Tuesday, February 10, 2009

For those who don't read the comments...

...you've been missing out. Here's one from a loyal reader (and one of my best friends, BTW) that I thought was too insightful not to have on the main blog:

Sliver24 said...
Watching the game last night, before the wheels fell off, I was thinking to myself that I couldn't help but be jealous of the team that Flames fans have to root for. I don't watch that many Flames games but they strike me as a group of guys that will do anything for each other and for the team.

I commented to my wife that the Flames are almost like an NHL version of a Team Canada World Juniors team.I was reminded of my thought while I read today's entry so I looked up their roster (http://www.nhlnumbers.com/overview.php?team=CGY&season=0809). I was absolutely blown away by what I saw.

Take a look at the flags and you see a team made up almost entirely of Canadians. There are four Americans on the team, however one of those is Andre Roy who was born in New York but raised in the Montreal area. The team has a single European player on its regular roster - goalie Mikka Kiprusoff.

Let’s do the math here. On a 22 player roster that's 18 Canadians, three Americans and a Finn. I’ve always believed that having a lot of Europeans on a hockey team is a bad thing. Before you get carried away with your PC madness, let me qualify that statement.

I think we all can agree that hockey is unique, at least in major North American sports, in the sense that a team is much more than simply the sum of its parts. In football, basketball and especially baseball you can “buy” a championship-contending team by simply getting an all-star-calibre player to fill each position. Every attempt to do so in hockey has failed miserably (see Rangers, New York and Maple Leafs, Toronto – pre-lockout).

So how does one foster the intangible qualities required to make a hockey team successful? Properly answering that question would take more time and space than I’m willing to put into it, but let me say this. Starting with a group of guys that largely have the same cultural background and social values is going to help a lot.

Although it’s undoubtedly over-generalizing, I’d split the vast majority of NHL players into three broad categories: North Americans, Eastern Europeans and Scandinavians. Each of these hockey “regions” is associated with a certain traditional style of play. The North American style is simple, hardnosed, fast paced hockey. Russians are known for their flashy, offensively creative game. Scandinavians have traditionally played a technically sound and often innovative style.

Calgary has a style. It is one that was consciously chosen by the GM. That GM hired a coach that believes in using the same style. The GM also evaluated the players he inherited, kept the ones that fit into his system and ditched the ones that didn’t work out (i.e. Alex Tanguay).

Does that mean Calgary can’t ever have any Europeans? Of course not. But it would have to be the right European. Saku, as an example, would fit right in. In fact he’d probably score 100 points playing with Jarome Iginla. How long do you think Alex Kovalev, on the other hand, would last on the Flames? This despite the fact that he and Keenan have a Cup-winning history together? In all likelihood we’d never have the chance to find out because Sutter would see that despite his indisputable talent, Kovy just wouldn’t fit in so he wouldn’t pick him up regardless of the cost (in players or dollars).

The problem with the Habs, as I see it, is that they don’t have a definable identity this season. Last season they played an overall Eastern European style, playing a relatively wide-open game, scoring jaw-dropping goals and relying on special teams to make a difference. In the offseason they added some size and toughness, which I thought at the time was a good thing. On top of that since the beginning of the season two young North Americans from the minors have become an important part of their top-nine forwards. Finally, they’ve placed more focus on defensive play, as can be demonstrated by their 0FC defensive strategy. But do any of those changes really compliment the style that was successful for them?

Furthermore, last season’s Habs were a dark horse team that wasn’t expected to be successful. This season they were picked by many pundits to finish first in the East and make a run for the cup. Of the three geographical styles I described above, the Eastern European style is without a doubt the worst suited to deal with the kind of pushback you’ll get from NHL teams that are coming into games ready to play an “elite” opponent.

So, what is the Style of the 100th Anniversary Montreal Canadiens? What is their identity? I don’t know. What’s worse, I don’t think anyone on the team knows either.

At this point I say they go run & gun and hope for the best.

The only argument against what Sliver is saying, and it's a big one, is the Detroit Red Wings. However, the makeup of the Red Wings is largely from his "Scandinavian" group of styles, so it does jive with his argument that it's a good idea to build a team where the majority of players share the same cultural history.

Food for thought, and interesting ones at that. I've always wondered what the Habs social scene is like on the road, because I somehow don't see Andrei Kostitsyn and Tom Kostopoulos hanging out much.


Arjun said...

Wow that was a great letter. I've been thinking of the Europeans on the team lately, for sure but I didn't know what I was thinking really. Now I kind of do.

Also: today's column by Rejean Tremblay (of all people) was very good. I was surprised by how good it was.

Arjun said...

Sorry, forgot the link:

TK said...

It's true Arp, I often wonder about the group dynamics within this team. I wonder about the cliques in the dressing room. I wonder if Saku can use another Finn to talk to (no, not Niinimaa)

Arpon Basu said...

Saku's not the guy to worry about in terms of having a crew, though there are grumblings that he's not the greatest of team guys away from the rink. I'm not even sure how important the social aspect of things is to a team, but it's something even the most plugged in of reporters will ever know

Anvilcloud said...

Maybe that's it. And maybe they've been trying to switch styles, but it can't work with this group. I don't know if we're supposed to be a fast team or a slow checking team or even [sometimes] a hard hitting team because it always seems to be our opponents who determine what style we play on any given night.

Sliver24 said...

Hey sweet! Top billing for a day ;) Thanks for the props.

Detroit does throw quite the wrench into my theory but they may just be the exception that makes the rule.

I think maybe it's because the have a very old school culture there.

