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After makeover, are Habs better or just different?

by Larry Wigge
Extreme makeover? Or did the Montreal Canadiens really improve themselves by adding three new forwards and two defensemen at the cost of letting their first-, third-, fifth- and seventh-leading scorers walk?

This is a touchy situation, especially after the Canadiens were expecting to celebrate the team's 100th anniversary with a run for their first Stanley Cup since 1993 ... and instead stumbled down the stretch, replaced coach Guy Carbonneau and then bowed out in the first round of the playoffs to the hated Boston Bruins.

One so-called hockey expert commenting on the Montreal Canadiens' latest flurry of moves  -- bringing in Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta up front and Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill on defense at the expense of free agents Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek -- spoke thusly: "I'm not sure but that they have gone sideways."


That's extreme when you consider the disappointment, anger and frustration in GM Bob Gainey's voice after he went behind the bench down the stretch.

"Our players were not emotionally engaged. ... We need to put in place button-pushing mechanisms. ... I don't think anyone watching this team hasn't had the same questions over the last month or so."

Can you say dysfunctional? Or lost in translation? So ...

Why wouldn't a new group of players with four Stanley Cup rings -- Gomez has two and Gionta and Gill one apiece -- be more dedicated to winning than those who departed?

"We felt it was time to put a new face on this team," Gainey said.

The atmosphere in Montreal with the Canadiens is so intense that when Gainey said he was looking for a "big center" before the Entry Draft, he was criticized in the media for then acquiring the 5-foot-11 Gomez in a trade with the New York Rangers that brought in center prospect Tom Pyatt and defenseman Mike Busto. The Rangers got left wing Higgins, University of Wisconsin defenseman Ryan McDonagh (a first-round pick in 2007) and defensemen Doug Janik and Pavel Valentenko.

Gomez, 29, had just 16 goals and 42 assists last season. But he had 50 or more assists three times in his seven seasons with New Jersey and in his first season after signing with the New York Rangers as a free agent in 2007-08. Gomez won Stanley Cups with the Devils in 2000 and 2003.

While Gionta stumbled to just 20 goals last season, he did have 48 goals in 2005-06 while playing on a line with Gomez. Cammalleri's 39 goals last season were a career-high.

Cammalleri has been accused of being selfish, while Gomez and Gionta didn't perform up to expectations. In Montreal, expectations will never be higher for those three; as well as for Spacek, a solid two-way defenseman who might have been Buffalo's best player in 2008-09, and Gill, just off a Stanley Cup win in Pittsburgh.

Players like Max Pacioretty, Matt D'Agostini and Sergei Kostitsyn will be given every opportunity to join Tomas Plekanec and Andre Kostitsyn on a not-so-bad second line.

New coach Jacques Martin is a defense-first coach who is also willing to let offensively skilled players show off their creativity, as he did in Ottawa when he coached Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa, Daniel Alfredsson and Martin Havlat, among others.

Under the new coach, the emphasis won't be on scoring tons of goals. It will be eliminating goals against. At the same time, there's every reason to believe that Gomez, Cammalleri, Gionta and Spacek will help a power play that needed a spark from defenseman Mathieu Schneider down the stretch to help the Habs make the playoffs.

Challenge for the newcomers? You bet.

"I'm really excited about the move to Montreal, the challenge to play well there," said Gomez. "It's the Mecca of hockey, after all."

That gets us back to Gainey's original plan; to find a new identity for the Canadiens and to perform a facelift, an extreme makeover in the process.

The 2009-10 Canadiens may not have the pressure of trying to win it all in the team's 100th anniversary? Yet, when doesn't a Montreal hockey team have pressure to win?
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