As we approach the halfway point of the Northeast division, we come to a team that went through wholesale change.
While the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres didn't change much about their team's appearance, settling more on replacing missing players from within and integrating youth into the NHL game, the Montreal Canadiens pulled a Tampa Bay Lightning (Circa 2007/08) and remodeled the entire team.
Now they have a whole new first line, a few new faces on defense, and an untouched goaltending scenario (although there was one minor move that got blown out of proportion over the summer).
2008/09 Record: 41-30-11, 93 points, 8th in East—Swept in first round by Boston Bruins
Additions: Jaroslav Spacek—D (3 years/$11.5 mil), Hal Gill—D (2 years/$4.5 mil), Mike Cammalleri—F (5 years/$30 mil), Brian Gionta—F (5 years/$25 mil), Paul Mara—D (1 year/$1.675 mil), Travis Moen—F (3 years/$4.5 mil), Scott Gomez—F (Trade w/New York Rangers)
Subtractions: Mathieu Schneider—D (FA), Patrice Briesbois—D (FA), Marc Denis—G (FA), Saku Koivu—F (FA), Alex Tanguay—F (FA), Robert Lang—F (FA), Francis Bouillon—D (FA), Alex Kovalev—F (FA), Tom Kostopoulos—F (FA), Mike Komisarek—D (FA), Chris Higgins—F (Trade w/New York), Doug Janik—D (FA)
With a disappointing 2008/09 in the books, the Montreal Canadiens knew they needed change, and change is what they got.
Former Northeastern rival Jacques Martin was lured away from the Florida Panthers to return behind the bench in hopes that he could revive a team that slowed after a powerful 2008.
After that, the Habs were a boob job away from being Pamela Anderson: They got a fresh pair of legs (well…a few), a new face of the franchise, and something around 6% of what the original product was still remains.
Does this mean I’m saying Anderson is 94% plastic? You’re damn right I am. Who knew Aqua’s one hit song was biographical.
Sorry....I just got caught watching it...
Insert generic Bob Barker jab…
The picture at the beginning of the article captures Carey Price's year perfectly.
With failure already deemed "not an option" for the 21-year old, Price was put on an island all year long: Either succeed or feel the wrath.
Many hoped that the lackluster bow-out from the 2008 playoffs wouldn’t carry over into Price’s season last year.
Initially it didn’t look that way. Price started hot for the Habs, losing just once in regulation over his first eight games (6-1-1).
From there, Price stayed fairly consistent until the end of 2008. Once 2009 hit, it was a very different scenario.
Once the calendar flipped, Price won consecutive games only twice, but each time it was only two straight. Price ended up going 7-12-5 in that streak and shouldering a sweep at the hands of the Bruins in the first round, while he also did his best Patrick Roy impression.
Although some of his struggles may be attributed to a lingering lower body injury, fans were still nipping at the heels of Price, and doing their best to convince management on Jaroslav Halak.
Halak played outstanding hockey for the Canadiens last year, but even the fact that he offers Price one of the best backup options in the league didn’t stop many from wondering if he would be traded.
Especially after the signing of Curtis Sanford.
How long the talented Halak can last as a backup will be a developing storyline for the Canadiens’ this year, but they at least have a very strong tandem, and if they need to shakeup the roster even more, Halak can be used in that process.
It may be in the best case for both parties as well, because don’t expect Carey Price to struggle as often, or as mightily this year.
Five out and three in…
While there was the exodus of a few very familiar faces up front, the losses on the back end may be more limiting to the Canadiens.
Going back to last season, Mathieu Schneider was acquired specifically to help out the Habs powerplay. Well he was able to do that, and this offseason the Habs went out and acquired the Rokycany version of Schneider.
Along with hurting their divisional opponent Buffalo (As the lack of offensive defensemen becomes Buffalo's biggest question mark), Montreal was able to nab a good defenseman who can move the puck and keep the it low from the point in the acquisition of Jaroslav Spacek.
Spacek should slide in perfectly alongside Andrei Markov (offensively) on defense, and his presence will take pressure off of Roman Hamrlik, who was thrust into a number two offensive role last year.
Hamrlik is a quality offensive defenseman with a good shot, but when the drop off between your leading defensive scorer and your second-place defenseman is 31 points, adding in that balance with Spacek was definitely needed.
While Washington and the New York Islanders are the only other teams with comparable differences between their top-scoring defenseman and the rest of the pack, they both also feature one of the premiere defensemen in the league—much like the Canadiens.
