As the most casual hockey fan knows, defense is almost a forgotten art in the NHL. Five seasons ago, 6.6 goals were scored per game. This season that figure is 7.7, down slightly from the 8.03 of 1981-82, the highest average since 1943-44. Defensemen are younger and more mobile—but more mistake-prone. Forwards are faster and more skilled at handling the puck—but less deft at checking. Shootouts, once deplored as pond hockey, are now routine. The rare game that ends 2-1 is as often the result of listless play as it is of crisp checking and solid goaltending. "It used to be a disgrace to win 8-7," says Montreal Canadiens Coach Bob Berry. "Not anymore. The thinking has shifted."
On no team is that more apparent than on the Canadiens. During the '70s, when Scotty Bowman was Montreal's coach, the byword was: Allow the fewest goals in the regular season, and the Stanley Cup will surely follow. That happened seven years in a row, between 1973 and 1979, twice for the Philadelphia Flyers, five times for the Canadiens.
The past two seasons Montreal again had the NHL's stingiest defense but lost in the opening round of the playoffs, to Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers in 1981 and to the Stastny brothers' offensive-minded Quebec Nordiques in 1982. Those defeats sent the Canadiens reeling philosophically, and last summer Montreal Managing Director Irving Grundman decided that if he couldn't lick the high-scoring teams, he would join them. So Grundman traded Montreal's two best defensive centers, Doug Jarvis and Doug Risebrough, and its two steadiest defensemen, Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, to make room for players who would bolster the Canadiens' attack. The result? For the first time in more than a decade, Montreal cannot be considered a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup.
Sure, the Canadiens' offense is improved. As of Sunday only prepotent Edmonton had scored more goals. And Montreal's record of 24-13-8 was still impressive, though the Canadiens had won only four of their last 12 games. Still, last season they didn't lose their 13th game until March 18. More important, the Boston Bruins have replaced Montreal atop the Adams Division. Boston, which at week's end had the NHL's best record (28-10-7) primarily because it had given up the fewest goals (124), has beaten the Canadiens in their last three meetings after having gone 0-7-1 against them in 1981-82. In fact, at week's end, the Canadiens' record against five of the league's best teams, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Edmonton (they had yet to play the Islanders), was 5-6-1. Montreal was 13-1-6 against those five in 1981-82.
January 24, 1983
The Canadiens' power play was the second-poorest in the NHL (16.9%) through Sunday. It had been crippled by the pedestrian play of Guy Lafleur, who had only 13 goals. Their penalty killing wasn't much better. Perennially among the NHL leaders in that category, Montreal ranked 17th in penalty-killing efficiency (73.8%). The four players Grundman traded were especially vital in man-down situations. Finally, the Canadiens' overall defense has plummeted from first in the league to seventh, and that may be the most troubling statistic of all to Bob Gainey, Montreal's defensive dinosaur.
Gainey, a dinosaur? How else could a left wing who has averaged fewer than 16 goals a season over a nine-year career be described in light of the current Montreal regime? "I've always believed a little more in the value of defense than in offense," says Gainey, "but now the thinking behind the game has changed. The Islanders broke the bond between the best defensive record and the Stanley Cup in 1980, but this is the first year the Canadiens have changed their ways. I don't know if that's smart, or shortsighted."
That's as close as Gainey, the Montreal captain, will come to criticizing the off-season deals that sent his defensive confreres packing. Gainey is 29 now. His once-lightning speed is ever so slightly on the decline, and he has a burgeoning bald spot. But he's still one of the first half dozen players that NHL coaches would choose if they could assemble a dream team to win the Cup.
Gainey is a rarity—a defensive specialist who has gotten his due. In 1978, when the NHL instituted an award for the best defensive forward, it seemed as if the league had Gainey in mind. He won the trophy in its first four years. Last season Steve Kasper of Boston finally ended Gainey's reign, but in an SI survey taken earlier this season, NHL coaches and general managers overwhelmingly cited Gainey as the league's best defensive player, regardless of position.
