Sunday, January 31, 2010

Could the Leafs pass the Habs?

That was my first reaction to today's news that Brian Burke basically traded his whole team for two guys, two guys who are far better than the six they were traded for.

I don't know about you, but I would take a top-four on defence of Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek, assuming of course Bruke holds true to his vow not to ask Kaberle to lift his no trade clause. Meanwhile, Giguere is re-united with his muse, goalie coach Francois Allaire, and could very well find his game playing closer to home.

So, why should Habs fans care? Aside from the fact that Burke has produced more excitement in one day than Bob Gainey has in six months, this trade could have a definite consequence for your Habs, a positive one as far as I'm concerned.

We still don't know if Mike Cammalleri's injury from Saturday afternoon is very serious, but it sure looks that way. As of today, Toronto only has 11 fewer points than the Habs in the same number of games. Carolina has the same deficit to make up but with two games in hand. I don't know about you, but considering the Canadiens have lost three in a row and six of their last eight while scoring only 19 goals over those eight games (six in the same game) with Cammalleri in the lineup, what do you think the Habs will be able to do without him?

When you add in that Andrei Markov appears to be saving himself for the Olympics with the way he's playing and the only reason the Canadiens remain in playoff contention right now is Jaroslav Halak, I don't see much of a surge up the standings on the horizon. I do, however, see a quicker pace to what was an inevitable slide down the standings as the other teams in the pack caught up to the Habs in the games played column.

Montreal is 24th in the NHL in points percentage right now, which would amount to a No. 7 pick in the draft. The Habs are at .500, the Hurricanes are at .417 and the Leafs are at .402 to sit 28th and 29th.

Let's just say those three teams swap those percentages for the rest of the season, since Carolina has picked it up of late winning four straight and the Leafs got much better today. If the Habs finish the season picking up 40 per cent of the points available, they would have 76 points at the end of the season. Conversely, if the 'Canes pick up 50 per cent of their points they'll have 73 points, while the Leafs would have 71.

So clearly, the Canadiens will have to be monumentally bad down the stretch and the Leafs and Canes will have to be marginally better than .500 clubs for them to finish ahead of the Habs. But it's not outside the realm of possibility, and while no self-respecting athlete would ever start tanking games, there's nothing saying the general manager can't try to give his team that final little push off the cliff with a nice little firesale.

If only the Habs had some interesting pieces to sell off.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A rallying cry?

Yeah, right.

The loss of Mike Cammalleri during Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss in Ottawa will likely be used as some sort of motivating factor for the Canadiens, but for a team that was already the most anemic in the NHL in 5-on-5 scoring, losing your top goal-scorer for any amount of time cannot be positive.

In fact, it reminds me of a song that perfectly sums up the Habs playoff chances if Cammalleri has a significant injury:

Sorry if that's a little dramatic, but really if Cammalleri is out for any length of time that Habs playoff chances are essentially dead. He is the top offensive threat on a team sorely lacking offence, one that has gone the equivalent of 11 periods without scoring an even strength goal. If Andrei Kostitsyn was tough to replace, how will the team replace the player who looked he would become the Habs first 40-goal scorer in 16 years?

I don't know about you, but watching him go awkwardly into the boards does not elicit much hope from me. If you didn't see it, here it is, and just wait for the final replay before making your own judgment:

But that injury, assuming it is as bad as it looks, could be a blessing in disguise of for the Habs in this transition year from hell. No, not in the sense of what you will be hearing from the Canadiens left standing, that this will provide an opportunity for others to "step up" and make up for Cammalleri's loss. But rather that this could provide the Canadiens a pretty perfect opportunity to sell a total stinker of a season to their fanbase, which could land a top-notch prospect to build around.

I ran across the Springing Malik blog today and there's a very interesting monthly tally of injuries and how much they cost each team, both in terms of dollars and ice time. As you'll notice, the Habs are third in terms of dollars lost and 11th in terms of minutes lost to injury. The probable fall of Cammalleri could push Montreal to No. 1 when it comes to dollars lost and it will move them up the race in minutes lost as well.

Even though Montreal is still holding down a playoff spot thanks to the loser point earned Saturday, a drop to 26th overall in the league is not out of the question. In fact, the Habs could be there by the Olympic break. And the way the Carolina Hurricanes are playing of late, perhaps by the end of the season 27th in the NHL will be possible. That's a pretty decent lottery pick, with a good shot at a top-3 pick, and a perfect excuse to feed an enraged fan base for a horrendous season.

It could also lead to a massive sell-off at the trade deadline, which would bring in even more draft picks. The beauty of the situation would be that the Habs wouldn't need to rebuild, simply retool with good young talent.

It could become what the franchise should have been dreaming of for years: an excusable dud of a season that lands a talent to build around.

Friday, January 29, 2010


I know this has grown extremely tiresome, but the talk of Vincent Lecavalier possibly being available on the trade market again obliges me to at least re-hash something I wrote way back in July, just a few weeks after the Canadiens acquired Scott Gomez.

First of all, for those of you haven't read the story in The Hockey News, there is talk of selling the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Boston hedge fund manager in order to get it out of the clearly inept hands of Oren Koules and Len Barrie. The story is citing anonymous sources - which means your grain of salt should be nearby - but it states that should the sale go through to Jeffrey Vinik, he would want to shed salary immediately.

Which brings us back to Lecavalier.

He is in the first year of an 11-year, $85 million deal that pays him $10 million per season for the next seven years, and only $15 million total over the final four years of the deal. Of course, since signing that lucrative extension, Lecavalier's stock has dropped tremendously, but probably not nearly as much as people think.

He turns 30 on April 21, and for a player that is supposedly already washed up and hampered by injury problems, Lecavalier's having a pretty good season, even at that salary. So far, he has 52 points in 52 games after a slow start. Over the past 25 games, he has 30 points.

My theory back in July still stands today, in my opinion, that the salary cap hit for Lecavalier and Scott Gomez are so similar that a deal seems like a natural match. Lecavalier has a cap hit of $7.73 million per year, while Gomez is at $7.36 million.

So how does that help this new owner, if indeed he is one? Well, over the remaining five years of Gomez's contract he will make $16.5 million less in actual salary than Lecavalier will, seeing as Gomez's deal with the New York Rangers was front-loaded as well.

Gomez only has 35 points in 51 games this season, but he had an extremely slow start and has come on of late with 17 points over his last 16 games. Still, Montreal would likely have to add a piece to the puzzle, and with team president Pierre Boivin blabbing to some businessmen that Jaroslav Halak will be traded within weeks, I would think that would be a perfect throw in to make it worth Tampa's while, seeing as their goaltending situation is a bit unstable in spite of Antero Niittymaki's shutout the other night. Getting Halak would also be a bonus because the real value in the deal is the $16.5 million saved over the next five years, and being able to crawl out from under the final six years of Lecavalier's deal.

You can do worse than to have Gomez as a second line centre behind the electrifying Steven Stamkos, especially if you get an affordable, young starting goalie in the deal as well. At least that's what Brian Lawton can tell his fans.

Meanwhile, back in Montreal, the pro-Halak half of the city would likely be appeased in knowing that a big, Francophone, superstar centre is on his way to town. Suddenly, Carey Price wouldn't be so bad after all.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A personal beef

I was pretty amused with the little show Carey Price and Andrei Markov put on for reporters at practice in Brossard today, giving each other a big hug and smiling to make light of yesterday's big firestorm over their little argument last week.

Although Brian Gionta chose to deny that the argument took place, it appeared to me that it was generally acknowledged that some words were exchanged between the two. Whether or not the entire team took sides in the argument, as was reported, is an entirely different matter.

I'm not going to on and on about the incident or what was said about it, particularly Markov's view that reporters should be trying to help the team out because they're going through a rough patch. He knows very well it doesn't work like that, and the team gets all the support it needs when things are going well. Why? Because it's a reflection of their play. The media will be critical when you play poorly. It's obvious, I know, but I feel it needs mentioning because a lot of people tend to think the media is all negative all the time. That's simply not true.

But my beef with what happened in Brossard today has nothing to so with what Markov said, or that Josh Gorges is concerned that news like that is being leaked out of the room, or Max Lapierre comparing it to a fight between brothers that is settled at the dinner table.

No, it has to do with the fact that Carey Price wasn't around to talk about it. He's been in this city long enough to know that this would be what all the media would be talking about, and it would have spared his teammates from having to do it on his behalf if he'd simply come out and spent five or 10 minutes answering questions about it.

Listen, I'm not going to begin thinking that the average fan really cares about the players' and the organization's media policies, because I could write a dissertation on the topic but I won't because I don't think it's of interest.

But what might be of interest is my beef with Price, because it might be symptomatic of a more global mishandling of a young talent.

Price's media exposure has probably been the most micro-managed PR initiative I have ever seen in nearly 10 years of covering the team. His age and the position he plays made it so. I remember once during his first playoffs he was answering questions following a loss, and after four or five a Habs PR person stepped in and said, "OK kid, you're done."

That never happens. As it turns out, there were tons of reporters that didn't get a chance to talk to him that day. A similar veil of media protection has surrounded Price ever since. He rarely talks to reporters at home after a loss any more, which is a standard requirement of any starting goalie in the league.

