Henrik Lunqvist; Travis Moen; Roman Hamrlik;

2011-12 season preview: Montreal Canadiens

2010-11 record: 44-30-8, 96 points; 2nd in Northeast, 6th in the East.

Playoffs: Lost to Boston 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals

Sure, they didn’t make it to the Eastern Conference finals like they did in 2010, but the Habs still played over their heads at times last season. That included the guy who took over for one-time hero Jaroslav Halak, as Carey Price showed why Montreal’s front office made the brave decision to side with him and let Halak leave. The Canadiens took the eventual Stanley Cup champions to overtime in Game 7, but Nathan Horton’s goal ended their season in an instant.

Offense

The Canadiens scored the lowest amount of goals (216) of any team who made the playoffs. Ultimately, Jacques Martin’s teams don’t get to where they are by blowing their opponents out with staggering offense and there’s little reason to believe that will change this season.

Montreal parted ways with depth players such as Benoit Pouliot and decided to make one splashy move by signing former Hurricanes power forward Erik Cole to a risky contract. Cole brings a nice mix of scoring punch and flat-out punch to a team heavy in ‘finesse’ forwards, but the worry is that he’ll falter without an All-Star center like Eric Staal. (He certainly stumbled in his only experiences outside Carolina with Edmonton.)

That being said, it would be pretty cool to see an ‘All-American’ Canadiens line of Cole, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. Speaking of Gomez, the Habs hope that he will bounce back from a lousy season, even if the chances of Gomez justifying his oft-cited price tag are close to none. It wouldn’t hurt if the team could find a way to motivate Andrei Kostitsyn either – he was in full-on pout mode this offseason.

Max Pacioretty’s attempt to bounce back from that notorious Zdeno Chara hit ranks as one of the potential ‘feel-good’ stories of the season.

Defense

The bad news is that Andrei Markov’s knee is still a problem. The good news is that the Habs made the playoffs without him last season, as the underrated Russian defenseman missed all but seven games.

Still, that puts a lot of pressure on a Habs’ defense that lost valuable all-around guy Roman Hamrlik and suddenly expensive scoring blueliner James Wisniewski. That probably means P.K. Subban will shoulder an even greater burden as he increasingly works his way up to being the Canadiens’ ‘go-to-guy’ on the blue line. Such a situation smells a bit like Buffalo resting too much of their hopes on Tyler Myers last season, but we’ll wait and see. (Subban doesn’t lack confidence, for whatever that’s worth.)

On paper, this defense is somewhere between questionable and awful.

Goalies

Perhaps even more than last season, this campaign will be ‘The Carey Price Show’ in Montreal. He played a stunning 72 games last season, notching 38 wins and an outstanding .923 save percentage. Those numbers might go down a touch because of the declining defense in front of him, although a contract year should give him motivation to plug many of the leaks.

His backup is a slight downgrade. Alex Auld was a steady, if unspectacular backup, while his replacement, Peter Budaj, has had an up-and-mostly-down career with Colorado. Budaj has one benefit though: he’s carried the ball as a top or 1a/1b goalie plenty of times before. He has three seasons with a considerable workload: 57 games played in 2006-07, 56 in 08-09 and 45 last season. Of course, his results were mediocre, but at least Budaj is familiar with that role in case something happens to Price.

Coaching

Martin isn’t much of a ‘charmer’ – at least when he’s in head coach mode – but he might not get enough credit for yielding strong results with whatever roster is put in front of him. (He probably deserves at least a partial mulligan for failing in Florida, because everyone fails in Florida.)

This season will test Martin’s strategic skills. As mentioned before, that defense looks pretty lousy on paper. It should be interesting to see if he can make it all work.

Breakout candidate

OK, so Subban already ‘broke out’ in a way last season. Still, going from ‘obvious up-and-comer’ to ‘probable All-Star’ ranks as a breakthrough in its own right. With all the problems on Montreal’s blue line, the power play will likely go through Subban’s talented hands. Don’t be surprised if he flirts with 50-plus points and big minutes, as long as he doesn’t get in trouble for his occasional mischievous moments.

Best-case scenario

The Canadiens ride a cushy schedule to a Northeast title as Price earns serious Vezina (maybe even Hart?) Trophy buzz. Martin finds ways to minimize the team’s problems and maximize Subban’s output. Cole clicks with his linemates while Gomez gets his act together. Montreal makes a deep playoff run to shake off whatever Halakian monkey remains on Price’s back.

