Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Let's see if it has the same effect

When the Habs took a 7-1 thumping in Vancouver a few weeks back, there was a definite positive effect that came out of that loss.

The defence tightened up, the breakout improved, the offence began to produce.

The result, eventually, was a four-game winning streak, albeit at home against some pretty weak competition. But a four-game win streak is still nothing to sneeze at.

So, what will be the effect of this 6-1 beat down at the hands of the Stanley Cup champs?

Well, there are few areas the Habs can definitely show improvement, and I'm not talking about this game, because frankly, that was a pretty predictable loss.

The Habs have allowed 12 power plays over the past two games and given up four goals. They allowed 14 power plays over the previous four games, allowing one 5-on-3 goal. Sometimes, and this game was a perfect example, taking a penalty can cost your team even if it is killed off, because what it does is either kill your momentum or increase that of the opponent.

I think we saw that when Hal Gill took a pretty boneheaded delay of game penalty right before the end of the first period. It allowed the Pens to start the second on a power play, putting the Habs on their heels, and they never really recovered. Jacques Martin said yesterday that the one area he'd like to see his team improve is special teams, but I would have mentioned discipline as well.

It would be hard for me, or the coach, to call out any individual players for performing poorly after such a collective non-effort, but the group of defencemen in general were over-matched tonight. Of course, when you're facing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin every second shift, that's to be expected.

The Habs shouldn't hang their heads because that wouldn't be very constructive. Instead, they got another opportunity to see what happens when the system is ignored for a night, because this team really has little margin for error, at least when it's not playing the Islanders.

Now for the big question, which is the starting goalie Friday night in Chicago. Jaroslav Halak wasn't horrible in allowing four goals on 23 shots, but he wasn't outstanding either. As great as Crosby's first of the night was, Halak was actually over there in time and just whiffed on it. Crosby's second goal was just a great play by him that I don't think any goalie on earth would have stopped, and Halak had some bad luck on the third one with Crosby in alone.

So, the natural assumption is that Carey Price gets the start in Chicago, and I can't really argue with it except to say that the Habs play Toronto at home the next night. I don't know if teams actually think this way, or even if they should, but shouldn't Martin be focusing his attention on winning Saturday night's game? If Price plays Friday and shuts out the 'Hawks, can you bring him back against the Leafs a night later? If he starts Halak on Friday and saves Price for the Leafs, does Martin drive a further stake into the heart of his franchise goalie?

Chances are Price gets the call Friday night, but I just don't think it's as much of a slam dunk decision as many may think it is.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Going right to the source

In my constant attempt to find a goaltending controversy (there, I said it), I headed over to Brossard today to ask the man himself, Carey Price, what he thought on the subject.

Here's my story on what he had to say, with the best quote being:

“He’s on a streak right now. He’s been playing well, so he deserves his playing time.”

That's the official, non-opinionated version I had to produce for CP. But while Price's lips were moving and all the right words were coming out, his body language today was a whole other story. Before I go on, I should say that at the best of times Price is not Mr. Jolly with reporters, but today I got a real sense that he was annoyed and somewhat frustrated with the situation.

That doesn't mean he was insincere in what he said, I believe he actually does think all that stuff about thinking of the team first while it's winning games. But at the same time, he ain't no stinkin' backup, and I couldn't help but feel that was the thought running through his mind.

I don't know that for a fact, it's just an impression I had. But aside from that, the main player in my imagined goaltending controversy says he doesn't think there is one, so I should cease and desist.

"It’s still early in the year, we still have a lot of time, there’s not any rush," Price said. "The guys are playing well right now so we can’t really change things up. I just need to keep working and just wait for my time."

We'll see if he thinks the same thing if, somehow, he doesn't get the start Saturday against Toronto, or even Friday in Chicago should Halak lose in Pittsburgh (yes, I'm assuming Martin will name Halak the starter. Do any of you think differently?)

On that note, a good friend of mine and regular reader of the blog called me up today to point out some research he did recently, simply because he was growing tired of my continued insistence on the existence of some sort of controversy. He looked up the number of games Patrick Roy played per season early in his career, and he averaged just over 48 games played per year from Year 2 of his career to Year 6.

Brian Hayward, in his four years in a Habs uniform, averaged just over 35 games played per season, and that relationship worked out just fine, so maybe this one can as well.

I've had a ridiculously long day, so I'll leave you with this. Mike Cammalleri was being asked after practice about whether he was surprised with the play of Glen Metropolit, who was kept away from the practice rink today so he could tend to his flu, though he was supposed to take the flight with his teammates to Pittsburgh this afternoon.

Cammalleri played with Metropolit on the 2006 Canadian world championships team, a year when Metropolit was playing in Lugano of the Swiss Elite League. Cammalleri says when he saw Metropolit play, it instantly reminded him of his L.A. Kings teammate at the time Derek Armstrong.

"Maybe he’s not the fastest guy, maybe he’s not the biggest guy, maybe he wasn’t a top pick so he doesn’t really get the opportunities that other guys got to play at this level," Cammalleri said. "But when you get on the ice with them and they’ve got the puck on their stick and they have to make the play, they make the play. Metro’s that guy, so it doesn’t really surprise me. But I also saw him earlier and joked with him that he's on pace to get 100 (points). If he gets 100, that will surprise me."

That's the best description of Metropolit's game I've heard to date. He simply gets it done.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The "Czech Sausage" wins it

That was how Roman Hamrlik described the overtime saucer pass from countryman Tomas Plekanec to set up his overtime winner in Montreal's 3-2 victory Monday night, the Habs fourth in a row.

Really, it was a great night for every Czech player in the lineup as Jaro Spacek also chipped in with his first goal of the season, and though he's Slovak, Jaro Halak had a pretty credible night at the office as well.

But the player that stood out for me was easily Glen Metropolit. For the second time in less than a week, Metropolit burned the Isles for two assists, and this time it was in spite of a flu bug that prevented him from attending Monday's morning skate.

"Obviously," Jacques Martin said, "he was all right to play."

Yes indeed, Jacques, thanks for that. Metropolit played 11:16 on the night, including 2:21 on the penalty kill. The PK did not have a good night, allowing both Islander goals, but Metropolit was not to blame for either one.

It was, and I'm dangerously treading into over-dramatizing it, but a Jordan-esque performance for someone who was too sick to even make it to the rink that morning. He didn't speak to reporters after the game, but was seen working out in the gym, so maybe he wasn't actually that sick.

Regardless, his play to set up Spacek's first in a Habs uniform was sheer beauty, forcing a turnover in the corner, deking a player and finding the defenceman cutting in on the backdoor with a perfect feed for a one-timer.

Metropolit's play was one positive, the play of linemate Travis Moen was another with a goal and an assist, but I think Martin nailed the biggest positive on the night when it came to the play of his team.

"It was four lines tonight that shared the work," he said. "Our special teams weren't up to the task and we took a lot of penalties tonight. We'll need to improve our concentration for the next game. But it's a good sign when we can win games even if we're not playing our best."

Now for the negatives, and it starts with the enigmatic Andrei Kostitsyn, who doesn't appear to understand the urgency of the situation he's in. He began the game on a line with Kyle Chipchura and Matt D'Agostini, and appeared to have trouble keeping up with his far less talented linemates. Then Martin gave him a shot to play with Plekanec, still nothing. In 10:53 if ice time, Kostitsyn got one shot on goal and had another attempt blocked. That's it. The enduring image I have of him in this game was having a slow rolling puck coming around the boards slide right by him, simply because of a lack of concentration.

To me, that's his problem. He can't get going because he always appears to be lost mentally. And it might be time to legitimately wonder if that's not a chronic problem with this guy.

Otherwise, tune in Tuesday for another episode of As the Goalies Turn. Martin obviously won't announce his starter until Wednesday's game in Pittsburgh, but I find it hard to believe he won't go with Halak.

"No," Martin said when asked if he was ready to anoint Halak his No. 1 goalie. "We're going to take one game at a time, it's a long season. I'm happy for how he's performing. I said even before the season started that both goaltenders would have to do the job."

Right now, one goaltender has been watching the other do the job for quite a long time.

Martin makes gutsy, but correct call

Jacques Martin's announcement this morning that Jaroslav Halak will make his fourth straight start for the Habs was a tough decision to make, but the right one in my eyes.

Everyone assumed Carey Price would get an opportunity to start against the lowly Islanders to have a chance to build his confidence back so he could follow up with starts in Pittsburgh and Chicago later this week. It was an easy assumption to make, because that was the scenario which would make the most sense, seeing as Price is supposedly the team's No. 1 goalie.

But Martin has gone against the grain and called on Halak for a fourth straight game, which means Price will have been inactive for 11 days by the time the Habs suit up in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. This is what makes Martin's decision today so significant, because by starting Halak, he's essentially saying that Halak will start Wednesday as well, no matter what happens tonight at the Bell Centre.

