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Instead of doing a season preview this year, I’ve decided to wait a few games to see how things are going, and then project how this club is going to fare over the course of an 80 game season. I’d also like to take a look at each player and talk about how I see them developing and where how they might look by the end of this year.

Walking into the Bell Centre, the first place you might want to look is upstairs (I’ve never actually been there, but I imagine it’s upstairs) to the office in which Bob Gainey presides over this club. Now that he’s had some time to settle in, we begin to see the plan he has in developing this club. Some might suggest that he’s going to mould it similarly to the Dallas club which won the Cup, and while he might look at elements, I believe the overall picture will look different, particularly considering the new NHL.

In general, on the ice, we’re looking at a much more up tempo game. While we certainly aren’t at firewagon hockey by any stretch, we are neither where we were a few years ago when a tricycle would have seemed quick. With the moves that Gainey has made, he’s obviously interested in the speed factor, and the players who made the club this year should emphasize that point.

Size is another factor, though I think one which has taken on a lesser importance since the NHL started calling obstruction more. When he first walked into the job, one of the main tasks he indicated was making this team bigger. It is, fur sure, but the additions this year aren’t particularly larger than the average player in the NHL.

However, one issue of size that is infinitely larger is heart. Gone are most of the floating players who didn’t really understand what it took to make it in the NHL, and instead we see a very hard working team. I think that will be a trademark of the Montreal Canadiens under Gainey: this will be something of a lunch bucket crew. Now, there are still elements that don’t buy into this yet, but they’ll either figure it out, or will be tossed out for those who do understand.

Perhaps the most critical element that has changed in Montreal is something that people don’t talk about much: hockey sense. This is fast becoming a smart team. These are a group of guys who don’t panic much, if at all. And this, more than anything, is the reason why this team will continue to improve into the future.

Stepping downstairs, we find the coaching offices. Claude Julien is cementing his place as a very fine coach. He’s conservative, but not so much that he doesn’t allow a player like Kovalev to do his thing. Mostly, though, he’s not being pushed around: consider his controvercial benching of Ribeiro last season. He’ll do what’s needed to improve this club.

Talk about his assistants and you see some exceptionally talented individuals. Doug Jarvis coached the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs last year and was rewarded for his exceptional work. Three of his kids, Higgins, Plekanec, and Perezhogin have all made the jump. There should be no doubting that their solid play in both ends of the rink, as well as their fine work ethics, are part and parcel of his coaching.

Roland Melanson is the goaltender coach and he might just be one of the most underrated in the game. Theodore is a small goalie, and yet he’s one of the elite in the NHL. And while, as of this writing, he’s struggling, Rollie the Goalie insists that it will take only about ten days to have Theo looking right as rain. I, for one, believe him.

Continuing the abbreviated tour and we come to the ice surface. Here the players are divided into positions, and we’ll have a look at the goaltenders working out first.

Jose Theodore

Yes, he’s struggling right now, but there’s no doubting that he’s one of the best there is. When Theo is on his game, he makes saving pucks look easy. His positioning is generally spot-on which allows him, even though he’s of a smaller stature, to save most pucks fairly easily. For those pucks that are fired with more precision, he’s got wonderful reflexes and very quick lateral movements. Sometimes these can get a little out of control, and he’ll overslide at times, but generally, he’s a positionally sound goaltender. If he doesn’t smother the puck, which he does very well, he’s got very good rebound control, which allows his defence the ability to clear stray pucks. If there’s one huge glaring weakness, it’s his abilities out of the net. Never was there a goaltender who put fear into everyone’s eyes while playing the puck. If you’re at the rink and he tries something like this, I urge you, shout, “GET IN YOUR NET!”

Yann Danis

We’ve seen him play one regular season NHL game, but make no mistake, he’s the real deal. While there won’t be any goaltending controvercy this season, he will start to push next year. Danis is exceptionally calm and collected in the net, and his greatest strength is his positioning. Look for the young man to mind the net in about 15-20 games this season. He’ll probably even post better numbers than Theo, however there will need to be an asterisk beside them, as he’ll be facing the weaker teams. Now, this is all contingent on Huet, of course. If he comes back, Danis might get about 60 games himself in the AHL.

