Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Just a rant

Well, this one has nothing to do with the Habs, unless it's because I share Bob Gainey's disdain for Brian Burke, after the latter disclosed Gainey's private discussions during the draft two years ago. Or possibly because I deplore the fact that Gainey and the Canadiens have to operate in the same league as Burke and poor, senile Cliff Fletcher.

The news came out yesterday that the leafs tried to acquire Bobby Ryan and Mathieu Schneider from Anaheim for a conditional first round pick in 2009 and two prospects. Are you kidding me?? Bobby Ryan, who may be good one day, but hasn't been the dominating first-round power forward the Ducks were hoping to get, and Mathieu Schneider whom Burke regretted signing at age 39 with that giant salary, and whom he was willing to dump on waivers to anyone who'd take the veteran's contract so Burke could sign Teemu? I'm assuming the "conditional" on the first round pick was based on Schneider re-signing with the leafs.

In other words, Cliff Fletcher went, of his own free will, to Brian Burke and offered him two young prospects AND the (potentially) first-overall pick in 2009...Tavares...for a borderline bust and a veteran Burke wanted to dump anyway. And Burke rejected it. Which tells me two things. First, that Fletcher is either A: senile or, B: incompetent, because WHAT GM who's allegedly rebuilding makes that trade? And, second, that Burke will be the leaf's GM this time next year. Because WHAT GM would turn down that trade, if he intends to stay with his current team?

I can't believe Fletcher was willing to trade a package like that...the most coveted first rounder since Crosby...AND two prospects of which the leafs have so very few worth talking about. Even worse, I can't believe Burke turned it down. It's so underhanded and so dirty...it's such a statement that Burke is out of Anaheim. He wouldn't allow Fletcher to further decimate the team he (Burke) hopes to take over next year. It's much easier, after all, to look like a hero if you're reviving a dead team with Tavares than without him. So Burke saved Fletcher from his own idiocy, for Burke's own unadmitted purposes.

I hate that the blatently incompetent and the underhanded operate under the same system as Gainey. It's so much harder to compete when you're trying to be within the rules and above board. But there it is. No one can say it wasn't an honest trade that just didn't go through. But, if Brian Burke isn't the GM of the leafs this time next year, I will print this and eat it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Breaking up is hard to do

I think there's little doubt that the Habs' first line starting this season will be Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn flanking Tomas Plekanec. The trio developed chemistry last year when the line's original centre, Mikhail Grabovski, proved he wasn't the right player for the position. Carbonneau plugged in Plekanec, and the line, except for the odd inevitable case of Carbo's mid-game tinkering, never looked back. Kovalev revitalized his career with his second-best offensive totals and Plekanec and Kostitsyn had breakout years with 29 and 26 goals respectively. They bumped the Saku Koivu line down the pecking order, and they were the three players called on to produce whenever the team really needed a goal.

So, it may seem a little crazy to suggest breaking up the line to start the year. Why mess with success, right? Even so, I think that's what should happen. The main reason I take that view is Andrei Kostitsyn, and the question of his development. The pundits and fans agree his very strong pre-season is a good sign that he's ready to better last year's totals with a monster year on the scoreboard. I think he's got a strong chance to do that. But I think it would be easier for him to develop into the dominant player we think he can be if he were playing his natural position.

Andrei Kostitsyn is a right winger, but to make room for Kovalev, he's been playing left wing on the Plekanec line. It's a testament to his talent that he's flourished on his off-wing. He's opportunistic and quick and he gets in there for the rebounds and redirections off his linemates' shots. He's powerful and has a great shot of his own too. But the truly great moments, the highlight-reel goals he's scored, the ones where he waltzes through an entire opposing team and makes you go Wow! have happened when he's playing right wing.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Imagine an entire season of Kostitsyn on the right side, pulling those kinds of moves with greater regularity. If the Habs were fun to watch last year, I think switching Andrei back to his proper position would make the team even more exciting.

Of course, switching Kostitsyn would mean the inevitable breakup of the first line as it now stands. AK46 and Plekanec have undeniable chemistry, which could continue even with Kovalev off the line. The left wing position could obviously be filled by Christopher Higgins, with whom the other two had some thrilling moments when they were combined in the last third of the 2006-07 season. That leaves finding a place for Kovalev. We know about his past chemistry with Robert Lang, which might be worth a new attempt, with Sergei Kostitsyn or Guillaume Latendresse on the other wing. And the Tanguay/Koivu/Kovalev combination also has intriguing potential, at least on paper. The beauty of this year's lineup is that there really isn't a bad-looking trio in any combination of the top nine forwards you might want to create. So, with more balanced offensive lines, it's a perfect opportunity to try moving some players around and give Kostitsyn a chance to explode in his natural position.

And hey, it's Carbonneau we're talking about. If it doesn't work out, you can be sure the lines will be switched back before you can say "Kostitsyn scores!" anyway.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Invisible Man

I think it's time for Bob Gainey to offer someone a serious, long-term deal. Not a DiPietro-type deal, but more long-term than Gainey is in the habit of offering. Say, six or seven years. With so many players...important, cornerstone players...heading for various forms of free agency, locking up one of the best of them now would help Gainey in his planning for the next few seasons. And, no, I'm not talking about Christopher Higgins or Mike Komisarek. I think Gainey's first long-term deal should go to Tomas Plekanec.

Two seasons ago, Plekanec was recognized by the NHL as being one of the best bargains in terms of bang-for-buck in a formula averaging points scored per dollar earned. I haven't seen that statistic worked out for last year, but I'm pretty sure it would be tough to find a better bargain than Plekanec's 69 points and 1.4 million-dollar salary. This season, Plekanec will make 1.8 million, and if the first two pre-season games he's played are any indication, he's coming into the Habs' Centennial campaign fit and determined to improve on last year.

The thing is, Plekanec is very often an afterthought when people talk about the Habs' good young players. He's turning 26 on Halloween, and in his three full seasons with the Canadiens has quietly improved from 29, to 47, to last year's 69 points. Maybe it's because he was a late bloomer, or maybe because he was pegged as a small, defensive-minded player and people have trouble changing their image of him that he flies under the radar. Whatever the reason, when the subject of the Habs' pending free agents comes up, Plekanec is rarely mentioned among the players most fans consider priorities for re-signing. Mike Komisarek tends to top most people's lists as the player most needed back next year.

