During the last few days, I've been pondering what the upcoming season will have in store for Les Habitants and I'm going to pre-emptively strike and deliver a late-July season preview (actually most of the major hockey preview magazines will be out in a few weeks and they have pretty much finished their season preview writing as well).
Although I have no proof, (much like a certain gentleman whose name begins with the letter E) my gut tells me Sundin will not be a Hab when all is said and done. I can't see a man who supposedly bleeds blue and white joining a hated rival like the Habs. It would be the equivalent of Saku joining the leafs next summer! I think Mats wants to come back but there is no team that really excites him.
Vancouver- too far west and not a real contender
Toronto- many people see his return as counter-productive and he isn't being welcomed with open arms
Montreal- he would feel like a traitor and have to put up with the media circus every time the habs play the leafs
Unless another interested party steps forward, Mats may just hang up the skates even though it isn't really what he wants to do. If he was commited to retirement, I think this decision would have already been made.
As for other potential additions before training camp, I highly doubt it. I think Bob's best bet is to start the season with his current lineup and then maybe add a piece at the deadline if it looks like the boys are poised for a deep run.
Okay...on to the task at hand.
When Montreal traded away Cristobal Huet at the deadline last year, many questioned Bob Gainey. However, Carey Price seized this opportunity and played great down the stretch, leading Montreal to first in the eastern conference. After a solid first round against the Bruins, the wheels fell off for Price. He looked shaky and unfocussed against the Flyers. Ultimately, he was unable to provide the goaltending required to reach the next level. Factors such as mental and physical fatigue along with inexperince were blamed. As the new season looms, many are questioning the habs decision to go with two young and relatively inexperience goalies and some are wondering if Price is ready to lead the habs to the next level. Memories of fallen hero Jose Theodore still haunt many hab fans. The goaltending situation has the potential to be anywhere from disastrous to a magnificent success. I tend to think that the latter outcome will be more likely to prevail.
PLAYER BY PLAYER
Carey Price has all of the tools to be a franchise goalie. Last years set-back will provide motivation to come back that much stronger. Of course, goalies can be unpredictable and fall from grace quickly ( Jim Carrey, Andrew Raycroft, Jose Theodore ect.) Despite this, I see Carey Price as being mentally strong enough to continue developing as a top notch goalie. He will be the key to the habs making a run this year. If he continues to improve and is able to handle the scrutiny of being the go to guy for the most storied franchise in professional hockey, this could be a great year for the habs. At this point, I'm confident he will prove all of the critics wrong and be among the top goalies in the East.
Jaroslav Halak has loads of potential. Those who see him as trade bait are out to lunch. He will not be traded...this year. Look for him to start between 25-30 games and even push Carey Price at times. In the event that Price is hurt, Halak should be able to keep the habs in most games. The experience he gained a few years ago when Huet went down will prove valuable if Price is slumping or hurt.
Marc Denis is a bit of a wildcard. After being shelled playing for awful teams in Columbus and Tampa Bay, he needs to get his confidence back. Denis has the ability to be a starter again if he can get back on track. Hamilton will be a good place to work on his game. If either Price or Halak go down, it will be comforting having a guy with significant NHL experience to turn to.
Montreal boasts one of the NHL's top group of defencemen. This group is young and durable. Komisarek, O'Byrne and Hamrlik provide muscle. Markov brings skill and finesse. Bouillon and Gorges hustle and scrap for every minute they are out on the ice. If this top six remains relatively healthy, Montreal will not be a fun team to play against this year and the two young goalies will be well looked after.
PLAYER BY PLAYER
Despite a shaky playoffs, Andrei Markov continued to emerge as one of the NHL's top defencemen last year. I would rank him amongst the top 10 rearguards in the league. He's a great PP quaterback and a fantastic puck-mover. His crisp tape-to-tape passes allow the forwards to attack with speed which of course is one of the teams biggest assets. His defensive zone play is above-average and he is a disciplined player who is seldom caught out of position.
Before his untimely injury, Mike Komisarek was having the best year of his career. His punishing hits, fearless shot blocking and improved mobility made him a terror on the ice. He even chipped in a few timely goals. He will be a defensive cornerstone for years to come (sign this guy long-term!) and is a perfect compliment to Markov on the top pairing.
Roman Hamrlik is unspectacular but rock solid defensively. Although he is slightly overpaid, he can eat up big minutes and really solidified Montreal's D last year. With the loss of Mark Streit, he may be asked to step up and play more minutes on the PP this year.
Ryan O'Byrne showed flashes of being a solid defender last year but also had his share of rookie mistakes (on and off the ice). This year he will be given every opportunity to succeed. He will be expected to play a smart and physical game and help make the habs a more physically intimidating team. He is a monster of a man at 6'6 but needs to improve his positioning and foot speed to be more effective. Having Hamrlik as a mentor will be helpful.
Josh Gorges who was considered by many as a throw-in as part of the Craig Rivet trade, emerged as a dependable 5th defencemen last year. He plays the game with heart and determination and quickly earned the respect of his teammates and the trust of coach Carbonneau. Oddly enough, he reminds me of a young Craig Rivet. He's only in his mid-20's which means his best years are likely still ahead of him.
Francis Bouillon is pound-for-pound one of the toughest players in the league. He never backs down from a physical challenge and will even drop the gloves on occasion. He is well-suited as a 6th defencemen and his energy can be infectious. He's the Steve Begin of the defence core.
At this point, the 7th spot is up for grabs. If Brisebois is brought back, it will be his spot to lose. I personally think they should continue the youth movement and let Valentenko, Carle and newly acquired Shawn Belle fight it out for this spot. Dandenault can also play D but I could see him being moved at some point in the year. Depending on how the young guys look in camp, he may be moved shortly after training camp.
