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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Habs face big test in Pittsburgh

It is hump day, today, and with their 4 and 2 home stand behind them, and a Halloween home tustle against the Leafs ahead of them, Montreal prepares to take on the defending Stanley Cup champions Penguins, in Pittsburgh.

After an 11 game segment that has seen some many highs and lows, Montreal seems to be hitting their stride. Yes, the only 'real' test they have faced so far was Saturday nights 5-4 overtime win against the Rangers, but in today's NHL there is no such thing as an 'easy' game. If, however, one could look at Monday's game against the Islanders as a supposed 'gimme', then tonight's game against Pittsburgh is exactly the opposite and Montreal had better be ready.

The Pens are having none of the supposed Stanley Cup hangover that many teams go through in the following season. Their core of young players is as energized as ever and seem to be getting better every game. Hey, when you have Crosby (22) and Malkin (23) leading the pack, it is not surprise that this team is roaring out of the gates.

As for Montreal, the first 11 games have shown a bunch of individuals that have learned - and continue to learn - how to play as a team under the new Jacques Martin system. There have been some bumps in the road and many growing pains but now, after almost a month of play, this team is starting to take shape and I, for one, am eager to see how they fare against this dominant Pens team.

The encouraging signs, of late, have been that Montreal has tightened up their play without the puck. Whereas in the first 4 games, Montreal allowed about 144 shots against, they have kept their opposition to 166 shots against for the following 7 games. That is an impressive turnaround! It shows that the players are buying into and understanding Martin's system, and it is one that protects the slot, keeps the opposing team to the outside and reduces chances against, and for the moment at least, it seems to be working.

Another encouraging sign, of late, has been the contributions for players not named Cammalleri, Gomez or Gionta. In the past few games, players like Moen, Metropolit, Spacek, Hamrlik, Lapierre and D'Agostini have been showing up on the scorebored and playing hero. This is well needed secondary scoring on a team that relied far to heavily on the 1st line for too many games. The important thing is that that trend seems to be changing, and just in time too because there is no way Montreal would have ANY chance on the road, if their 1st line was the only one scoring. The opposition, having the last line change, would simply load up against and try to shut down Gomez, Cammalleri and Gionta. Shut them down, and the Habs don't score.

Now, however, with the scoring staring to be spread across the line up, Montreal has a fighting chance on the road. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Cammalleri riding shotgun on Plekanec's wing at some point tonight. Those two seem to have some magic together and with this new and improved Tomas Plekanec - he has got to be the early season candidate for most improved player - leading the charge, they might be able to do some damage.

With the forwards starting to round into form, and Hamrlik and Spacek getting more and more comfortable playing together, this might be a team that can hang on to a playoff spot until Markov comes back, in January/February. The thing I like the most, however, is that Martin is playing Halak. While Price is still the future of this team, I feel that a large part of the reason for him not progressing as quickly as we would like, is that he is not being challenged. Since Price arrived in Montreal, Gainey has inexplicably given this kid the soft seat. He has continually handed the starting role to Price and never made him earn it.

Ok, I agree that Price is extremely talented and should become an elite goaltender in the future, but if that is the case, then let him prove it. You can't make it so by willing it. You can't force it to happen by throwing him in the net, game after game, when it is clear he is not in the right head space - a la last season.

To his credit, Price has played well this season and Montreal doesn't get the first two wins of the season without his stellar play. While Price wasn't to blame for the subsequent 5 game slide, he simply didn't make a lot of key saves when the team needed him to. Halak, on the other hand, is doing precisely that, since he has been given the reins, and Martin - assumingly with the permission of Gainey - is letting him ride it out. This, to me, will ultimatley benefit the team as it will force Price to earn his spot as number 1 on this team, for this first time since Gainey traded Huet away. And, all things being equal, I believe that if they make it a fair fight between Halak and Price, that Price will win out because he simply has more raw ability.

So getting back to the task at hand - Pittsburgh - the thing that worries me is the sustained forecheck that they will heap on Montreal. If there has been one troubling sign, over the last few games, it is that the team seems to have a lot of difficulty in their own end when the opposition team forechecks aggressively and keeps on the Habs d-men. What seems to happen, is the Montreal's 'system' falls apart a bit. The team starts running around in their own zone and eventually leave their sentry posts, out of desperation, trying to get the puck out of the zone. What this does is open up room in the slot - which is usually well protected under Martin's system - and this often results in a strong scoring chance from the high slot, if not a goal.

We saw this defensive zone breakdown for a few sequences against the Islanders on Monday and on Saturday against the Rangers. With all due respect to both of those teams, Crosby, Malkin, Staal and the like, represent a much more tenatious forecheck and higher skill level than the Isles or the Rangers, so Montreal has to be on top of its game to prevent Pittsburgh from steamrolling them.

Win, lose or draw, tonight's game will be another, bigger, measuring-stick game and I for one am looking forward to seeing how this team fares against such a formidable opponent!

Enjoy the game!

K.

There's something about Sergei....

Ok, let me start by saying....WTF????!!!?! What is going on with Sergei Kostitsyn? This saga is developing into a drama the likes of which Bill Shakespeare would be proud of. But seriously, wtf? He comes to camp and acts like a punk so he gets demoted to Hamilton. Then he refuses to report to Hamilton and gets suspended by the Habs. Then he changes his mind, reports to Hamilton and get 4 points in 5 games. Then yesterday, he randomly decides that he no longer wants to be a part of the Bulldogs, and he goes AWOL, again, and is suspended by the team, again. Now, in the latest twist to this soap opera, Bob Gainey had a face-to-face meeting with Sergei, last night, and Sergei has now decided to once again report to the Bulldogs.

Man, you can't make stuff like this up! Its like Oprah being fat, then skinny, then fat, then skinny again. Make up your mind, dammit! Speaking of NOT being able to make this up, the Kostitsyn situation is almost as unbelievable as this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeWqtu-Pt2E(link to a commercial for a bail bonds company in Las Vegas. I saw the commercial when I was down there a few weeks ago)

Now THAT is unbelievable....but I digress.

