Thursday, July 31, 2008

Broken Telephone: Hockey History on the Internet

In my real job, I take sourcing and referencing very seriously. I try to obtain all primary sources when I can and always double-check info obtained on the web. I have scolded a few employees over the years for using the highly unreliable wikipedia as a source.

In blogging, things are a bit different. I can tolerate wikipedia if what I read is generally in keeping with what I remember from superior sources. Blogging, by its nature, could not be restrained by the need to check for primary information at every turn. Even so, when it comes to some topics, I find it very irksome when the facts are wrong, or vague.

One of these topics is hockey history. And, that is why this video (found this morning on Eklund's already shaky site) got me going.

Championship Series - NHL - Stanley Cup

The video is rife with erroneous material – presented in a very matter of fact way to a much larger audience than most hockey history sites will ever reach.

1) While it is true that the Stanley Cup became the sole property of the NHL in 1926. The term adopted is misleading. The Stanley Cup was one of the NHL's adopted trophies since its inception, but 1926 marked the year they excluded the other (Western Hockey League) who had recently disbanded.

2) The Ottawa Senators were not the first team to win the Stanley Cup in the history of the NHL as the convoluted wording leads one to believe. They merely won the Cup in the year the NHL assumed sole control of the trophy. The NHL, founded in late 1917, had supplied the hockey world with Stanley Cup winners for 7 out of the 8 years it was presented up to 1927. Much to our chagrin, Toronto won the first Stanley Cup for the NHL. And, by the time Ottawa won that Cup in 1926, they were already the big dynasty with 3 of the 8 NHL Cups going to the Sens.

3) As if to eschew any accuracy in the report whatsoever, we are told that the Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy professional athletes compete for. While the debate can rage over who is first, it is not the Stanley Cup. By the time it was first awarded in 1893, athletes had already been competing for current professional trophies like the FA Cup, the Claret Jug and the America' Cup trophy for years.

All this frustrates me primarily because of its laziness – any of the facts could have been checked in a few minutes time. But also in realising that future arguments over forums, comment posts etc., we'll be seeing this lore repeated and probably misquoted again and again, like broken telephone.

And so for the Habs?
How to connect this to the Canadiens? Well for one thing, the heritage of the Stanley Cup is definitely Canadiens heritage, and Montreal heritage even more so. We' re not about to let our 1924 Cup be called non-NHL by some dodgy American video site. What's more, it only adds to the reasons we should question anything that is said about the Habs (or any team for that matter) on hockeybuzz, as the standards of their editorialising have been shown to be as shoddy as the standards for generating rumours.

Also, there was that nice Habs connection about typos. Gainy's mis-spelling far from funniest though. I like Ilanders best...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Elusive Power Forward

When was the first time we heard this term? Power forward? What does it mean?

I can vaguely remember my introduction to the concept of power forwarding around the time of Kevin Stevens. Kevin Stevens was a power forward – no other way to describe him. At that time in the NHL, one could throw around several names of forwards who one would put into the power bucket: Rick Tocchet, Cam Neely, Gary Roberts and an up-and-coming Keith Tkachuk were all the prototypes.

It seems that nowadays the lines are more blurred. Beyond Iginla, who is a productive power forward anymore?

There are big forwards. Are they power forwards? Oleg Kvasha wasn't, Nik Antropov isn't. No, power forward goes beyond size. As the name implies, the defining characteristic is power.

In a bit of lazy research for the piece (I never rely on Wikipedia in my day job), I came across this entry on the definition of power forward, at least as far as concerned editors and readers on the internet's encyclopedia are concerned. The definition is certainly worth a peek, but what interested me most was the ensuing list of current power forwards in the league:

* Dustin Penner, Edmonton Oilers
* Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames
* Shane Doan, Phoenix Coyotes
* Brenden Morrow, Dallas Stars
* Keith Tkachuk, St. Louis Blues.
* Rick Nash, Columbus Blue Jackets
* Brendan Shanahan, NY Rangers
* Gary Roberts, Tampa Bay Lightning
* Tomas Holmstrom, Detroit Red Wings
* Mike Knuble, Philadelphia Flyers
* Johan Franzen, Detroit Red Wings
* Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning
* Milan Lucic, Boston Bruins

Two things strike me as odd about this list:

1) It is very short

2) There are only 2 Europeans

This led me through a whole range of thoughts. The obvious knee-jerk reaction is to criticise the make-up of the list itself (In a departure from my usual MO, I decided not to take this route).

Next, I found myself thinking about the definition that would lead one to posting an exclusive list that at once contains league MVP-types like Iginla and Lecavalier with virtual nobodies Lucic and Penner (I guess i couldn't resist chipping in on that front after all).

Ultimately, that led to a very short, and extremely uninteresting post (IMHO). The final stage of questioning has led me to the line of thinking that the power forward notion itself is outdated and even obsolete. The interesting part, I suppose, here is the factors that have led to this change over the past few years.

The passing of the power forward

There is no doubt that there once were power forwards in the league. There is no doubt that players like those famous names at the top of this post still skate in the NHL, and that there will always be players like that. However, what I think sets apart the "power forwards" that remain in the league is their talent – that is to say, they can do more than add power. Lecavalier is an all-around talent, Iginla can skate and shoot extremely well, Shanahan is a smart player.

In the past, specifically in the 1990s, there were forwards who could neither skate, nor pass particularly well – players who were happy to hack at a puck all night to get some goals. Todd Bertuzzi springs to mind.

These players were propagated by need. The league was in a new generation of defensive focus, together with better goaltenders with equipment almost twice as big as before. For years, plan A to score goals was to put a big man in the goalie's line of sight and send in a low shot. More than this though, the power forward was required to overcome the unbelievable level of hooking and obstruction that was being allowed to pass for hockey.

With the temporary implementation of the rules of hockey from the time of the lock-out up until present day, the need for power forwards has diminished. As smaller players are no longer hooked and held back, they can begin to show their own merits in the league out-competing many a power forward for a job. Incidentally, the "power forwards", never mistaken for the fleet of foot, also lamented the crack-down on hooking, as they were largely no longer capable of making any meaningful contribution at the defensive end of the ice either.

In addition to the change in rules, there has also been a general change in ethic across the NHL. The league is trying its utmost to make games flow better. Gone are breaks at every face off for the big oafs to rest. Going are opportunities to fight and intimidate. With them even more reasons to choose to employ an otherwise inadequately skilled hockey player.

The rise of the star player
Simultaneous with the extinction of the power forward (at least those with a dearth of skill) has been the rise of the all-rounder, the multi-purpose player. This is the rise of the star player. After all those years of GMs repeating the mantra of picking the best player, it seems to have rubbed off on coaches (well some, anyway).

The star players are the forwards that can be deployed in any game situation. They are the names at the top of the team scoring list. And they are the ones at the top of the ice time in all scenarios.

When I watch my Habs in important scoring situations I see Koivu, Kovalev and Higgins or Plekanec on the ice. If it's getting hairy at the end of the third and we need to hang on, strangely, its the same guys. What makes it strange is not that it is counter intuitive or anything, because playing the best players makes loads of sense to me on the level of intuition; but that it is something I am not used to after living through the trap years, the obstruction generation.

The rise of the star player is something that excites me. I think people around the league are generally excited about this too – that is unless your GM is still behind the times and signing the Bertuzzis of the league... Why wouldn't I be excited? Why wouldn't I want to watch Kovalev kill a penalty instead of Kostopoulos?

But how did this change come about?

To be perfectly honest, I am not entirely sure. If I were to venture a guess, I would say it has something to do with the quality of the young talent coming through into the league. Players like Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin just should never be on the bench. I think coaches with established players of similar ilk (your Kovalevs, Alfredssons, Zetterbergs) have been affirmed in thinking what they might have always thought about playing the best guys.

But, this of course has always happened when strong generations came through the league. That's why I think the other factor in play here is the general trend towards youth in the league. It's simple, I guess. Young legs can be asked to do more. What's more the old guys are being asked to compete with young legs and so are becoming fitter themselves (Chelios?)

A combination of talent and fitness doesn't sound like a mind-blowing concept, but the fact is that in this league it was, not even that long ago. The move to youth and as a consequence fitness shows huge promise for the game, in my opinion. And as time goes by and skilled players can no longer be shown up on fitness, then we should hopefully see more stars like Ovechkin and Zetterberg running amok.

What of the coveted power forward for the Habs?

