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.