Archive for January, 2013

January 31, 2013

This Is How You Get People To Click On Your Website: The Canadian Press and PK Subban

by Jacob Saltiel
subbanmedia

Oh hey…
from montreal.ctvnnews.ca

Yesterday an article with the title “Subban Must Accept New Rules Before Rejoining Canadiens” went up on TSN.ca.

Wow, eh? Sure sounds like the Canadiens haven’t taken an ‘all is forgiven’ approach to re-signing one of their best young players. With articles like that appearing alongside articles with titles like “No Celebrating In Habs’ Dressing Room Over Subban Signing“, you’d think that Subban ran over Bergevin’s dog or something.

The articles are attributed to The Canadian Press, but John Lu on TSN probably did the reporting, at least based on the “Moving Forward” video posted on TSN (accessible to the right of the article in the TSN video panel) where he interviewed the players.

Mixed Reactions to Mixed Reaction

Now, it’s true that the Canadian Press’ job is to create compelling stories, but it sure looks like they’re trying to manufacture a controversy where there may not be one at all. The narrative: “OH MY GOD PERNELL’S TEAMMATES HATE HIM” is much more likely to get the average hockey reader to click on their link than is “Montreal Canadiens go about their business while Subban rejoins team following lengthy contract negotiation”.

In both of the articles linked to above, the headlines don’t even correspond to the content that follows. The phrase ‘mixed reaction’ means that some people approve and some people don’t. In fact, in examining the article, it’s not so much a case of ‘mixed reactions’ as it is a case of players not wanting to discuss someone who isn’t there. As Markov said: “He’s not in the room yet, so let’s talk about it when he’s going to be in the room.” Ryan White, meanwhile, said “It’s a relief” and Lars Eller is quoted at the very bottom of the article as saying “A player of P.K.’s calibre is always welcome in the lineup.” Gorges’ comments about never having played with a player who held out before and taking a wait and see approach are non-committal, rather than explicitly disapproving. So, since no one actually said that they were unhappy to see Subban back, the phrase ‘mixed reaction’ quite simply does not apply here. The meanest thing anyone said about Subban was reported on Hockeyinsideout.com: “When someone suggested to Lars Eller that P.K. wanted to be known as The Subbanator, the Danish forward replied: “We’re going to call him Pernell.”A more accurate headline might have read “CANADIENS REFUSE TO POP BOTTLES OF VEUVE CLIQUOT AT SUBBAN CONTRACT SIGNING”. Had that been the headline, and had the Canadian Press entered the dressing room and failed to find this, this, or evidence of this happening, it would be accurate.

The Rules Are Up On the Fridge Door

The other article, about Subban accepting new rules, is silly. Considering that the Canadiens brought in a new general manager and coach in the offseason, do you know who else had to “accept new rules before re-joining the Canadiens?” If your answer was “EVERY SINGLE PLAYER, PROSPECT, AND EMPLOYEE” then your answer was correct. That’s generally what happens when any organization changes management, but The Canadian Press would have you believe that Subban is somehow different. The headline would only be meaningful if the reporter had some quotation or source indicating that Subban would get back in the lineup when he agreed to wear a full-caged helmet, or only use one skate in practices and games from now on.

The TSN article has no reference to anything of this type, only vague statements about the team’s philosophy:

“The first thing Marc Bergevin and I did was sit down with (Subban) and explain our philosophy and he understood where we’re coming from,” Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. “It was a good, honest conversation with P.K. and we just want to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

Oh, really? Therrien had a sit-down with a player who, until now, wasn’t under contract to explain his coaching philosophy? OH DON’T HIT THAT BLOGPOST BUTTON YET! In both cases, the headlines above are cynically designed to get angsty-Habs fans to click on the articles and then go Edvard Munch’s The Scream on one another.

Look, it may be the case that Subban is an awful person and worse teammate, but to print this in an official media outlet would require, uhm, facts, right? When an anonymous player on the Canadiens goes on record stating that Subban is never invited to team birthday parties, that’ll be news. Or, hey, shouldn’t there be an answer to the question “why?” in these articles somewhere? Why might his teammates and managers be so pissed at him? Is that clearly mentioned anywhere? Is it even speculated about? There must be some form of telepathic mind-reading going on that the writer isn’t at liberty to divulge. Based on the quotations gleaned from conversations with the actual players involved, very little has actually been said that supports the main arguments of the two posts.

Until these questions are answered and supported by evidence, these types of articles will remain unpersuasive and not far removed from simple mudslinging. There may still be a story worth reporting here, but the articles posted above are poor examples of what fans should be reading on the matter.

January 30, 2013

Time, Time! Can’t Stand the Horror! The Canadiens and Icetime

by Jacob Saltiel
nhl-ice-time8482-2010-premium

If a Coyote gets icetime in a forest, but no one’s around to watch it…

On Tuesday, Pierre Lebrun wrote an excellent article about managing icetime in the compressed season. Citing the Blackhawks, Blues, Bruins, and Sharks as examples of teams that roll four lines, Lebrun argues that the key to winning consistently with more games in fewer days than usual, is for teams to avoid playing their top forwards more than 20 minutes a night.

He notes the following: “In fact, the Bruins and Sharks don’t have a forward at 19 minutes; the Blues have only one such player (T.J. Oshie, 19:16) and the Blackhawks have two (Patrick Sharp, 19:09; Patrick Kane, 19:02).”

The idea is simple; if the best players aren’t exhausted at the end of the game and their 3rd and 4th lines don’t hurt the team, those teams that can afford this distribution of icetime lower the risk of injuries and the possibility that players abandon their systems due to exhaustion. Lebrun quotes Andy McDonald in support of this:

“Guys being somewhat energized and not being tired, we’ve been able to come back in the second and third periods in a lot of games. We’ve been able to play on top of teams, and that’s the style we play; we’re an aggressive forechecking team, put a lot of pressure on the puck all over the ice. We can’t do that when we’re tired. We’re really in good position having the depth we have and having the coach manage it that way.”