I agree Komisarek is very valuable to the team, and I would like to see him signed to a nice three or four-year deal. The sole reason I wouldn't want him locked up for six or seven seasons is his style of play. He's a beast, without question, when it comes to hits, blocked shots and pure, menacing leadership. But blocking all those shots and hitting all those opponents takes a toll on the body, even one as big and strong as Komisarek's. His style opens him up for broken bones and shoulder and back injuries...the kinds of things that can mean long absences from the lineup. It hasn't really happened much yet, but the hip injury he sustained at the end of last season is the kind of thing that can nag and get worse as the years go on. I'd hate to see him signed to a six-year deal, and go down with a major injury after three or four seasons. As much as he's a long-term asset, he's also a long-term risk.

Plekanec, on the other hand, has been extremely durable. He's missed only two games in the last two seasons, both with flu bugs. He plays through minor injuries and although he plays hard, he doesn't put his body in jeopardy on a regular basis like Komisarek does. So, barring grave misfortune or fluke injury, Plekanec is a good bet to stay healthy and play most games.

Then, there's the matter of what he actually contributes to the team. He's recognized as a player who never quits, who gives his all on every shift and who is a shining example of the work ethic the team wants its younger players to display. He brings speed, skill, strong two-way play, determination, a great attitude and a will to win. And, most importantly, he's consistent, rarely going more than a couple of games without a point. In short...he's the kind of player who would improve any team he played on, and he's just coming into his prime. In seven years, Plekanec would still be just thirty-three years old.

Based on his inherent dedication to playing his best game every night, he's not likely to be a one-year wonder. And, if he continues to improve at the rate he has been, and if the market continues to explode in the way it has been, Plekanec is going to be very expensive if Gainey waits too long to re-sign him. A six or seven-year deal signed now, before this season is over, stands a great chance of turning out a bargain for the Canadiens.

Tomas Plekanec might not be the first name that springs to mind when fans talk about the Habs' bit stars, but hey, Bob! Give that invisible man a raise!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Comeback Claude?

So, Claude Lemieux...NHL all-time superpest and Conn Smythe winner...wants to make a comeback. He says after five years away from the game, he misses playing and he thinks he's got the determination needed to polish some pretty rusty skills and give it another shot.

It won't be easy. He's forty-three years old and his last two years of playing hockey saw him skate in just seven games for Zug in the Swiss-A league in 2003, and before that, he split sixty-eight games between Dallas and Phoenix...racking up only 20 points...in 2002-03. It's going to take a hell of a lot of work to get into game shape at his age, and after that long away from the ice. And even if he manages to get the body in shape, there's no guarantee the old skills are still there. Not everyone is Chris Chelios, and even he's had to change the way he plays the game in order to stick around a little longer. I'm not sure Lemieux's all-out, abrasive style even can be reshaped without making the player redundant. He was valuable during his playing career because there was only one of him. If he's got to give that up, he might as well stay in retirement.

In the meantime, he says he's been working out for ten weeks now, and he's skating with the Phoenix Coyotes to help him get up to speed. He must see something encouraging in his progress if he's sticking with it. And he's not asking for an NHL spot. He says all he wants is a tryout with some team's AHL affiliate...a chance to prove himself and work his way back to the big league.

It'll be interesting to see him try this. (Idle fan speculation about gambling debts or some other cash shortage fueling the whole thing notwithstanding.) If there's any player who was able to push himself beyond the ordinary, it was Claude Lemieux. At least he could when he was in his prime, especially in the playoffs. What's really going to be interesting, though, is whether some team buys into this attempt and gives the old man a shot.

I'm almost tempted, if he can pass the same physical tests all the younger guys pass, to hope Bob Gainey extends Lemieux an invitation to the Bulldogs' camp next week. If Lemieux tried out and failed to compete with the prospects, well, no harm done. At worst, Gainey would look good for giving an old colleague a chance. But if he can cut it, Lemieux would be a strong veteran influence with the 'Dogs...kind of like his former teammate Mike Keane is with Vancouver's farm team. And when roster restrictions are lifted after the trade deadline, there would be nothing stopping the Canadiens from calling him up to help out during the Cup drive one more time.

In this very special year for the Habs, the groundwork for fairy tales has already been laid. How cool would it be to see the Habs going for their twenty-fifth Cup on their hundredth birthday...with one of the heroes of '86 back to share the glory? Could you imagine Lemieux dipping into the fountain of youth once more to score a massive game-tying or winning goal? I know that's not likely...far from it. It's probably more likely Lemieux' old bones won't be able to meet the challenge.

But remembering the rookie who challenged Patrick Roy for the Conn Smythe back in 1986 with his ten goals in twenty games, and the guy whose passion helped push two other teams to Cup wins as well...my heart says give him a shot. After all, the Canadiens have little or nothing to lose. And a fairy tale has to have a beginning, right?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

You know you're a Habs' fan when...

I was thinking about this today, and came up with a list. Here are my top ten reasons you know you're a Habs' fan:

10. When you blow out the candles on your birthday cake, your wish is for a big, right-handed centre.

9. When the clue in crossword puzzles is "A city in Finland," your first response is always "Turku."

8. You actually have an opinion about the summer workout regimen of a 21-year-old fat goalie.

7. When playing pickup, you will not wear the numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 16, 18, 19, 23, 29 or 33 because they're retired.

6. The number 21, 273 means something to you.

5. Bob Cole's call of the final minute of the 1993 Stanley Cup Final can still make you choke up a little. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcGsHvjMS00

4. March 17 is the anniversary of the Richard Riot. St.Patrick is a Conn Smythe-winning goalie.

3. A Habs' loss has been known to put you out of "the mood." A win, on the other hand...

2. You refuse to write "leaf" with a capital "L."

And, the number one reason you know you're a Habs' fan:

1. You do not actually speak good French, but you watch eighty-two games a year, plus playoffs, on RDS and completely understand what Houde, Demers et al. are talking about. And you wouldn't trade it for anything.


I hate preseason hockey. It's the first taste of the sport we get after the loooonnnggg off-season, so the excitement around such a meaningless event is way out of proportion. Then, when the team gets pasted, as it did last night in Halifax, we see the first chunks of airy blue hit the ground around the sky-is-falling crowd.

Sure, it's not fun to see the team come out on the wrong end of an 8-3 score, to the Bruins of all teams, (okay, maybe the Leafs would have been worse) even if it is only preseason. But to let the result colour expectations of the coming season is a bit silly. Yet, some fans are already saying Jaro Halak isn't as good as we all thought he was, that Sergei Kostitsyn's poor game means he's set for a sophomore slump and Alex Tanguay disappeared after the team got down by a couple. Of course we know those things are probably not true in the big picture, but the fear is there that a loss like that might sow even the tiniest seeds of doubt in the minds of the players that they might not be as good as they think they are. And in a season when the team needs every single ounce of confidence and energy it can muster if it hopes to live up to its own and its fans' expectations, even the tiniest doubt is too big.

