Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Jeff Hackett: Two Autographed Cards

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Montréal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller were fired earlier today, and most of the chatter online has been about focusing blame on goalie Carey Price, with reason. However, a loud minority of the voices were sarcastically asking for the return of another wearer of jersey #31, Jeff Hackett, to replace him. My impression is that these are kids who didn't live through the so-called "Hackett era", because he was by far the best and most important player on that team, a team which, at the time, was seen as one of the worst in Habs history, although the current iteration has to contend for that title as well, or at least qualify as most underachieving.

First things first, the firing: had Julien lost the room? Probably. The players were still giving their effort, but in a roundabout way, kind of like when some players with low production still have a high Corsi score by putting up low-probability shots on the opposing net instead of making quality plays: there were hard-fought battles but too many penalties; there were defensive lapses in the exact areas that make Julien cringe; and the $10.5M goalie's play had his teammates go from "we know we can cheat to try to create scoring chances because we know we have the best goalie in the world out there" in the first ten games of the season to "we really have to help our goalie out more, we can't be caught cheating and giving away two-on-ones and three-on-twos like that"; and said goalie has reverted back to his old self of blaming teammates instead of himself for the goals that go in - better yet, he thinks he's playing well. Julien's Habs have ranked 24th on the powerplay and 26th on the penalty kill since 2016. The Canadiens never actually made the playoffs in any full season of Julien coaching in his second stint in Montréal, and only qualified as the last club in the 24-team tournament last year.

Muller likely wasn't kept around for one or all of the following reasons: he went 2-3 in last year's postseason when Julien suffered a heart attack; he doesn't speak French fluently and many fans would have clamoured to have him be named head coach while GM Marc Bergevin probably has other candidates in mind; he was very close to Julien and may follow him in his/their next job, perhaps on the West Coast.

If interim head coach Dominique Ducharme wins a playoff round, expect him to sign a five-year deal; if the team fails to even qualify for the post-season, expect the usual suspects (Patrick Roy, Guy Boucher, Marc Crawford, Pascal Vincent, Benoit Groulx and Bob Hartley) to get interviews. It's anyone's guess what happens should the team lose in the first round.

Regarding Price himself, he's been way below average since the beginning of Julien's reign and has let in upwards of 25 more goals than expected in those three and a half years, which isn't ideal for the highest-paid netminder in the NHL. The window to trade him ends next Fall.

As for Hackett, he was acquired by the Canadiens from the Chicago Blackhawks with Eric Weinrich and Alain Nasreddine for Jocelyn Thibault, Dave Manson and Brad Brown. The trade gave the Hawks an All-Star goalie who may not have developped into one in Montréal, and the Habs finally got to cleanse their palate of the Roy debacle, whose shoes Thibault had never been able to fill. Hackett was so good that he won the Molson Cup as team MVP in both seasons where he was the starter, until injuries started to derail his career, allowing for José Theodore to take over slide into the starter's job. With a .914 save percentage both years (in a league where Dominik Hasek's .919 was tops) and goals-against averages of 2.25 and 2.40, it was no surprise that Hackett got Vezina Trophy votes; it was also not surprising that he didn't make it as a finalist due to the team being so far out of playoff contention.

Here are two cards that depict his playing style very well, as a former stand-up goalie who leaned into the butterfly technique but kept his "pouncing" reflexes:
On the left is card #88 from Upper Deck's 1999-2000 Wayne Gretzky collection and Leader sub-set, showing him ready to stop a puck headed for his stomach; on the right is card #28 from Topps' 2000-01 Premier Plus set, with a flat butterfly pad and the ability to push the rebound to the corner in a far less dangerous zone for his team, giving his defensemen a chance to battle for and regain control of the puck - a move I put high value in as a goaltending coach.

Both show him wearing the Habs' iconic red jersey and were signed in blue sharpie after his departue from Montréal.

I just felt that the recent discourse had taken a lot of credit away from him and the fact that he was very good, gave his honest best effort, and even acknowledged via his helmet that he knew he was getting into a hockey hotbed that Quebecers are thrown in as youth and get more rabid about with each passing year - particularly those years without Stanely Cups, even more so in years without a playoff berth. Heck, among the sixteen who have worn the number for the Canadiens, he's "my" #31, ahead of Price (2008-21), John Kordic (1986-89), Mark Napier (1979-84), Tom Chorske (1990-91) and Michel "Bunny" Larocque (1974).

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