Thursday, May 10, 2007

As Canadien as Possible #2: The Shape of Things to Come


If you’re going to talk about the future of the Montreal Canadiens, remember that year, because that’s the deadline. 2009 will be the Habs centennial, marking 100 years of Le Club du Hockey Canadien. That’s a venerable age for a sports team, especially in the NHL, where many teams will consider themselves lucky to make 10 or 20 years with the same name in the same place. The city is planning to make the most of the moment, not only internally, with a series of jersey retirements (nostalgia goes over big here), but for the hockey world as a whole: the 2009 All-Star Game will be in Montreal, and hopefully the Entry Draft as well. In short, in 2009, the Habs will be getting a lot of attention.

By 2009, the Habs have to be a good team. Granted, people in Montreal always seem somehow surprised that the Habs don’t win the Cup every year, no matter how weak their performance, but it is more or less necessary that they win it in 2009, or at the very least look for most of the 2008-2009 season as though they could win it. The problem, of course, is that the Habs didn’t even make the playoffs this year, so Gainey et al. are faced with a formidable challenge, that of transforming a team with a lot of potential and a lot of deep flaws into a real Cup contender in the next 2 years. However, it also in some sense gives them a break, since they have one season- next season- to try to figure things out. Next year is, essentially, a development year- certain problems have to be solved, bad things removed and good things locked into place. The team has to position itself for what will be, quite possibly, the highest-pressure season any hockey team will face in living memory, but fortunately, that season is still one year away.

So bearing all this in mind, what will the intermediary team, the 2007-2008 Habs, look like? I have no idea. Nobody does at this point, for almost everything is uncertain. But am I content to just leave it at that? Of course not! Wild, uninformed speculation is the first duty of every Habs fan during the off-season- what else is there to do? Watch the playoffs? HA! It is to laugh. I mean, of course one watches the playoffs, but the playoffs don’t really matter to Habistanis, for as far as we are concerned, whoever wins the Cup is just keeping it warm for us. Seriously, y’all, we want it back. Soon.

Let’s start with goaltending, because that’s the easiest part. If the future of the Canadiens is solid anywhere, it’s in net. Aebischer has been released to seek his fortunes elsewhere, Huet is under contract for another year and will hopefully come back rested and recovered. Halak showed enough savory goodness in the final run that it’s very nearly a lock that he’ll get the backup job, and probably a little more than that, given Carbonneau’s love of the 2-goalie rotation. The only question mark is Price, in that he’s said he wants to try to make the Big Team at training camp. Still, in all likelihood, the Habs will want him to do a full season as #1 for the Bulldogs- baby goalies are fragile creatures, there’s already a lot of pressure on him, and a disastrous flame-out at the Bell Centre could be terrifically destructive for everyone’s confidence in him (including his own).

Now, defense. Gainey has said that he intends to resign both Markov and Souray, a tricky, expensive proposition that people figured all season he wouldn’t be able to pull off. But the fact is simple: the Canadiens need both of them back. If he can’t resign them, we are firmly in rebuilding mode, like it or not (sorry Koivu). Markov is the team’s smartest defenseman and the only one with really good ‘puck management’ skills, as the popular cliché goes. Plus, he’s a great resource- he elevates the level of his partner’s game, and has been critical in Komisarek’s development. Probably the Habs hope he can play a similar role in the coming years with other rookie defensemen, helping them develop their confidence and their hockey-sense. Fortunately, he seems eminently signable. Reportedly, he likes the city, likes the way the Habs have treated him, and as a youngish guy it’s probably safe to offer him something generously long-term. Negotiations with him have just begun, and according to his agent he’s likely to stay. Of course, this is the same agent who said Ryan Smyth would be staying in Edmonton, so maybe we should take that with a grain of salt. Forget that, a whole freakin’ salt mine.

