On paper the Habs look great. The reigning Eastern Conference champs lost replaceable players over the summer but addressed toughness issues with Georges Laraque and got their French-Canadian star in Alex Tanguay. The Habs enter their centennial season with high expectations from the team, media, and fans alike, and even pegged by some to win their 25th Cup. The Habs are skilled and fast – they may not be tough or big, but the players buy into Guy Carbonneau and Kirk Muller‘s system and as a result became one of the most efficient teams in the league, scoring 257 goals and putting together a league-best powerplay at 24.1%.
Offensively, the Habs aren’t short of anything. While they’re particularly imposing, all their players are ready to take, or sometimes give, a hit. There’s no bullying this Habs team whose players clearly know what their roles and expectations are. The success that came with it was a bonus, as not even Carbonneau expected such a successful regular season, but after finishing first they lost in the second round to a hot Philadelphia team. With the acquisition of Robert Lang, it means that the Habs can take some off some of the offensive responsibilities of Saku Koivu, and perhaps reunite Lang with Alexei Kovalev, his former linemate in Pittsburgh. Of course, that would mean separating Tomas Plekanec and Kovalev, the two top scorers on the team that combined for 153 points. The Habs’ dynamic sibling duo, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, are also expected to step up and improve on their 53 and 27 point seasons, respectively. Chris Higgins provides a strong defensive conscience on the forwards corps, and is no stranger to scoring, having recorded 3 straight 20+ goal season, six including his last year at Yale University. However, unfortunately for Higgins, with the Kostitsyns ready to move up into the top six and with the addition of Tanguay, Higgins may be regulated to third-line duty, although that isn’t to say Carbonneau doesn’t have the personnel to ice three scoring lines. The Habs’ grinders are as hard-working as any, led by veteran Steve Begin and with youngsters Maxim Lapierre and Kyle Chipchura ready for full-time duty on the squad the Habs are 12 deep strong.
Defensively, the Habs have one of the most underrated defenseman in Andrei Markov. Markov’s 24:58 ATOI lead the team, and his career-best 58 points was no easy feat either. With Mark Streit gone, it means that Markov is the de facto powerplay quarterback and will no doubt be putting his heavy shot to good use. Mike Komisarek was ranked first in the league in blocked shots, putting his 6’4″ 240 lbs. frame to good use. With Roman Hamrlik the Habs also have no trouble getting the puck out of their zone. What the forwards lack in size is made up on defense, including recent free agent signee Alex Henry (6’5″, 220) and the giant Ryan O’Byrne (6’5″, 235), who, along with Josh Gorges, slowly played themselves into a regular role and finished the season on strong notes.
Goaltending is perhaps the Habs’ biggest weakness… or it may be its biggest strength. Bob Gainey felt that Carey Price was ready to handle number one duties, so at the deadline he dealt away Cristobal Huet, who has one of the best save percentages over a 4-year period amongst NHL goalies, to Washington. There’s no doubt that Price and back-up Jaroslav Halak have the talent, but it’s just a question of consistency and maturity. Price’s calm demeanor, often confused with indifference, and outstanding positioning allowed him to become the goalie he is and will be, but the Bruins and Flyers showed that, like any rookie, he’s prone to meltdowns, which prompted Carbonneau to go with Halak down the stretch. If Price pans out, and hopefully the next Patrick Roy as some have said he will be, it may be the strongest aspect of an already strong Habs squad. The obvious downside is that if Price falters, Halak is not quite ready for full-time NHL duty, which is probably the reason why management signed Quebec native Marc Denis to a two-way contract this summer.
With the acquisition of Lang, Gainey has announced that the Habs will be moving forward without Mats Sundin, with just a shade over $1.5m to spare. The Habs are likely to have finished all the wheeling and dealing they’d like to do before the season, will unlikely be making noise during the season, unless the Habs completely fall flat on their faces coming out of the gates.
It will be interesting to see how the Habs respond to higher expectations. Only expected to challenge for a playoff spot, the Habs blew everyone away and left the rest of the Eastern Conference in a cloud of dust. They were one of the best teams in the league at protecting leads, with only 5 one-goal losses, and blew out their opposition with some regularity, winning 21 games when leading by more than 3. However, there are two significant factors that could prevent them from doing so. First, is how well Price adjusts to being the number one goalie as a 20-year old. The second, is Kovalev. The Habs’ powerplay last year was successful in part because of Kovalev, whose powerplay point total was a full 12 more than his even strength output (47-35). No other Habs player has such polarizing stats, and even powerplay specialist Streit only had 6 more powerplay points than even strength. The worst part, however, is the fact that Kovalev, at 35 years old, posted the best point total of his career since 2001, when he had 95. His centre that year? None other than Lang. Perhaps Gainey went after Lang to prevent Kovalev’s seriously bi-polar production (77, 45, 65, 47 in previous years). If history is any indication, Kovalev is on his way to a sub-par year.
Andrei Kostitsyn – Tomas Plekanec – Alexei Kovalev
Alex Tanguay – Robert Lang – Sergei Kostitsyn
Chris Higgins – Saku Koivu – Guillaume Latendresse
Steve Begin – Kyle Chipchura – Tom Kostopoulos
Andrei Markov – Mike Komisarek
Roman Hamrlik – Josh Gorges
Francois Bouillon – Ryan O’Byrne
Carey Price – Jaroslav Halak
scratches: Maxim Lapierre, Georges Laraque, Patrice Brisebois
Coach: Guy Carbonneau
GM: Bob Gainey
Predicted finish: 1st Northeast, 1st East