Montreal has a skilled and quick group of forwards. The addition of Alex Tanguay should help provide them with even more offensive punch and balance. If the young forwards such as Higgins, the Kostitsyns and Latendresse continue to improve and the veterans (Koivu, Kovalev, Tanguay) meet their potential, the habs should have no problem scoring goals this year. One question mark that remains is down the middle. Lapierre and Chipchura (likely 3rd/4th line centres) will have to pick up their play and allow the habs to confidently roll four lines so that Plekanec and Koivu don't wear down and still have something left for the playoffs. Another area of concern is the lack of size and grit among this group (especially in the top 6). The lack of a true power forward has been a hole the habs have been looking to fill for years. If the habs make a move during the year, it will likely be to add another impact forward (preferably with size) to this group. Of course, the possibility of landing Sundin remains an exciting prospect. I wouldn't hold my breath though.
PLAYER BY PLAYER
Alexei Kovalev finally lived up to expectations last year. He played with passion and emerged as a leader on the team. It was as if he was in the final year of his contract! Well this year he is indeed in a contract year and I expect him to have a comparable year. His amazing puckhandling and laser of a shot make him a threat every time he steps on the ice. If he can stay healthy, expect him to score between 80-90pts.
Andrei Kostitsyn had a breakout season last year. He scored some beautiful goals and really gained confidence as the year progressed. If he continues to progress at the rate he did last year, he should be a lock for 30 goals with an outside shot at 40.
Tomas Plecanek is also coming off his most impressive season to date. He was without a doubt Montreal's best centre last year. He is quick, smart and has great hands. He should continue to improve this year and may even land himself a spot on the all-star team.
Saku Koivu had a few major slumps last year as his line struggled to provide the consistent scoring it was expected to. Going into the final year of his contract, there are many questions regarding the captains future. One thing that can't be questioned is his heart. Koivu is a playoff warrior who always saves his best for last. Koivu will likely be a hot and cold player again this year but if he is healthy and rested when the playoffs start, he will be a force.
Chris Higgins is such an underappreciated player. People who say he has hands of stone are clueless (27 goals is not too shabby). Those who have suggested trading him are beyond clueless. What they fail to realize is that Chris Higgins is the kind of player who does all of the little things. He works hard every shift, skates like the wind, can be trusted on the ice in all situations and is a bull on the puck. He's also started to emerge as a vocal leader and should be one of the key building blocks going forward. He reminds me of a young Chris Drury or Brian Rolston. He's only 25 which means he is 4-6 years away from his prime. He should be a lock for a 30-30 season.
Alex Tanguay is a highly skilled offensive player. After being stuck in Mike Keenan's defensive dungeon last year, it is hard to fathom how he can't improve on last year's paltry (by his standards) 58 points. He will be a nice fit with Montreal's group of quick and skilled forwards. His extensive playoff experience won't hurt either.
Sergei Kostitsyn was a wonderful surprise last year. Although his stats were by no means mind-boggling, he played with amazing poise and confidence considering his age. He demonstrated excellent vision, playmaking ability and defensive zone awareness for such an inexperienced player. He even has a physical edge to his game which will hopefully rub off on big brother. A 20-20 season is a realistic expectation.
Maxime Lapierre is a pest. He is like a wind up toy that you throw out on the ice who doesn't stop moving his feet until he is called back by the coach. Unfortunately, he hasn't quite gotten to the point where he warrants being a 3rd line centre. He lacks offensive punch and needs to stand up for himself a bit more. He'd be better suited as a 4th line centre.
Guillaume Latendresse probably shouldn't have been promoted to the NHL so quickly. There. I said it. Unless I can finish building that time machine in my room, there is nothing that can be done about this error. It seems that Guillaume has gotten a bit complacent and needs to be meaner and hungrier when he is on the ice. He also needs to improve his skating to stay at this level. Hopefully, a summer of hard work has led to improvement in this area. Despite these shortcomings, it is far too early to give up on him. Power forwards tend to develop at a slower rate and are also not that easy to find. Someone needs to sit him down and tell him to start doing the dirty work in front of the net. If he plays a bit more fearlessly he could easily pot 20-25 goals with all of the talent around him. I say give the kid some serious PP minutes early in the season and hope he gets on a roll.
Steve Begin is all heart. How can you not love this guy. He is a solid 4th line penalty killer and guys like this should never be taken for granted. Ideally, he will play 55-60 games and be fresh for the playoffs. It is during this time of year that guys like him are the most valuable.
George Laraque commands respect. Unless your name is Zdeno Chara, you probably don't want to tangle with this guy, which means you better not take any liberties with our top players. This will allow Komisarek to focus on more important things than fighting and allow the other players to play with more of an edge. Laraque will play about 50 games this year and will be a good guy to have in the locker room to keep the guys smiling.
Kyle Chipchura is a smart hockey player with great leadership skills. He may not be the most skilled player or be the smoothest skater but I see him becoming a good 4th line grinder/defensive shutdown kind of guy. Again, guys like him really show their value in the playoffs.
Tom Kostoupolos is a good energy forward who can drop the gloves when needed. He may not win many fights but he always stands up for his teammates. He is also defensively responsible and despite little to no offensive ability, he usually earns his ice time.
Max Pancioretty will likely spend the entire season in Hamilton. It's hard to imagine him making the jump to the NHL this quickly. Then again, the same was said about Sergei Kostitsyn last year. It would be nice to see him get a few games in this year in the event of injuries.
Okay that's it! I hope you enjoyed reading and look forward to any comments. Only 2 and a half more months until the season gets underway. Is everyone as excited as I am?!?