Well, I have to say, I like what I'm hearing. The boys are back and they're saying all the right things. More than right. They sound quietly confident and excited about the year to come. This is the first time I can remember the team talking Stanley Cup on the first day of training camp, as in, they have a real chance to win it. It's just like Steve Shutt said to me, "The Canadiens were successful because we looked to the Stanley Cup on the first day of camp, and never took our eyes off it until the last day of the playoffs." It's been a long time since a Canadiens' team opened the year with the philosophy of those dynasty teams. And it's not just talk, either. These players are sounding like a group with something to prove.
The risk this year is that the team is rushing ahead in its development because of the Centennial. Imagine the season to come, without the pressure of having to win to mark the big anniversary. We'd be looking forward to a great season, just because the team is young and exciting. But throw the hundredth birthday in there, and the idea that anything less than a Cup would be a disappointment is born...fair expectation or not. Fortunately, the moves Bob Gainey made this off-season will certainly help the team in that direction. With any luck, the great expectations of the players this year will serve to spur them on rather than intimidate them. But a Cup requires more than just a good young team. It needs blood, dedication, superior goaltending, lucky breaks and healthy bodies to go along with the skills. We understand that, but at the same time, it's hard not to think big when the players are doing their best to answer every question that's in their power to resolve.
Questions about whether Carey Price is ready to be the number one goalie, and whether last year's playoff meltdown was the real guy or not will be answered on the ice soon. But you have to like what he's saying...and doing. He was told he was out of shape last season, so he went home and trimmed the fat and learned how to eat properly. Now he says he feels quicker and hopes his endurance will be better if he follows his nutritionist's instruction. He worked hard to get better, and that's got to inspire his teammates' confidence.
The Russian national team criticised Alex Kovalev's speed, or lack thereof, last year. So he buckled down to work and cut some weight in an effort to get quicker. He's a guy who had a near-career year last year, but still cares enough to want to prove those guys wrong. That's the "I'll show 'em" attitude that wins Cups.
Guillaume Latendresse has been called fat and slow in his first two years in the NHL. Now, at 21, he's spent a summer working hard and re-learning how to skate, to the point at which conditioning coach Scott Livingston says he's gone from being one of the slowest on the team last camp to one of the five quickest this year. That's a man who really wants to show the world he's got what it takes to be a good NHL player.
Saku Koivu isn't saying the team is definitely going to win the Cup, but he talks about telling reporters how it will feel "after we win it." Victory is on his mind, and you can tell he senses something big building when he talks about the team being the best Habs squad he ever played on.
Mike Komisarek is talking about building on last year and taking it a step further this season. He wants to be where Detroit was last year, and he's not shy about saying he thinks the team can do it. Chris Higgins isn't talking about scoring forty goals, a prediction which put heavy pressure on him to perform last year...pressure he ultimately couldn't withstand. So, this year, he's quietly saying he wants to be more consistent and a better leader; goals he can fulfill, and outcomes that help a team win when it counts.
The words are certainly the right ones. But the words pronounced on the first day of training camp are often very different from those spoken by Christmas. In the case of this team, though, the actions backing up the bold words are more convincing. It feels different this year, because the players are different. They're excited, but they're confident in their added maturity and they're determined. And this year, they've got the talent...and hard work...to put their money where their mouths are.