Sunday, October 11, 2009

Game 4: Growing Pains

In Vancouver, the Canadiens finally found the kind of defeat they’d been searching for since game 1. It was a drastic, merciless, unambiguous pummeling by a Canucks team determined to win as decisively as possible. They used their speed to find gaps and press advantages in every direction, and the Canadiens- this time- were unable to rise to the challenge. They folded, despondently, and ended up lamely waiting out the third, just waiting until they could go back to the hotel, drink heavily, and drift off to their own respective ‘happy places’ (Carey Price: stripper rodeo!).

The good thing about this kind of loss is that it gives one occasion to contemplate the causes of pathetic hockey. A win, or a close loss, no matter how bad the game, encourages a deep-denial emphasis on good things, little flashes of inspiration you can blow all out of scale and imagine as the subterranean causes of an apparently unearned outcome. But with a game like this, you can’t do the whole ‘let’s focus on the positives!’ routine. Let’s focus on the negatives. Let’s speculate, just for the misery-wallowing satisfaction of it, about what might be wrong with these Habs.

Could be nothing, of course. Could be bad luck. Could be a gypsy curse, or a Western Canada curse, or a Sedin double-evil eye. Could be the injuries- certainly they’d be better than this with Markov on the ice twenty-odd minutes again, probably they’d even be better with Metropolit and O’Byrne as options. Could be the long early-season road trip, or the difficulty of coordinating a dozen new players on one team. Or it could be that they’re just not good enough and never will be.

Could be the kids.

The Canadiens have a lot of new faces. These can be divided into two basic categories: free agent signings and rookies who’ve visited the team before but have yet to prove themselves as NHL regulars. The first group is performing fairly well. Gionta and Cammelleri are appropriately shiny (although Cammelleri appears to be a bit unlucky as yet), Gomez is looking like the palid-but-not-entirely-unwelcome center-playing ghost of Kovalev, Moen is a heartfelt whacker and banger, Mara has been better than advertised, Spacek is manfully toiling through difficult, unforgiving minutes, and Gill- probably the most dubious of the new guys- has been generally competent, in a panda kind of way.

But the kids, the homegrown talent, are getting killed. Pacioretty shows flashes of greatness, but he’s going through a lot of his ice time in an unseemly daze; D’Agostini, even more so. Stewart has been invisible at best- I’m thrilled not to notice him, because when I do, I feel queasy and forlorn. Chipchura has the worst effort-to-results ratio of any Hab in the past three years, and is going to surpass Higgins’ previous records for earnest, ineffectual self-punishment before December at this rate. Weber has an excuse- he’s the true injury call-up, he was never intended to be here this season- but the young forwards are here because they’re due. And they don’t look ready.

Because they aren’t. NHL readiness isn’t one of those things that just happens naturally, a stage of growth, like hitting puberty. It isn’t a line to be crossed. Players are not hanging around the AHL, waiting for that magical day when Bob Gainey will come and whisk them away to a smoky hut in the woods, where he’ll get them drunk on Molson Export and take them on a psychedelic vision quest to commune with the wise, restless ghost of Howie Morenz, after which they will be presented with a commemorative tuque and know that now, finally, they have become an NHL player.

Nope, sadly, there’s no hut, all the drunkenness is recreational, Howie Morenz’s ghost presently refuses to talk to anyone but Youppi!, and getting to the NHL and staying there is a messy process. Some guys do it fast, some do it slow, some bounce back and forth for years. We only start paying attention to an NHLer after he’s been in the show, regular-like, for a couple of seasons, but there are dozens of guys right now on various teams, playing in the NHL because of the immediate needs of the franchise. Unless they’re on our team, we don’t even bother learning their names, because we know a fair number of them won’t stick. But which ones will and which ones won’t is a mystery. And a lot of what decides it isn’t really skill.

There are two things aside from talent (probably more, but I’ve only bothered to think about these two at the present moment) that heavily influence a maybe-NHLer’s chance of becoming an actual NHLer: luck and need. If he hits a lucky streak during some part of his initial look-see, pots a goal or two, makes some sexy plays, it can buy a lot of patience with subsequent growing pains. Better yet, if he comes on the scene during an injury crisis, when the team has few other options, it guarantees a certain amount of time to show well and a certain amount of indulgence.

Talent probably isn’t as big a factor as it seems- it’s only the most gifted of the gifted who have enough talent to play credibly on the big team no matter what the circumstances of their arrival. For most players, there’s a necessary adjustment period, spent trying to get (literally) up to speed. During this period, more or less all players suck- almost any older, steady NHLer could outplay them for their spot. The only advantage they have is the higher-ups vague desire that they should be given ‘a chance’- and that isn’t going to carry a lot of weight if the team is in trouble.

The Habs’ youth-heavy bottom lines are getting punished by opposing teams, and while that’s certainly not the only flaw one could find, it’s significant. Moreover, since the past off-season was a frugal one, there are still proven 3rd and 4th line NHL players out there without contracts. It would likely be possible to pick up a someone or two who could step into those roles and do a steadier job that D’Artagnan or Chupacabra. Keeping them around right now is an act of faith and an act of will, hoping that they’ll get through the growing pains and come out capable on the other side. Maybe they will, and the team will be rewarded for its patience with sturdy, inexpensive role-players. Maybe they won’t, and we’ll wonder why we sacrificed X early-season games on AHL dudes.

The critical thing to remember, though, is that this variety of suckage is perennial and, in the existential sense, unavoidable. If you have any hope, ever, that the team will develop in-house talent rather than buying everything in the summer, then there will be these periods when a bunch of new kids arrive and hang around being bad for a while. Eventually, we will learn which ones will always be bad and which ones can be good, but that learning takes time, and while it’s going on, there will be struggles- for the kids individually, for the team as a whole. It’s part of the process that is the Montreal Canadiens, ugly but necessary, and it’s definitely better to be doing it now than in March. Don’t think of it as a disastrous loss. Think of it as a practicum in player development.


Delicious Pundit said...

E, I live in Los Angeles, where this is happening, and I can tell you it takes longer than just to March. Although the Kings seem to be playing well this year. I can't watch, though, till baseball is over.

E said...

oh, i'm sure it will take longer than that to get them fully integrated. i meant more that it's better to get a head start on this whole learning process early in the season, rather than being forced to start it in the final stretch due to injuries (or trades, i suppose).

out of curiosity, who are your (the kings') current maybes? i probably won't remember the names after two weeks, but i've been thinking about the subject a lot lately.

also, don't watch baseball.

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