While I was going to do a mid-season report and mark players based on effort, it occurred to me that this was a good opportunity to take a deeper look at the organization and where each piece of the puzzle fits in. My intention here is to take each player and give a minor scouting report outlining what you may or may not see if you watch them play.
My goal for this project is to give the casual fan or the non-Hab fan a reference for watching the Canadiens by discussing each player,their adaptation to the system, how they work within the team concept, their intensity (or lack thereof), and their outlook in the organization as a whole. I’ll also put into words some of my thoughts on the coaches and general manager and what they’ve provided for the club as I feel these two elements are integral to the success of any hockey team.
#60 Jose Theodore: After a difficult season last year, some might have expected him to come back with another rough campaign. Hardly so. What many don’t take into consideration is the way he finished last year: he was much stronger and much more consistent. Therefore, his play this year should not be a surprise to anyone. The large paycheck and hardware received two years ago have faded enough into obscurity that he’s just playing the game, rather than playing for ulterior reasons.
Theo’s greatest ability as a keeper is his positional game. Even when he’s not stretching for saves, he’s usually in the right place so that, more often than not, the puck hits him. Some have said his games look really easy and you therefore can’t say he’s playing particularly well; I disagree. He’s getting into positions that force players to hit him because of little other choice.
From the beginning of the season until now, I feel we’ve seen a vast improvement in his ability to handle his rebounds. Where he was sending them into the slot early on, now he either smothers, or where that’s not possible, deflects to corners as much as possible. If there’s one aspect of his game that’s making life easier on him and his defence, this is it.
He’s a small-stature butterfly goalie and has been taught to stay very upright when facing the shooter and it’s something he forgot last year. This year, he’s square and tall and challenging and if you’re smaller, you cover a lot of the net this way.
It’s tough to gauge how a goalie works within a system, but I think I’ve seen a few indicators along the way. First of all, he’s communicating with his teammates better than he’s done before which simplifies things in the defensive third considerably. He also moves the puck effectively now when leaving the net. Rarely does he give the puck away and so you can almost call him a third defender at times, which in the team concept, helps the Habs transition that puck with infinitely more efficiency. I don’t think anyone can’t doubt Theo’s intensity or his desire and at this point he’s earning his paycheck completely. It’s been a game of improvement for him this year, as he was certainly not at the top the whole time, particularly early, but for the last 15-20 games, he’s where we need him to be.
As for his standing in the club, I think we can all assume he’s the centrepiece at the back, and could be for a long time. The only question in his Hab future has to do with his number two.
#30 Mathieu Garon: He’s had little time in game situations this year, however for those who have watched him closely, you may have noticed some serious improvement in his game since the season started. If you have game tape from early on, watch closely as his lateral movements take him too far on a routine basis. Now when he slides, he stays in position and doesn’t have to scramble back to make a save. It’s a small thing, but it’s key for a butterfly goalie to be positionally sound.
All he needs now is more game time so he can refine his rebound control (you can’t do that effectively in practice as the slightly lower tempo can never recreate what happens in game situations). That said, I don’t think you’ll see him getting all that much before the end of the season short of an injury to Theo or a guarantee, one way or the other, about the playoff picture.
His largest problem is his lack of concentration in games. If this is due to desire or confidence or intensity I can’t say, but it’s something he needs to address before he takes on any number one role. He’s got the talent to, quite honestly, be better than Theo (Jeff Hackett maintains Garon has the best legs in hockey) but he’s got to develop a little of that swagger and confidence in order to back up the natural talent.
Having said all that, Garon makes for the perfect back-up, and if Theo’s not careful, an aspiring starter with large potential. If he gets the game time necessary, watch out. You could see a blockbuster with Theo and his paycheck being bundled off to regions unknown (okay, not Boston).
#51 Francis Bouillon: One of the guys everyone loves to hate, he’s made the team because of what he does and not that he does it a few inches shorter than everyone else. While many might say he’s deficient defensively, the reality is that he’s an effective defenseman who’s positional play is sound and physical play is second-to-none on this club. The problem he encounters arises when playing against significantly larger players who have the ability to push him off without much effort.
Cube, or Bubbles as I like to call him (but not to his face, he’s whomp my butt) is on this team because he’s confident, and plays the game he’s told to play. A particular strength of his lies in his work with the puck as he’s a very good skater. He has the ability to transport the puck himself during transition and though sometimes he over-handles it and that can lead to problems, he’s got the speed, and more importantly the tenacity, to work recovering from his errors.
I’ve always called him the best number seven defenseman in hockey, and I stick to that. On a contending team, and by this I mean Cup contending, he’s the depth guy you love to have. If he’s in your regular six, it means you’re deficient at the back in all likelihood (or your top four are studs). His place on this team is basically assured, particularly on a fairly shallow left side, until a rookie supplants him with better play. My guess is that he’s safe at the very least for this season, and may very well have his spot next year as well. Certainly, he plays the system and doesn’t rock the boat – he’s here for a reason.
