Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Canadiens Depth Preview: The Wingers (Part 2)

Following on from the preview of the centres in the organization, I'm going to go through the wingers (based on the list of those who have progressed as far as a training camp invite). Once again, Part 1 will be big-team guys, Part 2 will be the farm system as it stands now.

Based on team lists, prospect lists and my evaluations, here is the list of centres in order of importance to the team:

  1. Alex Kovalev
  2. Alex Tanguay
  3. Andrei Kostitsyn
  4. Chris Higgins
  5. Sergei Kostitsyn
  6. Tom Kostopoulos
  7. Guillaume Latendresse
  8. Georges Laraque
  9. Mathieu Danadenault
  10. Gregory Stewart
  11. Matt D'Agostini
  12. Max Pacioretty
  13. Thomas Beauregard
  14. JT Wyman
  15. Danny Kristo
  16. Alexandre Monohan
  17. Mike Glumac
  18. Ryan Flinn

First call-ups

Gregory Stewart

Greg is first in line for one reason – he has shown he can do this. Last season's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Greg Stewart showed that he could bring a new level of energy and zip to the team.

In a little over a year, Stewart has gone from a nobody who looked to be redundant in an organisation carrying Garth Murray to a unique proposition. If I had to describe what he could bring, I'd have to say "A younger Begin". It doesn't tell you everything, but it gives the feel. Greg is actually bigger than begin, though I suspect from his career stats, a little less talented around the net. The thing is, there is room for a player like Begin/Stewart, but probably only one. Given Begin is a known quantity, that means Stewart has his work cut out for him.

Thc West Island Chronicle (of all papers – I used to deliver this to Mr. Skrudland) tells us that:

Gregory Stewart says he cut out "a month of boozing" from his summer ritual to get ready for Habs camp.

They go on to say the sober reality is that he will probably start in Hamilton, but I think he has a chance. As I said Begin is a known quantity, and one of his known traits of late has been to get injured about every second appearance. It would certainly be nice to have a durable alternative to Steve on tap. That, for me is Mr. Stewart at the moment.

He appears at first on this list precisely because all smart money is on Begin to be the first player going on the wing for the Habs to get injured, and thus making way for Stewart to ride shot-gun in the press box for a while.

Greg's 2007-08 Review

Matt D'Agostini

When Greg Stewart took his opportunity in April and made hay, D'Agostini made little to no impression at all (at least on me). This is fine, though, as first NHL games are not the place to judge a prospect (unless it's Stewart and I feel like it).

Matt D'Agostini is the next winger down in what I would only describe as a shallow pool of talent for the Canadiens. He has earned the place on the depth chart by being the best player left from Hamilton last season. And he does is with respectable, though a long way from spectacular, numbers.

Matt played 76 games in the AHL, most on the first line, and came away with 23 goals. It would be alright if offence wasn't meant to be the reason we were interested in the first place. But, from the Canadiens point of view, it is somewhat shocking that we can talk about depth when this is one of the pieces we are talking about.

Those who disagree with this viewpoint are more optimistic. Habster at AllHabs, for example, thinks that with his quick shot, Matt D'Agostini can be a quicker version of Michael Ryder. I can tell you that is the most optimistic outlook possible. Ryder scored nearly 140 goals in junior to Matt's round 49. D'Agositin is looking at third line on a good team (that's what we hope we are now). He has talent enough to fill in when necessary, but is not a long-term threat to the the Kostitsyns livelihood, I don't think.

But enough negativity. To be fair to D'Agostini, he is what he is – a late round draft pick trying to improve his game in the AHL in the hope of one day playing in the big leagues. He is doing a good job at progressing too, as he is matching his junior outputs in the AHL. I think another season will do him a world of good, particularly on the top line. And, it will allow the Canadiens time to judge whether they have a late bloomer on their hands.

Matt's 2007-08 Review

Max Pacioretty

Lower in the pecking order because of experience alone. Plus I made the list before this training camp.

Pacioretty is certainly the best winger the Canadiens have in the farm system at the moment, and the one with the most potential. You can tell from my review of D'Agostini, that that isn't saying much, but please let me assure you, Pacioretty is impressive.

Max is no giant, but considering he could still put weight onto his frame, he's big. And, more importantly he uses his body and his strength to his advantage. What's more for a guy that's not even 20 yet, he has some mean achievements.

His stats at the age of 17 in the USHL (no laughing stock anymore) showed promise. But his performance last year as a rookie at Michigan (the best hockey school there is) showed star potential. To walk onto a team of 20 and 21 year-olds all also vying for playing time and NHL eyes and to strip their ice time and beat them in the scoring race is impressive stuff. And point-per-game in the NCAA is no joke either. And he continued to wow people this summer, first at the Canadiens rookie camp, and now at the camp with the men.

One Guy who knows what he is talking about had this to say of Max:
"He looks like a pro right now. Sometimes it's tough to say that about a (19-year-old). He looks mature and he had a really good season in his first year at college. Now we'll see what he can do with the older guys."

If that evidence showed us that he can learn and quick, his state of mind shows us why (from the Gazette):
"I'm not expecting anything like (making the team) to happen," Pacioretty said, horseshoed into his dressing-room stall by a generous media scrum. "I'm just expecting to keep my eyes and ears open and learn as much as I can from the camp, to try to improve and play the best I can."

All excellent stuff, so the only question that remains is whether the managers on the team feel he will be better served by playing top-billing down in Hamilton or whether he takes the Carey Price 3/4 season route to starting. My bet is that it will be Hamilton to start, but if ideas or, heaven forbid, scoring dry up, Max is the only realistic option to remedy that.

I'm at the end of the profile and realise I haven't mentioned that Max is meant to be the long-lost power forward. I think that's yet to be seen. But, really the reason I overlooked it is because it is merely a bonus to me if he is. The fact he is driven, mature and capable of excelling at all levels of play thus far are so much more important to me in my analysis.

Minor leaguers

Thomas Beauregard

I get the feeling there is something to Thomas Beauregard. Something pretty good lurking within him.

First of all, he can score. As you know this is something I don't think can be taught. Defense can be taught (to an extent), no one can make a scorer of a guy who isn't. Secondly, he seems to have a bit of character.

Did you guys know that his hero is his brother? His brother who lost an eye in an horrific on-ice accident with (coincidentally) Habs prospect Xavier Delisle in 1994. It was Sports Illustrated material when he made his comeback. I believe Thomas when he says he has learned a lot from his older brother – how to overcome adversity.

Thomas' adversity seems to involve being constantly overlooked. This rare scouting report sheds a bit of light on Thomas:
Scouted Strengths are : Good hockey sense with well rounded decision making in the offensive zone, when on his game extremely effective and dominant in all three zones.

Scouted Weaknesses: Mitigated play in his zone, skating and speed needs to improve dramatically

Not surprising, as this must be the scouting report on every scoring star who doesn't make it. What's different about Thomas is that he seems to be making progress. 5 years in junior would have been enough to kill most careers, but he topped it off with a spectacular goal per game campaign and an impressive 124 points. His excitement to be at Habs camp was shortly turned into disappointment at landing in Cincinnati, but he turned that into a positive experience as well by scoring at PPG clip and winning the league's championship trophy.

There is no way that Thomas will play in Montreal this season. that scouting report is real and is believed. But, if he shows the same determination he has in the past and comes to grips with the AHL and what it takes to score there, Beauregard may be back in a very different position next season.

JT Wyman

This year's Greg Stewart. I want to dismiss his claim altogether.

The thing is though, James or JT was a Mr. Hockey finalist in Minnesota (Habs scouts drool) and an Ivy leaguer. There might be more to Mr. Wyman than meets the eye.

He's already trying for the Bulldogs and not the Canadiens, and as you can tell by my list, he's quite a way down the pecking order. I don't think we'll be seeing him for quite some time in a Montreal uniform.

Skillwise, I think it is fair to say Wyman is buried in this list, and with the youth on the team currently, he might have to look elsewhere (Columbus?) to get NHL ice time. But, the feeling I get about Wyman is that he could just be one of those useful guys to have around, say come playoff time (not this year, some future year). I am thinking of Ed Ronan or someone like that. A year in Hamilton should tell us a lot more than a career in Dartmouth did.

For the future

Danny Kristo

After years of choosing back-line players with our top draft picks, this draft we finally dedicated to the winger. First there was Tanguay. Then there was Kristo.

