Sunday, December 02, 2007

Carbonneau At Work As Canadiens Riddle Continues

What a mess the Canadiens must sort through now!

With tonight's loss in OT to the Predators, the Habs freefall is now officially aimed to hit rock bottom, and it will be curious to see how management, the coaching staff, and the players react.

In the press, and in Habs fan circles, blame will be the order of the day, and the finger pointing frenzy got a head start last weekend with back to back loses against the Sabres.

The goaltending will be questioned, and Cristobal Huet will be criticized for allowing the Predators back into the game with an absent minded play.

A defense, whose ego is as tender as Andrei Markov's unspecified injury, will be taken to task as their errors and tendencies are magnified.

Slumping shooters will be roasted for missing golden opportunities, their intensity brought into play for mulligans in front of gaping nets.

Defensive specialists will be eyed for not having enough grit when it is needed, or for being too small when they needed to be big.

Contrarily, the bigger players will criticized for playing small.

The speedy, slick, talented, and small will be maligned for not showing enough guts.

The crash and bang players will be blamed for trying to get too fancy at the wrong times.

And finally, Guy Carbonneau will earn a myriad of arrows of discontent for anything he's done, or tried to do, or hasn't done.Of course the coach will be the most pointed of all. As a focal point for the team, it is his responsability to see that it works.

The real problem with the team, as I see it, is that it isn't playing as a team at all.

The Canadiens do not seem to have faith in themselves one bit.

Players are often tentative in their roles and hesitant in the execution of the details of their respective duties. Certain players might be more concerned / distracted with their personal stats and goals. The defense is likely unhappy with the offensive players committment, and vice versa. Players who wish to speak out and be leaders by example, may be lacking the on ice goods to have their words respected. There may even be some kind of rookie / veteran split that could be keeping things dysfunctional. Cliques could be dividing the team, preventing reason and accountability from bringing it together.

I could speculate endlessly on some points, but the fact of the matter is that the team is simply not playing as a cohesive unit in any way.

So a point should be made that no blame should be singular, as everyone on board needs to gaze into the mirror for self examination in times such as these.

It should also be pointed out that such inner team quakes aren't uncommon. Most teams go through it annually at some point. It's happening to Ottawa right now. It's been happening in Toronto on and off for going on 40 years. Hopefully, it begins happening to the Red Wings starting Tuesday.

The team dysfunction can grow roots, or be temporary. The players themselves will actually decide its length by their committment to getting out of it.

It's not unlike other relationships (think spouses, sibling, work cohorts!) where doubt and jealousy seep in to corrupt faith, togetherness, and the ultimate goal.

If this game against Nashville became the drop that made the bucket overflow, it was because good things seemed to be occurring, albeit deceptively, while the Canadiens mounted a 3 - 0 lead in a game they had little business leading by such a margin.

For the first 50 minutes, the Habs seemed somewhat in control, and despite handing out scoring chances like credit card applications before Christmas time, looked to have the game in the bag.
The trouble is, a fragile team should never think like that, and they obviously did in this game. After Guillaume Latendresse made the score 4-1, they geared down and settled into cruise control.

The good things I mentioned, for starters were Cristobal Huet being as good as he was lucky - and he was very lucky during the game's first 50 minutes. Mark Streit looking way more comfy as a forward again, and complementing Koivu well. Four, count 'em - even strength goals.

Patience paying off in the name of Guillaume Latendresse. Kovalev continuing to fire on all cylinders after a deceiving game.

The sickest feeling I have right now is that all of this has been wasted and thrown away.

Carbonneau must regroup the troups and find a way to get them to focus on a back to basics team defense approach. The Canadiens blueliners, especially with an ailling Markov, desperately need the concentration and contribution of clued in and dedicated forwards.

The focus should also include great notions of forcing opposition mistakes rather than placing an emphasis on creating more scoring chances. The effort on the first basic notion is what enables the latter.

Carbonneau knows this, obviously, and is likely presently hard at work preaching it.

Certain things we as fans have seen and are disatisfied with, occur to the coach as well. While we cast opinions easily, the coach is tasked with not only managing the players roles but also handling their personalities. One nod to that ideal - he sits Begin and Kostopoulos because he knows they can bounce back. Doing the same with other players is akin to spinning the wheel when it comes to personality repercussions.

Carbonneau has yet to learn how Bryan Smolinski would handle such a fate. Last season, doing the same to a more than deserving Sergei Samsonov and an unsuspecting Craig Rivet caused a deep rot in the team's ranks and chemistry.

This year, it seems the coach is trying to find a cautious balance between having enough patience with certain players, and too much with others.

He might also be wary of how to handle team captain Koivu during an unproductive period. He does not want to say or do the wrong thing, but Koivu has all of one even strength goal this season - an output doubled by Latendresse in tonight's game - and may be in need of some fresh perspectives.

In fact, what Koivu is currently undergoing is quite representative of the team, in that he is hard working, often discouraged, misguided in his efforts, and possibly too proud to surrender to the notion that he is in error at times. Carbonneau has to tread gently when it comes dealing with his captain - one wrong move and the ship springs a leak.

