Friday, August 29, 2008

The Last Legend

He may not have been the last Hall-of-Famer to play for the Habs (that'd be Gilmour in my books). There will be more, but, he is the last legend this franchise of legends has produced so far.

Now, it seems, the organisation is ready to honour his play in Montreal by retiring his number. Yes, according to reports, Patrick Roy's 33 will hang from the highest reaches of the Bell Centre – a building he never played in as a Canadien, though the team had probably hoped he would.

Personally, I think this retirement (should it indeed go ahead) will be a triumph for the younger generation of Habs fans, whose championships are constantly being slighted by nostalgics and aging journos. It can be the "Ours are as worthy as yours" (or something "yours") to the Red Fishers of Montreal fandom who seldom praise anything the Canadiens have done since 1979. For those of us with just as much passion for this team as anyone born in the 1930s, it will be nice to see a number from our less foggy memories.

I, for one, am proud of the mini modern dynasty that the Canadiens put together from 1986 to 1993. Now we know that 3 Cup finals and 2 Cups in 8 years is a difficult achievement, now that there are more than 5 (I generously include the Rangers here) challengers. Detroit is being widely praised for much the same, though they did 4 Cups and 5 finals over 15 years. In a way, the Habs once again blazed the trail for the league – putting the consecutive Cup era to bed. And, I make no mistake, that team was built on and succeeded because of one Patrick Roy. From his precocious heroics in '86 to his psych-out excellence in '89 and '93, he was masterful. His number deserves recognition, as no one else could wear it the same way again.

When will it be?

Assuming the retirement does go ahead, the next logical question is when. Robert L seems to think it will be happening on November 24 against the Islanders. I think I see the meaning there: 24th for the 24th Cup, maybe? Still that choice would leave a lot to be desired.

I thought we should consider the alternatives:

1) Considering we often lose on these ceremonious occasions, why not pick a team we are unlikely to beat anyway? I mean, we don't want to lose to the Isles, do we? I'd say Sharks, Feb. 28 for one we stack up poorly for.

2) How about the 33rd game instead of the 24th? The 33rd game of the season is a home game vs. Carolina on December 21st (Roy vs. Hartford was always key). The 33rd home game is vs. the Devils on March 14th.

3) I don't like the idea of holding on St. Patrick's Day, mainly because despite it being a much-used nickname for Patrick Roy, the day is there to honour a real saint, not a hot-head goalie. The 14th of March would be a compromise like the parade, which seldom happens on the day and has little to do with the religious feast day anymore. The parade would be the 15th.

4) Flames at home on December 9th? A very very obvious choice. Roy faced the Flames twice in Stanley Cup finals with the Canadiens. They were the Canadiens western rivals at the time (mainly because we always stumbled when the Oilers didn't).

5) Anniversaries are always fun. As it happens, the Canadiens have a long home stand coinciding with all the important dates from 1995, including Roy's last game and the day he was traded. Perhaps not the irrelevant Thrashers on the dark anniversary of the Red Wings debacle (December 2nd), but how about the Devils on the anniversary of that awful Thibault trade (December 6th)?

6) Incidentally, December 4th against the NY Rangers will mark the actual date when the centennial season begins – I'm sure they'll have something planned, but if not, how about a sweater raising?

If it's up to me, I go for the Flames game.

It seems to tick most boxes. We will probably not miss the points, as we are poor against western opposition (maybe we can arrange an OTL??). They are a relevant opponent. And, the time of year is meaningful for Roy and the Canadiens to finally bury the hatchet. Call it the anniversary of the day Roy played his next game after his cooling off (in that parallel universe where we had a qualified GM and coach).

Heck, even the headline writers will be happy to have all the flame idioms to choose from.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Moustache Trumps Mullet

At some point in the late 90s, someone changed the rules.

Someone forgot to tell Vadim Menkov of Uzbekhistan this simple rule. Pride of Pointe-Claire, Tom Hall paddled his way to an inspiring bronze-medal finish in an Olympics he made by the skin of his teeth.

It just goes to show, that hard work, determination and belief go a long way in any sporting arena.

Perhaps not as moustachioed as he has ever been, Tom still taught the man with the Tennessee Top Hat a lesson about finishing. Though credit must go to the Uzbeki, who blazed ahead off the line and only missed a medal by a couple of yards. I hope you got a chance to see the race live, as I did. It's always great to see someone from home in an Olympic final.

If watching Menkov is making you long for the days where mullets did rule the arenas of the world, perhaps you should remember that it was our own Jacques Demers who changed the rules of trumping.

Congratulations again Tom from Lions in Winter.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Je me souviens

Add world-class memory to the skills possessed by Georges Laraque.

In this article from the Edmonton Sun, via HI/O, he claims his memories of the Habs winning all those Cups in his childhood were reasons to choose Montreal over Edmonton:

"When I was a kid, I remember they were winning all the Stanley Cups and every kid on the street had a Habs jersey," Laraque said.

I just found it a bit odd, so I went to check how old Georges was. All I can say is that Georges must have a really impressive memory (remembering with impressive clarity his first 2 years of life). Because Georges, buddy, it was in fact the very Oilers you rejected who were winning all the Cups in your childhood.

