Friday, July 31, 2009

Canadiens Waiver Confusion

I'm not sure if the confusion was all mine, but I took some time to look into the Canadiens waiver exemptions for the upcoming season as a remedy.

I thought I'd share on another slow news day.

You'll remember that post I wrote about Latendresse the other day. I wrote it to point out that it was make or break time for the guy. What I probably didn't fully consider was that his situation may be more critical than I originally thought.

The reason is simple. The current Canadiens roster is stacked with veteran (and young) players who do not carry a waiver wire exemption. I didn't quite understand how this could be, but with a bit of a rummage around, I think I do now.

1) Waiver eligibility has nothing to do with age really – it has much more to do with experience and being paid at the pro level

2) Unlike the old NHL, waiver status under the 2005 CBA is determined by professional games, not just NHL games. That means players who've played 160 games for Hamilton, Cincinnati, Montreal or some combination are all exposed to other teams on demotion during the season.

The question is particularly pertinent when it comes to Latendresse and his rivals. Now, I assumed (and rightly so) that Pacioretty and Sergei Kostitsyn were waiver exempt. They both come under the cap for games and years since their first pro contract. Matt D'Agostini and Kyle Chipchura, however, who I thought were in the same boat are not at all. Because of their prolonged attachment to the Bulldogs both have easily amassed more than 160 professional games and are full-fledged NHL bait now. And, when you do some Kostitsyn math (and I could be wrong) one comes to the conclusion that he has one game of exemption left – so he's not really at all. This impacts on Latendresse (and others, but I have a fixation) because I thought he would benefit from being one of a few who could not be shunted to Hamilton. He's one of many. You can imagine that Glen Metropolit might also be thinking about trying to put in a big training camp if he'd like to stay with the Habs.

Here is a somewhat complete list of the Canadiens players as they fall into the waiver eligible or exempt pots:

Waiver eligible
Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxime Lapierre, Georges Laraque, Glen Metropolit, Travis Moen, Greg Stewart, Matt D'Agostini, Kyle Chipchura, Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, Josh Gorges, Hal Gill, Paul Mara, Ryan O'Byrne

Waiver exempt (and for how long):
Sergei Kostitsyn (until 2010-11 or 1st game this year), Max Pacioretty (until 2011-12 or 89th game this year), Yannick Weber (until 2012-13 or 84th game this year), Ben Maxwell (until 2011-12 or 74th game this year), Mathieu Carle (until 2012-13 or 31st game this year), Subban (undetermined length as of today)

The interesting finding was initially D'Agostini, but certainly Kostitsyn (if I'm not off base) is a big deal. Either one of those players could be a legitimate waiver target for other GMs, so Gainey will be wary. It should also say something to Paccioretty backers – as the only NHL trialled forward who can commute, you shouldn't be too hopeful of his guaranteed place on a top line.

The final group of interest here to me are the Swedes. Because of their newness to the league, they carry with them the exemption. What looked like a couple of experimental pick-ups in Johansson and Engqvist might turn out to be very valuable filler if short-term injuries occur. Marks to Gainey on that front.

Maybe now that I understand this a bit better, I'll stop calling for Shawn Belle to be promoted and risking waivers. Then again, maybe not...

Habs Hating:

Mocking The Canadiens In Vogue Again

When new items and pieces on the shelf converge. That's what happened this morning in my Google Reader.

Pulled in through the Carey price tag, I got this article from a Boston man, who claims to be a Montrealophile in all but hockey.

It synced very nicely with an idea I've been kicking around for some time about how fans of other teams see us. And how many of them loathe us. And, actually, I came across one of the very best examples of this just the other day on a typical July trawl through NHL searches.

James Murphy – the "laughingstock" file

When it comes to Habs hating and baiting it is unsurprising to start our survey in Boston. Boston and Montreal have a deep-seated hatred of one another's hockey teams – one which I fully subscribe to.

That said, Mr. Murphy is using cheap tricks here. Calling the Canadiens a laughing stock in Boston is not new and it's certainly not news. The Canadiens are a laughing stock in those parts 3 days after an unprecedented comeback in the playoffs against the tilt of the home ice.

And, I suspect if he were only writing for Boston he would have found another story. However, I think James picked up on something of a trend. The trend being that people outside of Boston are becoming more and more keen to read and write themselves about the laughable situation in Montreal. His piece is symptomatic of the trend and not causative, however.

The Cynical Anaesthesiologist and the eloquent – the evolution of distaste

Back in 2007, the Four Habs Fans were drumming up some controversy and interest with back and forth volleys between themselves and rival bloggers. It was good fun. The Habs hate was written up, but in retrospect, a bit ad hoc – not very sophisticated. A lot of the ideas were old and many just misunderstandings. You could almost tell the Blueshirt Bulletin, for example, did not have their hearts behind their disdain.

But you know what, it seems 3 years of endless ceremonies, a winning and losing ride complete with bandwagon couplings and unhitching, a riot for riot's sake and some scandal dusted on top have fed some fuel to the real fire.

More recently, there are people who care enough about hating the Canadiens to sit down and take some time to flesh it out, to express what they mean. And though it might be more convincing if this MD didn't also hate everything else, he still provides a nice vignette of what I mean:
"Every year I live in dread of another Stanley Cup for Montreal (which has happened 12 times in my life). My obsession is deep seated."

It got even better this season with "No Habs No" adding a very humourous and more sophisticated take on hating the Habs in the internet age. It even has its own (very well supported) 6-man Facebok group. For me, however, it all culminated in the brilliant eulogy written to the Canadiens season by the Pension Plan Puppets – experts in seasons like these.

I don't want to dissect arguments or question why people are supporting teams 30 years after their brother told them to, all I wanted to do was show how Habs hating has come a long way. As James Murphy suggests, there are echoes of George W. Bush in this affair. Habs hating is very much in vogue.

Understanding the hatred

I may have trouble pinpointing how this trend I feel around me has come about, I have no trouble understanding how an opposing supporter would hate me or my team. I am interested from a purely academic curiosity as to why it seems to be mounting. I suspect it has a lot to do with us not being a write-off anymore. There's certainly that annoying arrogance we all get tagged with thanks to the amassing of a more connected and active "24 Cup brigade" – they say as much. The seemingly endless 100th anniversary (built up since season 97) is some bait, no doubt.

As I mentioned I really only "hate" one team in this NHL and that is the Bruins. I hate their players, I hate their philosophy to team building. The Leafs have been there too, but nowadays I find it hard to muster the strength to really hate them. Everyone else just fits somewhere else on the spectrum of dislike. Philly somewhere near the head of the list and Edmonton somewhere near the "almost like" extreme.

If you're not hated by other teams fans, your team's doing something wrong

I think that conventional wisdom holds for us here in a big way, and my own targets for negative energy are telling. If people are indifferent towards your team (like they are to the Kings, say, or the Thrashers) then it's because they're not doing enough to be hated. In sports, that means you really do suck.

It's a relief then to think that the Canadiens and us fans are generating more hate nowadays among our rivals. After all, think of the alternative, we could be the Sabres...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Finally: A Trainer

Habs Inside/Out tap into the searches of their many loyal readers to discover the unheralded addition of Scott Livingstone's replacement.

It's about time this happened. Though, for all we know this guy might have been hired a month ago.

It's hard to find much to say about the new guy, Lorne Goldenberg. His CV as the HI/O guys point out looks fine. He has NHL experience and Ottawa experience (think the first guys you ever saw interviewed on bikes after a game). The Canadiens are fitter than they were 10 years ago, but as the Livingston redundancy attests to, they are nowhere near the class of the league, perhaps not even top half. So, it will be Lorne's job to make sure the players get and stay fit, learn about and maintain flexibility and, I think, gain some serious endurance.

For the personal trainers among you, here's a look at his programme for younger players (presumably with an aim to gaining the edge to make the NHL one day).

Lapierre and Latendresse are already making the commitment to go and give the programme their full attention in beautiful Ottawa. Latendresse gets full marks for taking his offseason seriously.

Language And Hockey

I don't want to wade too far into this quagmire, but a couple of really good articles have come up recently that made me think I should at least recommend them to you.

All will have noticed the amputation of the Quebecois arm of the Canadiens defence and the slow letting of some of the forward group as well. The comment has begun in some quarters and I recommend a read. At the very least it will prepare you with some background as you take in the doubtless numerous debates on this issue in l'Antichambre and 110% studios come September.

Anyway, here are the links:

No Dogs or Anglophones writes on the initial early July boycott that arose from the non-signings and signings that formed the 2009-10 Habs. The links within the piece are very educational and give a better idea of where the other side of the debate might be coming from.

And, yesterday new blogger Flying Frenchmen asked THE question. I hope he'll answer it too. I'm sure once he gets his feet in the blogosphere he'll be more willing to take on the storm... I responded on his blog, but only with regard to the biggest zealots on the issue who I feel will never be happy about the balance of the team – because happiness is not what they seek.

Aside on language: The RDS legacy

A bit of a tangent, I also wanted to note one very positive aspect of the language and the Canadiens lies with RDS. It's oft overlooked and even obscured as I criticise their journalistic integrity, but the fact remains if you are a fan of the Canadiens, RDS has been a boon.

