Montreal Canadiens: Doubt Setting In or Simple Slow Start?

Sebastien TremblayCorrespondent INovember 15, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 12:  Tomas Plekanec #14 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena on November 12, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona. The Canadiens defeated the Coyotes 4-2.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens have reached the quarter of the season. That said, general manager Bob Gainey must be nervous and anxiously waiting for his summer spending spree come together. It’s been an “ups and downs” first quarter so far, but there have been a bit too many downs for my taste.

The team is in the bottom half of nearly every category. So the first quarter in general is a fail in my book. There are big questions going down the road. Management took big risks on very few players and it hasn’t really been paying off so far.

I’m telling you, behind that cold and calm image of his, Bob Gainey is anxious and worried.  How patient do you think the new owners, the Molsons, are? Remember, they were not in control of the team when Bob Gainey went on his summer spending spree. George Gillett was still the owner at the time so legally; the Molsons had no say in the matter.

Bob Gainey’s top three acquisitions during the summer, Scott  Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, have shown good chemistry early on. There have been many flashes of what could be a high scoring first line but the trio has come out empty handed on too many occasions. Not that they’re not trying, but when every other NHL team knows this is the only potential threat they’re up against, they come prepared.

Mike Cammalleri has shown flashes of what can be a 40 goals scorer. So with better support, he may just make it—next year! Right now, he too must be worried about the team struggling to score.

As for Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, their offensive production is a bit slow. For a costly $12 million cap hit combined, I’m sure Gainey was hoping for a repeat of the 2005-06 this season. I’m not sure it’s going to happen. Can Gionta still score 30 goals? Is Gomez still capable of being an 70-80 points player? There’s too much money on the line for “ifs”.

At this point, I’m saying thank the hockey gods Tomas Plekanec is there. He’s been arguably the best player so far this year. He seems to have shaken off his demons from last season and has been playing his best hockey I’ve seen him play in his career. At this pace, despite constantly changing wingers, Pleky tops the team in scoring and could put up 70 points this year.

The season is still young and he might not keep up the pace, but besides last year’s horrible performance, Plekanec has been improving every year.

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Now here comes the million dollars question. We all know Bob Gainey does not negotiate contract during the season but if he keeps waiting, and Plekanec ends up posting 70 points on a struggling team, it’s going to cost maybe between $4 to $5 million a year long term to retain him in Montreal. And at the present, the Canadiens don’t have the available space under the cap to afford that.

And that’s if he wants to stay in Montreal!

As a restricted free agent he could decide to test the market. Plekanec is one of my favourite players and I’d hate to see him leave but to be honest if I were him that’s exactly what I would do. He’s only 27 years old and may want to try his luck somewhere else just like Mike Komisarek did.

So do you trade him and try to get the best possible return? It’s unlikely Gainey can get a great player, that nameless big first line center, unless he gives a lot more in return.

Bob Gainey spent a lot of money this summer and has put the team too close to the cap limit. Cammalleri, Gionta and Gomez count for 18.3M$ against the cap. And on defence, the top three of Markov, Hamrlik and Spacek count for about 15MS. That’s about half the allowed cap hit on six players.

Right now, he can “breathe” under the salary cap thanks to injuries but it’s not going to last forever. If you want to put so much hope and money on so few players you better make sure you can rely on good, cheap secondary scoring to help you.

And talking about secondary scoring—where is it? At this point, the top five scoring forwards in order are Plekanec, Cammalleri, Gionta, Gomez and Glen Metropolit. Wait. Did I read this right? Yeah, unfortunately, I did! Glen Metropolit has ten points in 14 games. He’s been working hard every game and earned the trust of his coach. He’s currently fifth in scoring.

But the fact that a guy who’s played on the fourth line his entire NHL career has managed to be in the top five scorers scares me. Where are all those “promising young players” Trevor Timmins has been babbling about for years?! How come nobody is stepping up and claim a top six forward spot?

Sometimes I get nightmares and wake up sweating at night asking myself, "Why is Glen Metropolit on the power play?!”

Andrei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, Max Pacioretty, Kyle Chipchura and Matt D’Agostini (pre-concussion) are not proving to be a consistent supporting cast of “promising youngsters”. It’s as if they’ve all suddenly hit the stop button simultaneously.

On the defensive side of things, I see a disorganized squad. It’s curious how a defensive-minded coach like Jacques Martin still hasn’t found a way to make his squad function properly. Okay, Andrei Markov is out until February. But should he alone count for half the defence? That’s what it feels like.

This illustrates well the importance of Markov and how fragile the defence is without him. But even more so, how badly we need defensemen capable of replacing Markov. Neither Spacek nor Hamrlik apparently have the skills to do so.

So let’s blame the goaltenders, shall we? Maybe not. Both Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak have seen a barrage of shots and very little support from their teammates in front of them. Let’s face it, neither Price or Halak are miracle workers and neither can carry the team like a Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo can.  

After 20 games, the Habs have won only two of nine wins in regular time, have been outscored by ten goals and been out-shot in most of their games. So, is it time to panic yet? Well, it’s only been 20 games so maybe not yet. But I’m keeping my panic button really close.

With practically no room against the salary cap and player value getting lower every game, the hope for a trade that will magically solve everything is very unlikely.

If only every team could get rid of their struggling players to get a star forward or stud defensemen....

Sure. That’s how it works.

At this pace, I hate to say it, but unless there’s a drastic turnaround by some younger players, better defensive strategies and a working power play, we might be looking at a top 10 draft pick for next year.

But it still may be too early for pessimism and when everyone returns healthy, maybe we’ll see what this team is really made of. I hope so, because after all the changes to the roster, last season’s horrible performance and a quick playoff exit, the fans are hungry for success.