Friday, July 3, 2009

Breaking the Silence

A Montreal Friday is upon us and I'm feeling inspired for the first time in months. It's been a crazy week around the NHL and virtually all the big names have found new homes or stuck around where they were.

The Canadiens have changed the guard. It's looking very likely that the Artist has played his last game for the Habs and the same goes for Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay, Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarek and several key components of Bob Gainey's so-called "five year plan".

It's the dawn of a new era with Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez getting into the mix along with two new blueliners in Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill.

Reaction has been mixed but largely negative to this new look team. They're being called small and the speculation is they will be pushed around by the opposition, even more so than in years past (if that's possible).

I like what Bob Gainey did because if this team proved anything last year, it was that the current formula wasn't working. Gone are the familiar faces who spouted cliches after every game, replaced by guys with big skill and Stanley Cup rings.

We're all aware of the crazy stories and rumours that flew around this team throughout their centennial season and something had to be done. Clearly things weren't working for the guys wearing the letters on their jerseys and now they're all gone.

Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek were good teammates and worked hard for the team that drafted them in consecutive first rounds. I wish them the best in their respective careers and I have a feeling Higgins may burn the Habs for years to come and Komisarek will probably make their forwards pay along the perimeter too, but they had to go. They were the young core of the team's leadership which often resulted in their teammates being led into wild party nights in Montreal.

Hockey players have been partying hard for decades but it seems that this group just couldn't find the balance that effective teams have. They left young players to fend for themselves in a city more than willing to cater to their youthful whims.

It's hard to figure out Kovalev, who seems to be the guy most fans want back but Kovy turned down a two-year deal worth a reported $9 million. That's a lot of money for a 36 year-old power play specialist with a tendency to take nights off. Maybe he didn't want to play second fiddle to the new wave. Maybe his agent led him astray.

Regardless, I think his departure bodes well for the younger players who will be more driven to work hard and give their all under Jacques Martin's new regime.

The one that hits home with me is Saku Koivu. I don't think the team could have started anew with him in place so he had to go but he was a warrior for this team who grinded and played his heart out every night. He raised the bar for a captain`s role in Montreal and changed the meaning of `giving back to the community`. I will never forget his return from cancer, his playoff magic and continued humility when dealing with a vicious media and fan base with unrealistic expectations for a guy who never had a decent set of linemates and never once complained. His lasting image may be the night he capped of the greatest comeback in Montreal Canadiens history with his trademark shootout goal against the New York Rangers.

We`ll see how it plays out and tributes will start to pour in eventually. I like this one, courtesy of the great Aislin.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Team in Turmoil

Tuesday was one of those days that the trip to Canadiens practice in Brossard is well worth the trip across the bridge. I noticed Alex Kovalev wasn't on the ice almost as soon as I arrived, shortly after being informed of Sergei Kostitsyn's demotion to Hamilton to try and regain his form and if Jean Perron is right, to get him away from the party atmosphere he, Carey Price and Chris Higgins have been enjoying a bit too much of in Montreal.

Canadiens communications director Donald Beauchamp then came over and informed us that Bob Gainey would be addressing some player personnel moves he'd made earlier in the day personally. It was when Bob began to speak that the magnitude of actions began to take shape.

Kovalev has been asked to stay in Montreal to "rest" and Bob Gainey wants him to "stay away from the team" for a while, at least until he can re-evaluate where the team stands after two games without the Artist on Saturday.

This comes on the heels of the acquisition of 39 year-old Mathieu Schneider, the good-natured veteran defenceman who is returning to the team that drafted him 44th overall in 1987. Schneider, for his part, seems genuinely happy to be back in Montreal. He's wearing Chris Chelios' number 24, a fact he reminded his former teammate of in an early morning phone call prior to his first practice with the Canadiens. After practice, Schneider recounted that Chelios told him,

"You stole my job 15 years ago, you may as well take my number too."

Kovalev may be four years younger than Schneider but he's either being taught a lesson by Habs management or a deal for him is imminent. It's hard to believe the Habs would get more from him than a a 2nd round pick at this point and you'd have to think his trade value decreases as he sits out games by managements decree.

