Friday, August 21, 2009

What Is The Hart Trophy?

Judging by the past few recipients of the the award, it seems like a fair question to me. According to the NHL, the Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded to the player "adjudged to be most valuable to his team" during the NHL's Regular season. This is a fairly simple explanation, but is that explanation being followed today? I would argue that the award has become just an echo of the Lester B. Pearson Award, which is given to the player judged to be the most outstanding among his peers, by his peers. The Pearson is a very simple award to vote for, you just vote for who you think the best player in the league was during the applicable regular season, however the Hart requires a much more delicate decision. You're voting on who you think was the most valuable player to their own team, regardless of which team it is. This means that in many cases, the best player in the league will not win the award.

For the last six seasons the player who wins the Hart has been either the NHL's leading goal scorer, or leading point producer. On the surface you may think that this makes sense, as the player who plays the best is obviously very valuable to his team, but this doesn't make them the MOST valuable. For an example of when the trophy is awarded correctly we need to look back all the way to the 2001-02 season, when Jose Theodore took home the trophy. Many thought that Jarome Iginla was robbed of the award because Iginla had broken the 50 goal barrier and was the league's most dominant scorer, however the Calgary Flames didn't even make the playoffs. On his team he easily stood out in terms of talent, but his play failed in an attempt to bring the team over the playoff hurdle. Jose Theodore however was playing for a Montreal Canadiens team that was decimated by the diagnosis of captain Saku Koivu with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and on an incredibly weak team in terms of skill and scoring, losing a player of his calibre led most to predict the team would finish last in the eastern conference. On the shoulders of Theodore's outstanding play, the Canadiens scraped and clawed into the post season, and managed to upset the heavily favoured 1st place Boston Bruins. Without the play of Theodore, the Canadiens were a bottom dwelling team, whereas without Iginla, the Flames didn't have much further to drop. This is a great example of how the trophy SHOULD be awarded.


It's very clear that in the last two seasons Alexander Ovechkin has been the best player during the regular season. Seasons of 65 and 56 goals respectively, are something to be brag about and be proud of, and during these seasons he was easily the most valuable player on his team, but was he more valuable to his team than other players were to their teams? I don't think so. What needs to be observed when speaking of most valuable players, is what single player contributes most to the success of his team. Washington without Alex Ovechkin would definitely not have made the playoffs in 2007-08, but ask yourself who would finish higher in the standings that year, Washington without Ovechkin, or the New York Rangers without Henrik Lundqvist. Unlike JS Giguere in Anaheim and Martin Brodeur in New Jersey, Lundqvist was largely on his own defensively for most of the season. Washington still had veteran scorers and young stars to rely on to score, and although they wouldn't have made the playoffs I doubt they'd have missed by much. The Rangers however had an anemic offense, and a lackluster defense at best. Yet through his play the Rangers made it into the playoffs in a healthy 5th place, and promptly upset the favoured Devils.

In 2008-09 Ovechkin's production took a step down, and his supporting cast took a step up in a big way the Alex Semin and Mike Green emerging, yet he won once again. He was once again the most dominant offensive player in the league, although Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby were close behind, but again in terms of value he is clearly not the most deserving of recognition. When Roberto Luongo was injured in Vancouver, that team was entirely uncompetitive. His impact can be seen clearly in the wins column as Vancouver only mustered 12 wins in 28 games without his services (42.9% win percentage), versus 33 wins in 54 contests (61.1% win percentage) despite playing injured in many games. This would bring Vancouver from a top seeded team in their division to 13th or lower in the conference. The same platitudes can be attributed to the Canadiens' Andrei Markov, who can easily be considered the most valuable defenseman to his team in the NHL. Despite the various struggles the Canadiens had this past season, Markov remained consistent and even acheived a career high in points and assists. Running the Canadiens' power play and penalty kill, Markov is a calming force that I believe resembles Niklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings. When Markov succumbed to injury in the latter part of the season, despite the Canadiens playing their best hockey of the season, they suffered 7 straight losses to end the season and playoffs. The power play became completely ineffective, and the transition game of the Canadiens withered and died.

