Montreal Canadiens Prepare For The 2010-11 NHL Season

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Montreal Canadiens Prepare For The 2010-11 NHL Season
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The 2010 NHL Playoffs featured the best run by a Montreal Canadien's team since they won their last cup in 1993.

Let's face it, defeating the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Presidents' trophy-winning Washington Capitals in back-to-back series was just fun.

It was disappointing to lose in short order to the Flyers in the Eastern finals, but the playoffs made a pretty miserable regular season feel like a success. That success and the experience the players got in the playoffs against top quality opposition can only help the youngsters who were in the lineup. 

Hopefully the Canadien’s management doesn't use the playoff run as an excuse to stand pat with a lineup that was too slow and too old for most of the year.

Montreal was in the bottom third of the league offensively and defensively. This was really a lineup that got carried into the playoffs thanks to Jarolsav Halak's unstinting efforts in nets.

Halak was a big part of the reason the team stayed competitive in games and series with opponents that had a lot more talent than the Canadiens. He is gone now—dealt for prospects—and the Canadiens will have to see if they can succeed next year without him.

To do that, Montreal will have to settle some issues before next season starts. 

 

Cap Problems

Montreal has almost $57 million dollars dedicated to 21 roster spots.

This includes the $1.5 million they are paying the "bought out" Georges Laraque, and without having signed this year's theoretical first-string goalie Carey Price.

Andrei Markov will start the year on injured reserve, which opens up some cap space until he joins the team in November. Expect Yannick Weber, at $875,000 a year, or the recently signed Mathieu Carle to replace Markov and his $5.75 million dollars a year contract for the first couple months of the season.

The Montreal roster needs to be younger and faster on defense and it needs more five on five scoring and size on offense. But the Canadiens will be hard-pressed to add that quality under the cap.

If management decides to settle rapidly declining Roman Hamrlik and his $5.5 million contract in the minors and promote Weber to the big squad, there's another $4.5 million to spend on talent. Throw in the couple million that they'll save through Markov's injury, and Montreal would be able to sign Price and perhaps add another talent to the lineup to help out the offense. 

If the Canadiens can't do that, the offense looks like it will be painfully close to the group that was the worst five on five team in the league last year. The team will be depending on the players they have being healthier and better.

The Canadiens seem to have given up on Marc Andre Bergeron, who jump started the power play last year. They apparently hope they can dump the whole job on exciting youngster PK Subban.

Sheldon Souray could give Montreal a nice veteran presence on the point for relatively cheap. While he has his own defensive issues, he was a key for the power play when he was in Montreal.

 

Current Roster

The Great : This is the group of top quality NHL talents that the team has. 

Near the end of last year I would have said there were three great players in Montreal. After Markov's ACL injury and Halak's trade, I have to say they're down to one great player on the roster.

Mike Cammalleri, LW —The tiny sniper is excellent with the puck. He can make a play in extremely tight quarters and has a great shot.

His numbers last year 50 points and 26 goals in a mere 65 games would have seen him tarred and feathered and run out of town if it wasn't for the playoff run (19 gp 13 G 6 A 19 PTS). He's hopefully going to stay healthier this year and be closer to the point a game, 40 goal scorer that he looks like he can be in this league.

 

The Good : These are the players who could play on any team and contribute. Think top quality checker, top four defenseman, or top six forward.

Tomas Plekanec, C —Plekanec is another quick moving, puck mover with a nice set of offensive skills.

A good passer and skater, he's also great at working with the puck in tight situations.

The Canadiens have signed him for six years at five million a year after he managed 70 points in 82 games. That's probably close to the maximum offensive production that can be expected from him.

He did well in the playoffs against Sidney Crosby and the Ovechkin line, but he's had trouble in the face-off circle. He had a 49% winning percentage in the face-off circle in the regular season and was second in the league with 824 face-off losses. But during the playoffs against better opposition, he won only 47.1% of the face-offs he took.

He might be better suited as a play-making winger than a center, and Montreal might be further ahead with a center who can win more face-offs than he loses. The versatile Plekanec also played a lot of defensive minutes for Montreal killing penalties and checking the other team’s top players.  

