Monday, April 19, 2010

Leading The Habs Through Ups And Downs

Veteran leadership is a term bandied about quite a bit this time of year. I find it funny, actually, as with so many clichés; few people actually stop to think what they are talking about.

Take this year’s Canadiens, for example. How many times have you heard the name Hal Gill when those quotesters are talking up experience? If you’re like me, the answer is too often. Hal Gill is a veteran, and he has had a long career with quite a lot of playoff experience, right? Well does he? We assume: he’s old, he’s seen it all. But has he? We mustn't assume.

A lot has been written (good and bad) about the coach. I have to say I am not delighted with his in-game adaptation, but I also think too much is expected from coaching tweaks. At the end of the day, I really think shifts in attitude, momentum, energy have to come from on the ice. With a lot of nervous and tentative guys up and down the lineup, we look then to veterans to provide here.

Veteran leadership I would value on a team would probably come from a player that has a combination of experience (i.e., lots of game 3s or game 7s) and some demonstration that the “leader” has learned something from the repeat exposure (i.e., winning some of those series). The other thing I consider to be important is the notion that at some stage the player suggesting himself a leader now played some leadership role in what happened to him in the past. Matt Duchene, laughing all the way to the series victory for example, probably isn’t grasping all the lessons from his team’s run that someone who realizes things can go differently would be.

In looking down the Canadiens lineup, there are plenty of player who have been in the playoffs. This is a first step. However, while this is great when a rookie needs to be coached that tomorrow will come after a playoff game, it doesn’t mean much more. Within that group, there are also players who’ve won playoff games, won playoff series, won two in a row, a Cup.

Relevant experience

Ahead of tonight’s game, for the first year in long memory without Koivu, the question is who does the team look to for reassurance, for guidance. It’s easy to spew off veteran names, but are they all pertinent here? In wanting to sort this out for myself, I’ve started to lay it out for you as well.

Among he vets with relatively successful playoff experience (not Hamrlik), I had a look to see who has ever lived a 1-1 scenario.

Scott Gomez: 9 series – 7 wins, 2 losses
Brian Gionta: 4 series – 2 wins, 2 losses
Hal Gill: 4 series – 1 win, 3 losses
Jaroslav Spacek: 2 series – 2 wins
Andrei Markov: 4 series – 2 wins, 2 losses

As you can see, Gill despite a wealth of playoff games and two consecutive Stanley Cup finals hasn’t actually outlived everyone in this scenario. In fact, his Pittsburgh experience adds nothing to the opening split, and most of his knowledge with this scenario comes from before the turn of the millennium.

Gomez, on the other hand, his tenth straight season in the playoffs, has seen this all before and seems to have a grasp of how to win from here.

I wouldn’t discount Hal’s influence here, but suffice to say that a player who can say: “1-1, ha. I’ve been in 9 series where we ended tied 1-1 and won 7. I know what we need to do.” Is of great value to the youngsters.

I think we can all agree at this point, however, that 1-1 is not the breaking point for this team. The outcome of Game 3, whatever it is might cause a scenario of discomfort. That’s when experience will really begin to pay off.

If it’s a win, the vets seem to have it covered. Records from 1-1 to 2-1 in series terms look like this:

Scott Gomez: 5 series – 5 wins
Brian Gionta: 2 series – 1 win, 1 loss
Hal Gill: 0 series
Jaroslav Spacek: 2 series – 2 wins
Andrei Markov: 2 series – 1 win, 1 loss

Combined vets (8 wins, 2 losses)

From a loss, it looks like this:

Scott Gomez: 4 series – 2 wins, 2 losses
Brian Gionta: 2 series – 1 win, 1 loss
Hal Gill: 4 series: 1 win, 3 losses
Jaroslav Spacek: 0 series
Andrei Markov: 2 series – 1 win, 1 loss

Combined vets (4 wins, 7 losses)

Keep this in mind as you wade your way through the stats on Game 3 that are due to flood your screens and your minds tonight. Win or lose there will be experience in the room to rally from it. Enough players have lost from 2-1 or won from 1-2 to know it’s not over after this game. Enough players have played enough games to know that life is easier if you get your wins in the bank, though.

These Caps

Interestingly, there are two players on the Habs who have played these very Caps in the playoffs before. Scott Gomez led his Rangers to a 2-0 early series lead and an eventual Game 7 last year. Gill’s Penguins then proceeded to dig an 0-2 hole, only to wrestle games back for the series win on the way to their Cup.

Both players know the Caps are temperamental and more importantly beatable. If situational experience matters in terms of series scenarios, then knowing a playoff opponent so intimately surely does as well.

The mantle to Scott Gomez

A picture, his record, his experience with the Caps, I think you see where I'm going with this.

What I’d like to see tonight is the emergence of Scott Gomez as a vocal leader. He has been an excellent player so far and a willing mucker (see fight), but he hasn’t grabbed this team by the scruff of the neck and really given them the full benefit of his Devils upbringing.

With a decorated record (3 finals in 4 years, 2 Cups) and a long list of setbacks, comebacks and playoff kills from which to draw on, he rises to the top for me as the player to turn to. Starting with Pouliot, I hope he can tap into his 21 previous playoff series educate and inspire, and generally drag this team with him where he’s gone many times before.

Not many dwell on Gomez as the captain candidate anymore. A lesson in how to follow his lead in 1-1 series could well change that.

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