Friday, July 3, 2009

Short-term memories

I've got to admit that I fall victim to it as well.

That tendency for sports fans to only think in one year increments, forgetting what happened in the past and not allowing for proper interpretation of what will happen in the future. When it comes to the Montreal Canadiens, I feel a lot of people's memories are far too short these days.

With the year the team just went through, that would be an easy trap to fall into, so I felt like maybe I would try to add a little dose of perspective to the proceedings as Habs fans continue to chew on the notion that the entire leadership core of the team will not be back next year.

But what is left is a blue chip goalie who will only turn 22 next month, yet already has 93 NHL games under his belt, a top-flight defenceman who is among the best puck-movers in the league, and a very talented 24-year-old winger who is taking a little longer than others to break out of his shell.

Carey Price, Andrei Markov and, admittedly to a lesser extent, Andrei Kostitsyn are still the group that will decide whether or not the Canadiens have any degree of success this year. And there is nothing saying that all three of them will not have career years.

Of course, there's nothing saying they will either, but at least in the case of Price and Kostitsyn we can speculate with some degree of assurance that the chances of them bouncing back from last season are still pretty good.

Let's start with Price. I went over this back in early March when Price was having trouble seeing straight and also felt the game was best seen from his knees, but I felt it warranted being re-hashed at this point because I think a lot of people are forgetting just what kind of a talent Price can be.

Patrick Roy's exploits in leading the Habs to the Stanley Cup in his rookie season are legendary, but not nearly as many people mention the fact that in his second year, it was Brian Hayward that got the bulk of the playoff duty to lead Montreal to the conference final. Roy had a very successful sophomore regular season, finishing second in the league in goals against average and fifth in save percentage.

But in the playoffs it was a different story, as Roy allowed an average of four goals per game in the six he played, compared to 13 games played for Hayward that year. Didn't anyone have their doubts as to whether Roy was a one-year wonder after a playoff performance like that, plus the one the following season when he went 3-4 with a 3.35 GAA and .890 save percentage?

In Roy's fourth season, he led the Habs back to the Cup final.

When it comes to Martin Brodeur, the most interesting comparison is the one I made back in March, that his worst statistical season was his second in the NHL, when he posted the second-highest GAA and lowest save percentage of his career. A season after that Brodeur led the NHL with 30 losses. Another season later Brodeur was a second team all-star, finishing first in the league in both shutouts and GAA and second in wins.

Again, as I pointed out in March, I'm not comparing Price to either of these legends. I just want it to be clear that Hall of Famers like Roy and Brodeur had some bumpy roads on their way to greatness, and maybe Price is going through the same process now. No longer having Rollie Melanson around - who appeared to be confusing his young protegé more than anything else - can only help matters.

As for Andrei Kostitsyn, it's a bit more complicated simply because it's not quite as clear if he has a very high ceiling. Is he the player who scored 20 goals over his final 46 games two years ago, or the one who looked lost and disinterested most of last year?

I feel he's closer to the former than the latter.

People love comparing Kostitsyn to the forwards the Habs passed on who were still available with the 10th pick in that fabled 2003 draft class. Yes, Jeff Carter (chosen 11th), Dustin Brown (13th), Zach Parise (17th), Ryan Getzlaf (19th), Mike Richards (24th) and Corey Perry (28th) have all turned into elite NHL talents. But every single one of them has also played at least 100 more games than Kostitsyn has, so they are obviously further along in their development even though they're the same age.

Kostitsyn was seen as an exceptional talent back then, one that would have likely gone in the top five were it not for his history with epilepsy. As a 16-year-old at the 2002 World Under-18 championships he finished 15th in tournament scoring with 10 points, and he scored three goals in six games at the World Juniors that year as well playing against competition four years his senior.

But Kostitsyn spent another year playing in Russia after he was drafted then the better part of the next three seasons in Hamilton, so last year was only his second full year in the NHL.

