For the upcoming 2007-08 season, much of the Canadiens progress as a team will be measured by the growth of a select group of young individuals set to make a permanent mark on the team. What they will achieve individually and together as a group will go a long way in determining whether the Habs truly have Stanley Cup aspirations in the not so distant future.
Their time has come and it is now that they must begin to deliver results. They will each be analysed by numbers, character, and overall performance. In Montreal, character will be the toughest test.
You could call them the group of seven.
These soon to be pillars of Hab destiny are goaltender Carey Price, defenseman Mike Komisarek, and forwards Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Maxim Lapierre.
Many are of the opinion that Komisarek has arrived. Ditto for Higgins and Plekanec. While Canadiens fans have been priveledge to glimpses of greatness by all three, it should be said that they are in reality only half way home.
In Komisarek's case, when opposing coaches shuffle lines to keep their fleetest of foot away from the giant rearguard, we will know for certain that his game has filled out. Near the league leaders in hits last season, the fear has probably already begun. Teamed with Andrei Markov, the duo measures well up against any NHL teams top two D-men who are not named Pronger, Niedermayer, or Lidstrom. For comparison in the Northeast division, only Ottawa with Redden and Volchenkov are superior on most nights.
Confidence is one trait not lacking in Komisarek. His overall game grew by great leaps last season and one can expect more again in 2007-08. With the reliable Markov at his side, Komisarek will see additional responsabilities added to his role. He will be countering every opponants top scorers and best lines, and judging his progression will not be difficult. He will be the beneficiary of major ice time this season, and that fact alone should pay dividends.
Two words that would describe Komisarek well are character and leadership.
I mention those qualities in particular, because they are NOT variables on a Bob Gainey built team. The remaining 6 players of this group all share in this trait.
Chris Higgins was all set to launch into a breakout season when injuries nipped high aspirations. With 8 goals in his first 13 games, out rolled the superlatives in his regard. There were mentions of All Star game nods added to likening his dedication to that of a future captain. For a player who missed a major chunk of the season, and followed up with a maximum effort while still playing hurt, Higgins can surely be described as the real deal. He reminds many seasoned fans of old time hockey players who put the logo ahead of their individuality, sacrificed for the benefit of the team, and rarely used the word "I" when it came to speaking of goals.
Higgins off season workout regimen has been well documented. It is leadership personified and dedication exemplified. He has character to spare and seems to wear the CH on his heart. He has already begun to lead and seems willing to do so loudly.
Tomas Plekanec is a well rounded and dependable second line center who unassumingly brings more to the table than a simple passing glance can catch. Saddled with a free falling Alex Kovalev for the better part of the season, Plekanec still managed to hit the 20 goal mark despite trying times. He blossomed after Christmas, becoming more often than not the Habs best second half player - all while the team was in a tailspin of desperate proportions. For a sophomore centerman burdened with expectation, that is testiment to character and desire.
Plekanec has a multitude of tools that should enable him to enjoy a long career. Tooled and tutored with respect to defensive responsabilities, he posted interesting numbers in only his second campaign. He reminds me all too much of Guy Carbonneau's glory days as a player. Once fully developed, he will be utilized in any game situation. His efficiency runs the gamut from adept work in the corners, smart use of his wingmen, and an intelligent hockey sense that will parlay itself into intuition with time and experience. His leadership and character qualities, being he is a European, will be more subtle, discreet, and quieter to disect, but time will show the impact of his contributions.
Latendresse, Lapierre, Kostitsyn, and Price represent the newest wave of the Canadiens youth corps. While Price stocked up on every imaginable achievement outside the NHL this past season, the other three provided hopes to Habs management and fans of much greater things to come.
The three rookie forwards couldn't be any more opposite from each other in terms of what they bring to the team. Taken together though, all three will become unique and key elements in the Habs team composite starting this year.
Maxim Lapierre doesn't have the benefit of NHL categories that will qualify his eventual usefullness inside the team concept. There are no stats that add up opponants lured into penalties. No totalling of agitated foes distracted from their duties. Numbers of players hearing his constant yapping and players looking over their shoulders wondering what's exactly up Lapierre's sleeve will also never be counted.