Today was another example of where both Price and the team's PR knew very well this would be a story, and it would have been good of Price to come out and face the music, especially after orchestrating that hug with Markov following practice. Instead, it was his teammates that had to entertain the media on Price's behalf, answering questions about him. I can tell you from experience that players find that incredibly annoying, especially when that player could just as easily come out and answer the questions himself.

I'll admit that I can't say for sure whether Price's lack of availability these days comes from Price himself or from the PR staff of the team. But either way, I'm wondering whether or not this might be another symptom of the supposed sense of entitlement a lot of people seem to think Price has. If he's permitted to blow off media responsibilities while pretty much every other player has to do it, what else is Price allowed to get away with? Is this another example of the organization coddling him?

I'm just asking the question, while fully admitting that I don't know the answer. But to me, that answer should be of interest to the typical fan, even if media access to a certain player isn't.

Having said that, how many of you can honestly say you wouldn't have liked to have heard Price's opinion on the incident today?

Deadline decisions will be easy for Gainey

I will try my hardest not to over-react to the Canadiens horrendous showing over the past two games in sunny Florida.

OK, I tried, but I can't. I'm going to over-react my heart out.

Why? Because as I've stated previously, the Habs schedule from here until the Olympic break is treacherous. Because the Canadiens rivals for one of the bottom three Eastern Conference playoff berths all hold games in hand. Because this team has consistently shown that it is maddeningly inconsistent. Because losing a game when you give your best effort is one thing, but laying down in consecutive important games is an indicator of a far greater malaise than I think any Habs fan is willing to admit.

Well I, for one, am going to admit it. And I'm not going to pull out any excuses for it either. Believe it or not, the lack of an identified captain is not to blame for the Canadiens performance.

Neither is a supposed post-game locker room spat, because as Francois Gagnon of La Presse points out in his excellent blog post about the reported Andrei Markov-Carey Price showdown last week, the Habs won the next two games pretty convincingly. Furthermore, stuff like that happens all the time.

And finally, the back-and-forth debate over Jaroslav Halak and Price is not to blame either. How can goaltending be an issue when the team scores one goal in two games, and not one at even strength?

No, the issues this team face are rooted in other areas. Jacques Martin's coaching has become an issue of late, and that's normal when a supposed puck possession system remains in place even though the players are incapable of getting the puck. Or holding the puck. Or making a pass.

Scott Gomez alluded last night to a need to change the game plan, and then quickly absolved the coaching staff of blame. Well, it was too late by then. If a player ever - and I mean ever - says the words "game" and "plan" together in a sentence, it generally means the coach is cooked. I don't believe that to be the case here, but it's definitely not a good sign.

So, what to make of this horrible stretch of two games? I guess about the same importance I gave the previous two games. Never get too high and never get too low, athletes like to say. Except that the timing right now unfortunately does not allow for such rational level-headedness.

The Habs have eight games left before the Olympic break and, more importantly, the Olympic trade freeze of Feb. 12 at midnight. While some people appear to think that the freeze will serve as some sort of mini trade deadline, I believe it will have the opposite affect. Why would a team trade for a player on Feb. 12 when they can do it when the freeze lifts on Feb 28, thereby saving 16 days of that player's salary? For a $2 million a year player, that's a savings of just over $165,000 in salary. Also, if that player is going to play in the Olympics, why would you acquire him before the tournament?

Anyhow, my point here is that the March 3 trade deadline is only three days after the Olympic trade freeze is lifted, which means the Canadiens only have nine games left before that date. Normally, this is about the time where teams make their final decisions if they will be buyers or sellers, where they try to objectively determine if their team has a chance to make the playoffs, where the character and soul of a team is under constant evaluation.

If you were the ones in charge of that evaluation, what would you think of your team right now? Not only based on the past two games, but the entire season, or even just the month of January? I'm not sure I would be looking for ways to load up for a playoff run right about now, and if that's the direction Bob Gainey wants to go he needs to consider looking at which pieces he wants to move.

Obviously, there are the goalies to consider. Matthias Brunet of La Presse has a piece on Price which asks fans to be patient because 22-year-old goalies rarely have any success, which is something I've been preaching for quite some time. But, does hanging on to Price necessarily mean that Jaroslav Halak must go at the deadline? No, not necessarily. If a team comes calling looking to grab Halak and offers an actual roster player of some use to the Canadiens, then Gainey should jump on it. Otherwise, as a restricted free agent, Halak would still have a lot of value as a trade chip at the draft.

As far as the skaters are concerned, I would not be the least bit surprised to learn that Gainey has been offering up Paul Mara around to the good teams in the league looking for some depth on defence. Mara is a cheap option as he will only have a little under $350,000 left on his salary for the year, and he's an unrestricted free agent next year. If Gainey were willing to take a mid-round draft pick for him, I have no doubt he could find Mara a new home.

The only other UFAs on the team are Marc-Andre Bergeron, Glen Metropolit and Tomas Plekanec. I have to believe that Gainey will attempt to sign Plekanec after the season, or he might even be trying to do it as we speak, but I still think he should listen to offers at the deadline if enough teams are calling to inquire about his availability. If Gainey can create an auction situation surrounding Plekanec, the return could be quite significant simply because after Ilya Kovalchuk, he would be the most attractive forward available. Ultimately, though, I believe Gainey will hang on to him and try to sign him long-term.

Both Bergeron and Metropolit could be moved with little in the way of return, so why bother?.

But the big challenge for Gainey would be to find a taker for Roman Hamrlik, who has one year remaining at $5.5 million. For this season, there would be just over $1.1 million of Hamrlik's salary left to be paid. I don't think there's a team out there that would be willing to take on that kind of salary, but anyone who has seen him play in the playoffs knows he is a valuable cog. So perhaps Gainey can use that to persuade someone out there to give him a little bit of cap relief.

Looking over the Habs roster, those are the only potential "seller" moves I see. Which means Gainey might be best served just hanging on to his players and letting the chips fall where they may.

In the event Gainey wanted to be a buyer, that possibility was dealt a serious blow when Georges Laraque's potential transfer to AIK Stockholm was nixed, either by the NHL or by Laraque himself. Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet is reporting that the NHL stepped in and blocked the deal from happening because of Laraque's no-trade clause, which makes little to no sense. What I think happened is that Laraque refused to lift his no movement clause and go through waivers, and the NHL said if he doesn't do that then he can't play in Sweden.

In any case, that means the $575,000 Laraque has left on his salary will remain on Montreal's cap, and that's significant because having that much room on deadline day would allow you to acquire a player that makes about $2.7 million for the year.

As it is right now, the Canadiens are only carrying the minimum 20 players because their cap situation is so tight. That's why they only used 19 skaters last night in Tampa when Jaroslav Spacek came down with the flu. With the team this squeezed against the cap, I find it hard to believe Gainey would be able to acquire anything of significance to help the team this year.

So, barring an unforeseen move, I would imagine Gainey will be pretty inactive at the trade deadline for a second year in a row. But when you're neither good enough to buy or bad enough to sell, that shouldn't come as a huge surprise.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tune in to Daily Hab-it radio tonight

Just a quick message to tell you guys I will be hosting the Habs post-game show on the Team 990 tonight after the game in Tampa, starting at around 9:30 p.m. You can listen online at

I'll also be on the air with Dave McGimpsey for my regular show "Hump Night" starting at midnight, though I doubt we'll have too much Habs talk there.

The reason I'm doing the post-game show is that the regular host, Tony Marinaro, has been called to do some TV work following his revelation today of a supposed spat between Andrei Markov and Carey Price in the dressing room following that overtime loss to the Blues last week. Marinaro says Markov questioned Price's commitment, and told him to stay home if he doesn't care.

I'm pretty ambivalent to the rumour simply because stuff like that happens all the time behind closed doors, we just don't find out about it. This time, we did. So what?

Price will get a chance to prove he cares tonight, and unlike a lot of people I support Jacques Martin's decision to start him here. Just so long as he comes back with Jaroslav Halak for at least eight of the nine remaining games before the Olympic break.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That break is very far away

The Canadiens were given a glorious opportunity Tuesday night, one they didn't deserve, and one they ultimately wasted.

The opportunity was to walk into a playoff rival's building, play horrible hockey for 40 minutes and still come out with an important victory. One of those wins you get when you're a good team, when the opponent is left shaking their heads as to how exactly they let you walk out of their house with the two points they so rightfully deserved.

But, as we've gone over before, the Habs are not terribly good. They're not terribly terrible either, just not that good. I guess that's why they came out for the third period ahead 1-0 despite being outshot 20-10 and figured they could coast to victory. Figured they could simply protect that lead because their goalie is playing so well behind them. Figured they could make careless passes in the offensive zone, or make misguided back door pinches, depending on who you are.

No, a good team would have come out for the third period in Sunrise tonight thanking the hockey gods and a certain Jaroslav Halak that they were in the position they were in, and show their gratitude by skating their pants off for the final 20 minutes. Not in the hopes of squeaking out a 1-0 win, maybe 2-0 if you get an empty-netter, but rather in an effort to bury the opposition. Instead, the Habs did everything in their power to lose the game, getting thoroughly outworked after being rewarded for a tremendous weekend with a day off in the sun in Miami.

But this 2-1 loss to Florida on two goals by Shawn Matthias, of all people, is not the end of the world for the Canadiens. Not even close. However that team had better look a whole lot more determined Wednesday night in Tampa Bay and come out with a win there, because the path leading toward that Olympic-sized break on the horizon is littered with pitfalls.

