Sunday, September 26, 2010

Boucher's legacy

Though Guy Boucher and his entire Hamilton staff are in Tampa Bay this season, there remain numerous vestiges of his one year within the Canadiens organization that remain.

The biggest and most obvious one is P.K. Subban, who clearly benefited from having Boucher as his first professional coach. Ryan White, Aaron Palushaj (briefly), Max Pacioretty Yannick Weber, David Desharnais and others might still be able to use some of the lessons they learned under Boucher and apply them in doses while playing for Randy Cunneyworth in Hamilton this season.

But what appears to be the biggest residual Boucher effect is the pre-season implementation of his somewhat radical power play formation by the ever-so-unradical Jacques Martin. It's rare you get to see actual tactical changes in action in pre-season games, so it's been interesting to say the least thus far.

For those who don't know, Boucher's wacky power play set-up is essentially a 1-3-1, with one defenceman on the blue line, another in the high slot, and the traditional forwards on the side boards and in front of the net. Boucher may not have invented it, but he is widely credited for being the one to first use it in world class competition when he did so with great success as an assistant coach for the Canadian junior team in 2008-09.

That team had Subban playing the high slot and Ryan Ellis setting up a one-man wall on the blue line. While most people pointed to Subban as being the catalyst for a power play that clicked at 50 per cent over the tournament, it was probably Ellis' uncanny ability to hold the blue line that actually made it work.

The Canadiens also have a defenceman who I feel is the best in the NHL at that very skill in Andrei Markov, and now that Subban is here, I like that Martin is experimenting a little bit with a formation made famous by a coach many fans wanted to see replace him.

But I'd be pretty stunned to see it used in regular season play until Markov returns, which could be by Halloween.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't address the fact that Carey Price has allowed 10 goals on 37 shots in two pre-season games, after taking a 6-2 beating Saturday in Ottawa.

But it will be brief.

Firstly, this doesn't mean Price will play this poorly in the regular season, but it's admittedly not a very good sign.

The second thing is how even this sieve-like performance is exhibiting Price's growing maturity as a professional. He has every reason to call out Jaroslav Spacek who, as far as I can tell, has directly led to at least four of Price's 10 goals. In the past, Price would have done just that. But he hasn't, at least not yet.

Price did mention that there is a hodgepodge of players on the team in front of him as an explanation for the number of high quality scoring chances against him, and the low percentage of them he's been stopping.

But at least Price also said after Saturday's loss that he should be stopping more of those chances.

I can admit that I am forming a lot of my judgments on Price on subjective elements like the actual words coming out of his mouth, while the haters are using more tangible proof of his failings like goals against and save percentage. I would just ask that we give him a few regular season games before finally determining his fate.

Finally, I pitched in on Canadiens season preview with stories on Price and Subban  that you can check out here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What a debut

Lars Eller's name was nowhere on the scoresheet the Habs handed out after Saturday's intra-squad game as on-ice workouts got underway in Brossard.

But you would have to be blind not to have noticed him.
Eller is as intriguing a player as the Canadiens have, except for maybe P.K. Subban, in that the tools are quite clearly all there.

Big frame? Check.
Willingness to use it (as evidenced by him taking on a charging Jeff Halpern today and winding up as the one still on his skates)? Check.

Blazing speed? Check and double-check.
Soft hands? Check.

That tried and true Danish hockey pedigree? Check.

Eller could very well turn out to be the player the Canadiens have been sorely lacking for years, though it's not likely to be this year. But I came away from a full day at training camp Saturday extremely impressed.

So much so, I wrote a big, long story about him.

Another guy that impressed me today was Maxim Lapierre, who was flying on the ice and scored twice, missing his chance at a hat trick when he shot high on a breakaway. Lapierre's speed is such a big part of his game because it allows him to forecheck effectively, and when he didn't have that last season due to a nagging ankle injury, we all saw just how useless he could be.

Now claiming to be at full health, Lapierre began training camp with a lot of jump, and he was beaming in the dressing room afterwards.

“You want to work as if it’s a playoff game right off the bat. We all want to pick up where we left off last year,” Lapierre said. “I know it’s just an intra-squad game, but that’s how you prepare for pre-season games, and that’s how you prepare for the regular season games. So you have to start somewhere.”

Lapierre started somewhere that was way ahead of last year's starting point, which is a good sign. And judging by how he skated today, Lapierre playing with Eller and someone like Dustin Boyd or Tom Pyatt could make for a very speedy third line that would give other teams problems.
Lapierre said he worked hard in the offseason, something he was accused in the past of ignoring. He said he worked with some new computerized bike system, he did specific exercises to improve his acceleration, and he took boxing lessons for his cardio.

And if the boxing lessons come in handy in other situations, such as those he creates himself when he yaps at the opposition, then so be it.

"When (a fight) happens I’ll have a little more technique," Lapierre said. "My role is to play the way I did in the playoffs. But if I have to fight, I’ll fight."

But the highlight of my day was 15 minutes of one-on-one time with Tomas Plekanec after practice.
You can read some of the things he said in my own debut on, but there are some parts of the conversation that didn't get in there.

Basically, I continued on my crusade to get Plekanec to admit that he might be better served playing a more focused offensive role, rather than the jack-of-all-trades game he plays now that finds him on the ice in practically every conceivable game situation.

Plekanec insists he wouldn't have it any other way.

“I’m happy with my role," he said. "That’s my job, and I’ve progressed through the organization to be that kind of player from day one in Hamilton. I started working on my defensive game right away because I was too offensive-minded when I got to Hamilton. So I’ve been raised to be a two-way player and I’m happy with that role. I think that’s the best way I can help the team.”

He said the fact the organization gave him a six-year contract kind of validates that position, because why would a team lock someone up for that long in the hopes he will change his game? It's not a bad point.
"They signed me long-term because they know what kind of player I am, what kind of person I am, so I don’t think they would like me to change too much," he said. "Obviously with a six-year contract it shows you that they really want you here and they’re happy with you, and that they want you to be part of the leadership group.”

I tried to counter that with my take on the Jeff Halpern signing, namely that his arrival could free Plekanec of some of his defensive responsibilities so he could focus a little more on offence.

"I didn't really look at it that way," he began. “But I was very happy with the signing. I’ve played against him many times and he’s tough to play against. He’s great on faceoffs and it’s a great signing for us. He makes us such a better team than we were last year.”

I've got to admit here how much I admire Plekanec, and I think some of his answers I related here can show you why. Most players would embrace the opportunity to be a scorer, to get the headlines, to be a star. Plekanec just wants to win because he's a competitor, one so intense that he can get down on himself when either he or the team aren't performing to his satisfaction. He's always first on the ice at practice, and when I asked him today how his summer was his answer said it all: "It was too long."

I'm sure he, and all his teammates, hope the Canadiens have a much shorter summer next year.