As always I come home to the Habs in these thought journeys. When it comes to this elusive power forward we are always on the verge of signing, trading for, concocting in a lab in the Saguenay, I think the time has passed.

That is not to say I don't think we'll have big players – we will. However, I just don't think they'll be able to make the league, much less the resurgent Glorieux on the basis of size alone.

I think some of the prospects may well have been prototypical power forwards in the past, but ultimately if Latendresse and Pacioretty don't skate in the NHL, the Canadiens won't build a strategy around their stationary masses.

Similarly, I think the time has come to stop worrying about the statures of our top two centres. Basically they should be judged on the sum of what they can bring to a hockey game (if I were being my normal difficult self, I might also add that both Koivu and Plekanec have more power on the puck than most players 6 inches closer to the rafters anyway).

As with anything else, I will gladly take thee size as a bonus if everything else is equal though. Give me a bigger Saku, I won't complain. But, I'd still rather have Saku Koivu than his brother, even if he is smaller, because he is strong and creative on the puck despite what his biometrics would suggest, but he is also faster and has a better handle on how the game flows.

Anyway, the summer rolls on, the power forward continues to elude us, and I, for one, couldn't care less about that...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gaga for Gainey

Having recently read Richard Dawkins' latest foray, The God Delusion, I find myself being especially attuned to the ring of fundamentalism in the air at the moment. Whether it be the atheist fundamentalism of Professor Dawkins, the religious fundamentalism that he wrote about, or any other type passing my way.

In a time where most observers agree fundamentalism is on the rise (in world affairs, politics and in religion), Bob Gainey seems to be getting a significant fundamentalist following of his own.

Their mantra: "In Bob, we trust"

On the weekend, Gazette Sports Editor Stu Cowan, wrote a piece that Bob's devout, unquestioning devotees will just eat up. Some of the responses to the piece reminded me that the Gazette outlook was precariously close to the unquestioning "In Bob, we trust" camp.

In his article, Mr. Cowan gives a strangely rosy account of all things Gainey when it comes to salary. Towards the end, in what would become a mathematical nightmare over two paragraphs, Gainey's signing record just keeps getting better and better as you read. Or so the article would have you believe.

Take these lines to start with:
According to salaries posted on the NHLPA website, only five other teams - the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Los Angeles Kings - have their highest-paid player earning less than Markov. Of those five teams, only Nashville made the playoffs last season.

The key to success in the salary-capped NHL is to build through the draft and spend your money wisely, two things Gainey has done extremely well.
For me, it seems these two lines of thinking are at odds with each other, while the wording is designed to make you think one comes from the other. I think the conclusion that the key to the "salary-capped NHL is to build through the draft" is a bit of a cliche, to be honest. While spending money wisely only works if you spend money at all. Detroit remains at then top with a combination of drafting, signings and trades – not drafting alone. New Jersey, the other perennial overachiever and contender has done nothing if not spend to the cap in efforts to win.

The error of equating good value signings and good team building is also common in conversation these days. While saving the money is good, the saved funds must be spent on necessary components (or bonus scoring maybe?) in order to have an impact in the standings. The fact that Gainey has been able to keep the top salary down to bottom-feeder levels (all apologies to Carolina and Nashville) is meaningless when the flexibility that fiscal responsibility bought the team has yet to pay many dividends other than Hamrlik.

The second criticism I have with the article is the runaround we get with Andrei Markov's salary, with a more positive outlook at every turn:

1) Markov's salary is a bargain, I can't argue with that. But, it is a bargain because he really elevated his play and the player we signed was only an unfulfilled version of the player we have now. Markov's salary over 4 years is $23 million. So, Markov is earning $5.75M at the outset.

2) Next we are told, Markov will earn $1 million more than Jeff Finger this season. Finger got 4 years at $14 million (or $3.5M a year for cap and fan purposes – do we care when their bank accounts get credited?). So, Markov is suddenly getting $4.5M a year.

3) Finally, we hear how Markov will earn a whopping $2 million less than Souray this year. Even if we take the money Souray is banking this year ($6.25M as quoted by Mr. Cowan), Markov is still well under his actual rate. A quick check on Souray, though, will reveal he signed a 5-year $27 million deal last summer, making his average salary $5.4M a year. So, if we are to believe the $2M savings, Markov is now earning $3.4M a year.

Now, I'm sure Mr. Cowan made honest mistakes here, both in using paid salary over cap hits and in his arithmetic, but after reading that book, this article smacked of the rhetoric I was at once being alerted to by Dawkins as well as reading through most of his chapters. The fact that few people will bother to check on the salaries of Finger, Souray and Michal Roszival is of little importance, but I would bet a hefty cap hit that I will hear about these comparisons again from Bob Gainey's staunchest. Rhetoric is nothing at all if not memorable.

Rightful criticism

When the praise in the piece ends, one doesn't have to go very far to find the criticism that both the account and the general manager of the Canadiens deserve. While most agree that having Bob as the general manager is a good thing on the whole, the critics do make several valid points about his record:

1) Bob Gainey is in charge of doling out the salary for one of the most profitable teams in the NHL. However, since the introduction of the salary cap, the Montreal Canadiens have never topped out. This season Gainey is carrying more than $7 million in space. Should Sundin be signed, we assume this space would be gone. Should he not be signed, will Bob spend the money? If not, shouldn't we all be asking why not? The money unspent will be profits for Mr. Gillett, nothing more.

2) Bob Gainey doesn't move quickly enough. At the trade deadline this year he traded Huet, presumably to create salary manoeuvrability, but did nothing else. One could still argue that the price for Hossa was much too high, but there were plenty of other players available who could have played a role in the last games of the season in the playoffs instead of saving the salary for Mr. Gillett once again. Gainey was either too focused on one deal or too slow to put a plan B into motion.

3) His draft picks haven't been league best like some would suggest they have been. It is sometimes forgotten that the Canadiens core, while young, has nothing to do with Bob Gainey's drafting. He inherited Markov, Koivu, Komisarek, Higgins, Plekanec and Ryder. What's more, most of the groundwork would have been done for the 2003 draft prior to his hiring a couple of weeks before selections (hence the reason for Andre Savard staying on) – making Kostitsyn, O'Byrne, Lapierre and Halak Savard's legacy, too. The outright contribution to the Canadiens from Bob Gainey includes many a solid player, but not the current core.

To me, this criticism seems fair. A fair-minded person would be neglectful to disregard these considerations to stand beside all the positives.

Gainey is not beyond question
All this is not to say that Bob is not a good GM, or even a great GM. I believe he is. It is to show that he is not beyond question as some seem to want us to believe.

There are many reasons to like Bob Gainey. For one thing, he is the kind of role model you could only dream of having around for the players on the team. Soft-spoken, hard-working and sincere. He does the Canadiens organisation and its fans proud with the way he carries himself and the standard he sets for all members to follow.

But while he deserves to be praised for all the things he does so well, us fans deserve the right to question when things go awry. Or when $7 million dollars go unspent on a team supposedly vying to be the best.

Before heaping on too much praise this off-season, I will certainly wait to see where that $7+M ends up. If it's in Colorado, I'm hoping it will be an addition to a certain Mr. Sakic's house and not one of George's Vail ski retreats.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Habs Review 2007-08:

Alexei Kovalev

The numbers

82 GP: 35 G, 49 A, 84 Pts, 70 PIM, +18, 230 Shots

Career best year – 2000-01 – Penguins
79 GP: 44 G, 51 A, 95 Pts, 96 PIM, +12, 307 Shots

2007-08 playoffs
12 GP: 5 G, 6 A, 11 Pts, 8 PIM, -4, 39 Shots

Career best playoffs – 1993-94 - Rangers
23 GP: 9 G, 12 A, 21 Pts, 18 PIM, +5, 71 Shots

Plays of the game: 33

Game pucks: 16

Domes: 50

3 Star selections: 11 First, 9 Second, 9 Third

The story

Where he started the season
After last season, it seemed as if that the majority of fans and media personalities were believing what they heard and were almost instantly jumping to conclusions about certain players without considering all of the facts. Because of this injustice, Alex was starting his 3rd full season in Montreal as a sort of villain. First, there were the reoprts that Alex had been badmouthing the team, coach and possibly other players to hometown reporters in Russia. Then, there were the interviews that we all saw in which Alex questioned certain team decisions that had been made. And, lastly, people thought that Alex had a bad 2006-07.

