We’ve now passed the halfway mark of August, and
hockey season is just over a month away. It seems like it was only yesterday we
witnessed Rob Scuderi’s mad scramble to preserve the Penguins lead over the Red
Wings in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals.
With the offseason now reaching its final act, it’s possible to take a step back
and truly grasp how monumental the changes to this team have been in the last
several months. While we have yet to see the results of the widespread changes
Mr. Gainey and company brought to our storied franchise, there is no denying
that for better or worse, this team will deliver a whole new brand of hockey. It
is evident that Bob felt last year’s mold wasn’t capable of getting the job
done, and as such, completely changed the philosophy of the team.
With these widespread changes, it truly is hard to say how the team will
respond. It is very possible that it could be a monumental success, or even a
sickening failure. It is just as likely that the team will achieve similar
results as last year. With so many new faces, and so many story lines to follow,
it is obvious why the 2010 season already carries so much intrigue. One cannot
help but wonder if this season’s version of the Canadiens will resemble a
daytime soap opera more than a professional hockey team.
With so many plots to follow, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Here,
however, are the top five question that’ll keep you tuning in:
1) Can Price respond?
It was less than two seasons ago that rookie Carey Price burst onto the scene
following a Calder Cup championship. Following the trade of Cristobal Huet, the
goaltending was left solely to this young netminder, and he responded. He
carried the team to a first place finish in the East, and into the second round
of the playoffs. Though he faltered somewhat in the second round against the
Flyers, there was no denying that this young man had the potential to be among
the league’s best goalies.
Price was able to carry this momentum into the next season, being named an
All-Star and playing in front of his fans at the Bell Centre. It would be around
this time, however, that things really started to go south for the netminder.
Many speculate it was the excitement and fatigue of the All-Star Game which
perhaps overwhelmed young Carey. His play faltered, and suddenly he looked like
an ordinary goalie on an ordinary team. Receiving little offensive support from
his teammates, it quickly became clear that he too was mortal. With his
confidence, as well as his team’s confidence in him, eroding quickly, the Habs
limped through the last half of the season. Although the team secured a playoff
spot, it was nothing short of a disaster for Price. The image of him mockingly
waving to the fans after he stopped a shot from mid-ice is perhaps the crowning
symbol of his struggles, as the team lost in four straight games, nonetheless to
rival Boston. The sophomore curse had struck again.
Now with that season behind him, it is time for Price to respond. It is very
close to a make or break time in his career. He’s had time to recover from a
shaky campaign and get his head in order. It is not a stretch to say that the
team will live or die depending on how well he can play, and if he can remain
consistent throughout the season. Outstanding goaltending can carry even an
average team into the playoffs, and the same team to greatness.
Looking to the past, Montreal has been a team that has relied on solid
goaltending recently in order to secure wins. With Theodore as well as Huet, it
was there spectacular play which allowed a team with scoring flaws and often
average defence to sneak into the playoffs time and time again, and even win a
few series while they were at it.
With so many questions regarding the offense, and several key departures, it is
very possible that come January, the team’s prospects for post-season hockey
will rest on how he has performed thus far. It is no stretch to say that a
season similar to that of the first half of last year could see Montreal place
among the league’s elite. Meanwhile, play mirroring Price performance’s during
the second half of last season could see the Habs already falling out of the
race for playoff contention.
2) Can the Mighty Midgets get it done?
For the past few years, one of the biggest knocks on the Habs was their lack of
size. They have been constantly criticized by the media for being too small at
most positions, especially down the middle. With all the talk of their size (or
lack thereof), there is little surprise that so many rumors of Montreal
acquiring that "big centre" lambasted sports networks for months at a time (For
those still not catching on, yes I am referring to the Lecavalier saga).
As previously mentioned, Bob brought wholesale changes to the team. Massive
turnover at virtually every position came about, completely changing the
complexion of this team. This includes a totally new first line staffed by
Montreal’s three big acquisitions.
One thing these wholesale changes did not bring, however, was size. For a team
which is said to desperately need size, this is a need that certainly was not
addressed, at least among the Habs’ new main scoring cogs.
Last year’s unofficial top line carried an average height of about 6 feet (Koivu:
5-10, Kovalev: 6-1, Tanguay: 6-1) and an average weight of approximately 200
pounds. This is compared to the new, unofficial top line which carries an
average height of 5-10(Gionta: 5-7, Gomez: 5-11, Cammalleri: 5-11) and an
average weight of 187 pounds (Gionta: 175, Gomez: 200, Cammalleri: 185).
There is no denying this team got a lot smaller. Working from conventional,
"old-NHL logic," it would be safe to say that this is a line far too small to
make an impact in the league. Three players who simply could not compete around
the net, battle in the corners or drive to the goal with the puck.
Luckily, this is not the old NHL and all conventional wisdom was thrown out the
window the day new the CBA was signed. Although it is possible to say that small
players are still at a disadvantage because of their size, these players can now
compete better than ever before. In a game where penalties are being enforced
more strictly than ever, it’s now speed that kills, not size.