Cristobal Huet

Aside from the fact that this guy has one of the coolest names in the game, he’s a very able goaltender. However, if Danis manages to play another few games the way he has, Huet might find that he’s on another team by January. However, if he comes back and the Habs decide to give Danis more time, then I suspect Huet will play about 10-15 games in the second half, spelling Theo only when the superstar gets tired.

Let’s wander up to the blueline and see what all the fuss is about.

Andrei Markov

He was a standout in the playoffs against Boston. He was stellar last year in the Russian Super League. This season, he’s started out like a Norris candidate. What’s next for Markov? The All-Star game, for starters. The only reason Markov won’t be there is a colossal drop in form or, more likely, the fact that he’s in Montreal and won’t get as many votes since he won’t be put on the ballot. Markov can do it all. He’s one of the top-three in the NHL at one-on-one plays. He’s got incredible hand-eye coordination and will pluck pucks out of scrums or mid-air seemingly at will. He’s intelligent in that he knows when to rub a player out or cut them off. He’s brilliant with his stick, able to outreach guys who are much taller than he. One of the best things about him that rarely gets noticed is how he gets under the skin of the opponents best players. Why? Because he’s that good. Thornton last season, Lindros, Sundin. They all hate playing against him because his play is on the limit and is suffocating. Look at Mario Lemieux. Even he lost his cool because of Markov.

Sheldon Souray

The fact that he’s not the quickest cat in the league will have him struggling at times, and I don’t think he’ll ever look as good as he did last season. He’s a strong fellow, and a great leader, for sure, but his defensive game will always have little rough edges on it. That isn’t to say that he’s not a really good defender, because he is. However Souray must learn to play within himself, and not as the uber-star it looks like he thinks he is. Souray will cut out plays efficiently and will be very strong on the boards. He’ll also be a menace on the power play since he’s got a rocket launcher for a shot, though I doubt you’ll see him potting as many goals as he did last season. His biggest key will be learning not to go for the huge hit all the time. Souray is that solid #3 defender that every team absolutely needs.

Craig Rivet

Yes, he’s overpaid, get over it. However, he’s not nearly as overpaid as many might think. Rivet brings a lot more to the table that most see on the ice. And while I’m not privy to lockerroom chat, I do see how people talk about him and how he comports himself. His mentoring of Markov has paid huge dividents, and that alone has to be worth a good bit of money. On the ice, he’s a solid #5-type defender. He plays a very physical game, makes the simple plays, and won’t get you in much trouble on the back end. He does tend to panic a little when things get dicey at the back and can make mistakes. Since he’s not the best passer in the league, look for the simple chip off the glass to the neutral zone if he doesn’t see anything readily available. And while he may not have oodles of speed, he makes up for that a lot with a quick first step and lots of enthusiasm.

Francis Bouillon

Frankie, as his teammates call him, has the opportunity of a lifetime this season. With the NHL changing all its rules, this small but talented defender has the chance to really make a name for himself, and so far, he’s doing just that. Another exceptional player in one-on-one situations, Bouioon also excels in the physical game. His timing in delivering checks is impeccable, and despite his size he can crush opponents regularly. Since he has a fair bit of offensive ability, he’ll make the power play now and again, and will make things happen in the offensive zone and in transition since he’s got speed. He’s another who can panic a little at the back, but only under extreme pressure. Generally, he’s slick enough to get himself out of most jams with some strong skating and a deft pass.

Mathieu Dandenault

There was an adjustment period, but he seems to be settling in now. Dandy brings some excellent experience to the back and in Montreal. And while he may not be as good as some might have hoped, he’s still far better than a depth guy which he was in Detroit. Aside from his obvious skating ability which he uses to advantage in the transition game, Dandy is a passable defender. Since he’s got great speed, I see his defensive game improving even more this season as he learns to contain his opponents to the outside. He needs to work on his stick positioning to cut down passing lanes, but I think that’s another thing that will come.