Many fans (those who watched the games but relied on NHL statistics to tell them what they saw) looked at Alex's 47 points, and, without thinking about anything else, deemed that he had endured a horrible season. What was completely forgotten in the rush to form opinions like these was what had been happening on the ice – his actual play. It is easy to pick up a newspaper the day after the game and call out those players who don't figure in the scoresheet. Watching all 82 games and formulating a distinct opinion about a player based on what you saw, seems to be further out of reach.

Unfortunately the majority of people deemed that Alex had had a bad season and so at the start of this year even Alex himself believed that there was something to prove. One thing that might have helped him right off the bat was that he was re-appointed as a permanent Assistant Captain. During the previous year, he missed out on this honour as Souray and Rivert wore the 'A's. The team was wise to put this added responsibility back on the shoulders of our most talented player. He had (unfortunately) a lot to prove to a city and his team this year, and I think the 'A' helped. Carbo would call him out one last time before the season started which may just have been what pushed him over the edge in the end. When asked if Grabovski and Kostitsyn would be able to get Kovalev going this year, Carbo simply responed by saying, in a fairly aggressive tone, 'how about Kovalev gets those guys going?'. That quote lasted with me all year and I think was again a very wise thing to say concerning the great AK 27.

At Lions in Winter, we too thought about Alex a great deal prior to the start of the season. In fact, Kovalev was the subject of the very first blog entry on this website and our drastically opposing view on him was one of the great impetuses to start writing about the Canadiens and sharing our opinions. Then, there was the Eyes on Kovalev section of the game reports which was brought in as a way to show you what we all meant about Alex. Last year, we had noticed that he had been fantastic most of the season, but because of the lowish point total he was discounted as a top player. What we wanted to achieve was to document each game and in the unlikely case that he put up low numbers again this year we would be able to back up our claims of his excellence with cold, hard facts.
And, to toot our own horn, we were right about Kovalev, while some more knowledgeable experts were led astray by the very same stat watching we were talking about.

The brilliant part about the whole Kovalev situation is that we never needed to belabour our points over the season. Alex let his play, and even his totals this year, do the talking for him.

The season
Alex's season started with a bang as he was putting up numbers at a very impressive rate. Above all of the points was a truly impressive offensive display on a night by night (shift by shift even) basis. Better yet was that he was clicking with Plekanec in ways we had not seen before. 9 games into the year he became the third Hab of the season to play in his 1000th game, which is a truly amazing acheivement in this league. Things were going great for Alex and he looked happier than ever. The fans (the same ones who hated him 1 month earlier) were now all back in love with Alex; so much so, that they even took his side when he called out coach Carbo (the time-out issue) publicly. I was happy for Alex and thought that things couldn't really go much better than they were going.

I was very wrong about one thing concerning Kovy – things could and would go way better. Alex built on his impressive start to deliver the Habs with their first 35-goal and 80-point man in years. Not only were people in Montreal taking notice, but so too was the league. By season's end there were cries for MVP as most people felt he was the biggest reason for Montreal's improbable triumph in the East. He was being mentioned in the same lists as Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and Datsyuk as one of the league's best goalscorers, stickhandlers and overall players.

The best part about Alex's season was that he was there for us every night. I can only remember a handful of games in which he wasn't a factor. He scored goals and got assists at an incredible pace. He was one of the biggest reasons that our PP was so potent all year long as opposing teams just don't know how to handle his insane moves. He was also fantastic on the PK, probably our best forward at killing penalties when I think of it. And, best of all he made Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec into excellent players as they formed one of the top 5 trios in the whole league.

Highlights: Speaks for itself – thank goodness Gainey didn't buckle to the fan pressure from last offseason to dump him

Kovalev by the numbers:

Lions' links on Kovalev:
Alexei Kovalev: The One and Only
Kovalev Koivu Selanne
Trading Kovalev Fallacy
Kovalev spin out
10 Questions
Accolades to Alex
How the Habs keep powering their PP
Eyes on Kovalev on the rise
Force of Nature Kovalev for Hart Consideration – Gretzky
Hart Trophy Follow-up: Offense vs. Defense
Alex Kovalev: The One and Only (Second Use of Headline...)
Experts Share More Wisdom
Round 1: Montreal - Boston: Habs Preview
Sundin: A Move Too Far?

Grade: A+
The season that Alex enjoyed this year will be remembered for a long time. It was a year in which he took his popularity from near rock bottom to the very top of the hockey world. His play just seemed to get better and better each week and his numbers, and subsequent climb up the scoring leaders list, just continued to shock everyone. He scored some of the nicest goals you will ever see, he cemented his spot as one of the world's best passers and lastly showed he is a true leader. During a game in New York, with Saku injured, the unthinkable even happened – Kovy wore the C (not since Saku has had cancer has another player worn the 'C' when he's been absent, so this was a huge deal). But, this was Kovy being given the captaincy by Carbo – what a turn-around! He would end up wearing the 'C' 9 more times as Koivu missed a string of games late in the regular season and in the playoffs due to a broken foot. The team was now really looking up to Kovy as he was not only talking the talk, he was walking the walk.

On a team of so many young players Kovalev's influence and talent was really invaluable – if you need proof just ask the young Europeans what they think of him. He had long been considered one of the league's best players (especially dekers), but I think this season was the year that he expelled any doubt which may have existed in the most skeptical of minds.

Where we'd have him next season
Can Kovy top this season? It would certainly be hard to do so, but I would at least expect more of the same. Yes he had a lot of points this year, but to me this season looked a lot like his two previous years in Montreal. Certain aspects of his game were better this year, but I think as far as effort and heart go they have always, and will always, be there. It is hard to know where Kovalev will play next year, but I really don't think it matters. Whether he plays with Plekanec, one or two of the Kostitsyns or Koivu I would expect the same old from Alex - goals, assists, jaw-dropping moves and the best wrist shot this side of the Volga. He will be one of our best players, will be able to play in all situations and will once again, quite possibly be, the most fun hockey player in the world to watch.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Habs Review 2007-08:

Saku Koivu

The numbers

77 GP: 16 G, 40 A, 56 Pts, 93 PIM, -4, 150 Shots

Career best year – 2006-07
81 GP: 22 G, 53 A, 75 Pts, 74 PIM, -21, 154 Shots

2007-08 playoffs
7 GP: 3 G, 6 A, 9 Pts, 4 PIM, +1, 17 Shots

Career best playoffs – 2003-04
11 GP: 3 G, 8 A, 11 Pts, 10 PIM, +1, 27 Shots

Plays of the game: 14

Game pucks: 15

Domes: 47

3 Star selections: 5 First, 4 Second, 4 Third

The story

Where he started the season
Saku was coming off the best statistical regular season of his career, as he set personal bests in both goals (22) and points (75). His previous best had been 21 goals and 71 points in the 2002-03 season. One thing that stands out to me about those two seasons is that those are the only two years that we have missed the playoffs since 2001. Koivu turns it on when there is a lot at stake, so it is no surprise that in a year in which we missed the playoffs by just one point he was our points leader. To him, that season was one long playoff series in which we lost the '7th' game, if you will. I feel that if we were to coast into the playoffs you would see his points go down as he would be spending his time perfecting other areas of his game in preparation for the post-season. I guarantee you, however, that it was the non-participation in the playoffs of that season that burned in Saku's mind during the off-season and not the career-best 75 points.

In Ryder and Higgins, Koivu had found his best linemates since Savage and Recchi (Zednik and Kovalev were considered, but that lasted a mere 20 games). The season would start with tons of promise for the Habs top-line. They had all enjoyed fantastic 2006-07's so there must have been a feeling of excitement to get back at it and get just 1 more win to book a playoff ticket. The captain was healthy, happy and hungry to put a disappointing year for the team behind him.

The season
Saku could not have started the season better as in the first game of the year, against Carolina, he played the hero. He scored 2 goals in that game including the game-winner in OT. Saku kept up his great play throughout October posting 14 points in his first 12 games. He was also a +6 in those first 12 games which was very encouraging after going a career-worst -21 the year before. However, after that first month, Carbo shook things up a bit and it seemed to hurt Saku's production.

