Sunday, February 25, 2018

In Memoriam

PLEKANEC, Tomas "Pleky" - Traded reluctantly away at the Bell Centre in Montreal, hardworking, reliable centreman, Tomas Plekanec, in his 35th year.

Born in Kladno, Czech Republic on Halloween night, 1982, Plekanec began playing hockey at an early age. At 18, he was selected in the third round of the NHL entry draft by the Montreal Canadiens, 71st overall.

While playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs as a young prospect, he narrowly escaped getting traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for Alex Kovalev. Rangers GM chose Josef Balej instead, which worked out well for the Canadiens. Plekanec would go on to centre Kovalev on the Habs most productive line in twenty years.

It was also in Hamilton that Plekanec discovered a fondness for his signature turtleneck. The two spent a very happy fifteen years together.

Known as an excellent two-way player, Plekanec was often given the difficult task of shutting down the opposition's top centres during the playoffs, which he did without complaint, even if it meant not scoring as much himself. He always put  his team first, including while discretely carving up opponents with his stick in the corners. It's to his credit that Brad Marchand and Sidney Crosby admitted hating his guts.

A man of few words, when Plekanec did speak, he told the unvarnished truth. This included describing his play as being that of "a little girl" on one memorable playoff occasion. It also got him into trouble with the Washington Capitals when he pointed out their team's goalies weren't as good as the Canadiens'. He saved himself by scoring a thrilling overtime winner in the first playoff game between the two teams in 2010, becoming known, briefly, as Tomas Jagr.

On February 25, 2018, Plekanec was indiscriminately dispatched to Toronto, ensuring he won't get to play his thousandth NHL game this year, and Habs fans can no longer cheer for him because it would mean a leaf Cup.

He leaves to mourn thousands of loyal supporters who felt his pain at the dozens of stone-handed linemates he got stuck with over the years.

He will be sadly missed.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Why We Still Should Love Pleky

If you've read my blog in the past, you'll know I have only had two Habs players I considered my "favourites" in a particular era. In my early years as a fan, I adored the young Patrick Roy. I loved his skills, his attitude (the Wink!) and his willingness to drop 'em in a goalie fight whenever the spirit moved him. His trade put my relationship with the Canadiens on hold for nearly five years.

For the last decade-plus, my favourite has been Tomas Plekanec. I love his two-way game, and his brutal honesty. And, most of all, I respect the way he always did whatever the coaches asked of him without complaint, even if it meant his own stats suffered in the process.

Now, however, my boy is old. Last season he was on the road to being a hockey senior citizen, but now he's there. With the encroachment of age, his offensive-zone play has dropped off and the vultures are circling. Angry, disillusioned fans are looking for someone to blame for the disaster this season has been, and they want Pleky dumped for a pick at the deadline. While it's within the realm of common sense to trade a player in his declining years if the return is decent, it doesn't make sense to dump a guy who's given everything to the franchise for peanuts over nearly a thousand NHL games just...because.

With that in mind, and remembering what an unexpectedly solid career this third-rounder has had in Montreal, there are still reasons why we should love Pleky.

1.  The time he scored a 5-on-3 shorty against the leafs. I had actually never witnessed a shorty with two men down before, so this was extra cool. It was also an added bonus that Phaneuf was on the ice when he got the breakaway. How can you not love the guy?!

2. One of the all-time greatest Pleky moments was in the 2010 playoffs, when he scored the OT winner in Game One against the Caps. After honestly saying the Washington goalie tandem wasn't the best in the league, Jose Theodore mocked him, pretending he'd never heard of him and then calling him "Jagr." It was SO sweet to watch him own Theodore on the winning goal, it's become a classic Plekanec moment.

3. One of Plekanec's trademarks is his unselfish play. If a teammate has two goals, he'll always look for that guy for the hat trick. If another player has the better look, Pleky will give up his own chance to score and give it to his teammate. He's team-first and always has been..

4. Pleky actually has an underrated shot. He's scored some important, unexpected goals over the years because of his sneakily-quick shot.

