Well, after a night to digest the acquisition of Robert Lang and another revival of Patrice Brisebois: The Return, I'm going to put myself in the "mildly excited" category. That's the class of emotion into which fall events like finding out you're having your favourite chicken for supper or knowing you've got a three-day weekend coming up.
The trade for Lang on its own isn't that bad. But it's inevitably tinged with the "what if" of Mats Sundin's phantom presence. Of course Lang doesn't compare to Sundin, but then again, Sundin was never a Canadien in the first place. And if Bob Gainey decided to move on plan B, we have to assume he was fairly certain the big bald Swede has decided red's not his colour. Still, after a summer of anticipation and dreaming of that gorgeous Tanguay/Sundin/Kovalev powerplay line, it's tough to let go just like that. So once we get past the wistfulness of what it would have been like with Sundin, we have to look at Lang as a separate issue.
The Canadiens had a third-line centre spot open. Sundin would have become the first-line centre, so the empty third spot would have belonged to Saku Koivu. Without a new first-liner, the third-line job was still open. So you have to look at the requirements of the position. The Habs were desperately short on right-handed shooters. They were also lacking a really top-notch faceoff man, and they were small down the middle. The guy they needed would be a big, gritty centre; a decent skater with a right-handed shot, great on the draw and able to put up enough points to make the third line a serious scoring threat, as well as defensively responsible enough to kill penalties and protect the puck late in tense games after it wins the draw.
Lang fits many of those requirements. At six-foot-three, he's undeniably big. He's over fifty-three percent on the draw, which is really great. He's not the fastest guy in the league, but his skating isn't a handicap, especially if he ends up playing with Kovalev or Latendresse. He's also put up more than fifty points every year in the last eight, and he's a good penalty killer. The big thing he's missing is the grit factor. He's known to be shy in the corners and he's not the first guy to show up at the party in the crease. He's also got a reputation for coasting when he should probably be pushing harder. His age and potential to go down with nagging injuries are concerns as well.
But, if you're Bob Gainey you have to consider who's out there to fill your requirements who won't cost you much. If a team's under the cap, the guy you want is going to be expensive, likely costing a roster player or at least a fine prospect. So you look at teams over the cap and see what's out there. Of that group, Lang is the best of the possibilities. He's honestly the guy with the most ticks in his favour on the score sheet of what you need, without costing you Maxim Lapierre in return.
Now, I think Gainey could have gotten Lang for less than a second-round pick if he'd waited Tallon out. Chicago would likely have been forced to waive him in order to get under the cap. But I guess from Gainey's point of view, other teams would have been prepared to offer a pick so if the Habs were to land him, he had to ante up.
Of course, there was also the possiblity of starting the year with Kyle Chipchura or Lapierre as the third-line centre. I would have been in favour of that idea as well, but if Gainey has chosen to bring in a veteran, we have to figure he thinks those players aren't yet ready for the role.
So, here we are, feeling like we're settling again. (Damn you, Sundin, for teasing us like that!) I'm consoling myself with the thought that Tanguay is better than Ryder. Lang is better than Smolinski, with the jury out on that being true in the playoffs just yet. And Laraque definitely offers a different element than Grabovski did. The team finished first last year, and now it's better. Here's hoping a walk by the river with Gainey and a reunion with Alex Kovalev on his wing will draw a great season out of Robert Lang. Because when it comes right down to it, that's all the Habs need from him. One stellar year and a strong playoffs. If he has that much in the tank, the deal will have been worth it. Because even though Sundin would have done the job spectacularly, Lang can still do it competently. And really, as long as the job gets done, does it matter who does it?
As for Breezer, well, he's a footnote. A lot of Habs' fans are upset at his re-signing because they see it as stagnating. But if the rookie D aren't ready for full-time work, there's no point in sitting them in the pressbox half the year. O'Byrne will get his chance to be the number four guy this year, and Breezer will simply be cheap veteran insurance who warms the bench, loves the team, keeps a good attitude and can pinch in with a nice first pass and decent PP ability when called upon. Nothing more than that. And for those who think Gainey should have acquired a top-four defenceman instead...well, you have to give to get. And he's stingy with his assets, as a good GM should be. Anyway, a top-four man would have cost a lot more in salary, which would have interferred with the team's ability to pay that third centre. This is a decent compromise.
So, although it's disappointing to accept the end of the Sundin Saga, it's time to look ahead with the roster we now have. It is better than last year's team. And if we remember it at all, last year's team didn't exactly suck.