#52 Craig Rivet: He’s had an extremely trying time so far this year. From the drop of the opening puck, he’s struggled with his game and has put more pucks on opponents’ sticks than he has on his own teammates. I think it boils down to him trying to do too much in light of his sparkly new contract. What he has to realize, and what I think the coaches are slowly getting through to him at this point, is that his game isn’t as a number one or two defender, it’s as a solid number four or five who gets the job done.
At this point, what you’ll see in Rivet’s game is the very simple plays. He’s starting to angle his player out rather than make bigger hits, he’s using his stick a little better now in terms of checking his opponents. Occasionally he gets to running around defensively, but again, he’s slowly working that out of his game. When he’s got the puck he’s chipping it out and rarely makes any kind of break-out pass; this last I believe is a direct result of coaching and confidence. For a while he was consistently losing the puck on supposed attempted passes only to have them come back in his face. His game is simpler and as such, much more what the coaches are looking for from someone like him.
It’s interesting to me that someone his size has far less impact in terms of hitting than his partner Bouillon. Part of it is leg drive, for sure. Rivet tends to hit with his upper body instead of driving through his opponent. Sure, he starts with the legs, but he doesn’t really follow through, it’s more arm drive. The major problem is timing. Quite honestly, he doesn’t have half the timing Bouillon does when hitting an opponent, and timing is a tough thing to master.
For now I’m satisfied with Rivet’s game as he’s taken hold of the coaches concepts and goals and is playing within the system regularly. He’s a leader and one of the most intense players on the team and those two elements flow together and are part of the reason Markov had such an improvement last year.
As to his future, I have my doubts. He does have value on the trade market and with our youngsters on the cusp, he might be a logical choice to move. If he doesn’t move, he, along with Quintal, are the two whose positions are most threatened by the upcoming Komisarek. Time will tell.
#43 Patrice Brisebois: From the moment Gainey opened his mouth and berated the booing fans, there has been a turn-around in Breezer’s game. It’s been slow, and has been supplemented with much support and guidance from the coaching staff, but he’s gone from being an offensive defender with little regard for his own zone to a smart player who plays within his means. Rarely now do we see the panicked or rushed pass from his own zone resulting in a turnover and scoring opportunity for the other team. Now we get the simple pass and effective transition from a player who’s finally bought into the system.
Defensively Breezer has always been better than any statistics might have indicated. The problem was his focus: too often he was trying to be the offensive catalyst or was more concentrated on fulfilling his hefty paycheck instead of doing the little things that make a good defender. Now he angles his man out, throws the occasional smart check with his newly buffed up body, or poke checks not wildly but accurately. He may not be the strongest in front of the net, but he’s smart and plays a good balance game with the opposition and is able to clear the front that way.
With the puck, he’s no longer an offensive threat, however he’s an ultra-accurate passer and a smart, experienced player who knows when to pinch and when to get out of Dodge. He does have a strong shot, though we’ve not seen much of it this year. I believe we’ll see more as time goes on and as he continues to adapt to his new style of play; particularly since opponents will be keying on Souray as the main threat instead of him.
And while his adaptation to the new system and his new game have taken time, they look to be at a point where everyone is comfortable with his game. At times he still looks lax, particularly on the power play when moving the puck up, but I think that’s less intensity related as it is more confidence in his abilities.
High contract aside, I think Breezer is going to be with us for a while. Although his trade value is probably at the highest point in about four years, he’s the best we’ve got on the right side and would be a good person for youngsters to learn from as time goes on. He’s no longer the deficiency at the back, and with the fans and management behind him, his confident and strong play is something that we will need in the coming months, and potentially years.
#5 Stéphane Quintal: He’s getting long in the tooth and slow in the leg, but he still has something left out there. When he plays his best game, Quintal is a positional defender who can pin men to the boards and neutralize a play with excellent board work. Unfortunately, consistency has not been his ally this year, and we’ve seen him scrambling to catch up to plays and being left behind by faster players all too often. I would hazard to say that pairing him with someone other than Souray would potentially bring disaster, since Souray routinely bails out Quintal’s misses.
There is something that will be dearly missed when he either leaves or hangs them up, and that’s leadership. No one else is as willing to drop the gloves to defend a teammate or fire up the team. For two solid years now, he’s been the guy to count on in a crunch. The fact that he works extremely hard every night and is a committed team player within the system is only an added bonus. If only the legs were a little younger.
The future’s a mystery for Quintal. He could be traded, could be left aside when the younger guys work themselves into the lineup, or could be there next year to continue to provide his leadership and positional play. If he can minimize the errors and remain as consistent as possible, then I can see him on the back line next year quite easily.
#79 Andrei Markov: If ever there was someone who suffered from confidence problems, it’s Andrei. Last year he made his breakout and was stellar on the blueline. He’s the most proactive defender Montreal has seen in years; cutting out plays at the opponents blue line routinely. His ability to angle his man out has always been exemplary. He’s got incredible hand-eye co-ordination and can pick pucks out of scrums as well as win board battles by deft stick work and shifty play. He can handle the puck extremely well and his passing from the back is unequalled amongst Montreal defenders. His shot is low and accurate and his pinch to win the puck is usually spot on. In a one-on-one situation, I would never bet against him with his array of talents.
