September 16, 2009
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy (See also the classic Habs Eulogy): Eighth in the Eastern Conference, second in the Northeast Division (41-30-11, 93 points). Worst. Birthday. Ever.
On the ice, the Montreal Canadiens went from a team some picked to win the Stanley Cup to a ramshackle collection of underachievers with varying degrees of failure: From statistic regression in players like Tomas Plekanec(notes) to the sophomore washout of Carey Price(notes).
Off the ice, it was like Bret Easton Ellis authored a hockey novel. Accusations that they partied too hard. Star players sent home due to mental anguish. Other players entangled with an alleged drug trafficker before having their names cleared ... although the damage was done.
The Canadiens' centennial season went from being a hell of a year to a year in hell, costing Guy Carbonneau his job and thousands of fans the benefit of sight thanks to their throwback sweaters.
So what did GM Bob Gainey do this summer? Hire Jacques Martin as his head coach and flip half the roster in one of the most dramatic sports renovations in recent memory. Will it work?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): The overhaul began on June 30, when the Canadiens shocked the hockey world by trading forward Chris Higgins and defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko(notes) to the New York Rangers for winger Tom Pyatt(notes), defenseman Mike Busto and some dude named Scott Gomez(notes) whose salary will count $7.357 million against the cap until 2014.
Then came the splash on free-agent frenzy day: Buffalo defenseman Jaroslav Spacek(notes) for three years and $11.5 million; Pittsburgh defenseman Hal Gill(notes) for two years and $2.25 million; Mike Cammalleri, one of the most sought-after forwards on the UFA market and not just by Brian Burke, for five years and $30 million; Gomez's former linemate in New Jersey, the diminutive Brian Gionta(notes), for five years and $25 million.
Nine days later, the Habs added tenacious Sharks forward Travis Moen(notes) for three years and $4.5 million, as well as rugged Rangers defenseman Paul Mara(notes) for one year and $1.675 million. Finally, the Canadiens signed goalie Curtis Sanford(notes) to a two-way contract later in the month.
So yeah, it was a pretty busy summer, and not only for the players arriving.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): The list of unrestricted free agents the Habs let go in the offseason reads like an all-star team, which underscores just how dramatic this makeover was. Mike Komisarek(notes), considered by some to be the best defensive defenseman in hockey, left for a five-year deal from the hated Leafs. Saku Koivu(notes), the team's maligned captain, departed for Anaheim. Alex Tanguay(notes) twisted in the wind before ending with Vinny Lecavalier in Tampa.
In perhaps the most dramatic divorce, the Habs said goodbye to Alexei Kovalev, who signed with the Ottawa Senators and before sparking a rally outside Bell Centre urging the Canadiens to reconsider their decision not to re-sign him. About 100 people showed up, which is about three for every game Kovalev showed up for last season.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): As the dust settles around this roster, it's Mike Cammalleri that's clearly the top offensive weapon. His contract year with the Calgary Flames was, statistically and impact-wise, his best in the NHL: 39 goals and 43 assists, skating with Jarome Iginla(notes). Yes, he's undersized (5-9 and what's listed as 185), but his level of competition more than makes up for it. As for his offensive game, we turn the mic to former Flames coach Mike Keenan:
"[Cammalleri] seeks out offensive positioning well ... I had another player that was particularly good at that -- Brett Hull. Goal scorers can find those seams."
Perhaps best of all: He's averaged 31 power-play points a season over the last four years.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): The time has finally arrived for Guillaume Latendresse. He had 26 points in 56 games last season, but all signs point to his having an increased offensive role this season; perhaps playing on the second line with Plekanec and seeing more power play time than the 1:31 he averaged last season. He's got the size (6-2, 230) and the skill; it's just a matter of finding the consistency. If he does, there's a chance he could finally do the unthinkable: Scoring more goals than he has letters in his name.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): What's the Russian word for disrespect? Andrei Markov's(notes) best offensive season as an NHL player (12 goals, 52 assists) wasn't enough to crack the top five in the Norris voting. He led the Habs in ice time (24:37) and quarterbacked the power play with 39 points. Best of all, the brief Internet meme that featured him, Alex Ovechkin and an $1,100 strip club bar tab was finally debunked.
Josh Georges played with Markov last season, and could assume a full-time partnership after Komisarek's departure. Gorges also played some with Roman Hamrlik(notes), who had 33 points and averaged 21:54 TOI last season. Hamrlik saw time with Ryan O'Byrne(notes) as well, who played 37 games last season without scoring a goal for the Habs but scoring one for the Islanders.
