When Bob Gainey fired coach Guy Carbonneau in early March with barely a month remaining in the regular season, the general manager stepped behind the bench to get an up-close look at the Montreal Canadiens.
Obviously, he didn't like what he saw.
Sneaking the fabled Habs into the playoffs by a whisker, only to be shuttled out during a four-game sweep by arch-rival Boston, wasn't the kind of ending Gainey or the Canadiens' demanding fans expected, especially from a classy franchise celebrating its centennial season.
So Gainey went to work on a facelift that was as dramatic as any in the league this offseason, one that will be analyzed early and often in the most scrutinized hockey market in the world.
The Canadiens said no thanks to free agents Saku Koivu(notes), Alexei Kovalev, Mike Komisarek(notes), Alex Tanguay(notes), Robert Lang(notes) and Christopher Higgins(notes). Through trades and free-agent signings, Montreal added Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta(notes), Michael Cammalleri(notes), Travis Moen(notes), Jaroslav Spacek(notes), Paul Mara(notes) and Hal Gill(notes). This wasn't a tweak here and there, this was a complete overhaul of the players who will be expected to make a difference.
Gainey is returning to his GM post and leaving the coaching to Jacques Martin, who is welcoming the challenge of returning behind a bench after last being a GM himself with the Florida Panthers. Martin coached St. Louis for two years beginning in 1986 and later became Ottawa's all-time leader in wins during a nine-year stay (1995-2004).
While Martin has had plenty of offensive firepower at his disposal, especially during his later years with the Senators, he still has the reputation of being a defense-first coach. How he adapts that philosophy to a team that appears to be more built on speed will be interesting.
Last season: 41-30-11 (93 points), second place Northeast Division, eighth place in the Eastern Conference and 13th in the overall standings. The Canadiens slipped 11 points in the standings and from division champs to long-distance runner-up finishers to Boston in the division race, but did hold on barely in the end to reach the playoffs. There, the Canadiens were no match for their hated rivals as the Bruins swept the Canadiens in four games, gaining a measure of revenge for a first-round ousting in seven games the previous postseason.
Imports: C Scott Gomez (N.Y. Rangers), RW Brian Gionta (New Jersey), LW Michael Cammalleri (Calgary), D Hal Gill (Pittsburgh), D Jaroslav Spacek (Buffalo), LW Travis Moen (San Jose), D Paul Mara (N.Y. Rangers) and G Curtis Sanford(notes) (Vancouver).
Exports: C Saku Koivu (Anaheim), RW Alexei Kovalev (Ottawa), RW Alex Tanguay (Tampa Bay), D Mike Komisarek (Toronto), D Mathieu Schneider(notes) (Vancouver), RW Tom Kostopoulos(notes) (Carolina), LW Chris Higgins (N.Y. Rangers) and D Doug Janik(notes) (N.Y. Rangers).
Salary cap: With all that offseason wheeling and dealing, the Canadiens are pretty snug with the ceiling of the cap, sitting at approximately $55.7 million, leaving room for about $2.7 million more in spending.
Three keys: The Canadiens might think about wearing those names on the front of their sweaters instead of the back because it could take a while for everyone to get to know each other. Team chemistry, and developing it from the start of training camp, will be important.
Not only does a new batch of skill players have to blend in a hurry, but also everyone needs to learn a new system from a coach who has to get to know his personnel, too. Martin isn't a big fan of line juggling so he'll be looking for defense pairs and forward lines to click early on.
Second, Koivu had been the Canadiens' captain since 1999, but he's no longer here of course. That leaves a big void in the leadership department, not only in the locker room but also at point person to deal with all the inquiring minds who patrol Montreal with notepads and microphones.
Should the team turn to one of its new high-profile acquisitions such as maybe Gomez to become the new captain? Or do they go with the idea of rotating the captaincy every month or so and not settle on any one individual until it becomes more clear? Either way, the players are going to have to sort out the pecking order for accountability.
Third, if nothing else, Montreal's defense is going to be experienced. Roman Hamrlik(notes), Andrei Markov(notes), Spacek and Gill are all over the age of 30. Josh Gorges(notes) and Mara are approaching that milestone quickly.
Defense is going to be the backbone of this team, especially if Martin sticks to his reputation as a defense-first coach. The group is going to have to stay quick on its feet and sort out the roles during camp. It wouldn't hurt to have some youngsters pushing the vets for playing time or even a job.
On the hot seat: If it's Montreal, it's whoever is guarding those 24 square feet of real estate at each end of the ice. No player in any city in this league comes under the microscope more than the goalie for the Canadiens. Carey Price(notes) has experienced a small bit of the way it usually goes – high praise at the start of a career followed by increasing criticism as the years pile up and the Stanley Cup proves elusive.
A 2.83 goals-against average and .905 save percentage last season were a step backward from a rookie campaign that included better numbers (2.56 GAA and .920 save percentage). The continued prying and reporting of his personal life and time away from the ice increased as if to try and draw the conclusion that Price's priorities weren't in line with what the fans demand. Either way, Price has no choice but to put up better numbers or the negative vibes will only intensify.
Poised to blossom: On the surface, a sixth-round draft pick isn't necessarily expected to made a major contribution, but of all the young players with an opportunity to take a jump, right wing Matt D'Agostini(notes) has displayed the most potential.
The 22-year-old produced 12 goals and 21 points during 53 games last season, and he has a chance to not only win a job but also land on a second forward line.
Time has passed: Realizing an obvious prerequisite for coaching in Montreal is the need to be bilingual, the Canadiens always have a smaller pool of candidates from which to choose. Martin was the safe choice, especially after the experiment of Carbonneau, a player's coach, didn't work out.
But is Martin going to be flexible and willing to go to the team's strengths instead of sticking to his reputation as a conservative coach? The Canadiens should be a team that dictates the pace with its speed, forechecks hard and focuses on a top power play that slipped from leading the league for two seasons to No. 13 last year.
Prediction: There's a lot of change here, and it's hard to imagine the transition being seamless. The Canadiens had no margin for error at the end of last season, so a slow start will be difficult to overcome. It's going to be a tough go with the lack of size on this team and the potential vulnerability in goal if Price falters. It looks like a non-playoff season that could cost Gainey his job in the end.
- Bob Gainey
- Jacques Martin