So Gainey, seemingly, talked some sense into Sergei and has gotten him to go back to Hamilton. I guess the normal question that follows is, what did Gainey say to Sergei to get him to return to Hamilton? From where I sit, there are only two scenarios that make any sense and they are as follows:

Scenario #1: Gainey wants to recall Sergei to Montreal
In this scenario, Gainey would have sat down with Sergei to explain to him that he should report back to Hamilton because the Habs were on the verge of recalling him to Montreal. Sound ridiculous? Maybe. But maybe not, too. If you look at the Habs, there is no question that they are having trouble putting the puck in the net. Beyond the 1st line, there really hasn't been much of an offensive spark to speak of. While Plekanec had played great in all of the games so far, Andrei Kostitsyn looks lost out there and the third spot on that line has been a rotating door of players; MaxPac, D'Agostini, Latendresse, Moen. Sadly, no one has claimed that vacant spot and it is showing on the ice. The second line simply does not have enough meat to make it a legitimate threat night in and night out.

His attitude aside, there is no question that Sergei K is more NHL ready than either MaxPac or D'Agostini. As such, he would be much better suited to that open wing spot on the 2nd line.

If Gainey was planning on bringing Sergei back to Montreal on the 2nd line, I believe that that could be enough for Sergei to get his butt back to Hamilton. Its like, buddy, we were, and still are, planning to call you up to the big club. You're putting up points in Hamilton and getting quality minutes. Keep doing that. Keep pushing to get back to the player you were two seasons ago, and within a week or so, you will be back in Montreal. We just want you get your game back, that's all.

Scenario #2: There is a trade that is imminent
In scenario 2, Gainey has been working on, and is close to finalizing, a trade that would send Sergei out of town to another NHL team. This, to me, is the more likely scenario. I think that given his attitude problems, that Sergei would respond better to a "we are trading you so go back to Hamilton" rather than a "we are going call you back to Montreal, so go back to Hamilton" speech. Plus, Montreal is definitely in need of some kind of shake up.

While it is true that it is still early in the season, what is becomming apparent, is that beyond the 1st line, Montreal doesn't have much scoring prowess. If, as the rumours are saying, Montreal is looking at shipping the Kostitsyn sisters...errrr...I mean brothers, to LA for Frolov then I believe that this is a scenario that would please Sergei.

Now, I don't know that this is what Gainey is planning, but, trying to get into Sergei's head a bit, I figure that a trade is the option that would please him the most. Plus, IF Gainey made that trade, Montreal would immediately be deeper and have a much more balanced attack. Check it out:

MaxPax ?? - Gomez - Gionta
Frolov - Plekanec - Cammalleri
Moen - Lapierre - Latendresse
D'Agostini - Metro - Laraque

I'm not entirely sure of who would go where on each line, but you get the point. In my estimation it is becomming more and more clear that Gainey needs to make a move to inject life into our second line. If he does this, while getting rid of the Sergei K headache at the same time, then we are looking at a win-win situation for all.

Sergei, in a new environment, will surely develop into the player that he should be, just like Ribiero did when he was traded. While it would be sad to see that happen to us, again, he is just not working out in Montreal and this might be our only option.

Whatever does happen, I feel that Gainey's time is up and that his contract will not be renewed after this season. But that is a topic for another post!

K.

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 2 - Avs 3

Ugh. This was the closest Montreal has come so far, in this young season, to playing a full 60 minutes. However, sadly, they decided to take the 2nd period off and as a result ended up losing the game. Yes, both Colorado goals were lucky bounces, butt hey resulted from work. They simply out-worked Montreal in the 2nd and were rewarded with two lucky goals. Here are a few observations:
1 - Price played a solid game, which was nice to see, because I think the jury is still out on whether he is ready for prime time yet, or not.
2 - Tomas Plekanec was the best Canadien on the ice, and maybe the best player for either team. He played aggressive, went to the net, took checks to make the play, won faceoffs and created offense. Nice to see him playing like he did two seasons ago!
3 - Welcome back Andrei Kostitsyn. The older of the Kostitsyn brothers seems to have taken his benching - from the final period of their game against Edmonton - to heart and responded with his likely best game of the year.
4 - Montreal does not have enough offense. I know, I know...it is early....this is only the 6th game of the season. That is all true, but if there is one thing that seems to be taking shape, it is that Montreal is not - at least not yet - a high scoring team. To their credit, they haven't yet played enough games for us to know what they really play like, however from what I am smelling, they just look like a team that doesn't have the horses. They look like a team that is a fringe playoff team. Montreal needs to have a solid second AND first line. When Gomez, Cammalleri and Gionta are on the same line, good things happen. But there is no question that they are small. In the last minute of the game, when Montreal needed a goal, that line tried, but was often pushed off of the puck.

Again, I know it is still early in the season, but I think that this team is going to have a tough time this year. WITH Markov, they look like a fringe playoff team. Without him...who knows.

How good would Patrick Sharp and/or Cam Barker and/or Brent Seabrook look on this team right about now? You know Chicago needs a goalie. Let's see what Gainey does, as the season progresses. This, in my opinion, is his last kick at the can, so you would think that he will pull out all stops. To be continued....

K.

Post-game quick hits: Habs 4, Toronto 3 (OT)

HOCKEY!!!!

Sorry, I had to get that out of my system.

:-)

Just like all of you out there, I am incredibly happy to be able to watch a hockey game that counts. I'd love to say that it was one for the ages...a classic that will go down in the annals of hockey history and which we will be talking about for years. Unfortunately, that was just not the case. While it was enjoyable, you could tell that this was a match between two teams that are trying to find themselves.