The additions of Spacek, Mara and the USS Hal Gill complicate things in a good way for Montreal. Mara and Gill are plodding, physical defensemen. Spacek was the Buffalo Sabres' best defensemen for two years running, even if he produces more turnovers than a bakery oven when pressured in his own zone.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Sign all the free agents you want. Trade for as many big contracts as you want. Reconfigure the roster all you want. The fate of the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens comes down to Carey Price, and that's either a frightening or hopeful thought. It sure isn't a comforting one.
Price's sophomore slump began when he wet the bed against the Flyers in the 2008 postseason, and it continued into last season when Price's game (23-16-10, 2.83, .905). got progressively worse as the Canadiens did. He allowed 15 goals in four games against the Boston Bruins in their first-round sweep of Montreal. His Patrick Roy impression to the Canadiens' faithful was one final indignation in a season full of them.
Accusations that he was partying too hard and the pressures of winning in the centennial season combined to derail and distract the young netminder. This season, Price will have a more favorable system in front of him and arguably better personnel on the blue line.
Few players are going to feel more pressure to rebound in 2009-10; does Price have what it takes to survive that pressure in his contract year?
The Inventor (The Coach): Jacques Martin has a few things on his plate. Like figuring out if the chemistry and discipline issues from last season's flop are out the door with half the roster gone. Like attempting to find chemistry with the dozen or so new faces in the room. Like figuring out if he's going to be the defense-oriented coach he's been during his time with the Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers, or if he will encourage defensemen to join the rush more often as he's already threatened.
The bottom line: Can Martin bring structure to what was a rather structure-less team last season? And will Canadiens fans revolt if that structure features roughly $30 million in offensive talent winning 2-1 games?
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B (Middle of the pack last season, with the power play set to improve.)
"What to expect? Fifty-thousand ‘Smurfs' jokes from opposition fans, and a press corps and fan base that will give this entirely rebuilt team a honeymoon period of roughly half the first period of the season opener versus the Leafs."
"What do I expect? A team that won't implode with a lead in a series, within games or in the standings. While this year's team doesn't feel like a quantum leap ahead of last year's team, I think the way they get to 95-100 points this season will be a lot less frenetic, a lot more conventional. I think we'll be able to thank Jacques Martin and veterans who have won this decade for that. More one goal games, more two game winning streaks, more system; less player-driven game plans, less 25 shots against periods and less controversy.
"One question, I suppose is 'After being spoiled with back and forth games and controversy, how will us media and bloggers cope with just plodding on?'"
"What to expect from this year's Canadiens? I expect lots. I expect Carey Price to have grown mentally five years over the summer. I expect help for Price from his defense. I expect fire-wagon hockey from small-yet-skilled forwards. I expect our tough guys to be tougher than other teams' tough guys. I expect Montreal to make everyone eat their words who predict the team will end in eight or tenth spot, or worse, in the east. I expect them to win. It's not in a Habs fans' makeup to think otherwise."
"Habs GM Bob Gainey - the cleverest of the clever when he wants to be - went all goofy on us in the offseason by spending over $100 million of the Molson family's money in a 24-hour span to bring in a slew of free agents and a reclamation project in Scott Gomez.
"But that spending spree was a smoke screen because the biggest determining factor for how the Canadiens perform this season will be the play of Carey Price, plain and simple.
"That should be the focus as the season begins, but because of all the changes made to the team, it isn't. I told you that Gainey fella' was pretty clever.
"I predict a fifth place finish in the conference, but anyone who tells you they know exactly how this chemistry experiment will work out is a liar."
"Judging by Northeast Division competition, the Canadiens will again be most concerned with the Bruins, and depending on the unforseen they could challenge for top spot in the East. The talent and grit on the Canadiens is aplenty, but the work ethic will tell the tale. Variables such as adaptability to opponents and injuries to key players could once again damage a fragile team psyche. Should the Canadiens start strong and all the chemistry experiments work out, they will be better insulated and confident for what will be long and interesting season."
Don Draper Says ...
"Well, that's just it. The whole safer cigarette thing is over. No more doctors. No more testimonials. No more cough free, soothes your T-zone, low tar, low nicotine, filter tip, nothing. All I have is a crush proof box and a Montreal goalie with a 3.11 goals against average in the playoffs."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): The size issues for this team are overblown, even if Canadiens forwards are going to look like pinballs against defensemen like the Leafs' bangers. The chemistry issues are not overblown: Overhauling this roster as Gainey did is a risk. Ask the Lightning about wholesale changes in the summer.
But the biggest issue is Carey Price, plain and simple. He regains form behind the revamped defense, this is a playoff team. If he doesn't, the bubble bursts no matter how good the new recruits play.
Warranty Expires (Prediction): Barring an epic failure in Gainey's reassembling this team, the Habs are still better than the Senators, Sabres (though it's close) and Leafs, but not as good as the Bruins. They'll be a playoff contender that, in stark contrast with last season, will be more exciting on the ice than off it.