Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mesdames et messieurs, accueillons vos Canadiens

With the final cuts coming earlier today, the 23-man roster for the Habs is finally set.

I don't think anyone is very surprised to see who was sent back to Hamilton, perhaps with the exception of Yannick Weber, but even in his case it wouldn't have been very productive to have him on the big club as an eighth defenceman/fourth line winger.

The only thing that remains to be decided prior to Thursday night's showdown with the Leafs at the ACC is who will be wearing the "C" above his heart.

This has been a popular debate for most of the summer, and it's one I haven't really weighed in on yet, largely because I didn't know what to think. Andrei Markov would be my first choice, but no one wants a captain who's miserable in that role. After him, it's a wide open debate.

Well, with Martin seemingly preparing to announce the next captain of the Canadiens on Wednesday, it's now or never for me to make a pick.

Brian Gionta seems to be a popular choice among media these days. Why? I'm not too sure. Gionta has had three successive declining seasons in terms of offensive productivity, he's not a very outgoing personality, and he has a big contract to live up to. You want to tack on the pressure of being captain of the Canadiens? Let's just let Gionta score goals, shall we?

Mike Cammalleri could be a decent candidate, he appears to be well liked in the room and he's probably the team's best forward.

But if the decision were mine, I would pick Scott Gomez. Even though his former teammate Martin Brodeur has come out publically and said he's not captain material for a variety of reasons, I think Gomez, at 29, has reached a stage of his career where he's ready for this kind of responsibility. Yes, Gomez has a lot of pressure already to live up to his own monster contract and bounce back from his worst statistical season since 2002. But as the first line centre, as the team's only two-time Stanley Cup winner, as the team's highest paid player, and as a guy who's already learned the value of good PR, I think Gomez is the ideal candidate.

A lot of Ranger fans seemed to find Gomez kind of snarky whenever he appeared in the media because he was smiling in interviews despite his on-ice struggles. That smile will serve him well in Montreal, where some of the questions asked of a captain may want to make him pull his hair out.

Eastern Conference predictions

Here we go again, only two sleeps until the start of another NHL season. And seeing as I am a glutton for punishment, I've decided to give the prediction game another go this year.

Last year, I hit on only 10 out of the 16 playoff teams, which is not a great batting average. I picked the Flames to miss the playoffs, the Blues to finish last in the West and the Habs to finish second in the East. Not great.

But nevertheless, I'm going to give it another shot starting with the East today and the West tomorrow, though I think everyone knows by now that these predictions are useless and generally a big fat waste of time.

Happy reading!

Eastern Conference

1. Washington Capitals

Though I believe the Caps will be an improved team this year, that is not why I am picking them to win the conference. When I made the same pick last year, I got a bunch of snide remarks about what I was smoking when I made my predictions. Well, the concept is not quite so laughable this year. The Caps will benefit from the continued improvement of Alex Ovechkin (frightening thought), Nick Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green, though the departure of Sergei Fedorov will probably hurt. Mike Knuble was a great pick-up to play with AO, though I'm not quite sold on Brendan Morrison. The Caps will need to solidify their situation in goal, but I feel they will beat up on the division rivals, giving them the conference's top seed.

2. Boston Bruins

The departure of Phil Kessel and his 36 goals hurts, but I think you'll start to see stories emerging from Boston in the coming weeks about what a bad teammate he was (here's one about his work ethic), and so his might be a case of addition by subtraction. The Bruins will need David Krejci to come somewhere close to what he produced last year, and I feel he may be in for the kind of rude awakening Tomas Plekanec had last year when teams started to focus in on him a little more. Still, the Bruins represent the class of what is a relatively weak, yet competitive, Northeast Division. I don't think they'll run away with the division crown, but they should win it pretty comfortably.

3. Philadelphia Flyers

The addition of Chris Pronger in Philly makes the Flyers a pretty daunting opponent. I still don't understand how, year after year, this organization does not look at goaltending as being a key component to victory. Ray Emery comes with some heavy baggage, though I'm sure a year in Russia will be plenty motivation for him to keep his nose clean in Philly. Up front, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Simon Gagné, Scott Hartnell, Daniel Brière and Claude Giroux will make a pretty formidable top-6, while the trio of Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn will eat a ton of minutes on the back end. That depth of talent should make up for the shaky situation in goal.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins

This should be a dogfight for the division crown with the Flyers, but I feel the Pens are a little more susceptible to a big injury than Philly is, and that gives them an edge. Still, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal getting a year older, and in theory better, this should be a pretty formidable team. Losing your top shutdown defensive pairing in Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill hurts, but Marc-André Fleury is ready to be more of a difference-maker this season.

5. Montreal Canadiens

Yes, I think the chemistry experiment will work. I think Andrei Kostitsyn will have a breakout season. I think Tomas Plekanec will be closer to the player he was two years ago. I think Carey Price will have a huge bounceback year, as will Scott Gomez. I think Max Pacioretty could become a real force. I think Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre will form an incredible third line. I think the defence is vastly improved. And I think Jacques Martin's structured system will produce wins. Essentially, all those things have to come to pass for this prediction to be right. And I think they will.

6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough to take the Eastern Conference finalists this low in the standings, but their defence still doesn't have me convinced, especially after losing the threat of Dennis Seidenberg on the power play. After Eric Staal, this is a team of elite role players with great balance, and that formula is a great one for playoff success. But over an 82-game schedule, I feel they simply don't have the horses to win the marathon.

7. New Jersey Devils

No, I don't think the loss of Brian Gionta will be this painful, but the loss of Patrik Elias for the first six weeks of the season plus an adjustment to the coaching style of Jacques Lemaire could lead to a slow start. In this Olympic year, a slow start will be very punitive because of how compressed the schedule is. A poor October will hurt far more this year than last. Zach Parise should build on his coming out party from last year, but otherwise I don't know if the Devils really scare anyone. Still, Parise and Martin Brodeur should get them into the playoffs, where they would become a nightmare match-up for one of the division winners.

