Friday, October 31, 2008

Everyone shed a tear for Pavel

OK, that may be a little bit unfair, but everyone needs to know that the picture his agent Rolland Hedges is painting of his client is only one side of the story, and it's a side meant to protect his client should he ever decide he wants to play in the NHL.

The story - essentially that he's being strong-armed by his family to sign in Russia for significantly more money than he was making here - is believable enough, considering that Valentenko is only 21 and, according to Hedges, has been supporting his family since he was 15.

But what I find difficult to believe is that Valentenko was unable to convince his family that in the long-term, staying the course with his NHL career was the right move here.

Now, after pulling this stunt, his chances for a future NHL gig are practically nil, and he's banking on the KHL remaining a viable league. The odds aren't very good on that one, considering a lot of the teams are reportedly deep in the red already and it's very unlikely it will be able to consistently rival the NHL in terms of high-end salaries.

As long as the KHL is around, it will be a haven for washed up NHL guys looking to extend their careers by being overpaid over there, or as a second chance for guys who have been banished like Ray Emery.

But Valentenko's best shot at ensuring his family's long-term financial security was in North America, not Russia.

As far as the Habs are concerned, this isn't a devastating blow by any means because Valentenko was part of a deep pool of defence prospects, and though his eventual arrival in Montreal was likely, it wasn't guaranteed because there was a lot of competition coming down the pipe. If anything, Bob Gainey just lost a trade chip for this year's deadline, which might have, ironically enough, had Valentenko playing in the NHL by March.

A Gorgeous performance

There are very many accolades to be doled out among the Canadiens penalty-killers for the 2-1 win in Minnesota, but one in particular jumped out at me.

Josh Gorges played over 21 minutes, and he led the team with more than eight minutes in shorthanded ice time. More than Andrei Markov, more than Mike Komisarek, and it was because he earned it.

There was one sequence in the second period I watched him his entire shift, battling in front of the net for position without once giving the refs another chance to blow their whistles, quickly challenging guys along the wall for possession of the puck, simply playing a very sound,unspectacular game.

It's amazing to think how far Gorges has come in such a short period of time, especially in terms of Guy Carbonneau's confidence. When he first arrived from San Jose Carbonneau didn't trust him at all, believing everyone else's ill-conceived ideas that someone so small could never be an effective NHL defenceman.

Even at the beginning of last year, Gorges had to prove he belonged. Now, he has done more than that, he has proven to be an invaluable member of the team, one who Carbonneau has so much confidence in that he sends him out there more often than any other player in shorthanded situations. For the season, Gorges is just behind Komisarek (3:44) and Markov (3:40) with 3:10 in shorthanded time on ice per game, third on the team.

Thursday's game presented a huge challenge to Carbonneau in terms of bench management, with 15:29 spent on the penalty kill, more than a quarter of the game. Throw in the 6:42 of power play time for the Habs, and that's over a third of the game spent on special teams.

As a result, Guillaume Latendresse played less than 10 minutes as his pre-season prediction of being out of the mix for the power play is proving true with the return of Chris Higgins.

Surprisingly, Maxim Lapierre was also a victim of the special teams focus, playing 10:59, but only 1:23 on the penalty kill. Compare that to Robert Lang, who played 15:27, with 4:12 of penalty killing time.

I like Lang, but if I have to choose between him and Lapierre to kill a penalty, I'd have to go with Lapierre. He has more speed, more shot-blocking and - so far, at least - is a better faceoff man.

Last night, Lapierre won four of his six faceoffs, while Lang lost six of 10. On the season, Lapierre has now won 56 of 99 (56.6 per cent) compared to Lang's 64-for-130 (49.2). Furthermore, Lang has taken the most shorthanded faceoffs on the team, winning only 13 of 29 compared to a 7-7 record for Lapierre. Lang's getting better in this area after a horrible start, but does Lapierre not fit the role of a penalty-killer more than Lang?

Finally, another guy who lost out because of the emphasis on special teams was Patrice Brisebois with only 12:07 of ice time. Obviously, he wasn't a factor on the penalty kill, but he only played 1:55 on the power play. If he's not in the lineup as a power play specialist, why exactly is he dressed?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A vote of confidence for Mad Max

At this time last year, Maxim Lapierre was being taken down a notch with the Hamilton Bulldogs after having coasted through training camp, largely because he believed his spot with the Habs was secure. He was, after all, being pasted on billboards all over the city, so who could blame him for thinking he was a big part of the team's plans?

Lapierre was a different player at this year's training camp, having learned his lesson the last time around, and now it appears he's solidified his position as the team's fourth-line centre.

La Presse beat writer Francois Gagnon reports that Guy Carbonneau can't remove Lapierre or Tom Kostopoulos from the lineup because they've "earned their spots," which is why Steve Bégin, Georges Laraque and Ryan O'Byrne will watch tonight's game in Minnesota from the press box.

I can understand Carbonneau leaning towards playing Kostopoulos every game, especially after what he showed in last year's playoffs. But Lapierre? He has earned that kind of trust based solely on his play this year, and it's been exemplary.

His line with Kostopoulos and Mathieu Dandenault was probably Montreal's most effective Tuesday night, and has been on several nights so far this season. Now, it should be noted that it's easy to say a fourth line is doing its job because there's no statistical way to really judge that. Carbonneau can talk until he's blue in the face about how happy he is with the play of the Tomas Plekanec line, but the fact remains that if they don't score, they're not doing their job.

Lapierre's line's job is to pin the opposing team in their end through strong forechecking and a methodical cycle game. Any goals that come of that are a bonus, but the Habs have benefited from a few power plays because of the frustrating play of the trio.

Add to that the fact Lapierre is winning 55.9 per cent of his faceoffs - second on the team and way better than his 49.1 per cent clip last year - and Lapierre's value becomes even greater.

Having said that, this is shaping up to be bad news for Bégin, and he's really done nothing to deserve it. Though Carbonneau didn't say it, it's pretty obvious that Dandenault and Lapierre are developing some chemistry together, especially as a pair of speedy penalty killers. So when he says that Bégin, Dandenault and Laraque are fighting for one spot, it essentially means Bégin will be the odd man out more often than not because neither he nor Dandenault are fighting Laraque for anything.

By that I mean Laraque obviously brings a different element to the table than either Dandenault or Bégin does, and so far it looks like Dandenault is squeezing Bégin out of that high-energy, forechecking, shot-blocking winger role, especially since he's also a seventh defenceman in a pinch.

Bégin is a great guy who gives everything he has for his team, and he loves playing in Montreal. I hope this isn't the beginning of the end for him, but it very well may be.

Pavel, we hardly knew 'ya

Moscow Dynamo of the Kontinental Hockey League is reporting on its website (thanks to Habs Inside/Out for this link) that the club has signed Canadiens prospect Pavel Valentenko to a three-year deal. Valentenko was already in Russia, having been granted leave by the Hamilton Bulldogs to deal with family issues.

Not good news for the Habs by any means, who were counting on Valentenko to emerge as a guy who could step in on the pro club as soon as next season when, in all likelihood, Francis Bouillon and Patrice Brisebois won't be back.

The Habs were also considering it all but assured that Alexei Emelin of Ak Bars Kazan would also be coming to Montreal next year when his contract runs out at the end of this season. That can't be considered as much of a sure thing anymore.

As bad as this may be for the Habs, this is even worse news for Russian prospects in general who have dreams of playing in the NHL. The league's GMs were already a bit tentative when it came to drafting Russians without a transfer agreement in place, but I think most of them at least felt that once these guys were under contract and playing in North America, they were relatively safe from poachers.

But after Alexander Radulov bolted from the Nashville Predators for greener pastures in Ufa prior to this season, and now the apparent departure of Valentenko for Moscow, who in his right mind would commit any assets - inlcuding a high draft pick - to a Russian prospect?

Radulov came to Quebec City to play his junior hockey, in most eyes a sign he truly wanted to play in the NHL, and Valentenko appeared to want the same by playing in Hamilton last year. If Radulov and Valentenko can back out of a contract, how on earth could a Russian prospect convince a team he won't?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Remember, these guys are winning

Alex Kovalev feels the Canadiens are too hesitant and lacking confidence with the puck in the early going of the season.

Guy Carbonneau thinks his team is lacking some timing, due largely to big pre-season expectations and a wonky schedule that had the team with four days off last week and another five-day break next week.

Saku Koivu felt his Canadiens may have tried to get a "bit too cute" and didn't put enough pucks on Cam Ward in the Carolina net.

Do these comments sound like they are coming from a winning team, one which snapped a nine-game losing streak at home to the Hurricanes with a bore-you-to-tears 3-2 victory in the shootout? Does it sound like these guys are 6-1-1 after eight games, tied in points with the high-flying Minnesota Wild, their next opponents Thursday night?

Not exactly.

But the Canadiens record, even it has been compiled against some less than challenging opposition, remains impressive because it's being done while the team continues to search for itself.

Kovalev said after the game that the Habs need to start playing the way they did at the end of last year, but in fact what they need to do is figure out what identity this version of the team is going to ultimately have. Despite relatively minor personnel changes, this is a hugely different team than last year.

The additions of Robert Lang, Alex Tanguay and Georges Laraque are not the only new players Carbonneau has at his disposal, because the Kostitsyn brothers in their current form are essentially free agent acquisitions when compared to last year at the same time. Last year's team had a clearly-defined checking line, and nearly half the forwards were muckers.

Now, Carbonneau has three lines that are threats to score every night, no matter what combination he ultimately puts them in, and opposing coaches will lose sleep trying to figure out who they will play their checking line against.

The other night against Anaheim, Randy Carlyle threw his shutdown line against the Plekanec line half the time, and against the Koivu line the other half. Most teams don't present that dilemma.