Part of it is monopoly, of course. But a happy one, I'd suggest. Whether you are English, Spanish, Haitian, New Zealander, Finn, Quebecois or Manitoban you virtually have to watch the game in French. I say virtually because there are some alternatives: CBC on Saturdays, TSN once in a blue moon, or the old CJAD radio broadcast (if you can stand the ads and Murray Wilson's rambling – I can't). As such, we know that many fans of the team whose mother tongue is English will tune into the excellent Pierre Houde and his flailing side kick to take in the games.

I can only really speak from personal experience here, but watching hockey and hockey related programmes on RDS (everyone knows Sports 30 is Habs 26) has literally upped my French TV consumption by 100%. Were it not for this exposure and associated blogs and websites, my French would be woefully out of practice. Instead, I am very much in tune with my second language, and very pleased about that too. In fact, I'm happy that so many Habs fans across the country (if they can afford to bring RDS into their homes, that is) can enjoy this option as well.

And the great thing for the real fans of the French language is that it doesn't matter where the players on the ice are from really. The play-by-play, the comment, it's all in French (aside from Brunetisms) regardless of who's controlling the puck. It's great (free) practice for me – and honestly, where would I be without learning all the interesting ways that french pronunciation of Eastern European and other names differs from the English. Plekanetz? Malahoff? Derek Roy?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Playing The System

GMs That Are Ahead Of The Curve

Every time you hear that Saku Koivu is gone because he couldn't fit under the cap, think again.

Koivu, by virtue of celebrating his 35th birthday this November and not earlier was eligible to sign one of those brain-bustingly long salaries that could have been averaged out to a minimal cap hit.

You know the ones that Detroit and Scotty Bowman's Blackhawks are handing out?

Now, I fully believe that Gainey wanted the space on the team and not the space in the balance book when he waved goodbye to Saku, but what about some of his other signings? Where was the creativity when he signed up 30-year old Brian Gionta to a financially tying $5 million cap hit for the next 5 years?

It got me thinking about the better GMs in the NHL and what they have been doing to show up their slower peers.

The long contract

This summer has seen the advent of the extended contract beyond the age of 40 years old.

The idea behind the long contract has been a round a while now. The Islanders broke the ice with a 15-year deal to Rick DiPietro back in 2006. The Flyers gave out a few, most notably to Mike Richards.

But it was not until the Red Wings came along and signed Henrik Zetterberg that the manipulation of numbers really came into effect.

The DiPietro deal, you see was the same salary for every year of the contract. At the time, one could argue that it was an overpay for the player, an argument that only seems to take on more credence as time goes by. It was in effect, just a really bad long contract.

Ditto the Mike Richards deal. The Flyers handed out the deal to a 22-year old who'd had one decent year earlier in his breakout season. They ended up paying him a wad more than they could have been for the past year and by virtue of his age, the benefit of retirement is unlikely to help them. It opened the door for a trade later in the contract, but Holmgren just didn't have the same grasp on the possibilities as his sleeker peers. After all, a two-way forward like Mike Richards (if he's all we have to hear is from Flyers fans) will not be an untradeable asset by the age of 34. If he is, who would take on the $5.75 million cap hit anyway? Only teams covering the minimum...

The Zetterberg deal was different. It used term to reduce the average to a superstar player. Henrik will be paid a worthy salary of $7+ million for the next 9 seasons, then when he turns 37, he'll drop to half with 2 seasons at $1 million for the flourish. The drastic drop means the Wings pay the player over $7 million, but at a $6 million cap hit. Should he do the Forsberg and opt for cruising the Stockholm archipelago by his late 30s, the Wings have a minor cap coup and Zetterberg gets most of his money.

Always a team to push limits, the Wings went further with their next extension. Johan Franzen is tied to the team until the age of 39 as well, but at a bargain price just under $4 million a year on the cap. He will of course be paid well over $5 million a season (like Gionta) until his late 30s, but then opens the window to Scandinavian motor-boating with 4 final seasons where he'd only be collecting $7 million in all.

The Red Wings have set a revolution in place in this regard, but leave it to the master (and Holland's teacher) to show everyone that it can be done even better than that. The Marian Hossa contract is that masterpiece. In designing a contract that pays Hossa $3.5 million over the last 4 seasons, they were able to secure a $7.5 million dollar player at 2/3 the cap hit. Not only that, he stole Hossa from under the Wings' very noses.

While heralded in some quarters as madness, the reality is closer to genius. As this Ottawa Citizen article stated a few weeks ago:
"The unspoken reality. GMs expect players to retire before those contracts are actually fulfilled -- but that seven- or 12-year term brings the average of the contract down to a very manageable level."

Retirement is the key, and right now the possibilities to push this kind of salary are almost limitless. One blogger asks why stop at 12, 15 years; why not 30 years?

And he's right for asking, because although there are limits on contracts offered to players over the age of 35, there's no current limit as to the number of years a player of age 22 (like Carey Price for example) could be signed for. 30 seems ridiculous, but really why stop there?

Loophole will be closed

Upstanding NHL citizen, rarely jealous, spiteful or arrogant, Brian Burke is upset about the lack of fair play. And, he, along with other slowpokes, will probably see the loophole closed so that they can continue to get to grips with 1-year deals.

Funny how some loopholes seem more despicable than others to ole Brian.

Incidentally, as a Habs fan, I want this loophole closed and fast. It hardly seems fair that we be the only team still paying what the cap hit says to players whose performance is far from guaranteed. I think it's only fair that other teams, no matter how good their GMs should also be held to terrible contracts instead of being able to wriggle out, just because they are better at their jobs than their rivals.

"You're not thinking 4th dimensionally"

Gainey it seems is not in the same plane as his mosre successful rivals, at least not as a devious pursuer of vitory at all costs. After all, in addition to adding one of the worst value contracts in the whole league to his roster, he also gave out two of the most questionable deals of the summer to Cammalleri and Gionta.

I think he's failed us in this regard, he's not near the head of the class. And, just as Doc Brown scolded Marty for being such a simpleton (even after 2.5 movies worth of time travelling), I could see better GMs scolding Gainey for his summer:

Bob: "But I don't want Gionta for 22 years, I only want him for 5."

Doc Bowman: "Sign him for 22 years with every year after 40 at current league minimum. If he retires, you don't pay him."

Bob: "Still, that's almost 5 years of Gionta that I don't want."

Doc Bowman: "Bob, you're not thinking 4th dimensionally. Have you ever made a trade? Have you ever thought about how to become the best GM? Cap hits are important. By averaging salary over more time, you can reduce the cap hit for a future suitor. You make an untradeable asset tradeable, even within your ridiculous $5 million per year period..."

The man who tries so hard

Speaking of rivals, it's hard not to chuckle at poor Paul Holmgren who tries his very best to keep up with the Detroits and Chicagos of the world.

It started with Richards, whose contract we deem just expensive and unnecessarily unbalanced. It got even more comical with Briere and then Timonen. But this summer he really took the cake.

Taking his inspiration from Franzen and Hossa, Holmgren promptly signed newly acquired Chris Pronger to a long-term deal, well past the date where he'd be on the team. He even overpaid in a trade for the privilege.

At first glance what he did was OK. He signed a 34-year old defenceman to several years, the final ones (which he hopefully wouldn't play) at league minimum. What Paul didn't grasp was this – Chris Pronger had a contract already. His next contract will come into force next summer (and here's the tragedy) after he turn 35. If there was any doubt, it was cast aside when the league said that's how it would treat the deal.


While trying to put together one of the best contracts in history, he has unwittingly added another chapter to the comedy of errors in the Flyers organization post-lockout. If Pronger retires instead of playing for $500 K, Holmgren's successor will be taking a $5 million cap hit for an empty locker – which would probably be up there for worst NHL contract ever. All's not lost though, he could force Pronger to play as he slows down and just have a really slow and ineffective defender for the very same cap hit.

Maybe Gainey missed saving a few million on Gionta, but at least he didn't Holmgren his team into a hole. Oh, it'll be fun to play those 2014-15 Flyers...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Latendresse's Summer Regime

Some Tips

I don't know if everyone agrees with me, but I really think this year will be a critical one in the career of young Guillaume Latendresse. And more specifically, this training camp.

I think that it will define for this year and into another summer without a contract whether he will ever be more than a 15-goal man, or whether he'll take last year's trajectory as a third liner.

Guillaume's career

Look at Guillaume Latendresse as a package of skills, it's easy to see where his strengths lie. He has a good head and a great attitude. He has a better feel around the net than the plumbers and can set up and release a shot quickly and with pretty good power and accuracy too. Equally though, his weaknesses are apparent. His skating is sub-par in the NHL, he sometimes wastes energy and is not a top-class playmaker. His defensive play would be OK, but put him against a better skater and he needs a head start – there'll be no making up ground. Many people would put his physical play in the positive column and so would I on some nights. But on other nights, he was Komisarek at the front, hitting for the sake of it and often at the expense of the right play, to be frank.

Third line = way out of NHL

It's clear that Guillaume has some relatively rare skills and the potential to use them, but must do more to establish himself as a scorer. My feeling is that he must find his way onto a scoring line, or at least show some real flourish this season, otherwise risk being a third liner this season and start competing on a line that demands different skills to what he can provide.

It's not that there's anything wrong with being a third liner, but it's just that a) his primary skill (quick and accurate shot) will go to waste and b) he is not a top option as a checker – being slow, prone to putting himself out of position and unused to the remit.

