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Well, the season is done and we’ve had time to take a breather and look back at what went on with our Canadiens.  Time now for the first in a series of ’03-’04 recaps and analyses.  Questions or comments?  Email me and let me know. 


Today we’ll take a look at the two goaltenders of record for our Habs:


Jose Theodore


Ostensibly the franchise player, Theo struggled through his second year in a row and while his struggles this season weren’t as pronounced as last year, they were still evident.  As to their causes, there can only be speculation, but what has become apparent to those who have removed their rose coloured glasses is the simple fact that Theo has become a streak goaltender.  When he’s hot, he’s one of the top three goalies in the game today, but when he’s off, he’s going to allow a minimum of one freebee to the opposition per game, and as a result the team in front of him plays with much less confidence.


His game itself is most assuredly typical of the Quebec junior leagues and a prototypical example of the ‘butterfly’.  This style stresses positioning over reflexes and is designed to cover the bottom of the net as completely as possible while keeping the arms raised in such a way that they are able to prevent shots to the upper corners.  It’s no secret that when he’s on his game, Theo is stellar in his positioning and that’s the key to his game; when he makes the saves look easy on his first few shots, confidence is gained and generally players and fans alike understand that he’s going to put in a solid performance. 


The follow-up to positioning for this style is rebound control – the ability to either smother the puck or deflect it into a harmless area of the rink or to a teammate.  This is another strong indicator on how well Theo will perform in a given game; if he gobbles up the puck and uses the corners well early, he’s on, but if he let’s them sail into the slot, cringe away.


Of course, there are times when the ‘butterfly’ is no longer useful, either after an initial save or during goal mouth scrambles.  In these cases Theo has to resort to his recovery mode, which essentially is his ability to combine reflex reactions with an understanding of the play at hand.  If there’s a technical aspect to his game that might need more work, it’s in the reflex department – at least if you compare him to Garon, who’s reflexes are extraordinary.




Obviously Theo’s greatest strength lies in his ability to be in the right position.  When you watch him play and think to yourself that he’s having an easy time of it and doesn’t look to be putting much effort into the game, you have to realize that he’s actually being extremely adept at positioning himself perfectly.  In fact, positionally, he’s probably one of the top two or three in the game, and I’d honestly go as far as to say that he’s number one when he’s right on his game.  The fact that he’s a smaller goalie yet continually makes some games look like child’s play is incredible when you step back and take a look at it.


Mentally he’s also a very strong goaltender.  When you consider all the crap he’s had to go through as an individual away from the rink and then look at the pure drive and passion he has for the game and his preparation, then it should be easily apparent that he’s an incredibly driven person with a will to succeed.  Certainly every player has his own problems away from the rink which impact the way he plays the game, but Theo has taken his familial troubles and has managed to pack them off to the side while keeping hockey first – and being one of the better players at his position.  That’s pretty impressive.




While it might be something of a paradox, he’s also weak mentally.  Theodore has become, in every sense of the phrase, a streak goaltender.  Look back on the past season:  until the outdoor game he wasn’t on the ball, he let in bad goals and couldn’t control his rebounds to save his life; follow that up with the stretch that went until just before the Habs clinched their playoff berth where he was arguably one of the top three goalies in the game; after that there was the dying games in the regular season as well as the post season, and during all that time, he played one stellar game – game seven against Boston.  Call it consistency or whatever, but it boils down to mentally being prepared for an 82+ game schedule, and Theo just wasn’t up to it.


In fact, this mental weakness starts to invade his entire game when he’s off.  His positioning is horrid, his rebound control atrocious, and he stays deeper in the net, in essence allowing more of the net to be visible to the shooter.  It’s unfortunate, but Theo’s big weakness is one of the worst you can have as a goaltender; technical weaknesses have work-arounds, but mental ones are difficult to deal with.


The final weakness is one that drive me up the wall and that should and would drive a great many coaches to distraction: he has a somewhat fluorescent five hole.  Too many times this season were goals scored between the wickets and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he rarely leaves his stick on the ice while going down, but instead tried to use both hands to grab the puck.  Technical flaw? Perhaps, but it’s something I’m sure he’s been told and drilled on for years running and it’s therefore as much mental as it is technical.




Alright, he’s supposed to be our franchise player, the guy that we can rely on when the chips are down to come up with a huge game to bail out everyone else who’s not played well.  For perhaps 60%, or a little more, of the season, he was all that and more, but for the rest of the time he was a struggling goalie who cost us almost some points.  If, when he’s at the top of his game, he’s a top three player at his position, then when he’s not on his game he would have to be considered in the bottom third of starters, sometimes struggling to even make the list. 


The question then becomes: do you pay for his exorbitant contract when his combined numbers put him at the midpoint of all goalie’s in hockey?  Another question that hovers when you have considered the first is this:  is there a team out there that is willing to overpay for a sometime blockbuster goaltender such that the return significantly improves the standing of the Montreal Canadiens.  Rest assured, these questions and more are running through the mind of our GM as you read this.


With Garon nipping at his heels and after a series of sub-par performances to cap off his ’03-’04 season, there will be a lot of questions asked about our starting netminder.  And while a trade would have a great many up in arms, the simple fact is that he’s probably the most coveted asset the Habs own at this point and a player that a developing team would love to have to backstop a growing franchise. 