Would it be really fair to start Price in Pittsburgh after sitting him for so long? Would that not be setting him up for failure, to suddenly go from facing Gregory Stewart in practice to Evgeni Malkin at top speed? Basically, yes, it would be ridiculously unfair.

So while logic would dictate that Price should start tonight, especially considering Halak allowed four goals in beating the Rangers on Saturday, Martin has decided to go with his gut. And I applaud him for it.

This will be the first time Halak has been given the benefit of the doubt throughout his time with Montreal, and it is a huge vote of confidence for him. I was harping about a goalie controversy when Halak got a second straight start last week, largely because a backup goalie doesn't usually get that kind of an opportunity. But now that Martin has seemingly decided he has no backup, only two potential starters, going with Halak tonight makes sense because he deserves it.

Halak essentially shut the door over the final 40 minutes of regulation against the Rangers, and he can hardly be blamed for allowing a world-class sniper like Marian Gaborik to score on a breakaway. His play allowed the Habs to collect two points, which is the ultimate definition of a starting goalie's job.

It's a job Halak is doing very well, and one he's threatening to take over permanently. Suddenly, trading him doesn't seem like such a great idea. Who in his right mind would even suggest such a ludicrous thing?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Way more than a system win

The Canadiens showed more than puck possession, more than talent and more than speed in beating the New York Rangers 5-4 in overtime Saturday night. They showed resiliency, character and all sorts of other non-tangible qualities.

They began the game on a great roll only to have a series of bad giveaways put them in a 3-1 hole. Not the end of the world, it was still early, and when Matt D'Agostini converted that great feed from Maxim Lapierre to make it 3-2, it looked like the Habs had the momentum. But that was essentially squashed when Marian Gaborik scored that goal on an incredible play at the blue line to get himself a breakaway, and a fragile team - as the Habs were as little as a week ago - would have simply crumbled at that point.

Instead, the Canadiens got stronger and took it to the Rangers throughout the second period, piling up 14 shots and getting the two goals they needed to go into the third period all tied up.

Obviously, the continued dominance of the top line is the main story for the Habs, with Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez combining for eight points on the night. But there were several more subtle positives for the Canadiens to take out of this victory.

The biggest, in my eyes, was the play of the fourth line of Kyle Chipchura, Guillaume Latendresse and Matt D'Agostini, but more particularly Chipchura. Yes, I've been on Latendresse's case a fair bit, so he deserves recognition for a solid night at the office, three shots on eight attempts, three hits, nearly 14 minutes of ice time and generally more involved and more noticeable.

But I expect Latendresse to play that kind of game every night. I never expected to ever see Chipchura play like he did tonight. Confident with the puck, displaying his considerable hockey smarts and getting physically involved at both ends, Chipchura played his best game at this level, at least that I've seen, and if he can keep it up it would be a huge boost to the Habs depth down the middle.

The penalty killing was another major plus point, holding a hot power play team off the board on two chances to run the streak to 20 of the last 21 after a horrid start to the season. This recent run of penalty killing success coincides, in my mind, with the defence corps becoming a far more cohesive unit.

Roman Hamrlik is playing some of his best hockey since joining the Canadiens and heloing to fill the void left by Andrei Markov's stab wound to the ankle. Paul Mara is showing why he'd become such a fan favourite in New York and Josh Gorges simply plays his typical hard-nosed game. Jaroslav Spacek could probably be better, but he's playing pretty well and Hal Gill, well, if you don't expect too much from him I feel he basically delivers what you expect of him. The main sore spot on this night was Marc-André Bergeron, with a number of costly giveaways in the defensive zone, one of which turned into the Rangers first goal of the night that swung the momentum of the game in the first. No one ever said Bergeron would be a defensive stalwart, but giving the puck away in your own end the way he did tonight is inexcusable.

Still, Bergeron played 15 minutes at even strength tonight, which was the lowest among the six defencemen. Spacek had the second-most minutes 5-on-5 at just over 18 minutes. That's a pretty small disparity between your No. 2 and No. 6 d-man, which shows the coaching staff has confidence in all three of their pairings. Jacques Martin's vision of a no-name defence à la the Carolina Hurricanes Cup-winners is starting to come to fruition.

There were some negatives that bear mention, such as the first period brain farts and the uninspired play of Max Pacioretty and Andrei Kostitsyn, but they were really snuffed out by all the positives.

Those positives include the play of Jaroslav Halak. No goalie will ever be satisfied with allowing four goals, but Halak shut the door when he needed to and he erased a lot of other mistakes in that first period aside from the ones he let get past him. If it weren't for him, this game could have been a blowout after 20 minutes.

Everyone will now begin screaming for Carey Price to get the start Monday against the Islanders, and in a sense tonight's result makes that decision pretty easy for Martin. But Halak showed something in the face of adversity tonight, something that has not been Price's strong suit, and I don't feel he should be the victim of the Habs defensive lapses in that first period. If anything, his response over the final 40 minutes should have earned him another start, even if that's unlikely to happen.

Is it controversy time yet?

Jaroslav Halak will get a third straight start in goal tonight for the Habs as they host Christopher Higgins and the New York Rangers, and should Halak win it would be very fair to say we have a goalie controversy on our hands.

It's actually pretty similar to the one we had a few years back when rookie Carey Price eventually pushed Cristobal Huet right out of town, and now the same thing appears to be happening to him, though I doubt he'll be traded away for nothing the way Huet was.

Good for Halak, I say, and ultimately good for the Canadiens. I still see Halak as a valuable trade chip for the Habs, and the more he succeeds the higher his value gets. Price is this team's goalie moving forward, for better or for worse, and the team has some holes to fill up front. Those holes might be filled through Halak, who is proving himself (again) worthy of a starting job somewhere. Some would even say here in Montreal.

Of course, Halak and his mates will be facing a far tougher test tonight from the Rangers than they did against either Atlanta or the Islanders. The Rangers have scored a power play goal in each of their last eight games, and Marian Gaborik is proving just how talented he is when he's healthy, which is almost never. But the Rangers arrive on a two-game skid, and they're meeting a team that is starting to come together nicely. It might just be a perfect storm for the Habs.

I'm wondering how the Bell Centre crowd will welcome back Higgins. He didn't ask to be traded away, he always wore the CH with pride and gave everything he had on the ice, often times too much. But we was far from adored here because he was always seen as such an under-achiever, even though he was never projected to be more than a second-line, two-way winger.

Will he be booed every time he touches the puck? Will he be cheered if he scores a goal like Alex Kovalev was? I always liked Higgins, he truly took losing hard and was very candid in taking responsibility for his own poor play and telling it like it is when the team stunk. But as a player, he was a victim of expectations higher than his talent merited, and it wasn't all that surprising he was never able to meet them.

Friday, October 23, 2009

An identity in the making

The Canadiens showed last night in their 5-1 win over the Islanders the true potential of a puck possession game.

In fact, the Habs have been showing it for the past five games, as some of you have been astutely pointing out, but last night was the first time it gave the desired result. True dominance of a team that was ripe for domination, a team that won its first game of the season a night earlier, a team that had little talent and even less in the tank.

But that shouldn't take away from the Canadiens effort, because they did exactly what needed to be done against a team in that situation. They pressured them all night, forced them to play without the puck, forced them into penalties and, for once, actually converted on the power play.

Last night's 2-for-6 conversion rate snapped a 2-for-27 streak since Game 1 of the season, and even Bob Gainey must have smiled just a little when he saw Marc-Andre Bergeron hammer home that slap shot in the first period. And the mere threat of Bergeron unleashing that shot led to the second power play goal as well, with the Islanders pressuring him at the point and opening up room for Tomas Plekanec to find Mike Cammalleri for a one-timer.

I don't want to make too much of last night's result, however, simply because the Islanders were so beatable. But looking at the past five games, some definite trends are starting to develop. In other words, the Habs are starting to find their identity.

The penalty killing was a perfect 3-for-3 and has now killed off 18 of the last 19, with the only goal coming on a 5-on-3 against the Senators. Furthermore, teams are no longer having target practice on the Canadiens net, with only 22 shots allowed last night. That was the fifth straight game the Habs have allowed 23 or fewer shots. The Canadiens only managed that defensive feat seven times all last season.

The arrival of Jacques Martin was supposed to add a measure of defensive responsibility, but while most assumed (myself included) that it would come from a stifling, trapping style, it has rather been the result of his puck possession philosophy. It's pretty simple, really, that the other team can't shoot on your net if it doesn't have the puck.

A great way to judge puck possession by using stats is attempted shots, which is shots on goal, shots blocked and shots missed combined. Essentially, you won't be trying to shoot on net unless you have the puck in the offensive zone, so it's a pretty good indicator of dangerous puck possession.