Andrei Markov, D —Markov was one of those great Montreal Canadiens, but back-to-back severe injuries (Achilles tendon at the start of the regular season and blown anterior cruciate ligament at the start of the playoffs) has to make you worry about how this will effect the 31 year old's skating.

He's a puck mover, and he has been Montreal's best offensive defenseman since Souray became a free agent. He tends to make a lot of risky passes and lead the team in giveaways, though most of them are in the offensive zone.

He'll be counted on to play the other point on the power play opposite PK Subban. Hopefully he's still capable. He's likely to be in decline offensively for the rest of his career.

Carey Price, G —Price has been the golden goaltending prospect for Montreal since he was drafted, and he has excelled at every level except in the NHL.

But last year he lost the starting job yet again to the older Jaroslav Halak.

Despite that, the 22-year-old Price had a reasonable NHL season. He played 2,358 minutes—or almost half the time for Montreal—and managed an above average .912 save percentage, good for 19th among the NHL goalies who played at least a third of their teams minutes.

Unfortunately, a .912 save percentage wasn't enough to win games in Montreal. The team had trouble scoring and gave up a fifth worst league 32.1 shots against per game.

Montreal has to hope his game improves again from last year. Halak had become the fan favourite and he excelled in the high pressure environment in Montreal. Price needs to deal with that pressure to succeed, because the fans will be ready to run him out of town if he falters.

The Canadiens' success will be tightly tied to Price's play. If he can't duplicate some of Halak's numbers from last year, the Canadiens can expect to miss the playoffs.

PK Subban, D —I'm reluctant to say anything about a player who has played about 10 minutes in the big leagues.

Subban, however, is fast, confident, and talented with the puck. He brings a verve that the 35-year-olds on the blue-line just can't manage.

He has a big shot, and with Markov hurt and Bergeron unlikely to be signed, Montreal's crucial power play has been dumped in his lap. It's a lot to ask, and after goaltending it was one of the few things the Canadiens managed to get right last year.

Hopefully he succeeds and doesn't feel the need to bring every puck out his own zone straight up the middle of the ice like he did in the playoffs. Subban looks to be another defenseman in Montreal who will be prone to giving the puck away.

Brian Gionta, RW —Here's another small, fast sniper who spent over 20 games hurt last year. Yet, he still managed 28 goals and 46 points.

The 31-year-old Gionta has been in the league eight seasons, and what you see is what you get. He's a great skater with a good shot. He's unlikely to ascend to the heights he found in Jersey back in 2005-06 (48 goals, 89 points), but if he stays healthy he can manage to score between 20-30 goals and record 50-60 points. 

He's a dangerous little player, though he is past his prime. He's playing with a group of fast playmakers who should help him produce.

Josh Gorges, D —Gorges was a throw-in from the Craig Rivet deal with San Jose, but he has played himself into a useful contributor in Montreal—and he only makes $1.1 million a year.

At the age of 26, he can still get better. He is a reasonable skater and is physical enough, though he has no offensive component to his game to speak of.

With the injuries in Montreal, he's been forced into first pair minutes several times and distinguished himself better than some more senior members of the Montreal defense.

Gorges is probably a fourth defenseman, at best, but he's a good one. He's a nice contrast on a defense that features a group of players that are either too old or just generally too careless with the puck. He's been a nice solid addition, but as the Montreal defense  improves he'll likely end up deeper and deeper on the depth chart.

Scott Gomez, C —Gomez is still the highest paid second-line center in the league.

He's fast and a good playmaker, but his shot can't make it's way through saran wrap. He managed 12 goals and 59 points in 78 games last year, and there were calls for his scalp in Montreal. But like Cammalleri, he had a good playoffs.

He seems to have another gear for the big games. He wins more face-offs than he loses, which helps even things out in Montreal. Gomez gives Montreal a fourth small, fast player who is good with the puck. This group can play at the same speed together, but they’re not going to knock anyone through the boards.

Gomez can't be expected to provide a lot more offensively at his age, though the Canadiens have to be hoping for closer to 15 goals and 70 points for their seven-plus million a year. The Canadiens have over 12 million dollars tied up in two centers, neither of whom is a legitimate top line player in the NHL. That's a problem. 