Forging a new identity takes some time, and eventually it will come, but one guy who is clearly having trouble accepting that adjustment period is Plekanec. He has only an empty net goal and two assists to show for his season thus far, and it's becoming increasingly clear to anyone paying attention that he's over-thinking the game right now.

Early in the second period Tuesday night, he had a marvelous opportunity to step over the blue line and put a shot on goal. Instead, Plekanec faked the shot and tried an impossible pass that ultimately killed the rush. It was almost as if he told himself in the split-second before the play, "OK, I tried throwing everything imaginable on net against the Ducks Saturday night, it's time to try something different."

When someone is thinking that much out there - and I'm not saying Plekanec is necessarily, it just looks that way - it becomes chronic and a slump can start to perpetuate itself.

"He's getting frustrated a bit and you can see it in his body language on the ice," Carbonneau said. "But for me what's important is his overall game, not points. He's doing some very nice things defensively and 5-on-5 since the start of the season, he's had some scoring chances and creates scoring chances. It's just a question of time with him."

That, to me at least, sounds like a man who is going to give his number one centreman from last year some time with his current linemates to find his scoring touch. But the deeper Plekanec goes into this slump, the more it will become clear that perhaps a change of linemates may be the best thing for him.

This is, after all, a new team.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The virtues of patience

If Andrei Kostitsyn gets the go ahead from the doctors Tuesday, Guy Carbonneau will have a full lineup for the first time this season when the Canadiens host the Hurricanes at the Bell Centre. It will be everyone's first shot at seeing this vaunted attack running with all its parts, but I'm more curious to see how Carbonneau's patience will be tested.

Last season, before he found the winning combination of playing Alex Kovalev with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, Carbonneau rarely went a game without changing his lines. More often that not, at least prior to last Christmas, Carbonneau rarely even finished a game with the same lines he started with.

The coach has a lot of qualities, but patience isn't exactly one of them, and I'm wondering how long that trigger finger is going to sit idle. Up until now, Carbonneau hasn't had a reason to change the forward lines. The team was winning, the new line of Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay and Guillaume Latendresse was clicking, and he didn't even have all his forwards at his disposal.

Now, if indeed Kostitsyn plays Tuesday night, Carbonneau will have all his horses, and the team is coming off a loss where a series of neutral zone turnovers by the forwards led to a bunch of goals.

Will Carbonneau allow the lack of production from the top line to continue much longer before making a change? I'm tempted to believe he will smply because he has all of last season to draw on. But, as colleague Francois Lemenu pointed out Sunday, there is a certain Robert Lang who has a well documented bit of history playing with Kovalev, and if he takes much longer to get going, Carbonneau may become tempted.

There's also the repeated evidence of how well the Kostitsyn brothers play together that could lead Carbonnau to shake things up. In theory, while keeping the Koivu line together Carbonneau could evetually try playing Kovalev with Lang and Christopher Higgins while sliding Sergei Kostitsyn up to play with Andrei and Plekanec.

I'm not saying Carbonneau would do this Tuesday night, but what I am saying is that if the top line doesn't get going soon the coach will not wait much longer to act. And one of the line's final chances to make an impression could be against the Hurricanes, assuming Andrei can play.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What can you really make of that

The Canadiens had a tough time explaining this one.

You can't say they didn't attack the Anaheim net in their 6-4 loss Saturday night. Jean-Sebastien Giguère was tested 51 times and only gave up four goals, and he was at his most spectacular in the third when he turned aside 21 of 22 shots.

Tomas Plekanec alone had 13 shots, seven in the third, but came close to crashing his stick over the net when Giguère stoned him twice in a row from point blank about 12 minutes into the final frame. Oh yeah, and he finished with a minus-2 on the night.

Christopher Higgins made a pretty successful season debut, showing some explosiveness to allay fears that his groin injury would flare up, and he made a fantastic play on Saku Koivu's fourth goal of the year when he passed one against the grain while going behind the net to set the captain up.

But, in the bad with the good category comes Higgins' very poor decision at the Anaheim blueline that led to a 2-on-1 for Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on Anaheim's second goal.

Higgins, to his credit, mentioned the brain fart while talking in more general terms about the Canadiens' risky plays that went bad on the night. But on the physical side of things, he said everything went better than planned.

"I felt good, surprisingly good with the legs," he said. "I thought I would be worse for wear conditioning wise but I felt pretty strong throughout the whole game. I just felt a little rusty with the decision-making and the hands, but I think that will come back quickly."

Guy Carbonneau couldn't be too angry at his team considering what they did, and he couldn't be too angry at his goalies considering the tough positions their teammates put them in. Jaroslav Halak allowing goals on he first and third shots he faced doesn't help, nor does it help when he only stops eight out of 12.

But the only one he really blew out of the four he allowed was the first one to Kent Huskins, and even that was very poor defensive converage by the Canadiens, even if it was a stoppable shot.

Nine times out of 10 this year the Canadiens will win if they score four goals, but losing this game could prove beneficial because Carbonneau and his staff can now focus on eliminating some of the bad habits that were beginning to develop.

The Canadiens were not as good as their 5-0-1 record entering Saturday night suggested, and now the coaching staff has exhibit A on video as proof for their players. And when you can take a game where you had 51 shots on goal and use that as an example of what is wrong with your team, it means you have a pretty good team.

Friday, October 24, 2008

That's a short leash you're wearing

So, Ryan O'Byrne is going to be watching Saturday night's Habs game against the Ducks from the press box, a victim of the return of Francis Bouillon and the importance of Patrice Brisebois to the power play.

It appears his tough game against the Panthers Monday night is the primary reason he'll be out of the lineup, and in fact it made Guy Carbonneau's decision easier for him. I would think that facing a team like the Ducks, you'd want O'Byrne in the lineup for his physical presence. It's not the type of team against which Brisebois tends to excel.

But with the power play sputtering right now, Brisebois becomes a very important piece of the puzzle.

I just wonder what this will do to O'Byrne's confidence, especially if it starts becoming a regular occurrence. I remember Mike Komisarek's beginnings under Claude Julien, who also tended to punish his young defenceman when he made too many mistakes in a particular game, severely limiting his ice time. In fact, I remain convinced that Julien's use of Komisarek was a determining factor in Bob Gainey firing him, because as soon as he took over behind the bench, Komisarek's ice time increased quite significantly.

Is Carbonneau doing the same thing to O'Byrne? It's too early to tell right now, but the context is also quite different. Gainey was taking over a mediocre squad and could afford to allow Komisarek to learn on the job. This year's team, obviously, is not mediocre, and Carbonneau's number one priority is winning, not development.

But for Carbonneau to win come spring, unless Gainey brings in another quality defenceman to play with Roman Hamrlik, he's going to need O'Byrne to improve significantly over the coming months and the odd poor game is to be expected. I'm not sure if putting him in the press box is the best way to get O'Byrne to a level where he could be an impact player come playoff time.

"Flat out: not involved."

So that's that.

Before allowing this somewhat ridiculous Marian Gaborik to Montreal rumour train to gather any significant steam, Bob Gainey came out at the general managers meeting in Chicago and put an end to it once and for all with that succinct quote.

The fact that acquiring Gaborik would have required some insane cap management and also would have meant losing at least three guys from the current roster - which would in one fell swoop ruin the depth Gainey has cultivated on the team - didn't stop this rumour from growing, and it all started with the fact that Gainey and Wild GM Doug Risebrough are former teammates.

Chris Higgins, the player attached to any rumour involving the Habs, noted yesterday how he'd been assure by someone in the organization - not necessarily Gainey himself - that the rumours were pure speculation. But I don't think that carries nearly as much weight as Gainey telling the media that he is in no way involved in trade talks for Gaborik.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean Gainey is not shopping Higgins for another player on the market (perhaps Florida's Jay Bouwmeester, who would be a far better fit than Gaborik?).

So when the Wild had director of pro scouting Blair Mackasey and pro scout Jamie Hislop at the Habs-Panthers game Monday night, maybe they were in fact scouting the Panthers, and not the Canadiens.

In any case, Gainey has managed to snuff out his team's first distraction of the year by telling the media he is not interested in Gaborik's services, which has to be reassuring because his first priority should be to find a fourth defenceman, in my humble opinion.

Bouwmeester would obviously be the best candidate, but he'll cost a ton, perhaps even more than Gaborik would, and so the Canadiens would need to rip apart their roster to add what could be a rental.

I think Gainey will need to wait until at least Christmas before looking for that fourth defenceman for two reasons: 1) That player's salary will be easier to absorb because a good chunk of it will have already been paid and 2) It will become a little clearer which teams are struggling and are legitimately in danger of missing the playoffs.

For instance, if the Ducks continue to stink through December (which I doubt because Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf can't play this badly for too much longer), then a guy like impending unrestricted free agent François Beauchemin could be made available with a very limited cap hit of $1.65 million this season. I highly doubt the Ducks will be able to pay him what he's worth when July 1 hits, especially if they want to keep Scott Niedermayer (assuming he still wants to play).

There's also Mathias Ohlund in Vancouver, also set to become a UFA on July 1 with a cap hit of $3.5 million. His best days are behind him, but you could do a lot worse than having him as your number four defenceman, much the same way Robert Lang is a great third line centre.

I still believe Jaroslav Halak is the most valuable trade chip available to Gainey that has the least impact on the current lineup, but Halak is only valuable to teams that have goaltending issues. That's not the case in Florida, Anaheim or Vancouver. What those three teams do have in common is a lack of depth at forward, something the Canadiens have in abundance.

So if indeed Gainey winds up shopping for one of Bouwmeester, Beauchemin or Ohlund, it is highly likely Higgins' name will come up again. He'd better be ready for it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Higgins emerges

So Chris Higgins practiced wth his teammates in Verdun today and, because of that, had to face the media and answer question about the trade rumours swirling about him.