Chances are Theo will be there in the goal for opening night of the next season, but to preclude a potential trade because of his status within Montreal would be premature.  There’s a draft coming up and Montreal happens to be in a rather unique position with a supposed franchise goaltender backstopped by yet another great hope in Garon.  Perhaps, with the rest of the team moving to the next step, the removal of Theo and his baggage will open the door to great new development for the franchise.  It certainly leaves open a great mass of speculation with which to enjoy the summer months.



Mathieu Garon


He’s been called a ‘future franchise player’ from time to time, and former management called him the ‘goalie of the future’.  The question therefore becomes:  when is the future?  Garon has been toiling in the shadow of Theo for a couple of season’s now, and with each game you get the impression that he’s starting to push more and more.  Perhaps the time is ripe, after Theo’s late season weaknesses, for the future to be now; certainly Garon has all the requisite qualities to become a number one and a top-flight one at that.


While it would be easy to point at Garon and claim ‘butterfly’ the truth of the matter is that he’s a hybrid goaltender.  He does use the butterfly in certain situations, but he’s also a stand-up goaltender.  If you need an example, think of a guy from Jersey by the name of Marty Brodeur.  This type of goaltending gives the player a little more flexibility in his play and while it might allow more goals down low, it prevents perhaps more up top – where most NHL snipers like to look.  Combine this style with reflexes which are, in my opinion, second in the NHL only to Robbie Luongo, and you’ve got someone who can steal you games and quite possibly only needs to be shown a little confidence and a little more playing time to round out his game and take it to a level that Theo can only dream about.


Working on his positioning is the most critical aspect to a potential jump to the next level.  There are games when it’s good, and those are the games that it takes a minor miracle to beat him (see LA late in the year).  Unfortunately, he does have the tendency to over-commit, but I’m fully convinced that this is more a result of lack of competitive game time rather than just a large technical flaw that he can’t overcome.  If he gets the chance to step in and shine (much like Theo did when Hackett went down with injury), I believe you’ll see him become more and more comfortable to the point where he might take over that starting job.


In Garon, I see all the potential to be as good or better than Brodeur.  He plays a very similar style and backs that up with phenomenal reflexes as well as, as Hackett put it, the best legs of a goalie he’s ever seen.  He just needs to be given the opportunity to take that next step.




He looks like he’s beaten as an attacker has him heading the wrong way, but suddenly a leg sticks out and the opening that was previously gaping is quickly shut and a goal is prevented.  There are no better legs in net – that I’ve seen anyhow.  If a butterfly is there to cover the bottom of the net, the a hybrid goaltender who can do the splits and utterly cover the bottom of the net, post to post mind you, is infinitely better.  He’s lightening quick in his lateral movements and when he gets the chance to hone them in game situations, they’ll win games.


His hybrid style is also a great strength.  As much as the butterfly is loved around the NHL these days, there’s a lot to be said for a goalie that can stand up to the pressure and not drop, thereby exposing the top corners, every time an attacker makes a head fake.  Combined with his good height, this makes him an imposing goaltender and one that can dominate.


His biggest strength is, of course, his reflexes.  You only need to watch that game against the Kings to see that they’re bordering on precognition, much like Spiderman.  When it looks like he’s beaten, even if he’s thrown himself out of position, his recoveries are delightful to watch and make for highlight reel saves on a consistent basis. 




Positioning has to be at the top of this list.  Too many times you see him over-commit on a lateral movement, throwing himself totally out of position and leaving the yawning cage an inviting place for the puck.  Now, that’s he’s a great at recoveries is wonderful, but think of how good he’d be if he had something even approaching the positioning talent that Theodore displays.  I kid you not:  if Garon can master this aspect of the game, he’s going to make Theo look silly.


Another problem that I’ve detected – circumstantially mind you, so take this for what it’s worth – is his mental game.  Not in terms of preparation, because I believe that he’s well-prepared rather consistently, but when was the last time you heard him complain about playing time?  Theo used to talk constantly when he was behind Hackett, letting people know that he was the goalie of the future and the guy that should be getting the top minutes.  I want to hear a little of the same swagger from Garon, because it would indicate to me that he’s got the same drive to succeed, and it seems to me that those with that huge drive and confidence, like Roy, Brodeur, and Theo, are the ones who make it to the top.  Garon needs to develop the swagger of a guy who believes he’s the best.


A final point would be his rebound control, but again, this is something that really only takes that last step of improvement in game situations.  There’s only so much you can do during practice where the intensity can never be the same as during a game, and only with consistent time against real opposition will Garon develop this aspect of his game.




Presumably, unless someone comes calling with an offer that Gainey can’t refuse, Garon will again be patrolling the Montreal net from a backup standpoint next season.  There are those, however, who do see his potential as can be evidenced by the fact he was named in the negotiations for Kovalchuk, so hearing his name bandied about in trade talks should surprise no one.


More importantly, the question is how Montreal management looks at Garon.  If they see him much as I do, then perhaps he’ll be given every opportunity to succeed to the point where they might trade Theo in order to give the reins to Garon to run with.  As a backup, Garon has probably reached the pinnacle of his development and his next logical step would be in taking the mantle of the number one in Montreal.


With Gainey being so tight-lipped about any plans, everything must be pure speculation, but it’s this writer’s opinion that next season is the key for Garon.  I believe he’ll be given a much larger shot with the goal being his replacement of the overpaid Theo.  As the team develops, Gainey will probably be trying to adjust his pay scales, remove negative influences, and slowly remodelling the team into ‘his’ team and this is an area where he could make an indelible stamp for certain.




Up next:  the defenders!  Lots of questions to be answered in that respect, and some interesting choices to be made by management.


A Concerned Fan