8. Ottawa Senators

Before you ask, I haven't taken to smoking crack. I just feel that the addition of Pascal Leclaire will solidify the team's goaltending situation for the first time in years, and with Alex Kovalev, Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo replacing the departed Dany Heatley the team will be a lot more balanced up front. The defence leaves something to be desired, but every other remaining Eastern Conference team has its weaknesses. I just feel the Sens weaknesses are the least weak of the bunch, if that makes any sense.

9. Florida Panthers

Not too many teams could absorb the loss of Jay Bouwmeester and not take a huge step backward. Acting GM Randy Sexton did well to grab Jordan Leopold for Bouwmeester's rights, because at least it brought in a capable body to replace him, even though the two players will never be confused for one another. The defence is still strong with Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, Bryan McCabe and the newly acquired Ville Kositinen. For this team to succeed, Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss will have to become legitimate top-line players.

10. Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres lost their No. 1 defenceman in Jaroslav Spacek and replaced him with Steve Montador. Not exactly an ideal move. But the team has up and coming d-men in Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler, while Toni Lydman is one of the more underrated blueliners in the league. Still, the d-corps is nothing to brag about in Buffalo. Goaltending is in good hands with Ryan Miller and the forwards are intriguing, particularly if Tim Connolly can manage to stay healthy for a season and if Drew Stafford busts out of his shell. Still not a playoff team, though.

11. Tampa Bay Lightning

Alex Tanguay should mesh pretty well with Vincent Lecavalier, giving the Lightning two dangerous lines assuming Steven Stamkos picks up where he left off last season, when he had 25 points over his final 28 games. The additions of Mathias Ohlund, Matt Walker and Victor Hedman solidifies a porous defence, while Mike Smith is a legitimate No. 1. This team could be in the playoff picture, but will come up a bit short, which will still be a huge accomplishment.

12. New York Rangers

Does anyone honestly believe Marian Gaborik will play more than 50 games this season? I guess Glen Sather does, but without Gaborik this team will struggle to score goals, and I can see him missing more games than he plays. Even with Gaborik, there's no legitimate top-line centre on the team, while the defence is paper thin after the promising young pairing of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs

Yes, Brian Burke has made huge strides over a single summer, completely re-shaping the identity of the team. But even when Phil Kessel returns in November, the forwards are really a pretty sad bunch. The Leafs somehow managed to pot 244 goals last season, but allowed a league-worst 286. While the defence is way better, the goaltending is not, Monster or no Monster. So this should be another year out of the playoffs in Leaf Land, but if Burke is able to re-make his forwards next summer the way he did his defence this year, it won't be too much longer before Toronto is back in the post-season.

14. Atlanta Thrashers

They should be better than last year, but not by a very wide margin. Nik Antropov is the best centre Ilya Kovalchuk has had since Marc Savard left town, but he's not exactly going to set the world on fire in Georgia. Todd White can't really be the player who notched 73 points last season, and I doubt Maxim Afinogenov will completely return to his form of two or three years ago. The top-4 on defence look pretty good, with Zach Bogosian looking poised to have a breakthrough year (11 points over his final 16 games), but there's not enough depth of talent up front for this team to contend for anything.

15. New York Islanders

It's a long road back from oblivion for the Islanders, and they're probably just about halfway there. John Tavares has undeniable talent, but he's not yet a complete player. I love Kyle Okposo's game and people seem to be genuinely excited over Josh Bailey. But that's about lal there is up front, and it gets worse on defence aside from Mark Streit. The situation in goal should be alright with Martin Biron and Dwayne Rolosson, but what's laughable is that Garth Snow needed to sign these guys while Rick DiPietro is still under contract for another 12 seasons.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A sneak preview?

With no exhibition games remaining for the Habs, I would have to believe Jacques Martin will be using the three days in Caledon, Ont., to settle on some line combinations, which is why I put a lot of credence in the combinations seen at practice today, as reported by Pat Hickey of Habs Inside/Out:

Pacioretty - Gomez - Gionta
Cammalleri - Plekanec - Kostitsyn (so glad I don't need to write the "A." anymore)
Latendresse -Lapierre - D'Agostini
Moen - Metropolit - Laraque

Markov - Spacek
Gill - Mara
Gorges - O'Byrne
Hamrlik - Weber

Just for comparison's sake, here's what I pegged the lines as being on July 10, when Travis Moen and Paul Mara signed with the Habs. Pretty pleased I managed to get the top-6 right, and I think adding a guy with more offence like Matt D'Agostini to Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre could work out to make a pretty effective third line. Moen should see additional minutes on the penalty kill, I would imagine, as will Metropolit, while Laraque's spot on that line is extremely conditional on his health.

As far as the defensive pairings go, I'm not sure what's going on there. Despite what I wrote in July, I really didn't see Markov and Spacek playing together. These pairings like look like they may be subject to change, because Gorges and O'Byrne definitely won't be playing together since one of them will not be dressed on a given night.

I think this also confirms that Latendresse's bid for a top-6 role has failed, and he has no one to blame for that other than himself. He was given opportunities to grab that spot by showing a willingness to pay the price in front of the net, particularly on the power play, and he didn't do it. He might still get some power play time on the second unit, but his dream of a top-6 role appears to be on hold for now, lost to a 20-year-old American.

How many of you want to wager this will be a major scandal in the French papers tomorrow?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sergei quarantined

I don't know if anyone is that surprised that Sergei Kostitsyn was sent down to the minors, what did catch me a bit off guard was the timing of it.

Jacques Martin came to Montreal with a reputation for a lot of things, and one of them was a strict disciplinarian, which is really what someone like Kostitsyn needed. Instead of taking that as a challenge to prove he was mentally ready to be an NHL regular, he blew it.

Missing the bus to Quebec City for an exhibition game was bad enough, but blaming it on construction around the Quartier Dix 30 near the team's training facility in Brossard was simply a horrendous excuse. And if I didn't buy it, God knows Martin didn't.

The media made a big stink about Kostitsyn getting reamed out by Martin (myself included, as you can see in my game story here), but I'm pretty sure Martin's mind was made up on this guy by that point, which is why he made for a pretty convenient target for Martin to show the rest of the team what he expects from them in practice.