Maybe he should have just told the Edmonton guys the truth:

"I think Montreal has a better chance of winning than you guys. Plus, they offered me more money, and I get to cosy up to RDS for my career after fighting."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Greatest of All-Time?

I'll write this here because I don't have a swimming blog. For once, I can't weave in the Habs (well maybe I'll think of a way)... More on the Habs later.

I should also mention, I once was a very very bad hockey player trapped in a half decent swimmer's body. I don't know everything there is to know about swimming (or hockey for that matter), but I have an opinion on this whole Phelps debate. I have seen this get pretty animated, even on hockey boards and blogs recently, so I thought it would be fun to see what some good old Habs fans thought of the matter.

To start with, a disclaimer: I hate hype in general. In general, I dislike the hyped. I usually go out of my way to quell hype I see as unwarranted. So, before these Olympics, I didn't buy the Michael Phelps story. I liked Laszlo Cseh (did anyone even mention him these past weeks), I liked Kitajima and I liked Taehwan Park - anyone that was excelling at swimming in the shadow of Phelps.

But, let me tell you Phelps changed my mind. In all my years of swimming, swimming coaching and spectating, I have never, ever seen anyone do what he did. And, he did it at the Olympics - one Olympics, over 8 measly days.

The arguments against him are convincing if you want to buy them, but I feel many have flaws:

1) He has won so many medals because he has so many chances in swimming

This is the sour grapes, Michael Johnson line. The rebuttal to this question is in two parts:

a) In swimming so many events, he also multiplies his competition. Laszlo Cseh, for example has known for 4, maybe 8 years that Michael Phelps could be targeted in 200 IM and 400 IM. Laszlo swims both. He skips the 200 Fr, the 100 Fly, all the relays. he could do them, he'd be good, probably final, but he focuses - to try and beat Phelps.

He's not even the best example. There's a truckload of people who only do freestyle, maybe only 200 Fr. None of them can beat Phelps. Same for sprint butterflyers.

Phelps opens himself to more opposition and gives himself more opportunity to fail. But he didn't slip - not once.

b) Does the fact that swimming lends itself to competition across events disqualify any swimmer from being the best athlete or Olympian? I shouldn't think that it would, as that would be just as fair. Surely, though, since there are so many events, the only way to show true athletic greatness would be to win across multiple events. Exactly waht Phelps has done, not once, but in two olympiads now, and all the competitions in between.

And, if swimming is out, what could be in? Well not cycling, too many races indoors, too much drafting outdoors. Not rowing, too posh. Not gymnastics, too many opportunities to medal again. No winter sports, too local. No throwing sports, too many heavy people.

Lots of sports just keep getting eliminated. If we take it to Michael Johnson's conclusion, I fear we're left with track (maybe long jump if he feels charitable). I also have a sneaky feeling which 2 events would make the list for consideration.

So why eliminate swimming? Well, apparently...

2) Swimmng isn't as hard as some of the other sports

I know people who are saying this have never done a 400 IM, and most definitely have never trained to be a 400 IM swimmer.

I think it is easy to dismiss swimming because it is not an ultra-endurance test like the marathon (or Tour de france if we leave the Olympics), but the races Phelps does are extended sprints - all of them. And, sprinting for 4 minutes (only 4 for a 400 IM?, mind boggling) is very difficult, no matter what the medium.

And, from what I've seen over the past 10 days, many and most Olympic racing disciplines also fall into the extended sprint category. In that regard, I think it's very possible to compare him across sports.

Just because Phelps make it look easy doesn't mean that it is easy.

3) Decathlon lays out the greatest athlete for us

I am a big fan of decathlon, don't get me wrong. I am pretty sure I would rate most decathletes very highly among top Olympians of all time. But decathlon is designed as a 10-event competition. No one does 7, everyone does 10. Sure you have to do them well to beat the other decathletes, but I've never seen a 400 m world record in a decathlon, nobody's outvaulting Bubka here. Decathletes compete to be the best overall decathlete. They are the best average athletes.

It may seem that that is what Phelps did, but he didn't. No one of his peers swam 5 individual events. No, he competed largely against 5 sets of specialists and won. If a decathlete drops out of decathlon and goes on to contend in long jump, pole vault and hurdles at the next Olympics, you would have some idea what an unprecedented (except for Spitz nearly) feat that Phelps accomplished.

Of course this is all conjecture...

Of course it is. Full of weights and values for different sporting attributes. The final argument in Phelps' favour, in my opinion, though, goes across sports - mental toughness.

For me, I suppose, his greatest feat is that he won at every event he tried. Every time someone beat his old best time (read world record), he set a new one. He was the ultimate competitor. I certinly got the feeling he would win anything somebody would challenge him in. In some ways, his feat of concentration and determination outweighed his physical accomplishments (which included swimming half of the events on a schedule faster than anyone has ever done before).

He showed some great athletes the limits of what they thought was possible by smashing through them. He was as great as anyone could be in their chosen arena of competition.

As a hockey fan, I would cite Wayne Gretzky's 51-game point streak (where he got 153 points) as a rare comparison. Imagine 3-points every game for 4 months straight form a player - that's Phelps.