The problem is that most of those skills are unseen this year. True, he was paired with a severely struggling Rivet, and then many others as injuries and movements took place at the back. True, he lost his Russian buddy Petrov late last year and is basically alone (one reporter mentioned that he seemed very unhappy). True, he’s still young. Also true, though, is that it’s up to him to bring it all out again. He can’t rely on playing with other Russians or on who his partner is, as all he’s ultimately got is himself.
There’s no question he plays within the system or that he’s a coachable player. There’s no question that he works hard each night or that he’s a team player who sticks up for others. The only question is when he’ll put it all together, realize he can do it at the highest level, and then become the best Hab defender as his skills would seem to dictate.
Do his struggles mean he’s on the way out? Probably not, though he’d surely fetch a nice bauble or two. With Souray playing so well, it does lessen the impact of a struggling Markov. I’d like to say he’s part of the core of the team and that, when he gets his game going, we could have a one-two punch on the left side which could rival anyone, but he still needs time to find himself and his game.
#44 Sheldon Souray: It’s all in the little things. Yes, he’s leading the league in scoring for defenders and has produced far above what anyone expected in their wildest dreams. Yes, he’s a physical defenseman who can clear the crease, win the board battles, and cause the havoc needed in the defensive zone. Yes, he can move the puck with extreme precision and has the hockey sense to know when, and when not, to do it.
Now, will he score another 13 in the second half of the year? Probably not if the games against Atlanta and Washington are examples. They’re keying on him – the ultimate compliment. And also good for the Habs considering his passing ability, as it means, particularly on the power play, that someone is going to have about an acre of space to himself.
What he’s started doing more recently, though, is take his game to a completely new level. A few have noticed it: Jaques Demers being one. Now he’s added a subtle poke-check to his game. He’s added a more proactive ability as he cuts out plays before they start. And most importantly, the game is slowing down for him: he’s showing patience in his plays, seeing things that most would never see, and doing little things on and off the puck that make me think he’s not just a solid three or four guy, but potentially an elite defender. Now, he’s still got work to do in this transition, and as a result makes mistakes from time to time, but I think when he emerges at the other end of this transformation, we’re going to see an absolutely stunning defender.
One of the most gratifying things in his game is the team aspect. He’s stated on numerous occasions that he’s extremely satisfied that the Habs stuck with him during his misery and he has every intention of paying them back fully. He sticks up for his teammates at the drop of a glove. He’s taken the new system to heart and is the first to speak in the dressing room when things go wrong. He works his butt off every night. Can you ask more of a person?
His outlook? Top two on the Habs blueline at this point – particularly with Markov’s struggles. He’s an all-around stud who’s making headlines for himself. If there’s a group of players who are the core of the future of the Habs, Souray is right in the middle.
#65 Ron Hainsey: It’s a bit of a joke thinking he should be in Montreal over Bouillon. His work ethic, his confidence, his actual play; none of these things are anywhere close to Bouillon’s at the moment.
Hainsey is a good puck-handling defender who needs to learn how to defend. For a guy with his size, he’s incredibly weak on the boards and in front of the net. The fact he doesn’t use that size to at least angle a player out is the most worrisome, though. Positionally he is getting better, his latest stint in Montreal served notice that at the very least he’s learned a bit in that regard.
Of course he’s got a wonderful shot and can move well and pass well, but that is less than half a defenders game. Some might say he’s got the potential to be an elite player in the NHL, but his deficiencies on defence lead me to believe that he’s closer to an Andy Delmore than to a Nick Lidstrom. Now, he’s young for sure, and with patience he might still develop, but from what I see, he doesn’t have that something special that other kids have.
With Markov it was the ability to be so proactive. With Komisarek it was poise. Hainsey is good with the puck, but nothing jumps out at me as special. I sure hope I’m wrong, but…
If only he weren’t the overly cocky person off the ice, he might learn something or two. The stories you hear about him are disconcerting at best. And while they may just be stories and rumours, usually where there’s a little smoke, there’s at least a flash of fire. His attitude is probably the one thing we hear most about his reason for not being in Montreal: he doesn’t work hard enough, he doesn’t play the team game well enough. Those are troubling statements and in my mind, they leave his future in some doubt. Perhaps a change of scenery is what this young man needs.
#8 Mike Komisarek: Big, bruising, and developing slowly into a nasty defender. From the beginning the surprise with Komi were his abilities on the puck, but it’s his play off the puck that had him drafted so high. Make no mistake, he’s going to take some time to fully develop, but I think in the end, it’ll all be worth it.
Each time he takes to the ice there are small improvements in his game and this is thanks to the hard work (and his work ethic) that he does with Rick Green. His positional game is coming around and he’s caught flat-footed and out of position less and less. He’s also learning to effectively angle his man into the boards and, once there, consistently win the battles. As for sheer strength, he’s got it, he just has to use it a little more effectively in front of the net. And of course, now and again, we get the chance to see him severely punish someone with a massive hit.
