Not many NHL players would argue that Montreal
is a special place to play hockey. However, when pressed further, it is
uncertain whether those athletes would consider that certain quality to be a
good or a bad thing. With great tradition, a gigantic fan base and a
history of success comes unrelenting scrutiny, persistent criticism and
merciless invasions of privacy. The Bell Centre patrons have historically demonstrated
their willingness to turn on their own team when things aren’t going well, and
the media have helped focus their ire through many means. This focus often
culminates with a single player that the Boo-Birds can single out: The
At the beginning of last season, Hal Gill,
Brian Gionta, Georges Laraque, Scott Gomez and Carey Price were deemed most
likely to be designated the scapegoat (Who
Will Don the Scapegoat Horns?). Of those 5, really only
Gionta was exempt from any unfair criticism as the rest bore the burden of the scapegoat
from time to time. Sometimes this was truly merited, but quite often it was just a matter of
the fans needing
to place the blame somewhere. Simply put, the fans need to project the negative feeling of losing onto a
particular player, and in their eyes, that player becomes
the number one reason for losing.
All things considered,
that player last year was Georges Laraque. Laraque was blamed for
locker room division, took heat for a sexist commercial and drew the ire of many
for refusing to fight on a regular basis. Strict adherence to his Code
and only fighting scripted fights with other heavyweights was indubitably the
main reason why fans crowned Big Georges Laraque as the Scapegoat of 2009.
Why, even ex-GM Bob Gainey saw fit to tell Laraque to stay home, and further
validated the general sentiments of Habs’ fans. Most would agree that this
benefited the team in a big way.
Flash forward to this year; Laraque’s contract has been bought out and
the petulant Sergei Kostitsyn has been sent packing to Nashville. Who will the Bell
Centre faithful loose their displeasure upon? Although it’s not impossible
that the Bell Centre will only boo the Chara’s, Ovechkin’s and Crosby’s of opposing
teams, here is this year’s examination of the five likeliest Canadiens to bear the burden of their
own fans’ derision.
Potential Scapegoat #5: Andrei Kostitsyn
Philosophers must truly ponder the following on
a regular basis: Who is Andrei Kostitsyn? Is he a game-breaking, physical
presence that uses his soft hands to generate offense out of nothing and score
more than 20 goals a year? Or is he an unremarkable NHL’er that coasts
through shifts, and is only noticed for his egregious gaffes and hardcore
commitment to sloth and apathy? Depending on what game you watch, you
might get a wide variety of answers. Montreal hasn’t seen a player so
consistently inconsistent since Alex Kovalev defected to Ottawa.
This was best exemplified in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, when Andrei was
held pointless for 15 of 19 games, but somehow managed to register 4 points in a
With this inconsistency in mind, one gets the impression that Montreal fans are beginning to sour on this former
1st-rounder, especially since so many players drafted after him in 2003 are
becoming impact players (Jeff Carter, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf,
Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, Corey Perry). Furthermore, some may resent his
cap hit ($3.25M) which may have prevented GM Pierre Gauthier from acquiring an
impact player this off-season. Look for Kostitsyn to be targeted if he
gets off to a slow start or hits any extended slumps; Andrei can no longer
benefit from his brother’s antics to distract from his shortcomings.
Potential Scapegoat #4 : Roman Hamrlik
Hamrlik tried out inconsistency for size last
year; at times he appeared as competent as Andrei Markov and other times he
seemed defensively inferior to Marc-Andre Bergeron. This inconsistency is unusual
behaviour for a veteran player such as Hamrlik, and one must suspect that age is
beginning to catch up to him. In fact, during the playoffs there were rumblings
that the final year of Hamrlik’s contract would be bought out for that very
rumours were music to many fans’ ears, as they contemplated how getting $3.67M
of Hamrlik’s $5.5M cap hit off the books could bring in an impact forward, now
that P.K. Subban had ostensibly proven himself at the NHL level. But just as
quickly came the news that Markov would be sidelined until November, and it
seemed obvious that unless Montreal wanted to rely heavily on some unproven
defense, Hamrlik was going to be around at the start of the season. Now even more so the pressure
is on for the 36-year old, and should Hamrlik demonstrate any of the
lobotomy-inspired skills that got him benched during the Habs’ playoff run, he
will undoubtedly incur the wrath of the Montreal fans.
