Guest Article: Musings of a Concerned Habs' Fan

Rocket All HabsCorrespondent IApril 7, 2010

MONTREAL- DECEMBER 4:  Former Montreal Canadien Patrick Roy is introduced during the Centennial Celebration ceremonies prior to the NHL game between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins on December 4, 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Canadiens defeated the Bruins 5-1.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

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For my first post to this blog, I must start with the requisite biographical data; I believe as a Habs fan, it makes me rather unique in how I come to assess the bleu, blanc, et rouge.

To start with, I'm 27 years old and an American, originally from a Hartford, Connecticut suburb. I grew up a Habs' fan because my best friend in kindergarten was from a French-Canadian family, played goalie for a minor hockey league team, and idolized Patrick Roy. I wasn't already a Hartford Whalers fan, so I resultingly became a Montréal Canadiens fan instead.

The last time the Habs won a Stanley Cup, I was ten years old; this was in the days before the internet existed as we now know it. The only chances I had to see or hear about my team came either in the form of televised red jerseys (back before 2003) playing either the Whalers or the Bruins, or the local radio broadcasts. Even with the Whalers nearby, the Hartford Courant provided minimal hockey coverage. I was an out-of-market fan who never really got the opportunity to know his team.

This all changed in 2000 -- the internet started to pick up in usage and I got the opportunity to attend university in Montreal. I was a foreigner in a bilingual land, but, of the only sport I really cared about, I finally was near my team. It helped that I had taken/continued to take French courses and I used the hockey culture to improve my linguistic skills. RDS became my Habs channel of choice (before it was the only channel) and I learned about culture through the team.

I understood what "persecution" the Montréal media was capable of, I understood how integrally the team was tied to the city of Montréal, and I understood the trials and tribulations of being a follower of "La Religion du Canadien de Montréal". I was at Centre Bell for the triumphant return of Saku Koivu and for the heart-breaking jersey retirement of Boom-Boom Geoffrion. I was at Centre Bell both when half the seats were filled and when 21,273 was merely a fire code suggestion.

As the internet morphed, so did my life. After finishing university, I moved back to Connecticut, then down to New York City, and now reside in Western Massachusetts. Though I've spent the past six years out-of-market, the internet has connected me to the team now more than ever. Yet, being away from the thick of what the internet has done to most professional sports reporting gives me more "forest through the trees" perspective than listening to the callers on Team 990 or the incessant blathering of Benoît Brunet.

All this stated, the 2009-2010 season is almost to a close, yet it has left several odd impressions that concern me as to the future of the team. These observations have plagued me for most of the season, but as a playoff run is imminent, I find it difficult to believe my beloved Glorieux will advance past the Devils (or Sabres or Capitals).

So, to add to the noise of the blogosphere, here it goes:

1. Jacques Martin

When Coach was hired in June 2009, I was skeptical of what he would bring to the table. Martin had been touted as "a defensive coach," yet his nine seasons in Ottawa virtually amounted to nothing. A month later, then-General Manager Bob Gainey started throwing down the gauntlet with a series of high-profile roster acquisitions. Jacques Martin had been given Hal Gill (coming off a Cup-winning season with Pittsburgh), Paul Mara, and Jaro Spacek to bulk up Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik. Up front, Gainey offered some bulk in Travis Moen, and the obvious high-profile acquisitions of Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez.

Early in the season, the team was setback with the injury to Markov, midway through the season brought the devastating Volchenkov hit on Cammalleri, and now, Glenn Metropolit is out indefinitely. It is fair enough to tautologically state that Martin has been dealt a bad string of injuries. However, an experienced coach knows how to draw wins from his team, how to use his in-hand assets accordingly. While it is true that money doesn't buy Stanley Cups, having a decent coach can win them.