These two players are just examples off the top of my head of players who were more important to their team than Ovechkin was to the Capitals in the last two years. I could go back further and elaborate on how Crosby and Thornton were also not as valuable as others but I'd rather not be redundant. If by any chance those with votes when it comes to the Hart Memorial Trophy come by this blog, PLEASE take heed and vote properly. I for one, am sick of having a duplicate award of the Pearson just with different voting parties. There's a big difference between the two and you need to honour it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Kovalev Conundrum...

Will He Be Missed?

Although my biggest regret about the off season purge this summer is the loss of Saku Koivu, all I hear about from the Habs faithful is the loss of L'Artiste. Kovalev was undoubtedly the master of the Bell Centre crowd, and one of the more exciting players to watch in the NHL. Alex is also possibly the most purely skilled player I've ever seen touch a puck that isn't named Mario. But is his departure really as big of a loss as so many Canadiens fans believe? I don't think so.

Nobody on the Canadiens this coming season has the same flair that Kovalev has in the offensive zone, however I think Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri together make up for it. Kovalev was a wonder to behold in the offensive zone, and after his stellar and consistent performance in 07-08 what Montreal fan could not love him? He always scored when it was needed, and with Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn formed one of the most dynamic lines in the league. But the line disappeared in the playoffs, and was blown up almost as soon as the last season started when the chemistry seemed to no longer be there. And then the Kovalev that most people knew his entire career came back to the Bell Centre this year. Frustrated and not scoring, trying to deke out 5 players on the opposing team by himself instead of using his linemates, floating for long stretches, and losing battles with defensemen on the half boards as he holds onto the puck too long and loses his passing and shooting lanes. From time to time scoring streaks occured and everyone jumped back on the Kovalev bandwagon, hoping it would last, but it never did. It's certainly not fair to blame Kovalev for this last season, but to ignore his part in it is a little ignorant.

Attitude is an important thing in a dressing room, and despite what many say, Kovalev is a hard person to be a teammate with. He's a loner, rarely talks, and always seems unsatisfied (not in the good, burning passion way). Alex was supposed to be a leader on this team last season, and instead he often shirked his responsibilities and played selfishly. At one point it got so bad that his friend and confidant GM Bob Gainey sat him for two games. His attitude during the season may not have had a negative effect, but it didn't show the leadership that was expected of him, and it certainly didn't help the situation.

In terms of talent on right wing, no one on the Canadiens can replace Kovalev outright. Brian Gionta will not be replacing Alex Kovalev. He won't be the same game changer Kovalev can be. But the operative word in that last statement is "can". Alex Kovalev can completely take over a game, unquestionably, but ask yourself honestly how often it actually happens? Yes he had one spectacular season in Montreal, but on average he only plays average. In fact as often as Kovalev wins a game he has a big part in losing it. Untimely penalties and selfishness with the puck are staples of his game, like it or not. Kovalev is a two way street in his play. While he won't outdo Alex in panache, Brian Gionta will bring a much more consistent game to Montreal's right wing. He will also play a better team game, and make his linemates better, instead of ignoring them when the games get big. In terms of offensive production, I'm guessing that Kovalev in Ottawa will outpace Gionta in both goals and points, but not by much. The main reason I say this is because I'm assuming Kovalev will play with Spezza, who is a top tier playmaker. But Kovalev is always a mystery, and I would rather have consistent, hard nosed scorers on my team instead of someone I constantly have to coddle in order to get performance. Will he be missed? By the season ticket holders, yes. By the team, not at all.

How Should He Be Remembered?

It's a good question, because it's not easy to answer. I will always remember Kovalev streaking into the offensive zone against the Ranger on February 19th, 2007, in the third period, completing the most impressive and largest comeback in franchise history. Probably the greatest game I've ever had the privilege to watch. And in that respect I'll remember him fondly. But that memory is always going to be bitter sweet, because in my eyes, Alex Kovalev is a traitor.