Here's how the last five games break down in terms of shots attempted:

v. NYI - Mtl had 83 shot attempts and gave up 44
v. Atl - Mtl had 74, gave up 61
v. Ott - Mtl had 76, gave up 44
v. Col - Mtl had 65, gave up 42
v. Edm - Mtl had 71, gave up 48

On average, that's 73.8 shot attempts per game for the Habs and 47.8 per game against the Habs, a wide margin of 26 per contest. Last season, and even the past two or three seasons, the opposite was often the case as teams routinely outshot the Canadiens even though Mike Komisarek and Roman Hamrlik blocked about 10 or 12 shots per game between them.

So, now that the team is starting to figure out Martin's system, what is going to happen in goal? A lot of people insisted there was no controversy resulting from Jaroslav Halak getting a second straight start last night, and that's fine. But what happens if Martin, after a good night's sleep tonight, announces tomorrow morning that he's going back with Carey Price against the Rangers? Won't that be controversial, considering Halak has won two straight and allowed only two goals in the process?

To me, the choice is clear - now that Halak was given a second straight start, he should play until he has a bad game. Not necessarily a loss, but a bad game, even if it results in a win. The way Halak is playing, it could be weeks before that happens. Then would it be a controversy?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Journalism" in the Internet age

Perusing Twitter this morning, I came across a story written by Mario Langlois on about Sergei Kostitsyn, and how he had gotten into a physical altercation of some sort with Scott Gomez just before being cut. The story said, in no uncertain terms, that the fight, or shoving match, or whatever, was the reason Kostitsyn did not accompany the team to Caledon, Ont., for the team bonding session just before the start of the season.

After reading it, I wrestled with the idea of whether or not I should write about it here, and finally decided against it because, frankly, the story had no source and seemed a little fishy.

I did, however, post it on Twitter at about 12:30 today and it received a fair amount of response.

So imagine my shock when, sometime just after 1 p.m., the TSN website had the story as the lead item on its website. I couldn't believe that a reputable news organization would run with a story that I wouldn't even post on my personal blog.

This, unfortunately, is the nature of journalism today. TSN surely wanted a juicy story for its website, particularly on a day they would be broadcasting a Habs game. This just fell in their laps.

But to each their own, I told myself, and went on with my day.

Just about an hour later, I check back on the TSN website and the story is no longer the lead item. In fact, the headline can't even be found on the main page. Instead, the story is buried into another story about Kostitsyn returning to the Bulldogs after having a meeting in Montreal with Bob Gainey yesterday. It adds that RDS had confirmed that the fight story was not true, except there was no mention of it on the RDS website. Instead, RDS had this far more interesting story on how Kostitsyn had been assured by Gainey that he will either be traded or called up to the Habs in the coming weeks.

Out of curiosity, I decided to check back for the original Langlois story on at around 3:00 p.m. and, surprise, surprise, the story had been removed. It was replaced by this story on how Kostitsyn is not a lost cause, comparing his case to that of Mike Ribeiro. If you check the archives of the Langlois columns, there is no link to the original story about the fight between Gomez and Kostitsyn.

Luckily for you, the good people at did not kill the direct link to that story, which can be read here, unless they have caught the slip up by the time you read this.

I would have to imagine the Canadiens caught wind of this and asked to take the story down, or threatened Langlois that his accreditation would be revoked, because normally a reporter who was confident enough to write a story would be confident enough to defend it when the backlash hit. Evidently, Langlois wasn't that confident in his story, or at least lacked confidence in their columnist.

I originally gave the story a tiny little bit of credence simply because Langlois is not some media nobody. He is an accredited journalist whom I've seen many times at the Bell Centre, though I've never said a word to him.

But reading his bio at, you learn that he's worked for just about every major media outlet in the city, from CKAC to RDS to Radio-Canada, and here he is writing an obscure column at Just like you start to wonder when a player like, I don't know, Jaroslav Spacek bounces around from team to team, you also have to wonder when a reporter is unable to hold down a steady job.

In the span of a few hours, this "journalist" was the source of a potentially huge controversy that died before it ever had a chance to gather significant steam. In the old days, before the Internet, perhaps something like this would have been said on the radio, but it never would have had the impact it did online, where word of the lurid tale spread like wild fire.

I don't know if this is of interest to any of you, but as a working journalist I found it quite amusing, and at the same time depressing. It's situations like these that give the media, particularly here in Montreal, a very bad reputation. I guess I'm writing about it to send the message that if you read something, even if it's written by a "reputable journalist," use your own common sense before deciding whether or not it is true.

Because, as they say, you can't believe everything you read in the papers. Or in this case, on the Internet.

Diving head first into a can of worms

Jaroslav Halak has been confirmed as the Habs starter for a second game in a row Thursday night against the lowly Islanders.

It's not a huge surprise since Halak was good enough to actually win a game Tuesday night, and since Carey Price wasn't in his four previous starts. But it's a surprise nonetheless, at least to me, because if Price is truly the No. 1 goalie on this team he deserves this cream puff start.

Price hasn't been the same goalie since being shelled for seven goals in front of family and friends at GM Place in Vancouver. Because of that, he was rightfully benched Tuesday night in favour of Halak, who delivered the goods.

But now that Halak has gotten the nod twice in a row, would it not be fair for Price to wonder whether or not he is indeed this team's No. 1 goalie, as Martin surely told him he was when he flew out to Calgary this summer just to see him?

What if Halak pitches a shutout tonight, who starts Saturday against the Rangers? What if it's Price who gets the call Saturday and he stinks it up? What then? Back to Halak against the Isles on Monday? Then, what if Halak wins again on Monday night? Do you keep him in until he loses?

There are very few backup goalies in this league who would get two starts in a row, because goalies who do that are not backups. They are starters. There's no reason why Price wouldn't get the start tonight under normal circumstances, if indeed he was the unchallenged No. 1 goalie for the Canadiens.

Now, this decision could have something to do with a team showing interest in Halak and wanting to see him play (The Blackhawks had a scout at Tuesday's game against the Thrashers again, but the Habs play them next week). I doubt that, because there's nothing a team will see in one game that would trump everything else Halak has done to this point in his career. If he lets in six goals tonight, does that force another team to pull the plug on a deal? Do they instantly forget everything Halak has done that got them interested to begin with?

No, this was a hockey decision, and in that sense could be the starting point of a season-long debate over who deserves the starting job in Montreal. Based on pedigree, based on the draft, based on potential, based on what the GM said last spring, the deserving starter is Price. Based on performance, at least over the past nine months, the deserving starter is Halak.

Call it whatever you want, accuse me of over-blowing things, but going with Halak tonight has opened up a potential can of worms the organization won't want to deal with: a goalie controversy. While allowing Halak to play as long as he performs is the fair way to do things, when your supposed franchise player has serious confidence issues to deal with, I'm not sure if fair is the way to go right now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bye bye SK74

Sergei Kostitsyn was suspended again by the Habs on Wednesday after packing up all his things and leaving the Hamilton Bulldogs a day earlier.

I know that Sergei has not been a model citizen, but I think the time is right to ask a pretty touchy question, or a couple of them for that matter. Do Russian (read: former Soviet) players need to be given special treatment? And, in light of the Canadiens problems in the past few years dealing with these players, is the team at fault for lacking the cultural sensitivity required here?

For the first question, the answer should be a screaming "NO!" but in reality is that the case? I'm not sure. Maybe the cultural adjustment for Russian players requires special nurturing? Maybe the style of hockey taught there doesn't transition as easily to North America as the styles taught in Sweden or the Czech Republic? The number of Russian players who want to come here is dwindling every year, and while a lot of that has to do with the lack of a transfer agreement between Russia and the NHL, I can't help but feel that hearing stories of nightmarish culture shock may also have a role to play in the decision-making of some young players.

I don't know the answer to that second question either, but it's worth asking when you consider the list of wayward Russian talent that is no longer with the Canadiens. Going back 15 years, I would say that the only two Russian players to have had success here without creating even a hint of controversy or public outcry over their poor play were Andrei Markov and, don't laugh, Oleg Petrov.

Otherwise, you've had Alex Kovalev (he was not quite so adored during his down year three seasons ago, and most of this city wanted him traded at the time. Or had you already forgotten?), the Kostitsyn boys, Mikhail Grabovski, Pavel Valentenko, Alexander Perezhogin, Alexei Yemelin (who doesn't even want to come here, is that based on the organization's reputation?), Sergei Samsonov, Dainius Zubrus, Andrei Kovalenko, Vladimir Malakhov, the late Sergei Zholtok (who was pretty damn good in my books, just played on a bad team) and Valeri Bure.

To me, that seems like an inordinate number of players who share the same cultural background having trouble in one organization in a relatively short period of time.

I don't want anyone to take this as some accusation of systemic racism in the Canadiens organization, because it's not. Far from it. If the organization had decided it didn't like Russian players, why would they continue drafting them, as they did this summer with Alexander Avtsin (who, by the way, has no points and has played only six games thus far with the top division Moscow Dynamo club this season, in case you're wondering)?

