Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Alex Tanguay

From Flame To Firewagon

Alex Tanguay didn't score last night, but he might as well have done. He played very well and for the second set of new linemates this season, elevated the whole line's play.

Watching the game in repeat from last night, I really noticed Alex's style and presence. To be fair, I think it took a while for me to appreciate what he can do and how he would go about doing it. I was pretty close to writing a disparaging piece a while ago. But, to watch Tanguay all game is to see patience and quiet peppered with moments of skill and brilliance.

To watch Calgary for the first full game this season was to witness why he wouldn't fit in there. He is a Montreal type player, not a Sutter boy. Here's why.

He floats
See the word float in hockey and negative connotations come flooding to mind. But it shouldn't necessarily be so. In fact, I think that a lot of very well functioning 3-man offensive units can credit some success to having one floater (or lurker) if you prefer.

Tanguay is good at lurking. He seems to know where the puck might pop out and glides into that place. For some observers he looks lazy as Higgins battles for 10 seconds on the boards. Clearly, we can count Sutter and Keenan among those. But to others, the subtlety in his play can be exquisite.

He is dependent
It really is starting to sound a bit negative. I wouldn't go so far as to say he is parisitic, but like a pilot fish hanging around the great white, the relationship sometimes look less than mutual.

What I have seen with Tanguay so far though is that he starts out leeching the puck, but as time goes by and the line becomes familiar, he spreads it back or just plain creates big chances. So while he relies on others to do a lot of the heavy work, he can provide them with the touch and timing they would otherwise lack.

Players dependent on others need independent souls willing to take on luggage. The Canadiens have always had these generous types – Koivu and Kovalev, and now Lang. It does put some onus on a coach to do some thinking about where the dependents go. Clearly that is too much for some coaches...

He is laid back
Or so it seems from his interviews. Laid back is good when being interviewed (particularly in the hockey-media madhouse). I think laid back is good on the ice sometimes too. It's the calm that allows bank shots off goalies to work; to score without effort in shootouts (2 points from those already).

You don't want your on-ice leaders to be too laid back all the time, and you'd pick Iginla in a pinch over Tanguay. But Iginlas are few and far between and trading intensity and leadership by example all the time for scoring and playmaking is great if you can afford the luxury.

Add up all these qualities and it becomes clearer why a straight-ahead coach like Keenan couldn't cope and just wasn't a fan. Keenan and his GM seem to call upon energetic (almost hyperactive) physical play and don't seem to have time for much else. To build a team with that mentality, you need a whole lot of Iginlas, and no Tanguays. The Flames are built with sturdy sorts who energetically come at the opposition wherever they are on the ice. The Flames are coached to press, press, press. The strategy is valid, but it's not Tanguay's.

The Canadiens (of late) seem to be at least trying to model their behaviour after more patient sides, where puck control and possession is valued more than the perfect dump in. They try to create chaos among defenders not through orchestrating chaotic moves of their own, but by patiently waiting for it to happen.

Alex Tanguay just fits this scenario. His patience, control and slick and inconspicuous ways on the ice thrive when fed by similar players like Kovalev, Markov, Kostitsyn and Koivu. Mike Keenan might call it the trap:
"They have a lot of European hockey players on their hockey team, and that's how European hockey players play," Keenan said. "They play the trap and live off the counter."

All respect to the man gunning for Scotty Bowman's records (he's closest and most likely to get the most losses by an NHL coach – within 60 now – and never reach the wins, as he's nearly 600 back), but I think his catchall thinking is not only derogatory, but not very nuanced either. It is the transition without the trapping, the possession without the blue-line stand.

It wouldn't be the first time Keenan was wrong. We should all be glad that Tanguay was wrong for him, because he is starting to look very right for the rebirth of the firewagon brand.

Aside: 5 Canadiens/Flames links

Yesterday I asked Kent from Five Hole Fanatics and Tobalev from Lions in Winter about 5 names. I wanted to share with you some of my comments on the 5.

a) Rob Ramage
Rob was unique as a member of both the 1989 Calgary Flames and the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. From Kent's and Tobalev's responses, you can gather that Rob's career was on a different plane in 1989, though he still had a moustache in 93.

Rob was a good defenceman with the Flames, and a great one throughout his career. He also has plenty of interesting side notes:

– He was drafted first overall in 1979 ahead of 3 400+ goalscorers and Raymond Bourque
– He put the puck in his own net on Billy Smith's and any goaltender's first NHL goal
– He was an expensive pick-up for Calgary to shore up their D, costing them Steve Bozek and an out of favour youngster called Brett Hull or something
– Not so expensive for the Flyers 5 years later, they gave the Canadiens cash

b) Doug Riseborough
A player for the Canadiens, and a player and GM for the Flames. I thought this would be a sore one with the Flames, as he was their Rejean Houle (maybe they roomed together and devised the worst trades they could think of. Riseborough made Toronto and undid Calgary in that 10 player deal over the Xmas holidays. The deal was:

To Toronto: Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Rick Wamsley, Ric Nattress, Kent Manderville

To Calgary: Gary Leeman, Craig Berube, Michel Petit, Jeff Reese, Alexander Godynuk

A Calgary fan on a message board put it best when he said: "Risebrough ALMOST pulled off the impossible. Making a 10 player, five-for-five trade where the best player he got was the 6th-best player in the deal."

c) Doug Gilmour
One of the best players to don the colours of both teams. He was absolutely pivotal from what I can remember in getting the Flames that Cup in 1989 (along with Joe Mullen and Niewendyk) – it was his 11th goals and 22nd point in 22 games that won the Cup.

As if to compensate the Flames for the theft of Brett Hull, the Blues traded Gilmour to Calgary in a gift of a deal in 1988 (with Bozek again) for Mike Bullard in decline and a couple of other roster fillers.

d) Patrick Roy
We all know who he is. Funny how both Habs and Flames fan mentioned his demeanour.

e) Turku
Notably, the hometown and home club of both Saku Koivu and Mikka Kiprusoff. Also hometown of one-time Hab, and Mikka's older brother, Marko Kiprusoff.

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