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The Puck Stops Here

Scapegoating Kovalev

The Montreal Canadiens are slumping.  They have a 3-12 record in their last 15 games (one loss is counted as a regulation tie).  Something drastic has to be done to turn the tide and end this slide.  A traditional way to shake things up is to fire the coach.  It doesn’t matter if the coach is truly at fault, it is a shock to the team’s system and players often have to fight to maintain or win playing time.  This often turns things around (at least on a temporary basis).

There is another option that was clearly demonstrated by the Dallas Stars earlier this year.  Effectively you can fire a high profile player.  The Stars were slumping.  They were last place in the West Conference and they parted ways with Sean Avery in a high profile manner.  Although the improvement was much more complex than being driven only by Avery’s departure, if the season ended right now Dallas would make the playoffs.

Montreal has chose to scapegoat a player and that player is Alexei Kovalev (they are not going as fare as effectively firing him).  Kovalev is not a bad choice for this assignment.  He is a very talented player who has had a streaky career.  He is never the most physical player or the best team leader, so when he is on a downswing in his career he looks like he isn’t trying.  That has brought Montreal fans down hard on Alexei Kovalev this season.  That is a key to “firing” a player.  He must be high profile enough to change the dynamic of the team and scare the other players into thinking they could be next, but he must also be a plausible choice.  It must be somebody that a casual fan would also blame.

Alexei Kovalev is turning 36 years old in less than a week.  It is quite reasonable to expect that his best days are gone.  If you alienate him and drive him out of the city, it will not be a major loss.

The fact that Kovalev is in this position is quite predictable.  Matt outlines this on the Battle of Alberta blog.  Last season, when Kovalev led the Canadiens in scoring he did so with an incredible scoring rate on the power play.  He scored 8.07 points per 60 minutes of power play time.  No other player in the league was above 6 points per 60 minutes.  Unless you believe that Kovalev is the greatest power play player in the league by a large margin (and other seasons do not back this up), a drop-off in power play scoring is very predictable.  At even strength, Kovalev’s numbers look roughly the same as they did last season.  Montreal’s management must know this. 

Bob Gainey also knows that Kovalev has a poor attitude in the best of times and is a high profile player on the team.  Singling him out might have as big an effect as firing the coach.  That is the hope.  There are reasons to wonder if it will work.  Kovalev is slated to rejoin the Habs in practise today (Friday) and likely play Saturday against Ottawa.  The Habs did not win during Kovalev’s short absence.  Possibly the worst omen could come from the media.  According to Habs Inside/Out Richard Labbe of La Presse is going to have a “blockbuster” story today (Friday) that details some criminal behavior by Montreal players.  That could change the situation for the worse.

I think that exiling Alexei Kovalev is a move that could have worked.  It could have shaken up the Montreal team as much as a coaching change.  It could have ended the slump.  I think it is being abandoned too quickly.  I think the abandonment is forced by this article we should see soon.  If there is a story that seriously hurts the Habs, it will have to be dealt with before moving forward.  The biggest problem for the Montreal Canadiens might be the evironment in Montreal.  Everyone wants to get inside the team and that forces secrets to the surface.  The worry about this slump (which feeds upon itself making the slump a bigger problem) and the worry about any media revelations of wrongdoing by Habs players could derail the season.  Bob Gainey had a plan to try to stop that, but it looks like the plan may not have been the right one.  The Labbe story might force a change in the game plan.

NOTE:  It appears that this story is not such a big deal.  The Kostitsyn brothers are friends with a suspected member of organized crime named Pasquale Mangiola who has been arrested for his alleged drug trafficking.  They had often been seen partying together.  There are no arrests.  No direct claims that anyone on the Montreal Canadiens did anything illegal.

If this had any effect, it ended the Kovalev exile early.  That might be a bad thing.  The attempt to do something big to stop the Habs slump was possibly aborted because it looked like bigger issues were about to surface.  It leaves Montreal still slumping with Kovalev rejoining the team and no major shakeup.  I don’t think that was Bob Gainey’s intention.  Montreal is a good team and should right themselves before long.  I think Gainey was looking for a decisive action that could be used as a springboard for this turn-around.  Likely that action has been wasted.

NOTE:  Maybe I have been too quick to dismiss things.    24heures a free Montreal newspaper is reporting that four Habs players have been related for drugs and morals related crimes.  Obviously, if this is true it changes things significantly.

NOTE:  All reports seem to suggest the 24heures story is incorrect and no arrests have been made.  Once again it looks like the story is all sizzle but no steak.

The “story” on this Montreal Canadiens scandal is how badly the mainstream media dropped the ball.  James Mirtle has quotes from some hockey people who should know better

Jacques Demers: “Honestly, there are things I know, and what looks like what’s going to come out [in the papers] tomorrow, I swear to you, I thought about Mr. Beliveau tonight ... and I just hope I’m dreaming. I’m a proud Canadien, the Canadiens are my life, and I hope I’m dreaming but I don’t think I am.”

Michel Bergeron: “I feel the same way. It’s unbelievable. Tomorrow, hockey will be second. I don’t like at all what I’ve heard today.”

Bob Hartley: “If everything we’ve been told is true, I’ve never seen that in my life. If it’s true, I’m going back to Atlanta [joking]”

Michel Bergeron: “The Canadiens are my roots, and my idols, like you guys…and it looks like the foundation is going to be shaken. Not just for the Quebecois but for anyone who wears the Canadiens sweater around the country. To me, what’s happened, it’s unacceptable”.

Alain Crete: “We can’t go into many details but something has happened that will implicate not just one Canadiens player but many. You’ll be hearing more tomorrow.”

Did they hear something else from what was actually reported?  Are they pretending they heard something, to maintain the illusion of an insider status, but were actually as in the dark as the rest of the hockey world?  This is a significant flub by several people in Montreal’s mainstream media.  Further, I argue that in damage control mode because of an expected scandal, Bob Gainey may have decided to change his plans and end the Alexei Kovalev exile.  If an overhyped story that turned out to be a minor one affected the direction of the Montreal Canadiens, then these mainstream media members should be fired.  They violated an important rule of journalism.  Report on the story.  Editorialize the story.  However, you do not create a story when there is nothing there to back it up.

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.

Why am I blogging? I want to.

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Email: y2kfhl@hotmail.com