When players go to free agency, they can sign with whatever team they want, and I have no problem with that, but it was the way in which the Kovalev saga went down that bothered me so much. Perhaps it's foolish naivete, but when someone waxes poetic about how much they love a city, team and franchise, I tend to believe that they're serious. Reason being that there's no reason to be so insistent about something like this if you don't feel that way. All through the last couple seasons Alex felt the need to tell anyone who would listen that Montreal is the only place outside of Russia that he had any desire to play. Stating many times that he would play for far less money to stay here because he loved it so much. When the time came to sign a new contract, Kovalev was offered a raise despite his enigmatic and relatively poor season. Neither Kovalev or his agent ever contacted the Canadiens organization with a counter offer, or even a decline. After a brief period of silence and a fan rally in front of the Bell Centre calling for his return, it was announced that Alex had signed with a division rival in the Ottawa Senators for just 500k more per year than the Canadiens' offer.

Many people absolve Kovalev from blame for this incident, claiming that it was his agent that kept him in the dark, or that Gainey forced him to make a decision too quickly, and then spurned him with the signing of Brian Gionta. I'll tackle the first assumption first. If Kovalev was displeased with the job his agent had done, why hasn't he been fired? If Kovalev was so serious about how much he loved Montreal, would 1 million dollars less over 2 years really have hurt someone who's made approximately 42.636 million dollars (courtesy hockeyzoneplus and nhlnumbers) in his career? If Kovalev was intent on staying in Montreal, would he not have told his agent that his priority was destination and not money? I would think so. As for feeling spurned by the signing of Gionta, perhaps he was a little. But Bob Gainey made an offer to Kovalev before free agency started, and he told him that he wanted to hear back as soon as possible, meaning that if a decision wasn't made quickly or negotiations taken seriously, Gainey's hand would be forced and he would have to look elsewhere for a right winger. And even after Gionta was signed, does anyone really believe that Gainey wouldn't send D'agostini to the minors for a year to have Kovalev come back at a one year low salary? It's well known that Bob Gainey loves Kovalev, but apparently the feeling isn't mutual enough to not betray a friend. The bottom line about this summer is that if Alex Kovalev WANTED to be a Montreal Canadien, he would be. He spurned us, and not the other way around.

The other problem with remembering Kovalev in a positive light is where he chose to sign. There were are 25 teams in the NHL that aren't division rivals. None of those teams appealed to Alex? He had to realize that the way he left Montreal was a slap in the face, but signing just across the Quebec/Ontario border was the heavy handed back hand. I'm sure Alex will do his best to show Montreal fans what they're missing in his 3 visits to the Bell Centre this coming season, and he will most likely be cheered upon his return, but I'll be booing.

On the plus side, perhaps now Ottawa Senators games will be entertaining for once and I'll have a reason to watch Sportnet East in HD when the Habs aren't playing.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The New Team

On June 30th of 2009 I was instantly horrified as I checked for my regular hockey fix during the lead up to the free agency period. Bob Gainey had just solidified the rumours that Saku Koivu's time in Montreal had come to an end as he made a trade for Scott Gomez from the New York Rangers. Not only was Gomez overpaid for about the same size and point totals as Koivu, but we gave up a solid player in Chris Higgins, and a blue chip prospect in Ryan McDonagh. Within 36 more hours the team was completely remade both on forward and on defense.

While I was extremely angry about the Gomez trade, as I really believed Higgins would be a perfect fit with Jacques Martin, and I loved the potential of McDonagh, I could not argue the effect Gomez had in bringing in at least one top flight player (Cammalleri), and another great complimentary forward (Gionta) to play with. On the day it happened several people panned the signing of Mike Cammalleri as far too expensive. How ridiculous! This guy had more goals than any other free agent on the market this year, more than the highly coveted Marion Hossa. As for Gionta, yes he's overpaid, but worth the risk if he can regain his magic chemistry with Gomez.

