Has this been a boring off-season or what? I don't mind, though. It's nice to sit in a the afterglow of the Canadiens' improbable eliminations of the Caps and Pens for a little while, and, after the turmoil of last summer, it's kind of nice to know a little bit about what to expect this year. Unlike the run up to last season, we're not asking how the players will respond to Martin as coach, or who'll play with whom or whether the big new contracts will work out. We're no longer worried about the team getting crushed because the players are too small. This year, we've got a handle on those basic issues.
Of course, there are still small matters about which to wonder. Within the next couple of months, we'll know the answers to such burning questions as the cost and duration of Carey Price's contract, which up-and-comer will make the team on the fourth line and whether it's true Andrei Markov will really be ready to start the season. Then there are the two big questions; the huge unknowns that will make or break the season.
The first mystery is how the kids will perform. Management decided to part ways with most of the players who filled last year's bottom-two lines. Gone from last October are Latendresse, Laraque, Chipchura, Metropolit and Sergei Kostitsyn. The guys who filled some of those roles later in the season, Moore and Bergeron, are gone too. As we learned last year and saw reconfirmed in the playoffs, the bottom-six forwards might not be stars, but they provide the foundation for the game. They give the skilled guys something...a hard hit, a timely goal, a drawn penalty, a heroic shot-block... on which to build when a team is winning. Last year's crop of kids couldn't cut it. Latendresse couldn't stick on the top lines and didn't do much on the bottom ones before he gave up and got traded. Kostitsyn got cut out of camp and showed his childish colours afterwards. Chipchura didn't do much of anything. Ben Maxwell did less during his twenty-game call up. Ryan O'Byrne (does he still count as a kid?) got benched every time he made a boneheaded play. Carey Price lost many more games than he won and sometimes let his temper get the best of him.
So this year, the team's trying again. P.K. Subban will start on defence, and the expectations of him are enormous. He performed under the ultimate pressure in the playoffs so admirably that many fans assume he's already leaped the rookie hurdles every player has to negotiate. He's certainly come a long way, but there's a big question about whether he'll be able to handle a full NHL season with such aplomb. Then there's the third line. In the playoffs, the Moore/Pyatt/Lapierre line was a revelation of doggedness, speed and aggression. This year, Lars Eller will get a chance to take Moore's place, and Dustin Boyd will get every chance to bump one of Pyatt or Laps to the fourth line. There'll be one spot open for another rookie, most likely on the bottom line. Ryan White is the Bulldog who showed the most grit and determination last year, who'd have a good shot at sticking in that role, but guys like Maxwell and Desharnais might push management in camp to give one of them a shot. Whoever makes it will have a chance to make a difference, if he can perform at the NHL level. Benoit Pouliot's also in that group. He's basically entering his second full big-league season and the pressure will be on for him to prove that he's able to score on a consistent basis like he did immediately after his trade. And, of course, there's Price, who will be under tremendous pressure to find a way to win games.
It's a big load for kids to carry, but the Canadiens' success will depend on them to a great extent. That's one of the biggest question marks facing the team in the coming season. The other one is a question of team identity. Who are the Canadiens?
On a winning NHL team, every player has a role and knows how to perform it well. Part of that comes from knowing what kind of team your team is supposed to be. Brian Burke is creating an identity for the leafs. They may be losers, but there's no question Burke intends to ice a big, defensively-sound, aggressive team. The Red Wings are slick and fast. The Penguins are planets revolving around Sidney Crosby's sun. The Flyers are skilled and fearless. The Devils are defence-first, rallying around Martin Brodeur. The Oilers are hungry and full of youthful promise. So the question is, what are the Canadiens?
The team went into last year without an identity. They were just a collection of mercenaries who'd signed on with no idea about what would happen. Along the way, distractions like Kostitsyn and Laraque were purged and stable influences like Pyatt and Moore joined up. In the crucible of the playoffs, they fused together with a real identity for the first time. They were the hard-working, self-sacrificing underdogs who united behind the banner of Jaroslav Halak to advance further than anyone expected they would. Now Halak is gone, and that unifying force with him.
Still, this year's team won't be starting from scratch. Guys like Gill, Gorges, Cammalleri and Gionta proved themselves to their teammates, and that won't go away. One of them will probably be named captain, and his particular values and ideals will be important to pulling everyone together under a single vision. It will also help that the team will have a real fourth line this year. Last year, the bottom-three forwards were a mishmash of whomever didn't fit anywhere else and often played less than five minutes a game. It's tougher for a team to establish an identity when it's carrying guys who just don't know where they belong. So, if everyone's not only clear about their jobs but also able to perform them well, there'll be a better understanding about what sort of team the Canadiens are supposed to be.
I'd like to see some of that hard-working, self-sacrificing identity established in the playoffs carry over into the season. I don't necessarily want to see the players regard themselves as underdogs, but I really liked that quiet determination to never quit they showed against the top-heavy teams. I appreciate that the team has decided to go with youth and let the kids have a chance to adopt the fledgling identity forged in the playoffs. If they're the right sort of kids, they can learn from it, and then build on it with their own talents. That's a little tougher now, with the loss of team-first guys like Metropolit, Halak and Moore, but I'm hopeful Eller, Boyd, White and Price are smart enough to leave the egos outside the room and buy into what their more-experienced teammates are selling.
The team's immediate future depends on them pulling their weight, and pulling together. I think the day is coming, and soon, when you can ask anyone about the Montreal Canadiens and they'll say, "Oh yeah, that team is fast, hardworking, determined and they always find a way to win." That's the identity they've started to build, and that's what the kids will have to help carry on.