Friday, February 04, 2011

The Three Pillars Of Habs Defence

When you want to build something right, you want to be using pillars. Ancient buildings, even the religions they were built for are more often than not founded on pillars, stone or metaphoric.

The 1970s Canadiens were built on three big important pillars: The Big Three. The current Canadiens too are built on three important and often underappreciated pillars: Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek.

Reasonable fans everywhere set realistic expectation of impending disaster this last summer. A team that had struggled to keep shots down without Markov had lost the reason most of those shots did not pierce the armour. Without Halak, and Markov on extended rehab, the feeling was dour enough, had these fans known that Markov would play but 7 games of the season and be rehabbing a second injury by December, I think the mood would have gone south rather than anywhere else.

But reasonable fans have been wrong before. They were wrong about this. Nearly three months after losing Markov (again), and nearly two month after losing Gorges as well, the Canadiens are still well placed among the defensive standard bearers of the league.

With a 2.42 GAA they sit 6th in the league. 30.0 shots against places them 15th. And their 84.2% on the PK is seventh best. This may not blow your minds, but know that these are both the best numbers and ranks that any Canadiens team since the lockout has posted – in every category. This is the best defensive edition of the Canadiens in some time.

Every time people drool over defences a couple of discussion topics rise to the top: coaching and goaltending. Jacques Martin’s system must deserve some credit, and Carey price has found a way to dominate at times, yet they must not get all the credit. Because for all the simple game plans, the players have to execute and commit to execution, and all the goaltending talent in the world still oozes goals behind a porous defensive line.

Some credit has to go to the Three Pillars: Gill, Hamrlik and Spacek.
In recent game reviews, we have alluded to their importance, but never really drilled to the point. In recognition of their lack of recognition generally, I want to remind everyone why we should still all be thankful that these three pillars prop up the structure in which Weber and Subban can learn, and based on which the Canadiens have been amassing wins.

1) They offer a first piece for building a unit
These three players have the highest minutes played at even strength of all Montreal Canadiens. On this team, without Markov and Gorges, it is clear the Jacques Martin considers the two defenders he will have on the ice and starts by putting one of each of the pillars at all times. Between the three of them, they probably offer coverage for the entire game, save a few powerplay minutes.

This is a great value to Martin, because he can be sure that at all times he’ll have a veteran player who has played in the vast majority of situations before. A system cannot be built on uncertainty, and while they have their occasional slips, Gill Hamrlik and Spacek at least provide some certainty that a system will be understood and applied throughout the games.

2) They do the complementary work, whatever it is
More than anything what impresses me about these three players has been the adaptability and their willingness to concede their previous duties to accept mundane ones, all in aid of the team. In an age where it’s not uncommon to have locker room rifts over ice time, it’s surely a relief to see Spacek taking his reduced minutes in stride, to see Gill happily in and out of first shadow pairs role and Hamrlik to concede lots of offensive opportunities to his new partner.

Rather than making their new partners change to fit with them, the vets are changing to make the best partnership on common strengths. The dividends are being paid by all three of Wisniewski, Subban and Weber, who talented themselves, would still struggle if made to play entirely unfamiliar hockey to accommodate another.

The pride of the Pillars seems to be entirely now in the winning and less in the minutiae of making breakout passes themselves or getting first PP minutes. This, I suggest, is not a pervasive virtue in the NHL these days. Certainly not on teams with lesser defensive records.

3) They offer a good example
All of that which I mentioned is good example. More than that, these three seem to be relishing their roles as mentors and guides to their young partners. Gill can be seen talking with Subban and Weber seems to be learning from Spacek. One can only assume that this would extend at least as far as the locker room, if not further off the ice.

While it is right that we continue to get excited about Subban and what promise he represents to the team, that we mention Weber’s improvement every game and how Wisniewski has been a great addition; it is also good to remember the other half of the equation. Those solid, sometimes boring, Dmen that are allowing this bloom to happen. To Gill, Hamrlik and Spacek, three pillars this team could not do without.

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