On defense Matheiu Schneider was replaced by the younger, and much more effective all around player Jaroslav Spacek. Hal Gill and Paul Mara were brought in to replace the outgoing Mike Komisarek, Francois Bouillon, Matheiu Dandenault and Patrice Brisebois. Clearly the loss of Komisarek, despite his poor play last season is a big blow defensively, however if Ryan O'Byrne can take a step forward in his development, I believe we've become much better defensively overall, especially with the increased size.

In just a couple short days many fans no longer recognized the team they cheered for, but is this really bad news? Of those that have left there are several I'll truly miss; Koivu can never be replaced as a tenacious leader and inspiring public figure. Tanguay was supposed to be the long awaited French Canadian first line player, and he was let go. Dandenault was mistreated but always played admirably when called upon, and I'll miss his speed beating icings several times a game. Chris Higgins seemed to finally be finding his game as a checking forward who could score in the clutch. Robert Lang was a breath of fresh air in the dressing room, and had a smile that could cheer up anyone, not to mention his clutch scoring and chemistry with the Kostitsyns. But in every one that's left, there's hope anew that this team can pick itself up, skate an a fresh sheet of ice and be successful.


The line combination possibilities is one of the main reasons I've gone from hopeless to excited about this upcoming season. Although a lot of people believe we're going to have a 'free agent first line with an average height of 5'9"', I don't think Jacques Martin would be so foolish to put all his new eggs in one basket and create a line that would be very vulnerable to big checking lines at even strength. On the powerplay that line will definitely see time together, but here's how I see the lines shaking out this season, with an explanation of why I think it'll work.

Line 1: Andrei Kostitsyn - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta

Andrei lends size to this line that Cammalleri can't. Over the last two seasons we've seen flashes of brilliance from him in both offensive acumen and physical prowess. Putting him on this line forces him to be the big man on the ice and play physical. Gomez and Gionta don't shy away from the physical side of the game at all in their own right, and their grittiness will rub off on Andrei. Without Kovalev hogging the puck the entire time Andrei is on the ice, look for him to shoot much more, and convert on some slick passes from Gionta and Gomez.

Line 2: Mike Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Sergei Kostitsyn/Matt D'agostini

This line gets a bit more complicated as I don't think Sergei or D'ags will be able to stay on this line all year. This isn't necessarily knocking either one, I just think that they both bring different things to the table. Sergei will most likely start the year on this line as the main playmaker for Mike and Tomas. This line will not only have some offensive punch with Cammalleri (probably our best forward now), the sure 20+ goals from Plekanec and the great passes from Sergei, it also has a solid defensive presence with Plekanec and Sergei both able to kill penalties. This is going to allow Cammalleri to take more risks offensively, and it'll pay dividends for the team as a whole. In games where we need to score more effectively however, I believe Martin will shift the playmaking responsibility to Plekanec and put D'agostini on the line with his quick wrist shot and slightly superior foot speed.

Line 3: Guillaume Latendresse - Maxim Lapierre - Matt D'agostini/Sergei Kostitsyn

I think it would be obvious to most people by now that Lapierre brings out the best in Latendresse, and I would count Jacques Martin in this group. Many people are disappointed in the development or lack thereof in Latendresse, and sad to see him languishing on the 3rd line. I like to think of it differently however. On most teams in the NHL the 3rd line is usually the checking line, counted on for defence and grit, and maybe to pot a few goals now and then, while the 4th line is basically pluggers to bang and crash and create energy. Here in Montreal we have the good fortune to have a 3rd line that can not only be defensively responsibly, but be more of a 2a line than a 3rd line. Lapierre has playmaking ability and skill to a much higher degree than most 3rd line centers, while Latendresse and D'agostini are much better scorers than most 3rd line players. Playing on this line will help D'ags develop his defensive play (and maybe learn French!) while accenting the offensive side of this line. Another positive of this set up is that with D'ags as the sniper on the line, Latendresse will be forced to play the way he should play, tough and big in front of the net. Expect some garbage goals from those soft hands Guillaume has. When D'ags is pushed up to the 2nd line, Sergei's playmaking ability will no doubt improve the goalscoring of Latendresse substantially, while creating a better defensive unit. Both variations have upsides that Martin will love to play with.