So, Habs fans, how do the Canadiens stack up against this theory this year? According to the NHL.com statistics, the only forward above 19 minutes a game is Tomas Plekanec at 20:40. This is likely because Plekanec is the only Habs centre that can be trusted to take a defensive zone draw on the penalty kill (he’s averaged 4:03 minutes a game shorthanded) on top of playing 2nd line minutes and the powerplay (3:14/game). The next most-played forward is Brian Gionta at 18:47.

To take Lebrun’s argument a step further, it’s also important to note how much the bottom-line forwards are playing, since the smaller the ratio between top-line minutes and bottom-line minutes, the more the coach is actually rolling four lines. This year, only one Habs forward averages fewer than 10 minutes a game, and that’s Ryan White at 9:25. His number’s driven down because he treats the penalty box like a short-term hotel with excellent soap samples and a minibar.

Ignoring Plekanec and White, every other Habs forward falls between about 24 and 17 shifts a night, which probably explains why the Habs continue playing hard right to the end of the game. Mike Boone, in his About Last Night column on hockeyinsideout.com, attributed this phenomena to a psychological change in the team: “Unlike last season’s chronically dispirited squad, the 2013 Canadiens play like they expect to win. They were not demoralized by temporary losses of momentum against the Devils and Jets.”

More persuasively, this might simply be because Therrien isn’t stuck with dividing the 60 minutes of a hockey game between  the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole line, Plekanec and Gionta every night. Last year, players like Nokelainen, Palushaj, Blunden, Engqvist, and Staubitz occupied roster spots and averaged no more than 9:21/game. Palushaj, who was on the team for 38 games last year, averaged 7:33/game. This problem became worse when Gionta went down with an injury midway through the season.

Not only were the 2011-2012 Habs overplaying their top players, Martin and Cunneyworth likely did so to protect their soft bottom lines from getting lit up regularly.

Now, 5 games is an insignificant sample size, and injuries may skew the numbers later in the season. Just by watching the games, however, anyone can see that the gritty players occupying the bottom lines (Armstrong, Prust, Moen) and the Gals on the 3rd line (Galchenyuk and Gallagher) can not only handle more minutes, but in the latter case might even start stealing minutes from top-line players before the short season is out.

Of course, this might all change tonight when the Habs start playing strong opponents, starting with the Ottawa Senators.

January 29, 2013

Galentine’s Day Comes Early: Subban Signs, Galchenyuk and Gallagher to Stay for the Season

by Jacob Saltiel
bergevin1

The Glasses Must Be Working
from commentjemhabille.com

Will January 28th, 2013 be another unremarkable and cold winter’s day in Montreal or will Canadiens fans remember this as the beginning of a new era? Bergevin must be thinking playoffs and Therrien must be thinking that Galchenyuk can make many more plays like the one that set up Gallagher’s first goal.

Subban’s signing at about 7:20pm concludes the lineup moves for starting this season. How this negotiation affects the next one will affect where the Habs are in 5 years.

Galchenyuk

As covered elsewhere in this blog, it remains a dubious management move to keep Galchenyuk, even with Pacioretty out. Once Pacioretty returns, Eller’s out of a lineup spot (thanks for the memory, bud).

4 games in, the only decent team the Habs have played is the Devils. This being the case, the small sample size used to determine Galchenyuk’s suitability for playing at the NHL level doesn’t even include an elite opponent. In the last 4 games, the 3rd line has been strong and supplied good minutes to a team that, with Bourque finally proving capable of lighting up an EKG if not a goal lamp and when Pacioretty was healthy, had solid lines from to bottom.

Enthusiasm for the hot start should be tempered by the quality of competition*  and many of the goals coming from the unreliable presence of the excellent Markov. If the Canadiens are outside of the playoffs 6 weeks from now and Galchenyuk is slumping or injured, Bergevin’s decisive handling of Galchenyuk will be second-guessed.

If the Canadiens make the playoffs and win a couple of rounds, then the above-mentioned caveats matter little.

Galchenyuk makes about $3.225m/year for 3 years, depending on which performance bonuses he reaches.

Gallagher

On the other hand, Gallagher fits on this team on any of the top-3 lines as a scrappy little guy who can pot some goals and irritate the other teams’ D. His style of play is needed in Montreal, as he complements Cole and Pacioretty’s relentless pursuit of the puck into the crease and behind the goalie. Not all of his goals will be as pretty as his first, but barring injury- he’s listed at only 163lbs- he should score reliably in his role as a smilier Ryan Smyth in miniature.

Gallagher makes less than a third of Galchenyuk’s money at $870,000/year for the next 3 years, and he should be full value.

Subban

It’s tempting to say ‘finally!’ but it’s only 4 games into the season and given the incompatible bargaining positions of the two sides, the effect on this season shouldn’t be overstated. Bob McKenzie on TSN’s That’s Hockey reported that Subban insisted on longterm security- as any smart player should push for- and the Canadiens were adamant that it would be a 2 year deal.

What should be said is that this is a total capitulation by Subban, who does not deserve the wrath of Habs fans. No. Once he steps back into the lineup, the Habs will have a top-4 of Markov-Emelin and Gorges-Subban, which will reduce minutes for Bouillon (yay!) and plant one of Weber or Kaberle in the pressbox more or less until someone gets injured (hooray!). The big loser in this deal isn’t Subban at all, but Weber who will almost certainly be playing anywhere but in Montreal next year with Tinordi and Beaulieu breathing down his neck.