Mike Komisarek

Another big hitter, he’s learning when to use it rather than throwing himself out of position. The most impressive thing I’ve seen from him this season is his stick positioning. He’s taken a quantum leap in that regard and, rather than having to rely on his body to break up a play, he’s starting to use his stick which keeps him balanced and ready. Komi still has some skating issues, most notably his front-to-back or vice versa crossovers. Unfortunately, for a defender, this is one of the most important things, and it will cause Julien to pull him out of contests against very fast clubs unless he can improve it quickly. I see Komisarek really coming into his own after New Year’s. His ice time should go up, and he’ll get a far more active role on the ice. His biggest problem is not in himself, but it’s in who is in front of him. Both Souray and Markov are left-handed shots, and that leaves Komisarek as the third pairing. By the end of this year, I see him as much better than that lot. This is a smart kid and from all accounts, he worked incredibly hard and learns quickly. I’m not going to say break-out year, but it will cement him as the future.

Mark Streit

His adaptation from the Euro game to the NHL has been quick and much appreciated by the Montreal coaching staff. The fact that they can insert him and not fret means a lot in this day and age when depth is critical. Streit has quick feet and good speed, along with very good passing ability and a good eye for the game. These things will give him the opportunity to play more than just a few times this season. As a depth defender, he’ll be one of the better in the NHL.

It’s not the best defence in the NHL, but I believe it to be seriously underrated. Markov is a true number one defender and is rapidly improving. I see him as a top-10 guy by the end of the season if he continues as he’s doing. Behind him we don’t have a true #2, but we do have a strong defence by committee. Yes, we need another strong defender, but it’s not critical at this stage. We have enough time to let Komi continue to develop. Next season is when we need to look to him to take that #2 spot, not this year.

Off we go the the offence…

Alexei Kovalev

Sometimes maddening, and always hugely skilled, this superstar can light it up when he really wants to. It’s early, and therefore I feel he’s still getting accustomed to things in Montreal. In gerneral, he’s improved every game, and his potential, as most know, is through the roof. In fact, it was only in the last game against Atlanta that he didn’t register a point. Kovalev has unreal skills. He can protect the puck as well as anyone in the league and his skating, while not fast, is deft and he’s got change of direction down to an art. His shooting, particularly his snapshot, is incredible and will be very popular in shootouts. Defensively he’s weaker, and he is particularly weak on the boards if he doesn’t have the puck, reaching in tentatively with his stick rather than bullying in to get the puck. On the other hand, when it’s called for, he can be as physical as anyone in hockey. He’ll have his ups and downs, but look for Kovalev to consistently produce and, together with Koivu, be well up on the scoring charts at the end of the season.

Richard Zednik

Zednik is a conundrum. He’s most definitely not a sniper as he misses far more chances than he ever should, however playing with Kovalev and Koivu will give him more than enough chances to score thirty goals or more. Zed is incredibly strong on his skates, and only stiff forearms to the head as he cuts into the slot take him off his feet generally (if that doesn’t pump up Habs fans, nothing will). He’s got a fairly accurate shot and is smart enough to get into position to use it. He does get lazy at times during the season and stops moving to where he’s needed, but it doesn’t last long. He works well on the boards and plays the cycle fairly well. Defensively he can get caught too high on the boards, however with obstruction being called more, he may get away with that, having only need chip the puck past a defender when necessary.

Michael Ryder

It’s been a disappointingly slow start to the season for Ryder, despite the three goals he’s scored. Make no mistake, this isn’t the same player that was runner up for rookie of the year honours last season. Perhaps it’s the ankle injury, but he’s not skating nearly as hard, isn’t working the boards and winning the puck like he once did, and isn’t working nearly as hard as he should. If he finds his game, Ryder knows well how to get into position for a shot, and is willing to do the hard work to get there. Not afraid to take on defenders, he’s not a fast skater, but he’s shifty, which should, theoretically, open up more space to move. Defensively he’s really struggling, though it was never his strong suit. He’s been out of position on a few occasions and as a result the puck has been maintained in the Montreal end too many times. I was hoping for another stellar season from him, but now that I see how radically the rules have affected the game, I’m not sure he’ll be as good, at least while he’s on the line where he presently plays.

Pierre Dagenais

No doubt, Dags had a wonderful scoring record last season. 17 goals in 50 games is nothing to sneeze at, however this season he’s managed only stupid penalties and listless play. A poor skater and weak physical player, Dags has only his shot to rely on, and when he’s not getting into position and not getting the feeds, he’s nothing more than a fan with a stick out there. In order for Dags to stay in the NHL, he must find other aspects of his game. He absolutely must use his size to advantage and get to the net to receive passes. I doubt, however, that the Canadiens will retain his services much longer, or, if they do, it will be in the press box waiting until someone gets hurt. Relying on playing with Ribeiro can’t last since young Ribby is having tons of trouble himself this season.