Souray is the greater challenge. Initially, I had thought that losing Souray wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, because he can really be such a horror in his own end. But then I watched the playoffs, and I saw what passes for a ‘power play’ on many elite teams, and I gained a whole new appreciation for Shelly-jaan. The Canadiens’ power play was easily their best asset this past season, and no Souray = no power play. It would be idiocy to give up their greatest strength at this point. However, keeping Souray is going to be harder than keeping Markov, and riskier too. He just came off a record-setting season, so his value is high, and he’s got family incentives to leave. The Habs might well have to overpay huge to keep him, and it’s a chancy overpay, because he is a defensive liability and he’s got a history of injuries. Still, I don’t think they’ve got any choice: give him what he wants and pray he doesn’t turn into Bryan McCabe.

Assuming both Souray and Markov come back, it’s still in the Habs’ interest to try to acquire a new defenseman, ideally one on the Markov model- somebody with ESP and a good transition game. Although the Habs have some good defensive prospects in the system, as far as I can tell, they’re mostly more on the Komisarek model (i.e. big and thwacky). Which is good, we love Komisarek and we love big and thwacky, but probably it would be better to fill this particular gap with someone experienced and tested at the NHL level- it takes a blue-liner time to develop clairvoyance. Possibly Gainey’s thought in acquiring Gorges was that he could fill a more Markov-ish sort of role, the reports on him seem to suggest leanings in that direction, but it very much remains to be seen if he can do it. Anyway, there’s one item for the shopping list: psychic defenseman.

It’s the forwards, though, that will be the hardest part of the construction. The Habs’ offense last season was total crap 5-on-5, in spite of many impressive individual performances and some greater-than-expected development of the younger players. In terms of veterans, they’ve got the problem of having two who worked well- Bonk and Johnson- going UFA, and two who didn’t work at all- Kovalev and Samsonov- locked in to expensive contracts. Gainey said he was prepared to let Bonk and Johnson go, which makes some sense, given that they did constitute a bit of a pricey checking line, and there needs to be some space made somewhere for deserving kids to get more regular roles. However, the 3rd line with them two and whoever else was by far the Habs most reliable piece last season- they did some damn good shut-down work against very tough opponents, and that can’t be undervalued, and moreover, it can’t be replicated with rookies fresh up from the AHL. My guess is they keep one of them, probably Johnson, who is less expensive and making friendly noises about loving Montreal, in order to have a veteran presence on that line, and then look to bring up some deserving bachche that they hope to grow into a defensive forward role. Possibly this Chipchura creature, of whom much is said (I hope he comes up, for then I shall call him ‘Chupacabra’ all season, and that will make me very happy.)

Going up to the top two lines, we get into the realm of serious fantasy. Here’s one: Imagine a center. Imagine a big, physical center with an aggressive play style and a scoring touch. Imagine a center who could play with Kovalev- elite enough to gain the recalcitrant winger’s respect, patient enough to tolerate his idiosyncrasies, good enough keep up with him move-for-move when he feels like showing up, but also good enough to play without him or even around him when he drifts off into his daydreams. And on top of all this, give this imaginal center great leadership skills, superstar status, and a talent for bilingual interviews.

You are now imagining the player that the Habs really, really, really want, more than anything. As far as I can tell, they have been imagining this center for years and years now. Sometimes this fantasy latches on to a particular player, say, Vincent Lecavalier, who is the ultimate object of 90% of Habs-fan trade fantasies, although there are some willing to toss aside the size issue and picture Daniel Briere in the role. But mostly the fantasy is an abstract- the Mythic Perfect Center, who must be out there somewhere, just waiting for us.

The Canadiens organization feeds these fantasies, talking this summer about spending huge money to go out and buy a real superstar, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. In fact, I hope and pray they don’t go after Mythic Perfect Center, because at this point the fantasy is so developed that it is well beyond the reach of any real-life center to actually meet the expectations. It’s a recipe for disappointment on a scale that would dwarf the Samsonov debacle, especially if they tried to play Mythic Perfect Center with Kovalev, who is, frankly, un-play-with-able and might very well just suck MPC down into his black pit of inexplicable depression. Any UFA who wanted to come to Montreal to be our new 1st/2nd line center would have to be either crazy-confident or crazy-egotistical, and a healthy dose of good old-fashioned crazy-crazy would probably be good too (i.e. ‘The ice is covered with poisonous purple crayfish! Really! What do you mean you can’t see them?’).

