Friday, August 27, 2010


Has this been a boring off-season or what? I don't mind, though. It's nice to sit in a the afterglow of the Canadiens' improbable eliminations of the Caps and Pens for a little while, and, after the turmoil of last summer, it's kind of nice to know a little bit about what to expect this year. Unlike the run up to last season, we're not asking how the players will respond to Martin as coach, or who'll play with whom or whether the big new contracts will work out. We're no longer worried about the team getting crushed because the players are too small. This year, we've got a handle on those basic issues.

Of course, there are still small matters about which to wonder. Within the next couple of months, we'll know the answers to such burning questions as the cost and duration of Carey Price's contract, which up-and-comer will make the team on the fourth line and whether it's true Andrei Markov will really be ready to start the season. Then there are the two big questions; the huge unknowns that will make or break the season.

The first mystery is how the kids will perform. Management decided to part ways with most of the players who filled last year's bottom-two lines. Gone from last October are Latendresse, Laraque, Chipchura, Metropolit and Sergei Kostitsyn. The guys who filled some of those roles later in the season, Moore and Bergeron, are gone too. As we learned last year and saw reconfirmed in the playoffs, the bottom-six forwards might not be stars, but they provide the foundation for the game. They give the skilled guys something...a hard hit, a timely goal, a drawn penalty, a heroic shot-block... on which to build when a team is winning. Last year's crop of kids couldn't cut it. Latendresse couldn't stick on the top lines and didn't do much on the bottom ones before he gave up and got traded. Kostitsyn got cut out of camp and showed his childish colours afterwards. Chipchura didn't do much of anything. Ben Maxwell did less during his twenty-game call up. Ryan O'Byrne (does he still count as a kid?) got benched every time he made a boneheaded play. Carey Price lost many more games than he won and sometimes let his temper get the best of him.

So this year, the team's trying again. P.K. Subban will start on defence, and the expectations of him are enormous. He performed under the ultimate pressure in the playoffs so admirably that many fans assume he's already leaped the rookie hurdles every player has to negotiate. He's certainly come a long way, but there's a big question about whether he'll be able to handle a full NHL season with such aplomb. Then there's the third line. In the playoffs, the Moore/Pyatt/Lapierre line was a revelation of doggedness, speed and aggression. This year, Lars Eller will get a chance to take Moore's place, and Dustin Boyd will get every chance to bump one of Pyatt or Laps to the fourth line. There'll be one spot open for another rookie, most likely on the bottom line. Ryan White is the Bulldog who showed the most grit and determination last year, who'd have a good shot at sticking in that role, but guys like Maxwell and Desharnais might push management in camp to give one of them a shot. Whoever makes it will have a chance to make a difference, if he can perform at the NHL level. Benoit Pouliot's also in that group. He's basically entering his second full big-league season and the pressure will be on for him to prove that he's able to score on a consistent basis like he did immediately after his trade. And, of course, there's Price, who will be under tremendous pressure to find a way to win games.

It's a big load for kids to carry, but the Canadiens' success will depend on them to a great extent. That's one of the biggest question marks facing the team in the coming season. The other one is a question of team identity. Who are the Canadiens?

On a winning NHL team, every player has a role and knows how to perform it well. Part of that comes from knowing what kind of team your team is supposed to be. Brian Burke is creating an identity for the leafs. They may be losers, but there's no question Burke intends to ice a big, defensively-sound, aggressive team. The Red Wings are slick and fast. The Penguins are planets revolving around Sidney Crosby's sun. The Flyers are skilled and fearless. The Devils are defence-first, rallying around Martin Brodeur. The Oilers are hungry and full of youthful promise. So the question is, what are the Canadiens?

The team went into last year without an identity. They were just a collection of mercenaries who'd signed on with no idea about what would happen. Along the way, distractions like Kostitsyn and Laraque were purged and stable influences like Pyatt and Moore joined up. In the crucible of the playoffs, they fused together with a real identity for the first time. They were the hard-working, self-sacrificing underdogs who united behind the banner of Jaroslav Halak to advance further than anyone expected they would. Now Halak is gone, and that unifying force with him.