Line 4: Travis Moen - Kyle Chipchura - Glen Metropolit

Here's where I think some people will be surprised, because I think it's about time Kyle Chipchura made this roster. His size makes him a far better option at center than Metropolit, and he's ready for this move. Metropolit has played some wing during his life, and although it's not his natural position I'll assume that he and Kyle will switch back and forth during the season until Chipchura improves his face-off percentage. All three players are penalty killers and solid defensive players. Moen and Chipchura will crash and bang and create space for the smaller and slightly more skilled Metropolit. This line is no offensive juggernaut, however it is more solid than many other NHL teams can muster. This will be a line of clutch goals, toughness and great defensive plays.


Georges Laraque - will be sitting on the sidelines for most of this season if he isn't bought out. He'll replace Metropolit or Chipchura in the lineup for games against rougher teams like Philadelphia or Boston most likely, but with Moen now a Canadien his usefulness is questionable. Moen can do most things Laraque can do, only he can skate and make plays much better.

Max Pacioretty - will be in Hamilton for as much time as possible barring injuries. With Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn at left wing there's no room for him on the top two lines, which is where he would have to play to develop the skills Montreal wants him to develop. In Hamilton he'll be the top offensive guy on the team on Ben Maxwell's wing, where he will hopefully dominate and gain the scoring touch many hockey pundits expect.

Greg Stewart - will most likely stay in Hamilton most of the year, with the possibility of a short term call up due to roster injuries early in the year, or a permanent call up half way through as his waiver eligibility runs out. Stewart is tough as nails and willing to stick up for his teammates, but his services won't be needed in the bigs unless Travis Moen gets injured at left wing.


1st Pairing: Andrei Markov - Paul Mara

A lot of people I've talked to have Jaroslav Spacek on the top pairing with Markov, but if I'm Martin I don't want my two best puck movers on the top pairing to leave my 2nd scoring line with less ability to move the puck up ice. Paul Mara provides some grit in the defensive zone that Markov is used to from playing with Komisarek so long, but he provides a much improved level of offensive awareness, an ability to move the puck up ice to give Markov a break once in awhile, and a fairly decent shot when in the offensive zone for Markov to set up. I wouldn't expect more than 8 goals from Mara this year, but that's still a vast upgrade offensively on Komisarek's typical shot from the point that gets blocked and bounces behind him creating a breakaway for the other team.

2nd Pairing: Roman Hamrlik - Jaroslav Spacek

I have two reasons for having these two together. The first being they are Montreal's 2nd and 3rd best puck moving defensemen respectively, but more importantly they are familiar, and have played dominantly with each other on the Czech Republic's national team. Spacek's consistency and on ice vision will provide Hamrlik with a more experienced partner than he's had since he came to Montreal, and hopefully this will allow Hamrlik to play in a similar manner as he did in 07-08 when he was a hitting and shot blocking machine. The offensive responsibility will largely be taken off his shoulders and his minutes can probably drop a little as well. If these two recapture their former chemistry, expect some excellent break outs by the second line, and solid defensive play from both players.

3rd Pairing: Josh Gorges - Hal Gill

Hal Gill may not be the best skater in the world, but he has the wing span of a spruce goose, and a pretty good stick to go with it. When he's on his game he can check ferociously and his size rivals Zdeno Chara. The added depth on the top two pairings allows Josh Gorges to take a slightly smaller role to which he's more suited. Instead of 20-22 minutes a game he'll be playing 15-18, which will allow him to be more focused and connect outlet passes far more frequently, and join more rushes. Expect a marked increase in point production again this year from Josh. As for chemistry with Gill, I think that remains to be seen. While Gill is a very strong giant Pylon, Gorges is a tough for his size and speedy player. It sounds good on paper, but this is the pairing I'm most unsure of.


Ryan O'Byrne - will spend all year with Montreal. I expect him to make a big leap this year with the guidance of Jacques Martin. He'll be a healthy scratch for many games, but he'll draw in his fair share with customary injuries and slumps. Martin happens to have a great track record in developing oversized defensemen, ever heard of Zdeno Chara?

