I'm not good at math. I'm not exactly bad at it either. I just have to work hard to figure out the answers, and then I'm never quite sure I'm right. But I thought there was something wrong with the equation I kept hearing all summer, and I'm starting to think my mediocre math is making sense now. Every story about the retooled Habs carried the same stat: eleven players departing the team, replaced by seven newcomers. Hmmm, I thought. Eleven take away seven leaves four. Four slots without a returning player or comparable NHL replacement. 11-7=x, where x is a rookie call-up who's either not good enough for the NHL or not ready to play there but there's nobody better to take his place.
Max Pacioretty isn't ready. There are some doubts about what kind of contribution Matt D'Agostini can make as a regular. Sergei Kostitsyn is in limbo. Greg Stewart isn't good enough for the NHL, and the jury's still out on Kyle Chipchura. I won't mention the defence because it would have been pretty good with Markov and O'Byrne. Yannick Weber is doing his best, but...well...a little more time in Hamilton wouldn't hurt him.
All summer we've been comparing the outgoing players with the newcomers in the top roles. Is Gomez an upgrade on Koivu, we asked? How does Gionta compare to Kovalev? Or Cammalleri to Tanguay? Who'd take Robert Lang's role? What we didn't think about that much was the supporting cast. We should've been asking whether Stewart was better than Dandenault as a fourth-liner. Or whether Pacioretty is ready to be an upgrade on, or even as good as, Chris Higgins. Or if Max Lapierre is really a better third-line centre than Lang.
The answers to the questions we should have been asking are the ones we're starting to get an inkling about now. It turns out Gomez is okay as a replacement for Koivu. Gionta has more heart than Kovalev ever dreamed of having, as well as an ability to put the puck in the net. Cammalleri is a good replacement for Tanguay. But the assumptions we made about the team's supporting cast, i.e. its being good enough to endure wholesale change without incident, may have been a little too ambitious.
We saw in the Calgary game how the first lines matched up pretty well. It was the fourth lines that didn't compare, and when you're facing a good team with a reliable fourth line, and when you don't have one yourself, you're going to lose games.
The Habs are still missing a solid winger for the second line after Higgins' departure. The defence is effectively crippled. You can look at those problems and say the D will improve in a few months when the injured guys come back, and there's lots of time for a kid like D'Agostini or Pacioretty to pick it up, or for the prodigal Kostitsyn to return to the second line. But there's little to be optimistic about on the fourth line. Stewart's not good enough and if Laraque had a skating contest with a block of cement he'd be hard-pressed to win. That line cost the team a hard-fought game in Calgary; the kind of effort you hate to see get wasted because of useless bottom-tier players. The Tom Kostopoulos' (Kostopouli?) and Mathieu Dandenaults of the world might not win you many games, but they're able to fulfill a basic fourth-line role very well, and won't cost you games either. I don't think they were part of the problem in Montreal last year, and their dismissal along with everyone else who was shown the door last summer might have been a little bit premature.
The focus this year has been on the departure of last season's top players. Won't it be ironic if the difference is a shortage of skill in the supporting cast? I can't even begin to calculate that.