No, this is not a witch hunt for racist undertones, it's simply a question based on available evidence. Zubrus has turned into a pretty good player since he left here, Samsonov is not a superstar but he's not nearly as bad as he was here, and even Kovalenko had a 32-goal season in Edmonton one season after being traded away from Montreal.

Listen, I know Sergei K. had his warts, that he had major discipline issues, that he had a sense of entitlement that was founded on one half of a season two years ago, and that he was the oil to Jacques Martin's water. But the Canadiens have now seemingly lost another player with undeniable NHL talent, and the chances of getting anything of value for him on the trade market is almost nil, because no GM with half a brain would offer the Canadiens anywhere near Sergei's actual market value in a trade.

While Sergei K. definitely had a major part to play in his own demise with the club, I'm wondering if the organization didn't have its own tiny role to play in it as well?

UPDATE (9:33 p.m.) According to Marc-Antoine Godin of La Presse, Sergei Kostitsyn has actually changed his mind and is heading back to Hamilton. Kostitsyn's agent Don Meehan didn't appear to be very impressed with his client's decision to leave the Bulldogs and said the kid was supposed to meet with Bob Gainey in Montreal today. Could this mean a trade is in the works and Sergei just needed to be convinced of it by Gainey? Let the speculation begin...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yes, I'm a party pooper

The mood was light in the Canadiens dressing room Tuesday night after snapping a five-game slide with a 2-1 shootout win over the red-hot Atlanta Thrashers.

Scott Gomez in particular, who had by far his best game in a Habs uniform, held court with reporters and elicited a lot of laughs, which you will no doubt be reading about in the papers.

Yes, winning feels good, and no one in that room should be focusing on the negative side of the game because there's been way too many negatives to focus on of late.

So I'll do it for them.

Despite thoroughly outplaying Atlanta, despite spending probably two thirds of the game in their zone, despite attempting 74 shots and having 35 of those hit the target, the Habs still scored one goal. One measly goal.

For those who are counting (and I obviously am), that's 10 goals in the last six games. Pas fort, as my French brethren would say. Not for a team with this kind of offensive talent, at least on the top two lines.

Yes, the team created a ton of chances, especially that line of Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, a combination that accounted for 15 shots on goal, had another nine blocked and missed the net another five times. When you have 29 attempted shots as a unit, that means you're spending most of your time in the offensive end with the puck. And that's most definitely a good thing.

It's just the production that's lacking.

“We had a lot of great chances, and I think that’s a good measure of how you’re playing," Gionta said. "If you’re getting those chances then you’re doing something right, so it’s a matter of sticking with it and trying to be patient. In the past five games we had flurries like that where we had momentum, but we let it slip a little bit because we got frustrated.”

If that line plays another 10 games like the one they played Tuesday, they'll probably rack up 15 or 20 goals. But so far we've seen a lot of great chances, but very few goals. Still, the alternative is far worse, so the fact the Canadiens are indeed spending a lot of time with the puck in the offensive zone is definitely a good thing.

Just one more negative before I get to Gomez's little comedy session with the media, and that would be the continued disappointing play of Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse. The pair were credited with three hits combined Tuesday night, and that's from stat guys who are usually pretty generous with the homegrown products. That's not nearly enough.

I don't know what's wrong with Lapierre, but he's just not forechecking like he used to, and if he's not doing that his value to the team is greatly diminished. As for Latendresse, he's showing flashes of what he can do, but it varies so much from shift to shift. He needs to do it consistently.

Finally, I'm wondering if the Habs would be willing to call Sergei Kostitsyn back up to the team, because Max Pacioretty is simply not ready to play a second line role on the team. Jacques Martin sat him for much of the second period Tuesday night, and he's having trouble finding a delicate balance between intensity and trying too hard.

In my eyes, the Black Sheep Kostitsyn deserves a shot at filling that role on this team, particularly since his brother appears to thrive when he's on the opposite wing. Sergei's been held off the scoresheet his last two games with Hamilton, but he had four points in his previous three games. Am I alone in thinking the left wing role on the second line is best suited for him, considering the personnel on hand?

OK, to end things on a lighter note, Gomez was in fine form with the media following the game. He said he had just played his best game as a member of the Canadiens, and when asked why he thought that, Gomez credited his wardrobe.

“I wore a nice suit today," he said. "My mom and dad are here, and they commented on it. It was a Canali suit, even my neighbour commented on it. So if that’s the case, maybe I’ll go with it again. I'll try and attribute it to that.”

When asked if he'll have to wear that suit to every game the rest of the year he said, “Then I’ll start looking like some of you guys and dressing the same way every night. I don’t want to go there.”

Admittedly, I have a sport coat I often wear to games, and since I was the one asking him that question, I guess Gomez has noticed. Maybe it's time for me to go shopping.

On his parents being around to witness his best game as a Hab: “They’ve been here all week. It’s the Mexican way, they’ll probably be here all year. It was almost time for them to leave, we’ve lost so much since they’ve been here. They can stay a little longer now, but they were getting a little nervous too.”

Finally, on his shootout goal off a beautiful wrister to the top corner: “It’s not a good feeling when you come back to the bench and your teammates are surprised that you have a shot like that. It kind of hurts your feelings a little bit. I got a little lucky, I don’t know if I could do that again, but I’ll take it.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where's the finish?

Does anyone else see a pattern developping here?

The Canadiens have played the last two games the exact same way - come out of the gates with guns blazing, yet only manage a single goal, then fall asleep in the second period to eventually lose them the game.

It's not pretty to watch, and while teams love to talk about generating chances, they are useless unless you actually cash a few of them in every once in a while.

On the very first shift of the game, the Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta line nearly scored three times. The energy continued throughout the period, forcing the Sens into penalty after penalty, but the Habs would have gone into the first intermission down a goal if it weren't for Cammalleri's first bouncing in off the shoulder of Pascal Leclaire.

When you have a two-minute 5-on-3, you have to score. It's that simple, because if you don't, the boost it gives the other team is sometimes too much to overcome.

The Habs power play was 0-for-4 tonight, all in the first period when they could have put the game away, and they are now 1-for-10 on this homestand. At least the penalty killing has improved, but the problem with this team right now is that it's not scoring goals.

Five straight losses, nine goals scored in that span. Doesn't require much more explanation than that.

One thing that has become clear is that Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse are not Jacques Martin's favourite players. Both have hovered around 12 minutes of ice time the past two games, and they are not showing the same crash-and-bang energy they did last year. It was a duo that was being counted on to swing momentum and pitch in some offence from time to time, but they're not getting it done on either assignment.

Andrei Kostitsyn apparently played 16:29 tonight, but other than a dangerous wrist shot from the perimeter, I don't really remember him doing anything. It would have been nice to see him build off the solid performance on Thursday night, but instead he regressed back to his aloof play. That has to be frustrating for Martin and for his centre Tomas Plekanec, who again was one of the best Habs forwards on the ice.

Chemistry is not built overnight, but there's been little evidence that any is forming right now. There are flashes of it, like that first shift of the game, but they are too few and far between.

The Canadiens inability to put this game away when they had the chance allowed Alex Kovalev to have a very triumphant return to Montreal. I may sound heartless, but the people who gave him a standing ovation tonight should be ashamed of themselves. Kovalev plays for the other team, and I'm not sure he deserved that honour.

But at the same time, the crowd here Saturday night wanted something, anything, to cheer for. And so Kovalev scoring a goal in his return provided that opportunity, but it also underlined how little the home team is doing to solicit the same response.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A chain reaction

With the performance the Canadiens and Jacques Martin received from Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn against Colorado last night, the little big guns for the Habs were reunited on the same line at practice this morning.

But now, Kostitsyn better be prepared to match or even exceed the effort he put forth in the home opener, because if he doesn't, Martin could be forced to break up Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta again to balance out the talent.

This is why Kostitsyn is such an important piece of this puzzle, and why it is so frustrating to watch him loaf through the start of the season. In last night's loss to the Avs, he definitely played his best game of the season, but the fact remains that Kostitsyn can be even better. Much better.

At one point early in the game last night Kostitsyn took a pass at the red line and was behind all three Avalanche forwards. If he had turned on the afterburners he could have put major pressure on the defence all by himself, especially since 1-on-2 situations are where he appears to thrive. Instead, Kostitsyn leisurely skated toward the blue line and entered the zone, allowing the Colorado forwards to join the play.

I know it's early in the season, but Kostitsyn has to recognize when he has opportunities to attack and do it. As well as he played last night, Kostitsyn only had two shots on goal, brining his total to 10 on the season. That's nowhere near enough.

Whenever Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri have been thrown together they've created things, but the only way Martin can keep them together is if Kostitsyn plays to his tremendous potential, which is all he's being asked to do.

