Hockey: Raise the Torch

For reasons largely unknown, Lars Eller is my favourite Hab, but I have a lot of reasons why Max Pacioretty is an extremely close second, and it has a lot to do with how and when I became a Habs fan.

In the spring of 2011, I was a sophomore at a tiny liberal arts college just outside Boston, and more importantly for this story, I was a fairly new hockey fan.

I’m a lover of stories, and I was lured into hockey through the stories told by two of my friends: one the photographer for the ECHL Utah Grizzlies, and the other a Montrealer. Both were huge Montreal Canadiens fans.

Compared to many people, I haven’t been a serious Habs fan very long. In fact, compared to a lot of people, I haven’t been a hockey fan very long. I missed out on Saku Koivu, Patrick Roy and Teemu Selanne, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. I only know Jaromir Jagr as an elder-statesman, and Martin Brodeur as a really bad goalie.

Brian Gionta was “my captain” because he happened to be the captain of the team I fell in love with, not because I felt strongly one way or the other about him specifically. But it’s different with the current core because these are the guys I “grew up” watching.

My friend swears she told me stories about Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty when they were rookies, but I don’t remember that she did because at the time they were just two more unfamiliar names among twenty one others (though I do remember her frustration when Halak took the starting position from Price and the drama that ensued).

However, I was enough of a Habs fan that, like every other Habs fan, I will always remember that fateful night at the Bell Centre when the Boston Bruins were in town.

I didn’t see Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty until years later, but I sure heard about it. I’m from New York City, and I’m a Yankees fan, so hating Boston teams is in my blood, but even if it hadn’t been, I would have hated the Bruins after that.

I remember hearing that Pacioretty said he didn’t want the hit to define him or his career, and that he wanted to come back better than ever, but after that I didn’t follow too closely. I was pleased if I heard the Habs had won, or casually disappointed if they lost, but I wasn’t particularly attached.

That all changed when the Habs drafted Alex Galchenyuk in the summer of 2012, and my friend began a second, much more vigorous campaign to make me a proper Habs fan. Thankfully, it was much more successful.

I heard stories about Subban’s sizzle, Pacioretty’s, by then well established and miraculous ability to heal, the antics of the Gallys (Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk), the brick wall that is Carey Price, and so many stories about Brandon Prust. I was completely doomed.

By the time I started following the Habs for real, Pacioretty was establishing himself as an elite goal-scorer, and had been named to Team USA for the Sochi Olympics. He’d already proved that the hit didn’t define his career, and that he was a better player, and despite the 39 goals he scored in 2013-14, he wasn’t even remotely finished.
The watchword for the next season was “transition”, and it was a time of transition for me as well as for the Habs. In the summer, the Canadiens let Gionta walk, traded Josh Gorges, and made it clear that they expected Pacioretty and Subban to earn the captaincy of a younger team. I moved to Toronto for my masters, and realized I loved writing about hockey.

Then Ken Dryden literally passed the torch to Carey Price to start the year, and I got to witness my first full season as a Habs fan.

And what a season it was: 50 wins; 110 points, Price breaking records left, right, and centre, and cleaning up at the awards show; Subban being nominated for another Norris; Pacioretty putting up 67 points, and elevating his level of play even further by becoming an elite all-around player.

Regardless of the other issues the Habs had, they were never because Subban, Price and Pacioretty hadn’t stepped up.

The loss of Jean Béliveau served as a more symbolic and significant passing of the torch to a new generation, and clearly had just as profound effect on the Habs as it did on Habs fans. The effect was most noticeable on Pacioretty and Subban, who have both made it clear that they are striving to follow in his footsteps as hockey players, and more importantly, as people, to ensure that Béliveau’s legacy will continue through their actions on and off the ice.

At the beginning of last year, I could have seen either Pacioretty or Subban becoming captain. By the time this training camp rolled around, I was fairly sure it would go to Pacioretty. Just as Bergevin said about Jarred Tinordi last year with Greg Pateryn and Nathan Beaulieu making the NHL, Subban did absolutely nothing to lose the captaincy. He continued to grow and mature as a leader, and proved that he could be the captain of this or any other NHL team, and they’d be incredibly lucky to have him. Pacioretty was simply on a different level. Every interview he’s given and everything he’s done in the past two years shows just how far he’s come, and how much he now understands what it means to be a leader on this team.

As for me, I finished my masters, moved to Montreal, and, as cheesy as it sounds, achieved one by writing about the Canadiens.

And as for Max Pacioretty, he raised the torch in the 2015 home opener as the twenty-ninth captain of our Montreal Canadiens, and I’m willing to bet he’s still not remotely finished.

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 3.02.53 AM

Originally published over at EOTP (in a more polished version).

Hockey: Some Exciting News!

I haven’t had internet for the past few days, and I’m terrible and didn’t queue a post in anticipation. However, I have some super exciting news!

