This season, you’ll see a team like you haven’t seen in the last 12 years; the year the Habs last won the Cup. This season you’ll see the best edition of the Habs of the last decade. This season you’ll see a winning team; a scoring team; a deep team. This season you’ll finally get the bang for your buck. This season, you’ll see the Habs go past the 2nd playoff round!
Overly enthusiastic? Yes! Wrongly so? Maybe not! If you look at the actual edition of Les Canadiens, you’ll see a blend of veterans and rookies, a blend of size and speed, a blend of grit and finesse; you’ll see a team which has the possibility to be the best at each position! Overly enthusiastic? Yes, still, but perhaps still not wrong! Here is why.
Starting at the forward positions.
In the past, Koivu has always been said to be a 1st line center, provided that he had 1st line wingers playing with him… Since that didn’t happen, he was overlooked as part of the elite. People were debating whether he was a 1st line center or not. This year, he’ll have superstar sniper Alex Kovalev playing on his right wing. This year is the year the name Saku Koivu can be mentioned in the same breath as Mats Sundin. He is surely not the best center, but together with his linemates, they have the potential, as a line, to be one of the best groups in the NHL. This year captain K has the potential with him to prove once and for all that he is an elite center!
Why should we have faith in Kovalev after his horrendous season in N.Y.? Alex came to the annual Habs golf tournament in the best physical shape of his long career; in fact, he now weights an astonishing 229lbs and this while maintaining a very low body fat percentage. He wanted to come back to Montreal, and wanted to provide the superstar play to go along with his newly adopted superstar-Hollywood look. Alex Kovalev tasted the Montreal crowd during the 2003-2004 playoffs, and he adopted the fans and the city and came back with only one goal in mind: dominate the league and bring back the Cup to where it belongs! This season, you’ll see a rejuvenated Kovalev, a prototype for a superhero, a real superstar winger, a heart tattooed with the CH. Really! Just seeing Alex’s wrister in shootouts is enough to make you shiver!
Zednik, aka “the cement hands sniper”… When you think of how to categorise Zednik, you can’t fit him anywhere. His shot is bad, his skating is peculiar, his moves are sometimes awkward, etc. When you analyze his game element by element, you could almost conclude that this guy doesn’t belong on a first line. But when you fuse all of it with lots of heart and put it into Richard, you obtain an explosive package. Zednik might be the strongest winger on his skates. His legs are so strong, he never falls and this strength makes him able to compete with the biggest towering defensemen. I remember seeing him knocking Hall Gill off his skates in 2002, obviously before the McLaren cheap shot. This strength on skates allows him to literally dig a hole between the biggest defensemen just at the right time to burry a dirty goal behind the best goalies. Zednik is not the most beautiful goal scorer, but his speciality is to score regardless of the quality of the opposing defense, regardless of who is in net, he just work the puck through. His speciality is to score when no one else can score. His speciality is to provide that dirty game winning goal in 3rd overtime in the playoffs, when no one else could.
The second line, as strange as it might sound, is not defined at all. Yes Ribeiro and Ryder were the leading scorers of the 2003-2004 Habs. Yes Pierre Dagenais clicks very well with Ribs and provided the best goal per game ratio for the Habs. But as much as this line was good in regular season, we can say that it didn’t do anything good in the playoffs. Also Dagenais was benched from time to time, when the play was tighter. These players are young and have weaknesses in their games. None of them is playing a physical game, Dagenais is an awkward skater, and Ribeiro is weak physically. Above all, they both had a weak training camp. In fact we can say that Higgins, Perezhogin and Plekanec outplayed Ribs and Dags… And after two regular season games, one might wonder if Dagenais is NHL caliber at all. In fact, he really seems to struggle with the new rules. Some would say that a second line of Plekanec, Higgins and Ryder would be better! Indeed, Plekanec seems to be able to play with Perezhogin as well as Latendresse or Zednik, a thing which Ribs seemed to have difficulty doing because of his particular puck-possession game play. One might rightfully think that Plekanec, because of his versatility, could some day toss out Ribeiro as the number two.
Where has the positive thinking gone? Don’t worry, I still have some left! First of, Mike Ribeiro has matured; when he speaks, he now sounds like a vet, so we can assume that he has learned something in the last two years. Also, the new rules will help him incredibly; he can now not only make wicked two lines passes to Michael Ryder or to Dags, but he can also skate freely and make his “hot dog” (trademark of Don Cherry) moves at will. Dagenais, on his side, has improved his skating and is enthusiastic at the idea of having another chance to prove he can make it. So for now and according to Claude Julien, this 2nd line is fixed until it proves it can’t produce, until it proves it’s a major defensive liability, or until Plekanec, Higgins and/or Perezhogin dislodges one of them.