The Canadiens as an organization were unhappy about Perron's comments but Guy Carbonneau didn't back off of them completely either,

"I trust it's not just that," said the coach following yesterday's practice.

Price meanwhile patiently answered the charges in the locker after the skate,

"I don't think we go out any more than any other team in the league. We're young athletes and we go out every once in a while, but I don't think it's affected us at all," Price added. "I don't really care what [Perron] said."

Yale alum Chris Higgins also weighed in,

"I think it's pretty predictable, to be honest, when things go bad it seems like these stories come out, especially in this city. … I'd like to say more but I should stop there,"

Meanwhile, Guy Carbonneau continues to be plagued by claims that he's lost this team. It's a point that's hard to argue against. Since being given a midseason vote of confidence by Gainey, the Habs have sunk to new depths and are chipping away at rock bottom's sub-basement these days.

All the player movement has deflected attention away from such claims for now but losses in the next two games would certainly put them right back on centre stage. In the meantime, it's a one game at a time ritual to be a Montreal Canadien.

Kostitsyn's demotion is good news for Gregory Stewart, the hard working winger who will take his spot on the big team. Stewart has stood out in every game he's played at the NHL level and is one guy who Guy Carbonneau won't have to worry about motivating.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dealing With Expectations

It's amazing how things can change so much from one month to another. The Canadiens haven't put together a consistent stretch all year long. At the beginning of the year, they were winning games they should have lost. Lucky for them, they picked up 17 of a possible 20 points to begin the season and that's probably the main reason they remain in fifth place to this point despite being the coldest team in the NHL, 2-8 in their last ten games.

The Canadiens created so much hype with their phenomenal regular season last year. The playoffs were different, as both Boston and Philly exploited their lack of physicality and unwillingness to pay the price along the boards. After their second round exit, the offseason provided hope with the acquisitions of Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang along with a guy like Georges Laraque, who it seemed would make the Milan Lucics and Scott Hartnells of the league respect them.

The other side of it was the loss of two guys who had been around for a while, one coming off a career season and one off one of his worst campaigns, both UFAs.

I'm not going to say Michael Ryder would be enjoying comparable success here in Montreal to the great season he's having on a Boston team that looks destined for greatness. It's impossible to know and in all likelihood the change of scenery is one of the things that sparked Ryder's resurgence. Another factor was having a coach who believed in him in Claude Julien.

The other guy is Mark Streit. Streit put up 62 points last year while quarterbacking the top power play in the NHL. He took smart shots, did an excellent job of getting pucks in deep and pursuing them and played in virtually every role asked of him by the Habs coaching staff. He loved Montreal and looked crushed when it became clear he didn't fit in with the teams plan for their centennial season and onward. Streit moved on to a bad team in Long Island where he is revered by fans and teammates for what he is, one of the top offensive defencemen in the league and an NHL all-star.

With the Habs power play languishing at 24th in the league at a dismal 16.3% success rate, one can't help but miss Streit's under the radar modus operandi.

It might make it easier if Robert Lang's career wasn't likely over due to the brutal injury he suffered and Alex Tanguay not on the shelf for the foreseeable future. Those injuries are big for a Canadiens team that often looks young and overmatched these days.

The fact is that none of the factors experts and fans alike thought would propel the Canadiens to the top the Eastern Conference heap have come to pass.

The goaltending has been inconsistent at best and demoralizingly awful at times.

The veterans have often been hurt and not nearly as good as they were expected to be, from Kovalev to Tanguay and plenty more in between.

The young players who were supposed to take another step forward have remained in large part where they already were, and some have taken big steps back.

Sergei Kostitsyn has been disappointing but nowhere near as much so as Tomas Plekanec (29 goals last year), Chris Higgins (27) and Kovalev (35).

It's not all doom and gloom. The future looks bright with guys like Pacioretty coming up and performing but this year is starting to look more and more like another first or second round playoff exit, certainly nowhere near what was expected of this team going into this year.

