The first rule of pre-season is: it's pre-season. Established NHL hockey players do not push themselves in pre-season games. The point of those games is to let the real players ease up to game speed, while the coaches watch the prospects and try-outs for possibilities. Those are the guys who play like their jocks are filled with itching powder. So, when Ryan White looks fantastic in camp, it's because he's trying to win a job. And when Scott Gomez looks lackadaisical it's because he's already got one. (Listening to Pierre McGuire criticize Gomez' "compete level" in an exhibition game won the prize for Most Ridiculous Pre-Season Comment.) There's no explanation for Tomas Plekanec.
In any event, with some guys trying like hell and others just trying not to hurt themselves, fans can't really draw a whole lot of valid conclusions about the team based on pre-season. Lines are all over the place, only half the team is playing at a time and important guys aren't yet at full speed. Still, even with the understanding that pre-season has its definite limitations, some things are so glaringly obvious, they can't be dismissed.
One thing the pre-season has revealed for Habs fans is that there are some serious problems on defence. With Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik yet to play any kind of game, there's doubt about whether either of them will be ready to start the season. Markov almost certainly won't. Last year, when Markov went down in the first game of the year, Hamrlik and Spacek were the ones who really stepped up and took on those top minutes. They were the guys who kept the team from a total swan dive. This time around, Hamrlik's hurt too. Spacek, well, frankly, he's been scary in the pre-season.
Scott Gomez, in his memorable cameo as CJAD colour man last week joked that his third star of the game would be Spacek because, "He finally figured out our guys are in the red jerseys and he didn't make five giveaways. It's a big step for him." He was joking, but he had reason for the comment. Other regulars have looked a bit slow or have ducked a hit or two. Spacek has been terrible. He's been giving the puck away, failing to clear it, failing to keep his man off the front of his net and getting caught out of position. A lot. It may be a pre-season thing, but it's not encouraging to see such a level of confusion on the part of the only remaining senior member of the top four.
Hal Gill and Josh Gorges are their usual solid bottom-pairing selves. That's important and valuable, but they can't replace a functioning top pair.
P.K.Subban is a kid. He's a phenomenally talented kid, but he's impetuous and emotional. He's taken seven minor penalties, four of them stupid, during the pre-season. He's still inclined to take big chances on offence that will inevitably lead to him getting caught on D. He'll take penalties to make up for getting caught, and the resulting PKs will cost the team goals. It happened in Hamilton last year, and it will continue in Montreal this year. In a year or two, he's going to be a star. Right now, though, he's a kid who's going to make a lot of mistakes as he learns how to become that star. He should not be the guy people look at to solve the team's defensive problems.
Ryan O'Byrne is a tall, cool drink of potential that's been stymied by misfortune and a lack of confidence. That's not getting any better. We saw him in the last game against Buffalo let himself be stripped by a guy who won't be in the NHL this year, costing a goal. When he went back to the bench, the TV camera focused on him. His expression was just crushed. He knew the coach isn't a fan of his, and he knew his mistake was a perfect example of the kind of play Martin hates. He knew he was fighting for a spot and his hopes took a blow with that play.
Alex Henry is a big, reliable minor-league defenceman who's great if the play is directly in front of him. He's tough and will fight, but if Ovechkin is coming down on him, chances are, he'll lose that battle. Yannick Weber is a smart, small guy who's positionally sound, but can get pushed around. He's also as much a rookie as Subban. The best two physical defencemen the team has drafted in years are trying out for the Rangers right now.
All in all, the Canadiens will start the season with a pretty iffy situation on the blueline. It may yet turn out great. All indications during pre-season, though, say it's going to be rough on the back end for a while. Then again, the first rule of pre-season is: it's pre-season.