Saturday, 31 March 2012

How To Win A Stanley Cup In Montreal

For the last couple of years I've written an end-of-season blog dedicated to my first love, and sadly this year I get to write it a few weeks earlier as it's mathematically impossible for the Canadiens to make the playoffs and either surprise their way to the conference final or lose in the first round to the eventual champions. This year we showed our true colours: an inept group of forwards and vastly inexperienced defensemen working in impossible conditions under lacklustre coaching and management, with no passion, no grit, no desire, and no cohesion.

Here's how I, an overseas fan who clashes with the opinions of Montreal natives time and again, thinks we should be moving forwards.

1) Ditch the "Bilingual Coach" nonsense.

Hockey is an international language. But the thing you'll notice if you have followed the sport since, say, the seventies, is that like many worldwide sports that international language is, whether you like it or not, English. I've been to Montreal. I've tried speaking French to the natives. If you suck at it (like I do) they speak to you in English anyway. Outside of the rural areas I'd be surprised if there is anyone of a half-decent educational standard that can't speak English better than most English-speaking Canadians can speak French.

In Wales, no one expects the coach of Swansea, or Cardiff, or the national team to speak fluent Welsh. They expect them to win football matches. Because what matters most to Welsh football fans is results. Rest in peace, Gary Speed.

I'm not saying Randy Cunneyworth is the man for the job at Le Centre Bell. I'm just saying there are coaches out there that don't speak French who know how to coach a team to the Stanley Cup final. Fact.

2) Let the skilled forwards be skilled forwards.

This is a gripe that goes back years, and I can present far more evidence of how the system in Montreal screws up the confidence, ability, and talent of many, many a youngster coming into the locker room than should ever be the case.

Brian Savage. Michael Ryder. Mike Ribeiro. Mikhail Grabovski. Guillaume Latendresse. These are all guys that put up good junior numbers who, in the Montreal system were constantly expected to backcheck and hustle, never to find the open ice, and never to be greedy. It seems the only people we've encouraged to do any of the latter have been overpriced free-agent signing, or trades that haven't panned out.

We have some significant young talent in our ranks, in David Desharnais, Louis Leblanc, Lars Eller, Aaron Palushaj, and especially Max Pacioretty. But I don't think (even with a great season behind Desharnais and Pacioretty) if the system stays as it is, it will make the slightest difference. They'll just be guys that get traded for something-or-other needlessly, for us to find out they are productive and beneficial to other teams like Ribeiro, Grabovski, and Ryder have proved recently.

3) Have some defensemen who look like they could get served in a bar.

May the hockey gods bless PK Subban. He is the character the Habs have been missing for years. His charisma, his big grin, his chatter, and his confidence are as much a part of his game as those incredible open-ice hits, the big slapshot, and rushes up the ice. But beyond he and Josh Gorges there is nothing I can see that says "I am an NHL defenseman."

Andrei Markov is permanently injured. The rest are guys who could (and in some cases did) bring a team a junior championship at the AHL level.Weber, Diaz, Emelin, and St. Denis are all barely out of junior status. And that's all the defensemen we have. No. Don't even think about mentioning anyone else. There are no other Montreal defensemen. Trust me.

Buying out Markov's contract would be a start. I'm sure he'd be great for any other NHL team, but let them pay his excessive medical expenses. I'm sick of his exceptional talent being in the physio room and not on the ice. We could make space for a couple of guys I think would really make a difference in our locker room: Alexandre Picard, and Adam McQuaid. And we could get these workhorse guys for draft picks, because I'm not entirely sure their respective teams appreciate them like a bunch of soft kids such as our youngsters'd appreciate them.

That said: Jarred Tinordi should probably get a shot at stepping up for a few games, as he already looks like the fists and in-the-corner fearlessness our blueline sorely lacks.

4) A General Manager prepared to take some risks.

It's pissed me off this year (and I've blogged about it before) that some of the quality players that have made a difference on other teams (particularly the Flyers' Claude Giroux and the Blues' David Perron) could have been drafted by us. We're going into this post-season (early) with (probably) a top three draft pick. But I'm not entirely sure a high pick is what we need. If we draft someone high, it needs to be a power forward who we'll nurture as a power forward, not someone we allow to fall short, re point #2. If we draft, we draft Brendan Gaunce. But we won't. So let's get rid of that pick and add to that shocking blueline with either one of the guys I mentioned in point #3, or restricted free agent Shea Weber who will never win anything where he is now.

 5) Media acceptance that it's the 21st century, and the hockey world owes us nothing.