The Habs are in Ottawa on Saturday and host Vancouver on Tuesday. Both those teams have won seven of their past 10 games. After that they're in Boston, where the Bruins are reeling, then home to Pittsburgh and Boston on Super Bowl weekend. Them Penguins, in case you haven't heard, are a good team. That's followed by a visit from the Capitals, nine wins in 10 games for them, and the final two games are a home-and-home with the Flyers, winners of seven of 10.

By all rights, the Canadiens will be lucky to come out of that treacherous docket of eight games with three wins, but it's entirely possible they only win one, or none for that matter if they continue playing the way they did in Florida. Of course, if Montreal plays the way it did against the Rangers on Saturday, then maybe they have a chance for four wins. But does anyone believe this team can play that well for eight games in a row (not to mention the four-game road swing coming out of the break to Boston, San Jose, L.A and Anaheim)?

In fact, the only chance the Habs have of gathering points in the standings during that eight-game stretch could very well be by starting Halak in each of those games. Which is why I feel Carey Price should get the start Wednesday in Tampa Bay. I know everyone is going to say that Halak never gets a chance to comeback after a loss and redeem himself, but what exactly does he have to redeem himself for after tonight's performance?

No, I would start Price in Tampa and then ride Halak through to the break, no matter what happens. Maybe play Price on Super Bowl Sunday against Boston, simply because back-to-back matinees can screw with a goalie, but my point is Halak needs to be given the vast majority of these upcoming games.

Because judging by how quickly the standings change in the mediocre Eastern Conference, should the Canadiens go 2-4-2 over that eight-game stretch that begins in Ottawa, they could find themselves stewing for two weeks sitting in 13th place.

And the one guy that has the biggest chance of making sure that doesn't happen is Halak.

I guess the fundraising can wait

So, Georges Laraque appears to believe he'll be better suited to concentrate on his fundraising efforts for Haiti from Sweden.

He told Swedish newspaper Sportbladet that he would gladly play the rest of this season for second-tier club team AIK Stockholm as long as his travel and living expenses were paid for.

"I would play there for free," he told the newspaper, at least according to the online translation of the story. "I do not care about money right now."

Of course, Laraque probably said that assuming he would be getting the rest of his $1.5 million salary from the Habs while skating for Stockholm. But, thanks to The Gazette's Dave Stubbs via his twitter feed, we learn that in order for Laraque to play in another league while still under contract with the Canadiens he would have to a) get permission from the team and b) clear waivers.

Now, his no movement clause in his contract means the team is not allowed to place him on waivers, so Laraque would presumably have to lift that clause.

The bigger question here is that if the Canadiens loan Laraque to a European club, can they liberate his roster spot and clear the rest of his salary off the cap? The CBA clearly states that Laraque would indeed need to clear waivers, but I couldn't find any mention (in an admittedly quick browse of the voluminous document) of what happens to the player's salary in the event of a loan to a European club.

If I were to guess, I would think the Habs would get some cap relief, but only if AIK Stockholm pays Laraque's salary. I somehow doubt that would happen.

In any case, it seems to me Laraque was a bit disingenuous the other day when he said his banishment from Hab land would allow him to focus his efforts on his fundraising campaign with World Vision and the NHLPA (you can access the silent auction for that campaign here). Unless, of course, he feels he can do more in Sweden while also playing hockey.

UPDATE (3:30 p.m.) Stubbs reports at Habs Inside/Out that if Laraque clears waivers and plays in Sweden, Habs still on the hook for remainder of his salary but it would come off the cap and his roster spot would be cleared.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Halak is saving the Habs money

The CBC's Eliotte Friedman raised a question in his must-read Monday blog about the Canadiens needing to consider trading Carey Price. His basis for coming to this opinion is that, following some conversations with scouts, there would be far more interest in the league were Price to hit the trade market than there would be for Jaroslav Halak.

The question is worth asking, I suppose, simply because it's become clear that both Halak and Price want the number one job, and right now (stressing the words "right" and "now") Halak is lighting the world on fire.

I have two problems with this, the first of which was summed up quite nicely today over at Lions in Winter. Even if every team in the NHL would show some degree of interest in Price (which is obviously an exaggeration meant to prove a point. Somehow, I don't think Vancouver or Phoenix or Boston or Pittsburgh or several others would have any interest in a new goalie), it would be practically impossible for Bob Gainey to get a strong return for him, at least not as strong as Price's actual potential. I can't see a rival GM overpaying for potential. What I do see is a bunch of GMs smelling some blood in the water and swooping in trying to steal a future franchise goalie when his value is at its lowest point.

But my other annoyance with the notion of trading away Price is that Halak is actually doing Gainey a big favour by forcing his way into the Habs net. See, when the season began, I figured Price might play himself into a big, fat contract at season's end. One that would be on par with several other players coming out of entry level deals who broke the bank on the second contracts like Paul Stastny and Anze Kopitar, among others. Which is why I thought Gainey should sign Price to an extension prior to the season to avoid that scenario from playing itself out.

While Price has not played poorly, he has not been extraordinary either. His numbers (.913 save percentage, 2.73 goals against average) are good, not great, but those numbers have been overshadowed thus far by Price's penchant for giving up bad goals. He appears to have concentration issues, which I feel has to be the most correctable fault a player can have. A lot of young people in many walks of life have trouble concentrating at the age of 22, yet that doesn't excuse Price for failing to address what has been a recurring issue for him since he's been in Montreal.

But my point here is not to pick apart Price's game, firstly because I don't know nearly enough about goaltending to do it, but most importantly because it is irrelevant to what I'm trying to point out. And that is with every game Halak plays, he takes some contract negotiating leverage away from Price. The more Halak wins, the more he plays, the less it will cost to re-sign Price in the off-season. At least in theory.

Of course, there is the issue of what kind of contract Halak will seek in the offseason, but I honestly don't think that is of any concern to Gainey. Let's say Halak is kept past the trade deadline, even though I don't think that will happen, and let's also say that he gets the lion's share of the games the rest of the way. If Halak leads Montreal to a playoff berth and maybe even makes things interesting in the first round or - now don't laugh - somehow manages to get Montreal into the second round, then his value will shoot through the roof. Price, meanwhile, will have trouble making too many demands as to the kind of money he's seeking. Perhaps Price chooses to go for a shorter term, say two or three years, but it probably wouldn't be for huge dollars.

All the while, Halak is still a restricted free agent, one that could potentially attract an offer sheet from a rival club, but one that would more likely be traded either at the draft or in the offseason à la Phil Kessel, though obviously the return would not be anywhere close to what Brian Burke and the Leafs gave up. Still, Gainey could hold a pretty serious auction for Halak and land either a package of draft picks and prospects, or maybe even an NHL player or two.

Now, if Price is making a reasonable amount of money, say $3 million next season, then re-signing Tomas Plekanec suddenly becomes a far easier proposition. Already, we're starting to see Plekanec come back to earth a little bit, though he is still having a phenomenal season at nearly a point a game. But all that attention from opposing coaches and that excessive ice time in penalty killing situations appears to be catching up to him, just a little bit. Still, his versatility and relative consistency over his career (not counting last year) puts him among the top two centres available on the free agent market alongside Patrick Marleau, who isn't even playing centre right now.

If Plekanec is allowed to hit the market on July 1, he could really cash in, as I've already stated. But if Halak keeps this up and Price keeps being merely above average, then perhaps Gainey could find himself in a win-win situation next year with both Price and Plekanec in the lineup and with some nice new assets in the system thanks to Halak.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Got to be starting something

I wanted to hold off on anointing this a big turnaround for the Habs after they beat the New Jersey Devils in Newark on Friday night, and as tempting as it is to go there after Saturday night's 6-0 win at home over the New York Rangers, I'm not going to.

Don't get me wrong, that game was about as positive as you can get. Especially, as Jacques Martin pointed out, when you consider that the Canadiens finally gave their home fans a great show after stinking up the Bell Centre for the better part of this season. In fact, aside from the Centennial game, I don't know if there was a more entertaining game for the home fans all year.

But I still don't want to make this win mean more than it does. Yes, the Canadiens set a new season-high for goals scored. Yes, Jaroslav Halak tightened his grip on the goaltending job. Yes, Mike Cammalleri scored twice to match Alex Kovalev's team-leading total of 26 goals from last season. Yes, Benoit Pouliot continues to show that this trade could very well pull out the potential that made him a fourth overall draft pick. I could go on and on.

But this is two games we're talking about, and it takes more than that to convince me that this team has turned things around. But it's not just me. Cammalleri feels the same way.

"This is just two wins and we want a third, this is just a start," he said. "If you look at it logically, two or three teams in this pack will make a run and make the playoffs and two or three will fall off. We have to win the majority of our games."

There were too many positives to choose from in this game, so I'm going to focus on one, and that's Benoit Pouliot. In 15 games in a Habs uniform he has 10 goals after tipping in a Cammalleri pass from the slot tonight. In 65 games with the Wild, Pouliot had nine goals. His confidence is growing with every game, and what stands out the most for me is his ability to slide into space and slither around defenders. He's a tall man, but not a particularly big one. Yet he finds a way to make that lankiness work in his favour because he's a very difficult player to check.

I was assigned to cover the Rangers room tonight to see if John Tortorella would have a meltdown (sadly, he didn't), but I made it to Martin's press conference and had a chance to ask him about Pouliot and whether we can safely say he has gotten past the point of riding the adrenaline of a new team at this point.

