Like many other readers who were as caught off guard by this as I was, when I heard that former Canadiens defenseman Patrice Brisebois and Habs GM Gainey were seen having lunch together, all that came to mind were punchlines.
Could Brisebois be springing for a Happy Meal to thank Bob for enabling him to get out of town, buyout dollars in hand, two years back, freeing him from the pressure filled constraints of playing in hockey's hottest simmering kettle?
Maybe Gainey owed him a prime rib or filet mignon for leaving town without a word to blemish the dressing room ranks, not unlike Craig Rivet?
Is Gainey out to lunch?
Then I thought perhaps Carbonneau needs a new whipping boy to keep the troops in line?
But alas no, the punchlines turned quickly into a sucker punch with word that Brisebois has been offered a skinny one year deal to return to the city that once made him sweat in his mid winter sleeps.
My take on Brisebois has always been that he is a player with above average tools, minus the toolbox. He reminded me of Stephane Richer, forever gifted and distracted from public perceptions. This is a player, if you remember well, who was so stressed inside the CH crest, that Hab docs recommended he take an absense from the team to refresh his focus while nursing some aches and pains.
When his mental vacation took him to Paris, he made matters even worse upon his return. Nothing like a little jetlag to help one relax!
He does speak passionately and eloquently on team matters. He is a proud enough Hab to endure the well deserved wrath he sometimes takes on. But words don't always equal actions.
When it comes to Brisebois, you can sense the wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead. From the neck up!
As a player, Brisebois has been perfunctionary at best. Overpaid and overplayed, he came to be overcriticized as well.
Truth is he was never good enough to deserve being dragged through the mud for being something he never was. Money brought that on as much as his sometimes poor play did.
Brisebois was always capable of a decent breakout pass and possessed other offensive traits as well. Used on the powerplay, he could set up play with a fair amount of skill, but he guarded the blueline with all the confidence and poise of a shellshocked kid in a minefield.
In his own end, he was often an adventure waiting to unfold. In time he learned to reel in his capacity for wanting to do too much and settled into a comfortable game of positioning and simplicity. He played well when he was not being noticed, in other words.
Brisebois would never overcome his trademark "Breeze By" moniker, due to his brutal pivots that tended to auger his ass into the ice anytime a speedy winger would cut outside of him.
Now Gainey is looking into bringing the battlescarred blueliner back, wonky spine and all, as a sixth or seventh deep defenseman. From an hour away, I can actually hear eyes rolling inside heads at La Cage Aux Sports over the prospect of this happening.
Just how would this possibly make any sense, I have asked myself?
Can it simply be about depth? On defense, that is never a bad thing. Is it about veteran leadership and experience? I'd be more confortable with that notion if it were a player other than Brisebois.
Is that contract a two way deal that could see Brisebois starting the year and or playing mainly in Hamilton? That is definitely an interesting option for Gainey to peruse, but why would the veteran seek such a role?
My biggest concern deals with three players I see fitting into the extra defenseman role in Montreal much smoother than Brisebois. The three candidates of choice being Ryan O'Byrne, J.P. Cote, and heck, even longshot Mathieu Biron.
For the betterment of O'Byrne's continued developement, it is essential that he plays as many minutes as possible. He should not and will not be in Montreal simply to assume the 7th spot. Brisebois is the option should O'Byrne not be quite ready for prime time just yet.
Cote's time is now or never. He is riding the fine line between prospect and career minor leaguer at this point in time. I would think he is not a fan of Brisebois today. Cote has to be given an opportunity and an opening now, but Brisebois would close it up.
Also in the mix are the roles played by Mark Streit and Josh Gorges, currently sixth and seventh in D spots. The message to them as well would be negative in light of Brisbois signing.
I see it this way, plain and simple. When and if the Habs win the Cup, Brisebois will no longer be around. The experience a young blueliner would gain this season, would surely factor into a Cup run then moreso than any scraps of icetime given to Brisebois now.
