Monday, December 21, 2009

A tale of three free agents

There's a common thread between the three players most responsible for Monday night's improbable overtime win in Atlanta. With all the players Bob Gainey locked up to long-term contracts this summer, all three of the stars from Monday's game are impending free agents.

Tomas Plekanec, with his goal and three assists, hit the 40-point mark in his 38th game of the season. He had 39 points all of last season. Even his career year of 2007-08 was only 69 points, and he's now on pace to obliterate that. In case you haven't been paying attention, he's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

The guy on the receiving end of Plekanec's perfect saucer pass in OT was Marc-Andre Bergeron, scoring his second of the night and ninth of the season. Bergeron is only on this team because Andrei Markov is injured AND because his agent is pro-active and reached out to the Habs to remind them his client was available. Bergeron got the tying goal with the goalie pulled, and scored the winner on a beauty deke after taking that seeing-eye pass from Plekanec. He too is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and he's currently making a little over half what Georges Laraque makes.

Then there's Jaroslav Halak, the only reason this game didn't become an absolute joke after one period, when the Thrashers outshot the Habs 18-3 yet only led 1-0. Halak stopped 47 shots on the night, including a game-saver in overtime just before Bergeron's fourth game-winner of the season. He's stopped 87 of 90 shots over the past TWO games to give his team two wins they probably didn't deserve. Halak now has an 8-5-0 record with a .916 save percentage, good for 16th in the league, tied with Roberto Luongo, Cristobal Huet and Jimmy Howard. He is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, and you've got to believe he'd have a pretty good case in arbitration. He's also expressed a desire to play, and if that won't happen in Montreal then he wants a chance elsewhere. Can't say I blame him.

My point here is to shed light on where this team would be without these three guys, and how likely is it that any of them will be back next season?

But that's a discussion for another day, because right now there's a lot of things that need fixing on these Canadiens. Two glaring trends stand out to me - their horrible first periods and their brutal lack of discipline.

The Habs have been outscored 37-20 in the first period this season, and outshot by a staggering margin of 384-289. They have led at the first intermission only 13 times in 38 games, and have an 8-4-1 record in those games. Just imagine what their record would be if they led after 20 minutes more often?

I keep trying to figure out reasons why this is, and none jump out at me other than pointing the finger at the coaching staff. If you take away the first period this season, the Habs have outscored their opponents 73-68 the rest of the game. So if they can do that in the second and third periods, why not the first?

The lack of discipline has reached a preposterous level. Montreal gave Atlanta six chances on the power play Monday night, meaning the Habs have been shorthanded a whopping 169 times this season. That's the highest total in the league, higher than Anaheim, a franchise that prides itself on stupid penalties. The Habs are also second in the league in minor penalties, after the Flyers. Yet they are in the middle of the pack when it comes to penalty minutes per game. That's because the Canadiens generally don't fight, or take anyone with them to the penalty box for that matter.

Even though the Habs kill penalties with the best of them (more on that in a bit), the effect of taking so many penalties are varied, and crippling. First of all, it keeps players like Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn on the bench, preventing them from establishing some rhythm. It forces Jacques Martin to overuse players like Josh Gorges and Hal Gill, who are at their best when they're playing no more than 18 minutes or so. Of course, I'm saying that as if I know, but I don't because they've been forced to play far more than that every night due to their PK duties. Finally, Plekanec winds up having ridiculous nights like he did Monday, when he played 25:02, including 7:18 while short a man. Is that really what you want your leading point-getter spending so much energy on night after night? Blocking shots and running after players in his own end?

OK, I know, the Habs won and I'm being nothing but negative. So here is some positivity to end things on a high note. After Monday's game, the Habs have the best combined special teams in the league.

The power play, dismal only a month ago, is now third in the NHL with a 23 per cent efficiency rating. Over the first 29 games of the season, Montreal was 14-for-86 with the man advantage, a 16.3 per cent clip. But over the past nine games, the Canadiens power play has hit on 12 of 27 chances, a ridiculous 44.4 per cent success rate. The arrival of Andrei Markov can only help in that area.