Over the last 20 years there has been no doubt who their leader is at any given time. They have a culture of hard work and toeing the party line from the top to the bottom. They have strict standards that they adhere to (such as the rule that no player can earn more than the captain) no matter what.

Essentially it comes down to an organizational discipline that no other NHL team seems to be able to match.

The Habs were at one point that team but they lost their way somewhere in the mid-80s. I think that Bob Gainey, who lived it himself, is working on getting the organization back to that type of mentality. This is just a bump in the road.

Arpon Basu said...

I don't think Detroit is the exception to the rule. It follows the rule, they've just identified a different style to focus on. They've decided to go with Swedes, adding a ridiculously skilled Russian and some North Americans to the mix who fit the style. I agree with you assertion that you need to pick a style, I just don't agree that you necessarily need the North American one to win. Apparently Ken Holland doesn't agree either.

Topham said...

What basis is there for saying that the Eastern European style has the hardest time against any push back?

Just wondering.

In all my experience in sports there is only one consistent winner and that is creativity. It is alright for a team to have a primary "style", but if there is no PLan B or C or ability to shift on the go, then anyone can build a system to defend it.

Don't misunderstand me in thinking I mean lots of players like Kovalev – I don't. I mean creative planning and strategies. The creativity in between games should be just as important as the creativity within them.

A gross lack of creativity is what we saw against Boston and Philly last season. Yes Kovalev must be told that sometimes he has to battle in the corners. But equally Begin must be told that sometimes he must pass not shoot directly at the goalie. The knee-jerk is always to bring everyone back t playing like the least skilled players on the team (and that's one solution); but the

The best teams do this well.

If you want a lesson in dominance, don't look to the latest flavour in hockey, look to world soccer. Literally millions people channel their efforts into the quest for the World Cup, the will and the budgets to win are immense. Yet through all this, one team continues to be the dominant force and has been for 50 years – Brazil.

It is rare enough that they don't win. But virtually impossible to count them out of the top four of the tournament. Why?

Creativity. Their system fosters it.

Sure they have talents that stand out, but don't be fooled they have their Komisareks too, their Begins.

Don't have us pigeon-holed, but have us morph to what the situation requires. Don't teach Komisarek only teach Komisarek to better back the puck. Teach him to watch the game before he gets the puck and while he has it. 90% of the time he'll need that bank, but sometimes a flip to Higgins in a gap will change the pace.

Arpon Basu said...

Nice analysis Topham, but I think you and Sliver are essentially saying the same thing, just in a different way. The main point here is not which style is better or worse, because that's obviously debatable, but rather that the Canadiens right now don't appear to have any defined style or identity. Creativity should indeed be a strength of the Canadiens, but either they've become pretty predictable of late or they're so creative that their own players don't know what to expect of each other. Either way, it's not a recipe for success. What makes Brazilian soccer so impressive is that for all the offensive wizardry they display, all the players are always on the same page.

Yves said...

Ever since Darryl Sutter took over in Calgary.... I've generally liked what he's done with the team.

He builds his teams pretty tough... with some offense and pretty good defense.

Sliver24 said...

Topham, it's hard to be creative when you're always being outworked and you're being crushed into submission every time you touch the puck.

Let's use a defenceman as a case in point. If a d-man is not being pressured in his own zone he'll have time to pick up the puck, turn and face the play and either skate with the puck or make a breakout pass.

If, on the other hand, the defenceman knows that every time he goes to retrieve the puck in the corner he's going to be hit by a 200 pound forechecker he's going to start making quick plays - namely rimming the puck around the boards.

This opens up an opportunity for the forechecking team that otherwise wouldn't have been there.

The Eastern European style is a puck possession game. It's possible to disturb that type of game by constantly putting pressure on and punishing the player with the puck. If they don't have thy puck they can't make creative plays.

I imagine you'd see the same thing with the Brazilian soccer team if the opposition was allowed to nail them every time they touch the ball.

Does the North American style stifle creativity? Maybe a little bit, but not as much as some would have you believe. What it does do is limit creative success to those players that are willing to pay the price to achieve it.

Topham said...

Here's my creative response to your defenceman conundrum:

Let the forward retrieve the puck.

If you're going to give it up anyway. Let him. Then hit him.

It may not be the best solution, but it is certainly something.

Plus, only do it half the time.

On my blog I frequently come back to my example of water polo. One game we had a massive lead going into the second half, except that we noted they had changed their players and put their best player in goal. The result was a save on every shot (which was OK given our lead). However, each shot was a turnover. I wouldn't claim it was never done before, but our coach told us not to shoot anymore – to effectively play keep-away for the entire half. We won the game in the end, despite having to suppress the instinct to play like we always did.

It is difficult to create the exact parallel in hockey, but there could be some. Take the PP the other night. Sergei enters the zone as the last man and tries to deke a defender. This should not have been in the cards with a lead. Carbonneau should have said all plays go up the boards with overloaded sides - none down the middle.

The creativity needs to be at the tactical level as I said. Carbonneau and his coaches need to move beyond the dump and chase as the solution and look at the players they have. They need to start maximising their assets.

To this point, they have not been doing that.

The Canadiens are being outworked, but they often do alright until the great deflators let in the third goal. The tactical nous must come before that point to create the advantage early.

Arpon Basu said...

I agree that Carbo and the coaching staff need to get a little more imaginative in the Xs and Os department, because as I noted before the Habs are becoming too predictable. I thought I saw an attempt at that in last night's pathetic showing in Edmonton when the team started the game appearing to revert back to the no-forecheck system that worked so well in Detroit about 100 years ago. Except this time it didn't work, and as soon as the Oilers scored the first goal it appeared that any system adjustments went out the window.