Top Cheese: September 2018 Edition

TopCheese

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as training camp is in full gear and the Canadiens are working at making amends for a poor season last year. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Three exhibition games down, four more to go and while no one should read too much in pre-season results, the fact is that this year is a lot better for fans’ morale than what the team showed at the same time last season when they won two of the eight games they played. So far, they beat the New Jersey Devils and the Washington Capitals, while dropping a game against a veteran-filled Florida Panthers’ line-up. It is exciting to see a bunch of new faces in a Habs’ uniform and the battles for a spot are very interesting to watch as well.

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Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Max Domi deserves to be suspended for a sucker punch on Florida Panthers’ defenseman Aaron Ekblad. It was clear that Ekblad wanted nothing to do with fighting Domi and those putting the blame on the defenseman for “not defending himself” or “not expecting the punch” are way out of line. No, he did not expect it and no, he did not protect himself… nor should he have to. If we can tell Ekblad’s intentions on TV, Domi should have been able to see the same looking into his eyes. Habs’ fans spent years defending Alexei Emelin because he couldn’t fight because he had a metal plate by his cheek and they now blame Ekblad for refusing to fight because of his concussion history? I’m sorry folks but that doesn’t sit well with me.

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Back when he was the NHL’s Vice-President and in charge of discipline, Brian Burke – who loves the rough stuff and fighting in hockey – condemned Tie Domi‘s sucker punch on then bad guy Ulf Samuelsson. “If anyone thinks that it’s an acceptable response to a verbal taunting, I’ve got news for you because it’s not.” Tie received an eight game (regular season) suspension for his action.

This action by Max Domi doesn’t define him as a hockey player or as an individual and people, particularly those who aren’t happy about the fact that Marc Bergevin traded Alex Galchenyuk for him, should not hold that against him or make an early judgment.

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Now on to more positive news. A few  young prospects are doing very well for themselves so far at camp. One of them is none other than the Canadiens’ first pick at this year’s draft, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who seems more and more comfortable as pre-season progresses. In a Cinderella-like story, he scored his first goal in a Habs’ uniform in his first game at the Bell Centre, and while fans are discovering his great skills, he is showing good composure for such a young man. Jokingly (and to rub it in a bit), I posted this after his goal:

 

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Another young man doing things well and drawing praise from everyone is Nick Suzuki, acquired in the Max Pacioretty trade along with Tomas Tatar and a second round pick. He’s showing great composure with the puck and finds himself on the right side of the puck defensively as well. And he’s only 19 folks! Claude Julien likes what he sees of him and you can be sure that he will be given every opportunity to show what he can do before the team makes a decision in his case.

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Last but not least, defenseman Josh Brook has also opened the eyes of many as did Victor Mete at last year’s camp. Not the biggest guy, he makes quick decisions with the puck and plays his angles very well. All of that while wearing number 76, a number which, by the way, was handed to him by the organization, not because he asked for it (so don’t be too quick to hate him). If we go by performances only, he ranks third amongst right-handed defensemen at camp, with only Jeff Petry and Noah Juulsen surpassing him on the right side. Unless the team suffers further injuries, it would be unlikely to see him earn a spot in the opening day line-up but he will be on the radar.

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Jonathan Drouin was flattered to see that he had an “A” on his jersey for the game against the Florida Panthers and he had this to say:

“I want to lead this team … I want to be one of the leaders on the squad.” ~ Jonathan Drouin

When asked after the game if management was sending a message to Drouin by putting an “A” on his jersey, Julien said:

“A couple of things. Jonathan came in this year in much better shape than he was last year and he did a lot of good things during the summer. We’re playing preseason games and those guys, you reward them for those kind of things. Tonight with our lineup I thought he was worthy of wearing an ‘A’ and I wanted him to wear it with pride and play the way we wanted him to play and that’s the reason he got the ‘A’. We’re moving them around. We’ll probably get some new ones tomorrow as we play it game by game.”

You can bet that Drouin appreciated the gesture and that he is slowly but surely taking on a bigger leadership role, even at the tender age of 23. Moved to the wing while Domi was available, he seemed more comfortable.

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Speaking of letters on the jersey, much has been said and written about the vacant spot left by the departure of team captain Max Pacioretty. Who will be his replacement? Do they need to have a captain? Here’s my humble opinion on the topic: Yes, yes they do need a captain. And they have two very solid candidates for the position:

Brendan Gallagher is a born leader. He was captain of the Vancouver Giants in the WHL and has been wearing the “A” on his jersey for a couple of seasons now with the Canadiens. No one will outwork him so he’s a leader by example. And in normal time, I’d say: give it to him.

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Shea Weber should be the team’s next captain.

