Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What a week...

...to completely fall off the face of the earth.

Well, actually, I was swamped last week working for the dreaded mainstream media as the Montreal Canadiens had one of the busier and more newsworthy six days of the season, so unfortunately The Daily Hab-it suffered as a result.

But now, in tremendously belated fashion, I will give you a blow-by-blow account of an extremely influential six-day stretch and how I experienced it:

Monday, Feb 8
I actually did weigh in on the resignation of Bob Gainey and coronation of Pierre Gauthier as his successor, seemingly for the long term. Pierre Boivin said Gauthier will be the Habs GM for "many years to come,"and I'm still not quite sure what to make of that. Gauthier has his bad sides and his good, but as we saw later in the week, he clearly had his own plans for the organization that didn't necessarily jive with Gainey's. The first of which we saw during the press conference announcing the switch when Tom Pyatt was called up from Hamilton and Ryan White and Brock Trotter were sent back down.

Tuesday, Feb 9
I attended Canadiens practice on this day in the hopes of speaking with Jaroslav Halak and Tomas Plekanec, mainly to get their reaction to Gauthier's comments a day earlier regarding their respective futures with the team. Halak, no dice. Not available. But he was available later that day for a sit down interview with The Gazette's Dave Stubbs, where we learned of his love of chocolate milk. We did get to speak with Plekanec, however, and I produced this report on his thoughts regarding contract talks with the Habs. What jumped out the most was his immediate clarification that "negotiations" hadn't necessarily begun, but that there was a dialogue that was opened. He then confirmed what his agent Rick Curran told me Monday night, that he would love to re-sign with the Canadiens. 

The one tidbit he added to that is he would be willing to sign prior to July 1 assuming he received an offer that made some sense. I think Plekanec is sincere when he says that, I really do, but I also believe it may take some time for both sides to agree on what makes sense. Plekanec is in a unique situation here in that the free agent class of 2010 is very thin at forward, and his two-way talents will make him quite valuable on the open market. The Habs will have to cover at least some of that value, even if they get a hometown discount. Even though Gauthier appears to believe the Habs cap situation going forward is very "manageable," the fact is Montreal will be squeezing right against it if Plekanec signs for any semblance of what he's worth. 

One other thing I didn't write about was Plekanec's reaction to the big deal made of Pierre McGuire's comments on the Team 990 that he was as good as gone if he reached July 1 without a new contract. There's nothing wrong with McGuire saying that, because it's true, but for some reason everyone felt it necessary to pick up on that and run with it, even though it appeared to me to be the most obvious thing on earth. Apparently I wasn't the only one.

"I laughed when I heard about that," Plekanec said. "To me, that's pretty obvious."

Wednesday, Feb 10
I covered the Washington Capitals skate that morning, producing this report on how the various Olympians on the roster - one in particular that wears No. 8 - were dealing with the impending tournament in Vancouver. It was a fun story to write, but what was striking to me was the mood in that room. The Caps had won 14 straight games, and everyone, to a man, basically said they just expect to win every game. A lot of players on a lot of teams can say that, but you can tell they don't really believe it. These guys did. Not sure if they do anymore.

That's because the Habs ended their magical run later that night with a tremendous effort, storming out to a 5-2 lead before falling victim to the Capitals offensive machine in the third, allowing them to tie it up but still coming out on top in overtime thanks to Plekanec's second of the game, coming off Sergei Kostitsyn's third assist of the night. It was Sergei's best game - by far - this season. The highlight for me personally on this night was that I managed to get a rise, even though it was an extremely slight one, out of Habs coach Jacques Martin. I really didn't think I'd be able to do that, but I did when I asked him if it was tough for him to watch his team blow a three-goal third period lead.

“Where I come from, when you beat the best team in the National Hockey League you should be happy," he responded, more than a little annoyed with the question. "Especially when you look at the number of injuries we had, you look at our lineup, I think it showed tremendous character and determination. What’s nice about it is we found a way to win the hockey game.”

Indeed coach. It's not the first time this season the Habs have managed to surprise everyone by gutting out a win when it was least expected, and it was the second time this season they've done it against the Caps. But the question was whether or not that kind of effort could be duplicated with a lineup laden with AHL call-ups. Perhaps, except something happened the next day that changed things a little bit.

