GM Bob Gainey is starting to put his stamp on the Montreal Canadiens but not in the usual way of bringing in new players.
The 2003-04 Canadiens have not added a single veteran to the team that missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years last season.
Any new faces will come from a pool of young prospects, including defencemen Mike Komisarek and Ron Hainsey, and forwards Marcel Hossa, Michael Ryder and Tomas Plekanec.
Many are predicting another difficult season for the once-powerful Habs and a look at their undersized, talent-thin lineup suggests a 25th Stanley Cup, if it ever comes, is several years away.
But Gainey has made his mark nonetheless and the mostly intangible changes could end up making the Canadiens a better club than the one that finished 30-35-8-9 last season.
His first move was to buy out the contracts of the aging Randy McKay and underperforming Mariusz Czerkawski, making room for young blood.
Then he resisted the temptation to make a panic deal when news broke that six members of star goaltender Jose Theodore’s family had been arrested in connection with an alleged loansharking ring.
He also resisted the urge to axe coach Claude Julien and bring in his own man. Julien had been promoted from the Habs’ farm team in Hamilton mid-season. He is now able to implement his defence-first system from the start of training camp.
What impressed Gainey’s players was an outburst after a pre-season game last week in which he blasted the fans who have booed defencemen Patrice Brisebois every game in recent seasons, calling those fans cowards and adding “we don’t need you here.”
“I liked what Bob Gainey said,” said backup goalie Mathieu Garon. “It showed that management here is behind us.”
Last week, another surprise move came when he sent veteran defencemen Karl Dykhuis and Patrick Traverse to the minors, despite their nearly $2.5-million US contracts.
The message was that there is no longer a free ride in Montreal.
Gainey also hired former NHL general manager Pierre Gauthier as director of pro scouting, which should improve decision making on trades or free-agent signings, a weak area in recent years.
He also booted the media off the team’s chartered flights, which has some reporters still seething.
The hiring of Gainey just before the NHL draft in June bumped former GM Andre Savard into an assistant’s role that works to his strengths, drafting and developing young players.
What Gainey has been unable to do is bring in much-needed veteran help, probably because the team payroll is already in the $46-million range and there is little interest from other teams in players the Canadiens might like to deal, such as winger Donald Audette.
But there should be slight improvement on the ice.
In goal, Theodore spent the summer hiding from the media in a gym, getting himself into his best shape ever and looking to regain the form that helped him win the Hart and Vezina trophies two seasons ago.
On defence, big Sheldon Souray is back after missing all of last season while undergoing several operations on his wrist. He strengthens a crew that includes Brisebois, Craig Rivet, Stephane Quintal, the ever-improving Andrei Markov, Komisarek, Francis Bouillon and possibly Hainsey.
Up front, the Habs are thin.
Captain Saku Koivu, who injured a knee ligament in a pre-season game and is questionable to start the season, centres the top line, likely with Richard Zednik.
Chad Kilger was to have centred the second line but he was hit by a stick in practice, breaking bones around his left eye. It is unknown when he will return.
That could give an opportunity for talented but so far underachieving young centre Mike Ribeiro to show what he can do. They also have faceoff ace Yanic Perreault and checker Joe Juneau at centre.
Veteran wingers include Jan Bulis, who showed improvement last season, checker Andreas Dackell, scorer Audette and Niklas Sundstrom.
But most eyes will be on young guns Jason Ward, a big right-winger drafted in the first round in 1997, Marcel Hossa, the bigger, younger and less-gifted brother of Ottawa star Marian Hossa, and Michael Ryder, a hard-working winger who has had a fine camp.
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HERE’S THE SKINNY
*LAST YEAR’S RECORD — 30-35-8-9, 77 points; missed playoffs for fourth time in five years.
*COACH — Claude Julien.
*NEW FACES — D Mike Komisarek, D Ron Hainsey, RW Jason Ward, RW Michael Ryder, LW Steve Begin, LW Darren Langdon.
*MISSING — D Karl Dykhuis, D Patrick Traverse, RW Mariusz Czerkawski, RW Randy McKay.