Even though they lost, the Leafs completely outplayed the Habs. The Habs looked disorganized and uncoordinated for most of the 60+ minutes of the game. I guess that is to be expected and Habs fans out there should not overreact to the terrible play of our team. It is gonna take a little bit of time for this team to jell. Keep in mind that we DID win, even though we played like crap!

It wasn't all bad, however, as there were a bunch of bright spots in this game.

1 - Price was outstanding, from start to finish. He is only reason that Montreal got ANY points in this game, let alone two!
2 - Ryan O'Byrne has arrived. He looks confident, is hitting people, making that solid first pass. Nice. Very nice.
3 - For all the talk of Toronto being a physical team who would beat up and intimidate the Habs, it just didn't materialize. Sure there were fights. But Montreal went toe to toe against Toronto. Montreal answered to Colton Orr with George Laraque - which was pretty much a tie, We had Moen against Komisarek, and generally speaking out-hit Toronto. Good to see that this team can hold its own.
4 - Komisarek looked nervous, was thinking WAY too much, was trying way too hard and ultimately ended up costing his team the game.
5 - Gionta is a star. I think of all of the new aquisitions, Brian Gionta is going to end up being the biggest fan favorite. He is fast, he is responsible in the defensive zone, he scores goals and he demonstrates leadership. What more could you ask from a player?
6 - Tomas Plekanec looked great out there. Good for him! Now only if his linemate, Andrei Kostitsyn, could wake up.

Ok, that's it for now. Montreal grabbed two important points and they have time to figure out the chemisty, which is good because you can tell that they need it!

One potentially bad note: Markov left with an injury in the third period. Let's hope it is not serious.

So what do you all think about the game? Good? Bad? Loved it? Hated it?

K.

Edmonton? Chicago? Who else would want Sergei Kostitsyn?

Let me start by saying, "I called it!" re: the Sergei Kostitsyn situation. Hooray. Nice for me. Ok, enough patting myself on the back...

After being demoted to the AHL but a) refusing to report to the Bulldogs and b) requesting to be traded, it appears that Sergei 'lil-punk' Kostitsyn's time in Montreal is over. I can't say that I am sad about it but definitely disappointed, as there is no questions that Sergei is a talented player. But, like Mike Ribiero and Mikhael Grabovski before him, his bad attitude will mean that he will have to ply his trade with another NHL (or KHL) team.

So this begs the question of who in their right mind would be interested in Sergei Kostitsyn. While he has shown flashes or top-6 talent, he has also shown that he has a serious attitude problem. This fact is only exemplified by his refusal to report to Hamilton. I mean think about it...if I am a team in the NHL that is possibly interested in Sergei, I know that he has already refused to report to the AHL. So I would imagine that if he signs with my team, I have to play him in the NHL or he will react the same way. So why would I want to take that chance on a sulky, unproven player?

On the surface, and in a sane world, there is no reason why any team would take want acquire Sergei with all of the baggage that he comes with. But if there is one thing I have learned, it is that NHL GM's aren't always sane. Moreover, there has got to be at least a few NHL GM's that would take a flyer on a 22 year old player who has a lot of potential upside. You figure that someone is going to think that a change of scene might help Sergei become a great player. No?

If you think about it logically, the only two places that come to mind are Edmonton and Chicago. Why? Well, Sergei Kostitsyn put up over 130 points, a few years back in Junior, playing on a line with Patrick Kane (Chicago) and Sam Gagner (Edmonton). You would think that the GM's of both of those teams will at least consider the idea of bringing Sergei to their team given his past history with those players. Edmonton might be excited to get him just for the simple fact that they seem to have a hard time getting players to sign with their team. By trading for Sergei, they wouldn't have to worry about whether he wanted to come to town or not. The only problem with that logic is the Edmonton just waived Robbie Schremp, who is a more talented Kostitsyn-type player. So that seems unlikely. I think that out of the two teams, Chicago might be the better fit for a whole slew of reasons.

Chicago, as most people know, has some horrific cap issues going forward. Both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Towes are RFA's this coming summer and will take a lot of money to resign. That, plus the huge Marian Hossa contract, mean that Chicago will have no choice but to free up some cap space at some point between now and next summer. Sergei Kostitsyn is only making 850K US a season and even though he is also an RFA next summer, he hasn't had good enough results in the NHL to earn anthing more than a neglible raise, at best. So, his cap friendly contract would work well for Chicago.

The speculation has been that Patrick Sharp and/or Brent Seabrook and/or Dustin Byfuglien could be moveable parts. Not necessarily because Chicago wants to move them, you understand, but more because they have to move someone. They just don't have a choice but to part with some of the good players they have acquired.

The other issue with Chicago is that Huet just doesn't seem to be good enough. Sure he can be a steadying force in the nets and he puts in some great efforts, but he has shown that he is not the guy who can carry a team in the post-season. I believe that Chicago will have problems with him this year and will be looking for an upgrade in nets.

Montreal has Halak as Price's backup. Halak is also going to be an free agent at the end of the year, and I think that there is NO WAY he will finish the season in Montreal. Starting last year and continuing in training camp, Halak has shown that he is likely capable of being a #1 on some team somewhere. That being said, it is clear that Gainey has chosen to live and die by Price and as such, it would seem logical that he will trade Halak before the end of the season.

Another piece that might be on the move, in Montreal, is Tomas Plekanec. He was great two years ago, bad last season and is waiting to exhale, this year. There is no question that he has talent, but there is a lot of questions as to whether he is a legit #2 center. Also, Montreal needs to upgrade one of their centers if they are ever going to become a contender and with Gomez's horid contract, he isn't going anywhere! Finally, Plekanec signed a 1 year deal in the off season meaning that he will be a UFA at seasons end. This all smells like a "let's see what you can do this year, and if you can't do anything I'll trade you before the deadline" type of situation.

So, to sum up, Chicago needs cap room, needs better goaltending and will have no choice but to move some players at some point this year. While Montreal has an expendable goaltender, needs an upgrade at the center postion, and has a talented but bad attitude-ridden player to move who had incredible chemisty, in the past, with Patrick Kane.