A further positive effect of uniting the top line is that Travis Moen drops down to line three with Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse. This is where I pictured him when he signed, and considering Lapierre has been invisible much of this year having a high-energy banger like Moen on his line may wake up his dormant forechecking skills.

It also allows Matt D'Agostini and Max Pacioretty to openly compete for a spot on the left side with Plekanec and Kostitsyn. One of these two guys will have to assert himself as a scoring presence for the Habs before the season hits the quarter pole, and I feel if the first and third lines are set, Martin could rotate the two into the left wing slot on this line until one of them forces Martin to keep him there. My money would still be on Pacioretty despite his rough start to the year.

Meanwhile, Alex Kovalev is now in the city, probably holed up in his hotel room to avoid falling back in love with Montreal. I'm not sure what to make of his return, but if the Bell Centre gives his a rousing ovation Saturday night, I might throw up. I have no problem with loving a player, and Kovalev was electrifying in his best moments with the team, particularly the playoffs. But he is no saint.

A lot of people have blamed Bob Gainey for letting Kovalev walk and giving his money to Brian Gionta. I was one of those people, but only because I felt Gainey could have had Gionta for less. I had absolutely no problem with Gainey walking from Kovalev after making TWO offers, with the second being the exact same as the one he eventually accepted from Bryan Murray in Ottawa.

If anyone is to be blamed for Kovalev not being in Montreal this year, it's Kovalev. Not Gainey, not his agent, Kovalev. He's the one who wanted an extra year attached to the contract, he's the one who decided to play hardball on July 1, a day when players simply can't afford to play hard to get.

You made your bed Kovy, and now it's time to lie in it.

Finally, I wanted to throw in my two cents on today's announcement by Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume regarding a new arena. Bravo, Monsieur le Maire. As a municipal election campaign winds toward the stretch drive, you announce that you are willing to commit $50 million towards a new $400 million arena in the hopes of landing an NHL team. Looks good in voters eyes, I'm sure, but in reality how on earth will you convince the two higher levels of government to pitch in the remaining $350 million needed for the project? How will you sell the idea to taxpayers that this building will be built entirely on their backs?

Really, these questions are less important than the optics here. Any hockey fan in Quebec City will now feel inclined to vote for you because of this master plan you unveiled today. It also explains how your meeting with Gary Bettman was leaked earlier this week, and also how this cockamamie idea of yours also got leaked. Well done. I'm sure the whole charade has won you a ton of votes, and that's all this was really about anyway.

Sure, I have no doubt you wouldn't mind getting a $400 million arena for only $50 million, who wouldn't? And I also have no doubt you would love to see the re-birth of the Nordiques, as would I. But you know as well as I do that we are light years away from even talking about an NHL franchise in your city, but the election is only two weeks away. So I understand time was of the essence and that a press conference absolutely had to be called today, even if you have a few loose ends to tie up. About $350 million worth. Good luck in that election.

No excuses

It's been only one regular season loss where I've actually witnessed the aftermath first hand, but I can already tell you that the culture in this room is different from years past.

First, let me tell you that it's not easy to walk into a losing team's locker room and figure out what questions to ask. Sometimes, you just want to say, "Why did you guys suck tonight?" But that will never get you the answer you seek, and it won't make players very receptive to your questions in the future.

The trick is to figure out a way to sugarcoat that very same question, and often times that entails embedding excuses for that suckiness in the question itself. A telltale sign of a winning or losing team is whether or not players take that ready made excuse and run with it, or if they reject and take responsibility for the loss themselves.
Last year, I found a lot of players were ready to take the bait from the media and run with the excuse. But when Mike Cammalleri was offered many opportunities to take the excuse tonight, he didn't.

Was that loss a case of bad luck?

"You'll never hear me blame a loss on luck," he said. "You make your own bounces."

How about the referreeing? Didn't that play against you, especially on the winning goal?

Didn't bite.

No, Cammalleri called it like it is, despite having every reason to take one of those excuses and embrace it as his own.

“I don’t think we’re doing enough to win games," he said. "Maybe we could have won tonight, but you don’t want to leave things to chance. You don’t want to win because you could have won, you want to win because you definitely should have won.”

Yes, the Habs had two goals go in off their defencemen's skates. Yes, there could have been a penalty on the apparent head shot Scott Gomez absorbed just before the winning goal. Yes, a whole bunch of things could have gone differently to give the Habs a cherished win their home opener.

But they didn't. And as Cammalleri pointed out, the Habs have no one to blame but themselves. When they had three power plays in the opening period, dominated much of the play and had the Avs on their heels, the Canadiens didn't bury them. I had a feeling at the first intermission that would cost them, and ultimately, it did

Still, there were several positive signs in this game despite the negative result, starting with the continued strong play of Tomas Plekanec and the awakening of Andrei Kostitsyn. Jacques Martin called them his two best forwards on the night, and he was bang on with that assessment. Kostitsyn's first shift of the game was his best of the year, and he made it immediately clear that he got the message from that benching in Edmonton on Saturday night. His move on Kyle Quincey and pass to Plekanec on the second goal, even though it came after the puck hit the netting, showed just what kind of talent Kostitsyn has.

The impact of Kostitsyn finding his game should not be undermined here, because if ever he's able to form a productive duo with Plekanec on the second line, it would allow Martin to load up the top line the way he has in the third period of each of the last two games when he needed a goal.

Every time Cammalleri, Gomez and Brian Gionta have been placed together, they've produced consistent pressure, except it's only come in 20-minute stretches thus far. If Kostitsyn and Plekanec can consistently be as dangerous as they were tonight, it could become 60 minutes worth of offensive power punching from that Gomez line.

Another positive was Carey Price, who was outstanding and couldn't do anything about any of the three goals he allowed. The Habs penalty kill was perfect and the power play produced a goal, so that's two more positives. The defence was actually pretty good for the first time since Andrei Markov went down, despite the fact Shawn Belle - who I thought has a pretty good Habs debut overall - made a very poor decision that led to the winning goal.

Speaking of the defence, I couldn't help but notice that Cam Barker played 10:17 of the Blackhawks 3-1 win over Nashville, with no special teams time at all. In an unrelated bit of news, I can report the Blackhawks had two scouts at the Habs game, including director of player personnel Marc Bergevin. Though the two teams will meet Oct 30 in Chicago, two scouts at a regular season game is not a regular occurrence. Just saying.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Communication, communication, communication

It's been a pretty big buzz word around these parts recently. It was a lack of communication skills that seemingly cost Guy Carbonneau his job, and now it appears there are a couple of Habs players being sent some very direct messages by Jacques Martin.

The first is Andrei Kostitsyn, who watched the second half of Saturday's game in Edmonton from the bench after his lazy, cross-ice pass in the defensive zone was picked off and wound up in the Habs net.

Kostitsyn faced reporters at practice on Wednesday, and he obviously wasn't very chatty. That's understandable, because his English is still very limited, and I think he's just a timid guy in general. When asked what he thought the message was in that benching the other night, Kostitsyn summed it up in four simple, yet powerful, words: "Not work hard enough."

OK, message received, I guess.

But there has been some question as to whether or not Kostitsyn is able to properly communicate with both his teammates and the coaching staff, considering his limited grasp of the language.

His centre the past two years Tomas Plekanec was asked how open the lines of communication are between he and Kostitsyn, because at times the winger seems isolated. Plekanec's initial response? He broke out laughing. He couldn't help himself. Then he went about answering the question using the appropriate words when discussing a teammate.

"Maybe it doesn't look like it," Plekanec said, "but he talks."

To me, the initial reaction to the question said more than the answer itself.

Later, Plekanec was asked what language he uses to communicate with Kostitsyn on the ice.

"Czech, Slovak, Russian, English, we're trying everything right now," he said jokingly, though I wonder how much truth was actually behind that answer.

Even if there are communication issues with Kostitsyn, it shouldn't be that huge of a hindrance to his performance. Evgeni Malkin couldn't string together two words of English when he arrived with the Penguins, yet he had immediate success (before you all start freaking out that I'm comparing Malkin to Kostitsyn, I'm not. They are different players living through similar linguistic challenges, that's where the similarity ends.)

The language of hockey has always superseded everything else, and for Kostitsyn to succeed he needs to simplify his game and take what's given to him. Both Plekanec and Martin agree on that point.

"The problem with him is that sometimes he doesn't want to shoot the puck, he tries to pass too much," Plekanec said. "He has one of the best wristers in the he just needs to shoot the puck."

Martin said the same thing, noting Kostitsyn's shot is his strength and that he needs to use it, but he also wants to see some more passion in his game.

"I want to see an improvement in his involvement, his intensity," Martin says.

Meanwhile, I had a chance to chat with Guillaume Latendresse about the subject of my blog post yesterday, namely the lost opportunity to play alongside Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Latendresse said that if you asked any guy in the Habs room, they would all say they'd want that spot. But he says he feels comfortable on his line with Maxim Lapierre and he'll make the most of his chance to play on the second wave of the power play.