Call Lapierre a role player and you will have hit the nail dead on.
He is an irritant pest in the classic Skrudland, Risebrough, and Linseman mold. Every Stanley Cup winning team employs one to full effect.
Unlike a Darcy Tucker, Lapierre can reel in his exhuberance when required. Maxim learned the mandate of his role in Hamilton last season when he was given duties that did not involve numbers and offensive production. Not only did he annoy the living heck out of each line he opposed, he consequently produced and was a major cog in the Bulldogs Calder run. The Chicago Wolves line of Krog, Sterling, and Haydar went missing in the AHL quarter final due to the diligence of Lapierre's line.
Lapierre knows and accepts that he will never be a top two line forward in the NHL. Focusing on exactly what his strengths are, and how to make the most of them inside a team concept are teachable concepts Lapierre is all too willing to learn. Eager role players enable teams to prosper. Having Lapierre around to promote this ideal is an unexpected bonus to the Habs.
Andrei Kostitsyn is a revelation awaiting discovery. Tantalizing peeks into what talent he possesses would make a scout foam at the mouth. Three qualities: size, shot, and skill, define his game. His outcome involves patience, opportunity and the right linemates.
Kostitsyn will take on the on role of a subtle gamebreaker with either of those qualities, in much the same manner a talent the likes of Alex Kovalev does.
( Shit! I heard that moaning groan from you that a comparison to a player like Kovalev elicits. Disqualify the notion of the comparison when thinking that Alex had a free pass to the NHL while our Kostitsyn had to work to get there. Players don't forget learning this stuff.)
In time, options created by shooting and hitting more often, will enable all of his talent to come to fruition. Carbonneau seemed intent on teaching him that using his size opens up his better game. Kostitsyn needs to comfort himself against NHL'ers before he can realize his true potential, and it may require a full season of coaching to trigger that awarenss.
In Kostitsyn's case, character and leadership are best looked at later on. He has so far overcome some predjudices as far as his injury history is concerned. His immediate worth to the Canadiens will be defined by his commitment to a complete game. The jury is sitting on this one.
Described as a power forward, Latendresse is a player of many strengths. Physically, he has the presence and poise to change a game's momentum on the ice, be it with a solid hit, his long reach, or his positioning in front of the net. He's blessed with a heavy shot, and time will render this young blood a very hard player to move off the puck once aquainted with the checkers in the league. Considering that as a 19 year old, facing unfamiliar foes he managed 16 goals in a variety of roles with ever changing linemates, his season has to be viewed as an unqualified success.
Latendresse reminds me of so many great players, many of them misunderstood and underappreciated in the overall scheme of things. The Mahovlich brothers come to mind first, as big players with longer strides who looked slow and lazy on the ice because of their frames. Often they looked like they were coasting due in no small part to their lengthy size. Huffing, pufing, and burning oil, were those attempting to catch them. Like those players, Latendresse might become a difficult analysis at times, but if one judges him by production numbers, team wins, highlight reel moments, and composure in the context of his successes, the big picture of the big guys contribution will be fully appreciated once he is a young NHL veteran.
Brought into the league at such a tender age, Latendresse worked extremely hard at bringing consistency to his game. He studied hard at the Guy Carbonneau School of Defensive Reliability and Positioning and fared well for a greenhorn. While being schooled on so many levels, many new to him, goals and numbers were added bonuses.
What truly impressed me the most about Latendresse's rookie season, testified greatly to the Gainey credo of leadership and character.
Imagine Latendresse's burden, as a native Quebecois, to not only make the team, but survive sanely under the most magnified of spotlights. The Montreal press had lauded Latendresse as a player who should have made the team one year earlier. That press, for all its insight and knowledge, is relentlessly over eager, when pouncing on the prospect of homegrown talent with Les Habitants. The pressure therefore doubled in Latendresse's second camp, and the player did not wilt. What impressed the Habs brass most in the midst of all this pressure, was the players composure and perspective. He focused not on the adulation of a backing public, but on the work ahead.
