As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
Up next, the always entertaining Montreal Canadiens.
Key Additions: C Dustin Boyd, C Lars Eller, G Alex Auld, C Jeff Halpern, D Alexandre Picard.
Key Subtractions: G Jaroslav Halak, RW Sergei Kostitsyn, C Dominic Moore, RW Georges Laraque, D Paul Mara, C Glen Metropolit.
Perhaps the biggest enigma in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens had more ups and downs last season than a high-speed roller coaster. On paper, the Habs are a monetary nightmare with six players locking up two-thirds of the allotted cap space. One would think it difficult to build a winner with that pressing an issue, but Montreal survived and thrived with an Eastern Conference Finals appearance from the eight spot.
Last season was more about finding and creating a new identity after a mass exodus of more than eight unrestricted free agents. This season was an exodus too, but one that was more focused on a particular position. With a new GM in Pierre Gauthier taking over for the often perplexing Bob Gainey, the Habs appear to be back on the right track towards the top.
The biggest story, of course, was the dismissal of late season and playoff hero Jaroslav Halak in favor of the franchise goalie Carey Price. Despite what we know of Halak’s incredible performance and Price’s inconsistent play, Montreal elected to keep the younger goaltender for the time being, shipping Halak to St. Louis for prospects and picks.
The numbers may not exactly add up, but keeping Price for $1 million less per year certainly was the economical choice. In fact, most of Montreal’s offseason was spent making those kinds of decisions after an evaluation of the team revealed that the aforementioned six players will take up $34.6 of the $59.4 million salary cap.
Offensively, the Habs are hoping that, above all else, they stay healthy this year. When Michael Cammalleri was healthy, he was a juggernaut that seemed nigh unstoppable come the playoffs. Just two seasons ago, Cammalleri flirted with 40 goals and could’ve been there last year had not it been for injury. Joining him, the newest large contract to hit the Habs in center Tomas Plekanec.
Plekanec will likely usurp the top center position from teammate Scott Gomez in the coming weeks, and given his performance last season, it could be justified. What has yet to be proven, however, is that Plekanec can consistently put up huge numbers from season to season. In the past four years, Plekanec’s point totals over the past four years are as follows: 47-69-39-70. If the trend continues, he may well be booed off the ice.
Speaking of Scott Gomez, he’s never missed the playoffs in his career despite playing for three drastically different teams. The biggest criticism of Gomez (other than his enormous contract), is his lack of goal-scoring production.
In his career, Gomez has eclipsed 20 goals only once, in 2005-06. Playing with speedster and new Montreal captain Brian Gionta as well as forwards like Andrei Kostitsyn should give him ample opportunity to rewrite history.
Youth will certainly be a key focus for the Habs on offense this year as well, with Maxim Lapierre, Benoit Pouliot, and Tom Pyatt all attempting to prove they have what it takes to stay afloat.
Defensively, the Habs are again looking towards better health this year. Their top defender, Andrei Markov, spent too long on the shelf last year, likely sabotaging the team’s chances to move up the ladder during the season. When he was playing, Markov’s totals indicate he could have had a career year with 82 games under his belt.
Montreal also boasts excellent shutdown defenders, like the massive Hal Gill and shot-blocking aficionado Josh Gorges. Gorges was a key factor in keeping both the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins at bay during the playoffs, while Gill is the definition of defensive shadow for opposing superstars.
And, not to spoil anything, but the Habs defense is about to be taken over by a youngster named P.K. Subban, who had more than a coming out party during the miracle playoff run.
When it comes down to it, the biggest factor to Montreal’s success will not be an excellent skating team with a great power play advantage. It’ll be goalie Carey Price having to prove he was worth keeping over Jaroslav Halak.
Price’s rookie season set the bar of an impressive young goaltender, as he snagged 24 wins out of his first 41 games while the Canadiens finished first in the Eastern Conference. During his second year, He took a step backward, allowing more goals while winning one less game in eleven more outings.
Last year was the tipping point. Price was replaced regularly by Halak, who seemed to be playing far better on all fronts. Price went from producing 20 wins a year to a mere 13 last season, jeopardizing his starting job as well as his future with the club. But when the dust settled, they still chose Price, a top-five selection during the same draft that included Sidney Crosby, over hero Halak.
Price can no longer use the excuse that he’s “green” as far as goalies go. The time is now for him to grasp the brass ring.
Throughout the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, P.K. Subban’s name continued to show up on the stat sheet and in the headlines. Subban came on in relief of a battered Montreal defense, and now, he’s vying for a top spot in the defensive corps. Subban was among the leading defensive scores in the postseason and will have plenty of attention at the start of the season.
Montreal is built to compete and will be a playoff threat all season. But the play in net will be the thing to watch all season long. We’ve seen Carey Price at his utter best and worst, and depending on which one shows up, we’ll see Montreal there as well. Fourth in the Northeast, 10th in the Eastern Conference.