Not to beat a dead horse, but here's what Latendresse said of his role on the power play.

"My job is really in front of the net," he said Wednesday. "To leave that spot there's really going to have to be a loose puck or something, because I plan on planting my feet there and not moving."

We shall see if he actually does that, but he's been saying those things for two years now. It's time to actually do it on the ice.

Martin was also asked about his decision to pass on Latendresse and use Travis Moen on the Gomez line.

"I tried that for one game in the pre-season and felt that's not the place where he could best help our team," Martin said. "He still has to battle to find where he fits best."

I might be reading too much into things, but to me that's a coach communicating directly to a player that if he wants to top-six role, he hasn't earned it yet.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Was the Golden Boy listening?

Seeing Travis Moen playing alongside Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta for much of Saturday night's loss in Edmonton was surprising, but within a game, and so early in the season, you couldn't blame Jacques Martin for trying to think outside the box a little.

But Tuesday, Moen was back on that line at practice, and my initial reaction was that this is not the mandate he was brought here to fill. Moen's greatest offensive season in the NHL was 21 points in 82 games with Anaheim in 2006-07, the same year they won the Cup. Even in junior, his best output was only 27 points.

But Martin's reasoning for the move Tuesday was actually a little glimpse into the possible hidden motivation behind it, at least in my eyes. Martin said Moen will be useful because of his willingness to go to the front of the net and create traffic, which will be an important factor in improving the team's even strength scoring.


Isn't there a young player on the Canadiens with size and infinitely better hands than Moen who could have been called on to fill that role? Isn't there a young player who continuously talks about his need to go to the front of the net, yet never does? Isn't there a young player who openly lobbied for a top-six role on the team on the very first day of training camp, but then was passed over after showing little to justify such a promotion?

I wonder if Guillaume Latendresse was watching Martin's press conference, and since he most likely wasn't, hopefully he gets the message Martin is not-so-subtly sending him.

This is a job that was there for the taking for Latendresse, yet he lost it in camp to Max Pacioretty, and when he didn't work out Martin opted for a bruiser with no hands.

Latendresse has topped Moen's career high in points in each of his three NHL seasons, and no one will argue that Moen is the more offensively gifted player. But there are two areas of Moen's game where he excels: work and desire.

If rewarding those traits with a first line role isn't a message to Latendresse, I don't know what is. And if Latendresse doesn't get that message, it's entirely possible he never will. I remember clearly last pre-season when Latendresse spoke glowingly of the Red Wings' Tomas Holmstrom and how he would be a perfect player to pattern his own game after. It never happened. While Latendresse sometimes like setting up shop in front of the net, he never stays there very long, preferring to drift up to the slot or to the side of the net to be in a better position to shoot.

That is not very Holmstrom-like. In fact, it's not even very Moen-like, which is why Latendresse sees himself pigeon-holed into a third line role. It's something that will not change until he not only realizes what it is that's expected of him, but until he actually starts delivering on those expectations.

Meanwhile, Tuesday curiously saw the emergence of a controversy surrounding Georges Laraque's appearance in a racy Internet ad for some alcoholic energy drink. I understand the ad is not exactly something that would make Gloria Steinham proud, but it's not as if it's the first time women have been objectified in a commercial for an alcoholic beverage.

That doesn't make it OK, but there is a pattern established here, and to attack Laraque for perpetuating that pattern is not entirely fair. It is even less fair when some of the admonishment comes from the NHL itself, a league that thrives on beer sponsorship dollars, yet has a provision in its collective bargaining agreement that forbids players from endorsing that beer. Is that not the ultimate in hypocrisy?

In case you're one of the only people in the hockey universe not to have seen the ad yet, here it is:

Finally, it was Shawn Belle that was called up from Hamilton on Tuesday to replace Yannick Weber and not Marc-André Bergeron. I understand Bergeron needs to get into game shape and that Weber was a bit of a disaster out west, but considering the Habs power play woes, would it not have been worth a little look to see what P.K. Subban can do? Just asking.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Eureka, I think I've got it...I think

I was following the wild Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames game online Monday night, and early on it was hard not to let my imagination wander a little bit.

The game began with the Flames rolling out to a 5-0 lead, including three goals on five shots against starter Cristobal Huet. He was mercifully pulled, his backup Antti Niemi let in two more on the next five shots, but shut the door thereafter to allow his teammates to score six straight goals and win the game in overtime.

It must have been a wild scene at the United Center in Chicago, but lost in that euphoria might have been Hawks GM Stan Bowman, who was probably wondering what he did to deserve such a porous starting goalie that he has $5.625 million committed to for the next four years.

He did nothing to deserve inheriting his predecessor Dale Tallon's mistake, but Bowman does have the power to try and hide that mistake.

With the Blackhawks looking for a potential Stanley Cup run before facing salary cap Armaggedon, perhaps it might be time to dangle Jaroslav Halak and Sergei Kostitsyn in Bowman's general direction and see if he'd be willing to part with Cam Berker in exchange.

What's that you say? We've already discussed this?

Well, since I wrote that there is one thing I've realized about long term injury relief that I did not incorporate into my original prognosis on the possibility of replacing Andrei Markov with a big ticket defenceman.

The salary cap, as you may or may not know, is calculated in terms of actual salary paid out to players over a 193-day season (UPDATE: For clarity's sake, it's not actual salary paid out, but rather the number of days a player is on the roster multiplied by his average daily cap hit. Is that clearer?). The good people over at have spelled it out quite nicely for you.

That means, for instance, sending Yannick Weber down to Hamilton on Monday instead of Tuesday saves the Canadiens $4,534 on the cap, because that's Weber's averaged daily cap hit (how's that for a dose of perspective? Scott Gomez counts against the cap to the tune of $38,120 per day, in case you're wondering).

Furthermore, if Bergeron were called up Wednesday instead of Tuesday, it would save the Habs $3,886 against the cap. You get the idea.

So, when it comes to LTIR, what dawned on me is that it is calculated daily. In the case of Markov, if he were to in fact miss exactly four months, it would amount to roughly $3.575 million that the Habs could exceed the cap if they acquired a player to replace him. Initially, I assumed the CBA was referring to annual salaries, but in fact it is referring to the actual amount of salary dished out over the season (UPDATE: Again, see above for the clarification).

When you throw in Ryan O'Byrne, and again assuming he misses six weeks of action, it would add another $205,000 in cap relief.

The signing of Bergeron, assuming he's called up Tuesday, will add just over $705,000 to Montreal's cap figure, which actually amounts to $500,000 if O'Byrne's LTIR is accounted for.

So, all that brings us back to the Blackhawks and their situation in goal. While many people would probably cringe at the thought of trading away Halak at this point, it may be a necessary risk simply because of Markov's injury. Cam Barker continues to watch games from the bench, for the most part, as Joel Quenneville rides his top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. In that 6-5 OT win over Calgary, Keith played 22:39, Seabrook played 25:00, and even Niklas Hjalmarsson played 22:56. Barker? A whopping 13:42.

Through five games, Barker has topped 16 minutes of ice time only once, which is not a great return on the $3,083,333 the Hawks are paying him this year and next. It's next year that has the Blackhawks freaking out because Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will all be restricted free agents, and they can't all be signed unless some salary is shed. Barker is only 23 and would be a great acquisition.

Considering how desperately the Hawks need to get rid of salary, grabbing Halak and Sergei Kostitsyn for Barker would probably suit them perfectly. Perhaps they would ask for a defence prospect or draft pick in return as well, so throw in Mathieu Carle if you want.

But will that work with the money saved on Markov's LTIR? The answer, as far as I can see it, is yes. Barker has already pulled in about $175,000 of his salary. If the Canadiens were to acquire him Tuesday, there would be just under $2.9 million left on his salary. There would be a minor cap savings with Curtis Sanford as Carey Price's backup, but that appears to be pretty irrelevant because with the $3.575 million in cap space cleared up by Markov's injury, it would appear to be enough to absorb Barker's contract or several other potential defencemen. And every day a trade isn't made, the easier it becomes.

But it only appears that way to me, which doesn't necessarily make it so because the CBA is one confusing document. Someone, if you have a legal background, please read the section on LTIR and correct me if I'm wrong.

Adding Barker would help shore up a Montreal defence that remains in constant flux as Jacques Martin and Perry Pearn continue searching for pairings that work in Markov's absence. The problem is that without Markov and O'Byrne, the Habs no longer have four legitimate top-four defencemen, and the pairings in their absence have been a mish-mash affair.

Michael W. Fleming, an associate professor in the faculty of computer science at the University of New Brunswick and apparent Habs fan, has a great site that tracks all the forward combinations and defence pairings on the Habs all season, along with other "sabermetric" hockey stats like on and off ice +/- (a special thanks goes out to the legendary Ron Reusch for sending me the link, you can check out his blog here).