For mine own part, my thought is that for a 2nd line, they could do a lot worse than giving another shot to the Higgins-Plekanec-Kostitsyn trio that was looking so good in the final stretch of the season. They seemed to understand each other well and were good in both ends- fast, smart, great work ethic, and a ton of scoring potential. It might be a blind leap of faith, but no blinder than expecting Briere to come in and save the team’s collective ass single-handed, and probably a lot less expensive as well.

However, if the organization really wants to throw money at a UFA, it seems to me that an elite first-line winger would be a good investment. Koivu’s spent too long being the team’s solution for underperforming- any time a forward is looking like crap, the first solution always seems to be ‘put him with Koivu’. Even to this day, when people talk about Kovalev and Samsonov, they lament that neither got more time with Koivu, as though that would have miraculously solved everything. Personally, though, I think that it’s time to stop treating the 1st line as a dumping-ground for the Canadiens’ problem players and treat it like, oh, I dunno, a freakin’ first line. Koivu isn’t the universe’s best player, but he’s hella good and you can’t argue with his work ethic. It would be nice to see him on a line with someone of equal or greater ability and a similar ethic of play, someone he won’t be asked to ‘make better’. There’s less risk and more reward in looking for a winger for Koivu than a center for Kovalev, and getting a winger for Koivu doesn’t necessitate pushing any of the developing darari out. As to the +/- issue, my hope is that once Koivu gets his cataract removed, his tendency to bad turnovers will be significantly ameliorated.

Kovalev remains a problem. Personally, I rather liked him with Lapierre and Latendresse- don’t call it a 4th line, call it a 2b line or something- but apparently that’s beneath his dignity, so I really have no idea what they ought to do with him. It seems that he demands to play with elite linemates to be happy, but that even happy-Kovalev will probably only show up 34% of the time, and when he shows up he doesn’t always score, so one easily ends up with what the Habs had for most of last season- a line that works 1 night in 4 (or less) and is a total waste of space the rest of the time. I’m thinking that’s not a formula for either a Stanley Cup or a harmonious team-spirit. One rather wishes that Alexei would simply find it in his heart to just do his best wherever he’s played, but oh my, that’s never going to happen, now is it?

One interesting bit to consider is the trade market. The Habs have a deep system, one will more talent than they’re going to be able to develop in the next few years, and it’s possible- likely even- that if Gainey can’t find whatever he’s looking for in the UFA market, he’ll be willing to do that most un-Gainey-ish of things and trade away a few tasty-looking youngsters for the right piece at the right price. Between the willingness to move darari and the need to move Samsonov (and possibly Kovalev as well, though I think that’s more my daydream than a real possibility), I wouldn’t be surprised if the Canadiens end up getting more over the summer via trades than on the open market.

The gigantic question, of course, is who will they go after for any of those three desirable positions [Psychic Defenseman, Mythic Perfect Center, and Elite Winger]? This is where my speculation ends for the time being. The realm of trading is too mysterious for me to comprehend. As a fan I could fantasize about trading for absolutely anyone, but it would be literally nothing but fantasy. And it is still too early in the off-season to really discuss UFAs, since some of the critical names are still in the playoffs, and therefore obviously not discussing they’re future plans, and a good chunk of those technically ‘available’ will likely be resigned by their current teams before July 1st rolls around. Plus, honestly, looking at the long, long list of UFA names, there are far too many that I've never seen or don't remember, and I couldn't guess as to whether many of them would succeed or fail in the Canadiens' context.

So there’s my thinking. Come all ye bored, contrarian Habistanis, argue with me! I know y’all have opinions, most of which probably begin with, ‘E, you’re a total idiot.’ No argument there, but I’d dearly love to hear where I’m wrong and why. We’ve got a long, dull off-season to fill.


kazmojo said...

Well, E, your regular readers know you are far from a total idiot. And I have to agree, as a loyal Habs fan I don't watch other playoff teams -- I scout them. Like this Preissing fellow. He's a UFA right-handed dman, with obscenely good numbers this year. But is he big enough?

It's a foregone conclusion that Gainey will pretty much give Markov what he wants. But Souray? You've got to be kidding me. He's just a 5th or 6th dman: just trot him out for the PP, and that's about it. Definitely not worth the inevitable $5M per.