Martin got lucky with a trade for Guillaume Latendresse for Benoit Pouliot; he was fortunate that some call-ups like Ryan O'Byrne and Josh Georges have consistently played with heart, while Mathieu Darche has remained unsung in Hamilton for the majority of the season; he (and Gainey) actually moved adeptly to harness an immature Sergei Kostitsyn, demonstrating the on-ice potency of both him and his brother Andrei (serving to mediate my season-opening feelings about the fiasco). Oh, and did we mention that Tomas Plekanec is virtually having a career season heading into unrestricted free agency. And yet, while the chemistry has clicked at points (stunning everyone at the Centennial Match on December 4, 2009), the consistency was never there. Was it the players?

While some argue that it is up to the players to win games, I believe it is actually up to the Coach to win games. The role of a coach is to motivate players, to develop strategy, to have creative off-ice vision, to effectively manage the roster, to develop players' skills. The role of players is to demonstrate talent through execution of all the coach's work. By these attributes, I have not been convinced that Jacques Martin is an effective coach. I do not believe players are being sufficiently motivated, I do not believe the players are being given strategic direction, and I do not believe whatever shred of strategy exists in Jacques Martin's stoic mind is being effectively translated to the players.

Furthermore, whatever shreds of strategy actually exist are reminiscent of the failed strategies of Michel Therrien (2000-2003). Dump and chase is not a viable strategy to win hockey games, nor is sitting on one- or two-early goal leads. Several overtime games could have been regulation wins, if not for Martin's system. Instead, the Habs were put on the string for overtime/shootouts, while ultimately valuable points were given to other teams. And while the Habs have eked out a spot in the playoffs, it is difficult to see Martin's system as anything sustainable. Coach was given a team that was built for him and failed to make anything substantial about it. By luck, the Habs made the playoffs, but luck doesn't give you 16 Wins.

Conclusion: Jacques Martin needs to be fired.

2. Goaltending controversy

As I said above, it is because of goaltending that I owe my allegiance to the Habs. Since about 2000 when José Théodore took the mantle from a struggling Jeff Hackett, the Habs have been "plagued" with the dual-goaltender controversy, ultimately shifting to Théodore/Mathieu Garon, Cristobal Huet/David Aebischer, Huet/Carey Price, and now Price/Jaro Halak (though there have been other goalies). I premise this argument by saying that I am more a fan of Halak than of Price -- I admire his cool presence and consistency. However, I recognize Price's youth and his potential to be a star goalie.

Midway through the season, Price hit a slide in his goaltending performance, leading to more starts by Halak in net. It didn't help that Halak's agent, Allan Walsh, pulled an infamously self-aggrandizing stunt via Twitter, fueling fire of rumours that Halak or Price would be ripe for a trade by the deadline. And yet, neither goalie was traded. Halak held down the fort, while Price started to regain some of his form. The Olympic break was kind to Halak's confidence. For a team where defence was more important than offence (see above) and goaltending more important than defence, both goalies continued to earn points when necessary. In the past few games of the season, Price has suffered from a deficient team up-front. Once again, "controversy" erupted, conspiracy theories abounded, and "Trade Price" epithets were thrown about.

Yet I don't believe there is a controversy. Each goalie has positives and negatives; each goalie is better equipped to handle certain strengths of various teams, each goalie has enormous potential. And quite frankly, any coach worth his weight in strategy should be happy that he has two starters (*ahem* Jean-Sebastien Giguere). For some reason, there is a myth that a team should mortgage its future on one starting goalie and a backup or two. This is absolute nonsense. Although Price is suffering from a rough patch (that is currently not his fault), it would be an asinine move to trade either goalie, only to find the trade leaves us with a long-term loss.

Conclusion: Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak should both stay in Montreal.

3. Pierre Gauthier and the linguistic debate

Midway through the season, Bob Gainey "resigned" from his position as 14th General Manager of the Montréal Canadiens, however everyone knew that "resigned" was HRspeak for "fired myself." This news came 2 1/2 weeks after the organization's buyout of enforcer Georges Laraque's contract, leading some to question the suspicious timing of the resignation. Although many fans seemed to enjoy Laraque's heart and character as a person, few seemed to believe that his on-ice presence was impacting for the team. (Again, this may have been due in large part to Jacques Martin's roster management, but I'm digressing).