Subban playing alongside Gorges, Bouillon, and Emelin will be an oddly short but tough defence that will give away inches of ice as easilyas the Quebec Government hikes tuition (hiyo!). Markov, now that he’s figured out the Matrix, always has the puck, so all Diaz has to do is not actively attempt to fire the puck into his own net to make this an all-around strong top-6.

Bergevin

As for Bergevin, this deal is a conditional rather than total victory.

The value in the bridge contract comes from keeping Subban’s annual cap hit low for this summer, when about $10m comes off the cap. If Subban had been extended longterm now, that big money extension would have eaten into that cap space when Bergevin could be using it to sign pending UFAs David Clarkson or Corey Perry (an optimistic target, but one he’d at least have the money for). Whether or not Subban even plays well this season, Bergevin should offer him his longterm extension in the summer. This way, the cap hit will only bump up the following offseason when Gionta and Markov come off the books. This allows Bergevin the flexibility to put money on some UFA’s brains and augment his young core for next season. Speaking of which, his only expensive RFA will be Desharnais. The following year, he’ll have to choose between extending Markov, Emelin, Diaz, and an aged Gionta, though he should still have money to play with once the rest of the salary cap chaff disappears.**

So for now, it looks good. If Bergevin doesn’t eventually get Subban signed to a longterm deal or if Subban gets a calculator-melting offer sheet two summers from now, fans might look back on January 28th with mixed emotions.

 

***

*Florida and Toronto already look like teams in the draft lottery

** All of this assumes league revenues don’t vanish in the next few years and NHL GM’s end up operating with a salary cap of 12 dollars, 50 cents, and free clothing adorned with their employer’s logo.

January 27, 2013

Northeast Division Roundup, January 19-26

by Jacob Saltiel
1297368882343_ORIGINAL

Orr Checks Scoreboard, Still Plenty of Time to Dummy Scott
from TorontoSun.com

Based on the data accumulated over the first whole week of NHL hockey this year, all kinds of persuasive data can be extrapolated about the teams in the Northeast division. Actually, that’s completely silly to suggest, so please regard this analysis as a series of general impressions and observations. Read below:

Boston Bruins

After 7 days of NHL hockey, the Bruins have yet to hurt anyone in a way that cynically manipulates the NHL rulebook. Amazing what a team can do when they don’t focus simply on bashing. They started their abbreviated season on fire, taking 3 out of 4 possible points from a strong Rangers team and smothering the Jets and Islanders. It’s early, and 2 of the teams they beat are likely bottom-feeding this year, but they’re a team with a defined identity, a relatively young core, and no obvious weak points. It’s only been a week, but one thing that can point to future troubles ahead is the 4 goals the Rangers put on Rask. They’ll need him to steal a few goals against elite teams if the Bruins are to advance in the playoffs. Even with that potential flag, Dougie Hamilton looks like he can play, which is bad news for the rest of the East.

Buffalo Sabres

Hard to gauge this team, with a narrow win over the Leafs, a victory over the Flyers fueled by Vanek running hog wild, and trading losses with the enigmatic Hurricanes. Their addition of grit over the offseason has been mixed so far. Ott’s been strong and Stafford notably and foolishly fought Hartnell, but John Scott got punked by Orr. John Scott is a dancing bear dressed up in hockey gear whose only purpose is to smash. If he can’t perform his duty against the heavies of the league, he’s a waste of a roster spot. And, besides, it’s not like he can protect wee Gerbe from the referees, can he?

Montreal Canadiens

Subban remains lost in the desert of his indecision, causing angst for everyone in the Montreal area, but Markov’s return has brought up memories of the Canadiens’ vaunted power play of a couple of years ago. There’s a lot of smoke coming out of the Montreal blogosphere about Subban being an elite two-way defenceman, and while he may yet become that, one only has to watch the Canadiens powerplay with Markov at the wheel to see the difference between someone who can and someone who cannot run a powerplay. So long as Therrien’s running Bouillon and Kaberle out there, the Canadiens can still use Subban’s top-notch defensive presence. The shortcomings of Frankie Boo and Kaberle will reveal themselves over time- even in a shortened season. Even so, a disjointed throwaway loss in Toronto and two ‘taking care of business’ wins against ragged Florida and possibly sadsack Washington, and the Habs look good for a team that finished bottom of the conference last year. Tonight, they’ll be taking on the Devils without Pacioretty, who unexpectedly came down with appendicitis and will be out for a month.

Ottawa Senators
The young Senators can score goals, but as the Tampa Bay Lightning showed, they can also end up on the wrong side of some crooked numbers on the scoreboard. While some have pointed to their goaltending as deep, Anderson is as prone to brilliance as he is to mediocrity from one night to the next. Though Bishop is touted as a strong goalie prospect, displays like the one against Tampa reveal that he still has some adjusting to do. Maybe Robin Lehner in the AHL is the longterm answer, but they’ll find out once they unload Anderson or Bishop. They’ll be exciting to watch, and if Turris turns into a point-a-game centre (4 goals and an assist through 4 games as of now), they’ll be regularly chasing other teams’ starting goalies onto the bench.

Toronto Maple Leafs
What the heck is going with this team, right? Screwing with their goalie rotation by playing the crab-like Scrivens over Reimer, starting seemingly half of their farm team and Nazem Flarning Kadri lighting it up, it’s hard to tell which way this team is going. Sources also say that Hercule Poirot is investigating the identity of one ‘Michael Kostka‘. Anyroad, this is a Leafs squad that blows into Pittsburgh and stomps out the Penguins and then gets set ablaze like so many backyard leaf fires in the fall by John Taveres and the Strong Island. Phaneuf’s attempt to combine Tavares’ face with the endboards was an interesting attempt at alchemy, but should have been rewarded with a suspension. Last night, against an elite team likely to finish in the top-half of the East’s playoff ranks, the Leafs crumbled in the 2nd half, losing 5-2 to the Rangers. While they have some young guys who can score, it looks like their team defence couldn’t keep a minifridge out of their net.

