Have you ever noticed that in most crossword puzzles, there's a long word in the middle of the grid that supports the rest of the puzzle? It's the foundation word, and the other words all connect to it somehow. If the Habs were a crossword, the foundation word would be something like this: _ O M A _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _, and the clue would be "44 Across: Czech-born skater, whose rebound could make the difference in the Canadiens' season." If you started to write "Tomas Plekanec," though, I hope you're doing the puzzle in pencil.
There are many Canadiens who need to erase last year's injury-plagued, underperforming season with a fresh start, perhaps none more than Roman Hamrlik. The Hammer came to Montreal shrouded in doubt two seasons ago. He was Bob Gainey's premier free agent acquisition, in the wake of Sheldon Souray's painful departure, and became the second-highest-paid player on the team. Everyone knew he wouldn't replace Souray's cannon on the PP, but there was some hope he'd be able to stablize a rather porous defence and maybe help young Ryan O'Byrne adjust to the big time.
He was so much better than that, though. Hamrlik, on many nights, was the best Habs defenceman on the ice. He was a rock in his own end and moved the puck out of trouble calmly and efficiently just about every time he had the chance. And while playing a ton of big minutes, he also supported the inexperienced play of O'Byrne and covered up the stinky brainfarts of the Breezer. The 5.5 million bucks a year looked like a bargain. Then, last year happened. Everything that went so well for Hamrlik and the team in The Good Season completely went into the dumper last year.
I think one of the biggest issues the team had last season was its weak defensive play in its own end, and that started with the defencemen. As a group, they failed to clear opponents from the front of the net, and the puck from their own zone. They gave up forty-plus shots on way too many occasions and they got beaten by speed embarrassingly often. The "highlight" of Ovechkin blowing by Hamrlik, even though that particular play wasn't all the Hammer's fault, still haunts my dreams. As does Hamrlik passing the puck directly to Michael Ryder in the final game of last spring's wretched playoff. Of course, Ryder was right in the slot when the giveaway happened, and he blasted it smartly past Price. Even worse, that wasn't even the first time Hamrlik had made the exact same play last season. Suddenly, the 5.5 million started to stink a bit and the contract began to resemble something that rhymes with "schmalbatross."
There are a lot of questions about whether Andrei Kostitsyn will break out this year, and whether Tomas Plekanec will rebound. The team needs the newcomers, especially Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, to earn their money and put up the points. But the fact remains that no matter how well the forwards perform either individually or as a group, it all starts with defence. Mike Cammalleri said today that one of the reasons why he signed with Montreal was because of the puck-moving defencemen on the roster. He named Andrei Markov and Hamrlik specifically. That's because the forwards can be as fast and slick as they want, but they're not going to be able to use those skills to maximum advantage without a smart, mobile defence that can get the puck moving smoothly forward. The D starts the play, more often than not, and if it can't, the forwards are crippled.
That's why Hamrlik's the most important rebound candidate on the team right now. If a forward slumps, he's got eleven other guys to take the heat off him. If a D who plays more than a period per game is struggling, the whole team suffers. The funny thing is, Hamrlik put up more points last year than he did in his first season in Montreal, and his plus/minus wasn't that different...but he wasn't the same in his own zone. He gave the puck away and didn't recover as quickly as he needed to on too many occasions. He was productive on the scoreboard, but not dependable in the defensive zone. And while his own points totals climbed, I think some of the reason why the forwards' totals fell almost universally was because of the weaker play in the team's own end, starting with Hamrlik. In The Good Season, Hammer was the one who'd chase down a dump-in, avoid the forechecker and neatly pass the puck out of trouble to a skating forward. Many times, that would translate to a couple of forward passes and a goal. Hamrlik might not have recorded an assist on the play, but he was often the one who started the rush. Last season, his forward passes were made with less conviction and were often intercepted. Hamrlik was much less of a factor in the offense of the team, even as his personal stats increased.
The thing is, Hamrlik is a Hab for the foreseeable future. He's 35, and his cap-heavy deal isn't making him all that attractive to other teams. Right now, he's the Habs second-highest paid D behind Markov. If he's going to account for that much of the cap and that many minutes on the ice, he's got to earn it. Last year's effort from him wasn't good enough. I know he was probably thrown by the swirling rumours of his involvement with an alleged mobster, and there were rumours that he was nursing a broken foot through the latter part of the season and the playoffs. But those are excuses. He's being paid for his ability to be a rock on defence, and he's got to step up and be that rock like he did two years ago. We know he can do it. We've seen it. We need to see it again, or someday soon his crossword clue will be "44 Down: Biggest waste of contract space on the Habs' roster."