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.

No comments: