If the Montreal Canadiens are to become a serious contender this season, a major change will be needed to bring about a total winning environment.
Bob Gainey, Montreal's general manager, (pictured right at yesterday's news conference), had his own assessment of his team at the season midpoint, looking at concerns with his centremen, and the poor production of Michael Ryder.
Let's take our own look at the Canadiens midway through the 2007-08 season. A position by position analysis follows, including a coaching and management critique. I will close with my own thoughts as to where I think Montreal will end up in April.
Cristobal Huet missed a slew of games due to injury in the late autumn. Carey Price, who made the team as a rookie out of training camp this year, was just not yet up to the task of fillling Huet's skates. What has ensued is the demotion of Price to Hamilton on Jan 8, after a confidence shattering loss in overtime on Jan 5 at home.
Huet himself has looked shaky at times. A goal given up to Chicago in the crease during the Jan 8 game at home is an example of his uncertain play. Still, he has established himself as the number-one goaltender in Montreal.
Montreal's overall league rank in this department is 12th as of Jan 7, with a 2.68 goals against average, and a team .887 save percentage. Huet's save percentage is .926 and his goals against average is 2.68 over 22 games.
Compare that to Roberto Luongo of Vancouver. Luongo has a .930 save percentage, but also has a 1.97 goals against average over 34 games. A top flight goaltender will win you the big games. Huet is good, but Canadiens need improvement.
With Andrei Markov's election to the All-Star team at midpoint, the Canadiens can boast of a player who is a 'fan favourite.' Election to the All Star team is nothing more than a popularity contest.
Still, Markov is one of the finer players that Gainey was able to retain as a free agent, having resigned in the off season. Add Markov to Mike Komisarek, Francis Bouillon, (whose name means beef broth in English), and the return of Patrice Brisebois and there is some semblance of a solid defense corps.
The loss of Sheldon Souray as a free agent has not been felt. Many thought that his scoring touch would be missed on the power play. However, his penchant for being caught up-ice has not been missed, and all in all, Montreal has improved on defense at the mid-point. There is a need for a solid puck carrying defenseman to help spearhead the even strength attack.
Montreal has not had a power forward since Guy Lafleur retired from Montreal in 1984! Since his leaving, there have also been only two Stanley Cups. To win the Stanley Cup, you do not need to have the number-one scorer in the league. But it does not hurt to have a real power forward.
Just ask both Tampa and Calgary, two recent Cup finalists, about that. The Flames have Jerome Iginla, who at present has 32 goals and 60 total points. Tampa has Vincent Lacavialier, who has 28 goals and 62 total scoring points.
Montreal has Alex Kovalev, who has just 18 goals and 38 scoring points. Granted, Kovalev scored 17 goals in the whole of last season when Montreal missed the playoffs, and has now surpassed that for this season.
But what did Montreal do to improve up front last off-season? They did little—if anything. The thinking was that the team would develop players from within. Real translation: there is not a big name free agent who wants to come to the fish bowl experience that is playing hockey in Montreal.
The result is a mediocre set of forwards. Beyond Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec boasts 13 goals and 36 scoring points, followed by Chris Higgins with 15 goals and 30 scoring points.
Montreal needs a power forward like Lecavalier or Iginla. They will not get one. No one wants to come to the fishbowl. Big improvements are needed up front in order to become a serious contender.
Hurrah! Montreal again leads the NHL in power play goals. But there is a real need to be able to score even strength. It is fantastic that Montreal can do the job with the man advantage. Yet their penalty killing is found in the middle of the pack. If Montreal is to make a serious run, then again improvements are needed on all special teams.
Coaching And Management
Bob Gainey has a proven track record, having brought a Stanley Cup to Dallas as their general manager. The insertion of Guy Carbonneau—who played with Gainey in Montreal, and for him in Dallas—indicates the two are obviously on the same page when it comes to the ultimate goal—winning!
Whereas Gainey has proven himself in his capacity, we have yet to see Carbonneau be a coach who knows how to use all the tools at his disposal. Often, he has not used the time out late in a game to settle his team down when facing a crucial situation, a potential for pulling out an overtime win, etc.
If Montreal is to succeed this season and in the future, Carbonneau needs to mature into an astute manager of his players as individuals and his team in general.
And That Fish Bowl Is...My Thoughts
Montreal fancies itself as the mecca of hockey. On a recent visit of the Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin indicated to the press there that he sees Montreal as the place to play. The tradition of winning in Montreal is often likened to that of winning in New York with the Yankees. The thing is, just as the Yankees had a dry spell from 1978 until 1995, so is Montreal having one now.
Winning is not automatic for the Canadiens these days. Combine that with a French-speaking media that has been known to bad mouth Canadiens Captain Saku Koivu because he does not speak enough French, and you begin to see that playing hockey in Montreal is more than a game—it is a cultural experience.
If Montreal is to succeed in obtaining a big power forward in the off-season, the media will need to examine its role in that city. Fans will have to roll back their over-the-top expectation of a Stanley Cup every spring. And Montreal will have to work harder than ever to accomplish this.
The rest of the NHL will no longer tolerate one individual controlling the league, like Sam Pollock did to ensure that only Montreal could draft the first two French-speaking juniors available. It is a new day.
Montreal is a better team than a year ago—however, the reality of this 'new day' means just that: it will be harder than ever for the Canadiens to get back to their place at top they were once so accustomed to reside.