Mike Ribeiro

Last year’s hero is fast turning into this year’s goat. Ribeiro has struggled terribly on the ice, though it may be due, in large part, to his linemates. Unable to clear the defensive zone on many occasions each night, he needs to play with people who have some defensive awareness and more speed to open up space for him to do what he does best: control the puck and look for the smart play. Ribeiro can’t do it alone, not even close. Even with the rules which stopped obstruction, or perhaps because of it, the game has almost passed him by. It might just be too fast for him to be effective. When going end to end is so slow that opposing forwards have time to overtake and get into position, you’re stacking the odds against yourself. Instead of being able to penetrate the zone and get control, the slow threesome line on which he plays is unable to regain control of the puck and make anything happen. The love-in might be fnished as well, as even the French media are whispering that Plekanec is starting to breathe down his neck.

Radek Bonk

Gainey picked Bonk up before Armegaddon and might be somewhat disappointed now that things have changed. No longer is size such a great issue, so the allure of Bonk couldn’t be what it was. Having said that, allowing him to work on the third line rather than the added pressure of playing on the top line should allow Bonk to concentrate on what he does best. He’s a slow skater, but he has brilliant positioning. He uses his body extremely well to protect the puck, and also to cut out players on the boards. He’s perfectly happy to get his nose dirty to make a play or win the puck, and he’s an incredibly intelligent player.

Niklas Sundstrom

Last year people were calling for his head rather consistently. And perhaps they had reason. On a team with limited talent, he blended in with much of the rest of the players, and his skills were mushed in with everyone else. This season, however, we can far more appreciate his defensive skills, since he has absolutely no need of offensive ones. Calling him a two-way player is highly generous, since he’s really only effective in one end of the rink, however there are times when he’ll come up with an offensive gem or two. Sunny is a fabulous positional player, and another of the extremely intelligent guys on the team. He reads plays exceptionally, and this serves him on the penalty kill quite well. He’s become a role player, but he knows his role and shuts his mouth. The Rock would approve.

Jan Bulis

This season there’s no pressure for him to be a front line guy. He can do it all from the comfort of the third line. Between him and Bonk, there’s actually a chance for some counterattack on that third line, as well, as both have the ability to put the puck in the net. With blazing speed, Bulis makes things happen all over the rink. He’s not afraid to muck in the corners, and positionally he’s very solid as well. There aren’t many harder workers in the NHL either. Fans may look at his offensive numbers from his last season in Europe and drool, but that’s not how he’s going to be used in the NHL. Along with a few others, he’s becoming a threat on the penalty kill, and combine that with his solid offensive abilities, he’ll score his fair share this season from the third line where he’s an above average defender.

Steve Begin

The first major player that Gainey brought to the team is one of the favourites of all fans. Some might question the use of the term ‘major’, however he’s been a major player in everything he’s done since coming to Montreal. He leaves everything out on the ice, and plays with a huge heart. Smaller in stature, he still doesn’t hesistate to hit anything that moves. He also blocks shots, scores goals, grinds in all four corners, wins battles along the boards, and will even get in the occasional scrap. Sure, he’s a fourth line player, but he’s quite possibly the most important fourth liner in the game.

Chris Higgins

You want to talk about work ethic, look no further. From day one this kid has impressed me with his never ending work on the ice. He’s solid at both ends of the rink and he really grinds it out as well. Incredibly smart at such a young age, he really knows how to use his body to advantage, particularly in protecting the puck. He’s got above average puck-handling skills, and a solid shot. He’s not afraid to go to the net, and he never stops moving. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops since he seems, at this point, to have the ability to play on a defensive or an offensive line. He’s already played on the second when Dags was benched, and those games were the best that line has shown all season. Time will tell, but one thing is for certain, he’s got a long future in the NHL as an impact player.