But sending Kostitsyn to the minors today rather than wait until the end of training camp tells me Martin didn't want to have a bad seed infecting the rest of squad while he did his little "team-building" session at Teen Ranch in Caledon, Ont. Most notably, I would have to believe that Martin wanted to keep Kostitsyn away from his older brother, which may give Martin a better chance in getting through to the elder Kostitsyn to explain to him just how a player of his talent should approach his work in the NHL.

In essence, Andrei needs to approach his job the exact opposite of the way Sergei approaches it.

Based on their personalities, it's pretty clear to me that Andrei follows Sergei a little bit, even though it's his little brother. Sergei has lived in Canada longer than Andrei, thanks to his playing junior hockey in London, Ont., and his adjustment to this culture has made for a bit of a role reversal between the two. I'm saying that as if I know it to be true, but I don't. It's just a feeling I get.

And I think the Canadiens organization gets that very same feeling, which is why it may be a good idea to get Sergei away from his brother, at least for a little while.

I mean, does anyone truly believe Ben Maxwell is making this team? Or Mathieu Carle? Or Tom Pyatt (despite being very impressive in camp)? No, everyone knows these guys will be in Hamilton pretty soon and they are only trying to impress the coaches for an eventual call-up. Yet those players are still in camp, but Sergei isn't. Why would that be other than what I just mentioned?

Besides the timing of it, I think the Habs want to see how Sergei responds to this demotion. Does he work extra hard to make it back to the NHL, or does he pout in his corner of the bus on its way to Binghamton? The answer to that question will go a long way toward determining Sergei's future in the organization.

With Sergei officially out of the equation, it leaves Gregory Stewart, Matt D'Agostini, and Yannick Weber ostensibly battling for two spots, with Weber's future hinging on whether or not Martin wants to keep eight defencemen or not, and Stewart's hinging on Laraque's wonky groin. If indeed Martin is being honest and everyone will be healthy enough to start the season, I'd have to believe Stewart will be in Hamilton and Weber will play the same roving role he played last year.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Three star selections

There are a few things that stand out from Montreal's 2-1 shootout loss to the Bruins on Thursday night.

I thought Scott Gomez had a pretty good game, particularly his penalty killing at the end of regulation. Jaroslav Halak showed he's ready to push Carey Price this season and step in at the slightest sign of faltering from the anointed No. 1 goalie. The Canadiens penalty-killing as a whole was extremely good, though the discipline was not.

But what has me somewhat irked tonight, and I want to get it off my chest, is the three star selections.

This is not of huge importance, other than the fact a trophy is given out at the end of the season based it. But sometime last year, the Canadiens suddenly stopped asking one of the regular journalists covering the team to make the picks. Back when that was the case, you knew who made the selections, so that if one of them was completely out of whack you could at least rile them a little about it afterwards.

Now it has become an ambiguous body making the selections called "Montreal Media," which really means RDS. But after tonight, I'm convinced it's actually the Montreal Canadiens hockey operations department that is making these selections.

How else do you explain Ryan O'Byrne being named the second star of this game? Yes, he played a pretty good game, didn't make any glaring errors, laid the body a little bit, but second star? Then, lo and behold, as soon as the Habs room opened up to reporters, who is front and centre? Ryan O'Byrne, who was feeling pretty darn good about himself.

For a player who clearly lost all confidence last year and relies on that self-assurance to fuel his game, does anyone honestly believe that a member of the Canadiens did not have O'Byrne's name inserted as the second star in the hopes it would give him a confidence boost? Am I being paranoid?

Who really cares about the three star selections anyway, right? Well, I remember when I was a kid, I stayed glued to the TV after each and every game to know who would be named the three stars of the game, and also to watch as they took a twirl around the ice. It was pretty important to me then, just as I would imagine it's pretty important to this generation of kids as well.

In that light, it would be nice if the Canadiens took it just as seriously.

That's my rant on this subject, and you will never hear me refer to the Three Stars ever again.

Brisebois gets last licks

I'll admit right up front that I was never a Patrice Brisebois fan.

His brain-dead giveaways, attempts at checking, reluctance to put his body on the line and general lack of toughness overshadowed his assets on the ice, which were that he was a pretty good puck-mover, had a hard, accurate shot from the point and, well, that was about it.

But no matter how much I cringed whenever Brisebois jumped over the boards, I always felt that the treatment he received from the Montreal fans towards the end of his first incarnation with the Habs was never fair. To mercilessly boo a player on your own team made no sense to me, no matter how badly you wanted that player off your team.

"It hurts," Brisebois said of the boos. "I don't know an athlete who can honestly say he doesn't care when it happens to him."

But that booing was largely based on his portrayal in the media as the singular reason why the Canadiens were such a mediocre team, which also wasn't fair, even though a certain amount of criticism was deserved.

On Thursday, during a tear-filled Bell Centre press conference, Brisebois finally got to fire back, calling out Gazette columnist Jack Todd and La Presse columnist Michel Blanchard as being the two primary reasons why his life became a living hell.

He spoke of how their criticism created a "snowball effect" that ultimately resulted in him becoming the scapegoat for all the team's woes in the eyes of the fans.

He called Todd's campaign against him "cheap" and spoke of how his mother would call him in tears and the effect his public stonings had on his family.

"All I wanted to do was play hockey," he said. "I understand hockey is a business and you have to perform. But when the attacks get personal, I can't accept that."

As he spoke, it seemed as though a weight was being lifted off Brisebois' shoulders, one that he'd been burdened with for the better part of six or seven years. The nature of the media is that we can take shots at players, but rarely do the players get a chance to respond.

On Thursday, Brisebois got his chance and he took it.

I, for one, was very happy for him.

Doesn't this all sound eerily familiar?

On the first day of Habs training camp, Guillaume Latendresse came out to meet the gathered media after his physical, and the first question he was asked went something like this:

"Well Guillaume, it seems like we ask you this question every year, but this is a pretty big training camp for you, isn't it?"

To which Latendresse replied, "Don't you have the tape from last year?"

It was nothing more than some light banter, but really, I felt the exchange spoke volumes about Latendresse's progression as a player.

