NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester (see also Habs eulogy): First place in the Eastern Conference and the Northeast Division (47-25-10, 104 points). Escaped a seven-game scare from the Boston Bruins, before getting overwhelmed by a Philadelphia Flyers team in five games in the conference semifinals.
The Canadiens were a team poised for greatness but not ready for prime time. They played, for my money, the most cohesive and effective team hockey in the conference last season. But no matter how many ways the Montreal Canadiens attempted to position this team as its latest champion -- scheduling Carey Price's NHL debut exactly 22 years to the day Patrick Roy made his was overkill -- last year's model wasn't battle-tested enough to follow up their survival of Boston's upset bid with anything but a dud against Philly.
This team wasn't mature enough to win, and not just because some of its young talent were as bad at handling the playoff pressure as they were stealing a purse from a Floridian bar.
Everyone's a year older. Some significant changes have been made in the off-season. We know it's the centennial year for Canadiens hockey; is it also a Stanley Cup championship year as well?
Homecoming King (Top Player): Alexei Kovalev was eighth overall in the Hart Trophy voting last season, which speaks to the total team effort the Habs had from their roster. On another team, he may have placed higher.
Statistically, the veteran forward had no equals on the Canadiens, posting 35 goals and 84 points. He's not the best 5-on-5 player Montreal has, but his contributions on the power play elevated that group to No. 1 in the NHL last season. (Consider that Kovalev had more assists on the power play than Thomas Vanek had all season.) Given the inconsistent nature of his career, the potential is there for a letdown in 2008-09. But he's playing for a contract, so we'll believe it when we see it.
We'd also like to mention Mike Komisarek here, because defensive defensemen never get enough credit. And because this kind of size and strength on Long Island is usually reserved for bouncers.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Tomas Plekanec is the choice here, even though there's a chance he could be moved down the lineup after the Canadiens were
kind enough to solve Chicago's crippling salary cap problem traded for Robert Lang. But know this: With the most ice time of his career, Plekanec generated more offense at even strength than either of the Kostitsyn brothers or Kovalev. If he's not demoted down the lineup, expect higher numbers than the 29 goals and 69 points from last season, and more people taking notice.
Honorable mention: Carey Price. He's already becoming a household name for NHL fans thanks to the Hab-tastic Hype Machine, but there's no denying that he was one of the best goalies in hockey during March and April last season. Did the defense in front of him help? Of course. But as a Martin Brodeur supporter, I can't allow that disqualify Price. How many starts can the kid handle this season? That's the question.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Michael Ryder's playing time in Montreal had decreased to the point where the Zamboni was on the ice longer than he was every game. His numbers sucked, the Canadiens had no idea what to do with him, so letting him become Claude Julien's enigma again was the only choice.
The departure of Mark Streit shouldn't hurt this defense. Paying him $4.1 million per season like the Islanders did would have really, really hurt the Habs' salary cap room, however. It's best that Montreal took a different avenue than Streit. (Wocka. Wocka.)
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): A brief interlude, as we listen in on a phone conversation between Montreal head coach Guy Carbonneau and winger Alex Tanguay, acquired over the summer.
"Why were your numbers so low last season, Alex?"
"Mike Keenan used me in a defensive role with the Flames."
"Did you ever try telling him, you know, that you're Alex Fracking Tangauy!?!"
Tanguay-to-Montreal has been rumored since the dawn of man, so to see the left winger on the depth chart now is a fulfilled prophecy. He's a talented offensive player who won't be counted on to contribute much more than the 25 goals and 70-80 points he can provide on average. And with players like Sergei Kostitsyn and Andrei Kostitsyn up front on the top two lines, Tanguay can obviously be just another gear in the machine.
Lang's been an inconsistent player later in his career, but certainly helps at center for a team that, like the rest of known universe, had grown tired of waiting for Mats Sundin.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The addition of Georges Laraque should make two guys very happy: Tom Kostopoulos and Mike Komisarek, who no longer have to exclusively wear the policemen's hats for the Habs. Montreal had 32 fights last season, with Kostopoulos dropping the gloves nine times. Laraque protected the Pens with 13 fights. He's also one hell of an MC, despite the fact that he sounds a little like Ali G with a stuffy nose. And the fact that he doesn't seem to know all the words. Hey, it never stopped ODB, either.
