Wednesday, March 2, 2016

How the Coach Stole Playoffs

Every Hab down in Habsville liked playoffs a lot...

But the coach, who was just north of tubby, Did NOT!

The coach hated playoffs! The whole playoff season!

Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.

It could be, perhaps, that his suits were too tight.

But I think that the most likely reason of all,

May have been that his brain was two sizes too small.

Whatever the reason, his brain or his suit,

He stood there at playoff time, Habs chances moot.

Staring out from his bench with a sour, grumpy frown,

As the banners above spoke of teams of renown.

He knew every Habs fan was there at the wickets,

Standing ready to purchase next season's tickets.

"And they're buying their jerseys!" he snarled with a sneer,

"Next month is playoffs! And they want us here!"

Then he growled, with his short fingers nervously drumming,

"I MUST find some way to stop playoffs from coming!"

For in April, he knew, all the Habs girls and boys,

Would wake bright and early; dust off their Habs toys!

And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise!

Noise! Noise! Noise!

That's one thing he hated! The NOISE!

NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!

Then all fans, young and old, would throng into the Bell.

And they'd yell! And they'd yell! And they'd YELL!

YELL! YELL! YELL!

They would yell at Ovechkin, and at Bergeron too.

Which the coach loved as much as a stone in his shoe!

And THEN they'd do something he liked least of all!

Every Habs fan in Habsville, the tall and the small,

Would stand close together, with rafters a-ringing.

They'd stand side by side. And the fans would start singing!

They'd sing! And they'd sing! And they'd SING!

SING! SING! SING!

And the more the coach thought of this fan playoff sing,

The more the coach thought, "I must stop this whole thing!"

"Why, for four long, long years I've put up with it now!"

"I MUST stop this playoff from coming! But HOW?"

Then he got an idea! An awful idea!

THE COACH GOT A WONDERFUL, AWFUL IDEA!

"I know just what to do!" The coach laughed in his throat.

And he drew up a powerplay, starting to gloat.

And he chuckled, and clucked, "What a great sneaky trick!"

"I'll use Davey to start to be sure it won't click!"

"All I need is a scapegoat..." The coach looked around.

But really terrible players didn't abound

Did that stop the old coach? No! The coach simply said,

"If I can't find a scapegoat, I'll make one instead!"

So he called his dog, Lars, who responded with dread.

"If you make a mistake, then it's all on your head."

THEN he loaded some scrubs and some old tired hacks,

On a ramshackle special team,  leaning on Max.

Then the coach said, "'Ard! 'Ard" And the team started down,

From the top of the heap to the shame of the town.

The fans' outlooks were dark. Quiet fear filled the air.

As the GM was dreaming sweet dreams without care.

And the coach kept on filling round holes with the square.

"Don't you second-guess me," the old vacant coach hissed,

And his face turned bright red as he shook his fat fist.

Then they slid down the standings, past Caps and the Rangers.

But no one in management recognized dangers.

He got stuck only once, for a moment or two.

Then he set up his team to take less than their due.

Where the Stanley Cup banners all hung in a row.

"This goalie," he grinned, "is the first thing to go!"

Then he played Price too soon, with a smile most unpleasant,

'Til he went down for good thanks to the old peasant.

Pop guns on offence! Defence that's all thumbs!

No forecheck! No backcheck! They all played like bums!

They lost more and more games. Then the coach, very nimbly,

Defended his methods in French, although dimly!

Then he revamped the lineup from  greatest to least.

And he managed to plummet to low in the East.

Bergie cleaned out that roster, no more Weise or Flash.

Fans bemoaned the unpalatable plate of Habs-hash!

When the coach said "Be happy! I'll play all the kids now,"

And still Chucky played less time than DD somehow.

As the coach kept on making the same old mistakes,

The Habs bandwagon kept on downhill without brakes.

With Desharnais out and Chuck still on the wing

(For no one could replace the old coach's offspring,)

Somehow the young guy started scoring nice points,

Proving he who's the best isn't who coach anoints.

And fans stared at the coach and said, "Therrien, why,”

"Why are you wrecking our playoff chance? WHY?"

But, you know, that old coach was so oily and slick,

He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!

"Why, my dear loyal fans," the incompetent lied,

"There's a gap on this team, see there on the right side."

"And our goalie is out; he's our best hope for wins."

"And there's P.K., who's guilty of multiple sins."

And his lies fooled the press. Then he smirked and stepped back,

And had high octane beer before hitting the rack.

The fans went to sleep with no hope of a Cup,

While the coach cashed his paycheck, living it up.

The last thing he took was the torch's bright fire!

With lots of excuses and whines,  the old liar.

In the room he left nothing but hooks and some wire.

