The most unusual bit of fallout from the Markov signing has nothing to do with Markov. The unassuming and indispensable blueliner had his press conference, said a few words, got many pats on the head from all and sundry. The fans rejoiced, took a second look at the numbers involved, cringed a bit, got over it, rejoiced a little longer in a more subdued fashion, and then, as fans do, moved on to other questions. And the most pressing new question is apparently this: what does this mean for Sheldon Souray?
Rationally, throughout the past season, not many people believed that the Habs would be able to bring back both Markov and Souray, and though Gainey declared his intention to try, that declaration was met with considerable skepticism. Gainey’s plan makes some kind of sense from a hockey perspective, since both had an excellent season this past year, and together they made the Habs #1 power-play the force that it was. But in terms of financial and long-term strategy, it’s a risky thing to dump so much money into maintaining pieces of an unsuccessful team, even good pieces. There’s no reason to believe that the exact same Habs team would do any better in 2007-2008 than they did in 2006-2007. Changes have to be made, and given Montreal’s history they’re likely to be expensive changes, so is it really a good idea to lock up a huge amount of salary, long-term, in two pre-existing defensemen when what is really needed is a new defenseman, and a couple of new forwards as well? Of course, if the Habs could clear some space and some salary by moving players who are not UFA, that changes things, but the Theodore trade might have used up all of Gainey’s go-ahead-take-a-chance-on- our-very-expensive-underperformer-maybe-he’ll-do-better-for-you street cred amongst other GMs.
It’s very reasonable to question whether the Habs should even bother trying to keep Souray. While he might not be as expensive as his recent stats would suggest, he’s still going to want a lot of money, and the long dingy shadow of Bryan McCabe hovers over the entire prospect- an offensive defenseman is quite a gamble to make with your big-money deals. Souray is, in fact, a huge risk. Huge. Guinness Book of World Records huge. Huge like the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, the
Sheldon Souray is amazing. He is, literally, a power-play in the flesh. He is the man advantage. When he’s healthy and the other team is even a little bit careless, he’s pretty much a guaranteed goal-per-game. Sometimes he scores it, sometimes someone else scores it off a tip-in or rebound from his shot, sometimes somebody else scores it because the opponents spent so much time trying to shut down Souray that they left wide-open lanes for the forwards down by the net. But whatever, all that matters is that as a team your power-play will jump at least 4 or 5 places up the rankings if you buy Souray.
Sheldon Souray is a disaster. He’s capable of good defensive play, but it doesn’t seem to come naturally to him. In his own zone he’s most often the proverbial pylon, and he has a bad tendency to interfere with his own goalie. This is a man who deflected a shot past Ryan Miller during the freakin’ All-Star Game. But mostly, Souray just doesn’t read opposing forwards well, and too often he makes the wrong decision, or worse yet, makes no decision at all while the play swirls around him. He’s good for a lot of power-play goals-for, but equally reliable for a lot of even-strength goals-against.
So, you pays your money you takes your choice: given a player whose on-ice performance is almost perfectly balanced between the excellent and the abominable, which is more important? Obviously every team, and every fan, will have a different answer. To some, he might actually be worth $6 million. Others wouldn’t even take him for free.
The size of the Markov signing was a good indication to the hockey-world at large, as well as Habistanis, that it’s going to be a pricey summer for defensemen, Souray included. Although the two players are not really comparable at all in terms of play style, it’s likely that they won’t be too far removed from each other in eventual paycheck. And the debate du jour is: Is Sheldon Souray worth Andrei Markov money?
I’ll leave my own answer for a little further down the page, but I expected that the Habistani consensus would be NO. His numbers are gaudy, but believe me, when you’ve spent 82 games chewing your fingernails until they bleed every time he gets near Huet, you really start to wonder if it wouldn’t be worth giving up a few power-play goals just to keep your blood pressure down. And if he’s giving you an elevated heart rate at $2 million a season, he might very well give you a full-blown myocardial infarction at $5 million+. Generally speaking, I figured a majority (albeit a narrow one) of public opinion on the Habs would call for letting Souray get his big windfall elsewhere and looking to acquire a somewhat cheaper ‘puck-moving defenseman’ in his place.
I was wrong. Oh, there’s still an angry posse or two out there who want to see him gone, and a quite few rational people as well, but it seems like the Markov signing has brought forth a rising tide of affection for Shelly-jaan. Even more so because the Ducks rolled on and on and eventually all the way to the Stanley Cup. Because, leaving aside for the moment all his numbers, good and bad, he has one quality that makes him distinctive on the Canadiens' roster: Sheldon Souray is the Habs’ last Good Canadian Boy.
‘Good Canadian Boy’ is not a position, but it is a role one plays, both a hockey role and a social role. It has absolutely nothing to do with being Good, and is often only tangentially related to being Canadian, and Boy is a misnomer, since it’s routinely used for guys on the far side of thirty. But we all know what a Good Canadian Boy is. Good Canadian Boys are big and aggressive. They play hard and passionate and physical. They do what it takes to win, whatever their skill level. They throw checks and get in fights. Good Canadian Boys stand up for their teammates, on and off the ice. They lead vocally, give good speeches in the room and good soundbites to the media. They know all the hockey clichés and deploy them often. Good Canadian boys come from small, frigid towns in remote areas, preferably towns that feature a large mammal somewhere in the name. They play junior, and the commentators on CBC will make sure you never forget where. Ideally they have not had too much schoolin’, hockey in
The Habs have technically Canadian players. There’s the significant Quebecois contingent- Latendresse, Lapierre, Dandenault, Begin, and Bouillon (honorary). I daren’t talk about the politics of this, because as an American it's one of the things about Canada I still just don't get, suffice to point out that, however they play- and I don’t think anyone could deny that Begin, Lapierre, and Bouillon play in a Good Canadian Boy mold- there seems to be a significant block in the modern era of Canadian hockey culture against describing Quebecois players in terms of the ideology of Canadian hockey. Like Europeans, the prevailing attitude on CBC and TSN and such seems to be that some of them play like Canadians, but they’re somehow exempt from the mystique of the Good Canadian Boy. They have their own category.
