Friday, December 11, 2009

NHL Officiating and Chris Lee

Brace yourselves ladies and gentlemen as I believe this may be a long post. I was fortunate enough to attend last night's game against the Penguins at the Bell Centre in the best seats I've ever had. From right behind the Canadiens' bench I had a perspective I've never had before, unfortunately the game ended with a blown call on the part of Chris Lee and he was showered with the most merciless booing I've ever heard, or taken part in from the 21,273 plus those in luxury boxes who attended. The game ended in such frustrating fashion that I had to sleep on it before I started to right because I felt like this would come off as a whining piece from a poor sport instead of a well-thought-out article from a concerned fan, which is what I intend to present. As frustrating as that game was however, the reaction was so strong that for me at least, I knew it wasn't about just this game, and I believe it was the same feeling for most of the others in attendance, and the million or so Canadiens fans who were swearing at their televisions.

So far this season Montreal is 15-15-2 despite losing its best player before the first game of the season was over, and its second best scorer and winger 13 games ago. We've also had a variety of injuries plaguing the team over the entire 32 game schedule thus far. Having this record despite these obstacles leads me to believe that we have a very good team. 7 of the 15 regulation losses were by one goal, so this seems to support my view as well. Add to this that the Montreal Canadiens also have the fewest powerplay chances per game in the league, and the 4th most penalties called against them per game and you have to wonder how exactly we're getting scoring from this team at all. Every team faces obstacles during the season, but thus far the only team I see as comparable in the injury situation is the Edmonton Oilers, although they have 16 more powerplays than their 108 (7th least in NHL) times short handed. Initial reaction by those outside the Canadiens fan base is likely that the Canadiens are undisciplined while the Oilers are not. So a Pat Quinn team is more disciplined than a Jacques Martin team? Really? I can't fathom how this is possible.

The three teams that are averaging more penalties against per game this season than Montreal's 4.3125 are the Carolina Hurricanes, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Anaheim Ducks. It's interesting to me that these teams have been the worst three worst teams in the NHL over the last 10 games or so (although Florida and Columbus have worse records, Columbus' struggles have been almost entirely due to goaltending and Florida was not predicted to be a contender this season so I don't see their struggles to be as bad as these three teams). The Ducks and Flyers are both known to play a rough style trading off the penalties they get for the intimidation the infractions created. All three were expected to be cup contenders coming into the season, so frustration can also set in leading to bad plays, but what's the excuse for the Canadiens being in this group, and how do they compare? Montreal hasn't played Anaheim yet so that comparison is out, so let's look at the other two.

Against Carolina, in Montreal, we were ahead in chances after two periods after dominating the play in the second period. However despite even play in the third where Montreal tied the game, both calls went against the Canadiens. Then in overtime, a double minor against Spacek to give Carolina a 5-3 advantage in penalties. While from my memory I don't think any of the calls against us could be argued very well, especially Spacek's, I'm sure that under pressure for most of the last 40 minutes of regulation that a struggling and desperate team like Carolina likely got away with a ton of calls, especially as without Pitkanen their defensive corps is very slow and therefore likely to resort to illegal plays.

Against Philadelphia, in Montreal, the game was pretty listless as neither team really showed up. The game was even in penalties and called pretty fairly, both teams were allowed to play the game, letting a lot go. That was however until Montreal had a lead with a couple minutes left, when Josh Gorges was called on a phantom tripping penalty by Mike Leggo to give the Flyers an advantage for the rest of the game. This has been a startlingly frequent trend this season, it blew up on us against Washington the week before in a game we deserved to win that ended up a shootout loss. That game ended with the Flyers having a 4-3 advantage in penalties. Not exactly damning, but still not great. Keep in mind that we played Philadelphia at the height of their crap streak, a game after they had a 9 minute penalty kill that led to a blow out for Washington.

So facing the teams that draw the most penalties in the league, we can't seem to get a break. Are we really that bad? As I previously stated I don't believe this to be true, so what's going on here? Some interesting ideas have been raised, like the lack of a strong and persistent forecheck from the Canadiens means less sustained pressure, and therefore less of a chance to draw penalties. This idea sounds like a good explanation, but I don't like it based on what I've seen personally. We clearly don't have the strongest forechecking in the league, but the line of Pacioretty - Metropolit - Moen especially has demonstrated that they can create sustain pressure on the forecheck and draw defenders into hooking, holding and tripping, it just rarely gets called. Some have said that due to a player like Lapierre being known as an agitator that penalties regularly never get called when someone does something to him, and Plekanec's increasing aggression as well as dirty play at times is having the same affect. This also sounds like a good one, but from what I've seen in my life watching the NHL, it's rarely the guy who makes the first dirty play that gets called, it's always the retaliation, and there's been a lot of uncalled retaliation against both players. Pure lack of discipline can explain why we're getting calls against us more often, but I'm not inclined to believe it, and I'm certainly not inclined to believe that it could account for the disparity of being shorthanded 44 times more than having the advantage.

Of course at this point there's the group of people that come out and say Gary Bettman hates Canadian teams, and none more than the Canadiens and is therefore giving the refs directives to call the games against the Canadiens. This kind of thinking is neither true, nor possible. There is no reason the Bettman or anyone involved to call the game in a way that hurts specifically Montreal. Would I believe that referees are asked to be a bit more lenient to the sunbelt franchises that are struggling to make a profit with losing franchises in terrible economies? Maybe, but again this is bordering on conspiracy theory talk and there's been no tangible, coherent evidence presented that I've seen to make me believe it. It also doesn't hold up to the facts to say that the refs hate the Canadiens. As pointed out by frequently frustrating but intelligent poster Chris, last year we had the 2nd most powerplays in the league, and the year before that we had a positive differential of 32 more powerplays than penalties against over 82 games. This year is clearly an anomaly for us. So if it isn't coming down from above, what's happening.