Until then, Plekanec is a versatile replacement, a guy who’ll play anywhere, anytime, and this way will gather 15 minutes of ice-time or so. He’ll be used in every situation because he is that good. Plekanec is the Habs secret offensive weapon; used mostly on the power play and the penalty killing units, he can step in anywhere if an injury occurs or if someone doesn’t deliver the goods and will always find the open ice to snipe the loose puck in the top corner. For the start of the season, you’ll see Plekanec centering the 4th line, so they say, but he seems good enough to “pull a Ryder” and be a lock on a regular front row spot before the end of the season.
Until then, Higgins is an awesome spark plug with a scoring touch and with such a solid defensive game that he is already used regularly on the penalty killing units. Higgins will be used as a veteran on any line, playing at crucial times (i.e. replacing Dagenais at the end of periods, etc). Indeed, the only rookie who might never see the bench is, in my amateur opinion, Chris Higgins. Yes, during the training camp, the focus has been on more offensive players. But meanwhile, Higgins’ defensive game was nearly perfect, almost inspirational. He was so good defensively that it affected the overall offensive play of his linemates. He was the 3rd pass behind the goal, the hidden hero of the game. The critics noticed it by giving him the 3rd star of the game more than once. If you’re looking for the “Jacques Beauchamp” trophy winner of the 2005-06 season, look no farther than Higgins. Higgins will lead the PK unit as a rookie and could provide his share of shorthanded goals because of his blazing speed and good puck control. He already showed this speed and his nose for the net with his first goal in the league during the Rangers’ game on October 6th.
And until then, Perezhogin is waiting for more chances to prove that he is one of the most talented young forward in the league; that he has superstar potential. Meanwhile Perezhogin is a wild card. Perezhogin, in my opinion, might not be physically ready yet for the big show. However, his explosive skill package might be enough to maintain his level of play at NHL level. If the young Russian achieves to gather his skills together, he might be dark horse in the run for the Calder, it just depends on how fast he can adapt to NHL.
The last two lines look even more blurry. However, there are three certainties:
Bonk is centering the new look 3rd line, which is a heck of an improvement over Mr. “washed up” Joe Juneau and represents a dangerous tool for Claude Julien to use on the power play. Bonk was Ottawa’s first line center, but was never at ease in that role. With the Canadiens, Bonk becomes a two way center and with not as many offensive expectations from the fans and the coaching staff, his priority is to play a sound two way game, goals are just bonuses. However, it’s a safe bet to say that the big Radek will bring his share of offence and might get as many as 20 goals and 30 assists. Not bad for a Joe Juneau replacement.
Jan Bulis is playing on the 3rd line too. Jan had a breakout year in Czech Republic last season, scoring as much fellow countryman Milan Hejduk while playing on a line with him.
The third certainty is Steve Begin is playing on the 4th line… The best energy guy in the league can score his share of trash goals and deliver his load of hits, but is not as durable as one would want, though he would still want to jump on the ice even with both arms broken. We’ll see him play on the penalty killing unit, as well as on the 3rd and 2nd line in crucial moments, since he will be a safer bet for Claude Julien than an inexperienced rookie. His linemates will be, from game to game, Raitis Ivanans, Sundstrom, Perezhogin, Plekanec and Higgins. Begin will provide the same dangerous aggressive game which will surely end his career early.
Meanwhile, on the “uncertainties”, you’ll see Sundstrom playing wing on the 3rd or 4th, as well as warming the bench on some nights. At the same time, the Rookies are dancing around the lineup, being shifted from the 4th, to the 1st and then to the bench, playing 15 minutes one night then 5 minutes the other night. Claude Julien will give them any opportunity to shine, but their lineup spot is the less definite, unless, as I mentioned, they prove that some veterans are expandable.
On the brawling issue, some were disappointed that we didn’t go after an established NHL heavyweight. But Raitis Ivanans is here to surprise some disbelievers. This giant, who tips the scales at 263 lbs, can also skate the rink faster than Tomas Plekanec (who won the skating competition at the AHL all-star skill contest) and shoot the puck at 98 mph (Souray : 102mph), as well as press 400 lbs on the bench. Fearsome to say the least, this guy could be really dangerous if he decides to use all his tools at once!