From what I heard, Timmins was extra-pleased to get his paws on Kristo in the second round. You almost get the feeling he would have taken the player with that 25th pick.

The talent analysis on Hockey's Future says it all:
Kristo is slightly undersized. That being said he has good speed and plays a smart game on the ice.

Smart game. US National team. Second in goalscoring. Every other scouting report contains the word "thinking" – a very encouraging thought.

Danny's back to whence he came for this year, and a good thing at only 18 he has a lot to learn. Including which music he should be listening to: Danny Kristo's ipod.

With the talent pool so shallow on the wing and even at forward in general, Danny is a welcome addition. A couple more like him would help.

Alexandre Monahan

Every year the Habs invite a few lucky local boys to have a go at making the team. This year, it was Alexandre Monahan.

I put him in the "For the Future" category mainly because he had to return to junior. But as an undrafted, 165 lb, 6 footer, I'm not really holding much hope. Certainly, he'll have to do a lot better than his draft year where he managed a mere 8 goals and 27 points. Last year was better (38 goals). But Alex, this year is make or break...


Mike Glumac

Another undrafted player who has done well to cobble a place for himself in the next-to-highest league in North American hockey. Were we the Toronto Maple Leafs, this guy would be a cult hero already and vying for John Pohl or Nathan Perrott's in their hearts. In some ways, it's nice not to automatically fall in love with every guy who tries hard, but just can't quite manage the level of play.

It's worth looking at his stats, though, if only to browse his old teammates at the Pee Dee Pride.

Ryan Flinn

Barring a change in our uniforms to black and orange/yellow, there was never going to be any room for one Ryan Flinn on the Habs roster.

I can see that he might be a handy guy to have around for fights in the lower leagues that still look a lot more like NHL 1975 than the current NHL does. It wouldn't surprise me in the least though if we never hear his name spoken in the Montreal papers again. Here are the stats for the giant from out East.

Helvetica Neue?

Yesterday's cuts didn't offer much surprising news. Career AHLers were returned to the AHL, juniors to junior and cards fell where they were expected to fall.

In some ways, this means everything is going to plan. I mean Latendresse, Olivier did not outshine Plekanec, but Latendresse, Guillaume is doing his part to hold a place. For me a singular disappointment is that we traded Corey Locke (Hamilton's all-time leading scorer and one-time CHL MVP) to help shore up the Hamilton back-line.

The intrigue in this whole training camp actually begins now, because those players who had a hope of making the team are all the ones still floating around. The next cuts will determine which prospects are fast-tracked and which are going to the incubator for another year. It will also tell me whether or not on teams like the Canadiens (with a roster largely filled out with NHL one-way contracts already) training camp is just a waste of time until the season begins.

As much as I like D'Agostini, Maxwell and Pacioretty. I think with Latendresse's attitude and performance turnaround, there is a single place to be won from camp. A conservative guess would put Chipchura in the mix. But Greg Stewart's single game against the Leafs last spring looms large in his favour.

Then there's Marc Denis, who after being one of the worst goaltenders in any hockey league last season, has a lot to prove. More than he can prove in an 8-game stint. He is here because they will use him again, but his stay is temporary i think.

The player who interests me most of those left is Yannick Weber. The story on him prior to the Florida game was that he was Swiss (hence the title for this piece) and that Mark Streit was his idol.

The story on him now that he has made the first cut is getting a bit more interesting. And while the pessimistic among us (and those who clearly want a ride in Brisebois' Ferrari next week) give him no chance at all:

Gaston Therrien: No place for Weber
Francois Gagnon: Not yet good enough to dislodge O'Byrne or Brisebois

I think Weber is in with a real chance here. I certainly wouldn't dismiss it out of hand the way the two journalists did. Not when the competition includes the illustrious shrug-master Brisebois.

There are several reasons for my view from the apparent lunatic fringe:

First, Weber fills an actual need on the Canadiens. With the loss of Streit on defence, the Canadiens rely on Markov for generating plays from the back, but are then faced with an immense drop off to Hamrlik and then another one to Gorges, Bouillon and Komisarek. O'Byrne for his part hardly factors into offense at all, as he is so tied up learning how to be a big defenceman.

Second, Weber is already better than Brisebois. He has shown he is dynamic, confident and can shoot without a flutter motion. And he holds the potential to get better over time, whereas we all know Patrice's potential that we spent much of last season hoping wouldn't be fulfilled again and again.

Third, Carbonneau has already shown us that he loves carrying extra defencemen on the roster, not extra forwards. He is comfortable in moving a D up to the wing, where the worst they can do is play like a D and rarely contribute any offence (Dandeanult), whereas a D gets injured, no way a forward is moved back.

I'm also not that excited about O'Byrne, to be honest. I have a feeling if it wasn't for his size he wouldn't be a factor in NHL roster-making. And, sure, you can't ignore that he is 6'5". But we need to make up our minds here, do we need Laraque or not? We want a few big guys, sure, but this team is built mostly for speed and needs the players to match.

In the best-case scenario for me, Weber would of course step into Brisebois' place and that would be that – the end of a long and tortuous relationship. I am not that naive, though, not after another summer of betrayal.

I do believe there is another alternative based on the feasible where Weber stays though, and that is where neither Stewart or Chipchura make the Habs right away. That way Carbonneau carries Brisebois, Weber and (is he still here?) Dandenault in the pressbox and inserts them when he pleases. In the spirit of keep the best prospect, it looks like the right move today.

Anyway, get a good look at Weber, because there will be injuries on defence (it comes with the territory) and he is now first in line to make the step up should we need extra legs. I just know we can't resist having a new Swiss player on the team, not now we know we are Switzerland's NHL favs (as Weber reported).

Monday, September 29, 2008

Canadiens Depth Preview: The Wingers (Part 1)

Following on from the preview of the centres in the organization, I'm going to go through the wingers (based on the list of those who have progressed as far as a training camp invite). Once again, Part 1 will be big-team guys, Part 2 will be the farm system as it stands now.

Based on team lists, prospect lists and my evaluations, here is the list of wingers in order of importance to the team:

  1. Alex Kovalev
  2. Alex Tanguay
  3. Andrei Kostitsyn
  4. Chris Higgins
  5. Sergei Kostitsyn
  6. Tom Kostopoulos
  7. Guillaume Latendresse
  8. Georges Laraque
  9. Mathieu Danadenault
  10. Gregory Stewart
  11. Matt D'Agostini
  12. Max Pacioretty
  13. Thomas Beauregard
  14. JT Wyman
  15. Danny Kristo
  16. Alexandre Monohan
  17. Mike Glumac
  18. Ryan Flinn

The top-line wingers

Alex Kovalev

The MVP of the regular season last year sure did surprise a lot of people. A lot. When i was being outspoken on him actually being worth holding onto, the mainstream media were calling for his head. For him to do the same again this year would be an impossibility. The pundits are already saying the entire Canadiens season depends on him.

So there's the question of which Kovalev we will see. The media puts it as the Kovalev of 2006-07 who took nights off and got less than 50 points or the 2007-08 MVP. The reality for me is that the gulf between the to Kovalevs is not all that wide. The gulf was mainly on the scoresheet. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that Kovalev was largely the same guy for most of both seasons - often trying hard, sometimes single-handedly winning games. The difference for him, at least statistically last season were his linemates. They grew up. Plekanec in particular learned how to play offense at a different level to his previous one.

So, in that way, I am not very worried about which Kovalev will show up, how many points he will get or how we will remember this season for him. I think he will still amaze us most nights with his stick handling and will probably chip in another 30 goals and 70+ points.

But that is not where Kovalev's value ends, nor has it ever been. What Alex showed us last year even more clearly than in year's previous was that he is a leader and a player to build an entire offensive scheme around.

As a leader, he not only famously took the young Kostitsyns under his wing and helped Markov to come out of his shell, but he also showed everyone else how to act. He showed the players how to see milestones (1000 games? I'll do 2000) for what they are (i.e., not nearly Stanley Cups). He taught the youngsters that you can win back the fans and even the uber-critical media.

As an offensive cornerstone, he is at his most valuable. You see, Alex brings qualities that no one else on the team, no league, can bring. The way he can hold the puck is uncanny. And, it is this puck control combined with a willingness on the part of the coaches to actually exploit it that has made the Canadiens powerplay the best in the league after years, nay eons, of dumping into the corner. Alex gains the zone and keeps the zone, and if that weren't enough takes half the coverage and scores with ease. That's why when he's on the ice, it's the Kovalev line and not the Plekanec or Grabovski line.