In Carter's second full year in the NHL, he got 37 points. In his third he had 53, including 29 goals. Brown had 46 points his second year and 60 in his third. Getzlaf had 58 points his second year and 82 in his third, Richards jumped from 32 points to 75 and Perry from 44 to 54, including 29 goals. The lone exception in the group was Parise, who jumped from 32 points as a rookie to 62 as a sophomore, then flatlined for a year and exploded in year four to 94 points this past season.

So while all those players have made the Habs look pretty negligent, particularly Carter and Getzlaf considering the team's still unfilled need for a big centreman, Kostitsyn is very early in his NHL career and could very well be due for an explosion of sorts.

The departure of Alex Kovalev should also help Kostitsyn, in my view, because it always appeared to me that the kid in Kostitsyn had a tendency to defer to the Russian hero in Kovalev. Now, perhaps, Kostitsyn will be able to take his rightful place on the Habs pecking order, at least in his own mind.

Even though Bob Gainey went out and bought himself an entire first line and a third of his defence in a 24-hour span this week, I still believe it will be the play of Price, Markov and Kostitsyn that will make or break this team.

And I would venture to predict that all three of them will be up to that challenge.

10 comments:

moeman said...

A good read. I agree That AK could climb a few notches and take on a bigger role. I can see him on the 1st line with Gomez+Gionta, or with SK and Cammalleri. Two very fast lines that should be fun to watch. Unless of course the NHL buys into Burkian goon squads and reverts to not penalizing like in the pre-lockout years. As for Price, hopefully his sophomore year is left in the dust and he matures and solidifies his talented game. I'd like to see Kolzig be hired to be the Habs Gman coach.

Anonymous said...

Arpon. You're back! Great positive perspective.

There is a very fresh breeze blowing through our team - things had gotten very stagnant and more than a little sordid. I think guys like those you mention will benefit immensely (and not to forget that Martin's structure may also support nicely) from the new air and atmosphere.

I believe we all have a part in creating this new atmosphere and your post is a nice step in that direction.

pfhabs said...

Arpon:

-your points are well taken but I would say that for me my displayed angst is not a short memory (mine is very good and the ton of CH background material hanging around my office helps) but a feeling of confusion and disorientation mixed in w a huge dollop of questions.

1. Price has the talent no question there but even given his background he chose to display an immaturity that defys his upbringing as he sucuumbed to the sirens on The Main and Crescent street.

-so can he committ to being an professional as opposed to a party animal ? will trader Bob get him a mentor backup instead of the more experienced competitor he currently has in Jaro ? will Martin hire a coach that helps Carey display his abundant talent as opposed to Rollie who was trying to change his style and with whom he was in a constant battle ?

-Huge questions in a critical position...on verra

2. Markov will be Markov and a top 10 D man and a relative steal at $5.75/year.

-as the reigning veteran will Martin and Gainey stumble and try to make this soft spoken person the Captain of the team ? hopefully not but I've seen stranger stuff in the last 7 days..on verra

3. and now we come to Andrei.

-glad you remembered the top 5 story because the Red Line Report/Kyle Woodlief, ex scout from Thrashers or Nashville, had him listed there as did other scouting services in 2003. they called him "best pure talent in the draft". Timmins at the time, working for Andre Savard had AK graded better than 10th but Getzlaf after him...CH brain trust had team doctor Dr Mulder at the pre draft combine to see AK and review medical reports....his review came down to a minor form of epilepsy and easily controllable w drugs available in Canada. AK falls to 10 and Timmins/Savard snap him up

-during the lockout year Carter, Richards and others already in North America ply their trade in the AHL and AK still in Russia misses out on that and has paid the price for it. you'll remember that over a 100 NHLers went to the AHL making that a much improved league but more important a tremendous development year which AK did not benefit from

-fast forward to last year and all the criticism the CH has taken for drafting AK when clearly there are 5 or 6 players they "missed". in my mind the verdict is still out.

