I know I promised this quite some time ago, but I went ahead and got caught up in summer laziness. So here, without further ado, are a few thoughts on what's been going on with the Habs of late. Consider it making up for lost time.
Validation for Martin
It's rare that I agree with anything Michel Bergeron says, but I actually did agree with his take on the hiring of Randy Cunneyworth as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs. OK, agree may be a bit too strong of a word. But a few things become clear with this decision by Pierre Gauthier, and the most important one is that the hiring was a big show of support for Jacques Martin.
As Bergeron mentions, the Canadiens have a unique dynamic when hiring a coach for their minor league affiliate because they need to continue grooming potential coaches to take over the big club. Like it or not, the Canadiens are drawing from a limited pool of coaching options because they must hire someone who can express himself in both official languages. In that sense, Cunneyworth is extremely unlikely to get promoted within the organization unless he goes out and signs up for French lessons.
When Guy Boucher was in Hamilton, there was grumbling among a large sector of the fan base to get him in Montreal as quickly as possible even though Martin had been on the job for less than one year. Much like many people didn't want Gauthier to get a French-Canadian back-up for Carey Price (assuming he's ever signed, more on that later) to avoid potential language-based controversies, hiring Cunneyworth to coach the Bulldogs takes a potential source of heat off of Martin.
Cunneyworth is a very capable coach who, having played for Martin in Ottawa, will know how to prepare players for the strict (some would say stifling) regime that awaits them in Montreal.
But Martin will no longer have to be looking over his shoulder at who's coming up from behind, because the No. 2 in the organization is simply not qualified to take the main gig.
Still, I feel Martin will have a heavy burden this season to show that he actually had a role to play in the Habs tremendous run through the playoffs last season. It's been too readily accepted that Jaroslav Halak was the one and only reason the Canadiens made the Eastern Conference final, but I believe Martin deserves some of the credit.
Just when it looked like he was repeating the same mistakes that made him a playoff bust in Ottawa - refusing to shorten his bench, losing match-up battles - Martin took his game up a notch. Down 3-1 to the Washington Capitals, Martin took it to his counterpart Bruce Boudreau and won the battle. Yes, Halak was outstanding, but there was a game plan surrounding him, one that worked to unlikely success for two playoff rounds.
Now Martin has to prove he can shape another game plan around Price and with the other pieces he's been given. He's adding P.K. Subban for an entire season, will Martin give him the liberty to express his offensive flair and creativity? Will Lars Eller be allowed to make mistakes as a rookie and play through them, or will he find himself on the bench for long stretches like Benoit Pouliot? Will Martin be able to coax something, anything, out of Andrei Kostitsyn on a consistent basis, especially now that the distraction of his little brother is gone? Will he be able to absorb the loss of Andrei Markov for the first couple of months now that it isn't coinciding with Martin having to learn about all his players for the first time?
These are all questions that Martin needs to answer this season, but he will do so secure in the knowledge there's no one in Hamilton knocking on the door looking to steal his job.
It's getting dicey with Price
Clearly, Carey Price's agent Gerry Johansson is trying to play a little hardball with the Habs, likely trying to squeeze a bit more term and money out of Gauthier. But I think Gauthier knows that ultimately, Price will have to come crawling to him and accept whatever he's offering. Will he really want to holdout when half the fan base (if not more) already resents the fact he was retained and Halak was shipped out of town?
When Gauthier last discussed the negotiations with Price, he went out of his way to mention that he is a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights. In other words, all the leverage is on the Canadiens side. The only recourse available to Price to put a little pressure on the other side is to hold out and leave Gauthier to ponder to possibility of starting the season with Alex Auld as his starting goaltender.
It really wouldn't be the smartest course of action for Price, especially if he wants to avoid the headache of getting his own fans off his back while he tries to re-establish himself as one of the league's most promising young goalies. But on the other hand, Gauthier might be wise not to be too vicious in his negotiating either, because if this is the goalie of the future any bad blood will wind up costing the team in the future.
The Blackhawks walked away from their Stanley Cup-winner today after Antti Niemi was awarded a $2.75 million contract by an arbiter. Niemi becomes an unrestricted free agent as a result, but this really has very little impact on what eventually happens to Price. Niemi is 26, Price is 22. Niemi has won a Stanley Cup, Price was won a series in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And finally, Niemi is a UFA, Price is an RFA with no arbitration rights, as Gauthier so menacingly pointed out.
And for anyone who thinks the Habs will sign Niemi and trade away Price, stop it right now. Too much time and heartache has been invested in Price at this point for the team to cut its losses. Say what you will about how he was handled, and we can see now that Price was probably rushed to the NHL, but he is not a hopeless case. The Habs need to see if he can recover and continue his development. In fact, they don't really have much of a choice because they can still come out of this investment a winner if Price blossoms as he should. To see that happen in another uniform would be simply too painful.