Training camp

With the Canadiens latest additions up front, and specifically on the wings, Latendresse is really looking down the barrel at a battle for the very last top line spot between himself, Sergei Kostitsyn, Matt D'Agostini and Max Pacioretty.

Though people always want to preach patience with Guillaume, I am starting to feel that lifeline is wearing out for him. For one thing, all his rivals for that ice time are as young or younger than him. None have had as much NHL tutoring. None come close in NHL experience. Should he fall to third in the pecking order in the fall, he won't be able to turnaround and say he needs more time, because he's 200 games into an NHL career that may last 600 games at this rate.

If I were Guillaume then, I would be making sure this summer was the most intense summer of training and practicing I had ever undertaken. I would be looking at September 2009 as the make or break point in my young career – because it is.

Because I like Guillaume, I thought I'd offer some tips:

1) Hone that shot
Gui will never be a better skater than any of his rivals at this late point. Instead, he must make his best skill stand out more. He should work on setting up his shots and taking them quicker.

2) Shoot more often, shoot lower
Shooting percentages across the league are remarkably homogeneous. Non one shoots for 35% and no one really shoots for 5% either unless they are really unlucky. If you can count on about 1/10 shots going in, surely then you'd need to take 300 shots to score 30 goals. Last season Gui had 117 shots on target and 165 all told. From 165 releases towards the net he got, lo and behold, 16 goals. Shooting more is a start.

The next thing would be to shoot lower. Latendresse has that tendency to wait for a perfect opportunity to let off a perfect shot. There won't be 300 opportunities for perfect shots, so to reach that lofty total players have to throw more low quality shots at the net. Among low quality shots, I prefer the low shot because of the way goalies defend them – often having to kick the puck straight back. The boon of more lower shots should tell not only in Latendresse's own totals, but those of his linemates as well.

3) Practice cutting inside

The guy can do it, we've seen him. But on that third line he gets into the Kostopoulos rhythm where it seems that wasting time is the goal and touching the backboards is worth more than a goal. A big man like Latendresse has options others like little Sergei do not, such as cutting inside.

4) Rethink offensive zone positioning

Yes Guillaume is big, but playing on a line with Lapierre and Kostopoulos he was also the one player who should have been in front of the net, the only one with anything close to what you might call hands. Instead, he was often seen in the corner (for which he curiously has won much admiration), but which ultimately led to fewer scoring chances for him and even his line. If he finds himself on a line with Plekanec or Gomez he must find a way to hit and then get back to the front/side of the net quickly. I'd recommend watching a couple of games back, watch his hitting and see how much offensive threat came from it – my feeling is not enough.

5) Practice being the man in front of the net
This is one area the Canadiens have been sorely lacking. And if there is one way that Guillaume could use his size to secure a longer NHL career this could be it. He'll need to think about quick hands in close and ceasing to be afraid to stand there. This could help Gui get on the PP and in one fell swoop change his outlook.

6) Learn to seize the moment

OK, hard to do. But it's often said of good scorers in this league, that they are just in the right place at the right time. If he does nothing else and somehow manages to do this, he may just make it.

Timing certainly comes down to positioning in a lot of ways. But Guillaume must also find a way to look good not just in games when he and his pal Max are together, but also when he gets the golden opportunity to play with a top centre. In the past he's had moments, but fizzled when competition has come along. Last season he started with 10 games on line 1. Though he seemed to be doing OK, he only scored one goal in that time – not a ringing endorsement as a goalscoring option. He did chip in 6 assists, but he clearly was the weaker sister on the line where Koivu and Tanguay had 11 points apiece. His next 5 games, he got another shot at a scoring line but managed only a single goal and not one assist with Lang and Sergei. Consider also that he has been a non-event in the playoffs thus far – this season it was no points and 5 shots in the elimination effort; last season he was benched a few times and did little to offer a remedy to the scoring drought with a lone assist.

Those are my tips for Guillaume. I chose to write about him and not the other options for the top lines, because frankly of the bunch, he could be the best scorer – his best shot is the best shot of the bunch. He offers the fans and the team the biggest upside on his best performances.

And, looking at all four guys he is the one on his last leg.

It's now up to him to show he can deliver those performances with greater frequency.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Underrated Summer Signing:

Where's Spacek?

Late last week, the NHL website ran an article about the top 10 signings that flew under the radar so far this summer.

It's a funny thing, this underrating. While I do agree that most of the signings they have identified garnered slightly less attention than most, doesn't the very fact that they now appear on this list make them rated? or dare I say overrated?

Take their number 2, Rob Scuderi. The guy was listed on all the lists before the day. He was looked at as a prime target. I give him credit for being on the Stanley Cup finalist for two years in a row and for being a winner this year. But he only made the NHL when he was 25, had a few pretty uneventful seasons and now the team that he supposedly held together for a Cup run has let him go in favour of cheaper options. It seems to me he could just as easily be in an overrated list of free agents. After all, he's not the first 4th defenceman to ever play for a Cup winning team.

Dan Rosen, the author of the piece, didn't think too much of the Canadiens (former or new) on the whole, as their proportional representation is low. Perhaps he thought the moves already garnered the attention they deserved. Of all the outgoings and incomings, Dan chose to highlight Paul Mara as perhaps the most underrated of all Bob Gainey's summer moves. He says:
9. Paul Mara, Montreal – The Canadiens underwent a major roster overhaul with Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill coming aboard. The most underrated addition, though, could be Mara. He's a reliable defender with a heavy shot. He's also a likeable guy who will get along well with teammates and will become a favorite with the Montreal media. That's an underrated skill.

I can't say I disagree. At least not with his logic – as a 5th defenceman Mara could be a decent pick up, especially if he shoots straight as well. But I couldn't help but think that the move didn't seem all that underrated to me, at least not in Montreal.

In fact, looking across all the free agent and trade additions, there have been varying degrees of coverage. Gomez has probably taken the lion's share. I would say that Cammalleri is a very close second behind him. Gionta's had some real media coverage and so has Hal Gill as a Stanley Cup winner/giant. Then Moen and Mara, possibly by virtue of their late signing got quite a parade of recognition as well. Moen is certainly not underrated in the least by our fans. As for Mara, I might have agreed except for the personal experience of having been rebuffed by a number of his supporters when I initially bashed him.

Among all the NHL level signings (sorry Sanford and Darche), it is actually Jaroslav Spacek that stands out as the underappreciated one thus far. If I do a search for Spacek blogs now I find very little at all beyond the day of the signing. And on that day it was quickly to press to keep up with the next move. His move obviously hasn't flown completely under the radar. but I feel it's been the most overlooked of all the additions.

Naturally then, I am going to remedy that by making him a very rated signing in the LIW books. A little bit of fair due for the man who hopes to be Markov's deputy on the PP.

Who is Jaroslave Spacek?

You know, it's a good question. Prior to Gainey signing him, I never thought twice about this player. I remember him from Florida days and then as part of a pretty awful team in Columbus. His stints in Chicago and even Edmonton must have slipped my mind.

But it's interesting though, just as you will have overrated players on winning teams (Scuderi), there are undoubtedly good players being buried on down-right awful teams. It may well be the case that Spacek was one of those.

Undrafted even at the age of 24, he looked to be set for a career in Europe. But 1997-98 was to prove a banner year from the young Czech defender. Having chosen to move away from the domestic league in favour of a place on Swedish champions Farjestads, he suddenly was getting noticed. His season at Farjestads saw him become develop his offensive game against more skilled opposition, and ended with a league championship. The icing on the cake for Spacek was his selection to the 1998 Czech Olympic team. One of the few non-NHLers on the team, Spacek still played his part in making the defensive charge to gold ahead of Dominik Hasek. 6 games and 6 GA says a lot about Hasek, but also a bit about the defenders – of whom the Canadiens now boast two.

That summer the Florida Panthers took a Mark Streit flyer on the 24-year-old Spacek, a player who now comfortably fits into the top ten Florida selections of all time (though that's not saying much). Florida would bring him over the very next fall for camp, at which Jaro promptly dispatched of the competition and made the big club without a minute in the minor leagues. And though by ice time he was clearly slotted in at number 6, he finished the season as the leader in plus/minus on the non-playoff team. The following season, with Jovanovski out in favour of Pavel Bure, Spacek continued to climb the ranks. In ice time, he trailed only perennial 40-point man Robert Svehla and again put up numbers that got noticed. More importantly, the season ended with some team success and the last playoff appearance for the Panthers to date.

Firmly established as an NHL defenceman, Spacek entered the next phase of his NHL career, where trades became more commonplace. First to Chicago and the to Columbus where he was to become the #1 defenceman for the otherwise pathetic outfit.

had he stayed in Columbus, this story probably would be ending differently, but after a return to Europe during the lockout, complete with a WC gold, he came back and was chased by his former team the Chicago Blackhawks. It was a return to force for Jaro as he managed to lead the Hawks in +/- as a top-pairing D despite only 45 games there. Midway through the season he was traded to a then marginal Edmonton Oilers club. Spacek and the team did manage a rally late to squeak in as the 8th seed and put on a spectacular show as they got to within a game from hoisting the Cup.

