Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bob's master plan

It was quite the scene over at the Bell Centre on Friday as the Habs opened camp with physcials and testing, which for some of the players is a cruel form of torture.

There was no shortage of topics to discuss with the guys who were sent out like sacrificial lambs to get dissected by the Montreal media, but for my money, there were two that stood out.

The first was the appearance of captain Saku Koivu and his belief that this is the best Canadiens team he's ever played on, which is what I wrote about for The Canadian Press.

What I didn't write about, however, and the topic on which I was a bit obsessed this morning was the potential impact - positive or negative - of having so many players on the team in the final year of their contracts.

Most of the guys simply didn't want to talk about it, and Koivu even made a pre-season plea to the media that they not hound players about the subject all season long (that's what you call being a captain, people).

Here's an example of the disinterest shown by one of the more prominent members of that group, Alex Kovalev.

"I’m still a hockey player and that’s all I worry about," he said. "As long as I can play a full season and have a successful season for myself and for the team, that’s all I worry about, not the contract.”

Pretty typical stuff from a wily player, but two of the young veterans on the team had reactions that I found very refreshing.

The first was Mike Komisarek, who looked like he wanted to squirm away and hide under a rock as soon as the topic of his contract status came up. Komisarek last season grew very comfortable dealing with the media (I try not to refer to it as "speaking" with the media, because no one actually talks like that), so to see his body language when someone asked if he'd like to have a new contract signed before the end of the season was very strange.

“I’m not an agent, I’m a player," Komisarek said, visibly uncomfortable. "I don’t negotiate contracts, that’s not what I do.”

Now, I have absolutely no inside information on this whatsoever, so please take it for what it's worth, but when I saw Komisarek's reaction to the line of questioning I became convinced that contract talks with Bob Gainey were underway and he was just trying not to divulge anything he wasn't supposed to.

Just my opinion, not a statement of fact or even a rumour.

If it's true, it would be the smartest thing Gainey has done since taking over as the team's GM.

The other player who had some insight into the topic was Christopher Higgins, who as usual just laid it all out there for us. Higgins is as open a player as I've ever encoutered in my eight years covering the team.

I remember once in his rookie season, Higgins was stopped on a pivotal penalty shot where he tried a simple wrist shot from the slot. After the game, I asked him if he had a tendency to shoot rather than deke in those situations, expecting Higgins to say he won't answer that because it would be giving away a valuable secret. Instead, to my and everyone else's great surprise, he just turned to me and said, "Yeah, I do."

It was the same Higgins on Friday morning who was discussing not only his contract status, but that of everyone else, and even why it may be that Gainey has set the team up this way.

When the subject of how many guys are heading to free agency next season first came up, Higgins summed it up very succinctly.

"Yeah, it's pretty crazy," he started, before continuing. "It could be a bad thing, it could be a good thing. The way it could become a bad thing is if guys become selfish and let their own personal play dictate how they act. But it also could be a good thing to keep guys hungry throughout the year, guys realize their contract’s up and every game they can improve their status for next year. I think what’s great about this team is we are very close and we are a pretty selfless group as a whole, so I don’t think there are going to be too many problems with all the contracts coming up."

As opposed to his captain, Higgins said it's only natural the media and the fans be a bit preoccupied with the contract situation and he's sure Friday was not the last day he'll hear it brought up.

"Obviously there are a lot of big names with their contracts coming up," he said. "We know we’re going to get asked about it a lot. But as long as the team does well, you’re more than likely going to do well yourself. That’s the mindset going in right now.”

Higgins was also asked whether the situation creates a sense on the team that this is the year it was built by Gainey to win, which is certainly what it appears like from the outside.

“I don’t know if he planned it out, I couldn’t get in his head and tell you that, but it is strange how a lot of players have contracts up this year," Higgins said. "Maybe he just wants to keep guys hungry. He always talks about internal competition within the team for ice time and he sees that as being very healthy.”

So there you have it, maybe this is Gainey's master plan to essentially blackmail a Cup run out of his team. But probably not.

My own theory is that a lot of the contracts come up this year because there was the possibility it would be the last year of the collective bargaining agreement, with the players having the right to pull out and re-negotiate at the end of the season, and Gainey didn't want to be handcuffed with a lot of big contracts if he didn't know the rules of the game that would potentially be in place.

Now that it appears pretty clear the players will in fact not pull out of the CBA, Gainey should be able to get on to the business of retaining some of his key guys, of which Komisarek and Higgins are the two most important in my eyes.

Higgins gave further evidence Friday of why I feel he is one of those core players for the team moving forward when he discussed his goals for this season.

"We’re going to have a team that's very offensively gifted so the points should be there. But I want to be a player that’s looked at as a go-to player in the last minute of a game, whether we’re up or down a goal," Higgins said. "I’ve always wanted to be that player."

He also admitted that wearing the assistant captain's "A" last season was a bit too heavy a burden and he needed to learn how to handle the added responsibilities, one of which is talking to guys like me without actually saying anything, a skill he's still working on.

"It was the first year I wore a letter on my jersey, and there’s expectations that come with that. There were a lot of things I learned with that. I think I made some mistakes, I said certain things I wish I could take back in the locker room, but that’s just part of the learning curve. I’ve definitely thought about that a lot over the summer, all of the things I’ve done wrong and the things I’ve done right over the past year. I just want to continue to do the right things more frequently."

Finally, and I feel most importantly, Higgins recognized one of his biggest problems from seasons past when discussing his tendency to be too harsh a judge of his own play.

“That’s always been what people have said about me, that I’m my own worst critic and that I get down on myself too easily. I definitely want to work on that. When things aren’t going well, I’m always the one who’s coming down on me the hardest no matter what anyone else says. No one is ever as hard on me as myself. I think I just have to stay a little more positive, it’s a long season and you’re going to play bad games and have bad stretches. I just don’t want them to continue as long as they have in the past.”

I feel that is what kept Higgins from having a 35-goal season last year, if not more, and if he can fix it that number should be more than attainable this season.


Anonymous said...

"I think I made some mistakes, I said certain things I wish I could take back in the locker room, but that’s just part of the learning curve."

Baseless speculation but I wonder if this is in regards to Ryder ... there really has to be more to that story ...

Arpon Basu said...

Tere definitely is more to that story, but I'm not sure Ryder's involved.

Anonymous said...

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