Year after year, the Canadiens have been waiting for Latendresse to show the same level of aggression, the same physical dominance, the same goal-scoring aptitude that led the team to trade up in the second round of the 2005 draft to grab him.

This is Latendresse's fourth year in the NHL, and the same questions remain as to his potential, whether it is to be a top-end power forward or more of a third line grinder who can chip in some offence.

An injury to Max Pacioretty, who was clearly competing with Latendresse for a spot on the left side of Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, has opened the door wide open for the Golden Boy to make his mark, starting with tonight's pre-season game against the Bruins. If La Presse's Marc-Antoine Godin's sources are to be believed and Pacioretty is indeed two weeks away from a return, that would represent a release on the pressure valve for Latendresse.

The situation is very similar to what happened at this time last year, when Latendresse was given an opportunity to play with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay when Christopher Higgins was unable to start the season. Pacioretty was knocking on the door at last year's camp as well, but he hadn't played a single game as a pro yet and was ultimately sent to the minors.

Latendresse, however, did not seize the opportunity given to him last year and wound up back on a line with Maxim Lapierre, which eventually turned into an excellent energy unit when Tom Kostopoulos was added to the mix.

But still, the point needs to be made that Latendresse was given the chance to grab a coveted top-six spot, and he didn't.

That same opportunity is available to him this year to play with Gomez and Gionta, will he seize it?

And while we're on the subject of déjà vu, listening to Jacques Martin compare Latendresse yesterday to Tomas Holmstrom instantly reminded me of these comments from the Golden Boy last year:

“That’s going to be a key for me, if I get to play on the power play, is to be in front of the goalie, I watched (Tomas) Holmstrom last game and the last time we played against them in Detroit, and I worked with Marc Denis on it. He watched me yesterday and today when I was in front of the goalie and he tried to give me some tips. I think it’s paying off.”

And this:

“I want to be around the net. I think I can make a living being around that net.”

And there's more:

“In my first year I was more physical, but last year some things happened that might have changed my mind. This year, I want to get to being the player I was the first year I came here, play physical, go the net, stay in front and get those rebounds.”

I posted those comments on Oct. 1 last year, and while Latendresse had a nice season in my estimation, he definitely wasn't the player he's describing.

So let's see if Latendresse version 4.0 will finally become the Latendresse everyone has been waiting for, the one that plays exactly the way he described a year ago.

We should have our first indication of that tonight.

UPDATE (2:10 p.m.) It appears that Gionta will not be playing tonight as Andrei Kostitsyn will skate opposite Latendresse with Gomez. Doesn't change much for Latendresse, though, as this is still a first line audition.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Powers of perception - Part Deux

A little while back, I did some research in an attempt to debunk a prevailing sentiment that the Habs were an extremely small team. Whether I accomplished what I set out to do is open to interpretation, but I think it did provide a little dose of perspective.

In the wake of Phil Kessel being traded to the Maple Leafs, and hearing all the talk of how he can't produce without Marc Savard, it struck me how often that argument comes up. The same things were said about Mike Cammalleri all summer, how he would suffer greatly without the benefit of playing opposite all-world winger Jarome Iginla.

Watching Cammalleri fly all over the ice with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta in the third period of Monday night's 4-3 win over the Penguins got me wondering.

Granted, there isn't a player alive who wouldn't see his production helped by playing alongside one of the league's best, most complete players. But thanks to some great research tools over at dobberhockey.com, I think we can safely say a lot of that criticism on Cammalleri was without merit.

To figure this out, I decided to only look at even strength ice time because I feel that is a true barometer to show how a player produces. For Cammalleri, however, this becomes a bit of a skewed portrait since he got 34 of his 82 points last season on the power play. But those points could be a result of several different factors aside from Iginla, such as Dion Phaneuf's booming point shot or a good power play system.

At even strength, I feel you get a far more accurate idea of how much a player relies on his teammates as opposed to his own talent for production.

According to the stats compiled at dobberhockey.com, which come from the NHL's nightly play-by-play sheets, Cammalleri spent 63.4 per cent of his even strength ice time last year playing with Iginla. Over that time, he produced 31 even strength points, which represents 64.5 per cent of his total even strength production of 48 points on the season.

For those of you who don't feel like doing the math, that means Cammalleri got 35.5 per cent of his even strength points in the 36.6 per cent of his ice time he spent playing without Iginla. That shows me that whether Cammalleri was playing with Iginla or not, he produced points at essentially the same rate, which bodes well for the Canadiens since there is no one even remotely resembling Iginla on the Habs roster.

While I was at it, I decided to have a look at how Gomez was used last year in New York, and I think I got an idea of why he struggled so mightily.

First of all, he didn't have a set line all season, and the wingers he had the most success with were Markus Naslund, now retired because he didn't feel he could compete at the level he's accustomed to, and Nikolai Zherdev, who is playing in the KHL because no NHL team wanted to pay him what he felt he was worth.

Gomez had Naslund on one wing for just over 50 per cent of his even strength time on the ice last season, while his second most frequent winger at just over 42 per cent was Ryan Callahan, a nice player, but hardly a sniper.

That trio produced only seven even strength points combined all season when playing together, and though a good chunk of that may have been Gomez's fault, I find it hard to believe that a new set of wingers wouldn't have done a playmaker like him a world of good. For instance, with Zherdev on his wing instead of Callahan the line produced 22 even strength points in limited ice time, yet for some reason Zherdev spent most of his season playing with Brandon Dubinsky.

It was much the same story for Gomez his first year in New York as he had a revolving door of wingers, including Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Brendan Shanahan, Sean Avery, Nigel Dawes, Petr Prucha and even Marcel Hossa. Again, Gomez has to take some of the blame for New York's inability to find him appropriate linemates, but could it not be also the Rangers fault for lacking the proper personnel to play with him?

That probably had a lot to do with Bob Gainey signing Gionta to play with Gomez, and the Habs are banking that will avoid them having that same problem.

On one final point, how many of you saw Kessel's 5-year, $27 million deal and wondered how much it will cost the Canadiens to sign Carey Price at the end of the year? That was Kessel's second contract, and it was very similar to other second contracts signed by Anze Kopitar, Dion Phaneuf and Paul Stastny, while I'm sure Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will surpass that number this summer.

