When I was a kid, the Sears Christmas Wish catalogue came in the mail every October. My mom would bring it home with the bills and flyers and casually toss it on the kitchen table, as if we hadn't been waiting breathlessly for it for weeks. We only got one copy, so my brothers and I would time-share a half hour each to peruse, unbothered, the source of all our December dreams. We worked out an elaborate system of marking pages with different-coloured markers; one for all the toys we wanted, another for the ones we REALLY wanted, and still another for the final choices. It was a painstaking process that went on for weeks and ended with the precious book in tatters, and the carefully-selected requests for Santa well-circled. On some level we knew, even as kids, that half the fun of making our choices was actually in having to choose. Sure, it would have been great to just pick out whatever we wanted and know we'd likely get it, but we would have missed something special if we didn't spend weeks deciding and anticipating. By the time Christmas morning arrived, the gifts we received were perfect because we were sure they were what we really wanted.
The first of July is like Christmas Day for hockey fans. After weeks of scouring lists of potential UFAs and planning fictional trades to make cap space, we know what we want. Oh, yes, Santa, Habs fans have a wish list as long as your belt. We want Ilya Kovalchuk on a line with Gionta and Gomez. We want Colby Armstrong to add some grit to the third line and Sergei Gonchar to launch rockets from the point. We want Anton Volchenkov playing second goalie to Carey Price, and a good solid backup who knows how to behave in the room and accepts his role.
The only problem is, the Grinch, in the form of the NHL salary cap, is going to steal all our free agents. Habs fans are the kids whose dads are seasonal workers. We got lots of goodies last year when the money was plentiful, but this year is tight and we're only allowed to ask for one or two small things.
Pierre Gauthier says he's not adverse to going over the cap, then finding a way to move contracts before the season starts. Maybe he can sign Volchenkov anyway, then trade Hamrlik to Ottawa to replace him. Or maybe he can send Andrei Kostitsyn to Calgary for their first-round pick next year, then hope like hell the Flames tank into a lottery pick. After the Sergei Kostitsyn trade, though, it looks like the Habs lineup is set. Dustin Boyd can play third-line centre cheaper than Dominic Moore, and Dan Ellis, if he signs, will make a very find backup goalie.
Gauthier says his defence is set and his forward lines "almost" set, or they were, before the Kostitsyn trade. Assuming he doesn't move Hamrlik, we can believe no blueliner from Hamilton will get a shot at the big team unless there's a long term injury. With Markov (whom Gauthier says is healing well from knee surgery and will possibly not miss any games in the fall), Subban (who would only lose the spot he inherited during the playoffs if he burned a Quebec flag outside Gauthier's office door while a tour of disabled kids passed by), Hamrlik, Spacek, Gorges and Gill, Ryan O'Byrne will be the seventh man.
Up front, the signing of Benoit Pouliot means the top six will, at least to start the season, be the same as the second half of last year. Again, that's barring a trade featuring Andrei Kostitsyn. Which leaves our Christmas-in-July wishlist narrowed down to a bit of filler on the bottom lines and a backup goalie; both now apparently filled with Boyd and Ellis. Throw in a rookie from Hamilton for fourth-line duty, probably Ryan White, or Lars Eller, if Boyd plays on the fourth line, and that's it.
It's not a bad lineup, but we've seen what it can do. What we don't know is whether a year of familiarity with each other, perhaps fewer injuries and a couple of tweaks will allow the team as it stands to improve. We don't know if it can repeat this year's playoffs without Jaro Halak. What it means is there will be few surprises on Thursday.
Mick Jagger took it from Santa when he said "you can't always get what you want." We Habs fans now have ourselves a good, sensible socks-and-underwear kind of team with potential. But, boy, it's hard not to be jealous of the team who gets a shiny new Kovalchuk for Christmas-in-July.