Sundin, the Media and Me

As you know (if you've been reading this site over the summer), I don't think the Sundin story is the story of the NHL summer – that would be KHL signings. However, it is impossible to deny its importance altogether.

Take the media for example. Every day since July 2nd, we've had an article like this one (When will the Sundin story go away?). Every other day, Mike Boone on the Habs Inside/Out has done his funnier-than-thou take on the story.

The question being asked every time is "When will he decide?", but I think the real question (everyone's doing their best to hide) is: "How did we get so lucky?".

The story doesn't get old because there is legitimate interest and hope from all the key places when it comes to hockey: New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal. The media (I would be wrong to exclude myself from this tag, though I'm decidedly more amateur than most) love this story exactly because it lends itself to jokeyness, mocking and satire. It can be retooled and recycled day after day, and people will still read it because the writers have the knack for expressing some of the angst and frustration the fans are feeling. I think they'll all miss it when it's gone – despite having us believe the opposite. The rumour hack is eating it up too, as it means he doesn't have to do as much work making up false trades and imagining plausible stories to explain their contacts.

While, it is without doubt an important item for the media, I wonder how important it is for the NHL and hockey.

I mean, how many GMs are really on hold? How many players are really left out in the cold until Sundin decides? My feeling on both counts is that there aren't many.

I'll take what I am most familiar with – the Canadiens. They happen to have cobbled a roster together with a $7 million dollar hole in it. But to say they are waiting for Sundin is wrong. Several members of the organisation have made it clear that offers have been made to the (former) Leafs captain, and others have cited how great it could be to have him in the squad; but the Canadiens did not hold up the operation for him. They have signed all their free agents. They have picked up the offensive winger for Koivu. They have grabbed other defencemen.

I acknowledge the "plight" of the unsigned third- and fourth-liners, but if most of us can only dream of an anxious summer before finding out where we can play 10 minutes of hockey every third day for $700,000. I'm not shedding tears for them yet. If they wanted certainty and security, they could do worse than settling for a life in the beautiful Swiss Alps for a few hundred thousand tax-free francs. Again, not an option to people without their hockey skills.

But, really, apart from these unsigned guys, what are the implications for a hockey team?

The main consequence of this summer may be a change in the way things are done in the future. In waiting, Sundin, Sakic, Selanne, Shanahan, the Canadiens, Canucks and Avalanche (to name but a few) have let the air out of the free agent season. They have shown it up for what it is – hype. Maybe teams will also wait in the future – wait for salary demands to settle down, as patience hasn't proven to be too disastrous a strategy.

Sundin and the Habs

Leaving the money for Sundin has been a sensible approach for two reasons:

1. It would be good to have him

2. There are few willing alternatives worth signing that can't wait until September

It is the latter that has been the success story for the Canadiens. Instead of looking to spend for the sake of it to placate restless fans and bloggers (I still want them to spend to cap eventually, as well), they have seen that there is no rush.
Generally speaking, I am not anxious about Sundin. On one hand, I can see the great attributes he could bring to the team. But on the other hand, I still find myself aligning myself with my earlier feeling that getting Sundin is a move too far.

I think the chances of his signing are as good now as they ever were. i don't think time has done anything to hurt our bid or Mats' impression of our commitment. I honestly just think that neither side is in that much of a rush. Anyway, even if doesn't sign for us, we still win as Toronto won't be the constant comeback threats they always were without him.

One final Sundin question that has been kicking around a bit under the radar has been the possibility of a Nordic league to compete with the fledgling KHL and the dismissive NHL.

Obviously, these teams would need some infusion of wealth and some star attractions to get off on the right foot. I wonder if a certain three Nordic millionaire superstars aren't following this story more closely from their summer homes back in Scandinavia than we all are, and whether it might be one more option for them all to consider for prolonging their hockey careers.

And how about all of you? Are you waiting and hoping for Sundin? Did you stop caring long before we did? Are you happy with the Habs as they are (or just resigned to them)?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Canadiens for First: Why People Get Up In Arms Over Predictions

The Hockey News have outdone themselves. They really have.

In putting out their latest prognostications, they have shown they have a far greater talent for being predictable – perhaps than ever before – than for making predictions. let's have a look shall we:

PositionTHN predictionRegular season 2007-08Change
4PhiladelphiaNew Jersey+2
5OttawaNew York Rangers+2
6New York RangersPhiladelphia-1
7New JerseyOttawa-3
9Tampa BayCarolina+6
13AtlantaNew York Islanders+1
15New York IslandersTampa Bay-2

Had they written these prediction last summer, they would have been radical – and they would have been remarkably close to the mark. The only exception being Tampa Bay. That is my point. The THN predictions are clearly based more on last year's standings than on any other parameter.

Where is the expert view?

Oh, we do have the change for Tampa, but again that is the view of the people and is nothing worth buying a magazine for. It is also wrong in my point of view, as I look at the quality of the Tampa signings and can only think they'd be better off with one Brad Richards than 10 Ryan Malones, Gary Roberts and Radim Vrbatas. But then they failed miserably with Richards, so where does the improvement come from.

