Monday, November 10, 2008

Brett Clark Rumour

Habs Task Is Abundantly Clear

Jaroslav Halak for Brett Clark? You have to be joking...

I say this even as someone who has Brett Clark in his hockey pool, someone who (probably misguidedly) thinks he can reproduce his 30-point form this year. I wouldn't trade for Brett Clark if it were Cedrick Desjardins.

The progress of rumours is an interesting barometer on how the press thinks a team is doing. Clearly the last 2 rumours did not come to fruition, but both had us shipping some combination of Halak and Higgins (or thereabouts) for bona fide scorers Gaborik or Kovalchuk. Times were good back then.

Two bad games on, the rumour-mongers have us shipping Halak out for Brett Clark? I know Halak's stock has tumbled a lot, but we're not that desperate are we. Pressure's up, stormy weather.

It's fun talking about Gaborik and Kovalchuk, but when names like Brett Clark get thrown into the mix (and are getting discussed in a serious way by fans), one thing starts to become very clear to me:

We cannot enter a culture of trading to solve our problems. We cannot abandon our successful course of draft, develop, wait (patiently), succeed to become the 2001 Leafs, the 2003 Flyers or the Rangers. Trading in this way rarely works and is definitely not the way to multiple years of Cup contention. Not anymore, not with a salary cap and vulnerability of restricted free agents.

We must not look to trades to solve all our little problems (like Philly always do). Patience has to become part of our game as fans (and coaches). On top of that, someone needs to start taking an interest in solving the problems we actually do have – coaching the defencemen.

Defence coach
The Canadiens have operated for some time now without a coach for the defencemen. It's a puzzling move considering the team is in profit, can afford the help and has room under the cap for an extra coach. Contrast us to the New Jersey Devils, who operate at a loss, are frequently up against the cap and still find the funds to hoard most of the good defencemen from the past 40 years as coaches – and have generally speaking succeeded with this approach.

Defencemen who need coaching
The Canadiens, in fact, don't have a defenceman to be seen almost throughout the entire organisation (coaches or otherwise).

The odd thing about this is that the Canadiens are actually carrying quite a young defence by their standards. Gorges is young, and O'Byrne is half a year into an NHL career. Plan B we all know, but Plans C, D, E and beyond would all be rookies as well – none of whom are being coached by a defenceman at either AHL or NHL level.

Through the whole Bouwmeester, then Clark, and now probably any player with a face as our "fourth" defenceman, it has become clear that trading will not be an adequate response to our problems. It will merely be a stop-gap.

I presumed when we let NHL-experienced defenceman Mark Streit – who for all his faults would look mighty good beside Hamrlik right now – go, Gainey was committing to O'Byrne, McDonagh, Weber, Carle, Subban and whoever else might ignore KHL dollars to wait for an NHL place. I presumed we were committing to a patient approach that paid such high dividends with the forwards – Plekanec, Higgins, Kostitsyn, Lapierre. To be honest, I was happy with the approach, in as much, that it would maximise the chances of the young players fulfilling their potential. It would also leave us financially flexible in the years we ramp up for true contention.

Fast forward to October, Carbonneau benches O'Byrne every time he slips up, favouring a reliably faulty veteran in his place.

What does this teach O'Byrne? Not much. Maybe, the impossible: Be a veteran, then you'll be judged by lower standards..

In my eyes, it's a lot of inconsistent behaviour through the organisation. Gainey drafts and stockpiles young defencemen and lets established defencemen go (2 years running); but Carbonneau is uncomfortable using young defencemen. It certainly speaks to their different goals and the way each will be judged: Gainey's being long-term success and Carbonneau's short-term (i.e., day-to-day).

The last time this happened, it was Claude Julien and it was with the forwards. Julien, so focused on saving his own neck deployed the Bonks and Sundstroms far too frequently, where Higgins and Plekanec were left at the end of the bench. That time Gainey stepped in, relieving the coach and taking player deployment decisions into his own hands.

Medium-term goals
I would not suggest such a drastic approach this time. But Gainey could take matters into his own hands by emphasising the need for patience and care with Komisarek, O'Byrne and Gorges. He could also hire a defensive coach to help with the actual day-to-day of that task.

Where Gainey and Carbonneau can meet is is the medium term. The time has clearly come for this organisation, though to stop scrapping for every 2 points over 6 months and to build a team with a view to winning a few rounds in the playoffs. Look around the league and show me a 4th defenceman you would like to have on our team, and I'll show you O'Byrne after some seasoning.

With ice time, a mentor and even a coach to help him, he will be better than Brett Clark come April – of that, there's no doubt in my mind. He has already shown the kernels of consistency in this league, with his finish last season. A little patience and prodding will help to pry it out of him again. There will be tough times, I'm sure. But I for one see the value in committing to this strategy – especially if the forwards can continue to bail the defence out in more than 50% of games.

Possible coaches
Luckily for the Canadiens, despite their dearth of defensive strategists, they already have some top mentors in the system. Markov is becoming as calm as a defenceman as you will see in this league, and Hamrlik makes his job look routine. Between the two of them, there must be tips to give the youngsters (and I include the suddenly inept Komisarek in that group). My lone suggestion in the mentor game is that it might now be time for them to switch proteges for a while (Markov and O'Byrne, Hamrlik and Komisarek) if things continue to go awry at the back.

Even with that adjustment, it would still be a sensible move to reach out for a consultant coach, I think. Maybe not one to stand behind the bench at game time, necessarily, but one like the Devils clearly have in Laperriere or Robinson. It seems to me, in watching our group of coaches for a while now, that there is a little gap in strategy when it comes to defensive forwards, and it's this gap that's been rearing its ugly head this past week. Getting a new ideas man in couldn't hurt.

Scouring the list of former Habs alone, I came up with some people I thought could offer a hand:

- Eric Desjardins (though it might take a special offer to lure him form Philly)
- Sylvain Lefebvre (currently coaching in Colorado's farm system)
- Craig Ludwig (Gainey teammate, coaching low-level in Texas)
- Lyle Odelein (never coached, but played under Burns/Laperrirere and Lemaire/Robinson)
- Eric Weinrich (smart guy, needs help getting over being out of the NHL)

There would be countless other examples of players from other NHL teams that might be willing to come and consult in Montreal (I'm not holding my breath for Ray Bourque, though).

Madness sets in
Finally, it occurred to me that another crazy idea might work. Why not make Patrice Brisebois a player/coach. We could phase him out of play as O'Byrne gets phased in. Even if Brisebois didn't help O'Byrne improve, the defence as a whole would improve by default as a result of his eventual omission...

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