Montreal Canadiens

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.

Projected lineup:
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

This article has 4 Comments

  1. The key to the Montreal attack is overall speed. Barring injuries, you will not see Kovalev reunited with Lang. They are 2 of the slower forwards and it would slow down the transitional offense too much.

    S.Kostitsyn already has good 2-way forward capabilities with arguably the best open ice vision on the team. He will only get better. However his spot is on the third line for now. He may still put up some decent numbers as they may use him as a point-man on the PP. Having a Tanguay, Koivu, S.Kostitsyn line would be counter productive. All 3 are first and foremost passers/set-up men. Not a good mix.

    Higgins is entering his fourth season (possible break-out year???) and has scored at least 20 goals in each of his first 3 seasons (only player on the Habs to accomplish that feat.) He deserves the spot on the second line and has the ability to drive to the net,get rebounds and get garbage goals which will be a good complement to Tanguay and Koivu.

    Montreal will have to declare it’s protected list soon and I believe Begin and Kostopoulous will be left unprotected. If they are not picked up, I place Lapierre and Laraque ahead of both of them. It’s not that I don’t like them, they just don’t have the size. Lapierre would be very efficient on the wing and would be allowed to pester the opposition even more with Laraque on the other wing. Keep in mind Laraque won’t have to dress for every game so you will see a rotation similar to last year.

    In closing, I was very happy to see Chipchura have an excellent game last night against Ottawa. I’m a big fan of this guy. Who better to coach a Carbonneau type player than Carbo himself. This guy has the pedigree of a natural leader (captained the world juniors to the gold medal.)

  2. That’s a good point about Kovalev and Lang – perhaps we’ll see them on the powerplay instead where footspeed isn’t a premium. With Tanguay and Lang the lines are a bit up in the air. The lines I have are based upon last season, but there’s talk of putting the Kostitsyns together with Plekanec and maybe Tanguay line up with Koivu.

    I think Higgins has topped out offensively. He’s already one of the most underrated two-way players in the game and a good leader to boot. You can’t ask much more than 3 straight 20+ goal seasons. He’s been a model of consistency throughout his career.

    I’m not sure what you mean by protected list. The protected list I’m thinking of is the waiver draft, unless there’s another protected list I don’t know about. The waiver draft was abolished after the lockout. I think Begin will stay, he’s the hardest hitter amongst their forwards. He plays big, which is more important than just being big.

  3. Yeah, you’re right Jason. I was thinking pre-lockout concerning that protected list. However, I’m still firm in my preference of Lapierre, Laraque ahead of Begin. Yes, he is a heart and soul player who leaves it all on the ice every night but too often is he injured (breaks down)and lacks the proper size to play a physical style of game.

    I think you’re right about Higgins. He doesn’t have those soft, goal scorer hands. To say though that he has topped out may be a little premature. He is only 25.

    My ideal line-up depends on Latendresse. If he can step-up then I would place him on the second line with Tanguay/Koivu. He has always shown promise when playing alongside Saku. This would open the door for arguably the best third line in hockey. Lang centering Higgins and S.Kostitsyn. This line would be excellent at both ends of the ice. They would also do alot more than “chip-in” offensively, which is what most third lines do in the NHL.

    D’Agostini is having a great camp and may force Carbo to make a difficult decision.

  4. Begin at 5’11” and 185 lbs. is not built for physical play, but it might surprise you that Dan Carcillo is only 5’11” and 200 lbs. It’s not so much about how big you are, but how willing you are to use your body. Some of the most talented players in the league, despite having a big stature, never use their body. The Sedins are 6’3″ and with their puck cycling game their size is a huge advantage, but they hardly ever use it, sticking it to the perimeter. I think Begin provides some spark and leadership on the ice.

    If Lang and Kovalev line up together, there’s talk of Latendresse on their left wing. But like you, I much prefer Latendresse on Koivu’s right. Higgins is also another player that plays extremely well with Koivu, and I think Lang is much better suited to a second-line role than a third-line one. We won’t really know until opening night – Carbo’s got a lot of flexibility with his players but I do like your suggestions.

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