Leblanc sees the light
While working on a story for The Gazette on education in the QMJHL I found myself in the Montreal Juniors offices a couple of weeks ago, and the decision facing Louis Leblanc was obviously a hot topic for team president Martin Routhier. Juniors GM and head coach Pascal Vincent gave up a lot to get Leblanc's rights from Chicoutimi, former first round pick Guillaume Asselin and the team's first-rounder in 2011 (though that draft pick and another would have come back to Montreal if Leblanc decided not to leave Harvard). Routhier was adamant that the best place for Leblanc was playing with the Juniors if he hoped to have a career in the NHL.
It appears Leblanc and his agent Pat Brisson (who no longer has to be referred to as an adviser) agreed with Routhier's assessment. And frankly, so do I. Leblanc was not playing enough hockey at Harvard, and considering the talent on that team I have no idea why they did so poorly last season. Playing with the Juniors (assuming the Canadiens don't assign Leblanc to Hamilton, which would be shocking) will give Leblanc a better chance to make the Canadian junior team because he'll arrive on the same footing as everyone else. Last year Leblanc had to write an exam during the final selection camp in Regina. This year he should have no such problems, even though he would likely be taking a few courses at McGill while playing for the Juniors.
But ultimately, it will speed up Leblanc's hockey development and give him the best chance to make the Canadiens within the next two or three years. Plus, if ever hockey doesn't work out, he can always return to Harvard and finish his degree later.
It's a win-win situation for Leblanc, and a promising sign for the Canadiens.
Moore signs for a pittance
For the first time in his professional hockey career, Dominic Moore signed a two-year contract with the Tamps Bay Lightning at a very reasonable price tag of $1.1 million per season. He proved to be a valuable player in the playoffs, and at 30 years of age (as of Tuesday) still has some good hockey left in him.
I still fail to understand why he wasn't brought back to Montreal, especially at a price that is $250,000 lower than what Pouliot will pull in this season. Let's hope Maxim Lapierre continues his performance from last season's playoffs, but I got the impression that Moore played a big role in Lapierre's resurgence.
Koivu hails Markov as captain material
Speaking from Finland to Richard Labbe of La Presse, Saku Koivu feels Markov would make a fine Montreal Canadiens captain. I've been on record as saying that Markov was my original choice to fill that role, and Markov himself said he hadn't been asked and wouldn't necessarily say no if he was.
There's been a bit of a manufactured controversy lately on whether or not Markov should learn French, an issue that haunted Koivu through the latter part of his record run as Canadiens captain. But really, I don't know if that will play into Martin's final decision, because it is clearly his decision to make.
After last season's playoffs I shifted my opinion on this, and I now feel Brian Gionta is the man for the job. As far as "lead by example" leadership is concerned, Gionta is the perfect candidate because his effort level never drops on the ice, and only goes higher when the situation warrants it. In the dressing room, he is just as good as Koivu was at saying a lot to reporters without saying a whole lot. The team definitely likes that about him.
Timmins on thin ice?
The Canadiens hiring of former New York Islanders assistant GM and head of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski as an amateur scout has to be a source of mild concern for Canadiens director of player recruitment and development Trevor Timmins.
Gauthier's decision to revamp Timmins' scouting staff was the first sign that his reign as the Canadiens draft guru could be coming to an end, and Jankowski's arrival could be another sign.
Then again, it could mean absolutely nothing. With Subban set to make his mark with the team this year and other Timmins draft picks like Alexander Avtsin and Leblanc coming down the pipe, maybe the Canadiens will be able to unearth an impact player from the large number of solid-yet-unspectacular players he has drafted over the years.
Speaking of which, 2010 first-rounder Jarred Tinordi (who cost the Canadiens their second-rounder as well) was cut today from the US Junior team's selection camp roster, meaning he will have no opportunity to try out for the team that will compete in Buffalo at Christmas time. Not a very good sign, especially when Brock Nelson, a big centre that would have been available at the Canadiens original slot of 27th overall, will be attending the camp.
Governance lessons from Toronto?
Very quickly on this one, but I don't see where Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie gets off telling Geoffrey Molson he's making a big mistake by taking over from Pierre Boivin as president of his own team.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Leafs are not exactly a model of governance in professional sports. I see his point, that Boivin is a good man and did a great job as president of the team, and also that owning a team while serving as president can be problematic. But I'm not sure a team that had been mired by meddlesome ownership prior to the arrival of Brian Burke should be giving out advice on how other owners should handle their own teams. Just my two cents.