*Special thanks to Habs superfan Shawn Moen for his contribution
Change is the common thread running through all facets of the second century of Les Glorieux. This offseason saw many changes to the defence and the scoring lines as well as change behind the bench and in ownership. After wildly exceeding expectations in the 2007-08 NHL season, hopes were high in Montreal that the storied franchise would properly commemorate its centennial celebration with on-ice success in the 2008-09 NHL season. Those hopes were dashed when Les Habitants narrowly clinched the 8th playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, after enduring a campaign filled with on-ice inconsistency and off-ice disrepute. The remedy for the ailing franchise, as prescribed by GM Bob Gainey, was a complete and substantive makeover.
On June 20, 2009, an agreement in principle was announced between George Gillette Jr., the American businessman who has owned the club since January 2001, and three members of the Molson family for the sale of the club and its arena to the latter. If approved by the NHL, the sale marks a return of the franchise to the Molson family, whose prior involvement with the club stretches back, intermittently, to 1957 and who enjoyed 11 Stanley Cups during their tenure.
In addition, the organization announced hire of a new head coach in Jacques Martin, former coach of the Ottawa Senators and former GM and coach of the Florida Panthers. Martin succeeds Guy Carbonneau and GM Gainey, who respectively coached the Habs in the prior campaign. The experienced Martin comes with a general reputation as a defensive coach and enjoyed considerable regular-season success during his tenure with the Ottawa Senators. Playoff success during his multi-year tenure will be expected in fervent Montreal, particularly given the growing distance between the club’s last Stanley Cup in 1993.
GM Gainey declined to sign any of his several unrestricted free agents, which included such offensive talent as long-time captain Saku Koivu, enigmatic Alex Kovalev, Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang. Instead, GM Gainey unlocked the war chest and effectively rewrote the team’s depth chart.
Centre Scott Gomez will most certainly bear the greatest scrutiny from the Montreal faithful. He will certainly receive the largest paycheque. Gomez was obtained from the New York Rangers prior to the NHL Draft in a seven-player deal involving Christopher Higgins and a number of defensive prospects. Gomez has a 2009-10 cap hit of $7.35 million.
The Gomez trade was followed by a bevy of signings, two of the most notable and expensive being his potential linemates, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta. The pair each signed five-year contracts with the Canadiens and are owed $6 million and $5 million for the 2009-10 season, respectively. The career of Cammalleri has shown promise, having tallied 80 and 82 points in previous campaigns. Gionta has witnessed a dip in production in recent years and, like Gomez, career-high point totals came in the 2005-06 season, when the pair were linemates. During that season, Gionta tallied 48 goals and 89 points.
Effectively, Gomez, Cammalleri and Gionta, will be called upon to replace Koivu, Kovalev and Tanguay. GM Gainey was explicit in the off-season about the need to get bigger at the forward position and the biggest knock on the acquisitions is their lack of size.
The second line, though largely intact from last season, remains a mystery. Centre Tomas Plekanec is coming off arguably his worst offensive outputs of his career, scoring only 39 points in 81 games as the team’s second line centre. Andrei Kostitsyn is expected to be his left-winger and is also coming off a poor offensive season amidst off-ice issues, having scored only 41 points in 74 games. Competition for the remaining winger spot is open, with Max Pacioretty, Sergei Kostitsyn and Matt D’Agosotini in the running.
The third line may be the team’s most reliable. Centre Maxim Lapierre has developed into an effective checker who works hard and plays a physical game. The acquisition of LW Travis Moen brings a nightly yeoman effort and a Stanley Cup ring. Sprinkle in trimmed-down heavy weight Georges Laraque or hard-hitting Guillaume Latendresse and a bruising third line may offset the Canadiens’ concerns about size.
Andrei Markov will again lead the defence corps. Markov has a booming shot from the point, which aided his 12 goals and 52 assists last year. With Kovalev gone, Markov is the Canadiens remaining point leader from last season and is one of the few remaining talents from Canadiens teams gone by. The challenge with Markov will be limiting his exposure in the regular season so that he stays fresh for the playoffs, as he has suffered shoulder and knee ailments in the past.
As was the case with the forwards, GM Gainey spent on defence, bringing in Jaroslav Spacek from Buffalo and towering Hal Gill from Pittsburgh. Though getting on in years at 35, Spacek provides a good outlet pass from the defensive zone and is expected to compliment Markov on the power play. While never standing out during stints in Toronto and Boston, the 6’7’ Gill found a niche in Pittsburgh working as a shut-down tandem with Rob Scuderi.
Defenceman Josh Georges showed progress last season and was rewarded with greater ice time, particularly in the playoffs. The remaining six defencemen will be filled by a combination of Ryan O’Byrne, Paul Mara, Roman Hamrlik, and intriguing offensively-minded rookie Yannick Weber.
Carey Price will be expected to improve upon a disappointing season in perhaps the harshest environment for a young goaltender to mature. Following a sparkling rookie season, which drew unfair comparisons to St. Patrick Roy, Price’s 2008-09 campaign culminated in soft goals, allegations of perpetual partying and a Roy-ian wave to the Montreal faithful. Make no mistake; Price is the team’s goaltender of the future. His periodic flashes of brilliance say as much and, with time, consistency will follow. However, a year of progression will likely be needed to buy that time from the Montreal fan base.
Backing up Price is another talented young netminder, Jaroslav Halak. At times when Price has faltered, Halak has stepped in and has more than held the fort. That said, his promise will not keep Halak in that backup role for long and, if Halak is moved by the club in an effort to obtain scoring depth, Curtis Sanford will backup Price.
Ceiling – Unless there is a significant drop-off on the part of the Bruins, the Habs have no shot to win the division. Intra-division, they will also be pushed by the maturing Sabres and the presumably physical Maple Leafs. In the most favorable scenario, Montreal will win a lower playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Floor – It is entirely possible that the reshaped Canadiens will not gel in time to make a serious playoff push, injuries to aging defensemen will expose both a lack of depth and a young goaltender, or their lack of size up front will disable them from playing within the Conference. If those scenarios happen, look for a very disappointing start to the second Canadiens century as a finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference could happen.