Gorges – Mara
The man who reminded us that there is more to trading than shedding salary at the deadline had a good year last season. Here's why:
The word progress was more often than not associated with the word "stunted" last season than the words "Canadiens prospect", but Josh Gorges was the exception. From a bit part player in San Jose, and then Montreal in 2007, he has shown steady movement towards being a top 4 defenceman in he league. It shows in his offensive numbers, ice time, his lower PIMs per ice time and his +/-.
While not technically the team high, it is really the most impressive plus/minus on the Canadiens from last season. Unlike Tanguay (+13) who missed each minute of the rough times, Gorges battled through February and still came out with this great stat. Normally I think +/- is too simplistic and not worth a second thought, but in the context of such a dismal second half, such a high +/- in Gorges case really does stand out.
You don't get a 2.92 GF/60 as a defenceman without having some skill. Nor do you pile up 19 assists. Last season, Gorges was given the chance to play a bigger role and he did so with aplomb. He showed us how having two defencemen who can pass is better than one. He showed us that Markov has more offense in him than we thought (when unshackled from backwards passing partners).
We all naturally expect progress to continue for ever more, and that would be nice. However, even if Gorges stalls at his 2008-09 level for the rest of his career, we have a good defenceman on our hands. It will be interesting to see how Martin's system affects him – a player who was already trying to play intelligent defence in the old regime.
Tobalev on Gorges:
Josh started last season where he had left off the year before. He was becoming the unsung hero of the defensive corps; a title long held by Francis Bouillon. His unexpected play as a 6th defenceman earned him a spot in fans’ hearts and also a spot in the team’s top-4. About midway through last season, however, the team (and fans alike) were asking too much of the kid. All of a sudden he was on the PP, he was out for more key situations and his ice-time was sky-rocketing. No longer was he the solid 14-16 minute man on the third pairing; no, now we expected a lot from our new #3. It all seemed too much for Josh to handle as his play (especially in our own end) only got worse as the season went on. He did finish the year with a career-high in points (23), but most of the other aspects of his game had gone south.
With any luck (and good coaching), Josh will be asked to be a #5 this year. The additions of Mara and Spacek should make that a reality and because of it I believe Josh will excel. He is the perfect type of player that can step in, when needed, onto a top-2 pairing, but, on a healthy team, should be playing less than 18 minutes. His offensive numbers will surely take a hit this year which is why I only expect between 10-17 points. Defensively, however, is where I expect to see Josh at his best. I would like to see a +15 season, but wouldn’t be surprised for one bit if he surpassed the +20 mark. I think that he represents the next generation of fresh-faced Habs and I am looking forward to him being a leader on this team for years to come.
Where Gorges will start 2009-10: 5th defenceman
Where Gorges will end 2009-10: 5th defenceman estraordinaire
Points: 3 G, 13 A, 16 Pts
Prior to his signing, what I knew of Paul Mara was drawn from the two seasons I had selected him in my hockey pool. The first time I was fortunate enough to take Paul, he had one of his outlying 40+ point seasons. Suffice to say, I was pleased enough to spend another pick on him, this time in 2007-08, where I was met with disappointment. Between those two experiences and his stats here, I think there's a picture to be painted of a player who's progressed from offensive prodigy to reliable-enough 5/6th guy:
1) Low turnovers
In 76 games last season, Mara committed 13 giveaways. Per 60 minutes that translates to 0.5 giveaways an hour – pretty good and good enough for 7th in the league. The heartening thing is that while last year was outstanding for Paul in that regard, he has shown a history for it. His 0.99/60 the year previous and 1.15/60 in 2006-07 would also be in the top 10-12% of the league's Dmen.
2) Little big man
Not the typical big man, by his stats, it seems that Mara has a way of staying out of the way of the puck. His blocked shots totals seem consistently quite low compared to what we've seen from the Habs. It may be a difference in coaching philosophy. It may also be that Mara is not the man to put himself in the lane (other stats show his teammates blocked a fair number when he was on the ice).
3) Loved Lundqvist
While Mara's stats look like a real pleasure compared to some of our team's own from last season, one shouldn't discount the role that Lundqvist played in making them so. Expected save % is a stat that shows what a save percentage would be if the average goalie faced the shots that each goalie faced (based on shot position and average shooting percentages from those positions). Henrik Lundqvist last season had the third lowest expected save % in the NHL last season (for goalies with more than 5 games action), the worst was his back-up. The positive for the Rangers was that Lundqvist turned that 0.890 expected rate to a 0.913 percentage in real play – the 5th best improvement in the league. So, that shiny green 2.04 GA/60 is a lot lower than you'd expect from Mara with a below average ability to prevent chances. Combine that with the fact that Lundqvist on average faced harder shots than other goalies, and you can understand why Mara owes a lot of his new contract to King Henrik.
While Mara could crash back to earth playing in front of a more average goalie, there is hope he could excel as well. His low turnovers and proven ability to pass should match well with Gorges. And the Martin system, not too much of a departure from the Renney system should help. If now he can just turn down the penalties another notch, he'll complete the transition to a guy we're happy not to notice.
Tobalev on Mara
Mara is part one of Gainey’s plan to get bigger and stronger in our own end. At 6’4” he towers over players like Schneider, Bouillon and Brisebois. His size, I believe, is the best thing going for him and is probably the reason he always seems so sought after. He did manage 21 points and a +2 rating in New York last year which aren’t bad numbers considering the circumstances. His career -95 does scare me a bit, but to be fair to him he has been on some pretty weak teams. He has proven over the last few years that he is offensively capable, but is quite content playing in a more defensive role.
Mara, at his best, can be a #3, but on this version of the Habs will be a #5. To tell you the truth as a #5 man I am quite alright with this pick-up. He is big enough and tough enough that he should be able to settle things down a little better than some of our former rearguard. His career 0.37 PPG shows that, when needed, he could probably get the job done up front too. I see Paul playing an entire season on either the 2nd or 3rd pairing; he is a decent enough skater that 18-21 minutes/game are not out of the question. I also expect about 18-24 points and a positive season in the +/- department. He won’t be a flashy player for us, but if he does exactly what we expect of him the fans should have no problems with him.
Where Mara will start 2009-10: With uncertainty
Where Mara will end 2009-10: A solid place in the top 6 every night
Points: 3 G, 16 A, 19 Pts
As a pairing
Yesterday, I promised I would explain myself in this article. And clearly there does need to be explanation, since both Gorges and Mara look far better defenders on paper than O'Byrne.
As I stated yesterday, the "second pairing" was really the Hamrlik pairing – whatever their ice time ends up being. Last season Gorges and Hamrlik played together a lot, and both players came out worse for wear. repeating that experiment unnecessarily would seem silly. So that then left me with a Hamrlik pairing and a Gorges pairing to work out. Hamrlik and O'Byrne actually played well together so that info goes in, and from this profile, it seemed to me that Gorges likes a player that can handle himself and the puck on the ice. He played well with Markov, Bouillon and Schneider, but badly with Hamrlik, Komisarek and O'Byrne. Given the choices that left Mara – who we now know is not your typical big man.
The pairing is actually quite an exciting proposition for me. Given a regulated number of minutes and a clear brief, I think that Gorges and Mara could well develop into the second pairing and certainly the one Jacques would feel comfortable putting on the ice when a lead has to be held or play is tight.
Statistics adapted from nhl.com, behindthenet.ca, Olivier