Referees have a difficult job, especially at the NHL level. The game is fast and no matter what they're hated and harassed. Because it's such a difficult job it makes it a lot easier to compartmentalize certain plays in your head and much like a goalie, react to the familiar, muscle memory if you will. From what I've seen watching hockey my whole life it takes a lot for a small player to draw a penalty. It seems like whenever someone under 6 feet tall is knocked over, it's attributed to the player either being weak or diving. This is especially evident if the player who knocks the smaller guy down is a big player. The is very similar to what some on the internet sarcastically dub "Pronger physics", as to how he's allowed to constantly elbow people in the face viciously, or hit them in the head and rarely if ever get suspended because he's taller than most players. Players like Daniel Briere don't help by being one of the most frequent divers in the NHL. Considering that Montreal is only small among it's top 6 forwards as compared to the rest of the league, and we have some massive bodies on the back end and on the bottom two lines, this shouldn't account entirely for the lack of drawing penalties, but there's more to the story.

Ever since Bob Gainey acquired Scott Gomez, and even more so since Cammalleri and Gionta were signed, the media has been repeating ad nauseam that this team was pint sized and way too small to compete in the NHL. I've heard it mentioned at least once between either OTR or Sportscenter every single week day this year. If you think this kind of repetition has no affect then I invite you to look into how propaganda works in politics from communist Russia to separatist Quebec. This idea of Montreal being a small team, despite the average height and weight of the team being above the NHL average, has gotten into the minds of every ref in the NHL, even the good ones. It's not something that has anything to do with Montreal, and it's not on purpose, but it's really hurting Montreal. It's become so ingrained around the league that we're a small team that even players who aren't small, like the Kostitsyns, Pacioretty and Moen are abused often without getting a call.

This is made even more dire because the opposite is also true about taking penalties. When a small players knocks over a big player, most refs in any hockey league will assume an illegal infraction has taken place. This isn't about favouritism or a conspiracy to destroy the great history of the Montreal Canadiens, it's about a subconscious assumption that all referees share to make their jobs a little more simple, which has ended up hurting the Canadiens big time so far this season. I don't blame the refs for this, but let's be honest here, this is inexcusable. Something has to be done instead of letting something innocent plague the team the rest of the season. Bob Gainey or Jacques Martin need to either say something to the director of officiating, or if that doesn't work, play the mind games like Ken Holland and say something in the media. There will be a fine, no doubt, but it needs to be done. Better yet, new owner Geoff Molson, who has a bit more clout as an owner, can rock the boat by addressing the media if speaking in private to NHL head honcho's doesn't work.

To illustrate how important this could be, with our current powerplay efficiency we would add 8 or 9 goals if we had drawn as many powerplays as penalties. With this team being involved in 9 one goal losses included our shootout losses, imagine how 9 extra goals could change the standings. Even if only 4 (half) of those ended up in a game where we lost by one in regulation, 4 more points this year would put us one point behind Boston for 5th in the Eastern conference. It would also make the Canadiens an even team in goals for and goals against with 91 each way. That's a big difference, especially in how the Canadiens are viewed around the league, one that needs to be recognized by Canadiens management, and we need to start playing the game off the ice as well as people like Ken Holland do.


Now that my rational argument is done, it's time for me to say what I've wanted to say all day. Chris Lee needs to be fired by the NHL, or demoted to the AHL where he can't ruin games that matter. You can tell the NHL doesn't consider him to be a good ref due to the lack of playoff games he's refereed in his career, which is a whopping 4 since 1999. Was last night the worst game I've ever seen officiated? No. It probably isn't even the worst game I've seen Chris Lee officiate, but it's going to be remembered for a long time because the one really bad blown call happened at the worst possible time. Chris Lee will say he lost sight of the puck, even though the puck was out of site on many goalmouth scrambles around Carey Price all night and he refused to blow the whistle, and he was clearly out of position so it would make more sense to wait until he was IN position to make the call. Unfortunately the NHL has made it against league rules to speak negatively of the officials, the response being at least a $10,000 fine for coaches. I believe this rule has given an ego of being untouchable to many referees in the game today.

But this isn't why Lee should be fired, the bottom line is that he's an awful official. It was clear all game that he's more concerned about controlling the game than he is about paying attention. After Plekanec got in Malkin's face last night and they took coincidental minors, Matt Cooke started harassing Plekanec after every whistle. The most glaring of which was a blatant spear in the face with the butt of his stick which likely wasn't shown on television as it was right as the game was going to commercial break. The spear was right in front of Chris Lee, who was directing traffic instead of paying attention to his surroundings. It's true that whenever he referees a game with Montreal there seems to be a controversy, but whether he hates the Canadiens or not is irrelevant, he plays his favourites in every game and he's terrible. Every hockey fan that I know that keeps track of refs thinks Chris Lee hates their team. That's a big sign that he blows calls way too often. It's time to let Mr. Lee officiate at a level where he can keep up with the play, maybe Atom A?