"He's brining some intensity to his game, he's playing with passion," Martin said. "A perfect example tonight was on his goal, he's in the right spot. He's in traffic. He's in an area where you have to pay a price. If you stay on the outside you don't get those goals. Last night (in New Jersey) was a prime example of a goal scorer's ability. He's high in the slot, he sees Scott Gomez with the puck on his blade, he moves in, gets open and as soon as it's on his stick it's gone. I like his quick release, I like his ability to find seams on the ice."

But, as has been the case every time Martin has spoken about Pouliot, he didn't leave it at that.

"He has to make sure his intensity doesn't drop off, because skills aren't good enough," he added. "I think he's experienced that. It's not that his skill has changed. It's his work ethic and his implication that has changed."

Indeed, but I'm still wondering what's going to happen when Pouliot hits a slump, which is bound to come at some point or another. He's not going to continue scoring goals at this pace, because if he did he would finish the season with 31 goals, and I highly doubt that will happen. So when he hits a slump, will he get frustrated and dip that intensity? Or will he work twice as hard to get out of it? Tough to say right now because we haven't seen him play a bad game, and he's never had a run like this throughout his career.

Pouliot, however, admits this is starting to become a little dreamy as a scenario.

"It's hard to believe sometimes," he said. "But Scott Gomez has been helping me out a lot. He finds me everywhere on the ice."

Gomez, by the way, has three goals and 14 assists in the 15 games since Pouliot was thrown on his wing. That might not completely justify his massive salary, but it comes pretty close.

Finally, I will leave you with this. The Gazette's Dave Stubbs asked Martin whether performances like Halak is providing make it more difficult for him to choose a starter and maintain his system of alternating goalies.

"That sounds like a question I'm going to need two nights to...That's a loaded question," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "I don't think it changes anything. I have confidence in both our goaltenders. I've said it from the beginning, I feel we have two individuals who are number one and two individuals who are engaged in a good battle. I think it's good, considering their age, considering their maturity and their development. They're good for each other."

He went on to say that he'll make his decision on Tuesday's starter on Monday, but I would venture that despite what he said, it won't take Martin too long to make that decision.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Will we get Jekyll or Hyde?

It's very tempting to say that Thursday's drama in Habs land with the release of Georges Laraque and the mini-skirmish between Mike Cammalleri and Maxim Lapierre was at the root of Friday night's astonishing win in New Jersey.

If that was indeed what motivated the Canadiens to their inspired performance at The Rock, then chapeau to Bob Gainey and Jacques Martin.

But in reality, this is not the first time this season everyone assumed the Canadiens were about to go into a tailspin and they pulled out a phenomenal effort. There was the 2-1 shootout win in Boston on Nov. 5 following a demoralizing 5-4 loss to Atlanta at home. Or the 3-2 win in Washington on Nov. 20 after losing 2-0 and being outshot 55-20 in Nashville and squeaking out a 3-2 shootout win in Carolina. Or a 3-0 win in Long Island on Dec 19 that halted a five-game losing streak and kicked off a four-game winning streak.

No, we've all seen this act before, which means it's high time we learned from the past. The common thread in all the games I just listed is that they were all played away from the Bell Centre, where for some reason the Habs are able to simplify their game and play within themselves. Tonight in New Jersey, the Canadiens were often first on the puck on the forecheck and when they weren't, they at least battled for pucks. They were efficient in their own end, limiting the errors and counting on a very solid Jaroslav Halak behind them to erase those few errors when they occurred.

But until the Canadiens can prove they can play this way in their own building and for more than three or four game stretches at a time, I'm going to reserve judgment. Because part of me wants to say that win in New Jersey could be one that turns the season around, that gives a little boost toward a strong finish and a spot in the playoffs. But I won't.

What I will do is commend two guys I thought really stood out in that game.

The first is Josh Gorges, who was a rock in his own end and played perhaps his best game of the season. I don't remember him making a single glaring error, and he had to help erase a few Andrei Markov blunders in his own end. Blocking shots, playing physical while positionally sound, I still marvel at the fact that this guy was essentially a throw in for Craig Rivet. I have a feeling that four years down the road, even if Max Pacioretty turns into a decent player, he'll still be the best player in that trade.

The second is Brian Gionta, who showed how important he is when he gave some new life to Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri. The way they played together in this game, and the relatively slight dropoff seen in the Scott Gomez line without him, would lead me to believe that this line should get another shot Saturday night against the Rangers. Sergei Kostitsyn could be ready to return and could slide onto the line with Gomez and Benoit Pouliot, who, by the way, now has nine goals in 14 games in a Habs uniform. Stretch that out over 82 games, and you have yourself a 52-goal season. Of course, it doesn't work that way, but it's been a pretty impressive start to his Canadiens career. (Just for fun, Guillaume Latendresse has 13 goals in 26 games in Minnesota, which would amount to a 41-goal season over 82 games at the same pace).

But until we see what team shows up against the Rangers at the Bell Centre on Saturday, it's impossible to draw any definitive conclusions after this game. Except this: if Halak is not back in goal to get an opportunity to erase that 6-2 loss in New York on Sunday, someone will need to open a public inquiry into the matter.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Gainey's faith cost him

Eventful day in Brossard today, as most of you have no doubt heard by now, but I thought I should give you all the perspective of what we saw in the Canadiens room in the immediate aftermath of the news that Georges Laraque was no longer a member of the team, for all intents and purposes.

Here's what I wrote for The Canadian Press today, but there's certain things you just can't report, such as a feeling you get when talking to someone. And the feeling I got talking to the Habs today in Brossard was one of indifference. It wasn't relief, which suggests that perhaps Laraque wasn't quite as much of a distraction as Bob Gainey suggested. But it most definitely wasn't outrage, or sorrow, or shock or any of those things you might expect from players when one of their brothers in arms is told to go home and never come back.

When Gainey mentioned the word "distraction" without specifically getting into what those distractions were, it meant we had to go to the players. The initial response was always to try and avoid the question, but not one player flat out denied that Laraque had indeed become a distraction. Not one.

If what Gainey said about being a distraction weren't true, you would think at least one guy would come out and say it. But not a single one did.

Hal Gill suggested that Laraque tended to complain about his ice time, but I don't buy that as the sole reason for today's decision. For the team to send Laraque home and accept playing one man short for the rest of the season would take a distraction of monumental proportions, far greater than a player griping about playing time. Players bitch about their ice time constantly, so that can't be it.

My take is that Laraque was providing a bad example. He wasn't doing his job, plain and simple, and there had to be a consequence for that. Perhaps he wasn't deemed to be working hard enough in practice as well, and Gainey wanted to eliminate that influence from the team. Or maybe it was something far more serious than that. I don't know. What I do know is that there was something done or said that we will likely never know about which led to this day coming.

Really, this day should have come last summer when Gainey had the chance to buy out the final two years in Laraque's contract, a move that would have given the team an extra $1 million in cap space this season and next. I said it back in July, and today's events prove that would have been the best move.

“I’m responsible for the decision to bring Georges Laraque here," Gainey said. “I suppose today, for me, it’s a defeat because he didn’t turn out to be a player that could us the way I anticipated in the summer of 2008.”

If you read my article, I go into Laraque's strict adherence to the "code," something Gainey quickly dismissed as farce.

“I don’t have a copy of Georges’ code, I don’t know what it is,” Gainey said. “I think the code is that you’re here for your teammates. It’s not your code, it’s our code.”

But more importantly, in my eyes, is that his teammates also didn't understand what Laraque's interpretation of the "code" was.

Josh Gorges appeared reluctant to talk about it, but as a guy sporting a welt on his eye after having to fight Sean Avery in New York the other night, it didn't take too much coaxing to get him to discuss what Laraque could have done to be a more effective enforcer.

Gorges talked a lot about how difficult it was for Laraque to find a dance partner. He says that Laraque asked someone to fight every time he suited up, but most people simply declined the invitation.

“For a guy of his size and his stature, he can go running in there, but not too many guys are willing to drop the gloves with him," Gorges said. “Sometimes it’s a boost for the guys to see him go out there and stir something up when we’re in a bit of a lull or we’re not playing to what we’re capable of. But those things are very situational, and sometimes those things just don’t occur.”

When I asked him whether or not Laraque could have used other avenues to start a fight, such as what Cam Janssen did the other night by plowing through Carey Price, Gorges did not hesitate.

"That's one thing I can agree with," he said immediately. “Maybe there could have been a few more instances where you run around and try to stir something up yourself. I think at times from talking to him, he never wanted to put the team in jeopardy by taking an extra penalty. His intentions were good in that sense. But I think it’s OK to take a penalty like that from time to time to send a message, and the rest of us as a team have to bail him out and kill that penalty.”

Finally, someone said it.

I've always figured that Laraque overestimated his teammates and coaches intolerance of the odd instigator penalty here and there. Or a roughing penalty. Or an elbowing penalty. He continuously said he did not want to put his team in a hole by taking an instigator, and when you say that often enough, the rest of the league knows it.

The result? When you know the other team's enforcer will do nothing unless you agree to fight him, it essentially nullifies the intimidation factor of having Laraque in uniform. We saw a perfect example of that in New York, where the Rangers came out for the second period with every intention of roughing up the Canadiens knowing full well they likely would not face any retribution from Laraque.