Hmmmm.....sounds like a match to me.

All of this is of course conjecture and even if these two teams did do a deal, there is no way to know who would be involved nor which players would go in which direction. That being said, there is no doubt that, on paper at least, these two dance partners seems like a good fit. Only time will tell whether they just glance at each other from across the room or gather the courage to ask the other to dance.

K.

You got slapped! Wake-up call comes early for S. Kostitsyn.

Back in August I wrote a blog about Sergei Kostitsyn entitled 'Sergei Kostitsyn: Superstar or Superbrat?'

Here's the link, FYI:
http://habsaddict.blogspot.com/2009/08/sergei-kotitsyn-superstar-or-superbrat.html

In this article, I talked about how I wasn't sure how or where Sergei fit in the lineup of the 2010, Canadiens. How he seems like he has top-6 skill, but he has minor league attitude, and that this was ultimately going to be what determined his fate. I also wrote that when, this past summer, Sergei was quoted as saying that he believed the only reason he was sent to Hamilton, last year, was because of his off-ice scandal, that he might be in for a rude awakening come training camp.

Well, Sergei, your alarm clock has just gone off...time to wake the f--- up!

As per the Habs press release, dated Sunday September 27th (http://canadiens.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=500052&navid=DLMTLhome), Sergei has been sent down to Hamilton and I can't say that I am surprised. After missing the beginning of camp due to injury, missing the team bus from Ottawa to Quebec City and being singled out as a yelling target, by head coach Jacques Martin, during training camp, this is probably the best thing for him.

When I saw Jacques Martin giving Sergei hell for not following the system, I was happy to see that, finally, we had someone in charge who could provide some discipline for our young team. If you think about it, that was the biggest problem with the 2008-2009 Montreal Canadiens...discipline. Guy Carbonneau was simply too lenient and too much of a nice guy on a team filled with twenty year olds. Guy needed to be harder on them, sometimes, in order for them to truly reach their potential. Unfortunately, Guy's coaching style was one that pretty much let the players do what they wanted. When the team was winning, he looked like a genius. But when they were going through tough times, the lack of disipline showed.

When Carbonneau tried to discipline them, it didn't work out and they ended up resenting the coach. I'll never forget that Western swing game in Vancouver, where Price did NOT get the start, because he had been playing like crap. It was Price's home province and he was upset that he didn't get to play in front of his hometown crowd. Halak got the start that night, and deservedly so. Maybe this would be a lesson that Price could learn from. Maybe he would learn that you have to work to get what you want, in this league. That everything isn't just handed to you. That maybe if you work a little harder on the ice, you'll get everything you want.

This theory was working until Carbo, the eternal softie, decided to let Price play the last ten minutes or so of the game. With that he undid any potential learning that Price might have had. Its just like that Simpson's episode where Bart gets sent to his room with no dinner, and just as he is realizing that his parents mean it for real this time, Homer sneak in and gives him some pizza. It totally undoes everything!

But I digress....

My story about Carbo, above, was to illustrate how there was discipline missing last season which, I believe, was at the heart of all of the off-ice antics. Out of all of the undisciplined players, Sergei was definitely at the top of that list, on and off the ice.

Sadly, my thoughts about Sergei, during the summer, have come true. He seems like he came to camp still thinking he was the king. Still thinking he was untouchable and that his place on the team was guaranteed. Well, unfortunately, Sergei never bothered to read Jacques Martin's bio. While he is known as a defense-first coach, he is also known as a person who does not tolerate BS. He is the boss and it is his way or the highway.

Jacques Martin showed, during his years in Ottawa, that he can take young, talented players, and turn them into stars. This is exactly what was missing, for the past few years, in Montreal. We have a young talented team but up until now, didn't have anyone who could mold them from behind the bench. As such, I have to give Martin the benefit of the doubt with Sergei. Let's hope that this is the wake up call that he needs in order to become a great top-6 forward. Let's hope Sergei doesn't turn this into an opportunity to sulk. Let's hope he doesn't turn around and demand a trade.

Only time will tell how Sergei responds to this demotion, but you've gotta think that Martin knows what he's doing. Let's hope that Sergei agrees with him!

K.

5 Keys to Habs' Season - Part 5 - Carey Price

This is part 5 of 5 in this series, and I just want to thank everyone for the feedback and emails! The support and feedback, whether negative or positive, is always appreciated!

So without further ado....

Carey Price
When Carey Price was drafted, 5th overall, in the 2005 NHL entry draft, a lot of people were unsure as to why the Habs grabbed this kid. As good as he was supposed to be, Montreal had Hart and Vezina trophy winning Jose Theodore in nets, and there didn't seem to be any good or convincing reason to draft a goalie. That year, however, Jose showed everyone his true colours, and that was those of a one hit wonder. In that light, the Price pick started to look better and better.

Theodore or not, Price started to show that he was a thorough bred, almost immediately. While cut from the Canadian World Junior team in 2006 - with whispers of him having a bad work ethic - he adjusted his play and attitude and came back to steal the show in 2007 by being named tournament MVP and backstopping Canada to their third straight gold medal. From that point on, Price's rise was meteoric.

From the World Junior Championships, Carey returned to his junior team, the Tri-City Americans. After their season was over, Price immediately joined Montreal's AHL affiliate - the Hamiltion Bulldogs - where he led them to a Calder Cup victory, in the playoffs, and earned himself another MVP award.

There was no question, that Carey Price, the prospect, had arrived.

During the Habs 2007-2008 training camp, Price seemed like a bit of an outside shot at making the team. He seemed good during camp and, more importantly, Gainey seemed intent on seeing him in NHL action. As such, he stayed with the big club as Cristobal Huet's backup. However, by the mid-point of the season, it was clear that he was in the process of pushing Huet out of his job.

