If you’re going to talk about the future of the Montreal Canadiens, remember that year, because that’s the deadline. 2009 will be the Habs centennial, marking 100 years of Le Club du Hockey Canadien. That’s a venerable age for a sports team, especially in the NHL, where many teams will consider themselves lucky to make 10 or 20 years with the same name in the same place. The city is planning to make the most of the moment, not only internally, with a series of jersey retirements (nostalgia goes over big here), but for the hockey world as a whole: the 2009 All-Star Game will be in
By 2009, the Habs have to be a good team. Granted, people in Montreal always seem somehow surprised that the Habs don’t win the Cup every year, no matter how weak their performance, but it is more or less necessary that they win it in 2009, or at the very least look for most of the 2008-2009 season as though they could win it. The problem, of course, is that the Habs didn’t even make the playoffs this year, so Gainey et al. are faced with a formidable challenge, that of transforming a team with a lot of potential and a lot of deep flaws into a real Cup contender in the next 2 years. However, it also in some sense gives them a break, since they have one season- next season- to try to figure things out. Next year is, essentially, a development year- certain problems have to be solved, bad things removed and good things locked into place. The team has to position itself for what will be, quite possibly, the highest-pressure season any hockey team will face in living memory, but fortunately, that season is still one year away.
So bearing all this in mind, what will the intermediary team, the 2007-2008 Habs, look like? I have no idea. Nobody does at this point, for almost everything is uncertain. But am I content to just leave it at that? Of course not! Wild, uninformed speculation is the first duty of every Habs fan during the off-season- what else is there to do? Watch the playoffs? HA! It is to laugh. I mean, of course one watches the playoffs, but the playoffs don’t really matter to Habistanis, for as far as we are concerned, whoever wins the Cup is just keeping it warm for us. Seriously, y’all, we want it back. Soon.
Let’s start with goaltending, because that’s the easiest part. If the future of the Canadiens is solid anywhere, it’s in net. Aebischer has been released to seek his fortunes elsewhere, Huet is under contract for another year and will hopefully come back rested and recovered. Halak showed enough savory goodness in the final run that it’s very nearly a lock that he’ll get the backup job, and probably a little more than that, given Carbonneau’s love of the 2-goalie rotation. The only question mark is Price, in that he’s said he wants to try to make the Big Team at training camp. Still, in all likelihood, the Habs will want him to do a full season as #1 for the Bulldogs- baby goalies are fragile creatures, there’s already a lot of pressure on him, and a disastrous flame-out at the Bell Centre could be terrifically destructive for everyone’s confidence in him (including his own).
Now, defense. Gainey has said that he intends to resign both Markov and Souray, a tricky, expensive proposition that people figured all season he wouldn’t be able to pull off. But the fact is simple: the Canadiens need both of them back. If he can’t resign them, we are firmly in rebuilding mode, like it or not (sorry Koivu). Markov is the team’s smartest defenseman and the only one with really good ‘puck management’ skills, as the popular cliché goes. Plus, he’s a great resource- he elevates the level of his partner’s game, and has been critical in Komisarek’s development. Probably the Habs hope he can play a similar role in the coming years with other rookie defensemen, helping them develop their confidence and their hockey-sense. Fortunately, he seems eminently signable. Reportedly, he likes the city, likes the way the Habs have treated him, and as a youngish guy it’s probably safe to offer him something generously long-term. Negotiations with him have just begun, and according to his agent he’s likely to stay. Of course, this is the same agent who said Ryan Smyth would be staying in
Souray is the greater challenge. Initially, I had thought that losing Souray wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, because he can really be such a horror in his own end. But then I watched the playoffs, and I saw what passes for a ‘power play’ on many elite teams, and I gained a whole new appreciation for Shelly-jaan. The Canadiens’ power play was easily their best asset this past season, and no Souray = no power play. It would be idiocy to give up their greatest strength at this point. However, keeping Souray is going to be harder than keeping Markov, and riskier too. He just came off a record-setting season, so his value is high, and he’s got family incentives to leave. The Habs might well have to overpay huge to keep him, and it’s a chancy overpay, because he is a defensive liability and he’s got a history of injuries. Still, I don’t think they’ve got any choice: give him what he wants and pray he doesn’t turn into Bryan McCabe.
