Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Good Signs For Habs In Ottawa

The Canadiens 6-2 pasting of the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night was encouraging for several reasons. Ending a five-game losing streak is important and doing with authority against a division rival is even better. Here’s why this was more than just a run-of-the-mill win for this group.

The obvious first one is that Randy Cunneyworth, who has put up with a lot since taking over from Jacques Martin a couple of weeks ago, got his first victory behind the bench. In the process, he avoided becoming the first coach in franchise history with five straight losses. He also got big performances out of the guys he benched for last Thursday’s debacle in Winnipeg, validating a bold move many questioned at the time. It also didn’t hurt that the team had a chance to get in a few practices under Cunneyworth, who faced four tough games in six nights when he was given the job on gameday, December 17th.

Secondly, the fact that six different Canadiens got onto the scoreline was a nice change of pace. Heck, the fact that any Canadiens got on the scoreline was a nice change of pace. Raphael Diaz and his three points stood out but other factors like some points from the fourth line, no glaring mistakes from Tomas Kaberle and the removal of Chris Campoli from the lineup were steps forward as well.

Third, the play of Lars Eller, PK Subban and Michael Cammalleri was obviously a huge step forward. Eller has shown flashes of his huge potential but count me among those who have felt he hasn’t gotten a fair shot among the top six. His size and speed are assets unmatched on this team and when you’re on the road, having a guy like that can be a huge bonus.

Subban showed some of the flair and end-to-end ability that have made him a fan favorite and his confidence seemed to be closer to the insanely high level it was at when he lit it up during the second half of last year. Hopefully he can build on that. Sure, he made mistakes but Josh Gorges and others were there to cover for him when he did. When he’s at his best, he’s taking risks and the rewards outweigh the errors.

Finally and perhaps more importantly, Cammalleri looked like the dangerous sniper he’s capable of being. He was a force all over the ice and was noticeable for doing the little things that he must do in order to be successful. Maybe you can chalk some of it up to having the youthful energy of an increasingly confident Louis Leblanc on his line. Many feel that Cammalleri wasn’t able to play his game under Jacques Martin. Either way, the fact that he played well for the first time in ages is a huge plus.

Max Pacioretty has to be a bit of a concern. He wasn’t at his best last night and in my mind, he truly hasn’t been the same player since returning from the suspension stemming from his hit on Pittsburgh’s Kristopher Letang back on November 26th. His recent statline of zero points and a -6 over the last three games is not good.

Too many times this year, the Habs have faced an opponent that simply didn’t show up and gotten the victory in a far less convincing fashion than they should have. Examples include the third game of the year, a 5-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets, another 5-1 win on October 26th against Philadelphia and of course the infamous “game that got Paul Maurice fired”, a 4-0 win over Carolina at the Bell Centre on November 16th. I realize those were strong performances but under the circumstances you want to see more. Most team would have blown the Hurricanes out of the water by a score of 7-0 or 9-1 that night. The fact that Habs only put up four goals spoke volumes.

Jump ahead to last night: Randy Cunneyworth’s men never took their feet off the gas and kept pushing, refusing to sit back with a three goal lead. Chalk the sixth goal, Erik Cole’s 14th of the season, up to something new that hasn’t existed on this team all year. The will to keep pushing until the final buzzer sounds.

Ultimately, it's just one win. Let’s see if they can keep it up in Tampa on Thursday night and then Florida on New Year’s Eve. It won’t be easy but this team can get right back into the thick of the playoff race with two more wins this week.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Protect the Language or Protect the Puck?

Hurting people’s feelings is not something any responsible person in charge of a sports team should worry about. I understand language is a sensitive topic and I am completely insensitive to it. I realize that the public has a right to a coach who speaks their language but at what cost? Do you think Bill Belichick cares what people think about him?

I’m sorry, but it’s ridiculous. Did Jacques Martin share any insight of any relevance whatsoever in his two plus years in charge of the Canadiens? No matter what language he spoke, he had nothing to say. If you want someone to spew canned nonsense in any language there are plenty of people who fit the bill. The issue of what language the coach speaks is nothing but fodder for people who want to use it to further their own agenda. I’m not willing to listen to those people, especially when it comes to hockey.

