The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

2009-2010 Montreal Canadiens Season Preview

Tonight is opening night, and be it with a free preview of the NHL Center Ice package (a co-worker tells me this exists) or on the intarwebz from CJAD, I will somehow follow the Montreal Canadiens’ season opener against the hated Toronto Maple Leafs over there at the Air Canada Centre. In that spirit, I wanted to get my preseason thoughts on paper in the small window of time that I have before the puck drops.

KNEE-JERK REACTION:  We have an equal chance of being the 4-seed as we do of being Islanders-level bad. Time will tell, but I’m more afraid of the latter than I am confident of the former.

GOALTENDERS:

There is no change here from last season – Carey Price will ostensibly handle the bulk of the workload between the pipes, with Jaroslav Halak backing him up/firefighting when Price gets pulled. As we all know, the young Price failed to convince last season, and only an especially strong first third of the season allowed him to run out a final line of 23-16-10/2.83/.905. For whatever reason, the final third of the season especially was not kind to him, and we could only watch in horror as his confidence (and his glove hand) departed him. For his part, Jaro was pretty good in the backup role (18-14-1/2.86/.915)…and it’s telling for me that Jaro had the same number of shutouts (1) as Price managed in 18 more appearances. While I know that shutouts can depend on the defense in front of you – and trust me, THAT rant is coming in a second – for me Halak was more consistent last season despite his much lower overall talent ceiling.

That is why I’m absolutely mystified that Bob Gainey didn’t trade Jaro this off-season when his market value was probably the highest it’ll ever go. I don’t see how Price can bounce back from last season without a solid veteran backup/babysitter to guide Carey through the rough patches, as well as take about half the starts so that the entire hopes and dreams of the Montreal ishbowl didn’t rest on his shoulders alone. If there ends up being one crucial mistake of this offseason – besides the signing of one forward in particular, and trust me, that rant is coming soon – it’ll have been not giving Price that safety net. The nightmare scenario is that Price completely melts down, Jaro is exposed as the limited talent that I believe he is, and we’re left with two untradeable commodities and sub-replacement level performance from a position where no team can afford it.

Besides, the Islanders have some young talent now, and I’m sure we could have convinced them that 4 NHL-level goaltenders was just not enough. Why not, they took Yann Danis once!

Beyond that, Marc Denis was replaced with Curtis Sanford in the veteran starter role for the Hamilton Bulldogs. That’s a minor (albeit insignificant in the big picture) upgrade.

DEFENSEMEN:

If you need a solitary reason why the Canadiens experienced such a significant drop-off from 2007-08 (only losing in the second round because they underachieved) to 2008-09 (getting skull-raped in the first round by the Boston Bruins, and really having no business being in the playoffs at all…they were only there because Florida got hot just a little too late) is because the defense managed to play even worse than they had the season before. It’s funny how when you look at Brendan’s posts about the lack of defense coaching or even a recognizable defense system at Arsenal, you can say the EXACT SAME THING about the Canadiens over the last few seasons. Why is it that you have someone like Roman Hamrlik who, while never confused for a defensive d-man was at least competent in other places, became a gibbering fucking moron who continually blew coverages when he moved to Montreal? If anyone kept stats for “most opposing forwards left completely open in the slot”, “least rebounds cleared out by d-men” and/or “most times where the defense failed to rotate properly leading to an opposing scoring chance”, I’m sure our defensive corps would be among the worst offenders in each of those categories.

It will be interesting to see how the team responds with new personnel and (finally) a name-brand, recognizable coach who preaches a defensive system. Out the door are Mike Komisarek, an obviously talented guy with a lot of size…who didn’t use either one towards the end of his stay with us. if you look in the archives, I ranted at the end of last season as to why he barely ever hit anyone. Whatever it was, his positioning and physicality deteriorated sharply at the end of the campaign, and in the playoffs he was a glaring liability. The others who exited were Patrice Brisebois (retired), Mathieu Schenider (Vancouver), Francis Bouillon (unattached) and Mathieu Dandenault (unattached). You have to think it says it all that 5 of our top 7 d-men last season are gone…one plays for a non-playoff team, one is the bottom guy on the depth chart for an average team out west, and the other three are not on anyone’s roster (not even the Islanders!). I could post stats and such to explain why they were such a shit show, but that speaks for itself.

