Montreal Canadiens: Focus on Five

Rocket All HabsCorrespondent IOctober 20, 2009

posted by Rocket All Habs

After five consecutive losses, it seems to be a good time to examine five hot issues surrounding the Montreal Canadiens.

1. Coaching

It would seem that coach Jacques Martin has his hands full. To begin the season the Canadiens have a 2-5 record and it's fair to say it could have been worse. Two overtime wins, and brilliant goaltending by Carey Price, are the only things that have kept the Habs from a winless start.

Most Canadiens fans are willing to be somewhat patient with Martin trusting that he can turn things around. Martin brings something that has been absent from the team for 16 years: experience.

How is it that a franchise that's been around for 100 years does not value experience? It would seem that successive presidents of the Canadiens were persuaded by political forces rather than hockey rationale.

The current president, Pierre Boivin, was quick to trumpet that language was his top criterion when announcing the search for a new head coach. Fortunately Martin has that, too.

Martin came to the Canadiens with much promise. He hasn't had a losing season as coach since 1996-'97. But Martin is also 11 years removed from his Jack Adams award. There are a number of questions to be answered this season.

While Martin is primarily known as a defensive coach, he now says that he prefers a puck possession game. Has his philosophy evolved and does it match the changes in the game since the lockout?

Is the coach able to adapt his style to maximize the strengths of his personnel? Can he relate to and motivate younger players on the team?

Does Martin have the right people in place as assistants to complement his skills? One wonders why special teams are again a weakness for the Canadiens. Martin's choice for goaltending coach, Pierre Groulx, is particularly in the spotlight after a disappointing job by the departed Roland Melanson.

2. Supplementary scoring

Scoring is already a concern for the Canadiens. In the first seven games, the Habs have scored 15 goals. That's only one more than the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, who remain winless.

The first two lines have the majority of the goals, as you would expect. Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Andrei Kostitsyn (in order) are the Canadiens' top five forwards in points.

At this point in the season the Habs are getting little contribution, if any, from their third line.

Guillaume Latendresse and Max Lapierre did not have a good training camp. In preseason play, Latendresse seemed to be marginally quicker and was using his size more, but failed to capitalize on his chances despite playing regularly with the first line.

In this make-or-break season for Latendresse, he has gotten off to a very slow start. Coach Martin has been very generous with his ice time. Additionally, Latendresse has been deployed on either the first or second wave of the power play.

There continues to be a reluctance for Latendresse to go to the front of the net. He doesn't play well without the puck, has difficulty anticipating the play, and often finds himself out of position. Gui has not made a commitment to being a good two-way player.

In his last 15 games (regular season and playoffs), Latendresse has one goal, one assist, and is a minus three. In that same span, Lapierre has only one assist and is a minus six.

Lapierre and Latendresse are not contributing offensively, nor could they be considered a shutdown line. Neither have been defensively responsible in the neutral zone or in their own end.

Coach Martin has been quicker to reduce ice time for other players or move them to the fourth line. Will Martin decide that it's finally time for Latendresse and Lapierre to spend some time in the press box? Ben Maxwell, who had a very good training camp, is a possible replacement on the third line.

3. Goaltending

Goaltending is always a topic for discussion simply because it's Montreal. Carey Price has had a strong start to this season despite been abandoned by his teammates on most nights.

Yet it seems that Price will always be unfairly targeted for criticism by some media and fans. Price is still being punished for taking the job of Cristobal Huet, a fan favorite despite his mediocre career.

Price is also bearing the scars of last year's absentee goalie coach and a head coach who did everything in his power to undermine the young goaltender's confidence. Price's performance declined after Guy Carbonneau publicly questioned Price's decision to participate in the All-Star Game.

In typical agenda-driven style, Montreal media are fond of mentioning Price's off-ice activities as a contributing factor to his struggles last season. If discipline was an issue, the responsibility lies with the coach.

At the end of last season, Bob Gainey correctly said that Price was the Canadiens' MVP for the first 25 games of the 2008-09 season. Price is potentially an elite-level goaltender with exceptional skills. He is capable of carrying a team as long as he is properly supported.

Price will benefit from no longer being "mentored" by Rollie Melanson. His instruction was not very effective and he certainly didn't do anything to divert attention from his goaltenders.  Jacques Martin has already done many of the right things to establish a positive relationship with his primary goaltender.

Jaroslav Halak still believes that he can become a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. Will he be given an opportunity to prove himself with another team? Let's hope that Halak has been counselled to realize that the grumbling and attitude he displayed last season will not make it easier for Gainey to give him his wish.

Curtis Sanford is off to a good start with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Sanford has two wins and sports a 1.69 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. If called upon, Sandford's track record suggests that he could be an effective back-up to Price.

4. Size and toughness

Much has been made about the size of the Montreal Canadiens. The comments result from the diminutive stature of the first line. In fact, the new Habs that Bob Gainey added to the team are taller, on average, than the group that departed after last season.

Nonetheless, toughness is an issue for the Canadiens.

After seven games, is it a surprise that Brian Gionta has more penalty minutes than Georges Laraque? Since the first game of the season, following his first shift where he squared off with Colton Orr, Laraque has not had a fight nor taken a penalty of any kind. He has five penalty minutes this year.

While penalty minutes alone are not an indication of Laraque's effectiveness, opponents do not seem to fear his wrath, and have been taking liberties with the Canadiens' smaller forwards.

This is a disturbing trend that appeared last season when Laraque was only willing to engage in arranged fights and with players who met his size requirements. Laraque seems to have lost his enthusiasm for hits, fights, and standing up for his teammates.

That said, Laraque has shown what he is capable of by exhibiting a strong shift at the beginning of the game where he is effective with his linemates in cycling the puck. Unfortunately, Laraque is mostly invisible for the remainder of the game.

Laraque does have plenty of time for his off-ice pursuits, whether it is a media appearance, to voice his opinion on a league issue, or a promotional opportunity. Laraque has already found himself in hot water this season for his non-hockey projects.

After a promising season last year, Greg Stewart has struggled to find his game. As a result, Stewart has only made it into the Canadiens' lineup twice so far this year.

Travis Moen is proving to be a very valuable addition by Gainey. Moen has been physical, has more fights than Laraque, and has scored two goals. Moen is not in the class to take on the enforcer role but is a good example of team toughness.

5. Leadership

As the Canadiens have struggled out of the gate, the pressure on the team from media and fans alike is increasing. While coach Martin argued that time was required to let leaders emerge, the strategy is now being questioned.

During times of stress and frustration, teams requires strong leadership. An effective captain can work to calm a dressing room of players who may begin to have questions of confidence. A captain can deflect media focus on a single player who may be underperforming and can ensure that there is no divide in the locker room.

Even after seven games, it is clear to most that Brian Gionta is the player who is the best choice to be the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens. He conveys leadership, on and off the ice. His calm demeanor is effective with media and his passion and work ethic are a model for his teammates.

One wonders how long coach Martin will wait before giving the 'C' to Gionta.


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