But when you have a guy like Shea Weber on your team, a Mark Messier Award winner, an alternate captain for Team Canada, former captain of the Nashville Predators for many seasons, you simply cannot pass that along. Weber is not the type to be phased or intimidated by reporters. As a matter of fact, he’s the one who brings the fear of God in them, as did guys like Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson back in the days. And if he stands up in the dressing room, you bet that everyone is listening. In my opinion, he will be the Canadiens’ captain. Whether it’s announced before the season starts or when he’s ready to come back, we’ll see.

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When Marc Bergevin told everyone at the end of last season that there needs to be an attitude change in the dressing room, he wasn’t talking about Weber – who was out with an injury – or about Brendan Gallagher. He wasn’t talking about Paul Byron or even Jeff Petry. Seeing the moves that have been made this summer, the finger was obviously pointed to Pacioretty, who completely folded like a towel when things got tough, and about Galchenyuk whose effort simply wasn’t there.

But something tells me that he wasn’t impressed with his biggest leader, Carey Price, and I’m convinced that he had a long talk with him. Bergevin committed a lot of money in Price and most see him as one of the team’s biggest leaders. But much like Pacioretty, he too seemed to have packed it in early last year. True leaders don’t do that. Look at Jonathan Toews and Connor McDavid. They gave it all in spite of their teams’ lack of success. Bergevin wants Price to have that mentality. He needs Price to be like them… and he will.

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Love him or hate him, Marc Bergevin did extremely well in comparison to his peers in his trades of big name players. When you look at what the Buffalo Sabres received for Evander Kane (conditional 1st, conditional 4th and former 5th round pick Danny O’Regan), and what Don Waddell and the Hurricanes received for Jeff Skinner (2nd, 3rd and 6th round pick and former 3rd round pick Cliff Pu), how can someone not be happy with what the Habs receive for Pacioretty? Getting a 20-25 goals’ scorer in Tomas Tatar, three years younger than Pacioretty and under contract for another three years, former first round pick Nick Suzuki and a 2nd round pick is an excellent return. Further, he convinced George McPhee and the Golden Knights to pick up $500,000 of Tatar’s contract for each year remaining on his contract?

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Then rewind a bit… Many fans are still hurt by the fact that P.K. Subban is no longer in Montreal but the Canadiens received Shea Weber in return! Shea freakin’ Weber! Pierre Dorion probably wishes he could have received a Weber in return for a much, much better defenseman than Subban when he traded his captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose. What did he get? In exchange for Karlsson, the Senators received four players: Chris Tierney (career high 40 points), Dylan DeMelo (bottom pairing defenseman), former 1st round pick Josh Norris and former 5th round pick Rudolfs Balcers. They also got a 1st and a 2nd round pick and if Karlsson re-signs with the Sharks, they get another 2nd round pick. Now if you’re from the school that quantity equals quality, you will like this one but most hockey experts are unanimous in saying that Doug Wilson robbed Pierre Dorion in this one. This trade makes Bergevin look like Sam Pollock!

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So here you have it folks! Your Canadiens are NOT is as bad of a shape as some want you to believe. As a matter of fact, they are in pretty good hands in spite of what those who are still butt-hurt by the Subban trade are trying to make you believe. The future is bright and the sun will rise again tomorrow in Montreal. Enjoy this time of year and hop in for the ride, it will be a fun season! Go Habs Go!!!

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To Grit or Not To Grit

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The meaning of the “to be or not to be” speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been given numerous interpretations, each of which are based. The purpose of it does, in general, question the righteousness of life over death in moral terms, a non-quantifying element of life itself.

Much (even too much) has been said about NHL analytics, and extremists have taken stats to a whole new level in trying to make people believe that if it cannot be measured, then it must be a non-factor of at least, not one worthy of taking into consideration. Yet, those involved in the game will tell you that this self-preserving excuse is as far away from the truth as it gets. Intimidation, a hit, a blocked shot, a fight… all have the potential of changing the momentum of a game and either lift, or deflate a team during a hockey game, even tipping the balance in a playoffs’ series.

Had Shakespeare been a hockey fan, or a Habs’ fan, he might chose “to grit or not to grit”, that it the question. Grit has been given multitude of meanings and definitions and the purpose is geared towards toughness or fortitude also in moral terms and also a non-quantifying element of the game itself.

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Chris Nilan is the definition of “Grit”

For years, the Canadiens shied away from the rough stuff. I remember listening to Guy Carbonneau when he was coaching the Canadiens – who, ironically, spent most of his career in Montreal with none other than Chris Nilan on his wing – tell reporters that they didn’t need toughness. He stated that all they had to do was to capitalise on their power-play opportunities. While it may sound great in theory, it’s far from being a practical and realistic approach to the problem. After all, is there one NHL team not trying to have a better power-play? I’m guessing that recognizing and saying that it needs to improve or simply trying harder doesn’t mean better results?

