(Again, these will all be found in the upcoming SportsGrumblings.com free preseason fantasy guide. My assignment was the Northeast division...)
2006-07 record: 42-34-6, 90 points. Fourth in division/tenth in conference.
Coach: Guy Carbonneau
General Manager: Bob Gainey
Home arena: Bell Centre
Despite winning 42 games for the second consecutive season, the Montreal Canadiens missed out on a playoff birth by the slimmest of margins, losing a must-win game on the final day of the season to finish in 10th place, two points out of the eighth spot. The most successful franchise in NHL history has now gone 14 seasons since their 23rd and most recent Stanley Cup victory, easily the longest stretch in their storied history, and have only won three playoff series’ in that time. To say that there is an uproar in southern Quebec would be an exaggeration, but there is certainly unease amongst the faithful fans who long for the days when the Flying Frenchmen would dominate all foes. As they stand right now, the franchise is a mix of youth and experience, one that can compete most nights but overall has been an average club since the lockout.
Yet last year some signs occurred that gave hope to the Canadiens’ fans in the form of an influx of rookie talent that brought a shot of excitement to the Bell Centre and left the team just short in the end. A big question will be whether or not these up-and-coming players will fully develop their game before the older guard on the team is either past their peak or has moved on to other teams. Can the Habs fuse their youth and veterans to propel themselves back into their rightful place in the NHL playoffs?
|Guillaume Latendresse||Saku Koivu||Alexei Kovalev|
|Chris Higgins||Bryan Smolinski||Michael Ryder|
|Steve Begin||Maxim Lapierre||Andrei Kostitsyn|
|Tomas Plekanec||Garth Murray||Tom Kostopolous|
rookies/callups: C – Kyle Chipchura, LW - Mikhail Grabovski
Any discussion of the Montreal Canadiens’ offense must begin with captain Saku Koivu, now entering his 12th season with the Canadiens and eighth as team captain, the longest such tenure in Montreal since Bob Gainey. Koivu has never been a big scorer – somewhat due to his size but a series of bizarre injuries and illnesses have limited him to just three seasons of at least 80 games – yet few players give their all on the ice like Koivu does and is the undisputed leader of the club. Montreal’s other “big name” forward is the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev, in many ways the opposite of Koivu. Where Koivu seems to overachieve, Kovalev – for all the success he has had in the NHL (333 goals) – he has always left those who watch him wanting more. Kovalev flashes world class skills yet has only exceeded 77 points once in 14 seasons. Michael Ryder is their next biggest offensive threat, with 30 goals in each of the last two seasons. This may be Ryder’s swan song in Montreal, however, having reached an agreement for a one year deal that will bring him to unrestricted free agency after this season. If the Canadiens are out of the playoff picture come February, Ryder will be one of the most sought-after players by the trading deadline.
The reason Ryder could be expendable is because of the offensive talents Montreal has in the organization that are ready to assume regular NHL duties, none more heralded and popular than Quebec native Guillaume Latendresse. Fresh off a three year stint with the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior League (where he scored 43 goals in 51 games his final season), the 19-year old Latendresse made a quick impression with the big club last year and was able to keep up with the big guns when he spent time on the first line. Although he only ended up with 16 goals and 29 points, look for Latandresse to have the opportunity to play left wing alongside Koivu and if he sticks, he has the skills to put up 25 goals and 50 points while maintaining a physical presence. Winger Andrei Kostitsyn repeatedly bounced back and forth between Montreal and their AHL affiliate in Hamilton last season but managed 11 points in 22 games while scoring 21 in 50 at Hamilton. 22-year old Maxim Lapierre plays a different style, bringing a high energy two-way game well-suited for checking line duties. These rookies joined a number of other young talents on the roster which include 24-year olds Tomas Plekanec (20 goals) and Chris Higgins (45 goals through his first two seasons), and ready at the minor league level are young offensive prospects Mikhail Grabovski and Kyle Chipchura, providing hope that the Canadiens aren’t spinning their wheels – they’re building for the near future.