Alex's 2007-08 Review

Alex Tanguay

At the end of last year's playoffs, I thought the biggest need to be addressed was scoring - a paradox if you only looked at regular season stats. I mean, for all the 6-5 comebacks against the Rangers we sure made the Bruins and Flyers look like the defensive standards on which to judge all future teams. Nervous players took nervous shots at what should have been nervous goalies. Gainey did not disagree with me, he stated an upgrade to the top 6 forwards was the biggest priority and he came through.

Critics of this trade are right to point out that Tanguay had been coming to Montreal in trade rumours for the past 4 seasons. But, like the Halak for Lecavalier dreams we always knew Ryder for Tanguay wouldn't happen. Well, miracle of miracles, it just did - well almost. Gainey lets Ryder go for nothing and gets Tanguay for next to nothing. All in all, a great acquisition.

So what type of player did Gainey get in Alex Tanguay. Well, an injured one thus far. Also a major francophone star, though strangely the media haven't latched onto him like they have to Latendresse(s). Maybe he undid the expectations (yeah right!) with this:
"I'm a little nervous, being French Canadian and coming here and knowing about the expectations and stuff like that," Tanguay said Monday before leaving for Halifax to play in the team's pre-season opener against the Boston Bruins.

"But I'm not coming here to be the saviour. The team is excellent. It's got a lot of firepower. They fell short a little last year (in the playoffs) and I'm just hoping to add to that and do my share to help them out."

But really what the Canadiens get is a Stanley Cup-winning, bona fide top-line winger. I'll call him a consistent 20-goal and 70-point man for his career, but he might thank Sakic and Forsberg for those numbers. Even so, it can't be ignored that the Avalanche in those years didn't mess around up front, and Alex virtually from stepping into the league got top offensive duties - the guy has serious skill.

The question of which skill he has is a funny one to answer. Obviously playing with Iginla and Sakic (two of the best goalscorers in recent NHL history) will help you pile up assist, but did you know that Tanguay's 19.4% career shooting percentage is the highest among active NHL players? The guy can pick a corner when he wants to apparently, which, considering the play f every winger in the Philadelphia series means our biggest weakness on the team is a little bit closer to being filled.

Statistically, I' m not sure I'm with the Hockey News on Tanguay being the Habs top point-man at the end of the season. Personally, I think that position is occupied. However, I do think he will do his part. Realistically, he'll get 70 points and 25 goals on a team where the scoring is more spread out then he has been used to. More than statistics of his own, the most important thing he might do is bring out the real Saku Koivu - the one who leads all tournaments in scoring when playing with a decent winger or two. Provided they don't hate each other, I can't see how Tanguay for Koivu and vice versa could be a bad thing. That said, Tanguay would make a nice complement to Plekanec's line as well, should the Kostitsyns be the ones to revive the captain.

Obviously, as with Lang, this addition was not meant to remedy the loss of Ryder in the regular season. I think the hope is that once the playoffs come, a little bit of Colorado attitude comes out and Tanguay can show the other guys how the playoffs are just like the regular season with less diverse travel schedules.

Andrei Kostitsyn

Other bloggers say they have a man, Chipchura, Higgins, Komisarek. Andrei Kostitsyn is my pick. As I've said many times before, no Canadiens prospect, not his brother, not Komisarek, not Price has anything near the potential of this guy. The way Andrei skates and handles the puck at speed is all instinct and all impressive. The fact that he can shoot makes him superstar potential. I have said it ad nauseum, he is the only true 50-goal threat we have and have had in years.

Andrei started to give us a little taste of what eh could do last season from about December on. It was the awakening off Andrei Kostitsyn that awoke the whole team. The Plekanec Kovalev due became a full-line threat, the new top line meant Koivu and Higgins got easier checking, and the effect trickled down. Yes, once Andrei was awoken, the Canadiens went from team who might never score even strength again to team where no 3 goal lead against is ever safe.

To preview Kostitsyn, though, is a difficult task. Take last year. Considering it was to be his first full season, I don't think anyone would have been surprised if the whole year went by as October and November did. But, his brother gets promoted and wham, Andrei notches it up a gear or two. To become a true league star, he needs to find some more notches, but who knows which cold windy January night he'll choose.

If I'm a betting man, I will project what he did for the second half of last season, which gives me 30 goals and 60 points. If we see some categoric leap to stardom, it'll probably be +5 and +10, respectively. In my opinion, 50 goals will wait for another season in the future.

As to who he'll play with, I don't think it will matter to him or his statistics. In some ways, Andrei and Kovalev together is redundant, but in other ways just plain amazing - and so many chances to be generated. He may personally benefit from a centre who much prefers the pass (in Koivu), but as I said, I don't think too much one way or the other. Koivu stands to benefit the most (statistically), though, from all these wingers at our disposal now.

If Andrei can learn another lesson: how to play in the playoffs (i.e., it's not a shinny game with your brother), then the Habs will really benefit. Given that he and all the team were so devastated after last year's exit, I really don't see how that could not be the case. Oh, the prospect of a firing Kostitsyn in the playoffs is already getting me pumped. There's no pathetic Julien counter for that.

Andrei's 2007-08 Review

Chris Higgins

What a difference a year makes, eh? Whaddya think Chris?

Last summer we were hearing about Higgins and Komisarek's wonderful adventure to a yoga instructor who taught them mind tricks. Last year, every mention of Higgins was prefaced with "Future captain". And get a load of this (from HW archives):
Chris Higgins is that unique player that has first line talent but plays like a fourth liner; a player who plays as if every shift is his last. He is in many ways the most versatile forward on the Habs roster, he excels on the power play, he is a threat on the penalty kill, and he can play all three forward positions. But more importantly it is how he plays the game.

His focus on the game and what it takes to succeed is unmatched.

Hyperbole from every corner. Not so this year.

Funny really, because Higgins didn't do any worse. He progressed normally considering where he came from and where e is going. He had a great start, an OK middle and an OK finish. He played the hero on a few occasions and played hard on all the others.

So what happened?

Well, 3 things to start with: Kovalev, Kostitsyn and Plekanec. Higgins is suddenly now an interesting second-line winger, not first-line scoring machine. But I think there was more. I can't find the quote now, but Christopher Higgins certainly alluded to something else, that had always occurred to me when I saw him after games. I think someone told him to shut up - basically, someone on the team. I think he is being a little more low key because for all his hot air in interviews last season, he was really only the 10th best player on the team. He has settled into his place, I think.

Aha, but I think this could be a panacea for Higgins. First of all, with one more season of observance to benefit from, I think we can safely say he does not possess first-line talent. Imagine if Tanguay and his 19.4% shooting had been on the end of those Higgins chances, we'd have a 45-goal man. Higgins is what he is though. An excellent checker. Excellent second-line forward. 25-30 goalscorer. Now, he could get 30 (I mean his luck couldn't get any worse), but let's not kid ourselves about 40.

I think Chris will benefit from lower expectations, being the third best player on a given line and by not having to pump himself up in every post-game scrum. This year should be a maturing year for Chris in which we see him develop into the player he will be from here on. And, i think the stage is set for him to learn and develop a lot. The evolution of his role within this team will help him too. Instead of stretching to find skills he doesn't have, he can now concentrate on using the ones he does to the fullest.

In terms of linemates, I wouldn't separate Chris from Koivu right away. After all, I think even Saku needs some continuity. But, as to the third piece, I think Tanguay or Kostitsyn would both fit very nicely. In my mind, there is no doubt that Higgins will be a bigger point-getter this season, if not a bigger goal contributor. If it's Tanguay and Koivu, or Kostitsyn and Koivu, I could see high 60s for Chris, though mostly assists this time.

Chris' 2007-08 Review

Sergei Kostitsyn

If you ask Bob Gainey how he replaced Michael Ryder, he'll probably tell you that he did that mid-way through last season when he elected to keep Sergei Kostitsyn with the big club. And it would be true.

Sergei Kostitsyn was certainly one of the big surprises of last season. Some people were quite sure we had a top-6 player in Sergei, but even the most optimistic weren't thinking that within months he would fulfill that promise.