I've already stated my belief that the time to sign Price to a new contract is now, when his value is relatively low because of his troubles the past two years. If Price commands anywhere near the kind of contract Kessel signed, the Habs cap situation next year will be very tight with very few options for maneuverability.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Now the real camp starts

All three of the Canadiens prized free agent acquisitions played in a game together for the first time Monday night, and they didn't disappoint.

Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri finished Monday's 4-3 win over the Cup champs playing on the same line, and that was a whole lot of speed coming at the Penguins in waves. Gionta found Gomez for a tap-in on the penalty kill, and Gionta and Cammalleri later played a little give-and-go in the slot before Gionta picked the top corner for his second of the night.

It was a fun little experiment, created out of necessity because Max Pacioretty was taken out with - get ready for it - an upper body injury. And while watching three players with so much speed burn it up together was very entertaining, it actually was a disservice because I felt Pacioretty was doing an excellent job playing with Gomez and Gionta.

Jacques Martin appeared to agree in his post-game assessment, but what I found was the most telling comment from the coach afterwards was how camp will now be kicked into overdrive.

With 19 players being cut Monday, training camp now gets into full gear and Martin can actually get to work on forming some line combinations for the upcoming season. After a day off Tuesday, Martin will have two practices and two games left to form his unit before the squad heads off for a team-bonding trip north of Toronto.

"The next four days are going to be important," Martin said. "We need to work on our systems and work on our habits. It takes time to change things."

Indeed, which is why I was wondering it took so long to trim the roster. When your team goes through very few changes over the summer, keeping a bunch of kids hanging around has a benefit, to see how they react to the speed and pressure of NHL competition. But in this case, would it not have served Martin and the Habs better to cut it down to the core group much, much sooner than this?

I understand the Habs had five games in five days, and that created a necessity for extra bodies. But even now, guys like David Desharnais are still around, and even though I live the guy, he has no chance of making this team.

Based on Monday night's game - and I have to admit here that it was the first pre-season contest I saw from start to finish - I would say that Guillaume Latendresse has to wake up and realize that his dream of a top six spot on the team is being wasted away. I read the other day that Martin said he needed an attitude adjustment, which makes me wonder if this guy is ever going to understand what it takes to be a top player.

Latendresse, and to a lesser extent his buddy Maxim Lapierre, coasted through the first two periods of the game. He got a goal in the third, but even that was on a wonky bounce off the boards that fooled an inexperienced goalie. But the reason that line was a little more effective in the third period was the addition of Andrei Kostitsyn - who also looked like he was drunk through the first 40 minutes of play.

I think that even though the three of them weren't outstanding Monday, it could be a combination that could eventually work and make that line a decent offensive threat while remaining somewhat responsible defensively. To me, Pacioretty continues to show that he is in fact the big top six forward and Latendresse isn't, but if you put Andrei on that line, then maybe being in the top nine isn't so bad either.

Finally, I've got to apologize for ignoring the blog of late. I had a bunch of stuff going on last week, then I had to go to Pittsburgh for three days for a project I'm working on that I'll fill all of you in on when I can, but now I'm back. And you can expect far more frequent contributions from yours truly from here on in.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Filling the void

The loss of captain Saku Koivu and practically the entire leadership core of the Habs has been the subject of endless discussion this summer. An argument with some merit has been that with so many new faces showing up at camp, bringing Koivu or Alex Kovalev back would not have allowed the newcomers to comfortably assert their own leadership on the team.

Of course, those arguments are purely hypothetical until you actually get a chance to talk to the players themselves, which is exactly what I had a chance to do today in Brossard. And Josh Gorges, for one, agrees with the general principle.

"With those guys leaving, especially with Saku gone, he was here for so long and the leadership he brought to this team, there’s a little bit of a hole," Gorges said. "But that’s the great thing about hockey, guys come, they go. But when guys leave, it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up and fill that void. We’ve lost some big guys, no question, but with the guys we added this offseason we took a step forward. And change is good, I think."

Change is good.

On one hand, what else could Gorges say, now that those changes have actually happened? But on the other hand, I got the distinct impression while Gorges was talking that not only is change good, it may very well have been necessary. He never came out and said it. It was just a feeling I got.

Considering how poorly last season ended, I don't think Gorges would be blamed for thinking just that, though I can't guarantee that's actually the case.

Earlier this summer, Tom Kostopoulos was interviewed on the Team 990, and when asked who would make a good captain among the returning players, he barely hesitated before mentioning Gorges. In essence, Gorges is already a de-facto captain because of the way he handles media responsibilities. Win or lose, Gorges is almost always there afterwards to take the heat. It may sound like a small thing, but to his teammates who don't necessarily enjoy being grilled by the press after a tough loss, it is definitely appreciated.

Gorges had heard of Kostopoulos' comments, and he seemed pretty embarrassed by them.

"There's a lot of guys capable of wearing the 'C' here," he said. "I don't know if I would put myself in that group."

But he also doesn't know who should finally emerge in that role.

"It's not easy being captain here, there's a lot on your plate," he said. "I think that might scare a few guys away. It's not the easiest job in the world to be captain of the Montreal Canadiens."

Whoever is ultimately named captain of the team, there's no doubt that the departure of certain players will allow a guy like Gorges to take up more room in the dressing room.

The same might be true of Guillaume Latendresse, who despite being only 22 years old is one of the longest-tenured players on the club with three seasons wearing the CH.

"I'm still young, but the experience of playing in Montreal is not something you can pick up just anywhere," he said. "It's my fourth year here and there are certain things I can tell the new guys."

Latendresse is pretty excited by his new teammates, and he also suggested that maybe the wholesale changes of this past summer had become a necessity.

"We had some older veterans with some old mentalities, a little bit," he said. "I think the new guys we brought in are more about the new NHL and the new style of hockey."

A comment like that is one big can of worms, open to all sorts of interpretation. The way I read that is with the departure of some veteran guys, players like himself, Maxim Lapierre, Gorges, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn can perhaps take more of an important role on the club, both on and off the ice.