In any case, according to Fleming's site, the Habs have used at least 14 different defensive pairings in five games. Paul Mara's most frequent partner has been Hal Gill, and he's only played with Gill for one third of his total minutes played. Gill, of all people, was on the ice in the dying seconds of the loss in Edmonton with Montreal scrambling for a goal, which shows to what extent the coaching staff is still learning about its personnel.

Considering one of Gill, Mara, and Bergeron will be fighting for top-four minutes, I don't think the Habs would have much trouble welcoming Barker into the fold. And when Markov returns, the team's defence would be that much better for years to come, because Barker should only improve.

I don't see a better solution out there, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to pull the trigger soon. Because while the Habs try to figure this defensive situation out on the fly, they might very well lose their way out of a playoff spot.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Let the season begin!

OK, I'm willing to give the Habs the benefit of the doubt.

No Andrei Markov, a slew of new players still trying to fit together, a five-game road trip to start the season, a swing through treacherous Western Canada. All the stars were aligned for the Canadiens to have a wretched start to the season.

All things considered, a 2-3-0 record is not that bad, but everyone knows it very easily could have been 0-5-0.

Still, Montreal's effort in Edmonton late last night was pretty solid, outshooting the Oilers 35-19 and running into a goalie in Nik Khabibulin who had a lot of reasons to shine. After pissing away two tight games in the final minute of regulation, the Bulin Wall was up to the task last night, and the Habs were the unfortunate victims.

But honestly, considering everything that has already happened to this team so early in the season, I think this five-game road trip was like an extension of training camp, a chance for Jacques Martin and his coaching staff to continue tinkering with their lines and defence pairings.

Nothing in that area is set in stone yet. At times last night we saw Travis Moen skating with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, which is definitely not the role he was meant to fill. Mike Cammalleri spent time on the second line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, but Gionta saw a few shifts there as well.

Meanwhile, the defence is still looking for chemistry, and the coaches are still learning the strengths and weaknesses of these guys. How else do you explain Hal Gill manning the left point needing a goal to tie it late in the game? Protecting a one-goal lead, he would be a fine choice. But needing a goal? Not so much. Predictably, his flubbing of the puck on the blue line killed the Habs final mad dash for a goal.

But now, it's time for the season to start. No more excuses with the next four games slated for the friendly confines of the Bell Centre. It's time to play.

A few glaring issues have become apparent only five games in. For starters, the special teams need to be much better. Everyone expected the power play to suffer in Markov's absence, but to this extent? The Habs are 1-for-12 with the man advantage since Markov was hurt in Game 1, and a team with Jaro Spacek, Gomez and Cammalleri should not be that bad. It needs to get better.

But the penalty killing has to get a lot better. There's no real injury excuse here, even though Markov did spend a lot of time killing penalties. I don't really understand why Gomez has become a regular on the PK, with 1:23 per game of shorthanded time per game. That's more than Maxim Lapierre. Does that make any sense to you?

A big reason the PK has been so bad is the Habs inability to clear the front of the net. How many goals have we seen so far that were either batted in or tipped from within three feet of the crease? Too many. The Flames, Canucks and Oilers all took advantage of the Habs in that respect. I thought this was what made Gill such an attractive free agent, his ability to make sure his goalie sees the puck and doesn't have to deal with rebounds. Gill leads the team in PK ice time at 2:29 per game, yet the problem persists.

But all things considered, the Habs are in pretty good shape following this very difficult road trip, one where the team historically has trouble performing. That excuse, however, has now been used up. The Habs have four days at home to recover and shore up some system issues before hosting the red-hot Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night. They'd better use that practice time to its fullest potential, because the season starts for real from now on.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Shows what I know

I thought the Habs would benefit from getting right back on the ice after that solid effort in Calgary. I was wrong.

I'm watching the third period of the disaster in Vancouver as I type this, and there's no real need to wait for the end of this to know the Canadiens left their game in Alberta. Hopefully, it will be waiting for them Saturday in Edmonton.

You've got to feel for Carey Price. He finally gets to make the start in his home province, he comes in on a hot streak, and his teammates totally let him down. Breakaways on the first two goals (though Price definitely could have stopped the second one), a man left all by his lonesome at the side of the net on the third, a tough bounce on the fourth, a brutal line change on the fifth and guys parked right in his crease unfettered on both the sixth and seventh goals.

It's hard to commend a goalie after giving up seven goals, and I won't do it for Price, but there's not much he could have done on at least five of those seven goals. After having to watch from the bench in his first game in Vancouver last year before being sent in by Guy Carbonneau for mop up duty, I think Price might have wished the same thing happened this time around.

The lone positive I took from the game was the way the Habs came out for the second period. Down 3-0 after a horrendous first period, which is a trend that started in the pre-season for this team, the Canadiens fired 14 straight shots on Roberto Luongo to start the second before the Canucks got their first with about nine minutes to go. Something happened in that dressing room between the first and second, and whatever it was, it worked.

But when Henrik Sedin got his first of two on the night to make it 4-1, it was lights out for the Habs.

There's no real point in dissecting this performance, because I don't think it's indicative of this team. One thing it did show, however, is that the solid effort in Calgary one night earlier may not be a very good indicator of what kind of team this is either.

The clock appears to have run out on Jacques Martin's patience with Max Pacioretty, as he was on the fourth line after only a few shifts, replaced on the Tomas Plekanec line by Matt D'Agostini (who I thought played a pretty decent game).

Meanwhile, Yannick Weber didn't have a great night either. He allowed Ryan Kesler to come in alone on the opening goal, and a misguided pinch in the neutral zone resulted in Mason Raymond coming in alone on the second goal as well. If Marc-André Bergeron was watching, I would hope he went to ride the bike for an hour afterwards because if Weber keeps making bad judgments like that he won't be in the lineup very long.

The team looked tired in Vancouver, and they can hardly be blamed for that. It's been a treacherous road trip to start the year, and with a win in Edmonton the Habs can still come out of it with a winning record. That would be a huge victory for this team, despite the embarrassing loss it took in Vancouver tonight.

The game's not done yet, but I am. Good night.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A perfect scenario

It is rarely a positive thing to be facing a team that is hungry for its first win of the season - even less so when that team has legitimate aspirations for the Stanley Cup - only one night after a tough game.

But for a Canadiens squad that lost its first of the season last night in Calgary, facing the Canucks tonight in Vancouver could not have come at a better time because it will allow the team to build on the many positive things it did in Cowtown.

You were wondering when Andrei Kostitsyn would show up to play? Well, you saw him do just that against Calgary, getting involved physically and giving evidence of a heart beat for the first time this season. If Kostitsyn can take that level of effort into tonight's game and, more importantly, throughout the season on a nightly basis, the Habs second line will certainly have a bit more bite than it has shown thus far.

The main reason for the second line's solid game last night was Tomas Plekanec, who has yet to play a bad game this season. Plekanec's problem was never effort, it was confidence. Last season, he second guessed every instinct he had, instincts that helped him reach the NHL. But his goal in the dying seconds of the second period last night was pure instinct, and he was rewarded for trusting it. A confident Plekanec displaying the same effort he has shown throughout his career with the Canadiens will allow Jacques Martin the luxury of keeping the "Smurf Line" intact.

Speaking of the Smurf Line, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez were excellent once again last night, consistently producing chances and showing off Martin's puck-possession mantra with organized, compact breakouts. I can't remember ever seeing a Canadiens team last season completing four straight passes before hitting the opposition's blue line, but we saw that a few times from this line last night. Playing right away will allow them to build on that, and show the other forwards just how effective that style can be.

Finally, the defence's minutes were extremely balanced, with Yannick Weber seeing 17+ minutes on the ice and not looking the least bit out of place, both in the offensive and defensive zones. Jaroslav Spacek led the defence with 22 minutes of ice time, and when the disparity between your No. 1 and No. 6 defencemen is so slight, it shows that the coaching staff has confidence in the entire defence corps. With Andrei Markov on the bench, it's very tempting to tap his shoulder whenever things go awry. Without him, using this balanced approach is a lot easier to justify.

Speaking of Weber, I liked how he approached last night's game. With the afternoon announcement of the signing of Marc-André Bergeron to a one-year contract, it would have been easy for Weber to go out there and try to prove himself on every single shift by trying to do too much. But he didn't do that, and he should be commended for playing within himself. It's just a shame the Canadiens didn't have a single power play opportunity so he could show off his most valuable asset.

So tonight, the Habs have a very rare opportunity: to build on a loss. Because this loss, in my eyes, was far more valuable than the Habs two wins to date, where they were rescued by a goaltender on top of his game.

Which brings me to the main negative from last night's game, and that is Jaroslav Halak. He didn't play poorly, far from it, but he wasn't outstanding either. It's hard to blame him for any of the goals scored last night, but to win a game you need your goalie to come up with a big save, and Halak didn't. Jarome Iginla's first of the season came as a result of Halak failing to control a rebound, and even though the winning goal was tipped in front, I felt he had a shot at stopping that one as well if he was positioned better.