On the other hand, his passing has been a revelation. He makes effective tape-to-tape passes and launches counters adeptly. Of course, he’s still adapting to the speed of the NHL game and as such holds on to the puck a little long at times, but this is one of the things he’s been working on and recent games has seen improvements. His shot is superb, whether wrist (which I love that he takes since it’s quicker and far more accurate) and his low and hard slap shot which for a youngster is surprisingly accurate.
Once he puts it all together, not this season but probably mid-next year, and then develops it all, he’s going to be a scary defender. When you add to his raw abilities his team game and that work ethic which is much talked about, you can see his future with the Habs is bright indeed. Toss in his composure and obvious leadership abilities and he’s future captain material.
#22 Steve Begin: If people thought Gainey was going to take his time to stamp his image on the team they were wrong. When he plucked Begin off waivers before the season started, he pulled in an absolute sparkplug with more potential than any realized. Where can you start talking about him other than his absolutely incredible work ethic. Every shift of every game he’s out there giving his all and for Hab fans, it’s a complete treat to see. He consistently finishes his checks, and often with strong results. He’s always on his opponent, harrying them consistently and causing turnovers and mistakes. Simply, he’s a gnat – but this gnat has talent!
In a surprising move when Juneau was injured, Begin was given the third line and he did a remarkable job with it. Not only was he in the face of the opponents best, but he was positionally sound, and played the defensive game at a very high level. Best of all, his buzz-saw play rubbed off on his linemates and in particular woke up Sundstrom from a season-long slumber. Sadly, a shoulder injury has him out, but when he returns, Julien will have a most happy problem.
Begin is a team player, he’s a hard worker (understatement!), and he’s a guy other teams hate to face. Is he in the future of the Habs? Not only is he there, but he’s probably worked his way from a fringe role-player to something closer to an integral part. At least for a year or so before some of the younger talent develops, Begin will be a key in the Montreal offence.
#25 Chad Kilger: I gave him the nickname Shrug earlier on, and except for a game or two, he’s lived up to it to the fullest. Recently he cleared waivers and that’s a direct sign that his days as a Hab are just about up. The only reason he played in the most recent game was a series of injuries that left the Habs short. It’s such a shame too when you see his size and how he plays on *some* nights.
When he puts in full effort and finishes checks, forechecks strongly, and plays with intensity and an edge, he looks something like a player who might have been drafted fourth overall. Most nights though, he’s a fringe guy who barely makes an impression on the game.
Sure, he plays within the system, but barely. Maybe he needs more time to develop and figure out that only the hardest of work keeps you in the NHL, but I don’t think that time will be in Montreal. His days are numbered, and few will shed a tear when he leaves.
#17 Jason Ward: Certainly one of the more favoured players of the fans in Montreal because he works so hard and was a scoring guru in the AHL, unfortunately, that latter aspect has failed to translate to NHL success and his other deficiencies are slowly catching up to him. Ward is a poor skater and while positionally he’s good, his abilities on the blades won’t leave him with many chances to score at the NHL level. The problem is not just speed, because if it were simply that, he’d be fine. Ward has no lateral abilities and no footspeed and therefore can’t keep up at this level.
Recently, since his injury, we’ve also seen a reduction in his physical game, and while the injury may play a small part in that, Ward has to realize that it’s this hard-nosed game that was the real reason he was brought up in the first place. He’ll never make it on talent alone, he has to work harder than anyone else in order to stay.
Unfortunately for him, as more and more of our talented rookies take hold, he’ll see his ice time diminish to the point where he’ll be a depth player brought up for injury reasons only. For now he might keep his spot, but it will forever be on the edge and his ultimate destination and destiny is the AHL and scoring glory while teaching other kids what it takes to make it to the NHL level.
#37 Niklas Sundstrom: I have no clue if players read the net, however the day after I called him Mr. Invisible he suddenly woke up and started playing hockey. While I’d love to take credit for the turnaround, I think I can say with relative certainty that it was Begin beside him who woke him up.
Sunny plays so far below his potential at times, it’s scary. What’s most frustrating is that, while playing as he has, it’s still good enough to be a solid player. He’s got good instincts with the puck and is strong defensively. Positionally he’s sound all over the ice, and the recent experiment from Julien with Koivu as his centre should prove interesting if it continues for a few more games. There’s a reason he scored like he did when he first broke into the league, and that’s intensity. If he can get back to that level, start winning his board battles, and generally be stronger on the puck all over the ice, there’s no reason he can’t pot another ten by the end of the season.
I think it took a few games for Sunny to adapt to the new style of play. For a while he was sitting on the fourth line and wasn’t getting much ice time. It could be, of course, that he just didn’t have the drive to play within the system at first, and that would answer a lot of questions. As for his future, it’s certainly clouded. Unless he picks up his socks and starts to give his all, I don’t see him staying in Montreal under Gainey much longer. Our GM wants work-a-holics, not coasters. His saving grace might be his defence, though. While not a physical player, he takes out his man effectively and that work in the defensive third might keep him around until a replacement can be found.
