The Carolina Hurricanes first round victory is proof that the Canadiens lack leadership in the dressing room; after Saku Koivu of course.
It is common belief with the fans that the Canes would be out of the playoffs right now instead of challenging for a Stanley Cup final berth if Captain Saku Koivu had not been hit with a high stick ending his season prematurely. Some might argue that the Canes would be eliminated if there was a penalty called on the play, (assuming the Habs score on the 4 minute power play) as well.
It wasn’t so much the injury to Koivu as much as it was the timing of the injury. Since it was the second period when the injury happened, the players continued to put up a strong effort for the remainder of the period, but once they went to the dressing room for the second intermission and they were told of the severity of Saku’s injury, it deflated the team enough to blow the lead and the eventually game. Truth be told, if Saku had been injured in the third period instead of the second period the Hurricanes would have been down three games to none only because they would not have known about the fate of their captain until the game was over.
This exposes a glaring weakness in leadership after Saku, which is not good considering his medical history and potential for retirement with the next major injury. At some point he is going to be fed up with the aches and pains of his career choice and hang them up for good while he still has some quality of life left. Not to take anything away from Craig Rivet, Sheldon Souray, Alex Kovalev, and Radek Bonk, since all are considered leaders to some extent in the NHL, but obviously not to the point of being able to pull the team back together after their captain was injured.
In the past we had this area covered and didn’t know it. In the 01\02 playoffs versus the Boston Bruins, Kyle McLaren viciously elbowed Richard Zednik (who was on fire at the time and really hasn’t been the same since). The coaching staff completely lost it to the point of needing to be restrained after the game. The only calming factor during this playoff run was the leadership of Doug Gilmour. After the game Gilmour went in to talk to the coaching staff, (who seemed bent on revenge) and got through to them by stating the best revenge was to pull it together and eliminate the Bruins from contention. Cooler heads prevailed and the number one seed was ousted in the first round. This leadership example was exactly what the current Canadiens lacked versus the Hurricanes. Losing Saku was not only a blow to the team in line chemistry and scoring but mostly felt in morale, considering how serious it could have been. If a true leader had been present in the dressing room, this playoff season would have had a different outcome.
Luckily Bob Gainey is at the helm and recognizes this fact; the problem lies in being able to get a leader through the UFA process only, as NHL teams don’t often if ever offer up a team leader that can contribute in trades.
This year’s crop of UFA talent is decent, but talent alone doesn’t make a team leader and that is the one glaring weakness that must be addressed first. Unfortunately this is where the concept loses steam.
Jason Arnott, Ed Jovanovski, and to a lesser extent Patrik Elias are all leaders in the dressing room, just not the “rah, rah”, “One for the Gipper” type leaders. The upbeat, outspoken type leader is normally the coach, but in all fairness we don’t know what style coach Carbonneau will have yet. A player like Jeremy Roenick might be necessary since captain Koivu is the same type of leader as the above listed players; quiet and lead by example. For some teams in NHL cities J.R puts on a good show and attracts attention for his team by being obnoxious and outspoken, but in the media throng that is Montreal, he would do more damage than good as a distraction to the team ala Jose Theodore.
Ideally, the perfect fit might be Chris Pronger or Wade Redden. Either would fill a current need and supply the leadership required, but Edmonton will not trade or lose Pronger after the performance he has put on during the regular season and long playoff run. So that leaves Wade Redden. Assuming money is not the issue (the Canadiens should be able to offer the maximum to a player if they wanted to) will Ottawa really let this leader go over others?
No. They won’t.
Redden is not only an All-star defensemen and team leader but he is extremely active in the community giving a face to the franchise. Ottawa will trade players like Havlat, Fisher, Smolinski, and even hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara to make sure Redden is a permanent fixture on the blue line disappointing all 29 NHL teams vying for his services.
So where do the Canadiens brain trusts find a leader that has value to offer to the team?
There is no easy answer. If there is, I’m sure Bob Gainey would like to hear it.
Maybe the Habs have to wait and see if a prospect like Chipchura or Higgins will develop into the leader/captain role as was predicted in their draft year, but the short term fix looks cloudy if not meek. Habs fans around the world should hope that captain Koivu can remain healthy and steady the ship until his successor is brought in or develops from within.