The truth is, the Habs played a Boston team much more pumped to prove something than they were. And many of the Canadiens' players, particularly defencemen, will not be on the Centennial opening-night roster. It was a lousy effort by half a team playing its first game in four months after just two days of "training camp" and a same-day arrival in Halifax. Big deal. It doesn't mean the Habs will be disfunctional this year. It doesn't mean Halak is weak or Tanguay heartless. It does mean...exactly nothing. Which is another big reason why I hate preseason hockey.

I don't like sending out players on whom the team depends to contest these pointless battles. Last night, Roman Hamrlik left the ice with a groin injury as a "precaution" according to Coach Carbo. He's a player the Canadiens can ill afford to lose for an extended period of time regardless, but his loss would certainly hurt more if the injury happened in a preseason game. The Penguins are feeling the truth of that with the loss of PP quarterback and general pack animal on defence, Sergei Gonchar, for an undetermined part of the coming season...all due to a shoulder injury sustained in a meaningless game.

I understand the players need game time to build line chemistry and to get up to speed for the coming season, and the preseason is a good chance for prospects to get a taste of the big leagues and show what they can do. But so many games pressed into such a short period of time, especially after only two days of on-ice work, seems to me to be a little irresponsible on the part of the teams who arrange these things. The games are an additional source of league revenue of course, which makes the case in favour of them a strong one in the eyes of NHL management and owners. However, there should be a more responsible way of scheduling them.

In the end, for reasons of tradition or economics, preseason games will go ahead as they always do. I'm not hoping for a great record or for the Habs to prove to the league that they're Cup contenders. I just want them to find their feet for the start of the real season. And I hope they come out of the preseason healthy and mentally ready to make a splash when it really counts.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chippin' away

As a Montreal Canadiens' fan, I'm delighted to see so many prospects almost ready for prime time that the team has to bring fifty-two guys to training camp. And I'm thrilled that so many of the regular roster spots on the big team are filled by players who are young enough to hold those spots for many years to come. The abundance of talent is balm to the afflicted soul of a fan who's lived through the last sixteen years of post-season futility. Those who clearly remember the great seventies teams say today's squad is the closest thing the Habs have had to that slick, savvy, fast style that was their trademark thirty years ago in...well...thirty years.

But if Isaac Newton is to be believed, for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, if the action is filling the big team with young talent, the reaction is the creation of a backlog that leaves good young players stagnating in the minors. And there we have another similarity to the last Habs' dynasty. Just as it was true that the seventies teams were ripe with youth and talent, and were great at drafting and holding onto their prospects, it was also true that those teams were the Waterloo of many a young player's career. Back then, if players had the skill and didn't want to sweat it out for years in the minors, they could go to the WHA. Now, it's Europe or the KHL, or a move to some bottom-feeding NHL team with few prospects competing for big-league roster spots.

We've seen some of that effect in the Habs' current system already. Corey Locke and Mikhail Grabovsky were high on the Canadiens' prospect lists for years, and do, in fact, have skills. Whether those skills will translate to NHL careers of any note is still to be determined. But there's Grabovsky, not strong enough to crack the Habs' roster last year, now pencilled in as the Leafs' number-one centre. All of which brings me around to Kyle Chipchura.

Chipchura was drafted in the first round for the express purpose of developing into a big, strong, smart, shutdown centre. He's got a lot of the natural tools, as well as being known as a good leader on every team on which he's played. He was good enough to make the Canadiens last year out of camp because he busted his butt to do so. But then, a mid-season drop in energy and the need to work on his faceoffs resulted in his demotion to Hamilton and replacement on the big club by Maxim Lapierre. The demotion, coupled with the acquisition of Robert Lang as a third-line centre, not to mention the plethora of players fighting for fourth-line spots in Montreal, seems to have sucked the hope out of Chipchura.

No one is saying he's injured, so when every report out of camp from reporters and from fans, reveals a disheartened, apparently disinterested player, it's more than a little surprising. For someone like me, who was there in Montreal to see Chipchura score his first NHL goal, it's a big disappointment. Just when the guy needs to work even harder to prove he's progressed and deserves a spot over a guy like Dandenault, he seems to be dogging it a bit. Meanwhile, Dandenault is skating his feet down to the ankle bones in an effort to hold onto his spot.

Now, I don't know if Chipchura isn't making a great impression so far because he's just better in games than in drills...maybe that's the case. But by all reports, he's not even hustling in the drills. I mean, you can make mistakes at this point in practice, but you have to at least look like you're trying hard while you're making them. He'll get a shot to show some enthusiasm in game situations in the next few days, and hopefully he'll step it up and fight for his place.

If he doesn't; if he allows the packed roster in Montreal and the younger Trotter and Maxwell breathing down his neck in Hamilton to get him down, he'll go the way of Grabovsky and Locke. And that would be too bad, because I think Chipchura will eventually fulfill the promise the Habs saw when they drafted him in the first round. I just hope he has the mental fortitude to chip away at the stone into which the Canadiens' lineup is set, and wedge himself in there. And, if he can't; if it's Hamilton for another year for him, I hope the demotion doesn't break his spirit.

While it's true he'd probably already be in the NHL if he was a Leaf or a Thrashers' prospect, being a Hab will be worth the wait. He just can't quit in the meantime. Because, make no mistake, Kyle Chipchura is a test case for what we're going to see in the next few seasons. With Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Josh Gorges, Ryan O'Byrne and (presumably) Mike Komisarek holding down blueline spots for the next few years, young D-men like Pavel Valentenko, Mathieu Carle, Yannick Weber and Alexei Yemelin, who are all almost ready for the show, are going to be spinning their wheels while they wait for a chance in Montreal. There's going to be a need for patience on the part of the players, and the big team's management is going to have to handle them with care, making sure there's enough hope to go around.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Talkin' the talk

Well, I have to say, I like what I'm hearing. The boys are back and they're saying all the right things. More than right. They sound quietly confident and excited about the year to come. This is the first time I can remember the team talking Stanley Cup on the first day of training camp, as in, they have a real chance to win it. It's just like Steve Shutt said to me, "The Canadiens were successful because we looked to the Stanley Cup on the first day of camp, and never took our eyes off it until the last day of the playoffs." It's been a long time since a Canadiens' team opened the year with the philosophy of those dynasty teams. And it's not just talk, either. These players are sounding like a group with something to prove.