Reality

An easy schedule should help Montreal achieve the usual: squeaking into the playoffs as a seventh or eight seed. Gomez should improve merely based on how awful he was last season. Cole won’t live up to his contract, but might provide a rare physical element. Price will play just as well as last season, although a leakier defense will keep his numbers from completely showing it.

The Habs have a chance to be frisky in the playoffs, but a limited defense and mediocre (if opportunistic) offense will keep their ceiling low. Michael Cammalleri will probably still score a ton of postseason goals, though.

Best and worst sweaters of all-time: Montreal Canadiens

Brian Gionta

When you’re the franchise with the most Stanley Cups in NHL history, having a look that remains timeless after decades that instills pride in your fans and burning hatred in your rivals is a wonderful thing. Being able to say that everyone from Maurice “Rocket” Richard to Jean Beliveau to Guy LaFleur to Patrick Roy to Brian Gionta have all worn the same sweater is an impressive and staggering thing.

Love them or hate them, the Montreal Canadiens legendary sweater is one for the ages.

Best: If you think I’m going to go off the rails and be funny and pick something other than the classic red Habs sweater, you’re wrong. Dead wrong. It’s the most classic, most iconic, most outstanding sweater in all of hockey. The iconic logo set atop a band of blue and white striping on top of a red sweater. It’s elegant perfection and it’s been virtually unchanged since 1917. When you get it right immediately, there’s no reason to ever change. It’s perfection in a sweater.

Worst: Of course, sometimes you can make major mistakes at times and that’s something the Habs did as was highlighted by their 100th anniversary celebration when they broke out a bleu, blanc, et rouge striped barber pole sweater from the Habs days in 1912-1913. Such horrors cannot be unseen and for a team that ended up with such a legendary and perfect look, thing started off so very badly for the Canadiens. Most of the Canadiens anniversary special sweaters weren’t much to write home about, but the barber pole one ranks out as one of the worst of all time.

Honoring the past: That said, I give the Canadiens a ton of credit for breaking out modern versions of ancient sweaters. Since most fans have only seen such things in photos or not at all, it was a great touch to honor those old teams by dressing up the way they did. Sure, seeing the Habs take the ice in an all-blue get up or a sweater that looked like something more fit for a Christmas game is jarring, but doing it for a good (albeit self-congratulatory) reason is a good thing.

Assessment: The Canadiens are still rolling with the perfect, traditional look they’ve had for seemingly eons now and if that’s an issue to anyone other than Bruins or Maple Leafs fans, then there’s something wrong with your hockey fashion sensibilities. The Habs don’t need to have third jerseys or alternate looks at all because when you mess with greatness, you get mocked for it. Heavily. There’s no need to do anything more with the Canadiens sweaters other than just appreciate the hell out of them.

Montreal Canadiens re-sign Max Pacioretty to two-year deal reportedly worth $3.25M

Max Pacioretty, Zdeno Chara
1 Comment

It’s been a big week for Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. He helped his team win its first Stanley Cup since 1972 last Wednesday and will find out if he will receive another Norris Trophy this Wednesday. His name will come up in another bit of fairly big news this week, as the Montreal Canadiens announced that they signed Max Pacioretty to a two-year deal that Renaud Lavoie is reporting will be worth $3.2 million.

(Lavoie reveals that Pacioretty will earn $1.5 million in 2011-12 and $1.75 million in 12-13.)

As you probably know, Pacioretty was a victim of that notorious Chara hit into a stanchion. In a way, this signing should be relief to both Habs fans who were worried about Pacioretty’s bigger picture health as well as Chara’s own conscience.

Of course, the $3.2 million question is whether or not Pacioretty can properly heal from those injuries and contribute to the Canadiens for the next two seasons. He scored a career-high 14 goals and 24 points in 37 games in 10-11, indicating that he might be a legitimate contributor to the team, but then that ugly moment made many wonder if he would ever play hockey again. Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier seems confident that Pacioretty will be healthy enough to resume his ascent up the team’s ranks, though.

“We are very pleased to have reached an agreement with Max Pacioretty who is one of the most promising young players in our organization. A power forward with skills, Max showed that he can help our team and make a name for himself in the NHL. We are confident that he will have recovered fully from the injury that kept him out of the line-up for the last month of the regular season and the playoffs,” said Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier.