It's a no brainer to me, and trust me, I didn't even use my brain on it in any way - honest!
The most popular thinking, is that Gainey is loading up for a trade, having possibly evaluated Brisebois equal to, or better than say Dandeneault or Bouillon. Should the Canadiens be attempting to aquire a player of certain impact, it may well require a package deal. The Canadiens have the bodies to pull such a deal off and this could be what sets it up.
There is still no official word on the contract buyouts for Jassen Cullimore and Tony Salmeleinen, so the Canadiens would sit at 52 standard player contracts at present if adding Brisebois. It could well be that the buyouts have happened without announcement, or that Gainey is slowly and quietly considering assets at hand.
One cannot shake the feeling that something is brewing. Gainey won't reveal what's up his sleeve other than a hairy arm, so the speculation is about to run rampant.
All we can do now, is question the questions!
Sunday, July 29, 2007
For the upcoming 2007-08 season, much of the Canadiens progress as a team will be measured by the growth of a select group of young individuals set to make a permanent mark on the team. What they will achieve individually and together as a group will go a long way in determining whether the Habs truly have Stanley Cup aspirations in the not so distant future.
Their time has come and it is now that they must begin to deliver results. They will each be analysed by numbers, character, and overall performance. In Montreal, character will be the toughest test.
You could call them the group of seven.
These soon to be pillars of Hab destiny are goaltender Carey Price, defenseman Mike Komisarek, and forwards Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Maxim Lapierre.
Many are of the opinion that Komisarek has arrived. Ditto for Higgins and Plekanec. While Canadiens fans have been priveledge to glimpses of greatness by all three, it should be said that they are in reality only half way home.
In Komisarek's case, when opposing coaches shuffle lines to keep their fleetest of foot away from the giant rearguard, we will know for certain that his game has filled out. Near the league leaders in hits last season, the fear has probably already begun. Teamed with Andrei Markov, the duo measures well up against any NHL teams top two D-men who are not named Pronger, Niedermayer, or Lidstrom. For comparison in the Northeast division, only Ottawa with Redden and Volchenkov are superior on most nights.
Confidence is one trait not lacking in Komisarek. His overall game grew by great leaps last season and one can expect more again in 2007-08. With the reliable Markov at his side, Komisarek will see additional responsabilities added to his role. He will be countering every opponants top scorers and best lines, and judging his progression will not be difficult. He will be the beneficiary of major ice time this season, and that fact alone should pay dividends.
Two words that would describe Komisarek well are character and leadership.
I mention those qualities in particular, because they are NOT variables on a Bob Gainey built team. The remaining 6 players of this group all share in this trait.
Chris Higgins was all set to launch into a breakout season when injuries nipped high aspirations. With 8 goals in his first 13 games, out rolled the superlatives in his regard. There were mentions of All Star game nods added to likening his dedication to that of a future captain. For a player who missed a major chunk of the season, and followed up with a maximum effort while still playing hurt, Higgins can surely be described as the real deal. He reminds many seasoned fans of old time hockey players who put the logo ahead of their individuality, sacrificed for the benefit of the team, and rarely used the word "I" when it came to speaking of goals.
Higgins off season workout regimen has been well documented. It is leadership personified and dedication exemplified. He has character to spare and seems to wear the CH on his heart. He has already begun to lead and seems willing to do so loudly.
Tomas Plekanec is a well rounded and dependable second line center who unassumingly brings more to the table than a simple passing glance can catch. Saddled with a free falling Alex Kovalev for the better part of the season, Plekanec still managed to hit the 20 goal mark despite trying times. He blossomed after Christmas, becoming more often than not the Habs best second half player - all while the team was in a tailspin of desperate proportions. For a sophomore centerman burdened with expectation, that is testiment to character and desire.
