Monday, January 12, 2009

Mid-term report card

Well, it's not really a report card because I feel it's not fair to give out grades to players, since that is something that should be done by someone who has some semblance of an idea of what it's like to be on the ice in an NHL game.

Instead, I've decided to put the Canadiens into three groups of players - those who have exceeded expectations, those who have delivered what was expected of them, and those who have underachieved.

Top of the class

Josh Gorges: A beneficiary of the extra ice time liberated by the injury to Mike Komisarek, Gorges has proven to be a steadying force on defence, and recently shown to be useful in power play situations as well as his usual spot on the penalty kill. He blocks shots, backs down from no one and never looks out of position on the ice.

Maxim Lapierre: It took some time, but Lapierre is blossoming into his role as a top flight agitator and is even showing some offensive flair for the first time in his young career. When the team is fully healthy, Lapierre is the fourth line centre and I challenge anyone to find a better one in the NHL. He's also become the team's most efficient man on faceoffs at 54.4 per cent, which was a major problem for him when he began his career.

Mike Komisarek: A lot was expected of Komisarek, but the team's record with him in the lineup shows that he's met and exceeded everyone's goals. I think a lot is being made of the team's 7-6-3 record with him out of the lineup, simply because if Andrei Markov or Roman Hamrlik were to miss any significant amount of time I feel the Canadiens would suffer just as much. But that doesn't mean Komisarek is not a vital cog in the Habs defence, and he's the only d-man who changes the way opponents attack because forwards have no interest going into a corner with him.

Tom Kostopoulos: He's not supposed to be called upon to drop the gloves, but with Georges Laraque on the physically unable to perform list he's had to. He may not win all, or any, of his fights, but his willingness to do it knowing full well he'll lose perfectly demonstrates to what lengths Kostopoulos will go to help his team win.

Patrice Brisebois: He's not spectacular and he still makes the odd mental error, but he was expected to have spot duty as the team's seventh defenceman. Instead, he's played in 37 of the team's 41 games, including the last 27 in a row. He can play on the second power play unit, he's averaging 16 minutes per game and he's a plus-6. No one expected that.

Robert Lang: A big, right-handed centre to pivot the third line, win key faceoffs and chip in offensively. Other than the faceoffs, Lang has delivered far more than that this season. No one expected him to lead the team in scoring, or to play 17 minutes a game with significant time in all situations. He's been a very pleasant surprise, and a perfect example of how playing with young players can rejuvenate a veteran's career.

Guillaume Latendresse: His numbers are not outstanding, but that's not why he's in this category. He's here because he seems to have changed his approach to the game and has finally come to realize that for him to be successful he needs to use his size to his advantage. If he keeps it up, the numbers will come.

Saku Koivu: His injury has unfortunately derailed what looked like a another solid season for the captain. With 22 points in 28 games, he's tied with Lang and Alex Kovalev for the team lead in points per game, and he's won over 54 per cent of his faceoffs as well. His return will solidify a team that is playing very well right now, and could serve as the catalyst to a huge second half surge.

Mathieu Dandenault: For a guy who wasn't expected to be around when the season started, Dandenault proved to be a very valuable player before breaking his arm. Even that play, where he stayed on the ice and tried to defend his net, says a lot about his approach to the season. I'm not sure if he'll be a factor when he comes back, but what he did in the 20 games he did play definitely exceeded expectations.

The rookies: This was supposed to be a team that had no room for rookies, but Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Ben Maxwell, Kyle Chipchura and even Yannick Weber have filled in for injured players quite admirably. It remains to be seen which one or two out of this group finishes the year in Montreal, but for now they've done the job as a group.

Even strength play: The Canadiens Achilles Heel last season was its play 5-on-5. But this year they are third in the league in team plus/minus rankings with a plus-24, whereas last year they were 10th in the same category with a plus-11. Just as an aside, three of the top five teams in this category last year made the conference finals, with the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings finishing first with a plus-49.

