Monday, March 19, 2007

The crease conundrum

This year, with his team struggling at the trade deadline, with a clear problem to solve and with two obvious alternatives available on the rental market, Curtis Joseph and Eddie Belfour, Gainey chose to pass. He didn't speak on deadline day — he has said almost nothing publicly since his daughter's tragic death at sea in December — so any suggestions as to his thought process are pure speculation. But since he had an obvious short-term problem to solve, and his best goaltending assets (injured Huet and first-round pick Carey Price) were both long-term propositions, he must have simply balked at the price.
Bob Gainey is taking a little bit of a hammering in the press lately for his activity, or lack thereof, leading up to the trade deadline.

His only move, after all, was to ship out pending-UFA defenceman Craig Rivet in exchange for youngster Josh Gorges, a deal that seemed to signal the Habs were a seller instead of a buyer. Curiously, that was where the dealing stopped.

The problem I have, however, with the notion that Joseph, Belfour or any other of the rental netminding options were 'the answer' for the Habs is that, even with regular starter Cristobal Huet, this wasn't a winning team.

In the 14 starts Huet had leading up to the game in which he tore his hamstring, the spiralling Canadiens were 5-9-0 and desperately swapping the French 'tender with David Aebischer in an attempt to right the ship.

In all, Montreal was 9-17-1 in a skid that lasted from Dec. 21 to... well, until the new guy arrived.

Enter Jaroslav Halak, the top netminder in the AHL at the time, and he rattled off three wins in a row in his first three NHL starts. In all, between the time of Halak's first start and the day of the trade deadline, the Habs were 4-1-0.

Now, if you're Gainey, and your team is suddenly on the upswing after a long fall down the standings — one that continued unabated regardless of who was in goal — do you make a move to shore up your goaltending? Especially when you have, at best, a low-seeded playoff team in a weak conference, a club that dealt it's longest-serving veteran and has its remaining two pending-UFA blueliners filling the top spots on the defence core. Especially when your lone marquee free-agency signing has been one of the league's biggest busts, a cancer in the room and an anchor on the payroll.

Especially when crawling into the postseason means a date with one of the conference 'powers' in Buffalo and New Jersey, and far more likely than not, an early exit.

The difference between the 2006 Edmonton Oilers club that added a veteran 'tender and went to the finals and the 2007 Montreal Canadiens that didn't (and won't) was that goaltending was, unequivocally, the hole on that Oilers team.

In Montreal? Hardly. There's a shoddy blueline anchored around two offense-first skaters and a forward corps that hasn't scored at even strength all season. There's dressing room turmoil and tragedy in the front office and a star who's publicly questioned the team's coach in the foreign press.

This, frankly, isn't Montreal's year, and 'going for it' in any capacity isn't the move to make.

Besides, were the Canadiens really the team that needed a Joseph or Belfour the most? Scan the netminding wasteland currently backstopping the turtle derby in the middling portion of the Eastern Conference and there are a handful of teams who could have used that help: Boston, the Islanders, Carolina, Tampa Bay or even Toronto. (It makes you wonder just how high the rental price was given none of the above made that call to bring in a veteran between the pipes.)

Gainey didn't so much raise a white flag at the trade deadline as look to the future, one in which Halak, Gorges, Andrei Kastsitsyn, Mike Komisarek, Maxim Lapierre, Guillaime Latendresse, Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Mike Ryder and the other youngsters play a big role. And I don't think it's a coincidence those are the players keying a lot of their recent success.

Will there be some heat if the Habs miss the playoffs, as they almost certainly will? Definitely. But Gainey's shown in the past he's not afraid of the heat, especially when there's a plan in place and some hope for the future.

Besides, if you want to jump on someone, Garth Snow's your man. Here's a GM who went for it big time despite his team's tenuous position in the standings and is now regretting now having a backup plan in the form of a solid backup.



At 3:12 a.m., March 19, 2007, Anonymous Darren said...

Er, to be honest, I only scanned your post, but I wanted to raise a related point. I thought last year laid bare the fallacy of some accepted wisdom about the playoffs: you need a veteran goaltender to win.

If I recall correctly, the four final teams had four starting goalies with barely a game of playoff experience between them.