Plekanec has a multitude of tools that should enable him to enjoy a long career. Tooled and tutored with respect to defensive responsabilities, he posted interesting numbers in only his second campaign. He reminds me all too much of Guy Carbonneau's glory days as a player. Once fully developed, he will be utilized in any game situation. His efficiency runs the gamut from adept work in the corners, smart use of his wingmen, and an intelligent hockey sense that will parlay itself into intuition with time and experience. His leadership and character qualities, being he is a European, will be more subtle, discreet, and quieter to disect, but time will show the impact of his contributions.
Latendresse, Lapierre, Kostitsyn, and Price represent the newest wave of the Canadiens youth corps. While Price stocked up on every imaginable achievement outside the NHL this past season, the other three provided hopes to Habs management and fans of much greater things to come.
The three rookie forwards couldn't be any more opposite from each other in terms of what they bring to the team. Taken together though, all three will become unique and key elements in the Habs team composite starting this year.
Maxim Lapierre doesn't have the benefit of NHL categories that will qualify his eventual usefullness inside the team concept. There are no stats that add up opponants lured into penalties. No totalling of agitated foes distracted from their duties. Numbers of players hearing his constant yapping and players looking over their shoulders wondering what's exactly up Lapierre's sleeve will also never be counted.
Call Lapierre a role player and you will have hit the nail dead on.
He is an irritant pest in the classic Skrudland, Risebrough, and Linseman mold. Every Stanley Cup winning team employs one to full effect.
Unlike a Darcy Tucker, Lapierre can reel in his exhuberance when required. Maxim learned the mandate of his role in Hamilton last season when he was given duties that did not involve numbers and offensive production. Not only did he annoy the living heck out of each line he opposed, he consequently produced and was a major cog in the Bulldogs Calder run. The Chicago Wolves line of Krog, Sterling, and Haydar went missing in the AHL quarter final due to the diligence of Lapierre's line.
Lapierre knows and accepts that he will never be a top two line forward in the NHL. Focusing on exactly what his strengths are, and how to make the most of them inside a team concept are teachable concepts Lapierre is all too willing to learn. Eager role players enable teams to prosper. Having Lapierre around to promote this ideal is an unexpected bonus to the Habs.
Andrei Kostitsyn is a revelation awaiting discovery. Tantalizing peeks into what talent he possesses would make a scout foam at the mouth. Three qualities: size, shot, and skill, define his game. His outcome involves patience, opportunity and the right linemates.
Kostitsyn will take on the on role of a subtle gamebreaker with either of those qualities, in much the same manner a talent the likes of Alex Kovalev does.
( Shit! I heard that moaning groan from you that a comparison to a player like Kovalev elicits. Disqualify the notion of the comparison when thinking that Alex had a free pass to the NHL while our Kostitsyn had to work to get there. Players don't forget learning this stuff.)
In time, options created by shooting and hitting more often, will enable all of his talent to come to fruition. Carbonneau seemed intent on teaching him that using his size opens up his better game. Kostitsyn needs to comfort himself against NHL'ers before he can realize his true potential, and it may require a full season of coaching to trigger that awarenss.
In Kostitsyn's case, character and leadership are best looked at later on. He has so far overcome some predjudices as far as his injury history is concerned. His immediate worth to the Canadiens will be defined by his commitment to a complete game. The jury is sitting on this one.
Described as a power forward, Latendresse is a player of many strengths. Physically, he has the presence and poise to change a game's momentum on the ice, be it with a solid hit, his long reach, or his positioning in front of the net. He's blessed with a heavy shot, and time will render this young blood a very hard player to move off the puck once aquainted with the checkers in the league. Considering that as a 19 year old, facing unfamiliar foes he managed 16 goals in a variety of roles with ever changing linemates, his season has to be viewed as an unqualified success.
Latendresse reminds me of so many great players, many of them misunderstood and underappreciated in the overall scheme of things. The Mahovlich brothers come to mind first, as big players with longer strides who looked slow and lazy on the ice because of their frames. Often they looked like they were coasting due in no small part to their lengthy size. Huffing, pufing, and burning oil, were those attempting to catch them. Like those players, Latendresse might become a difficult analysis at times, but if one judges him by production numbers, team wins, highlight reel moments, and composure in the context of his successes, the big picture of the big guys contribution will be fully appreciated once he is a young NHL veteran.