5. While his shot is good, his passing is Plekanec's real offensive weapon. In his prime, he could thread a needle with black thread in the dark at midnight.

6. Over the years, Plekanec has spent about two-and-a-half minutes penalty killing per game. This often meant his offensive production slowed down as the wear-and-tear of the heavy workload wore on him later in the season. The problem has always been, the Habs have had nobody who's better at it, so Pleky gave away some of his scoring in order to be a more well-rounded player, for the good of the team.

7. He's probably the only guy in the world, other than the Dos Equis dude who can rock the turtleneck

8. Over the years, my favourite moments of any game have been Tomas Plekanec breakaways. The anticipation that allowed him to intercept an opponent's pass or receive one in the clear, then the head-down, all-out turbo speed up ice was always so exciting.

9. I believe you have to love Plekanec just because Brad Marchand hates him. Any player that little meathead despises is good enough for me.

10. It's very special that, after a dozen years in the NHL, Plekanec has always been a Hab. It's extremely rare in these days of early free agency and deadline trade deals that a player stays with a single team for a career, so it's a little bit remarkable when it happens. Pleky is less than forty games away from achieving that landmark as a Canadien, and it's reflective of the value he's had to this team for such a long time.

So, there you go. Even though he's old and doesn't score much anymore, Tomas Plekanec has earned our respect and praise. If he's traded next month, let it be for a real return. Otherwise, let him retire as a Canadien as a sign of the honour he's earned as an excellent Hab. We shouldn't forget all he's done just because his boss didn't build a better team.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Taking the Pulse

On September 4, 1943, Wing Commander J.F.Young at the RCAF base in Gander, Newfoundland, took a B-24 Liberator bomber up as part of an experiment in airplane noise levels. It was meant to be a routine flight, but local people, to their horror, watched the big bomber make a slow turn, then plummet directly down into Gander Lake. Divers attempted to salvage the wreck, but found the plane resting on a ledge balanced between shallow and deeper water. During the course of the operation, the plane slipped off the ledge and sank to the bottom of the lake where it lay out of range of recovery. It's been sitting there for almost 75 years.

Well, Habs fans, your team is on the ledge.

They can't score goals, aren't great at preventing them and are likely going to finish in the draft lottery. From there, they will probably pick a player with talent whom they'll either rush to the NHL before he's ready or bequeath to the Sylvain Lefebvre development program, which has produced one playoff round at the AHL level in five years (they were swept) and looks unlikely to make the post season this year. On the current NHL roster, the only Canadiens draft picks who spent time under Lefebvre are Charles Hudon, Jacob de la Rose and Brendan Gallagher. They have 40 points between them this year...the majority of those from Gallagher who only played 36 games in the "development" league back in 2012.

This is a bad hockey team with very little hope for a quick turnaround in the future. It's not the worst group the Habs have iced since their last Cup in 1993, but it may be the most demoralising. Once upon a time, fans remembered what it felt like to win, and so did the players. Even if they lost, they still tried hard. Now they look lost, disorganized and completely hopeless. A large number of fans who buy jerseys and tickets have never seen a championship team in Montreal. Even the formerly die-hard, willing-to-live-in-the-past fans have had enough and are sending their chilly message of unacceptability at the Bell Centre. It won't be long before the silence comes not from disapproving fans, but from empty seats.

With the current state of affairs being what it is, I thought it would be interesting to gauge the mood of long-time fans. To that end, here's a little quiz:

1. You think Carey Price's contract is:
a) Appropriate. He's the only one on the team who's earning his money.
b) Too much for too long. His deal is as bad as Luongo's in Vancouver.
c) Ridiculous. He should have been traded for assets before he signed the extension.
d) Brilliant. It's all part of Marc Bergevin's plan to burn the Habs to ashes, only to have them rise, phoenix-like from the ashes to glory.

2. The current defence-corps is:
a) Decent. They've had some injuries, but the regular top six are competent and not to blame for the current mess.
b) Better than last year. Bergevin said so.
c) Hopeless. They're more likely to lead a conga line at Mardi Gras than impede an oncoming forward.
d) Missing the General. We hope you're enjoying your millions of available cap space, Bergevin.

