To say it’s been a memorable year for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans would be a slight understatement. And while the season has yet to reach it’s final conclusion, one has to look back at this year as an unqualified success, especially when contrasted with the predictions of doom from many procrastinators that plagued the team as it prepared for the season.
But then again, who knew?
After all, many hoped that Alex Kovalev would be a better player, but few actually believed. And amongst those who believed, you would be hard pressed to find someone who thought that he would be this good. Unquestionably, the Canadiens most valuable player, Kovalev has exceeded all expectations, to the point where the Habs success this year is impossible to contemplate without him.
Showing only glimpses last year, Tomas Plekanec has blossomed into the teams top center, and has become one of the game’s most underrated players. Both of the Kostitsyn brothers have exploded on the scene as has the previously unheralded Mark Streit who has transformed himself into one of the game’s most versatile players. Mike Komisarek has emerged as the one of the most formidable defensemen around and along with Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik given the Canadiens their strongest set of players on the blueline in many years.
That isn’t to say there haven’t been some concerns. Both penalty killing and face off percentages have been amongst the NHL’s worst, and some of the team’s younger talents, like Chris Higgins and Guillaume Latendresse have had long scoring droughts. The production of Michael Ryder has drastically declined, even as his all around game has improved. The failure to find any consistent rhythm with the third and fourth lines has been an ongoing problem.
The maturation of Guy Carbonneau behind the bench has translated into potential coach of the year honours, something inconsiderable a mere five months ago. The development of Carey Price and his unexpected rapid rise to the number one spot in the Habs nets has been one of the year’s most intriguing storylines as has been the success of the call-ups from Hamilton.
Being Montreal there have been your typical sideshows; the arrests in Florida, the unexpected trade of the popular Cristobal Huet and the failure of general manager Bob Gainey to land that long coveted big name forward. Yet despite this the Canadiens find themselves amongst the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a legitimate shot at being the first seed come playoff time, a development unforeseen when the season began.
Strangely, quietly, lurking in the background of this the Canadiens most celebrated season in recent memory, has been the man who up until this year had been the Canadiens most celebrated player. In this year of memorable moments; the comeback against the Rangers, the dominating of the Devils, and the crushing of the Bruins, he has had a year to forget, a year which has seen his role, his status, and his contribution to the team decline.
He is the Canadiens captain. He is Saku Koivu.
No one player has embodied the Montreal Canadiens over the past decade more than Saku Koivu. Easily, the Habs best player during this time he has had the misfortune to play on many of the Canadiens worst teams as he has seen his play, which on many nights was fantastic go for naught. Understandably the wasting of his prime years on losing teams which must gnaw slightly at this proud man.
Granted, there have been some blips of success for the Habs during this time, but the majority have resulted in quick playoff exits, with the end result being that Koivu has never played on a team that advanced past the second round of the playoffs. This team failure in the face of individual excellence has sadly become a hallmark of Koivu’s time with the Canadiens.
As if the Habs dismal decade wasn’t enough, Koivu has had to shoulder an incredible personal burden during his time in Montreal. His battle, and his eventual victory over cancer showed that the man’s heart and courage knew no bounds, which made his subsequent eye injury seem a cruel twist of fate. Here was Koivu, on the verge of leading his team to a potential three games to none series lead over Carolina in the second round of the playoffs one moment, and then in the next his eyesight, much less his career was potentially over. To see the Habs lose the series and then watch the Hurricanes capture the Cup surely only added to the heartbreak.
In spite of, or maybe because of all of this Koivu has embraced the city of Montreal and it’s people. In looking at the man one cannot help but express admiration for the role in the community he has taken off the ice. In addition, his charity obligations in the city are legendary and felt by the town’s citizens every day. His successful effort to raise the millions for a a PET/CT scanner was a tremendous personal achievement, and one that has no doubt saved countless lives for many of those in need. The best hockey players leave us with a wealth of memories. Saku Koivu has done that but he has also left us with something even more tangible, a machine that gives hope to the hopeless, and in many cases life to those who previously would have been lifeless.
Last year with many fearing that his career had come to an end Koivu soldiered on, and played despite the fact that the eye hadn’t completely healed. And in typical Koivu fashion he not only played, he flourished, setting career highs in both goals and points, all the while showing us all the true meaning of bravery, and that the word fear did not exist in his vocabulary.
Despite all of this, in the fall he became an willing figure in the province of Quebec’s never-ending battle between the English and the French when his fitness for the team’s captaincy was questioned by a separatist blowhard. The resulting commotion must have been a tough pill for the proud Koivu to swallow. Especially, when taken into consideration the unassailable fact that no player has ever given more of himself, both off an on the ice to the city of Montreal than Koivu. Typically, of Koivu his response to this controversy brought a sense of dignity to what had been a shameful affair.
What was a first this summer, was Koivu’s public expression of frustration this summer at the Canadiens direction. In hindsight it’s surprising that Koivu didn’t echo these sentiments earlier. At the age of 33, he no doubt can see the end of his playing career on the horizon, and his eagerness to win a Stanley Cup has surely taken on a more desperate nature as his career inches closer to it’s end.
And that’s what should make this year more memorable for Koivu, with the Habs enjoying a position in the standings that it never has during his tenure. The truth however, is that Koivu has become somewhat of a lost figure with the Habs, this year, a forgotten man, whose personal struggles have been pushed into the background of the afterglow of the Canadiens ascendancy. His point totals are down, his penalty minutes are up, and he has been supplanted as the team’s go to guy, and according to many reports as the Habs leader by Alexei Kovalev.
Watching him every game one is struck by how little he is noticed some games, as in Montreal’s last game against Ottawa which saw his line fail to record a single shot on goal. Sadly, there have been some nights where he is only noticeable for the bad penalties he has had a penchant for taking this year, most of which seem to find him in the opposing team’s part of the ice. Clearly, a product of frustration, one wonders as to whether this is a sign of a decline in Koivu’s skills, or rather a slump he is struggling to emerge from.
Ironically, in media mad Montreal where everything Canadiens is written and analyzed with tremendous detail there have been few mentions of Koivu and his struggles. Perhaps, this is due to the respect Koivu has built up throughout the years but I think it has more to due with Montreal’s success. When a team is playing like the Canadiens are, you tend to write about those who are the reasons behind the teams arrival amongst the Eastern elite. Unfortunately for the majority of the season, Koivu has found himself on the peripheral of the Canadiens unexpected rise this year.
Signs that it may have been a prolonged slump, as opposed to a declining set of skills, have slowly started to become apparent over the last month, as prior to the Ottawa game Saku had recorded thirteen points in his last fourteen games. Coincidentally, the Habs played, what many think has been their best stretch of hockey this year during this time. As the Canadiens begin the last part of the season Koivu has become more important to the team than ever. For years we have marvelled at his performance on some dismal team’s. Now however, if the Habs are going to make a playoff run this spring, they will need the services of Koivu more than ever.
For the Canadiens the equation is simple, the better Koivu plays, the better the team, for if there has been one nagging problem this year it has been the inconsistency from what has become the Habs “second line.” Despite this the Canadiens have racked up the second most goals in the NHL. Now imagine how potent the offense would be with a potent second line, led by a rejuvenated Koivu. Judging from what’s he’s overcome in the past, it’s clearly not wise to sell the captain short.
Many have speculated this year about Saku Koivu’s changing role with the team. No one however, has ever questioned his heart, or his devotion to the Canadiens. And while he may no longer be the most valuable player on the team, ironically, he is still in many ways, the most important.