I’m nervous. In approximately 17 hours, the first Habs game of the season will begin, and it will count, and I am very, very nervous. I am so nervous that, instead of sleeping as any sane person would be at this hour, I am sitting up and worrying. I’ve been worrying for days. I’ve been worrying about the power play, about even-strength scoring, about defensive lapses. I’ve been worrying about Higgins’ ankles, Koivu’s eyes, and Brisebois’ groin. I’ve been worrying about Price’s youth and Huet’s trade value and Carbonneau’s sanity, and the size of Hamrlik’s contract, and the depth of Plekanec’s potential. In fact, mention pretty much any facet of my soon-to-be reincarnated Habs, and I’ve found some reason to worry about it.
Tell me I’m worrying too much. Tell me to chill out, have patience, have faith. Tell me that things will get sorted out, that whatever problems emerge will be solved with a little time and a little tinkering. Tell me to sit back and enjoy the anything-can-happen optimism of the early season. Please, tell me this, because I’ve tried telling it to myself again and again and nevertheless, I can’t stop worrying. I can’t stop worrying because, last season, the Habs missed the playoffs by one point.
One fucking point.
It’s a horrible cliché to say that “every point counts”. Even though it’s technically, mathematically true, nobody really believes that every point counts. That’s just what people say when they’re trying to think of some reason to care about a late November game against a really boring team. But mostly, what we really believe is that certain points count for more than others. Like late-season playoff-push points. Rivalry-game points. Overtime points picked off a vastly superior opposition. Most of the time, most people in the hockey world value points on a differential scale, that’s what allows us to say things like, “We need to get 5 of the next 8 points!” even at midseason- because we for some reason believe that 3 of those points are expendable, unnecessary. Until your team misses the playoffs by one point. Then, suddenly, it hits you, like a song you’ve heard a million times without really listening to: every point counts.
It wasn’t that last point, the last point unwon in the final game against the Leafs, that really mattered. That wasn’t the point the Canadiens missed the playoffs by, or at least, it didn’t have to be. It could have been any point they lost, all season long. The downside of recapping games is that you remember them, and all playoffs, all summer long, I’ve thought about a lot of missed points, and the various injuries, diseases, bad line combinations, lazy hooking penalties, nervous goalies, panicking defensemen, and internecine backbiting that led to them. I’ve thought about all the many styles of losing that last year’s Habs experimented with on their way to the Big Loss. There are so many ways to lose a hockey game. There are so many ways to miss that one point that might, in the end, turn out to be the most necessary of all.
One point sits on the knife’s edge between hope and despair. On the one hand, hey, we only missed the postseason by one point. That’s close. That’s not complete failure, that’s not abject disaster. That’s not fuck-it-let’s-just-tank-and-hope-for-good-draft-picks. And from a certain viewpoint, I could argue that the 2007-2008 Habs should be one point better than the 2006-2007 Habs were. They’re going into the season with everyone healthy. With Price as backup and Halak waiting in the wings, they’re certainly stronger in goal. They’ve got more defensively-competent defensemen. And while the forward lines lack superstar talent (hell, let’s face it, the entire team lacks superstar talent, except of the hypothetical variety), they’ve got a lot of eager kids with expansive potential who’ll almost certainly end up contributing more offensively than Samsonov did. So maybe it’s not a great leap forward in terms of overall roster quality, but it could easily be that tiny hop forward that will put us into a playoff spot.
On the other hand, we missed the postseason by one point. That’s no margin for error. That’s no cushion, no comfortable assurance of success or even squeaking by. That’s every point counts territory. The best-case scenario is an ocean of ifs. If the important kids keep developing at predicted rates, if everyone of consequence stays mostly healthy, if Kovalev finally gets on those mood-stabilizers, if we can recapture our former power-play glory minus Souray and solid penalty-killing minus Bonk and Johnson… then we’ll be pretty good. Based on all these ifs, there seems to be a general sense of free-floating optimism in Habistan these days- this year, there’ll be no flu, no off-ice melodrama, no Aebischer, and that’ll be enough to make us one point better.
But generally speaking, in hockey, it seems like if it’s not one thing, it’s another, and I don’t have any illusions that the Habs last season suffered either more misfortunes or worse ones than most of the other teams in the League. Some of our problems are unique to this particular environment, but I don’t really believe any of them are far and away worse than the tribulations of any hockey team over the course of a long, grinding season. Last year’s Habs didn’t fall apart in the second half because of worse luck than the rest of the NHL, but because they proved unable to respond effectively to the inevitable setbacks that any team faces in a season. Shit happens. People get hurt. People slump. People throw hissy fits. More importantly, hockey players, and specifically, Canadiens players, do these things fairly often. The teams that are successful in the end aren’t those who get the luckiest, they’re those with the best backup plans when the shit comes down, or those with extraordinary reserves of durability and determination. I would have liked to believe that my Habs had that. I know they showed flashes of it. But in the final, dispassionate accounting, what they had wasn’t quite enough.
And this team, the new and perhaps marginally improved Montreal Canadiens? When I try to divine the future, when I try to make out the kind of team they will be, I can see a huge range of possibilities, from the remarkably good to the achingly horrible, and they all seem equally possible. This is a very different team from the one that began last season. This team is not my Habs, the ones whose powers and limitations I knew in such detail by last April. My first game, the one I generally consider the launch date for my hockey-obsession, the Habs dressed the usual twenty players. Nine of them are gone now. A lot of the turnover gets overlooked, because other than Souray’s departure it wasn’t particularly glamorous, but the raw truth remains that this roster is a very different team than that one was, and I do not know this new team. I don’t know what they’re capable of. No one does, in fact, because they’re not even a team yet, they’re a list of 23 guys whose team-ness, or lack thereof, has yet to be invented.
It’s a list that skews young. It’s the darari, 25 or younger, who are carrying most of the hopes and expectations for the Habs’ success, and that’s a lot of weight to put on guys who are still in their first few NHL seasons. We have, suddenly, a team full of kids, the famous Gainey-plan made flesh, and a team full of kids is a team full of potential. Now, when I say ‘potential’, I want you to bear in mind that when I was 15 people said I had a lot of ‘potential’ and I still managed to flunk geometry, phys. ed., drivers’ ed., and American lit., nearly getting myself kicked out of school in the process. Sure, I turned out okay in the end, but the point is that there’s a long way between ‘potential’ and ‘results’. And we have no way of knowing, when we look at Kostitsyn, Grabovski, Price, or Latendresse, whether their potential is 6 months away from it’s useful result, or 6 years.
For the record, I do have some faith. I don’t know this team, so it’d be disingenuous of me to say I believe in it, but I believe in the parts of it that I know. I believe in Higgins and Komisarek and Plekanec and Latendresse and Huet and Markov and Begin and Koivu and Streit and yeah, even Ryder. I believe that they have ‘heart’, and I believe that they’re tough, and all those other intangible goodies. I believe, in fact, I know, that they will do everything they can imagine, night after night, to make this team better than it looks on paper. I know they will overreach as far as they possibly can. But I also believe that hockey can be a brutally unfair game and that the competition will be just as tough and just as determined. And I know also that, sometimes, the difference between the infinite possibilities of the playoffs and an early summer is just one point.
It begins tonight. 82 games. 164 possible points. It could be a pretty good season for ahbabi. It could also be a very bad season. But I think, either way, it’s going to be a difficult season, another season where every point counts from the first night to the last. It will be interesting. It will be stressful. It will most definitely be worth watching.
But I’m ready.