This year, the expectations have gone a bit too far the other way, in my opinion. I think Sergei is a good player and showed great promise last season too. I think he rescued us from a lot more frustrating Ryder moments. But, we shouldn't forget he now has all of 64 games of NHL experience, with 12 goals and 35 points. Although we might like him to be a top-liner, he may not be entirely ready for the whole responsibility just yet. He's still a prospect for that position, he still has a profile on Hockey's Future, after all.

The things that get people so worked up about Sergei are plain to see, however. Even if I'm not as worked up as most, I can still fully appreciate his skill. His skating is great, with speed to compete with NHLers. His puck control is what we have come to expect from a Kostitsyn, as is his game sense. But, what sets him apart from other prospects in his peer group are his passing and his strength. Passing and sense as fine as Sergei's must be exploited on the PP if possible and on a line with someone who can score (now that we have 3 centres, this should be easy).

I see a good season ahead for Sergei, but not as good as Andrei's. I think he'll make a run at 20 goals, though probably end in the high teens, and 40-50 points as well. Of course, we've seen that Sergei is a quick study and the he has the Kostitsyn genes which may cause him to become twice the player he was the day before overnight, so I may be overly cautious with these numbers. But again, numbers underestimate this player's value. Another season, and by the playoffs he should offer a great threat in the tradition of third line wonders of the past like John Leclair and Claude Lemieux.

Sergei's 2007-08 Review

Filling out the NHL roster

Tom Kostopoulos

Tom falls into the filling out the roster category, but his place is guaranteed on the team in my eyes. But for the altercation in Tampa, he did little wrong in his first season with the Canadiens. If you think back to the playoffs, you will surely recall the spirited performances Tom gave.

Though Tom won't be called upon to be much more than an occasional goalscorer, I feel what he does can be summed up in one word: important. It seems every goal he scores is important, every fight he gets himself into. He is one of those classic players who play like they have no limits. If asked, I bet most people would make Tom a big man, but in fact he's not. He just plays that way.

If you're reading this for a hockey pool, don't pick Tom, however. Tobalev and I were joking about our upcoming pool, which now has so many participants we thought Kostopoulos could be picked. I'll tell you, it won't be me picking him. Barring a major catastrophe, Tom will be playing 10 minutes at a time on the fourth line. The coaches will tell him not to do anything rash, just to let the other guys rest a bit. Even in my most generous state of mind, I give Tom 18 points. That could be 10 goals or 5, who knows.

Tom's 2007-08 Review

Guillaume Latendresse

Guillaume is the true wildcard of this whole list. He is the only player with the potential to move up to the top two lines from this lower tier. And, he is the only one who could start in Hamilton.

If you take him at face value, it seems that last year Latendresse learned a lot. He learned that his place on the team is not assured. He learned that prospects below him the depth chart can leapfrog him in a flash. He learned that if he can't play on the offensive lines, he might have no place with the NHL Canadiens.

What's more, it seems he learned that no one else is the least bit worried about how his career turns out. That if he wants to succeed and live his dream that the responsibility is all his.

Quite heartening then that Guillaume spent the summer learning how to skate and losing an enormous amount of weight. To be honest, even if he doesn't skate better or last longer, this show of intent speaks volumes on its own. He has declared with his actions that he's not messing around anymore. That he'll do what it takes to dig a place out for himself on the Canadiens. I say more power to him.

With the benefit of exhibition games to refer to, I can say that Latendresse has changed. He is making things happen without Koivu. He is taking his attitude born form the summer and putting it into action on the ice.

What does this mean for him and the team then? Well, at this point I think it means he's going to be on the team. And, I think he'll win the benefit of being centered by Koivu or Lang. I would keep him away form Kovalev, since statistics show they weren't working last year (both were better without the other), but anyone else goes.

If Guillaume does secure a place on a line and sticks, he'll be a 20-goalscorer at last. I can't promise he'll get any assists, but someone ought to chip some of his rebounds. What's more, hopefully what he can learn during this season will make him a different weapon when we need him on the PP and also in th playoffs, of course.

In general, I can't help but be positive about Latendresse. I feel the maturity he has shown in the face of immense pressure and the drive he clearly has to make this work only make me think highly of him. Gosh, he can be slow sometimes, though, can't he?

Guillaume's 2007-08 Review

Georges Laraque

All welcome Georges Laraque. This pick-up for me made little sense in a hockey management way, but a lot of sense from a PR standpoint.

Georges Laraque is the best fighter in the league. And, to top it off, he is the most outspoken francophone player around. He already contributed to RDS with such regularity that you might forgive people for forgetting that his full-time job was fighting hockey players. In this light, I can see where this signing comes from – perhaps to take some of the bright lights off Tanguay, Latendresse and Price for a while.

As a hockey move, I don't see it. Fighting in the NHL now is a relic of a time when team's actually hated each other. It is the appendix to the body that is hockey. It serves no purpose, and can be removed without consequence. I'm sure that some would argue that we acquired Laraque because our team was bullied in the playoffs. That is nonsense. We got outscored, nothing more. So unless we are going to suddenly become the bullies, Laraque's role is window dressing.

It may be that I am selling Georges short, because as fighters go, he can certainly play. But the fact is, when Georges plays we will bench a player who apart from not being able to beat up Jeremy Reich is superior to the big man.

Alas, we have him, so we'll use him. I do think he'll dress for the majority of games in the regular season. Come the playoffs, it will depend on the opponent. I do look forward to his interviews...

Mathieu Dandenault

The last forward on the team. Call him the insurance policy.

I entered Mat as a winger the day Brisebois was signed. If gainey has shown us anything, it's that he'll stick it to us with Brisebois, whether we like it or not. That leaves Dandenault out on the blueline, especially after a year's hiatus.

As a forward, Dandenault is vanilla. He offers nothing special really. Sure he's fast, but for what? He can't deke or shoot or really pass. He'll chase and chase and that's great, but we've moved beyond the Dackell-Sundstrom generation, haven't we?

As an insurance policy, he does quite nicely though – as long as he keeps himself from getting too disgruntled. He's no Mark Streit, but he can be diligent at any position we ask of him.

I won't bother projecting points here, it's hard enough seeing him playing much at all.

As a person, I feel sorry for Dandenault, I do. In his years with the Canadiens, he has been nothing but consistent. But in that time, he has seen the team around him change completely. Better defencemen have grown up and been signed. Better forwards too. It would be nice if he could win a Stanly Cup here at home, because this will be his last season as a Habs player, surely.

Mathieu's 2007-08 Review

Eklund Was Born With Powers

Yeah powers. A very vivid imagination...

I don't know why I still read this guy's website, I don't. Maybe I'm bored?

But today, Eklund, the ever self-praising made another outlandish claim. He claims, and I quote:

"Anyway, as my buddy will attest, I called the Hextall goal about 30 seconds before hand."

This goes down as one of his legendary overclaims, which is saying a lot considering who we're dealing with. No goalie has ever scored before and Eklund has a prmonition about it? Then again, he probably just read it on TSN and claimed he knew before anyone else as usual.

I should stop before I give the guy anymore air time. Just thought it was funny, really.

Alex Charms The Pants Off Quebec

It won't be long now before Kovalev becomes firmly entrenched as Quebec's latest sweetheart.

Not only did he get a haircut for the big day, but Alex brought out all the charm for his appearance on the French language panel show Tout le Monde en Parle. Thanks to Fred at En Route Pour La Coupe! for alerting us to this.

If you have time and understand French, I recommend you watch the clips because they show a public relations coup for a Canadiens player the likes of which we haven't seen in decades. I mean, sure the Begins and the Quintals have visited talk shows before. but this is different, this is a bona fide superstar, a hockey player whose skills most of us can hardly fathom, and he's taking the time to have a chat, joke around, come into our living rooms as himself.

If Saku were interested at all in sweetening his reception (and from all evidence, i suspect he isn't), this is the blueprint for him to follow. Alex had the audience, the panel and the host eating from his hand. He joked about hi French, he joked about their Russian and they joked in English. It was a veritable love in.

Coming into the season, this is currency for Alex to spend. In a way, it should also take some more heat off poor Saku, who clearly is just a shy person (he hasn't been doing loads of TV shows in either language), not someone who is shunning the French media. Now they can have their darling and leave the rest to their hockey.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Someone Save Them From Us

Winning the Stanley Cup will take a team at least 98 games, at most 110. We're talking about 100 hours of competitive hockey, 10,000 or so shifts, maybe 3,000 shots for and against.