When Huet was traded at the deadline, none were too sure if it was the right time or if they should have waited until the summer, before crowning Carey as the starter, in Montreal. But, sure or not, he got the job. After an up and down 1st round series, against Boston, Price, and the Habs, ultimately fell to the Flyers and sailed into the off-season with high hopes for the 2008-2009 season.

Well, without rehashing it all, we all know how disasterous the 2008-2009 NHL season turned out to be for Montreal and for Carey Price. After a great first half of the season, Carey managed only 7 wins through the back nine. His, and the teams collapse, can be summed up when the crowd mocking Price's routine save with applause - during their 1st round sweep by the Bruins - where Price responded with a Patrick Royesque salute to the crowd. Ouch. What a bad, sad, depressing ending to a season that crashed and burned more dramatically than the Hindenburg!

Fast forward to now, September 2009, and the 2009-2010 NHL training camp. Price is saying all the right things and seems to have a much better more grounded attitude. He knows that last year was a disaster, but he also knows that, at 22, he has likely learned some very hard lessons very early. This experience should only help him that much more in the future.

Why he should succeed
Price has shown, to this point in his career, a tremendous ability to bounce back from adversity. When he was cut from the 2006 World Junior Team, people were saying that he had the skills but lacked the work ethic. Well, he came back, in 2007, with an adjusted attitude and work ethic, and stole the show.

During the 2008-2009 NHL season, I believe that Price fell victim to the same mistakes, from his past. Not only was he enjoying life off of the ice a little too much, but he wasn't putting in the time and effort he needed, on it. That, in my opinion, is a recipe for disaster.

While there are a ton of things that have to go right, this year, for Monteal to have successful season, Carey Price is right at the center of it all. He is the key cog in the Habs wheel and as such, this team will only go as far as, or do as well as Carey Price does.

In order for Montreal to have a successful season, Carey has to put up at least 30 wins and play a minimum of 60 games, this season. With Jacques Martin at the helm of a defense first team, and a bulked up, more stable blue line corp in front of him, I believe that Price should have no problem hitting those numbers. The ancillary effect of Prices success will be the redundancy of Jaroslav Halak, who, I believe, will not finish the year in Montreal.

If, however, Price cannot get into a groove this year, and he continues to skid all season long, I believe that will spend the end of the Bob Gainey era in Montreal.

Let's hope that Price thrives and Gainey lives to fight another day. If they do, this is gonna be a fun year to be a Habs fan!

Oh, one last note, on Carey. He has a tell, in the poker sense if the word. The more you see him playing the puck, the better it is for the Habs because he tends to do so when he is on his game and feeling confident. When he is off his game, he tends to retreat to the saftey of his net.

Enjoy the season all!

K.

5 Keys to Habs' Season - Part 4 - Andrei Kostitsyn

Back again, and in the home stretch with part 4 of 5, in this series.

Training camp is in full effect and the new look Habs hit the ice tonight against Florida, in Montreal. Gomez asks Lapierre if he thinks it will be a sold out tonight.

Hehe.....good one Scott. In a few short hours, you will experience, 1st hand, what it feels like to be a home boy in the largest capacity building in the NHL. Enjoy!

Ok, on with it then...

For Part 4, in the continuing series on the keys to Montreal's season, I turn my focus to Andrei Kostitsyn. Ah Andrei, Andrei, Andrei. Where to start? So much talent, such a perfect package of skill and size and yet, for some reason, you have yet to truly deliver on your top notch potential. Will this be the year? I certainly hope so!

Andrei Kostitsyn
When he was drafted, 10th overall, in the 2003 NHL draft, a lot of experts were saying that he was actually the most skilled player in the draft. They were also saying that the only reason he didn't go higher was because he had epilepsy. Well, Montreal swung for the fences and grabbed him in the 10th spot, that year. Since giving him the proper medication, Andrei's epilepsy problems were a thing of the past and he was able to turn his focus uniquely towards hockey.

Over his first two seasons, with Montreal, Andrei Kostisyn combined for a total of 24 games, 3 goals and 11 assists. While these are not significant numbers, what is significant is that we saw some flashes of pure brilliance from the Belarussian during those years.

The 2007-2008 season represented the first real breakout, for Andrei, playing in 78 games and racking up 53 points (26 goals and 27 assists) to go with a plus 15 rating. That was, not coincidentally, the same year that his linemates, Kovalev and Plekanec, were putting up some of their best career numbers too. Andrei was cruising, and looked like he would fulfill his potential of becoming a 30-40 goal scorer.

Last year, 2008-2009, was unfortunately a step back for most of the young Canadiens players and few were as evident as Andrei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn's downfall started when he got knocked out by Kurt Sauer, of the Phoenix Coyotes, early in the year.

Once he recovered from his concussion, Kostitsyn never returned to true form. It seemed that while his head might have been physically healed, mentally he had work to do. Kostitsyn started avoiding the high slot, kept to the outside and became completely ineffective. Except for a few stretches where he looked like his old self - which is why he still managed 74 games, 23 goals and 28 assists - Kostitsyn effectively became a perimeter player.

Kostitsyn's game is barrel into the offensive zone, off of the rush, with speed, and creating goals and scoring opportunities. By checking himself, mentally, out of the scoring zones, Kostitsyn confined himself to a grinder's role, which is not a job description becomming of his talent level.

One of the worst parts of his 2008-2009 season was that he was no longer effective, playing next to Kovalev. Where as the two had complimented each other so effectively the previous year, last year, Kostitsyn seemed lost playing on the same line as Kovalev. As soon as Carbonneau would put Kostitsyn on a different line, he would start to excel again. Unfortunately for Kostitsyn - and perhaps for Carbonneau - the coach didn't seem to stick with that formula and Andrei was never able to get into a rhythm. Mix all of that on-ice turmoil with his and his brothers' off-ice troubles, and you had one severely sub-par season.