And the one speck of hope that he left in the Bell,

Was that this season's sounding the coach's death-knell.

Then the GM did something no one expected

Announcing, from his view, the coach was protected.

It was quarter past deadline... most Habs still were Habs.

While fans wished for the coaching staff laid out on slabs.

They packed up the season, the hoping and dreaming

The fun and the laughter, the cheers and the screaming.

Seven floors up the Bell,  where the managers live,

They all knew that the team just had no more to give.

"PoohPooh to the fans!" coach was gleefully humming.

"They're finding out now that no playoffs are coming!"

"They're just waking up! I know just what they'll do!"

"Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,

Then the fans down in Habsville will all cry BooHoo!"

"That's a noise," grinned the coach, "That I simply MUST hear!"

So he paused. And the coach put his hand to his ear.

And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.

It started in low. Then it started to grow.

But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded angry!

It couldn't be so! But it WAS angry! ANGRY!

He stared down at Habsville! The coach popped his eyes!

Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every fan down in Habsville, the tall and the small,

Was chanting! Without any playoffs at all!

He HADN'T stopped playoffs from coming! SO LAME!

Somehow or other, fans yelled just the same!

And the coach, with his cheap shoes ice-cold in the snow,

Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"

"They chant without Davey! They chant without Price!"

"They chant without anything decent on ice."

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.

Then the coach thought of something he hadn't before!

"Maybe playoffs," he thought, "are not what it's about."

"And maybe the true fans don't have any doubt!"

And what happened then? Well...in Habsville they say,

That the coach misjudged fans for the last time that day!

In one minute he thought he was liked after all,

So he whizzed to the Bell; he was standing so tall,

He vowed to keep coaching in all kinds of weathers!

And the fans met him there with hot tar and feathers.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Maledictus Anno

The ancient Romans had a term for "horrible year." An "annus horribilus" is a year that isn't just bad...we're not talking people forgetting your birthday or breaking a toe...it's a spectacular disappointment in every way. It's how Queen Elizabeth II defined 1992. That year, two of her children got very publicly divorced, her heir, the Prince of Wales got separated after his wife's tell-all book mortified the family and his own embarrassing conversations with his mistress went public, the Royal Family was forced to pay income tax and Windsor Castle burned. That's an annus horribilius. 

The Montreal Canadiens had an annus horribilus in 2012. Andre Markov got hurt in the first game of the season and was out for months. Max Pacioretty was suspended for a hit on Kris Letang, which affected the former's mindset toward physical play long afterwards. The power play was in the basement, so the team traded for Tomas Kaberle who'd later have to be bought out. GM Pierre Gauthier fired coach Jacques Martin and appointed Randy Cunneyworth, whose inability to speak French sparked protests from the most disgruntled purists, as interim. Mike Cammalleri was traded in the middle of a game. The team was eliminated from the playoffs in March and then owner Geoff Molson fired Gauthier. The only silver lining in that horrible year was the opportunity to draft third overall. The team chose Alex Galchenyuk that June.

This season has been another torturous year for fans and, very likely, for the players who just want to win. This time, though, it feels like more than an annus horribilus. No, this year is a maledictus anno. A cursed year. If 2012 was a collection of unfortunate events, 2016 is the year in which everything the team touches turns to garbage. It's really almost unbelievable.

It started right from training camp. GM Marc Bergevin needed size and scoring up front, so he traded for Zach Kassian and signed Alexander Semin. Kassian promptly ended up embroiled in scandal after his early-morning companion crashed his truck into a tree, injuring the player who then ended up in the league's substance abuse program. Semin lit it up in training camp, but when the season started he regressed to the mean of his most recent years in the league and stopped scoring. He was waived and released. The off-season was instantly a bust.

Then the injuries hit. Carey Price, the heart and soul of the team and its best player, first went down at the end of October. He re-injured himself after a brief return and has only been seen since while wincing in pain as he tried to skate. Brendan Gallagher who plays every shift as though it's his last, missed six weeks after breaking his fingers blocking a shot. Ten days after Gallagher's injury, the team's plunge to the cellar began. Coach Michel Therrien, rather than simply replacing Gallagher on the hot line with Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty, decided to mix up all the lines and in the process broke any chemistry there had been in the early part of the season.

When the steep decline began in early December, Therrien blamed "puck luck." As in, the Canadiens didn't have any. While it's a cheap excuse on the surface, it has to be admitted there was a grain of truth in it in this case. The team consistently outshot opponents in the early part of the decline, but couldn't put a puck in the other net to save their lives. Sometimes they'd meet a goalie who stood on his head. Other times, they'd hit four posts in a game, all of which bounced out. They missed breakaways and deflected pucks into their own net. A defenceman misfired on a clearing attempt and it ended up directly on the stick of the sniper in front of his net on more than one occasion. Every mistake seemed to end up as a goal against, while their greatest efforts failed to produce results. Eventually, they lost confidence and started thinking too much about every play, which we know in hockey is the kiss of death. The losses piled up.