To earn the right to lift it at the end of all that is even more difficult, a team must win at least 56 of those games, while probably getting to the end of regulation or ahead or even in 70 or more.

In other words, this Stanley Cup thing is not a sprint.

When I was younger, I used to be a runner and a swimmer. I specialised (in both sports) in longer events - all races that took about two to four odd minutes. When you race these kind of races, you quickly learn two things:

1. You cannot go all-out the whole race, sprinting runs out at a minute or sooner
2. Going in with a strategic plan is vitally important

I see the race to the Stanley Cup in those terms sometimes. First, you have the heats (regular season) and the finals (playoffs). Secondly, results show that every year the thing that matters most is finishing strong - and it doesn't matter who leads after the first, second or third laps. All that is forgotten when the tape is broken or the wall is reached.

In the NHL, it is common and, well strategically sound, for teams to cruise for much of the season, winning games with little effort and without much fuss. After all, for 6 months all that matters is that you secure a place in the playoffs. Nothing else. Beat half the teams in the league, and you're there. Last year, we harped on about this (with the 96 point goal) and I still stand by it - set a points goal, achieve it, then worry about the finals.

In other sports, competitors that exert themselves too much in the heats are at a disadvantage, and it is the competitors that can "cruise" into the final that hold the cards. There is something to be said for good lanes (just like good playoff match-ups), but the best still get a decent lane every time, even on half efforts. The parallel is true in the NHL, teams with some kind of strategic plan for the season in mind often progress well in the playoffs.

If it were up to the fans

Many a fan in Montreal will grasp this. Many will proclaim saving energy for the playoffs as gospel truth. The problem seems to be that once we all cross into the Bell Centre, no matter what tie of year, this philosophy and strategy we most often agree would be best to meet our ultimate goal, is completely tossed out the window. If it were up to some of us, 82 wins and 4 playoff series. When we get in that building - it's win, win, win; score, score, score; sprint, sprint, sprint for every minute of every shift in every game.

Well, no Cup recently, no conference finals in ages. It makes me think, is this one of the problems? Well have a look at these quotes and stories from last night:

Fancois Gagnon leads with "Like in the playoffs"

Mike Boone wrote 5 or 6 posts during the exhibition game, as did Gagnon for that matter.

Plekanec had this to say (English from French from English):
"Nowhere but Montreal could a game end like it did tonight in what is the exhibition season."

Lapierre echoed those sentiments:
"It was as loud as if we had won a playoff game in overtime"

A lot of coverage for a game that counts for nothing in two weeks time. I have to admit, I used to be immensely proud of the fact that Montreal fans could get so worked up for a game against Ottawa B, even after years of seeing teams beat others in the exhibition season and then getting clobbered 3 night later when the real line-ups meet.

But now, I tend to see everything through the guise of the road to the Cup. I guess I'm tired of waiting. In that respect, expectation, encouragement at that level, performance - all of it - it can't be sustained. Not when the teams you are trying to beat cruise through 5 months anonymously before first exerting some effort in April.

I'm not sure myself, and I'm certain someone like Dave Stubbs, Robert L, Dennis Kane, or other knowledgeable readers could confirm, that when the Canadiens were winning Cups, the exhibition games were not this crazy. I am thinking that every year as our desperation creeps ever further that we lose a bit of perspective and control over our emotions and mistake an exhibition win for a meaningful result.

When I was competing, I would often finish a race and tell someone who was very kindly and sincerely cheering their heart out for me on the first lap in the heats to save it for the last length or the finals please. In swimming especially, cheering can give a competitor an idea that they are either right ahead of or right behind someone and need to step up the pace, which is important because of all the blind spots. If the cheering is at its most intense right from the blocks, then any ramping up becomes impossible, any warnings to gear up, ineffectual.

I think the same must be true of a hockey team in a 100 game race. Shouldn't the cheering during Game 5 of the second knockout series be louder. It should if we want a reaction to our roars. I mean everyone talks about the mythical "seventh man", and how at the Bell Centre, it is a constant contributor. I think that if from exhibition game 4 to regular season game 51 to Stanley Cup playoffs game 14 the intensity never changes, there will be desensitization. The crowd becomes the jackhammer outside your front window day after day, it becomes your loud buzzing fridge - it is background noise that is no longer remarkable.

If the Canadiens were the Usain Bolts or the Michael Phelps of their sport, where no matter what they did, they would win, then the argument that cheering too enthusiastically right now would be meaningless. the fact is they are not. For the most part, the NHL could be a dead heat. There are at least 12 teams that could win the Cup if we look now. 12 different ones when we look in April. Come June, there are usually 2 that can't be separated from one another very easily. No, the Canadiens need to be wary of teams that come one or two positions behind them in the standings without trying in the last games of the season, whose players didn't spend all their energy in March. Last year could teach us that much.

As fans, we need to play our part. We need to hold the power to be remarkable. We need to have the ace up the sleeve that helps inject extra energy when it is most needed. To do that, I think we have to learn to hold it back, learn that this is two long sprints, with heats and finals. We need someone to save us from ourselves.

Friday, September 26, 2008

History Set Straight

I have much more to say on this, but for the time being, let this serve as your battery against any foray from bitter fans of any ilk who invoke the territorial rule as the reason for the Canadiens success (and perceived lack of it since the 1980s):

Debunking the Habs French Territorial Rights Rule

Happy anticipating... Go Habs Go

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ceremonies On The Rise

I think other teams will dread playing in Montreal even a little bit more this season. From the looks of things, most games will be preceded by a ceremony of some kind.

Yesterday, the Canadiens revealed their plans for the next 15 months leading up to their 100th birthday. By and large, there was nothing unexpected – no outdoor games, no fan participatory events. 90% of goings on will be pre-game material.

Looking at the list of events, the highlights have to be:
  1. The MSO concert and opening of the Canadiens Hall of Fame
  2. Patrick Roy's sweater retirement
  3. The inauguration of the community outdoor rink programme
Beyond those events, I think it will certainly be very special to watch the Canadiens to play in different sweaters here and there and to learn more about the teams that wore those now-defunct editions of the Sainte-Flanelle.

But, in the same vein as my opinion piece on the Victoria Cup participation, I think the Habs have stopped a bit short on their list here. I'll tell you why.

First of all, over the past years, the Canadiens have made ceremony and presentations for just about everything imaginable. Olympians get honoured, I've been at games honouring Jacques Villneuve, Andre Dawson, and even the vilified GM Rejean Houle (after the GM bit, if you can imagine). Even last year, they honoured rivalries like that with the Red Wings. as a result of all this, it is my belief that others (based on my own example) may be desensitized to the merits of the ceremony. Just a thought.

Secondly, fans on TV (where you would find the vast majority) are most often deprived of the chance to see any of the ceremony as it happens and have to catch it in clips on TSN or RDS later. RDS in particular generally seem to prefer the chance to speak for the 80th hour of that week about line combinations, breakfast choices or contrived goalie controversies. So, most fans will not be privy to any of these ceremonies anyway (barring a dramatic change of heart from RDS, that is). Also, take into account that some people must be rushing to eat or clear up dinner (as I do) and will miss it even if it is shown.

Basically, my opinion is that the team should unveil another series of events that foster public (or at least fans at large) involvement, even participation. The Victoria Cup may not be participatory, but it would give the fans a thrill (at least one of us, anyway) to have another meaningful prize to shoot for. Other possibilities off the top of my head could be things like:
  • A testimonial game (former and Canadiens) but at a large outdoor venue – a bit like the Heritage Classic
  • A tour of small towns for next exhibition schedule – maybe the prominent hometowns of former greats (Thurso, anyone?)
  • Something special against the Ottawa Senators, who it could be argued have the oldest name in the history of the NHA/NHL
  • Games against thee top teams from the original opponents from 1909 (Montreal B and C teams?, Ottawa, Renfrew, Cobalt, Halleybury)
  • Dedicate a new trophy for something like the best amateur team in Montreal or Quebec – it could be a tournament or a challenge Cup
  • Plaques for important sites (Provigo on Mont-Royal?)
I could go on. Basically, my reaction here should not be construed as negative. I merely expected to be surprised by some of the events being announced. Quite simply, I wasn't.