Thursday, Feb 11
I wasn't supposed to work on this day (at least not covering the Habs) and actually wound up suffering through a treacherous day with gastro. By the end of it, I was exhausted when news broke that Gauthier had made his first moves as Habs GM.

First, the Habs finally called up P.K. Subban from Hamilton, a move Gainey appeared unwilling to make. Maybe he was having second thoughts on how he handled Price, maybe he thought Subban was too much of a liability defensively to take the risk, maybe he just didn't like the kid. Who knows? But Subban's play in Hamilton warranted a call-up, and Gauthier pulled the trigger. After suffering through reading the CBA to see if that had any impact on his free agent status, and ultimately getting some help from a reader via Twitter, it became clear that Subban can finish the year in Montreal and it will have zero impact on his free agent status whatsoever. So at that point, why not? Good on Gauthier.

But this move was announced only after news had leaked that Gauthier sent a 2011 second round pick to Florida in exchange for Dominic Moore, an honest, "serviceable" player in the eyes of Panthers GM Randy Sexton. Second round draft picks are far from a sure thing in the NHL, but they have pretty tremendous value. Cristobal Huet was worth a second-rounder. Same goes for Mikhail Grabovski. Ditto Robert Lang. The list goes on and on. Gauthier, while watching his injury-riddled club squeak by the best team in the NHL, decided he'd had enough of Ben Maxwell and wanted Moore on the team for the final two games prior to the Olympic break. That's his prerogative, but it appeared a bit rash to me.

In my eyes, the Habs were already at that point far further along than anyone could have reasonably expected them to be. Even had they lost the two games against Philadelphia, which we now know they did, they were still well positioned to enter the break in a playoff spot. Was Dominic Moore something that was so desperately needed for two games? No, and I don't think Gauthier thought so either, even though that was the justification he gave. This, in my eyes, was a prelude to something else that will likely happen after the Olympic trade freeze is lifted on March 1. I'm not sure what exactly that could be, but this trade convinced me that Gauthier will indeed be a buyer at the deadline. I'm not so sure that's a good thing.

Friday, Feb 12
The Habs are in Philadelphia and coming off a really big win. Everyone expects that momentum to carry over into a key game against a team Montreal is in direct competition with for a playoff spot. But yet again, expect the unexpected. The Canadiens sleep through the first 40 minutes, get a couple of bounces for two goals early in the third, and come up a goal short. Carey Price, after getting the call against Washington and winning in spite of a couple of ugly goals in the third period, was not very strong in the first when the Flyers jumped out to a 3-0 lead. But he gave his team a chance to climb back in it by shutting thew door the rest of the way. That counts for something.

Saturday, Feb 13
I'm back at the Bell Centre for a visiting team skate, this time to try and talk to Jeff Carter about his travel plans the following day. He'd been asked by Steve Yzerman to fly to Vancouver just in case Ryan Getzlaf couldn't go in the Olympics, and I, along with probably the rest of the country, wanted to know how he felt about perhaps having the opportunity to play. Alas, Carter blew me off. Didn't want to talk to me. So, rather than wallow in failing to complete my assignment that day, I salvaged my morning trip to the Bell Centre by writing this story on Olympic teammates Chris Pronger and Mike Richards. Of course, these two supposedly aren't the best of buds (they didn't even take the same flight out to Vancouver the next day), but they were heading to the Olympics in a day so I figured it was worth a chat.

Later that night, the Habs caved in huge in a 6-2 loss, one where Jaroslav Halak was chased after allowing five goals on 17 shots (you'll notice I screwed that up in my story, saying he only gave up four goals. It happens). Subban had his second straight impressive game, wowing the Bell Centre faithful and drawing chants of "P.K., P.K." a few times over the course of the game. He was very good, and I was most taken with his poise with the puck and the way he instinctively uses his body to shield the puck from defenders. You can;t teach stuff like that.