Yannick Weber - will start the year in Hamilton I'm guessing. He'll be the priority call up if any injuries occur, especially to offensive minded defensemen. His experience in last years playoffs suggest he already has the skill to break into the NHL, but the spots are filled for now. He'll dominate again at the AHL level as a sophomore and make the most of his chances when in the NHL.

P.K. Subban - will most likely spend the whole year in Hamilton. Weber has the priority call up because of experience as a pro, so it would have to be a decimated defensive corps before he gets called up I expect. He'll make a big impact in Hamilton, playing with Weber on the powerplay will be a force to be reckoned with.


Carey Price - mark my words will play better than ever this season. With a much improved defensive corps in front of him, a better system coach behind him, and a much needed change in goaltending coach, Carey will be a man on a mission and ready for anything. Look for him to be better conditioned this season and in all likelihood not miss near as much time with injury.

Jaroslav Halak - Jaro will continue to be himself, making steady improvement in his play while quietly challenging and pushing Price to be better. There's no reason to think these two won't get the job done in a big way this year.

My Fandom

Born and raised until the age of 11 in Saskatchewan, I didn't have a hometown team, but from the first game I ever watched I knew there was only one team worth my lifelong admiration, and that was the Montreal Canadiens. From the moment I saw them take the ice with the famous CH on their chests I knew there could be no other. And to make a gut feeling turn into an ironclad knowledge, all I had to do was look at the net. I couldn't believe how cool these guys looked while stopping the puck, and for some reason ours was so much better than the other team's. He covered the bottom of the net much better, and could drop to his knees and get back to his feet in a split second. Fast, agile, competitive, and young, I'd just been introduced to who would become my favourite player in NHL history, Patrick Roy. In a few short years I watched my idol have (in my opinion) the most dominant playoff performance in the history of hockey en route to his second Conn Smythe Trophy, and more importantly second Stanley Cup. Things wouldn't last forever in Montreal for Patrick, as his fiery temper and a stressed relationship with a rookie coach spelled his end for the Habs during a game against Detroit. When he was traded to Colorado in a move that began Rejean Houle's decimation of the franchise a part of my heart was also shipped to Colorado, but I could never turn my back on the Canadiens. And it was a hard time to be a Canadiens fan, as Houle's disastrous trades of marquee players for bags of pucks drove the team to all new lows.

As my family moved to Alberta in 1998 it seemed that both geographically and emotionally I was moving away from the Canadiens, as disappointment year after year combined with the success of my secondary team in Colorado distracted from my lifelong obsession with the Canadiens. However something was about to change in Montreal, and as Houle was let go, there seemed to be a renewed hope in achieving the dominance of the past. Saku Koivu was an inspirational player to watch; small and talented, but vicious as a bulldog and completely fearless. His diagnosis and subsequent recovery from cancer was inspiring to any true hockey fan, and it inspired an extremely unlikely playoff upset of perpetual rival Boston. The passion had been permanently re-ignited. Andre Savard began to draft much more carefully than Houle, and there were all of a sudden some prospects on the farm. Soon after a legend was hired, and Bob Gainey came to much adoration with a promise to make the Canadiens competitive once more.

In 2005 I graduated from high school, and by complete coincidence my girlfriend of two years wanted to go to school in Montreal as her sister had done. We both agreed to go to university in the mecca of hockey, and it was a match made in heaven. Arriving in late August I made a bee line to the old Forum, I couldn't get enough of the history, and soon after I managed to get to my first ever Canadiens game. What else could I see but a game against the Bruins to initiate myself? October 18th, 2005 I saw Montreal battle back twice to take the win, their first at home of the season. And like a child on christmas morning I was beaming for days. The atmosphere of the Bell Centre was more than anyone could imagine unless they'd been there before.

Now the team that Gainey built has been blown up after a failure of a centennial season, and I get to fall in love with the team all over again as they grow and hopefully prosper in this new incarnation. I hope those who drop by here enjoy this blog as I will comment on the affairs of Les Glorieux.

Here's to the Habs!