The NHL needs to wake up and explain why the ref saying that he was meaning to blow the whistle is somehow enough of an excuse to disallow a goal that resulted from the puck being loose. It happens all the time, and one of the responses that I hear from referee apologists is that refs are human and humans make errors. Let them make errors, but on this kind of play there should be video review. We use it on every other kind questionable goal, but for some reason the NHL in its usual draconian fashion refuses to take a little bit of power away from the referees. Well if they're human and make mistakes, why don't we have checks and balances to make sure the right call is made? It's a simple review, much simpler than any others. If the goalie covers the puck at all, then it's no goal. If the whistle blew before the puck goes in the net, no goal. Last night Fleury made no attempt to cover the puck, which he admitted in a post-game interview, because he didn't know where it was. The puck slid between his blocker/stick along his right pad and out to Scott Gomez in front of the net before he knocked it in the net. The puck hit the mesh, and halfway back out of the net you hear the whistle go. If this play could be reviewed that would have been a goal without any doubt. Whether Chris Lee lost sight of the puck while he was out of position, not doing his job properly would be irrelevant, and the right call would have been made. It's so simple, but it won't be done because the NHL refuses to be proactive. What if this had been in the 7th game of a playoff series? Granted because it's the playoffs Chris Lee wouldn't be officiating, but many refs blow these kinds of calls. It's time to start making the correct call instead of the human call.

Second image courtesy of Gazette

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Man Reborn

A lot of people have already done so, but I think it is time I officially give Tomas Plekanec some major credit this year. Those who communicate with me on a regular basis know I like Plekanec and have been impressed with him this year, but I haven't given him the kudos he's deserved yet.

Plekanec came into this year as an after-thought in my opinion. I thought after last year and how low his confidence was that he would be a poor excuse for a second line center, but boy was I wrong. After watching a couple preseason games I praised Gionta for making Plekanec look good and possibly lighting a fire under his butt, but again, I was totally wrong. Tomas Plekanec is his own worst critic, and that translated into him working his tail off this summer to be a better player. He came into camp in the best shape of his life and ready to prove himself all over again.

It has been talked about all season how Plekanec is playing better than he ever has, how he's become his own player after Kovalev's departure, but to understand how much better Plekanec has been this season I just want to look at one simple statistic; assists. Tomas had a terrible year last year but still managed 20 goals, very impressive for someone who's struggling, but only 19 assists over 80 games. For a guy penciled in as a #2 center coming into the season 19 assists is insanely low, so fans were right to be upset with his game. Over the offseason I questioned how good of a playmaker Plekanec is, thinking that perhaps a dominant powerplay and Kovalev's one good year in Montreal artificially inflated his statistics in 07-08. Tomas has quashed these thoughts in dramatic fashion, in fact he already has 19 assists this season, in 24 games. That means as far as passing goes, he's producing at almost FOUR times the rate as last year. Read that again if you don't believe it. What makes this even more amazing is that before tonight against Columbus, he hadn't played a full game with anyone who could really help him produce. He did most of his work with struggling linemates and on the powerplay.

If you're not already blown away by how well Tomas Plekanec has been passing the puck, allow me to throw out some comparisons. Plekanec is currently tied for 6th in the entire NHL in assists. Players who he happens to be tied with include Anze Kopitar, who's been lights out this season, Martin St. Louis, one of my favourite players and playing with Steven Stamkos, and Nicklas Backstrom, who happens to play with some guy you may have heard of named Alexander Ovechkin. While being tied with Kopitar and St. Louis is very impressive and certainly puts Plekanec in the elite level of playmakers in the league, the one that truly stands out to me is Backstrom. Plekanec has managed, without stable linemates, on an offensively inept (to this point) Montreal Canadiens team, to be tied with one of the best playmakers in the NHL in assists. He's managed to be tied with the guy who sets up the best goal scorer in the NHL. If that isn't amazing, I don't know what is.

Tomas Plekanec is the exact reason why players who have off seasons need to be given a second chance. He wants to play in Montreal and it shows. In analyzing just one aspect of his game I think anyone can tell that we need to keep Tomas long term. Let's hope that Bob Gainey feels the same way.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Habs Inside/Out Summit 2009

I had the privilege of partaking in the annual Habs Inside/Out fan summit this past weekend, and I can't recall a weekend where I had quite this much fun. It was great to put faces to names, although slightly nerve racking at the beginning because you don't know who's going to be there. Perhaps you meet up with someone you've had a heated argument in the past (Hello Tommy B!), and it might be awkward, but all that quickly falls away. Within minutes everyone sees each other without the vague tone of text, and communication becomes clear. We're Habs fans, and we all want the same thing, wins.

On Friday it seemed like everyone was a little nervous about the outcome of the weekend, a back to back with Washington and Detroit surely spelled disaster for a team with so much inconsistency and so many injuries, but the boys pulled off an unlikely win in Washington, and the confidence was flowing. Luckily for many fan's livers, even Marc-Andre Bergeron turned in a pretty solid performance against Washington.

On Saturday a tour of the Bell Centre, where many of us sat in Mike Boone's chair, was followed by a few drinks at Ye Olde Orchard Pub, and a ton of Habs stories shared by some great fans that I feel very privileged to have met in person. And in true Habs Inside/Out fashion the true stories soon gave way to a challenge, of who could MAKE the best stories. For example what is the REAL reason why Sergei Kostitsyn missed the bus in preseason, the more absurd the better. And if that doesn't catch your fancy, then who on Habs Inside/Out is Chris Chelios' illegitimate love child?

It was also an honour to meet Dave Stubbs, although unfortunately I wasn't able to stay at Hurley's long enough to meet some of the others who contribute to the site like Mike Boone and Chris Aung-Thwin. These guys give us some great topics to talk about, and despite what many say about the moderators of the site, they do their best to keep the site civil and that's a good thing. I don't think any other NHL team has a website that functions as well as ours for discourse among so many fans, and it's awesome to have it provided to us by these gentlemen.

