Usually towards the end of summer days, hockey fans are hit with a swath of prediction based season preview mags that claim the have their aim on what will and will not be for the coming NHL season. This past September, Habs fans were greeted with the news that their boys were headed for a 13th place finish in their conference - the most laughable prediction I've read in a lifetime of following the game.
Most of these idiotic assessments were based on the Canadiens not being able to replace The One They Let Get Away, when the majority of the same naysayers spent the previous season pointing out his plus minus stat and suggesting we'd be better off without him.
When these major publications put so little insight into their volumes, readers turn to internet sources. And hey, the price can't be beat!
So damn the experts and their cheesy expensive rags full of Reebok ads - here's the real lowdown on what's in store for the Habs. No commercials and all for free!
Comings and Goings, Upside and Downside
We lost a good one in Souray - screw the plus / minus. I never agreed with a stat based purely on 5 on 5 play anyhow. We also lost Samsonov, Niniimaa, and Aebischer, which is addition by subtraction in my eyes. Goners also are the Bonk - Johnson duo, Aaron "faceplant the boards" Downey, and unfortunately Perezhogin, for a total of 8 roster contributors.
Into the mix are Hamrlik, Smolinski, Kostopoulos, Brisebois and a whole lotta good rookie talent.
Where it leaves the Habs is younger, hungrier, and oddly more experienced all at once - not an easy trick to pull. We got younger by purging the dead weigh and replacing it with youth - hence the hunger, and we also gained experience ixnaying some rusty vets for those with some miles left in them.
In all, losing Souray's shot hurts most, but with gains everywhere else the team comes out ahead.
Filling The Souray Gap
This won't be easy, but there can be a transition of sorts on the power play. Moving the focal point away from the blueline blasts to screening the goaltender while setting up plays is the simplest way to compensate. It will take time, but all the remaining PP ingredients can manage.
Patience will be required. Mark Streit will be the biggest beneficiary of Souray's departure and should do well in the role. The Habs may not rule in the same way, and an evolution to better success there will take some time.
All The Improving Youth
There are in excess of a half dozen players on the team capable of improved offensive numbers with increased ice time. If wondering where goals will come from, look no further than the young guys. Plekanec, Higgins, Kostitsyn, Latendresse, Lapierre should all total higher, and Kovalev can't fare worse.
The backline will be tigher, if only for the addition of Hamrlik and the maturation of Komisarek.
Markov will bring his usual dependable game and Streit will be on the blueline for good. The competition for the final pairs should create better play amongst those fighting for ice time.
In goal, Huet should be equal to himself, with either of Halak or Price able to do drastically better than the siv we had for a backup last season.
What Could Make Them Roll and What Could Derail The Train
I see the Habs as finally being poised to score a whole bunch more thanks in large part to actually having a second line threat. The offensive depth this season is much more managable than last year when options were few. Expect Carbonneau to impatiently juggle lines when they dry once again. Only this time, with more polyvalent players, solutions will come easier.
The key players in this coming to fruition will be Plekanec, Kostitsyn, Smolinski to some extent, and perhaps Grabovski, if he's not cut / when he's recalled.
For good fortune to find them - major injuries must not. Should a few of the better rearguards bite the dust, things will get hairy, and fast. The impending free agency cases than are Ryder and Huet cannot conflict with team goals or it could catch rot.
If the wrong player gets doghoused and the noise is louder than the cheers, an impatient Gainey might finally be a good thing.
Without a Samsonov to distract, and a flu virus to subtract, things should evolve as predicted.
The Carbo Effect
Here's hoping a coach cannot make rookie mistakes two years running. If there was in fact an absense of good communication between coach and players last season, it should be remedied and bridged by now by a wiser coach. It only takes a pair of unhappy campers to make dissension run rampant. I believe Carbonneau has learned a thing or two, but the jury is still cautiously out on him until proven otherwise.
Assessing The Habs In The Northeast
I am confident that the Canadiens are equal to or better than last season's edition. The reasons brought forth above sustain that notion. The Habs are building one brick at a time, and the foundation is ready for the process to gain speed.
In the Northeast, only the Habs and Leafs have made subtle to gainful changes, while Buffalo suffered some key loses. Boston are reaching irrelevancy and are headed straight for the John Tavares sweepstakes. Ottawa look to be equal to themselves, but could tire as the year wears down from having played deep into last spring.
With all this, the Canadiens can't help but gain some ground.
Assessing Conference Rivals
While the Habs don't face inter - conference rivals as much, they must be wary of the improved Rangers, Flyers, Capitals, and Penguins teams. Carolina will be better and so should the Lightning. Atlanta, New Jersey, and the Islanders have taken steps back. Florida takes a giant step sideways as usual.
This leaves Montreal in about the same place versus these teams as last season, with slightly less than half the crop being superior to them to start the year.
The Overall Picture
All things taken into fact, I think the Canadiens can get off to a similar good start as they did last season. With more depth, and some lessons learned, combined with just a little luck, they should maintain the pace and clinch a playoff spot with about 5 games remaining in the season.
I see them challenging for top spot in the Northeast with Ottawa and Buffalo for a good part of the schedule. Exterior factors may have as much to do with their own final placing, as the fate their own play decides.
Single points may separate the three rivals in the final count - it could be that close.
Buffalo may not appear quite as strong as last season, but the Sabres have a system rivaling the Habs for young talent. They will get stronger as the schedule proceeds. Ottawa have the talent on the top two lines, and enough leaders elsewhere on the team not to slip too far should they poop out, like I believe they will to an extent. Their sore spot might be the thinning of it's fourth line. The Leafs have two solid, if unexeptional top lines, a trio of very good, if not underachieving defenseman, and a pair of goalies with much to prove. After that it's an AHL rummage sale.
The Rangers (or Pittsburgh) and the Hurricanes are my bets to take their respective divisions, while New Jersey could count an equal number of overall points as the Canadiens.
Should Montreal do no better than third in its own division, this leaves four teams with totals that could be above Montreal's. I think they have the capability to bump ahead of both Buffalo and Jersey, and that would leave them somewhere between 5th and 7th in the East come the real season.
Now drop the puck and steam clean the dressing room - after every damn game and practice!