That doesn't mean Halak has lost his game, I just felt he didn't put his best foot forward on this night. But there's another benefit to playing two in two nights, because tonight it will be Carey Price between the pipes in his home province, facing off with Roberto Luongo at the other end of the ice. If he's not pumped for this one, the kid doesn't have a pulse.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bergeron comes aboard

RDS and several others are reporting that Marc-André Bergeron has signed a $750,000 contract with the Habs.

When his name first arose following the injury to Andrei Markov, I figured that Yannick Weber should at least get a chance to show what he can do before the team looks for other solutions. Apparently, the Canadiens didn't want to take that risk of losing Bergeron to another club.

Bergeron will be headed to Hamilton for a conditioning stint, so at least Weber has a bit of time to prove his worthiness.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a good signing because it comes cheap and the Habs can easily slide this contract under the cap without needing to invoke either the bonus cushion or Long-Term Injury Relief on Markov.

The 5-foot-9, 198-pound Bergeron played on the Minnesota Wild's first wave last season for the league's ninth-ranked power play and scored seven of his 14 goals with the man advantage. He's known to have a hard, accurate shot from the point and he can skate with the puck.

Bergeron wasn't simply a hired gun in Minnesota last year as he also received over 13 minutes of ice time per game at even strength, and when you play for Jacques Lemaire you'd better be able to play without the puck if you want to see the ice at 5-on-5. Another benefit is that Bergeron has decent speed, which is an asset on a defence corps where speed is not a strong suit. But he is yet another left-handed shot on a blueline full of them.

Frankly, I hope the Canadiens never really need Bergeron and that Weber proves he's able to do the job on a regular basis for at least the next two months, which is the latest timeline on Ryan O'Byrne's knee injury. That would be the best possible outcome for the organization because it would allow a good, young prospect to gain some valuable NHL experience.

But if Weber should falter, it is good to have Bergeron around because the next option would be Mathieu Carle or P.K. Subban, and I'm not sure the organization feels comfortable with that idea.

A mirror image

The Habs will running into another version of themselves tonight in Calgary.

The Flames, like the Habs, are 2-0 this season, but both teams have managed only 44 shots on goal. The Flames have faced 76 while the Habs have allowed 81, which technically gives Calgary the edge in that department, though I doubt either team would be bragging about this stat right about now.

In any case, something is going to give tonight when the two teams face each other at the Saddledome.

Calgary, incredibly, has scored five goals on 13 first period shots in their two games thus far, so I guess the Habs should be on their toes for the start of the game. But on the other hand, if Calgary only manages six or seven shots in the first, Montreal should be in decent shape.

This is obviously a big game for Mike Cammalleri, who enjoyed his one season with the Flames but got squeezed out when Calgary acquired Jay Bouwmeester. He's actually worried about whether or not he'll get booed, which has to be the first time I've ever heard a hockey player actually admit that.

While Carey Price is the biggest reason why the Habs have started the season 2-0, it will be Jaroslav Halak between the pipes tonight in Calgary, freeing up Price to play in front of his friends and family in Vancouver tomorrow. Last season, a struggling Price spent his first game in his home province watching from the bench, before Guy Carbonneau threw him in for mop up duty to start the third.

For Halak, this is step one on the journey to increase his trade value, because it appears clear that he will only become a starter on another team. I'd be curious to know if the Chicago Blackhawks have any scouts at the game tonight.

Bon match!

Monday, October 5, 2009

"I see the light!"

At least, the Canadiens have to hope that Sergei Kostitsyn has done just that after he wisely decided to end his holdout and report to the Hamilton Bulldogs.

His agent Don Meehan took credit for his client's sudden change of heart, saying he continued insisting that the path back to the NHL was through Hamilton, whether it's with the Canadiens or not.

I'm wondering, however, if Kostitsyn has indeed played his final game in a Canadiens uniform. Will Bob Gainey be able to forgive and forget? Judging by how he dealt with the Mikhail Grabovski situation a couple of years back, banishing his precocious young Belrusian to the minors after he went AWOL on a Western road trip, I think it would have to be a pretty desperate situation for the Canadiens to call Kostitsyn back up.

These situations are no-win for the NHL calibre player being sent to the minors for an attitude adjustment. Kostitsyn will be expected to dominate, and if he does just that, well that's what he's expected to do. But if he doesn't, it could further sour him in the yes of the 29 other NHL GMs, who probably aren't extremely impressed with his refusal to report for an assignment. Last year, Kostitsyn managed 13 points in 16 games with Hamilton. That won't be nearly good enough this time around.

With the way Canadiens players are dropping like flies these days, there could very well be room for Kostitsyn in the lineup within the next few games. Unfortunately, his little stunt may have cost him an immediate call-up, but that's not to say he absolutely won't be back at some point, though I doubt it.

His is not the type of attitude you want to expose your team to, which is why I saw his demotion as more of a quarantine than anything else. For those who may have missed it, Kostitsyn gave this interview to Puck Daddy's Dimitry Chesnokov shortly after it became public that he wouldn't be reporting to Hamilton. Nowhere in the interview did Kostitsyn mention why he may have been at least somewhat responsible for his demotion.

There's also a bit of a credibility fight, because while Meehan told Francois Gagnon that he wanted Kostitsyn to report to Hamilton, Kostitsyn says, "My agent supported me right away, because he understood that I shouldn't be playing for the [farm] club. And they agreed with me that I should be traded right away." So who do you believe, an established super-agent in the league, or Sergei Kostitsyn?

In any case, it's clear to many, including the CBC's Elliotte Friedman, that Kostitsyn has a lot of growing up to do and that he needs to start taking responsibility for his own play. If he can do that, maybe there is a future for him in Montreal, even if he doesn't think so.

Meanwhile, Sergei's brother Andrei is coming under a lot of heat for his lacklustre play through TWO GAMES of regular season action. Here's an example of some of that heat, from pre-eminent Habs blogger Mike Boone's new twitter feed: "We await reports on Ryan O'Byrne's ankle, Glen Metropolit's neck and delicate surgery to extract Andrei Kostitsyn's head from his ass."

Funny? Absolutely. Fair? Not so sure.

I won't argue that Andrei has been lights out so far this season, in fact he's been downright awful. I can see that, but is two games enough of a sample size to judge his production? The Habs opponents Tuesday night have a guy named Jarome Iginla who has one measly point two games into the season. It's not because he's not trying, or he that doesn't take the games seriously, or that he's crying in his locker about his brother being demoted to the minors (I know he doesn't have a brother playing pro hockey. You get my point). He just had a bad couple of games, something that happens over the course of an 82-game schedule.

The one annoying part about Andrei's loafing thus far is that his centre Tomas Plekanec is playing so well and working for everything he's getting. If Andrei just matched his centreman's intensity, he'd be fine because his talent is undeniable.

But let's let him play at least, I don't know, 10 games before we all start throwing him to the wolves.

UPDATE: Sportsnet is reporting that Sergei Kostitsyn agreed to report to Hamilton only after the Canadiens assured him he would be traded. I'm not sure if I buy that, but that's what they're reporting.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Well, at least no one's talking about the captaincy

Now that Ryan O'Byrne will join Andrei Markov on the sidelines for the next six weeks, you can expect speculation to mount on who the Canadiens will want to bring in to get through this early-season blow to their defence.

Free agent Marc-André Bergeron's agent says he's had two discussions with Habs assistant GM Julien BriseBois, and seeing as Bergeron is an effective power play quarterback he makes perfect sense to bring in as a stop gap measure to replace Markov, right?

Wrong. If you're going to bring in Bergeron, may as well simply play Yannick Weber instead, because both of them will make mistakes in their own end. If you have to live with defensive errors, I think you'd rather they come from a prized prospect rather than an out-of-work, one-dimensional veteran. If Weber - who was finally summoned to Calgary today - doesn't work out, then call up Mathieu Carle and give him a shot. Then you can try P.K. Subban.

The team finally has an excuse to use some of these promising young defencemen and see if they measure up to NHL competition, rather than simply spending an eternity evaluating them in the AHL. Francois Beauchemin was left to rot in the AHL forever, and how did that work out? How about Ron Hainsey?

While the aforementioned youngsters will get the most attention, I wouldn't be surprised to see Andre Benoit called up should Weber falter. He played the past two years in Europe and excelled, notching 38 points in 54 with Tappara Tempere in Finland two years ago and 20 points with Sodertalje, the worst team in the Swedish Elite League last year.

But in a year where so many new faces have worked pretty hard to build some chemistry the past several weeks, is it really worth it to mess with whatever chemistry they've created by bringing in another personality? I guess a former player wouldn't pose that problem quite as much, but I find this talk of bringing back Patrice Brisebois to be preposterous.