Friday, 18 January 2013

Can't wait anymore - Habs Season Preview Part.2

Part 2 of our Canadiens Pre-season series offers up a look at some of the more interesting questions surrounding the team going into the 2013 campaign.

To help me answer some of these questions, I have assembled an eclectic team of Montreal Hockey experts to see if we can come to a consensus on anything.

Avi Goldberg is a sociologist who teaches full time at Vanier College and part time at Concordia University. He writes on connections between sports, culture, and politics for the AllHabs digital magazine.

Conor Mckenna is a familiar face here at "The Breakdown" having appeared in an excellent edition of "HABS-TOWN". Conor hosts multiple shows on TSN 690 radio in Montreal, including the Habs post-game show.

Mike O'Brand has visited "The Breakdown" before. Although he is currently abroad, he maintains his "HabsLaughs" Blog & Twitter account. Mike offers a passionate and humorous viewpoint of the Habs world.

Jessica Rusnak is the TSN 690 reporter on the Habs beat. She covers every practice, every game, every media scrum, she's always there. Recently she has also started filing "Habs Report" on the TSN website. 


The last time the NHL played a lockout shortened season in 1995, Peter Bondra led the league with 34 goals, how many goals will the Habs leading scorer pot this year, and who will it be?

Obrand: Easy: 95 goals-Alex Galchenyuk

Goldberg: I see Therrien letting the team loose offensively far more this year than under Martin and Cunneyworth. In the goal-scoring department, Galchenyuk will be the real wild card this year. Sticking, however, to a conservative logic, I predict Max Pacioretty as leading goal scorer. 26 goals.

McKenna: I think Max Pacioretty will lead the Habs with 20-23 goals this year. 

Rusnak: I agree with Conor as well I say Pacioretty 20-25 goals

Hermelin: I'm going to have to agree with everyone here, and give the lead to Max Pacioretty, but I'm going to say he'll get in the 18-20 goal range. I'd Also caveat that by saying I think Eric Cole and Brian Gionta with both also likely wind up in that ballpark as well.

When do the Montreal Canadiens and PK Subban reach a deal? Is it in time for the start of the season?

Obrand: The funny thing is that he signed a contract to be on my fantasy team last week…he says he’s showing up for that…

Rusnak: I do not believe Subban will sign with the Canadiens before the start of the season.

Goldberg: I have paid little attention to this, have very little understanding on why this is so difficult to get done, and can’t figure out why it is always these defensemen who hold out for a better contract. 

McKenna: It's looking less and less likely that PK signs before the 19th, but these things can change very quickly. 

Hermelin: I'm a little bit frustrated with this. I got into a bit of an argument about it with someone on Twitter the other day actually. Let's be honest here, the Canadiens aren't winning a Stanley Cup, and PK Subban at this point in his career is not the one missing piece to get them there. If I'm Marc Bergevin I let him sit out. 

Rusnak:  If the Canadiens start off the season well then there will be less pressure to sign Subban and the Canadiens will have the upper hand. If the Habs get off to a rocky start then I could see them coming to an agreement sooner rather than later. I say the Habs sign Subban by February 1st.  

Goldberg: Based on my complete lack of a spider sense on this one, I say early February deal, just in time for the Buffalo Sabres at the Bell Centre. That would be the second Saturday night home game for the Habs this year.

Obrand: They have 5 days to sign him? I think it gets done within the next 48 hours and he reports to camp on Thursday.

Hermelin: Carey Price and Max Pacioretty had to wait until their second contract was over to get a long extension, PK needs to be in the same boat. I think the best comparable player in the league to PK Subban is John Carlson in Washington. The Capitals gave Carlson a long term deal (he's signed through the 2017-2018 season) but he's also signed to a reasonable cap hit of just under $4 Million dollars - something that PK Subban's camp is reportedly not willing to accept. It seems to me like Subban and his camp think that being a popular player on a popular team with a fantastic personality means more dollars. The longer he sits out, the more that popularity will wane.  


What do you think about what happened with Scott Gomez?