When Ryder was demoted from Koivu's line, auditions were held for the vacant spot and it would take quite some time. Eventually Sergei Kostitsyn stepped in as the player to replace Mike alongside Sak and Higgs. For the next 44 games, however, Saku only had 25 points which I feel is an unfair assessment of how he really played. Koivu was the true professional during this whole process and continued to play very good hockey, he just wasn't getting the points at his usual pace. Once the adjustment period was over the new line eventually clicked and finished the year very strong. Koivu had 17 points in his last 21 games and 9 in just 7 playoff games. It was during the playoffs that Koivu was at his best – and was by far our best player (as usual). Unlike so many other players, Saku saves his best for when we need it most and, as usual, he delivered in the most critical of situations. Coming after three tedious months of doubt and criticism, the playoff coup de grace was as much of a pleasure for these bloggers as it must have been for Koivu himself. Ultimately, like us fans, Saku probably won't remember these playoffs in a positive light, given the outcome and the failure of the rest of the team to jump the intensity up like he did.

Highlights: No offence to Jakob Dylan, but Saku deserves the Bowie original here. Substituting the Wallflowers for Bowie is like substituting Koivu's highlights for Bulis'

Koivu by the numbers:

Lions' links on Koivu:
Koivu doing Montreal proud
Kovalev Koivu Selanne
New Canadiens website
Daniel Briere = Not Jean Beliveau
Sans dix pourcent
Introducing Koivu, Habs announcer
How the Habs keep powering their PP
Plan K: Turning around the Canadiens fortunes
Habs losing – Overreacting for the cause
Some Thoughts on Loyalty
Why We Value Koivu
Koivu Misunderstood Not Forgotten
Experts Share More Wisdom
Reasons to Believe: Updated
Reasons to Believe: Shattered
Sundin: A Move Too Far?

Grade: A-
The only downside to Koivu's game this year were the 93 penalty minutes. Obviously, he didn't cost the team too badly, as we still finished first. But that number is still high. One thing I was happy to see, however, was that Koivu ended the year with only 4 penalty minutes in his last 9 games and only 2 in 7 playoff games. This to me showed that he worked on a known weakness and obviously had some success at improving upon it.

On the positive side, Koivu's play in the playoffs was absolutely phenomenal. He missed the last 4 regular season games and the first 5 playoff games with a broken foot, but when he came back you wouldn't have known he had just missed a month. He was instantly our best player when he returned and turned around a Boston series that seemed to be going the wrong way. He got a point in each of the 7 games he played in during the playoffs, which again proves just what a clutch performer he is. If he didn't even play in the regular season and only played in the playoffs I would still see his value. You cannot beat 'big-game' excellence and that is precisely what Saku brings us year in, year out.

Aside from the spectacular and the negative, the rest of Koivu's play could only be described as efficient and extremely reliable. By efficient, I mean that Koivu does not waste energy. Unlike some fourth liners who put on an amazing show of effort, but come away with little more than a sweaty red face on the bench to show for it, Koivu gives exceptional effort which leads to puck control and offensive penetration. I really start to notice his efficiency most in tight game situations, where he is constantly the better of the two centres on the ice. The criticism he receives throughout the regular season comes because he sometimes gets overshadowed by big performances from other players like Kovalev and Plekanec. But, his consistency is such that though he may not be the star we remember in a big comeback or narrow win, he is rarely outside the top 4 or 5 performers on the team on a given night. It's hard for numbers to really bear this out.

Where we'd have him next season
Saku will start the year as our #1 centre yet again, a position he has owned for about 10 years now. The captain will finally have to find a new permanent winger as his on-again, off-again partner (Ryder) is now gone. Tanguay may just be that scorer that Koivu needs. With Koivu, whose passes are world-class (I firmly believe that he is one of the world's 10 best playmakers), Alex will be good, but how nice would it be to see Koivu play with a player like Selanne (a world's 10-best scorer) once and for all.

We all know the type of success that Saku has had when playing for Finland, so I think that it is time we get him that winger he deserves and show the league just how good of a player he really is. It remains to be seen whether Tanguay can be this player, or if someone else might be acquired before the puck drops in October. One thing that you can count on, however, is that no matter who Saku plays with he will be one of our best players all year and will continue leading this gifted team to bigger and better things.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Habs Review 2007-08:

Andrei Markov

The numbers

82 GP: 16 G, 42 A, 58 Pts, 63 PIM, +1, 145 Shots

Career best year
This season

2007-08 playoffs
12 GP: 1 G, 3 A, 4 Pts, 8 PIM, E, 21 Shots

Career best playoffs – 2003-04
11 GP: 1 G, 4 A, 5 Pts, 8 PIM, +3, 18 Shots

Plays of the game: 11

Game pucks: 6

Domes: 59

3 Star selections: 2 First, 2 Second, 3 Third

The story

Where he started the season
Coming into this year Andrei must have been really pleased with himself. He, along with Souray and Rivet (2 other long-term mainstays on the Habs blue-line) were all coming up to unrestricted free-agency on July 1, 2007. Of the 3, I think it was blatantly obvious that Markov was the standout, but after the season that Souray had and the fact that both Souray and Rivet wore 'A's it was really anyone's guess who they would keep. The general feeling was that we certainly couldn't keep all 3 and that keeping 2 would also be a huge burden financially. With Rivet out of the picture in February (via a trade), it was down to the big shot of Souray or the Norris-style defence of Andrei. To approval of Lions in Winter bloggers and readers alike, Gainey's first target was Markov. He re-signed him in May without ever letting him become a free agent. The writing from that point was on the wall as we essentially let Souray walk without ever offering him as much as other teams were willing to pay.

This vote confidence, coupled with the fact that Andrei had just put up a career-best 49 points, must have made his summer a very enjoyable one. When he came to camp he knew that he now was officially our top defenceman (after many seasons of unofficial dominance), that we wanted him here for years and that he would be the all-important (and now undisputed) quarter-back of the PP. During the preseason, he played very well and even wore the 'A' on some nights showing that he was our alternates' alternate. Things at this point could not have gotten any better for the man who could still barely speak English, but was probably the most promising of a new wave of puck-moving defencemen in the league.

The season
One of the biggest worries coming into this year was how we were going to replace Souray's shot on the powerplay. Would we be good enough to stay among the league's best in that category? Or, would we return to earth?

I think that all these questions were answered very early on this year as the line 'Sheldon who?' was the catch phrase of the city for most of the Fall. Markov, along with a few other key players, upped their game to new levels on the PP and if you would believe it kept it just as potent and made it so much more dynamic. In fact, the absence of that go-to shot meant the other players, and especially Andrei, could showcase their own talent so much more. Markov's job changed from being the guy who fed Souray's rocket to being the guy who could find anyone (most often that was Kovy) at any time on the ice. Markov and company kept up the strong play on the powerplay for the entire season and they ended up finishing first in the league in that category.

Overall, Andrei's season was one of consistency and excellence. He started the year with 17 points in his first 19 games giving us all dreams of a 70-point season. In the end he would slow down a bit, but still finished with career highs in both goals (16) and points (58). With Markov, however, it is about so much more than the points as he once again was our best defensive-defenceman this year. More importantly, he provides the impetus for so much of the team's progressive play, as he can skate the puck up on his own, make an 80-foot pass or provide timely cover for someone else jumping into the play. His sense for the game and (finally) the team's sense of his play combine to make the Canadiens an offensive power in the league.

In addition to the team's success, Marky also enjoyed another major achievement this year – getting named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and garnering the highest vote-getter of all defencemen in the East. Finally, it appears, the rest of the league (and its fans) are seeing what we have seen for years - Markov is one of the best around D-men, in all apsects of play. This year he was a top-5 defencemen in the league and top-2 in the East. He is our best blue-liner since Chelios and is a huge reason for all of the success we enjoyed this year.

Highlights: Watching these makes me wonder how Markov only got 2 First star selections – astounding

Markov by the numbers:

Lions' links on Markov:
What do the 2007/8 Canadiens need?
New Canadiens website
The Habs future and the two Andreis – Part 1: Andrei the First
How the Habs keep powering their PP
What's right for Price?
Why 79 trumps 71
Force of Nature Kovalev for Hart Consideration – Gretzky
Hart Trophy Follow-up: Offense vs. Defense
Experts Share More Wisdom
Round 1: Montreal - Boston (Habs Preview)
Sporting News: Habs Players Snubbed

Grade: A+
Andrei had a career-year this year, which must have been hard to do considering how good he had been in previous seasons. At only 29 years of age, you can be certain that Markov is still improving and that the best is still to come. Defencemen, unlike forwards, often don't reach their best until their mid-30s so you can see why we are so excited to have Markov on our team. I could see the Russian superstar playing for another 10-15 years in this league and would expect him to be as good as he is now (or better) for most of those years.

