Eight completely random thoughts on the shape of the 2007-2008 Montreal Canadiens:
1. Habistani scholars have long theorized the possibility of a Souray-less power play, but at this point it remains purely hypothetical. We have heard that there are power plays out there that do not involve Shelly-jaan. On occasion, some visiting team would show up with something they called a ‘power play’, but generally these were such feeble things that we laughed at the very suggestion that they constituted any sort of meaningful advantage. But now, deprived of that near-perfect slapshot, the question becomes pressing: do we still have a power play? We’re not sure. We are starting to think that maybe when the other team takes a penalty, the refs will punish the offending player with a sound spanking rather than a two-minute minor. Given the way the Habs’ power play looked in the preseason, that might be better for us. But while this is a topic of great anxiety among many Habs-watchers these days, my own sense is that the question is misplaced- the power play will almost certainly be worse than last year, but should find an adequate level. The more important problem is even-strength scoring. The extent to which the Habs relied on the power play for goals last season was beyond pathological, and the reason we’re so worried about the power play is that creeping fear that we’ll barely ever score without it. Which is what we should really be worrying about. A lot.
3. Speaking of which, there must have been some kind of disastrous miscommunication between the Habs hockey operations division and publicity division, because they’ve been hyping young Maxim quite a bit- he appears in the RDS ads with Latendresse, Higgins, and Komisarek, and there’s posters of him all over the place. An odd decision, given that the boy is going to be spending at least the initial part of the season in
4. So last season, defense was a problem. Or more accurately, turning defense into offense was a problem- the team would routinely spend ages caught in its own zone, allowing shot after shot on poor Huet (or even worse, Aebischer), waiting for a stoppage in play and a new faceoff to get back outside their own blue line. The solution to this, apparently, is to acquire as many defensemen as possible and pray that a few of them work out. Even with O’Byrne sent down (not the most popular decision in the world, hockey fans do love their huge and violent d-men), there are still eight defensemen on the roster. Now, maybe Carbonneau is planning to play some very avant-garde hockey and dress four defensive pairs and three forward lines (Question for knowledgeable hockey fans out there: is this allowed?). But barring that, it means we have a real question as to who’ll get time. The #1 pair, Markov-Komisarek, is pretty well set, Hamrlik with his salary is the logical #3, and apparently Bouillon is a lock to keep the #5 slot based on pure ‘heart’ (wherein ‘heart’ is defined as ‘being tiny but nevertheless extremely thwacky’). This leaves Streit, Gorges, Brisebois, and Dandenault competing for two slots- one on the 2nd pairing and one on the 3rd. Now, from my point of view, those spaces should go to Streit and Gorges, respectively. Both played extremely well in the preseason, and both are the smart, well-positioned kind of defenseman that we seem to need- guys who make good passes and don’t get paralyzed into bad decisions under pressure, and hey, they can apparently score from time to time when the need calls for it. But I’m not Carbonneau, who apparently has gone in-fucking-sane during the off-season and has given Brisebois the #4 slot. For the record, I don’t have any particular hate for Brisebois. I wasn’t here the first time around, when he apparently used to go around beating the children of Habistan with croquet mallets (or something like that, given how loathed he is), and I’d generally thought that for $700,000, what possible harm could he do? But the fact is that the man hasn’t played a single real hockey game in all of 2007, he showed up at camp too injured to play most of it, and turned in a lukewarm-at-best performance in his only preseason game. To me, this warrants a nice comfy seat in the press box and the occasional fill-in game if Hamrlik gets a cold or something. But apparently, to Carbonneau, this is deserving of the freaking #4 slot. Now, I’m fairly certain that Streit would do a better job in that place, but honestly I’d even rather have Gorges, or hell, O’Byrne, in that place. The kids might not be any better than Brisebois, but if they struggled, I’d at least be able to tell myself that they were learning from the experience.