After a rough first period there was a sour mood at the Bell Centre on Saturday, but thanks to the team rallying around a solid performance by Price, a new 1st line emerged 9 seconds into the 3rd period as Cammalleri converted on a dandy drop pass by the awakened Andrei Kostitsyn. All of a sudden, and in true Habs fan form, the Bell Centre was rocking. A short time later Kostitsyn made yet another perfect pass to Cammalleri, which tied the game. Unfortunately we couldn't tie the Vancouver Canucks' record of 9 straight OT and SO victories, but we stole a point when all seemed lost. We were proud of a Canadiens team that was very depleted with injuries, so there were no hard feelings. In fact I think I almost went nuts when we tied it, as evidenced by this!

In closing I'd like to give a big thanks to Ian Cobb, who organized this summit and worked his tail off to keep up with the young guns. You did a great job Ian, thanks for a perfect weekend! I'll leave you all with this today:

To you with failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high

Friday, October 30, 2009

Show Kostitsyn Patience!

Seems like everyone is ready to give up on not just Sergei Kostitsyn these days, but his slow-starting brother Andrei as well. He's become the new whipping boy for the team in the press, as well as among a large section of the fans. Despite not apologizing for the false report of criminal activity last year, the Francophone portion of the media haven't cut him any slack either. To be fair, Andrei really isn't doing himself any favours with 1 goal and 3 assists over 12 games, but to run a 24 year old top 10 draft pick out of town in his 3rd full NHL season is just not smart.

Kostitsyn has the unfortunate tag of being a top pick in the highly coveted 2003 NHL Entry Draft, and even worse, the guy picked right after him is Jeff Carter, who scored 46 goals last season. This leaves a sour taste in the mouths of Habs fans over what could have been. Many are bitter that despite producing many solid NHL players for the last 9 or so drafts, we have yet to bring in and keep a super star. It's for this very reason however, that I think it's very unwise to get too down on our Belorussian who's on the big club.

It's easy for everyone to see that Andrei Kostitsyn is very talented, he's a great skater, he's physical, and he has one of the best wrist shots I've seen in the NHL. When watching Kostitsyn it's easy to see a game-breaker in the future, but many don't believe he'll ever hit his potential. I'd like to illustrate a parallel here that might change some minds.

I think it's fairly accepted that while AHL experience is good, NHL experience is much more valuable, especially to European born players. Because Jeff Carter was picked right after Kostitsyn, he's often the most lamented miss by Gainey since he came aboard. Well Carter came into the NHL earlier than Kostitsyn, so I think it's necessary that we look at the first few years in the NHL for both of them and see if there's a massive difference in production.

Jeff Carter

1st season [05-06] GP - 81, G - 23, A - 19, P - 42, +10, Shots - 189, Sh% - 12.17

A very solid rookie year, breaking the 20 goal barrier at a young age and showing promise defensively as a +10 on a pretty good team. Played against secondary defenders as the Gagne - Forsberg - Knuble line drew the other team's top defense pairings most nights.

2nd season [06-07] GP - 62, G - 14, A - 23, P - 37, -17, Shots - 215, Sh% - 6.51

A slight regression offensively on a team that took a nosedive. Lingering ankle injury surely hampered performance. Took a lot more shots with more responsibility, but shooting % took a massive nosedive. Defensive play likely looks worse than it is as Philadelphia is the worst team in the league.

3rd season [07-08] GP - 82, G - 29, A - 24, P - 53, +6, Shots - 260, Sh% - 11.15

Big jump in goals as injury woes are put behind, but a fairly large regression in assists. The regression and injury problems of Carter and Richards made overzealous new GM Holmgren sign Daniel Briere to a massive contract to shore up the center position after Forsberg was traded. Defensive play looks a lot better as the team improves by leaps and bounds. Took slightly less shots per game, but to greater effectiveness. Learning to pick his spots.

4th season [08-09] GP - 82, G - 46, A - 38, P - 84, +23, Shots - 342, Sh% - 13.45

With Briere injured Carter takes the opportunity to break out offensively. A massive improvement in every category, firing more shots to even greater efficiency. Steps into elite status in the NHL. Makes a lot of Montreal fans very angry.

Andrei Kostitsyn

1st season [07-08] GP - 78, G - 26, A - 27, P - 53, +15, Shots - 156, Sh% - 16.67

A very solid rookie season. Matches Carter's 3rd year in points in his first year, while playing better at even strength and shooting less. Played on one of the best lines in the NHL in the last half of the season with Kovalev in Plekanec. Most reviews of Kostitsyn are entirely positive, with the one suggestion that he shoot much more to take advantage of his powerful wrister. 3 more goals, 8 more assists, than Carter's respective rookie season while playing against top defenders.

2nd season [08-09] GP - 74, G - 23, A - 18, P - 41, -7, Shots - 169, Sh% - 13.61

A noticeable regression in all categories except shots. A head injury to start the year slows him down for quite awhile. After going on an offensive tear in mid-season a "scandal" breaks in the news involving him and his little brother, and his play drops off big time. Numbers also suffer as the entire team struggles offensively as compared to the season before, and chemistry doesn't seem to exist.