I recall listening to Scotty Bowman one time, while employed as an analyst with TSN. He suggested that there were no bad coaches or systems in the NHL. He said that what often makes the difference between successful coaches, and those who had shorter tenures, was their ability to get their system across to players and get them to buy into it wholeheatedly. He used the "one weak link in the chain" analogy, and offered how players who did not believe in the system were cancers. Older fans remember how he dealt with such cases when he coached.

The big difference today, is that long term contracts, numerous employment possibilities for players, and a salary cap structure and a CBA that prevent trades and demotions, all work against what coaches attempt to achieve. When one considers that coaches have way less security than players, not to mention that they also have smaller paydays, it's quite easy to see who has who's balls in a vice.

Sunday morning, hundreds of thousands of fans in Montreal will wake up better coaches than Cabonneau, knowing precisely the right solutions to every woe. They will have the best line combinations, of course, to get the Habs back on track. They'll know who to bench next game, who to call up from Hamilton, and be damned if they can't make all those trades Bob Gainey has been unable to do so far to get the boys rolling again.

Funny how a seemingly sound coach of the year candidate earlier in the season can turn into a complete idiot in the space of two weeks.

On Monday morning, discontented Habs fan will return to their regular routines of life, be it work or school, while Guy Carbonneau loses sleep thinking about how to rectify everything that has soured with his team recently.

The difference between the views and opinions of us fans and Carbonneau's connundrum is that he understands and knows his personel way better than we ever could.

I recall three separate and disctinct occasions when a Habs benchboss seemed to lose the grip on the steering. They had names such as Vigneault, Therrien, and Julien, and all recovered from temporary idiot status to coach again in the NHL. While all three were being lined up for the firing line, it was shouted that the Habs ought to hire Carbonneau to guide the forces.

If it were Larry Robinson presently at the Canadiens helm, mangled in this mess, we'd still be demanding Carbonneau!

That is because Carbonneau has all the credibility needed to be behind the Montreal bench. He is a former player. He's won two Cups. He's a two time Selke Trophy winner. He's billingual. He's a former captain. He's tangled and dealt with the media both pro and con.

The only other candidate with a similar resume is GM Gainey.

Tonight we were beaten by a team whose coach might have outcoached ours in the latter stages of this game. Barry Trotz, through good times and bad, and the thick and thin of some very thin teams, has been in place for a decade in Nashville. His tenure speaks loudly for his worth and players, fans, and media never call for his head on a block. Last weekend, the Lindy Ruff coached Sabres, a team given up for dead weeks earlier, taught the Habs a pair of lessons. Ruff is the second longest tenured coach in the NHL, after Trotz. Experience has taught both coaches what is needed to recover from slow starts and rough spots.

Players get better with experience. Coaches gain experience from being fired.

I want a coach in Montreal that has been through experiences similar to those of Trotz and Ruff.
Blaming is a tactic for the ill willed and weak minded. Solutions require deeper digging and more visionary perspectives. Blaming is for smaller minds. Grouping ideas, possibilities, and solutions are for leaders and winners.

Blaming Carbonneau without reason or knowledge lends creedence to the players who slack off from duty, take shortcuts in regards to effort, and in the end believe themselves to be above a team concept.

I'd rather see a different message sent in Montreal. One that says the coach rules - buy into it or else!


Jeff said...

Last nite was definitely an experiment by the coach.

Grabovsky showed he can center good line mates, very good offensive player, unfortunate that he is knocked down so easily, definitely need to hit the weights this summer.

Latendresse showed he belongs in the NHL and can score with good players.

An ailing Markov shows that without him we are in big trouble which we already know from last year.

I saw Smolinsky throw a hit last nite, um that was a first that I saw in a long time. I dont know but he definitely seems complacent.

Streit continued to struggle on the point on the powerplay but as a forward played better than as a defenceman.

Dandenault is still good as a forward.

Kovalev is the man this season.

Koivu actually played alright but what seems to be the problem with him is that he does not have the stamina to play against such big players in the NHL.

Higgins definitely appears to be a first line player.

Ryder can shoot but will he regain his lethality.

Gorges is pretty good for his age.

Hamrlik is a great defenceman.

Komisarek is fine.

Too many puckmoving defensemen, wish O'Byrne was ready for the NHL.

Using Koivu as the checking center last nite was so very strange.

Our centers are weak at faceoffs.

The end of this game shows that one of Kostopolous or Begin are needed in the lineup, I dont think I would scratch both.

Big time experiment from the coach last nite which was great for accessing his players.

I think Smolinsky should be sat and Grabovsky should be played so he can develop.

Chipchura is an amazing hockey player.

And to think Gainey is looking at bringing up players from a struggling Hamilton team, no wonder Carbonneau tried this experiment last nite.

Huet had a huge meltdown last nite.

Wow, confidence is everything in sports, when you got it you win and when you dont well you blow a 3 goal lead with like 8 minutes to go. They got great chances in overtime, just an inch from a win. Ahhhh the habs are better than we think and not as good as we had hoped.

Anonymous said...