Teacher of the Year: Guy Carbonneau has proven this writer incorrect beyond a shadow of a doubt. Two seasons ago, I felt he was a poor bench manager who didn't communicate well with players. Last season, he expertly juggled his lineup and managed the best total team effort I witnessed for most of the NHL season.
But despite the Jack Adams nomination, he's not Teflon. The expectations are now firmly in place for the this team, and magnified to preposterous proportions thanks to it being the centennial season. His challenges are clearly cut: Manage the psychology of his young goaltenders, continue to work magic with this collection of forwards, continue to have the special teams excel (and improve the penalty killing) and balance the off-ice fanfare this team will receive all season long with the real expectations on ice.
There probably isn't another coach in the NHL that can inspire both jealously and sympathy from his peers.
And honestly, how many of his peers have their own folk song?
The Custodians (Goalies): If trading Cristobal Huet wasn't a mistake, then not trading for a veteran backup in case Price flopped in the postseason (which he eventually did) was Bob Gainey's biggest blunder. It's not outlandish to believe that a Dwayne Roloson type couldn't have had an impact in the Flyers series.
This year, the Habs are in the same situation they were at the end of the postseason: This is Price's team, with Jaroslav Halak as the backup keeper. Again: Price was better as the regular season went on, and both of these young goalies (Price is 21, Halak is 23) are helped immeasurably by one of the better total team defensive units in hockey (12th overall in goals against). Unless Price goes all kinds of Cam Ward on this team, goaltending won't be an issue until the postseason rolls around again.
And hey, if the poop does hit the fan, free agent signee Marc Denis is ready to save the day.
Please recall there was a time we laughed at Ty Conklin, too.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Andrei Markov is the team's work-horse and one of the best two-way defensemen in hockey. His power-play goal scoring jumped after Sheldon Souray's departure, too. There was a little scorn after Roman Hamrlik was basically given Souray's money last off-season, but he was a solid addition logging 23:08 a night for the Habs.
We've sung the praises of Komisarek, but Francis Bouillon can also be a physical presence. Josh Gorges should get more ice time, and Patrice Brisebois returns for what feels like his 35th season with the Habs.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Ross McKeon's high on the guy, but Guillaume Latendresse isn't going to crack the top two lines barring injury, which means his numbers (16 goals, 11 assists) aren't going to increase that dramatically. It's hard to consider his numbers flat-lining until he's given a bigger role to be a "flop." But there are scores of Canadiens fans in love with him because of his fancy French-Canadian name, and some of them could be expecting a little more than 27 points. That'll happen; just not this season.
And again, not predicting a flop here, but will Andrei Kostitsyn take a step forward or be status quo offensively after his breakout year?
In non-MSM blogs, Four Habs Fans can be vulgar, nasty and tasteless, which is why we're mentioning them first. Other Habs blogs we read include The H does NOT stand for Habs, Dennis Kane's Excellent Montreal Canadiens Blog, Lions in Winter, Eyes on the Prize, and HabsWorld.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Besides managing the enormous expectations on the team to succeed this season, I'd say the biggest challenge will be attempting to play the same kind of team-concept defense in front of the young goalies. There's room for improvement, even though they were the best transition team in the conference last year.
And adding another veteran player to that blue line might not be a bad idea either, Mr. Gainey. (Still wouldn't stun me to see Christopher Higgins shipped out at some point.)
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Goaltending: B- (with much room for improvement)
Special Teams: B+
Prom Theme: What else? "100 Years" by Five for Fighting. The lyrics carry no significant meaning, but that's a band with some hockey cred, no?
Expected Graduation: Twist my arm, and the Montreal Canadiens are my choice to come out of the Eastern Conference and play for the Stanley Cup. Which naturally makes Mats Sundin's decision not to be their No. 1 center absolutely maddening. He's someone to keep in mind as we approach December, because the option is still there. Should he come to Montreal ... good luck finding a hole on this team, because a superstar center is one of the only ones.
Price has to be better than average during the regular season, and championship caliber in the postseason. That's a lot to ask of a kid. But it's the centennial, which means it would all be part of the legend that would be written should this team bring the Cup back to Montreal.