For the first twenty games or so, Sundstrom and Dagenais will be locks at their positions, but with Claude Julien’s growing confidence in the rookies and with their own growing confidence in their skills, they will force the coach to take the decision he has to take; let the youngsters have a regular roster spot. This decision will be a hard one to take, but will have to be taken sooner or later. However, this decision will also surely mean a trade. Such an option could give our mighty GM the possibility to improve a position some think is weak; our defense.
Demystifying the defense
You guys are worried about the defence? Why? We have every reason to be happy about it.
Souray had a career year and if he stays healthy he could be a #1 defenseman on most NHL teams. Souray is what we can call a stud, good in both ends of the ice, delivers some good hits, and can play more than 25 minutes.
Markov had a breakout season last year in Russia where he dominated; he played like a superstar. This is not the Markov you saw two years ago who hardly delivered a hit and who played 4th or 5th man minutes. This is a new and improved version, a version which will prove he is good enough to be a #2 in NHL. He might even be playing more minutes than Sheldon Souray by the end of the season. Markov has been the most used defenseman up to now. Look for him to improve during the season, which possibility is in itself almost scary; Will the Habs have a legitimate candidate for the Norris in Markov? Habs’ own version of Zubov? It remains to be seen.
Komisarek proved during the ‘04 playoffs that he belonged to the Habs and could even make Rocket Ron (Hainsey) look good in Hamilton (which is really hard to do). However, Komisarek will look bad for about the first month of regular season since he missed most of the training camp because of a very bad flu which made him lose more than 10 lbs. Don’t worry though, by November he’ll be our established ribs breaker (beware Joe Thornton).
What about the Habs newest acquisition; Mathieu Dandenault? This swift skater not only hits, he was caught by some camera men taking fighting lessons with Peter Vandermeer. Dandenault is a Québécois and proud to be; he badly wanted to play in Montreal and raise his children here. In the past he has been overshadowed by Hatcher, Lidstrom, Chellios, Schneider and the likes. In Montreal, he will have as much chance and as much ice time as he proves he can take. The spotlight is finally on him after 12 years in the back of the train. Dandenault will prove how his speed and willingness to pay the price overcompensate for his slight lack of talent over Brisebois. Dandenault will prove how Brisebois was not really needed by this team. Dandenault will prove that what this defensive group really needed was some heart and hard working hab-its!
Rivet ended last playoffs with the best defensive report card for the Habs as well as being the most used defenseman. Here’s hoping that he’ll continue this streak into this season, and from what this writer has seen of the preseason games, Rivet will not be booed this season; he might even get his share of applause for his solid defensive plays and hard hits.
The last spot will be shared between the Swiss guy and the Cube: aka Streit and Bouillon. While Bouillon will provide the usual inspired play, Streit has shown improvement with each preseason game (which is the reason why they kept him, because he never ceased to improve during the last two weeks). If he continues to improve, he might mix the cards and dislodge once and for all our favourite dwarfish bull. However, with the strong start of season he’s having, Bouillon is climbing the “depth ladder” at an amazing speed.
Need I say something about Theodore? One thing is for sure, we are free from the “who is number one” debate for at least two seasons. This “handsome”, as Koivu names him, is the best thing that happened to the Habs in the last 10 years. Stop questioning him and enjoy the fact that he accepted a long term contract with us. Enjoy the fact that night in night out, we have one of the best goalie in the league between the pipes. Theodore along with Kovalev provide the Habs with the BEST CHANCE in NHL to win every game that goes to a shootout. Indeed, other teams with great goaltending can’t boast having a sniper as good as Kovalev, and every team with good snipers can’t say they have a better goalie than Theo. I’ll even go on to say that Theo might be the best guy for shootouts because he is definitely the guy with the quickest pads in the league and only rarely will a deke “undress” him. Because of all the new “weapons”, this team’s fate doesn’t rest on Theodore’s shoulders anymore. However, an exceptional year by Theodore could really propel this team to the league summit. Goaltending is still, and will always be, the key to an NHL team’s successes, and with Theodore, the Habs are in a very good position.
All of this together; this mix of talent, size, speed and grit, the added weapons, the improved players, the matured players, the mix of rookies and vets, of explosive youth and poised experimented winners; all of this together makes for a winning combination. This combination could allow us to see the Habs play in June for the 1st time in 12 years. Guys, bring back the Cup where it belongs!!!
Overly enthusiastic? Surely not! Go Habs Go!