Do The Hockey News writers actually expect a virtual repeat of last season's playoff qualifiers? Are they so bereft of judgment and ideas to fail to see the important changes that have happened in the East?

Take Washington for example: their late season surge was greatly helped by a certain all-star goaltender in excellent form. You need only ask the Canadiens if you want to know the difference between Huet and Theodore. Colorado, after all, would rather pin hopes on a middling Budaj than go with Theo again. And, Washington have done little to fill their holes. They re-signed Green (spending too much in the process), but he still has no support. Fedorov is back, and I love the signing, but this is 2009 now, not 1989. Ovechkin will be as good, Semin will be better, Backstrom too. but unless any of the forwards can show a talent for being a second defenceman or starting goalie, I see problems.

Add to that, Carolina has made more calculated changes to their line-up (Corvo, eaves, Ruutu, Pitkanen) and will probably enjoy something better from Staal this season. I'm not a Cam Ward booster, but he's not worse than Theodore. Personally, I can't see how Washington wins this battle.

Buffalo, sweethearts from last season's picks, have taken a predictable fall, but could yet again be a team to surprise. In some ways they are the potential Montreal of this season in that they can run with the big boys and reallly only need to iron out their lacklustre nights against weak opposition to get their positioning in order. There is no way I see them finishing behind Boston, for example, and to put them back of Tampa is insulting. By not making a major move, they duped THN into moving them down. I doubt signing Roberts would have been the make or break for this team. Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Ales Kotalik, Drew Stafford, Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek are the guys here. That's even with Afinogenov in limbo.

As for Montreal, I don't see them winning the conference. I think Pittsburgh will do that with some ease. For one thing, the Canadiens must have surely learned what pushing for the meaningless title cost them down the stretch. Personally, I think the Canadiens have moved into the group that should feel comfortable about making the playoffs (with Pittsburgh and New Jersey), but will be focused on the Cup. If Carey Price showed more endurance and consistency last year, I'd be in there with the call for first, but I can see he's still learning.

Despite gaining Tanguay and the popular view that losing Streit was meaningless (I think that's way off), it shouldn't be overlooked that we also lost Huet. Despite a weak February for us, he did get us a number of critical wins last season.

That being said, I think the Canadiens have a better chance at playoff success this season. For one thing, I believe Price cares about winning (except in the odd Game 4), and so will be better for the experiences of 2008. In addition, Tanguay will provide another forward who can score, and more importantly for the other team to worry about and mark – they won't be able to leave him uncovered like Higgins and Ryder often were.

In this way, the Habs may be a bit more New Jersey than Detroit this season. choosing to hone their game for the playoffs with steady improvement, as opposed to leading from the first post to the last.

So, I guess I don't agree with the latest THN predictions. No doubt, if I wait until next August, I'll be able to get an accurate prediction on what would happen this season from them, but I can't wait that long. I don't think I'm alone in my displeasure – most of the fan sites talking about this are pretty disgusted by the quality of the work done by the team there.

I think next summer we should have some fun and make predictions about what THN are likely to pick. I don't know, maybe it would be too easy, though.

I will, of course, do my own predictions at some point. However, I don't really see the need to jump the gun by so much. Who knows what injuries, retirements, signings and (if we are to believe Eklund – from every team a whole boatload of) trades will happen between now and September. Though my guesses won't change much, I can learn from The Hockey News and limit the ire of bloggers by giving them less time to worry about such things before pucks are dropped in Europe.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Instead of Mats: Better Ways To Spend The Cap Money

I don't know about anyone else, but I am thoroughly impressed with Michael Phelps.

Early this morning in China, he became the best Olympic athlete of all time capturing his 10th gold medal. Oh, he then got his 11th an hour later...

Not astounded enough yet. He has set a world record in every event he has swam in. In 8 individual swims, he has set Olympic records in 6, before going of course to bettering all those for world records when he was going for the medal.

Now, obviously the Canadiens are running into trouble using up their $7 million in cap space. It would be a massive shame to leave it unspent just so the Colorado ski chalets could get bigger.

The Canadiens should get a hold of Michael Phelps' coach, psychologist, anyone. Any person associated with this guy must be a hell of a great motivator. To take nothing away from Michael himself, it does take some help to stay focussed through your long training 3 years ahead off an Olympics. But, the way he has revolutionised swimming and rewritten the rules of speed, he clearly didn't miss a beat over the last 4, 8, who knows how many years.

As good as the Scott Livingstone's of the NHL think they are, NHL athletes have come nowhere near the fitness of Olympians at any point in the history of the league. Heck, it was seen as a revolution a couple of years ago to see players doing fitness work on a game day. Get some serious coaching going and 45 second shifts could be a thing of the past.

Millions are a lot to spend on coaching, but it would be better than keeping it for deadline pipedream or throwing it at a couple of eighth defencemen...

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Stack Against Halak

If Jaroslav Halak had it tough last year with Canadiens management ultra-keen to get Carey Price into the starter's role, he should wait to see how he feels a year from now.