The risk this year is that the team is rushing ahead in its development because of the Centennial. Imagine the season to come, without the pressure of having to win to mark the big anniversary. We'd be looking forward to a great season, just because the team is young and exciting. But throw the hundredth birthday in there, and the idea that anything less than a Cup would be a disappointment is born...fair expectation or not. Fortunately, the moves Bob Gainey made this off-season will certainly help the team in that direction. With any luck, the great expectations of the players this year will serve to spur them on rather than intimidate them. But a Cup requires more than just a good young team. It needs blood, dedication, superior goaltending, lucky breaks and healthy bodies to go along with the skills. We understand that, but at the same time, it's hard not to think big when the players are doing their best to answer every question that's in their power to resolve.

Questions about whether Carey Price is ready to be the number one goalie, and whether last year's playoff meltdown was the real guy or not will be answered on the ice soon. But you have to like what he's saying...and doing. He was told he was out of shape last season, so he went home and trimmed the fat and learned how to eat properly. Now he says he feels quicker and hopes his endurance will be better if he follows his nutritionist's instruction. He worked hard to get better, and that's got to inspire his teammates' confidence.

The Russian national team criticised Alex Kovalev's speed, or lack thereof, last year. So he buckled down to work and cut some weight in an effort to get quicker. He's a guy who had a near-career year last year, but still cares enough to want to prove those guys wrong. That's the "I'll show 'em" attitude that wins Cups.

Guillaume Latendresse has been called fat and slow in his first two years in the NHL. Now, at 21, he's spent a summer working hard and re-learning how to skate, to the point at which conditioning coach Scott Livingston says he's gone from being one of the slowest on the team last camp to one of the five quickest this year. That's a man who really wants to show the world he's got what it takes to be a good NHL player.

Saku Koivu isn't saying the team is definitely going to win the Cup, but he talks about telling reporters how it will feel "after we win it." Victory is on his mind, and you can tell he senses something big building when he talks about the team being the best Habs squad he ever played on.

Mike Komisarek is talking about building on last year and taking it a step further this season. He wants to be where Detroit was last year, and he's not shy about saying he thinks the team can do it. Chris Higgins isn't talking about scoring forty goals, a prediction which put heavy pressure on him to perform last year...pressure he ultimately couldn't withstand. So, this year, he's quietly saying he wants to be more consistent and a better leader; goals he can fulfill, and outcomes that help a team win when it counts.

The words are certainly the right ones. But the words pronounced on the first day of training camp are often very different from those spoken by Christmas. In the case of this team, though, the actions backing up the bold words are more convincing. It feels different this year, because the players are different. They're excited, but they're confident in their added maturity and they're determined. And this year, they've got the talent...and hard work...to put their money where their mouths are.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The window is open...drive through

Well, the general consensus among the preseason pundits is that the Habs are in line to repeat as Eastern Conference champions, or at least finish in the top three. The mystique of the Centennial also has some experts calling the Canadiens legitimate Cup contenders for the first time in sixteen years. Of course, they're not pulling that assessment out of their butts entirely. The Habs are going to be a strong, well-balanced team. With the additions of Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay, they'll have the ability to roll three strong offensive-minded forward lines...all with the ability to play a little D as well. And the gritty, abrasive and energetic fourth line, with the addition of Georges Laraque's toughness will do some damage in its own way.

Fans and reporters alike are already making up their preferred line combinations, even though it looks, on paper, as though there really isn't a bad combo to be had. Lang with Kovalev and Higgins? Sure...that'd work. What about with Higgins and Latendresse? No problem. Plekanec centering Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn? Yup, that's good. Or between the two Kostitsyn brothers? No harm trying that one either. One thing we can be certain of...Guy Carbonneau will try every one we can think of, and some we can't, before the season winds down to playoff time.

That balance, then, is one of the signs that the Habs are ready to make a run at the Cup, and that their time...that precious window of opportunity...is now. The big push has perhaps been accelerated a little because of the Centennial, but there's no question Bob Gainey is going for it. While the offence seems to be improved since last year; Lang's and Tanguay's expected totals being likely to top Bryan Smolinski's, Michael Ryder's and Mark Streit's combined, there are still a couple of questions outstanding. Can Ryan O'Byrne or Josh Gorges be the fourth defenceman the team needs to put up big minutes and shut down the threats on the other side? Can Carey Price and Jaro Halak be good enough to bring home a Cup? Gainey's tried to address those as best he can with the signings of Patrice Brisebois as veteran insurance on D, and Marc Denis to perform the same role in the net.

What's scary for fans...and maybe for the players as well...is that the window is such a narrow one. In the last several years, we've seen Buffalo rise and fall, Ottawa contend, then slump and Pittsburgh surge, then lose a good chunk of their depth this off-season. Pre-lockout, a team could be strong for five or six years before beginning its inevitable decline. Now, with free agency beginning so much earlier and the salaries players fetch on the open market being what they are, teams' cores are disintegrating more quickly than they ever have. The window of opportunity can open more quickly than a team had planned with a couple of quick free agent additions, but it also closes after only a brief season or two.

The Detroit Red Wings seem to be the only exception to that rule. They quietly build their team in their proven style every year, draft well and wait for their opportunity to strike. Last year, a season in which no surging Anaheim or Cinderella Carolina or Tampa pushed to the fore, Detroit grabbed that opportunity to add another Cup to its legacy. Their window is always open, even if circumstances don't allow them a Cup every year. I'm glad Bob Gainey is trying to build the Canadiens in that mold.

The Centennial window, with so many Habs free agents pending at the end of the year, could be very brief. But Gainey has seen to it that another window will open within a year or two. The Canadiens aren't likely to be crippled by free agent departures like Buffalo, or handcuffed by inequitable division of the team's allotted salary between a few stars and the rest of the team. It's a good pattern to settle into...a couple of years of serious contention, rebuild quickly from a strong farm and then contend again. Or, at least as good a pattern as any GM could hope to follow in this salary-cap era.

So, Gainey has done his part to open the window this year. And, if there's a need at trade deadline time, he'll do his best to address it and push the embrasure a little wider. After that, it's up to the team he's assembled to decide if it's ready to walk through. The Canadiens' squad we're looking at now may not be the most ideal at every position to have the very best chance of winning this year...but it's good enough to take a real stab at it if luck, health and desire lend wings to their skills. In a time when a team's window of opportunity slams shut pretty quickly, maybe no one can wait for perfection to make a run anymore. In about six months from now, we'll know whether our guys are made of more opportunistic stuff than their opponents who've failed to grab their own chances in recent years. Those of us who want to add a hundredth-birthday present to the team's great legacy hope they are.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Odd man out?

