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After an Eastern Conference leading start, the Canadiens have been hit by some bad luck. To just call it “injury problems” would be like calling the Richard Riot an angry protest down St. Catherines. In fact, the recent slide can be attributed to many things.

As of late, the Habs have had their best players unavailable due to injuries, suspensions, family matters, and lack of ice time. The team, however, has still maintained a decent record that most fans would have been happy about if you told them in August that the Habs would be 8 games above .500. Shockingly enough, they have accomplished all this with some of the worst hockey games I have ever seen played. Some days the effort that goes with playing the game is as hard to find as route plans for a Stanley Cup parade in Toronto.

In all fairness to the team, it could have been better with just a few lucky bounces or even the 4 points awarded by the officials to the Leafs in back to back Saturday night contests. But that wouldn’t be fun to poke with a stick, so let’s get back to the point.

The lack of ice time to some of the best players that I mentioned was meant to imply that Tomas Plekanec, Alex Perezhogin, and Chris Higgins have, in some instances, been the best players on the team [on various nights mind you] by causing turnovers, energetic fore checking and creating scoring chances, only to be awarded with a disappointing 5 minutes ice time in the following game/s. The rookies inserted into the lineup this season have been, if nothing else, defensibly responsible, and in two cases mature beyond their years in the NHL when concerning the defensive aspects of the game.

Not to take anything away from Perezhogin, but Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins are the two cases mentioned and it isn’t a fluke to see either of them on the Canadiens penalty killing unit, a responsibility rarely seen given to rookies. This fact should speak volumes about the confidence that the coaching staff has in these solid two-way players but the ice time they receive is not as compelling as it perhaps should be.

The biggest issues for rookies getting quality ice time used to be the “defensive responsibility” line so often used by coaches, and “getting used to the speed of the game”, but in this case, it looks like a contradiction as both players have to some degree excelled with both of these coaching necessities.

I agree that a player making $2-3 M per season should play as much as possible because its hard to justify that much money sitting on the pine, but now [especially with the injuries to the team] should be the time to lean on the efforts of the players who need to show what they can do.

So what is the underlying issue with giving the young guns a chance to shine?

From what I have seen, various forums [none of which are as impressive as HabsWorld’s own fan forum, a shameless plug I know] have been blaming coach Julien and co. for the lack of opportunity given to the rookies. Some even call for his immediate termination because of the usage of his rookies. I’m willing to take it a step further and say it would also be an incorrect use of Ribeiro and Ryder as well, but that shouldn’t cost Julien his job when the decision isn’t his alone.

I think it would be fair to say the Ribeiro has fallen from grace with some fans and most of the coaching staff thus far, and he is in desperate need of a wake up call. Since the demotion to the third and fourth line didn’t work, why not hand him the reigns that he had in the 03/04 season and expect him to be the main offensive threat for the Canadiens while injuries present the opportunity. He just might respond; if not, at least you can say you tried, and then shop him to fill a current need via trade.

Unfortunately, a trade would only be necessary because captain Koivu is injured, and apparently not healthy enough to smack Ribeiro around in practice, as was required in the 03/04 campaign.

Ryder, [less obvious then Ribeiro] has been way off his game as well, but he would benefit from the added pressure of a leadership role to get back to his Calder finalist form of 03/04. Then again he could be the Michael Ryder of old if he were to get a line mate for more then a few consecutive games. It is difficult to build chemistry on your line when you play with a new winger every other game.

I’m not so sure firing Julien is the answer. Sure changing coaches seems to light a fire under some teams, but consider the replacement. Doug Jarvis is a good coach, slurring him is not my intent, but his track record concerning rookies is less than impressive. For proof, look no further then the Hamilton Bulldogs over the last few seasons. Plekanec, Perezhogin, Locke, Kostitsyn, etc were all given roughly 4-8 minutes per game for most of their rookie seasons.  Then the following season they were expected to carry the load for the team in whatever faction they could. That is not a coach interested in development, and the AHL is a development league for all NHL teams.

A player I talked to [who requested anonymity] about his ice time as a rookie with the Bulldogs hated it. “It’s too hard to get into a groove after a full season of barely playing, then all of a sudden you’re told to run with what you have learned, and lead the team. It doesn’t work that way”

It is a shame but Jarvis seems to have as much of a touch with rookies that Pat Quinn of the Leafs does, and considering the size of the prospect pool the Habs have in the system that would seem to be a bad choice where future outlook is concerned.

So what are the options now?

I guess only Bob Gainey would know that, but until something happens to shake up the players and force some consistency with a true 60 minute effort, the tough times are likely continue.

The worst part about all of this is that only in Montreal can the 8 games over .500 record be looked at as “tough times”.