Preaching Patience

Everyone is all over Kostitsyn right now as he's struggling to produce, and many find him to be lazy or invisible on the ice. Not that it's a great comparison, but Brett Hull was also seen this way. Hull was often completely invisible during games until he scored, then scored a couple more times. Kostitsyn isn't the same kind of player Tomas Plekanec is, he likes to sneak in behind the play and do something dynamic. He may never muck it up in the corners the way some want him too, even though he has the physical ability to do it. In the 2007 offseason Paul Holmgren was so unsatisfied with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter's progression that he went out and overpaid Daniel Briere, a move that is now really hurting the Flyers long term. In Montreal would we have been any different with Carter than how we treat Kostitsyn? Had we drafted Jeff Carter with the 10th overall pick in 2003, and he took the same path of progression that he has taken, would we have been patient with him as a young prospect, or thrown him to the wolves? It's impossible to say, but we need to make sure that hindsight isn't 20/20 on Kostitsyn in just a few short years, we need to have some foresight and recognize that players take different amounts of time to get to their prime. It's possible, even likely that by the end of this year Kostitsyn will break the 30 goal barrier for the first time, and next year we have no clue what the limit could be. With the parallels to Carter's NHL progression, we may be sitting (and shitting) on the next superstar for the Montreal Canadiens. Patience please...

All images courtesy of Gazette

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Up and Down Season Is To Be Expected

No matter how many times we're told this team is a "science experiment", as Pierre McGuire in his infinite lack of tact puts it, it's hard to just sit down and accept that this team still isn't going to play it's best hockey night in and night out. We had a really nice streak going in 3 games against sub-par teams, and one game against a good team in the Rangers. Not to say that the team didn't deserve all four wins, or didn't play great, but we were the beneficiaries of some less than stellar competition. That said tonight's ugly affair shouldn't be seen as the story of the season either.

It is tough to judge just how good (or bad) these Canadiens are so early, but I think we need to look closely at both the positives and the negatives to understand that this is still a process taking place over 82 games, in a season that was supposed to be a write-off after Markov went down in Game 1. Of course there's more negatives in the rear view mirror tonight than there was two days ago, or even this morning, but a 6-6-0 record after 12 games without our number one defenseman with a team just getting to know each other is nothing to scoff at. That said, let's take care of the negatives first so we can end on a positive note.


Our defense is still a work in progress. It seems like Marc-Andre Bergeron alternates a good defensive night and a bad one, and that's something that needs to improve for him. Against the Islanders he was very quick and separated players from pucks very well, tonight he was shaky and unsure of himself, which can't happen against Malkin and Crosby. Gill also had a bad night, although not nearly as bad as some would have you believe. His second penalty was a bad call, but I thought it was a penalty as well before there was a replay so you can't blame the refs there. Spacek is still not playing hockey the way he can, and that's frustrating a lot of fans. He finally got his first goal, but he needs to be more of a leader defensively, and compliment Hamrlik's good play thus far. Hamrlik has been beaten one-on-one a few times of late, but let's be honest, he isn't a #1 defenseman and although he's stepped it up admirably, he should probably be seeing secondary scorers instead of first lines all the time at his age. But until Markov comes back, Hamrlik and Spacek will be forced to keep playing against the best competition the other side can muster. Speaking of Markov, he's still going to be injured a long time, and that still sucks.

The flu is likely going to make a run through this team in the coming week, as Gomez and Metropolit have already come down with it. For the first time this season the top line actually looked pretty bad. Gionta couldn't handle the puck tonight to save his life, Cammalleri was mostly invisible, and Gomez was the best of the three while suffering from the flu. Andrei Kostitsyn and Latendresse continue to compete for top 6 forward spots, but instead of trying to outplay each other, they're seeing who can play themselves OUT of a spot first. There were a couple games where AK46 has looked like he was going to take off, unfortunately I can't say the same thing about Latendresse. Gui needs to take a personal day to stay on the practice ice and practice getting shots on the net. Then he needs to practice hitting pucks quickly that are bouncing or in awkward places in traffic in front of the net. He says he wants to be the next Tomas Holmstrom, but I don't see the quick hands or hand-eye coordination necessary in Latendresse to be that guy. Pacioretty should probably be playing in the AHL. He's still too impatient with the puck and makes the wrong play in the offensive zone most of the time. Some confidence for him would be good.

Neither Halak or Price have been world beaters so far this year, aside from Price's first two spectacular games of course. Rumours abounded about Price being traded after Halak's little winning streak, but there are some bad trends that Halak's ardent fans fail to see. Like Price, Halak is a young goaltender who is not ready to be a 60 start per year guy. His numbers looked really good the last while after facing 2 terrible teams in 3 games. Halak also plays much better at home than on the road, by a very wide margin. There seems to be a rule among Habs fans (the guys at Lions in Winter for one) that great goalies find ways to keep the goal totals of the other team to 3 or less on most nights, and according to this rule Halak worries me a bit. He has played good for the most part, but he's let in 4 goals in every game he's played against last year's playoff teams. He can't be blamed for tonight's loss in it's entirety, but the first two goals were not good, and if he stops them this is a completely different game. I like Halak's potential just like I like Price's potential, but until Halak can play as good against the good teams, and win away from the Bell Centre, I don't think he's starting goalie material. Price was also not great on either goal tonight, but he has the built in excuse of coming in cold against the Cup champions. I don't think that excuses it, he needs to be better, especially on that Kunitz breakaway. He made the first move, which is a rookie mistake.


Now for the better part, starting with the defense. Paul Mara has been quietly putting together a solid year, if unspectacular. Mara hits, makes plays and protects his teammates. And aside from that I met him last week and he's a nice guy with an epic beard. Josh Gorges continues his progression from last year and has been the most consistent defenseman on the club. Josh hasn't had an off game this year, and its great to see him turn into a leader on this team. Bergeron seems to need some time every game on the powerplay, but once he gets his stride he can be lethal with the man advantage. He's no Markov, but when Markov comes back, I think Bergeron's effectiveness goes up 100%. Hal Gill, despite constant heckling, has been effective on the PK and even 5-on-5 in limited doses. I've watched Gill closely this season to see if he was as bad as people want to believe, but to be honest he's been very good defensively for the most part. The Czech pairing of Hamrlik and Spacek has been good and will continue to improve. It's been noticed by many that Spacek plays worse during the last 10 minutes of the third, which to me says his conditioning wasn't great in the offseason, so we're only going to see better from him going forward.

