It is distressing, albeit I'm not surprised, to find that many a Habs fan are choosing to focus on what failed to happen during this off season, rather than what positives the latest changes can bring.
Canadiens GM Bob Gainey did in fact solidify the team by signing his number one priority, Andrei Markov, and making sound additions by bringing in players of character and experience.
Most are confounded by Gainey's brick by brick method in regards to building upon a solid team foundation, preferring the flash and splash of big free agent signings.
Not that Gainey didn't try, but overpaying for second tier free agents has its consequences. Tying up big dollars long term tends to nulify the grooming of the younger players that is currently underway. The organization has done so well in stockpilling talent at all positions that bringing in contracts that are hard to unload (Hello Kovy!) puts a kink in the purposes of developement. Stunting the growth of such progression is foolish, considering it is absolutely everything the Canadiens have going for them right now.
Looking deeply over what went afoul in 2006-07, one has to realize that certain events are bound NOT to happen again. That in itself is cause for hope. The Calder Cup win is another light in the tunnel. Losing and adversity are sometimes the best teachers when it comes to learning what it takes to win. In Hamilton's case, they were able to learn FROM winning - nothing but dividends there!
In that effect, the Canadiens were seriously schooled in many areas last season, and only positives can come from it.
There are at least a good 10 reasons why one can logically assume the Canadiens will be improved in 2007-08, and none are great stretches of imagination.
In my many assessments of last seasons team, I've often offered that there were three prime reasons for the overall failure of the 2006-07 Habs. They had to do with focus and failures and the unforeseen.
Hardly a Habs fan can attest to knowing they saw any of what was on the horizon 35 or so games into what was until that point, a very inspiring season.
Halfway through the schedule, as Christmas neared and the Canadiens were on a season high 5 game winning streak, all hopes were permitted for a fourth place or higher finish. All the Habs needed to do at that point, was maintain its pace and keep its feet on the ground.
Unfortunately, tragedy and disaster loomed, and when Canadiens GM Gainey lost his daughter at sea, the focus of the team and organization was inevitably shifted and affected. That was followed by the most wicked of flu viruses, so detrimental to the teams health in fact, that it ravaged a second time, lasting until the final days of January, leaving blame and finger pointing in it's wake.
There was also the failure by the duo of Alex Kovalev and Sergei Samsonov to bring their games to anything nearing the excitement that was expected of them. This lead to tension and dissention within the team ranks at a time when what it really needed to do most was bond. Pilled on on top of one another, the unforeseen became all too much for rookie coach Carbonneau to deal with. Without Gainey's needed assistance, the coach and team went freefalling together. With resources dwindling, both mental and physical, the season was hitting a wall fast.
The one variable that could have prevented the disaster was goaltending. After Cristobal Huet went down to injury, the reigns were handed to David Aebischer, and he promptly choked the teams hopes with it. Had he not been so dastardly brutal in perhaps only two of ten games he almost singlehandedly blew, the Canadiens might just have gained that single extra win needed to push them into the playoffs. A rousing effort, led by rookie goalie Jaroslav Halak, was sabbotaged by much of what came before it. He could not afford to lose a single game, and when he did - it was curtains.
In 2007-08, could any of this repeat itself?
With experience and depth added to the roster, things are definitely looking on the brighter side.
Considering that the core of the team is now made up with youth that is quickly gaining experience in games played, the Canadiens will mature more rapidly and progress towards higher goals.
Higgins, Komisarek, Plekanec, Latendresse, Lapierre, and Kostitsyn will all have benefitted from an additional season of experience. They represent one third of the lineup, and we have all seen their potential. Should they begin to put it together all at once, the results will be explosive.
Chris Higgins has the tools to be both a powerplay and penalty killing specialist. A full healthy season will see him score between 35 and 40 goals soon. An injury free season from Higgins produces a better result - point blank. For a player with but two years behind him, he has accumulated a great deal of influence among the younger players. This born leader may well wear an "A" on his jersey sooner than we think.
Mike Komisarek has gained a reputation as a defender no one wants to mess with. As the more subtle elements of his game fill out, he will take on a stature similar to that of Scott Stevens in my belief. Very soon Komisarek ought to play upwards of 22 minutes per game, with the majority of that time being measured against the leagues better offensive talents. He'll hurt more than a few of them!
Sophomore Guillaume Latendresse aquired a great deal of confidence and experience in his rookie season. Here is a young man whose work ethic was rarely in question. Like the two players mentioned above, he brings a hard hitting game with enthusiasm to spare. He will be a leader on the Canadiens one day, as he certainly has been able to show results under pressure. He'll be good for 20 to 25 goals this season. He is a power forward in the making.
Tomas Plekanec was the Habs best player in the second half. Once freed of Kovalev as a linemate, he found his own game while the team was at their worst. Should he continue to prosper in his role, it will be interesting to see what he can accomplish when the team around him plays a sounder game. I believe that Plekanec will hit 20 goals and 60 points this season, which would take the pressure off of Koivu concentrating solely on offence. His continued developement will henceforth be key to helping define roles on the top two lines. The fact that he works as hard in both ends of the rink should result in more ice time than he saw last season.
Center Maxim Lapierre will continue to be a fighter and could asked to play different roles on the Canadiens next season due to the arrival of Bryan Smolinski. Whether he centers a line of his own or wings it, Lapierre's grit and ability to get under opponants skin has few peers on the Habs other than the oft-injured Steve Begin. He was pivotal in Hamilton's Calder Cup win, and his willingness to do whatever it takes to win has made him a fan favorite. Hard workers will always earn a spot on a Carbonneau coached team. Offensive numbers will always be secondary to Lapierre's usefulness in a multitude of roles. With the right linemates, he could notch 12 to 15 goals.