#94 Yanic Perreault: If Yanic the Great could play with intensity every game, could take his best game and make that his norm, he’d be a 40-goal man and would be an integral part of the Habs. The fact he gives you a shift on and a shift off has him ticketed elsewhere at the very latest at season’s end. Compounding his consistency and intensity problems are troubles sticking to the system – as he’s routinely in the wrong place. Now, he has adapted slowly and is much better now than he ever was earlier in the season, but a team player he is not, and never will be. Yannick wants to score goals, and get points, he hasn’t figured out that Cups come with team efforts.
Possessing a precise wrist shot and deft ability around the net, he could have been one of the better snipers in hockey. What he lacks in creativity and vision on the ice, he more than makes up in the slot and in being at the right place at the right time. Sadly, the game isn’t solely played in this area, and when it leaves he’s lost. Winning battles along the boards is basically out of the question and tracking a man back defensively is a hit or miss proposition with the arrow usually hitting miss.
The fact he wins more faceoffs than anyone else in hockey is really of little consequence in the long run. Most would rather have four useful centres at both ends of the rink rather than three plus one who wins faceoffs and is good in about a hundred square feet. That he still has a spot with the Habs is testament to the lack of scoring ability present on the squad.
#90 Joe Juneau: It’s a shame about the back problems, because if he could just remedy those, he’d continue to be a useful player for 82 games year in and year out. The fact he started the year so strongly has to be attributed to the summer layoff and subsequent rest for his aching back. After playing so much in the first half of the season, his game started to go downhill until he had to pull himself from the lineup because of the recurrent problems.
Juneau is still an excellent defender when healthy. He’s been able to track the best players in the game and hold them off the scoresheet more times than Hab fans will care to remember. His penalty kill work is also exemplary and it’s the little things his experience gives him, like patience with the puck, that allows him to be so successful in those situations. An extra step instead of a panicked clear usually gives him a window of opportunity that most would completely miss out on.
Offensively it’s been a slow year. The back and legs don’t get him into the opposition end nearly as much as they used to, and his worry about being caught has him playing very high in the offensive zone. That doesn’t take away from his passing ability, though. He’s still extremely good at making plays when he gives himself the chance, and if he’d been playing with two scoring types rather than defensively oriented players, you might see his point total much higher particularly in the assist column.
Right now, his biggest contribution to the club is as a teacher, I’d guess. He took Bulis under his wing and made him an extremely good defensive player. I’d like to see him do the same with Hossa as well. He’s stated in the past that he’d like to transition to coaching, and I think that’ll suit him well. He’s got a great grasp of the game; his hockey sense is wonderful. He certainly took the new system offered this year and ran with it, probably being the player leading the charge in adaptation. As a player, I’d say his days in Montreal are numbered, in fact I’d guess he might hang them up at the end of the year. However, I can see him taking some kind of coaching role with the Habs – perhaps an assistant in Hamilton to start – when he does give up playing.
#20 Richard Zednik: Last year he blossomed into a serious goal scoring threat as he went to the net with regularity and made plays with the puck in the slot. This year his game has been kept to the outside and he doesn’t seem to be putting the same effort forth. Part of this is a change in linemates and the disappointment that goes with not playing with the team’s best. Part of this is an adaptation by the rest of the league to his game and how to counter it. The rest is down to him not putting in the requisite work to keep his game elevated.
Recently he’s been playing somewhat better by going to the net more and not taking the long tour around, instead of cutting to the middle. If he keeps working in that trend and raises the intensity level another notch, he’ll get back to the 30-goal mark for sure. He’s certainly strong on his skates – one of the strongest in the league – and he has the major league moves to succeed, it’s just a matter of working them back into his game.
Defensively he’s poor. Routinely he’s beaten on the side boards to pucks that should, by all rights, be cleared out of the zone, and thus puts the pressure back on his defence. Again, this is an intensity question since there’s no doubt he’s strong on the boards – witness his work in the offensive zone.
Unfortunately, he has never really bought fully into the system due to his being an extremely offensive player. The problem with being so single-minded is that you leave your teammates in the lurch too often. Audette was the same way, only couldn’t score and you can see where it got him. Zed is, however, a good team player and is quick to protect a teammate in most situations. And Danger Will Robinson if you make him angry enough to fight, a more devastating pugilist I’ve not seen. Zed will be with the Habs for many years to come, unless a younger kid comes along with goal scoring ability as well as a defensive game. I like to think of Z as core, though – he’s someone I’d like to see grow with the team.
#26 Pierre Dagenais: The man with the shot…and precious little else. Yes, he’s made it to the NHL based on his hard work and his scoring prowess in the AHL, but let’s not fool ourselves, he’s filler material; a depth player. That he had many points early on is no different that Hossa’s five goals in five games when he was called up previously – a pleasant hiccup.
Another molasses skater, at least he has the ability to move laterally. His biggest asset, though, is his ability to work with Ribeiro who seems to always know where Dags is. And when the latter gets the puck, he sure knows what he wants to do with it: shoot. Unfortunately, this is going to be his downfall. When he goes on a line change, he shoots; when he takes a pass just inside the blueline, he shoots: when he gets the puck behind the net, he shoots. I love the scoring enthusiasm, but his game is so narrow it’s easy to defend.