This year, I felt he really took on a big leadership role and it was obvious that he was our leader at the back. No longer were youngsters such as Komisarek following in the footsteps of Souray or Rivet, they were now following Andrei. I am positive that the improved play of Komisarek, Bouillon, Gorges and Streit is due in no small part to Markov's leadership. I am not sure how much he talks (although I do notice it is more than before), but if you ever needed someone to lead by example, he is your man. His only rough patch of the year came in the playoffs where he only managed 4 points. That stat in itself isn't too poor, but it was the way in which he played during the whole playoffs that stood out. Like so many other Habs players (defencemen in particular), Andrei, didn't elevate his game. He showed up every night and did a lot of good things, but he wasn't in the super elite class of players (like he was for most of the season) during this time. This is one area that Markov (and the team as a whole) must address if they wish to go any further than the 2nd round in this coming season.

Where we'd have him next season
Not much should change for Markov this year as his responsibilites should remain the same. He will undoubtedly be paired with Komi again at the back as their tandem is becoming one of the league's best. On the PP he will have to find a new partner at the point as Streit's departure has left a hole at that spot. Streit, to me, was more valuable to the PP than Souray was so it will be interesting to see if we can, for a second year in a row, manage to stay at the top after losing a huge piece. That piece may or may not come from within the current team as we still have a long time to make that call and possibly make another move. I wouldn't be surprised if Markov once again hit career-highs in certain areas as his play really shows no signs of slowing down. He looked very comfortable at the back all season long as the blue line in Montreal now, finally, belongs to him.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Habs Review 2007-08:

Tomas Plekanec

The numbers

81 GP: 29 G, 40 A, 69 Pts, 42 PIM, +15, 186 Shots

Career best year
This season

2007-08 playoffs
12 GP: 4 G, 5 A, 9 Pts, 2 PIM, -1, 40 Shots

Career best playoffs
This season

Plays of the game: 20

Game pucks: 9

Domes: 31

3 Star selections: 5 First, 4 Second, 4 Third

The story

Where he started the season
After a breakthrough season of 20 goals and 47 points, Tomas had convinced me that he was 2nd-line centre material. Shockingly, however, Carbo wasn't convinced and Plekanec would start the year on the third line. Perhaps it was the failure of the Samsonov line, perhaps it was the way Tomas took so long to gel with Kovalev. Indeed, Plekanec leaves you with the impression that he would indeed be a great 3rd line player since he is very fast, defensively responsible (+14 for his career prior to the season) and he doesn't seem 'offensive' enough to be a top-2 line type of guy. But this is selling him short. Forever are players like Tomas cursed for being so good defensively, it's a shame. Since when isn't 20 goals and 47 points for a 24 year-old considered to be a strong offensive campaign? So, he would start the year as our third centre, but at the rate he was improving it always seemed it would only be a matter of time till he worked his way up.

The season
The third line experimentation didn't last too long, as Tomas' play was too good to be ignored. Almost as soon as the season was into its third week, he was playing with Kovalev and Kostitsyn - and was producing. His play was a huge reason for the season that his two wingers enjoyed as his passing ability really gives those two sharp-shooters an easy job. What's easy to forget, however, is the fact that Plekanec himself scored 29 goals, which makes him quite the goalscoring threat too. In general, Plekanec uses his speed and incredible backhand to truly startle opposing goaltenders and defencemen. What's more, Tomas was always one of the players that you would notice when you were watching the games (thanks in part to his knack for being involved in amazing highlight plays - 20 plays of the game no less - and the fact he seemed to be everywhere in both zones). Even when he went pointless, he was still contributing. Some players have a tendency to become invisible for stretches - not Pleks. But it is when he is truly on offensively, though, that he is quite something else. In all, he had 20 multiple-point games which accounted for 47 of his points. It is hard to imagine that he only got points in about half of his games (42/81) because he played a serious role everytime he stepped foot on the ice. So good was his season that he would be called the number one centre for nearly half, and his playoffs were called a disappointment because we now expected him to lead the line. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, he wasn't able to do that in every game, and his frustration and resulting drop in shots to pass ratio were indeed one reason the goals for (and the results) dropped.

Highlights: Little man in the turtleneck is a true gem, as the highlights, well, highlight

Plekanec by the numbers:

Lions' links on Plekanec:
It's not generally noteworthy when there is an absence of specific articles about a player, but for someone like Plekanec, it does beg the question: why? I think it speaks to the kind of season Tomas had, with constant reliability, effort and excellence. Really something should have been done. But, not once did we read the paper and feel a response about Plekanec was required. Not once did we need to explain a slump. It was the essay that was always there, but which you always knew would be there: "Plekanec is Superb". I should mention that he is mentioned in the vast majority of game reports and weekly updates, but these are not part of these links. So, we did write a fair bit about this fan and Lions favourite, just not in a formal piece dedicated to him. I think I feel the seeds of an article already...

Grade: A
Certain Habs fans (and media personalities) won't stop talking about how we need 'big' centres and how the reason we haven't won the cup for 15 years is because of that need. Funny, however, how teams like San Jose, Toronto and the Rangers all have these players that are so coveted by 'us', but also haven't won. I mean isn't Joe Thornton the ultimate specimen? And, to boot the Sharks have Marleau (our answer!!!). What people who buy into whatever the media tells them fail to recognize is that playing big and being big are two distinct things altogether. Plekanec showed all year that he is world-class, as he went on to outclass most opposition centres on a nightly basis. In my opinion, Tomas also plays big - skating with excellent strength and balance and knocking awkward giants off the puck with ease. To me that shows he isn't the problem, but, is in fact one of the answers. Tomas' season hopefully shut some people up and made them realize that all the centres we need are right here in Montreal. I don't even think I can count on one hand the amount of teams with 2 better centres than us. In fact, Pleks has helped to make the centre position the most secure spot on the Habs roster in terms of talent, strength and reliability. I just wish that people would stop assuming that we need big players and take a real look at our team. Hopefully then they would realize that there are other areas that are in much bigger need of some help.

Where we'd have him next season
I see Tom having a huge season for us. This is his last year of a fairly modest contract and if history serves as a good indicator, he will surely put up some serious numbers this year. As of now, he and Saku will be our top 2 centres and I am hoping we stick with that. Between those 2 and the 5 or 6 quality wingers we now have we will be able to make 2 very dangerous lines and 2 very competetive PP units. If Carbo doesn't just simply put his line from this year back together, then Plekanec may be playing with the Kostitsyns, since his chemistry with Andrei, in particular is the best 1-2 punch on the team. The lines we had last year were good and most players enjoyed tremendous seasons, but we shouldn't be afraid to change them. Afterall, we didn't win the Cup, so obviously we don't quite yet know what the winning combinations are. Add Tanguay, and hopefully one more winger, to the mix and we could be in for a long period of experimentation. Whatever happens, I think we'll see Pleks continue to improve and grow into a reliable offensive leader. It's easy to forget this mature Czech is still young and still a long way off from his full potential, which is nothing but positive for us fans.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Magnetogorsk Millions: The Rise of a Rival League

Funny thing timing. As we wrap up the Canadiens reviews this week, we are coming to a very important trio of Russian/Belarussian players at the core of the Canadiens recent and future success. Simultaneously, the very real possibility of a significant drop in Russian talent is growing.

Back in May, we spoke about the lack of transfer agreement and how it could harm the NHL in terms of reduced influx of Russian talent. Now, we are seeing real competition for established NHL talent, Russian or not.

This has been coming for some time.

The Russian league, in its old guise as the Super League, was the one league that was poised and ready for the last NHL work stoppage. Players by the busload went to play throughout Russia in 2004-05. AK Bars Kazan from that year iced Lecavalier, Richards, Kovalchuk, Heatley, Kozlov and Kovalev in what (barring a reversal in the salary cap) will likely be the best top two lines ever to be seen again. The European Champions of that year, Avangard Omsk, got it done with star Russians and one Jaromir Jagr. While the Russian champions were thankful to have Datsyuk and Afinogeniv back in the fold to help Ovechkin win the title.

A lot has happened in the NHL since that season.