A lot of players don't let rumours get to them, but I really don't think Higgins is among that group. Just look at how he reacted last year when the trade deadline came and went without a change of address, he looked like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. The guy takes his job very seriously, and he is the ultimate team player. The thought of leaving the Habs, for a kid who grew up idolizing them, gives Higgins something to think about at night.

For a lot of players, I would say that might not necessarily be a bad thing. It might provide that extra boost of motivation to show his team how valuable he can be. But in Higgins' case, I'm not sure these rumours would have that effect.

He's admitted that he takes far too much to heart, especially when it comes to his own play. It can be a vicious circle with him, because when he hits a slump he tries that much harder to produce, but often times his slump is caused because he's trying too hard to begin with.

I'm afraid of what the rumours might do to him between the ears when (if?) he gets back to the lineup. As he said today, he'd show us all how badly he wants to stay with the Habs if he were playing, but will that necessarily make him the most effective player he can be? I doubt it.

Higgins, much like Maxim Lapierre, needs to play within himself to be at his best, and if he's going to hit the Bell Centre ice and try to show the entire province just how badly he loves being a Hab on his first shift then he won't be at his best at all.

If I'm Bob Gainey and there's little to no chance Higgins will be traded in the near future, I would take him aside and ease his mind. Let him know how important he is to the team, how much confidence he has in him, and how he needs to relax and simply play his game.

Then again, if there's no way to say that with any honesty, then Gainey needs to pull the trigger as soon as possible because Higgins will only be hurting his trade value by playing with an agenda.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Marian's white knight

Marian Gaborik's agent Ron Salcer has come out in defence of his client (what good agent doesn't?) and issued a statement denying some of the outrageous numbers being thrown out there regarding his negotiations, or lack thereof, with the Minnesota Wild on a contract extension.

Here's what Salcer said, courtesy of Russo's Rants:

"Unfortunately, Marian has been absorbing a character assassination on the premise of misinformation that has circulated like gospel.

"Lets be clear, no matter what Marian eventually signs for, it’s all a lot of money. Special athletes make lots of money. The important part of this process is recognizing the various dynamics of sensitive negotiations for both the player and team that transpire. Making some effort to maintain integrity for the principles involved should be considered.

"Based on what’s voluminous speculation and propaganda, people are inappropriately judging Marian. It should be based on the facts. The facts are this is his eighth year in Minnesota and the loyalty he has shown fans, the city, his teammates and the organization should not be disregarded or overlooked.

"The offers that have been thrown at the wall of 10 years, $85 million, $90 million and $100 million are wrong, as are what I now hear — seven years, $70 million and eight years, $80 million. They’re also wrong.

"When and if they do get offered, something certainly may happen."

Salcer is obviously correct in pointing out that, no matter what, Gaborik will be signing for a lot of money. But I would certainly hope he wouldn't reject any of those hypothetical offers he just denied, because some of them would make Gaborik the highest paid player in the league. He's good, but he's not Ovechkin good.

If indeed Bob Gainey is talking to Doug Risebrough about Gaborik, which he might not be, it has to be somewhat encouraging that the rumoured numbers are being denied by his agent. Gaborik will be getting paid $7.5 million this year and, considering his injury history, I don't feel he's worth much more than that.

Furthermore, a 10-year deal is way too big of a risk with this guy, as is a nine, eight, seven, six or five-year deal. Unfortunately, the nature of unrestricted free agency being what it is, a six or seven year deal is probably the starting point of any contract negotiations with Gaborik. Wild beat writer Michael Russo believes the offers from Minnesota are anywhere between seven and 10 years for $8-8.5 million per.

This is why I feel Gainey should stay away from this guy. He's likely going to cost Chris Higgins, at least one A-list prospect, plus at least two more roster players. Not only does that make no sense for the long-term, it makes no sense for this year either. At that price and term, I'd take a run at Marian Hossa or Jay Bouwmeester in July before looking at Gaborik.

Speaking of Higgins, he skated alone today, away from the glare of the media watching the rest of the team practice in Verdun. I'm wondering how Higgins went from "98 per cent sure" to be playing Monday night to being a scratch to not even being able to practice with the team?

Is his injury more serious than initially believed (likely)? Is he being shielded from the team because he's about to get dealt (far less likely)? Will he be able to play Saturday (who knows)?

I think this is a situation where Guy Carbonneau should break away from his newly acquired right to wrap every injury in a shroud of media speculation and just come out and say what's wrong with Higgins. The way the situation is being handled is just fuelling a rumour mill that doesn't really need the extra ammo right now.

Meanwhile, Andrei Kostitsyn was kept away from the ice and I'd be surprised to see him play Saturday.

Finally, a happy 70th birthday to Habs owner George Gillett, who's looking to unload Liverpool FC in the midst of a global economic crisis.

He and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks are apparently looking for £550 million (or about C$1.1 billion). Good luck.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Not to burst anyone's bubble but...

... the Canadiens start to the the season is a bit of a mirage.

Don't get me wrong, a 5-0-1 start is a good thing, no a great thing, but there needs to be a dose of perspective thrown in.

First of all, let's look at who the Habs have played thus far. Their five wins have come against teams that have a combined record of 7-12-6 going into Tuesday night's games, while their only loss - albeit in a shootout - came against the one team on the schedule that's actually playing well, the Buffalo Sabres.

Among those five wins, I can count three where the Canadiens really deserved to lose based on their level of effort and execution. In Philadelphia, the Habs played very poorly for the first two periods but managed to wake up in time for the third and pull a victory from the jaws of defeat.

Against the Bruins in the home opener, the Canadiens had full control of the game with a 3-0 lead after the first, but then took their foot off the gas and allowed Boston to tie the game before winning in a shootout, giving up a free point to a division rival.

Finally, Monday night the Habs were bailed out by Jaroslav Halak on a night when most of the players wearing white played as if they were looking forward to their four-day break this week.

Now I know what most people will say, that the Canadiens have dealt with injuries but still won those games and that good teams find a way to win even when they're not playing their best. I'm fully on board on that one, but those wins are only supposed to happen every once in a while, perhaps when the team comes home after a long road trip or is playing a particularly taxing part of its schedule.

But the Habs have now had three of those wins in their last four games, and it must be a cause for concern for Guy Carbonneau.

The Canadiens are 23rd in the league in shots against at a whopping 32 per game, and the only reason that hasn't been a factor is the goaltending tandem of Carey Price and Halak has nullified it.

When I asked Carbonneau after Monday night's game how he feels about the potential of his team when it's undefeated despite not playing its best hockey, the coach noted how he wasn't pleased with the neutral and defensive zone coverage, as evidenced by the 36 shots allowed against the Panthers on Monday night.

But when I asked the same question to Saku Koivu earlier, his answer was completely different.

"Overall we've played fairly solid defensively 5-on-5, maybe even better than last year," Koivu said. "The power play isn't where it was last year, but we kind of expected that with the new personnel. Last year we wouldn't play that well defenively 5-on-5 but the power play would get two or three goals and we'd win the game. I think in the long run playing solid defensively 5-on-5 will win you games, and the power play will come."

Well, that's two entirely different views of the same situation, now isn't it?

Speaking of the power play, I'm convinced, like Koivu, that it will come together once Carbonneau can find combinations that work consistently. Right now it appears he's trying to settle that second unit, so the Tomas Plekanec line's power play time has suffered as a result because Carbonneau is still experimenting. Monday night, though, the Plekanec line with Andrei Markov and Patrice Brisebois on the points kept the puck in the Panthers end for an entire two minutes. They didn't score, but if they keep doing that the goals will most definitely come.

The power play's clicking at a 17.9 per cent clip thus far, 15th in the league, but even that's misleading. If you take out the Toronto Massacre on the opening Saturday night of the season, where the Habs scored three times on eight chances, Montreal has only scored two power play goals in 15 opportunities. That's not good, but it will get better.

The Habs schedule is a relatively easy one for quite some time, starting with the struggling Ducks at the Bell Centre on Saturday. After that, the only really tough team the Habs will face before Nov. 20 is the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 30 in the first of a four-game road swing that also includes stops in Long Island, Columbus and Toronto.

But the first really tough streth in the schedule for the Canadiens starts Nov. 20 when, in a 10-game span, they play at Ottawa, Boston, the Islanders, at Detroit, at Washington, Buffalo, Atlanta, the Rangers, New Jersey and Calgary.

There are only two "easy" games in that stretch, even though seven of the games are at home, but it should give fans a better idea of what this Canadiens team is made of. Because at that point, looking at their schedule, it's entirely possible the Habs will be riding high atop the league standings, even if they're not running on all cylinders.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Norris buzz will start heating up

I don't want to become too much of an alarmist, but the buzz among the Montreal media to push Andrei Markov for the Norris Trophy is already starting to heat up.

I've seen this phenomenon in action once before, and the ultimate result was far more unlikely than Markov at least being a Norris nominee because, in all honesty, it would take an injury to Nicklas Lidstrom for him to even be considered.

The last time the Montreal media became fixated on something like this was in 2001-02, when Jose Theodore was single-handedly leading a pretty mediocre Canadiens team into the playoffs. The buzz began somewhere around the end of February that Theodore's play in goal should make him a Hart Trophy candidate, and it continued to build up steam with every game he put a wall in front of the Canadiens net.

We all know how that one turned out, so you can't really underestimate the power of the fifth estate in Montreal.

At this stage of the season, what Markov is doing on the ice is simply remarkable. He was already, in my opinion, the best power play quarterback in the league because of his uncanny ability to not only keep pucks in at the blue line, but turn those failed clearing attempts into scoring chances.

But so far this season, Markov is showing far more than that because every decision he makes on the ice appears to be the right one.

When asked if his top defenceman is not held in high enough regard around the league, Habs coach Guy Carbonneau first said it depends on who you ask.

"He's a bit reserved and he's not flamboyant. Maybe if his name was Avery he'd get more attention," Carbonneau joked. "But if you look at Nick Lidstrom, at the beginning of his career no one talked about him either."