As we know the NHL wants to solve all its ills by reducing the padding on goalies. This article from the Vancouver Province, where they have a special interest in over-sized pads (as they've invested heavily in them), tells of the changes to be expected this year and next.

What I want to know is which NHL genius thought of this part:

The big changes are expected next year when the league is expected to go to proportionate sizing for the first time, meaning equipment will be based on goalie's size and weight.

It will have a significant impact on smaller goalies. Consider that currently Curtis Sanford, at five-foot-10, wears the same size pads as Luongo, who is 6-3.

I mean, I know it's tough for big guys now that GMs have fans have realised that they are actually worse at playing hockey, but why do we need to favour them in this way?

Surely, the goal of pad size restriction is to open more of the net for shooters to have a look at. by discouraging the small goalie, won't the change be the inverse?

Though one has to be disappointed in the way this will affect the very talented Halak, Habs fans must also be encouraged by the fact that Timmins and Gainey opted for a huge specimen in the NHL draft this past season in anticipation that he could wear the biggest allowable padding in NHL history.

Get Missiaen eating some serious ice cream guys – the pad size is related to weight too, you know!

When Is The Best Time To Trade/Trade For A Star?

With the Olympics underway, there is admittedly less all-out focus on hockey for the time being here at Lions in Winter. We are, however,always on the lookout for something to comment on and discuss.

The other day as I was scanning some of my usual corners of the internet, I came across a great title for a piece by Spector on his blog: "When’s the Best Time to Trade/Trade for An NHL Star?"

Spector talks about the Bouwmeester case prompted him to post on this topic. Let me tell you, it shows. It should have been titled: "When is the best time to trade Bouwmeester?" or "Should Jacques Martin trade Bouwmeester?". As such, i don't feel so bad for taking his title (almost) and expanding on the issue to the point which I would have liked to have seen it discussed myself.

Sure, trading is down in the NHL. That is a fact. But, that doesn't mean we have to be resigned that our GM should follow the example of Florida's stumbling example. Personally, I don't think trading is outmoded either. A good GM for example can still exploit a weak GM in the right circumstances, even in the salary cap world, even (heaven forbid) outside of the two weeks that precede and incorporate the trade deadline. For me the matter is academic – there are certain factors that dictate the laws of the trade and these have nothing to do with Bouwmeester or how many defencemen Florida have or want.

Of course, any assessment of the timing of trades will be subjective. However, I like to think that the way I think about it is a little more scientific than waiting for the trade deadline...

Elements of trading

The first thing to understand in trading is that trades are completed based largely on perceptions – not necessarily on facts. A GM will inevitably watch his own team play more than any other. He will only have access to the current practice and training of his own team. In this way, the home GM will always have an advantage over his trading partner when it comes to his own player. This is especially true for the youngest players who have had less exposure around the league. Whereas an older player may have played 500+ games, played for multiple teams and been exposed to many of the league's GMs; a young prospect is really only known by the organisation in which he plays.

If a prospect is making giant strides, chances are the value in a trade would be low (see Brad Boyes). On the flip side, if a prospect is showing signs of dropping below expectations for himself, then the value to the home team could be increased in a trade. From my point of view, the first rule of trading is always to ship out players who are perceived to be better across the league at large than in the organisation. My classic example of this would be the big player that some GMs (see Bob Clarke) would drastically overvalue.

Trading a star can be tricky here as lots is generally known about that player, but it can be done. However, this kind of thinking can help you land a star for a lower price. A recent favourite here was the Alex Kovalev trade. Bob Gainey masterfully offered one of a group of prospects to the Rangers, including the Hamilton's leading scorer Josef Balej. The Rangers falling into the classic trap of unfamiliarity with the goods opted for Balej instead of Plekanec. Now, I don't know how the negotiation went, but by offering the offensive "jewel" of the organisation at the time, Gainey played on perceptions very well. Obviously, Balej never made an impact and Kovalev just had his most impressive all-around campaign. We won the trade in a landslide. Nice payback on NYC who pulled this overrated prospect stunt on the Expos two or three times a season.

The next element in any trade, I think, is realising that every NHL player will be trending. That is to say that a player will either be improving, remaining stable or getting worse. This is another bit of knowledge that only the home GM can know (at least at first).

To take advantage of the trending, ideally, a GM must trade a falling star before the rest of the league knows he is falling. This is a difficult one, since just offering a star for trade would raise suspicions in even the most amateur of GMs, I would think. The art here would be to get the other GM to ask you about the falling star – make him think it's his idea. In my opinion, this is an art that few GMs seem to have been able to master over the last few years. How Joe Thornton for example could fetch such a pathetic return can only be explained by the hesitation with which he was dealt with. Ditto for many Canadiens trades in the dark days of Rejean Houle, where all the world would know about the problems before we got the 4th round pick back for our captain.

A rule for trading, for me, is trading a player at peak value. The cardinal sin is trading them at the lowest ebb. Being a realist (even back in 2002), it occurred to me that the Canadiens' Jose Theodore probably overachieved. What's more his two trophies and undue credit for beating the Bruins in what was actually a fairly high-scoring series on the whole, made his value immense. If a GM thinking as I did had received a call for Jose's services and accepted, I am quite sure we'd be enjoying watching a decent goalscorer instead of remembering our suffering through David Aebischer.