Cammalleri has the skill and determination combo that no forward has had for the Montreal Canadiens since Saku Koivu before his first major injury. By the end of this season Montreal fans will forget about Alex Kovalev, who deserves to be forgotten anyway. Gionta and Gomez have both been better than their numbers indicate in this young season, and the speed and tenacity of the top line is going to be consistently lethal all year long. Tomas Plekanec might be the second best forward on this team, behind Cammalleri. In fact in some ways Plekanec may be better. I was worried Plekanec would be the same as we saw last year, but it seems like Kovalev really dragged him down in 08/09. Plekanec is still flirting with a point per game 12 games into the season, and when he gets consistent linemates he'll be even better. With 18 hits in 12 games Andrei Kostitsyn, although not producing offensively, is not playing a soft game. This is a good sign to me as last year when he was playing poorly he was not laying out hits. This year he seems less afraid to get mixed up in the rough stuff, perhaps inspired by the play of the little guys and Plekanec. Lapierre has started to get his speed and edge back in the last couple games, after starting slow out of the gate. I'm guessing his offseason surgery had something to do with his slow start as Lapierre usually doesn't take shifts off. Metropolit has been excellent, much better than I possibly imagined. I don't think think he'll keep his current pace, but a career high of 35-40 points is in the realm of possibility. Moen has also been an offensive surprise, and the will to drive to the net is something the Canadiens have been lacking for a long time. I was one person of a few who defended Chipchura in his first few games, missing training camp with an injury it was clear he would take some time to adjust to the NHL game. Well he's adjusted, and he's been pretty damn good the last few games. He looks like he belongs as a shutdown center/faceoff specialist. D'agostini has improved defensively in pretty much every game, and if he can get his scoring going on a semi-regular basis we're in for a treat.

Both goaltenders have had good and bad games, and both will need to be better if this team is going to make the playoffs. That said I don't feel uncomfortable with either goalie in net, as each will give us a chance to win on most nights. As the players become more accustomed to Martin's system, and O'Byrne is due to come back from injury soon, our defense gets better and better, which leads to better goaltending. I don't have anything remarkably negative or positive to say about our young goaltending tandem, but hopefully by the 20 game mark both of them can give me something to write about in the positive section

Take on the season thus far

If you would have told me on September 30th that we would lose Markov in the first game of the season, O'Byrne in the second, but still manage to be 6-6-0 after 12 games, I would have told you I thought you were lying. 4-8-0 maybe, 3-9-0 more likely. The five straight losses were annoying, but they were to be expected with a team struggling to come together on the fly. What's important in this season is that we maintain a .500 record until Markov comes back, and use that as a springboard going into the postseason. I don't care if we make it in 1st in the East or 8th, once we get in I just want to see good hockey from a team that trusts each other and plays for each other. This means that even maintaining our current pace is above what was predicted for this team, and in all honesty satisfactory considering the circumstances. The best part of this situation is that we can see improvements in the way the team is playing every game, and we might end up far ahead of schedule in wins by the time Markov returns. How nice does Spacek and Hamrlik sound for the SECOND wave of the PP?

Sidenote: I told you all about Cammalleri. Right after I write a blog he scores 5 in 4 games!

All images courtesy of Gazette

Friday, October 16, 2009

Should We Be Worried?

It's six games in now, and Mike Cammalleri has yet to light the lamp. It's got a lot of people very worried, and in the post game interview tonight he stated that if he could have converted on a couple of his chances this season we might be 4-2 instead of 2-4. While this is true we can't expect a 30-40 goal scorer to score every game. Players not named Alexander Ovechkin do go through extended scoring slumps. Luckily for us we can look at Cammalleri's recent career history, and find out that he experienced some slumps last year in the west as well. Mike didn't score in 6 straight games from November 1st to 9th, another 6 straight from March 6th to 18th, and and in 8 straight games from March 25th to April 7th. When you look at that it doesn't look very good for Mike, but he still scored 39 goals, which means he scores in bunches. Upon further inspection, he scored his 39 goals in 29 games. If Cammalleri doesn't score for another six games, I'll be the first to be annoyed, but let's cut him a little bit of slack for the time being, as it's not for lack of effort. Unlike our last expected offensive leader (Alex Kovalev) Cammalleri doesn't float around the ice and play well for 2 minutes of ice time every 20. He works hard everywhere he goes and creates chances for his linemates. It's because of this that I don't feel that stressed out that he hasn't lit the lamp.