As with Zed, he’s defensively poor. There are games when he gets it right, but for the most part he’s not strong on his man and loses his board battles. At the very least, though, he’s taken some instruction to heart and is throwing the body more than we’ve been led to believe he ever did in the minors.
I’d never call him a player who plays a system well, that’s just not his type. I’m sure he tries, when it occurs to him, but he’s a strictly offensive person and coverage in the defensive zone will never come naturally. Hopefully he enjoys his stay in the NHL because I’m sure he’s ticketed for the AHL as soon as either a youngster comes of age or Gainey acquires a more competent replacement.
#46 Benoît Gratton: We didn’t get to see too much of him until he took the injury to his head, but what we did see was similar to Begin, at least for the casual observer. He’s another dynamo on the ice who hits as much as possible. Problem here is that his hits don’t do any damage because he’s so small. I love the enthusiasm, and for a fill in player he’s great, but long-term he has no place in Montreal.
Of course, he was here for such a short time that he probably didn’t get to settle in and start to get in a groove. Once returning from injury, should he get the chance, it might be interesting to see how he works out over a 10-15 game spell. I don’t think he has what it takes to make it in the big leagues, but having seen him so little, that assumption may be incorrect.
#24 Andreas Dackell: He makes most fans trade lists and if he’s not on those he’s the guy whose contract most can’t wait to expire. Shame they can’t see past size and look at the little things he brings. Defensively he’s a consistent player who brings the same game night in and night out. He takes his man, is rarely beaten, and though he’s on the smaller side, wins board battles significantly more often than most.
Offensively while not a goal scorer, he’s got a gift that so few have – he can hold that puck along the boards by himself for an eternity. His intensity level in those situations is second-to-none. That simple play is such a momentum shifter, such a time-draining move on the penalty kill, such a back-breaking play when the other team is desperate. He also cycles the puck very well and is a good passer. As for the PK itself, there are few I’d rather have out there.
Consistency has been his catch word this year and it’s so nice to know that no matter what the rest of the team is doing, Dax will be doing his same thing as usual. He’s bought into the system, and plays the team game and I think if there’s one player we resign next year, it’ll be Dax for all the little things he brings – as well as his overall game.
#15 Darren Langdon: Another of Gainey’s waiver wire acquisitions, he was brought in for muscle and size and has provided, for the most part. There have been times when I’ve felt he should have taken his role as goon a little more to heart, but to be honest, he’s also played much better than I’d have expected. He doesn’t get lost defensively, can cycle the puck fairly well, and works hard on each shift. From a fourth line goon, that’s pretty good stuff.
As a fighter, he’s the patient sort. You’ll never see him go for the Tyson knockout, nor will you see him with wildly swinging fisticuffs, but he’ll absorb a few hits, let the other tire out, then start to slowly take the momentum of the fight and eventually land a few good punches himself. He’s not going to win many fights, but it’s better than watching poor Dwyer who always lost his fights.
Pleasantly, he’s taken to the system very well, and that combined with his other attributes leads me to believe he’ll be the goon of choice in Montreal for a while more.
#81 Marcel Hossa: I was somewhat shocked when he was sent back to Hamilton earlier this year as I thought his game had been improving, if only mildly, on a consistent basis. Perhaps it wasn’t at a fast enough rate for the staff and perhaps they felt he needed to go down and regain his confidence fully, either way he’s down now and hopefully putting things together.
What pleased me most about his game was the way he won most of his board battles. Up until this year, there had been precious few who’d done this on a consistent basis. The disappointing thing seemed to be a lack of intensity anywhere else in the rink, and as I look back and look at the present Hab team as it is now, I understand where he doesn’t fit in terms of work ethic. He’s barely an average passer, at least by NHL standards, but his shot is high quality. Defensively he’s learned a lot and I think would benefit sitting on Juneau’s wing for a while. What he needs most, though, is that desire.
Where this leaves him in the grand scheme is a good question. He’s probably good trade bait except that he’s a left winger, and those seem to be in somewhat short supply at the moment in terms of depth. Honestly, I can’t see him back in Montreal this year except in the case of heavy injuries, but with an honest effort he might make it next year. Of course, then he’ll have a few other kids who will be nearing readiness as well.
#35 Tomas Plekanec: Two games is hardly enough to comment on a player in any depth, however I will say this: he’s got the work ethic, desire and skating ability to make it at this level. He was the last cut out of camp and he’ll be tough to send down again, though in the end the numbers game will catch up with him.
I’ll be interested to see where his future lies. Could he be a third line centre and if so what does that mean for Begin? Will he be moved to a wing? His size is a minor issue, but if he plays big – a la Peca – there’s no reason to hold it against him. I look forward to seeing what happens in this case.
#38 Jan Bulis: The most consistent player this club has seen since Mark Recchi. Every night he brings his ‘A’ game and every night works his butt off at both ends of the rink. If everyone worked like Bulis, this would be a team to reckon with for sure. Now, if we could only get him to put in some of the numerous chances he has, he’d be a scary player for the opposition.