The aforementioned Andrei Markov has a great shot from the point, tremendous vision on the ice, and the well-rounded abilities that only a few NHL defensemen posses—underscored by the fact that he was nearly the only defenseman in the league to lead his team in scoring (He probably would have if not for a late-season knee injury).
Offensively, the other additions don’t add much, but they do bring great size to the blueline. Both Hal Gill and Paul Mara are at least 6’4 and 210lbs (Mara is 6’4/212lbs and Gill 6’7/250lbs) and have experience in defensive roles. While Gill is knocked for being slow-footed, he’s physical and mean, and plays a very responsible game. Mara skates much better than Gill and has a little more offensive flexibility, becoming more of a late bloomer.
With that in mind, don't expect Mara to be rivaling Andrei Markov any time soon, but he'll provide a little bit of offense while providing another good, solid, defensive presence.
Josh Gorges is another reliable player who’ll be expected to help replace Mike Komisarek’s top-pairing defensive ability. Gorges is a little slower and still learning the ins and outs of the big-league game, but he should provide another steady presence on the Montreal blueline.
On the depth front Ryan O’Byrne will be battling it out with Yannick Weber and P.K. Subban to stay on the roster. The allure may be too much to turn down from the two youthful offensive defensemen, but with O’Byrne as a backup the Canadiens retain a little toughness on the back end while Shawn Belle and Mathieu Carle could be quality call-up options to keep the defense fresh.
A First-Time First line…
It’s not often that a team goes out and completely restructures their ranks of go-to forwards, but that’s what Montreal did this offseason.
Familiar faces are gone and brought in were the play-making Scott Gomez, the tough scorer Michael Cammalleri, and the minute Brian Gionta. The fortunate thing, is that Gomez may finally have the linemates he needs, as Gionta and Cammalleri would rather fire home the passes they get from Gomez than try to return the favor.
The main concerns about all of the forwards that were brought in was their sizes, as none are above 6’0 and just one is taller than 5’9 (Gomez).
It’s not like this is unheard of in Montreal however.
Andrei Kostitsyn is just 6’0, but he’s another forward who loves to shoot. So long as he and brother Sergei can keep their heads on the ice and stay out of off-ice trouble, Sergei could jump to the 40-point range (he certainly has the talents provided he starts in the NHL), while Andrei could stay within the 23-26 goal range.
Travis Moen’s physicality and 6’2 frame adds to the advantage the French fighter Georges Laraque already provides, but with trouble protecting both the forwards and Carey Price last year, the added size and toughness is certainly welcome.
Looking for improvement, the Canadiens will also look to give bigger roles to Maxim Lapierre who could blossom into the 40-point range, and Tomas Plekanec who should be primed to return to 60-70 point range with an improved supporting cast that will include Glen Metropolit as a good low-line depth option.
To help out offensively, Guillame Latendresse will need to put his instincts to good use and round off his playmaking ability while hopefully breaking the 20-goal barrier for the first time. Matt D’Agostini meanwhile, will have to find a consistent level of production at the NHL level and develop his play-making ability as well.
Most of those forwards can’t take anything for granted however. Ben Maxwell had a good year in the AHL and could be a good low-line option until he finds his NHL legs. Max Pacioretty’s speed could definitely come in handy in a low-line matchup for the Habs, but he needs to find a concrete level of production, as does Kyle Chipchura.
Chipchura put up good numbers in the WHL, and if he can transition those to the NHL, then the Habs will net a quality center, capable of putting up 35-45 points along with 15 goals.
So what’s it all mean…
Even with all of the new forwards, the returning players for Montreal need to find an increased level of production if they want to get back to the plyoffs.
The defense will be better at moving the puck with Spacek and they’ll be meaner and more protective of Carey Price, but unless Andrei Markov puts up 90 points, having him as the leading scorer of this team at the end of the year will be simply unacceptable.
That being said, which all of the new offensive talent it's unlikely that'll happen, but that is where the Canadiens' big question lies however.
Chemistry. If Gomez/Gionta/Gill/Cammalleri/Spacek have trouble working together out of the gate, then the Habs are going to be in trouble. If they mesh, they have one of the most dangerous and shifty first lines in the league that aren't tall enough to ride Behemoth (A Canadian roller coaster).
That's what the preseason is for though, and Habs fans better hope that this science experiment lasts long term, as that's what the Habs need to jump into second.
3rd in Northeast
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, and you can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, be sure to check out all of his previous work in his archives.