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 The 05-06 Habs season success rides on the shoulders of the veteran leadership.

Returning NHL veterans Craig Rivet, Richard Zednik, Alexi Kovalev, Radek Bonk, Sheldon Souray, Mathieu Dandenault, and Captain Saku Koivu have to lead by example this season in a way that was not necessary in the past. The NHL rule changes virtually guarantee that the penalties per game will increase to a level that has been unheard of in past eras, truly showing how lackadaisical the rule enforcement has become. The players will eventually pick up how the games will be officiated but the first third of the season will likely be trial and error for players, coaches, and GM’s throughout the league. 

The 2005 version of the Canadiens has the potential to be the most inexperienced team they have iced since the rookie laden lineup that won the Stanley Cup in 1986 with 8 rookies. For example, Mike Ryder, Mike Ribiero, Chris Higgins, Alex Perezhogin, Mike Komisarek, Mark Streit, Marcel Hossa, Tomas Plekanec, Ron Hainsey, and Yan Danis potentially could play their way on to a roster spot. Even though the Habs have as many as ten players close to, or ready to make the jump into the NHL, there are only a maximum of three or four roster spots that need to be filled or that could be stolen from under performing players. The likely trio of players to walk away with the roster spots is, Tomas Plekanec, Alex Perezhogin, and Chris Higgins. Marcel Hossa has a definite chance to crack the lineup but he will have to earn it with hard work; something he has lacked in past attempts. This is likely the make or break season for Hossa when you consider recent draftees like Kyle Chipchura, Andrei Kostitsyn, Corey Locke, Guillaume Latendresse, and Juraj Mikus are waiting in the wings for their shot at the big-time in the not so distant future.

One player in particular who seems determined to make the Canadiens roster this season is a potential power forward Guillaume Latendresse. Although he has been quiet through the media, his on ice play has been anything but quiet and he has turned the heads of management and fellow players alike. “That young guy Latendresse impressed me” says Jose Theodore after the first day of camp.

 There is even hype among fans for Latendresse to make the team this season and so far his effort and totals only help his cause [1 goal and 5 assists in the 4 game rookie tournament]. If his play continues the hulking winger would be a nice addition to the team, and a seemingly perfect fit for the vacant position on the second line playing alongside Mike Ryder and Mike Ribeiro. Latendresse is physically able to compete in the NHL right now, but at just 18 years of age he is likely to return to junior. Canadiens GM Bob Gainey has recently opened the door to all players trying to earn a spot on the roster “All players have a chance to win one of the open positions, regardless of age or salary”.  Anything is possible.

Granted not all of the players in the aforementioned group are true rookies; but only three have any NHL experience worth mentioning. Mike Ribiero, Mike Ryder [Calder trophy runner up] and fan favorite Mike Komisarek all took a very important steps in their development as future stars in ’03 and yet only have 345 NHL games under their belt combined [197 are credited to Ribiero]. Ryder and Ribeiro are guaranteed to be on the starting roster as they were during the last NHL season making up 2 / 3rd’s of the teams best offensive line, and Komisarek showed flashes of the player he will be late in the season and playoffs that have the fans and coaching staff drooling over the premise of a full 82 game schedule. The Canadiens brain trusts fully expect their development to continue to new levels this season, but they are all still young in experience and need mentoring to some degree.

The rest of the group all qualify as outright rookies who are going to make some mistakes while learning at the NHL level of play. What makes this season unique is that number of rule changes and “new” enforcement of the obstruction/penalties could make the mistakes increase in number and in importance, costing the team valuable points in the standings.

This is where the team’s veteran players step in. Actions speak louder then words and the experienced Canadiens have to show that quality at every opportunity. Whether it is turning the other cheek to an obvious infraction, or going all out during a shorthanded situation, if the model is set out for them, the young players will notice and take strides in duplicating the feat. “Efforts like that always rub off on others” – Jacques Demers on Kirk Muller’s 1993′ playoff OT winner in game five versus the Nordiques.

The Canadiens are lucky to have the type of veteran leadership at every natural position that they have this season. I can think of very few better then the likes of Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev, Radek Bonk and Richard Zednik setting examples for our young centers and wingers. None of the mentioned four take shifts off, and any one of them can show you how to score or play defense in the NHL. Our defensive corps also boasts a nice mix for any style defenseman coming through our system into the pro ranks. Craig Rivet and the versatile Mathieu Dandenault can teach the defensive side of the game, while Andrei Markov and Sheldon Souray can set the offensive/two way standards. In goal, Yann Danis will undoubtedly learn more from Jose Theodore when he replaces the injured backup goaltender Christobal Huet for a few months, then he did all of last season in the AHL.

This season habs fans have high expectations for their team, but success depends on how quickly the young players can follow the example of veterans, adjust to tougher rule enforcement, as well as deal with all the other “normal” aspects of life as a rookie in the NHL. A daunting task to be sure, but one that all players competing for the few open roster spots have gladly accepted thus far at training camp. The next few weeks look to be exciting for fans and Hab hopefuls as the roster fills out and the season comes into view. As Saku Koivu stated earlier this week “it’s good to be back”.