McKenna: Unfortunately for Gomez, this kind of had to happen. He's still young enough that if he gets into the right system, he could become an effective player again but between the city and the team, Montreal was simply the wrong place for him. 

Goldberg: There is certainly a lack of fairness from the perspective of the player, but from the perspective of team (both in terms of wins/losses and business), telling Gomer to sit is the best decision that can be made. The problem with Gomez has not been the absolute value of his contract, but rather the fact that he has contributed no meaningful tangible results for the team aside from the allegedly good humor he has dispensed in the dressing room.  

Hermelin: I've actually gone on at length on this very blog about Scott Gomez. In short he was never worth the contract he signed in New York and he could never live up to it. I'm not a big fan of his being unceremoniously sent home to avoid injury, but it seems the league and the players association have worked that out. I absolutely agree with Mike here too, I think Scott Gomez does have some value as a player and he should have at least been given training camp to prove it.

Obrand:   It kind of leaves a bitter taste in my mouth for a few reasons. 1. The wasted money. 2. They probably should have let him show what he could do in camp…I think they owed him at least that despite his many failures.

Goldberg: With a salary so high that his body has effectively taken the place of at least two other players who actually could have been contributing to the team’s on-ice efforts, this had to come to an end. I’m glad it did now.
Last week, Gomez gave an in depth interview to the Gazette's Dave Stubbs saying that "I’m happy to be back and a buyout is the last thing on my mind. I’m here to help the team win in whatever capacity they want. I’m going to give my all." He wasn't given that chance, do you feel he deserved a chance at all? Did he or does he have anything left to offer to anyone?

Obrand: This will change his career for the better. Nobody like to be cut, he has to have a shred of pride in him. After the buyout a team will take a chance on him for league minimum and he’ll burn the Habs whenever they meet. 

I guess it’s a good thing because now he can literally earn money by doing nothing instead of doing the same in a Habs jersey.

McKenna: He does have something to offer, but as I mentioned earlier, not here in Montreal. He has been saying all the right things for years but the fact is, something had to give. Reading between the lines during the press conference when Bergevin addressed the Gomez dismissal, you could tell that he wasn't happy with the work ethic and effort level he was getting from #11. This was the only thing to do and I applaud Bergevin for having the balls to do it. You simply can't have a guy who is by far the highest paid on your team going out there and not contributing. It undermines everything a winning organization needs to have and that's why this had to happen.

Goldberg: Someone on Twitter (I can’t remember who) said we should not underestimate the symbolic message that was sent by this move: in part, this is Marc Bergevin showing that, from now on, he does not want to be associated with the vision or decisions of the previous regime as he works on rebuilding the Habs in his own image. So, with a new boss, and with the boss’s obvious hunger to create a legitimately competitive team, no, Gomez did not deserve a chance to prove himself in any abstract or absolute sense. As for whether he has anything left to give, I would say that if he wanted to commit to it he could be a penalty-killing specialist. Is there any team willing to pay a penalty-killing specialist that kind of salary? Get Charles Wang on the horn.    

Last season, Thomas Kaberle showed up to Hurricanes training camp very out of shape. Although he did pick up his share of points with Montreal, his play left much to be desired. After the season, Kaberle admitted to reporters that he was out of shape and needed to work hard in the offseason to prove himself again. Kaberle's not an old man, and he has shown up in camp in considerably better shape this year - what do you expect from him?

Obrand: I have no expectations. He was by far the worst Habs D-Man last year in terms of defensive play. Good for him for getting in shape but I grew to resent him long ago…hopefully he proves me wrong.

Goldberg: My best hope for Kaberle is that we don’t really notice him too much on the ice, but that he also has a rejuvenated ability to quickly move the puck from the defensive end up to the forwards. But, honestly, what I really expect from him are those rosy red cheeks and lots of those little saucer passes to his partner at the blue line while Habs fans scream “SHOOOOOOT!” at the top of their lungs.

Hermelin: I hate that he's soft in the corners. I can respect that he came in to camp in better shape. He's overpaid, however he picks up assists even when he's invisible. The guy has one great skill, he makes excellent first passes, as a bottom pair defenseman who will see time on the Power Play, I think there can be some use from him yet.