Pacioretty, the new captain who had in September talked about how he was honoured to follow in the tradition of the great Jean Beliveau, lost his temper and swore in a very un-Beliveau way about the team's performance in a post-game scrum. It wasn't his finest moment, but might have been redeemed if he'd stepped up with passion and a few goals. He didn't. He has 15 points in the 34 games since the slide began on December 3. Eleven of those points came only after Brendan Gallagher returned from injury. When the team looked to the captain to lead it through adversity, Pacioretty put up four points in 13 games.

On December 19th, all-time great Canadiens player and Hall-of-Famer Dickie Moore died, casting a pall over long-time fans who remembered him helping wreathe the franchise in glory. Modern Bell Centre fans accorded his memory 49 seconds of silence.

In mid-January, Galchenyuk and Devante Smith-Pelly were called on the carpet in Bergevin's office to explain why a gathering at Galchenyuk's place resulted in an early morning incident with police in attendance and an alleged domestic assault by his girlfriend. The press, looking for something other than another loss to talk about, exploded.

P.K. Subban, always a lightning rod for criticism, appeared on video in a profanity-laden pump-up speech in early January. A few days later, he ranted and swore in a post-game media scrum about the fact he's not paid to score goals. For a guy who makes nine-million dollars a year, that statement was more than a little controversial.

In the midst of all the drama, other players went down to injury and young players like Charles Hudon and Sven Andrighetto got called up, only to be relegated to fourth-line minutes and demoted again, even when they performed well. The coaching staff took heat for poor personnel decisions and a system, including a moribund PP, that clearly fails without Price to support it. They allowed former first-round pick Jarred Tinordi to languish in the press box for 30-plus games. In response, Bergevin publicly defended the coaches, saying they won't be going anywhere this year. He dumped Tinordi instead, in a go-nowhere trade that brought goon John Scott in return. The move shamed the franchise because it appeared Bergevin co-operated with the NHL brass in taking Scott just to keep him out of the All-Star game, which spectacularly backfired. Since that decision and the open support of his coaching staff, the on-ice product has only gotten worse.

As the season winds down, Therrien has called out Subban for a loss against the Avalanche. Subban fell down late in the third and the Avs scored the winning goal on a blown 3-on-3 right after. The coach's ill-thought-out comments turned the spotlight once again on the Habs for negative reasons. Of all the players who could have been targeted for failure; David Desharnais with 133 minutes of PP ice time and five points to show for it, Dale Weise, playing in the top-six for most of the year with 25 points in 55 games, Therrien chose to admonish his best player.

All of those things might stem from bad luck or frustration at losing or the logical result of missing the team's backbone for the majority of the year. There are signs, though, that the awfulness of this season is more than just those normal problems. This may, in fact, be cosmic.

For example, just when it seems the year is a write-off and some players can be jettisoned before the deadline in exchange for picks or prospects, two possible guys who could be moved in Desharnais and Tom Gilbert get hurt and can't be traded. Desharnais, in particular, has been one of the most durable Canadiens up until now, missing only four games since the 2012-13 season.

Last weekend, the Canadiens held their annual open practice for fans, at which they tossed souvenirs into the most supportive crowd they've seen since October. A puck thrown by Subban accidentally hit a month-old baby in the head.  It's the second time a Subban-launched puck hit a kid in the crowd. That's not bad luck. That's the universe kicking you in the ass while you're down.

Even the Habs PR team is cursed. They stupidly allowed fan tweets to appear in the team's official Twitter timeline, completely opening themselves to abuse by trolls and haters. Naturally, they were caught out, mortified and forced to apologize.

This season has lurched from one disaster to another in a way that's hard to match without an evil eye trained on the team. Worst of all, just when it seems the Canadiens will drop low enough to snag a great lottery draft pick, they suddenly string together three wins to sabotage their own tank. It's obvious, by now, that they won't make the playoffs. And it appears they'll acquire just enough points to scuttle the draft lottery as well.

It may be a coincidence, or it may not, depending on what you believe about hockey gods and Forum ghosts, that the hallowed old rink that saw so much of the Canadiens legend born, closed twenty years ago this spring. Whatever mystique the team had back then, that made other teams believe the Habs were always a threat because of their charmed existence seems long gone since they moved from the Forum.

Whether bad luck, leaf fans with voodoo dolls or angry ghosts, something is wrong here. This isn't just an annus horribilus. This is a full-blown maledictus anno. This is the kind of thing a team might take a long, long time from which to recover.


