Monday, October 27, 2008

Panic Stations?

Things On the Habs Worth Fretting Over

Oh, you could see we were all dying for a loss. So many topics we had been raring to blog about, so many things more than lamenting Kovalev's line only scoring 0.6 PPG. A loss is a good tonic. It brings it all out.

But as with all things, the Canadiens are never quite as bad as they appeared in a loss – never quite as good as we rave they are after a win. So, although the defence was bad in Saturday night's game, the fact is that they often play just as poorly and get away with (both on the scoresheet and the broadsheet). And, another fact is that Anaheim's defence (one we would all be envious to have on paper) was pretty piss poor as well.

For me, the underlying lesson from all this is that defence in this league is difficult. Very difficult. Talking about keeping a child fist-sized piece of rubber out of a sumo wrestler-sized net is hard – more so when people actually shoot straight. Blocking 90 mph shots and rooting the puck out of the corner when 230 lb behemoths are barreling down on you is no walk in the park either.

On most occasions, the team gets away with it, usually through a combination of luck, timing and goalkeeper skill. Occasionally, two or more of these things go the wrong way and it all goes pear-shaped.

Saturday night, all three things went in the wrong direction as far as I could see. The Canadiens hit posts and legs, the Ducks (by and large) did not, the Ducks anticipated their breaks well with many players jumping in and Halak and Price were unusually useless allies.

I do believe a lot of the fault lies at the feet of the defencemen for this one. In trying to be philosophical about the loss, I mostly give them the benefit of several players all having bad nights at once.

JT at The H Does Not Stand For Habs does a fine job at calling the issues with players. For my part, I wanted to supplement her views with some views on a couple of issues that go deeper than bad luck and miscues. In my mind these are:

1) The defensive system
2) The Brisebois situation

The system of defence
From the beginning of the season, one thing was very clear to me – we would need a good goalie this year. The Canadiens coaches seem to have gone with old faithful in terms of Habs strategies – hedge your bets on goaltending. From the my first memories of hockey until now, this has been the strategy employed by management.

One can hardly argue with the idea: get a good goalie and let him stop the shots. It is both cost effective and more reliable than trying to get the job done with 6 different guys paid at variable rates. And, in Halak and Price, the Canadiens have two reliable and efficient netminders.

The problem is not with the overall premise for me, but rather with the lack of much planning beyond the initial choice of “goalie or bust”.

Signing Hamrlik was a nice move to try and instill a second tier to the plan. But it kind of stopped short there. With Roman and Markov it means that for large parts of the game we can have 5 dependable players on the ice. The problem (as we saw Saturday) was that when one of them (the lynch-pin piece, no less) goes AWOL, then 4 dependable pieces just isn’t enough.

The system is naïve, as well. Over-reliance on a goaltender hasn’t been in style since Hasek left the Sabres. Even NJ, with the best insurance policy of all, have a system to fall back on.

If the Canadiens are to achieve any kind of meaningful success this year, it will happen through improvement to this, their greatest deficiency. Someone will have to help Komisarek take the next step in development (i.e., playing the puck to the forwards) and oversee the progress of Gorges and O’Byrne.

The question of who this person will be has been raised (again by JT):

Doug Jarvis isn't necessarily doing a bad job with the D, but I can't help thinking it would be better all around to have a guy who's actually played the position offering instruction.

It’s been an issue on my mind for some time. Personally, I’m not sure if a change in personnel is necessary – possibly just a renewed focus. Teach the defencemen to be consistent, how to trust themselves in possession, how to make time and room for themselves by anticipating the play, and teach them some safe rescue manoeuvres that don’t include dumping it up the middle. The system Detroit teaches is simple: it is patience over panic.

This is salvageable. Even with the current group. They are intelligent enough, can skate and have shown they can improve. Hopefully this game will highlight that this needs to be the focus of a season’s work – readying their system for April.


This, unlike the former is no minor indictment. It is major in my mind. This situation keeps on rearing its head and little is done to remedy it. The fact that it took until the Anaheim game to become apparent that Brisebois is still Brisebois is surprising. The fact that he had a game like he did is not.

Now, I can rant with the best of them on how much I dislike the moments where I have to sit through 60 seconds of a Brisebois shift, but this time, that’s kind of beside the point. He is what he is. He’s trying as hard as he ever did, and his skills are diminished now (if that’s even imaginable).

This whole situation is the responsibility of the management who continues to sign this player and the coaching staff that continues to play him. The fixation on Patrice, whatever it is, is and will continue to be the Achilles’ heel of this team.

As one fan in a throng who sees things on this dossier in the same light, I am puzzled. Of course I defer to the judgment of these men on hockey specifics. But in my mind, this is not a matter of expertise, this is basic: Patrice has glaring deficiencies, he is a free agent – don’t sign him…

(The fact that Anaheim, only two days earlier, had signed Bret Hedican (+17 on a team that scored 4 more goals than they allowed) was a reminder that our signing strategy on defence was haphazard to say the least. Far from being an advocate of signing another washed-up defenceman – Hedican while not a real option perhaps just highlights how silly our own signing, so early in the summer was.)

I much prefer the idea of promoting from within because it allows for two important benefits: cheap salary and open mind. In the case of the Canadiens, they actually did have the chance to promote from within. An opportunity missed as it turns out. Shawn Belle is a former Team Canada member, has NHL experience and is good enough to be a 7th defenceman. Opinions may vary, but both Valentenko and Weber could have handled the odd assignment in the NHL too, as far as I’m concerned.

If I accept that Brisebois should have been signed (and I don’t), I still object to him starting every game, playing every game and playing in every situation. I thought he was insurance. I thought he was a fall-back position – at worst.

The problem is, while management talk about Patrice in those terms many times, they use him very differently when it comes to action time. We are not privy to the private conversations between Gainey, Gauthier, Carbonneau, Jarvis and Muller. We can only guess. But it is certain now that one of this braintrust is a Brisebois-believer, and at the very least the other 4 are not adamantly against him. I have a feeling this decision falls to the coaches, and I have an inkling which of the three it might be. In any case, that is irrelevant.

And, to be honest, Saturday represents the least of my concerns here. Although young Ryan O’Byrne, a defenceman with half a year of NHL experience, was probably wrongly benched for poor play vs. Florida, it is the memory of the playoffs that makes me uneasy here.

Last season, after the most successful run the club had had in more than a decade, the coaches decided on the eve of the playoffs to shuffle the deck. In come veterans (because that’s a winning formula in the playoffs). Even when the experiment went awry with 3 losses against a team we had (and should have continued to) dominated all season, the coaches stuck with Brisebois. The lineup was contorted to fit him in. A goalscorer was benched when we needed goals, two defenceman moved up front when we needed goals and Brisebois played and played when we couldn’t really afford to let up more than 3 goals a game.

What troubled me last playoffs is now troubling me again: Is this management or coaching staff capable of learning from the mistakes of their collective past?

The signing showed that Gainey was still prone to a soft spot with Patrice. And, the first seven games of the season show me that Carbonneau and co. are no less immune. Heaven help us…

In a way it was fortuitous that Brisebois played spectacularly badly in this case in a loss. And that he did not score on a knuckler to cloud affairs. If we could ever hope for this group to learn and question their ways, it will take a loss like the one we had on Saturday.

I look on now with interest to tomorrow morning for the announcement on who will be playing. I look forward to seeing how the staff reacts in their plans and game-tme decision-making.

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