Gainey has focused on defense since his junior hockey days in his hometown of Peterborough, Ont. Roger Neilson, now behind the bench in Vancouver, then coached in Peterborough, where, besides Gainey, he tutored such defensive standouts as Jarvis and Buffalo's Craig Ramsay. "One thing Roger taught me is that hockey is a team game," says Gainey. "It doesn't matter who scores the goals; you play to win. That philosophy tends to bring the higher players down and the lower players up, but we had a lot of success in the two seasons I played for him. When you win a game 3-1 a lot of people can share the responsibility for the victory. If you win 7-5 and the scoring is divided among five or six players, you have 12 or 13 guys wondering what they contributed."
That team concept—Big We, Little Me—seems to be missing from the Canadiens. After a recent loss, Defenseman Robert Picard, who has been among the league's plus-minus leaders this season, was seen going over the plus-minus chart for that night's game to see if he had lost any ground. Assistant Coach Jacques Laperriere later told a Montreal reporter that he couldn't understand how certain players could be so concerned with individual statistics when the team was struggling. Winger Mark Napier has asked to be traded, and veteran Rejean Houle, one of the few remaining Canadien forwards who's skilled defensively, has been relegated to the bench, leading Center Pierre Mondou to remark, "We have two Europeans on this team—Mats Naslund is Swedish, and Reggie Houle is finish."
For his part, Gainey feels a little like the last convertible. After having played seven years on a line with Jarvis, he now skates with fiery Center Keith Acton, Montreal's leading scorer in 1981-82. "Bob's had an adjustment to make this season," says Berry in quite an understatement. Recently Berry has put Napier, Montreal's third-leading scorer last season, on Gainey's and Acton's right wing. "With Jarvis there were always two of us who concentrated on defense," says Gainey, "so we'd get whoever was playing our right wing to change to our style. Now I have to try to adapt to my linemates' game."
It hasn't been easy. Gainey will never be a goal scorer. His single-season high is 23, and even playing with Acton and Napier, he had had only nine goals in 45 games. "My offensive skills have always been lacking—my shot, the ability to see an offensive play under pressure, good offensive positioning," he says. "The team isn't asking me to score more goals, but you start to ask yourself, 'If Bob Gainey had scored a couple of goals in the playoffs last spring, might we have won?' "
Well, yes. But if the moon were a balloon, where would we find green cheese? Montreal's three postseason losses to Quebec came by scores of 3-2, 2-1 and 3-2. If anyone had scored a couple more goals, the Canadiens might have won. Gainey's game is keeping the other team's big scorers in check.
A defensive forward is typically viewed as someone who plods up and down—mostly down—his wing, getting in the way of wonderfully talented players like Mike Bossy and Marian Stastny. Gainey destroys this misconception. "An offensive player knows where to go to get the puck to score," he says, "but I know where to go when we don't have the puck to get it back. The Czechs do that well; they chase you all over the ice. You want to avoid passive hockey—simply waiting for the other team to give you the puck back."
Gainey, who's 6'2", 190 pounds, doesn't just skate up and down the ice; he seems to swoop, his long strides and long reach allowing him to cover not only his man but often another as well. On defense, says Gainey, you shouldn't strive for a three-on-three situation, but a 3½-on-three. "You're never really safe unless you outnumber the opponents around the puck," he says. In his own zone Gainey is always moving, covering a large triangle that extends from the left point to the slot to the left boards. "We used to play more of a zone defense than we do this year," he says. "A zone requires more experienced players, but it's a better system if you can work it. If a player's glued to his man, he doesn't take much responsibility for the puck, and the puck is really what we want."
In a 3-1 loss to the Nordiques on Jan. 4, Gainey was on the bench when a play that capsulizes Montreal's season occurred. It cost the Canadiens the game. The score was tied 1-1 in the third period, and Montreal had the puck in the neutral zone. As Berry watched in disbelief, the Canadiens began to retreat. Deeper and deeper they fell back, until, finally, the Quebec forecheckers had chased the Canadiens puckhandlers behind their own net. "If the rink hadn't ended there, we might have been back at the Chateau Frontenac," said Berry afterward. A Canadiens defenseman eventually coughed up the puck, and the Nordiques scored the winning goal—on a play that started at the red line with Montreal in possession.
Sound defensive hockey, once a trademark of the Canadiens, is all too often being ignored this season. It will cost them this spring. "It's tough to score five goals a game every night," says Gainey. "The pendulum has swung the other way for a while, but I've got to believe that it's going to swing back before long."
But probably not soon enough for this Montreal team.