In the same way that your older brother will always look at you as a kid, perhaps he was suggesting that the veterans always looked at that group as rookies, even though they were becoming young veterans in their own right.

Mommy, mommy, I passed!

Just arrived at Habs medicals and physical testing in Brossard and unfortunately missed out on big Georges Laraque addressing the media.

But for those of you who had a little wager on whether or not his wonky back passed muster, I can tell you it did and he expects to be able to participate in training camp starting Sunday with the first on-ice sessions.

Laraque told reporters he lost 20 pounds this offseason as he switched to a vegan diet, and that he now tips the scales at a svelte 245. Which means the big guy was lugging around at least 265 pounds last season, which would easily explain those disc problems in his back.

He also said he won't be a source of entertainment for the media this season, that he will just keep his mouth shut and play when he's asked to. I made my feelings pretty clear on how Laraque behaved near the tail end of last season, telling reporters he expected to be traded at the deadline because of how little he was playing. That's not an enforcer's role, and it appears he understands that a little better now.

I'll be talking to several other members of the team this morning, with a focus on the new defence corps charged with defending Carey Price's net this season, so check back later for another update from lovely Brossard.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The dreaded vote of confidence

Geoff Molson held his first press conference today at the Habs annual pre-training camp charity golf tourney, and if there is one thing that stood out from the "blah, blah, blah," it was his unwavering support for president Pierre Boivin and GM Bob Gainey.

In Boivin's case, I don't think he could be accused of anything right now considering the business model for the Habs is pretty damn sound. Never before has the team had such a rabid following in Montreal while at the same time producing a pretty drab product on the ice. That's a credit to Boivin and his marketing guru Ray Lalonde.

But speaking of that on-ice product, I suppose Molson had little choice other than to support Gainey at this particular time, simply because the season is three weeks away and you're not about to fire your GM now. Besides, Gainey just completed the largest summer overhaul in team history, so the least Molson can do is let that play out before judging it.

But - and to me this is clear as day - should this chemistry experiment blow up in Gainey's face, I'm pretty sure he will not be manning the Habs table at the 2010 draft. It is make-or-break time for Gainey, which does not necessarily mean he needs to win Cup #25 next spring, but the team he's assembled had better show some indication that it is at least poised to do so in the coming years or else I believe he'll be replaced.

So how can this team do that? Let me count the ways.

It would start with top-notch performances from Gainey's summer acquisitions, at least the big ticket guys like Gomez, Cammalleri and - to a lesser extent - Gionta. In the salary cap world you can't afford to have dead money skating around out there, and the three of them combine for over $18 million in cap space. That's about 30 percent of your payroll going to three guys, so they had better produce.

Secondly, Jacques Martin needs to get through to these players and form a cohesive group right out of training camp. Martin is Gainey's second claim of the perfect man for the job, and if he doesn't work out, you have to believe Gainey will be held responsible.

Finally, this team will need to have a playoff spot locked up in early or mid March and not simply squeak in like so many other Habs clubs have done over the past six years. That would show Molson and his merry band of owners that Gainey's new vision for this team is in fact bearing some fruit, even if the Habs get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

It would also help if some of the free agents Gainey allowed to walk flopped on their new teams. If Mike Komisarek somehow becomes a Chris Pronger in waiting this season, that won't look very good. If Alex Kovalev pots 40 goals or Saku Koivu or Alex Tanguay notch 80 points, Gainey will have a little egg on his face, especially considering how little it turned out to cost for signing Koivu and Tanguay. Or if Chris Higgins miraculously develops some scoring touch on the Rangers and...OK, now I'm starting to delve into the world of fantasy.

But that last point is secondary, because if the Habs succeed on the ice I don't think anyone will care how many goals Kovalev has scored or how shots Komisarek has blocked. This team needs to produce and they need to do it now, or else the grand chemist may fall victim to his own experiment.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Time to roll the dice on Price

Bob Gainey's time as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens has been marked by many factors, but one overriding theme that seems to have developped is his unwillingness to negotiate with impending free agents until it is absolutely necessary.

This strategy - actually, it's more like a principle - has its strong and weak points. On the strong side, it sometimes allows you to avoid a horrible mistake. Take Sheldon Souray, for instance.

Let's say Gainey had negotiated with him during the 2006-07 season and managed to sign him to a five-year, $22.5 million deal with a cap hit of $4.5 mil per. That would be $900 K per season less than he received as a free agent from the Oilers, but Souray's very first year in Edmonton he only lasted 26 games. On the other hand, taking a $4.5 million cap hit for the Souray who scored 23 goals in 80 games last season would be very reasonable. My point here is that Souray was far too unreliable, both defensively and physically, to receive that kind of money and term.

On the other side of the coin we have Mark Streit, who signed a five-year, $20.5 million contract with the Isles last summer. It is pretty common knowledge that if Streit were presented with a four or five year deal in the $3.5 million range per season during the 2007-08 season, he probably would have snatched it up to stay in a city he had grown to love. That would have been a steal of a contract, and if Streit were still around Gainey wouldn't have needed to go out and sign an aging Jaroslav Spacek for slightly more money this offseason.

But now we have come to a crossroads in Gainey's principles because his "thoroughbred" Carey Price is up for restricted free agency next summer.

Price's name immediately came to mind when I saw that the Columbus Blue Jackets had locked up centre Derrick Brassard and his 48 career games of NHL experience to a four-year extension worth $12.8 million. Brassard is a year younger than Price and - despite what Price went through last season - hasn't accomplished nearly as much in the NHL.

The thinking for Jackets GM Scott Howson must have been that if Brassard puts up a tremendous season riding shotgun with Rick Nash, it will likely cost him much more money to negotiate at the end of the season than it would this summer.

In a word, Howson gambled.

Time will tell if that gamble pays off, but I think it's time for Gainey to do a little gambling as well. If he truly believes Price is his thoroughbred, then get his name on a contract before the end of training camp.

It's hard to say how much Price would fetch as a restricted free agent at the end of the season, even if he somehow wins the Vezina Trophy this year. Comparables simply don't exist for him because very few goalies are able to justify a huge contract as a 22-year-old. Even Rick DiPietro had to wait until he was 25 before getting his ridiculous 15-year, $67.5 million deal handed to him by his former backup Garth Snow.