Rusnak: I'm going to give Kaberle the benefit of the doubt. He showed up at this year's camp in much better shape and seems more focused on hockey. He has a good attitude, he wants to prove to everyone he is still a good hockey player. I'm going to give him 5 games to prove that he has changed since last season.

McKenna: I expect Kaberle to be a factor offensively and a disaster defensively. The longer Subban isn't available, the more of a role he'll play and I can't see that being good for the Habs. Kaberle has not been a positive force on a winning hockey team for a long, long time.
Who is the most important player for the Canadiens this year?

Obrand:  Petteri Nokelainen.

Hermelin: The obvious answer here is Carey Price, but I am going to say Andrei Markov. If Markov is even close to the player he was before he started running into injury problems the Canadiens become infinitely better. Suddenly they will not only have a top shut down defenseman who can play 20+ minutes, but there Power Play looks dangerous too. 

Obrand:  But actually it’s Peter Budaj. If Price goes down with an injury Budaj will have to play out of his mind for the Habs to have a chance.

Rusnak:Carey Price. I agree with Mike, If Price gets injured early in the season I don't know if Budaj will be able to get the job done for the Habs.

Goldberg: Very hard to limit this to just one player. I will cheat by identifying two sets of the most important players. Set #1: Plekanec and Eller. The Habs need solid and effective work from their second and third line centres. Will Plekanec come back and perform offensively and defensively to allow the second line to take pressure off the first line? Will Eller figure out his role and be consistent in anchoring an aggressive and better-defined third line? Team success depends on sorting this out. Set #2: Markov and Subban. Markov doesn’t want to talk injury but is he healthy, able to come closer to his normal playing level, and strong enough to play through an entire shortened season? Will Subban sign a contract? Will he continue to develop as a player and grow into his potential as an exciting defenseman with multiple skill potentials? The Habs are currently shallow on D and really need the back end guys to defend well and, even more importantly, to be able to efficiently move the puck to the forwards to generate offense. Will Markov and Subban be able to contribute to these vital needs? The work of the players comprising these two sets will be most decisive in determining the team’s fortunes this year.  

Hermelin: Shallow on Defense? In what world? You might not like the defensemen they have in camp, but even without Subban the Canadiens have 8 NHL defensemen in camp - and that's without discussing any of the prospects.  There are questions on some of those defensemen, true, we've already talked about Kaberle at length, but I actually think the Canadiens have significant depth on the back end.


If any one player can be singled out for Montreal as needing to offer more to the club this year than last, who is it? why? how big an impact can they make?

Goldberg: The most obvious answer has to be Rene Bourque. You love this guy’s size, you see the near-30 goals on his stats from a couple of years, and you have faint memories of watching him score goals when watching highlights from the Western Conference late at night and you wish he could be a powerful scoring winger for the Habs. 

Obrand: Rene Bourque. He isn’t a Hab yet if you know what I mean. Bourque needs to know what it means to be a Montreal Canadien. You can’t play flat on any team and that is especially true in Montreal. Bourque can be an effective top 9 winger who can play big and score the dirty goals. We had tiny glimpses last season but nowhere near enough. 

Rusnak: Rene Bourque. This team needs to play a tougher more physical game. Bourque can do that while also producing points something that was also missing from the team last season. If Bourque is playing to his full potential it will be a huge bonus to the team.

Goldberg: If Bourque could be what you want him to be, you would welcome the dilemmas created for the coach. Can he be a force needed to bolster a second line? Can he help to give the third line an identity and an ability to crash and bang against the opponents’ third lines? If the guy returns to being the ghost that he was last year, this is yet another player whose so-called presence on the ice basically gives the other team a man advantage each time he’s out there. If, however, he’s able to ramp it up, then Bourque could be an element that helps bring the Habs to a level of respectability and depth not seen in a while.    

