The difference between the two seasons being five wins and an overtime loss, it is curious that such a slight slip would be such cause for consternation, as befits the perennial Montreal Canadiens magnifying glass.
Five added losses in the big picture, shouldn't be such a big deal
It might be have become a much bigger issue this season had the Canadiens not sat in the top four teams in the Eastern Conference for close to 65 games. But then again, what isn't being magnified out of proportion these days in Montreal?
In the latter part of this campaign, several theories have been tossed and dangled about as to what exactly went awry for a team with such high expectations back in October.
At the top of the list of sensible reasons, lies the fact that Montreal suffered injuries to key players all throughout the season. Leading scorers at the time, Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang, were snuffed out for 30 game chunks. Captain Saku Koivu and rugged defenseman Mike Komisarek missed 15 games each in January and February. Pesty winger Christopher Higgins' 25 game absence overlapped those of the captain. Up and comer Guillaume Latendresse, set to enjoy a career high season, went down in the same retro jailbird jerseys as Lang did, in a February 1 tilt against Boston.
It is only valid that the compounded absenses have an effect over time, not just on thinning out the lineup, but also in getting inside players heads. Team mates see others dropping like flies and their play tends to become tentative. Logically, it is assumed that depth then goes to work, but for a team that suffered so few injuries the season prior, it may have had to relearn to play through adversity when things were aiming for rock bottom.
While such claims sound like an excuse, try trimming four of the top six players from any team, and see what happens!
Once the 1912-13 striped retros had been donned, murmurs began that the numerous centennial proceedings were beginning to wear on players. Perhaps there is a psychological angle that negatively affects a team celebrated continuously, while playing conspicuously bad. Although, other than a bad jersey night, there's not much substance to any argument here.
Often, when good teams begin to slide, personalities and chemistry come into question. In speculation, the media call out player cliques, unhappy, brooding mates, coaching calls and off ice issues, as being at the root of team troubles.
There was much evidence of such on this Canadiens club, but as it often is, small threads were magnified into smokeclouds. There was never much to a so called Kovalev and Koivu feud - it was just that the players concerned felt they did not mesh well on a line together. The two proved otherwise, at a later time.
The bomb that was the Kostitsyn brothers alleged mob ties became an overnight wet petard. As injured players returned, unhappy campers invariably were produced, as roles on the team became fewer. A player unhappy he is sitting is not a bad thing. It is only when there are three or four that it becomes epidemic. Adding to that, when a winning lineup fails to materialize, all sitters grind their teeth and moan.
Through all this turmoil, a coach, by neccessity, begins to tinker with the core of what once was a winning formula, which often only adds to the team sores. Guy Carbonneau, in searching for anything that could work and produce a spark, put his players through a spell of line dyslexia, wherein they showed up at the rink not knowing who their linemates could be for a given game.
After admitting he'd tried and done just about all he could, Carbonneau set himself up for a fall, as all these issues came to head during a devastating western road trip, whose highlight was an afternoon bowling therapy session for the team.
From this lowpoint, came two theories, somewhat opposite in nature, that sought to explain the extended woes nagging the Habs.
The first, targetted the whole of the team, and insisted that it simply wasn't as strong as originally perceived. The 2007-08 first place finish had been a fluke, largely due to the surprise element and the fact that the club played the whole season healthy. The league, it reasoned, now knew the Canadiens well, and prepared better for them. Weakened by injuries, the Habs had become easy prey for teams knwoing how to play them.
Subsitute "league" for Boston Bruins in this. They are the prime team that gained on the Canadiens. Last season, Montreal swept all eight games. This season, the won one of six. There's a story explaining the shift in standings all on it's own.
The second assessment involved the team having 11 soon to be free agents, and the individualism that often arises from larger groups all playing for their next individual contract.
The point was a valid one, and one with a certain history among other teams. The multi UFA woes evidentally hampered the New York Rangers more than once, and now, many said, it had taken rot in the Canadiens room.
On closer inspection, what went on with Montreal may dispell that theory, as many of the veteran UFA players on the Canadiens were having decent, if unspectacular seasons. UFA's Tanguay and Lang, both newcomers to the team, were leading it in scoring when injured, and the timeline of their removal from the lineup precedes the questions arising.
Saku Koivu, before and after he was hurt, was producing near to his usual career points per game average while displaying the consistently delivered committment that is his trademark.
Other UFA's such as Francis Bouillon, Mathieu Dandenault, and Steve Begin made little noise along the way. Begin eventually asked for a trade and received his wish. No rumbles were ever heard from Patrice Brisebois and Tom Kostopoulos - team first players both.
Defenseman Komisarek - the Hab most likely to hit a payday homerun through unrestricted free agency - became a prime exception through no fault of his own. Not having a veteran resume similar to the other UFA's on the club, injuries and uneven play seemed to consume his concentration. Komisarek was a shadow of his former self, and he seemed to be playing as though he knew it. A leader both on and off the ice, Komisarek was a mess on many nights, hampered by a nagging injury and compensating by trying to do too much. It was downright ugly on several occasions. Despite his trials, no one doubts that Komisarek's heart is in the right place. The trouble was, the trouble was between his ears and maybe his wallet.
Last and hardly least, is the always enigmatic Alex Kovalev, the closest player to a full out superstar in Montreal. Adored by fans who can also greatly misunderstand him at times, Kovalev was the exemplification of two extremes this season. Sat out for a pair of games in mid February because GM Gainey felt Kovalev's emotional well had run dry, he rebounded to become the Canadiens best forward down the final stretch. That it took coach Carbonneau's firing to induce it raises questions, but Kovalev's play made much of that a moot point. Whether he'd wish it to be or not, Kovalev takes up great space in regards to almost every aspect of the team. Because of that, as Kovalev goes, so does the team.