January 24, 2013

Throw the Book at Them: NHL Rules Enforcement 2013

by Jacob Saltiel
0599be0d475fa9a2be2d9165c8fa

Book’em, Charlie
from TheStar.com

Snowing the Goalie and Post-Whistle Facewashing

On Saturday, an amusing snowjob by Tomas Plekanec turned ugly for Habs fans when referees Brad Meier and Brad Watson assessed him a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Leafs scored the game winning goal on the ensuing powerplay while Habs fans were likely still cursing out their tv monitors or nearby ushers. This reaction is understandable, since prior to the lockout, snowing the goalie was tolerated by officials and completely infuriating to irate defencemen whose responses were almost uniformly to crush.*

The NHL rules enforcement committee had a meeting about this common sequence of events, and the result is that NHL instigators will no longer be able to use snowing the goal as a reliable way to goad opponents into taking penalties.

Kerry Fraser, to many in the Toronto-area a hack of a referee, is now an excellent columnist for TSN.ca, answering fans questions about rules. Writing specifically on the above-mentioned incident, he had this to say:

“During the officials training camp held prior to the startup of this shortened regular season the referees were directed to set a firm standard from the very beginning so that this ‘cheap’ tactic [i.e., snowing the goalie] does not snowball! Additionally, players that enter a scrum and grab the face shield or utilize a ‘stinky glove’ face wash in an attempt to incite their opponent run the risk of being assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty without warning.”

These two circumstances listed above are not subtle changes to rules enforcement. Considering how often post-whistle skirmishes include face-washing and bearhugging faces between players, this could result in plenty of penalties as officials no longer have to issue warnings before putting someone in the box.

If you’re a fan of the Bruins, this rule-change sucks. Based on the anecdotal evidence from watching several Habs-Bruins games over the years, it seems that it’s an explicit tactic of the Bruins to intimidate by engaging opponents in post-whistle shenanigans. While tough play in hockey is great, it should happen between the whistles during gameplay. There’s nothing tough, or ‘old-timey’ about jumping players after the whistle, and before this re-enforcement of the rules, it was too easy for teams to get away with either a warning or coincidental minors.

These two tweaks aren’t really rule changes, since the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was always supposed to cover this kind of post-play shenanigan, but it’s good to see the NHL do something about it.

Gloving the Puck and One-handed Slashing

This one should be obvious to anyone who’s watched more than one of the games in the new season, but players can no longer close their hands on the pucks after faceoffs.

According to this article straight from NHL.com, the rules have been changed to disallow what was previously acceptable. Faceoffs had turned into 1-second wrestling matches as it was fine for centres in to grab the puck and throw it behind them to their defence.

In addition, it’s also a penalty to close one’s hand on the puck anywhere in the rink, where before players in their defensive zone were allowed to make hand passes. It’s unclear why this was ever allowed, as it seems like an unfair advantage for defending teams, particularly in a sport that has ongoing debates about how to increase scoring.

Removing the advantage of defending teams from throwing the puck isn’t just about creating more offence, it’s also about rewarding players for actually using their hockey sticks- what an absurd notion! Chances are good that what fans want to see is players skating upright and using their stickhandling to create plays- not men in hockey gear scrabbling on the ice to play catch with a  puck. Therefore, any rule change the discourages skaters from using their hands on the puck is a good one.

Not to be overlooked, at the bottom of the aforementioned article is an explanation about how slashing is being cracked down on in a big way. As you can see from the video they supply to illustrate their point, Del Zotto doesn’t really give it to Kennedy that hard, rather he gives him a series of little hacks as he skates around the ice. The intention of Del Zotto is try and interrupt Kennedy’s puck possession by getting a piece of his stick, but he repeatedly gets Kennedy in the hands. It’s excellent that the NHL wants to crack down on this, as there is no reason to reward players who cannot establish body-position on the players they are defending by allowing them to wave their sticks instead.

This should result in a ton of penalties to careless defencemen and backchecking forwards, and could result in more scoring from powerplays, and also more free-flowing play in general. For Habs fans, this rule will probably require some adjustment from Subban whenever he returns. He loves to hack at players at all over the ice.

Taken together, these enforcing the rules on the books and changing the other two named above should result in more flowing hockey and less camera-time on garbage after whistles. I doubt anyone will miss that part of the game. Well, anyone outside of Boston or Rangers fans in New York, whose teams seem to specialize in that kind of rule-bending play.

***

*This statement is not founded on any sociological surveying or some kind of statistic.

January 23, 2013

Game 2: Canadiens vs Panthers, Crushing the Cats

by Jacob Saltiel
Carey Price

The Cycle of Life is Disney, the Cycle of Violence is Hockey
from Yahoo! Sports

Schedule Casualty

Commentators in the NBA refer to the 5th game played in 7 nights on road trips as a “schedule loss”. At that point in the sequence of the schedule, the team is so tried from travel and playing that they chalk up the loss to the schedule over any other considerations. It’s this phenomena of league planning that prompted a $250,000 fine of the Spurs when their coach sent his star players home before the last game of the trip.

In the NHL, there are no 5 games in 7 days, but 3 games in 4 nights will occur several times, and starting the 27th of January through February 3rd, the Habs play 5 games in 8 nights, though mostly at home.

Last night it was the Panthers skating out for the back end of a 3 in 4, and the Habs did well to jump all over them. Michael Caruso played less than 2 minutes after getting injured early, and rotating 5 defence left Montreal’s forwards space to work with.