When asked about it the next day, Laraque said there was nothing he could do about the Rangers intimidation tactics because he was never on the ice. But Jacques Martin did give him a shift after the fights, and Laraque did nothing. Honestly, was anyone surprised?

I wonder if Gainey believed the injury-riddled Laraque we saw last year was a blip on the radar, that the relatively effective one we saw in the playoffs was closer to the real thing? That's the only reason I can conceive of for Gainey not to have bought out Laraque when he could last summer.

Now we see just how costly that faith became.

But the one guy who comes out benefiting from this whole affair is Laraque himself. He gets to collect a paycheque to rest his battered body in the hopes of landing a free agent contract next summer once the Canadiens officially buy him out, unless they can somehow find a way to trade him.

Laraque said during his media scrum just outside the doors of the Habs practice facility that he will now be able to focus his efforts on fundraising for Haiti, his parents birthplace. Just two hours after he was finished speaking with reporters, the NHLPA sent out a press release announcing the establishment of the Hockey for Haiti project, which will benefit World Vision. The NHLPA Goals & Dreams fund will donate $100,000, an online auction of autographed memorabilia will be held on starting Monday, and players will be asked to donate to the fund as well.

Here is the final paragraph of that press release: "The earthquake, the most devastating to hit in 200 years, has affected roughly three million men, women and children. World Vision is on the ground with 800 staff providing emergency relief to thousands of the survivors. World Vision is urging Canadians to remember that almost 40% per cent of the Haitian population is under the age of 14. To learn more about the entire Hockey for Haiti initiative, log-on to on World Vision’s website."

I mention this because it is obviously a wonderful cause, but I also do so because of Laraque's statements to Darren Dreger early Thursday accusing the Canadiens of lacking class for doing this while he was dealing with the tragedy in his ancestral country. He backtracked from those comments, but the damage was done.

Just a week earlier, after having scored his first Canadiens goal against the Dallas Stars, Laraque was talking about how classy the Habs were for starting a fundraising drive that ultimately led to a donation of $157,000 to UNICEF - $57,000 from fans at the Bell Centre, and $100,000 from the Canadiens, a total that matched the donation from the NHL.

To bring up the tragedy in Haiti while discussing being cut from a professional hockey team, to me, was the real classless move here. I honestly felt silly hearing players discuss it today, because there is no way one discussion belongs with the other. On the one hand we have a millionaire hockey player who is supposed to make his living trying to knock people's heads off, on the other we have an unimaginable tragedy of epic proportions being thrust on a population that has had far more than its share of adversity. Good on Laraque for quickly realizing what he said was extremely inappropriate, but it was too late. He should have known better.

“I have nothing to complain about," Laraque said. "I feel privileged to play in the NHL, and I’ve been doing it for 13 years. I have no reason to be negative.”

I hope Laraque's fundraising efforts are successful and I think he is genuinely a good person who understands the social responsibility a public figure should have. But I also believe his initial, heat-of-the-moment comments gave us a little glimpse into his brain - and perhaps some more insight into why the Canadiens did what they did today: At the end of the day, perhaps the most important thing to Georges Laraque is ultimately Georges Laraque.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The White Knight?

No, I'm not talking about Mathieu Darche.

I'm referring to Petr Sykora, who was placed on waivers Tuesday by the Minnesota Wild and who looks like he would be a perfect pickup for the Canadiens. Not because he would rescue the season, but because he could simply rescue the month.


Well, adding Sykora would have several ripple effects for the Habs. First and foremost, he could slide into a spot that has become a black hole since the knee injury to Andrei Kostitsyn. A player like Sykora, who's only 33, would seem like a good fit alongside Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri. Not a perfect fit, because he's not 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, but a good enough fit under the circumstances.

He's hit the 20-goal plateau in each of the past 10 seasons, and while he's not the player he once was, I doubt Sykora's done scoring goals. Playing with Plekanec and Cammalleri certainly wouldn't hurt.

But the residual effects of adding a guy like Sykora could be just as beneficial. His arrival in the Habs room would, for the first time since Kostitsyn's injury, create some competition in the lineup. Montreal has been carrying the minimum number of forwards for the past few weeks, which doesn't exactly instill fear in the likes of Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Maxim Lapierre and others who are playing like they long for a seat in the press box. With all due respect to Darche, I don't think he instills that fear either.

Sykora would simply help bridge the gap until Kostitsyn's return, because even though everyone remains convinced Sergei Kostitsyn will naturally re-ignite that Plekanec line, I'm not so sure. Although the little Kostitsyn has not benefited from having quality linemates all season, he hasn't exactly set the world on fire. Also, no one can be sure how brother Andrei will play once he returns, considering how hot and cold he tends to be. Having Sykora around would guard against any post-injury slump from the elder Kostitsyn.

The beauty of this possibility is that it would not be a panic move, it would not cost the team any assets and could even serve to bring in assets eventually. If Sykora were to catch fire with the Habs, it's conceivable he could get flipped at the deadline for a pick to a contender (hello, Pittsburgh) looking for some scoring depth.

Furthermore, the chances of the Habs getting him greatly improved Tuesday night.

Sykora will be on waivers until noon Wednesday, and if I understand the rules correctly, it is the team's record at the time of the waiver claim that is used to determine which team gets the player. After Tuesday night's action that saw nearly all of the Habs playoff competitors win, Montreal was 24th in the league standings. But in terms of points percentage, which is what is used to determine waiver priority, the Habs are actually 25th. That leaves five teams - Carolina, Edmonton, Toronto, Columbus and Tampa Bay - ahead of the Canadiens on the waiver priority list. Of those teams, I could only see Columbus and Tampa Bay showing any interest.

But why, I hear you asking yourselves, would a team so far down the standings even bother picking up a veteran player when it would be preferable giving your youngsters ice time? Because, as dire as the situation is for the Habs right now, and as mediocre as they are as a team overall, they remain only six points out of fifth place in the conference. A three or four-game win streak and you're right back in the thick of it.

Of course, based on how little the Habs showed over the weekend, there's little reason to believe this team could string together two wins, let alone four. But adding a potential sparkplug like Sykora could - in the short term - serve the Canadiens purposes just fine. The team needs a top-six forward desperately, and here they have one served up on a silver platter.

I'll leave you with this, in case you missed it Tuesday night, as P.K. Subban and Cedrick Desjardins were the stars of the shootout in the AHL all-star game:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A wake-up call

If there was a time this weekend for the Canadiens to show just what they were made of, just how well this completely re-built team had come together, and just how serious it is about competing for a playoff spot in season #101.

Well, after putting up a doughnut in two games against their closest playoff rivals, and getting outscored 10-4 in the process, it might be time to come to a painful realization: maybe, just maybe, the Habs aren't really all that good.

There, I said it.

Of course, that's a natural reaction following two heartless losses against two very beatable teams, and just like I try not to map out the Habs parade route after a few wins in a row, it would probably be a good idea to take a step back before making any sweeping determinations about them now.

But, and there is a major but here, the Habs have run out of excuses.

While Andrei Markov was out of the lineup, it was easy to keep expectations low because there were so many reasons to do just that.

When he returned, the Habs were 15-18-3, and after Sunday's 6-2 embarrassment in New York they are now 23-23-4. While an 8-5-1 record with Markov in the lineup looks pretty good on paper, it's a very deceiving mark. The first four of those wins came against the Islanders, Thrashers, Hurricanes and Leafs. Two of those teams could make the playoffs, the other two are among the worst in the league. The shot totals in those games left the Habs on the short end of a 186-96, and while Markov was tremendous it was Jaroslav Halak who was almost solely responsible for those victories.

In the last 10 games Montreal is 4-5-1, even though Markov is back, even Brian Gionta is back, even though Scott Gomez began producing like he's expected to, even though Benoit Pouliot finally arrived and gave the team an offensive jolt. The four wins came against teams who are currently not in playoff position, the six losses against teams who are. In that span the Habs showed some signs of life, such as the solid effort against New Jersey, but nothing that appeared sustainable.

So while the city has been embroiled in the debate between Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price, the fact is the Canadiens appear to be little more than a playoff bubble team, even when rolling nearly at full strength.

Obviously, no one was expecting the Habs to make a run for the Cup this year, but once you get in the playoffs you're supposed to believe anything is possible. Does anyone believe that about this team? Does anyone feel they could take out a New Jersey or a Washington or even a Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs?

Why am I asking this? Because at some point, and that point will come relatively soon, Bob Gainey will be faced with a decision on whether or not to try and acquire some help for the team or whether he should sell off some parts at the trade deadline. Tonight was Montreal's 50th game, and it came two weeks earlier than the 50-game mark last season. So while the trade deadline is still six weeks away, some serious evaluation of this team's chances to succeed needs to be made now.

When Gainey didn't budge at last year's deadline, it was a clear indication that he didn't believe in the team's chances of winning. Yes, he had acquired Mathieu Schneider earlier, but I think what Gainey did last summer spoke volumes about his level of belief in old personnel. So how does he feel about the group he has now? Will he be more willing to acquire some help for Jacques Martin since practically the entire team is now made up of players he chose to bring in?

Right now, after watching the last two games, I can't believe Gainey is very impressed. It's one thing to lose to a team that is clearly better than you, and those losses can even be encouraging if your team shows some heart and competes.