Plus, I think Streit should be given a shot. He moves the puck well, so just pair him up with a right handed, stay at home type, preferably with a big shot, and you've got a good second pairing (assuming Komi and Markov remain the first pair). Hey, that kind of sounds like Craig Rivet. Ok, just kidding.

That leaves Dandenault and Bouillon as the third pair, which is where they are best suited. An upgrade here would be nice, but where is it going to come from, esp in this era of capped salaries?

As for the forwards, I see Kostitsyn maybe getting a shot at the first line with Ryder and Koivu. He can play the left side, has some nice setup moves (please Michael, don't try to carry the puck into the zone anymore), and adds some speed to an otherwise slow line. That opens up the right side for Plekanec-Higgins -- a bruising right-handed power forward would be nice here. Of course they needed the same last year, and instead of Shanahan we got Samsonov. Shanahan is available again, as is Bill Guerin, but both are getting old -- and slow.

You're right about keeping Johnson, and maybe calling up some help from the Bulldogs to replace Bonk. Begin can man the left side adequately again.

And as far as the 4th line, Latendresse-Lapierre-Kovalev wasn't too bad. They all deserve more minutes than a typical 4th line, which is good for the rest of the lines too. And as far as Kovalev not liking playing with LL Haricot, tough. He's a leftie right winger. Not too many righty left wingers out there (forget about Sammy), so if you want balanced lines, Lapierre's the only right handed center we got.

And as far as Carey Price, he's got to stay with the Bulldogs for a year or two. Goalies can't be rushed. I'd see Yann Danis having a better shot than Carey Price.

And I really do hope Carbo rotates his goalies often, assuming it is Halak and Huet. Huet has never been the #1 for an entire season, and as last season wore on, I wonder if fatigue set in. Ron Wilson rotated Nabokov and Toskala for the Sharks in the regular season (each played every other game, more or less) -- and the Sharks did pretty darn well in the regular season.

E said...

maybe not total idiot. partial idiot.

i've thought about preissing too, mainly being attracted to that tasty tasty +/- of his, but of course that's a stat that the Habs could easily tank if they're anything like last year. i'm not sure size is an issue on our d- the guys up now might not be uniformly gigantic, but as i understand it a lot of those in the system are. there won't be a shortage of huge bodies in the coming years. i think we've could easily absorb a smaller guy if he's got the hockey-sense we need.

if souray goes, we basically have no power play, and i don't like that. he may be a defensive liability, but that can be mitigated if we find a good partner for him (ala markov on the PP all year), and his slapshot is a unique commodity- i've yet to see anyone else who can match it for speed and accuracy. the special teams were the best thing about the habs this year, and even though we're all hoping they get better at even-strength, the optimal solution would be to do that without sacrificing PP excellence.

streit i wholly love, and who knows, maybe if we don't get a ufa blue-liner he'll return to defense, but he was a damn good forward and i wouldn't mind keeping him in that capacity next year.

no problem with giving kostitsyn a shot at the 1st line, but honestly, what'd be wrong with leaving him with higgins & plekanec and putting hypothetical new forward up with koivu and ryder? of course, a lot depends on who the hell hypothetical new forward would be...

and finally, yeah, if it were up to me, i'd totally leave kovalev on the '4th' line no matter how he feels about it. if you think about it, he should be happy with that- he's got a good forechecker to make space for him, and if he wants to try to be a one-man-show on that line, no one will complain. plus, if he was capable of having a good attitude, the kids could theoretically learn a lot from playing with him. but if he's unhappy and vocal about it, it'll be psychological torture for them, and poor latendresse doesn't need that on top of everything else he's got to deal with. my fear is that there's going to be nothing to do with kovalev except consign him to the press box, where he'll wreak merry hell with the media. *sigh*

oh, and can somebody explain how this right handed/left handed thing works? i mean, what's the strategy of it? how do you know that you need someone with a right/left shot in a given place?

kazmojo said...

