Sunday April 8, 7:30 PM
Justice prevails. The NY Islanders are in the playoffs. The Habs and Leafs are out. Ted Nolan returns to Buffalo. Andrew Raycroft returns to no man's land. Bob Gainey goes back to the drawing board.
I don't think I'll get much argument that the Islanders deserve a playoff spot ahead of Montreal and Toronto but what about Tampa Bay? Yes I know they have the Rocket Richard winner and MVP candidate (If I had a vote it would go to Sydney Crosby #1) in Vinny Lecavalier and another 100 point scorer in Martin St Louis but other than them plus Brad Richards and Dan Boyle what else have they got? Not to mention being saddled with embarrasingly bad goaltending, again. One day after being told that he's going to be "their guy the rest of the year", Johan Holmqvist lasted 16 minutes against the Florida Panthers. The Lightning are the worst team in the playoffs. Both the Habs and Leafs would do a better job against the Devils than what we're about to see from Tampa.
What to make of The Habs Jekyl & Hyde season?
I don't mind embarassing myself so let's go back to opening night:
Thursday October 5, 8 PM
Has it really been six months since The Canadiens were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes? Six months since Bob Gainey said one goal losses are tough but in playoff hockey one goal is a lot? Six months since Saku Koivu, worried about his future, was ambushed by a TVA reporter who demanded to know why he didn’t speak French? Six months since Michel Bergeron put his foot in his mouth? Six months since Gainey said if players are looking for some “spice” in their life they’d consider Montreal as a a hockey home not an NHL outpost? Six months since Hurricanes President Jim Rutherford said the Habs were his teams toughest opponent during their run to the cup?
Rutherford wasn’t simply being diplomatic. Justin Williams, Dan Marouelli and Dennis LaRue made sure Rutherford could spend the summer celebrating rather than rebuilding.
Gainey? He discovered an ongoing problem as GM and no-longer-coach. While Montreal may in fact be the “spiciest” city in North America, NHLers would rather work elsewhere.
High taxes and character assassination just don’t make it onto the radar screen of agents and their clients. Sergei Samsanov? May the force, and 3.5 million a year, be with him (I love the signing, even at an overblown price. The Habs are getting him at just the right time. He’s 27).
So which comes first-a long playoff run or the signing/acquisition of a true marquee player? Hopefully Gainey can find out as soon as this season. If not, you have to wonder how much patience he’ll have in trying to fill out a championship roster while striking out more often than a 40 year old virgin. All the Tom Hicks money he spent/wasted in Dallas is no doubt beginning to look more and more appealing.
Count me among those who believe the Canadiens can improve from a season ago. Even if Cristobal Huet is not a Roger Crozier trophy winner this season, he’ll have to morph into an AHL goalie not to improve on the Jose Theodore performance of a year ago.
The addition of Janne Niinimmaa gives the team six solid defensemen. In fact, you can argue that even at 2.5 million per year Niinimmaa IS the sixth defenseman. Markov, Souray, Rivet and Dandenault are all players most general managers would love to have. And in Mike Komisarek the Canadiens finally have the combination of size, strength, toughness and mobility that was most recently disguised as Zarley Zalapski. Mark Streit, a fine skater and power play asset, is now a more reassuring number seven (#8 with Francis Boullion) while Patrick Traverse finds himself- more appropriately-back in the minors.
I like the forwards, save for a glaring hole down the middle. But if the talented, speedy crop of made-for-the-new-NHL skaters continue to draw penalties, the Canadiens will rely on a power play unit that was among the best in the NHL a year ago(#5 overall). The “loss” of Ribeiro may hurt the second unit, but should be offset by more ice time for Perezhogen and Latendresse.
Ryder, Higgins, Plekanic, Perezhogen, Samsanov, and yes, Radek Bonk should all improve on their offensive numbers of a year ago.
The penalty killing wasn’t very good a year ago but neither was the goaltending until Huet wrestled the job away from Theodore. And it’s hard to believe that a hockey staff that features Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Doug Jarvis and Kirk Muller can’t turn the PK unit into
something a lot more formidable.
Which brings us to ? & The Mysterians….
Can Saku Koivu play 70 + games? Can he see properly for all 70 games or does he become the most effective disabled player since “One Eyed” Frank McGee?(You mean you haven’t watched Hockey: A People’s History?).
Will Latendresse actually contribute beyond the odd power play/4th line shift? And if he doesn’t, will he get enough work to avoid turning into, in the words of Mike Farber, Ginette Reno?
Can Andre Markov finally put it all together? Or will he pack it in and head home to Russia?
Will Sheldon Souray break a years’ supply of composite sticks on opening night? And if he does, will that give him time to ghostwrite “The Dave Stubbs Story”?
Will Herb Zurkowsky get kicked off the Als beat only to resurface at the Bell Center to torment Guy Carbonneau?
Can Bonk and Mike Johnson click often enough to make headline writers drool? (Johnson, Bonk…c’mon, use your imagination…)
And the 6.4 million dollar question: Is Cristobal Huet for real?
Habs finish 6th. Meet and beat Carolina in first round of playoffs.
Melnick’s Eastern Finish:
Buffalo-speed, coaching, came so close a yr ago & Ryan Miller
NYR-goaltending, speed & a bionic shoulder for Jagr
Carolina-grit, experience, Erics & Cam Ward
NJ-Brodeur, Lamierello & Julien (where’s Larry?)
Ottawa-solid core of 5-6, will look for a G by X-mas
Montreal-will win it for Don Matthews (oops, sorry)
Boston-Toivenen wins Calder, Chara wins nothing
Philadelphia-Bobby Clarke & Ed Snider walk into a bar….