Afterwards, the Canadiens room was not all that sombre. It was kind of like when you knew you bombed your last exam, but it was still your last exam so you were kind of relieved. That's the kind of feeling I got talking to some of the guys after that game. Jaroslav Spacek, who didn't sleep the night before after having his head sliced open by the Flyers Darroll Powe, wasn't impressed with his team's effort. But he was pretty excited to go spend a week in Florida with the family. Carey Price looked downright happy to be heading home to B.C. for a while, hoping to get down to Vancouver to catch some of the Olympics.

The Habs five Olympians were nowhere to be seen in the locker room, but they quickly emerged in the area just outside, already showered and dressed and heading for their cars with their hockey bags and sticks in tow. Tomas Plekanec, who is never in a good mood after a loss, looked to have a little jump in his step as he accepted wishes of good luck from journalists he whizzed by on his way out the door. But Halak, standing by the door leading to the players garage dressed in a sharp suit, did not look all that pleased. He's given up 11 goals on his last 65 shots faced over three starts and was on his way to perhaps his biggest opportunity to sell his virtues as an NHL starting goaltender. That lack of playoff experience everyone always brings up whenever his value is discussed? It would become a moot point with a strong Olympics, especially if he could somehow manage to get Slovakia through the group of death and into the medal round. Standing by that door, waiting for whatever it was he was waiting for, Halak looked to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Martin's post-game press conference was worthwhile. First of all, he expressed no concern over the health of Andrei Markov and his participation in the Olympics, saying he trusted his player would do what was best for both him and his team, the one that signs his paycheques. What exactly ails Markov is still mired in secrecy, but Martin's body language seemed to indicate it was nothing that major. Of course, that begs the question of why Markov didn't play in either of the two games against Philly, but Russia is not playing until Tuesday. That is three full days after the final Habs game, ample time for Markov to believably recover from a nagging injury that would have affected his performance on Saturday.

Martin was asked how he would assess his team's position at the Olympic break in light of everything the team had gone through in the first 63 games of the season. In spite of taking a drubbing from the Flyers just minutes earlier, Martin was able to keep some perspective on his team's performance.

“You’re never satisfied with where you are, but you have to be realistic," he said. "Sometimes it’s not the number of injuries, but who is injured. With a player like Markov, for instance, you just don’t replace a player like him. Up front we have three forwards out of our top six out, and it’s not just missing a couple of games.”

I couldn't agree more. The Habs are lucky to be sitting in eighth right now, even though it is a bit of a phantom hold on a playoff spot since every team trailing them in the standings hold games in hand. I say they're lucky, but they've earned that position by refusing to die. Every time it looked as though the Habs would go on a long losing spell, they pulled out a miraculous win of some sort. And they did it just often enough to stay afloat.

The Habs will be welcoming back, in all likelihood, Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn when they get back to practice on Feb. 24. Markov should be good to go when he's done with the Olympics. Mike Cammalleri should be ready sometime in early March. The Canadiens have only really played two games all season with their whole team healthy, so hopefully for them, they can finish the season with a full roster. I remain convinced that when healthy, this team is pretty good, we just haven't seen it yet. If the Habs get a dose of good luck on the injury front, I think they should make the playoffs. And if Gauthier adds an interesting piece or two at the deadline, even though I think he shouldn't, then who knows what can happen?

One thing about the Eastern Conference is that it will allow the old mantra to hold true, the one that says that once you're in the playoffs, anything is possible.

And with that, I'm also going to take a break from the blog for the Olympics, and simply enjoy watching great hockey. I might check in from time to time here, but it's going to be relatively quiet at least until the Habs start skating again on Feb. 24. 

Enjoy the Olympics everyone, and Go Canada!


LeMatheux said...

"I'm not sure what exactly that could be, but this trade convinced me that Gauthier will indeed be a buyer at the deadline. I'm not so sure that's a good thing."

I'm actually quite sure it's not.

But I don't think Gauthier is quite ready to address anyone's idea of the team's real problems, and I don't think he wants to start his tenure by holding a sale when he has nothing to sell, so he has to make to.

Roy said...

Great to hear from you. Again, I'm a frequent reader and very much enjoy hearing your $0.02. Should be interesting to see how things end up down the stretch.