With less than a week to go before training camp opens, the Canadiens have 24 men on their NHL roster. Since the official roster maximum is 23, that means someone's got to go. The question is, who bites the bullet to whittle the number down?

The smart money says it will be either Mathieu Dandenault or Kyle Chipchura. Dandenault seems to have finished his run in Montreal. His so-called versatility should be a selling point. But considering that he didn't play a single game on defence, even when there were injuries, in favour of 37-year-old Patrice Brisebois, that "versatility" is more than a little overrated. The sixty-one games he played were on the third or fourth-line wing, from which he racked up only fourteen points and was a team-worst (by a fair margin too) minus eleven. He also let it be known he didn't appreciate being benched when he had to sit out a few games. That's not the attitude you want from a borderline veteran who's supposed to be filling holes and setting an example for the young guys.

Then, on the other hand, you have Chipchura. He was drafted for his hockey sense, nice hands and leadership, and targeted to be a third-line shut-down specialist. That job requires a degree of learning on the job at the NHL level, which is fine for a building team. But the Canadiens aren't a building team anymore. They're a "win-it-now" team. That means there's not a lot of room for trial and error with rookies, which could mean Chipchura has to ride the buses until there's an injury at forward on the big team. After all, Dandenault might be considered by some to be better insurance on a game-to-game basis than a kid who has yet to hold an NHL job for a full season. And we know Gainey tends to be extremely considerate of the veterans who've served the team well. If there's no trade possibility for Dandenault, the GM would be reluctant to waive or demote him, which would be bad news for Chipchura.

That said, Bob Gainey did specify this summer that Chipchura *would* have a spot on the team that would be his to lose. If that was true, and the acquisition of Robert Lang hasn't changed the situation, then we have to expect the four centres (written in pencil at the start of camp) will be Koivu, Plekanec, Lang and Chipchura. That means Maxim Lapierre would join the crowd fighting for fourth-line icetime on the wings, and Dandenault defaults back to odd man out.

It's an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, you have a kid who's probably ready to earn an NHL spot and learn the ropes of the job he'll hold in the future. On the other, you have a proven veteran who came to the team as a free agent when few others would, and to whom Bob Gainey feels some degree of loyalty. Gainey will now face a tough choice...to demote the promising kid or to cut loose the diminishing vet. It's the kind choice we'll see more of as the team improves and competition for spots heats up.

For Gainey it means there'll be a few more uncomfortable days in the near future. For us, it means he's doing his job right, and our team is on the upswing. I'm just glad he's the one who's making the decisions.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

Well, after a night to digest the acquisition of Robert Lang and another revival of Patrice Brisebois: The Return, I'm going to put myself in the "mildly excited" category. That's the class of emotion into which fall events like finding out you're having your favourite chicken for supper or knowing you've got a three-day weekend coming up.

The trade for Lang on its own isn't that bad. But it's inevitably tinged with the "what if" of Mats Sundin's phantom presence. Of course Lang doesn't compare to Sundin, but then again, Sundin was never a Canadien in the first place. And if Bob Gainey decided to move on plan B, we have to assume he was fairly certain the big bald Swede has decided red's not his colour. Still, after a summer of anticipation and dreaming of that gorgeous Tanguay/Sundin/Kovalev powerplay line, it's tough to let go just like that. So once we get past the wistfulness of what it would have been like with Sundin, we have to look at Lang as a separate issue.

The Canadiens had a third-line centre spot open. Sundin would have become the first-line centre, so the empty third spot would have belonged to Saku Koivu. Without a new first-liner, the third-line job was still open. So you have to look at the requirements of the position. The Habs were desperately short on right-handed shooters. They were also lacking a really top-notch faceoff man, and they were small down the middle. The guy they needed would be a big, gritty centre; a decent skater with a right-handed shot, great on the draw and able to put up enough points to make the third line a serious scoring threat, as well as defensively responsible enough to kill penalties and protect the puck late in tense games after it wins the draw.

Lang fits many of those requirements. At six-foot-three, he's undeniably big. He's over fifty-three percent on the draw, which is really great. He's not the fastest guy in the league, but his skating isn't a handicap, especially if he ends up playing with Kovalev or Latendresse. He's also put up more than fifty points every year in the last eight, and he's a good penalty killer. The big thing he's missing is the grit factor. He's known to be shy in the corners and he's not the first guy to show up at the party in the crease. He's also got a reputation for coasting when he should probably be pushing harder. His age and potential to go down with nagging injuries are concerns as well.

But, if you're Bob Gainey you have to consider who's out there to fill your requirements who won't cost you much. If a team's under the cap, the guy you want is going to be expensive, likely costing a roster player or at least a fine prospect. So you look at teams over the cap and see what's out there. Of that group, Lang is the best of the possibilities. He's honestly the guy with the most ticks in his favour on the score sheet of what you need, without costing you Maxim Lapierre in return.

Now, I think Gainey could have gotten Lang for less than a second-round pick if he'd waited Tallon out. Chicago would likely have been forced to waive him in order to get under the cap. But I guess from Gainey's point of view, other teams would have been prepared to offer a pick so if the Habs were to land him, he had to ante up.

Of course, there was also the possiblity of starting the year with Kyle Chipchura or Lapierre as the third-line centre. I would have been in favour of that idea as well, but if Gainey has chosen to bring in a veteran, we have to figure he thinks those players aren't yet ready for the role.

So, here we are, feeling like we're settling again. (Damn you, Sundin, for teasing us like that!) I'm consoling myself with the thought that Tanguay is better than Ryder. Lang is better than Smolinski, with the jury out on that being true in the playoffs just yet. And Laraque definitely offers a different element than Grabovski did. The team finished first last year, and now it's better. Here's hoping a walk by the river with Gainey and a reunion with Alex Kovalev on his wing will draw a great season out of Robert Lang. Because when it comes right down to it, that's all the Habs need from him. One stellar year and a strong playoffs. If he has that much in the tank, the deal will have been worth it. Because even though Sundin would have done the job spectacularly, Lang can still do it competently. And really, as long as the job gets done, does it matter who does it?