I think particularly that the Habs should be honouring the earliest seasons of their history, which many fans (including myself up until I started writing more seriously) know nothing about. Honouring the original six is interesting and fine. But let's be honest, it has been done. What's more, though we know why the Canadiens loved the Original 6 era (Cups galore), it's strange to keep focusing again and again on an era that constitutes less than a third of a team's total history – I mean the Penguins have been in the league more than 40 years now guys...

Not to fret though, there's still plenty of time to surprise us all – I expect they will somehow. And if there's one thing the Canadiens have shown a penchant for, it is creating the most meaningful moments and ceremonies with no lead time – I'm thinking particularly of the reception they afforded Saku Koivu upon his return.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Canadiens Depth Preview: The Centres (Part 2)

It has been said for some time that a major strength of the Canadiens has been organizational depth. Up to last season, depth was nothing more than a nice thought, but youngsters graduating at impressive rates, the depth is now being put to the test.

Ahead of what should be an exciting season, I wanted to take a look at the team's overall depth at each position. I'm starting with centres. Part 1 will be big-team guys, Part 2 will be the farm system as it stands now.

Based on team lists, prospect lists and my evaluations, here is the list of centres in order of importance to the team:
  1. Saku Koivu
  2. Tomas Plekanec
  3. Robert Lang
  4. Maxim Lapierre
  5. Kyle Chipchura
  6. Steve Begin
  7. Brock Trotter
  8. Ben Maxwell
  9. David Desharnais
  10. Ryan White
  11. Mathieu Aubin
  12. Ryan Russell
  13. Olivier Fortier
  14. Olivier Latendresse
  15. Yanick Lehoux

First call-ups

Brock Trotter

Other than a name that would make any American Ryder Cup player proud, what do we know about this young player.

Well, for starters, we should know that with Grabovski and Locke traded, Higgins and Sergei now entrenched as wingers and everyone else largely devoid of top-tier professional hockey experience, he is the next in line. A couple of injuries to some centres and Brock Trotter could be wearing bleu, blanc, rouge. Gosh, that would be memories of Craig Darby on the second line.

A look at his career stats tells us that Brock Trotter, barring a drastic change in personality, will never be an top-line forward in the NHL. Despite an obvious level of talent (based on this week's showing), his results from Metropolitan Junior to Hamilton show that he can score but never to the point of being prolific.

So, if not an offensive star, or a giant (he's 5'9"), what drew the Canadiens to Brock in the midst of his NCAA season last year. Well, it's the steady improvement, for one thing – last season was his best. And, on top of that, he fits nicely into the mould of the new Canadiens prospect: an educated, mature player with patience and determination.

This is the insight we can get from Trevor Timmins:

"Brock was on our draft list and our scout visited his family before the draft. We knew the player and the person. When he indicated he was coming out of college and turning pro, we were Johnny-On-The-Spot."

Hockeywise, Timmins feels Brock's a smart playmaker whose strength is from the blueline in, and scouting reports put it this way:

"Trotter is extremely strong from the blueline in and displays a strong nose for the net."

All in all, a good prospect. Had he been drafted, there would be no questioning his stats or ability. But, Brock seems to have overcome all that and made his way up the depth chart. He benefits (in my rankings) from Maxwell probably being tested for durability, as in any year beyond this one (and probably sooner than that), Brock falls below Ben. For now, for me, he's the Johnny-on-the-spot.

Ben Maxwell

Hockey's Future designates Ben Maxwell the number 7 prospect in the Canadiens system, the number 3 who is not on the big team already – behind Ryan McDonagh and Max Pacioretty.

This is significant, if only because the website now sees Ben as more promising than Kyle Chipchura (the maligned) and David Fischer (falling out of favour there as he commits to more college time). While I question the leapfrogging of Chipchura (and this week will tell), it is good for the organization that a young centre is progressing. Because, as you've seen already, the depth at this position is tied together with string.

Ben, like Brock, has not set the world on fire with his scoring. A look at his stats show a consistent output, without any eye-catching achievements. I'll grant that today's WHL is not the one in which Pat Falloon and Ray Whitney ran rampant, but point-per-game in junior is not usually the makings of an NHL scoring champion.

If we're looking for positive signs with Maxwell, it appears to be his clutch play – never a bad thing. In 10 playoff games last spring, Ben contributed 6 goals for his team, with 3 assists – outscoring his teammates. 2 years previous, it was 8 points in 6 games in the playoffs. No Memorial Cup or anything, but at least the Ice won a playoff round last season...

He's also big. well for a Canadiens centre anyway. Over 6' tall and a frame big enough to hold 200 lbs (though it doesn't yet). His junior coach doesn't exactly rave about Ben, but he does seem to pinpoint what we might expect:

"He’s a key guy for us because when you play teams with three good lines, Ben will be matched up with somebody who has a real good physical presence. Ben is a guy who will make things difficult for opponents. He generally responds quite well in the physical department.”

If we're looking for negative signs, Ben is already showing himself to be as fragile as Havlat or Gaborik in junior. It was an elbow injury two years ago that limited Ben to less than 40 games, whereas last year a freak calcification event. It will remain to be seen if he is durable enough for the pros, or whether freak occurrences are not so freak with him. If he can't be healthy and play big, it seems he might not be worth the risk. That being said, a year with some top fitness and strength coaches in Hamilton may cure his ills and pave the way for an NHL career in the not-too-distant future.

David Desharnais

I'll go out on a limb and say that if David Desharnais was 3 years younger, he would have been drafted in the top 3 rounds of this year's draft. Now that the moratorium on small players has been lifted, he can be appreciated for his skill.

But small he is – Theo Fleury small. He's listed at 5'6" and we all know how they embellish those numbers. And though there is anew day for small players being drafted, it is still a hard road for tiny players to crack the big leagues and stick. What it ends up taking is top-line skill, because no one is playing a 5 footer on the checking lines. His talent analysis gives some idea of what kind of player he could be:

"He has a strong instinct around the net and is excellent with the puck. The young center likes to use his teammates in the best possible way but will never shy from shooting the puck."

So, does David have the skill to overcome? Anyone who looks at stats alone would have to say yes. But, I think there's good evidence from elsewhere too. Take his progression, for example. Junior scoring star, to consistent junior scoring star. Undrafted – this is sometimes enough to break anyone's spirit (see his teammate Maxime Boisclair). David toughs it out and dominates the ECHL. He then leads his team to the championship.

I think this camp is a real junction for Desharnais. Given the lack of forwards in Hamilton he will play there to start with. but, impress enough in the next two weeks and he's call-up material. Given that Corey Locke is gone, I think we have a new little super-scorer to root for.

Ryan White

Durable, reliable, and already 200 lbs, Ryan White rounds out the top-level talent among prospects at centre.

Hockey's Future wants to project White as an energy forward. Not having seen enough of him, I would ask whether this means: energy forward because he plays like a Tasmanian devil, or energy forward as code for not good enough to ever reach beyond that.

Over the years, there have been plenty of people to back up the reservation of the scouts. Highly rated early in his draft year, many GMs passed on Ryan. Team Canada passed on him too. Sooner or later, this opinion has to add up. Something can't be quite right.

Even so, the Canadiens in a pickle with centres have signed White to 3 years – meaning that he'll be a Bulldog and perhaps an occasional Canadien for now. I think Gainey has made the right move. Ryan White's a player who leads his team in scoring, who has played no less than 59 playoff games in 4 years, who from all accounts plays a rough-and-tumble style while not forgetting that the goal in hockey is to score goals not win fights. I even see evidence of maturity in Ryan with a mere 8 PIMs in 16 playoff games last spring vs. 36 the year before.

Last year, I think I had Ryan White playing a game or two in my predictions. This year, I see the same. In the long run, I think Ryan could be the Hab of this bunch, but for now he'll be a Bulldog waiting behind the other three guys.

Minor leaguers

Mathieu Aubin

Huge, but not physical. Hands, but no feet. His scouting report reads like a cell-phone contract. You think there are benefits there, but the conditions that come with them are quite big drawbacks.

I demoted Matthieu to the minor leaguer category because I see that Mathieu's best chance may have passed him by. Take this from his scouting report:

"The Canadiens are expecting big things from Aubin offensively in 2007-08. Last year he bounced between Hamilton and Cincinnati, never comfortably finding a home. This year, the club will be looking for him to fill some of the offensive void that may be created should the elder Kostitsyn, Chipchura, and/or Grabovski make the jump to the NHL. The thought is a more settled environment and regular shift could help accelerate Aubin's growth and take advantage of his offensive potential."