Of course, in trades, there is also the element of organisational need . Trading from a position of need (after injury, for example) can be very costly. Whereas, trading with a partner who can only see their own current need can be very fruitful. When Nashville needed a star centre to put them over the top a couple of years ago, Philadelphia picked their pockets clean. Based on Nashville's experience, I wouldn't be trading for a star at the deadline. On the other hand, if you can find your Nashville to trade with, trade a star, by all means.

Contract status has always been a major factor too. In my opinion, free agency is still the number one problem here. The salary cap is a hassle for sure, but can be dealt with – at any time. Trading a player in the last year of the contract diminishes the value. This is certainly true the more games go by. By the trade deadline, you are talking about trading the player for 15 games and playoffs. History has shown that people won't pay as much for these players – unless, unless, unless they sense they are filling a great need (see Nashville). If the player is on an overvalued contract, waiting may be the only way to ship him, mind you (Bill Guerin), but most legitimate stars don't fit into this category.

The final factor for me is "short memory". Look across the league over the years and you'll see plenty of examples of short memory among GMs. A player after a good playoffs will carry amazing value for the summer for example. A player off to a poor start in the fall/winter may drop in value by a good prospect or two in return. Playoffs are the best at generating short memory gains. Trading for the playoff hero, in my opinion, is a daft move for 25 out of 30 teams in the league. yet, most GMs covet these players, nonetheless. Many of these examples manifest themselves in ridiculous signings rather than trades, but short memory plays a part in trades too. Going for someone who is already considered a star after a great playoff run might be OK, but trading for someone who isn't generally a star at this point is generally a move to be rued later on. Trading for someone who has had a bad stretch could land you a bargain, however (Erik Cole).

So when should a trade involving a star be made?

If you're a GM and looking to trade a star for another star, some key players or just prospects, I would focus on an in-season trade. Assuming your star is a consistent contributor with an established reputation (i.e., not Ribeiro), then your trade should be timed to maximise the return you can get. You will want to make sure you have proper recent scouting of the the team you are trading with (preferably NHL game action) and that you have a feel for trends and historical play as well as short-term success.

Probably the major factor by which you can ramp up your return is by targeting a team with need. From the point of view of need, the trade deadline can provide some of the very best opportunities to trade, given you have the right commodity. (If you are unfortunate enough to have a star who is the wrong commodity – goaltender 2008 – then you are barking up the wrong tree at the trade deadline with a trade). However, I happen to think that you will find more potential trade partners and just as much sense of need if you target January as the trade month. Teams desperate to make the playoffs will perhaps be hasty in giving away too much, and championship-hungry teams are always on the look out for stars, no matter what time of year.

If you're a GM trying to acquire a star, you need to be a bit more wily. Naturally, don't play into the other GM's hands by giving opportunity to scout properly, see your players or all that good stuff mentioned above.

If you're trading for a true star, one whose value is unlikely to fluctuate significantly, then I would do it in the summer. You can package one of your recent draft picks, a prospect who is not progressing as expected or hoped or someone whose lasting memory of the past season was playoff overachievement (Umberger). I'm happy to say, this is what Bob Gainey managed to achieve in his Tanguay deal – taking advantage of salary concerns and an overvaluation of the draft pool (in all likelihood) to land a consistent star.

Middle ground

Given the two windows of opportunity, you'd expect the GMs of the league to find some middle ground. if they did, we'd see some trades from October to December time. We don't. Why is this?

I think one factor is that GMs are generally not looking to make trades as it makes their lives more complicated. Why saddle yourself with a salary issue – it only makes more work. Considering that many GMs are also horrendous judges of talent (see the free agent signings this year), it makes sense that they would procrastinate until the very last second.

Another reason for this is the inconsequential nature of the NHL season. Why would a team bother to challenge Detroit in December and January when winning the league is so meaningless? History will show chemistry is the answer, but these guys have no memory for history, remember?

Mastering the trade

In those simple scenarios, the answer seems relatively simple. However, as we all know, things are rarely so simple. Most of the time, for instance, the star in question will not be a stable producer, but will be trending up or down. Most of the time, the perception of his value will be higher or lower than his own GM's assessment around the league. Mastering the trade requires mastering the art of anticipation, combined with a good eye for talent (and lack of it).

In fact, while trading a star or for a star can be beneficial, the trades that become landslides are often the unexpected ones. What's more, these trades should not be as restrictive as trades involving stars. These are the trades where rising stars are targeted, or falling stars are turned for a profit. The margin for a win in these exchanges is huge.

If anything, I would argue that these trades must not be done anywhere near the deadline. The deadline is a too cluttered for people thinking about trading their minor players. Owners either want to save a few million in the close of the season, or want to make a big impression with their fans for marketing in th playoffs. These are homework trades and should be happening from now until January. Again, they aren't. Probably for the same reasons as stated above.

