Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lions In Winter Forecaster

A while back (you can tell by the players I thought would be around), the coordinator of the Score Sports Federation contacted all us NHL bloggers and asked that we make a contribution to the 2009 Score Sports Forecaster.

Always game to get my word in about the Habs, I happily contributed. For poolies like myself, you'll be interested to know that The Forecaster is now available on newsstands across Canada. If you want some fantasy predictions against which to weigh your own, then I recommend it. Also, you won't want to miss the blogger's section – Down Goes Brown rarely disappoints...

For those who are interested, here are the questions I was faced with and the answers I provided.

1. What lesson(s) did you learn about your team in 2008-09?

2008-09 was a year of learning for Canadiens fans. We learned that we can't keep losing players in free agency for nothing, that our prospects are not as good as they may have been billed (yet) and that our player development at the NHL level needs a major overhaul (bye bye Carbo).

But it wasn't all negative. This season we also learned that the Canadiens organization will now be a bona fide playoff team again – if not yet a conference leader. They piled up points in the good times when injuries were few and opponents and games were easier. They recovered from a few major hiccups along the way. They managed through two months of porous goaltending. And, most importantly, they got it done in the latter stages.

Looking back now, things have certainly taken on a new light with all the changes. Apparently we can keep losing free agents – but not for nothing, since we gain others. I think Gainey learned a couple of the lessons I mentioned too, particularly that of player development – as he has clearly tried to improve on that front (Melanson, Livingston, Jarvis, Carbonneau all out and Martin's crew in).

2. What particular statistic reveals something about a notable team strength or weakness? (For example, you could include your team Save Percentage and explain that it indicates that your team needs to upgrade their goaltending)

Tomas Plekanec: 19 assists

Tomas was supposed to be our second-line centre. But playing on a line with Kovalev and Kostitsyn for large parts of the season (26 and 23 goal men), he only managed 19 assists. Tomas' statistic is symptomatic of a team whose forwards don't pass well between each other ("cycle" is a bad word in Montreal). For each goal scored by a forward, there was 1.26 assists, putting Montreal at 28th in the league in this category. More worrying than that is that the assist leaders among the forwards are all UFAs, leaving Plekanec the top man among the rest.

This stat will have to be turned around, and not just by Tomas, but by Latendresse, Higgins, Lapierre and Kostitsyn who all scored more than they provided. A little more cooperation up front would go a long way to making the team harder to defend against.

I stick by this Plekanec statistic. Call it chemistry if you want, but our 1a/b centre garnering a mere 19 assists when he was never really injured is not good. The total blow out of that line, or rather other teams' abilities to smother them was integral to our shortcomings. That said, save percentage in January and February was a close runner up.

3. Which player on your team do you feel fantasy hockey players should keep an eye on because you think he might have a breakout season in 09-10?

With a new coach, a system that will defend him from quality shots and a vote of confidence as the #1 goalie in Montreal, Carey will have a better fantasy season than last year. I expect him to start as many as 60 games and win at least half. Add to that the fact the Canadiens under Jacques Martin should be much better than a 2 shutout team and you have a far bigger fantasy season from Price.

For everything I say about Price and for all my reservations, I will say this – if your league awards goalie points by wins and shutous, Carey Price will see a jump. He can't be demoted, he's even more anointed this year than last and the Canadiens should allow less goals with their changes. Will he be a better goalie? That's anyone's guess, but that wasn't the question.

4. Do you expect your team to make the playoffs next season? How far do you think they can go in the post-season, and what they need to do to get there?

I think the Habs will make the playoffs again in 2009-10. Not only that, I believe they'll win some games and rounds when they get there – at least one.

But as we saw last year, predictions are conditional on things being right. For the Canadiens to make the playoffs and win some rounds they absolutely need a healthy Andrei Markov. Their goaltending will have to be reliable, though will not need to be excellent. And importantly, the team will have to ensure they have a varied point of attack going into the post-season (i.e., more than one line firing at once).

Neck on the line here. But did I add enough caveats or what? If they play like last year's team in spring, I'm free from this prediction – not very brave. Now that it's nearly September, I have to say that there is encouragement to be taken from how teams in the East have moved. Most below have done nothing or made more questionable moves than us. Those above haven't blown anyone away either.

Still, if things are right enough by season's end, I think a playoff scalp should be ours, no sweat.

5. How many points will your team get and where will they place in their division and conference?

101 points: 2nd in the Northeast, 5th in the Eastern conference.

I'm pretty confident about the 101 points. But where this places us is anyone's best guess. That total can give you from 1st to 7th. But placement doesn't really matter too much. If you come first with 101 points, you can be sure there are 7 teams right behind you just as good as us in the Eastern conference playoff draw. If the Habs are 7th with 101 points, they'll have proven already they can be reckoned with.

I chose 5th as it would be nice to avoid the Bruins, just for variety. I don't think 2 teams from the Northeast will beat us, in which case 5th is Bruins free territory, guaranteed...

I'd be interested to know how all of you would have answered the same questions. Let us know what you think...

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