Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we've got ourselves a team...at least to start the season. With Carey Price signed to back up Alex Auld*, the Habs are okay in net. They have seven NHL-calibre defencemen in Markov, Subban, Hamrlik, Spacek, Gill, Gorges and O'Byrne, and at least three more capable of playing in the NHL if needed. The top two lines are set for now, with Plekanec, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn on the first and Gomez, Gionta and Pouliot on the second. Of the remaining seven forward positions, Darche, Lapierre, Moen and Pyatt have four of them and two more will likely be taken by Boyd and Eller. It seems like the only question to be answered at camp will be who'll win the battle for that last bottom-line job.
There are a couple of specific problems the coaching staff will be trying to solve at camp, though. The Habs' special teams need help right out of the gate.
The Canadiens power play has finished top five in the NHL four times in the last five years, topping the league twice. That's because it's followed a very successful formula. Setting up three slick forwards around the circles draws the defenders in. Lining up Andrei Markov on the left point with a left-shooting cannon on the right opens up the deadly attack from the blue line. If opponents defend the net, they get burned from the point. If they defend the point shot, Markov sneaks in and burns them at the net. It doesn't really matter who's firing the cannon. Sheldon Souray had a career year on the PP with Markov. He bolted to Edmonton and Mark Streit stepped in, keeping the PP in first place. When Streit left for New York, the team attempted to make Markov the shooter on the PP, rather than the set-up guy. It was horrible. The Habs hovered near last place in power-play goals for most of the season, until, in desperation, Bob Gainey went out and traded for Mathieu Schneider. Things started to turn around right away. Last year, there wasn't a plan until Markov got hurt and Gainey hired Marc Andre Bergeron and his bazooka point shot.
So, going into this season, the PP is again missing a trigger man. When the roster is healthy, Subban will be taking Bergeron's spot in the lineup. That would be fine, because Subban's got a rocket of a shot too, if he wasn't a right-handed shooter. He is, though, so he's not going to work with Markov on the one-timer like Streit, Souray and Bergeron did. Yannick Weber has a nice, heavy shot, but there's no room for him on the team unless he displaces O'Byrne in camp or someone else gets hurt early on in the season. So, in camp this year, there will have to be a solution to the missing link on the power play.
Barring a significant change on D, or Spacek finding his shot this year, something's got to change with that old successful formula. A couple of the choices are to have a forward...perhaps Andre Kostitsyn...play the right point, with Subban setting up in the mid-slot like he did at the 2009 World Junior Championships. It's possible to have Subban be the point man on the right with someone other than Markov setting him up. Another idea is to have Subban take the left point and Markov the right, in the shooter's role. It didn't work before, but Markov never had anybody who could work the puck like Subban before. There are some possibilities there, but the coaches need to have something in place by the time camp is over.
The PK needs some help too, mainly because Tomas Plekanec shouldn't be killing every penalty this year. He had a great season last year, but his point production dropped off somewhat after the Olympics. He looked like he was out of gas as the playoffs wound down too. Killing penalties is hard work, and Plekanec is good at it, which is helpful when a team takes as many as the Habs do. In the last few years, however, Pleks has really developed the offensive side of his game and he should be allowed to focus on that more this season. He should only be killing penalties in really vital situations so he stays fresher down the stretch. That means someone else has to step up in that role. It's an opportunity for Boyd, Eller or White (if he makes it) to take on some of the PK responsibility and let guys like Pleks and Gomez worry about scoring the goals.
Special teams are more important than ever in the NHL, so camp is the time to fill some of those holes and identify solutions. The Canadiens can't open the season this year just hoping the PP will work itself out, or that Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez can kill every penalty. Now that the roster is pretty much set to start the new campaign, it's up to the coaches to put the right men in the right jobs and trust they make the decisions that will give the team the best start it can get.
*Just kidding! Couldn't resist.