2011 Heritage Classic - Spectator Plaza Day 2

Soon-to-be-former Canadiens president discusses team’s problems with language barrier

If you’ve even loosely followed the history of the Montreal Canadiens, then you’re probably aware of the undercurrent of language-related political tension that surrounded the great franchise. The most obvious moment revolved around Habs legend Maurice Richard, whose 1955 suspension generated a riot after many assumed the decision was made because of Richard’s francophone heritage.

Those tensions rarely boil over on a comparable level now, but those problems still linger under the surface.

Departing Canadiens team president Pierre Boivin discussed that (and many other issues, including social media and the shared experience the Canadiens create in that community) when he looked back at his career with the Habs in a discussion with the Montreal Gazette. Boivin spoke of the demand for French-Canadian representatives – both on the roster and in the front office – that creates what he called a competitive disadvantage.

“If you had a star francophone player, nobody would be counting. You could have two – a star and a fourth-liner, and everybody would be happy. If you don’t have the star, then they want seven or eight, because it’s all about sens d’appartenance (a sense of belonging).

“If it’s a star, a Maurice (Richard), a Jean (Béliveau), a Guy (Lafleur), a Patrick (Roy), that’s all they need to feel the cultural and linguistic connection. If they don’t have the star, they want a whole bunch (of francophones) because one day they hate them, the other day they love them.”

(snip)

The team’s general manager and coach should be bilingual, he says, which means the Habs “are severely competitively disadvantaged.”

Added Boivin: “There’s one general manager in the league this year who speaks French and he’s in Montreal. If Pierre Gauthier gets hit by a bus, what does (team owner) Geoff Molson do? Every other team says: ‘There are 29 others out there, how many contracts are up?’ Thirty assistant GMs might be prepared to step up, like a Steve Yzerman (in Tampa), and then there’s 30 AHL managers.

“So they have a pool of 90, (even if) not all are good or are available. We have a pool of three, four, five maybe? Sometimes none? It’s the same thing with coaches. And that’s a huge disadvantage when human capital is your most important asset. So we have to groom them.”

On the bright side, the Canadiens organization has indeed shown an aptitude for grooming successful coaches, even if other NHL teams often reap the benefits. The Montreal Gazette points out that three (Guy Boucher, Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault) of the four bench bosses in the 2011 conference finals coached the Habs and/or one of their farm clubs at some point in their careers.

Yet that coaching problem underscores the team’s decades-long dilemma. Leaning toward French-Canadians was fine in the team’s golden era in which they could poach young players without having to worry about the NHL draft and faced a smaller quantity of bidders for that talent. Now that the sport is more international than ever (and boasts 29 other teams), having to meet an unspoken quota of francophone players must feel like a burden.

Perhaps the team won’t be able to break through until they groom a general manager with a stubborn and unyielding view to simply construct the best team possible, regardless of cultural or political factors. That would take a very brave individual who deflects criticism with a deft touch. It won’t be easy to “groom” such a person, though.

(Be sure to check out the full article from the Montreal Gazette, which includes additional – and fascinating – insight from Boivin.)

Goalie nods: Murray, Neuvirth get the call at Heinz Field

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers take their long-time rivalry outside on Saturday night it will be Matt Murray and Michael Neuvirth getting the starts in goal for the teams.

For the Penguins, Murray getting the start is no shock at this point since he has clearly taken over the No. 1 job, starting 14 of the past 17 games the Penguins have played and currently owning some of the best numbers of any goalie in the league this season. His .925 save percentage that is currently fifth best in the NHL while his .935 save percentage during even-strength situations is tied for second best.

He has allowed just 10 goals in his past six starts.

The Penguins’ goaltending situation is still going to be one worth watching over the next couple of days leading up to the NHL trade deadline. With Murray as the guy in net trade speculation surrounding Marc-Andre Fleury has picked up, and even though general manager Jim Rutherford said earlier this week that he would prefer to keep Fleury, he mentioned on Friday that a decision resulting his short-term future will be made in the 24-48 hours leading up to the deadline.

Meanwhile, on the Philadelphia side, it will be Neuvirth getting another start as he tries to shake off the rust he has shown since returning to the lineup from an injury that sidelined him for a large portion of the season. Since returning he has just an .894 save percentage in eight starts, continuing what has been an overall disappointing season for him in net.