Brought into the league at such a tender age, Latendresse worked extremely hard at bringing consistency to his game. He studied hard at the Guy Carbonneau School of Defensive Reliability and Positioning and fared well for a greenhorn. While being schooled on so many levels, many new to him, goals and numbers were added bonuses.
What truly impressed me the most about Latendresse's rookie season, testified greatly to the Gainey credo of leadership and character.
Imagine Latendresse's burden, as a native Quebecois, to not only make the team, but survive sanely under the most magnified of spotlights. The Montreal press had lauded Latendresse as a player who should have made the team one year earlier. That press, for all its insight and knowledge, is relentlessly over eager, when pouncing on the prospect of homegrown talent with Les Habitants. The pressure therefore doubled in Latendresse's second camp, and the player did not wilt. What impressed the Habs brass most in the midst of all this pressure, was the players composure and perspective. He focused not on the adulation of a backing public, but on the work ahead.
He made the team based on the qualities between his ears.
Having played in 81 games for Team Pressure as a 19 year old, surely qualifies as defying the odds. Add in that his season was a success on most fronts, and you get the notion that we are dealing with a young man who has his act together. After looking at all of this, within this perspective, it's hard not to agree that there is only upside to what Latendresse can achieve.
I won't offer that the sky is the limit for Latendresse, but everytime I watched him comment after games and personal queries into his psyche as to what he was living through, I got the most chilling of flashbacks.
Latendresse reminds me of Jean Beliveau!
Now before you straightjacket me off to the padded white room and remove my shoestrings, indulge me to explain this most seemingly overboard of comparisons.
It's about demeanor, and not game. Beliveau and Guillaume are as far apart as players as they are era's.
Since being drafted by the Habs, Latendresses has been scoped, prodded, and magnified by the Quebec hockey media in every possible manner. He has handled it with absolute grace, respect, honour and dutifullness. His comments in light of all this madness always revolve around a personal work ethic, a dedication, a quenchless learning need, and a team perspective in light of judging results.
In short, the young man, despite the allures that could tempt him into Theodore-like behavior, has his act together better than many veterans on the Habs.
As for the demeanor of our young stud equalling the great Jean Beliveau's, it all has to do with how the public wishes to see him. There is integrity, dedication, dignity and loyalty in the Latendresse makeup. He seems aware of the public he represents in every word he says. The demands of it hardly rattled him last season. The maturity in which he handled what would make lesser men crack shows that he is aware of his surroundings and responsabilities.
Early in the season, when Patrick Roy criticized Latendresse's promotion to the Canadiens, the rookie placed the cocky Hall of Famer firmly and respectfully with a simple sentence. Then he proceeded to respond on the ice.
We are not dealing with the next Stephane Richer here!
Should Latendresse continue in this demeanor, last and thrive in Monreal, the comparisons will one day be inevitable.
Last, and hardly least, may be the most vital piece in the Montreal Canadiens surge towards Stanley Cup glory.
Since his draft day in 2005, Carey Price, a number five pick overall, was destined to one day become the Habs number one goalie for years to come.
Price, the Calder Cup MVP winning goalie in Hamilton this past year, added to the expectations of Habs fans, by earning every accolade, honour, and trophy in his path since being selected by Montreal.
He has drawn the inevitable comparisons to whom many consider the best goaltender of all time - Patrick Roy.
In Montreal, that would be akin to anointing the next God. Exceding expectations in Hockey 24/7/365 land will do that for a can't miss prospect.
Under such a heavy pile of expectations, Price has upped the ante by exceeding all reasonable prognostications.
I, for one, would name him Canada's male athlete of 2007, without a shred of doubt, should he make (he will) the Habs roster come September and go on to thrive.