Friday, February 19, 2016

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Michel Therrien is a stupid man.

That is the only conclusion one can draw after his post-loss comments on Wednesday. To watch a team lose its twenty-third game in the last thirty-two, then decide the latest defeat was the fault of the team's only All-Star was dumb. To then decide it would be a good idea to bench him when the team desperately needed a goal, then call him out publicly and blame him for the loss was the work of an imbecile.

P.K.Subban can be frustrating to watch. Any Habs fan who regularly sees him play has, at some point, yelled for him to just shoot, dammit! However, it's safe to say there have been many, many more times when his brilliant outlet pass led to an important goal or his fantastic skating helped him move the puck out of trouble. With Subban, you know there will be thrills and sometimes, he'll make a mistake. To say he, above anyone else, cost his team the game is pure garbage.

Subban is on the ice nearly half the game and is his team's leading scorer. Ninety-five percent of the time, the play he makes is the right one. In Wednesday's game, the guy fell down. He didn't make a dumb pass like most of his blueline colleagues are wont to do. He didn't take a stupid penalty. He just fell down. When he dropped out of the play, there were still three Canadiens facing three Colorado players. They failed to cover Jarome Iginla when he scored the go-ahead goal. Yet, Therrien didn't mention any of them.

This wasn't a one-off for the coach, either. Right from the start of his tenure, he announced his intention to make Subban a better player and a better person. Yes, the guy who gave ten million bucks to a children's hospital had to learn class and generosity from Michel Therrien, who is not exactly known for his contributions to the community. Therrien has benched Subban for making mistakes and at one time, refused to play him at the ends of games, demonstrating a lack of trust in him. This coach kept his best defenceman off the penalty kill for an entire season. He wouldn't answer when asked whether Subban deserved to make the Olympic team. He banned Subban's "low-five" win celebration with Carey Price. He scratched him for two games after his holdout four years ago because "he had to learn the system." It's safe to say Therrien doesn't like Subban.

At this point though, Therrien's treatment of Subban is ridiculous. The player is fun-loving, kind, generous, talented and classy. He's not perfect, but neither is David Desharnais, who can do no wrong in Therrien's eyes. He's a crappy coach and a petty man who's treating one of the best hockey players around like a mistake-prone rookie. The fact that Subban hasn't punched him out literally or verbally demonstrates the class and patience of the player.

That Marc Bergevin has promised Therrien's job is safe raises questions about the competence of the GM as well. If he can't see that a rotten coach calling out an All-Star for a simple mistake is laughable, well, perhaps he's dumb too. But not as dumb as Therrien, because the coach is a truly stupid man.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

True Blue (Blanc et Rouge)

Long ago, in the age of Back to the Future and The Goonies, when Ronald Reagan was president and the world's population was only 4.8 billion, a skinny, twitchy goaltender made his NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens. Patrick Roy was unorthodox, brash and a little bit nuts, but he became the touchstone for a generation of fans who were just a little too young to appreciate the '70s dynasty that preceded him.

That impressionable generation watched a team of kids play their hearts out in the spring of '86, led by otherworldly play from Roy, in what would become the last great victory by the Hall-of-Fame veterans. The excitement of that run and the emotion of that victory left an indelible imprint on the hearts of fans who, from that year on, would truly believe if you make the playoffs anything can happen. They believed in the ghosts of the Forum and the magic of the Montreal Canadiens and nothing would ever, ever change that.

Now, here we are 30 years after that thrilling ride to the Cup. That young, idealistic group of Habs fans has seen a lot in the last three decades. One last Cup in '93 kept the home fires burning, but heroes have also been traded or retired since then. Bad trades, bad drafts, bad coaches, missed chances, missed playoffs and broken hearts have followed, but still the eternal flame of Habs fandom burned within the hearts of the loyal.

So, it is with grief and confusion that even the most devoted are now torn between the desire to cheer for the team to win, even though the odds of making the playoffs are dropping faster than the price of a barrel of crude, or embracing futility in the hope of getting a top draft pick.

The latter doesn't sit well with true blue fans. Years of rooting for a team against all odds becomes an ingrained habit and the idea of willingly accepting failure hurts. Yet, in these days of league parity and inexperienced, stubborn team management, what's a fan to do?

Nobody knows if Marc Bergevin actually guessed the team he built was paper-thin without Carey Price propping it up. We only know the numbers last year suggested the team would likely be on the playoff bubble without him, yet Bergevin failed to acquire a reasonable support system for the goalie should he have remained healthy, or to carry the team in his absence. "Trades are tough to make," he says, while other teams seem to make them all the time.