Defence is Bulis’ strong point. He’s great on the coverage, wins his battles along the boards, and positions himself well. He’s wonderful to have on the PK not just because of the former attributes, but also because he’s lightning fast and as such makes life tough for the attacking crew. Offensively, he’s got decent instincts, but it’s his speed and willingness to take the shot that are the best thing. He works hard on the boards in the cycle to win pucks, he also passes very well to boot. With just a little more luck and a little less timely goaltending from opposition ‘tenders, he might finally break through and start putting it in regularly.
An absolute team player, he’s taken to the system extremely well. If you want to know where you should be in terms of being a winger in Julien’s system, watch Bulis. Interesting that he’s on the first line at the moment, because I can honestly see making him the centrepiece of a defensive line. His future is with the Habs, I would guess, for quite a while and he’s one of those core elements that we can build around.
#73 Michael Ryder: Two years ago he was playing ECHL hockey and probably wondered if he’d even get a hint of the AHL, let alone the NHL. Last year he had trouble cracking the Hamilton lineup at the beginning of the year and by the end he was one of the leading scorers. This year he went from the fourth line to the first, is leading the rookie scorers in the NHL, and is still heating up. The sky’s the limit. Let this be a lesson to all aspiring players out there: a massive work ethic will get you where you want to go.
Best of all, he’s becoming a very well rounded player. His skating was choppy at first, but with work he’s become far smoother and has a gear that I think most of us didn’t expect. His work along the boards has improved continually all year to the point now where you almost expect him to win when he gets in a battle. Equally impressive is how he’s incorporated the body into his game. Not just content to score the goals, he understands that in order to stay at the highest level, he’s got to go above and beyond all the time, and he finishes his checks regularly. The most under-rated part of his game is his passing where he’s shown a vision that is quite remarkable consistently making passes that only the likes of Koivu, Ribeiro, and Markov usually attempt.
The key, though, to everything is his coachability. When you buy into the system so fully, when you work so hard and play with so much intensity, when you play as the ultimate team player, great things happen. And so they will with Ryder as he continues with Montreal for the foreseeable future and potentially becomes a very highly regarded top-six player in the NHL. Heck, if he continues improving, I see no reason why he can’t be a bonified first line player sooner rather than later.
#71 Mike Ribeiro: It’s his make or break year with the Habs and he’s playing it just that way: one shift it’s make, the next it’s break. He’s got all the skills and has most of the sense necessary to make it at the NHL level, but what he doesn’t have is speed, size, and desire. Those three might be his killers.
There are times when Ribs seems to know how to play defensively, times when he takes his man, ties up his stick and wins plays. There are other times when he might as well hold up at the blueline and wait for the breakout pass. The same can be said for his handling of the puck. Sometimes he does the right thing, not trying to beat someone who has him well covered and instead making a deft pass to someone in the open, yet there are other times when he takes someone on for no good reason and ends up losing the puck. This is sorely evident in the offensive zone when he tries to do too much and loses it more often than not. If he would just stop trying to be the hero and try to be a team player, he’d be much more of a success.
There was a time in junior when he dropped his pants during a game to fix his equipment; such was his attitude. While it’s improved, it’s still not where it should be. Ribs is not a team player, he’s out to prove himself as much as he can. Despite all the points he’s accumulated, he’s still not doing everything he could and should in order to be the best player possible. There are nights when his effort is sadly lacking and he’s painful to watch. When Gainey said he was a pleasant surprise, don’t take that necessarily to mean that he’s been a revelation and is a point of wonderment for the GM, just that he’s been a pleasant surprise in that he’s performing above expectations. And before you say, “Well, above expectations, see!” let me say that expectations must have been pretty low for him.
I find it interesting that when I talk about him that there’s so much reaction. Certainly, the French press has created a bit of a storm around him, building the guy up so much that it’s almost impossible to live up to his hype. And many out there accuse me of unfairly criticizing him – possibly in response to said press. My response is thus: do you not take a harder line with your more talented players to bring out the best in them? If you let Ribs get away with all the stupid stuff he pulls, like the long shifts (they’re creeping back into his game again) and the lack of intensity, will he be that second line centre that we need?
A system player he is not. Oh, there are nights that are better than others, but he needs to be consistent, close that gap to the defenders, play the two way game *all* night and not just when he feels like it. A team player? I have my doubts. I feel he’s a guy with a chip on his shoulder more interested in proving that he can do it and not that he can be part of the group who can do it. And his future?
I’d trade him for that right handed centre Gainey says we need, assuming he’s got some value on the market, which he does at his price. I don’t think he’ll ever be the solid number two centre Montreal needs, certainly not with his size deficiency, and if he can be used as bait to bring in someone else, brilliant. Will he be traded? Good question. He’s a media darling and Gainey would take some heat, but it’s more possible than many might imagine. If he’s not traded though, he’s going to have to double that intensity of his and buy in to the system.