Tampa Bay-Will reacquire Buhlin Wall
Atlanta- Hartley 1st coach in east to be fired after trade request by Kovalchuk
Pittsburgh-Crosby, Staal, Malkin and…Thibeault???
NYI-Nolan sends Garth Snow to Muckler on X-Mas morning
Toronto-Fergy Jr 1st Gm to be fired, replaced by Tie Domi
Florida-Ed Belfour punches out Jacques Martin, or Alex Auld, or Denis Potvin…
Washington-Gainey offers McPhee a 15 for 1 deal for Ovechkin; Alex prefers DC
Hit & Miss, huh? I figure my batting average is at least as good as Thomas Plekanic's face-off percentage (48.3). I thought in "My New NHL" Samsanov and Kovalev would score 55-60 goals between them. They totalled 27. Samsanov needs a new mirror in the off season. And a new stationary bike. Love handles and a nine goal season at 3.5 million a year is not a good combination. Kovalev? I'm very disappointed. I believe he was playing hurt for much of the season but that certainly does not explain his disappearing act the final week. Unless there's something else in play that we're not aware of Kovalev will not likely be given the chance to spar with Carbonneau, a la Samsanov this year.
The coach made mistakes. Forget about the choice of goaltenders saturday night in Toronto. (But please don't tell me that Cristobal Huet played well. ) The Habs horrid five on five play all season is at least a measure of coaching, not getting the right people on the ice at the right time. Saku Koivu spends too much time on the penalty killing unit, where he was again in the 3rd period saturday night when he took his final bad penalty of the season. (Anyone blaming saturday's loss -or the season-on Koivu is an idiot or a racist. Maybe both. In the last eight games of the season he scored 15 points.) Carbonneau's ref-baiting didn't help as the Habs swooned at Christmas time but he did eventually learn to bite his lip more often. All in all a bumpy rookie ride but let's remember that he heads an entire staff that prior to this season combined for zero days of NHL head coaching experience.
The General Manager? Nobody should ever have to go through what Bob Gainey had to endure this season. It's hard to tell if the death of his daughter Laura hampered his GM duties in any way. Bert Raymond of Le Journal De Montreal believes it did and devoted an entire column to the subject following the trade deadline. I was fortunate to run into Gainey a couple of months back as his family was celebrating the engagement of his daughter Anna. It was heartwarming to see the family (including son Steve whos own brief NHL carer is now over) enjoy themselves. Raymond, and others, point to Gainey's lack of movement at the trade deadline as proof that he was paralyzed by grief. I don't see it that way. But it's difficult to read Gainey at the best of times. His refusal to speak publicly following the deadline was unfortunate. I'm going to assume he'll have something to say early this week as once again management and coaches will try to explain what went wrong. The trade of Craig Rivet to San Jose made this edition of the team worse. No follow up move and not dressing Josh Gorges on deadline day in New York had a predictable result. Sheldon Souray admitted the team was "distracted". Ganey's refusal to add a goaltender, especially with free agents-to-be Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph available for draft picks, cost his team. Not until Jaroslav Halak went back in goal did the Canadiens start to take off again. But there were points to be won that David Aebischer couldn't. (For Murray Wilson to go on Satellite Hot Stove on Hockey Night In Canada and explain away the non-move by saying hindsight is 20-20 and Aebsicher had been playing well was beyond disingenuous.) Ribeiro for Niinimaa worked out horribly. Watching a once key NHL defenseman struggle as Niinimaa did reminded me of Rob Ramage here in Montreal at the end of his career in 1993. As poorly as he played Ramage at least got to see his team win a Cup. With Gainey and Carbonneau both behind the bench for the second half of last season, somebody had to tell them what Pierre McGuire told us on the air. That for all his experience and popularity with teammates, and as good a career as he's had, Niinimaa's best days were way behind him.
Let's cut to (cue Ennio Morricone) The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:
Good: Koivu, Chris Higgins, Thomas Plekanic, Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek, Halak, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mark Streit, and, well, okay with a strong finish...Ryder
Bad: Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Boullion
Ugly: Samsanov, Kovalev, Aebischer
That leaves a few others who fit somewhere in between:
Radek Bonk-Mike Johnson-Alex Perzhogen was one of the best lines in the league...for a month.
Bonk had a good year. Johnson was terrific in the first half, faded badly in the second. Perezhogen is a mystery. Created almost zero offense.
Guillaume Latendresse proved he is going to be a factor in the NHL. But not today. Can the Canadiens afford to have both Steve Begin and Maxim Lapierre down the middle? Who are Josh Gorges and Michael Leighton? Will we find out?
Cristobal Huet will be next season's Jose Theodore. At half the salary.
Sheldon Souray just had one of the most mind-boggling black and white seasons in NHL history.
I'd take him back but not at five million per season.
Gainey's to do list:
Dump Samsanov (to Chicago) and Kovalev(easier said than done); Re-sign Markov and maybe even Bonk but only at less than half his current salary. Add size up front and on the blueline. Boullion and Dandenault are useful players, but they play way too many minutes. Trade Huet and perhaps Ryder if, as usual, the free agent market dries up.
Should be a hot week on the air, or a week full of hot air,so let me get this out of the way. Blame it all on Jeffrey Loria and David Samson.
Melnick MVP Voting:
1. Sydney Crosby
2. Roberto Luongo
3. Martin Brodeur/Vincent Lecavalier
5. Joe Thornton
6. Nicklas Lidstrom
7. Scott Neidermayer
8. Rick DiPietro
9. Danny Heatley