5. After insisting that Price would not be played anywhere that he couldn’t be the starter, Gainey turns around and unexpectedly declares that the Goalie-of-the-Future is the Backup-Goalie-of-Today. I look forward to the many lustful shots RDS will show, every game, of the lad sitting stoically at the end of the bench, modeling the wide variety of available Habs-themed baseball caps. Really, there are hundreds of them, he could go all season, not start a single game, and never wear the same hat twice. In utter seriousness, though, I don’t get this. Given that they’ve declared Huet the #1, how does Price benefit from spending the season doing his very best Theodore impression? I suppose perhaps he benefits from being with the team and soaking up the NHL atmosphere, and given how well Huet played when he was nominally competing with Aebi for the starting job, maybe Price’s presence will motivate him to be extra-good. Or maybe Carbonneau is secretly hoping to ease them into a tandem situation. Or maybe- cue the Huet trade rumors- he’s hoping to ease The Expected One into the #1 slot for the latter half of the season. [Dreamy sigh.] Still, I’m a little sad to see Halak go down- I’d grown quite fond of the skinny Slovakian lemur-boy.
6. I am, I think, the only Habs fan still worried about the repercussions of losing Bonk and Johnson. But I’m going to keep worrying about it until proven wrong, and let me explain why. These two tend to be dismissed as acceptable losses by a lot of fans, primarily because they lacked ‘offensive upside’. However, what I can’t forget is how very heavily Carbonneau leaned on them last season. Souray might be gone, but that hardly means the defensive worries are over- most of the forward lines were +/- disasters, allowing more goals than they scored even if you don’t take all the bad penalties into account. A lot of nights, the line with Bonk and Johnson and whoever else was the only one that could be counted on to turn in anything approaching a consistent performance, and Carbonneau relied on that. He relied on those two to shut down all of the Eastern Conference’s most dangerous forwards, and for the most part, they did well at it. That’s not something to underestimate- the ability to consistently restrain Heatley or Ovechkin or Crosby. There’s that hockey cliché, when speaking of goalies who put in a valiant performance in a losing game- “he gave us a chance to win”. Well, from my point of view, there were a hell of a lot of games where Bonk and Johnson were the only thing that gave the Habs a chance in hell of winning, and without them we would have seen a lot more blowouts, squeezed out that OT point many fewer times, and just generally sucked considerably harder. I don’t think that their chemistry or effectiveness will be easily replicated, and if it can’t be, it will require at minimum a serious alteration to Carbonneau’s coaching style.
7. Having been declared The Next Captain by infatuated fans all last season, Higgins gets an A and makes it official. There’s going to be a lot of attention on him this year, both in terms of his game and his leadership. Last season he started out terrifically, only to get sidelined with a six-week ankle sprain, and on his return had serious difficulties getting back into form. And then, of course, there was the clandestine shoulder injury for which he required off-season surgery. Now, of course we here in Habistan have plenty of practice learning to love injury-prone leader-figures, but Higgins is going to be a deciding factor in the Habs success or failure this season, more so than ever before, so here’s hoping he takes his Flinstones™ vitamins and stays off the IR. Furthermore, while he’s always been a great one for a quote (hence his reputation for ‘leadership’ in spite of his young age- in many sections of Montreal, leadership is pretty much considered analogous with giving good quotes), he’s going to have to dish out a lot more of them this year. I look forward to seeing how he handles the pressure.
8. Now seems like a good moment to introduce what I hope will not have to become a regular Theory of Ice feature: The Alexei Kovalev Annoyance Scale. Much like the ongoing Cristobal Huet Absurd Metaphor Contest, this will serve to minimize repetition in the game recaps. There is, after all, only so much you can say about Kovalev: he’s a hypothetically talented player who nonetheless contrives to ruin any affection one might possibly develop for him by behaving obnoxiously both on and off the ice at every possible juncture. So henceforth, instead of merely repeating in increasingly shrill terms how irritated I am with Kovalev 3 games out of 4, I will be tracking my overall irritation level on a scale of 1 to 10. For future reference, 1 (the lowest level), corresponds roughly to how annoyed I am when the bus is late on a very cold winter day and my hair is freezing to my ears and I’m already running late because I slept badly and hit the snooze button 4-5 times too many. 10 (the highest level) corresponds to how annoyed I was with Alexei Kovalev at the end of last season. In the generous spirit of the soon-to-be-early-hockey-season, we’ll give the man a clean slate and start from 0.