Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Skate Is Not Enough

A full month into an NHL lockout, and nearly 2 months since what was supposed to be the beginning of training camp, it's interesting to see where the players have landed and what they are up to.

Tomas Plekanec is in the process of showing just how much of a short-sighted fool Pierre Gauthier really was as he weaves magic with Jaromir Jagr every step of the way. At the other extreme, a guy like Scott Gomez, content to maintain his own program of training (we know how well that works) after briefly skating with a Tier-4 team in Alaska.

My personal belief is that it is important to keep up the training during the lockout. And that while I respect the best intentions of players who opt for weight rooms and naps, I suspect they will be a step behind the guys who've played games for months if a season of hockey is to start in earnest. Moreover, I believe the decisions about how to train and maintain one's fitness reveal a great deal about the attitude of a player.

On that note, I'd like to do a quick state of affairs, player-by-player, with my thoughts on their approach so far:

(I have to note, this is based on what I have found. I apologize in advance if a player without my knowledge has been seconded to a wonderful training environment and is setting the prime example of professionalism under the radar)

Tomas Plekanec - A+
This guy clearly loves to play hockey, and he's probably paying to do it in his old stomping grounds. He chose an amazing situation to keep up his skills, if only because he is with top-notch teammates (perhaps not always competition). His attitude shines through again and one would expect him to hit the ice flying as he always does.

David Desharnais -B+
This guy did the same thing as Plekanec really, in that he chose to play for his home fans. The Tournee des Joueurs (now defunct) was a bit of a joke, but for measuring his attitude, it shows a lot of positive signs. He misunderstood how long the lockout would take, but has taken to correct his training options by signing in a pretty solid Euro league.

Brian Gionta - C+
Not enough is what I'd say. Gionta barely played last season, and when he played he looked unready. For a player getting on in years, the time off can be good for healing. But he's had 11 months of that now. A few games with the Tournee de Joueurs are nice, but not enough to provide the level of re-acquaintance with hockey that he needs. Gionta obviously has pride in his fitness, so will always have a use to his team as a relentless checker. But the scoring rust must be shaken, because a short season with another slow start will mean two sub-par years on a pretty big contract.

Max Pacioretty - B-
He hangs in with a B- thanks to benefit of the doubt. Pacioretty is another very fit guy, and he did the right thing by seeking some higher level practice when the NHL locked out. But in unclear circumstances, he left his Swiss employ and returned home to train in the US. The Skate is Not Enough applies thoroughly to Pacioretty, who needs to maintain his momentum of a season ago. Perhaps we saw the lingering "no-third-line" attitude from him in his Swiss escapade. But with a new coach and better attuned players (if a season restarts) could force him to re-examine that attitude if he continues to skate with buddies.

Erik Cole - (C+)
The last time Erik Cole was locked out, he played a full season in the German league. Upon return, he had a career-defining season topped by a Stanley Cup win. I know that he began the season as an injured player and that he represents the Canadiens officially at the NHLPA, but as a fan of his goals, I care little for that. What I want to see is a sharp and storming Erik Cole, and I don't really think he can afford a slow start in a shorter season. I'm not sure his union duties would allow for it, but it would be nice for him to make sure he hits the ice skating when the time comes.

Rene Bourque - I
This guy is injured, so recovering from that is his primary task. I'm not sure what he'd be doing if he was healthy. But judging by his attitude so far on the Bell Centre Ice, I doubt it would be playing for free in some Slovakian backwaters.

Scott Gomez - F
This is sort of why I wrote this article - to point out what a misguided soul Scott Gomez is. This guy cannot afford to take it easy like he is doing right now. He is on the verge of an amnesty buyout and if he wants another contract of any significance should be exhibiting what skills he has left in some showcase outside an Alaskan community rink. I praised his attitude on training last year, but I was duped. Though fit, whatever he does on his own time clearly lacks the elements necessary to maintain the other attributes important to an offensive hockey player. Scott Gomez should have been the first to sign in Europe this season, he lags in this regard as well as so many others.

Lars Eller - B
Give the guy credit for playing in Quebec's player tour. And give him credit for following Desharnais in recognition that the two negotiating parties don't look like tying the skates any time soon. As a young player who will have to fight for work, he needs the exposure and the tuning.

Travis Moen - C+
Tournee de Joueurs as well. But Moen needs to take a look at the depth chart here. With a new coach, he'll need to impress and I'm not sure a few exhibition games will give him the much-needed edge. To be fair his rivals have taken the same path.

Colby Armstrong - B
Is it fair to endow him with such a generous score when he's followed the path of least resistance just like Gionta, Moen and others? Well, in this case, yes. I have to applaud the attitude of Colby Armstrong. He seems to know that keeping a positive attitude and playing hockey are important. I am struck by how much he has embraced the Canadiens since signing. Perhaps that's because I haven't seen his performances under scrutiny. If the lockout extends further, however, one would like to see some substance to back up what might only be PR till now.

