Tuesday, May 18, 2010

To Hab Or Habnot

If the Habs manage to somehow win the Stanley Cup it will be almost the worst trend in the game since the 1995 New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup win.

Look, I get the whole Jaroslav Halak conjuring up images of '71 Ken Dryden and '86 and '93 Patrick Roy (why no respect for '84 Steve Penney?), but there is a HUGE difference between those teams and the current Habs one.

This notion that the Habs were some huge underdog in the Dryden and Roy years is a myth to some extent.

The 1971 upset was one of the biggest in NHL history from a shock standpoint but look at both the standings and the Habs' lineup in '70/71. The Habs were the 4th best team (.622 winning pct) in the NHL. Beyond Dryden their defence was an all-star and Hall of Fame cast and crew of J.C. Tremblay, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Laperriere, Serge Savard and Terry Harper. Throw in serviceable Pierre Bouchard and Bob Murdoch into the mix and that's not too shabby a D to battle the offensive juggernaut that was the '70s Big Bad Bruins.

The 1986 Habs had their pathway to the Final cleared for them thanks to upsets galore. The Habs had home ice advantage handed to them right up until the Final. The top two teams in the East (110-pt Philadelphia Flyers and the 107-pt Washington Capitals) were in the Patrick Division and both were knocked out by the time the Eastern Conference Final came about.

Out West, Calgary (thanks to Oiler Steve Smith's own goal) knocked off the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in rd. 2 in possibly the biggest upset of the '80s ('82 Miracle on Manchester LA Kings object!).

So the 7th-placed Habs beat the 6th-overall Flames for the 1986 Cup. That was the only series the Habs pulled a de facto upset in.

The 1993 Habs also had only one series where they were the "underdog" and that was in rd. 1 vs. their bitter provincial rivals, the Quebec Nordiques. There's also some misinformation about this being an "underdog" Habs team despite its .607 winning pct. which placed it at 6th overall in the NHL. Anyway, thanks to Tom Barrasso not being able to stop a beachball in the seven-game series vs. the New York Islanders, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had one of the greatest regular season teams of all-time, were gone in rd. 2. Thank you, David Volek.

So, in much the same way, thanks to the 2010 Habs offing both the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, they have cleared the path much like other teams did for them in '86 and '93. Which gives me hope that the Philadelphia Flyers can knock off the Habs.

Because, you and I both know should this 19th-placed overall Hab team actually make the Final that would make them THE worst team ever to make a Stanley Cup Final. Not that the 18th-placed Philadelphia Flyers are any great shakes either but let's look at the alternative. If the Habs actually win the Stanley Cup, all these obnoxious Hab fans we all know will be even more insufferable.

That's not the worst. NHL teams tend to be copycats. If an 18th-placed team coached by Jacques Martin (a man who blew numerous opportunities at Cups with the underachieving yet offensively gifted Ottawa Senators) turns out to be champions, hockey is going to undergo as drastic a change as what the New Jersey Devils inflicted on the game in the '90s.

Everyone loves upsets but sometimes you have to live with what you wished for. If you like seeing your team's regular season rendered completely meaningless by a hot goalie and opportunistic scoring, then cheer on the Habs. If you want hockey to return to being a game where defence rules, then embrace Jacques Martin's lucky ties.

If not, hope and pray no matter what team comes out of the West that they smoke the Eastern rep in the Stanley Cup Final.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Just Livin' the Nightmare

If you've been a Canuck fan (or, let me rephrase that--"follower") since at least the '80s, the 2nd rd. loss to the Chicago Blackhawks should not have come as a surprise there, Keith Magnuson. We all know of the Canucks' incredibly poor playoff record--only twice making it out of the 2nd rd. and both times coming off very average regular seasons.

The '82 King Richard and his Court team were 11th overall in a 21-team NHL and had a record of 3 games under .500. The '94 Oh So Close crew were 14th overall in a 26-team NHL and managed to break .500 by a single game.

Now, if you're a recent Canuck fan (we know who you are wearing those Luongo and Sedin jerseys as well as those of you in the Linden Free Willy jerseys), your delusional loyalty to this mediocre franchise just seems bizarre to us from the '70s and '80s. Maybe it was the hazy crazy run in '94 led by the most exciting player in the game in Pavel Bure plus a fine slew of characters that got you hooked. That's all well and good, but the Burke to Nonehead through Gillis era has been noted for its lack of character. After all, the time to put Roberto Luongo up for sale on craigslist was ages ago not after Game 6 in year three of his annual playoff meltdowns.

So where does this team go from here?

Unlike, say, Boston who had the guts to bench their overpriced Vezina winner in Tim Thomas and go with Tuukka Rask, Vancouver is stuck with Luongo like it or not. If the team truly believes he is the man to lead the Canucks to the Cup, certain things have to change. Yeah, yeah, yeah, they could strip him of the captaincy, but more importantly he needs rest. In an Olympic year no Olympic goalie was really going to take it to the house except if their regular season workload was reduced.

To wit, Jaroslav Halak played just 45 games in the net for Montreal + 7 for Slovakia at the Olympics. He's also just 24 so has less mileage on the goalpads.

In 2008/09 Luongo played just 54 games and had a save percentage of .920. He still melted down in Game 6 vs. Chicago but up until then he was pretty darned good.

