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.

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