Until Price plays an NHL game though, speculation on his future for many remains just that. The next step is upon him, and I believe that the only thing that would return him to the AHL at this point has more to do with the quality of the Canadiens defense than his own showing.
He is in all ways, the Habs best and most complete prospect in regards to potential. His exciting upside is balanced with a cool demeanor. Those who have witnessed his exploits close up tend to pile on the superlatives when it comes to his personal armour and mental capacity to focus.
He's the realest, real deal the Canadiens have had in ages.
All told, the Habs group of seven will be the reason the team prospers this season. In fact, I believe that taken together, what this group will accomplish soon enough, will shed light that the 2006-07 showing was not all lost and wasted.
These players have grown as men, hardened by the notion that one missed opportunity in a season can make or break an entire year. That they will have learned this the hardest way can be a good thing!
I don't usually get too caught up with numbered predictions, but it's excruciatingly difficult not to make some for this group. So here goes:
Komi 250 hits
Price 30 GP 18-20 wins
The prediction I like best is that if this group meets or comes close to these expectations, they will hardly have to claw onto 8th spot come April.
Progress and developement through caracter and leadership. You could look it up on the Stanley Cup!
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
A breakdown of all the presently contracted players in the Montreal Canadiens organization shows that the Habs will be one over the maximum allowed limit of 50 players per team once RFA Michael Ryder is signed (assuming of course) following his July 30th arbitration case.
I'm not certain, but it is my assumption, that teams are allowed in extremis for roster manoevering, just as they are permitted over the cap in dollars in the off season.
I've consulted the Habs official site to fill out the listing below, and to find where each players has been categorized.
Presently on the Canadiens, there are 21 players contracted, if one includes Ryder in that group. On the Hamilton Bulldogs (with spillover to the Cincinati Cyclones) there are a further 28 professional contracts.
The total becomes 51 players with the inclusion of Jassen Cullimore and Tony Salmeleinen, who were placed on waivers upon their aquisition from Chicago. Should they be bought out of their deals, as has been rumoured, the Canadiens would then be left with only one roster spot remaining, and 49 contracts.
Nobody can ever accuse Habs GM Gainey of not making the most of the team's budget.
Using the Montreal Canadiens official site as a guide, we see that there are 74 players in the organization. This total encompasses the two professional teams rosters, players in college or junior, and European prospects.
Players on the Canadiens roster: 21
Forwards: Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Michael Ryder, Bryan Smolinski, Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Steve Begin, Tom Kostopoulos, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, Garth Murray, Andrei Kostitsyn, (12)
Defensemen: Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek, Roman Hamrlik, Mathieu Dandeneault, Francis Bouillon, Josh Gorges, Mark Streit (7)
Goalies: Cristobal Huet, Jaroslav Halak (2)
Players In The System (Hamilton Bulldogs, Cincinati Cyclones, etc): 28
Forwards: Kyle Chipchura, Corey Locke, Jonathan Ferland, Duncan Milroy, Mikhail Grabovsky, Thomas Beauregard, Mathieu Aubin, Matt D' Agnostini, Sergei Kostitsyn, Ryan Russell, Cory Urquhart, Jimmy Bonneau, Gregory Stewart, Janne Lahti, Francis Lemieux (15)
Defensemen: Mathieu Carle, Ryan O'Byrne, Andrew Archer, J.P. Cote, Mathieu Biron, Danny Groulx, Pavel Valentenko, Jamie Rivers, Marvin Degon (9)
Goalies: Carey Price, Yann Danis, Cedric Desjardins, Loic Lacasse (4)
Waivers: Jassen Cullimore, Tony Salmelainen (2)
Rights Retained: Andre Benoit*, Alexander Perezhogin* (2)
Junior and College: 14
Forwards: Andrew Conboy, Olivier Fortier, Ben Maxwell**, Max Pacioretty, Ryan White**, J.T. Wyman (6)
Defensemen: Cameron Cepek, David Fischer, Scott Kishel, Ryan McDonagh, Philippe Paquet, Joe Stejskal, P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber (8)
Forwards: Andrei Sidyakin (1)
Defensemen: Konstantin Korneev, Oskari Korpikari, Andrei Kruchinin, Alexei Emelin, Nicholas Torp (5)
Goalies: Christopher Heino - Lindberg (1)
* Have been tendered qualifying offers with the Canadiens retaining their NHL rights.