That's a pretty heavy comparison for a coach to make, but Markov's play on the ice is making that inevitable.

Markov has also shown more confidence in his off-ice duties, becoming more comfortable with reporters as he asserts his position as one of the leaders of the team. In the past, Markov limited a lot of his answers to one word, partly because of his limited grasp of English, but mainly because of his guarded personality.

I remember asking Oleg Petrov once what Markov was like with him off the ice because the two of them often went out to eat together early in Markov's career. Everyone assumed Markov didn't like talking to reporters because of his English, but Petrov quickly corrected that impression.

"I know he doesn't talk to you guys," he said. "But he doesn't talk to me either."

Markov's doing a lot of talking these days with his play on the ice, and it's speaking volumes. He, along with Saku Koivu and the two goalies are the biggest reason why the Canadiens find themselves 5-0-1 despite injuries and sometimes listless play.

Monday night was a perfect example, as the Canadiens sleep walked through much of the game until Markov made a play that only he can make when he whiffed on a shot attempt but still had the wherewithal to find Koivu with a blind drop pass for the game's first goal.

"I don't think anyone in the building expected that pass," Koivu said.

Speaking of the captain, that's three straight games with a goal. Not bad for a guy who showed up with a bum foot having missed the hallowed pre-season golf tournament and was supposedly ready to play a support role this season.

"Every team in the league is dug in the trenches waiting for us this year," Carbonneau said. "Saku just decided this was how he would respond."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but is that not how Koivu has responded every time someone has doubted him his entire career?

Adding fuel to the fire

I don't particularly like doing this, but considering the context right now it needs to be said.

In addition to Minnesota Wild director of pro scouting Blair Mackasey, the Wild have also sent pro scout Jamie Hislop to the Bell Centre for tonight's Canadiens game against the Florida Panthers.

Now, I will say that just because a team sends two scouts to a game doesn't necessarily mean anything. It could be that the travel itineraries made it convenient or a myriad of other possible explanations.

But considering all the trade rumours surrounding these two teams right now, it can't simply be brushed off as a coincidence that two Wild scouts are at tonight's game.

Meanwhile, Jaroslav Halak is the best player on the ice, and Christopher Higgins is nowhere to be found because of a flare up of his "groin injury," the accuracy of which I'm starting to doubt more and more every day.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

On head shots

Found via Stu Hackel's New York Times Slap Shot blog comes this compilation of head shot rules from various sports leagues posted on the fan blog in March of 2007. His motivation for looking into what other leagues do came after Patrick Eaves, then of the Senators, was levelled by Colby Armstrong, then of the Penguins.

Here's the list:

From the NFL rule book:
15 Yards (and disqualification if flagrant)
3. Striking opponent on head or neck with forearm, elbow, or hands whether or not the initial contact is made below the neck area.

From the NBA rule book:
Officials have been instructed to eject a player who throws a punch, whether or not it connects, or an elbow which makes contact above shoulder level. If elbow contact is shoulder level or below, it shall be left to the discretion of the official as to whether the player is ejected. Even if a punch or an elbow goes undetected by the officials during the game, but is detected during a review of a videotape, that player will be penalized.

From the MLB rule book:
8.02(d) Intentionally Pitch at the Batter.
Rule 8.02(d) Comment: To pitch at a batter’s head is unsportsmanlike and highly dangerous. It should be—and is—condemned by everybody. Umpires should act without hesitation in enforcement of this rule.

From the OHL rule book:
Rule 48 - Checking to the Head A minor or a major and game misconduct penalty, at the discretion of the referee based on the degree of impact, shall be assessed to any player who checks an opponent to the head area in any manner. A match penalty shall be assessed to any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent by Checking to the Head. Note: A hit to the head with a shoulder shall be considered an illegal check and shall be penalized as checking to the head. From the Rugby League rule book:

15.1) A player is guilty of misconduct if he:
b) Attacks the head of an opponent when effecting a tackle.

From the Rugby Union rule book:
The foul and misconduct laws are comprehensive. A player is not allowed to strike, hack, kick, or trip an opponent, though he may “hand off” an opponent with the flat palm of his hand when the opponent is trying to tackle him. Nor may a player make a dangerous tackle (for example, a high tackle around the neck and head) or tackle with a stiff arm.

From the National Lacrosse League rule book:
b) When a major penalty is imposed under this Rule for a foul resulting in an injury to the face or head of an opponent, a game misconduct shall be imposed.

a) A major penalty shall be assessed to a player who checks an opponent in such a way that contact is made between his stick and the opponent.s neck, face or helmet.
Should an injury occur a major penalty and a game misconduct penalty will be assessed.
(NOTE): Incidental contact with the helmet should be disregarded.

b) If a player being legally checked deliberately ducks, so as to cause the stick of the opponent to strike him on the head or neck, no penalty shall be assessed.

It just further illustrates how archaic the NHL's view on blows to the head actually is.

In case you missed it, here's Kurt Sauer's hit on Andrei Kostitsyn, and be sure to also check out the description of the play by the HNIC crew. They basically agreed with RDS' Benoit Brunet that the hit may have been a bit high but it was essentially clean. Brunet actually raises a good point when he says that the consequences of the hit would not have been nearly as severe if Kostitsyn had seen it coming rather than watching the puck, but I still feel the league should implement a rule against making contact with a player's head, like just about every other non-bush league out there has already done.

Let's be rational on Gaborik

Before Marian Mania sets in again (what is it with impending free agents named Marian that get people in Montreal so crazy?), I just want to lay out some numbers for all of you:

Exhibit A) Marian Gaborik has a cap hit this year of $6,333,333.

Exhibit B) The combined cap hit for Chris Higgins ($1.7 million) and Jaroslav Halak ($775,000) is $2,475,000.

Exhibit C) Depending on your source, the Habs available cap space is $1,064,699 ( or $1,122,000 (

Exhibit D) In order to absorb Gaborik's contract while trading away only Higgins and Halak, the Habs would need $3,858,333 in available cap space (that's not the exact number because there's already been a few days spent on the season, but it's close enough).

That's not rocket science, folks. The discussed deal as it's being reported by RDS simply makes no sense because it would require the Habs to send more salary the other way. Maybe Steve Begin ($1,057,000) and Mathieu Dandenault ($1,725,000) get thrown in to make the numbers work, but I don't see why the Wild would want to do that.

Also, the RDS report states that a Minnesota Wild scout was at the game Saturday night even though neither Higgins nor Halak played. That scout is in fact the Wild's director of pro scouting Blair Mackasey, who lives in the West Island and is a regular visitor at the Bell Centre. It's funny, because when I saw him in the press box I thought to myself how his preence will fuel some Gaborik rumours out there, and, well, there you have it...

I don't doubt Bob Gainey has inquired about Gaborik's availability, but I just don't see how he could put together a package that would appeal to his buddy Doug Risebrough without completely ripping apart the chemistry that has taken hold of his team.

Higgins is a valuable trade chip, especially to a team like the Wild that is built on solid, two way players. Halak, of course, is an extremely valuable commodity, but not particularly for the Wild because they're already pretty set in goal with Niklas Backstrom as the starter and Josh Harding - essentially a Halak equivalent - as the cheap ($725,000) backup. Why would the Wild want Halak, unless they planned on dealing Harding to another team?

Then there's the fact that Gaborik is an injury waiting to happen. He's currently sidelined with a "lower-body injury" and has been a regular visitor to the clinic over his career, missing 57 games over the past three years with various groin injuries. His agent Ron Salcer and Risebrough haven't held contract discussions in weeks, according to Michael Russo's blog, which is pretty dialed in to everything Wild.

Russo seems to agree that Higgins is the centrepiece of discussions while the Wild would also love to get their hands on Ryan MacDonagh, which would require Gaborik to sign a long-term extension with the Habs before any trade is finalized because the organization is very high on the Minnesota native. Considering the kind of money Gaborik has already left on the table, with reports of a 10-year, $80 million deal being rejected, I don't know if Gainey's the type to offer anything better than what he's already seen.

But the crux of this whole rumour - and that's all it is, a series of rumours - remains the salary cap issues involved, now and moving forward. If Gainey did sign Gaborik long-term, that essentially guarantees Saku Koivu and/or Alex Kovalev will be playing their final games in a Habs uniform this year.

Though Montreal has gobs of cap space for next season, as Russo correctly points out, Gainey would still need to re-sign Mike Komisarek, Tomas Plekanec and Guillaume Latendresse in addition to Gaborik, while also keeping in mind that Carey Price's contract will be up in 2010 and there needs to be at least $8-$10 million left to lock him up long-term as well.

So, for the sake of argument, let's say Gaborik would warrant $9 million, Komisarek would get $5 million, Plekanec $3.5 million and Latendresse $2 million, when you add the money that needs to be saved for Price that makes nearly $30 million going to five players. Add that to the $23.3 million already on the books for 2009-10, and you get $53.3 million, or only $3.4 million less than this year's cap (one that may be on the way down along with the rest of the economy).

The numbers simply don't add up, not now, and not in the future. If Gainey wants to bet the farm on this year and hope the team's prospects can pick up the slack in the future, and if he's willing to watch Gaborik walk at the end of the year, then maybe a deal happens somehow with a lot of cap wizardry by Julien Brisebois.

But I wouldn't bet on it, because everything Gainey has done since taking the job has been measured and rational. This would be anything but.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Apparently, I'm Code illiterate

That's according to Georges Laraque, who said after the game he didn't expect Kurt Sauer to drop the gloves with him because "he's not a heavyweight." He added that choosing to fight Tom Kostopoulos after turning him down wasn't a violation of any Code, it was just good, common sense.

Which is exactly what Sauer said, with refreshing candor.

"He's a big guy, a tough guy," Sauer, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, said of Laraque, 6-foot-3, 253 pounds. "I'm not even in his league, I'm not even close."