Beyond that, well, there’s Mike Johnson, who might come back, but he lacks the proper hockey backstory for a Good Canadian Boy- not a star in junior, never drafted, went to an American college. Plus, while he certainly knows how to throw an effective check when the situation calls for it, he’s not particularly aggressive, and generally ends up taking more hurt than he gives. And there’s Michael Ryder, but he’s from Newfoundland, and if there’s one thing I learned from the San Jose/Detroit series, it’s that people seem rather uncertain as to whether Newfies count. And again, Ryder’s play-style isn’t the sort that anyone is likely to hold up as an example of ‘Canadian’. He’s an instinctive goal-scorer, but other than that, not a particularly forceful presence on the ice.
What became of all our Good Canadian Boys? We started last season with a few. There was Aaron Downey, the well-meaning but painfully inadequate enforcer, now demoted to the minors and lent out to another team. There was Garth Murray, the Saskatchewani 4th liner, still technically under contract but benched for much of 2007, and a good bet to be pushed aside by some developing prospie in the coming season. And there was, of course, Craig Rivet, who was just about as perfect an emblem of traditional Canadian hockey values as you could put on skates, but he went the way of so many Good Canadian Boys these days- to
I look at the way the Ducks are being marketed up here, and especially the way their roster and their system of play are held up as exemplars of the Canadian Way of Hockey- an attempt to counterbalance Ottawa’s grab for the national affections, which developed it’s own momentum over time- and I realize that my Canadiens are ironically named indeed, for history and geography notwithstanding, this is one of the least ideologically Canadian teams in the League. And even in Montreal, where the vast bulk of hockey-pride is invested in local players and local traditions, there’s still a surprisingly powerful sentimental attachment to the idea of having at least a few properly, stereotypically, conventionally Canadian hockey players on the team. Oh sure, we say we don't care about getting HNIC's approval (they're all biased against us anyway), but nevertheless...
When Souray goes, people wonder, who will be our Good Canadian Boy? It seems impossible to have a team without one. Who is going to do the fighting? We have no real reliable fighters any longer, Bouillon who has the spirit but not the size, Komisarek who has the size but not the spirit, and though we cringed for his wonky wrists every time Souray dropped the gloves last season, it was important to know that somebody would put up that largely symbolic but nevertheless effective defense of our too-often-broken captain and long-suffering goalies. Back when Rivet was wearing the other A, back in the days of the utterly pointless but inevitable Garth Murray Hockey Fight™, it didn’t seem so important that Souray was a bit violence-prone, in fact it seemed like a distinct disadvantage, because you don’t really want one of your scoring leaders- especially a previously injured one- playing enforcer when there are other guys who can do it pretty much as well. And even now, if he sticks around, I’d prefer it if he kept his gloves on and saved whatever is left of his arms for those lovely slapshots. But- like surprisingly many things in hockey- the willingness to do something can sometimes be more important than whether or not one actually does it. And part of the reason the fans liked him so much was because we knew he was willing to do it, even injured, sick or exhausted, even in the midst of a personal slump, even on those nights when his play was crap, we knew that he would at least ‘show up’ in that regard, that he would do the pushing and shoving, that he would play as tough as he possibly could, that he’d never take the night off, never be invisible, and never fail to notice if someone on the opposition was pushing the boundaries too far. Maybe he wouldn’t always be able to, or have to, do anything, but it’s the will to do it that meant more.
Who is going to lead? Koivu leads the team, obviously, but he’s one of those quiet, stoic types who leads by example and endurance- on the whole, I prefer his style, especially in the context of this city, but it doesn't exactly lend itself to good mid-season fan-chatter. Souray’s the one who did the loud, showy leading. Souray’s the one who’d get raging angry after a bad game, the one who’d make the big speech, the one who’d ‘call out’ the team in front of the media. He’s the one who’d give post-game comments that mimicked the emotions of the folks at home, congratulatory words for the hard working guys and oblique criticisms for the lazy ones. Maybe the men in the room don’t need him to lead, I have no idea, but the fans do, so badly that it’s not rare to hear calls for him to be given the C, because his is the kind of leadership that comforts and inspires us, and that’s important too.
And who will work the media? Not just the
All this stuff isn’t really necessary. It’s silly, in fact, to want to keep a player just because of the character he plays. Objectively, I don’t think the team needs Souray to improve its game, although I also don’t think that losing him would be a case of ‘addition by subtraction’. They can be better, I believe, with him or without him, although the way of being better will be slightly different if he’s around. But, like a lot of my fellow Habs fans, I find myself a little too attached to some of those intangibles to be entirely objective. I hope he comes back, because he’s been a part of this team for a long while now, and because we’ve come to expect- even depend on- his sometimes infuriating, sometimes inspiring performance of the Good Canadian Boy role. Really, every team should have one.
That, and I don’t ever want to see any goalie of mine on the wrong end of that shot.