At 8:12 a.m., March 19, 2007, Blogger E said...

There's a shoddy blueline anchored around two offense-first skaters

souray and _______?

At 10:34 a.m., March 19, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Montreal Canadiens regular season stats

At 10:38 a.m., March 19, 2007, Blogger Robert L said...

You make very valid points in defense of Gainey's perceived non-actions at the trade deadline. In any Habs fans wildest dreams, this is far from a Cup year by any means. You cannot plan on or gamble assets on being a long shot Cup contender, even in light of what the Oilers and Flames accomplished the last two playoffs.

Gainey is taking a relative beating, but he did well to sit still. Adding a first round pick and a young defenseman for Craig Rivet fits the plan perfectly.

You mention the youth on the team that has been playing well of late, and it seems as though Gainey has resided with letting this present group take it upon themselves to make the playoffs.

The patient Gainey's motto might well be that Rome was not built it a day. Hence, the Stanley Cup will not be won off the backs of goaltenders pushing 40.

Much of the criticism aimed at Gainey's stance stems from the published trade deadline musings of Brian Burke. If you recall, the Anaheim GM was a little perturbed that he didn't get his mits on Rivet, and mentioned that he called Gainey to take him to task on it.

Most people seem to have forgotten that Burke spoke loud and clear before the deadline ended in saying he would surrender no youth or draft picks for the short term.

So just what did Burke have to whine about anyway?

Much of where the Canadien went afoul after a surprising first 40 games had little to do with Gainey's game plan. A series of blindsided events derailed what was already an imperfect team. The tension and pressure became a combustable to the team concept. Questions arose, the number one goalie went down, are here they sit.

Tossing the blueprint is ill advised in respect to those setbacks.

I see a young nucleus of a team with a bright future.

Gainey is on the ball.

At 12:55 p.m., March 19, 2007, Anonymous Lyle Richardson said...

Outstanding analysis of the Habs situation, James. Well done.

At 1:57 p.m., March 19, 2007, Blogger El Brucio said...

The questions about Gainey are actually pretty legit. No one was realistically expecting a saviour. In fact, Gainey maybe should have taken the Edmonton approach instead. Trading Souray, whose percieved (I do say percieved) demands for his new contract seem drastically overpriced (around $5.5m, oddly enough Ryan Smyth numbers, and I'd rather have Smyth). Someone will pay up that price, but it's not a very sound investment considering injury history and his shoddy own zone play. Markov (who isn't really an offense first player, more just a good puck carrier and former forward) is the player to build around, along with Komisarek who is criminally underrated.

The Habs need to figure out who their core is... there are obviously some players who just don't fit in the future. Ryder might still be dealt, as he's one year from UFA and contract talks with him have been slow moving the past 2 years.

As per the goalie thing, the upside of keeping Halak up (a rookie AHL goalie who didn't play a majority of Hamilton's games, BTW, Danis did and faced tougher opponents in general) seemed too little compared to the prospect of setting his development back at a fragile stage. Most NHL goalies spend 2-3 years in the AHL at least before that cup of coffee opens up.

Time will tell. This is a very important time in Gainey's tenure... and he doesn't appear to have made up his mind.

At 2:00 p.m., March 19, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

This is a very important time in Gainey's tenure... and he doesn't appear to have made up his mind.

I'll agree with that. If you're going to jump on the GM, at least take him to task for not buying or selling in late February.

I just don't believe Belfour/Joseph/etc. gets them out of the mess they're in this season.

At 2:08 p.m., March 19, 2007, Blogger El Brucio said...

I agree that Belfour/Joseph doesn't help them this year. But I guess the risk of Halak regressing as a result of this rush to action is what I'd be protecting against. Again, the price may have been astronomical.

I'll give Carbonneau credit, he went back to Aebi after Halak starting getting porous. A long week of pracitce and Halak came back with a very good performance. There were articles in Montreal stating that Halak had to be the difference for Montreal to make the playoffs, which were ridiculous and completely wrong headed. I worried about Halak's future, and still do, but am more comfortable now.

I do wonder if the team making the playoffs or not making the playoffs will be better in determining the team's future. One things for certain, Gainey needs some more time away from the rink. I do worry of a Clarke type burnout situation.


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