No more the cry of "Twenty-four Stanley Cups". It means precisely nothing. It has the same impact as telling English soccer fans that their national team are "the best" in the world. True students of either sport know that their team no longer even rank in the top ten, and honest fans (be they true or otherwise) can recognise we don't have what it takes to compete with the big boys. We don't have a Nicklas Lidstrom. We don't have a Patrick Kane. We don't have a Zdeno Chara (OH MY GOD I SUGGESTED CHARA ISN'T AN INHUMAN SCUMBAG!!!). We don't have a Martin Brodeur. We certainly don't have a Sindey Crosby or a Steven Stamkos.

We have Subban, Price, Pacioretty, Eller, and, if you like, Cole. Not much else. It's about time the media either realised this or started getting behind the talent of those youngsters that really could be the heart-and-soul of the team. One day.

6) Nail down Staubitz and for Gods' sake sign someone vicious.

Whether you approve of fist fights on a brick-hard surface, teetering on two razor blades or not, fighting in pro hockey is as fundamental to the modern game as diving is to professional soccer. It gets a result, like it or not. Where the Habs have gone wrong in the last couple of seasons is having not only no one who can win a fight, but no one who can step on the ice and mix it up to get the chance of a fight going? Travis Moen? Ryan White? Ballsy guys, but guys shown up as Second Prize. Subban can go. Gorges ain't scared. But it makes no odds if you get pasted with haymakers and end up pinned to the ice.

Staubitz changed all that. We have some toughness at last. And if we can nail down someone younger and crazier (I'm thinking in the Claude Lemieux mould here, although I like AHLer Matt Pelech's tenacity) to add depth to the possibility of excessive violence, we may stop being pinballed to the foot of the NHL rankings.

7) Deciding what to do with Patrick Roy.

He's been touted as a future Habs coach. Now he's at the tip of every betting Habs-obsessive's tongue as the next GM. Why? Because he's arguably the best goaltender the club ever had? Because he's from the province? Because he's bilingual? I'm not being funny, but aside from these admirable qualities he's also noted for his stubbornness, his temper, his historic falling out with Habs management and trade to a team that showed him the respect he commanded, and his complete lack of any senior management roles.

I love the guy. He was just coming to make a name for himself when I fell in love with the Habs (although I will forever credit Penney and Sevigny for assuring my devotion) but our track record of Habs on-ice legends does not translate well to off-ice operations. I genuinely don't know if I would want St. Patrick at the helm at any level above the AHL right now.

8) Take the Old Yellers out back and shoot them.

You've got to love Scott Gomez. With his unusual-fort-the-league heritage and his record as a Cup winner he (on paper) is a quality player who you wouldn't pass up if you could put him on your roster in a video game. However, at this stage of his career in Montreal he has shown himself to be fragile, lacking confidence, injury prone, and perhaps jaded by the system he came into. It's time for him, the diminutive Brian Gionta, and the inexplicably dressed Mathieu Darche to be packed off somewhere else to see what they can add in different circumstances.

I am not denying these players their proven talent. I am just denying they have a desire to play in Montreal, or an ability to stay healthy under the Habs medical professionals.

9) Take a bloody good look at recent Stanley Cup winners.

The Bruins. The 'Hawks. The Penguins.

Each of these teams had lean seasons before their Cup wins. Jesus, if you're a 'Hawks fan reading this in the year  2042 (and I bet the Leafs still haven't won a Cup) you might know how I feel, but since it's still... let's see... yeah... 2012, I think it's fair to say the Habs' dry spell only dating back to '93 isn't such a big deal, in the big scheme of proud hockey franchises.

What we need to do, following their lead, is draft well, trade well, and keep a core of talent to build around. Sounds bleeding obvious? Yeah, well it is. But each year there are twenty-nine teams who don't evidence drafting, trading, claiming or training well enough to the The Winner. Even if you average things out over a ten year period I don't think the Habs could be considered a shoe-in to even the top eight in any of those categories. All of those three Champs I mentioned would be in the top three in each category at least half the time.

10) Not giving me a post-season with 10 bullet-points to rip the team on.

It's simply very acceptable. But it's not acceptable year-in, year-out. So don't let it happen again, Mr. Geoff Molson. You own the team, you claim to be a hockey fan, and bearing in mind they sell your fucking awful beer even over here in Europe you're clearly not lacking in financial clout. Put your money where your mouth is and get us some of the items I've mentioned above, and maybe, just maybe what you will have before you is a proud team who have added to the legacy so many talented and humble men of generations lost fought tooth and nail for. You will have a city rejoicing (although probably burning, raping, looting and pillaging again) at the restoration of pride in this historic franchise.

But you will definitely get those banners swaying in the rafters, as the Forum Ghosts dance for us once more.

Nos bras meurtris vous tendent le flambeau, à vous toujours de le porter bien haut.

(The Habs motto, written by an English-speaking Canadian of Scottish descent.)

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