Why he should succeed
Andrei Kostitsyn is without a doubt an incredibly talented player. He is built like and ox - as he demonstrates sparingly with punshing bodychecks - has top flight skating ability and can dangle, at speed, with the best of them. What is missing from his game, in my opinion, is that mental edge that puts him over the top. Kostitsyn is projected as a 40 goal scorer in this league and likely a 65 - 80 point player, but he has yet to put the whole package together and show what he can do.

So far, in training camp, it looks like Andrei is pencilled in on the 1st line next to Gomez and Cammalleri. This means that he is essentially being given the first shot at that 1st line winger spot. It is his spot to lose.

I think that with all the turmoil he went through, on and off the ice last year, that Andrei will come into camp a little wiser and a little more mature. The bumps that he suffered last year should only serve as a stabilizing force for him this year.

Playing on the top line with the best passer on the team, and the best sniper on the team should give Kostitsyn enough ice-time and talented enough linemates to complement his style. If the experiment works out, I can see Andrei cracking the 30 goal mark, this year - maybe going 30 - 30. He has the skills and he has the ability, all he has to do is pull it all together, on the ice, and grow up a little off of it!

K.

5 Keys to Habs' Season - Part 3 - Mike Cammalleri

Greetings all! Hope eveyone is enjoying my take on what I believe the Habs will need in order for them to have a successful year. For part 3, in this series, I turn my attention to our shiny new sniper, Mike Cammalleri.

Mike Cammalleri
For a few years in a row now, there has been talk of Gainey fishing for three players around the league; Vinny Lecavalier, Patrick Marleau and Mike Cammalleri. I remember reading, a few years back, that Gainey was trying to pry Cammalleri out of L.A., at the deadline. But, as with most of the trade deadlines under Gainey, everything went up in smoke. However, where there is smoke, there is fire and I can only assume that going into the 2009 off season, Cammalleri was firmly in Bob Gainey's sights.

As most people know, Mike Cammalleri had a career year, last year, playing along side Jerome Iginla. Mike put up 82 points, while playing 81 games, to the tune of 39 goals, 43 assists. Nice. Very nice. So nice, that it seems that Cammalleri had four or five teams bidding for his services when free agency started up. But Mike ended up choosing Montreal - even over his native Toronto - as a new starting point for his career.

While there is no question that Cammalleri represents an excellent addition up front, there are constant whispers of doubt largely focusing on him having Iginla as a line-mate. But is the criticism valid? Can he reproduce the outstanding results of his 2008-2009 season in calgary? Was Iginla the only reason he was a standout, last season?

Let's take a look at the facts...

Mike Cammalleri's NHL career started, in L.A., during the 2002-2003 season - in which he played 28 games and put up 8 points. His first breakout season came in 2005-2006 where he played 80 games and put up 55 points - on a mediocre L.A. team - with 26 goals and 29 assists. The interesting part of his points total, was that he scored 15 goals and 19 assists, on the powerplay, accounting for 61.8% of his total points. Clearly, this kid was a bit of a powerplay specialist.

The following year, playing on a TERRIBLE L.A. Kings team, Cammalleri truly established himself by playing 81 games and putting up 80 points (34 goals and 46 assists), with 16 goals and 21 assists on the PP - accounting for 46.25% of his points on the pp. While his number of points on the pp increased only marginally, his even strength point total sky-rocketed. Mike Cammalleri had arrived as a legitimate 1st line sniper.

In 2007-2008, Cammalleri had an injury plagued season and only played 67 games (47 points - 19 goals and 28 assists). He was never really able to find his rhythm and as such people started wondering whether he was for real, or not. Last season (2008-2009), playing in Calgary, Cammalleri returned to the 80 point level and showed the skeptics that he was an elite forward. This did not silence his critics, of course, as the whispers followed him all the way to Montreal.

Call me crazy, but I don't think his success in Calgary was solely because of Iginla, and I also do not think it was an abberation.

Now, armed with a brand new 5 year deal, Mike Cammalleri is out to show the world that he truly is worthy of his contract. He has heard the doubters talking about Ignila being the only reason for his 80+ point season, and I believe that this will only motivate him further.

Why he should succeed
Mike Cammalleri is a player that has been challenged at every level throughout his career. He has been told he was too small, that he couldn't be an elite player, that was was carried by his line mates, etc, etc. I tend to think that Mike Cammalleri is a good player and one that can elevate the play of his line mates. I feel that he is the real deal and that the added motivation to 'show people' will only help in propelling him over the 70 point hump again.

While I don't know if he will necessarily be a point per game guy, I see him being in the 70 - 85 point range with 35+ goals. Cammalleri is the best sniper on the team, as of now, and will likely line-up next to Gomez. Cammalleri needs someone who can feed him the puck, and Gomez has shown that he can do that so that combination should bear fruit.

In addition, I see Cammalleri being a huge catalyst on the Habs' 1st powerplay unit, this year, and racking up a ton of points. If, however, Cammalleri cannot get back to the 70+, and ideally 80+, point level this year, his huge contract is going to become the latest albatross hanging around the Habs' neck and will bring down any hope of success, for the Habs, this year.

K.

5 Keys to Habs’ Season - Part 2 - Tomas Plekanec

So, continuing in my 5 part series on what will (or won't) make the Habs successful this season, I want to start off by replying to one of the comments from my last post. In my previous post, I had said that I define the Habs' success as finishing anywhere between 4th and 8th, in the East. The poster, 'flamminghead', wondered why not 1st, 2nd, or 3rd? Well, the answer is that OF COURSE that would also be seen as a successful season, and a very successful one at that! But, I guess for me, if the Habs finish in the bottom four or five spots, I consider that they have had a successful regular season, given that I am not 100 sure about this line-up yet. If, however, they manage a stellar season and finish in the top 3, that is just gravy!

Ok, on with the show.