We don't know whether Bergevin truly believes Michel Therrien is the right coach for this team. We see only puzzling decisions about player deployment coming from behind the bench, and a power play that's been three years on life support. Yet, Bergevin says he's sticking with his bench crew and goes to visit the players in the dressing room instead.

Unfortunately for heart-and-soul Habs fans, finishing high in the draft lottery may be the only way to save the Canadiens from their own management. (Then again, the use of the last lottery pick, Alex Galchenyuk, would indicate this team can screw up even a no-brainer.) One thing is certain: if the Canadiens make the playoffs and draft in the middle of the pack, they're probably not going to find a player who'll be an immediate difference-maker. The Jarred Tinordis and Louis Leblancs of the world are proof of that.

The teams at the top now are those who drafted, repeatedly, in the top three. That's how the Captials got Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. It's how the Penguins got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and how the Panthers got Aleksander Barkov, Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad. Sure, some teams, like Dallas (Seguin, Sharp and Spezza) are doing well because their management teams have been astute traders. That option appears to be unavailable to the Habs GM, who has a penchant of handing out large, long-term contracts to middle-of-the-road players, capping himself out of trade contention.

In some ways it's a mercy the Habs have taken this dilemma out of the hands of fans. It doesn't matter if we root for a win or a loss. We just have to wait out the inevitability of it all. The guilt we feel comes in being glad about it, even though we know the worse the team loses, the better the chance it'll acquire a player who can help it win when the perpetrators of the current fiasco are long gone.

There isn't a Habs fan who's ever witnessed his or her team with the Cup who wants to see the disaster this season has become. It stinks. At some level, however, one can't help feeling the team is a hostage right now and the only way out is to draft its way out. It's not much of a silver lining, but it's the only way real fans can hope their way through this. Some will say that's being a bad fan, but really, it just come from being there for the long haul. Those who came on board in those long ago winning seasons know what it's really all about, and if it takes being stoic, or even glad, about an unsalvageable free fall, well, we just have to believe drafting good players will prevail over bad management. Someday.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Conspiracies and Cold Hearts

The first NHL All-Star game came from a place of charity. In 1934, the Toronto Maple Leafs played the league's stars in honour of Ace Bailey, who had been forced into retirement with a fractured skull. Three years later, the Montreal Canadiens great star, Howie Morenz broke his leg and shortly afterwards died of a pulmonary embolism. The Montreal All-Stars played their NHL counterparts to raise money for the deceased player's family. And one last time, in 1939, the Habs played the NHL All-Stars, this time in memory of Babe Siebert, who had drowned during the off-season. In those early days, the Canadiens were the good-hearted guys who used the game they loved to help others in need.

When the NHL All-Star game became official in 1947, the players skated for bragging rights. In 1969, for the first time, the participants got a cash bonus: $500 per winning player, $250 for the losers. Not too many years after that, with money involved and nothing special about the event, everyone stopped caring about the game. In the big picture these days, it's a gimmick weekend with no purpose other than for the league to promote itself. (That so many of the gimmicks are ill-thought-out, ridiculous or boring is beside the point.) The players who don't attend the game get a much-needed mid-season holiday. Those who do go just try to have a bit of fun with their families and avoid getting hurt. Nobody cares who wins. This year, Jaromir Jagr, one of the all-time great players has even been on Twitter begging fans not to send him.

That's why it's so disappointing to see Marc Bergevin and the Canadiens organization make asses of themselves over something as unimportant as the All-Star game.

This year, the game is sillier than ever with its 3-on-3 format. So perhaps it wasn't all that surprising to see Arizona fans rally behind 6'8" goon John Scott. Wouldn't it be funny, they thought, if we all pulled together and sent this guy to the All-Star game. What a joke!

To his credit, as the online votes multiplied and it looked like he was actually going to be voted in, Scott played along. Sure, it was a bit embarrassing to know the whole thing was a gag, but Scott talked to his teammates and other players who told him to live it up and enjoy the moment. Then he was named Captain of the Pacific Division squad, and he really did start to do so. He even had some t-shirts printed for his teammates, from their "captain."

That's when the NHL decided the whole thing was a disgrace that had gone too far. As Bob McKenzie tweeted on Friday, "John Scott was previously asked by both NHL and Arizona Coyotes to bow out of the NHL All-Star Game. He refused. Trade likely takes care of that."

Ah, yes. The trade. The one thing Habs fans knew for sure when Bergevin announced he'd sent Jarred Tinordi to Arizona for Scott and a scrub D, was that the Canadiens organization does not need John Scott. The guy was sent immediately to St.John's and Bergevin mumbled some nonsense about him bringing "experience to our group of forwards with the Ice Caps."