Crushing Be Here

Panned elsewhere in the blogosphere, the additions of Prust and Armstrong, along with the re-signing of Moen looked good last night. Those three, along with White, battered the Panthers all night long, forced turnovers, and on one particular shift hemmed their opponents behind their blueline, who failed to organize a breakout under pressure.

White showed a little too much enthusiasm in defending Gorges, cruising in on the non-combatant Fleischmann and feeding him rights and lefts. The bill came out to 27 minutes in penalties, and had the Panthers been fresher, might have represented an opportunity to get back into the game. Still, the Habs need to defend their stars and let it be known that crushing awaits anyone who hits anyone in red disrespectfully. As the rap album warns, Violence Begets Violence, and chances are good that the next time these teams meet (Feb. 14th, in Florida), White will have to fight someone who can defend themselves. In comparison to last year, he’s got backup.

Powerplaying

Markov’s 2 goals and return to effectiveness on the powerplay is great, but don’t overlook Diaz. After watching Kaberle and Markov skate all over each other’s plans during Saturday’s game, Therrien split them up, and the results were excellent. There were far more dump-and-chase plays that ended in Diaz and Markov swapping points, changing the point of attack by dumping the puck around the boards. Additionally, Kaberle was able to run to the 2nd powerplay unit, which did more than wind the clock down.

It’s early, but Diaz has 3 assists in his first 2 games, and even when Subban comes back, he should get more time on the 1st or 2nd PP unit. Diaz stopped Panthers penalty kill breakouts on a few occasions, keeping possession and setting up his linemates to make plays.

Having given Diaz his due, it was thrilling to see Markov simply wind up and rip it once again.

Gally, Gally, Gally

Against expectations, Galchenyuk, Gallagher, and Prust formed a solid 3rd line against the Panthers. They were able to cycle, put shots on net, and gave Therrien much better minutes from this 3rd line than he got on Saturday. Galchenyuk’s game is covered elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning that Gallagher also looked good, and his inclination to burrow right into the crease following shots is both fearless and valuable to the Canadiens.

Meanwhile on the 2nd line, Bourque played well with Plekanec and Gionta, though he had little to do with Plekanec’s goal.* Throughout the game, Bourque showed some speed and some hitting, while the line as a whole performed with some structure.

On a night where the top-line missed a wide open cage- ERIK COLE STAND UP- Therrien needed his other forwards to perform, and that they did. If the top-12 forwards can play like this every night, the Habs might be better than expected. They will, however, have to show that they can play this way against more rested, and more talented teams.

And soon.

The Capitals and Ovechkin await the Canadiens in D.C. Thursday night.

***

*Kovalev backchecked Plekanec on that play like it was 2008 and they were still linemates. He escorted him to the slot rather than battled him, but Turtleneck will take it.

January 22, 2013

MECHANT MARDI WARNING

by Jacob Saltiel
Black_Panther_on_mud_hill

It’s -20 in Montreal?
from http://woostermiddle.stratfordk12.org

No doubt looking forward to tonight’s game against the Canadiens, the Florida Panthers took Monday night off, losing 4-0 to the Ottawa Senators.

Juggling

Since losing to the Leafs on Saturday, Therrien has been experimenting to generate something resembling cohesion from his 2nd and 3rd lines.

Chantal Machabee of RDS just tweeted that the result of these experiments is to drop Eller* from the lineup, move Galchenyuk and Gallagher to the 3rd line with Prust, and bump Bourque up to Plekanec’s wing as follows:

PaciorettyDesharnaisCole

Gionta-Plekanec-Bourque

Prust-Galchenyuk-Gallagher

MoenWhiteArmstrong

Assuming this is what the lines will be by gametime, it looks like Therrien’s hoping to put together a 3rd line with some grit, scoring, and peskiness (moving from left-to-right across your computer monitor). Given that Gallagher’s also a rookie, and Galchenyuk struggled to distinguish himself on Saturday, it might be optimistic to expect structured play from this line.

Last year, Bourque failed to do much riding shotgun with Plekanec, and it’s not as if he had an extended training camp to build chemistry. Despite that, Bourque might be an improvement on Galchenyuk by scrambling less and providing a better target for Plekanec’s passes.

Word is that Bouillon will still be patrolling the 2nd unit powerplay as Therrien insists on playing Kaberle and Markov together.

The Return
Kovalev will probably get some cheers tonight, and the Habs will get a look at least year’s Southeast Division champions.

The Panthers have two scoring lines. Last year’s top-line of Fleischmann, Weiss, and possibly Scottie Upshall in Versteeg’s absence** returns. The other scoring line is big and consists of Kovalev, Mueller, and the exciting young Huberdeau.

Therrien will have to match one of his top-two lines against one of those Florida lines, since he doesn’t have two checking lines. It’s unreasonable to expect Galchenyuk to match up defensively against the Panthers and the 4th line should be rumbling with the big line and trying to intimidate Huberdeau and knock Kovalev out of his narrow comfort zone.

Theodore will be sitting this game out, which may not help the Habs if the Desharnais trio can’t run wild on the Florida defence.

Big Game Hunting

The Panthers should be tired from two days in two nights. If the Canadiens can play with more organization on their 2nd and 3rd lines than they did on Saturday, they should be able to take this game. Of course, with Kovalev in town, there’s the possibility he reciprocates the love from the stands with a huge night, setting up Huberdeau for success in his first game in Quebec.

***

*Not sure why Eller’s getting dropped so soon in the season other than for Therrien to make a point.

Machabee, again: “Lars Eller laissé de côté pour le match de ce soir. Pourquoi cette décision après un match? “Pas le temps de niaiser” a répondu M. Therrien.”