Veteran center Bryan Smolinski was signed to a one-year deal; he’ll provide solid defensive play and should chip in 15 goals in any variety of roles. Steve Begin, Garth Murray, and Tom Kostopolous will fill out the third and fourth lines in mostly checking assignments.
|Roman Hamrlik||Andrei Markov|
|Francis Bouillon||Mathieu Dandenault|
|Patrice Brisebois||Mike Komisarek|
|Mark Streit||Josh Gorges|
On paper Sheldon Souray had one of the better offensive seasons by a defenseman in recent history, setting an NHL record for power play goals with 19. His timing also couldn’t have been better, having achieved these totals in his walk year for Montreal, one in which he cashed in for $27 million over the next five years with the Edmonton Oilers. The fact is that Montreal is, or will be, better off not having signed Souray to such a lengthy deal. While his booming shot and constant threat on the power play are definite assets, his defence and playmaking are suspect and for that money the Canadiens would be wise to invest it in future talent. So now the offensive responsibilities will be a bit more spread out, and most likely Andrei Markov will be the primary puck carrier and point man on the power play. Markov set career highs last season with 43 assists and 49 points and was rewarded with a four-year contract. Montreal dipped into the free agent market and signed former number one pick (1992) Roman Hamrlik to a four-year deal as well. Hamrlik has never quite lived up to his lofty billing, but is still an excellent player – a consistent offensive threat from the blueline who doesn’t shy away from contact.
Mike Komisarek will never compete for offensive numbers with Markov and Hamrlik, but will instead provide much-needed defensive responsibilities behind the blueline. Mark Streit would be the third option for Montreal on the power play – in just his second NHL season (after five years in the Swiss league) Streit notched 36 points. Francis Bouillon and Mathieu Dandenault are the kind of faceless veterans that are well-respected by their teammates for doing the dirty work necessary, despite being not nearly as skilled as their fellow defensemen. Veteran and former local whipping-boy Patrice Brisebois is back in town on a one year deal; perhaps without the pressure of being a top-four defenceman he can ease into a supporting role at age 36. Josh Gorges came over from San Jose last year in the deal for veteran Craig Rivet and provides depth but little offence.
rookies/callups: G – Carey Price
In June of 2004, Cristobal Huet was thrown into a deal between the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens that centered around Radek Bonk coming to Montreal. Huet wasn’t on many Canadiens’ fans radar when the NHL awoke from their slumber in the fall of 2005, but he soon made them take notice – the rapid and surprising demise of former MVP Jose Theodore was countered by the absolutely stellar play of Huet as he grabbed the starter’s job, saved pucks at a .929 clip and nearly single-handedly carried Montreal into the playoffs. The 31 year old veteran of the French and Swiss leagues couldn’t be expected to keep up the same level of play last season, but did still play well enough to appear in the all star game. Unfortunately for Huet, his days in Montreal are likely numbered as the Canadiens have two young goaltenders that could carry the team into the next decade. 22-year old Jaroslav Halak was impressive in 16 games after his late-season call-up but the true future star is 19-year old Carey Price. Price was already enjoying a highly successful junior career with Tri-City of the Western Hockey League before he experienced unprecedented success in 2007: he backstopped Canada to the World Junior Championships in January, winning tournament MVP in the process; he then was signed by Montreal and assigned to Hamilton (AHL) where he proceeded to play 22 playoff games where he ended up with a .936 save percentage and playoff MVP. Price will get a chance to win the starting job in Montreal this year but if he fails he will be returned to Hamilton to play the season in the AHL.
The future looks bright for the Montreal Canadiens. With so many young players in the lineup, there is a very real possibility that the team could actually take a temporary step backwards this year but they are on the right track to being a serious contender within three or four years. As for 2007-2008, a lot has to go right for them to move up, and most importantly they need to improve upon their defensive game (256 goals against). A true wildcard, they could either finish a distant 10th or if the youth brigade all take a step forward they could challenge for a middle playoff spot.