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Week 4 in One Word: Identity



the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. Similar: name, personality character, distinctiveness, uniqueness the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.

Week 4 for the Montreal Canadiens featured another shutout for Jake Allen in a 3-0 win against the Detroit Red Wings, a 6-2 loss to the stronger and more composed New York Islanders, and a 5-2 loss to the depleted Vegas Golden Knights.

Here is how I saw things shake down.

Win or lose, the cutting-edge analysis always seems to come down to whether – or not – the Habs played consistent with their identity.

The hockey analysis surrounding the Habs right now is a little thin. It’s understandable. I can think of a thousand reasons why they aren’t very good and, at the same time, zero reasons why they are precisely this bad. But a lot of pundits seem to think it has something to with identity.

The Habs win, and it doesn’t matter if Jake Allen stood on his head to make it happen, or if the opponent was a bottom feeder or a team playing without its best players, the analysis is always the same. “The Habs really played to their identity.”

The Habs lose, and it doesn’t matter if they were outclassed by a better team, or if they just didn’t show up at all. “The Habs are really struggling to find their identity.”

What identity?

I hear the insertion of that word in the analysis, and I get that lost look that Romanov gets when he’s been caught badly out of position. You know the one I mean. The big eyes, the slack jaw.

What freaking identity?

The Habs used to have an identity of being a fast and skilled team.

Those were the days. Of course, they were all pint-sized during that era, but they were exciting to watch. Do you remember that speedy skilled team that was deemed too small for the playoffs, and Bergevin assessed that King, Martinsen and Ott were the additions that would bring post-season success? Good times, good times.

It happened slowly, but it happened. The Habs are no longer a fast team. With all they have added in the past two off-seasons, the beautiful speed of the past has eroded.

Then the Habs had the identity of being “hard to play against.”

I’m not entirely sure what that means, but they said it often for a period, mostly during the Julien era, but it also seeped through to Ducharme. They wanted to be a team that was hard to play against.

I think it means something like this.

The forwards are expected to forecheck their guts out, every single shift, every single game, for 82 games, puking on the bench as necessary. Then, if by some miracle they make it to the playoffs, they are expected to do it some more, but better. If the forwards are unable to contain the opponent, no need to worry.

Close to their own nets will be a gaggle of stay-at-home defensemen (SAHD). Large fellows, wielding weapons with names like Bauer, CCM and Sherwood, will greet the opponents with a blow to the rib cage, or a glove-rub to the lips. The liberty at which these greetings can be issued increases in the post-season, which renders them “built for the playoffs.”

In the event the SAHD (pronounced sad) crew is confounded by the strategies of the opponent, such as speed, quick puck movement, and raw skill, there is a third layer of this identity. Carey “Hard to Play Against” Price will be there, working his bag off, to quell the attack of the enemy.

Let’s be honest. This is the identity that took them to the Stanley Cup Final. It almost worked. But that run ended in the operating room, and some of the cornerstones of that identity are no longer even on the roster.

Then their identity got tangled up in playing, or not playing as the case would have it, as a five-man unit.

I won’t go down this path too much this week – last week’s word was unit and I said lots about the five-man unit there.

Ducharme wants an identity that revolves around that five-man unit. The idea is that no matter which group of five finds themselves on the ice they will know their place in the system, supporting each other in three zones, two guys always available to the guy on the puck to offer options for puck movement. Five guys, all playing closer to the puck, in a structured system, applying persistent, punishing pressure.

He’s been successful. The current identity revolves around the five-man unit, alright. The identity has become the team’s complete inability to carry out Dom’s “system” of rules that make up the five-man unit.

Sometimes the other team is a mirror in which you can see your own identity.

This happened for the Habs a couple of times this week.

The New York Islanders are a team with a structured system that is well-coached, and they know their identity. They are comfortable letting the opposition have chances if they’re not good chances. They’re comfortable letting you control the play if you’re not doing too much with that control. And they’re confident that when they get their chances they’ll pay off. Everything the Habs are not.

The Vegas Golden Knights are deep in a pile of adversity. Their best players are out, and they’re trying to stay above water until they can play with a complete roster. Sound familiar? Here is the difference. They play like they expect to win. We saw the Habs play like that in the playoffs, but the expectation of winning has not been a consistent part of the Montreal Canadiens’ identity for years.

The vision of the builder should greatly impact on the identity of the product.

Marc Bergevin has been the GM for nine years. He has made some excellent trades during that time – Danault and Suzuki come to mind – and despite his commentary on free agency, he’s accomplished a couple of good signings of late. But building a team is less about distinct moves and more about how those moves contribute to a bigger vision.

Bergevin walks into an auto parts store and announces he’s building a car. The first thing he asks for is three mufflers. The clerk is confused but obliges. Berge turns his attention to tires; he also wants three of them. The clerk is opening his mouth when Berge clarifies his order. He wants one pretty good tire, and two of the cheapest tires they have.

Berge turns his attention to the engine. He wants something powerful that will be the driving force of his car. The clerk is wagging his tail and ready to offer up some favourites when Berge asks if they sell used engines. Something with about 200K would be good, he says, since he plans to suck another 100K out of it.

Berge whips out his credit card and it about to settle-up when the clerk asks if he needs a chassis. “What’s a chassis?” Berge asks.

As fans, we can easily deteriorate to the point of criticizing individual players. Sometimes that might be valid. But sometimes, there is nothing wrong with the muffler. You just don’t need three of them.

If your identity revolves around one player, is it an identity at all?

Carey Price re-joins the Habs this week. Everyone knows that a healthy Carey Price, playing at his best, can make this Habs team look like a completely different crew. Suddenly, questions about identity can become muted with a few good games from a franchise player.

When a team is tee-totally dependent on one player to put on a star performance, unsupported, year after year, that becomes your identity. Some of us call it the “Poor Carey Price” identity.

Who can answer the Habs identity riddle? Here is what I know. The answer is not in the room. The answer is also not found in the current General Manager’s office. It’s time for someone new to get the opportunity to build the next identity of the Montreal Canadiens.

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