For one thing, there is a salary cap, which limits the buying power of the biggest teams so outfits in non-traditional (to be polite) hockey markets can bear the weight of competition. For another, the NHL has grown wealthier and, as a result, more arrogant. The arrogance can be witnessed in the league's dealings with and declarations about rival leagues like the new KHL (Continental Hockey League) and national associations in Europe, and in quote like this:

"We don't view them as a threat," (Bill Daly) said. "We still believe the best hockey players in the world will continue to want to play in the NHL."

But, it's a dangerous line the NHL is walking. While it probably garners many laughs and guffaws to mock the KHL and the players who make their way there, the truth is the KHL is poaching real talent now. Jagr, for one, was still a scoring star in the league, which is still largely starved of players of his skill and stature. Ray Emery, for all his problems and jokes about him, would be the best goaltending talent on more than a dozen NHL teams (Mike Smith?). And, Alexander Radulov was one of the only half decent things going on in Nashville (an otherwise flailing operation), as far as the NHL was concerned. Add to this list the players that will never come to the NHL (because of the new aversion to drafting Russians), but would outplay the vast majority of second-line talent in the league in a Moscow minute, and the argument builds.

Something else a lot of North Americans need to understand when it comes to the threat of the KHL is that we are not looking at league vs. league here. Of course it is true that the NHL is still the biggest and most powerful hockey league in the world, and will probably remain that way for the forseeable future. However, the biggest 30 hockey clubs in the world are not those in NHL cities alone. Avangard Omsk, owned by Chelsea billionaire Roman Abramovich, could only be dwarfed in buying power by Detroit, Toronto, NYR and the very biggest NHL clubs. Omsk, along with AK Bars Kazan, Moscow Dynamo and a few others are far bigger clubs than Nashville, Atlanta, Florida and the like. In addition, consider that the power structure of the leagues will also be altered, inevitably, by the players which they are able to draw in. The Russian powerhouses are big players and deserve the respect of the NHL.

Ultimately, its my feeling that if the NHL lets the Omsks and Kazans to "wedge" their proverbial feet in the door, the league could be facing wide open movement in the not too distant future. This article from the Sporting News provides an excellent thesis on why this could be the case.

What for the future with Russia?

Unless the NHL comes out from behind its arrogance and makes sincere efforts to negotiate with the KHL as a peer, the losses of players like Jagr could conceivably continue.

Even if the only problem to come from a lack of treaty is the loss of fresh Russian talent to the league, the NHL would suffer. It only takes a glance at the NHL award winners and nominees from this season to understand the important role that Russia has played in changing the face of the North American league:

– Ovechkin walked away with the Maurice Richard trophy, and was only challenged for the Art Ross, Pearson and the Hart trophy by his fellow Russian, Evgeni Malkin

– Pavel Datsyuk won the Selke trophy and the Lady Byng, not to mention the Stanley Cup

– Nabokov didn't win the Vezina, but could have (he was on the first all-star team)

– Kovalev joined Ovechkin, Malkin, Nabokov as the Russians on the first or second all-star teams

– No Russian defenceman garnered Norris nominations or All-Star nods, but we know Markov is better than Brian Campbell, and I imagine people in Dallas know Zubov is too

– 3 of the top 5 scorers were Russians, 5 of the top 11

– 3 of the top 4 goalscorers were Russians

Is it an anomaly that so many Russians are leading the way in scoring in the NHL? Perhaps, but since they have been coming into the league, we have already witnessed players like Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny. I think this new crop is a continuation from those traditions. And, with a flourishing league of their own, there is no good reason to believe that the tradition of Russian hockey talent won't continue

I believe the NHL should make efforts to come to some agreement with the KHL and the Russian Association, primarily because I don't relish a future NHL without Russians. I can't imagine going backwards to a time without exciting (and sometimes enigmatic) Russians. Even this year, if you took Russians out of the mix, a league trying to reinvent itself as a scoring bonanza would be left with Brad Boyes and his 43 goals as the number 3 attraction. It seems the North American skaters are simply not as creative at beating the North American goalies and defencemen (who consequently are the best). What's more, if the NHL stood by its 30-team model in the absence of Russian talent, the days of free-flowing scoring hockey will be over sooner than they began.

And for Europe?

The Russian league and Russian gulf also provide problems for the NHL as a precedent for other European leagues to follow. I've heard on pretty good authority that the next strongest league and association (Sweden) is watching this Russian situation the closest, and will be making their plan of attack for the NHL based on that experience. The Czechs are already disgruntled. And, the Swiss have the money and the momentum to make waves too.

Whereas the efflux of Russians from the league would be a major step backwards, the loss of Europeans of all nationalities would be catastrophic.


In times of flux, it helps ton have good leaders to take the helm. It remains to be seen as to whether Bettman can handle this crisis. But, frankly, why should it be his responsibility. If there were a leader among the NHL owners with an ounce of foresight, this moment could have been headed off ages ago. It remains their interests under threat (albeit their employee Bettman is the point-man), and it is their leadership and creativity that needs to be tapped to find a solution.

I have proposed on a number of occasions that one team could realistically set transfer conditions in a treaty-free market independently of all the others, and I see no reason why this could not be pursued. I have also made no secret that I would like this team to be the Canadiens. But, for the ultimate success of the league and the quality of NHL hockey, it wouldn't matter who stepped up. Once one did, the others may follow.

For all the conjecture and ranting, the situation is still within the control of the NHL. All it will take is a little bit of modesty and sincere effort. If not, this won't be the last article written on this topic. They don't call it the thin end of a wedge for nothing...

Habs Review 2007-08:

Andrei Kostitsyn

The numbers

78 GP: 26 G, 27 A, 53 Pts, 29 PIM, +15, 156 Shots

Career best year
This season

2007-08 playoffs
12 GP: 5 G, 3 A, 8 Pts, 2 PIM, -4, 25 Shots

Career best playoffs
Rookie (same as above)

Plays of the game: 19

Game pucks: 4

Domes: 30

3 Star selections: 4 First, 2 Second, 4 Third

The story

Where he started the season
Was Andrei going to be the next Perezhogin? I think that most fans had higher hopes for Kostitsyn than they did for Alexander, but this season was make or break time for the 22 year-old. He finished 2006-07 quite well for a rookie with 10 points in his last 15 games, so we felt his spot would be assured prior to the season, but would he stay? His potential had been showing through in flashes from Canadiens games, to Bulldogs scoring to Belarussian national team outings. As we pointed out a few times, what made Andrei the most intriguing of all Canadiens prospects coming into this season could be summed up in a single thought:
"What sets him apart from other players is his ability to handle the puck at top speed."
If you ever wanted to know what drafting forwards was all about, that sentence should cover about 80% of it for you. It is a special skill, and a necessary one for any player hoping to be a top forward in the NHL. The fact that Andrei had speed as well, was surely a bonus that we thought could pay off in big ways coming into the season.

The season
The season didn't start too great for Kostitsyn, at least not statistically. He looked like he belonged in the NHL, but we obviously needed to give him time; afterall he was only 22.
He would start the year alongside Kovalev and Grabovski – an entire trio all looking to prove that they deserved their spots, and ice-time, in Montreal. Andrei started the year as our most dangerous prospect as his electrifying moves and speed eclipsed those of fellow baby-Habs Latendresse, Chipchura and Grabovski. When Carbonneau eventually decided that Grabovski's time on the 2nd line had come to an end, he kept Andrei there as he must have seen some sort of chemistry between him and his big-brother figure: Alex Kovalev. Once Plekanec took his rightful spot on their line, the trio never looked back. Their play as a line was fantastic, but early-on it was Kovalev and Plekanec who were posting the points, not Kostitsyn.

Throughout the first 23 games, of the year Andrei only had 3 goals and 8 points (a full-season pace of 11 goals and 29 points). Now, for a youngster still learning the North American game and in his first full year in the NHL those numbers could have been worse. What we all had hoped for for so long, however, was just about to happen, with almost no warning. In early December, Gainey called up Andrei's young brother and, in doing so, gained two top line forwards.

What the addition of Sergei did for Andrei was truly amazing. Whether it made Andrei happier, more competitive or more comfortable is something that is hard to discern (as he's not the most expressive player around). They weren't playing together on game nights, but the change in Andrei was tangible and instantaneous. During his last 55 games, Andrei would post vastly improved numbers – 23 goals and 45 points (a full-season pace of 34 goals and 67 points). He had, seemingly overnight, become a household name in the NHL and was quite possibly our most dangerous goal-scorer from that point forward. What's more, he was taking on defenders, leading the line of attack and most importantly: shooting.