Guy Carbonneau spoke of dealing with these expectations in a frank and what I believe to be totally accurate way yesterday after taking his team bowling instead of skating them again.

"I think the biggest (strain) is the pressure and anticipation from the people. We had a good year last year and from the start of (this) year, they saw us as Stanley Cup contenders. Maybe we're not as good as they think we are. It's a tough league to win in consistently. And it's going to get tougher and tougher until the end."

Randy Renaud, long time Montreal broadcaster and long-suffering Habs fan had this assessment yesterday, one that many Habs fans would agree with and one that's a little bit heartbreaking to read.

Montrealers and Habs fans everywhere might just love this team a little bit too much and love, as we all know, can be blinding.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Asleep at the Switch

My apologies to my regular readers... I've been feeling uninspired but that has changed.

The Canadiens trainwreck made two stops at the Bell Centre this weekend with mixed results. Christopher Higgins, who has been unceremoniously stripped of his assistant captaincy, scored a huge goal to salvage a shoddy effort against the LA Kings and often maligned captain Saku Koivu devastated the Kings by ending it in regulation just over a minute later.

The real story of the game was Denis Gauthier's appalling head shot on Montreal's Josh Gorges, the fourth serious offense on the LA defenceman's resume. A lack of respect is rampant among NHLers and it's hard to understand.

Even harder to understand was the Canadiens decision to allow Gorges back on the ice after the incident. Even if they were able to determine that Gorges didn't suffer a concussion on the play, one would think they would keep him out of action for the rest of the game, if only as a precautionary measure. Higgins had a succinct assessment of the incident following the game,

"You saw his face after the hit and he wasn't on earth, he was someplace else."

Christopher Higgins isn't a doctor, and neither am I but we both know Gorges was messed up. He skated into the glass after getting up and likely didn't have the clearest of ideas where he was.

The question for me is how the Habs could be irresponsible enough to to put Gorges back on the ice. Luckily all it cost the team was a turnover by the dazed rearguard that led directly to an LA goal and not another crushing blow to the head of one of the teams more promising youngsters. We're talking about the long term health of a human being. Not hockey, but rather the ability to function normally for the remainder of one's life, hopefully a life that will go on long after his NHL career.

That's that.

On Sunday the Habs were lucky to remain in a game against Boston in which they were outclassed in virtually every aspect of the game. The 3-1 score didn't do it justice. Carey Price turned in a good performance but his teammates snoozed their way through sixty minutes of hockey, looking disinterested against a divisional arch-rival who are now 18 points clear of a Montreal team that suddenly seems in danger of missing the playoffs in their centennial season.

There are plenty of teams in the conference who want to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs more than the Habs given the way they're playing at the moment.

The bad news doesn't end there. Robert Lang had a busy day, winning the January segment of the Molson Cup, scoring a goal and suffering a potentially career ending injury. The severity of the tear to his achilles isn't yet known but at his age a full tear could spell the end of the line for a guy who's been a bright spot and leads the club in goal scoring.

Alex Kovalev had an awful game and Guy Carbonneau was asked if he thought the Artist played differently without the captain's "C" on his jersey. Instead of dismissing the notion out of hand as I expected him to, the coach was frank and said,

"“I hope that’s not the truth. Because then we’re in trouble because I’m not taking the C off Saku. If somebody needs a letter to perform well on the ice, I have a tough time with that. Alex is a professional. He’s not a rookie. Right now, he’s struggling, but we need him if we hope to go far.”


Things are not right at the Bell Centre and the road ahead looks grim. The Canadiens play 13 times in the last 26 days in a February schedule that includes dates with some of the leagues top teams and a six game Western road trip that concludes with stops in Pittsburgh, who make their first visit of the year to Montreal on Tuesday night and Washington to take on a terrific Caps team that features the best player in the game. Add games against San Jose, Philly and Ryan Miller's Buffalo Sabres and you've got the recipe for a meltdown.

It's gut check time.

Let's hope the Canadiens handle the upcoming adversity better than they did the Josh Gorges situation.