It's another thing entirely when you are facing two teams you are in direct competition with for a playoff spot in back-to-back games, and you completely lay down for both.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Power outage

Many of us on press row were laughing Saturday after Jacques Martin provided this assessment of Carey Price's play in a 4-2 loss to the Senators at the Bell Centre: "Our goalie was excellent. You look at the winning goal and it was tipped by one of our own players. He had no chance. The difference in this game was the special teams, not the goaltending."

The word "excellent" was still ringing in everyone's ears as we walked out of the press conference, and I was wondering which goalie Martin was referring to. Price was weak on the first two goals, plain and simple, and it was clear Martin didn't want to call him out. Price didn't speak to reporters after the game, which is generally a a requirement for that night's starter in goal.

This was the second straight game Price gave up two goals to put his team in a hole. Thursday night the Habs power play bailed him out. Saturday night, it didn't.

That's why, even though Martin was clearly sugar-coating his goalie's performance, I agree with his assessment that the bigger story was the futility of the power play, missing out on six chances and giving up a shorthanded goal. And what's an even bigger story is that Andrei Markov - as frank and honest a player as there is in the Habs room - felt the Canadiens just didn't bring their lunch pails for a game that had pretty heavy consequences on the conference standings.

If the Canadiens would have won this game, they'd be sixth in the conference right now. Instead, they're ninth.

“We were not working enough," Markov said. "We need to move the puck quick, we need traffic in front of the net and we need the shots. Tonight, I don’t know what happened, but we need more.”

When asked by veteran reporter Marc De Foy how Markov could explain a lack of effort like that in a game that was so important, Markov stopped and thought about it, a rarity from an athlete. He thought about it for a good five seconds before saying: “Actually I can’t explain that. Everybody knew that was a huge game for us, and we just lost the game. They were better, they outworked us, and there’s no excuse for us.”

The lack of power play success Saturday is a byproduct of a far more dire issue for the Habs, and that is the lack of depth of talent up front. With one key player injured in Andrei Kostitsyn, the Tomas Plekanec line is in disarray because Matt D'Agostini has been dragging his new linemates down to his level, or at least it seems that way.

Perhaps Sergei Kostitsyn will work once he returns from his ankle injury, which appears to be far more serious than the team is letting on, but he's done nothing this season to suggest he will be able to give that line a little more punch.

While Carey Price was spotting the Senatirs two freebie goals tonight, the guy sitting on the bench was again a topic of discussion.'s Pierre LeBrun mentioned on the Satellite Hot Stove that Bob Gainey has been discussing Halak with the Dallas Stars for the past two weeks, and RDS's Renaud Lavoie followed that up by confirming the information and adding that Marty Turco might be the guy coming back in the deal.

I don't particularly see the point of doing that, since Turco is a UFA at the end of the season and makes about $5 million more per season than Halak does, but I think what has become clear since Gainey began shopping Halak is that he will not find a top-six forward coming back. I'm not even sure he could get a top-nine forward out of any trade.

The only possibility I could envision with Dallas would be Fabian Brunnstrom, whom the Canadiens were interested in signing when he was at the centre of a Jonas Gustavsson-like free agent frenzy two years ago. The Stars recently called Brunnstrom back from a two-week "conditioning" stint in the AHL, where he had five points in six games, but he wasn't in the lineup Thursday night against Montreal. You would have to imagine if he was someone being discussed in Halak talks, he probably would have played in that game.

In 79 games with Dallas over the last two years, Brunnstrom has 18 goals and 18 assists. Not bad totals, but perhaps not what the Stars were expecting when they signed him to a two-year, $4.45 million contract. And Brunnstrom, like Halak, is a restricted free agent at the end of the year. If the Stars have already decided they won't sign him, then trading him for a goalie they would be interested in keeping long-term would make perfect sense.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Amazing what support can do

I was pretty stunned to learn earlier today that Carey Price was going to get the start in goal against the Dallas Stars at the Bell Centre. I just didn't see the logic of sitting Jaroslav Halak after allowing only one goal against the New Jersey Devils and stealing a point in the standings.

When Price allowed a no-look to get by him on a 2-on-1 early and then looked to be pretty deep in his crease when Steve Ott tipped one past him on the Stars' 12th shot of the game, I couldn't help but think Jacques Martin's decision to start Price might cost his team two points against a reeling team.

But Price woke up at that point, stopping all but one of the final 24 shots he faced while his teammates scored five goals on Marty Turco at the other end, one more than they had scored against the four previous goaltenders they had faced.

On a night when everyone's attention was geared towards Georges Laraque scoring his first goal in a Habs uniform and playing 7:42, his highest ice time since the Centennial game over a month ago, the most important thing to happen in this game was that the Habs won without relying 100 per cent on their goalie stealing one.

Price was pretty sharp after those first two goals and gave his team a chance to light it up at the other end, but under normal circumstances, those first two bad goals would have been enough to ensure a Habs loss. But that didn't happen.

Instead, the Canadiens rolled up their sleeves and had their offence do the heavy lifting for a change, again led by the trio of Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Benoit Pouliot with three goals between them, including two by Gionta on Montreal's only two power plays of the game.

However, I thought Tomas Plekanec had his best game of the New Year, despite being kept off the scoreboard, and it's probably no coincidence it came coming off a four-day break and also a game where he played a shade under 18 minutes. That's a far more manageable workload for him, and I think we saw a refreshed player out there compared to the sleepwalking zombie of the past two weeks.

If only Martin were able to find someone to play opposite Mike Cammalleri on that line in the Kostitsyn brothers' absence, it would make the Habs top two lines pretty formidable. As it stands, Travis Moen started the game in that spot and Maxim Lapierre finished it, but neither of those players are ideal.

Speaking of Cammalleri, it was clearly wearing on him not scoring for four games, and he did something about it. His goal reminded me of Michael Jordan's bread and butter move during his championship years, when he would post up a defender, fake a spin one way and then spin back aroound to his strong side for the shot. I don't think I've ever really seen that move in hockey, and though it took an eternity for Cammalleri to pull off, it worked. And it was pretty.

This was a good game to build off for the Habs, and an ideal way to kick off this 16-game drive toward the Olympic break. But the most important aspect of it was not that an enforcer who is watching his ancestral land lie in ruin scoring his first goal as a member of the team, it was that the team finally picked up the goalie and bailed him out for not being perfect.

If they can do that a couple more times this weekend, I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple more wins.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Goalie controversies are fun, aren't they?

This was quite predictable, no?

The Canadiens go on media blackout mode for two days with no practice, and the city's sports talk lines are buzzing with talk of Jaro v. Carey.

There are several other possible topics of conversation for people to get passionate about, such as the Habs utter lack of scoring in the New Year, for instance. With four goals against NHL goaltending over the past four games (not counting the empty-netter against Florida), the Canadiens are proving once again that they just can't get their entire game together at once.

When the puck's going in the net, the defence is allowing 40-plus shots a night. When the defence finally figures it out and tightens up, the scoring goes dry. It could simply be that the team is not good enough to do both at once, or it could be a question of circumstances, but either way it's a worrying stretch of four games that would definitely merit some discussion.

But perhaps that lack of scoring or porous defence - whatever happens to be the Habs mood or number of healthy bodies in that given week - are two things that point the spotlight on the Habs net, seeing as Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price become the lone determining factor between a win and a loss under those trying conditions.

I went to play my weekly game of lazy, old man basketball tonight, and on my way I was tuned into Ron Fournier's popular evening call-in show on CKAC. I listened to Marc Denis talk about what he would do with the goaltending situation in Montreal. He felt that the Habs should keep both guys because that's what will give them the best chances of making the playoffs, but at some point they will need to pick a No. 1 guy for the playoffs and ride him. That's kind of my reason for feeling Halak should be traded, seeing as a No. 1 guy has to be designated at some point, but that's just me.

Two hours later, I returned to my car after huffing and wheezing my way through a game that could barely be described as basketball, and when the radio came on they were still talking about the same thing. Two hours of radio is an eternity, and I'm sure Ron had no shortage of callers over that time who wanted to weigh in on the situation.

This is simply what people do in this city, and if you take it like good, clean fun, then that's all it is. But if you take debates like this one and label it a controversy, then I feel it's going too far. There is no controversy here. Both goalies know the situation: you play well, you stay in. Perhaps Price takes this as an affront to his status as franchise saviour, or Halak sees it as an impediment towards his ultimate goal of being a starter in the NHL, but that matters little in the grand scheme of things. At least not for the time being.

I think Bob Gainey has been pretty clear on this that no goalie will be traded prior to the Olympics because the schedule is pretty jam packed until then. But when he does decide to trade a goalie, or if, then it's also pretty clear it will be Halak. You can love that position or you can hate it, but that's the reality of the situation. Bob Gainey will not trade Carey Price, and I'm with him on this one.

Why? Well, I continue to stand by my belief that Price is only 22, and there are few goalies in NHL history who have done what he's done at his age. I'm not going to pull out the numbers on Roy and Brodeur and Luongo and whoever else at age 22.

But I will say that I'm pretty sure the Pittsburgh Penguins are happy they didn't give up on Marc-Andre Fleury when he was 22 and he was stopping fewer than nine out of 10 pucks sent on goal and allowing 3.25 goals per game. Two years later he was in the Stanley Cup final, and a year after that he won it. Before you go there, I'm not saying Price will do the same thing. Obviously he doesn't have Crosby, Malkin, Staal et al supporting his bid to be a champion. My point is that goalies take time, and Fleury at the same age was considered a bust who was unlikely to fulfill his tremendous potential. Now he's on the Canadian Olympic team and a Cup champion.