Highlights: Our first true highlight-reel player (developed in the system) in some time

Andrei Kostitsyn by the numbers:

Lions' links on Andrei Kostitsyn:
Want to see the Belarussian line?
From Belarus With Love
The Habs future and the two Andreis – Part 2: Andrei the Younger
Plan K: Turning around the Canadiens fortunes
Gainey's formula: Keep Prices stable, increase Kosts
From 0 to 96 With Time to Spare
The SK74 Era: Lions Reader Sheds Light on Habs Stats Since December
Gainey Does Admirably

Grade: A
Andrei's season from December onwards (including the playoffs) was really A+ material when you think about it. It provided a case study of why sticking with a prospect and instilling confidence in him can pay huge dividends. Over the season, Kostitsyn bloomed into a complete top-line force this season and it was incredible to watch. His passing was superb, he scored highlight-reel goals on a regular basis and played the type of game you would associate with the Montreal Canadiens. He proved he can be tough when he has to, throw hits if it means getting the puck, and more importantly was lightning-quick and had hands and a shot that were truly world-class. In a season where so many Habs players exceeded expectations, I think Andrei was the biggest, and most pleasant surprise of all (of course, Topham would have you believe he is not surprised at all, but if not, he is nothing but pleased). In Kostitsyn, we have finally found a true goalscorer, something which we have longed for for more than a decade. And, at last, we can boast about scoring, with one of the best 1-2 goal-scoring punches in the league.

Where we'd have him next season
Kostitsyn was rightfully rewarded for his spectacular season with a significant raise that will keep him a Hab for at least 3 more seasons. 3.25M/season is a steal for a player of his ability and potential – if you don't believe me, review what other types of players make that much. There is no doubt that he will be on one of our top two lines, the only question is – with whom? Will he go back to playing with Plekanec and Kovalev on a line that enjoyed incredible amounts of success? Or may he be teamed up with his brother as they do have an undeniable chemistry. All I can say is that is nice to have that as one of your team's biggest questions going into a season.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Habs Review 2007-08:

Mark Streit

The numbers

81 GP: 13 G, 49 A, 62 Pts, 28 PIM, -6, 165 Shots

Career best year
This season

2007-08 playoffs
11 GP: 1 G, 3 A, 4 Pts, 8 PIM, -1, 19 Shots

Career best playoffs
This season

Plays of the game: 12

Game pucks: 3

Domes: 32 (9 at Forward, 23 on Defence)

3 Star selections: 1 First, 3 Second, 1 Third

The story

Where he started the season
After posting a very impressive 36 points in just his second NHL season the only question out there was - defenceman or forward? Mark himself wanted to play D, there was no question about that. That all of course makes sense as that has been his position for his career to this point (many years). The team, however, are always on the look-out for 3rd and 4th line scoring and in Streit they had found a blue-liner that could outscore any of their current 3rd or 4th line players. From my perspective it was simple: Streit playing D opens a spot for a player such as Latendresse or Begin, but more importantly likely takes away any chance of Brisebois seeing any serious time in the line-up. He would indeed start the year as a defenceman playing alongside Bouillon on the 3rd pairing.

The season
If you thought that Souray's departure would hurt the Habs powerplay, or that Streit's 36 points the year before was a fluke, you couldn't have been more wrong. Mark posted an eye-popping 62 points this year, the 3rd highest total among all Habs players, and also, among all the league's defencemen. He wasn't, however, just a standout offensively, as he did play very well defensively all year as our #4 defenceman.

Look at his point totals, look at his highlights, remember what he could do with Markov at the point and you begin to realise: Mark was a huge reason that we ended the year with the league's best powerplay, the best record in the East and managed to score the second most goals of any team. The word underrated can't even begin to describe Streit's play, which is why, somehow, he didn't seem to always fit into Carbo's plans. After expressing his interest to play defence time and time again, Carbo was rebuffing. He was used more frequently as a forward towards the end of the year so that, you guessed it, Brisebois could play D. It seems that Carbo's debt to his old friend kept one of the league's best defenceman from plying his trade for a good chunk of the season (and most of the playoffs).

The most interesting part for all keen observers was what you would see when the going got tough. During both the regular season and the playoffs, whenever we needed a goal, or good solid defensive play, Guy would turn to Mark and ask him to play D. It made me (and others) wonder why the coach would allow the team to get themselves into situations that were clearly a result of having Breeze-by, and not Streit, playing D. You see, Carbo seemed to know in his heart of hearts that he would rather have Streit on the ice if he wanted good progressive hockey when mistakes were out of the question. The puzzle was why he kept coming back with Patrice at the beginning of the next game. As for Streit, he handled a very difficult and unpredictable situation very well and performed admirably as both a forward and a defenceman. As evidenced by his 32 dome appearances (which is among the top 7 for players), the guy can play.

Highlights: If you want to know why Streit got a huge payday, don't rely on this. It shows little of his excellent puck control at the point with one touch passes to boot. It does show how good a shot he has, though

Streit by the numbers:

Lions' links on Streit:
Streit Ahead: Of Scouting and Gambles
Experts Share More Wisdom
No, No. Not Streit
Underestimated And Underappreciated
Needs And Wants

Grade: A+
This year was nothing but excellent for the Swiss skipper. He was a class-act all year as he was asked to play pretty much every position in all situations. He proved to be invaluable to our team as, unlike Dandenault, we really could use him however we wanted and we knew that he would always deliver. His career-high 81 games also showed that he is indeed durable enough for a full NHL season; contrary to what naysayers had always said. What Streit did this year (and in part last year too), was create a new sort of position in the NHL. In recent memory, I have never seen a better example of a defenceman being able to play forward than Streit. Having him on our team was a true gift as players with that much skill and adaptability don't come around often (or ever). His versatility ultimately led to questions about his value as a defenceman, when really, his versatility was one of the Canadiens greatest weapons of 2007-08.

Where we'd have him next season
To me Mark represented one of the best draft picks of all time - league-wide. It was really one of the Habs' greatest moves of the past 15 years and almost as soon as he came, he is gone. What is the point of making steals of picks if you are just going to give up on them when they get good? I mean, wasn't this beyond the Habs' wildest dreams, isn't this what we are hoping for? A player that they found was tearing up the league. Here was a defenceman drafted in the 9th round, 262nd overall finishing 3rd in defenceman scoring just 4 years later. A team is lucky enough if a draft pick taken that late ever even features in one NHL game.

Unfortunately for all of us Mark won't be back with the Habs next year as we deemed $4M/season to be too much for a player of his calibre. To me it is outrageous that we let this gem go. After all that he has done for the team at basically league-minimum salary I thought we could at least reward him with a big contract. And, if you look at contracts these days 4M is a relative steal for Mark. Streit will go on to have a great career as he still has many good years ahead of him and I am sure this is one signing that we will regret to have not made. The lack of coaching imagination we saw in the playoffs has been mirrored in the lack of imagination from management in letting Streit go.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Habs Review 2007-08:

Carey Price

The numbers

41 GP: 24 W, 12 L, 3 OTL, 2.56 GAA, .920 Save %, 3 SO

Career best year
Rookie (Same as above)

2007-08 playoffs
11 GP: 5 W, 6 L, 2.78 GAA, .901 Save %, 2 SO

Career best playoffs
Rookie (Same as above)

Plays of the game: 5

Game pucks: 6

Domes: 40

3 Star selections: 8 First, 8 Second, 3 Third

The story

Where he started the season
Carey had one of the most impressive seasons of any Hab prospect in a long time in 2006-07. If you forget the mediocre work he did with his junior team in the playoffs then it would be considered a perfect season. Taking home the best goaltender of the CHL, as well as gongs for MVP of the WJC. What's more, just 3 months after leading Canada to gold at the world juniors, he was at it again as the backbone of another championship team; the Hamilton Bulldogs, taking that MVP award as well.

Camp would start less than a month after his 20th birthday, so making the team was going to be tough. A lot of people thought that Carey would benefit more from a full year in Hamilton than a year of playing back-up to Huet (notably us), while a more clairvoyant (as it turns out) minority thought he should get NHL exposure. What the Habs did know was that we would be carrying a young goalie as our #2, so Price really did have a shot. All through camp it looked like Halak had him beat, but at the last minute Gainey made the call to keep Price in Montreal and to have him start his NHL career ASAP. We didn't know what kind of minutes we'd get out of Carey, but what we did know was that our goalie of the future had arrived.

