Who Is That Smiling Goon?

I love Bob Gainey. I think he’s one of the best GMs in the league, and his patience and care in decision-making will serve him well in the year to come, which I believe will be tumultuous on the contract front. But I think he made a mistake in signing Georges Laraque.

Now, I have to admit, I’ve never really been a fighting fan. Not that I recoil in horror when a fight breaks out or anything…I just never found watching a fight to be a big thrill. I really never saw the point when a Laraque would skate out and ask the other team’s tough guy "You wanna go?" Give me a passionate, hotheaded moment of reaction that erupts in fisticuffs and I get it. But the calculated pasodoble executed by two hulking pugilists? Not so much.

I wholeheartedly bought into Gainey’s "team toughness" philosophy, which he and Carbo advocated until last July when he brought Laraque home from the free agent market. I thought the team standing up for itself was a great idea. Why waste a roster spot on a guy who’ll play one game in three, probably never during the playoffs, and only five minutes a night when he does get in the lineup? I thought it a much better use of resources to ice enough good players to roll four lines, if the twenty guys on the bench were willing to stand up for each other. That’s exactly what happened last year. We saw Tom the Bomb fight all comers in defence of his mates…and lose every time. So what, I said. It’s the principle of the thing. He loses fights, but at least he gets involved and sends a message that the team won’t back down. Well, Paul Newman didn’t back down in "Cool Hand Luke" either, but he still got killed.

Gainey saw what the rest of us saw in the playoffs, when skill took a backseat to pure physical aggression in both the Boston and Philadelphia series. So, he went out and got Laraque to address the problem. My first reaction was disappointment. I really think the days of the pure goon are ending, and I feared Laraque wouldn’t be good enough to play a bigger role. Then I got caught up in guilty pleasure because if my team is going to have a guy who fights, it might as well hire the very best fighter out there. I pictured Laraque getting revenge for all the cheap sticks on Saku Koivu and shoves on Carey Price.

But it’s not working out that way. I know it’s only been fourteen games, and Georges was hurt for the first few of those, but I’m not seeing Laraque’s presence make a difference in the way the team is treated on the ice. Last night’s humiliation in Boston just underlined that. Watching Komisarek lose the fight to Lucic while the team was getting creamed was too much. If that’s not the kind of situation for which Laraque was acquired, I don’t know what his role is supposed to be. He got a pass for allowing Bouillon to fight Ruutu in Ottawa, just because Bouillon was closer and angrier. But in the big picture, I think Laraque’s got two problems: The Code and the instigator penalty. Laraque’s Code won’t allow him to fight unless he offers first and the fight is clearly accepted by his opponent. As for the instigator, I don’t know whether it’s Laraque or Carbonneau who decides these things, but the threat of a two-minute penalty for instigating is working as a deterrent.

The problem with The Code specifically, is a code only works if everyone respects and follows it. The only ones who do anymore are other teams’ goons. But it’s not the goons who bother the Habs. It’s the Ruutus and the Lucics of the world. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, those guys feel absolutely no shame about politely declining Big Georges’ invitation to tango. He won’t take an instigator penalty and pound them anyway. It’s against The Code. And even if he his invitation is accepted, the officials often intervene before justice is carried out. I’ve seen Laraque fight three times as a Hab, and he hasn’t changed a game with any of his bouts. The most important opportunity he had to do so was during the Coyotes game, when Kurt Sauer knocked Andrei Kostitsyn out and forced AK out of the game. I was at the Bell that night, and you could feel the anticipation in the crowd when Laraque skated out for the next shift. You just knew he’d help revive the team and fans, who were all shocked by the injury, and bring a little revenge into the mix. But the linesmen knew what he was out there to do as well, and the moment Laraque made his move, the officials were on him, tying him up like a Christmas present. The result: two minutes for roughing and no scores settled. Tom Kostopolous ended up fighting Sauer (and predictably, lost). Laraque took an unsportsmanlike penalty after he hunted another Coyote to no effect. He eventually pounded Todd Fedoruk, but by that time the Habs were up 4-0 and the game was decided. I wondered then, and I wonder now, how a guy is supposed to use fighting to change the mood of a game when everyone knows what he’s doing and strives to prevent him from doing it? The next best opportunity Laraque had to send a message was last night in Boston. But Lucic turned down Georges’ offer to fight and took on Komisarek instead. If Laraque isn’t willing to just grab the guy and pound him without his permission, how effective can he be?

Some fans point to the Ottawa game as an example of Laraque’s Fear Factor. Chris Neil, the notorious mouthy pest, was unusually subdued, even when his team was getting pounded. Was it Laraque’s presence that made that happen? Maybe. But sometimes a presence has to be more than just a threat. And on the flip side of that, does Laraque’s presence absolve the Canadiens, in their own minds, from practicing the team toughness concept because they think he’ll "take care of all that?"

Laraque has been the heavyweight champion of the NHL for a long time. He’s, in the words of Derek Boogaard, "freakishly strong." But fighters are getting bigger, and Laraque is getting older. Most of the NHL’s legendary heavyweights were done in the league by the time they were 35, and most of them spent their last couple of seasons just trying to hang on. Laraque will be 32 next month. He’s already dealing with a recurring groin injury that has to affect his balance and ability to stick to the ice in his fighting stance. In two of his fights this year, he’s just been holding on for a draw. There’s going to come a time when Laraque just can’t do it consistently, and I’m afraid that time will come while he’s still making 1.5 million for the next three years with the Habs.

Worse, outside of fighting, Laraque’s other contributions aren’t up to the standard a team needs to contend. He is not a good skater. In fact, he ended up in the top five in a recent poll of NHL players asked to name the worst skater in the league. On a team like the Canadiens, which lives and dies with speed, he can’t keep up. Secondly, on the skills front, Laraque just isn’t on the same page as most of the rest of the team, even the fourth liners. When Big Georges gets the puck in his own end, he almost always dumps it immediately, usually clearing the zone, but without much forethought about what will happen after that. I know he has the ability to hold the puck in the offensive zone because of his great strength. The problem is, he doesn’t consistently have the puck there in the first place.

I may be really wrong about this, but so far, just about everyone on the team is outplaying Laraque, and I’m afraid his contract is going to become an albatross under a tighter cap. It’s not the guy himself. Everyone says he’s a great guy to have around, and he seems to have a good attitude. There’s no doubt he’s highly dedicated to giving back to the community. But when a player isn’t doing the one thing he excels at doing on the ice, you have to wonder how long he can continue to be relevant. And, to be fair to Laraque, the expectations of him were completely unrealistic. When the team announced his signing, the fans were talking about the big man taking revenge for hundreds of past slights and abuses. If he were to remotely live up to the mythical image of himself in fans’ minds, he’d have to play every game and fight for fifty-five minutes a night. Even his teammates were talking about being braver and tougher because of Laraque’s presence. I wonder how they feel now that they’re still fighting their own battles?

I’m hoping Big Georges will turn out to have a real role on the team, especially because he’s signed for such a long time. And I’m hoping Bob Gainey, once again, proves to be smarter than the average bear and can smile when Laraque helps the Habs win a tough playoff series. But so far, although the jury’s still out, deliberations aren’t going well.

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