Like Scuderi, Spacek saw his window of opportunity and promptly left the Oilers for his million-dollar opportunity with the Buffalo Sabres. And that's where he would stay for the next 3 seasons. Particularly telling fomr his time in Buffalo was the way his ice time and role increased every step of the way. In his first year, Spacek was back of the queue for a surging Buffalo team. His second season he overtook Lydman, Tallinder, Kalinin and Numminen to become the #2; and the last season with Campbell out, he took #1 minutes on a very decent team.

Missed when he departs

We know a little bit about this in Montreal, having lost some very dependable pieces this summer. But it must be said that not all players get a shining write up when they opt to skip town. In Jaro's case, it happens over and over. Chicago speaks for itself with the re-acquisition.

Out of Edmonton, he got top mentions from fans doubtful about a return trip to the final:
"The losses of Pronger and Spacek will hurt the most, without question, while the departures of Peca and Samsonov are decidedly less impacting but tangible nonetheless."

And it was similar stuff from Sabres fans this summer:
The Sabres are going to miss Spacek at both ends of the ice. He was the Sabres best defenseman last season but they were unwilling to go beyond one year. The Sabres have a plethora of young talented defenders and they expect some of those players to contribute in the next season or two.

Fun with numbers

As I was searching to try and figure out who Spacek was, I came across a very interesting little tidbit that I'm sure will interest the stats geeks among you.

2008/09 Top 20 Adjusted Corsi Numbers

NumberNameTeamAdj. CORSI
1Ryan GetzlafAna+313.0
2Corey PerryAna+282.0
3Alexander OvechkinWas+266.2
4Zach PariseNJ+256.8
5Eric StaalCar+237.0
6Pavel DatsyukDet+235.4
7Scott GomezNYR+227.0
8Brian RafalskiDet+226.4
9Mike GreenWas+221.4
10Dan BoyleSJ+219.8
11Niklas KronwallDet+207.4
12Nicklas LidstromDet+206.4
13David MossCgy+199.6
14Daniel SedinVan+198.6
15Brian CampbellChi+195.4
16Jaroslav SpacekBuf+187,2
17Henrik SedinVan+182.6
18Joni PitkanenCar+182.0
19Nicklas BackstromWas+181.2
20Nikolai ZherdevNYR+180.0

Impressive to see two Habs there, and Spacek among the top 20 in the league. I think one has to agree with the author of this piece when he says:
"It looks like the Montreal Canadiens use this kind of analysis when signing free agents. They acquired Scott Gomez and Jaroslav Spacek this summer and both appear on this list."

A little look around does loads for the optimism in my case here. I have to say I was pelasantly surprised by what I found and I hope we all be later this year, as well. I'll just leave you with the very best of everything I've read, the bit that makes me feel most like Spacek will be the underrated signing of the year for us:
"No one really knew how good of a hockey player he was because he was playing for obscure, losing teams," agent Stephen Freyer said from his office in Beverly, Mass. "The exposure in Edmonton helped, but the new NHL was incredible for his game. He's the prototypical post-lockout defenseman. He can skate, pass, get the puck out of the zone. He's got a boomer from the right point."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thank Goodness For The Russians

From the time they first aired Kovalev's discontent a few seasons ago, the Russian newspapers have been a trusty source of down-time material for Canadiens beat reporters and bloggers. Reliability apart, you have to hand it to the Russian reporters, they do talk to players and they do look for stories.

In the summer lull, with the Canadiens media crew taking a much-needed break, the reports form Russia these days offer a nice contrast to the old faithful stories – new material.

Sergei Kostitsyn

RDS reports on an interview that Sergei had with a Belarussian newspaper (uncited). While it's not much of a story (certainly not in its summary form). He talks about the media pressure in Montreal and about his late season demotion to the AHL. Apparently he thinks it has everything to do with his gambling buddy and nothing to do with his lazy line changes and 10-game slumps.

I'll try to track down the full thing, since Sergei is a great interview and is known for controversial and often funny quotes (Puck Daddy, CKAC and Japer's Rink)

Alexander Avtsyn

A great tip from Robert over at Habs Eyes on the Prize on this Andrei Avtsyn interview over at Russian Prospects.

He goes through a number of questions providing lots of interesting answers. This is not the fluff of what's on your ipod or who's your favourite Will Ferrell character stuff. I suggest a read if you have any interest in this player.

The best bit for me was about the Canadiens media training courses. Avtsyn (probably giving away more than he should) says this:
"We had a very interesting meeting about ties with journalists. They teach us how to work with the camera. And also that journalists usually ask the same questions (pause, sly [moan]) ... That it’s better to anticipate questions, never be ashamed, always smile and reply calmly. (smiles)"

Funny kid. Funny that he'd tell the journalist asking him the questions how he's been told to answer the questions. To be fair to the Russian journalist, he's no Renaud Lavoie – he digs for something interesting here.

Alexei Emelin

RDS dug around the Russian press again
for a story (uncited), which you may have all read. Once again, its a mere summary with a couple of quotes.

Apparently, our estranged prospect Alexei Emelin may not be as estranged as we thought. He says:
"Nous ne nous sommes pas entendus avec le Canadien sur les termes d’un nouveau contrat, affirme l’espoir du club Montréalais. Ils n’ont pas laissé tomber dans mon cas et nous gardons contact avec eux. J’espère toujours me faire une niche dans la Ligue nationale de hockey."

We didn't come to an agreement with the Canadiens on a contract, but they have not dropped me from their plans – we will still be in touch. I continue to hope that I will one day be able to make a place for myself in the NHL.

Good news for the organization, as you know burning bridges is never a good thing. And one never knows what injuries, trades and developments may happen to make a place for Emelin seem more feasible in the future.

Andrei Markov

Not from a Russian newspaper, but some Russian-related news.

Fan House's Adam Gretz (pseudonym or convenient name for a hockey writer?) is compiling a list of the top 50 players in the NHL based on play alone. He does add the disclaimer that it's all his own subjective take on things (something I can relate to loads). Anyway, he's up to #41 on the list and has already included the only Habs player, with Andrei Markov at #42.

One biased writer to another, I think he has it wrong. I watch Markov a lot and think it's unfair that he limits his praise:
"While he's prone to the occasional turnover at the wrong time, Markov is still more than capable in his own end, and one of the elite defensemen in the league when it comes to leading a power play and providing offense from the blue line."

For me he's one of the best defenders I've seen – not just capable. And show me one who isn't prone to an occasional error. I thought you'd be suitably incensed as well, so I brought it up.

Incidentally, before Four Habs Fans scooped up this story and made it their own, I was going to do a whole article on it. Suffice to say that I scanned NHL rosters and came up with about 19 players that I could definitively say were better than Markov at any position. I then classified a further 25 as his equal to marginally better/worse. So worst case scenario for me is that Markov is 45th, best case 20th. I feel the writer took the wrong bias. What about you guys? For example, is Markov not better than Corey Perry? Alexander Semin? Daniel Sedin? Martin Havlat?

The NHL seems to think he is at least better than all but 5 Russian players in the NHL, with the glaring question mark about Gonchar (and the relevance of defensive play) the only thing keeping him from #5.

Happy reading. Желаю хорошо провести выходные. (I hope that's right...)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Canadiens Rival Report

I don't want to really say who has won or lost free agency, because it's a hard game to get into. But I was thinking about the Habs and how they may or may not have improved and it occurred that I shouldn't be making an absolute judgment, but a relative one.

From a more relative point of view, Gainey has been doing quite a job. While he has been working hard to replace his outgoing team, he has also had the time to land punches on some pretty key rivals like Buffalo, the Rangers, Devils and especially the Panthers.

In this article, I take a look (team-by-team) at our rivals in the East and see how they've done in their makeovers at trade deadline and summer signing time. For once, I don't talk much about Montreal (I can hear the sighs...).

Atlanta Thrashers

Trade deadline: Got worse – lost Schneider and Havelid

Summer moves: Improved so far through free agency and trades – gaining Antropov and Kubina and losing Exelby

Montreal influence: Marginal, since Schneider was a rental and could re-sign there

Verdict: Overall, Atlanta have probably marginally improved. Unless they can do more before the fall, they will have trouble covering the gap between draft lottery and playoffs

Boston Bruins

Trade deadline: Improved – acquired Montador and Recchi for bit part players

Summer moves: Equilibrium – Begin in, Recchi re-signed and two defencemen out

Montreal influence: Marginal, though their inactivity in July may look like complacency with hindsight – something a pathetic Montreal playoff effort could take partial credit for

Verdict: Boston haven't improved much, but they didn't need to. If the status quo persists, there's nothing but player regression that will slow them. keeping Kessel is key, though. Or at least getting good return for him. And should they lose him for picks or prospects, they might find their offensive engine falling apart

Buffalo Sabres

Trade deadline: Improved – picked up Dominic Moore for nothing

Summer moves: Slight fall – Montador and DiPenta do not replace Spacek

Montreal influence: Signing Spacek has left Buffalo without their PP QB for now. A landed punch on an important rival for Gainey

Verdict: For yet another year, it looks like Buffalo will have to rely on Rochester recharge. They still have some very good forwards and Ryan Miller, but years of leaking stars without effort to replace them will mean a fight for the bottom of the playoffs again in all likelihood

Carolina Hurricanes

Trade deadline: Slight improvement – bringing Cole back was nice, but it cost Williams; Jokinen, though, was a win

