Sunday, November 22, 2009

Laraque The Irrelevant

I think I join Dennis Kane in saying "Georges has to admit he hurt his team last night".

About 8:30 into the first period against the Red Wings, Georges Laraque put on a display of irresponsible play and (yes, Don Cherry) complete lack of respect for his fellow competitors. It's a sequence of play that didn't endear him to teammates and has him in the NHL disciplinary dock today to defend himself.

The first incident (seen in the video below) shows how Laraque in attempting to cover the pass lets the puck by him, choosing instead to unleash a slash on Darren Helm. The slash being high caught Helm across the face, was perhaps unfortunate (certainly for Laraque it was) but nothing but a slash was intended from the motion.

The second incident, and the one of the controversy, sees Laraque caught out by his slow feet and poor positioning again. This time, knowing he's in the box for a slash, he opts for the "safer" trip option to end the Wings threat. The problem being that Kronwall, the skilled player in this confrontation, saw the check and maneuvered around the oaf. Laraque in reaction sticks his knee way out and gives one of those hits that makes players just watching on TV cringe.

The result for Laraque was 6 minutes of penalties. For Helm, it was a sore face. And for Kronwall a high grade knee sprain.

The play, apart from leaving me feeling quite ashamed, in the end left me with only one question: what is this guy even doing on our team?

The irrelevance of Georges Laraque is a question that has been around for some time. His relevance must surely be in question again. The fact that Detroit chose to respond to the intimidation and thuggery dished out by Laraque with 2 PP goals, no penalties (Abdelkader's was a dud) and a win speaks volumes about Laraque himself. No one thought it necessary to fight Laraque because fighting Laraque counts for nothing in the standings. Fighting is not down in the NHL, but the staged fighting that Laraque offers as his only redeeming quality is certainly on the wane. Some teams, like ubiquitous front runners Detroit and New Jersey just don't fight at all. League leaders San Jose just have a tough team. The point being, aside from the odd team, Laraque doesn't have many opponents against whom he has use.

No intimidation

The biggest shout from all Laraque supporters is always that Georges is a great, no the best, deterrent against teams roughing up the regular Canadiens in the NHL. I have to say, there was a brief time when I bought this theory – it was the time before I saw our team in action with Georges there.

Last year, we examined the Laraque issue in the fall, just after his failures to do anything in consecutive games to prevent intimidation tactics from opponents. Our verdict then (and it hasn't changed) is that:

"A player that can't play, can't hit, won't stand up for teammates unless it's organised the day before, doesn't scare anyone"

I think two moments that epitomised Georges Laraque's irrelevance last fall were the vicious hit on Andrei Kostitsyn and Milan Lucic running wild against all comers.

In the Kostitsyn case, Georges did fight. He fought Todd Fedoruk nearly a full period after the transgression. Too bad he couldn't fight Kurt Sauer, the player who transgressed as he was not in his league. That intimidation was left to Tom Kostopoulos, who promptly lost the fight for Andrei's honour. Georges won his fight. But who did he intimidate? Not Fedoruk who earns his pay by not being intimidated. Not Sauer, who only learned there would be nothing to fear from Big Georges for certain.

In the Lucic case, the Boston player was just being his usual charming self all over the ice. And, while nothing he did was (too) illegal, he was causing havoc for the fear he struck into the likes of Bouillon, Gorges and co. as Boston walked the puck into the net 6 times. After a couple of big hits on Komisarek in particular, it might have been nice had Big Georges stepped in and told the little one to settle down. He didn't. Instead, Komisarek had to be a big boy and fight his own battle. It was the fight where he lost use of his shoulder, and perhaps more importantly his mojo, as he was trounced by the 20-year-old in mere seconds. Lucic like Sauer learns in no uncertain terms after the game that he has nothing at all to fear from Laraque, because Laraque asks people to fight, and if they decline (no matter their actions in that game) he relents.

Is anyone scared of this guy anymore?

Really, the revelation that players were beyond Laraque's remit was only his first step towards total and utter irrelevance.

The next sign that he may be on his last NHL contract (woe, that it be on our team...) was that no one really seemed to be afraid of the big guy anymore anyway. This season has been a case in point. While the non-fighters quite happily go about their business of grappling and taking liberties with our regulars (hello Calgary), even the fighters don't seem to worry anymore about the prospect of the hulking #17 bearing down on them with a fight RSVP. You only have to watch:

This fight was judged by the regular readers of to be a draw, though narrowly. The important thing for me, is not that Laraque used his judo takedown to end the fight, but that Colton Orr happily landed more punches, did not alter his play after the fact and was the one smiling after the bout. Orr had won the battle because he didn't lose. Orr had won because he showed he wasn't to be intimidated.

In this, Georges' second fight of the season, Laraque was cleanly beaten. If Georges was the heavyweight champ of the NHL, this fight would have seen Erskine walking away with the belt. Georges, the instigator by the way, didn't land a punch, nor did he look to be able to. Instead all he did was take. Erskine walks away from this knowing he can go about his business since he can defend himself perfectly well.

Few fights

Besides the fact he doesn't intimidate, it seems that Georges may have got it into his head that he is here to play hockey for some reason. Goodness knows why a player of his ilk would think that. The evidence is in the frequency of his fighting. This season, we're talking about two fights over 10 games. Last season, it was 9 fights over 33 games. That's a whole lot of hockey player Georges. Not a lot of goon/big "scary" Georges.


Apart from all this, the guy is a walking injury. Whether it's his back, a hangnail, his shoulder, a shiver, his knees or inadvertent meat ingestion, Laraque always finds a way to be out of the picture.

Now, I don't complain in these instances. But, what it means is that the Canadiens can't even count on Laraque when they might need him. When he is healthy we get a run of games against Washington and Detroit (who don't subscribe to his brand of hockey anyway) and then he nurses his sore back when we might use him.

Habs worse off

In the same way you can show Markov's positive effect on the team, so too can one show Laraque is not a catalyst for success.

The sentimentalists don't need a reminder about the 2007-08 enforcer-less team who battled their way to first in the East with a 47-25-10 record. A team that was able to beat the Bruins 8 times in the regular season and 12 times in 15 tries overall, and the Flyers 4 times in the year and ended up being put down by Briere's passing, Umberger's glove hand aim and Biron's goaltending, rather than any suspension-worthy play.

Take that same team forward a year, with some changes and you get a team with a drop-off to 41-30-11. Dissect this to a with Laraque/ without Laraque level and you get 14-14-5 vs. 27-16-6. Now it's a bit silly to start blaming Laraque for the woes of last season at this point, but I still found it to be an interesting coincidence.

Fast forward to the current season and it's the same sort of story – Georges may not be the root of all evil, yet the team strangely seems to get on better without him. It's 4-5-1 with him in the lineup vs. 7-6-0 without him around.

The place where one might have expected Laraque to wield most influence – the playoffs – was perhaps one place where he showed his irrelevance most. While Game 1 against Boston ended on a chippy note with the Habs showing great life and energy for the fight, the next 3 games were largely washouts. Yet no game-changing fight was forthcoming from Georges. Even given the opportunity all he did was get roughing penalties when Boston came knocking. In fact, his impact in the series was mostly felt through his chance sapping play on the first line as Boston played disciplined hockey that he never once really tried to disrupt.

Bring on the suspension

Disrepute, slow legs, underwhelming return on his mandate. I for one will be looking on at the verdict of the NHL hearing for Georges Laraque today in anticipation. I only hope the NHL may be able to do what both management and the coaches haven't been able to – find a way to get Georges Laraque out of the Habs lineup.

The less irrelevant players we can dress among the 19 from this point forward, the better.

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