A number of changes since last season have left the Canadiens with few clear leaders on the team. The question I bring to you today is not how this will affect the team, but rather, who will step up?
Captain Saku Koivu remains and will surely lead by example next season as he always does, but after him, the situation gets a little shady.
Two days prior to the trading deadline, Craig Rivet was traded off to the Sharks – where he signed a new contract in June – and with Sheldon Souray gone via the route of unrestricted free agency, the Habs lose not only two of their top four defenseman, but two of their strongest leaders. Also, with Radek Bonk signing in Nashville and Mike Johnson unlikely to return, the Canadiens are without two of last season’s checking-line leaders.
Both Roman Hamrlik and Bryan Smolinski provide a veteran presence on and off the ice, but to say that they’ll be able to bring that quality to the table from day one is unlikely. It’s rarely easy for a new addition to step in and make an impact from the start. No, their role as leaders on the team will play out later in the season once they’ve become accustomed with the team, the city, and Carbo’s style.
While Alex Kovalev would be a likely candidate to help lead this team, it’s going to be hard to re-gain the full trust of his teammates after a couple of revealing interviews with Russian media. Even with Kovalev and Coach Guy Carbonneau talking things over, I don’t foresee the relationship remaining too strong for too long.
Then there’s Steve Begin who bring everything he’s got every game and helps energize the team, but he’s not your “top tier” leader who players will look to in the dressing room.
Every team needs a goaltender who can lead, and the Habs certainly have one in Cristobal Huet. However, Huet will have to be in All-Star form if he wants to keep his starting job because believe me, when the French netminder looks back over his shoulder, it won’t be to look at the puck that got by him, but rather the two youngsters – Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak – who will be gunning for his job next season.
With many of the Habs’ senior players out of the question in terms of providing a leadership role from the start of training camp to the end of the season and (hopefully) into the playoffs, the coaches will look to the Canadiens’ young core to lead the way.
When Bob Gainey made Andrei Markov the highest paid player in the Montreal Canadiens long history, he didn’t only due it for the slick skating and smooth passes. While an all-around game is Markov’s most advertised talent, Gainey also signed him on for an additional four years to lead this team.
Markov is all about business and you’ll rarely see him crack a smile or agree to a long interview, but that should change. When the media crashes the Habs’ dressing room after an uplifting win or crushing defeat, it will be up to Markov to answer the call. I have no doubt in my mind that he will; he’s an intelligent player and we’ll see that he’s an intelligent man as well.
While Markov should be a shoe in to wear an ‘A’ next season, there are some younger players who will have a chance to prove themselves as worthy candidates in the future. I’m talking about guys like Christopher Higgins and Mike Komisarek. Both are still young at 24 and 25 years of age respectively, but neither were afraid to offer their opinion last season.
Had an ankle injury not slowed the winger down, we may have seen a lot more from Higgins in terms of production and leadership. Many are quick to list the horrible flu that ravaged the team and the tragic loss of Gainey’s daughter weeks before Christmas as reasons for the Habs missing the playoffs, but I’ve got a different one. Had Higgins not been injured, I absolutely believe that Montreal would have made the post-season.
When next season rolls around, we’ll likely see a new leadership core with Koivu at top followed by Markov, Higgins, Komisarek, Huet, and yes, even Kovalev. It may take some time, but Hamrlik and Smolinski will join that group. From there Steve Begin, Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Bouillon, and Tom Kostopoulos will take turns acting as a secondary or ‘tier two’ support group.
Should he re-sign with the Canadiens or stick around after arbitration, Michael Ryder could be a member of that secondary support squad. Meanwhile, Tomas Plekanec will look to bring more to the table after signing a two-year contract with the Habs. Both Plekanec and Ryder have the potential to move up in the leadership ranks in the not-so-distant future, with a lead on that for Ryder due to an edge in age and experience.