Summer moves: Stalled – Kostopoulos and Alberts won't change this team's fate

Montreal influence: None

Verdict: Carolina have had a good team for a few years now, and it mostly comes down to Eric Staal. Last year's move to pick up Pitkanen was a bit of a coup, too. They haven't improved much, but probably didn't need to. They should be right in the thick of the Southeast title race

Florida Panthers

Trade deadline: No moves

Summer moves: Severe hemorrhage – Bouwmeester was lost for Leopold (not good); in addition Boynton and Skrastins, 2 main players in their effective defence, have gone with only 8-game Ville Koistinen to replace

Montreal influence: Stealing Florida's GM may turn out to be the move of the summer for Bob Gainey. The way it has paralysed this club will mean that Monteal likely won't need a tie-break to pip Florida to a playoff spot

Verdict: Disarray in Florida. It reminds me of the Expos – stars raised, stars traded, in a never-ending road to degradation of the roster. Signing a few key free agents could turn the verdict around (and there's time), but as of now, Florida is a weaker team than last year

New Jersey Devils

Trade deadline: Slightly improved – acquired Havelid for a younger D

Summer moves: Gotten worse – Madden, Gionta, Rupp, Clemmenson and possibly Shanahan out. In comes Yann Danis

Montreal influence: Joining the jackals by stripping Gionta from the Devils' carcass was a targeted move, no doubt – worsening a rival, while replacing an outgoing part

Verdict: You never write off New Jersey, but one of these days losing key players will hurt the team. It may not be until Brodeur retires, but you could see how losing Madden and Gionta could break the camel's back after Niedermayer, Gomez and Rafalski. There's still time for Lou to weave his magic, though, and Jacques Lemaire coming back may be the first signal of what's to come.

New York Islanders

Trade deadline: Worsened – dumped everyone they could, while taking on as little as they could get away with

Summer moves: Improved – Roloson and Biron (and Tavares, of course) are upgrades

Montreal influence: None, although they did draft JT in Montreal...

Verdict: It's a long way to go from ECHL team to NHL team and you can only play one goalie at a time. Unless Tavares finds the NHL as easy as the OHL, the Isles have not done enough to remove themselves from the cellar

New York Rangers

Trade deadline: Improved – acquired Antropov and Morris for players that had a future

Summer moves: Equilibrium – an interesting set of moves for the Rangers as Gaborik comes in to replace Gomez and Naslund. Losing Mara and Antropov may hurt, but acquiring Higgins, Kotalik and Brashear should offset some of that

Montreal influence: Trading for Gomez has left NY without a bona fide #1 centre for Gaborik (Dubinsky may cut it, but it's to be seen); the signing was Mara was a pretty good kick to Glen Sather too

Verdict: Like Montreal, the Rangers have changed a lot. New York should still battle for the playoffs (and will move to make sure they do if they're looking short in January), but how well they do may still be hanging in the balance with Zherdev. Should they lose him, they will not be as offensively threatening as last year – and if you know the Rangers, that's a very scary thought

Philadelphia Flyers

Trade deadline: Sideways – Carcillo for Upshall

Summer moves: Sideways again – you can't dispute Pronger will probably help, but Emery is a big gamble. Losing the players they did in the trade, both their goalies and Mike Knuble (a hidden gem among the reliable goalscorers of the league) offset gains from big Pronger in my opinion

Montreal influence: None

Verdict: A playoff team that took sideways steps should still be a playoff team. And, adding Pronger will be a bigger help for the playoffs (which is probably where the logic behind this move comes in). Like Boston, any regression among players that may yet be overachievers from last year will change the whole story

Pittsburgh Penguins

Trade deadline: Improved – Guerin and Kunitz in, Whitney out

Summer moves: Equilibrium – losing Gill, Scuderi and Garon, it could be worse. Jay McKee should be able to make what was largely a barely adequate defence in the first place barely adequate again

Montreal influence: Marginal, losing Gill probably won't hurt the Penguins too much

Verdict: The Cup winners retain the favourite tag as they retain their key ingredients Crosby, Malkin and Gonchar. They'll find someone to take the place of Sykora and Satan. The weaker Atlantic is theirs for the taking

Tampa Bay Lightning

Trade deadline: Liquidation – like the Islanders everything out for little in

Summer moves: Vast improvement – Hedman, Ohlund and Foster should make their D better than it's been since 2004 and Nittymaki may be the goalie that's just good enough to keep the team in games

Montreal influence: Unfulfilled. What could have caused major disruption to their summer has seemingly not affected Brian Lawton's signing record

Verdict: Tampa has a long way to go from their abysmal seasons of 2007-08 and 2008-09. Hedman and Ohlund are steps in the right direction, but their forward depth also needs work. I think there's another season of growing to be done here. Like Tavares, though, Stamkos could be the wild card who proves me wrong

Toronto Maple Leafs

Trade deadline: Worsened – unloaded players for picks

Summer moves: Bettered – no players lost and a couple of pretty good ones in

Montreal influence: Questionable. They did sign a Montreal player and a player that the Montreal public was asking for – but Brian Burke doesn't do spite, does he?

Verdict: As of today, Toronto are not improved enough in my eyes to challenge for division leads or probably even playoff berths. However, they're close. You'll note that they flirted with the playoffs before trading Antropov and Moore, so if those two are replaced through signings, it could be close. The wild card is always the Toronto spirit – as seemingly write-off teams often make it to March with a real shout

Washington Capitals

Trade deadline: No moves

Summer moves: Stable – Morrison and Knuble come in with a couple of very nice signings, but they'll likely be replacing Fedorov and Kozlov

Montreal influence: None

Verdict: With Ovechkin, Semin, Green and Backstrom this team is and will be Pittsburgh's thorn in the side for years to come. I don't think there's any question that they'll contend for their division and cruise into the playoffs. The questions they have all seem to lead to better outcomes: if Varlamov plays like a star, they'll have a goalie for the first time since Huet's month there; if Morrison produces, they'll have a second line...

Montreal's relative position

If we assume that Montreal has remained stable, neither improving nor falling down this summer from an isolated viewpoint, then I'd have to say that their relative position is looking slightly better today than it was on June 15th.

No top teams in the East have made sweeping and convincing changes, and in fact a couple of the teams from among the 7 that were ahead of us in the standings last season are on the verge of entering the season in worse positions than before.

What's more the teams in the playoff crunch (6-12) where Montreal reside have been lacklustre in their signing success as well. Among them, it seems that pesky Buffalo and Florida could actually fall out of the race, barring further adjustments.

It's not the rousing return to the 1970s that we're all after, but a playoff clinch with 4 games to go is not to be sniffed at, and that could be within reach. Should be an interesting rest of the summer as we see this relative position evolve. And then the season, when all this speculation goes out the window, n'est-ce pas?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Plekanec Gets Fair Deal From Habs, Not From Fans

Tomas Plekanec has avoided the nasty business of arbitration by agreeing to a deal with Bob Gainey and the Canadiens worth an estimated $2.75 million for a single year.

From reading around the topic, I can anticipate that many of you might not agree when I say that this was a very good deal for the Canadiens. I suppose, I'll have to explain myself.

First, I don't think fans have been altogether fair with Plekanec; and I think they have directed some of their overwhelming frustration at a 5-year plan on reload at the Czech.

How, for instance, can one justify saying (Mike Boone, HI/O):
"How badly do you have to suck before it shows up in your salary?"

Or (Habs Fan4, FHF):
More mediocrity for a year...

...Salary: Too high.

Or (Robert L, EOTP):
"For myself, the deal is a little lofty for a player who has regressed. It seems he's being paid for a great season in 2007-08, and not the one he had last season."

The consensus among the opinion makers is that his salary is too high. The commenters fall on either side, but swing to the opinion coming down from the top.

I think it's a little bit unfair when you consider Plekanec's career up to this point. Or how he actually played in games where he didn't score points. Or put it into the context of the other players in the league.

Plekanec's season

From a statistical standpoint on the very last day of the season, yes you can look back and say that Plekanec's season was a bit of a nightmare. But taking into account the erosion of our memories and the fact that statistics tell some, but not always the whole story, it's worth a look back at Plekanec's season.

What I remember about #14's season can be summed up in two themes: slump and consistent high level of play. Now, I don't think it's a paradox to put these two terms together. His slumps were statistical and his play was real. Perhaps he was unlucky, perhaps he had funny timing, but the reason for his lower totals was not really a dramatic fall in the level of his effort or even in the level of his play from the previous season.

Luckily for me the internet is around to cache all that was written about Plekanec over the season. I was particularly interested to show some idea of how he played in games where he didn't score points. In all Pleks made the dome on 24 occasions this season, and a third of those times came in games in which he didn't get recorded in the goal or assist column. On two occasions, he was the star of the game for us at LIW in statistical shutouts. Particularly notable was Game 66, in which he led the Habs to their first win in what then seemed like eons. Here's what we said then:
Pleks was our bet penalty-killer tonight and was very effective during the 5-on-3s. In all he played over 5 minutes of short-handed hockey and was very energetic for most of it. Aside from that he played a solid game which include a team lead in shots (3) and a very respectable 10-7 face-off record.

He played well with Kovy again tonight, but I think MaxPac added a little more energy to their line which slightly improved their overall make-up. All 3 players were quite dangerous offensively, but it was Tomas that had the most chances - he came very close in the 2nd to beating Turco on a wrap-around.

It's rather representative of his season actually, as the game was one where he played the full length of the ice, killed penalties like a star and yet garnered a zero for us all to look at in the game log.

