Montreal Canadiens Offseason Preview, Part III: Offense

Matt EichelSenior Writer IAugust 11, 2008

Defense may win teams championships, as the old monicker goes—but if a team cannot put points on the board at the other end, then there's no point at all to the defense.

Let's take a look at the players skating up front for the 2008-09 Montreal Canadiens.

For years, the Canadiens have had centreman and captain Saku Koivu as the man who they have built this young, speedy team around. Koivu, the Canadiens' first pick in 1993 (21st overall), has been the one player that has remained consistent in the lineup while the surroundings keep changing.

From wingers Stephane Richer to Brian Savage to Martin Rucinsky and up to current linemate Chris Higgins, Koivu has always seemed to play his biggest games when they count the most. He is also an inspirational figure, as the Canadiens' 28th captain has battled through cancer to help the Canadiens get to the second round.

But Koivu's time in the NHL has been plagued by injuries, which have kept him to only three 20-goal seasons. In recent seasons, with Bob Gainey at the helm as GM, the Canadiens have seemed to re-think this idea of centering the lineup around Koivu.

The leadership of the Canadiens has changed, with the addition of All-Star Alexei Kovalev and the up-bringing of Chris Higgins.  Both of these players wear letters on their jerseys and try to perform up to the level of Koivu.  Kovalev may show up and may not, while Higgins plays balls to the walls every shift.

With a great season in 2007-08—84 points, including 34 goals—Alex Kovalev seems to be the offensive leader of this very young team.  Playing the majority of the '07-08 season alongside centreman Tomas Plekanec (81 GP, 29 G, 40 A, 69 PTS) and sophomore Andrei Kostitsyn (78 GP, 26 G, 27 A, 53 PTS), Kovalev has become a mentor to both his linemates as well as Andrei's younger brother Sergei Kostitsyn(52 GP, 9 G, 18 A, 27 PTS).

There is much potential for growth on the Canadiens top two lines.  With the re-signing of Andrei Kostitsyn through the 2010-11 season, and the great seasons had last year by both Kostitsyn brothers, Plekanec, and Higgins, the Canadiens may be strong contenders to repeat not only as the regular season Eastern Conference champions, but also as the top goal-scoring team in the regular season.

Add into the mix former five-time 20-goal scorer Alex Tanguay, and the Canadiens may have a good shot at it for sure.  Despite a slow year in Calgary under new head coach Mike Keenan, Tanguay (78 GP, 18 G, 40 A, 58 PTS) is looking for a fresh start in his native province, and will be a factor on the Canadiens' top two lines.

With the departure of former 30-goal scorer Michael Ryder, veteran Bryan Smolinski, and small Belrussian forward Mikhail Grabovski, there are open spots available on the Canadiens' third and fourth lines, possibly to be filled by up-and-coming players such as Kyle Chipchura and Matt D'Agostini.

Playing his first 36 NHL games in the early part of the 2007-08 season, Kyle Chipchura (36 GP, 4 G, 7 A, 11 PTS) was demoted to the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs to condition and become a better faceoff man.  The 6'2", 205-lb Alberta native is going to be a key role player for Montreal in the coming years, especially with his dynamic two-way play. 

Along with Chipchura, Matt D'Agostini got a taste of NHL action last year, though it only lasted one game, D'Agostini is deemed to be a future sniper.  Netting two straight 20-goal seasons in the AHL, including 23 with Hamilton in '07-08, the quick and skilled D'Agostini may be a fixture in the Canadiens' opening-day lineup.

Another player that may have an impact in training camp is Gregory Stewart.  As was the case with D'Agostini, Stewart got a small taste of NHL action, playing one game and having a strong showing.  Stewart is a role player—and a big one, at 6'2" and 197 lbs.

Stewart and D'Agostini will be competing for a spot with either Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse, Steve Begin, or Tom Kostopolous.  Coming off a season that has many pinning him as a future super-pest, Maxim Lapierre has barely had time for the ink on his two-year deal dry.  Lapierre (54 GP, 7 G, 11 A, 18 PTS) was a pest for many teams in the East, and you never saw him hesitate against either the Bruins or Flyers in the playoffs.

Along with Lapierre, the Canadiens have other pests in Tom Kostopolous (67 GP, 7 G, 6 A, 13 PTS, 113 PIMs), Steve Begin (44 GP, 3 G, 5 A, 8 PTS, 48 PIMs), and newcomer Georges Laraque (71 GP, 4 G, 9 A, 13 PTS, 141 PIMs with Pittsburgh). 

Latendresse adds power to the group of third and fourth liners, and was drafted by the Canadiens in 2005 to become a protoypical NHL power forward.  So far, Latendresse (73 GP, 16 G, 11 A, 27 PTS) has shown glimpses of being that power forward and other times seems to be lost.  His time will come.

After finishing the 2007-08 season with seven 15-goal scorers in their lineup, the Canadiens' offense looks to be another powerful force coming into the 2008-09 season—enough to be a contender again in their centennial year.