Thankfully, the brilliant Andrei Markov is still around (any good that occurred last season was often through individual moments of brilliance and/or firefighting from him) to welcome the new arrivals – Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Paul Mara. None of them are Norris Trophy contenders by any stretch, but you know what you’re getting from them – Gill is remarkably slow but has size and clogs up passing lanes, Spacek is getting up there in years but he’s steady and did good work for Buffalo, and Mara is a character guy who is great for the locker room along with the fact that he’s a decent defender as well.

A lot will depend, of course, on whether they can develop an understanding quickly. Also, the back end of the rotation (Hamrlik, Josh Gorges and Ryan O’Byrne) will have to make significant steps forward from their performances last season in order for the Canadiens to accomplish anything. By all accounts, O’Byrne has put the nightmare of the own-goal behind him, and has been one of the better guys in camp during the preseason. I’ll never be sold on Hamrlik, though…I’ve never rated him since he’s come to Montreal, and I think he will only further regress as time goes by. However, if Gorges (a high-energy character guy who is somewhat limited in actual ability) can benefit from Martin’s system, then having a stable unit of 5 defensemen with one passenger should at least provide enough of a shield in front of Price to hopefully allow him to regain his confidence.

On the other hand, we’re still playing Hamrlik every night, Spacek is getting older, Gorges is limited, O’Byrne is still a kid and Gill often resembles a three-toed sloth on skates. This may work, but it really, really, really may not.  

FORWARDS:

Last season’s group of forwards were not only gutless and lacking in any kind of professional hockey character, they also couldn’t find the net with a map and three days’ headstart. The now-departed Alexei Kovalev led the Habs with 26 goals last season, and the only others with 20 were Andrei Kostitsyn (23) and Tomas Plekanec (20). Kovalev also led the team in scoring with just 65 points (26-39), followed by Markov with 12-52-64. Beyond that, no one had 60, and the now-departed Saku Koivu was in third place with just 50 (16-34).

Clearly, that was not good enough, and guys like Alex Tanguay (16-25-41, though in only 50 games), Chris Higgins (12-11-23), and Sergei Kostitsyn (8-15-23) did not provide anywhere near the level of support that you would expect from guys who spent a lot of time on the first two lines.

Unsurpisingly, this is where the most movement occurred during Gainey’s frantic off-season eviosceration of last season’s roster. As mentioned, Kovalev and Koivu have left us (and I’m not sure what to think about either development…there are arguments for having kept both). Also out the door were Tom “Stonehands” Kostopolous, Tanguay, and Robert Lang. Tanguay was an interesting talent but he probably is too injury-prone for us to depend on (besides, he’s not really a Jacques Martin kind of player anyway, now is he?).

Oh, and of course (as already ranted about here a few months), we traded Higgins’ useless ass to the Rangers for Scott Gomez. Long story short, we got rid of one useless guy, traded him for another slightly-less useless guy, and took a giant cap hit until the end of time for the privilege. Thanks, Bob.

For good or ill, a lot of these guys are still here otherwise – the ones like Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, Glen Metropolit, Max Pacioretty, Matt D’Agostini, etc. All of those guys are still young and have an unknown ceiling for all intents and purposes, so whether they can step it up (in some cases) or continue to improve with experience (for the younger pups) is a total crapshoot at the moment. We all know the deal with Sergei Kostitsyn, but we don’t know how that will affect his brother Andrei. Oh, and we also still have Tomas Plekanec, who is the Montreal version of everything Brendan and I have said about Abou Diaby in our Arsenal posts.

Coming in are some interesting players who, while all possessing some degree of individual talent, are a bit worrying when taken together. We already know about Gomez, and with him come Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Travis Moen. Moen is just there to be a grit guy and play defense, so that’s cool. Cammalleri and Gionta both should be at least better offensively than the absolute shit-shower that we put out on the ice last season, but the worrying thing is that the team picture is going to look like the Lollipop Guild from the Wizard of Oz. How the fucking fuck are we going to try and hang with roving gangs of thugs like the Maple Leafs or Flyers? How are we going to hang with ANYONE from the Western Conference? It’s worrying, to say the least.

So, I just don’t know how this is going to go. Maybe we’ll end up being a better version of that fast, nippy team from two seasons ago that skated circles around most opponents and scored highlight-reel goals most nights. Or, maybe we’ll have our lunch money stolen on a nightly basis by every other team in the league. I hate to even hazard a prediction based on the sheer level of variance that this roster can produce over the course of a long season. However, I like to live on the edge, so I’ll posit that we finish in 9th place, a few points behind whoever beats us out for 8th.

Of course, I hope I’m wrong.

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October 1, 2009 - Posted by | Montreal Canadiens

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