Tomas Plekanec
Continuing with the theme of centers, Tomas Plekanec needs to step up his game. During his last four seasons with the Habs, Pleky has played 311 games, went 78 – 106 – 184 for points, and is an overall +20. Not bad. Not bad at all. Especially considering that he was a 3rd round draft choice. Up to, and including two seasons ago, Plekanec had gotten better and better each year.

I remember three seasons ago when it looked like Plekanec was going to be centering a line with Kovalev and Samsanov, and Pleky wasn’t too sure about the entire situation. I remember reading quotes from him that he hoped they didn’t expect him to lead, and that he would be following them and that, generally, he seemed to be lacking confidence and was kind of intimidated by his line mates. That was Pleky’s third year with the Habs and one in which he ended up being one of the biggest surprises on the team, after Christmas. I remember him having one of the strongest finishes of all of the players on the team and he carried that success into the following season.

The following year (2007 – 2008), the Samsanov problem was gone, as he was no longer with the team, and the thinking was that the Canadiens should be better, without that distraction. Well, right out of training camp, Pleky had confidence in his game. He seemed to be over that psychological hump that came from playing on a line with Kovy. He seemed ready to do some damage and maybe have a breakout season. Well, 81 games later, he put up his best showing yet going 29 – 40 – 69 and plus 15 for the year. Not coincidentally, Kovalev put up 84 points for his second best output in his career. But make no mistake, Plekanec’s confidence was the biggest reason for the success of that line.

When the playoff’s swung around, however, Plekanec disappeared. As the big bad Bruins leaned all over the smaller but more skilled, Canadiens players, Plekanec refused to go into the high traffic areas, on the ice. This made him a perimeter player and completely neutralized him - and Andrei Kostitsyn for that matter. The fall from grace, for Plekanec, was highly disappointing to Habs fans, who had such high hopes for the playoffs and for Pleky. But there was no question that he had become a shrinking violet. It was during those playoffs that he was quoted as saying the he was playing like a little girl. While I thought his quote was hilarious, I also thought that it was the sign of someone who was being honest with themselves. Hopefully, Pleky would be able to carry that over to the next season.

Well, the next season – last year – came and went, and while Plekanec remained aware of his shortcomings, he continued to fall short of his capabilities. He was, for most of the season, a perimeter player. He seemed snake bitten, unsure of himself and like a player who was thinking too much. As such, the second line was never able to jell and produce on a regular basis. Tomas took as step back, last year, finishing 20 – 19 – 39 and was a minus player (-9) for the first time in his career. If Plekanec can’t find that consistency and confidence that made him a key cog in the Habs wheel or success, from two seasons ago, this will ultimately end up being another up and down season for Montreal.

Why he should succeed
While Plekanec has scored 20 or more goals in each of the last three seasons, and has played at least 80 games in the past three seasons, he needs to be a more consistent performer for the Habs to be successful. He is currently penciled in as the 2nd line center, behind Gomez. While he lacks the ideal size of an elite NHL center, Plekanec more than makes up for it in speed and skill. He showed, two years ago, that he has the ability to be an elite second line center, in the NHL. In order for Montreal to have a successful season, they need to have the top two lines producing on a regular basis. From where I sit, Plekanec is the key to that second attacking unit. I predict a bounce back for Plekanec, this year. I am not sure what the line-up will look like but would not be surprised to see Cammalleri on his wing. Having a proven finisher like Cammalleri, on Pleky’s wing, should help him get back to the 60 point mark and should help Montreal have a solid season. Now if only Andrei Kostitsyn could get his butt in gear, we’d be laughing. But that's a topic for the next blog.

K.

5 Keys to Habs' Season - Part 1 - Scott Gomez

With training camp only a few days away and the Habs rookie camp already underway, there is no doubt that hockey is in the air....and I'm lovin' it! Given that the 2010 season is almost upon us, it got me thinking about the new-look Habs and what their chances of success are, this season. While I'm not brave enough to make a prediction, I think that I can say that I am cautiously optimistic. I mean, even the biggest Habs hater should be able to see that Montreal's D got better and bigger than last year, and their forwards went sideways in the improvement category, at worst. Plus, the additions of Moen and Mara mean that Montreal will be a tougher team. I think people are focusing too much on the smaller 1st line - which is absolutely small, no question there. But looking past that line, this team is actually bigger and tougher than last year.

Being bigger and tougher does not guarantee success by any stretch of the imagination, but I think there are a few keys to Montreal having a successful season, this year namely: Gomez, Plekanec, Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn and Carey Price. While you could certainly include Gionta, Spacek, Mara, Lapierre, Latendresse and others, in this list, I think that for the purposes of my analysis, I will focus on those five guys. Hey if you think I missed anyone, let me know and maybe I'll post any analysis of them too. Enjoy!

Scott Gomez
There are few players in the league who have as much to prove, this season, as Scott Gomez and this is largely because of the discrepancy between the size of his contract and his seeming talent level. While no one will dispute that Scott Gomez is a talented player, it also seems to be quite clear that he is not a $7 Mil+ player. Looking at NHL salaries (http://www.nhlnumbers.com/sort.php) there are only 17 players in the entire league who make seven million dollars per season, or more. The list of those players reads as follows:

Ovechkin, Crosby, Stall E., Richards, Lecavalier, Heatley, Chara, Gaborik, Lidstrom, Gomez, Thornton, Vanek, Campbell B., Drury, Spezza and Iginla.

Well, apart from Gomez and Drury - both of whom were given their ridiculous contracts by Glen Sather - those are some of, if not the best, players in the league. And to me, Gomez's name just stands out, in that list, as being totally misplaced. That being said, it is not Gomez's fault that he is overpaid. Hey, if my boss decided to pay me 25 - 40% more than I should be earning, who am I to turn him down? No? So who can blame him? No one, that's who. However, that does not take away from the huge expectations that are placed on his shoulders, and no one is more aware of this fact than Gomez himself.