He made the team based on the qualities between his ears.
Having played in 81 games for Team Pressure as a 19 year old, surely qualifies as defying the odds. Add in that his season was a success on most fronts, and you get the notion that we are dealing with a young man who has his act together. After looking at all of this, within this perspective, it's hard not to agree that there is only upside to what Latendresse can achieve.
I won't offer that the sky is the limit for Latendresse, but everytime I watched him comment after games and personal queries into his psyche as to what he was living through, I got the most chilling of flashbacks.
Latendresse reminds me of Jean Beliveau!
Now before you straightjacket me off to the padded white room and remove my shoestrings, indulge me to explain this most seemingly overboard of comparisons.
It's about demeanor, and not game. Beliveau and Guillaume are as far apart as players as they are era's.
Since being drafted by the Habs, Latendresses has been scoped, prodded, and magnified by the Quebec hockey media in every possible manner. He has handled it with absolute grace, respect, honour and dutifullness. His comments in light of all this madness always revolve around a personal work ethic, a dedication, a quenchless learning need, and a team perspective in light of judging results.
In short, the young man, despite the allures that could tempt him into Theodore-like behavior, has his act together better than many veterans on the Habs.
As for the demeanor of our young stud equalling the great Jean Beliveau's, it all has to do with how the public wishes to see him. There is integrity, dedication, dignity and loyalty in the Latendresse makeup. He seems aware of the public he represents in every word he says. The demands of it hardly rattled him last season. The maturity in which he handled what would make lesser men crack shows that he is aware of his surroundings and responsabilities.
Early in the season, when Patrick Roy criticized Latendresse's promotion to the Canadiens, the rookie placed the cocky Hall of Famer firmly and respectfully with a simple sentence. Then he proceeded to respond on the ice.
We are not dealing with the next Stephane Richer here!
Should Latendresse continue in this demeanor, last and thrive in Monreal, the comparisons will one day be inevitable.
Last, and hardly least, may be the most vital piece in the Montreal Canadiens surge towards Stanley Cup glory.
Since his draft day in 2005, Carey Price, a number five pick overall, was destined to one day become the Habs number one goalie for years to come.
Price, the Calder Cup MVP winning goalie in Hamilton this past year, added to the expectations of Habs fans, by earning every accolade, honour, and trophy in his path since being selected by Montreal.
He has drawn the inevitable comparisons to whom many consider the best goaltender of all time - Patrick Roy.
In Montreal, that would be akin to anointing the next God. Exceding expectations in Hockey 24/7/365 land will do that for a can't miss prospect.
Under such a heavy pile of expectations, Price has upped the ante by exceeding all reasonable prognostications.
I, for one, would name him Canada's male athlete of 2007, without a shred of doubt, should he make (he will) the Habs roster come September and go on to thrive.
Until Price plays an NHL game though, speculation on his future for many remains just that. The next step is upon him, and I believe that the only thing that would return him to the AHL at this point has more to do with the quality of the Canadiens defense than his own showing.
He is in all ways, the Habs best and most complete prospect in regards to potential. His exciting upside is balanced with a cool demeanor. Those who have witnessed his exploits close up tend to pile on the superlatives when it comes to his personal armour and mental capacity to focus.
He's the realest, real deal the Canadiens have had in ages.
All told, the Habs group of seven will be the reason the team prospers this season. In fact, I believe that taken together, what this group will accomplish soon enough, will shed light that the 2006-07 showing was not all lost and wasted.
These players have grown as men, hardened by the notion that one missed opportunity in a season can make or break an entire year. That they will have learned this the hardest way can be a good thing!
I don't usually get too caught up with numbered predictions, but it's excruciatingly difficult not to make some for this group. So here goes:
Komi 250 hits
Price 30 GP 18-20 wins
The prediction I like best is that if this group meets or comes close to these expectations, they will hardly have to claw onto 8th spot come April.
Progress and developement through caracter and leadership. You could look it up on the Stanley Cup!