Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Trying to Understand Jacques Martin's Lines

Since his hiring, I've not been shy about criticizing the coaching of Jacques Martin. I don't think he's a bad coach. In fact, I think he is a great coach for the right team. For the most part, however, I haven't found his style to mesh well with the group of players the Montreal Canadiens have.

Martin is a defensive-minded tactician. He likes players who are responsible in their own end and make few mistakes. Think Tom Pyatts and Andreas Engqvists. He likes balancing out his lines, putting defensive-minded players alongside goal scorers to increase the team's depth up front. He feels that the best way to eliminate errors is to punish them, frequently cutting ice time in response to a mistake. He tends to overlook potentially better choices if the ones he made previously are winning; that is to say he is a believer in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." He is not a strong communicator, often criticized by departing players for not having informed them of his intentions or rationale.

That said, he does coach a strong defensive system that is quite effective, particularly in tight-scoring playoff games. For a group of responsible veterans close to a Stanley Cup, he might be the perfect bench boss. That team isn't the Canadiens though. At least not right now.

But I can live with his unorthodox style. What is driving me crazy on the eve of the regular season is his line-up. Granted, the Habs' lines will change many times over the course of the season, and many different iterations will be tested. But at the moment, his initial personnel decisions are incomprehensible to me.

Martin is no Guy Carbonneau, notorious for his far too frequent shuffling of trios. Carbonneau seemed just one step shy of auditioning Ryan O'Byrne for the glaring hole need of a power forward. Sure Martin loves inserting a grinder like Travis Moen on to a scoring line, but he hasn't been THAT crazy. At least not yet.

Flash forward to this year's training camp. When Jacques Martin dropped Brian Gionta to David Desharnais's wing in favour of Brendan Gallagher in the penultimate preseason game, one thing was clear: he was seeking three relatively balanced scoring lines.

With Gallagher back in the WHL, Gionta returned to Scott Gomez's wing, and it was Erik Cole's turn to take a spin with Desharnais. This created the following top 9, which has held right through to yesterday's practice, and thus should be expected to start game 1 in Toronto:

Mike Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Max Pacioretty - Scott Gomez - Brain Gionta
Mathieu Darche - David Desharnais - Erik Cole

Habs fans were in uproar over Cole's name on a "third line." "Patience," I urged. Cole would surely still get big minutes, taking some shifts in place of Kostitsyn and getting plenty of powerplay time. Besides, it leaves two tried, tested, and true trios in tact as a top 6 while giving the team their best third scoring line in years. Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri don't NEED Cole to produce offense, while Andrei Kostitsyn and Desharnais both had weak preseasons and thus should be surrounded by better players. Cole himself spoke out saying he understood the change given that the players in the top 6 had experience and chemistry playing together, and that the club had to decide where he would best fit in over time. These lines, for now, could be rationalized. The fourth line, due to injuries, looked like:

Travis Moen - Andreas Engqvist - Yannick Weber

We won't get into the Andreas Engqvist debate here, as he appears poised to make the squad despite a poor training camp that showed he didn't have the best off-season training summer. Despite his good size, he has looked extremely weak on his feet, knocked off the puck far easier than a man of his height should be. Instead, let's talk Yannick Weber. The d-man as a forward was a favourite move of Carbonneau, but in Martin's defense, Weber actually looked reasonable filling in at forward during the playoffs last year. A disappointing camp meant Weber was passed by many in the blueline depth chart, but a main advantage of having him in the line-up at forward is the ability to have him at the point on a powerplay unit.

Up till now, I've defended Martin's choices here. But you'll notice the common thread in my explanations was the powerplay units. So surely, by providing them below, we'll be all good and can wrap this article up, right?

Mike Cammalleri - David Desharnais - Andrei Kostitsyn
Tomas Plekanec - P.K. Subban

Max Pacioretty - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta
Chris Campoli - Raphael Diaz

Thank you for reading, and tune in... wait.... what? What? WHAT?! You read that right. Based on practices in Collingwood, these will be our PP lines to start the year.

Before you jump on me with the "It's only training camp practice! The real lines are being hidden/rested" excuse, keep in mind the team's powerplay looked pretty awful during preseason. If the real units were different than these, they would undoubtedly be the ones getting in the extra practice time. So there you have it. No Erik Cole. No Yannick Weber.

Did Cole kick Jacques Martin's dog or something? All he has done since being signed (admittedly we have only preseason to go off of) is come exactly as advertised. He throws his body around, creates turnovers, goes to the net looking for rebounds and deflections, and even led the team in points over the 8 preseason games, held off the scoresheet in only 1 of the games for which he was dressed. And now he's slotted on to a third line with no powerplay time. I don't know the reason this newly acquired established veteran may have dug himself into the doghouse even before game 1, but hopefully this is just a temporary experiment. With the contract Pierre Gauthier gave Cole this summer, he is being counted on to be a big part of the offense for the new few seasons. I'm not sure how the inconsistent Kostitsyn gets a spot on the top unit ahead of him.

I won't be biased here. For the record, career-wise, Cole has 43 PPG in 620 games, while Kostitsyn has 29 in 326. Kostitsyn had 5 last year (out of his 20 goals) to Cole's 3 (out of 26). Thus, the averages are on Andrei's side. But who on the top PP unit is going to post himself in front of the opposing goalie? That's not Cammalleri's spot. Desharnais can do it, but many goalies can look right over him. Kostitsyn will do it on occasion, but will also disappear. That's why Cole seems to be the perfect fit there over him.

As for Weber, he did not impress during the preseason, so I would not mind him being off the powerplay. That is, if he were not in the line-up. His shot is the main reason the team is dressing him, and yet they are taking away his best opportunity to use it. If the plan is to play him at forward with defensive-minded linemates and that's it, that's all, why not dress Mike Blunden instead? If you want another offensive talent at forward, why not play Aaron Palushaj? If Weber is not being used on the powerplay, there is no reason or excuse for him being played up front. Is the Canadiens' defense that fragile that Martin wants a spare dressed just in case one of them blows a tire? Maybe we'll get lucky and Montreal will put in a successful waiver claim today for Blair Betts or Victor Oreskovich, two big forwards who could really help out.

Kudos to you, Jacques Martin, you have me stumped. For the good of the team, I hope your wacky choices pay dividends. But at least, I can be confident that if these lines struggle, you won't hesitate to change them up.

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