Season 11: 1986-87
Guy Carbonneau: Center of the challenge
Fortier, Les Canadiens, Dec. 86/Jan. 87,
Excerpted and translated from the French
His is a most well-deserved Stanley Cup ring. Since his arrival with the Canadiens, Guy Carbonneau has proved himself to be one of the finest players in the league, both by the quality of his defensive play and the spirit he displays in executing it.
Several times prior to the start of the current season, Canadiens General Manager Serge Savard was asked if he intended to acquire the talented center Gilbert Perreault from the Buffalo Sabres.
"I cant do that," replied Savard. "I cant take the risk. What would happen if the Sabres wanted Guy Carbonneau in compensation and an arbiter agreed?"
A number of teams would give anything to have Perreault even for one season. But not the Canadiens, not if there was the least risk that they would lose Carbonneau in the process. No way.
The lack of interest Savard has in Perrault speaks volumes about a player who, in the course of four seasons with the Canadiens, can boast of a 24 goal season as his best. In spite of that Savard, who holds the purse strings, is ready to admit that Carbonneau is one of the best players in the organization, a player one cant risk losing for any reason.
"When you consider a player like Carbonneau," says Savard, "you have to keep in mind that he always plays against the best lines in the league. Sure, he doesnt score 40 goals a season, but how could he in his present role? When youre playing defensively, your only opportunity to score goals is by creating scoring chances through good defense."
Plenty of people in the world of hockey, and Carbonneau himself, have said he would easily score 40 goals a season if he played on an offensive line.
"Im never on the power play," says Carbonneau. "Im never used in an offensive role. No one is going to score 40 goals unless they regularly play with the man advantage."
What Carbonneau is really trying to say is that he would love the opportunity to play offensively, but he equally loves the role he has played on the team up till now.
Says Savard, "Its possible that he could score 40 goals if, lets say, he was on a line with Claude Lemieux and Mats Naslund, but at what price to the team? I know very well that certain members of our organization think that Carbonneau could play offensively, he could score goals, and others disagree. But as for me, I believe hes most useful to the team in his current role."
"Im a great admirer of Carbonneau and I appreciate him very much," adds Savard. "If we moved him from defense to offense, who would replace him?"
This question is not unreasonable, and since were asking, the most plausible answer is that no one could replace Carbonneau in the role that has propelled him to the forefront of the National Hockey League, especially this season, in view of the injury to Bob Gainey.
A defensive players greatest strength is his self-confidence, and Carbonneau has no lack of it. This is largely due, as Savard points out, to the fact that he plays against the leagues best centermen. Not occasionally, but consistently. If the Canadiens opponent is the Quebec Nordiques, Peter Stastny will be his man. If its the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky has the honor. The Pittsburgh Penguins? That would be Mario Lemieux.
"I like the challenge," says Carbonneau. "These are players who have something to teach you every time you play against them. I get the feeling of having accomplished something significant for myself and the team each time I can prevent Stastny, Gretzky or Lemieux from scoring a goal."
"Still," he says, "its only natural that sometimes I sit back and think about what it would be like to play on an offensive line. That too offers a lot of satisfaction. I scored a lot of goals when I played in junior and it has crossed my mind that it would be great to have the chance to do the same thing in the NHL. But its not something that troubles me or keeps me from sleeping. The important thing is to do your part, and if you do your best, you will be rewarded. Like last year, for example."
Carbonneau doesnt exaggerate when he speaks of his days of service to the Chicoutimi Saguenéens. His scoring excellence prompted the Canadiens to make him their fourth choice in the 1979 entry draft. Strangely enough, Carbonneau had to pay his dues in full with two years playing for the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. Because the Canadiens felt no great urgency to make changes to the lineup, it wasnt until 1982-83 that he was in a Montreal uniform.
Carbonneau comes to the game well equipped. He is fast and shifty, two quality of great importance for a player whose principal activity is checking the best players in the league, and often in short-handed situations. He is aggressive when he has to be, and always ready to shoot if the opportunity arises.
For example, when the Canadiens faced the Rangers at the Forum at the beginning of this season, Carbonneau scored the first goal, at even strength, and then assisted on a shorthanded goal. Later in the third period, faced with hot goaltending by the Rangers Doug Soetaert, Carbonneau and friends were pressing for the tying tally. The puck popped loose to Soetaerts right, about 15 feet away and waist high. Carbonneau, brandishing his stick with all his might, caught the puck on the shaft and catapulted it behind a flustered Soetaert.
Later, after the two teams battled to a 3-3 tie, Soetaert shook his head sadly. "Only Guy Carbonneau would shoot from where he was," he said, "and only Carbonneau could score from where he was. This guy can do stuff nobody else in the league would attempt."
For a long time a number of players have spoken of Carbonneau in the same terms, including those who have come face to face with his passionate character.
"You get pretty beat up when you play against the leagues best," says Carbonneau. "They dont like it when the forechecking gets too close, and their teammates dont either. So its me who takes the punishment, and when that happens, its natural that I react."
In his fifth season, there is no doubt that Carbonneau has become one of the NHLs best two way players, if not the best. At what echelon he falls among all the players in the league is for GMs and coaches to decide. Serge Savard gallantly refuses to take part in that vote.
"I promised myself a long time ago, I would never put a number on a player," says Savard. "By that I mean I woundnt say that a player ranks among the ten or fifteen best in the league, because I know from experience that players keep their news clippings! So, if I say a player is in the 15 best, then when the moment comes to negotiate his new contract, hell want to be paid like the leagues 15th best player."
"Who is Guy Carbonneau?", by Glenn Cole, Goal, February 1987
Les Canadiens, Dec. 86/Jan. 87