DiPietro had 58 career wins at the time he signed. Price enters this season with 47 wins. There simply aren't any goaltenders in the salary cap era with those kinds of credentials at that age, which makes finding a number to even begin negotiations with Price a little tricky.

But I would have to believe that if you are going to hitch the franchise on this young man's back, there would be no better time than the present to negotiate a deal.

First of all, I think everyone in Montreal and beyond has some significant doubts as to whether or not Price will indeed become a franchise goalie. As confident as he is in his own abilities, I would have to believe that somewhere in the deeper recesses of Price's mind, he has to have some degree of doubt as well. So if that's the case, would he not welcome the chance to sign a long-term deal now?

What if he has a repeat of the second half of last season? What if this newfangled team plays horribly in front of him? What if this new goalie coach messes him up even more than the last one? What if Jaroslav Halak completely outplays him (again)? What if? What if? What if?

Meanwhile, Gainey must be asking some of those same questions, but I have a feeling his confidence in this young man is unwavering. Why else would he so brazenly come to Price's defence after that utter meltdown last season, using words you never hear coming out of the mouth of someone who's usually so reserved?

If Gainey truly thinks of Price as a "thoroughbred," it's time to get that horse locked up at a discount, because Gainey hasn't left himself much wiggle room for next summer.

Gainey has nearly $44 million committed to 12 players in 2010-11, and if the cap actually winds up dropping by a couple of million as people are speculating, that will leave him with about $10 million to fill his roster.

Tomas Plekanec will be an unrestricted free agent while Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre will both be restricted with arbitration rights. Assuming all three have big years and they are all re-signed, they will likely eat up about $6 million of that cap space, leaving another $4 million to sign Price and SEVEN more players. Not a pretty situation.

It is not outside the realm of possibility that Price alone could command the entirety of that $4 million cushion, assuming he puts together a dominant season. If that happens, Plekanec would probably have to be allowed to walk away for nothing, no matter how he plays this season. But right now, there is no way Price could justify that kind of money based on what he did last year, and even in the playoffs the year before.

If Price is willing to talk shop prior to the season, Gainey has to do everything in his power to get his name on a contract similar to the one Brassard signed last week.

Or else next July 1 could get very ugly.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hockey's in the air

Anyone leafing through The Gazette sports section this morning couldn't miss the massive photo of Scott Gomez running along the left side of a full-page ad for Canadiens ticket packages for the upcoming season.

On the bottom of the photo, the words "I am Gomez," as if he needed an introduction. The idea of the ad campaign is not horrible, considering all the new faces on the Habs this season, though I might have worded it a little differently.

But the point is that hockey season is definitely around the corner, starting with Habs rookie camp Monday morning in Brossard.

This camp is rarely a make-or-break experience for players, but it can get someone an invitation to the main training camp with a strong performance. But this season, the camp will be extra important for a few select players who will want to prove to Habs management that they are ready to make the jump to the big leagues this season.

That is especially true for Max Pacioretty, the darling of last year's pre-season who could probably grab a spot among the Habs top-12 forwards because of his tantalizing combination of speed, skill, and most importantly size. The speed quotient is what separates Pacioretty from someone like Guillaume Latendresse, and I was really impressed last season during his brief stay in Montreal with Pacioretty's hockey sense.

With Jacques Martin saying he may want some size to play with Gomez and Brian Gionta, that creates an opportunity for Pacioretty to either grab that spot, or grab Latendresse's spot with Maxim Lapierre.

Otherwise, guys like Ben Maxwell and Ryan White will want to show that they are ready to make the jump to the NHL, even if their chances are slim of doing so. Still, injuries happen, and there's no better time to make an impression than during this rookie camp because players like that should be able to dominate. If Maxwell and White do just that, and then have a strong performance at the main camp later next week, the Habs likely won't hesitate to call them up in a pinch even if they get off to slow starts in Hamilton.

On defence, the situation is pretty grim for guys like P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber, let alone someone like Mathieu Carle who is way down the depth chart. With the top-6 in Montreal essentially set in stone, and Ryan O'Byrne poised to fill the #7 spot, I don't see any scenario where either Subban or Weber will make the Habs, barring a trade.

Still, they can force the Canadiens hand by performing well next week, first at rookie camp and later in the main camp. Subban has been a pleasant surprise at camp each of the last two seasons, and pre-season hockey is made for someone like him because he can show off his flair with the puck in exhibition games where intensity is at its lowest.

If there is one player I would keep my eye on next week, it would be David Desharnais. Yes, the Habs are overloaded with small, darty forwards, but Desharnais had 58 points in 77 games as a rookie in Hamilton last year. By comparison, Maxwell had the same number of points in four fewer games. Desharnais is moving forward with his career through sheer will, an undrafted free agent pick-up who dominated in the ECHL with 106 points in 66 games before putting up a pretty respectable rookie year in Hamilton last year.

Sound like any other diminutive forwards you know?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lots of Q's, an attempt at some A's

A month from today, the Habs will be in Toronto to face the Leafs as the curtain-raiser for the 2009-10 NHL season.

I've been asked numerous times where I think the Habs will be 81 games later, or even what the Habs lineup will look like that night. To be blunt, my guess is as good as any of yours, but seeing as I write a blog on the Habs I figured I would try to answer some of the hot questions on the minds of fans with training camp due to begin next week.

Is Bob Gainey finished tweaking?
I'm not sure, but frankly, I hope so. Gainey may very well be looking for another ingredient to add to this wacky chemistry experiment, but I think the time may be right to sit back and see how the team he has assembled can perform.

I do believe there will be a fair bit of movement in the NHL between now and Oct. 1. The Dany Heatley and Phil Kessel situations need a resolution, not to mention Brandon Dubinsky in New York. Meanwhile, Vancouver, Detroit and Ottawa remain over the $56.8 million salary cap, according to capgeek.com, while other teams like Boston, Washington and Chicago look like they will need to use their bonus cushions to stay under.