McKenna: Carey Price needs to do better. There are other options here, but most are guys who were hurt last year. If Price can be at his best through a shortened season, the Canadiens are a playoff team. If' he's sub-par, they could be in the mix for the top pick in the 2013 draft. He's that important.
Michel Therrien told TSN 690's Mitch Melnick that he plans to have the players play this season "on their toes" not "on their heels" alluding to a more offensive system. In the past, Therrien has been a defensive coach, do you believe that, like Alain Vigneault in Vancouver, Therrien has evolved his coaching system and style OR is this much like when Jacques Martin came in and made similar promises?

Obrand: People grow up but talk is cheap. We’ll have to wait and see. 

Rusnak: Only time will tell

McKenna: Of course this is purely speculation but I do expect a more uptempo style from Therrien's version of the team. Unfortunately, the personnel is largely the same from a year ago, so the question is whether that higher-risk strategy will result in the Canadiens getting exposed defensively. Frankly, the pain of another bad year would be reduced during a shortened schedule and getting another top prospect could be the best thing that could happen to this team going forward.

Hermelin: I honestly believe Therrien will try to change his system, and the Canadiens I've believed for awhile have the horses to play an up-tempo aggressive offensive game, but if and when the going gets tough I worry the Coach will revert back to what he knows best. 

Goldberg: I’ll answer this question by first explaining my absurdist theory about Jacques Martin. Do you remember when he was coach of the Sens? My memories are of a fairly high scoring team but one with mediocrity in goal. Pundits seem to think the latter might have prevented those teams from going all the way. So, aside from personnel, what else can explain the stifling play of the Jacques Martin Habs in comparison to those Sens teams that had some offensive punch? My absurdist theory is that Martin dropped two components from his coaching repertoire since he served as Ottawa’s coach and maybe this was a factor. First, Sens players were always filmed after games riding the stationary bike. I don’t know if this ever happened with Martin’s Habs teams. Maybe they were out of shape. Or, how about the three-piece suits? They were fairly out of style even when Martin coached the Senators but maybe that sartorial choice back then actually brought those teams some luck. How does all of this relate to the question of whether Michel Therrien will have changed enough to become more of an offensive coach? Well, since Martin seemed to regress as a coach by clearly altering some of his coaching ways, maybe there is a chance for Therrien to greatly improve as a coach with some changes of his own. So, I’ll be looking for a new hairstyle, evidence of a long sleeve shirt under his suit, or for the players to have some kind of a quirky post-game fitness regimen imposed on them. As long as there are clear signs of a new routine imposed by the coach, I think there is a good chance that the Therrien has upgraded his system. If not, it won’t take long for fans to be praying that the Habs can repatriate wonder boy, Guy Boucher, to Montreal once his time with the Lightning comes to its inevitable conclusion. 
Alex Galchenyuck. What do you do with him?

Obrand: Top 6 immediately. He’s the most offensively talented player on the team.

Rusnak: I want to see what Galchenyuk can do in an NHL game before I decided. But I believe the Canadiens won't keep him if they don't think he'll be able to play on the top 2 lines.

McKenna: I don't think you can properly assess Galchenyuk without seeing him in actual NHL game action first. Having said that, my instinct is that he will make the team. You have to hope that means he gets to play an actual role and get minutes that matter at the NHL level because it would be painful to watch him regress after the strides he's made in Sarnia and for Team USA at the WJC this season. 

Goldberg: I’ve been convinced by all those who point to players like Latendresse, Ribeiro, and even Pacioretty and say that the careers of young players can be stunted or ruined if they don’t have enough time to develop before joining the big club. Like everyone else, I want an aggressively offensive power forward on the Habs. And, while it seems as though Galchenyuk has the potential to eventually surpass Pacioretty and Cole in this role, I don’t want to risk the future by taking too many chances with the kid in the present. So, I say keep him here for the first five games and then send him to Sarnia to finish the year. Let him work on his skating, chase the OHL scoring title, and allow him to get hungrier to play in the NHL. We will all miss him while he is gone, but the benefits of allowing him to continue his development will outstrip the potential pitfalls of pushing him too fast.

Hermelin: I personally think he should go back to Sarnia to finish out the season and try to win a Memorial Cup. The problem I have is next season. He looks too dominant to spend another year in Junior, but he's not allowed to go the American league as yet. 