The season
Price's first game would come on the road against the mighty Penguins. Despite his first ever goal against early in the 1st (to Ryan Whitney) the kid would bounce back and lead the Habs to victory. Clad in an all white mask (a la Patrick Roy '86, the Anti-Martin Gerber) he impressed in that first game and was named the game's second star. He went on to record a 4-1-1 record in his next 6 games and it was becoming obvious that he was indeed here to stay. As the season went on, his playing time went up. In early December Huet was sidelined with a minor injury and Price was called on to play in every game during that stretch. This added pressure seemed too much for the kid, however, as he only recorded 3 wins in 10 games before finally being demoted to the farm.

The idea (unbeknownst to us at the time) was that Price would go down to Hamilton, regain his confidence and then return to Montreal (apparently as the #1). It wasn't long after Carey's early-February call-up that Huet was traded and the weight of a city would fall on the 20 year-old's shoulders. He went on to finish the regular season with a truly remarkable record of 15-4 and it was into the playoffs as the #1 seed for the Habs. In the playoffs, I think the pressure once again got to Carey. He was able to play well enough to squeak by #8 Boston, but his play was simply not good enough to go any further. The season would end very abruptly for the Habs leaving us all asking ourselves yet again - was Carey the man of the future? With 15 goals against in 4 games against Philly I think quite honestly, the questioning is valid. For one thing, the bubble has been burst on Carey never succumbing to pressure, never having 2 bad games in a row and never giving up in a game. So, he's human after all.

Highlights: You could almost forget he were a rookie, were it not for that white mask, such is the quality of these highlights

Price by the numbers:

Lions' links on Price:
To Trade Huet?
Why Gainey should be open to trading Carey Price
Canadiens rookie camp
Halak of respect?
Chink in Price's armour
Does three goalies constitute depth?
Not buying the hype on Price
Price Update
Locke and Halak given their chance
What's right for Price?
Disappointing News for Halak
Here We Go Again
Round 1: Montreal - Boston Preview
Wading Through The Rhetoric

Grade: B+
Carey's grade would have been higher had he kept up his regular season play in the playoffs. He did, however, have a great season considering just how young he is and the situation that he was put into. I don't think anyone expected the team to go all in with Carey, but as of now it looks like they may be onto something. It wasn't his fault that Huet was traded for nothing or that Halak saw limited time, so I really can't hold anything against him. All Carey did was play his best, act and speak like a 10-year veteran and deliver 24 wins in only 41 games.

One knock on the kid has to be his inability to let a bad goal go. If he gets scored early and it was a shot that he should have had then the game, at that point, seemed like a foregone conclusion. I noticed this about 3 or 4 times during the regular season and in pretty much all of his losses during the playoffs. His play in general was very solid, however, with only a few areas that aren't quite at NHL-star level. His puckhandling was the weakest part of his game (non-mental) following in the footsteps of pretty much every Habs goalie since Roy.

Where we'd have him next season
I don't think that he played well enough this year to be our guaranteed #1 for the upcoming season. I am positive that more people in the Habs orginization are Carey people than Halak people, but I still think it will be a battle. The addition of Marc Denis shouldn't have any impact at the NHL level as he has proven time and time again that the NHL isn't the league for him. So Right now I would say that Carey is in the driver's seat, but I believe the battle for Habs #1 will go on for a long time and may not even be resolved by season's end. What I do expect from Carey is improved play from this year. If his numbers do indeed improve then I believe that our team has nowhere to go but up. Price has proven he is a true champion and I am sure he is more eager than anyone to prove that that title also applies to the NHL.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Habs Review 2007-08:

Cristobal Huet

The numbers

2007-08 - Canadiens/Capitals
39 GP: 21 W, 12 L, 6 OTL, 2.55 GAA, .916 Save %, 2 SO - Canadiens
13 GP: 11 W, 2 L, 0 OTL, 1.63 GAA, .936 Save %, 2 SO - Capitals

52 GP: 32 W, 14 L, 6 OTL, 2.32 GAA, .920 Save %, 4 SO - TOTAL

Career best year
This season

2007-08 playoffs - Capitals
7 GP: 3 W, 4 L, 2.93 GAA, .909 Save %, 0 SO

Career best playoffs – 2005-06
6 GP: 2 W, 4 L, 2.33 GAA, .929 Save %, 0 SO

Plays of the game: 5

Game pucks: 10

Domes: 37

3 Star selections: 6 First, 3 Second, 1 Third

The story

Where he started the season
Cristo was our #1 goalie going into this year, no question. We had gotten rid of Aebischer, so it was Huet and one of our two star youngsters, but no one knew who that would be. The combination of an experienced, extremely talented veteran with the raw talent of either Halak or Price appealed to all Habs fans who hadn't see such a tandem since Hackett/Theodore. Huet's all-star performance was enough to force a former Hart winner out of town, so could he do it again? The question on everybody's mind in training camp was could Huet (in a contract year) be good enough to convince the Habs that he was our goaltender of the future. He had a shot, but a lot believed it was only a matter of time before Carey Price would become our long-term #1.

The season
Huet started the year very well, as he only lost one of his first eight games in regulation. Throughout the start of the season, he was playing more than Price, but as early as mid-November it seemed like we were going to more of a platoon style system. The wins, however, kept coming for Huet. From late Novemeber until early February he enjoyed a great stretch in which he went 14-4-4. One of his most memorable moments as a Hab came in a shootout win over the Rangers. Price was shelled for 3 early goals leaving Carbo with no other choice than to bring in the Frenchman. What happened after that will be remembered for a very long time. After letting in 2 goals himself Huet would go on to backstop the Habs to an improbable 6-5 come from behind win in a game in which we trailed 5-0 halfway through. That game would turn out to be Huet's second last as a Hab as he was traded at the deadline a few days later.

The trade itself was mostly remarkable for what the Canadiens managed to get in return - a mere second round pick in 2009. For Huet, however, the move was great, as it allowed him to showcase his abilities again. He had a great month with Washington and only succumbed to Briere and the Flyers in a seventh game on a questionable goal.

Highlights: Not available on the official site (since he never existed...), but this should suffice

Huet by the numbers: N/A

Lions' links on Huet:
To Trade Huet?
Emery, Miller, Toskala, Fernandez and Huet
Does three goalies constitute depth?
The Underappreciated Cristobal Huet (Stats Suite)
Here We Go Again
The Trade Deadline and What's Next
Out of Africa: Digesting Habs Occurrences from Late February
Experts Share More Wisdom
From Souray to Huet: A Year of Gainey

Grade: A
We ended the year in 1st place in the conference in large part due to the play of Cristo. Many over the years had noted that he didn't have the stamina to be a #1, but I think his 32 wins (21 with us and 11 in just 13 games with Washington) is proof enough that he does. Trading Huet is still something that I haven't been able to accept. Not making him the goalie of the future is understandable, but trading an all-star for a 2nd round pick is just pathetic. What's more, we all understand the economics of hockey and that the Canadiens would not have been able to resign Huet at the salary he was seeking (and got with the Hawks) as well as play Price in the majority of games. But, many fans would wonder aloud, if it wouldn't have been better to have 30 more games with Huet than the potential of a player who in the most likely of scenarios will never even sit on the bench for 30 NHL games.

This season he was nothing but a class act. His play on the ice was once again exceptional, but his attitude off it was invaluable. He is a true gentleman and a real team player. Players like Huet don't come around often and it is a shame that Gainey couldn't see his true value through his Price-tinted glasses. No better evidence of Huet's total class than the day he got traded. I have never seen a traded player deliver such a heart-felt, gracious interview right after being told they were leaving a team they loved. He had nothing but good stuff to say about our city and team making his departure that much harder.

Where we'd have him next season
I am happy that Huet is finally being rewarded for his play and has finally earned the title of #1. Those couple of months with the Caps were probably worth millions to Cristobal - so I'm sure he harbours no ill will to the Canadiens who did a nice thing for the classy gentleman. In Chicago he will have a young, exciting team in front of him and will likely play a huge role in taking the Blackhawks back to the post-season. It was surprising that the Capitals didn't bring him back as he was the biggest reason they squeaked into the playoffs. The good news is that we will only have to play Huet once next year, if he was in our division then I would be scared. I expect Huet to go on to have a great year and will be a force in this league for years to come. I have a feeling that the Habs will regret letting this gem go, that is of course, if they don't already do. We do, however, wish him the best.