Tomas Plekanec

Considered too small by many to play in the NHL, Plex has consistently proven everyone wrong. He forced the Habs to keep him on the team this season and now is starting to creep up behind Ribeiro. Highly talented with the puck, he’s another who worked incredibly hard every shift. He’s got all the tools to succeed at this level, and with his two linemates makes our fourth line more like another second line. Speed to burn make him deadly both at even strength and on the penalty kill. In fact, combined with Begin, the two make a deadly unit that has already scored this season. This is another highly intelligent player – consider his work on the PK when, rather than ice the puck, he sees the opportunity to pass it back to his defenders to waste more time on the clock.

Alexander Perezhogin

Prez the Waterbug is lightning on ice. Watching him dump the puck in the opposing zone and then outskating everyone to retrieve his own dump-in is incredible to watch. He’s got wonderful skill with the puck and has a knack for getting into the right place. Koivu commented that he’s much better in the corners than anyone thought, and he fights for every puck. While he still plays somewhat selfishly at times, he’s got a massive upside. If he hasn’t already deplaced Dags on the second line when Zednik comes back from injury, then surely it won’t be long. He’s easily a top-six player, and quite possibly a top-three guy. Because of his competitive play, even Zednik is going to have to look over his shoulder and step it up a notch.

Raitis Ivanans

What a shame he’s injured after only a couple of games. For a big guy (pardon the understatement) he moves fairly well. He’s also had some good coaching because he hasn’t been caught out of position. Now, that’s only after a few shifts, of course, but still, generally you can tell when someone belongs, and he does. His one fight with Chara was a draw in the books, but he gets the edge because he took the biggest player in the league and yanked him off his feet. It’s going to be fun to watch his development. Now, if only he could find some talent in there like Chris Nilan, then he’s made…

Well, I guess that’s it. Oh wait…..

Some dude named Saku Koivu

Effort, heart, grit, determination, leadership. All easily fit when talking about the Habs captain. Add his skill to that and you’ve got one of the best players in the game. His off nights are still good, and when he’s on, he dominates the game. If there’s one person in the NHL who will most benefit from the rule changes, it’s Koivu. His style of game was always in-your-face, and that meant the opposition was always close enough to grab hold and not let go. This season he can make all those exciting plays without anyone obstructing him, and we’re already seeing the dividends. Voted a few years back as the best stickhandler in the Eastern Conference whilst in traffic, he’s obviously still a dynamo with the puck. His vision is superb and he even gets himself into scoring position through defenders. If the team is down, he’ll deliver the big hit. He’s not the loudest leader in hockey, but then neither was that Steve Yzerman guy, and he turned out fine. This is the season when Koivu fulfills all his promise of so many years. He’s got the talent around him to make the difference and he’s got all the skills necessary. When the coach decides that playing strength against strength means our team should come out on top, you get an idea of how highly Julien sees our first line led by Koivu. He’s a champion at heart, and with a little luck, he’ll be a champion on the ice soon enough.

It’s a young team, to be sure, and that means there will be more than a few mistakes made. But this is also a smart team, and that means they’ll be learning quickly. While the playoffs are not a guarantee for any club, Montreal certainly has an inside shot. Assuming the new rules are called consistently throughout the year, this is a team that could very well shock in the playoffs as well. Speed is the name of the game now, and Montreal has it in spades. As long as the defence continues to play by committee, and as long as we get production out of four lines, we’re looking very strong. Some work needs to be done on that second line, but it’s early yet, and we’ve plenty of time to tinker. And with a 4-1 start, it’s not like we should be worrying too much just yet.

Is this a Cup team? I would suggest no, however that doesn’t mean we can’t win the Cup this season. If, at the deadline, Gainey can make one or two deft moves to fill some holes, there’s no reason why we can’t compete. Now, there’s always the chance that we’ve just come out of the gates quickly and we’re actually looking better than we really are, but I submit to you that we are a team that had fewer changes and is already gelled. Does that mean things will get tougher as we move along? I hope so or there’s something wrong with the game. But I really think this team is moving quickly in the right direction. It’s been a very long time since we’ve had this kind of depth, and even longer since we’ve had this kind of skill.

No, there’s probably no Cup in our immediate future, but with a year or two of seasoning I think we’ve got the basic elements in place that will finally bring Lord Stanley’s mug back where it belongs. Don’t mark your spot on Ste. Catherine’s just yet, but keep the sleeping bags ready, because the Montreal Canadiens are just around the corner.

And they’re Cup hungry.

A Concerned Fan