As for Breezer, well, he's a footnote. A lot of Habs' fans are upset at his re-signing because they see it as stagnating. But if the rookie D aren't ready for full-time work, there's no point in sitting them in the pressbox half the year. O'Byrne will get his chance to be the number four guy this year, and Breezer will simply be cheap veteran insurance who warms the bench, loves the team, keeps a good attitude and can pinch in with a nice first pass and decent PP ability when called upon. Nothing more than that. And for those who think Gainey should have acquired a top-four defenceman instead...well, you have to give to get. And he's stingy with his assets, as a good GM should be. Anyway, a top-four man would have cost a lot more in salary, which would have interferred with the team's ability to pay that third centre. This is a decent compromise.

So, although it's disappointing to accept the end of the Sundin Saga, it's time to look ahead with the roster we now have. It is better than last year's team. And if we remember it at all, last year's team didn't exactly suck.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bailing out the cowboys

As training camp comes barrelling down the calendar at us, the time is getting short for teams with which Mats Sundin will not sign to finish their rosters for the coming season. For many teams who need to add a body, that will mean picking up a remaining free agent or two. For others, it'll mean tweaking through a trade. The latter will act like Christmas has come when teams whose GMs have spent the summer acquiring players like Imelda Marcos collected shoes have to shed contracts in order to get under the salary cap.

According to nhlnumbers.com, there are seven teams currently over the cap, in amounts ranging from San Jose's 226, 000 to Philadelphia's 4.517 million. Those teams must either comply with the cap by the first day of the season or they will forfeit games until they do. That means they'll be courting trade partners...the Sundin rejects or those who need to take on salary to reach the cap floor being likely candidates...and trying to get rid of some expensive spare parts.

Bob Gainey has mentioned he'll be looking at those over-the-cap teams for potential players to fill his own top-three centre vacancy, should the big bald Swede choose to either sign elsewhere or ride off into the Scandinavian sunset. I hope looking is all he does.

I don't care if there's a player with Chicago or Philly that Gainey can get for picks or prospects, and who might be a decent plan B. The way I see it, the teams whose GMs have run out and recklessly added players until they're over the cap shouldn't be let so easily off the hook. Anaheim, for example, signed Mathieu Schneider last year for 5.65 million bucks a season. Now the chickens have come home to roost in that Brian Burke has had to cough up the money to keep Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. In the process, he's put himself over the cap and now needs to dump Schneider or a combination of lower-salaried players just to compete this season. AND he still wants to add Teemu Selanne as well.

Of course, there'll be a lineup of teams interested in Schneider's services. Despite his advanced age, he's still capable of playing the PP, making a nice breakout pass and bringing a little nasty to the game while rounding out a team's top-four D. Some GM will offer Burke a nice package of picks and prospects for Schneider, in the hope the veteran will be the piece his team needs to improve. While that may or may not pan out for the team acquiring Schneider, Burke will be the winner of any Schneider deal. He gets to lock up his best young players, clear room to bring Selanne back, solve his overspending dilemma and collect a package of building blocks to help ensure his team's future, all while choosing the guy he's willing to sacrifice.

What I don't understand is why a competing GM would want to help Burke out that much. If no one bites on Schneider, what's Burke going to do? He'll have to trade a player he doesn't really want to part with for little or nothing. Or he'll have to waive a guy like Schneider whom an opposing team can then pick up for free. It seems to me the twenty-three GMs who are NOT over the cap should sit back and force the tied hands of the seven who are. A little patience would force cap-strapped teams to offer up much juicier bargains than they want to in order to fix their problems.

But, of course, that won't happen. As is the case with the free agent feeding frenzy, Brian Burke will announce Mathieu Schneider is available and the line will form to his right. Burke will win. So will Paul Holmgren and Dale Tallon. The fear that some team might score a deal another team will regret missing is too great to allow GMs to wait it out. So the cowboys will escape unscathed from their little off-season spending sprees. No one will make them pay for their short-sightedness, and it's too bad. It seems to me to be a perfect situation for the teams that stayed within the rules to capitalize on the misfortunes of those who didn't. But self-interest will blind them to the chance and they'll jump at the opportunity to pick up whatever players the cap-stressed teams want to jettison.

I hope Bob Gainey's not one of them.

Roy to the rafters!

Well, the Canadiens are starting off the hundredth anniversary season of the classiest franchise in sports with a gesture befitting the dignity and stature of the club. President Pierre Boivin has confirmed Patrick Roy's number thirty-three will be retired by the team this winter. The tribute has been the subject of fierce debate between Habs' fans who think the retirement of Roy's number is a no brainer and those who think it's a disgrace.

Now though, the official announcement of the honour must provide the last word in the argument. Even though Roy left the team in the haste of anger and embarrassment, this event proves the Canadiens are above all that. The team is taking the high road by paying tribute to one of the greatest players to ever wear the sweater. The event proves the Habs appreciate their history, bumps and all. And it helps heal the wounds of fans who felt their hearts torn out when Roy left the team.

Those of you who read here know I have always been a fan of Patrick Roy, the player. Patrick Roy, the man, I don't know beyond a single childhood encounter...but I give him the benefit of the doubt there as well for that very reason. For me, the retirement of his sweater is the proper ending to a story that began in fairy tale fashion. This ending is the hockey version of marrying the prince and riding off into the sunset.

Now that the debate about whether to retire thirty-three is effectively over, we can put aside our arguments and appreciate the good times, remembering the player we all cheered. In my mind, the best time...the magical time...was the 1986 Cup run. I recall the 1985-86 season as one of a great many ups and downs, culminating in a nail-biting playoff drive and a hard-won berth in the post-season. At the time, I didn't know enough to worry the Habs were too young, too inexperienced and too fractured internally to compete for the Cup. All I knew was they had a spot in the playoffs and anything could happen. I believed they had every chance to win in a way I've never quite believed since.

I wasn't allowed to watch the games during the week. There was school and no one else in the family liked hockey. So I listened to them. In French. On a fading radio signal that would drop out at the most inopportune times. So my memory of the 1986 Cup is now a series of snapshot moments; frozen forever in tones of sepia.

I remember:
-Roy crouching in the crease before the opening game against Boston in his plain white helmet and plain brown pads, smacking the posts, stretching his neck, twitching and bouncing. In short, looking like anything but a playoff-ready, confident goalie. Then stoning the Bs on several good chances and allowing only one goal to win his first playoff game.

-Game seven against Hartford, going to OT. Hearing the crowd roar and the announcer shout that there'd been a goal scored...then the radio signal fading so I couldn't tell which team had scored. Then realizing the game was played in Montreal and the crowd cheering must have meant the Habs scored, and jumping up and down silently so I wouldn't wake the house. On the highlights the next day, Claude Lemieux's goal led the shows, but the talk was all about the rookie goalie who was stealing the show.