Assuming both Souray and Markov come back, it’s still in the Habs’ interest to try to acquire a new defenseman, ideally one on the Markov model- somebody with ESP and a good transition game. Although the Habs have some good defensive prospects in the system, as far as I can tell, they’re mostly more on the Komisarek model (i.e. big and thwacky). Which is good, we love Komisarek and we love big and thwacky, but probably it would be better to fill this particular gap with someone experienced and tested at the NHL level- it takes a blue-liner time to develop clairvoyance. Possibly Gainey’s thought in acquiring Gorges was that he could fill a more Markov-ish sort of role, the reports on him seem to suggest leanings in that direction, but it very much remains to be seen if he can do it. Anyway, there’s one item for the shopping list: psychic defenseman.
It’s the forwards, though, that will be the hardest part of the construction. The Habs’ offense last season was total crap 5-on-5, in spite of many impressive individual performances and some greater-than-expected development of the younger players. In terms of veterans, they’ve got the problem of having two who worked well- Bonk and Johnson- going UFA, and two who didn’t work at all- Kovalev and Samsonov- locked in to expensive contracts. Gainey said he was prepared to let Bonk and Johnson go, which makes some sense, given that they did constitute a bit of a pricey checking line, and there needs to be some space made somewhere for deserving kids to get more regular roles. However, the 3rd line with them two and whoever else was by far the Habs most reliable piece last season- they did some damn good shut-down work against very tough opponents, and that can’t be undervalued, and moreover, it can’t be replicated with rookies fresh up from the AHL. My guess is they keep one of them, probably Johnson, who is less expensive and making friendly noises about loving
Going up to the top two lines, we get into the realm of serious fantasy. Here’s one: Imagine a center. Imagine a big, physical center with an aggressive play style and a scoring touch. Imagine a center who could play with Kovalev- elite enough to gain the recalcitrant winger’s respect, patient enough to tolerate his idiosyncrasies, good enough keep up with him move-for-move when he feels like showing up, but also good enough to play without him or even around him when he drifts off into his daydreams. And on top of all this, give this imaginal center great leadership skills, superstar status, and a talent for bilingual interviews.
You are now imagining the player that the Habs really, really, really want, more than anything. As far as I can tell, they have been imagining this center for years and years now. Sometimes this fantasy latches on to a particular player, say, Vincent Lecavalier, who is the ultimate object of 90% of Habs-fan trade fantasies, although there are some willing to toss aside the size issue and picture Daniel Briere in the role. But mostly the fantasy is an abstract- the
The Canadiens organization feeds these fantasies, talking this summer about spending huge money to go out and buy a real superstar, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. In fact, I hope and pray they don’t go after
For mine own part, my thought is that for a 2nd line, they could do a lot worse than giving another shot to the Higgins-Plekanec-Kostitsyn trio that was looking so good in the final stretch of the season. They seemed to understand each other well and were good in both ends- fast, smart, great work ethic, and a ton of scoring potential. It might be a blind leap of faith, but no blinder than expecting Briere to come in and save the team’s collective ass single-handed, and probably a lot less expensive as well.
However, if the organization really wants to throw money at a
Kovalev remains a problem. Personally, I rather liked him with Lapierre and Latendresse- don’t call it a 4th line, call it a 2b line or something- but apparently that’s beneath his dignity, so I really have no idea what they ought to do with him. It seems that he demands to play with elite linemates to be happy, but that even happy-Kovalev will probably only show up 34% of the time, and when he shows up he doesn’t always score, so one easily ends up with what the Habs had for most of last season- a line that works 1 night in 4 (or less) and is a total waste of space the rest of the time. I’m thinking that’s not a formula for either a Stanley Cup or a harmonious team-spirit. One rather wishes that Alexei would simply find it in his heart to just do his best wherever he’s played, but oh my, that’s never going to happen, now is it?
One interesting bit to consider is the trade market. The Habs have a deep system, one will more talent than they’re going to be able to develop in the next few years, and it’s possible- likely even- that if Gainey can’t find whatever he’s looking for in the UFA market, he’ll be willing to do that most un-Gainey-ish of things and trade away a few tasty-looking youngsters for the right piece at the right price. Between the willingness to move darari and the need to move Samsonov (and possibly Kovalev as well, though I think that’s more my daydream than a real possibility), I wouldn’t be surprised if the Canadiens end up getting more over the summer via trades than on the open market.
The gigantic question, of course, is who will they go after for any of those three desirable positions [Psychic Defenseman,
So there’s my thinking. Come all ye bored, contrarian Habistanis, argue with me! I know y’all have opinions, most of which probably begin with, ‘E, you’re a total idiot.’ No argument there, but I’d dearly love to hear where I’m wrong and why. We’ve got a long, dull off-season to fill.