Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Canadiens Expectations Abound

Expectations are a funny thing.

This time of year is a time of little other than expectation for hockey fans. We expect some news finally. We expect a rookie or two to impress. We expect our team to meet our most optimistic projections from the months we worked ourselves into total believers again.

There was a very good piece about expectations today from JT at The H Does Not Stand For Habs. JT this time is fretting about Cammalleri's comments to the press, in which he came out like a Daniel Alfredsson and stated his very positive aspirations.

JT suggests that nothing good can come fo comments like these, and that young Mikey should have kept his comments to the generally accepted script. I very much agree with JT that expectations from the media and fans are very important in how the eventual seasons of players on the Canadiens turn out. I agree about Cammalleri. I agree with the head down approach she suggests, complete with a cliche-only approach to interviews can guarantee some respite.

Despite my agreement here, I don't think it ultimately it will protect the players from the media (and blogging) hounds. Yes, a quote from September about 40 goals can be brought out during that prolonged January slump, but it's only colour to the criticism. I'd suggest that Higgins would have been criticised for another 22 goal effort even if he'd said he could score 27 that season.

There are of course precedents here. Brian Savage, Mr. October himself, never once said he was a potential thirty goalscorer, yet seasons of 25+ made him that in our minds. In reality, Savage was a 23-26 goal man – but since no such tag exists in our lingo we expected more rather than accepted less.

Expectations for this season

Based on progress

A classic case of expectations based on the assumption of continual linear progress is Maxim Lapierre.

Poor Max did nothing other than play his heart out, chip in a few timely goals and generally look best when things were going badly for just about everyone else in February. He didn't speak out of turn. He didn't state his astronomical goals of becoming a 30-goal man. Yet those expectations are certainly there.

A week or two ago, Tobalev (or Tobedetermined if you prefer) mused on the topic of Canadiens all around goal scoring for the upcoming season. Quite sensibly, I thought, he used recent history to make a projection of total team goals. He then went through the roster allocating goals out with scientific care. That day and the following days, many comments came back from you readers, and if I had to pick the predominant theme, it was that Maxim Lapierre would certainly score more than 7 goals.

When we got down to it, it was pretty clear that expectations were for Max to match his season totals from last year, even to surpass them.

Now I don't want to weigh in on Max at this point (don't worry our season previews will put our prediction neck's on the line for that), I just wanted to reference the expectations that clearly exist.

In reality, history shows us that it is folly to expect progress to be linear. Though we grudgingly do accept the premise of a sophomore slump, the idea that a 4th year player could improve his game while his totals decline seems otherworldly to some. But that is, in fact, what does happen in many cases. A season of explosive progress is not often succeeded by another – I'd say a stabilisation after that would be victory enough, actually.

I think it may be important to keep this in mind so that we can rein in some of the expectations we have set for players like Max, Josh Gorges, even Andrei Markov.

Based on salary

Another big one for us this year is the expectation that players on big salaries will be big players.

It's easy to see why people leap to this conclusion, after all salary is roughly linked to performance. Unfortunately for those of us who support teams that boast Brian Gionta and Roman Hamrlik we must remember the performance it correlates most closely with is that of the past.

Paying a player $7 million, $5 million or even $3 million says nothing about how that player might perform. In fact, as a fan whose hopes rest with a single trophy handed out on the ice, not in Las Vegas, then I would suggest it doesn't even matter.

Salary, as I see it, is a means to an end. If I want to build a contender as a GM, I have $50 odd million with which to do it. So long as I get the pieces I need to do it under the budget, should anyone care less about where the money goes on payday? What I mean is, if we can get our goaltending for $3 million all told, it shouldn't matter that we have to slightly over pay to get Brian Gionta, who is only a slightly better player than Alex Tanguay. A slightly better player might get that winning goal in Boston. $2.5 million in the Molsons' account, no matter how much they wish it could, will never buy a Cup for this city.

Based on blind hope

The final expectation is one I've been a bit quiet about recently. However, it has to be said that a lot of the expectation for our team this year is not so solidly founded on a healthy dose of positive thinking.

The players I'm referring to here, of course, are the goalies. Carey Price, in particular. No reminder is needed about our finish to the season last year, with the two young goalies taking a place at centre stage. Yet this summer, all is rosy again. Many predictions I see say things like Carey Price will be better. The Canadiens goaltending will improve.

I hope that those guys are right. But let's admit there's not much basis to what they're saying beyond – they'll be better because I don't think they could be worse.

I think this expectation is the worst type. And it's worse when it's shared by our general manager. It's akin to the gambler who lurks behind the in-use slot machines watching to see if they'll pay out. Selecting those machines that haven't paid out in ages seems like a plan, but we all know it just comes down to utter chance in the end.

My expectations

When it comes to my expectations, I try to steer as much away from the methods mentioned above as possible. Through a combination of stats-gazing, impressions and what I hope is good sense, I try to form an expectation of the season that is reasonable.

This season, I've gone on record with the score about the Canadiens being in the playoff picture, and I even suggested a jump in points from last season to somewhere in the 100 range. After that, I haven't gone any further. Will Carey Price be getting those 40 wins? I don't know. Will Gomez be setting up the most goals? No idea.

Give me 100 points, and despite the complaints, the rants, the fretting, you should know that come April, I'll have enjoyed the ride.

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