Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fragile is as fragile does

Steve Bégin's words after the Habs were embarrassed by the Leafs at home Saturday night, calling his team fragile, could not have been very well received by his teamates - even though all of them had to know it was true.

Still, it's generally not something you should say to reporters, but Montreal's effort in Calgary Monday night looked almost as though the team was trying to show Bégin just how fragile they can be.

"You want fragile? We'll show you fragile," or something like that.

A lot of things went right early on for the Habs in a game where they would be excused for feeling pretty tired. A third game in four nights, a tough skate thrown in for good measure and a flight across two time zones is not a recipe for winning. Yet the Habs scored the first goal for the first time in four games and entered the first intermission with a 2-1 lead. Essentially a perfect start for a team that desperately needed one.

The Canadiens killing a lengthy 5-on-3 in the second should have given the team a firther boost of momentum, but when they gave up a shorthanded goal to Hudson native Matthew Lombardi and then another goal to Dion Phaneuf 32 seconds later, the wheels came off and there was little doubt at that point what the final result would be. It was just a matter of how many more goals the Flames would score.

So to recap, that's now two wins in 10 games with only 23 goals for and 41 against over that span. Ugly.

A 30-minute players meeting following the game was the latest attempt to bring the team out of its torpor, and hopefully one of the items on the agenda was that players shouldn't be waiting for help from outside.

The way they're playing right now is putting GM Bob Gainey in a position of serious weakness as he works the phones trying to land a centre or a top-four defenceman or both. No GM in his right mind would look at the way the Habs are reeling and not ask for the moon in any potential deal for a veteran.

"Hi Garth, I'd be interested in adding Doug Weight, what would I need to do to get him?"

"Well Bob, how about giving me Christopher Higgins, P.K. Subban and Tomas Plekanec? That was what you were willing to give up for Vincent Lecavalier but I feel it's fair value for Weight."


OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I seriously doubt Gainey will be able to swing a deal with the team playing the way it is.

Having said that, I don't think it would be particularly fair to have expected the Canadiens to walk into Calgary and pull out a win Monday night, despite the fact the Flames were on a four-game slide of their own. Even without Sunday's surprise practice, it was a tall order to fly out west a day after completing a back-to-back set and still expect to have some legs.

The Canadiens appeared to be riding some adrenaline off the desperation of their situation in the first, but the schedule caught up to them in the second. Now, however, they have a day off to get used to the time change and find their legs in Edmonton.

They'd better, because there will be no excuses of exhaustion available for a poor performance against the Oilers, and the Habs are running out of clichéd ways to right the ship, like punitive practices and closed-door players meetings.

They keep saying they will get out of this together, but that process needs to start Wednesday night.


pmk said...

The fourth period is saying Habs and coyotes are talking - doesn't name any habs but names Jokinen and Morris from the coyotes. trying not to get my hopes up but that would really be nice. This teams needs a change, it needs to get bigger and tougher, if not now then in the off season.

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.

TK said...

Interesting idea Sliver, I think I agree with you about this team lacking an identity. Who's job is it to forge a team identity? players? coaches? Leaders? I suppose evryone is responsible to a certain extent.
At the start of the season , I like many others, labelled this squad the fast, game breaking team. The team that can punish you for turning pucks over in the neutral zone with nifty odd man rushes. The team with a quick transition game, with mobile defenseman that could move the puck out of defensive zone with ease so as to limit the effectiveness of opposing forecheckers. A team that employed a group of forwards who loved to work the cycle, to wear out the opposing d-men, and then burn them with their speed. What happened to this Team that I have just described? Was I delusional? Where is the speed that was central to the identity of the team?

PMK- Pheonix sounds like an interesting trading partner. However, don't the experts like to question Jokinen's attitude and work ethic? I think a minor deal for Morris would help us out. Maybe a guy like Carcillo, who is having an off year, could provide some character to this team that desperatley needs more substance.

TK said...

On second thought, another third/fourth liner is maybe not what we need. Even if he can skate and fight better than Begin and Kosto.