Now, Scott's All-Star status is unclear, but it's unlikely he can play in the game if he's no longer with a Pacific Division team or even in the NHL. As Adrian Lee wrote in Maclean's this week, the NHL's inability to take itself less seriously has resulted in a greater embarrassment than the original appointment of Scott to the All-Star squad ever could have been. He and the fans broke the league's staid Code and now Scott is paying the price. The question is, what on earth motivated Bergevin to take part in the whole farce? What does he get out of it, one might wonder. We won't be told.

What we do know is in an effort to protect the honour of a meaningless league sideshow, the lives of real people are upset by the NHL and by Bergevin. Scott is thousands of miles away from his pregnant wife and, as the Calgary Sun's Michael Platt wrote, his family is afraid Scott's tenuous hold on an NHL spot is over and his career at an end. They say he feels exiled and embarrassed.

And Scott himself? He met with reporters last night after his first game in St.John's. Of course the first question he got was whether he can still play in the All-Star game.

"I haven't heard anything from the league or anyone, so I really don't know where that stands. I obviously didn't want to get voted in that way, but the fans wanted me in and they voted me in so I just went with it," he answered. "I was going to go with my family, enjoy the whole experience and have some fun. It was a big surprise. I was happy with it."

And those funny t-shirts he'd made up for his Coyotes teammates? Scott says, "I'll probably just send them back." He had no comment on his discussion with Bergevin and the plans the Canadiens have for him, which was probably the classy way to answer that question.

John Scott might not be a goal scorer or a future Hall-of-Famer, but he's a guy who had to work very hard to grind out a place in pro hockey. He had grace enough to accept the fans who took advantage of the NHL's naive All-Star voting system. In exchange, the league big-wigs punished him and his family, and Marc Bergevin helped them do it. That this should come of a game with its roots in kindness and charity is a damn shame.


Assez

Well, it seems the Habs' abject futility without Carey Price has finally driven some fans over the edge. As is usual when the team is doing poorly, the cries for the termination of the coach are rising like hurricane winds in August. This time, though, there's a different tone.

Lots of people disliked the return of Michel Therrien when GM Marc Bergevin hired him four years ago. He's never won much in the NHL playoffs, and in his two previous postings he taught his teams to play conservative, low-scoring hockey. It felt at the time of his second hiring in Montreal as though the newly-appointed Bergevin settled for a re-tread because he needed stability behind the bench to make up for his own inexperience. He also needed a French-speaking coach to fulfill his commitment to adding more Francophones to the team. Shortly before announcing Therrien would be his coach, Bergevin had this to say:

"There is no doubt in my mind that we must rely on more Francophones within our organization. We only have one scout in Quebec. I can assure you there will be more than that next season."

Of course, it's a desirable and admirable thing to honour the history of the team and the culture of the province in which it lives. Ideally, the way to do that would be by highlighting home-grown talent on the ice. In the real-world NHL, though, that's not easy to do. The real stars are known, assessed and ranked high in the draft, so if you don't choose in the top ten, you're not likely to acquire them without paying a crippling price. Filling lower roster spots with borderline Francophone players or washed-up stars doesn't really cut it for a team trying to showcase a local player.

Minor hockey registration in Quebec has flatlined, barely maintaining its 94-thousand players a year over the last eight seasons. The pool of players isn't growing and those who make it to the NHL is actually shrinking. Twenty years ago, in 1996, Quebec was second behind Ontario for the number of NHL players produced, with 97. This year, there are only 48 NHLers from La Belle Province. That drops Quebec down to fourth among provinces producing major pro players. It's the fewest number of Francophones in the league since expansion. It's telling that there were more players from Quebec in a twelve-team league than there are now in an NHL of 30 franchises.

One of the few promising young French players, Jonathan Drouin, is on the trading block in Tampa Bay and that's got Canadiens fans slavering to acquire him. It's true he's got ability and was a high draft pick, but he's unproven and the Lightning want a premium for him...particularly because they share the Habs division. If Drouin weren't local, he might not be on the radar, but because he is from Quebec, the temptation to overspend or take a big risk for a French star is there. If Bergevin's not willing to take the chance on a trade like that (and the fear is real he might do it), it's back to the draft.  In that case, unless the Canadiens are bad enough or lucky enough to draft high and snag a real Quebecois star, they'll have to make do with Francophone management and coaches for their local content.

That's why the cries to fire Therrien sound different this time around. Sure, the team is playing some bad hockey and their playoff chances are dropping faster than the price of a barrel of crude, but fans aren't just saying "fire him." They know that if Bergevin dumps Therrien out of desperation, the "French" rule will force him to hire a replacement from a tiny pool of available candidates. Turns out fans are sick of it. They feel limiting options for linguistic reasons is handicapping the team. That's why they've launched a petition, in French and English, requesting that Habs management not only dump Therrien, but also that they not limit the search for a replacement to a Francophone.