He faced the Penguins earlier this season in a 5-4 loss, giving up two goals on 12 shots in relief of starter Steve Mason.

Elsewhere on Saturday…

— It will be Jonathan Bernier vs. Jonathan Quick on Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles when the Ducks and Kings face off.

— Phillip Grubauer gets the call for the Washington Capitals when they visit the Nashville Predators and try to prevent Filip Forsberg from recording yet another hat trick. No word yet on who is starting for the Predators.

— Joonas Korpisalo will be giving Sergei Bobrovsky the night off for the Columbus Blue Jackets when they host Thomas Greiss and the New York Islanders.

— The Rangers will go with Antti Raanta for their rivalry showdown with the New Jersey Devils. Cory Schneider goes for the Devils.

— Huge game in Toronto when it comes to the Atlantic Division standings with the Maple Leafs facing off against a Canadiens team they trail by only four points. It will be a Carey Price vs. Frederik Anderson goalie matchup.

Ryan Miller, suddenly the subject of trade speculation, will start for the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday when they face the San Jose Sharks. Look for Martin Jones to go for the Sharks.

Robin Lehner and Calvin Pickard go for the Sabres and Avalanche respectively on Saturday night in Denver.

Antoine Vermette’s 10-game suspension upheld by Gary Bettman

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The NHL announced on Saturday afternoon that commissioner Gary Bettman has upheld the 10-game suspension the league issued to Anaheim Ducks forward Antoine Vermette for an abuse of official incident that happened earlier this month.

Bettman met with Vermette on Thursday and heard his appeal, and has ruled that the 10-game ban will remain in place.

Vermette was ejected from the Ducks’ Feb. 14 game against the Minnesota Wild after he slashed linesman Shandor Alphonso in the leg following a face off. The NHL ruled that it was a Category II abuse of official foul, which carries an automatic 10-game suspension. He has already served four of those games. He will lose $97,222.22 in salary as a result of the entire suspension.

Vermette’s suspension is the third abuse of official suspension we have seen in the NHL over the past two years following the 20-game ban Dennis Wideman received last year (later reduced to 10 games) and the three-game suspension given to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Anthony DeAngelo this season.

After signing a two-year, $3.5 million contract with the Ducks in free agency, Vermette has eight goals and 14 assists in 58 games this season.

Blackhawks’ Hjalmarsson ‘day-to-day,’ will not play on Sunday

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 11:  Niklas Hjalmarsson #4 of the Chicago Blackhawks fires a shot against the Washington Capitals at the United Center on November 11, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Capitals defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Just about the only downside to the Chicago Blackhawks’ latest win, a 6-3 dismantling of the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night, was the injury suffered by defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.

He ended up leaving the game after taking just four shifts in the first period and did not return.

Along with missing almost all of that game, he will also be out of the lineup on Sunday when the Blackhawks look to continue their recent hot streak when they host the St. Louis Blues.

In 60 games this season Hjalmarsson has five goals and nine assists while mostly playing alongside Duncan Keith. On Thursday the Blackhawks had seven defensemen in the lineup and relied on Michal Rozsival to fill some of the minutes left vacated by Hjalmarsson. He ended up scoring his first goal of the season in the win.

The Blackhawks have been on a roll over the past few weeks, winning eight of their past nine games and scoring at least four goals in every win during that stretch.

They will miss Hjalmarsson on Sunday, but it seems to only be a short-term issue.

Kris Letang won’t play in outdoor game; Schultz game-time decision

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 17:  Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins talks before a faceoff during the game against Colorado Avalanche at PPG Paints Arena on October 17, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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An already shorthanded Pittsburgh Penguins defense is going to be without another key player on Saturday when Kris Letang misses their Stadium Series game against the Philadelphia Flyers due to an upper body.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced the news following the team’s morning skate and would only add that Letang remains day-to-day with an upper body injury.

Letang, the Penguins’ best defenseman, played more than 28 minutes in their most recent game, a 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

In 41 games this season he has five goals and 29 assists. Ron Hainsey, recently acquired in a trade with the Hurricanes, is going to have to immediately take on a pretty substantial role with his new team.

Anytime the Penguins are without Letang it’s a big deal because of how impactful he is on the blue line, but it is an even bigger issue now given the injury situation they are dealing with. Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta are both sidelined for what will most likely be the remainder of the regular season.

Justin Schultz, a game-time decision on Saturday night according to Sullivan, has missed the past three games due to a concussion.