For further information on this debate, I will defer to Chris Boyle. If you haven't read his stuff over at Robert Lefebvre's Habs Eyes on the Prize blog, you should immediately. Not only is the statistical analysis mind-bogglingly exhaustive, but his preface to this month's entry sums up my thoughts on this debate perfectly. Too many people have made up their mind both on Price and Halak, while the fact is there are huge question marks still surrounding both of them. Does Price have the work ethic and discipline to make it as an elite netminder? Could Halak ever carry a team and play 50 or 60 games in a season? We don't know the answers to either of those questions, so we probably shouldn't be acting like we do.

Still, Halak's expressed desire for increased playing time makes this a topic that needs to be discussed, and people are doing just that. Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun, in his weekly round-up of rumours, states that Halak would still interest the Philadelphia Flyers, while Thursday's Bell Centre visitors the Dallas Stars could also be intrigued based on Marty Turco's impending UFA status.

I would have to guess the Stars will get a very good look at Halak on Thursday, because I can't see how Jacques Martin can go with Price at this point. But that decision, and the ones that come in the games following it, have little bearing on the goaltending "controversy" in Montreal. It just shows that, for now, the one and only position where the Canadiens are among the most talented teams in the league is in goal.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Scoreboard watching

Scott Gomez, when discussing the four-day break between games the Habs just began, figured one of the more positive aspects of it will be that it will allow their Eastern Conference rivals to catch up in the games played department.

That way, Gomez figured, the Canadiens would have a better idea of where they stand.

"It'll be nice to see after everyone catches up instead of always looking at the board and seeing they have all these games in hand," he said after Saturday night's overtime loss to the Devils.

Well, Scott, I don't know if you'll be entirely satisfied come Thursday, because most of the teams in the hunt for the final four playoff spots will have only played one game by the time the Canadiens face the Stars.

Two of the eight other teams in contention played Sunday, with Ottawa losing 4-1 to Carolina and Tampa Bay finishing a 4-2 win over New Jersey that began Friday night. By Thursday night's games, only the Senators and the New York Islanders will match the Canadiens 47 games played this season.

Here, then, is a little scoreboard-watching guide for the next couple of days:

Boston: playing 45th game Wednesday at Anaheim.
NY Rangers: playing 46th game Tuesday against New Jersey
Ottawa: playing 47th game Tuesday at Atlanta
Philadelphia: playing 45th game Tuesday against Dallas
NY Islanders: playing 47th game Tuesday against Detroit
Atlanta: playing 45th game Tuesday against Ottawa
Tampa Bay: playing 45th game Tuesday against Washington
Florida: playing 46th game Wednesday against Washington

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A changing of the guard

The Canadiens probably deserved better than the single point they got in their 2-1 overtime loss to the Devils on Saturday night, but when Martin Brodeur is on his game, that point has to be considered a bonus.

I have to admit, I thought Jacques Martin would call on Carey Price to start this game based on his history against the Devils (2-3-1, 2.17 GAA and .932 SP in his career), but Jaroslav Halak really proved something in going toe-to-toe with a living legend in the other net.

However, that is not the changing of the guard I'm referring to in my headline, because Price will get his chance again and the pendulum will likely swing back in his direction at some point this season.

No, the change is the status of the Habs top line now falls on the shoulders of Scott Gomez, who was expected to fill that slot this season to begin with.

His line with Brian Gionta and Benoit Pouliot has been the Habs most dangerous for four games now, and Gomez has four goals and 15 assists in his last 20 games after scoring Montreal's only goal tonight.

“It still can improve," Gomez said of his line's play. "We’re getting chances, but we’re still a couple of miscues off. That’s going to come, but as a line you judge yourself on whether you’re getting chances are not and with Benny and Brian, they’re goal scorers and they’ll start putting them in. I’m not worried about that.”

No, there isn't any reason to worry about that, but the play of Tomas Plekanec of late has to be at least a cause for a little concern. His pointless streak has now hit a season-high four games, and he looks exhausted out there. I can't really blame him, with the double duty he's been pulling as a top-line centre and top penalty killer so far this season.

People will say that it's the injury to Andrei Kostitsyn that's caused this little mini-slump for Plekanec, but I don't buy it. Plekanec had a different set of wingers every game at the start of the season, and he still managed to put points on the board. No, this is a case of a guy who is tired, plain and simple.

So if there is one person this four-day break in the schedule should benefit, I would think it would be him. But what will be the effect on the rest of the team, which is playing some of its best hockey right now?

“We can play with anyone when we’re all healthy," Gomez said. "It’s too bad we’ve got the week off with the way we’re playing, but at the same time guys will get refreshed.”

The Habs don't practice for two straight days and then get two days of practice before hosting the Dallas Stars on Thursday. That's four days for this city to stew over who will get the start in goal, four days to hypothesize and analyze this team to bits.

But as far as I can see, hitting that break coming off an effort like the one they put in against the Devils should benefit the Habs. Because if they had any doubts as to their ability to compete with the league's elite teams, those should be erased now.

The Centennial Curse?

With the news yesterday that Andrei Kostitsyn would be lost for approximately six weeks after undergoing knee surgery, it's time to ask the question whether or not there is indeed some sort of curse that has hit the franchise ever since it decided to make it's 100th birthday an incredibly long, drawn out, self indulgent love-in.

Let's count the number of debilitating injuries the team has suffered since the beginning of last season, the Canadiens' 100th. There was Mike Komisarek's shoulder injury after being beat down by Milan Lucic in Boston, costing him 16 games and a chunk of his self-esteem. Then Carey Price got a groin injury that people began speculating was in fact a trip to re-hab (followed by his utter meltdown after the All-Star break).

After that, Chris Higgins was lost for 19 games, Saku Koivu for 17, Mathieu Dandenault for 24, Alex Tanguay for 28 and the playoffs, Guillaume Latendresse for 18, Robert Lang for the final 32 of the season and the playoffs, Francis Bouillon the final 22 and the playoffs, Andrei Markov the final four and the playoffs.

Jump ahead to this season, and we have Markov going down in Game 1 and ultimately missing 35, Ryan O'Byrne missing 19, Brian Gionta missing 21, Hal Gill out for 14 and various other minor ailments along the way to Scott Gomez, Glen Metropolit, Sergei Kostitsyn, Georges Laraque, Jaroslav Spacek and Paul Mara.

And now this.

The Olympic break should provide the elder Kostitsyn enough time to get back for the final stretch run, but the Habs will only have 19 games left on the schedule by that point. We all saw what it was like when the Canadiens had two dangerous scoring lines for other teams to contend with, but that glimpse was all too brief, and we may have to wait until March to see it again.

I feel it bears mentioning that the Habs have played all of two games, Dec. 30 and 31, with the lineup we expected to see in training camp. It's no coincidence the Habs won both those games, and they even won one where their goalie was not the team's best player.

So, who fills Kostitsyn's spot in his absence?

Jacques Martin can say all he wants about how Matt D'Agostini has the talent to fill in on the line with Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri, but I don't buy it. Other than his first 10 games with the team, D'Agostini hasn't shown a whole lot of that talent. And as far as hockey sense goes, I wouldn't call the guy a Rhodes Scholar.

I would give Sergei Kostitsyn a shot there for a few games, and not a few shifts, because I feel he does in fact have the talent to play there. It just remains to be seen if he has the work ethic, but I believe if you place him in prominent role on the team he'll respond to the challenge.

A suggestion I received via Twitter after Thursday's game and also mentioned by Marc-Antoine Godin in La Presse of using Marc-Andre Bergeron in that spot is intriguing, and definitely worth a shot. With Sergei due to miss at least the next couple of games, that's what I would try tonight against the Devils.

And if that doesn't work, I'd go with Travis Moen. He knows his role, his size would create space for his two smaller linemates, and he knows how to take up real estate in front of a net.

Finally, voting closes in Habs blog off final on Sunday. I'm sitting four votes behind Dennis Kane right now, so I could use a hand. Of course, losing this thing would not cause me to lose much sleep, but it would be fun to win. So, if you like, you can vote here.

I'm covering the game tonight for CP, so check back for an update, or you can follow my Twitter feed for in-game thoughts.

Friday, January 8, 2010

An apology could be in order

Or maybe a couple of them, in fact, based on last night's performance in a hard-fought 2-0 win over the Florida Panthers.

Aside from the fact Benoit Pouliot is making the Habs pro scouting department look quite astute these days, something I underlined in my game story last night, there were two other guys who maybe turned a page in what has been considered a difficult season up to this point: Scott Gomez and Maxim Lapierre.

Gomez basically single-handedly created Pouliot's difference-maker in the dying seconds of the first, skating the puck out from deep in his territory to the Panthers end before feeding Pouliot in stride for his seeing-eye wrister to the top corner. Gomez also drew an assist on Brian Gionta's empty-net insurance marker in much the same way, taking an outlet pass from Roman Hamrlik and finding Gionta alone in space.

For those who have lost count, or who simply stopped counting out of sheer rage, Gomez now has three goals and 15 assists in his last 18 games. Since Gionta's return, it's been six assists in six games. And since his return from injury Dec. 1, Gomez only has three fewer points than Tomas Plekanec, who has four goals and 17 assists over that span.