Andrei Kostitsyn seems to have finally arrived last season. For a good stretch of games, he complimented the Higgins - Plekanec duo with confidence. If he continues to use his size to his advantage when pursuing the puck, his abundance of talent will take care of the rest. He may well be the best passer on the Habs - could he be converted to center? Kostitsyn has an above average shot, and he needs to learn to use it more often. The more dimensions this player learns to reveal, the more complete his game will become. He could be the Canadiens breakout player of the year, a revelation of sorts, or he could wilt and become a bust. It has all to do with his shoulders and a final hard stride.
In addition to this youth core, several players in the system are poised to kick down the door to the NHL. There are no shortages of candidates that could provide an additional injection of youth to the Canadiens lineup this season.
Any of Kyle Chipchura, Mikhail Grabovski, Corey Locke, or Sergei Kostitsyn could find themselves in the bigs this year. The Habs seem to be willing to hold a spot open for a rookie should one earn the job. It will come down to work ethic and will be determined by where the candidates fit into the lineup. Each will see some NHL action this year, should their performances warrant it.
Locke may well be the first to be called upon, considering his age and experience. It's high time to give the kid an honest shot, if not so much to see what he can accomplish, but perhaps to showcase it to others should he not fit into the Canadiens plans. Locke will in turn, determine his own fate.
Ryan O'Byrne will play between 20 and 40 games with Montreal this season. For continued progression on the Canadiens backline, someone has to be brought up to push the likes of Bouillon, Dandeneault, Gorges, and Streit. Having an eager kid on the sidelines fights complacency head on. As O'Byrne is the most logical next step in the Habs D hierarchy, anyone not named Markov, Komisarek, or Hamrlik should be giving 100% or be looking over their shoulder.
The known quantities in the Canadiens lineup are an easier assessment. After several years of contribution, does one expect more from veterans or fear for a decline in their contributions and production?
The safe bet is to assume that what these players brought last season can be equalled with a better season in perspective. If one is comfortable in assuming that the teams younger players have grown, we should be equally comfy with the notion that certain vets will be equal to themselves.
I'm speaking of three players, primarily. The first of course being Captain Saku Koivu. It's not unreasonable that he hits for 70 to 75 points as is his norm. Linemate Ryder would again fit near the 30 goal range. Lastly, defenseman Andrei Markov, the new Habs man for all situations, will only get better with increased icetime and duty.
While the Canadiens were killers on the powerplay last season, their 5 on 5 play did them in. With Roman Hamrlik slotted into Sheldon Souray's minutes, the Habs can expect to be a sounder team at equal strength. As for the power play, Hamrlik is no stranger to that role, having been part of the first PP unit his entire career. It would be unfair to expect Hamrlik to equal Souray's record setting numbers, but the balance will play out as he can contribute greater to the penalty kill. In the longer haul, Hamrlik over Souray will be seen as a more subtle upgrade.
Bryan Smolinski will fill Radek Bonk's role and then some. He'll add spit and grit, sweat and shoulders, as well as leadership to the task. Bonk was a positional defensive player who would rarely dare to over - commit himself with a hit. Smolinski will drop anyone looking anywhere near beyond the play.
Mike Johnson was an honest and decent forward for the Canadiens last season. As a role player, the more invisible he was, the better he was doing his job. He was perfunctionary until the new year, and then I found he slowed down a step. Checks I expected him to finish, became wider turns back into the defensive zone, or towards the goal. He was a careful player, but he never struck fear into an opponant. His game became poise, rather than puck pressure. Tom Kostopoulos, a little known Western conference player, will add to Johnson's role. He brings pestulance, grit and grime, quietly without fuss. He'll essentially do what Sean Avery does with the Rangers, without commotion or grand gestures. He will irritate and drag opponants off to the penalty box, and you will have to rewind the game tape to understand why.
Do I need to explain that either of Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak is an upgrade over the "I've got the pin, where's the grenade" goaltending style of David Aebischer? Didn't think so!
With the free agent signings of Hamrlik, Smolinski, and Kostopoulos, can a Sergei Samsonov scenario be envisioned?
While on the notion of difficult to handle Russian talents, can Alex Kovalev possibly be less concentrated and effective than he was last season? He will have much to prove, we all hope. Should he sour again, he will be quickly snuffed out in the same luggage manner as Samsonite was late last season. Should he become unproductive and destructive, he'll be generously paid to shut his yap.
The sum of all these upsides has much to do with the straw that stirs the drink - namely coach Guy Carbonneau.
I'll catch hell for admitting this, but I didn't disagree with much that Carbonneau did last season.
I balked at his panic choice of Huet over Halak in game #82, that was about it! That scene won't be replayed this season.
He stayed true to his nature by rewarding those who worked hard while admonishing those who failed him with decreased roles. While many may preach for a wiser and more open minded Carbonneau, I wish him better character players. There are 13 Stanley Cup rings shared amongst the Gainey - Carbonneau - Jarvis - Muller foursome.
Fans and Habs afficionados thinking they know more about building a team than these four are fools.
As a Canadiens fanatic, I'll place my trust on the side of youth and character. Let the Canadiens continue to build brick by solid brick.
Flu shots, anyone?