#11 Saku Koivu: He started the year without a training camp and without the first 14 games. After a five game adjustment period, he’s been a point per game player and has been seen on the bench repeatedly standing up and rallying the troops. He’s making dazzling plays on the ice, has improved his game defensively, and still manages to lay out the occasional opponent now and again.
And yet he still struggles for respect.
Koivu has improved steadily this year to the point where he looks like he’s playing better than at any point in his career. He’s lightning fast with the puck, stickhandles in traffic better than anyone I’ve seen, and is making more and more aggressive and assertive plays in the offensive zone. His skating is quick and deceptive and his lateral movements are sharp and unannounced. His puckhandling is well above average and his vision is near elite. His playmaking ability does place him in the elite and he makes those playing on his line better players. Defensively he’s maintaining great position, takes out his man well, is tenacious in his coverage, and understands and plays the system.
Off the ice, he’s the first to talk to the media, and while it’s his responsibility with the ‘C’, he does it with dignity, respect, and class. Rumours of his problems in dealing with some players in the dressing room might be something of a problem, but considering who the two main players are, it’s not that hard to understand as each has a rather large ego.
The debates will rage on for sure, but as I see it, particularly with the way he’s playing these days, Koivu is an elite centre and is top-10 in the game today. He’s an all-around player who is a strong leader. Those who think his leadership style isn’t conducive to winning can look over to Detroit where Stevie Y took the same heat…right until he hoisted the Cup above his shoulders.
Koivu’s recovery from cancer and comeback season were impressive, but what’s more impressive is that it was just that, a recovery season after missing a year after having recovered from cancer. What you’re seeing today is what Koivu can bring to the table consistently – and yet he still improving! If he could get two true first-line wingers he’d be deadly. I’m not taking anything away from Bulis or Ryder, but they aren’t there…yet.
Wonderful is that he’s managing all this within the system, which some (Jagr) would find confining. Great is that he’s a real team player and sticks up for anyone on the team, even Theo (with whom he supposedly has a rift). Fantastic is that he does it all consistently, showing a desire and intensity night after night that’s remarkable.
On the downside, he has to learn to curb that Scandinavian temper of his. Those Finns make the Irish look meek! A couple of times his reactionary penalties have wreaked havoc. Also, while he keeps his shifts short and sweet, there are times when I wish he’d take that extra stride to get to the bench faster, as on occasion he tends to get the Habs caught on a slow change.
Of course, if those are the only problems he’s got, then Hab fans can be rather pleased. Koivu is among the games best for sure.
Claude Julien and staff: When Bob Gainey took over and stated that he’d be using the first part of the season as an evaluation period, few understood that this meant working closely with Julien to get players to play in certain situations and to move others in and out of the lineup so as to get the best look at everyone. Really, it can be said that the first 20 games at least were the GM and coach learning what everyone could do. Many called for Julien’s head, and there were times when it seemed a reasonable idea. Now that we know the facts, we know those calls to be nothing more than knee-jerk at best.
From his line juggling to the implementation of the system, Julien has done things his way from the beginning. He’s made the tough choices, some terribly unpopular particularly in an unforgiving Montreal atmosphere (have a seat Ribeiro), but in the end each seems to have resulted in better play, and ultimately, a better team. With his staff he’s taken Breezer from a scary defender to someone with poise that fans actually missed when he was injured. He benched Ryder, though the player seemed to be doing well, and in doing so reminded the lad what it took to make it to the NHL. Since then Ryder has been among the best on the team.
He’s recognized abilities and deficiencies and has players playing in areas that suit their game. His latest experiment has him placing Koivu (kudos to the captain for accepting it) between Dackell and Sundstrom to try and lift their game since they both have offensive potential that’s gone largely untapped this year.
It’s a nice change to see a coach behind the bench that doesn’t lose it at every call. He demands explanations at times, but even if he doesn’t agree, you always see him nodding and then getting on with the game. He acts very much like Scotty Bowman in that respect: a calm and patient coach who says little but garners lots of respect. He even plays with his lines during games like Scotty when time and situation permits.
I think Julien is a very proactive and intelligent coach who’s stepped into a difficult situation and has really shaped a *team*. They aren’t out there fighting for themselves anymore, they fight, win and lose as a unit. If someone even snows Theo, everyone is back. If someone decks the captain, the team responds. In fact, I think it’s in the dressing room and in the heads of the players where he’s made the most difference. This is a cohesive group, and a happy one at that.
Bob Gainey: Patience. Accountability. Intensity. There are many words you can use to describe his days on the job in Montreal. He deftly plucked Begin and Langdon off the waiver wire, and more useful players are tough to get at that point in the year. He took it upon himself to call out the Breezer-booers and thus stopped that problem dead in its tracks; ultimately leading to Breezer’s improved game.
He’s had talks with players when the need arose and has called out others, with wonderful effect, as he saw fit. He never berates anyone in the organization, only insists that they bring their best. He’s taken a loosy-goosy operation and tightened it up to make it extremely professional. Most of all, though, he’s made the Montreal Canadiens respected again.
Take pride, Hab fans. We’re back.