Potential Scapegoat #3: Benoit Pouliot
It seemed like the prefect trade when Minnesota
and Montreal swapped highly-lauded, but underachieving players for each other.
Guillaume Latendresse went to the Wild while the Habs gained a former first
rounder (4th overall) in Benoit Pouliot. Latendresse lit it up for the
offensively-starved Wild, scoring 25 goals and added 12 assists in 55 games with
Minnesota after only tallying 4 points in 23 games
with Montreal. Pouliot got off to a similar shotgun start for the Habs, and
looked good as he played alongside Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.
Unfortunately, as the
season went on, and throughout the playoffs, Pouliot began to struggle in his
top-6 role. Pouliot was often demoted to the 4th line, and contributed
only 3 points in his last 25 games… shocking similar numbers to what
Latendresse had recorded in Montreal prior to being traded. Should Pouliot
continue to wallow in this ineffective funk, and should Latendresse continue to
score at a 37 goal pace you can bet that the Boo-Birds will make vocal their
displeasure at the loss of some home-grown talent and take out their
frustrations on Pouliot.
Potential Scapegoat #2: Tomas Plekanec
For most Habs’ fans, it came as a great relief
when Tomas Plekanec avoided unrestricted free agency by signing a lucrative
contract with the Canadiens. But the 6-year, $30M contract
ensured not only a limitless supply of turtlenecks for Plekanec, but that Montreal’s top
2 centres were set until 2014, barring any trades. For a team that has been
perennially size-challenged down the middle, many fans were left wondering if
Pierre Gauthier had invested in too much of the same thing, and whether the duo
of Plekanec and Scott Gomez could win 4 playoff series against the Pronger’s and
other behemoths of
the NHL. Even more questioned if Plekanec was just a flash in the pan, and
cited his supposed disappearance in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia series as grounds for cutting
him loose, failing to factor in the reports of playing injured and his effective
shut down of opposing star players. Even more refer to his 39-point effort
the year previous, neglecting to mention that that off-year had followed a
69-point season. At this point, the only thing that is for certain is that the pressure will be on
Plekanec to perform, although common sense will dictate that the
ever-industrious Czech will continue his hard-working ways, and assuage the fears of the masses accordingly.
Potential Scapegoat #1: Carey Price
The majority of Habs’ fans, and even hockey
fans in general, were dumbfounded when Montreal’s playoff hero, Jaroslav Halak,
was traded to St. Louis for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. After Halak had
claimed the number one goalie position and led the Canadiens to the Eastern
Conference Finals, it just made sense that Carey Price’s days in Montreal were
numbered. Reportedly, even Price himself thought he might be traded in the
off-season. But for several reasons (seemingly potential, trade-return and
financially-based), Pierre Gauthier opted to stick with Price in net.
Furthermore, by signing a declining Alex Auld in a backup capacity, Price is the
Canadiens’ undisputed starting goaltender for perhaps the first time.
Sadly, this won’t mean a single thing to the Bell Centre patrons should Price
allow one of his trademark 2009-2010
weak goals, and it is sadly only a matter of time before the cry of "Halak, Halak,
Halak" rises from the masses. However unfair it may be, it is something
that Price will have to deal with, and Price’s reported maturation will be put
to the test in no time. The risk may have been Gauthier’s to take, but
Carey will be the one playing the price should things proceed unfavourably.
Simply put, Price is going to have to have a great year if Montreal is going to forget about
Halak. The scapegoat horns are waiting for the young goaltender should he
appear anything less than ideal.
The 5 players listed are just the tip of the
iceberg; at one point or another, each member of the Canadiens is going to feel
the heat of the spotlight in Montreal and will wear the scapegoat horns.
Moreover, the horns might even be designated to upper management should things
not go well for the Canadiens; Pierre Gauthier is an easy target, and most Habs’
fans will remember Bob Gainey’s moves and non-moves. When things don’t go
well in Montreal, no one is exempt from blame, and with the Canadiens far from
being labelled a contending team, it may be a long year for some.
If you have any questions about this piece,
please feel free to e-mail me.