3. The captain should be:
a) Traded. He's one of the few movable assets with a decent contract for another year and a chance to bring a useful return.
b) Given another chance. He's one of the best goal scorers in the league since the lockout, and the Canadiens can't afford to give up offence.
c) Demoted from the captaincy. He's not temperamentally suited to the position because he's too hard on himself when he struggles.
d) Made to be the marshal of Montreal's "We Used to Have Pride" parade. Follows the old Stanley Cup route, but in January. At night.

4. The Drouin-for-Sergachev trade was:
a) Great. The team had to give to get, and badly needed offence.
b) Good for cultural appeal. The Canadiens must have a French-Canadian star, even if he's not yet living up to expectations.
c) Dreadful. Sergachev, an 19-year-old D is putting up more points and playing a much better all-around game than the Great Hope and will continue to be the better player for many years.
d) Just another brick in the wall. More evidence of Bergevin blinded to all else by the sheer number of colours in his suit closet.

5. Should the Habs end up with a lottery pick, they should:
a) Take the best possible player, regardless of position. There are so many holes on the team, everything is needed.
b) Deliberately choose the best centre available. The position has been an Achilles heel for so many years, it's got to be a priority in a rebuild.
c) Pick Minnesota's Mr. Hockey. Just because it's been a while.
d) Give it back. This team no longer deserves to spoil good young players.

6. The team is having such trouble scoring because of:
a) The system. Claude Julien's defence-first system is too similar to his predecessor's, and built for a stronger, more mobile group.
b) The lack of talent. Nobody in the forward positions is capable of hitting the water from a boat in a good year. Don't even ask about the D.
c) NHL regulations. Carey Price is not allowed to skate past the red line.
d) Fidelity. Scoring outside the home would make them unfaithful.

7. The song that most makes you think of the Habs this year is:
a) Kelly Clarkson's "Beautiful Disaster."
b) Def Leppard's "Armageddon It."
c) The Who's "So Sad About Us."
d) Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It."

8. If Geoff Molson decides to part ways with Marc Bergevin, the Habs should:
a) Hire Patrick Roy. At least the press conferences would be interesting.
b) Hire the fans. A reality show-like contest to choose a management committee could be a source of untapped revenue.
c) Bring back Serge Savard. Maybe there's a little savvy left in the last GM to bring a Cup to Montreal. Plus, he'd be available for ceremonies dwelling on the team's past.
d) Hire the best possible candidate. The team can't afford the niceties of choosing a language preference for this position.

9. If you were offered seats in the red for fifty bucks, you would:
a) Go. What the hell; you've followed the team for this long.
b) Go and boo. Fifty bucks is cheap for a chance to let this team know how it's made you feel.
c) Pass. You'd rather use the money for underpants and deodorant.
d) Laugh uproariously. For $22, you can see the Lightning play real hockey. In Florida.

10. At this point, your feelings about being a Habs fan are best described as:
a) Defiant. No matter how bad they are, you will watch because they're your team.
b) Bitter. They had good players over the years, but management has failed them.
c) Sad. You're glad Jean Beliveau can't see this.
d) Indifferent. This team has been useless for so long now, you realize you haven't seen a game in a month because you've been busy playing classic Nintendo.

I'm interested to see how you're feeling, fans. Especially because right now, the Canadiens are balancing on a ledge between shallow water and seventy-five years in the unreachable depths.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Eating Their Young

There's something seriously wrong in Montreal when it comes to nurturing the next generation.

Take a look at the last ten years of drafting. In 2007, the Canadiens picked four future NHL players. Only Max Pacioretty remains with the team, where he still regularly faces public criticism about his fitness to be captain, his on-ice production and his crises of confidence. Somehow, he claims to love playing in Montreal.

P.K.Subban was traded for Shea Weber after several years of veiled implications that he was a me-first player and amid outright finger pointing from his coach. Ryan McDonagh didn't even get the chance to prove himself in the NHL before getting traded for Scott Gomez, in part because management didn't like his performance at the world juniors the previous winter. He's now a star in New York. Yannick Weber had an up-and-down career in Montreal, but remains in the NHL with the Predators. That was the best draft class the Canadiens have had in the last decade.