Guy Carbonneau and his staff: Despite all the screaming about a failed power play and all the injuries to key players, Carbonneau has once again found a way to put his team in position to contend for the Eastern Conference crown. It would have been tough for him to put together a coaching performance equal to last year's surprising success, but he's actually improved on it.

The middle ground

Alex Kovalev: I feel his level of play hasn't dipped much from last year's resurrection, it's just the production that's in decline. But even there, he's tied for the team lead in points, so it's not as if he's completely fallen off the map scoring-wise. I think if he keeps playing the way he has, the numbers will eventually start to pile up and I wouldn't be surprised to see him finish the year with about 70 points.

Andrei Markov: It says a lot about what kind of player Markov is that he's in this category. He's simply a victim of expected excellence, because rare are the nights where he's not the team's most important player. He assures a strong breakout and allows the team's forwards to cheat a little and leave the zone early, because he can make that long pass on the tape. His vision with the puck and his ability to hold the blue line in the offensive end are at an elite level, perhaps unmatched among the league's defencemen.

Andrei Kostitsyn: Looking at his season as a whole, his slow start means he finds himself here. But his last eight games since returning from a two-game stint on the shelf with an injury have been outstanding, with seven goals and five assists. There's no reason to believe he can't maintain some semblance of that pace, and that would be way above anyone's expectations.

Carey Price: This is probably the most unfair of my groupings, but it's only because the success of the team depends largely on Price's health, and it's been a bit spotty as of late. He missed his eighth game of the season to injury Saturday night, and who knows if this won't be a recurring issue. But when healthy, Price has delivered the goods. Now we get to see if last year's playoff disappointment was a one-off blip on the radar for a guy with a history of shining when the stakes are highest.

Steve Bégin: You always know what you will get with Bégin, and that's an all out effort with little to no regard for his own personal safety. I find it incredible he doesn't get injured more than he does, but he has essentially peaked as a player and been leapfrogged by Lapierre and Kostopoulos as the team's top energy guys.

Roman Hamrlik: Solid play, nothing more, nothing less. That has been and continues to be Hamrlik's M.O., and he makes the team's second pairing extremely reliable. The beauty of it is that last year, Hamrlik's level of play increased as the games became more important, so the best is likely yet to come in his case.

Sergei Kostitsyn: He may be failing to live up to some people's expectations in Montreal, but that's only because those expectations were completely out of whack and unreasonable. He played junior hockey only two years ago and had less than half a season in the minors to adapt to the pro game. I don't know what more he could have done this year as a 21-year-old without a full year of NHL experience.

Francis Bouillon: He's a steady, no frills sixth defenceman, and that's exactly what the team wants him to be. He's filled his role this season, even though I thought he went through a bit of a mistake-prone stretch in December.

Penalty killing: The Habs finished last year killing 82.5 per cent of their penalties, and they're at 82.6 per cent this year. The big difference is they've already matched last season's total of eight shorthanded goals.

The class clowns

The power play: The relative success of the last three games notwithstanding, this has obviously been the most disappointing aspect of the Habs season so far. I refuse to believe the power play won't improve because there's just too much talent to continue sputtering along the way it has. But so far, it's been a huge bust.

Georges Laraque: Carbonneau brought this on himself. When he was asked on numerous occasions last year whether the team needs an enforcer, he always answered that not every team can have a Georges Laraque. So Bob Gainey went out and did just that, got him the real Georges Laraque. Sidney Crosby, when the Habs were in Pittsburgh recently, wondered where Laraque was, and then sarcastically said, "The groin again?" Of course, a groin pull is the one injury where an MRI will show nothing, and you have to go on the player's word to figure out if he's healthy or not, so you can take Crosby's comment for what it's worth. Laraque was acquired to keep the peace during the stretch run and, if needed, in the playoffs. So, assuming his "groin injury" is better by then, his final evaluation will be more telling than the mid-term one. But so far, he hasn't had any impact whatsoever on how teams play the Habs.

