Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Elephant in the Arena

The Return of the Eight

Now that many of my peers have become syndicated members of Habs Inside/Out, I see even more need to express views that just don't get press – perhaps because they are overlooked topics, perhaps because they are difficult for people so close to the team.

(Once again, this minor incident - like Saku's ice time - is hardly a controversy worth taking to 110% or Team 990 airwaves, but is just about worth the few minutes of exposure it will get on this site. We Habs fans don't really have too many elephants around yet - thankfully - so please indulge me again while I make an elephant out of a mole, so to speak, to get this weekly segment rolling...)

We were all very relieved to see Francis Bouillon return to the lineup after a lay off of 5 games. But, to be honest, the manner in which he was reinserted in to the lineup was very strange indeed.

You will all no doubt recall (despite the unusually long interval in between games) that Francis started Game 6 against the Panthers on the fourth forward line with Maxim Lapierre and Mathieu Dandenault (his former partner on defence).

I say it is strange because anyone who knows a little bit about hockey and has been following the Canadiens knows two things:

1) We have a queue of forwards forming waiting to play
2) Our biggest weakness is on defence

This situation is a mirror of last season, where all the quality reinforcements were up front as well, but has been exacerbated even further by the subtraction of Mark Streit from possible defenders only to be replaced by Robert Lang.

When I wrote about this very same topic at the outset of last season, I posed three questions to get to the bottom of things. They were:

1) Do we have too many NHL quality defencemen?
2) Are the extra guys here to get a look at the NHL?
3) Are we so low on forwards that it makes no difference?

The answers for me still run the same way as last season, with no, no and no. You should also remember that the Canadiens turnaround last season, to the exact game, occurred when Carbonneau realised these answers, scrapped the 8th defenceman in the lineup, and opted for the much much more dynamic Sergei Kostitsyn to better complement the team.

So, I am a bit baffled as to why Carbonneau opted for the return to this tired and largely failed option. Even on the night it looks like a bad decision. Looking at our lineup vs. Florida, it would not be too controversial for me to say that our bottom four players being iced came from the group of 8 defencemen.

Too conservative
From a strategic standpoint alone (money from Gillett's pocketbook aside), the decision was baffling considering the opposition. Florida have about 2/3 of one line that needs any kind of shadowing and were always going to come in with their go-to gameplan of 1-1, see what happens in OT. This game, played in Montreal as well, offered a perfect opportunity for Carbonneau and his team to impose their will on a lesser opponent, to practice all that they preached and to just generally go for it. Instead Carbo replaces his injured (and most dynamic) goalscorer by Francis Bouilon straight up.

To borrow a thought from a previous post – the Habs need to start thinking about creating wins rather than preventing losses. Playing 8 defencemen is not innovative, new or proactive. Nor was it the right strategy to rack up goals against a team that can't really offer a scoring threat themselves. Of course, we won the game, so some could say this disproves my point. I disagree. If holding on to tap in an empty netter vs. Florida is the limit of the Canadiens and the coaching staff's creative aspirations then we could be in for some rude awakenings later in the season.

To suggest an alternative: I would have either played Georges Laraque or Steve Begin and benched the unmentionable one (who's due a break). Alternatively, 71 plays and Bouillon's in for Dandenault. Both ways we get to shed some dead wood and play an extra forward. An even wilder idea would have included calling up someone who could actually score (Maxwell, Pacioretty) to take Andrei's place, then Begin in for 71.

Learn the lessons

All in all, this strategic hiccough didn't cost us, and we come off unscathed this time. And, to be fair to Carbonneau, he did even adjust during the game, which allowed him to bench O'Byrne in the end. But strategic misplay, it was.

I only hope someone (hopefully Carbonneau, to be honest) learned something from 2006-07 and early 2007-08 that playing 8 defencemen does not suit the group of players that we have. And, I hope that paying Gregory Stewart's salary and airfare for one game will never stand in the way of putting the best team forward (and forward is the operative word) again.

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