Monday, September 14, 2009

Only Cliches Can Stop Habs Now

Season previews and predictions have been coming out for a while now. Most magazines are happy enough to trot out last season's standings and pass it off as an expert analysis. Some more daring media actually shift teams up and down based on very little hockey and very much speculation.

TSN is the latest to chime in with their preview of the Canadiens.

Some of my peers have been offended by the #18 that the national broadcaster assigned to the Habs this season. But, while #18 isn't flattering, the fact they put 7 Eastern teams behind the Canadiens merely says what we've all be saying all along anyway – playoff credentials, not conference leaders. Predictably, they also opt for the West as the strong conference, despite a poor showing last year.

As previews go, TSN's is actually quite a positive spin on the Canadiens situation. After all, while all of us supporting the team have taken daily doses of reflection to get to grips with what happened in July; most outsiders have not put such an effort into looking at what Gainey accomplished. For most, the change is seen as massive, the uncertainty enormous. It's easy to see the hesitation.

Jeff Blair of the Globe and Mail gives what I can only assume is a pretty widespread take on July in Montreal hockeydom, as he attempts to rationalize how his GM could pry a team with Hagman/Grabovski/Blake on the top (not fourth) line into the playoffs:
The Montreal Canadiens have loaded up on a bunch of overpriced, miscellaneous parts and moved out some big personalities and big talents and - let's face it - Carey Price needs to win often and win early.

He can't be faulted for thinking that. But is he right?

A little while ago, I started putting together an article about one of a number of doomsday articles I was seeing at the time about the Montreal Canadiens in 2009-10. I don't know who the author is, I've never read anything else he's written and probably never will again. I didn't pick on him because he was misleading millions, I picked on him because he had the gall to publish the article entitled: The Montreal Canadiens Will Fail, with rather blunt conclusion:
"The Montreal Canadiens have punched their ticket to failure."

Are the Habs doomed to fail?

I have no problem with people stating opinions as to why the Canadiens, or any other team for that matter, will succeed or fail before the season. But when I read the articles and arguments with such unequivocal conclusions, I expect some level of sensible argumentation to follow.

Instead what I tend to find is a laundry list of cliches that might have been spouted by a third-line grinder in an intermission interview: too small, no chemistry, no leadership, losing their best shot blocker, etc. Frankly, it's embarrassing that people sit down and write those things. I'm embarrassed to tell you I've read some of them from beginning to end. It seems, dear Habs fans that only cliches can stop us now. here are some of the best ones I've seen from around:

Overpriced, miscellaneous parts

Even someone from Toronto should know by now that salary has nothing to do with anything. The fact that we have the luxury of taking on Scott Gomez's salary because of clever manoeuvering with other players like Gorges, Kostitsyn and Price/Halak has nothing to do with the difference Gomez will make to the team.

Yes, Gomez is doomed to score less than his salary demands; but how does he replace Koivu? The answer isn't finalised, but 2 Cups, a Calder trophy and leading the league in assists twice says that he will likely be just as effective as an offensive force. Similarly, Cammalleri to replace Tanguay and Gionta to replace Kovalev.

The miscellaneous comment makes more sense, but considering Gainey needed so many replacements, he did well to get so many who had played with each other already.

Too small

This old chestnut? While the Canadiens didn't set their minds to getting bigger at the expense of good signings, because their young players coming through are bigger than their former teammates, a certain amount of leeway could be afforded. Also, to be fair, the defensive 7 have gotten a lot bigger over the past 18 months – Mara, Gill, O'Byrne replace Brisebois, Komisarek, Bouillon.

Besides, being too small is nothing compared to the actual problems of the Canadiens come pressure games in the past two seasons – allowing too many chances and creating too few. Gainey did some homework here and picked up players in the upper ranks of league shooting tables, as well as some defencemen who can easily do better than nightmare Komisarek.

Chemistry lessons

As engrossing as this argument may seem, a quick look at what Gainey actually did can quickly deflate this.

First, Gainey subtracted one first line and substitutes another. Gomez and Gionta have played seasons together (NHL and outside) and have some chemistry to build on. The issue becomes how Cammalleri and Kostitsyn fit with the top two centres. Kostitsyn wasn't enjoying good chemistry last year anyway, so any new substrates are welcome here (Gomez?) and Cammalleri has already showed he can reproduce 80-point form in different environments.

Cammalleri won't be anything without Iginla

Again, sounds really great. But we don't have to take someone's assumption at face value because it sounds sensible (not very scientific...). Cammalleri actually did play without Iginla last season (gasp). In 407 minutes apart, offensive potency suffered less than you'd expect actually (3.10 GF/60 vs. 3.60 GF/60) – and even though he clearly thrives with Jarome, over 3.00 GF/60 shows he's still an elite offensive force without him.

Of course, we knew that didn't we? He'd already put up 80 points in LA with Derek Armstrong and Frolov.

Incidentally, we also know a thing or two about how players can make due without Iginla. Alex Tanguay put up great offensive numbers in Montreal despite missing his Calgary linemate.

Jacques Martin is a failure of a coach

He certainly isn't the guy you want to go into the playoffs against a Gary Roberts led opponent with, that's for sure. But barring that massive blip on his resume, the criticism is a little harsh.

The 10th most games coached, to go with the 10th highest wins and points totals in NHL history speak to some competency at this level. Those credentials certainly don't make me think he'll do any worse than the run of coaches we've had here for nearly 20 years now.

Montreal's changes aren't a step forward

I happen to think they could be, but I also think that's irrelevant. Montreal's moves can't be looked at in isolation – they must be evaluated in the context of what every other rival has done. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: relative to most teams in the East, Montreal has improved – even if their moves don't mean an absolute improvement of this team vs. last year's team. Enough teams have stalled, done nothing or even come out of the summer at a net loss in the East for me to think differently.

So you see nothing to worry about – even our critics can't come up with any new reasons for us to worry. So long as they work hard, get the puck deep, put shots on net and create traffic, no cliche should be strong enough to topple this bunch in their quest for 18th...

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