Posts tagged ‘Pierre Lebrun’

July 2, 2013

Fool’s Gold: The Canadiens Should Ignore Vincent Lecavalier

by Jacob Saltiel
lecavalier

Why the long face?
from nhlpa.com

 

Little more than a year since he went to work for the Canadiens, Marc Bergevin’s established that he’s one of the more patient general managers. Left with a roster of some quality young and veteran players alongside some very unfortunate contracts, Bergevin acted deliberately to give the Canadiens roster flexibility. Unlike mad scientists such as Paul Holmgren or Glen Sather, who seem to make big moves for the sake of making big moves, Bergevin’s restrained himself from making any silly deals at the trade deadline or the draft. Having just finished buying out another of Pierre Gauthier’s mistakes in Tomas Kaberle, why should Bergevin rush to meet Vincent Lecavalier’s rumoured contract demands? 4-6 years at $4-5m/year is a lot to pay for a 33 year old’s past-production.

Cap Cloggage

As of now, the Canadiens have a little more than $9m available in cap space, though they only have 10 forwards signed for next year. Barring a shocking trade, Bergevin has 8 defencemen and 2 goalies under contract, so, if he wants to use all of that space, he’ll need at least 3, and possibly 4 more forwards to fill out the 3rd and 4th lines.

Lecavalier would take up more than half of that space on his own, and the Canadiens already have 3 centres who should play offensive roles in Toms Plekanec (who just might be better than Lecavalier in this point in their respective careers), Lars Eller (who just might be developing into a better player as you read this), and David Desharnais. Acquiring Lecavalier would force the Canadiens to trade one of those 3, meaning goodbye Desharnais. Bergevin would be left trying to unload the contract he just signed Desharnais to, and after a year in which Desharnais struggled, too.

While Lecavalier’s a bargain in comparison to that $7.27m/year cap hit for the rest of recorded time he carried in Tampa Bay, $4-5m/year for 4-6 years of commitment to a player who will only decline at this point in his career is dicey for a team that’s still several players away from being a Cup contender.

Quite simply, Lecavalier isn’t worth that money to the Habs unless you strongly believe that he’ll make the difference between a parade and not in the next few years. Does Bergevin?

Repatriating a Professional Hockey Athlete

According to that Lebrun article above, the Canadiens must be serious about adding Lecavalier: “The Habs, by the way, had owner Geoff Molson, GM Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien in their meeting with the hometown boy.”

Sure, Bergevin could just be gauging the market for Lecavalier without intending to go as high as Lecavalier’s asking price, but what are they hoping to get out of him exactly?

Lecavalier posted a -6.03 CORSI last season on a weak Tampa Bay team. Notice that even Stamkos only had a 1.99 CORSI and you realize that Lecavalier’s numbers were probably being dragged down a bit by his team’s shoddy defence. All this means is that while Lecavalier’s been on the ice, the other team’s had a decent advantage in scoring opportunities. Of course, this is just one year’s example. More distressing is that the last time Lecavalier led Tampa Bay’s centres in CORSI was during the 2009-2010 season. The year after that, he was far behind Dominic Moore (!) in CORSI, with a 1.91 rating compared to Moore’s 9.25.

The discrepancy there might be that Lecavalier faced tougher competition, but since the emergence of Steven Stamkos, Lecavalier’s numbers haven’t improved as other teams began to focus on the younger star. In theory, Lecavalier should be facing softer competition and providing more scoring opportunities against the competition than he’s giving up on his own goalie.

Regardless, Lecavalier believes he still has what it takes to play against top competition, and said as much in Arpon Basu’s article on NHL.com about his free agency: “I believe in my abilities and I think I can be a top center for a team,” [Lecavalier] said. “It remains to be seen what the other teams think of me, but I have confidence in my abilities.”

The numbers above suggest otherwise. One hopes that Bergevin, along with the assumed legion of fans who lust for Lecavalier, isn’t interested in sigining Lecavalier simply because it would look cool to put him in a Habs jersey. Actually, that would be pretty cool if it was for a year or two at a reasonable cap hit, but, as indicated, Lecavalier’s looking for term and dollars.

Move Along

Given the problems associated with signing Lecavalier and the very real possibility that his days as an elite centre are over, Bergevin should pass. Considering the contract that Lecavalier reportedly wants, how much of a difference will there be between that contract and whatever David Clarkson or Ryane Clowe end up receiving? While Clarkson and Clowe have not historically been as good as Lecavalier, they both fill actual holes in the Canadiens lineup, in that they play the wing- the Canadiens need a Ryder replacement- and both of them are big and tough. Lecavalier’s big, but he’s not particularly gritty, and seems to have been struggling defensively in recent years. Additionally, both are younger, and on a contract of similar term to Lecavalier’s are much more likely to provide value for most of the years of those deals.