The next two drafts, in 2008 and 2009, saw 112 NHL games played among the twelve players chosen. Notable among them was first-rounder Louis Leblanc, who suffered the dreaded high-ankle sprain in 2012. He came back in the AHL to minimal ice-time with scrub linemates and little PP time. Worse were reports that coach Sylvain Lefebvre systematically destroyed his confidence, even that he tied elastic bands to the player's skates to improve his stride. Leblanc eventually was traded for a fifth-round pick.

In 2010, the draft yielded NHLer Brendan Gallagher in the fifth round. The year's first-rounder was Jarred Tinordi who never earned the trust of his coaches and was traded for a couple of scrubs shortly before receiving a 20-game suspension for drug violations. The following year, the Habs picked one NHLer in first-rounder Nathan Beaulieu. He's now a member of the Buffalo Sabres; traded for a third-round pick after failing to live up to his potential in Montreal, and following newspaper reports about his penchant for partying and his lack of respect for fans.

That brings us to 2012. For the first time since Carey Price was drafted fifth overall in 2005, the Canadiens had a lottery pick and a chance to add some serious talent to a struggling lineup. Some might argue (with hindsight) that Filip Forsberg would have been the more productive pick, but Galchenyuk was a solid choice with tons of potential.

As it's turned out, though, his developmental learning curve has been just as steep and rocky as some of his predecessors'. Thrust into the NHL spotlight at 18, Galchenyuk has been the subject of debate about whether he's qualified to play centre every season since. He's been publicly mocked for being involved in a domestic altercation with a girlfriend and criticized for being Beaulieu's party pal. This season he's been regularly demoted to fourth-line wing duty in punishment for a lack of production.

Now this young player is dealing with the malicious revelation that he may have voluntarily entered the NHL's substance abuse treatment program. The person who decided to publicly announce this was none other than ex-player and ex-coach Mario Tremblay who was convicted last year for refusing to give a give a breath sample in a suspected drunk driving incident.

A player who voluntarily looks for help in the alcoholic culture of the NHL is to be applauded. We don't need to know their names or why they look for help. It's enough that they're self-aware enough to seek counselling in the first place.

For an alleged hockey professional to break the sacred confidence of rehab and betray a young player is unforgivable. Tremblay should be ashamed.

In the meantime, the Galchenyuk case is just the latest public embarrassment of a young player in Montreal. The party culture, the adulation of young women and the open-door policy of the local bar owners gives young men a degree of licence they don't get anywhere else. Unsurprisingly, they fall under the thrall of such privilege. The fact the team does little to help youngsters deal with the wealth of temptation in their city is shameful.

Management studiously ignores the problems off ice and focus on criticism on the ice. That does nothing but destroy confidence and leave young players adrift.

Just look at the last ten years and decide if the Canadiens' strategy of developing youngsters is working.


Friday, September 29, 2017


I confess, I haven't watched too much of the Canadiens' dreadful 2017-18 pre-season. Over years of supporting this team, I've realized the games in September really don't reflect what will happen when October comes. Still, you have to think ZERO wins in the warm-up games can't be a good sign.

There are many reasons why Habs fans are going into the new year with trepidation. The loss of Andrei Markov who, even in his late thirties, played a ton of solid minutes on the back end last year will impact the stability of the blueline. Paying top dollar and term for Carey Price while doing little to shore up last year's struggling offence (Jonathan Drouin can't do everything) puts the team a knee injury away from disaster. The prospects are obviously not a match for those of other teams in the Northeast division. Victor Mete aside, it's hard to imagine most of them making the NHL any time soon.

Those are some stark facts which most of us recognize and we're skeptical going into the season because of them. Most of us.

I have a friend, however, who's one of the most loyal Canadiens followers I've ever met. I mean, this is a serious fan. She grew up in the '70s in Massachusetts and wore a Habs sweater to the Boston Garden, which was a life-threatening move at the time. She's attended the Canadiens fantasy camp more than once. She has cats named for members of the 1950s Punch Line. She's been known to stalk Jacques Lemaire.