This is a question that will not be answered right away. It will take months to
see if these players can blend and compete against players who will be, for the
most part, taller and heavier then them. With their performance perhaps the only
thing as crucial to the team’s success as Price’s play, it’ll be interesting to
see if the new NHL is truly a league where players of any build can prosper.
3) Who will lead the team?
With the wholesale changes that came about this summer, the Canadiens lost a
central figure in terms of leadership. Saku Koivu was the undisputed leader of
this team for close to a decade. He led the team on the ice, which was made
evident through the passion he showed night in and night out. He also showed
leadership off the ice, being an ambassador to the game and giving back to the
community through his charity work. With "Captain K" now playing in California,
the team searches for someone to rise up and take the reigns as team leader and
While several options come to mind, perhaps the most widely speculated is that
Andrei Markov will be the next player to be named captain. This would seem like
a logical decision considering he has been an alternate captain for several
years now, and leads the team on the ice with his highly skilled play. On the
other hand, however, it is possible to argue that his personality conflicts with
what being captain entails. Markov is said to be a timid, quiet individual who
lets his play speak for him rather than speaking out in the dressing room. It
certainly leaves one wondering if a player as timid as him can be a force of
leadership in the dressing room when push comes to shove and a guiding voice is
Markov is only one option though. Pretty much every player’s name has been
thrown in the ring at one point or another. From Lapierre to Spacek, Gomez to
Gionta, every player has been included in the list of candidates for one reason
or another. They all can bring an beneficial element of leadership to the team
if named captain, but it remains to be seen who can put all the important
aspects together and be the most complete leader.
There has also been the suggestion that the team doesn’t even have to name a
captain, instead naming three alternates and allowing a player to step up and
claim the title as their own. If this would fly with Habs traditionalists who
hold the "C" in such high regard remains to be seen.
With so many options, this conundrum will keep fans guessing until there is any
kind of resolve.
4) Will Martin be able to handle Montreal, on and off the ice?
With the Guy Carbonneau era now over in Montreal, it was Jacques Martin who was
given the role of replacing him as head coach. While a proven winner in the
regular season, Martin will certainly have a few questions to answer during the
Perhaps the biggest of these questions is if he can shake his reputation as
being solely a regular season coach, unable to win in the post-season. This is a
reputation he gained in Ottawa, where, despite having one of the league’s best
teams for numerous seasons, really failed to accomplish much. Despite an Eastern
Conference finals appearance, he and his Senators were ousted early numerous
years. In his defense, the team has continued its post-season mediocrity even
after he left. While they did make the finals, they folded once more at the
hands of the bigger, tougher Anaheim Ducks.
Another question that comes to mind is if he can impose his defensive system on
a team that has been a fairly upbeat, attacking squad the last several season.
Carbonneau’s system wasn’t exactly concrete by any means, with little
consistency to it. With Jacques Martin comes a man who will play defense-first
hockey, regardless of the talent level of his team (The Senators once again come
to mind). It will be interesting to see if he can drill this system into the
hearts and minds of the younger players, such as the Kostitsyns, and still see
the results on the scoreboard.
Finally, we will see if Martin can handle the pressure cooker that is Montreal.
There is no other hockey market, with the exception of Toronto, that sees team
personnel come under so much scrutiny off the ice. If you are apart of the
Montreal Canadiens organization, hockey is your life. Fans will not be afraid to
stop you on the street and tell you how you are doing and if you are meeting
With the media constantly hounding the team, it will be interesting to see how a
timid, soft-spoken Martin handle them at the best of times, and more
importantly, at the worst of times. In a city always searching for a sound bite,
it remains to be seen if Martin can satisfy their demands.
5) How will new ownership affect the team?
It was approximately eight years ago that George Gillett, Jr. bought the
Montreal Canadiens from the Molson Corporation. For a while, it seemed like the
sky was falling. An American had bought the Canadians, and fears were running
rampant that he would try to move the team to the United States. These fears
were only heightened by the recent departures of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec
Nordiques, which had been relocated less than a decade before. Montreal faithful
quickly found, however, that their fears were totally unfounded, and the city
fell in love with George.
Fast-forward to 2009, and suddenly things aren’t quite as prosperous as they
once were for the Wisconsin native. Now cash-strapped, in an ironic turn of
events, he has sold the team back to the Molson brothers and several Quebec
investors. Although the deal has hit a few snags, there is little doubt it will
get done. This then raises the question, what will a future with new ownership
Perhaps the most likely answer is that this change in ownership will bring no
major change to the team. Most fans, myself included, can only hope this is
true. One of the biggest unknowns new ownership brings is whether or not the
Molsons will be as willing to spend to the cap as Gillett was. In a city like
Montreal where winning is everything, not spending to or near the cap limit
would be a major indication that these new owners aren’t as committed to winning
as previous ownership was.
At this time, there are simply too many factors in play to accurately predict
how this fundamental change will affect the Canadiens, from a roster
perspective, or a management and business perspective. For now, all Canadiens
faithful can really do is hold their breath and wait, hoping that the family
which has been involved with the organization for so long is still as committed
to victory as they have been in the past.