This translates as:

Reporter: Lars Eller is a healthy scratch tonight. Why would you drop him from the lineup after just one game?
Therrien: No time to screw around.

**Versteeg’s on the IR with hip surgery

.

January 20, 2013

Game 1: Canadiens vs Leafs, Hockey-Like Substance Observed

by Jacob Saltiel
Carey Price,

Habs: Let’s Make a Pile! Leafs: Yay!
from Yahoo! Sports

Earlier in this blog, it was stated that if one were to watch Kaberle playing too many minutes, it was related to some injury catastrophe elsewhere on the Habs blueline. As it’s the first game and no one was injured to create this situation, Subban duly obliged with a contract holdout. While there are whispers that perhaps it is selfish or greedy of Subban to do so, it’s well within his rights to use all of his available means to secure himself the best contract he can get. Considering he risks injury in playing, why would he- or any NHL player- risk future earnings while playing on a below-market contract as a favour to an NHL team? The NHL operates in exactly this manner when it comes to renegotiating a CBA and locked out its players to achieve a similar effect.

Regardless, the team has to play on without Subban until this impasse resolves. Business, after all, is business, and based on at least this one game, business will be booming for young Subban.

On to the game:

Outside of a few flashes of NHL hockey, this game was made up of a lot of mis-timed plays, bad passing, confusion, and people at home and in the stands shouting “WHO IS MIKE KOSTKA?!”

Slightly more than 2% of the way into the season, it’s important to keep in perspective that a lot can change once the team gets a few more practices and games together. Over the next 47 games, NHL fans may, indeed, discover the identity of this Kostka phantom.

For Habs fans, the feeling that one was watching an awful lot of Kaberle is substantiated by his powerplay icetime, 6:25, and total icetime for the game, 20:05. The former figure is 40 seconds more PP time than Markov, likely because Therrien wants to use Kaberle as a PP specialist, which is fine. Or, this would be fine if Markov were still allowed to run the powerplay, but it seems like Kaberle has most of the puck while Markov floats around the perimeter looking for a backdoor play. It’s one (1) game and the team obviously needs more practice, but we need to Markov to express himself offensively.

More problematic than Kaberle’s usage, was Bouillon’s 22:20 of icetime. When Bouillon was signed, the assumption was that he would fill out the bottom-pairing, or even act as a 7th defenceman- not play top-4 minutes. He played 5 minutes more than the solid Emelin (who tried to change Kadri’s world mid-way through the 2nd) and somehow was used on the second powerplay unit. It was pointed out that, without Subban, the other options on the point for the second unit are Gorges, Diaz, Bouillon, or Emelin, and Diaz was already out there.

In other words, the powerplay will never resemble a clockwork machine of  players fiendishly swapping positions before a series of quick passes ends in a cannonshot into the back of the net until Therrien develops other options. Weber, it seems, offended someone in the head office and probably won’t be suiting up much unless 1 or 2 players above him on the depth chart are traded or get hurt.

Up front, the Habs’ top-line had trouble getting going, but showed a few shifts of last season’s ingenuity and the comically gritty line of PrustWhiteArmstrong showed something Habs fans born in the 80’s probably haven’t ever seen. Though they took a penalty right at the beginning of the game, it was refreshing to see a line that actually might scare some other teams and also to watch Prust get the better of Mike Brown. Whenever that line starts the game at the Bell Centre, the DJ should play this track, just to pump up the crowd and let the opponents know that the rumbles are coming.

Beyond that, the 2nd and 3rd lines resembled the end of a game of Jenga. Galchenyuk, while he undoubtedly has the skills to play in the NHL, hasn’t adjusted to the speed of the game, which doesn’t help his veteran linemates. Eller, who looked so good in the intra-squad game, was invisible till the 3rd period. Plekanec and Eller will have to anchor their lines and put the pressure on other teams by playing more organized hockey, which should come as they get used to Therrien’s system.

So what? The Habs lost 2-1 in a game in which all of the goals were powerplay goals. Price was solid, and that’s that for the opener. The next game is a Mechant Mardi matchup against the Florida Panthers, who pounded out the Hurricanes 5-1, and a particularly enigmatic Russian with ties to the Montreal area…

January 18, 2013

More Grit, But Will There Be More Wins? – Montreal Canadiens Season Preview

by Jacob Saltiel
Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens

One of these is not like the others…
from HabsEyesOnthePrize.com

The Montreal Canadiens (2012)-2013

Last year, Montreal’s biggest problem was two-fold, but limited mainly to the forwards: scoring and grit. Defensively, the Canadiens were one of the better teams in the conference and had an elite penalty kill.

What to expect from the team this year? This post will cover three and a half items:

1. Observations from the intra-squad scrimmage.

2. The Coaching and Special Teams.

3. The Forwards

4. The Defence and a Conclusion.

So let’s get to it!

1. Observations from the Intra-Squad Scrimmage

Bob Gainey’s Stare had eyes in the stands Thursday night watching some fairly disjointed hockey.

Some observations:

Gorges played his usual game. At some points, it looked like he might get hurt from playing so hard, particularly when he cut across the net to break up a Pacioretty rush, piling himself, Price, Pacioretty, and Markov onto one another and dislodging the net. It would have been a good play, if not for the fact that the heap of humanity in the blue ice represented more than $20m of the Habs’ salary cap and 4 of the team’s core players.

Rene Bourque turned on the jets, made a little dangle, then roofed a puck back-hand on Budaj. Let’s see him do that about 20 times this season.

– Markov’s passing terrifies his opponents, who spent all night giving him room and trying to limit his passing angle instead of forechecking him.