Now I'm not saying that he had a brilliant season. Not by a long shot. But let's remember we're talking about $2.75 million here, not $7.37 million. Often our best penalty killer, one of two remaining 20-goalscorers and always true with his effort. I think what I mentioned in his mid-season evaluation holds true for me at this point:
No longer a rookie, but a veteran, his ability to commit to team winning in times of costly slump (for that new contract), speaks of his value to the team.

The Robert Lang effect

Apart from the question of what happened, there's the question of why it happened.

One theory, and certanly one with many adherents at the moment, is that Tomas digressed because he actually got worse. Obviously, I don't agree otherwise I wouldn't waste my time writing this. Another theory is that something on the team changed that affected Tomas in some way.

I don't intend to make excuses for a loss of thirty points, but I don't think it's all down to the individual here. To a certain extent, I think Plekanec suffered from not being one of only two options. I think his stats suffered from having Robert Lang around. When trigger-happy Carbonneau didn't see Plekanec on the scoresheet in 3 straight periods, he'd promptly change the way his team was deployed.

The place I feel this most affect Plekanec was in PP ice time and points. Last season, Plekanec racked up 12 goals and 25 points on the PP, this season those numbers fell to 6 goals and 12 points. As per, his ice time 18 months ago was averaging about 3.38 minutes per game. This season he was down at 2.94 minutes a contest. What's more, when he did get time, it was on the second unit for the most part; whereas the previous campaign saw him rolling out on the top line of the best PP in the league.

The PP doesn't explain away his 3 or 4 extended slumps, but let's be honest if we were sitting here looking at 26 goals and 26 assists (which is what you get by just adding back his PP point missed) then the critics wouldn't be in the majority.

In context, he's cheap

Even if you don't buy all that stuff, it's still helpful, Habs fans, to look at this signing in context. Particularly in the context that an arbitrator would have done. For the statistically-inclined this will be the more interesting find.

There are 127 forwards in the league who will be paid more than Tomas Plekanec next season, and probably a few more once Tanguay and co. sign. That means that if the league had true parity and all teams paid for talent properly, Tomas would fall into a highly paid 5th forward category – at least based on pay.

That alone makes his signing a good one. But consider his goalscoring statistics for a minute.

Of the 130 forwards to be paid $2.75 million or more, only 120 have scored 20 goals at one juncture over the past three seasons. Tomas has scored 20 goals in three straight seasons, something that is matched by only 42 other players in the group.

By now you critics will be saying: "Yes, but those are the overpaid players. There are plenty of bargains out there that outperform Plekanec".

I'm one step ahead. You're right critics in thinking that there are lower paid players out there. In fact, 24 players that scored 20 goals this past season will be getting less that the $2.75m allotted to Pleks. But beware, 7 of those are on their first contracts (Berglund, etc.) and several of them are older men taking pay cuts for one reason or another. What's more is it really fair to peg Tomas based on his worst season in three, when it might well be the anomalous result?

I don't think it is, so I consider multiple seasons. With that filter, there are only 4 players who are not yet signed to contracts of lower value than Plekanec who have scored more goals in the past 3 years. One is a free agent and played with Crosby (Petr Sykora) and the other three are definitely on the downslope of their careers (Selanne, Guerin and Tkachuk). All others are either signed to more money than Plekanec or simply don't come close to the consistent 20-goal man tag that Tomas has now earned.

So you see, when taken in context, Tomas Plekanec is just about the cheapest consistent 20 goalscorer around – a much better investment than many teams have made (e.g., $4+ million for PM Bouchard, or $3.53 million for Jochen Hecht).

Why did Gainey bend?

All this is nice for fans, but let's face it, it's not new information. It was known in June when Gainey could have made an offer. It was known for the past three weeks of the Gomez era. Why did Gainey decide to bend on the very eve of arbitration then?

The Canadiens signing this deal at a significant raise shows me who was holding the leverage going into the arbitration. I think Plekanec and his agent were right to think that they did. Gainey probably moved up from his low offer and was able to make the deal by allowing the deal to expire at season's end. It was the right thing to do as Gainey will not find another centre that even approaches Plekanec's scoring abilities on the open market at this point for the same price, nor will he find anyone within the organization that could handle the remit of a top two line.

I suspect that Bob might also have anticipated a pretty disheartening loss in the arbitrator's court, despite a down season by Pleks. I only looked at the numbers for some players for a morning and I recognise that Plekanec might have been in line to out-earn Grabovski, Zubrus and Fredrik Modin.

Gainey also needed to get this done at a number lower than the contract handed to Saku Koivu. He needed to do that to save his PR for the season – a record that is already in tatters in many quarters.

Another signing to the good and another day closer to play. Even so, i think we'll run out of news before we run out of time...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Denis Out, Sanford In

Desjardins Bumped To 4th In Queue

It must be quite a laugh for Bob Gainey and former Panthers GM Jacques Martin. While Bob is scooping up his 8th new addition to the organization through free agency – their chief playoff rival from last spring has done nothing other than take one step sideways (signing Scott Clemmenson to replace Craig Anderson) and four steps back (signing Leopold as a replacement for Bouwmeester, whose rights they acquired in that late June trade).

Yesterday, it was Gainey's turn to make a sideways move by signing Curtis Sanford of the Vancouver Canucks/Manitoba Moose to take the place that Marc Denis occupied last winter.

Curtis Sanford

In Curtis Sanford, the Canadiens have acquired a third-string goalie with good credentials for the position. Over his long and convoluted career, Sanford has scaled as high as starter (St. Louis, 2005-06), but generally settles in somewhere between great AHL starter and adequate NHL back-up.

Sportsnet says of his strengths:
Has a tremendous attitude and the perfect demeanor for the backup role at the NHL level. Is capable of making big saves at key moments of a hockey game.

And, weaknesses:
Is somewhat small for the goaltending position, and tends to get beaten upstairs with relative frequency. Isn't durable enough to be an NHL starter.

On looking at his stats, one thing is clear. It seems than when he plays against AHL calibre shooters he can be an excellent goalie, but struggles at the NHL level. Even the difference between Peoria 2003-04 to 2004-05 (when young NHLers roamed the AHL ice) was marked, with a drop of 2% in saves made. The fact that he ranges from slightly just below the standard you'd hope for in the NHL to all-star in the AHL gives proof to the fact that there are more good goalies around than shooters in the two leagues.

No doubt it hasn't escaped many pundits that Gainey has yet again this off-season replaced a French Canadian with an outsider. But if you stick to their mantra "a talent egale, on prendra le Quebecois", Gainey may win a debate on it. While Marc Denis has not put up an NHL record anyone would want to hold up since before the lockout, Sanford had 2005-06 in St. Louis and, to some extent, last year in Vancouver. Even in the AHL, Sanford has outclassed his rival (last year's numbers: 1.73, 0.936 vs. 2.46, 0.920).

It seems that like many of the moves from this off-season, it will have to be regarded as a minor upgrade at the same position.

Trade ripples

The predictable summer rumour merchants jumped right on this signing – just as they do with every Montreal, Toronto, New York or Philadelphia transaction. Hockeybuzz suggests that the move frees up Halak for a trade. Not only that, but a trade that would ring the Canadiens another top centre (Patrick Marleau) and unblock the Heatley logjam all at once.

It's a lot to read into the signing of a Manitoba Moose employee. Plus, it's been said before when Marc Denis was signed.

Personally, I wouldn't say that this signing does free up Jaroslav Halak to be traded – not after Carey's forays into blunderland. I certainly don't think that it gives Gainey the impetus to go out there and actively offer Jaro around.

I do think, however, that it removes the restraint that was previously there. Where there was no depth before (sorry Cedrick), the addition of Curtis Sanford does mean organizations won't fall down if an NHL-level goaltender is traded and someone has to move up. It means that while this isn't the signal that a trade is inevitably around the corner.

If anything, I think it plugs what was the major hole in the hole organization for now and is a sign that Montreal can now listen seriously to offers about nearly all of its roster (barring Markov). That in itself is important because you always want to be in a position to be the team that benefits from the crazed Florida GM coming knocking.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Toronto Fans Try Valiantly To Break Hex

Support the Maple Leafs?

Wondering why you haven't won a Cup in 42 years?

Some fans seem to have cracked the code. It's the logo stupid.

[Since] the Leafs decided to create special uniforms for the 1967 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to a Maple Leaf similar to what was on the Canadian Flag. They would go on to win the Stanley Cup that season, but wouldn’t ever do so wearing the design for a full season.

The website includes a petition calling for a return to the Leafs sweater that didn't carry a curse.

Down Goes Brown sums it up very succinctly:
The basic argument [behind changing the logo] seems to go like this:

  • The modern version is associated with the Ballard era, the darkest period in Leafs history.
  • The old version has as much (or more) tradition behind it, and was worn for 10 of the Leafs' 11 Cups.
  • Everyone seems to like the alternate jerseys better these days, so why not make them permanent?

DGB goes on to give altogether too sensible argument to the alternate case, which would see the Leafs keeping their current uniforms – mainly so he can keep wearing his Wendel Clark gear to games.

While I do appreciate some good sense in small doses, I think DGB misses the point here: losing streaks are caused by curses not management. Deep down he must know that it was a modern-style Leaf and not trading draft picks for the Calle Johanssons of the world that cost the Leafs in the final hurdle.

