Much has been made about Bob Gainey's changes this off-season. From optimistic to apocalyptic predictions about the team, it's all fairly inconsequential until game 82. But who are the Montreal Canadiens?
Currently holding an 8-10-0 record, having played as many or more games than any other team in the East we sit in a pretty dissapointing 11th place, and as much as I love this new team, I sometimes have to wonder how much things have really changed.
With our top line of Cammy-Gomez-Gionta, when they're on, as they have been on a few occasions this season there's really nothing that can stop them. They pass creatively, they find the open man, drill shots on net, keep the puck in the offensive zone, score goals and ain't too shabby in their own end.
But what happens when that line doesn't produce like it should. The talent on the top line gives it the potential to be one of the scariest lines in the league, but teams seem to be learning that if you can shut down our undersized, mega-hearted top line, there's not much beyond that.
If we look at the good... and there isn't as much as I'd like to believe there is. Tomas Plekanec has been quietly turning out a heroic comeback campaign from the depths of Coach Carbo's doghouse one year ago. Tied for the team lead with 14 points in 18 games. He's had a revolving door of would-be wingers. None have been able to put up the same compete level that Plekanec does. Plek goes into the corners, he makes room for himself, he makes smart passes and he takes good shots. There was a quote from Guillaume Latendresse a few weeks back when talking about playing with Tomas Plekanec he said "Pleks tells me to get my ass in front of the net and he'll get the puck to my stick." This is a guy who knows how to lead a line.
Unfortunately for Tomas, he's had an under performing winger in Andrei Kostitsyn who's had his head in the clouds since an ill-fated second round date with the Philadelphia Flyers two years ago. There's not much to say about Andrei. Everyone knows what we could have had, but Draft Day remorse afflicts all teams, and now is not the time to look examine the Habs as possibly the worst drafting team in the last 20 years. Andrei looks like he doesn't want to even be on the ice... at least not in a Canadiens uniform.
Glen Metropolit is another one of the few bright spots in our supporting cast this year. 9 points in 12 games, he reminds me of Tom the Bomb, except when Metro gets a chance, he buries it. You can't ask for anything more from this guy, everyone lamented Kostopoulis' inability to put the puck in the net when he had the chance. Glen Metropolit is a massive upgrade.
Beyond these two role players... who else has really been helping us up front? Max and Gui seem to bumble around the ice. I haven't noticed either one since the game against the Bruins. Max needs to do what Max needs to do. He gained high praises last year for finishing checks, being an unbelievable forechecker, being one tough customer in the corners (how many times did he eat up time on the P.K. or keep a play alive by winning a board battle?) and he put in a goal every couple games. None of these things have happened this season. Every team needs a player like Lapierre. His job is one of the more under rated in the league, but the super-pest hasn't ever really been that much of a pest this season...
This brings me to Gui. How many chances are we to give this guy. A player who made the team a few years too soon, he's done nothing. Just nothing this year. Maybe he and Andrei can drift off in a hot air balloon together... maybe it'll land in another city and we can get something useful in return.
Much has been said about how hard Montreal would have it when Andrei Markov went down. They were right. Our defense, while decent most nights, heroic on some nights and simply non-existant on too many already is just not deep enough to compete right now and that is no fault of Bob's. Markov, who is easily a top 5 D man in the East and probably a top 3 was the cornerstone of the D Corps. Ask Michael Komisarek how much he misses Andrei Markov this year with his glaring weaknesses being exposed all over the Toronto blue line. He is a loss that we simply can't replace.
Next up on the injured list Ryan O'Byrne. For all the flak he took last year, this is a guy who stepped it up all throughout training camp and the early season until he got hurt. He was lookin' good. In fact, he was lookin' great. By the last 2 weeks of the month when he's expected to return, it's going to be a huge lift for this team.
That being said, let's not take away from the absolutely heroic efforts of Spacek, Hamrlik and Gorges. Spacek has stepped it up incredibly and seems to be thriving on the challenge of near 30 minutes a game. After a forgettable year last season Roman Hamrlik has been back in form, while not the big hitter we saw 2 years ago, he is a very, very smart defenseman and has been in the right place in the right time. Josh Gorges. Is the man. So much heart, but also... the talent. He knows his job, he plays well, he passes well, cuts off shooting and passing lanes, blocks shots and seems to be a real 'team' guy. He's got to be one of the better kept secrets in the East.
Now. Almost 20 games in, I think it's safe to say that we can no longer say that the team is still trying to find itself. Sure it needs to fine tune here or there, but after this many games, it's no longer an adjustment period. As much as I do feel that with the return of O'B and later Markov will help the team, the team needs to help itself. Secondary scoring. How many years now have we heard this cry for help. While Gionta, Gomez and Cammy are big, big upgrades on Kovy, Koivu and Tanguay. The supporting cast needs to improve as well. If that means a trade, then so be it. It certainly won't come from the draft and the process of mitosis isn't going to seperate Andrei from his anemic play.
Look at all the one goal games we've lost this year (6). How many were lost in the third period. If we could generate some secondary scoring to help offset our hurting defense at least maybe we could get a few participation points. What if instead of 8-10 we were 8-6-4 or 8-5-5. Instead of 16 points we'd be at 20 or 21. Instead of 11th we could be sitting pretty at 5th or 6th. Every team is going to lose at least 30-35 games this year. But if we can lose 8-12 of those in overtime it does go a long way come April.
Size is also an issue. While I'm the first to defend our small team as one that stands up for itself. Look how easily the Lightning simply pushed us around and beat us into submission. We've got heart, but the fact is, almost all of the top 20 scorers in the league are over 6'. Can't argue with facts.
Goaltending... is not an issue. Everyone loves to rag on Carey Price. The fact is, he competes. He often times does not get the same effort from the defense as Jaro Halak. While he has had a few off nights this year (3 come to mind). Jaro has also been shakey in a few starts. The point is. Both goalies are capable. Both are talented, but only one can be our number one guy. And as much as I love shreiking out 'Halak Attack!' whenever Jaro makes a big save or wins a game. My money is on Carey Price to have a real strong campaign this year.
So tonight our boys head into Phoenix where you're likely to find more people at the local movie theatre than at the Arena. They'll try to break a 2 game losing streak and hopefully by game 20 we'll be a 10-10 team.