I have been a huge fan and long time reader of the Montreal Canadiens’ fan website Habs Eyes on the Prize and it’s been a dream of mine to write for them for a similarly long period of time. Then they announced that they were looking for new columnists and such, and of course I had to apply. I didn’t expect to get a spot because there were so many applicants, and because there were bound to be so many really excellent writers applying, but I figured at least it couldn’t hurt.

And then this happened:

So I’m now a hockey writer for my favourite website that’s not actually the Canadiens website.

Because it’s me, my first article was on Lars Eller, as is tradition. I also wrote a season preview for Nathan Beaulieu.

I definitely sat there in shock when I first found out that I got a spot, and though I’ve now written two pieces for them, it still hasn’t completely sunk in.

Anyway, that’s what’s happened to me recently!

Hockey: In Defence of Lars Eller

Posted originally on my Tumblr in October 2014.

The season is six games old and the Habs are a beautiful league leading 5-1. Pacioretty, Desharnais and Gallagher are buzzing, as are Galchenyuk, Plekanec and Parenteau. Malhotra is wowing the world with his skills as a phenomenal 4th liner, and Lars Eller is getting the Plekanec treatment, deployed largely in the defensive zone with meh wingers. People are already criticising his lack of offensive production and his seven goals against. I’ve heard that he needs to make more of an effort, that he looks terrible, and needs to step up his game. 
This is ridiculous. 
Despite being buried in the defensive zone, Eller’s Corsi For was 42% in all situations, he personally had two shots on goal, was ROBBED of a goal, and had an assist. He was also part of the play that lead to the second Habs goal. (Yes he was on the ice for two goals against, the first one for sure was not a result of any play Eller could have controlled. I don’t remember the second goal well enough to comment on it right now.)
Against Boston, Eller’s CF was 50% (in all situations), and he started 33% of his shifts in the offensive zone. While he did not get an assist, he was part of the play that netted Sekac’s first goal of the season.
Against the Flyers, in all situations his CF was 54% and he started a very cushy 75% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Only one of the game’s 3  goals were scored with him on the ice, and he was absolutely ROBBED of one goal, possibly even two.
Against Toronto, his zone starts were the team low at 22% in all situations, his CF was at 50%, and he was only on the ice for ONE of the three goals scored against the Habs. As I ranted to a friend of mine, Desharnais was sheltered like a delicate flower in a storm (78% of his shifts started in the offensive zone!) and Eller wasn’t — in fact he was thrown head first into it. 
Additionally, before this Avs/Habs game, Eller was an absolute MONSTER in face off wins (54% against Toronto, 71% against Washington, 64% against the Flyers, 42% the awful game against Tampa, and 58% against Boston.) Against the Avs he was a miserable 29%, but he only TOOK nine face offs as opposed to nearly twice that amount on the previous nights (and on those nights, I remember looking at the percentages a few times and thinking oh wow… Eller’s doing TERRIBLY, but then by the end of the game it had balanced out, so I’m fairly willing to bet if he’d taken more draws the numbers would have ended up looking much more like the numbers from previous games). 
In short, by and large, Eller’s been buried in the defensive zone with an invisible winger who is criminally incapable of hitting the net, or sometimes of being in the right place at all, and a brand new NHLer. Like large portions of last year, his line seems to be made up of the rejects from the top six (though six games in, Sekac and Eller are showing signs of chemistry). He’s been robbed of multiple goals, and had a few scored against when he was on the ice which were in no way his fault, and he trails only the big guns; Pacioretty, Gallagher, Plekanec, Subban and Parenteau in shots. Furthermore, his possession stats are amazing.
The Habs are using Eller like they used Plekanec in the past, and people are wondering why he’s not scoring. (Meanwhile, Plekanec, with this year’s equivalent of the EGG Line wingers is scoring quite nicely with fairly comfortable zone starts. Funny what happens when you give talented centres offensively talented wingers…) Of the TWENTY goals scored against the Habs in these six games, Eller was only on the ice for seven of them (and all but blameless in at least three). His +/- only looks so bad because his line hasn’t been scoring. 
Against the Flyers and against the Avs, it took players physically hauling Eller down in front of the net and taking penalties to stop him from scoring on amazing plays. On the second Subban goal, an Avs player felt the need to stick his arm around Eller and completely block him out from any chance at taking a pass. He has the potential to be lethal, and teams know it. 
But to me, the most telling sign of Eller’s value to the Habs, and their faith in him, is what happened in the last thirty seconds of the 3-2 Avs game. Roy had pulled his goalie for an extra attacker, and Therrien responded by icing his defensive guns to batten down the hatches, win the face offs and hold on to the lead. He deployed Eller, Malhotra and Prust. Malhotra, presumably to win the defensive zone face off, Eller to take the face off, should Malhotra get thrown out, and all three to be capable of holding off the Avalanche that was sure to follow. They did just that. 
The goals will come, and in the meantime, Lars Eller, like Plekanec before him, is performing a thankless and herculean task, and doing pretty damn well.