Guess what, none of the materialised. He got a chance in Hamilton, but was largely a flop as an offensive player. He was demoted to Cincinnati, where he did win a championship, but was leapfrogged by Desharnais.

A turn-around is possible, but not necessarily anticipated. A shame, because a big francophone centre who can score is something we have missed for decades.

Ryan Russell

Ben Maxwell's older and shorter Kootenay teammate. He outscores Ben at every turn, so why is he lower in the depth chart? Well, that's just the way it works, isn't it?

The main knock on Ryan is that he is small and he plays small. he is gifted offensively, but not to the point of a Desharnais, so he falls down the chart there. he has flopped in the pros thus far, making his climb up that much more daunting. When you are the small forward, it helps to be the best one around if you want to make it. Behind Koivu, Plekanec, Trotter and Desharnais makes Russell's task a very tough one indeed.

The good news for Ryan is that he is still young. Things could turn around with a decent stint (probably in Cincinnati). But in all honesty, barring a catastrophe or a miracle training camp from Russell, i don't see him as anything more than a piece in a trade for the Habs.

For the future

Olivier Fortier

I've seen the phrase diamond in the rough tossed around a lot recently. When it comes to prospects, it is a phrase I would reserve for the few. Olivier is one of those players.

There's no doubt he's in the rough – he doesn't lead his team in scoring, he doesn't win Memorial Cups (though he'll play in one as a host, this spring). To make him a diamond, I saw this piece of evidence from Timmins:

"At every level he plays, his coaches can’t say enough good things about him. They know each and every time he steps on the ice what they’re going to get. He’s a low-maintenance player. He’s a solid two-way player – Ihttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif can’t say he has any real weaknesses. He’s got that twinkle in his eye – he’s going to be a player. The last guy that I saw with that look was Maxime Lapierre.”

Add to that, the Guy Carbonneau trophy he won last spring, and we have an intriguing player here.
Obviously, my reservations about drafting a defensive player (expressed regarding Chipchura) apply here, but from reports, his attitude and evidence, he looks like a player, to borrow the words of Mr. Timmins. If he even gets to the point of Chipchura, that'd be very encouraging indeed.

Not this year, though. he'll be playing junior and in the Memorial Cup (hopefully for Canada, too). Next year, we'll see where we're at with him.


Olivier Latendresse

Though a goal in a scrimmage can't hurt, Olivier has a long way to climb to even see time as a centre in Hamilton. He has shown great progress in the ECHL, but hasn't yet grasped hold of an AHL opportunity.

he is an intriguing addition to the organization. Guillaume's brother could conceivably help him in the way Andrei relished having Sergei around, though Gui will have to make do with same franchise proximity, I think. Olivier is another smallish offensive-minded centre, and to boot he is from the area, which is great. I would wish him all the luck, but a game in a Habs sweater seems a long way off.

Yanick Lehoux

The last man in the order. He's the career minor leaguer in this order. His career serves as a reminder to the other guys about what they should most likely expect, and how failing to grasp an opportunity and hold on for dear life can be costly.

Lehoux is not here to play in the NHL (I don't think). He has 10 games with Phoenix under his belt, but his 6 AHL seasons speak greater volumes. A nice addition to help Hamilton from repeating their miserable 2008, but not one for the Habs.

He's so low-profile that most of us didn't notice his signing in the summer. But I'll tell you, having so many Montrealers down on the farm dying for a chance to get up to the bigs might not be such a bad thing...

Monday, September 22, 2008

How Ridiculous Is Our Town?

The Canadiens played an intersquad scrimmage!

Check out the coverage, not of the stories about the upcoming season, but of the game itself...

Francois Gagnon
Marc de Foy
Mike Boone
Canadiens website

I could go on.

I know Toronto is nuts like us, but really? Somuch coverage of a Lehoux shootout goal on Loic Lacasse? A story about the second Latendresse scoring in a scrimmage when even Guillaume is on the bubble?

I bet we have seen more coverage of the Blanc vs. Rouge affair in Montreal than folks in Miami see for their Panthers over the entire month of December. I bet more people cared about the Olivier Latendresse goal than any Kings goal last March. It's madness. It's absolutely ridiculous isn't it? Ridiculous, but not too ridiculous. I mean, I'm happy to have the coverage. I'm happy to read and write about it. I relish our ridiculous fanaticism.

Even so, it's moments like these where lesser hockey fans say things like: "I can't wait for the real stuff to start..."

Exhibition season

Tonight exhibition play begins. It can be the second in our new amazing winning streak against the Boston Bruins.

at the very least, a game against competition should give some more indication of something, for us famished hyenas, I just can't promise what.

If the defence plays badly, what will it mean? If we allow 5 goals, does it matter? If we can't score on the PP, will there be cries for Streit? Probably not.

Of course, at the end of it all, some players will make the team and others cut. But it seems a lot is "poured in cement" as they say in Quebec. And, if things are set in stone (like say the Kovalev line from last year), then why on earth is that line not being used in exhibition? I'm not too worried, just wondering...

After a very long summer, then golf, then play-time, it's very exciting that things are starting to get a little bit less meaningless. Slowly.

Canadiens Depth Preview: The Centres (Part 1)

It has been said for some time that a major strength of the Canadiens has been organizational depth. Up to last season, depth was nothing more than a nice thought, but youngsters graduating at impressive rates, the depth is now being put to the test.

Ahead of what should be an exciting season, I wanted to take a look at the team's overall depth at each position. I'm starting with centres. Part 1 will be big-team guys, Part 2 will be the farm system as it stands now.

Based on team lists, prospect lists and my evaluations, here is the list of centres in order of importance to the team:
  1. Saku Koivu
  2. Tomas Plekanec
  3. Robert Lang
  4. Maxim Lapierre
  5. Kyle Chipchura
  6. Steve Begin
  7. Brock Trotter
  8. Ben Maxwell
  9. David Desharnais
  10. Ryan White
  11. Mathieu Aubin
  12. Ryan Russell
  13. Olivier Fortier
  14. Olivier Latendresse
  15. Yanick Lehoux

The top-line centres

Saku Koivu

What more can be said about Saku Koivu? If one is wondering how I have him at number one on this list, a brief look back at the playoffs 2008 should clarify matters greatly. And for those who are worried that Koivu is and never has been a number one centre, I would suggest taking a look at much of the rest of the league. Atlanta, Edmonton, Vancouver, NYI, Minnesota, Columbus, Nashville, Florida (I could go on) – these are all teams that would not say no to Koivu as their number one centre. He is not Lecavalier, Crosby or Thornton, I grant that, but he is definitely among the top 30 in the league. And, when you factor in his playoff boost, he is made even more valuable.

In my mind, there are basically two things you need to know about Saku Koivu:

1) He will do anything to help the team win (including play a defensive role)
2) He makes every winger he plays with better

These two qualities speak to why he is the captain and longest-serving Hab. They also speak to why he is consistently the best player when the chips are down. I think these qualities also make him a valuable asset at this stage in the team's growth. Take for example all the new forwards. There will need to be shuffling of lines. Koivu's flexibility and reliability makes the coach's job a cinch as there will always be place for a winger (Tanguay for example), who is finding it hard with someone else.

No matter what, I would hope to see Koivu with at least one of the top offensive wingers (that is to say Kovalev, Tanguay or Andrei Kostitsyn). This should prove exciting for Koivu, as it will be the first time since Mark Recchi for Zubrus (ugh), Saku has the chance to play with a winger who has some established credentials other than in playoff bail-out moments. For the man who made Zednik, Savage and Ryder into NHL goalmen, this should be a relief.

A valid question is: will it turn into a statistical boon? I would answer this cautiously. For one thing, I don't think Saku Koivu has scoring championship on his mind. As I said, he wants to help the team win. As such, I think there will be times during the long season that he will again take the offensive back seat. So, I don't think 90 points are on the cards. If pressed for a prediction, I would be comfortable saying a return to 70-point level, but with the most goals he's ever scored.

A word of warning though. There will be moments when you all want to question Koivu, his place in the lineup, his captaincy. And the usual suspects will goad you on. But be mindful of the lessons of last season, where all that occurred but the captain with the broken foot was all that kept us from even worse embarassment at the hands of the Bruins.