Still, this year's team won't be starting from scratch. Guys like Gill, Gorges, Cammalleri and Gionta proved themselves to their teammates, and that won't go away. One of them will probably be named captain, and his particular values and ideals will be important to pulling everyone together under a single vision. It will also help that the team will have a real fourth line this year. Last year, the bottom-three forwards were a mishmash of whomever didn't fit anywhere else and often played less than five minutes a game. It's tougher for a team to establish an identity when it's carrying guys who just don't know where they belong. So, if everyone's not only clear about their jobs but also able to perform them well, there'll be a better understanding about what sort of team the Canadiens are supposed to be.

I'd like to see some of that hard-working, self-sacrificing identity established in the playoffs carry over into the season. I don't necessarily want to see the players regard themselves as underdogs, but I really liked that quiet determination to never quit they showed against the top-heavy teams. I appreciate that the team has decided to go with youth and let the kids have a chance to adopt the fledgling identity forged in the playoffs. If they're the right sort of kids, they can learn from it, and then build on it with their own talents. That's a little tougher now, with the loss of team-first guys like Metropolit, Halak and Moore, but I'm hopeful Eller, Boyd, White and Price are smart enough to leave the egos outside the room and buy into what their more-experienced teammates are selling.

The team's immediate future depends on them pulling their weight, and pulling together. I think the day is coming, and soon, when you can ask anyone about the Montreal Canadiens and they'll say, "Oh yeah, that team is fast, hardworking, determined and they always find a way to win." That's the identity they've started to build, and that's what the kids will have to help carry on.

6 comments: said...

hey j.t.,
love the blog, read all the time etc etc. (but really, I do).
Please say something about the Doan thing. It seems like anglo media does not see a story there, but my boys (I'm a french quebecer who learned how to read with La Presse) disagree.
I respect your opinion, you seem like a level-headed dude etc, so I'd love to hear your thoughts..;I was kind of hoping this post would be about that...
Thanks. And keep up the good work.

moeman said...

Superb writing J.T.

Gonna compile my thoughts and get back to you, dude.

: )

Anonymous said...

I dunno J.T., maybe you are mellowing:-) or I am in a funk. I don't see a strong second line on the team w/o busting up Gomez/Cammi/Gionta to support it. Kostitsyn and Pouliot have been moody players, and can't be counted on to earn their pay. Talented? You bet. Gamebreakers - only if they see mom in the crowd. So to me, under that situation, the lines are in a bit of turmoil. I like Pleks but he can disappear when the going gets tough. Throw in an injury or two, and what you have is another season of the 1 and 2 lines in flux, which means the 3 and 4 lines are always adjusting.

So to me the biggest loss has been Boucher. A NHL team shouldn't be a developmental team. Kostitsyn can't cut it? Bring in someone trained to do the job. Eller, and Avstin have huge upside, but I don't see them playing much under Martin. Because they are developing. Boyd might be ok, I have no idea.

What I do know is that the team won't be willing to play at playoff level for an 82 game season. They might come out the gate strong until everybody gets their gears meshed but by December (late October in the Quebce press:-) people will have found a scapegoat or two. Likely Price and Gill which is strange because goal and the D are ok, it's up front where the problem exists.

Now I want to be wrong but I'm thinking Laps will be back to his old self, skating all over the place and achieving nothing. Markov will come back too early, Subban will make mistakes, and OB will be benched for them. Pleks will score a lot when the team is winning, and Gomez will be booed. Gionta will play like 6'2" and get hurt like 5'5". Kostitsyn will appear lost out there and get plenty of powerplay time. The powerplay will be ineffective unless Markov and Subban are on the ice. Moen, White, Laps, Boyd, Darche will all score big goals, and likely total 30 between them all season leaving Eller to produce some offense from the 3 and 4 or just chalk it up as Cammi better score in the shootout again.