I'd give him the 5 games to see what he's got, but unless he's setting the world on fire, re-evaluate him in the fall. No damage can be caused by him going back to Sarnia, but like Conor and Avi have said it would be painful to see him if he struggles in the NHL and follows the same trend that Guillaume Latendresse and Mike Ribeiro did. The American Hockey League route worked out pretty well for Tomas Plekanec.
Of the players in camp currently, who does not start the season with the Montreal Canadiens?

Obrand: Players who don’t play for the Canadiens? 

Rusnak: Dumont, Gallagher, Tinordi, Commodore 

Goldberg: In my perfect world, there is no need for Petteri Nokelainen, Yannick Weber or Tomas Kaberle on this squad and it wouldn’t sadden me if any or all of them are gone!

Hermelin: I can't see any way that both Diaz AND Weber stick with the club. Part of me would like to see Gallagher or Dumont get a shot of Galchenyuck on that line with Plekanec and Gionta.

Where do the Canadiens finish this season? 

Obrand: 8th and above or 15th.  

Rusnak: 6th in the east

Goldberg: Seventh in the North East and twelfth in the Eastern Conference. I should add that my optimism is artificially inflated by the fact it would sicken me to predict them finishing behind the Leafs.

McKenna: I'll pick the Habs to finish 6th in the East.

Hermelin: In a shortened season like this, it's really a crap-shoot. So much depends on health. Assuming there are no major injuries for the Canadiens (or any other teams in the East) I see the Canadiens battling for a playoff spot. I can't see them finishing higher than 7th in the conference, but I don't see them finishing lower than 10th either. 
Which Bell Centre concession item did you miss most during the lockout?

Rusnak: The cookies!!!

Goldberg: Since I rarely go the games and do not eat red meat, poultry, or pork, I can’t say that I’m a connoisseur of Bell Centre Fare. From direct experience, however, I can tell you with certainty that I didn’t miss the “beer.”

Obrand: Smoked Meat…when I feel like taking out a bank loan to buy one.

McKenna: Hot dogs, man! That's mostly because they're the only item that we lowly reporters get for free in the press lounge. I know, poor us!

Hermelin: I'm kind of partial to the Pizza. Although, it often burns the top of my mouth. I also really miss having Felix and Norton cookies at the games, those were awesome. We used to buy them during the playoffs whenever the Habs would go to Overtime. That tradition seemed to stop after Game 4 vs Carolina in the 2002 playoffs. Something to do with Bill Lindsay taking a face-off making me lose a cookie or four.

It's not much of a surprise to see fans in this market flocking back to the Canadiens as if there was no lockout, Do you think however there was damage done? If so have the Habs done enough to repair the damage? what do you think of their initiatives so far?
Goldberg: In Montreal, where hockey is an integral part of our day-to-day life and culture, the only serious damage that has been done is economic, either to local businesses or to those whose incomes depend on hockey. This is not to be underestimated or downplayed, especially if individuals or families have suffered as a result. As for regular hockey fans, a) they experienced a temporary respite from their most favorite cultural pastime; b) they may have actually benefited during the lockout by taking up other sports or activities; and c) after having time away from hockey, they are now poised to resume the love affair with their game, and possibly even to experience the joy of their teams and the competition at an intensity not thought to be possible. The question of whether the Habs, or any other Canadian team, has done enough to repair the damage, in reality, is moot. The notion of compensation has been amplified by the media who, having showed uncharacteristically direct criticism toward both the players and owners during the lockout, may be projecting their own legitimate anger for having their jobs cut out from underneath their feet onto the fan base. The fans will take what they can get in terms of compensation, but the most important thing for them is the playing of the games. The fans are waiting to plant their fannies in their seats, they are already filling the talk shows and Twitter timelines with their passion, and by the time they are belting out their first rendition of “Ole Ole Ole Ole” at the Bell Centre, their bad dream will be practically forgotten.

The wait is over. Only hours to go. 
Habs. Leafs.
Hockey. Night. In. Canada.


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