A quarter of the 2010-11 season is over, and the Montreal Canadiens are leading their division, third in the Eastern Conference and fourth overall in the NHL. They have the best penalty kill in the league, a +11 goal differential, and arguably the best goaltender in the league to date. There doesn't seem much to complain about for Habs fans.
However, the goal production hasn't been what many fans want or expect, and despite an improving powerplay and far superior even strength play when compared to last season's Canadiens, half of the Habs best players are on pace for very disappointing seasons. So if several players are struggling, why is all the attention focused on Scott Gomez?
The lazy answer seems to be that he's the easy target. He is the highest paid Canadien of all time. He is not a goal scorer and never has been, and goal scoring is nearly always valued more than assists by fans. While this may be the reason why Gomez is so derided by so many, I don't think criticism of him should be written off as fans who don't understand, or are just looking for someone to blame.
Last year I was a big supporter of Gomez all season, as I knew when he was acquired that although is extremely overpaid, he is a very good NHL player. And although he won't score many goals, he will create a lot of goals. Looking back at the numbers right now, it would appear Gomez started off the 2009-10 season in a bit of a slump, I would argue that 11 points in the first 16 games is actually solid production for a second line center (53 point pace), just under his season long pace. It wasn't until Brian Gionta's foot was broken that Gomez started to really struggle. Gionta in many ways is the straw that stirs the Gomez drink, they have chemistry because Brian always seems to know what Scott will do with the puck, so under these circumstances I never found a reason to complain about him last year.
This year however is much different. The forwards are all healthy, and while Gionta struggled to start the season on Gomez's line, as soon as he moved up with Plekanec he began to produce. It seems that every player on the team has had an audition on the Gomez line to attempt to get things going for him, and nothing has worked. Andrei Kostitsyn was producing at a career best pace until he moved to the Gomez line. Many have said that Kostitsyn is streaky, and that's why his production has stopped, but watching the games I don't see it that way. Kostitsyn's inconsistency has always been tied to lazy play, and his play has been anything but that this season. He's been back-checking more often and more effectively than any forward not named Plekanec this season, and the effort has been there in every game, if not every shift.
Stats gurus will argue that Gomez has been setting up Kostitsyn for chances, and that Andrei just hasn't been cashing, and while this is certainly true to an extent, I would argue that the reason he's not cashing is because they aren't quality chances, at least not of the same quality that Tomas Plekanec can provide, or even Gomez of last season. There have been many breakdowns showing micro-stats that indicate that Gomez has been a productive player, but the pucks just aren't going in for him. I find it hard to cast aside what I see with my eyes for numbers that aren't as exact a science as they pretend to be.
Simply recording that a player had a scoring chance doesn't show how the player handled the situation, or whether or not it was a good scoring chance. For example if Gomez puts the puck on Kostitsyn's stick with a yawning cage right in front of the net, and Kostitsyn misses, that's all on Kostitsyn. However if Gomez set's up Andrei and when Kostitsyn gets the puck a defender is in the way and the shot is blocked with ease, that is still counted as a scoring chance if Kostitsyn was in the right area. I believe that this new generation of statistics has a place in hockey, and they can be fascinating, but I don't agree that they are the be all, end all of judging performance. While perception may not be reality, it is something we have to take into account, and we have to recognize the limitations of what a specific statistic can tell you about a situation.
While Cammalleri and Gionta are both on pace for poor seasons, as was evidenced in the game against Toronto on Saturday, both players are able to break out and make a big impact in a game this season, and both have done so on multiple occasions. They take advantage of mistakes made by the other team. I don't see this in Gomez's game this season, he hasn't jumped on mistakes or forced opponents to make mistakes.
I don't believe, like many assert, that it's all just "puck luck" that's responsible for Gomez's struggles. In fact when reviewing the plays that resulted in the measly six points Gomez has put up this season, I was left with a feeling that he's lucky to even have that many. Looking at his two goals on the season, both were blind luck. The goal on Marc-Andre Fleury that ended up being the game winner in the second game of the season had more to do with Fleury blowing an easy stop than anything Gomez did. And the goal against Tuukka Rask was a lucky bounce that wouldn't go in 99 times out of 100. Looking at the four assists Gomez has this season, three of them are secondary assists, indicating that he isn't directly setting up goals right now. His only primary assist on the season, was the seventh goal in a blowout of the Hurricanes, on the powerplay, after the Hurricanes had stopped trying, on their backup.
Luck was cited a lot last year to defend Carey Price. I'll admit that I brought luck up in many conversations when talking about the netminders of the Montreal Canadiens last season. However if you listen to Price this year, he's said many times that it wasn't his luck or lack thereof that kept him down, even though during the season he felt that it was. He worked past that instead of dwelling on it and this season he's made his own luck.
Despite Corsi, or Fenwick or scoring chances created or recorded, these aren't the hard numbers of a player who's just having bad luck. It's not a random coincidence that Gionta started scoring as soon as he was moved away from Gomez, so did Pouliot, and Kostitsyn's production has slowed down immensely since he was bumped down a line.
Scott Gomez isn't to blame for every tiny problem that the Canadiens are having or will have this season, but make no mistake, currently he's their biggest problem. It's too easy to shut down a one line team in the NHL, and it's very tough to ask Carey Price to put in Vezina caliber goalkeeping every single game this season to compensate. Gomez needs to breakout, and soon, or these peachy days atop the North East Division will be over very quickly.