few hundred thousand bucks".

6) It has been done before (Stevens)

Of course this goes both ways. The Canadiens have lost in 5 many times, as well.

7) The Canadian media has jumped off the bandwagon

Turns out the Canadian media were right. Canada's playoff style hockey beats Canada's team (who try to play regular season hockey in the playoffs – the fools).

8) The desire to prove people wrong

I saw this desire around the team, but ultimately it wasn't enough. I suppose Carey Price did prove a lot of those prophecy mongers wrong though, didn't he?

9) Philly's victim currency has run out

Just as it did, they decided to play well. That was unlucky...

So there you have it.

I leaned on Koivu for three unlikely wins and the team's out. Far from blaming him, he is still the Canadien I admire most, as he did what under most professionally defended and goaltended circumstances would have been enough.

If the Canadiens are going to grow as everyone predicts they will, they need to make sure that next time we come to one of these situations (an we will) that I (and others) can feel confident about putting other names to paper. Whether this means trades, signings or much better psychological coaches (I'm looking to Long Island...) is yet to be seen.

Enter the next stage of the game. Go Habs Go.

Game #2-5

Price Ends What Should Have Been Close Series Early

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Saturday May 3rd, 2008
Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes

Final Score: 4-6 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Martin Biron (W)

Habs goalscorers: Tomas Plekanec, Alexei Kovalev, Christopher Higgins, Andrei Kostitsyn
Opposition goalscorers: R.J. Umberger (2), Mike Richards, Scott Hartnell, Scottie Upshall, Mike Knuble

2007/08 first
There's a first time for everything, so they say. What they didn't tell you is that every game, something happens for the first time, you just have to look harder in March...

1st 6 Goal-Against Performance of the Playoffs
1st 4 Game Losing Streak of the Season

Play of the game
The play you're straining to see on the press catwalk monitor...

Plekanec's Goal which was scored early, on the PP and before any Flyers goals was the hi-light for me. We did all the things we hadn't been able to do all playoffs in those 3, but at the end of the day the same result. It was a simple goal by Habs standards, but it reminded Habs fans every where how easy hockey could be - the rest of the game proved us all wrong yet again. The goal itself was a deflection from another Brisebois point-shot.

Game puck
Trophies are for the end of the year, play well in the game, you get a lovely puck...

Tomas Plekanec

Plekanec came to play in a must-win game which was surprisingly not a trait I saw in each and every Hab. He was very active in both zones as I thought he had his best game of the playoffs. He did very well against the bigger Flyers defenders as he used his speed to easily get around them.

Dome hockey team
We're going into the last minute with these 6 (and they're attached to the ice, so they're not coming off)...


Andrei Kostitsyn
- His goal to tie it up in the third gave the Habs and their fans one last bout of false hope in what became a series filled with 'what-ifs'. He used his speed better than any Hab in this game and actually seemed more comfortable in this pressure-packed situation that he had been all series

Tomas Plekanec
- He won 78% of his face-offs, had a goal and assist and played nearly 20 minutes of hockey. I personally thought that he outplayed Philly's #2 centre all series long and that was never more evident than in this game

Saku Koivu
- Do you all still want to trade this guy? For all of those who want our captain to go I want you to remember this series and these playoffs. I want you to remember how he has battled back from torn knee ligaments, cancer and a major eye injury. I want you all to remember him playing with broken ribs in 2004 and with a broken foot now. Saku is the ultimate playoff performer and though he does well in the regular season I think he has learned what has become blatantly obvious to all the fans out there - those 82 games mean absolutely nothing. This game he was again at his best, he also kept his point streak alive tonight with another assist - 9 points in 7 games, at least one in each


Mike Komisarek
- I didn't notice Mike too much in this game, but as well as being a bad thing it can also be a good thing. He was the only defenceman other than Markov to have a positive +/- tonight and actually did a good job of holding back Philly's big (over-paid) names. He has a lot of work to do though if he wants to be another Chelios or Markov, but I am sure this series will help

Andrei Markov
- He wasn't a star in this game or the series really, but he was still our best defenceman. He played 21 minutes, was +2 and was not on the ice for any Philly goals. Yes our goaltending was pathetic, but if we had 6 Markovs it wouldn't have mattered


Jaroslav Halak
- Is it Price's fault he was made the #1? Is it Price's fault we traded our best goalie since Roy for nothing? No, of course not, but it is his fault we lost the game and the series. He clearly does not have the skill or mental ability (yet) to be a true NHL star, but at 20 that is to be expected. I don't, however, feel one bit bad about calling this loss his fault. I haven't seen worse goaltending since Theo's last days in MTL and I only hope that Price can recover better than Jose did. Halak may not have done better, but he for sure would not have done worse. Price's calm, no-care attitude served him well in the regular season, but in the playoffs, against teams and players that actually wanted to win it caught up with him. His puck-handling and rebound control will need a ton of work if he wants to even be in this league a year from now. I have seen rookie phenoms like Raycroft and Ward follow a similar path and as of now am worried that Carey is going to do the same

Eyes on Kovalev
Did he flit and float? Someone ought to keep track...

Kovalev played well for us in this game, in the playoffs and all year. You can't ask much more than a goal and an assist in a must-win from your star and he delivered. He had 11 points in 12 playoff games with 5 goals - pretty much his phenomenal regular season pace. This game showed how much he cares about this team and about winning and if anything that bodes well for next year.