I don’t consider myself a Canadiens fan but I know how important the team is to this city. I cannot accept that if they were winning games and contending for the Stanley Cup every year that anyone would be saying this. The fact is, the Canadiens are a bad team, poorly constructed and planned and they are an easy mark for politicians and journalists who are trying to make something out of nothing. If they want to skip the Stanley Cup parade of a team with a general manager named Jim Nill and coach named Randy Carlyle in 2016 then I think they should be encouraged to do so.

I can honestly say that if I wasn’t being being paid to watch this team play hockey I wouldn’t be watching them at all.

Let’s not forget that the most important thing is that the coach is able to communicate with the players. Since almost the entire roster and every top prospect on this team speaks English fluently, that should be the only language consideration. Since the Francophone media can translate the news of the entire world, no matter what language it’s in, into something their readers can understand, I think it’s fair to assume they could do likewise with the completely innocuous material that comes from the coach of a hockey team. I recognize the right of my colleagues in the media to be spoken to in their mother tongue and I think it sucks for them. It’s too bad but wouldn’t you rather make more money covering a team on a long playoff run and maybe write a book, in whatever language you want, about that magical season?

I don’t have children but if I did, I would encourage them to cheer for a team that makes intelligent decisions based on what the brilliant people running the team want to do. People like Dan Bylsma, Ray Shero, Mike Babcock, Peter Chiarelli and so on. This team fired both Stanley Cup finalist coaches of last year. Why would I want my kid to get beaten into the ground by a team that not only has to deal with the fact that no one wants to play here because of high taxes, cold winters and ridiculous language laws, but also hires people for the most important management jobs based on what language they speak? It’s preposterous to even consider. Life is too short.

If you want players to forget about these things, put a winning product on the ice. Detroit isn’t exactly a glamourous destination but do you think top notch talent listens when Ken Holland comes calling for free agents? Since there are factors out of their control that limit their ability to attract talent, why on earth is this club imposing other restrictions on themselves?

No successful team in any sport, let alone the hyper-competitive NHL, should make any personnel decision based on anything other than whether or not the candidate is the best person to fill the job in question. That’s it. I speak French fluently and ideally, that best person should be able to as well but if it’s at the cost of a season like the Canadiens are in the midst of and what their future currently looks like, all bets are off. You cannot hire people to run your business, especially one as competitive as the NHL if you’re worried about hurting people’s feelings.

It’s too bad that this simple fact is lost on so many people. If they want to stop cheering for their favorite team because of what language the coach speaks then they should have at it. I would venture that they were never really fans to begin with.

If I’m Geoff Molson I say forget everyone. Forget the politicians trying to generate political capital from this non-story, forget the “fans” who care about more than whether their team wins. Spare me the arguments about cultural institutions and the “dying” French language. Any team in any sport in any league should speak one language: winning. Win hockey games. Don’t lose 21 of your first 34 games in a league where 53% of the teams make the playoffs every year. If you win, who cares whose feelings get hurt along the way?

This team is being run into the ground by a man so arrogant he thinks that people might actually believe some of the things he says. I can’t hazard a guess as to how involved Bob Gainey still is but the fact that Pierre Gauthier is still running this team is nauseating.

The Canadiens are heading toward their best draft pick since they had the incredible fortune of stumbling into the 5th overall choice in 2005. Think about the moves this man has made while making no attempt whatsoever to rationalize them. I would use the word “contempt” to describe the way Pierre Gauthier speaks to the media. For the love of god, Geoff Molson, don’t let this man continue to run this team. Don’t mortgage the future for the sake of this year. Don’t trade a second round pick for another rental player, even though that’s been one of the few things that have worked out for you in the last few years.

Fire Pierre Gauthier and replace him with the best man for the job, no matter what language he speaks. Let that man decide who the next coach should be, no matter what language he speaks. Then shut up and watch this team play hockey and hope for the best. That’s what the fans everywhere else do. Complain about the general manager, the coach, the players and the product on the ice all you want. Complain about the terrible pregame video that leaves the Bell Centre crowd flat after years of being the most electrifying building in the league (we miss you Ray Lalonde!).

Just don’t complain about what language the decision makers speak. You’re better than that. Don’t listen to the politicians. Don’t listen to the reactionary columnists who know less than nothing about this game. You’re better than that and so is this city. So is this fanbase.

Happy Holidays.