Remember on the first day of school, when you'd show up with your new school bag and the jeans with the crease still in the legs, all nervous about your new teacher? Or at least you were nervous until you looked around and saw the new kid, standing there miserably uncertain and alone. The new kid has the toughest job in school. He's got to be cool enough to fit in, but not cocky enough to have the other kids think he's a jerk. If he's weird or different, he'll be eaten alive.
The Canadiens' new kids are facing a big challenge too. They'll all have jobs to do, but even more importantly, they'll also have to find a place on a team that bonded pretty tightly last spring. Chemistry within a team is a delicate thing. Last season, management purged the distractions of Georges Laraque and Sergei Kostitsyn, to help build that chemistry. The guys coming in will have some pressure on them to fit in and make sure they don't rock what has become a very stable team foundation.
Jeff Halpern will find a place. He's a smart guy, with an economics degree from Princeton. He's been a leader too, having captained his college team in his senior year, as well as Team USA at the 2008 World Championships and the Washington Capitals. Having been the leader of the pack before, he knows how important it is for the new guy to ease his way in and not try to take over. He understands he's got to work to get respect, because he's done it everywhere he's been.
"But I think the biggest thing is my approach that my job can be taken away at any moment, from Day 1," Halpern said in 2008. "This game is so enjoyable. I always say the best thing about the NHL is you get to continue your youth. And get to do it for a living. I know the players who have moved on, they miss being in a room with the competitive atmosphere of the season."
Halpern also knows the pain of losing, first hand. In his senior year in college, Princeton was tied with Michigan in the NCAA playoffs when he scored the winning goal on his own net. It took a long time for him to get over that, but he learned patience, humility and perseverance from the experience. That's the kind of mindset the Canadiens can welcome.
He's had personal difficulty to overcome in his life as well. In 2001, Halpern tore his anterior cruciate ligament on January 16, ironically, in a game against the Canadiens, and had season-ending surgery. He was coming off a strong second season offensively, but never scored as many goals again after the operation. Tragedy struck his family on February 11, 2005 when his mother, Gloria, along with his aunt and uncle were killed in a horrific automobile accident. Those kinds of sorrows and disappointments make or break a man, and Halpern has survived.
Alex Auld is another guy who will probably fit in pretty well. He's bounced around the NHL for his entire career, never quite making a bid to be a number-one goalie. The Canadiens are his eighth team and by now, he's used to being the new kid. He says all the right things, accepting his role as a backup. He won't complain if he doesn't play much. He'll also have his teammates' backs in a way other guys respect.
In 2006, while backing up Ed Belfour with the Panthers, Belfour caused a disturbance in a nightclub. A bunch of his teammates, including Auld, tried to get him to leave and go up to his room. Witnesses said Belfour was flailing around and fighting off his teammates. At some point during the proceedings, Auld fell and smacked his head, causing him to miss playing time. He could have skewered Belfour and told the truth about what happened. Instead, he sucked it up, said it was an accident and partly his fault, and helped reduce the heat on Belfour. That's the kind of guy who makes an effort to be part of the team.
It's kind of cool he was actually a goalie model for the creators of NHL 07 too, so at least he's got a conversation starter in his favour.
Dustin Boyd has never done anything really noteworthy in the NHL, or even given a memorable interview. He's just a kid with some skills who's never been able to find the consistency to fulfill that talent. He's looking at his third team in two years, so he's got to know he's on borrowed time to prove something at the NHL level. The good thing about him is he's got a reputation for hard work and a willingness to stand up for his mates. If he does that and spends his time trying to even out his game, he'll find a place.
Lars Eller is a kid who's more than a self-interested hockey player. In playing for the Blues' AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, last season, he became the team's nominee for AHL man of the year, for his outstanding contributions to the local community and charitable organizations. Most of the guys who receive those nominations are the older guys who've been around a while. It's not often that a rookie, especially a European rookie playing his first North American season, gets a nod like that. It says something about the kind of character Eller has.
On the ice, he joined PK Subban on the AHL all-rookie team; a fact a lot of people forget when drooling over Subban's potential. He didn't waste time scoring in the NHL either, potting one in his first game for the Blues. He showed he can step it up in big games when he helped Denmark beat the US at the World Championships last year. His skill and his off-ice demeanor are both needed on the Canadiens roster, and if he works hard, he'll have a place. (A little aside for fans who hate the leafs: Eller was actually chosen with the first-round pick Toronto sent to San Jose in the Vesa Toskala/Mark Bell trade. Thanks, leafs.)
The last new guy the Habs will welcome this year is P.K. Subban. After last spring's playoffs, we forget this is actually Subban's rookie season and that he's played only two regular-season NHL games. Still he's already proven he can fit in with the team pretty seamlessly. Unusually for a new kid, he even adds something important to the room. It's almost prophetic when you look back at some of the things Subban has said about his competitive mindset.
"It kind of just clicks! I mean the playoffs are where good players are separated from the great players, and that's what motivated me", he said during the Belleville Bulls playoff run in 2007. "I wanted to be better than everybody else in the most important time of the year."
In the same year, just after his draft, an interviewer asked him what NHL team or player he most looked forward to playing against. He said, "Sidney Crosby, because I look forward to challenging him one on one." Remembering how he performed in the playoffs for the Canadiens, and specifically, how brilliantly he matched Crosby move for move, it's clear Subban has the determination he needs to achieve his goals. That belongs on this Habs' roster. It's the type of attitude Pierre Gauthier meant when he talked today about the Canadiens being skilled and intelligent.
Subban is also careful to understand his immense, and really undeserved (just yet), popularity could be a source of division in the room. He welcomes the teasing of the veterans and speaks with great humility to make sure his teammates know he's not getting a fat head from all the attention. This is a kid too smart not to find his niche.
The first days with a new group are never easy for the new kids. It's especially tough when the group is as tight as the Habs became last spring. These newcomers, though, have the tools and the attitude they need to fit into that group. And fitting in is the first and most important step in being able to effectively do the jobs for which they were hired.