Friday, January 9, 2009

What Rivalry?

Things got interesting in the second period between the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs last night. It was the third meeting of the year between the two teams. The first was on October 11th when the Habs embarrassed the Leafs on home ice in a 6-1 spanking.

The Leafs got a measure of revenge just under a month later by handing the Habs a 6-3 defeat at the Air Canada Centre on November 8th. Mikhail Grabovski was the story that night with a goal, an assist and a butt-ending of Carey Price that went uncalled.

Grabovski is remembered by Habs fans largely as a guy who couldn't crack the lineup or find any consistency during his time with the Canadiens and had difficulty staying on his feet for more than five seconds at a time during a shift. He also left the team during a crucial Western road trip because he was unhappy about his ice time. The 24 year-old was happy to be dealt to the Leafs in the offseason and his seething hatred of the CH and Sergei Kostitsyn in particular boiled over last night. Grabovski really covered his bases, he also managed to take a shot at the French following the game.

"I think he is not Belarussian now, he is French because I never fight with Belarussian guys," Grabovski said. "I don't know why he wants to fight with me. If he wants to fight, we'll go in the street and every minute of every day I'll wait for him and we'll fight."

Grabovski went also made it clear that he only has it out for the younger Kostitsyn.

"He's not smart, because the older Kostitsyn, Andrei, he never fights with me and he never will fight because he plays hockey, he plays the game, I think it's stupid."

The fallout of Grabovski's temper tantrum late in last night's blowout is an automatic three game suspension from the NHL for "abuse of an official". Grabovski's return to the Bell Centre was also highlighted by a one-fingered salute he delivered to the Bell Centre faithful, who booed him mercilessly every time he touched the puck, upon his ejection from the game late in the third period.

It's a shame things didn't work out in Montreal for Grabovski because he's a gifted player who can make a difference when given a chance. His play has been a bright spot for a dismal Leafs team that dropped to 16-19-6 with last night's loss. That's a bad record but still has them 10 points behind the Islanders in the Tavares-Hedman sweepstakes, to the chagrin of many Leafs fans.

Round four of the intriguing Habs-Leafs season series won't happen until February 7th but don't expect any of the bad blood to diminish in the meantime. The bad news for the Leafs is that the Habs decimated them without the services of six regulars, including their starting goaltender, captain and prized offseason acquisition.

Some journalists pointed out the Leafs proved a point in the only aspect of the game in which they excelled, the fights. Jamal Mayers pounded Tom Kostopoulos and the newest Leaf, Brad May, beat the crap out of Francis Bouillon two seconds later.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that Mayers has 25 pounds and three inches on Tom the Bomb or that Bouillon gives May five inches and 15 pounds. Kostopoulos had to answer for his hit on Mike Van Ryn last time the teams met. Someone had to do something because referee Tim Peel was unable to get the job done all night long in one of the most embarrassing displays of officiating in recent memory.

Andrei Kostitsyn was a target all night for his hit on Luke Schenn, who appears to be the real deal, earlier this year.

Kostitsyn had three points and set up Alex Kovalev for a beautiful goal after avoiding a huge hit at his own blueline, drawing a hooking penalty and finally feeding Kovalev for a beauty on the delayed call. AK46 is on fire right now with three goals and six points in his last three games.

Other highlights included three first period assists for the reborn Patrice Brisebois, who has been an unsung hero for this team all year long and who saluted Habs fans with a brief tour of the rink following his being named the games first star and moving into fifth all-time on the Habs defensive scoring list. He's come a long way in his career and Guy Carbonneau is thrilled with what his old teammate has brought to the table this year.

“He’s done a lot for us not only this year but last year, too,” said Carbonneau following last night's game. “We signed him as a potential seventh defenseman or as a precautionary measure. That was the plan, but things can change pretty quickly in this business. Patrice knows his limits and he’s playing well.”

Another hated former Hab comes to the Bell tomorrow night in the form of Jose Theodore but the former Vezina trophy winning netminder will be hard pressed to follow up the Grabovski show.