STATE OF THE UNION
The Montreal Canadiens entered last season, their centennial, off of a Northeast Division championship and looked to be among the NHL's top teams. A variety of factors upstaged that scenario -- aging, poor chemistry, players tuning out the coach and goalie Carey Price's sophomore slump.
General Manager Bob Gainey replaced coach Guy Carbonneau on March 9, went behind the bench himself and used the last month of the season to evaluate his players.
Gainey then embarked on one of the most audacious team overhauls in recent years. He took a lot of criticism for not signing captain Saku Koivu, right wing Alexei Kovalev and defenseman Mike Komisarek, and trading left wing Chris Higgins -- but Gainey's plan to replace them fell into place, piece by piece, as the summer progressed.
Gainey sent Higgins, prospects Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko and defenseman Doug Janik to the Rangers for center Scott Gomez and two prospects. Like bait, that persuaded Gomez's former New Jersey teammate, Brian Gionta, flashy Calgary left wing Mike Cammalleri and rugged San Jose left wing Travis Moen to sign as free agents. For less than he would have paid free-agent Komisarek, Gainey signed free-agent defensemen Paul Mara and Hal Gill. He also signed versatile defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to partner with Andrei Markov on the power play.
The Habs will stick with the goaltending tandem of Price and Jaroslav Halak, largely absolving them of the team's malaise a year ago. Veteran Curtis Sanford was signed for depth and will likely start for the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs.
The goalies will be better protected by top-six defensemen Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Josh Gorges, Spacek, Gill and Mara. As Gill said, each player has a specific role. They'll be pushed by youngsters Ryan O'Byrne, Yannick Weber, Mathieu Carle and P.K. Subban.
New coach Jacques Martin has a good reputation for working with younger players. That will help as the Canadiens look to integrate forwards Kyle Chipchura, Ben Maxwell, Max Pacioretty, Gregory Stewart, Matt D'Agostini, Andrew Conboy and Brock Trotter into the mix. Gainey was able to retain almost all of his best prospects in the rebuilding, losing only McDonagh.
It appears the Canadiens will be among the NHL’s fastest teams and have one of the best defenses. The Canadiens led the league in power-play efficiency the prior two seasons but slumped to 13th in '08-09.
Gainey sees Spacek as the perfect complement to Markov on the power play. Markov specializes in setting up the left-side defenseman for shots from the point on the power play, as he did with since-departed Sheldon Souray and Mark Streit. Spacek is a shifty skater with an excellent shot from the point. He tied his 10-year career high with 45 points last season.
Getting Moen back to his form of three seasons ago is important. That year, he had 11 goals and 21 points for the Ducks and added 7 goals and 5 assists en route to the Stanley Cup. He banged opponents around and separated them from the puck from October to June and was an important factor in the championship.
He slipped to 3 goals and 11 points the next year and was having a similar season last year when he was dumped late to the Sharks, whom he didn’t help much. He replaces banger Tom Kostopoulos, signed by Carolina, who posts 22 points almost every year.
Gomez wasn’t a good fit in Tom Renney’s tightly structured game plan or the rugged forechecking style of John Tortorella. At his best, Gomez is a freewheeling puck-carrier with hard-to-anticipate moves who sets up good shooters with pinpoint passing.
Cammalleri and Gionta, then, become logical linemates for Gomez, although they would form one of the smallest top lines in the NHL. That could lead to one of those wingers playing on the second line while Martin puts a tougher winger on the first line.
Martin isn’t a big line-shuffler, though. When he coached Ottawa, he had a knack of finding complementary players to play on stable lines.
Here is a look at the five best prospects on the horizon for the Canadiens:
P.K. Subban -- By signing Mara and Gill, the Canadiens likely signaled that the right-shooting defenseman will play this season at Hamilton. He's seen as a can't-miss prospect after a 14-goal, 76-point season with the OHL Belleville Bulls. Subban played on two Canadian World Junior championship teams and was named to the 2009 WJC All-Star Team.
David Fischer -- The 2006 Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner enters his senior year at the University of Minnesota after a junior season compromised by a torn thigh muscle. Fischer has added more than 20 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame since being drafted.
Ben Maxwell -- The most likely prospect to gain a roster spot out of training camp, as a depth forward. Maxwell was Hamilton's second-leading scorer with 22 goals and 58 points. The 6-foot-1 center played seven games with Montreal in December.
Louis Leblanc -- Skilled, mature and accomplished, the former Montreal youth-hockey scoring champion had a big year playing with the USHL Omaha Lancers, and Habs' prospect Danny Kristo. Harvard coach Ted Donato will make him scrappier and add to his bag of tricks.
Yannick Weber -- The Swiss defenseman is former Canadien Mark Streit's protégé and another power-play specialist. He led Hamilton's defense with 16 goals and 44 points and played three NHL games in his first professional season.
Montreal fans like cheering for Canadiens' players who speak their language, French. The Habs history is filled with the legends and lore of great French-Canadian stars Jean Beliveau, Rocket Richard, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lafleur, Patrick Roy, Aurel Joliat, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard.
The Canadiens hadn't taken a Quebec-born player with their first pick since 1988, but got back on that path in June when they selected Montreal-born center Louis Leblanc.
The Canadiens took five centers, a right winger, a defenseman and a goalie at this year's draft.
Here is a quick look at the eight selections the Canadiens made in the 2009 Entry Draft:
Louis Leblanc -- He's the real deal -- a great skater with a great shot, great character and intelligence. Leblanc, taken 18th overall, will attend Harvard this year. The danger is his family puts a high premium on education so he may be inclined to stay in school longer than the Canadiens would like.
Joonas Nattinen -- Big, strong, fast and skilled, Nattinen is excellent on faceoffs and penalty killing. He says his best attribute is hockey sense and the scouts agree. The third-rounder (No. 65) seems like a can't-miss prospect.
Mac Bennett -- Montreal's second choice in the third round (No. 79) is a Connecticut prep-school defenseman who is the son, nephew and grandson of NHL players. He is expected to play in the USHL next season and then attend the University of Michigan, where he'll play for former Canadien Red Berenson.
Alexander Avtsin -- The Canadiens reportedly want him to play in the AHL this season, but the big right wing, taken in the fourth round (No. 109) is going back to Russia for another year. He had a huge season in the Russian minor league.
Gabriel Dumont -- Dumont had nearly a point a game for Drummondville and scored the overtime goal that put the Voltigeurs into the Memorial Cup semifinal game. The fifth-round pick (No. 139) played through some tough injuries.
Dustin Walsh -- This sixth-round pick (No. 189) is a big center with great character and great passing skills. He led the Kingston Voyageurs to the OJHL championship and will attend Dartmouth this fall.
Michael Cichy -- Stocky Connecticut-raised center spent the past two seasons in the USHL, where he had 76 points in 56 games. The seventh-round pick (No. 199) is headed to North Dakota, where he will room with 2008 second-rounder Danny Kristo.
Petteri Simila -- Don't call him Mr. Irrelevant, although the 6-foot-6 Finnish goalie was the last pick in the draft (No. 211). When the Canadiens saw he was still on the board, they traded a late pick next year to get him. He'll play Canadian juniors for the Niagara Ice Dogs.