Sunday, October 23, 2011
Your Canadiens: Where Do We Go From Here?
With a dismal 1-4-2 record to start the season, the Montreal Canadiens already find themselves falling way behind their Eastern Conference rivals for playoff positioning. In fact, following Saturday night's loss and a Winnipeg Jets win, they are dead last in the East. No, the Stanley Cup isn't awarded in October, but the fact is there is a great deal of parity amongst teams. Every point along the way is critical, even at this early juncture. Just ask last year's New Jersey Devils who, despite a phenomenal midseason charge, finished 12 whole points out of the 8th playoff spot.
No, it's not time to panic. There are still many games remaining for the team to make the deficit up. But is it time for Pierre Gauthier and/or Geoff Molson to act and shake things up? Sure seems like it. Let's dig a little deeper.
Looking at the team's issues, it's easy to pinpoint the defensive zone play as a big weakness. There are fundamental issues with the club's group of defenders which can be pinned back on Gauthier. One way or another, the GM erred in his personnel decisions this off-season. Gauthier came out and stated that he knew at the time of signing Andrei Markov that he wouldn't be ready to start the season. Let's assume this to be true, and also give him the benefit of the doubt that signing a guy like Chris Campoli was always in the plans even before training camp opened (depending on the play of the rookies).
This means the intended season opening defense was:
Hal Gill - P.K. Subban
Chris Campoli - Josh Gorges
Jaroslav Spacek - Raphael Diaz / Alexei Emelin / Yannick Weber
Even before factoring in other injuries to Chris Campoli and Jaroslav Spacek, on paper, this is easily the worst defense the Canadiens have had in years.
If Gauthier knew Markov would miss time, he did little to ensure his group could carry the load in the interim. The group as a whole is flawed; a lack of size, physicality, passing. Inexperienced, certainly, with two rookies and two second year players in the group of 8. Love Hal Gill for what he brings to the locker room, the penalty kill, and in the playoffs, but at age 36, he shouldn't be penciled on to any team's "top pairing." Asking sophomore P.K. Subban to be a #1 quality player is a lot of pressure to put on the guy with no legitimate back-up plan (fact is, the Canadiens have NO #1 or #2 d-man right now). Josh Gorges is a fine #4-5 guy, but it was rather uncertain how his newly pieced together knees would hold up. Spacek looked poised to become the team's #7 at time's last year, and for the team to improve as a whole, should have continued sliding down the depth chart.
And all of that is before looking at the rookies. That portion of the D was supposed to be the known quantities. Even though they're both 25, Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz have often looked like the rookies they are, balancing out some solid play with lapses and turnovers in their own end. The hope, no doubt, is that they continue their adaptation process over the season and pick up their game by March, but who is there to cover for them in the short-term? Certainly not Yannick Weber.
Gone are safety nets Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski. Gone is the size of Ryan O'Byrne. Given his contract, keeping Wizz was not an option, but dropping Gill for Hammer (yes, even on a 2-year deal) would have taken hard minutes away from green newcomers. (and no, moving Spacek's 35+ contract to keep both was not a possibility) Sure, the defense needed to get younger, but a year where the team has NO legitimate top pairing blueliners is certainly not the time to break in 4 players who each have less than 100 games of NHL experience. Definitely not when you're trying to get your team over the hump to "win now."
Simply put, there are many holes on the back end, and even more question marks. If Markov is healthy and Emelin and Diaz hit their stride, it may look alright come April. The question is how far out of the 8th playoff spot will the Canadiens be by then?
And that is if we assume Gauthier is telling the truth when he says he knew Markov wasn't going to be ready. If he didn't, then that's partly on the entire Habs' brass for not doing sufficient due diligence, and/or pinning too much money, too many years, and too much hope on a complete unknown. In either case, this is certainly enough for his job to be on the line. The plan on defense is, well, defenseless.
But the problem is deeper than this. If fixing the defense would guarantee sending this team on a winning track, we could list out a number of potential candidates and Gauthier could go after whichever seems most attainable. The problem, in fact, is that there is more than just one problem - it's not just the defense that requires attention. So for a trade to be a big part of a solution, it would have to be something significant or radical.
The best partner, then, is a fellow struggling team like perhaps the Columbus Blue Jackets, Winnipeg Jets, or Calgary Flames, but Gauthier (and Bob Gainey before him) has handicapped himself due to poor asset management. Going back a few years (when Gauthier was in charge of pro scouting, which means even if Gainey was GM, any trades for NHL talent were partly his responsibility), we can look at moves like rentals (and UFA signings) that led nowhere, Mike Ribeiro for Janne Niinimaa, Mikhail Grabovski for, essentially Robert Lang and Greg Pateryn (not bad value, but hurting the team now), Matt D'Agostini for Aaron Palushaj, Guillaume Latendresse for Benoit Pouliot, Sergei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre each for basically nothing, letting the entire 2008-09 team that was pretty clearly going nowhere walk out the door with zero compensation, and certainly, the still-hurting-today Scott Gomez trade (the team would look better today with Ryan McDonagh in the line-up than having Gomez). We won't blame draft miscues on the GMs, because this goes back to scouting as well, but the team's record has been well below average in the first round, the best time for picking up impact players.