Tomas Plekanec: His production of late is an encouraging sign, but I still don't feel he's nearly as dangerous a player as he was last season. He would regularly do things last year that made you sit up and take notice, that created a buzz in the Bell Centre, but those moments have been very few this year. I am tempted to believe last year's regular season performance was a bit over his head and that he's now settling into the role he's perfect for: an excellent third line centre.

Alex Tanguay: His numbers say different, but I don't feel Tanguay has delivered on what was expected of him, which was to be a difference-maker in games. Before his injury I found he took shifts off on a regular basis, and he did nothing to help the power play from the point. It may have been unfair to call on him to replace Mark Streit on the right point, but that was his mandate, and he didn't fulfill it. He needs to be a more dynamic, more electrifying player when he gets back sometime in March, but regardless of whether he is or isn't, I feel he's playing his only season in Montreal.

Christopher Higgins: I'm wondering what's going through Higgins' mind as he watches the team succeed without him in the lineup. The team is 13-4-2 this season without him and 12-8-4 with him. That's not an entirely fair comparison because there are a lot of other factors involved in those records - most importantly Komisarek's absence in 14 of those games - but it does tell a story about his value to the team. Higgins is a player that often wears his insecurity like a fluorescent t-shirt. That usually translates into him trying too hard to help the team, which tends to have the opposite effect. If he stays within himself and simply plays his game when he gets back from his shoulder injury, the results should improve. If not, Higgins could find himself being a spare part pretty quickly.

Jaroslav Halak: Halak makes no bones about the fact he's not entirely pleased to be not only the team's backup goalie, but one who will see little action when Price is healthy. Except when he had the chance to carry the team in Price's latest absence, Halak didn't seize the opportunity. It's hard for a backup to stay sharp and immediately go from spectator to the spotlight, but Halak needs to be better if he ever hopes to attract interest from a team in need of a young starting goaltender.


Andy J Smith illustration said...

Brisebois? Maybe like the Kostisyns, there are tow Brisebois' and I am watching the wrong one? Because I STILL just don't see it. Valuable-ish as a 7th D-man. And now word is he will coach the D next year?

Chris said...


Generally agree, except for Tanguay - I feel like he gives a solid effort every shift and his number pre-injury were good.

More importantly, what's this I am hearing about rumours of a Vinny trade??


Arjun said...

If you take your definition of exceeding expectations very literally, yes, Brisebois has exceeded expectations. But HOW COULD HE NOT? I'm sorry. I still cringe when he's on the ice. He makes at least one boneheaded play a game, if not more. Watching him play is like listening to Bat Out of Hell - you know exactly what you're going to get and it's terrible each and every time. Otherwise, your list is pretty good.

Thank you.

Topham said...

Don't kid yourself Arpon:

"Well, it's not really a report card because I feel it's not fair to give out grades to players, since that is something that should be done by someone who has some semblance of an idea of what it's like to be on the ice in an NHL game."

You judged these players by placing them into categories and by your descriptions of them. I don't think you should be ashamed of that. isn't that why you have a blog? That's why i have a blog...

In any case, I applaud you for being hard on some and soft on others. You offer a breath of fresh air when most people trying to do this kind of thing back down for fear of the criticism. I don't agree with all your assessments, but that's the point as well isn't it – to stir up a bit of discussion. I kow you're a big fan, so maybe you'd even like to take me down a peg later when you get a chance too:

My biggest disagreements with you relate to Latendresse and Brisebois at the top, while Higgins and Plekanec languish at the bottom. Brisebois for his part has been tolerable this season – to put him at the head of the class is indulgent even for his biggest fans. Latendresse also has been OK. In fact, like Andrei, he started very slowly. The difference of course is that his surge hasn't really achieved more than a couple of goals and a better third line. I assume he makes top of the class because now we don't even expect im to score. That is news to me...

Plekanec and Higgins for their parts have not produced statiscally, but on a team that has won at an impressive clip, they both played huge parts. Both kill penalties and play defence with aplomb. Both work consistently hard from night to night. They deserve better acknowledgment for this, in my opinion.

Anyway, good job as I said. Till next time.