 

The Fair/Role Players : These players could play a useful role on most NHL teams. A good team would likely have phased or be looking to phase these players out. In Montreal, a lot of these guys play crucial roles.

Travis Moen, LW —This reasonably sized, physical checker is still only 28. A lacklustre regular season was saved with a more inspired playoff performance. Like Gomez, he knows when it's important to excel and he can step it up for the playoffs.

Moen seemed to have an offensive component to his game when he played in Anaheim, but that was either illusory or he's lost what offensive skills he once possessed. He's a valuable checker on a team choked with undersized forwards. It would be nice to see more of that playoff effort in the regular season.

Jaroslav Spacek, D —The 36-year-old Czech managed barely half the points he got in Buffalo the year before. 

Between injuries he was called on to play in a shut-down role versus Ovechkin at times in the first round of the playoffs. He was probably one of the few defenseman in Montreal capable of attempting to skate with Alex "The Great."

He was the team leader in plus/minus until Markov got some games under his belt, and he's under contract for another two years. He will probably be called on to quarterback the power play until Markov gets healthy.

He is a little scary in his own zone, and his 81 giveaways put him among the league leaders in losing the puck. Spacek needs to produce more offense to justify his playing time. A better defense would probably no longer have a spot for Spacek, and certainly not on the first unit power play.

Ryan O'Byrne, D —O'Byrne is a large (6' 5" 234 lbs), young (26) defenseman who has been slowly worked into the lineup of the Montreal Canadiens.

Four seasons of gradually increasing games played and ice time seemed to come to a crashing halt at the end of last year, and again this year when coaches decided O'Byrne couldn't play in important games, or at important times. He played in the playoffs this year, but only as an injury replacement and with his minutes severely limited.

This is unfortunate because he possesses the size and some of the aggressiveness that the Canadiens are said to be sorely lacking. He's more mobile than Hamrlik or Gill and he's one of the only young defenseman the Canadiens have with NHL experience.

The others in the organization like Carle, Subban or Weber tend to be smaller puck movers. O'Byrne is the only big thumper on defense that the Canadiens have managed to get into the big leagues, and now his development has stalled.

If he can't make the team, it's unclear who will be around to replace Hamrlik or Gill at the end of this year. It'll be a few years before Jared Tinordi can be that big physical defenseman the Canadiens want. 

Alex Auld, G - Auld had a poor season last year, but he's a veteran backup goalie who was good enough in Ottawa to take over the starting job when required. He'll hopefully be a useful player in Montreal providing mentorship and rest for Carey Price. If he ends up with the starting job in Montreal, you'll know the season has gone to hell.

Hall Gill, D - Before his playoff performance, I would have placed Gill in the useless pile. The huge pylon spent most of the season with faster players (everyone is faster than Hal Gill) skating around him like he wasn't there, and the big man was sixth in Montreal with hits because he can't catch anyone to hit them.

Andrei Kostitsyn hit more people than Hal Gill did.

But come the playoffs, he was capable of bumping his performance up a notch. He lead the team in blocked shots and generally just managed to get the most out of his size, experience, and long reach.

The Canadiens would love to see more of his playoff performance in the regular season. His 76 giveaways also placed him among the league leaders and from a non-offensive, stay at home, veteran defenseman those numbers have to be doubly troubling. He gave up more than a puck a game while providing just 11 points.

Tom Pyatt, C - Pyatt looks to be a cheap, fast checking center. He'll perhaps win the fourth line job from youngster Ben Maxwell or the increasingly erratic Maxim Lapierre.

 

The Bad : These players are, for whatever reason, probably hurting your team. Before the playoffs, Gill and perhaps Spacek would have made this list.

Roman Hamrlik, D —Hamrlik has had a hard row to hoe ever since he was taken first overall back in 1992.

In retrospect, he's played more NHL games than anyone else taken in 1992. He's done better than second pick Alexei Yashin and the third pick, Mike Rathje. He's probably had one of the 10 best careers of anyone drafted in 1992.

Unfortunately, his day is done.

He used to be a half-point a game offensive defenseman with reasonable size. His offensive skills and skating have deteriorated, and the physical aspect of his game was never all that good. He lead the team with 86 giveaways and that total was third worst in the league behind Tyler Myers (94) and Joe Thornton (88).