From the way the eventual fight did go down, it appeared that Kostopoulos wasn't exactly in Sauer's league either, but that didn't stop him from fighting, now did it?

Sauer, by the way, had nine career fights entering Saturday's contest according to, and he's previously taken on guys like Brad May, Bryan Marchment, his current captain Shane Doan and Jason Wiemer.

To be fair, the fight against Kostopoulos was his second of the year, and only his third in the past two years. He racked up seven of his 10 career fights in his first two years in the league when he was playing for Anaheim, where fighting is manadatory.

The more important matter of Andrei Kostitsyn's health wasn't cleared up much after the game by Guy Carbonneau, but he did say that he saw him when the game was over and that "he was doing better." That means Kostitsyn wasn't immediately taken to hospital, which has to be considered a good sign.

Sauer refused to say whether his hit was clean or not because he hadn't seen the replay, but he didn't think he got his hands up on Kostitsyn (I'm pretty sure his opinion will change on that once he does see a replay).

But Doan was pretty unequivocal in his description of the play.

"That's a perfectly clean hit, absolutely clean," Doan said, adding that Kostitsyn went into the boards awkwardly, which is why he got hurt.

There was a lot of "it's a part of the game" clichés being thrown around in the Coyotes dressing room, but Carbonneau obviously doesn't share that opinion.

"I don't know if it's dirty," Carbonneau said, "but they're trying to eliminate blows to the head and that was a blow to the head."

Carbonneau added that he would like to see if the league will discipline Sauer, but if I were him I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Colin Campbell to hand down a suspension because, as I've stated already, Sauer didn't break any rules.

For the sake of the reputation of the league and the game, I really hope I'm wrong on that one.

A costly victory

A 4-1 win is never really a horrible thing, but I have a feeling most of the Montreal Canadiens would have taken a loss tonight if it meant Andrei Kostitsyn had finished the game.

The elder Kostitsyn brother did not look good leaving the ice, and I'd be stunned if he didn't have a concussion, though we'll never know what exactly he has because of the league's new rules that don't force full disclosure on injuries.

I'm not that well versed in "The Code" of hockey, but somehow I have a feeling Kurt Sauer breached it tonight. Not because of his hit on Kostitsyn, and not even because he turned down an invitation to fight from Georges Laraque. I think, though I'm not sure, it's a bit of a violation of "The Code" when you play pacifist against one guy, yet all of a sudden turn into a fighter when a less daunting opponent presents himself, as Tom Kostopoulos did.

Watching the Great One's reaction to all this was almost equally priceless, because somehow he believed his team was the one getting the short end from referees Brad Meier and Wes McCauley. This despite the fact Sauer's hit went unpenalized (probably because it wasn't really illegal), and Meier missed a blatant high-stick on Alex Kovalev from Enver Lisen (that's pronounced LEE-sihn, in case you're wondering. I looked it up).

After Alex Tanguay scored his second of the night to make it 3-0 while the two teams were playing 4-on-4, Gretzky did his best Don Cherry impression and raised both hands as wide as he could get them, even though there was no power play at the time. At the end of the period, after Robert Lang's third of the year on a beautiful set-up by Coyotes winger Daniel Winnik, Gretzky slowly walked across the ice to the Phoenix tunnel, staring Meier down the whole way. When he got to the door he stopped, turned to face the ice and yelled a few choice words Meier's way.

Meier and McCauley didn't have their best night here, because they lost control of the game and forced Guy Carbonneau to use Laraque to try and get some semblance of justice out there. I can understand them missing the call on Sauer because they're human, and as I wrote previously, I'm not sure what he did warranted a penalty. But the aftermath of that hit could have been controlled, and wasn't.

The possible loss of Andrei Kostitsyn for a significant amount of time could be a stunning blow to this team, or it could serve as an opening for other guys to shine. First on the list would be little brother Sergei Kostitsyn, who finished the game in his brother's spot on the top line.

But looking further down the road, this could also be an opportunity for Max Pacioretty or Matt D'Agostini to get a call-up to play with Lang.

Of course, Carbonneau and the Canadiens are hoping it doesn't come to that, because neither of those two come anywhere close to bringing what Andrei Kostitsyn does on a nightly basis.

Now for the positives on this game. First is the play of Alex Tanguay with Saku Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse, which is a line that looks to be jelling. Koivu's two backhand set-ups for Tanguay, which moved the captain past Rocket Richard into seventh place on the Habs all-time assist list, not only displayed his great vision, but it also shows that the two guys are getting on the same page. That definitely wasn't an obvious result of the pairing in training camp, when they looked like they were playing in different time zones . Latendresse's physical play - he really bought it tonight in that area, especially that bone-cruncher on Ed Jovanovski in the third - is the perfect complement to the line.

Finally, Carey Price was infallible again, because even Shane Doan's goal wasn't his fault. The kid is for real, and he proves it everytime he suits up.

A perfectly legal head shot

What does it say about the NHL when what happened to Andrei Kostitsyn Saturday night is not necessarily against the rules?

When Kurt Sauer drilled him in the head with both fists up, sending Kostitsyn flying and ultimately banging his noggin off the ice, there was nothing in the NHL rule book that says he wasn't allowed to do it.

Guy Carbonneau, Sergei Kostitsyn, Georges Laraque and the 21,273 at the Bell Centre right now don't like it, but it's the truth. And it's stupid.

Andrei Kostitsyn is a burgeoning star in this league, one who was laying motionless on the ice for several seconds, who tried to get up but didn't have the legs to do it, and one who needed the help of three trainers just to get off the ice, though he didn't need the stretcher that was wheeled out to get him.

And that burgeoning star was laid out by Kurt Sauer? With no consequences other than a Laraque face wash after the fact, only because the guy didn't have the stones to fight him?

That, to me, is bush league.

Denis on a roll

Marc Denis has gotten off to a great start for the Hamilton Bulldogs, allowing only four goals while winning his first three starts. He has a save percentage of .958 on 95 shots through three games, and he shutout the Hartford Wolf Pack Friday night 2-0.

I'm not sure if he'll be getting the start tonight against his former team the Norfolk Admirals, but if the Bulldogs win it will be their best start to a season since they began playing in Hamilton.

For those of you who are saying that it's normal for Denis to be putting up numbers like this in the AHL, you should have a look at what he did last year in Norfolk. Denis played in 32 games and had only one shutout, a mark he's already matched this year. He also had an unspectacular .910 save percentage with a 2.91 GAA and an 11-17-2 record, though he was playing on the second-worst team in the league.

Why is this in any way important? Because if Denis can keep this up, it makes it far easier to trade Jaroslav Halak at some point this season. Denis has the ideal makeup of an NHL backup because he has experience, 348 games worth in the big league. The Canadiens would have to give him enough time in Hamilton to make sure he's found his game again, but if he has, Denis would be a great mentor for Carey Price in Montreal while Halak could be used to grab a final missing piece to the Habs championship puzzle.

I've already noted my belief the Habs could use another good defenceman to take a run at the Cup, and I still think Halak is a big enough chip to be able to do that. What he accomplished at the AHL level is nothing to sneeze at, because he was easily the best goalie in the league in each of the past two seasons.

Last year he was 15-10-2 with a .929 save percentage, a 2.10 GAA and two shutouts before being called up to the Habs following the Cristobal Huet trade. And that was with a non-playoff team. The year before, when Price was swooped in and led the Bulldogs to the Calder Cup while Halak played at the world championships for Slovakia, he had a 16-11-0 record with a .932 save percentage, 2.00 GAA and six shutouts in only 28 games. Halak also had a 3-0 shutout win against Norway at the worlds while losing a 5-4 decision to Canada, which is almost like a win playing for an overmatched Slovakian team.

Anyone who thinks teams around the league aren't salivating at the thought of adding Halak and his meagre $775,000 cap hit for this season and next simply doesn't understand the economics of today's game. You just don't get quality goaltending at that price, or at least it's very hard to find.

That combination of talent and value makes Halak a very hot commodity, one that could be used to shore up a team for whom a Cup run has a deadline attached because of all the contracts expiring at the end of this season.

In other news from Hamilton, Max Pacioretty has one assist through three games, while Ben Maxwell, David Desharnais, Greg Stewart and Ryan Russell each have three points to lead the team. That ties Maxwell and Desharnais for fourth in rookie scoring in the league. Yannick Weber has thrown a team-high 13 shots on goal, scoring once on the power play, while Kyle Chipchura was named the "Workhorse of the Game" in his season debut Friday night against Hartford.

Check back after tonight's game against Phoenix for post-game analysis. Enjoy the game everyone.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The buddy system

Though the Canadiens didn't have a whole lot to be proud of despite getting a win in their home opener Wednesday night, one thing Guy Carbonneau could not have ignored was the play of Maxim Lapierre.

While I've always thought Lapierre was a useful player, I must admit I never thought he'd be an effective agitator because he's just not gritty enough. But based on what I saw Wednesday night, I believe Lapierre may be in the process of forging a new identity for himself.

He was all over the ice against the Bruins, beating guys to loose pucks, getting physical on the boards and, most importantly, using his speed to its full advantage. The play where he beat out Patrice Bergeron in a one-on-one battle which ultimately led to Lapierre's shorthanded goal was created solely by his speed.

Bergeron, based on where Lapierre was when the puck was dumped into the Bruins end, didn't treat the situation with the urgency it warranted, probably because he didn't believe anyone could get there so fast to bother him. Next thing he knew, Lapierre was rubbing him out on the boards to get the puck back to Markov, and then he was watching Lapierre bury a puck behind a sprawled out Tim Thomas.

Bergeron never knew what hit him.