Of course, there's a perceived assumption that a petition like this means there are no brilliantly qualified French-speaking coaches somewhere, who are waiting to come work for the Habs. That's not quite the point. If there is such a person available, it would be a boon for the Canadiens to hire him (or her.) If there isn't, it's healthier for the team to look at all candidates, regardless of language. That's what these fans are trying to say, and they're not wrong.

More than thirty years ago, Ken Dryden wrote in his brilliant classic, "The Game," that the Habs were at a crossroads.

"Slowly the team is joining the pack," he said, "It must learn to live and to compete like everyone else. Except, unlike everyone else, it must win and the French-Canadian character of the team must not be disturbed. The team created the expectations and now it must live with them. Fewer than fifteen percent of the league's players are French-Canadian. Since Lafleur, Perreault and Dionne in the 1970s, few of them have been superstars. Now there are more teams, more reluctant to trade draft picks, in the market to compete for them. Lafleur must have his heir; the team must win. Ahead may be a tragic irony. Without the strength of the past, the team may face a choice - to win or to be French-Canadian."

The Habs arrived at the crossroads Dryden saw approaching in 1983 after they won their last Cup a decade later. Instead of choosing a path, the Canadiens have tried to be both winners and French-Canadian, neither one of them very successfully. Since '93, 20 of the league's 30 teams have made the Stanley Cup Finals. The Habs are not among that number.

Do you think Florida is where they are because Dale Tallon insisted on only hiring Florida-born coaches and favouring Florida-born players? Or that Tallon himself was hired because he hails from the Sunshine State? (Actually, in a sort of jolly irony, Tallon's a Quebecker.) Think about that to realize how desperate the Habs have become in what's no longer a league of culturally-based institutions, but cut-throat business. With the Canadian dollar in the basement, it's going to be harder and harder for Geoff Molson to pay the bills for mediocrity. The "French-first" approach will eventually die a natural death if the team is going to survive. It's time to put it out of its misery, and if a fan petition can get that message across, it's a start.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Good Asshat Management

In 2012, about thirty seconds after the Montreal Canadiens were officially eliminated from the playoffs, in an annus horribilus that saw them dead last in the Eastern Conference, owner Geoff Molson cleaned house. Gone was the Ghost, Pierre Gauthier, and his weird, secretive ways. Gone was former captain Bob Gainey, with his legacy of inexplicably trading away Ryan McDonagh for the dreadful Scott Gomez. And in came another former captain, Serge Savard, to help Molson pick the team that would turn the Habs around.

Savard recommended Molson hire rookie GM Marc Bergevin, and the former journeyman player arrived with his natty suits, frank answers to media questions and ready sense of humour. It was as far from the old management in style as anyone could imagine. When Bergevin came on board, from day one, he was clear about his approach.

"I'm here to build for the future, and the future is draft choices and player development," he said back then.

Bergevin inherited some promising young prospects from the couple of drafts previous. Nathan Beaulieu, the team's first pick, at #17 in 2011, was a good young defenceman with quick vision, great wheels and a bit of toughness. Sparkplug Brendan Gallagher was small and only a fifth-round pick in 2010, but always seemed to find himself a part of the action. And the first-rounder in 2010, Jarred Tinordi, was a big kid with NHL bloodlines from his dad Mark. He was a bit of a project, but could move very well for a guy who stood 6'6" and had a kind of maturity and poise you don't often see in a teenager. If the Habs wanted to build through drafting and developing young players, Bergevin had at least three strong candidates with which to work. Things looked even better in Bergevin's first draft, when, with the third-overall pick, he chose centre Alex  Galchenyuk. The young player came with size and a collection of skills so enticing, any coach would beg to help him reach his potential.

Every year since 2012, Bergevin has added to the collection of young draftees, and every year he has reiterated his intention to build a winning Canadiens team through drafting and developing young players. While the intention is admirable and the logic sound, Bergevin has failed to deliver.

Most teams, when they bottom out the way the Habs did in 2012 and commit to a rebuild, really rebuild. They make a plan, decide which players are keepers, and then clean out those who don't fit. Then they play their kids. They play the butts off their kids. Those kids make mistakes and they lose games, sometimes a lot of games, but they learn. And they get better together and improve. If you're going to rebuild through draft and development, that's how it's done.