Gauthier (and Gainey) opted to address areas of concern with patches (no offense intended to Max Pacioretty). Have a need? Sign one guy or trade for a player, and voila. This has short-term benefits at best. How do you address a fundamental need successfully? You re-design your team to be stronger in that area. The team doesn't need one enforcer; they need to increase toughness throughout the line-up! Boston has had no qualms about shuffling d-men on and off the team, or swapping up their top 9 forwards. Philadelphia dug deep to address their goaltending situation. To get over the hump, L.A. gave up a top prospect and was active on the UFA and trade market to stack their top 6 offensively. A team needs to be bold to improve when it has been stalling for some time. And if that requires too many moves, instead of transacting to fill out the bottom part of your roster, you try to bring in higher end players and have your existing guys filter down through the depth chart to areas of need. Don't go out and get a new #6 d-man to plug an injury hole; make a bigger move for a top 4 guy and let the player you've been forcing into top 4 minutes get back to his normal bottom pair role.
Let's look at coaching next. The fan uproar to have Jacques Martin fired continues to get louder and louder with each passing day. And anyone laying some blame on the coach is not wrong. A defensive shell, punish mistakes rather than reward good play, old guard system like Martin runs is not a good fit for this group of smaller, softer, skilled players.
The Habs led the league in Too Many Men on the Ice bench minors last season, and took 2 of them in the loss to the Leafs. This call can be directly link to poor communication between the coaching staff and the players, something for which Martin has long been criticized. The lack of good lines of communication was very noticeable during the loss to the Pittsburgh Penugins on Thursday when, after the Penguins called a timeout on an icing while ahead 3-0 with about 10 minutes to go, Martin and his staff chose not to say a word to their troops.
Still sticking with just the most recent examples, Lars Eller - likely the brightest spot for the team thus far this season with his skill play - was quoted following Saturday's game as saying he wasn't even aware that Toronto had changed goaltenders following the first period. One would think this is something a coaching staff should be responsible for informing thier players of. And then of course there's the baffling personnel decisions. He plays favourites with guys like Mathieu Darche and David Desharnais, and insists on slotting players in places they don't belong (Yannick Weber at forward, Tomas Plekanec on the powerplay point, and Travis Moen on pure scoring lines).
And then there was the public blow-up after the last loss. Many have surmised based on some comments in the press that there are already fractures in the relationship between Martin and Erik Cole. The coach went out of his way to publicly state that Cole "wasn't a saviour," and has refused to give him regular powerplay time. Following the Leafs game, in responding to TSN 990 radio reporter Jess Rusnak's question on using Darche on the PP over Cole, Martin said that it was his prerogative to play his players and that based on their powerplay output last season, she should do her research. Well, Mr. Martin, certainly Cole is more of a 5-on-5 guy than a powerplay specialist, but he still had 3 powerplay goals last year and 43 over his career. With admittedly far far fewer opportunities, Darche's 2 last season gives him a grand total of.... 3... over his 196 NHL games.
No one would blame any general manager league wide for firing their coach based on this pool of evidence. The team has looked unready and unprepared on numerous occasions, the powerplay is a mess, and they seem easily deflated when things start to go wrong. But if Martin and his staff are to be replaced, who is out there to be hired to step in?
The answer is not Patrick Roy. There is a cohesive leadership core in place in Montreal, and Roy is an "all about me" type leader. He is inexperienced and far too emotional for the role.
The answer is also not Kirk Muller. Despite the deserved love he got as an assistant coach, there is a reason he wasn't offered a head coaching job at the NHL level for this season. He just isn't ready. He's a great guy to have to support a head coach in managing the coach:player relationship, but he is too much of a relationship guy and not enough of a direction / authoritative type to take on the role before more seasoning at the AHL level.
The problem then becomes a lack of available candidates at this point. Marc Crawford and Michel Therrien are hardly appealing, and the Canadiens are likely to stick to their "head coach must speak French" rule (the logic being that the coach needs to be able to conduct press conference in both languages, like it or not). Would putting the pair of Randy Ladouceur and Randy Cunneyworth in charge on an interim basis until the summer be better than retaining Martin? At this point, it doesn't seem like it could be much worse.
Beyond the GM, coach, and defense, we could get into the forwards as well, many of whom have been chronically underperforming. But it seems hard to really place much blame there given that, on paper anyway, the group under contract should be good enough to compete with most teams around the league. For whatever reason, the environment, mix/chemistry, and/or style of play is hurting their output. The team goes through periods where it looks like they'll never score another goal and can't get anything going, which is rather inexplicable when you look at the track records and potential of many of the players. Sure, they lack an impact superstar up front, but you could say so do the Boston Bruins, and it didn't stop them from winning a Stanley Cup.
So is that it? Is it time to Fail for Nail (expected first overall 2012 pick, Nail Yakupov)? Not yet, but all signs indicate it is time for action. Geoff Molson must show what kind of an owner and president he is going to be by firmly addressing the issues within his staff. Blame the players all you'd like, but the men in charge must now face the music.