Friday, January 22, 2010

How Marc-Andre Bergeron Usurped Georges Laraque

Georges Laraque was dismissed from the Canadiens yesterday in one of the strangest fashions I can recall of any player. Not even Sergei Samsonov, nor Mikhail Grabovski, you recall, was asked to simply be scarce.

But make no mistake, this can't have been a recent call from the boss. Yesterday's move was the culmination of months and months of having Georges on the books, while seeking possible avenues for his use.

In the end, what came to a head was Gainey's need to get some wins out of this team, and Jacques Martin's ties to the GM that hired him. Both men must have puzzled regularly about what to do with the big player who just didn't play big and wasn't really willing to toe a new party line. You could see it in the games where he dressed and played nary a minute beyond the first 8 shifts. When things were important, Georges did not have the mandate.

Gainey must have also tried to trade his winger, but a contract that was always an embarrassment to free agent fishers everywhere and Georges' own near-constant insistence on not fighting did not give the brand much allure. Hamilton not strictly an option because of the clause, was also probably out for wont of unleashing this strong personality on minds he wished formed by new thoughts on the game, not some dizzyingly nonsensical mantras on conduct.

So, Canadiens or bust, it seemed. It seemed because we didn't know of this new option.

Georges ran out of reasons for being a Hab

Commenters rightly look to Georges' inability to muster the will to fight, and also to win any fight he is in as central to this decision. And I say all of that is right. However, we knew all that after 15 games last season. I would suggest that all of those things were big factors, but that the tipping point in this whole affair came back in December, when Gainey's newest signing, Marc-Andre Bergeron, started making his clear place on this team.

Luxury items

Big Georges was and always has been a luxury item. A team that has a fighter nowadays counts itself among 15 teams that hold to the Don-Cherry-honoured tradition of the first 75 years of this league. Fighters never played much, many (most) never did more than Georges did this season – play a few minutes and have a punch up for the fans.

The thing is, teams can only carry so many luxuries. The Canadiens were carrying a few. A defenceman who's really only useful on the PP, another whose abilities don't extend far beyond the PK, a fighter who plays 5 minutes, etc.

Marc-Andre Bergeron came on board as a stop-gap for Andrei Markov. He did a nice job trying. But the day Markov came back, Bergeron had won himself a place by a) results, and b) a willingness to do whatever was asked. That day, when Bergeron could have been sent to Hamilton as we'd predicted, but wasn't – he became a luxury piece for Jacques Martin.

As luxury items go, Bergeron had made himself into a much more valuable one than Laraque. On a winning team, perhaps both are kept on board. On a struggling team, no such luxury.

Scaring them into fair play

Reporters like Norman Flynn, still confused about whether he should show full allegiance to Laraque or not, question whether a team can succeed without an enforcer. This despite seeing the Red Wings in 2 consecutive Cup finals, the Penguins winning after they jettisoned their own dead weight and the team he covers perform at their recent pinnacle in 2007-08 without a "dur a cuire".

Their theory is built on the sand foundation that you should dress a fighter to scare the opposition into behaving. If they haven't learned anything in 2 years, I can't help them, but we could all see the holes in this theory with the experiment that began 18 months ago.

What those same reporters need to understand is this: many players around the league, many who do take liberties aren't afraid to take a punch – not if it means winning a game. I can tell you what players are afraid of: losing their wins, losing their shifts and losing their jobs.

If teams do take liberties, there will be penalties (at least some of the time). And I can tell you, those opposing coaches may be intimidation enough between periods once they've seen Markov passing freely to Gomez and Plekanec. In fact, apart from teams that are poorly run and coached (so I guess I concede Flynn's point about Toronto), I can't see many taking great liberties in illegal play. As for legal pushing around, what was Big Georges ever going to do? Ask Gaustad and Peters not to? He is long past his days of usefulness as a rough player.

The number one PP in the league is the best enforcer there is nowadays. Marc-Andre Bergeron is fully complicit in making this intimidatory force into what it currently is. His shot is almost indefensible and unpredictable enough to give great rebounds as well.

When the Canadiens PP was ticking at 11%, there may have been an argument to instigate a fight following a crosscheck. Not when thanks to MAB, it's clicking near a quarter.

Friend of the media

It sounds silly to say, but one of the things that must have kept Georges Laraque from this end earlier in the year when his unbelievably wonky back kept him from playing hockey (but not finding cameras) is that he was one of a perilously small group of Quebecois players on the team. While it clearly doesn't matter to most real fans (though we'd be happy with more home-town stars, talent permitting), RDS broadcasts these games, RDS does better content when Renaud Lavoie doesn't have to translate, RDS want French speaking players for their audience.

As one of three, and the talkative one, he had value to the broadcasters and with such power, value to the team by consequence. When Bergeron came in, he tipped the balances a bit. 4 local players, and what was clearly starting to be a diminishing number of reporters who would ignore hockey to take up that sideshow. Immediately Georges value was reduced. Half a season of interviews with a "player" commenting on his view from the bench, his value bottomed out, even here.

Marc-Andre isn't the most off-the-wall guy, but as hockey players go, he's more interesting than most. He speaks his mind, and he doesn't rattle cliches. Over time, here too, he began to take Georges mandate and keep it for himself.

Salut Georges

Today we play a hockey game, and the games of off days are back to the sidelines. Bergeron will start on Georges 4th line, a better 4th line maybe.

I want to wish Laraque well. He seems like a nice guy, and I respect his incessant energy for children, justice and charity. I don't see a hockey career in his future, nor do I think his talents are suited to hockey anymore. The guy has charisma, energy and passion in other arenas now that will serve him very well in new fields, I'm sure. It won't hurt to have a $3 million starter fund to find his feet with, either.

Salut Georges, I'd say we'll miss you, but i have a sneaking feeling you'll be around to make sure we won't.

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