Scott knows that he had two sub-par seasons, playing in New York, and that moving to Montreal is only going to ratchet up expectations. Especially when Bob Gainey had the Habs faithful thinking that we would be getting a 'big, scoring center" and possibly even Vincent Lecavalier. When Gainey traded for Gomez - who is talented but will never be mistaken for a "big" center - Habs fans felt burnt. Not only is Gomez on the smallish side, but he is also no Vinny Lecavalier.

All of this means that Gomez comes to town, looking for a fresh starting and to rekindle some old magic with Gionta, with the weight of Habs fans' expectations on his shoulders. Expectations that he put up big numbers, based on his $7 Mil+ salary. Expectations that he carry this team, as Lecavalier would have. He is being thrust into the #1 center position, which has been problematic for the last 10 years.

This is not a slight against, Koivu, by the way, as he was a great player. But, being realistic, he always should have been a #2 center. You can win with Koivu in the #2 hole, but not in the #1 hole. Which is why I think Anaheim will be a contender this year. Getzlaf and Koivu? Wow! But I digress...

Ok, back to business. In order for Montreal to have a successful season - and I define success as finishing anywhere from 4th to 8th overall in the East - Gomez will have to shine this year. Gomez will have to be a leader on and off the ice and he will have to put points up on the board, on a regular basis. In my estimation, he will have to return to the 70+ point level and be a solid plus player, for Montreal to go anywhere. He is already saying all the right things and showing the right attitude - learning French! - now all he has to do is put it all together on the ice. If he doesn't, this year could end up being more painful that last year!

Why he should succeed
Gomez thrived playing in New Jersey's defense-first system. He won a Stanley Cup and had a career year playing alongside Brian Gionta - who he gets to play with again this year. Playing under Jacques Martin - a proven defense-first coach - should allow Gomez to get back to his winning ways. Plus, being reunited with Gionta should help both of their careers get back on track. I see Gomez hitting the 70 point mark this season with Gionta checking in for 25+ goals this year.

Here's hoping I end up being right!

K.

2010 Montreal Canadiens - Who are these guys?

With the 2010 NHL training camps only a few weeks away, I think that Habs fans are excited about the upcoming season but with all the changes over the summer, left feeling a little lost too. The question is, why? Why was this summer's upheaval so traumatic? Why do we feel like we are floating in the wind waiting for the breeze to deposit us somewhere? I'll tell you why. It's because we have no emotional attachment to the new players and, to a large extent, this team.

Now don't get me wrong, because I know that, generally speaking, Habs fans have an extremely strong emotional attachment to our team, but that is more about being attached to being a Habs fan, than anything else. With so many new faces this year, we have not yet formed an attachment to the 2010 edition of the Canadiens. That will come with time.

I was at a sporting goods store, in Montreal, near the end of August, with my girlfriend - who is also a huge Habs fan. We were walking around the store when she pointed out three Habs jersey's hanging on the wall behind the cashier. The names on the jerseys? Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri. With a tinge of sadness in her eye, she looked at me and said, "Who are these guys?"

Her question was rhetorical and not because she hadn't heard of these players. It was an echo of what Habs fans around the world are feeling, and that is an emotional void left by the departing players. Separation anxiety, as it were. As bad and painful as last season was, we , as fans, had an emtional attachment to most, if not all, of the players on the team. Here are just a few examples of what I mean:

Koivu - Pride/Love - heart and soul, great person, love this guy!Kovalev - Love/Hate - makes you crazy with his laziness and bad turnovers one night and has you chanting "MVP" the next.Price - Optimisim/anger/disappointment - so young and so talented. If only he could get his head screwed on straight.Plekanec - Anger/disappointment - What happened to him? Where did all the success and talent go?Komisarek - Love/monster on the blue line/future captain....which is consequently why it was SO painful to watch him walk, for nothing, to the Leafs.

Ok, those are not all emotions, but you get the picture.

The point is that as fans, our emotions were tied to the individuals on last year's team. We had seen them go through ups and downs. We bore witness to individual and team successes and failures, all of which builds up an emotional history that connects us to the team. I mean, if you think about it, that is what being a sports fan is all about. Being emotionally invested in and connected to a specific team. And if you think about your team, whether it is the Habs or not, when you think about different players that will bring different feelings or emotions to the surface. "I hate guy!"
"This guy could be great if only he would try harder."
"This guy is an all-star in the making!"
"That guy is overpaid!"

For Montreal, at the front of the emotional conga line were Koivu, Kovalev and Komisarek. When all three of them left, in the off season, fans were left feeling a little empty. From Koivu's battle with cancer, to Kovalev's 84 point season, through Komisarek's endless battles against Lucic, these guys brought out our emotions and enmeshed our love of the Canadiens with our love of these players.

Gomez? Gionta? Cammalleri? Who are these guys, indeed. Who is this Canadiens team that we are about to go to battle with? Who knows? What I do know is that the people in New York surely had an emotional attachment to Gomez which was likely along the lines of him being an underachieving, overpaid, terrible cap-hit. But now, he comes to Montreal and is cast in the role of potential leader and one of the faces of the franchise - at least for the next five years. We might not know who he is, in the rhetorical sense, but we will soon find out.

Soon, we'll be chatting around the water coolers of the city, talking about Cammalleri's hat trick or Gomez's skating ability or Hal Gill's big hit or Travis Moen's fight against Milan Lucic (I CAN'T WAIT!). Soon, our emotions will get involved again and we will start to develop a new bond with the current edition of the Habs.

I personally tend to agree with what Eric Engels wrote in his HockeyBuzz.com article, "Betting Against the Odds"...

http://www.hockeybuzz.com/blog/Eric-Engels/Betting-Against-the-Odds/82/22683

...and I think that maybe, just maybe this team can surprise some people. If that ends up being the case, the positive emotions will flow freely and quickly erase the separation anxiety we have been feeling since July 1st.

K.