That is a route I feel Gainey should definitely avoid, so unless he finds a taker for Roman Hamrlik (assuming it would even be a good idea to get rid of him) I don't really see how he could add any significant salary right now.

So if I had to guess, which is why I'm writing this, I would say the team you have now is the team you will have on Oct. 1.

Will Carey Price bounce back to prodigy status?
Tough to say, but I'm going to say yes. First of all, if he continues the slide that began at last year's All-Star break, the Habs are cooked. Plain and simple. Jaroslav Halak is a good goalie, but the Canadiens need a great goalie, and I don't think Halak will ever turn into that. Price might, and if he does this season then it could be a special winter in Montreal.

I don't know why I feel Price will rebound, because I have no inside information on which to base that opinion. I do have a gut feeling about this guy, though, and I sincerely believe he hates to lose. If he's been able to identify what it was that threw him off last season, he may be able to correct himself this year.

But besides what's going on between Price's ears, the arrival of Jacques Martin should help Price immensely. He should see fewer of those dangerous one-timers from the slot, fewer rebounds being shovelled past him, fewer shots, period. That will definitely help, as will the departure of Roland Melanson as goalie coach.

I have no proof other than what I saw on the ice, but I got the distinct impression Melanson was trying to shape Price into a butterfly goalie, which led to him spending far more time on his knees last season than he ever has before. Price is more of a stand-up/hybrid goalie, always has been, and there's no reason that style can't succeed in the NHL. It appears that new goalie coach Pierre Groulx gets that.

Is the defence improved?
This one's easy, and that's a big yes. Mike Komisarek could very well blossom in Toronto into an elite shutdown defender, but he definitely wasn't on that path last year. And frankly, I'm going to be very interested to see how he plays away from Andrei Markov, because he's never really thrived without No. 79 to his left. So Komisarek, Francis Bouillon and Patrice Brisebois are gone, Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill and Paul Mara are in. None of those three are perfect, but collectively they bring far more to the table than the three departed players.

What kind of forward lines can we expect to see?
This is a huge question that would merit a whole other blog post, or a series of them, but there are some things we can accept as truths heading into training camp. First, Brian Gionta was signed to play with Scott Gomez. Second, Mike Cammalleri likely won't be playing with them, at least at even strength, because Martin would like some size on their left wing. Third, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn are not that far removed from showing great chemistry. Fourth, Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre have nurtured that same chemistry for two years now.

If you take all that as truth, you start to get an idea of what the lines may indeed look like. I think Max Pacioretty will be given every opportunity to make this club, and he might be battling Latendresse and Matt D'Agostini for that spot on the left side of Gomez and Gionta. I see Cammalleri sliding into the right side with Plekanec and Kostitsyn. I would put the Latendresse/Lapierre combo with Travis Moen to make a pretty killer third line. On the fourth line, you would have one of Kyle Chipchura or Glen Metropolit centring a combination of Sergei Kostitsyn, D'Agostini, Georges Laraque and Gregory Stewart.

A lot of things could change this scenario from playing out. Sergei Kostitsyn could find that edge to his game again and force Martin to put him on the second line with his brother, Martin might decide that he doesn't need size on the first line and throw Cammalleri out there with Gomez and Gionta, Latendresse could be ready to explode and win the job on the first line, Pacioretty might not be ready to make the jump to the NHL, Plekanec might have shown his true self last year, Metropolit might be waived to add some cap space etc...

But basically, my vision of the Habs lines hasn't changed a whole lot over the summer, so here they are:

Pacioretty - Gomez - Gionta
A. Kostitsyn - Plekanec - Cammalleri
Latendresse - Lapierre - Moen
D'Agostini/S.Kostitsyn - Metropolit - Laraque/Stewart

In my eyes, that's not a bad lineup.

Will Jacques Martin play boring hockey?
I don't know Martin much better than any of you do, but if you consider defensively responsible hockey boring, then the answer to that question is yes. However, defensively responsible does not mean dull. The argument can be made that the most defensively responsible club in the NHL is the Detroit Red Wings, and I don't think anyone considers them boring.

Martin has stated he wants to play a puck possession game, one that emphasizes smart passes out of the defensive zone and carying the puck over the opposition blue line. Too often last year, the first part of that formula was lacking. Habs defencemen were often scrambling around their own end trying to get the puck, and once they got it they either panicked and rang it around the glass or they were so tired they had little choice but to gain the centre line and dump it in for a line change.

The addition of Spacek and the continued maturation of Josh Gorges should help improve that aspect of the Habs game, and with the speed up front, I think Martin's system should work just fine. And it won't bore you to tears watching it.

Will the new guys be able to handle the pressure?
This is the one I'm not so sure about, because guys like Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri will not be permitted to take their time settling into their new team. They're going to have to produce and produce quickly to avoid the wrath of the Bell Centre fans and the media.

That made me curious as to whether or not these three guys are traditionally slow starters, so I looked back from the first season after the lockout to see how each of them produced in the first two months of the season. Here's what I found:

05-06: 7 g 11 a 18 pts 24 gp
06-07: 10g 14 a 24 pts 27 gp
07-08: 12 g 8 a 20 pts 23 gp
08-09: 9 g 11 a 20 pts 23 gp

05-06: 16 g 11 a 27 pts 24 gp
06-07: 10 g 7 a 17 pts 23 gp
07-08: 9 g 10 a 19 pts 25 gp
08-09: 7 g 12 a 19 pts 21 gp

05-06: 7 g 14 a 21 pts 24 gp
06-07: 3 g 10 a 13 pts 15 gp (injured three weeks)
07-08: 5 g 13 a 18 pts 25 gp
08-09: 4 g 10 a 14 pts 22 gp

The sample size gives a pretty fair relection because it includes career years and down years for each player (incidentally, Cammalleri is establishing a bit of a pattern of alternating between the two from year to year, which doesn't bode well for this season). What this suggests is that Gomez is a relatively slow starter while both Gionta and Cammalleri generally bust out of the gates. I don't know if Gomez will be given the opportunity to show what he can do when he's properly warmed up before the fans let him have it. And if that scenario plays out, how will Gomez react?

We'll have to wait a few months for that answer.