Now you see why Scotty Bowman was so aloof with players :-)

You're right. There was little wrong with those coaches, and Carbonneau will be a good coach one day. Bob Gainey is a good coach. If a player calls out the team to a reporter, Bob remarks back. To me the time to talk to a player is not on national TV, but on that off day, in private, before you make changes. Maybe there is a reason, maybe there is a conflict you don't see.

This is their livelihood, they are taken care of, the players don't want to lose that. But me a fan, I didn't bother to watch last night. Too many of these chaps accept losing as the other guys fault. The only one to blame is yourself if your team loses. One player can turn a game, three can turn a season. You see that spark in Price, and Chips for sure. They quietly say "if I had..." "I could have..." while others say "We..." except in victory when they say "I got a lucky..." or "He gave me a great pass and I...". When Kovalev speaks his mind the world pounces on his back. Why? Because he led? When LaFleur speaks his mind the world pounces? Why? Well you see the point. Great players can't possibly be right. Think of how Lemaire, Lafleur, and Shutt played. They brought it. Every night. They certainly didn't dump it in and get off. That philosophy is called turnover.

Most systems can win. Sometimes you don't get to choose what the game will be though. The Habs can't hold a lead, because they don't expect to have one to hold. They are constrained by their system which has been losing is that really 15 years?

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I'm here to tell you that if you think you are going to lose, then you likely will. If you get a lead then sit back you're going to lose. If you think you have to check each of the other teams four lines and be the great defensive team, you're going to lose. If you think any goalie can stand against >30 shots a night then you are out of touch with reality, and you're going to lose. If you constantly turn the puck over because you are afraid to overstay your time, you're going to lose, and it begs the question what the heck were you doing out there for the last 45 seconds if you can hustle to the bench so fast while the puck is going the other way.

I think you only have to look at Mr Bonk. Mr Bonk did what was asked of him the last two years in Montreal. He did it exceptionally well. Chips will do that now. For less cost. Different things are being asked of Mr Bonk now. Guess what, he can do them. Imagine Vinnie in a Habs uniform, being asked to check the other teams first or second line, get that puck down ice, get off. Guess what, he could do that. And get booed. Un-huh. I expect he'll jump at that opportunity.

Somewhere today someone will say "Well we got a point." Yes they did. Of a possible 164 season points, they got one. The other team got twice as many, they got two. So at the end of the season you're going to be out of it by about 14 points, and about 30 out of being a contender.

That team can change. They know it, and that's why the system breaks down every year at this time. Each of those guys has way, way, above average talent. It is frankly remarkable that they can be on the same team. Teams with rigid "systems" that work do so because everyone buys in, they recognize their limitations, that by playing together in a fashion they can increase their success, and financial wealth.

The Habs aren't like that. Look at Chips. On another team he would be heralded as the next Marleau, even more. By playing as a below average team with a fixed system they don't reach sports success (see their record), and they don't reap potential financial reward. So what is in it for them? Other than never ending critic by fans like me.


CheGordito said...

Thanks for an interesting post. One thing in particular that you said is something that's been going through my head for a while: "The Canadiens do not seem to have faith in themselves one bit."

I think confidence is the source of it - and it's translating into letting teams back in the game and not being able to catch up to other teams' leads.

Still, I have a lot of faith in the team and the coaching staff. They've been average in November, after a good start. I hope the decline has hit bottom, but they're not in a 'bad' position yet. I'll call it bad when they drop below average and fall out of a playoff spot. I believe that you have to go through rough spots to actually contend for the top - learn to deal with adversity, etc. - and that this team has been coming up short against that adversity in the last few years.

I think a key reason the Canadiens get off to good starts is because the slate is clean at the beginning of the season. Once they start playing, mistakes creep in one way or another (that's life - no one is perfect), and that's when (perhaps through blame or miscommunication or distrust of teammates' abilities) the team starts to fall apart.

So to win, play as a cohesive unit, as you said, or play with confidence in your teammates, as I like to think of it. This team is almost there in terms of skill to be a serious contender, and once the team mechanism starts working well, it will be.

DKerr said...

I listened to the game last night and then saw the highlights this morning. Truly, they did not deserve their 3 goal leads, but they still had them. With that, they should have been able to bear down and get the win. The other postings are right, the team does not have confidence in itself to get hte job done. But, the solutions are not going to come from the outside, they must come from the guys in the room. We could dream up nifty trades all day, but those days of shaking up the team are gone in this era.

One question I have is: We all agree Huet is a very good goaltender, how can he be so lousy in shootouts? I cringe when we go to shootout with him in goal. He was beaten on all three last night, Radulov just didn't convert. How weird would it be to swap Price in for the shootouts?

DKerr said...

It's nice to hear that Chipchura is being reviewed so well. Also that Latendresse seems to be gearing up. The drafts are really paying dividends, similar to the way Buffalo has built their team (though they are much further along). It's hard to see the team play so inconsistently now, but this team has a future.

Robert L said...

Thanks Readers, for taking the time and effort to offer such intelligently written and though provoking comments. I've read them them all, and it will be quite challenging to respond.

Unfortunately, this Sunday I am swamped with a hockey practice for my daughter as well as work at 3. I will get around to replying to each of you tonight or after work on Monday - so please do check back here.

Much appreciated,