Since Marc Bergevin took over as the Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager, he understood the need to protect his best players, allowing them to do their thing without the fear of being abused by opponents. His first move was to sign then UFA Brandon Prust to a four-year contract. Later, he went out and added the likes of Parros, Weise, Allen, Kassian, Shaw, Weber, Martinsen, King, Ott, Farnham, Deslauriers. Not all were success stories in Montreal, but the fact remains that Bergevin’s goal was none the less clear, by providing some sandpaper to a line-up in dire need of it.

I can already hear some who are chumping at the bit to tell me that skills wins game, that you can’t replace talent by grit. This is the extremists’ way of thinking. No, you don’t need to “replace” talent by grit. You need to “surround” your talent with grit. And in today’s NHL, which is now stuck with the worst rule in hockey, the instigator rule, grit doesn’t stop at fighting. You see, Bergevin is too often being ridiculed with his choice of words when putting the emphasis on “character” and “attitude” but guess what? He’s referring to grit!

Grit is blocking a shot, taking a hit to make a play, arriving first to the corner to get the puck, planting yourself in front of the net knowing that Shea Weber is shooting. Grit is defending your teammate, regardless of the size of the opponent. Grit is also doing everything to win games. No, grit is NOT penalties. Grit is being the instigator and not the retaliator.

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But just who does Claude Julien have available, which players will go to war for him, for his team? Here are just a few, just to highlight the work, sometimes the beating, some of those players are taking. Oh there are more, particularly amongst the younger prospects.

Who is the first one to come to mind? You guess it: Brendan Gallagher. Smallish, but one of the toughest – pound for pound – in the business. When asked who was the most difficult player was to play against, former Senators Marc Methot picked Gallagher “because he’s relentless”.

Bergevin acquired a guy who will soon become a fan favourite in Max Domi, another guy who wears the heart on his sleeve, a relentless worker. The guy doesn’t take a shift off, he can pass, he can score, he goes to the net, he will defend teammates and will drop the mitts if or when needed. Montreal fans – and most hockey fans – love that type of players.

Andrew Shaw is getting a bad rep by a group of “fans” unfortunately, but his usefulness has been severely affected by his style of play. A bit like Prust, Shaw is going up against the bigger guys. The guy has no fear and will also do whatever it takes to win, and as proven with the Blackhawks, he is a big game player. They don’t come much grittier than this guy. Here’s hoping that he’s back healthy. The Habs will greatly benefit.

Bergevin acquired Nicolas Deslauriers in hope that he could bring exactly what he has provided and the Lasalle native seems to be giving a little extra playing for his home team. In addition to the grit he brings, he has been a surprise offensively as he has shown that he can contribute in that aspect of the game as well.

It really is too bad that the fans didn’t get to see the real Shea Weber quite yet, as it seems like when he’s been in the line-up, he’s been battling injuries which, ultimately, ended up sidelining him. Yet even hurt, he’s producing like the top defensemen in this league still. Voted by his peers as the most difficult defenseman to play against, he can hurt you in many ways and you’ll find more grit in his fingernail than most have in their entire body.

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Jeremiah Addison could be a surprise at camp

Here’s an oddball for you folks as I picked Jeremiah Addison. Unfortunately, he also got hurt last season and Laval missed him greatly. This guy is a warrior and he will do whatever it takes to help his team win games. I pick him as a surprise player to steal a spot in Montreal this season. Call it a gut feeling.

Habs fans will remember Steve Begin but in Michael Chaput, they have a similar player. He will give and take hits, he will grind it out and he has surprisingly good hand. Eating home cooking and playing under Rockets’ coach Joël Bouchard could see Chaput earn a call-up if he doesn’t make the team at camp.

Okay, I admit, I like Brett Lernout. Physically dominant, he is most effective when he keeps his game simple. Many don’t see him making the big club but I feel like it will be between him and Juulsen. All will depend on which one has a better training camp. Either way, Lernout will bring tons of grit.

Now a second year pro, Noah Juulsen was giving a shot at the end of last year and he didn’t disappoint. His favourite player is Kevin Bieksa and he plays just like him. He will get the puck and if his opponent has it, they better keep their head up as Juulsen will hurt you.

We know that Mike McCarron is a tough cookie. He would be more physical if he was a better skater but he is quite gritty, as he’s shown it already at the NHL level. Both he and the Canadiens are hoping that he’s done enough this summer to improve to the point of earning a spot with the big club.

An honorable mention goes to Ti-Paul Byron, who will also do everything in his limited power to help his team win. See, grit isn’t just about fighting. Grit, character, attitude (hating to lose), all play into making a team hard to play against. If you combine and mix that with some skills like Jonathan Drouin‘s, it’s a recipe for success. Remains to see if the youngsters are ready to help the veterans in that aspect. Go Habs Go!