Saku's 2007-08 Review

Tomas Plekanec

In Plekanec, the Canadiens have themselves a real gem. Last year, we called him the number one centre for more than half of the season. He can click with Kovalev, he can click with Kostitsyn. In the past he has also shown he can thrive with Higgins or just about anyone on the team.

I think if fans of other teams are looking in, they might ask why we are getting so carried away about Tomas. After all, he only put up 69 points – his other seasons were sub-50 points. I think that shows how important it is to watch a player in order to evaluate them. From watching Plekanec, we know that we could trust him on the top line, the fourth line, the PP or the PK. We know that he is fast, intelligent, generous when he needs to be and ruthless as well. We know that the 47-point man from 2 seasons ago was transformed some time around December 2007 into a true top-line centre, who can be feared around the league.

Like Saku, Tomas is a very adaptable centre. In fact, his adaptability is on par with the captain's, in my esteem. He only sits at number two in the depth chart at this point, because of Saku's repeated excellence in tight situations. Plekanec, on the other hand, found it difficult to thrive throughout the tight-checking of the playoffs (famously likening his own play to that of a little girl). However, it must be said that he did learn as the games went on.

So, what should we expect from this quick-witted, fleet-footed Czech. Like Saku, his statistical outlook is up in the air right now. Should Tomas play with Kovalev, I would say improvement in stats is on the horizon, and we could have an 80-point centre for the first time since Turgeon and Damphousse. But, if Carbonneau sees a better fit on another line for Tomas, his stats may wane.

Whatever happens, the team will benefit from having Plekanec's offensive nous and defensive commitment. One thing is crystal clear in my mind, Plekanec will have a good season. As we pointed out last year, Tomas plays well most of the time. You notice him most nights. This includes games where he doesn't get points, as well as those where he does.

Tomas' 2007-08 Review

Robert Lang

Ah, the mysterious Lang.

You wouldn't be wrong in pointing out that I may have overreacted (or underreacted) to this addition on the day. Call it clouding by Brisebois.

Upon reflection, and remembering what I really thought about adding Sundin, I think that Lang could be a sound addition. I am not as sold as The "Daily" Hab-It is, but I can see some value.

It is good that he wins slightly more faceoffs than he loses. It is good he holds his stick the other way. It is fine that he scores points with regularity in this league. However, no matter whether he wins 54% of faceoffs from here to March or scores 60-odd points, I still think his value will only be shown (or not) in May and hopefully June. The Canadiens had good enough options to promote from within and make the playoffs again, but it was their post-season failure that prompted this acquisition, I suspect.

So, how do I see Lang helping in that regard? Well, thankfully still have Koivu and Plekanec. Teams that have relied on Lang in bigger roles have generally not conquered much in the postseason at all. I hope we will not be foisting him into a bigger role than what he has shown he can cope with.

But having a third option like Lang (as opposed to Smolinski or Bonk) to make checking assignments a little trickier could work wonders. And, basically, that's the biggest value I think he will bring – a legitimate third threat. Regardless of how the wingers get shuffled, a healthy Habs team will have a third line centred by either Koivu, Plekanec or Lang. This is good news indeed. That should make scoring on goalies like Thomas and Biron a bit easier this time around.

In terms of statistics, I am expecting Lang to match his usual outputs, that is to say 50 points. Barring a massive shift in policy from Carbo, Lang is bound to benefit from Kovalev as a linemate at some points, probably a Kostitsyn at other times. In the best-case scenario for Lang, he will play a season with Kovalev and whoever else and put up 65 points or so. In a best-case for the Habs (in my opinion), he'll play third-line duties with some PP time.

Filling out the NHL roster

Maxim Lapierre

Tobalev and I have a back and forth about Lapierre. We both like him, but our estimations of his potential differ. Tobalev sees Lapierre as a fourth-line player through and through. I can see glimmers of more.

That being said, I am happy that at this stage of Max's career, that he continue to learn the trade on the fourth line. Come an injury or player move, though, and I could be quite comfortable with Max moving up in the lineup. You don't lead a top-line to any championship if you have no talent and no character. Max's Hamilton playoff heroics showed me oodles about both.

It also shouldn't be forgotten that last season was a decent one for Max. Over a year, he pretty firmly established his place in the depth chart. For me, anyway. His demotion, exceptional play and attitude in Hamilton and his promotion were all great signs of maturity and drive. And, once on the team, he played like a pro who had learned something. I particularly think of his play in the playoffs, where his effort was outstanding. And, if not betrayed by a lower skill level and lower-tier wingers, he might have been able to do what he was trying so hard to do.

I see Max as one of those future playoff hero-type players – like Paul DiPietro. His desire to win combined with a bit more seasoning should make him more valuable to the team this coming spring. Statistically, I wouldn't take Lapierre in any pools. A great season would be 10 goals. 30 points should be his ceiling barring him being cast in a new role.

Maxim's 2007-08 Review

Kyle Chipchura

Future captain headlines a year ago. Doubt over future Habs player creeping this season. It just goes to show how different junior and professional hockey can be.

But, you know what? There is probably nothing more demanding to ask of a rookie than to step into the NHL and become a defensive centre.

A look at the who's who of defensive centres in the league, and you'll come up with vets, vets and more vets. Rookie forwards usually enter the league based on their offensive potential and after learning the game and learning they can't reproduce their junior statistics, morph into Selke aspirationals.

To draft a player based on his defensive excellence at the forward position in junior is not unprecedented, but let's just say it's rare. The Canadiens have done it with some success: Gainey and Skrudland spring to mind; but even so, patience is the key with Chipchura.

In what little we have seen of Chipchura, I think it is fair to say there is uncertainty. But, thanks to his personality and pedigree (Canada captain), I expect him to make it. I think I will even go out on a limb and say that Chipchura will make the centre position a log-jam if everyone remains healthy for the season.

Again, statistics probably won't be his thing. The boy does have a knack for big goals though, and that may get him some notoriety if given a chance in the spring. What is certain is that together with Lapierre, Chipchura gives the Canadiens outstanding (reliabl and potantially multi-dimensional) options for a fourth centre.

I'll leave the future captain debate for someone else this time, but we have a future player here. And the future is not so distant in his case.

Kyle's 2007-08 Review

Steve Begin

Listing him as a centre belies Begins position on the team. Personally, I see Begin deployed on the fourth line when he is healthy enough (probably on the wing). However, last season, Steve was overtaken by Lapierre in the depth chart without question, and I don't think Chipchura will waste much of training camp in doing the same.

The prognosis for Steve's season might be shaky if things go well for the Habs. What I mean is, young players, should they progress as hoped might make Begin obsolete by springtime. If Sergei Kostitsyn sticks, for example, he takes a place. Add Latendresse, who we hope will be better and we will have 8 better wingers than Steve.

Like Dandenault, this is not meant to be a slight against Begin. As teams get better they inevitably outgrow some old-time heroes. That is not to say he will be thrown to the trash heap. No, he still has value as an insurance policy. And, even as a permanent pressbox player, I could see Steve still bringing enormous value – simply because he never seems to give up.

Should Begin take the wrong attitude, only then could it actually hurt to keep him around. His tendency to try and prove his worth at times can mean nothing more than hitting for the sake of it and shooting directly at the goalie (I'm remembering Biron). I hope someone will have discussed Steve's new role with him, and the role that even we can foresee by 2009. It would be a shame for this player-team relationship to end on anything but a high note.

Steve's 2007-08 Review

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why We Like The Blogosphere

Funny when you see it, but this article and linking blog remind me why I prefer the blogosphere:

Gazette article: Habs tickets sales go off without a hitch

Habs Inside/Out linker: Ticket sales go relatively well

I understand the pressures of advertising and sponsors and all the like – I deal with that in my real job. But, clearly the blog here gives the representative headline and the article in the Gazette is giving the company line. Interesting.

The tickets. To me, it sounds like a strange new system:

the system randomly places people waiting online in a purchase order...

A little bit inequitable, to be sure. Especially when you hear the inevitable complaints of the people there right from the start who got randomly shafted for hours of wait.

It's a two-sided coin isn't it? Sure I want them to do well, but I also long for the days when I used to basically walk up and get a seat on the night of.

There is definitely something to be said for putting in some standing room areas like at the Forum. Now that was fun times...