If Lapierre can keep this up at centre, he makes that fourth line extremely effective. I don't know of too many teams that can line up so much speed on a fourth line, with Mathieu Dandenault, Steve Begin and even Tom Kotsopoulos armed with some pretty good wheels. Having speed like that makes dump-ins far more comfortable, because the defencemen can throw it deep with a pretty good assurance that one of their guys will get to the puck first.

Speaking of Dandenault, it's becoming increasingly clear that he has a role to play on this team, and a pretty important one at that. Dressing him allows Carbonneau to have a seventh guy on hand to play defence in a pinch, and Dandenault's pairing with Lapierre on the penalty kill was very effective against the Bruins, albeit their power play is not the most potent in the league.

Meanwhile, Lapierre's good buddy Guillaume Latendresse is fortifying his spot on Saku Koivu's line, and it will be interesting to see what Carbonneau does with that line in practice Friday. Koivu was kept out of Thursday's practice as a precautionary measure (the injury kept him from playing in Wednesday's overtime), and Higgins was lined up between Latendresse and Tanguay. I'm assuming Koivu will practice Friday, at which point we'll know what Carbonneau decides to do.

I can't really see why he would break up this line right now, especially since adding Higgins to Robert Lang and Sergei Kostitsyn makes that line so much stronger. Koivu and Tanguay really benefit having a guy with Latendresse's size on their line because of the space he creates when he plays physical, as he did on Wednesday (he was credited with a team-high six hits). Higgins doesn't have that element in his game, but having him play opposite Sergei should really make teams dizzy and it would complete what has already become very well-balanced attack.

In fact, the line that's having trouble keeping up right now is the one that carried the team for much of last season. I don't know how many times Carbonneau said it last year that his team had grown too reliant on Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn to score. If that line happened to have an off night, which didn't happen too often, the Habs were in trouble.

So far this year, the Habs haven't needed that line to dominate because the other two scoring lines are putting numbers on the board. Granted, Koivu's line has stockpiled most of its points in a single game, but this new balanced attack is already paying huge dividends as the top line takes its time hitting fifth gear.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Winning ugly

In Philadelphia Monday night, the Montreal Canadiens found a way to win a game they had no business winning by putting together a tremendous final 20 minutes to steal a victory.

Wednesday night, amid the pageantry of the 100th home opener in team history, the Canadiens roared out with a dominant first 20 minutes, then went to sleep over the final 40 against a team they have owned for parts of three seasons.

But the Canadiens still won, and that’s what’s important because good teams win these types of games, the ones they’re not supposed to win.

Just don’t tell that to coach Guy Carbonneau.

“One thing we talked about before the game was our starts,” he said. “I felt in our first three games our starts were so-so, we were watching the other team to see how they wanted to play and then we adjusted. Tonight was the start we wanted. We went right after them, we skated well, passed the puck well, a good forecheck and a lot of offensive time in their zone. But we slowed down, and the day we’ll be a good team is when those things don’t happen.”

The Canadiens did a lot of things wrong after grabbing a 3-0 lead within a 3:19 span late in the first period. But even though the Bruins tied it up, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it came off a freaky bounce off the end boards and that was the only way Carey Price was going to give up that goal.

Basically, the game was a good lesson for the Canadiens, and Alex Kovalev believes it’s better that lesson be given in October than in April.

“It’s not easy when you have a three-goal lead and you sit on it,” Kovalev said. “We did it last year and it cost us, and it cost us again tonight. We’re going to have to learn from it while it’s still early in the season.”

Despite the concerns the coaching staff will mull over tonight and tomorrow, blowing the lead actually allowed the Habs to put a special topper on what was yet another memorable landmark moment at the Bell Centre.

The Ring of Honour ceremony was vintage Habs, and finding guys like Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe – who both work for other NHL teams – standing next to their spot on that ring drove the point home about what makes this franchise so special.

“That’s what makes the Montreal Canadiens the Montreal Canadiens,” Carbonneau said.

For newcomer Georges Laraque, the night was extra special because it was his first chance to wear the jersey he grew up idolizing, and he didn’t take long at all to get his first fight in.

When he jumped over the boards early in the first for his initial spin on Bell Centre ice wearing the famed Tricolore, he didn’t even have time to take a stride before he was dancing with Shawn Thornton.

But something Thornton said afterwards got me thinking that maybe Laraque would be better served waiting a little bit before dropping the gloves.

“I have a lot of respect for him, so I wanted to get it out of the way,” Thornton said. “I would have been thinking about it all night if I didn’t get it out of the way.”

Now, Thornton is no wuss, he’s a very tough customer who plays the game hard. If Laraque can get into a guy’s head to that point, especially a guy like that, maybe the role of the enforcer in the NHL is alive and well after all.

The defence is good, but...

...wouldn't the Canadiens be a really strong contender not only to make the Cup final, but to actually win the thing if there were just one more solid defender in their top four?

Ryan O'Byrne's been pretty good thus far, I love Josh Gorges and Francis Bouillon brings it every time he's on the ice. But none of those guys, even at their best, is a legit top-four defenceman on a contending team. At least not right now.

What got me thinking about this was how the Colorado Avalanche have lost three straight games to start the year, and probably should have won at least two of them. The Avs scored four goals on the normally stingy Boston Bruins in their home opener, but lost 5-4 despite allowing only 20 shots. Colorado gave up only 19 shots against the Oilers, and lost 3-2. Finally, Colorado lost last night 5-4 in Calgary.

For those who have lost count, that's 13 goals allowed in three games, and they came off only 74 shots. That smell tickling your nose right now is the play of Peter Budaj in the Colorado net, he of the very mediocre .903 save percentage last year, and the downright atrocious .824 mark through three games this year.

I believe the Avs probably fashion themselves a playoff team (I don't) and watching Budaj stink it up like this early on has to have GM François Giguère a tad concerned, especially since option number two is Andrew Raycroft.

So what does this have to do with the Habs defence? Well, I'm sure Giguère would listen if an offer of Jaroslav Halak were to come his way right about now, and he's got a blueliner that might just interest Bob Gainey (I don't pretend to know what does and doesn't interest Gainey, all I'm saying is that if I were him, I'd at least listen).

Jordan Leopold has had a tough couple of seasons in Colorado, playing only 58 games over that span while he's fought off issues with his hip, wrist, a lacerated leg, pneumonia, a concussion, a hernia and a groin pull. That's a long list of ailments, but he's saying he's completely healthy (what else would he say?), and if he is Leopold is a very talented player.

Remember, this is a guy who was traded for Alex Tanguay basically straight up only two years ago, and during his time with Calgary he was seen as a future star. If ever he finds that elsuive health, he could be a real bargain and a very valuable member of the Habs top four as an offensive threat from the back end. At $1.5 million this season, he'd also be affordable and could squeak in under the cap.

Another potential trade partner could be the Nashville Predators, because they are banking that Dan Ellis will be the man in goal this season. The Preds also fashion themselves a playoff team (I think they are), but they won't get there without solid goaltending. Ellis had a strong year last year (23-10-3, .924 save percentage, 2.34 GAA), but he's never been the uncontested number one guy and could crumble. Thus far this season, he's 2-1-0 with an .881 save percentage and a 2.61 GAA .

The Predators are, quite frankly, hogging good, young defencemen right now with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis. I don't think any of those guys are really touchable, and the Canadiens can't get them under the cap in any case. One guy they could probably get their hands on would be Greg Zanon, who comes with a bargain-basement cap hit at $725,000 and would slide under the Habs cap very easily (Halak has a $775,000 cap hit).

Zanon is basically a poor man's Mike Komisarek, so adding him on the Roman Hamrlik pairing would make the Habs a really formidable defensive club. Zanon led the Preds with 176 blocked shots last season, the seventh highest total in the league. With him and Komisarek in the lineup every night, Carey Price may start complaining that he's not getting enough work. Zanon also had 160 hits last season, which is 106 fewer than Komisarek had but was still 30th in the league.

Now, a lot of you may be saying that keeping Halak would be the prudent thing to do in order to spell Price during the regular season and act as insurance in case of another playoff meltdown. But I would say that's the wrong way to approach anything, and if Price isn't up to the task the Habs aren't going anywhere in any case. Also, Marc Denis should be a decent backup, and if not him then Cédrick Desjardins may even be able to fill the role.

But keeping Halak on the bench for 60 games a year is a waste of a very valuable asset, one the Canadiens could use to take their team from Stanley Cup contender to Stanley Cup favourite.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cause for concern?

So it appears Christopher Higgins, Francis Bouillon and Georges Laraque won't be ready for Wednesday night's home opener after all. When the Canadiens left on their season-opening road trip, Guy Carbonneau appeared pretty confident the trio would be waiting and ready to take the ice upon the team's return. Though all three of them skated Tuesday, they did so alone as their road-weary teammates got a well deserved day off after three games in four nights.

Bouillon's delay was perhaps a bit foreseeable seeing as he's not nursing a simple groin pull, but a leg (knee?) problem of some sort. However, I would have thought that both Higgins and Laraque would be in uniform - or at least available - for the home opener, especially with it being the first home game of the centennial and the ceremony should have some extra mustard on it with the unveiling of the "Ring of Honour" in the presence of Elmer Lach and Émile "Butch" Bouchard.

Though Laraque's presence would be nice against a team that may turn to a bit of thuggery should things not go the Bruins' way early Wednesday night, it is Higgins' continued absence that makes me wonder if he's being forthright about the status of his injury. Higgins says he feels fine, but needs the OK of the medical staff before taking to the ice. The longer his situation drags out, however, the more it will hurt his chances for success in what is a very important season as he's playing for a big money contract next season.

Higgins may already have seen his spot alongside Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay vanish because of the injury and the sometimes solid play of Guillaume Latendresse in his absence. Playing with Robert Lang and Sergei Kostitsyn is not a bad assignment, but Higgins already has chemistry with Koivu after spending the better part of the last three years on his wing, and his best chance for a big year is likely by the captain's side. Now, Carbonneau could very well put Higgins back on Koivu's line upon his return, but I don't really see why he would after watching how well Latendresse complements Koivu and Tanguay with his size. In any case, I still think the team is better with Higgins on Lang's line, but the point I'm trying to make is that he had a spot alongside Koivu which is now in question.