Ten years ago, when the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Jonathan Toews third overall, they committed to a rebuild from the ground up. A year and a half later, they had dumped coach Denis Savard, hired Joel Quenneville, and the average age of the team was about 23 years old. Those kids; Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and the rest of them played a ton of hockey and they made the playoffs for the first time in six years, advancing to the conference finals. Four years after that, they were Stanley Cup Champions. Dale Tallon built that team as the GM. Now he's doing the same thing in Florida, and the Panthers are following the same pattern.

In Montreal, on the other hand, Bergevin came in with something to prove. He was a local guy in his first job as general manager. He felt the pressure to make sure the Habs were on the elevator out of the Eastern Conference basement as quickly as possible. So he needed to hire an experienced coach who could get the best on-ice results while the rebuild went on behind the scenes.

Enter Michel Therrien. Therrien hadn't been a great success in his first go-round behind the bench in Montreal and he was suspiciously fired by the Pittsburgh Penguins, even though the team made the Cup Finals the year before. Therrien came with something to prove too, and he certainly wasn't going to prove anything by playing a bunch of rookies and losing a bunch of games.

So, when given a choice between playing Galchenyuk ahead of David Desharnais and letting the kid learn, Therrien plays it safe and gives Desharnais more ice time. Given the option of playing Francis Bouillon versus Beaulieu or Tinordi in 2013, Therrien chose Bouillon. The following season, when both young defencemen were showing signs of being very close to making the NHL team, Bouillon and big, slow Douglas Murray got priority ice time. In a real rebuild, with a coach and GM dedicated to the end result, that doesn't happen.

Sitting a young player, a first-round pick, for thirty straight games is outside the realm of the believable in a team committed to development. Turning around and dumping him for an AHL journeyman and the consensus NHL-worst forward defies all common sense.

First-round picks are the gold bouillon of rebuild currency. They're the young players who come with the skill and promise every team needs to improve, and the ones it's very hard to find if you don't draft them. The Habs have done an incredibly crappy job of choosing and nurturing the players they need to be the foundation if they're ever to win another Cup.

Max Pacioretty had his confidence broken and was relieved to go down to the AHL to get proper ice time. He's still not got the kind of resilience a captain should have. P.K.Subban has been benched, scratched, low-balled and publicly called out. Now he's playing a conservative game that may prevent more goals, but seems to have cost him his creativity. McDonagh was stupidly traded away. Louis Leblanc left Harvard too early and shriveled under Sylvain Lefebvre's inexperienced coaching. Tinordi's been thrown away for nothing. Beaulieu seems to have found a place on the team because injuries forced Therrien to play him. The futures of the latest three, Michael McCarron, Nikita Scherbak and Noah Juulsen are still unwritten.

This is not the story of a team that has drafted and developed well. This is the story of a team with an inexperienced GM and a coach trying to keep his own job. It's possibly the story of a team that chose the wrong players in the draft, but it's hard to say based on how they're used once they're selected by Montreal.

After dumping Tinordi for garbage this week, Bergevin made a statement about his thinking.

"We are fortunate to have a lot of depth on the blue line and for that reason it became difficult for Jarred to earn a regular spot on our roster. He showed great professionalism and kept a positive attitude. We wish him the best of luck with his new organization."

An organization with a commitment to developing its young players doesn't go out and sign Mark Barberio to compete with its first-rounder for a roster spot, then claim the team has too much depth for him to play. That's crap. An organization committed to winning doesn't throw a first-rounder away for nothing because the coach decides he's not going to play and drains his value away.

If Marc Bergevin thinks he's building the Canadiens through effectively drafting and developing players, he's very, very wrong. The core talent of the team he manages was drafted and developed by somebody else and if he keeps on the road he's on right now, they'll soon be gone and there will be no one left to replace them.

This season, the Canadiens deep problems on offence, including strength down the middle, are exposed. Andrei Markov, long the defensive stalwart of the team, is visibly slowing down and will soon retire. Bergevin has had four years to nurture the young D who'll be needed to replace Markov. He's had four years to make sure Galchenyuk becomes the anchor at centre. Yet, still the problems persist and the young players don't seem to be getting anywhere.

Perhaps Bergevin was in over his head when he took over back in 2012. Maybe his vision was the right one, but the reality of hockey in Montreal intimidated him and prevented him from doing what he needed to do. The bottom line in the current NHL is if you want to build a winning team, there has to be a period of losing. That takes courage on the part of management. The alternative is a team that might gain regular-season points, but will never have what it takes to bring home the Cup. And young players languish until they're traded away for garbage and the cycle continues.

If Bergevin means what he says, he needs to really commit and dump his conservative coach. He needs to give young players a real chance and hire someone who's not afraid to give them the trust and opportunity they need to turn this team around, even when they struggle and losses happen. Until then, we'll watch the Habs first-round picks fizzle out like homemade fireworks.