Brandon Prust - C+
Tournee, etc. Last lockout he'd have been AHL material, but with a defunct Quebec tour, he too must look elsewhere to ensure his training will allow for the start to justify that horrid contract.

Ryan White - ?
Where are you Ryan White. This team may have signed you, but it can easily do without you. It would be nice to know he was doing more than skating around in circles a few times a week.

Blake Geoffrion - B
He benefits from being eligible for AHL duty, and he continues to show he's a player in between leagues. Good enough to star in the AHL, but having difficulty finding a niche in the NHL. It will be a big break for Geoffrion if the season starts in a month or two and the homebound players continue to stew. Hitting the ground running with a new coach in a short camp could provide the springboard to that coveted roster spot, and perhaps even a few weeks on a line that means something.

Aaron Palushaj - B
Ditto. Palushaj is in the same situation as Geoffrion. He should see targets on the backs of Moen, Armstrong and co.

Louis Leblanc - B
Too bad about the injury, as he is the cream of the NHL-ready AHL crop.

Josh Gorges - C+
Nice touch playing in the Quebec tour, but what now? Yes a spot with the club is fully assured, but would a future captain really sit out for as long as it takes and only take part in charity games?

PK Subban - D
A D for disappointment. Perhaps he cannot risk his body without a contract, but really this guy is a star and would be one after a rehab. His feats this lockout while Tomas Plekanec is creating hours of goal highlights include presenting the weather and trying his hand at satirical comedy. It's not enough. Is it fair to compare all to the shining example of Tomas Plekanec? Perhaps not, but that's where I started. Subban is the key the Canadiens and he should have found a way to play with Markov or something. That said, I suspect he'll be fantastic and prove me wrong about 5 minutes into the next season whenever that is.

Andrei Markov - B+
I'm glad Markov is playing in the highest calibre league available to him, but his latest injury is a reminder how playing overseas can be a detriment. Still, as I've belaboured to this point, following through on all that talk about the love of playing hockey is better than spewing it then returning to the couch.

Tomas Kaberle - B-
Probably the highest grade he'll see on this or any other Habs blog this cycle. I love the decision to play in the Czech league with Kladno, just as I did for Plekanec. I love that he's with Plekanec and with a team that could stand up to NHL clubs. He's back to stewing now though, and that's not great for a player who also needs to maintain some form. While the circumstances of his departure were less mysterious, one has to penalize for the signing of such a limited contract in the first place.

Alexei Emelin - B+
Back in Russia. This is good for all the reasons it's been good for everyone else. But it could be a nightmare scenario for the Habs who only just pried him from the jaws of Kazan.

Francis Bouillon - C
Not enough. Therrien his old buddy can only keep a place for him so long if the younger and fresher legs of European returnees make an obvious case in camp and beyond.

Raphael Diaz - A+
Exemplary. Without missing a beat he was back in his old arena showing off his dominance. Perhaps playing with Zetterberg will bring a few important lessons for the Habs PP.

Yannick Weber - A
The man Habs fans would find easy to forget is doing his best to make sure that won't be easy come play time. This is actually the first time Weber has had the opportunity to play in his country's top league, and it's nice that he's making the most of it. One can only imagine that 3 months with sporadic gym workouts could easily have spelled the end for Weber.

Carey Price - B+
I'm not going to say it's much easier for a goalie to do his own thing and get away with it, OK yes I will. The nature of the training required makes solo training for a long time as a goalie more fruitful. Flexibility, reflexes, drills, etc. can all be kept up to date with a small support crew and some decent shooters. Carey playing in the Tournee de Joueurs was a nice touch, as was his RDS appearance. I expect that whatever else he is doing will leave him in striking distance of being ready to go.

Peter Budaj - B
The benefit of being a goalie again. He's training with Avs forwards, which at the end of the day is probably more beneficial that hanging around with Moen and Prust.

On the whole, I am mostly underwhelmed by the Habs. A team with a big veteran presence that managed to lose seems to be sitting perhaps too much on its laurels. Players that should be leaders are not showing the best example right now, in my opinion. Of the starting forwards, only a couple have played any games of significance, and one of those gave up. The defenders are doing a bit better numbers wise, but key men have room to improve their prep.

If a whole season is lost, I reckon this article and its conclusions are moot. But if a deal, by some miracle, does come out of today's and subsequent meetings, I would bet a fair sum that Plekanec and Diaz will be readier than most to start the Habs on their way. Other teams have a longer list to boast of, so that 15th place outfit might find it hard.

Finally, let's hope for a quick end to this lockout. At the end of such a tenuous exercise, I can feel my November self screaming for some hockey action. Fingers crossed that we'll be back to goals and assists soon enough and that an extra month of weight training (to go with the previous 6 months) won't harm the competitiveness of the team.

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