Galchenyuk (who survived the cuts Friday morning) barely got onto the puck all night. Near the end of the 2nd period, he implicated himself in the play a couple of times, but never looked confident with the puck, nor could he get open for Lars Eller to dish to him. In 5 games, he’s back on the bus.

-Speaking of Eller, he looked great. Using his size, reach, and speed to battle for pucks and get around defenders, if he can do this against actual NHL teams, he’ll have a fantastic year.

-The ColeDesharnais-Pacioretty line looks to be in mid-season form, even if they were competing against half of an NHL team.

Brendan Gallagher (who also survived the cuts Friday morning) plays a pesky game. Several times he dug right into the goalie crease, and spent much of the game harassing players up and down the ice.

– Gritty players, like Armstrong, Moen, White, and Prust didn’t particularly stand out, which is a good thing. If they had, you’d be reading a post on the terribly unlucky injury to Markov in a pre-season intra-squad scrimmage.

2. Therrien Returns, Windows Rattle

It’s difficult to tell what effect a coach has on a team from the fan’s perspective. You can depend on this though: if the team skates around as if controlled by children playing NHL 2012, the coach is extremely bad.

One area in which one can most easily perceive the effect of coaching is special teams, since special teams require discipline and creativity from the coaching staff to succeed.

The young Michel Therrien had more in common with an active volcano than a professorial director of X’s and O’s. In Pittsburgh, his finals runner-up performance was probably overshadowed by a broadside he fired at his own team in the media.

Regardless of what kind of coach Therrien is, let’s see where he has work to do this upcoming year.

Since Kirk Muller showed up and through the Martin years, the Canadiens have alternated between having an elite (top5) powerplay or an elite penalty kill. All statistics are from NHL.com.

In 2007-2008, the Canadiens led the NHL in powerplay goals (90) and % (24.1). Ignoring powerplay % as a stat, since goals determine the outcome of games and there are no trophies for efficient use of powerplay time, let’s look at each year since:

2008-2009: 36 goals, 4th

2009-2010: 32 goals, 5th

2010-2011: 28 goals, 7th

2011-2012: 18, 24th (Muller left the organization before this season)

For a team that wins a lot of close games because they don’t score a ton of goals, that drop in powerplay production hurt.

Over the same time, the penalty kill has allowed this many goals per season:

2007-2008: 28, 8th

2008-2009: 37, 20th

2009-2010: 27, 12th

2010-2011: 24, 10th  (1st in PK%!)

2011-2012: 18, 5th (2 in PK%!)

Highlighting the disparity between % and rank in goals allowed shows just how penalty-prone the Canadiens are as a team. While the penalty kill itself is in good shape, what the Canadiens really need to do is to take fewer penalties, and hence let in fewer goals on penalty kill.

The return of Markov gives Therrien an extra weapon to improve the powerplay, especially if he can get the parts around him, Kaberle, and eventually Subban to work cohesively.

On the penalty kill, the greatest improvement might cause in scaring the holy hell out of his players to cut down on their penalty minutes, giving penalty killers Plekanec and Gorges more time at 5-on-5. Last year the Canadiens spent 521 minutes and 26 seconds killing penalties. That was the most time spenton the PK in the entire league and, were the penalties strung together consecutively, represents 8.6 entire games in the box. That’s more than 10% of the season down a player, and that needs to change.

3. Up front the Canadiens didn’t have enough scoring outside of the excellent top-line of PaciorettyDesharnaisCole, and Plekanec. The bottom-two lines were composed of either young, over-matched offensive players (PalushajLeblancEller), or cheap players without easily definable NHL skills (NokelainenBlundenDarche) and the ineffective Rene Bourque. Taken together, the third and fourth lines were neither capable of producing consistent offence, checking the other team’s top lines effectively, nor even intimidating the other team with hitting. This placed undue strain on the top-2 lines to score, defend, play special teams, and more or less win the games on their own.

The return of White and Moen from injuries, along with the additions of Prust and Armstrong* easily address this problem. With a 3rd and 4th line that can contribute defence and grit, there should be more productive seasons for players like Eller while lightening the minutes-load on the top-line and Plekanec.

Having said that, Cole has a history of injuries and losing him for any length of time could hurt the team’s already poor offence, and Plekanec and Gionta still need another player to line up with who can score goals and open up space for them.

4. Backend

The defence was covered largely in The Thin Blue Line: Canadiens D, 2013but here’s a verdict:

The team doesn’t score enough to run and gun, therefore they’ll be in the business of grinding out close games. To do that, they’ll need to dramatically cut down on penalties, and capitalize on their powerplay opportunities to prop up their even-strength scoring.

In short, if Markov can run the powerplay again and Subban signs a flarning contract and improves his overall game, the Canadiens might be able to win just enough games to get in to the playoffs as a 6, 7, or 8 seed, but if there’s any regression from the top-2 lines in the form of mediocre play or injury and if the Habs continue to take hours of penalty minutes… well, you saw what happened last year.

***

*Although Armstrong’s a candidate for reinjuring himself, since he seems to be made out of papier-mache.

January 17, 2013

Beasts of The Northeastern Wild: Analyzing the NHL Northeast Division 2013

by Jacob Saltiel
Map-3

Dragons Be Here
from TheHockeyGuys.net

Last year, the Bruins feasted on a dilapidated Northeast division, while the Senator overachieved, made the playoffs and pushed a tough Rangers team to 7 games.

The Habs, Sabres, and Leafs?

The former two did their fans the favour of playing mediocre hockey all year, while the latter had a strong first half, then decided to stop trying to win at all, plummeting into the draft.

What can we expect from the division this year?