Price will help a visually impaired old lady to her seat in the Center amid a chorus of boos raining down. The same gang that screamed for Theodore, Huet, and Halak, will demand his head on a platter delivered to center ice for the opening faceoff of the first exhibition game. Then the Riberio group will start on Gomez, who will smile and say how it loves it in Montreal for the intensity. The Brisbois group will start on OB because he hits someone. On the jumbo someone will flash up a clip of MAB scoring a beauty from the slot, and the roar to bring him back will begin. (In other league barns their jumbo's will feature MAB highlights as well, only he will be standing 20 inside the other blue line looking back towards the play) Halak will get a shutout and the offices of Gauthier/Gainey/Geoff Molson will be tougher to visit than an Israeli consolate in Tehran. Martin will juggle his lines the first shift after Toronto makes a mistake. One of the players will have spent 6 hours a day practicing all summer, and another four learning la belle langue. He will visit a children's hospital, fumble over a medical term, and be roundly criticized. It won't be Kostitsyn.

The team Montreal Canadiens will win some and lose some. Debate will rage about tanking for a chance at the best 17 year old 5 foot nothing player to ever come along. In the end the team will squeek into the playoffs, the vets will put it on the line again, the goalie will be said to have come into his own, but Philly will win the Cup because their goalie, previously with a won/lost of 1-72-26, stood on his head then was released to his old timers league. In the Philly clinic the trainers will just shake their heads and celebrate the winner of the "Total stitches" playoffs pool.

Everything depends on Kostitsyn and Pouliot growing up or being replaced by someone who has.

Ian said...

Hi J.T.

Excellent as usual. Couldn't agree with you more. We've gone through so many young prospects that we hoped would pan out, but didn't. We're there again.

If some of them do, I like the club. If they don't, then we will fall short. I like our top guns, so no concerns there. Of course, anyone can have a bad season, but I don't worry about that. It's what the bottom half brings that will make the difference.

I'm excited about PK, but will grant him time to establish himself. He's young, will make mistakes - like everyone else - and he will learn from them. I don't see him as one of our prospects that will fail.

I'd sure like O'Bourne to get the confidence of the coach to prove himself. He's had good spurts, but gets punished when he makes a mistake. He's got the size and toughness this club needs, and I hope he gets more opportunity this year.

I didn't like giving up a second round pick for Moore, but I thought he would be a good addition to the team last year. He was, and proved worthy of a second round pick, IMO. I lament his loss this season. So here's where a prospect has to step up, and not be like so many that haven't and been moved out.

I'd love to see Pouliot produce. I liked the trade immensely. Lats was never going to produce in Montreal like he did in Minny. I do wish him well there. I hope Pouliot stays and produces, and doesn't end up with the long list of failed prospects. He's loaded with talent - and size - IMO.

I'm a BIG Gorges fan, but I'd like to see Gionta as captain. Both never stop working, but Gionta is the bigger 'star player' IMO.

My favourite player growing up was The Big M, and I was thrilled when he beat out Bobby Hull for rookie of the year. That should date me. Long time Hab fan, BTW.

Keep up the great posts. They are so inciteful and well thought out, it is a joy reading them. Your journalist talent shows in spades. I check EVERY day (I am a bit of a Hab fanatic).

Thanks again, J.T. Best wishes to you, your non-hockey fan hubby, and kids.

pierre said...

Watching one of our playoff games last spring from Vancouver my sister's first impression on our team (her usual reference being the Canucks and whatever series they're in) was that they were.... fast, relentless, well organised... a treat to watch.

She is not moving back to Montreal but she'll be watching more of us..... hopefully our identity will keep developping around those lines.

Anonymous said...

The first game against the leafs should give a good indication of what the Habs identity will be. Burke's boys will try to murder the Canadiens and how they respond to the physical play will be interesting to watch. Although I was thrilled with the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Flyer series was very disappointing. I know the Habs were tired out by the back to back emotional 7 game series but their inability to give the Flyers a real battle leaves me pessimistic about the immediate future. The Habs will most likely be a bubble team not a contender for the foreseeable future. Having Moen as the only physical response is depressing. I feel sorry for the poor guy.

As far as Doan goes, he's good hockey player but a racist, so what are you gonna do?