This must be one of those cases of internal competition Bob Gainey and Carbonneau love talking about, but if Higgins is unable to go Saturday as well, then this officially becomes a more serious injury than everyone is letting on. That would be a major chip for Carbonneau to lose in his plan to roll three scoring lines this season, because even if Sergei and Lang are putting points on the board playing with Tom Kostopoulos, there's no question having a guy like Higgins or even Latendresse would make that line that much more potent.

We should know if the Higgins situation is more of an injury problem or a preventive measure by Friday morning.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Theft in Philly

At the second intermission of the Canadiens 5-3 win in Philadelphia on Monday night, I was wondering how I could analyze the Habs performance without being overly negative.

It was, after all, only the third game of the season, so there was no reason to go overly crazy about the fact the Tomas Plekanec line looked completely lost, or that none of the Canadiens forwards ever appeared to be in the right spot, or that the team simply looked disinterested for the first 40 minutes of the game.

As it turns out, there still is no reason to harp on any of those things because the Habs came out of Philly with a 5-3 win, one they clearly did not deserve. But the standings don't reflect undeserved wins.

The victory over the team that knocked the Habs out of the playoffs last year was an important one because it showed that Carey Price will be able to steal his team some points this year. I don't care how good of a team you are, or how potent an offence you have, every team needs its goaltender to win them a game they didn't deserve every now and then, and that's what Price did Monday night.

From that spectacular glove save off Daniel Brière and Plekanec's skate to the impeccable rebound control he displayed on that 5-on-3 penalty kill late in the first, Price gave the Habs exactly what they needed: 40 minutes to wake up. I know people may look at the first two goals he gave up as being softies on shots from far out, and that's a fair point. But it's kind of like saying Gisele Bündchen isn't a great cook.

The Canadiens came out of the locker room for the third period with an entirely new look, and that goal by Roman Hamrlik really put the Flyers on their heels. A perfectly executed breakout, a very nice drop pass from Andrei Kostitsyn to Alex Kovalev, and then an exquisite saucer pass right onto Hamrlik's stick by The Artist. Tie game. If I'm Flyers coach John Stevens at that point, I'm wondering how on earth I can be tied in a game I've pretty well dominated until now.

Scottie Upshall must have been thinking that same thing when he decided, for a reason only he knows, to try and tip Mike Komisarek's harmless point shot away from Martin Biron. He tipped it away from him all right, except he sent it right into the net. I chalk that boneheaded play to the after-effects of the beauty that was scored just prior to it, so really, the fancy breakout goal was essentially worth two.

Despite the win, and despite his goal which came off a beautiful feed from Sergei Kostitsyn - who is getting better with every game - Robert Lang's performance in the faceoff circle is still an issue that needs to be addressed. This was Denis Savard's main man on the Blackhawks last year when it came to faceoffs, taking the most on the team, and he won them at a 53 per cent clip. But so far this year, including Monday's woeful 6-for-16, Lang is only winning 40.4 per cent of his draws. That simply won't cut it for him, and I don't know how much longer Guy Carbonneau will keep sending him out for important faceoffs.

On the positive side, I think Mike Komisarek played his best game of the road trip. He was involved both physically and - most important - mentally, because he didn't have any lapses in his own end like he did in each of the first two games and much of the pre-season. That's got to be an encouraging sign for Carbonneau.

I also thought Ryan O'Byrne played another sound game, and the defence in general was pretty solid in its own end. That should only get better when Francis Bouillon returns from whatever it is he hurt on his leg.

The biggest positive, however, remains Price. The Canadiens obviously can't sleepwalk through 40 minutes too often this year and hope to be successful. But I'm sure it's nice for them to know that whenever they do, they still have a chance to win because of a certain 21-year-old standing between the pipes.

Would the real Habs please stand up

So, which of the two versions of the Canadiens we've seen so far is closer to the real thing?

Is it the one that looked somewhat lethargic and disorganized in Buffalo Friday night? Or the one that made the hapless Maple Leafs look dizzy in Toronto on Saturday?

My guess is we'll have a better idea of which one's which after tonight's game in Philly, for many reasons. First of all, this represents a mental challenge for the Habs to walk into the same barn that gave the guys nightmares most of the summer, starting with Carey Price. Of course, he won't say it means more than any other game, but it's a way bigger deal then he's letting on. A strong performance from the goalie will allow him to close the door on one of the few negative memories of his young career.

The second reason is that the Flyers are a very tight matchup for the Habs in that they're both contenders for the conference title. The Sabres are good, but they're not at the level of either of these two teams. And the Leafs, well, I don't think I need to explain that one.

A few things I'll be watching for tonight include:

How will Guillaume Latendresse respond to his strong night Saturday in Toronto. The Flyers defence is decimated, with the three of the six guys they expected to be in their top-six unavailable in Derian Hatcher, Randy Jones and Ryan Parent. Kimmo Timonen logged over 30 minutes in Philadelphia's first game. Will Latendresse be able to establish some net presence against the Flyers, especially considering the state o their defence? Another strong game from Gui could force Guy Carhbonneau's hand to keep his line intact with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay.

Will the power play combinations that were so successful in Toronto be maintained? Playing Sergei Kostitsyn on the point and allowing Tanguay to move to the wing was a winning combination against the Leafs, and it takes some of the pressure off the first unit guys to score. If this can be established as a second unit, the Habs power play will become much more potent and difficult to defend, because most team don't have two strong penalty killing units.

How will Robert Lang do in the faceoff circle? This has been one of the early-season disappointments after only two games, because Lang is winning only 42 per cent of his draws thus far. The fact Tomas Plekanec has won 64 per cent of his thud far kind of offsets that, but one of the roles Carbonneau envisioned for Lang was a go-to guy for important faceoffs. He'll need to show some improvement in that area tonight, though he'll be going up against some tough opposition in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.

Can Ryan O'Byrne keep up his strong play? This is a major test for a guy like him because the Flyers group of forwards is the best combination of skill, speed and toughness in the league. Guys like Scott Hartnell, Carter, Richards and Mike Knuble will be pressuring him physically all night, and those were situations where O'Byrne had a tendency to panic with the puck last season. Thus far he's shown a huge improvement in the poise department, but how he responds tonight will go a long way toward determining how well O'Byrne will play this season.

Enjoy the game everyone, and check back here afterwards for post-game analysis.

Oh yeah, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

It's just one game, but... appears some of the Habs still haven't broken training camp.

Chris Higgins said after the final pre-season game against the Minnesota Wild that it looked as though the Wild were playing a regular season game and the Habs were playing an exhibition game.

In the case of Montreal's 2-1 shootout loss in Buffalo on Friday night, it was more like both teams were still in exhibition mode.

The three positives from the Canadiens perspective I could see was the play of Carey Price, Robert Lang and Ryan O'Byrne.

Price was outstanding, and if it weren't for a momentary lapse of sanity by Mike Komisarek (who, I should say, hasn't looked right since the start of training camp. Is it possible there's a little mater of a contract situation distracting him?) when he let a bouncing puck get through his legs at his blue line, Price would have had a shutout and the Canadiens would have had a win.

Lang looked pretty good centring a line with Tom Kostopoulos and Sergei Kostitsyn, which was easily Montreal best of the game. The only knock I would have was that he lost nine of the 15 faceoffs he took, many of which were of the important variety, but I would say Lang did pretty well in his debut. It appeared Guy Carbonneau thought so as well, because he usually rewards players he thought had a nice night at the office with the opportunity to take the first shot in the shootout. Kind of his version of the game ball, I guess.

O'Byrne, despite a few brain farts here and there, looked fantastic. If Friday night was a sign of things to come from the big man, things are definitely looking up for the Canadiens defence. O'Byrne played nearly 21 minutes and not once did I see the awkward rookie of last year and, especially, of the pre-season. O'Byrne looked confident, which to me is a great sign, even if it's only one game.

On the negative side things for me, there were quite a few that jumped out at me, but none more so than the play of Saku Koivu's line.

It seemed to me that Koivu and Alex Tanguay were a little lost while trying to find each other all night, which is what happens when you've never really played together. I still think Tanguay should be split up from Koivu, but the more they do play together the better they likely will be.

As far as Guillaume Latendresse, I don't recall ever seeing him driving the front of the net and setting up camp there, as he said he would do. To be fair, his linemates couldn't really get any sustained possessions in the offensive zone going, so Latendresse didn't have time to establish that net presence. But still, he's got to be a noticeable guy on the lip of that crease, and I didn't notice him the whole night.

However, it is only game number one and the Canadiens came out of a tough building with a point. Now, if they lose in Toronto on Saturday night, feel free to panic.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A golden opportunity for the golden boy

So the Canadiens have taken off for Buffalo without Francis Bouillon, Georges Laraque and Christopher Higgins, which is not good news on the whole.

But as far as Guillaume Latendresse is concerned, this is a real opportunity.

Latendresse has had his best moments in a Habs uniform whenever he's had a chance to play alongside Saku Koivu, who has a unique ability to get the puck to players where they are most comfortable. Latendresse, for his part, is an above average talent when it comes to getting his hands on pucks in close quarters, and this is a perfect complement to Koivu's abilities.

If Latendresse can score against the Sabres in Buffalo on Friday night, he would probably earn himself another game on Koivu's wing in Toronto on Saturday. But even if he gets some chances and makes his presence felt in front of the net, as he's promised he'll do this season, I think Guy Carbonneau may just see the makings of a solid line.

Latendresse has spent most of his career playing with Maxim Lapierre at centre, which is not the best way to take advantage of his talents, and in fact makes his biggest weakness - his skating - even more apparent because Lapierre's game is predicated on dumping the puck and forechecking.