-Game three against the Rangers in the conference finals. Habs up two games to none, and the Rangers looking to make it a series with a win in the third one. Overtime again (something that would become a theme in Roy's playoff career) and the Rangers knowing they had to pour it on if they had any hope of making it a series. Roy standing on his head, saving everything they threw at him, until it seemed he was completely unbeatable. You could almost see the legend take root in that one OT.

-Game two against the Flames in the finals. Flames up a game, and the second one in OT. Skrudland ending it with a goal nine seconds into the extra frame, but Roy getting them there in the first place.

-Game five of the finals. Just under a minute to go, and the Habs up 4-3. The Flames throwing everything at the Montreal net in desperation, and Roy diving, splitting and stopping a shot, gaining a faceoff and halting the Flames' momentum in its tracks. Thirty seconds later, he was jumping up and down, leaping into his teammates' arms in celebration.

-Roy looking skinny as a rail, long hair dripping sweat, accepting the Conn Smythe from John Ziegler, eyes sparkling with his grin

-Roy skating the Cup, smiling and yelling...then drenched in champagne, still smiling in the dressing room after.

-Roy, shirtless, in the Cup parade, standing in the car with the Conn Smythe held high over his head, soaking up the adulation of the thousands who lined the streets.

It was a magical run that spring. And Patrick Roy was a major reason why that was so. It was a time for making memories; a time untainted by any politics or emotion that would come later. As we celebrate the retirement of number thirty-three, it's a time to go back to that happy time and be thankful he was a Hab that year. We can all agree on that.

For those who don't remember it, and those who want a shot of nostalgia, here's a nice piece of news tape from the parade:


Monday, September 8, 2008

More from Gainey

As you may have read yesterday, Bob Gainey held court for a hundred and twenty Habs' fans at The Rooms, Newfoundland's provincial museum, on Sunday. Of course, he addressed the burning Sundin Saga. But, since old Mats is keeping his decision quiet for the next little while, Gainey had time to address many other subjects as well. Here are some of them, and what Gainey had to say about them:

On Drafting Carey Price

-Gainey recalled the Habs actually wanted "a big forward, who went right before the Canadiens selected." That was Benoit Pouliot who went at #4 to Minnesota. But Gainey said the Canadiens have a pretty iron-clad rule about following the scouts' final list when it comes to drafting. He said the team's scouting staff spends an entire year analyzing and evaluating young players around the world, "moving a player up or down a spot here, a spot there" and it would invalidate that work if the team were to ignore the list and pick a player out of order. So, when Pouliot was chosen before the Habs' pick, the Canadiens moved to the next player on their list, who was Price. Gainey explained he had no intention of trading Jose Theodore at the time of the Price pick. But when Theodore started to struggle on the ice and deal with many personal problems, Gainey decided Montreal was no longer the best place for him. It was pure chance that the best player available on the draft list was a potential franchise goalie who would step in to replace Theodore. And Gainey also said the team was "lucky to have Cristobal Huet step in to fill the gap for a couple of years."

On trading Huet

-Gainey joked "Let's see...what did happen with that one?" Then he said he felt that Carey Price was ready to get some experience as the number one goalie, including playoffs. He knew Huet would not be re-signing in Montreal, and decided to make the trade to avoid losing Huet for nothing. He said there were two teams interested in Huet, but Gainey chose Washington because it was the team less likely to be a threat to the Canadiens after acquring Huet.

On the prospects

-Gainey is happy with the number of players on the roster now that the team has drafted and developed, but he says we're looking at a vacuum for a couple of years before the next crop of players is ready. When pressed about which players he particularly likes in the organization, he named Max Pacioretty and Matt D'Agostini.

On Michael Ryder

-Gainey said "Michael was a good player for us for several years," but explained that the NHL is such a good league because players depend on competition to keep their skills razor sharp. He said sometimes the pressure of competition causes a player to step up his game, and sometimes a player doesn't do that and he loses his job to another player. That's, in a nutshell, what happened between Ryder and Sergei Kostitsyn.

On media pressure influencing the signings of UFAs

-Gainey said there's no doubt intense interest in a team, by both fans and media, can be overwhelming for some players. He said it depends on both personality and what the player is used to. Some players thrive under that kind of pressure, and some fail to perform. He said, "If you look at a player like Chris Higgins, that's his environment. That's all he's ever known. So he deals with it every day as part of his job." Gainey implied that it's better for a team to develop its own players who then become integrated in the city and system in which they'll be playing. It's a bigger gamble to pick up UFAs and hope they thrive in a new environment.

On playing in the New Year's Eve game in 1975
-Gainey took part in the game many fans consider to be the best one ever played. The Canadiens vesus the Soviet Red Army at the Forum. Gainey remembers the hype and the "us against them" mentality. He said in the weeks before the game, coach Scotty Bowman was obsessed with finding a way to beat the Soviets. Bowman spent so much time on his game plan for New Years that he all but ignored the actual league games the Canadiens played up until the big match. Gainey said by the time the game actually arrived, the players' nerves were completely frazzled. He doesn't remember the game itself as being as spectacular as fans say it was. He said he appreciated the fast, strong-skating style of the Soviets and the game was certainly good. But it doesn't stand out as the greatest hockey game ever played for him.

On winning the Cup in 1986
-Gainey said the '86 Cup was a special one because no one expected the team to do anything. He said if you look at the names of the players on that roster today, it's not entirely shocking that they won. But back then the team was mostly a group of untried rookies who took the hockey world by surprise. He explained that the Oilers did the Canadiens a favour by bowing out early to Calgary. Then the Habs took that opportunity and ran with it. He talked about that year as an example of the Habs' mystique, and how historically the team has managed to defy the odds when it gets a sniff of the Cup. He said that's one of the things that makes the team so special, and the players on the team today are learning to understand that.

On Patrick Roy's possible future with the team
-Gainey said Roy is learning the responsibilities of management with the Remparts, and when the day comes that the Canadiens need a new coach or general manager, Roy's name could certainly be among the candidates. He described the Canadiens as a family and said like any family, there are rifts between members. But rifts heal and families find their way back together.