Regardless of Kovalev's ups and downs, his 2008-09 campaign has been a fair one. It might not have equalled last season's heights, when all players tagged along for the ride with him, and it surely doesn't fall into the category of a season long lull anything like his 2006-07 disaster. Fans and the organization seem to want him back in 2009-10. Kovalev, by his play, seems to feel likewise.
Beyond all the above mentioned cases for concern this season, lie a group of players who are not yet veterans, but are far removed from being in the rookie and sophomore class. They could be referred to as the second tier core, just behind the veterans in all areas from production to leadership.
They include third year players and beyond, upon whom expectations fell short by a longshot in 2009. The group involves four players, who, if they had stepped it up, the Canadiens season would have played out much differently.
They are Andrei Kostitsyn, 26 goal scorer last season; Chris Higgins, a 27 goal man a year prior; Tomas Plekanec, who scored 29 goals one year ago while centering the Canadiens top line; and upcoming UFA Komisarek, who never quite looked like himself after a career season.
If one considers that the numbers posted by the veteran core were within a reasonable expectation range, and younger players such as Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse continued on an upswing, the responsibility for the Canadiens forward growth was dribbled and dropped by the four named second tier group players.
Kostitsyn has been deceiving, in a Kovalev enigmatic kind of way. Stranded at 23 goals for the final month, he fell 3 shy of last season's totals. On the surface, it was not a calamity, but when so much was expected of him, the result disappoints. Kostitsyn has the talent and size to produce a 40 goal season. It is hard to say whether he has become indifferent, distracted, abandonned, or misused, but Kostitsyn set himself a high bar, and a better season from him would have greatly aided the Habs in their plight.
Higgins is a harder player to evaluate. Often the most energetic Canadien on the ice, it is consistently evident that he cares tremendously for the club's standing. The knock on him as he works hard, is that he sometimes takes on too much, forcing him to work badly. It is quite clear that he rushed his return back to the lineup in that same sense, and in his case, his willingness often personifies his on ice errors. Some think he has 35 goal potential. Others feel his aim should be lower, more akin to a solid depth role player. After counting for 27 goals last season, his 12 markers this year were a huge disappointment, despite his injuries. Higgins always come to play, but the Canadiens missed his expected contribution.
Tomas Plekanec may have been the Canadiens biggest connundrum this season. Expected to lead the top line, Plekanec grooved a funk all year long. The addition of Lang in the offseason may have messed with his center of gravity, as his best games came after Lang was injured. Plekanec enjoyed a hot streak in late February, oddly at a time when the Canadiens team was its most dismal. Plekanec has a bevy of hockey smarts in his crafty tool box, but everyone watching could sense a mental stress in his game.
A restricted free agent among a pool of UFA's, Plekanec replaced instinct with reaction this season, and the hesitancy corrupted the better parts of his catalyst game. His ozone excursion meant that the Canadiens did not find a true top line worthy of the name for 72 games. The subtraction of what was expected of him hurt badly. While he did miraculously manage to hit the 20 goal plateau, his AWOL playmaking skills surely cost Kovalev a better season. And that is where his presense was most missed.
Surely buggering Plekanec and Higgins' seasons, were strong rumours that they were involved as part of a proposed Vincent Lecavalier trade. While it never materialized, their confidence nonetheless seemed shaken.
Much like Plekanec, Komisarek's season was all over the map. It didn't start smoothly, as he was often the one eyesore on the Habs as they won games early in the year. His November injury, oddly, set up his best games. He was solid, and himself again, though a 15 game stretch in which Montreal rarely lost. Hurting his forearm against a divider glass in a game against Ottawa, Komisarek then became a roulette proposition, as he clearly tried to play through the injury. In attempting to overachieve, his play became so askew, it actually looked to be rattling the always calm Andrei Markov. Once the duo were separated, it took some time for Komisarek to settle. To pinpoint, it may even have taken Bob Gainey's return behind the bench to bring it about. Since that time, good performances have outnumbered lesser ones by a larger margin.
In 2008-09, the support roles of Plekanec, Higgins, Kostitsyn and Komisarek were not in evidence. Their segnority on the club as middle veterans testifies to what was needed of them. When it is the middle group of a team that fails together, the trickle down affects both the veterans and sophomores.
True to that, veterans on the club came in slightly below expectations, and sophomores Ryan O'Byrne, Carey Price, and Sergei Kostitsyn had what could be generously termed second year setbacks.
Truly, only Latendresse, Lapierre, goalie Jaroslav Halak (in some games), and defenseman Josh Gorges picked up the slack.
That, in the end, just isn't enough support.
Had the contributions of the four second tier vets been more in line with targeted expectations, the Canadiens easily add 10 points to their season total.
In all honesty, it is difficult to directly point fingers at so few when issues affected so many. Placing direct blame may be even tougher.
Were overlapping issues and concerns a direct result of a handful of key players having off years, or were their performances simply affected by all that surrounded them?
It's a hockey scientist's cause and effect study, with variable scenarios.
Considering all that went on, and went wrong, in 2008-09, isn't it admirable that Montreal even made it to the playoffs?
There are old hockey adages about winning and losing as a team. There are other ancient adages from all walks of life that state the benefits of a fresh start.
The start of the playoffs can sometimes mean a slate has been wiped clean!