I'm not going to say I saw this coming, but Gomez's autumn lull has been a predictable trend over his career, as I pointed out back in November while he was in the midst of it. Now that we have this autumn's results to add to the database, Gomez went six straight games without a point between Nov. 10 and Dec. 1, sitting four games out with an injury in the middle of that stretch. It was the second-longest regular season point drought of his career, but the end of that slump was the start of his current hot streak.

One thing I really noticed about Gomez last night is how much attention he attracts from opposing defencemen. It is very rare that Gomez has the luxury of time and space on the side boards, where he does his best work. Some may say that shows a lack of elusiveness in his game, but I would counter that when defencemen are focused on him they are not necessarily paying attention to his linemates, like Benoit Pouliot, for instance.

As for Lapierre, he looked a lot more like the player that last season served as a spark plug for a team that too often didn't even have a pulse. In the second half of the season, Lapierre was usually the lone bright spot on the Canadiens, a player whose energy and will to compete should have picked up the whole team and inspired it to greatness.

I don't know why Lapierre can't seem to do that prior to Jan 1, but earlier this season he was a shell of his former self, aimlessly forechecking with no purpose, reacting to contact instead of initiating it. But last night, Lapierre skated. He hit. He created chances. He drew a big penalty by driving the net.

Habs coach Jacques Martin rewarded, uhhh, recognized? No, that's not the right word. Ignored that effort by giving Lapierre 11:33 of ice time. Granted, Martin said he wanted to acknowledge the strong play of certain players by shuffling his bottom two lines in the second period, putting Travis Moen alongside Lapierre and Marc-Andre Bergeron and placing the shackles of Georges Laraque on Glen Metropolit and Max Pacioretty.

If Lapierre continues to show the same things Saturday night against the powerhouse New Jersey Devils and onward, I'm sure that ice time will increase with time as he slowly earns the trust of Martin, which is something he's never had.

"I think it was Maxim Lapierre’s best game since I’ve been here," Martin said after the game, without anyone asking him specifically about Lapierre's performance. "I liked his intensity and his speed created things, he spent a lot of time in the offensive end."

Mike Cammalleri was also an interested observer of Lapierre's game, noticing a certain je ne sais quoi in his effort.

“Did you see that one breakout? I mean, he broke it out by himself, he almost went end to end. I haven’t done that since pee-wee," Cammalleri said, almost in awe. "Whatever he did today, he’s got to do that again."

If Lapierre can indeed do it again, and again, it would be a huge boost for this team. Eventually, if Martin believes he can get the job done, it might even allow him to take away some penalty killing minutes from Tomas Plekanec, who has looked somewhat sluggish in going pointless the last three games.

Of course, Plekanec and the rest of the penalty-killers didn't have much work to do last night because the Habs only allowed a single power play, only the fourth time this season they've done that. Interestingly, it was their first win in those four games after a 4-3 loss in Calgary on Oct. 6, a 3-1 loss to the Wild on Dec. 17 and a 1-0 loss to Buffalo on Sunday.

Still, the residual effect of staying out of the box is that Martin can roll his lines at his leisure, and guys like Cammalleri don't get pinned to the bench for two minutes at a time.

“That’s probably one of the reasons we were able to sustain our momentum tonight," Cammalleri said of the team's disciplined play. "Even with a one-goal lead, we didn’t play a hang-on style. We still played with some assertiveness and with some push to our game. One of the main reasons is that you can keep that flow going with a lot more consistency when you’re not killing penalties."

Indeed, and it's something the Habs have been doing much better of late. Last night's game marked the fifth straight where the Canadiens allowed fewer than five power play chances. They only did that three times in the previous 13 games, and Martin seems to know why there's been such a drastic reversal in this area.

"I think lately we’ve been a lot better, our number of penalties have reduced, which is a good sign," he said. "Part of that is probably having more of a full roster, we’ve been spending more time in the opposition’s end. Guys are starting to use our speed better and getting better position. It’s about time we start taking less penalties when you look at our hockey club."

Indeed, this five-game run of reduced penalty time coincides with the return of Gionta and the emergence of Pouliot, giving the team two solid lines capable of spending extended stretches in the offensive end. And everyone knows you are far less likely to take a penalty there than you are if you're constantly within 20 feet of your own net.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Oh Captain, my Captain?

So, it turns out that Andrei Markov wouldn't be all that averse to serving as the Montreal Canadiens captain after all.

When asked at the team's Brossard training facility today whether or not he would be interested in wearing the "C" in Montreal, Markov surprised everyone when he said, "Nobody’s asked me that. If they ask me that, I’m going to think about it."

Uhh, wait a second. Nobody's asked you? How is that possible? As the team's best player, it's longest-serving player, it's heart and soul and backbone all rolled into one, no one thought to ask Andrei Markov if he would be interested in the Habs captaincy? How can this be?

So, seeing as no asked him, he was asked by us stupid reporters if he would be the least bit interested in taking on the heavy burden of serving as the team's 28th captain, seeing as he would be the most obvious candidate for the job.

"Yeah, I think so," he said. "Obviously it’s a big responsibility. It’s not easy to be a captain in this city."

So am I the only one wondering why exactly Markov wasn't named captain sometime in July, shortly after Saku Koivu officially signed with the Anaheim Ducks? Is there any reason why he wouldn't be considered an appropriate choice? And don't start talking to me about Markov's quiet nature. Joe Sakic was not one known for his gift of gab, either with teammates or reporters, and no one would suggest he was a poor captain because he took care of his leadership responsibilities where it counts - on the ice.

Hell, the GM of the team was a strong silent type, but Bob Gainey's hold on the Canadiens during his time as captain was unquestioned.

And when it comes to dealing with reporters, I can tell you that Markov has embraced that part of the job over the past couple of years. On Wednesday, for instance, the Habs didn't practice and instead held some off ice workouts. The Canadiens PR staff made four players available to the approximately 20 media members on hand: Georges Laraque, Mike Cammalleri, Benoit Pouliot and Markov. Not only did Markov tolerate us, he hung around and welcomed wave after wave of reporters for about 20 minutes.

He's a different breed of athlete when it comes to dealing with the media because he doesn't simply throw out stock answers learned in media school during training camp. He actually thinks about the question posed to him and answers it.

But really, I feel the media responsibilities of the captain are overblown by the media, because we have a tendency to believe we're far more important than we actually are. Just look at what I wrote about Markov's graciousness today. He spent 20 minutes talking to reporters, and that was an eternity. Most of the time, interviews take about five minutes, and you're done. No big deal. Admittedly, I could see how doing that every day might get annoying, but to the point where you would turn down the captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens? I don't think so.

The most important people when it comes to picking a captain are not the members of the media, but rather the members of the team. And in that regard, if Cammalleri is to be believed, Markov's choice as captain would be a slam dunk in the Habs room.

“His leadership capabilities are evident whether or not he has a letter on his chest," said Cammalleri, who might not make such a bad choice himself. "He definitely leads by example and his play is inspiring for anybody on this team.”

Early in the season, it was reported that Markov had turned down the captaincy, something he denied at the time and continues to deny today. I just wanted to make sure I heard him correctly and that he wasn't joking when he said he would be interested in the job, and when given a chance to speak without a thousand microphones in his face, Markov said something that convinced me he is captain material.

"Right now it's not that important to pick a captain," he said. "Right now, what's important is our game. We need to play better and move up the standings."

If that's not captain material, what is?

Though Markov's revelation stole the show on a very quiet day in Brossard today, I was actually there hoping I would get to speak to Tomas Plekanec regarding Gainey's comments on his impending free agency and the ability of the team to sign him. Plekanec, through the Habs PR department, declined the offer to discuss his contract. Still, I managed to write something about his free agent status anyway, which is a skill you learn after a few years on this job. You can read what I wrote here, but what I couldn't write on a mainstream forum was my interpretation of what Gainey told reporters amid the security of downtown Washington D.C. Tuesday night.

When discussing the ability to fit Plekanec under the cap, Gainey had this to say: "We see the cap in terms of hard numbers, but things shift, whether it’s the cap going up or the cap going down, whether it’s a player leaving through a different fashion that opens up space or acquiring a player that closes up space. It’s a shifting target."

Did you see that, or am I the only one? That bit about "leaving through a different fashion" sounded, to my ears at least, like "leaving via buyout." Because let's be honest, Gainey will have to be very creative to find a way to get both Plekanec and Carey Price under contract while filling out the rest of the roster as well.

I don't think it's a stretch at this point to assume that Georges Laraque will fall prey to the buyout hatchet, but who else? If you're guessing Hall Gill, I would say you're guessing wrong because his value as a penalty-kill specialist is pretty valuable. It would have to be someone that could be considered expendable and who makes a significant amount of money, and the one person who fits that bill would be Roman Hamrlik.

With one year left on his contract once this season comes to a close, Hamrlik could actually be traded. But I doubt too many teams out there are seeking a 36-year-old defenceman, no matter how capable, making $5.5 million. If he were to be bought out, it would knock roughly $3.7 million off of Montreal's cap figure for next year, which wouldn't cover all of Plekanec's contract but probably enough to make sure both he and Price would fit.

Question is, what will the Habs blue line look like without Hamrlik there? Probably a lot better than the front line would without Plekanec.