So, there you go. Those are some of the answers Bob Gainey gave to the questions fans asked him in St.John's. Some of it you knew already. Some of it was new, at least to me. But one thing you should understand: no matter what the question, Gainey addressed it with thought and precision. And every single person left that room believing that the Canadiens are safe in Bob Gainey's hands for as long as he chooses to hold them.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Gainey meets Sundin

A hundred and twenty-one Habs' fans filled a small theatre in Newfoundland's provincial museum, The Rooms, yesterday. They clutched precious momentoes; hockey cards, magazines and jerseys, and they led little children, dressed in Canadiens' regalia, by the hand. As they waited for the guest of honour, questions vibrated among them. The query of the day: What's going on with Mats Sundin?

Bob Gainey, sharp in a navy suit, entered the room to a round of applause that swelled into a standing ovation. He was in St. John's to help launch the museum's Rocket Richard exhibit, and to talk about the Canadiens' Centennial season and his own history with the team. The fans in The Rooms came to listen, and to ask some questions of their own.

Alan Doyle, Great Big Sea frontman and Gainey's friend, introduced the Habs' GM and warmed up the crowd with humour and genuine affection for the man of the hour. The audience was rapt as Gainey talked about his early years with the club, about his surprise the day he realized how famous Canadiens' players really are, and about how much he learned from the great players and managers of the past.

As Gainey concluded his presentation with some discussion about building the team of today, he said there are no guarantees when it comes to winning a Cup, but that he's preparing the team to be the best it can be to celebrate the Centennial "the way the team and Canadiens' fans think it should be celebrated." When he finished, he invited his listeners to ask their questions. But he surprised the fans when, with a half-smile he offered, "But before you do, I should tell you I had a nice two hours with Mats Sundin in Toronto yesterday (Saturday). You people are the only ones who know that right now."

The room erupted in laughter and applause, but it took another ten minutes before someone finally got to the point. A fan said, "I've got two questions. The first one is, what did Sundin say?" To which Gainey deadpanned, "Second question?" Again, the appreciative audience laughed. Then the GM got serious.

Gainey said he has no concerns about Sundin's physical ability to play hockey this year. He's big and strong and can be ready to hit the ice pretty quickly. But Gainey described Sundin's "emotions" as being the problem. He talked about Sundin's state of mind, and about how the big Swede isn't sure he still has the level of passion he'd need to sustain him through another long NHL season. And he spoke of Sundin's difficulty in mentally leaving the team for which he played the majority of his 17-year NHL career behind.

As for the Canadiens' offer?

"He's interested," Gainey said. "I told him to make a decision. I said, if you feel like you want to retire, then retire. But if you're not sure, you should play and the emotion will come."

The conversation moved on from there, touching on issues like whether Patrick Roy would ever have a job with the team, to which Gainey replied, "Why not?" and if Sundin doesn't sign with Montreal whether Sergei Kostitsyn or Kyle Chipchura might be the new third-line centre. Gainey's answer: A smile and a "That's classified."

But the Sundin question wouldn't go away.

A half-hour after his talk, Gainey held court at a long table as a line of autograph seekers snaked its way across the third-floor museum lobby. Through the glass wall behind him, St. John's spread out in a glory of bright old houses, tall trees and harbour. As he signed one fan's Gainey jersey, the elusive Swede's name came up again.

"But do you think he'll come to Montreal?" the fan asked.

The half-smile pushing the outer limits of a real grin this time, Gainey replied, "He didn't say no."

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Pressure with a capital "P"

There's a general perception out there that the Habs are going to open this Centennial season under intense scrutiny and even greater pressure. There's the fact of the hundredth birthday celebration itself, first of all. It's going to be a huge splash and the eyes of the hockey world will be focussed on the cradle of the sport. Management, the Gilletts, the city and the players themselves will be expecting results befitting such a momentous anniversary. Then there's the pressure of last year's unexpectedly banner season and the higher performance bar the team has set for itself as a result. Now that the players have revealed the success of which they're capable, nothing less will be acceptable. That's going to be tough to live up to.

But though the whole team will be feeling the scrutiny this year, some players will be humming Queen's "Under Pressure" a little more fervently than others. All the "contract guys"...those in the last years of their current deals... of course, will feel it, since they're playing for raises and personal as well as team numbers. Among the unrestricted group, perhaps Alex Tanguay will be under the greatest scrutiny. Not only does he have to rebound from a poor season last year, he's got to do it in a contract year AND in a new city...one that's well-known for being tough on its stars.

Among the restricted bunch of contract guys, there's a player who'll be feeling another sort of pressure altogether. This is a very important year for Guillaume Latendresse. He's been given every possible chance to succeed with the Canadiens in the last two years, with mixed reviews mostly ending in "...but he's only twenty," or "...has to improve his skating." He's been given plenty of ice time, has been allowed to learn from his mistakes while maintaining his place in the lineup on most nights and has been given opportunities to play with the team's best linemates. Now, at twenty-one, he'll have another chance to show why it was a good idea for the team to let him skip his last year of junior as well as any AHL development time. But all the while he's trying to juggle new fatherhood with earning a new contract, he'll be aware the team's next great hope of developing a power forward, Max Pacioretty, is breathing down his neck. Latendresse has proven he can score goals when he gets close to the net and uses his quick hands to bat the puck home. But he's also proven he doesn't see himself in that role, as he tends to overhandle the puck and try to be more of a finesse player. Pacioretty's style is more straightforward, and he seems to have a better idea of how to use his skills to best advantage.

Of course, there's nothing to say the team can't use two big guys with nice hands around the net. But the fact is, there are limited spots available on a young team like the Canadiens, and if one guy is performing a particular role in Hamilton while the other isn't doing as well in Montreal, well...it won't be long before there's a switch. As yet, Pacioretty has only shown his ability in college and at the Habs' development camp. He'll come into the main camp this month doing his best to unseat someone and steal a roster spot. If that doesn't work, as it probably won't, he'll start the year in Hamilton and do his damnedest to tear up the AHL and make it very tough for the Habs to leave him in the minors. If Max does as well as fans are hoping he will, Gui will be hearing footsteps. The last time that happened, Sergei Kostitsyn ended up with a regular spot and Michael Ryder ended up in Beantown.

I hope Latendresse breaks out this year. From all reports, he's been working like a Trojan all summer and has dropped that pesky baby fat we've all noticed he carried. He's been practicing his skating technique in an effort to develop quicker starts. And he's handled the pressure of being a young French Canadian on his hometown team exceptionally well. Now we'll have to see how he handles the pressure of leaving his apprenticeship years behind as he tries to prove he's growing into the job he's been handed. It'll be tough for him, because he is still just 21 years old. But when the guy trying to steal your spot is only 19, sometimes 21 has to grow up a little faster. I'm rooting for Gui to make the job his. I think he's big enough to stand up under the pressure.