When myself and my cynical fellow fans watch games, we start to get sarcastic around the time the second PP of the game shoots blanks. By the time the team is getting shut out by the Hurricanes, we're angry at management, the inept forwards and the universe. Not my friend.

The Canadiens might be down 3-0 with a minute to go, and she's reminding us Bill Mosienko scored a hat trick in 21 seconds, and Jean Beliveau did it in 44. If they're down by three with twenty seconds to go, she reminds us records are made to be broken. She tells us Karma will save the day.

The only problem is, I don't think Karma is as good a friend as she does. One definition of it is: "The spiritual principal of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of  that individual (effect.)" In other words, if you do good things, good things will come back to you. Likewise, if bad things (like the other team scoring on an iffy penalty call) happen to you, good things will come to offset the bad.

That's a great theory for the hopeful among us. However, Karma isn't an in-game phenomenon. She has a long-term memory and she owes Canadiens fans a lot of payback. 

Once upon a time, the Habs were members of a six-team league, blessed with a copious number of talented players right in their own back yard who all dreamed of playing in Montreal. The set-up brought five Cups in a row in the '50s and more in the '60s. Even after expansion the Habs had the best GM in the business in Sam Pollock. Pollock maneuvered the 1971 draft to land Guy Lafleur with the first pick. He regularly traded chaff for wheat, to the detriment of those who dealt with him. As a result, the Canadiens won a ton of Stanley Cups and fans did a lot of rubbing it in. 

Now here we are with a dubiously-skilled GM in Marc Bergevin, with 2012 first-round pick Alex Galchenyuk, the most recent top draft choice to make the NHL, on the third line with trade rumours troubling him. The team is 25 seasons out from its last Stanley Cup and doesn't look much like a contender this year. Some might say, Karma is balancing the scales for decades of triumph with the drought we're in now. leafs fans are laughing at us. 

I admire my friend for never giving up on the Canadiens, no matter what. She truly believes Karma will help them pull off the last-second OT goal or defend a precarious lead under pressure. I feel for the fans who are as optimistic as she is. Thanks to her, I believe in Karma too.

Only thing is, I believe Karma is a bitch.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Price for Price

Carey Price is unquestionably one of the best goaltenders in the world right now.  He's a Vezina and Hart Trophy winner. He led Canada to Olympic gold. He was a high first-round draft pick and a world junior gold medalist. The man is the real deal; a legit superstar.

The only prize of significance Price has yet to win is the Stanley Cup. And one can argue he never will as long as he's in Montreal. General manager Marc Bergevin has had five years to take advantage of Price's prime and build a championship calibre team around him. Most would agree he's failed to do that. The Habs are not the Penguins or Blackhawks. That's why now is the right time to trade Price.

The Canadiens have been trying to improve at the centre position for years now, but due to poor first-round drafting and suspect development of its prospects, the club has stagnated. A big reason for that is a chronic lack of tradeable assets. When you draft mediocre players it's tough to move them for players of greater value. You can't trade draft picks when you need them desperately yourself. And, when the roster is full of underperformers, it means potential trade partners want more than the diminutive winger who hasn't scored in twelve games with whom you're willing to part.

To really gain, you have to give, and the Canadiens have little to give that would bring a significant return. The one enticing piece they could offer right now is Price. Even though he struggled for a lengthy period this season and has missed serious time with injuries in the last couple of years, his reputation as one of the best money goalies in the league persists. Teams close to a Cup, but missing that security in net, would be potential trade partners and the return would be high.

There is a compelling case to move Price now. First of all, as a butterfly-style goalie with a history of joint injuries, his body's warranty is not unlimited. Turning thirty this summer, he may have two years or five of healthy play ahead of him. He may also end up with a debilitating injury in training camp next fall. He's not infallible and if he's hurt long-term, he's no good to the Canadiens and his return in a trade will drop precipitously.

