This has been a weird off-season for me. Usually, I spend the five or six months between Habs games remembering the season past, reading hockey books and calculating how the Canadiens can get better through the draft and free agency.
This year, I immediately dismissed the season past because it was a year marred by injury, which immediately sets any team, no matter how stacked, in the underdog's kennel. I've no appetite for hockey stories, so the books I'm reading are about anything but: "The Help," "Unbroken." (MUST read, by the way.) The only ice in them is in drinks. And the future, shadowed by a Bruins Cup celebration, seems a bit unpalatable.
So, the draft came along on a weekend when I was on an out-of-town trip. I had to check the highlights to see who the Habs picked. Nathan Beaulieu seems a good risk at #17. His scouting report pegs him as something of a bigger Breezer, which, when padded by the right people, isn't a bad thing.
Free agency happened on a day I had sitting at home, so I thought I'd check it out. Seems GMs generally go temporarily insane on that day and then end up trying to dump their hard-earned acquisitions less than halfway into their contracts. Last year apparently turned the tide. Most GMs were patient and waited until the objects of their affections were just a little bit desperate. Alas, that circumspection didn't last. This year was rife with stupid contracts. In the midst of it, Pete the Goat was relatively careful.
Knowing the Canadiens can't compete regurlarly with Darche or Moen in the top six, Gauthier added a Serious Top Line winger in Erik Cole. The term was about a year too long and the money about a million too much, but that's free agency for you. The question now is: will Cole be the same guy we hated in Carolina? Without Eric Staal centring him, that's a legitimate mystery. We can hope he'll find chemistry with Plekanec, Gomez or Eller, but right now that's just a hope.
The thing with Cole is, if he pans out, he's big, he's strong, he scores tons of even-strength points and he goes to the net. He's everything the Habs need, and worth the money in that case. If he doesn't...if he's Edmonton Cole...he's another Gomez. So, for all of you who are flipping out celebrating Cole's rejuvination of the Habs' top lines, think about the idea that reality might be slightly different from your current fantasy.
Peter Budaj is similar. He's got a reputation for being a hard-working, team-oriented guy. He'll be a backup without complaint, and he's a welcome teammate. Whether he'll be able to calm Carey Price the way Alex Auld did is up in the air. Obviously, the team took him on for two years because he's supposed to offer some kind of insurance as a starter in case Price gets hurt. Unfortunately, his history shows he's not really cut out to be an NHL starter, at least with any measure of success. So, hopefully, Price stays healthy and Budaj isn't tested beyond the 15 games he's currently slated to play.
Gauthier should not be done yet. After allowing both Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski to walk, he's got to provide a veteran defenceman, preferably of the steady-in-his-own-zone variety to fill in for injuries. And, having let Jeff Halpern and Tom Pyatt go, he needs to come up with someone who can both win faceoffs (vital, considering the records of the current centers) and kill penalties. A guy who can fight if need be would also be an asset. A lot of Habs fans are clamouring for Zenon Konopka right now. He can both win faceoffs and fight, but whether he can actually play hockey in between is up for debate. In this regard, I trust Gauthier to target someone we're not remotely coveting right now, but who'll become a steal before the season is over.
All in all, the off-season has been subtle and discreet so far. The players Gauthier has added are neither stars nor duds. They may very well add something to a team that was very close to competing in last year's playoffs. Then again, they may struggle to fit in. The thing about free agency is that you can't assume anything. We can hope, but not assume.