Backtrack 4 months, the Anaheim Ducks just won Lord Stanley and you were wearing shorts and flip flops. If you follow the Montreal Canadiens, chances are during that time you were also curious if Sheldon Souray was going to re-sign or test the free agent market in a matter of days.
As the clock trickled into July 1st, fans anticipated movement, a big splash, or at least the re-signing of one of the Habs highest point getters of the 2006-07 season. Amassing an impressive 26 goals (19 on the power play) Sheldon Souray, no matter which way you slice it, was a vital part of the Montreal Canadiens. He brought forth a canon of a shot, leadership qualities and he stood up for his teammates at all times. Ultimately the big #44 had characteristics that the bleu-blanc-rouge craved. On the other hand, the former Hab was a defensive liability which led to a series of lapses resulting in a minus -28 on the campaign, something that didn’t go unnoticed.
As the first day of free agency rolled by, Gainey was quiet, he made no moves. Habs fans were worried as the likes of Brière, Gomez, and Drury found new homes. Questions began to surface: What was Bob doing? Is he at least attempting to sign some free agents? Will he at least sign Sheldon Souray? On July 2nd, the latter was answered. Habs GM Bob Gainey pulled the trigger and signed defenceman Roman Hamrlik to a four-year contract worth $22 million. Seemingly this led to one conclusion; Souray’s days as a Habs were done.
It was somewhat of an end of a very short era for the Habs, an era that depended on their power play and massive shots from the blueline. Things were about to change, and for the better.
Drafted first overall in the 1992 entry draft, Roman Hamrlik was heading to Florida to play for the expansion Tampa Bay Lighting. A challenging 6 years lied ahead of him as the Lighting suffered disappointing season after another, making the playoffs only once by a hair in 1996, going out in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers. Stops in Edmonton, Long Island and Calgary followed before landing in Montreal. Sure the 6 foot 2, 215 pound defenceman is not known for his shot but by watching his first seven games with the Habs this season, Mr. Hamrlik brings a lot to the table.
In hockey, coaches emphasize defensive play and how important it is to win games. Positioning in the defensive zone and supporting your teammates will ultimately lead to success in the other end. The new #44 has done just that. So far he’s a perfect fit on the Habs defensive squad. Not only does Hamrlik play smart defensively, but he has many offensive capabilities as well, with 132 goals and 378 assists in 1007 career games.
It was no fluke that Roman Hamrlik was drafted first overall 15 years ago as he was the best available player at the time. He joins the likes of Mario Lemieux, Mike Modano, Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros, Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby, all first overall draft picks in their respective years.
The 2007-08 season is still quite premature, however Hamrlik could very well be that missing piece of the puzzle on the Habs blueline. Experienced, skilled, strong and talented at both ends of the ice, clearly the most pertinent of all qualities, Roman brings distinctiveness to a team that is just finding its identity.
Don’t expect a big wind up from the point from Hamrlik, but what you can expect is a great first pass on breakouts, a solid defensive game on opposing team rushes, and a versatile defenceman who can play at both ends of the ice without getting caught too deep in the offensive zone.