Habs Ask for a Fresh Deck: 2009-10 Preview

Scott WeldonCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2009

Montreal suffered through a year of exaggerated expectations.

They snuck into the playoffs past a mediocre Florida team on the basis of having a better record against them in the regular season. They were then swept by arch-rival Boston in four games.

This all happened after a first place finish in 2007-08 and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. The fans were anticipating another first place finish and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The disappointment was palpable.

As a result of this step backwards, Bob Gainey and the Canadiens decided to rework their entire lineup.. He fired Guy Carbonneau, the coach last year, and took over the job himself. Jaques Martin was brought in to coach this year. They didn't resign their captain, Saku Koivu, their leading scorer Alexei Kovalev, their young physical defencemen Mike Komisarek, Alex Tanguay, Mathieu Schneider, Patrice Brisebois, Mathieu Dandenault, Marc Denis or Francis Boullion.

Then with almost $30 million to spend, they went out to try to completely change the team.

The goaltending is one place where the Canadiens stand pat. The Habs tried to play an up-tempo offensive style last year and often the goaltenders were left to fend for themselves. Jaroslav Halak seemed to thrive in that atmosphere winning several games, while the Canadiens were giving up more than 40 shots. Halak finished the season with a .915 save percentage. That was good enough to tie for 17th best among the 43 goalies who played at least a third of their team's minutes last year.

Not spectacular, but good.

Carey Price had a much more mediocre .905 save percentage, placing him 31st among the 43 goalies. Price had a 2.83 GAA in comparison to Halak's 2.86. Halak, however, made 30.61 saves per game. Price made 27.08 saves per game. The Habs gave up more shots in front of Halak and yet he stopped a greater percentage of them.

Gainey settled on Price, the first round draft pick, as their starter during the 2009 playoffs. He started and lost all four playoff games. For the Habs to succeed next year, they need the young goaltenders to get untracked. They especially need Price to recover the brilliance and confidence that he's shown at every other level of hockey.

If he manages that, the Habs may be able to salvage this season. If not they're unlikely to make the playoffs. Curtis Sanford has been brought in to be the veteran backup and replace Denis in the organization.

In order to insulate the young goalies, Gainey has sought out more veteran depth on defense. While allowing the 40-year-old Schneider and Brisebois to move on, they've added the 35-year-old Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek to the lineup.

Andrei Markov will still lead the defense, as he's a first rate offensive defenseman and puck mover. He needs a partner on the point of the power play with a shot, a need the Habs haven't addressed.

Paul Mara is a 30-year-old defenseman with reasonable physical skills who helps replace some of the hitting that Komisarek brought to the team. Hal Gill is also a huge, plodding physical defenseman. He brings Stanley Cup winning experience and a large wingspan to the mix. As long as he's not overused, he should help clear out the front of the Habs' net and keep them from being pushed around in their own end. When faced with speed in his own end, he can get into a lot of trouble.

Roman Hamrlik is another 35-plus defenseman on the downside of his career. He has some offensive ability and he's got good size that he tends to never use. Every year, he's another year older and another year slower. Jaroslav Spacek was brought in probably to be the other offensive defenseman on the power play. He's coming off of a career best 45 points, but the 35-year-old doesn't have a big shot and has been known to get in trouble in his own zone.

Josh Gorges was a throw in, in the Craig Rivet deal with San Jose. He's played a lot of minutes in Montreal and gives them a reasonably physical, competent NHL defenseman. The increase in team depth should decrease his minutes and help his play. Ryan O'byrne got an opportunity to jump to the big club last year and he failed to impress. His five points and -7 rating in 37 games didn't help. He'll get another chance this year, a little further down the depth chart. The 35-plus-year-old defensemen will likely get hurt and will need to be subbed out, every so often.

PK Subban is still probably too young to make the big club, but might get a chance to try out this year. He'll be needed soon to replace the players who are moving on. His offensive creativity should help the team. 

The defense should be better this year and this should help calm down the goalies. The Habs will hopefully give up fewer than 247 goals they did last year.

The biggest change has come on offense.

From what seemed like three fast skating scoring lines in 2007-08, the Habs devolved into a team that had to get the puck to Kovalev in order to have a chance of scoring. The loss of the big point shot on the power play (Sheldon Souray 81 GP/23 G/30 A, Mark Streit 74 GP/ 16G/40A ) has ruined it.

Gainey picked up that millstone of a contract of Gomez's and gave up Christopher Higgins, a quick skating playmaker who had 27 goals and 53 points in 2007-08. They also lost defensive prospect Ryan Mcdonagh. Gomez, a moderately talented playmaker who is probably better suited to be a second line center than a first, makes $7.5 million a year. He had 58 points last year, frighteningly close to what Higgins had the year before. Gomez is still an upgrade from what the Habs had at center last year.

Mike Cammalleri, one of the more exciting free agents available, was signed for $6 million per year for five years. The sniper in his prime should work well with Gomez. The tiny quick Brian Gionta has been brought in at $5 million per year to try to recapture the magic he had with Gomez in New Jersey during the 2005-06 season.

The three forwards will get five years together to prove they were good signings. They are all talented and will skate fast. The key to Montreal's offense will be what the second line of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Sergei Kostitsyn manage to do. If they manage what they did last year, expect the Habs to be worse offensively. A checking line of Glen Metroplit, Travis Moen, and Maxim Lapiere should get a chance to prove they can help out the defense. Lapierre might play on the second line. The fourth line with D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Guillaume Latendresse, and Georges Laraque, will hopefully be able to compete.

Gainey, in my view, has done a lot of dancing to stand in place. It all hinges on what the goaltenders do and I've seen nothing to indicate that Price is the saviour he needs to be. The marginally improved (deeper) defense should help, but I'm afraid it won't be enough.

I think the offense will be better, but only because I'm expecting rebound years from Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanek. Kovalev will kill Montreal for the six games they play him this year. I'm also anticipating a better offensive year from Lapiere or D'Agostini. The Habs have spent all the money they can and still need a big shot to put on the point of the power play.

If Price isn't better and Martin refuses to go with Halak, the Habs will miss the playoffs passed perhaps by the team that did the least in the offseason, Buffalo.

If Miller stays healthy I see Montreal finishing 9th or 10th and missing the playoffs, while the Sabres pass them in the Northeast Division.

That of course will end in Gainey being fired.      


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