Lecavalier’s a declining asset, no matter how much promise he showed as an 18 year old rookie 15 years ago or how successful his career in Tampa Bay’s been. Steve Yzerman had to pay him to stay away in the hopes of improving his team. If Lecavalier won’t take more of a bargain than he’s asking for, it’s unclear why the Canadiens, or any team really, should re-do the mistake the Lightning just corrected.

Let’s see more of that patience, Bergevin.

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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 14, 2013

Hunting the Big Centre: Can NHL Team’s Compete Without Big Centres?

by Jacob Saltiel
david-desharnais

I’m small. What?
from 25 Stanley.com

The answer is yes- unless you believe that there’s only one way to win championships in the NHL. Although the Canadiens actually have good depth at centre, some, discussed below, have criticized them for being small down the middle, which will be a distressing weakness. This argument supposes that one cannot win without big centres in the NHL.

One has only to look at the Cup winners since the last lockout to see that NHL teams win, and win consistently in different ways. Even a cursory glance at the last seven champions reveals various styles dependent on the teams’ compositions.

Some, like the Hurricanes, had fantastic special teams and a goaltender playing out of his mind. Others, such as the Kings, Bruins, and Ducks, played tight-checking games with the intention of bashing their opponents into submission over the course of a 7-game series. Teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit simply overwhelmed the opposition with their talent, puck possession, and, most importantly, depth.

How many of these teams had big centres on their top-2 lines?

Well, first we have to establish what a big centre in the NHL is. It is insufficient to decide that, say, 6″3 is a big centre if most other centres in the league are 6″3 too.

Based on a rough estimate using the NHL.com stats database (which includes prospects), the mode* for the height of centres in the NHL last season was 6″0. This group includes players like John Tavares and Ryan O’Reilly, both of whom are justifiably considered top-line centres- regardless of what the tape measure says. In fact, you’d have to be crazy to think that their unremarkable height holds them back in any way. Remember also that Sidney Crosby is 5″11. The next biggest group was centres listed at 6″1.

Now, let’s say that the difference of an inch between a 6″0 centre and a 6″1 centre is negligible as a size advantage. In fact, even a difference of two inches might not be all that much of an advantage, but let’s agree, for argument’s sake, that a big centre in the NHL is more than 2 inches taller than the mode, since we can assume that 6″3 players most often play against 6″0 centres, whom they’d have a size advantage against. Let’s all remember that a size advantage may be of most use in fighting. Or is it, Joe Colborne?

As a caveat, it is true that there are also many centres less than 6″0, but then the next most populous group is 6″1 centres.

Once we remove from the list of 6″3 and up centres prospects and players whose only redeeming feature is that they happen to be tall, that leaves 24 centres who played in the top-4 lines NHL teams last year. 12 of these centres actually play in the top-2 lines of their teams or have the talent to be top-six centres but are otherwise prevented from doing so by better centres on their teams.

This list includes:
Travis Zajac (NJD), Evgeni Malkin (PIT), Jason Spezza (OTT), Anze Kopitar (LAK), David Backes (STL), Jeff Carter (LAK), Eric Staal (CAR), Vincent Lecavalier (TB), Patrick Berglund (STL), Jordan Staal (CAR), Ryan Getzlaf (ANA), Joe Thornton, (SJS).

Of that list, seven appear in the top-30 of centres in scoring: Malkin, Spezza, Kopitar, Backes, E. Staal, Getzlaf, Thornton.

Three of them also failed to make the playoffs: Lecavalier, E. Staal, and Getzlaf. Now, going by points scored may not be the most objective measure of determining the top-30 centres in the league, since there are many skills that statistics cannot properly measure, such as time of possession, or measure unreliably, such as  +/-, which form part of what makes a player valuable to his team. Team construction is more important than the individual skills of the players, as demonstrated by the fact that teams win in different ways. Top-line centres, then, do not have to necessarily be responsible for all of the scoring, killing penalties, hitting, fighting, coaching and cap management if there’s a sensible division of roles on the team for which he plays.

It is conceivable then, that a centre like David Krejci (6″0), can be quite a good number 1 centre since his skills as a puckhandler and passer complement the size, strength, and shooting of his linemates Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic. In fact, when Boston won, their biggest centre was Patrice Bergeron, listed at 6″2, while their other three centres were 6″0 (Campbell, Kelly, Krejci). Lacking a distinct height advantage down the middle didn’t stop them from winning the Cup. In fact, any perceived disadvantage they might have had by not having a dominantly large centre was mitigated by their large wingers.