During the playoffs the effort was there. You could see him struggling to get his feet moving, but despite playing first pair minutes a lot of nights Hamrlik is nowhere near being a first pair defenseman anymore. On a team with two other veteran defenseman who love to give up the puck, Hamrlik is a luxury the Canadiens can no longer afford.

It's time to stuff him in the minors and get rid of that cap hit. Let Ryan O’Byrne screw up on defense in the third pair for $941,667 a year. His time has come and Montreal needs to grasp the nettle and get rid of that Hamrlik.  

Maxim Lapierre, C- The checker has an edge that most Canadiens don't have. He's only 25 and in 2008-09 he managed to score 15 goals while providing some sandpaper in a lineup that often seems to be sadly lacking it.

Unfortunately, last year he managed only 14 points in 76 games. His performance graded from dirty and intense in the regular season to criminal and insane in the playoffs. In one of the better officiated games I've seen in years, I saw him called twice for diving and once for an assault that I would have suspended him for.

He’s the team leader in hits and he's being called on to play a role in Montreal. It's not a pretty role.

Unfortunately, he’s providing no offense and at times seems like a danger to himself and the team on the ice. A gritty checker who won't get the critical stupid penalty can probably be found to replace him. 

Mathieu Darche, LW —The youngster has been kept on to try to provide some spark and youth. Unfortunately, he seems too slow to manage it and like a lot of recent Montreal Canadiens doesn't seem to possess an offensive component to his game. The Canadiens need "a" line of checkers, but Darche doesn't seem fast enough to fill the bill.

Benoit Pouliot, LW —He was traded for another failing Canadiens prospect, and he started strong. He managed 17 goals in 53 games last year—15 in 39 with Montreal—but production trickled to a halt as the playoffs approached and he didn't score once in 18 playoff games.

He appears to be a player who can't find another level when the games get more important. He or Kostitsyn will win a job on the second scoring line, and whichever player does not get the job can be expected to sink into obscurity. Hopefully one of these two will be able to make some sort of offensive contribution and perhaps resurrect their career.

Andrei Kostitsyn, RW— Kostitsyn looked like one of only two shooters the Canadiens had in the lineup a couple years ago. At 22, he scored 26 goals and 53 points and earned a three year, $3.25 million a year contract.

He's now in the last year of that contract. He managed 15 goals in 59 games last year and three goals and eight points in 19 playoff games. He's gone from up-and-coming star to has-been in three years, and he's still only 25.

On many nights you wouldn't know he was in the lineup. Still, I think he's got a better chance than Pouliot of bouncing back in this, his contract year. He'll need to play on one of the top two lines to contribute, and if he doesn't this is another contract that might be better off buried in Hamilton.

He's a good skater, reasonably physical and good with the puck. But will his career go the way of Plekanec, or Higgins? 

Max Pacioretty, LW —Pacioretty is another of the recent Canadiens' prospects who seems to have no offensive component to his game.

He has reasonable size and is a good skater, so maybe he can play his way into being a quality checking forward. But some sort of evidence that he could provide even minimal offense on a checking line would be nice. He's very young and it would be nice to see one of these Canadien’s picks becoming a useful NHLer, even if it's in a checking role.

Dustin Boyd, C —Boyd is another offensively challenged checker who couldn't stick in Nashville after Calgary dumped him. He's cheaper and younger than either Dominic Moore or Glen Metropolit, but he's not as good as either. 

 

The Prospects

There's been a huge turnover of Montreal Canadiens prospects in the last year and a half.

Four to five years ago, Montreal had a collection of some of the best potential talent in the league. Since then they've either been lured away (Mark Streit, Michael Ryder, Ron Hainsey and Mike Komisarek) traded (Jaroslav Halak, Mikael Grabovski) or, most often, given up on (Chris Higgins, Sergei Kostitsyn, Kyle Chipchura, Guillaume Latendresse, Matt D'Agostini, David Fischer, and Alex Perezhogin).

This team has been built around failing veterans, and the prospects and draft picks have either withered away or left. If you believe Subban and Pyatt have made the big club, there seems to be very little top quality talent in the hopper ready to take over jobs on the big club.