Meanwhile a separate group of fans has come up with an equally compelling theory as to Toronto's championship drought:

Playing in the NHL

"I love the Leafs. But, it’s about time they became competitive. Which is why they need to be moved to the AHL."
says Roger Jolie of

In many ways I think the move to the AHL would be easier for the Leafs than changing the uniforms anyway.

Whereas changing the sweaters would cause a massive upheaval for the fans; the current Leafs would barely have to be tweaked to make a go at a Calder Cup thanks to the excellent work of Brian Burke – since they already boast 12 AHL calibre forwards in their starting lineup.

On to Montreal...

Don't forget Habs fans, we're not living in the land of plenty anymore either. Now that we've eliminated the possibility that we weren't winning the Cup because we didn't have Patrice Brisebois on the team, I wonder what other possibilities we have. I put that one to you...

Ducks Happy To Have Saku

Perhaps it's only to do with his name (remember the old cheer from the movies?). Perhaps it's because they're just happy that their franchise isn't in full liquidation mode. But it appears to me that members of the Anaheim fandom are relatively chuffed at the acquisition of Saku Koivu.

Take this line from a recent newspaper column in SoCal:
Teemu Selanne for NHL Executive of the Year!

Executive of the Year! It stands in sharp contrast to those Koivu detractors who would nominate Gainey for the same award for letting the Finnish captain fly.

The sense of excitement and approval seems consistent throughout the article. The same ecstatic writer from the OC seems to take Koivu's acquisition as a minor coup for the Ducks – final proof that Anaheim was the only team able to unite two players that Montreal has been talking about uniting for years. He says as much in his header: "Selanne, Koivu take Anaheim over Montreal".

And consider this line:
scoring ability – he racked up at least 50 points in his past six seasons

The Anaheim writer put down those words without a hint of irony or disappointment. Almost as if consistent seasons of 50 or more points was a good thing in this league. It's taking the very statistic we would use to bash Saku to lift him up with.

Then you move on to blogs. I found this one on the Battle of California.
On Koivu:

Sheer awesomeness. I have been a Team Finland fan since Nagano -- basically because of the charismatic pull of Teemu's nationalism -- and I cannot wait for these two to join forces for Team Anaheim. With Koivu, there is simply too much to talk about -- the cancer battle, the Montreal captaincy, the little-man production, the selfless passing -- Saku oozes heroism and class.

Not exactly reserved in its praise. It seems an awful lot of people around the league have seen Koivu and think that maybe he's done a good job, as opposed to being the reason Montreal hasn't won a Cup.

Finding both articles came only a few days after one of oldest and best friends – banished to the hockey hinterland of Southern California – had forwarded me the promotional packs the Ducks had sent him for the upcoming season. Those were also plastered with pics of Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne – something of a surprise to those of us in Montreal who assume all hockey fans are drawn to the Getzlafs and Perrys of the world.

The grass is greener

Why am I harping on about Saku Koivu?

Well for one thing, I think the slow news and the emotional wound have combined to keep it top of mind for me. For another, I can't click 5 links without reading what a relief it is to have let him go. Then there's the talk of the leadership vacuum that he left behind. And all this while I get reminders sent from Anaheim on how exiting it will be to have a new scoring centre of Koivu's ilk.

I'm not sure if the grass is greener in Anaheim now they have Koivu or not. I have a sense that it won't be too much greener for losing him at $3.25 million it would have taken to secure his services here in Montreal. I do know I'll watch on with interest as Koivu and Selanne reunite one of the most exciting duos I've ever had the pleasure of watching.

And, if I have to put money on anyone making a good life after Montreal, it'll be Saku.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Do The Canadiens Need A Captain?

RDS asked the question, not me.

It's certainly a worthy question. I wondered what people other than Jason Pominville and Guillaume Latndresse might think. I thought you could all chip in here.

As for me, I think there should be a captain. I'll tell you why.

The Canadiens have had a captain for nearly 100 seasons

I'm not usually squeamish about throwing traditions that I think are passe out the window. I think removing the red line was a good thing. I think making players wear helmets was a great idea. I'd be willing to dispatch many others.

The tradition of the Montreal Canadiens dressing a captain, however, is not one of them. Since 1909, the Canadiens have had a team captain and that is the way I think it should continue for the next century.

[The one exception here were the 79 games that Saku Koivu missed while undergoing chemotherapy. That season, no player took Saku's "C" and the team took to the ice with assistant captains alone. This of course represented a very special circumstance, and was meant as an honour to Saku Koivu, not as a slight to the players carrying the team without him.]

For me as a fan, the role of captain represents an honour bestowed on a special player on the team – made even more special when it is a selection by team vote. Neither the fact that it is hard, nor that much of the team has changed should affect this fact at all.

A simple vote

All this debate about who should be named the captain of the Montreal Canadiens is a bit inane considering the players have chosen the captains for donkey's years and should continue to do so this fall.

I think the vote should take place at the very end of training camp so new players have a chance to integrate and all the players have a chance to get to know each other and experience the game dynamic together. Once Septamber 30th comes around, there is no reason why the coach couldn't call all his wards together for a ballot. It shouldn't take longer than a few minutes. And I don't think counting 23 votes or sewing a "C" and two "A"s onto some shirts should really be considered obstacle either.

Alternating captaincy

The vote is great because it gives the players the chance to represent who they feel their leader is, whether off or on the ice. Democracy has been well served in the past with fine leaders chosen over the years. It's the way we got the Carbo-Chelios combination following the exit of Bob Gainey in 1989.

There's nothing wrong with an alternating captaincy in my opinion, but I feel the process should be one step. Rather than asking the players if they want to choose a captain or not in one poll and then naming "C" or just "A"s in a second; I would hold the captain vote. If 2 players end in dead heat, then alternate. If it's three, alternate again. There's no limit.

The reason I see this way as optimal is that it forces people to choose. Given one choice who they feel would lead and represent them.

Andrei Markov

The popular choice for captain these days is Andrei Markov. It's hardly surprising, he's both our best and our longest serving Hab at the moment. Quite rightly, however, people doubt that he would want to be a point-man for the press as well as for the PP. And so – the debate.

A couple of days ago, I put up a poll that asked people to step out of their own skin and think like a quiet Russian would think for a minute. I asked: "If you were a Andrei Markov, who would you nominate to be captain (can't nominate yourself)?". The options I gave to punters were Scott Gomez, Roman Hamrlik, Maxim Lapierre, Georges Laraque, Other or uttering a profanity (presumably about the lack of choice).

The reason I think this question is pertinent is because the captain, if selected at all, will be probably be chosen by a vote among players. All players, new or long-time, young or old will get a chance to nominate and vote.

When I've done this kind of thing in the past on teams I've been on, there have often been players like Andrei Markov. Players that stand out as the clear choice, but ultimately decline the offer to take on the role. What's interesting, though, is that these players are still leaders. More pertinent here is that often the player they nominate to be put up for the vote does very well. This isn't so surprising since players of Markov's kin garner massive respect on a team and their opinion on all debates, captain or not matter.

While the LIW has spoken to now, I think we're better at being ourselves than being a smooth-skating Russian star. I think for example that if there is a vote, Andrei Markov might decline and if he does might have an interest in nominating an alternative. Much as I applaud the effort to step into his shoes, I very much doubt that he will choose Maxim Lapierre. My guess is that he'd lean to a veteran and one with some stature in the NHL. I'd think it'd be down to Hamrlik, Gomez or possibly Gionta in his mind.

French Canadian options

As a frequent participant in the Koivu language debates over the years, it would be foolish to overlook the possibility that RDS is hoping for a French Canadian choice as captain. To be honest, if I was working for an all-French language sports TV channel, I'd be pulling for that possibility myself. I'd want to have proper length interviews with the captain as opposed to those stunted translated affairs where player and reporter are left wanting for time. I'd be hoping that the media face of the players was someone I could interview better than those pesky CJAD guys. It'd give me the edge as a reporter.

But this season of all seasons was the wrong one to be looking for a new captain as far as RDS may be concerned. For one thing, Gainey has just ruthlessly cleaned out all Quebecois vets and has left the team with 3 French-speaking players.

Whereas last season you could have seen Begin, Bouillon, Tanguay or even Dandenault as feasible options. Realistically, this year it's Maxim Lapierre or Guillaume Latendresse. Both are young and very very short on experience at the highest level. It's not inconceivable that they'd be captains, just that the timing doesn't seem right.

Still, I wouldn't totally overlook this important issue. The media is ubiquitous and RDS especially with their exclusive rights can stir it up if they're unhappy. If the chance arises, it might not be a bad idea to see how Lapierre or Latendresse does with an "A". I just don't see the "C" coming their way from a player vote.

As an aside here, wouldn't it be an idea for the Canadiens to try and have their captain whoever it may be to at least start saying Merci and De rien for interviews. If there's one thing I know about Montreal it's that a little effort goes a long way in the PR department.

The rest of the summer

Of course we're all jumping the gun on this issue a bit. What we all forget is that a lot can happen from today until that first evening in October. Players can be signed, players can be traded.

I don't see how we'll end up with Simon Gagne as our captain, but on June 29th no one saw Gomez on the horizon either.

That's why this decision will drag on and that's why we'll debate until that time – starting now.