** Must be signed prior to 2008 NHL Entry Draft for rights to be retained.
What is curious to note, is that while Gainey has done everything he can to assure that the Hamilton Bulldogs are again as competitive as last season, he has left himself with little wiggle room as far as transactions go. Should Ryder be awarded in the neighbourhood of $4M., the Canadiens still would have room to aquire players salary wise despite the fact that they are up against the wall roster wise.
Guessing Gainey's next move is open to the usual speculation. By practically maxing out the rosters to create a competitive environment on both clubs, Gainey is assuring that he will see each player at their spirited best from the opening of training camp.
In my esteem, Gainey will be closely watching those who lag behind, are disinterested, or fail to realize all that is at stake. Many players on both sides of the NHL equation are on one year deals. In some cases, certain players are about to leave RFA status at the termination of these contracts and Gainey will seek to gain return on them in the form of draft choices for the next two seasons.
The reality is, that no matter how well they do, the Canadiens cannot retain as many bodies next year. The performances of first year Bulldogs such as Mathieu Carle, Sergei Kostitsyn, Ryan Russell, and Thomas Beauregard will be of key importance in the continued transitioning of AHL players pushing NHL'ers.
The veteran lower level players will come under much scrutiny as to their long term NHL possibilities, and will be treated as the commodity that they are.
I predict more player movement at the Hamilton level for Habs. I foresee the trading of players whose contracts expire at years end, in favor of players with an additional year left. There are simply too many one year ( read low risk ) deals there, not to think otherwise.
It was very much in Gainey's favor that the Canadiens held the retaining rights to so many Bulldogs following their Championship run. It saved him from looking for winners in another teams backyard. It also doesn't hurt in keeping a somewhat stable lineup in place, such an AHL unreality, to continue to breed a winning team atmosphere.
With 25 players in the organization without contracts, turnover is guaranteed.
Next year at this time, the Canadiens will have room to sign Ben Maxwell and Ryan White, two excellent prospects from the WHL. The following season, there could be more players to sign. The transition, if Gainey's plan is working, could go on like this for years.
This past season, the Habs lost a fairly decent, but judged expendable, prospect in Juraj Mikus because they were up against the wall of 50. Signing Janne Lahti, Thomas Beauregard, Martin Degon, and Ryan Russell had a price, and Gainey rolled the dice on slightly more mature talent.
The trick will be to maintain the balance being players needing to be signed or lost, and contracts they are willing to pass on. This time Mikus was a choice. With a trend towards longer contracts at both levels, it is a possibility that less choice exists in the future.
The adverse effect of having bundles of farm hands, is that it can affect the NHL club by constricting player movement. The ideal number of players is closer to 47 or 48. This number would facilitate Gainey in terms of making deadline deals in March, by not having to make a deal in advance to create needed room.
With Ryder's upcoming signing or arbiratrary award just around the corner, other domino effect moves are sure to follow. Cullimore and Salmelainen could be just the first of many.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
On July 21, 2007, Eyes On The Prize turned 1 year old, and in order to celebrate, I am paying tribute to the common ( read: diehard ) Habs fan. Montreal Canadiens fans are legion, and are the best and most imformed group of hockey fanatics around. It is always great to be amongst the community.
Down below, there are many pics regarding Hab fandom. Have a look around, you might recognize a few or two. You might also see some you'd like to get to know! (Thanks, Brian!)
Anyone wanting to send in a photo or ten, feel free. If the idea generates enough response, I'll start a Habs fan of the week photo run at the top of the sidebar.