Another reason to not be that worried is the re-emergence of some secondary scoring. We haven't exactly taken over a game yet, but we have got a second line pair that seems to be getting better every game in Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn. It took a few games for Tomas' solid play to rub off on Andrei, but tonight it finally seemed to click, and we're in for an improvement there. So far the lines haven't managed to click on the same night, but that will come with time. Other positives to come out of this game include Pacioretty looking a bit better, as well as getting his first point of the season, and Shawn Belle looking very much like he belongs in the NHL. He made a couple mistakes during the game, but that's to be expected in his first game up. He plays a safe, simple game and he has great speed which he showed a couple times when Colorado forwards got behind him, and he promptly caught them. Kyle Chipchura is also looking better every game, and I can't wait until Metropolit is back so Chips can shift to the wing and bump out Laraque. One thing that worries me so far this season is the play of D'agostini, who won't remain with the organization much longer if he can't find a way to contribute. He's been looking lost in every game he's played but the first against Toronto, and Jacques doesn't seem to have much faith in him. Hopefully my seething optimism isn't too annoying.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Road Trip in Bullet Points

  • As I said before the season even started, Max Pacioretty is not ready to play big minutes in the NHL, and is definitely not a dependable top six scorer.
  • Georges Laraque looks like a much better player this season.
  • Off the ice Georges Laraque is still every bit as pretentious and annoying as last season.
  • Hal Gill is getting an unfair shake by the fans, he's slow, but look at Robert Lefebvre's breakdown of the Canadien's on the ice during the penalty kill.
  • The penalty kill is atrocious, but getting better.
  • Brian Gionta is better than Alex Kovalev.
  • Carey Price is going to have a bounce back year, although the next week will likely be touch and go after the team abandoned him in his home coming.
  • Aside from Vancouver, Montreal has been in every game, and we probably should be 4-1 right now instead of 2-3, eventually we're going to get the bounces and calls to go our way if the effort is maintained.
  • When Mike Cammalleri finally does light the lamp, it will be followed by an explosion of offense. He's just too good to struggle much longer.
  • Scott Gomez isn't going to be a point per game player, but he's good enough defensively to make up for it, and sometimes he creates plays and doesn't end up with credit on the scoreboard. Is he worth his salary? No, but I'm satisfied with his current play.
  • Jacques Martin doesn't like young players very much. You can tell by many of his questionable coaching decisions in Edmonton that he would rather have a veteran like Laraque on the ice than someone who can score but is more of a risk in D'agostini.
  • Paul Mara is surprisingly solid, and could be one of the steals of the summer.
  • Fans need to remember that Spacek was expected to work the powerplay with Markov, not by himself, so expecting a 50-60 point season out of him is ridiculous.
  • This team has more character throughout than last year's team.
  • A 2-3-0 record with the Habs being in it 4/5 games on a five game road trip with an entirely new team, coaching staff and system, with Markov gone, is 100 times better than anyone expected this team to do.
  • The two people who left in the off season that both fans and the media complained most about Gainey letting go, Kovalev and Komisarek, are having terrible starts with their new teams. Kovalev is disinterested and floating with untalented linemates, and Komisarek is a focal point in everything that's wrong with the 0-5-1 Leafs
  • Bob Gainey is a better General Manager than Brian Burke, and he was completely right when he said that the Leafs were building a team that wasn't in line with the way the NHL is evolving, and it makes me grin an annoyingly arrogant grin.
  • Andrei Kostitsyn is improving as the season gets older, and he'll still have a breakout year.
  • Tomas Plekanec will be largely responsible for Andrei's breakout. His hard work all over the ice and renewed offensive confidence are excellent to see. The backhander in the dying seconds of the middle period against Calgary is something we never saw from Plekanec last year, he was trying too hard instead of following his instincts, which are that of an excellent player.
  • We've currently alienated the top 6 forward missing from our lineup, and he's lingering in Hamilton awaiting a trade that likely won't happen. On the bright side, Washington had to SUE Alexander Semin to get him to play there, and look how that turned out.
  • This may be a bit harsh, but Gregory Stewart is not an NHL player, and he never will be.
  • Kyle Chipchura isn't as bad as his stats make him look, and his skating is better than most fans believe.
  • Travis Moen is a third or fourth line player at best, and Martin needs to remember that and stop looking like Carbo. Moen played his best two games of the season on the fourth line, he's not suited to a scoring line.
  • Scott Gomez thus far sucks at faceoffs, but he's averaged over 52% since the lockout, so this has to be an aberration, or he gets better as the season goes on.
  • Paul Mara's beard is a better defenseman than Mike Komisarek
  • Matt D'agostini is a scorer, not a grinder, he needs to be on a scoring line in order to be effective. Eight minutes a game with Kyle Chipchura doesn't help him look good.
  • Latendresse should probably get a look on one of the top two lines, he's been good on the powerplay thus far and his puck control along the boards is improved.
  • Latendresse needs to stop that stupid wraparound move he does every time he goes behind the net. Every goalie expects a wraparound. You've only scored on it once Gui, and that was against Kari Ramo, not exactly an elite goalie.
  • As much as I get frustrated when the Canadiens lose a winnable game, I find it humourous that the same people who are lauding Gainey as a genius after two overtime wins call him an utter failure after one bad game in Vancouver.
  • As of right now, the Montreal Canadiens are playing better than the Boston Bruins, despite a tougher schedule and more obstacles to overcome. Suck it Boston.
  • Mike Cammalleri has had seasons of 53, 54, 54, and 60% in the faceoff dot, and is at 61.5% this year so far. Why isn't he taking more faceoffs?
  • Speaking of faceoffs, as much as fans and those in the media such as Mike Boone of the Montreal Gazette and (the best site on the internet btw) have been trashing Kyle Chipchura for his defensive play thus far, he's 11 and 5 on the faceoff dot in three games. That's good for 68.8% and best on the Canadiens. It's also a whopping 30% better than Glen Metropolit in that category. With linemates not named Georges Laraque and Greg Stewart, it's very likely that Kyle Chipchura could be a very good 4th line center.
  • The defense are going to take a longer time to adjust to the new system than the forwards, especially with Markov and O'Byrne gone.
  • Tom Pyatt deserves a shot on the 4th line with the big club, and Greg Stewart should be sent down even before Pacioretty. Patches can at least play on the third and fourth line and not be a liability, Stewart.... not so much.
  • Jaroslav Halak is better than he was against Calgary, and deserves another start soon, but not before Price plays a couple more games to get his groove back.
  • Spacek is better defensively than I remember him being when I watching him during Edmonton's playoff run.
  • We're the only team to have beaten a strong looking Buffalo team, that just shellacked the Detroit Red Wings.
  • The NHL's scheduling this year SUCKS. Somedays we have 15 games, and others we have none. How can it be that unbalanced when it's supposed to be compressed? If the NHL complains about the olympic break, then makes scheduling blunders like this, who'd really to blame?
  • Brian Gionta is still going to be the next captain of the Canadiens.
  • The Montreal Canadiens will make the playoffs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If All Else Fails Part 2: Free Agents