So, whaddya think? Do the Habs need a captain this season?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bits And Pieces: Habs-Related News On A Summer's Day

A quick scan of the news I've missed being without internet for a day or so while out on business to find a schedule, some signings and the ubiquitous rumours.

Not quite neough for a big post on any or each, but I thought a rapid-fire relay of thoughts would be appropriate.

NHL schedule released

So, there will be NHL games this year. That's good news. It's not really news though is it?

I suppose there are things we've been anxious to find out, specifically when will this boredom end, who will we play on our 100th birthday and when would we be seeing Saku Koivu again.

The answers. The first night of NHL action will be October 1st, and it will feature the Habs vs. the Leafs in Toronto. We will be playing the Boston Bruins on December 4th at home – a fitting choice for the biggest occasion in these 100th celebrations by a long stretch. And, as for Saku, we won't see him in Montreal after all – which is a shame. Word, however, is that he and Kovalev will make a homecoming of sorts to take part in the premiere of the movie in which he played a lead role (date not reported).

A couple of other interesting points about the schedule include the outdoor game on New Year's day (where the Slovak monster meets the Green Monster as the Bruins host the Flyers at Fenway); the European trips for the Red Wings and Blues in Stockholm and Hawks and Panthers in Helsinki; and the 2nd Victoria Cup in late September, in which the Chicago Blackhawks will be representing the NHL in lieu of the Canadiens or the Stanley Cup champs finally stepping up to the plate.

I did also come across a funny (as in laughable) take on the schedule by a Bruins writer. In going through every game, it's not surprising that he finds few losses and concludes with this irritating and smug (distinctly Bostonian you'll be noting) conclusion to the year for the Bruins:
April 11 at Capitals: The Bruins close out the regular season the way they started it — by beating Washington. Boston doesn’t go 82-0, but finishing on top of the East again is commendable. It’s only the beginning.

Next stop, the playoffs. Is this the year of the Bruins? Thirty-eight years of waiting is long enough.

I should introduce this Bruins fan to the 2006 Hurricanes, the 2007 Senators, the 2008 Habs and every other team that wins the East with high expectations of a follow-up. Of course, they'd be crazy not to expect winning all the NHL trophies again wouldn't they? Before the awards ceremony, though, David Krejci have you met Tomas Plekanec?

The Boston is generally a idiotic as it is ignorant. For example, on the hundredth anniversary of the Canadiens, the knowledgeable scribe has this inane comment:
"Dec. 4 at Canadiens: The Habs have more new faces than a Beverly Hills Nieman Marcus. But the Bruins treat them just the same as Montreal’s old guard — with utter contempt."

His other comments are childish and planted for a reaction. So go read it. There's never a bad time to get riled up about the Bruins.

Canadiens contracts

Also in the news was a couple of Canadiens contracts.

Guillaume Latendresse signed the smartest contract of his career. In taking less than last season, he's won big PR points and showed he has a head on his shoulders. If the Canadiens are pressed for cap space, they won't be trading or benching the 16-goal winger who plays for $800,000. It's a no-lose situation for him and for us. I'm very happy with the news.

Shawn Belle also signed to a two-way deal. I haven't seen him play, but all other signs point to him being a good guy to have around. He's bulky, versed in Lemaire hockey and put up very nice numbers in Hamilton last season. It's also good news as I see it, even if he's to stay on the farm and keep that situation steady for this season.

Robert Lang

The very reliable rumour site (reliable in that you can always expect that 2.5% of all rumours they report, no more, no less will come to pass), has stated that Lang will be playing in Russia this season. Expect him to sign anywhere but with 97.5% reliablilty promptly.

Less surprising is Eric Engels total and continuing contempt for the KHL:
"Welcome to the KHL Robert Lang, where they don’t mind paying big bucks for a guy with a limited skating stride, who just recovered from a torn Achilles, at the age of 38. If he wanted less he’d still be playing in the NHL, and likely Montreal, but it’ll be hard to ignore the financial incentive that Avangard Omsk is giving him."

I guess Eric doesn't remember everyone eating these very words as recently as January. I guess 6 months is a long time when there's always another rumour to invent.

I hope Robert does what's best for Robert. He was a pleasure to watch, and from what I heard a gentleman. Omsk and Jagr might not be such a backwards step as KHL-bashers want to believe.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

2nd Montrealer Named To NHL GM Post

On Monday, Michel Bergeron ran a piece reminding us all to be very proud of Jacques Lemaire and Mario Tremblay for keeping their jobs in the NHL.

When the news arrived today for me, I dug through a piece on Dale Tallon's failings to learn that Stan Bowman was to be named GM of the Chicago Blackhawks. While, I'm sure Michel's article is well in the works celebrating the Montrealers able to climb the GM rankings, I decided I couldn't wait any longer.

Quebec GMs were going out of style like Russian wingers

When Steve Tambellini took over from Kevin Lowe as the GM for the Oilers, the number of Quebec-born GMs fell to a mere four (Cliff Fletcher, Bryan Murray, Francois Giguere and Dale Tallon; Jacques Martin born in an Ottawa suburb, of course). The news got worse when Fletcher was asked to step aside for a louder alternative and Giguere was let go to be replaced by someone from Scranton, PA – a city more renowned for being mocked as dull on TV sitcoms than for raising hockey masterminds.

The Montreal numbers looked worse, where Cliff Fletcher was the last remnant.

All the while, Ontario was plowing along with 11 GMs; there were an embarrassing (to Montreal anyway) 5 GMs from New England, 5 others from the US and a handful from Western Canada. The way Quebec was faring, you'd have thought Trevor Timmins was the leaguewide consultant on GM hirings.

But in late May, the tides began to turn. Doug Riseborough (a man with good Montreal links himself) was let go. He was replaced by Chuck Fletcher, the son of the aforementioned Silver Fox, who himself was born in Montreal way back when his Dad worked for the Habs in the 1960s.

Today, we get news that one Quebec-born GM will be replaced by another as Rouyn-Noranda's (and Toronto's) Dale Tallon will be replaced by Stan Bowman, the son of Montreal Canadiens legend Scotty. His connection to Montreal is even stronger than Chuck's since his days in town went beyond his third birthday – right from 1973 up until the time Irving Grundman took over from Sam Pollock following the 1979 season.

From no Montreal sons running NHL teams to two in a matter of 2 months. It's quite a turn around and one worth sounding the trumpet for.

Frank Selke's heirs

Geographic origins aside, these two appointments are very interesting for other reasons. Both these GMs are young and both are the sons of men who have shaped the NHL for the past four decades or more.

Scotty Bowman needs no introduction to fans of the Canadiens. He is our legendary coach at the NHL level, of course, winning a number of Cups in the 1970s. However, it is often forgot that he also played the part of prospect, scout and minor league coach for the Habs. His first coaching job was beside Sam Pollock with the 56-57 and 57-58 editions of the Ottawa Junior Canadiens. Next he coached the Petereborough Petes (Montreal-affiliated, of course). Finally, he jumped at the chance to make it in the NHL when the St. Louis Blues came calling following expansion. A few Stanley Cup finals later, he was back in Montreal coaching the Habs and naming his son after the trophies he was winning.

Cliff Fletcher was a Montreal boy as well, though his story is less well known in Canadiens lore (probably because his biggest successes came in winning a Cup in Montreal for the opposition and setting up a Maple Leafs team that would overshadow the Habs for most of the late 1990s). His career, though had strange parallels with Scotty's, though not on the ice where he never attained the top junior ranks. Like Scotty, his first coaching assignment came under the watchful eye of Sam Pollock in the late 1950s (then the overseer of all minor league and junior operations for the Canadiens). His duties expanded over the years to scouting, coaching and other player development tasks. By the time expansion came around, Cliff was mature enough and ready to take on bigger roles. His first step was to go to St. Louis like Scotty. And his first promotion was to become assistant GM to Scotty himself – the Montreal Canadiens tandem to outwork the other expansion franchises in those early years to a significant degree. Unlike Scotty, he never returned to Montreal, but instead took his own GM post with the expansion Atlanta Flames in 1971.

So Chuck and Stan not only trace shallow roots to the city of Montreal (like say Bryan Murray who went to school in Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue), but also back to the Montreal Canadiens themselves. Specifically, these two appointments can trace their hockey know how right back to the greatest GM of all time (Frank Selke) and his greatest rival for the title (Sam Pollock). Both sons of Selke employees and Pollock proteges.

It's an interesting development that comes at a time when the NHL needs new ideas and new minds to spice things up a bit. If they've retained even an iota of the wisdom their fathers must have soaked up from the "How to totally outwork and outperform the other NHL GMs" academy they attended in the 1950s and 60s, they'll be in good stead. One can only hope that their experience goes a little bit smoother than that of the man who in a way laid a path for them and all 30-something aspiring GMs – son of former Canadiens player, John Ferguson, Jr.

As for RDS's version of this piece, trust me I'll eagerly await Bergeron's parallel take on Stan Bowman and Chuck Fletcher. I'm sure he'll say something like he did regarding the coaches.

Oh, what the heck, in case he doesn't. We should all be proud of Chuck and Stan, Quebecois and Montrealais. With the departures of Francois Gigere, Kevin Lowe and Cliff Fletcher from the management reins of NHL teams, it's important that some Quebecers hang on and carry the torch for the rest of us.

And long live the Selke line...