Defensively, the Canadiens will need to replace two UFA veterans at the end of this year and another, Spacek, at the end of the 2012 season.

If management believes Ryan O'Byrne can't be an NHL defenseman, there's a fourth roster spot on defense that will need to be filled in the next two years.

Right now, Yannick Weber looks like a competent, steady puck mover with offensive skills. He's small but hasn't looked out of place when he has played in Montreal. 

After giving up on NCAA defensive defenseman David Fischer, the Habs are left with Mathieu Carle as a prospect who may be ready to take a spot in Montreal in the next two years. He's got a bit more size than Weber and a willingness to use it.

The huge Jared Tinordi was chosen for his size and grit. It has to be hoped he skates better than his NHL playing dad did. The Habs also have to be hoping that in a couple years big Tinordi will be ready for the NHL.

If everything works out, a defense of Markov, Subban, Tinordi, Weber, Carle, Gorges and O'Byrne would be young and mobile with enough grit to make other teams worry. That's a group that could add one free agent and be exceptional. 

Offensive prospects seem thinner and more problematic.

The youngsters on the team or likely to be on the team in training camp, but Tom Pyatt, Max Pacioretty, Mathieu Darche, Ben Maxwell, and Greg Stewart haven't really shown a whiff of offensive talent.

Behind them are quick talented, undersized college winger Danny Kristo, newly acquired gritty sniper Aaron Palushaj and playmaker Lars Eller.

It's hoped Louis Leblanc will get a chance to prove he can be an NHL scorer in the next few years. Newly signed 23-year-old David Desharnais managed 71 points in 60 games last year in the AHL. He should get a shot at helping the big club offensively, as will Lars Eller.

Aside from them these players, there doesn't seem to be as many prospects coming up through the minors as are crapping out on the big club. The team needs to find some young, cheap scorers. 

Young goaltender Carey Price has been handed the starting job in Montreal. He's been handed the job a couple of times already, actually, and hasn't been able to hang on to it. 

Cedrick Desjardins, who is 25, had another good year in the AHL and is seen as perhaps the Canadiens backup goalie of the future. Robert Mayer seems another couple years away from the NHL, if he ever makes it there at all.  

 

Prognosis

The Canadiens had a spectacular run in the playoffs. The experience itself is a benefit to the team and the players that made it happen. But a team that manages that big a step forward often slips back, and any kind of slip puts Montréal out of the playoffs.

The Canadiens offensive core will be Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta. The Canadiens need good young, cheap talent to come in and fill the rest of those forward slots in a useful fashion. The supporting cast they have right now doesn't score enough, and what's coming up from the minors doesn't look much better.

If Montreal can shake any cap room free look for them to add another veteran forward who has fallen on bad times. Alexander Frolov, anyone?

The defense has been getting worse as the team has added veterans. They need to tighten things up and get the shot count down for the erratic Carey Price.

Hopefully the addition of Yannick Weber and PK Subban will help the defense get and keep the puck out of their own end. Once Andrei Markov comes back in November—if his skating hasn't been too impaired by his second big injury—the defense should improve anyway. 

A veteran, power play quarterback might still be useful to have. Throwing it all into youngster PK Subban's and old man Spacek's laps might be a lot to ask.

For $2.7 million a year I wouldn't mind a year of a healthy Sheldon Souray coming back if he is keen on reestablishing himself as an offensive force in a spot where he's had success before. Montreal definitely needs to have the power play working at least until they can score against other teams when they are at full strength.

But it all comes down to the goaltending. Everything seems to have come easy to Carey Price until he reached the NHL. He's won at the world juniors and won a Calder Cup in the AHL, but he's met failure and scorn in the NHL.

He needs to find the thick skin to deal with the scorn and the flexibility to learn from the failure and progress. He had a good season, playing almost half the team's minutes and he had moments of brilliance.

The Montreal Canadiens last year needed a brilliant goalie to win games and make the playoffs. There's no reason to believe the same won't be true this year. If Carey Price can't be brilliant, the Canadiens won't make the playoffs. But it would be nice if the offense and the defense could improve enough this year to help him out.

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