Back to the Olympics, and I begin to realise that pursuit of excellence is a full-time job. There are no summer holidays, no off-seasons. To think that building a dynasty in these times is impossible is the same closed-mindedness that makes you skip your 2-minute race for fear that you'll be too tired for your 1-minute race. The excellent pursue excellence in all areas of what they do. The New England Patriots have proven that salary caps do not preclude dynasties. The Detroit Red Wings are making the case that hockey is not some special exception to that rule.

As with many facets of team management post-salary cap, trading is an area that remains to be exploited. There is no good reason why a "good" GM shouldn't be looking for trades all season long and well into the summer. I hope, as with all things, that the Canadiens are one of the first teams to step up to take advantage of other teams in this way. Sign and trade Mats Sundin? Trade a young winger? Trade some of those Minnesota Dmen? Wait to see how things develop and we'll be just like the rest – behind the eight ball (read Detroit) – again.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Out of the Sporting Vacuum

Wow, if you disowned baseball when the Expos skipped town and aren't desperate enough that CFL, or minor tennis/golf tournament news can tide you over for weeks at a time, you will have no doubt noticed (as I have) that mid-summer is a vacuum for sporting excitement.

Enter the Summer Olympics.
And for the first time in recent memory, they're actually taking place in the summer!

No matter what your usual sporting flavour is, there should be something to tickle your fancy at the Olympics. There are loads of sports and in excess of 300 different events over a couple of weeks. For the hockey fan, there's lots on offer (take what much of the world calls hockey for one...).

If you are of the ilk that enjoys being lifted out of your seat by a good bout, then excitement is around the corner – the Olympics are home to numerous forms of fighting, from the boxing preferred by Lyle Odelein, the martial arts Jarkko Ruutu practices and the Greco Roman wrestling of about 95% of the other fights on ice.

If fighting is not your thing, maybe speed is. If so, then you have track, cycling, swimming, rowing, canoeing, and every other imaginable way to get from A to B fastest (jumping, vaulting, riding a horse...).

And for those who enjoy the team synergy and the cooperation for a common goal, watch volleyball (the beach variety, if you read Four Habs Fans more than you should), basketball, soccer, baseball (for the last time) and one of my favourites water polo.

I am looking forward to these Olympics. It will be a nice way to get through the doldrums of August without scouring the web for news of Scandinavian hockey holdouts. Of note, I encourage everyone to catch Thomas Hall's canoe races if they can. His heats are on August 18, and he would progress to races on August 20 and then 22 if he performs at his best. Tom's a formidable athlete and a fellow Montrealer.

Athletic excellence

All that brings me round to the point I wanted to make in this piece. Watch the Olympics and records will fall – they always do. Not just national records, but World records. Every Olympics someone runs faster than anyone has run before, someone jumps higher, throws further. Past athletic achievements are laid to waste.

When I think of this, it makes me think of hockey.

In hockey, we are blessed with many experienced and knowledgeable elder statesmen, particularly in the press. Their stories and insights from the past never fail to capture the imagination, stir the emotions. But one thing that has always bothered me about this old guard is the way they cling to the older generations of the game to the point of debasing the current era at times.

Sometimes I want to tell these guys to take a look around. An objective look. Admit that things have changed. Admit that players, tactics, training, coaches, managers and everything else has improved (not devolved).

How can I be sure?

Well, consider the Olympics again. In many (probably most) sports, the average athlete at these Olympics would have been a multi-medalist at any Olympics 30 years ago. In my own sport of swimming, the standards for athletes to make it to the 2008 competition would have claimed all but three gold medals at Montreal and Moscow. Even as recently as 20 years ago, people making the current qualifying times would have been unlucky to walk away without a medal. What this tells me is that between equipment, technique and training methods, athletes in many sports have improved by leaps and bounds over the years.

Is hockey the exception? Not likely.

You only have to watch 10 minutes of hockey from the 1960s, 70s or 80s to realise things are different. Improvement in goaltending has led to less poor quality goals. Improvement in player fitness has led to better defence, tighter games and more advanced tactics. Evolution in sticks and the way players shoot has changed the way (and the speed at which) the puck moves. No, hockey is like many Olympic sports, the champions of old would stand a chance with the athletes of today.

Progress. Not many can resist it. I'm tired of people who continually try to convince me I should. That's why I'll be watching the Olympics, like I watch my hockey – admiring the incredible skill and ability I can hardly believe, right before my eyes...

A curious Habs-related Olympic note

As I was browsing the usual sites, I couldn't help but notice that RDS has a section devoted to the Olympics. It is called Pekin 2008.

Unlike English countries, some countries and their linguists have decided not to evolve their spelling of the Chinese capital's name. In English, the name Peking (the Western version of the name for the metropolis) was gradually removed from documents and maps starting in 1949 – it is all but gone nowadays. The change was due to a change in Chinese government, which led to a decision on their part to spell out the name themselves in our alphabet (Beijing).

Though the French lag in language evolution is not surprising, given their formal approach to such things, I found the possibility of a new name amusing. Given that Peking was spelled out Pekin in French, I think there is little doubt that the adaptation of Beijing into French would be done in the same way – giving me Begin.