In 2009/10 the 31-year-old captain played in 68 games + 5 more in the Olympics and his save percentage was the lowest of his Canuck career at .913. All season long he struggled with his catching glove, covering up pucks, pokechecking and an inability to actually cover the net with his big body. It caught up with him in the playoffs.

Of course, the Canuck penalty killing was horrendous throughout the playoffs but Montreal's is much worse when you actually see the chances Pittsburgh and Washington got on the PP. Having a much hotter goalie, who is always your best penalty killer, is what can turn a PK unit around from horrific to Halak-ian.

Which brings us to a supposed Canuck strength--the defence.
Once the D corps was referred to as the NHL's best by equally delusional journalists here in Vancouver. What became obvious during the playoffs is no matter the complaints about the depth on the Canuck D, Alexander Edler and Christian Ehrhoff, as well as they played, are not Norris Trophy level defencemen. Pretty much no team really (Carolina '06 aside) in the history of the NHL playoffs can win a Cup without that Norris Trophy type stud on the blueline.

So what to do on that score? If Edler or Ehrhoff can raise their game to Duncan Keith or Dan Boyle (except for the shooting the puck into your own net) levels then the Canucks can be considered legitimate contenders. If not, the main objective of the Gillis regime has to be to obtain that type of defenceman. This probably means offloading those guys with expiring contracts. So, sorry, 32-year-old Willie Mitchell's concussed head and 34-year-old Sami Salo's damaged testicle, you and your body parts have to go. Leaving 28-year-old Kevin Bieksa who becomes a UFA in a year, like Salo will become, great trade bait. That is if some team wants a defenceman who looks like an All-Star one game out of every ten.

Upfront, although, they flopped badly the Canucks are stuck with the return of the easy-to-shut-down-in-the-playoffs Sedins. So let's get rid of any notion of trading the Sedins for Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta. The Swedes' regular season linemate, Alexandre Burrows, is a bargain at just $2 million a season and he's sewn up for the next three seasons. He's not going anywhere if the team wants cap flexibility and a decent 30-goal scorer.

Ryan Kesler's $5-million-a-year contract kicks in next season and the team has him signed through until 2013/14. It was a bold move to lock him up, but he could be a huge bargaining chip. After all, as strong a player as Kesler is, is he the next Mike Richards? If he is, hang onto him. If not, I'm sure a Green Day lead singer lookalike type is just as effective.

It really hinges on what prospects Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder can add to the Canucks and when.

What the Canucks need upfront without a doubt is a sniper. Everyone can see what a Cammalleri can do for you when you need a goal against the run of play. Hopefully, Michael Grabner turns out to be that player but in the near future, the Canucks need to make a play for Ilya Kovalchuk. They won't, but they should much as they should have done for Marian Gaborik last off-season.

I know. I know. The salary cap. How can the Canucks afford a sniper? They can afford a lousy goalie who costs the team $7.5 million in salary so someone better figure it all out somehow as no Reggie Leach, no Cup for you.

Look at the difference Dany Heatley has made to San Jose? He's hurting yet he still has 11 points in 10 playoff games so far. Imagine if he was healthy. He may not be scoring like a Joe Pavelski but his 5 assists on the powerplay certainly are nothing to laugh at.

Lastly, coaching. Two playoffs in a row Coach Yogi Bear panicked.
In rd. 2's Game 4 the rope-a-dope ultra defensive strategy ended up costing the Canucks a commanding 3-1 lead vs. the Blackhawks who had the Canucks on their heels and took the game in overtime. We all know the rest of that story culminating in the Game 6 7-5 loss.

This year saw him panic again and react rather than act logically. After the Holmstromesque Dustin Byfuglien's hat trick in Game 3, he created a "make him pay" atmosphere around the team that led to dumb penalties in Game 4. The real leader of Chicago, Jonathan Toews, pots his own hat trick and it's a 3-1 series lead for the Blackhawks. I could get into the whole benching of Pavol Demitra that game but why bother? We all know that was a mistake, too.

So best guess is Alain Vigneault is on a very short leash next season. When you look at what a change in coaches has done in past few seasons in San Jose, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Montreal and Chicago (remember Denis "Commit to the Indian" Savard?), sometimes all a certain group of players need is a push in the other direction.

Given the type of players the Canucks have and the goals the team scores with the type of goalie the Canucks are supposed to have, how about just opening up the play? Instead of this mishmash of trying to play a Detroit puck possession game mixed with some sort of "fall into a defensive shell when you have the lead yet give up breakaways" style, why not go the full '80s Oilers? If Luongo was such a Grant Fuhr fan, why not let him prove he can handle that sort of hockey? Release the offensive hounds and force Luongo to learn how to come sliding out of his net and pokecheck guys on breakaways. Isn't Dominik Hasek ready to become a goalie coach?

Throw in a Dave Semenko, Dave Hunter, Dave Lumley and any other Dave type you like as your grinders and maybe, just maybe, the Canucks might Air Hockey Oiler it to a Cup.

It's certainly worth a try unless you honestly think that predictable cycle play by the Sedins is the key to hoisting the Cup. Then be my guest and enjoy your delusions of Stanley Cup parades. In fact why not rename your fan base Maple Leaf West Nation?