On to the second and final part of this rundown of what the Canadiens could do to shore up the defense now that Markov and O'Byrne have gone down. There are several free agents out there that are available, and even some that are heavily rumoured to be in contract talks with the Canadiens, or have at least offered their services. Let's take a look at the players available and what they would bring to our team.

Pros: I lived in northern Alberta from 1998-2005, and went back there from May to August from 2005-2007, so I've actually seen Bergeron play a lot when he was with Edmonton, while my experience watching him is a bit old, I've asked around and apparently he hasn't changed much. Bergeron has a wicked shot, an absolute rocket. Possibly better than Yannick Weber's shot as far as power goes. Bergeron is also a very good skater, he brings speed and acceleration above the average on our defensive corps right now. He has a fairly good pass, but not elite, shooting is where he makes his money. He would undoubtedly contribute on the powerplay, that's his bread and butter. Bergeron is also a Quebecer, so it would be very appreciated by the Francophone members of the media to have another player to interview, as well as the Francophone fans watching on RDS to see the opinion of another player.

Cons: And there are some big ones! While his shot is extremely hard, it is also wildly inaccurate. I can't even count how many times I've seen Bergeron tee up for a massive shot, with no bodies in the way, and miss the net by 12 feet only to see the puck bounce off the boards and out of the zone on a powerplay. If Habs fans found Mike Komisarek's constant shooting into a player's shin pads frustrating, wait until you see this shot cause multiple 2-on-1 breaks for the other team on the same powerplay. Bergeron is also a little reckless in his own zone, and because of his small stature and lack of strength, he can rarely cover up his mistakes by muscling players off the puck. His positioning in his own zone is also not the best we could hope for. I don't see this as a necessary move for the Canadiens unless Yannick Weber struggles mightily offensively. With Ryan O'Byrne going down I would much rather see a more defensive minded defender coming in. There's also the issue of salary, I don't think Bergeron is going to take a bargain basement deal to play, even though he may be desperate. He made over 1.5 million last year and had a solid year, so he may still be looking for over 2 million. It easily fits in while Markov is gone, but when he's back I would think Bergeron would be trade bait at best. 2 million in the cap world his harder to move than say, under a million. Also he may kill our goalie in the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, like he did to Roloson. Sometimes being a veteran (the only clear advantage Bergeron has over Weber) doesn't necessarily make you a better option. If anything players have become used to Bergeron's turnovers and he may be more of a risk than he's worth. I think that while Bergeron may be initially cheered for offensive prowess as well as being French Canadian, he may in a few short games become the next Patrice Brisebois, constant source of ridicule. Speaking of the Breezer, apparently he's offered his services, so....

Pros... Cons: I'm sorry Breezer but the time has come and gone for you to make an impact. I appreciate that you absolutely bleed bleu, blanc et rouge, but at 38 you no longer have the speed and endurance to make up for the turnovers. Even though you'd surely be willing to take the NHL's lowest salary to play one more year, it's time to give the youngsters a chance, and there's nothing you bring to the table that I can't see Yannick Weber doing just as well, and getting better as the year drags on, not worse. I think Mike Boone said it best...

Pros: Dandenault is a familiar face to most of the team, the fans and the media. He couldn't crack the San Jose Sharks lineup in training camp which I found fairly astonishing, because I really like Dandenault as a player. He was easily one of our best last season. He possesses blinding speed, and surprisingly (at least to me), excellent offensive capabilities according to some analysis done by Lions in Winter contributer Topham. He's also solid in his own zone, very good positionally and strong enough to handle most forwards. Another French Canadian, it would be useful to have him on the team for that purpose alone, as it's been pointed out several times already this season that 3 French speakers on the team is not enough. Mathieu is also extremely versatile. He played forward for most of his time with the Canadiens, and he excelled last year especially on the fourth line. I think most would agree with me that his constant beating out of icings is very valuable in important games. Dandenault is a good mixture of offense and defense that could undoubtedly help the Canadiens depth on defense right now, as well as contribute on the 4th line when Markov returns from injury. It's also very likely that Dandenault would be willing to settle for a small salary, allowing the Canadiens to save some of the cap space created by Markov's injury for future deals throughout the season.

Cons: It's easy to forget after how good he was last year, but Dandenault was rarely a happy player in Montreal. He complained constantly in his first few seasons about being a healthy scratch when he knew he could contribute. Seeing his play last year it would seem very difficult to argue with him, but his play the two years before as a minus player didn't do him any favours. He also complained a bit when he was forced to play forward, as he would much rather be playing defense, which might be a problem again as it's likely that when O'Byrne returns from injury, Mathieu would be bumped down the depth chart on defense and only draw into games as a forward on the 4th line, if he gets into games at all since it seems like Jacques Martin likes Georges Laraque and Gregory Stewart. There's also Chipchura and D'agostini to think about, both of whom are looking to break out this year. Having a complaining Dandenault in the dressing room, reverting to his form of two years ago would not be good.