Come to think of it, since it would obviously be far too confusing to have a Canadiens player and world city by the same name, I am betting the Office de la langue francaise is just waiting until Steve retires before putting the new name on the books.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Scott's family wants Cup: Part II

For the second time in recent years, the biggest signing of the off-season chose his team based on family ties. For the second time, he's called Scott. The first time, for the Niedermayers, it worked, and it just could again (well soon, anyway).

I hope Chicago understand what they've gone and done here. They've gone and acquired the single most successful living hockey brain anywhere. They have made the biggest and most important move of the NHL offseason. It's making their recruitment of Stan Bowman look like a stroke of genius...

Sidney Crosby may be right in some of his assertions regarding Marian Hossa, but he is wrong if he thinks Detroit has not changed this offseason. Losing Bowman has traditionally been as devastating to dynasties as losing their star player in recent times, just ask the 1980 Canadiens and the 1993 Penguins.

But it's not what happens to teams on Bowman's departure that is most impressive, but rather what tends to happen once he steps through the door.

Scotty's pedigree
Scotty Bowman was brought into the Canadiens organisation following his attenuated playing career with the Baby Habs. From the mid-50s to the mid-60s, he was the on-and-off-again coach of the Baby Habs himself, overseeing the Canadiens most valued possessions (their young signings) and tutoring them in the ways of the organisation and the champion.

When the NHL expanded, the ambitious Bowman moved away from his hometown and the Canadiens to take control of the coaching duties for the St. Louis Blues. In what was no small feat, he brought the fledgling franchise to the Stanley Cup finals in each of its first three seasons – losing twice to his some of his wards from the Canadiens and once to Bobby Orr and the Bruins. What is worthy of note here is that Scotty was cutting his teeth in the Stanley Cup finals (as a coach) as a mere 34 year-old.

When he left the Blues, the Canadiens and Sam Pollock (never one to miss out on a quick way to improve his team) welcomed Scotty back into the fold. He didn't win the Cup in his first season, but as his team's record will attest, that was probably more to do with Esposito and Orr than any deficiencies of his own. The following season, the Canadiens would win the championship, and we all remember the 4 in a row to end Bowman's tenure. His acrimonious exit would coincide with the end of the Canadiens dynasty.

Following the Habs, Bowman had a relatively quiet decade. Critics of his would certainly pick on his tenure with the Buffalo Sabres as a sign that Bowman is not always a magician. This is certainly true. But, to coach any team in the era of the Islanders and Oilers was a monumental task. Even in the absence of Cups, his Sabres enjoyed mild success. They would have 2 100-point seasons and have their winningest period in team history to that point.

His next foray into NHL action was with the Pittsburgh Penguins. First as an advisor, then as head coach, he helped guide the talent-heavy Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups. You get the feeling, he might have also had some say in that prophetic draft pick of Jaromir Jagr in 1990 and the important trade for Ron Francis, as well. Whatever you may say about Bowman and the Pens, one thing is clear: they won with him there and not when he wasn't. It is this knack for coaxing the best from stars like Jacques Plante, Guy Lafleur, Mario Lemieux and Sergei Fedorov that was so important.

Speaking of Fedorov, Bowman's latest association with the Red Wings has resulted in the only uninterrupted and unquestioned streak of championship success in the modern game. As with the Penguins, he provided a catalyst for success for a squad that had to that point been underachieving based on their talent. The latest feather in his cap, his ninth Stanley Cup this spring, was testament to all the work he and his team of managers have done. The Red Wings completely outclassed the league this season in play and results. Their team, developed from within, mostly during Scotty's time in Detroit is a marvel and a model.

All this is why the move to sign up Scotty Bowman is a wonderful coup for the Hawks. I'll be watching with interest as he once again advises on the progress of young hotshots on the cusp of something more. If nothing else, you get the feeling Scotty is excited, and for the rest of the league, that is a dangerous thing...

Finally getting to work with his son is great. But for Canadiens fans, Scotty finally getting to work with Denis Savard (a fellow Verdun boy and Baby Hab alumnus) will be interesting too. For me, it harks back to one terrible decision in team history (Grundman over Bowman for GM) which was shortly followed by another (overlooking Denis Savard). Who knows, Scotty might have done things differently for us in the 1980 draft.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Speak of the Devil: Habs History on the Internet

After yesterday's shoddy history lesson from the hockeybuzz, it's a pleasure to turn around and find our old friend Robert at Eyes on the Prize diligently documenting the Canadiens history, and properly too. If you want a good read, and to learn a lot more about the early Canadiens (Canadian on the hockey cards of the day, apparently) and Mr. O'Brien's 4-team assault on the Montreal Wanderers in the NHA of 1910, then have a look at this piece.

Incidentally, I'd love to be able to do something like documenting the 100-year history of the team. If not for a job getting in the way, then maybe I would. But one couldn't hope to do a more thorough job of it than Robert. He says on his blog, he'll be doing every team from the 100 (ending with the current one) in installments (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) from here until they are done some time in March, by my calculations. I'll be checking these out, and I recommend them to anyone who loves this team and its history.

Hopefully, Tobalev and I will be able to complement all the historical accounts with some perspective on the current and more recent editions of the Habs.

August today. The last non-hockey month of the summer!