With Koivu and Alex Tanguay carrying the puck into the offensive zone, it will allow Latendresse to head straight to the front of the net instead of having to go dig in the corners to try and force a turnover. If he does establish that net presence - it still remains a big if because he hasn't done it consistently through his first two years in the league - Latendresse could be a perfect fit with two able playmakers.

If Latendresse were to become a permanent fit on Koivu's line, it shouldn't be seen as a demotion for Higgins, either. Adding his talent to Robert Lang and Sergei Kostitsyn makes that line much stronger than if Latendresse were playing there, and I feel would bring more balance to the three scoring lines.

The role Latendresse would play on the Koivu line could be filled by Lang on this one, because those 37-year-old legs won't be able to keep up with Sergei and Higgins. I see Lang becoming the Habs' go-to guy on important faceoffs, so strengthening his line while not necessarily weakening Koivu's will only help Carbonneau in making the opposing coach's match-ups ineffective.

The opportunity has presented itself to him, now it's up to Latendresse to go grab it and run with it.

And out west...

Here comes the Western Conference preview, look below at my East predictions for the preamble and methodology to this madness.

1. Detroit Red Wings
I could start my justification for this pick by being the 4,361st person to write that the Stanley Cup champs lost no one yet added Marian Hossa, but I think you all know that. This is not a prediction saying the Wings will win another Cup, which I don’t think they will, but they will most definitely finish the regular season first in the West. The biggest reason for this is their strength of competition, which in the Central Division is pretty weak. The scary thought about Detroit is that guys like Henrik Zetterburg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula are still getting better, while guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Tomas Holmstrom and Hossa are holding firm. This team is scary on paper, and that coach ain’t too shabby either.

2. San Jose Sharks
The addition of Dan Boyle in San Jose to replace Brian Campbell is an upgrade in my mind, but the biggest reason I think the Sharks might even compete with the Wings for the Conference crown is what they accomplished last year without certain players. Patrick Marleau was essentially MIA all season, turning up in post-game stat reports only because of his plus-minus figure always landing in the red. Ryan Clowe was injured most of the season, opened the playoffs on a tear, and then slumped towards the end. He could become an impact player this year. Jonathan Cheechoo undergoing a second straight year with a decrease in production is concerning, but I think he’ll bounce back from his horrible 37 point output last season, but not back to the 56-goal guy of 2006. They have arguably the best goalie and best centre in the league, and even if you don’t think Evgeni Nabokov and Joe Thornton merit those titles, they’re at least in the discussion. The arrival of a bright, new coach in Todd McLellan should pay big dividends for this club.

3. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers are in this spot largely because no one else in the Northwest Division seems to me like they have what it takes to beat this rising team. The Oilers probably won’t run away with the division, but another year of development for their young guys means the team will likely improve as the season wears on, just like last year. Edmonton enters play this season with a 25-15-2 record in the calendar year of 2008, which projects out to about a 102-point season. That probably won’t happen this year, but I think 97 points will be enough to win this division. The Oilers need a lot of things to fall into place, like half their roster avoiding a sophomore slump, Sheldon Souray avoiding body contact, Mathieu Garon avoiding a huge crash back to earth and Shawn Horcoff being fully recovered from his shoulder injury. Craig MacTavish is a heck of a coach, and he’s got some horses in his stable this year.

4. Anaheim Ducks
I’m not a big Brian Burke fan, but he’s managed to maintain a pretty competitive club despite painting himself into a salary cap corner the past couple of seasons because he allowed Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne to sit around for half of last season. The loss of Mathieu Schneider will be felt, but with a top three of Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin, I don’t think the defence will pose too many problems. But depth up front will. No team should ever count on Brendan Morrison playing a full season, and if anyone should know that it’s Burke. The first line of Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Perry and Chris Kunitz is a load, and the checking line of Rob Niedermayer, Samuel Pahlsson and Travis Moen is probably the league’s best. But otherwise, there’s not much there, even with Selanne for a full season. The combination of the big three on defence and the Michelin Man, Jean-Francois Giguere between the pipes should allow the Ducks to host a playoff series and remain within shouting distance of the Sharks.

5. Dallas Stars
The Stars, to me, are tough to pin down. The only big offseason acquisitions were Sean Avery and Fabian Brunnstrom, largely because the team was pretty darned good last year. But when you look at their roster, I can’t help but wonder how it is they were that good. Mike Ribeiro’s blossomed playing alongside Brenden Morrow (which is, by the way, why he never would have played like this in Montreal. Morrow’s style suits him perfectly, and Montreal has never had anything close to a Morrow in its lineup), Marty Turco is still an above average goalie, but otherwise it seems to me like the Stars use smoke and mirrors every year to win. But they do it consistently, so Dave Tippett must be doing something right. The success of Brad Richards after a less than stellar year is key here. The Stars were 40-22-5 when they acquired Richards at the deadline, with a six-point lead on Anaheim and an 11-point lead on the Sharks. They then went 5-8-2 in their final 15 games, finishing 11 points behind San Jose and six behind Anaheim.

6. Chicago Blackhawks
There are six middle-range teams fighting for the last three spots in the playoffs, and I think the ‘Hawks will be the best of the rest. I can’t see Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews slowing down, adding Cristobal Huet shores up the goaltending (though he’s no saviour), and the addition of Brian Campbell, 29, gives Chicago one of the best group of young defencemen in the league led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Add to that the renewed enthusiasm for hockey in the city, and you have the makings of a special year. Depth at forward is a big issue, one that depends on the highly unlikely chance that Martin Havlat could play the first full season of his career. If he could even play 70 games, which he hasn’t done since 2002, the ‘Hawks would probably be able to pull away from the middle pack.

7. Minnesota Wild
The line between winning your division and fighting for a playoff spot is just that thin in the Northwest, and the Wild will indeed be fighting for their playoff lives come next April. With the Marian Gaborik contract situation becoming an increasingly present distraction as the trade deadline approaches, the Wild risk having it affect the performance on the ice. The loss of Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra was filled by Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan, which is a big cumulative loss. The Wild are hopeful the slack can be picked up by one of several youngsters to make the big club, like Benoit Pouliot and Colton Gillies, but that may be asking too much from a pair of rookies. Stephane Veilleux had a strong camp, but he can’t be the answer either. I still think that with Niklas Backstrom in goal and a strict Jacques Lemaire system in place, Minnesota will make the playoffs. After Pierre-Marc Bouchard last year, this is Mikko Koivu’s year to take off.

8. Nashville Predators
I’m tired of predicting the demise of the Predators, only to have coach Barry Trotz shape his team and have them performing their best when it matters most, in the stretch drive to the playoffs. Last year, the Predators went 23-14-7 from Jan. 1 onward to squeak into the playoffs. The loss of Alexander Radulov stings like no other before him because he wasn’t even a free agent, but I feel the team can ride its improving young defence and the top duo of Jason Arnott and Jean-Pierre Dumont to another skin of their teeth playoff berth.

9. Calgary Flames
It hurts me to make this prediction because of how much I love watching Jarome Iginla play hockey, but I think this team is very questionable on many fronts. If they could throw the Iginla line out there with Dion Phaneuf and whoever he happens to be playing with that week for 60 minutes a night, the Flames could go undefeated. But what will happen to the club when those two superstars aren’t on the ice? Robyn Regehr is a very good defenceman, but none of the other guys on the blue line fit that category. I like Mike Cammalleri, but who else is with him on the second line? And finally, is anyone else as amazed as I am to see that Mike Keenan is still an NHL coach?

10. Phoenix Coyotes
This will become the story of the spring as the young Coyotes and the Great One make a major push for a playoff spot, but they’ll fall short. I see the Coyotes as being this season’s Oilers, with a bunch of talented kids who have nothing to lose going out and trying to prove to the world just how good they are. They’ll get their chance, only it will be in 2009-10.

11. Vancouver Canucks
I really feel for Roberto Luongo. First, he gets drafted by Mike Milbury in Long Island, then he has to play in Florida under the aforementioned Keenan, who does him the favour of shipping him to Vancouver. I don’t want to rush to judgment or anything, but it appears Luongo’s latest GM isn’t much better than the other two guys. Mike Gillis took a team that missed the playoffs and made it worse, adding Demitra to replace Markus Naslund. Granted, Gillis attempted to make the biggest splash of all in trying to land Mats Sundin, but was there no backup plan in place? Now the Canucks go into this season with the same problem the team has had since Luongo’s arrival, a lack of scoring. Maybe Luongo could play the point on the power play as well?

12. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets should be better than last year, and there appears to be some sort of long-term plan in place here, but in the here and now it’s going to be another year out of the playoffs for Rick Nash. At least there are some nice pieces being added for the future, and if the Jackets find an overachiever among promising young forwards Derrick Brassard, Jakub Voracek or even Nikita Filatov, Ken Hitchcock could have this team competing for a playoff spot. GM Scott Howson totally pantsed Glen Sather in grabbing two top-six defencemen for problem child Nikolai Zherdev.

13. Colorado Avalanche
This is a dark time for the Avalanche and it won’t get much better this year. The problems begin in goal, where Peter Budaj is the incumbent and Andrew Raycroft is the backup. Can anyone remember a worse goaltending tandem in recent times? I can’t.

14. Los Angeles Kings
Oh yeah, there is a worse goaltending tandem, and it’s in Los Angeles with Jason LaBarbera leading the way in nets. The Kings are incredibly young, but those young players have a ton of talent and one of these seasons, it will all shine through at once and the Kings will be the surprise of the league. Just not this year.

15. St. Louis Blues
The Blues were already bad with Erik Johnson, but without him they are really horrid. Keith Tkachuk obviously enjoys cashing pay checks more than playing hockey, and Paul Kariya is past the days he can be a team’s source of offence. There are some young players who could emerge here, but not enough.