Kovalev's Assessment - Good

Overall Comments

I wish I could have been proven wrong about the whole Huet thing, I really wish I could. It seemed like in this game and series we had all the tools to win other than goaltending. I think what Gainey, Carbo and hopefully Price realized was that winning at the NHL level, where fans and players actually care, is way different than winning the Calder Cup. Price has all the skills to win hockey games, but he proved time and time again in this series (and the one against Boston) that he isn't mentally strong enough to deal with the pressure of playing in Montreal with the whole of Canada watching. I think having Huet around would have been a nice back-up plan as his 10 extra years would leave him a little calmer in the net. Trading Huet and never using Halak was the stupidest thing Gainey could have done this season. There was no point to ridding ourselves of an All-Star for nothing and then never using his replacement. I know the whole idea was to make Price feel like a starter and to give him confidence - well, for future plans, that doesn't seem to work.

I still think that the season was a success and that we learned a lot about what this team can and can't do. We can and should be able to make the playoffs again. We have good enough scoring to score when we need to and it is balanced enough to give us options. Our defence has all the tools, we just don't know how to use them yet. With a lot of solid prospects in the system our defence corps should be OK, but I hope we remember than veteran defencemen (Hatcher) end up out-performing young-guns (Komi) any day come spring time. We have hopefully learned that all we need is a confidant goalie. Philly proved that skill at that position is nowhere near as important as belief in one's self. It will be a long summer for sure, but at the end of the day I am happy. This team is on the rise and did well to win the East, have the top PP and get 5 playoff wins. I expect bigger and better things from these guys in the near future - that all starts in early October, let the countdown begin

Friday, May 02, 2008

Reasons to Believe: Updated

Wow, not being overwhelmed by everyone's positivity. Maybe it takes an extra day?

The reasons are slowly accumulating though, thanks to replies from positive fellow fanatics Tru7h and Stevens. Keep more coming...


1) Saku Koivu

The best pressure player I have ever seen on any team I support. In the past 4 NHL seasons, he has played in 6 elimination games. In those 6 games, he has 2 goals and 9 assists, and has been the star of most as well. That's even without considering his victories over terrible injuries and illness. Can he play better? We may find it hard to conceive how he might, but he will – it's what he does. And, so for Captain Courageous:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

And, how many times has he done just that?

2) Carey Price's form since his 2008 anointment (Tru7h)

Prior to this series, Carey has always been able to bounce back into his best form.

3) Elimination games (Tru7h)

The Canadiens have a way to play big in these even BIGGER games. I guess some guys just thrive in that pressure cooker environment of "do or die" (see Koivu).

4) The fans

21,273 screaming fanatics behind the Habs on Saturday.

5) Bob Gainey (Tru7h)

With his team facing elimination, I honestly believe that Gainey will step-in to tell Carbo to cut the crap and play his best lineup.

6) It has been done before (Stevens)

Makes me feel that this has to be the team that pulls off something crazy. Like what was already said, Philly beat us 3x in a row, why can't we do it to them?

7) The Canadian media has jumped off the bandwagon


I feel that this is good in two ways. First, any feeling of unreasonable expectations will be temporarily eased. Second, it will turn the mentality into more of a siege mentality – where the coaches and team will add the desire to proving people wrong to their motivations.

8) The desire to prove people wrong

Worked well in those recent playoff upsets. Worked well following pre-season write-offs. Worked well when the ability to win the East was questioned.

9) Philly's victim currency has run out

People (even in Philadelphia) have had enough of the Flyers pathetic conspiracy theories and crying games.

And, finally, another good blogger has more positives in a good post on The H Does Not Stand For Habs

I know there's more. Send in your own reasons as we build up to this big game...

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Reasons to Believe

It's come down to this dear readers: Game 5 in Montreal on a May evening.

I know I'm being hypocritical by turning my criticism in for faith, but frankly I'm tired of criticising just now and all I want is to feel better about the chances of winning. I know many of you feel the same way.

There are a lot of "Ifs", though. If when the Canadiens hit the post, the puck flies into the slot not into the corner. If the team can score in the first period. If they could take a lead. If the PP (which is starting to look better, btw) could convert. The list goes on.

Well, in elimination games there are always "Ifs", but it is the composition of the team that is iced that will decide how many matter. Ultimately, it will come down to individual battles – races, wrestling matches, battles of discipline.

I want to start a list now of reasons to believe. I'll start, and then I would love it if people would send in their own reasons through the comments.

I believe the Canadiens will win Game 5. To start with:

1) Saku Koivu

The best pressure player I have ever seen on any team I support. In the past 4 NHL seasons, he has played in 6 elimination games. In those 6 games, he has 2 goals and 9 assists, and has been the star of most as well. That's even without considering his victories over terrible injuries and illness. Can he play better? We may find it hard to conceive how he might, but he will – it's what he does. And, so for Captain Courageous:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

And, how many times has he done just that?

Now, I want to leave it open to you readers. Please send in your reason(s) to believe. I'll gather them and compile them for the game on Saturday.

As "If" is one theme of this email, I will leave you all to ponder the immortal words of Rudyard Kipling in full – which never fail to rouse a downtrodden heart:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Go Habs Go.

Come on fans, let em feel the belief on Saturday...