The resignation of Bob Gainey brought about the permanent hire of Pierre Gauthier -- previously assigned as Assistant General Manager. On early reports of Gainey's resignation, many assumed Gauthier would be take over as interim General Manager, not permanent General Manager. However, the day's events unfolded and Gauthier took the top slot in the organization while Gainey would stay on as "special advisor."

Gauthier's promotion started to raise questions about the integrity of the Canadiens' organization. The Molson family (who bought back George Gillette's stake in the team) seemed to let Pierre Boivin once again take the reins of the GM hire. As was reported on various sites, both Boivin and Gauthier backed an unofficial hiring policy that presented the Canadiens with a "francophone at every level" of the organization. These arguments made particularly by Boivin are extremely fallacious.

Every businessman (and that is what this ultimately is -- a business) knows that implementing hiring rules is a myopic practice at best. At worst, it puts a restriction on genuine talent. Businesses that hire in diverse fashions are able to capture the best talent to achieve the highest successes. From business history, we all know that the civil rights movements and the womens' rights movements brought the biggest influx of capable, talented individuals to the workforce. Far be the Canadiens organization to be compared to such a grand shaping of the workforce, but it says a lot as to how little Boivin cares to win a Stanley Cup for Montreal.

As I said before, I understand the linguistic debate in Québec. I understand the history of the Canadiens vs. the Maroons (and Wanderers). But even as ingrained as the team is to La Ville de Montréal, the business only perpetuates itself when the team wins a Stanley Cup. In the current state, I think fans would accept an Anglophone coach and/or general manager (by the way -- Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman weren't reviled for winning Stanley Cups). I'm hard-pressed to think that after a 17-year dry spell, the fans in Montréal want anything less.

Conclusion: The unofficial policy of a "francophone presence at every level of the organization" is backwards and stale and should be abandoned.

4. Failing to nominate a captain

Under the right circumstances, a team's delayed nomination for captain is acceptable. There have been teams that have tried co-captaincies, rotating captaincies, etc. The moral has been that the captaincy ultimately is the team leader in the locker room after the coach. With a half-new team rebuilding this year, it was understandable that the beginning of the season hadn't seen the Canadiens nominate a captain. Then injuries befell the team and names like Markov, Cammalleri, Gionta, and even Plekanec were bandied about as the team's true leaders.

But when the coach fails to inspire (see point 1 above), who else is left to inspire the team? Yes, players should be self-motivated to win a Stanley Cup, but from organizational psychology, we know that self-motivation (and salaries) are insufficient. Ideally, the man at the top should lead the charge, and his deputy should follow. What we've now seen is weak leadership at the top and therefore, making a deputy yet to become self-apparent.

Under other circumstances, I might accept a failure to decide on a captain. We've seen "signals," sending rumour mills forth on wild escapades. But this is Montréal and by season's end, the new players should understand the city's pressures. Is it that no one's stepped up to make the nominations? Is it that no one actually wants to assume the mantle of Habs' captain (which I would guess to be utter malarkey). Or is it that no one feels talented enough to accept the position if he was offered?

These questions are difficult to speculate, but they seem to be putting the team at a disadvantage. With all of the injuries, all of the squabbles, and all of the pressures this season has induced, having a captain at the helm providing steady on-ice leadership would have been extraordinarily beneficial. As fans, we can all debate 'til the cows come home who is most worthy of the captaincy, but I would settle for consensus that, going into the playoffs, a captain is necessary.

Conclusion: In the absence of a strong coach, the players should not be waiting so long to determine their captain.

And so we head into the playoffs with what amount to questionable deficiencies. We can use any combination of these deficiencies to start up the rumour mill, to throw out hypothetical scenarios, to waste time and energy speculating trades upon trades. While we are lucky to be here, luck will not predicate the team's success both in the playoffs and in the 2010-2011 season (and beyond). Hard work and remoulding strategy are key components to Stanley Cup victory.

All these points said, I'm just a fan. What the heck do I know?