Meanwhile, the penalty killing unit is defying the odds and sits seventh in the NHL at 84 per cent. To just put that in perspective, if the Habs were merely average penalty killers and saw their efficiency drop only four points to 80, they would have allowed eight more power play goals so far this season. The Canadiens played their 22nd one-goal game on Monday night, winning for the 10th time. How many of those wins do you think would have turned into losses thanks to those eight extra power play goals against?

The quality of a team's special teams units is generally measured by adding the success rate of the power play to that of the penalty killers. If the number equals more than 100, you're in pretty good shape. The Canadiens number is now 107, tied with the New York Rangers for tops in the NHL.

But, as Habs fans probably know better than anyone, any team that relies too much on special teams is not bound to go very far come spring time. Martin loves saying games are often decided by goaltending and special teams. Problem is, his team has had little else going for it of late.


john deere said...

Trading Halak is going to make it very tough to make the playoffs.

Watched the Oilers/Blues game tonight and Edmonton had a rookie goalie in net and he let in 7 goals. Watched Pittsburg/Philly a couple nights ago, Philadelphia had a rookie goalie and he didn't have a chance against the Malkin line.

Merry Xmas to all the Canadiens Fans out there (and even Maple Leaf fans) and best of the season.

Anonymous said...

i was thinking about our special teams as i watched the game last night and your point reinforces it for me: our special teams shine a light on just how terrible a 5 on 5 team we are....without our PP and PK, we would be at the bottom of the standings. don't know how to fix it but we need to work on our faceoffs so we have the puck more often and we need to figure out some kind of forecheck...

Sliver24 said...

The lesson I take from your first observation is that the NHL needs to get rid of guaranteed contracts.

A long-term, guaranteed contract seems to kill the hunger for lots of players.

pmk said...

"Martin loves saying games are often decided by goaltending and special teams."

Hmmm... could be why Martin's teams have never done much come the post season.

I would not trade Halak - at least not until price is signed longterm. Why not just play them both? platton them and keep both their numbers down for contract talks.

I agree with you Sliver - but I can't see guaranteed contracts going anywhere without another strike.

Sliver24 said...

PMK, you're absolutely right about that, though it will likely be a lockout again. I imagine that will be the sticking point in the next CBA talks.

The only way I can see it happening without a long dispute is if the owners put an extra chunk of revenue on the table as compensation. You'd think the union would be okay with that because, though it's not necessarily better for certain individual players, it would be better for the collective.

One thing is 100% certain: Gomez would vote against it!

Arpon Basu said...

The owners are going to push to eliminate guaranteed contracts, but as a compromise will accept a simple limit on contract length, like four years or something like that. That's how I see it playing out because both sides know they can't survive another work stoppage. And really, if a player is expected to play out his contract (except, of course, if you play for the Senators), shouldn't the teams hold up their end of the bargain?

leafsblow said...

time to get rid of martin and laroque thats the christmas gift i want.

Anonymous said...

I would still trade Halak to Philly as part of a package for Jeff Carter, A Big Right Handed Centre who can score. The better Halak plays the more the habs can get for him.

As for MA Bergeron, It's funny how people talk about when he scores but when he's on the ice for a few goals against, nobody keeps track. I rather have someone who can play both defence and offense.

Anonymous said...

How aboput getting rid of Gainey and Martin. What has Gainey done since taking the manager's position except let talented players go with little or nothing in return? He has taken the team absolutely nowhere in over five years.

john deere said...

I think they have to eliminate the bogus three or four years of low money at the end of the contract to lower the cap hit and also lower the maximum amount paid per single player - right now I think it's 20% of the team cap, lower it to $8 million per year or so.

Also, they should make it easier for a team to buyout a contract, maybe by having contracts with a larger signing bonus up front and then a smaller cap hit if the team dumps the player.