If you have a good balance of righties and lefties, you see less of guys trying to spin around to their forehand to shoot -- on offense anyway. Odds simply improve that the puck will land on their forehand, esp if they're playing on the correct side. Typically, a righty should play RW, and a lefty should play LW.

Then you have the oddities like Samsonov (righty LW) and Kovalev (lefty RW). I guess Gainey thought they'd be a match made in Hab heaven, but no such luck.

In general, I've seen the Habs waste plenty of chances where a lefty moves the puck to his forehand to get off a shot. A righty in such a situation could have one-timed it.

This is one of the reasons why I suggested placing Kostitsyn on the top line. Higgins and Plekanec are lefties too, so that would open up a spot on that line for a righty. But I get your meaning -- why mess with a good thing, even if it's theoretically not ideal?

On D, it's less a matter of being in the right place at the right time. HNIC had some replays tonight from the last Buffalo game, where they had a lefty dman along the right boards. A puck careened up the boards, and he tried to scoop it up with his backhand. It skipped off and the Ottawa player was off to the races.

So that's another reason why Souray isn't a good fit -- the Habs have enought lefties in Streit, Bouillon, Gorges and Markov. But if they could afford to replace Bouillon with Souray, or if Streit played forward as you suggest...

I'm not sure why, but righties seem to be a rare commodity. I had always thought that there were as many righties as lefties, but when I look at the UFA listings, they're few and far between. I wonder if there's any stats on the breakdown of righties vs lefties on NHL teams, cross sectioned by position.

Man I'm such a nerd.

Sherry said...

A note on Price, I've seen him play on two occasions, one near the end of the regular season and one playoff game in round 2. While I have to say that he is probably well ahead in development than most of his counterparts would be at his stage, there's still a bit of a ways to go for him. He has said before that he wants to crack the Habs line-up by next year but that most likely won't happen considering how many netminders are in their system already. There's also poor Yann Danis to consider, whom with the development of Halak will most likely not see any time with the big club and he's set to be a free agent soon.

A stint in the AHL never hurt and Price, to his credit, seems to be level-headed enough to understand that and is willing to work hard at it. Price plays a very steady and mature game but still needs to work on his positioning and vertical movement. He's adjusted well to the AHL game coming straight from junior and being thrown into a pressure-filled playoff situation, so the future looks optimistic.

Sherry said...

And regarding Preissing. He's a great offensive defenseman but having watched him very closely, he's not all that defensively sound. The +/- is impressive but don't let it sway you, haha. Also, he's not physical either and to me, the Habs need a bit more physicality on the blueline.

E said...

kaz- my understanding was always that left-handed person = right-handed player (i.e. you're shot is the opposite side of your dominant hand). so, therefore, in theory right-handed shots in hockey players should be about as rare as left-handed people in the general population? but this raises the question: if you force someone at a young age to start shooting from his non-dominant side, do you make him hockey-dyslexic?

sherry- i am deeply jealous of your getting to go watch the baby habs so much. i never thought i'd really, really want to go to hamilton but... god i miss real live hockey games. but as to your actual points, yeah, i don't see any reason to rush price- huet and halak are a perfectly lovely duo to start the season with. but it's hard for habs fans to have patience where goalie-prodigies are concerned. during the season somebody said something like, 'the habs will win their next cup with carey price in goal', which i think a lot of people took to mean not 'the habs need a few years to develop a contending team, but should be there by the time price is ready' but rather, 'the habs will start winning as soon as carey price gets here'. hence, there's a lot of anticipation...

and i'll take your advice regarding preissing. i do think our more immediate need is for a defenseman who plays smart rather than one who plays physical (although it'd be awfully nice to get both in one package). presuming souray and bouillon are healthier (and, um, here) next season, i think they'll have a bit more aggression so komisarek doesn't have to handle all the thwacking on his own.

Julian said...

The left-shot/right-shot thing is kinda interesting, especially when you look at the cultural divide.

I did some research and wrote some stuff about it on my blog, if you're so inclined.

The basic idea is that the majority of Canadians shoot left, while the majority of Americans shoot right, and the vast majority of Europeans shoot left. There's some theories about why that is, and there's a link in the post to an article that talks about the benefits and drawbacks to shooting from each side, which I'd never really considered.