The second issue the Canadiens will have with Price is his next contract. He's got one year left with a cap hit of 6.5-million dollars, which, when you consider his role on the team and his contributions to it, is extremely reasonable. However, after next year, he'll be looking for lifetime security. He doesn't know, any more than we do, how long his body will hold up. At 31, a five or six-year deal will take him into his declining years even if he remains healthy. So, he'll likely be looking for the kind of money most teams' best players make. That's not unfair, but Bergevin has to be careful about ending up in a Luongo trap.

Back in 2010, the Canucks signed Luongo to a twelve-year, 64-million dollar contract. At the same time, a young Corey Schneider was proving himself as an up-and-coming star. The Canucks would have loved to move Luongo to save the cap space and make room for Schneider, but the former's contract made him untradeable. In the end, Schneider got traded because he needed to play to fulfill his potential. Later when the collective bargaining agreement allowed salary retention, Luongo went to Florida and the Canucks ended up with neither of their star goalies; replacing them with an aging Ryan Miller and three out of the last four years with no playoffs.

The Canadiens now are in a situation in which the goalie is the undisputed best player on the team. That means he has the most value. Watching the team in this playoff, in which one or two goals against are enough to lose a game, it's proof Price needs to go in exchange for a variety of pieces that will improve the team. After all, teams have won the Cup with decent, not star, goalies. But they've rarely won with ONLY a goalie.

So, what's fair value for Price? Any team trading for him must, at the very least, offer its first-round pick. Then, considering the Habs dearth of useful prospects, there must be two solid prospect offers. One on forward and one on defence. A third-or-fourth line NHLer wouldn't be out of the equation either.

Any way you look at it, Price's time of usefulness is coming to an end. A smart GM would realize that a team's best player can't be its goalie without other players to back him up. On the other hand, you CAN have a solid team with a merely decent goalie. If Bergevin can come to the logical conclusion, Price will move and the return for him will be the foundation of the next Cup.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Price of Getting Shellacked

Michel Therrien has done many dumb things in his NHL coaching career. Questionable overuse of mediocre players like David Desharnais, a failure to make tactical adjustments other than rearranging his line combinations and over-reliance on slowing veterans are chief among them. None of those obvious shortcomings have imperiled his position with his boss, Marc Bergevin.

In another city, with another GM (see Pittsburgh, 2009), Therrien likely would have been replaced after a season like last year's. In Montreal, under Bergevin, however, Therrien has the enviable safety net of the best goalie in the world saving the team from disaster on a regular basis, and thereby glossing over the coach's failures. It's fair to say, based on the Habs record with and without him, Price is Therrien's ticket to job security.

During the 10-0 dismantling of the Habs by the Columbus Blue Jackets, though, Therrien might have finally made a fatal error. Leaving Al Montoya in net for all ten Jackets goals humiliated the veteran goalie who obviously wasn't having a good night. While it's understandable for Therrien to want to give Price the night off and protect him from risking injury in what had become a meaningless game, Price had other ideas.

As the score mounted and became more and more embarrassing, Price got up half-way into the second period and went to the tunnel to stretch. And stretch. Nobody told him to do so, but, like everyone else watching Montoya's embarrassment, Price assumed Therrien would show mercy and replace the guy. Price, the real leader of the Canadiens, was frustrated and upset by the way things were going on the ice and he wanted to get in there to help stop the bleeding. When that didn't happen; when the coach left his goaltending partner to serve out the whole mortifying sixty minutes without relief, Price could not have been happy.

Whenever a team takes the kind of nosedive last year's Habs did, we say the coach has "lost the room," but Therrien managed to survive that because he had the "Price was injured" excuse to protect him. Now, with Price healthy and playing at the top of his game, Therrien has a bigger concern. When he threw Montoya under the bus, he risked losing Price's support. And if he loses Price, he really has lost the room.

Max Pacioretty may wear the "C," but Carey Price is this team's captain. While it's not in his nature to quit just because he dislikes the coach, his opinion will influence his teammates. After that embarrassment in Columbus, he can't be thinking happy thoughts about Therrien. And that may be the dumbest thing Therrien has ever done.