Of the seven previous Stanley cup Champions, four of them had big centres: E. Staal, Getzlaf, Malkin, J. Staal, and Kopitar. Teams like Detroit won with two 5″11 centres in Zetterberg and Datsyuk, while Toews in Chicago isn’t small, but neither does he tower over the opposition at 6″2.

It is unreasonable to cling to the notion that all teams require large centres to succeed, since there clearly aren’t enough of them for every team to have one, let alone one who can play on one of the top two lines and score lots of points.

Because of this, the reality is that many teams either complement their centres with large wingers. For example, think of Bertuzzi in Detroit, or Penner playing on Richards’ wing in LA. Other large centres are used as checkers, like the massive Brian Boyle in New York, Lars Eller in Montreal, Handzus wherever he plays these days, and so on.

Despite this, many commentators persist in perpetuating the idea that all team’s need to have centres who are at least 6″2 patrolling their top-2 lines if they’re to have any chance at succeeding.

Take, for example, the usually excellent Pierre Lebrun in his preview of the Montreal Canadiens for this upcoming season:

“Nothing against David Desharnais, in fact he’s one of my favorite players for the way that he wills his 5-foot-7 body to deliver the absolute most he can. His work ethic is second to none. But he’s not a No. 1 center.”

Oh really?

Desharnais plays at a disadvantage at 5″7, but then, if he couldn’t adjust to almost everyone on the ice being bigger than him, he probably wouldn’t have made it this far, nor averaged at least a point per game in each level of hockey he’s played in since junior– other than the NHL of course. The pattern, for him, is to take a season to adjust to the level, and then to begin scoring at a high rate, and so long as he has Pacioretty to pass to, Desharnais should continue to productive at the NHL level.

As it is, he scored 60 points last year, ranked 20th in scoring by centres in the league above Getzlaf and Backes, and played on a line that scored 84 times last year.

Seems like a top-line centre to me, but Lebrun doesn’t stop there:

“Talented, 6-foot-4 centers don’t grow on trees. Montreal’s lack of size down the middle will continue to be an issue this season.”

Let’s review, Montreal’s centres are:

– Desharnais, as discussed above.

– Tomas Plekanec, who ranked 29th in scoring by centres and logged the 8th most TOI/G out of centres, even though he never had stable linemates all season.

– Lars Eller, who is 6″2, is developing as a checker, and still has the potential to score more goals.

– and, depending on how quickly prospects advance to the majors, one of Nokelainen (6″1) or Galchenyuk (6″1 or 6″2 depending on who you listen to).

In fact, Montreal’s weaknesses have precious little to do with size and its perceived advantages at the centre position. The top-2 centres on the team are quite productive relative to their peers, while their bottom 2 centre spots can conceivably be occupied by large, young centres with more offensive potential.

Plekanec has proven in the past that he can put up more points when he has linemates who can skate with him, and Desharnais can score even more if he’s given consistent icetime throughout the season (he worked his way into the top-line slowly last year).

It is ridiculous to suggest that the Montreal Canadiens should pursue an asset that, even by Lebrun’s own admission, is exceedingly rare, especially so since it is just as rare for all 30 NHL teams. Some have been fortunate to draft, develop, or sign elite centres who happen to be big, but that does not mean that those teams who do not have such players are doomed to failure.

Cole and Pacioretty are both big and play on the top-line. If Plekanec had similarly talented wingers, would anyone call the Canadiens forwards small? Actually, if there’s an area of need that can most help the team, acquiring those wingers would be it.

A few years ago, the Montreal media was buzzing with the possibility of trading for Lecavalier. In the eyes of some, he would have been the reincarnation of Jean Beliveau and the Habs dynasty’s of old would return.

Today, would you trade either Desharnais or Plekanec straight-up for Lecavalier?

Would you really?

The reader can decide yes or no on the above, and in no way do I deny that it would be nice have an Anze Kopitar, only that obtaining a large first-line center need not be the Quest for the Holy Grail that many make it out to be. My overall point is that teams should acquire the players that best fit the team that they have, rather than chase unicorns.**

Commentators might do better to analyze what the team actually has rather than relying on assumptions about the magic bullet that can cure any NHL team, let alone the Canadiens.

***

*Instead of using averages, which can be misleading, the mode reveals quite simply the largest group of players and what height they play at. So, this is most numerous height of centre in the league, and therefore the one most likely to be encountered.

**unicorns, like talented, large centres available on the cheap, are both completely fictional.