It’s hard to predict how the 48 game schedule will affect things. As Sean McIndoe writes on Grantland.com:

“About the only thing we do know is that a shorter season means more variance — the smaller sample size leaves more room for random chance to take over. In theory, that helps bad teams, since anything that works against true talent levels is good for teams who don’t have much. But those teams are already at a disadvantage because, well, they’re bad, and they should get blown out by good teams who won’t be tempted to take their foot off the accelerator this year.”

And that’s about as clear and concise an explanation of how the shortened season can screw with predictions. Consider also how lockout injuries* may affect some teams more strongly for others, and it’ll be a chaotic season.

In the Eastern Conference, the Northeast may fall below the terrifying Atlantic Division (three cup contenders in PHI, PIT, NYR), and the potentially solid Southeast (WSH Capitals, much-improved CAR and TB) in terms of quality teams.The Montreal Canadiens will be discussed separately. This post is about their closest competition.

So, based purely on the offseason’s moves- and there may still be some trades before the season begins- here are some thoughts on the Northeastern division:

The Boston Bruins

GM Peter Chiarelli smartly locked up his core to reasonable long-term extensions, and now all that remains to be seen is if the job security afforded his players results in harmonious continuity or not. The Bruins have dominated for the past few years, and that should continue this season barring injuries and a couple of small question marks.

Will Nathan Horton be healthy this season? His absence last year robbed Coach Julien of the possibility of overwhelming opponents with an oversized top-line including Lucic and Krejci.

Next, leave aside whether or not Rask can replace Thomas, in the event of injury; the Bruins team defence is more than capable of covering up a slight decrease in goaltending. Rask might not even be a downgrade from Thomas. If he gets injured, though, who replaces Rask?

The Bruins backups right now are Anton Khudobin and Michael Hutchison. Pray for rain!

The Buffalo Sabres

Steve Ott will be an upgrade over Derek Roy based simply on the fact that he provides something that the Sabres’ young forwards and prospects don’t: grit. Roy is easily replaced by Hodgson on the top line, who can conceivably produce as much offence as Roy did last year. Meanwhile, Ott is an effective 3rd line grinder who enrages his opponents. If you’re a fan of any other team in the Northeast this year, prepare to grind your teeth aplenty when your team plays the Sabres.

For the second-line centre, they’ll have to hope that Luke Adam or Leino can step in and score some points. If the Sabres are going to improve, it will have to come either from young players (Myers, Ennis, Hodgson, or Foligno) or from last year’s free agents who had rocky starts to their Sabres careers (Ehrhoff and Leino).

The rest of the lineup is composed of veterans such as Miller, Pominville, Vanek, Stafford, or Regehr who are, at this point in their careers, more or less known commodities.

Leino was overestimated as a free agent following a season in Philly where he demonstrated that he could be a good scorer on a strong line. It became clear in Buffalo, however, that he cannot create offence on his own.

Ehrhoff, on the other hand, may not reach the point totals he had in Vancouver, benefiting as he did from one of the league’s best offences, but he can still be productive in Buffalo, and should be fine.

If the young forwards in Buffalo can take advantage of the lineup spots and ice-time vacated by the departures of Roy, Hecht, and Boyes, and score goals then this will be a good time- scary good.

If not, then, well, expect more ruminating about Regier and Ruff’s job security. I, for one, hope Ruff retains his employment, since I can’t imagine what that man would do without supervision.

The Ottawa Senators

The Senators are a tricky team to figure out, as much of their success relies on season-to-season consistency from young players like Karlsson, Greening, and the excellent-but-injured Cowen, or old veterans due to decline in effectiveness, such as Alfredsson or Gonchar. Since last year, they also unloaded two of their scrappiest players in Carkner and Konopka.

They are loaded with young players who, if they can replicate the success that young players on Ottawa last year, can take advantage of the recently opened spots to create a potent scoring offence. Guys like Silfverberg and Wiercioch, who both have strong statistical season in the AHL this season may improve the team as a whole.

Meanwhile, offseason acquisitions Latendresse and Methot are, respectively, a wildcard and a solid pickup. Latendresse has show flashes of scoring capability, but has also struggled with his conditioning and injuries for years. If he can put it all together this season, he might be the steal of the very long offseason.

Methot, meanwhile, is essentially a replacement for the jettisoned Carkner. He represents a significant upgrade over Carkner in terms of his ability to play consistent defence and defend against top-players. He’ll also help settle down a team that contains two players who tied for 7th in the NHL for giveaways (Karlsson and Spezza with 84 each).

Losing the useful Konopka hurts, but there’s still enough grit and competent defending on the team to get by.

Barring a rash of injuries or horrific regression from key young players, the Senators should be as good as they were last season, if not better.

The Toronto Maple Leafs

As covered in the Brian Burke post, this team is terrible defensively. What’d they do this offseason? Send Luke Schenn to Philadelphia for Van Riemsdyk, and add the defensively-responsible McClement. Taken together, these moves don’t do much for improving the team’s (not including the concussed and excellent Gardiner) big, heavy, and slow defence, nor the mediocre goaltending. Maybe Van Riemsdyk turns into a 30 or 40 goal scorer and Nazem Kadri and the rest of the forwards have breakthrough years and the Leafs are as exciting or more than some of those firewagon Capitals teams, but they’ll still be letting in a lot of goals.

Before 2013 even started, Lombardi and Connolly’s careers as Leafs ended within a day of one another. This opens up more spots at centre for better defensive centres in McClement and Steckel, while creating more icetime for young players, who probably can’t be less effective than Lombardi and Connolly.

McClement is a boost to Carlyle’s quest to improve the penalty kill, but unless they trade for Luongo or some other above-average goaltender, there doesn’t seem to be much to suggest that they can collectively learn to play defence all of the sudden. If the other four teams in the division play similarly to last year or improve, it could get ugly for the Leafs.

***

*Players hurt playing overseas during the lockout.