-however; little bro Sergui apparently has a major influence on his older sibling and AK the talented stud becomes AK party boy, mixing with the wrong crowd and front page news on the tabloids and every media outlet going because of a "friendship" w alledged mafia guy. 2008-09 becomes a major distraction, he by inference gets called out by the ranking countryman Kovalev, he's not in the best shape and another softer spoken talented guy retreats into his shell

-so question is has he learned what he needed to learn over the summer ? has Sergui realized he is on a very very short leash ? and will these two finally display the awesome talents they have ? again on verra

-so Apron although I agree who are the 3 to watch there are so many questions with them that its hard to judge where the CH will be. add to that all that Bob has changed and the required breaking in time, with a new system to learn it will all take time and as McGuire called it the other day an experiment and as I'm saying not a sure thing

-so not short of memory just long on questions

specialk said...

Apron basu,

I love your blog.

Here's some thoughts I had about Price.

http://eastmeetswest.krung.net/east_meets_west/2009/05/price-vs-halak-the-numbers-they-tell-an-interesting-tale.html

My observation was that Price had a terrible January-February but was pretty good the rest of the season.

What I didn't talk about was that the incomparably great Roberto Luongo had a similar injury to Price and played very poorly after his injury.

As for Andrei K, I often remind folks of the fact that he was only available because of his presumed epilepsy: http://eastmeetswest.krung.net/east_meets_west/2009/05/an.html

But I think you missed the *key* player for the Habs next year, and as much as I find it ridiculous to stay: Guillaume Latendresse.

With Guillaume, we have a terrific third line. Laps scored 15 goals while Gui was on his wing. Once Gui left his wing Max disappeared.

In fact if you watched the Habs play, Gui would circle down low on the ice and was immovable. Sort of like a Laraque but with skill and some speed.

This is what I wrote in May trying to parse the season:
http://eastmeetswest.krung.net/east_meets_west/2009/05/the-overly-pessimistic-habs-fans.html

I hate to think that Gui is the key, but I really believe if Gui scores 25+ goals we'll be the team to beat (basically his pace from last year).

kostadis

pierre said...

Good post Arpon...

I like what Koivu's departure will have on the team psychologically speaking... players will perceive themselves differently in relation with the team now that it has lost such a reference as Koivu.... Kovalev's departure will further add to such a sentiment.... I think the overall effects on our players will be more explosive than implosive as a result.... akin to the ascendency we saw in Ribeiro, Streit and Ryder's play once their perceptions about themselves had changed from being in a different invironment.

Its a new environment obviously for the new comers but because of Koivu and Kovy's departure it is just as much a new environment for own players.... in the end, its a new environment for ALL in that no one has yet played under Martin... thats another good point I think.

habs fan in TO said...

I agree with you but will reserve judgement until I see who the last additions to the coaching staff is. In particular, who the goaltender coach is. No doubt this year was an overall failure on and off the ice. Coaches, players paid the price and Gainey had the guts to admit this was a flawed group and moved on getting players who are familiar and excelled in a defensive 1st system. I'm looking forward to the final pieces to be added behind the bench.

pfhabs said...

Bob has yet to pay any price other than a diminished reputation and others less responsible for this mess have paid a very large price

pmk said...

beauchemin - leaf (really wanted him- signed for same $ as spacek.)
Kovy - sen (think he'll be motivated against us??)

pfhabs said...

yep those Gainey and Gauthier hits just keep on coming...aren't we lucky to have such innovative out of the box thinking from the best executives in the NHL (according to Mr Gillett)

Beauchemin signed for $3.8 for 3 years and Sissy Spacek signed for $3.83 for 3 years

I'm just all a flutter; should the parade be on St Catherine's or La Gaucheterie ?

Les said...

I think Pierre touches on really important points regarding psychology. It's the reason winners and losers are always impossible to immediately parse in trades, it's the reason you never know who goes from being a 23-year-old sensation to washout or a cup-winning team leader. These are human beings and we tend to forget it. I won't be surprised if Kovalev, Koivu or Higgins have renaissainces in their new environments. I won't be surprised if they wash out completely, either. Same with the Habs' new guys, who are making that step from key young guys to team leaders. Who knows how the chemistry will work given so many changed pieces. We may be surprised by the people who step up to a new level, and those who fail. (And isn't this a great reason to love sports, as much as Kovalev's stickhandling ?)