It would be fantastic if Gauthier ends up being correct. We will provide updates about his rehabilitation process whenever they are available as training camp approaches in September.

Montreal Canadiens sign Mathieu Darche to one-year, $700K deal

Mathieu Darche; Marc-Andre Fleury

The Montreal Canadiens made a minor move today that might light up the hearts of the smallish cross-section of people who are hockey fans and South Park veterans. They re-signed Mathieu Darche (or “Darsh” to South Park devotees) to a one-year, $700K contract extension.

The undrafted free agent forward has taken an uneven career path to this point. He appeared in a handful of games for the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2000-01 and 01-02 seasons before floating around the Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks organizations while receiving sparse opportunities. His first lengthy chunk of NHL-level playing time came with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 07-08; he scored 22 points in a career-high 73 games played.

It seems like he might have found a home in Montreal, though. After a full minor league season with the AHL’s Portland Pirates in 08-09, he really stuck with the Canadiens in 09-10. He played 29 games last season (scoring 10 points) and then earned a career-high 26 points in 59 games this season.

Here’s what the Canadiens had to say about Darche.

“We are very pleased to have reached an agreement with Mathieu Darche. Mathieu is a classy veteran player who displays great leadership and determination, and we strongly believe he can help us achieve our goals in the upcoming season,” said Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier.

What Went Wrong: Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens v Boston Bruins - Game Seven
6 Comments

Much like how it was for the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, or Buffalo Sabres it’s tough to find a way to pick on a team that just went seven games in a series. Like how it was for the Blackhawks, it’s even harder to do when you take your opponent to seven games.

For the Canadiens, what ailed them was something not so easily found in the statistics but more in the manner of play and team philosophy. After all, when you’re going up against a team that’s a virtual mirror opposite, it’s tough to crack them to win four games.

Where did Montreal go wrong? It’s more of a matter of opinion than anything else.

1. Offensive pressure? What’s that?
Jacques Martin is known as one of the better defensive coaches in the NHL and for good reason. Look at what his defensive-minded stylings did for the Habs in last year’s playoffs against the two biggest offenses in the NHL. He was able to draw up a strategy to hold up the Caps and Penguins and frustrated them to no end. When they end up against a team with more of a defensive mindset, however, it doesn’t work out so well.

Think of it like a staring contest. They’ll throw the same kind of game at each other to see who blinks, or in this case takes a penalty, first. The plan of attack was similar for Montreal. Jump out quickly in the opening minutes to see if you can catch the Bruins napping. If the Habs scored, perfect. They could sit back and defend and pull out the soccer style of defense and essentiall y “park the bus” in front of Carey Price.

For a good part of the series, Montreal was great at that as the Habs blocked 144 shots through the series, one shot shy of the Lightning for the top mark. Considering that Boston sent 243 shots on goal through the series, they had ample time to pepper the goal.

2. Too reliant on the power play
Montreal scored 17 goals in their seven game series against Boston. Six of those goals came with the man advantage. Two of those six came on 5-on-3 power plays. Montreal went 6-27 on the power play in the series and while that’s all well and good, scoring more than a third of your goals on the power play is a tough way to live life. Penalties will happen no matter what but when you’re banking on them to generate your offense, it’s a high risk way to live life in the playoffs. Fortunately for Montreal the Bruins were totally inept on the power play which gave the Habs the leeway to be more patient. If the Bruins connected at a normal rate at all in this series, there’s no way it goes seven games.

3. Playing desperate only when it was a desperate situation
When Montreal got aggressive in their offensive game it generally only came with the team down a goal late in the game. When the Habs applied themselves like that they looked awfully tough. They could get offense from anywhere be it Brian Gionta, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Cammalleri, Yannick Weber, or P.K. Subban. That kind of offensive desperation made the Habs exciting to watch because they do have great skill players there. It’s tough to watch guys like that have to play dump-and-change hockey most of the night only to see them get a “button” pushed late when they’re behind to finally start pushing the pressure. The Habs are a team that could’ve learned from the past that safe is indeed death.

***

Montreal is a very talented team and Carey Price was outstanding throughout this series and all season long. There are many in Montreal who share my frustrations with how Martin coaches the team (All Habs did a two part series on it in February – Part 1, Part 2) and while that’s part of the problem, what Martin does defensively is what makes the Habs as good as they are.

Unfortunately, that only makes them good enough to make the playoffs and not a serious Stanley Cup contender.